Friday, 4 December 2009

Ecuador - part I

We set out from London Heathrow on the evening of November 27th on a BA short-haul flight, arrived in Madrid around 11 p.m. and caught the overnight LAN-Chile flight to Quito; a perfectly decent and comfortable trip over the Atlantic.

We arrived at Guayaquil airport, where we had to abandon the plane for an hour. A typically rapid tropical dawn meant we could do a little birding before we had to re-embark and head on into the Andes. A Tropical Kingbird flycatching against the windows of the airport was Na’s first neotropical bird… This was rapidly followed by a handful of Southern Rough-winged Swallows and a brief view of a Long-tailed Mockingbird, before a small Chaetura swift flew over – either Grey-rumped or Tumbes Swift. Finally, a small number of Great-tailed Grackles lolloped around beside the runway as we taxied out to take off for Quito.

1 Tumbes/Grey-rumped Swift  Chaetura ocypetes/cinereiventris
2 Tropical Kingbird  Tyrannus melancholicus
3 Long-tailed Mockingbird  Mimus longicaudatus
4 Southern Rough-winged Swallow  Stelgidopteryx ruficollis
5 Great-tailed Grackle  Quiscalus mexicanus

We arrived in Quito after a short flight over some spectacular scenery, wound our way through an unsmiling immigration process and emerged into a pleasantly warm sunny day. From Quito we had organised a transfer to the Mindo Gardens Hotel, just outside the small town of Mindo – about 2 hours drive northwest of Quito. Our driver – Sandro – spent the journey explaining to us the many varied and horrific experiences a traveller could hope to encounter in Ecuador, ranging from the risks of Quito, especially after dark, to the dangers of travelling the roads in bus or hire-car. Outside the car, the scenery rapidly changed from the rather trashed arid inter-Andean valley north of the city to the more lush, verdant slopes of the Western Andes. The car wound down the slope, overtaking a variety of grunting lorries and colourful buses, and being overtaken by a proportion of apparently suicidal car and van drivers.

6 Feral Pigeon  Columba livia var. domestica
7 Eared Dove  Zenaida auriculata
8 Rufous-collared Sparrow  Zonotrichia capensis
9 Roadside Hawk  Buteo magnirostris
10 Cattle Egret  Bubulcus ibis
11 Black Vulture  Coragyps atratus
12 Turkey Vulture  Cathartes aura

After a couple of hours of winding along the road, we turned left off it, and dropped into the small dusty town of Mindo, looking rather reminiscent of a stage-set for a Hollywood Western. We slipped through the town onto a proper dirt track and drove for a further 15 dusty minutes to the hotel, arriving thirsty and dusty and profoundly grateful to have stopped travelling. Settling in involved one of us taking the opportunity for a half-hour snooze and the other extracting binoculars and camera to saunter round the hotel grounds. I leave it to you to decide which of us did which…!

After ‘resting’, we took a trip across the river in a small hand-powered cable-car, then walked up to the old Nono-Mindo road, very slowly and steadily, with frequent pauses for breath, wildlife and mouthfuls of water. We finally gained the ridge and wandered along until we reached a small tree in full flower, which was attended by something in the region of a hundred hummingbirds – mainly Booted Racket-tails and Sparkling Violet-ears, but with the occasional White-whiskered Hermit and Purple-bibbed White-tip in attendance. We sat on the bank and admired the comings and goings of the tiny birds, before heading back reluctantly to the hotel for some fresh-pressed fruit juice, then dinner and a delightfully deep sleep. The unexpected sight of an agouti in mid-afternoon was a surprise – to me for its unexpectedness, and to Na for it’s name (“It’s a what?” “An Agouti.” “I’ll never remember that!”)

