Friday, July 28, 2023

Capuchinbirds and Pink Dolphins

 August 2022: Birding in Amapá and Pará in the Brazilian Amazon

Back to Brazil, with the talented and ever-patient Pablo Vieira Cerqueira, for an almost month-long trip covering multiple states and cities.  I had a bunch of goals for this trip; to finally get to the lowland Amazon (after a dozen trips to Brazil, I'd never seen the Amazon river or a pink river-dolphin), to chase a specific rarity in the SouthEast, and to catch up with friends in São Paulo and Vitoria. 

Saturday, August 6 - Sunday, August 7

Two days in São Paulo.  Rest and recovery, catching up with friends, and a visit to one of my three favorite restaurants in the world, the marvelous D.O.M.

Officially on vacation ...

Monday, August 8 - Macapá

I felt very proud of myself.  I left São Paulo super early, hopped a flight to Brasilia then changed planes and headed up to Macapá where I even managed to negotiate getting an Uber to my hotel (all in Portuguese). Pablo showed up later that day and we jumped in a rental car and headed inland, away from the Amazon, and ended up in a semi-retired mining town called Serra do Navio where a very basic hotel and one restaurant stayed open largely to support the maintenance crews that still worked at the mine. The presence of the mining operation had preserved a decent chunk of forest which would otherwise almost certainly have been lost over the years.  So we had all we needed, the rooms were basic but the food was tasty, and those maintenance guys looked after the trails we planned to bird the next few days.

My first view of the Amazon river believe it or not, after a dozen trips to
Brazil, I finally got to see the Amazon.

Tuesday, August 9 - Wednesday, August 10 - Serra do Navio

Two days on the trails and my first time properly in the Guianan Shield meant I had a ton of life birds waiting for me.  We started along a dirt road through flooded forest looking for Band-tailed Antshrike, a real rarity in Brazil, known only from this one site.  We dipped this time, but I hardly noticed because we quickly racked up a bunch of other lifers for me including Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant, Todd's Sirystes, McConnell's Spinetail, and Guianan Streaked-Antwren.  Moving on, we worked a more heavily vegetated trail and the birds kept coming, with Guianan Trogon, Brown-bellied Stipplethroat, Todd's Antwren, and (the Hellmayr's form of) Black-headed Antbird all joining the burgeoning list.  Fun, busy, productive birding.

Black-headed Antbird and Brown-bellied Stipplethroat

As we moved down the trail we kept encountering a most disturbing noise, like a tortured cow lowing from the forest.  Eventually, I just had to see one and so Pablo played some tape bringing in a Capuchinbird, a creature straight from the Henson Studios, a truly bizarre looking muppet of a bird.  With its bald blue face poking out of fluffy rich red-brown plumage it truly looked odd enough, but add the cow-like call and it really qualified as just, well, silly.  What a truly bizarre creature ...

Ended day one with try number two for Band-tailed Antshrike, and dipped again.

The next morning gave us Tiny Tyrant-Manakin and a long skirmish with a fast moving antbird flock eventually yielded that superstar of the Amazon, a White-plumed Antbird, definitely one of the ant-things I most wanted to see here.  We also had Rufous-throated Antbird and Common Scale-backed Antbird on this trail, and Olive-backed Foliage-gleaner nearby, then as we emerged into the sunlight we added Caica Parrot and Guianan Toucanet.  In the afternoon we gave the Band-tailed Antshrike a third try and again came up short but we did get Smoky-fronted Tody-Flycatcher as a consolation prize.

Common Scale-backed Antbird

Too soon, our time here was up but there was time for one last crack at the Band-tailed Antshrike.  By this time I felt we'd invested so much time in this bird that to give up now would be foolish.  I'd like to report that fourth time was a charm ... but we dipped again, the bird simply was not there that week.  We did get a very unexpected Sooty Barbthroat though, another species known only from the Guianas with just a handful of records from Brazil, so that was a very nice consolation prize.  Time also for one final trail, which gave us Spot-tailed Antwren and Guianan Puffbird to round things out.

Such a great spot and so many good birds.  I may well have ruined my first trip to Guiana, if I ever get round to getting there, but it did wonders for my Brazil list and a good time was had by all.

Thursday, August 11 - Porto Grande

Back to the Amazon today and a return to Macapá for the next few nights (nicer hotel, better food).  Made a long stop in some dryer habitat on the way back though for two specific target lifers.  Rufous-crowned Elaenia popped up almost as soon as we got out of the car, along with noisy and conspicuous Rusty-backed Antwrens.  We had to work harder for Black Manakin though and covered some ground before eventually chasing down a female bird, declaring victory, and continuing our journey without seeing a male.

