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Tapaculo-fest: A week in Northwest Ecuador (1 Viewer)

Mysticete

Well-known member
United States
Having just returned from Ecuador yesterday, about time for me to put together a trip report!

First, to set things up, NW Ecuador has always been very high on my wishlist of Neotropical birding destinations. For years I have read the tour reports of Tropical Birding and fantasized about Antpittas, Cock-of-the-Rocks, and Tanagers. In a relatively small area, you have a high density of really good and iconic Neotropical and Andean birds, and the elevational gradients mean and assortment of different environments to bird in. Ultimately, for my first trip to the Neotropics, Panama won out, which I visited in 2021. I would stand by my declaration that Panama is the best introduction to birds of this biogeographic region, as the diversity is a little more manageable. But having returned from NW Ecuador I can heartily recommend this as a follow-up visit.

For a long-time I had planned to visit with a tour company, but rising prices ultimately led me to consider booking a private guide, Nelson Apolo Jaramillo. Everyone has different approaches to birding, but my neurotic tendencies mean I can have a much more enjoyable trip if I leave the logistics of driving and such to a local. Plus with the density of new birds on offer, and my own general crappy hearing, I would never have managed to see as much by myself as with a guide. Besides, a local guide gives you access to all sorts of local intel you might not otherwise have.

Nelson has previously guided for other Birdforum members. Lgonz1008 used his services last year, and you can read his report here: Mindo: Birding the West Slope of Ecuador . Nelson is one of the top ebirders in the country, with a fantastic ear, and is brilliant on finding and showing even the skulkiest birds to visitors.

The other perks of getting my own guide versus going with a larger group is that I could focus the trip on what I precisely wanted to see. In this case, this meant going for Oilbird, one of my most wanted birds since I was a kid and reading about it via its animal card. I also made a special effort for Olinguito, a fluffy Olingo relative only described in the last couple of decades, and which reliably can be seen at Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge.

Ultimately I booked a 7 day trip. I would fly into Quito in the afternoon, then hit the west slope for 5 days. Following this, I would spend a day up at the high elevation sites of Antisana and Papallacta Pass, with one night and morning at Guango. I modeled the trip after the Tropical birding Andes Introtour itinerary, swapping in cheaper lodgings and a side-trip to the Oilbird. This was a fast paced trip and honestly in hindsight maybe I should have cut out the last two days of travel for more days on the West Slope. Doing that I would have probably had more flexibility and might have been able to avoid some misses, although might have still ended up with a smaller overall list. It resulted in a lot of time in the vehicle and made for some rewarding but EXHAUSTING birding.

I chose to travel in June, for two main reasons. First and foremost...I am a university professor. So I am limited to basically January and the summer months for any sort of birding travel. Nelson had a opening in the middle of June which also worked with booking. There are pluses and minuses to traveling to Ecuador at this time of year. On the plus side, there is a lot of fruit available in the forest, which makes quetzals and toucans especially common. I can confirm this, as several species of these birds that seem to provide trouble for people required practically no effort on our part. The downside is...that there is a lot of fruit available in the forest. This means tanagers are not so readily abundant at feeding stations, and indeed tanagers were a group that I felt we struggled with more than we should have, missing or nearly missing several species I considered pretty straightforward to see. Weather also is a factor. This is the dry season, which meant that other than on the east slope, we generally had really good weather the entire trip. As it turns out probably too good, as the warm and sunny weather reduced activity at some key sites, leading to some misses.

If you do a itinerary similar to this, also be prepared to pack a wide range of clothes. At Antisana the weather was chilly, making a jacket and gloves required. While in the lowlands it was hot and humid, requiring a different set of cloths. I brought a rain jacket but the high humidity meant I never wore it; I did use an umbrella at Guango Lodge though, which gets a lot of precipitation. Sunscreen is a must have due to elevation, and bug spray was useful, although honestly I have had worst experiences in Wisconsin in summer than in Ecuador on that front. If you even have the slightest chance of getting motion sick, pack Dramamine. There are no shortage of winding and sometimes bumpy mountain road, and make sure you go with full strength! The guide had a spotting scope so I felt no need to pack my own.

This is getting long so I will post references in the next post.
 
Books!

I spent a year preparing for the trip, looking through various Ecuador field guides before bed. This was not enough. At lower elevations, there is a frankly overwhelming diversity of birds, and even when I recognized the bird I often had trouble recalling the exact name, especially for the hummers and tanagers.

The main books I brought with me were the following:

Freile and Restall's Birds of Ecuador, part of the Helm Field guide series (at least in the States): This was the main field guide I brought with me for use in the trip. It's travel-sized but also a bit of a beast, so I normally left it in my daypack, and honestly relied more upon Nelson and asking him directly the field marks I should be looking for. It covers all of the birds present in the mainland of the country (Galapagos not included), including many that obviously wouldn't be possible on the trip. It's honestly not one of my favorite field guides, as I think the illustrations leave something to be desired, and sometimes just don't quite match the bird in the field.

