Alto Coca: January 26-27, 2013

Finally coming back to Ecuador after nearly three years away was a joy.  Since I moved away in 2010, I’ve lived, worked, birded, and blogged in a variety of fascinating countries, including Tanzania, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana, but this trip still felt like a true homecoming.  I had been working in Bogotá, Colombia for three weeks, and as Quito is only a one-hour flight away, I simply had to return for a nostalgic weekend of birding.  Of course, I had heard about the recent Banded Ground-Cuckoo sightings at Un Poco de Chocó and was tempted to revisit the northwestern slope of the Andes by myself, but when my friend Mark invited a group of us to scout his thousand-hectare reserve outside of El Chaco on the northeastern slope, I couldn’t resist the company.

Actually, Mark, Aimee, Paula, and I had explored this area of subtropical forest several years ago on another weekend excursion replete with excellent bird sightings, including those of Bicolored Antvireo, Olivaceous Piha, Rufous-Crowned Tanager, and Golden-Collared Honeycreeper.  This time the four of us – Mark, Jeff, Erin, and I – brought our packs and camping equipment, prepared to penetrate deeper into Mark’s property, which lies on a 2000m plateau southeast of the Rio Quijos, between Parque Nacional Sumaco Napo-Galleras and Parque Nacional Cayambe Coca.  It never fails to rain in this region at some point during the day (annual rainfall here is over five meters), so we went decked out in rubber boots and dry bags, carrying machetes to clear the trail, if necessary.

Throughout the weekend I couldn’t stop talking with Mark, who’s lived in Ecuador for 15 years now, about how much things have changed: the new airport is scheduled to open this month; the roads have improved dramatically, although there is much work yet to be done; and the hydroelectric projects are now well underway along the Rios Papallacta, Quijos, and Salado.  National parks have improved infrastructure and are better regulated, which can cut both ways, as Jeff explained that local hiking guides are mandatory when climbing the higher Andean peaks, such as Iliniza Norte.  How many solo expeditions did I make on my own up mountains, into forests, and across bogs?  Indeed, Ecuador originally captured my imagination for both its wildness and accessibility – where an hour’s drive from a city of 2 million people could land you in pristine habitat and total isolation – so it’s a shame to see that spirit diminished somewhat.

Much is still the same though, as I quickly realized along the trail once we set off.  The birds of the cloudforest are still most active when the conditions are wet, and the birds still sound the same – I recognized without hesitation the familiar calls of the White-Bellied Antpitta, Black-Mandibled Toucan, Wattled Guan, and Crested Quetzal.  Because we had to first climb up 500m, then slog through 5km of knee-deep mud, and finally cross a surging waist-deep river, I didn’t actually see many birds through my binoculars.  I lagged behind a few times to sort through a flock or follow up on an unusual bird call – Chesnut-Bellied Thrush?  Bicolored Antvireo?  Rufous-Breasted Woodquail? – but we really had to hustle to arrive at camp by dusk.  As we arrived in a small clearing, muddy and exhausted, I spotted a flock of scarce and spectacular White-Capped Tanagers, which performed nicely for us before retiring for the night.

After a restless night listening to Mark’s fitful snoring, I rose before dawn to follow up on the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock I had heard nearby.  It was rocking with activity, although I didn’t bushwhack deep enough off the trail to actually see one of the raucous males whooping and displaying their magnificent plumage, which is bright orange on the eastern slope, instead of blood red on the western.  The return hike yielded more rain and fewer birds, but I still saw a few eastern slope species, including Inca Jay, Emerald Toucanet, and Saffron-Crowned Tanager – surely the Tangara tanagers are among the most gorgeous birds in the word.  Riding back to Quito, after lunch and a dip in the thermal baths at Papallacata, I reflected whether I wouldn’t have been happier staying in Ecuador even longer.  This jewel of a country has certainly sated birders, naturalists, and adventurers with greater curiosity and wanderlust than me.  But as Heraclitus once said, you cannot step twice into the same river.

Notable birds seen: Scaly-Naped Amazon, Chestnut-Fronted Macaw, White-Collared Swift, Speckled Hummingbird, Booted Racket-Tail, Long-Tailed Sylph, Emerald Toucanet, Golden-Olive Woodpecker, Strong-Billed Woodcreeper, Long-Tailed Antbird, Torrent Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Smoke-Colored Pewee, Barred Becard, Inca Jay, Blackburnian Warbler, Slate-Throated Whitestart, Three-Striped Warbler, Golden-Collared Honeycreeper, Saffron-Crowned Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Blue-Gray Tanager, Summer Tanager, Palm Tanager, White-Capped Tanager, Russet-Backed Oropendola.

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