Robert Jonsson, Avestravel, PO Box 17-07-9219, Quito, Ecuador,
On 12/96 $125/day for car and guiding, everything else extra. Guiding(excellent)
The following is a report on a trip to Ecuador, South America. We were there from Dec. 6-10, 1996 and, in 5 days of birding, compiled a list of 254 species seen, plus 22 heard but not seen, as well as a few that remain unidentified, including a tanager with chestnut wings that no guide could remember having seen before.
This was by far the greatest birding experience of my life; I must return! For those who have never birded another country, I highly recommend taking part in something like this. Yes it costs money, but if you can find a way to do it, do it. That's what credit cards are for!
This opening portion of the report is a quick summary written soon after returning. We later worked on the longer version, but decided to include both. Following it is a report from Glenn Czulada, the one who organized this trip, on the adventure as a whole. The report concludes with a review of the birding activities - where we went and what we saw and heard.
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador, well after dark and so had to wait until the next morning to get our first bird. That turned out to be a Rufous-collared Sparrow singing its song which reminded us of our Eastern Towhee's drink-your-teeeeeeea. The only other common city birds quickly followed: Eared Dove and Great Thrush.
We drove out of Quito to the small village of Mindo, considered one of the best places for birding in all of South America - and it lived up to its reputation. We compiled a list of over 100 birds the first day, with our favorite perhaps the Crimson-mantled Woodpecker. We quickly found that birding in Ecuador was unlike birding in the US. "Spishing" had almost no affect, and few birds sat and sang on exposed perches for us to get good looks. Bird sounds were critical to finding the ghosts of the canopies, and we did get good at spotting the m hidden in the greenery. The bright colors of so many of them certainly helped.
One of the last birds added that first day was one that should have been one of the hardest to find - a White-throated Crake, a 6-inch rail of wet grassy fields. We didn't expect to get that one.
In Mindo, we stayed at the home of Vinicio Perez, bird guide and chef extraordinaire! I brought food with me because I didn't know what to expect. I brought most of it back as I have not eaten as well as I did during that week in a long, long time!!!!! Vinicio treated us like we were the first birders he had ever hosted, though he has been doing this for at least 3 years. He spoke very good English and cooked fantastic meals.
However, I did think maybe he misinterpreted my question of "Will we hear birds singing to wake us up before dawn?" He said yes, and at 3:44 a.m. we got our wake up call. Roosters began at that time and didn't stop until light. Well, we did eventually hear early morning birdsong coming from Lemon- rumped Tanagers, Pale-legged (Pacific) Horneros House Wrens and Tropical Kingbirds. Before breakfast, we also saw a couple of old friends: Spotted Sandpipers walking along a tin roof.
We walked 12 miles this day and added another 50-60 species, plus our only snake. We did look at things other than birds of course. There were ant trails to be watched both on this day and the next, when we were in the rain forest wathcing leaf-cutter ants. Other ant trails consisted of smaller ants interlocking their bodies to form tunnels under which other, larger ants could travel. One type also covered these tunnels with soil.
We didn't see any monkeys in the rain forest, but did get some toucans, parrots, antbirds, antwrens, trogons and more. Also, I saw a mammal I haven't been able to identify: it was like a giant otter, with rufous head and glossy black body and tail. Hopefully I'll find out what that was. We also saw squirrels and Brazilian rabbits.
Surprisingly, insects were never a problem - even in the jungle. The large, yellow-legged mosquitoes didn't seem interested in us, but they did sometimes land on our binoculars.
We left Vinicio and Mindo the next day (Monday) and drove with our next guide, Robert Jonsson (from Sweden), up to 14,000 feet and Papallacta pass where we found Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes and Giant Conebills. I highly recommend birding with Robert if you go to Ecuador. He knows his birds and he provides great information about the country. We continued on to the town of Baeza, which had been nearly destroyed by an earthquake in the 1980's. Our hotel room cost us $3 each. Well, with no hot water I guess that was about right. We left well before dawn the next morning as we couldn't wait to get out of the saggy beds and creaky floors and roosters crowing and ducks quacking and oil trucks rumbling.... We left for San Isidro where we met a few more birders as we stalked a White-bellied Antpitta.>After adding more birds, we made our way back up Papallacta (the "potato place") for one last attempt at Andean Condor (which Robert saw but we didn't as the big vulture disappeared below the distant horizon just as we got our binoculars into the area). We were unsuccesful, so I guess we have to return in the future!
There would be no new birds as we returned to Quito for a couple hours of Christmas shopping and dinner at the fanciest restaurant in which I have ever eaten - for less than $10 a person!
The whole trip netted me 6 parrots; 28 hummingbirds including the 7-inch Giant Hummingbird; 41 flycatchers; 8 warblers, including our old friend the omnipresent Blackburnian Warbler; and 36 tanagers. There were a lot more wonderful birds seen and I'll have a list for anyone who may be interested. I think I only missed 9 species that the others saw.
It was great to add so many life birds, but some old friends provided some good memories as well: Near dusk we heard this sound that was familiar only to me (the other birders were from Pennsylvania where they don't often get this bird) something like pick-i-tuck! Robert recorded it and played back the tape which soon brought in a bright red Summer Tanager, which I had already told them it was going to be.
