Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 14—24, 2016
Posted by Paul Greenfield
The long uphill transect that lay before us beckoned with untold promise as we headed westward from the Amazonian lowlands at the town of “Coca” (Francisco de Orellana) at the beginning of this year’s Eastern Slope of the Andes tour. It was clear, though, from the start that at least for now the same uncharacteristically hot and rainless weather conditions we faced during our week at Napo Wildlife Center would accompany us a bit longer—we had dealt with it already and were poised to do so again. This weeklong adventure offers so much; each altitudinal life-zone holds new surprises, and we looked forward to discovering them with great anticipation. Our first birding began along the several kilometer-long entrance road to Wildsumaco Lodge. It was evident, even as the afternoon began to cool down, that those El Niño-impacted conditions we experienced during the past week were affecting bird activity here. It was pretty quiet at first, but then we began to find our first birds…and because our van overheated (due to the heat), we got to walk a bit before we were picked up by the lodge workers, leaving Juan to deal with things. Alas, we closed the day with some nice birds: Speckled Chachalaca, 8–10 Swallow-tailed Kites, a beautiful pair of Red-headed Barbets, Lineated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Parrot, a true highlight pair of nesting Military Macaws (fantastic!), Lined Antshrike, Black-billed Thrush, the first of several common boreal migrants (Swainson’s Thrush, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Canada Warbler, Scarlet and Summer tanagers, etc.), and Magpie, Blue-necked, and Paradise tanagers…not bad for a slow afternoon.
The Andean habitat around Wildsumaco is rich with birdlife overall, but we immediately noticed that the famous nectar feeders here were fairly void of hummers. We were told by the administrator that it had been like that for a few weeks—strange for this humid foothill site. Over the next two days we worked roadside habitat, a couple of forest trails, and the areas surrounding the lodge’s two nectar feeder stations. We spent the early part of our third morning along the entrance road, before our definite departure; some of the special birds we encountered in this area included Green Hermit; Wire-crested Thorntail; (Buff-) Booted Racket-tail; Black-throated and Violet-fronted brilliants; Gould’s Jewelfront; Napo Sabrewing; Fork-tailed Woodnymph; Many-spotted Hummingbird; Golden-tailed Sapphire; Green-backed and Collared trogons; Gilded Barbet; a nice male Golden-collared Toucanet; Channel-billed Toucan; Yellow-tufted, Golden-olive, and Crimson-crested woodpeckers; Black-fronted Nunbird; Bat Falcon; a group of normally quite rare Spot-winged Parrotlets; Red-billed Parrot; Blackish Antbird; Chestnut-crowned Gnateater; Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted antpittas (great looks at both at a feeding station); Olive-backed Woodcreeper; Dusky Spinetail; Ornate Flycatcher; Long-tailed Tyrant; Olivaceous Greenlet; White-thighed Swallow; Wing-banded Wren; Cerulean Warbler (along with several other boreal migrants); Spotted and Bay-headed (and more Paradise!) tanagers; and Olivaceous Siskin. We should not forget the adorable Napo Tamarin (monkeys) we ran into a few times.
En route to our second location, we made a couple of stops—the beautiful Río Hollín, for one, gave us a few important highlight species while we had our lunch break: a nice look at a perched male Amazonian Umbrellabird, 4 interacting White-capped Dippers, and best of all, an amazing pair of Torrent Ducks that showed off for us, swimming back and forth (over-and-over) at the very lip of a tall waterfall, totally ignoring any imminent danger of being pulled over the edge—quite a show! We continued on to San Isidro Lodge, spotting a pair of Cliff Flycatchers at their usual spot. The rest of the road trip unfortunately turned out to be rather unproductive, until we reached the day’s final destination. As we arrived at San Isidro Lodge, a lovely trio of Cinnamon Flycatchers entertained us, and we noticed some active nectar feeders here, allowing us to pick up some new species fairly quickly: Speckled Hummingbird, Long-tailed Sylph, Bronzy and Collared incas, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and Fawn-breasted Brilliant. Later in the afternoon we found Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, our first Inca Jays, Glossy-black Thrush, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, and Subtropical Cacique. That evening, after dinner, we searched for and finally got nice looks at what is being called “The San Isidro Mystery Owl,” an as yet undescribed highland species or subspecies, closely related to the Amazonian lowland Black-banded Owl.
The following two days were dedicated to the San Isidro grounds and nearby areas, including the “Eco-corridor” road that passes by the lodge and a morning visit to the Vinillos entrance to Antisana National Park not too far away (where we even felt our first rain!). More highlight species were encountered, including Southern Lapwing; another owl sighting; Tawny-bellied Hermit; 2 male Crested Quetzals; Andean (or Highland) Motmot; Black-billed Mountain-Toucan (very cool); Yellow-vented and (fantastic!) Powerful woodpeckers; Speckle-faced Parrot; Scaly-naped Amazon (fair numbers!); Streak-headed Antbird; Lineated Foliage-gleaner; Pearled Treerunner; Ash-headed Tyrannulet; Pale-edged Flycatcher; Glossy-black Thrush; Spectacled Whitestart; Black-eared Hemispingus; Fawn-breasted, Black-capped, Beryl-spangled, and Flame-faced tanagers; Bluish Flowerpiercer; and Golden-rumped Euphonia.
