I departed Washington National on Sunday afternoon, September 2, for my thirteenth trip to Ecuador in five years. I was very hopeful and had a target list of over fifty birds that I wanted for my book. While I had photographed nearly 600 birds, most of these are not book worthy quality: either a dull bird, or a bird not doing anything in particular. It was not to be.
Things started off badly as we arrived slightly after 11PM in Quito. The airport there now Xrays all INCOMING luggage and three international flights had arrived at about the same time. It took over an hour to clear through this process. Rudy, my guide, was still waiting, and we returnd to his house for a handful of hours of sleep.
DAY ONE. Quito has a process that prohibits cars with licence plates ending in odd numbers from being out in rush hour traffic on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We were leaving on Monday, so had to be out and off early to avoid a heavy fine.
We drove directly to the tiny village of Tandyapa and continued up the road to Bellevista Lodge. Our target bird was the Grass Green Tanager, a very colorful bright green bird that lives in numbers near the lodge. It had been seen feeding on fruits on a small tree right next to the lodge a few days before. Unfortunately, the fruits were about gone and no birds were about.
After driving slowly down the road again, and stopping once for a Blue-capped Tanager, we proceeded to Los Bancos for lunch at the famed Mirador, where a glass wall allows customers to watch multiple species of birds coming to banana feeders. Outside there are hummingbird feeders. As we arried at the upper patio outside, there was a female Swallow Tanager below eye level! This is a bird I have tried unsuccessfully for years to photograph. Before we could get the equipment set up, the bird and its mate flew off not to return. They were apparently seeking out cavities for a nest site.
After lunch we proceeded south to a tiny village by the name of 23 June. Yes, that’s its name! There were supposed to be Long-wattled Umbrellabirds and Black Solitaires feeding on fruits near this town.
We elected to drive up a very rough gravel road, 7.5 kilometers long to the Solitaire spot. At the top of this road, it T’s and one parks the car here and walk down to the Solitaire location. But as soon as we arrived at the T, we saw a Golden-headed Quetzal fly from a hole in a tree and we knew it had a nest there. Rudy headed down the road on foot to look for the solitaire, while I stayed in the car hoping to photograph the Quetzal. The bird did come back with fruit in its bill, and I made some photographs, but the car was not in the ideal location.
Rudy returned with the news that the solitaire had been seen but far too far for a decent photograph. Another guide and his birder customer showed up and reported seeing the umbrellabirds at their usual location, quite close and photographable. We returned to the lodge, ate dinner and went to bed. We were both suffering from sleep deprivation from the previous night. Unfortuantely, the town roosters started crowing at 2 AM and there was a full choras by 5.
DAY TWO – The next morning after breakfast our host took us just outside the town and up a path in a cow field to the location of the umbrellabirds. Two or three birds made a nice showing, but the heavy fog prevented a book quality photo. We stayed for two hours, but were never able to overcome the fog.
We returned to the T location and once again parked the car, but this time on the side road where I was able to make some nice images of both the male and female quetzals perched near the nest with fruit in their bills. We worked for the solitairs, but while they responded to playback, they never made an appearance. After lunch we were off to Mindo.
We checked into Rodny Zanipatini’s Descanso Lodge in Mindo, a place where I have photographed, but never stayed. In the afternoon I spent an hour or so working the hummers before heading to dinner at Caskaffesu, our favorite place to eat in Mindo. The owners are Luis and Susan Alban. Susan was a US Peace Corps volunteer who came to Ecuador and stayed! At dinner Randy Vickers, a young American bird guide told us that three very good birds — none of which I had ever seen before — were coming to a cornmeal feeder at the Milpe Lodge.
DAY THREE – Wednesday we were up early again and out to Milpe Reserve. Our primary objective there was a displaying Golden-winged Manakin, a tiny little bird that is seldom seen. We found the bird without difficulty and it was dancing on a log in a very dark forest, not far from the path. Try as I might, I could not successfully photograph the bird. It was just too dark and the bird was moving too fast. Its mating dance was fascinating, though, and the female appeared, watched and they mated.
Other people arrived, making photographing unpleasant. We “packed up” to leave and walked away, but Rudy suggested returning when the other folks left. We did, and it was a good decision. The male flew up to an eye level branch and vocalized there repeatedly, making photography rather easy. I still used a high ISO, however, to capture the movement.
