ECUADOR BIRDING TRIP REPORT
2006 Northern Ecuador Birding Tour
Our scouting trip to northern Ecuador was undertaken with several goals in mind: (1) to familiarize ourselves with prime birding locales, (2) visit and evaluate possible accommodations for future tours, (3) meet lodge operators and guides, (4) perfect logistics for future tours, (5) see as many bird species as possible, (6) obtain photographs of Ecuadorian birds for future use on our website.
After returning from our southern Ecuador tour, we rented a car and drove to Mindo, where we stayed at Septimo Paraiso lodge. Late October is the end of dry season on the west slope, but Mindo was fogged in and rainy by the time we arrived in mid afternoon. Hence, we spent the afternoon viewing hummingbirds at the feeders and visiting the lodge owners, Pablo and Anna. We saw a dozen species of hummingbirds there, including White-whiskered Hermit, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Green-crowned Woodnymph, Andean Emerald, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Empress Brilliant, Brown Inca, and the amazing Booted Racket-Tail and Violet-tailed Sylph.
We spent our only full day in Mindo birding the roadsides through the Mindo-Nambillo Forest Reserve. Our guide was George Cruz. We missed birds restricted to the forest interior, but had a good introduction to west slope species. We started early in the morning near the police station, where birding activity is high because all-night streetlights draw a lot of moths to the area. We saw a variety of species there, including Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, the endemic Choco Warbler, Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager, and Bay-headed Tanager. We then drove to the Mindo-Nambillo area, where we began walking the road near the river. We quickly found the striking White-capped Dipper among the rocks. A bit further up the road, we had good scope looks at Swallow-Tanagers perched in distant treetops. Other birds we saw while walking up the road included Red-billed Parrot, Masked Trogon, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Bran-colored Flycatcher, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, several species of widely distributed wrens, Turquoise Jay, Dusky Bush-Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Golden Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Yellow-tufted Dacnis, Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Tricolored Brush-Finch, and Black-winged Saltator. We had lunch at the Colibries restaurant on the outskirts of Mindo, where many birders go because of the hummingbird feeders there. The only new hummingbird we hadn't seen earlier at the lodge was White-necked Jacobin. Shortly after lunch the fog and rain came in so we quit birding mid-afternoon.
Next morning we got up early to visit Finca Angel Paz. Sr. Paz has converted his finca into a birding area, preserving a nice tract of forest in the process, rather than clearing his land for cattle grazing. Our first stop would be the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, which is located on the finca. The road up to the finca is 4-wheel drive only, fairly long, steep, bumpy, and potentially muddy. It's then a substantial walk down a sometimes steep trail to the blind near the lek. Our guide was a bit late picking us up and it took longer to hike down the trail than anticipated, so we barely arrived in time. We saw several males displaying on the lek, but the birds left only 5 minutes after we had arrived so we didn't get as many photos as we would have liked. The next feature attraction at the finca is the antpittas. The finca owner has spent the last year developing a "rapport" with several species of antpittas and can call them out of the forest onto the trail by name along with a little inducement from native caterpillars he tossed on the trail and on a sawn log he sets out. There were several people from a photo workshop there with their cameras and long lenses set up on tripods in addition to ourselves, so we almost felt like we were attending a small press conference deep in the rainforest. It was fascinating to watch Sr. Paz call the antpittas out into the open. The birds are shy and were nervous about the number of people present, but they eventually came onto the trail and hopped up onto the log for photo ops. Everyone had great looks as well as a chance to take pictures of Giant Antpitta, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, and the highly localized and little known Moustached Antpitta, all normally difficult to see. We then went looking for Dark-backed Wood-Quail, which Sr. Paz can also sometimes induce out of the forest, but we weren't successful in seeing it. We birded along the forest trails on the finca and found Golden-headed Quetzal and Toucan Barbet with some persistence.