Rusty-backed Antwren and Rufous-crowned Elaenia

Friday, August 12 - Santana

Today was a full day of birding along the edge of the Amazon in what looked to me like grubby second growth and cleared fields but apparently contained important relics of a rare flooded forest biome.  It wasn't the flooded forest you see on TV, with dolphins swimming through giant trees, rather a marshy, dense, low scrubby sort of forest that clung on in patches and strips between fields.  We did see a lot of birds though, some of them quite good ones.

Crimson-hooded Manakin and Glossy Antshrike

Among the highlights here were stunning Crimson-hooded Manakin, Scaled Spinetail, and the extremely local White-tailed Goldenthroat, a very good bird for Brazil.  We also took time to stop and listen for parrots and eventually, after covering a lot of miles, bumped into a group of Short-tailed Parrots, not the most colorful of parrot but another life bird for me. 

Saturday, August 13

Mostly a travel day but it was my birthday and I was hoping for a birthday lifer.  Some quick morning birding along local roads did the trick and yielded a Golden-bellied Euphonia, perhaps not the most spectacular or rare bird of the trip but hey, it's nice to get a lifer on your birthday.

Sunday, August 14 - Belém

The flights just didn't work out today so we had a morning in Belém before taking the evening flight down to another mining operation at Carajás.  This set-up was very much active and very much larger than the last, with impressive security, a whole workers' city, and a very nice hotel with expansive buffet dinner and breakfast.  Mixed feelings about the mines, the actual mine here covered a lot of ground, but then so did the protected forest and the latter almost certainly would not be here still without the former. 

I'd been feeling a bit under the weather the past few days and sure enough, by the time I got to Carajás it was pretty obvious that I'd picked up another bout something (a mild COVID or a close cousin).  Had a long night of 'fever-sleep' then spent the next 3 days feeling flu-y (and probably looking, and sounding, like an extra from a low-budget zombie movie) but Pablo and I decided to ignore it as much as we could, keep to ourselves, wear masks in cars/hotel, and press on ...  and overall it turned out to be a pretty mild bout compared to the last time.  The things you do for birds.

Monday, August 15 - Tuesday, August 16 - FLONA de Carajás (forest trails)

Two days to explore the forest of Carajás might have been a little better if I'd been feeling better.  As it was, I felt had no energy and dragged along the trails behind the guides, pausing to look at birds when told to, resting where I could, and generally not enjoying the experience very much.  There were some great birds here and Pablo and the local guide worked hard to get me on then (especially seeing as I wasn't exactly at my sharpest) but by the second day even Pablo has started to adjust the itinerary with longer, more ambitious trails swapped for short walks near the car and a number of possible birds quietly dropped from the conversation.  I should probably have been resting in bed but I didn't want to come all this way and miss the target birds.  In the end it was a bit of a compromise; I did see some good birds but didn't always have a lot of fun doing it.

The star bird here was definitely the White Bellbird a big white cotinga that sits on the top of trees and belts out a 'zoink' call that can be heard miles away.  We heard one as soon as we got out of the car but it turned out to be surprisingly hard to see in the canopy when viewed from the ground.  In the end it took us a half hour of careful peering and moving around to find a gap in the canopy where we could actually see it.  An amazing creature though and worth a dose of 'warbler neck'.

Among the other good, or new birds we saw were White-throated Woodpecker, Natterer's Slaty-Antshrike, Spotted Tanager, White-crested Guan, Black-breasted GnateaterOrnate Stipplethroat, Snethlage's Today-Tyrant, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin ... the list goes on.  A big personal favorite for me was the Wing-banded Antbird, a weirdo among ant-things that reminded me of a Rail-Babbler as it tottered along through the leaf litter seemingly oblivious to us admiring apes.  Also, it was here that I passed another personal milestone which I'd hoped to hit on this trip when Opal-crowned Manakin became my 1,000th species for Brazil (my first 1,000 species country in eBird!).

Amazonian Scrub-Flycatcher

One night we did some night birding, somewhat curtailed because my stamina limited the day.  Still, we did get some great night birds including the recently described (not yet split in Clements) Xingu Screech-Owl, a Black-banded Owl, multiple Pauraques and Blackish Nightjars, a Great Potoo and even a Cryptic Forest-Falcon thrown in for good measure.  Imagine what we could have had if we'd been able to stay out longer.

