Guacamayos Ridge Trail: November 9, 2008

I have been patiently waiting for many months to revisit this site, which is bombarded unpredictably by rainstorms rising out of the Amazonian basin for most of the year. Located just a few minutes drive from Cabañas San Isidro (in fact, the radio antenas that mark the beginning of the trail are visible from the lodge itself), the Guacamayos Ridge Trail is a hallowed but fickle birding destination. Here you can see some of Ecuador's most difficult birds, such as the Greater Scythebill, Masked Saltator, and Bicolored Antvireo, or you can see nothing aside from a few flowerpiercers. The very geographic qualities that support such a varied and exciting population of birds are likely to produce weather conditions that obscure them from view.

This morning, I made sure to arrive at the entrance of the trail well before dawn, and I was greeted with breathtaking views of dappled thunderheads already billowing up from the Amazon basin; a few kilometers down the trail I could also see the summit of Volcan Sumaco rising impressively from the jungle. Actually, the weather was so clear and sunny I was scared that bird activity would shut down prematurely for the day, as the local bird guides at Cabañas San Isidro had warned me the night before.

Although there was evidence along the ridge of recent major landslides, the trail itself was in good shape and I didn't have to worry about falling off the ridge while watching a flock of birds in the canopy. After observing a pair of Andean Guans perched on a bare limb in a tree high above me, I focused my attention on a flock of temperate forest birds, such as the Lacrimose and Hooded Mountain Tanagers, the Blue-and-Black Tanager, and the White-Tailed Tyrannulet. Then, I switched to skulking birds and staked out the Slate-Crowned Antpitta calling from a bend in the trail. I soon encountered another mixed flock that spent many minutes in a tree right above me, noting the Blackburnian Warbler, Three-Striped Warbler, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, and Rufous Wren among others; the flock was later joined by a pair of noisy Northern Mountain-Caciques. Despite the intense bird activity above, my attention was momentarily diverted as a Guan crash-landed in a nearby tree; it ended up being the scarce Wattled Guan, whose yellow wattle I could see clearly swaying in the morning light.

Moving around the next bend in the trail as the flock moved on, I was suddenly paralyzed by a terrible commotion in the crown of the trees that were at eye-level (on a forested ridge trail part of the canopy is always at eye-level). No guan could possibly make a tree sway like that, I thought. Then, just fifteen meters away, I saw this incredibly human face looking right at me. A large and imposing primate was sitting casually in the top of a giant epiphyte-covered tree, giving me what could only be described as the look of death. For the next thirty minutes I made myself as inconspicuous as possible while observing a troop of what turned out to be Common Woolly Monkeys feeding in the canopy just meters away.

Now, I've seen lots of birds in Ecuador at this point, and I've witnessed a handful of mammals as well, including the Spectacled Bear, several species of sloths, large rodents, and other monkeys. But for me nothing can compare with the sight of these Common Woolly Monkeys, whose visages and mannerisms were overwhelmingly human. The way they deliberated their next move, resourcefully used their appendages, and signaled to each other was disturbingly like I might behave myself. And how poignant it was to encounter this spectacle just a few kilometers from a well-trafficked highway, in a reserve that is hardly monitored. Whether these monkeys represnted the last of their kind in the area or the resurgence of a population, the divide between us and them seemed impossibly small.

Watching birds at this point wasn't going to be more than a side-dish, or an aperitif rather. That's not to say I didn't make an effort, though. I spent at least a half an hour coaxing the vocalizing Barred Antthrush from perfect habitat just off the trail. This rare eastern slope specialty is so striking and different from its illustration in the field guide it truly has to be seen to be appreciated. (Am I the only one who treasures encounters with antthrushes more than antpittas, I wonder?) The Spotted Barbtail was also lurking in the dark undergrowth nearby, and I was pleased to encounter both the Green-and-Black Fruiteater and the Highland Motmot again, but the day was really all about the monkeys.

Notable birds seen: Andean Guan, Wattled Guan, Highland Motmot, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Spotted Barbtail, Barred Antthrush, Slate-Crowned Antpitta, Rufous-Breasted Flycatcher, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Rufous Wren, Three-Striped Warbler, Grass-Green Tanager, Yellow-Whiskered Tanager, Northern Mountain Cacique.

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