Tuesday, 27 February 2018

ECUADOR 2018: Gareno and home (23-27 February)

This is the final blog recounting a very successful trip to Northern Ecuador with Nick Preston, Mike Catsis and Gabo Bucheli who brilliantly guided us around for almost three weeks. It is mainly illustrated with photos taken with a Canon Powershot SX60 bridge camera, many in the forest were at maximum ISO and slow shutter speed. We had had some great days in the Northwest, around San Isidro and at Sumaco and arrived at Archidona the previous evening.

23 February. We had breakfast at 06:00 and had time for a half hour walk around the grounds before leaving at 07:00. Nick and I again tried the Nature Trail but with no more success than the previous evening. We drove to the other side of Tena where we met Pedro the owner of Gareno and our guide for the next three days. A taxi with supplies went ahead, Pedro coming with us for the two hour drive to the lodge. We were on a tarmac road initially but it soon became dirt even though it was now the main bus route between Quito and Coca. We left the main road and for a while were back on tarmac. The habitat improved after we passed an oil company checkpoint which we were waved through after Pedro explained where we were going. Soon we were in decent forest and before we knew it had arrived at Gareno, or rather the start of the entrance trail. The camp staff had unloaded supplies from the taxi and prepared to take our bags to the lodge. Pedro suggested we birded the road while he went to look for a roosting Rufous Potoo. It was my main target at Gareno and one that had taken Dave Cooper until his final morning to see so Pedro’s confidence was music to my ears, although it made me increasingly tense the longer he failed to reappear. He finally did so from the opposite direction after what seemed like half a lifetime but was probably less than half an hour. He shook his head and wandered off again. My stress levels rose even further during the next half lifetime and it was with immense relief when Pedro returned saying he’d found it. We followed him into the forest, initially on a pipeline track then on a narrow trail before veering off down a very steep slope to cross a ravine and climb up the equally steep other side. We reached a ridge and a short distance down the other side Pedro pointed and there it was. Amazing bird and a brilliant find by Pedro as it was apparently in a new place although our journey to it sounded somewhat similar to where Pedro’s son Sandro had taken Dave Cooper in November. It would have been easy to pass off as a dead leaf lightly swaying in the wind. We watched it for half an hour appreciating how fortunate we were to have seen it before even seeing the lodge. We returned along another ridge to the road and down some steep steps, across a narrow bridge and on to the lodge for an excellent lunch. It was hot even in the shade and we stood down until 15:00 when we hoped activity might pick up. I took the opportunity of a coldish shower and the opportunity to sort out my stuff and wash out a few things. At 15:00 we headed into the forest on some narrow trails hoping to find an ant swarm without success and, other than a Black-bellied Cuckoo at the outset, without seeing much. We came out onto the road and birded along it seeing a good tanager flock (Opal-rumped, Opal-crowned, Masked, Green & Gold, Flame-crested and Turquoise) before returning to the lodge. We were sitting in the open-sided dining area at dusk when a Spectacled Owl started calling from within a really big thick tree next to us but before we could go looking for it the heavens opened. Nick was particularly unimpressed as it was a bird he’d wanted to see for a very long time (probably since 1985 when Colin Winyard found one in Panama that I saw after Nick had returned home). The torrential rain eased off temporarily and the owl called again but we failed to locate it before the rain came back with a vengeance. We were given a good meal and thankful of umbrellas returned to our accommodation on the other side of the clearing. Nick and I decided to be up before dawn to try again for the owl but it rained all night.
roosting Rufous Potoo at Gareno
a briliant piece of finding by Perdo, it sat gently swaying like a dead leaf
a much wanted species we came close to seeing in Guyana almost a year before 
Black-bellied Cuckoo at Gareno, another species I didn't see in Guyana

