20 December 2009

Tanager Finch The Threequel...(Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador): December 19, 2009

For our final and fifth day we were in the Tandayapa Valley on a mission for Ecuador's glamor species, and cover bird: Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan that had thus far avoided us in the few gloomy, sodden afternoons we had tried for it. Before we climbed up the valley to its core range we made a brief visit to the Tandayapa Lodge blind a short time after dawn. On walking in we were greeted with the sight of a tail-pumping male Immaculate Antbird (later to be joined by a rusty female), and a pair of White-throated Quail-Doves that returned time and again to rummage in the compost pile. Also seen from there was a Narino Tapaculo bouncing around on the forest floor, a Uniform Antshrike, and a Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, whose clean "Ariel" white throat simply glowed from the dark forest floor.

When we arrived for our toucan mission in the Upper Tandayapa Valley where we quickly failed when we saw one shoot off in the diatnce from the crown of a tree. We persisted though and later ran into a dapper pair of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans that brought smiles all round. We had barely recovered from the thrill of this technicolored toucan when yet another Tanager Finch popped up beside us, our third one in five days (see photo)! I felt that David and June may not beleive me now when I had told them it was a very rare and local species! We also met with a frantic feeding flock loaded with tanagers, flycatchers, woodcreepers and others, but more importantly a pristine pair of Plushcaps. A fine end to our five day custom tour, that felt like it should have been called the Tanager Finch special!

Rio Silanche...(NW Ecuador): December 18, 2009

For our penultimate day we "enjoyed" an ungodly hour to start our journey (well before dawn), as we needed to cover some miles to get down into the Choco lowlands. Here we were in pursuit especially of some of the cool flocks that roam the area that correspondingly hold some very cool Choco specials. We left Tandayapa Lodge with rain hammering down on the van, and me praying that once we descended into the lowlands we would be rid of this hinderance. We arrived at the start of the 7km long entrance road with rain crashing down on us heavier than ever, and a worried frown on my face. We attempted valiantly to bird the road into the reserve, trying to jump out when the rain was marginally weaker and did get some rewards for our efforts: a pair of Barred Puffbirds at one spot, and from the very same spot an almost unrecognisable, sodden, wet Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and a dazzling Yellow-tailed Oriole a little further on down the road. Apart from a misty Grey Hawk en-route the birding was challenging in wet, wet conditions and we opted to retreat to the Rio Silanche reserve canopy tower. As we sheltered from the rain there and watched Purple-chested Hummingbird buzzing around the flowers at the base I contemplated the desperateness of our situation: we had a bunch of birds to see, the rain was preventing us from doing this, and all I could see in all directions was a thick blanket of impenetrable cloud! Remarkably though the rain suddenly stopped an hour or so later, the birds immediately picked up, and we ended up racking up more than 120 species by the end of the day. Who would have thought it when we first arrived in the gloom. Taking a forray onto the tower on and off through the day brought us a brilliant Blue-whiskered Tanager, and a calling Dusky Pigeon both slap bang by the observation platform, and both regional endemics. A short walk before lunch saw us run into THE flock, when one cecropia tree played host to some specials, including another Blue-whiskered Tanager, a trio of Grey-and-gold Tanagers, and a pair of Orange-fronted Barbets. While a neighbouring tree held a pair of the fantastic Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, another endemic. On the trails a couple of Broad-billed Motmots showed up, and along the road a male Western White-tailed Trogon brought our tally for the trogon family on the trip to four species, plus two quetzals in our four days. Another (or was it the same one, just a different angle?!), feeding flock held a Black-striped Woodcreeper demolishing large bugs on the side of a rainforest treetrunk, an Emerald Tanager, and a calling female Spot-crowned Antvireo. After a lunch with Pale-mandibled Aracaris and little else on the tower, we walked around the reserve once more, picking up a "firecracking" displaying male White-bearded Manakin to start with (see photo). Later we added Scarlet-browed Tanager, Yellow-tufted Dacnis and Griscom's Antwrens in yet another flock, in addition to a very popular Red-billed Scythebill clasped to a trunk in the same frantic feeding flock. Finally we had to "check out" of the reserve and return to Tandayapa, although I could not resist some further stops on the way out from the reserve, first for a Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, then a Choco Toucan, and finally a pair of frisky Chestnut-mandibled Toucans showing distinct signs of breeding very, very soon.

Tanager Finch The Sequel...(Tandayapa Valley, Ecuador): December 17, 2009

Having finished up in the foothills around Milpe by early afternoon, we headed back to the Tandayapa Valley, climbing back into the subtropics as we did so. Our mission was to find a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan that on this day, (with heavy cloud hanging over the higher sections of the valley, interspersed with heavy downpours), failed completely. However, the afternoon was very far from a failure. In one part of the valley we chanced upon our second Tanager Finch in as many days, a different bird from the day before, singing its heart out in the rain while raindrops shimmered on its back (see photo). We then braved the rain and came up with a fine Grass-green Tanager for our efforts which was popular among all. As if that was not enough we then very nearly ran into a White-throated Quail-Dove casually walking down the road in front of our van (see photo), that we stalked for a while before we had to gently bump it off the road to get by! A final late afternoon stop was made at Bellavista Lodge where the endemic Gorgeted Sunangel slipped in among the more common hummers at the feeders on several occasions. We also got a tip off to check the compost heap that came up trumps with our second White-throated Quail-Dove of the afternoon, and better still a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta lurking in the shadows.

