Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Adventures in Ecuador 2018 Part Two

Day 3

Before retiring to bed at Chontoloma, Gabo and myself decided we would get up extra early the following morning to do a bit of pre-dawn owling. Sadly, during the night I was awoken by heavy rain thundering on the roof and it continued all night, finally easing off just as the dawn broke. So that put paid to our plan and in the morning the mountainsides and forests were blanketed in low cloud, the air was noticeably damp, and still a bit of intermittent light rain was falling but this soon desisted.

We made our way to Arturo and Paola's house and had a breakfast of coffee, granola, toast and sweet bananas with them on the verandah. Arturo smiled and looked me in the eye and said 'I have a special treat for you Ewan. You will either like it or hate, it there is no in between!' What could he be talking about? Arturo went back into the kitchen and, returning, produced a small jar of Marmite, his prize possession. He had acquired a taste for it in England. Out of deference I only used a little bit on one piece of toast  as it was his pride and joy. Gabo tried it but having never tasted Marmite before was not so sure he liked it but I arranged with Arturo to send him a large jar of Marmite when I got back to Britain.

Now this morning was, as far as I was concerned, going to be possibly one of the biggest days of my birding life. It could be either elation on a grand scale or a descent into desperation and disappointment on an even greater scale. It was the morning we were due to go and try to find the legendary Rufous crowned Antpitta, Rufous Crowned Gnatpitta or as it is sometimes called for convenience, Pittasoma. Its Latin name being Pittasoma rufopileatum

When last I was in Ecuador in 2014 I came to learn of this enigmatic bird and listened to tales of how hard it was to find, how unpredictable it was, how secretive and how incredibly difficult it was to locate and see. Even Ecuadorian bird guides, living and working here would only maybe see it once or twice a year. There seemed no common theme to follow in order to try and work out where to find it let alone see it. Its appearances were supremely random and often it was found by sheer chance but even then sightings were few and far between. No real plans could be made to try and find it apart from playing tapes in likely looking areas and hoping one might call back. They hardly ever did. Worse, it is thought that the population is declining and now it is mainly to be found in the northwest of Ecuador. Needless to say I never saw or heard one on my trip in 2014 despite being in the best areas for it and on returning to Britain I carried with me the forlorn hope that one day it might come to pass that there would, somehow, be an opportunity for me to see it. It became a passion. A dream, a hope, an aspiration that I doubted would ever be realised.

In early 2016 I learnt that a male Pittasoma  called Shunguito  was being seen and heard regularly at a place called Mashpi Arisanal Chocolate Farm, where you could go and have a reasonable chance of seeing this much desired and elusive bird. Slowly I formed a vague plan to return to Ecuador to try and achieve this but it took until November 2018 for this to become reality. During the intervening time I saw occasional reports from visiting birders recounting how they had been taken to see this bird and of how wonderful it was. I hoped with all my heart it would not disappear and miraculously it remained alive and continued to be seen until my trip was due.

Gabo had set up our tilt at destiny before my arrival in Ecuador by making an appointment to be guided to the Pittasoma by Danilo, this wet morning  and it was confirmed by Danilo that the Pittasoma was still around although like all wild birds it was totally unpredictable and there was the very real chance of failure to see it.

This is what had finally brought me to Chontoloma and less than a kilometre away down the road was the chocolate farm which comprised of around 60 hectares of protected prime cloud forest with 10 hectares being devoted to growing cacao from which their superb chocolate was made. The farm incidentally is totally organic and run on ecologically sustainable lines.

My heart had sunk to my boots on seeing the rain and gloomy conditions that greeted us this morning but Gabo said we should still go and meet Danilo who would hopefully guide us to the Pittasoma. Our meeting time was 7am, so after breakfast we left our bags with Arturo and drove the short distance to the gates of the chocolate farm to rendezvous with Danilo.

