Anticipation tries to override the tedium of airline preparations: bag handling, anxiety over bag handling, security, (multiple checking taps to the jacket pocket for the passport). Where is my phone? What is the weather doing? As the trip drew near the only things that could deter or destroy the journey south were the greater acts of man and nature: volcanic activity in South America, political upheavals in Ecuador, massive landslides or flooding in the northern Andes, ice and snow in Arkansas, illness in anyone close to Bo or I.
Nothing seems to be raising its ugly head. The temp outside is far above freezing. Bags orphaned to the handlers, we are on to the bomb screeners. The security body scanner has been upgraded in Little Rock to some super-device that checks for anything bigger than a piece of tissue paper in one’s deeper pockets. They still have you removing belts and boots, loose change and boarding passes. Anomalously, they find a small old receipt in Bo’s inner pocket which he had forgotten. And the response afterward, is not, as expected, a return walk through the scanner but a pat down in the pat down area. Why pat down a man who just passed the super-scanner exam with the exception of a tiny hidden receipt? Are we doubting our scanner? More likely the government rules are lagging behind our technologies. Is a man with an old receipt in his pocket more likely to jam a bomb in is briefs? A bomb made of materials less detectable than a wad of tissue? One shakes one’s head as you reboot and rebelt. My wife texts me to query if I have made it through with my belt still with me. One time, I forgot, and I am forever labeled a belt-loser. And I got that belt back too – so I am a temporary belt loser at the most. I inform Bo that if he needs some fine belts, when I came back through to recover mine, the TSA agent said “we have hundreds, pick one if you don’t see yours.” This reflecting our growing American forgetfulness or the inherent tightness of our pants, I am not sure. Suggesting, really though, that one could claim some fine new belts on each flying trip.
The trip is broken this time by a stop in Panama. I have made that my final destination before. And I gaze out on the night time skyline of Panama City wondering if I should not have stopped again here. The Panamanians make you walk the full length of their shopping arrays to get to your gates. The airport is clean and bright and busy. At nine in the evening they seem to have all the planes launching at once so they can clear out and go home. The cul-de-sac of terminals we are in all seem to be prepping to hurl planes to Havana and Bogota, Caracas and Quito. After 10 PM the place will be a ghost terminal.
My seatmates on the last late flight into Quito appear to be returning home to Quito. I know not after how long. It is a lovely young mother, bilingual, with a golden-haired three year old who is jazzed by travel, alert beyond possible sleepiness. The mother has her hands full trying to keep the child within boundaries, and the lovely child has only one volume though she is happiest when she is singing. Her language center trying to take on English and Spanish in the same childhood, she sings Disney and showtunes, mixing English and Spanish. It is really a beautiful performance: Beauty and the Beast, snap edited with Rapunzel and the Jungle book. The mother apologizes repeatedly, and I tell her repeatedly, they are perhaps the best seatmates I have had. Out come some Cheetos and the child eyes them, looking to mom for a word. Mom who says “Se llama Cheetos.” And a smile, “cheetos,” the child echoes and another English word goes into the processor, accentuated by crunching and the golden dust on the fingers that always accompanies this apparently universal food.
When the announcement comes that we may turn on our electronic devices, the mother moves like a woman who has been waiting all her life for such a thing. A heavy bag is rifled and out comes the portable video player. Disc inserted, screen powering up, the Jungle Book 2 comes on and some of the child’s singing repertoire is explained. One earplug goes in mother and one in the child’s right ear. Quicker than vodka and cough syrup, the golden-haired one is hypnotized and silent. She does not move, her eyes tracking Mogli and his jungle friends. She sees only the magic. Mom and I however are staring with the same furrowed look at the lower left hand side of the screen which is blinking prominently, “low battery, low battery.”
Quito in darkness my second time, the streets are wet. Our driver has spelt Herschel correctly on his hand held sign, a small miracle. We zing through mostly empty streets, Bo watching for the first time. The clouds are low, so it looks like many cities do in darkness, but still one of the few in the world where, when you step out of the plane, you are higher than the pressurized altitude of your jet’s interior. At the familiar Café Cultura, we are given a third floor key, and a long squeaky climb to short sleep.
Breakfast is notable for blackberry juice. Doves cooing outside. I remember that in Ecuador, you are often served juices that require tongue and nose examination, like fine wines, in both their appreciation and attempts at identification. We were told in this case it was blackberry beforehand. Our driver arrives just after the early breakfast and he has brought a Montero. A Montero with a tilt gauge and an altimeter I note. We usually have had underpowered vans in the past in the tropics. Jose has brought along some box lunches for later back with the bags. We will climb our way up the Andes and over the top stopping where Jose wants to stop, making our way to San Isidro sometime this afternoon. The day above us here is mostly clear with broken white clouds.
It takes awhile to escape the sprawl of Quito and its eastern suburbs. The world is ups and downs and rivers over high bridges. Diesel prices have not changed much. Regular Diesel is $1.04 per gallon US. It seems astounding. Regular gas is $1.49 or so. And the Montero we are in burns gas. The altimeter in Quito itself sits at around 2700 to 2800 meters, over 9000 feet to start with. Twice as high as Denver, but only 15 miles from the Equator so it has no snowy winter. It is, as always, about 60 degrees F.
Jose has some binoculars and a bird book next to him. He is mainly a driver but as with all the birding tourism associated employees, they all strive to move up in the ranks. And this is one of the few places in the world where you can move higher in the echelon of working ranks by knowing the names of birds and their identification features. Jose pays attention to when we seem to be pointing or craning our necks to see something in flight anywhere out the windows or along the roads. When he can, he will rumble off to the side and stop. We are closing on 3000 meters when he chooses a side road and we get out to have a look around.
