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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

The Spirit of Tucán Piquiplano Reserve Santa Lucia, Ecuador

You could easily guess that the first hour of the afternoon was near by the advancing clouds that engulf the forest. The trees seem to take on another life as the dense fog silhouettes epiphytes sprouting from moss-covered limbs - soon the trees begin to weep. At first the drops sporadically dance through the understory creating a characteristic ‘plink’ as they splatter on tough, leathery leaves. It is not too long before the mist becomes so heavy that saturation is imminent, and the forest resonates like the pelting of thousands of tiny umbrellas.

Rain follows, first as a drizzle than a downpour. I pop my umbrella to protect my camera. Looking down as I stuff most of my gear into my pack, I notice the transformation of trail into stream. During my descent, each step leads with hopes of experiencing some new find. Exposed tree roots are a reliable foothold, especially under these muddy conditions. A caecellian or a giant earthworm would be a great find - conditions were ideal! Soon the rain subsides but the forest continues to cry. Incessant dripping becomes the backdrop for the mournful coos of a Masked trogon.

Imitating its call is not very difficult, often it will bring the bird in. I notice a shadow of movement and the jerk of a limb that reveals the bird, a beautiful male. Through this shroud of moisture, its blazing red underside still explodes with color. I reassemble my gear and make a feeble attempt for a photo just before it springs into the air, hovers for a second to pluck an insect from beneath a leaf than vanishes below out of sight. I may have not captured a great image, but it is still a memorable moment. This time I am back in Ecuador up in montane cloud forest only a couple of hours outside the city of Quito. It has been a while since my last visit to this part of the world. Jim, an old travel partner and friend, recommended a visit to Santa Lucia Lodge with a great list of bird sightings. The reserve contains over 1,800 acres of nearly virgin cloud forest ranging from 1,400 meters to 2,600 meters. The local community maintains and oversees the reserve. The minute you enter the lodge you become family. Check out their website at: Prior to our trip, after Jim gave me the details, I had to ask him, “What about Mountain-toucans?” His reply, “I’ve seen them every time I’ve been there.” Yep, it was time to pack.

Half the fun getting there is the hike up to the lodge (as seen at the edge of the mountain below). However, our initial ascent had us hoofing the muddy mula ‘trail’, rather than the personas, as there was some confusion with arrival times. The personas path was less worn, thus in better condition, but our hopes were to intercept those coming down with the mule and relieve us of one of our bags. Fortunately, neither one of us carry much gear (“Carry-on” only: one medium size pack and one duffel) so we managed, albeit a little clumsily. You simply make do and it all works out in the end. Did I mention Jim’s sighting of a Moustached antpitta?

That evening over a hot meal of rice, beans and cabbage, we made the next morning’s arrangements. Breakfast at 7:30 was too late so we were accommodated with a ‘box lunch’ (Breakfast) to kick-start our day at dawn.

It is keen to maximize the a.m. activity within the forest as to extend our active period with drier weather and increase

our chances to see lingering nocturnal creatures, too. (Like this Common potoo). The only other decision was which trail would we take? This became our daily routine.

Our wake-up calls are rather unique: A Cloud Forest Pygmy-owl calls across the valley and the mournful cooing notes of a Masked trogan drift just below our cabin. There are other similar hoots and haunting trills, one of which I misidentified, badly. A key to voice identification is the subtle differences: to learn the nuances in pitch or the emphasis at the beginning or end of a song, or the number of syllables or length of these little arias, to name a few. Others are blatantly obvious, or in my case, totally wrong! I had made a point to study what I could of the more obscure bird’s songs/calls such as the antpittas, ant-thrush and night birds such as owls and nightjars. I had little prep time and wasn’t home for over a month, so the availability of recordings wasn’t an option without the appropriate equipment. That said, from the website I played songs from these family of birds of the known species for this part of Ecuador. I than put the sounds into words, e.g., Giant antpitta has a continuous haunting, Pygmy owl-like trill that stays at the same tone throughout whereas the Undulated antpitta ends its song with an upward inflection, while the Moustached antpitta ends with a downward inflection. I’m really keen on night stuff. I saw that Swallow-tailed Nightjar was a possibility. After hearing the song, I thought it was so unique, that I knew I would immediately recognize it. So, after a couple of days I would comment to Jim that I was certain that is the bird we heard every morning. The problem was that we would hear it during the day as well. It is hard to put into words; we jokingly described it as maniacal or diabolical (Believe it or not there is a bird given the moniker of “Diabolical” and it is a nightjar!). That evening I asked one of the local guides at the lodge. “Mauricio, do you know which pajaro makes this [siren-like “bah-reeeeh-ah” rising inflection] sound?” Without hesitation his reply was, “Si, Wattled Guan.” That is the wonderful thing at Santa Lucia, there is always someone there to answer your questions, point you in the right direction and always more than happy to accommodate any special requests.