Danilo our Pittasoma guide.Top man!
We met Danilo just as it began to rain steadily once more and set off first through the cacao trees before taking a track to our right up into the cloud forest on an ever rising muddy, treacherous trail, trying hard in my case not to stumble over the slimy exposed roots that criss crossed the trail every few feet or slipping on the wet leaves and steep muddy inclines.Walking in a cloud forest is not easy as the trail you follow is often narrow and vague, winding vertiginously upwards on the mountainside or descending, slippery and treacherous.Think of following the contours of a roller coaster in a hothouse while it is constantly wet and slippery underfoot and you will get a good idea of the conditions. 

Making our way through the cloud forest
The light in the forest is green and gloomy at best as only a little daylight can permeate through the tops of the huge trees towering above, and even if it does the profusion of epiphytes, mosses and bromeliads clinging to every bare vestige of trunk and branch seems to absorb and obscure even more of the light. It can almost be depressing  in such a half light.There is no wind as it cannot permeate the lushness of vegetation and at ground level it is dank and very humid, a warm loamy scent not unpleasant, pervades the air from the mass of constantly rotting leaves on the ground and for much of the time it is eerily silent. No unnatural sound disturbs the cathedral like ambience of miles and miles of ancient forest, Many of the larger trees are well over two hundred years old, towering skywards on massive strange shaped trunks. Occasionally a bird call or snatch of song rings through the forest but the perpetrator is usually invisible amongst the myriad of leaves or remains distant, as mysterious as its surroundings. Sometimes a huge crash signifies the falling of a dead palm frond, coming to earth from on high, to lie like a bleached fish skeleton on the ground. Today, with the rain falling, there was a constant staccato of dripping water, as drops splashed from the broad leaves high above onto those below and Danilo told us it was going to be difficult to find the Pittasoma with all the rain and current wet conditions.

My heart sank further at this news, if that was possible, but Danilo was not a man to give up easily. Swishing his panga he cut away branches lying across our path as we slowly progressed deeper and deeper along a trail into the dripping forest. He whistled a simple two note call which was a good imitation of the contact call of the Pittasoma but could not get a reply. We had now been over an hour in the forest with not a hint of the Pittasoma. With every passing minute my spirits sank lower and lower and it looked like my huge gamble was about to meet with abject failure. Hope however springs eternal and birders are forever optimists.We have to be. Danilo told us to wait where we were and he wandered off looking for the Pittasoma. We could track him by his constant calling of the Pittasoma as he got ever more distant. I was not optimistic about our chances.

As we stood on the wet leaves and the years of rotting mould that formed the trail I saw a small elongated, brown and furry animal appear out of the thick undergrowth to one side. Gabo saw it too and told me it was an Andean Weasel. It ran off almost immediately but came back once more to investigate us, showing its creamy chest before disappearing for ever. It was bigger than 'our' weasel and looked about the size of a Pine Marten. Five minutes later a startling disturbance of crashing branches and leaves came from high in the canopy and following the sound we saw a Kinkajou running with amazing dexterity from tree branch to tree branch at the very tops of the trees. A large, sandy grey animal with a teddy bear like face and long furry tail, it too was soon gone deep into the forest.

Gabo looked up, scanning the tree tops and on a bare branch, miles above us found a Lanceolated Monklet, a really good bird to see. I seem to be lucky with this bird as every time I have been to South America I have managed to see one. A member of the puffbird family its dumpy form was perched so high up all you could really see were its underside, tail and long bill and the cloud drifting through the tree tops made discerning any plumage detail nigh on impossible.To compensate, a new hummingbird species for me in the form of a Purple crowned Fairy arrived, to flit around amongst some flowers hanging down from a branch but was gone almost as soon as it arrived.

Despite these surprise finds they were of no consequence without the star attraction and I became totally despondent as Danilo returned to announce he could find no sign of the Pittasoma but once more he told us to wait where we were and headed off down another indistinct trail. I felt that any hope of finding the Pittasoma was now almost non existent.

I cannot recall how long we waited here but it was quite some time and I estimated we had now been in the forest  searching for the Pittasoma for well over ninety minutes. Gabo and myself were even making tentative plans to come back tomorrow, when, if it stopped raining, it would be, hopefully, easier to find the Pittasoma. Just as we were discussing this Danilo called from nearby and told us to join him. By the tone of his voice I assumed he had more bad news so it was with little urgency that we headed in his direction. We found him crouched down looking into a dark recess under some wet leaves, branches, dead stalks and other detritus on the forest floor.

