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Ecuador in 2008


Perhaps our most diverse FOFA group ever landed in Quito, Ecuador, comprised of six individuals from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Sydney, Australia.  Quito immediately takes your breath away, even when you arrive in pitch darkness.  At 10,000 feet elevation, every step is an effort, so pausing to take in the spectacular scenery is rewarding both aesthetically and because it allows you to catch your breath.

This 14-day trip first visited the jungles and rivers of the Amazon Basin, staying at world-famous Sacha Lodge, known for its Canopy Tower in a giant Kapok Tree and also the spectacular new Canopy Walk, stretching for hundreds of meters through the tree tops.  We then returned to the Andes Mountains near Quito, to enjoy the pleasures of “The Magic Birding Circuit” that has been created from the private birding reserves of San Jorge Eco-Lodges in the high Andes and both eastern and western slopes. San Jorge/Quito is a traditional 18th Century Spanish Hosteria, situated among 200 acres of native flora and fauna in the Pichincha Volcano foothills.  San Jorge de Milpe Reserve and Lodge, opened in December 2006, is located in the Subtropical Rainforest on the western slope of the Andes and featured an observatory deck for birding.  Dr. Jorge Cruz has become a pioneer in South American conservation, building a network of private reserves in a variety of endangered habitats both to preserve them and offer their bounty to visiting birders.  Dr. Cruz is also a complete naturalist and guided our group throughout the Andes portion of the tour.

We spent our first night at the San Jorge Quito Lodge, to which we would return after the first section of our tour to the Amazon Basin.  This allowed everyone to leave a substantial amount of gear behind that wouldn’t be needed in the hot and humid tropical forest where we would be staying the next five days.  In the morning, we went to the domestic airport in Quito for our short flight east over the Andes to the burgeoning oil town of Coca, on the Rio Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon River.  After a quick lunch in Coca, we boarded a 60 foot dugout style metal boat and powered our way east, frequently winding from bank to bank as the boat sought the ever-changing channel in this shallow river of shifting sands.  After about 2 hours, we disembarked and walked a mile-long trail through the forest and swamp to another dock, where we boarded small canoes for the short paddle across the lagoon to our home for the next five days, Sacha Lodge.

We spent the next three full days going from before dawn to after dusk with our guide, Oskar Tepuy, a Quechua native who may be the finest birding guide on the Amazon.   In this vast area, he seems to know where each elusive species makes its home and knows how to get it into view, either by whistling or playing recordings of its calls. 
Sacha offers a wide variety of habitats to explore and very unique ways to see them.  It was the first lodge in the Amazon to build a 135-foot tall tower into the canopy to allow an uninterrupted view of the entire forest.  A wooden staircase winds its way up and up and up around the massive trunk of an emergent ceiba or kapok tree, until you emerge onto a very solid platform in the tree’s crown.  Here observers can easily see for miles around, including many species within a few feet that nest and feed in the canopy.  It is truly and extraordinary experience that I first chronicled in 1997, in a story for Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine, called “Stairway to Heaven”.  To get there, we paddled across the lagoon, watching bizarre Hoatzins flopping through the waterside vegetation and then through the dense and dark forest on Orquia Creek almost to the base of the tower tree.  The creek held numerous secretive species, like Orange-crested Manakin, Agami and Boat-billed Herons, Green, Amazon, Pygmy and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers (Ringed on the main river for the sweep!), and many others.   After a slow climb up the 150 or so steps to the top, we saw multiple species of tanagers, barbets, fruitcrows, aracaris, flycatchers, tityra, parrots going to roost and raptors, plus a three-toed sloth.  After the sun set rapidly in true equatorial fashion, we descended to the forest floor, by now in near total darkness, returned to the canoe and silently paddled back through the now eery forest, amidst the sounds of frogs, bugs and fishing bats slapping into the water.