We did not do this trip as an organized tour but put it together ourselves. Actually, ABA member Glenn Czulada organized it into such a perfectly planned event. If you're ever birding in northeast Penn., call on Glenn and you'll get a remarkable birding experience (see the ABA directory). The costs, not including airfare, were a round $75 per day.
Well that's my abbreviated report. Having now joined the group of birders who have left the lower 48, I now have a greater appreciation for birding methods in another part of the world, and also a better understanding of people elsewhere.
A very short trip through customs and a stop at the moneychangers. I had changed $200 at Miami just in case the booth at Quito was closed, what robbers they are in Miami. The rate was 2800:1 there and about 3400:1 in Quito. Throngs of people waiting. Taxi drivers looking for fares. The guy with one eye asking to give me a ride. For sure he would have confirmed my fears and taken me and all my luggage for a ride. Thanks I had Robert.
My first trip to SA and all of bad things that have happened to that 1:10,000 tourists were on my mind. But with Robert there were no such troubles. 1st things he asks is about Frank Lloyd Wright houses built in Pennsylvania. This guy was an anthropologist by trade. Intelligent conversation was bantered about the car and within a minute I knew I was in good hands.
The streets are full of people. We picked the Ecuadorian Founders Days to arrive on and hundreds strolled the streets with drinks and music blasting in the air. To the Orange Guest House, it had an English name, nice hotel for $32/night double and $22 single. Very clean, downtown, with a locked gate in front. That sweet smell of Ecuador everywhere including on the bedding. Robert helped us check in and I immediately realized my high school/college Spanish and pretrip study program was going to come in handy. Only the travel organizers in Ecuador could really speak English. The music was blasting. Both from a disco that was near our hotel, from the crowds, and from a small grocery store across the street trying its best to blow out its speakers.
We headed to the store for provisions. We weren't about to waste a minute on breakfast for our first day in Ecuador. Wow, this place is cheap. Had our first fun time with the Ecuadorian sucre. Lots of goodies and snacks in exotic foreign packages and everything was good.
Bedtime - earplugs helped, but still not easy. I had the remnants of the flu and with the excitement of the trip I had an awful rest, but I could care less.
My original plan was to rent a car myself and drive to Mindo along the Nono Mindo road. It became immediately apparent that all of us were very glad we didn't. We would've never found the road and if we did we wouldn't have believed that we were going to drive on it. Cobblestone and bad, but not bad enough to keep us off. Through a poorer section of town, Indian dress, gardens covering the steep hillsides. But it made me feel good about the people to see the many houses that had flowers as decoration. There was a certain pride that we don't always see with the poor in our country.
The hills are deforested of their natural vegetation and this is somewhat hard to take. Of course here in Pa. we have almost 95% secondary growth and I would guess that in Ecuador it runs about the same except in the more desolate areas and very steep areas. And steep it was. Never saw so many mtns so close to together. Let's just say the mtns in Ecuador never end. At every turn there are steep green covered hillsides and beautiful valleys/gorges. Many of the steep slopes have been totally cut and are grassy with cattle or simple crops on them. I don't know how they climb those hills to tend the crops. They are a rough, rugged people. In short order we hit our first flock and were treated to the excellent birding we were to have for days to come.
Robert easily made the identifications by both sight and sound. For detailed lists of birds see the trip/sight lists that we compiled. Dave had a small minirecorder and that came in very handy. He was the official trip compiler and he ticked off the birds as we went.
We made our way over the top of the western slope past the turn off for Yanacocha. Then started the gradual and very long decline down to Mindo. Windy, moderately steep mtn roads of dirt and cobblestone. Guide said it was too sunny for great birding, but pick them off we did. Past Nono we drove past a small stream that had a hatch of some type of large bugs, thousands in the air. Dave collected a couple to take back to the entomolgy graduate students back at University of Tennessee where he works. Eric Marsland identified it as an unusal type of beetle, in the subfamily Melolonthinae. Crimson-mantled Woodpecker - prettiest bird so far.
Robert was a great conversationalist and was brutally honest the whole trip. We appreciate him for that. Guides don't always give you the full story, but I don't think he held back one bit about the problems or joys of Ecuador.
The order of the day was - we stopped at spots that were previously good for Robert. Sometimes they produced and sometimes they didn't. And we were constantly looking for flocks in between. Great Thrush everywhere. Besides that mostly different birds. Jet fighters overhead, no?, just a few dozen White-collared Swifts. What a sound.
Lunch at Bella Vista. We snacked all morning and were only slightly hungry but it would be nice to get a hot meal. We began our first of what was to be some of the best food I've had on a trip. Delicious soup followed by vegetable pilaf. I'm not about to touch the salad but Carol did and without regret. All of us were taking an antibiotic and none of us had the slightest bit of stomach trouble the entire trip (except for my usual heartburn/indigestion problems).
Bella Vista is perched on a mtnside. Hummingbird feeders full of birds. We finally got good looks at these guys. In the field these guys zoom around and we rarely got long looks at the birds. But at BV they hung around for the many feeders.
Continued our descent into Mindo on the bad washboard road. Glad I wasn't driving and glad it wasn't my car.
