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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Ecuador (incl. a few sites in coastal Peru),
Schafhohle 4, 74226 Nordheim, GERMANY
From May through August 2001, I spent 2 ½ incredible months in Ecuador, seeing many unique birds in a vast array of different habitats.
In May 2001, I was going to carry out a research project in Manu NP (Peru), but I failed to apply for permits in time, so I had to change my plans for that summer and decided to spend most of my time bird-watching in Ecuador instead, since I had already been to most parts of Peru on previous visits.
I started from Lima, working my way north along a handful of Peruvian coastal sites and got to Ecuador within 10 days. From the adjacent (southwestern) part of Ecuador (El Oro), I pursued a circular counterclockwise route, birding the Loja-Zamora area and from there visiting Andean and Eastern foothill sites on my way north to the lowland rainforests along the Napo River. By the time I had reached the northern Andes and their western foothills, I ran into some serious time problems, so that there was not as much time left for the Chocó Region and the Mindo area as I would have liked to have. Indeed, the last couple of weeks I was basically just running from site to site trying to see as much as possible within such a short period. Though having spent a little more than 2 ½ months in Ecuador, I will certainly have to go back to do more justice to a few sites that I could just briefly visit this time.
I didn't give myself a lot of breaks, and indeed birded every single day (most days with an early morning start) except for one day spent in bed with fever in Huarmey (Peru). Especially the first month in Ecuador was characterized by frequent illness, like stomach infections and stomach pain, that sometimes severely impeded birding. Taking it a little easier is certainly something I will have to learn on one of my next trips.
Budget Birding in Ecuador:
Ecuador is probably still one of the world's greatest countries for "budget birding". I did all my birding on public transport. A car is certainly of great advantage, but it can all be done by bus as well, though a rental car can really make it ten times as easy to work a few of the more remote sites. Being used to Peruvian conditions, it was a relief to learn that - in Ecuador - you can avoid bus trips of more than 5 hours altogether (in theory) if you have time for a few minor sites along the way.
Ecuador is not as cheap as it used to be before the US Dollar replaced the inflation-ridden Sucre a couple of years ago. Generally, the farther away you travel from the Peruvian border, the more expensive it gets. In small villages in the South, I still paid only $1-2 for a very basic hostal room without private bathroom, and in most of the bigger towns I was able to find a reasonably clean hotel room with shower for $4-6. Buses generally charge you about $1 for a journey of 1 hour (with great regional deviations). After an exhaustive day of birding, you can get a "merienda" (which includes a soup, main dish - usually rice and chicken - and a drink) for as little as $0.75 - 2.50.
On the other hand (and that's what sets Ecuador apart from other countries such as, say, Peru), you have the possibility of birding a wide spectrum of habitats and sites without lowering your standard of living. Numerous excellent lodges and an improving infrastructure make birding a delight in many areas of the country. Exploring Ecuador's birds that way is certainly more expensive, but our tourist dollars make one of the largest contribution to the conservation of Ecuador's birds.
Timing of the trip:
In my opinion, seasons are not quite as crucial to good birding in humid habitats as they are in dry ones. The period from May through August certainly proved destructive to bird-watching in the dry Tumbesian Region in the South, with some very low bird activity and many a dipped endemic. The next time I travel to that region, I will most definitely choose another time of year so as not to risk missing more than 50% of the specialties again. Bird activity was generally good, partly even above average, along the western slope in northern Ecuador, where the dry season made for some pleasant weather (except for those perhumid sites that are ALWAYS wet, like El Placer and Jatun Sacha Bilsa). The East Slope was disconcertingly rainy, and at some sites I lost as much as 70% of my birding time to heavy downpours. I think I have never been as wet as at the Sierra de los Guacamayos, where the rain wouldn't really stop for 2 days.
I was probably the last birder to visit the country without Ridgely and Greenfield's ground-breaking and highly recommended new book "Birds of Ecuador" since it had not been out yet when I left. I used Hilty's "Birds of Colombia" and the plates of the passerine volumes of Ridgely and Tudor's "Birds of South America" instead. I think the lack of the former book cost me quite a few species: I found myself particularly helpless in the more southern parts of the country and with regard to non-passerines such as hummers, with many an unidentified woodstar in spite of excellent views.
For site information, I used Hejnen, Best and Williams' "Guide to Birdwatching in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands" (hereafter Hejnen et al.), which is generally very good and contains detailed information for a great majority of Ecuadorian birding sites. Nonetheless, I hope this trip report proves valuable to future visitors as many of the site accounts in Hejnen et al. are now quite out-dated.
This trip report will deal with the sites in the chronological order of visit, starting in the southwest (El Oro) with Buenaventura, and continuing from there eastwards through the Tumbesian Region of Loja Province, the Podocarpus Region and a few additional sites in Zamora Province, northwards via Huashapamba (near Saraguro), the Cuenca area, down into the eastern foothill region around Limón, north from there towards the lowlands along the Río Napo, back west up to the northern Ecuadorian Andes around Quito, down the west slope into the Chocó Region and south from there to the drier Machalilla NP. At the end, I will give brief accounts of the Peruvian coastal sites visited along the way to/from Lima. A trip list can be found in the back of the report.
Anyone who can help with the identification of the mystery becard (see end of trip list) or anyone who can provide more information on Lita Woodpecker (see the El Placer account for the trouble I've had with it), please contact me at email@example.com
Buenaventura Trail (Piñas)
In early June, I spent three full and very misty days with almost zero visibility along the trails/tracks. The low birding success prompted me to plan in another 1-2 days on my way back to Lima, but then I ran out of time and couldn't come back.
Stay in Piñas (Hotel de las Orquídeas was probably the best value for money on my trip) and take a pre-dawn bus towards the coast that can drop you off at the virgin's shrine after 10-15min. The cloud forest patches at ca. 800-1000m around here are THE site for the two El Oro endemics, namely the Tapaculo and the Parakeet, and therefore a must on any more extensive itinerary. Besides, Buenaventura hosts a peculiar mix of Chocó and Tumbesian avifauna and is supposedly one of the better places to pick up specialties especially from the latter avifaunal region. The site is well covered in Hejnen et al., though their "Dianita Trail" (which is even signposted now) was nothing more than a steep and treacherous mud-slide through pastures. After two hours of carefully working my way uphill along it at snail pace, I hit the end of it just a little before the forest fragment indicated on their map, and I really doubt that it still continues through the fragment these days. Birding was a lot better along the left main track, which winds farther down the valley than the map makes you think, and which sports some additional side paths through forest fragments that I found to be way better than the Dianita Trail.
A few of the remnant patches have been purchased by Fundación Jocotoco to save them from destruction. A sign has been put up near the virgin's shrine, and apparently they are interested in expanding their private reserve in the future.
My stay here was clouded by heavy fog and failure. Bad visibility due to constant mist probably kept me from finding El Oro Parakeet (though I did manage to see Bronze-winged Parrot and Red-masked Parakeet). I also missed the El Oro Tapaculo, the supposedly tame and confiding Rufous-headed Chachalaca and the Tumbesian endemic Gray-backed Hawk, for which this is one of the better sites.
The best feature about this site was the presence of big and diverse mixed flocks containing numerous tanagers (e.g. Silver-throated, Fawn-breasted, Golden-naped), bush-tanagers (incl. Common), Russet Antshrike, Club-winged and Golden-winged Manakins, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Three-banded Warbler, White-throated Spadebill, Andean Solitaire, Black-winged Saltator, Spotted Woodcreeper, Lesser Greenlet and Line-cheeked Spinetails.
The secondary habitat produced Slaty Spinetail and Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Hummers were represented by Violet-tailed Sylph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, and Tawny-bellied Hermit. Black-and-white Owl was easy to call in at dawn near the shrine, Scaled Antpitta came in very obligingly in one of the forest fragments, but calling Plain-backed Antpittas were non-responsive. A perched Barred Hawk was probably one of the better raptor sightings of my trip. Other notable species included Pale-vented and Ecuadorian Thrush, the only Yellow Tyrannulets of the trip and Tricolored and Stripe-headed Brushfinch.
one partly cloudy day with some pleasant light drizzle in early June
Hejnen et al. just treat this as a minor site, but it makes for a convenient one-day stop-over on your way from Piñas to the Sozoranga area. However, the bus ride can be confusing, as you have to change busses at least twice (in Santa Rosa or Catamayo and in Veracruz) and Hejnen et al's misleading road map could make you think it's easier to get here. I did see most of the good species present; therefore, this was probably my most successful Tumbesian site.
Stay in one of three hotels in Catacocha and don't miss the only pre-dawn bus towards Macará that can get you to the forested slope by dawn. The slope is hard to miss on your way south to Macará, ca. 7km from Catacocha on the right hand side and can best be accessed by getting off at a sharp left-hand road bend and walking across the pasture (there is a gate, so don't climb the fence!). At the lower edge of the forest, there is an irrigation ditch (?) that can be used as a path along the edge. Walking it towards the right will get you to the inconspicuous trailhead of an excellent path that leads through the forest all the way up to the summit of the hill to a farmstead.
Compared with other Tumbesian sites, activity in the forest interior was outstanding, with Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner, Watkin's Antpitta, Blue-crowned Motmot, Ecuadorian Piculet, Bay-crowned Brushfinch, Three-banded and Gray-and-gold Warblers, Black-and-white Becard, Pacific Elaenia, and Plumbeous-backed Thrush.
The orchard-like upper forest edge near the farmstead produced Loja (Amazilia) Hummingbird and a pair of Gray-breasted Flycatchers. The secondary brush below the lower edge was good for Fasciated Wren, Pacific Hornero, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Black-capped Sparrow, Pacific Parrotlet, Ecuadorian Thrush, Elegant Crescent-chest, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Harris' Hawk, White-winged Brushfinch and Pacific Pygmy-Owl.
Peregrine nested on the cliffs.
Tambo Negro (near Macará)
I came here for one sunny afternoon and the following morning in mid-June, certainly not a time of year I would recommend to anyone who intends to do some birdwatching here.