A creek makes watery noises below us though it is mostly hidden by rich undergrowth. To our right the valley falls off into humanized landscapes and earthwork. The hillside in front of us appears more pristine and stretches up into distances that are difficult for our binoculars to clearly define. Jose says that we should watch for Giant Hummingbirds. Which sounds like something from a movie, but the actual species called the Giant Hummingbird is one of those animals that everyone who wanders up into the higher altitudes in the Andes wants to encounter. It is a hummer the size of a Purple Martin in reality, and not really the cinemascopic giant hummer that could carry away sixth grade children. But still, in the world of hummers, it is the heavy weight king (up to 23 grams, the weight of two Oreos). Most hummers would be killed by a falling Oreo. This one might just escape with a concussion.
In your first release from airlines and truck cabs in these southern countries, you are energized and alerted to all things. The air kind of smells like it is supposed to. It smells like nothing except perhaps the faint whiff of flowers. The sounds seem magnified. And I hear the “pip squeaks” of a bird I know from the other side of the mountains. (I now being a proud second-trip-to-Ecuadorian.) It is an Azara’s Spinetail. And one pops out right in front of me. About this time I see a very long tailed hummer whir by and some motion up high along the ridges all in the same instant. My mind tries to turn a dot into a condor. The Andean Condor being the other high mountain bird that everyone keeps their eyes peeled for here. Weighing in at fifteen thousand grams, it would just be annoyed by a falling Oreo, and probably would find the responsible perpetrator and kill them.
We walk to where the creek goes under the road. And we see several pointy rockets go by in various directions. Large hummers that actually take pauses in their flight like woodpeckers. They are certainly Giants, though they just go and go. We are surrounded by odd flowers and trees. The dots on the horizon make us slightly dizzy. We want to just keep going up this road, damn the schedule. But Jose says we must move on. We must climb higher, we have to saddle over the top of the world.
Bo and I are under the impression that we will just be working our way up, stopping at the occasional roadside stop but Jose turns the Montero onto a beaten rocky road and stops to tell us that we are headed up the Old Pass road. We will make our way slowly and have lunch somewhere up there (vaguely waving his hand). I look at Jose like he has just handed me treasure. And in low or second gear we crank on up. And we quickly enter landscape that has apparently never been humanized in any form. It looks like a high mountain vista in Montana, only with odd vegetation and bird calls from Mars. We are surrounded by the trio whistles of Tawny Antpittas. They walk around the high mountain bogs and open spaces here. And by walk I mean hop. And by hop I mean invisibly bounce at stealth speeds. I have seen one that came to some worm feeding area at Yanacocha last year. The odds of seeing a wild singing one seems, well, low.
Jose points out the famous Polylepis trees as we move up. They shrink shorter and shorter as we go but are lovely shaggy barked things that look like compressed and wind flattened cedars with red spiraled branches. These are the highly endangered woodlands of the Andes that grow up to 4500 meters (15 thousand feet) or more. There are twenty gnarled species scraping their living out in the skylands, trying to avoid cattle ranging and fire stoves and medicinal uses. They have been vanishing since the Incas. I doubt we have slowed much of the hemorrhaging down. Quite a few highland birds are adapted to them. All of them are endangered. We are driving through a high mountain reserve, where for now, these particular trees will stay.
In the wildest section, Jose stops the Montero. I seem to be confused by the altimeter numbers by that time. It is cocked around over the 3000 meter line. He tells us to walk on ahead up the road, he will bring the truck up. And “enjoy,” he says. We can’t believe our luck. It is literally a wonderland to two Ozark Mountain highlanders. Every bird is strange. The Antpitta’s whistles carry across the thin air. There always seem to be at least three talking. The day is mostly clear with high clouds. I think we can see Africa to the east. We had both worried about what would happen to us at these highest altitudes. I had lived in Montana in the past. But the tallest peaks in Montana ranged into only the 11 or 12 thousand foot range. The pass ahead of us was at 14,400 feet. This road we were walking on would pass over all the peaks in Montana. And I had never been to the peaks there, just the valleys and ski areas. Both Bo and I existed at about 100 to 150 meter altitudes in Arkansas. That was the elevation of the Amazonian lowlands far to our east. The tallest of the ancient eroded Ouachita and Ozark peaks in Arkansas are at about 850 meters. Testing ourselves there would have been silly, that was far below airplane pressurization levels. And Quito towered above everything in our home state. So, really, we were sky weenies.
Sitting in the truck had not been any test. Walking up the road, raising our binoculars, one noted a swaying in the view. If you stood still you were fine, or mostly fine. You felt a little tipsy, like a three-glass wine buzz. We looked back and could not see Jose in the Montero. There were absolutely no other humans anywhere near, no traffic from above or below. No one used the Old Pass road anymore. Everyone was on the pavement, working their commerce and high speed magic. Brown-bellied Swallows coursed over the grassy hillside above us and below. The valleys were tumbled with the shrunken trees. Cloud shadows rumpled over the boggy ground. There was no noise. It was the second day in Ecuador and I already had my money’s worth.
We could hear the Montero now and then. And we began to wonder if this was Jose’s little test for American Gringos. If he occasionally pulled up and found some goofy Texan or Floridian slapped onto the gravel with their hat askew, spittle rolling out of their flattened cheek and some gravel on their tongues. Circling another state on his US map. “Gotcha.” It amused us. Jose was not like that. I am sure he had emergency instructions to lay comatose Texans out in the back and drive them down altitude to the bottom of the road.
Over 3500 meters the big open areas broadened. We looked into a valley where there seemed to be some large churchlike arena with a Jewish star over it. We had no idea. At one stretch of road a beautiful dog walked out on us. And I knew in the binoculars it was not a dog, too clean and wild looking. It seemed to be a huge fox, a coyote sized fox. And signs on the road did indeed mention the Lobo de Paramo, the Paramo Fox. It was rufous red under the legs and belly. Had a very foxy facial look. It gave us a stare and just walked up the road ahead of us, showing us its very impressive tail. I don’t think Jose had ever seen one. After this we chased Cinclodes and Tit-tyrants, birds with no real comparisons where we come from. And out the window in one field I could see some dove on the ground. We stopped as there were very few dove species known at this altimeter level. They were Black-winged Ground-Dove, a pair of them, and not that common in Ecuador. Another pure high altitude creature.
