Friday, 11 December 2009

Ecuador - part II

We left Cayambe at the appropriately birder-type hour of 5.30 a.m., walking up through town to find the bus to Quito. We didn't have to search hard: one coming down the road hooted us, and the busboy leaned out to tell us how dangerous it was to walk the deserted streets with our rucksacks at this time of day, and would we like a lift to the terminal? Stage one began... and two hours later ended, painlessly, in Quito. We then boarded a taxi across town to the new terminal Quitumbe, south of the city. This took longer than anticipated, mainly due to a spectacularly long traffic-jam in one of the tunnels along the highway - conditions in the tunnel well described by the workers wearing full-face gas masks whilst they shovelled dirt.

We made it into the bus station - a very swish building indeed - found the correct desk for buses to Latacunga, and within half an hour, were hurtling south, away from Quito. This surprised us somewhat, but we discovered that the local buses have an enviable ability to time their connections so that buses in arrive about 10 minutes before buses out. Coming from a country where the bus out invariably leaves 10 minutes before the bus in arrives, this was quite a shock. Another couple of hours later we arrived at Latacunga, where we boarded the northern route bus for Chugchilán. This took us a leg-cramping four hours in the end, generally with a variety of people or produce propped against us - at one stop some 40-50 schoolchildren crammed themselves on board, gradually dissipating in dribs and drabs. The heavens opened about three quarters of the way to Chugchilán; mercifully we worked our way through it after an hour - the combination of an overladen bus, hairpin bends, slick cobbles and uncertain brakes on the approaching lorries made us both slightly nervous...

Finally, weary, sweaty and desperately in need of a walk, we arrived at the Black Sheep Inn, to be enthusiastically welcomed by the young couple currently volunteering there. A couple of pints of coca tea and a shower revived us, and we immediately headed up the ridge behind the hostal for a short walk. Black-tailed Trainbearers - a spectacular hummingbird with tail-streamers about three times the length of their bodies - crackled and zipped in the bushes all around, Band-tailed Pigeons flocked the trees and a distant Short-eared Owl floated gently across the grasses. The cloud hanging low in the valley made for a spectacularly atmospheric walk as well.

View north from the ridge behind the Black Sheep Inn

139  Black-tailed Trainbearer  Lesbia victoriae
140  Short-eared Owl  Asio flammeus

On the 14th, we set out on one of the many walks described on the local map, which had been handed to us when we arrived. The canyon loop, as it is described, takes you downhill from the hostal, to the bottom of the canyon, then gradually upstream along the river, then a tributary of the this river, and finally up the local tracks and back to Chugchilán... Yesterday's cloud had entirely vapourised, leaving a fresh, sun-drenched day in which to enjoy the flowers and the wildlife. A pre-breakfast cup of coffee on the yoga terrace (!) gave us a chance to get to grips with a handful of new species: a Sword-billed Hummingbird briefly dropped in to the Eucalyptus, before being harrassed by the local Black-tailed Trainbearers; another hummingbird with the delightful name of Tyrian Metaltail fed enthusiastically at Eucalyptus flowers, along with Black Flowerpiercer and Cinereous Conebills; Hooded Siskins bounded overhead, 'poo-eet'ing just like our own species of siskin...

Salvia species

We set off soon after breakfast, finding small flocks of Plain-coloured and Band-tailed Seedeaters bursting up out of the grasses at the roadside. Bright blue-flowered sages - Salvia spp - clustered the verges, mimicking the colours of the sky.

 Bridge in the canyon

Eventually we wound up at the river, where we stopped for lunch. We were interested to see that the nice modern bridge had been eroded away on one bank, so the simple response of the locals was to rip off a set of hand-rails and lay some boards over them to make a safe route on: enterprising and pragmatic, I thought... Further along, as we huffed and puffed up the tributary, we eventually found a shady spot to escape some of the sun's heat, lurk, do some birding and generally chill out - a White-crested Elaenia shuffled through the branches above us, whilst Streak-throated Bush-tyrants launched themselves high into the air, cinnamon wings glowing, and Brown-backed Chat-tyrants tried to convince us that they were related to Whinchats.

