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Ecuador - part I
December 2012

Reserva Las Gralarias
    Maquipucuna Lodge


It has been five years since our first vacation in Ecuador or a tropical place. Of course life and work got in the way, so this trip was long overdue. We were very eager to get back to our tropical vacationing. Sure I technically had been to the tropics twice this year, but those trips were for work (not fun) in an area I probably would have never chosen to visit and without Tor. Mindo interested us since our first trip to Ecuador. We've read about the diversity of birds including the Cock-of-the-Rocks leks.

When researching lodges in the area, we chose ones with access to a large intact forest and an extensive trail system. Reserva Las Gralarias came by way of the recommendation of friends who recently stayed at the lodge. Their glowing reviews gave us much to look forward to. We found Maquipucuna via Google. What sold us was their trail system which most lodges within the town of Mindo lack. While both of these lodges aren't located near the actual town, they are in the forests of the Andes, an environment we were not familiar with. We only picked only two locales with the hopes to get more familiar with the environment and be able to enjoy it without feeling rushed.

Reserve Las Gralarias
After a long flight (followed by an almost equally long wait in the customs line), we spent the night at Casa Sol in Quito. We slept in past the calls of the Rufous-collared Sparrows that sang in the small courtyard of the hotel.

Despite the extra sleep I felt very tired. I even had a hard time staying awake on the ride to Las Gralarias. The two hour ride north didn't get interesting until we got well out of the city about 1 hour into the ride. The road hugged the mountian sides, past farms and pastures. The forest (what remained) looked beautiful stretching into the valley bellow and the peaks above.

We eventually left the paved road and turned up a dirt road where we bumped along and climbed a steep ridge covered with cow pastures. After about 15 minutes on the dirt road, we pulled in front of a gated driveway. Jane Llyon, the owner and founder of Las Gralarias, came out to meet us and show us our accommodations - a rather modern luxurious lodge with three separate rooms.

She showed us the grounds and introduced us to the trail system. I was immediately blown away by the activity at the sugar water and fruit feeding stations. So many colors and shapes zipping around in every direction! It was a little overwhelming for a newbie to the area.

We spent the next week getting to know the history, the forest, and the inhabitants (including the hummingbirds) of Las Gralarias. Jane's interest in the land started when she and a friend were birding on the property when the owner and rancher approached them. They began talking and eventually he offered to sell the small acreage since it wasn't good for cows because of all the wetlands and forest. They made the deal on the spot. Eventually she purchased more land up and over the ridge. The top of the ridge was all pastureland where she constructed the lodge and living area and worked to reforest the pasture. The African honey grass was thick and a difficult opponent to remove. But after 10 years and hard work, the trees she planted gained a foothold and slowly the forest edges were healing together. The transformation was rather remarkable. The mountain slopes were intact because of the difficulty of grazing cows on a steep incline so there was still a large tract of primary and secondary forest. Her interests were mainly in conservation and research. Tourism was a way to support the first two interests. During our stay a frog researcher and a bird nest researcher came out to do some documentation. There has been a lot of research conducted at Las Gralarias, some of which has lead to exciting discoveries (in one case the rediscovery of tree that was thought to be extinct). New species of frogs and moths have been document. Endemic and vulnerable species of plants and birds can be found on the reserve. Here the conservation and research of the area come first, but still the accommodations for us were beyond what we could expect. The room was spacious and comfortable. The meals were delicious, well-prepared, and very filling (perhaps too much so!). We were the only tourist at the reserve during out stay. I have to admit we felt pretty pampered and felt more like house guest than tourists. We had the run of the place so to speak and the trails were all ours. December wasn't a busy time of the year for tourism - with most people traveling to visit family rather than going on vacation. I was perfectly happy with that situation.

Getting back to the forest itself. Every morning we woke early before dawn to get started before the chorus of birds. After a pre-dawn breakfast, we'd set out for a long hike down one of the many trails. I was unfamiliar with many of the calls so all the whistles, rattles, squeaks, and chirps were exotic. Often the morning was cloaked in a light fog that more often refused to budge, leaving us engulfed in a thick fog for the day. On several occasions, however, the sun broke through in the morning, burning away the mist and leaving us with blue skies. However, without failure, lunchtime marked the return of the clouds. We could see the mist roll in over the treetops and down branches, descending in waves. The rest of the day would be spent hiking in the cool mist of the cloud forest. Some times the air was so thick with water, it would condense on the leaves and drip down upon us in a slow trickling rain.

The cloud forest was ripe with life. Life sprung from just about everywhere and all those places in between. The floor as littered with dead leaves, fallen limps and bromileades, springtails, nuts, seed husks, and fungus. It was the beginning and end of life from sprouting seed to fallen tree it all happened here. Above the life and death were new beginnings small seedlings and plants awaiting their chance to grow tall. Plants sent their tendrils in search for a better life. Others were content with an understory life, producing flowers and growing strong. Other plants took advantage of the higher levels by staking their lives on the tree, clinging to the trunks and branches. Bromeliads, moss, vines, and orchids dominate here, covering some trees so thick you'd have to remember there still was a tree under it all. The canopy was thick with leaves that worked well to obscure a good view of the passing mixed flocks of birds.