We also knew the other hummingbird at this level was the Ecuadorian Hillstars (because Jose had reminded us) and they very nearly live only in Ecuador. Generally found only above 3600 meters, which meant at the top of our long climb up the pass road. We found them zinging in bushes up there, chasing each other over and through perches that overlooked yet another boggy valley that took away your breath. They had a fast fluttery flight in pursuit of one another. Hummers and mountains, we thought, they do love each other. And it was there on the roadside that Bo looked down into the bogs and proclaimed he had found a bird with no tail. It was hopping. And indeed there in one golden opening popped out the Tawny Antpitta, standing with those long legs, looking like an aerodynamic overgrown chick. It made its singular whistled note and vanished again.
For lunch we reached the pass level and pulled down a side road where Jose produced some locally made lunches including some delicious sweet corn-like tamale item wrapped in corn shucks. Like moist sweet cornbread cake. We had another juice from a fruit I could not name. I wandered down the road and admired the densities of flowers and the pure rich wet bogginess of the ground. I chased after another Tit-tyrant. It was cool and calm. The bottom of the clouds rode just above us. There were very few plants taller than I was at this altitude. I towered, wavering slightly with my oxygen deprivation buzz. The world seemed exactly right.
Jose delivered us to San Isidro that afternoon after some further stops along raging Andean rivers, birds zinging everywhere. We kept scanning the wild torrents and boulders for Dippers, the small birds that flourish in exactly these kind of raging torrents. We found many Torrent Tyrannulets, the little flycatcher that feeds above crashing water along with his partner bird the Black Phoebes. The density of insects around the clear rivers was amazing. All the birds should have been there. At San Isidro’s low altitude of 2000 meters, the air seemed downright thick. The woods lush after the stunted altitude shrubbery of the pass. Inca Jays assaulted us and splashed their fine colors right over our cabin. A hummer feeder hung right outside our cabin door and there flashed Long-tailed Sylphs and Chestnut-breasted Coronets before we could even get our orientation. It did not seem to be a logical world here in the mountains. Jays should not be green and yellow. It was mystical. It did not feel real.
We met Alejandro, one of the world’s great people and the man in charge of San Isidro’s food. He introduced us to Mauricio, as the following day was one of the only days that I had hired ahead for a birding guide. Mauricio spoke only Spanish, or mainly Spanish. And he had arrived the evening before. Did we want to go ahead and walk around with him now? Alejandro wanted to know. Mauricio had a broad smile, dark hair that looked virtually waterproof. A good thing to have in a rainy country. He had excellent binoculars. And indeed, we did want to walk. And Mauricio seemed very pleased to start doing what he does best: finding birds in the woods. His eyes were flicking off to the side and into the trees as we shook hands.
Mauricio, through our rough language interchange, turned out to be a graduate of some kind of guide program through the Birding Ecuador guys. He had been a truck driver making runs into Columbia. This previous job did not sound like anything any of us would want to do for long. But he became attached to the Birding training and spent three years as some kind of guide apprentice and was doing extensive bird song study and bird book study, including, as best I could tell, some sort of classroom testing as well. It appeared that now Mauricio and Marcello, a guide we met for the other group around San Isidro, were now two of the very best graduates.
Up the road, we were quickly back into sonic wonderland with Mauricio. His eyes cutting here and there, the ears cocked and full of Black-crested Warblers and the chitter of woodland hummers. The shorthand interaction became Bo or I pointing toward a sound and Mauricio would listen and name it. If it was something new or especially tempting, he would get out the ipod and the small speakers. We tried to talk back to the birds, I whistled bad imitations to get them to stick in my head. In a land of five hundred bird calls you try to file away the frequent fliers, save on the ups and downs of binoculars. It was February and still before the time of our warbler migrations out of these tropical woods and back to the north. And in each area of South America it seemed there were several of our warbler species that dominated. Here you could drive yourself crazy watching Blackburnian Warblers and Canada Warblers. I doubt I see more than two Canada’s in Arkansas with each migration. In Ecuador, one could see two or three Canada Warblers in the same tree.
The road in San Isidro was rich with birds even in afternoon. Many flocks of mixed species show themselves, the norm in South American woodlands. The familiar calls of Motmot ring out which here were the Andean or Highland species. The color range of the tanagers is extreme as always. As dusk approached we worked our way back up the road, stopping at an area that Mauricio knew was prowled after dark by Potoo. These are the strictly Neotropical oddities of nightbirds that act like giant nocturnal flycatchers and have oversized mouths and large light gathering eyes. These were the Andean Potoo and were almost mystically rare birds elsewhere. San Isidro seemed to have a magic roadway for them. While waiting, Mauricio spotted a Guan flying in to nearby trees and it turned out to be the Wattled Guan. This was one of the birds we most wanted to hear calling in Ecuador. The voice of this black Turkey of a bird sounded like a flying saucer trying to start up. The big bird fluttered to the west and soon after made its signature bizarre noise. Bo and I laughed to hear it after hearing it so many times on our computers. Soon after the even weirder cry/scream of a Potoo sounded and then it was right on the road and atop a spire of cut wood stump. Someone lit it with a flashlight and it made its looping sallies up and back to its perch. It did not look imposing in the book but in life, unfurled and winging up for moths, it was owl sized. We had four of them doing their dance around us. The Wattled Guan called a few more times to ice our first evening away from the city.
Our full day the next day in San Isidro began in the dark with multiple flying saucer ignitions trying to start in the darkness over the also distant calls of Rufous-banded and San Isidro Owls. The Wattled Guans call even in the deep dark, I could hear them from my bed through the walls. The Potoos may have been calling but their voice does not have enough carry to come across a valley of trees or even very far up the road for that matter. I imagine them crying out anyway. The single drawn noted sounds like someone in the dark asking “whhhyyyyy?” I think I have screamed that into the darkness myself. You can eat breakfast whatever time you tell them at San Isidro, so we met smiling Mauricio in the same predawn dark and walked down to the large fluorescent lights near the parking area. Lights attract insects. It is a world rule. And in the rich insect world there, the birds understand as well as we do. And honestly, there cannot be many lights in the whole area. The town of Cosanga down by the main road may have a few, but those are not in the woods. So the birds must learn fast. Or else once you have tasted a certain kind of fat moth first thing in the morning, you never forget it and you never forget where you found it.
