On a final birding note we did see another very interesting hummingbird, a Black Tailed Trainbearer, however I was not able to get a closer shot than this, it never sat down for long enough. Ok, I'll have to go back.
I was well pleased with the Condor sightings and my bird list was growing rapidly, quite a few picked up today even though the rain cut our time short. Back in Quito I said goodbye and thanks to Gabriel, a super bird guide and thoroughly nice guy. I wish him every success in the future.
Saturday 28th November. Seven am pick up at the hotel and off to the mountains to the East of Quito to look for Condors and birds of the paramo. Paramo is the treeless, uninhabited, uncultivated rolling steppes just below the snow-limit. We would explore this habitat in the foothills of Mount Antisana, at 5704 m. the fourth highest peak in Ecuador. It is a glacier covered dormant volcano, unlike the second highest peak Cotopaxi (5897 m.) which became active this year.
We had tremendous views of Cotopaxi on the way. It is one of the highest volcanoes in the World which erupted in August this year and continues to rumble, a very threatening situation.
I had insisted on this excursion today which was not included in my original itinerary. What would be the point in coming to the Andes and not even trying to see a Condor. Also my appetite had been whetted by the photo below taken by my friend and tour companion Mike Martin, a couple of days before I arrived. It's a superb shot which captures the essence of the high peaks of the Andes.
I did manage to get quite a few similar shots today, the Condors were very active in the morning before the visibility closed in and it rained in the afternoon.
The next shot shows an adult Condor at much closer range flying past over the paramo. We had many excellent sightings of these iconic raptors, no close-up views but when the bird is so large that is less important. The images work well because of the setting against the glacier covered volcano.
Strangely the next shot is of a Sword Billed Hummingbird doing what hummingbirds do best, taking nectar from a flower. This was in taken the grounds of a small and very isolated restaurant, the only building for miles around that was set up opposite a Condor roost on the rock face a mile or so away across the paramo.
We continued to move higher and deeper into the paramo, getting quite frequent views of Condors but there were other birds to be recorded. This Paramo Pipit for example may not be as exciting as a Condor, but they all count.
I think I mentioned earlier that in Ecuador wherever you go you will see Hummingbirds. And so it was up here at altitude but they were mainly different from the lower species. I was very pleased to record this endemic Ecuadorian Hillstar for example. Not a bird that visits feeders so much harder to get.
There were numerous birds in the paramo scrub. This one is a Many Striped Canastero.
One of the most numerous and perhaps the easiest bird to spot was the Carunculated Caracara, a scavenging raptor that will eat carrion and small animals.
Fortunately in open country such as this any large birds are easy to spot. Black Faced Ibis were a frequent sighting, these being a subspecies (branickii) that is only found at altitudes of 3000 - 5000 m.
The next one is a Stout Billed Cinclodes. Not much to say about this one, well ok, it does have a stout bill.
Andean Gulls were numerous, it's a long way from the sea up here but they seem to like it.
The next four are purely record shots. The Alpacas are presumably domestic animals but I saw no fences or tethers. However there is nowhere to hide up here so it wouldn't be hard to find them.
It took some time and effort to get a decent shot of the little Grass Wren, but I thought it worth it. I like Wrens and this is a very nice one.
Next is a pair of juvenile Condors, they lack the white wing coverts of an adult bird.
Do you see the black cloud in the shot above. Well soon afterwards it was raining hard so we made our way back to the delightful restaurant opposite the Condor roost to have some lunch. They have a few feeders set up around the terrace and I was very pleased to get shots of three new species. Considering that I took these through plate glass windows and in the rain I think they came out very well. The first is a Giant Hummingbird which is almost twice the size of the next largest Hummer, it is about the same size as a European Starling.
And next is a beautiful Sparkling Violetear. A superb Hummer, my photo does not really do it justice.
Third is a Shining Sunbeam, a lovely name for a lovely bird but again photographed through glass and in the rain.
I also picked up a shot of a Black Flowerpiercer in the flowers close to where the Sword Billed Hummer was seen earlier that day.
I know this is a birding blog, but on the way back to Quito we came across a village fiesta with a temporary bullring where the local lads were testing their matadoring skills. We stayed and watched the fun. I am pleased to say the bulls were not hurt, once they were tired out they were expertly lassoed and led back into the pen.
It all looked great fun as the guys showed off their courage and skills.
One chap did get tossed and then received a bit of a mauling, thankfully he got up and walked away.
Saturday 21st/Sunday 22nd November. At the hotel in Quito I met the other members of the forthcoming tour, all two of them. Mike Martin from Perth in Scotland and our local guide Gabriel Bucheli Suarez of Quito. If I could personally choose my ideal colleagues for a bird tour I could not do better than these two. Mike, a consultant social worker and a keen birder is excellent company, and Gabriel is the young, university educated guide with encyclopaedic knowledge of the birds, and importantly of their calls.
Gabriel picked Mike and I up at six in the morning and drove us to Las Gralarias Lodge. I won't go into detail here about the Lodge, the Reserve and the las Gralarias foundation but interested parties can follow the link, http://reservalasgralarias.com/history_2.html All I will say is that it stands on its own nature reserve and the Lodge is spacious, comfortable and welcoming, and the food is outstanding.