That afternoon we proceeded uphill to Bellavista Lodge, located in a higher elevation cloud forest between Mindo and Tandayapa Valleys. We arrived to find that the forest is aptly named - the whole area was socked in with fog. Nevertheless, we saw a number of hummingbirds at feeders, including Andean Emerald, Speckled Hummingbird, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Empress Brilliant, Buff-tailed Coronet, the striking black, white, and green Collared Inca, Gorgeted Sunangel, Booted Racket-tail, and Purple-throated Woodstar. We also found Montane Woodcreeper, Russet-crowned Warbler, Three-striped Warbler, and Masked Flowerpiercer near the lodge.
We were up early the following morning to bird the trails around the lodge with the resident guide. Some trails are quite steep since the lodge is located atop the crest of a ridgeline, while other trails traverse the ridge and are fairly level. A number of birds are found at Bellavista but not the lower elevation of Mindo or Tandayapa. Among the birds we saw were Sickle-winged Guan, a very secretive and wary White-throated Quail-Dove, Masked Trogon, several looks at the spectacularly colored Toucan Barbet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Rufous and Azara's Spinetails, Streaked Tuftedcheek, excellent looks at Green-and-black Fruiteater, Sierran Elaenia, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Smoke-colored Pewee, One-colored Becard, Glossy-black Thrush, Turquoise Jay, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, and White-sided Flowerpiercer. We had several obstructed and quick looks at Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, including a bird on the nest, but the birds never offered really good looks for the photo op we hoped for.
From Bellavista we continued up the old Nono-Mindo Road to Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where we would stay for 2 nights. The lodge is atop a hill and reached by quite steep road to a parking area and then quite steep walkway or substantial series of steps to get to the lodge itself. Our rental car barely made it up the raod and would not have made if we were there much into rainy season. A photo workshop was being taught at the lodge while we were there, and the participants had a lot of equipment set up to photograph hummingbirds at the feeders. The hummingbirds were similar to those we'd already seen at Mindo and Bellavista. New species not seen earlier were Sparkling Violetear, Western Emerald, and Purple-bibbed Whitetip. Hummingbird activity at the feeders seemed to be lessened by the beginning of rainy season, when food sources in the surrounding forest become more available. Other birds we saw from the lodge observation areas included Red-headed Barbet, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Thrush, Spectacled Whitestart, a female Yellow-collared Chlorophonia, the only chlorophonia we saw during 5 weeks in Ecuador, Golden Tanager and Metallic-green Tanager.
We spent all the next day birding forest trails around the lodge with our guide from Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Jose Illanes. We started with an early visit to a blind set up near a composting area, where we saw Spotted Barbtail, Immaculate Antbird, and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch. Shortly after we left the blind, a normally very secretive and hard to see Rufous-breasted Antthrush walked out on the trail long enough to see him very well. We had great looks at a male Golden-winged Manakin that kindly perched in the open, along with excellent views of a Scaly Fruiteater. Soaring hawks are not all that commonly seen in Ecuador, at least not when we were there, so it was nice to see Short-tailed Hawk and White-throated Hawk soaring over our heads. The most exciting birding of the morning occurred when we encountered a good sized mixed flock consisting of Golden-olive and Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, Rusty-winged Barbtail, which we only heard and didn't see, Streak-capped Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Montane Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Flavescent Flycatcher, and Three-striped Warbler. After lunch back at the lodge, we birded a different branch of the same trail, looping back towards the old Nono-Mindo Road. Along the trail we had great looks at 4 Toucan Barbets as well as a most cooperative White-throated Quail-Dove that perched quietly in the open on a log in the forest understory and a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. We also had clear looks at the very secretive Olivaceous Piha, probably the bird of the day. In a more open forest edge area we found several Beautiful Jays that popped up and perched in the open for brief looks. Other notable birds we found along the trails included Red-billed Parrots flying overhead, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Uniform Antshrike, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Golden Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, White-winged Brush-Finch, and Black-winged Saltator. We heard but never saw the fairly scarce Powerful Woodpecker, one of our target birds that we never did see this trip.