Most dry lowland forests in Tumbesian Ecuador are gone. Tambo Negro is a protected forest of maybe a few hundred hectares that has - for some obscure reason - lingered on into our days, maybe because of its proximity to the Peruvian border. The forest with its big Ceiba trees looks great from the road (Macará - Sozoranga) that passes it. But should you manage to actually get across the river and enter it, you will soon realize that goats and cattle have contributed their share to a highly degraded understorey. Tambo Negro is the last local and even national stronghold for many a threatened species (White-headed Brushfinch, Blackish-headed Spinetail, Gray-headed Antbird.). All of these, however, require a living forest understorey and are therefore likely to have decreased considerably since the last mist-netting expedition established their presence. I didn't find any of them, but that may be due to the general low bird activity and the hot and sunny weather at that time of the year (June).
On the map, it all looks very close, and so I thought I could work this site from Sozoranga. That was WRONG. Bus connections along the Macará-Sozoranga Road are very sporadic (only about 3-4 per day) and there is no way of getting to Tambo Negro before 11.00am from Sozoranga (more than a 1hr ride), a time by which most birds have already shut their beaks and hidden into the vegetation. Even from Macará (30min), you have to choose between getting up at to get to Tambo Negro 2hr before dawn or getting there in the late morning. The Quebrada Hueco Hondo Trail described in Hejnen et al. is not known among the villagers at Tambo Negro, and their map isn't really conducive to finding that trail either. Generally, you have to get across the river first, which may be impossible before late May due to high water levels. On the other hand, bird activity is very bad in the dry season (after late May), so it's a tough choice when to come here. On the other side of the river, you will have to find one of dozens of cattle trails that lead up the slope and give access to the degraded interior.
The best species I saw in spite of the general low activity was a flock of Gray-cheeked Parakeets that circulated around the valley and could even be seen perched on a few occasions.
The forest interior had some good canopy flocks, though the undergrowth was dead: One-colored and Black-and-white Becard, Gray-and-gold Warbler, White-tailed Jay, Pacific Elaenia, Plumbeous-backed Thrush, Ecuadorian Piculet and Collared Antshrike were all more or less common.
More secretive species included Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner (I made a nice recording), Ecuadorian Trogon, Lineated Woodpecker, Pale-browed Tinamou and Watkin's Antpitta (the latter only heard).
The secondary edge and disturbed clearings produced Fasciated Wren, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Pacific Parrotlet, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Pacific Hornero and Harris' Hawk.
In mid-June, I spent a full day, an early morning and a late afternoon in the forest fragments and secondary scrub around Sozoranga. A single heavy downpour; otherwise dry but cloudy.
Sozoranga has the disadvantage of featuring only a single hostal, which is very dirty, cheap and basic, with bathrooms that you may want to stay clear of. Other than that, it makes for some nice birding: Being situated right at the borderline of the Tumbesian lowlands and the temperate highland vegetation, you can see some pretty rare species in the surrounding forest patches.
Bird Sites and Birds:
For excellent directions to the individual birding sites around town, see Hejnen et al. Habitat along the road to Utuana is very degraded and I didn't find Hejnen et al.'s Panacillo forest patch, which is very likely destroyed now. The track to Nueva Fátima, on the other hand, still holds some secondary roadside forest, especially where the two quebradas cross (Yaguana and Suquinda, harboring both Watkin's and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta (both heard only), Sooty-crowned Flycatcher and Ecuadorian Piculet). Secondary vegetation was surprisingly species-rich, holding such goodies as Gray-breasted Flycatcher (unexpectedly common and vocal), Loja Tyrannulet, Loja Hummingbird, Black-capped Sparrow, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Black-and-white Seedeater, Hooded Siskin, Fasciated Wren, White-winged Brushfinch, One-colored Becard, Red-masked Parakeet, Ecuadorian Thrush and Tawny-bellied Hermit.
The church tower in town is home to a huge colony of Chestnut-collared Swallows. One half-day in the Tundo Forest produced Rufous-necked Foliage-gleaner (twice in mixed flocks), Chapman's Antshrike, Variable Hawk, Silver-backed and Fawn-breasted Tanager, Line-cheeked Spinetail and Streaked Xenops, but if I had known at that time that it is the easiest Ecuadorian site for Gray-headed Antbird, I would have invested another half-day.
If you plan on staying for more than a couple of days, you should try and get up to Jatumpamba, an unlogged forest area even bigger than Tundo and now protected. It is about a 3-4hr walk from Tundo (which itself is 2hrs from Sozoranga on foot), but it is considerably higher and may not yield the same species composition. Mules for the journey up to Jatumpamba can be hired in Sozoranga.
The whole area benefits greatly from local protection work by the private Loja-based organization ArcoIris. Remaining forest fragments are no longer logged by the town folks.
I spent the best parts of two mid-June days at Utuana (cloudy weather).
Near the little village of Utuana, there are tiny remnant pockets of Western Andean temperate forest habitat as it must have covered the entire region in the past. The habitat has been further disturbed since Hejnen et al.'s times (a decade ago), which is well evident when one compares their site description with what's left of the site.
I performed very badly at this site, missing virtually all the site specialties. This was doubtless due partly to some stomach infection that drove tears of pain into my eyes for most of my stay, but part of it also has to be attributed to the low overall bird activity.
You will have to stay at the dirty hostal in Sozoranga, unless you want to ask people in Utuana to accommodate you. Take the first bus from Sozoranga (ca. 5.30am), which will get you to Utuana within the first hour of day-light.
The site has changed considerably from Hejnen et al.'s descriptions. Their mule-trail now starts as a conspicuous track that leads up to the military station at the summit. About 200m after the beginning of this track (right where a gate blocks the track), the actual mule-trail splits from the military track to the right, leading through the steep cutting and into the forested (partly cleared) slope on the other side. Continuing along the track to the summit is only possible if military personnel open the gate for you (which they did for me). Otherwise, birding has to be done along the mule trail. Contra to Hejnen et al., the best habitat is not right beyond the cutting (where there must have been a lot of recent degradation), but much further on.
The whole area is replete with hummingbirds, and you can hear Green-tailed Trainbearer and Sparkling and Green Violetears from every bush. Rarer hummingbird species frequently encountered (especially in the better habitat) include Rainbow Starfrontlet and Purple-throated Sunangel.
Secondary scrub around the village and along the cleared parts of the military track yielded Black-crested Tit-Tyrant (only Ecuadorian site!), Black-cowled Saltator, Lesser Goldfinch, Loja Tyrannulet, Yellow-tailed Oriole and White-crested Elaenia.
The least disturbed parts of the temperate forest - at other times supposedly frequented by rich mixed flocks - were very quiet, the best species being White-browed Spinetail, Jelski's Chat-Tyrant and Chapman's Antshrike. The few mixed feeding parties contained Masked and White-sided Flowerpiercers, Blue-capped, Hepatic and Silver-backed Tanager, Red-crested Cotinga, Line-cheeked Spinetail, White-tailed Tyrannulet and Ecuadorian Piculet. Raptors were represented by Variable Hawk and Mountain Caracara (the latter as yet unrecorded from this site?). Chestnut-crowned Antpitta was heard only.
Cajanuma (Podocarpus National Park)
In mid-June, I invested three full days with fairly sunny, dry and windy weather. Temperatures were very low in the morning and afternoon.
I am certain that this is a very unique place with many special birds, but to be frank I didn't enjoy myself too much at this site. Activity throughout the day was near zero, and at times I went for hours without seeing a bird. The climate was a lot harsher than I thought, so be prepared for some cold weather. Also, early-morning access was problematic (see below). Generally, I missed many of the so-called Cajanuma specialties or saw them better at other places like Quebrada Honda.
Pre-dawn transport from Loja to the gate is no problem, but from the staffed gate (where you have to wake up a guy called Enrique) it is 8km uphill along a gravel track to the headquarters where the trails start (though good habitat starts from Km 6). On two mornings I opted for a taxi from Loja ($10) to the HQ, and on another morning Enrique offered me to take me up to the HQ on his motorbike. If you decide to walk up there, you'd have to start from the gate at least around to be there at dawn. Remember that an early morning start is even more important at this site than at lower elevations. A one-week entrance ticket to Podocarpus NP (which entitles you to entry to Río Bombuscaro as well) is $5 for non-Latinos.
Hejnen et al.'s rendering of the trail system contains one grave error, but you won't have problems finding your way around the well signposted trails. I saw most of the flock following species in the early morning (especially along the Bosque Nublado Loop). Later, activity seems to completely drop out along the trails, so the more disturbed habitat along the highest part of the access track might be a better place to spend your . Flocks contained Rufous-naped and Pale-naped Brushfinch, Lacrimose, Buff-breasted, Hooded and once even Black-chested Mountain-Tanager, Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager, Golden-crowned and Grass-green Tanager, White-banded Tyrannulet, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Blue-backed and Capped Conebill, Superciliaried, Black-headed and Black-capped Hemispingus, Streaked Tuftedcheek and Plushcap. Monospecific flocks of Rufous Wren were seen on a few occasions, White-throated Quail-Dove and Crowned and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant just on one. Buff-winged Starfrontlet was one of the commonest hummers in the temperate forest, though rather hard to get a good look of.
I spent the best part of an afternoon and a whole morning (from dawn) in the elfin around the "mirador" looking for Masked Mountain-Tanager, Orange-banded Flycatcher and the rare Chestnut-bellied Cotinga. I did not see any of them. On both dates, winds of gale-like force were whipping the sturdy elfin bushes and any bird abandoning its retreat in the vegetation would have risked being blown off to the next mountain chain, so the only birds I saw were a Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant and a Great Sapphirewing.
The bamboo along the loops and Mirador Trail harbored Plain-tailed Wren as well as Glossy-black Thrush. One afternoon, I also got lucky in that a pair of Chestnut-naped Antpittas started duetting at 2m distance along the upper parts of the access track and responded readily to a recording of their own duet (with great views). The more disturbed areas along the track afford better views and sport some edge habitat, so that's where I saw Bearded Guan, Tyrian Metaltail, Glossy Flowerpiercer, White-browed Ground-Tyrant and Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant. Flame-throated Sunangel was seen along the trails on a few occasions.
On two occasions, I visited La Argelia for a couple of spare hours before sunset (sunny weather).
