Ecuador - January 2009

Cock-of-the-Rock Tour

Birding the Western Slope

14 Jan 2009

We were up at 05.30, breakfasted at 06.00 and on the road at 06.45. This was to be typical of the holiday - action packed with little time for lazing about, which is how we wanted it.

Quito lies in a valley between two huge mountain ranges. The plan was to go over the western range to an altitude of 3000 m and down the Pacific slope to 1300 m at Maquipucuna. After three days we would return to Quito, stay overnight then traverse the eastern cordillera.

After climbing through the uninspiring suburbs of Quito we reached open country, saw our first good bird - a Southern Yellow Grosbeak - then stopped by some fields where Willy heard - very faintly - a Paramo Pipit. Jim picked it up on a distant post. Willy then homed in on two Brush-finches - Stripe-headed and Rufous-naped - bigger and brighter than we had expected.


We climbed steadily, reaching 3000 m at Yanacocha. We were now in mist. The track was easy walking, a level stroll along the side of a steep slope which ended with a group of hummingbird feeders. The first hummer we saw was a Buff-wingeded Starfrontlet, but by the end of the walk we had seen nine species, the most spectacular being the extraordinary Sword-billed Hummingbird. Other noteworthy birds were a Masked Trogon and a quartet of Mountain-tanagers: Scarlet-bellied, Hooded and Black-chested. Trying to sort these out as they moved through the dense foliage was not easy.

We stopped several times on our drive to Maquipucuna Lodge, where we were to stay for two nights. A river yielded White-capped Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet while bushes gave us Turquoise Jay and Red-crested Cotinga. At a roadside fish farm we saw Ringed and Green Kingfishers.

Turquoise Jay - Recorded on three days during the trip, but only seen briefly.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

The lodge proved to be basic but comfortable enough, although the curtains in our room were inadequate to keep out curious eyes in the bar! The hummingbird feeders kept us entertained until the light went and dinner appeared.

The day ended on a rather bizarre note. Rob A and Dave P, sharing a compartment of our four bed room noted a bat-like object hanging in a corner of the ceiling. On closer observation it was seen to have a beak, feathers and a tail. It was in fact a roosting Tawny-bellied Hermit!  We released it the following morning.

15 January 2009

The day began at dawn with a walk uphill round the back of the lodge. We were at an altitude of 1300 m and it was a dry morning with high cloud. We passed a large tree Which Willy called his ‘Christmas Tree’. Atop it were a pair of Swallow Tanagers while below was a really mixed bunch of birds. A Streaked Xenops walked around the branches like a Nuthatch; a flock of Buff-throated Saltators passed through; Orange-bellied and Thick-billed Euphonias provided bright spots of colour while several of the commoner tanagers dodged behind leaves.

A distant dot on a tall tree proved to be a Red-billed Parrot, while Mike managed to find a pair of the rather rare Crested Guans in the canopy. Other notable birds seen were Rufous Motmot, Red-headed Barbet, Uniform Antshrike and Barred Puffbird which was found by Jim.

Crested Guan - A scarce species in Ecuador.  A pair were found high in the trees at Maquipucuna Lodge.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Mike Witty

After lunch it rained. Ignoring this, we walked up another track to Willy’s summer house, Santa Lucia. This took us over the river by the lodge, the Rio Umachaca which held a White-capped Dipper, a very lively Buff-rumped Warbler and, close by, a beautiful Broad-billed Motmot.  We stood in the porch of our destination but the rain was keeping the birds away.

Broad-billed_Motmot - Photographed on the far side of the river at Maquipucuna Lodge, the only place where we saw this species.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose

Golden-crowned Flycatcher - Photographed at Maquipucuna Lodge, the first of three sightings during the trip.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

16 January 2009

As the weather pattern seemed to be a fine morning followed by a rainy afternoon, Willy decided on a change of plan. Originally we were to drive in the morning to our next hotel but this seemed a waste of dry weather so he decided we should bird in the morning then drive when it was about to rain. In his weather forecasting, as usual, he was spot-on.

We walked in the sun up the track we had walked the previous afternoon.  A Pale-mandibled Aracari was followed by a Crimson-rumped Toucanet and a magnificent Choco Toucan while in the distance we saw our first Swallow-tailed Kite. More tyrannulets and tanagers mingled with the leaves; a Blue-necked Tanager was the only one of the trip. On the way back, as we crossed the river, Dave P spotted a distant female Torrent Duck, one of the birds we had wanted to see.

After lunch we drove to Hosteria Sapos y Ranas via the town of Los Bancos. This was a change of venue due to roadworks by the Mirador del Rio Blanco, the usual destination.

