Ecuador: Eastern Slope of the Andes Jan 15—25, 2017
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Ecuador boasts incredible diversity within its tiny geography and its wildlife inhabitants, and we lived that claim during our week-long Eastern Slope of the Andes tour. The transect we traversed took us from the Amazonian lowlands into the foothills, up through the Subtropical and Temperate forest zones, and into elfin forest and the tundra-like Paramo Zone to 14,000 feet above sea-level. At every turn, at each area we visited, we were confronted with new challenges, a new environment, a different ecosystem, and a new set of species to search for and enjoy; we even had to dress differently!
We gathered our group together in the frontier town of Francisco de Orellana, better known as Coca; some of us had just ended our week-long Amazonia at Napo Wildlife Center tour, and the rest of us had just arrived on a flight from Quito. After a get-to-know-each-other lunch (complete with White-banded and Blue-and-white swallows and Gray-breasted Martins), we initiated our journey westward from the Amazonian lowlands up into the foothills, to our first destination–Wildsumaco Lodge. As the day cooled down a bit, we made one brief stop to stretch our legs and see what we could find; we came up with a Pied Plover, Violaceous Jay, Russet-backed and Crested oropendolas, and Black-fronted Nunbirds, among our first finds. Wildsumaco offers a nice mix of Amazonian lowland and foothill species and an impressive hummingbird show, which we got a taste of right from the get-go—Green Hermit, Sparkling Violetear, Wire-crested Thorntail, Booted Racket-tail (the buff-booted kind), Black-throated and Violet-fronted brilliants, Napo Sabrewing, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Many-spotted Hummingbird, and Golden-tailed Sapphire greeted us graciously…what a welcoming committee! Our two-and-a-half-day stay at this site proved to be a great initiation into the riches of this region; we embarked in much roadside birding and explored a few trails, hung out on the lodge’s ample deck to constantly check out the fruiting Cecropia trees that stood before us, and were led to a forest “feeding station” where we got great looks at some really tough-to-see understory denizens. Interestingly, the first species we came across were Cerulean, Canada, and Blackburnian warblers, Swainson’s Thrush (there were tons of them here!), Summer and Scarlet tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak…was this Ecuador or what? But then the answer revealed itself: Gould’s Jewelfront; Violet-headed Hummingbird; Gorgeted Woodstar; a pair of Coppery-chested Jacamars; Gilded and Red-headed barbets; Many-banded Araçari; Channel-billed Toucan; Yellow-tufted and Crimson-crested woodpeckers; Red-billed and Blue-headed parrots; Maroon-tailed and White-eyed parakeets; Military and Chestnut-fronted macaws; Lined Antshrike; Plain Antvireo; Ornate and Rufous-winged antwrens; Blackish Antbird; Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted antpittas; Spectacled Prickletail (!); Montane Foliage-gleaner; Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant; Ornate Flycatcher; Red-billed Tyrannulet; Long-tailed Tyrant; Olivaceous and Rufous-naped greenlets; White-thighed Swallow; Thrush-like Wren; Spotted Nightingale-Thrush; Gray-cheeked Thrush; Magpie, White-shouldered, White-lined, Silver-beaked, Blue-necked, Paradise, Bay-headed, Spotted, and Swallow tanagers; Purple and Golden-collared honeycreepers; Grayish Saltator; Yellow-browed Sparrow; Yellow-rumped Cacique; and Golden-rumped, Bronze-green, and Orange-bellied euphonias over the next couple of days.
Our departure from this wonderful area took us upslope, with a couple of stops, before arriving at Cabañas San Isidro. En route we came across six or so White-tailed Hillstars, Glittering-throated Emerald, Torrent Tyrannulet, and White-capped Dipper at the Río Hollín Bridge area, Cliff Flycatcher on a (guess what?), Masked Trogon from the van along the Guacamayos Ridge, and we took a brief turn-off to check out the Vinillos sector of the Antisana National Park, where we only had time to see a Crested Quetzal; Scaly-naped Amazons; Streaked Tuftedcheek; Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet; Cinnamon Flycatcher; Grass-green, Beryl-spangled, and Saffron-crowned tanagers; and Bluish Flowerpiercer. Then, down the road at the tiny village of Cosanga, we enjoyed a family of four Torrent Ducks. San Isidro and its surroundings brought some challenges—one sunny then rainy day, for one thing—but also gave us another face of the diverse Ecuadorian Andes…we definitely had left the lowland heat behind us! Some of the key species we found in this area included Sickle-winged Guan, Southern Lapwing, the Mystery Owl , Chestnut-collared Swifts, Green Violetear, a juvenile male Tourmaline Sunangel, Speckled Hummingbird, Long-tailed Sylph (what a tail!), Bronzy and Collared incas, Buff-tailed and Chestnut-breasted coronets, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, female Gorgeted Woodstars, Golden-headed Quetzal, Andean Motmot (took a little while), White-throated (Emerald) Toucanet, Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Crimson-mantled and Powerful woodpeckers, Barred Parakeet, White-bellied Antpitta, Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Pale-edged and Yellow-browed flycatchers, Black-billed Peppershrike, unbelievably tame Inca Jays, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Slaty Brush-Finch, and a Red-breasted Meadowlark!
