With a four wheel drive hired for four weeks and a 42 page checklist totalling 1583 species, we arrived in Ecuador with the excited anticipation of two kids on Christmas morning. Owing to the wide range of altitude and climates in this Andean country, there are various habitat types, homes for one of the worlds most diverse avifaunas. There are all kinds of parrots, quetzals, trogons, toucans, jacamars, motmots, puffbirds, barbets, antpittas, manakins, cotingas, tapaculos, flowerpiercers, honeycreepers, oropendolas, caciques, saltators and other exotica. The list goes on and on and on. The tanagers alone put on a constant fashion parade of fancies with colourful names like Beryl-spangled,Glistening-green, Green-and-gold, Golden, Emerald, Grass-green, Turquoise, Blue-and-black, Orange-eared, Flame-faced, Saffron-crowned, Blue-necked, Bay-headed, Opal-rumped, Silver-beaked, Masked Crimson, Blue-winged Mountain and the amazingly psychedelic Paradise Tanager. Then there is a dazzling assortment of "hummers". These glittering prizes include hermits, fairies, woodnymphs, sylphs, woodstars, hillstars, violetears, incas, brilliants, emeralds, coronets, sunangels and trainbearers. It doesn't get much better than this.
We started our trip on the slopes of Cotopaxi, a snow-capped volcanic cone rising 19,347 feet into the clouds, Ecuador's second highest point. Camping on the paramo, an arctic type vegetation above the tree line, we emerged from the tent into a chilly morning mist. A pair of Carunculated Caracaras stood hunched against the cold, awaiting clearer flying conditions. All around Plain-capped Ground-Tyrants flew a few yards and then stood jerkily upright like turbo-charged wheatears. Over breakfast we watched Bar-winged and Stout-billed Cinclodes and Plumbeous Sierra-Finches probe the stunted turf just a few feet away, completely unconcerned by our presence. The nearby Laguna Limpiopunga attracts a host of high altitude aquatic species including Speckled Teal, Andean Lapwing, Coot and Gull plus Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted and Baird's Sandpipers on migration from their breeding grounds in arctic North America. Driving higher, we parked among snow drifts at the end of the rough track, hoping for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, 14,763 feet above sea level, where the slightest exertion left us gasping for air. Battered by a strong cold wind, we struggled to stand up straight, let alone scan the barren slopes through binoculars and so we staggered back to the car. The ignition was dead. The starter motor had worked lose on the rough terrain, losing a vital part. What better place for a hill start!
With a repair effected we followed the route of the conquistadores across the Andes to the eastern slope and ultimately the great Amazon basin, via the 13,333 foot high Papallacta Pass, where a higher side track offered another chance for the seedsnipe. Although it was summer' in the west, it was 'winter' to the east and so the onset of relentless drizzle gradually turned to a blizzard as we drove higher. Reaching a viewpoint in near zero visibility we dipped again on the elusive seedsnipe. Descending the eastern Andean slope through steep forested valleys cloaked in mist and dripping wet we passed several large landslides which reduced the road to a rutted mud bath. Shining sunbeams, a polished Copper Hummingbird, brightened the day along with White-banded and White-throated Tyrannulets and Blue-backed and Cinereous Conebills.
In the Cordillera de los Guacamayos we looked across a primeval landscape of thickly forested foothills, partly shrouded by clouds like smoke from many bonfires. Exploring the sodden forest trails it was hard to see birds for the walls of dense greenery. Every so often a sudden flurry of activity high in the canopy signalled a passing mixed flock of woodcreepers, treerunners, foliage gleaners and especially tanagers. At such times it was "all hands to the pump" in an effort to identify as much as possible against the clock, before the flock moved on. All too easily we would be watching one thing and then be distracted by another bright flash or movement and so the key was to stay focused. Top ticks were Tyrannine Woodcreeper, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Pale-edged Flycatcher, Rusty and Masked Flowerpiercers, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, super White-capped Tanagers and dinky little Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrants as well as a noisy bunch of White-capped Parrots. The incredibly vocal Green Jays with their repertoire of mechanical sounds were always a joy to see here.
