I awoke with a start, the sun now much lower in the west, and a long strip of land now visible in front of the wing. But as we passed a patch of clouds, I could see another body of water beyond the approaching land. This must be the Panamanian Isthmus, I thought, and sure enough, I could just make out the thin, wandering line of the Panama Canal, and if I pressed my cheek against the seat in front of me and looked back over the wing, I could still see the Gulf of Mexico! With the realization that I was seeing the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans in the same moment, I no longer felt so tired– now I could finish my chemistry readings. Ha. Yeah, that happened.
Harold Eyster and I deplaned in Quito and got a ride to the Hotel Sebastian, where we would meet our guide and group early the next morning to head to Yanacocha. The two of us were fortunate enough to win a free Andes Introtour with Tropical Birding at the Biggest Week in American Birding last spring, and we could hardly believe we were actually, finally, setting foot on the Bird Continent. We met for a 5:00 breakfast of fruit and granola, and eventually left with our guide Andrés Vasquez and driver Nico for Yanacocha Reserve, maintained by Fundación Jocotoco and located an hour’s drive from Quito on the slope of Volcan Pichincha. At more than 11,000 feet, this would be our highest point of the trip and we would encounter a unique suite of species.
Our group of nine eagerly watched out the windows as the bus crept up the rutted, gravel road to the Reserve, with thick fog making for dramatic, albeit limited, views of the beautiful polylepis forest blanketing the steep slopes. The bus windows were open, with light rain and cool temperatures invading our sleepy bus, arousing our senses; we got tantalizing glimpses of Great Thrushes flying across the road and unknown call notes beckoned from the brush. Andres stopped the driver and listened intently out his window. We all filed out the side door at his signal and gathered around for a glimpse of a skulking Stripe-headed Brush-finch, which gave me my first taste of the difficulty of birding the tropics. You have to take in lifers in little bite sized chunks: a flash of a white throat, then a glimpse of a dark, striped crown, then a flash of dark olive wings. Now we were finally, truly birding Ecuador!
Yanacocha was simply incredible. We worked our way by foot up the road to the feeding station, drinking in the marvelous scenery. It was a habitat that I have dreamed of seeing for years. We looked down on a valley of polylepis forest, the trees shrouded in fog and laden with bromeliads. Up to our left was a steep, barren slope up to the rocky ridges that enclosed the valley.
Scarlet-bellied and Hooded Mountain-tanagers passed by in small groups, and we eventually were able to observe them feeding at a distance. Perched conspicuously were Smoky and Streak-throated Bush-tyrants and an adorable Brown-backed Chat-tyrant. Three Andean Guans sat up in the top of a tree down in the valley, and were framed by the energetic wanderings of a foraging Blue-and-Black Tanager, his electric blue plumage cutting through the fog even at a distance. We got excellent looks at both Tawny and Rufous Antpittas, and the haunting tremolos of Undulated Antpittas, reminiscent of an Eastern Screech-owl, accompanied us along the way. Tyrian Metaltails and Buff-winged Starfrontlets (large hummingbirds with striking, buff-colored greater coverts) were numerous, and we eventually came across a clearing below us that was hopping with birds. We saw spectacular Blue-backed Conebills, Rufous Wrens, Masked Flowerpiercers, and Spectacled Whitestarts, and Barred Fruiteaters called from the slope above us.
At the feeders, we flushed out our hummingbird list for the day. Along with Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers, the feeders were covered with Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Tyrian Metaltails, spectacular Great Sapphirewings, a Mountain Velvetbreast, and more Buff-winged Starfrontlets. Of course, one of the highlights here was the Sword-billed hummingbird, which aggressively wielded its 5 inch bill. The low hum of a sparring Sword-billed Hummingbird’s wings made for a convincing reenactment of a light saber duel.
On the way back to the bus, we studied White-banded and White-throated Tyrannulets and enjoyed a pair of surprisingly large Streaked Tufted-cheeks and Cinereous Conebills. A highlight at Yanacocha was certainly the very cooperative female Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, a high elevation specialty I was hoping to encounter.
After a picnic lunch, we made our way into the Tandayapa Valley via the Old Nono-Mindo Road, passing through idyllic cloud forest and picking up a few new species along the way. One stop yielded our first Toucan Barbets, brilliantly adorning a tall secropia with unfathomable color, Blue-winged Mountain-tanagers, Golden-naped Tanagers, and a Golden-crowned Flycatcher. But there was still the unremitting song of a Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush, hidden remarkably (rather, painfully) well, not 15 feet away, and down a steep slope off the side of the road. With some concerted effort, I finally managed to align the sparse gaps in the dense vegetation to get a glimpse of this gorgeous songster. As it sang, the fairly drab bird revealed a stunning orange mouth lining, seeming as though its syrinx was literally igniting with song.
After braving several treacherous landslides that choked the road to just a foot wider than the bus, leaving an ominous drop on the right as we climbed, we finally arrived at the fabled Tandayapa Bird Lodge. We all made our way up the winding stairs from the parking lot below, and settled in. The feeders on the deck were inundated with brilliant hummingbirds of unimaginable diversity, as they always are, rain or shine, morning or afternoon. The most abundant were the tiny but spectacular Booted Racket-tails and the larger, more aggressive Buff-tailed Coronets, which habitually hold their wings spread after alighting. Others included the amazing Violet-tailed Sylphs, Purple-bibbed Whitetips, Andean and Western Emeralds, Fawn-breasted Brilliants, Green and Brown Violetears, and more. After a long day and a relaxing period of feeder watching, we headed to sleep for another early morning the next day. We were all looking forward to a day birding the trails around the Lodge and the Lower Tandayapa Valley.