WINGS Tour: Eastern Andean slope
February 9-14, 2020
The gang: Dave, Phillip, Dory, Theresa, Jan, Ben, Jon (bird guy), Edwin (el conductor)
This is the narrative, with photos added, that I wrote for the WINGS tour website.
This short tour down the east slope of the Andes ran like an excellent sampler platter of mountain birds in which we got the best at each of the various elevations we visited. Some of these highlights were four Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at what looked like and felt like the very top of the world, eight species of toucan including a Black-billed Mountain-Toucan we picked up during some improv birding while we waited for a landslide to be cleared, rowdy crowds of Turquoise, Green, and Violaceous Jays at each of their required elevation ranges, both Crested and Golden-headed Quetzals, and hummingbirds and tanagers throughout. The addition of “moth sheets” to the lodges along our route also gave us very satisfying looks at otherwise shy forest birds like antbirds and furnariids. Though frenetic forest flocks still happened, were both frustrating and thrilling, and an icon of tropical forest birding.
The first day out was a big one. We started in the thin air well above treeline in search of the few hardy species that live therein. Our slow trudge to the highest peak approaching 4500 meters elevation was rapidly rewarded with great looks at a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes. Little did we know that another pair of these remarkable alpine specialists were back down the hill where we parked the bus. Perhaps most remarkable of all, though was the weather we had up there. The high passes are notoriously foul, and we had a sunny, bright morning. Just about perfect. Then it was time to start working our way down. We stopped for lunch and birding at Guango Lodge in the upper cloud forest. There we were treated to our first hummingbird feeders. Tourmaline Sunangels, Collared Incas, Buff-tailed and Chestnut-bellied Coronets zipped around us. A tiny White-bellied Woodstar floated by. A short hike from the lodge and we got to see a sleeping Andean Potoo. Mostly sleeping anyway, it did a little scratching and stretching, a lot from a potoo in mid-day. Then it returned to pretending it was a stump. We dropped down in elevation further and birded some broken pasture and forest, picking up some colorful things like Saffron-crowned and Blue-necked Tanagers, and some wild things like a Squirrel Cuckoo, while hundreds of White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts whirled in the cyclone overhead. We rolled on and over to Cabanas San Isidro where we’d be for the next two nights. After dinner, the Black-banded “San Isidro” Owl was off the back deck. Off to a good start.
It started raining before breakfast, but it didn’t matter since we started in the shelter of the porch and the moth light. At dawn a swarm of greedy birds came in to clean up the unfortunate light-dazzled victims. It started with Green Jays, Russet-backed Oropendolas, and Scarlet-rumped Caciques. Then the flood of little birds began. There were Montane and Olive-backed Woodcreepers, Pearled Treerunner, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrants, Mountain Wrens, Canada Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, and the list goes on. Even a Masked Trogon showed up. Then there was some commotion at the other end of the deck because an endangered Mountain Tapir had just arrived at the trough and salt lick down the hill. That, and dozens of hummingbirds of six species were swarming the hummingbird feeders in front of us. It was total mayhem. Once the activity calmed down a little and the rain let off, we wandered outward from the lodge taking in some nice flocks. Saffron-crowned Tanager seemed particularly numerous, and we also had a few new things like a bright male Summer Tanager and a gaudy Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia. That afternoon we left the grounds for a nearby hummingbird feeder array and had more new things like tiny, feisty Booted Racket-tails and bigger, but no less feisty Violet-fronted Brilliants and Green-backed Hillstars. Our day ended with a walk down a dirt road along a river gorge. We didn’t have that many species, but we did have both Golden-headed and Crested Quetzals, which stole the afternoon show.