The following morning we left very early for Yanacocha Reserve. This reserve is at high elevation and frequently fogs in by lunch, so we left early enough to arrive by 6:30. En route we flushed a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar, which we saw in our headlights while driving in the dark. We weren't sure if we had enough gas and there are no gas stations along the old Nono-Mindo Road, so we decided to stop in a small town en route to ask. We found a local who sells gas out of a holding tank at a seriously marked up price. We bought a couple gallons just in case, which as it turned out we didn't need because the distance was less than what our guide led us to believe. Still, it was worth the money for peace of mind! Yanacocha is reached by a 10-km side road that takes forever to drive because it is deeply rutted in many places. It was even slower going with our rental Kia, but we made it just fine. Don't try this in wet season without 4-wheel drive. Yanacocha's special attraction is the once-feared-extinct and now very localized Black-breasted Puffleg. Unfortunately, this bird is mainly seen at Yanacocha during the peak rainy season between March-June (at least according to our guide). There was no sign of it during our visit. Nevertheless, we did see some higher elevation specialties, including Shining Sunbeam, Red-crested Cotinga, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Spectacled Whitestart, Superciliated Hemispingus, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, and Black Flowerpiercer. At the hummingbird feeders we found Buff-winged Starfrontlet, the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Golden-breasted Puffleg, and Tyrian Metaltail.
After spending the night in Quito, we were picked up early by our new guide for the east slope of the Andes, Willie Perez. Our first stop was the Tumbaco Valley, on the outskirts of Quito. This is the best place to find the very localized Scrub Tanager. A pair flew overhead, giving us silhouette views, but we couldn't find them again. Nevertheless, we found some other good birds, including Hooded Siskin, Blue-and-black Tanager, Band-tailed Seedeater, and Plain-colored Seedeater, along with a bird that is very local in Ecuador and rarely seen around Tumbaco, namely Tropical Mockingbird.
From Tumbaco Valley we continued upslope toward Papallacta Pass, stopping periodically at various birding sites en route. We saw White-rumped Hawk, Variable Hawk, and Carunculated Caracara soaring above us. We also saw numerous White-collared Swifts, a striking large black-and-white swift that we commonly saw in higher elevation areas. We found some high elevation hummingbirds, notably Ecuadorian Hillstar, Giant Hummingbird, an amazingly large bird for a hummingbird, the incredibly long-tailed Black-tailed Trainbearer and the ubiquitous (at elevation) Tyrian Metaltail. We found a variety of furnuriids, including Bar-winged Cinclodes, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail, Many-striped Canastero, and Pearled Treerunner. We found a Tawny Antpitta in the open with a bit of effort. We saw Sierran Elaenia, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, and Paramo Ground-Tyrant, all well. We also saw Cinerous Conebill, the very scarce Giant Conebill, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, Plumbeous Seed-Finch, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, Glossy, Black, and Masked Flowerpiercers, and Pale-naped and Rufous-naped Brush-Finches.
At the crest of Papallacta Pass, we continued uphill on a gravel access road to the radio antennas on top of the mountain. This is the best place to find Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, and after a little tromping around in some of the most incredible tundra to be found on earth, we found a male perched on a ridgeline some distance away. After long scope looks, we headed back to the parking area and began scanning the sky for soaring birds. We saw nothing, but our guide was soon peering at 4 dot-birds on the distant horizon with his spotting scope. He had zeroed in on not one, but four Andean Condors! As we watched, one dot kept looming larger and larger in the scope. In fact, it loomed so large we had to switch to binoculars. Within a matter of seconds, one condor had soared all the way from the distant ridge line to where we were standing, passing overhead not 200 yds from us. We had the most fantastic looks at an Andean Condor that anyone could ever dream up in their wildest fantasies. And of course, it happened while we had the wide-angle lens on the camera to take tundra photos (Murphy's Law strikes again). It sounds like a fish-that-got-away story, but we have witnesses that a condor flew directly overhead seemingly just to check us out. We continued walking down the road, and quickly found a pair of seedsnipe only 30 ft away. While we were taking photos of the seedsnipe, another (perhaps the same) condor soared toward us again, though not as close. We watched the bird while it was being harassed by a Variable Hawk and managed to take a couple pictures, but at much greater distance than the earlier sighting. Pretty exciting stuff in a place where chances of seeing a condor are maybe 20%. From there we drove down the other side of the pass toward the village of Papallacta. En route we stopped at some lakes, where we had distant scope looks at Speckled Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Ruddy-Duck, Andean Coot, and Andean Gull. As we neared the hot springs, we briefly spotted 2 more condors in the distance (again perhaps the same birds?). It was definitely the day of the condor for us.
