Ecuador Day 9 – The Kapok Tower

This would be our last day in the Amazon and we would be going to the second and tallest tower at Sacha Lodge, the Kapok Tower which is an astounding 135 feet high. Bolstered by her ascent of the Canopy Walkway Towers, Cindy was undaunted by the challenge. First there was a brief canoe ride across the lake and down yet another of the many channels feeding it. The calls of the Hoatzin have variously described as grunts, groans, squawks, farts and more. The bird itself has been called the Reptile Bird, Skunk Bird and Stinkbird. It is very often just described as an amazingly cool striking and prehistoric looking bird. They definitely stand out and we had several up close as we entered the channel.


The channels are quintessential Amazon with dense forest of unimaginable diversity. They are full of birds but they are not so easy to see let alone photograph. We again were hoping for river otters but again were otterless. I have never included a video in a blog and find that I do not have a way to do so here under my subscription. Sad as there really is no way to appreciate what it is like to glide smoothly through one of the water channels in the Amazon. You just cannot appreciate the plant diversity – probably hundreds of species all competing for sunlight and nutrients.

It is also not possible to appreciate the Kapok Tower without seeing it – best in person from the bottom, from the top and on the climb all the way up. And since it is in the midst of dense vegetation in the forest adjacent to and intersecting with a giant Kapok Tree that is hundreds of years old and 200 feet high, it is impossible to get the full perspective of the tower. These photos may provide some idea (except for the physical climbing part).

Kapok Tower
Kapok Tower
Atop the Tower
Looking Down from the Tower
View of the Napo River from the Tower

Of course the whole idea for going up the tower was to see birds in the canopy of the many trees. We had both fewer species and fewer better looks at birds from the Kapok Tower than we had from the Canopy Walkway. Oscar said it was just one of those days as there just were not many mixed flocks that came in especially to the Kapok tree itself. As had been the case at the other tower, many species were seen only in flight usually too far distant for photos. These included both Blue and Yellow and Red Bellied Macaws, and Cobalt Winged and Dusky Headed Parakeets. I was able to get a very distant picture of a White Eyed Parakeet.

White eyed Parakeet

We had much better luck with both Chestnut Eared and Many Banded Aracaris which were close enough – and still enough for photos – especially as they perched right on the tower itself. Truly striking birds which scream “tropical”.

Many Banded Aracari

We had seen Masked Tityra earlier on this trip and I had seen them elsewhere. At first I thought I had another on a tree maybe 50 yards away but was happy to find that it was a lifer Black Tailed Tityra. A little further away we had a White Browed Purpletuft – difficult to photograph against the gray sky. And even further away was a Double Toothed Kite. Not the greatest photos of any of them, but I was happy to get any at all as they were all lifers,

Black Tailed Tityra
White Browed Purpletuft
Double Toothed Kite

Much closer was a gorgeous Rufous Bellied Euphonia, a species I had seen 17 years earlier at Rio Cristallino in Brazil. I did not understand how “rufous” got into the name then and still do not. And then much further again was a lifer Slate Colored Hawk, its bright yellow eyes and red bill aids in identifying the otherwise just dark form. The picture of the latter is pretty poor so I have included the greatly magnified “final” photo and the original one showing the distance and at least partially explaining why an ID only photo was the best I could do.

Rufous Bellied Euphonia in the Kapok Tree
Slate Colored Hawk – Distant and Greatly Magnified
The Dark Spot is the Distant Slate Colored Hawk at 500mm

I just kept hoping that some birds would fly in closer but had to settle for whatever was seen anywhere and that included a Lafresnaye’s Piculet that somehow Oscar picked out and was perched just long enough to get another ID quality only photos – of another lifer. A bit closer although not much were a Crowned Slaty Flycatcher and an equally oddly named White Rumped Sirystes another flycatcher type. Again both were life birds.

Lafresnaye’s Piculet
White Rumped Sirystes
Crowned Slaty Flycatcher

A species I was very sorry to see but briefly, hear and never photograph was the Violaceous Jay. I had missed photos of a jay species in Mexico and earlier of the Beautiful Jay in the Western Andes, Now Violaceous Jay would be added to the missed jay photo list. Similarly I missed a photo of a Plumbeous Pigeon but did get one of a Ruddy Pigeon.

Ruddy Pigeon

I an happy to say that my erroneous preconception that Antbirds and their kin were only found near the ground was definitely proved wrong up in the canopy as we had three Antbirds and an Antshrike all pretty close and cooperative enough to get pictures of two of the Antbirds and the Antshrike.

Fasciated Antshrike
Common Scale Backed Antbird
Gray Antbird

Once again there were a number of flycatchers – too often seen but not photographed – just too small or too distant or too buried or too brief or a combination of any of those problems. A flycatcher that had been seen before and now finally photographed, albeit not very well, was another Rufous Tailed Flatbill.

Rufous Tailed Flatbill

We spent several hours at the tower and then descended without issue, did the short walk back to the canoe and then returned to the Lodge in time for lunch. Counting birds seen on the walks, from the canoe and out the tower, we had 48 species but only17 were new for Ecuador of which 9 were lifers – getting me past 2900 but feeling like a long way from 3000. And that way seemed even longer after some news we got when we returned to the Lodge.

Just before our arrival in Ecuador there had been growing unrest and protests throughout the country mostly by indigenous protestors. Although the main part of the protest seemed to be about gasoline prices, there were other matters including demands to drop food prices, extend debt repayment deadlines for small farmers and block mining and oil developments. Underlying it all was a politician trying to unseat the new president. Roads were blocked and we had some of our plans threatened the first few days of our visit. Things had seemingly quieted down but were now heating up again. One significant impact was that instead of being picked up in Coca by our Jorge team, we would fly back to Quito, meet them there and hopefully continue our visit in reverse in the Eastern Andes. This would knock a few hours out of our next day as a minimum, but more importantly we had to think about cutting our trip short and try to fly out of Ecuador early as there was a possibility that the country could fall into martial law and access to the airport could be a problem. It was a very stressful situation.

We were scheduled to go out on another afternoon of birding with Oscar after a rest following lunch. Under the circumstances, we decided to skip that excursion and think through the situation in depth in the quiet of our cabin. As with all the places we stayed, there was decent Wi-Fi reception in our cabin and we were able to keep in touch with current news and most importantly with our tour company who were great keeping in communication with us giving us options and their assessments. The manager at Sacha was also involved as a liaison with Neblina Forest and making sure our arrangements were in place for the flight back to Quito and keeping us advised and comfortable.

So the bottom line was that our plans were changing. We mutually agreed that we should be ok flying to Quito and continuing in reverse while carefully monitoring developments and being ready to change plans again and even to fly out early if necessary. It probably cost us a few species that afternoon and certainly did the next morning, but it in no way took away from a wonderful visit at Sacha. All told in our 3 days plus there we had 168 species and had added 142 species to our Ecuador list and I had added 62 life birds. Each of these totals were below expectations and well below hopes. I had expected at least 80 lifers and close to 200 species. But I had not expected such wonderful people, great food and beauty everywhere. The following is my last photo from Sacha Lodge – a great way to remember it.

Our Final Sunset

Ecuador Day 8 – Back to the Napo River and More Rainforest

Although she was feeling fine after the climb up and down at the Canopy Walkway, Cindy thought it best to rest this morning so I was Oscar’s only charge as we headed out in the morning after another fine breakfast. Our goal was the Yasuni Parrot Lick out on the Napo River. It would be the reverse of our trip into the Lodge – a canoe ride up the lake and through a channel to the take out, then a walk through the rainforest and then getting into a small motorized canoe and travelling on the Napo River in the opposite direction from our passage in. It was pretty dark in the narrow waterway as we moved through. We heard a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – a species I first saw at the King Ranch in Texas. We also heard a Thrushlike Wren, its call/song truly sounding like a mixture of a wren and a thrush. The only picture I got was of a very spiky/spiny tree. Whether we were walking trails or going through undergrowth as we journeyed by canoe, Oscar gave clear instructions NOT to touch the plants – too many bad things could happen – insects, chemical saps, and thorns like these.

The Parrot Clay lick is touted as one of the highlights for visits to the region. The lick is on a cliff along the river and contains minerals that are used by the visiting parrots and parakeets to counteract some toxins the birds build up from the fruits they eat. My cursory check of Ebird found 20 species of parrots, parakeets and parrotlets that been reported from the area of the Lick. Although the Lick is visible only by boat and thus not super close, it is the opportunity to see the birds in numbers and somewhat still as they perch on the clay that is the great appeal. On our way to the Lick we saw several parrots/parakeets in flight barely identifiable but among those we could ID, were several Dusky Headed Parakeets and some Orange Winged Parrots. As we got closer to the lick, a Red Bellied Macaw flew by in the distance and a Chestnut Fronted Macaw followed a few minutes later. Oscar was concerned as he felt we should be seeing more. That concern was well founded as when we got to the clay lick itself, there was not a single bird – nada – nothing – nobody home. We waited a few moments, drifted downriver, motored back and waited some more. No visitors at all. It was a gray morning and it had rained earlier and Oscar felt this was the reason. The cliff was just too wet. Better luck tomorrow, but tomorrow we would be elsewhere. The photo below is what the Clay Lick is supposed to look like.

Yasuni Clay Lick on a Better Day

Of course it was disappointing not to see birds at the lick especially if we could have gotten pictures of the striking Macaws, but back along the river, we did get a couple of parrot photos, one perched and one a highly magnified photo of some Orange Winged Parrots in flight. I later got a truly awful distant photo of a White Eyed Parakeet, but am too embarrassed to even include it.

Blue Headed Parrot
Orange Winged Parrots

Actually it was going to be a day of less than wonderful photos with the dual photo nemeses of distance and gray skies much to blame in addition to the fact that many of our birds would be skulkers who buried themselves in dense foliage and were usually at most only partially visible if at all. Distance was the problem with an Amazonian Umbrellabird high in a tree back from the river. Our Roadside Hawk was closer to the river but still quite far away. I was surprised not to see more raptors on our trip. Caracaras and Vultures were by far the most numerous, hawks, eagles and falcons not so much.

Amazonian Umbrellabird
Roadside (although in this case riverside) Hawk

I did not know it was coming, but our best birding was on an island in the middle of the Napo River that had sand, a little casual water, and mixed low shrubs and grasses, often dense and often high. It was here that we saw two of the very few shorebirds seen in Ecuador – a Greater Yellowlegs and a Collared Plover. The latter had been a successful target on our Oaxaca tip but this was a better view and photo even in very poor light. It reminds of a very rare Lesser Sand Plover – perhaps my best find in Washington almost 10 years ago.