The lights were only a hundred feet from our room. And they were surrounded by leafy trees. Bird noise around us began just as the light cracked from the far Amazon over the rumpled hills to the east. They came in droves. The Inca Jays first in noisy echelons. The Russet-backed Oropendolas in even bigger bands. These birds fly with a heavy wing noise and make unearthly sounds. They crash down right over you. Bigger than crows. Gurgles and cherts and clicks and whistles, barks and burps, it is easy to laugh. They don’t make their normal noises in the excitement of fat insects hanging heavy in the trees. It is hurried chatter, possibly neighborly, possibly anxious. It is a race for all the birds to get the best food. Even more odd languages come from the smaller Subtropical Caciques, jet black things with a bright pale eye. Once the light breaks, everything comes, including other birders. Flycatchers, Trogons, Woodcreepers, more of our visiting northern warblers, some vireo relations, thrushes. It should be a ticketed show with chairs. And then one of the guides says he has found a Night Monkey. Mono de la Noche.
Monkeys, as I have mentioned before, are one of the few creatures along with snakes and cats that make the birds vanish. Night Monkeys are, as named, nocturnal and in six trips to the tropics, this is the first I have seen. Well, I guess only three trips count as they do not occur in Costa Rica or Belize. In the Amazonian basin there are estimated to be 20 or more per square kilometer. By daylight anywhere though, they have usually vanished into sleeping holes. Here at San Isidro altitude, they have seen them before but not frequently. They don’t have a loud call, and mainly talk to each other in the darkness. I had no idea what they sounded like. (But have just discovered that the always reliable Ted Parker has five recordings of them on the Macauley site.) Turns out they sound like an owl. And also have some “hiccoughs” and purrs as well. They are never seen on the ground in the wild. This one said nothing and stared back from maybe eight or so meters up with those huge light gathering eyes. Possibly upright humans were oddities to it as well. It was cinnamon and brown and creamy tones. Its face was very unmonkeylike, a court jester face wearing fur. My flash barely reached it in the trees but did manage to color up the dark shy thing.
Mauricio was vigilant and focused all day. We headed onto some back roads later in the afternoon with a vehicle, crossing some raging rivers again. I lost track of which raging river was which. On a bridge over one of them we stopped once again to look for the (so far) elusive Torrent Ducks. And there on the boulders were first a female and then a male (they look like two different ducks, even more so than many in this family) and finally we spotted a very young duckling. One thinks of the adults of this species as just being born to the life of whitewater. This bobbing fuzzy juvenile did not seem born to it. He seemed constantly endangered to me. The fuzzy cork of a thing tried to stay in the eddies behind the boulders. One feared for its small life in this roaring home, everything more complicated by motion and force. The parents only had one chick. Perhaps they began with seven. I don’t know. But at one point the chick was on one of the nearer boulders fairly close to the viewing bridge. The big stone must have jutted up ten or twelve feet above the water surface. Papa Torrent was working the swift water below and crying up to junior on the great rock. The noise of the river drowned out any duck language. But the beak would fly open with some sharp unheard cry. Junior ignored him and ignored him and then finally leapt off on the upstream side in the boulder’s shadow. Perhaps that was the father’s advice screamed out over the whitewater. Hard to say, the language of fathers is sometimes mysterious.
While back at the cabins, we had taken Mauricio over to look at the bird ID board that San Isidro kindly has placed outside near one of the hummingbird sitting shelters. We looked it over and I pointed to the bird in the upper left hand section.
“We had hoped to see this bird here Mauricio.”
Mauricio shook his head, and used the Spanish words for “strong” or “powerful” luck. “Fuerte suerte.” We knew what he meant. But out on the road, that afternoon, as we were driving down the rough rocky surface at about 25 or 30 kph, Mauricio hit the brakes and apologized in English, saying “excuse me.” Then he rolled down the window as we were still ratcheting to a stop.
“I think I heard the call of the White-capped,” he said, also in English.
We bailed out like paratroopers on a mission and Mauricio was so excited, I was worried he might start bouncing around. But there inside a leafy window through the roadside trees perched up in the next rank of leafy tops was a superb White-capped Tanager. They had not seen any of these birds around here for six months. It was the “strong luck” bird. Fuerte suerte, hell yes. It called and then flew to the left toward the high bank of the road and some others called. In just a minute we had six White-caps right in front of us all calling and communicating in a group. These are weird tanagers anyway. They act like jays and those loud contact calls are not like any tanager I have seen. They even mob intruders like jays. There was one female, visible by her duller purple throat, surrounded by the five crimson throated males. I mentioned to Mauricio that she “must be really hot.” He laughed, the meaning transmitted in English just as well as Spanish I suppose. Maybe he was just being kind. Though in various Latin American countries I now know I perhaps should have used, “que bizcocho”, literally “what a biscuit.” Or “estar bomba,” she is the bomb. Or even, in Argentina, “la minón” literally, she is a gold mine. (Which would not work very well in America.) Either way, little miss White-cap and her boy admirers were the bomb.
On our free half day in San Isidro, Bo and I stared at the very primitive trail map I had gotten from Alejandro. There were quite a few looping trails on this sheet of paper. We were definitely going to head out into one. And we had been down the start of one of the trails that led south and east to go to the Peruvian Antpitta station. They all looked wild but this one had an area marked Cock-of-the-Rock lek on it and more enticingly it worked its way back to the wild section of the Cosanga river and even had a spur marked “Cosanga river beach.” We were going after breakfast so there was little chance of seeing the amazing Cock-of-the-Rock except by chance. They called only at dawn. But a wild river beach…
We listened and looked, stopped and started, the way of our woodland going for many years. At the fork to the antpitta feeding area I froze and stared at something dark and gray for a brief second before it rocketed right and into the jungle. Mountain Tapir, my brain processed. I looked on my retina for an outline, some recalled shape but there was just motion and gray metal sheen. Gone. One wanted to give chase, resulting in, I presumed, our death, lost somewhere in the deep jungle. After this I kept looking for more dark motions. And we also had our ears in, as three day amateurs, we could identify many bird sounds now. The Long-tailed Antbirds, the Wood-wrens, the Crested Quetzals, they were now sonic pleasures, like new friends. At the point where the Cock-of-the-Rock lek was marked, the world fell off to the right side of the trail. Distantly we could hear water roaring. From that point on we could hear water roaring. And staring down the steep slope that these wild orange Cocks favored for their leks we heard only Crested Quetzals discussing something important. Possibly it involved white boy invaders in their woods.
