Sign at a trailhead on the road.
For those of you who don't know, my family (minus one college age son) just moved to Quito, Ecuador. We're still in the thrall of newness trying to wrap our heads around how to navigate this huge city, where to buy our food, how not to look like tourists, where I can safely carry my big camera and where I should just take my little point and shoot instead. We have a lot of people to help guide us on our way but that also means we have a lot of mixed messages. Wish me luck in figuring all of it out!
In the meantime, while we wait for household goods to arrive, we decided to escape the hectic city life and head to the countryside. Just a short two hour drive outside the city is a place called Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve. As the name implies, this is an eco-lodge, a place where tourists like ourselves can see some of the land that has been preserved, not by the government, but by people concerned with conserving primary land in the rain forest. There are many such reserves in the area and Bellavista is one of the most famous. And though it was affordable for us for a long weekend, it is not affordable for the average Ecuadorian. That's another topic for another day.
The obligatory Turkey Vulture.
The Bellavista driver picking us up in Quito at 6:30 am. We drove through the fairly quiet city streets and climbed out of the valley up the dry and dusty mountainside, making good time. It was a relief to reach the pass and drive over into the green and lush land that makes up the cloud forest. I could feel an increase in humidity almost immediately, and the air is cooler and smells fresh. What I didn't enjoy was the driving itself - we passed vehicle after vehicle on the narrow mountain road and each time I chose to look away. Our driver was safe but others on the road were not and this is perhaps the part that scares me most about moving to Ecuador. Drivers pass on hills, pass on blind curves, pass five, six, seven cars at a time. I was thankful when we reached the cut-off for Bellavista and headed back up the mountain again.
Before we even reached the lodge, we were seeing birds along the roadside. Good omen, right? Once we arrived and piled out, we were greeted by a guide but none of us wanted to pay attention to him. Our eyes were glued to the hummingbirds - there were sugar water feeders in several locations and the hummingbirds were buzzing from feeder to feeder at a speed that just demanded our attention. And there weren't just a couple of kinds of hummingbirds - there was a variety that I just couldn't believe. Over the weekend, we saw eleven of the most common varieties and a couple more added to that.
Possibly a Purple-Throated Woodstar with the brilliant shine of feathers... any other suggestions?
Collared Inca Hummingbird
We headed to a hearty breakfast of fruit, bread, and scrambled eggs before picking up our rubber boots. Yes, rubber boots were necessary for some of the more adventurous trails. On our first afternoon we actually hiked up a stream. The boots didn't help me much as I stepped into a huge hole I couldn't see for the stirred up mud from the hikers before me. Can't you just hear the sound of the rubber boot filling with water?
And though I enjoyed the hike, I didn't enjoy the speed at which we hiked. We came to see birds, flora, fauna, and when hiking with a group on a mission to see a waterfall, all those other things seem to fall by the wayside. I'm a slow hiker, at best, and I've decided that I need to make sure that the group hiking is there to smell the roses before I jump on the board.
That afternoon, we decided to take it easy and do our own hiking. Just slowly walking around the lodge it is possible to see so many birds, even without a guide to point them out. My favorite was probably the Strong-billed Woodcreeper. I absolutely loved his strong and stately tail feathers. The tips are curved and jagged, almost claw-like and you can see him use the tail to prop himself up on the sides of the trees. We also found the Sickle-winged Guan, the Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, the Masked Flowerpiercer, the Great Thrush and his cousin the Glossy-Black Thrush, and a few more all on our own.
Strong-billed Woodcreeper - check out his tail!
Blue-winged Mountain Tanager
Waiting by the compost heap... not sure who this guy is.
And when we ventured out on the trails
on our own, we could hear birds everywhere, though we didn't see as many as I would have liked. We are still adjusting to the types of birds and the way they interact with their habitat. The food sources are new to us - woodcreepers could be found hacking away at bromeliads, for example. We were supposed to find the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan in the fruit trees up by the Research Station. We hiked up there three separate times, sometimes following the faintest sound of bills clacking in the distance, but we still never saw them. This is an area that takes time to get to know.
We found the perfect combo on our last day - a guide who was willing to stop and smell the roses, a group that didn't hike incredibly fast, and beautiful weather. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A well camoflauged Grass-green Tanager.
When you wake up at Bellavista, you tend to wake up early if you want to see birds. That's when they are the most active. A morning hike was scheduled for 6:30 am but we were up and taking pictures by six. The grounds are quieter than in the afternoons - the sugar feeders are all empty and you don't hear the constant buzz of hummingbird wings. The first bird of the morning was a gorgeous little Toucan Barbet. He was hopping from branch to branch, munching on the moths that had yet to leave from the night before. Our guide showed up a few minutes later and we spent to morning walking around the Lodge looking for hidden little birds - the highlight of the morning was the male Masked Trogon standing guard by the gates. And without the guide to point out the Grass-green Tanager in the bushes outside the gates, I don't think I ever would have seen him. He was so well camoflauged. We saw more of the Strong-billed Woodcreeper and the his smaller cousin the Montane Woodcreeper. Two Cinnamon Flycatchers were hanging out on sunny branches, flitting here and there after small insects. A Turquoise Jay joined the crowd, his loud, racous call interrupting a fairly peaceful morning. We barely saw a White-sided Flowerpiercer visiting the Chinese Lantern flowers in the surrounding forest. He was so very small and so very quick it was impossible to get a good photo. The ground birds were a little easier, the Rufous-collared Sparrow, a Dusky Bush Tanager, a Russet Crowned Warbler, to name a few.