male Spangled Cotinga
female Spangled Cotinga 
24 February. The heavy rain persisted all night and only eased off after breakfast. It put us off owling and looking for Fiery Topaz in the clearing, early morning being the favoured time. A Ruddy Quail Dove from the dining room while we were eating was nice. We walked up to the road and along a short section of it until the rain stopped. We started along the Harpy Eagle trail which went through good forest although we knew the young eagle had left the nest in November. Along one of the ridges we saw a rather secretive male White-shouldered Antshrike while along one of the flatter sections were male Rio Suno and Long-tailed Antwrens. We also flushed a thrush-sized bird off a very low thrush-like nest with two eggs in it. We stopped by a stream for lunch which was brought to us by one of the helpers. Despite having a reasonable sense of direction I hadn’t a clue where we were and we joked about never finding our way back if something happened to Pedro although he was amazingly fit despite being 70. At the Harpy viewpoint we heard Pavonine Quetzal, fortunately we’d all seen one before, and saw another Black-bellied Cuckoo. On the way back we saw the thrush on its nest, but only its upperparts which didn’t help greatly with its identification. It then flew too quickly for us to see any features on it. Although we’d heard Lawrence’s Thrush calling from the canopy along the trail I felt it was probably the more terrestrial White-necked. We returned to the road and were back at the lodge at 17:30, in my case feeling rather tired. I had a quick shower then a Spectacled Owl watch until we ate but it called just once. After a good meal we headed up to the road at Pedro’s suggestion and walked along it for half a km. It was a superb evening and we heard Tawny-bellied Screech, Crested and Spectacled Owl and in the far distance, with a bit of imagination (at least for me with poor ears) a Nocturnal Curassow. Perhaps they were making the most of ideal conditions after the heavy rain of the previous evening. The Spectacled Owl was calling from the direction of the pipeline track so we walked back and along it. We were halfway along when Nick picked it out in the canopy. An impressive bird although it didn’t like being in the light and soon flew off. Pedro knew a tree above the lodge where he’d seen Nocturnal Curassow calling and though mid evening would be a good time to listen for it. We returned to the lodge but none were calling. After a short while Pedro suggested we go up anyway. It was quite a scramble and any self-respecting curassow would have seen our torches and heard us coming as soon as we started. We reached a ridge and stood quietly listening without any great hope when after only five minutes one started calling from below us. It was an amazing song and the temptation was to just listen to it but Pedro set off after it and we were not far behind. He led us to the base of the tree it was in and almost immediately Mike picked it out in his torch. It was high above us but a reasonable view through binoculars as it stood on a branch calling. I tried recording it but there was too much background noise for my basic Digital Voice Recorder which was a shame. I then tried photography but it was too high for the torch light to reach it. After perhaps five minutes it decided it had had enough of our shuffling around below it and walked slowly down a branch and dropped out of sight. An amazing encounter of a bird I never ever imagined I’d see. We almost floated back down to the lodge, surprised it was only 21:20. A long but very rewarding day. Pedro told us we were the first group he had shown the curassow to, he had really done us proud. Not at all bad for a 70 year old!
Black-mantled Tamarin

Harpy Eagle nesting tree, eagles long gone ...
another Black-bellied Cuckoo, Gareno was a good place to see them
White-necked or Lawrence's Thrush on its nest. I thought the former more likely but despite it flying this was the only view we had 

