20 July - 5 August 1998
© 1998 Nancy L. Newfield
Participants: Birgit Berger Glenn Ousset
Dennis Demcheck Marilyn Sitz
Karen Fay Nancy Newfield, Leader of the Pack
Betty McKinney Paul Greenfield, Man with the Plan
JULY 20, 1998 MONDAY [Day 1]
"It seemed as if this trip would never happen, but at last I'm going to Ecuador," I thought, cramming the last few items into an already overstuffed suitcase. I checked and rechecked the list to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything important. I was ready!
Dawn was beginning to lighten the sky as Skip unloaded me and my gear at the entrance to the New Orleans International Airport. I hurried in to find my companions already waiting. With time to spare, Karen and Dennis had arrived from their Baton Rouge homes. And, Glenn had made the trip from Chalmette early, too. We checked our bags, then waited, waited, waited - airport tedium at its worst. LACSA #671 began boarding right on time for our scheduled 08:00 CDT departure. I was glad there were no delays. We would still be waiting, but at least, our bodies were being propelled southward - southward to the Equator, southward to Ecuador. I pulled out my well-thumbed copy of A Guide to the Birds of Colombia to study - no to relieve the boredom of the long flight ahead. Karen and Glenn, sitting across the aisle, had the same idea, but Dennis contented himself with the in-flight magazine.
Cancun, Mexico, was the first stop. As usual, I tried to spot birds for my list, though usually there is not much to see at this airport. But for a change, several birds were in view from my window seat on the left side of the plane - Great-tailed Grackle, Tropical Kingbird, Ruddy Ground-Dove. An oriole perched in a nearby tree had me stumped - bright yellow-orange, black face and throat, very little white in the black wings, tail completely black. When the bird finally flew, I observed a yellow-orange back. I never expected to find anything so beautiful in such a sterile environment. It was a lifer for sure! The question was: what kind of oriole is it? The Colombian field guide would do me no good, so I recorded field marks in my notebook. [From my notes, I've identified this as a Yellow-backed Oriole]. Frustratingly, none of the others were seated where they could see him.
Stops in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, seemed interminable. I killed time looking for a few more birds - Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Ani [which species?], Gray-breasted Martin . . . Not many birds at these small airports. An hour and a half plane change in San José, Costa Rica, dragged into two and a half hours. In the airport gift shop, we laughed at a T-shirt picturing a Blue Jay, a Painted Bunting, and a couple of others that were figments of someone's imagination. It was entitled "Birds of Costa Rica". At least we could see some birds from windows overlooking the runway. "Look Dennis, there is a Blue-and-white Swallow," Karen pointed out. "Notice that he has black undertail coverts." Dennis got his first lifer of the tour, his first trip "south of the border." Glenn and I doubted we would get any new birds here in Costa Rica as both of had visited many times, but dutifully we noted the swallow, some Gray-breasted Martins, several Black Vultures, and an Eastern Meadowlark. Then, finally, mercifully, the flight attendant called for boarding on the flight to Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador. Amen.
Our first view of Ecuador came long before touchdown at Guayaquil. The snow-capped cone of Cotopaxi, the world's highest active volcano, pushed through the clouds below. Bathed in the golden rays of the setting sun, it dominated the sky. Ah, what a glorious first view of the Andes! It was clear that it would be dark by the time our flight landed in Quito, too dark to tally any birds, so I was determined to get a bird or two during the Guayaquil stopover. "Cattle Egret! Great Egret!" I called to my companions as the aircraft skimmed the runway. But they had not seen the birds. None too soon, we were back in the air. Quito, next stop.
The four of us, weary from our day of confinement, hurried through the aduana and baggage claim. Then, we wheeled the luggage out to the curb where Xavier and Mercedes Rivadeneira of Neblina Forest [our outfitter] waited with Edwin Herrera, our driver. Paul Greenfield, the man with the plan for our Ecuadorian birding adventure, was waiting, too. We'd exchanged dozens of e-mails, so I felt as if I knew him already. Before long, we were checked into the Hotel Embassy in downtown Quito. With an elevation of 9,000 feet, Quito is the second highest capital in the world. Soon, ornithologist Fernando Ortiz-Crespo, who I had met on the internet, dropped in to get acquainted and to pick up a few items I had brought down from the states - tape recorder, hummingbird feeders, plants. We all adjourned to the dining room for a light supper, while Xavier and Edwin returned to the airport to pick up Birgit, who was arriving on an American Airlines flight from Miami.
Yet again, Xavier and Edwin returned to the airport to get
Marilyn, and Betty. They had come on a late Continental Airlines
flight from Houston. Now, the HummerQuest '98 group was
I had seen Judith in late June, but it had been nearly a year since my
path crossed with Marilyn and Betty. Paul, Fernando, Mercedes and
Xavier took their leave and left us to chat until the hotel staff
the dining room. By then, all of us were beginning to realize how
exhausted we were. Buenas noches mis amigos.
JULY 21, 1998 TUESDAY [Day 2]
I rose long before dawn, despite weariness from the previous day's travel. Because of my excitement at beginning a new trip, I'd slept fitfully. I dressed quickly, repacked the suitcase, and hurried downstairs. In the predawn stillness, the air was very chilly. Pulling on a comfy jacket of scarlet fleece, I could not help but think about the 100º F. temperatures I'd left in Louisiana. I was a bit uneasy about wandering around the street in the dark in a city I didn't know, but did not want to miss a single bird. The thin, warbling song of a Rufous-collared Sparrow drifted from down the block, so I edged closer to the sound. After a few minutes, I saw his perky, semi-crested silhouette standing out from a vine. Then, an Eared Dove, a short-tailed, squared-off, rufescent version of the North American Mourning Dove, plunked itself down on the sidewalk. Awright!
"I heard a thrush singing," Glenn volunteered. "I think it was a Great Thrush." Glenn, Karen, and Dennis has just joined me. On cue, a large black bird flew to the telephone wire. It looked rather like a melanistic American Robin on steroids, but matched the illustration of Great Thrush. Ah, my first Ecuadorian lifer! Across a wide boulevard, we found a yard with several trees. Greenery spilled over the stuccoed wall, a style typical of Latin America. It seemed a likely place to find birds, so we permitted ourselves to be drawn closer. Karen immediately spied a hummer perched on a wire. Could it be? Yes, it was an immature male Black-tailed Trainbearer. Ah, my first lifer hummer!
Paul had wanted to get an early start, an impossibly early start, but we compromised on 07:30. The hotel dining room did not open 'til 07:00. Obviously, Paul, a transplanted New Yorker, didn't understand the importance of morning coffee to a bunch of Southerners. He and Edwin arrived early. Soon, we were headed out of Quito in a not-quite-large-enough Ford van. Luggage was lashed on top. The plan was for heavy-duty roadside birding en route to the Cabañas San Isidro near the town of Cosanga on the eastern slope of the Andes. To reach our destination, we would travel southeastward, then south and we would traverse several life zones, reaching our highest point at Papallacta Pass.
First stop was a ragged roadside not far from the city. Almost before the last birder had climbed out of the van, Paul called out, "Black Flowerpiercer!" The shining black bird was in a large shrub with tiny white blossoms. Then, someone spotted a small, rufous-throated hummer. "Tyrian Metaltail, female," Paul identified deftly. About that time, a huge hummingbird flew past with powerful, bat-like wingstrokes. I saw his white rump. "GIANT HUMMINGBIRD!" I shouted. The big hummer blasted across the highway and chased a smaller bird. WOW! Down in a brushy gully, I spied a hummer with a very long tail. "Green-tailed Trainbearer. See the bright green color." Paul identified with a brief glimpse. The bird darted off before everyone could get on it, but a very cooperative Rufous-naped Brush-Finch popped up and posed.
Steadily, we climbed in elevation. Another stop produced Southern Yellow-Grosbeak, Band-tailed Seedeater, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, and Hooded Siskin - all in one field. An American Kestrel flew off before I got a fix on it. On the other side of the dirt road, Dennis found a Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant. Daturas [Brugmansia sanguinea] with huge yellow-and-red bell-shaped blossoms grew along a barbed-wire fence line. Knowing this was a prime flower for the Sword-billed Hummingbird, I kept one eye on the plants while trying not to miss any of the other birds. The distinctive shape of a large hummer with a bill longer than its body flashed past. "SWORD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD", I called out, but the bird continued across the field to another datura. Only Karen got a glimpse. Everyone watched the shrubs after that. We also had our first good look at the Puya, a terrestrial bromeliad with blossoms of a weird plastic-looking green color. It was a known hummer attractor and a male Black-tailed Trainbearer displayed vigorously above this one.
