Cerro Mongus: January 16, 2010

Cerro Mongus is a punishing birding site located in far northern Ecuador: it's cold, wet, muddy, and very remote. Until recently, it was one of two places in the country where the exquisite Crescent-Faced Antpitta could be seen reliably, although the bird was recently discovered in the Papallacta region, which is just an hour's drive from Quito. The remaining attraction at Cerro Mongus, then, is the rare and local Chestnut-Bellied Cotinga, which has only been found at a few scattered sites at treeline along the eastern slope of the Andes. Beyond the allure of seeing a few scarce eastern slope specialties, such as the Masked Mountain-Tanager, there is little reason for birders to make their way out here, unless of course they're making their fourth birding trip to Ecuador or are looking to expand their country list.

More than a little temerity is required to access the site and a 4x4 is absolutely necessary if you want to minimize the amount of time you're hiking uphill and not birding. First, you make the four-hour drive north along the Panamerican Highway from Quito to Ambuqui in the Chota Valley, staying in one of the many water park hotels in town (I stayed at the Oasis Hotel, which was recommended by other birders and offered decent rooms and food). Leaving at 4am the following morning, you drive up to the distant village of Impueran on a cobblestone road, climbing way up to 3000m out of the arid interandean valley. There are various forks in the road and many other villages where you can potentially lose your way, so it's best to get directions in Ambuqui and scout out the drive on the previous afternoon before trying it for the first time in the dark. From Impueran, depending on the conditions of the dirt road, you can drive up to the forest edge, and from there it is another thirty minutes' strenuous climb to treeline. Again, Roger Ahlman covers the logistics to the site well in his country report from 2003, which I used without much trouble.

The paramo in this region of the highlands is dominated by the unique frailejone plant, which is a genus of hardy, and hairy, subshrubs that produce a massive daisy-like perennial flower. These frailejones can grow several meters tall and rise out of the paramo grass in an eery zombie-like way. The dense temperate and elfin forest at the site clings to the steep hillsides, and access to the interior is limited except for a level trail along a canal. In addition to the trail leading up to treeline, I birded along this canal for most of the day, scanning the forest below whenever the fog parted in search of the Chestnut-Bellied Cotinga. Much like the Red-Crested Cotinga, which seems quite common here, the Chestnut-Bellied Cotinga perches stolidly on the thick treetops sometimes sallying out but mostly remaining motionless. Given the low visibility throughout the day and the general rarity of the bird, it wasn't surprising that I missed it, nor have many other visitors seen it recently either. A few local farmers told me about some researchers coming up here to Mondragon, as they call it, with mist nets without capturing any of the cotingas.

As I had seen the Crescent-Faced Antpitta a few months ago at Papallacta, I didn't waste any time looking for it here, which might have been a mistake given that it's a pretty great consolation bird. I did enjoy several mixed flocks in which the impressive but shy Masked Mountain-Tanager was numerous with sometimes groups of three or four birds foraging with Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanagers and Black-Backed Bush-Tanagers. The Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager also appeared in one flock during the early morning, perching out in the rain for several minutes much like the Red-Crested Cotinga. Along the canal trail there are three open clearings that Roger describes as landslides; these are good places for scanning for the cotinga, and they also attract the excellent Rainbow-Bearded Thornbill, which is a powerfully built-hummingbird that seems to prefer open shrubby areas in temperate and elfin forest. The male is quite aptly named!

The other sections of the canal trail pass through dense elfin forest and are good places to try for various antpittas, including the Crescent-Faced, Rufous, and Undulated Antpittas, the latter two which could be heard calling throughout the day. Lower down on the trail, which passes through some patches of temperate forest, there was some decent bird activity as well, including Barred Fruiteater, and the hummingbirds were especially active throughout the day. Most notably the Purple-Backed Thornbill and Black-Thighed Puffleg were seen well at the start of the trail, the latter being one of the northern specialties possible at the site. I've heard that this first forested patch is good for Flamulated Treehunter as well. Interestingly enough, given the inclement weather at the site, one of the best birds of the day was probably the Short-Eared Owl I drove past on the way up to Impueran.

Notable birds seen: Carunculated Caracara, Andean Guan, Short-Eared Owl, Band-Winged Nightjar, Sapphire-Vented Puffleg, Golden-Breasted Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Purple-Backed Thornbill, Black-Thighed Puffleg, Great Sapphirewing, Barred Fruiteater, Red-Crested Cotinga, Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, White-Throated Tyrannulet, Grass Wren, Masked Flowerpiercer, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Blue-and-Black Tanager, Masked Mountain-Tanager, Black-Chested Mountain-Tanager, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Black-Backed Bush-Tanager, Plain-Colored Seedeater.

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