Yanacocha: June 7, 2009

The Jocotoco Foundation's most accessible reserve, Yanacocha is my home base, the center from which all my birding experiences in Ecuador extend. Sometimes derided as simply a hummingbird stop, the reserve offers outstanding temperate montane, elfin, and polylepis forest, begging repeated visits for vibrant mixed flocks, difficult skulkers, soaring raptors, and, yes, hummingbirds. With dozens of visits under my belt, I'm still encountering new birds at the reserve, including two lifers last Sunday, the Imperial Snipe and Short-Eared Owl, and I'm routinely surprised and amazed by bird life there and its seemingly infinite variations.

Leaving my house way before dawn, I was driving along the northern flank of Volcan Pichincha as it started to grow light, approaching the reserve slowly while passing through disturbed paramo and scrub habitat. Almost expectedly, a large owl was perched on a fence post at a bend in the road, a gorgeous Short-Eared Owl with a ghostly-white face in which two large yellow eyes glowed. We stared each other down for about five minutes until it flew away to another perch, wings floppy but graceful in flight. Certainly impressive and beautiful, large nocturnal owls are also haunting and oppressive; it's no wonder Ecuadorians consider them as harbringers of misfortune.

Inside the reserve itself, bird activity was high throughout the morning. The Rainbow-Bearded Thornbill was feeding in its usual spot, the first northern facing slope along the Trocha Inca. Several Shining Sunbeams did their best to intimidate the thornbill away from the strategically placed feeder, but it seemed content to move about the scrub and flowering ground cover. This is definitely the reserve's most excellent hummingbird, with its white-tipped tail and incredible rainbow beard, and the only other site I've encountered it was on the summit of Volcan Sumaco.

Continuing along the Trocha Inca towards the principle hummingbird feeders, I encountered a monospecific flock of Hooded Mountain-Tanagers with a male Barred Fruiteater trailing after it. A group of Andean Guans were hanging out nearby until they were alerted to my presence and raised holy hell as they flushed downslope. Then a pair of White-Browed Spinetails crossed paths with me on the trail, both of them foraging very close by and low to the ground. At this point on a typical visit to the reserve, the sun is out and blazing and bird activity grows quiet, but this morning there was a light mist and activity remained high as I reached the hummingbird gardens.

After spending a few minutes looking around for the Black-Breasted Puffleg, which supposedly turns up at this time of year, I walked back towards the Polylepis Trail with the Rufous Antpitta leading the way. One of the most frequently heard but rarely seen birds at the reserve, it was poking about for worms on the open trail, darting about quickly and quietly. A few meters past, I flushed what was almost certainly the Imperial Snipe, which had literally been at my feet in very dense ground cover. I got a quick look at its characteristic elongated beak as it took flight but was unable to locate it in a tree a few meters away. The snipe isn't often encountered outside of its display season, but it's certainly present at the reserve and not easily confused with the much more common Andean Snipe, which inhabits paramo habitat. Next year, I'm planning to observe the for the Imperial Snipe's display site at the reserve; I've got a hand-drawn map by Niels Krabbe himself to get me there!

Despite the cold, it had been a thrilling day up to this point, and my expectations for the walk out of the reserve were low. As chance would have it, I encountered a megaflock with Streaked Tuftedcheek, Blue-Backed Conebill, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Pearled Treerunner, Barred Fruiteater, and Bar-Bellied Woodpecker, among others. Several birds moved about just infront of me as well, which allowed for some good photographs. As if that wasn't enough, I followed another flock out of the reserve with several Golden-Crowned Tanagers, certainly one of Ecuador's finest tanagers, with its stunning irridescent blue body and brilliant golden crown.

Notable birds seen: Andean Guan, Imperial Snipe, Short-Eared Owl, Rainbow-Bearded Thornbill, Sword-Billed Hummingbird, Bar-Bellied Woodpecker, Rufous Antpitta, Blackish Tapaculo, White-Browed Spinetail, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Pearled Treerunner, Barred Fruiteater, Red-Crested Cotinga, Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, Rufous Wren, Blue-Backed Conebill, Golden-Crowned Tanager, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch.

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