Friday 24 November 2023

A Rare Hummingbird Twitch In Ecuador

October 22, 2023

I recently returned from Ecuador where I had spent the previous couple of weeks. The main purpose of the trip was to lead a tour for Worldwide Quest to the Galápagos archipelago, but I made some time for a little extra-curricular birding as well. If I was going to be in Ecuador, I might as well spend a few days searching for some interesting species!

Collared Inca - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

My flight would be arriving in Quito mid-morning on October 22, and my tour responsibilities did not commence until the morning of October 24. It seemed like a waste to spend a day and a half at the hotel catching up on sleep from the redeye, and so I had debated what I should do with my free time. Fortuitously, a rare bird had been found a few weeks earlier; this simplified my decision. 

The Black-breasted Puffleg is a rare hummingbird with a restricted range in the mountains west of Quito. Not much is known about this species and sightings are few and far between. Sometimes, one or two individuals can be found at Reserva Yanacocha, but these encounters usually occur between May and July - a time when I have never visited Ecuador - and I hadn't had a lucky sighting on any of my previous visits to Yanacocha. 

Hooded Mountain-Tanager - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

However, on October 11 a male Black-breasted Puffleg appeared at a small, family run reserve called Reserva Zuro Loma and it continued to be seen on each subsequent day. I got in touch with Dario Hipo and arranged a visit for the afternoon of October 22. And so after picking up my rental car from the airport I hit the road, feeling a little bleary-eyed but the adrenaline was coursing through my veins at the thought of finally bagging this rare species. 

It felt comfortable and familiar driving these roads once again, as Laura and I had spent quite a bit of time in Ecuador in 2019. The drive was non-eventful and I had no issue with the bumpy dirt road leading to Reserva Zuro Loma. I introduced myself to Dario and he showed me the area that the puffleg had been frequenting. 

 View from Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

We only had to wait around 10 minutes until a dark hummingbird zipped into the vine tangle in front of us and began feeding. The puffleg! 

Black-breasted Puffleg - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Dario left to attend to some other business while I sat down on the slope and concentrated on photographing the Black-breasted Puffleg. His visits were infrequent and over the course of several hours I only saw him on a few subsequent occasions. I also focused on obtaining a really good look, meaning that my photos were more "record shot" than "eBird home page" in quality. 

Black-breasted Puffleg - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

That being said, when the angle was right, his gorget lit up with gorgeous purples and blues. A stunner!

Black-breasted Puffleg - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

I spent some time reacquainting myself with some of the other birds (and bird sounds) from this elevation band. It's strange - I have spent a decent amount of time both in this part of Ecuador, and at similar elevations in Colombia and Peru, and I was hearing familiar bird sounds that I just couldn't place. That being said, things came back quickly and by the end of my visit I was already feeling a lot more confident with the bird calls. 

Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Ash-colored and Blackish Tapaculos were quite vocal, as were Equatorial, Chestnut-crowned, and Chestnut-naped Antpittas. Dario has an antpitta feeding station near the hummingbird feeders, and if I was there early in the morning I would have had a chance to see some of the above species come in for worms. 

The clouds were rolling in by this time but I found a few birds here and there, including standouts like Golden-crowned Tanager, Plain-tailed Wren, White-browed Spinetail and the above Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant. The most unusual sighting was a male Páramo Seedeater. I have only seen this scarce species on a handful of previous occasions. 

Páramo Seedeater - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

The hummingbird feeders were active and I tried to take as many good photos as possible during the gaps in the fog. A tricky endeavour but I came away with a few decent ones!

Sapphire-vented Puffleg - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Collared Inca - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Mountain Velvetbreast - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Mountain Velvetbreast is a species that I have seen on a number of occasions but rarely photographed well. A male and female were attending the feeders and with some practice I came away with a few decent photos. 

Mountain Velvetbreast - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Mountain Velvetbreast - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

This male Gorgeted Sunangel was a nice surprise as it tripped the eBird filter for this area. 

Gorgeted Sunangel - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

An Andean Tapeti, also known as Andean Cottontail, was happily munching on clovers near the feeders. 

