Island trip proves a winged extravaganza

When I began planning my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands, it seemed silly to travel that far and not see some of the mainland. So I added an optional, two-day extension in Ecuador’s cloud forest.

After flying back to Quito at the end of the island cruise, 23 members of the group boarded a bus for a 3 Ω-hour bus ride to Cabanas San Isidro on the east side of the Andes Mountains. It was a harrowing trip on twisting mountain roads in the fog, rain and darkness.

When we checked into our cabins, we noticed that the sky had cleared. Myriad stars shimmered like diamonds against the blackness of space. Galo Real, our guide, enjoyed the sight as much as we did because he said, “We don’t often see the stars here in the cloud forest.”

San Isidro sits at an elevation of about 6,400 feet in the midst of the cloud forest, where it’s always humid and often foggy and rainy. The area is one of the many headwaters that drain into the Amazon River basin.

After settling into our cabins, we walked a short distance to the dining area. Galo was stationed along the way shining a spotlight on the top of a tall snag. Perched in plain view was San Isidro’s “mystery owl.” It’s about the size of a barred owl, but its markings are black and white. Similar in appearance to the black-banded owl, which is found only below 3,000 feet, many visiting ornithologists believe it represents a new species. Galo told us that DNA testing is under way to determine its identity.

We met at 5:45 that first morning at San Isidro and quickly got good looks at rufous-bellied nighthawks in flight. As the sky brightened, olive-backed and montane woodcreepers, smoke-colored pewees and pale-edged flycatchers foraged for moths at an overhead security light.

The most conspicuous song of the morning was a loud, musical whistle, reminiscent of a Carolina wren. The gray-breasted wood-wren was the only bird of the trip that I learned to identify by ear.

Hummingbirds whizzed by frequently, but their identification had to wait until later in the day when we could spend some time at the feeders. Meanwhile, we gawked at the spectacularly marked crimson-mantled woodpeckers, Inca jays, and northern mountain-caciques.

The highlight of the morning came just before breakfast. We followed a man carrying a container of earthworms onto a dark jungle trail. After a few whistles, a chestnut-crowned antpitta appeared on the trail and began feasting on the worms. We got to watch this one for at least two minutes.

I can’t begin to describe everything we saw during our 36 hours at San Isidro, but I must at least mention the hummingbirds. Scores of at least eight species made it difficult to focus on any individual bird. My favorites were the large collared Inca, that showed its true dark iridescent markings in some of my photographs, the chestnut-breasted coronet, and the long-tailed sylph, an emerald green beauty with a long flowing tail. I thought I was in hummingbird heaven.

But the next day, after being rained out during our morning walk, I discovered that hummingbird heaven is found at Guango Lodge. On our way back to Quito, we stopped at Guango for lunch, but between the bus and the dining room were about 25 nectar feeders. And each was swarming with hummers, including a species with a name I can’t get out of my head. The tourmaline sunangel is as beautiful as its name suggests.

But my favorite cloud forest bird was the sword-billed hummingbird. Its bill, a full 4 inches long and distinctly upcurved, is longer than its body. As it hovered at the feeders, it seemed to struggle to get that enormous bill into the feeders’ ports. But whenever it did, it stole the show. Everyone marveled at the sword-bill.

A final stop at a lake on the Papallacta Pass at 13,500 feet produced an Andean teal and Andean gulls. The next morning, after a 3 a.m. wake-up call at the Quito Marriott, it was off to the airport and back to Pittsburgh. What a trip!

XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail the Web site