We departed San Isidro after breakfast and a little more birding, adding nice looks at Black-billed Peppershrike, Mountain Wren, and Pale-eyed Thrush before advancing onward, with visits to three areas before reaching our third location. Our birding detours at the Bermejo entrance of Podocarpus National Park and the Borja “loop” road paid off with a few special prizes, including our second (and another spectacular!) Torrent Duck sighting: a family threesome—parents with their youngster, working their way steadily upstream against rapids and bounding up on large boulders, the little guy showing that he still had a lot to learn, and his parents keeping a watchful eye on him all the while—a joy to witness! In addition we encountered Emerald (or Andean) Toucanet; Blackpoll Warbler; Golden-eared, Flame-faced, and Golden tanagers; Yellow-browed Sparrow; Red-breasted Blackbird; and Olivaceous Siskin before heading for Guango Lodge (our planned lunch stop). Again, we were expecting their necter feeders to be jumping, but as at Wildsumaco, they were surprisingly “slow,” so we needed time and patience in hopes of seeing the species that often show up at this site. We also birded forest edge here, and before we packed up to continue a short distance to our last lodging, we chalked-up a few more new species, including Tourmaline Sunangel, Buff-tailed Coronet, White-bellied Woodstar, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Black-capped Hemispingus, Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer, and a quick look at Northern Mountain-Cacique.
Las Termas de Papallacta was our most pleasant base for the last two nights—the hotsprings here are magical (as were the massages that some of our group took advantage of!). From here we birded two main areas: the road leading out above the hotel, which is dominated by high elfin forest, and the tundra-like páramo zone (to 14,000 ft!) at Papallacta Pass. We encountered some great birds overall, especially in the Papallacta area—perhaps most memorable was an obliging Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe which was first spotted from our van; we got out to get better looks, and once satisfied (elated?), we returned to our vehicle to depart from the cold, foggy, and somewhat desolated area when this same bird walked right by us for second looks. It’s really nice when things like that happen! Other significant species we picked up in these two areas include Variable Hawk, 2 female Ecuadorian Hillstars, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Viridian Metaltail, Tawny Antpitta, Chestnut-winged and Stout-billed cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail, White-throated Tyrannulet, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, a fantastic group of 5 Red-crested Cotingas (displaying with crests up and all!), Black-headed Hemispingus (!), Masked and (repeated incredibly close looks at) Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers, and Pale-naped Brush-Finch.
Our final field day took us to Antisana National Park, a little over an hour-and-a-half drive from Las Termas. It turned out to be the perfect closing to our productive week of birding. Our first stop was at “Tambo Condor” Restaurant where (we would return here for a nice lunch of local cuisine) we hung around a bit to see what hummers were to be found…we hit the jackpot! A “well endowed” (tail-wise!) Black-tailed Trainbearer perched repeatedly on a nearby electric wire; a pair of Shining Sunbeams fed and fluttered about right near us; we were thrilled by repeated views of a lone male Sword-billed Hummingbird who returned over and over to two perches located inside a flowering Brugmansia (trumpet flower) shrub; and just across a field, 3 Giant Hummingbirds fooled most of us by their size, as they perched on Siphocampilus shrubs and fed with their characteristically floppy wingbeats on the flowers. Sparkling Violetears (which we had seen on several days) were all over the place here. We then continued up into the páramo grassland making stop after stop whenever we spotted anything interesting…we made lots of stops—for close looks at Black-faced Ibis; Andean Condor(!) (8–10 were seen in their impressive majestic soaring flight); Variable Hawk; 3 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles (great looks in unbeatable light!); Cinereous Harrier (this now rare and local species was seen briefly harrassing one of the buzzard-eagles); Andean Lapwing (only 3 this trip); Andean Gull; Black-winged Ground-Dove; 30 or so Carunculated Caracaras (walking around like chickens); Chestnut-winged and Stout-billed cinclodes; Many-striped Canastero (only glimpsed); Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant; Paramo Pipit; Plumbeous Sierra-Finch; and Rufous-naped (or Yellow-breasted) Brush-Finch were highlights. We were able to drive right to La Mica Lake (some of us had to fake being old and decrepit to get permission!) where we scoped Yellow-billed Pintails, Andean Teal (fairly distant), Andean (Ruddy-) Ducks, Silvery Grebes, and Slate-colored Coots. We sealed the day, as we headed for our van after lunch, with good looks at a rather sedentary Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant.
A mere week has passed and it seems that we have visited several distinct countries! Each area we explored on this Eastern Slopes of the Andes tour displayed intriguing diversity in birdlife, habitats, climates, and general appearance in what amounts to be a very compact transect—leaving us all with many memorable moments and many memorable birds. This is Ecuador, or rather, only a small part of it.