After settling in and watching the Hummingbirds around the various feeders for a while we set off to walk some of the forest trails through the Reserve. The first bird of note was this beautiful Masked Trogon, a superb introduction to the birds of Las Gralarias.
Even better was to come. In a stretch of deep forest Gabriel said "See the bird on that tall, dead treestump". Well I looked but all I saw was the treestump. So Gabriel said take a closer look and then I saw it, a Common Potoo. What an extraordinary sight. Later we could hear the haunting and sonorous call of the Potoo at night, a lovely sound.
If you look closely you can see a Chick nestled snugly between the adult bird's legs. Potoos remain frozen in this position to remain inconspicuous during daylight then at night take off to catch flying insects. They build no nest and lay just one egg, so at night the egg or chick is left on the stump or branch, whatever the bird has chosen as a roost. It would be easy to walk right past a Potoo and never see it, the camouflage is that good.
Another bird I was pleased to see through a gap in the trees was this very elegant Swallow Tailed Kite, I had seen them before in Florida but it is definitely a good bird to see at any time, pure black and white with a long forked tail, nice.
Back at the Lodge I was lucky to capture a Grey Breasted Wood Wren in the gardens before it made a sharp exit. It's a bird we heard all the time but rarely caught a glimpse of.
Here's an interesting garden bird. This Sickle Winged Guan would sneak in from the forest to raid the bananas on the fruit feeder. Quite a weight on the bird table. At the first sign of any human though it was off so I had to use some stealth to capture this shot by lurking around the corner of the house.
There are an incredible 133 species of Hummingbird in Ecuador, many of them endemic. With feeders at every lodge and at many other locations too they become part of the scenery, and after a while one hardly notices them, I really didn't try to photograph them all it was just too much. However the Violet Tailed Sylph is one of the most beautiful species so I did make an effort in this case. Here is my best shot. You can see why I liked it.
The Oilbird Grotto
There are many strange birds in Ecuador and the Oilbird is definitely one of the strangest. It looks like a cross between an owl, a a falcon and a nightjar. It is nocturnal and although it looks fierce in fact it only eats fruit. Oilbird groups spend the daylight hours in caves or dark rocky places such as this narrow, overganging ravine that I call a grotto, although I wouldn't expect to see Santa in here.
In order to photograph these birds it was necessary to use flash. I don't like doing this but it had no visible effect upon them. Perhaps they are used to it as they are something of a tourist attraction, one has to arrange a visit in advance and there is a fee to the landowner. It is located near the town of Chontal in Northern Pichincha which was about one and a half hours drive from our lodge in the Mindo/Tandayapa area. It was worth the trip
Oilbirds are the only nocturnal fruit feeding birds in the World. They eat the fruits of the oil palm and tropical laurels and chicks were formerly collected and boiled down for their oil, hence the name. They have specially adapted eyesight but also navigate by echolocation, like bats, the only bird known to do so. Their call has been likened to the screams of tortured men but they also make loud clicking noises for echolocation purposes.
What more can I say? a fascinating bird and a species well worth seeing.
After this we did some general birding from the car as we made our way home along some small country roads, and I remember that there were not many photo opportunities because of intermittent rain and poor light. However I did ask Gabriel to stop for a few seconds so I could photograph a Black Vulture, posing nicely with outstretched wings on a palm frond. Also a handsome Roadside Hawk showed nicely. We saw many of these fine looking raptors, probably because as their name suggests, they hang out by the roadsides.
At some stage in the afternoon we stopped somewhere with fruit feeders as I have shots of several small birds taking advantage of free food. The one below is a Chestnut Capped Brush Finch.
The Blue Winged Mountain Tanager is another fine looking member of this large and usually spectacular family. There are at least 93 species of Tanager plus many other closely related cousins so they always brighten up a birding session. Regardless of habitat or location there are always tanagers to seen.
The same could be said for Hummingbirds and although they are most easily observed at feeders we came across hummers at virtually every location, from high Andes to Amazon rain forest and everything in between. One can be trekking through dense jungle and hummers whizz past your head like bees. Trouble is they move so fast you rarely get a chance to identify them in those circumstances. This one however sat nicely for a photo which was pleasing as the Velvet purple Coronet is not one of the most common varieties.
Many other birds are seen than the ones illustrated by photographs here. Examples of other birds seen today are Barred Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper, White Tipped Dove, Squirrel Cuckoo, Bronze Winged Parrots, Chestnut Collared Swifts, Lesser Swallow Tailed Swift,Tawny Bellied Hermit, Rufous Tailed and Loja Hummingbirds, Fawn Breasted Brilliant, Buff Tailed Coronet, Gorgeted Sunangel,Booted Rackettail, Pale Mandibled Aracari, Pacific Hornero, Slaty Spinetail,Common Tody, Cinnamon, Social and Golden Crowned Flycatchers, Cinnamon Becard, Scaled Fruiteater,Brown Capped Vireo, Blue & White Swallow, Blackburnian Warbler, Slate Throated Whitestart, Masked & White Sided Flowerpiercers, Orange Bellied Euphonia, Beryl Spangled, Flame Faced, Swallow, Blue Capped, lemon Rumped, White Lined and Dusky Bush Tanagers, Variable Seed Eater, Orange Billed and Rufous Collared Sparrows. I have even omitted some of the common species but one can see just what birding is like in Ecuador.