“It’s time to find some toucans!” I confidently exclaim the next morning. “And antpittas!” adds Jim. We plan to head up the Blue Trail, letting the forest’s activity determine our pace. Just off to the side of the covered porch are several hummingbird feeders – a required ‘stop’ prior to our hikes. The constant skirmishes with buzzing wings, flashing colors and twittering ‘chips’ and ‘squeaks’ is quite entertaining. Sometimes the feeders were just too chaotic, so I focused on

any exposed limb for a bird to perch on. My first subject to land is a Buff-tailed Coronet.

I noticed a solo occupant at one of the feeders and shifted my attention on a green, shimmering Empress Brilliant.

A commotion back to my right had me swing around to capture a Violet-tailed Sylph catching its breath after another territorial feeding frenzy.

The fog is thick, but we manage to I.D. seven species before departing. We pause again before we leave the grounds to investigate the high pitched ‘wheezy’ calls of foraging tanagers. My favorite is the mountain-tanagers, specifically the genus Anisognathus.

A. flavinucha, a.k.a., Blue-winged mountain-tanager, is most prevalent. Its black back and contrasting golden yellow underside blend nicely with a sky-blue shoulder patch with wings that are divided by a thick black wing bar. Now top it off with a yellow crown, black tail with brilliant blue margins...

...toss in several species of the genus Tangara: Beryl-spangled, Golden and Flame-faced tanagers, and that is one kaleidoscope of colors!

Upwards, where the clouds ebb and flow like an ocean tide, the moisture hangs thick and heavy. Often times, Jim eerily disappears, having been consumed by the lushness of the forest. The sounds of a mixed flock are eagerly anticipated but under these conditions the best one can do is make out a silhouette or two. This allows me to focus on the terra firma. Searching among the many types of ferns and mosses sprouting out of layers of decaying vegetation are all sorts of tropical invertebrates. At every level from the ground up a vine, a bromeliad, an epiphyte, orchids - basically anything that can fasten itself within any available crack or manageable surface, will take root. I find plenty of subjects through my viewfinder and snap away.

Colors abound from a green-hued fungus to the fiery red and yellow ‘lobster claws’ of a heleconia. My best find scampers across a moss-covered log and pauses long enough for me to get off a shot. Supported on spiked legs flecked with blue is the most colorful cockroach I have ever seen!

Blue turquoise streaks follow the margins of a copper-colored mantle. The pronotum, the structure that covers the head, is like an ebony shield ornately embellished with more copper and yellow with its bottom edged in blue. Out behind this armament peers a set of bulbous red eyes. Cool! Continuing on I discover a mob of orange-colored ants feeding on a hapless moth. An annoying wasp shuffles about looking for an opportunity for a quick morsel.

“I’ve got a fruit-eater!” Jim announces. I rush ahead and Jim points above. Sitting on a moss-covered branch is a Scaled fruit-eater. From below, the yellow underside is broadly scaled olive, and I can see the yellow lore, a black face and crown. It is a male.

