Saturday 28 September 2019

Escaping to Mindo

Following a busy week in Quito, Laura and I were desperate to experience nature and so last weekend we visited Mindo for a couple of nights. While Quito has its charms, a week spent living in the middle of it certainly reinforced the fact that Laura and I are not city people in the least - the number of people, the pollution from the buses, the constant rattling of the windows due to the traffic - it was getting a bit much for us.

At least, on most days we were able to explore a little bit in the afternoon in some of the local parks which definitely took the edge off. And the City of Quito has clearly put in a big effort to have an excellent system of city parks. They are all well-maintained, landscaped, and free.

Exploring Parque Metropolitano with friends from Spanish school

Last Friday Laura and I finished up our morning Spanish classes, cabbed to the bus station, and grabbed a bus to the town of Mindo. One benefit of traveling in Ecuador is just how cheap transportation is. The nearly hour long cab ride was 10$ (we probably could have negotiated it down to 7 or 8$), while the two hour bus ride was 3$.

While Quito is situated in a dry inter-Andean valley, Mindo is located on the western slope of the Andes and as a result receives much more rainfall. These differences become apparent as one crosses over the "rim" of Quito and down the west slope. Immediately the landscape becomes verdant. Soon we were surrounded by lush green hillsides, their steepness protecting them from deforestation.

Upon arrival in Mindo we made the short walk to the long driveway of our accomodations and immediately began to feel the tension lift. Several species of tanagers chattered along the roadside, a pair of Bronze-winged Parrots flew overhead and cows grazed in the nearby pastures, each attended by a couple of Cattle Egrets. It was so good to be surrounded by green again!

Laura and I booked two nights accommodation with the Yellow House. Located above the town of Mindo, the Yellow House has hummingbird and tanager feeders but more importantly, dozens of kilometers of trails that wind up the hillside into high quality forest. For 25$ a night one had access to the trails, a private cabin, and breakfast, which we found out was fantastic. A fairly reasonable price considering all that was included!

It was approaching dusk as we arrived so there was not really time for any birding. But Laura and I were excited to set up the moth sheet and do some night hiking.  I'll post some photos of the moths at a later time but needless to say the new moth light was a huge success!

Phobetron hipparchia - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We were pretty tired and so we stayed relatively close to the accommodations. The habitats we explored on our first night were mostly orchards and a bit of scrubby secondary forest - the nice quality forest was a significant walk from the cabins. Even still, we came away with a lot of great sightings!

Pteronymia alissa - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

This is a type of fruit-piercing moth known as Eudocima serpentifera, a species that is somewhat similar to the underwing moths in the genus Catocala from temperate zones in the northern hemisphere. Eagle-eyed Laura spotted this one feeding on an orange.

Eudocima serpentifera - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Callimormus radiola - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Eurema xantochlora - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Cupiennius sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador 

While walking along a huge silkworm moth began flying around us and smashing into the ground. Eventually it settled and we were able to convince it to open its wings. I believe this species is Automeris postalbida, which is in the same genus as the Io Moth that is likely familiar to anybody reading this from back home.

Automeris postalbida - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Sphenorhina nigricephala - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

My flashlight beam caught the telltale glimmer of a snake in one of the orange trees. We carefully extracted it - a Dipsas! We later identified it as Dipsas gracilis, the Graceful Snail-eater.

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

A little while later Laura spotted a second Dipsas gracilis! Not a bad way to kick off the weekend!

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Laura and the first Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Phocides sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified orchid (subtribe Oncidiinae) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified treefrog (family Hylidae) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We checked the moth sheet one more time (it was LIT!), but we were pretty exhausted and so we called it a night around 10:30 PM.

Homidiana sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

The next morning Laura and I were up early, eager to hike up the hill to where the nice forest began. It felt amazing to be hearing actual birds singing early in the morning - a welcome change from our previous accommodations in Quito.

Collared Aracari - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Several Central American Agoutis were active near the trail, a species that I never tire of seeing despite its abundance.

Central American Agouti - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Soon we were breathing heavy in the humid air, stopping periodically to take in the sights. I was thrilled to spot a couple of distant Rose-faced Parrots, the first time I had ever seen this species. It previously existed on my life list as heard only, but heard-only parrots are a little dodgy so I was happy to change that!

Rose-faced Parrot - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Half an hour later, Laura and I were surrounded by lush forest while the bizarre calls of a Wattled Guan emanated from the mist, sounding somewhat like a table saw.

Birding in the fog - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

The birding was a little bit slow, surprising given the time of day, but we eventually came across a few small flocks. A couple of Dark-backed Wood-Quails were calling down a slope while we also heard a few Golden-headed Quetzals and a ton of Rufous-breasted Antthrushes. My first Streak-headed Antbird for Ecuador provided good but fleeting views as it skulked in a trailside thicket; the common Ornate Flycatchers were a little more accommodating for photos.

Ornate Flycatcher - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Even in the early hours of the day, butterflies were active and flitting all over the trail.

