Into Sky High Hummerland
Quito, Ecuador, is always quoted as being the highest capital in the world. In fact it is the winner over Bolivia only because Bolivia has capital schizophrenia. It has a functional capital and a true capital. One is higher and one is lower. For the consideration of my wife, who only wonders at the possible breathlessness of it all, it really does not matter who wins. She knows we will be walking out into 9000 feet of new air in darkness. And Kenny, who has obviously not flown with my wife before, decides to describe to her the Quito airport stories concerning its top ten ranking in the world’s most difficult landing zones, how the copilots are not allowed to land in Quito without significant experience at dropping their wheels below all that screaming metal as it falls into this bowl atop the high mountain valley. If I could wave my arms behind her to get Kenny’s attention I would. But alas, no one is paying any attention to me at the time. I don’t even look over at the knowing look that I know she gives me.
The farther south you go, the fewer English speakers you have. It should be a formula I suppose. And Ecuador is wedged up in the northern part of South America, straddling the Equator. The place is ripped down the left side with mountains, serious mountains. Many of them volcanic and some of them up to 19 thousand feet or more. Quito itself sits on the side of a volcano in a river valley. And Kenny had once again come through for me here. Detailing to my wife that once in the last five years the airport had been closed due to hot clouds of ash descending on the city. If you fly through those you crash (of course). We come in at dark on our screaming steel so if there is ash we would not see it. I try not to look over at my wife as we are coming down. Her head is back, eyes close like they are for all landings. Out our window, I see the shining windows of homes on hillsides, lamps and TV light, the local late news in Spanish. I do not see the fiery flow of lava. We appear to fly right down into them, these living room views. Somewhere amidst some TV broadcast of reruns of “Lost” in more Spanish, my plane floats by. Just another giant jet outside the patio door. Quito is only 3 miles wide generally, so really, we are at the most a mile or so from said living rooms. I cannot tell if that is a comfort or not. To my wife I mean. But when the wheels hit the tarmac, I do know the brakes are slammed and we suddenly hit about 3Gs of stopping force. Despite Quito being about 30 miles long to the north and south, they must have skimped and made their runway about six plane lengths long. Have to keep those pilots on their toes. Keep that airstrip danger rating up.
It is always spring in Quito, the cool air ever present, especially at night. Since we are less than twenty miles from the Equator, the weather is as nearly flat year round as any major city on the globe. Every day, essentially, it is 65 F and every night it is 49 F. Every day, year round, contains about twelve hours of sunlight. The rain drops off a bit in June, July and August in any given year. It rains for half the days in most other months. It is not raining as we zip through town on our van. Traffic is dead away from the airport. Through the town at night, it is tough to tell there are 1.5 million people around. It is nearly midnight however when we check in. There is a flash of sleepy admiration of some hand painted walls in the hotel. But dark is the same dark at nine thousand feet that it was the evening before at three hundred feet.
We are locked inside our courtyard when I walk out at dawn the next morning. Locked in with metal gates and loops of chain. Street activity has definitely picked up with the sunrise. I vaguely remember a few car horns during the night, a here and there siren. We are inside a gardened experience with high walls, walls that are respectful of the night life inside a big city. In the dark outside, a vague memory from at best, half wakefulness: a tall woman with a mane of hair stomping her high-heeled legs like some thoroughbred in the early morning cold. The garden looks wet, though I do not remember rainfall sounds in the night. In Quito, and in Ecuador in general, one must always be prepared for rain. It is a sustained expectation. Completely clear days are not the rule. Walking out into the front entry I listen as always. A bird makes a relentless sound up front in the streaming bottle brush flowers. It is a tree of red elongate flowers, it turns out to be our first hummingbird in this land of hummingbirds. And it has one of those names, those excellent hummingbird names. It is the Sparkling Violetear. And quickly we can tell that this is one of the dominant birds in this high mountain cityscape. Quito quickly becomes the only city I have ever been inside where, if you stop and take a sample sounding of the birdsong, the most vocal bird is very often a hummingbird, and specifically this hummingbird. They perch out on open branches and chip and chip and chip. Occasionally they make a fluttery foray out like a flycatcher just to show off some flashy blues and greens and to defy any nearby intruders that may be envious of its personal birdspace.
We make for a large park in town on our day of rest in the city. Cabs across town are three dollars. We could order up a fleet for the cost of a quick cab ride in Dallas or Atlanta. That is three American dollars for the whole cab of travelers. Ecuador does not print its own paper money anymore. It uses ours. Though the smaller coins I see are Ecuadorian. Much of the heavier change turns out to be our American Sacagawea dollars. I never see them on the street in the USA but here they are the standard dollar coin. I guess when they proved unpopular in our country we just shipped them all to Ecuador. I don’t know. She does look rather Ecuadorian when you stare at the Indian maiden on the coin face long enough.
The Quito Botanical Gardens are in the midst of a large park space. It is a big buffered natural space with tall trees. The surrounding neighborhoods look choice and pricey. Who would not want their condos overlooking this green landscape? Although if you go a mile east or west anywhere in this town you are banging up against mountainsides or steep volcanic slopes. Why settle? Convenience and prestige I suppose. One wonders what the park area is like at night.
