Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 13—23, 2012
Posted by David Wolf
"Simply spectacular" pretty well sums up our days spent roaming the Eastern slope of the Ecuador Andes! The scenery was amazing and the birds of the mountains put on a great show for us, even though the weather was "wetter than expected."
We spent our week working up-slope from "the bottom to the top" of our transect, beginning at Wild Sumaco. At this fantastic new lodge in the foothills, where the tropical and subtropical zones meet, we found the feeders swarming with hummingbirds, while tanagers regularly visited the fruiting cecropia trees visible from the porch. We especially enjoyed the colorful Red-headed Barbets amidst them, the females in their own way just as attractive as the gaudy males. Here too we saw a lovely male White-crowned Manakin, while nearby we found a Coppery-chested Jacamar that gave us long views in the scope. Perhaps the biggest surprise here, however, was a shaggy two-toed sloth hanging in a roadside tree—and attracting a lot of attention, as they are rarely seen in this region.
From Wild Sumaco we moved up into the heart of the lush subtropical zone. Not an hour into our introductory morning at San Ysidro Labrador, a family group of Crested Quetzals appeared around the parking area and lingered for over 30 minutes, while a pair of incredibly bold Masked Trogons sat calmly nearby, almost within the same binocular field! Amidst these larger birds a steady stream of wonderful small birds of these forests came to the lights to look for moths attracted during the night, our favorites among them the elegant Long-tailed Antbird and Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher (tiny and colorful!), but we also enjoyed great looks at Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, several woodcreepers, numerous flycatchers, and warblers both resident and transient, including wintering Blackburnians in abundance and a rare Mourning Warbler. In the afternoon we found our first Torrent Ducks, amazing birds bobbing up and down in the rushing current and rapidly jumping up onto rocks to rest. Later on the trip we would watch the antics of a pair of males fighting over an oblivious female, all happening at close range.
The next day we waited patiently while White-bellied Antpittas came to feed on worms put out for them, were shown a lovely female Lyre-tailed Nightjar on eggs in a cleft on a low roadside bank, and ended the day with a super-close look at "the mystery owl of San Ysidro," a black-and-white type owl that may well represent an undescribed taxon. At our very last stop in this environment, at the pass on Huacamayo Ridge, the drizzle and fog finally lifted and almost immediately a small mixed-flock appeared right in front of us, yielding multiple looks at spectacular Grass-green Tanagers. Then, as if on cue, a male Green-and-black Fruiteater popped in and proceeded to sit perfectly still for 5 minutes.
With these two great birds under our belts it was onwards and upwards to the temperate zone, at Guango Lodge. Here we found the feeders alive with hummingbirds, including the almost unbelievable Sword-billed. Nearby, a gorgeous pair of rarely-seen Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans snuck through the canopy of the dense forest, while later a large flock of Turquoise Jays and Mountain Caciques lingered by the road for great looks. The next morning we ventured above treeline to the grassy wonderland known as the páramo, finding most of the expected specialties. That afternoon, we headed up the valley to the dense scrub right at treeline. This difficult environment is home to some very obscure and difficult birds. A flock of Black-backed Bush-Tanagers was nice, but the thrill came when I taped a very high-pitched "song," and in response a fabulous pair of Masked Mountain-Tanagers snuck into view, giving us all great looks.
Our final day afield took us to the páramos of the Antisana Reserve, "at the top" of our transect. Clouds hung around the mountains as we left, and again the day looked like it would be damp and chilly. Perhaps because of this weather, our very first stop produced a fabulous adult Andean Condor sitting on the cliffs for prolonged scope views. Apparently it wasn't in the mood to get up and fly yet for the day, though later we saw at least a half-dozen more in the air. In the high-elevation grasslands we delighted in a variety of special birds of the highest elevations, including over 180 Carunculated Caracaras parading around like chickens, a flock of the threatened Black-faced Ibis, lovely Andean Lapwings and Black-winged Ground-Doves, a Tawny Antpitta in full view, and both species of cinclodes side by side for comparison.
As we settled in for lunch at a scenic hacienda, a Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant revealed that it had a nest in a hanging plant on the porch, but the "big" surprise came when a Giant Hummingbird appeared at the feeders, much to my surprise and providing a fitting end to our grand transect of the Ecuador Andes.