Thursday, 30 October 2014

Gracias Ecuador Part 6

9th October 2014

Hacienda Primavera - Chical Road - Hacienda Primavera

Another early morning start after a sumptuous breakfast found us taking the road up the mountainside to a maximum elevation of 2300m. Two huge landslips up the mountain had required some re-routing of the dirt road and as we passed the site of the first and major landslip, a dizzying drop could be seen off to our left which made my bones shudder as we passed within feet of the edge. We progressed up the tortuous mountain road, slowly seeking out the specialist birds of this area. Plate billed Mountain Toucans were quite common and a Sickle winged Guan early on was a good bird to see as it clumsily crashed out of a tall tree but as usual we were looking for the roving mixed flocks of small birds in the tree tops. 
Plate billed Mountain Toucan showing exactly how it got its name
c Dusan Brinkhuizen
At first they were not much in evidence but finally as we got ever higher we began to encounter flocks. My first Blackburnian Warbler, with a gorgeous golden yellow throat was in one of these flocks, which were mainly comprised of tanagers. I think we encountered no less than nineteen different species of tanager today, some we had seen before but others were our first and in many cases our only sighting  such as Rufous throated Tanager which was a Choco endemic, Saffron crowned Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Bay headed Tanager, White lined Tanager and White winged Tanager and three more Choco endemics in the form of Purplish mantled Tanager, Black chinned Mountain Tanager and Dusky Bush Tanager. They are usually very colourful and always a treat to see although often the views are tantalisingly brief as the flocks almost without exception are constantly on the move or deep in the cover of the abundant vegetation.

Unusually we found a pair of beautiful and exotically coloured Flame faced Tanagers feeding well away from any trees on a grassy bank and stopped to admire them before they flew but this was an exception.

Flame faced Tanager c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Rufous throated Tanager c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Black chinned Mountain Tanager c Dusan Brinkhuizen
Purplish mantled Tanager c Dusan Brinkhuizen
On finding a flock we just stopped and waited to see what popped out of the forest trees by the road. Dusan imitated a Pygmy Owl and this worked like a charm, attracting the tanagers and many other species associating with them.

The scenery was spectacular with huge forested mountain slopes towering over the constantly twisting and turning road. 

Views from the Chical Road
We stopped on a bridge to look downriver both left and right.The crystal clear water so enticing

and just at that moment a pair of Beautiful Jays  started calling. At first difficult to see we managed to lure them almost out into the open but not quite. Spectacular and scarce birds with metallic midnight blue patches of plumage and a pale sky blue crown and black face mask 

The road wound on and on and would eventually bring us to the Colombian border. We met a road crew filling in holes in the road a few miles from the border and asked them about paramilitaries and they said that currently it was quite safe. From our elevated position we could see the Colombian flag flying at the border crossing but beyond was definitely a no go area and very dangerous.

Chical in the distance and Colombia beyond
Ecuadorian Road Crew
We followed a short track on foot into the forest and it was so muddy I retreated as I had no suitable footwear but Dusan went further in and I could have kicked myself when he returned and announced that he had been buzzed by no less than a Hoary Puffleg, a Choco endemic hummingbird, unspectacular in appearance but hard to find and it now seemed I had missed my chance.

So we carried on towards the border, then turning back after some debate about whether we should go to the border town of Chical to try and see a Tropical Mockingbird. We decided instead to repeat the birding process all the way back to Hacienda Primavera and that is what we did, stopping wherever the fancy took us and seeing yet more tanagers and other good birds such as Brown capped Vireo, Golden collared Honeycreeper, Three striped Warbler and another Choco endemic Narino Tapaculo. I also saw another new mammal in the form of a South American Dwarf Squirrel, which in colour and demeanour was a bit like our Red Squirrel but much smaller and was scurrying around in a tree with some tanagers for company 

Rolando drove along with Dusan and myself standing in the back of the pickup and being cooled by the breeze. Suddenly Rolando came to an abrupt stop and we wondered what for. He pointed down to the road from the cab. At first I was confused. There is a bird down there?  He laughed and pointed again. It was a spider and what a spider. Huge, about the size of my hand, black as the night and marching steadily on furry legs across the gravelled road. A Tarantula. I jumped down from the vehicle and scrutinised it closely. The stuff of nightmares it stopped and looked at me then carried on its steady march to the side of the road.

