Cabañas San Isidro: February 6-8, 2009

Returning to Cabañas San Isidro for my third visit in almost as many months, I was fortunate to have some company this time, as Aimee recently returned from the Guyanas where she researched her latest Lonely Planet book project. Although I had witnessed many of the region's specialties during my previous visits, I was looking forward to sharing with her some of the spectacular but more common birds, such as the Golden-Headed Quetzal, Highland Motmot, Masked Trogon, Long-Tailed Sylph, and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. There were still a few birds I was hoping to clean up as well, including the Torrent Duck, Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan, White-Bellied Antpitta, Dusky and Olivaceous Pihas, Barred Becard, and Blue-Naped Chlorophonia, all striking birds in their own right.

Despite some heavy fog at the Papallacta Pass, we made the two-hour drive in style from our house in Cumbayá to Cosanga, a small town near the turn off to San Isidro, with clear views of Volcán Reventador to the north. The Rio Cosanga was running high and muddy, but among the boulders under the bridge we spotted Spotted Sandpiper, Torrent Tyrannulet, and Black Phoebe, as well as numerous Blue-and-White Swallows diving about. On the drive up Las Caucheros Road to San Isidro we disturbed the same perched Broad-Winged Hawk on two occasions and encountered our first of many noisy flocks of Subtropical Caciques and Russet-Backed Oropendolas.

After a typically outstanding dinner (San Isidro is well known among birders for its gourmet cuisine), I had the chance to introduce Aimee to owners Carmen Bustamante and Mitch Lysinger, the latter of whom was in the middle of leading a three-week long birding tour. (While most birders are pretty keen about being in Ecuador, that's one job I definitely couldn't tolerate, and this is coming from a high school mathematics teacher.) Mitch was generous enough to let us tag along that evening as we tracked down the lodge's mystery owl, which looks a lot like the Black-Banded Owl but is most likely a new species local to the area (DNA tests are still pending).

We awoke well before dawn to the whirling calls of Wattled Guans, one of which we would fortuitously spot high in the canopy later that morning along the Cock-of-the-Rock Trail. First, though, we spent a few hours marveling at the high levels of continuous bird activity along the lodge's driveway, which is lit throughout the night by moth-attracting street lamps. Among the usual visitors at this time of year in the early morning are the Masked Trogon, Highland Motmot, Blackburnian and Canada Warblers, Inca Jay, Pale-Edged, Cinnamon, and Rufous-Breasted Flycatchers, Summer Tanager, Olive-Backed Woodcreeper, and Black-Billed Peppershrike. It's a great opportunity to view birds at exceptionally close range, and Aimee quickly learned these fundamental identifications.

While activity around the driveway can last intermittently throughout the day, we were eager to join Mitch's group as they went to feed the antpittas. The Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta is regularly observed hopping along the trails near the cabins, but the White-Bellied can be rather elusive, and I had missed it twice already. As soon as we arrived at the chusquea bamboo patch below the dining hall though, a beautiful White-Bellied Antpitta jumped out into the open and eagerly snatched up worms for five full minutes. Silvery and subtle, this bird is less showy then some of the flashier antpittas, but nonetheless very striking. Fifteen minutes later, we were a few meters away from the Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta, a real dandy by comparison. No stranger to antpittas herself, Aimee was especially impressed by the second.

We didn't see much as we walked through the forest along the Nexus Trail later in the morning, but we were lucky to track down the Wattled Guan and we followed a nice tanager flock moving just overhead, including the Saffron-Crowned, Flame-Faced, Golden-Naped, and Beryl-Spangled Tanagers. We waited out a midday shower at the hummingbird feeders, where sometimes nice flocks can move through, and then had a surprisingly productive early afternoon along the road, spotting Andean Solitaire, Golden-Rumped Euphonia, Long-Tailed Antbird, Black-Eared Hemispingus, and Pale-Eyed Thrush. We also discovered a Highland Motmot burrow along the roadside and caught site of a pair of these extremely long-tailed birds moving in and out of the burrow's tiny opening. Nearby in a cecropia tree we noticed an Emerald Toucanet nestling peaking out from a cavity in the trunk; its parents would drop by stealthily to bring fruit every few minutes (see if you can spot either the nestling or the adult in this photograph).