Monday 23rd November. We left the Lodge early to bird the lower sub-tropical forest area around Milpe. The forest here should hold some different species from the higher cloud forest of yesterday. Sure enough it wasn't long before we spotted a party of Choco Toucans. I immediately thought of those Guiness adverts when I saw this bird. It is a stunner and it was great fun watching them frolic around in the tall trees, they appeared to be very sociable with a lot of mutual preening and close contact. very nice to see.
Bronze Winged Parrots were giving regular fly-pasts but getting a photo opportunity was not easy, particularly as the light was very poor and they liked to sit a long way off in tall treetops. I did the best I could under the circumstances.
The next interesting bird was a stunning female Choco Trogon. An alternative name for this Bird is the Blue Crowned Trogon. The word Choco refers to one of the great ecosystems of South America. It includes areas that begin in the lowlands of Panama, bordering the Pacific Ocean, to Ecuador. Known for its biological diversity, the Choco is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. It is of course being destroyed rapidly and there is very little left in Ecuador. The culprit as usual is the palm oil industry which wipes out every living creature as well as indiginous human communities, but then big business can pay off corrupt politicians so nothing will stop it. Anyway many birds in this region are referred to as "Choco" although they may have another, more formal name. It is actually best to use the latin or scientific names to be precise, but I am not a scientist, nor an academic. I am a birder.
I say this was a stunning bird which it was from the back, but a frontal view showed a deep division down the centre of the breast which does not look natural to me. I have no idea what caused it but the bird looked healthy otherwise. We will never know.
Eventually all the World's forests will be gone but for a few small preserves, maintained for eco-tourism or by well meaning philanthropists. The only forest birds left will be those that can cohabit with homo sapiens, taking food from feeders and living in reserves and gardens. The Orange Billed Sparrow below below is feeding on a fruit feeder, one of many in this part of Ecuador. It is certainly more colourful than our own sparrow species and hopefully one that will adapt to a changing habitat.
Here are a few more of the many stunning birds attracted to feeders. The Rufous Throated Tanager below is a stunner, my photo does not do it justice.
Tanager species try to outdo each other in colours. The Glistening Green Tanager has developed a wonderful shining green coat that looks almost unreal, like a child artists impression of a bird, amazing, but photos do not do it justice.
The Blue Winged Mountain Tanager is a faily common and widespread species . . .
. . . unlike the Moss Backed Tanager below, a very localised species only seen in a small region of NW Ecuador. It is also very timorous and would occasionally dash in to the feeders & be gone again in a flash, so I had to be quick and was pleased to get a shot of this very attractive and hard to get little bird.
Last but not least for the moment is the Golden Naped Tanager, a mostly blue species but the chestnut coloured crown gives it its name. A widespread species often seen in mixed flocks.
Ok I hope these photos show just what a spectacle even casual visitors to Ecuador can expect to see once they get out of town. However this kind of photography, although challenging in the poor light conditions, is not really demanding enough, so after eating our boxed lunches at the feeders I was keen to get back to hunting birds in the deep forest.
The next one may be less attractive than the Tanagers and other table feeders, but it is very much harder to get and therefore more to my taste. What it lacks in charm it more than makes up for in name, the Scaly Throated Foilage Gleaner is quite a mouthful but is very descriptive. Although quite large this family of birds is hard to see in the forest canopy and I did well to get this shot.
Update I found another shot from the same day of a different bird (two hours apart). This one looks more like a Scaly Throated Foilage Gleaner than the one above, so I have asked Gabriel for an opinion, awaiting the reply. 01/01/2016.
The Quetzal is an enigmatic bird and was one of my target species. I had seen many photos of this beauty and was finally very pleased to have several sightings. However today the light was poor and the bird was some distance away, but because I was so pleased to see it, here it is.
The Summer Tanager is absolutely stunning, but it does not visit feeders and is very hard to find even though it is bright red. I managed to get a couple of very distant shots but you can see just what a superb bird it is, and very unusual for a Tanager to be all one colour, but what a colour.
Another hard to photo bird, the Swallow Tanager may be quite common but it doesn't visit feeders and I only managed a distant shot, but here it is for the record.
Here's a nice little bird that will probably survive the forest destruction. The Bananaquit is a cute little chap which can be seen around parks and gardens eating flowers. Strangely I don't think it eats bananas! I had to use flash to capture this image as the light was particularly bad. In fact it was raining at the time which drew our forest birding to a close for the day, but we had seen a lot and I looked forward to more later.
I finsh today's report with a shot I don't remember taking and it was not listed for the day. Perhaps I took it whilst Gabriel was otherwise occupied & didn't notice. It is a White Necked Jacobin, strange name as it doesn't have a white neck, perhaps it refers to the female. Anyway this discovery in my photo portfolio, definitely taken on 23rd Nov, takes my tally up to 420 species. A nice find.