We drove on with the clouds now beginning to come down over the mountains and forest. The sun went in and it became markedly cooler.We decided to take our lunch by the road and fortuitously where we stopped a roving flock of birds were coming through the trees. An Emerald Tanager slipped across the road to join some Golden Tanagers feeding on some fruiting trees. Suddenly there seemed to be birds everywhere as the main part of the flock moved through the trees in front of us. To my delight and I must add my intense relief, a Hoary Puffleg put in an extended appearance with the flock. I thought I had missed my chance earlier but no, here it was so close you could see the white puffs of feathers around its legs that gave it the name. Magical. Dusan imitated the Pygmy Owl call again and two Slate throated Whitestarts, a long tailed New World warbler, immediately came to investigate. The flock moved on but a Yellow breasted Antpitta then started calling in the dense tangle of vegetation beside us. It was close so we tried taping it out. It responded but the vegetation was so dense it was impossible to see in but at one point we were within inches of it but it was just impossibly invisible in the dense dark undergrowth.

The weather was closing in so we retreated back down from the high elevation and wound our way past the landslips again, with the cloud now below us in the valley and rising slowly to envelope the road in a warm not unpleasant mist. It started to gently rain as we descended. We passed the river near to Hacienda Primavera and a large lizard sitting on a log by the river was identified by Dusan as a Jesus Christ Lizard. 'Why is it called that?' I enquired. 'Because it walks on water' replied Dusan and just at that very moment it leapt from the rock and did indeed walk or more like run across the water to the other bank. Amazing

Jesus Christ Lizard - about to walk on water!
The rain was now setting in so I spent the rest of the day happily photographing the tanagers coming to eat the ripe bananas put out for them in the Hacienda's garden. and other birds such as a Red faced Spinetail and the ubiquitous Tropical Kingbird, that seems to occur everywhere in northwest Ecuador 

Blue Gray Tanager

Red faced Spinetail
Tropical Kingbird
Swallow Tanager c Dusan Brinkhuizen
In the late afternoon three more birders arrived at the Hacienda including Robert Ridgely who wrote the definitive Field Guide, The Birds of Equador. I would have liked to speak to him but they did not seem that communicative and there was little time to socialise so maybe an opportunity was missed.

Dinner was again a real treat despite the power cut and we all went to bed happy and prepared for another long day tomorrow when we would leave Hacienda Primavera at lunchtime and via a couple of lakes in the town of Ibarra would head for Las Grallarias which is a reserve owned by Mindo Bird Tours and where we would spend one night.

Two great guys - Dusan and Rolando having a well earned break

10 October 2014

Hacienda Primavera - Chical Road -Ibarra- Las Gralarias

We set off on a dull misty morning following a night of constant rain back up the Chical Road, climbing steadily upwards to try and find a much wanted species for me, Toucan Barbet. There are some birds in Field Guides that immediately catch your eye and this for me was one of them with its splendidly attractive array of colours and its sheer charisma. First we had to find some that were calling but there was no sight or sound of them today although we had heard them distantly yesterday. We were passed at what seemed an unnecessarily great speed by Ridgely and his friends in an expensive looking 4x4. Why they were in such a rush I do not know but we caught up with them later and by now, stationary by the roadside.They informed Dusan that they had just heard a Golden Headed Quetzal. so we stood with them for a brief period but there was no sign of the quetzal. We left them and started to slowly drive back down the mountain.

