Monday, September 14, 2015

Reaching the furthest point

I was getting to the end of my cycle travels and the thought of it had not yet dawned on me. Who would have guessed that the furthest town I would reach would be called Los Bancos in Ecuador – I, for one, did not see that coming. 

After visiting Bellavista for cloud forest birding, I headed downhill to Milpe Bird Sanctuary some 30 km away and around 1 km lower in elevation. It was a pleasant ride with a few Black-chinned Mountain-tanagers thrown in for good measure. On the way I also passed the turn-off to Mindo town, way down in the valley; I would pop in here for a visit on my return. For now I was not too keen to make that steep descent! 

Some leaves that have seen better days.
At just over 1000 metres above sea level, Milpe Bird Sanctuary offers a different selection of birds than that higher up in the cloud forest. It also seemed to rain a little more too! Soon after arriving in the afternoon I was greeted with a nice downpour that lasted hours. Next morning I was up early to see what I could find. But before I could get myself out of the hammock, a very vocal bird was making its way past me. It kept close to the ground, and seemed to move rather quickly as the call faded back into the surrounding thickets. Still too dark to see what it was, I would later discover that it was a Riverbank Warbler. Its call worked like an alarm clock, so there was no need to set my own for the few days I stayed at Milpe. 

The guest area at Milpe Bird Sanctuary, where I had my hammock strung up.

In the twilight that followed, a large bird swooped in to feed on the left overs at the banana feeder. I could just make it out – a Rufous Motmot! A rather attractive bird with rufous underparts and a black facial mask. As the light improved, I could make out the hummingbirds coming in for their first morning drink at the feeders. Green Thorntail was a new one for me amongst the familiar species such as Green-crowned Brilliant, Green-crowned Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and White-necked Jacobin. A White-whiskered Hermit was not too far off and would occasionally be seen sailing in for a drink. Pale-vented thrush could be spotted with patience, when staring up at the canopies of the tall trees towering over the banana feeder. After the motmot, the Choco Toucans came in to feed on the fresh bananas just put out. The bright yellow on the bill and chest of this species gives it an almost bizarre look. A very nice (and easy!) bird to see indeed. 

The Rufous Motmot is a striking bird!

A female Green Thorntail. Males have longer tails.

A Rufous-tailed Hummingbird coming in for a drink at the feeders.

White-whiskered Hermits only occasionally come for a drink at the feeders.

The yellow of the Choco Toucan makes it look like something out of a candy packet!

Time to take a walk, I decided to take the ‘Manakin Trail’ hoping to see a manakin of course! Too bad that the tree in which the Club-winged Manakins had their main lek come crashing down during a recent storm. Oh well, just look elsewhere I figured. Once the trail started dropping into the river gorge, I got my first, a male Golden-winged Manakin. It was using a log near the ground from which to launch its complex-looking display. I was impressed by the show, and for his sake, I hope any female manakins watching also appreciated the effort he was putting in! More lifers quickly followed in rapid succesion with Dusky-faced Tanager, Golden-bellied Warbler, Scaly-throated Foliagegleaner, Yellow-throated Bush-tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and finally, a Club-winged Manakin. I could have wished for better views of the later, but I was still satisfied.

A Spotted Woodcreeper working its way up a branch.
Orange-billed Sparrow where commonly seen around the banana feeders.
Next day I decided to take the ‘Trogon Trail’, maybe I’ll get a trogon along this one! I got more, but not a bird. A significant mammal lifer. I had just spotted a pair of Immaculate Antbirds, and was still trying to figure out the Esmeralda’s Antbird, when it leaped out of the thicket beside the path. It moved rather elgantly over the fallen forest logs before stopping and turning its head to take a look at the one who had disturbed it. It was looking at a birder and I was looking at an Ocelot! The spotted cat snarled at me, then turned and disappeared into the thickets. The sighting reminded me of the Leopard I flushed in much the same way in another forest, years ago back home in South Africa. It was the same feeling of awe; always a privelige to see an elusive cat in its natural habitat. Heart still pounding with excitement, I turned to pay attention to the antbirds before they too disappeared, before moving on. The Ocelot was for sure not going to show itself again! 

An Immaculate Antbird. Relatively easy to see at Milpe - I saw it twice.
The trail joined up with the Manakin Trail I had taken the day before, so I passed through some familiar terrain. Lots of familiar birds too, but also some new ones like Broad-billed Motmot (similar to Rufous Motmot), Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Collared Trogon, and a pair of Dark-backed Wood-quail. I had particularly good views of the wood-quails, albeit brief, as they stood frozen in the path before dashing off back into cover. While these trails that dropped down into the river valley were productive in terms of birds, I also enjoyed the trail leading to the Milpe Gardens (about 1 km further down the road from Milpe Bird Sanctuary). Though one can hear and see chickens along the trail (I’m serious, there’s a chicken farm across the road!), it’s a more level trail making for easy walking and birding. I bumped into a few bird groups along the way, containing tanagers such as Fawn-breasted, Rufous-throated, Grey-and-gold, and Swallow Tanager, amongst the usuals such as White-lined, Lemon-rumped, White-shouldered, Golden and Palm Tanager. Blue-tailed Trogon (also known as the Choco Trogon) showed well, as did the impressive Guayaquil Woodpecker, and the raucous Bronze-winged Parrot. 

The impressive Guayaquil Woodpecker at Milpe.
The small botanical garden opposite the entrance to Milpe was a pleasant spot to take a break from birding in the reserve, somewhere to escape for some more birding! Here I got White-thighed Swallow, Bay Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Choco Tyrannulet, Buff-fronted Foliagegleaner, but missed the Slaty Spinetail skulking through the hedge rows. Perhaps the most exciting discovery were the Bumblebee Moths flying about the abundant flowers. They really do like like large bees and almost behave like them too. 
Bumblebee Moths feed on nectar mainly during the day.
While staying at Milpe I decided to head to Los Bancos to get food supplies. Los Bancos was just 5 km down the road, and the ride there delivered Scrub Blackbird, Variable Seedeater and a pair of the strikingly pied-coloured Masked Water-tyrant. I stopped over at the Rio Blanco Hotel in town to take a look at their hummingbird feeders (no new species for me) and to admire the spectacular view over the river valley. Swallow-tailed Kites flew by gracefully, making me wish I could fly myself. It was another one of those mesmerising scenes.

View over the Rio Blanco from the Rio Blanco Hotel in Los Bancos.

Ever better views from this platform!

At the time I did not realize it, but I had reached the furthest point on my cycle journey. It was in Los Bancos that I turned around to head back towards Mindo, for a little more birding, before returning to Quito. My travels were edging towards a rapid end, for now…

Notes for birders:

As mentioned before, you can´t go wrong checking out ´Where to find birds in Ecuador´ if you are planning on visiting the country. The chapter on Milpe Bird Sanctuary was most useful for me. I did not go to the Milpe Gardens about 1 km further down the road, but it seems like it it worth visiting - good spot for Indigo-crowned Quail-dove and other forest birds.

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