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JAN. 24, 2015. DAY 7.  Ah, retirement. No alarm clock, no 6am desayuno, no Mauricio. We sleep in, shower upon rising and join at breakfast 2 Californians and 2 Ecuadorian expats from California, Spencer and Margo Platt, and Sherie and Benny Fouche, respectively, who are travelling together along a route quite like ours. We first encountered them at Guango; now they are here at San Isidro, and will be with us again for 3 of our 4 days at our next lodge at Wild Sumaco.


L-R Spencer, Benny, Sherie, Margo, Phil

We take a short walk after breakfast, but get chased back in by the rain. We take a short walk after lunch and a rest, and the rain chases us back in again. We are in time to meet Carmen Bustamente, who has managed and arranged all the details of our time in Ecuador. (See She and her family own the eco-lodges at San Isidro and Guango and have done much to preserve vital habitat in Ecuador for all wildlife, including their work with the Jocotoco Foundation (See We also met her husband Mitch Lysinger, one of Ecuador’s top birders and guide. We spend the rest of the afternoon chatting with Mitch, who grew up in Coral Gables, near Miami. We start naming birders we both might know, and when we mention H P Langridge, Mitch pulls his upper lip tight against his teeth and starts an HP impersonation that is frighteningly right-on. Turns out that when Mitch was a kid, he helped HPL on the Coot Bay Christmas Counts in Everglades National Park. When I was a kid, I helped HPL on a Coot Bay Count! And so the afternoon went, telling stories about Wes Biggs, the Athertons, Paul Sykes, and so many birders whose paths have crossed both Mitch’s and ours . . . a great afternoon!


Mitch Lysinger and Phil

We had a chance to chat with Carmen, thanking her for all her efforts with our trip and hearing about complications she dealt with when lodges at the end of our trip failed to reserve rooms she thought were settled, and how all that was resolved. She also gave us a clearer idea of what to expect during our five-night stay at Napo Wildlife Center later in the trip.

After dinner, Margot and Spencer and we tracked down the San Isidro Owl, and we all had fabulous looks and hears. The day had yielded only one lifer for both of us and a catch-up bird for Ann – but lots of much-needed rest and socialization with new friends.

JAN. 25, 2015. – DAY 8 

Another lazy day at San Isidro, and with showers coming at random through the day, the birds seemed lazy, too. The morning was pretty well rained out, with a really pretty stripe-chested flycatcher, the only lifer to show for the day. Ann and I took a long, easy afternoon walk up slope from the entrance gate on the Sierra Azul Road, and other than motmots calling to us from back in the trees, we encountered very little birdlife. It’s a walk that doubtless would have proved much more productive during the morning hours, but both of our free mornings, it rained. We did get a couple more chances to chat with Mitch and Carmen, and had a couple great views of a blackish agouti, the only one I’ve ever seen that was not deer brown. As we headed off to bed our last night at San Isidro, their special owl screeched its notes of reminder about what a special place this is.


Phil on the observation deck of the dining room/lounge.




After a 6am breakfast, we grab the box lunches that have been prepared for us and head out with our driver/guide Mauricio for a full day of birding along the famous Loreto Road. (Famous, that is, to birders in Ecuador.) We start out on the same highway that brought us to San Isidro, and follow it easterly up and over Guacamayos Pass and then down some rather steep grades toward Amazonia. At the turn-off for the Loreto Road that will take us to Wild Sumaco Lodge in a day or so, there’s a tiny cluster of buildings and we stop for a bano break. One shop sells tires and auto repairs, and six more are cafes – tiny kitchen-sized establishments with total seating capacity for 8-10 patrons . . . hard to see how anyone can make a go of such a small business. All offer 2-3 brands of bottled beverages, 2 or 3 kinds of prepackaged cookies, some chips, and not much of anything else. And the meager offerings of any one place are nearly identical to what’s offered in all the others. Perhaps they are all catering to the same limited palates and pocket books. But we were glad for the bano and to buy a few snacks.


Our excellent guide, Mauricio

Paved highways in Ecuador, at least the parts we’ve travelled, are crowned two-lane affairs with a deep, concreted V-shaped trough at either verge intended to carry heavy rainwater accumulations quickly and safely off the travel lanes, but they make driving particularly harrowing as there is just no place to go should a diversionary maneuver become necessary. And in a country where no pavement is ever slick enough, no curve so blind nor slope so steep nor line of sight so limited as to make anyone slow down, and where no driver is long content to be driving behind any other, well, you get the picture. We are grateful that Mauricio is driving.


Our excellent guide, Mauricio

So he pulls over to the shoulder, on a sharply curving stretch of road, and eases his passenger-side tires down into the V and up onto the curb at the far side, leaving the driver’s side wheels just inches off the main roadway. And he turns off the motor and says, “We’ll start birding here.” And it starts to rain again. Ann wants no part of this, and elects to stay in the car. Mostly, the V portion of the verge is too slippery and the chopped, coarse vegetation alongside too treacherous to offer safe footing, and so Mauricio and I bird from the strip of white paint at the edge of the pavement. Drivers swerve around us as though it is not at all unexpected to have people standing in the road peering up at the forest and looking through binoculars. We work the treetops on either side of the pavement for birds. You might think that these circumstances would be unproductive, but our efforts over the next hour-plus yields 22 species that are new for the trip, none lifers for Phil.