Collared Plover

It is no loss of pride to acknowledge that without guides and their quick eyes, good ears and especially their knowledge, my Ecuador list would be a fraction of what it became. This was less so when their were feeders and maybe even moreso on the island as we rarely saw birds in the open or moving about. Through the combination of Oscar’s talents and some playback, however, we had a pretty good list. Apologies for admittedly poor photos, but I did want to document the morning.

Chestnut Bellied Seedeater – one of the very few birds in the open
Ladder Tailed Nightjar – the first bird we saw on the island
Scarlet Crowned Barbet – a truly poor photo of a gorgeous bird
Oriole Blackbird – Yes in the open but maybe 300 yards away
Small Billed Elaenia – briefly in the open after much coaxing
Spot Breasted Woodpecker
Streaked Flycatcher

As I have written before, I did not do well with the various ant type birds. In my head they were birds only to be found on the forest floor in the mountains and in the Amazon. I did not expect them in scrub brush like on this island, but we had several species, one buried even further than the previous one. We had Black Faced, Black and White and White Shouldered Antbirds well as Castelnau’s and Barred Antshrikes. I am including this photo of what I believe is the Castelnau’s Antshrike BUT without perfect confidence and it may well be the White Sided Antbird and it was the best of 25 attempts to get a photo through the branches and foliage whatever it is/

Castelnau’s Antshrike or perhaps a White Shouldered Antbird

We found two hummingbirds on the island – Olive Spotted Hummingbird and Black Throated Hermit and I was able to get a good photo of the former – and both were new for Ecuador and for my world list. By far the toughest photo to get – and “photo” may be a significant overstatement – was of a Gray Breasted Crake – barely visible but identifiable and any photo of a Crake is unexpected.

Olive Spotted Hummingbird
Gray Breasted Crake – It really is in there

The visit to the island was both frustrating and rewarding as we had to work hard for every species and got few clear looks and fewer photos, but we added a lot of new birds and it was very cool having the island to ourselves and to bushwhack through tall grasses and brush to chase our quarry. Back on the water we continued to see new species and I got some photos despite the distances. Not the best photos but two that I was happy to get were of Swallow Winged Puffbird and Bare Necked Fruitcrow.

Bare Necked Fruitcrow
Swallow Winged Puffbird

We saw both Smooth Billed and Greater Anis and added a Speckled Chachalaca in trees along the riverbank and several Fork Tailed Palm Swifts flew overhead. A Crane Hawk perched above us and I was finally able to get a photo of a Yellow Headed Caracara.

Yellow Headed Caracara
Crane Hawk
Speckled Chachalaca

A Snowy Egret was close to the dock where we left the motorized canoe and a Boat Billed Heron flew past us. We hiked back to the canoe and Oscar paddled us again through the small channel. Part way through the channel we saw a Capped Heron perched in front of us. I find this heron especially beautiful and grabbed a distant photo. Unfortunately it flew off before we could get closer. Later we had a Striated Heron and then towards the end of the channel a Limpkin was perched in the open posing and completing our collection of waders, a Rufescent Tiger Heron made an appearance.

Snowy Egret
Capped Heron
Striated Heron
Rufescent Tiger Heron

Although we missed out on a parrot display at the Clay Lick, it had been a great morning with new birds and something akin to the thrill of the hunt on the Island. Oscar had proved yet again to be good company and a great guide. I joined up with Cindy and had another scrumptious lunch. We had a short siesta and then rejoined Oscar for another canoe excursion – this time along different channels out from the lake. We hoped to find some River Otters that had been seen by others the previous day and coming back towards duck, perhaps there would be a Caiman.

It poured during our rest and completely stopped by the time we were back in the canoe with Oscar. We were fortunate weather wise throughout our trip as there was heavy rain a couple of nights and this afternoon as we rested but we never got caught in the rain itself – just the mud that followed sometimes. A word about mud. There would be more at later stops but it really was not too bad at Sacha and we were prepared for it in any event as the Lodge provided high quality rubber boots for everyone. And a word about bugs. There were lots of ants although none that were problematic and there were the occasional flies or mosquito but truly just a few and again never a problem. We did see a single Bullet Ant and kept clear as they deliver a very painful bite. I never felt it happen but somehow I did get a few bites, always in areas covered by clothing, not painful but irritations that lasted several days. Interestingly I have never had insect problems on any of my trips – Africa, Brazil, Peru, Belize, Costa Rica, Trinidad, India – nowhere. I even escaped serious bug issues in Alaska and Maine – but I cannot say the same for North Carolina – chiggers, mosquitos, ticks, gnats and flies – no thank you!!

Bullet Ant
Leaf Cutter Ants

It was a little humid after the rain but not too hot, no wind and clear skies. Back in the canoe and back to the birds. Observations were from the boat and photo ops only so-so but we had nice birds. Both Ringed and American Pygmy Kingfishers zipped by. A Black Fronted Nunbird perched overhead not far from a Chestnut Eared Aracari. We had a lovely Lineated Woodpecker and both Elegant and Striped Woodcreepers heard and seen. Similar species were both Dark Breasted and White Bellied Spinetail. An Orange Crowned Manakin played hide and seek and posed briefly in the open. Crested Oropendolas flew by and we saw Oropendola nests hanging from a distant tree beautiful in their symmetry and amazing to think about how they were constructed.

Black Fronted Nunbird
Chestnut Eared Aracari
Lineated Woodpecker
Orange Crowned Manakin
Oropendola Nests

It was a good afternoon for flycatchers as well with both Great and Lesser Kiskadees, Slender Footed Tyrannulet, Fuscous and Gray Capped Flycatchers, Drab Water Tyrant and Cinnamon Attila.

Lesser Kiskadee
Gray Capped Flycatcher

We saw both Ringed and Green and Rufous Kingfishers. One flew so close by we thought it would hit us. Only one was perched – long enough for a quick picture.

Green and Rufous Kingfisher

There were many missed photos as a canoe is not always the best platform for photography. One was of a Magpie Tanager, another striking tanager, one that I had seen in both Brazil and Peru and don’t recall if I have photos from those encounters. A miss I cannot believe is of the Crested Oropendolas as they were common and visible. Looking through my photos, I just don’t see one. Probably thought there would be a better shot so why bother. I had seen them in Peru, Brazil and a million years ago in Trinidad. Bet I could find a photo in some old files. As it was getting on towards dusk, we were back in the lake skirting the edges looking for a Caiman. Another canoe seemed to stopped and the folks aboard were looking down in the water at something. We paddled over and saw a Caiman that was in the shallows – all 3 feet of him/her. Hardly the terrifying monster of the dark waters as it is portrayed. We know there are bigger ones there and had we gone out on a night trip perhaps we would have seen one. I had seen some very large ones in Belize and Brazil.

Scenery on the Channels

We were back in time for doing our list, having a drink and enjoying a beautiful sunset and then another excellent dinner. The next day would be our last at Sacha Lodge and we would visit the Kapok Tower – even taller than the Canopy Walkway. Our count for the day was 83 species with 47 new for Ecuador and 18 lifers. I still needed 102 to get to 3000. We would need some really good days for that.

Ecuador Day 7 – Amazon Day 2 – The Canopy Tower

Ten weeks before our departure for Ecuador, Cindy was in the hospital having her right knee replaced. She had the left knee replaced in 2019 and worked hard on her rehab and had a remarkable recovery – driving within a few weeks and at full use not long afterwards. We planned the Ecuador trip before the second surgery and agreed that unless things went awry, 10 weeks should be enough time for her to fully participate – with one probable exception – the Towers at Sacha Lodge. In the recovery weeks before the trip her only even partially difficult issues were climbing down stairs. That coupled with her not being too crazy about heights suggested that she may well sit out the trip up (and down) the 95 foot Canopy Tower and the even taller Kapok Tower. Our first full day at Sacha included the Canopy Tower. She was feeling great and was really enjoying the rainforest and the birds, and so, motivated by the chance to view many of them close up and also to test her own fortitude, she was game to go. The agreement was that if there were any issues she could change her mind.

The Canopy Tower at Sacha is incredible. It is actually a narrow walkway 94 feet high and maybe 4 feet wide between three towers spanning 940 feet. There is a viewing platform at each of the three towers with 360 degree views. Much of the activity in the rainforest is in the canopies of the trees and these platforms provide viewing opportunities that would be impossible without the towers. It was a relatively short hike on good trails to get to the tower. Cindy was still game when we got there being both a little anxious about the imposing climb ahead but also excited by the challenge.

Aerial of the Canopy Walkway/Tower
Another View

The towers were sturdy and the steps regularly spaced and easy to climb, but there were a lot of them. If we had been at the high elevations visited in the first part of the trip, it would have been a very tough climb, but we are both in pretty good shape and with a few pauses we made it pretty easily. It helped that it was not a real hot or humid day. Cindy’s concerns about height were not a problem at all as the dense trees and vegetation below makes it seem like it is not so high off the ground – at least mostly. For the first hour we had the tower platform completely to ourselves. Oscar had climbed with his spotting scope and it was often put to great use as many of the birds were still pretty distant. The birds would come in singly or in groups and a few were fairly close in adjacent canopy tops. There would be periods of great activity and then nothing. The view though was always outstanding especially of distant giant Kapok trees silhouetted against a sometimes foggy sky.

Kapok Tree above the Fog

I did not keep track of when each species came and went or the sequencing of their visits. It felt like we were in a blind watching nature unfold in front of us as birds big and small flew in, flew by or were seen perched out in the rainforest. Without commenting on them, these are many of the birds we saw from one or another of the three tower platforms.

Crane Hawk
Cream Colored Woodpecker
Lemon Throated Barbet
Pale Vented Pigeon
Paradise Tanager
Scale Breasted Woodpecker
Turquoise Tanager
Yellow Tufted Woodpecker
Plumbeous Kite
Screaming Piha
Crimson Crested Woodpecker
Thick Billed Euphonia

Only a few of the photos above were at close range. Almost all were taken with my zoom lens fully extended to 500 mm and all were cropped and magnified in processing. These three photos of a female Purple Honeycreeper give a good sense of what we were seeing compared to the post finishing photos – remembering that even the smallest one with the red arrow pointing it out is still magnified about 10X by the zoom lens.