Some old iron rotating gates admit the garden’s visitors after some Sacagaweas are exchanged. Butterflies are loopy all over the place inside and outside the gates. They look vaguely familiar. Some of the sulphurs, no doubt are. We all test our lungs fresh out of the car at 9000 feet again just to see if we are showing cracks. We lack confidence. Over the pond just inside the gates wend dragonflies. Blue-spotted things, not quite alien, somewhat darnerish or darneroid if you will. Above them shoot our second hummingbird of the city. And I have to convince Eric they are hummers. Hell, I have to convince him they are birds. He thinks they look like giant damselflies, and in their winging speed-fueled climbs and their streaking loops, they do admittedly look like great elongate insects. He laughs out loud and checks my face to make sure I am not messing with him. For the whole garden walk from then on these Black-tailed Trainbearers zing and fly high above us. One female makes a noise in a bush at one point that I am still not over. Sounded like a rodent or a squirrel. It may have been a dream but it stirred up the male Trainbearers making spiral tracings around her. What amazing things to have in your gardens. I think I say this out loud several times in Ecuador.
At the main garden pond, Kenny spots a bird up in the bushes. He says it is a Purple Gallinule. And I think, that inside our heads a little bit, everyone else pronounces him mad. Altitude madness. Breathe Kenny breathe. His retinas have gone sour on him. But there atop a bush of unknown genetic inheritance is a juvenile Gallinule. Our guide in the mountains, informed later, shakes his head. There must be very few records of that bird in Quito he says. No doubt. Down the streamside and the walkways, groups of schoolchildren flutter. They look at the gringos suspiciously. And really, we are suspicious gringos. Especially Eric who appears to have suffered the most in the greater altitude shift of Florida-to-Andes and looks slightly hungover continuously. In the rose garden, we are struck by the alien appearance of the trees, the open spaces. Or at least I am. I put my nose in a rose and the smell is blatantly sexual. It is inextricably rosey. But deeper. I suspect the thin air of playing tricks on me again. I wish there was a scotch with a slightly rose nose. Someone should work on that.
We find birds in the gardens. And it is all we ask of the world sometimes: to send us birds. The flowers, in places, are so alien, I look at them askance, I look off sideways to put the edges of my retinas on them, to question them with a new bordering ratio of rods to cones. Every time a male Trainbearer shoots into the sky I watch him until my neck stretches back. And then back at the entry path, along the back side of the pond alone, I watch Black Flowerpiercers working their chosen flowers so close to me I am afraid to breathe. They are deep black birds with a sheen of other colors tinkling in the garden light, absorbing the spectrum of the flowers like little black holes. They probe the hearts of high altitude blooms. I have a camera but I don’t seem to use it. These hook-billed things make me nervous. I want to just watch them. They want to just watch me. It is a standoff of watchfulness.
We decide to walk back across the city instead of calling taxis again. I have a map. We have our general way. We just need courage. It is sunny with only broken clouds. We wander across the outer parkway. And find ourselves at the paddle boat rental. A small restaurant sits there selling things in Spanish that we are not sure of. We do know Cerveza. An aging Golden dog wanders up with us to the storefront. He is some kind of good sign. One of us buys some fritas or papafritas, I forget exactly, and once we all see it is beef with some thick golden French fries we all order some with a few tall beers. French fries are universal foods wherever you go as are beer and coca cola. The dog puts its head on my leg sensing beef or French fries or both in proximity. I discover this is a beef-only hound, a canine connoisseur who has no time for root vegetables when I put a long fry near that doggy nose. Unh uh.
Through the city, things seem bustling and prosperous: car sales establishments and well dressed people doing businesslike things during their day. Restaurants seem uninspired to deal with lunch. Everyone must eat late here. The traffic is impressive from a sideline viewpoint. As with most Central and South American countries, they seem disinclined to post instructions on who can go where, when or how. At intersections it is often everyman for himself with no stop signs or yield signs. You must depend on the horn or the kindness of strangers. I add Quito to the cities I don’t want to drive inside. And with three dollar taxis, why would you?
We roll north the next day. Through the long north-south corridor that is Quito. Mountains are in every direction, occasionally with the peek-through view of a snow-capped volcano. Dogs and pedestrians, hillsides of century plants with fruiting towers going up into cloud. I assume the area has been deforested to make way for us all. But at this altitude who knows what the stunted forest actually looked like before our dozers and our garden needs became scraped over for our living space elbows. In the stream and river valleys the trees grow dense but many of them appear to be introduced plants that are escaped and flourishing in the forever spring here near the equator. Outside of town the road grows curvy and we drift northwest and switchback down into the Tandayapa valley. The roads overall appear to be about 60 or 70 years behind the modern highways of the US countryside. Landslides and breakaways seem to be the standard after the apparent extra-rainy wet season they have just had. Frequent signs shout “reduzco velocidad ahora!” which even I understand. The hillsides are so steep above and below us in places, it is no wonder they appear to be intact, possibly forever. The Ecuadorians are certainly not big believers in guard rails. Though at one point they have a recently mangled car (I think it is a car) displayed up on a roadside platform to show you what will happen to you if you don’t reduzco your velocidad. As if we could not imagine it.
The turn-off road to the actual lodge is another level down the scale of road quality like a bad farm road in my own rain-washed Ozarks. And it is frequented by sudden narrowings associated with piles of landslide residua that could not be completely cleared a few hours ago? A few days ago? Just now? Things still seem to be growing from the mud clumps. They look like living lava flows that are not quite at rest yet. We wend around them. I check them for motion. Or actually Elias, our driving man, wends around them, his face never belying anything more than mild interest in the status of the roadway. Roads are best lumpen and alive by Elias’ assessment. It is the way they are, nonetheless. Take it or leave it. At the final turn up the hill, the road cranks strongly rightward up what looks like about a sixty degree ramp. We pull some Gs up this and whip another ramp left before we arrive at some stairways up into trees. Somewhere up there: our destination.
