This is the teaser trip. The trip before the trip. If this was a meal, this is the appetizer that is somehow supposed to make you hungrier for the main course. That main course? Well, that will be covered in the next couple of posts.
I did not really need a appetizer to make me want to bird here more. Mainland Ecuador is right about the size of Colorado, but it packs in a whopping 1600+ species of birds. It is not super-rich in endemics; unless you lump in the birds from Galapagos (spoiler, the Galapagos is the main course of this trip). While it does not have a large number of true endemics, it does share a lot of regional endemics with Colombia.
The trip to Ecuador was pretty easy for us. It is a short flight to Atlanta and only 4.5 hours from Atlanta to Quito. Quito sits at around 9,000 feet; sticking with Colorado references, that is about 1,000 feet shy from being twice as high as Denver. Coming from sea level, that is quite a change. For our first full day in Ecuador, we would only be going higher.
My day started around 5:00 AM, when I went downstairs to meet the group. Jon Atwood was the trip leader, and Xavier was our local guide. Also attending the pre-trip were: Polly, John, Robin, Dottie, Jill, and Sheryl. We piled in a van and started the trip up to Laguana de Mica. It is about an hour and a half to get up to Laguna, if you drive straight through. We made a number of stops along the way.
Our very first stop was at a rock quarry. Here, we could hear calling Tawny and Undulated Antpitta. Small hummingbirds zipped past, but we never got a look at a perched bird. We piled back in the van and moved up the road a little further. Here, we had better luck. We walked along the road for a little while and had good looks at several birds. Along one side of the road was a ravine that funneled down to a pond. On the other side, we had steep hillside. Spectacled Redstart was the star in this area. A pair of birds perched in the bushes in front of us. While it is not a lifer or even an uncommon bird, it was hard to resist taking a lot of shots of these beautiful birds. Other birds in this area were the Plain-colored Seedeater, Hooded Siskin, and Azara's Spinetail. While the spinetail were very vocal, they only ever offered small glimpses and nothing in the way of photographs.
We drove on higher and stopped at a small mirador that overlooked a cliff where Andean Condor nest. The condor is the national bird of Ecuador - yet they are down to around 150 (I believe that was the number) birds left in the wild. The 4 or 5 birds we saw that day were a very large number when viewed in that context. Two immature birds were immediately spotted across the valley and up on the cliffside. The birds took to the air shortly after we arrived. Several adults joined them in slow gyres around the top of the cliff. The birds were too high up and too far away for any kind of meaningful photo. I was just happy to see them. I had not seen Andean Condor since our trip to Peru. Joining them were several Carunculated Caracara. This was a life bird, and a bird I looked forward to seeing closer at some point. (For the curious, caruncules are the fleshy folds of skin located on the neck of some birds. Usually, these birds have a wattle, as well. Think of the skin on a turkey's neck. Those are caruncule. I had to look that up, I had no idea what "carunculated" meant....) Back on topic, there were a number of small birds flitting around closer. Black Flowerpiercer were numerous. Our first ID-able hummingbird of the trip was here, too. Tyrian Metaltail was abundant but quite uncooperative.
A little further up the road, we started to move into the paramo. Paramo is grassland/shrubby area above the treeline. We had moved up quite a ways in altitude, and we were not done. Driving along, someone asked the guide about the blue colored birds along the road. We stopped in an area bordering a small creek and some adjacent pasture land. Stout-billed and Chestnut-winged Cinclodes were abundant. We also found a Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant. Brown-bellied Swallow were zooming around, and more Plain-colored Seedeater were seen. Interspersed with all these were some Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. The sierra-finch are a beautiful blue-gray color and what had caught someone's eye. We also had a couple Many-striped Canastero. As we stood there, a Cinereous Harrier flew by.
We stopped along a bridge that spanned a small creek and checked the chuquiragua for Ecuadorian Hillstar, an endemic that I really wanted to photograph. There were many females across the stream, but they were too small to shoot at that distance. One female came across and briefly but beautifully pearched in a chuquiragua plant. I had her in the lens, but the camera would not focus. Right as it grabbed focus, the bird flew and I got a shot of the perch. It was my only chance. This is the way birding goes sometimes; photography a lot of times. I am happy to have seen some, but I would have loved a picture of a male perched on a flowering plant. It is a beautiful hummingbird, and the plant is pretty amazing, too.
Further up, the sun gave way to overcast skies. From a photography perspective, this is a bit of a boon. The clouds cut down on harsh shadows that midday sunlight causes. Unfortunately, it was not enough to help out at our next stop. We finally hit a high wetland area where we had flocks of Andean Gull. Somewhat distantly, Black-faced Ibis were feeding in the field. The heat distortion from the wet ground made photos impossible. While there were Carunculated Caracara perched on the ground, I could not get a clear shot of one of them either. Still, Andean Gull is a beautiful gull.
