05 February 2013

5 February 2013

More of the same, or something entirely different? That was the key question today regarding weather. I woke at 5:30am and sprightly looked out the window - it looked clear, or at least I could easily see lights from buildings on several kilometers away. Mission status: Go!

Within 15 minutes I was in the restaurant having a quick breakfast. It wasn't even fully out, but what I needed, cereal, toast and coffee, was. I was on the road by 6:00am, and decided to try Yanacocha again. The clear view was a tad misleading, as it was lightly raining throughout the city. As I left city limits and began to climb in elevation, then the fog settled all around. Another day of the same? I pushed on to find out.

As I turned on to the Yanacocha road it was still drizzle and fog, but within a kilometer the fog suddenly disappeared, giving way to wonderful views of cloud-laden mountains, and most of all, birds! The usual suspects were omnipresent, with Plain-coloured Seedeater, Great Thrush and Rufous-collared Sparrow in nearly every bush. But the fourth bird of the day, well that was a lifer - Supercilliaried Hemispingus - and great looks too. Further along I found Azara's Spinetail, Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch, and Rufous Wren.

Along the road was another car-full of birders, a group of three actually (2 from Virginia, 1 from Colorado), and a guide from Mindo Tours. We seemed to play leapfrog all along, but eventually I just stayed behind and pulled over when they saw something. This strategy paid off. The first good bird was Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, followed quickly by Sapphire-vented Puffleg. The guide could hear Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, but it never showed (if it had, it would have been a lifer for me). At the entrance to the Yanacocha trail was a Great Sapphirewing and the first of what would be many Buff-fronted Starfrontlets.

I set off down the trail first, just after paying the extortionate amount of $15 (5x the amount of locals). The weather was mixed - the fog had lifted substantially, but it lightly rained for the entire walk in. Birding was very quiet overall, but there were some gems. However, this was a team effort for the most part. At one spot on the trail I could hear birds but see nothing, and my familiarity with Ecuadorian bird song is abysmal. when the guide and troupe appeared, it didn't take long for him to identify my somewhat excellent rendition (if I do say so myself) of Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. Within moments, two popped up along with six Golden-crowned Tanagers, each giving us excellent looks. Now the guide and others went ahead, and I paced behind like the scavenger looking for leftovers as a non-paying customer. However, the next birds was so good that the guide quickly walked back to ensure I saw the three Andean Guans they had found - Prize!

Once again I hung back, and the others pressed on. This time however, I bumped into a mixed flock that they had just missed. Sadly, they had gone to far and were out of calling range. In the flock were two White-tailed Tyrannulets, one White-throated Tyrannulet, and a Pearled Treerunner.

In just a few hundred more meters I was at the hummingbird feeding station with the others. Gabriel, the guide, was coming down a small hill, telling me I had better get up there as they had just fed worms to a Rufous Antpitta. Gabriel took me there, and in a matter of moments, I had two gobbling up up worms - lifer number 2 for the day. Back at the hummingbird feeders we had a good variety, including Great Sapphirewing, Golden-breasted Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, and Sword-billed Hummingbird. Alas, the near-mythical Black-breasted Puffleg did not put in an appearance. On the flip side however, a beautiful Hooded Mountain-Tanager did show up - lifer number 3 for the day.

On the return journey I was permitted to walk back with group, after asking sheepishly and not wanting to be a heel. The response was typical among birders - the more eyes the better - and I couldn't agree more. The walk back however was very poor, as the fog rolled up the hillside and enshrouded every tree as if each was smouldering under a low burn. We did pick up another Supercilliaired Hemispingus and a Black-chested Mountain-Tanager.

Back at the entrance we bid farewell, but not without first trying to nail down directions for the "horse racetrack" at La Mitad del Mundo, one of the supposed best locations to find White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, Giant Hummingbird and Band-tailed Sierra-Finch. Well, I scoured the area inside-and-out, from all three directions including appropriate (and some inappropriate) side roads. There was no horse racetrack, but I did find a race track for go-karts! I drove the area in a hurry, as unfortunately I had to be off the road in Quito before 4pm. Because of the sheer volume of vehicles, it was made law that if your license plate ended with a 1 or 2, you couldn't drive on Mondays from 7:00am to 9:30am, and again from 4:00pm to 7:30pm. The rule applied for each day of the week, with each successive day accounting for the next two numbers. I was lucky number three.

Back at the go-kart track I hastily moved around trying to find any of the target birds. Instead, all I found was non-target birds, but good ones nonetheless. To start, I I got an excellent look at a male Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, having seen only a female the two days earlier. Next I found two Vermilion Flycatchers and two Golden-bellied Grosbeaks (photos). Time was running short, I had to get going. On the final stretch of road, just before I headed to the highway, I caught glimpse of some movement in the shrubs. Out popped a gorgeous male Band-tailed Seedeater, my fourth lifer for the day. He was shortly followed by two Hooded Siskins and a Cinereous Conebill. The best bird however, was to follow, and it took some tracking to see it well; and that's saying a lot because I never did a great look in full light. What I did get was full-on looks in shade though, including from several angels - what I was seeing was my first Blue-and-Yellow Tanager - my fifth lifer for the day - what a cracker of a bird!

I spent the next 52 minutes driving back to Quito in near-record time in rush hour. I arrived back at the hotel only 8 minutes past my car curfew, and diffused potential mayhem dealing with police. Despite an overall low number of species for the day, the end result was positive. Heavy clouds loom in the distance, but for now it has stopped raining. Simon, Howard and Malcolm should be here within the hour, no doubt jealous of at least some of the birds I've seen - let the games begin!

Total species today: 37
Total cumulative species for the trip: 79
Total lifers today: 5
Total cumulative lifers for the trip: 8

P.S. Just did some homework using Google Earth and some web-references. Turns out, the horse race track is near the Virgin Mary shrine about 5kms further along the main road, not near La Mitad del Mundo. Maybe we can squeeze in a quick trip there tomorrow morning before committing to the rest of our pre-planned day.