La Argelia itself is a borough of Loja where the local university maintains a botanical garden (to the right of the road as you leave town for Vilcabamba). On the left side, there is an old grove (university study plot) of big non-native trees (partly eucalypts) that supports some of the more common forest birds, most notably Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. Both times I went, I was able to elicit vocal response with a tape-recorder, but I never did get to see them. This species is very easy at some other sites, so come only if you're desperate.
You have to tell the taxi driver you want to go to the "Jardín Botánico de La Argelia", and some don't even know where that is.
Quebrada Honda / Jocotoco Reserve
In mid-June, I spent two drizzly and overcast days and one additional (very rainy) morning along the trail to Quebrada Honda. In early July, I came back and spent another two days (with mist but only light rain) in the area, mostly along the new trail system in the Jocotoco Reserve, only one morning along the Quebrada Honda Trail itself.
The Jocotoco Antpitta Story:
Just a few years ago, a birding party led by Robert Ridgely visited the trail to a settlement called Quebrada Honda just south of Podocarpus NP, an area that had been visited by many birders on previous occasions. On their way back up to the road, they heard a vocalization none of them knew, and - upon playing back a recording of that vocalization - they saw an antpitta that obviously belonged to a distinct undescribed species, which they opted to give the English name Jocotoco Antpitta in view of its local name. Subsequent expeditions found ca. 20 pairs of that antpitta in the general area. A newly founded organization, Fundación Jocotoco, ended up buying 20,000ha of mostly undisturbed, partly cleared land that comprises most of the known range of that species. Today, this "Reserva Jocotoco" abuts Podocarpus NP and may be slightly enlarged in the near future.
Contra to what other trip reports claim, I purport that not Vilcabamba (to the north), but Valladolid (to the south) is by far the best base for budget birders: Valladolid, with its peculiar town folks, is only 30min by bus from the Quebrada Honda trailhead (as opposed to ca. 3hr from Vilcabamba) and has two basic (cheap but clean) hostals, neither of which has a "hostal" sign. A bus to Loja gets you to the trailhead right in time.
Going downhill from the Yangana Pass to Valladolid, Quebrada Honda Trail goes off to the left at the first building (a deserted little house on the right side) after the pass. It goes uphill for 50m, crosses a ridge and drops into the forested but partly cleared valley beyond.
A couple of hundred meters below the trailhead along the road to Valladolid, there is a roadside cross to the right ("La Cruz del Soldado") and a few hundred meters below there, there is a big wooden building behind a (green?) gate to the left, which constitutes the newly built headquarters of the Jocotoco Reserve. This is where the wardens live, and it also functions as a lodge for groups with reservations. A new trail system starts from this house and explores the forest on the surrounding slopes. Access to this trail system (and to the excellent hummingbird feeders at the HQ) is reserved to guests of the lodge and those who are willing to pay a $5 per diem entrance fee.
How to NOT see a Jocotoco:
The species appears to be most vocal from November through January. I went to the Quebrada Honda Trail in mid-June (without knowing about the headquarters and the other trail system), having no recording and just a general idea of what it is supposed to sound like. Unsurprisingly, I spent my 2 ½ days along the trail hearing nothing in the way of a Jocotoco and left unsatisfied.
How to see a Jocotoco:
In early July, I came back for two days. I had been lucky to meet Robert Ridgely in Río Bombuscaro as he was co-leading a VENT group on their Ecuador tour celebrating the publication of "Birds of Ecuador". Dave Wolf, the group's leader, was so kind as to supply me with a Jocotoco recording, so this time I also went to the HQ and the new trail system, asking the wardens about the best stake-out. And alas, playing the tape a couple of times sufficed to get a quick look at the bird (very quick indeed, and I never relocated it).
Quebrada Honda Trail and the new trail system around the HQ are not just worth a visit for the chance of seeing a Jocotoco. I spent most time along the Quebrada Honda Trail itself and found it a lot more productive than Cajanuma. As you descend into the valley, you first cross one sizeable piece of temperate forest for about 1-2km. Then you cross a large pasture and the eroded path starts sinking into the ground, making it look more and more as if you were walking through a canyon. After 1-2km, a good fragment of subtropical forest appears and the trail starts re-emerging from the canyon once in a while, giving you great views of the forest around. Below these 1-2km of subtropical forest, you get to the pastures along the river, and the trail seems to stay within bad habitat from there.
The temperate fragment along the upper half yielded nice mixed flocks containing Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, Rufous-naped and Pale-naped Brushfinch, Plushcap, Golden-crowned and Grass-green Tanager, Buff-breasted, Blue-winged, Lacrimose and Hooded Mountain-Tanager, White-banded and White-tailed Tyrannulet, Glossy-black Thrush, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager, Capped Conebill, Rufous Wren, Black-headed and Black-capped Hemispingus and Barred and Green-and-black Fruiteater. The only calling antpitta was Chestnut-naped, and the only vocalizing tapaculo was Ash-colored (maybe wrong time of year for others). Mixed flocks in the subtropical fragment had a distinctly different composition, comprising such species as Bluish Flowerpiercer, Chestnut-bellied Thrush, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Sepia-brown Wren, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Flavescent Flycatcher and Metallic-green, Red-hooded, Purplish-mantled and Rufous-crested Tanager. Other birds in the subtropical fragment were Bearded Guan (a loud family), Olive-backed Woodcreeper and Emerald Toucanet. The upper temperate zone below the ridge harbored a big (family?) party of Orange-banded Flycatchers, a Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans and - one evening - a nice and lingering flock of Golden-plumed Parakeets. Hummingbirds of note included Amethyst-throated and Flame-throated Sunangel, Collared Inca and Tyrian Metaltail.
The very dense bamboo and the distinct closed-habitat character of the new trail system (near the HQ) makes birding here a little different, with less mixed flock encounters and more species of elusive nature. Apart from species I had seen along Quebrada Honda Trail, I glimpsed Yellow-bellied and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant and White-browed Spinetail.
One of the biggest surprises was a silent Ochre-breasted Antpitta (with unstreaked breast) coming in to a Jocotoco playback and freezing for about 1min, affording some fabulous views. This bird still puzzles me, because unstreaked individuals are not reported from the eastern Andean slope and the elevation was at least 300m too high for this species and more indicative of its sister taxon, the Slate-crowned Antpitta. There is no doubt about the correct identification, though, as I had excellent views of the bird.
The hummingbird feeders at the HQ supported lots of Collared Incas, Chestnut-breasted Coronets, Flame-throated and Amethyst-throated Sunangels, Long-tailed Sylphs and an occasional Fawn-breasted Brilliant, among others.
I spent one overcast but dry afternoon and a full morning around Palanda.
If you have come all the way to Valladolid to visit Quebrada Honda and the Jocotoco Reserve, AND you haven't been to the northern Peruvian Marañón Valley before, you should definitely do the 45min bus ride down the road to Palanda. Deforestation has increased in this area over the past decades, so many of the endemic birds inhabiting the dry habitats in the Marañón Valley have spread across the border via Zumba and have reached Palanda in the last few years. What's more, Palanda has a few southern Ecuadorian/northern Peruvian Eastern foothill species you may have missed in Río Bombuscaro.
Stay in one of several basic hostals in Palanda, a town with a distinct Amazonian lowland feel. Deforestation has advanced a lot and it should prove difficult to get to decent forest within 3hr walking distance. I walked up the track to San Francisco that you can see ascending the slope to the left as you leave town towards Zumba. Actually you will have to take a pedestrians' shortcut to get onto it, as the track itself splits from the road several kilometers before (north of) Palanda. This shortcut in itself offered the best birding: As you leave town towards Zumba, you hit upon one last building, the slaughterhouse, to the left of the road. 100 or 200m beyond, a conspicuous footpath leads down left and across a suspension bridge and up the hill to the track on the other side of the torrent.
One afternoon along the largely deforested track to San Francisco was more or less dull, though I was surprised to see a Laughing Falcon. Also, a tiny forest fragment just beyond the first ridge harbored the only Chestnut-tipped Toucanet of the trip (take a right where the track splits at the ridge and find the fragment after 100m; beyond there and along the left track, deforestation seems complete). It was impressive to see birds like Chestnut-bellied Thrushes and Orange-eared Tanagers in mere hedgerows. Lined Antshrike was common, the Marañón race of Speckle-breasted Wren and Olivaceous Siskin a little less so.
The next morning I stayed mainly in the forest fragment before the suspension bridge and especially around the slaughterhouse. Yellow-breasted Antwren, Olivaceous Greenlet, Lafresnaye's Piculet and the beautiful Yellow-cheeked Becard are common and easy. If time is short, I would recommend you stay just around the slaughterhouse. The secondary habitat adjacent harbors Marañón Thrush (easy) and Olive-chested Flycatcher, and I was surprised to see the Marañón endemic Common Thornbird, which Hejnen et al. only list for Zumba (4hr south of here). Unfortunately, I dipped the only Marañón endemic I would have really needed to see, the elusive Marañón Spinetail, which you are only likely to get with a recording and knowledge of its vocalization.
Loja - Zamora Road
I spent a morning in the Río San Francisco area along the upper road and a full day as well as a morning and an afternoon along the Old Loja-Zamora Road near La Fragrancia. The weather was overcast but dry.
Hejnen et al.'s account of this area is badly out-dated and misleading and their map is erroneous. The Loja-Zamora Road is one of only a few roads making the full descent from puna to subtropical forest giving access to the whole spectrum of elevational zones along the way. However, it is much worse a birding site than other East Slope descents, like the Gualaceo-Limón Road farther north, or the Cusco-Manu Road in Peru, because it is bordered by steep banks and mostly degraded habitat, especially along its new course. As far as I can see, there are only two general areas left worth some more extensive birding nowadays. One of these is the San Francisco area in the temperate forest zone, the other one the lower Old Loja-Zamora Road near where it merges with the new one at La Fragrancia.
Hejnen et al. give confusing directions to a couple of side-trails near Sabanilla around the "mid-elevational zone", but when I passed this area by bus I couldn't see any decent habitat within a walking radius of 2hr, so I didn't bother getting off.