Trucking on up the road, the landscape became progressively more bleak. Trees can't grow at elevations above 11,400 feet, Paul explained. At the 13,000 elevation of Papallacta Pass, we were in páramo, a high-elevational, wet grassland. The number of species we would look for was limited, but those birds thrive where little else can survive. A Tawny Antpitta skittered across the narrow track, calling loudly. He perched on top a clump of brown vegetation long enough for a few of us to get a quick look. Then, he dove for cover. Paul heard the song of a Many-striped Canastero and a search of the grass revealed one in plain view - but not for long. I thought I was prepared for the frigid temperature and biting wind of this no man's land, but sadly I was mistaken. Silk thermal underwear with 2 turtlenecks, a fleece jacket, and a rain jacket did little to comfort me. A heavy mist dampened all my clothing. After tallying the Stout-billed and Bar-winged Cinclodes and the Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, I crawled back into the van to thaw out. Hardier souls kept looking for more birds. A brownish immature Carunculated Caracara flapped across the lead-gray sky. A black-and-white adult, followed suit. Then, Paul pointed out a Variable Hawk, a high elevation Buteo sometimes called a Puna Hawk. I scurried out to see them, then got right back into the van. Karen asked if we could look for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, but Paul reckoned that visibility higher up would be too poor because of the heavy mist.
In the town of Papallacta, Edwin pulled off the highway onto a muddy track that crossed a stream. Brown-bellied Swallows swooped under the narrow bridge. On boulders below, a young White-capped Dipper bobbed and teetered. "That's the best view you'll ever get of the dipper," Paul opined. "Usually, they stay farther away, like the parents over there." A small herd of llamas grazed near the fence. With filthy, matted fur, these guys didn't look as cute and cuddly as they do in wildlife films. Paul said they are often ill-tempered and spit on people, like other camelids.
Descending the eastern slope and skirting the Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca, the mist increased to a steady rain, a downpour at times. Traffic ground to a halt to permit heavy equipment to replace a section of the oil pipeline that had been washed out by a mudslide a few days earlier. Looking at the forest across the valley, it was evident that heavy rains from El Niño had caused many washouts. Several hombres from the bus ahead of us showed no modesty in relieving themselves right in front of our van. Another guy stood in the driving rain to smoke a cigarette. Since we could do nothing but sit in the van, it seemed a good time, if not a good place, to eat our boxed lunches.
A roadside stop just past the town of Cuyuja proved to be very exciting. A flock of Green Jays squawked noisily. Closely resembling "our" South Texas Green Jays, these birds may one day be split as a separate species called Inca Jay. I like that! Paul said it was unusual to see them at such a high elevation. "Ooh, look, a Long-tailed Sylph" and "Wow, a Mountain Velvetbreast, going to those fuchsia-colored salvias [Salvia pichinchensis]!" We added more hummers. Paul was surprised to find a Dusky Piha, which is usually found deep in the forest. Cute is the only word to describe the Cinnamon Flycatcher - and here we found a pair. An odd flowerpiercer with blue shoulders left us scratching our heads. Paul said it was probably a Black because it was too small to be a Glossy, but the Blacks in that region weren't supposed to have blue shoulders. ¿Quien sabe?
By that time, the group had seen so many flowerpiercers that someone coined the term "Diglossaphobia." We weren't really tired of seeing the attractive birds, but every time one focused binoculars, it seemed to be on a flowerpiercer. "I left my ego in the northern hemisphere," quipped Dennis. Because he had never birded outside of the United States, his lifers were really piling up fast. After being reminded that parts of South America were in the northern hemisphere, he amended his statement to "I left my ego in North America."
It seemed a long drive in the cramped van [next time I'll insist on a larger vehicle], but after a while Edwin found the turnoff to Cabañas San Isidro. A minor mudslide had damaged the road, but it was still passable - just barely. As we neared the lodge, Paul saw birds moving in a forest fragment close to the road. He often let Edwin know his wishes with hand signals rather than verbally. Edwin responded extremely well, so I was surprised to learn that Edwin had never driven for Paul before. The rain had nearly stopped and everyone was eager to get out and find a few birds. "I have a gray bird over here, gray with brown wings. It looks like a thrush," Glenn said almost as soon as he exited the van. "That's an Andean Solitaire," Paul stated. "You'll often hear them, but seldom see any." I guess we were just lucky! That solitaire was the first of several we would see, but not once did we hear the melodious flute-like song. A raucous flock of Russet-backed Oropendolas clamored noisily through the trees. Paul mentioned that some members of the species had yellow bills, while others had black bills. Someday, he said, the two kinds might be considered separate species.
We entered the property just as darkness began to envelop the
It seem uncommonly quiet. We noticed candles burning in the
The mudslide had downed the electric lines so we would have to make
A hearty dinner, starting with cilantro-flavored potato soup, really
the spot. Halfway through dinner, the lights came back on and we
re-entered the 20th Century. See y'all in the morning.
JULY 22, 1998 WEDNESDAY [Day 3]
My room was tiny, yet comfortable enough. Still, I had not slept well and rose early again. I couldn't wait to get to the dining hall to see the first hummers coming to the feeders. Coffee wasn't quite ready, so I stayed outside to watch and listen. The porch was surrounded by a nice selection of hummer plants. Long-tailed Sylph! Speckled Hummingbird! Bronzy Inca! They came fast and furious. A stunning black-and-white Collared Inca chased several smaller hummers from a gorgeous Fuchsia!!! What a show! Several hummers had regular perches on the periphery of the garden, permitting point-blank looks through Karen's super Swarovski scope. An exquisite Fawn-breasted Brilliant swooped in. Rufous-collared Sparrows sang from nearby perches, but carefully avoided the hummer fracas.
As soon as the entire group assembled, Paul announced a pre-breakfast walk. A flock of stunning Subtropical Caciques, clad in black-and-crimson finery, flushed from the pasture near the front gate. We walked down the road to a muddy log trail. A small flock flitted in the canopy overhead - Slate-throated and Spectacled Whitestarts, Common Bush-Tanager. Near the ground, a pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens sang a lively duet. What a lot of sound from two tiny birds! A Highland Motmot remained quietly perched while each birder peeked through a gap in several layers of leaves to get a look.
After breakfast, Paul led an easy hike up the road, pointing out songs and calls as we went along. "Listen, there's a Long-tailed Antbird." The bird was far from the road, but gradually came closer to Paul's taped playback. Judith got on it easily. A Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant called from a bamboo thicket right next to the track. Karen had seen one the day before. Paul played him until everyone had a good look. Another cute little flycatcher! Mixed species flocks really pumped up the list - Brown-capped Vireo, Black-crested and Russet-crowned Warblers. Betty got delightful views of tanagers as colorful as their names - Saffron-crowned, Golden-naped, Beryl-spangled. I felt adrenaline surge each time a name was called out. Fortunately, many species were represented by several individuals, so if I missed an Orange-bellied Euphonia, I likely got it a little farther down the road. "Bat Falcon," Karen called. "Where?" Paul asked. His excitement was obvious as he focused binoculars on the handsome raptor, perched high on a dead snag. "No. It's an Orange-breasted Falcon!!! That's not even on the checklist here!"
Paul set up the scope. Eager birders lined up for a lifelist look - Marilyn, Betty, Judith. I hoped it wouldn't fly before I got my turn, but I need not have worried. The falcon was just beginning to dismember a bird in its clutches. Paul took another look. "It's a Streaked Tuftedcheek. You can count that one, too." "Hmm. I don't think so," I thought, as I watched feathers from the lifeless creature drift to the ground. A pair of Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers clung to a dead trunk in the foreground, frozen in fear. What a picture!!! We watched the falcon for quite a while, then followed the next flock to come along. A living Streaked Tuftedcheek scampered out of sight before I could get my glasses on it, but now the species could be counted for the trip list. Pearled Treerunner, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet - new birds just kept coming.
I don't remember eating lunch that day, though I'm sure it wasn't skipped. Later, Paul heard a flock of White-capped Tanagers, and imitating them vocally, he called them in from quite a distance. These unique birds seemed more like jays than their demure tanager kin. A Pale-edged Flycatcher added to my difficult to identify Myiarchus list. "The trail to the Cock-of-the-Rock roost is muddy. You may want to use rubber boots," Paul announced. The lodge had a good supply of "loaners", but I'd brought my own. Almost everyone took heed of the warning. "Bring your rain gear, too," Paul added. The sky was clear blue and the temperature had risen beautifully. Reluctantly, I tied the jacket around my waist. "It's going to rain," Paul stated flatly. That just didn't seem possible. It was a gorgeous day. "Sol de lluvia, " he added. "Sol de lluvia, sun of rain. Oldtimers call this sun of rain."
I just couldn't believe it was going to rain. As we entered the forest, the air became muggy and very still. Bird activity was extremely slow, except for a splendid Black-chested Fruiteater that peered down at us. The trail didn't seem too bad - mud in a few spots, but otherwise OK. The gentle descent was interspersed with several steep inclines - just watch your footing. A light rain began to fall, a gentle shower really. Then it stopped - but just for a few minutes. Paul sauntered down the trail, which was becoming more slippery with every bucket of water that fell. "It is important to be there at dusk when the birds come in to roost," he said to spur us on. "I've only missed it once here. After you've seen this bird, you'll forget all about the rain and mud." Only Judith seemed to have an adequate rain suit. I was soaked to the skin as the shower became a downpour and showed no sign of letting up. Paul played a Cock-of-the-Rock tape several times. Marilyn and Dennis saw large, bright red-orange bird flying across the valley and thought that it might be the elusive bird, but the anticipated arrival of several male Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks did not materialize.