Descending deeper into Amazonia we encountered exciting new species at every stop; Blackish Rail, Green Kingfisher, Gilded Barbet, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Cliff Flycatcher, Long-tailed Tyrant, White-crowned Manakin, Black-capped Donacobius, Black-faced Dacnis, Magpie Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-browed Sparrow and Yellow-rumped Cacique. At the Rio Napo, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon, on a par with the Danube, we turned east to follow its course into the jungle. We stayed at Jatun Sacha Biological Research Station where the insects are so large they use chicken wire on the open windows to keep them out! What with the nocturnal chorus of frogs and bugs and the torrential rain, getting to sleep was a real problem. One night while dozing through the bedlam, I began to dream of the most hideous resonating call imaginable. Once conscious, the sound became real, so dressed in pyjamas, boots and head torches, we ventured out around 1am to investigate. After some mystified searching we were joined by the station caretaker as the din continued. He climbed a ladder into the roof of the toilet block and started sloshing around in his wellies. We don't know why it was waterlogged up there but anyway, he came out dangling a huge tree frog, the culprit behind the rumpus. After clearing them out we finally got some sleep. Next morning the excitement continued during a trip to the loo when a big hairy tarantula crawled out of the toilet roll when I tugged it!
Following a very muddy trail to the river, in borrowed wellies, we ticked off Thrushlike Wren, Turquoise Tanager and White-necked Puffbird with an enormous yawn, the bird not us. At the river we watched White-winged and White-banded Swallows hawk insects over the fast current with Amazon Kingfisher and Drab Water-Tyrant along the riverbank. Back at the research station we took a late afternoon stroll east along the access road with some fabulous birds along the way like Black Caracara, Ruddy Ground Dove, Lettered Aracari, stunning Cream-coloured Woodpeckers, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, Violaceous Jay, Purple Honeycreeper, Lesser Seed-Finch, Crested Oropendola, Orange-backed Troupial, a pair of Moriche Orioles, and a White-eared Jacamar, like a cross between a bee-eater and a kingfisher, long stout beak, stocky build and long periods of perching still with bouts of agile flight after large insects.
Returning to the Andes via Puyo and Baños, Volcan Tungurahua was actively rumbling and belching large clouds of black ash high into the atmosphere, causing chaos on the roads to the south from the fallout. We re-routed north to Pasachoa Forest Reserve and spent a day on the trails. After just a few yards a superb Rufous-crowned Antpitta stood bolt upright on stilt-like legs, smack in the middle of the path just a few feet ahead. Absolutely amazing luck, as these are usually furtive forest skulkers. Other new species along the trail were much harder to spot but we picked out Andean Guan, a strange turkey type bird, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, yet another hummer, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Spectacled Whitestart, Superciliaried Hemispingus, what a mouthful, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Stripe-headed Brush-Finch. Our final bird here was a real jigsaw puzzle, pieced together in stages as we focused deep into a dense bamboo curtain where it foraged among the leaf litter. First view, just a black back with evenly spaced white spots, then a rufous unmarked face. The oversized stubby beak clinched the picture, the highly sought Ocellated Tapaculo. If ever a bird didn't want to be seen, this could surely be it.
Descending the western Andean slope from Quito along the famous Nono-Mindo road, one passes through narrow valleys steeped in pristine cloud forest where the trees, usually bathed by air laden with moisture, are festooned with a variety of epiphytes including shaggy mosses and large bromeliads with tall red flower spikes. Huge White-collared Swifts zoomed overhead like a swarm of falcons while the forest had hidden treasure including Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals, Sickle-winged Guan, Red-billed Parrot, Collared Inca, Masked Trogon, Toucan Barbet, the striking Crimson-mantled and Powerful Woodpeckers, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Cinnamon, Golden-crowned and Ornate Flycatchers, Slaty-backed and Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrants, Smoke-coloured Pewee, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Red-crested Cotinga, Beautiful and Turquoise Jays, Orange-bellied Euphonia and many more plum species.
Perched high on a forest ridge up in the clouds sits Bellavista Lodge, a dome of thatch owned by Englishman Richard Parsons. His mother lives in Belper and this connection sparked our interest in a trip to Ecuador. Lower down the valley, Tandayapa Lodge has a fantastic display of hummingbirds attracted by a number of sugar feeders. While visitors sit on the terrace sipping tea, coffee or a cool refresco, the air throbs with the whirring wings and quarrelsome twitters of dozens and dozens of these aggressive dainties, performing dramatic aerial dogfights just a few feet away. The action happens at such a frenetic pace that one's brain goes into overload trying to cope with so many different combinations of colour and shape as at least sixteen different species whizz in and out of the picture. Their names cannot be called out fast enough. There were Wedge-billed and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, Green, Brown and Sparkling Violetears, Green-fronted Lancebills, Western and Andean Emeralds, Fawn-breasted and Green-crowned Brilliants, Brown Incas, Buff-tailed Coronets, Purple-bibbed Whitetips, Booted Racket-tails and Violet-tailed Sylphs with Purple-throated Woodstars, so small and buzzy they can easily be mistaken for large bumblebees.
