Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 12—20, 2016
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Northwest Ecuador is a wonderfully diverse and exciting region, no matter how you slice it. Our November 2016 Northwestern Andean Slopes tour ran into unseasonably rainless conditions, which obviously affected bird activity to some degree; it’s difficult to ascertain if this was caused by the general effects of global warming, a La Niña phenomenon (often occurring after an El Niño current incursion, which we suffered some effects of early this year), or by some fluke of nature not related to any of the aforementioned. At any rate, it was quite dry and hotter than expected on a few days and densely fogged-in on others, but with basically no rain…nevertheless, with all the expected and unexpected challenges taken into account, we certainly enjoyed some successful and productive birding, as to be expected in this world-renowned hot-spot. We covered a fairly diverse altitudinal transect within a rather reduced area, perhaps some 80–90 miles “as the eagle flies”; and as always, the species and habitat diversity we experienced was quite amazing and, at times, rather overwhelming.
It all began fairly early on our first morning in the elfin forests of the high temperate-zone Yanacocha Reserve. The activity began slowly: an Andean Guan quietly perched atop a fruiting shrub; a band of richly-toned Rufous Wrens; and the first of a lovely selection of highland hummingbirds, starting with Buff-winged Starfrontlet, the relatively ungainly Great Sapphirewing, a couple of Sapphire-vented Pufflegs (cotton-balls and all), and the pint-sized Tyrian Metaltail. As we walked the main trail there was little activity, though we managed to get a glimpse of a pair of Barred Fruiteaters feeding back among the leaves and branches in a nearby tree, among a few other species; a close foraging White-browed Spinetail kept us busy as it skulked through low dense vegetation, offering scant views in bits-and-starts until we were able to feel satisfied that we’d all seen it well enough to move on. The nectar feeders are the highlight of this site, and they came through in a big way, repeating what we saw earlier and adding Golden-breasted Puffleg, Mountain Velvetbreast, and, last-but-not-least, the incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird! Glossy and Masked flowerpiercers also made repeated appearances at the feeders—certainly more clumsy than the hummers! We climbed a bit higher to a final set of feeders and were graced with even closer looks at the Sword-bill and added views of Rufous-naped (Yellow-breasted) and Chestnut-capped brush-finches. On our return walk, a few of us ran into a nice mixed-species foraging flock with good views of Spectacled Whitestart and Hooded, Black-chested, and Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers, before sitting down for our first field lunch. We then continued onward, winding downslope along the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute…with super point-blank looks at a confiding Cinnamon Flycatcher on the way; we eventually began climbing a bit (not before stopping to contemplate a nesting female Andean Cock-of-the-rock alongside the road!) to take a coffee/hummingbird break at Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge, where we enjoyed close views of Green Violetear, Speckled Hummingbird, Violet-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet (a ton of them!), and Fawn-breasted Brilliant, before heading for Séptimo Paraíso—our comfortable base-of-operations located just above the Mindo Valley.
From Séptimo, we were able to easily visit nearby reserves, bird sanctuaries, and birding hot-spots throughout the region, often returning to home-base for lunch and R&R before heading out to other neighboring areas, and on a couple of occasions taking the full-day to explore more distant sites and roads. The birding was varied and not without some challenges, but always enjoyable…Casa Rolando was so memorable (owned and managed by a most friendly local campesino), with its well-planned “garden” and the exceptionally close studies we had of so many great birds: Red-headed Barbet, a pair of Crimson-rumped Toucanets, Ecuadorian Thrush, and then the tangers!…White-lined, the special endemic Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Blue-gray and Palm tanagers, and Golden-naped, Black-capped, Flame-faced, and Golden tanagers were just soooo lovely! The grounds around Séptimo supplied us with many memorable moments—a Common Potoo at its day roost, nice views of a pair of Chestnut-mandibled (Yellow-throated) Toucans, and an adult and juvenile Collared Forest-Falcon constantly calling back-and-forth were special among them. Our second afternoon visit back along the lower Ecoroute was magical, with a concentration of no less than six enigmatic Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans followed by a family of gorgeous Powerful Woodpeckers…need I say more!