Darkness was setting in and most of us wanted to be out of the forest by the time daylight had vanished completely. I had a small flashlight, but its beam seemed pretty pathetic. Nine disappointed birders began sloshing their way up the now treacherous trail, with rain still dumping down on us. Sure-footed Birgit led the way. I was third to last. Behind me, Betty gracefully picked her way through the quagmire - must be her Indian heritage. Paul made sure to help everyone over the most slippery parts. With my boots sinking deeper on each step, I struggled to stay upright. Kersplat!
Conversation at supper was subdued. Cold, wet, tired - we were
not happy campers and we still had to pack for the next morning's early
departure. Soup thickened with the native grain, quinoa, and hot,
spiced apple cider warmed bodies chilled to their very core.
JULY 23, 1998 THURSDAY [Day 4]
The rain stopped during the night. Yet, a cloying dampness enveloped everything. After breakfast, Edwin lashed the luggage on top the van. Time to press on. Today was to be a travel day. We would head southward down the Cordillera de los Guacamayos [Guacamayo Ridge, sometimes spelled huacamayo] to tropical lowlands near the Jatún Sacha Biological Reserve. The distance was less than 100 miles, but with birding stops it would take all day.
Not far from Cabañas San Isidro, we entered the town of Cosanga. A trestle-type bridge crossed the fast-flowing, boulder-strewn Río Cosanga. Edwin pulled to a stop right on the span. Paul hopped out to scan for birds. Brown-bellied Swallows flitted over and under the structure, affording perfect views from all angles. A flock of swifts proved to be Chestnut-collared Swifts. Even in the poor light, I managed to see the rusty neckband that gives this species its name. We were looking for Torrent Ducks and just as Paul was about to give up, Birgit spied a female hustling athletically upstream. She hopped from one refrigerator-sized stone to another. These birds seemed very different from the puddle ducks I was accustomed to seeing in Louisiana marshes. The male of this unique species sports a racy black-and-white head, while the handsome female is gray above and rich rufous below. Both have bright red bills. It was high on my "want-to-see" list!
Just a little farther along the road, Edwin stopped again. We were on a hill overlooking a rocky stream that flowed to the river. Paul said that there had been forest until a few months ago. Still some trees remained. At first, few birds were evident, but the longer we stayed, the birdier it became. A Torrent Tyrannulet flipped out over the water. "I see a male Torrent Duck," I called. "That black-and-white bird is a dipper," Paul corrected. I looked back and saw a White-capped Dipper. How could I have mistaken a dipper for a duck? I felt a little foolish. Maybe I needed to clean my binoculars. The third look was telling. There, about one foot from the dipper, was a male Torrent Duck. I was vindicated! Judith found a Chestnut-bellied Thrush, but it disappeared before anyone else could get on it. That was one I wanted to see badly. We must have added 20 new species at this stop. Every time one person found a new bird, someone else called out another. It was maddening, frustrating - typical tropical birding.
Edwin cruised along, stopping here and there. We reached the 7,500-foot summit of the Guacamayo Ridge in the Reserva Ecológica Antisana. Fog and mist shrouded deep, forested gorges. Visibility was limited to the immediate roadsides. A persistent light rain seemed to become heavier every time we exited the van. We would not see any of the magnificent Military Macaws, guacamayos, from which the ridge gets its name, but a splendid Grass-green Tanager worked the roadside just ahead of the van. Rain or not, everybody scampered out for a good view. Washouts along the road provided exposed soil. Many thrushes were searching for worms or other invertebrates. It was much easier to get good looks at these guys while they were scratching the ground than when they were deep in the forest. Now, everyone got a shot at the Chestnut-bellied Thrush, Great and Glossy-black, too. Paul picked out a Pale-eyed Thrush, as well.
Rain let up as we moved to gradually lower elevations. Another stop gave us a panoramic view of a cutover valley. Only a few tall trees remained. In the center of the arena stood a tall tree with oddly-shaped yellow blossoms. Two Chestnut-breasted Coronets sat low, about a foot apart. Their rich rusty breasts really stood out. Several others alternately fed and fought. We tallied nine in all. Wow! Double wow!! "Look at the way they hold their wings up when they land, like shorebirds," Paul said. Neat-o! Swifts coursed across the partly cloudy sky. We'd already gotten White-collared and Chestnut-collared. Now, Paul picked out a few with white patches on their chests. "White-chested Swift," he announced, "That's a lifer for me." A huge stand of Heliconia looked tantalizing. Impressive lobster claw-looking red bracts held insignificant yellow-green flowers. Surely, one of the mid-elevation hermits visited here. We waited. I noticed movement and tried to focus on the bird, but it was difficult to see. Finally, I watched as the heavy-bodied, streaky hummer extracted its thick, deeply curved bill from a blossom. "SICKLEBILL!!!!" I cried. And, indeed, everyone got good views of the White-tipped Sicklebill, a truly unique hummer.
By lunchtime, it had gotten quite warm. I was ready to shed the thermal underwear, but there was no place to change. Oh, well. Un tamal wrapped in a banana leaf was very tasty and quite a bit different from the pseudo-Mexican "hot tamales" we get in the U.S. A cheese sandwich proved far less interesting. Roadside birding held many delights. One stop got us an Emerald Toucanet and Southern Rough-winged Swallows. At another stop, Karen spied a lovely Plain-breasted Hawk andall other bird activity ceased after this agile hunter streaked in. Inga trees, tropical hummingbird magnets, began to appear along the road. Paul scanned for any that carried a lot of the mimosa-looking, white flowers, and he signaled for Edwin to stop each time a likely -looking spot came into view. The first place had two huge ones, growing together like twins. With a glance, there seemed to be no hummers, but on closer inspection, we hit a bonanza! A tiny female Wire-crested Thorntail, black-and-white below and with a white band across her rump, buzzed bee-like amid the highest blossoms. And, a female "Buff-booted Racket-tail" stayed to the other end of the trees. We did really well on itsy-bitsy species, adding a Gorgeted Woodstar as well. The tanager show was pretty darned good, too. A Bananaquit and a Black-faced Dacnis vied with Golden, Flame-faced, Blue-necked, and Bay-headed Tanagers. These Inga trees were solid gold!
Another couple of stops brought Sparkling Violet-ear and Amethyst Woodstar, as well as a good selection of "real" birds - Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Lineated Woodpecker, and Magpie Tanager. After he found the big woodpecker, we dubbed Dennis "Woodpecker Man"!
While Edwin gassed up the van in Tena, hundreds of Short-tailed Swifts twittered overhead. Behind the station, Yellow-rumped Caciques gathered in a row of trees. A Yellow-browed Sparrow sang from the top of the building. We finished our business and got back on the road. "What's that?" I questioned Paul, as a large dark raptor flapped away. "Black Caracara. We'll see lots of those tomorrow," he responded, adding that he didn't want to stop on the busy highway and that we needed to press on to the Cotococha Lodge, still more than an hour away. At an elevation of 1,200 feet, we were now in tropical lowland though temperatures were not as hot and steamy as they were back home. Light was fading as Edwin turned into the parking area at the Cotococha Jungle Lodge. The cobbled pathway was wet and very slippery from a recent rain. "Yike!!!! Don't slip!!" I called catching myself on the handrail.
The attractive lodge, built of bamboo and rustic native materials,
on the bank of the Río Napo, a tributary of the mighty
Though the humble homes just down the road used electricity, and there
seemed to be a stereo system in the bar, the cabins, dining hall, and
were lit by kerosene lamps and candles that gave off too little light
us to reorganize ourselves or write up our daily notes. Karen and
Judith were assigned to a cabin down a steep slope, right next to the
To get there, it was necessary to plunge down a poorly lit chasm that
even more treacherous than the level paths to the other cabins.
opted to bunk elsewhere. "You know I snore," I mentioned while
hung clothing wet from a leak in the tarp covering the luggage.
okay." As usual, sleep did not come easily.
JULY 24, 1998 FRIDAY [Day 5]
I don't know why I bothered to set an alarm. The very thought of all the new birds out there ensured a restless night. I was dressed and out long before the first ray of daylight. Carefully picking my way along the treacherously slick walkway, I strained to hear the first call of dawn. Karen soon joined me. In the tranquil darkness, we waited for the day to come alive.
One by one, birders appeared and the shapes of birds became discernible. Toting his tape recorder, Paul appeared, ready for action. The lodge grounds were nicely landscaped with tropical hummer plants, especially Heliconias and Erythrinas. Several birds zipped in and out before anyone was able to make an ID. At last, Karen got on a Glittering-throated Emerald. All of a sudden, there seemed to be new birds all around us - Black-fronted Nunbird, Gilded Barbet, Orange-fronted Plush-crown,Crested and Green Oropendola. Almost hidden within a good-sized flock of Silver-beaked Tanagers, a male Masked Crimson Tanager was a great find. I was excited to see this handsome red-and-black bird. Paul heard a Pygmy Antwren and skillfully taped it in. This diminutive black-and-white-and-yellow guy stayed right above us most of the time. Cute! Real cute!
At breakfast, Paul explained our birding options for the day. "We can go to Reserva Jatún Sacha as planned or we can just bird this road. If we go to the reserve, we'll leave the van and be on a trail. If it rains, and it seems like it's going to rain, we'll just get wet. If we bird the road that runs past the lodge, Edwin can follow along behind and we can get in the van when it rains." I didn't have to think hard to make that choice. All of us were still carrying wet, muddy clothing from the soaking we took on the Cock-of-the-Rock hunt. And, I knew we would not be at any locale where we could get laundry done for a few more days. I didn't think anyone would want to chance getting the last of their clean, dry clothing wet so early in the trip. "We'll bird the road."
