Mashpi Reserve: September 6, 2009

Trolling the Internet in search of recent birding news from Ecuador, I found at Andean Birding that owner and guide Charlie Vogt had seen the rare Indigo Flowerpiercer recently at a site not far from Mindo. Although it's not a bird that I've been pining over myself, I asked him for more specific information about the location and conditions of the sighting, which he generously shared with me. Located on the road to Pacto, which branches off the Calicali-Independencia Highway, the site during his visit contained the Indigo Flowerpiercer, Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, Moss-Backed Tanager, Glistening-Green Tanager, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, White-Tailed Hillstar, and Green-Fronted Lancebill. As that's almost an incredible list of birds, I figured it was definitely worth a visit, especially considering that he's adding the site to his standard tour of the northwestern slope of the Andes.

With high expectations, Aimee and I set off early Sunday morning, leaving at 4:30am from the airport in Quito, where we had just dropped of her sister and daughter after a week-long visit. Although I had never driven the road to Pacto before, it was reasonably easy to find my way to the site, which is located beyond la Delicia, near the turn off to the new Mashpi Reserve owned by Metropolitan Touring. Here, in the midst of subtropical foothill forest, a recently cut slope has been colonized by beautiful fruiting flowers of the genus Cavendishia, reports Charlie on his website. These dense collections of nectar and fruit invariably attracts a spectacular array of tanagers, cotingas, and hummingbirds; it's usually just a matter of finding such a site and waiting patiently for the birds to come.

Conditions were wet and misty when we arrived, but our first real birds of the morning were two that we had come here especially to see: three Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanagers were perched in a relatively bare tree on the side of the road, accompanied by a solitary Moss-Backed Tanager sitting stolid and still just below. Shocked, Aimee and I oggled these excellent northwestern specialities first from our car and then from the road, setting up the scope for amazing views. Little did we know then that the Moss-Backed Tanager would be the most common bird of our visit, showing up singing from various tree tops, moving with mixed flocks, and even feeding in the Cavendishia close to the ground. Indeed, the field guide mentions that the Moss-Backed Tanager is locally common, but it was still quite a shock to see it everywhere at this site, especially given how much time I've spent searching for it at Milpe Bird Sanctuary.

Walking back and forth along the road for a while, we soon encountered a mixed tanager flock with Flame-Faced, Moss-Backed, Turquoise, and Glistening-Green Tanagers, the latter an outstanding Choco endemic that I've only seen a few times before. Moving with the flock were several blue birds that certainly could have been the Indigo Flowerpiercer, but they remained deep within the crown of a flowering tree. Approaching the flock through some tall grass for better photographs, I flushed a nightjar from the ground that landed nearby. I'm no whiz at identifying birds of the night, but given their various distributions it's likely this was a Pauraque, probably a female.

Covering only about 100m, I walked back and forth along the road for the next few hours while Aimee took a nap in the car. Violet-Tailed Sylphs were common at the Cavendishia along the roadside, and the Empress Brilliant and White-Tailed Hillstar were spotted several times, although there was no sign of the Green-Fronted Lancebill. Eventually I came across the Indigo Flowerpiercer, its red eye flashing unmistakably in the sun as it gorged itself on nectar. Described as very rare and local in the field guide, the bird was certainly exciting to see, but for me it didn't compare to the charismatic Moss-Backed Tanager. Still, it's incredible to think that experienced guides and ornithologists like Charlie have birds left to tick on their country list, especially in an area as well explored as the northwestern foothills.

As the day drew on, Aimee and I decided to drive up the road towards the Mashpi Reserve, stopping for a few mixed flocks that included Tyrannine Woodcreeper, White-Bearded Manakin, and Red-Faced Spinetail. We also had excellent looks at a pair of Toucan Barbets and a solitary male Golden-Headed Quetzal. Most tantalizing for me though was hearning an Orange-Breasted Fruiteater calling near the road. Missing its call for some reason on my iPod, I was forced to search for it in the crown of dense trees at the edge of the forest, coming too close on accident and scaring it off. With a little more preparation and care, I would have completed a stellar run through some of the finest birds of the northwestern foothills, all at this one modest site.

Notable birds seen: Pauraque, Empress Brilliant, Violet-Tailed Sylph, White-Tailed Hillstar, Toucan Barbet, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Tyranine Woodcreeper, White-Bearded Manakin, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Glistening-Green Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Turqoise Tanager, Moss-Backed Tanager, Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager.

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