Wednesday, August 17 - Vila Tapete Verde / Parauapebas (Núcleo Urbano de Carajás)

Still in Carajás but birding some disturbed habitat outside the forest where we got good looks at a currently undescribed form of Amazonian Spinetail accompanied by a chorus of Rothman's Titi-Monkeys.   Later, in the center of town we added Chestnut-headed Chachalaca to my list (almost done with Chachalacas ... one to go ... if they don't split some more).  There were plenty more birds to see here so I'll hopefully come back to the forest one day but we still did end up with a great list and a pile of life birds for me.

Chestnut-headed Chachalaca in suburban gardens.

Brazilians are VERY fond of chocolate.

Thursday, August 18th - Travel Day

More driving, lots of it.  Then another flight that ended up in Manaus, a city I'd long wanted to see.  I still do want to see it though because all we really saw was the airport and the nearby Ibis Hotel ... so another thing on the 'come back for' list ...

Friday, August 19 to Tuesday, August 23 - P.N. de Amazônia

An early flight and another long drive on dusty roads brought us finally to Amazônia National Park and a simple but lovely little guest house on the river that became our home for the next five days. 

The view from the 'bar', we saw two species of river-dolphin here ...

We had five days to work the forest trails here and dropped into a pattern of doing one trail at dawn, coming back for lunch and siesta then hitting a second trail late afternoon through dinner. The weather was challenging, super hot and incredibly humid meant that things got pretty quiet during the middle of the day.  The hotel location was so lovely though that I didn't at all mind sitting at on the river bank during the heat of the day.  Although it was tough birding we did get a lot of great birds, including a number of star-birds that stood out as real accomplishments given the conditions.  Among the highlights here ...

Brown-Chested Barbet in a canopy vine tangle.  (Green-backed) Dark-winged Trumpeters on the trail and Ihering's Antwren in a mixed canopy flock.  

A major target here was the elusive Pale-faced Bare-eye, a really difficult bird to find in the Amazon but our local guide had heard one in a flock along one of the trails.  We spend a full morning working up and down the trail, walked miles, sweated pints, and saw ... well ... very little of note except a few Saki Monkeys.  As so often the way though, we slogged back to the car closer to mid-day in a silent forest and, when we were almost there, heard a fast moving understory flock with calling Harlequin Antbirds.  Now this species is a spectacular ant-thing and was a lifer for me, on any other day it would have been the day's star but today we were looking around them hoping for more, and sure enough after chasing the flock for 15 minutes, a Pale-faced Bare-eye popped up and crossed the tail.  Humidity, what humidity ...

We also spent a full morning on Black-bellied Gnateater, a brute of a gnateater and another really hard to find bird.  Once again the guide had a territory staked out but it still took us most of the morning to get some decent views in the shadows of the forest floor.  The humidity here was truly oppressive and very uncomfortable eventually knocking out my camera, simply overwhelmed by the condensation, and so no photos for me for a few days while everything dried out back at the lodge.

No Neotropical birding trip is complete without a battle with antpittas and, with two target species here, we devoted two full afternoons to games of cat-and-mouse with the mischievous little buggers.  Tapajos Antpitta surrendered relatively easily but Amazonian Antpitta battled us across two days before giving us a glimpse and joining the list.  Standing motionless in a blind for hours in that hear was not a fun experience but least, and the end of the day, we had cold caipirinhas to look forward too and our victory was duly celebrated.

Birds on the sand islands in the Tapajos River . Sand-colored
Nighthawks, three species of martins

One day we did a boat ride on the river, a pleasant break from the sticky heat.  The sandy river islands have some specific habitats, small ephemeral forests between floods, and we were able to winkle out Amazonian Tyrannulet, Blackish-Gray Antshrike and Black-chinned Antbird in these miniature worlds.  We also saw Tucuxi and Pink River-Dolphins and enjoyed a cool breeze on a moving boat.  Luxury ... 

Black-chinned Antbird

On our final day we crossed the Tapajos River again and hiked trails on the other side in search of two specific targets.  Tapajos Hermit popped up pretty quickly along the trail but we had to hike a distance to a specific site and play tape to get a shy Tapajos Fire-eye to break cover and give good views.  The fire-eye was another of the 'hard to see' birds here and we did really well with our targets, getting all the main ones.  Overall a great, if somewhat sticky, visit.  And once again, I'll get a Harpy Eagle and a Jaguar (neither of which I've ever seen) on the 'next' visit.



Saturday, July 22, 2023

Crocodiles and Emeralds

 February 2022: A Couple of Old Welshmen Bird Honduras

The second of the two 'big company' birding tours I booked at the 'end' of COVID.  After the disaster that was the Ecuador trip, I headed out again with some trepidation, but went anyway ... life is too short ...