Ristorante Susanna, Hollin

We decide to escape the rain by going to a roadside café, Ristorante Susanita at the tiny settlement of Hollin that Mauricio says hangs feeders that might attract new hummers for us. We find another group of birders already there, guided by a young man with a very familiar face – Julio, who was our guide from San Jorge de Quito on our last Ecuador jaunt in September of 2013 – and he remembers us also. Also in the group was Juan Carlos Calvachi, another guide we had used on a previous trip. We all huddle under a tin roof and peer out at the feeders, watching and waiting for hummers to come in. We then order lunch – a huge bowl of noodle soup (Sopa de Fideo) and a plate of chicken and rice, along with a glass of iced tea we elect not to drink. We could have eaten the box lunches prepared for us by San Isidro, but I felt better giving some business to these avian caretakers. Later, we sent the uneaten lunches home with Mauricio to share with his family. We scored a bunch of great birds here, and upon leaving I gave a five-dollar bill to the proprietor: “Asucar por los aves.” (Sugar for the birds.) I was rewarded with a big warm smile.


Ristorante Susanita Shrine

We U-turned upon leaving the restaurant and headed back the way we came. We found a pull-off near a steep road cut, and pulled off to give a search for the rare Cliff Flycatcher. Mauricio used tape playback to call in the bird, and got immediate glares from the guide and birders of a different group who were also looking for this species, and who’d managed to find two close by without use of a tape. This technology is considered by many birders to be an intrusive birding behavior that could interfere with normal patterns of territoriality and courtship. But we were glad to see this beautiful bird, all rufous underneath with a speckled face.

Back on the road again, we encountered two large semis with their passenger-side wheels down in the drainage V. I feared mechanical damage or worse, but as we eased around them, we peered in between the front of one rig and the rear of the other and there we saw the two drivers, stripped down to their boxers, showering in a small waterfall that cascaded down from the cliff above.

Mauricio makes a couple of notable stops on the way back – one to see a pair of Blackish Nightjars asleep at their roost for the day. They looked for all the world like two charred pinecones sitting stock still on black volcanic rocks. How to find them was handed-down information; how the first hand came to know the location is a puzzlement. But we were glad Mauricio knew where to look.

After a couple more stops and as many lifers, we gather in the San Isidro dining hall for a final tally of the list, and bid farewell to Mauricio. He had been hired to drive and guide us by Carmen Bustamante, one of the owners of Guango and San Isidro. Actually, she helped us plan and made arrangements for our whole trip.

I can still hear Mauricio saying, “Sir, coming.” when he wants me to step up and see what he’s seeing, “continuing” when he wants us to move on down the trail, and “above my green light” whenever he uses his laser pointer to help direct us to where he’s seeing a bird. We would miss him, but were going to be heading east toward Amazonia, which was out of his territory.

From Ann’s Field Notes: 19 new birds today including the Violet-fronted Brilliant, Fire-throated Fruiteater, Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Glittering-throated Emerald, and a Marble-faced Bristle-tyrant. What names! It’s easy for you to see how amazing they all are – just google their names and look at their pictures.


Winter Birding in Ecuador – 2015 – Part 7. San Isidro – From Phil’s Journal


It is cool this morning, and Ann reaches for her LLBean warm puffy jacket and it is not to be found anywhere. In the rush to get loaded at Guango, with rain falling and threatening to get worse, we must have left it draped over the back of a chair, and because it is black, failed to notice it (See, I’m making excuses already.) So now, how to retrieve it? When Mauricio leaves us and returns home, he will go right past the place. Can he pick it up and leave it for us at Puembo to grab on our last night? But Mauricio says he saw it draped across one of our carryon bags, through the handles, and I remember that, too. So a last look in the SUV to see if we left it there. No dice. I walk the back trail to our cabin and there, soaked and forlorn, lies one black, silky LLBean puff where it must have slipped through the handles of that bag. Relief!

 Well, it rained all night, and between the hammering on our metal roof and the head congestion that clears in the morning and returns to plague my sleep at night, neither of us got a lot of sleep. It’s pouring when we rise, and Mauricio announces a reversal of plans for the day. He does not feel that it will be safe or productive to try Guacamayos Ridge in the pouring rain or while the trails are sopping wet.

So we drive up the Sierra Azul Road, a scenic drive that takes us up, up, up through mostly farmland.The road itself was gravel and well-maintained, and the only scary part was crossing a deep ravine on what Mauricio called the Indiana Jones Bridge. The showers are very light through the morning and only sporadic, so we have great birding. Highlights are Southern Lapwing, new for Ann, and which Phil has seen only from a distance at the Panama airport a few years ago. Our best bird will end up being the Black-billed Mountain-Toucan and we’ll have a total of 5 lifers (6 for Ann) for the morning.


