21 December 2012

Tanager Time...ECUADOR (10 Dec)

 With the weather gloomy and rainy down at Guango (at around 2600m elevation), we shuddered to think what the highest point of the tour, at 4300m above Papallacta Pass might hold for us. Knowing though that just that short distance away, can however feel a world away in terms of weather. So we kept our optimism high and headed for the high pass, only to be greeted by an impenetrable blanket of all engulfing fog; not the weather desired when you are searching for a cryptic, well-camouflaged, "ptarmiganesque" shorebird of the high Andes, the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, which blends supremely well with its surrounding when in good light conditions!  The weather was simply too bad to even attempt to find this, and so we made rapid change of plan, and decided to continue chasing tanagers instead. For this we drove up a dirt road that winds up the mountain behind the Termas de Papallacta in the town of the same name. This road has become famous as the most accessible place for the rare Masked Mountain-Tanagers, which at a substantial eight and a half inches is one of the largest of all the Ecuadorian tanagers. Trouble it, it is rare, and can be tough to find, as it lays low within its threatened elfin forest habitat, which lies on the treeline between the temperate forest zone and the highland paramo grasslands above. Luck may have been firmly against us in terms of the weather, although thankfully there was a notable break in the most brutal elements of this weather along this road, and on top of that moments after stepping out of the car, instead of being greeted by the usual stony silence of the elfin forest, there were chirps and cheeps all around; there was a flock around, and a substantial one. Rufous Wrens first broke cover, followed by a swathe of Black-backed Bush-Tanagers, a scarcity in its own right that is often easily missed. My hopes were high that with these could be the beefy tanager we most wanted. Then seconds after this thought drifted through my mind, there it was, a large yellow tanager sporting a jet black mask homed in to view and we were soon all on to it, as the Masked Mountain-Tanager got swept along with the tide of birds coursing through the low shrubbery. However, it was not alone, other tanagers were in the midst of this heady flock that entertained us for well over an hour. A short time later another large, thick-set Andean tanager made an appearance, this time a Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager before a party of delectable Golden-crowned Tanagers popped up time and again and stole our attentions over and over. After we feasted on these spectacular Andean birds we lunched by the roadside, being interrupted for yet another beefy tanager in the form, this time, of a Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, took in the odd hummer here and there with Viridian Metaltails and Shining Sunbeams regularly in evidence, and claimed another five star tanager in the form of another scarcity, a Black-headed Hemispingus.

After another unfortunate attempt for the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe in high winds and low cloud, which culminated in me finding the bird, only revealing it to be gone when I returned with the group (aahh!!!), we finished the day with one more fantastic tanager, this time the nuthatch-impressionist, the Giant Conebill, creeping its way along a flaking polylepis branch. The weather had pushed us to the limits of tolerance, but with the wave of tanager-after-tanager our stresses and tensions were soon eased!

More from the Equator soon...

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