Out of the van, my wife is appalled by either choice: carry her own bag or make Elias carry it up those stairs. She actually looks at this mammoth flowered structure sitting beside her and ponders either lifting it up onto her back or dragging it back in the van and going home, I can’t tell. The look she gives me makes it clear I am responsible for the dilemma. But Elias swoops the monster up on his shoulder and I forget if we are at five thousand or six thousand feet as he disappears into the trees. He is no measure, adapted like an alpaca, his hemoglobin must be 55. My own red cells are running for cover, hiding in a nice warm pocket in my maladapted spleen.
Up top, my wife is not happy until she has examined Elias to make sure he is not dead or incapacitated by spinal ruptures. She knows that suitcase. And believe me, when one of the planes we are traveling in ruptures in some sad event in midair out there somewhere, it is not some paltry scraps of 747 skin you want to worry about landing on your innocent head down below, it is my wife’s bag. It will be deathdealing. I hand Elias some money after my wife flaps her hands at me. Elias bowing and heading off to do pushups or rearrange furniture. I am not sure what size bill I gave him inside all the swirling silver spots around me. Down the hallway, my wife is off for inspections. I don’t think I myself was frisked for damage.
The big dining area is full of windows which are protected by bird netting that rolls down over all the glassy surfaces. You do not want unprotected windows of any kind in the land of hummingbirds. Ecuador has more hummingbirds than Arkansas has species of dragonfly. Tiny Ecuador, wedged up into the upper left corner of South America, is actually twice the size of Arkansas. And next to the mass of Brazil, it appears to be a mapping afterthought. But little wedgy Ecuador has a third of the world’s hummingbird species. Over 100 species. And some areas, single valleys such as the one stretching from where the Tandayapa lodge deck juts out toward the ocean to the west, have 60 or more kinds of hummingbirds in them. In the eastern United States, essentially we have one species. These hummer machines don’t exist anywhere else in the world: North and South America and the islands and countries in between: that is it. So crazy people like us come to see the buzzing world that is the birthplace of these little birdy wunderkinds of flight.
On the deck, one is quickly overwhelmed. The deck itself looks out over lush trees and steep valley walls across the intervening airspaces that make you appreciate the roadways that got you here. And hummingbird feeders are arrayed at all corners of the deck. Quick estimate says 50 to 80 birds zipping around at any given peak time. And they are noisy with various chatterings and chips of aggressiveness and warning. They seem to modulate traffic and ownership with conversation and wing flashing and tail flashing. And, of course, with show-off air speed and maneuverability. They all look like virtuosos of speed and cornering ability to us. But certainly there must be Top Guns among all the mixes of species and sexes. Body mass, beak size, speed and cocksure attitude must create a hierarchy of some kind in this gathering place. Sugar fuel brings them unnaturally together. In humans, this sort of thing would cause gunshots to ring out, equalizing things. Here, no one dies, but there is some heavy interactivity going on.
Racket-tails and Emeralds, Coronets and Brilliants, Whitetips and Sylphs. The names are lovely, the tiny beasts themselves are truly impressive. One plops oneself out among them and peers through a camera lens to bring them up. Individual featherings are visible, the light jewels up off the flashing surfaces of turning birds. Gemstones in motion, beset with needles. The only way to focus the eye is to put one bird in the lens and watch. With both eyes open outside of the lens, too much is happening at once. Green upper surfaces are the dominant theme, though nothing is guaranteed in the palette of the colorist here. Some evolutionary baseline paints the upper surfaces in the tinctures of the surrounding forest leaves but time has run wild with tails and other accoutrements. Time and the vagrant tastes of females, I suppose. Which came first, I always wonder, when watching birds gone towards the crazed end of the color spectrum, in the backroom madhouse of design, was it the shifting preferences of the female brain or the wild variances of the male’s malleable genetics? “Oh, I like THAT” versus “take a look at THIS.” The mind reels.
Up close the action gets personal. The bird faces seem to express emotion. And oh the body language that must be invisible to us. The stinkeye and squinting I see must just be the smallest surface of what is communicated by tail flash or full head cock and spin. Is it rude to point the beak right at one’s neighbor on the next nectar hole? Or is it expected? What of that extreme tongue extension? Can a hummer make a raspberry in some frequency I can’t even hear? Occasionally the individual meteorites that are boldest come right over to me and my tower of camera, lens and lights. They buzz up to this new obstruction and consider its perching qualities. “Show those other fools, I will count coup on this new monster.” I did pay attention to who was who, or I tried to with 13 or 14 different kinds of hummer around me and males and females and youngsters all looking a bit different. It was impossible not to try and sort things within the bird-trained eye but once that hurdle is jumped, the magic is all in the individuals.
We have this first afternoon free and almost at random, after some lunch, we head up a trail that winds up behind the building complex that is the lodge. My wife stays back to read on the deck and the rest of the group just goes to see what is what in the world of the Ecuadorian jungle hillside. Gaps in the trail look out into the wide valley which is shockingly green to the recently winter-laden eye. Occasional noisy flocks of Red-billed Parrots track up and down our valley. We come to a small coffee patch rising steeply above us. And in the open woods birds seem to be everywhere. We become affixed there chasing new thrushes and toucanets and fruiteaters and Becards. It is the pleasure once again of the new world. New sounds, flashes of color that lead to butterflies or birds unseen. We forget the new straining altitudes, stepping over and around coffee plants. A hawk calls from above us and eventually cuts out across the valley of the parrots. Ferns and epiphytes, epiphytes and ferns, oh my, as Dorothy might say.
Raining and dark the next morning we meet Andres, the guide who will take us down in altitude and try to control us in our various enthusiasms. Andres has been doing this for many years, leading binoculared Americans into his woods. He is calm and quiet spoken most of the time. He looks out in the raining dark and decides to track us farther west to see if we can get out of the rain. It is an hour’s journey west to drop into the altitudes that are in the 2000 to 3000 foot range. Elias, the intrepid, nods and will apparently go anywhere. My wife, up for the darkness in this early part of the week, looks deeply skeptical at the dripping trees and the zig zag of steps down into them.
