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Two Toucans

Toucans are some of the most iconic birds of the Nootropics, if not in the whole world of birds. Their likeness has been used to promote ecotourism in the tropics as well as selling Irish stout in adverts. But nothing beats seeing a wild toucan in the “feather”.

There are 43 species of toucan in 5 genera that only occur in Central and South America. The five genera are: Aulacorhyachus, green toucanets (11 species), Pteroglossus, aracaris (14 species), Selenidera, dichromatic toucanets (6 species), Andigena, mountain toucans (4 species), and Ramphastos, typical toucans (8 species).

The Americas have cornered the market of these colorful, big-billed birds and on this trip to Northwest Ecuador, I have three species on my wishlist: crimson-rumped toucanet, Choco toucan, and plate-billed mountain-toucan. Out of all 1,600 birds that occur in Ecuador only one graces the cover of the seminal field guide, Birds of Ecuador. This was the bird that looks like it should be advertising sugar coated cereal to the youth of North America; this is the plate-billed mountain-toucan.

The crimson-rumped toucanet proved to be an easy bird to add to the list because it is a regular visitor to fruit feeders and we saw our first pair at the feeders of San Tadeo.

Out first sighting of the endemic, Choco toucan was in the lowlands at Rio Selache. Our views were far off and the toucan was backlit leaving me wanting better views.

A few days later at the fruit feeders of two Choco toucans flew in to have some banana. This time the toucan was 15 feet away!

A few days later, while heading up the dirt road to Bellavista, we heard the distant call of the plate-billed mountain-toucan. This was not a very satisfying view of this colorful toucan and we hoped to have better views as we headed up the road but we didn’t.

It wasn’t until we were heading back in the afternoon that two mountain-toucans crossed our path! We stopped the bus and got the birds in our bins as they foraged in the top canopy. This, the poster bird of The Birds of Ecuador was finally ours!

 

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The Cock-of-the-Rock and the Angel of Peace

There was one experience that I was really looking forward to in the Mindo Valley.

It was a visit to the legendary Angel Paz and his property called Refugio Paz de las Aves. Over the past ten years Angel has developed a relationship with a few species of hard to see antpittas. He is afterall known as the “antpitta whisperer”.

The Angel of Peace, feeding three dark-backed wood-quail.

Before we could see Angel coax antpittas out of the forest, we first visited the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek on his property. At just after 6 AM, we headed down the narrow path that ended in a blind. As we walked down the hill we could hear the otherworldly calls of the displaying males. The trees just down hill were filled with the iconic Andean specialty as they called and danced in there riotous plumage for the drabber but unseen female. The show lasted for almost an hour before the males dispersed to head off to start their day.

Male Cock-of-the-Rocks displaying at the Refugio Paz de las Ave lek.

The first bird that Angel conjured up was a cloud-forest pygmy-owl. We then headed to another part of his property and three dark-backed wood-quail where waiting by the side of the road for us. We then moved on and with the help of his brother Rodrigo, our search for the antipittas was to begin in earnest.

We walked a short way down a path and Rodrigo headed off trail and downslope. He whistled into the forest and called, “Andreita. Andrea. Venga, venga, venga!” Rodrigo repeated this and within five minutes “Andeita”, a chestnut-crowned antpitta appeared at the base of a log. Lured by worms, the antipitta made it’s way up the log and was now ten feet downslope from our position.

After getting great views we headed a little further down the trail and Rodrigo summoned “Williamina” a yellow-breasted antpitta from the forest. This shy, retiring bird stayed in view for a short time, taking the worms and then disappearing into the forest.

At the end of our unforgettable visit to Refugio Paz de las Aves, we had ticked almost 70 species of birds including two species of antpittas, the iconic Andean cock-of-the-rock, a common potoo with a chick, and the cloud-forest pygmy-owl.

 

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A Surprise at the Feeders of San Tadeo

On the Fourth of July we where going to see some Ecuadorian fireworks at the fruit and hummingbird feeders of San Tadeo in the Mindo Valley.

These feathered fireworks mainly came in the form of tropical tanagers. Golden, flame-faced, blue-gray, golden-napped, back and blue-capped tanagers. Added to the show where crimson-rumped toucanets and red-headed barbets. But the most colorful explosion came in the form of a pair of toucan barbets.

This barbet is often described in field guides as “unmistakeable” and one tropical birding guide described the toucan barbet as, “a rainbow flavored snowcone.”

While our group was enjoying the firework display, some movement on the ground caught my attention. What I saw was what looks like a large dark rufous potato on sticks and I knew immediately what bird this was and I called out: “Antpitta!!