The Indiana Jones Bridge on the Sierra Azul Road

After lunch, Ann has the good sense to take the afternoon off for reading, napping, and hanging out at the feeders . Mauricio and I drove up to Guacamayos Ridge and walked about half of its 4Km length. Rocky and narrow along a very steep slope, we never did reach what we in North Carolina would call a ridge trail. The footing was seldom sure, the surface was rocked with stones that mostly had keen edges sticking up, and the boots I’d borrowed had thin soles and a place that rubbed my left ankle with every other step and not enough room for my toes, especially on down grades. We actually looked at only two birds and heard a half dozen others; the one lifer I got Ann will get two days hence.

Back at the car, I observe a small shrine to the Virgin del Quinche. It’s a glassed-in cubicle in a white-washed concrete block structure placed, like several others we have seen – usually at a pass or blind curve of the highway combined with a hairy drop off. Inside, a lovely ceramic statue of the virgin looks over her children as they drive wrecklessly up the hill and around the curve, and perhaps helps those who don’t make it on their way to their place in heaven.

While we are standing there, a large panel truck pulls part way around the blind curve and stops on the pavement. The driver climbs out and, standing nearly on the centerline of the highway, walks back to his left rear tire and anoints it right there in the road, in front of God and the Virgin and everyone. I guess he figured the Virgin Del Quinche didn’t have enough looking over to do.

Mauricio and I hang around until almost seven, hoping to see Swallow-tailed Nightjars with their huge showy tails swooping just over the trees in the pass. A couple of females zoom by, too fast and too dark and too far to show any field marks. And then two large pale gray birds ascend into the sky directly overhead. Mauricio ID’s them as Andean Potoos, and though I do not get a countable view of their field marks, I am still thrilled to see them. Every other time (3 – 4 in all) I’ve seen a Potoo, it has sat motionless at the tip of a broken snag, looking for all the world, and to any potential predators, like just so much more of the snag. Now I am actually seeing them move, a lovely fluttering moth-like movement ascending higher and higher above me in pursuit of diurnal insects carried up from the forest canopy by the wind through the pass.

Then a third species swoops overhead. His size is larger, his flight is slower, and I can distinctly make out a white necklace against a blackish head and a very dark tummy and a short squared-off tail; those are enough field marks for me to count him as a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk, even though I’d like to see the rufous color some day.

We return for dinner to find as I suspected, Ann, starting to get worried about our late arrival.


Sparkling Violetear

From Ann’s field notes: We turned in our laundry this morning and it would be returned to us nicely washed and folded that evening. Breakfast was fresh pineapple, toast and scrambled eggs and donuts. The food at both Guango and San Isidro (owned by the same family) is freshly and lovingly and creatively prepared. Always delicious and enjoyable. One fruit/vegetable I had to get translated turned out to be a tree tomato – naranjillo, tomato de arbor. Lunch was soup, ceviche, pork sausages, bean tamale, naranjillo, baked potato, and watermelon.

Sixteen lifers today, including such lovelies as Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Barred Becard, White-bellied Antpitta, Crested Quetzal, Sub-tropical Cacique, Golden-naped Tanager, and the Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher.



Ann under an umbrella.

Ann under an umbrella – Glumeracia.



IMG_2012Our last day at Guango Lodge, a morning shower helps to clear my head, and we have our breakfast – delicious papaya, scrambled eggs, and croissants. All our food here has been excellent, freshly made, and creatively presented.

Ann slips out to watch the morning feeding of the Antpitta. She’s the first person out on the trails, and all alone gets nice looks at him skulking around the garden paths before the actual feeding begins. After a while a group of Pitta-watchers has gathered and I slip in at the back, and about six of us are gathered when Mr. Antpitta slips in and puts on his show. As we walk back to the lodge, I see a small hummer and point out to Ann the Mountain Avocet-bill at the same feeding hole on the same feeder where Mauricio and I had seen him earlier. Eureka!

The night and the altitude have wiped me out and I head back to the room at 8AM for a nap! When I awaken refreshed one hour later, Ann has the packing nearly done. I had slept soundly through it, and so either she was mighty quiet or I was really zonked . . . probably both. So together we complete the packing, complete the evaluation form, and decide on the amount of tip for the household staff and cooks, and just as we finish our tasks, the rains return. We have spent the two driest, sunniest hours inside!

Most of the rest of the morning we spend indoors talking to other refugees from the rain, and after lunch, we go up on the Cascada Trail one last time. It rains the whole time, and though the forest is beautiful even in the rain, the birds have hunkered down, and we see almost none.

The lodge at Guango has beautiful gardens and paths, under a dense over story of large trees that is sandwiched into a narrow wedge with the pipeline right-of-way and a river close by on one side, and a steeply down-sloping stretch of the highway on the other. You are never, at any time of day or night, away from the sound of large trucks either struggling to make the climb up the Andes to the west or using airbrakes or engine braking to maintain control downhill to the east. Fortunately, there are lovely trails along the river and on the slopes above the highway on the other side of the road, and with the ever-crowded hummingbirds at many feeders, and mixed flocks of tanagers/wood creepers/wrens at intervals along the trails,  your mind soon learns to block out the din of vehicles.