A few minutes later and I was looking, courtesy of Dusan, at a lovely male Golden headed Quetzal the very essence of tropical splendour in its  iridescent green and red finery

Golden headed Quetzal c Dusan Brinkhuizen
This was a really good start to the day and we continually added new species as we slowly drove back but still no Toucan Barbets. Then they called from much further up the road and we hastened to the spot and played a tape of their call. Five minutes later and there they were - a pair, but all too briefly showing me their finery before flying over the road and away into the forest. I had seen them but I could have done with a longer view but that's birding. We carried on checking the tanager flocks and finding yet more Blackburnian and Tropical Parula Warblers, and both Tri-colored and Chestnut capped Brush Finches were new species for me as was Black crested Warbler. 

Rolando dropped us off by the old road down the mountain and  took the new road and arranged to meet us at the bottom where they joined up. 

The Old Chical Road
I guess this is why its called Cloud Forest
The old road was abandoned as it was too steep and winding for the buses to navigate. We wandered down the road with the sub tropical forest towering up the mountainside on our right and falling away in similar spectacular fashion to our left and got some mouth watering close ups of tanagers and a few new skulking species for the notebook. A Cock of the Rock called but we could not see it. It started to rain but Rolando had anticipated our need for shelter and drove up the old road to shorten our journey and save us from a soaking.

Then it was back to the Hacienda Primavera, collect our boxed lunches and water and bid a fond farewell to the friendly and attentive owner and his staff. We were now going to head off on a long journey, winding slowly down through high Andean mountain passes. The solitude and isolated rural charm of the Chical Road was now replaced by cars and human activity. We were heading back to civilisation. Regularly the mountainside by the road had shed rocks and earth down onto the carriageway as the rain had loosened the soil during the night. Such is one of the by products of denuding the mountainside of its forest. We drove round these obstructions and moving down a long stretch of open road Dusan sudddenly cried 'Tropical Mockingbird' and Rolando came to an abrupt halt. Due to the usual light traffic on the road it was no problem for Rolando to reverse back up the road, on the wrong side I should add, until we were level with the bird and I managed by contorting myself on the back seat to get a few images of a Tropical Mockingbird. What a bonus and totally unexpected as we thought our only chance to see this species would have been at the border crossing at Chical.

Tropical Mockingbird
We drove on and then came to a landslip actually happening before our very eyes. Cars had stopped on both sides of the road as assorted rocks and earth fell onto the road. When it stopped everyone got out and moved the rocks out of the way (they were not huge thankfully) and life got back to what passes for normal in Ecuador.

Landslip in action!
Our descent brought us to a major road and here there were a lot of vehicles and we joined real traffic. It was hard to recall that just a couple of hours ago we were in the Andes and far from the hustle and bustle of human life. I longed to return but we were now headed for Laguna Yaguarcocha on the outskirts of the large town of Ibarra, The temperature was slowly rising with the sun coming out and we came to the laguna which was a huge lake with its usual attendant fishermen on the banks and people just out for a stroll or swim. I would imagine in the height of summer this place would be heaving with humanity and probably unbearable.They even had a race track for cars at one end of the lake.
Laguna Yaguarcocha
Our reason for visiting this urban landscape was to see both Andean Coot and Andean Ruddy Duck. There were plenty of coots and just like coots the world over they were bickering and fighting amongst themselves. The Andean Coot is interesting in that there are variations in the colour of its frontal plate. Some are just yellow, some are just white, whilst others are maroon in colour or maroon and have yellow on the bill and the size of the plate can vary also. Why this should be so no one seems able to give a satisfactory explanation.

Andean Coot
There were also waders a plenty feeding on the weed banks close to the shore, very tame and seemingly untroubled by a close human presence. They were mainly Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs but we also found another Wilson's Phalarope, a single Southern Lapwing, a few Pectoral Sandpipers and one or two Least Sandpipers.

Lesser Yellowlegs
Pectoral Sandpiper
Southern Lapwing
The Andean Ruddy Ducks were far out on the lake, just three of them fast asleep amongst a big gathering of Andean Coots. We left the lake and headed across town making a short diversion to another large lake called San Pablo Lake to find Yellow billed Pintail, which we did easily. A short diversion to have our lunch by some reedbeds, smallholdings and a swampy area produced a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers, a flock of twenty or so Baird's Sandpipers and some more Pectoral and Least Sandpipers. A Band tailed Seedeater, that was sat on top of a bush as we left was our only one of the trip.

