Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 15—25, 2015

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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The great wall of mountains that form the Eastern Andes of Ecuador is a land of many moods, sometimes sunny and bright, sometimes dark and stormy. This year the mood was decidedly gray, damp, and chilly, as an unseasonal and persistent layer of clouds blanketed the entire range for days on end, bringing rain showers every night and frequent mist and some prolonged showers by day. We didn’t let this dampen our spirits, however, and neither did the birds, for these conditions brought many of them out into view, as they foraged actively when conditions improved. The rushing rivers ran high, there were waterfalls plunging down the steep slopes everywhere, and the play of clouds was magnificent. The group spirit was too, and we simply worked around the rain, productively finding a wide variety of great birds in every zone visited. It was our last two days, however, that were among our very most exciting.

As dawn broke on our second to last day we awoke to cloudy skies, but finally no rain, so off we headed on our first excursion to the highest elevations, to the special environment above tree line known as the “páramo.” At our first stop, the unique birds of this habitat started popping out right on cue, from our first Plumbeous Sierra-Finches at the parking spot to a Many-striped Canastero singing close at hand, an Andean Tit-Spinetail working a patch of stunted scrub, cinclodes foraging in the wet puddles, and a bold Tawny Antpitta sitting in full view as it belted out its loud “song.” We could see the clouds coming and going as they swirled around the peaks in the area, so we quickly decided to drive up to the highest elevations to search for several special birds that are found only far above tree line. Almost immediately we were distracted by a gorgeous Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant perched by the track. This beautiful big flycatcher holds large territories and roams widely, so it is not often found, but this one just sat and sat, eventually dropping to the ground right in front of us and coming up with a huge earthworm. Soon thereafter we reached the end of the rough road, seemingly at the very top of the world, and the group spread out to look for the elusive Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. It wasn’t long before participant Rich Spisak found a pair of these ptarmigan-like birds just a few feet below him, barely a hundred yards from where we had parked, and for the next 15 minutes we followed them as they slowly foraged across the strange bog plants of the tundra. This bird is found only at the most extreme elevations, and it is far from common or “guaranteed” on any trip, making our sighting especially exhilarating. It was perhaps the bird of the trip!

There were other contenders, however. That afternoon we drove up through progressively more stunted forest to reach the tree line scrub at 12,000 ft. This habitat holds some of the least-often seen birds of the Andes, most of them extremely elusive, so I was quite surprised when upon stepping out of the vehicle we heard high-pitched call notes right away. As we adjusted our senses it became clear that a large flock of the unique Black-backed Bush Tanager was feeding in the nearby shrubs, one after another slowly creeping into view at the top of a bush before disappearing deep into the next. This species is quite unique, in a genus of its own that is found only at tree line on the east slope of the northern Andes, and they can be hard to locate. As we studied them closely, a single deep-blue bird with a brilliant saffron crown suddenly popped up amidst them—a rarely-seen Golden-crowned Tanager! Later, as the mist descended, we stumbled onto yet another flock of bush tanagers actively feeding right beside the road. When a larger bird dashed over us and disappeared into the thickets I yelled, “mountain-tanager, follow it”! The bird stayed mostly hidden, but as bits and pieces gradually came into view it was apparent that this was a very rare Masked Mountain-Tanager, a specialty of this zone known from only a handful of sites scattered along the eastern rim of the mountains. Then another larger bird climbed up into a stunted tree, and we realized that we had a Black-chested Mountain-Tanager! It was more cooperative and stayed out long enough for all to study its beautiful bold colors, with a black head, yellow underparts, and moss-green upperparts. This too is an infrequently seen species of the stunted tree line.