Danilo discovers the Pittasoma!

The Pittasoma's hiding place deep in a dark, leafy recess in
the forest. How Danilo found it only he can know
Still not sure what was going on, as not speaking English Danilo was conducting a conversation in Spanish with Gabo, I finally learnt that Danilo had located the Pittasoma and that Shunguito was stood on the ground, deep in a wet recess under some leaves. At first I could not see it. Panic. 'He is right there.'  Gabo pointed to the spot but still I failed to separate the bird from its surroundings but then I saw its rich chestnut crown and the rest of the bird magically came into view as if someone had removed a veil.

My first views of the Pittasoma. Unforgettable!
I will relive this moment forever. Four years of unrealistic hopes and dreams and I had somehow made it happen but only with the enormous help of Danilo and Gabo. Here was my dream bird, standing on the forest floor right before me, uncomprehending of all the emotion it had engendered to course through my body,  dispassionately regarding me with its large, dark and shining eye, just metres away. My particular dream had become reality despite all the odds.

The light at first was truly hopeless for photography and of course flash was out of the question so we waited and watched as Danilo offered Shunguito grasshoppers and crickets he had brought in a jar. At first the Pittasoma was a little edgy but then settled down and came out into the open some more and fed on a green cricket Danilo proffered it.

Seen as close as a couple of metres its plumage is truly beautiful. It has the classic form of an antpitta with large head, substantial bill, rounded plump body and no tail, all supported on very long thin legs. Its head has a bright rufous chestnut crown and nape with long and broad, black eye stripes extending all the way to the back of its neck. Its face and throat are rich buff. The upperparts are an olive tinged greyish brown  broadly streaked with black and the wings are a more rufous brown with scattered small white spots on the tips of its wing coverts.The underparts are closely barred black and white.The whole plumage camouflages it perfectly in the dark depths and recesses of its forest home

I stood and looked at this blissful apparition for quite some time. Entranced, hardly believing this was happening, my senses having swung from despair to elation in a matter of seconds. Danilo beckoned me to come closer and squatting beside him I watched as the Pittasoma came out and took a grasshopper from his fingers and then just stood motionless and looked at us for minutes on end, no more than a metre away. It was totally and utterly magical. It then started calling, again just standing on the forest floor and uttering its two note call, over and over for yet more minutes on end. 

We stayed with it for twenty five or more minutes before it decided that it had enough of showing itself and retreated into the forest's mysterious depths. What a start to the day and nothing now could upset my feeling of vindication and triumph and, let it be said, utter relief.

Danilo told us that the Pittasoma had first been found on the farm three years ago. He had discovered it whilst working and digging some steps on the trail through the forest, as the Pittasoma had come out of the undergrowth and followed him as he turned the earth, seizing beetles and worms exposed by Danilo's digging. Apparently it accompanied Danilo all day, for two consecutive days, until Danilo's work was finished. Ever since Danilo had managed to keep in contact with it. He also told us that there is a second individual in the forest that he thinks might be a female. Let's hope so. Even more surprising is the fact, so Danilo told us, that only two or three people come to see the Pittasoma each month and very few of the big bird tour groups bother to come to the farm to see it. Fine by me, as today we had it totally to ourselves.

Rufous crowned Antpittas are confined to west central Colombia south to northwest Ecuador inhabiting the understorey of humid lowland and foothill forests generally below 1100 metres asl. Nothing is really known about their diet or breeding habits and no nest or eggs have ever been found. It is increasingly under threat from habitat loss involving mainly deforestation, logging and with the consequent road building, illegal settling, and it is considered to be undergoing a fairly rapid decline in numbers, which makes the urgency to learn more of its life cycle all the more critical.

We turned to walk back through the forest. It was appropriate that it was a cloud forest as I felt as if I was floating on my own particular cloud.To all practical purposes I suppose I was. Now there was time to concentrate on the other birds in the forest. It had stopped raining but there was so much water still on the leaves high above us that you would not know it as, steadily, drops continued to fall aplenty as they were dislodged from the leaves.