When a mixed flock would past overhead, we'd stop to try to catch enough of a glimpse to piece together enough characteristics to make bird. Identifying a small bird moving 75 ft above, popping in and out between leaves only showing a flash of wing, tail, or chest was a challenge, especially since it's also backlit and if you are luck it isn't raining or misting down on you heavily. A dense fog did no favors as it made everything look brown. And it definitely didn't help that a lot of birds were just brown - for example the woodcreepers and foilage-gleaners. Trying to make out any streaking, spotting, eyestripe, eye ring, etc in a blanket of haze wasn't an easy task. And of course there was the fact that these birds move - a lot. So tracking just one bird was a challenge. Tracking multiple is impossible. These mixed flocks were a flurry of activity, never staying in one spot let alone one tree for more than one minute. Mixed flocks can be like a bolt of lightening - a strong flash of loud activity, blinding at times, and then gone in a split second. Yes, mixed flocks were challenging. If I could identify 1 out of the flock of 20 birds I was happy. Anything above 5, I was thrilled. It got a bit easier as I became more familiar with the birds, but there was still an underlying challenge and impossibility of identifying the birds that was all a part of birding in the tropics. In the end, if an entire mixed flock passed me by and I failed to positively identify one bird, I just had to laugh at it all.

The trails behind the guest house plunged down into the valley to the Santa Rosa River. Towards the bottom of the slope, the evidence of pastures remained. Without the cows, the grass grew thick and tall, choking the ground. It was nearly impossible to walk through. I wondered if it would ever be possible for a forest to naturally regrow without the help of humans to remove the grass. It certainly seemed like it would take a lot longer. Perhaps at the edges the trees would slowly shade out the grass allowing new seedlings to take a root. But this would be a very slow process. The river was full of beautiful crystal clear cool water tumbling over boulders and sand banks. The trails lead to several access points - all beautiful with tall banks of vegetation surrounding the river. The trails to Hidden Pools and the Waterfall were both steep but beautiful with glimpses of the tree-lined valley.

On the east slope of the ridge, behind the main housing, the trails meandered through the cloud forest and several creeks. Two trails plunged down the mountainside to a set of trails in secondary forest and the remains of the old shack and homestead. These trails also skirted close to bordering cow fields. We definitely earned our meals climbing up and down the mountain on these trails.

Along all of these trails, there was a rich diversity of life - birds, bugs, plants, etc. Every day on the trails we saw new birds and their behaviors. We saw a pair of Beryl-spangled Tanagers building a nest in a large clump of hanging moss. They were taking leaves into the hole at the bottom of the moss probably to line the nest. We also stumbled upon a Narino Tapaculo's nest. When walking on the trail, we noticed a little forest bird calling and hopping around in the underbrush. We wondered why it was so hyperactive. Then from the slope in front of us, we heard the distinctive cries of nestlings. It was coming from the dirt bank in front of us! I tried to find the entrance but it was difficult pinpointing the location. We backed off away from the nest and immediately the parent came in carrying a beak full of insects. We were able to see the entrance hole in the bank to their nest. A couple of times, we encountered several displaying Club-winged Manakins. They raised their wings showing off their white patches as they made their mechanical calls. The colors of the birds never ceased to amaze us. The Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Plate-billed Mountain Toucans, Masked Trogon, Beautiful Jay, Turquoise Jay, and Golden-headed Quetzal all impressed us with their flashes of flamboyance and splendor. And of course the entire families of tanagers were the jews of the bird world. The Blue-winged and Blue-chinned Mountain Tanagers, Beryl-spangled, Golden, Golden-hooded, and Flame-faced were incrediblly ornamental among the beauty of the vines, epiphytes, and moss. We were especially excited one day to see a pair of Yellow-breasted Antpittas cross the trail in front of us. It would have been heartbreaking to leave Las Gralarias (the Spanish genus name for the antpittas) without seeing one. One evening we heard the distinctive calls of an owl outside of the guesthouse. Within less than 20 feet of the house was a Mottled Owl in the tree, perhaps it was checking out the banana feeder for any rodent that was bold enough to take the risk.

On a few afternoons, the rain settled in and we took to the back porch to watch the activity at the sugar water and banana feeders and see the antics and dramas of the various hummingbirds. The Buff-tailed Coronets dominated the scene. Landing with their wings held open as if to further punctuate their presence. The Velvet-purple Coronets took claim to their favorite feeder, not afraid to chase off anyone that dare take a sip of their food. The smaller Racket-tailed Puffleg just couldn't seem to get a break until everyone had their backs turned. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird was a bully, chasing off everyone and anyone. The Fawn-breasted and Empress Brilliants were able to get their share. The Violet-tailed Sylph never seemed to stray to far from the feeder. Andean Brilliants, a Tawny-bellied Hermit, and Speckled Hummingbirds also enjoyed the bounty of food. We also saw a Sparkling Violetear and a Purple-throated Woodstar as an infrequent visitor to the feeders during our stay. Hummingbirds weren't the only ones to enjoy the sugar water - Masked and White-sided Flowerpiercers came in for an occasional drink and to eat a few drowning bees. At the fruit feeders, a Sickle-winged Guan set its clock to when the bananas were brought out. It was a messy eater - taking two pecks from the banana chunk before dropping the whole thing on the ground. If there was still fruit left after the guan, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers, Chestnut-capped Brush Finches, and Golden Tanagers would also drop in for the fruit.

