Podocarpus National Park, Cajanuma Entrance: July 25-26, 2008

Disregarding the Galapagos, this is Ecuador's most prized national park, containing arguably the highest plant and bird diversity of any protected area in the world. Located in the far south of the country on the eastern slope of the Andes, the park encompasses a wide swath of terrain, starting in montane forest on the western side of the continental divide, going up into paramo, and then plummeting way down towards the Oriente. The rugged terrain and tempestuous weather have created a bounty of isolated microclimates, each allowing evolution to take a slightly independent course over the millennia.

Having done my homework about the special birds that can be found in the upper region of the park, I was amped to get to the treeline as early as possible on our first morning. In my excitement to see the Neblina Metaltail and the Masked-Mountain Tanager, I had overlooked the fact that it was freezing cold and pouring rain; Aimee and I would have laughed at the comedy of only seeing a single Glossy Flowerpiercer if it hadn't had been so miserable along the ridge.

Eventually, we made our way back down to the entrance road, where outstanding birding can be done from the turnouts that overlook wide expanses of forest below. We happily tracked a few fast moving flocks until I heard the Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan calling in the distance; these high-altitude toucans are scarce and seldom seen in the field. Amazingly, the two individuals were easy to spot as they perched on top of fruiting trees several hundred meters away. Although they occasionally moved around the canopy, I was able to line them up repeatedly in my scope, getting outstanding and prolonged views from all angles, totaling almost half an hour.

Encouraged by our exhilarating success and frustrated with my overall birdcount, I decided to return the next morning for more roadside birding. As soon as I turned off the engine I heard a Chestnut-Naped Antpitta calling loudly next to my car, but I scared it off by opening the door. While the weather was even worse this morning, I followed a couple of large mixed flocks up and down the road, enjoying good views of the Golden-Crowned Tanager, Rufous Wren, Pearled Treerunner, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker. I also lucked onto two Rufous-Headed Pygmy Tyrants foraging quietly in the undergrowth.

Stubbornly ascending to the treeline again by way of the Mirador Trail, I was rewarded by an encounter with the Mouse-Colored Thistletail, which was braving the wind and rain squalls while out in the open. Again, I missed the Neblina Metaltail and Masked Mountain-Tanager. As I was heading back down into the forest though, a huge flock of Golden-Plumed Parakeets shot over the ridge just meters from where I was standing. This flock of approximately fifteen birds had been circling the park boundaries all morning, though nothing could have prepared me for such a spectacular burst of noise and color at close range. Indeed, at Cajanuma I had learned to expect the worst.

Notable birds seen: Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan, Grass-Green Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Bearded Guan, Black-Headed Hemispingus, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch, Glowing Puffleg, Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-Headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Turquoise Jay, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Golden-Crowned Tanager, Mouse-Colored Thistletail, Gray-Hooded Bush-Tanager, Golden-Plumed Parakeet, Citrine Warbler.

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