After lunch we drove to the San Jorge de Milpe Lodge and soon encountered Jorge, or George Cruz, the owner. George went into a marketing mode immediately and claimed that one could see “60 birds before breakfast” at his place. When challenged, he lowered this to 50, but then “guaranteed” that we could get the three rare birds coming to his feeders: Indigo-crowned Quail Dove, Rufous-fronted Wood Quail and Olive Finch. His offer: $90 for a double room and $38 each for three meals.
While these prices were really high, I thought about how much money I had already invested in this trip and thought that three life birds, with two being book birds, it might just be worth it. So I (in retrospect, foolishly) accepted the offer.
We got our gear from the parking lot and trudged down the long and steep trail to the lodge where we had stayed briefly five years before. After dropping off gear, we went out into the forest where Rudy was hearing Nightingale Thrushes. Rudy used playback repeatedly and the birds responded, but never came out in the open long enough for a single shot.
We returned to the two feeding stations that were adjacent to the kitchen and the open air dining room. I parked myself in a chair there for the next 3.5 hours and only the wood quail showed. An adult (probably the female) and three juvies made an appearance and I made a few decent photos. A pair of Orange-billed Sparrows and one white-throated Quail Dove also made brief appearances.
DAY FOUR We were up early again and I once again positioned myself at the rail of the dining room overseeing the feeding stations. This time George told me not to use flash anymore, because these were very rare birds. My experience with flash is that the first burst often scares a bird or animal, but they become accustomed very rapidly and pay no attention whatsoever. The quail the previous day showed no reaction at all to my flashes.
At 8 something one quail showed up, probably the male and then an hour later the finch eased into the scene. Unfortunately, another birder jumped up from his place at the table banging his chair and running to the front to see the bird. The finch flew off, not surprisingly. Just prior to the departure, George had OKed one flash shot, but it was too late.
After lunch we settled up. I was quite unhappy after the “guarantee” and the best bird of the three did not show despite 9.5 hours at the feeder. George claimed that he “could not guarantee nature,” but of course he had done just that. With 22% taxes the damages came to $203 and I felt really ripped off. I did add a life bird, however, a Tooth-billed Hummingbird, but this will never be a book bird.
On our way out we were climbing up the trail to the parking lot when Rudy put down his playback equipment to adjust to something. All of a sudden he jumped back, obviosly agitated and when I asked what was going on, he explained that a Bothrops was in a hole amidst roots of a tree, a snake that had been ten inches from his hand! This is the Bothrops Asper, a common poisonous snake and responsible for many if not most snake bite deaths in Ecuaodr.
With considerable effort Rudy was able to extract the snake from the hole and brought it out to the path. I made over fifty images of the reptile, the first poisonous snake I had encountered in 13 trips to Ecuador. It was actually quite attractive. I actually got down so that my chin was nearly on the ground to obtain the proper perspective, but must say I was alert and careful!
We made a brief stop at Milpe Reserve where we found nothing more than a Rufous Motmot before heading west to Pablo Vincente Moldanaro, or PVM. Here we had stayed at a decent enough place for $7 each a year ago. Unfortunately the property was no longer a motel and we got a recommendation for a Hosteria on the east side of town. It turned out to be a gem, even with a swimming pool (we did not partake!). Our rooms had two beds, a TV, a small refrigerator and a big fan for a whoping $20 plus tax per night. Even Chris would have stayed here!
DAY FIVE Up and out before the hosteria served breakfast, we headed to Silanche Reserve, a place we have been many times previously. We climbed the 70 step tower to the top and waited. There were many bird species that showed, but there was a white sky, some fog and the usual problem here of birds perching too far from the tower for a good shot. We saw Laughing Falcon, Roadside Hawk, Black-headed Tody Tyrant, Yellow-plumed Dacnis (images of this gorgeous bird were just short of book quality), Striped Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanager, Linneated Woodpecker and others. The best photo op was a Grey Elaenia, a most plain bird that will never make a coffee table book!
In the afternoon we drove to nearby Suamox Orchards where the Orange-crowned Euphonia comes to their feeders. Suamox is owned and operated by two of the nicest people you would ever want to meet in Ecuador. Rafael and his wife treat the many people who purchase frozen fruit icyles and marmalade as family and we were no different. I staked out their feeders for the entire afternoon and made images of Silver-throated Tanagers, Golden-Olive Woodpeckers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and others, but no Orange Crowned. We returned to the Hosteria Ayalir for the night.