A number of species flew by in the distance without a chance to get a good photo. These included King Vulture, Swallow Tailed Kite, Green Ibis, Red Bellied, Blue and Yellow and Chestnut Fronted Macaws, Dusky Headed and Cobalt Winged Parakeets, Mealy, Orange Winged and Blue Headed Parrots, and Black Hawk Eagle. I also missed several shots of perching birds which were either buried in foliage or too briefly in view. The photos I really wanted were of Purple Throated Cotinga, Purplish Jacamar, White Throated Toucan and Masked Crimson Tanager. I got an ID quality only photo of the first and none of the other 3. I include a few photos by others from Ebird to give a better sense of what all was seen.

Purple Throated Cotinga – Photo by Sherry Lane
Purplish Jacamar – David Bird – This photo was taken at the same tower. Our view was brief and directly below us – head and bill visible through foliage only
Masked Crimson Tanager – Photo by Renato Espinosa

This photo is proof that Cindy made it onto the tower and since she is here with me today, that is proof that she made it down. There was a little residual soreness in her knee the next day but not enough to in any way affect her in our other walks and in climbing another tower. I was exceptionally proud of her.

Cindy on the Tower Walkway

Since we saw a lot birds on the walks to and back from the Tower (stay tuned) and I did not keep specific notes, I am not certain of this number but believe we saw about 55 species from the Tower in the 2 plus hours that we were there. We also had very distant views of Red Howler Monkeys – a terrible photo is included only as proof it was seen.

Red Howler Monkey

On the way back to the Lodge after the towers, we were able to add some new birds and a few photos. Sadly again, many photos were missed in the dense foliage and with rapidly moving birds. A bird that was heard and not seen was a Cinerous Tinamou, its piercing shrill whistled call hard to miss. Two Antbird species were first identified by their calls, then seen briefly before they disappeared in dense foliage: Peruvian Warbling Antbird and Spot Winged Antbird. In the dense foliage there was a major dilemma – try to see the bird with binoculars and then follow up trying to get a photo or forego the binocular view and try for a photo – essentially birding by camera. The trouble was that even getting a single view was often difficult and getting that view by camera was even harder than with the bins. The Peruvian Warbling Antbird perched in the open for a second and had I tried with the camera first, I probably would have gotten a photo, but as I switched from bins to camera it was gone – no photo – but a lifer tick in any event.

I had better luck with two tyrannulets. The to me the inaptly named Yellow Crowned Tyrannulet remained in the open for quite a while, even hanging upside down at one point, something I had not seen before with flycatchers. The White Lored Tyrannulet was more a lucky shot as it flew off immediately after its brief pose for my photo. I had seen it before in Peru but the Yellow Crowned was a Lifer. I was not able to get photos of several other flycatchers: Yellow Margined Flycatcher, Double Banded Pygmy Tyrant or Rufous Tailed Flatbill. I was almost certain I had gotten a photo of a Cinnamon Attila, but I have not been able to find the photo. It’s possible it was inadvertently deleted as in the first times through the thousands of photos, I tried to delete bad photos (as in really bad). Maybe it was a poor shot and fell victim to the initial editing.

Yellow Crowned Tyrannulet
White Lored Tyrannulet

It is not often that I describe getting a photo as fun, but such was the case with the Wire Tailed Manakin, a little beauty. It played hide and seek for several minutes. I would finally think I had it in my camera’s sights and it would then get fully or partially hidden in the foliage. Finally I synchronized my movements with the bird’s and got an ok photo of its striking profile. I had seen a distant one briefly the previous day and figured there would never be a photo, so getting this one was very satisfying … and fun even if it takes several photos to see the cool details including the wire tail!

Wire Tailed Manakin
Wire Tailed Manakin – You Can Sort of See the Wire Tail
Wire Tail of the Wire Tailed Manakin

We saw and/or heard 4 species of woodcreeper on our hike: Plain Brown, Cinnamon Throated, Striped and Buff Throated. The latter two were lifers and the Cinnamon Throated was new for Ecuador. I have posted a photo of the Plain Brown previously and did not get a picture of the Buff Throated.

Striped Woodcreeper
Cinnamon Throated Woodcreeper

Wrens were really problematic as we heard Scaly Breasted, Thrushlike and Musician Wrens but got only fleeting glances of any of them. There were two more photos – a Straight Billed Hermit – seen but not photographed the previous day and another photo of one of the two Crested Owls seen the day before and had returned to their favored day roost today in a little better light.

Straight Billed Hermit
Crested Owl

No way around it, it was an AWESOME morning. We had seen or heard more than 75 species. Forty-two species were new for Ecuador, but only 20 were Lifers, as we had seen many before and I had seen others in other trips to South America. There would be another excursion after lunch

Lunch was a little of this and a little of that – well actually “little” is not the right word as portions were much larger than we should have taken from the buffet offerings, but will power was low and the quality was high. We justified our portions by remembering our hikes and tower climbing, but calorie intake was much higher than calories burned. Afterwards we returned to our cabin for an hour of rest and then met Oscar at the canoe launch around 3:00 and headed off across the lake and ducked into a small channel in absolute solitude. One of the first birds we saw was one of the most spectacular birds of the region, the Hoatzin, which looks like a throw back to prehistoric times. We had had distant looks at some on the boat trip to Sacha but this was the first really good look – and many more would follow. Crossing the lake and entering the channel, we also added both Greater and Lesser Kiskadees, Social and Boat Billed Flycatchers, White Winged and White Banded Swallows, Gray Breasted Martin and Black Capped Donacobius plus Short Tailed Swifts. Flyovers included three Caracara species: Black, Red-Throated and Yellow Headed Caracaras.

Black Capped Donacobius

This turned out to be more of a very pleasant relaxed trip through the flooded rainforest than a birding trip as it was very very quiet. There were a few small groups of Squirrel Monkeys overhead including one that missed its branch and fell into the water not far from our boat. He was drenched and I could also swear he had an embarrassed look on his face as he quickly clambered back up the tree to join his group.

Squirrel Monkey

We did see an owl but unfortunately it was only an Owl Butterfly – pretty big and with a certain owlish look.

Owl Butterfly

As we were coming out of our little channel we caught site of what may be Cindy’s favorite bird of the trip – a Zigzag Heron sitting on its nest – frozen and stiff with its bill pointed skyward. We got very close without disturbing it and took lots of photos. Note the mosquito on its eye.

We had added maybe another dozen species on the trip bringing the total for the day to 90 with a total of 298 species for our trip list and my World Life List up to 2880 – with 136 added so far.

Into the Amazon – Ecuador Day 6

I am departing somewhat from the previous Ecuador blogs as there won’t be a whole lot about birds because much of this day was spent getting from Puembo to Sacha Lodge, our beautiful sanctuary in the Amazon Region of Ecuador and i want to write about that trip, the marvelous lodge and the Amazon. The original plan for our itinerary was to fly from Quito to Coca where we would be met by people from Sacha Lodge and we would then go by boat to the Lodge. We would stay there 4 nights and then our team from the first part of our trip, Jorge and Jorge would meet us in Coca and we would take several days to drive back to Quito for our flight home stopping at lodges on the Eastern side of the Andes. As will be discussed in later blogs, that was changed and we instead flew back to Quito from Coca and visited the Eastern Andes in reverse order. But that is getting ahead of myself.

It is a long drive from Quito to Coca about 5 1/2 hours – although less than 200 miles almost due east of Quito and a bit south. My mental map of Ecuador was completely flawed as I pictured the Amazon being mostly south. The flight was barely 40 minutes, although getting to the airport and going through the check in etc still meant an early departure from Puembo Birding Garden. The flight was smooth and procedures at both airports were easy. There were others on the flight going to Sacha Lodge and we were met by a Sacha team at the airport, driven to the Sacha offices in Coca and then loaded onto a large motorized canoe for the 90 minute trip down the Napo River, a large tributary of the Amazon – one of many. We were given heavy duty ponchos and life jackets for the journey, It was at the offices that we met Oscar who would be our personal guide for the entire stay. Lots about him later.

Map of Amazon Region Showing Sacha Lodge

The Amazon Region in Ecuador is approximately 48% of the land mass of the country (128,000 square km) but is inhabited by only about 5% of the population. About 7% of the Region is in Yasuni National Park home to a number of indigenous tribes. There is substantial oil underground and the area is at risk after an initiative to protect it failed in 2014. On our trip down the Napo River we passed along part of the Park. As in other rainforest areas, there are also threats from mining, logging and deforestation to develop crop land. Ecuador is a leader in conservation however and values its ecotourism businesses. Several lodges in the area including Sacha are safe enclaves of preservation, safe and comfortable and provide unparalleled opportunities to experience this unique and awesome wilderness and global treasure. That is why we were there.

The motorized canoe ride into the Amazon Area was among other things, impressive. The passengers – a dozen plus were in one canoe while all our baggage was in another. We were under a canopy which would provide at least some cover if it rained hard – which fortunately it did not. We were towards the back of the canoe and thus were not exposed to any spray – which there was only a little. Our pilot was at the back of the canoe and could not possibly have had a clear view of what was directly ahead. Which was interesting since he guided the canoe flawlessly through the current, avoiding shallows, shoals, islands and debris, moving from the left side of the river to the right and back again frequently, often slowing but usually charging full speed ahead which Cindy estimated to be at least 20 knots – she is the boat person in the family.

Loading Onto the Motorized Canoe at Coca

Along the way we dis see a few birds – Snowy and Great Egrets, a single Roseate Spoonbill, two Southern Lapwings, some Caracaras and some swallows. At great distance there were two large birds perched atop a tree that a guide called out as Umbrellabirds. I got a quick and pretty poor photo that showed one with a white belly. Everything I have seen says Umbrellabirds are entirely black yet the shape and size are right – an early mystery of the Amazon!

Umbrellabirds or Not?

There were no mammals and few signs of civilization although we were surprised to see some industry, a few cabins and even cars and trucks. There are a few roads – mostly put in to serve the oil industry and we saw other boats and barges. The river was brown – as is the case with most of the Amazon river system – lots of silt carried down from the mountains and forests. After about 90 minutes we disembarked at a dock and followed our guides along a trail through the rain forest for about 30 minutes. No stopping for birds, although I am sure we passed by many. At the end of our easy flat walk we arrived at another dock where we loaded into a small canoe with just Oscar who paddled us through the forest in a beautiful small channel for maybe another 30 minutes until we arrived at an opening into a beautiful lagoon with the lodge itself visible perhaps a half mile away. We disembarked at the Balsa – a lovely thatched roof structure where we would have breakfast and lunch during our stay. We had a welcoming drink, got the key to our private cabin – #303 and followed the walkway up a short rise – past more water and through the rain forest. There are 29 cabins at Sacha, each exquisite and each private, out of sight of the others. Our baggage awaited us when we arrived and we entered our splendid new home. Wow!!