 As-yet unidentified damselfly species from the riverside

13 Crimson-rumped Toucanet  Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
14 Rufous Motmot  Baryphthengus martii
15 White-whiskered Hermit  Phaethornis yaruqui
16 Sparkling Violet-ear  Colibri coruscans
17 West Andean Emerald  Chlorostilbon melanorhynchus
18 Green-crowned Woodnymph  Thalurania fannyi
19 Rufous-tailed Hummingbird  Amazilia tzacatl
20 Green-crowned Brilliant  Heliodoxa jacula
21 Brown Inca  Coeligena wilsoni
22 Purple-bibbed Whitetip  Urosticte benjamini
23 Booted Racket-tail  Ocreatus underwoodii
24 Ruddy Quail-Dove  Geotrygon montana
25 Fasciated Tiger-Heron  Tigrisoma fasciatum
26 Slaty-capped Flycatcher  Leptopogon superciliaris
27 Handsome Flycatcher  Myiophobus pulcher
28 Black Phoebe  Sayornis nigricans
29 Golden-crowned Flycatcher  Myiodynastes chrysocephalus
30 Rusty-margined Flycatcher  Myiozetetes cayanensis
31 Cinnamon Becard  Pachyramphus cinnamomeus
32 Red-faced Spinetail  Cranioleuca erythrops
33 Western Woodhaunter  Hyloctistes subulatus
34 Spotted Woodcreeper  Xiphorhynchus erythropygius
35 Red-eyed Vireo  Vireo olivaceus
36 White-capped Dipper  Cinclus leucocephalus
37 Swainson's Thrush  Catharus ustulatus
38 Tropical Parula  Parula pitiayumi
39 Slate-throated Redstart  Myioborus miniatus
40 Three-striped Warbler  Basileuterus tristriatus
41 Buff-rumped Warbler  Basileuterus fulvicauda
42 Bananaquit  Coereba flaveola
43 Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager  Anisognathus somptuosus
44 Orange-bellied Euphonia  Euphonia xanthogaster
45 Golden Tanager  Tangara arthus
46 Silver-throated Tanager  Tangara icterocephala
Central American Agouti  Dasyprocta punctata

Katydid-type thing crossing the road beside the hotel

Rufous Motmot

Na puzzles over hummingbirds

White-whiskered Hermit

Green-crowned Brilliant

9th November. We awoke early – about 4 a.m. – but fortunately managed to get back to sleep before the dawn chorus of weird whistles and shrieks, squeaks, groans and caws of tropical wildlife woke us again. We wandered along the road for a few metres before breakfast, then headed purposefully along the dusty track to Mindo to purchase some lunch. We eventually strolled into the town, to see that most of the shops were shut, and that there was very little fruit to be found. We managed to find some mangos, some empanadas for carbohydrate and a packet of biscuits for emergencies, then had a glass of fruit juice by the road and set off back for the hotel, along the ridge road.

Had we known that the ridge road would take so much longer than the valley road, we might not have attempted it, but we didn’t. Somewhere along the way we attracted the attention of a blonde dog of uncertain parentage, who adopted us with some relish. He was clearly keen to be of use and soon picked up on our desire to see the local wildlife; indeed, he drew our attention to various squirrels he had treed and occasionally jogged off into the undergrowth on the trail of exciting and delicious animals he felt sure we would appreciate.

We finally dropped back down the ridge to the hotel, with our faithful companion, and Na disappeared off for a restorative snooze, whilst I once again sauntered around in search of things to photograph. Not a great deal was forthcoming, so in the end I settled down near the hummingbird feeders and enjoyed their comings and goings.

Around hotel:
47 Masked Trogon  Trogon personatus
48 Squirrel Cuckoo  Piaya cayana
49 Grey-rumped Swift  Chaetura cinereiventris
50 Bronzy Hermit  Glaucis aenea
51 Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher  Todirostrum nigriceps
52 Torrent Tyrannulet  Serpophaga cinerea
53 Uniform Antshrike  Thamnophilus unicolor
54 Ecuadorian Thrush  Turdus nudigenis
55 House Wren            Troglodytes aedon
56 Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager  Chlorospingus canigularis
57 Blue-grey Tanager  Thraupis episcopus
58 Blue Seedeater  Amaurospiza concolor