Athanas and Greenfield's Birds of Western Ecuador was studied prior to the trip. Normally I don't like photo guides, but I found the text to be written in a way that was a bit more interesting, and some of the birds illustrated here, like Western Hemispingus, seem to be more accurate in the field than what is shown in the prior books illustrations. This guide only covers Western Ecuador, which unfortunately means some Antisana and Guango lodge species are not covered at all, while obviously stuff from the south such as Jocotoco Antpitta are, which is a bit less useful. Photos guides are always a bit hit or miss however, especially when dealing with forest birds. I think the guide is usable though and might be something folks want to consider if they are entirely staying on the west slope.

For other groups, I brought with me Tririra's Mammals of Ecuador. This is a very comprehensive photo guide to all of the mammals in the country, including stuff like bats and rodents. Ultimately, we didn't see that many mammals...I think we had 6 species on the whole trip (although some pretty damn high quality mammals in that count of 6). I'd recommend it even though I really didn't test its utility towards more difficult groups, since the mammals we saw were all easy to ID.

For herps, I bought Arteaga et al The Amphibians and Reptiles of Mindo. This is a beautiful book which is marred by covering a very limited region; I needed to consult it for a turtle seen in Silanche, which is not covered. I also rarely consulted this book, because only a whopping 4 herps were seen on the trip, one of which was a unidentifiable froglet. The Reptiles of Ecuador page (which they are trying to crowdfund into turning into a book) was much more helpful and complete: Reptiles of Ecuador

Finally, I got ahold of a copy of Noboa's Wildlife of Ecuador. This book is really marketed towards the more casual visiting naturalist. Its probably fine if you are only casually interested in mammals and herps, enough to want to ID the occasional critter you see. I wouldn't really recommend it, unless you really need to save packing room and want a single book for herps and mammals. It's totally useless however as a primary bird field guide for someone who is a birder.

I'll start covering the trip day by day in the following posts, but it might be a bit as a I need to process photographs still to post here!
 
First off, some initials: lifers will be in bold, while new trip birds will be in bold and blue. Generally I will only mention a bird on first appearance, not every subsequent day for the more common species. The actual ebird trip report that I will share at the end includes heard onlys, which I will mostly leave out of the birdforum report, unless significant efforts were made to see them.

Pre-trip tour travel

It was an epic slog of a trip getting from Wisconsin to Ecuador, with an initial set of flights to get me to Miami, where I overnighted, followed by another round to get me to Quito. This trip involved a short layover in Panama City, where I started my bird list. This got me my first Black Vultures of the trip, but also let me pad the list with some species I never saw in Ecuador, including Western Cattle Egret, Southern Lapwing, and Great-tailed Grackle, including at least one bird inside the terminal itself.

From Panama it was a short hop to Quito, where I landed around 1:00 pm. I intentionally decided, rather than doing all my travel in one day and getting in late, to break up my travel to give me an afternoon in Quito before the tour. This was to let me recover sufficiently from the flights and adjust to the much higher altitude. More importantly It gave me an opportunity to target some Quito area birds that I would not otherwise see later in the trip. Quito is within the Interandean dry valley "zone", which has its own distinct set of urban birds different from species found on the wetter slopes I would be spending my time on. The first of these birds would be visible upon leaving the airport. Numerous Rufous-collared Sparrows, including a tailess bird trying to do an antpitta impression, hopped around the outside of the airport, while a single Blue-and-White Swallow flew overhead. In the carport, a small flock of Common Ground Doves, the only ones I would see this trip, foraged. The sparrows were "quasi" lifers, in that I had previously seen a bird in of all places Colorado, a mysterious individual which showed up in a mountain town one spring, but was ultimately dismissed as a probable human-assisted bird, rather than a natural vagrant.

Birding later was confined to Zaysant Ecolodge, a lodge located a short distance from the airport that Nelson seems to use. My initial expectations would be that the property would be somewhat bigger, but really it's basically a set of separate small buildings surrounded by a garden and wall (My nerd brain immediately identified the Lodge as being a good place to hole up in case of a zombie uprising). I am not sure if the owner runs a rescue or is simply a breeder, but there were at least 20 Chihuahuas roaming the place, all of who were generally well behaved. A pair of puppies followed me around seeking tummy-rubs, which I found amusing as a fan of dogs.

The grounds are somewhat limited. I walked the grounds when I first arrive there after a far too large lunch, and then later shortly before dinner. While my list wasn't huge, I did still get 10 lifers off the bat my first day, including the swallow. My first walk through produced innumerable Rufous-collared Sparrows and Eared Doves, while the hummer feeders attracted Western Emeralds (the only ones for the trip) and the more common and ginormous Sparkling Violetear, my very first Violetear. A pair of Great Thrushes were also seen. Down near the bottom of the garden and perched on fence surrounding some farm critters were a few Scarlet Flycatchers, the South American form of Vermillion Flycatcher that at least for now is still recognized by the IOC as a separate species. That was kind of it for my first pass through, likely due to the warm weather.

