Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 22—30, 2009

Posted by David Wolf

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David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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There were two consistent themes to our delightful week spent on the east slope of the Andes. One was the spectacular scenery. This transect through the mountains is stunning, from the snow-capped peaks and waving grass of the páramo, down the deep valleys to the luxuriant forests of the foothills. The other was water—and the amazing cycle from the Andes to the Amazon and back again. We spent time in the clouds, under them, and a few times getting wet from them. They hung along the high ridges and mystically swept up the valleys, condensing and releasing moisture to join the rushing rivers cutting their way down the Andes. Eventually, of course, this water reaches the Amazonian lowlands, where it evaporates and rises in the heat of the tropics, only to hit the cool air of the mountains and begin the cycle anew.

Our explorations began "at the top," with a visit to the páramo of the Antisana Reserve. The undoubted highlight here was a trio of adult Andean Condors engaged in a spectacular courtship flight, sailing back and forth in tandem along the high cliffs even as a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle bombed them. Here too we found Silvery Grebe and Andean Ibis, both extremely rare and declining in Ecuador, plus the beautiful Chimborazo Hillstar, a variety of alpine songbirds, and a phenomenal 115+ Carunculated Caracaras parading around on the ground. Tree line scrub in the Papallacta area produced special sightings like a Rufous Antpitta silently sneaking up to us and the localized Black-backed Bush-Tanager, while just below here we studied hummingbirds in abundance at the feeders, including the incredible—and ridiculous—Sword-billed. A return visit to the high country produced a stunning pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at the very top of the mountain, and then an elegant Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant perched right beside us. Continuing downslope, we soon found ourselves in the lush subtropical zone, where a Golden-headed Quetzal sat quietly in a fruiting tree and we spotted our first Tangara tanagers, their names hinting at their fabulous colors: Saffron-crowned, Beryl-spangled, Golden-eared. And, after several distant views, we located a trio of calm Torrent Ducks close to the road on a small stream. Certainly this specialized bird evokes the spirit of the Andes.

Our first night at San Ysidro Labrador, a private reserve located in the heart of the mountains, brought rain and more rain. However, luck was with us and just after dawn the rain stopped—and the area exploded with activity. For the next three hours we thrilled to a continual parade of birds coming to glean insects attracted to the lights, from noisy Green Jays and Subtropical Caciques to a pair of Masked Trogons, a brilliant Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, a Streaked Tuftedcheek feeding a fledgling, Pearled Treerunners and woodcreepers scrambling over the trunks, a Black-billed Pepper-Shrike at eye level, colorful tanagers, and much more. Even the small flycatchers came out at close range, allowing us to actually enjoy tiny Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrants and trim White-tailed Tyrannulets. It was the quality of the looks that made this morning so special—closeup and prolonged! It wasn't quite this easy again, but during our days in the region we continued to track down many special birds in these forests. A recurring theme was "mixed-flocks," active groups of multiple species that forage through the forest together, creating a feast or famine situation for birders. One evening the special "San Ysidro" owl appeared just a few feet from us as we walked back to the cabins. The true identity of this owl has yet to be revealed—it combines characters of both Black-banded and Black-and-white Owl—and it is a fitting symbol of how little we really know about these beautiful mountain forests.

The next night, as we walked to dinner, a rarely-seen mountain tapir calmly stood licking a salt block a few feet away from us. This was a remarkable animal to see! Our final hike here took us down into the old-growth forest to a tall grove where we found an actively-displaying group of Andean Cocks-of-the-rock awaiting us. It took a while to spot the first one, but we then enjoyed their antics for 30 minutes before they chased away through the thick forest in hot pursuit of a female. All too soon it was time to head back to Quito and home.