Thursday, 22 February 2018

ECUADOR 2018: Sumaco (19-22 February)

This blog is the fourth of five 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 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 and around San Isidro and arrived at Sumaco the previous evening.

19 February. I slept well and we left our accommodation at 05:45 for the short drive into the village of Pacto Sumaco for a good fried egg breakfast. It was then a 10 minute drive down to the start of the F.A.C.E. Trail where we spent most of the morning. We started with some antwren frustration as a small flock was encountered a short way down the trail. Mike and Gabo heard Slaty Antwren and saw a male with spotting on the wings but the bird Nick and I saw best was a male with completely unspotted wings indicating the very scarce Plain-winged. We both had the same side-on view but weren’t going to argue about it. We took the F.A.C.E. loop and Mike flushed two Band-bellied Owls from an area of bamboo one of which we tracked down and saw looking down at us. We stopped for a while at a viewpoint with a convenient bench overlooking a large tree. It was covered in fruit but few birds were visiting so presumably wasn’t ripe. The tree was a bit distant and we’d not brought a telescope, expecting to be in the forest the whole time. Nick saw a puzzling woodstar perched high up in the tree and Gabo and I took some photos of it. We continued and before rejoining the main trail Gabo heard what he was sure was Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Nick and my main target for Sumaco (Mike had previously seen one). We were soon tantalised by a male moving around in the undergrowth but never perching in view for long enough for me to photograph. After a few minutes it disappeared to be replaced by the female which caused me some confusion expecting the male but not a bright orange head and breast! She too didn’t linger but they were every bit as good as I had expected and not out of place amongst the other top birds of the trip. Gabo also let slip that it was a new bird for him, despite over a dozen visits to Sumaco. I’m glad he hadn’t told us before as I was worried enough about seeing them as it was. Brilliant. We returned to Wild Sumaco lodge for a brief feeder session late morning, paid for two days use of the trails and showed Jonas our woodstar photos. Careful inspection of them led him to the conclusion that it was a Gorgetted Woodstar. We drove for 5 minutes back up the road and walked to the Research Station feeders for lunch (we’d brought enough lunch/snack food in Baeza to last us). The feeders were active but without seeing anything different. After an hour we walked back down to the lodge ahead of a 15:00 departure for antpitta feeding. One of the Wild Sumaco guides with a pot of worms led us down the Coopman’s Trail to the feeding area pointing out a Grey-tailed Piha of the way – particularly fortunate as it turned out to be our only one. We settled in for the antpittas, overlooking an ‘arena’ in a gully below us. A Grey-cheeked Thrush (very rare at Sumaco and presumably the bird found there by Dave Cooper in November) nervously appeared, not surprising as a few whistles and some well-directed worms had one of two Plain-backed Antpittas chasing it off. Two much smaller Ochre-breasted Antpittas had to be quick to avoid confrontations too. With most of the worms eaten the ‘bully’ antpittas moved off giving the others a chance. We hung on hoping a Northern White-crowned Tapaculo might appear which one eventually did but it was a very frustrating experience for me as I saw little more than a movement. At 17:00, after 90 minutes there during which time a Blue-fronted Lancebill was seen, we continued walking along the Antpitta Trail which soon started to climb. A Crested Quetzal was a much wanted bogey bird for Mike but otherwise it was fairly quiet. The trail took us back to the road at the point where we’d left the car. We drove back to Pacto Sumaco and our accommodation to find there was no running water and the water butts were almost empty. We’d heard a siren earlier and learnt it was to mobilise the village to transport enough water for us to wash and flushing the toilets. The mobilisation seemed to consist of two individuals with a motorbike and a couple of large containers. They seemed to have it well in hand and we left them to it. We sorted ourselves out and returned to the village at 19:00 for a good basic meal. After eating we drove down the road and tried several spots for Foothill Screech Owl. We elicited responses at two but at neither did the birds come in although at the second site (near the start of the F.A.C.E. tail) one owl seemed very close at one stage. Very frustrating. We returned to our accommodation at 22:15, ironically seeing a Tropical Screech Owl in the village perched on telephone wires.
Band-bellied Owl at Wild Sumaco

F.A.C.E. Loop viewpoint, large fruiting tree centre-right
distant Gorgetted Woodstar in the fruiting tree
as was this Euler's Flycatcher
Ornate Flycatcher
male White-crowned Manakin
Jonas showing Nick, Mike and me a Napo Sabrewing that had temporarily stunned itself flying into a window (photo: Gabriel Bucheli)
female Golden-tailed Sapphire, one of the commoner (and nicer) hummers at Sumaco
Rufous-vented Whitetip showing its white tip
male Wire-crested Thorntails on a feeder at Wild Sumaco

the males were brilliant but I actually preferred the females
they had a lot of character
the seahorse of the hummingbird world
Grey-cheeked Thrush waiting to be fed worms
Ochre-breasted Antpitta keen to get some of the action too

