Sunday 2 December 2018

Adventures in Ecuador 2018 Part One

Mid afternoon on Sunday the 18th of November found me standing on the lonely platform at my local Kingham Railway Station in The Cotswolds awaiting a train to take me to Oxford from where I would take the Express Bus to London Heathrow Airport. My adventure had begun and by this time tomorrow I would be on the other side of the world in South America.

A birding trip, a year in the planning, had now come to fruition as I set off for ten days in Ecuador to try and catch up with some high quality species which I had missed out on when last I visited Ecuador in 2014. This was not so much about how many species I could see but putting the emphasis on going for quality rather than quantity. 

I suppose if you spend a large amount of money on a birding trip the natural inclination is that the more species you see and add to a list the more you feel you are getting value but it is not always like that for me and not always the numbers that count.

On a recommendation from Richard, a birding colleague, I had arranged for a local Ecuadorian guide, Gabriel Bucheli (Gabo) to guide me around the north west of Ecuador and then down the eastern slope of the Andes into the Amazon Basin, our main targets being four species in particular; an Ocellated Tapaculo, a Giant Antpitta, a Rufous crowned Antpitta and a Harpy Eagle.  I would certainly see many other species, amounting to hundreds and good ones at that but these four were the absolute priority.

Originally I was going with a colleague from Scotland but he had to drop out and so it was just me which inevitably made the trip more expensive but gave me the incalculable benefit of being able to do exactly what I wanted and be totally flexible.This worked out just fine as often some bird news would come to us while travelling and we could divert immediately to take advantage of the latest developments.

My flight to Quito in Ecuador was on the Colombian airline Avianca via Bogota and all went well on the ten hour overnight flight from London, where I arrived at Bogota at 3.40am and had a two hour wait for a short flight to Quito. I was glad to be able to stretch my legs and unscramble my senses after the marathon flight from London and at such an early time in the morning Bogota airport was reassuringly quiet and less frenetic than these places usually are. I sat quietly in the departure lounge gathering my senses and watched the airport slowly come to life.

The hour or so flight to Quito found me arriving at the modern new airport at 0930 and even better I was through customs and immigration in no time at all, to be met by Gabo. A quick change of clothes and footwear and at just after 1030 local time we set off in Gabo's spacious Toyota 4x4 for some birding.There was no time to lose.

Our first stop was fairly prosaic, at a reservoir by the road just outside the airport. There is none of the scourge of yellow lines, traffic wardens, security cameras or the like here.You just stop anywhere you fancy on even a major road and can walk around free of any hassle. The traffic is often almost non existent outside of cities, and roads can be deserted for long periods. It is a really strange feeling after being used to the congested roads and constant heavy traffic in Britain.

The reservoir was harbouring a few Pied billed Grebes, some Andean Teal, Andean Coots, Yellow billed Pintails, a couple of Snowy Egrets and two Solitary Sandpipers, hardly a riveting start but it was a good way to ease myself into foreign birding once more. There was going to be much better to come.

We crossed the outer limits of Quito, with me feeling quite safe in Gabo's solid 4x4, as the usual chaotic driving manifested itself. The driving in Ecuador is at times totally reckless with cars and buses often overtaking on blind bends and it is by no means unusual to find a vehicle coming towards you on your side of the road as you round a bend. Quito sprawls across  a vast bowl surrounded by the Andes and is over 3000m above sea level. All around, huge, mountainous, extinct volcanoes and jagged peaks add to a dramatic pageant of scenery dominating the city.

We drove northwest, crossing the Equator and heading towards Alambi some 50kms north from Quito. Here we turned off the road and parked at a small lodge where we would leave our bags and return to spend our first night. As with many such places in Ecuador the owners had arranged a seating area looking out onto a vast array of hummingbird feeders hanging from bushes. 

Alambi's Hummingbird viewing area
It is a good way of supplementing income and provides endless entertainment for birder guests and the general public as the various species of hummingbirds arrive and disappear at incredible speed, alternately feeding or having aggressive altercations with each other. To me it seems a hummingbird's life is one of constant disharmony interspersed with bouts of feeding.There is never a dull moment watching them.