Note that the Old Road merges with the New Road just a few kilometers above Zamora at a hamlet called La Fragrancia, NOT (as indicated in Hejnen et al.) above Sabanilla.
a) San Francisco Area
The San Francisco Area is best worked from Loja, and a bus to Zamora can get you there just slightly after dawn. Hejnen et al.'s trail down to the power station still exists, but the habitat is badly degraded and a better way to see birds is to get off the bus at the Estación Biológica de San Francisco, a newly-founded German-Ecuadorian research station just a few hundred meters down the road from the track to the power station. You could possibly even stay here (though they'll charge you more than a cheap hotel in Loja). At the station, you will have to pull your way across the river on a metal construction, and on the other side you have access to a good trail system that explores the adjacent slope. One of the trails goes all the way to the above mentioned power station.
The birds are very similar to Cajanuma, so you may want to avoid too much overlap if you are on a short time budget. My short stay (one morning) was marred by very low bird activity, with little in the way of mixed flocks. I did see Rufous-crested, Purplish-mantled and Flame-faced Tanagers, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers, a shy Sickle-winged Guan and a Torrent Duck at the river.
b) Old Loja-Zamora Road near La Fragrancia
Stay in one of many pleasant and mostly cheap hotels in Zamora and take a cab in the morning to La Fragrancia along the road to Loja (just 1-2km above the police road block at the upper end of town). La Fragrancia is where the formerly used track to Loja splits from the course of the new road, leading off to the right. One day, I walked up this track 4-5km to a spot where a major landslide made passage difficult (this is as far as vehicles can presently go), but going farther up doesn't necessarily mean the habitat gets better. One of the best remaining forest patches was just about 500m above the bridge (Torrent Duck!) across the river (=ca. 1km from La Fragrancia), where bird activity almost never ceased throughout the day. Beware of some very vicious dogs before this bridge (I almost bled).
Spectacled Prickletail was my main target at this site and the reason why I invested quite some time in spite of generally bad habitat quality (1 full and 2 half-days). Unfortunately, I missed it, but I did see a few other nice birds instead, most of them around the above mentioned area 500m above the bridge. If I was to go again, I wouldn't ascend any further from there, even though another badly degraded patch near the landslide 4-5km up the track yielded Sickle-winged Guan. The secondary habitat along this track is exceptionally good for hummers; I saw Pale-tailed Barbthroat, Green Hermit, Wire-crested Thorntail (guaranteed at flowering Inga trees), White-tipped Sicklebill, Blue-tailed and Glittering-throated Emerald (common), Violet-fronted Brilliant, Violet-headed and Wedge-billed Hummingbird and Fork-tailed Woodnymph. A huge mixed flock circulated around the forest edge area of the above-mentioned better forest fragment, at times containing Ash-browed Spinetail, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Golden-eared, Guira and Hepatic Tanager (the latter at one of only a couple of east slope locations!), Red-headed Barbet, Olivaceous Greenlet, Yellow-cheeked Becard, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo. Mere hedgerows sufficed as habitat for such rare subtropical forest inhabitants as Equatorial Graytail, Gray-mantled Wren and Coppery-chested Jacamar. Other birds seen around the roadside gullies were Orange-billed Sparrow, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, Subtropical Cacique, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher and Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher.
Of course, the area is also excellent for secondary habitat species you won't see at forest sites, such as Olive-chested and Short-crested Flycatcher (this high!! recording made for reconfirmation), Lined Antshrike, Dark-breasted Spinetail (common but elusive), Black-billed Thrush and Magpie Tanager. Red-billed Parrots are numerous.
The best bird I recorded here was a pair of the highly localized Chestnut-vented Conebill seen on three different days around the same spot as members of the same mixed flock circulating around the forest edge.
Río Bombuscaro (Podocarpus NP)
I spent four full days and a morning at Río Bombuscaro. I was probably extremely lucky as far as the weather at this site was concerned, with only one fairly sunny day and otherwise cloudy skies with only short rainy periods.
This was definitely one of my favorite trip sites, with great subtropical forest birding just a few kilometers out of Zamora. I would not bother worrying about camping or staying at the headquarters overnight, because there is no problem in getting to the park entrance by cab in the morning ($2, 10-15min). From the entrance, it is another half hour (birding pace) through great forest to the sporadically-staffed HQ clearing. You may have to pay a $5 fee for one-week entry to the park (valid also for Cajanuma). The main trail continues along the river beyond the HQ, and there is also a 15-30min loop starting from the HQ. For more details, you are referred to the map in Hejnen et al., but note that there is a whole network of minor trails in the area of the loop, and that there is another good trail parallel to the main trail and merging with it shortly before the suspension bridge across the river. The bridge is now repaired and gives access to a trail along the other side of the river that links a farm within the park boundaries further upstream with the outside world.
I was shocked to find cows grazing the big clearing farther up the main trail, and to hear the sound of chainsaws and see that clear-felling is still not a thing of the past on the other side of the river. The wardens couldn't provide me with satisfactory information as to whether that one family living up there is allowed to continue clearing land.
Ca. 2-3km before the park entrance along the access road, a Belgian-Ecuadorian couple is just now in the process of opening up a tourist lodge called Copal-Inga (or Kopalinga?, the two most prominent tree species of the area). They are expecting their first guests by late 2001, so you may want to check them out on the internet. From their house, it's not too far to walk to the entrance (Blackish Nightjar on the road before dawn and at dusk), plus you can pick up secondary-habitat birds along the way. I saw Olive-chested Flycatcher, Olivaceous Greenlet, Lined Antshrike and Guira Tanager around their house. They also have some good flowering Inga trees on their property that supported Glittering-throated Emerald and Wire-crested Thorntail when I was there.
The Foothill Elaenia Story:
Just a very short time ago, Paul Coopmans and Niels Krabbe described a new species of elaenia from Río Bombuscaro, after the former had heard an unfamiliar vocalization, taped the bird out and realized that it was a hitherto undescribed flycatcher resembling a female Gray Elaenia.
On my second day in Río Bombuscaro around , I heard a long, forceful, ascending trill exactly matching the description of the new Foothill Elaenia's song in their publication. It was obviously given by a bird following a big mixed flock of mostly tanagers around the HQ clearing. The bird remained out of sight and only called once in 10min on average, so it was extremely difficult to obtain a recording. After ca. 1hr, I had managed to make a very bad recording that didn't suffice for calling the bird in. I decided to try for it later and continued along the loop trail. When I got back to the HQ clearing, a VENT group led by Dave Wolf and Robert Ridgely had arrived. Not unexpectedly, they told me that the "new elaenia" had alighted in a tree right in front of them and they had been able to get excellent views of it. Fortunately, the elaenia had started calling more frequently, so it took me only another few minutes to also get good views. In the course of my remaining stay at Bombuscaro, I had 2 more visual encounters with the Foothill Elaenia and heard it again on a handful of occasions, mostly around the HQ clearing, but also along the main trail up to two stream crossings (10min) above the HQ. It really seems to be restricted to good subtropical forest in a narrow elevational belt around 1000m, which is centered right around the HQ. At times - at around , just before the greatest heat of the - you would only hear the Foothill Elaenia and Tropical Parulas calling around the HQ, the latter sounding like a buzzy Chaffinch. If a species of such acoustic presence and conspicuousness has been overlooked for so long, we may rightfully wonder how many more elusive flycatcher species are still out there evading detection.
I had a few wonderful days with no overwhelming, but steady bird activity throughout the day. One of the site specialties, Coppery-chested Jacamar, was seen on numerous occasions, while the other well-known one, White-breasted Parakeet, was only sighted twice (always perched at near distance) and could therefore well be missed on a 1-3 day visit. The mixed flocks along the lower parts of the main trail (incl. HQ clearing) included Blue-rumped Manakin, Golden-eared and Flame-crested Tanager, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Ash-browed Spinetail, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Red-headed Barbet and Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. I also saw Subtropical Caciques and the highland form of the Russet-backed Oropendola on a couple of occasions.
Some of the more elusive species encountered along the main trail include Crimson-bellied Woodpecker (1 occ.), Highland Motmot (1 near orchids' garden at HQ), Orange-crested (1 occ.) and Tawny-breasted Flycatcher (1 occ.), Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (2 occ.), Short-tailed Antthrush (seen twice without use of tape recorder), Gray Tinamou (1 occ.), Black-streaked Puffbird (3 occ.), Olive Tanager (a few closely following around an Orange-billed Sparrow on the ground on 2 occ.!!), Olive Finch (4 occ.), Northern White-crowned Tapaculo (seen twice, heard frequently) and the only Lemon-browed Flycatcher of the trip. Further up the main trail, the composition of the mixed flocks slightly changed, with Bronze-green Euphonias, Spotted Barbtails, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireos, White-streaked Antvireo (1 male), Foothill Antwrens and Yellow-cheeked Becards becoming more common. One spot with constant activity seems to be the uppermost big clearing along the main trail beyond Hejnen et al.'s "cliff" (which is now an overgrown slope devoid of Cliff Flycatchers) and 2 cattle gates. Flocks around this clearing additionally produced Gray-mantled Wren, Equatorial Graytail, White-winged and Vermilion Tanager, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant and Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner.
At the second stream crossing above the HQ, I once got fantastic looks at a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper (after 4 days of sneaking around expecting it at every stream I crossed). Though Bombuscaro is not as good for hummers as La Fragrancia, I did manage to see Green Hermit, Gray-chinned Hermit (my first good looks), White-tipped Sicklebill, Violet-headed Hummingbird and exclusively bad views of Ecuadorian Piedtails. I was surprised to see Tawny-throated Leaftosser and Scale-backed Antbird at ca. 1300m, higher than I expected them.
The river at the park entrance yielded Torrent Tyrannulet, White-banded Swallow and Gray-rumped Swift.
Chinapintza (Cordillera del Cóndor)
I invested 4 days, 50% of which were completely lost to heavy rain.
Chinapintza was one of the destinations I had been particularly looking forward to, because it is situated on one of the less well-explored Andean foothill chains, the Cordillera del Cóndor, one of the main settings of the borderline war between Ecuador and Peru in the late '90s. This mountain ridge is entirely inaccessible from the uninhabited Peruvian side. The region is now completely safe again, and the mining area of Chinapintza (La Punta) is relatively straightforward to reach on public transportation from Zamora (though time-consuming).
