Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Feb 28—Mar 08, 2009
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Birding Ecuador's northwestern region continues to be about close encounters and "knock-out" views, right from the get-go. General habitat conditions are excellent, and there is tremendous species diversity in a rather reduced area, all quite close to our pleasant "center of operations," Séptimo Paraíso Lodge, which is located in the Mindo valley.
To begin with, there are the hummingbirds—an incredible number of them at varying altitudinal elevations. All were seen well and repeatedly, at a series of excellent feeding stations set up at numerous localities. It is hard to describe the experience or the expressions on each and every one of our faces as literally hundreds of these feathered jewels, comprising anywhere between 3 and 18 species, at once swam about in a crazed dithy right around us! From our first morning, as we walked through dense fog high up on the crest of the Andes, hummingbirds dominated our experience. We reveled in close-ups of Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, magnificent Great Sapphirewings, dominant Buff-winged Starfrontlets, and the most unthinkable Sword-billed Hummingbird! By the time we reached our late afternoon destination, we were rewarded again by just a sample of a whole new set of hummers. This would be but a brief introduction into the world we were about to enjoy for the rest of the week, and these beauties continued to mesmerize, including dozens of Chocó regional endemic specialties seen to our heart's delight: Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Empress Brilliant, the stunning Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Gorgeted Sunangel, and Purple-chested Hummingbird.
This region is phenomenal indeed, and our explorations included the finest looks we could ever have hoped for of many of the avian specialties that make Ecuador so attractive to birders. Our second morning was highlighted by superbly close looks at a few dozen species along the Mindo entrance road, starting at the top. There, we were surprised by a band of perched Rose-faced Parrots (apparently newcomers to the area), a very confiding Strong-billed Woodcreeper, a pair of unbelievably tame Masked Trogons, and a gaudy Toucan Barbet that came to within 15 feet of us!
As we continued to visit site after site, it became clear that views like this were to be the general norm, even with some real challenges that kept us on our toes. A lek of Andean Cocks-of-the-rock, the rare and elusive Giant and Yellow-breasted antpittas, along with Sickle-winged Guans and an Olivaceous Piha were the show-stoppers at Paz Antpitta Reserve. We came across several nice mixed foraging flocks during our visit to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary area and had some especially nice looks at a group of Chocó Toucans, a nice pair of Chocó Trogons, Rufous-throated Tanagers, and an array of other specialties. Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary, Mirador Río Blanco, and the "El 7" Restaurant offered additional spectacular avian entertainment—with close-ups of more tanagers, trogons, woodpeckers (including a nice Guayaquil), woodcreepers, and even some non-avian visitors. We were entertained by a curious trio of tayras (a fair-sized mammal related to the North American martin, fisher, and wolverine) that came in closely to steal bananas that had been placed out to attract birds.
Two visits to the Ecoroute completed our week. While trying to focus on finding the unique Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, we came upon some extensive mixed foraging flocks filled with many specialties and enjoyed great looks at Grass-green Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Capped Conebill, and Beryl-spangled and Blue-and-black tanagers, among many other species. A curious band of Turquoise Jays, in rather unaccustomed fashion, followed us about as we attempted to find three of the toucans that we heard at a traditional location, but to no avail. A pair of Powerful Woodpeckers filled the void.
Our second visit along the route was our last field day, so it was intense, as we "needed" and wanted to clean up on species we hadn't seen to our entire satisfaction or had yet to find. We began with a beautiful male Golden-headed Quetzal, followed by an obliging Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan who silently slipped in and offered excellent looks until he got summoned by his mate to "stop fooling with the birders!" A fine Crimson-mantled Woodpecker followed, and all began to fall into place, with a wonderful mixed foraging flock adding several new species and nice looks at many others we'd seen before. We stopped off at Bellavista to check out more hummingbird feeders and picked up another male Powerful Woodpecker working a nearby Cecropia trunk. We finished off the day at Pacha Quinde, another fantastic hummingbird garden owned by VENT guide Tony Nunnery and his lovely wife Barbara Boltz—it was definitely an unpopular decision to order our eventual retreat for the drive back to Quito!