An aerial view of the Balsa and entrance to the Lodge itself
The Balsa, and the Dinner Restaurant and Bar – the Cabins are up in the rainforest itself beyond the restaurant all connected with nice well lit walkways.
Me at Cabin 303

Construction of the Lodge began in 1991 and Phase 1 was completed the next year with 6 guest rooms, a dining room and housing for guides and staff. There have been several expansions and updates since then now including air conditioning in the cabins. Every staff member we met was superb – friendly, knowledgeable and friendly. Service was outstanding. The food was also amazing with a great buffet for every breakfast and lunch with multiple choices of everything you could want and always fresh fruit and juices. There were marvelous desserts at lunch and in general – way too much food. Dinners in the restaurant were what one might expect at a sophisticated foodie restaurant in Seattle, LA or whatever. The quality was always excellent although serving size was small and always with some showy embellishment.

These photos show one of the special dishes at lunch and a menu for one of the evening dinners. We were truly on vacation here so took advantage of the bar with either drinks or wine – mostly South American origins. Cindy had her first Caipirinha and was sold.

Octopus and Shrimp Causa – one of many options at one lunch
Typical Dinner Menu

All of our expenses except for drinks were paid as part of our overall tour package. I have not looked and really do not want to know, but I am sure that Sacha Lodge is quite expensive. The quality of the room, the facilities, the food and the service were all first class. And then there was Oscar. When you sign up for Sacha you are asked about your interests and are assigned a guide accordingly. He was with us the whole time beginning in Coca. Oscar is their bird specialist and he was awesome. He is from one of the indigenous tribes in the area. He had been working at one of the other lodges in the area when he was discovered by the owner of Sacha in I think 1996. He recruited him to come to Sacha and sent him to Quito to learn English. That was only a two week course but it provided the basis for his excellent, if somewhat accented, English today which he speaks in addition to Spanish and his native indigenous language Quichua, a dialect of Quechua – and he also knows the Latin names of all of the birds. Oscar was always in good spirits, full of energy and his keen senses picked out birds by sight and sound. As was so helpful with Jorge Luna, Oscar did use playback and used his green laser to help us find the birds he spotted. Although he always brought a scope and had his binoculars, his eyesight was better than mine using my binoculars. Extraordinary.

Cindy, Oscar and Blair (with Caipirinha) after “the List”

After lunch, Oscar took us out for our first birding in the Amazon – walking the trails. We had been greeted by Great Kiskadees and White Winged Swallows at lunch and they would be seen every day.

White Winged Swallows
Great Kiskadee

Among the many big differences between birding in the Amazon and birding in the Andes foremost was that there are no feeders. Of course I can see how this keeps everything natural, but it sure would have been nice to have feeders to attract the many species in close for good views and good photos. Despite Oscar’s best efforts, both were relatively hard to come by and there will be far fewer photos from this part of our trip. We did add two new hummingbirds though, a Straight Billed Hermit and a Long Billed Starthroat getting a photo of only the latter. We also heard Great and Variegated Tinamous – both rarely seen.

Long Billed Starthroat

Most of the birds we saw we were not able to photograph and it would take some adjustments of equipment and by me to get pictures. Most of the species we saw were flyovers or fly-aways including some parrots and parakeets, a motmot and a trogon – but fortunately we would see them all again. As it was getting later and as we were heading back to the lodge, Oscar took a little side trail and said he hoped to have a surprise. The surprise turned out to be a pair of Crested Owls – super birds and the only owl species we would actually see on the trip. They were in a very dark spot and our photos were pretty bad but it was a great end to the day.

Crested Owls

Not much of a day for birding or at least for numbers of good views of birds and photos, but it had been a great day and we were in the Amazon – a first for Cindy and bringing memories back to me of wonderful trips in 2005 to Brazil and in 2013 to Peru. The species list for the day was 32 of which 10 were actually Lifers (all to be seen better and again later) and 26 were new for Ecuador. That’s what happens when you change habitats and there was no question that this was a new and exciting habitat. The Ecuador list was now at 246 species and there had been 110 Lifers.

Ecuador Day 5 – Sachatamia and Back to Puembo

Since we would be birding in the morning at the Lodge, breakfast was a bit later but we were back to birding around 6 or maybe 6:30. I may have written too much on the birds in the earlier blogs and they were the focus for most of our stays, but the lodges themselves were great with pleasant bedrooms and dining rooms and the feeders and trails were great as well. This was our bedroom at Sachatamia – comfortable and quiet.

Sachatamia Bedroom

The feeders are not shown but this was a favorite spot – for breakfast or lunch while watching the birds coming in to the feeders in front of us full of hummingbirds and tanagers as elsewhere. It was from this spot that we saw one of the very few mammals seen during our entire trip – a single Agouti – a very common medium sized rodent. There was almost always a beautiful view throughout our trip

Sachatamia Overlook

Our morning started at the “moth wall blind”. It is a very productive and ingenious set up. A canvas sheet is stretched over a form and a light is turned on at night that attracts moths and insects many of which remain on the sheet when the light is turned off at dawn. This is like a deli case for birds that learn to come in early for easy pickings. We had a good list of birds there and would probably have had more if a juvenile Barred Forest Falcon had not come in and remained for more than 20 minutes. The good news is that we got great photos of the falcon but the bad news is that the activity that was picking up before its arrival, slowed dramatically afterwards.

The Moth Wall Sheet

One bird that was not deterred by the falcon was a Masked Trogon that remained for the entire time that the falcon was there. Among other birds seen at the blind were a Mountain Wren, Three Striped Warbler, Plain Brown Woodcreeper, Ornate and Golden Crowned Flycatchers, Lineated and Scaly Breasted Foliage Gleaners, Chestnut Capped and White Winged Brushfinchs, Marble Faced Bristle Tyrant and Dusky Chlorospingus. It was a very shaded area so photos were often challenging.

Chestnut Capped Brushfinch
Lineated Foliage Gleaner
Dusky Chlorospingus
Marble Faced Bristle Tyrant
Plain Brown Woodcreeper
Ornate Flycatcher
Golden Crowned Flycatcher
Three Striped Warbler with Moth
Mountain Wren

We continued birding on the grounds after an hour plus at the blind and found some more nice new birds. We did not spend more time at the feeders as there would be another place with active feeders ahead and we had a lot of ground to cover on the way back to Puembo. A bird seen only briefly but unfortunately without a photo was the Long Wattled Umbrellabird. It is such a striking and strange bird I am including a photo from Ebird taken by Stephen Davies ten years ago in the same general area. The photos after that one are mine.

Long Wattled Umbrella Bird – 2012 Photo by Stephen Davies
Ecuadorian Thrush
Golden Olive Woodpecker
Rusty Margined Flycatcher
Scrub Blackbird

We reluctantly said goodbye to Sachatamia and headed toward the Quinde Luna Reserve near Nanagelito where there were wonderful hummingbirds among other species. As soon as we arrived a White Throated Quail Dove perched at the feeders for a few moments. It was the only quail-dove seen on the trip, sadly, as I find them really appealing.

White Throated Quail Dove

It was showtime at the hummingbird feeders with 14 species and multiples of many of them. I am including photos of some but without question the highlights were very cooperative Violet Tailed Sylphs and White Booted Racket-tails for which multiple photos are included.

White Booted Racket-tail (Western) at Feeder
White Booted Racket-tail (Western) in Flight
Violet Tailed Sylph
Violet Tailed Sylph

This was the Western version of the Booted Racket-tail – with white “boots”. Later we would see the Peruvian or Eastern version in the Eastern Andes with orange boots. Similarly in the Eastern Andes we would later see another sylph species – the Long Tailed Sylph. These had been among my most wanted hummingbirds. You cannot tell it from these photos but the Booted Racket-tail is actually fairly small – if that long racket tail is excluded.

It wasn’t new for the trip but here I got our first photo of a Golden Naped Tanager. There was also another White Sided Flowerpiercer, another species seen earlier but I had not included a photo in that post. We would see many of them later, but this was where we had our first Russet Backed Oropendolas, a species I had first seen in Peru. Jorge and I hiked down to a fast moving stream hoping for a Torrent Duck, a species we had missed at Sachatamia. No luck but we did find a Torrent Tyrannulet, another species I had seen in Peru and 25 years ago in Costa Rica.

Golden Naped Tanager
White Sided Flowerpiercer
Russet Backed Oropendola
Torrent Tyrannulet

We had lunch at a hillside restaurant (with more birds) and then headed back towards Puembo with a very important stop along the way at the Intinan Museum in San Antonio de Pichincha just outside Quito. There are a number of exhibits but the main draw is the equator itself which runs through the museum and makes for some fun experiences. On the way to Intinan, we grabbed a couple of photos of what we were told was a better area of Quito, homes perched on the hill.

Cindy and Driver Jorge at Lunch
Quito View
Museo Intinan

Quite simply the equator divides our planet into halves, the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere, but as initially discovered by the 19th Century French Mathematician/Engineer, Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, there is something more to it. The “Coriolis” force/effect is an apparent inertial force caused by the earth’s rotation on its axis that causes a deflection of moving objects to the right in the Northern Hemisphere and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere. This affects the movement of airplanes and both air and water, so for example, water going down a drain (or a toilet) theoretically moves clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere. I say theoretically because there are other factors involved and the notion has been pooh-poohed by no less than Scientific American. HOWEVER, at the museum there was a very convincing demonstration in front of our own eyes that seemed to confirm that phenomenon. Water poured from a bucket down a drain went clockwise merely feet to the north of the line and in the opposite direction merely feet to the south.

Coriolis Exhibit

There seems to be some question of whether any of the places that profess to be on the equator really are, but the GPS on the cell phone confirmed we were neither north or south. I have actually been at the equator before as it runs through Kenya and we made a big deal about being astride it on the tour. Still somehow it does seem pretty cool.