There was one important stop: Sacha Tamia, a very busy lodge at 1500 m surrounded by hummingbird feeders. As we drank welcome soft drinks we watched the amazing display of hummingbirds. We counted 17 species including White-tailed Hillstar, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Velvet-purple Coronet, Booted Racket-tail and Empress Brilliant.

White-capped Dipper -  Regularly seen from the entrance bridge to Maquipucuna Lodge.
Photo Copyright © 2009
Jim Rose  Click on photo to view video clip


The journey to our destination was noteworthy for the extensive roadworks going on in and around Los Bancos and a Masked Water-tyrant on a spoil heap by the road. We eventually arrived, after a tortuous journey through Los Bancos and along a very rough road, to Sapos y Ranos. The hotel proved a pleasant place with extensive sloping grounds although without hummingbird feeders. We explored the grounds in a fine drizzle.

Pacific Horneros were easily seen and identified but others were more difficult. A woodcreeper proved to be a Spotted Woodcreeper while a spinetail was a Slaty Spinetail. There were also more tanagers to keep the interest going including Guira Tanager, the only one of the trip.

17 January 2009

As Sapos y Ranos was much further away from our next destination than the hotel in the original plan, we had to get up that much earlier to reach our goal before dawn. It was essential to do this if we were to see Cock of the Rocks at their famed lek at La Paz de las Aves. Thus, at 04.15, somewhat bleary-eyed, we climbed into our bus.

Almost immediately we flushed a Black-and-white Owl from the side of the road and shortly after a couple of Pauraques flew up. It was still pitch-black when we arrived and it was raining heavily. Facing us was a narrow, muddy, quite steep and rather slippery downward path. This was where we were to wear our wellies although Mike wore hiking boots and seemed to manage perfectly well. Most of the trail had a side rope to hang on to.

Half way we encountered a Columbian Screech-owl which Willy picked out with his torch but otherwise the walk was bird less. At the end of the trail was a small hide overlooking a deep forested ravine. Here we would wait.

It was in the next hour that I nearly lost the will to live. This writer (Dave F) is red/green colour-blind and Cock of the Rocks are mostly red. If it wasn’t for the partly white wings I doubt if I would have seen one. The heavy rain seemed to have dimmed the enthusiasm of the male Cock of the Rocks so that the display was less spectacular than usual and the gloom didn’t help but I did manage to see two birds thanks to the unsparing efforts of others to get me onto the birds.

Next we were to see Antpittas, now more famous than the Cock of the Rocks. Angel Paz, owner of the property, had discovered that enticing Antpittas into the open by offering them mealyworms and thus allowing birders to see these notoriously elusive birds, was more profitable than farming and also more environmentally friendly. But the Giant Antpitta didn’t show in spite of calling and enticing with a bucketful of food. So we tried another bird, a Yellow-breasted Antpitta much further down the ravine, and within seconds the bird appeared only a few metres away.

Giant Antpitta - One of the highlights of the trip.  Despite heavy rain the Antpittas performed well.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose
Yellow-breasted Antpitta - One of the highlights of the trip.  Despite heavy rain the Antpittas performed well.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose  Click on photo to see video clip


After this heart-lifting experience we trudged back up the trail, finding an Olivaceous Piha on the way. We arrived back at the Giant Antpitta territory and within minutes the fabled bird appeared. The bird came within 4 m, offering once in a lifetime opportunities to the photographers in spite of the gloom.

Then we had a walk along a rather open ridge where we met more hummingbirds at feeders. This was followed by breakfast in a covered mirador which gave us splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Within minutes a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites gave a spectacular display. Higher up White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts zoomed.  Before we left we were treated to the sight of a female Orange-breasted Fruiteater on its nest. After fifteen minutes the very spectacular male appeared giving yet another photo-opportunity.

Orange-breasted Fruiteater - The female (above) was replaced at the nest by the stunning male (below).  There were at least three young in the nest.  This is a scarce species and we were fortunate to see at such close range.
Photos Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose (top) and Willy Perez (lower)


On the way to our next site Rob A found a family party of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. These are rare visitors to Ecuador and were Willy’s birds of the trip, being migratory in Ecuador.

Golden-headed Quetzal - Stunning colours.  This was one of two seen during the trip.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson

At Bella Vista  we saw a White-throated Quail-dove on the gravel road, from the moving bus, and then one of our must-see birds, a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan. It now began raining quite heavily and as it was late afternoon Willy decided to end the birding and do the tourist bit by seeing the spot in Quito that marks the equator. After this short interlude we returned to the Embassy Hotel, where we had started, had a pleasant meal in the hotel and went to bed.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan - A small group were found feeding alongside the track at Bella Vista.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Jim Rose
Beryl-spangled Tanager - Small numbers of this stunning Tanager were seen on two days.  This photo was taken at Bella Vista.
Photo Copyright © 2009 Dave Ferguson


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