I sat in the sun and watched entranced as a diminutive Purple throated Woodstar, no bigger than my thumb came to feed, always giving way to the larger and more aggressive species of hummingbirds such as Sparkling Violetears and Buff tailed Coronets. The woodstar's wings move so fast they are almost invisible creating the impression the tiny bird is floating on air with no means of support or propulsion. Not only this but they move with such grace, floating back and fore, up and sideways, like thistle down  on the wind, but as with all hummingbirds they are hardy and persistent and despite the aggression of the other hummingbirds they are never deterred and return time and again to seek their chance at the feeders. 

Purple throated Woodstar
Another small and beautiful hummingbird is the Booted Racket Tail. They are almost as small as the woodstars but the male has two, long, wire thin, outer tail feathers ending in a flag like appendage on each one. It is called booted because it has large white ruffs of feathers around its legs.

Booted Racket Tail

                                           Some other Hummingbirds we saw at Alambi

Brown Violetear

White whiskered Hermit

Rufous tailed Hummingbird

Collared Inca

Violet tailed Sylph

After about forty five minutes Gabo said we had to move on but we would return here in the evening. We were now going in search of an Ocellated Tapaculo, a bird I had long wanted to encounter.We went to another lodge called Bellavista from where we walked various forest trails trying to tape out an Ocellated Tapaculo. 

Scenes around the Lodge at Bellavista

The track where we partially saw an Ocellated Tapaculo
We could hear them calling and I would like to say it was a success but it was only partial as the tapaculos were unwilling to co operate and really come out into the open and reveal their striking plumage. We did manage to find one that responded to our tape but it insisted on remaining in deep cover, so yes I saw it but it was impossible to see its plumage well and in truth it seemed all a bit unsatisfactory but that is birding. It does not always go to plan or the way you want.

Still there was always tomorrow to try again.

Undaunted we walked various trails around Bellavista encountering some good birds such as a Plate billed Mountain Toucan, a pair of Plushcaps, a Streaked Tufted Cheek, a Masked Trogon and Dusky Bush and Blue Winged Mountain Tanagers, all birds that you find in the various mixed feeding flocks passing through the forest and provide some neck breaking work as you try to make them out high in the canopy above you.

Masked Trogon - male
This whole area seemed very popular and we encountered birders of various nationalities everywhere we went. As the afternoon wore on the cloud stealthily infiltrated up the gorges and valleys, rising upwards and permeating the forest like wraithes, turning it gloomy and silent.

Trails through the Cloud Forest near Bellavista
We returned to Bellavista and indulged in some more hummingbird viewing and also finding a co operative Slate coloured Whitestart and a couple of Smoke colored Peewees in the bushes behind the hummingbird feeders, before we drove back to Alambi for a meal and my first night's rest in Ecuador.

Slate throated Whitestart

Smoke colored Peewee
Although I was loathe to admit it I was very tired after my long flight as I never really sleep well on a plane as the seats are hardly conducive to such. It was good to lay flat on a bed and go to sleep as the rhythm of cicadas and the pulsing of frogs in an endless chorus, coming from the lush tropical vegetation, competed with the sound of the rushing waters of the Rio Alambi, passing near to the house.

Despite the disappointment with the Ocellated Tapaculo I had seen no less than fifteen species of hummingbird today and tomorrow I was going to the world famous Refugio Paz de las Aves. where hopefully I would see no less than five antpitta species including another of my top targets, the Giant Antpitta.