Later in the afternoon, as dinner approached, the same set of birds, along with some new ones, were seen. A Tropical Mockingbird, part of a naturally expanding population which has colonized Quito, hopped around near some cabins. A pair of Turkey Vultures, likely of the South Temperate form, soared overhead. A Golden Grosbeak in a shrub was a great sighting...I would see a few flyby birds the next day but none as well as this bird. Finally, the feeders attracted a small number of Saffron Finch, a species that may or may not be in Quito due to natural colonization, while a few Scrub Tanagers, my first tanager of the trip, lurked in some adjacent bushes. The Scrub Tanager is an inter-Andean bird and these would be my only sightings for the trip. Not encountered were Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, another Interandean species, and Shiny Cowbird and Ringed Kingfisher, commonly seen here, were further no-shows.

After an adequate dinner of spaghetti and a shower which resulted in me knocking off the shower door (whoops)...I then headed to bed for some restless sleep. Tomorrow I would be picked up by Nelson and begin the trip!
 
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I always enjoy the first birds that tell you you're in a new country. Sparkling Violetear is an absolute cracker of an urban starter!
 
First "official" day of the tour.

A long long night preceded the first full day of the tour. I sleep poorly in hotels even in the best of times, and a loud party down the road from the lodge (?) blasted music. In my groggy state I was annoyed that some person was shaking the building I was in, then I realized that wasn't actually possible. Rather I was experiencing my first earthquake in a decade! Not long after that, it was time to get up and meet Nelson for a 5:00 am. pick up. The plan for the day was Zuro Loma and Yanacocha, then spending the afternoon driving down to Bellavista for the night.

I figured our first stop wasn't that far away, and opting to remain more alert I tried taking some non-drowsy Dramamine, as I am vulnerable to motion sickness. This was a very bad mistake: as it turns out we had 2 hours of driving, along winding and sometimes rough roads. Hillarity ensued, and while I thankfully had some full power dramamine that I was able to take, I didn't take it fast enough. Cue some epic projectile vomiting in which I amazingly was able to avoid getting anything on the vehicle, myself, or my bins. I did however, in my speed of getting out of the vehicle manage to slam my forearm on the door frame of the vehicle, creating a nasty cut and swelling, which seems an appropriate event. My last trip to the neotropics also resulted in a stupid injury, when I sliced my shin open on a metal bed frame trying to take off a sock.

Anyway, by the time we got to Zuro Loma, I was feeling much better. We were actually a bit early and so we stopped outside the reserve along a hillside with some shrubby vegetation, to try for some of the birds of this elevation. We scanned the shrubs and Nelson also played some playback, giving us a good sampler of species, including Black-crested Warbler, Plain-tailed Wrens, the first of many Spectacled Whitestarts, and only White-browed Spinetails of the trip. A distinctive call near the road soon revealed itself to be a Ash-colored Tapaculo, a drab little gray bird which I was quite excited to see, being my first Tapaculo, and who was quite cooperative. Also rare for this site were a pair of Agile Tit-Tyrants, the only ones for the trip. Our first hummers of the day were Tyrian Metaltail, which proved to be one of the most common hummers this morning.

We continued driving down the road, stopping for the call of a Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant. The bird took a bit to find, but eventually we found it perched atop a distant bare shrub on the hillside, although sadly we were never able to get it in the scope.

Finally we arrived at Zuro Loma Reserve, a relatively new birding site whose claim to fame is the presence of ant-pitta feeders for three species: Equatorial, Chestnut-crowned, and Chestnut-naped, the latter a particularly tough bird to see. We headed out to the hummingbird feeder station, which also had some fruit feeders. Soaring overhead were Brown-bellied Swallows. The first mammal of the trip revealed itself: the likely endemic Andean Rabbit. Bushes in the vicinity, even without the feeders, attracted quite a few birds, including White-banded Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and Red-crested Cotinga. The hummingbird feeders were active, with Mountain Velvetbreast, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, White-bellied Woodstar, the ridiculous Sword-billed Hummingbird, and of course many metaltails. Both Masked and Glossy Flowerpiercers also were in the vicinity.

Meanwhile the fruit feeders attracted the interest of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, and Yellow-breasted Brushfinch.

The feeders were the site for two of the three antpittas, so we spent some time here as the owner did his best to bring the birds in. Unfortunately, the Chestnut-naped Antpitta has been MIA for months, and the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta had also not been very reliable recently. The latter was a less of a big deal as there are several other sites available for it, but the former was more problematic, as it was a tougher antpitta to get. Of course if you read my signature I shouldn't have worried about Chestnut-naped, as I would later connect with the bird at Guango Lodge.

With both antpittas being a no show, we went down a somewhat steep but dry trail for the third species, Equatorial Antpitta. These dude were far more reliable, and indeed two birds were pretty much waiting for there bird breakfast, allowing pretty decent photographs and close observations. With one of the antpittas in the back, we then headed back up the hill, where I was certainly feeling the elevation and lower oxygen content.

With the available targets required, it was now time to head off to Yanacocha, the other temperate zone site before we descended into the subtropics.
 
Yanacocha is a relatively short distance away, although there was some concern if we were going to be able to visit it at all, as there were rumors of road closures for a bike race. Events that seem to happen regularly enough that I have seen comments about them in other trip reports. Birding didn't stop however, as the pastures between the two sites added more lifers, in this case a small flock of White-browed Ground-Tyrants and a large number of Andean Lapwing, the only shorebird I saw in Ecuador.