After an overnight stay at Guango Lodge, we got up early and went birding on the grounds. Before long, 3 Andean Guans flew across the path directly in front of us. We had nice scope looks at a female that landed in the open. We found ourselves in a swirl of activity as a flock moved through the thick foliage. We were frustrated at not being able to see a vocalizing Black-capped Hemispingus that didn't want to show itself. Then we heard a prized Plushcap but couldn't see it. Out popped a Black-eared Hemispingus, followed by a Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant. We finally got a quick but good look at Black-capped Hemispingus, followed by good looks at Slaty Brush-Finch and Pale-naped Brush-Finch. Meanwhile, several Black-crested Warblers and Spectacled Whitestarts kept flitting about in the open until the flock moved on. Ten minutes later further down the path, we had great views of a Capped Conebill and also White-banded Flycatcher. We walked out onto a bridge over the adjacent river, where we quickly found White-capped Dipper and Torrent Tyrannulet. We also found a male, female, and young Torrent Duck standing on the far shore upstream a couple hundred yards from the bridge. Then we looked up into the vegetation above us and got great looks at a Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant. Later on we had very nice looks at a flock of 4 Northern Mountain-Caciques.
Back at the lodge, we met Tim Barksdale who was there as part of a multi-month photo expedition to film endangered and threatened birds in South America for a PBS documentary. He was doing a shoot at the hummingbird feeders outside the lodge entrance. We enjoyed hearing about his efforts to photograph an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas and his plans to try again this coming winter. At the feeders we saw Speckled Hummingbird, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Buff-tailed Coronet, Mountain Velvetbreast, Collared Inca, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, and White-bellied Woodstar.
Following breakfast we went back up to the Papallacta Water Plant, where our guide arranged access to their private road. This is a great birding location in early morning but is slower later in the day. We heard but didn't see Rufous and Streak-chested Antpittas as well as Paramo Tapaculo. Birds we saw included White-throated Tyrannulet, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Rufous Wren, Blue-backed Conebill, and Black Flowerpiercer.
After lunch, we packed up and headed downslope for Cabanas San Isidro. En route we saw White-capped Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, White-crested Elaenia, Golden-faced Tyrannulet, Inca Jay, Capped Conebill, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Golden Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Black-capped Tanager, Black-and-white Seedeater, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-browed Sparrow, Northern Mountain-Cacique, and Russet-backed Oropendola. That night we went out looking for owls and heard a Rufous-banded Owl calling in the distance. Our main goal was the mystery owl that has no name. People call it the San Isidro Owl for lack of a better name. This bird is intermediate in coloration between Black-and-White Owl and Black-banded Owl, leading some to believe it may be a hybrid. However, the mystery owl has a completely different call than either species and is also found at higher elevation than either species. The owners of San Isidro refuse to let scientists collect the owl, so no one quite knows what it is. We spent a bit of time looking for the owl and found it along the path leading to our cabana. Perhaps it will one day be another life bird if anyone ever figures out what it is.
