Ecuadorean Andes – Northwest Slopes, 2022

The incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera), the only bird in the world with a beak longer than its body.

Just the photos: Northwest Slopes of the Andes Gallery.

Ecuador is a country of legendary biodiversity. In a small land area, it encompasses high mountains, lowland rainforest, and mangrove-dotted coastline, and countless distinct ecosystems arise in the nooks and crannies between them. Between the Amazon rainforest of the east and the Pacific coast of the west, the Andes scrape the sky, and where warm humid air rises to meet them, it condenses into thick clouds of mist.

The cloud forest clings precipitously to the mountain slopes that rise northwest of Quito. We had one day to explore it. It was little more than a stopover on our journey to the Galápagos. It still took no more than that to almost effortlessly see more bird species in one day than we probably ever had before (or likely will again, until we return…). This incredible region deserves a lot more than to be tacked on unceremoniously to some other objective; one day, a fully-realized trip of its own is in order. Until then, though…

The charismatic Plate-billed Mountain Toucan (Andigena laminirostris).

Our plane to Quito, the capital of Ecuador nestled high in the Andean foothills, touched ground after midnight. It was the last leg of a surprisingly harrowing three-hop journey from Seattle by way of San Francisco and San Salvador. Bleary-eyed, we shuffled into the arrivals area. I looked vaguely around, and in the last place I looked (right in front of me), my mother was waving us over with nearly incomprehensible energy.

The cool night air was somewhat reviving. By the time we reached the hotel (about an hour’s drive into the city) I was in a peculiar state of wanting to collapse somewhere and not get up… but not actually wanting to sleep. Not enough time passed between the moment I finally drifted off and the alarm blaring at 4:30. I stumbled around gathering my camera equipment, then we muddled our way to the lobby to meet our guide for the day.

A shy forest dweller, the Chestnut-naped Antpitta (Grallaria nuchalis), collecting a mouthful of worms for breakfast.

Tomorrow, we would be on a plane to the Galápagos Islands. But on our one free day in the high Andes, I intended to fill our daylight hours with as many tiny, sparkly birds as we could possibly find. In pursuit of that goal, I think we did adequately well. These photos are all from one single day of bumping along a long, winding network of dirt road, first climbing the dry slopes of Volcan Pichincha before descending into cloud forest by way of the old Nono-Mindo Road.

Left: Sapphire-vented Puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani). Right: a female White-bellied Woodstar (Chaetocercus bombus), a tiny hummingbird from the same group as the bee hummingbird (the world’s smallest bird).

A Black-tailed Trainbearer (Lesbia victoriae) rests in the the shade of early morning; Volcan Pichincha towers over the reserve in the background.

Along the way, the bumpy road is dotted with small private reserves. At our first stop, Zura Loma Reserve on the steep slopes of the volcano Pichincha, we had some of the most effortless photography I’ve ever experienced. I lazed quite indolently on a bench as dozens of hummingbirds buzzed around us in the beautiful garden that has been curated for their benefit. As the sun rose over the slope to our backs, the garden came to life. Each jewel-like bird sparkled in the light. (The only thing more fantastical than the birds themselves are their bizarre names… each more inventive than the last.)

The sensibly-named Sparkling Violetear (Colibri coruscans) is a rather argumentative bird, defending high-value flowers by flashing the iridescent blue feathers of their “ears” and vocalizing at others.

Left: Buff-winged Starfrontlet (Coeligena lutetiae). Right: Sapphire-vented Puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani)

A Collared Inca (Coeligena torquata) and a Sparkling Violetear display at each other over a favored flower.

Buff-tailed Coronet (Boissonneaua flavescens); between its aggressive personality and abundance, this was the hummingbird we saw the most of.

Left: Sapphire-vented Puffleg (Eriocnemis luciani). Right: Tyrian Metaltail (Metallura tyrianthina).

It was there that we spotted our only swordbills of the day, as well as two species of elusive antpitta. Antpittas are shy, ground-feeding, almost tailless forest birds with an oddly upright posture. They rarely emerge from darkness. Even with the harsh light of late morning at high altitude, I strained the ISO limits of my camera to photograph them.

Chestnut-naped Antpitta.

A Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria rufula) in the permanent dusk of the forest understory.

A male Torrent Duck (Merganetta armata), another quite sensibly-named bird, dashing through the whitewater.

