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Participants: Adrian Harper, Shirley Harper, Mark Harper and Brian Smith.
To organise this trip we initially made contact with Tropical Birding (www.tropicalbirding.com) via the internet and followed this up when we met with Cristina Cervantes and Iain Campbell at the British Birdwatching Fair 2001. We were expertly guided by Nick Athanas except whilst at Sacha Lodge when the resident guide Oscar Tapuy performed that task. Also accompanying Nick was Jose Illanes a new Tropical Birding guide who was previously employed at La Selva Lodge and was beginning to get to grips with the birds of the highlands. This arrangement was much to our benefit as he had a knack for spotting birds that we couldn't see until he scoped them for us.
Arrived at Quito at 8.30pm and were met at the airport by Nick, Iain Campbell (owner of Tandayapa Bird Lodge and a partner in Tropical Birding) and Ramiro, our driver for the next two weeks. After a long journey we were keen to get to our hotel from which Nick arranged to pick us up at 5.00am the next morning.
Iain would see us the next day at Tandayapa as he had to take a load of worms there to feed to a Moustached Antpitta that had been coming to his feeding station during the previous week.
18th September Yanacocha and the Old Nono-Mindo Road
Having slept very little due to the time difference, we were ready early the next morning and the minibus was loaded to the song of Great Thrushes. We were soon leaving Quito eating a boxed breakfast on the way to our first stop at Yanacocha.
Yanacocha has recently been acquired by the Jocotoco Fundacion and has been proactive in installing hummingbird feeders at various points along the track. We were greeted by a Great Sapphirewing on arrival at the gate through which we continued until we reached the forest and from there set out along the track on foot. With Mountain Velvetbreast, Shining Sunbeam, Buff-winged Starfrontlet and Tyrian Metaltail at the first feeder we came to, Nick had to drag us away so that we didn't waste time at feeders whilst bird activity in the forest was at its peak.
The trees were alive with bird song but seeing the birds was a far harder prospect. It's a shame we couldn't say the same thing about the midges that attached themselves to any uncovered skin, apparently there hadn't been any there the previous week.
Unicoloured Tapaculos were calling at various places along the track, but even when they were only one or two metres into the undergrowth for all but one of the party they went unseen despite Nick's best efforts with the tape.
At the next hummingbird feeders were several Sapphire-vented and one or two Golden-breasted Puffleg's, the latter now much easier to see since the installation of feeders.
A party of Andean Guans crashed through the treetops and Nick heard a Barred Fruiteater that, with the aid of a tape, was found in the canopy feeding on fruit. Despite it being a bright attractive bird it seemed to melt into the leaves and it wasn't until we had it in the scope that we were all able to see it. The shear variety of colours on the birds has to be seen to be believed with all the little brown jobs we are used to back home replaced with the likes of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Golden-crowned Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer, Blue-backed Conebill and Crowned Chat-Tyrant.
Having already heard several Ocellated Tapaculos calling some distance from the track it was good to hear one close enough to try to see, as this was definitely on our wish list. No luck, only Nick caught a glimpse.
Eventually we reached the end of the main track where there is an amazingly well kept toilet block and more hummingbird feeders. Whilst enjoying a snack and photographing the visiting hummingbirds and were also able to add Black-chested Mountain-Tanager and Smoky Bush-Tyrant to the list. It was then the star of the show put in an appearance; a Sword-billed Hummingbird visited the feeders for around 30 seconds.
Heading back for lunch we stopped to take photographs of the hummingbird feeders, the birds being so fast that in the time it took to depress the shutter they were gone and I was left with several photographs of empty feeders, however with perseverance I was able to get a few reasonable shots.
After a packed lunch we headed off towards Tandayapa birding along the way, it was only a couple of miles before we made our first stop by the roadside to see a pair of Red-crested Cotinga's perched in their normal treetops. A short walk also added Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Black-crested Warbler and Plain-coloured Seedeater.
An unscheduled stop, as Nick saw a Southern Yellow-Grosbeak fly across the road, produced an excellent spell of birding on the edge of a small town where we added Russet-crowned Warbler, Rufous-naped and Stripe-headed Brush Finches, Rufous-chested Tanager and Hooded Siskin to an already growing list.