Sky and cloud battle it out on the road west. The rain slackens and the rain endures. It is a taunting from whatever Gods rule the skies of South America. The people of Ecuador are up early, even in the rain, in the few small towns we cross. Looking ready to ride buses or else busily arranging things for the roadside food and fruit stands that they must fire up and run whatever the weather. The towns in daylight are bustling. You can apparently get every local food available out your car windows. Steaming meats, and hanging fruits, foods I am not sure how to categorize. I am not even sure of the meats, though I think it is mostly chicken. Eric has his eye out for Guinea Pig vendors, an Andean food that he thinks he must try. We go down into the lowlands for two days really. Down this one bustling highway west. And some of the birds at the lower altitudes seem comfortably familiar from my trips to Central America. Others, not so much. There is one frog call that shocks me to alertness over and over again that I just call the Quack-Alarm Frog. I have no idea of its real name. But it is a call that makes me laugh over and over. What a voice.
The hummingbirds in the lowlands are distinctly different. In fact, you quickly learn that if you change altitudes, the hummers shift from one group to another. They are all the same magnificent baseline of animal, painted differently, or adorned differently about the heads and tails. Time if you will, a God if you won’t. It makes for interesting stopping at feeders or flowers. Quick time the seasons, slow time the mountains slide back into the crusts of the earth, the plates of the world bang up volcanoes that we can grow our coffee on. One expects the ground to shimmy and shift every now and then. One looks for great smokestack mountains to break forth in steaminess.
The formula in Ecuador on the west side of the mountains is, if you head east you keep going up and up until you are truly elevated. We tend to orient ourselves in the eastern US by lakes, the directions of the oceans and the riverways. Here, it is all mountains. One early morning we head east into the skylands. And if you go far enough in that direction you reach dry paramo where the temperatures and altitude make dwarves of the vegetation. We track along a lovely river in steep forests. And we push on over winding and very rough roads towards a preservation that the World Land Trust has saved and maintained. We do go up and up. Eventually into valley views and cloud that tatters along where we are tattering along. I am sure on the clearest days in this cloud country the world must stretch before you like you have been invited to lunch among angels or eaglets.
Occasionally, on the roadside at ten thousand feet, the Andean locals are walking with loads of what I assume are foodstuffs or homegoods and accompanied sometimes by their whole families. We pass smiling waving people who seem exceedingly happy in their sky isolation. There are no grocery stores or gas stations in the skyworld. Mules and horses, wagons and bent backs bring things along the way. Scattered cattle, pigs, chickens appear, it is best to make your own foodstuffs here, and firestuffs: eggs, milk (probably several animal varieties), bacon, beef, chicken and the assorted plantstuffs that can be grown in the high close sun. Water seems to be collected directly from the run-off of the heavens. Now and then pipes and pipeways gurgle and spurt into the air or into half made cairns. Thick black ropes murmur next to the roadways.
We stop at one island of trees between pasturelands. Elias cocks the van kind of off the road in a bend. Traffic is thin to nonexistent. The world falls away. My blood tries to calculate an altitude. Surely an angry cow could take me down if I tried to run. I cannot orient with the sun in the clouds and my own self in and out of the clouds. Twisting valleys make ‘down’ not necessarily west. These isolated volcanic uplifts off the spine of the true Andes make things even more confusing. The roadway under actual foot is rough as a cob as my grandmother used to say. Why it doesn’t just wash back into a deep downhill rut every year, I don’t know. Do dozers drowse nearby at the ready? I doubt it. Andres hops out and scans the sky and goes to some brush with his tapes and speakers. Surely all the birds up here are alien, cloudfauna. Some bird moves atop a tree to the right and Andres barely glances from his bushy business to point in its direction. I look to find a Cotinga with a crest. The lowland Cotinga morphed into something vaguely related. Sits more like a thrush and apparently is comfortable with high open exposures, its red crest lying back almost hidden. From the brush in front of Andres a sound. Smacks like a small Brown Thrasher that repeat and repeat. Andres’ eyes widen at us: the sign to pay attention and gather up. When he first heard my name he heard it as Hershey. He still calls me Hershey. When I am not paying attention, it is “Hershey, over here.” Whispered, sibilant, sometimes urgent, usually with widened eyes. Generally it makes me smile. The guide wants everyone to see everything. It is in his guide blood.
The bird making the noise is in some brush that is an absolute tangle. But it is literally on top of us. It seems to be winding its vocal self up as it builds into a higher pitched ticking trill. I have to believe it is singing to itself. It started up before Andres started ticking in its direction. And Andres does this several times during the week. “This looks like a good spot for…” Insert Andean bird name. And before he has even whipped his gear around to make bird noises a bird starts talking and Andres’ eyes go into seriously-get-over-here-pokey-Americans mode. In this case the bird is a Tapaculo. A family of birds that bleeds about three species into Panama and only one farther north into the mountains of Costa Rica. They don’t wander, and are unlikely to in the future. They are grounded home-loving birds about the size of wrens in most cases. They often have wrenish chatter to share with the ears. The family name Rhinocryptidae means something close to hidden-nose-holes, though you won’t be viewing the nostrils. In fact, the birds are so skulky and shy of the light that you often get to just hear them, even when they are like five feet away. And all the 80 or so in the family live only in our New World. (Which really should be changed to Second World or West World.) All of them live in the bottom half of the Second World. The world we have not quite remade completely yet. It is one of those bird groups I don’t even try to explain to my wife. I just say it is like an Ecuadorian jungle wren. (“Why are we standing by this bush again?”) Anyway, the thing is, just about all the Tapaculos look exactly like the other Tapaculos. The great difference is in their singing. Somehow the look they have genetically polished over and over must just be evolutionarily perfect for skulking around in South American bushes. The gamma rays banging out DNA edits within Darwin’s rules only seem to affect the vocal chords in this group. (Sometimes masterfully, sometimes not, as with the way of things.) The purple-tufted or the red-spotted ones are eaten I guess. Don’t flash reds in the underbelly of the forest. Don’t sing where the cats go and wear bright pajamas, being, perhaps, the better maxim here. (The Crescentchests are an exception but we are not standing in Crescentchest country).
