Wednesday 27 August 1986

ECUADOR & VENEZUELA August 1986: Rio Palenque, Papallacta & Henri Pittier

The third and final part of a blog recounting a trip to Ecuador and Northern Venezuela with Nick Preston in summer 1986.  More unreliable memories (some good, some not so) and scanned degraded slides that were not very good, and almost bird free, to start with.

Rio Palenque, Tinalandia & Papallacta (18-23 August)
On 18th August we drove from Santo Domingo to Rio Palenque in the rain, arriving mid morning.  We spent the rest of day on the trails.  As well as being wet it was hot and sweaty as we were not far above sea-level, with a quite different set of birds.  With the rain easing off it was absolutely brilliant and probably the best day of the trip.  The next day was almost as good and we stayed a third although by then the law of diminishing returns was taking effect.  Despite being an isolated forest patch it retained a number of excellent species, surprisingly so in the case of some of the larger ones.  During our visit we saw Rufous-headed Chachalaca, Laughing Falcon, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous Motmot, Barred and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Orange-fronted Barbet, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Choco and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Pale-legged Hornero, Great Antshrike, Dot-winged Antbird, White-backed Fire-eye, Black-headed Antthrushes each day, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-bearded Manakin, Tawny-collared Gnatwren, Bay and Nightingale Wrens, Grey & Gold Warbler, Orange-billed Sparrow and Crimson Finch.  We also saw Little Tinamou and another larger darker tinamou we thought was Cinereous until we realised we were on the wrong side of the Andes.   It is replaced on the Pacific slope by Berlepechi’s for which there were reports from Rio Palenque.  We left Rio Palenque late afternoon on 20th driving back to Santo Domingo where we stayed in Hotel Roma the first we came too.

Santo Domingo in the rain
Rio Palenque, a superb but rather small and isolated patch of forest
We left Santo Domingo early on 21st and drove the short distance to Tinalandia.  We spent most of day on trails seeing almost 80 species.  It as was at a moderate elevation and a much more pleasant temperature it had some different birds.  We saw Bronze-winged Parrot, Esmerelda’s Antird, Golden-winged Manakin, Slaty-capped Shrike Vireo, Golden-bellied Warbler and Grey & Gold Tanager.  We also saw what we identified as Broad-billed Manakin, now known as Sapayoa.  It had been reported from Tinalandia previously and I have since wondered if we were right.  We returned to the pickup hoping to find the start of old road to Quito but Nick had left its lights on and the battery was flat. My Spanish was marginally better than Nick’s so I should have been better placed to take the lead but I’m afraid to say that my reaction to this news was to fling the phrasebook at him and tell him to sort it out.  I was pretty tired by then, at least that is my excuse, but doubtless Nick was too!  He walked up to the lodge which we had parked just short of and found a very helpful lady who spoke English and came down with a jump lead to do just that.  By the time we got away it was dark making it hard to find the old road and we soon gave up and returned to Santo Domingo for the night.