Our last lodging destination was the Termas de Papallacta—magnificent hotsprings set in an idyllic Andean setting at over 10,000 ft. above sea level—but first, to get there, we took a detour along a narrow road and then ascended to about 8,500 ft. to Guango Lodge to check out their nectar feeders and trails. Along the Borja detour, through some worrying blazing sun, we got lucky and actually came across some activity—with a male Red-headed Barbet, a close pair of Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Lesser Elaenia, a pair of Olive-chested Flycatchers, American Redstart, and absolutely stunning views of a family of Golden-eared Tanagers, along with Blue-necked and Golden tanagers. Activity at Guango began quite slowly…it was sunny and very few birds were flying, but slowly things picked up and we eventually experienced some “good” birding; first, some of the the hummers: Tourmaline Sunangels, Collared Incas, Sword-billed Hummingbird (what a bill!), Buff-tailed and Chestnut-breasted coronets, and White-bellied Woodstar. Then we explored some trails and ran into a couple of mixed foraging flocks with at least 10 Pearled Treerunners in wonderful light, White-banded Tyrannulet, Black-capped Hemispingus, Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager, a Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer (at a nectar feeder), Slaty Brush-Finch, and Northern Mountain-Cacique. We also were able to call out a very friendly Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. But perhaps one of the most dramatic episodes of the entire trip involved another Torrent Duck family of four…Leslie spotted them swimming upstream through incredibly rough white-water. At one point, one of the youngsters got separated from the rest of the family when he could not quite leap onto a huge boulder; it was evident that this little fellow was in trouble, and surprisingly his family was nowhere to be seen. After several attempts, some resting, and more attempts, the little guy managed to make the leap…he made it and was atop this boulder looking right out over an unbelievable expanse of rapid counter-current white water; to our shock he took the leap. That was the last we saw of him. About an hour or so later, right after we finished with the flock mentioned above, we walked out over an old footbridge to look over the river, now quite a ways downstream from where we were earlier, and lo and behold, there was our family of ducks! The little fella survived…all was well again.
Our stay at Las Termas was special, with magnificent vistas of the snow-capped Antisana Volcano; from here we visited high elfin forest and high elevation (to 14,000 ft.) Paramo Zone scrub and grassland, both on two occasions and with their respective challenges and rewards. We drove up above the “Termas” at around 6-6:30 and began to descend slowly (it was quite cold!), hoping to come across a mixed foraging flock; the plan was to return for breakfast at about 8 am. Well, nothing showed up; it was virtually birdless and it was time to head back…and then, first we spotted a perched Great Sapphirewing (the world’s second largest hummer), and out of nowhere, the flock arrived…Black-backed Bush-Tanagers, Blue-backed Conebill, a Pale-naped Brush-Finch and, wow, four Masked Mountain-Tanagers! Incredible last-minute luck! After breakfast we headed up to and above Papallacta Pass with one particular goal in mind: a great bird that “often makes you feel really ridiculous when you finally see it” is how I have characterized it over the years. Well, it was cold and windy, thin air, no bird no matter how we tried. Tme passed and it was almost time to return to Las Termas for lunch when Juan, our trusty driver and trip organizer, decided to make a last effort to locate the bird. He climbed to the summit and returned after a while with a photo of the prize on his cell phone! I had been playing tape right in the area he had just come down from. We scanned the area, I played more tape… nada! So a couple of us decided to make the climb, and as we headed up, Mary yelled something and pointed…there was a pair of these Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes right between us, foraging slowly and oblivious of our presence—we kind of felt ridiculous! Our return to the elfin forest area seemed like a total déjà vu, last minute flock…this time Masked Mountain-Tanagers accompanied by, among other species, fantastic looks at about four Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers!
Our last day of birding was at Antisana National Park; we departed after returning from the mountain-tanager “event.” How could things go better than what we had already experienced? Well, not sure that they did, but they certainly didn’t get worse. As we climbed toward the park, we stopped at a local family-run restaurant to make arrangements for a later lunch, and wow…scope views of a roosting Andean Condor with chicks! Sword-billed Hummingbird perched in a Brugmansia shrub! Giant Hummingbirds perched at a feeder! Black-tailed Trainbearer! Great Sapphirewing! It was hard to pull ourselves away, but we had to visit the actual paramo here (and we would return for lunch), so off we went, our drive taking us alongside Carunculated Caracaras (all over the place!), Black-faced Ibis, Andean Lapwing, two Tawny Antpittas (out on a lawn!), and we arrived at La Mica lake with scope views of Silvery Grebes and Slate-colored Coots, along with some distant Yellow-billed Pintails, Andean Teals, Andean (Ruddy) Ducks and, eventually, nice looks at Andean Gull flying right to us. We returned to an excellent lunch and incredible studies of those great Andean hummers… only more of them! Well, this was our Eastern Andean Slopes tour…this is Ecuador… really incredible.