Where the road met a rushing stream, our guide Jorge shocked me from a sleep-deprived torpor when he sharply pulled the van over and ushered me to hurry out. I threw myself out of the vehicle with very little concept of what I was looking for. The sun scorched my eyes. I squinted at the gleaming rapids. A flash of red disappeared around a bend. I crept up to the river’s edge, gazing at nothing but whitewater. Jorge waved from downstream and I hurried to meet him, catching one short glimpse of… of… It took me a second to place the brilliantly white head and red bill I’d seen bobbing in the waves. “Torrent ducks?” I hazarded, as the bird disappeared back upstream, from whence I’d just run. We raced back up, dodging boulders, just in time to see the male hop lightly out onto boulder. What a spectacular view he gave us… and just enough of it for me to creep out towards the river bank and wait for him to leap back out into the rush.

Birds from dawn ’til noon.

The high Andean cloud forest is an environment unlike any other in the world. We hiked a little in the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve, where (among other things) we spotted a duo of Spotted Woodcreepers (Xiphorhynchus erythropygius). These are not related to the treecreepers (e.g., the brown treecreeper), but owe their similarities to convergent evolution. At the lodge, I watched hummingbirds, mostly Buff-tailed Coronets (Boissonneaua flavescens), buzzing amongst the trees. Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossa cyanea) and Blue-winged Mountain Tanager (Anisognathus somptuosus) also visited the lodge’s feeders.

Come afternoon, we had come up with a mission: the search for the enigmatic Plate-billed Mountain Toucan. The toucan is essentially an endemic of these northwest slopes of the Andes (their range stretches into the extreme south of Colombia as well). We trawled a network of primitive roads through the cloud forest, spying only a single flash of soft gray. That had us going over that patch of forest with a fine-toothed comb, to no avail. The toucans make themselves scarce on hot, sunny days. It wasn’t until we descended another slope into a layer of cloud that we found our target.

The beautiful Plate-billed Mountain Toucan.

Outside the conservation area, there are a handful of private properties dotting the slopes where bird-loving homeowners have planted gardens they kindly make open to visitors (donations are appreciated to keep the hummingbirds in their sugar habit). It was at one such home that we finally spotted our toucan as it hopped through the trees. There, we also saw a beautiful Toucan Barbet (Semnornis ramphastinus), and White-booted Racket-tails (Ocreatus underwoodii) in one of the loveliest home gardens we have ever seen.

White-booted Racket-tail (Ocreatus underwoodii)

As we descended out of the clouds, we hit our first paved road since we’d left Quito in the morning. Highway 28 would take us all the way back, but first we turned towards the small village of Nanegalito. There, in the vegetation that festooned the sheer cliff face along a bend in the highway, a cryptic Swallow-tailed Nightjar roosted. We edged along the roadside to photograph him as he slept, buffeted by the slipstreams of trucks that blew by within feet of us.

White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora).

Left: Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii). Right: Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl)

Birds of the afternoon.

Our last stop before Quito was Alambi Reserve, a private cloud forest reserve in the Tandayapa Valley. The hummingbird gardens there are, despite the day we’d already had, astounding. There we saw several new-to-us species of hummingbird: among them, the Andean emerald (Uranomitra franciae), Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), the tiny Amethyst-throated Sunangel (Heliangelus amethysticollis), and Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae). A pair of Red-headed Barbets (the female is instead blue-and-yellow-headed), and a handful of Golden-naped Tanagers (Chalcothraupis ruficervix) visited to feed on bananas put out on fence-posts.

A White-capped Dipper (Cinclus leucocephalus) foraging in a rushing stream on the Alambi Reserve.

We left the hummingbirds reluctantly and walked down along the river in search of quetzal. In that we struck out, but we enjoyed watching a little White-capped Dipper foraging in the rapids. Like its cousin the American Dipper (and uniquely among passerines), this is a songbird that has evolved to dive and swim underwater.

With that, we were due back in Quito for our pre-Galápagos COVID-19 testing. The next day, we found ourselves in another world… but that’s another story.

Left: Andean Guan (Penelope montagnii) in the early morning in a private reserve, one of our first birds of the day. Right: a male Swallow-tailed Nightjar (Uropsalis segmentata), asleep in the late afternoon by a roadside, one of our last.

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