Birds seen on Day 1

Pied billed Grebe;Andean Coot;Yellow billed Pintail; Andean Teal; Snowy Egret; Solitary Sandpiper; Turkey Vulture;  White lined Tanager; Golden Tanager; Silver throated Tanager; Lemon rumped Tanager; White whiskered Hermit; Tawny bellied Hermit; Booted Racket Tail; Purple throated Woodstar;  Green crowned Woodnymph; Brown Violetear; Sparkling Violetear; Andean Emerald; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Western Emerald; Buff tailed Coronet;Violet tailed Sylph; Collared Inca; Speckled Hummingbird;  Gorgeted Sun Angel; White sided Flowerpiercer; Slate throated Whitestart; Smoke colored Peewee; Rusty margined Flycatcher; Smoky Bush Tyrant; Ocellated Tapaculo; Spillman's Tapaculo (heard only); Plate billed Mountain Toucan; Crimson Mantled Woodpecker; Streaked Tufted Cheek; Plushcap; Green and Black Fruiteater; Western Hemispingus; Flammulated Treehunter; Glossy Black Thrush; Metallic Green Tanager; Blue winged Mountain Tanager; Beryls Spangled Tanager; Grass Green Tanager; Dusky Bush Tanager; Blue capped Tanager; Brown capped Vireo; Blackburnian Warbler; Russet crowned Warbler; Three striped Warbler; Gray breasted Woodwren; Masked Trogon; Flavescent Flycatcher; Cinnamon Flycatcher (heard only); White necked Jacobin; Eared Dove; Plumbeous Dove; Speckle faced Parrot; Montane Woodreeper; Toucan Barbet (heard only); Streak necked Flycatcher; American Kestrel

Mammals seen

Red tailed Squirrel

Day 2

It was an early pre dawn start to make the half hour drive to Angel Paz's reserve. Angel and his brother Rodrigo have become world famous by turning their farm into a bird reserve and habituating antpittas to come to be fed worms, thus allowing birders, such as myself, to encounter relatively easily members of this usually retiring and difficult to see group of birds. Of course the antpittas are still wild birds and as such are unpredictable and occasionally it does not work out the way one has planned.This just adds to further the tension, anxiety and dare I say it, the excitement, knowing that you have but one chance, one morning, to achieve a lifetime's ambition.

Before looking for the antpittas it was to be a visit to the Andean Cock of the Rock lek at Angel's which required walking down to a covered blind looking out onto a group of trees in a riverine gorge, in which the male birds performed their lek. Gabo had called Angel the night before and been told that only about another four or five people would be coming this morning. It did not quite work out this way as a Birdquest Group also showed up along with others, so in the end there was a scrum of over twenty people in a restricted viewing area. 

Not my kind of birding.Too many birders!
I had seen these birds back in 2014 and also seen them much better and closer in Colombia two years ago so decided to take a back seat on this one and let the others fight it out amongst themselves.

Frankly the lek was hugely disappointing as there were only around five or six male birds and they were always distant and obscured to a larger or lesser extent by leaves and branches. If this was my first time I would have been less than happy. As it was I stood at the back of the crowd and watched the birds through my bins and left it at that and in the end Gabo and myself walked back to the road just to get away from the crowd, taking in an almost invisible roosting Rufous bellied Nighthawk on the way. We took a break by the 4x4 to have a snack and then drove further down the road and over a small stream to where the road became a muddy track 

We met Angel walking down the track towards us and he told us he was going to try and entice out some Dark backed Wood Quail from the steep vegetated bank on our left, after he had gone looking for a Lyre tailed Nightjar. He could not find the nightjar and on returning walked with us up the track until we came to what appeared to be a rocky and well vegetated narrow stream bed running down the steep hillside to  the left of the track. He walked into and up it a little way and dropped some bananas on a wet ledge.

Angel Paz standing in the stream bed where in a moment
my dreams came true as a Giant Antpitta appeared
I assumed that we would then have to wait but to my surprise three quail immediately rushed out of the thick cover to consume the bananas at Angel's feet. What a result with this normally very shy species and virtually instantaneous. 

Dark backed Wood Quail
A Tawny bellied Hermit added to the fun as it buzzed with audibly brrrring wings around some flowers. 

Tawny bellied Hermit
We had the quail to ourselves for a while but then the Birdquest crowd joined us and we all stood in a line on the track as Angel and the quail repeated their performance with the bananas.There was easily room for everyone on the track  so my worst fears were not realised but would the large number of people deter the antpittas later?

The crowd appreciating the Giant Antpittas.Well, almost all
of them!
The answer came fairly soon as, whilst watching the quails, a large bird, barred brown and with long  pipe cleaner legs and a sizeable bill hopped down into view along the stream bed, just behind the quail. Surely it could not be? But it was. A Giant Antpitta, right here, in broad daylight, before my very eyes. Unbelievable. Never having seen one and ever since regretting not seeing it four years ago I was predictably ecstatic, especially as Angel had told Gabo last night that an appearance by the Giant Antpitta was highly unpredictable and many birders had come away disappointed, so I was not to allow my hopes to rise too much.