We left early on 22nd August but again failed to find the old road to Quito so continued on the new one, through Quito and up to Papallacta.  We made many roadside stops from pass down towards Baeza but ran out of light and completed the last part in darkness.  We stayed in Baeza and retraced our steps with many stops back up to Papallacta Village.  Here the pickup failed to go any further and it was my turn to ‘sort it out’.  We asked in the village but there was no garage.  I tried phoning the car hire company for advice but the only phone was in an isolated and deserted hut on a hillside.  The hut was unlocked and I tried the phone but it was dead, maybe it only worked at certain times.  We decided to abandon the car if a bus came and return to Quito to let the car-hire company know where there vehicle was.  With a flight to Caracas the following morning we felt that there was no alternative.  While waiting by the car for a bus a local kid arrived and asked if we needed a mechanic.  We said yes without any great hope but he soon returned with his dad who quickly got to work.  I then realised in asking for a garage the locals must have thought we’d run out of petrol which was why they couldn’t help.  The mechanic quickly seemed to think it was a blocked air-filter (quite likely given how dusty the road was) and he seemed to be making good progress in cleaning it when the bus appeared.  We quickly decided that Nick should go back on the bus and I’d follow either on a later bus or hopefully with the pickup.  Nick disappeared, the mechanic soon had the pickup fixed and drove it down to the bottom of the village and back to demonstrate.  I gratefully paid him, gave him an old jacket I no longer needed and an armful of oranges - the back of the pickup was awash with them as a result of a misunderstanding on my part and we gave them away at every opportunity.  Driving back to Quito from Cotopaxi I saw someone by the side of the road selling oranges.  It seemed a good idea to get some as our diet was pretty poor so I stopped and started negotiating with him and handed over what I thought was the money for 10.   Before I knew it had bought over 50 but at least with a pickup they could go in the back out of the way although I wished I had an orange squeezer.  Back at Papallacta I got back in the pickup and drove after the bus as fast as I could.  Fortunately it was struggling going up to the pass and I soon caught up with it.  Getting past on a narrow hairpin road was another matter and my constantly beeping the horn had little effect – I was hoping to see Nick peering out of the back window but knowing him and buses he was probably asleep already!  I got past after three or four bends, parked by the road and nonchalantly leaned on the bonnet.  The bus went past but didn’t screech to a halt so I had to jump in the car and repeat the process.  Again I got past after much tooting, again the bus sailed past me by the road.  Fortunately this time it did stop a bend further down and Nick got off.  I hope the driver and passengers thought we were crazy Americans!  We made further stops up to the pass and down the other side but by now we had pretty much had enough and we returned to Quito and handed the pickup back late afternoon before getting a bus into town and finding a hotel.  Our two days on Papallacta Pass had produced Torrent Duck, Purple-backed Thornbill, Tawny Antpitta, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-breasted and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants, Red-rumped and Smokey Bush-Tyrants, White-capped Dipper, Red-headed Tanager, Hooded, Scarlet-bellied and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers, Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Mountain Cacique, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Slaty and Pale-naped Brush-Finches and Plushcap.

view from the new Santo Domingo to Quito road
we wondered if the old road went through any of the better habitat we could see
the road to Papallacta Pass

near the pass at Papallacta

White-banded Tyrannulet
Black-crested Warbler
approaching Baeza
scanning the river for Torrent Ducks and White-capped Dipper, it eventually paid off
On 24th we had an early morning walk around Park El Ejido in central Quito but it was almost birdless with Sparkling Violetear the best of just five species seen.  We got the bus to the airport and caught our late morning flight to Caracas.

view out of the rear bus window heading for Quito Airport
Quito Airport

Venezuela/Henri Pittier (24-27 August)
We arrived in Caracas mid-afternoon and hired a car for three days.  We got a Renault 5 with 150 free kms per day.  We were heading west to Henri Pittier National Park but to avoid Caracas we decided to take the mountain route to Maracay.  It quickly got dark and in Colonia Tovar the car couldn’t manage a very steep hill (we didn’t think to try and reverse up it but my reversing is pretty chaotic at the best of times).  We couldn’t face returning to Caracas in dark as we would have to to get onto the main highway so we slept in the car just outside Colonia Tovar. We were up at first light and drove back towards Caracas before picking up the main highway to Maracay.  We quickly found our way to the road to Ocumare and stopped at Rancho Grande in Henri Pittier.  I had hoped it would be occupied and we could persuade someone to let us stay.  I even hoped that Andy Field might still be there, a Brit Steve Gantlett and I had befriended there several years before.  We parked by the entrance and found a way around the locked gate.  The place was deserted although it had looked somewhat derelict when fully occupied as a research centre.  We birded along the trail behind the research centre but it was more overgrown than I remembered.  I was shocked to come across a memorial plaque to Andy Field by one of the biggest trees, he had been about my age and full of life.  I recalled him telling me of his helping get David Attenborough 100ft up to a platform he had built in the canopy of that tree for the filming of Life on Earth.  He had a system of ropes and pulleys leading to a small platform but both Steve and I declined his offer to go up with him.

