Thursday, December 31, 2015

It’s not goodbye, not just yet…

Dear CWB readers

I trust everyone is enjoying the festive season. I know I have, hence this late posting! I must apologise for the silence, but hope to pick things up once the new year kicks in. As indicated by my last posting, a distant memory by now (!), I have pretty much reached the end of my worldly travels. I am back in South Africa experiencing the scorching mid-summer sun of the West Coast. But that does not stop me from spending precious time outdoors. While there are no plans to head out to any far-flung birding locations anytime soon, I do hope to get back on the saddle to explore the Western Cape’s bird life. 

I thought of writing a post to conclude the past three years of traveling, but I decided to rather just continue with posts as if nothing has changed. Besides, my species list for the duration of my travels was so dismal I’d rather not mention it here! There are no achievements to report on, and it was never my intention to reach any either. It was just about getting on the bike, see the world and do some birding along the way. What I would say is that the greatest gift I experienced was meeting with so many amazing people from different cultures. I am grateful for the warm welcomes I received from everyone I was blessed to cross paths with. A very big thanks to everyone! 

Before I get carried off and do exactly what I said I was not going to do on this blog, I would just like to thank all you readers for the support and interest shown in this blog. I hope to keep you reading for a while longer! The show ain’t over until…the eagle has landed!

I wish you all a prosperous 2016!

Best regards

I still need to give an explanation...sometime in the future I hope.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Final days in Mindo

I had promised myself that I would pay Mindo a visit on the way back to Quito. So there I was, at the turnoff to Mindo, standing beside the largest cock-of-the-rock I had ever seen. It looked rather hideous but then who am I to judge something that I could not even create myself. After contorting my body in many different ways to get a photograph of the bird without any distracting sign posts in the background, I was on my merry way downhill. Downhill to Mindo without having to stroke a pedal. Real bliss, but knowing full well that returning along this road, the only road, will not be so much fun.

Turning off to the right to get to Mindo.

The cock-of-the-rock over-looking the turnoff to Mindo.
Mindo is a rather touristy town. Its small, but has more travel agencies than bakeries. I stocked up on some supplies before finding a cheap hostel for the night. The next day I would take a road that hugs the Mindo River, towards a place called Mindo Garden (a guest house of sorts). So I was up early, eager to see some new species – I had heard a lot about Mindo, so was expecting nothing less than the best in birding. On the edge of town I saw my first Black-striped Sparrow and then the very vocal and very present Pale-legged Hornero – a pair was strutting across a four-way intersection as if they owned it. Further on the road did not reveal much in terms of unique bird habitat, as most of what I saw was secondary growth. There was an abundance of the usual species such as Lemon-rumped Tanager, Tropical Kingbird, Smooth-billed Ani, Bananaquit, and Yellow-bellied Seedeater among others. It was not until just before Mindo Garden, near the end of the road, that things started to look better. A patch of secondary forest revealed a handful of lifers, and some nice ones too – White-winged Tanager, Guira Tanager, and Yellow Tyrannulet. The canopies of the trees were alive with a large mixed flock of birds, including Brown-capped Vireo, White-shouldered Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, and Tropical Parula. There were others too which I am sure I missed – too much all at once. 

The main road leading into Mindo.
A locked gate on the bridge crossing the river signaled the end of the road for me. From here it was possible to get some views up and downstream of the Mindo River, with hopes of seeing White-capped Dipper and Torrent Duck. Having seen the former before, I was still happy to see it again, but it was the duck that eluded me. And it would not be the first time. While watching a Black Phoebe perched on a rock beside the river, a Green-fronted Lancebill flew in to perch on a rope drooping across the waters. It spent quite some time there, making short sallies for what I suspect were minute airborne insects. Sneaking into the garden at the guest house (the gate was wide open), I got views of Slaty-crowned Flycatcher, Slate-throated Whitestart, Three-striped Warbler, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Cinnamon Becard and Buff-fronted Foliagegleaner.

A Green-fronted Lancebill; that bill is unmistakable!

Time to move on, I turned back towards Mindo. Instead of returning to the town I took a turn to the left before crossing a small bridge straddling the river. From here it was uphill again. Too make the ride more entertaining, it started to rain, drizzling at first before becoming a drenching and steady downpour. I was not keen to get soaked, as I was hoping to find a spot to camp somewhere along the road. While taking cover from the rain under a meager roof top beside the road, I had a glimpse of a parrot lifer through the blurry streaks of rain. A pair of Rosy-faced Parrots moving rather sluggishly through the branches in search of fruit. Fruit that I would eaten too if I could have got my hands on them, as I was rather hungry myself by this time. The sighting of the parrots had lifted my spirits, and so I was ready to tread on after the first break in the clouds. I arrived at a small cable-way station, used for ferrying tourists across the wide forested valley. This is also where a short walk to the Nambillo Waterfall finds its beginning. No one was about, and not surprisingly as it was late afternoon by now. I cooked dinner on one of the small tables in the open building, before hanging my hammock between the foundation pillars below. Sweet, I was ready for the night, and surrounded by what seemed to be good forest. But I would have to wait till morning to see what birds lurked in this neck of the woods.

