• Ed Jenkins

Birding Ecuador: Papallacta Pass

Updated: Apr 1

Part 1: The unusual inhabitants of the high Andes

On March 4th the four of us left Quito at dawn, heading east away from the city and toward the mountains. The driving started out comfortably enough on a four-lane highway and with Nick at the wheel we began to climb, leaving the pleasantly green agricultural scenery of the Inter-Andean valley behind. After passing through patches of stunted forest we reached the high-altitude grassland with small pools and bogs that covers the highest parts of the Andes known as páramo. At 13,500 ft (4115 m) and the highest point of Papallacta Pass, the site of an ancient Inca Road straddling the mountain range, we turned onto a dirt track leading to Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. This ~4000 km2 National Park surrounds the Cayambe Volcano and provides sanctuary for spectacled bears, pumas and condors; in fact, we’d been passing signs warning us of bears crossing the road for the previous few miles. The track meandered up a high shoulder before reaching a cluster of rusted TV and radio towers, an inhospitable-looking place but well-known among naturalists as a great spot to look for high-altitude species. Unfortunately for us we had entered a world of swirling mist and low cloud and our visibility was severely limited, indeed the Cayambe volcano to the north and Antisana volcano to the south were both hidden from view. It was cold and water droplets hung suspended in the air over a landscape of low tussock, bog, and exposed rock. When we first pulled over to look for birds on the track up to the aerials we quickly added all our layers of clothing in an attempt to stop the biting breeze.

Páramo at Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve in the Ecuadorian Andes. © Joe Aliperti.

However, despite the conditions (which were apparently typical of the locale) the calls of birds were immediately apparent, from many tawny antpittas which we began to see running between tussocks, to the secretive páramo tapaculo which we did not manage to set eyes on. Antpittas as a family are notoriously hard to see as they typically skulk in dense vegetation so seeing multiple individuals run across the track in front of us was a real surprise! These bizarrely proportioned birds do indeed resemble the pittas of the Old World but are completely unrelated and far more drably colored.

Also seen from track were chestnut-winged and stout-billed cinclodes, stocky birds of open county and representatives of the ovenbird family (furnariidae). The two species are best told apart by bill structure, in fact we did not immediately realize we were seeing both species.

Also ovenbirds but very different looking from the cinclodes were the Andean tit-spinetail, many-striped canastero and white-chinned thistletail, three tiny species with long, spiny tails that were hard to track as they flew low to the ground between shrubs, often completely disappearing into the thick foliage.

The most abundant species in the area were plumbeous and ash-breasted sierra-finches which were foraging along the track itself, and we found a pair of plain-capped ground-tyrants in one of the marshy areas. These terrestrial flycatchers reminded me very much of the wheatears of the Old World in their structure and behavior. Other species seen on our slow drive up into the opaque mist included a brown-backed chat-tyrant hawking for insects from a low bush, singing sedge wrens (a long way from where I’ve worked with them in the marshes of Manitoba, Canada), and a stunning variable hawk of the larger ‘puna’ subspecies.

By the time we finally reached the aerials the visibility had reduced to less than five metres and the drizzle had turned to a constant freezing rain. Probably the number one reason that birders come to this spot is to look for the rufous-bellied seedsnipe, a squat, grouse-like bird that lives high above the treeline in damp alpine conditions. Seedsnipes are a particularly strange family of birds consisting of four species unique to South America that subsist purely on vegetation and are most closely related to shorebirds. We had already decided to spend the rest of the morning looking for them if necessary due to how unique these amazing birds are, even with the terrible weather conditions. The altitude was also affecting us at this point, walking at a slightly faster than usual pace quickly led me to a forced pause to catch my breath, and the idea of stomping through uneven tussocks did not seem attractive! Luckily then, after less then a minute of walking from the car, a seedsnipe appeared out of the gloom and walked casually in front of us, pausing a few metres away!

Looking like a rusty ptarmigan crossed with a stocky plover, the bird allowed point-blank views of a species that many folks leave the area without having seen despite committing a lot of time. After taking pictures we returned to the car and began to descend back the way we’d come, gratefully aware that this incredible luck had saved us hours of wandering around in the thick mist where our chances would have been very low.

The mist began to thin as we descended allowing fleeting glimpses of the scenery. A pond that had appeared held two Andean teal, and a pair of carunculated caracaras flew overhead.

At our last stop before rejoining the main road we had fleeting glimpses of a dark hummingbird that Joe’s quick camera trigger-finger revealed to be a blue-mantled thornbill, our first hummingbird and a real treat with its iridescent green and purple beard and dark blue back.

Cranking up the heat in the car we continued east on the main road and began to descend to the village of Papallacta where we had a late breakfast looking over a scenic gorge. The caffeine and fresh fruit were much appreciated while we watched rufous-collared sparrows, spectacled redstarts and great thrushes, the latter looking almost identical to the Eurasian blackbird that's found in every hedge and park in Europe. Two huge white-collared swifts scythed overhead, a scarlet-bellied mountain-tanager sang from a wire, and, with final flourish of tremendous luck, a black-chested buzzard-eagle soared slowly over us as we returned to the car. Not to be confused with hawk-eagles (could some better names not have been thought up?), the oddly-proportioned buzzard-eagle ranges all the way down to Tierra del Fuego and feeds mainly on small mammals like the páramo rabbit which we had seen at the Pass.

Our next stop would be the cloud-forest lodge at Guango where we hoped to see a whole suite of new species.

eBird lists:

Papallacta Pass and the aerials: https://ebird.org/me/checklist/S65442833

Papallacta village: https://ebird.org/me/checklist/S65442832

By Ed Jenkins