 We ended the day birding along the road before finding somewhere to sleep, the problem being there was nowhere to get the car off the road and out of sight.  The next morning, Nick’s birthday, we concentrated on the trails, birded the road each side of the pass and climbed up to Pico Guacamayo.  We again slept near the entrance to Ranch Grande, Nick in the car and me in a bivy bag a little way outside it.  At some time around midnight, or later, a couple of passing policemen stopped to investigate us and woke Nick up.  The commotion woke me and I went over to see what was going on.  We had the usual ‘its not safe here … there might be bandits’ (yes and I’m beginning to wonder if you are two of them) etc.  I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying but got the impression it was along the lines of ‘if you pay us money you can stay’ or maybe ‘if you pay us we’ll keep an eye on you’.  Either way it seemed rather menacing and was a good time for me to play dumb - it didn’t take much acting!  I asked what their names and numbers were, trying to see it on the nearest guy’s lapel.  They quickly realised what I was doing, returned to their car and backed away with the lights off so we couldn’t read their number plate.  All rather unsettling and the thought, probably entirely unjustified, that they might tip off our presence to some rogues didn’t encourage us to stay there.  We knew there were few options to get the car off the road without driving for miles and we were reluctant to leave the car and sleep out well away from it so went a couple of km back down the road and parked by the only building in the area, a cafĂ©.  We got the car as far off the road as possible and found a couple of bins to but in front of it, sleeping on the pavement by it.  Fortunately the local dog was mostly quiet during our manoeuvres and we eventually got back to sleep.  A couple of hours later we were woken by the army, so much for the bins hiding the car.  ‘It’s not safe here … bandits (yes we’ve just met some in police uniforms) … insectos, serpientes’. They were much more friendly about it, accepted we knew where we were wasn’t ideal but our best option and soon left us in peace.  Strangely knowing the army were on the road was reassuring and we went back to sleep.  Our last morning in Venezuela started with a final look around Rancho Grande before driving back down towards Maracay.  In our two and a bit days at Rancho Grande I’d seen one new bird but it was a good one - Moustached Puffbird.  We had also seen Band-tailed Guan, Venezuelan Wood-Quail, White-tipped Quetzal, Grove-billed Toucanet, (new), Grey-throated Leaftosser, Black-faced Antthrush, Scallp-breasted Antpitta, Handsome and Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, Andean Solitaire, lots of tanagers and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch.  
view from forest trail at Rancho Grande

looking south towards Maracay from Rancho Grande
On my previous visit we’d stopped in some dryer more scrubby habitat near the entrance of Henri Pittier where there had been a decent trail behind a rather official looking building.  We tried it again but were soon apprehended by a guard and when they realised we were foreigner’s we were taken to see the chief.  He spoke excellent English and told us we had been trespassing on private land.  I told him I had been birdwatching there three and a half years earlier and had been told by a friend at Rancho Grande that it was OK.  We were told that was no longer the case.  The friend was Andy Field and we learned that he had been found dead at the base of his tree having fallen out of it.  Such a waste and a really friendly guy.  At least he had been doing what he loved.  Having established a rapport with the chief I’d hoped we’d be allowed to continue birding in the area but that was not possible. We didn't really discover why not but were told that much had changed for the worse in Venezuela in the few years since my previous visit.  We continued down to Maracay and birded the gardens of the rather posh Hotel Maracay.  Here we saw Barred Antshrike, Stripe-backed Wren and a returning American Redstart.  Going up a ravine a little way from the hotel we saw two rather suspicious looking characters ahead of us with a gun.  They were probably hunters but by now we were feeling a little paranoid and were pleased to keep quiet and out-of-sight until they had gone.  We soon headed back to the car and drove to Caracas.  We were back at the Airport with two hours to spare so drove along the coast to Catia for a seawatch, seeing Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Royal and Common Terns.  We returned to the airport for our early evening flight home and handed the car back having done 449km, just one below our 450 free allowance.  It had been a good trip although we had found Venezuela hard work and had me wondering how I had survived 2 months on public transport with Steve Gantlett!  The trip had cost me £785 in total, of which £490 was the airfare.  Between us we had seen just over 500 species in Ecuador and another 70 odd in Venezuela and I had had over 140 new birds.

Sunday 17 August 1986

ECUADOR August 1986: Coca Falls, Mindo & Cotopaxi

Part two of a blog recounting a trip to Ecuador with Nick Preston.  More unreliable memories and scanned degraded slides of poor quality to start with.