That seemed to be a good choice. Birds flipped through the trees as soon as we reached the road. We walked eastward. After only a few hundred yards, someone spied a few birds perched high on a snag. Tanagers!!! For 20 minutes, one show-stopping jewel after another adorned the peak - Blue-necked, Turquoise, Opal-crowned, Paradise, Green-and-gold!! What a grand spectacle!!! I'm not using too many !!!!, am I? We didn't have a lot of rain, but it was enough to make me glad that I had chosen the option I did. And, no one could complain about the birds. Dark-breasted Spinetails called from a weedy field. "Paul, let's try to get them."
The narrow trail looked like chigger city, but Paul forged ahead. The birds became more and more agitated by the tape playback. They called loudly, but did not approach. It was frustrating to know where they were and still not be able to see them. Paul persisted. "Lined Antshrike," Glenn called. A fine pair of the black-and-white barred birds crossed the trail, the female showing a deep chestnut back. Good show, Glenn! Wow! Paul went back to the spinetails, which had drawn a bit closer. Finally, both members of the pair came out to investigate the taped echo of their calls. One by one, each birder signified that they had gotten a good look. Then, we let them go back to their birdy business. A flock of parakeets screeched overhead. "Cobalt-winged," Paul called out.
Back at the road, Marilyn had found one of them happily eating Cecropia fruits. Though it was not far from us, the little parrot's plain green color kept it almost concealed. Hiding in plain sight, so to speak. I had to work hard to make it out. On close inspection, we found several. During lunch, I got a glimpse of a large, black raptor over the river. Later, Karen reported that she had seen a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture. Drat! Glenn ventured out to the road ahead of the group and found a couple of new birds - Lettered Araçari and Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher. The flycatcher was still waiting when I got there, but the araçari could not to be found again. Walking in a westerly direction we covered new ground. Again, Edwin followed with the van. We soon found an immature Greater Yellow-headed Vulture perched about 15 feet up in a tree. It was very tame and permitted us to approach very closely. Even when the big bird finally flew, he didn't go far. Great look!
Repeated roadside stops kept the pace slow. A flock of Swallow-tailed Kites made an impressive sight. A grassy field produced several Lesser Seed-Finches and a glowing Red-breasted Meadowlark. Birgit noticed a female Black-throated Mango perched oddly in a small bare tree. "Look, she's on a nest." Bird activity on the highway to Puyo, south of Puerto Napo, was very good, though dodging heavy truck traffic kept us on our toes. Using his tape recorder, Paul called in a Short-billed Antwren, a clone of the Pygmy Antwren that had entertained us in the morning. But, of course, the voice was different. One by one, a flock of Speckled Chachalacas flapped slowly across the road. "Wow, that's a huge woodpecker," "Woodpeckerman" Dennis called. An elegant Cream-colored Woodpecker climbed a leaning trunk down a steep slope. Each birder craned to get a better view, but somehow, I kept missing it. Finally, the big yellow bird flew to another spot affording me a brief, but satisfactory look. And, a flyover Bat Falcon added yet another spiffy raptor to the list. Ahh . . .
After supper, the group eagerly gathered for owling. It was
first night without rain. Paul appeared with his trusty tape
and a Q-beam. He played a call. We waited and strained to
Silence. He played it again and searched with the bright
Still nothing. Paul tried tapes of several species, but the
was always the same - zip. Oh well . . .
JULY 25, 1998 SATURDAY [Day 6]
"I don't usually dream on these trips," Glenn confided, "But, I had a nightmare last night." "Oh, I'm sorry." "I dreamt I was back in the office," quipped the recent retiree.
We both chuckled. It was a good way to start another exciting day. The plan was to retrace our route back to Papallacta, birding along the way - of course. Edwin loaded the van right after breakfast. Paul signalled for Edwin to stop just after crossing the bridge in Puerto Napo. There on a utility wire perched a Brown-chested Martin. We managed to get good looks without even stepping out of the van. In the grass on the other side of the vehicle, a male Chestnut-bellied Seedeater scratched around for a meal.
At Archidona, I spied a Great Kiskadee. Ordinarily a very common bird of tropical lowland regions, it proved to be the only one tallied the entire trip. It was here that I realized we were leaving the area for Black Caracara. "Paul, what about my Black Caracara? You promised," I reminded. "You'll just have to come back," he said unapologetically. I thought for a few minutes. "Okay, how about August 2000?" "That should be good for me," Paul agreed.
Business settled, we went back to birding. One memorable stop produced hundreds of swifts - White-collared, Chestnut-collared, Short-tailed - along with many swallows, Smooth-billed Anis, and our first Turkey Vulture. The Amethyst Woodstar spot from Day 4 failed to produce a single hummer, but Paul was surprised by a pair of Yellow-faced Grassquits. He mentioned that he had never seen them in that area before. Ah ha, a good find!
Other stops brought bevies of dazzling tanagers - Saffron-crowned, Flame-faced, Beryl-spangled, Blue-and-black, Black-capped, Blue-necked, Turquoise, Opal-crowned, Paradise, Green-and-gold, Spotted, Yellow-bellied. The list seemed endless. Paradise Tanager had been high on my "most wanted" list and arms-length views were very, very satisfying! Hummers weren't bad either. Inga stops gave us Sparkling Violet-ear, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Black-bellied Thorntail, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Golden-tailed Sapphire, "Buff-booted Racket-tail", and White-bellied Woodstar. Revisiting the Chestnut-breasted Coronet tree, I counted one fewer bird, but still the show was terrific! Flycatchers weren't neglected, either. Marilyn spotted a Long-tailed Tyrant zipping back and forth across the highway. Pretty soon, Karen noticed that it entered a nest hole - and left the entire tail poking out. A nondescript Elaenia proved to be an undescribed species. Paul explained that this species was formerly considered to be a form of Gray Elaenia, but would soon be considered separate. We'll have to wait to put a name to it.
It had been warm and comfortable when we departed Cotococha, but as the van climbed the Guacamayo Ridge, we entered the cold, misty climate again. Paul said that cloud forest birds were more active in the mist, that they had evolved that way. Perhaps, but it was almost impossible to see anything in the thick fog. Edwin served lunch at the summit.
As the road continued to wind, the mist turned to a cold drizzle and traffic became much heavier, which made roadside birding more difficult. Nevertheless, I spotted a large bird perched on a utility wire. "Toucan!" I called. Hopping out of the van, Paul quickly added, "Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan!" While nine eager birders dodged raindrops and huge trucks, another large bird appeared farther down the wire. "Crested Quetzal!!!!" someone cried. What a stop!
Darkness was enveloping the mountains as Edwin pulled up to the
at Termas de Papallacta, a geothermal resort at about 11,000
Rooms here were very nice, though only Dennis got one with a good
Brrrr, I hoped 3 vicuña blankets on my bed would be
Hot potato soup at the restaurant up the hill really hit the spot on
frigid July evening! Paul explained that the word 'papallacta'
potato fields in Quechua, the language of the ancient Incas. Of
potatoes are native to the Andes.
JULY 26, 1998 SUNDAY [Day 7]
Early morning was clear and very cold. Everyone bundled up. I put on all the thermal underwear I'd brought and topped it off with a fleece jacket. Still, I could have used more. Paul seemed perfectly comfortable and excited about the day.
We gathered in front of the lodge for a prebreakfast stroll to the bathing pools adjacent to the restaurant, a hundred yards up the hill. Judith opted to stay in and rearrange her suitcase as several items had gotten wet - again. Somehow, the tarp that covered the luggage had leaked permitting rain water to collect inside. Numerous daturas grew on the steep hillside above and behind the restaurant - a good place to look for hummers. Almost immediately, a small one zipped past. "Female Viridian Metaltail," Paul stated. She perched on a barbed wire fence affording us a good view of her buffy underparts, which were spangled with green disks. A Glossy Flowerpiercer was working the daturas, puncturing a hole at the base of each blossom to reach the nectar deep within the throat thus robbing the plant of its bounty without offering any pollination. Just then, a large hummer zoomed into view. "SWORD-BILL!!!!!" I called. There in front of all, the world's longest-billed hummer poked his awesome bill into the hole made by the flowerpiercer. He sipped from two or three flowers before dashing off to another shrub. Paul said that he'd never seen them use the flowerpiercer holes before. Ordinarily, these hummers are the only ones that can reach up into the flowers.
We waited around, finding an immature Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager farther up the hill. Over the valley soared a Black-chested Eagle. A Páramo Seedeater, looking very much like one of "our" juncos, hopped about on the sidewalk. Walking back to the lodge, Paul paused on a bridge over a rushing stream. Another Sword-billed Hummingbird flew up and perched only 20 feet away. "WOW! I never knew they had pink feet!" Who else would notice such a thing? Fortunately, this bird kept his post for quite a while. Judith got a really good look when we returned for breakfast. The flash of a bright blue wing was all I got from a Great Sapphirewing - very high on my want list. This second largest of hummers dashed to a perch out of my view, then dashed away before I could get on him. Only Birgit and Glenn got satisfactory looks. Rats!