Swordbill Hummingbird

Mauricio shows up around 2pm and we load up for the 2-hour drive east to our next lodge, Cabanas San Isidro. There are a few small towns along the way, and the highway itself has provided a corridor along which scattered business and small agricultural clearings climb a quarter of the way upslope on both sides of the road. From the uphill edge of the small fincas (farms) to the crest of the roadside hills and mountains to the horizon as far as you can see, often for many ridgelines into the distance, it is untouched primary forest. And in fact, there are extensive areas where this pristine habitat extends all the way to the road shoulder with no sign of human industriousness at all. The forested land to the right side of the highway is the Antisana Reserve, and Sumaco and Coca National Parks include the lands to our left.


The fact that the vast reserves abut each other for such huge distances, with at most a quarter mile zone of human-altered land in only a handful of areas in between, means that wildlife large and small can range freely over millions of acres, and ensures genetic viability rather than the island effect that characterizes nature reserves in the USA and so many other parts of the world. Occasionally, you see a cluster of concrete buildings off in the cloud forest with almost no cleared land around them; these are infrastructure for the oil pipeline that traverses the country.

Turning off the main highway, a short drive of several miles along a dirt road takes us to Cabanas San Isidro. Only the dirt road passes near, and it has about the same traffic load as Huffman Creek Road at home. The cabanas are scattered over twenty acres or so in areas of small trees that seems to me to be second growth forest, with the taller and stouter primary forest trees all around at the edge of the cabana area. There are several more cabanas at the other end of the complex, near the large glassed dining room with a wide covered veranda facing the mountains to the east. The most prominent is the Guacamayos Ridge, where we are scheduled to walk tomorrow. The birding around the parking area is fabulous, and we soon find a special skulking ground bird, Swainson’s Thrush – here from North America for the winter. Eleven more species before dinner, 2 of them lifers.


Our fixings are half of a free-standing duplex; we have two double beds, a sitting area with a view to the Guacamayos Ridge only a few miles away, and our own small porch with the same view to the south and the cloud forest right there a stone’s throw away at the west. There are five or six duplexes and maybe a single down slope from us, and at the end is a big glassed-in common room with lots of soft seating, a pool table, darts, and a cute little observation deck on the roof.

Ann and I head back to our cabana after dinner to find that Mauricio has staked out the mysterious San Isidro Owl. It superficially resembles the Black-banded Owl, but is out of range for that species, has slightly different markings, and makes distinctly different sounds. Could it be a special subspecies, or a different species altogether? Hope someone will do some DNA work and make a firm decision.

After enjoying the owl, we heard what Mauricio identified as night monkeys making all forms of vocal and foliage-thrashing racket as a troop of 3 or 4 moved through the trees. We raced up to the observation roof just in time to get a get an eye to eye, tree-top look at a Night Monkey in the beam of our powerful spotlight. Easy to see how they got the official name of Noisy Night Monkey. Their head and face shape, tail length and body proportions are so similar to a Kinkajou . . . sure looks like a case of convergent evolution.


Finally, to bed with rain on our roof.

Ann’s Note: Take a look at both of these lodges. We highly recommend them! Also, there are many Youtube videos of the hummingbird feeders at Guango. Check them out, too.


I guess the skies determined that we needed a day of rest. It has rained nearly all day. Ann and Phil managed to squeeze in a 1½ hour walk just before lunch, with very few birds to award their effort. Only 4 new species for the trip today, but one cleared up a tummy-seen-only for Ann and one a tummy-seen-only for Phil, and so Ann netted 3 lifers and Phil 2 for the walk.


Entrance to Guango Lodge

The rain finally breaks about 4pm. I waited out the last of it at a small cabana where I can study the comings and goings at the Guango hummer feeders I don’t usually watch. It is cool, so I pull on my warm, red cap. Within minutes, a Tourmaline Sunangel flies up and lands on my chest, examining the fittings on my binocular strap. A Collared Inca circles my head a couple times, bill-length away from my eyebrows. Several times more my face is fanned by Collared Incas and Sunangels, and twice more a Sunangel lands on me.


Anti-slip device on wet, muddy trails.

A mystery hummer appears, with white crissum feathers completely covering the vent and undertail, much more extensively than any of the other Sunangels we’ve seen over the last two days. Its tail seems longer, its plumage darker, and the glittering feathers at its throat an iridescent pink with purple-blue feathers at the crown, on the chest area just below the pink, and on its shoulders. Two women and Ann have joined me now, and we carefully examine this bird! Consult three field guidebooks. Check through every species of hummer on two different Guango lists, and finally decide it’s a Sunangel. My guess is that this must be the brightest full adult male of all those we’ve seen! Later, I look closely at the picture in the big Birds of Northern South America and what bird do you imagine is an exact match for my mystery hummer? The other bird books and side-by-side comparisons of birds at the feeder had me so convinced that the birds was not a Tourmaline Sunangel that when I finally got to the Big Book, I studied every bird but. In the meantime, the four of us studied, discussed, compared notes, considered and reconsidered, and finally Ann decided to go through the books in search of only the combination of pink throat and white crissum, and made the final call. Tourmaline Sunangel. Some birds come easy; some are handed to you by a guide; none are more fun than those you work out on your own.


Roaring river near the lodge – Good place to look for Torrent Ducks.