Foothill Mornings...(NW Ecuador): December 17, 2009

This was a day of contrasts. We began down at the lowly elevations of 1100m, in an area of foothill forest and then returned back to the subtropics (2300m elevation), by the afternoon. It was a wet day again, and it was soon clear the rainy season has arrived in earnest and the long-standing drought in Ecuador has finally broken. A whole crowd of new birds awaited us at Milpe, as it was our first time in the foothills. We were greeted along the entrance track by a pair of the endemic Choco Toucan, and just after we entered the forest a male Choco Trogon (aka White-eyed Trogon) broke the initial silence we experienced and provided a nice opener. Not long after another splash of color was provided by a superb male Golden-headed Quetzal in virtually the next tree along. The two reserves in the area visited bought us flock after flock: Rufous-throated Tanagers passed through overhead in one flock that also held a striking Slate-colored Grosbeak, and chubby Ochre-breasted Tanagers came through in the understorey within another, while Choco Warblers were conspicuous in all these parties. Soft hooting calls left us to an endemic pigeon, Pallid Dove, that was singing near the parking lot, and a Little Cuckoo was found not too far off there either. Indeed the parking lot was a veritable hot spot, as a male Guayaquil Woodpecker was heard calling from there before he was pinned down on a near truck, showing off his bright red head and a well-marked V on his back. Toucans were prominent today as the recently lumped Pale-mandibled Aracari (or should we now call it merely a Collared Aracari?!) was also added later in the day. A surprise find was a furry number rummaging around on a forest trail, an as yet unidentified species of Agouti, a rare sighting in the northwest where animals are at a premium (see photo). This small private reserve also bought us a Collared Trogon, one of four from this family encountered on this day alone (along with the quetzal, the Choco Trogon at Milpe, and Masked Trogon later at Tandayapa).

Late Afternoon Tanager Finch...(Old Nono-Mindo Road, NW Ecuador): December 16, 2009

After the flurry of antpittas and the gobsmacking Orange-breasted Fruiteater at Paz de las Aves I opted to head up the Old Nono-Mindo Road. Gloomy weather overhead did not bring the promise of much. Black clouds gathered, and seemed to drop down to eye level making the viewing conditions challenging to say the least. Of course these subtropical Andean birds love this kind of weather and the activity was good all the way along the road with a number of varied feeding flocks encountered, before we reached our final spot, an area of thick brush and chusquea bamboo along one of the higher stretches of subtropical forest. Huge mossy trees loom overhead here, heavy with the burden of many dark red bromeliads that scatter their thick limbs. However, we were not interested in the impressive trees above, for the rare Tanager Finch lurks in the bamboo understorey. During this damp late afternoon we watched as one of these rare Choco brush-finches emerged out of the underbrush and sung from within the dark shadows, a precursor of a very strange few days where we ran into this rare bird time and again in different spots in the Tandayapa Valley. This photo is of this very first one seen during that wet, and gray late afternoon.

Fruits of the Forest...(Paz de las Aves, NW Ecuador): December 16, 2009

The second day of the tour involved a visit to the magical Refugio Paz de las Aves, world famous as an "antpitta paradise", as the local farmers have habituated a number of species and individuals there. Any talk of this place inevitably focuses on these, and sure enough we ended up seeing 3 Giant, and 2 Moustached Antpittas, as well as 1 Yellow-breasted Antpitta in just a few crazy hours on site. And all almost got under our feet. However, the place is also rich in other species, and especially frugivorous birds that come to feed within the many fruiting trees that scatter this small, private reserve. Before the antpitta frenzy (and just after we had been shown an inconspicuously roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawk-photo), we stood guard at one of these and watched on as a pair of Toucan Barbets, a single male Golden-headed Quetzal, an Olivaceous Piha, and several Crimson-rumped Toucanets came in to feast in a tree loaded with small green fruits. We then returned to join the rest of the expectant crowd for antpittas, although were delayed a little to watch a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl sitting quietly in a tiny window high in the trees.

