Guacamayos Ridge Trail: July 28, 2009

The climate has been monotonously beautiful in the highlands, so I figured it was time to hit the eastern slope for some rain and fog, and hopefully a few good birds. As the Guacamayos Ridge Trail never disappoints for foul weather, and only occasionally for the subtropical or temperate forest rarity, it seemed like the perfect destination for a day trip. Leaving Quito at about 4am, I arrived at the recently remodeled trail entrance at daybreak with clear skies to the east. It might have been the coffee, but there's a mysterious quality to this site that gives me the jitters, as if any moment I might see something strange and wonderful, and I headed across the ridge with more than the usual anxiety and trepidation.

Within minutes I was onto my first mixed flock of the day, calming myself down with good looks at the Black-Capped Hemispingus, whose bold facial patterning was still obvious in the dark understory. After becoming reacquainted with the soft clucking call of the showy Grass-Green Tanager, I moved on to a boisterous group of Northern Mountain-Caciques that were feeding in the canopy of a large fruiting tree. Despite it being a common montane forest bird on the eastern slope, I stayed with the caciques hoping that they would attract the attention of a more spectacular frugivore, such as the Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan. Sure enough, I suddenly noticed a massive gray bird flying about, locating it at a significant distance as it perched momentarily, the Dusky Piha. As big as the Turquoise Jay but uniformly gray, this unexciting cotinga wasn't what I was waiting for, but nonetheless it was still a lifer for me.

After disturbing a pair of Andean Guans feeding near the trail, I was interrupted by one of the park guards controlling this entrance to the Antisana Reserve. After collecting my entrance fee, he showed me a recent stakeout for the Andean Potoo, which unfortunately wasn't on this particular roost. Continuing ahead in the gathering fog and windy conditions, I encountered another flock, much larger than the two previous. Approaching the fast-moving storm of tanagers, flycatchers, and furnariids, I startled what appeared to be a woodcreeper on the trunk of a nearby tree; it flushed to a neighboring trunk and fastened there without moving for five minutes. Ignoring the flock around me, I focused in on this bird whose bold facial pattern reminded me more of the Greater Scythebill than any woodcreeper at this altitude; indeed, the bird clearly had the broad black malar streak with a white superciliary. The only problem was that this bird didn't have an incredibly long decurved bill. Fortunately, I resolved this problem immediately upon turning away, where an enormous adult Greater Scythebill was moving up another trunk with a huge tarantula pinched at the end of its extravagantly shaped bill. It took some searching about, but after calling intimately a few times, the adult finally located the juvenile and fed it the spider before continuing to forage.

Shocked, I had to decompress for a while after this encounter, the scythebill being one of the rarest birds I had ever seen. The Guacamayos Ridge Trail is definitely the site to find this bird, though, as Mitch Lysinger of Cabañas San Isidro fame had once wisely instructed me to keep my head down and my gaze low as flocks moved overhead if I wanted a chance of seeing it, which hitches along trunks like any woodcreeper but usually is buried deep withing mossy clusters or bromeliads using its bill to great advantage as it surprises well-hidden arthopods. My depressingly poor photographs killed the buzz a bit, but I was soon back on my feet, rounding the next bend in the trail to meet a group of Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrants gleaning at eye-level near a patch of Chusquea bamboo. These attractive flycatchers have proven particularly difficult to track down, so I spent a long while in their company before continuing on as it started to rain.

Umbrella in hand, I spent the next six hours trudging down to the pipeline and back, successfully lining up only a few birds in my binoculars as I eventually became soaking wet from the waist down. Happily, a Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan came in momentarily as it responded to playback, and an Olivaceous Piha was noted several times as it trailed after a mixed flock. Most rewarding, though, was a Slate-Crowned Antpitta that hopped up to a branch directly in front of me as I waited for a group of noisy wrens to surface from some thick undergrowth; we stared at each other for a few seconds before it dematerialized. After taking a hot cup of coffee in the car, I drove back to Papallacta to meet Aimee at the thermal baths, stopping once at Guagrayacu, just before the police check, for this beautiful male Torrent Duck.

Notable birds seen: Torrent Duck, Andean Guan, Collared Inca, Long-Tailed Sylph, Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Powerful Woodpecker, Greater Scythebill, Slate-Crowned Antpitta, Unicolored Tapaculo, Spillman's Tapaculo, Handsome Flycatcher, Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Barred Becard, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Olivaceous Piha, Dusky Piha, Rufous Wren, Black-Capped Hemispingus, Northern Mountain-Cacique.

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