Photography is also a bit of a trial in the forest at elevated altitudes and indeed out of it when the cloud moves in, turning everything an almost opaque white at times, swirling thickly one minute then thinning out the next, coming in waves up through the gorges and valleys, stealing inexorably up the mountainsides to fill the forests. You just have to put up with it, constantly adjusting exposure levels or not bother at all with photography until the conditions change for the better.

A harsh and loud call came from very close behind us. Gabo told me it was a Barred Forest Falcon and played a tape of its call, prompting a rapid appearance of the falcon which shot across the trail behind us and perched briefly, very near to us, before thinking better of it and retreating further off, still calling. Next came a Western White tailed Trogon, again located by its call and finally we found it perched on a thin bough high above us in the cloud infused forest. 

Barred Forest Falcon

Western White tailed Trogon
Various other smaller birds such as a pair of Spot crowned Ant Vireos and a White flanked Antwren tested my eyesight to the limits as they flicked around the huge trees, trailing vines and plethora of leaves. Another good find was a Bi-colored Antbird. Higher up in the very tops of the trees were some noisy Purple throated Fruitcrows and some 'good' tanagers such as Tawny Crested and Guira Tanagers as a Red tailed Squirrel tried to hide from us, unsuccessfully, amongst the leaves below the canopy.

Red tailed Squirrel
We stopped in the cacao orchard to admire the cacao pods hanging from the small trees.The pods ranged from yellow to dark maroon and, we were told, were of three different types. Danilo chopped a yellow one in half and invited us to eat the white pulp within which was very sweet and sticky and tasted just  like liquid white chocolate. Lovely.

Cacao Pods on the trees in the orchard
We made an abortive diversion to look for a Uniform Crake but there was no response to our tape and the mosquitos began to be seriously annoying so we retreated.

Back at the settlement we paid Danilo the very reasonable $20.00 fee for showing us the Pittasoma and bought some of their organic chocolate products. Having done this we thanked Danilo for all his efforts and he went on his way.

We remained and birded the gardens around the small settlement of farm buildings, finding a very confiding Pacific Hornero hopping around on the grass and then a mixed flock of birds passed through, including a diminutive Olivaceous Piculet, a tiny woodpecker like bird no bigger than a Great Tit, and a Cinnamon Becard. In fifteen minutes the flock had passed and the trees were silent once more. Such is tropical birding.

Pacific Hornero

Cinnamon Becard
This was our cue to leave the farm and we returned to Arturo's to collect our bags and say goodbye but not before  we joined him for coffee and some superb home made banana cake courtesy of Flora.

The excellent and always smiling Arturo
We left and decided to bird the long dirt road by the Rio Mashpi a mile or so from Arturo's house 

The Rio Mashpi
Rivers always seem to attract birds and this was no exception. Two North American migrants, a Spotted Sandpiper and a Snowy Egret were feeding along the river and an Amazon Kingfisher put in a brief appearance. Then a Buff rumped Warbler burst into song in the bushes by the river and came very close in response to our tape.

Buff rumped Warbler
We walked a couple of miles and along the way found a tree full of Red eyed Vireos and a Green and a Lesser Elaenia amongst them.

Red eyed Vireo
The grasses by the road yielded Yellow bellied and Variable Seedeaters and a male Blue-Black Grassquit whilst Rusty Margined and Boat billed Flycatchers hunted from the fence lines and phone wires. 

Variable Seedeater

Yellow bellied Seedeater
Turning back we saw a Rufous Motmot hiding in a huge palm and then a Chestnut billed Toucan sat for an age, high in a tree, just looking around in that very deliberate and ponderous way of theirs, slowly moving its preposterous huge bill from one side to the other.

Chestnut mandibled Toucan
Back to the 4x4 and we drove into Mashpi just because we were curious to see what the town looked like. No great shakes from what I saw, just the usual collection of wooden houses scattered at random above and alongside the Rio Mashpi. 

On the way out we stopped to admire a Masked Water Tyrant, preening on a large boulder midstream.