Male Masked Trogon... unless matchingmole tells me he is a Blue-crowned Trogon.
Plain Antvireo at the sugar water feeder.
White-winged Bush Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow patiently posing for a portrait.
Dusky Bush Tanager
Simple looking flower but turn it over to see the real thing.
Ta Da! And with only minimal pain from touching the leaves...
After a morning full of birds and a breakfast to fill our stomachs, my husband and I headed out for the trails. We weren't extremely lucky with bird finds though we didn't strike out either. We were able to take pictures to our heart's content. We found bizarre lichens and mushrooms, ferns unfurled and open in full glory, hidden orchids, a flower that's beauty can only be seen by turning it upside down but, beware, its leaves and stem burn like stingy nettle. I know because I learned the hard way. We hiked through both primary and secondary forest; we found a trail that led to the Research Center, a place where students and professors can stay for a very low cost and where we might attempt to stay ourselves. My son decided to stay back at the lodge, sit in a comfy rocking chair, and read. He saw birds too. He had a great view of a hummingbird feeder so watching the little guys go back and forth was a given. But he also described a bird that jumped from branch to branch high in the trees with a long, striped tail of black and white. He had seen a Squirrel Cuckoo.
A beautiful wild orchid.
Absolutely torrents of rain fell the entire afternoon.
We joined our son for lunch and exchanged mornings. We planned on hiking again in the afternoon but as we gathered our gear, the clouds began to gather as well. Just a short few steps down the trail, it began to rain. My husband and I looked at one another and decided to stand and wait for a few moments. Then we moved to the cover of one of the larger trees to wait a few minutes more. Then we decided we better head back to the lodge. We should have left two minutes earlier. The deluge had begun.
We decided to sit in small room that with a window that overlooked the most active hummingbird feeders, not expecting to see a lot, but not wanting to sit and wait in our room either. We were pleasantly surprised - we passed a good two hours watching birds come back and forth to the feeders, regardless of how heavy the rain was falling. Our prize for the day: A Violet-tailed Sylph that would work his way up through the brush until he saw an open spot at the feeder. He decided to make himself comfortable for a while and would flit from the feeder to perch on the edge of a low lying broad leafy plant. His tail was just stunning, a neon blue brighter than any bar sign you have ever seen.
Hummingbirds in the rain.
Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird in the rain.
Violet-tailed Sylph, the most shocking of hummingbirds.
And it wasn't just hummingbirds that came - a couple of regular visitors to the feeders are the Blue-winged Mountain Tanager and the Masked Flowerpiercer. But we also saw a gorgeous female Masked Trogon hunting for bugs under the protection of a low hanging roof. We weren't the only ones looking to escape the rain.
Female Masked Trogon staying out of the rain.
Male Masked Trogon
The following day, and our last, we decided to skip the morning bird walk and go after the Toucans. A more studious birdwatcher than ourselves told us that he had seen them early in the mornings by the Research Center, so my husband and I walked up the trail hoping beyond hope to get lucky this time. The best we could do was find a gorgeous view at the top: mountain range after mountain range in graduated blues and purples with barely a cloud in the sky. It was a worthy exchange. The Toucans could wait for our next visit. Of course, as luck would have it, those that stayed for the morning walk had the chance to see the Toucans.
Morning view of the Cordillera Andina
With luck like that, we decided that our last hike should be with the guide and we made a good choice. He took us everywhere and the hike went an hour over the projected time but it was well worth it because we stopped to see everything. We took the road up a kilometer or so to a trail that went through old farmland. It was high and the clear sky enabled us to get a view of the volcano that stands guard over Quito, Pinchincha. In the open scrub we caught sight of a couple of new birds, we saw a different wild orchid hanging in full sun, we learned about flowers like Inca Earrings and fruits like Witches Fingers.
Volcano Pinchincha in the distance.
Wild orchids hanging near a bromeliad.
The hike took us through secondary forest, which is less dense, less wild but is the first step to converting farmland back to true Cloud Forest. In the primary forest, we saw the Dragon's Blood tree which bleeds a scarlet red when cut with a machete. The sap flows more easily at a different time of the year but the red of the slash was apparent nevertheless. Our guide took us to a place where the kids could swing on vines like Tarzan in the jungle, helping them to make a connection with this wild and beautiful place. Memories like that are ones that children rarely forget. We stopped at the Research Center and learned of the different university groups that come here to study the diversity of the reserve. They've had people come and study frogs and orchids and bromeliads and the interconnectedness of it all. We'd love to come and help with one of these studies, maybe providing some of the grunt work that always needs to be done!
A view of the gathering clouds - a daily event in this part of the world.
All in all we had a great trip. We plan on coming back... we still have those Toucans to track down. But we also want to stay in some other places. The diversity of this area is unique at each different level of altitude so each little lodge, each little private reserve, has a new experience to offer. What a treasure we've found in our new backyard!