Plain-backed Antpitta
ready to show all comers who is boss

Volcan Sumaco's dance of the seven veils, as seen from our accommodation

20 February. We had breakfast at 05:30 and drove to the start of the Waterfall Trail, arriving in light rain soon after dawn. We set off down the trail, the first part being easy going but it soon became a steep descent which was very noisy when near the waterfalls. By now the rain had stopped and the trail contoured for a km or so before a steep ascent up the Piha Trail. We eventually ended up back where we’d started. We’d been on the trail most of the morning with the less steep sections of the trail the more enjoyable. One had to watch where putting one’s feet on the steep downhill sections while the steep uphills were a real slog. Another female Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Lined Antshrike and Musician Wren the highlights. At the top of the trail we flushed a Chestnut-tipped Toucanet that Gabo felt had come out of a nearby nest hole although we couldn’t find one. My view of what would have been a new bird was very poor. Antwrens continued to frustrate with confusion as to whether I was getting fleeting glimpses of Foothill or Ornate until I realised both species were involved. We birded the road for a while, with a pair of Black and White Tody-Flycatchers the highlight for me, before returning to the Wild Sumaco lodge via the Research Station feeders for more of the usual activity while having lunch. Gabo called me back to the car park as I was leaving it to point out a pair of Golden-collared Toucanets, a target for me that the others had seen before. They gave good views but soon moved on. In the afternoon I decided to revisit the antpitta feeding in the hope of seeing the Northern White-crowned Tapaculo better while the others tried the road again. It was just me and a different guide. He had a different technique, going down and putting most of the worms in two piles but the result was the same with the Grey-cheeked Thrush and two Ochre-breasted Antpittas bullied by the bigger Plain-backed Antpittas. Antpittas are usually a big favourite of mine but I was going off this one. After half an hour the guide left me, his worms expended. I was determined to sit it out although without a great deal of hope but after 25 minutes the tapaculo appeared rather timidly. It gave excellent views walking quickly across the feeding area towards what was left of a worm pile, its white crown spot visible the whole time it was on view. It pulled one of the remaining worms off out of view and I set my camera up on the other but wasn’t quick enough when it suddenly reappeared and dragged it away. I walked back to the lodge, birding in the car park and at the feeders while I waited for the others. I had just started walking the loop trail when it started raining heavily and I returned to the lodge veranda until the others returned. They had not seen a great deal. We returned to our accommodation and had another good meal. We tried again for Foothill Screech Owl at the start of the F.A.C.E. Tail and again heard one, although more distantly than the previous evening. It didn’t come any closer and we soon gave up on it.
Collared Trogon at Sumaco
Napo Sabrewing
Wire-crested Thornbill
it looked very young and fluffy
female Wire-crested Thorntail
a too hurried shot of a pair of Golden-collared Toucanets in the Wild Sumaco car park
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock by the lodge at Wild Sumaco

back at the feeding station: Grey-cheeked Thrush
Ochre-breasted Antpitta

Plain-backed Antpitta

21 February. We had breakfast at 06:00 and drove to the start of the F.A.C.E. Trail arriving soon after first light. We had reached the loop and were heading down it when Mike heard a call he recognised at Striolated Puffbird. It was high above us somewhere but even those with two good ears (i.e. everyone apart from me) were unsure which direction it was coming from. We retraced our steps and were immediately distracted when Gabo heard a close Yellow-throated Spadebill. We had decent views of a pair but they were constantly moving and, for me, usually perched in a partly obscured position. Still brilliant and a major target for all of us. The puffbird continued calling and we spent two hours looking for it without really being sure where it was. It would respond to playback but only with another bout of calling and we were not convinced it moved at all. Frustrating but it wasn’t a species I thought we had much chance of seeing, and so it proved. We returned to Wild Sumaco lodge, checked the feeders and birded around the car park and the Lodge Loop Trail. In the afternoon we walked the Benavide’s Trail which was very steep in places. On a downhill section I turned a corner, Gabo in front of me distracted by his ipod or similar, to see a Wattled Guan on the trail below us. I said ‘stop’ but it had seen us and ran a few paces before flying low around the next corner. Unfortunately Mike and Nick didn’t see it either. The trail came out by the Research Station and I briefly checked their feeders, as much to have a five minute rest, before following the others down the Antpitta Trail. Nick and I diverted to the antpitta feeding area for a five minute rest (I was feeling my age a bit with all the ups and downs at Sumaco). It was well past feeding time and hardly any worms were evident but I lobbed a few small bits of stick down just to see if anything was about and might come to investigate. Amazingly a Short-tailed Antthrush did, something that had never appeared at the two feeding sessions I had done, apparently it never did when the Plain-backed bullies were around. We returned to the lodge up the Coopman’s Trail and paid for our third day on the trails. We returned to the F.A.C.E. trail at dusk for a final try for Foothill Screech Owl. One started calling as it was getting dark but it was some distance away and stopped calling before we could get close. Gabo briefly lost his torch as we climbed back up to the trail but we retraced our steps and soon refound it. We tried the area a few kms down the road where we heard an owl on our first attempt. This time we had a response and the bird came close but try as we did we couldn’t locate it. In frustration we ended up creeping into the bush it appeared to be calling from but it promptly stopped –presumably having flown out of the back. That was it, unfortunately. We felt that we’d tried out best but had come up short. We returned to Pacto Sumaco for another good meal and back at our accommodation I braved the ‘shower’ with a bucket of cold water.
Nick and my room. Mosquito nets were provided but we didn't need them. It is my mess on the floor
the sort of tree that could easily hide a stationary puffbird
Yellow-throated Spadebill
it being partly obscured for me messed up the focusing too
Gabo did much better (photo: Gabriel Bucheli)
Yellow-throated Spadebill (photo: Gabriel Bucheli)
another mystery bird in the fruiting tree on the F.A.C.E Loop but this time Jonas wasn't at Wild Sumaco to identify it for us