Just before dinner, the weather clears and Ann and I make yet another jaunt in pursuit of the Mountain Avocet-bill, a smallish hummer with a comparatively short bill that just barely turns up at the tip – like an avocet. We finally encounter a mixed flock of whitestarts and thrushes, and as Ann turns to leave, a pair of Cinnamon Flycatchers flits up to a bare branch in plain view. This is a species I’d seen earlier with Mauricio, and I always feel so much better when we both get a bird.

By bedtime, the altitude has hit me hard. Head congestion plagues my sleep and by morning I’m feeling pretty puny. During one point of midnight restlessness, I hear an owl hooting not far from the lodge. Never did figure out what it was.






The day starts with breakfast – cereal with yogurt and eggs for us, earthworms for the Chestnut-Crowned Antipitta. The Guango caretaker lays out worms on a board in the trail and before he can take one step away, the bird is there picking up worm after worm, lining them up in his beak so they drape down on either side like sausages in a butcher shop. (Reminiscent of the lined-up fish in the beaks of Puffins in North America.)


We drive back upslope toward Papallacta Pass high in the Andes and turn off at a very popular thermal area that was developed many years ago as a spa. The buildings here are of the most creative and pretty stonework, with wonderful landscaping and gardens. We drive quickly through to a narrow unpaved road that winds up, up, up into the national park. We were here on our last trip to Ecuador (2013 Anniversary trip) and are delighted to experience this breathtakingly beautiful landscape again.


The road we travelled was hewn into the side of a very steep slope, climbing steeply from the road-cut upwards and falling precipitously down below. The terrain is an impenetrable shrub land of low squat plants intermixed with various tall grasses. The ground was covered with a variety of dome-shaped cushion plants and mosses; wildflowers were abundant, from daisy-like and aster-ish composites to bright yellow orchids high up in the trees. There were numerous small trees, singly and in large clusters here and there wherever you looked. They seemed like very old trees with stunted and contorted forms, and hosting thick dark sweaters of arboreal ferns and airplants, orchids, and lichens, many of which were snow-like against the dark green foliage of the trees and their epiphytes.


A river coursed downwards through the deep valley below, and though we could rarely see the river, we were never out of hearing of its roar. Far off on the opposite side, an occasional waterfall cascaded down from the heights, accented by massive rock outcroppings that soared as nearly vertical rock faces far above everything. Meadow-like areas of paramo extended right up to the bases of these monoliths, with a mosaic of subtropical cloud forest, grassy cushion meadows, and a patch of polylepus forest here and there.


As we went ever higher, a foggy mist seemed to be following our ascent, and after a couple of hours it caught up with us, so thick we could no longer see the other side of the valley. From time to time, a fine misty rain set in that was more magical than bothersome. Even before the rain, the exposed rock faces alongside the road were slick, shiny black with moisture, dripping down into the moss patches that clung here and there to the rock. My guess is that these rock faces are always wet; cooled at night, the rocks cause moisture to condense from the humid air that works its way up from the valley below.

We would go on forever without encountering a single bird, and then a couple of times we came upon a mixed flock – a feeding group of several kinds of birds – that would put us on our toes. Two different species of high altitude hummers, both of them thornbills, popped up and then vanished into the brush – raising our pulse and then dashing our spirits all in a 2-second period. But we persevered and managed to pick up a few lifers.


By now, altitude and travel weariness had caught up with Ann, and after our return to the lodge for lunch, she retired for some R & R. Mauricio and I took an afternoon hike along the upper trails at Guango and then down along the river; seeing a Fasciated Tiger Heron and a family group of Torrent Ducks were highlights. I got a good look at a bird we’d “tummy-seen only” earlier that day, and then managed a tummy only on two more species that I most wanted to see. Well, it’s not all beer and skittles!

Mauricio left us just before dinner and headed back to his family in Quito. He’ll be back at 2pm on the 21st to take us to Cabanas San Isidro and guide us there a couple of days. At dinner, we joined a delightful couple from California, and enjoyed conversation about travel, teaching, reptiles, the Peace Corps, and many more topics of interest.

Daily stats: 35 new spp for the trip, 9 lifers for Phil, 5 for Ann.


Since it has been a while since I posted, I’ve been reading Phil’s account of our last trip to Ecuador and have decided to let him talk for a while.

From Phil’s Journal:

With many happy Andean Condor thoughts in our heads, we continued up the narrow road higher into the Antisana Ecological Reserve, gray skies continuing and rain drizzling down. We got up into the Paramo, the high ecosystem of bushes, not trees, altitude over 12,000 feet. Wide rolling alpine meadows flank both sides of the road and climb up the slopes, blanketing the lower rounded knolls and leading uphill until they meet areas too rocky for vegetation. It reminds me so much of the Alpine Zone of our Rocky Mountains in the U.S., with small, stunted plants, like mossy tussocks for gnomes to sit on.



I ask Mauricio to stop so we could check out a large bird in the meadow and there was our first Carunculated Caracara, a big hawk with a hunched-over chicken-like posture with a bright red face and dark and light streaks on the rest of his body. We celebrated our great fortune in finding this great bird, only to end up seeing 70 to 80 more walking around singly or in pairs nearly everywhere we looked! Soon we spotted two Black-faced Ibises and an Andean Lapwing and took a deep breath, knowing that our high country outing would be a great success no matter what happens next.