Aimee took a break later in the afternoon as she had been having some eye trouble ever since we visited Suriname in December, but I doggedly kept birding along the road, picking up Blue-Naped Chlorophonia high in the canopy for clear but rather distant views. I continued to improve my identification skills with flycatchers too, distinguishing successfully between the Ashy-Headed Tyrannulet and Marble-Faced Bristle-Tyrant, for example. Some tyrant flycatchers are as easy to identify as tanagers, but the vast majority can look confusingly similar, and eventually every neotropical birder must reckon with this most numerous and diverse family of birds.

With the late afternoon weather gorgeously sunny, I decided to drag Aimee to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, which is located on a trail down the ridge about twenty minutes from the cabins. Fresh from our experience at Raleigh Falls in Suriname at the Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock lek, we marveled at the Andean counterpart to this incredible genus of cotingas. Half a dozen males were vociferously competing in the canopy in the presence of a mahogany-colored female; the typical individual display involves head bobbing and tail feather flashing, but when two males get in each other's way their reactions can be violently unpredictable. I've seen pairs of males grapple together as they fell twenty meters through the air to the forest floor, barking gruffly all the way. On the way back up the ridge, Aimee expertly spotted a male Golden-Headed Quetzal perched quietly in the shadows; her first quetzal, I believe. We also heard a Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan calling nearby, but my iPod had already lost its charge at that point and we were unable to locate this scarce toucan. A regular haunt on the forest trails at dawn and dusk, a group of Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finches led the way back to the cabins.

The previous night we had unknowingly missed the Mountain Tapir that had recently been visiting a salt lick near the dining hall (originally it had been spotted eating fresh shoots in the garden, until Mitch wisely purchased a salt lick from an agricultural store, which it quickly found and had been frequenting early each night). This magnificent and enormous mammal of the subtropical and temperate forest and paramo is almost impossible to see as it's mostly nocturnal and prefers dense and overgrown habitat; it's a little skiddish after centuries of being hunted, too. Amazingly, after an hour of waiting in the dark, Aimee and I were stunned to see a female Mountain Tapir emerge cautiously from the forest into the moonlit driveway and amble over to the salt lick, where it gently partook of this most essential mineral. Fully upright the tapir was about as tall as Aimee with long legs, a massive frame, and an out-of-this-world head complete with Mickey Mouse ears and a heavily protruding upper lip. I'm not sure what Mitch and Carmen's plans are regarding the animal and whether they plan on promoting it, but for Aimee and I it was no doubt a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a wild Mountain Tapir.

We spent the following morning at the Guacamayos Ridge Trail (there is more on this visit in the next post), but returned a little earlier than usual to do some more birding along entrance road to the lodge. After lunch, we spent another hour at the hummingbird feeders, enjoying several active flocks that came through despite the sunny early afternoon weather. A male Barred Becard was the highlight for me, but a pair of Streaked Tuftedcheeks were certainly the most obliging as they took a rare break from foraging in clumps of dead leaves to pose for this photograph. What a pair, and what a place to visit.

Notable birds seen: Broad-Winged Hawk, Wattled Guan, Red-Billed Parrot, Rufous-Bellied Nighthawk, Band-Winged Nightjar, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Green Violetear, Bronzy Inca, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Highland Motmot, Emerald Toucanet, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Yellow-Vented Woodpecker, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Olive-Backed Woodcreeper, Montane Woodcreeper, Long-Tailed Antbird, Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta, White-Bellied Antpitta, Ashy-Headed Tyrannulet, White-Crested Elaenia, Rufous-Breasted Flycatcher, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Rufous-Crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Flavescent Flycatcher, Golden-Crowned Flycatcher, Barred Becard, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Black-Billed Peppershrike, Andean Solitaire, Pale-Eyed Thrush, Black-Billed Thrush, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Blue-Naped Chlorophonia, Golden-Rumped Euphonia, Golden-Naped Tanager, Black-Capped Tanager, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch.

1 comment:

Yann Kolbeinsson said...

Reading this makes me want to go back right now!! Always a pleasure to read your blogs.

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