• Ed Jenkins

Birding Ecuador: Cabañas San Isidro

Part 3: Following a fantastic morning at Papallacta Pass and afternoon at Guango Lodge we had dinner at the small town of Baeza before descending through the evening to Cabañas San Isidro, an eco-lodge set in the forested Quijos Valley at 2050 m (6800 feet). The cloud forest grows taller at this altitude than at higher elevation in the Andes but the temperature at night was still pleasantly cool. Upon arrival at 8 pm we dumped our bags, drank a celebratory Pilsener (a light Ecuadorian beer that immediately became our drink of choice), and headed out to look for nocturnal creatures. A member of staff kindly pointed out the so-called San Isidro Owl, an as-of-yet undescribed species or subspecies that looks and sounds like a hybrid between the black-banded owl and black-and-white owl but lives at a higher elevation than both species. The taxonomy of this distinctive owl remains in flux and more research needs to be done as is so often in the case in the neotropics. We consequently found another and heard more on our nighttime walk. The tapir trail produced no tapirs, although they are seen fairly regularly at the site, but we did see a kinkajou scurrying through the treetops. This long-tailed mammal with golden fur looks like a monkey but is actually related to the raccoons.

The next morning we woke at 5:30 am, half an hour before first light, which became a tradition we continued throughout the trip. As we reached the large covered deck of the main building the song of the grey-breasted wood-wren trickled through the drone of insects and frogs while ghostly outlines of rufous-bellied nighthawks glided through the morning mist overhead. Just below the deck was a clearing in the forest where a large white sheet had been hung vertically with a strong light trained on it overnight resulting in a covering of moths and other insects in myriad forms. This soggy, bud-laden scrap of material became the centre of our attention for the next couple of hours as a revolving cast of characters came to gorge on the disoriented insects. This effective moth trap is a commonly used device to entice birds from the forest close to visitors and we saw many species that we did not find again in a more natural setting.

First on the scene were scarlet-rumped caciques (pronounced "cah-seek"), their bone-coloured bills making short work of the larger moths.

Preceded by their raucous calls, a pair of green jays arrived, stunningly attractive in pale greens and yellows, their yellow iris offset by smart blue and black face patterns.

A pair of masked trogons materialized out of the slowly brightening morning, the male with a huge tick lodged under its bill.

The bushes surrounding the moth trap quickly became alive with birds, from representatives of familiar families like flycatchers and warblers, to more bizarre chlorospingus' and becards. Just as we had identified a species a new bird would emerge, often very briefly, before disappearing back into the foliage. Joe and Nick's trigger fingers were kept busy while Jake and I worked through species in the field guide.

The view from the deck at Cabañas San Isidro © Ed Jenkins

Tyrant flycatchers, that gigantic family of over 400 species (the largest in the world), were out in force and we saw many species of various sizes and shapes from the large golden-crowned flycatcher to the medium-sized pale-edge flycatcher and smoke-coloured pewee, to the tiny tyrannulets (sulpher-bellied, ashy-headed and white-tailed) and the incredibly colourful rufous-crowned tody-flycatcher.

While the flycatchers flitted and sallied among the branches, ground-foraging species like the common chlorospingus and a pair of red-crested finches kept to the undergrowth.

A female barred becard, a cloud forest specialist, stopped by for some moths for breakfast. Sadly the male, a dapper bird in black and white with a yellow cheek, did not put in an appearance.

Other visitors included species we'd first seen the previous day like this montane woodcreeper, the neotropical equivalent of a brown creeper (or treecreeper for my Eurasian readers) that's the size of a medium-sized woodpecker...

...as well as many more newcomers like this black-crested warbler, a relative to the many New World warblers that spend all or part of their year in the US and Canada. Other new species included black-billed peppershrike, brown-capped vireo, olivaceous siskin, russet-backed oropendola, and many more.

We also got some good views of familiar boreal-breeding species like Canada and blackburnian warblers and Swainson's thrushes which will be returning to the forests of my home in Maine to breed soon enough. To cement the familiarity, red-tailed squirrels scurried from tree to tree looking for all the world like the red squirrels that pilfer my birdseed.

All in all, we couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the birds of the mid-elevation cloud forest.

This black agouti, a bizarre deer-like rodent, visited us in the early morning © Joe Aliperti

After the activity died down at the moth trap we had breakfast on the deck while keeping an eye on the hummingbird feeders. Species diversity was similar to that at Guango Lodge but with the addition of bronzy incas, gorgeted woodstars, lesser violetears and tawny-bellied hermits. The pushy coronets continued to dominate.

