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Ecuador Hummingbird Photo Safari 2011 (Part 1)

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Oct 18, 2011 | by Kevin Loughlin

Note from Kevin: The text for our Hummingbird Photo Safari trip report was written by Lukas Padegimas, an intern invited to join our trip which took place in August 2011.

Spectacular views await all along the Old Nono-Mindo Road.
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

We awoke super early today and ate breakfast on the seventh floor of hotel Quito – just as first rays of dawn ripped through the mass of fog in the valley. Slowly the Christmas tree-like lights in the darkness transformed themselves into lamp posts and the city began to come alive. In no time, we found ourselves sitting on our tour bus and going uphill toward the “Old Mindo Road.” The Old Mindo Road originally existed as a trade route between ancient Ecuadorian villages and was built a few centuries before the Incan conquest of Ecuador in the early fifteenth century. The Incas expanded it and so did the Spanish. By the looks of it, it seemed to have avoided modernization since the time of the Spanish withdrawal from Ecuador in 1822. Along the way, we saw numerous Great Thrushes fluttering out of bushes as we slowly rode to an elevation of 12,000 ft.

As we continued to make our way up to Yanacocha Reserve in search of some elusive high elevation hummers, a Black-tailed Trainbearer confronted our bus with such passion, we weren’t sure if he thought we were another big hummingbird. After this great view, we continued up and found a tour bus parked along the road. The group was enjoying a Carunculated Caracara and a Roadside Hawk as they soared overhead. The group’s leader was none other than Bob Ridgley – the author of the huge guide to Ecuadorian birds. After the pleasant meet, we soon arrived in Yanacocha.

Great Sapphirewing
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

There, our group enjoyed brilliant views of Great Sappirewings as well as numerous other lovely smaller hummingbirds. Compared to the Ruby-throated Hummingbird back in my home state of Ohio, the Great Sappirewing appear gigantic, extremely colorful with their bright green iridescence, and much more exciting to observe. Despite everyone’s want to spend all their time with these hummingbirds, we continue our journey upwards to search for the elusive Black-breasted Puffleg and others found higher up. We walked a road that had been built over a water pipeline that satisfied the thirst of Quito many miles below.

A Rainbow-bearded Thornbill that cooperated for our lenses for quite some time.
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

The expanse of Cloud Forest seemed to continue forever in our view. While there were few birds along most of the route until we reached different feeder stations, we did find the tiny Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, a specialty of western high mountain elevations, just sitting and posing in a little bush along the edge of a deep precipice. As we continued upward, the sunny 22C of the day began to drop as clouds descended overhead.

Sapphire-vented Pufflegs were quite common around the feeders at high elevations.
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

The avian activity picked up however. At the next feeder station, we found both the Golden-breasted Puffleg and he Sapphire-vented Puffleg feeding at one feeder. Pufflegs are unique adaptations in hummingbirds living in cooler climates. The “felt boot” formation of feathers above their ankles helps conserve heat during the cold nights – and therefore, energy. The buff-winged Starfrontlets were by far the most numerous hummingbirds here – guarding feeders left and right from other rivals.

Masked Flowerpiercers were common at feeders as well as in some mixed flocks.
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

Near the end of the road, we found a mixed flock of Tanagers and Tyrants zipping through the overgrowth. The highlight was a briefly visible Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager that delighted everyone who saw it. Upon reaching the top of the trail, we observed the feeders for over two hours – seeing many beautiful hummingbirds fighting for their spot at the feeders, but did not find the Black-bellied Puffleg. Bob Ridgely, who’s group joined us at the feeders, told us it had not been seen here since June and seems to be critically declining as its habitat becomes more developed.

Tawny Antpittas are quite common up high, and relatively easy to see… as far as antpittas go!
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

As we journeyed back, a great fog enveloped us in the afternoon hours, which prevented us from seeing further than five feet ahead. With the descent of the fog, came small biting gnats and the cold. Finally at the bottom, we had lunch and saw a Tawny Antpitta being called in and fed before us by a local naturalist. Several preserves have managed to attract some of these highly secretive creatures to come regularly to free handouts of worms. This large bird with long legs and a round body came hopping in at the signal. It was great!

Masked Trogon
Photo © Kevin Loughlin
White-capped Dipper
Photo © Kevin Loughlin

 On our way downhill, everyone held their breath. In the midst of the impenetrable fog could have been a huge truck or another bus. However, within an hour Edgar had gotten us safely below the fog — he has been driving along these roads without a GPS for the past twenty years. We next continued to Bellavista Lodge at 8,000 ft above sea level. Along the way, we passed miles of jungle. The diversity of trees began to increase exponentially as we descended lower. A mix of tree ferns, palms, cecropias, as well as numerous other species of trees surrounded us. Along the road, we stopped to observe a pair of Masked Trogons calling to each other, a flock of lovely Turquoise Jays flying overhead, and to see several colorful Tanagers chasing each other in the upper canopy. In the river, we saw two lovely White-capped Dippers and a family of Torrent Ducks. The parents quickly fled down river as we stopped, but a chick kept swimming up and down the rapids – just like a character from some cartoon. Be it any other animal trying to swim between those huge boulders and dangerous currents – they would surely drown.

As night fell, we finally arrived at Bellavista. After unpacking and eating dinner, a resident of the lodge led us to a Black-and-white Owl. The owl sat perched for a few minutes near the front entrance before flying off far into the darkness in search of bats to munch on. Through the night, we would hear his hooting.

Text © Lukas Padegimas
Photos © Kevin Loughlin

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