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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The East Slope of the Andes

2017 Narrative

In Brief: That morning when the rain clouds cleared and the sun poked out, we were walking down a quiet dirt road in foothill rainforest. It was a sudden birding moment and in the space of about thirty minutes we were snapping back and forth from one tree to another as we had extended looks at Channel-billed Toucan, Chestnut-eared Araçari, Golden-collared Toucanet, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, and a few “lesser” things like Dark-breasted Spinetail and Chestnut-bellied Seedeater. Other days on the tour each had their standout birds and moments, as well, as we traversed nearly 10000 feet of elevation between the highest barren páramo, through dense, mossy cloud forests, and to the very feet of the rugged Andes.

In Detail: We began in the thin air of the Papallacta pass walking (slowly, very slowly) through brushy páramo. A Tawny Antpitta perched on a rock, Chestnut-winged and Stout-billed Cinclodes poked around the roadsides, and a Variable Hawk wheeled overhead. We tried for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at the end of the road and at over 14000 feet of elevation, but sadly it eluded us. We were, however, rewarded with a rare clear day and a striking panorama of the high Andes, the snowcapped peaks of Antisana, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe towering above even our high perch. After a few hours we began our drive down, stopping first at Guango lodge for a tasty, warm lunch. There, from the suspension bridge we watched a male Torrent Duck swim under us through the raging white water. After, and downhill further we arrived at Cabanas San Isidro in its own pristine cloud forest reserve.    

Our two days at San Isidro allowed us to explore this wonderful area. With just a little stroll around the grounds we were treated to flashy Collared Incas bullying the hummer feeders as well as raucous Scarlet-rumped Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas building nests. It took a little work, but we all ended up with great views of the small and colorful Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher zipping about in the bamboo thickets. And further afield (we had to drive for 20 minutes) we were treated to a pair of Powerful Woodpeckers, a couple of Golden-headed Quetzals, and a handful of White-capped Dippers working the rushing stream below. At night the still as yet formerly described “San Isidro” Owl posed nicely in the driveway. And, did I mention the food? Our stomachs were well taken care of, too.

From 7000 feet of elevation we descended to under 5000 feet to the south slope of the Sumaco Volcano and Wildsumaco Lodge. We stopped along the way in the pouring rain to visit a waterfall and see a few White-tailed Hillstars fighting it out with a few other hummingbird species. A day of rain wasn’t too bad since it permitted us to spend much of the day with the hummingbird feeders on the back porch of the lodge and we ended up with 22 species, including colorful things like Gould’s Jewelfront and Napo Sabrewing, small things like Booted Racket-tail and Wire-crested Thorntail, and usually scarce things like Black-throated Brilliant and Rufous-vented Whitetip. Antpitta feeding, now occurring to some degree at most lodges was a good show here, too, with Plain-backed Antpitta and a couple of tiny Ochre-breasted Antpittas popping in. A Gray-cheeked Thrush on winter holiday from boreal North America was an added bonus. The next day when it all cleared up, the road from the lodge was the place to be. In addition to the abovementioned toucan and woodpecker bonzanza, we also had a few outrageous Paradise Tanagers, an elegant circling Swallow-tailed Kite, and a Coppery-chested Jacamar perched inconspicuously in the forest edge.

Leaving the slopes of Sumaco we retraced our route back uphill into the Andean cloud forest and back to the cozy walls of Guango Lodge. The Chestnut-crowned Antpittas were almost aggressive in the parking lot, while mixed flocks on the grounds had huge Hooded Mountain-Tanagers, subtle Blue-and-black Tanagers, and Rufous-breasted Flycatcher. An Andean Guan never quite came out into the open, but peering through the bamboo the bits and pieces of it could be assembled into a full bird. Leaving there and driving back up and over the pass, we braved the cold and the wet and the wind one more time, this time our high elevation hike paid off and the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe was there, albeit in the parking lot where we started. So it goes, but somehow the hard work made it better. We made a few more stops on the road down for cooperative roadside attractions like Great Horned Owl and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, and then it was done. We were drinking hot tea and having dinner back in Puembo, an end to a great week of birding.

Jon Feenstra

March 2017

Updated: n/a