The trail became winding and downward with a vengeance until we came to a place where it was so damn impressively downward with steps I laughed out loud. I thought some earth event had taken out the trail. But there it curled down around a tree. Someone had cut stair after mud stair over roots and rock implants far back in the woods here for what? For the one percent of visitors who would wander back here? I waited for Bo to come look down and we both realized that this would be where our wives, if present and lured down even this far, would give us the look we knew so well and vanish back up the trail. But aging knees or not: on to the beach. Down was actually going to be more difficult I realized than up. It would be easier to climb out. Though here at Denver altitude, it was much more reasonable either way than at the Pass altitudes where we both already would have crashed and died in the ferns with this kind of work.
It was at least six full flights of stairs wrapping downward before we reached some level accord of river altitude. Any trips and falls would mean hospitalization in some distant city in Ecuador or perhaps at a local veterinarian’s house. There was no minor tripping here. On the bottom floor the water was louder. Pools of some past flood event were mirrors left and right of the trail, which became more of a suggestion of a trail than it had been upstairs. One had to stop and stand frequently to assure oneself that the passage ahead was the original passage chosen by someone with a machete and a plan. Sickle-winged Guans took off running over the forest floor shocking the mirrors awake. We seemed to be in a wilder place. How often did anyone come here? Once a week? Once a month? We came to a hacked wooden bridge over a small stream. It was so moss ridden I did not know if I could trust its true weight-bearing status. But it held as I bounced it. Something big flew up down the creek and landed on a fallen log across the stream. I could see its hunched back and enough of its shoulders to know it was a Fasciated Tiger-Heron, one of the mountain dwelling fisher-birds. It moved on up the small stream.
The trail after this was flat but zigged and zagged and jumped over fallen trees and around pockets and pools of light and moisture. I felt exploratory. And was not truly convinced we would be able to see some overgrown spur that went off to the river. In fact, we came out several times on the wild Cosanga river bank itself which had no beach to speak of but a steep fall down to raging whitewater. We could see out onto the heavy volcanic stones and this wild river that enveloped and eroded them with all the force granted to it by the Andean slopes. The Cosanga, on the map, started out there somewhere to the west and raged by us to turn north and northeast and then to head, like all rivers here, out toward the lowlands to be lost in the joinings and minglings that became eventually the king Amazon. We did not give up. We kept coming out and looking up and down the river until we found a small rivulet of rusty water that pushed left after we had moved away from these frequent taunting river views. We walked down and dropped suddenly onto rough sand and more boulders. From there we were on the beach, as it were.
I have been to wild rivers and creeks in the Ozarks where I felt I was in actual wilderness. Here amid the rage and the river that literally fell off so fast from where-I-was to where-I-could-not-see around the next bend I felt I was in wild lands. No river I have ever seen dropped so fast. It must have been fifteen or twenty steady feet down from here to there, up and down, above me and below me in this one long slow bend. It was a gritty dense sand at my feet, not a true sand. Particulates of the stones worn down and not coral siftings. This was time against rock, volcanic rock. Some of the big boulders were heavy conglomerates. We watched toucanets skitter quickly across the open sky above us. We could hear no bird calls above the crash and bray of the water, the water that was mountain cold on my fingertips. And while I watched, Bo began to stoop over and sort through stones, he began to pick up some stones, reminding me that I had promised Robin, my artist friend, that I would bring back some stones for his paintings. I dove down to the search and Bo and I realized we could have filled our suitcases here. It was a rock collector’s haven. The stones were banded and painted, quartzite and paint flecked. Greens and rusts from somewhere high above us, dappled things so much older than we were. As one goes on, one appreciates things that seem so much older than we are. Clearly we were juveniles here, against these worn stones. We wanted some pieces heftier than our palms but we could not take those. We selected a few. And mostly we stood and looked at the water going away from the mountains. It was one of those places where you recognized your place in the world, you understood that you should stop here and try and remember it. Days run off, you want to scratch some with such sign as this. As I write this, I still have it.
The road south and east to Sumaco is a wonder among roadways, truly an astounding feat of roadmaking. You spend most of the time looking up at great rises of land and trees. Bo snapped shot after shot out the window. I know not how those came out. Manuel, our calm driver took it all in like a normal event. He was delivering passengers; we were lost in the heights of the Andean foothills. Compared to the roads on the west side of the mountains this main highway east was a superhighway, broad and concreted with side ditches for drainage. The problem was it crossed through the landscape where the people resented it somehow. The road itself had no magic for them. Though where the falls came off the hills in several places bathers gathered, wet headed and wearing shorts. Apparently there were also rules somewhere about bringing your cattle onto the wide pavement where vehicles were going by sometimes at 50 to 65 kph, a roaring speed for much of Ecuador. But still, whatever the rules, we would come to a halt suddenly with cattle stepping out of jungle. Boys, children really, walking out first, homemade whips in hand. One young male child looked through the windshield at me with such defiance, with such youthful confidence in his right to be on the great roadway, stopping all who came his way, that I believed his eyes, I believed his brow. I wanted to wait for him to be across with his animals whenever he was damn well ready to be across.