Refugio Paz de las Aves
Tuesday 24th November. Today we made a very early start, breakfast at 4.30 in order to get to Paz de las Aves in time to catch the Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks at the lek. As it happens we were there well in time and were in for a good display. The following is a description from the internet,-
The Refugio Paz de Las Aves is a private property of 120 hectare, of which 70 hectare are the forest protected by the Paz family. The site is located at roughly 1850 m in elevation. Most of the protected area consists of steep primary forest. The Paz brothers, Angel and Rodrigo, are the local guides on their land, and are certainly well able to look for the best places to find the bird specialties protected at their property. Many of the birds from Refugio Paz de Las Aves can be also seen in the Mindo Valley, but their place is world famous because is one of the few places anywhere to see at least four antpitta species without disturbing their behavior by means of sound play back. The brothers, nearly miraculously, call these species in with food and gentle calls.
Strangely this description does not even mention the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, I am not sure why. Anyway upon arrival we walked up a short forest trail to reach the blinds from where we watched these spectacular birds. It was pre-dawn and very dark, but after a short wait our patience was rewarded by the arrival of a superb male Cock-of-the-Rock. It was somewhat frustrating that the light was so poor that I had to set my ISO up to 6400 to even get an exposure.
However as time went on even more males arrived and as the light improved, so did my photographs. I was never able to reduce the ISO setting to less than 5000 and as any photographer knows this is not conducive to getting great quality results. My Canon EOS 7D is also well known for high noise levels in low light, but looking at the images I was actually quite pleased. Since being in Indo-China I am quite used to zapping up the ISO to get the shot, it's better than getting nothing.
This was a tough act to follow, but we were then treated to the spectacle of the Paz brothers calling out their semi-tame antpittas from the forest. Each one had a name would you believe. As I recall Esmerelda was the Moustached Antpitta, or was it Maria? I'm not sure but they all had names and seemed to know them, or perhaps it was the promise of some juicy ragworms rather than just wanting to be sociable.
Some were easier to coax out than others and in fact one of the Brothers had to go off into the forest to find the birds, but find them he did. Next was the Giant Antpitta. Remember these birds are incredibly hard to see by normal birdwatching. The usual method is to use playback to attract them into sight once their call has been detected. Here no playback was used, the birds came on the promise of some grub, no pun intended, or perhaps just responding to their names.
The chaps above feeding on banana are Dark Backed Wood Quail, and the fellow below was an extremely timid Rufous Backed Antshrike, a very difficult bird to see and one that took a long time to get even a murky view of.
This organised bird show did not happen just in one place, we were moving from site to site depending on where the various birds usually appeared, and meanwhile we were also looking out for other birds, and in this we had some success. For example peering down a steep slope we spotted a Crested Guan nestling with spread wings on the ground. We believe it was "Anting". I quote from www.birds.com
Anting behaviour is when birds open their wings and lie down over an active anthill allowing ants to climb up onto them for reasons not fully understood, but it does seem that one part of anting remains consistent: birds prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Ants use the formic acid as a defense mechanism, they spray it at their attackers, but it seems to provide birds with a certain something that scientists would love to discover.
One theory is that the formic acid could be a fungicide, bactericide and/or an insect repellent, while others choose to believe that it's the vitamin D content in the acid that birds are after.
Whatever the reason this Crested Guan was definitely anting, and I only managed to get a reasonable photo when it finally folded its wings.
There happened to be a small rocky river running through the refuge where we were pleased to see a White Capped Dipper plying its trade amongst the rocks. Very nice.
As well as the Dipper a Torrent Tyrranulet was foraging for insects along the riverside. These birds are always seen close to water.
And in the tall trees by the river, looking down upon us was a Broad Winged Hawk.
After Paz de Los Aves it felt like a whole day had passed, but because of our early start we still had the entire afternoon left for birding. So onward and upward to the Mindo - Nanbillo Cloud Forest Reserve where more special birds were in store. By now rain was coming down intermittantly but it didn't dampen the spirits of a group of Chestnut Mandibled Toucans who moved about in the tall trees all around us, making lots of noise and being seemingly oblivious to our presence. This Toucan species is very similar to the Choco, but there are slight differences in bills and call.
Out here I was delighted to get an excellent shot of a Golden Tanager in a forest setting, away from any feeders.
The next shot is not of the same quality, but it's a lovely Beryl Spangled Tanager and I think it's worth posting in its natural forest setting.
It was becoming apparent that birds were more active when there is heavy cloud cover or even rain. Gabriel told us about this quite early on, and so it proved as the rainy conditions brought out the birds in numbers. The Toucan Barbet below was a superb looking bird which in good light would have made an outstanding photo. But you can't have everything and with my ISO set at 2500 I at least got record shots of a great bird.
There's not much one can say about the Crimson Rumped Toucanet, the pictures say it all, fabulous. This was bird watching at its very best, the birds and the forest were amazing.
Sometimes it was hard to know where to look, trying to get a bead on the Toucanet & Gabriel announces "Powerful Woodpecker!" which is a large and uncommon species that one shouldn't miss, but the Toucanet... oh well try to get both. Made it.
I have seen many woodpeckers but this is one of the best. Well proportioned, strikingly marked, strong. Aptly named.
