I very much wanted to photograph the Banded Ground Cuckoo that was being seen at a small lodge north and west of Quito before it disappeared. So, after some dithering, made reservations to fly down to Quito on Taca Airlines through San Salvador. It was a relatively cheap flight ($800+) and much less expensive than American AL. But the itinerary was not favorable.
We arrived at the new Quito airport at 11:30 PM and by the time I was through customs and immigration, it was 12:30. Rudy, my usual guide, was there to pick me up. Off we went, but both of us were really tired, so stopped at the first hostal that we could find open. The initial offering was $42, but Rudy talked the woman into a third floor room for $24. We were dead asleep in minutes.
Day 1 The following morning we were up and out early, with only five hours sleep and headed to Jeruselem Park, a smallish regional park in the dry scrub. There Rudy had found some cooperative Blue and Yellow Tanagers, a potential book bird. Alas, when we set up and Rudy did his playback, the birds came nowhere near photo range.
We drove around a bit, but found no other birds that we could get into range. Then we encountered a new biologist at the park, Danilo Armos. He seemed to think there were good birds on the other side of the main highway from the park. (I do not know what was actually said, as he spoke only in Spanish.) So off we went. We found almost no birds, but did find many Andean Margaritas, a lovely pink composite that seems to love the arid climate.
We traveled for several miles back into the very dry and dusty scrub. The most interesting thing we found, was, alas, not living. It was a very strange building, now abandoned, in the middle of nowhere, with a nice welcoming
arch. None of us could figure out the purpose of this bulding.
After dropping off Danilo, we drove further north to Otavalo, the craft capital of Ecuador. I had not visited here before. We ate lunch here and
gazed at all the color of the crafts for sale. We could not determine the symbolism of the painting on the wall above, but like so many towns in Ecuador, most walls are painted with something. There were many different crafts to be examined, including these hats which are a big attraction to tourists from Europe and North America.
Chris had been asking me for five years to pick up some colorful napkins and/or placemats to accompany the tablecloth I had brought back on an earlier visit. Try as I might, with visits to many stores, I could not find anything like that. Clerks referred me, typically, to Chinese made white napkins, hardly a souvenier from Ecuador! Luckily, I found both items in the market square in Otavalo. With all the stalls present, one would have expected many choices, but that was not to be!
If there were a knitting person in your circle of friends, this was the place to pick up some yarn. Every color in the rainbow.
From Otavalo, we drove west to Peter Joost’s small lodge near Intag. The target here was a Black and Chestnut Eagle nest that contained an almost grown “chick.” But that would have to wait until the following day, because the climb is a real challenge. In the meantime, I staked out the banana feeder hoping to capture a few tanagers. Sure enough, some came in in the light rain. One was a potential book bird, the Scrub Tanager shown here. For the first time ever, this bird flinched every time I made a flash image of him. Usually after one or two flashes, birds rapidly adjust and pay no more attention.
After a terrific trout dinner cooked by Lupe, we hit our beds. It was no problem getting to sleep after only five hours the night before and a full day.
Day 2 In the morning after breakfast we started our expedition. First we drove about two miles to the base of a steep hill. Then we hiked up a trail that had been hacked out of the cloud forest a few weeks before by Oswaldo, one of Peter’s caretakers. He accomplished this somehow in just three hours. The trail was slippery, steep, filled with roots, vines and saplings and a very big challenge for an old man. The last fifty feet must have been 85 degrees of slope. It took a few hand assists by Oswaldo plus a staff that he loaned me to make it to the top. But when Rudy told me that an Ecuadorian friend who knew me quite well had said that I would never make it to the top, that did it! It might have taken me an hour, as Rudy predicted, but I made it.
At the little almost flat outpost, we peered across the trees to the eagle nest. There was the juvenile staring right back at us! As one can readily see, it is almost ready to fledge. There was no wing flapping, however, that predicts imminent fledging, so it apparently had a few more weeks to go.
After only 25 minutes, one of the adult birds suddenly flew in. There is no warning, it just is there. We did not see anything that the adult bird brought in, but it may well have brought something rather small. This shows up in one image. We were really impressed that the adult came in this soon and anticipated that we would have four or five visits during out expected four or five hours on the top.
It was not to be, however. We watched the juvie for 6.5 hours before one of the adults returned. We saw an adult fly by a number of times with prey hanging from its talons, but it never came in. When the juvie saw the adult (often out of our view) it called repeatedly. But it was not really hungry, because
there was already prey in the nest. Periodically the chick would reach down and pull some of this apart and eat the meat. It must have been a rather large animal as indicated by the amount of meat ripped apart and consumed. We watched the chick do almost everything possible in the nest, including lying down for a spell, closing its eyes, getting high on the sticks, call out, peer up, peer down, turn around, the works. Finally, one of the adult birds returned to the nest with prey – a large bird believed to be a Sickle-winged Guan. Immediately, the juvie “mantled” the prey, as if to protect it from the adult. You cane see the feet of the prey bird in this photo.
