Saturday 4 June 2016

Dream birds in the rainforest

Well it's almost 4 June 2016...and that folks marks the day I head to one of the places in the World that all naturalists should visit at least once in their lives!  I get on a plane tomorrow with the rest of my shipmates, to head to the Galapagos Islands with Lindblad Expeditions!  I'll be working onboard the MV National Geographic Endeavour, my first time onboard this lovely ship, as we do two week long trips around the islands, with my role as one of the Photo Instructors...and it is going to be hard to get to sleep tonight...or at least it would be if I hadn't just had an incredible and absolutely jam-packed last six days on mainland Ecuador.

This is a country I have never been to before, and the opportunity to spend some time here and see some of the over 1600 species of birds was just too great!  So I decided to fly in to Ecuador early and spend few days...but where to go and what to do?

Well the year so far has been so crazy busy, that I had little opportunity to do much research, and instead canvassed a few people I knew had been or had contacts.  A client I guided through New Zealand in Nov 2015 (Raymond Jeffers) made a couple of suggestions, one of which was a small Eco Lodge in the Tandayapa Valley called Bellavista Lodge, so I emailed them and asked about options.  A response the very next day gave me great confidence, and their website looked great...and even better was the location.  Not too far from Quito, but situated at 2250m above sea level in the stunningly beautiful cloud forest of the western slope of the Andes.  The fact that the area has won the highest bird count for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count over several years recently, and is now known as the best location for seeing the recently discovered (in 2013) Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina neblina - there are four subspecies described) a member of the racoon family, just had to make this a pretty great place to head to!

So I booked for 6 nights, hoping there would be enough to keep me busy...I needn't have worried.  I arrived into Quito from Guayaquil early in the morning, was greeted by a driver and we headed up through Quito city, out NW of the city towards the Tandayapa Valley.  Now being a naive Kiwi, I hadn't quite thought about altitude...Quito lies at just under 2900m!  The lodge itself lies at 2250m, so a little lower, but well within some beautiful cloud forest - a mix of secondary and primary forest, with all of that around the lodge (around 700 hectares) being owned by the lodge.  Pretty darn cool!

I settled in to my room, which was nestled in the forest, with massive windows that looked right into the trees.  Within minutes the Ecuador field guide was out (rather embarrassingly the first opportunity I had even had to even look at it!), and a few new species being spotted - russet-crowned warbler almost close enough to touch, dusky bush tanager likewise, and then what the hell is that!  A toucan barbet, a ridiculously stunning bird right there.  Camera was out, and wandering just metres from the door near a fruiting tree there was a plate-billed toucan as well!  Now it is cloud forest right, so you gotta expect cloud (and rain), and over the six days I had we encountered rain and cloud every day...but hey that's just part of the fun.  At least the temperature was relatively cool and actually very pleasant.

My room on the bottom floor nestled into the forest.

I visited the hummingbird feeders, basically staring flabbergasted at the number of birds, and not even attempting to identify them right there and then.  At lunch I was greeted by 'my' guide for the days I was to be at the lodge, a local guy who grew up very close to the lodge, called Nelson Apolo.  He said he would meet me at 3pm at the hummingbird feeders and we would go on a walk, and that's what we did.  That first afternoon it became pretty apparent that I was in good company.  Nelson was an excellent guide, knowing all the birds (I think I only saw him look stumped, and for just a second, once during the six days), but also being a superb person to be in the field with.  We hit it off right from the start, joking and having fun, and I knew then it was going to be a pretty awesome six days.

One of the first birds after arriving was this running little fella, the toucan barbet.

The birds came pretty thick and fast with several good mixed flocks, and a bunch of new birds, in fact pretty much everything we saw over the time within the forests in this area was mostly new for me, having done only a bit around the coastal parts of South America.  Some of the hardest were the wrens, treehunters, foliagegleaners, spinetails and other Funariidae - almost never giving good views and all being shades of brown with often subtle stripes, spots, or even more subtle patches of colour somewhere!  A birders ultimate nightmare if unassisted for the first time in this realm...but luckily I was in capable hands with Nelson.  To start with my lazy Kiwi birding habits needed to be swiftly ramped up, and eyes and ears tuned.  It is funny how lazy one becomes when you live in a country with few species, all of which you know so well.  When confronted with almost impenetrable forest that is brimming with life that doesn't want to be seen you have to step up a notch...or five!