Hejnen et al. list a few species that were of special interest to me, namely Cinnamon Screech-owl, Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner, Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant, Roraiman Flycatcher etc. Unfortunately, I missed all of the ones just mentioned, though I succeeded in finding a few other nice ones.
Again, Hejnen et al.'s account of this area caused more confusion than enlightenment: What they call "Chinapinza" is a village that is locally referred to as La Punta (a common Ecuadorian name for villages at the end of a road). There is one cheap and basic hotel in La Punta and about 2-4 buses a day connect it with Zamora (4-6hr). From La Punta, there are two tracks that take you further afield. Neither of them was driveable when I was there, but they both used to be and people assured me they will be again. The left track takes you uphill to a mining settlement that bears the actual name "Chinapintza" (ca. 2hr on foot). It's an area with scattered houses and mining camps near the top of the ridge a short footwalk from the new borderline with Peru. The right track from La Punta takes you to an abandoned mining camp (ca. 45min on foot), whence a footpath continues slightly downhill.
Both tracks are interconnected by a few other tracks, and orientation can be difficult without local help. Also, a new (driveable) track was under construction that would eventually link Chinapintza with La Punta. The whole area (up to 40% of the hillside around La Punta) is severely degraded not by deforestation, but by heavy erosion caused by road construction and mining activity.
Rubber boots are imperative at this site.
I spent three nights at the main mining camp at Chinapintza: The miners gave me three free meals a day and free accommodation in a room of my own!!! They were very good company, and I hope they enjoyed my presence as much as I enjoyed theirs. I didn't hear or see Cinnamon Screech-owl though I was there during the local rainy season and the camp falls right within its elevational range. From my room, I could hear lots of forest sounds during the night and I am therefore surprised that I didn't hear it in spite of its alleged commonness around here. The reason why I missed so many of the area's specialties may be their natural scarcity (as Hejnen et al. stress for the Buff-browed Foliage-gleaner and Cinnamon-breasted Tody-Tyrant), but I think I mainly spent most of my time at too high an elevation, namely the less badly affected slopes below the mining area of Chinapintza, where I saw mixed flocks containing Barred Becard, Oleaginous Hemispingus, Deep-blue Flowerpiercer (common), Golden-winged Manakin, Pale-edged Flycatcher, Sepia-brown Wren, Andean Solitaire, Uniform Antshrike, and Vermilion, Fawn-breasted, Yellow-throated, Flame-faced and White-winged Tanager. Chestnut-bellied Thrushes hopping around the mining buildings were reminiscent of Robins in my NC yard, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches and Rufous-tailed Tyrants were common around the more eroded mining areas. Blue-browed and Metallic-green Tanagers, rare elsewhere, were some of the most common constituent species of mixed flocks around here.
Only very late did it occur to me that I might be too high for most of my target species: Avian elevational ranges differ pronouncedly between the main ridges and foothill chains of the Andes (see Terborgh, J. 1985. The role of ecotones in the distribution of Andean birds. Ecology 66:1237-1246). So the last one and a half days I tried to proceed to some lower elevations by taking the right-hand track from La Punta to the abandoned camp (sporting some very fierce "no entry" signs) and from there farther down. Continuing along that footpath doesn't get you any lower, as this path winds about the same elevation for a day's walk until it reaches yet another mining camp (do proceed to the first of a bunch of cliffs, though, where you can see Cliff Flycatcher). Instead, ask local miners to show you the inconspicuous trail that splits off down to the right after a few hundred meters from the abandoned camp. This trail leads down the slope through some good forest and through a small mining community, but it eventually thins out farther down from there. A few days around this area should have produced the allegedly common Bar-winged Wood-Wren, and maybe even the hypothetical Orange-throated Tanager down in the valley (R. Ridgely, pers. comm.), but a single day sufficed for seeing White-backed Fire-eye, Green-fronted Lancebill, Violet-fronted Brilliant, Napo Sabrewing, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Spangled Coquette, Northern White-crowned Tapaculo, Gray-mantled Wren, Foothill and Yellow-breasted Antwren, 2 different Rufous-rumped Antwrens, Bronze-green Euphonia, Black-and-white Becard, Blackish Antbird, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Spotted Barbtail and Golden-eared Tanager.
Secondary habitat at any elevation produced Dark-breasted Spinetail, Olive-chested Flycatcher and a Golden-winged Tody-Flycatcher (once).
Other notable species were White-bellied Antpitta (seen once, heard frequently above and below La Punta), Black-billed Treehunter (seen on 2 occ., above and below La Punta), Brown Violetear and Golden-tailed Sapphire (slightly above La Punta), Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater (seen three times above and below La Punta) and Marble-faced Grizzle-Tyrant (at abandoned camp). I am happy that I did see Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, one of my main target species for this site, on two occasions: once near the abandoned camp and a second time just above La Punta.
Huashapamba (near Saraguro)
I invested one full, cold and partly drizzly day with an early morning start.
Several rare and restricted species make this temperate forest site (well covered in Hejnen et al.) a MUST stopover on your way from the Loja area to Cuenca. Stay in one of a few hostals in Saraguro with its proud long-haired Quechua men and traditionally clothed women, and make sure you catch a pre-dawn bus towards Loja to be dropped off 7km out of town near a big sign that informs about the Huashapamba Ecotourism Project, a unique mixture out of forest conservation and trout breeding sponsored, amongst others, by the Peace Corps. Cross the simple gate and follow the inconspicuous trail that leads across the pasture and into the forest. The forest entrance is overgrown, but it seems to be the only access to the interior. The excellent path leads to a big square-shaped clearing only about 400m from the forest edge, and from there, the only continuation is along a 400m dead end path (just to the left as you enter the clearing).
When I read Hejnen et al.'s statement about 3 antpitta species easy to see at dawn along the log trail, I thought: "Sure, that's what they all say." I was all the more surprised that there was indeed one of them, a beautiful Undulated Antpitta, hopping on the logs right in front of me. Other notable birds along the log trail at dawn included Chestnut-capped Brushfinch and finally my first long-awaited Ocellated Tapaculos. Mixed flocks included Hooded and Lacrimose Mountain-Tanagers, Black-headed and Superciliaried Hemispingus, Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager, Rufous-naped Brushfinch, White-banded and White-tailed Tyrannulets and Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrants.
This site is especially good for 2 psittacids: Golden-plumed Parakeet was easy to see along the road on my walk back to Saraguro towards dusk. The rare Red-faced Parrot could be seen perched along the forest edge near the trail's entrance on one fortunate occasion, but could have easily been missed. Other notable species included Chusquea Tapaculo (seen well), Mountain Cacique, a group of Bearded Guans near the clearing, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Masked Trogon and Red-crested Cotinga. Hejnen et al. mention confusion about the caracaras present at this site; unfortunately I only saw an immature that looked like a Mountain Caracara with its all plain white rump.
I invested one sunny and delightful day in the reserve.
The Pale-headed Brushfinch Story:
Just a few years ago, Niels Krabbe and a few co-workers set out on an expedition one last time to search for the Pale-headed Brushfinch, a dry scrub endemic of the arid intermontane valleys of southern Azuay Province that expeditions in the previous decades had failed to find. To everybody's surprise, they found a few remaining pairs in scrub habitat in the heavily altered Yunguilla Valley down the valley from Girón. Fundación Jocotoco managed to purchase most of the good remaining habitat. They just recently enlarged it and there are habitat restoration programs underway along the margins.
I do not know whether independent birders are welcome at Reserva Yunguilla at this point. I do know that tour organizations like VENT visit Yunguilla on their trips. As no-one I asked was prepared to give me exact directions to the place, I just set out from Cuenca on a 7.00am bus to Girón/Machala one morning, and once the bus reached the valley, I started asking around with the scant information I had from the internet. To my surprise, I was able to reach the reserve by . On my arrival and before doing any birding, I got together with the keeper of the reserve to ask him if my presence was OK. He is a very nice and honest man and very easy to make friends with, certainly a great pick by Fundación Jocotoco. He accompanied me for the rest of the day, and without his site information on Brushfinch breeding pairs, I would have probably not seen it.
I will NOT provide any directions to Reserva Yunguilla in this trip report, as I am not certain whether Fundación Jocotoco would like to see such information publicly divulged.
My arrival at 10.30am was just the time when bird activity dropped to zero, so the warden and I spent the noon hours seeing virtually nothing in the arid scrub, except for an occasional Purple-collared Woodstar and Amazilia Hummer (was this the alticola ssp. that's recently been split off???). Towards the late afternoon, bird activity picked up slightly, and I managed to see Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Pacific Elaenia, Rufous-chested Tanager and the only Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatcher of the trip (the latter species apparently as yet unrecorded from the SW Ecuadorian slope). The Brushfinch is very shy, and even though I spent most time around the breeding spot of one pair, it suffice to say that I saw 2 Chestnut-crowned Antpittas and at least 3 individual Unicolored Tapaculos without the help of a tape recorder before I managed to get an unsatisfactory 1 sec glimpse of one of the Brushfinches. That glimpse would remain the only one I ever caught of the species.
Cajas (near Cuenca)
In mid-July, I spent one full day around Laguna Toreadora and decided to invest another morning along the road above Sayausí because I hadn't found the endemic Violet-throated Metaltail at Toreadora.
Another one of those cold, windswept páramo sites, but one with a surprising amount of bird activity as compared to others. The site is well covered in Hejnen et al. and can easily be reached from the awe-inspiring city of Cuenca on any bus going to Guayaquil via Molleturo/Naranjal. Cajas must have recently been declared a national park and is very popular with day tourists from Cuenca. Non-Latinos are asked to pay a trail fee of $10 for entry to some of the areas (apparently not Laguna Toreadora, though). I took a bus at around and it got me up to Laguna Toreadora by , which is still early enough for this elevation. Day tourists start pouring in by 11.30, so I had plenty of time to do the round walk to the polylepis grove on the other side of the lake before rush hour. The entrance road to Río Mazán (see Hejnen et al.) is locked with a high-security gate, and I guess there is no entry without prior arrangements.