At breakfast, we were thrilled to watch a Sword-bill visit flowers right outside the restaurant window. Sword-bills and scrambled eggs - what a way to start the day! Afterwards, we stopped on the bridge to look for hummers again. Plan of the day was for us to drive up the dirt road above the resort for temperate zone birding. With my chattering teeth, it was difficult for me to say 'temperate', but Paul assured us that montane forest above 11,000 feet was called "temperate" in South America. All aboard the van, we didn't get far. The road was blocked by a chain and a guard who had not heard of letting birders drive up. Sooo . . . Up, up, up. The road curved and switched back and forth, but climbed sharply. I struggled to keep up with Paul, while Glenn strolled along effortlessly. Birgit didn't seem to have any trouble keeping the pace either. Betty, Marilyn, and Judith took the steep incline more slowly, while Dennis and Karen straggled behind everyone else.
Plain-colored Seedeaters flew up from the road to perch on the
wire fence. Horses grazed in one of the pastures. A
stallion whinnied and galloped up and down, seemingly disturbed by our
presence. "Watch this yellow-flowered shrub,
Paul instructed. "It's a good hummer plant, especially for
Sunbeam." It didn't take long to find one of the large-ish,
hummers. Shining Sunbeam seemed to be a misnomer as this bird was
pretty dull in color, but when rays of light hit the rump just right ,
it glistened lime-green, golden, sky-blue, and rose-pink. I'd
it a 'Shining Sunbutt'.
A few birds skittered along the edge of the woods - White-throated and White-banded Tyrannulets, Spectacled Whitestart. At a stream crossing, Karen found a White-capped Dipper. Just then, a large, dark hummer with buffy wings zipped past. "Buff-winged Starfrontlet!" Paul called. The bird perched momentarily, but soon zoomed off. Fortunately, he kept returning to the area and all trip members were able to get good looks. Paul pointed out his unique call "toot, toot".
About that time a pick-up truck with two hombres in it rumbled past. These guys must have known the secret password. It would have been nice to have Edwin drive us back. It seem as if we'd walked miles. Just as we reached the turnaround point, there was a flurry of activity. Several Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanagers crossed from one side of the road to the other, affording excellent views. We'd seen these earlier in the trip, but not with the sun shining on them. Walking back toward the restaurant far below [and walking down slope is definitely better than walking uphill], another flurry caught Karen's eye. Peering into the shrubbery, I got a good look at a Pale-naped Brush-Finch. Then, a Blue-backed Conebill hopped into view. Several White-throated Tyrannulets kept the action going.
After lunch, it was time to pack up and head back to Quito via the Papallacta Pass. Another uphill hike, this time to a glacial lake, brought us Silvery Grebe and Andean Duck, a recent split from "our" familiar Ruddy Duck. The birds were quite a distance away, but Karen's fine scope enabled us to see all the field marks. From the edge of the roadway, we scrutinized a Polylepis forest to try for high elevation passerines. Polylepis trees grow at a higher elevation than any other tree in the Andes and because of cutting for firewood, forests of this species are an endangered habitat. Paul told us that there was usually a mixed species flock that moved about in these trees, but this day, there didn't seem to be anybody home. Walking along a section of "the old road", we found a number of birds. I concentrated hard to get a view of an Andean Tit-Spinetail. Then, Paul spotted several hummingbirds. It was difficult to get a look, but finally we got a Blue-backed Thornbill perched. Karen and Birgit also spied an Ecuadorian Hillstar, large and mostly white, except for a brilliant blue head. This prize zipped past so fast that I didn't even get a glimpse. Sigh.
We started back to Quito, but made another stop. A huge dark shadow moved slowly across a mountain ridge. "Immature Andean Condor!!!" Paul called out. Everyone exited the van as quickly as possible. We needn't have worried. The gigantic bird cruised back and forth across the sky. He didn't seem to be in a hurry, so Paul had plenty of time to get a scope on him. Magnifico!!! We thought this would be the last stop, but a little while later, we happened upon a jeep with two young guys carrying binoculars. They were focusing intently, so Edwin eased up behind. Two local birders had found a couple of Carunculated Caracaras walking across the hillside, as is their habit. Paul put up the scope for a better view and we quickly found four more. The local birders appreciated the look through the scope - and we appreciated their good find!
Now, on to Quito and the Hotel Embassy. Cotopaxi, gleaming
in the thin Andean air, towered like a silent sentinel above the city
JULY 27, 1998 MONDAY [Day 8]
There would be no leisurely sit-down breakfast this morning. It was still dark when I brought my suitcase down to the lobby of the Hotel Embassy. I planted it right in front of the desk, near the front door. Paul had insisted that we get an early start. As each person came down, I made sure that their luggage was placed with mine. I like to keep an eye on the bags. By the time, all the suitcases were assembled, the pile was quite large. Paul seemed to have the same idea. I watched him lean over to a woman who was adding her bags to ours. I'm sure he told her that she should not put her stuff with ours. He was very polite, but the woman was in a foul humor. I didn't need to understand Spanish to know that she told him to mind his own #@$! business. Oh, well . . .
For the second half of the tour, Paul planned for an excursion through several elevations on the Andes' western slope, where we would find species and forms unique to that region. The van creaked and groaned on the narrow, cobbled track leading up to the 11,000 foot elevation of Yanacocha, an area also called the Inca Ditch for its early Spanish aquaduct, which still supplies water to Quito. The waterway, Paul explained, had been covered in the last few years, leaving a pathway high along the slope of Mount Pichincha. Paul had been an advisor when part of the BBC hummer program "Birds of the Sun God" was filmed here a few years ago. I'd watched the film a few weeks before the trip. It was a chilly, cloudless day. Not so good for birding according to our guide, who liked the misty weather. Edwin distributed the boxed breakfasts. No coffee. I sipped a little of the chocolate milk and went in search of birds. Breakfast didn't interest me with so many exciting new birding possibilities.
Just around the first bend in the trail, I spied a hummer. Fluffy white femoral tufts told me this was one of the pufflegs, but which one? With a quick look, Paul said, "Sapphire-vented Puffleg." The bird flew to a yellow-blossomed Siphocampylus. I knew the secret, just watch the plants. Soon, a female Great Sapphirewing appeared. WOW!!! But before I could focus, another one bumped her off. Within minutes, three of the huge hummers were chasing down the slope. We waited. She returned and perched in plain view. With bright rusty underparts and glittering cobalt wings, this female was stunning in her own right. AHHH!!!
The pathway was straightforward and easy to walk. It was along a ledge, with a steep slope upward on one side and a sharp drop-off on the other. But it was wide enough for several people to walk abreast. Looking out from our lofty perch, grand vistas lay below. Paul lamented that some of the land below was being cleared. The snow-capped peak of Pichincha gleamed in the distance. Birds came rather slowly, but most seemed to be up the slope. My neck aches to think of it. Why is it that the birds are always in the most difficult places to view them? A White-throated Hawk perching on a dead snag across the valley. And, he remained long enough for everyone to have a satisfying look through the scope. Paul commented that he didn't often find this species perched. Toward the end of the path, activity picked up. A pair of White-browed Spinetails flitted through some low brush near the mouth of a tunnel. Karen found a Crowned Chat-Tyrant that stayed around long enough for most of us to get a good look. I really had to work to get that one. Hooded and Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers made brief appearances. And, with persistence I managed to get a good look at a Superciliaried Hemispingus. What a name!
By lunchtime, clouds began rolling in. It was time to leave Yanacocha. Paul told us that it rained almost every afternoon, and we really didn't want to get rained on again. And, besides, there would be lots of new birds waiting for us at Mindo. We were on the road most of the afternoon. Twice, we stopped for Paul to try to tape in a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, to no avail. An Inga tree stop produced a single Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. At another place, Paul heard a Green Violet-ear singing. Having the voice to lead me, I spotted the singer high on a slender twig. But then, he moved to more secluded perch, where he continued to sing, but no one could find him. On to Mindo . . .
Rain started almost as soon as Edwin turned off the main highway toward Mindo. It wasn't a downpour, and some birds remained active, but none of us really wanted to get wet again. Most of us still carried damp, dirty clothes from the soaking at Cabañas San Isidro more than a week before. Birding from inside the van proved to be difficult given our cramped seating arrangements. Yet, when a Golden-headed Quetzal flew to a tree in plain sight, everyone managed to get a view, thanks to Edwin's jockeying the van around to improve the vantage points. Paul pointed out some little red, berry-like flowers as being great hummer attractors. He said that we should look for hummers anytime we found this plant. These weren't getting any business, though.
The van lurched through the streets of downtown Mindo, avoiding potholes the size of bomb craters. Gee, this compares favorably to certain parts of New Orleans. After crossing a nice new concrete bridge, Paul signaled for Edwin to stop where there was a marshy area on the left. He'd heard a recent report of a Sunbittern at this locale. I search and kept my fingers crossed. This was Betty's #1 want bird and I wanted to get it for her. We had missed it in Costa Rica last year. No luck. Darn. Continuing, Edwin turned left at a sign for Hostería El Carmelo de Mindo, our "home" for the next three nights. But first, he had to drive over a wooden bridge - and this one didn't look any too safe! Ave Maria, let it hold up just a little while longer! Amen.