The canyon below the Black Sheep Inn

Moth species, Black Sheep Inn

141  Mountain Velvetbreast  Lafresnaya lafresnayi
142  Sword-billed Hummingbird  Ensifera ensifera
143  Tyrian Metaltail  Metallura tyrianthina
144  Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle  Geranoaetus melanoleucus
145  White-crested Elaenia  Elaenia albiceps
146  Tufted Tit-Tyrant  Anairetes parulus
147  Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant  Ochthoeca fumicolor
148  Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant  Myiotheretes striaticollis
149  Mountain Wren  Troglodytes solstitialis
150  Blue-and-white Swallow  Notiochelidon cyanoleuca
151  Hooded Siskin  Carduelis magellanica
152  Rufous-naped Brush-Finch  Atlapetes rufinucha
153  Cinereous Conebill  Conirostrum cinereum
154  Band-tailed Seedeater  Catamenia analis
155  Plain-coloured Seedeater  Catamenia inornata
156  Black Flowerpiercer  Diglossa humeralis
The 15th was spent on what is billed as 'one of the four most beautiful walks in Ecuador' (Lonely Planet claim, but given the rest of the book's content, I wouldn't rely on it), from lake Quilotoa back to Chugchilán. A minor hitch - for the Black Sheep personnel - was that the guide they usually arrange wasn't answering his phone, but we were certain we could make it alone.

Male Great Thrush

 Na, at the regular pre-breakfast stop on the yoga terrace
A pickup took us up to the crater lake - about 4,000m up, so high enough to make exercise a wee bit more effort. We spent a little time admiring the green lake and the phenomenal view, which included both peaks of Volcán Iliniza and the distant peak of Volcán Cotopaxi.

Lupin flowering on the slopes of Quilotoa, with the crater lake behind

Volcán Iliniza: the two peaks are similar heights, yet the northern peak remains resolutely snow-free. Rain-shadow effect?

Eventually we headed down off the rim of the crater, dropping rapidly along the edge of potato fields and winding down into gradually flatter land. We strolled through a small village and came to the edge of the canyon which lay between us and home. The track then dropped down the Ecuadorian version of our Devon lanes - steep, narrow and generally with only room for one at a time. We waited at passing places whilst gaggles of children came rushing home up the slope, heading back from the Chugchilán market. Each group would initially pause in surprise that a couple of gringos were coming down the track, then walk past with a chorus of 'Hola, Hola, Hola', with the occasional 'Hello' - invariably followed by a crescendo of giggles.

Na descends the canyon

Male Golden-bellied (Southern Yellow) Grosbeak

157  Blue-and-yellow Tanager  Thraupis bonariensis
158  Shining Sunbeam  Aglaeactis cupripennis
159  Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant  Muscisaxicola maculirostris

The 16th - our last full day at the Black Sheep - was passed with another long walk, up to the remnant cloudforest above the hostal. A relatively short, but steady climb up over the ridge of paramo took us to an interesting habitat where shrubby paramo graded gradually into cloudforest, albeit somewhat degraded and invaded by local farmers. The cloud began to descend, appropriately, as we did. We stopped off in a patch of scrub that was reminiscent of Mediterranean maquis, apart from hosting Great Thrush, Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers and abundant Tyrian Metaltails.

We worked our way round to the cloudforest, where we struck a good patch of birds by virtue of sitting down and having some food: a flock of mixed warblers, tanagers and associated hangers-on came through the trees immediately in front of us, perhaps the most beautiful of which was a couple of Pearled Treerunners - look them up: they're stunning. A couple of Andean Guans provided some extra entertainment, lumbering through the branches above us, and another hummingbird with a spectacular name - a Sapphire-vented Puffleg - fed energetically from the flowers in the canopy. Eventually though, the cloud defeated us - we trailed back to the hostal in increasingly wet and chilly conditions; finally dropping below the cloud and mizzle close to the Black Sheep - a Long-tailed Weasel bounded across the road in front of us near the end of the trail.

On the way to bed, Na told me that there was a small mammal in the toilet block - like a mouse, but with a black and white face. When I made it there, I discovered something rather larger than I expected: an opossum about the size of a young rabbit, lurking behind the waste bin. He/she/it was encouraged out of the building with the aid of the basket...

Common Opossum

160  Andean Guan  Penelope montagnii
161  Great Sapphirewing  Pterophanes cyanopterus
162  Sapphire-vented Puffleg  Eriocnemis luciani
163  White-throated Tyrannulet  Mecocerculus leucophrys
164  Pearled Treerunner  Margarornis squamiger
165  Streaked Tuftedcheek  Pseudocolaptes boissonneautii
166  Sedge Wren  Cistothorus platensis
167  Paramo Pipit  Anthus bogotensis
168  Spectacled Redstart  Myioborus melanocephalus
169  Black-chested Mountain-Tanager  Buthraupis eximia
170  Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager  Dubusia taeniata
171  Band-tailed Sierra-Finch  Phrygilus alaudinus
172  Glossy Flowerpiercer  Diglossa lafresnayii
173  Masked Flowerpiercer  Diglossopis cyaneus
Opossum  Didelphis marsupialis

Long-tailed Weasel Mustela frenata

1 comment:

Michelle said...

great review and awesome photos, although that Opossum is becoming a problem!