Masked Water Tyrant. A kind of aquatic wheatear!
Now it was time to retrace our route back to Hostal El Mirador at Los Bancos but not before stopping at a suitable spot for some more roadside birding where we found a Bright rumped Attila calling loudly, a Golden Olive Woodpecker and a new hummingbird for me, a Green Thorntail. By now the weather had improved markedly, so further along the road on our way back to Los Bancos we took a small turning up a deserted side road to see if we could tape out some White breasted Crakes from the rank vegetation by the roadside. This failed consummately but by way of compensation a pair of Black crowned Tityra approached and gave absolutely point blank views as they cased the leaves of the trees by the road. Instead of indulging in the more usual rapid feeding movements of birds they perch quietly and then slowly and deliberately scan the leaves before seizing anything they find or move to another vantage point to repeat the process if unsuccessful.

Black crowned Tityra-male
We drove further down the road and found a Little Cuckoo, the smaller cousin of the similar looking and larger Squirrel Cuckoo. It was hunting ants and allowed us to view it closely from the vehicle. 

Little Cuckoo
Just above it two woodpeckers, a pair of Scarlet backed Woodpeckers, or maybe a male and a juvenile, were hammering away at a moss covered branch in search of food and a Streak-headed Woodcreeper shuffled upside down under a branch festooned with moss and epiphytes

Scarlet backed Woodpeckers

Streak headed Woodcreeper
This made a nice little interval and as we returned to where the side road joined the main road a lady waved to us asking for a lift. Why not? We had room and it would be churlish to ignore her and drive past. We took her all the way into Los Bancos refusing the money she kindly offered. 

Los Bancos
We checked into the Hostal El Mirador and Gabo went shopping for supplies whilst I ordered a bowl of potatoe soup from the restaurant, sat on the terrace and looked down at the cloud swirling and moving up the wide sweep of the Rio Blanco river valley far below me, and then I retired for an early night, feeling totally exhausted by the humidity and altitude of the cloud forest earlier but quietly satisfied. Two of my main targets had now been seen really well, another not so well but that slight disappointment with the Occellated Tapaculo was all but forgotten in the subsequent euphoria that had enveloped me this morning and now sat deep within me.

Birds seen on Day 3

Rufous crowned Antpitta; Choco Toucan; Chestnut billed Toucan; Black billed Toucan; Snowy Egret;
Cattle Egret; Spotted Sandpiper; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Hook billed Kite; Barred Forest Falcon; Laughing Falcon; Roadside Hawk; Western White tailed Trogon; White tipped Dove; House Wren; Bronze winged Parrot; Maroon tailed Parakeet; Little Cuckoo; White whiskered Hermit; Purple crowned Fairy; Purple chested Hummingbird; Green Thorntail; Amazon Kingfisher; Rufous Motmot; Lanceolated Monklet; Scarlet backed Woodpecker; Golden Olive Woodpecker; Streak headed Woodcreeper; Olivaceous Piculet; Pale mandibled Aracari; Crimson rumped Toucanet; Pacific Hornero; Bi-colored Antbird; Swainson's Thrush; Common Tody Flycatcher;Tropical Kingbird; Rusty margined Flycatcher; Boat billed Flycatcher; Streaked Flycatcher; Slaty capped Flycatcher; Masked Water Tyrant; Bright rumped Attila; Black-crowned Tityra; Pacific Hornero; Bananaquit; Buff throated Saltator;Palm Tanager;Blue Gray Tanager; Gaira Tanager; Silver throated Tanager;Lemon rumped Tanager; Summer Tanager (heard only);Tawny crested Tanager; One colored Becard; Cinnamon Becard; Purple throated Fruitcrow; Scarlet rumped Cacique; Blue and White Swallow; Southern Rough winged Swallow; Lesser Greenlet; Greenish Elaenia; Red eyed Vireo; Buff rumped Warbler; Orange bellied Euphonia; Variable Seedeater; Yellow bellied Seedeater; Blue black Grassquit; Black striped Sparrow; Spot crowned Antvireo; White fronted Antwren; 