By the time we arrived in Yanacocha, it was almost unseasonably sunny and warm, with blue skies. Had we been hikers, this would have been perfect weather, but as it turns out this is sort of the worst weather one can bird in at Yanacocha, which is more often then not cooler and more overcast, if not sometimes outright foggy. Yanacocha thus would turn out to be a disappointment, and although new birds including some good birds were seen, it wasn't especially birdy and some big misses would occur here.

Starting off however, this wouldn't be obvious. Indeed Nelson ran into some birder friends who mentioned a Tawny Antpitta on a nearby trail. We headed out to see this bird first before taking the much longer trail to the upper feeders. This turned out to be a smart move as on the way to see the antpitta we encountered bouncing around in the open a Blackish Tapaculo. The antpitta was almost forgotten as we watched this little dude hop around, although we did get brief views of the antpitta.

We then hit the long and hot trail. Rufous Wren turned out to be common here, and was probably one of the most commonly encountered birds, along with a few other species from earlier in the morning like whitestarts and tyrannulets. We ran into some more birders, which would be a common event in Ecuador. I am pretty confident we ran into more birders over the course of the trip, even discounting tour groups, than I had for the month prior in Wisconsin. A couple of researchers were there tracking Ocellated Tapaculos. They were involved in a interesting study where they were looking at the shape and size of territories of birds at different elevations, trying to see if birds in the upper areas had territories that were larger than those at lower. A immature hawk was seen. One of the birders identified it as a juvenile Black-breasted Buzzard-Eagle, but I suspect it was an actual Variable Hawk. A Purple-backed Thornbill was observed perched on a wire. The feeders at the end of the trail were productive, with two new species not present at Zuro Loma: Golden-breasted Puffleg and Great Sapphirewing.

The walk back did see us encounter a small flock, but I had the damnest time connecting with birds here, dipping on a White-throated Tyrannulet and the only Superciliaried Hemispingus, the latter a bird I wanted to see mostly due to it having a great name. I was able to get on Blue-backed Conebill, my very first member of this tanager group

It was then time for lunch, and while lunch was being prepared we were able to get some more bananas put out. However the feeders here were pretty dead, other than a pair of very greedy and bold Andean Guans, which we had to chase off just to ensure there was something left for the other birds. The hummer feeders here also weren't super active, but they did give us the first Shining Sunbeams, one of the more distinctive hummingbirds. Hummingbird ID was a challenge for most of the trip with me. There is a bewildering variety of species, with different sets at different elevations, and while some were distinctive a lot of them sort of blended together, both in my memory of studying the field guide and in the field itself.

Eventually we did get a couple of birds to come in, those couple being a single Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and one of the two targets for this site, Gray-browed Brushfinch. However Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, one of the main targets at this site, never did turn up, and would go on to be a painful miss for the trip. As I would discover, although I came away with a good haul there were some ridiculous misses of birds that almost everyone sees, and this would be the first of those.

After Yanacocha we would then head downslope, traveling via the Nono-Mindo Ecoroute and making a few birdy stops along the way
 
I'm honestly surprised at the difference between the exact same sites from your trip compared to mine, but at the same time it seems like you didn't have to work so hard for some of the species I got and vice versa.

As for the Chestnut-naped Antpitta in the East Slope, do you know if it qualifies as a different subspecies? I'm worried that I'll need to check that one out for when it's eventually split like the Rufous Antpitta complex did.
 
I'm honestly surprised at the difference between the exact same sites from your trip compared to mine, but at the same time it seems like you didn't have to work so hard for some of the species I got and vice versa.

As for the Chestnut-naped Antpitta in the East Slope, do you know if it qualifies as a different subspecies? I'm worried that I'll need to check that one out for when it's eventually split like the Rufous Antpitta complex did.
Yeah, we just really had bad luck with weather at Yanacocha. Just way to warm and sunny...probably would have been fine if we arrived earlier in the day. We also had bad luck at another very popular site, otherwise I think I would have easily gotten 300 lifers. On the other hand, Milpe, Bellavista, and Guango were pretty amazing and productive.

Supposably the east and west slope forms may be split, in which case "my" Chestnut-naped would be a different species than the one you saw at Zuro Loma. Not sure what the timeline of that change would be.
 
Yeah, we just really had bad luck with weather at Yanacocha. Just way to warm and sunny...probably would have been fine if we arrived earlier in the day. We also had bad luck at another very popular site, otherwise I think I would have easily gotten 300 lifers. On the other hand, Milpe, Bellavista, and Guango were pretty amazing and productive.

Supposably the east and west slope forms may be split, in which case "my" Chestnut-naped would be a different species than the one you saw at Zuro Loma. Not sure what the timeline of that change would be.
We arrived at Yanacocha around lunch time (we tried and dipped for the Zuro Loma owl), but yeah, the weather in Yanacocha was "traditional" for us, we even had the fog roll in as we hiked towards the Golden-breasted Puffleg feeders. We couldn't see anything more than 10ft away from us at times!

Sunny weather definitely ruins it when it comes to birding. Only birders would complain about hiking with clear skies!
 