All Zeroes Latitude
Equator Marker

From the museum it was back to Puembo Birding Garden. At Puembo I was able to get photos of two species missed on our first day there, The first is a digiscoped photo of a Crimson Mantled Woodpecker which was missed entirely the first day and the second is/are photos of male and female Golden Grosbeaks. I had seen a male that first day at Puembo Birding Garden but the only photo I got was of a yellow/gold form behind some leaves.

Crimson Mantled Woodpecker.

We would have dinner and spend the night at Puembo and then Jorge and Jorge would pick us up and take us to the airport the next morning for a short flight to Coca, entry point for the Amazon. It had been another great day as altogether we had seen 85 species. I had missed some photos along the way but also got some good ones, many included in this post. The totals were now 220 species for Ecuador and 14 new Lifers. I would need a rally in the Amazon to get back on track to reach 3000 on my World Life List. We’ll see.

Ecuador Day 4 – Refugio Paz and More Mindo

There is “early” and there is “even earlier”. Today our start was even earlier, with breakfast at 5:00 a.m. so we could get to the Cock of the Rock lek by 6:00 a.m. It worked out pretty well, setting the stage for another great day in Ecuador. Wikipedia (a workable source here) defines a lek as “an aggregation of male animals gathered to engage in competitive displays and courtship rituals, known as lekking, to entice visiting females which are surveying prospective partners with which to mate. A lek can also indicate an available plot of space able to be utilized by displaying males to defend their own share of territory for the breeding season.” There are not a lot of bird species that use leks, but a very spectacular species of the Andes does – the Andean Cock of the Rock, and that was our first target for the day at a site associated with the Refugio Paz de las Aves. We went there hoping to find the males surrounded by females who might get interested.

I had seen an Andean Cock of the Rock in Peru in 2013 with great views and a decent photo. It is the national bird of Peru and is a “must see” on any trip to the part of the country where they are found. So, too, is it the case in the Andes of Ecuador with the interesting twist that the species in the West is orange and the ones in the East are red. We did see both males and females but unfortunately we did not get great looks as the birds were distant and generally buried in the dense forest. They are bizarre and brilliantly colored but rather than up close and personal it was more like looking at orange Christmas ornaments on a distant fir tree. Here are three photos from our morning – one of the area as we saw it through the camera (remember already magnified through the 500 mm lens) – another further magnified by photo editing and the third a photo from the Refugio Paz showing the male in full splendor.

Andean Cock of the Rock – through the Camera
Andean Cock of the Rock – Edited
Andean Cock of the Rock from Website

Of course we would have liked it close up, but still a fun experience which was shortly followed by Angel Paz, the owner of this private land, calling us over to a Dark-backed Wood-Quail that he had called out in the dense undergrowth. Not the best photo but in the dim light and a tough bird – very exciting. While waiting for Angel to find this prize we heard a Cloud Forest Pygmy Owl and a Rufous Bellied Nighthawk.

Dark Backed Wood Quail

The Wood Quail and Cock of the Rock are prized birds, but there was much more at the Refugio Paz de las Aves including what it is really famous for – the chance to see a number of Antpitta species – generally secretive dark birds of the dense understory that are very hard to find. The story here is that Angel Paz still a farmer on this land, has patiently trained individual Antpittas to come to him by giving them food sometimes by hand or placing them at favored spots on the ground – and calling them by name. More than 3000 visitors come to the refuge drawn by this unique opportunity, the Cock of the Rock, and the chance to see some of the other 180 species reported there.

We spent almost 4 hours at Refugio Paz de las Aves, some of it in the company of Angel Paz and his family and the rest at feeders or with our guide. We were able to see 64 species including good looks of three of the Antpittas as well as a number of other very appealing species plus yet again many hummingbirds and tanagers – 11 species of each. First the Antpittas. There are five possibilities. Rarely does anyone get all five but three is common and four not unusual. We were in the common category seeing Chestnut Crowned, Yellow Breasted and Ochre Breasted Antpittas. There was great disappointment by Angel that the Giant Antpitta was not cooperating this morning. We were happy nonetheless.

Chestnut Crowned Antpitta

There is also a lovely restaurant and a place to stay overnight at the Refugio as well as optional guided tours for anyone considering a trip on their own.

Cindy and Blair with Angel Paz

We walked the road in the refuge and visited the feeders. Here are some of the great birds we saw saving a couple for special comment and not including photos of birds either included in earlier blogs or perhaps seen later in the trip and better included in those blog posts.

Brown Inca
Black Chinned Mountain Tanager
Buff Fronted Foliage Gleaner
Common Potoo – and yes it really does have a head and a mouth
Crested Guan
Golden Headed Quetzal
Gray Breasted Wood Wren
Green Violetear
Velvet Purple Coronet
White Winged Tanager
Squirrel Cuckoo

Two species that are featured at the refuge deserve their own group of photos. The Toucan Barbet and Plate Billed Mountain Toucan are just incredible examples of colorful species that are so appealing. We had great looks at both with many close in photo opportunities, We would see them elsewhere later, but the first impressions made here were memorable and remain some of our favorites for the trip.

Toucan Barbet
Toucan Barbet
Plate Billed Mountain Toucan
Plate Billed Mountain Toucan

While at the refuge we had our first look of one of my favorite birds, a Swallow Tailed Kite. In the Everglades in 2017 two of these gorgeous raptors flew within feet of me for several moments allowing me to get probably my favorite photo ever. This Kite was quite distant but still magnificent with its eponymous swallow tail. We would see many more later in our trip.

Swallow Tailed Kite – a very distant one

Although I included a picture of the Crimson Rumped Toucanet previously, I have to include another one here – a fun close up photo of a very cool species.

Crimson Rumped Toucanet

Eighteen of the 65 species we had at Refugio Paz were Lifers for me and half of the 64 were new for Ecuador. That is only one of the reasons that this place was among our favorites and this morning was perhaps our best. Now we would bird our way back to Sachatamia Lodge and would bird there as well. With apologies I did not track which of the 27 species we saw that afternoon were seen where so they are covered as a group over the entire area/afternoon. Basically most of the birding was along Milpe Road and then back to Sachatamia.

No matter where we were in this part of Ecuador there were many hummingbirds and tanagers and this afternoon there were again 11 of the former and a dozen of the latter. Most of the birds seen in the afternoon had already been seen elsewhere earlier. Only five new species were added: Guayaquil Woodpecker, Cinnamon and One Colored Becards, Slaty Spinetail and Wedge Billed Woodcreeper. Even though we had seen many of the species earlier, it still made for a total count for the day of 81 species.

Cinnamon Becard
Wedge Billed Woodcreeper
Masked Water Tyrant
Guayaquil Woodpecker
Red Faced Spinetail

Back to the lodge for another good dinner and working on lists and photos. We later learned that our guide, Jorge Luna and his family had encouraged Angel Paz to establish his refuge and Jorge’s family has land not too far away – maybe another refuge will follow. At the end of the day, our Ecuador list stood at 191 species and I had added 86 species to my World Life list.

Western Andes – Day 3 – Rio Silanche and Milpe Sanctuary

Up early, a big breakfast with fresh fruits which we would have every day on this trip, good coffee and we were ready to go heading to two sanctuaries that are part of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation: Rio Silanche and the Milpe Bird Sanctuary. To clarify a bit, this was our second day of real birding but our third day in Ecuador. All following posts will give the day as if it was from the beginning. We would bird at other spots along the way as well – all within an hour or so of Sachatamia. We started birding before 7:00 a.m. and here it gets a little complicated. My biggest (and almost only) negative about our trip was that I did not use internet connectivity except when WIFI was available (at all the lodges) and our guide did not use Ebird. Thus it was very difficult to keep accurate accounts of what was seen where. As a result for most of the trip I have accurate bird lists for each day but not necessarily accurate as to specific locations. So this post will cover all of the birds seen on Day 2 with few details.

We were still in Ecuador of course, so there were still many hummingbirds – 11 species to be exact with 5 new ones for Ecuador and 4 of those were Lifers. Similarly there were lots of tanagers – 8 species plus three closely related Dacnis species. Six from this group were Lifers as well. Again here are some representative photos with tanagers first and then some hummingbirds.

Black Faced Dacnis
Red Throated Tanager
Palm Tanager
Dusky Faced Tanager
Tawny Crested Tanager
Gray and Gold Tanager
Crowned Woodnymph
Green Thorntail
Violet Bellied Hummingbird
Green Crowned Brilliant
Rufous Tailed Hummingbird

A quick comment or two about photo identification. Photos came fast and furious in the field and by far the majority of photos were poor (or worse), but if you are lucky and take enough photos, some will turn out ok. But that doesn’t mean you can remember which species is in the photo, especially for hummingbirds which are often in mixed groups of many, moving fast, and somewhat similar in appearance especially as the colors change in the light and iridescent blues and purples and greens are often just dark. I did not ID photos until I came back home and then with the help of my checklists, two or three guidebooks and the Merlin Photo ID app I made out most of them. That said, there is a good chance that I will have made some errors. Corrections are welcome – but in any event, hopefully readers will enjoy them.

Another comment about photos: Birds at the feeders were often relatively close, others quite distant. Even at feeders, birds and especially hummingbirds are pretty small and it takes a lot of magnification by the camera and processing later to make the images seen in the photos I include in these blog posts. Generally I was taking photos at full extension of my 100-500 mm lens – so already about a 10X magnification and then cropping would magnify the images again usually at least 2 to 4 times and often much more. Thus birds that might barely be visible with our naked eye and still small viewed through binoculars are much larger in the photos presented. I have not used digiscoping through a spotting scope but our guide did have one and often got great pictures.

This day we would see (or hear) 64 species of which 26 were Lifers. Many people consider hummingbirds and tanagers to be exotic or charismatic – certainly colorful. Before departing I had promised Cindy that we would see many birds that were colorful and/or exotic and the hummers and tanagers had delivered on that promise, and this day we added specialty birds, that like especially the Andean Guan and Crimson Rumped Toucanet of the previous day were further deliveries on that promise. Birds such as motmots, trogons, toucans, parrots, parakeets and Aracaris just seem “foreign” making them exotic in addition to their being colorful and beautiful. Today we had lots of appealing species.

Rufous Motmot
Green Backed Trogon
Collared Aracari
Choco Toucan
Red Masked Parakeet
Bronze Winged Parrot

Those are all pretty showy birds and definitely feel tropical. Some others that were definitely noticeable include the Lineated Woodpecker, Red Billed Scythebill, Orange Billed Sparrow and Orange Fronted Barbet.