Friday, February 11 - Tegucigalpa

I have to say this city name makes for a great Facebook post so I put my 'Traveling to Tegucigalpa' status up along with 'let's try this again' and off I went.  The airport worked just fine but the drive through the city to the Hotel Gloriales was long and slow.  Still, it gave us time to get acquainted and for me to catch up the Steve N.G. Howell, who I've know since we were teenage birders in Wales in the 1980s, but rarely get to see any more.

The hotel was lovely.  They had puppies and good birds in beautiful gardens.  What more could you want?

Saturday, February 12 - P.N. La Tigra

Ah, that much anticipated first 'proper' day of birding in a new country ... there's nothing like it.  Today started out well and I even had a trio of life birds in the morning.  Highlight number one though wasn't a bird at all but a rather well-camouflaged Wilson's Montane Pitviper lurking in the leaves a the visitor center ... careful where you sit people (!).

On the bird front, the highlights for me were my life Green-breasted Mountain-gemsGolden-cheeked Warblers (hey, I've never been to Texas in Spring!) and Slate-colored Solitaires.  There were lots of memorable species to see here though including Resplendent Quetzal, Pale-billed Woodpecker, White-breasted (Sharp-shinned) Hawk, Mountain Trogon,  and lots of Northern Emerald Toucanets.

Wilson's Montane Pitviper

Perhaps the most interesting bird though was not (yet) a lifer ... we saw the very rare local form of Black-banded Woodcreeper.  This particular form occurs here and in Southern Mexico (where is is practically unknown) and is almost certainly a separate species from the forms that occur in Costa Rica and in the Amazon.  Taxonomy in motion, one of the most fascinating parts of the world-birding experience.

Black-banded Woodcreeper and Green-breasted Mountain-gem

In the afternoon we walked a long way down a relatively steep trail (I'm always hyper-conscious that you have to come back up these trails) to a weedy field at the edge of the park and there we spent some time with a Wine-throated Hummingbird.  These tiny little scraps of molten lava truly are a treat and even made the long slog back up the trail almost worth it.  This is why we travel, just a really memorable day of birding and nature with good company and a cold beer and good food to follow ...

Sunday, February 13 - Travel to PANACAM Lodge

A long travel day today but punctuated with some nice stops for some specific specialty birds.  

Fist up was an early morning stop at P.N. Unidas el Picacho, a sort of park, picnic area, and small zoo that I'm sure is a nightmare at noon on a Sunday but this morning we were here early enough that we had it to ourselves.  The highlight here was Ocellated Quail and we did indeed hear some but never close enough to have any chance of seeing one.  We did see Plain Chachalacas and Crested Bobwhite running around plus a lot of noisy White-fronted Parrots.  So a nice way to start the day, and onwards ... 

Lesson's Motmot

The next stop was mostly for me I think.  I needed White-lored Gnatcatcher and Steve had scouted out a location for them on the day before the trip.  The spot was not scenic, a bakingly hot, wind-blasted piece of badlands reminiscent more of S.E.Arizona than of Central America.  But the scouting had paid off and we were very quickly looking at a pair of gnatcatchers with bonus Cinnamon Hummingbird and a 'blink and you missed it' Lesser Roadrunner crossing the road.

Bad shot of a White-lored Gnatcatcher

That evening we eventually made it to the lovely PANACAM lodge, our base for the next three nights, and settled in.  Different birds here so all went to sleep excited for what was to come.

Monday, February 24 - Honduran Emerald Day

Honduras has only one endemic bird, the Honduran Emerald, and it's impossible to imagine coming here without seeing it.  Ironically, little was known of this species, or where to reliably see it, until relatively recently.  Now, however there are spots where you can go and it was our number one priority for the day.

Fist stop was the El Rancho Restaurant where we picked up our expert local guide (who owns the hotel and restaurant) and enjoyed some of the local birds in the light rain.

Then off to a 'secret' trail location that ended at a feeder strategically hung deep in the forest and a conveniently well habituated Honduran Emerald that popped up on cue and gave a good show.  OK, perhaps not a pure wilderness experience but we got the bird and the location is protected and carefully managed by and for the locals so not a bad thing overall.

It was also a pretty birdy spot so we spent an hour or so enjoying the locals, including Golden-winged Warbler, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and a couple of singing Blue Buntings.  Then back to the restaurant for a very pleasant lunch under a terrace in the rain.  Mission accomplished.  

Berylline Hummingbird and Honduran Emerald 

The rain, unfortunately, while scenic (I do love a good rain shower) made for tricky driving, and this afternoon the roads had become particularly treacherous.  Cars and vans were slipping and sliding across, and off, the road all the way to our next spot.  As we got closer, we arrived at a long, reasonably steep hill that we had to climb and the van simply couldn't keep enough traction to get up there on its first four attempts.  Just when I was thinking we were going to have to re-trace our steps and go back to the lodge though, attempt number five proved to be a charm and we made it to the next birding spot (and there was much rejoicing).  

