Thursday, August 13, 2015

Something about hummingbirds

I left Quito rather late, but then just in time to make it to a small town called Nono. The sun had already set when I pulled up to what seemed to be the only store in sight, opposite a small police station. I had just come to a halt when two people approached to greet me. They were Franco and Nico, two Argentinian touring cyclists who had arrived a few hours earlier, and were just chilling outside the local grocery store. We had lots to talk about, and one of the first things that surfaced was where to find a resting place for the night. Over there, in the little house, came the reply. They had permission from a police officer to set up camp inside an old disused information centre. There seemed to be no other option, so I was happy to take a look. The only way in was through the window! There was no place to hang a hammock in the rundown building, while most of the floor space was already consumed by the large tent they had pitched inside it. No problem, if you can’t beat them, join them! And so I was invited to share the tent for the night. That night it rained, and so did the roof. Franco moved quickly to get the flysheet over the tent, which saved us from the worst that the downpour had to offer.   

With Nico and Franco before our departure from Nono, in front of the info centre.

The way to Tandayapa, nicely sign-posted on the way out from Nono.

We did not escape the water invasion altogether, so the next morning a few items had to be hung from the neighbouring volleyball net to dry in the sun. While things dried, Franco and Nico prepared a tasty breakfast soup with pasta and veggies. After breakfast we were ready to leave; they were heading for Quito while I was treading into birder’s paradise. I took the downhill through a spectacular valley that would take me to my first birding site, Tandayapa. Along the way I spotted a number of firsts, such as Cinereous Conebill, Collared Inca (an obvious hummingbird), White-winged Brush-finch, Spectacled Whitestart, Rufous-naped Brush-finch, and best of all, a small flock of Red-crested Cotinga. Lower down into the valley there would be Smoke-coloured Pewee, Golden-bellied Grosbeak, Turquoise Jay, Russet-crowned Warbler, and my first glimpse of an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. Male birds seemed to be plentiful; I had seen them flying towards the lek while approaching from a distance, one bird, two birds, three, four and so on. Though I could never get a glimpse of the actual lek, male birds where regularly flying back and forth, with their shrill calls echoing across the valley. 

Not much to see but fog at this lookout - bad timing!
Heading down the valley towards Tandayapa.

Another view down the valley.

I continued down along the length of the valley until it intercepted the Tandayapa Valley. Here I stopped at a small bridge over a stream to see if I would get lucky with a White-capped Dipper. Nothing doing. So I turned towards Nanegalito, where I would get additional supplies to prolong my stay in the Tandayapa Valley. Lemon-rumped Tanager and Golden-crowned Flycatcher showed well, both common birds that I was only seeing now for the first time. Before reaching Nanegalito, I stopped over at a guest house called Alambi for a totally new experience. Despite having spent several months in Latin America, I had not yet visited a hummingbird garden, let alone laid my eyes on a hummingbird feeder. This was my first opportunity to see hummingbirds drawn to a garden, and was surely not going to miss it. What I saw left me buzzing for a quite a while – the sound of dozens of hovering hummingbirds filled the small garden, darting back and forth between feeders, even flying right at me to see if I had something to offer. It was a sight to behold!

The village of Tandayapa consists of perhaps ten houses, here you can see three!

Hummingbird feeders getting a refill at Alambi.
An Andean Emerald, a rather common hummingbird species.

A Green-crowned Woodnymph, another fairly abundant species.

While ticking off hummingbirds attracted to feeders is perhaps not the most magical way to see lifers, it is still a magical experience being surrounded by these flying jewels. And I did tick them off, many. The most abundant species included Andean Emerald, White-necked Jacobin, Green-fronted Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, Green-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Booted Rackettail. Species that required a little more searching effort amongst the dozens of birds were Brown Violetear, White-whiskered Hermit, and the diminutive Western Emerald. Tawny-bellied Hermit was perhaps the rarest, only making a fleeting appearance once in a while. With the additional Silver-throated Tanager, Ornate Flycatcher, Red-faced Spinetail, Tricolored Brush-finch and Ecuadorian Thrush, I walked away with seventeen lifers. 