Lineated Woodpecker
Red Billed Scythebill
Orange Billed Sparrow
Orange Fronted Barbet

Of course not all of the birds were colorful, dramatic, or even seemingly tropical. Our list included several flycatchers/tyrannulets and there were also several species that were either heard only – Dusky Pigeon and Little Tinamou – or seen but not photographed. Among the latter were Pallid Dove which was high on my “want list” so missing that photo as it was simply too distant and gone too quickly, was disappointing. Others seen but not photographed were White Bearded Manakin, Yellow-Throated Nightingale Thrush and Purple Throated Fruitcrow.

Sooty Headed Tyrannulet Definitely Plain but a Lifer
Choco Tyrannulet – Another “Plain” Lifer

One of the strangest bird groups to me were the Piculets – miniature “almost woodpeckers”. Not a great photo but given the distance a picture I was happy to get was of an Olivaceous Piculet, another Lifer.

Olivaceous Piculet

We were back to Sachatamia by the late afternoon. Our ritual was to meet with Jorge to go over the list for the day and then have dinner always at the lodges where we stayed. Food was great with main course being chicken or trout or pork or beef, always with fresh vegetables and usually rice and or potatoes and a dessert. Portions varied from large to even larger and we were always pleased. After dinner we would retire to our room and I would download photos from the camera to my laptop using an external hard drive since there were usually many hundreds of photos each day. I would try to delete obviously terrible ones, but fell behind on that quickly. As I mentioned before it would have been great if our guide had used Ebird for each stop and then shared the lists. Cindy would keep track of the number of species we had seen each day as we went over the checklist before dinner, but knowing which birds were Lifers was tedious at best. At the end of day three our cumulative list for Ecuador was 153 species of which 64 were new species for my World Life list. I was already developing an awareness that the percentage of Lifers was lower than expected and that we would need some really great days to reach the hoped for 256 lifers to get to 3000, but at the same time, the whole experience was so rewarding that the numbers were becoming less important.

There was another important development by this time – Cindy was really getting into photography. From earlier birding trips, I had learned to take a backup camera in case something went wrong. A camera had died on day two of a trip to Arizona and a lens had failed on a trip to see Yellow Rails in Louisiana. This time I brought a Canon SX70 zoom both as a backup and as a way to maybe interest Cindy in taking pictures as I had found that heightened my enjoyment of birding. It was a steep learning curve as she had only taken scenery and people pictures (some excellent ones) with her I-phone previously. Hardly fair to start out a photography course trying to take pictures of tiny hummingbirds zooming around, but tanagers and other birds at feeders were better opportunities. I often turned around to see Cindy looking at pictures on the back of the camera – she was into it.

Showers, then early to bed as it would be a particularly early wake up call the next morning as we would be visiting a Cock of the Rock lek which would be active as the sun came up.

Ecuador June 2022 – Our Start at Puembo Birding Garden and Day 2 on the Western Slope of the Andes

On June 15th, we arrived at Puembo Birding Garden about 12 miles from the Quito Airport around 4:00 pm Quito time which is two hours later than Edmonds time. After the redeye flight to Miami and then the flight to Quito, our bodies were quite confused but we were quickly energized by our new surroundings, meeting our hostess Mercedes Ribadeneira and seeing birds coming to feeders behind a one-way wall. It also helped that Mercedes is a dog lover (and in fact seems to collect stray dogs, having over 30) which instantly established a rapport with Cindy who was already missing our black Lab, Chica. We would be the only guests that night and would be leaving early the next morning.

The bird list started quickly at Puembo. Most numerous were Eared Doves and Saffron Finches followed by numerous Sparkling Violetear Hummingbirds, a single Black Trainbearer Hummer, a Rufous Tailed Hummingbird and a couple of Western Emeralds. There were also three tanager species: Scrub Tanager, Blue and Yellow Tanager and Blue Gray Tanager and many Golden Rumped Euphonias. In the courtyard, I had a great look at the only Croaking Ground Dove I would see during the trip and outside added Great Thrush, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Golden Grosbeak, Rufous Collared Sparrow and Yellow Bellied Seedeater among others. Altogether there were 23 species of which only three were new life birds, but it felt like a great start.

Scrub Tanager – Life Bird
Golden Rumped Euphonia – Life Bird
Great Thrush
Croaking Ground Dove
Southern Beardless Flycatcher
Rufous Collared Sparrow
Saffron Finch
Blue Gray Tanager
Eared Dove

Dinner was great and Cindy had a chance to visit with all of Mercedes’ dogs and we also met her daughter. We were in bed early as the first of many (all?) of our 5:30 am breakfasts would await us the next morning. Promptly at 6:00 we said goodbye and loaded into the car that would be our conveyance for the non-Amazon part of our trip and headed west with Jorge and Jorge. We would be spending the next three nights at Sachatamia Lodge in the Mindo region in the Western Andes and on our way today we would first stop at the Yanacocha Reserve only about 30 miles from Puembo but due to traffic and road conditions, it would be an hour and forty minutes from Puembo.

We drove through part of Quito but never really got into the central city itself. Looking back now, we wish we had added a day to visit the central city as it has interesting architecture, culture and food. Similarly we wish we had been able to visit the Galapagos which everyone raves about. Time and cost were the reasons we did not. Maybe in the future we will return to Ecuador, see Quito, visit the Galapagos and bird in another part of the Country. This morning Quito was only something that slowed our going. It was great to finally get to Yanacocha both to end the bumpy ride and to begin our birding. The reserve was created by the Jocotoco Foundation to preserve habitat for the threatened Black Breasted Puffleg, a hummingbird that we unfortunately did not see. It is in the high altitude cloud forest and is about 2700 acres at an altitude of 10,000 to 13,000 feet.

Although we did not see the rare Black Breasted Puffleg, we did see 9 other hummingbird species, mostly coming to feeders at the Reserve. We also saw a number of other exciting birds, 27 in all in the morning of which 10 where Lifers for me. In these blog posts I am not going to add photos of every bird we saw at each stop, as tempting as that is. The choices are hard, but my goal is to include photos that are special to me – either because of the species or maybe just the photo itself sometime adding special stories that go with them. There will still be many, many photos as the birds and places were truly spectacular. A first visit to a place that has active hummingbird feeders is pretty overwhelming. There are often a dozen or two hummers flitting around at several feeders. They land and feed for an instant or several seconds and then are off again. There may be many different species and usually males and females are different and immatures may be different as well. It is hard enough to get good looks for identification let alone getting pictures of the hummers you want in the quickly changing drama. And oh yeah there may be fruit feeders (usually bananas in Ecuador) with other species putting on their own spectacle. Such was definitely the case at Yanacocha. The following is just a small sampling of the action at the hummingbird feeders.

Oh wait there is another photo I have to include – one of the most sought after and incredible of the Hummingbirds – the Sword Billed Hummingbird which has the largest bill of any hummingbird in the world and indeed has the longest bill in relation to its body length of any bird in the world!!

Sword Billed Hummingbird

The hummers tried to steal the show, but two Mountain Tanagers were equally magnificent with their vibrant colors and from the reaction of our guide when they appeared, we were fortunate to see them.

It may not be fair to leave out so many other birds, but I cannot move on without including two other beauties – the Barred Fruiteater and the Masked Flowerpiercer, one of three flowerpiercer species we saw and by far the most numerous – probably at least a dozen.

Barred Fruiteater
Masked Flowerpiercer

Oh wait again (sorry that’s the last time I will do that). Another of the birds that is protected at the Yanacocha Reserve is the Andean Guan. We first got a distant view and then a pair came in to the feeders for great up close photo opportunities.

Andean Guan – Lifer

We left the feeders and our guide, Jorge Luna, took us to two special spots on one of the roads through the reserve – our targets were Antpittas. At the feeders Jorge had already established himself as an excellent guide as he called out the identification of each species as it landed on a feeder, perched nearby or zoomed in front of us. Now he proved his excellence with his special knowledge of where to find very challenging species. Antpittas are highly sought out specialty species of subtropical and tropical South and Central America. They are generally forest birds that feed on insects on or near the ground. Often secretive in dense foliage, they are hard to find and see – unless you are with Jorge. We went down two trails into the brush and in each case we heard what would become a familiar and very welcomed phrase: “I’ve got it – come here.” Jorge would often use his green laser to point out the bird’s location always being careful to keep it below or to the side so as not to disturb it. Locating a bird in dense brush or foliage is not my strong point, so I was very appreciative and these two Antpittas were my first proof that this would be a very successful procedure. Even after such great hummingbirds and mountain tanagers, these were the best birds of the visit…and it was still early.

We left Yanacocha and continued west into the Andes following the so-called Ecoruta birding around 7000 feet elevation. Birding was excellent as we saw 45 species including 13 Lifers in just about 2 hours. Since there were no feeders, photos were much harder to come by and while there were three hummingbird species (none new) it was the diversity of the birds that was most appreciated. I was very pleased to get a photo of a Turquoise Jay (there would be many more later) and thrilled to glimpse a Beautiful Jay in the distance but unhappy not to get its photo. A fun little flycatcher was a Tufted Tit-tyrant with its tuft barely visible. A Red Crested Cotinga was our second Cotinga for the day and a pair of Red Headed Barbets were among my favorite pictures of the trip.

Turquoise Jay
Tufted Tit-tyrant
Red Crested Cotinga

There would be one more stop before arriving at our lodge – the Alambi Reserve. With great feeders for hummingbirds and others, the photo ops were great and we saw 28 species including 12 hummingbirds and 12 tanagers (including closely related Euphonias). Altogether another 11 Lifers.

Two other very nice birds were a Crimson Rumped Toucanet and a Black Winged Saltator. It is easy to see how a “toucanet” gets its name, essentially a small toucan, but I was stumped by “saltator”. The only guidance I found was that it is Latin for “leaper” or “dancer” and supposed was given to this genus of birds because they hop around heavily on the ground – a behavior we did not see.

Crimson Rumped Toucanet
Black Winged Saltator

We continued on to Sachatamia Lodge in the Cloud/Rain Forest which was wonderful with a nice room, good food and good birds, but that is a story for the next blog post. Our first full day in Ecuador had been outstanding with 91 species including 35 Lifers for me. We had 21 hummingbirds and 15 tanagers and the two Antpittas. The running total was 108 species for Ecuador and 38 Lifers. We were ready for more.