Nono-Mindo road:
59 Guayaquil Woodpecker  Campephilus gayaquilensis
60 Pale-mandibled Araçari  Pteroglossus torquatus
61 Smooth-billed Ani  Crotophaga ani
62 Red-billed Parrot  Pionus sordidus
63 White-collared Swift  Streptoprocne zonaris
64 Band-tailed Pigeon  Patagioenas fasciata
65 Ruddy Pigeon  Patagioenas subvinacea
66 Bat Falcon  Falco rufigularis
67 Neotropic Cormorant  Phalacrocorax brasilianus
68 Snowy Egret  Egretta thula
69 Common Tody-Flycatcher  Todirostrum cinereum
70 Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant  Lophotriccus pileatus
71 Yellow-olive Flycatcher  Tolmomyias sulphurescens
72 Western Wood-Pewee  Contopus sordidulus
73 Glossy-black Thrush  Turdus serranus
74 Bay Wren  Thryothorus nigricapillus
75 White-thighed Swallow  Neochelidon tibialis
76 Blackburnian Warbler  Dendroica fusca
77 Blackpoll Warbler  Dendroica striata
78 Lemon-rumped Tanager  Ramphocelus flammigerus
79 Fawn-breasted Tanager  Pipraeidea melanonota
80 Bay-headed Tanager  Tangara gyrola
81 Yellow-bellied Seedeater  Sporophila nigricollis
82 Black-winged Saltator  Saltator atripennis
Red-tailed Squirrel  Sciurus granatensis       

Butterflies along the road by the hotel

We again woke at 4 a.m. on the 10th, but this was no great problem, as we had arranged a car and guide to meet us at 4.30, for the supremely dude activity of going to see birds someone else had found. We drove peacefully back along towards Quito for half an hour, then turned off south again and wound our way up to a darkened farm. The farmer wasn’t responding to flashing headlights, hazard flashers or Danny (our guide) flashing his torch around the various buildings to see where he was, so eventually we started walking down into the valley. The sky lightened to a half-light, whilst Orange-bellied Euphonias, Slate-throated Redstarts and Andean Solitaires regaled us with their morning serenades. A distant Giant Antpitta burbled some song, and a Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl trilled its way down the scale in the trees above.

The stars of the show were more extravagant than this, though. We could hear them before we saw them; a hoarse, rather soft cawing – somewhat like the exclamations of male Black Grouse mid-lek. Suddenly the trees below us were lively with woodpigeon-sized male Andean Cock-of-the-rock, leaping around branches, flaunting their bright red plumage that glowed even in the semi-gloom. Even the noisy arrival of two or three tour groups of birders couldn’t quite dim the magic of the lek.

After a decent period, we left the hide and wandered about a hundred metres down a trail where we stood and waited to see what would happen as the sun rose. We found ourselves staring at phenomenally gorgeous birds with exotically unfamiliar names – like Toucan-barbet, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Sickle-winged Guan, Violet-tailed Sylph, Golden-headed Quetzal… Again, we moved on slowly to a small fork in the path, where the tour groups had assembled, all facing a mossy stump with the air of an audience about to meet a celebrity. We waited patiently as one of the farm staff wandered up the path calling out ‘Maria, Maria…’ – and then returned with a Giant Antpitta bounding along the path behind him. She was followed by what was apparently one of her sons, though he was more shy than she, and refused to run the gauntlet of lenses aimed at the stump. When she had sated herself on worms, we upped-sticks and continued to the favoured feeding spot of a Yellow-breasted Antpitta, and then further still to a Moustached Antpitta. Whilst the whole experience was a bit of a circus, it was also a prime chance to see three shy and spectacular antpitta species without using tape-recordings, and to do a bit of people-watching at the same time! Very instructive… A potential fourth species – Ochre-breasted – failed to show for some mysterious reason, so we were taken back towards the farm, sat before a couple of feeders and again gave over to admiration of hummingbirds. A different set of species here – Purple-throated Woodstar, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Empress Brilliant, Tawny-bellied Hermit.

We again caught up with the tour groups at breakfast, where we watched them rush down the hill to look for a pair of Orange-breasted Fruiteater, only to return disappointed and – some of them – even confused about what they were meant to have been looking for! Oh dear… A leisurely cup of coffee later, and the news filtered up that the fruiteaters were showing again, so we wandered down the track for a hundred metres and admired them for a while; Danny was particularly pleased – they’re not the easiest of birds to see normally, so to have a pair feeding quietly about 50m away from us was quite an event.