We spent the following day birding trails in the private reserve around Cabanas San Isidro. Our first stop was a spot on the trail where one of the local guides was able to entice a White-bellied Antpitta into the open for nice looks. From there we headed into the forest, where we were quickly rewarded with a normally secretive Andean Solitaire that perched nicely right along the trail, affording us great looks. A Chestnut-crowned Antpitta also came out on the trail briefly, as they are prone to do in very early morning. We had nice scope views of both Crested Quetzal and Golden-headed Quetzal, which seemed to be hanging out together and following each other about in the forest canopy. Other notable birds we saw in the forest and along the road included Highland Motmot, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Long-tailed Antbird, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, White-tailed and Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulets, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Ornate Flycatcher, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Pale-edged Flycatcher, Sepia-brown Wren, Black-billed Peppershrike, Oleaginous and Black-eared Hemispingus, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, and Subtropical Cacique. That night we took a drive up the road to a cliff-side area where we saw several male and female Lyre-tailed Nightjars by spotlight.
We got up early next morning and spotted Rufous-bellied Nighthawk flying low over the parking area of the lodge. Our plan thereafter was to bird Guacamayos Ridge followed by the upper part of the Loreto Road. Guacamayos Ridge is an outcrop of the Andes that acts as a habitat island, drawing in a nice mix of birds from both higher and lower elevations. It can be a fantastic birding locale, but we arrived in steady rain and saw very little walking the trail for an hour or so. We did find Green-and-black Fruiteater, Grass-green Tanager, and Bluish Flowerpiercer, but not much else. We continued down to the Loreto Road and birded a while in the rain, which finally subsided. We had very good success there, seeing among other things White-eyed Parakeet, Lafresnaye's Piculet, Dark-breasted Spinetail, Line-cheeked Spinetail, Lined Antshrike, Yellow Tyrannulet, Mottle-backed Elaenia, Black-capped Donacobius, Olivaceous Greenlet, Olivaceous Siskin, Magpie Tanager, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, White-shouldered and White-lined Tanagers, Bronze-green Euphonia, Orange-eared Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Golden Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Swallow Tanager, Caqueta Seedeater, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, Lesser Seedeater, Golden-eyed Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-browed Sparrow. We also had brief looks at Black-mantled Tamarin, a rather `primitive' forest monkey. At a cliff-side area where we turned back up the road, we found Cliff Flycatcher, where we had many excellent looks as well as took pictures.
From there we continued on to Archidona, where we stayed at Hakuna Matata Lodge. The road to Archidona mainly passes through agricultural areas, but we saw a number of good birds on the way. These included Dusky-billed Parrotlet, Cobalt-winged Parrot, Mealy Amazon, Glittering-throated Emerald, Long-billed Starthroat, Gilded Barbet, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tyrant, White-lored Euphonia, and Orange-backed Troupial.
Next morning we planned an early start to El Para Reserve, a private forest reserve some 40 minutes from Archidona. However, the best laid plans don't always go as planned. The battery was dead in our vehicle. The owner of the lodge, Marcellina, was nice enough to drive us into town where we hired a taxi to go to the reserve. We left our driver behind to deal with the battery in our vehicle. We arrived early enough at El Para and had a hard time escaping the parking area because the birding was so good. We had nice scope views of Speckled Chachalaca, White-browed Purpletuft, and Yellow-bellied Tanager. We then spotted a pair of Lemon-throated Barbets looking for a nesting hole in a dead snag. We found a Chestnut Woodpecker hidden back in the shadows at the center of a huge tree. We had good scope views of a pair of Lettered Aracaris and quick but good looks at at Opal-crowned Tanager in a Cecropia tree. We saw Orange-fronted Plushcrown, White-browed Purpletuft, and Pink-throated Becard together in the same tree. We heard but never did see a Golden-collared Toucanet calling from the forest. With considerable diligence, we tracked down a Little Woodpecker that kept flying between trees and hiding in the canopy. Three hours after our arrival, we left the parking lot for the forest trails.