Nelson was calling birds left right and centre, and to be honest most of the time I was getting on to them, and even spotting the odd one myself first.  But without Nelson I would have been searching through the field guide and missing so much.  That doesn't mean I just secured a view of the bird and moved on, I need to see features that I could use to identify the bird, and really try to get these features and observe the bird before moving on to the next.  It certainly isn't a race for me, but I do like the chase, and as I found out there is nothing better than getting on to a nice mixed flock of birds and calling out what you are seeing to each other, just awesome!

A plate-billed mountain-toucan drinks from a bromeliad in the canopy.

The first of many antpittas seen during the trip, the chestnut-crowned antpitta found right beside my room. 

The newly described olinguito, a member of the racoon family.

Tanager finch, a real specialty of the area, and a really skulky little Emberizid related to buntings.

Looking up into the canopy at a wonderful cecropia tree.

Again looking up into the canopy, this time into a tree laden with bromeliads.

A very common, but stunningly beautiful blue-winged mountain-tanager, found around the feeders and forest at the lodge.

Looking out over the Tandayapa Valley from a viewpoint near the Bellavista lodge, situated just on the ridge in the middle ground on the right hand-side of the image.

Looking into the canopy festooned with bromeliads, mosses and ferns.

Male masked trogon perched looking for insects in the canopy.

Cloud forest by name, cloud forest by nature.

A male violet-tailed sylph perched near the feeders, taken almost on dark, high ISO but wow, still a great shot.

A kinkajou peers down through the trees after dark.

That afternoon we encountered a bit of rain, but nothing an umbrella couldn't fix, and then gradually got back down to the lodge on dusk.  And then it was time for the mammals.  They put out bananas for the mammals and both kinkajous and olinguitos come in, with the latter generally being a little more timid and giving the former first bit of the apple...  That first night we had several of both, and what great little animals they are.  One olinguito even thought it was a hummingbird and spent a long time guzzling the sugar water supplied for the birds!

Next morning it was up before dawn, meeting with Nelson, and we basically spent the entire day (except meal times) out on the mountainside looking for birds.  We had a blast, more great birds - chestnut-crowned antpitta, ocellated tapaculo, strong-billed woodcreeper, the list went on.  The great birds kept coming, and working through the mixed flocks was proving to be fun as I slowly got my eye in.  One thing that really bothers me though is that I just can't get the calls right in my mind.  Some are just obvious, they are so distinct you hear them once or twice and you have them.  But almost everything else is just a jumble in my mind, so many sound similar and very subtly different.

The next day we were up really early and off to look for swallow-tailed nightjar near the top of the road.  We found them, a male, and possibly another bird that could have been a female flew too quickly.  I had the male perched, but as he flew I just missed the tail...damn!  We had tried both previous afternoons for a real skulker and specialty of the area, the tanager finch.  Supposedly a member of the Emberizidae family which includes the American sparrows and buntings, this little stunner can be pretty hard.  It had been raining both afternoons, and although pretty drippy and wet from rain we thought we would give it a go first thing in the morning, and we were lucky this time, a pair came right in and showed very very well, giving some pretty nice photo opportunities.  We then headed back to the lodge, getting a few things along the way, including another little skulker, the Spillman's tapaculo, with several feeding beside a puddle.  The rest of the day we birded with another small group that arrived that morning, and the day being mostly sunny actually meant the birding was a little tougher, with less mixed flocks evident, and generally quieter.

And so, after two and a half days around the lodge I decided it was time to up the pace a little.  The next morning we headed to an area called Refugio Paz de las Aves, about 1.5 hours away where there was an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek.  These birds are lek breeders, meaning the males congregate in an area and display and call, trying to attract a female to impress.  They occupy the lek for around 1-1.5 hours after light, and we got there just before light and they had already started calling.  We hurried through a trail to a hide which overlooked the area, and as it got light we were able to see the birds and watch them doing their thing.  Having missed the Guianan cock-of-the-rock twice now at Kaiteur Falls in Guyana, this was a mega bird high on my list, and they didn't disappoint.  I'd have to say these Andean COTRs are even better - the combination of orange, grey and black is just ridiculously beautiful.  Shame their call isn't, being a series of loud squawks and clicks...apparently the girls like it though!