Manuel pulls off suddenly at one place, what seems like another beautiful rise of land among many and calmly says, in English, “Cliff Flycatcher.” Fortunately, as always, my Spanish is iffy, but my bird is excellent. “Oh,” I say, and Bo and I are out in the air of the superhighway. Above us is sheer rock face. And large Martin sized birds sally and land on the stones, sometimes vanishing like magic tricks. They flash great orange wings at us from the air. Manuel stands over off the roadway. He must have shown all manner of American and British and Australian wanderers this very same spot. We admire the birds in their stone monument world and thank Manuel. We are off again.
The big problem with the superhighway is the necessary bridges across the many, many falloffs of water that come down from the mountains. Apparently in 1987, they had their 100 year flood event here. And every single bridge on this east bound road was washed away. Every single bridge. And the Ecuadorian equivalent of our Corps of Engineers, put up temporary bridges over all these points. Twenty five years ago they bolstered them with temp bridges, quickly thrown up things really. And here they still are. A very few had been replaced on the road there. Most were still rickety one lane things. And some were rigged with jutting metal zigzags to discourage the 60 ton trucks that still make their way illegally over them. We looked down while crossing one of these and Bo commented on all the fragments of side-view mirrors on the ground.
Sumaco was the destination for the whole trip. It was ultimately the chosen destination, all the rest had been the cake on the way. And Sumaco had only been open for about three years. The east Andean foothills and volcanoes seem like one of the last stands against the great plow that is human development. Up the last 7 kilometers of rough road after a north turn from the highway and we pulled in the lodge gate, a nice stained gate with a little guardhouse behind it. Sumaco is the first and only place I have been where the owners came down to greet me first. Jim and Bonnie were both there. The masterminds along with Jonas on all the preservation work here. Everyone shook hands and Manuel hauled a bag bigger than himself up toward the rooms as Bo and I walked straight back and out onto the deck.
Every place in Ecuador has hummer feeders. The Andean mountains, I remind you, in all likelihood, are the birthplace of these animals. It is where you go to see hummingbirds. And Jim has built a deck larger than my own home deck down the whole back of the main lodge building which houses the kitchen, dining area and bar. His master deck does not look out on oak trees. His looks out on a valley of pretty much untouched forest, tall Cecropias in fruit. The roadside areas of Sumaco are previously cut woodlands and cow pastures though Jonas has apparently bartered for cattle areas and grazing rights and shuffled woodlands for fields, other fields for trees in some local dealings that likely make all of us better people probably. That was the roadside, but here below the great span of deck it is virgin wood, the stuff that needs saving. The long row of chairs sits back under the rain shade of the porch. The hummer feeders are mostly on the right and left ends of the deck which (by design or not) shelters the hummers from window strikes. (We had none while I was there.) And hummer feeders, even in the United States with our limited species numbers, take some aging emplacements to attract birds. Sumaco has aged in. The birds know they are there.
Bo and I stared at the flurry of hummingness. My friends from the west side of the Andes, the Booted Rackettails were coming with their delicate size and streaming tails. Here they had orange booties as opposed to the white knee socks on the other side of the mountains. And the delicate Speckled hummingbirds which sang for us in San Isidro were here, they had almost a real song from a hummer. Speckles look like not much in the book but they are packed with personality. Here also the lovely Wire-crested Thorntails in various stages of wire growth on their heads. The females were black throated and miniature, even among the overall humming miniatures.
Here were also three representatives of the big Heliodoxa group, all slipping in to feed, trying to avoid the dominating Sparkling Violetears (which we quickly renamed Sparkling Assholes): they were Violet-fronteds and Black-throated and the striking Gould’s Jewelfront. Jim waited while we pointed and twirled, waited as we were generally wowed by the busy hummers. Rude anywhere to ignore the establishment's owners and watch the birds, but almost expected here. Jim did not seem to mind. And he had a photo hummer guide that he carried over for us, laminated for deck use. One could tell he spent many hours checking and watching these impressive visitors. Sumaco has 42 hummingbird species on its list. Well over twice as many as all of North America.
Sumaco also serves an early breakfast, you can eat before dawn. Jim is usually there to eat breakfast with you at whatever time you choose. Coffee is out even earlier. From the deck in darkness: the stars or distant lightning, the occasional Wattled Guan or Band-bellied Owl calling, and silently somewhere the sleeping hummers. We were there in a non-rainy month and the water system uses collected rainwater for the showers. (And the showers are five star events here: no dribbling, no worries about too little heat.) Jim watches the water system levels carefully. Several nights we had distant thunder, one day a sprinkling. Often the sky was running with clouds or broken sky. There were other guests that morning, so we deferred from the trails and just walked down the road. That was the clearest morning sky of the week. The Antisana snow cap was visible to the west. The peak of the Sumaco slopes were visible to the north. There was no breeze, just dawn skylight breaking from the east.
Once again we were in birdiness in this foothill habitat, even on the road. Sumaco has a long list of birds that don’t appear in the valleys to our west or over the top of the peaks on the west side of the Andes. And quite a few birds are here that mostly live in the lowland Napo woodlands (down down down to the east) and just bang up against the foothills here and show themselves to the lucky ones. The open pastures are straining towards some regrowth and the scattered treetops are easily seen here. We watched a sequence of Chestnut-fronted Macaws arriving on a tall palm trunk that was leafless and dying but still towered up seven or eight stories like a triple-sized telephone pole. Chestnuts are the smaller Macaw that live mainly in the lowlands but frequent the foothills in their daily wanderings, sometimes nesting up here in the heights. Parrots, especially big parrots are strong fliers and have long range habitat capabilities. One of the big birds disappeared inside a hole in the palm spire. While we waited for him/her to reappear, some Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers, another east side lowland bird came to the same spire. This popped the Macaw out with a rather annoyed look. And then from the west the loud sound of some giants echoed, making us point and turn. Two of the truly big Macaws flew in. The one you wanted to see here, an altitude and cliffside specialist that makes the other Macaw look quaint and Parakeet sized. It was a pair of Military Macaws. The light from the east coloring up the fine wing linings and primary colors beneath their wings. They landed in another treetop, calling, stirring up the smaller Macaw which exited toward the east. We could still see the distant hillsides and slopes clearly. Birds still called from every direction. We were glad to be out under strange skies.
