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Ecuador 2010: the east slope of the Andes

November 8, 2010

We reluctantly bid goodbye to Jairo and his family at Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge and drove our little car up to the village of Tandayapa, then turned left up the Paseo del Quinde to Nono.  The gravel road is in excellent condition and the scenery is glorious—steep slopes covered with lush subtropical forest, the Rio Alambi tumbling over boulders below.  As I did 20 years ago, I wished I’d had more time to bird this stretch, but we were also anxious to change geography and see what the east side of the Andes had to offer.  A few quick stops netted a lovely male Summer Tanager, a Barred Becard and a Golden-headed Quetzal.  As we approached Nono, the landscape became more cleared pastures than forest and Great Thrushes became common along the roadside.

Female Sword-billed Hummingbird, Reserva Yanacocha

Beyond Nono a Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, one of the most stunningly-coloured birds imaginable, flew across the road and allowed great views in a small tree next to us.  Then we were at the turn-off to Reserva Yanacocha, where the Fundación Jocotoco has protected a significant remnant of temperate forest on the precipitous northern slopes of Volcan Pichincha.  Yanacocha is a 10-km drive off the main road, but is worth the trip.  A broad, level trail leads around the mountain, affording great views (if it’s not foggy—early morning is best!) and wonderful birding, especially for hummingbirds.  It is the only site in the world where Black-breasted Pufflegs are seen, but this enigmatic species only appears from May to July—where it goes the rest of the year s anyone’s guess.  It’s a good thing the trail is level, since it is at an altitude of 3545 metres (11630 feet) and any exertion is more difficult than at lower levels.  We walked for a couple of kilometres before the thick fog set in.  At the first hummingbird feeder we found, a Buff-winged Starfrontlet allowed good views, but the kicker was at the second feeder—four Sword-billed Hummingbirds sparred over access to the nectar!  Bush birding was good as well—small flocks of Hooded Mountain-Tanagers foraged in the trailside trees, and we finally saw a pair of Barred Fruiteaters at close range.  We never got to the main hummingbird feeding area, deciding to retreat from the fog instead.

Marg looking at a chat-tyrant at Yanacocha

After a picnic lunch at the reserve entrance we got back in the car and continued east, getting momentarily lost in Quito but finding the tunnels that led to the central valley and onto the Carretera Oriental to Papallacta and beyond.  The highway climbed out of the suburbs, through a short section of potato fields and into open pasture land as we approached Papallacta Pass.  We drove over the pass (just over 4000 m/13,000 feet elevation), deciding to stop there on our return to Quito.

The road wound down the east slope of the mountains, from grassy paramo, past patches of Polylepis forest (couldn’t see any easy places to stop for Giant Conebills) and into scrubby temperate forests above the village of Papallacta.  The trees quickly got bigger as the road went lower, and within a few minutes we were at Guango Lodge, nestled in a narrow valley along the Rio Papallacta at about 9000 ft (2700 m) elevation.

The Chevy Spark at Guango Lodge

Guango is another Ecuadorian lodge where hummingbirds are a star attraction.  The feeders are dominated by Chestnut-breasted Coronets, admittedly more handsome than their Buff-tailed cousins but with the same habit of lifting their wings high over their backs on landing.  Second in numbers were Tourmaline Sunangels, the males looking fabulous in basic black with stunning blue, green and amethyst throats, the more demur females with a white throat.  Sword-billed Hummingbirds are regular here too, looking a bit awkward as they direct their ridiculously long bills into the feeders.  White-bellied Woodstars (it was Purple-throated at Alambi), and Long-tailed Sylphs (with bluer and longer tails than the west-slope Violet-tailed Sylphs) are also common.