Reserva Natural Privada Luna del Puente is a truly lovely spot.  A working farm that produces shade-grown coffee and chocolate while preserving a number of forest patches for the birds, making it a very nice piece of varied habitat with a lot of bird diversity.  Steve's three favorite things on earth are chocolate, birds, and coffee so we took time to sample all three while we were there (happy to report that all were excellent).  On the bird front, we saw 50 species with the absolutely highlight being a cooperative Tody Motmot that posed for pictures in a forested gully.  Perhaps the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon in Honduras.

I have a soft spot for Tody Motmots

Tuesday, February 15 - Lago de Yojoa

As a kid we sometimes used the phrase 'like going to the bird house at the zoo' to describe a wonderful morning of birding where you saw a lot of species in one place.  Of course, as a kid in Wales I doubt we ever saw more than 40 species in a day, while this morning I saw 94 species at one spot, the amazing, scenic, and very birdy Lago de Yojoa.  A truly satisfying morning of birding that combined a range of waterbirds, local residents, and a ton of Neotropic migrants including 16 species of wood warbler.  An absolutely great morning of birding.

Muscovy Duck and Chestnut-headed Oropendola

With no real plans for the afternoon birding session I opted to focus on a potential life bird for me and stake out a spot for Black-crested Coquette, a tiny canopy hummingbird that was known to frequent a couple of areas of flowers at the lodge.  The rest of the group, having shorter attention plans went off birding while I spent the next three hours staring at a couple of flowing trees and waiting for a coquette to pass through.  The wait ended up being a long one but almost three hours later a tiny, slow-motion, bee of a hummingbird buzzed through my clearing and I was able to get bins up and confirm it was the coquette.  Not the most exciting view, but good enough and time well spent (the group had nothing more interesting to report when they returned later).

Wednesday, February 16 - PANACAM Lodge / Travel to the Coast

With the targets basically and accounted for we had a quiet morning to kill at PANACAM before driving down to the Atlantic Coast.  In no rush, so we shared a leisurely breakfast with the local White-nosed Coati who came for her breakfast banana every morning.  Then we birded the lodge grounds, spending time at the canopy tower and enjoying scope views of Keel-billed Motmot among other things.  Sad to leave PANACAM but new species awaited.

White-nosed Coati waiting patiently for a banana.

Thursday, February 17 - Garden Botanico Lancetilla

Today was lower elevation, on the Caribbean Slope, and so we expected different birds.  Indeed, we did rack up an impressive list and a wide range of new species for the trip-list.  It would perhaps have been more but of the traffic which limited our ability to get everywhere we wanted to go and we ended up skipping some spots rather than spending a big chunk of the day sitting in traffic jams.

The morning stop was the Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, or more specifically the patches of forest surrounding it.  We birded the entrance road in the morning then some forest scraps near the HQ a little later.  Steve had done bird survey work here 30+ years before as a young bird-bum writing a field guide to the birds of Mexico and Northern Central America so he had good memories.  Although much of the forest in this area is sadly long gone, we did manage to pull together some nice things during the morning, including a Black Hawk-Eagle, a Uniform Crake, and a nice Thick-billed Seed-Finch.

Slaty-tailed Trogon

Lunch with hummingbird feeders?  Why not....  The rain had started again to the idea of sitting under a covered patio and enjoying our picnic lunch while watching an impressive feeder set-up at the defunct bird lodge didn't sound bad at all.  The place positively hopped with dozens of hummingbirds and swarms of Shining and Green Honeycreepers.  Nothing terribly unusual here but a really pleasant way to spend a rainy lunch time and then, just to round things off, we found a Lovely Cotinga by the van just as we were leaving.

White-necked Jacobin and Crowned Woodnymph

Green Honeycreeper

Friday, February 18 - R.V.S. Cuero y Salado (The Boat Ride)

A lot of group birding trips to Central America have 'the boat trip' where you putter at a leisurely place through the mangroves in a tourist boat and see Boat-billed Herons and maybe a Northern Potoo or an American Crocodile.  Other groups also inevitably see Agami Herons but I never see them because that species is my nemesis bird and, despite having taken maybe 5 or 6 of these touristy boat trips in good habitat, this species continues to elude me.  Non-birders will tell me about the boat trips they did while on their beach vacations in Mexico or Costa Rica and inevitably they will report seeing that 'special heron', 'you know the agave heron', the guide inevitably very excited to show it to them and everyone feeling like they got their money's worth.  I, on the other hand, am simply incapable of finding one ... not that I'm bitter ...

