30 December 2010

El Cajas Part III...If you go down to the woods today...ECUADOR 19 Dec '10

Polylepis trees are some of the highest growing trees on Earth, growing well above the treeline in the Andes, and often surrounded by paramos, or high Andean grasslands. These distinctive, flaky, red-barked trees often seem devoid of life. Being well above 3000m, or even near 4000m, there is less life up there then at lower climes. However, this very special, and fast-disappearing habitat, is home to some very special Andean bird species. The remainder of our short time in El Cajas NP was about chasing down these specialties. The polylepis had been good to us so far-yielding my nemesis bush-tyrant after all, but now we were after the "nuthatch of the polylepis", actually a kind of tanager that does a good nuthatch impression, the superb Giant Conebill. However, before we tracked that one down, another blue vision was seen creeping through the polylepis, several Tit-like Dacnis, the female of which is pictured here (top photo).

Settling down at another polylepis patch for lunch, my sandwich was only halfway towards my mouth when a blue bird with a burnt red breast caught my eye that was creeping slowly, and deliberately up a flaky polylepis trunk, that had me dropping my lunch, and raising my bins: GIANT CONEBILL! (bottom photo) Lunch was abandoned all round, and after a few nervous moments while they melted back into the woods, we then lured them back out with a little playback, that brought these smashing conebills right into the tree overhead where they looked angrily down at us grinning back at them! The only other disturbance during lunch was to admire a male Ecuadorian Hillstar probing his beloved orange chuquiraga flowers, before we had to head to Guayaquil for the end of the tour (stopping momentarily for a Carunculated Caracara on our way out of the park).

Next up (after a brief rest for Christmas in Quito), was a venture to Yankuam Lodge in the far southeast of Ecuador, in the shadow of Peru, for some rare and little seen birds...

23 December 2010

El Cajas Part II Tyrant ends reign of terror...ECUADOR (19 Dec '10)

I have lived in Ecuador for five magical years and seen in excess of 1200 species in the country, although one rare, bold, and beautiful highland flycatcher had somehow, remarkably, eluded me. Many sleepless nights had passed, and tortuous near misses, and now here I was back in its territory again - the polylepis shrubbery well above the treeline in the high Andes of El Cajas. I tried to play the "hunt" down in my mind, but this was the king of "bogey birds", the ultimate nemesis, and images of it swum around my mind. I even admitted this terrible "illness" to the group. IIam sure I heard sniggers, most of them had seen one before, and all their sightings came in Ecuador!

We gingerly approached the polylepis grove where I had so narrowly missed it at my last visit in February 2010 (when rather cruelly I had most probably taped one into view of another birding group there, when I was blocked from the tyrant's view!) The local guide commented it had been at the spot "frequently", although when he said his last sighting was three weeks ago, I was not holding my breath. Three weeks is an ice age in birding. We made our way down, kicking cinclodes, sierra-finches and more Tawny Antpittas out of our way as we did so, glanced up and was greeted with a quiet, seemingly deserted grove of trees. They can hide a lot within, although these guys are known for sitting up high and prominently, there was clearly no sign of them. In my latest desperation I clicked the jog dial on the I-pod and hoped for divine intervention...
Then one of the group, John, exclaimed "there it is!", I spun around quickly and was thrilled to see a large red flycatcher sitting agitatedly on top of a near polylepis tree...peace returned to my life once more. I even thought about dancing, but held myself back!

There were more great birds to come from El Cajas, but right at that sweet, sweet moment I was lost in birding, in the image of a wonderful pair of Red-rumped Bush-Tyrants (photos), my ultimate nemesis bird!....

More from El Cajas to follow...

El Cajas Part I Highland Hummers....ECUADOR (19 Dec '10)

El Cajas NP in the southern Ecuadorian province of Azuay is a real gem of a birding spot. Set within the high Andes I find this one of my favorite venues in the south. The reason is simple, there is something very special about birding the high Andes. The air is crisp, clean and often clear, offering spectacular views of some truly staggering surroundings. On top of that there is a very distinctive set of birds, that are often surprisingly approachable, even tame at times. And unlike some of their lowland counterparts they can often be seen hopping around in the open... We begun our day though a little lower down around a tranquil, forest-fringed lake. Things were quite there, except for Sedge Wren rustling in the reeds, and Andean Teal and Andean Coots on the lake, and a Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet in a passing flock. We then headed to some scrubby hillsides higher up as we rose toward some of the higher sections of the park. We were here for a rare and local hummingbird - the endemic Violet-throated Metaltail. Hummingbirds, and metaltails, can be highly territorial. So I tried the I-pod and almost immediately an angry male Violet-throated Metaltail alighted on top of a near shrub! (top photo). They were not the only highland hummers in evidence that day as a number of feisty Blue-mantled Thornbills tussled with each other that day (middle photo note the fancy shimmering beard!)