Later on, two further brief stops on the old Nono-Mindo road produced White-capped Dippers in the adjacent fast-flowing river and then scoped views of a couple of male Andean Cock-of-the Rock.
We arrived at Tandayapa in the late afternoon and immediately went out to look at the hummingbird feeders that surely make any other feeders appear inferior in comparison. In the half hour before dark we saw 16 species of hummingbird to take our total for the day to 25, far more than we had seen in Costa Rica in two weeks the previous year. The highlights were the Booted Racket-tails and Violet-tailed Sylphs.
9th September Tandayapa Trails
This should have been the day when we had a lie in until 5.30am as we were going to be birding the trails around the lodge, but due to the aforementioned Moustached Antpitta, we had to be in the hide before dawn, hence a very early breakfast and we were out walking the trail to the hide in the dark.
The normal food of moths, which are attracted by ultraviolet lights, was supplemented with worms which had been put in a tray to prevent them escaping into the forest. First on the scene just before first light were several Chestnut-capped Brush Finches, these were soon followed by a couple of Uniform Antshrikes and Russet-crowned Warblers. Unfortunately there was no sign of the Antpitta and with lots of other birds to see in the area we had to head off. Some compensation on the route back to the lodge was two Rufous-breasted Antthrushes walking along the track and our first Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers.
Torches left back at the lodge and camera in hand we set off along the trails, within 50 metres of the lodge we were adding new species such as Tawny-bellied Hermit, Red-headed Barbet, White-tailed Tyrannulet and Golden and White-winged Tanagers.
The trails can be quite steep and hard going at times but are well worth the effort. Sickle-winged Guan, Powerful Woodpeckers, Rusty-winged Barbtail, Olivaceous Piha, Toucan Barbet and Western Hemispingus were fairly easy to see once found, and even Immaculate Antbird and Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush were seen well with the use of the tape. Trying to see Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and Black-and-white Becard in the canopy from directly underneath proved much harder, but both were eventually seen.
Returning towards the lodge for lunch we tried for Ochre-breasted Antpitta, which was soon seen by Nick and Jose, but not by the rest of us until Jose was able to point it out with the use of a laser pen.
Arriving back at the lodge for lunch, another hummingbird was added to the list, a Collared Inca. We were also told that a White-throated Quail-Dove had been walking around under the feeders an hour earlier, fortunately it was located asleep in the adjacent bushes.
A good lunch in the lodge had us ready for whatever the afternoon would bring, light rain was not particularly what we had in mind but this didn't bother us too much as we headed for the Tanager Deck which was covered. Almost as soon as we arrived a female Andean Cock-of-the Rock flew by, this seemed like a good omen and we weren't to be disappointed the deck lived up to its name with Golden-naped, Metallic-green, Beryl-spangled, Black-capped and Lemon-rumped Tanagers passing by.
At about 4 o'clock Nick suggested we head off to bird the road near Tandayapa village and from the bridge over the river we found Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Golden-crowned Flycatcher. Nearby a hummer found feeding on some nearby flowers (yes, some of them still do this), proved to be a Wedge-billed Hummingbird. When we found a White-winged Brush Finch, Nick informed us that Tricoloured Brush Finch often accompanies it and with the aid of the tape quickly demonstrated this point.
Just before dusk we found ourselves on the road between Tandayapa and Bellavista and it wasn't long before a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk began its nightly patrol. Walking along the road a Nightjar flew out from beside us and landed on a bank where we were able to spotlight it. It was a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar, but as it was either a young bird or had just moulted it didn't have a full-length tail.
20th September Los Bancos (Moss-backed Tanager Road), Mindo Lindo and Mindo
Another early start in order to arrive at Los Bancos at dawn, as the Ochre-breasted Tanagers supposedly make a racket for the first half hour and are then quiet for the rest of the day. Having arrived at dawn the Tanagers were being as quiet as the proverbial church mice.
We began by birding a small stretch of remnant woodland close to the road and this was alive with birds, although seeing them was not so easy, but Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Ornate Flycatcher, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Rufous-throated Tanager and Choco Warbler were soon ticked off.
Either side of this it is more open with a scattering of trees and bushes, not the best habitat but at least the birds are much easier to see and there is still a good variety to be found. There were Olive-crowned Yellowthroats in the tall grasses and White-thighed Swallows on the wires, whilst the trees held Choco Toucan, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Bay-headed and Swallow Tanagers. A Striped Cuckoo calling from one of the larger trees was soon seen by Jose, it then flew onto a wire where it was much easier for the rest of us to see.