This trip was no different.  Boat-billed Heron (check), Northern Potoo (check), impressive American Crocodiles (check), Northern Tamandua (check) .... Agami Heron ... nope.

Northern Potoo and Russet-naped Wood-Rail (a life bird for me)

Bare-throatedTiger-Heron (note the lack of Agami Heron photos)

Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Boat-billed Heron

Saturday, February 19 - COVID Tests and Airport

Time to go home.  In the 'time of the COVID' that meant lining up at a regional health clinic for a 'little lobotomy' COVID test in order to get that all important -ve antigen paper that would allow us to board the plane and get out of the country.  The good news was that we all passed and so the process of leaving was simple.

You hear so much of the bad news about Honduras in the U.S. Press where desperate migrants escaping a violent dysfunctional country seems to be the accepted narrative. I have to say though that it doesn't feel that way on the ground.  Everyone we met in Honduras was super friendly and quite lovely, and while I know we were in a tourist bubble for some of the time, we also wandered the back roads and ranged widely across the country.  There are no doubt real problems here but it was fine to travel, we were welcome everywhere, and I'd certainly be happy to go back.  It was a very lovely break ... and I didn't catch COVID!

A 'real' American Crocodile, looks like it eats pirates' hands and unwary tourists ...

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Tapirs and COVID

 December 2021: 'Back to Normal' Comes to a Screeching Halt

So after the success of the September Colombia trip, and with the certainty that COVID was under control and in decline, I booked another trip to South America for New Year's 2021.  The big birding tour companies were just starting to get their itineraries back up after a long period of inactivity, and feeling the need to support them (and the guides and lodges they in turn support) I booked two trips ... Field Guides to Ecuador with Willy Perez in December, and WINGS to Honduras with my old mate Steve N.G. Howell in February 22.

As December came around, a new COVID variant called Omicron started to dominate the headlines but, fully vaccinated, it didn't seem like it would get in the way of the December trip.  So off to Quito I went, planning some private birding before joining the group and heading down towards WildSumaco Lodge in the Amazon.

Wednesday, December 29 - Reserva Yanacocha

Up at 3am and meeting a local guide arranged via the local ground agents.  My target for the day was Imperial Snipe and the destination was Fundación Jocotoco's marvelous Yanacocha reserve.  The reserve is situated about 45 minutes from Quito, at high altitude on the Western slope of Pichincha volcano.  It normally opens at 7am but to see Imperial Snipe we needed to be there before dawn and so had sought permission to be there early.  The guide (I honestly forget his name) showed up on time, and other than my having to ask him to wear a mask in the car, seemed like a nice enough chap.  Soon enough we were bumping our way up the entrance road of the reserve and started out along the trails well before dawn and with snipe on our mind.

Imperial Snipe turned out to be quite easy to hear, there were several calling from the dense scrub along the road, but more difficult to see.  After marching back and for along the road for an hour we had managed to catch at least brief views of a couple in the lights as they crossed the road though.  No pictures, but good enough for the list.  Not a bad start.  

Andean Guan

With the target out of the way, I figured we'd enjoy the morning of birding and indeed, the trails were very birdy.  The guide however had assumed that I wanted to see BLACK-BREASTED PUFFLEG, the mega-rarity that the reserve had been established to protect.  I did indeed want to see it, I just didn't think it was likely or even possible.  Many birders look for this species here but few see it and so I'd just assumed it would be unlikely, and not a bird that could be deliberately targeted.  

Walking the trails, we saw plenty of hummingbirds, including Saphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs and we could hear the twitter of 'pufflegs' from the dense vegetations all along the trails.  We stopped at a feeder set-up, waited a while, then kept pushing along the trail, through a tunnel and further away from the HQ.  From time to time the guide played pygmy-owl tape with some generic mobbing hummingbird twitter, which did cause the local hummingbirds to twitter back and occasionally pop up or zoom by to take a look.  After an hour or so though, the until then largely silent guide exploded into action shouting "the puffleg, the puffleg" and yanking my attention round to a trail-side tree where a small hummingbird sat on a dead twig.  It was a puffleg, the puffs were visible.  It had a seemingly all dark front, a short tail and a short bill ... we'd been watching the other two species of puffleg all morning so this was pretty obviously our bird.  I had bins on it, put them down, swung my 400mm lens around and got the bird in the frame, pushed the shoot button and the autofocus kicked in ... and our puffleg dropped backwards and away from the perch just as the shutter fired.  At first I thought I might have captured an image of some sort, but alas, just a twig.  Oh well ... 

