Cabanas San Isidro: April 23-25, 2010

As my six years in Ecuador finally draw to a close, the fewer opportunities I have for birding. During the last couple of weekends Aimee and I have been preoccupied with making moving arrangements, whether from Ecuador or to Tanzania, and the only bird I've had the chance to study since Semana Santa has been the Black-Tailed Trainbearer that feeds on the flowering shrubs outside my classroom. With even more work approaching on the horizon, I decided to cut loose briefly from my responsibilities in Quito and spend the weekend at Cabanas San Isidro, relaxing and watching birds. San Isidro is, of course, one of the finest birding institutions in Ecuador, located two and a half hours from Quito in the subtropical zone on the eastern slope of the Andes. With a little luck the trip was also to produce my one thousandth bird seen in Ecuador, but more on that later.

There aren't a lot of birds on the reserve's list that I haven't seen by now, excepting the vagrants and several rarities, but I was confident that I'd find at least a few new species while still enjoying the more common birds, such as the Saffron-Crowned Tanager, Barred Becard, Blackburnian Warbler, and Masked Trogon. Indeed, San Isidro is one of the easiest birding sites in Ecuador, as mixed flocks regularly sweep through the grounds of the lodge each morning to glean from the trees arthropods that are attracted to the overhead lights at night. Often the birds come down to eye level, easing the tension in birders' necks and offering outstanding opportunities for photography as well. Although it rained after breakfast on both mornings of my visit, I had the good fortune to observe a mixed flock from the rooftop deck above the common area, photographing the Rufous-Breasted Flycatcher, Montane Woodcreeper, and Flame-Faced Tanager, among others, from just a meter or two away.

The birding is so good from the lodge itself and from the access road, which cuts through gorgeous montane forest as you pass beyond the lodge, that birders don't often venture out on one of the many trails. I've had some success on the trails during previous visits, including finding the Peruvian Antpitta, Black-Chested Fruiteater, and Wattled Guan, but it's always hard work and results in a lot fewer birds seen. Still, after the rain let up on Saturday morning I walked out on the road to the Rock Trail, which starts about ten minutes from the entrance and heads up to the ridge, where I've seen Crested Quetzal and White-Capped Tanager in the past. I was delayed on the road by mixed flocks, though, one in particular moving through the chusquea bamboo that contained the Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Black-Eared Hemispingus, Long-Tailed Antbird, Rufous-Crowned Tody-Flycatcher, and Plushcap. When I finally arrived at the ridge itself I was greated by a large flock of White-Capped Parrots as well as a single Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan that was generous enough to perch in the open for me but unfortunately not in good light.

After lunch I headed out on the Log Trail with the manager who is from Costa Rica and something of a birder himself. While working on constructing a new water pipe the previous day, he had noticed a pair of Chestnut-Breasted Chlorophonias building a nest overhead. Although the Log Trail makes for exceptionally difficult birding, especially as it's often overgrown with bamboo, I simply had to see one of the reserve's finest birds and take advantage of this unique opportunity. As promised, the cholorophonias were in the midst of building a nest when we arrived, but the conditions were poor for photography. As it started to rain, I decided to wait around for an hour on the chance that it might clear up while the manager returned to the lodge. This ended up being a poor decision on my part as he stumbled not only upon a pair of magnificient White-Capped Tanagers at close range, but also discovered a Jaibiru as well in the marsh near the road! This rare vagrant is only occasionally found in the remote northeast of the country, although it's common in tropical countries further to the north such as Venezuela. Owner and guide Mitch Lysinger was ready to drive out immediately from Quito, though, when he learned of the report of this incredibly unusual record.

Despite missing these two excellent birds, I was to experience a bit of redemption later that evening when looking for the Rufous-Banded Owl along the road. San Isidro is a great place for night birding, as the forest is seemingly filled with owls, nightjars, nighthawks, and potoos. The lodge even has a resident pair of owls that are yet to be described, looking somewhat like Black-Banded Owls but being quite distinct in appearance and vocalizations. I've seen the famous owl a few times already, although it wasn't accessible this weekend, but I've yet to track down the Rufous-Banded Owl, which is markedly more common and less mysterious. Even though I didn't bring any audio equipment, I decided to try both evenings for the owl, walking the road for an hour with my spotlight and listening for its characteristic hoots. On the way back from a late afternoon trip up the Rock Trail on Saturday, I was surprised by a huge nightbird swooping past me in the moonlight. Immediately switching on my spotlight, I noticed a pair of fire-red eyes glaring back at me from an exposed perch in a nearby cecropia tree. Thinking it was an owl at first, I was struck by the bird's long tail and repetitive feeding habits, only slowly realizing that it was not an owl but the rare and local Andean Potoo. Eventually, I discovered another individual perched nearby, observing for half an hour my one thousandth bird in Ecuador while standing dumbfounded in the middle of the road.

The following morning I awoke at 5am with the sound of a Rufous-Banded Owl calling seemingly just outside my cabin. As I scrambled to get myself together, a downpour commenced and I gave up any chance of finding the owl, especially without playback. The rain continued through the early morning, letting up just before it was time to feed the antpittas, both the White-Bellied and Chestnut-Crowned Antpittas. Much has been reported on this successful phenomenon of feeding antpittas worms at various birding sites in the tropics, but only recently did I finally hear a good explanation of why these secretive birds are so easily accustomed to the routine, almost regardless of species. Harold Greeney, founder of nearby Yanayacu Reserve, recently started a thread on Aves Ecuador Yahoo Groups positing the following theory. He's found that often when he's stomping through the forest undergrowth, and not birding cautiously, that an antpitta will follow him and sometimes approach within a few meters. As these birds typically eat worms, perhaps they have evolved to follow large mammals, such as tapirs and bears, that often turn over logs and dig in the earth in search of food. It's a fascinating idea and a plausible one too, considering that these large mammals are herbivores and that many other birders have made similar observations. At any rate, only the White-Bellied Antpitta was curious enough to see what two large mammals were up to this morning, picking up a beak-full of worms that we had carelessly dropped on the ground.

Notable birds seen: Sickle-Winged Guan, White-Throated Quail-Dove, White-Capped Parrot, Red-Billed Parrot, Andean Potoo, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Highland Motmot, Black-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Emerald Toucanet, Masked Trogon, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Azara's Spinetail, Pearled Treerunner, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Strong-Billed Woodcreeper, Long-Tailed Antbird, White-Bellied Antpitta, White-Creseted Elaenia, Rufous-Breasted Flycatcher, Rufous-Crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Golden-Crowned Flycatcher, Barred Becard, Black-Billed Peppershrike, Turquoise Jay, Brown-Capped Vireo, Pale-Eyed Thrush, Glossy-Black Thrush, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-Crested Warbler, Three-Striped Warbler, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Chestnut-Breasted Chlorophonia, Saffron-Crowned Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Golden-Naped Tanager, Black-Capped Tanager, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, Black-Eared Hemispingus, Plushcap, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch, Olivaceous Siskin.

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