Other birds of that area and elevation that we saw were Many-streaked Canisteros, Stout-billed Cincloides, and Black-faced Ibis. Because of the absence of trees, most of these birds were right out in the open usually on the ground; no hiding places meant that they were much easier for us to see. Mauricio, was an expert birder and spotted and identified birds quickly. Also, he was adept at pointing them out to us, and fortunately, his English was good! He stopped the car occasionally and we can wander out into the damp, mossy fields and search for birds.



The road takes us up and over, winding here and there until we come upon Lago Mica, a huge alpine lake established as a reservoir of fresh water for the city of Quito, down mountain to the west. As we walk the lake trail toward a spot where we can scope out the lake, I start to feel the full impact of our altitude. Twenty-four hours ago we were in Miami, 10 to 15 feet above sea level. Now we are on the crest of the Andes at 14,000 feet! Shortness of breath up here where oxygen is in shorter supply – that was fully expected! But the light-headedness made for tipsy walking, and I had to steady my balance and suck in deep breaths to clear my vision and allay a headache that kept threatening to take over. But then we were seeing Silvery Grebe and Andean Ruddy Duck among other special new birds and my vertigo cleared until we headed back to the car. By now, the overcast had closed in and a steady light rain was falling, and we sat in the car and ate our box lunches, prepared by Mercedes, our hostess at Puembo Birding Garden.


After lunch, we back-tracked south and west through Antisana National Park and nearly back to Puembo, and then headed back east up the Andes toward Papallacta Pass. The higher we drove, the harder it rained, so we decided to defer our Papallacta birding until the next day and headed downhill toward Guango Lodge, where we would be for 3 nights.

Die-hards ever, we detoured off onto a two-rut “road” with a couple of inches of water rushing down each rut, as Mauricio rock-hopped our SUV downhill, and were rewarded when a Tawny Antipitta stepped out into our path. Great looks at a species that can be frustratingly tough to see but which has no scruples about taunting you with its whistled song the whole time you are in the high country.


Nine species of hummingbirds were there to greet us on our arrival at Guango Lodge, and with Mauricio’s help we were able to sort them out in short order. By day’s end, we would see two species of hummingbirds whose tails are more than twice their body length and one whose bill is the longest compared to body size of any bird on earth.


Ann headed in for an early afternoon rest and the guys, having more tenacity than good sense, headed out for a walk on some of the shorter trails around the lodge, with some very satisfying results. By day’s end, our first day of birding totaled 64 species seen by Ann and/or Phil plus another dozen or so ID’d by sound by Mauricio’s keen ear; 15 were lifers for Phil and 14 were lifers for Ann.

Our room at Guango is a barrel-shaped affair with an arched roof of varnished wood planks, a lovely window of like style, and white plastered walls. Twin beds, our own bathroom with shower and tub, cozy.


Meals are taken in an open dining room downstairs that has at one end a couple of clusters of soft and comfy chairs and a much-welcomed fire burning in a nearby fireplace. Several small groups were in residence, each dining at its own table; the two of us and Mauricio ate together.


Our meals were simple and straightforward with vegetables and fruits (with the exception of the dessert shown above) that were much tastier than the meat, and preceded by thick-brothed soups that topped everything else. Ann and I both really like the foods we are served in Ecuador, and we retire at night fully sated. Not much chance we’ll go home more trim than when we arrived.




For our first winter in North Carolina, we went to Florida and Ecuador! So much for acclimating on a year-round basis to our new home in the mountains. First we had a wonderful family Christmas party, and then since Phil had committed to teaching some of his former students, we spent some time in Everglades National Park – one of our favorite natural areas. Finally, it was time to embark on our long-planned-for 25-day trip to Ecuador. We had selected to fly Lan Airlines, have used them in the past, and were not disappointed with their service, and like many South American airlines they actually serve food on their flights!

We had 25 days to spend staying in birding ecolodges that protect and conserve habitats and wildlife – hiking and exploring in wild places, with our emphasis on seeing the fabulous birds of this tiny country. Another of our travel goals is to try to contribute to the local economies in ways that support a conservation ethic by staying at lodges that work on establishing and preserving ecosystems that enable wildlife to survive and flourish – and that cause as little disruption in the natural ecosystems as possible. In countries where the pressures are great for exploitation of natural resources, the temptation to “cut it all down” is always a threat.

On our previous trip in September, 2013, (see my October 12, 2013 post “Anniversary in the Rainforest – Part 1”) we discovered they had moved the Quito airport! What a shock! Who knew? Well, everyone but us. So this time we were prepared to land not in the area of almost-downtown Quito at an elevation of almost 9500 feet, but at the new Mariscal Sucre Aeropuerto about an hour east of town. As a result, we had followed the advice and wise counsel of our Ecuadorian travel guru, Carmen Bustamante from Cabanas San Isidro and and her sister Irene, and had them book us a room at the beautiful Puembo Birding Gardens – and as their website says, “Its purpose is not only to give you a nearby comfortable and reliable accommodation but to provide an initial list of 30 some species of birds seen right from your breakfast table.” (