Black-headed Parrot
Nocturnal Curassow, facing right, requiring great imagination. It was much better through binoculars!
25 February. We were pretty demob happy after yesterday’s successes but there was still one speciality to see, Fiery Topaz, and the hope of an ant swarm. We were in the clearing at dawn checking the topaz’s favourite perch, a vertical branch at the top of one of the lower trees. 06:30 to 07:30 was the favoured time and just as we were about to give up and go for breakfast it appeared, briefly landing on its perch. It then hovered several times and gave reasonable views without performing for the camera. Nice bird though. After breakfast we walked through the forest on a succession of narrow trails suddenly ending up on the road on the opposite side of the lodge entrance to where I was expecting. By now it was very hot with little activity, three Black and an Ornate Hawk-Eagle perhaps our best sightings. We returned for lunch at 12:30 and sat around until 15:30 before returning along another quiet trail to the road. Once again it was very quiet with only a tanager/honeycreeper flock mobbing a female Spangled Cotinga although it did include a male Short-billed Honeycreeper which was a new bird. Sweat bees were an absolute menace all day and combined with the heat and lack of birds to drain our enthusiasm. Great as the trip had been we were all feeling it was about time to go home.
Gareno canopy tower, we gave it a miss
Fiery Topaz vigil
Mike, Gabo, Pedro and our accommodation 
impressive butterfly on Nick's shirt
dining area at Gareno
it had a nice view of the river
me trying to keep off the sweat bees, it didn't work (photo: Gabriel Bucheli)
Black Hawk-Eagle displaying
26 February. We started the day with a topaz vigil again from 06:30 and again it showed up at 07:25 but this time it perched up long enough for a photo. We had breakfast and left our bags to be taken up to the road while we went ahead. We birded along the road for a short distance while the car was being packed seeing Black-eared Fairy, White-chested Swift, Gilded Barbet and the usual selection of tanagers. On the journey back to Tena we stopped briefly near the oil checkpoint seeing Fork-tailed Flycatcher and a flock of about 500 White-collared Swifts. Further on an area of palms failed to produce the hoped for Point-tailed Palmcreeper but Red-bellied and Chestnut-fronted Macaws were nice as was our only Black-capped Donacobius of the trip. We dropped Pedro back at his house and had a quick look at the lagoon opposite not remembering, in my case, that it was where Dave Cooper and Brenda Kay had seen and photographed Sungrebe from a boat, not that the only boat there didn’t need a lot of bailing to make it lagoon-worthy. We stopped in Archidona for lunch although I wasn’t feeling hungry and stayed in the car. It was a mistake as it was in the sun and I rather overheated. We drove up to Guacamayos Ridge but the hairpins, probably combined with a change in temperature made me feel quite ill. It was cloudy at Guacamayos so we continued to the Vinillos Road where I was sick but we did see Black-billed Mountain Toucan, Andean Solitaire and Blackburnian Warbler. We arrived in Baeza late afternoon and I was still feeling very rough so went to bed. Nick and Gabo went looking for Rufescent Scops Owl but without success.
Fiery Topaz at Gareno

even nicer when the light caught its throat
a chance encounter with a Black-billed Mountain Toucan along the Vinillos Road
27 February. I was sick in the night but felt better in the morning. Mike wasn’t feeling too good either and opted to stay in the hotel. Gabo, Nick and I left soon after 06:00 driving to the Bermejo Road as providing our best chance of White-capped Tanager. It was not to be but we did see Andean Motmot, White-throated Toucanet, Golden-headed Quetzal, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Inca Jay and Plain-tailed Wren. A very brief visit to the first 500m of the Guacamayos Ridge was very quiet but we saw the same male Torrent Duck, Amazon Kingfisher and White-capped Dipper on the river at Cosanga. We were back in Baeza at 11:00 for a late breakfast and left at 12:00 calling in at Guango for 15 minutes. Not time enough for Sword-billed Hummingbird but we saw Gorgetted Sunangel, White-bellied Woodstar, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Buff-tailed Comet, Collared Inca and Long-tailed Sylph. We were soon at Papallacta and took the old road over the pass seeing Variable Hawk and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. It was a straight run then down to the airport where Gabo dropped us at 15:00. We said a sad farewell to Gabo who had been absolutely excellent throughout and I was already thinking of a return visit to the south. Flights were pretty much on time, leaving Quito early evening and over three hours in Bogota before departing at 23:00.
the Bermejo Road
Inca Jay
male Powerful Woodpecker
female Powerful Woodpecker

White-throated Toucanet

what appeared to be dead leaves were mostly butterflies
Amazon Kingfisher over the Cosanga River

last morning on the Guacamayos Ridge Trail

Buff-tailed Coronet at Guango
Chestnut-breasted Coronet
Collared Inca at Guango
Tourmaline Sunangel
Papallacta Pass
28 February. We landed at a snowy Heathrow an hour early but then sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes while the plane departing our gate was de-iced. I arrived home just before 21:00, as I was expecting.

It had been a very successful and hugely enjoyable trip primarily due to excellent travel companions Nick Preston, Mike Catsis and Gabo Bucheli. Gabo was a superb guide and without his knowledge of bird vocalisations, sites and local birders we wouldn't have done anything like as well as we did. We were very fortunate to have a day along Guacamayos Ridge with Gabo's good friend Marcelo Quipo Quipo who knew the area intimately and pulled out both Peruvian Antpitta and Andean Potoo that we would otherwise almost certainly have missed. A big thank you also to Dave Cooper for inspiring us to go and providing detailed information from his November trip. We considered his so successful, especially as he and Brenda Kay were 'self-guided', that we copied his itinerary almost exactly.

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