Coca Falls and return to Quito (8-11 August)

Getting on the bus we told the driver that we wanted to get off at Cascada de San Rafael, the local name for Coca Falls.  He appeared to understand and we tried to get some sleep, something I never find easy on a bus.  At 01:00 the bus stopped and we were told this was it.  It was pitch black with no lights on anywhere, not that we expected any, but we knew there was a road down to the falls and it didn’t seem immediately obvious where we were.  We asked the driver and he indicated that it was a little way further on, although why he’d not stopped there was a mystery and while we were pondering this he drove off.  We walked about half a mile without seeing a turning but were so wrecked that we feared we might walk past without seeing it in the dark.  We found a flat dryish area just off the road put up the tent and crashed out.  We were up at first light but there was no sign of the falls, a road to them or anything at all.  We were not certain we were going in the right direction or how far it might be but there was no traffic on the road and we had little choice but to start walking.  This we did hoping the falls might be visible around the next bend.  It was not until almost mid-day after the road had been climbing for a while that we came to a turning and heard the falls.  The bus must have dropped us ten miles short of where we’d wanted to be.  Had we not made ourselves understood or did the driver not really know the turning?  Never trust a driver!  We spent two days at Coca Falls camping in the parking area and living on basic supplies bought in Coca.  We mainly birded the approach road taking a narrow trail down to the foot of the falls once – up close the falls were too noisy to hear ourselves let alone any calling birds.  Highlights were Booted Racket-tail, White-tip, Wire-crested Thorntail, Coppery-chested Jacamar, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (up to three males daily), Golden-winged Manakin, White-tipped Spadebill, lots of Tanagers including Paradise, Golden-naped and Golden-eared, Golden-collared Honeycreeper and Olive Finch.  We saw hardly any other people during our visit which suited us very well while camping/birding although it wasn’t so helpful when it came time to move on and a lift would have been most welcome.  Taking our experience of there being no morning traffic on the road we birded around the Falls until mid-day before leaving and fortunately only had to walk for an hour or so before a bus came along. 

as the morning progressed it was clear we had been dropped nowhere near where we wanted to be, the lesson being not to trust a Driver.  The distant volcano was nice though.
 at least further up the road a river was visible and soon we could hear the Falls
the falls were very impressive when we finally reached them

me at the foot of Coca Falls
forest at Coca Falls
Ornate Flycatcher

leaving Coca Falls
We flagged it down and arrived in Baeza late afternoon.  We found a very nice guest house, Hotel Samay, on the main road, with a superb male Gorgetted Woodstar feeding on the flowers in the front garden.  A banana free cooked meal was a welcome change too.  The next morning we caught a bus to Quito.  The first was very crowded with standing room only but we decided to get on it rather than wait for the next.  I was looking forward to seeing Papallacta Pass having already crossed it in darkness when we arrived but I would have needed to be about four feet tall to see anything out of the windows when standing.  Back in Quito we visited the Viasa Office to reconfirm our flights and the Post Office to send cards home.  We returned to the airport and had better luck hiring a car, although a two seater pickup was all that was available.  Fortunately we could fit our bags in the cab, albeit not out of sight, so it would have to do.  We negotiated our way out of Quito as it was getting dark and slept in the car in a layby near Nono.  I had seen just 4 species all day!

Mindo and Cotopaxi (12-17 August)

We were up at dawn and drove to Tandayapa where we spent most of day on the Blue House Trail which was excellent.  We saw a brilliant White-faced Puffbird plus Buff-tailed Coronet, Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Crested Quetzal, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Green & Black Fruiteater, Turquoise and Collared Jays, Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush and some nice tanagers.  Late in the afternoon we drove down to Mindo where we found a cheap(ish) and very forgettable guest house, had a meal and bought some snack type supplies to keep us going in the field.  We spent all of the next day on the Yellow House trail, thankful that Ecuadorian’s did not regularly paint their houses a different colour.  The lower elevation was obvious both due to it being much warmer (verging on hot) but also the birds which did not stay active for long.  Despite this we had a reasonable day seeing Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Uniform Antshrike, Ochre-breasted Antpitta and a not quite so interesting selection of tanagers.  We left Mindo early the next morning heading back to Nono and made frequent roadside stops, especially before the Obelisk and at Tandayapa Pass.  We soon saw our main target, Toucan Barbet, which we’d failed to find earlier.  It more than lived up to expectation – superb.  We also saw Sickle-winged Guan, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Powerful Woodpecker, Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia and many tanagers including Glistening-Green.  We arrived at Nono late afternoon and as there was nowhere immediately obvious to stay drove up a dirt road to high above the town.  We saw Tit-like Dacnis and Shining Sunbeam but as the sun dropped so did the temperature and we quickly put up the tent.