Antpitta farm:
83 Sickle-winged Guan  Chamaepetes goudotii
84 Crimson-mantled Woodpecker  Piculus rivolii
85 Red-headed Barbet  Eubucco bourcierii
86 Toucan Barbet  Semnornis ramphastinus
87 Golden-headed Quetzal  Pharomachrus auriceps
88 Tawny-bellied Hermit  Phaethornis syrmatophorus
89 Andean Emerald  Agyrtria franciae
90 Speckled Hummingbird  Adelomyia melanogenys
91 Empress Brilliant  Heliodoxa imperatrix
92 Fawn-breasted Brilliant  Heliodoxa rubinoides
93 Velvet-purple Coronet  Boissonneaua jardini
94 Violet-tailed Sylph  Aglaiocercus coelestis
95 Purple-throated Woodstar  Calliphlox mitchellii
96 Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl  Phalaenopsis nubicola
97 White-tailed Tyrannulet  Mecocerculus poecilocercus
98 Ornate Flycatcher  Myiotriccus ornatus
99 Orange-breasted Fruiteater  Pipreola jucunda
100 Andean Cock-of-the-rock  Rupicola peruvianus
101 Golden-winged Manakin  Masius chrysopterus
102 Lineated Foliage-gleaner  Syndactyla subalaris
103 Giant Antpitta  Grallaria gigantea
104 Moustached Antpitta  Grallaria alleni
105 Yellow-breasted Antpitta  Grallaria flavotincta
106 Narino Tapaculo  Scytalopus vicinior
107 Brown-capped Vireo  Vireo leucophrys
108 Andean Solitaire   Myadestes ralloides
109 Grey-breasted Wood-Wren  Henicorhina leucophrys
110 Dusky Bush-Tanager  Chlorospingus semifuscus
111 Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager  Chlorospingus flavigularis
112 Metallic-green Tanager  Tangara labradorides
113 Beryl-spangled Tanager  Tangara nigroviridis

 Giant Antpitta

Sickle-winged Guan

Yellow-breasted Antpitta

Fawn-breasted Brilliant

Purple-throated Woodstar

Speckled Hummingbird

Andean Emerald

Masked Trogon - a male eating one of the same sort of katydids as pictured above.

Honest, there's a Sunbittern in there somewhere.

An unidentified butterfly species - with transparent patches in the hindwings.


Another unidentified butterfly species...

Skipper sp.

The afternoon was spent strolling around the hotel area again – first of all a sit-down by the river, where a totally unexpected Sunbittern was creeping down the opposite bank, then we crossed the river and walked downstream to a group of apparently empty buildings with fishponds beside them.

114 Sunbittern  Eurypyga helias
115 Guira Tanager  Hemithraupis guira
116 Thick-billed Euphonia  Euphonia laniirostris
117 Blue-necked Tanager  Tangara cyanicollis

11th November. We began by walking the road by the hotel for an hour or so, then packed for a transfer back to Quito. This passed uneventfully and we were deposited at the bus station with the ominous warning that this was not a good place to hang around. So, we didn’t. A quick question in the offices about buses north – and we found ourselves immediately on a bus for Cayambe, about 2 hours north of Quito.

We sat tight in the front and watched the driving with fascination! Slow, chugging lorries, laden with fuel and construction materials toiling up and down the twisting roads, each attended by an increasing queue of traffic, made up of cars, pickups, buses and less heavily-laden lorries, all of which would attempt to get by the leader of the queue as soon as visibility along the road exceeded 30m. The success of the technique is well demonstrated in some areas by the number of roadside crosses and memorials, as well as some impressively mangled crash-barriers.

The whole journey is made more exciting still by the behaviour of the buses, all of which are run by competing companies attempting to maximise the number of passenger on their bus – anyone standing or walking by the road is a potential customer, so every bus swoops to the verge with a flamboyant honking of horns and slows down, regardless of following traffic, with the bus-boy leaning out to yell their destination to you. This is then followed by a return to the flow of traffic, accompanied by a cacophony of horns from irate lorries and cars which have just been cut up…

118 Golden-olive Woodpecker  Piculus rubiginosus
119 Streaked Flycatcher  Myiodynastes maculatus
120 Tricoloured Brush-Finch  Atlapetes tricolor
121 Yellow-collared Chlorophonia  Chlorophonia flavirostris
122 Buff-throated Saltator  Saltator maximus

We arrived in Cayambe in early afternoon, fortuitously just outside the tourist information and toilets! A very helpful young lady piled us with pamphlets and leaflets about the nearby Cayambe-Coca National Park, offered us information about the relative merits of nearby hotels and arranged us a car and driver to take us to the national park on the following day. The rest of the afternoon was spent re-acclimatising to living at just below 3,500m and in a wander around town. We spent a little time in the local cemetery, where bodies are interred in apartment graves, which are block-booked by the family. Painting religious icons on the sealed doors of the graves would appear to be a fairly safe job in the town!