Sachatamia Lodge

Ecuador – June 2022 – The Adventure Begins

It is now just over three weeks since Cindy and I returned from a marvelous trip to Ecuador. I have spent hours each day going over the 8000 plus photos I took, editing, organizing, discarding and enjoying them. I am finally sitting down to start what I expect will be at least several blog posts trying to recapture some of the highlights of the trip and I am struggling trying to determine the best way to share our adventure. Should the posts be a recital of what we did and saw in calendar order, or organized by the diverse ecoregions we visited, by the species we saw or featuring some of the special adventures we so fortunately were able to enjoy together? Since our trip was organized to visit three different areas of Ecuador: Mindo and the Western Andes, the Amazon and the Eastern Andes in somewhat equal time blocks of 4 or 5 days each, I am going to mostly follow the itinerary/timeline of the trip perhaps with some sidebars and detours along the way.

First some background and an overview. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Towards the northwest corner of South America, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the West, Colombia to the north, and Peru to the South and East, its area is just under 110,000 square miles. Well that is if you exclude the ocean between the Galapagos Islands (part of Ecuador) which are about 600 miles from the mainland. If it were a U.S. state it would be the 8th largest – just between Colorado and Nevada but it is the 4th smallest of the 12 countries in South America. The highest point in Ecuador is the summit of Mount Chimborazo at 20,549 feet and the lowest of course is the coast next to the Pacific Ocean. In between most of the country is dominated by the Eastern and Western Andes where we spent 2/3 of our trip at elevations of 5,000 to 14,000 feet and even the Amazon region that we visited was almost 1000 feet above sea level. The capital city of Quito is at 9,350 feet. It is this change of elevations plus the amazing richness of the Amazon region that creates the many habitats of the country. It is the resulting biodiversity that drew us to Ecuador because of the many bird species found there.

Northern South America

Although the science of speciation is changing with DNA studies, it has generally been believed that there are about 11,000 species of birds in the world. In all of the continental United States plus Alaska and Canada (to birders “the ABA area”), which together are about 7.6 million square miles, around 1100 bird species have been seen – including many that have been seen only a few times. By contrast in tiny Ecuador, more than 1650 species have been recorded, the fifth most in any country behind Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Indonesia. All except Indonesia include parts of Amazonia and the Andes range. Of these, Ecuador is by far the smallest, less than 25% as large as any of the others. Here is a stunning comparison: If the same proportionate number of species by area was found in Ecuador as on the ABA Area, there would only be 16 species in the entire country!!! Turned around, if the number of species per square mile in Ecuador were found in the ABA Area, there would be 114,000 species. Wouldn’t birders love that?

It is the opportunity to see a large number of species in a relatively small area that puts Ecuador near the top of every world birder’s list of places to go. I had visited both Peru and Brazil before with the trip to the former being almost exclusively for birds and to the latter with much less focus on birds. There is significant overlap in the species found in all of those countries. It takes even expert birders many trips to any of the countries to find even a majority of the birds. Before the trip, my world Life List was at 2744. I was hoping to see over 500 species in Ecuador including at least the 256 needed to get to 3000. Friends who had visited Ecuador last year in November on essentially the same itinerary as we would follow had seen more than 550 species. That is a somewhat better time to go but my goals seemed possible if not probable. It did not quite work out that way as will be detailed later.

Unlike our trip to Oaxaca Mexico last year which combined birding with cultural and artistic activities, this was going to be hard core birding only and at first I was concerned that it might not appeal to Cindy. However, as we visited websites for the lovely lodges where we would stay and saw photos of some of the birds we would see and learned of the different areas we would visit, Cindy was eager to go. It would be her first trip to South America, to the Andes and especially to any rainforest, let alone the Amazon. Then there was the question of her physical condition. She had been in great shape from dedicated workouts with a trainer over the past year plus, but that had stopped when she had knee replacement surgery just 10 weeks before our departure. She had recovered quickly from the same procedure on her other knee two years earlier. We had to schedule the trip before the second surgery and agreed we would change the timing if there were complications or she might sit out certain activities – like climbing the giant canopy towers in the Amazon if need be. Later you will see how she did. Frankly, I was more concerned about the need to head out early every morning for our birding. I am a morning person and she is not, so having breakfast at 5:00 or 5:30 would be a heavy ask. No suspense here. We did start early every morning and she made it without anything negative every morning.

Our Excellent Tour Company

Our visit was arranged through an Ecuadorian touring company, the same company that my friends had used in November 2021. We would have been happy to join a small existing tour, but as it worked out we had a private tour with our own vehicle, driver and guide. Another friendly interesting couple may have been great, but this worked out really well, even though it was a bit more expensive. We flew out of Seattle on June 14th on a red-eye flight to Miami. After a not too bad layover we then flew to a very nice relatively new airport in Quito arriving in the early afternoon. There is always a moment of apprehension when arriving in a foreign country where the tour company is supposed to meet you. Every detail of our interactions with Xavier Munoz, the owner of Neblina Forest, had been fantastic and reassuring – but that was from the familiar safety of our own Edmonds home. This was different but all apprehension was immediately put to rest as Jorge Luna, our guide and companion for most of the next two weeks, was there as we exited the baggage claim area with our names on a sign. We were in Ecuador. We were in good hands and we were ready for adventure.

Super Guide – Jorge Luna

The next blog post will begin our journey at Puembo Birding Garden, near the Quito Airport and just outside of Quito. Not to shortcut the story, here is a summary of our birding during the trip. We saw a total of 450 species in Ecuador, photographed 300 species and I added 207 species to my World Life List – admittedly short of what was hoped for to get to 3000, but the quality of birds seen and photographed and of the trip itself completely overshadowed any disappointment. Every day was incredible, fun and rewarding. Those 450 species included more than 50 species each of hummingbirds, tanagers (broadly defined) and flycatchers. Additionally among our favorites were 6 species of Antpittas and 6 species of Barbets plus many trogons, toucans and toucanets, parrots, parakeets, motmots, woodpeckers, raptors (including an incredible 15 Andean Condors), both forms of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and the bizarre Hoatzins in Amazonas.

Unfortunately I have to add a word about the civil unrest and demonstrations that occurred during the second half of the trip. Spurred by an increase in gas prices (which are regulated and set by the government in Ecuador) but greatly complicated by politics, there were many days of demonstrations that closed roads and parks, shut down commerce and caused many tour operators to cancel or modify trips. We came close to ending our trip early as access to some areas we were to visit and even to the airport were threatened. We had excellent up to date information from Neblina Forest and decided to stick it out. Two parts of the trip were modified. Instead of being picked up at Coca in the Amazon region by our guide and then heading back to Quito through the Eastern Andes, we flew back to Quito and covered most of the same area in reverse order. Also at the very end, as access to the airport was a big concern, instead of spending the last night in Puembo, we went to the Airport early and spent the night there before our flight back to Miami the next morning. Not fun, but we made it out on schedule and it is now just part of the story which will be told in blog posts to follow.

Slammin’ Again – Walla Walla Again

In an earlier blog post, I wrote up two “Birding Slams” that I was fortunate to have in January 2022. On January 27th, it was the “Zono Slam” – all four of the Zonotrichia sparrow species on the same day and in fact at the same location in Snohomish County, Washington – WHITE THROATED SPARROW, WHITE CROWNED SPARROW, GOLDEN CROWNED SPARROW and HARRIS’S SPARROW. Four days later on January 31st it was the “Falcon Slam” as Jon Houghton and I had AMERICAN KESTREL, MERLIN, PEREGRINE FALCON, PRAIRIE FALCON and GYRFALCON in Skagit, Washington. On May 21st, on a mixed birding, wine and food trip to Walla Walla centered around attending Mike Denny’s presentation of “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest”, it happened again – another Birding Slam – all of the hummingbird species regularly seen in Washington – ANNA’S, RUFOUS, CALLIOPE and BLACK CHINNED with the bonus of the COSTA’S HUMMINGBIRD that first visited a feeder in Ellensburg, Washington last year and has made a return this

EBird has records of a BROAD TAILED HUMMINGBIRD seen by many observers in the Walla Walla area in 2005 (no photos) and there is a report with photo of a female RUBY THROATED HUMMINGBIRD in Ridgefield, Washington, in 2017. The Washington Bird Records Committee also has a BROAD BILLED HUMMINGBIRD on the state list but there is nothing on EBird. The hummers in the first paragraph are regular and not too difficult to find in the right areas and at the right times – except for the COSTA’S which has been very rare with very few records. As far as I know there have been no other occasions in Washington where five hummingbird species have been seen by single observers on the same day. Since the COSTA’S has been regular for multiple weeks both last year and this year, I expect this is simply because nobody thought to try to do it – although finding the BLACK CHINNED and CALLIOPE’S are by no means guaranteed. So a nice first “Five Hummer Slam” even better because Cindy got to see it with me. [I noted that on one checklist for the BROAD TAILED HUMMINGBIRD by Mike and MerryLynn Denny, they also reported CALLIOPE, RUFOUS and BLACK CHINNED.]

Costa’s Hummingbird – Ellensburg, Washington
Anna’s Hummingbird – Cle Elum, Washington
Calliope Hummingbird – Cle Elum, Washington
Black Chinned Hummingbird – Pasco, Washington
Rufous Hummingbird – Hyak Feeders, Snoqualmie Pass

In May it is almost a requirement to stop at Bullfrog Pond just west of Cle Elum whenever I travel to Eastern Washington. We had seen both ANNA’S and RUGOUS HUMMINGBIRDS at Snoqualmie Pass but the Hummer Slam was not yet on the agenda. The stop at Bullfrog would hopefully give us looks at some newly arrived migrants and I was particularly hoping for new birds for Cindy with WESTERN TANAGER at the top of the list. Bullfrog was not super birdy but we did manage to find CASSIN’S and WARBLING VIREOS, NASHVILLE, YELLOW and WILSON’S WARBLERS and most importantly BLACK HEADED GROSBEAK and WESTERN TANAGER. Afterwards we found the CALLIOPE HUMMINGBIRD at Aja Woodrow’s feeders on Denny Avenue.

