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Ecuador - the West Slope

Part 1: Papallacta Area

I flew down with Continental from San Diego via Houston, and thankfully the flight went without a hitch (I had heard horror stories about the plane being diverted to Guayaquil if it's too foggy in Quito).  Jane Lyons had arranged for a driver to pick me up at the airport and take me to my hotel, and the next morning a different driver (a bona fide bird guide) was to pick me up for a day trip to Papallacta.  Was too antsy to sleep much—woke up with a bird call stuck in my brain that I couldn’t recall like the proverbial song you can't get out of your head (finally did—it was a Red-billed Scythebill), so went ahead and did the morning routine, and at 5:10 (the time I had set my alarm for), I heard what must have been a Great Thrush tuning up outside the window!  I was just gratified that the first official bird of the trip wasn’t a Rock Pigeon!

 

Had breakfast and then went out to wait for my driver, enjoying a pair of Eared Doves building a nest in the meantime.  When he showed up, he was a pleasant young man named Edison Buenaño, and we headed out (and he confirmed the Great Thrush).

 

The first place we stopped was the old Quito-Papallacta Road, which had some high cliff faces where he hoped we would pick up Andean Condor.  Got a knockout Carunculated Caracara instead, and the songbird department was quite quiet (it was windy to boot) but I finally got great looks at a cute little Tufted Tit Tyrant!  The other highlight was a Black-crested Warbler that briefly popped up into the open.

 

                      

Left:  Eddie (Guide for a Day) readies his scope for the trek down the old Quito-Papallacta Road!    Right:  Scenes along the road

        

Center:  Eddie leads the way!   Right:  Quito with the (active) Pichinta Volcano in the background!

 From there we went to Papallacta Pass (where there’s a preserve now) and made our way to the famous radio towers.  The weather was horrendous, though: windy, rainy (turning to sleet and snow higher up), and I ended up bringing home a nice cold from it!  And of course most things were hunkered down, but we did get good looks at Bar-winged Cinclodes (a pair was right next to the road on the way out).  Many-striped Canasteros were calling, and I finally got enough of a glimpse of one to positively ID it.  A couple of Plumbeous Sierra Finches shot through, and Tawny Antpittas were all over (some very close), but wouldn’t come out.  It was miserable up at the towers; I got out of the car, took a few steps, my head started spinning and I said, “That’s enough!”  No seedsnipe, but we did pick up a beautiful Brown-backed Chat Tyrant on the way out.

   

Left:  The paramo is quite barren, and can get downright nasty!   Right:  Sleet on the bushes...

             

Left:  Paramo vegetation.   Right:  Close-up of the unique paramo bushes

        

Left:  Those yucca-like plants (when in bloom) host the Giant Hummingbird!  Right:  Yukky weather, which is most of the time!

Next stop was Papallacta Lake, where we got great looks at Andean Gulls!  Both Andean Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail were playing in the water, and in the songbird department picked up Glossy Flowerpiercer, both Scarlet-bellied and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers, Rufous-collared Sparrows, and singing Rufous Antpitta, and lots of Brown-bellied Swallows (especially around the little shanty of Papallaca itself).  A Shining Sunbeam made a brief appearance while we almost got run over by a Mack truck: the main highway was dirt at this point, so you had to negotiate carefully (and there were a lot of big trucks on that road)!

 

         

 

Left and center:  Two views of Papallacta Lake.  Right:  Believe it or not, this dirt road is the main highway between the Amazon and the Pass! (They are building a "real" highway…)

 As a special surprise, the last stop was Guango Lodge!  I told Eddie I was in trouble because I hadn’t studied for the east slope!  He gave me a crash course on what to expect, so that was great!  And Guango was indeed magical!  We were supposed to eat lunch there, and while I had been starving earlier, I barely ate anything as I was distracted by all the great hummers!  The primary “add-in” was the Tourmaline Sunangel, which was just exquisite when he turned the right way!  Shortly another add-in, the huge Chestnut-breasted Coronet, came to the feeder nearest me (handy)!  Eddie got me on another add-in (which I didn’t think was because I had been studying it), a lovely Long-tailed Sylph, but his tail looked blue when I thought it was supposed to be green!  (Turns out the tails of the eastern birds are blue…)  But I was overwhelmed by the variety; next to the sunangels, the Collared Inca seemed most common, followed by Tyrian Metaltails (and I never did see the copper…).  Shortly one of my dream birds rushed in: the Sword-billed Hummer!  They were quite regular, along with another I was hoping to see, the Mountain Velvetbreast.  White-bellied Woodstars came to the other feeders (they really do fly like bumblebees), and Eddie got very excited when a female Gorgeted Woodstar joined them!  What I thought was a Speckled Hummer making a brief appearance turned out to be a Mountain Avocetbill based on the photo, and Buff-winged Starfrontlets were very noisy as well.  Another big hummer came in, rattling loudly, that Eddie said was a Sparkling Violetear, but it didn’t have any of the classic field marks (except that it was big), so I was dubious.  But it turns out that immature Sparklers lack the violet chin and belly, and so can superficially look like a Green.  A Glowing Puffleg with his booties came in periodically, and a Masked Flowerpiercer was raiding the feeders as well!

 

                   

Left:  Entrance to Guango Lodge, just down the east slope.  Right:  Eddie beckons me to the shelter of the hummer feeders!

 When the rain abated somewhat, we ventured out and got great looks at Hooded Mountain Tanagers, a brief look at a White-banded Tyrannulet (although he vocalized quite nicely the whole time), Turquoise Jay, and a heard-only Mountain Wren.  In the parking lot he pointed out a White-bellied Antpitta singing, which sounded like a shortened version of the Chestnut-crowned.  Out on the road we had a female Purple-backed Thornbill cocking her tail and showing off, and heard Spectacled Whitestart for sure. 

 

    Papallacta River

 

After a few more pictures we finally tore ourselves away and headed back, making another stop at the old Quito-Papallacta Road to try for condors.  It was really dead this time, except for a Quechua family, the head of which was looking for his Cocker Spaniel that we had seen about ten minutes earlier!

 

      

Heading back towards Quito   

 

          

  Left:  Scenes along the way (with the sun actually out!)  Center:  We take another crack at the old P-Q Road now that the sun is out!     Right:  Looking towards Quito

 

Made it back to Quito and the hotel fine, kissed goodbye, had dinner, and crashed with some Nyquil! 

 

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