The Violet-throated Metaltail Story: In the late afternoon, I walked down the main road from Toreadora past the pilgrims' shrine almost to the upper reaches of Sayausí (one of Cuenca's suburbs) to search for the Violet-throated Metaltail I had missed around the lake itself. Fog had already set in and I didn't see anything. I doubt that the páramo around Toreadora with its thornbills is necessarily the best area to see the Ecuadorian endemic Violet-throated Metaltail, and Hejnen et al. also indicate that the roadside shrubs further down the road are somewhat more reliable. The next morning, I took a cab to Sayausí and walked up from there, checking the roadside shrubs, where 2 hours of searching in coldest drizzle produced not only the Metaltail, but also Black Flowerpiercer, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Rainbow Starfrontlet and a White-capped Dipper along the stream. One of the most eerie and memorable things that will remain firmly etched in my mind is the sight of a young and beautiful Cuencan maid performing a graceful rain dance to a melancholy tune on the drizzly road in front of her house while I was trying to get better views of the Metaltail in roadside shrubbery nearby.
Laguna Toreadora beat my expectations regarding bird diversity and activity. The lake itself held Andean Duck, Gull and Teal, while Bar-winged Cinclodes were abundant and Stout-billed Cinclodes occasionally thrown in between. The polylepis patch on the other side of the lake produced Unicolored Tapaculo, Giant Conebill (also in polylepis near the restaurant), Tit-like Dacnis and White-throated Tyrannulet. Tawny Antpittas were ubiquitous and very tame, hopping towards you as near as 6 feet (mostly polylepis, but even out in open páramo).
One area of shrubs near the polylepis grove at the hotel was very productive, with Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Many-striped Canastero, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Plain-colored Seedeater and a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. Blue-mantled Thornbill was reasonably common, even hawking for prey on the ground in open páramo habitat. Another hummer of interest found in a patch of bushes towards the far end of the lake is Ecuadorian Hillstar.
Below the shrine along the road, there are signs put up with such non-sense messages as: "El bosque, tu mejor amigo. Programa de Reforestación!" with recently-planted pines and eucalypts covering whole hillsides. You can even see pine tree saplings planted in degraded polylepis groves. Someone should really tell the people in charge that their pine plantations are not only far from being "our best friends", but also ecologically rather unsound.
I spent one chilly afternoon and a full day along the upper half and another (partly rainy) day along the lower half of the road.
This is doubtless some of the best East Slope roadside birding in Ecuador, but do take into account that it is "just" roadside birding: It is likely to produce common mixed flock species, but not as many elusive ones. I ended up with ca. 90% species overlap with what I had seen in Podocarpus.
The habitat is still pretty unspoiled as opposed to other roads such as Loja-Zamora. Much of the roadside habitat in the elfin and temperate zone is secondary, but still good enough to attract big mixed flocks. There are a few homesteads and pastures lining the road along the upper half. A roadside restaurant marks about the elevational mid-point, and down from there the road leads through some nice uninhabited subtropical forest. It eventually re-ascends a foothill from where it drops down into the largely deforested lower elevations around Plan de Milagro and Limón.
I worked the upper half of this East Slope descent based in Gualaceo, a sizeable town on the other side of the Eastern Andean Chain. Busses take about 2-3hr to the pass (have them drop you off where the elfin starts on the eastern slope), so you can't really get there before on public transportation. Birding anywhere above the roadside restaurant is definitely better with a hotel base in Gualaceo, even though it is slightly more distant. The nearest settlement on the lowland side is Plan de Milagro (no hotels!), from where you can reach the lower end of good roadside habitat in a 40min walk. From Limón, the earliest public camión that goes to Plan de Milagro (40min ride) leaves at 6.00am (busses to Gualaceo don't leave before 11.00am), so the best way to bird the lower elevations is to get to Milagro as early as possible and walk uphill until you reach good habitat, trying to hitch a ride with any vehicle that passes.
Mixed flocks in the elfin contained Mouse-colored Thistletail, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Andean Guan, Blue-backed Conebill, Blue-and-yellow and Golden-crowned Tanager, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, Rufous-naped and Pale-naped Brushfinch, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Lacrimose, Buff-breasted and Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Rufous Wren, Black-headed Hemispingus, Barred Becard (temperate zone), Gray-hooded Bush-Tanager and White-banded Tyrannulet. The elfin and the temperate zone produced a few good hummers, such as Great Sapphirewing, Glowing Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail and Tourmaline and Amethyst-throated Sunangel. I also got several good looks at a White-throated Hawk and at Chusquea Tapaculos, and I heard Chestnut-crowned Antpitta in the temperate zone.
The lower (subtropical) half of the road also offered some mixed flock birding, with species such as Uniform Antshrike, Sepia-brown Wren, Purplish-mantled, Grass-green and Flame-faced Tanager, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, Capped Conebill and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant represented. Hummers along here included Bronzy and Collared Inca and Chestnut-breasted Coronet. Roufous-naped and White-bellied Antpittas called frequently.
A very worthwhile side-track splits off to the north (left on your way to Milagro) as you reach the top of the foothill that the road ascends on its way down. This 1.5km-track leads to a military and civil communications station (lots of antennae) situated within some beautiful ridgetop forest where I saw a nice and lingering mixed flock (Bluish Flowerpiercer, Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Green-and-black Fruiteater) that was frequented by a few species that were noticeably below their normal range, such as Crimson-mantled Woodpecker and Orange-banded Flycatcher. Besides, this is where I saw a Viridian Metaltail (ssp. atrogularis) - also a species usually found higher up near the elfin.
Río Zamora Area near La Punta de Yangusa (Limón Area)
In mid-July, I invested three days, almost 30% of which was completely lost to heavy rain.
This is an excellent upper tropical forest site with an avifauna markedly differing from all the subtropical ones I had visited before. I am almost certain that I am the first birder visiting this area: Since complete deforestation has already reached the subtropical zone along the Gualaceo-Limón Road, I just inquired in Limón where the frontier is currently situated towards the east. I don't regret my time investment, realizing that I had some very quiet bird activity, lots of insufficient looks and near-identifications and I still managed to record a few great species, so I guess it could have been even better.
From Limón, take one of the camiones to La Punta de Yangusa (1hr), currently the end of the road that probes into the chain of low foothills east of the valley Limón is situated in. From that small settlement (no hotels, just basic shops), a path (partly very muddy, rubber boots imperative!!!) continues straight down, first through secondary habitat but finally entering some great primary upper tropical forest before it reaches a suspension bridge across the torrent-like Río Zamora. You can spend a whole day along this 3-5km stretch of path, or you can continue to the other side of the river, where the path splits. Take a left through another 3-4km of lush primary forest until you reach the settlement of La Victoria where the villagers can accommodate you (this is what I did), or take a right to the village of San Jorge whence the path continues to yet another village (Nueva Principal) and back to the main road from Limón to Zamora. However I do not know how much good forest remains along here. From La Victoria, where I stayed with the hospitable Castro family, the path continues farther east into Shuare territory and all the way to the Peruvian border. This would be a few days' hike though, and most of the Shuare Indian settlements are connected to the outside world by helicopters from Macas. I did not proceed any further from La Victoria, as the villagers assured me that the next good forest is as far as a 3hr walk away.
By the time you get here, you may find these directions confusing, as they are currently working on the extension of the road from La Punta down to the Río Zamora bridge (due 2002) and eventually to the Peruvian border (due in 10 years but probably not executed in our lifetime). Roadside habitat down to the river will probably be degraded, so ask people to show you the old footpath to the river that was in use before the road was extended.
Some difficult but great birding with only few but big and diverse mixed flocks. I was surprised that birds typical for the subtropical zone around 1000m drop out around here (e.g. no Spectacled Whitestarts or Yellow-throated Bush-Tanagers), and the presence of many lowland species tells me that I must have been around 600-800m.
The best find was a (family?) party of the rare and little-known Yellow-shouldered Grosbeak that was always hanging around with the same mixed flock about halfway between La Punta and the bridge just before you enter the big 10ha clearing. Other birds in this (and other) flocks were Yellow-backed, Flame-crested and Masked Tanager, Rufous-bellied Euphonia, White-eyed Tody-Tyrant, White-flanked Antwren, Warbling Antbird, Slaty Grosbeak, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, and Fulvous Shrike-Tanager. The secondary habitat around La Punta and La Victoria hosted Crested and Russet-backed Oropendola, Laughing Falcon, Turquoise and Swallow Tanagers, Olivaceous Greenlet, Yellow-tufted Woddpecker, Thrush-like Wren, Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher (gullies) and Yellow-breasted Flycatcher. Some of the better foothill species seen included Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Foothill and Rufous-winged Antwren, Green Manakin and Fiery-throated Fruiteater. Species of lowland character were White-browed Purpletuft, Golden-headed and Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-capped Becard, Fasciated Antshrike, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Spot-winged and Black-faced Antbird, Black-eared Fairy, Pygmy Antwren, Little and Crimson-crested Woodpeckers and Cuvier's Toucan. White-banded Swallow is common at the river. Another remarkable sighting was a perched immature Gray-bellied Hawk, a rare austral transient. Some of the more disconcerting experiences were split second looks at probable Speckled Spinetails, Eastern Woodhaunters and Rufous-rumped Foliage-gleaners, none of which I could actually count.
Bosque de Domono (near Macas)
one rainy and unproductive July afternoon and the following (overcast) day.
On my way north from the Limón area, I felt like I had run out of time for exploratory sorties to the higher elevations of Sangay NP, but I didn't want to pass this area without giving the Río Upano Valley a shot, an area that ".may still support large tracts of subtropical forest." according to Hejnen et al. Inquiries in the streets of Macas indicated that the best remaining area should be Bosque de Domono.
The Río Upano Valley is a flat plain - about 5km wide - that gives way to the unexplored Cordillera de Cutucú in the east and the main Andean foothills in the west. Though the slopes of the hills are still extensively forested all the way down (access to any area may be difficult), the plain itself appears to be completely altered by humans. Along the road to Domono, about 45min from Macas, however, the governmental agency INEFAN has saved a 500m wide parcel from deforestation. This tract gets wider towards the back and eventually connects to the Andean foothill forest that starts in hilly terrain 2-3km from here. This little forest reserve, dubbed Bosque de Domono, can be explored on an excellent network of trails centered around a big main loop.