Our final day afield again brought decent weather for our visit to the páramos of Antisana National Park. Here, at our very first stop, it wasn’t long before we spotted an adult Andean Condor effortlessly gliding back and forth along a line of huge cliffs across a deep valley, the bird eventually landing for scope views. Before long another adult came sailing into the valley and landed, but it took us a long period of watching before we realized that the fuzzy gray-brown mound next to it was a large chick! For the next hour we kept our attention tuned to these birds, the female periodically nuzzling the chick as it flopped around on its ledge. No bird is more evocative of the Andes than this huge raptor, but, sadly, it has declined tremendously over much of its range, so it was especially gratifying to see that they are again breeding at this site. Between bouts of condor-watching we were distracted by a Sword-billed Hummingbird perching close at hand and a more distant Giant Hummingbird guarding a clump of flowers. It hardly gets better than this, but later that day we also saw dozens of Carunculated Caracaras, a super-close pair of Black-faced Ibis, Andean Lapwings, and more, ending our final day with a bold Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant and stunning male Ecuadorian Hillstars at a late lunch stop.

It wasn’t as if we hadn’t seen a plethora of special birds at lower elevations earlier in the week too. A notable feature of the Andean avifauna is the great diversity of small birds that roam the forests in mixed-flocks, where multiple species associate with each other as they troop through their territories. This occurs in every habitat from the foothills to the tree line, and the key to seeing a broad variety of birds here is finding the mixed-flocks. At times they can be frustrating and hard to locate, and the forests seem absolutely silent. At other times the flocks move so fast that they can’t be followed up or down the slopes, or the lighting is too poor to identify much, or the birds are too high up. But, when they do cooperate, it is an absolute joy to sort through a flock, moving from one species to the next as a procession of tanagers, ovenbirds, woodcreepers, flycatchers, flowerpiercers, and others come into view. Often the flocks are most active when the weather is cloudy or even misty, so this year’s weather conditions helped us with these birds, and by the end of the trip we had seen a tremendous assortment of Andean passerines. The many colorful tanagers were clearly our favorites, but along with them we enjoyed gorgeous Red-headed Barbets, a stunning male Green-and-black Fruiteater, warblers, hard-to-identify small flycatchers, and many others.

The hummingbirds are an undisputed highlight of birding the Andes and are present in incredible variety, with different species found in every zone of the mountains. Now, with the advent of feeding stations, many of them are quite findable and can be observed at close range. At Wild Sumaco we actually became familiar with a number of foothill specialties that were quite rarely seen before we had feeders to watch, including Wire-crested Thorntail, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Rufous-vented Whitetip, Black-throated Brilliant, Gould’s Jewelfront, and Many-spotted Hummingbird. Their names hint at their many ornamentations and spectacular iridescent colors. Our greatest diversity was in the temperate zone at Guango Lodge and nearby, where we identified 15 species in one day and saw most of them over and over again. A surprising number were also found at the tree line, where we added the impressive Great Sapphirewing, aggressive Shining Sunbeam, and inconspicuous Viridian Metaltail.

Watching other types of “feeders” paid off for us too. At Wild Sumaco we stood quietly in the rain as an adorable (yes, adorable, cute, whatever) Ochre-breasted Antpitta repeatedly came into view at the spot where it is fed daily, while at San Ysidro Labrador a very bold White-bellied Antpitta brought its barely-fledged youngster to join in the free meal. Just as wonderful were the many birds attracted to the floodlights at both lodges. I should clarify. They were attracted to the moths that had come to the lights during the night, providing an easy meal the next morning. At both sites the parade lasted for several hours each morning, providing great looks at birds as diverse as Black-billed Treehunter, Pearled Treerunner, Lined Antshrike, White-backed Fire-eye, Barred Becard, Black-billed Peppershrike, Black-eared Hemispingus, and Scarlet-rumped Caciques.

Both of these lodges are located right amidst beautifully-forested habitat, and we never knew just what might appear at any given moment. Fruiting Cecropia trees visible from the sheltered porch at Wild Sumaco attracted a continual parade of birds, from fast-moving tanagers to Speckled Chachalacas and a gorgeous male Golden-collared Toucanet that appeared just as we were about to leave, plus a great show from the delightful little Saddleback Tamarin Monkeys that came to feed on the fruiting spikes. At San Ysidro Labrador we spotted a wide variety of birds each day, but ended each with close looks at “the mystery owl,” a black-and-white owl discovered here years ago that may well represent an undescribed taxon. It just goes to show how much there is still to be learned about the Andean avifauna!

All too soon it was back to Quito for a final dinner, our time in the beautiful Ecuador Andes over, but never to be forgotten.