Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Forest birding at its finest

The hummingbird garden at Pacha Quindi Nature Refuge is a truly marvelous spot for observing and photographing hummers. There are simply endless options for getting the best photographs possible, given the time of course! After filling my camera’s memory cards with countless blurry hummingbird photos, I turned my full attention to the other bird life in the garden and beyond. From the garden there are stunning views of the surrounding cloud forest and the Tandayapa Valley. It is one of those views that leaves you yearning to explore more. Especially when there is a Crimson-rumped Toucanet blocking some of the view! And if that’s not enough, just looking up into the sky when the sun’s out one has a fair chance of spotting a soaring Black–and-chestnut Eagle or a flock of Spot-fronted Swifts. I saw swifts, but never got to identify them, but Tony assured me that Spot-fronted’s were regular. From the garden it is also possible to hear the call of a White-faced Nunbird, a speciality for the area. Its even been recorded in the garden on occasion, but I was not going to get that lucky just yet.    

A Crimson-rumped Toucanet in the garden at Pacha Quindi Nature Refuge.

White-winged Brush-finch is another common garden bird!

View over the Tandayapa Valley from Pacha Quindi Nature Refuge.

It turns out Pacha Quindi has a rather well-designed system of forest trails. The best part is that the trails follow the contours for most of the way, making it easy to focus on birding rather than watching your next step! A walk with Tony on the forest trails delivered a few new species for me. The first bird was just around the corner from the garden and at the start of one of the forest trails. Pretending to be the extention of the dead branch it was perched on, sat a Common Potoo. Tony pointed it out to me but it did no good – it took a while before I was able to see what he was pointing at! While it may look like a branch by day, this nocturnal species sallies for prey from the same vantage points at night. See if you can spot it in the photo below (I am sure you will!).

A Common Potoo pretending to be a branch.

Further into the forest, a splendid Golden-headed Quetzal showed itself briefly. Larger than their trogon relatives, quetzals are striking birds indeed, with iridescent green upperparts and contrasting bright red bellies. Still further on, we had Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Beryl-spangled Tanager and Flavescent Flycatcher. Among these common species, Tony picked up on the thrush-like call of an Andean Solitaire. Hearing it is easy and pleasant on the ear, but seeing it is another story. Needless to say, I did not see it! But the best was yet to come… It was on our return that we saw it. 

The dim light obscured the details as it stood motionless in the path; it knew it had been seen. It stood still only for a few seconds, before it bounded down the path and around the next corner, and out of sight. Scurrying towards the next bend in the trail as stealthy as I could on quivering legs, I hoped the bird would show again, just for a few seconds more. Heart pounding, I could hear myself breathe – living in the moment, but with a deep desire! I had just seen my first Giant Antpitta! It pulled another enormous earthworm from the ground, before it flew off the path and out of sight for good. What a bird! And what a memory! I can see why birders fall for antpittas, they are perhaps the most enigmatic birds of the forest. Often heard, rarely seen, and what a sight to behold! The size of the Giant Antpitta in particular, is impressive.

Further exploration of the trails over the next couple days produced Sickle-winged Guan, Golden Tanager, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Uniform Antwren, and Green-and-black Fruiteater, amongst others. I had not yet had enough when it was time to leave, but then I was sure I would be back… And so I headed on towards my original destination on the ridge, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. It was only two kilometres further by road, along a steeply-ascending gravel track that snaked its way through endless forest.  

The entrance to Bellavista. A good place to bird in the early mornings!
The view of the Tandayapa Valley from Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve.

Staying at the lodge in the reserve was out of my budget, but fortunately not the camping. It was a better spot anyway, perched above the main lodge with more extensive views of the valley below and additional solitude! The birding was good too. First thing in the mornings, just before sunrise, I would stroll the area between the entrance and the reception area, where the early bird catches the worm. During the night the pathway lights would attract insects, which in turn would draw the birds at dawn. Grey-breasted Wood-wren, Turquoise Jay, Azara’s Spinetail, Russet-crowned Warbler, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, and Great Thrush all flitted about in search of any bugs that had not yet taken cover. 

Camping at Bellavista. I had it all to myself!

The restaurant dome at Bellavista. Good birding all around it.

Walking further around the lodge buildings, there would be other birds to marvel at at close-range, including Masked Trogon, Montane Treecreeper, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Red-billed Parrot, Three-striped Warbler, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Capped Conebill, and Chestnut-capped Brush-finch, to name a few. There was no shortage of tanagers, which preferred foraging in the canopies of the tallest trees. I had neck-wrenching views of Flame-faced, Golden-naped, Black-capped, and Golden, amongst some others I’m sure. Occasionally I was lucky to spot the local Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, even hopping on the road leading to the lodge! Its one of the more venturous antpitta species, but easily spooked back into the forest if it knows its been detected by a dribbling birder.  

Masked Trogon can be easily seen around the lodge at Bellavista.

The true bird prizes I was after showed well, and turned out to be rather common, namely Toucan Barbet and Plate-billed Mountain-toucan. I had good views of these in the mornings and occasionally during the day, but few good photographic opportunities. There would always be another time, I kept telling myself!  

Between walking the lodge grounds, the trails and along the main road, it was aways a pleasure to take a break right in front of the hummingbird feeders. While not as impressive as at Pacha Quindi, there was still a couple of interesting hummingbird species buzzing about. While Buff-tailed Coronet was the most abundant, two new species were present which I had not seen anywhere else – Gorgeted Sunangel and the diminutive White-bellied Woodstar.

Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, a much sought-after species, easily seen at Bellavista.

And the same goes for the Toucan Barbet.

Typical foggy moods around Bellavista.

More of the same fog.

The area around my campsite was also productive, and delivered a few more lifers for me, including Stripped Treehunter, Plain-tailed Wren, and an all-dark Collared Forest-falcon. Walks along the road towards Mindo (more on that one later), would ensure Rufous Spinetail, Plushcap, Yellow-bellied Chat-tyrant, Hooded Mountain-tanager and best of all, Tanager Finch. A pair of these striking rufous and black birds was foraging within the roadside bracken, appearing and disappearing at intervals as they hopped through the undergrowth. They eventually disappeared for good, and I was not able to relocate them. But I was still very pleased with the views, albeit without a photographic record.

A mammal highlight at Bellavista came in the form of a newly described species, the strictly arboreal Olinguito. At just before 7 pm, an individual could be seen at the banana feeding station at the lodge. Shy and unobtrusive, you could be forgiven for missing it during its brief visit to snatch a banana and disappear beyond the reach of the spot-light. You could also be forgiven for confusing it with the more common Kinkajou, another arboreal mammal, but with a prehensile tail. These were not the only mammals to visit the bananas, there was also a Tayra. This weasel-like species made a nice appearance one morning with frequent visits to sample one banana at a time. So besides the good birds, I also bagged three mammals lifers in one go! 

The Tayra crossing a branch; please don't ask why I did not use the telephoto lens!

I was still seeing new birds daily when I packed up camp for the next birding destination. I was leaving one great birding spot for another, so no tears shed! It was also downhill from Bellavista, making the departure a whole lot easier.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Tania. It certainly is awesome! Worth a second visit! Best, Eric

  2. Thanks for the FANTASTIC post! This information is really good and thanks a ton for sharing it :-) I m looking forward desperately for the next post of yours..
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    1. Hi Barney. Many thanks for the interest! Glad you enjoy the blog. Its coming to an end but please stay tuned for whatever else i come up with!