Giant Antpitta
I was taken aback by just how large it really was. Yes I know the word Giant might be a giveaway but its size was still remarkable compared to all the various antpitta species I have seen previously. It hopped around grabbing chopped worms that Angel threw to it and then stood for a while as it came very close, to within just a few metres of us. This was certainly a bird with attitude, standing squarely on two long grey legs, regarding us with a large, dark, liquid eye and regularly flicking its wings outwards as if in impatience. The plumage was dark olive brown on the upperparts with a  grey crown and nape, whilst the sides of its head and entire underparts were orange rufous, prominently scalloped with dark brown. An absolute stunner.

Then, as if this was not enough another Giant Antpitta appeared. Two! The second bird was not as confident as the first individual and appeared to be a female as I saw it collecting leaves to use as nest material, so I assume they were a pair and various subsequent interactions between the two suggested this also. I could hardly believe it when three American birders decided they were bored with the Giant Antpittas and walked on up the track but the rest of us made the most of this almost unique opportunity. We remained here for a good half hour until the female gathered a large amount of nest material in her beak and she and the male flew strongly up the stream bed and out of view into the prolific green vegetation.

This was accepted by one and all as the final curtain on the Giant Antpitta's performance.

Who could ask for more but there was. Now we were instructed by Angel to drive along a very rough and steep track up to a ridge above his home.We gave a lift to a British couple who had to abandon their hire car as the track could only be navigated by 4x4 vehicles. Pinchincha, the volcanic mountain that dominates Quito, was for once not obscured by white cloud so we stopped briefly to take a photo of it. 

Pinchincha Volcano
Then it was slowly upwards and onwards to park at the top of the ridge with all the other cars and a bus carrying the Birdquest party, where Angel and Rodrigo were going to hopefully show us three more antpitta species: Chestnut crowned, Ochre breasted and Yellow breasted Antpittas.

This would be a severe test of Angel and Rodrigo's crowd management skills as the viewing areas were much more restricted than on the open track by the Giant Antpittas. but I need not have worried as they had obviously done this kind of thing many times before and basically it was arranged that the 'ladies' would sit on the ground on palm leaves, considerately plucked from nearby trees and provided by the brothers, while the 'gentlemen' stood behind, all of us looking down into a steep gully where the various antpittas would appear. It worked like a charm although there was a long and tense wait for the Chestnut crowned Antpitta, with Angel beseechingly calling the name he had given it, Andreeeita,  Andreeeita, Andreeeita until finally it deigned to appear and all was well. 

Chestnut crowned Antpitta
Next to be enticed out was the Ochre breasted Antpitta, the tiniest of them all, gently, almost imperceptibly it swayed its body, demonstrating how it acquired its nickname of 'Shakira', the Colombian pop singer who is noted for shaking her 'booty'! 

Ochre breasted Antpitta

Last but by no means least the almost endemic Yellow breasted Antpitta completed the set with a brief but welcome appearance.

Yellow breasted Antpitta
A finale of looking at a magnificent Plate billed Mountain Toucan flouncing about in the huge trees above us completed a memorable early morning of birding but there was still more to come.

Plate billed Mountain Toucan
It was now back to Angel's for a spot of breakfast but before we ate and after a banio (toilet) break we followed another small and precipitous track down the side of a gully to view yet another antpitta species - this time it was a rare Moustached Antpitta. Somehow twenty people managed to cram themselves in along the exceedingly narrow, slippery and steep track and, more to the point keep very quiet as this was the shyest of the antpittas, inhabiting the deepest, most shaded vegetation along the side of the gulley. It eventually appeared and performed very well and to everyone's satisfaction.

Moustached Antpitta
The worms Angel throws to the various antpittas are usually consumed by the birds on the spot but eventually the antpitta collects a number in its bill and hustles off into the dense foliage. It  is noticeable that they all do this and I think that such furtive, cover loving birds as these decide enough exposure is enough and take a beakfull of worms to consume under cover, where they feel more at ease. They often seem to be reluctant to return after doing this.

