This one-week trip to Ecuador was intended simply to whet our appetite for a longer trip we plan to take within a year or two. Accompanied by our friend Martha Estus, we spent 5 days at Sacha Lodge in the Amazonian lowlands, and birded in the Quito area for a day on either side of the trip to Sacha. While in Quito we stayed at the Hotel Quito, a large, older hotel that was convenient to the airport and had amenities such as a nice restaurant on the premises. The hotel also had a reasonably large, surrounding garden, where we were able to study the common birds of Quito. We made the hotel reservations through Jane Lyons of Mindo Tours, and also arranged through her to hire a guide/driver to take us birding in the Quito area. We flew American Airlines from L.A. to Quito via Miami, arriving at the hotel at about midnight on Saturday 13 March. Despite the late arrival, we were up promptly the next morning and ready for a full day's birding.
Sunday 14 March
Our guide, Edison Buenaño, picked us up at 7 a.m. for the approx. 1 hr. drive to the Yanacocha Ecological Reserve, located at 11,000' on the slopes of Volcán Pichincha. A glimpse of a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker beside the road precipitated a brief stop near the start of the Old Nono-Mindo road, where we also found Hooded Siskin and Southern Yellow-Grosbeak. As we wound our way up through scenic paramo on the entrance road to Yanacocha, a Tawny Antpitta hopped across the road and stayed in the open long enough for us to get it on video. Birds seen on the 2 km walk through the forested reserve included Hooded and Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanagers, Grass-green Tanager, small mixed flocks of Blue-backed Conebills and Superciliaried Hemispingus, Andean Guan, and a Unicolored Tapaculo that Edison taped in close enough for us to glimpse as it belted out its song. The hummingbird feeders that are maintained along the track were dominated by Great Sapphirewings and Buff-winged Starfrontlets, with smaller numbers of Tyrian Metaltails, Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Mountain Velvetbreasts, and the aggressive Shining Sunbeams. Best of all were a pair of Sword-billed Hummingbirds coming to the feeders at the far end of the track, and a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill that put in a very brief appearance. We left Yanacocha in mid-afternoon, and Edison decided to take us to a site on the north side of Quito to look for the rare White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant. The site was hot and very dusty, and we did not find the Shrike-Tyrant or any other birds worth noting. In retrospect, this side trip was not worth the considerable driving it entailed, especially since we passed right by it on the way to Tandayapa later in the week.
Monday 15 March
We started the day birding for an hour or so in the grounds of Hotel Quito before flying to Coca for the trip to Sacha Lodge. At Coca we were met by Oscar, who was to be our birding guide for the week, and also welcomed an English birder named Steve into our little group. We were segregated from the other guests and given our own motorized canoe for the trip down the Río Napo, which allowed us to stop and bird at our leisure on the way to the Lodge. Unfortunately, we saw relatively few birds on the river, although we did get excellent views of several stunning Pied Plovers. Upon arrival at Sacha we spent an hour or more on the viewing platform at the riverfront finca area, where late afternoon bird activity was high. Here we had great, eye-level views of Orange-fronted Plushcrown, Lafresnaye's Piculet, White-winged Becard, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, and Mottle-backed Elaenia, as well as our first looks at many of the more common species such as Silver-beaked and Blue-Gray Tanagers, Violaceous Jay, and Red-capped Cardinal. Our leisurely walk along the boardwalk to the lodge was cut short by impending rain, but not before we had seen Blue-crowned Motmot, Spix's Guan, and two roosting Great Potoos. The rain lasted for several hours as we settled into our rooms and ate our first dinner at the lodge.
