18 December 2012

Flight of the Condor...ECUADOR (9 Dec)

My tour with the Wits Bird Club of South Africa continued with a two-day spell in the high Andes of Ecuador. We had visited the dry, semi-arid Inter-Andean Valley the day before, and now we would emerge out of this and visit the wet grass-covered upper slopes of the east slope. We began our two day sojourn at Antisana, a national park named after the mighty 5,700m+ high volcano that-on clear days-dominates the skyline. We were here to get our first dose of both the spectacular high Andean scenery, and the distinct avifauna of this elevation. The weather on this day was truly extraordinary, however, making it very difficult to find many of these. It was unusually windy up there, coupled with regular bouts of rain, made it one of the more challenging days I had ever had up there. The volcano was hidden from sight behind a vast blanket of dense cloud, and so too were the hoped-for condors, which were neither visible on their nesting cliffs during an initial morning search, or in the gloomy skies above. You would think that the condors would be huddled on the cliffs, and not braving the chilled skies on this day, but these are truly hardy birds. 

Braving the conditions we did find a Paramo Pipit creeping through the grass, surrounded by some of the more common paramo species such as Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and Stout-billed and Chestnut-winged Cinclodes. A scenic valley provided us with two new hummers: female Ecuadorian Hillstars regular fluttering around some of the Chuquiragua flowers there, while the ever territorial Shining Sunbeam stood guard by its chosen flowers. Once we reached the plateau an odd sight greeted us. Usually a "carpet" of caracaras liberally scattered across the plateau greets you as you arrive on the "flatlands". However, the extreme weather we were experiencing, with strong, and cold winds sending the rain horizontal at times, showed its affects on the local Carunculated Caracaras, which were grouped in clusters of 8-10 birds which were sheltering behind the few taller tussocks of grass, and very few were leaving their sanctuary to feed at that time. Many of them were stood alongside another high Andean species, though this time a shorebird, Andean Lapwing, while large groups of Andean Gulls were also in evidence up there. We soon also found several groups of Black-faced Ibis, an endangered Ecuadorian bird, numbering up to 17 birds. This latter sighting was very welcome, as just a few weeks back a visit there had revealed no birds present.

However, our main target up there, which was also the largest, Andean Condor, remained elusive and unseen during the high winds and rain that accompanied our birding. It was so cold there that when we first found the groups of ibis, all but two of the group remained in the bus, refusing to budge from this warm sanctuary from the sudden bitter conditions just a few steps outside the vehicle. As we were fixing to leave, miraculously, the clouds parted, and for just a short time small patches of blue sky appeared overhead. With this sudden change in the weather, we pulled over and scanned the skies above, in our last desperate hopes of finding our main quarry. Then, suddenly, there it was, a splendid adult Andean Condor, complete with striking "Elizabethan" white neck ruff. Indeed, as we upped to leave, one final scan of the "Condor Cliffs" brought us magical views of another adult, this time dropping dramatically on the the cliffs to bring prey in for a juvenile resting there. Meanwhile, an adult Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle glided overhead, keeping a watchful eye on its own young bird resting on the cliffs below. It had been a day for the hardiest birders, but one that was very rewarding in the end, culminating in this dramatic showing from Ecuador's national bird, the majestic Andean Condor.

Our next stop was to be the hummingbird-packed grounds of Guango Lodge...

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