I confess to having a liking for antpittas. There is no equivalent in Europe. They are true forest dwellers, mainly inhabiting the dank, wet forest floor, skulking in the dead leaves and loam below the huge forest trees. Forever seeking sanctuary amongst the incredible botanic richness of the cloud forest floor. Their plumage is predominantly those of the colours of the ground, their long legs allowing them to hop freely amongst the rotting vegetation and fallen twigs and their large dark eyes to penetrate the green gloominess of the forest.They communicate by plaintive whistles or a sequence of simple notes that ring through the forest. Forever enigmatic and mysterious they are hard to see at best and can be incredibly frustrating to catch up with but therein lies the charm of them. 

The final flourish of the morning was a visit to a Toucan Barbet's nest in an old woodpecker nest hole where we watched the colourful adult birds coming to and fro, feeding their young. 

Toucan Barbet
It was then back to Angel's for coffee and a generous number of cheese and pineapple empinadas and a chat with our fellow birders whilst watching the 'hummers' visiting the feeders.

Breakfast al fresco at Angel's home

Angel's shop
We left Angel's and made a number of abortive stops on woodland trails trying to tape out an Ocellated Tapaculo but failed once more, although frustratingly we could hear them calling distantly. Slowly though, the cloud was infiltrating the forest once more, as it always seemed to do each afternoon and visibility and bird activity dropped dramatically

Plumbeous Pigeon
We left the forest and headed onwards to make a stop at San Tadeo, another newly opened hummingbird and tanager feeding garden where for $5.00 you can spend as long as you want watching the birds coming to eat bananas or the nectar put out for them.The owners even provide you with free tea and coffee.

San Tadeo Bird Gardens
We only had a little time to spare so saw only three of the commoner tanager species and a Crimson rumped Toucanet which scattered all the other birds on its arrival

Crimson rumped Toucanet 
Golden Tanager

Blue Gray Tanager

Lemon rumped Tanager-male
The hummingbird feeders were dominated by Velvet Purple Coronets, a noticeably aggressive hummingbird and singularly intolerant of any other hummingbird, chasing them off at incredible speeds through the bushes and trees

Velvet Purple Coronets
They are exceedingly beautiful, even by hummingbird standards and when the light catches their feathers at certain angles they gleam and fluoresce an incredible, almost metallic purple, blue and green, whilst at other times they can appear plain black.They also possess, along with the other coronet species of hummingbird, the attractive habit of holding out their wings for just a fraction too long after landing on a perch.

Reluctantly leaving San Tadeo we drove to a nearby town called Los Bancos to buy some wellingtons as some of the birding from now on would be in wet and muddy areas. 

The shop where we bought our wellington boots
A quick stop at a restaurant and a view of their banana feeders revealed various tanagers, a superb male Green Honeycreeper, a Black cheeked Woodpecker and a menacing looking Pale Mandibled Aracari, its pale eye somehow making it look the embodiment of evil. It was noticeable that when it landed on the feeders all the other birds fled.Watching it attack a whole banana with its formidable beak showed why the other birds gave it such a wide berth.

Green Honeycreeper

Silver throated Tanager
Orange bellied Euphonia
Black cheeked Woodpecker

Pale mandibled Aracari
Now we were due to head for Chontoloma near Mashpi where we were to stay the night at an ecological homestead owned by Arturo and his wife Paola, ably assisted by Flora, Paola's mother. On the road there we encountered a female Hook billed Kite eating a snail so stopped to watch and photograph it as often you do not get the opportunity.

Hook billed Kite-female
We turned off the tarmac road and onto a long unmade road of hardcore running by the Rio Mashpi leading to Mashpi.

This way to Mashpi
We arrived at the discrete gate to Chontoloma some kilometres along the unmade road and drove up a short steep incline to be greeted by Arturo, who is originally from Rome, studied biology at Plymouth University in England, married Paola who is Ecuadorian and now makes a living growing cacao and farming ecologically in Ecuador, along with three other adjoining farms either side of them. Quite a story. Their property is situated in a remote and beautiful river valley but like much of Ecuador the forest is forever threatened by logging companies and  cattle farming, but at least the four farms on this side of the river are now keeping the forest safe from any such threats.

