Sunday, 8 December 2019

Quito's Páramo

Near the end of Mark's week with us we decided that we would take him up into a new habitat - páramo. These high-altitude grasslands occur in the areas above the treeline, and due to Quito's altitude (around 2850 m), there is reasonably accessible páramo that one can visit.

A cable car called the TelefériQo opend in 2005, representing one of the highest aerial lifts in operation in the world. The cable car begins on the edge of town at 3117 m and rises up to a hair under 4000 m. The cost was pretty reasonable - about 8$ per person, round trip - and great hiking opportunities abound at the top!

We packed lunches and rain gear and grabbed a taxi over to the cable car, arriving at 9:00 AM. Due to our (relatively) early arrival time there was not much of a queue at all and we were soon making our way up the side of the mountain. The views were pretty incredible overlooking the city, as the vegetation below us changed from eucalyptus forest to elfin forest and finally, to grassland - all in the span of just twenty minutes.

We left on one of the many trails, picking one that meandered towards the Ruku Pichincha summit quite a distance away. There were a few other people but we mainly had the area to ourselves.

Birding in the páramo - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Tawny Antpittas were by far the most vociferous of all the birds, though it was difficult at first to obtain a clean look at one. A Many-striped Canastero (great name!) was one of the first birds to show itself to us. High Andean habitats like this may lack species diversity, but there are some really interesting ones that eke out an existence here. 

Many-striped Canastero - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Hummingbirds are relative diverse at these altitudes and we identified four species in our travels. I noticed that some orange Chuquiraga flowers were in bloom - the favoured species for the Ecuadorian Hillstar - and mentioned that we should be on the lookout for this range-restricted and beautiful species. 
Chuquiragua (Chuquiraga jussieui) - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Sure enough, a male Ecuadorian Hillstar flew in a minute later, seemingly showing off its plumage. A much better view than the distance ones that Laura and I observed at the Papallacta Pass back in March, and a very memorable hummingbird for Mark.

Ecuadorian Hillstar - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Ecuadorian Hillstar - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Ecuadorian Hillstars ended up being surprisingly common and over the course of the day we observed at least eight - most being adult males. Some species of hummingbirds are somewhat nomadic, following the flowering schedules of their favourite plants. While the hillstars may be common now, at other times of the year they will be impossible to find here, if the Chuquiraga is not flowering.

Ecuadorian Hillstar - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Luckily the rain held off and we also encountered very few other people in our travels. We slowly added new birds throughout the day - Sparking Violetear, Sedge Wren, Plain-colored Seedeater, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch. Others were heard only, including Curve-billed Tinamou and Stout-billed Cinclodes.

Plain-colored Seedeater - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Insects were few and far between but we did find quite a few butterflies of one species that I still need to identify, as well as this crisp Shining Leaf Chafer beetle.

Shining Leaf Chafer beetle (tribe Rutelini) - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Mark seemed to really enjoy birding and he very quickly become comfortable with using the binoculars. He found this Chestnut-winged Cinclodes which ended up being the only one of the day!

Chestnut-winged Cinclodes - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Selfie in the páramo...

By late morning we had completed a big loop and were close to the TelefériQo again. A creek flowed down the hillside; we decided that we would walk a gravel road that ran parallel to the it. Often, creek-beds concentrate birds and this one was no exception. A few Black-billed Shrike-Tyrants perched on prominent branches, while a nice mixed flock passed through very low, comprised of Cinerous Conebills, Plain-colored Seedeaters and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants. Many Brown-bellied Swallows were also cruising around since the sun had come out, albeit briefly.

Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Brown-bellied Swallow - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

The Tapeti is a widespread species of cottontail that happens to be common in the grasslands and páramo at these elevations. We saw quite a bit of their evidence and even found a few.

Tapeti - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

With a successful day in the books, we made our way back to the TelefériQo for the short journey back to civilization. But there was one more avian surprise in store.

I scanned the sky, hoping to add a raptor to the day's list, when a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites soared into view. I quickly assisted Mark and Laura in getting on the birds, then entered the sighting on my eBird checklist that I had on-the-go on my phone. It came up as a rare sighting, and my camera was packed away, so I immediately threw off my backpack and grabbed my camera. Fortunately the kites circled back over our heads. allowing us to have better looks as well as a chance at "record shots".

Swallow-tailed - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

It turns out that Swallow-tailed Kite is a very rare species in Quito. There are no previous records on eBird for the city as the species is typically found in lowland and foothill habitats. I was later contacted by an Ecuadorian birder for the details on the sighting since it would make their annual report summarizing rare bird records. A very cool way to conclude our time in the páramo.

Swallow-tailed Kite - TelefériQo, Quito, Ecuador

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Exploring Mindo with Mark

Late on November 4, Laura and I returned to Quito following our two-week scouting trip to southern Colombia. Waiting to greet us at the airport was Laura’s dad Mark who had one week scheduled with us in Ecuador. It was his first trip to South America and we were excited to show him what Ecuador had to offer! 