DAY SIX – We ate bread and cheese for breakfast again and arrived back at Suamox just as it was getting light. The folks there leave a light on overnight which attracts all manner of night insects and the insects in turn attract a number of bird species in the morning to engorge themselves. While we observed such interesting species as Squirrel Cuckoo, the only birds that came out in the open on the roof were Great Antshrike (a most handsome fellow with a red eye) and the Masked Water Tyrant.
Later the Orange-crowned made a brief appearance at a feeder, enough for a half dozen photos. I also worked Red-headed Barbet, the woodpeckers and a few tanagers. After stocking up on tropical fruit marmelade, we headed back to Mindo for Saturday afternoon and night.
We checked into Rodny’s lodge again and went looking for a White-winged Tanager nest that we had been told was just outside Mindo in a tree next to a “yellow” house. We found the spot, but the apparent house was mustard colored and there was no tree next to the house. Rudy quized the occupant who had no knowledge of the tanager. So we headed back to Mindo and up the Falls Road.
This road is filled with tourists as there are three zip lines located adjacent to the road. One had broken this past summer sending an American woman plunging to her death. We went to the top where the tanagers were supposed to reside and Rudy immediately heard one vocalizing and saw a female. Try as he might, he could not get a male down to a level where a good photo could be made. One did respond to the playback, but stayed high in a tree. After more than an hour up at the top, we headed down.
Part way down the road Rudy heard a Swallow Tanager vocalizing, so we stopped and Rudy worked the playback. We could see the bird in a tree adjacent to the road, but too far for a decent book shot. He would not come closer. We were getting back into the car when Rudy heard the tanager vocalizing. He took the playback device, placed it on the ground next to the road and stepped back. The result was as immediate as it was amazing. Three birds — two males and a female — dove down right at the device.
One male and the female disappeared, but the other male lit at eye level on a branch right next to the road and remained there for probably ten minutes. In the meantime cars full of jabbering tourists with music blaring loudly passed within six or eight feet of the bird. No matter, it just sat there. I was able to make the best photos of the trip on this bird, a most attractive red bird!
DAY SEVEN – With the White-winged “under our belts” Rudy believed that we could get the Fawn-breasted right in town where he had seen it many times previously. In fact, he said they were common. But they were not vocalizing on this Sunday morning.
We did find a number of Golden-rumped Euphonias feeding on mistletoe right in town. This particularly colorful bird was definately a target and book book bird, but the light was rotten with a white sky and the birds remained high in trees festooned with mistletoe. These birds defecate in a most peculiar way. They dance around on a twig and send out a string, some three feet long of translucent material that then attaches to the twig. One can see these strings hanging from various places in mistletoe bearing trees.
Stiking out in Mindo, we decided to try a place that I have never been and Rudy hadn’t visited in seven years or so: Tinalandia. This lodge is several hours south of the Quito coast road, not far from the bustling city of Santo Domingo and just west of the village of Alluriquin. The owner, who was in Quito, told Rudy that a number of good birds visited the feeders there, including Blue Dacnis, and Purple Honeycreeper. He offered at rate of $140 for the two of us for one night with three meals.
I was not going to fall for this one again, so told Rudy to offer the guy $100 if we did not see any of the three “good” birds and $140 if we did. He accepted and off we went. We arrived and we got out at the parking lot adjacent the the lodge and wandered over to the area of the feeders. Both of us immediately knew that this set up would not work. The feeders consisted of half trunks of large bamboo, about three feet off the ground, but back in a dark spot under what looked like a tangled arbor.
We soon met the only two employees, a mother and a daughter. The mother told us she had fed the birds with papaya every morning for 25 years at 7AM, but never in the afternoon. We told her that the feeders had to be moved out into the light, but she said this had been tried and the birds would not come there. We moved them anyway. Rudy broke away a lot of branches and twigs and leaves, making bare perches that would be ideal for birds to be photographed. We put some papaya in the shell, but did not expect any takers that afternoon as they had no reason to expect to be fed.