Shortly after this second visit to the nest, we decided to ” call it a day” and packed our things up. We had been on the top for a full eight hours and had seen the adult or adults at the nest for a whopping ten minutes! It took us nearly an hour to get down the hill. Rudy probably could have made it down in 25 minutes, but old guys move slower!
Day 3 After another great dinner — this time pollo — we turned in and after breakfast the next morning headed out further west to visit Un Poco del Choco, the small lodge where the Banded Ground Cuckoo was being seen. We received several e-mails from Nicole Buttner, the owner, that first the bird had not been seen for several days, and then, while we were photographing the eagle, a hurried message to come right away because the bird was back. With this we drove over a very rough road with optimism in our hearts that we would get the bird! This lodge is located in a remote area, but we could see the village of Los Bancos from a high vantage point, in the distance.
Arriving, we were soon met by Wilo Vaca, Nicole’s husband. Nicole herself had had to leave to pick up some students in Quito. We had sent a frantic e-mail early that morning to please not feed the bird as we were on our way. Wilo reported that he had complied…but had not seen the bird this day. We were quite disappointed and were fearful that the ant swarm had moved to another unknown location.
But soon we were on the steep River Trail down to where the bird had been seen the previous day. Reaching the bottom, Wilo reported that we were near the “bivouac) area where the army ants spent the night. Sure enough, the trail was soon covered with ants. We avoided them as best we could, as they both bite and sting!
Although both Rudy and Wilo searched for the cuckoo, neither found it and after an hour or so, we hiked back up the trail to our lodge. We moved our gear to our rooms and I needed a battery recharge, so plugged in the device. Nothing happened! I thought that electricity must only come on at certain hours, but it turned out that no electricity is normally available in the tourist rooms. The lodge apparently does not even have a generator.
After dinner new bananas were placed on the sapling feeder and at the base of a tree where usually it is roped up some forty feet. We had hopes of seeing the rare Olingo and perhaps a possum or two. At about 7PM, shadows appeared in the tree and Rudy could see the Olingo. I could just see something moving up in the tree. The mammal never came where I could photograph it, but a big possum did. This was the first live possum I have seen in Ecuador.
Day 4 We were up early the following morning, July 20, and after a quick breakfast headed down the River Trail again in the half light. I was carrying my Nikon D300s camera with a new 80-400 VR lens. This is an upgrade from a previous lens and is a great deal sharper and faster. We got to the bottom of the trail, near where we had stopped the previous afternoon. Wilo was croached down and the rest of us were just standing behind him. Suddenly, he turned around and indicated that the cuckoo had appeared. Sure enough, there it was in the path!
I got right behind Wilo and began photographing. AFter a few shots, I looked at the display on the back of my camera and realized that there was no way I was going to shoot successfully at ISO 800. All the images were blurred. I goosed the ISO up to 2000 and returned to shooting. Even then I had to shoot only when the bird paused for a second or two. Unfortunately, I did not capture the moments when it snatched the grasshopper or katydid from Wilo’s fingers. It was just too rapid. I would have had to have had a shutter speed of 1/500 and afterwards I discovered I had been shooting at a shutter speed of 1/2 a second. Probably the lowest speed of any nature shot I have taken.
I made 200 images of the cuckoo over the twenty minutes or so that it took Wilo to feed the bird 23 bugs. While many of these photos had to be discarded because of blurry spots, some made the cut and will end up in my book.
When the bugs were done, the cuckoo realized that the feeding was over, and hopped over a log and disappeared. It had been a remarkable event! We then re-climbed the steep path and returned to the lodge. A couple of things happened during our final hour at this location. First, a flock of Swallow-tailed Kites was feeding right over the lodge buildings and adjacent forest. Although we could not see their prey, it was probably dragonflies, a favorite dish, or similar flying insects.
I first tried photographing these birds “straight.” That is, just pointing the camera and lens at the birds in autofocus mode. This stopped the movement, but I was shooting against a white sky, so the underside of the birds came out dark. So I attached my flash and while this is not a common practice on flying birds, achieved some nice results.
Then Wilo came up with two colorful things he had just found. The first was a dessicated skeleton of a tarantula spider. Growing out of it were strange projections which turned out to be a zombie fungus that had killed the creature. I had first thought that it was alive, but it was just this weird relic.
With that, it was time to leave. We had a long way to go to reach Gualchan by dark. As it turned out, it was past dark when we reached this tiny town. We were surprised to see many people, buses, cars and a festive environment. When we tried to reach the front of the hotel where Rudy had previously stayed, we were blocked by the beginning of a parade. A police car with light flashing led the parade down the hill to the central square. Following the police was a car with a statue of Mary, with many people showering the statue with fresh rose petals. A makeshift band followed the car with Mary.