After a fairly solid lunch, it was now time to head off to Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge for the evening via the Nono-Mindo Ecoroute, with a promise of Olinguito and Kinkajou visiting the bananas at night. The ecoroute itself is good for birds, as would soon be evident.

It was a fairly long drive down, a long drive that was punctuated with birding stops along the way, either when Nelson heard something interesting or I think just if he expected some place to be a good spot. Mixed feeding flocks are the key to birding the Mindo area, and your success as a birder here will depend upon if you get lucky and hit several, and for that matter how fast you are at getting on and ID'ing the briefly appearing birds in them.

First stop we made along the way was a roadside grove of bamboo (I think...its been a week) running alongside a good size creek. I think the original intention of stopping here was to check for Torrent Tyrannulets and Dippers, but we had neither here. We did however get great views of Chestnut-bellied Chat-Tyrant, my first Chat-Tyrant. These were one of the favorite groups of birds I encountered on the trip, as I find there convergence with old world flycatchers fascinating, plus they are one of those flycatchers that just looks perpetually angry. Also seen here were the first Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers of the trip, probably the most common Mountain-Tanager seen.

A drive through a small fishing community revealed a large number of Black Vultures waiting to scavenge discarded fish bits, and the first Black Phoebe of the trip, of the potentially future split White-winged form.

We scored huge however with our next roadside stop, which soon revealed a sizable mixed flock. This flock contained a bright yellow female White-winged Tanager, both Metallic-Green and Black-capped Tanagers, Montane Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, a juvenile Red-faced Spinetail, Barred Becard, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-winged Saltator, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Choco Brushfinches, Smoke-colored Pewee, Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Whitestart, and Three-striped Warbler. A very nice introduction to the subtropics! A distant Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan was heard, and Nelson was able to get it in the scope for good views. I have generally heard trip reports mention having to work for these toucans, but we found these birds to be quite easy to find at this time of year. While this time of year tends to be poorer for fruit-eating species to gather at feeders, it is great for Toucans and Quetzals, which Nelson overall finds easier to see at this time. We also had our first lower elevation hummer here, a perched Lesser Violetear, showing the size difference between this species and the Sparkling Violetears that were so common at Yanacocha and Zuro Loma.

Not sure how long we spent here...at least 45 minutes if not an hour, with a near constant turn-over of birds. Eventually it was back on the road. Shortly before arriving at the lodge we spooked a White-throated Quail-Dove from the road, and later a White-tipped Dove.

We arrived shortly before dinner time at the lodge. As it turned out, I would be the only guest staying this evening. Because of this I was upgraded to a nicer room. Bellavista is overall the best place I stayed on the trip. The atmosphere was comfortable, as was the bed, and the food was good. I would without a doubt recommend a stay here and in fact if I have a reason to visit the area, I would like to try to spend a couple of nights here. I should also comment that being surrounded by forest makes for very convenient birding. One of the issues I think that would factor into later days of the tour was constant driving back and forth from sites, which inevitably makes owling difficult and reduces overall birding time. The plan was to bird Bellavista the very next day and it felt like we just had more time to target tricky species.

There was still some time before dinner, which I spent at the feeders, which provided a whole new set of Hummingbirds. At upper elevations the Sparkling Violetears were often the dominant species, but down here it was the Buff-tailed Coronets, a rather large and aggressive species. Also new for this elevation were Speckled Hummingbird (a drab species whose drabness actually makes it one of the easier to ID hummers), Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Puff-legged Racket-tail, and Gorgeted Sunangel, as well as a few more Lesser Violetears. The fruit feeders were deserted, but a pair of quarreling Russet-crowned Warblers provided some songbird action.

Dinner was then had, after which bananas were put out to try to bring in some furry visitors. Bellavista is one of the better mammal-watching spots in the Mindo area, which alone makes a couple of nights stay worth it. It's most famous guest is Olinguito, a near-endemic and one of the most recently described "large" mammals to be discovered. It's also reliable for Kinkajou, a species I missed in Panama, and both Common and Andean White-eared Opossums. The folks at the lodge advised to keep my hopes in check, as the Olinguito had not visited in about a week. As it turns out however, the Olinguito showed up right away, first shying away from the light, before somewhat later returning and affording better views. Unfortunately no other mammals were seen; I regret not taking a stroll down to the compost heap which can be another excellent night-time mammal spot, but I wasn't sure exactly where it was and I was tired.

After quickly checking the insect trap, which brought in a impressive diversity of moths and a honking huge rhinoceros beetle, it was off to bed for a early wake-up. Tomorrow we would head up the road for some Owling! But as it turned out, we got a bit of a preshow owling this evening as well, when Nelson spotted in the flashlight a closed perched Mottled Owl! This wasn't even a species I was expecting to see this trip, as it seldom shows up on trip reports in the area. So to get great looks at this bird was awesome (face it...great looks at any owl is appreciated!)

With one final owl in the bag, it was time to head to bed for real.
 
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Minor correction: Going through Clements groups today, I realize that the Pyrocephalus flycatcher I saw at Zaysant belongs to Vermilion Flycatcher, and not the split (by IOC) more southerly form Scarlet Flycatcher. Bummer, as that reduces the lifers by 1.
 