Puembo Birding Gardens Lodge

We were greeted at the airport by our driver/guide Mauricio who took us to Puembo Birding Gardens. The drive anywhere in Ecuador can be quite exciting – even horrifying if we are doing the driving. So it was especially pleasant this trip to have Mauricio in charge part of the time, and we could spend the drive looking at our surroundings, which varied from bustling, crowded city streets to bleak desert-like vistas and crossing very tall bridges spanning deep, deep crevasses with winding rivers at the bottom. In less than an hour we had arrived at our destination and were greeted by our hostess Mercedes who was as kind and welcoming as if we had known her for years and were visiting in her own home. She showed us to our room, right off the dining area on a large covered patio in the garden with bird feeders all around. Our nice-sized bedroom with private bathroom was very comfortable and well-furnished. The comforters on the beds came in handy since we were over a mile high (higher than Denver) and the nights would be chilly. The meals were excellent – fresh fruits, fish, omelets, juices, etc. and the birds were cooperative also – in fact the beautiful Saffron Finches and Scrub Tanagers coming to the many feeders were new for us.  In the morning after a sumptuous breakfast, Mauricio picked us up with our sack lunches prepared by Mercedes – and we were off for our first day’s adventure.

Note: All of the places we stayed provided 3 meals a day, which included a sack lunch if we were away for the day. All meals were served in dining rooms with the rest of the guests and usually served buffet style.

One of our target birds this trip was an Andean Condor, and this first day we were headed way out of town and up into the mountainous regions of Antisana Ecological Reserve southeast of Quito. Since this is the largest raptor in the world with a wingspan of over 10 feet, we figured they wouldn’t be too hard to find if we could get to the right altitude, since they are high mountain birds and (according to the field guide) frequently perch on cliff faces. So this should be easy. Of course, we had tried and failed twice before. Your driver gets you high enough and you watch the cliff faces and hope the weather clears. If the weather is clear, you might even see them soaring on thermals of air. No clear weather this day. We rode higher and higher (Antisana Peak is over 18,000 feet high) until we were above treeline, road getting narrower and narrower – cars having to slow down to pass each other, rocky cliff faces on both sides of the road – one rising hundreds of feet to the right of our driving lane and the other to the left of the car across a very deep canyon rising up to mountain peaks in the clouds. With gray skies and a drizzle of rain. A portent of things to come.


Digiscoping an Andean Condor

Suddenly we rounded a corner and found 3 or 4 vehicles pulled off to the side of the narrow road, people standing around, in and beside the road, frantically motioning for us to pull over! Mauricio acted as though he was going to keep on going, but he finally pulled off to the side since several of the people kept motioning for us to stop, come and look, get out of the car, pointing off in the distance! And they were excited! Motioning, gesturing, trying to get us to see off across the canyon to the cliff faces beyond. They kept saying, “Condor! Condor!” They were a large family out for a Sunday ride up into their beautiful, though hazy,  mountains – mothers, brothers, dads, babies, grandmothers, school-aged children, all ages and sizes – about 20 of them all together. They pulled us across the road to where some of them were standing right on the edge, everyone babbling enthusiastically (in Spanish of course) and pointing. “Condor! Condor!” We realized that they actually were seeing a condor! And didn’t want us to miss it! So Phil took our telescope out of the car and Mauricio got his out and they set them up along the side of the road, and these wonderful people, who didn’t even have binoculars, could all take a good, close-up look at the Andean Condor, perched on a rocky cliff face way off across this canyon. This was their bird! The national bird of Ecuador! This was their condor! We found it and we want to share our special bird with you! The littlest kids got held up to the scope, every family member got a turn looking in the scope, and as each came away from the scope you could tell from their faces that they were thinking Wow!  That needed no translation. Someone went to one of their cars and even got the old grandpa out and gently helped him walk across the road so he could look, too. What a smile he had!


Phil had a new camera device he was learning how to use and practicing with on this trip – it’s called digiscoping – using your smartphone’s camera through the eyepiece on the telescope. So he attached the smartphone to the scope (with a special device he had brought along) and on the phone you could see a relatively close-up view of the bird. As you would see if you looked directly through the scope. Well, you can imagine how excited everyone got when that happened! They all had to look at the bird again of course, and then one of them realized they could use their smartphones to take a picture of Phil’s smartphone’s view of the condor! Imagine! Can you picture all these folks – and us with no Spanish speaking ability “to speak of”, standing out in the middle of nowhere, high up in the Andes Mountains, chilly, drizzling rain, looking in the scope, taking pictures with their phones, babbling excitedly to one another, pointing off in the distance, occasionally stopping another car that happened by to show them,  and everybody smiling and hugging each other? Imagine!

I suppose I could write an essay about how birds can bring peoples together, but you get the idea. We eventually continued on our way, smiling quietly to ourselves, extremely satisfied with our first of many more birding adventures.




Helpful signage at Cabanas San Isidro

For many months prior to Phil retiring from teaching high school last year, we had been planning our fourth trip to the magical country of Ecuador as his retirement celebration. Located in South America on the Pacific coast, bordered on the north by Colombia and by Peru on the east and south, with the Galapagos Islands way offshore, Ecuador is a land of friendly people, delicious food, many volcanoes (some active), the Andes, the extensive rainforests and cloud forests, unexplored jungles, steep canyons, waterfalls, and rivers leading down to the Amazon – and of course 1600 species of birds. How could all this not lure us to visit there – again and again?