This one pops out. It is the Ash-coloured Tapaculo, which gives you an idea how the naming committee for the Tapaculos must have had a few suicides in it. (Long-tailed, Brown-rumped, Unicoloured, Large-footed [really?], Blackish, Dusky.) And my own internal bird appreciation system which is hypertrophic and connected through my eyes and my binoculars to somewhere between the lungs is impressed with it. I try to see the fine details on the feathers in the few seconds we have. I look for the hint of a rusty diaper. I vow to never show the Tapaculo pages to my wife from the bird books. She has wandered over to some flowers anyway.
Elias finally brings the van to a stop atop somewhere. The slope has flattened out and we appear to have no higher to go in the immediate area. There are a few clean and upright buildings and zinging hummingbirds around. The sign announcing Yanacocha is prominently displayed. A gate leads off into more clouds and vistas. If you look up the derivation of the word Yanacocha you find it means ‘black lake’ in one of the Indian tongues of the mountain country. Many links out there will refer you to a site in Peru where the world’s largest goldmine was located. A landscape essentially locally destroyed for gold. I don’t think we want to go there verbally or physically now. This Yanacocha has no black lake and is a portion of preserved Polylepis woodland. The Polylepis being a red-trunked shrub or small tree that likes to live ‘near the Gods’ we might say. Over 12 thousand feet and it is often the only woody thing alive. In Wikipedia, if you click on the various specific species of Polylepis you will find that the sentence that finishes most of the short sections is: “It is threatened by habitat loss.” The World Land Trust bought this woodland on the side of a volcano in Ecuador so we would have some Polylepis to look at. Well, they actually bought it for the little hummingbird that lives in this local patch of Polylepis woodland. But then the hummingbird left. Apparently every last one of them. Though no one has pronounced them deceased forever. They may turn up on one side of this volcano or another again.
The caretaker or ranger, I am not sure what you call them in Ecuador, greets Andres. I think he speaks very little English. He does wear a uniform but I don’t notice what the badges say. It costs $15 US dollars per person to enter. And this seems exceedingly fair. Though I am wondering if the ranger even makes $15 a day here in this haven. What a fine worksite though. The man works in wonderland. We all walk over first down a short trail to a small stone wall where they have taken up the trick that Angel of Paz de las Aves has taught the world. They have accommodated some Antpittas to receiving food. Like jungle chickens. More about that later but for now here we stand for just a short time before out of the densities hops the first Antpitta species I have ever seen. This is another of those bird groups of the western world that fascinates those bearing that odd gene of bird fascination. There are about fifty species in four main genera. You will be shocked to learn no doubt that many of the Wikipedia entries end with ‘declining due to habitat loss.’ These birds define the woodland landscape here with their often haunting calls. This one is the Tawny Antpitta and it is one of the several high elevation birds in that group. One of the very few that can be caught out in the open sometimes. This one saunters up expecting worms. It is a burnished buffy thing perched on long legs. It comes into the space at about ten feet from us. It hops really. I am amazed by it. This happens often in the mountains, my amazement. Whether they are worm lovers from normal habits or whether we just started tempting them with the equivalent of bird ice cream with these washed earthworms I am not sure anyone knows.
The main trail at Yanacocha surely is one of the world’s finest walks. And I say this having taken many Ozark walks and Rocky Mountain walks. I have not been to the Himalayas, so you have that one on me if you have been. There are side trails that wander up or downward, but the main trail is wide and relatively flat, a fine accomplishment in the world of trailmaking. Huge umbrella leaved things jut out at us. I think I heard their name once and now it is gone. The plants are somewhat alien anyway. And the habitat at this altitude certainly must have drastic needs. Though we are a stone’s throw from the equator and the weather year round must still be a near constant. It is cool in the clouds on the day we walked. My wife looking happy and distracted, no rain, no threat of sunburn. No one making her look at things with feathers, she takes her own pace. I lose her now and then. We mostly just gawk at vistas and distances. Andres hears birds that are surely miles away. Including several Antpitta species that are just dreams in the dark undergrowth. We watch for high altitude hummers as we walk towards the hummingbird feeders over a mile down the trail. The caretaker whizzes by at least once on his motorbike to go and fill the feeders. Once again, I say, what a job.
At the feeder station, there is a roofed structure and a picnic area. This walk for the people of Quito is apparently very popular for holidays and weekends, the reserve entrance being only 45 minutes away from the city up up up this twisting road from the volcano base. The entry fee also being quite a bit less costly for the locals. We are here early on a weekday, an off day. And we passed no one walking out to the isolated station. Out there, it is extraordinarily quiet. And this is compared to the beautiful high altitude silence of the walk in. The noise of the hummers is the loudest thing around. This is not the first time hummer noise has been the dominant noise in Ecuador. But nowhere else in the world except the mountains of Costa Rica has that ever happened. And here we have a new selection of hummers. Drive an hour in Ecuador and the hummers change. And here the king, the wonder among wonders, the one the world wants to see, is known as the Sword-billed. In the great world of three hundred South American hummingbirds, it is definitely one of the showstoppers. And it used to be difficult to see until these high mountain locations started keeping nectar feeders stocked by puttering motorbike. We had one brief flash of a sword female while we walked in but here at the feeders, they take up positions of ownership in the tree branches around us.