After spending time at the lek we then moved to a small feeder setup with a few hummers and tanagers, and then to several places where the guys running the tour have been feeding antpittas of five species and the rufous-breasted antthrush...the star being giant antpitta.  However, I have to say that probably one of my favourite birds of the trip had to be the antthrush - the way they move and creep around is just awesome, just cool little birds.  We were successful on all the antpittas except the chestnut-crowned which l luckily we had seen very well at the lodge.  We also visited the locals home where they had a series of feeders setup for tanagers and hummers and had a bunch of new hummers there, along with empanadas and coffee - how civilised!

It was then time to head to another spot called Alambi Cloud Forest Reserve where we sat on a porch and watched even more hummingbirds coming in to feed at hummingbird feeders set up in the garden.  Another 4-5 species later, we headed down to the river and after a bit of work found a local white-capped dipper, a really nice looking member of this group.  That afternoon we visited Milpe Cloud Forest Reserve in Mindo.  Although it started out raining, it gradually stopped and we had some marvellous birds, including Choco toucan, a whole bunch more tanagers, and the orange-billed sparrow...not just any sparrow!

A male Andean cock-of-the-rock perched looking at his fellow rivals.
A male Andean cock-of-the-rock perched in the canopy looks across at a rival male.
A stinking giant antpitta amongst the leaflitter.
For me one of the true highlights of the trip, the rufous-breast ant thrush, a real crippler of a bird!
A male purple-throated woodstar perched showing its beautiful gorget.
Another special bird of the region, a Choco toucan calling.

The next day I had decided we should hit some higher altitude areas - 2250m just wasn't enough, so we headed for 3500m!  We headed up to a place called Yanacocha Reserve, operated by the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation.  On the way up with passed through incredible farmland - steep mountainsides with grazing dairy cows and farmers hand-milking them in the fields, and had stunning views out over the surrounding landscape with the clouds and cloud forest well below us.  The sun was shining and we encountered a bunch of good birds including several more species of mountain tanager.  At the reserve we were hoping to target a bunch of new hummingbirds, and the major target was the sword-billed hummingbird - a ridiculous invention of a bird with a massive 10cm long bill, longer than any other bird relative to body size!  And within a few minutes we had found one near one of the feeders, actually having spotted a couple at a distance on the way up the road.  But seeing them up close was amazing, perched, and then feeding at the feeder, the bird could be seen to almost consciously manoeuvre around the feeder so the bill could be inserted into the feeder opening!  Awesome!  We then headed on along a trail to another collection of feeders, encountering several mixed flocks along the way and just enjoying the sunshine and scenery.  We watched the hummers around the feeders, seeing several more sword-bills and then decided to head higher, climbing up a really steep trail through Polylepis and bamboo forest and above the tree.  The mist and cloud closed in on us fairly shortly after we started up the trail, and the forest was really quiet, but we found a few good birds including quite a number of rufous antpitta, and then above the tree line a tawny antpitta.  We were searching for giant cone bill but just couldn't find any mixed flocks, but the forest was beautiful, especially in the cloud, which came and went a little.

We had lunch back down at the Reserve entrance cafe, and then headed back on down the road towards Bellavista, but stopping and birding along the way.  A key bird to find just below Bellavista is the beautiful jay, which as the name suggests is pretty stunning, and we tried several places Nelson had seen them before to no was not looking good.  But as we drove the last few kilometres back up the road, it was almost dark, and a jay called right beside the road.  Nelson exclaimed and was out of the truck before we had even stopped, and in came the birds, a group of four.  And it really was a beauty...even better for the suspense!

Farms on the way up to Yanacocha with Guagua Pichincha volcano (4784m) in the background.

Now this is dairy farming, hand milking in the field, with old stye milk urns at the ready. We saw trucks driving the roads and picking these up to take away for processing.

Absolutely stunning scenery looking out to the mountains and a Cotacachi volcano (4944m) in the distance.

Hooded mountain-tanager, another beautiful tanager.

More scenery out over the mountains.

The master at work, Nelson looking for the next bird.

