Papallacta Pass: November 16, 2008

Birding Papallacta Pass can be about as extreme as it gets in Ecuador regarding the weather. Located on the continental divide at over 4000m, it's always cold, usually windy, often raining, sometimes hailing, and occasionally snowing. Don't come unprepared. That being said, every once in a while it can be sunny and pleasant for a few hours at dawn, and living under an hour away I can usually drive up there and get in a few hours of birding before the weather changes.

With so much time already spent birding in the paramo and elfin forest habitats of the highlands, I still hadn't come across the Rufous-Bellied Seedsnipe, one of Ecuador's hardiest high-elevation birds. In fact, it only ranges from 4000-4600m and is typically found on barren volcanic slopes like Antisana. Sensitive to noise and human behavior, the bird has slowly retreated from the lower areas around the pass and can now only be found around the antennas, where the guard who lives there can usually point them out.

I was lucky to see finally a pair of these beautiful birds, whose scalloped appearance camouflages them well in the bare terrain. There are a few plants up here, of course, and their coral-like shape and color create the impression that you're birding underwater rather than 4000m above it. The cushion plant is one of the oddest of them all; it looks like a large lichen-covered rock but is actually a huge spongy plant that can be quite comfortable when used as a seat. The Rufous-Bellied Seedsnipes were foraging at several of these plants, no doubt finding some nutrition stored inside.

Leaving my car at the parking lot, I bushwacked down to a large lake where there is a small population of Silvery Grebes. This lake is rimmed on the south side by an impressive stand of polylepis forest, where I hoped to track down the Giant Conebill. Amazingly, it didn't take long once I entered inside the forest, where a gentle scratching alerted me to the presence of a pair in the company of a few Pearled Treerunners. The Giant Conebill forages in the flaky bark of the polylepis tree, digging in with their impressively sharp bills and often tearing the bark back to get at insects inside. Supposedly, the birds are scarce with pairs being dispersed widely even in good habitat, and I felt elated to encounter them finally.

With both of my target birds now seen, I was ready to return to the car, this time walking the highway back up to the pass and birding the dirt road up to the antennas. There were still a number of good birds about, including the Ecuadorian Hillstar and the Blue-Mantled Thornbill, two hummingbirds that can handle the harsh climate here, going into a state of torpor during the freezing nights. In addition, a pair of Variable Hawks was violently attacking another pair's perch on the surrounding rocky cliffs, with one hawk being carried away in the talons of another and dropped to the ground a hundred meters below. As usual, the Tawny Anpitta was also clowning around in the open, and its piercing calls made for eerie company in the fog.

Notable birds seen: Andean Ruddy Duck, Andean Teal, Variable Hawk, Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagle, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Blue-Mantled Thornbill, Tawny Antpitta, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-Striped Canastero, White-Chinned Thistletail, Pearled Treerunner, Stout-Billed Cinclodes, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Glossy-Black Thrush, Grass Wren, Cinerous Conebill, Giant Conebill, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager.

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