The only mammal life we saw were a few Amazonian red squirrels and an agouti that I spooked off the trail. With nightfall, white-eared opossums would take advantage of the feeders eating any leftover bananas and taking drinks from the sugar water feeders. We spotted a few frogs, especially around the creeks and wet areas. Small snails slide along the large leaves of the undergrowth. Shells that scattered the floor told of their larger siblings higher in the canopy. In the evenings, these horribly ugly large flat brown slugs would make their appearance, able to glide over any surface with their super sticky (i.e. disgusting) slime. A diversity of moths and other bugs would be attracted to the glow of the outdoor lights. We noticed after a wet day, a greater number show up. Their numbers trailed off during drier days.

Refugio Paz de las Aves
While staying at Las Gralarias, we had arranged ahead of time with Jane a trip to see a Cock-of-the-Rock lek. At 4:30AM one very early morning, we were picked up by a driver in the still of the black foggy night. It was a somewhat short drive back down the mountainside and essentially back up an adjacent mountainside. Only being able to see by the headlights of the car, we bumped along in the dark along the dirt road, not really sure what to expect. We pulled into a dirt driveway, in front of several small shack structures. There were no lights on at all. After a few minutes, a light switched on and a woman walked out to the kitchen building and began to boil some water. A few minutes later a man walked out and introduced himself as Angel, the owner of the property and our guide. We waited a bit longer as there was a second group of people coming.

Dawn began to break and the forest chorus began to float up from the valley below. Finally Angel decided to start without the second group and told us to follow him. We walked down the slick trail in the dim dawn light. Angel would pause occasionally to point out a calling bird and identify it. He stopped and mimicked the call of the Rufescent Screech Owl. We could hear it respond in turn. He tried to call it in but without success. Finally the second group showed up - an older couple with a young American guide. We followed Angel down to the lookout and right away we saw a bright red Cock-of-the-Rock calling and displaying in the trees. It was briefly joined by a second, but they both flew out of view. We could hear several more calling from out of view. Eventually the calling stopped and we follow Angel back up the path where we were told to wait in the shelter. Rodriguez, our second guide, was there bribing in a Giant Antpitta. We watched as they threw out chopped up (cleaned) earthworm. Eventually the Giant Antpitta showed up coming in rather close to get the tasty treats.

We again followed Angel to our next stop - a fruiting tree where we saw a Golden-headed Quetzal, Olivaceous Piha, Scaled Fruiteater, the Cock-of-the-Rocks again, and a Crimson-rumped Toucanet. While we watching the birds in the tree, a family of Black-backed Wood Quail showed up on the trail next to us. Angel promptly threw them a plantain, which they quickly devoured. After watching the tree a while longer, we followed Angel to another station where he began to cut up some plantains on a platform feeder. When nothing showed up, Rodriguez showed us a cute little Ochre-breasted Antpitta. It ate some of the worms thrown to her (they named her Shakira) but remained tucked way in the undergrowth. It was very cute the way it would tick-tock its shoulders slightly back and forth while keeping its head steady. Next, we were taken to meet Jose, a Moustached Antpitta. It was harder to coax out but we did get some great looks even though it remained in the shadows. After Jose was another stop to meet the second Shakira (Ochre-breasted Antpitta, guess they really liked the singer). She was shyer than the first. Our last official stop was at the hummingbird feeders where we saw the same ones as Las Gralarias. On the way out past the blackberry field, Angel stopped to point out a two-toed sloth, which he said had been in the exact same spot for three weeks. He joked it was dead. We laughed knowing how sloths don't move much and often return to the same place. I took some pictures of it through my scope and was delighted to see his critter in the wild.

Back at the shacks, we sat in an open area dining area with an open view cow fields and forest in the valley below. We were served breakfast - bolon de verde, a ball of fried mashed plantain containing bits of chicken then fried again. With the aji de tamarillo (tree tomato salsa), it was very tasty. We were also given an empanada with a fluffy crispy shell, containing fresh cheese that squeaked against your teeth when you bit into it. Simply delicious.

After eating, we returned to Las Gralarias. We had the option of going into the town of Mindo, but decided against it because we'd rather have a forest to ourselves than bird along used roads.

Later that night, I was looking at the photos from the day. To my horror and bemusement, the sloth's mouth was hanging wide open, its face looked mummified, and a large chunk of fur was missing from its arm. The sloth was indeed dead! To further amusement, there was a lizard perched on the back of the sloth. Maybe it was for the best we couldn't make out all those details in person, especially right before eating. When I got home and opened the photos on my larger computer screen, we were even more puzzled as the sloth looked like it had a rope tied around its neck and arms. Someone perhaps tied it up in the tree? Crazy thing to do for the tourist? Then why joke about it being dead? Should I just chalk this up to a weird story to tell around the dinner table?

continue onto part II


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