Proceeding down the Pacific slope we came to Hotel Tinalandia, another birdwatcher's paradise. The dining terrace attracts birds as well as people. Hummers joining us for breakfast included White-whiskered Hermits, Purple-crowned Fairies and the amazingly iridescent Green-crowned Woodnymph. Bird tables stocked with fresh fruit provide excellent photo-opportunities with Red-headed Barbets, Dusky-faced Tanagers, Blue Dacnises, Green Honeycreepers and Orange-billed Sparrows, a real feast. The trees seemed to be bursting with birdlife; Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail, Collared Trogon, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Cinnamon Becard, Black-crowned Tityra, Masked Water-Tyrant, Band-backed Wren, the tiny woodpecker-like Olivaceous Piculet as well as Golden-olive, Black-cheeked, Guayaquil and Lineated Woodpeckers.
A short drive away at an even lower elevation is the Rio Palenque reserve, a small remnant block of lowland forest, alive with many different calls but difficult to pinpoint in the dense jungle setting. A mystifying omnipresent cracking sound from the undergrowth, turned out to be the courtship display of male White-bearded Manakins, made by snapping their wings, while the metallic sound of a slowly winding watch came from the tiny Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. Other specialities of this reserve were Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Orange-fronted Barbet, Dot-winged and Pacific Antwrens, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Scarlet-rumped Cacique.
No trip to Ecuador would be complete without a visit to Mindo, where some 430 species have been recorded. Quite simply one of the top birding sites in all of South America. We based ourselves at the 'yellow house', a hacienda just outside Mindo town. In the Guayaba orchards we found the sparrowhawk-like Double-toothed Kite, Smooth-billed Ani, Tropical Parula, Fawn-breasted Tanager, fluorescent Lemon-rumped Tanagers and perky Pacific Horneros which strut around, make a lot of noise and build clay oven style nests attached to tree branches. First thing in the mornings a nearby pond attracted the mammoth Ringed Kingfisher and every evening around 6pm, waves of Giant Cowbirds appeared from nowhere to roost in a large stand of bamboo behind the house. Following the Yellow House trail into primary forest we whistled up a Golden-headed Quetzal and added Lanceolated Monklet, Choco Toucan, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Strong-billed Woodcreeper and Rufous-throated and Swallow Tanagers to our list. Down at the Rio Mindo to the west of town we picked up a pair of Torrent Ducks plus Black Phoebe, Torrent Tyrannulet, White-capped Dipper and even the very well camouflaged yet beautiful Sunbittern.
So far our number one target species had been hard to come by. We yearned to witness the display of the magnificent blood-red Andean Cock-of-the-rock, with an unmistakable Mohican-style crest which overflows the bill, so we teamed up with local guide Vinicio Perez who knows the location of a reliable lek. He guaranteed we would see these exquisite birds, given an early start, 3.30am! Next morning we duly met at the allotted time and walked for almost two hours under the stars with a crescent moon illuminated from below to produce the effect of a beaming grin. As we took up our positions ready for the stakeout a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, which we saw later on, called through the darkness. Sure enough, at 5.55am as the light strengthened, the first cock began to crow. A defiant statement to all comers, "come and 'ave a go if you think you're 'ard enough". Soon a second bird answered and then a third. By 6am the air was filled with an undignified raucous squabble of squawks and squeals as numerous males, bursting with testosterone, postured with arched backs, flapping wings and bobbing heads, tussling in beak to beak combat. We sat transfixed just a few yards away as this rowdiness continued at full throttle for over two hours, yet no sign of any hens. Incredible to think that these otherwise shy birds perform this dramatic show at the same time every day! A truly remarkable must see experience.
By the end of our trip we had seen so many spectacular birds and yet with so many more still to see, we must return next year. Next time we shall have the added bonuses of the new field guide to the birds of Ecuador and a trip to the Galapagos.