After the antpittas we enjoyed a heavy brunch of local bolones and empanadas, and were distracted by the visit of another spectacular fruit-eating bird, this one a gorgeous male Orange-breasted Fruiteater that popped in to feed on cecropia catkins right beside the cafe where we were brunching, for unstoppable views of this scarce and beautiful endemic cotinga...(top photo)

On the Flanks of Pichincha Once more...(NW Ecuador): December 15, 2009

Began a quick 5 day trip with friends from Texas around the NW Ecuador. Our whistle stop tour began as many do by exploring a highland site near to Ecuador's long thin capital, Quito. The site, Yanacocha, rests on the flanks of the Pichincha volcano that can be viewed from the capital, and is especially good for tanagers and hummingbirds. Mixed flocks along the "Inca Trail" produced some of the most spectacular of these, with both the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, and scarce Black-chested Mountain-Tanager both putting in an appearance, along with the absurdly named Supercilaried Hemispingus (another distinctive highland tanager). However, before we got into them a bonus at the trail head was a very cooperative Rufous Antpitta that hopped in to check out my intrusive i-pod recording of its bouncing "falling ping-pong ball" song. At the feeders the action was constant and absorbing, never more so than when the peculiar Sword-billed Hummingbird made a "royal" entrance, displaying its remarkably long upswept bill. It also had a swathe of other highland hummers for company, including Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlets, and Tyrian Metaltails. The afternoon was spent birding our way along the forested Old Nono-Mindo Road, where we found a sprightly Black-crested Warbler (see photo), a perched on a spray-drenched boulder in the Alambi River, and the "riparian" White-capped DipperSlaty-backed Chat-Tyrant giving its high-pitched song from the streamside. Highlight along there though had to be our late afternoon visit to an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek site. We waicted for a time until the pig-like squeals and ugly squawks that floated across the valley towards us indicated the lek had sprung into action, and a little while later one of thee vermillion males flew onto an open branch where he remained in our scope, and indelliably printed in our memory for some time. At the end of the day we checked into Tandayapa Lodge where we hurriedly added 14 species of hummingbirds before the light failed and the hummers suddenly vanished for the night.

14 December 2009

Tanager Teasers...(NW Ecuador)

One of the unquestionable appeals of birding the Andes is getting good numbers of certain marquee groups of birds. Two of these groups that impress time and again are the hummingbirds-see my PBase site for proof of the variety and gorgeousness of many of these Andean gems, and the tanagers. The MOUNTAIN-TANAGERS are an Andean spin off from this family that are much larger than other species, and typically very brightly adorned. There are few better experiences than coming across one of the crazy feeding flocks in the Andes where literally dozens of birds swarm in the trees around, and then up pops one of these beauties. Classic Andean birding.

The two pictured here were not in a flock but more photogenically at a fruit feeder in Mindo. The top bird is a regional endemic to the Choco region of W Colombia and NW Ecuador,
Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and the lower bird is a common and daily feature of feeding flocks within the places like the Tandayapa Valley, the Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager.
On a recent Introtour we managed a tanager total of 50 species in 6 days, and on a longer NW Ecuador tour just before that we pushed this up to 55 species! No wonder people call South America "the bird continent".

Blue is the Color...(Mashpi, NW Ecuador): December 2009

Cannot resist posting a photo of my latest lifebird. Having spent the best part of four years working in Ecuador, and most of it in the northwest, they do not come along too often. Although, on visiting this "new" site-Mashpi-for the second I struck indigo, with this Indigo Flowerpiercer. This deep-blue bird is confined to the wet Choco region of SW Colombia and NW Ecuador, and certainly in Pichincha province where this was taken is an extrenely rare and local bird. I was please as punch to pick this up on our recent Introtour out of Tandayapa Lodge. Also seen at Mashpi on this day were a host of other Choco specials, including the jewel-like Glistening-green Tanager, in addition to Moss-backed Tanager, Pacific Tuftedcheek, a dapper Black Solitaire, several chunky Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers, many Toucan Barbets, and a gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater. Highlight of the day though may have been showing the male fruiteater to some local kids, and the boys reaction said it all. He jumped up and down with joy and shouted reapeatedly "Que bonita, que bonita". Que Bonita indeed. I look forward to persuading my next group to succumb to the temptations of Mashpi!

Strangely named Woodpeckers in the foothills...(Milpe, NW Ecuador): November 2009

This is a photo taken of a female Guayaquil Woodpecker on a recent tour of NW Ecuador. This shot was taken in the foothill reserve of Milpe, a small 62ha sanctuary near the town of San Miguel de Los Bancos in Pichincha province. Guayaquil Woodpecker occurs only on the western side of the Andes, from SW Colmbia through Ecuador to NW Peru. It is currently listed as near-threatened, although is thought to be delicining due to habitat fragmentation. The bird occurs at Milpe with another very similar conspecific species, Lineated Woodpecker. However, the female Guayaquil has a much broader white stripe on the side of the head, and the white mantle braces meet on a Guayaquil, forming a distinct V shape (on a Lineated they do not meet to make a point). This was one of a pair, although the male managed to avoid my camera!

Other birds recorded that day at Milpe included croaking Choco Toucans, a pair of Choco Trogons, Lanceolated Monklet, a butch Brown-billed Scythebill hugging a mossy rainforest trunk, a newly recognized species: Choco Tyrannulet, (split from Golden-faced last year), a marvellous male Scaled Fruiteater which gave its strange, raptor like call, multiple Choco Warblers, a breathtaking male Yellow-tufted Dacnis, and several of the endemic Rufous-throated Tanager, to name but a few seen in a day of more than 100 species.