Tuesday 16 March
Breakfast at 5 a.m. followed by a 5:30 a.m. departure was to be our daily schedule at Sacha. On this first morning we headed out the trail behind the lodge by flashlight. Not far from the lodge we heard a Crested Owl calling, and Oscar used a tape to bring it in close enough for us to see it well. We continued out the trail to the area where a canopy walkway is under construction. Although the walkway itself is not yet in place, the two 40-m high metal towers that will anchor it are complete, and it was on one of these that we spent the morning. From high above the canopy we had wonderful views of 4 species of toucan and araçari, 3 species of oropendola, numerous tanagers - including the incomparable Paradise Tanagers - and a variety of raptors, including an immature Crested Eagle perched conspicuously in a distant tree. The highlight of the morning may, however, have been the Black-bellied Cuckoo clambering through the foliage at our feet, at one point perching at eye level on one of the tower's support cables. With its subtle plumage hues and its blue and yellow ocular, this bird is much more beautiful than any field guide can depict. Other good birds we saw from the tower included Pied Puffbird, Purplish Jacamar, Spangled Cotinga, White-browed Purpletuft, Scaly-breasted Woodpecker, Dugand's Antwren, and Spot-winged Antshrike. By about 10 a.m. the sun had broken through the early morning fog and it was getting hot and quiet above the canopy, so we descended to the forest floor and walked some trails through terra firme. Here Oscar began to demonstrate his magic with a tape player, hearing distant birds and then bringing them to us using tape-playback. His young assistant Carlos was equally impressive, spotting birds that were invisible to us and getting the scope on them without the aid of binoculars. In quick succession they found us Collared Puffbird, Golden-headed and Wire-tailed Manakins, a pair of Spix's Woodcreepers, a Screaming Piha in full performance, and several antbirds, including Cinereous Antshrike. We also stopped to see a Long-tailed Potoo nesting on a stump close to the trail. A half-grown baby potoo was nestled under his mother's breast, gazing up at her serenely with unblinking, gray eyes - a scene that brought to mind a grotesque caricature of Virgin and Child!
After lunch at the lodge and a few hours rest, we headed out again in the late afternoon by canoe. We first cruised the shore of Pilchicocha for Hoatzin and Black-capped Donacobius, then paddled slowly up Orqídea Creek. Oscar found us some of the várzea specialists, including Dot-backed and Silvered Antbirds, Orange-crested Manakin, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin, and a Cinnamon-rumped Foliage-Gleaner that landed right in front of us for a very brief second. We also saw roosting Boat-billed Herons and a Common Potoo (to complete the potoo hat-trick!), and at dusk Oscar taped in a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl.
Wednesday 17 March
5:30 a.m. found us back in the canoe, heading for the boardwalk and the Río Napo, where we would spend the day downriver in Yasuní National Park. Our departure from Sacha was delayed for about a half hour as Oscar tried to lure into view a Zigzag Heron that was calling close to the boardwalk - without success, unfortunately. Once on our way, we went directly to the parrot lick (Saladero de Loros) located at the Napo Wildlife Center. Here hundreds of parrots (Mealy, Blue-headed and Yellow-crowned, along with Dusky-headed Parakeets) were congregating to eat clay at an exposed cliff that is easily viewed from a large blind. After spending some time viewing this spectacle, we moved on to visit an island in the Río Napo. In a very muddy low area with dense reedy vegetation we located Black-and-White Antbird, Parker's and White-bellied Spinetails, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Solitary Cacique, and Chestnut-bellied Seedeater. We also saw a Large-billed Tern feeding over the river in the distance, its striking wing pattern obvious as it hovered and banked. From the island we proceeded to a second parrot lick (Saladero de Pericos), which is reached by a hike of approximately 1 km through terra firme. This saladero is a small cave which is visited by a different selection of species than we had seen earlier. Cobalt-winged Parakeets were in the majority, but we were delighted to see several Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets and gaudy Orange-cheeked Parrots among them. On the hike to and from the saladero we saw Spot-backed and Warbling Antbirds, Short-billed Antwren, Plain Xenops, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-tailed Trogon, Olive-faced Flatbill, and Thrush-like Wren. A Striated Antthrush was seen briefly by Cathy and Oscar only. We returned to Sacha in the late afternoon, picking up Spot-breasted Woodpecker and Gray-fronted Dove along the boardwalk. After a brief rest, we headed back out to Orqídea Creek in search of Rufescent Tiger-Heron. We struck out with this heron, but were rewarded instead with Cream-colored Woodpecker, White-chinned Jacamar, Collared Trogon, and a pair of Plumbeous Antbirds.
Thursday 18 March
Back out to the Río Napo, this time to spend the day at Providencia, property owned by Sacha Lodge on the south shore of the river. On a sand bar in the river we saw the only Capped Heron of the trip, and also got great looks at a pair of Yellow-headed Caracaras eating a fish. As we motored up a narrow channel on the south shore, small flocks of Orange-winged and Black-headed Parrots passed overhead along with Lesser Swallow-tailed and Gray-rumped Swifts. Three rare Ecuadorian Caciques called from a dense riverbank thicket and then cooperatively flew to an open tree where we could see them clearly. Our destination at Providencia was a series of trails through terra firma where we hoped to find army ant swarms. This desire was realized almost immediately as we encountered a large swarm a short way up the trail, but there were disappointingly few antbirds in attendance. Nonetheless, we got good looks at several Lunulated Antbirds, a pair of Sooty Antbirds, and a Black-banded Woodcreeper. Birding this site was hard work as Oscar patiently taped in one species after another and used his laser pointer to get us on them in the dense understory vegetation. Our perseverance was rewarded with some great birds, including Ash-throated Gnateater, Black-faced and White-shouldered Antbirds, Mouse-colored Antshrike, White-flanked Antwren, Musician Wren, Yellow-billed Jacamar, Black-tailed Leaf-Tosser, Black-faced Antthrush, and crippling views of a Rusty-belted Tapaculo.