Day 2 dawned early...very early, with Nelson and myself on the road above Bellavista by around 5:00 am for some pre-dawn owling. Here we tried for Rufescent Screech-Owl, which was quite responsive and got close, but never got within view, remaining a heard only. While doing playback for the owl, some eye-shine was seen against the adjacent slope. Turning a spotting scope onto the eye-shine revealed a a pair of Swallow-tailed Nightjars, which eventually flew off. Didn't get a look at the long tails, but the male bird had a very distinctive "up and down" mode of flight that was quite evident. Also on the caprimulgid front were a trio of spotlit Rufous-bellied Nighthawk soared overhead. We also had Pygmy Owls here, with some distant Andean Pygmy-owls calling in the background, as well as a heard-only Flammulated Treerunner. Closer however was a Cloud-forest Pygmy Owl, which flew across the road a few times before getting caught in the light of our flashlight, allowing good looks.

The plan for the rest of the morning was to continue to bird above(?) the lodge, hitting up the Oreothraupis Reserve for Tanager Finch, before returning to the lodge for breakfast and to check out the moth trap. This was a productive stop, with a mixed flock which gave us our first Dusky Chlorospingus, Grass-Green Tanager, and Pearled Treerunner, alongside White-tailed Tyrannulets. A family group of Sepia-brown/Sharpe's Wren, a lower altitude replacement for Rufous Wren. We also observed some truly enormous earthworms along the road. Good views of Crested Quetzals were also had here, which proved quite common in the vicinity of Bellavista, at least at this time of year. Using playback, Nelson was able to bring out some skulky Tanager Finches. I tried my best to take photographs, however they seemed to do a good job of just bouncing out of the way whenever I focused on one. While watching the Tanager Finch, I heard some excited whispering from Nelson as he hurried me to stare at something across the road. I couldn't make out what he said, which impaired my ability to figure out what he was pointing to. But once it was gone, I did learn: SPECTACLED BEAR. Aaaaghhh! probably one of the best mammals possible in the area, and I missed it. A cub had been shimmying down a tree, and quickly had disappeared from view. This was a bummer, as it seemed to be unlikely I would have another opportunity for this cool critter.

After a bit more birding, we headed down for breakfast, checking out the feeders while waiting for breakfast to be ready. Strong-billed Woodcreepers provided good views from only a few feet away while scavenging insects on the the moth trap, joining Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers and Russet-crowned Warblers. A Turquoise Jay also stopped in to check things out. Meanwhile Golden and Golden-naped Tanagers visited the fruit feeders, but most impressively, Plate-billed Mountain Toucan! A pair visited the feeders, allowing good relatively close views and photos (really need to start adding some photos here).

We also hit up a trail for a short distance, which was pretty quiet, without much activity. We still however were able to get views of Golden-headed Quetzal, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, and Glossy-Black Thrush. Then, it was breakfast time.
 
A assortment of images from my first full day:
Sword-billed Hummingbird
Mottled Owl
Russet-crowned Warbler
Olinguito
Gray-browed Brushfinch
Andean Guan
Equatorial Antpitta
 

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Much of today would be spent either trying for flocks/special bird on the roads above/below Bellavista, or hitting trails. My notes are actually a bit vague on the order of events after the owling, so I will just divide the trail bits in the morning/afternoon with the outside Bellavista portions, rather than give you a chronological order.

Covering the trails first, we walked quite a bit more than we did prior to breakfast, and generally had a more successful run here of birding than we did earlier in the day. First new birds were a few Beryl-spangled Tanagers feeding in the trees near the start of the trail. We then visited the trailside Compost piles. These are actually great spots for mammals at night, with two species of opossums alongside rodents visiting here. Sort of regret not taking a stroll down here the night before, and would recommend future overnight visitors stroll down here after dark. During day, this can be reliable for some sparrows and doves, but Nelson putting his fingers to his lips suggested something a bit cooler. Sure enough, a beautiful Tayra was scavenging, affording good views before scampering off, to quickly to log a photo. I was actually really surprised by how big they are. While not having the stocky build of some other mustelids, they are still pretty impressive in size.

Continuing along the trail, we got a slow but steady addition of new birds: no real mixed flocks but a good steady addition of birds, some of which were brought out using playback. Some of these new birds seen along the trail included Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous Spinetail, Collared Inca, Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, and Flavescent Flycatcher, the latter of which I also observed perched outside the dining room later.

We tried for Occelated Tapaculo here, but while there were birds calling they were far away with no interest in getting closer. The same can't be said for Spillmann's Tapaculo. Multiple birds called practically next to the trail, and affording good looks of several birds. Spillmann's Tapaculo is the lower elevation replacement for Blackish, and was the third seen Tapaculo of the trip. This made me feel pretty good as it feels like most trip reports might only log one or maybe two seen Tapaculos on a trip to the region, and we were here at 3, only two days in.

Also seen at the lodge, but visiting the fruit-feeders, was a single Crimson-rumped Toucan. We also had Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan at the fruit feeder, affording better views than yesterday.

