Yanacocha Reserve: August 3, 2009

The highlands are rather inhospitable this time of year: the sun blazes all day, scorching the earth brown, and the gusts of wind blow dust around like a sandblaster. The weather doesn't make for very good birding, and the birds themselves seem to struggle as they're buffeted about. Even a pair of enormous Variable Hawks were vanquished from the skies at Yanacocha Reserve this morning, hugging the scrubby hillsides instead of soaring high above. From a considerable distance I thought I saw briefly a resident Peregrine Falcon diving about the rocky cliffs of Pichincha at daybreak, although the white-colored raptor could just as well have been a pale morph of the Variable Hawk getting pummeled by the wind.

Fortunately I still had a few productive hours of birding within the montane forest of the reserve. In the cover mixed flocks moved about quicker than normal, with the Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager being the highlight. Meanwhile Rufous Wrens, Unicolored Tapaculos, and White-Browed Spinetails skulked about the understory, no doubt also noting the change of weather but for different reasons than their canopy counterparts. Indeed, the trails were almost completely dry, with leaves crackling underfoot, which made approaching shy birds particularly difficult. The Andean Guans no doubt heard me coming from many meters away, as they crashed noisily off into deeper cover.

Supposedly, it's the time of year for the rare endemic Black-Chested Puffleg, although I have never had sight nor sound of this hummingbird. Still, I spent a few hours lingering around the hummingbird feeders, playing with my camera in between visits by the Mountain Velvetbreast, another fine hummingbird that seems to be seasonal at the feeders. I hear that the puffleg was regular for a while last year at a private reserve slightly lower down the western slope, called Verdecocha, but somehow I doubt this bird will ever make it onto my list. The elegant Sapphire-Vented Puffleg and smaller Golden-Breasted Puffleg are certainly fine consolation, though.

At midday I walked back to my car for a cup of coffee and encountered a group of lepidopterists loitering about with their nets. Young but committed, they were eagerly erecting tents made of mesh, hoping to capture and study the various butterflies and moths in the reserve. They seemed a bit out of their element, but being around scientists always makes me feel like something of a dilettante, taking the mere act of observing birds so seriously. Regardless of our credentials, I guess we're all out in the field learning about our surroundings, but still I would feel a little more legitimate, and a little less light in the wallet, with a university backing my birding excursions. Anyway, instead of returning home midday, I rode out the afternoon back in the reserve slowly picking up a few good birds, including the Turquoise Jay, Sword-Billed Hummingbird, and Crowned Chat-Tyrant.

As a final note, the reserve is an outstanding, though still difficult, site for antpittas, with five species calling throughout the morning in certain times of the year: the Tawny, Rufous, Chesnut-Naped, Chestnut-Crowned, and Undulated Antpittas. By far the most common, the Rufous Antpitta is still tricky to see, scurrying unpredictably across trails and not responding consistently to playback. On the other hand, I have noted them regularly from the Hummingbird Garden No. 2, at the very beginning of the Polylepis Trail. Here, where a hose with running water has been set up, the antpitta has been found every hour or so moving back and forth across the trail, in search of worms presumably, as this is one of the last antpitta species in Ecuador that still has to find worms for itself!

Notable birds seen: Variable Hawk, Carunculated Caracara, Andean Guan, Mountain Velvetbreast, Sword-Billed Hummingbird, White-Bellied Woodstar, Rufous Antpitta, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Turquoise Jay, Glossy-Black Thrush, Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch.

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