Chontoloma- Arturo's and Paola's home
The contrast between the simple charms of Chontoloma and its ecological endeavours and the nearby hugely expensive Mashpi Lodge which also claims to be an Eco Lodge, in attitudes to the natural world and its future  could not be more striking. I quote the following from Mashpi Lodge's prospectus ........... Mashpi Lodge is designed to completely immerse you in the cloud forest while keeping its creatures safely at bay.................. For £400.00 a night I would expect antpittas sitting on the bedpost every night at the very least but I doubt they would be allowed in.

Arturo and Paola were charming hosts and showed us to a newly built and furnished guest house situated a short walk away from their house where we settled ourselves in. Then it was back by torchlight, assisted by numerous fireflies, for a superb meal 
cooked by Flora on the verandah of Arturo's house, a subsequent long talk about the way of the world and finally bed and blessed sleep after what had been quite a day. The frog chorus was particularly impressive and as ever the sound of rushing water over the stony bed of the Rio Mashpi helped me on the way to dreamland.

A nice touch in my room
Tomorrow if I am honest was the main reason for coming back to Ecuador. The Rufous Crowned Antpitta. Tomorrow would be the ultimate gamble after four years of hoping and anticipating.It was my one and only chance to see it and I was tingling with anticipation and no little anxiety. Would it be there or would I fail to see it. Tomorrow it would be decided once and for all.

To be continued ............

Birds seen on Day 2

Rufous bellied Nighthawk; Cattle Egret; Andean Cock of the Rock; Dark backed Wood Quail;Giant Antpitta; Chestnut headed Antpitta; Yellow breasted Antpitta; Ochre breasted Antpitta; Moustached Antpitta; Toucan Barbet; Golden Tanager; Yellow naped Tanager; Silver throated Tanager; Dusky Bush Tanager; Blue winged Mountain Tanager; Palm Tanager; Lemon rumped Tanager; Blue and Gray Tanager; Orange bellied Euphonia; Thick billed Euphonia;  Tawny bellied Hermit; Violet tailed Sylph; Brown Inca; Velvet Purple Coronet; Andean Emerald; Empress Brilliant; Booted Racket Tail; Rufous tailed Hummingbird; Speckled Hummingbird; Hook billed Kite; Broad winged Hawk; Black Vulture; Turkey Vulture; Roadside Hawk;  Pale Mandibled Aracari; Crimson rumped Toucanet; Tropical Kingbird; Bananaquit; Southern Rough winged Swallow;White thighed Swallow; Grey breasted Wood Wren; House Wren; Spotted Sandpiper; Black Phoebe; White capped Dipper;Masked Trogon; Plate billed Mountain Toucan; Black billed Mountain Toucan; White collared Swift; Chestnut collared Swift; Rufous crowned Sparrow; Green Honeycreeper; Plumbeous Pigeon; Ocellated Tapaculo (heard only); Narina Tapaculo; Pacific Hornero; Social Flycatcher; Scrub Blackbird;  Slate throated Whitestart ; Great Tinamou;  Ecuadorian Thrush; Black winged Saltator; Great Thrush; Yellow bellied Seedeater; Blue black Grassquit; Bronze winged Parrot;  Broad winged Hawk; Smooth billed Ani; Black cheeked Woodpecker; Scarlet backed Woodpecker; Flammulated Treehunter; Golden headed Quetzal (heard only);White winged Brush Finch.


  1. Great read, wetting my appetite for February 19. Look forward to next instalment

    1. Many thanks Trevor.
      If you need any contacts or advice happy to help

  2. Ace!!! Hope you've nearly finished the next episode! :oD

    1. Hi Moth
      Dying of a head cold caught in the unnatural environment of the airplane no doubt. Amazing trip.Will be in touch soon

  3. Sorry to hear that! Oh well, plenty of time for blogging! Looking forward to our next (perhaps less exciting than Ecuador) trip, but wait 'til you're deeling better! x

  4. "deeling"???? Meant "feeling", obviously! x

  5. Hi Ewan, I am planning a trip to Ecuador and like you am going alone, can I pick your brains on a few things, particularly your guide. Would you mind PM'ing me on
    Cheers Simon

    1. Hi Simon
      Happy to help in anyway.Give me a couple of days and I will get in touch
      Best Wishes