The trail was initially steep and muddy but then leveled out and was fairly easy most of the way thereafter. Our guide heard a Black-faced Antthrush calling and lured it out with playback. He told us to keep an eye on the trail, so I put my binoculars on the likely spot and within a minute the bird walked right into my field of vision. It crossed the trail so quickly, having binoculars already pre-positioned on the spot was the only way to get the bird with them. I had a quick but fantastic look. Just down the trail we spotted a White-fronted Nunbird that had flown up into a nearby tree and landed in the open. In the same spot, a Straight-billed Hermit flew right in front of us, hovering long enough for us to see it very well. Further along the trail, our guide spotted a male and female Fiery-throated Fruiteater feeding a fledgling on a branch. We turned around and there was a Collared Puffbird perching unobtrusively on a branch close enough that it filled our view in the scope. These were surely the birds of the day!
We set out early the following morning with our newly fixed vehicle, new battery and all. We planned on birding the remainder of the Loreto Road as well as the Sumaco Road before continuing on to Coca, where we would stay for the night. However, the best laid plans again didn't go quite as planned. The highway crew was busily at work on the upper part of road, and a section of the road was under construction and temporarily impassable. We were told the road would be closed until noon. So, we parked our vehicle in the increasingly long line of vehicles stuck behind the blockage and set out on foot. The problem was, we wanted to bird along the road on the other side of the construction from where we were and a backhoe was busily pushing rock and gravel down the hillside and onto the road, making it very dangerous to get by. We walked down and talked to the construction foreman, who was nice enough to have his crew halt work long enough for us to traverse the danger zone. We were soon birding between two work crews as we worked our way downhill. At least there was no traffic! We weren't exactly birding the preferred stretch of road, but we made the best of the situation. As it turned out, the situation wasn't a total loss. While walking down the road a pair of Amazonian Umbrellabirds flew across the road not far from us. We would have missed them had it not been for the construction delay. We also saw Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Golden-faced Tyrannulet, Cliff Flycatcher, Lemon-browed Flycatcher, White-vented Euphonia, Orange-eared Tanager, Yellow-bellied Tanager, Swallow Tanager, and Crested Oropendola along with various other birds we had seen many times before.
Two hours later shortly after 10:00, vehicles started going past us heading in our direction, so we knew the road was at least temporarily open. A slew of trucks, buses, and cars went by with no sign of our van. We were beginning to wonder what was going on when our van finally showed up. The road crew had apparently let vehicles they thought were less likely to get stuck in the construction area by first, and ours wasn't included in that group for some reason. Evidently a 4-wheel drive van was not considered as hardy as a number of dilapidated trucks and cars that were allowed through first. We were just happy they had opened the road back up, because we had an appointment to keep in Coca next day.
On the way to Coca we stopped in at a new lodge being built a couple miles up the Sumaco Road that may be well positioned for future birding groups visiting the Loreto Road. The lodge is supposed to be ready in a year but was a long way from being done. We did see a number of birds there, including Green Hermit, Gilded Barbet, Chestnut-eared Aracari, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Long-tailed Tyrant, White-thighed Swallow, Thrush-like Wren, and Giant Cowbird.
Coca is not the greatest place to stay overnight. The carnival-like atmosphere at the Hotel La Mision is not conducive to sleep, and the town itself is something of an oil boom town that is not very safe to walk around in. The hotel is safe enough, but the caged birds and animals are a major ethical issue and the sawed off, decoratively painted Boeing 707 they have mounted on a barge at the dock as a party boat is just not our style. They also insisted on blaring loud music for the party crowd, and it wasn't even a weekend. Needless to say, it's not a place where we will stay again. It is, however, the dock where the people from Napo Wildlife Center pick people up for transfer to the lodge.
Next day we were met at the dock for transfer into the Ecuadorian Amazon. The next 5 days and 4 nights would be the most exotic part of our trip. We were loaded onto a high speed covered motor launch along with 11 other persons and all the luggage for the two and a half hour boat trip down the Napo River to the mouth of Anangu Creek, a black-water tributary of the Napo River. The idea is to get there as fast as possible, so we did little birding on the main river. Once we reached the Anangu, we transferred to dugout canoes carved out of tree trunks. That is also where we met our birding guide, Giovanny Rivadeneira. We then set out upstream for the two and a half hour bird-rich transfer to Anangu Lake where the lodge is located. While our oarsmen paddled, we watched birds, monkeys, and other assorted creatures.