Andean Tapeti (Sylvilagus andinus) - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

The fruit feeders were popular with Andean Guans, several tanagers, and Yellow-breasted Brushfinches. 

Andean Guan - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Hooded Mountain-Tanager - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Masked Flowerpiercer - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

Yellow-breasted Brushfinch - Reserva Zuro Loma, Pichincha, Ecuador

I spent a few more quality minutes with the Black-breasted Puffleg hoping for better photo opportunities, but it was not to be. By 3 PM the fog had really enveloped the area so I called it quits and headed back to Quito. I was pretty happy how everything came together, and it was definitely worth it to forgo sleep to get a chance to see such a rare hummingbird. 

October 23, 2023

With a full day open, I decided to leave early and head west to the Bellavista area on the west slope of the Andes, between ~2000 and 2400m in elevation. The lack of sleep had caught up to me and so I wasn't able to drag myself out of bed before 4:30 like I had planned, but I still made it to my intended destination shortly after sunrise. 

My chariot - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

There was only one potential life bird I had a chance at near Quito, and Bellavista seems to be a relatively reliable site for the White-faced Nunbird. I have struck out on this rare cloud forest species on numerous previous occasions (including here at Bellavista), but recent sightings in the area gave me hope. 

Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

It was a gorgeous day of birding - some sun in the morning, with clouds arriving mid-morning and persisting until the afternoon, but with the rain and dense fog holding off in the late morning. 

Othna Skipper (Thespieus othna) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

The overcast conditions meant that bird activity remained strong during the morning, but it also made photography much more challenging with difficult lighting.

Black-winged Saltator - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

I'll cut to the chase - in the late morning I heard a White-faced Nunbird singing far down one of the valley slopes. Despite some effort and checking the area later, I was never able to entice it to fly up the slope to the road. 

Other than that, I had a wonderful morning of birding and reacquainting myself with the avifauna of this region. I tallied 85 species of birds including many of the specialities of this site - both Crested and Golden-headed Quetzals, vocal Dark-backed Wood-Quails and Toucan Barbets, quite a few Gorgeted Sunangels, three species of antpittas (heard-only, of course), and tons of furnariids and flycatchers. I noted over a dozen species of tanagers, including Rufous-chested Tanager and Western (Black-eared) Hemispingus. Strangely absent, for some reason, were the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans that are usually quite conspicuous along this road.

Golden-naped Tanager - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Western Hemispingus - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

My Bird Of The Day was Rusty-winged Barbtail. This furnariid doesn't really look like much (it is kind of a mashup of several different species) but it is a somewhat scarce and secretive species that often travels with mixed flocks. I had only one previous sighting (back in this part of Ecuador in 2019), but I was able to improve on that today. I found at least two pairs with mixed flocks, managed some great recordings, and obtained excellent views. The only thing lacking was the photography, of which this photo below is, sadly, my best effort. 

Rusty-winged Barbtail - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Butterflies and other insects were the main subjects of my camera during my walk along the road. Below is a selection of my haul.

Silver-plated Skipper (Corra coryna) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Leptophobia helena - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Unidentified hoverfly (tribe Syrphini) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Unidentified true bug (Hemiptera) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Leopacris diaphana - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Macrohaltica sp. - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Fiery Satyr (Lasiophila orbifera) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Aspicela bourcieri - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

The botany is always interesting in Andean cloud forests. Here are a few of the species that I photographed. 

Sarcopera anomala - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Colombian Hummingbird Sage (Salvia tortuosa) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Siparuna sp. - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

This orchid was rather showy. It is a species of Epidendrum that is found in Andean cloud forests from central Colombia to northern Ecuador. 

Epidendrum spathatum - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Not all the plants here are native, of course. Since my botanizing took place along a roadside, quite a few of them were non-native species that thrive in disturbed areas. 

Garden Montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) - Bellavista area, Pichincha, Ecuador

Heavy rain on the drive back to Quito assured me that I made the right decision to leave Bellavista by 1 PM. I returned the rental without incident and made it back to the hotel with plenty of time to prep for the tour, which would begin in the morning.