02 March 2009

Conebills come calling in Cajas..(El Cajas, Ecuador): 18 February 2009

After a night in the colonial city of Cuenca in Azuay province we ventured up into one of my favourite birding environments, the high Andes, around El Cajas park. We spent the first part of the morning in an area of high temperate forest fringing a scenic high mountain lake, before climbing up into high Andean moorland, known as paramo. Down in the temperate forest Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Streaked Tuftedcheek were found, but were overshadowed by the sterling performance of a Rufous Antpitta gorging on a fat worm beside the trail. Before we reached the windswept grasslands of the paramo proper we stopped in some roadside scrub for a special Ecuadorian bird, the Violet-throated Metaltail, a local hummingbird that only occurs in the high Andes in Ecuador and nowhere else. With few flowers in evidence Stuart opted to stand guard over a small patch of red blooms while we scoured other parts of the hillside. Just as we were out of earshot from Stuart fixated on the patch of red fuscias a Violet-throated Metaltail flew in next to Chuck and I, which then prompted a series of screams, vigorous waving and the rapid response of Stuart. The bird disappeared for a nerve-jangling five minutes but then returned and gave us an eyeful.

We then headed up into the high paramo, a combination of grasslands interspersed with low shrubs and fragmented patches of polylepis woodland, a distinctive dense mono culture characterized by the trees which have a flaky red bark. These flaky high Andean trees are a much threatened, special habitat for some cool high mountain species. The first of these, Tit-like Dacnis was straightforward, and we found them in their favoured patch beside a small Andean lake. The deep indigo-blue males appeared every so often to feed on the edge of the wood, while a Blue-mantled Thornbill guarded some flowers in the area. A large lagoon – Laguna Toreadora, had a group of Andean Lapwings for company, and a couple of Tawny Antpittas were seen parading around the paramo. However, our final prime target was another specialist of those red-barked woods that have become so depleted throughout the Andes due to clearance for firewood. Various patches of this habitat exist around the park and we checked a number of them. As we headed over El Cajas ‘Pass’ (c. 4100 m) we kept checking patches every step of the way with little effect. There was just one last patch to check as we would then drop too low out of the polylepis zone, although I could tell the group were waning in their enthusiasm as both Chuck and Stuart opted to stay in the car rather than check with me. I gave it a quick blast of the tape and immediately saw a Giant Conebill sail over my head and land in a near polylepis tree. A little frantic waving back at the car later and we were all enjoying watching a pair of these ‘tanagers’ working their way up the rusty red bark in the manner of a nuthatch. The time up in the paramo had been special as ever, there is just something very enjoyable about being right up high in an environment where just a few specialized ‘hardy’ species exist. As usual it had produced some rain a little fog and a bracing climate. This all changed rapidly though as we dropped down as we drove back to Guayaquil, dropping from near 4100m at the pass to near sea level in the city, that led us to begin rapidly shedding layers of clothing as we descended. We made a quick stop as we headed back again to see a couple of roadside Horned Screamers in Manglares-Charute, this time close enough to make out the thin wisp of white, that lends them their name. A few Black-bellied Whistling-ducks were also seen flying around the marsh.

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