Frankly I could not wait to get out of Ibarra. Run down, seedy and full of noise, a veritable urban jungle of fumes and traffic it was hardly surprising, considering where I had been for the last ten days that I felt the way I did. Dusan however had one more surprise in Ibarra. We were on a main thoroughfare but one side was being resurfaced and was coned off. However we had to get over this to take an obscure dirt side road, as usual completely un-signposted, through some random utilitarian concrete block houses with gardens of rubble and weeds. Rolando just drove across the closed part of the road and after some uncertainty we dived down a potholed, rubble strewn track that led to a pleasant smelling stand of Eucalyptus trees under which we parked. Our aim was to see an Ecuadorian Rail that, according to Dusan, inhabited a reedbed on the other side of a large expanse of grass on which a number of Ecuadorians were playing an impromptu game of football with a solitary cow munching the grass as they ran round it. 

Ecuador 1 Cow 0
Our chances of seeing a rail with all this going on in close proximity to the reeds was minimal but we gave it a go. We received some strange glances as we circumvented the footballers pitch and prostrated ourselves on the grass in front of a narrow, water lily filled ditch with the reeds the other side. 'Ready?' said Dusan. 'Here goes'. He played the tape and in seconds two Ecuadorian Rails, not that different looking to our Water Rail, were out of the reeds in double quick time to investigate what was going on. It was spectacular and very rewarding to get such an instant response and they then paraded up and down for five to ten minutes just to make sure we had seen them, before returning to the reeds.

Ecuadorian Rail
Now it was early afternoon and that was it for the birding. A tortuous journey ensued to get round Quito which was gridlocked with traffic due to a vital bridge being closed. Rolando's father rang with a suggested diversion which would save us hours and we took a spectacular road through a mountain pass which wound down and around the mountainside, into a gorge and across a river spanned by a narrow bridge and then, just as hair raisingly rose in sinuous loops up the other side towards Quito. The road was often dusty and un-surfaced and on looking back I could see for miles the road we had come up as it snaked back down to the pass and the narrow bridge.We followed the road constantly upwards and passed the outskirts of western Quito spread out on the mountainside in a miasma of randomly built, run down shoddy buildings and houses. Everywhere was a litter strewn rock and bare earth with hardly a sign of anything green or growing, Washing hung precariously across seeming waste ground and rubble covered building sites whilst dogs and chickens wandered aimlessly around dodging the traffic To be fair this was obviously not the most desirable end of town but was the best way to avoid the traffic hell further into the main part of Quito that lay below us. We wound our way round the roads and eventually were back out in more rural surroundings and joined the Friday rush hour traffic leaving Quito. Rolando put on some Ecuadorian radio station that just played endless disco music and we bopped along driving through the rain until after an interminable time we turned off the road onto another unmade, very pot holed and rutted road that again seemed to go on forever but was taking us to Reserva Las Gralarias. We crossed the Equator, moving into the northern hemisphere up the uneven road and then arrived at the serenity and calm of Las Gralarias. We had left the world behind again. There was just time to sit out on the verandah and admire the host of hummingbirds swarming around the feeders for a glucose top up. It was really too dark for photos but I took some anyway as the hummingbird action in the rain was irresistible. A Chestnut capped Brush Finch visited the bird bath. vigorously bathing even though the rain was teeming down. 

Chestnut capped Brush Finch
After it was too dark to see anything I came inside and dried out before joining my fellow guests for dinner, two Americans who were on their way to Galapagos but would be seeing me and Dusan at the renowned Refugio Paz de las Aves tomorrow, for what promised to be a very big day with the enticing prospect of both a lek of  Andean Cock of the Rock followed by an antpitta extravaganza.

Dusan and I chatted with the American couple and their guide, swapping experiences and then it was an early night and a feeling of great anticipation about tomorrow. I just prayed the torrential rain would stop by morning.

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