early morning near Nono
later morning near Tandayapa

Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Blue House Trail
Black Flowerpiercer
Toucan Barbet

absolutely superb
Blue-winged Mountain Tanager
a rather distant Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia
Golden-headed Quetzal
American Kestrel at dusk near Nono
We were up at first light, welcoming the warming sun as we took down the tent.  We spent several hours birding above Nono but misinterpreted our directions to Yanococha (we probably went too high to start with) and never found the right place.  We saw several high altitude hummers (Black-tailed Trainbearer, Great Sapphirewing, Shining Sunbeam and Tyrian Metaltail), Tufted Tit-Tyrant and Hooded Siskin but not much else so decided to head back down to Nono and Quito.  From there we headed south to Cotopaxi, an easy drive once clear of Quito.  Having a pickup made it easy to give lifts to the few locals who flagged us down, without us having to try and maintain conversations with them in our poor Spanish!

above Nono it was very cold camping at altitude

further above Nono

approaching Cotopaxi
We arrived at Cotopaxi and spent the late afternoon around the marsh and the nearby hillsides and found a deserted hut to camp out in.  From the middle of the marsh I rescued an inflatable airbed that had blown there but it had a slow puncture and so was hardly worth having got wet and cold feet for.  A Tawny Antpitta on the hillside was an obvious highlight and we also saw Carunculated Caracara, Puna Hawk, Yellow-billed Pintail, Speckled Teal, Slate-coloured Coot, a selection of waders including Baird’s, Pectoral and Western Sandpipers and both Yellowlegs, Andean Hillstar, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch – all fairly typical high Andean fare.  It was a cold night and we spent all of the next day at Cotopaxi birding the hillsides around the marsh and low huts.  We saw Great Horned Owl, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Short-billed Marsh Wren and most of the species seen the previous evening.  No new birds for me but I did see 8 Tawny Antpittas.  After another cold night, it would have been warmer in a tent, we again looked around the marsh and nearby hillsides, seeing 4 Tawny Antpittas and Blue-mantled Thornbill, before taking the tent down.  We decided to drive up to the mountain refuge but our pick-up soon started to struggle and pretty much gave up about an hour’s walk short of it.  We continued on foot - it was a steep climb and we were feeling the effects of the altitude although it was the first time I managed an ascent ahead of Nick.  In the clouds just below the refuge at about 15,500ft a quetzal flew past me.  Unfortunately my views didn’t allow me to identify it but it still seemed an amazing record when there was no vegetation higher than 6” to be seen anywhere.  We continued past the refuge to the edge of the glacier but only because it was there – we saw very few birds at this altitude.  We headed back down and left Cotopaxi late afternoon to drive back towards Quito before turning off to Santo Domingo.  Once on Santo Domingo road the journey became a nightmare with poor visibility due to periods of heavy rain and low cloud.  The road was only wide enough for two lanes of traffic with constant hairpin bends making overtaking difficult.  Most of the other vehicles were buses going way too fast or trucks seemingly very slowly.  We would be stuck behind a truck for a mile before a straighter bit of road allowed us to safely overtake, only to find another just around the next bend.  It then got dark which made visibility even worse, and some of the lights on other vehicles were almost useless.  At least we couldn’t see how much of a drop we were driving by.  It was the worst drive I had done and we arrived early evening feeling absolutely shattered.  We stayed in the first hotel we found, the Roma.
Cotopaxi, on the Equator but with a permanent icecap

Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant
the marsh at Cotopaxi
Speckled Teal

our pickup and refuge

Tawny Antpitta

Bar-winged Cinclodes
Stout-billed Cinclodes

Andean Hillstar

Baird's Sandpipers, not the first volcano I'd seen them on following on from Volcan Irazu in Costa Rica the previous summer
me ahead of Nick on a climb, recorded for posterity!

getting higher
the mountain refuge
views back down the way we'd come
the marsh just visible in the middle right distance

clouds coming in
me on Cotopaxi

approaching the icecap
Nick on Cotopaxi

me by large icicles

the weather cleared as we were leaving

returning to our abandoned vehicle
a final Tawny Antpitta

it allowed a close approach
but the film scratched by dirt in the cassette

last views of Cotopaxi