Above Sumaco is a small town and there is some motorcycle traffic up and down this rough road, as well as the rare delivery truck. Mostly it is quiet. There is a bus that runs very early and late, providing the transportation for many who live in this small community. Workers for Sumaco itself are often from the town. Down the road a few subsistence homes selling eggs or cheese or milk, living I presume strictly from their own efforts. We met their horses on the road several times. Loosed like big dogs. Once or twice they walked up to look me over and decided I was not worth contemplating. Small low built animals, they seemed to have some understanding of the local world. I think I saw toleration and puzzlement in the eyes. We also see several bands of schoolchildren going or coming at odd times of day. And there are apparently some classes in birds and ecology that come down the road. We meet one young man surrounded by children. He carries a bucket. And looking in I see the largest male rhinoceros beetle I have ever seen, easily nine inches from beak tip to ass. What an insect. “Como se llama,” he asks. And I laugh and say “rhinoceros” in English. And that surely “solo uno so Grande.”
On the deck in the evenings, red wine from Jim’s bar. One sits in the wooden backed chairs and gazes into the valley west. The Macaws screech by, the Toucans call and cross the valley below. Hummers zing left and right, catching your eye. The Cecropia trees, like Cecropias everywhere, when they are fruiting, draw visitors in. It is the afternoon show. There is a small and wary band of Tamarins that sneak in when they can. It is a lovely small monkey with about a ten inch body that weighs in at about a pound as adults. Micro-feather weight in the boxing categories, like long-tailed miniature cats. Apparently they are shot or hunted in the woodlands here and are thus wary of the deck humans. They have delicate white faces and these Ecuadorian representatives may be a separate species from the Brazilian population. They make bird noises, confusing birders, likely every time. Or the birders that pay attention anyway. Chachas also come up as well. The Speckled Chachalacas, relations of the ones that come to the south Texas parks, they come in gangs here to the Cecropia. Like the monkeys, they also keep their careful eyes on the red wine drinkers as they walk up the slanted limbs to feed. I moved too quickly up from my chair when they were there exposed one evening and this set off the chattering and resounding cries of all the chachas. Screaming their name to make me vanish perhaps, but it actually sounded like “watch him, watch him.” Making the deck drinkers laugh, temporarily knocking out all other sounds, these crazy little tree chickens.
For most of our stay there Bo and I wandered the area on our own, but for one morning I hired a guide. And the guide is Jonas Nilsson. He is part owner of the place, having guided Jim and Bonnie through many Peruvian journeys from the stories we heard. Jonas is native to Sweden but has lived in Ecuador for twenty years and speaks fluent Spanish, being now, the prime intermediary with the workers here who often speak very little English at first. Jonas maintains the bird list here, fairly compulsively compared to other areas and websites. And he has been responsible for some of the land trades and acquisitions, attempting to extend the preserved areas here south of the big Volcano preserve to the north of us. Jonas has been watching birds since age 5. I have heard of very few people starting any earlier. I am not even sure Roger Tory Peterson was watching birds at age five. Ted Parker was 10 or 11 when a mentor fired him up. I was 11 myself, with my heavy Naval Binoculars on a creek in Arkansas. Apparently the Scandinavians forgo all other interests and just dive into birds. At age five I was climbing trees and catching bugs, but barely knew anything about birds.
We headed up the road (not down), where Bo and I had not yet ventured, on a partly cloudy morning. Pass the swaying Crested Oropendola nests, an old trail takes a dive down the slope there. Guiding is a multi-leveled skill. And with big groups, it is often part baby sitting, part socialization and a small part bird finding. We had seen the interactions of some groups in our movements here to Sumaco. Many of the guides, like Mauricio, spoke mostly Spanish. Often the original English speaking guides, had moved away from guiding and I don’t think that much of Jonas’ time anymore was spent as a guide. He had been doing it a long time. And I will say he showed absolutely no diminishment in his enthusiasm that morning. Jonas does not fake his interest in birds or give it just a portion of his attention. I have watched the faces of many people with binoculars in hand. If Bo and I had not been there, I think his enthusiasm would have been absolutely the same. It was morning, the woods were full of birds and here we were.
Guides are required to be ear birders. In the dense and lanky woods of South America it is definitely a requirement. You can find bird groups visually but to pick out the oddities and less common birds you must know the sounds. I am still amazed by bird people in the US who have been chasing birds for years and yet still don’t know any vocalizations. Someone will have to explain it to me sometime. Jonas has the cocked head and distant focused eye of a sonic expert. When you live in an area long enough and are ear-focused you learn not just the standard calls, but the chips and whines and wheezes and all manner of variations of the local singers. I think Jonas would have known the species of a bird that sneezed. He sorted sonically through all sounds at rapid fire. And understand, that in our area of Arkansas, in a big spring vocalization day, there would be at most 150 or so species, let us say with three sounds each, giving us 450 or so sonic variations. Here, in Ecuador that has to be multiplied by 3 or 4 to give us easily over a thousand sounds to sort. Requiring a trained musician’s level of auditory temporal lobes, it is a feat to shake your head at.
An open valley filled with bird sound. A male Cerulean Warbler caught in the sunlight. Red-headed Barbets flashing out in the open. Jonas was pointing and constantly listening. He would hear something. “Have you seen _____?” (Fill in the blank.) Swallow-tailed Kites were working the ridge to the north. Who gets tired of watching Swallow-tails snatch insects off upper canopy leaves? Down the trail, Jonas heard Ecuadorian Piedtails, the second hummer with a true song around here. High pitched bouncing whistles, more than your usual hummer chitter. Apparently they sometimes even sing in groups. One kept zipping in and out of the light, faster than a bee. And then a rough line of wooden planking led off across some grass, a trail off to the north that was not on the map of trails. “A new one,” Jonas tells us, that they have been working on. We stop and listen, look, stop and listen. At one point I see something flash close by and Jonas freezes. He turns his head slowly toward me and says “shit.” Always a good sign. At least, when he is not subsequently breaking to run. They do have Pumas here. And Margays, though I think we could take a Margay. He whispers “antpitta.” And I do see it perched up just five feet away. It is the little Ochre-breasted Antpitta. Tiny member of one of those defining bird groups for South America. This is near where they have started feeding them in the mornings. Another bird flies up. Two of them perched. They are expecting us to have worms. Delicately marked things, they look like the long-legged chicks of some other bigger bird. They do a little shimmy with their shoulders which is almost comical, perhaps it is to warn us that if we don’t come up with some worms, we will soon suffer an Antpitta ass-kicking. They make you smile, whatever the message.