Mindo. We're here. Indiana Jones country. We're greeted by a huge sign on the main street that advertises Vinicio Perez as a bird guide. 450 species etc. etc. 1,000 people, kids running barefoot on the dirt streets, corrugated iron houses with grass roofs over them. Real beat up main street - glad I didn't have to eat in any of those places.
Vinicio's house- two stories with a small attic, built like an A frame. Spotlessly clean. Take your shoes off please. Great, no worry about rats and cockroaches here. In fact didn't see any signs of them on our entire trip. He has separate quarters that are really very nice and totally suitable for a birding trip. A room with a table and chairs, bird lists and books, and three simple, neat, clean rooms with a total of 8 beds. Bathroom/shower.
Vinicio was the highlight of our trip. Something about us rich ugly Americans staying with the poor that is a thrill. We have so much.
Before dinner we took a short walk without guide and realized just how difficult it was to identify this smorgasbord of birds. White-throated Crake spooked as we walked by a marsh.
We realized our stay with Vinicio wasn't going to be your everyday travel experience. Not by a long shot. Vinicio started dinner with a toast. Followed by a wonderful three course meal. How he did it we have no idea. Every meal was deliciously prepared and presented in a manner similar to any fine restaurant. In Mindo. We were in awe. He was the most gracious host I have ever had. From start to finish we were treated every minute like we were his 1st customers. But he has been doing this for at least 3 years. Dinner was potato/bean soup followed by a chicken leg over rice, with fried bananas and carrots, and watermelon and lemon grass tea for desert. High living in Mindo.
After dinner he laid out the plan for the next day. A three hour walk to the Club-winged Manakin lek. No problem, after a day jostling around in the car, we're happy for a good walk.
Vinicio's sign says he speaks functional English, but it's really just fine. As we did every night we sat down after dinner with recorder and transferred our birds to paper. 108 for the 1st day and it was "slow" due to the bright sun.
Fell asleep to the sounds of the village. Radios, kids, horses, much more noisy than I'm used to. Never slept good the whole trip. We were so excited neither Dave nor I got more than a few hours of sleep a night but we weren't tired.
Funny thing happened first night in Mindo. Our quarters had its own separate lock and we were given keys to it and our bedroom. At 3am my roommate gets up then I did to use the loo and we can't open the outside door. Somehow the lock got jammed and we ended up pounding the walls until we got Vinicio up to fool with the lock and open it from the outside. I guess you had to be there.
Through a lush primary growth forest and we began our long ascent. All kinds of birds. We were in birding heaven and we continued to be the entire trip. Flocks of tanagers, etc. etc. The 5 mile 3 hour walk turned into a 8 hr walk. The most beautiful vista of our walk just happened to occur right at lunchtime, 12, and we lingered over the hearty lunch that our guide packed in for us.
The Club-winged Manakin wing was very busy with birds. The males make a buzzy/clicking/snapping sound with their wings trying to attract there mates. What they did attract was every tanager and bird for miles. Probably 30 different species of birds flitting around.
The walk down the mtn was much easier than the walk up. Most of the birds we had, but we picked off another half dozen on the way down. 2 hours down. We birded right up until dark 6:30pm every night and we had time to walk yet another 2 miles and more birds on our own before dinner.
Another delicious dinner. I was in St. Croix a month ago and paid $35/plate for food that wasn't half as good as what we had every night. Some type of pureed soup that hit the spot after 12 miles of walking, and an Ecuadorian egg fish over rice with the most delicious vegetables with it.
Plan for next day. Get up at 4am and a car/driver will arrive to take us down to the primary forest patch at Choco which is down the slope, new birds. This is the kind of guy I like, he walks us 12 miles and then says we're getting up at 4am the next day!!!!! This will be $50 extra(divided by 3) is that okay?
It was raining and we walk into the forest 15 ft literally into another world. This was the true rainforest that I read and dreamed about. No thoughts of walking anywhere but on the paths. Hope the fer de lance and bushmasters don't jump out and get me, because I don't have any defense. That's the chance you take so be it. You know a guy was walking on a tour recently, got bit, and they had to cut his leg off at the hip; at least he lived. He went for help to the local hospital and they luckily had A shot of antivenom available, trouble was they should've had 30 shots for him.
Right away trogan sitting on a horizontal branch 40 ft up in the open just like he should've been. Antbirds zooooming around mid canopy like jet fighters. You see before now we've been in Ecuador for two days and had yet to see an Ant anything.(our only complaint) Now seeing them was one thing and identifying them was another, even for our guide. Look at Hilty!
Vinicio just stopped and we observed the activity in awe. Still in view of the road if you looked behind you. Only trouble was we could hardly see a bird, but all of the exotic sounds of the rainforest were enough to cause sensory overload.
We might have had a tick or two from that first group of dozens of birds. And so it went. We stopped at openings where a tree maybe fell down sometime and looked up into the canopy maybe to be rewarded with a tick or two of tanagers. Parrots flying overhead. See the gold on the wings, or white on the heads, that makes it a ...., yeah sure I see it, tick.
