Thursday, April 14, 2011

TBL Senderos

Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL) montane cloud forest property was spread out over approximately 64 hectares (160 acres) with roughly 6 kilometers (4 miles) of trails. We had visited TBL during our 2008 Northern Ecuador tour but, like many tour groups, most of our time was spent off property exploring nearby birding hot spots. Our time away combined with daily rainfalls conspired to not allow us any opportunity to explore TBL trails. That would soon be rectified.
While TBL had a cursory map of lodge trails it made available to guests, Ryan Merrill, the volunteer we replaced, drew us a more detailed sketch of the trail system. Ryan also spent time walking the trails with us, pointing out various highlights. TBL had bird checklists which covered the Tandayapa Valley region along with a recently updated annotated bird list. An illustrated bird guide (McMullen and Vásquez) that covered the 700 or so species of birds (along with Choco region endemics) typically found in northwest Ecuador was available for purchase. The latter significantly narrowed bird species options in the valley when compared to using the country-wide Ridgley field guide.

Trail heads
The TBL trail system consisted of five trails that for the most part emanated and terminated at the lodge. All trail heads began along a path that lead away from the upper observation deck through a flower garden. One's hiking ability and physical condition dictated which trail to take. Hikes might last a half hour or more than five hours depending on one's route and desire to dawdle. Most sections of trails were narrow and steep so walking quickly was not advisable. Besides, one never knew what birds might be lurking in the foliage so it was in one's best interest to dawdle.

Tanager Trail through the coffee plantation
Tanager Trail tunnel of vegetation - nice place to find a Whiskered Wren
The two shortest hikes involved the Tanager Trail and Hide Trail. The former sloped upward behind and above the lodge through a recently planted shade-grown coffee plantation. Like the lower observation deck, Tanager Trail offered a bird's eye view of canopy, especially nice when a feeding flock was present. Tropical Parulas, White-tailed and Rufous-tailed Tyrannulets, Golden Tanagers, Barred and One-colored Becards were just a few seen from Tanager Trail. The trail dead-ended at the boundary with a neighboring property. We checked the trail on a nearly daily basis. How nice it would have been to have a bench at the crest of the trail in the plantation to sit and wait for feeding flocks to appear.

early morning glimpse of mountains from Hide Trail
view from observation point just off the Hide Trail
Uniform Antshrike (female) catching an insect
The Hide Trail, the most level of all the trails, lead to the lodge's "hide" or blind, roughly a five minute walk away. The blind consisted of a small wooden building on stilts with a tine roof. Four steps lead up to a canvas covered doorway. Pull the canvas aside and step inside to discover a few chairs and wooden benches that faced a floor-to-ceiling screen wall that looked out over the lodge's compost pile. A light in front of the compost was left on 24/7 to attract insects, mainly moths, which in turn attracted insect eating birds. Regulars included Immaculate Antbirds, Uniform Antshrikes, Masked Trogons, Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Spotted Barbets, and Russet-crowned Warblers. Several of these species would cling to the screen to snatch insects, often within arm's length of anyone sitting quietly on a bench or chair. On occasion one might be treated to a Rufous-breasted Antthrush skulking in to grab a quick meal. Each morning and well before daybreak, either Richard or Angel trekked to the hide to scatter a small number of worms for the star of the show: Scaled Antpittas. As many as four were seen and/or heard.

Potoo Trail
from time to time we encountered trail upheavals
By far the longest, the Potoo Trail looped around and exited onto the Tandayapa Valley Road which then required a hike back up the lodge's steep driveway. The two remaining trails, Antpitta Trail and Nunbird, branched off Potoo. Antpitta Trail looped around and connected again with Potoo. Nunbird branched off but dead-ended on a high ridge. The most strenuous of all the trails Nunbird climbed steeply but unfortunately had become blocked by a mudslide. Further travel on Nunbird could be undertaken but not without great personal peril. We didn't feel the need to push ourselves beyond the section that had become unsafe.
Some of the goodies found along these trails included a Golden-winged Manakin lek and a Cock-of-the-Rock nest (the young had fledged just before we arrived at TBL). Time of day, weather conditions, and the appearance of feeding flocks dictated how many species we encountered daily. One entire day spent with Ryan traversing all the trails (some more than once) netted us 108 species. Highlights: Nariño Tapaculo (one practically landed on Tom's boot), both Golden-heaed and Crested Quetzal, Slaty Antwrens, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Ornate Flycatcher, Beautiful Jays, and Cock-of-the-Rock.

section of Nunbird Trail
Tandayapa Valley Road, a favorite hike for us and one we took on a near daily basis. Much less strenuous than the trails, the road climbed gradually to the Upper Tandayapa Valley. Six kilometers up the road was another establish lodge, Bellavista. It was enough of an elevation change to put one in a different life zone - and of course new different bird species. In the tropics, as with states in the western U.S., short distances of elevation rather than long level distances played a key role in habitat change.
A kilometer beyond Bellavista was the intersection with Research Station Road, a good place to find the incredibly vocal Plain-tailed Wrens. One more kilometer further lead to an area well known for finding Occelated Tapaculos. Tapaculos are typically described a loud, plain looking mousey little birds typically heard far more often than seen. Occellated Tapaculos fit this general description with one exception. They are anything but plain looking.
Another even more sought after endemic species in this same general area was the Tanager Finch. Another highly vocal but hard to see bird, A handsome, large finch-like bird with a broad silver-gray coronal stripe and distinctive eye-stripe that reached to the nape. A ferruginous body, brighter on the breast with a gray belly and blackish tail, its range is severely restricted to northwest Ecuador and to a thin strip in Columbia thus making a highly sought after specialty bird of the valley.

Carol at the base of the lower part of the waterfall
hiking up Tandayapa Valley Road with guests Tony and Joanada
Our walks on the road didn't take us a far as Bellavista. We restricted our walk to a couple of kilometers to the base of a large waterfall where White-capped Dipper could be found. Along the walk we discovered a Tawny-bellied Hermit lek. Views from the road at the lower valley were spectacular and where we would often see flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons and Roadside and Barred Hawks soaring. When feeding flocks appeared we often had the advantage of looking down on birds rather than straining to look up into canopy. Entire mornings could be spent walking the road with great edge birding. White-winged, Blue-capped, Golden, Golden-naped, Beryl-spangled, Black-capped, Golden-hooded, Bay-headed, and Flame-rumped were some of the more regular seen tanager species.
A walk down the road took us into the tiny town of Tandayapa, the valley's namesake. An intersection in Tandayapa lead to Nono Road. A bridge over the river just up from the intersection was a good spot to look for White-capped Dipper or Torrent Ducks. Further up Nono Road was an ideal location to call out Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Think of a Common Nighhawk only with ridiculously elongated tail streamers 3-4 times the length of its body. Tom's close encounter with one of these nightjars occurred one early evening at sunset by playing the nightjar's call on his iPod. A male Lyre-tailed swooped off its perched so suddenly and so closely that the tail streamers actually brush against Tom's hand he was using to hold his iPod. He thought for a moment that the bird was actually going to land on his hand!

section of Nono Road near Lyre-tailed Nighjar roost
During our stay at TBL Tom maintained a daily checklist spreadsheet of birds seen or heard around the lodge buildings and during our hikes. While we didn't get out to all the trails on a daily basis due to weather or time, we observed and recorded several species that here-to-fore were thought to be less frequent. We also managed to collectively lose 25 pounds out walking! If you're looking for a great weight loss program and incredible birding, we highly recommend an extended stay at TBL!

White-throated Quail-Dove sorting through the compost

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