On the paramo itself several Tawny Antpittas bounded past allowing close approach as did two species of ovenbirds - Stout-billed and Chestnut-winged Cinclodes. The latter sporting a new name, as a recent split from the now defunct Bar-winged Cinclodes that has been split into three species. The highland shrubs also played host to Many-striped Canasteros singing from their tops, and Andean Tit-Spinetails foraging within them.

Next stop though up on the high paramo within El Cajas NP, was for one of the special Andean habitats: polylepis woodland, that held some very special targets for us...

21 December 2010

Another special Antpitta moment...ECUADOR (18 Dec 2010)

Having tried for Crescent-faced Antpitta on the tour previously and been thwarted by several calling birds, we went on our final mission for it, although this time in the south, near the town of Saraguro. As we climbed the road, temperate forest cloaked the road sides, with a thick bamboo understorey. Just the kind of stuff the antpittas like. Indeed, while stopping at a likely spot, we tried a tape of the bird and got a quick close response, but just could not get an angle where we could see it in the shady understorey. With this we headed higher and went on a hike through the paramo grassland and dropped into the elfin forest on the treeline, although this time did not even hear one. We then tried another track, choked with bamboo, and again heard nothing. It was now nearly 2pm and I was starting to wonder whether this bird was slipping out of our grasp altogether...

I could see the group was waning (one even retreating to the bus for a nap!), and decided to head down another steeper trail that looked perfect for the antpitta-dense elfin forest with a swathe of bamboo covering the forest floor. Venturing down the trail I found a spot that looked great for seeing one: large mossy trunks that would provide an ideal perch for the bird, if only we could get one to respond. I played that tape and immediately got a reply. The group went into "combat mode" bunching up into one area and readying ourselves for the task at hand...I played again a few times but was greeted with silence. I continued to play intermittently and then suddenly this classy antpitta flew up onto an open branch over the trail. We were all onto it swiftly and soaking up its stunning plumage, before it flitted off, leading to someone exclaiming "that was f***ing brilliant!" I could not agree more. Ken had stayed up the trail to avoid the steep downhill hike/slide so I went and beckoned him down. He had no trouble getting down with the renewed promise of this mega-antpitta, and amazingly once again the bird flew in and landed on an open branch, when this time my camera went into a frenzy to capture this fantastic memory (photos). Unfortunately when I returned for a third time to try and get the bird for the final member of the group (who had been sleeping on the bus), the bird remained hidden and silent. However, after all that on our way down the road we heard another, right by the road, and by just peering into the undergrowth we found our second one of the day and this time we were ALL able to enjoy it, and of course toast it with a beer later that night in our Cuenca hotel! It may have taken some time to get it but it was well, well worth it, forone of Ecuador's classic birds!

Our next day was a venture into the windswept paramos of
El Cajas NP, with the offer of tame high Andean birds, and spectacular high Andean scenery...

19 December 2010

Old Loja-Zamora Road...ECUADOR (17 Dec '10)

We finished our time out of Copalinga Lodge with a drive up into the hills, along the Old Loja-Zamora Road, a dirt road that passes through foothill forest on the east slope of the Andes. The road is a firm favorite with me for the treetop views that can be had of passing canopy flocks which all too often requires neck strain to see elsewhere! The Andes are full of exciting flocks brimming with colorful tanagers and cryptic flycatchers. We experienced both during a late afternoon flurry of activity that followed a substantial tropical downpour. We shook off our umbrellas and headed out, picking up a fantastic mixed flock with the rare (for Ecuador), Chestnut-vented Conebill held within and the confusing Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, that thanks to it's distinctive call was not as problematic as it looks (bottom photos)! The shady tangles below played host to Blackish Antbird, and White-browed Antbird, and even a shocking orange Andean Cock-of-the-rock appeared dramatically in this active hotspot.

Late in the afternoon we headed off with little more expected when suddenly a shocking red vision in a mossy treetop brought our bus to a halt for a choice look at the scarce Vermilion Tanager, that redefines red (top photo). A last gasp male Torrent Duck shared a rushing Andean river with a pair of White-capped Dippers rounded out an absorbing couple of hours in the field.

We arrived belated, although elated, at our noisy hotel in Loja, ready for our final mission for
Crescent-faced Antpitta of this pan-Ecuador tour...

18 December 2010

Podocarpus National Park ECUADOR (16-17 Dec)

We spent two nights at the idyllic Copalinga Lodge, on the edge of the sector of Rio BombuscaroPodocarpus NP in southeast Ecuador. The lodge garden brought us an 11th-hour Spangled Coquette perusing the flowers in the garden, that brought one of the group running out of the shower!