Our morning at the Paz Antpitta Reserve will not easily be forgotten. How can one lose with a dawn display of male Cock-of-the-rocks at their lek (this time, one male in particular just perched out front, showing off in plain view!), and then the real show began…watching Rodrigo (Angel’s brother) in action was a real treat! We relished in a Dark-backed Wood-Quail foursome that came in (on command?) to feed on a perch stocked with plantain bananas; María, the famous Giant Antpitta at point-blank, followed by Wilomena, the smaller Yellow-breasted Antpitta by the river; a short drive uphill to an enjoyable encounter with Andreíta, the charming Chestnut-crowned Antpitta; and then our second “Ecuadorian-style” breakfast, complete with close-up views of the spectacular endemic Toucan Barbet! That afternoon and the following day we made three visits to Mindo Cloudforest Foundation’s Milpe Bird Sanctuary (including its Mindo Gardens sector), each one focusing a bit on different aspects of this small but excellent reserve. The hummers were buzzing with White-necked Jacobins, a White-whiskered Hermit, Green Thorntails, Fawn-breasted and Green-crowned brilliants, Crowned Woodnymph, and Andean Emeralds, while the plantain feeders attracted a Rufous Motmot! The forest eventually came to life as we located some tall Miconia trees teeming with fruit and their attendent birds, along with mixed foraging flocks that boasted a real mix of species; some of the key specialties we encountered included: Squirrel Cuckoo; Chocó Trogon; Broad-billed Motmot; Red-headed Barbets; Chocó Toucans; Smoky-brown, Golden-olive, and Guayaquil woodpeckers; Slaty Antwren; Spotted and Montane woodcreepers; Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated foliage-gleaners; Spotted Barbtail; Ornate Flycatchers; Golden-winged Manakins; wonderful lek displays of Club-winged Manakins; Cinnamon and One-colored becards; Spotted Nightingale-Thrush; Buff-rumped and Chocó warblers; Golden-naped, Gray-and-gold, Rufous-throated, Bay-headed, and Golden tanagers; Yellow-throated and the rare Yellow-green chlorospinguses; Ochre-breasted Tanager; and several beautiful Yellow-collared Chlorophonias.
Our day-trip to the Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary took us to our lowest elevation for the trip. Although we were met with cooler, foggy conditions—normally ideal for birding—activity was surprisingly slow. We hung out at the canopy tower and then walked some trails until things started to “heat-up” so-to-speak, and we ended up with some nice additions to our tally (many great studies from the canopy tower!). Among the many species we encountered, a selection of what we got good looks at included Hook-billed Kite; Plumbeous Hawk; a pair of endemic Dusky Pigeons; Blue-chested and the Chocó endemic Purple-chested hummingbirds; close views of Chocó Trogon; Orange-fronted Barbet; Lineated Woodpecker; Pacific Antwren; Black-striped and Streak-headed woodcreepers; Masked Water-Tyrant among several other flycatchers; Masked Tityra; Tawny-crested, Gray-and-gold, Golden-hooded, Rufous-winged, Bay-headed, Silver-throated, and Scarlet-browed tanagers (Wow!); and Green Honeycreeper. The following day found us heading northwest to the special “Mashpi” area and the family-run Amagusa Reserve and their amazing nectar and fruit feeding stations (managed by its owner, Doris). We stopped to get decent looks at the rare Indigo Flowerpiercer before settling down amidst a swarm of hummers and their fruit feeders; the action was constant and in-our-faces! Highlights at this site included Brown Inca; the fabulous Velvet-purple Coronet; more Booted Racket-tails; Purple-bibbed Whitetip; Empress Brilliant (a half-dozen at least!); Crimson-rumped Toucanet; and Moss-backed, Glistening-green, Golden-naped, Blue-necked, Rufous-throated, and Flame-faced tanagers. We reluctantly pulled away from this spectacle and continued along the loop that would take us downslope on a narrow country road and then eventually to paved roads for our return “home”—this drive proved enjoyable and rather birdy, as we walked stretches in search of whatever we could find. We eventually enjoyed fine looks at a band of displaying Swallow-tailed Kites, Plumbeous Kite, White-throated Quail-Dove, a Purple-crowned Fairy, Purple-chested Hummingbird (perched!), Barred Puffbird, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Streaked Xenops, Rufous-winged Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Snowy-throated Kingbirds, Barred Becard, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Black-striped Sparrow, among many other species.
It was hard to believe that our Northwestern Ecuador experience was coming to an end, as we departed from Séptimo Paraíso; our last day would concentrate our focus on the Paseo del Quinde Ecoroute, seeking out mixed foraging flocks and bird species we may have missed up to this point. Masked Trogon and Crimson-mantled Woodpecker showed themselves well, along with another Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Sierran Elaenia, another Cinnamon Flycatcher, Tropical Parula (another), Russet-crowned Warbler, Black-capped Hemispingus, Capped Conebill, and Rufous-chested, Blue-capped, and Blue-and-black tanagers. Our last “oficial” stop, before bee-lining it back to Quito, was at the pleasant Alambi Reserve, owned and run by a local taxi driver (now turned bird enthusiast, his children are local birding guides!)…what a send-off for our trip…a wall of active hummingbirds like you’ve never seen, more hummers per square-inch than anywhere I’ve ever been! Among many species we had already seen were Tawny-bellied Hermit, Brown Violetear, a glittering male Western Emerald, and Purple-throated Woodstar. The plantain feeder here offered its bounty with another beautiful Red-headed Barbet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Thrush, and Tricolored Brush-Finch among the visitors.
On such an experience-filled journey as this, it is so difficult to choose a favorite bird or experience. All those indescribable hummingbirds with their brilliant glitter, unfathomable flight and energy, the diversity and color displayed by so many tanagers…they’re all favorites, all of them! Trogons, toucans…Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (!), motmots, barbets, Toucan Barbet (!), antpittas (!) the charming Ornate Flycatcher, or Cinnamon Flycatcher. No way…I refuse to choose; this was an amazing trip!