I later found out that, our guide Luke, at first, thought that I had misidentified the potato bird, that is, until he got his bins on the bird.

“Giant antpitta!” he announced to our group, proclaiming it’s existence.

All eyes were on the bird as it sulked and paused, sulked and paused, like a snowy plover on Ocean Beach.

The reason for the initial disbelief is that the giant antpitta, despite it’s name, is one of the hardest birds to see and see well in the Mindo region. If you don’t count the unusually tame giant antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves. In fact, no one had ever seen this bird at San Tadeo, including the owner and Paul Greenfield (the illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador).

We were all able to get views of this rare treat as it sulked behind the water feature, stopped and paused, then struck at something in the leaf litter. It then disappeared from view, heading into the leafy cover downslope.

We then headed downslope to the hummingbird feeders that offered an amazing view of Mindo Valley with the small town of Mindo nestled in the center of the valley.

It was at the hummingbird feeders that we first saw what Luke described as his favorite hummingbird in Ecuador. And the velvet-purple cornet is an absolute stunner!

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Yanacocha Reserva

July 3, 2018

In the early hours of dawn we threaded through the sprawling outskirts of the capital city of Quito, climbing up from the Andean plateau to the highlands. Outside the bus, people where coming to life, taking advantage of the year round 12 hours of daylight. We were taking advantage of the early light to add some birds to our Ecuador list.

In the morning we had breakfasted at the Puembo Birding Garden (22 minutes from the airport), and were now on route to Yanacocha Reserva at 11,000 feet above sea level. This would be one of our highest birding locations on our nine day tour.

After an hour and a half drive, the last part of which was ascending a rutted dirt road that looked scarcely wide enough to accept the width of our bus, we pulled into the parking lot of the reserve. The bus doors opened and we stepped out into the chilly mountain, morning air.

Yanacocha was established as a private reserve in 2001 by Fundación Jocotoco and now encompasses 1,200 hectacres. On the sign to the reserve was the silhouette of one of the key hummingbirds to see an Yanacocha and we were 10 yards down the trail to the hummingbird and banana feeders when our guide, Luke, spotted our target bird, silhouetted agains the high Andean air, perched up in a bush.

“Sword-billed!”

The sword-billed hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera) is a unique member of the hummingbird family, in fact it is the only member of it’s genus. The sword-billed has the longest bill length compared to body size than any other bird in the world. Their bills can be 10 cm long, making it impossible to preen itself but making pollen gathering possible from flowers with longer long corollas, in accessible to other hummingbirds.

The sword-billed is ours!

When we approached the feeders, three Andean guans were in attendance. This would be the first of 11 birds with “Andean” in it’s common English name that I added to my world birdlist.

After watching the feeders we proceeded down the level trail to the hummingbird feeders that were about a mile from the entrance. We observed more Andean gems, including more sword-bills.

We then headed further down trail to see if we could find the owl that had been observed a few weeks before, hunting hummingbirds at the feeders. Luke played a call and within second there were three white-throated screech-owls above our heads. One landed on a branch eight feet directly above my head. A raise my camera to to eye and took the following photography. It lingered long enough to do a quick sketch but in the moment my pencil and sketckbook stayed in my pocket.

 

 

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Birding Andean Ecuador

Why bird Ecuador?

A few numbers and comparisons can help answer this simple question.

At 109,484 square miles, the country of Ecuador is roughly the size of the state of Nevada. In fact there are six states in the United States that have a greater area than Ecuador, including my home state of California.

While Ecuador is a small South American country (it ranks ninth out of the twelve countries by area), it has a astonishingly high 1, 600 bird species that have been recorded within it’s borders. Six species are endemic to the mainland and the Galapagos Islands has a massive 30 endemics.

Just to give some perspective,  Ecuador has twice as many bird species than the United States and Canada combined; Twice as many species as the Europe.

In this small country 132 species of hummingbird have been recorded in Ecuador.

And it is not just the sheer number of birds that makes Ecuador such an enticing destination for a world birder, there are the superlatives!

One can start with the National Bird of Ecuador, the largest flying bird in the world, rare the Andean Condor. You can also find the largest hummingbird in the world, the giant hummingbird at the feeders of the Andes and the hummingbird with the largest beak in the world.

The giant hummingbird, Patagonia gigas.

So as my Copa flight was on final approach to to Andean city of Quito, I was looking forward to the incredible mega diversity of this diminutive South American nation. Buenos dias Ecuador!