By this time a tick in South America had a different cadence than a tick here in ABA land. I want to know my birds, I want to be for sure that it is what it is before I push the button on it. But in SA the knowing has a different meaning. One of the brochures says they go slow to take lingering looks at their birds. What do they do, hypnotize them? These birds are soooo quick and flitter around so much that they make our warblers look like they move in slow motion. In fact I saw two of my friends, the Canada and Blackburnian Warblers resting for the winter and they were easy compared to most of these birds.
Tinamous - what a beautiful haunting sound of the rainforest. Immaculate antbirds calling all the time. Antpittas, antthrushes etc. We hit a patch where a few trees had been cut down and sawed up and it made a nice opening. I think it made structure for the birds to fly to. One end was a monstrosity of a tree covered with vines, bromeliads, and whatever else grows there. We stood and watched the procession of flocks take their turn zooming around and in the cover. Most of it occurring in the tops above 70ft. Gives a new meaning to warbler neck. Did I forget to mention the Choco Toucans. Calling like crazy and gave us just the best looks perched right over our head. I think he showed up just so he could perform for us.
If you know me you know I'm an antsy person, I need my space and I need to keep on the move. I don't think the rainforest is a place for me for an extended period of time, it's claustrophobic. There will be no one week tour at one lodge in my future. Three days at the most and I'll be ready to GET OUT.
We continued to hit flocks intermittently including one that held three brown birds of similar shapes of different sizes. And that's what they went down as. We walked the road and hit the real mother load of birds. One tree was flycatcher heaven. It literally must have had 15 species of birds all right in the open on a tree right along side of the road. Had to be 5 species of flycatchers all looking the same. cont.
At well before this flycatcher tree the definitive statement was made that David knew his birds. This guy literally memorized Hilty. His first trip to the tropics, in fact his first trip outside the country except for Canada, and he could talk with anyone about the differences between a tody-flycatcher, a tyrannulet, a pygmy-tyrant, an elaenia, chat-tyrants, bush-tyrants, ground-tyrants, flycatchers, kiskadees and last but not least tit-tyrants. I studied too. I bought an extra Hilty and cut it up and made over 300 index cards indexed to plate#. I cross checked various checklists trying to find what birds would be common. I didn't know squat compared to Dave.
I would have been embarrassed at my own skills but I was watching genius at work. I passionately dislike the Dallas Cowboys. But any Cowboy hater has to admit that watching Emmit Smith run at his best is an act of pure joy, the same as watching Jordan take over a game. Dave took over. Me and Carol watched from the sidelines. He intelligently questioned the guides call when it was necessary. And you could see they respected him too. We couldn't even find the birds like him. No matter how hard I tried I was always a step or more behind, I couldn't contribute to the game no matter how much I wanted to. The crowning moment came a day later when I was in the front seat and we were checking the river at intervals for the Torrent Duck. It was me who got to jump out of the car for the quick look at the river for the duck. Forget it even with the advantage --- Dave found it. And the White-capped Dipper and the little finches scurrying over the paramo, and the White- throated Crake, hawks, swifts, birds high and low, woodpeckers, woodcreepers, and antbirds - it was fun to watch greatness at work. Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and realize you can't be tops at everything.
Part of the joy of this trip was as a group we meshed together perfectly. We were all "keen" birders who wanted to spend every daylight minute adding ticks. We weren't in a rush, but there was a sense of urgency in every daylight hour to find the birds, identify them, and move on to the next spot. Because more often than not if things slowed down for just a bit around the corner was another flock waiting to be found out. People can be problems but not on this trip. Carol was great company too. The female influence of the trip. Nice to have that around. She was the eldest but had absolutely not a bit of trouble walking 12 miles one day, or keeping at it all day long. And she did find the Glossy-black Thrush for me and Dave.
At 2pm we had to leave the road to Choco. It was still full of birds and toucans were plentiful. In fact, unlike Pa. where activity very noticeably crashes after 9am, we had birds all day. The main influence seemed to be the sun. With bright sun everything went quiet, but with clouds and mist, we had birds all day long if you kept looking. Supposedly hummers are the opposite.
A nice ride back in an open truck to Mindo. We had the driver let us off a few miles from Mindo and worked our way down. Things slowed down a bit.
Another delicious supper from Venizio. The "very best" stove cooked popcorn for appetizer, green pea puree soup, and a pasta with cheesy kind of sauce and vegetables. Honeyed papaya with cinnamon for desert.
Everyone loves a bargain including myself. Bill came to $50/day/person for three full days of meals, three nights, two days of guiding(12 hrs per day) and a truck ride with driver. And the best part was he was happy and greatful for the business.
As usual, I decided to push things. Our original plans were to stay the last two night in Quito. But I came up with the idea of asking Robert to stay with us and travel down the Eastern slope to Baeza and stay over so we can spend a little time getting some eastern slope birds too. He fell for it.
But we had our own $3/nt hotel to look forward to at days end in Baeza. Didn't the guide make a reservation for us, yeah right. In Mindo we had one phone for 1,000 people. The night before I tried to make a call home. It was at a stay over type school and after running around the place to find it I came upon a row of kids calling home. I heard mama mama. The nun sternly directed me to write my number down and when I realized that some type of patch to Quito would be involved and neither waiting in line nor being pushed in front of the kids would be acceptable I walked away from the situation with a big grin on my face.