Back in the decent woodland we picked up one of our principle targets at this site and also the bird after which the road is commonly known, the Moss-backed Tanager. A raptor gliding behind the trees soon drifted overhead and proved to be a Grey-headed Kite, another quickly followed it. With the help of the tape the Ochre-breasted Tanagers were at last persuaded to show themselves, as was a Little Cuckoo.
We next drove to Mindo Lindo the Club-winged Manakin site and from the trails we could hear several Manakins, but all were quite distant. Eventually one came closer and perched in the branches high above us, and that was where it stayed until we moved on.
Next came one of the most memorable periods of the trip. The hummingbird feeders there were empty and the hummers were behaving very aggressively to one another. The lack of food also made them extremely inquisitive and the Velvet-purple Coronets were quite prepared to land on an outstretched finger. In fact whilst photographing one bird another landed on my camera strap.
We moved on to Mindo where we ate our packed lunch at the Hummingbird Restaurant whilst watching yet more hummers, White-whiskered Hermits, White-necked Jacobins and Green-crowned Woodnymphs were all new.
After lunch we walked down to the river, preceded by a mangy dog, until Jose demonstrated his powers of persuasion making it return the way it had come. Several Torrent Tyrannulets were actively exploring the boulders. As we walked along the trail by the edge of the river a large bird flew from the bank and across the river where it landed on a boulder. It was another from our wish list, a Sunbittern. It proceeded to move back along the river as we followed camera in hand but soon disappeared from sight and we returned along the path to the restaurant finally catching up with Slaty Spinetail that we had heard several times earlier but not seen.
A roadside walk by a patch of forest on the return to Tandayapa produced a pair of Golden-headed Quetzals checking out potential nest holes. The only other birds of note were two very flat and very dead nightjars on the road. We returned to Tandayapa to hear that the Antpitta had been at the feeding station that morning.
21st September Upper Tandayapa Valley and Bellavista
After a relative lie-in we headed the short distance up past Bellavista just before dawn, our first stop failed to produce the hoped for mixed flock but we did see Sierran Elaenia and a Glossy-black Thrush flew across the road. The second stop found us watching one of the Choco endemics that we most wanted to see, the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, during the rest of the morning they were seen and heard fairly regularly.
Several Barred Parakeets flew over high and fast; a typical view for this species and a calling Green-and-black Fruiteater was soon located. We then struck it rich with a good-sized mixed flock containing, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Spotted Barbtail, Barred Becard, Capped Conebill, Flame-faced and Blue-and-black Tanager.
Near here the oil pipeline is under construction and close to where it crosses the road leaving a track 20 metres wide through the forest, we parked in an old roadside quarry, along with about 8 coaches being used to transport the pipeline workers to the site each day. In the midst of all this disruption a Cinnamon Flycatcher was soon spotted on the quarry wall.
Spectacled Whitestart (Immature)
Heading away from the quarry Nick played the call of the Tanager Finch and we soon had two birds showing well enough to obtain photographs (although a little dark due to thick vegetation). In the distance Crested Quetzals were calling; they were eventually seen in trees down below us. We also found Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant whilst searching for the Quetzals.
Walking back along the road towards the pipeline we found a Masked Trogon sitting unobtrusively, a couple of Turquoise Jays, a Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant and heard an Ocellated Tapaculo calling close to the edge of the road. With the tape we were able to bring it close enough for us all to see at least part of it. As it was in no hurry to leave we were able to move around and find places where we could see the whole bird though gaps in the undergrowth whilst it continued calling; this was easily the bird of the day.
Back at the minibus we picked out a couple of Grass-green Tanagers in a mixed flock that was working its way through the trees above the disused quarry. As the afternoon moved on a steady drizzle turned into heavier rain that eventually drove us back to Tandayapa.
22nd September Pedro Vicente Maldonaldo
After early starts every day so far, we made an even earlier start today so that we could be at PVM for dawn, about a 2-hour drive from Tandayapa, but it was well worth it. PVM if you believe all the reports is completely trashed, but there are a few small tracts of forest left and the target species are all still there and concentrated in the areas left standing.