But we asked ourselves – could we really see that many birds in this tiny country? How could we ever sort them out? Why would we keep doing this to ourselves? Why would we insist on going to a place where the birding is so confusing and frustrating and challenging?? And for the fourth time??  And yet we continue to be lured to spectacular Ecuador – from the near-sea-level Amazon to the top of the Andes Mountains at about 16,000 feet. And we continue to be astounded by the super abundance of birdlife – 1600 species of birds possible to see in a country the size of Nebraska or Colorado. And the total of birds in all of North America? About 800 species. Also overwhelming are those chilly Andean peaks, misty cloud forests and dripping, sweaty rainforests and jungles – teeming with thousands of species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, vines, airplants, orchids – all guaranteed to continually hide the birds from view!

For our fourth trip Phil contacted one of the very popular birding ecolodges we wanted to visit – at San Isidro, about 2 hours east of Quito, and thus began a wonderful relationship with Carmen Bustamante at He gave her a list of all the birding ecolodges where we wanted to stay, how long we wanted to stay at each one, what birding we wanted to do, and Carmen and her sister Irene Bustamante took over our desired itinerary, made a few recommendations and adjustments, and organized a trip that would exceed our expectations. This was also to be a trip that – based on our previous at-times harrowing  experiences – would NOT leave the driving to us! We would have a driver part of the time and a driver/guide part of the time so we could concentrate on birds and scenery – not maps and traffic! A big relief – for both of us!


Phil sitting on the porch at Cabanas San Isidro

NOTE: Why we don’t just make things simple and go with one of the many excellent birding tour groups such as Field Guides or VENT Tours and leave all the travel details, the finding and identifying of birds to them?? And get their group rates! First of all, we like to do things at our own pace. Our tendency on trails is to dawdle – taking time to look at wildflowers, insects, trees, etc. and take pictures. That isn’t always easy to do if you’re with a tour group that has deadlines to meet and the next lodging to get to. We like to select the places we stay and spend several nights in one place – more than most tour groups are able to do, since their time is more restricted. We also enjoy identifying the birds ourselves, and on occasion, we even prefer the casual, laid back, chilled out method of birding –just sitting on a porch watching birds come to feeders rather than the frantic pressure of following a guide and being part of a group. And at the birding ecolodges, sitting on the porch is always an option. And most of these lodges have easy-to-use self-guided trails available.

The trade off of doing things our way precludes getting a chance to know and meet other birders who tend to be the kind of people we would like to know and spend time with. It can be fun to work together with others on bird finding and identification, and when you are with other birders there are more sets of eyes to help find the birds. However, that said, when you stay at a birding lodge, there are usually other birders and guides available to compare notes with or to answer questions.

So, come along with us on another fantastic Ecuadorian adventure. I’ll try to post a segment of our 25-day journey each week and hope to inspire you to take your own trip to this beautiful country.


You’ve not heard from me recently – over a year, actually! We’ve retired from our jobs and from living in South Florida, where we both grew up and lived most of our lives. We are now living in and enjoying our small cabin and large barn on about 25 acres of mostly hardwood forest and creeks at what we call “Trillium Woods’. We’ve spent summers here for over 30 years, but seeing all the leaves fall off the trees in October and all come back on again in April and May is amazing! We are at about 2800 feet elevation and located in the Nantahala National Forest of Western North Carolina. If we get up to a nearby peak at Hooper Bald, we can see the Great Smoky Mountains National Park off to the north of us. And we are about a half hour away from the Joyce Kilmer Slickrock Wilderness Area.

photo 2

Our new “birdventure” is right here at Trillium Woods – keeping track of what comes to our feeders, such as the resident Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Mourning Doves, American Goldfinches, Carolina Wrens, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

During the winter the Dark-eyed Juncos and Winter Wrens come down from the higher elevations and stay here for a couple of months. The Cherokee Indians who live nearby have always called the Juncos the snowbirds, and one of the ranges nearby are the Snowbird Mountains. The Winter Wrens seem to like the nooks and crannies of the warm barn during cold spells, and occasionally Phil has to help one find its way out. One delight is hearing their tinkling musical song once in a while during their stay.

We also have resident Wood Thrushes, Pileated Woodpeckers, Broad-winged Hawks, Downy Woodpeckers, Louisiana Waterthrushes, Hooded Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, Parula Warblers, Black and White Warblers, Eastern Towhees, American Crows, Yellow-throated Warblers, Ovenbirds, and more to be discovered.

During fall migration last year we had up to 10 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visiting our feeders – at one time! The biggest challenge with our new life, though, is learning the bird calls, since many of them hang out high up in the treetops out of sight – one of the problems of living in a forest. Fortunately, I have an app on my iPhone that has the calls, and I wander down our road listening hard, then try to match the call with something on my phone. It’s a slow process, but a nice way to spend a few minutes each day on my half-mile walk to the mailbox.

I plan to be reporting on our bird adventures regularly, now that things are beginning to get settled in our new life, and on my agenda is to tell you about our 25-day trip to Ecuador last January and February. Hope you enjoy it!