Cayambe-Coca Reserve: September 5, 2009

With Aimee's sister and her four-year-old daughter in town, we decided to all head out to the thermal baths at Papallacta on Friday afternoon, giving them a chance to see more of the country and me a chance to finally do some birding. This luxurious resort is located at the southern edge of the Cayambe-Coca Reserve and offers access to good montane, elfin, and polylepis forest as well as paramo habitat. In fact, as the thermal pools have been landscaped with native plants, birds can be observed right from the pools themselves, and hummingbirds are frequently seen at flowers hanging over the water, including the spectacular Sword-Billed Hummingbird, which fancies the common trumpet flowers.

Early Saturday morning then I left our toasty cabin and the hot pools behind, plunging into the inclimate conditions found up the road that leads into the reserve. Bird activity was relatively quiet due to high winds, but I managed to track down most of the common species in the area as I walked the road, including the uncommon Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager and Agile Tit-Tyrant which accompanied several mixed flocks. The bird of the morning was definitely the Purple-Backed Thornbill, though, as I lucked onto a gorgeous adult male perched for several minutes in a polylepis tree located considerably far back from the roadside. With the shortest bill of any hummingbird, this bird provided remarkable contrast with the much more common Sword-Billed Hummingbird, which of course has the longest bill by far.

Returning back down the road after reaching paramo habitat, I caught a glimpse of a magnificent adult female Andean Condor gliding silently along the ridge. In misty conditions, these huge birds are remarkably difficult to notice as they generally soar along tall cliffs only occasionally being silhouetted against the sky. It's not like they're to be found along every cliff in the area either, as according to the 2009 condor census, there are only approximately forty individuals remaining in Ecuador. As a side note, Mark Thurber, author of Ecuador: Climbing and Hiking Guide, and I will be leading a full day hike through the area on September 26. Contact the South American Explorers Club if you're interested in joining the modest expedition, as we'll be stopping to observe birds in a variety of high altitude habitats.

Update: Dušan M. Brinkhuizen from Aves Ecuador is reporting that the highly localized Crescent-Faced Antpitta has been found at this site. As this stunning bird was previously only possible at two remote and difficult sites, Cerro Mongus and Ancanama, I imagine this area will become considerably more popular in the future. Myself, I can't wait to go look for it, considering I missed it at Ancanama a few years ago and haven't yet been to Cerro Mongus.

Notable birds seen: Andean Condor, Sword-Billed Hummingbird, Shining Sunbeam, Purple-Backed Thornbill, Viridian Metaltail, Pearled Treerunner, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, Brown-Backed Chat-Tyrant, White-Throated Tyrannulet, White-Banded Tyrannulet, Blue-Backed Conebill, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager, Pale-Naped Brush-Finch.

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