Another prime high wire act at Sacha is newer - the Canopy Walkway.  In two sections stretching between three 140-foot tall metal towers, these suspension bridges provide an unparalleled view of the canopy and the trees below, with plenty of room to set up scopes on the platforms.  The forest was quite different here, and so were the birds.  Similar families, different species.  A troop of squirrel monkeys rambled through the trees beneath us, pausing to get good looks at the strange things on the wires.  Trogons, cuckoos, kites, macaws and parrots, jacamars, puffbirds, toucanets and toucans, woodpeckers and woodcreepers abounded, but the greatest thrill was just being up in the canopy, looking out and down at all these amazing creatures!  Plum-throated and Spangled Cotingas did steal the show, however, radiating electric color.  Returning to the lodge for lunch, we paused for great looks at a night monkey and a pair of roostingCrested Owls!  After lunch, several people visited the lodge’s butterfly farm, and the rest of us just caught a much-needed rest.

The path/boardwalk from the Rio Napo to the lagoon also offered fine birding and we spent time there in both early morning and evening walks.  The highlight for me was a Sunbittern, a species I had sought for many years.  The bird actually perched on the boardwalk railing and kept flying ahead of me a few feet at a time, spreading its glorious wings each time and showing off the sunburst pattern on each.  We also found Tropical Screech-owl, Marbled Wood-quail, black-mantled tamarind and pygmy marmoset monkeys, fantastic fireflies and almost no mosquitoes.
We took great advantage of our location and took two day trips along the Rio Napo.  

We arose very early on each day, since we had to have breakfast, paddle across the lagoon, walk a mile down to the main river and travel in our launch to the birding sites.  Birding all the way, of course.  We crossed to the other side to visit Yasuni National Park, a completely undeveloped huge tract of primary tropical forest.  Oskar knows the park intimately and knew every bird by it’s first name.  On occasion, we would leave the narrow trails and follow Oskar into the forest, where he would caution us to be quiet and stay together, then call in antbirds and crakes, even a secretive White-lored Antpitta.  We marched up and down through hills and valleys and the birding was spectacular!  We even found a tent bat nestled under a heliconia leaf where it had chewed the stem so that the leaf would flop over and form a “tent” for its daytime roost.  The highlight of our walk through the forest may have been watching a pair of Wire-tailed Manakins doing their courtship dance on a horizontal branch right in front of us.  The brightly colored male jumped back and forth along the branch, shuffling so rapidly it was hard to keep up with his antics.  The female did not seem as impressed as we were and I overheard a comment that one of our participants was ready to go home with him.  

On our return boat ride, we traveled up Shipaty Creek, where dense foliage and overhanging boughs, tangled with vines and heavy with bromeliads made birding difficult, but not impossible.  It truly felt like we were deep in the heart of the Amazon.  Raucous croaking caught our attention and we were able to pick out a White-throated Toucanputting on a show - twisting and twirling on its perch and almost flipping upside down.  We continued back upriver, stopping on one of numerous vegetation-covered sand islands that come and go with the flows of the river.  Some species specialize on these islands and can only be found on them, like Yellow-browed Sparrow and Lesser Hornero.

On another morning, we traveled about an hour south on the Rio Napo to visit two fantastic parrot “licks”, where great numbers of these beautiful birds gather to collect chemically basic clay to counteract the acidic effects of the fruit they eat as their main diet.  The first location was a typical lick - an exposed clay bank where four species of parrots noisily congregated, squawking at each other as they ripped off hunks of parrot “tums” for their digestive discomfort.  Blue-headed, Mealy and Yellow-crowned Parrots accompanied Dusky-headed Parakeets for space on the cliff.  The second location was completely unique.  There was a heavily forested steep cliff.   At the base of the cliff a spring emerged from an “eyebrow” shaped opening that led back to a cave.  We waited in the large covered observation “blind” that had been built by Yasuni NP.  At precisely 11:00 AM, the parrots started to filter down the cliff, shrieking, of course, as they arrived.  One by one, then by the dozens, they fell like colorful rain from the sky.  The birds all wanted to sit in the small stream and get back into the cave, where they could grab beakfuls of clay from the stream bed.  Watching them gather clay was fascinating, but when either a macaw or a White Hawk circled overhead, the parrots on the ground would explode out of the cave.  In the relatively dim light, slow shutter speed photos showed colorful wild fast-moving wings that were extraordinary impressionistic art.

