Wednesday 25 December 2019

Returning to the pàramo in Papallacta

For the past three months Laura and I have been exploring in Ecuador, save for a two-week diversion to southern Colombia in late October. Originally we had both planned to fly back to Toronto on December 19. However, due to some visa issues, Laura had to change her flight, lest she over-stay her welcome in Ecuador. Every tourist is allotted 90 days in the country during each 365-day period. Her 90 days began ticking when we visited Ecuador for a week in March, whereas mine had started the previous October, when I led a Quest trip to Galápagos. It reset on October 31, giving me another 90 full days for the next 365-day period. However, if Laura had stayed until December 19, she would have been over her limit by two days. Therefore, she had to change her flight, which she did, to December 14.

I decided to stay in Ecuador on my own between December 14 and December 19. Originally I had planned on staying at a research station in the Amazonian lowlands for these five days but due to a landslide and subsequent road blockage that idea came off the table. Instead I elected to rent a car and do some birding/exploring within a few hours of Quito. I had a small list of target species to aim for - basically everything that I had dipped on up to this point!

I picked up my car during the afternoon of December 13, said my goodbyes to Laura, and motored back up the highway towards the Papallacta area. I had booked a room for two nights at a decent(ish) hotel in Papallacta for 15$ a night and I was excited for what the next day had in store!

Early the next morning I rolled out of bed, scarfed down breakfast at the hotel and headed a short distance up the road to Termas de Papallacta, a set of hot springs. At 8 AM the gate would open beyond the hot springs, allowing one to access an area of high-elevation forest in the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. I had four targets in mind for the day - Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet, Purple-backed Thornbill, Crescent-faced Antpitta and Agile Tit-Tyrant. 

Superciliaried Hemispingus - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

I birded the grounds of the resort while I waited for 8 AM to arrive. This proved to be a good decision since I encountered a Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet on the grounds, in the exact same area where my friends Tobias and Steph had seen one a week earlier. A great start!

Soon the gates were opened, allowing me access to the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. Most birders visit this area with three species in mind - the Crescent-faced Antpitta, the Black-backed Bush-Tanager and the Masked Mountain Tanager. I had seen the two tanagers earlier, and the antpitta appears to be very difficult here now, thanks to all the guides that blast playback here (it has been "taped out").  Because I did not "need" the tanagers, I did not have to drive to the very end of the road where there is a parking lot by the ranger's station. That area is the best for the two scarce tanagers. Instead I focused on the lower part of the road, hoping to come across Purple-backed Thornbill or Agile Tit-Tyrant, which may just have the best name out of any bird.

Great Sapphirewing - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

The morning was quite birdy and I enjoyed sifting through some mixed flocks. Superciliaried Hemispingus was a new one for my Ecuador list, as was Mountain Velvetbreast. I found a nice selection of hummingbirds, tanagers, wrens and flycatchers in several large mixed flocks. One of the flocks had a pair of Agile Tit-Tyrants as well!

Blue-backed Conebill - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

My luck continued as I found a female Purple-backed Thornbill that was a little distant for good photos. A little while later I discovered a few more thornbills, including some aggressive males trying to defend their territories. They were also a little far for good photos, but at least the purplish colour to their backs is visible.

Purple-backed Thornbill - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

This species of hummingbird is famous for having the shortest bill relative to body size out of any hummingbird species!

Purple-backed Thornbill - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

I kept my ears open for Crescent-faced Antpittas throughout the morning, though none decided to vocalize. Oh well, three out of four ain't bad.

Feeling lucky after the successful morning, I backtracked slightly to the Papallacta Pass where I planned on birding the páramo around the radio antennas.

 Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

Located around 4300 masl, the Papallacta Pass is the highest elevation that I've visited. While most birders commiserate about the terrible weather at the pass - horizontal rain and pea-soup fog - I have lucked out on my two previous visits. In no small part due to the (lack of) weather I have succeeded in observing Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe on both of those occasions.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

But the seedsnipes were not what I was after this time. I was hoping to finally stumble across Jameson's Snipe, a high-elevation species that is at home in bogs and meadows in the páramo. Of course as I drove up, the rain began, which turned into a slushy snow. Visibility was near nil as I waited out the snowstorm at the radio towers. After half an hour it let up and so I geared out and headed out. Another half an hour after that, the snow had completely stopped and the wind died down as I set off to explore the winter wonderland.

Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

They say that the best way to find a Jameson's Snipe up here is to tromp around in the spongy páramo bogs. And tromp I did. For three hours I explored prime looking habitat, praying to have a snipe flush out from beneath my feet. But three hours later, feeling exhausted, I had to admit defeat. I felt that not only did I give it the old college try, I gave it the PhD try, to no avail. Can't get them all!

Below are a few of the common páramo inhabitants that kept me company during my bog slog - a Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant and a Many-striped Canastero.

Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

Many-striped Canastero - Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

Despite dipping on the snipe the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. Without a doubt it was one of my favourite hikes from our time in Ecuador. No other people; just me and the mountains. 

Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, Napo, Ecuador

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