We were really concerned about a place to spend the night, as there was apparently only one hostal/lodge/hotel in town and the town was absolutely full of celebrators. Rudy went in the back door of the hotel and found that in fact it was full. But Rudy can really be a charmer and turned it on with the woman. She promised that after our late dinner, she would clear out a room that was filled with visiting family members. After a nice dinner we returned and she did as she had promised. We got our room, right across from the bathroom for a whopping $5 each per night. Of course the shower was COLD!
The fiesta was raucaus and lively. Our hotel was on a small hill overlooking the square where the action was located. Even with ear plugs and the window closed, the noise was substantial. And the band played until 4:45 AM Sunday morning! At that point a priest got on the loudspeaker and reminded revelers to come to church later on Sunday! I slept pretty well, but Rudy hardly got a wink.
In the morning, we headed out of town on a road that I understand went all the way into Columbia. Before we got out of the “suburbs” Rudy tried his playback for a Russet-breasted Seedeater. It came in immediately and perched by the side of the road. It was so dark that I could not see the bird even though it was only 25 feet in front of me. I shot a blind shot and got it…but with its head cut off! This was a life bird for Rudy, who has been guiding in Ecuador for nine years and has seen almost every species in the country. Of course, it was also a life bird for me!
A short distance further along, I noticed some rather large birds in a tree off to the right. Put up my binocs and discovered there were three Bronze-winged Parrots. Shot them from the car with my 80-400 and got some decent images.
We soon got into the cloud forest and the birds became more numerous. Rudy found an unexpected pair of Golden-collared Dacnis, a bird normally found on the East Slopes. I made record shots of this bird, high in a tree. Shortly after this Rudy heard a Green and Black Fruiteater and turned on his playback. The bird came in nicely and posed while I made some sharp images of this colorful species.
Hanging out by a small stream crossing was a cute little Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, a new bird for me. It never let me get very close, but I did make a few nice images. While we saw a number of birds after this sighting, I got no photographs at all. Except for a nice rocky stream.
Returning to town, we found it very quiet. Some of the drunks from Saturday night were just coming alive. Kids were playing in the square and several were picking up rose petals, putting them in paper bags and then throwing them on their friends. Almost all the places of business were closed, but fortunately “our” restaurant was open and we got another nice dinner. This one cost us $4. For two! Just a little different than Washington!
Day 6 – Up and out early, as usual, eating breakfast out of the car. No sign of the seedeater when we stopped for a few minutes. No sign of the Beautiful Jays that were here in numbers three weeks before. But Rudy did call down a nice Purplish-mantled Tanager, with a piece of fruit in its mouth. Not an easy bird to find anywhere in Ecuador.
At about noon Rudy heard a Indigo Flowerpiercer and pointed to a large hunk of vegetation growing probably fifty feet in the air. We both looked with binocs for some time before I finally spotted it in a dark place. The first and only bird I spotted before Rudy during the whole trip! It was a lifer for me. Unfortunately, no photo.
After a nice lunch in town, we headed west towards Lita, a small village right on the edge of Esmeraldes Province. We stopped briefly in another town hoping to use the internet, but there were three teenagers on Facebook and after waiting ten minutes, there was no indication there were going to leave anytime soon. In Lita we found another internet “shop” with no one present, so I was able to check my e-mails and get a status report off to Chris.
Then on to the tiny “resort” of Chuchubi. Here a nice looking boulder filled mountain stream rolls between a set of buildings with a big pool for swimming and an artifical pond for sliding into. It looks like it was constructed a few years ago intending to be quite the destination, but now looks a little run down. I got the bigger room, with toilet and shower. Rudy missed the shower. The damages: $7 each per night. Not bad!
We drove further west past Altotambo, a small village looking very much down on its luck. Like so many small villaages in Ecuador, lots of people just standing around or sitting staring at the road. I don’t know where people would find a job around here even if they were highly motivated.
A few miles outside Altotambo, was the junction of the Awa Road. We parked here and Rudy pointed out where we would be in the morning. He intended to park one mile back at the home of a carpenter and walk back to Awa. A birder’s car was broken into some months ago here, and he did not want to take any chances. About this time the rain started. Heavy rain, and this was supposed to be the “dry season!”
We drove back into Lita for dinner. It was a moderately good meal, but cost $12. Pretty expensive for rural Ecuador. Maybe we paid the gringo rates!
Day 7 Rudy dropped me at the junction early on and drove back to leave the car. I walked ahead. Carefully and slowly. The clay there was wet and very slippery, but I had my staff and this helped to keep my balance. I walked for close to an hour and then heard Rudy call to stop where I was. I had gone beyond the place where the good birds started.
