• Ed Jenkins

Birding Ecuador: Guango Lodge

Part 2: Exploring the cloud forest

Nestled at the bottom of a steep-sided valley in the Andes east of Quito lies Guango Lodge at approximately 8860 ft (2700 m). Consisting of a cluster of low buildings beside a lively alpine river, the area is well known for high-altitude cloud forest and the associated biodiversity.

The Río Quijos © Joe Aliperti

We arrived at Guango late in the morning after our successful morning at Papallacta Pass (read all about it here) and quickly realized that our work would be cut out for us due to how unbelievably quiet the rainforest can be around midday. Luckily the hummingbird feeders were buzzing with activity so we sipped coffee and enjoyed incredible views of a suite of gorgeous, cloud-forest specialists.

At first the diversity in color and form among the hummingbirds was overwhelming which was compounded by how fast they moved, but with Jake’s experience with hummingbirds in Costa Rica to assist us, we began to separate species and sexes, from the tiny woodstars to the (relatively) gigantic incas. The most abundant species was the tourmaline sunangel, predominantly green with an iridescent purple gorget (throat patch) in the males or a white in the females.

Two related species, the buff-tailed coronet and chestnut-breasted coronet, were also common at the feeders, the buff-tailed being especially aggressive while defending feeders from all-comers. These species have a curious habit of raising their wings for a second when alighting.

Smaller species would zoom in to feed at the sugar water before quickly retreating, such as tyrian and viridian metaltails, glowing pufflegs, speckled hummingbirds and the minuscule white-bellied woodstar. We could tell when a woodstar was present due to the audible buzz of their tiny wings.

Most impressive to me was the collared inca, a large black hummingbird with striking white collar and long, needle-straight bill that rebuffed the aggressive lunges by the coronets.

After enjoying the hummingbirds we headed down towards the river through the silent forest, past giant ferns, palms, and epiphyte-draped trees. The sky was clear and the sun beat down; Joe pointed out delightedly that our shadows at midday were barely visible, the sun being directly overhead on the equator.

This dangling structure is the nest of a cacique (a tropical blackbird) constructed from died grasses woven together. © Ed jenkins

Coming to a hand-painted sign with a picture of a torrent duck and an arrow we followed the indicated trail towards the sound of the river. Amazingly, the sign pointed us directly to a family of torrent ducks perched on the rocks among the white water! These beautifully-plumaged ducks are only found in the fast-flowing streams and rivers of the Andes, perfectly adapted to finding food among the scoured boulders.

Like many duck species the sexes are sharply dimorphic; the males clad in smart black and white while the females are slate grey and chestnut, even more visually pleasing in my mind. The fully-grown young were silvery grey without the gleaming red bills of their parents. Seeing these birds at close-hand in their natural habitat was a real treat.

The general lack of activity combined with the overwhelming roar of the river made finding birds tricky but as we followed the river bank we added more species to our list including a white-capped dipper and torrent tyrannulet, both species never found far from running water, as well as a black phoebe, a familiar flycatcher in southwestern USA.

At a bridge over the river leading to a padlocked gate we saw our first green jays of the trip, a population separate to those in the southern USA and Central America, followed by their relatives the turquoise jay, a stunning cloud forest specialist and almost endemic to Ecuador.

Our return to the lodge was punctuated by a male masked trogon that we unfortunately flushed away deeper into the forest and out of sight.

Back at the lodge we came across our first mixed-flock, a roving group of multiple species moving together through the vegetation. There are various theories as to what the benefits might be to birds that move together in this way, from predator avoidance to increased feeding efficiency, but what is clear is that these are some of the most exciting (and sometimes frustrating) birding experiences one can have in the tropics. This particular flock was moving slowly enough that we had time to help point birds out to each other and consult the book resulting in many successful identifications of birds from interesting neotropical families such as tanagers, conebills and flowerpiercers. This was our first interaction with some species that we were to become very familiar throughout our trip like the spectacled redstart, pearled treerunner and montane woodcreeper, while others like the slaty brushfinch and grey-hooded bush tanager we were only to encounter at this site.

After asking staff at the lodge for advice as to where to look for toucans we hiked up a trail that led up the eastern side of the valley towards an area with trees that were apparently laden with fruit.

Unfortunately it seemed that the fruit had already gone over but we encountered a few new species, although without encountering any more mixed flocks it was hard work to pin birds down. We found our first glossy-black thrush, mountain cacique, blue-and-black tanager and the bizarre green-and-black fruiteater, a squat green songbird with a black head, yellow collar and bright red bill and legs. Despite its bright coloration we would most likely have missed this individual without hearing its high-pitched whistling call.

Here we also learned the buzzy call of the cinnamon flycatcher, the most ubiquitous flycatcher of the cloud forest, and found two sympatric chat-tyrants, the slaty-backed and rufous-breasted chat-tyrants. While walking through a thicket of bamboo a tiny dark bird fluttered across the path ahead and called, revealing its identity as a blackish tapaculo. The trail terminated at a steep waterfall and a pair of huge powerful woodpeckers, the cloud forest counterpart of the pileated woodpecker of North America or black woodpecker of Europe, and a fantastic first representative of its family for the trip.

Our final order of business when back at the lodge after returning on an exceedingly muddy trail was looking for sword-billed hummingbirds, the only bird on the planet with a bill longer than its body. Guango Lodge is famous for this species but we were aware that we would have to be lucky to see one, especially as the light was beginning to fail and we still had a long drive ahead of us to our lodging for the night. Long-tailed Sylphs entertained us with their dazzling cobalt plumage but we began to worry we'd miss the star of the show.

After waiting at the main hummingbird feeder area Nick and I foolishly decided to check some of the other feeders scattered around the lodge (my idea of course) and predictably missed a sword-billed hummingbird that briefly visited the original spot. Seeing Joe’s incredible photographs on our return was painful but after a tense 40 minute wait the bird appeared again, if only for a few seconds, and we dodged a regrettable miss. This was the only sword-billed hummingbird we encountered on the trip so it was a relief to finally see it! What an incredible product of evolution.

We would have loved to stay at Guango Lodge and spend a morning looking for species we had missed like mountain-toucans but we always knew that we'd miss much by the nature of our whirlwind tour and besides, we were heading on to another area with a mouthwatering list of species that evening, Cabañas San Isidro.

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By Ed Jenkins