Massive Gunnera leaves and flowers along the path at Yanacocha Reserve.

Male sword-billed hummingbird in all his glory - look at that honking bill!

A great sapphirewing hummer in flight.

Masked flowerpiercer, very common throughout the altitudinal ranges we travelled, but very pretty.

Right up in the Polylepis forest amongst the clouds.

Walking through some Paramo tussock and forest habitat.

Beautiful Polylepis forest in the cloud, full of mosses.

The views back through the valley on the way down.
An image that really doesn't do the beautiful jay justice!

The next day there was only one thing to do, get up and leave at 4:00am and see if we could see long-wattled umbrellabird at a lek about 1.5 hours away.  We needed to be there right on dawn, so made our way down to the site, but on the way it started to rain, and as we picked up the local farmer whose property they were on, it really wasn't looking good with fairly steady rain and pretty thick cloud.  We got to the road end and then walked another kilometre or so to an area of forest where they had formed a lek.  The light was just increasing, but it was still pretty wet and we could see only a meter of 50m or so...not good...and to make matters worse, there was no calling.  We waited, and waited, and waited, nothing.  The rain eased, but the cloud was still very thick...  We decided to move up to a spot with better visibility in the hope we might see them passing through, as clearly they were not planning on using the lek this mining.  After about three hours, the rain had stopped and the cloud lifted substantially, but there were no birds to be seen...bugger!  Ah well let's try a fruiting tree near the town the farmer had seen one at the day before.  As we walked along the very slippery steep clay track Nelson all of a sudden yelled 'I've got one!' and there on a bare branch about 100m away was a male umbrellabird!  All hell broke loose as we tried to get it in the scope, get cameras out of bags, and all the time stay upright on the slippery clay!  It sat there for a good five minutes and then flew...towards us!  It landed in some trees across the valley, and for the next 15 minutes or so we followed it up the stream valley as it moved from tree to tree, about 50m at a time, all the time about 50-70m away.  And we had awesome views and got some reasonable photos.  We celebrated as the bird flew off out of sight, and the farmer headed off for his days work.  We started to head on back to the vehicle and all of a sudden Nelson yells in a whisper 'Another one right here!' and there was one in the tree above us, literally 6m away!  It was actually too close, and in the panic that ensued I ended up moving further to get a better angle, but it was obscured from almost every angle except from below.  Luckily I got a couple of shots before it then flew, and similarly to the previous bird then gradually worked its way up the stream valley!  What an adrenalin rush!

We then headed into town, more empanadas and coffee for breakfast/brunch, and then on to another reserve - the Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary in Mindo.  There is a canopy tower which we headed to and with a fruiting tree right beside it the birds were coming thick and fast with another whole bunch of great tanagers, several barbets and some how Nelson even spotted a lanceolated monklet on a branch I just don't know!  We ate lunch in the tower, and then as the afternoon faded we walked the forest trail.  It was a little quiet, but we had a couple of small mixed flocks, adding a couple of antwrens and even a white-whiskered puffbird, related to the monklet and also often nearly impossible to find (no guesses who found that!).  It was then a two hour drive home, with a band-winged nightjar on the way, and we arrived back at the lodge a little late for dinner (oops!) at 8pm...a pretty big day with some awesome birding, and 16 hours on the trot!

A male long-wattled umbrellabird in the tree right above our heads!

A pretty distinctive silhouette of a long-wattled umbrellabird in flight.

A pale-mandibled aracari on palm fruits.

A white-whiskered puffbird looking down at us.

A laughing falcon with a freshly caught snake, snacking before bed at the end of the day.

And so then it was this morning and time to leave Bellavista!  Nelson headed down with me as he was going on vacation for a week, and they dropped me at the Airport.  I really hope I get back to the Tandayapa Valley someday.  There are still some birds I'd like to see, and it is just such an amazing place to spend time in.  Thanks so much to the lovely staff at the Lodge, and for an amazing stay!  And if you ever need a guide in the area, then I highly recommend Nelson Apolo - he can be contacted through his Facebook page or by email.  Nelson is planning on setting up his own guiding operation, taking tours right around Ecuador, so he is definitely the guy to get in touch with about Ecuador!


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  2. I hadn't just had an incredible and absolutely jam-packed last six days on mainland Ecuador.