We pushed on to Papallacta Pass. Got our Giant Hummingbird and then we did something we just had to do. We passed right by the Equator monument and we ORDERED our guide to stop. Hey, we were here on a birding trip but we have time to stop for "the picture". So we literally ran to the monument, but it wasn't a wasted stop - Common Ground Dove. Of course Dave knew the nuances of common vs. ruddy and he was trying to convince the guide it was ruddy. Come on Dave, the guide said it was common, that's good enough for me, so what if you didn't see such and such. I'll tick it. Now Carol is an experienced traveler with trips to Peru, Trinidad, 25 moves in the US, and an equator pose in Africa under her belt. To think she didn't know what to do when she straddled that line - SPREAD EM!!! Click and run back to the car.
Through Quito traffic to Papallacta Pass. It was a long drive and we had time to hear about the top birders of the country. Even Phoebe and her latest trip to Ecuador and her quest came up. We got to know who the sharpies where and what they do, groups, tours, dangers, politics etc.
What do people do for a living in Mindo? 1,000 people and I didn't see one factory, just a couple ramshackle stores and very shabby restaurants. At least two hours away from Quito. Do they get welfare? No such thing in Ecuador, country is too poor. They just live and rely on family to keep going. Small gardens, a couple cows, a few odd jobs now and then. If something needs to be done in the village everyone is ordered to show up and work, if you miss you must pay a fine. A regular worker in the city makes $50/week if that. Lawyers make some abysmal amount and teachers even less. The top income earners seem to be bird guides and the like who make their living off the American and European dollars of tourists. But like most SA and 3rd world countries its' a world of bribes. That's how you get things done.
The drive went fast. The scenery continued to be utterly spectacular at every turn. I wanted to make a call and let my wife know I didn't get malaria, yellow fever, hepatis A, diarrhea, robbed, kidnapped, bit by a rat, no cockroaches in the luggage YET etc, instead I was having so much of a good time I could hardly stand it. So I wanted to stop and make a call at a pay phone on our way through Quito. I don't think there is any such thing. We stopped at a decent sized suburb on the way out of Quito and looked for the Emetel office. I think its' something like 30,000 phones per 1 million people in Ecuador(looked up on the internet somewhere) and so most people use a centralized office to make a simple phone call. After being given bad directions by a women of course we found the office. Another line - hurry up we've got to make it to the pass before it clouds up. Luck would have it and I had an Ecuadorian who spoke perfect English in front of me. She lived in USA for a few years going to college. Robert's discussion about the horrible economy was confirmed when I asked her what she did and she was basically teaching a little English and looking for work. Even her waitress job in the US looked great now to this pretty well educated woman. No work to be had. You give them the number at the front desk and tell them how many minutes you want, and then once the call goes through she sends you to a row of numbered telephone booths. All I got was an answering machine for all that effort, but at least I let the wife know I'm OK. cont.
We headed up the mtn towards Papallacta Pass. Soon up the mtn we had our eyes craned to the windows looking for the Andean Condor. The trip had gone so perfect to this point that we just knew we'd get lucky and see the bird. Bird guide says only about 10% chance of seeing one. The weather was perfect and made us giddy realizing how lucky we were. One of the trip reports said people had been there six times and had rain, wind, snow, clouds every time. We had clear skies with mixed clouds.
Dave and Robert started to quickly knock off the paramo specialties and me and Carol tagged along. Puna Hawk, Bar-winged Cinclodia, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Noble Snipe, even the White-chinned Thistletail popped up for a look. Twenty-one paramo specialties in all. We kept scanning the skies for the condor. Big bird over the horizon, but it kept turning out to be just another Puna Hawk. We were on the top of the world and could see off into the beginning of the descent into the Amazon basin on one side, Quito on another, and snow capped volcanoes on others. It put to shame any scenery I've ever seen before.
It was fun walking around at 13,000ft. The highest I'd ever been. No one seemed to mind the altitude. We stopped at the top to get the very very highest bird the Rufous-belly Seedsnipe. But he didn't seem to be around, possibly because there were some workers on top walking around. So we began our climb from the antennas up to the tippy tippy top. But after climbing about 100ft in elevation rise walking one step at time Robert yelled from below, got your birds. And we did.
Robert wasn't satisfied until we had a look at the Giant Conebill and he took us to the best spot to look for the flock. No luck. Maybe on the way back over the pass tomorrow we'll stop and take a look. But at the very last corner of polylepis there they were, our feeding flock of bluish birds that resembled nuthatches in their behavior.
Still scanning for Andean Condor. We know we'll get it, that's just how our luck was. While climbing the hill down from the conebill spot Robert yells Andean Condor. We weren't walking closely together at that point and we all put up the bins to scan the long ridge in front of us. I got the bird or so I think and I throw down the scope off my scopepack and quickly set it up for a better look. Robert says oh it dropped down below the ridge, I still had a bird, but it was only another Puna Hawk that had been flying about a couple hundred feet from the Condor. We waited and looked but our Condor never did show up again. He goes down on the total trip list but not as a lifer.