For the first couple of days and last few days of the trip we were based in Quito. We went on some great walks, explored museums and the Basilica, sampled the local food (including our favorite 1$ empanada shop), enjoyed wandering the narrow streets and getting a "feel" for the city, thwarted pickpocketing attempts (twice!) and had a fantastic evening out at La Ronda. But the middle part of the week was what I was looking forward to the most – two nights in Mindo.

Chocó Toucan - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

As I have mentioned on this blog before, Laura and I love staying in Mindo and particularly at the Yellow House property. Mark had never been to the rainforest before and so we wanted to show him the sights, sounds and smells of this diverse environment. Where better to do it than at Yellow House, where a network of trails snake up into the hills, and where Swallow Tanagers and a medley of other tanagers flit in the gardens.

Swallow Tanager - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Rusty-margined Flycatcher - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We maximized every minute of our time here at Yellow House. Several hikes during daylight hours produced many memorable sightings, from clearwing butterflies to Guayaquil Woodpeckers, leafcutter ants to army ant swarms, toucans perched on trees to mixed flocks of foliage-gleaners, tanagers, flycatchers and warblers. Mark really seemed to enjoy the birding here which was great to see!

Rusted Clearwing-Satyr (Cithaerias pireta) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Fawn-breasted Tanager - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

One afternoon, Laura and Mark went into the town of Mindo to do some shopping and exploring and so I headed back up the trails on my own. This ended up being a very productive walk since I finally encountered the elusive White-fronted Capuchin group and also found a few life birds - some Pale-eyed Thrushes feeding on a fruiting tree, and a Giant Antpitta singing from on Trail 3. The antpitta remained out of sight, unfortunately. I also found a baby owl that I believe to be a Rufescent Screech-Owl - also a "lifer"!

Bran-colored Flycatcher - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Flame-faced Tanager - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

White-fronted Capuchin - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Rufescent Screech-Owl - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

During our second night at Yellow House we went on a nice long hike up into the hills. We were quite eager to show Mark how exciting the forest can be once the sun goes down! Fortunately the weather cooperated and we had a slew of great sightings. Near the top of the list were several Oilbirds that were foraging among the palms lining the trail. This was a life bird for me and it was fun to share the moment with Mark and Laura. We even had some good looks at a few of the birds as they hovered to pick off the palm fruits. It was hard to know how many individual were present but probably at least four or five. Oilbirds are the only avian nocturnal frugivore (like a bat!), and they also use a primitive form of echolocation. Very fascinating birds to say the least.

Below are a few photos of some of our other night-hike finds.

Pamphobeteus tarantula - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Palmer's Treefrog (Hyloscirtus palmeri) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Harvestman sp. (Cranaidae family) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Paratriarius sp. - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Stick insect sp. (Phasmida) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Round-backed Millipede sp. (Juliformia) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Acanthoclonia sp. - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

Pristimantis sp. - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

This next one is a type of giant cockroach in the genus Megaloblatta. This genus contains the largest species of cockroach in the world.

Megaloblatta sp. - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

On first glance this may look like a moth, but it is actually a derbid planthopper, making it more closely related to cicadas and treehoppers.

Unidentified derbid planthopper (subtribe Mysidiina) - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

The Oilbirds were amazing but little did we know that it would not even be the avian highlight of the night. We heard a Rufescent Screech Owl singing and kept walking up the trail, following the sound. Laura spotted it first - about 10 feet above the ground, right above the trail! But it got better. A few hours later as we passed by the same area, Laura spotted the owl again - except this time it was perched on a twig a foot off the ground, literally at the side of the trail.

Rufescent Screech-Owl - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

I did not even need a long lens since the bird was unusually tolerant of us, allowing me to take full-frame photos with my macro lens. It just kind of sat there, perhaps in a bit of a "food coma" after a successful evening hunting?

Rufescent Screech-Owl - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

An incredible experience with a new species of bird for all of us. If only all "lifers" were that accommodating!

Rufescent Screech-Owl - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador

We also set up the moth sheet on both nights, and it came through as well.

Phrygionis polita - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Hylesia aeneides - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified leopard moth (family Cossidae) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Cosmosoma sectinota - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Arta sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Clemensia sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Taeniotes sp - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified katydid - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified achilid planthopper (family Achilidae) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We had two nice surprises in store for our final morning in Mindo. First, a Sunbittern appeared beside a small pond that was immediately across from our balcony. Even better - it showed off its famous "eye-spots" in its wings a minute later as it foraged.

Sunbittern - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Sunbittern - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

 The second surprise were two male Guayaquil Woodpeckers that appeared while we were birding a mixed flock on the trails. They both came in quite close, providing much better views than the distant individual we had seen previously.

Guayaquil Woodpecker - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We enjoyed one last breakfast, overlooking the busy hummingbird feeders. It had been an awesome couple of days in Mindo!

Green-crowned Brilliant - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Laura and Mark - Yellow House trails, Mindo, Ecuador