it seemed as close to Yellow-breasted Antwren as anything on the Wild Sumaco list although at the time we thought it most likely to be a rather sluggish tyrannulet
the end of a giant
Mike, Nick and Gabo on one of the trails, not sure we'd all get by the 'shirt police'.
Black-mantled Tamarins from the veranda at Wild Sumaco

Eacles ormondei attracted by the lights at Wild Sumaco, the most impressive moth we saw on the trip
large hairy caterpillar
White-fronted Tyrannulet
female Crested Quetzal

Short-tailed Antthrush at the feeding station

22 February. A lie-in, with packing put off until later, we drove down for breakfast at 06:30.  Pacto Sumaco had been a decent place to stay. It was comfortable, quiet and had nice views which sometimes included Vulcan Sumaco. The food was good too, if somewhat basic, but candles rather than electricity (although recharging was possible where we ate) and the running water not lasting a day were not ideal. We drove to the lodge car-park and veranda where Mike was a little ahead of us and heard and saw White-chinned Swift flying over. A grip which fortunately didn’t last too long as about 15 minutes later about 200 White-collared Swifts appeared and started wheeling around overhead. Before long we saw at least two smaller swifts, often chasing each other as they shot around amongst them. White-chinned but as more by process of elimination than seeing the named plumage feature. We birded the road seeing little of note and returned to the workers feeders/Powerline Trail area in the hope of seeing the Chestnut-tipped Toucanet better. We flushed it again, sooner than expected, and again failed to see where it went. We found a large hole in a nearby tree trunk and, assuming that was where it was nesting, set up Gabo’s scope on it from as far away as possible. After a short wait during which time it did not return we left Gabo’s scope and sent 45 minutes around the feeders. A superb Wing-banded Wren responded, only the second we had heard, and gave good views but was too quick for the camera. A Dusky Spinetail flew across the path into thick cover and took me ages to get a reasonable view of (thankfully my companions, for whom it wasn’t new, were very patient). We tried a lower section of road but it too was quiet so at 11:30 decided to head back to Pacto Sumaco. Nick and I went to check Gabo’s scope first but nothing was doing. I though this odd and slowly walked towards the tree, flushing the toucanet in the process but not improving on my very poor view. We had focused on the wrong hole! It was in a different tree and faced the opposite direction. We set Gabo’s scope up on the new hole but had to go a long way around to reach the car without walking past the hole again. We returned to Pacto Sumaco, packed, dropped off the keys and left. It had been a successful visit despite a couple of frustrations. I had one more new bird to see and we had Gabo’s scope to collect. We approached it from the south and I carefully walked up and looked through the scope. Nothing, I couldn’t believe it, but Gabo thought he heard tapping from inside the tree. We moved in a bit and suddenly the Chestnut-tipped Toucanet stuck its head out of the entrance and took one look at us before launching itself out of the hole. Again we couldn’t be sure where it went but we thought we’d disturbed it enough as it was and left it in peace. Brilliant. We drove down to the main road and headed east stopping for a meal at Hollin again although I wandered around instead, my insides still rather delicate. We continued to Archidona and arrived at the Orchid Paradise Hotel at 16:45. It was very posh and rather more expensive than we were anticipating but still cheaper than Pacto Sumaco. Gabo even thought he might take his wife and young children there sometime. Gabo, Nick and I set off around the Nature Trail hoping to find Dave Coopers Striated Antbirds but had no success, a male Spot-winged Antbird some compensation. Nick and I had a very nice room with fan, until the power failed for 20 minutes and we realised how much hotter it was here than at Sumaco. We had a nice meal and a lukewarm shower was very welcome too.
our accommodation at Pacto Sumaco in our last morning
another brilliant female Wire-crested Thorntail
Coppery-chested Jacamar along the road

accommodation and toilet blocks at Pacto Sumaco

Gabo saying our goodbyes to the family who prepared our meals

Chestnut-tipped Toucanet's nest hole, it took some tracking down
Golden-faced Tyrannulet at Hollin
it was good at standing on one leg

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