Friday, January 8, 2021

Ecuador 2019 part 2: Papallacta, Guacamayos and San Isidro area

*written Jan/Feb 2020*

Nov 8

Making it through the Quito traffic jams and stopping for gas and food on the outskirts, we made it to the Cayambe-Coca entrance road (the Papallacta antennas road) a bit before noon, and began our search ( I had a few targets here, and as it was Siobhan's first visit to the paramo basically everything was new for her. After walking along the entrance road, we turned up a few Blue-mantled Thornbills but not the hoped-for Rufous-rumped Bush-Tyrant that apparently frequents the area. At the gate, the park rangers had us check in but we didn't have to pay a fee. Our car made it about 1 km up the rough, high altitude road before it hit a spot that it just couldn't make it past. As I wasn't keen on giving up on our main target before we'd even gotten to the right habitat, we hiked the last 2.5 km to the summit (just shy of 4400m elevation). The Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe eluded us, however, as the winds were blasting and fog kept rolling in and out, making birding fairly miserable. We eventually ran out of time and had to concede defeat, although on the way back down the wind calmed a bit and we had a few Ecuadorian Hillstars zooming around, and heard a Virginia (Ecuadorian) Rail. 

Birding the paramo at Papallacta

White-chinned Thistletail

Back at the highway, we headed east once more, stopping in at Guango Lodge where we paid the $5 each day-use fee (it comes with coffee/tea and snacks though) and checked out the hummingbird feeders ( This was another stop for Siobhan, as Sword-billed Hummingbird was high on her list of birds to see in Ecuador and this would likely be our only spot to see it on our trip. It only took a few minutes of waiting before one appeared, giving great looks at its incredibly long bill. Chestnut-breasted Coronets were also a lifer for me, swarming the feeders in good numbers. Satisfied with the hummer show, we made our way down the trail beside the river to look for Torrent Ducks (no luck) and mixed flocks (we found one decent one where the trail meets the road). Spectacled Whitestart and Dusky Piha were the highlights of this venture, along with a nice variety of typical montane species.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

Onward and eastward, we drove through heavy rains, past quite a few landslides that were in the process of being cleaned up. We made a stop in at the Borja sideroad just after the skies cleared (, a spot I had seen on eBird that held a few targets for me. By this point, our high-elevation hike earlier had caught up to Siobhan and she was feeling the after-effects of altitude sickness, so we didn't spend much time here. Scarlet and Saffron-crowned Tanagers were new for the trip, though, and she saw both from inside the car!

Borja sideroad birding

Not much farther, we passed the small town of Cosanga and got to our Airbnb for the night at Cabañas Tamiaju, hosted by Toni (~$65 for 2 nights for a private cabin: Toni's place was fantastic, and she made us breakfast and lunch to go, with dinner on-site; breakfast included, the other meals $3 per person, per meal.

Running trip total: 292

Nov 9

Despite our early wake-up, Toni had breakfast and lunch bagged, labelled and ready to go when we headed off in the dark (coffee/hot chocolate were make-your-own style in the dining area). Our destination for the day was the Cordillera Guacamayos trail (, and we parked right at the trailhead and had some breakfast while the sun broke the horizon.

Guacamayos sunrise

Geared up, we headed up the trail and didn't make it far before we ran into a small mixed flock just as the fog was rolling in. As we were sorting through it, a couple approached with cameras and binoculars. It turned out they were from Sweden and had birded the ridge the day before, but missed Greater Scythebill, their main target here. They were back for another shot, and after a brief chat about where I'd heard the best area was, they wandered on ahead of us. About a minute later we heard a call and looked down the trail to see them frantically motioning us to join them. "Scythebill!" they shout-whispered as we approached. We looked up and saw not one but two Greater Scythebills picking worms out of the mossy trunks above us! A few minutes later, the flock began moving off and the scythebills flew off down the ridge, disappearing into the fog which was by now quite thick.