Our trip to the Amazon was now over, and we boated back to Coca for our return flight to Quito.  We had just begun the adventure.

We returned to our “nest” at 10,000 feet at San Jorge Lodge, Quito and once again, tried to acclimate to the high altitude.  Some tried mate de coca, a tea made from coca leaves that is a traditional remedy for the headaches and shortness of breath that accompanies the heights.  To get things going on the right path, our first outing was to hike the trails on the steep slopes above the lodge.  “Take two steps, breathe”, became the order of the day.  That’s the normal pace at which birders move anyway.  Common birds around the lodge included many species of hummingbirds coming to the feeders, Tufted Tit-tyrant, Black and Masked Flowerpiercers, Great and Chiguanco Thrushes, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager and many more.  In fact, due to the incredible altitude changes we were about to experience (300 to 14,000 feet above sea level) while birding both slopes and the heights of the Andes mountains, the variety of species was nothing short of astonishing.  
Sword-billed Hummingbird
We also visited the world-famous Yanacocha Preserve, driving up high into the misty mountains and then walking about 4 kilometers along fortunately flat road where hummingbird feeders were placed at intervals, attracting an assortment of species, including our first looks at the unbelievable Sword-billed Hummingbird, whose beak is longer than its body!  The names of the species, especially the wonderfully elaborate monikers of the hummers, began to overwhelm us.  Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Great Sapphirewing, Shining Sunbeam, Sparkling Violetear.  Too much!  As we drove back home in the dark, several Swallow-tailed and Band-tailed Nightjars fluttered in front of the van’s headlights.
Buff-winged Starfrontlet

Nono-Mindo Road
Speckled Hummingbird

 Violet-tailed Sylph
Our next full day’s travel took us along the Nono-Mindo Road, where each birding stop is better than the next.   We arrived at the tiny village of Tandayapa, and were stopped cold in our tracks by a flood of birds crossing the road.  Magpie Tanagers, Tropical Parula Warblers, Black-winged Saltator, Thick-billed Euphonia, Silver-throated tanager, Slate-throated Whitestart,Speckled Hummingbird and dozens of others.  Even when it started raining, we could barely tear ourselves away from all the birds that were flashing by.  We continued by hiking up to the new San Jorge Tandayapa Hummingbird Preserve and spent a couple of hours being dazzled by hundreds of these tiny charmers, such as Violet-tailed Sylph, not to mention Crimson-rumped Toucanet.  We spent the next three nights at San Jorge Milpe Lodge, a new facility set in the heart of the lower western slope, overlooking a thickly forested canyon.  Despite occasions of torrential rain (this is a rain forest, after all), we managed to thoroughly explore the area, ranging down to 100 meters above sea level.  This lodge also had several locations with well-attended hummer feeders. attracting such species as the huge White-whiskered Hermit.  We hiked the trails and enjoyed dozens of species just hanging out near the lodge parking lot, at the edge of the forest and adjacent pastureland.  In the mornings and when the weather wasn’t the best, birding from the large balcony overlooking the canyon was a perfect solution, as flocks of tanagers and other species continuously passed by.

 Birding From A Balcony
 Strong-billed Woodcreeper
One of the favorite stops on the trip was a most unlikely and most unattractive location.  Every night at the Mindo Police Station, on the main highway, littered with trash, a lone street light burns brightly, attracting every moth for miles, it seems.  When dawn breaks, every bird that ever wanted a moth for breakfast shows up and feasts for hours until that night’s supply runs out or they are just stuffed, whichever occurs first.  It must be the biggest bird feeder in Ecuador!  The number and variety of species present was staggering, and the birds paid us no heed.  They only wanted to feast.  Known euphemistically as “The Mindo Tower”, birders come here from near and far to see this wild spectacle. Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Slate-throated Whitestart, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, woodpeckers, trogons, flycatchers (of course), barbets, toucanets, and others swarmed in front of us and you never had to move to see the show.
Blue-winged Mountain-tanager