The cable-way house; I found a dry camping spot below it.

The cable car starting its voyage across the valley.
I was up, packed and ready long before I figured the first people would arrive to glide across the valley in the dainty cable car. Besides, no one needed to know I had spent the night there; I prefer being discrete. I continued with the road until I was sure that it was making a descent. Though I had passed through some excellent forest, I was not keen on having to make the return a slog. From my map, I knew the road would end soon anyway, making a return along the same road inevitable. Despite the seemingly good habitat, the birds were coming in at a slow pace, with no new lifers other than Olivaceous Piculet. Some interesting ones were Red-headed Barbet, Red-billed Parrot, Choco Toucan, Swallow-tailed Kite, Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Tri-coloured Brushfinch and Squirrel Cuckoo. Slaty Spinetail managed to stay well out of sight, despite getting a good earful of its characteristic call from the roadside thickets. Another heard-but-not-seen bird was a displaying Club-winged Manakin. It somehow managed to keep a fair amount of foliage between itself and my prying eyes. I missed my most sought-after bird, which is said to be found along the road. So I would have to wait for another chance to see the elusive Scaled Fruiteater.

Canopy adventures are popular around Mindo.
A quaint house on the outskirts of Mindo.

Back in Mindo I was greeted by a Masked Water-tyrant taking a bath in a pool of rain water in the road. It seemed to be enjoying the refreshing splash-about. Blue-black Grassquit and Variable Seedeater occupied the tall grasses on an empty plot while a pair of Bran-coloured Flycatchers was perched nearby. 
A Masked Water-tyrant giving a show in the middle of the road.

Almost as drab as its name, the Bran-coloured Flycatcher deserves more credit.

Variable Seedeaters are common where ever there is tall grass.
After a little birding I wasted no time in leaving Mindo for one last road to explore, the one that leads southwards to Cinto and Lloa. I had one night left in the area and I was going to spend the early part of the evening looking for a crepuscular bird, one I had just a fleeting view of some months earlier in Colombia. I had a stake-out, a small roadside quarry. So after off-loading the bike and setting up my hammock beside a rushing river, I headed back along the road to the excavation site. And just in time. After arriving at the quarry all seemed still, deserted. But then, in the beam of my flashlight, an elegant male Lyre-tailed Nightjar glided silently passed the rocky wall of the quarry. The tail really does seem rather a little too long! There was also a female bird, and the two took turns in flying back and forth across the quarry in search of prey. Not wanting to disturb the birds, I did not stay long before returning to my campsite by the riverside. 
No Torrent Ducks here!

Nothing duck-like seen this side either.

The sun rose to find me searching in vain for Torrent Duck from a nearby bridge, which had good views over the river. The duck would just have to wait until I eventually find it someday, somewhere else. For my efforts I was rewarded with a brief view of two Little Cuckoos in an aerial pursuit, followed by my first Yellow-billed Casique. The casique was quietly foraging in a dense bamboo stand beside the road; a rather unobtrusive bird. After passing through Mindo I climbed the ascent to the main road that would take me back to Quito. After a few kilometers on the main road, I opted to take the longer but safer back road to Quito, via Bellavista, Tandayapa and Nono. I also passed the 30 000 km mark on my bicycle’s trip computer – I had started my travels in Norway on 2 977 km, so I could now account for 27 023 km on my travels. It would not get much more than that, the next day the trip computer got wet (once too many) and stopped working for good!

Taking the safer eco-route back to Quito - virtually no traffic and great scenery.
'Bumpy and steep' are synonymous with the eco-route.

My battered trip computer did not last much longer after 30 000 km.

Highland hills on the way to Quito.
And so I passed Nono yet again, and slept in the same small building I shared with two Argentinian cyclists three weeks earlier. The atmosphere was not as lively this time, but at least I could enjoy a dry night under the perforated roof. At daybreak, while loading my bike for the last time (sigh), I noted that a pair of Brown-bellied Swallows had a nest with hungry offspring under the roof. So I was not alone afterall. As I ambled up the final climb some usual highland species showed themselves, Yellow-breasted Brushfinch, Great Thrush, Spectacled Whitestart, Buff-breasted Mountain-tanager and the ever-present Rufous-collared Sparrow. After some 10 kilometers, the gradient turned in my favour and so I was well on my way to Quito. I could not help but wonder if this was truly the end, the end of my travels. I guess time will tell…   

A view over northern sprawling Quito.

 Someone in need of a haircut!

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.

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.

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!