Gradually swords of sunlight pierce through the canopy. The mist seems to melt into the very fiber of the forest. The pattering of droplets slows. The trail opens up where several trees host a profusion of blooming epiphytes. Various hummers squabble over territorial feeding sites. A brilliant blue Masked flower-piercer probes at the base of a red trumpet-shaped inflorescence. Nearby I discover an old friend, a Blackburnian warbler.

We top the crest where a cattle ranch has cleared the forest – a vista of forest borders and rolling hills ensues. These forest margins allow easier spotting for mountain-toucan. We heard them on our descent but now it seems they have gone mute. A Roadside hawk stands sentinel atop a dead snag. Squawks from a pair of Red-lored parrots distract us momentarily, as does a large flock of Barred parakeets zipping directly overhead.

Another diversion comes from the trail itself. Every step, tiny black grasshoppers/crickets take flight - white tipped antennae anxiously twirling about as they land. A familiar call leads us towards the forest. It is either a Yellow-bellied siskin or Orange-bellied euphonia as they have a nearly identical repertoire; it reminds me of a Lesser goldfinch of the western U.S. One is a little deeper and harsher in tone whereas the latter has a lighter quality. This time it turns out to be the siskin.

We enter the forest and decide to take the Cock-of-rock trail off to the right. This hike snakes its way down offering nice treetop views. Another portion hugs a ridge that follows a stream. Here is where Jim spotted a female C-O-R. Another nice find was that of a Golden-headed quetzal. What caught my eye was the movement of a branch; otherwise, I would have never found this well camouflaged specimen. Even with its bold red belly and metallic emerald-green back, these birds are easier to locate by tracking their calls.

One of the most interesting finds [if not the highlight of the trip for me] came, literally, crawling right up to us. I made the same discovery near the lodge the other day but nothing of this magnitude. I was glancing up ahead to the right at a very wide tree base and noticed how it glistened in the sun. I thought it was just a large mat of water-laden moss, but then it appeared to be flowing down the trunk. Looking through my bins I couldn’t believe what I saw. The tree was literally raining ants, it was a deluge! I scanned up the length of the trunk into the canopy, back down and with my naked eye followed the flow down the ridge, onto and across the trail and down the other side as far as I was able to see. A species of black army ants was on the move, a wall of fear and death, engulfing everything in its path. Coming down the trail insects were leaping, running, taking to the air to escape the marauding swarm! I do not know how many millions there were within this army, but the size of this colony was mind-boggling.

Late afternoon: “Hola, Noe! I am wondering if I should go for another hike.” “If you are tired you can stay here and see the birds.” He turns to emphasize where we are standing under the covered porch. I set myself on the railing, my legs respond, “Good idea!” I grab myself a hot cup of tea, slink into a relaxing hammock and prepare to enjoy the aerial displays of the avian jewels of the cloud forest! I take great pleasure as the scene unfolds. First sighting is of the deeply forked tail of an Empress brilliant splayed in flight, than a chattering Sparkling violet-ear, glittering green Booted racquet-tails and the quick

swooping flight of a White-necked jacobin.

A reddish, bronze Brown inca zips in; a flash of its amethyst throat patch is an unexpected delight. The drone of buzzing wings continues as a Buff-tailed coronet alights, holding its wings up to display its cinnamon underwing coverts. In contrast, the slow, helicopter-like approach of a Purple-throated Woodstar seems surreal! Violet-tailed sylphs are the most aggressive, dashing about in suits of metallic green with a long forked-tail that shimmers with iridescent blue and violet. These feathered gems are like ricocheting bullets battling for dominance between several feeders. It is a constant dogfight between these noisy aerialists, and it goes unabated all day long.

That evening I walked the grounds in search of several frogs that piqued my curiosity (“Can’t keep this little kid in bed!”). My first encounter focused on the most prominent songster. I used this to my advantage, learning how to approach with each failed attempt, until “Eureka!”