Plenty of small birds about too, a Slate Throated Whitestart comes into view.
and a common House Wren showed quite well on a nice sloping tree trunk.
This is a very innocuous looking Yellow Bellied Elaenia taking some berries. Not the most exciting bird in the World but they all count, and I love the name, so here it is.
Eventually we left the forest and made our way into Mindo Town. Here we searched the Town Centre Gardens and found a few more birds to add to our tally. Hopping around on the grass was a nice Pacific Hornero. A common bird but one that I needed a decent photograph of, and here it is.
A pair of Masked Water Tyrants were nesting in a garden tree. Striking looking birds in black and white. They are common but still attractive.
On a final footnote, I discovered one more bird not previously listed. I took this photo at the Paz de los Aves after the Cock-of-the-Rock lek while we were waiting to see the Antpittas. I remember spotting a humminbird perched within good range, fired off a shot and thought no more of it. Looking at it carefully now there is little doubt that it is a Brown Inca. Not otherwise recorded this adds another species to my trip tally which it currently stands at 421.
It had been a long but very satisfying day. More birds than ever and of such quality. We slept well that night
Wednesday 25th November. Today we visit Silanche. The Silanche Bird Sanctuary is an 80 hectare preserve owned and protected by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation. This site is one of the last remnants of Chocó lowland rainforest in the region. To see many of the specialties found there you would otherwise have to visit forests much further north. The elevation of this sanctuary ranges from 300 to 350 meters above sea level. The Sanctuary holds a small portion of tall mature forest, good sections of tall second-growth, and a few sections with plots of agro-forestry. It is about an hours and a half in the car to the west of Mindo, or three hours from Quito. Let's see what we can find.
The Little Cuckoo is the least common of the three. It is only Little in the sense that it is smaller than the more common Squirrel Cuckoo which it resembles in other respects. Not only were we lucky to see this one but it was perched in the open and did not take fright and fly off, allowing me to take some good pictures. This is quite unusual for a normally very shy species.
Next was another Hummingbird, I think it is a Green Thorntail but it looks nothing like the illustration in the fieldguide. My friend Mike Martin pointed out that Hummers look entirely different depending upon the aspect and how the light catches them, because they are iridescent and change color with the angle of reflection.
Once in the forest we started picking up some really interesting species. The male White-Bearded Manakin (below) is well known for performing a fascinating breeding display at a communal lek. Each male clears a patch of forest floor to bare earth, and perches on a bare stick. The display consists of rapid leaps between sticks and the ground, accompanied by a loud wing snap, the whirring of the wings, and a chee-poo call. Groups of up to 70 birds may perform together. I would love to see it. They are so named because the males can puff out the throat feathers like a beard.
Soon after the manikin we came across an Orange Fronted Barbet attending its nest site. Apparently they not uncommon here in this forest, but as forest disappears the species is threatened as it is only found in Western Ecuador and extreme SW Columbia.
Barbets nest in holes that they chisel out of dead trees. They are powerful and usually quite colourful birds.
The Barbet may be nice, but it's not as big or colorful as a Motmot. This is a Broad Billed Motmot, one of the smallest of the family. It's fond of eating fiercely stinging insects which is fine by me. Not globally threatened but in serious decline in West Ecuador due of course to habitat loss. We had excellent views of this one in this brilliant little forest reserve.
After the Motmot something completely different, another Hummingbird but not on a feeder. This one is possibly a Violet Bellied Hummingbird but I'm not sure. Gabriel is consulting with friends on this one.
Here is another shot of the same bird, taken in the forest just seconds later which illustrates the point I made earlier about the difference aspect and light reflection makes, is its head purple or turquoise? the answer is it can be either.
The Purple Headed Fruit Crow is what it says on the tin. A crow with a purple throat which likes to eat fruit, simple!
Yes, Toucans again. This time Chestnut Mandibled Toucans which are a subspecies - (swainsonii) - of the Black Mandibled Toucan. Difficult to tell apart but the bill coloration is definitely a deep chestnut brown as opposed to black.
Back to less ostentatious birds. The Streaked Flycatcher below brought us down to earth from the extravaganza of exotic species. It was something of a relief to see more of a "Normal" bird for a change.
The little blip of "normality" didn't last long. There were those Aracaris again. I have got to the bottom of the confusion between Collared and Pale Mandibled Aracari species. I discovered on the internet that the Pale Mandibled (pteroglossus erythropigious) is sometimes listed as a subspecies of the Collared Aracari (pteroglossus torquatus). The main differences being bill and chest spot coloration. I believe that as the Pale Mandibled predominates here it is the only one of the two listed in my bird list.
These birds clearly have the pale lower mandible and I am just counting the one species on my trip list.
As we came out of the forest into more open areas things began to get back to "Normal". A pair of Masked Water Tyrants were strutting their stuff on an overhead wire, why? I have no idea but it was funny to watch. Pompous little so-and-so's.
Then the more exotic birds started to show again, at least a Hook Billed Kite is exotic to me. This species can have very wide variations in color and plumage pattern, but there's no mistaking that profile, a bill designed for hooking out snails from their shells is distinctive.