We returned to Sacha in the mid-afternoon, intending to spend the late afternoon birding the trails behind the lodge. As we reached the canoes for the trip across Pilchicocha, however, the heavens opened up in a torrential downpour and gusts of wind brought tree limbs crashing down onto the boardwalk. We huddled under our ponchos, trying to keep our equipment dry while Carlos struggled to paddle us across the lake, the water level in the canoe rising steadily. By the time we reached the dock safely, several inches of rain must have fallen, judging by the contents of the canoe. In retrospect this little adventure was exhilarating, but while we were out on the lake it was difficult not to dwell on how challenging it would be to stay afloat in rubber boots and a poncho if the canoe were to capsize! The storm ended our formal birding for the day, but late in the afternoon after the weather cleared we borrowed the lodge's spotting scope and relaxed on the dock, enjoying long, close looks at the common lakeshore species.
Friday 19 March
On our last morning we left the lodge at 5:30 a.m. as usual, stopping along the boardwalk to try one last time (unsuccessfully) for the Zigzag Heron. We hiked out to the river, seeing Speckled Chachalacha and Gray-necked Wood-Rail on the way, and birded the finca area while waiting for the other departing guests to arrive. We did not have the luxury of our own boat on the trip back to Coca so were unable to stop for interesting birds. Nonetheless, from the speeding boat we managed to add Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Bare-necked Fruitcrow, and Green Ibis to our list. At Coca we bade Oscar farewell and caught our flight back to Quito. We spent the afternoon birding the Hotel Quito grounds again, seeing more of the common residents (Eared Dove, Great Thrush, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Sparkling Violet-ear, Black-tailed Trainbearer) but also finding several Black Flowerpiercers and a Rusty Flowerpiercer.
Saturday 20 March
Edison was supposed to pick us up at 5:30 a.m. to take us to the Tandayapa Valley for the day, but he was delayed by a traffic accident and didn't arrive until 6:45 a.m. We spent an anxious hour fretting that we were going to be stranded in Quito on our final day of birding! As a result of our late start and warm, sunny weather, there was little bird activity when we arrived at the village of Tandayapa. Edison suggested we move up the valley in search of birds, and so we arrived at Tony Nunnery's house at 9 a.m. Tony and his wife Barbara welcomed us warmly, offered us tea and cookies, and pointed out the many species resident in their yard. At their hummingbird feeders we saw 17 species (down from a high of 23 the previous week), including goodies such as Brown Violet-ear, Purple-bibbed White-tip, Fawn-breasted and Empress Brilliants, Gorgeted Sunangel, and the stunning Violet-tailed Sylphs. White-winged Brushfinch, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, and Olive-crowned Yellowthroat skulked around the yard edges, a Barred Hawk soared over, and a mixed flock of Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers, Capped Conebills, and Blue-capped and Golden-naped Tanagers passed through. We stayed for lunch, and finally moved on reluctantly in early afternoon. By now the clouds had come down, and birding conditions were perfect (light drizzle) as we reached the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. We found Plate-billed Mountain Toucans almost immediately, and then encountered a large mixed flock that included Streak-necked and Cinnamon Flycatchers, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Montane Woodcreeper, Striped Treehunter, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Rufous Spinetail, Grass-green Tanager, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, and several species of warbler. Edison was unsuccessful at taping either Spillman's or Ocellated Tapaculo into view, but did manage to lure a calling Chestnut-crowned Antpitta into the open very briefly. We returned to Quito very satisfied, and flew home the next morning eagerly anticipating returning for a longer visit in a year or two.
We finished the week having seen 315 species, 262 of them life birds. A complete list follows, broken down by site:
Birds we heard on one or more occasion but never saw included: Undulated Tinamou, Zigzag Heron, Marbled Wood-Quail, Ruddy and Plumbeous Pigeons, Tropical Screech Owl, Cinnamon Attila, White-necked Thrush (Sacha Lodge); Spillman's Tapaculo, Ocellated Tapaculo, and Gray-breasted Wood-Wren (Tandayapa).
Common Squirrel Monkey
White-fronted Capuchin Monkey
Red Howler Monkey
Northern Amazon Red Squirrel
Yellow-crowned Brush-tailed Rat