The trail winds over higher ground through some fine forest. Manakins start calling. This is another defining group for the continent. These are White-caps and Blue-rumps, chunky wren-sized things in striking off-sets of color. Voices like mewling cats or small mouse sneezes. This is the simplest Manakin display effort I have seen. But two males do a my-branch-is-higher-than-your-branch dance and then flutter off. These small birds cut up the forest into bounded regions of deep ownership by sneezing at each other. Despite their sharp color contrasts they are fast and can be surprisingly hard to see. Bo spots an odd looking female so far back in the woods that when Jonas and I find it we laugh. Voodoo to see it so deep in. Further zigs and zags of the trail and I ask who laid the trail out. Jonas raises his hand. Apparently he started from the upper end and by some small miracle connected with the old trail back where we started. Tinamous live here. Likely more Margay. It looks like a good place to sit and do nothing but watch the world move by.
At the upper end of the trail, things open up, Chachas break and run. We come out on the newly finished housing project that is part of Sumaco’s established Rio Picuno foundation work here, associated with several colleges from the U.S. to lure graduate students and their professors to the woods. Costs lower than the lodge itself, also with a rainwater collecting system. In front of the nice yellow buildings toucans and Aracaris chat. What a place to study. Dinosaurian Anis gaze from the fence posts. They make odd noises at us.
Another evening, another bottle of Argentinian wine from Jim’s collection, a cold Ecuadorian beer. The hummers are our friends now. We know them by their silhouettes almost, sitting in our chairs, as the light goes out across the hillside. Inside, the fireplace has been set with starter paper and diminishing sized wood in stacked readiness ever since we first arrived.
“Jim,” I ask, “since we are a tenth of a degree from the equator, and the temp is the same all year, when is it fire time?”
“Right now,” he says. And he jumps up to start the flames going. I have a scotch on the couch because it goes better with fireplaces. Outside on the deck the moon and the planets and the stars are shining through patches in the thin clouds. It still has not rained. I can see Orion so straight up it defines my position on the globe again for me. Orion here must always be straight up. Next morning, the last morning there, I walk alone down the Benavides trail to sit near the streams and their old mossy bridgeworks, the lumpen stairs going back slowly to something other than cut wood. I listen for the Streamcreeper and dream of him stepping out onto the trail. The band of Tamarins calls and gives me a good looking over before turning their white faces and skittering off somewhere wilder and less human infested. I wish for a Margay, or another quick band of parakeets to flutter down around me. I don’t want to walk back out. But eventually I do anyway.
We stop at Guango Lodge on the road back out just to divide up the route back. We are staying overnight to have a last walk in the morning in the mountains through the open cut of sky that runs down the middle of Guango. It is a stretch of preserved land between the wild river and the highway. (And has a good sized patch of land east of the highway that we did not even get to.) It is known for its hummer feeders. And it has an astounding layout of them, so busy with trusting birds that Bo and I laugh. The Chestnut-breasted Coronets here are possessive and fearless. The Sword-bills stun Bo like they stunned me last year on the other side of the mountains. The Collared Incas make you want the whole world to have Collared Incas. And the little flutter-winged Sunangels are so dark and beautiful; one does not know what to say about them. The little motion they make with the wings held out and aloft, some showiness or sign of possession: I own this small winged gap on this small branch on this one day in this small place (close wings, snap). I wonder if it is why they were called angels by the hummer namers. I must find out who did name the hummers. But this is the only place we saw these Tourmaline Sunangels (applause for the name) and we were grateful.
The next morning was once again astoundingly clear. A high elevation, wow-there-is-the-sky-right-over-us day. The river roars at every place in Guango and our walk down the hill was bird filled. The only other guests had departed before sunrise. I cannot explain a bird group that does not even stay for the morning. Too much hurry, even in the bird world, though it did appear they had far to go. But for Bo and I the sun shown right where you wanted the sun to shine. Bright Brush-Finches of several species came down to the ground and sang. We walked out on the bridge at the bottom of the trail with clear water raging in all directions. A pair of White-capped Dippers, after all these stops at so many riverine wild spots, finally showed themselves and fluttered from boulder to boulder. Bands of Turquoise Jays crossed the river from right to left. Above us on the hillside among cows and Brown-bellied Swallows small figures wended towards us slowly. I looked upslope for hawks or eagles. Eventually some young girls came onto the bridge from above, defining the earlier small figures as these dark-haired girls carrying heavy jugs filled with cow’s milk I supposed. They had come from high up. I wanted to ask if we could go and help bring some more jugs down but my Spanish was not good enough, perhaps my knees weren’t even good enough.
The girls smiled at us. “Buenas dias,” they said, stooping under the weight, making the metal bridge bounce as they went past us.
“Buenas dias,” I said back, and I meant it. And then we had to walk back up along the river to say goodbye to the angels and swordbearers for another year.
I cannot really say what it means to have these places to go back to with just a day and a morning to get there. The people of Ecuador once more proved as friendly as they have been with each encounter.
Thanks to Jim and Bonnie and Jonas and Manuel and Mauricio and Jose and Alejandro and Carmen and Irene.
Please visit Sumaco and if not then consider contributing to the Rio Picuno foundation at this link. It is as worthwhile a place to put your money as any I have recently seen.
And don’t pass San Isidro and Guango on the way there. Pick one or both and just go for the coffee and the chairs in front of the hummer feeders.
Otherwise, here is wishing you toucans and motmots.