I try to think if there is another bird in the world with a beak ratio near this. Somewhere in the far islands north of Australia I suppose. I am not sure. And the books describe the bill length as, well, confusing. The Birds of Peru says 20 cm bird and 10 cm beak for a 50% ratio. Birds of Ecuador goes with 13.5 cm bird and 10 cm beak. They agree on the beak anyway. If you look at this female that I spend most of my time watching. It looks more like an 80% ratio. She holds her fine hypertrophic nectar instrument tilted high up, like it is an easier load that way, the burden placed on the neck. I am guessing that beak weighs more than some whole hummers do. These birds focus on large flowers that hang with their floral throats trumpeting straight downward. There seems to be an abundance of these downspout flora in the high mountains. I suspect no other bird can even get to the nectar in this kind of bloom. But then how much nectar can there be in a cup turned upside down? Of course, they prove here on the hummer feeders that they can deftly feed in any direction, tilting that long sword way down or out or over, guiding it into the tiny plastic feeding holes like some airborne jet refueler guiding his nozzle in. And hummer tongues are already impressive, in the smaller species stretching double the length of the beak. Where do you wrap a tongue that long in the head of this animal? It is a big hummer but still… Back at the entrance area, I find the patient Elias blowing seeds off a Dandelion head. He is so patient, I laugh. Dandelion seeds here must carry on the wind to the Pacific. Dandelion fluff from up here must seed the world.
The night before our last guided day, Andres wants to speak with us about the Paz brother’s landscape that we will visit the following morning. Angel Paz is known throughout the bird world for an idea that never occurred to anyone else before it occurred to him. And it may be more myth than truth how he arrived at the actual implementation of it. We do know his family owned quite a bit of cloud forest in the west sloping landscapes here and that Angel was the one that discovered he had a lek of Cock-of-the-Rocks on one of his steep hillsides. These alien orange birds tend to do their sexual dancing in the most inaccessible places. The leap that was important here was likely the thought that perhaps someone would want to come see them and perhaps the money Angel received from showing birds to people would weigh less heavily on him than cutting down more cloud forest. Angel was told to cut a trail down there to the dancing Cock-of-the-Rocks and see if they showed up: these bird nuts with money. So supposedly, while he was doing the strenuous work of cutting this trail with his brothers, just like at my own place, when rich earth is turned earthworms are exposed. I imagine bigger and plumper jungle earthworms grow here in the dense leaf litter than the ones at my home, but still, even there in Arkansas the Hermit Thrushes came right down to me and fed on the worms. Nowhere else did I gain the trust of thrushes than there where I did the work that brought them food. And Angel did not attract just thrushes. He attracted Antpittas.
I mentioned Antpittas earlier. They are the dreamy forest floor birds that generally avoid humans and especially noisy-humans-with-binoculars like they know they are the plague they can be. Angel noted these elusive birds became less elusive along the trail construct where the big earthworms were exposed. They came right up and ate them while he watched. And so he collected and washed some worms and presented them on the trail and the Antpittas came to him. Craziness. Before that time the Giant Antipitta especially had been an almost mythical bird often heard but almost never seen. Angel had one that essentially came every day. And then from there he became the bird-whisperer.
It is early morning when we arrive after a jog off the main road in the darkness and we bounce across a bridge that essentially looks like two big boards laced together a few days before we crossed it. We slip up more darkness and twisted road and come to a stop. Everyone bails out. Elias vanishes somewhere. And as Andres warned the night before, he also leaves us then to Angel’s guidance. Angel speaks only Spanish and bird. The path is muddy and steep. My wife looks stunned that this is even a consideration, descending into this leafy dripping jungle at dark. I have the head lamp. And I am amazed she is not insisting on staying at the top of the hill. I am amazed she does not bolt, revolt or curse or just slap me.
It is a steep walk and even I, with the fluorescent headlamp, am having trouble picking places for my feet. Distantly, I can hear some water raging far below us. Angel quickly vanishes ahead and we let Kenny and Ladonna by, leaving my wife and I walking in darkness towards somewhere unknown. We come to a fork. And there seems to be no real difference between the two paths. “”Izquierda or derecho?” my wife shouts into the first flutterings of green light. We listen and hear only bird noise which could be Angel but is probably not. It is a short pregnant silence before the smiling five foot tall Angel pops up next to us grinning. You can see his teeth shining as he points up into the heavens. Fortunately a pair of natives have accompanied him down into this birdland and they seem to speak Spanish and English and they take over translating Angel’s sometimes extended Spanish dissertations on what he is about to do or what he has done or what he plans to do in the future. He whispers rapid fire Spanish and motions with his hands so intently. He is obviously the happiest man on earth when he is down in his valley showing the place off. The interpreter tells us he has heard a Cloud Forest Pygmy Owl which is possibly the only bird around that might be a rarer event than Antpittas walking out next to you. Angel speaks fluent Cloud Forest Pygmy Owl of course. And later when Andres shows up suddenly on the trail (and we are extremely relieved to see him by the way) he shakes his head at Angel’s ability to imitate bird song with his mouth and tongue, hands and teeth. Several times I ask Andres next to me what bird it is that I am hearing. He stops to listen carefully and says each time “it could be Angel, but I think it is…”. Angel’s Giant Antpitta call, which I do get to hear, is uncanny. The Call (and this recording is specifically of the famous Maria of this very valley) is subject to imitation but really, what is he doing with his hands?