As the van drew close to the lodge, Paul noticed bird activity. "Pare, pare. Everybody out!" A couple of dead trees emerged from a wide, shallow pond. Perched there were three Swallow Tanagers, all a brilliant turquoise blue. Fantastic!!! hite-throated Crakes cackled from rushes a few yards away, but the little rails were too shy to come into the open. Every few minutes, Paul called out a new bird - Bay Wren, Little Cuckoo, Yellow-rumped Tanager, Giant Cowbird, Rusty-margined Flycatcher! The birds were coming fast and furious, but darkness and more rain put an end to the birding.
I was the first one to the dining room in the evening and I encountered a couple from an Eagle-Eye tour. We exchanged notes and I discovered that their leader was a guy I'd met over the internet, Alvaro Jaramillo. Boy, was he amazed to run into me in Ecuador! "We have a little surprise," Glenn said quietly at supper. "When we unpacked the van, there was an extra suitcase."
I looked over at Paul. "I hope it belongs to that
he said gleefully.
JULY 28, 1998 TUESDAY [Day 9]
Breakfast came early, but that was okay, I hadn't slept anyway. The coffee was hot and strong. That's the only part of breakfast that interested me.
Paul presented the plan of the day. We would walk up the steep, rutted dirt road that ran past the drive to the hostería. Because the road was in such bad condition, Edwin would not be able to follow. In case of rain, we were on our own. We started out just at daybreak. A Bright-rumped Attila sang near the front gate. In the dawn's early light, he was little more than a silhouette, but with a bit of persistence, Paul managed to show it to everyone. "Social Flycatcher," I called out, pointing to a yellow-bellied bird with a black and white head. "Rusty-margined," Paul corrected. "Social doesn't occur here." "triiu," called the bird. "Social Flycatcher," Paul corrected himself. "Looks like both species are here." I felt vindicated, smug even.
Action started as soon as we'd cleared the gate. A plain-looking Ecuadorian Thrush flushed from the path. A trio of Crimson-rumped Toucanets flew along in front, keeping just out of sight. With a little effort, I managed to get one good look. The road up grew steeper, but we moved at a birding pace, adding one new species after another - Striped Cuckoo, Western Emerald, Chocó Toucan, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slaty-capped Flycatcher. A Bran-colored Flycatcher sallied from the lowest wire of a fence. A little farther along, an Ornate Flycatcher flipped across the road. Among flycatchers, it was one of the easiest to identify. "Cock-of-the-Rock," Paul cried excitedly. "It's right there in that tree," he said, pointing to pair of large trees standing in the middle of a pasture, but before anyone could focus, the big, scarlet bird took off. I was left with the impression of a red-and-black dustmop crashing through the air. #@$!
"I've got a big, brown hummer," called Dennis, not limiting himself
to woodpeckers. He peered down through some greenery."
"Tawny-bellied Hermit," identified Paul. But the bird had flown by the time I got close enough to look. "Cock-of-the-Rock," Paul called with considerably less excitement than before. I got another fleeting glimpse of a flying dustmop. Did anyone else see anything? I wasn't going to be real satisfied to count that on my lifelist.
At the 4 kilometer sign, a path led steeply down to a river, but we didn't take it. Instead Paul kept up the trek along the road. Almost to the end of the road, he found some of the little red, berry-like flowers. Several hummers seemed to be using them. A tiny, female Booted Racket-tail chipped almost inaudibly as she floated from one blossom to another. But, she was quickly displaced by a large hummer that sped away before we could identify it. Paul's ear told him it was a Green Violet-ear. The Booted Racket-tail returned and the scenario was repeated several times. Then, I saw another tiny hummer. This one had two wire-like projections extending from its tail and there was a little disc at the end of each wire. A MALE BOOTED RACKET-TAIL!!!!! I knew it was Karen's #1 want bird. Everyone got a very satisfying look as he floated horizontally through the warm tropical air.
Trekking back to El Carmelo, we got looks at several other hummers. A Brown Violet-ear gave us a clean sweep on all of Ecuador's violet-ears. Betty spied another clump of the berry-like flowers where a Purple-bibbed Whitetip caught her eye. It was distant, but through the scope we were able to discern the critical field mark - large white spot in middle of tail. High in a tree above the road, someone caught of glimpse of a Violet-tailed Sylph, a smaller sibling to the spectacular Long-tailed Sylph that had so entertained early in the trip. The hummer didn't want to stay still for long, but fortunately he kept returning to the same perch so that Paul was able to focus the scope on the right spot. Ahh . . . exquisite! Marilyn began describing a very colorful bird, "Blue-gray around the face, white behind the eye, a red breast . . ." "Toucan Barbet!" Paul called without even seeing it. "Here it is. There's a pair," he said, playing his tape to get them to react. "I've got it!" whispered Birgit. "Where? Where?" I cried in desperation. Too soon, the most prized barbet was gone. "Paul, I still need the Toucan Barbet," I reminded, thinking everyone else had gotten it.
A tiny black sprite jumped across my field of vision. I got binoculars on it quickly and tried to describe its location aloud. "Over there, at the edge of the road, about 3 feet up . . ." His golden crest extended forward to form a "horn" of feathers. Each of his flight feathers was gilt-edged. "GOLDEN-WINGED MANAKIN!!" Karen cried out as she focused on the bird. Zip, he was gone. A swirling cloud of thousands upon thousands of White-collared Swifts filled the sky above the lodge as nine exhausted, hungry birders straggled back for a mid-afternoon lunch. We would have an hour or so to rest before going out again. This time, though, in our chauffeur-driven "limousine".
Action was a bit subdued along the main road leading into Mindo. Still, little flurries produced Lineated, Scaly-throated, and Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaners, a Black-and-white Becard, and Buff-throated and Black-winged Saltators. Edwin stopped the van and pointed to a tall, bare tree on the top of a ridge. Paul motioned for us to get out while he set the scope in place. "Toucanman" had spotted a pair of Pale-mandibled Araçaris.
In every group, there are people who tend to wander off thereby missing something everyone else got - and often finding something good of their own. Karen and Dennis walked farther up the road than the rest of us and Karen managed to squeak up an Olive-crowned Yellowthroat in a wet area near an abandoned house. I wonder how much they want for the house? But, Karen came through with a series of neat squeaks and the warbler hopped into view again.
With light failing, Paul directed Edwin to stop on the concrete
so we could scan for nightjars. "I've got something," I called as
a ghostly pale Barn Owl cruised past.
JULY 29, 1998 WEDNESDAY [Day 10]
Strong, hot coffee brought me to life in the predawn hours. We were set for yet another early departure. I guess some people thought they were going on vacation when they signed up for this trip. Little did they know how hard we would work.
Paul wanted to be on the road by first light so we would arrive at a certain road in the Pedro Vicente Maldonado [also called Silanche] region early. It was to be our only day to sample the birds of the very humid, western lowlands - 1900 feet elevation - where there were a number of species that occurred only in much less accessible parts of Ecuador. Roadside stopping was kept to a minimum - and it wasn't all that productive either. Temperature rose as the elevation decreased, though July in southern Louisiana is certainly warmer and just as humid. At the first stop, there was just a bare-scraped roadside with a few straggly trees. We had to keep dodging large trucks, but new birds just kept coming - Gray-headed Kite, Green Thorntail, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Purple-chested Hummingbird, Purple-crowned Fairy, Orange-fronted Barbet, Olivaceous Piculet, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Cinnamon Becard, Purple-throated Fruitcrow - all at one stop! I noticed that a lot of the species were ones I knew from the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica.
A light rain began to fall but we considered that only a minor hindrance, considering the quality of birding [and we had finally gotten our clothes washed]. Another couple of stops got us spectacular scope views of a flock of Bronze-winged Parrots and a Pacific Hornero at its dome-shaped mud nest. A sprightly Tropical Gnatcatcher skittered through the shrubbery. I'm not sure who took the first steps down a narrow trail, but it too was very productive. I had a good views of a Western Slaty-Antshrike, a Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and a Dusky-faced Tanager. But the most exciting find wasn't a bird! Birgit looked down to discover a baby Fer-de-Lance, one of the deadliest snakes in the forest. This guy was only about 10 inches long, but he was coiled to strike. Paul had stepped right over him. Glenn removed the little fella from the pathway with a stick. Kinda cute, but I had to wonder where his mama was?
Paul found an active feeding flock alongside the road. Hopping out of the van, he started calling out species, "Green Honeycreeper, Golden-hooded Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager . . ." Karen found a gorgeous Guira Tanager, while I focused on another bird. "I have a woodpecker with yellow on its face," I called tentatively. "That's a good one! A Lita Woodpecker!" Paul said excitedly. The bird played hide-n-seek for a little while, then flew across the road. But, it landed in a tree that permitted everyone a good, clear view through the scope. Awright! A Scarlet-and-white Tanager flitted in greenery overhead while we were lunching on baked chicken near a broken-down corral. Don't you just hate it when a good bird shows up and your fingers are greasy? I managed to shove the food back into its container bag and wipe my greasy fingers in time to focus on the bird.