Nearly the first bird we saw was the Hoatzin, a bizarre crested bird slightly reminiscent of a chachalaca that is common, noisy, but spooky and hence difficult to photograph well. Black-capped Donacobius are common and noisy residents of marshy vegetation along the river. En route we spotted a number of really good birds, including a very secretive Zigzag Heron hiding under a shrub overhanging the riverbank, Blue-and-Yellow Macaws, Red-bellied Macaws and Cobalt-winged Parakeets flying overhead, a Great Potoo with a half-grown chick perched like a bump on a log at the end of a dead snag over the river, White-eared Jacamar, White-chinned Jacamar, White-necked Puffbird, Black-fronted Nunbird, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. We also saw Squirrel Monkeys that are more golden colored than those found in Central America and a 10-ft long Black Anaconda curled up in the underbrush on the bank of the river. Upon our arrival at the lodge shortly before dark, we were greeted dockside with punch and the raucous commotion of an active nesting colony of Yellow-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas. Welcome to the Amazon!
Our first full day in the Amazon, we loaded into a boat and crossed the lake. Our destination was the 120 ft. high observation tower set up in a huge Kapok tree that towers above the forest canopy. We spent much of the morning up there, but the sun was out and the day quickly became hot so bird activity greatly diminished by 9:00. From this tower we were able to see canopy birds but needed a spotting scope because many birds weren't close enough for easy viewing with binoculars. We had good views of Blue-and-yellow, Chestnut-fronted, and Red-bellied Macaws, and Cobalt-winged Parakeets flying above the canopy. We also spotted Black-tailed Trogons, Ivory-billed, Chestnut-eared, and Many-banded Aracaris, White-throated Toucan, Spangled Cotinga, Black-tailed Tityra, and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. After climbing down from the tower, we hiked further along the trail to a Blue-backed Manakin lek where we found one male deep in the underbrush. On the way back to the boat, we spotted a Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin hiding in a small tree.
Because the day was hot, we spent mid-day resting and looking at birds from the lower observation tower at the lodge. From the tower we saw a variety of additional birds, including Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Orange-winged Parrot, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, and Crimson-crested Woodpecker. Behind the lodge we saw a family of very colorful Golden-mantled Tamarins. Later in the afternoon, we set out by boat to explore the varzea (flooded) forest up a small black-water river flowing into the lake. Numerous White-winged Swallows were hunting insects over the lake. We spotted Plumbeous Kite and Crane Hawk flying overhead. We spotted a Gray-necked Wood-Rail lurking in the flooded understory. Other notable birds we saw included Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Amazonian Violaceous Trogon, White-fronted Nunbird, Long-billed Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antbird, Silvered Antbird, Dot-backed Antbird, Lesser Kiskadee, and White-lored Euphonia. We stayed out until after dark and were able to find a Sungrebe perched on the riverbank where we were able to see its unusual black and yellow feet. We also saw numerous Noctilio fishing bats flying about skimming the river surface in search of prey.
The following morning we left by dugout canoe for the Napo River, where the clay licks are located within Yasuni National Park. The people who visited the licks the day before said the parrots never came in because a hawk was nearby. We were concerned that this may happen again and we would miss our chance to see this incredible phenomenon. En route to the lick, we had quick looks at a Spectacled Owl we flushed from its roost near the riverbank. We also had great looks at Slender-billed Kite perched along the river, Chestnut-fronted Macaws that flew when they spotted us, a Long-billed Starfrontlet hovering over the river, a flying Long-billed Woodcreeper, White-necked Puffbird, Amazonian Umbrellabird that flew across the river, and a beautiful Masked Crimson Tanager. We also saw groups of White-faced Capuchin and Squirrel Monkeys up in the trees.