Greta andromica - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Oxeoschistus simplex - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Heliconius melpomene - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Heliconius melpomene - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

With our stomachs grumbling, we slowly made our way back down the hill and towards the main lodge. On the way we were distracted by a nice sized mixed flock that contained my first ever Black-and-white Becard, a long overdue "lifer" for me. I was not initially able to manage a photo but fortunately we found a second individual with a mixed flock around our cabin later that morning. They are terrible record shots, but better than nothing.

Black-and-white Becard - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We enjoyed a hearty breakfast while hummingbirds attacked the feeders only a few meters from us. The diversity was not huge but there were some really nice species mixed in. A female Green Thorntail was probably my favourite, though it is hard to compare with the iridescence of the male Crowned Woodnymph.

White-whiskered Hermit - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Crowned Woodnymph - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Green Thorntail (female) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Following breakfast Laura and I explored for another hour or two,  finding many species new for our day list. We searched hard in an area where Bothrops osbornei (a type of viper) is sometimes seen, though to no avail. The cool overcast weather probably did not help our cause.

Fawn-breasted Tanager - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Flat-bodied Moth (subfamily Stenomatine) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Streaked Flycatcher - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Hypselonotus interruptus - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Glassy-winged Skipper (Xenophanes tryxus) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We also took some time to relax in the hammock, catch up on photo editing and journalling, and watch the birds around the cabins.

Ecuadorian Thrush - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Slaty Spinetail - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

In the late afternoon we headed back into Mindo to grab some drinks, while also stopping to photograph this species of clearwing butterfly in the central square.

Confusa Tigerwing (Methona confusa) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

For our second and final night at Yellow House we set up the moth sheet once again while also going out on a short hike around a wetland near the cabins, as well as up the trail through the orchard. Easily the biggest highlight for me was coming across yet another Dipsas gracilis - however, this one was in the process of eating a snail!

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Snakes in the genus Dipsas are known as snail-eaters but until now Laura or I had never actually witnessed the behaviour in the wild. These snakes have specialized jaws that aid in extracting the flesh from the shell.

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Graceful Snail-eater (Dipsas gracilis) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We observed several other odds and ends around the pond but most of our time was spent at the moth sheet. One of the other guests, Kirsty, joined us at the sheet and we had a blast marvelling at the diversity. I'll make a subsequent blog post with some of the moth highlights!

Casuaria sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

For our final morning at Yellow House we decided to have breakfast first followed by a nice four hour hike on the trails. Since breakfast did not begin until 8:00 AM we slept in a bit and then went for a walk down the entrance road. It was quite birdy and our day list quickly reached forty species. The "best" was the Common Potoo that Laura spotted. I noticed a Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet hovering deep in a thicket and chipping, with a couple of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds doing the same thing. We figured there was an owl somewhere in the thicket, but eagle-eyed Laura picked out the potoo, pretending to be a broken-off branch. Clearly its camouflage was not working too well this morning. 

Common Potoo - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Blue-gray Tanager - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

White-necked Jacobin - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Following breakfast we hit the trails, hopeful for what was in store. We had only been gone for twenty minutes when we encountered a very special species - two male Guayaquil Woodpeckers. These huge woodpeckers are found in areas west of the Andes in Ecuador, with their range just squeaking into southwestern Colombia and northwest Peru as well. Guayaquil Woodpeckers are listed as Near Threatened globally, mainly due to habitat loss caused by deforestation. The two woodpeckers tolerated our presence, allowing us to approach rather closely for great looks and photos.

Guayaquil Woodpecker - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

 Laura made yet another great find when she spotted a snake on the side of the trail. Her quick reflexes allowed her to catch it as well - a beautiful Clark's Forest Racer (Dendrophidion clarkii). The little guy wasn't too happy and let us know, but we managed to avoid getting bit throughout the experience.

Clark's Forest Racer (Dendrophidion clarkii) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Clark's Forest Racer (Dendrophidion clarkii) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

We climbed higher into the forest and elected to take Trail #4. This proved to be a worthwhile decision since we soon encountered an ant-swarm. Given the location it was difficult to see through the understorey, but we came away with great looks at Chestnut-backed Antbird as well as several other species (Zeledon's Antbird, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Golden-winged Manakin, etc). Photography was pretty difficult, however!

Lineated Foliage-gleaner

We also heard our only Toucan Barbets of the weekend, saw a Short-tailed Hawk and Hook-billed Kite, and came across quite a few other odds and ends on our way back such as Bay Wren, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet and One-colored Becard. All in all it was a productive morning, with about 80 species on our list by the time we left for the bus station in the early afternoon.

I'll finish with some photographs of some butterflies that we observed along the trail. The weekend was over much too quickly, but Laura and I made the most of it. A weekend in Mindo was just what we needed to power through another busy week of Spanish school in Quito.

Mevania Eyed-Metalmark (Mesosemia mevania) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Emesis cypria - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Leucochimona sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Altinote sp. - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Rusty-tipped Page (Siproeta epaphus) - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador

Corades enyo - Yellow House, Mindo, Ecuador