We spend some time at the construction Angel has made at the Cock-of-the-Rock lek. There is a roof and some benches. The birds are 30 yards down in some dense trees. They do make appearances, and the sounds of the males are like mechanical retches through the trees. They flutter those black and white wings and seem to stretch the bizarre facial structure they have out as they battle over positions in this wild hillside. I repeat that this is the most alien bird I have ever seen anywhere. My wife is even impressed with them. We spend some time trying to get a look at the Pygmy Owl, but it is so intrinsically invisible up in its tree perches, even when dive-bombed by Euphonias and tanagers that we only see dark flashes when it moves to a new perch. We work our way up to a tanager feeding stand and Angel patiently whips some bananas apart with some knife motions that are as practiced as the calling positions he makes on his lips and nose with his hands. His brother brought the bananas (I assume) because I saw nothing being carried by Angel. Mountain-Tanagers appear like sleight-of-hand when Angel steps back from the feeders. They are right on top of us. And we had not seen any birds moving even a minute before anywhere close. They are stunning gold and blue things, fighting over banana.
We head up, and my wife insists that if in fact we make any more motions toward heading down the slope again, she will kill one of the Paz brothers with their own banana knives. We are moving along in single file on the narrow trail and it has started to drizzle rain again when Angel’s smile seems to click up a few F-stop levels. He starts talking out into the mosses and downed trees and then starts flinging floppy small projectiles out and away from him. If I did not know about the washed worms I would not know what these were. It is a murmuring singsong speech Angel uses, almost like a mystical little song. And I look to my left on the forest floor to see an Antpitta hop out and sit up on a log not ten feet away. I can see it is a Moustached Antpitta, only because I know it is not a Giant and there are none other of this size in this place. It is just as mythical a bird as the Giant and no one knew they were in Ecuador until 15 years ago. Otherwise they were known from Columbia, that no man’s land of drug wars and politics until the past ten years when it has begun to open up for at least Spanish speaking bird nuts. The Moustached hops down and down toward me until I begin to think he is coming for my shoes or is going to make a wicket underpass beneath my legs. I am leaning on my camera with two tripod legs down and rain falling on my hat and camera gear. I cannot move to lower the last tripod leg and really where would it go in the mud and roots below me. We are not allowed to flash in these woods and the light is still like heavy moonlight under the overcast. Easy for my human eye to appreciate the animal before me but hell for the less advanced receptors of a Canon camera retina. It stays as long as Angel has worms and then slowly bounces off into the ferns again.
We have brunch up top. Angel insists on serving food to his guests. And he does have a fine view down one of his valley sides to steam rising above rainforest. They serve balls of plantain batter cooked with a heart of chicken meat. Bombas of some sort. They are hot and steamy. One puts a pepper salsa-like sauce on them. And drinks the local black and rich coffee.
Back at the home lodge, in a chair before hummers, we drink some liquor made with peaches or mangoes, I forget which. It is clear and fruity. The sun shines through the leaves and the hummer animals zing their steady wingsong of who-gets-what and who-goes-where. I try to just be there which is not always easy. And we actually ignore the hummers occasionally while we laugh. You talk to your friends and then you turn back to the trees moving slowly in Andean breezes. You could just be at home on some hillside and then a hummer with a six inch tail whizzes by shattering the home illusion. Far away now and then a parrot group cries and moves up the valley. When you think about sound at all, the hummer confusion comes back in the ear, like some lovely tinnitus that you don’t want to go away.
The next morning, the last at the lodge, Eric and I are up at dark and we head down the trail toward the blind. We scouted it the first day so we know the distance and the right turns to make with our headlamps over the narrow trail. Everyone else is asleep we assume, though somewhere the lovely little cook lady is probably doing knifework on vegetables or readying some eggs. We step up to the back door of the small plywood shack that is the bird blind and go inside where we find chairs arrayed randomly. A bright fluorescent light points away from us over some vegetable debris. It appears they put their kitchen scraps out for a broad compost pile. The light shines up a hill into the plant life. We sit and Kenny and Ladonna come in soon afterward. We look out through a dark mesh screen watching for movement. Bird sounds seem to come before the light beyond our light has changed from anything brighter than night. Things come quickly. A man comes in behind us and silently flicks on another light that shines farther up the hillside. Like we are dunces, the unknowing. He walks around outside the blind and tumps over a cup of worms in the midst of the compost, the Paz brothers having taught the world to make wormpiles for antpittas. The man has barely walked off into the darkness, his only job that morning perhaps to gather the worms before dawn, before things begin appearing to eat these delicacies. I think of him as the worm guy. And on many days I believe that I would trade his job for mine, thinking about it there in the darkwash behind the fluorescence in an Ecuadorian jungle.
The first birds to hop out into the light are more Antpittas. This is the Scaled Antpitta, close cousins to the Paz’s Moustached. Forest floor mountain birds that know what they do here. We hear some of them calling off in the darkness though these closer wormseekers are silent. It is a haunting owlish call like many of the bird sounds in this group. Two of the long legged things come down and go right for the wormpile. Or one seems to go for it and then hops off dark right. The other goes to the pile and literally fills his beak with squirming worms. It is a laughable amount of worm food. And it seems to us he has led his buddy off on a goose chase so that he may gorge himself in his greater knowledge. It is difficult not to laugh. We are trying to whisper but really we mostly sit amazed.