We arrived at the first site and heard the raucous noise of hundreds of parrots calling from the nearby trees and flying about. It was hard to even get good looks at the birds, as they were hidden by foliage and constantly moving about. We waited for some time without the birds coming to ground, but as we grew impatient our guide told us the birds would be coming into the lick soon. Somehow he knew, because 5 minutes later a group of Dusky-headed Parakeets landed on the lick. Not much later, Blue-headed Parrots and Yellow-crowned Parrots joined them. There was much squabbling and squawking as the bigger Blue-headed Parrots staked out their space among the smaller Dusky-headed Parakeets. The last birds to come in were the big Mealy Amazons, which were the most cautious but eventually took over much of the space at the lick.
We then went to the second clay lick, which has quite different topography and attracts different species of parrots. The main species visiting this lick are Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, Cobalt-winged Parakeet, and Orange-cheeked Parrot. Scarlet Macaws are also known to come into this lick, but we didn't see them during our visit. On the way back from the lick, we stopped to look at a family of Crested Owls at a known roost. This is an incredible bird and we were thrilled to see it. We also spotted a secretive and very colorful Sapphire Quail-Dove lurking in a creek bottom near the trail. On the way back to the lodge, we mainly heard but briefly saw a group of White-lipped Peccaries rooting around above the riverbank.
The following day we left early to bird the Tiputini Trail that goes through terra firme forest near Anangu Creek. We spent a full hour watching birds coming and going from a leafless Cecropia tree not far into the forest. During that time we saw Pied Puffbird, Scale-breasted Woodpecker, White-browed Purpletuft, Spangled Cotinga, Yellow-crowned Flycatcher, Black-tailed Tityra, Yellow-green Vireo, Masked Crimson Tanager, Opal-rumped Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Rufous-bellied Euphonia, Yellow-belled Dacnis, Black-faced Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, and Purple Honeycreeper. Nearby we spotted Black-bellied Cuckoo, Black-tailed Trogon, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, and Strong-billed Woodcreeper (heard, but not seen). We also had a distant look at Bare-necked Fruitcrow and with persistence had great looks at the scarce and hard to find Red-necked Woodpecker. Blue-and-yellow Macaws and Purple-throated Fruitcrows flew overhead. We had excellent looks at Cinnamon Attila and good scope views of a male White-crowned Manakin perched in the understory.
Late that afternoon we went back out in the dugout boat and had good looks of both perched and flying Cream-colored Woodpecker. We spotted a Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, which kept flying back and forth across the creek while we were looking for and at the Cream-colored Woodpecker. We also had good looks at a perched Little Cuckoo. At dusk we found a roosting Rufous-breasted Hermit that was already perched motionless in torpor. After dark we were able to find a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl perched along the river bank. We also saw many Noctilio bats and a small Black Caiman at water's edge.
Early the following morning we bid Napo Wildlife Center farewell. We birded our way back down Anangu Creek toward the Napo River. En route we saw two good birds, namely Agami Heron and Reddish Hermit. We were the only ones taking the motor launch back to Coca that day, so the crew was willing to slow down or circle back to check out interesting birds. That allowed us to stop for long looks at Swallow-winged Puffbird perched in the treetops along the river and an Orange-breasted Falcon sitting on top of a snag across the river. They were a fine exclamation point to a memorable visit to the Amazon headwaters.
We had a couple days left after our return to Quito, so we spent a day going down to Milpe on the west slope to look for lower elevation species. The weather was foggy and rainy so the birding wasn't fantastic. We found one good flock that contained White-winged Tanager and Glistening-green Tanager (which our guide saw but we missed), along with more common species we had seen many times before. While looking at a male Immaculate Antbird we found ourselves standing in a small swarm of red army ants, which proceeded to get up under our clothes. We can attest to the fact that they have a very nasty bite, as we frantically swatted, swiped, and smushed them as fast as we could find them. It was a heck of a way to end our trip to Ecuador, but it did not diminish our experience in the slightest. We absolutely loved everything we experienced in that wonderful country.
Our trip was a resounding success in terms of species count, photography, information gathering, weather conditions, and hassle-free logistics. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful, and they all contributed to making our trip a big success. Thank you all! We even saw the "mystery owl" at San Isidro.