Down the western slope of the Andes hoping for new species. This ride had to be the most spectacular of the trip. The road quickly turned to dirt and was quite dusty when the many trucks past. The road went on for I think a few hundred miles to Coca and was the roadway for the oil trucks on their way to the Amazon. It was loaded with buses going to the many small towns and villages along the way. The road followed a river drainage with steep mtn slopes on both sides. At times waterfalls dropped straight down the sides for hundreds of feet. But civilization was constant along the roads with clearings for cattle and ramshackle houses built right along the road. It was tough to tell which ones were the houses and which ones were the chicken coops. The ride was long but we didn't care because of the scenery.
We stopped at an area we named Hummingbird Hill. It was a grove of flower-covered trees on a steep hillside. The hummers zoomed around with mixed flocks of other species. With difficulty we added a few more species.
We still needed quite alot of work on our hummingbird list. Another stop where we followed a small river coming off a mtn and again we had luck with a very large mixed flock of birds. Torrent Duck - aka amazon penguin
On to Baeza. We were hoping for a room available, we knew the price would be right.
We found the Hotel Samay in beautiful downtown Baeza. Robert asked if rooms were available and they were, take your pick on the second floor. Before we moved the luggage up I went up for a look around. All the doors were open with most having 2 or 3 beds to a room. You would never believe that a bed could sag so much and still hold a body. With the naked eye, the difference between the center and sides in most of them was about six inches. The mattresses must have been about 20-30 yrs old, in parts so thin you could easily feel the wooden slats below. But everything looked tolerable at least and moderately clean. No toilet paper, but we had our own. I took a cold shower, hot water supposedly downstairs but no shower.
On my way down Robert tells me the owner is nervous and is worried about being paid. 10,000 sucres or $3/person, no we won't stiff her.
People loitering on the street stared at us while we drove past like we were from a different planet. Robert was told that the spot on top of a nearby mtn held such and such antpitta and off we went with an hour of daylight left. We climbed up the mtn dirt road in 4 wheel drive until it became apparent that this was a very steep road. So we stopped and decided to walk the rest. We were tired with 5 days of traveling under our belts but up we went. The forest was very quiet. Again Dave picked off a bird - he recognized the call note of a Summer Tanager with the tape recorder we confirmed that's what it was. More toucans, spinetails, woodpeckers, etc. The site list will be coming when Dave puts it together.
Robert our guide wouldn't quit. The way to the top turned out to be much longer than we thought. After climbing what had to be at least 500ft with almost no daylight left he still wanted to push on. I ran up a bit and confirmed that we had a few corners left at least. Robert and I got a good look at a big black cat-like animal with a long tail crossing in front of us. There were a few unidentified animals we saw and on my next trip I'll have the mammal book along(now I find its' available from SA Explorers Club).
In almost pitch blackness we heard two birds calling to each other that didn't sound like owls. Study later that night confirmed that they were probably Collared Forest Falcons and they are known to call strongly at dusk. Probably the same unidentified hawk we spooked earlier walking up the trail.
Dinner was good at a place Robert ate before. We had a long leisurely meal that was fine for about $3.
Saw my 1st Green Jay. We have them(ABA) and we're lucky to. One of the finer looking birds of the trip. We spent the morning at San Isidro which is advertised as a birding lodge and Neblina sends people there. Had some decent birding with more antthings scurrying around. We used a tape recorder/playback that morning and had a few looks but most of the birds only wanted to play with us out of sight. And when they did pop up, that's what they did - pop up - for a millisecond. I was told that many of the tours and even our leader Robert would spend 1/2 hour on a bird. I'd be satisfied to see the easy ones, spend a few minutes with a bird, and if he's not interested, put him down but with a big H(heard only) after his name.
Early in the day we decided this was going to be more of a leisure day and we wanted to get back and do a little shopping in Quito. So we figured we had to be back at 5pm to get washed up and have time to look at the city before it closed at 7pm. That set the tone for the day. We even took a coffee break at the lodge. One thing I didn't have good in Ecuador and that was coffee. All instant, and of the worst type. I don't know why, because they use propane and they could get a nice percolator to set on the burner. For God's sake THEY GROW COFFEE!++
This trip affected me so much that I've decided that I'm inviting/bringing Vinicio to the US for the Big Day this May and I already know what his gift will be - a coffee pot. I think most Americans need a good, at least one, cup of coffee to start the day. Instant won't do-esp the type they serve.
A few more flocks as we worked our way up the western slope and we began to mentally wind down and think of shopping/packing and home.
But load up the car and get in; don't worry because you'll see LOTS of those sparrows and Eared Doves and Great Thrushes later. It's bad light, but there's also a Black-tailed Trainbearer. OK, you should spend a few moments to see that one better as it can be difficult to get good looks at hummers. Four lifers and we have not yet begun to bird! It's time to leave the city to where we'll see many more.
Eventually we reach the "Nono-Mindo Road" that we have heard so much about. This is it? It's a dirt/rock, narrow, steep, rutted, winding but passable road. Birders find this without a guide? At least we can put all our effort into scanning for birds and not trying to drive or follow directions. I don't know how Robert does it, but he avoids hitting potholes and rocks and still points out birds for us to view. And of course we stop the car and walk around listening to and seeing birds we have until now only read about and seen in pictures. Finally we get the real thing.