All morning and the early afternoon were spent walking backwards and forwards along about a mile of road through the best area of forest. It was quite misty to begin with and for the first hour it was quite difficult to see the birds that could be heard calling. However we did track down Stub-tailed Antbirds with the aid of the tape and also heard a Barred Forest-Falcon, which eventually flew over us and was subsequently spotted low in a tree where it gave scope-filling views.
When we weren't trying to sort our way through mixed flocks, we were normally trying to track down something calling and this kept us busy into the early afternoon. With this being our only day in the western lowlands we had to take the opportunity of seeing as many of the specialities as possible and this we did with Western White-tailed Trogon, Guayaquil Woodpecker, White-whiskered Puffbird, White-bearded Manakin, Black-and-white and One-coloured Becards, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Pacific Antwren, Rufous-winged, Emerald and Scarlet-browed Tanagers. The two real stars of the show however were male Scarlet-breasted Dacnis and Scarlet-and-white Tanager, both of which gave excellent scope-filling views.
Early afternoon we made a final walk from one end of the patch of forest to the other and finally received a response from a Lanceolated Monklet, having tried several times earlier in the day. Whilst watching one bird another flew out of the forest to perch on a post only a few metres from us and allowed itself to be photographed for a couple of minutes.
A little further down the road we heard and saw a third Lanceolated Monklet, which for such a rare bird was almost unbelievable. Upon reaching a bridge over the river we found several Buff-rumped Warblers on the rocks in the water and Jose spotted a Rufous Motmot sitting motionless on an overhanging branch. Back in the vehicle and a short drive to the next tract of forest that produced the endemic Dusky Pigeon, Broad-billed Motmot, Band-backed Wren and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher.
We then made a further move to a stakeout for Barred Puffbird, which called immediately in response to the tape and Nick soon found sitting in a lone tree. A short walk from here produced two Rufous-tailed Jacamars and several Red-rumped Woodpeckers that were climbing around on a fallen tree.
The day ended with Lesser Seed-Finch and Grey-capped Flycatcher found in the open areas further along the road, before heading back to Tandayapa.
September 23rd - Virgin on the hill and Sacha Lodge
This was the day we were to travel into the Amazon but we made an earlier than necessary start so that we could look for White-tailed Shrike Tyrant on the way to the airport. We arrived at the site, which is by a small blue church known as the "Virgin on the hill" (also known as Calacali, I believe) alongside the main road from Tandayapa to Quito, just as the sun was rising. Walking along the track we quickly found our first bird which was soon joined by another two and once we had one in the scope we were able to see all the diagnostic features that distinguish it from is commoner relative, the Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant.
Other interesting birds seen at this site were Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, Spot-billed Ground Tyrant, Variable Hawk and a striking Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. Back at the minibus we just had enough time to add a male Black-tailed Trainbearer to the list. As we headed off to the airport we had already seen over 300 species in a fraction over 5 days.
We arrived at the airport in time for our flight to Coca, of which there was no sign on the departures board. When the representative of Sacha Lodge arrived we were informed that the runway at Coca was being resurfaced and we would instead be flying to Lago Agrio about 20 miles from the Columbian border and 2 hours drive from Coca. The weather for the flight was superb with clear skies enabling us to see all the major peaks in this region of Ecuador.
Oscar who was to be our guide whilst at Sacha (aided by Marcello) was at the airport to meet us and we were soon on the bus that would transfer us to Coca. Whilst waiting for other passengers we saw several Grey-breasted Martins and White-winged Swallows and the only Yellow-browed Sparrow of the trip.
We eventually got underway and had gone all of half a mile before the bus stopped for 45 minutes to change a tyre. The road to Coca passed mainly through farmland and the only birds of note were two Pearl Kites and a Wattled Jacana by a roadside pool.
We reached Coca and boarded our boat for the two-hour trip down the Rio Napo to Sacha. Several stops were made for birds on route such as Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, White-banded Swallow, Brown-chested Martin and Swallow-winged Puffbird.
Arriving at Sacha we headed straight to an area known as the farm where we birded for about an hour seeing Southern Lapwings, Plum-throated Cotinga, Mottle-backed Elaenia, Red-capped Cardinals, Magpie Tanager, Black-billed Thrush and Giant Cowbirds.