Macas has numerous hotels. Though Bosque de Domono is not far from Macas, bus connections are sparse. The earliest bus is scheduled to leave at , but usually doesn't get you there before . Busses back to Macas run only until ca. , so you may have to opt for the 2.5hr walk. Note that not all bus drivers know Bosque de Domono (though it has an entrance sign right along the road), so do make sure the driver knows where you want to get off.
I had about 60% species overlap with Río Bombuscaro, but I guess it did pay coming here as well, since I saw quite a few birds of slightly lower elevation. Mixed flocks contained Gray-mantled Wren, Red-headed Barbet, Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Flame-crested and Orange-eared Tanager, Ash-browed Spinetail, Orange-billed Sparrow, Plain Antvireo, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Plain-brown and Buff-throated Woodcreeper, White-winged Becard and (my favorite species at this site) two individual Spectacled Bristle-Tyrants. I also found Green Hermit, a Great-billed Hermit lek and a perched Barred Forest-Falcon. Among the ground-dwellers, I recorded Ruddy Quail-Dove, Black-faced Antthrush and a Short-tailed Antthrush (heard only). The secondary edge produced Lafresnaye's Piculet, Olive-chested and Gray-capped Flycatcher, Lined and even Plain-winged Antshrike, Black-billed Thrush, Pale-vented Pigeon, Short-tailed Swift, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater and a Small-billed Elaenia (this far up in the foothills!). A cotinga at the reservoir along the loop (either Plum-throated or Spangled) had to be left unidentified. At one point, I am pretty sure I briefly heard the distant trill of a Foothill Eleania, though I do not want to make that claim.
Auca Trail (near Tena)
I spent one mellow afternoon along Auca Trail.
In Macas, I first realized that time was getting really short, so I started skipping minor sites along my way north, such as Reserva Hola Vida near Puyo (see Hejnen et al.). After a bus odyssee of one day I stranded in Tena around , so the best thing I could do was to spend one afternoon along Auca Trail. This "site" is by far nothing special, just a small sample of Amazonian suburbia with houses, gardens, fruit plantations and a secondary palm grove along a river as you could probably find around any equal-sized town in the eastern lowlands. But I didn't regret coming here for half a day, since I did get to see a couple of birds that are hard elsewhere precisely because of their predilection for habitats like this.
In the pleasantly Amazonian town of Tena (with its exceedingly expensive internet cafés), stay at any of a multitude of hotels and choose an elderly taxi driver to take you to the former Hotel Auca, which now functions as a military base in the periphery of town. From the base, walk across the bridge (White-banded Swallow) and take a left on the other side, staying on the main track which - after 2-3km - successively turns into a muddy path that eventually ends at a gate in front of a small "finca" with a palm grove around the house. (Is this where other people have seen Palmcreeper before???)
The bird to concentrate on around here is Orange-fronted Plushcrown: I saw a nest-building pair around an orchard with giant trees towards the gate at the end of the trail, but they were hard to detect since they always stayed around the highest parts of the trees. In the same area, I got my best-ever look at the exposed crown of a Yellow-crowned Flycatcher. Other than these two species, birding was pretty laid-back, with lots of secondary habitat birds in loose mixed flocks, e.g. Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Large Elaenia (in one of the house gardens), White-winged Becard, Olive-chested, Gray-capped and Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, Warbling Antbird (heard only), Lafresnaye's Piculet, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater and Purple Honeycreeper. The flowering shrubs produced Glittering-throated Emerald. A horde of Chestnut-collared Swifts descended from the Andes all the way down to the river towards dusk, with Fork-tailed Palm-Swifts also present. Black Caracara was seen along the river.
I was here for three days towards the end of July. These were the three most rainy days in my life. I am surprised that I did get to see some birds, and the fact that I did reflects the great potential of this site at dry weather.
Refer to Hejnen et al. for more site information. Some heavenly birding can be had along the trail that descends from the roadside Virgin at the pass (formerly known as "Inca Trail"). This trail has now been extended, leading about 4km down to the oleoduct, where you can follow the course of the pipelines even further down, probably as far as you want.
Roadside birding from the pass down towards Tena was little productive for me, but I didn't invest a morning. The roadside to the other side (towards Cosanga and Baeza) appears well deteriorated.
200m before Cosanga (coming from Baeza), a road splits off to the right, leading to the Cabañas San Isidro (2km) and on to SierrAzul, a new ecotourism lodge deep in the Cordillera (about 25km). I only saw photos of SierrAzul, and it's not supposed to be cheap either, but if that doesn't hurt you, you seriously may want to check them out on the internet.
The so-called "log trail" near the Cabañas San Isidro (leading off to the right after a 2km walk from the road) is very slippery and treacherous at rainy weather and leads through far worse habitat than the "Inca Trail", but my judgment may be biased since I have only spent the wettest 5 hours of my life along here. Don't forget to pay a $10 entrance fee to the log trail at the Cabañas, where you may want to take a look at their hummingbird feeders (Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Bronzy and Collared Inca, Mountain Velvetbreast, White-tailed Hillstar).
If you don't stay at the Cabañas San Isidro (ca. $30-40 per night, contact Carmen Bustamante, Calle Carrión N21-01 y Juan León Mera, Quito; Phone: (593-2) 547403, www.ecuadorexplorer.com/sanisidro, E-Mail: Birdecua@hoy.net) or at SierrAzul anyway, try and ask around if there is accommodation in Cosanga (only ca. 5km from the Virgin). This will save you a 1hr bus ride from the not quite charismatic town of Baeza, where you should in any case avoid the basic and dingy Hotel Samay with its greedy, over-charging owner. Or if you have a car, stay in pleasant Tena down the road and do the 90min ride to the Inca Trail trailhead in the morning.
Some excellent birding was to be had along the so-called "Inca Trail" during the short periods of less intense rain fall. Mixed flocks along here produced White-rimmed Brushfinch (1 occ.), Bicolored Antvireo (2 ind. on 1 occ.), Dusky Piha (fairly common), Chestnut-breasted Wren (1 family party on 1 occ.) and finally the long-awaited Black-eared Hemispingus on 1 occ. The mixed flocks were particularly good for flycatchers (Handsome and Flavescent Flycatcher, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant and Black-capped Tyrannulet), this probably being the best site in the world for Rufous-breasted Flycatcher (common). Hummers included Greenish Puffleg (further down the trail), Emerald-bellied Puffleg, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Collared Inca, Wedge-billed Hummer, Green-fronted Lancebill (common) and Wire-crested Thorntail. Heavy downpours seem to have had an advantageous effect on sightings of shy ground-dwelling species: I didn't need a tape-recorder to get good looks at Moustached Antpitta (flushed near a stream and seen well for 2 sec), Slate-crowned Antpitta (freezing for 30sec at 2m distance from me), Spillman's Tapaculo (easy to see) and Chestnut-capped Antpitta (1 confiding individual). I luckily saw 1 Black-billed Mountain-Toucan near the upper end of the trail. Other noteworthy species included Hooded and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Green-and-black Fruiteater (one of commonest species), Bluish Flowerpiercer, Smoky Bush-Tyrant near the Virgin, Black-capped Hemispingus, Chestnut-bellied and Glossy-black Thrush, Golden-winged Manakin, Andean Solitaire, Mountain Cacique, Barred Becard, Grass-green, Orange-eared and Rufous-crested Tanager, Sepia-brown Wren, Spotted Barbtail, Bronze-green Euphonia, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, and Chestnut-capped Brushfinch. I also recorded Golden-collared Honeycreeper along secondary roadside forest down towards Tena. A rainy morning along the "log trail" was dull, with Emerald Toucanet, Montane Woodcreeper and Capped Conebill among the best species.
I spent one full day (mid-July) along the first 10km of Loreto Road (from "Hollín" downwards). The weather was very rainy with just short dry interludes.
Refer to Hejnen et al. With a car, this site would be easily workable from Tena. Without one, stay in Tena and take an early-morning bus (4.00 or 4.30am) to Quito in order to get to the intersection (="Hollín") towards Coca at dawn. Local people do not know the name "Hollín" and call the settlement at this intersection "KM 24" or "KM34" instead (sorry, I forget). From "Hollín", just walk down the road (actually it's more up than down at first) as far as you can get. If you decide to do some birding along the lower parts, you could possibly take an early morning bus from Tena to Coca (there is one) and get off wherever you please.
This is definitely one of the sites where a car would have helped a great deal. Hejnen et al. say the best habitat remains along KM 3-18 from "Hollín", therefore I only invested one rainy day walking down the road from the latter, but later on a bus ride to Coca my impression was the better habitat persists lower down as well, maybe towards KM 30-50.
The steep muddy trail at KM 3 Hejnen et al. describe still exists and wasn't even that muddy, though birding from the road was more productive around here. Once you walk past that side-valley along the road, good habitat is sparse for the following 8-10km, but rare birds could even be seen in hedgerows along the road.
The side-valley around KM 3, where the muddy side-trail is (starting from near a house with a corrugated iron roof), held the best birding for me, with Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Bronze-green Euphonia, Deep-blue Flowerpiercer, Wire-crested Thorntail, Golden-eared Tanager, Olive-backed Woodcreeper, Black Antbird, Chestnut-eared Aracari, White-thighed Swallow, Red-headed Barbet, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, better looks at Ecuadorian Piedtails and Lafresnaye's Piculet. Along the following 10 km of secondary roadside brush (partly connected to better forest farther off the road), I saw flocks with Black-billed Treehunter (2 ind. on 1 occ.), White-backed Fire-eye, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Ash-browed Spinetail, Buff-fronted and Montane Foliage-gleaner, Lined Antshrike, Olivaceous Greenlet, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager and Olive-chested and Golden-crowned Flycatcher. I tried hard to see calling Plain-backed Antpittas, but didn't succeed. White-tailed Hillstar was the most common hummer along the road.
Río Payamino (near Coca)
I spent one mostly dry and surprisingly good spare morning around this area.
