Saturday, August 6, 2016

Bulletin 270 Ecuador 2016 #4 - Birds and Mammals of the Paramo

These are the places visited. At the end of each bird description, I will give the 2 letter code where the photo was taken. All these birds were from either of these locations.

Guango Lodge even higher on east slope (GU)
Antisana reserve on the paramo    (AN)

The paramo is the term for the tundra above the tree line in the Ecuador Andes. The first location was a short drive from Guango Lodge where it is possible to drive up high enough to see one of Ecuador's target birds. There are some radio antennae on a mountain top and the access road is the only way to somewhat easily find this bird. The guide book says it is a bird of barren slopes at very high elevations on the highest volcanoes. We were at 14,500 elevation. The guide went ahead and searched on the tundra and found a pair and came back to get me. We had to walk about 300 yards up and down muddy hills and I did get the bird. There were a pair of these 12"  grouse like birds called Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe (Attagis gayi) Despite their grouse like appearance, the 4 species of seedsnipes make up a family of shorebirds. All are found in South America. They are brick red below with an elaborate scalloped pattern on the back and wings. This is without question the most difficult bird I have ever photographed due to the elevation, cold and wind. Two other cars were up there while we were there, but the birds were a long way from the parking area and the people didn't see them. At the lodge in Mindo, there was a couple from Great Britain and they had looked for the bird on 4 different trips to Ecuador and still had not found it. Thanks Pablo!  GU

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe
We saw another bird at that location, but it is more common and was close to the parking lot. The 11.5" Andean Snipe (Gallinago jamesoni) is a sandpiper with a long bill for probing in the muddy wet tundra.   GU

Andean Snipe
Antisana Preserve is the place to see Ecuador's national bird, the 50" Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). It is the largest bird of prey in the world and has the largest wingspan 10.5 feet of any land bird. Of course, as a vulture, it just eats carrion and doesn't kill any thing. However, it is persecuted through ignorance and is declining rapidly, but captive breeding programs are reintroducing this magnificent bird just like the California Condor recovery efforts. On the drive into the preserve, there is an observation deck where roosting birds can be seen on a cliff about 75 yards away. We watched about 6 birds perched and taking off in the morning as the thermals started up. I got some distant photos and figured this was about as good as I would manage. That bird in the center is an adult condor with the extensive white on his wings.

Andean Condor - adult
Once higher up at about 15,000 feet on the paramo, there was a condor sitting on a cow carcass about 75 yards away. Pablo, my guide, asked if I wanted to try and walk closer. Of course!.So we made our way across the wet tundra to about 30 yards from the bird. Here he is on the carcass. You can see a tag on his wing #6. Also look at his immense size compared to the 20" brown caracara on the ground.

Andean Condor - juvenile male
As we approached closer, he flew off, but we were upwind as he has to take off into the wind, so he came towards us. Even with the wind, he hopped on the ground twice before getting fully airborne. One can see the white ruff on the neck that is only in males. He was essentially at eye level here. What an amazing bird!

Andean Condor - juvenile male
The caracara above is the Carunculated Caracara (Phalcoboenus carunculatus). It is a bird of the paramo as well. The juvie is brown, but the adult is black and white with an orange face.  AN

Carunculated Caracara
Another extremely rare bird here is the 30" Black-faced Ibis (Theristicus melanopis). In fact it is found at only 2 locations in Ecuador. It is a beautiful ibis with a buffy head and a black mask. We saw a flock of 6 birds.  I again had to walk across the flat tundra to get this shot. Even though it was higher at 15,000 feet, it was a warm sunny day and didn't seem as difficult as going for the seedsnipe.  AN

Black-faced Ibis

Of course, there were some small birds on the paramo as well and 2 of the more interesting were funarids or ovenbirds. The 8" Stout-billed Cinclodes (Cinclodes excelsior) is brown with a white eye-stripe, white throat and thick curved bill.   AN

Stout-billed Cinclodes
The 6.5" Many-striped Canastero (Asthenes flammulata) popped up from some shrubs when the tape was played. I found him to be an attractive funarid with his rufous cap, wings and the body completely streaked. Of course sitting on some flowers was great too.  AN

Many-striped Canastero

While walking out to see the condor on the carcass, several White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the same species as in North America. They must have migrated south once Panama connected North and South America.  AN

White-tailed Deer
This last is the absolute star of the whole trip. There is a single species of bear in South America which is mostly confined to the treeline and tundra areas of the Andes. The Spectacled Bear (Tremarctos ornatus) is still hunted and considered to be vulnerable. On the drive up to the paramo to see the seedsnipe, we kept passing signs saying Caution Bear Crossing. I just had a feeling we would see one. Well we rounded a curve and a van was pulled over and everyone was out with cameras and scopes. The people in the van had walked a trail over the tundra for 4 hours looking for the bear and seen nothing. but when they got back to their vehicle, he was there.The bear was in a valley below the road about 50 yards away. Pablo said later he sees it only about once each year! And we just drove up and there he was. He was walking away, but turned slightly here to see the side of his face and ear.

Spectacled Bear
Later he turned back and faced us. the light markings on his face can be seen.

Spectacled Bear
So the whole thing was a fluke and serendipity, as we got to Guango Lodge earlier in the day than expected, so Pablo said why not try for the seedsnipe this afternoon instead of tomorrow as planned. So we drove up and found the bear and the seedsnipe. I have the most amazing luck birding!

Happy birding and photography,

David McDonald

photos copyright 2006 - 2016 David McDonald

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