After a morning traffic jam caused by road construction and a landslide we got to our first destination right off the highway. Flocks were fast and tough, but we had a few good things including a Black-chested Fruiteater. Then we began our descent in earnest, stopping off along the way for Cliff Flycatcher and cold drinks. It was clear and dry for mid-day, but the clouds that began to assemble in the afternoon brought up the bird activity level a little and we spent a busy couple of hours working up the access road to Wildsumaco Lodge. We really got into the low foothill species with multiples of the color-saturated Paradise Tanagers, both Masked and Black-crowned Tityras, and a tiny Lafrasnaye’s Piculet. Finally making it to the lodge, and the wonderful back deck, we were treated to Wire-crested Thorntails among others at the feeders, Gorgeted Woodstar and Violet-headed Hummingbird at the verbena flowers, and a couple of Wattled Guans in the cecropia trees. The after dinner “owl pact” worked perfectly and we got great looks at a couple of Band-bellied Owls just steps from our cabins.
We almost did the entirety of the next day without a vehicle (though it was nice to get that ride back after the hike). We started with the moth light by the cabins and had nice looks at otherwise tough forest birds like Black-faced Antbird and Black-billed Treehunter. Then we moved into the forest to the antpitta feeding station and had more nice looks at more tough forest birds like Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted Antpittas. Walking back out of the forest we ran into a very confiding Green-backed Trogon perched in various places right over the path. And, all right at the same time, we were tracking down some Brown-mantled Tamarind monkeys, attempting to see some perched Chestnut-fronted Macaws (nope, they flew), and watching some Yellow-throated Toucans cavorting in the treetops. We sat down for lunch, then went back at it. From the road by the lodge we watched a Lineated Woodpecker drumming on a big dead snag. A couple of Speckled Chachalacas flew by, and then we found a Golden-collared Toucanet. If the bird alone weren’t bizarre enough, watching it throw itself around as it called really did it. We ended the day on a trail through the primary foothill rainforest. Though it’s tough birding in the deep dark woods, we got to watch a pair of Ornate Stipplethroats while a pair of Musician Wrens serenaded us from both sides of the trail.
The old saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” came in really handy this next day. It started off pleasant enough as we puttered around Wildsumaco and its entrance road. We got everyone on Andean Cock-of-the-rock with two females not far from the entry gate. Then we birded our way out. We got into a busy flock in which it seemed everyone was looking at different birds at once. True, and some of those scattered birds included Golden Tanager, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, and Russet Antshrike. Then, further down the road we found Channel-billed Toucan, Violaceous Jay, Red-headed Barbets, and a Long-tailed Tyrant. Leaving, and beginning our ascent, we stopped at the new Jocotoco property along the highway. It was birdy even in the mid-afternoon and we had a cooperative Golden-eared Tanager while a Black-and-chestnut Eagle circled above. Things went a little sideways when we got to a massive landslide that was being cleared. Instead of our planned itinerary we spent the next three and a half hours waiting with dozens of other people for the road to be a road again. Not to worry, though, we were in some pretty nice forest and with not-too-much work, and plenty of time, we had a Black-billed Mountain-Toucan right over us. Andean Solitaires, too, and a Golden-headed Quetzal was calling somewhere. Birding is un-quenchable. The landslide situation did cause us to have a pretty late arrival at Guango Lodge that night.
After the later night, we had a bit of a lie in and our last full day of birding started off a little later. No worries, though, there were still birds at the ghastly late hour of 7:30AM. Spectacled Redstarts were plying the trees around the lodge with a few tanagers and flycatchers. We did a little hiking around and ended up looking down on a couple of Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans as they ate berries and jumped around. We took a quick look at the sleeping Andea Potoo (that yawned its enormous yawn) and a male Torrent Duck perched on a rock in the river, and then moved on to higher elevations. In the bright sun and blustery weather birding was difficult for the small stuff, but it was good raptor-watching. We saw multiple Variable Hawks and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles, including a couple of the latter that were flying and perching around a likely nest site. On the ground we saw a couple of Viridian Metaltails and quite a few very confiding Red-crested Cotingas some with red crests visible. We finished up back in Puembo with a relaxing evening and a nice dinner to celebrate a week well done.