Mammals seen

Andean Weasel
Red tailed Squirrel

Day 4

Today we were going to attempt to see another iconic Ecuadorian bird, a Long-wattled Umbrellabird.This required a special trip to a village miles from anywhere with the very strange name of Recinta 23 de Junio. This is home to Luis Aqila who was to guide us to the Umbrellabirds that have two leks half an hour's drive away in what remains of the cloud forest around there. Recinta 23 de Junio is a community of farmers who migrated thirty years ago from southern Ecuador in search of better land and still found it hard to make a living from agriculture. Enter birding, which growing ever more popular, is now bringing visitors from far and wide to see the Umbrellabirds and has given an unexpected lifeline to the community which the villagers feel is a 'bird blessing' from above. Now the community realise that they can supplement their meagre incomes by guiding foreign birders to the Umbrellabirds and at the same time they should preserve what is left of the cloud forest and hopefully in time allow it to regenerate.It is a win all round

The only street in Recinta de Junio 23.
Luis house is on the left
To get to Luis required us to make the now customary pre-dawn start, this time from Los Bancos and we found ourselves driving through thick fog until we came to another unmade road where we turned off and drove for another twenty minutes until we reached the community.

The drive on the main road was to put it mildly eventful as the road was already full of heavy slow moving, enormous trucks, labouring up the steep inclines at a snail's pace, belching diesel fumes whilst private cars impatiently dodged around and between them, overtaking in the fog, heedless of bends or possible oncoming vehicles. It was scary, especially when an oncoming truck rounded a bend on the wrong side of the road and missed us by inches and I was relieved when we turned off the main road onto the deserted dirt road. 

We were obviously  the first up the dirt road this morning and flushed no less than seven Band Tailed Nightjars resting on the road  at various spots, before eventually arriving at Luis's home. We took him with us in the 4x4 and after another half an hour he instructed us to stop and we disembarked and set off on foot, first to cross a shallow and small river and then ascend on a wide and very steep and muddy path higher and higher until we looked over a wide valley to our right with scattered large trees across mainly de-forested pasture inhabited by the dreaded cows.

The only problem was the cloud had followed us and was very low, swirling around and turning everything grey and indistinct above and below us. 

Cloud below blue sky.
Why could it not be the other way round?
There was nothing to be done but get on with it and we did the best we could. Gabo heard an Umbrellabird calling, a low booming sound and we found a pair displaying in the top of a tall tree but they were only silhouettes due to the cloud. Nonetheless you could clearly see the weird appearance of the male Umbrellabird, its slightly ridiculous fringe of feathers on its crown overhanging its forehead, looking just like an umbrella  and its enormously long wattle of feathers hanging down from its upper breast.which it can retract and elongate at will apparently. Absolutely bizarre but a real thrill to see.

Eventually we were joined by some other birders and we all watched the  birds together.Then the long lens brigade arrived with their howitzer sized lenses and ultra expensive cameras but the cloud did not care or discriminate and they were stymied just as we were, as there was no way they were going to get the images they desired.

We moved higher to a grassy plateau and an Umbrellabird came and sat totally obscured in a huge tree right above us, remaining there for ages, before flying out and across the valley. Luis found another but the long lens boys spooked it and it flew and another, more distant, was sadly disturbed by the over enthusiastic Luis but by now I had got good views of at least four of them and was reasonably happy.We found a very rare falcon perched high in the dead branches of a tree and considerately it remained perched there for at least ten minutes. It was a Semi collared Hawk.We have done rather well with raptors so far on this trip.

Semi collared Hawk
The cloud slowly retreated and the sun eventually came out but by then the Umbrellabirds had dispersed.

We walked back down the track and got close views of a lovely male Orange breasted Fruiteater and a little lower, a pair of Ornate Flycatchers all but sat on my lens, calling loudly to each other as they flew out over the track to snatch flies. 

Ornate Flycatcher

Orange breasted Fruiteater
Further down we found a pair of Golden headed Quetzals, big birds that are unbelievably ornate  in their iridescent emerald green plumage, golden copper suffused heads, crimson underparts and long green tails.