Greater Scythebills!
The Swedes, content with their prize and forecasting that the weather would turn nasty, headed off to look for sunnier areas while we continued on down the ridge, determined to make the most of our only day here. As we walked, the fog turned to a light misting drizzle by about 08:00. Flock after flock kept us busy though, and it seemed like there was a new mixed flock (with new species) every 200m down the trail. By 09:30 the drizzle turned to full-on rain, and we had only made it about 1.5 km down the trail toward the pipeline in our first 3.5 hours here. Powering on, we made it to the pipeline after stopping for a few more flocks, but by this point the rain had turned to a downpour and Siobhan had had enough. She high-tailed it back to the car while I made my way more slowly, stopping for a few flocks. Eventually though, the path had become a small river and my umbrella and rain jacket had both soaked through so I admitted defeat and headed back. Besides the scythebills and the epic mixed-flock birding for the few hours before the rain started, highlights on the ridge included my lifer Emerald-bellied Puffleg (hummingbird #200 on my lifelist), Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Peruvian Antpitta (heard), and brief looks at both Vermilion and Golden-eared Tanagers, among a load of new trip birds.

Birding in the mist on Guacamayos
Chestnut-bellied Thrush

Back at Toni's we changed out of our soaked clothes and ate lunch while we waited for the rain to stop. Toni stopped by and offered us the use of her brand-new washer and dryer after she saw all of our belongings hanging out to dry - life saver! My 'waterproof' backpack had also leaked a bit into the outside pocket, which caused my spare camera battery to get completely filled with water and become unresponsive. Thankfully about a week later it mysteriously came back to life after some thorough drying! Late in the afternoon, the weather broke and our clothes were done drying, so we headed out once more. Not relishing the thought of hiking down a muddy, rain-soaked trail at Guacamayos, we opted to bird the road past the San Isidro lodge (wearing our flip-flops as our hiking boots were still soaked - This proved to be a good way to spend an hour or so, and we picked up my lifer Geoffroy's Daggerbill along with a few trip birds including Wattled Guan and Lemon-browed Flycatcher. At dinner, Toni mentioned that the "San Isidro" Owl usually comes in around 19:45 or so, and so after we stuffed our faces we got back in the car and went up to the lodge once more. After explaining to the manager that we would be back in the morning for a few hours and would pay then (our $20 to pay for the entry fee had mysteriously disappeared - no joke!), and that we were there hoping to see the owl, he pointed and said "it's here now!". Looking over, the owl took off just as he pointed it out. A few minutes of waiting and one was back, perching in the open and giving us great looks. After that success and with the owl having flown off once more, we checked out the moth sheet to see what goodies it held before heading back to our cabin to get some much-needed rest.

"San Isidro" Owl
Running trip total: 338 (not including the undescribed "San Isidro" Owl which may be a hybrid or a new species)

Nov 10

Toni was once again waiting with bagged breakfast and lunch for us, and we paid her for the meals and said our goodbyes before returning to the San Isidro lodge. Finding the manager, we paid our $10 each for the day-use fee and headed off down the trails ( I birded the (rather muddy) Cock-of-the-rock and Falls trails for the morning, while Siobhan gave up at a particularly muddy section about halfway down the cock-of-the-rock trail and went back to check out the lodge grounds and the Tapir trail. Activity along these trails was fantastic, and I ran into quite a few mixed flocks through the morning, although my only lifer was a heard-only Barred Antthrush about 2/3 of the way to the river. Despite the mostly clear morning, there were no swifts to be had, and the Peruvian Antpittas remained silent. New trip birds included Marble-faced and Variegated bristle-tyrants, Rusty-winged Barbtail, Bronzy Inca, Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher and Oleaginous Hemispingus. By late morning it was getting hot and activity quickly dropped off, so I went back to the lodge to meet up with Siobhan (where a couple of Black Agoutis were happily munching corn). On our way back to the car we found another mixed flock and then got pretty distracted by a bunch of butterflies that were enjoying the hot sun.

