Back in September when I visited Ecuador, I had one primary goal. I wanted to return to the cloud forest that surrounds Guango Lodge (http://cabanasanisidro.com/pages/guango_lodge.htm
) where I had spent a few memorable hours three years ago. My group was too large to spend the night at the lodge, so we stopped for lunch. It took me nearly two hours to herd the group less than 100 feet from the parking lot to the dining room. The group was bedazzled by the hundreds of hummingbirds visiting the many nectar feeders along the short cobblestone path.
After that brief visit, I vowed to return for a longer stay. This time I spent two nights and most of three days at Guango. I rarely wandered more than 50 yards from the Lodge.
When I arrived in midafternoon, I was disappointed. There were no birds on any of the 17 nectar feeders. Fortunately, my disappointment was short-lived.
The first bird to appear was the aptly named sword-billed hummingbird. With a recurved bill as long as its body, it struggled finding the feeder's small sipping ports. But just as it maneuvers itself to sip nectar from elongated tropical flowers, so too it hovers awkwardly to find the feeder's sweet reward.
Soon the sword-bill was displaced by two masked flowerpiercers. Dark blue with a black mask, these birds are nectar-drinking songbirds. But they get nectar, not by lapping it with a long tongue. Instead, they cheat. At flowers, they nip holes in the base of nectar-bearing blooms and take the sweet liquid as it trickles from the flower. On nectar feeders, they easily take nectar from the feeding ports.
The next morning the nectar feeders were quiet. It had rained hard the night before, and I suspected the hummers were drying out before venturing back to the feeders. Meanwhile, a series of other birds introduced themselves as I waited on the dining room porch.
First, a large robinlike bird appeared. My first impression was "giant robin." I was close; it was a great thrush. Its orange bill and legs and yellow eye ring were striking.
Next I heard a loud, pure, piercing whistle. It had to be a wren. When it appeared beneath a security lamp feeding on insects from the night before, I studied it closely. My notes read, "chunky wren, chestnut above, gray below, stubby tail, black and white streaks on cheeks and neck, fine white eye line above a bolder black one." Gray-breasted wood-wren.
At 10:15 I hit a trifecta. While still sitting on the porch, a larger bird flew into a tree directly in front of me. From below I could pick out black face, red eye ring, white breast band, red belly and bold black and white bars on the tail -- masked trogon.
Simultaneously a warbler caught my eye. Charcoal gray above, yellow below, yellow spectacles and white outer tail feathers -- a spectacled whitestart.
While still admiring the whitestart, I noticed a chestnut form running along a nearby tree branch. Its white eye line and throat were obvious, but its brown belly was marked by many white tear drops edged in black -- a pearled treerunner.
But I came to see hummingbirds, and shortly before noon the parade began. Sword-bills were joined by tourmaline sunangels, mountain velvetbreasts, chestnut-breasted coronets, white-bellied and gorgeted woodstars, buff-winged starfrontlets, fawn-breasted brilliants, collared incas and long-tailed sylphs. Sometimes I think I love the names as much as the birds themselves. I literally sat for hours as I observed and studied each one.
Though this may sound like a lazy way to bird, it's quite effective when many species await discovery. The smaller hummingbirds can be particularly elusive. The Tyrian metaltail, for example, is small and inconspicuous. When I finally found it just 10 feet off the porch, it perched quietly 18 inches above the ground for about 10 minutes. Against the mossy background of a tree trunk, it was nearly invisible.
Though I thought this trip would sate my appetite for tropical hummingbirds, it seems only to have whetted it. I'm planning another trip to Ecuador.
Correction: In last week's suet column the recipe should have read one cup of lard, not 1/3 cup.
Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.