Blue-black Grassquit

 Short-tailed Hawk

One of the widest ranges we covered was around the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado, with altitudes from  300-3400 feet.  Mainly wandering through agricultural lands bordered by second-growth forest, the habitat was completely different and so were the birds.  Open country and grassland species were most common, with the occasional hawk and flocks of tanagers. Masked Water-tyrant, Blue-black Grassquit, and Short-tailed Hawk were among the highlights. 
Masked Water-tyrant
Giant Conebill
We then traveled east, back up to the high mountains, for another night in Quito, before leaving for the highest altitudes and eastern Andes the next morning.  As usual, the weather was nice in Quito, and atrocious as we climbed to the summit of Papallacta Pass at 14,000 feet.  Rain, wind and cold buffeted us as Jorge said, “let’s go”.  We were far above the tree line, in the paramo, a high treeless plain where the condors live, unfortunately not be seen in these awful conditions.  But many other ground-dwelling species were active, since this type of weather is the norm for them.  Many-striped Canastero put on a display for us as a Carunculated Caracara (isn’t that fun to say?) made several passes just overhead.  Plumbeous Sierra-finch, Giant Conebill, Brown-bellied Swallow, Stout-billed and Bar-winged Cinclodes, Tawny Antpitta, the amazingly patterned Pearled Treerunner, Sierran Elaenia all put in much appreciated appearances.  We crossed the pass and started our descent to Papallacta Lake, where an Andean Gull sat cooperatively on the rocks, just after we had seen Yellow-billed Pintail and Andean Teal feeding in nearby grassy meadows.  The rains in the highlands had made all the rivers swollen torrents, as they rapidly dropped east and south to feed the might Amazon.  Seeing these flows made us realize how the Rio Napo could rise or fall six feet in one day, depending on rainfall in the high mountains.  We drove down into Cuyuca Canyon along one of the raging rivers, where the valley floor was quietly farmed and the edge habitat was perfect for birding.  We found two of the most spectacular birds here for the entire tour: Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals.  Both were absolutely incredible, with brilliant crimson bellies, iridescent green upper body feathers etched onto black wings, one with a white undertail, the other ebony.  While a small Mountain Wren worked the edge of the river and Torrent Tyrannulets danced like tiny fluffballs on riverine rocks, a Torrent Duck bounced from boulder to boulder in the raging current.  Bright green Inca Jays noisily worked the hillsides.
The next morning, we visited San Jorge Cosanga-Yanayuca Reserve near San Ysidro Valley, in the subtropical eastern slopes of the Andes.  We walked a forested road for a bit and then climbed up the hill to the Reserve’s property.  Although it was beautiful forest, birding was difficult due to the narrow and steep trail.  In openings, we managed to get good looks at Subtropical and Northern Mountain Caciques, a multitude of Blackburnian Warblers, Canada Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, Black-headed Hemispingus, Beryl-spangled, Flame-faced, Swallow, Blue-winged and Golden-naped Tanagers and Long-tailed Antbird.  There were also quite a few exquisite butterflies.
Then it was time to begin our return to Quito, but not without a stop at the Guango Hummer Haven!  This lodge/restaurant/gardens has numerous hummer feeders and attracts just about every hummer species on the eastern slope.  We took an hour here, going nuts with the swarms of rapidly moving birds, trying to see and photograph everything.  Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca and Chestnut-breasted Coronet.

Collared Inca

Chestnut-breasted Coronet
Long-tailed Sylph

Overall, this was a wonderful tour encompassing a huge variety of habitats and an equal variety of birds.  We ended up recording an amazing 440 species during our travels, including a remarkable 43 species of hummingbirds!  We saw all 5 species of kingfishers, 7 species of nightjars, 15 parrot species, 55 tanagers, 38 flycatchers and 10 woodcreepers.  It just doesn’t get much better than that!  
White-sided Flowerpiercer cutting into the base of a bleeding heart flower to extract the nectar.