Shining Sunbeam and Buff-winged Starfrontlet
readily come to feeders and are thus easier to photograph

So that was exciting.  I was excited, the guide was deliriously excited both to find the bird and to get his client on it.  The rest of the morning just whizzed by with more birds but also just a great mood in spectacular scenery.  Soon enough though it was time to head back to Quito and so we drove the hour or so back to the hotel with a sense of having had a great morning out.  About half way back I realized we'd forgotten to put on masks and so I asked that we do so and we masked up for the second half of the drive.  Not a big deal at the time but ... as it turns out ... the best thing that happened on the trip (the puffleg) may well have been the moment that things started to go wrong.

Thursday, December 30 - Reserva Antisana and Papallacta 

Having connected with the WINGS group and the charming and energetic Willy Perez, who was going to lead it, the morning started with everyone very ready to go birding.  The night before we'd also bumped into other birding groups including one led by Gary Rosenberg, who I'd travelled with in Ecuador 20+ years before.  Lot of birders back in the field, the sense of normality returning.  As we piled into our bus I remember being really excited that COVID seemed behind us and we could all get back to traveling for birds, the thing we all obviously loved so much.

The day's itinerary was a repeat of a day on my last Ecuador trip but who doesn't love being in the Andes and seeing those spectacular birds every couple of years.  We saw Condors aplenty at Antisana, and picked our way though the full suite of antiplano specialties.  

Andean Condors and Tawny Antpitta

We also made a stop at Papallacta ... hey when it's not cloudy you have to go look for seed snipes right? ... where we were rewarded with Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes after a long-ish search.  Then, icing on the cake, the SPECTACLED BEAR at the pass was visible again, almost exactly in the place I'd seen it a year or so earlier.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe and Spectacled Bear

Tired but sated, we pulled into Cabañas San Isidro, our home for the next three days and for New Year's.  I hadn't been here in 20 years but I was excited to visit again (I had fond memories of Oilbirds from my last visit) and catch up with the owner Mitch Lysinger, who I'd birded with in Ecuador a few years before.  It truly is a lovely spot to spend a few days, the perfect place to spend New Year's Eve and to start a new year list.

Friday, December 31 and Saturday, January 1 - Cabañas San Isidro

Where to start, lots of birding, good food, and good company here.  Two highlights come to mind though.

San Isidro has a famous owl.  In eBird it's described as Black-banded Owl (San Isidro) and few people know what species it actually is except that everyone is sure it isn't really Black-banded Owl, a species known from lowland Amazonian forest.  So until someone writes a paper and describes it as a new species, most people refer to these owls as 'San Isidro Owl'.  We didn't see the owl on my last visit so it was a priority for me this time and it turned out to be quite easy ... the owl came to the restaurant building, attracted by the moth lights.  It would sit above the deck where we stood and wait until a particularly large and succulent moth blundered into the lights, then swoop down for a quick kill and a tasty snack.  Lodge guests stood right underneath it, chatted away, took flash photographs, and the owl ... well it just didn't care.  All life birds should be this easy.

The San Isidro Owl being selective about which moths it ate

Another special visitor also came to the restaurant area at night and this one was also a lifer but not a bird.  Mitch had set up a salt lick down the slope from the same balcony and at night a Mountain Tapir was regularly coming to visit for a salty snack.  I'd seen Brazilian Tapir but Mountain Tapir is much harder to see so I was keen to wait up for it.  Initially, after dinner, I had lots of company waiting there too, but over time the group dwindled as it got later and the tapir action proved slow.  By about 9pm, Willy and I saw a shape drift out of the forest and head for the salt lick, spotlights went on but instead of a tapir we saw a Red Brocket Deer, a nice mammal, rare for the lodge, but not the one we wanted.  Finally, by 10pm, I was all alone in my vigil and got rewarded for may stubbornness when the tapir waddled our of the forest at around 10:15pm.  Such a privilege to see this creature close up and, while I know it wasn't a noble or charitable thought, I was secretly quite glad that it had waited to give me a private audience.  Wonderful natural history experience.

Mountain Tapir ... 'back of the camera' shot, I've lost the original it seems ...

I went to bed a very happy camper that day, and totally exhausted ... slept a deep sleep ... almost as though I had a bit of a fever ....

The next day was New Year's Eve and we had a great day of birding with lots of special things.  The day started with White-bellied Antpittas at the feeding station and built up into quite a big list of the local species.   A celebratory dinner was a treat but I was feeling a bit tired so skipped some of the later festivities.   I think I also sneezed a few times ... innocent enough in other times but in the time of the COVID it drew suspicious and cautious looks from the group.