A walk of about 40 minutes along a boardwalk to Lake Pilchicocha added Speckled Chachalaca, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Silver-beaked and Masked Crimson Tanager. Boarding dugout canoes we were paddled across the lake to the lodge, where our luggage and a welcome drink was waiting for us.
September 24th: Sacha canopy tower and trails
A pre-dawn breakfast and at first light we were in a dugout canoe crossing the lake and heading for the canopy tower, seeing Chestnut Woodpecker and Purple-throated Fruitcrows on the way. A staircase leads up to the platform that is 40 metres high in a large tree and commands an excellent view across the canopy in every direction.
The tree itself is frequently visited by birds and whilst we were on the platform, these included Plumbeous Kite, Many-banded and Lettered Aracaris, Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper, Long-billed Starthroat, Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher, Opal-rumped and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Crested Oropendola and Yellow-rumped Cacique.
We remained on the platform until 9.30am, by which time we were really feeling the effects of the sun due to the lack of available shade and also activity was beginning to drop off. During the time we were up there we saw many new species including Spix's Guan, Pied Puffbird, Gilded and Lemon-throated Barbets, Dugand's Antwren, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, White-browed Purpletuft, Spangled Cotinga, Rufous-bellied Euphonia, Casqued Oropendola.
Trying to maintain the standard set by such an excellent morning was going to be difficult, but Oscar had just the bird to do so. Within a hundred metres of the tower we were soon watching a Collared Puffbird, which was by far the best-looking Puffbird seen on the trip and is also Oscars favourite bird. We also saw Purplish Jacamar and Orange-crested Manakin, but although we could hear Wire-tailed Manakins they were only seen by one of us.
Having returned to the lodge for lunch we set off again at 3pm to walk the trails behind the lodge as far as the canopy walkway that is still under construction. At the moment, work has reached the point of having two completed 55 metre high metal towers a couple of hundred metres apart. The difficult part is going to be connecting them and it doesn't look as though this will be solved imminently.
Along the trail we saw a Rusty-belted Tapaculo, an Amazonian White-tailed Trogon and heard our first Screaming Piha the archetypal sound of the rainforest, which was eventually tracked down and watched 'screaming'. A party of Marbled Wood-Quails scurried across the track in front of us as we continued.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the top of one of these towers and in addition to species seen on the original canopy tower earlier in the day we added Black-tailed Trogon, Paradise and Green-and-gold Tanagers. One advantage of the additional height that this tower affords is that swifts pass below you, and it was this fact that enabled us to identify a Pale-rumped Swift from the commoner Short-tailed and Grey-rumped Swifts.
At dusk we descended the tower and walked back to the lodge in the dark looking for night birds. Whilst trying to call in Owls, Oscar heard a distant Long-tailed Potoo, after a couple of minutes playing the tape the Potoo flew over us and its dark shape could be seen through gaps in the trees. After several further fly-pasts Marcello located it on top of a broken branch, and with the aid of a spotlight we were able to see it perched and the diagnostic white malar stripe was clearly visible. Oscar later revealed that this was the first Long-tailed Potoo he had seen at Sacha for three years. As we walked on Oscar asked us to gather round, and when he turned on the spotlight we were looking at a roosting Great Tinamou, a suitable finish to an excellent day.
September 25th: Providence trail
Due to the different type of habitat the south side of the Rio Napo plays host to a number of species that are not found on the north side where the lodge is situated and that was where we were to spend the day. On the way to the river we found, Blue-winged Parrotlet Chestnut-eared Aracari and Black-fronted Nunbird. Crossing the Rio Napo several Amazonian Umbrellabirds were seen in the treetops and three Blue-and-yellow Macaws flew over. Travelling down the channel that leads to the Providence trail we saw a pair of Cream-coloured Woodpeckers a species we had much wanted to see.
We moored the boat and clambered up a steep muddy slope and soon saw a White-necked Puffbird perched atop a tree. Along the trail we saw some very good species such as, Rufous-tailed Antwren, Banded Antbird, Blue-crowned Manakin, White-chested Puffbird, Euler's Flycatcher and Brownish Twistwing. However the best birds were two Ocellated Poorwills that flew up several times from the ground beside the trail.