We finally hit the Visitors' Center at Lake Mica and got out for a walk. Not a very fast-paced one, though. We had worked our way up to 13,000 ft. Without a chance to acclimatize, it was pretty rough going. I had high hopes of seeing and photographing a Tawny Antpitta up here. No joy. What we did have were decent scope views of a number of waterfowl. Andean Duck, Andean Coot, and Silvery Grebe could all be seen down on the lake. Around the buildings, we had some more female hillstar. On top of the buildings, we had Black-winged Ground-Dove. Stubbornly, they refused to have their picture take on the ground. Plumbeous Sierra-Finch were abundant. We also had our first mammals of the trip. Andean Tapeti were feeding behind the buildings. Out in the grasses, alpaca (an introduced species) were feeding. There were also a number of White-tailed Deer in the area. Wild horse is seen up here, too, but it is hard to tell if the animals we saw were wild or just part of the ranches up here. Our walk (thankfully) was not extensive. Aside from the waterfowl, the walk was not overly productive. Chestnut-winged Cinclodes and Many-striped Canastero rounded out the sightings from the walk.
We finished our time up here with a drive over to the edge of the lake. This stop threw us a curve ball, but I am sure we got the ID right in the end. We had two very bleached Baird's Sandpipers walking the edge of the lake. I have never seen one so pale; nor expected to find one up here.
The highlight was a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle that buzzed through the area. I managed a single decent shot of this bird. I wish I could have pulled off more in the series. They are amazing and powerful looking raptors.
By this time, we were way past lunch time. We piled back in the van and headed to lower elevations. Lunch was at Tambo Condor. This place is located just before the mirador for the condor. You can see the cliffs from the restaurant. More importantly, to me, they have a number of hummingbird feeders there. Among the visitors to these feeders is the Giant Hummingbird. This is the world's largest hummingbird. I really wanted a shot of this bird. I even made sure to position myself where I could watch the feeders while eating. Lunch was terrific, but I hurried through it. I wanted to go shoot. Although, I did make sure to get my fill of blackberry juice. It was amazing. While eating, I spotted a Cinereous Conebill moving through the bushes outside the window. I did not think it would work, but I shot through the window anyway. To my surprise, the windows there (and in most of the places we visited) were plain glass. No coatings to distort shots.
Outside, they had a small platform that overlooked some hummingbird feeders. Black-tailed Trainbearer, Tyrian Metaltail, and Shining Sunbeam were the most frequent visitors. Sparkling Violetear were only seen at the feeders near the restaurant. Black Flowerpiercer were very common, too. I love to watch these guys work. They are very skulky. Flowerpiercers are often referred to as nectar thieves. In other words, they do not help pollinate the plant. They make a small hole at the base of the flower and then drink the nectar from the hole - bypassing the reproductive portions of the flower. The beak of the bird prominently features a hook at the tip, and I often hear people explain that the hook is used to pierce the flower. That is not really the case though. The hook is used to hold the flower. The lower mandible of the beak is dagger-shaped and used to pierce the flower. I was hoping to get a photo that highlighted this and managed to catch the bird at the right instant.
After everyone finished lunch, we walked a small road between some fields back to a brick building located on the edge of a cliff. The back of the building had a metal balcony that provided a view of the river. The building can be rented for the night. It looked really cool, but we were told that it gets quite cold there at night. Off the back of the balcony, a pair of Yellow-breasted Brushfinch were spotted. I caught a flash of yellow before another bird caught my eye. A Tufted Tit-Tyrant was working its way through the bushes. I got so focused on it, I forgot to get a better look at the brushfinch and missed a lifer. Sometimes it is hard to focus on everything.... A female Summer Tanager put in a brief appearance, and a Shining Sunbeam fed on some nearby flowers. We eventually walked back up and enjoyed some shots of a cooperative Great Thrush. Eared Dove and more Plain-colored Seedeater rounded out the species seen here.
As we were getting everyone together to leave, I stepped over near the platform one last time. At that moment, a Giant Hummingbird flew in and perched. Here was my chance. I missed the perfect shot, but I got a shot. That will have to do.
We got back into the van and headed back to Quito. Road construction caused us some delays, and then some rain settled in. We were supposed to stop at the quarry to try for Tawny Antpitta again, but it was not going to happen. We got back to the hotel around 4 PM. I repacked for the next leg of our trip and then met the group to go over the trip list that evening. Carmen got in from here day tour of Quito just in time to meet everyone for dinner.
It would be another short night - one of many to come. The Galapagos were worth it, though. Stay tuned for more on that!
Thanks for reading,