Then, a huge flock of swifts twittered across the sky. Gray-rumped. Gray-rumped. Gray-rumped. "Hey, I have a Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift," I shouted, pointing out the larger, black-and-white bird. Paul found several more. The path into the forest was muddy, though not really treacherous. Birding was a little slow. A single hummer teased and taunted. In the poor light beneath the dense canopy, it was difficult to pick out field marks, but Paul persisted and finally announced that we had seen a Blue-chested Hummingbird. We continued down the trail, but Glenn, who was not feeling up to par, decided to go back to the van. High above, Paul found a small flock and began to call out species names. Most were not new for me, but the Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, which would have been a lifer, eluded me. A female Scarlet-browed Tanager was only slightly more cooperative.
Trudging back to the van, we found very little, but on exiting the
we met Glenn, who had some terrific news. He had found a pair of
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants tending a nest. All gathered silently
to watch as one of the parents appeared carrying a moth almost as large
as itself. Then, the tiny flycatcher popped into the finely woven
nest just 10 feet away. Now we had a 3-way tie for "cutest
The ride back up the dirt road was quiet. Was it possible that we
were getting birded out? Naw! A Laughing Falcon drew shouts
of "stop, stop!!!" And, by maneuvering around inside the van,
got a shot at him without anyone getting out. Stops along the
highway added a threesome of Cattle Egrets - and very little else.
JULY 30, 1998 THURSDAY [Day 11]
It was time to leave Mindo and I had very mixed emotions about that. This was a birding locale I had heard much about and we had only scratched the surface. But, our accommodations at El Carmelo de Mindo left a lot to be desired and a couple of people had gotten sick on the food. [I found out later that everyone on the other birding group had succumbed to "Atahualpa's revenge".]
Paul's plan was to bird the road leading to the main highway as we had not had much of a chance to do so. Activity was a bit slow. Nevertheless, a calling Cock-of-the-Rock got some attention and Paul worked hard to draw the stubborn bird into view. "I've got it!!!!" I cried. "Way up the hill, high in that tree . . ." I gestured. A female was quite a distance away, but in plain view. The tree in which it perched grew at the rear of a dark area, so that the color didn't just jump out. Paul and Birgit got on it quickly, but . . . An Olive-crowned Yellowthroat gave its chuck call from a wet area near the spot where Karen had called one up a couple days before. It was a somewhat more accessible area and we managed to surround the calling bird by following a narrow, wet path that ran at a diagonal from the road, but still the secretive warbler skulked out of sight. Our efforts were not in vain, though, as Paul found a male Scaled Fruiteater sitting quietly in a small tree along the path.
Additional attempts for the elusive Cock-of-the-Rock produced nada and Paul's efforts to find a Toucan Barbet for me were equally fruitless. Was this going to be another one he'd owe me? So, reluctantly, we bade farewell to Mindo and headed eastward to the next locale on the itinerary - the Bellavista Reserve, near the Tandayapa Pass. It would be the last stop on the tour.
It was not far to the turnoff marked "Bellavista Reserve". At first the dirt road climbed gently through open pastures. We stopped for a bird now and again, but mostly just pressed on. Gradually, the incline sharpened and the van strained to climb higher and higher. Several birds flushed from the roadside as the vehicle rounded a bend, stopped, and nine eager birders piled out to identify them. "Grass-green Tanager!" someone called. "Streaked Tuftedcheek!" shouted someone else.
I dashed over in the direction of the tuftedcheek, hoping to make up for the one I'd missed at San Isidro. The flock was moving fast. Several birds hopped into view and then were gone before I could call out their names. Aye-e, got it, at last!!!! A Plumbeous Pigeon perched far back in a small tree. There was just one gap in the foliage that permitted a good view and each of us took turns searching it out. Movement nearby revealed that several had been frozen in place. A White-tailed Tyrannulet and a Black-and-white Becard were very nice, too.
A wide spot below a cliff provided a nice lunch stop - except for a lack of flat rocks to sit upon. Soon after Edwin stopped the motor, Paul identified a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta calling. We'd heard lots of antpittas, but the only one actually seen had been the Tawny Antpitta at Papallacta Pass early in the trip. This one responded readily to Paul's taped playbacks and seemed just a few meters away, but it was hidden in dense brush. Standing only a few feet apart, Karen and I searched through the foliage. I bent down and looked up through the branches and twigs. A slight movement caught my eye. It was the antpitta moving his mouth to call. Otherwise, he remained motionless. "Over here, Karen," I summoned, but as soon as she moved in my direction, the fat-looking, long-legged bird hopped from his perch and disappeared for good. Glenn shouted that he had a hawk soaring. Turning quickly, I got the barest glimpse of a splendid Black-and-chestnut Eagle as it disappeared into a cloud. Anybody else get it?
Finally, I sat down on the ground to eat. Of course, just as soon as I started to dig in, another bird appeared. This was a hummer, probing flowers high up on the cliff face. With a little work and a lot of luck, most of us got good views of our first Gorgeted Sunangel. Wow! Stunning!!!
We neared the Bellavista Lodge, but first, Paul directed Edwin to drive down a narrow side road looking for just another few birds. Edwin drove very slowly, then pulled the van to a stop and pointed. "Toucan Barbet," Paul spoke deliberately. "LET ME OUT!!!!" I shouted, fearing that this bird would fly off before I had a good chance to see it. It seemed to be several very long minutes [but probably was just a few seconds] before the latch was released. I jumped out and focused on the bird, which had flown to a closer tree. WOW!!! What a marvelous bird! Judith was right behind me. She, too, had missed the previous ones. As the rest of the troupe piled out of the vehicle, a second Toucan Barbet joined the first and the pair duetted with their erotic little song. What a moment!
We arrived at the Bellavista Lodge by mid-afternoon. I'd heard a lot about this place. Let's see . . . how to describe it. Well, it looks like a 4-story grass hut, built on concrete pilings. A bar, dining tables, some book shelves, and a hammock fill the lowest floor, which offers a sensational 360 degree view of the entire Tandayapa Valley. A very tight spiral staircase gives access to the second floor on which there are five guest rooms with private baths. The design of the rooms is extremely compact. Sitting on the john, one's feet are in the shower. Mosquito netting above the bed seems to be for decorative effect because bugs aren't much of a problem at the approximately 7,000 foot elevation. Reaching the upper two floors required a certain amount of athletic ability as the stairway becomes a sturdy vertical ladder above the second level. I didn't go any higher, but was told the view from the top was dramatic. Built without electricity, the entire place is lit by gas lamps.
Hummingbird feeders hung outside each guest room window and around the lower floor deck that completely encircles the building. A handsome Buff-tailed Coronet, perched on a feeder as I approached the building, remained even as I leaned over to get a closer look. I stroked his back. Awesome! I was very content to watch hummers - Green Violet-ear, Buff-tailed Coronet, Gorgeted Sunangel, Fawn-breasted Brilliant. One didn't have to work hard at birding here. Judith found a Southern Yellow-Grosbeak in a tree that overhung the deck. Marilyn and Betty were inside relaxing, so I removed my boots and joined them. No sooner had I put my feet up and ordered a cold cerveza than Paul stuck his head in the door and announced, "I have some birds in a tree up the hill." "What kind of birds?," I asked, not wanting to interrupt my repose. "Guans." "Wait 'til I get my boots on." From the second floor, Glenn, who had been resting, shouted, "Did I hear 'birds'? Wait for me!"
I scrambled to keep pace with Paul, who was charging uphill at a
clip. [Paul seemed to bird best going uphill. Flatlander
I am, I bird better going down.] Effortlessly, Glenn caught
Just as we reached the big tree at the bend in the road, a pair of
Guans began to move away. Focusing quickly, I caught enough field
marks to check them off my personal list. Looking for a
Nightjar roost, we clicked off a Rufous Spinetail and heard a
Wren chucking from a bamboo thicket. The spectacular nightjar was
nowhere to be found. The highly-prized nightjar was still AWOL
our after dinner owl prowl beneath the stars of the Southern
After an hour or so, we returned to the lodge where Paul managed to get
a Rufous-banded Owl to respond from low in the valley.
JULY 31, 1998 FRIDAY [Day 12]
"What kind of bird goes 'BU-OU, BU-ou bu-ou','' Karen asked while we were gathering for our last prebreakfast walk. "Common Potoo, " answered Paul before I could get the words out. "Well, I heard one when I stepped out on the balcony before dawn," she commented.
The plan was to walk the trail that began right by the front gate. Paul had heard an Ocellated Tapaculo calling there the previous afternoon. He fingered his trusty tape recorder and led the way. We'd only gone about 100 yards down the trail when from deep within a thicket, the furtive bird let out a couple of notes. "Shh, recording," Paul whispered. "weeeoou," called the tapaculo. Paul continued to work the bird, playing his call, then waiting for him to respond. "I've got it!" called Marilyn in her best whisper. "Oh, there it is," Betty added. They were a few feet from me and several other people were straining to get a look. One by one, each birder signified that he or she had gotten an adequate view, except me and Glenn. Finally, looking through a gap in the dense vegetation, I spied a dark, reddish brown spot covered with white spangles. I knew what it was, but could hardly call my view satisfactory. And, Glenn was still drawing a blank. Then, we heard our elusive quarry calling from the opposite side of the trail, though no one had seen it cross. The brush on that side was considerably less thick, so I hoped Glenn and I would have better luck. Finally, the bird stepped into an opening and afforded me a perfect shot. But, alas, it stopped calling and skulked away. Sorry, Glenn.