Off we went to explore what used to be a golf course, that was now overgrown. It was not productive and I made no photos at all. We were served a delicious dinner by the daughter (the mother cooked) and we went off to our cabin whre we roomed together.
DAY EIGHT The mother had asked us to serve breakfast at 6 and to put the papaya out at 6:45. Within five minutes the first bird was down on the feeder. So much for the assertion that birds would not come to a feeder out in the daylight. Many birds came down to feed, including the Pale-mandibled Aracari, Orange-bellied Euphonia and two Saltators. Also I was able to make nice photos of the Dusky-faced Tanager, a life bird for me, but hardly a book bird! It is dull brown. None of the three target birds showed, so I was out $100, not $140.
After lunch we headed out north back to Bellevista Lodge to try again for the Grass Green Tanager and the Tanager Finch. Rudy made arrangements for us to stay at the research station, where there was no electricity, no heat, no hot water, no cooking gas, no nothing except blankets. We ate bread, cheese, chocolate and a few tomatos for supper by candlelight. And, well, what else could we do? We went to bed! Rudy was up a steep ladder in the attic of the building which meant no middle of the night visits to the bath.
DAY NINE In the morning we packed up and focused on the GG Tanager, but before serious work, I saw a great scene and we stopped while I made three photos of the dawn over the mountains. It is one of my favorite scenic images ever in Ecuador and will undoubtedly make my book.
After failing on the tanager and the finch we headed east, through Quito, to Papallacta Pass. It was cold at the pass and the wind was blowing hard. I foolishly did not have warm clothes with me, although I did have a wool cap and mittens. Our immediate target was the Blue-mantled Thornbill, a hummer that lives at this high altitude of 13,000 feet. It did not take long for Rudy to locate one. One flew out from the overhang at a steep bank next to the road and he rightly concluded that a nest was in the overhang.
Rudy jumped out to investigate and soon found the nest with one nestling, about half grown inside. We sat in the car for the next twenty or thirty minutes while I photographed the mother coming to a stick near the nest to pose momentarily before going in to feed the chick. I really got chilled even though I was in the car, because the wind was really blowing and the snow came down like the arctic!
With that bird checked off we made a U turn and headed back to the main road. But before we had gone 100 yards, there was a Red-rumped Bush Tyrant on a dead sapling right by the road. This is a bird I had seen perhaps three times before, but had searched for for years unsuccessfully. Rudy maneuvered the car so I could make photos out the window, which I did, making about eight good photos until the bird flew off.
Rudy jumped out of the car and went up the road to see where the bird had flown to. He looked down a 60 degree slope and there were two Red-rumps and many other birds, all coming to a spot where trash was located. There must have been an insect hatch there, although it was not obvious. It was remarkable though, because the birds kept flying in for a minute or so and then flying back out to perches some ways away. Rudy talked me into going down that slope — he carried my equipment –and I carefully did. I made many more photos of the Red-rump, including the best of the bunch as the penultimate image.
We then drove over the pass and down to Papallacta Springs whre we hoped to stay in the same hot spring resort as last year. Walked in and there behind the counter at reception was Pablo, the son of the owner and the same guy we had dealt with last year. And he remembered my name! How that is possible is beyond me! He is fluent in English, having gone to school in the states, however. We got the same rate as in 2011 – $28 per night per person, including taxes! This included breakfast and access to the hot spring pool AND a fireplace in the room.
After a wonderful meal of trout, next to a heater — it was cold, even inside — I received and sent out e-mails on the company computer. Then, I decided it was worth it to try the hot tub and got into my bathing suite. I had not been in a hot tub in eighteen years, near as I can remember, and this one was just perfect after an afternoon of being chilled. Then going to sleep to a roaring fire was just exquisite. A totally romantic evening, but without the most important ingredient: Chris!
DAY TEN We were up before dawn with our breakfast of a cheese sandwich, yogurt and some fruits in a bag. I had left my 600mm lens in the car overnight to preclude a redo of a disaster last year when it fogged up from heat in the car. We drove through the “village” of buildings accommodating the hot springs tourists and up into the national park. It was bracing, but beautiful.
It did not take long to find our target birds: the Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and the Black-breasted Mountain Tanager, but these birds as well as many other in the mixed flock move rapidly through the bushes and small trees and simply do not pose for photos. It was and is very frustrating trying to capture these birds in digital! There were some very colorful wildflowers in bloom including some flaming red mistletoe and deep blue lupines.
