Cabañas San Isidro: September 26-28, 2008

The premier eastern slope birding destination, Cabañas San Isidro is also a pioneer in the conservation movement here in Ecuador. Established over forty years ago by the Bustamante family, the reserve protects large swaths of flatland cloud forest, most of which was cleared for agriculture or cattle in the "land improvement" movement from decades ago (much of the surrounding hills in the direction of the Antisana Reserve remain forested). These days, the reserve is a birder's paradise with a large network of well maintained forest trails, an excellent access road for birding, a busy hummingbird garden, and even an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. Plus, what might be a new species of owl can also be found every night near the cabins.

I had been waiting for a period of good weather to visit for the weekend, although it can be quite difficult to predict given that torrential rainstorms often rise out of the Amazon basin without warning. While it did rain for an hour each afternoon, I was definitely fortunate in my timing. Also interesting was that there was a nation-wide vote on Sunday confirming, by an overwhelming majority, the country's new constitution. This is causing some consternation among private conservationists like the Bustamante family, as the new constitution is heavy on socialist language, including the phrase "land redistribution."

Although most of the staff was absent visiting their hometowns to vote, it was business as usual for the birds. Perhaps the most unique birding to be done at Cabañas San Isidro is right near the cabins around the lamp posts: the large overhead lights are left on all night, which attract an incredible amount of insects, and all morning swarms of spectacular birds like Masked Trogons and Highland Motmots feast. Watching these birds and smaller ones, such as the Pale-Edged Flycatcher, I was struck by the vast quantities of food that birds eat. Even the Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta came to the bounty; each morning and night I followed an individual as it hopped up the path and flew from branch to branch like any other bird.

When I wasn't gawking at the lamp posts or hanging out by the hummingbird feeders, I spent every other minute of daylight in the forest, where I didn't see many birds, but did come across a few to remember. First and foremost was the Peruvian Antpitta, the backside and profile of which I caught out of the corner of my eye as I stood silently waiting for a Powerful Woodpecker to return to its haunt near the forest floor. The antpitta is so rare and difficult to observe that Robert Ridgely, author of The Birds of Ecuador, describes it as "nearly unknown in life." In fact, I hesitate even mentioning that I saw it, assuming it will inspire incredulity in knowing readers. Suffice it to say that I saw the front side of the same individual a few minutes later with such clarity and knowledge that I'm as sure I saw a Peruvian Antpitta as I saw a Masked Trogon earlier in the morning.

Other noteworthy incidents include observing the Golden-Headed Quetzal on several occasions during a sunny afternoon jaunt down the Log Trail. I also came across the Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker nesting in a massive trunk; it came and went several times while bringing nestlings food. At the feeders, the rarely seen male Mountain Velvetbreast dropped by for a minute before being chased off by the regulars; note its entirely black breast in the photograph below. Finally, the first of the migratory birds have returned from North America. I marveled for a half an hour at the Canada Warbler still in its breeding plumage, and another guest observed a similarly well-attired Blackburnian Warbler.

Aside from the birds, Cabañas San Isidro also offers some rather luxurious accomodation. The cabins themselves aren't too fancy, but the food is ridiculously good, perhaps a touch too gourmet for some birders. Mostly vegetarian, I was nonetheless treated to soy satay, spinach and ricotta ravioli, and mustard-glazed corvina. Compared to how I usually fare on birding trips, I felt like a Masked Trogon at the lamp posts.

Notable birds seen: Rufous-Bellied Nighthawk, Mountain Velvetbreast, Gorgeted Woodstar, Long-Tailed Sylph, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Highland Motmot, Emerald Toucanet, Yellow-Vented Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Spotted Barbtail, Long-Tailed Antbird, Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta, Peruvian Antpitta, Marble-Faced Bristle-Tyrant, Flavescent Flycatcher, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Golden-Winged Manakin, Black-Billed Peppershrike, Canada Warbler, Saffron-Crowned Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, Rufous-Crested Tanager, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch.

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