There are other Kites with similar hooked bills, in particular the Snail Kite, but it's quite different in color. I believe this is the female of the species which is every bit as good looking as the male, if not better.
By now it was getting late and the light was fading so we started to make our way home. However there are always birds to see along the way. This Band Tailed Pigeon sat up nicely to be photographed from the car.
and at another stop we picked up this nice Streak Headed Woodcreeper. A good bird to finish the day with.
However, once we got home there was a not-so-little surprise awaiting. They had a visitor at the Lodge, an earthworm. But not any old earthworm, a sodding great big one, it must have been a meter long. The Giant Earthworm! I saw a BBC documentary of a monster leech swallowing one of these giants whole, unpleasant to say the least. I'm glad there were no leeches to contend with in Ecuador.
Thursday 26th November. Today we sadly said goodbye to Mike who was heading off to Quito then home to Perth in Scotland. He started on the tour a day or two before me so I had some catching up to do. Gabriel and I visited Mashpi Cloud Forest, site of an ultra-luxury eco lodge which restricts access to much of the area unless you stay there. However there is plenty of good cloud forest still accessible, plus at Amagusa Farm a local couple have set up feeders and monitor the bird life in the area, and for a small fee will introduce visitors to their domain. Mashpi Lodge hit the news recently when a new species of tree frog was discovered there.
I will post a few photos of the landscape and the forest today so the reader will get a feel for the environment we are in. Cloud forest in Ecuador is at an elevated altitude on the slopes of the Andes which typically have very high levels of rainfall. In fact the most useful article of clothing I brought along was a good, lightweight rain poncho. All the eco lodges provide guests with rubber boots (Wellies) which are much better suited to walking the forest trails than hiking boots.
First bird photo of the day is a moody shot of a Broad Winged Hawk. The cloud forest was living up to its name but I think the misty conditions enhance the feel of this image. It imparts a feeling for the dank, humid conditions & make it a very realistic shot.
There were plenty of birds around but in such resticted visibility getting any worthwhile shots was difficult. until the Quetzal that is. I had been itching to get good views of this bird and bingo, today was the day. This was a Golden Headed Quetzal, not a rare bird and in these conditions it's not a great photo, but I was thrilled. Thank you Quetzal.
As we drove up a long hill through the dense forest the ground rose up steeply on one side of the track. Here is a typical view taken through the window of our 4x4.
Along here we came across a local woman studying something on the steep bank. She was the lady who, together with her husband ran the birding station on their property further up the hill, Amagusa Farm. We stopped to see what her interest was, and it took me some time before I could make out what it was she had found. can you see it?
It is in fact a sleeping Lyre Tailed Nightjar. Now that's what I call camouflage! I don't know how she had located it but without her we would not have stood a chance. After peering at it curiously for a few minutes and taking the obligatory photos, we moved on and left it in peace. In fact I think I can see it's eyes cracked open slightly, but it otherwise did not move a muscle.
So the lady mounted her motorbike and we followed her up to her birdwatching place on Amagusa Farm. The first spot was mainly hummingbird feeders but up here were some new species for me so I took some photos....
This one, above and below, is a Velvet Purple Coronet. It is a particularly colorful hummer and that purple velvet really glows. A beauty.
And another I hadn't seen before, the Purple Bibbed Whitetip.
Two poor photographs next, here for the record. My excuse is it was raining now and sometimes they just won't sit still. On the left with a long downcurved bill is a White Bearded Hermit, and on the right a little Green Thorntail.
The last shot is a better photo of a male Green Thorntail. The bird above is a female.
The Empress Brilliant I have seen frequently before but don't remember if I have a decent record shot, so here it is.
And finally a Violet Tailed Sylph again , yes seen many times before, but I like it.
These are just a few of the hummers that were floating about, often chasing each other and sometimes engaging in real fisticuffs, I saw a couple of little ones going at it tooth and nail to the extent that they fell to the ground and carried on fighting. I guess it's the territorial instinct which they need to overcome if they are to visit feeders which attract birds from a wide area.
I noticed this Bronze Winged Parrot watching proceedings from the wings, he didn't think he was spotted but I tagged him.
From the hummer site we went to another glade where they had set up fruit feeders where we watched the Tanagers and others coming to eat bananas. I have already posted most of the photos previously but here's another look at the unreal Glistening Green Tanager. An below that is a rather nice shot of a Dusky Bush Tanager looking quite attractive.
While sorting through my photos I found some of an Ecuadorian Hillstar. I wouldn't have expected to see the highland hummingbird here, but there it is. No mistaking the date on the file. (Update 20/12 Reviewed this photo and correct it to a White-necked Jacobin).
After lunch spent watching Tanagers and Hummingbirds we decided to explore along some quite open forest trails. I post a couple of shots of a tree in which the next birds were photographed. I hope it gives an idea of the conditions and the environment.
This is what it looks like standing below looking for birds up into the branches.
And below you can see what we did, a pair of Orange Breasted Fruiteaters. Fine looking birds that were moving around in the upper branches quickly, making it difficult to get a clear shot. The shot below is the male.
The female was somewhat easier as she moved out into the open giving much clearer views as she fed on the fruit of the laurel tree.