The White-necked Jacobin is unmistakable with its white belly and neck.

After stocking up with food supplies in Nanegalito, I was heading back to Tandayapa to take on the ascent to Bellavista. Bellavista, which means ‘beautiful view’, is a lodge perched near the top of a ridge overlooking the cloud forest of the Tandayapa Valley. It’s a breath-taking view indeed, especially at sunrise and sunset when the angled rays of the sun set the tree tops along the ridges on fire, while casting gloomy shadows in the lowest parts of the valley. It is a mystical and beautiful scene. I could not help but be reminded of the views from Panoenthung camp in the Kaeng Krachan National Park, southwestern Thailand.

A Red-tailed Squirrel feasting on plantain put out for the birds.

On the way up to Bellavista, I searched for a campsite beside the road to make a dusk and dawn visit to a nearby quarry. The quarry is reputed to host a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar that shows itself rather well in the twilight hours. To be brief, I missed it. But not to worry, there were some other sites known to be frequented by the species, so I would have a second chance. After the sunrise it turned out to be a rather unusually sunny day, with the temperature rising as I ascended the contours. The intense sun made for poor birding, and so with the birds taking shelter from the rays, I was left to plod along breaking into a sweat. I had hoped for a lengthy bird list for the morning but it was not to be. As someone told me, birding in the Neotropics is either a feast or famine – everything or nothing! By midday I had a turn of events. According to my birding map, I had reached the owners residence of Pacha Quindi Nature Refuge, also known as Tony’s hummingbird garden. Tony and Barbara are the owners of this refuge, and have achieved miraculous results in rehabilitating patches of cleared forest. It has taken them years to restore 30 hectares of denuded pastures to their former glory. This was clearly the work of dedicated conservationists, and so I was happy to stay a while and see what else they had been up to.

A Russet-crowned Warbler, a very common but attractive forest warbler.

But first, back to the hummingbirds! With twenty hummingbird feeders rigged in the garden, there was a lot to see. Feeders were well-spaced, with some in the open, some hanging from branches, and others tucked away inside garden scrub. The species assemblage was somewhat different here than lower down the valley at Alambi, but with some overlap of species. The most abundant were Buff-tailed Coronet and Speckled Hummingbird, both new to me, as well as Andean Emerald and Purple-throated Woodstar. A host of other species were also about, including Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Green Violetear, Brown Inca, Violet-tailed Sylph, Wedge-billed Hummingbird and White-tailed Hillstar. All were lifers for me. The latter was surely only one bird, as it would visit the same feeder at regular but precisely timed intervals. I spent several hours here photographing, and still had not had enough by the time the sun started to settle. Seriously intrigued, I decided that I had to stay a little longer to explore the rest of Pacha Quindi. It would turn out that the refuge has a splendid network of walking trails through secondary and mature forest. I just had to take a walk to go see for myself… 

A male Booted Rackettail, with it characteristic club-ended tail-streamers.

The female Booted Rackettail has less to show off.

The buff-tailed Coronet has buff on the tail and underwings. Sexes are alike.

While it may be drabber than others, the Brown Inca is impressive!

The Fawn-breasted Brilliant, one of the larger species.

The male Purple-bibbed Whitetip showing the white-ended tail feathers.

The male Violet-tailed Sylph has a splendid tail!

Female Violet-tailed Sylphs are the most attractive female hummingbirds I've seen.

A Green Violetear, often heard throughout the forest but rather shy at feeders.

Notes for birders:

As mentioned in the previous post, the best source for details on birding sites in Ecuador, that I could find, is at Where to find birds in Ecuador (Chapter 2). The maps are hand-drawn but accurate enough that you should have no trouble in finding the sites mentioned, such as the Cock-of-the-rock lek site, the Tandayapa bridge, and the nightjar quarry etc. I printed out the maps of the sites I was interested in visiting, together with a condensed version of the text, and found this adequate for getting around.  Go for it!

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