Ecuador - January 2009

Cock-of-the-Rock Tour

Birding the Eastern Slope

18 January 2009

This was the start of the second half of the holiday, to the eastern cordillera and the far slope. We left Quito at dawn and drove to the edge of the city to the Canon del Chiche, a spectacular defile with agaves and other dry country plants. The day was sunny and pleasantly warm, ideal for birding.

The birding included several birds we only saw here: Rusty Flowerpiercer, Blue and Yellow Tanager, Scrub Tanager and the rather beautiful Rufous-chested Tanager. But the star bird was an amazing Giant Hummingbird which Willy found flying around an Agave on the far side of the canyon. When perched you could get an idea of its enormous size - for a hummingbird, that is.


Rufous-chested Tanager - Birding a canyon (Canon del Chiche) on the edge of Quito produced many birds.  One of the special birds at this site was this small Tanager.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Rob Andrews


We drove on to another dry country site where quite quickly we found a Green-tailed Trainbearer followed by very brief views of a Tufted Tit-tyrant. A Blackish Tapaculo, attracted by Willy’s tape, showed relatively well.

Papallacta Pass

We drove onwards and upwards climbing above the main road through the Papallacta Pass until we were at 4000 m and well into the paramo. We were still in the moving bus when Lindsey picked out two distant black dots in a field. We all piled out to see our first Carunculated Caracaras. Then the excitement mounted. A distant flying dot on the opposite side found by Dave P resolved itself into an Andean Condor, one of the birds we all wanted to see. It was an immature bird, lacking much of the white on the wings, but still impressive even at long range. Closer, an attractive Many-striped Canastero sat on a bush.

Many-striped Canastero - Seen at 4000 metres altitude.  It was one of relatively few species seen at such a high altitude.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

Further long the road we stopped to eat our box lunch, an activity constantly interrupted by the appearance of yet more birds. A superb male Ecuadorian Hillstar high on the upslope was accompanied by Tawny Antpittas seemingly feeding young. An Andean Gull flew over, causing excitement among the gull aficionados and a juvenile hummingbird perched by the road proved to be a Blue-mantled Thornbill.

The road continued to climb. We encountered Paramo Ground Tyrants, and singles of Stout-billed and Bar-winged Cinclodes. But the weather was closing in, having been perfect all day, and we were due to go even higher, to the realm of the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe.

We parked below some very large radio masts and set off upwards on a steep muddy track as a fierce hailstorm began, accompanied by thunder and lightning. Needless to say the Seedsnipe were hiding. And this, I suppose, was the major failure of the holiday.

We were now at the summit of the pass, a dramatic treeless area made more dramatic when parts of the snow-covered Antisana volcano appeared through the clouds. We drove down the east side of the cordillera until, back in the forest at 2700 m, we came to our resting place for the next two nights, Guango Lodge.

And even then, after a long, varied and action-packed day, there was more. The hummingbird feeders were crowded and the birds were so tame. We quickly added Collared Inca, Mountain Velvetbreast, Glowing Puffleg, White-bellied Woodstar and Long-tailed Sylph to the list while a Sword-billed Hummingbird seen from point-blank range was only our second.

19 January 2009

We were away at 04.15. Why? To get to San Isidro Lodge while it was still dark to try for San Isidro Owl, an undescribed species only found in the grounds of the lodge. In appearance it is somewhere between a Black and White Owl and a Black-banded Owl but neither of these species occur in the area. DNA analysis of blood samples taken from a recently found nest suggest the San Isidro Owl is a new species. Thus we were going to where the rarest owl in the world lives.

San Isidro Owl - The bird of the trip for many and no doubt the rarest owl in the world! 
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose


However a torchlight search of the usual roost trees failed although we did see a flying Rufous-bellied Nighthawk. Somewhat subdued we plodded along a wide track in the ever-increasing light.