A darkling thing appears to the right and sings so loudly I jump. It has an electric blue eyeshine that is unearthly. It comes right to the brightest lightfall below the light bar and it seems to gaze and cock its head to ponder us. Though I think we are likely brightly invisible behind our mesh. It is an Immaculate Antbird, and this is its actual name and not my opinion of its appearance. It is one of the birds that spends much of its feeding life following army ant swarms and catching the insectiform escapees. This whip smart male has found a better world than ant chasing. And its direct gaze truly seems to suggest some far higher intelligence somewhere up around the toucan and the crow brain level. It has come for the moths that are attracted to the light, which I presume is left on all night. It hops along the branch above and on the ground before jumping up and hitting the metal light cover so hard it makes it sing out like a fine leaded glass. “Bingggg.” And it has a moth. It bashes the bigger ones against the branches above the light. It comes again and again and brings its chocolate covered mate with it. There is a huge moth right on the mesh in front of me. And I can see that he (this bright eyed bird) sees it as well as I do but is unwilling to come that close to the mesh. Some inner sense that he must have of giants on the other side of this diaphanous wall. I being the said feared giant but after a few comings and goings I can resist no more and I tap the moth away and into the light as a sacrifice. The Antbird sees it immediately and takes it within seconds. His prized winged thing is so big it flap-flaps inside his beak slowly and mechanically, obscuring his birdhead like a wind up shroud that has almost wound down. It makes one wish for a camera so hard, briefly, it feels like heartburn. But who can appreciate this birdlife in the midst of all the arrangements required for photography. I will be the photo man another day. This day I just gape and laugh.
After breakfast, Eric and I decide to take a trail run before I have to leave in the afternoon. Eric is staying another morning and night and swears he is coming back to the blind again for more the next day. We have not been any distance up the higher trails. We have not been without Andres’ guide ears, though we both studied calls for many months before the trip. I have been slightly obsessed with one hummingbird that does not come to the feeders but stays up and calls along the trails here. It is the Wedge-billed Hummingbird and we swore we heard it talking on some short trail ventures earlier. On the trail again, we swear we hear it once more. And we stare and pace back and forth along this section of trail, thinking the thing must be ventriloquistic or magically stealth feathered. But Eric finally sees a hummer perched above the trail and by some slight miracle it is the Wedge-billed. It has been sitting and singing the whole time right above us.
We make the snap decision to just keep going up the high trail. Because it is there. And it takes us into man versus wild country where the trail vanishes several times, once into a creek that has recently roared. We hear Andean Solitaire’s. And Eric after the whole week in country realizes he can make bird calls with his phone. We talk up the Solitaire. We talk to some Antpittas. We think we may die out in this wilderness place just a half mile from the lodge slipping and sliding over bare remnants of walkways. We decide we would rather know than go back. How many chances will we have to run loose in Ecuador in our lives anyway? We survive.
Back in the city, I have the big suite booked just for the giant bed and the tub. It is the honeymoon suite. And my wife is glad to be back in civilization, though not quite that glad. We have come back to the same hotel for comfort and familiarity I suppose. The place has painted walls, which are a small miracle of local art. The floors creak, the stairways creak. The power seems to be somewhat unreliable. Bookshelves in the rooms are stocked with random paperbacks that have come from God knows where. Eric actually steals a copy of Death in the Andes, and reports finishing it several weeks later. (He leaves two titles in exchange.) I find the books are more for decoration. We are back in the world of Eared Doves and Sparkling Violetears. We take some rich coffee at a lovely little corner coffee shop. We walk the tight hallways of a local market where hundreds of vendors seem to be sheltered under one roof. Blankets and sweaters and knick knacks, the sellers look like locals who are renting the many small stalls down the narrow aisles. There must be a hundred vendors. It is hard to walk in some places. But if you stop and touch something, the seller is immediately alert. And no need for bargaining and bantering, if you just look unsure the price starts dropping…in Spanish.
At dark the next morning on departure day, from the front porch of the hotel I can see the stars for virtually the first time in Ecuador. Straight above me, the familiar form of Scorpio is perfectly framed by roof and trees. I cannot see any other constellations. Inside the glass doors one of the hotel employees is asleep on the couch. Duty all night, with very little to do I am guessing. The bags are amassed. The taxi is on its way. It is the melancholy time below Scorpio. I won’t be back in South America for a year, most likely. Should I just be here all the time? This is the eternal question of the traveler again. I am back home already, obviously, typing this from my home porch on a wireless notebook. An Indigo Bunting is chipping nearby. And I just remembered I can bring up a Bunting call and really get him going. It may be a cruelty. I don’t know. Perhaps he feels more important with an invisible male Bunting to defend on the porch. But he comes right up. The woods have greened up after days and days of rain. I had less rain in Ecuador really. The swamp is full. Leaves and flowers glisten and float on the surface when I go to stare into the water. My hummer feeder is hanging in front of me full of nectar, empty of birds. I imagine there is never a time when the feeders are empty of birds in Ecuador. I picture the Antbirds frisking the lights in the dawn at the hide without me. It goes on in my absence. This is a good thing. And to know it is there, to have the map in my head with the image, it is something. Something less than you want, but more than you had before. The melancholy of the returned, farsickness and homesickness and the reverberation between. This is where we live, in the interstices of longing and satisfaction. I just don’t know if it is where we belong. Eyes closed, I still don’t know. But the bunting is back. The titmice are talking to me. A Swainson’s Thrush calls from across my road. I saw some of these thrushes in Quito, in the gardens, in the forest. They made me smile. This one may be fresh from the Andes; singing his way to Canada. And at any rate, spring is all around me on my porch, here to pacify me, I have to think, to hold my shoulders in case I weep, from one of these distance sicknesses, abruptly and unexpectedly, like a very lost child.
[Thanks to Kenny and LaDonna Nichols for the accompaniment. And Eric Haley for the wild trail walk and the odd Spanish lessons. Thanks to Andrés Vasquéz for the guide work and Tandayapa Lodge for the hospitality. And, of course, to Vicki for sustained toleration of my poorly controlled wandering habit and the intermittent bird insanity.]