On the roads above and below, we had several main targets, particularly White-faced Nunbird and Occellated Tapaculo. For the former, we first tried a reliable location above the lodge, but although we got a response to playback that wasn't far away, the bird seemed quite content to remain undercover and not come in view. Our first venture for the Nunbird was pretty slow going, but we did add some birds, including Glossy-black Thrush, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, and rather skulky Toucan Barbet. We also had our first woodpecker, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, a group that we did fairly poor on during the trip. A distant soaring raptor gave us Barred Hawk, while perched hummingbirds included Purple-bibbed White-tip and Andean Emerald.

Our second venture was more successful, as we encountered a mixed flock which included a few birds from earlier in the trip (Slate-colored Whitestart, Brown-capped Vireo, etc), as well as some new birds. These new birds would included a flightly Sierran Elaenia that took forever for me to get on, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Streak-necked Flycatcher, Capped Conebill, Western Hemispingus, Chivi Vireo, and Azara's Spinetail. White-winged Brushfinches were also observed along the roadside. We tried again for the nunbird, but no further look. We also tried again for the Occellated Tapaculo, and seemed to find a somewhat more curious bird than the ones for this morning. Responding to playback it seemed to creep closer. and closer. Finally Nelson had me crouch down, as we scanned through a few likely gaps in the underbrush where we could maybe see something. And with almost perfect timing, in a small gap in vegetation, a beautiful Occellated Tapaculo crossed, showing off its white-speckled plumage and rufous head! Brief, but satisfactory. Making this #4 seen Tapaculo for the list.

After this final bit of birding, we then departed the area, heading to Mindo for the night, where I would overnight for a total of 3 nights. Tomorrow was originally planned to be Rio Silanche, however some last minute changes meant Paz de Aves instead.
 
It's amazing seeing the drastic difference in species compared to my afternoon and morning at Bellavista. Looking forward to see what else you connected with!
 
Yeah...it's interesting to see, despite a similar itinerary and the same guide, how different our experiences were at the same sites.

I do think one common thing I learned is that while it was more expensive, actually staying at a lodge vs in Mindo does make a difference. it leaves more time for actual birding versus driving, and actually lets you take better advantage of trails and feeders. Often better food and sleep as well. Bellavista and Guango Lodge were some of my better days, and both were helped by spending overnight at the lodges.
 
A long and rather restless night awaited me before the early morning pick-up and travel to Refugio Paz de las Aves. My accommodations were entirely adequate, but there location in Mindo meant for a much louder evening, plus the set-up of the room sort of made me feel like I was staying in a aquarium.

At any rate, Paz de las Aves hardly requires an introduction, the place famous for its training of antpittas, allowing good views of otherwise cryptic species. The whole refuge is basically a mosaic of farmland and degraded forest, separated by bits of more pristine woodland. The whole visit is sort of a production, with a set of stops that visitors go through. We would not be alone today, but rather shared the visit with a group from Tropical Birding and another bus of birders, although these folks appeared much more casual.

We arrived before dawn, listening for owls and checking out a site near feeders that had been some months back reliable for Black-and-White Owl (Presumably the same bird Luis saw last fall). It hadn't been seen for quite awhile, and we didn't break that streak. We then headed off to stop #1, which was an active lek of Andean Cock-of-the-rock, the only birds we would see this trip. As light levels slowly increased, the distinctive calls of Barred and Collared Forest-Falcons could be heard. Taking the short trail to the lek hide we were in for a bit of good luck. A Giant Antpitta was calling, and soon once was seen bouncing along the trail in the dim light. Not the greatest views, but an unexpected find that presumably the other groups, already at the hide, missed. This sighting would turn out to be fortuitous, as it turned out.

I am not sure how long we were at the hide, but at least 10 lekking cock-of-the-rocks could be seen bouncing around the branches, affording good views and photos of a truly iconic bird of the Andes.

As dawn continued, eventually it was off to the next stop, although we snacked on some breakfast foods in the parking lot. On the walk to to the lot, a loud Crested Guan made itself known from the top of the tree, affording good looks at a surprisingly large bird. A few other birds were also here, including the first Tropical Kingbirds of the trip (presumably the South American form) as well as a small flock containing Blue-capped and Black-capped Tanagers and Orange-crowned Euphonia. A flock of Red-billed Parrots flew by, affording good and for once not backlit views. Across from the lot was the first Roadside Hawk of the trip, a bird that would turn out to be one of the most common raptors seen on the tour. Eventually, it was time to drive to the next destination: Maria the Giant Antpitta. However, not long after starting our drive a raptor was seen alighting in a nearby tall roadside tree. YES. Collared Forest-Falcon, the distinctive pale morph. Forest-Falcons, which along with Laughing falcons have been argued to deserve family recognition, are a group I never connected with in Panama, and it was nice to get my first Forest-Falcon here. It also shows the advantages of having your own guide. Our vehicle was ahead of the buses and I don't think anyone other than Nelson and myself were able to get on the bird before it flew off.

Stop #2 Was the Giant Antpitta. And only the Giant Antpitta. I can sadly report that the last of the habituated Dark-backed Wood-Quails, at probably the most reliable place in the world for them, have headed off to that giant flock in the sky, the flock being slowly picked off by predators over the last few years with the final lonesome bird disappearing some months previously. Although we did here the birds, it's going to be a lot more difficult to connect with this species in the future, and you shouldn't, at least for the near future, expect to see this bird here.