Well, at least we can try to see them - oh yes, there's one sitting in a shrub where we can see the beautiful blue colors - oh it's gone. Bzzzzipppp! There goes a hummingbird. Robert tells us it's a Sparkling Violetear. OK, it was big, but how can you tell...? Think about how quickly we can identify a "fast-mover" back home - experience, knowing what's there. It's really not a mystery. In fact, after a while we can tell the Rufous-collared Sparrows from other birds flitting along the roadside. That one held its wings a little differently as it flew. Yes, it's a new one - Rufous-naped Brush-Finch.
We quickly learn that birding here is different from birding in the U.S. Spishing has almost no affect. Few of the birds sit on exposed perches and sing for us. They seem to like to stay well hidden. We really have to work for the birds. "Look! There's a movement on the left side of that tree at 2 o'clock. (Carol, 2:00 is on the right side!) It flew into that bush." After a few minutes, we finally see our first Tufted Tit-Tyrant. We continue along the road and add new birds just about every time we stop. There is a lot of beautiful countryside to see so we don't spend all of our time on the birds, but certainly most of it. Robert drives us to Mindo where he leaves us with our host for the next two days, Vinicio Perez. We have id'd almost 100 birds already and we'll get more as we walk around Mindo before dark. Robert will be back for us on Monday when we will have gone over two hundred for the trip.
So here's what we id'd the first day. I tried to put it in taxonomical order as best I could determine. Each group does not necessarily include all of the species seen, but at least those that were first seen in that section. (I may have failed to record a few of the more common ones at each stop.) I didn't keep track of numbers seen so I am not giving any indication of relative frequencies. Even if I had, these would be based on just one trip to these locations and may not be accurate for other times of the year, or even the same time next year. I have listed birds that were "heard only" to give an idea of which ones were present but would not readily show themselves. Those of us who do a large part of our bird identifications based on songs and calls can get frustrated not knowing what we are hearing. I tried to quickly learn the most common sounds, but because of the great number of species present things were still confusing. Often, Ecuador's birds could be heard singing just a few feet in front of us, but no matter how much time we spent looking, they often still didn't show themselves. Our guides did occasionally use tapes to attempt to bring the birds into view, but even that didn't always work.
Just a few of the more common sounds to learn include: Sparkling Violet- ear; Plain-tailed Wren; Azara's and Slaty Spinetails; Tawny Antpitta; Swallow-Tanager; Lemon-rumped Tanager; the whitestarts (redstarts); Rufous-collared Sparrow.
Now, back to the Refugio Trail. This is uphill almost all the way, but easy walking - especially for birders who stretch it from three to eight hours. There are lots of open areas where we can see down into the canopy, plus guayaba orchards giving more viewing opportunities. At one of these, we get an Ecuadorian endemic, Pale-mandibled Aracari (the 'c', with a little hook on the bottom, is pronounced like 's'). Pass the Froot Loops.
An interesting thing happened to us about this time. Some local field workers pass us and make comments to Vinicio about doing some real work. One of them looks up into a tree and points, saying something about a bird sitting there. Of course there is no bird, and we didn't even bother to look. I guess that kind of thing happens all over the world.
As the day progresses, we finally begin to see raptors. Yesterday we had a few American Kestrels and a short look at a Roadside Hawk flying away. Now we add three more North American species, including one of my favorites, Swallow-tailed Kite. The others are Black and Turkey Vulture. Roadside and Barred Hawks make several noisy appearances as well.
There were a couple of birds that we couldn't quite identify to species. Of course these were flycatchers. In one case, I had studied how to differentiate Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant from Slaty-capped Flycatcher, but I failed to consider the Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, so it goes down as one or the other.
There is also still a question about Greater Pewee, Contopus pertinax. I am not sure of the status of this species in Ecuador. Some may consider it a form of Smoke-colored Pewee, C. fumigatus. Vinicio did distinguish between these two forms, the latter being a darker gray than the paler, more yellow-green Greater Pewee. Also, the "Greaters" gave a whistled song similar to what I recall hearing in southeastern Arizona. I will keep them separate at this point, but will modify the list in the future if a definitive change is made.
I could write something about every bird we saw, but I'll just give the list to save a few hours. One last thing, before getting to the birds. There were ant trails to be watched both on this day and the next, when we were in the rain forest watching leaf-cutter ants. Other ant trails consisted of smaller ants interlocking their bodies to form tunnels under which other, larger ants could travel. One type also covered these tunnels with soil. We saw one snake the whole time in Ecuador, and it was a long black one very slowly crossing the Refugio Trail. Here we also saw a few Morpho Butterflies.
Refugio Trail and around Mindo:
The rain has become a fine mist. We enter the forest. Within a few feet of walking the trail into the jungle, eyeglasses and binoculars fog up. We hear bird sounds all around. How are we going to see anything in here?! We'll be here for five to six hours - maybe we'll actually see 10-12 birds, if we're lucky. We are lucky - we get around 25. Twice we spend over fifteen minutes trying to get good looks at single birds. The first may have been a spadebill, but we'll never know. It was just too dark. The second was an Immaculate Antbird. We see it, but just some movement and a blur as it flies across the path. Replaying its own recorded song has brought it close, but we never do get a great look. Guess we'll have to go back!