123 Great Thrush  Turdus fuscater

124 American Kestrel  Falco sparverius
125 Golden-bellied Grosbeak  Pheucticus chrysogaster

We met our driver outside the hotel on the morning of the 12th November. After turning up a little late, he dropped in to the taxi cooperative for half an hour, then re-emerged, smiling, with a couple of plastic bags containing a light lunch for us each, somewhat unexpectedly. We finally began our drive up to the refuge below the Laguna Verde, initially cruising over smooth tarmac, then rapidly bumping over a nicely cobbled road east out of Cayambe, and eventually crawling slowly and carefully over one of the more rutted tracks it has been my pleasure to traverse… As the road climbed up out of Cayambe and the final scatter of houses fell away, the countryside gradually became more wild and open, until we entered the park itself, where ridges of grassy paramo rolled up into the cloud above. We stopped briefly to give one of the refuge workers a lift to work – Na pointing out a cracking ringtail Cinereous Harrier hunting a little way down the hill at this point. The driver rapidly picked up the fact that we were interested in birding and indicated that we should let him know as soon as we wanted to stop for something; this we promptly did, when a couple of Andean Condor appeared just across the valley, soaring effortlessly between hills and cloud.

After a surprisingly long drive, we emerged from the pickup into harsh sunshine, finding ourselves right on the vegetation line. Above us the slopes of the volcano were covered with bare rock and sandy grit until the ice and snow began. At our feet was a fascinating community of incredibly tough alpine plants, many of them half-familiar, some of them completely novel to us both. We stumbled, limbs and lungs protesting, back down the road for a while, whilst Bar-winged Cinclodes and Plumbeous Sierra-finches sang and displayed around us. Further down, a patch of orange-flowered Chuquiragua jussieui, a high-altitude species of Aster, sheltered a couple of male Ecuadorian Hillstars – a rather immaculate hummingbird.

We eventually retraced our steps back towards the refuge and rejoined our patient driver. Although slightly surprised that we weren’t too bothered about the crater lake, he accepted the apparent madness of birders and we headed back downhill, pausing to watch Brown-bellied Swallows gathering nest material for their bankside holes, a Carunculated Caracara and a scattering – literally – of Tapeti Sylvilagus brasiliensis (a.k.a. Brazilian Rabbit) in amongst the tussocks of Paja (Calamagrostis intermedia) and cushions of Plantago rigida. There is a reasonable quantity of Polylepis woodland near the road here, which would surely repay some work by birders with their own vehicle.

126 Curve-billed Tinamou  Nothoprocta curvirostris
127 Ecuadorian Hillstar  Oreotrochilus chimborazo
128 Andean Lapwing  Vanellus resplendens
129 Andean Gull  Larus serranus
130 Cinereous Harrier  Circus cinereus
131 Carunculated Caracara  Phalcoboenus carunculatus
132 Aplomado Falcon  Falco femoralis
133 Andean Condor  Vultur gryphus
134 Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant  Muscisaxicola alpinus
135 Bar-winged Cinclodes  Cinclodes fuscus
136 Stout-billed Cinclodes  Cinclodes excelsior
137 Brown-bellied Swallow  Notiochelidon murina
138 Plumbeous Sierra-Finch  Phrygilus unicolor
Tapeti  Sylvilagus brasiliensis    

Tombs of the Andes

 Volcán Cayambe, from the refuge. The glaciers appear to be retreating quite rapidly.

Espeletia pycnophylla (I think)

Naomi in the 'super-paramo'. 
Looking from the super-paramo at the refuge, down towards the grass paramo of the lower slopes.
Male Ecuadorian Hillstar
High paramo flower...
A natural map of Australia...!
A club-moss - rather phallic-looking - growing through Plantago rigida (again, I think!)
The grassy paramo that covers the lower slopes of Cayambe-Coca National Park.


zuri said...

Ecuador is such a diverse and peaceful country. The weather, the colonial cities and the people are just fantastic. Nothing compares to the landscapes of the Highlands, the lush of the Amazon Rainforest, the exotic Beaches of the Coast and the mystery of the Galapagos Islands.

Philip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philip said...

Hostels are really economical.

Rio Pousadas