Through the entire trip, Paul had pointed out the voices of several tapaculos. "They're like mice," he had advised. "You'll hear them just feet away, but they almost never come out in the open where you can see them. Besides, most of them look alike. It's the voices that make them separate species." Still, I was very pleased to actually get a look at one of these "avian mice". We continued along the trail without seeing very many birds. The trail became wetter, narrower, more slippery. A Spillmann's Tapaculo called. Paul tried to play it the same way that he had enticed the other tapaculo, but this guy reacted differently. He jumped out in front of Birgit and me just long enough for us to see his mouse-gray body and dull chestnut undertail and flanks with fine blackish bars. Seeing us, he dove for cover and disappeared forever.
Back at the lodge, someone pointed to an itsy-bitsy Purple-throated
Woodstar perched atop snag. He appeared as just a black dot, but
as I focused my binoculars on him, the bird took off going top speed -
right at me! "Yeek!!!" I shrieked involuntarily! Then, he
us to a demonstration of his dramatic aggressive display - attacking my
scarlet fleece pullover!
Paul heard Beautiful Jays calling down the slope below the building, but he wasn't able to get any response from them. A pair of Barred Hawks circled overhead, low enough for us to study every detail. What a great vantage point for watching raptors!
"The woodstar brings our hummer list up to 59," Paul announced at lunch. "Surely, we can find just one more on the way back to Quito to give us an even 60," he challenged. "We're still missing Brown Inca, but I know a place to look." "Sounds good to me," I agreed.
Birding was rather quiet on the way down. Stops were few and new birds weren't showing themselves. Another guide had told Paul of a site to look for Brown Inca, but when we reached the spot, the description of the place just didn't match. We were to find a big patch of Fuchsia, but only one measly shrub hung over the roadway. I started looking for likely hummer plants and found lots - a field of beans with bright pink blossoms, another field covered with a magenta-colored Salvia, a couple of Inga trees - and there were hummingbirds around. Only, these dudes were zipping overhead like speeding bullets. Paul identified several on the wing, but to us, they were just a blur. "I saw blue," Marilyn called, pointing to another comet blitzing away. "Velvet-purple Coronet," Paul said with confidence. "It's the only one here that would show any blue." "I can't count it," I said with great disappointment. All I'd seen was just a streak. Except for Marilyn's flash of blue, no one else saw much. This wasn't the way to reach the magic number - 60. It wasn't my way. Paul didn't understand.
Not far away, someone found a couple of large Ingas, which were abuzz with hummers. Green Violet-ear! Andean Emerald! Booted Racket-tail! But, time had run out. We headed back to Quito. I'd completely forgotten about the extra suitcase until I heard Paul speaking to the desk clerk at the Hotel Embassy. Somehow, the word 'maleta' just jumped out, so my ears perked up. A smile of deep satisfaction crept over Paul's face while the laughing young woman behind the desk recounted the fury of a woman from Puerto Rico whose luggage had disappeared from the hotel lobby.
Paul called the list after dinner, our last meal as a together. The numbers added up in 11 birding days, we'd seen 409 species - 59 sensational hummers, 74 technicolor tanagers. Another 38 species were heard only, bringing the grand total to 447. Of course, numbers don't tell the whole story. Numbers can't recall the misery of a cold, wet afternoon waiting for a Cock-of-the-Rock. Numbers don't reflect our jubilation at finding a flock of Paradise Tanagers at point blank range, or the awe of observing a young Andean Condor soar powerfully along a mountain ridge. And, numbers won't bring back the magnificent vistas of Yanacocha.
Reluctantly, we made our "goodbyes". Judith, Marilyn, and
had to catch a very early flight in the morning. Karen, Dennis,
Glenn would leave later in the day. Birgit planned to stay an
day. Somehow, not wanting to let it end, she and I stayed
with Paul for several hours. But, finally . . .
"¡Adiós, my new friend!"
AUGUST 1, 1998 SATURDAY [DAY 13]
In the dining room for a late breakfast, Birgit and I ran into Glenn, Karen, and Dennis, just finishing their meal. "Farewell, again!" Birgit and I shopped a bit, buying souvenirs for family and friends and a few mementos for ourselves. In the afternoon, we walked up the street to the big house with the fine garden, just hoping to see the Black-tailed Trainbearer again. But, no dice. The two of us enjoyed a lovely quiet dinner at il Risotto, an elegant Italian restaurant near the hotel. Then, we made out "goodbyes". Birgit was scheduled to fly out early the next morning.
AUGUST 2, 1998 SUNDAY [Day 14]
Driving a 4-wheel drive 'Vitara', Fernando arrived at the hotel promptly at 7:00 AM. He had made plans to take me to a private reserve for the Andean Condor high on Mount Antisana, an extinct volcano, and he had brought along a family friend, Marianela, a beautiful young woman from the coastal province of Esmeraldas. She spoke no English and I speak minimal Spanish, but Fernando was adept at carrying on a rapid-fire conversation in both languages! Weather at the reserve was extremely cold with a stiff wind blowing, but the sky was crystal clear, making for a perfectly splendid day. I was just glad I'd worn my new alpaca sweater. Marianela was bundled up, but wore new, white shoes - not good footgear for hiking across the páramo. Fernando seemed oblivious to cold and wet, saying this treeless environment was his native habitat.
Fernando was also adept at identifying birds, including hummers, as they zipped across the road in front of the car, but I wasn't quite fast enough. An Aplomado Falcon dashed after some unseen creature as the auto approached the entrance of the reserve. Once inside the reserve, roadside birds were tame and easy to see. We got a number of the same birds that Paul had shown us during the tour, but at much closer range. Two small flocks of Andean Gulls were on the ground and permitted Fernando to drive up next to them. Everywhere, Carunculated Caracaras walked about. The most abundant bird seemed to be the Andean Lapwing. Flocks of these striking black-and-white shorebirds grazed contentedly as the car chugged on past.
At Lago Mica, where a huge construction site threatens to destroy an important high elevation wetland, we walked right through a small herd of wild horses, descendants of animals that escaped from the conquistadores four centuries ago. From our vantage point, we watched flocks of Silvery Grebes, Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Ducks, and Andean Coots as they cruised contentedly on the mirror-like surface of the lake. A flock of 17 Black-faced Ibis probed the soggy soil on shore.
"I missed the Ecuadorian Hillstar," I mentioned to Fernando. We stopped at a large patch of Chuquiragua, a spiny shrub with orange, thistle-like flowers. I knew it would be a good spot to try for the high elevation hummer. And, yes, within minutes, I gazed upon a male, resplendent with his cobalt-blue head and pristine white underparts. The large, husky hummer clung to each flower as he jabbed his bill deeply into the center. Yes, yes, yes!!!! I knew that I'd missed the hillstar during the tour just so I could experience it this day!
Fernando's expertise encompasses more than just birds, too. The plants of the páramo are as unique and interesting as the animals. Stopping the car, he showed me two species of low-growing gentian. One had blossoms of royal purple, the other vivid crimson. Nearing the condors' roost, I spied a large dark raptor soaring over the crest of a ridge. Quickly, Fernando identified it as a Black-chested Eagle. A second eagle appeared and Fernando put his scope in it. While were engrossed in watching the eagles, a condor approached over another ridgecrest. Then a second and third condor soared across the deep blue sky. Through the scope, I could see the distinctive white neck ruff of the two adults. WOW!!!
What a perfect finale for a perfect day!
AUGUST 3, 1998 MONDAY [Day 15]
After the tour and my day at the Antisana Condor Reserve with
I was really in need of a day of "R & R", so I did just that.
It was a good time for me to read, work on my notes, and doze off now
AUGUST 4, 1998 TUESDAY [Day 16]
I was ready at 7:00 AM when Fernando picked me up for a morning bird walk. He drove to a park not far from the hotel and we entered an overgrown area surrounding the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales. Even though there were not a lot of flowers, Fernando said that it was a great place to see lots of hummingbirds. Almost immediately, he spied a Shining Sunbeam, which he said was a little unusual in Quito. Then, we found a couple of Sparkling Violet-ears sparring over territory. Zap! Zap! The two big bombers collided! Action was pretty good. Several Black-tailed Trainbearers were displaying high in the trees. To cap it off, Fernando pointed to a male Vermilion Flycatcher. On closer look, we saw that there were a pair of them attending a nest.
Too soon it was time to leave. Fernando had to get to his office and I needed to pack. He dropped my off at the hotel. "¡Adiós, mi amigo! No, not adiós, hasta la vista!"
Xavier fetched me from the hotel at 9:30 AM. He handed me a copy of An Annotated List of the Birds of Mainland Ecuador, by Robert S. Ridgely, Paul J. Greenfield, and Mauricio Guerrero G., which was hot off the press. Paul had made sure that I would have one before I returned home. How thoughtful!
The homeward flight was just as long and as tedious as the arrival
had been, but I didn't care. My last view of Ecuador was of
pushing high above the clouds, gleaming white in the midday sun!
¡Hasta la vista Ecuador¡ ¡Hasta el año 2000¡
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