Golden headed Quetzal
We stopped at the 4x4 and had some water and a male Swallow Tanager looked spectacular as it sat high on a branch, shining an indescribable iridescent blue in the sun. Surely one of the most spectacular tanagers there is and still relatively common.

Swallow Tanager
That was the end of  our Umbrellabird experience and we returned with the others to Luis's home to be served delicious homemade empinadas and superb Equadorian coffee, the taste and smoothness of the coffee putting the likes of Costa and Starbucks to shame.

Luis's house

Empinadas for breakfast. A simple but tasty meal and
perfect with coffee
After our breakfast supplied by Luis and his wife, Gabo offered to give Luis a lift to catch the bus at the main road. His son who lived in Peru was ill and Luis had to make a ten hour bus journey to the Peru border before taking another two hour bus ride in Peru to meet his son and go with him to see a doctor. Hearing this it was the least we could do and I wished we could have helped further. Dropping off a rather upset looking Luis we went back to check out of our accommodation at Los Bancos and then it was to be a  long drive to a place called Antisana at 3500m asl and site of another huge volcano bearing the same name. Here the birding would be very different as we would be in the paramo. 

The Northern Andean paramo in Ecuador surrounds the higher peaks of The Andes above the treeline, from 3000m to the start of the snowline at 5000m. Huge areas of grassland and shrubs are fringed by a sea of cloud forest lower down. It is mightily impressive and ecologically remains relatively unthreatened although farming and overgrazing pose a currently minor threat. The highest we would be venturing tomorrow would be 4400m, high enough certainly to give one a headache and a struggle for oxygen during any physical exertion but as in previous cases I was confident my body would quickly adapt.This however was for later consideration. 

First though, on the way we stopped back at San Tadeo Bird Gardens for more tanager and hummingbird  action and where fortune favoured us and the cloud rolled back so for a while we were in sunshine.

Golden Tanager

Golden naped Tanager

Flame faced Tanager

Black chinned Mountain Tanager

Purple throated Woodstar-female

Brown Inca
Andean Emerald

Velvet Purple Coronet

Empress Brilliant
Both images are of the same individual taken at different angles
Then it was onwards towards Quito, stopping at a huge area of what is now waste ground and scrub on the outskirts of the city, called I think Calicali, but which was formerly a race track for horses. 

Here we were looking for anything we might find and hopefully the star bird a White tailed Shrike Tyrant  would turn up but unfortunately our luck was not in and we never saw it. Initially the whole area looked devoid of birds but with persistence we began to find birds, the first of which was a lovely showy American Kestrel. 

American Kestrel-female

American Kestrel-male
Walking onwards into some scrubby bushes a flock of the ubiquitous Rufous Collared Sparrows and some Common Ground Doves flew up and away but another golden and black bird perched on top of one of the bushes to survey us. It was a female Southern Yellow Grosbeak, not uncommon but a nice bright chunky bird to see nonetheless. We also got the briefest of views of a Blue and Yellow Tanager which sadly did not hang about.

Southern Yellow Grosbeak-female
Walking on we found a pair of Tufted Tit Tyrants that led us a merry dance amongst the scrub but eventually we saw them well. 

Tufted Tit Tyrant
The last birds we found were a hummingbird. A male Black tailed Trainbearer, perched boldly on top of a small dead tree with its strikingly long and forked black tail, from whence the name comes, blowing in the wind, and finally a Tropical Mockingbird.

Time however was pressing so we soon returned to the 4x4 and set about crossing Quito with a brief stop at Gabo's home where I met his wife and two cute young daughters of five and two. The five year old put me to shame by addressing me in almost perfect English.

Quito is, like any other big South American city, full of life, vibrancy and colour, snarled by chaotic traffic,polluted in diesel fumes and with street sellers at every stop or intersection selling, from what I could see, either complete tat or fruit such as mangos and peaches. 

We pressed on and out of the city and the scenery became ever more mountainous and impressive. Beyond a rough old town called Pintag we came to an old lava flow that was being mined to provide hardcore for building.