Just before exiting the rainforest, we see a tree full of birds. Some we can identify, others remain unknown, like a woodpecker and the three reddish-brown birds, each slightly different in size. Could these have been Cinnamon Becard, female One-colored Becard and Rufous Piha? Then, while eating lunch along the road outside the forest, a hawk lands in a tree just 50 feet away. Looking at pictures in Hilty's Birds of Columbia, it has the head of a Double-toothed Kite but the rest of the body is like a Barred or Lined Forest-Falcon. It takes off and catches a large flying insect and remains unidentified.
After a final delicious breakfast, Robert returned to take us on the next leg of our trip. We are heading for the high elevations of the Andes Mountains. We will cross the equator and make our way through the traffic of Quito. This time we take the new road - all paved - instead of the old Nono-Mindo Road which provided us with a day-long birding experience just three days ago (though it seemed like a much longer time had passed since we were there!).
At first, we pass through steep valleys with tree-covered slopes. Occasional small cleared areas show precariously sloped farming areas. We have a lot of respect for the people who climb up to these places and plow, plant, grow and harvest crops. They must have some sturdy knees! As we get closer to Quito, more and more of the forest is gone until eventually there are almost no trees over long stretches of countryside. At one such point where there are only shrubs and some tall flowering cactus-like plants, we stop to look for Giant Hummingbirds. We are in luck, as we see one - and it flies toward us. This bird is 7 inches long; hard to believe a hummer could be this big. It does behave just like a hummer. This place is north of the equator, a short distance before a left turn to Pululagua.
Here we see:
A couple of stops produces:
At the end of this road, we are looking for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes. A walk around shows none, but they must be here. We decide to climb to the highest point. It's not too far but it takes much more effort than it would at sea level. About half way up we hear a new call - it must be the seedsnipes. Robert waves for us to come down. If we go down, we're not going to try to climb up again. Well, down is much easier than up, and we are here to see birds. We join with Robert and are rewarded with views of a few of these large "shorebirds" feeding on the slopes.Back to the car, we drive down to a site perhaps only Robert knows about and walk out to overlook another lake where we get to see in the distance several Silvery Grebes and Andean Teal. On the way back to the car, at the last possible place for them today, we see five Giant Conebills, along with White- throated Tyrannulets. We miss Black-backed Bush-Tanager.
All the time around the Pass we are scanning the skies for condors, but the only raptors are the numerous Puna Hawks and a single Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. Suddenly Robert shouts "condor", but before we can turn to see it, it dips below the horizon - never to reappear. So close, yet so far! That is perhaps the only disappointment of the whole trip.
We will stop here again on the return trip the next day, so the following list is for both days. It's on the return trip that we finally see Andean Gulls on the lake - the last life bird for us on this trip.
Rio Chalpi Grande:
Finally we arrive in Baeza and get rooms at the Hotel Samay (only 10,000 sucre!). It is not yet dark so we drive up to a hill with radio towers, since Robert has heard that a group once had good luck up there. We hope to drive to the top, but the hill becomes very steep, so we decide to park and walk. It turns out to be a long way up and it is getting dark, so we don't make it all the way, but we have already added a few more birds, including a friend from the U.S. - Summer Tanager. As darkness falls, a cat-like animal is seen crossing the road ahead. We stop to listen, hoping to hear owls or other night animals. A few lightning bugs flicker on and off and we finally hear a call in the woods. Imitating it seems to entice a second animal to call, but they never come closer. Robert determines they are Collared Forest-Falcons. On the walk up we had seen a raptor fly from a tree. It was a quick look, but what we saw fit the description of this falcon, though I'm still listing it as "heard only". The only other sounds we hear as we return to the car are passing oil trucks and singing from the local church. At Gina's Restaurant for dinner we see our first television in five days. Our walk up the hill produces:
Our last new destination is San Isidro. We meet some American birders here as Robert uses a tape to entice a White-bellied Antpitta from the forest. Brief look only. We walk part way up a forest path lined with cut logs, but the more of this path will have to wait till later. Now we must continue walking the main road where we see several new species. A couple of Ant...types call loudly from close by but never make themselves seen. (What a surprise!) A couple new tanagers are seen and the beautiful Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant. A pleasant sight is the five Andean Solitaires moving about and singing in the trees. These are much better looking live than in pictures, but then aren't all birds?
After stopping for coffee at the lodge - our first break other than lunches on this whole trip - we return to the forest path where we get our best looks yet at Green Jays. We are unsuccessful at calling out a Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch, but I do get a look at a Common Brush- Tanager. If we had time, we could continue on this path into the mountains and maybe see a bear, but we do have to return to Quito and do a bit of shopping. Besides, the sun is now out - in Ecuador, this means bird activity drops. We are not even seeing Hummingbirds now. Time to start the drive back.
Our last target bird for the trip is Blue-and-yellow Tanager. These can sometimes be seen from the road back around the first residential area west of Papallacta. No luck. It's time to concentrate on being tourists and getting shopping done. Our birding is over. We conclude with: