I was walking slowly along the hiking trail in Mindo, a small mountain resort in Ecuador at 4000 feet above sea level, following the lead of Julia, my veteran bird guide. Suddenly she stopped and pointed somewhere up into the densely forested hillside - “Look up in the fork of the tree, on the left down branch, you’ll see the Masked Titter?” I asked her “the masked what?” Showing me the picture of the bird in her book “Birds of Ecuador”, she replied “It is the Masked Tityra, one of the flycatcher species that resides in Mindo”. With a considerable effort because of a bad neck, I looked up into canopy trying to spot this masked bird. Now, I am familiar with flycatchers from my days as a birdwatcher when I was a Zoology major at UC Berkeley many years ago. I know that many flycatchers love to perch on the edge of a tree branch or on a telephone wire, hopping off from time to time to grab a flying insect which is the staple of their diet. After 5-10 minutes of searching for this bird (trying to follow Julia’s direction), I finally spotted the medium sized flycatcher in my binoculars. He was a whitish and gray bird with a black mask and reddish facial markings along with a black tail and hindwings. I wanted to watch the handsome masked one for a while, but Julia prodded me to continue up the trail so we could see more birds.
During the 4 hour hike, Julia diligently pointed out to me at least 25 different species of birds including four species of Tanagers, a very colorful group of fruit eating birds - the lemon rumped tanager, the blue gray tanager, the gold tanager and the gray headed tanager - all very common “garden variety birds” in the Mindo area (especially the lemon rumped and the blue gray species). There were several species of euphonias, wrens, nuthatches, some very melodious (and noisy) warblers and at least three species of tropical hummingbirds. In addition to the Masked Tityra, we also sighted three other species of flycatchers - the very common Social Flycatcher, the Black crowned Tityra and the Black Phoebe. I sort of stopped in my tracks after seeing the Black Phoebe, a bird that I used to see on a regular basis in Northern California. I didn’t know that this flycatcher species ranged as far as the tropics. At least seeing him made me feel at home. I also heard a bird song that I was vaguely familiar with - that of a Grosbeak. I studied the nesting behavior of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak during my senior year in college; the tropical Grosbeak’s song was very similar.
In addition, with Julia’s diligence and persistence, I was able to see the very exotic looking Squirrel Cuckoo and the very uniquely named Immaculate Antbird. I guess that this antbird gets his name for not leaving a mess after he devours his meal -which consists mostly of ants - or maybe he is excellent at grooming himself. Who knows? We also sighted two species of woodpeckers, including the medium sized Scarlet-backed woodpecker (a male and female pair) that Julia claimed was the only pair that she had seen in the area, to which I retorted there must be some other individuals of this species in the general vicinity. After hearing my comments, she shook her head at me in disdain. We also heard (but did not see) at least two different species of Toucans calling in the bush - the fiery-billed Aracari and the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan. As we were walking up the trail, we passed by many holes that pockmarked the barren hillside on the left side of the road. Julia explained to me, that these holes were the nests the Blue crowned Motmot and most them had been abandoned some time ago. Julia spotted a Blue crowned Motmot high up in the canopy, but I gave up trying to spot it because of my bad neck.
I must admit that unlike most of Julia’s customers, I was not an avid birdwatcher nor was I trying to add new birds to my life list. With my best birdwatching days behind me, I would call myself as somebody who has an interest in the broad spectrum of natural history. Needless, to say, I was very rusty at spotting birds in the wild with a pair of binoculars. Oh well, despite the language problems - Julia’s English wasn’t the greatest and my Spanish was even worse - I would say I truly enjoyed my birdwatching outing. Maybe I should do it more often….