The normal strategy here is for folks to wait around by the vehicles, while Angel and his son headed off on trails to find a bird. Sometimes it's a short wait...sometimes its a long wait. Sometimes it involves a bit of a hike and sometimes the birds are next to the road. As it turned out, we would be in for a long wait. While waiting, Nelson trained the spotting scope on a reliable roosting Lyre-tailed Nightjar, a bird that has been roosting there for some time. A few other birds were around, including my first Ornate Flycatcher. While one of the Tropical Birding folks were able to bring a fairly bold pair of Zeledon's Antbird into some worms.

After about an hour of no luck, Angel showed back up at the group, with a PIECE of Maria, in this case a wing: a predator had nabbed one of the habituated antpittas. This is not the first time it has happened. In truth their have been multiple Marias over the years and a future Maria will probably be habituated. But for us there would be no Giant Antpitta this morning. Thankfully I had seen a bird on the trail this morning, but still not quite the same as the photogenic birds normally seen. Still better than nothing.

Now it was time for the patented Paz de las Aves breakfast. It's the same meal everytime, but it was also probably some of the most delicious food I had on the trip. There are two courses. The first was (and I am almost certainly getting spelling wrong here), bollones. These are balls of smashed plantains with shredded chicken in the middle, fried. Delicious. Next up are the cheese empanadas. These empanadas are less like some of the ones I have had in states. Think more of a fried elephant ear with some cheese in the middle. While you are waiting for breakfast, there is the distraction of a set of hummingbird feeders. Here, at a lower elevation than Bellavista, a new set of hummers are present. These included Velvet-purple Coronets, Brown Incas, and Violet-tailed Sylphs. A pair of Mist Whorltail-Iguanas sunned themselves on a tree, the only lizards seen on the trip surprisingly enough. A flock of Euphonias in adjacent trees concealed a few Yellow-bellied Siskins. With breakfast (second breakfast) done, it was now time to stop #4

Here there were fruit feeders and more hummingbird feeders, and while we settled in for a watch folks went down the trail to try for the new antpittas here: Moustached and Ochre-breasted. New birds at the feeders included Brown Violetear and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager. More impressively, a pair of gorgeous Toucan Barbets, affording great views came to the feeders. Much better views than yesterday's more distant birds.

We soon got the signal to head down the trail, where good views were soon had of Moustached Antpitta. While we waited for the Ochre-breasted, a Rufous-breasted Antthrush called, but the bird was forgotten when Ochre-breasted Antpitta was seen, affording more great views. On the way out, we had a short delay as one of the buses, blocking everyone in, had a flat they were already working on. Did give me time to see a Golden-bellied Flycatcher.

Stop #5 was for Yellow-breasted Antpitta. This bird was not nearly as cooperative as the last two antpittas. We ventured down a very short trail in front of a small waterfall, a group of us all clustering in one spot waiting for the bird to be called in. This at least wasn't a case of of the bird being dead, as a antpitta was clearly responding, but refusing to leave cover on the hillside. This would be a long uncomfortable stand, of about a hour length, not helped as other birders were becoming more and more talkative, decreasing the odds of the antpitta coming out. While waiting, we did have the first Swallow-tailed Kites (another common raptor in the area), along with White-collared Swift and Red-faced Spinetail. Alas, said antpitta never showed, which sucks as this would be the only reasonable chance for the species on this trip. Nelson made an executive decision to separate from the other groups and try for a bit long for the antpitta, but with no luck. We skipped out on Chestnut-crowned Antipitta, which would have been the next and final stop of the Paz de Aves tour: Nelson told me that a bird had been coming in reliably to a feeder at Guango Lodge, which we would be visiting later in the trip. I was a little apprehensive about this, as I tend to believe that its better to make as many tries as possible for a good bird, rather than putting all your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

It was now time to drive off to lunch, and then to Milpe, the afternoon destination. on the way out we encountered a flock of seedeaters in the fields: these included both Variable and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters, and the first Southern Rough-winged Swallows swooped overhead. We also stopped at a rocky stream which had Torrent Tyrannulets, but I could never get them into view.

Overall, Refugio Paz de las Aves gave up some good birds, even if we only scored 2 of the 4 possible antpittas we tried for. There is a certain "Hurry up and wait" quality here that isn't particularly to my taste. It felt like we were hurried through some good spots like the feeders, only to be stuck waiting around for the next target to show, which often didn't. We never really encountered any significant mixed flocks here either, which didn't help the wait. Realistically, for most birders this is pretty much the only place you can reliably see some of the species on display. So I certainly wouldn't dismiss it as a birding spot. But I also wouldn't list it as a my favorite birding location of the trip.
 
Love to read someone visiting more or less the same spots almost a year after me. And interesting how much of a difference it can be. Partially by the approach and partially by the time of the year.
Both my Bellavista and Paz de Las Aves experiences were very different, while Yanacocha is very similiar. Looking forward to the next parts.
 

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