A Chirping robber frog, Pristimantis conspicillatus. Its characteristic two syllable call can be heard in more open habitats such as windfalls, landslides, and clearings much like the grounds at Santa Lucia. I slink into the misty understory where tiny prisms dance across my sweeping cone of light. Raising its beam into the canopy entices a kinkajou to bark annoyingly. Foliage can no longer retain water as the incessant pelting of falling dew sets the tone. I open my umbrella and blend in perfectly. Shining my light into the understory reveals a beautiful green frog calling from a heliconia leaf. I’m not sure if it is a Hylidae or Centrolenidae species. The wall to the right of the trail is pot-marked with holes and web-covered chambers that shine like translucent sheets dusted with tiny pearls.

There are crickets with swollen hind legs, a pair of walking sticks along with alien-like spiders feeling their way on long spindly legs.

As I continue to sweep my light across this natural diorama, an amazing creature appears. It has a grizzled appearance, sporting a hairy, black body with long outer hairs of white. Strong legs support an impressive bulk for an invertebrate. It possesses a formidable set of poisonous fangs that hook into unsuspecting prey, digesting its innards, before sucking it dry. This tarantula is a real brute, it probably measures no less than five inches in length. I will have to bring the volunteers down here tomorrow for a look.

I decided to stay another day, as Jim had already left to catch the bus back to Quito. I am heading back up, fully equipped for a full day of exploration. The saturation of the air was such that the ‘hairy’ arms of the largest trees appeared to sag even lower. A mesmerizing mist, like drifting veils, created silhouettes that magically appeared and vanished with every breath. Even the brightest bromeliad-red succumbed to but a flicker. The first noisy encounter of avifauna was a blend of tanagers, warblers and flycatchers. Under the conditions, it was too hard to differentiate species. I trudged along attempting to discern the various songs or calls along the way. I attempted to call in antpittas but these skulkers were just so hard to find in the tangled undergrowth. I had a Yellow-breasted antpitta calling no less than ten feet from me and I still could not find it!

No worries, there are so many floral arrangements here to keep me occupied no matter what the conditions!

Climbing back up to the trail, I discovered dangling

from underneath a blade of grass, this beautiful

black and white chrysalis.

Ahead a Streaked Tufted-cheek and Montane woodcreeper creep about a stout limb, prying under of invertebrates.

The wailing cry from a Strong-billed woodcreeper discloses its presence in a nearby tree. At eye level dangling precariously from a strip of vine, a mass of vegetation hosts a foliage gleaner and several antwrens. A pair of quarrelling Three-striped warblers dash in, the vine is at its limit; it snaps, and a flurry of wings explodes into the air. A few remnant leaves lazily drift down, the void now an open window to the valley below. I hear another commotion just ahead. It reminds me of the other day’s “hazing” of a Cloud-forest Pygmy-owl. This should be interesting. I arrive too late to discover the source of the commotion but an immature Golden-winged manakin hangs around long enough for a quick photo.

Higher I climb, knowing each step brings me closer to finding a toucan. The quest begins with the flute-like notes of an Andean solitaire - like its fluid song, the clouds float upward from the valley below. With flashing eyespots, I startle a Caligo butterfly as it skirts further up the trail. Suddenly I hear the querulous calls of toucans; they are at the forest edge. Slowly, anxiously I stalk my prey. They call again, leading my thoughts to ponder the fable of these birds, acting as conduits between the living and the spirit worlds. I detect movement in the treetops ahead. There it is, Tucán Piquiplano! Perched in this colorful canopy just fuels the myth. I snap a few quick pix.

Black tails, tipped with chestnut raise in protest, revealing bright red crissums. It has a long black bill, the upper half inlayed with a yellow “plate,” the basal halves are maroon red. The black crown and nape meld nicely with its olive back. The under parts are blue gray accented with patches of yellow at the flanks. What a treat! The veil of moisture thickens. The heavy shroud slowly engulfs the forest. Its magical cloak soon makes everything vanish! I cannot help but feel the spirit - its allure is irresistible. I succumb to it and follow suit, wondering what new mysteries lay ahead.

Location: Santa Lucia Cloud Forest, Ecuador

Date: October of 2011

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