A quiet walk suddenly became loud when Willy disappeared down a narrow track through the forest to emerge five minutes later to say an owl was roosting in view. We went down the steep, narrow, rather slippery track in groups of three and four keeping as quiet as possible. I was in the last group and the tension was considerable. Each group came back looking slightly stunned. When I finally arrived at Willy’s scope and peered through the eyepiece I understood why. The black eyes of a magnificent San Isidro Owl were staring at me, the owl almost filling the field of view. It was one of the moments of a birding lifetime.

Inca Jay - Only seen at San Isidro Lodge where there were several rather confiding and noisy birds.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Rob Andrews.   Click on photo to see video clip

Montane Woodcreeper - The most common Woodcreeper of the trip.  This bird was at San Isidro Lodge. 
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose

Crested Quetzal - Seen on a track close to San Isidro Lodge. The only bird seen on the trip.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson


Next, Lindsey, who has phenomenally sharp eyes, had a purple patch. First she found an Emerald Toucanet (a green bird in green foliage), then, away in dense trees, a perched White-rumped Hawk, a black and white raptor that is rarely seen perched. Unfortunately it flew off so only she saw it. But, a few minutes later, she refound it and we all managed to see this rather rare bird. Then, to complete the hat-trick, she found a Crested Quetzal.

Emerald Toucanet - Only seen on one day, this bird was incredibly well camouflaged in a large green tree.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

The walk also produced our only Strong-billed Woodcreeper and a group of fast moving Pearled Treerunners.

An enjoyable lunch was interrupted by Mike calling ‘What’s this black bird with the white cap?’ at which point Willy goes into meltdown. A group of hard to get White-capped Tanagers were sitting in full view just outside the windows.

Broad-winged Hawk - A few individuals were seen, this one between San Isidro and Guango.  One of twelve raptors seen during the trip.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose

After lunch, a drive and a walk along a tree-lined road through fields produced a plethora of tanagers, our only Bluish Flowerpiercer, a Black-billed Thrush, and Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters. A short diversion to find Southern Lapwing was successful after which we returned to Guango and its hummingbirds.

20 January 2009

Andean Guan - Five birds were seen at Guango Lodge on our last morning walk, with two perching in view for a time.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose

After breakfast we walked up a grassy tree-edged slope by the lodge. A pair of Andean Guans were sitting in the canopy while the tanager count continued to climb with Lacrimose Mountain-tanager, Grey-hooded and Black-backed Bush-tanagers and - at last - two Hemispinguses, Black-eared and Black-capped. We also picked up a few distant raptors: Short-tailed Hawk, Plain-breasted Hawk and Red-backed Hawk.

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta - Guango Lodge - A resident of the grounds of the lodge.  One bird was briefly seen during a walk and a short while later this individual was tempted out of the undergrowth by a lodge employee with a number of tasty worms.  We had superb views for several minutes.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose 
Click on photo to see video clip from Dave Parmenter


Great Thrush - Seen on several days and common in places.  Like a large Blackbird!  This is a male.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson


After lunch we headed back to Quito, making frequent stops on the way. The first was along the gravel road above the Papallacta Spa. Here we flushed a nightjar from the side of the road. It flew over a low rise and appeared to descend beyond it, still only 20 m from the road. To our amazement, the bird was sitting on a rock beside a juvenile. The photographs of these Band-winged Nightjars were some of the best of the trip.

Band-winged Nightjar - Flushed from the track above the Papallacta Spa, the bird flew a short distance to land by the second bird.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

At a high lake set in mountains, and accessible by a narrow, steep path, we found Andean Coot, Silvery Grebe, Andean Teal and Andean Ruddy Duck. These were our last new birds of a bird-filled trip.

The journey from here to Quito was only interrupted by the engine of our bus dying as it negotiated the muddy aftermath of a landslide. We pushed the bus to the side of the road where Willy and Alphonso, our driver, examined the workings. A twiddle with a well-used screwdriver and we were on our way. At Quito we checked in to our hotel, had a good dinner and went to bed.

21 January 2009

The journey from Quito to Heathrow via Miami was one of the least fraught flights we had experienced. Miami security was much quicker and the tail-winds over the Atlantic were so strong we arrived early. This was an excellent end to an excellent holiday.


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