8/26/2023 - 9/4/2023
Carmen and I were looking forward to a return to Ecuador. Last November, we had visited the Galapagos (posts here and here); bookending it with a day-trip up Antisana and several days in the Mindo area, including a visit to Angel Paz's place. We had scratched the surface of what Ecuador had to offer, and we wanted to see more. We did not have a lot of time, and, as always, money was a concern. We would not be going everywhere we wanted. Specifically, we cut a return visit to Angel's place and a visit to one of the Amazon lodges. This was going to be a relatively short trip that covered a couple days near Quito and then a somewhat traditional route out to visit the Guango, San Isidro, and Wild Sumaco lodges on the eastern slope of the mountains.
We opted to rent a car and to arrange for local guides at each of the locations. This fits a bit more with our preferred style of travel. I like to drive. We like to stop along the way and take pictures, etc. Since we had not driven here before, we tried to prepare for it. First, we picked a hotel in Quito that kept us from driving across Quito and that was close to the airport. Second, we cut a planned trip back up Antisana to give ourselves a day to relax and not make the extra drive. Third, we printed out Google map directions to all the places we planned to travel. This was actually worthless. In hindsight, it was not a bad idea, but we should have put a little more effort into things. We should have downloaded maps to our phones for the areas we planned to visit and have them available offline. We should have also looked for mile marker information for the various roads instead of relying on distances. In the end, it all worked out, and we only got lost once. We drove about 45 minutes past our turn before we wised up and turned back. We laughed about it and moved on.
There are pros and cons to this style of travel. It bought us a lot of flexibility. If we wanted to stay at a location a little longer, we could. If we were ready to hit the road, we did not have to wait. If we could have found places to pull off the road to take pictures of the many waterfalls and beautiful valleys, we could have - if there had been places to do this. At the lodges, we hiked or hung around the feeders when we wanted. Having local guides for birding also meant that we had the best guide possible for the area. They bird the lodges regularly and know the birds there. The only real downsides were the lack of local knowledge while on the road and someone there to help if things went a bit sideways. Having someone that knows the roads and area would have kept us from getting lost. We were also a bit nervous having to drive through a couple of military checkpoints along the road. Each time we were waived through, but we just did not know what to expect as we drove up on them. Local knowledge would have also helped with knowing places along the way to stop and visit (or maybe get some of those pictures Carmen was dying for). I could hear other groups talking about the birding they would be doing while driving between lodges, but we did not know where those places were or have the luxury of a driver to watch the luggage while visiting the places. In the end, it is all trade-offs. We enjoy this type of travel, and it was nice to experience it in a place as beautiful as Ecuador.
One final note about this trip. I do not recall exactly why we booked the dates we did. The truth of the matter is, I think we picked it to span Labor Day because it got us a "free" day of vacation time with the holiday. This was, in hindsight, a very poor way to pick travel dates - at least from a birding perspective. Late August/early September is nesting season for a lot of birds. They are tending nests and are not as active as at other times of the year. The weather this time of year is still in the hotter "dry" season, and the birds are also less active in the heat. This hampered us at times throughout the trip, and we missed some birds because of it.
I think that covers everything, without further rambling, here is how we spent our time in the Quito area.
Zuroloma and Yanacocha -
We arrived in Quito very late the night before and did not get checked into the hotel until after 10:00 PM. This meant we got to bed around midnight. The problem was that our guide for the morning was going to arrive at 5:30 AM. Carmen would be up a little before 5:00 AM to start getting ready. It was going to be a very short night after what had previously been a short night for sleep. We were looking at maybe 9 hours of sleep over two nights. Why is this an issue? Aside from being a bit run down, it greatly hampered my ability to adjust to the altitude. Quito is already at around 9,300 feet. We had a half day of birding scheduled at Zuroloma, which is a bit over 11,000 feet. This is high enough to start feeling the affects of altitude sickness; something I have never had an issue with before. By midday, I was beat, had a headache, and was a bit nauseated. I basically had all the symptoms of altitude sickness. A lot more rest, proper hydration, and being in better shape would have made this day a lot easier on me. That evening, after returning to Quito and taking a small nap, I felt a lot better.
The birding was very slow. This had nothing to do with our guide. Santiago from Neotropical Nature and Birding Trips did a great job. He was at the hotel on time. He had food and snacks prepared for us, and his birding was excellent. It was just a very warm and sunny day. It was "too nice". The birds were just not very active. In the end, we only missed a couple of expected species here - Gray-browed Brushfinch and Chestnut-naped Antpitta. On the other hand, we had some really good birds, and I got a few lifers. Of the 10 species of hummingbirds we saw, 3 of them were lifers: Mountain Velvetbreast, a surprise Green-tailed Trainbearer, and the spectacular Sword-billed Hummingbird. The latter posed excellently in good light after we returned from viewing the star of this visit, the Equatorial Antpitta. While we missed out on the Chestnut-naped Antpitta, the Equatorial Antpitta is more reliable. A pair of them put on quite a show while we were there. They are so tiny and cute. We had a decent mix of species here, but the weather was super nice, and it quickly turned into a warm and sunny morning. Hummingbird activity was decent, but not much else was coming in. I asked about the White-throated Screech-Owl roost here, but it is an extra cost and a bit of a hike to get to. That was not really an issue, but it had also not been seen for about 4 days. I decided to save my energy, which was already flagging, and stay near the feeders.
