Feb 18th - San Isidro lodge to Quito (via Papallacta)
Our final day of birding in Ecuador began with two hours of superb birding on the road near the lodge (multiple sightings of Black-billed Mountain Toucan and Crested Quetzal). Just as we were about to board the bus a pair of Masked Trogons popped up at eye level only feet from the bus. The male grabbed a huge hawk moth and after beating it vigorously, he swallowed it whole - quite a send off!
We climbed up the east slope towards Papallacta and had several superb studies of Torrent Duck today, including this juvenile (where the enormous feet are visible) and below it a nice adult male for contrast (note the difference in bill coloration in particular).
Tom, Paul and Galo all warned the group about the rigours of our attempt to find the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at the microwave towers above the Papallacta pass. This site is notorious for being windy, bitterfly cold and wet (varying from mist to rain to sleet to snow!). As we climbed the crew steadily donned layer after layer, until we rounded the final corner to the towers in the mist. Amazingly there were two seedsnip right in the middle of the road! They flushed, but a short walk later, we were all celebrating this amazing piece of luck.
Here is our whole group (with a misty backdrop) only feet away from the seedsnipe. This site is around 4400 meters elevation, but on this day it was not windy and we were all quite comfortable - a first for me! This was a great way to wrap up our adventure in northern Ecuador.
Feb 16th: San Isidro lodge
Our first full day at San Isidro started off with a truly rare sighting of a Mountain Tapir at a salt lick right beside the lodge restaurant. The first to arrive was poor Ann who was not quite sure of what to make of the lumbering tapir in the early morning gloom!
We spent several hours just watching the steady parade of birds come in to gobble up the bounty of moths attracted by the large floodlight during the previous night. Among them were these two photogenic subjects: first, a Spectacled Whitestart and then an Inca Jay (a split from the Green Jay familiar to many from southern Texas).
Today was to be a special day for many reasons, but for Tom and Paul there was one encounter that will always be remembered. For two decades of birding in South America, the bizarre White-capped Tanager has managed to elude them. On at least a dozen occasions they have heard flocks of this gregarious species calling loudly nearby, but usually at sites enshrouded in mist. Today though, we had a stunning and memorable visual experience with a flock of at least five of these stunning birds. Indeed they came within thirty feet of us for at least five minutes and they seemed remarkably curious about us. The shutters were clicking madly and here are a few of my favourite memories of a sighting that was TRULY WORTH THE WAIT.
Feb 15th: Termas de Papallacta to Guango to San Isidro Lodge
Our 6 am pre-breakfast walk was aborted due to rain this morning. But after a solid buffet breakfast we pulled out of the picturesque Termas de Papallacta lodge to bird the nearby reserve upslope of the hotel. By the way this hotel has great rooms and, of course, hot pools, right outside your door... and I am happy to report that the food is now on par with the facilities.
We had some productive birding above the lodge and the clear highlight was three species of Mountain tanagers, including the scarce Masked Mountain Tanager. We also had great close studies of both Black-chested and this distinctive Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager.
After leaving Termas, we descended to Guango Lodge for lunch. This site is renowned for hummingbirds and it did not disappoint. One of the birds the lodge is well known for is the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, and we had great studies of this female.
On our way downslope we stopped at a gas station before the town of Baeza and in the parking lot was an odd collection of recycling cans done up to look like clowns. I couldnt resist a photo (sorry Cathy!).
We arrived at San Isidro in time to bird the grounds for an hour or two and were rewarded with scope views of a singing male Wattled Guan. It was cool watching the guan sing in the scope and then waiting to hear its call 'arrive'.
On our way to dinner Galo showed the group the resident 'San Isidro mystery Owl' by one of the lights. This species loves to feed on large hawk moths attracted to the lights. It has affinities to both Black and White and Black-banded Owls, but differs from both in some plumage and voice characters and may be a separate species (hence the 'mystery'). It is hoped that DNA samples will answer this question soon. Regardless, it is an exceptionally beautiful bird.