The park itself was alive with birds: early on a
Coppery-chested Jacamar appeared by the trail (bottom photo), and a pair of vocal Black-streaked Puffbirds popped up several times with a little I-pod persuasion. The cute Lanceolated Puffbird also gave choice looks by the trail (top photo). Foothill Antwrens were found flitting around the understorey, and a pair of Foothill Elaenias were pulled out of a flock. A species so recently described (2000) that it does not even appear in the substantial field guide for Ecuador. Manakins were noticeably conspicuous with Blue-rumped, Golden-headed and Striped Manakins all putting in memorable appearances. During a sweltering break in the heat of the day a female Amazonian Umbrellabird appeared dramatically in a tree by the headquarters, although the best find of our few days was a fantastic Chestnut-crowned Gnateater.

Next up was a late afternoon venture up to the forest fragments of the Old Loja-Zamora Road, and then a "mission" for the rare Crescent-faced Antpitta further north...

14 December 2010

The Perfect Ten Antpittas...ECUADOR (13-14 December 2010)

We headed up into the scenically stunning highlands of Cerro Toledo in 4WD's to cope with the rough Andean road. As we bumped our way up there cloud rolled in and out, revealing a spectacular Andean vista with it. The birds was top notch too. We were here for a very special, rare and local hummingbird, and we got it: a rosy-throated male Neblina Metaltail. Also there was a party of Masked Mountain-Tanagers, Mouse-colored Thistletail, and a little lower down Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager and a friendly group of Orange-banded Flycatchers.

In the evening we arrived at Tapichalaca, the home of the Jocotoco Antpitta (new to science in 1997, and one of THE great ornithological discoveries of the 20th Century). After dinner we headed out from the lodge in unusually blustery conditions and bagged a pair of White-throated Screech-Owls (top photo).
Today we watched a Jocotoco Antpitta bounding around our feet (bottom 2 photos), in spite of its incredible rarity, and also picked up another two antpittas: the dinky Slate-crowned Antpitta, and substantial Chestnut-naped Antpitta, bringing our antpitta tally to TEN SPECIES so far. We ended a very enjoyable day (that also brought us Maranon Thrush and the wonderful Grass-green Tanager-one of the classic Andean tanagers) watching an Andean Potoo ignoring the wind and standing sentry on a dead snag on a high ridge top.

Off to the amazing Copalinga Lodge tomorrow, that is perched on the edge of Podocarpus National Park, a tanager hot spot of note. We have currently tallied 64 tanagers for the trip and with some luck might just crack 70 species for the tour!!!

11 December 2010

"Parakeets of Gold"...ECUADOR (11 Dec 2010)

The day was spent today in Buenaventura reserve in El Oro (meaning gold) province in southern Ecuador. In the morning we brought a bright ginger Ochraceous Attila screaming into the tree overhead, and watched a group of "horny" El Oro Parakeets extensively copulating in the treetops! A rare endemic to Ecuador. Also seen was a very melodious Song Wren and this strange yellow Green Honeycreeper (top photo). Although the normal Purple Honeycreeper was not bad either (bottom photo).

10 December 2010

Five Star Barbet...ECUADOR (7 Dec 2010)

After leaving the remote Playa de Oro lodge, set within the rich lowland rainforest of the Choco behind we stopped in at Yalare. Unfortunately, this illustrated all too well what a desperate situation exists in the lowland Choco of northwest Ecuador. This easily accessible site by road had been hacked to bits since my last visit just a few years back, (whereas the tougher to get to Playa remains largely intact), with rainforest stretching to the horizons.

All was not lost though, and after quite a long search, with distractions provided by a Brown Wood-Rail prowling prominently across the road in front of an elated bus of birders, and our second Slaty-tailed Trogon of the trip, we finally found what we were really looking for...FIVE-COLORED BARBET. A stunning, rare and local barbet, endemic to the Choco lowlands and somehow clinging on within this rapidly deteriorating site (photos). It was amazing to see this bird calling with all its might, by bending its neck down and pushing its low call out from the very base of its gut. It truly looked like it was throwing everything behind warding us off. A magical eleventh hour bird that came when almost all had lost hope and were lunching in the bus. Felt all the sweeter for it!

09 December 2010

From one owl to another...ECUADOR (Dec 3, 2010)

Just started a "hard core" tour chasing the scarce, tough, and down right tricky to see, in Ecuador. We begun in the Choco region again of the endemic-rich northwest, and visited the remote Playa de Oro ("beach of gold") in the wild province of Esmeraldas, a rare area of lush, thick rainforest stretching as far as the eye can see. This feels like Amazon jungle, but it is far from there, that lies hundreds of kilometers to the east. It is also loaded with birds that are a far cry from there, holding a number of Choco endemics, like this friendly Choco Screech-Owl that was hanging out behind the lodge on several nights (photo), as was another endemic nightbird the Choco Poorwill that was more camera shy...

Owls remain my favorite family, it is always amazing to see one, and often (unlike this very obliging bird) a struggle and a challenge too!