The star of this visit was the Equatorial Antipitta. My field guide still has it labeled as the Rufous Antipitta, and it is easy to see how it got that name.
As we were returning from viewing the antpitta, I looked at one of the perches next to a nectar feeder, and this hummingbird with a mammoth bill was perched next to it. It flew but immediately returned to the perch and even made sure we got to see it from both sides. The Sword-billed Hummingbird was as impressive as I had hoped it would be. Just an incredible looking bird.
On the other end of the scale is the Tyrian Metaltail. This hummingbird is not the most impressive hummingbird, but this little guy made up for it with his choice of perches. I have been told that this is called a "red hot poker" flower, but I do not really know the name of it. It is a beautiful flower, and this little metaltail was all over it while we were there.
The morning heated up, and it became clear to Santiago that we were not going to see much else. We hit the road and birded our way up to Yanacocha. We had a couple raptors (Variable Hawk and Carunculated Caracara) along the way, and a flock of Andean Lapwing. We had visited Yanacocha last November. This, oddly, would come up later in the trip during our time at San Isidro. We had decent birding there. This time, we had very poor birding. We birded the road. Nothing. We birded the road inside the reserve. Nothing. We birded the feeders. Almost nothing. Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Glossy Flowerpiercer, and Shining Sunbeam were the highlights. We did go to see a Tawny Antpitta that was being fed there, but the lighting was so harsh, the photos came out really poor. We had lunch here, but I was feeling so poorly by this time, I just could not enjoy it; even though it tasted really good. We had some of the fabulous horchata tea, and it helped some, but I was a bit too far gone by this point.
We headed back down into Quito after this. Both Carmen and I passed out along the way. We apologized to the guide for being poor companions when we got back to Quito. It was not my best showing as a client, and I feel bad about it. Unfortunately, this trip would test my current fitness a bit. It has become apparent that I have neglected it too long.
Puembo Birding Garden -
We were staying at the Puembo Birding Garden. This is a small boutique BnB on the east side of Quito. The place is ran by Mercedes, who is a gracious and very accommodating host. Even after greeting us at 10:00 PM the night before, she was up to have some breakfast ready for us by 4:30 AM the morning we headed up to Zuroloma. We hung out there that evening, had a wonderful dinner, and then crashed. Originally, we were going to drive up to Antisana the following morning. Wisely, we chose to stay there and rest up instead of heading right back up to 14,000 feet the next day.
I tried to sleep in the following morning, but I could hear the birds and had to get up. Mercedes has a small, private bird sanctuary located in the center of the grounds. Banana feeders, nectar feeders, some cracked corn, and a small fountain attract a number of species to her garden. We had a number of species here that we would not see again on this trip; including one lifer. Coming into the feeders were: Eared Dove and a single Croaking Ground-Dove, Scrub (a lifer), Blue-gray, and Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, Lesser Violetear, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Western Emerald, Scrub Blackbird, Saffron Finch, and Golden Grosbeak. Shooting is a bit difficult, because the entire "wall" of one side of the garden is all tinted plate glass. There are a few areas in the netting along another side where you can shoot through, but they were at the wrong height for me. In the end, I did exactly what I would have advised others against. I shot through the glass. Normally, this is a recipe for disaster, but it turns out the glass is pretty high quality, and you could shoot through it as long as the subject was decently close. Anything further caused distortion. The tinting (a brown) added a bit of odd warmth to the shot, but it was not that bad and somewhat correctable in post-processing. In the end, like many other things on this trip, it worked out.
We spent some time chatting with Mercedes the day before and this morning. She fixed us some wonderful meals, and let us enjoy our time there. She is passionate about birds and was eager to inquire about what species you had seen. When the Golden Grosbeak flew in, she was every bit as excited about it as I was. She is also an animal lover and is well-known for adopting stray dogs and finding homes for them. We enjoyed our time here and would recommend it to anyone looking for a place to stay in Quito.
That pretty much covers our first couple of days in Ecuador. Shortly after lunch, Mercedes told us how adventurous we were and wished us luck on our travels with the crazy Ecuadorian drivers. We thanked her for being a good host and piled in the car to start our Ecuador "experience" (a much better word).
Up next is Guango and San Isidro, followed by a post about Wild Sumaco.
Thanks for reading,