Rudy began to find birds, but they were high and did not respond well to the playback. The first bird I photographed was the Golden-chested Tanager, a new bird for me. Next to appear was a Northern Tufted Flycatcher, which posed nicely for a series of good photos. But this is not a book bird, unfortunately. Pretty plain and drab.
As we were watching a mixed flock of birds, mostly high and difficult to even make a record shot, two dwarf squirrels appeared on the trunk of a nearby tree. This was a new mammal, and an attractive little guy. They paused for a few photos before scampering on down the tree and disappearing. Then a Russet Ant Shrike appeared for a few photos, but it was another non book bird.
Across the road an Emerald Tanager was foraging at the top of a dead tree. How I wanted this bird to come down and pose. But it was not to be. I made the “record shots” but nothing close to a publishable photo. Next Rudy spotted a Choco Woodpecker, another new bird, but too far away for other than a record shot. Disappointing.
Then a particularly appealing bird showed up at the base of a bromeliad. It was a Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. The bird began bathing in water caught in the plant, but never came down for a portrait. So many good birds; so few good photos! At this point, we started back to the car. it was about noon.
Suddenly, Rudy spotted a Black-tipped Cotinga, sitting on a bare branch. It was one of my target birds for this part of the trip – a pure white robin-sized bird. But it was a long way away and against a white sky. A really tough photographic challenge and almost impossible. I took perhaps twenty shots at a variety of settings, but did not get anything of book quality. And the bird never got off this perch! I asked Rudy for playback, but the bird apparently does not vocalize, so that option was out.
As we drove through Altotambo, I wanted to make a few images of the decrepit, run-down buildings, but there were people standing next to or sitting in chairs in front of each one. I did not want to offend these folks, so chose instead to make one photo of the most well-kept building in the town. I concluded that it must be the mayor’s home!
The rains came again in the PM. We drove back into Lita for a nice chicken dinner and an e-mail catch-up, and called it a day.
Day 8 As usual, we were up and out early and drove to Awa Road. This time Rudy decided to chance parking on the road itself, instead of down by the carpenter’s home on the main highway. We figured that during daylight, for only four hours, it was a good bet. We headed down the slippery road again and soon came across a tiny little bird right by the road in a small sapling. It was an easy shot, but regrettably, not a book bird. This species is the Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant, certainly a cute little bird.
Perhaps an hour later, I experienced the worst disappointment of my 15 trips to Ecuador. Rudy had just pulled out the three-legged stool that he carried and suggested I take a break. I did even though I felt no particular need for a break at this point. Only a minute later Rudy told me to get to his location quicly. He was only twenty or twenty-five feet ahead of me, but had a male Scarlet and White Tanager at eye level in a small sapling only twenty feet in front of him.
I jumped up and moved quickly to his location, but the bird flitted about for a few seconds, never giving me a clear shot before flying off. Shortly thereafter, the dull female flew in, but I avoided shooting her in the fear that this would scare off the male. It was not to be. I never got a single shot of either one.
Perhaps a half hour later, Rudy found another Scarlet and White high in a tree. He refused to come down, but I made one shot as he flushed off a branch. It is not, sad to say, book quality. Not long after, we decided to make the U turn and slowly work our way back to the car. I made a few shots at the Valley of the Shadow of Death. First is Rudy, working his way down. Then Rudy shot me carefully walking on a log.
When we arrived at the car, fortunately, it was intact and we returned to Chuchubi. While Rudy went swimming, I walked along the road and made a few images, including a nice looking, but unknown butterfly. There were also many orchids blooming right alongisde the road. I returned to the lodge and Rudy insisted that I go swimming. I didn’t bring a suit, but had some shorts that I donned, and carefeully entered the steam pool. The water was COLD! While I did get completely wet, I never did actually swim. That was it for Chuchbi. We packed up and headed back to Otavalo and thence to Jeruselem to work those elusive birds there.
We decided to by-pass Jeruselem and go instead to a gas station near the airport where Rudy had seen the elusive and tiny Golden-rumped Euphonia. But when we tried there, no birds responded to the playback. So we checked in to a hotel right near the airport and ate dinner there too. We both turned in early as reville was scheduled for 4:45 AM to catch an early morning flight to Lima. Yes, south to go north. I checked in ar the counter at 5:05 and hoped to avoid Lima, but the agent advised that every seat was taken on the flight from Quito to El Salvador. So I settled in for the several hour wait and the long trip home. I was reading, when I looked up and saw a very captivating sky. So, even though I had packed my cameras away and thought I had taken the last image of this flight, I put on my small lens and made this image through the airport window.
I got to the gate at Dulles at the scheduled 9:20 PM after the long transit. While I had achieved some important goals on this trip, I still had a bitter sweet feeling after missing that darn tanager! I did reach my target of life birds, hitting 804, even though this was a secondary goal.