Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Macará to Vilcabamba

Carol and I were up and ready to roll at the appointed time. Or so we thought. Due to a miscalculation with our alarm clock (like not setting the correct time) we arrived in a darkened lobby. No wonder the hotel staff seemed a bit caught off guard. We showed up a half hour earlier than expected. A half hour of sleep might not seem like much but in “birding boot camp”, every half hour counted!
Good to his word, José managed to get our “meal plan” amended. Coffee now appeared plain black with an option to add sugar (if one could differentiate between the sugar and salt containers) and milk. Eggs in a glass remained but now we had yogurt and more fruits to choose from plus a few more spread options for the bread (still not toasted, though). A curious twist was that not everyone was served breakfast in the lobby. A second location next to the kitchen had been setup where others had taken their morning rations. Apparently this had happened the day before but we were unaware – we simply thought people were not showing up to eat (and who could blame them?). The second location came with entertainment – the owner had a pet parrot, which had taken a fancy to Melissa’s shoulder, preferring her to its owner’s. Even with the floorshow, the consensus was that we would be glad to see the backside of our hotel in Macará.
Bags aboard, we headed out. The first stop José had in mind was the lower Utuana Road. Recent heavy rains had left huge puddles of water and mud. We were happy to have our boots. Heavy rains always gave us pause as to the condition of hillsides. It did not escape our attention – in particular, Rita’s attention. Small rocks were shifting down the sides of the steep walls as we walked past. Given Rita’s close call in 2008 when a rock cliff let go and she had to scramble out of harm’s way, Rita took no chances. She walked well away from the walls (but not too closely to the abrupt edge of the road). An earlier near miss from a falling tree was also fresh in her memory. She was understandably a tad on edge but was a good sport about being kidded.
The distraction of shifting rocks aside, after scouring a thick tangle of hillside vegetation for some time, we finally managed good looks at a Watkin’s Antpitta, having only heard them for the previous three days.  Once found this one didn’t seem to want to let us out of its sight. Antpittas in general are difficult to see. Although they can be very boisterous, they are masters at skulking. Over the course of our tour we would tally eight Antpitta – four would be “heard only”.
Leaving lower Utuanan Road behind, we drove on to discover that dense fog from the day before wasn’t as dense. We again would try our luck walking the stretch of highway we had abandoned the day before. One target bird in particular, a Gray-headed Antbird: this would be our only opportunity. José had heard one the day before, calling in a thicket of bamboo. As we approached the thicket, a very loud front-end loader appeared from nowhere, apparently on a mission to remove fallen rock debris. Of all the sections of road containing debris, THIS is where the crew had elected to work: in front of the bamboo thicket where we were standing. José inquired as to “how long” the crew would be there. The answer was for a half hour – maybe more. Even if the crew remained for a half-hour or less, the noise would likely cause the bird(s) to move on. So we moved up the road but never relocated any Gray-headed Antbirds, calling or otherwise. We were in the right spot – just the wrong time. Birders: 0, road crew: 1. Sigh.
As promised, our bus time turned out to be quite lengthy. Passing through the town of Sozoranga we finally added Chestnut-collared Swallow. A colony was found beneath the eves of a building near a local school. Forging ahead we again marveled at many spectacular scenes of Ecuador mountainsides as we endured road construction delays. We traveled through Loja, a beautiful cosmopolitan city (dubbed Ecuador’s most safe and cleanest).  With two major universities and a rich cultural history of art, Loja is also Ecuador’s “Music Capitol.”
We had also begun to see more of the traditional native dress. The Vilcabamba Valley region also is known for its inhabitants longevity. Many healthy residents live to over 100 years while working agricultural jobs. Vilka Bamba or Huilcopamba means “Sacred Valley.” Many investigations are ongoing to determine the reasons for such longevity. Factors include a temperate climate, water rich in minerals, a diet low in fat and high in fiber and magnesium, the overall peacefulness of the valley (reduced stress), and prolonged physical activity.
Outside of Ahuaca del Carmen we stopped at a gas station where we had our box lunch break. Then on to search grass fields just outside Catamayo where we picked up: Parrot-billed Seedeater, Drab Seedeater, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch and better looks at Chestnut-throated Seedeater. Another brief stop further down the road netted us Tumbes Sparrow.
We finally drove into Vilcabamba where we were reintroduced to a tradition associated with “Carnival.” Water throwing. People throw water at each other as well as at moving vehicles. Like buses. Since Carnival lasted for several days, every time we passed through a town or village – even along deserted stretches of road – our bus was subjected to water balloons, water canons, and buckets of water. All this occurred in the spirit of friendly celebration but best to leave windows closed when approaching areas of civilization or suffer the consequences.
When we pulled into the parking area at Hosteria Izhcayluma we learned that José was correct – the accommodations had improved. Dramatically. This was more like it! Charming cottages, a restaurant on the premises, a real bar, a swimming pool, an opportunity for laundry services…and a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. We were not in the city proper. Of course we wouldn’t be on the Izhcayluma property much during the day but we certainly appreciated the change.
Assigned to our rooms, bags delivered, and after a chance to freshen up, we headed out to investigate the grounds. Having arrived in daylight we appreciated the beautiful flower gardens. The bar service was slow but the Margarita’s were worth the wait.
Our evening meal, presided over by chef Alejandro, had been pre-determined so all we had to do was show up. And we didn't have to ride to another location. One table comfortably accommodated all of us. Our itinerary for the next day had us getting up pretty early but there weren't many grumbles. With our daily checklist tally completed, we wandered off to our new digs. We were definitely not in Macará anymore.
Other birds tallied during the day: better looks at Rufous-headed Chachalaca, Croaking Ground-Dove, Gray-chinned Hermit (leader only), Rufous-necked Foliage-gleaner, much better looks at Henna-headed Foliage-gleaner, Scaled Antpitta (heard only), Great Antshrike, Elegant Crescentchest, Tumbesian Tyrannulet, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant (finally removed from the “heard only” column), Three-banded Warbler, Piura Hemispingus (heard only), Plushcap (cool bird and great looks!), Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, Hooded Siskin. En route we picked up another raptor: Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.