Guango has lots of good trails.  I took one down to the river and found a pair of Torrent Ducks hauled out on a big boulder in midstream.  We walked that trail the next morning and surprised a Fasciated Tiger-Heron—apparently the first record for Guango—off its rocky perch.  This species likes these rushing streams, but is usually found at more moderate elevations.  The forest trails were a goldmine of mixed-species flocks.  Blue-backed Conebills, Capped Conebills, Masked Flowerpiercers, Black-capped Hemispingus, Black-eared Hemispingus, Blue and Black Tanagers, Pearled Treerunners and other woodland species flitted from branch to branch.  Finally, I spotted one of my most-wanted birds—a Plushcap ducking into the bamboo.  This elegant tanager—with a deep maroon-brown body and a bright yellow forehead—is a classic skulker, so it was doubly nice to see it.

The pipeline trail at Guango Lodge

We saw several small groups of Andean Guans high in the epiphyte-festooned trees.  Guans are related to grouse and turkeys, but are highly arboreal and aren’t often seen on the ground.  The highlight of the day came when we neared the end of the waterfalls trail.  A loud nasal cry was coming from the undergrowth.  Knowing it was something I’d heard on the bird call recordings I’d brought with me (but with over 300 species on those recordings, I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t recall what it was), I began to imitate the slurred whistle.  The leaves quivered as the bird ran unseen towards us.  Suddenly it popped out at our feet—an Ocellated Tapaculo!  This is a mind-blowing bird, its dark body spangled with silver.  And another new one for the Guango list.  I fumbled with my camera but the bird quickly retreated into the shrubbery, still calling loudly.  Returning to the lodge, I took a side trail through dense bamboo and stopped to investigate a strange call.  Amazingly, another tapaculo, this time the small Blackish Tapaculo, appeared in front of me.  Two tapaculos in one day, after I’d only seen one member of this hard-to-see family before in my life.

Cyrtochilum macranthum

After two nights at Guango we packed up the car again and drove down the winding highway, turning right at the junction town of Baeza, then found the turnoff for Cabañas San Isidro.  I’d stayed near hear in 2005 when I stopped overnight with my students at Yanayacu Biological Station and vowed I’d come back some day for a real visit.  We checked into our very spacious and comfortable cabin, then settled in to the lounge deck for a while to look at the view over the Andean foothills.  Flocks of Inca Jays and Subtropical Caciques worked through the trees.  One of the things I was looking forward to here was to see the famous “San Isidro Owl”, a bird that seemed to show intermediate characteristics between the Black-banded Owl of the Amazonia lowlands and the Black-and-white Owl found on the Pacific side of the country.  The first night we heard a wheezy bark near the lights that was probably the owl, while a Rufous-banded Owl gave its full wu-wu-wu-wu–WHU call from a tree near the dining hall.

The following morning we set out on the Cock-of-the Rock Trail, planning to walk to the Rio Cosango and return.  The forest here is simply magical—big trees draped in orchids, philodendrons and bromeliads.  A  Wattled Guan gave its bizarre call from the treetops, while Golden-headed and Crested quetzals called in the distance.  We descended to the river, then decided to continue along the trail, even though the map indicated it wasn’t in good repair in that section.  A pair of Powerful Woodpeckers paced along with us, flying from tree to tree.  We climbed up again to a view over a tropical waterfall, then up and down over various quebradas until we looped right back to the cabins.  A wonderful (tiring) morning walk.  That evening we had great looks at the San Isidro owl as we walked to the dining hall.  There we met Carmen Bustamente, one of the owners (her family also owns Guango Lodge) while enjoying an excellent dinner (the tomate de arbol mousse was to die for).

Masked Trogon

The next morning we walked up the road for several kilometres, taking a side trip up a trail that went through a favourite feeding ground of quetzals.  Several brilliant males of each species cackled and flew from tree to tree as we watched.  We returned again for lunch, then relaxed in the afternoon on the deck, where the canopy flocks moved across at eye level and the beer was very cold.  It rained hard all night and through the morning.  I did some umbrella birding (no umbrellabirds, unfortunately) before we packed up the car and drove back to Quito. The rain stopped before Papallacta Pass, so we stopped briefly to sample the totally different fauna–Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-striped Canastero, Paramo Pipit.  Then back into civilization, downtown hotel, taxi to the airport at dawn.  It seemed hard to believe we’d only been away for two weeks; we were ready to go home but certainly planning to return.

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