Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 18—26, 2010

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 bunch-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 damp 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.

The birding this week was as spectacular as the scenery, beginning "at the top" with an exhilarating visit to the páramos of the Antisana Reserve. As we worked our way up the mountain, our first Andean Condors appeared, a flock of 6 that was distant and less than satisfying. Then, while comparing Stout-billed and Bar-winged cinclodes at our next stop, a magnificent adult suddenly flew right overhead! As the day progressed we were to see more, and even as we left the area, 5 were leisurely cruising back and forth over the ridges. In-between our condor sightings we counted 125 Carunculated Caracaras striding around the grasslands like chickens, and amidst them found an amazing 31 Andean Ibis (a high percentage of the Ecuadorian population) and flocks of Andean Lapwings and Black-winged Ground-Doves. All the while we had incredible views of Antisana volcano looming above us. Our day here had already been fabulous, but it wasn't over yet. As we headed downhill, a rarely-seen Curve-billed Tinamou slowly crossed the road in front of our van and crouched in a ditch for more views!

Further explorations of the high-elevations produced stunning Chimborazo Hillstars (a hummingbird that spends its entire life above the tree line); a variety of strange songbirds, including Tawny Antpittas hopping around in the open and a surprise Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant (so obscure until it flies, revealing the startling white outer tail); and an eleventh hour sighting of a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe just as we were leaving their cold and fog-swept mountaintop. In the temperate scrub just below tree line we found the Shining Sunbeam and Viridian Metaltail to be the common hummingbirds, while our first mixed-flock produced a brilliant Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager foraging with Blue-backed Conebills, Superciliaried Hemispingus, and other obscure high-elevation songbirds. Just below here we studied hummingbirds in abundance at the Guanago feeders, including the incredible—and ridiculous—Sword-billed, along with 15 other species. Here too we found an almost perfect mixed-flock of temperate forest birds that foraged parallel to us for a long time, yielding great looks. Mixed-flocks are a dominant theme in Andean birding, yet they can be hard to find and frustrating to follow. Not this one! Not far downslope we entered the lush subtropical zone, where an impromptu stop produced male Crested and Golden-headed quetzals quietly sitting side by side near their favorite fruiting trees. Such are the vagaries of Andean birding.

Our first morning at San Ysidro Labrador was gray and chilly—and the birds came out like crazy! For the next three hours we thrilled to a continual parade of species gleaning insects attracted to the lights during the night, from noisy Green Jays and caciques to a placid pair of Masked Trogons almost within arm's reach. With them were woodcreepers and Pearled Treerunners scrambling around the trunks, Barred Becards and tanagers in the trees above, and a procession of small flycatchers that actually gave us rare good studies. It wouldn't be quite this easy again, but in our time in the region we tracked down many more special birds, including a family group of Torrent Ducks; Speckle-faced Parrots and stunning Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers around the dead snags in a small pasture; a male Andean Cock-of-the-rock in the canopy at his display area; and a close Rufous-banded Owl by night. An exciting day in the foothills produced a multitude of colorful tanagers and a stunning Coppery-chested Jacamar, among the many other species not seen at high elevations. All too soon we were on our way back to Quito—but with time for a final stop that produced a Dusky Piha methodically snapping up caterpillars. In the Andes there is always one more good bird to be found!