At this point the morning mist had cleared and we had clear views down the valley to the Rio Cosanga. American black vultures rose from the forest, catching the rising thermals, while red-billed and speckle-faced parrots flew overhead calling noisily. Higher still were hundreds of swifts, presumably chestnut-collared or spot-fronted (or both), but flying too high to identify.

The view down the valley from Cabañas San Isidro. © Ed Jenkins

As bird activity began to slow we decided to walk along a ridge-top trail, picking up Andean solitaire and rufous-breasted flycatcher in the parking area, and hearing white-bellied antpittas and blackish tapaculos in the dense vegetation. At one point we flushed a wattled guan, a large tropical relative of the turkey, which glided swiftly out of sight. The trail was picturesque but quiet, huge trees casting deep shadows on the forest floor.

Epiphyte-laden trees in the cloud forest. © Joe Aliperti

While on our way back to the lodge we were debating our strategy of looking for birds in the thick forest during the middle of the day when we came across a busy mixed-flock moving rapidly along the trail. While some of these birds were so high above us as to be almost impossible to identify against the bright sky, we added a few tanager species (golden-naped, beryl-spangled, saffron-crowned) as well as russet-crowned warbler, lineated foliage-gleaner and yellow-vented woodpecker to our list. When all was said and done we had seen 81 species at Cabañas San Isidro and would have liked to spend another morning or two in the area but our itinerary was ambitious and we had a long drive ahead.

Due to a recent landslide caused by heavy rains the only road heading east to the Amazon foothills was partly closed and we had a narrow window to pass while construction was paused each morning and evening. Worried about missing this window and being stranded on the wrong side of the landslide overnight we left Cabañas San Isidro before lunch with plenty of time to negotiate the narrow winding roads, the inevitable traffic jam, the landslide, and make it to our next stop at WildSumaco Lodge. This unavoidable adjustment to our plans cost us a few hours and we had to miss a planned stop at Reserva Narupa, however, we're very grateful for the staff at WildSumaco Lodge for letting us know about the landslide ahead of time or we would have almost certainly run into trouble!

The road was less well maintained, far more windy, and had much steeper drop-offs than that of the previous day, and driving safely while being constantly overtaken on blind corners or getting stuck behind slow fuel trucks was a frustrating and nerve-wracking exercise but Nick took it all in his stride and, like a seasoned Ecuadorian cab-driver, and got us all safely from A to B with little complaint. Crossing the landslide itself was even more hair-raising, involving driving through mud that was actively pouring down the cliff on our left and running off the drop into nothingness on our right, while hoping the heavy trucks in front hadn't critically weakened the entire hillside.

The road crossing a landslide high in the Andes. © Joe Aliperti

Inevitably we crossed without problem and stopped at the first available pull-off afterwards to restore our nerves which turned out to be a scenic waterfall called Cascada Hollin in a steep valley. After paying $3 each for the privilege we wondered down to the waterfall, discovering a collection of hummingbird feeders on the way. The suite of species here were almost entirely different to those higher up the mountains, reminding us yet again quite how diverse biodiversity is in the Andes. Tiny golden-headed sapphires and violet-headed hummingbirds buzzed among the hanging feeders while larger green-backed hillstars and many-spotted hummingbirds reclined in shady spots.

Other new species included stunning black-throated brilliants, fork-tailed woodnymphs and the napo sabrewing.

The waterfall at Cascadas del Rio Hollin. © Ed Jenkins

Once we had recuperated after the hectic drive we continued along the famous Loreto Road through patches of pristine forest, the trees growing taller now than ever as we lost altitude. Habitations became more regular as the landscape grew flatter, and the birds changed with the habitat. Groups of crested and russet-backed oropendolas, raven-sized tropical blackbirds, congregated around their dangling woven nests, while busy swarms of grey-rumped swifts swooped overhead, and tropical kingbirds hawked insects from every wire or fence-post.

As dusk fell we reached a small village unnamed on the map and headed north at a very poorly marked dirt road towards the Sumaco Volcano and an area of pristine rainforest where WildSumaco Lodge, our base for the next two nights, is located.

Cabañas San Isidro: https://ebird.org/checklist/S65473683

Cascada Hollin: https://ebird.org/checklist/S65473825

Brief stop on Sumaco Road: https://ebird.org/checklist/S65473824

By Ed Jenkins