The main street through Pintag. The red vehicle is an ambulance
The lava has been blasted by dynamite into weird unworldly shapes and the lava flow runs for all of nine kilometres back from the road to its long extinct source. In order to remove the mined lava huge yellow trucks pass endlessly to and fro at ten miles an hour or less on the only road. It must be hell for the unfortunate people living by the road as this goes on night and day and the road, due to the constant pressure from the overloaded trucks is full of huge potholes. Despite promises the trucking companies have done nothing to repair the road.

A familiar sight on Ecuadorian rural roads
The back of a slow moving bus following an even slower
moving truck!
We passed through and beyond Pintag and now we were at high altitude indeed and the massive bulk of the extinct Antisana Volcano loomed above all the other mountains. Forever shrouded in cloud it is impressive and the summit is covered in snow all year round.The first signs of the high altitude affecting me came with a slight headache but plenty of water and an aspirin soon fixed this.

We pressed on and eventually drove along the side of a long valley with a huge cliff face called Penon del Isco running parallel for several miles, on the other side of the valley.

The home of the Andean Condor
This was home to a pair of Andean Condors. We drove onwards until we came to a Mirador (a viewpoint) that looked out and over towards the cliff face. 

The Mirador from which we scoped the Andean Condor
Gabo in action with the telescope

Andean Condor-female.
Sadly just too distant to do it justice with the camera
Gabo put up his scope and in two minutes had found an Andean Condor, a female, a huge black and white bird vaguely reminiscent of a vulture, perched on a rocky outcrop.She took off and flew a short way along the cliff face before pitching onto another rock to perch and preen. Fantastic. Yet another iconic bird seen well and almost immediately.

We watched her for twenty minutes but it was getting very cold and we went back down the road to check in to our accommodation for tonight, Tambo Condor. We got a really friendly welcome and as dusk was coming, the temperature rapidly falling, as well as the electricity supply failing, we opted to have a candlelit dinner right away before being shown to our own separate lodge a few hundred metres down a grass track overlooking the valley and cliff face.

The power came back on just after we started our dinner and we chatted to two young Americans who were staying at the Lodge for a few months although I never ascertained quite why. After dinner we drove down with the owner of the lodge to settle in to our accommodation.

The lodgings were large and spacious but were as cold as ice. The inside of a refrigerator would have been warmer but we were each given an electric fire to warm up our separate bedrooms which were totally inadequate as they were too small. A visit to the bathroom was contemplated only as a last resort as no heating at all was in there.We were told there was hot water for a shower but leaving the hot water of the shower one would surely become iced before you could get back to the other room. I piled every blanket I could find on the bed, donned two jumpers and a pair of heavy duty woollen socks and dived under the covers, vowing not to move, if at all possible, until the morning.

I have never been so cold as tonight!

To be continued ..............

Birds seen on Day 4

Band winged Nightjar;Long wattled Umbrellabird; Ornate Flycatcher;Orange breasted Fruiteater;

Mountain Wren; Golden headed Quetzal; Andean Condor; Black Vulture; Semi collared Hawk; Barred Hawk (heard only);American Kestrel; Carunculated Caracara; Swallow Tanager; Palm Tanager' Golden naped Tanager; Blue winged Mountain Tanager; Golden Tanager; Flame faced Tanager; Black chinned Mountain Tanager; Silver throated Tanager; Blue Gray Tanager; Blue and Yellow Tanager; Dusky Bush Tanager; Black striped Sparrow; Rufous collared Sparrow;Ecuadorian Thrush; Great Thrush; Scrub Blackbird; Buff throated Saltator; Black winged Saltator; Thick billed Euphonia; Toucan Barbet (heard only);Tropical Kingbird; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Fawn breasted Brilliant; Purple throated Woodstar; Collared Inca; Velvet Purple Coronet; Violet tailed Sylph; Empress Brilliant; Purple bibbed Whitetip; Black tailed Trainbearer; Giant Hummingbird; Great Sapphirewing; Sparkling Violetear; Tufted Tit Tyrant; Common Ground Dove; Eared Dove; Bananaquit; Tropical Mockingbird; Black Flowerpiercer; Southern Rough winged Swallow;