Here below is another look at the brightly coloured male, now out of the laurel tree. A handsome chap in gold, black and orange. This species is native to the foothills and slopes of the western Andes and its range extends from southwestern Colombia to southwestern Ecuador, mainly between the altitudes of 600 and 1,900 metres. A cool bird.
By now the light was really fading so we made our way slowly back to las Gralarias Lodge, stopping along the way to pick up more bird species. Unfortunately I did not get any more Photos worth posting, but it had been a good day.
Friday 27th November. Last day at las Gralarias Lodge today, this afternoon I will transfer to Quito ready for an excursion up into the higher Eastern Andes tomorrow. This morning we searched the trails around the Lodge for some of the birds that the resident Lodge guide had found recently. And very successful it was too with the first major find being a magnificent Plate Billed Mountain Toucan, a beautifully coloured bird much better looking than illustrations in the field guide suggest. Although not uncommon here it has a very limited range being restricted to a narrow strip of sub-tropical forest in Ecuador's Western Andes.
I managed to get a couple of decent shots which show just what a stunning bird this one is and so nice to see wild and free in its natural habitat.
As we moved around in this small forest reserve it became apparent that even a relatively small area of unspoilt forest can harbor a good number of species. All you have to do is look and be patient.
The next significant sighting was a beautiful Crimson Mantled Woodpecker. I have seen many woodpeckers but this one has to be my favourite. Unfortunately I was not able to get really clear shots but you can see from these images the startling colouration. It is definitely crimson mantled with a strikingly clown-like white face, a red and white speckled chest and yellow underparts and black & white tail. The face is extraordinary, like a carnival mask. A truly stunning woodpecker.
I did not know that the Barn Owl (Tyto alba) is the most widely distributed species of owl, and one of the most widespread of all the World's birds. Although it is a tyto alba I must say it doesn't look the same as the Barn owls I see in in Britain, and ornithology does recognise different sub-species depending upon location. This New World bird is much bigger than those I am used to, and I think it has darker plumage. Anyway it was a very large bird and a pleasure to see.
Hard to decide which was bird-of-the day but the Crimson Mantled Woodpecker impressed me the most. Before lunch and departing for Quito I snapped a few more hummingbirds to pass the time and this shot of a Velvet purple Coronet came out quite well.
And so I said goodbye to las Gralarias Lodge which had been my comfortable base for the past week, enjoying high standards of cooking and comfort and during which time I had so many new and interesting birding adventures. I hope to return one day.
I finish the day's account with a nice photo of a Glossy Flowerpiercer that I believe I took up at Silanche, but it could just as well have been here, and last but not least a nice shot of a Southern Lapwing that we picked up on the way to Quito.
Birding Adventures in Ecuador
An Andean Condor wheels across the face of Antisana, the fourth highest volcano in Ecuador at 5704 m and located 50 kms SE of Quito. The Condor is an iconic bird of the Andes and so I think this shot captures the essence of the high regions of Ecuador.
Wednesday 18 - Friday 20th November. My flight touched down in the evening of 18th Nov. and after quickly dispensing with airport formalities my driver whisked me up over the Papallacta Pass (4200 m) and on to Guango Lodge where I would spend a couple of days acclimatising and seeing the first of Ecuador's 1663 species of birds.
Ecuador can justifiably be described as the World's best birding destination. It has the third highest species list after neighbouring Columbia and Peru, in that order. However Ecuador is much the smallest of the three with excellent infrastructure and a well established network of eco lodges and facilities for birders and nature tourism. Guango Lodge at 2800m is situated just one hour's drive east of Quito's new airport. It is well known as a hummingbird centre but there is plenty more to see in the local area, so it's a good place to start my two week holiday, having taken advantage of cheap stand-by flights from my son Tom who is a pilot with British Airways.
Sure enough the place abounds with Hummingbirds, attracted by the feeders, and it was here that I realised the limitations of my little f5.6 lens, which is fine for the bright light of Spain, but in a cloud forest is hopelessly outclassed by the big glass of some of the other photographers here. Nevertheless I was determined to do the best with my limited equipment and with the aid of flash managed to capture a few half decent images. The Swordbill Humminbird above was one of my favourites.
Photographing hummingbirds is alright for some, but for me bird photography is a form of hunting, and shooting birds provided on a virtual plate is not very satisfying, it's like hunters shooting pheasants put up by beaters, what kind of nerd gets any pleasure from that? So off I went in search of some real wild birds.
As I walked through a fairly dense thicket I captured a rather stunning little blue bird with the aid of fill-in flash. I would soon discover that the Masked Flowerpiercer was in fact quite common around the feeders, but I was pleased with this shot taken in more difficult circumstances.
I spotted quite a number of birds on my walks but they were all new species to me. That's one advantage of using the camera, I can shoot first and ask questions later. The pretty little birds below are in fact Spectacled Whitestarts which I discovered later from the field guide. They are quite common in the temperate forest and I did spot them quite often in the next few days.
I had been keen to see a Torrent Duck. This enigmatic species is an Andean endemic which inhabits fast flowing "white" waters. It feeds on invertebrates and molluscs for which it forages under submerged stones and boulders or behind waterfalls, much like a Dipper. Guango Lodge stands close to such a fast flowing mountain river and after many attempts I finally found a solitary male, a handsome bird indeed.