Around 11.00am it started to rain heavily (monsoon-like), we trudged on for 30 minutes until we found some shelter but after 45 minutes there was still no sign of it stopping and we decided to head back to the farm. When we arrived at the boat it was almost full to the top with rainwater so whilst Marcello bailed it out, we climbed/slid down the bank that was steadily being washed away. What followed was a 30+ minute's journey back across the Rio Napo with lighting crashing all round us. By the time we arrived at the farm, despite our waterproof clothing, we were soaked to the skin and our boots were full of water.
In the shelter at the farm we ate lunch and attempted to wring the water from our clothes whilst the rain continued to fall. This didn't deter Oscar from his task and he managed to find Glittering-throated Emerald, Black-headed Parrot, Orange-fronted Plushcrown and Turquoise Tanager.
With no sign of the rain abating we decided to head back for the lodge along the now incredibly slippy boardwalk. After several falls we eventually reached the waterlogged canoe and crossed the lake seeing a Slender-billed Kite perched in a treetop before finishing an eventful day.
September 26th: River Islands, Parrot Lick and Sacha Trails
The previous days rain had the effect of lowering the temperature to something more bearable and as we were visiting a river island, where you are exposed to the full force of the sun, this was most welcome.
The journey to the river island took around 30 minutes in a motorised boat with a couple of stops for Cocoi Heron and Drab Water-Tyrant. The river islands host a number of species that are not found on either side of the river and this is due to the vegetation, which comprises of a mixture of tall grasses and small trees suited to the sandy ground.
As the boat beached on a sandy shore a Chestnut-bellied Seedeater greeted us and an Oriole Blackbird perched on nearby reeds. Oscar then lead us through grass 2 metres high to an area of small trees and using the tape he called in several Spotted Tody-Flycatchers and Parkers Spinetail. Other river island specialists that appeared were Olive-spotted Hummingbird and Castlenau's Antshrike. As we walked on through the scrub we flushed a couple of Ladder-tailed Nightjars and after a short search Oscar found one perched close to the waters edge.
Moving back into the grasses, we were able to get reasonable views of White-bellied Spinetail and several Chestnut-fronted Macaws were spotted in a tree across the river, but these flew before we could all get onto them. We had several Grey-breasted Crakes responding to the tape but seeing them was exceptionally difficult even when they were in the 30cm high grass less than a metre from your feet. We moved to try and call one into even thinner vegetation, but as we walked through the grass it flew up in front of us allowing us at least a flight view.
Lesser Hornero was the last bird we saw on the island before heading off towards the parrot licks.
It costs $3 to visit the parrot licks and this also entitles you to walk the nearby trails. We had been warned that due to the previous days rain making the clay wet it was likely that there would be few parrots around, as it was there weren't any so we headed by boat to the next lick and its trails. Along the riverbank there were several areas of clay and at one of these we were able to watch 10 Dusky-headed Parakeets.
At the next stop we went out on the trails and walked to a lick seeing along the way Cinereous Antshrike and Black-faced Antbird. Approaching the lick Marcello spotted several Scarlet Macaws slightly obscured in the canopy overhead. The lick itself was again completely devoid of parrots, but there was a Thrush-like Antpitta calling nearby which although coming fairly close never did show itself. The walk back to the boat produced Ornate Antwren, Grey Elaenia and Red-throated Caracara.
Heading back for lunch we stopped to watch a Collared Plover on a sandbank and near the farm a party of White-eared Jacamars in amongst which was a Brown Jacamar. On the boardwalk Oscar sent Marcello off scouting and he located for us a pair of roosting Mottled Owls. This rare Eastern race displays a lot more white on the face than the Western race shown in the Ecuador Field guide.
In the afternoon we took a canoe across to the canopy tower picking up Rufescent Tiger-Heron and a Boat-billed Heron on the way. From the tower we walked the trails back to the lodge and spent a lot of time playing hide and seek with a calling Striated Antthrush and we lost. We did have more luck with a superb Long-billed Woodcreeper and once having taped it in it decided to join us on our walk flying from tree to tree along the trail behind us.
As darkness descended a Black-faced Antthrush ran across trail in front of us and although we could hear Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl and Crested Owl, they could not be drawn in.