The rather small waterfall at the end of the Falls Trail
Black  Agouti
Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet
Chestnut-breasted Coronet
Some interesting butterflies in the parking lot

About half an hour later we stopped in at the Borja road again, this time driving the length of the road and stopping whenever we found a mixed flock ( Olivaceous Siskin was new for me here, and we added a few trip birds including Torrent Duck and Magpie Tanager, although we had no luck with Gray-mantled Wren which had been reported on eBird (although in hindsight I think the checklist may be misplotted). Gaining elevation, we headed west toward the divide, where our next stop was the hot springs road to Cayambe-Coca above the town of Papallacta ( This is one of the better sites for Masked Mountain-Tanager, and used to have Crescent-faced Antpitta, although we found neither in the afternoon sun. Above the town, we went through the spa/resort area, getting a (free) entry ticket at the gate, and finding the gated road that goes up toward the park. Once we hit good habitat, we just walked the road for a few kilometres up and back, looking for activity, adding a few more high-elevation species to the trip list including my lifer Agile Tit-Tyrant.

Along the Cayambe-Coca Road
Agile Tit-Tyrant

As we still had a stop we were hoping to make, we cut our losses on the tanager and headed toward Quito, stopping in briefly at the lake overlook ( and at the turnoff to the antennas ( As we got closer to Quito, some rather angry-looking clouds appeared in the distance, and just before we got to our hoped-for destination of the El Tablón side road, the skies opened, and the downpour meant we decided to skip this spot. We ended up going straight to our hostel in Tababela (Chapelet Hostal, $20 for a private room with breakfast included), where we arranged to have breakfast bagged for us the next day, as it wasn't offered until 07:30 or 08:00 and we hoped to leave around 06:00. It turned out that this hostel wasn't far from the B&B we'd stayed at on our first night, and so we went back there for dinner, as the place is also a pizza restaurant. The owner (Patricio) was happy to see us again, and we had two delicious pizzas with a jug of homemade lemonade while we chatted with him about our travels and plans.

Running trip total: 369

Nov 11

As our rental car wasn't due back until 09:30, we picked up our bagged breakfasts at check-out and hit the road. It was only a short drive back to the El Tablón side road, a spot that had been recommended to me by Josh ( On and off fog and light drizzle meant that viewing conditions weren't the greatest for raptors (we didn't see any condors), but passerine and hummingbird activity was good. The flowering eucalyptus trees were bringing in quite a few hummingbirds, and I eventually had reasonable views of a Green-tailed Trainbearer. Cinereous Conebill was my other lifer here, and despite being fairly widespread in the Ecuadorian Andes, this was the only place we saw them.

The scenery along the side road
Black-tailed Trainbearer showing off its train

Eventually we dragged ourselves away, and gassed up the rental to return it. At the counter, we had no problems but did have to pay the extra kilometrage. All of the rentals in Ecuador seem to have a 100 km/day limit, and we had done 833 km in 7 days, with an overage fee of $0.20/km. Through security, we made it to our gate well ahead of our 11:43 LATAM flight to Guayaquil. A while later, Josh and Laura arrived and we discussed our game plan for the next few days on the south coast, the subject of the next post. See his trip report (and other adventures - they are currently spending a few years travelling) here:

Running trip total: 378

Again, despite having birded the east slope in a few spots in Colombia (near Villavicencio and in Putumayo department), there were still quite a few targets for me here and I managed to pick up 16 new birds in our 2.5 days. I had purposely planned to have more time on the west slope, despite having fewer potential lifers there, as those birds are mostly more range-restricted, and I would be birding the east slope for a few days in southern Ecuador later in the trip. That said, there are many more fantastic birding spots I wish I could have visited, and ideally one would have at least a week or two to fully explore the area (and could easily combine it with a trip to the Amazon). The weather during our time seemed to be the opposite of the west slope - rainy in the morning and clear in the afternoon/evening, which was a bit unfortunate for birding. It would have been great to have a less rainy day on Guacamayos but it seems that is par for the course there.

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