European birders have just two types of tree-creeper plus a single similar Nuthatch to contend with, but here there are twenty four "Wood Creepers" plus another four with longer curved bills known as "Scythebills".
Then there are the Treerunners (Pearled Treerunner below), not to mention the very similar Palmcreepers, Treehunters, Tuftedcheeks, Foilage Gleaners, Barbtails and others who all inhabit the same environment and look very much alike. Bird guides here certainly have their work cut out!
It's a similar story with other bird types. We have but one Wren, Ecuador has twenty six varieties, of which I saw eight. It's just birding on a different level, and I like it. This little Mountain Wren is perhaps the plainest one that I saw, and I had to use flash to get this shot in the forest.
The next one is much bigger but still quite plain compared to some, the Rufous Wren likes temperate forest and this one is foraging for insect food amongst the moss and lichen that coats many of the tree trunks in this moist environment.
The Hooded Mountain Tanager is a fiercely proud looking bird, and so it should be with that bright gold chest, gunmetal blue wings and jet black hood with an eye like a ruby. That's a fine looking bird.
Antpittas are very sought after by birders, mainly because they are normally very secretive forest birds and hard to see. However some enterprising locals have realised the benefits of regularly feeding them such that they will come when called. It adds to the appeal of the Lodge, or in some cases birders will pay a fee to see the birds that would otherwise prove extremely difficult. Without realising what I was seeing I noticed this little chap almost hopping onto my foot as I stood quietly watching the Hummingbirds. He was too close to photograph and as I tried to move away he scuttled off, so I had to be content with this shot taken as he was coaxed out into a dark space in the bushes at feeding time.
And so my first two days in Ecuador came to an end. Guango Lodge had been a good introduction to the birds of this amazing country but tomorrow my real guided birding tour would begin, so it was back to Quito to be picked up by my guide at six next morning. I will end this section with another shot of almost my first bird in Ecuador, the attractive little Rufous Breasted Chat Tyrant
This is a list of the 418 species seen and positively identified. For me this would have been impossible without professional guides,. The list only includes birds seen, many more were heard but are not included, nor are birds seen by my guide but not properly by myself. Two species, the Ecuadorian Hillstar and The Cocha Antshrike (Underlined) are true Ecuadorian Endemics. Many others are endemic to certain habitats which cross some national boundaries, eg Choco, Paramo, Upper Amazon but I did not annotate them here.
Here are a few photographs that did not get included in the main blog for one reason or another. I don't really like Hummingbirds on feeders but would like to record them if they are all I have. Others were just missed because I have so many it takes time to review them all. Some are poor shots but are just records of species. Some are better edits. Whatever the reason this blog acts as an archive and I am updating my records here.
Hummingbirds on feeders, not really bird hunting but not always easy to shoot because the feeders are usually shaded and low light makes things difficult. The use of flash is therefore a necessary evil. This is the only decent shot I have of the Speckled Hummingbird for example.
The same goes for these three, the Long Tailed Sylph, Tyrian Metaltail and Buff Winged Starfrontlet were only captured on feeders, but here they are for the record.
Breaking up the hummingbird show, a Rufous Throated Tanager shot, re-edited because the colours and composition are worth a second look.
Another tyrian Metaltail above, and below is a Collared Inca.
These two are easier, the Great Sapphirewing is a large hummer with uniquely sapphire blue wings, and the Booted Rackettail below has the most easily recognizable tail feathers and wonderful white fluffy sheepskin boots, very cute.
Here is another booted hummer, the Golden Breasted Puffleg also has white "Boots" but I didn't catch them in this shot, so resorted to the faint but definite orangy/gold hints in the upper breast feathers for ID. Similarly the faint purple tint in the breast feathers and the dark throat helped me to identify the Purple Throated Sunangel below.
Next a few poor shots posted to record the species, Black Crested Warbler and Golden Bellied Grossbeak were both taken in very poor light but I was happy to tick them on my list.
The Scarlet Bellied Mountain Tanager is a very striking bird. that scarlet plumage really sets the forest alight. Unfortunately distance and poor light condemned me to a rather poor record shot, but what a super bird it was.
Now a couple of quite decent record shots. The White Throated Tyrannulet and Piratic Flycatcher were both quite close, but as so often happens we had great views from underneath, I would prefer more side-on shots but here they are anyway.
This is quite a nice shot of the large eyed One Colored Becard. A typical LBJ but still an attractive addition to one's life list.
The Green Honeycreeper below is not as spectacular as its Purple Honeycreeper cousin, but is still a good looker. Actually the bubble-gum blue/green colouring looks almost artificial, as if it was created by a child's paintbrush.
Now another look at some better edits of previously posted birds. The Broad Billed Motmot below is quite a star, putting most of the birds around it to shame in the looks department.....
......and the Flame Faced Tanager lets its colors speak for themselves.
Likewise the male Yellow Bellied Dacnis makes a bright and colorful shot with an insect in its beak. The red eye really stands out.
The Spotted Tody Flycatcher is well worth another look, it's a little forest jewel.