December 24, 2009
Chiche Canyon, Old Papallacta Road, Antenna at Papallacta Pass (4,400 m), Polylepis, Hot Springs at Termas de Papallacta.
We had no water this morning at the Sebastian Hotel (we found out later that there was some sort of pump malfunction). We dressed for cold weather for the high elevations and left at 06:00h. Continuing the slide towards fewer and fewer items for breakfast, this morning nothing was available, not even coffee.
At 06:40h we stopped to bird along a road on the outskirts of Quito. In many ways it resembled an English country lane.
Birding was quite wonderful under pleasant, sunny skies and we saw Vermillion Flycatcher, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, Tropical Kingbird, Great
Thrush, Blue-and-White Swallow, Blackburnian Warbler, Rufous-naped Brush Finch and Rufous-collared Sparrow among others.
There were several plots dedicated to vegetables which we did not recognize. Upon inquiry of a local farmer working his field we were advised that the crop was Chinese radish for sale to the substantial Chinese community in Quito.
Alongside the road there was an irrigation system which dated back to Inca times and is still efficient today.
We continued on towards Papallacta Pass, leaving at 08:10h. We asked Alejandro if we could get a coffee somewhere and he instructed Augusto to stop at a delightful little restaurant where we all had breakfast. This place was spotlessly clean, the proprietor was friendly and for the princely sum of $2.00 each we were served café con leche, a bread roll with a substantial slice of delicious cheese, scrambled eggs and a large glass of tasty blackberry juice. We enjoyed it very much indeed and to cap it off Brown-bellied Swallows were nesting under the eaves of the building right outside the window where we were seated.
We made a stop at a dirt road at about 3,000 m and saw several species of birds. Most interesting, perhaps, was to watch a Black-tailed Trainbearer feeding. We did this for several minutes and got a first hand lesson in high elevation ecology for hummingbirds. In order to conserve energy in the thin air and cold temperature these hummingbirds actually perch on the flower, or cling to it, in order to avoid using the extra energy involved in hovering.
While we were walking we heard several sirens and saw both police vehicles and ambulances speeding by on the highway. When we resumed our trip we saw the reason for all the commotion. A bus had approached a curve at breakneck speed and gone off the road and flipped over. Those passengers who had not been injured were waiting at the side of the road and there was much activity on the part of the authorities. The bus had just been righted when we drove by.
At 10:25h we turned onto the old highway and birded at different points along the road. Alejandro, Miriam and I all had our eyes focussed elsewhere when Augusto shouted "Condor!" It was distant, but clear, and then two more sailed into view. We had wanted to see this bird, of course, for the sheer joy of seeing it, but it had an extra significance for me. It completed my sweep of all the New World Vultures. Kudos to Augusto for his keen spotting and for his involvement in our birding adventure.
Not only did we enjoy the condor, but two Variable Hawks entertained us with a magnificent aerial display. One of them landed on a cliff face where we spotted a nest. Depending on the taxonomy followed this species is split into Red-backed Hawk and Puna Hawk. We had one of each!
Continuing on we drove right up to the antennas at the top of Papallacta Pass where yet another Andean Condor barrelled across the sky, this time considerably lower and closer. What a magnificent sight!
It was a clear, sunny day with wispy clouds scudding across the sky and you could see forever. We had a fantastic view of snow-capped Antisana unimpaired by even one cloud.
We ate a late boxed lunch since we had breakfasted so well and enjoyed a salad, some kind of breaded meat (beef was our best guess), nachos, juice, a granavilla (little grenade), and there was a bag containing a miniature chocolate bar, a lollipop and gum for later.
Our quarry at this windswept pass was the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe and even though Alejandro, Miriam and I walked and walked up hill and down, until our lungs seemed that they would burst, we were unable to find one. We rested on cushion plants (at least Miriam and I did); the intrepid Alejandro never seemed to run out of energy. But, I reminded myself, he is almost forty years younger than me and is more accustomed to the thin air of the high Andes.
There was no seedsnipe but our birding was very rewarding nonetheless. We saw Many-striped Canastero, first one and then a second Red-rumped Bush Tyrant. A White-tailed Deer peered down at us from a ridge and two Tawny Antpittas put on quite a display
. This was followed by stellar views of Andean-Spinetail.
We all clambered into the van and Augusto drove us to a grove of Polylepis where we stopped to search for a specific conebill whose name I did not record, but we had no luck. The trail we walked is part of the old Cinnamon Highway used by the early Spanish invaders to transport merchandise, especially spices, to and from the coast. We scanned a lake and saw a few coots and ducks and heard a Great Horned Owl calling from with the Polylepis grove.
We arrived at Termas de Papallacta at 17:15h and were shown to our room. We showered and relaxed until dinner at 19:00h. Alejandro and Augusto both took advantage of the hot springs.
It is a tradition at Termas that the guides and the driver are treated to a welcoming drink, but Alejandro insisted that we be given one too. It was a delicious thick mixture of soursop and blackberry juice. Fabulous! A basket of miniature bread rolls accompanied yet another very tasty Ecuadoran soup. This was a cream of mushroom soup, steaming hot and spiced to perfection. The entree was stuffed turkey breast, half a tomato, carrots and potatoes; very artistically presented. Dessert comprised three miniature chocolate eclairs decorated with edible flower petals and mint leaves.
Before doing our list for two days Alejandro presented us with Christmas gifts from Neblina Forest - a tee shirt for Miriam and a new binocular harness for me. We appreciated this gesture very much.
We were back in our room by 20:30h giving ourselves time to relive some of the wonderful moments of our trip so far before turning in for the night.
All species December 24 - Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Andean Ruddy Duck, Andean Condor, American Kestrel, Variable Hawk, Andean Coot, Eared Dove, Great Horned Owl (heard), Blue-fronted Lancebill, Sparkling Violetear, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Tyrian Metaltail, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, White-crested Elaenia, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, White-throated Tyrannulet, Vermilion Flycatcher, Paramo Ground Tyrant, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Streak-throated Bush Tyrant, Red-rumped Bush Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Paramo Tapaculo (heard), Tawny Antpitta, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail (heard), Many-striped Canastero, Azara’s Spinetail (heard), Blue-and-White Swallow, Brown-bellied Swallow, Southern Rough-winged Swallow, Sedge Wren, Great Thrush, Hooded Siskin, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Rufous-naped Brush Finch, Rufous-chested Tanager, Blue-and-Yellow Tanager, Scrub Tanager, Cinereous Conebill, Black Flowerpiercer, Plumbeous Sierra Finch, Grassland Yellow Finch, Band-tailed Seedeater, Plain-coloured Seedeater, Southern Yellow Grosbeak.
Accommodation: Termas de Papallacta
Rating: Three and a half stars.