Finally, after many attempts, at about 11 AM, Rudy was able to work his magic with playback on the Scarlet bellieds. Two came down and perched right in the tree that Rudy had predicted. I was able to make some very sharp photos of this great high altitude bird that will certainly make my book.
We then headed down to the cluster of buildings at the springs for lunch. It is hard to get a good lunch as I define it in Ecuador. Seems most folks simply eat what amounts to a second dinner at the noon hour. While in the village I photographed a sculpture that I swear must be by Andy Goldworthy…or is a perfect knock-off for his work. I could not find a real reference for this on the net, although there are many comments that the art is “inspired by” Andy. I hope someone was not plagerizing this superb artist.
Our afternoon work was unsuccessful, as Rudy had predicted. We did travel up the park road again, but saw nothing to photograph. At the end of the day, Rudy showed me a Black-chested Buzzard Eagle nest, with a juvie sitting in it. While I made photos, they are so distant as to be nearly indistinguishable.
DAY ELEVEN After another good meal and hot tub adventure, we were up and out early on Thursday, the 13th of September. We again found the mixed flock early but had no more luck working them than on the previous day. After a few more scenic and wildflower shots we drove back down the park road and checked out of our motel and proceded on to Baeza where we ate lunch.
From Baeza we drove to Yanayacu Research Station where Rudy spends much of his time. It is run by his friend Harold Greeny. There were no reports of nearby nesting birds except a Lyre-tailed Nightjar alongside the road, so we headed west along the access road hoping for something special. The only thing we found were Southern Lapwings, which are quite easy to photograph from the car. I had good images from last year, but made more this year. These “shorebirds” live in cow pastures and are expanding in Ecuador.
Back at the station, Rudy heard a Fawn-breasted Tanager and called him in with playback. Unfortunately, I was only able to make one image of the bird. It was book quality, however. this was after 5PM and things pretty much shut down after that.
We had a fun evening shooting the bull with Rudy, Harold and Lauren a new employee of the station who is an accomplished artist.
DAY TWELVE We traveled a few miles the next morning to Guacaomaya Ridge at about 7000 feet. Here there had been a Long-billed Scythbill nest the previous year and we were hoping for a repeat. It was not to be. The parking lot at the top and nearby trail are supposed to be good for Grass-green Tanagers and indeed Rudy soon heard them and we saw glimses of them. I had a hard time getting an open photo, however.
Finally, several were in a fruiting tree between the road and a path up to the microwave relay towers above. We climbed the path and soon were working the birds at eye level and close by. These were my best shots of this long sought after bird ever. As we were working, a woman began yelling at us from above, just 30 or 40 yards away. Rudy thought she was going to kick us out as the previous tenant of the towers facility had been a nasty woman. Turns out she was trying to tell us that a “pretty green bird” was right in front of her! And indeed a Grass Green was in a tree close by, completely exposed. I made the shot.
On the way back into the station we stopped at the nighjar spot and made some decent images of the female brooding her nest. She is so well camoflaged that she believes that no one can see her, so is not frightened by people talking nearby. I concluded that I needed height to make a better shot of this bird, so wanted to come back with a ladder.
Shortly after lunch the rain came in a deluge and we lost the entire afternoon to this weather. We had been exceptionally lucky to this point, with only a half day lost to fog and rain at night.
The following morning we tried once again for the Fawn-breasted Tanager and had no luck again. The bird just would not pose for me! Rudy had cut down a number of branches from an alder tree the day before, where there was mistletoe growing, in hopes that the Golden-rumped Euphonia and/or the Chestnut-breasted Chorlophonia would be photographable. Only one female Euphonia made an appearance and while I made photographs, it was really too distant for good quality.
We made one more trip up to Guacamayo Ridge, but it was unsuccessful and after lunch we headed west back to Quito. On the way we planned to travel on the old gravel road over Papallacta Pass to work some birds that I had never seen or photographed. After we got only a kilometer or so down the road, Rudy stopped the car and used his playback device. Nothing responded. He got back in and turned the key and “click.” The engine did not turn over. After some work on the battery cables the car started, but that pretty much ended the birding and photogaphy part of this trip.
I flew home the following morning.