September 27th: Sacha to Quito
An early breakfast preceded the long journey back to Quito via Lago Agrio. From the canoe crossing the lake we eventually got a good view of a Green-and-rufous Kingfisher, having only seen a couple disappearing round bends in rivers previously. As we approached the farm an Undulated Tinamou flew quickly across the track in front of us but the view was not exactly satisfying. Upon arriving at the farm we climbed onto the observation deck and to our surprise there was another walking across the open field.
The return trip to Coca brought only one new bird, a Greater Yellowlegs, but we did see another Amazonian Umbrellabird.
Boarding the bus for the trip to Lago Agrio it was only three minutes before we stopped and spent 30 minutes changing a tyre yet again. We arrived back in Quito in time for a late lunch and spent the remainder of the afternoon souvenir hunting.
September 28th: Papallacta and San Isidro
Heading out of Quito early we arrived at Papallacta (over 4000 metres) just after dawn, expecting it to be cold and windy and we weren't disappointed. Jose who had, up until two weeks earlier, lived all his life in the Amazon Basin didn't appreciate how cold it could get and with only a t-shirt and light jacket he was soon turning a lovely shade of blue. We raided our luggage to provide him with additional hat, gloves, scarf, jumper and coat.
Although the habitat appeared very desolate it wasn't long before we started seeing birds, Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail, Many-striped Canastero, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Brown-bellied Swallow, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. A Paramo Ground-Tyrant ran along the track in front of us was a and as we approached the minibus a pair of Blue-mantled Thornbills flew past, one landing on the ground, behaviour typical of this species of hummingbird.
A short stop as we drove higher up the track enabled us to pick up Stout-billed Cinclodes and a pair of the most obliging of all Antpittas, Tawny Antpitta.
Our next port of call was the radio antennae, the site for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. As we were now in cloud the visibility was poor and it was very cold so we were keen to see these as quickly as possible and head back down. Although we could hear them calling only 10 to 15 metres in front of us we were still unable to see them. Eventually Jose picked them out and directed the rest of us on to them. Gratefully we headed back to the minibus having only spent 10 minutes or so out in the cold.
On the way back down Nick had us stop at a patch of orange flowers seen earlier and a known favourite of the Ecuadorian Hillstar. As Nick was pointing out the flowers one miraculously appeared. As we walked back to the minibus a Carunculated Caracara glided past.
Descending a little in altitude down the eastern slope of the Andes we stopped at a roadside patch of polylepis woodland. Several Black-backed Bush Tanagers were working their way through the trees and a Bar-bellied Woodpecker was calling from a dead tree higher up the slope. Our main target here was the nuthatch like Giant Conebill, and after about five minutes we found both this and Pale-naped Brush Finch. A track alongside the wood leads to a viewpoint looking down onto a lake. The track produced Paramo Seedeater and both Silvery Grebe and Andean Ruddy Duck were on the lake.
Heading on down the road and we reached Papallacta Lake where Nick called a Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager into view. On the lake were good numbers of Yellow-billed Pintail and Andean Teal, whilst Baird's Sandpipers were common on the shoreline. Less expected was a Neotropic Cormorant, which was at a much higher altitude than normally found.
From here we made the 2-hour drive to Cabanas San Isidro, arriving in the early afternoon. Having dropped our bags in our rooms we took a quick look in the trees behind the cabins. Our first Long-tailed Sylph and Pale-edged Flycatchers were easy to see, but it required a tape to call a Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher into view. An Inca Jay came and a Bluish Flowerpiercer turned up soon after.
Down to the hummingbird feeders and a very welcome cup of tea, whilst watching several species of hummingbird including Chestnut-breasted Coronet.
A Blue-naped Chlorophonia called from nearby and leaving our drinks we eventually found it in the top of the tallest tree where it blended into the leaves so well that it wasn't until it flew that we were all able to see it. Suitably refreshed we set off on a short walk along the road from lodge where birds seen included, White-capped Parrots, Long-tailed Antbird, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Olivaceous Siskin, Northern Mountain and Subtropical Caciques.
September 29th: The Loreto Road
A 4.15am start was necessary and a packed breakfast in order to make the best stretch of the Loreto road close to dawn. Our first stop was made on a bridge over a fast-flowing stream where we saw a White-tailed Hillstar briefly as it flew under the bridge.