Black Headed Grosbeak – Bullfrog Pond
Western tanager – Bullfrog Pond
Nashville Warbler – Bullfrog Pond

It was only after seeing the CALLIOPE that the idea of a slam took hold. I checked with Walter and he confirmed the COSTA’S was still there and then also checked with Vic Hubbard and he confirmed that his BLACK CHINNED had been seen that morning. The hummers were hopefully to be a highlight but only one of several on the first day of our three trip. After the COSTA’S HUMMER at Walter Szeliga’s home and before our stop at Vic Hubbard’s home in Pasco, we made stops at County Line Ponds in Grant County and at Para/McCain Ponds in Adams County. As had been the case earlier on my trip with Tom St. John, the goal was to find BLACK NECKED STILTS and AMERICAN AVOCETS. Cindy had seen the STILTS in Mexico but not in Washington and the AVOCETS would be new. I was also hoping for WILSON’S PHALAROPES, which I had seen at the “Dwayne Lane Pond” in Snohomish County a few days earlier but which again would be new for Cindy. The County Line Ponds delivered with great looks at all of the targets. A first experience with the twirling phalaropes is memorable. Beautiful birds and the circling feeding technique is simply mesmerizing to watch. Also memorable was the photo that Cindy got of one of the STILTS – her first foray into bird photography – and a beauty!!

American Avocet – County Line Ponds – Grant County
Cindy’s Photo of Black Necked Stilt at County Line Ponds
Wilson’s Phalarope – County Line Ponds – Grant County

At Para Ponds we did find a few TRICOLORED BLACKBIRDS but were not able to get decent photos. Interestingly there were numerous BLACK NECKED STILTS but neither AVOCETS nor PHALAROPES which I had expected. So we were on to Vic Hubbard’s place in Pasco where at the very last minute before leaving, we did finally see the BLACK CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD to make the slam. A big bonus was Vic taking us to his BURROWING OWL site on private property – part of a study program with Jason Fidorra. This was new for Cindy and greatly appreciated.

Burrowing Owl – Pasco Washington

And then there would be another bonus as Vic told us about a HUDSONIAN GODWIT that MerryLynn Denny had found at the 2 Rivers Unit of the McNary NWR that morning and that Vic had seen afterwards. Our plan had been to look for FERRUGINOUS HAWKS on 9 Mile Canyon Road, but this was a very rare bird for the state and we changed plans. We had a little trouble fining the “trail” out to the water from the parking area, but finally got on the right path. When we got to the river we could see a large shorebird a couple hundred yards away. A scope view confirmed that it was the HUDSONIAN GODWIT – only the 6th one I have seen in Washington and the first in Eastern Washington. We tried to hike out to get closer for a photo but it took off and the only photos I could get were of an undiscernible brown mass flying away. I am including a wonderful photo that Vic took earlier.

Hudsonian Godwit – Photo by Vic Hubbard

With that success, we called it a day and carried on to Walla Walla where we would stay for two nights. Thanks to the “World’s Noisiest Ice Machine” our stay at the Comfort Inn ranked pretty low for our stays anywhere, but the rest of our visit was great. There had been a lot of birding and there would be more, but the main reason for coming to Walla Walla was to attend the “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest” presentation by Mike Denny the next day, but hey, while we were there we were going to take advantage of the great wine and food offerings in the area, starting with dinner at TMac’s that first night. Really good food with the highlight being a Brussels Salad that was one of the best starters we have ever had. Fun place with great service as well.

Brussels Salad at TMac’s in Walla Walla
TMac’s – Walla Walla

The next morning Cindy slept in and I left very early to look for the SNOWY EGRET and WHITE FACED IBISES that had been reported at Millet Pond. I got to Millet Pond around 7:00 a.m. and was able to get a scope view of the SNOWY EGRET only the third one I have seen in Washington (although with multiple observations of one over several years). I continued on to the furthest parking area and hiked in looking for the WHITE FACED IBIS. This has been a hit and miss species in Washington. In the last few years, they have been seen somewhat regularly at this location but can easily be missed in the vegetation and this year only three had been seen. It was a great walk with lots of species including my first LARK SPARROW, EASTERN KINGBIRD and RED NECKED PHALAROPES for 2022 but no IBIS. Some other fun species though were multiple winnowing WILSON’S SNIPE, several whinnying SORA, a BULLOCK’S ORIOLE, WESTERN WOOD PEWEES calling constantly and LAZULI BUNTING.

Lark Sparrow – Millet Pond

I had intended to stop again at 2 Rivers, but forgot that it was just West and not just East of Millet Pond, and after heading 8 miles in the wrong direction decided to continue on back to Walla Walla where we had a wine tasting scheduled at noon before going to Mike’s presentation at 3:00 o’clock. We had heard good things about the Walla Walla Bread Company and stopped there before the wine for a late “brunch”. We did not have a great experience. First since they were “out of bagels” I could not get the Bagels, Lox and Cream Cheese that I wanted and is one of their specialties. Then we had to wait 30 minutes from the time we placed our order until it was ready to be picked up (not even served). And they were not really all that crowded. The servings were large but there was no taste to the scramble and the panino that we got. Oh well.

The experience was much better with our wine tasting which was at Kontos Winery’s tasting room in downtown Walla Walla. The winery had been recommended by our wine guru extraordinaire, Adonis Mclean who has never led us wrong. Walla Walla is an amazing wine place with more than 120 wineries and excellent wine. We were quite surprised that Kontos was not crowded. Two other couples were there when we arrived but departed soon after and we had the place and Andy, our wine steward and server, to ourselves for almost two hours. Our six tastings included a white that we were not crazy about and then 5 reds that we were very fond of especially their Cabernet Sauvignon, their Syrah, their Alatus Red Blend and their featured Boss Red which comes only in magnums and is a blend of 47% merlot, 47% cabernet sauvignon and 6 % cabernet franc. We are hardly experts but are trying to learn and definitely do enjoy. We purchased a couple of bottles to bring home. Andy was great company.

Kontos Syrah – Walla Walla

Mike’s presentation debuted to a full house and was fantastic. What we saw was a compendium of the 19 episodes of “Secret Life of the Desert: Deserts of the Pacific Northwest” – a work of love and art by good friend and great naturalist/historian/birder Mike Denney and photographer/producer Daniel Biggs. There is no way to do justice to their creation which was several years in the making. A brief video introduction can be found at Really a great show.

Photo from Secret Life of the Desert

After the presentation we were off to our second culinary visit of the trip to Hattaway’s Restaurant – self described as “Inspired by the local ingredients of the Pacific Northwest, Hattaway’s on Alder brings the cooking traditions of the Southeast and rural America to downtown Walla Walla, Washington.  Honest food with the charm of Southern hospitality.” The food was really good, the service really really good and the hospitality, really really really good. We liked the Etouffee better than their trademark fried chicken but enjoyed both with more Walla Walla wine of course.

Hattaway’s – Walla Walla

We got a relatively early start for home on Monday morning with a first stop on Highway 12 where we were able to get nice photos of a SWAINSON’S HAWK eating its morning meal before we continued on to 9 Mile Canyon Road searching for the FERRUGINOUS HAWKS that nest there. One nest is not far up the road but is up a narrow draw and quite distant. We could see one adult sitting on the platform nest – good scope views but a distant photo at best. I had hoped to show Cindy some LARK SPARROWS along the way as it is a good place for them, but they did not cooperate. Other observations were a LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE and a couple of calling ROCK WRENS.

Swainson’s Hawk with Prey
Ferruginous Hawk on Nest

Continuing East and still hoping for a LARK SPARROW, we turned off Highway 12 onto Hatch Grade Road. No sparrow but we had great views of one of Cindy’s favorite birds, LAZULI BUNTING. They seem to prefer brushy slopes and that is exactly what we had. We also had several WESTERN KINGSBIRDS, an EASTERN KINGBIRD and a SAY”S PHOEBE.

Lazuli Bunting
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird

I especially wanted Cindy to see Millet Ponds, even if only from the high road without walking in. Of course I was hoping that maybe the WHITE FACED IBIS would make an appearance as well. As soon as we stopped on the road above the ponds, we saw some large dark forms that were promising. Bins, cameras and the scope confirmed that we had found some WHITE FACED IBIS. At first there was a group of 3, then another group of 4 and then a flock flew in and altogether we had at least 30. Distant photos only but a great find for us. We did not move in closer and did not stay long but we had CINNAMON and GREEN WINGED TEAL, GREAT EGRETS, YELLOW HEADED BLACKBIRDS and a calling SORA.

White Faced Ibis

Again continuing west, we drove up Dodd Road to the sand cliffs where BARN OWLS have nested for many years. We were only able to see owls in the larger of the holes in the bank and I later learned that there were probably owlets in another of the holes, but we were happy with the looks we got, even if the owls were pretty far back in the cavities. They really are odd looking creatures with their heart shaped faces.

Barn Owls

The HUDSONIAN GODWIT had been seen at the 2 Rivers Unit of McNary NWR the previous morning. Would we get lucky and have it again this morning? Unfortunately not. Cindy rested her recovering knee and I retraced Saturday’s hike out to the river. On the way out I ran into another birder, Pam Cahn, who said that the GODWIT had not been seen that day but that a BLACK TERN had been seen earlier although it had flown off to the East. One of the main reasons for returning to the spot was to look more closely at the other birds there including both COMMON and FORSTER’S TERNS which had been seen there regularly over the past few days as well as a chance for a FRANKLIN’S GULL. All would be FOY’s for me as would the BLACK TERN which would be a great bonus. The good news is that they were all there – albeit a long way off – best seen with a scope. I was particularly happy to find the BLACK TERN sitting on the sand bar with the others, visible only when it was on the side of the bar closest to me. The photo is terrible but confirms the ID. Usually I have to travel to Spokane County to find BLACK TERNS, a trip I was not planning on making this year, so a bonus indeed.

Black Tern

There would be one more stop on the way back, a small diversion to Horn Rapids State Park where I have had COMMON NIGHTHAWKS in the past and where several had been reported the previous week. We walked through the campground and through the trees. Maybe they were there and we missed them, but it was not to be. A bonus was a decent view and photo of a male BULLOCK’S ORIOLE which were heard singing and chattering.

Bullock’s Oriole

We left Horn Rapids around 2 pm. Normally it would be around 3.5 hours to reach home about 210 miles away. We never did figure out why, but there was a terrible traffic jam and delay on I-90 adding an unpleasant hour to our journey, but it had been a great trip for birds, scenery, food, wine and friends. We had not specifically tried to add species, but still ended up with 101 species for the trip – of which 13 were new for 2022 for me. Without question the Hummer Slam had been the most fun and memorable birding part of the trip, and the BLACK TERN and HUDSONIAN GODWIT at 2 Rivers were unexpected treats. I think the best part of the trip, though, was Cindy starting to get into the photography. I have found it to greatly enhance my pleasure and definitely improve my ability to identify birds. I am sure it will be the same for her.