More birding the next day including a jaunt over to Cordillera Guacamayos where Greater Scythebill played hide-and-seek with us.  I felt fine, but had to reluctantly admit that I had a bit of a cold.  At that point I honestly was not thinking COVID as I'd been twice vaccinated and this hardly seemed like the symptoms of a series disease, more an air-conditioner type cold with the occasional sneeze.  I expected to shrug it off over the next day but that night, at Wildsumaco Lodge, I coughed a lot and had a hard time sleeping. 

Long-tailed Sylph

Sunday, January 2 - Wildsumaco Lodge

At breakfast I felt fine, ate heartily, and couldn't wait to go birding.  My coughing during the night had not gone unnoticed though and the group were very much on guard.  For politeness I kept a distance during the morning birding and stood back at the antpitta feeding stations when the Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted Antpittas came in for breakfast.   I also managed to pick up a trio of life hummingbirds with Gould's Jewelfront, Napo Saberwing, Black-throated Brilliant joining the list.  I'd wanted to get to this lodge for such a long time that I was determined to feel fine, tough it out, and keep birding.  By mid morning though it was obvious that my sneezing and snotting was freaking out the group and so I reluctantly headed back to the lodge on my own, went back to bed, and let the group have their morning of birding without me.

When the others returned to the lodge in the afternoon, Willy suggested a COVID test and of course it was positive and, unsure what quite to do in this situation, I opted to return to the hotel in Quito until I felt better.

Monday, January 3 - Tuesday, January 11- Holiday Inn at Quito Airport

The next part is a little hazy and a little sketchy.  The ground agent and the lodge management had arranged for a driver to drive me back to Quito where I was supposed to stay in our original hotel until I felt better.  It was a long drive, I was getting worse, and was close to passing-out by the time we got back to Quito.  Somewhere along the line though the plan had changed and I was delivered to a government sanctioned quarantine hotel at the Quito Airport where I was basically detained for the next 10 days until I could get a negative COVID Antigen test and leave the country.  This was a bit of a surprise at the time, but by the time I got there I basically collapsed unconscious on the bed and was in no state to argue with anyone.  

In retrospect this wasn't anyone's finest moment.  I had no idea what was going on and was basically dropped, close to unconscious, at a hotel in a foreign city where I didn't speak the language.  While folks may have tried to explain what was going on, I did not comprehend where I was going, what was involved or why, and was in no state to understand anyway.  To be fair I suppose, one has to remember the general hysteria people in the pre-vaccine world were feeling about COVID as a threat to others, and few governments or businesses acquitted themselves well in handling the situation at the time.  As it turns out, I was actually quite sick at that point but was lucky enough to pull through after a miserable, fever-wracked, 24-hour period where things could easily have gone the wrong way on me.  I was lucky I guess.

After a day or so I was able to call a doctor in the U.S. to try to work out what was going on (not that she could do very much from there but at least was able to reasure that the worst was probably over).  I also confirmed that I was being detained against my will when I tried to leave the room to get some fresh air and was firmly escorted back there.

So there I was ... stuck in a hotel room with two books, Spanish language TV, and room service.  Three times a day the nice people from the hotel brought me a meal (of their choice) from the room service menu for locals (not the more expensive room service menu for gringos).  The staff would put the food tray on a suitcase stand that blocked the door, knock, then leave quickly ... I never saw them in person.  House-keeping was a bottle of bleach-based cleaner and a roll of paper towels left in the bathroom.  My only in-person human contact was the medical technician, dressed in full protective gear, who came once every day or so to administer the COVID test (still the eye-watering 'little lobotomy' at the time) ... and each day for 9 days, it remained stubbornly positive, even after my symptoms abated and I felt better.

Golden Grosbeak

What saved my sanity really was the fact that I was lucky enough to have a room that overlooked a weedy field next to the hotel. So each day, I birded from the window and it gave me something to do other than read and try to learn Spanish from the soap operas on TV.  On the fourth day I got a call on the phone ... it was Gary Rosenberg and he was, you guessed it, detained in the same hotel two doors down the hall.  From then on we birded together from our respective windows via text ... "Green-tailed Trainbearer heading right!" or "Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch in the dead tree" ... it wasn't much, but it helped.  

On the tenth day I got my negative test ... said goodby to Gary via text (he stayed another three days) and called American Express to get a flight.  Turns out there were no flights available to the US that afternoon and, terrified that my positive test would expire in 24 hours and I'd have to take a new one, I basically grabbed the next flight to anywhere out of the country.  Crossing the Ecuador border on the way to Panama City was a wonderful feeling.  It might be a while before I go back to Ecuador ...

Culpeo or Andean Fox