The pattern for the morning was to move backwards and forwards along the road following the feeding flocks. Birds such as Lafresnaye's Piculet, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Striped, Blue-backed and White-crowned Manakins, Orange-eared, Golden-eared, Spotted and Yellow-bellied Tanagers, and Slate-coloured Grosbeak were seen. Added to these a Hook-billed Kite flying over and a Fasciated Tiger-Heron in one of the small streams made it a very good morning.
A further walk after lunch produced a pair of Coppery-chested Jacamars and we teased out a Lined Antshrike. A Grey-chinned Hermit paid a flying visit to some flowers and a Tiny Hawk almost took our heads off as it dashed low through the trees. Back at the bus Nick heard a Foothill Elaenia, a species only discovered in the 1990's, and with the aid of the tape it was quickly lured into view.
We next headed back up the Loreto road in the direction of San Isidro to an area probably more correctly described as the lower slopes of the Cordillera de Huacamayos. Here there are a number of areas where the cliff face is exposed and it is at one of these that there is an Orange-breasted Falcon stakeout and it was found in a dead tree within 5 minutes. Slightly further along the road at another area of exposed rock Cliff Flycatchers could be seen chasing Blue-and-white Swallows.
At our final stop for the day a Northern White-crowned Tapaculo could be heard calling but our experience to date with Tapaculo's led us not to be too optimistic about actually seeing it so it was a great surprise when we all managed to see it reasonably well. Other birds seen at this stop included Rufous-vented Whitetip, Golden-eyed Flowerpiercer and Blackish Antbird. Near the minibus a Booted Racket-tail of the eastern race with orange boots was found feeding in some flowers.
San Isidro has a pair of resident owls that in appearance are intermediate between Black-banded Owl and Black-and-white Owl, neither of which occurs at the elevation of San Isidro (around 2100 metres) on the east slope. Black-and-white are only being found on the west slope of the Andes and Black-banded Owl only on the east of the Andes below 900 metres. Because they have paired and raised a chick it is thought that the chances of them being hybrids is extremely unlikely. Whilst getting changed for dinner we heard the owl calling not far away, so binoculars in hand we walked down a trail behind the cabins in the dark with mud and water over the tops of our shoes. Fortunately we found the owl without too much difficulty sat on a prominent perch in one of only a few large trees. Having all had a good look at it we headed back through the mud for dinner. We now have to wait for someone to do further research to establish the true identity of these owls.
September 30th: Huacamayos Ridge, San Isidro Antvireo trail and Guango Lodge
Our final day had come all too quickly, but there was still fresh territory to explore as we headed to the Huacamayos Ridge to walk a trail. It was misty when we arrived but Scaly-naped Amazons could be heard calling as they flew past but it was several minutes before the mist cleared enough for us to see them. In the bushes by the side of the road a party of Citrine Warblers moved around.
The first birds found along the trail were Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Emerald Toucanet and a small party of Hooded Mountain-Tanagers. Further on a mixed feeding party contained, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher and Common Bush-Tanager amongst others.
The trail along the ridge is very narrow and steep sided so it wasn't a great surprise when we reached a point where it had completely fallen away preventing us going any further. Turning back, we had only gone a short distance when a Slate-crowned Antpitta began calling relatively close to the path. Like Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Slate-crowned are often found on low branches, which can make them slightly easier to see than the ground dwelling species. With the aid of the tape it took only a few minutes before it flew up onto a nearby branch and stayed in full view for what must have been 10 seconds.
Heading back to Cabanas San Isidro we made a short stop on a bridge over a large boulder strewn river, where we finally found a pair of Torrent Ducks. After a quick coffee at base we walked along the Antvireo trail. The trail was quite steep and muddy and combined with the fact that it was raining we didn't see a great deal, the only birds of note being Andean Solitaire and a Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet.
After lunch we started on the long drive back to Quito, making a stop on the way at Guango Lodge to try for a few more hummingbirds. We were successful in adding Tourmaline Sunangel and Gorgeted Woodstar taking our tally to 55 hummingbird species for the trip. We did see another Sword-billed Hummingbird, but missed by seconds a Mountain Avocetbill that Nick found. Just as we were about to leave a small feeding flock passed through and Grey-hooded Bush-Tanager became our 572nd and last new species seen on the trip.
Arriving back in Quito, we had time for a quick shower and change before meeting the Tropical Birding Team of Nick, Jose and Iain for a final meal, in a typical British pub.
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