Despite budget problems, I had decided to visit an Amazonian lodge (Yuturi) partly because I couldn't accept birding in Ecuador for three months without visiting real Amazonia. Boat departure from Coca was scheduled for , so I needed a birding area in the vicinity of town for the morning. Hejnen et al. give brief mention of an area with some forest remnants across Río Payamino, but their directions are hopeless. Where their cable-ferry must have been, there now is a new bridge (built in 1999), and on the other side there are "fincas" lining the road to Loreto/Tena with no apparent forest remnants around. I just asked a random finca owner if I could bird his plantations, and I was surprised at the diversity of birds in this impoverished type of habitat.
Take a taxi or an urban bus to the bridge (White-winged Swallow) across the Río Payamino along the road to Loreto and walk from there, asking random land owners for access to their land.
A morning stroll produced Spot-breasted Woodpecker (common), Orange-backed Troupial, Ferruginous Pygmy-owl (seen perched!), Sulphury Flycatcher (near palms), Lettered Aracari, a few families of White-lored Euphonia, Bare-necked Fruitcrows passing overhead, a perched Double-toothed Kite, Gilded Barbet, austral Crowned Slaty-Flycatchers, a hard-to-see Dark-billed Cuckoo, Swallow-wings and Zimmer's Flatbills. Among the psittacids (many unidentified in flight) were perched flocks of Cobalt-winged Parakeets and Chestnut-fronted Macaws.
I was in for a 5-day package ($370), which includes one afternoon's boat transport to the lodge, 3 full days of birding at Yuturi and one morning in the boat back to Coca. I was so lucky as to be in the pleasant company of Iain Campbell, the owner of Tandayapa Lodge near Quito, and the four very nice birders he was guiding. The weather was excellent, with little rain spoiling the birding. The trip has to be prearranged at the Yuturi Company's office in Quito (find it on the web).
Yuturi is presently the farthest Napo lodge from Coca, so boat transport takes at least 6 hr.
I definitely didn't want to leave the country without having visited the Amazonian lowlands, partly because in Peru I had never birded river island habitat before, and the Río Napo is excellent for that. Most of the lodges, however, are exceedingly expensive (e.g. Sacha, La Selva), and many of the cheaper places to go don't support any river island habitat (e.g. Yasuni, Jatun Sacha) and therefore lack a good number of range-restricted lowland endemics. Yuturi Lodge, the cheapest of the traditional "Napo lodges" downstream from Coca, was therefore the best choice, though still a little above my budget capabilities for that trip. It is not yet as well known among birders as Sacha or La Selva Lodge, even though it has it all: nice varzea, terra firme, a good canopy tower, river islands and a few of the rarer Amazonian species that Sacha or La Selva are not reliable for (see below).
All birding is done with a local (Indian) guide. The one they've had for years is called Jaime Grefa, he is a nice fellow who knows all the bird names in English though he only speaks Spanish. He has a surprisingly good knowledge of vocalizations and made only few wrong calls. One helpful detail about him: Constantly ask him what's singing as he will occasionally not call out a bird by himself. Also, prepare a list with target species: He can lead you to many stake-outs, but only if he knows what species you want to see. Not taking the initiative can cost you lots of species.
Keep your eyes peeled on the boat trip to/from Yuturi. We made a stop on a small river island on the way there, which yielded Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Collared Plover and Chestnut-breasted Seedeater. Birds seen along the river during the ride include Violaceous Jay, Brown-chested Martin, White-winged Swallow, Swallow-wing, Russet-backed Oropendola, Cocoi Heron, Yellow-headed Caracara, Large-billed Tern (difficult! only once), Yellow-billed Tern (a few times) and Skimmer (once).
One morning and parts of an afternoon were spent on the 20-30m high canopy tower (a 20min walk and boat ride from the lodge clearing). Birds included White-necked Puffbird (easy), Black-bellied Cuckoo (twice), Zimmer's Flatbill (nest-building near platform), Gould's Jewelfront (twice), a few perched Black-headed Parrots, Common Piping-Guan (in far distance), Black-tailed Trogon and Tityra, Many-banded Aracari and Golden-collared Toucanet, White-fronted Nunbird, Scale-breasted and Cream-colored Woodpecker, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, soaring Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, Dwarf Tyrant-Manakin, a Syristes and the enigmatic Yellow-browed Tody-Flycatcher.
One afternoon was spent around the lodge clearing (Ivory-billed Aracari, Black-fronted Nunbird) and doing a boat ride along the Yuturi River and one of its tributaries to concentrate on várzea species. Hoatzin, Amazon and Green-and-rufous Kingfisher and Greater Ani are common along the river, and Speckled Chachalaca and Capped Heron were seen once. The river offers good views of raptors and parrots passing overhead (Plumbeous Kite, White-eyed Parakeet, Red-bellied Macaw). At dusk and dawn, the river was where we saw most nightbirds: Pauraque is hard to miss, Jaime knows a stake-out for Common Potoo, and we successfully called in Tawny-bellied Screech-owl, Spectacled Owl and Ferruginous Pygmy-owl (a bunch of calling Tropical Screech-owls didn't want to come in).
The varzea highlight was a beautiful male (and briefly also a female) Orange-crested Manakin, a rare Ecuadorian endemic for which Yuturi may presently be the most reliable place on earth. Jaime says he knows several leks.
Other varzea birds, most of them only seen with the help of a tape recorder and/or Jaime's site knowledge, were Varzea Schiffornis, Plumbeous Antbird, Coraya Wren, Cinnamon Attila, Striped and Long-billed Woodcreeper and Scarlet-crowned Barbet. Other noteworthy species on this boat trip were Yellow-ridged Toucan, Gray-headed Tanager and Chestnut and Crimson-crested Woodpecker.
River Island Habitat:
For at least one morning, you should arrange to be taken down the Yuturi to the Napo River (40-80min boat ride) and to one of the river islands, where the avifauna may be impoverished compared to the mainland, but where you can see a great many river island endemics. Try and see your target species as soon as possible, because it gets very hot and activity completely drops out after . After that time, the only birds we saw were those of which we had a tape-recording.
In the early morning, expect one or two individual Amazonian Umbrellabirds crossing the river. Jaime first took us to a bigger river island with older successional stages of forest. Among the river island specialists, Lesser Hornero and Castelnau's Antshrike came in obligingly to their recording. Furthermore, we saw Barred Antshrike, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, Little Woodpecker, Grayish Saltator, Variegated Flycatcher, the rare Orange-headed Tanager, Oriole Blackbird and Caquetá Seedeater. Many an unidentified hummer almost certainly included the restricted Olive-spotted Hummingbird, but we dipped it. We lost much time trying very hard for White-bellied and Parker's Spinetail and Rufous-headed Woodpecker (the latter a very localized bird associated with cecropia groves along the Napo). Around we had given up and were just going to give it one more shot on a neighboring smaller island with incipient successional stages of vegetation growth, where we did see the two spinetails and a Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant. And in the end, on the way back, a quick stop along the river's bank that was meant to produce a Drab Water-Tyrant additionally got me my Rufous-headed Woodpecker. Also, a Giant Cowbird was floating on wooden debris in the Napo on return.
You should invest at least one day along the long terra firme trail on the opposite side of the Yuturi River (half an hour downstream from the lodge in a canoe), as we did. We also had some good terra firme birding along the loop to the tower, but by far not as excellent as on said trail. There, one of our accomplished missions was to find a big ant swarm, where we saw a few ant specialists, most notably the Lunulated Antbird (highly localized!). Ridgely and Greenfield report it from varzea forest only, but I'm pretty sure we saw it in terra firme, in one flock with such delights as Bicolored Antbird, White-plumed Antbird and Sooty Antbird. Some of the more elusive birds along the trail included Great Jacamar, Striated Antthrush and Rusty-belted Tapaculo (all three seen reasonably well after playback, the latter together with a Thrush-like Antpitta!!), Blue-crowned and White-crowned Manakin and White-chested Puffbird. Mixed flocks contained Pink-throated Becard, Mouse-colored, Spot-winged and Cinereous Antshrike, Spix' and Amazonian Barred Woodcreeper, Plain-throated Antwren and Ash-throated Gnateater. Other notable species were Ringed Woodpecker, Spix' Guan, Nightingale Wren, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Amazonian White-tailed Trogon, Ringed Antpipit, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Screaming Piha (actually seen!) and Casqued Oropendola.
At Yuturi, they offered me a 1-night extension at Yarina Lodge for $30 (an exceptional offer they might not be willing to repeat), so I gained an additional dry afternoon and morning of birding time.
Yarina Lodge is the Yuturi Company's second lodge, only half an hour downstream from Coca, and mainly visited by richer Ecuadorians and language students (they held Spanish courses in the lodge), less so by the hordes of Germans and Americans you are likely to hit upon at Yuturi. Yarina is noticeably different in character: The terrain is markedly hilly, and you can probably see the first foothill species around here. On the other hand, don't come with too high expectations with respect to varzea birds, let alone river island specialists. Yarina does have an excellent canopy tower.
In the account of birds seen at Yarina, I will omit many noteworthy species that I additionally saw at other places.
A late afternoon on the canopy tower was pretty successful, with a big mixed flock containing Chestnut-winged Foliage-gleaner, Dusky-capped Greenlet, White-vented, Rufous-bellied and Golden-bellied Euphonia, Masked, Yellow-backed, Flame-crested and Turquoise Tanager, Green Oropendola, Golden-faced Tyrannulet, Sulphury Flycatcher (on palms),Crowned Slaty-Flycatcher and a high-canopy Black-eared Fairy. Mealy Amazons alighted on trees in the distance, and mixed swift flocks included Short-tailed, Gray-rumped and even Pale-rumped Swifts.
A morning walk in the forest around Yarina and the hike to the tower in the afternoon were quiet, though I did spot Black-throated and Sooty Antbird (the former in a swamp), Fulvous-crested Tanager, Bright-rumped Attila, Red-rumped Cacique, Olivaceous Flatbill and Cinereous Antshrike (with Dusky-throated Antshrike calling in the same flock). A canoe ride on an oxbow lake near the lodge that morning produced Red-throated Caracara, Jacana and Black-crowned Tityra.
I invested one full day and got there by the late morning. The weather was horrible, with cold pouring rain up in the elfin forest. Virtually all birds were seen in the first 30min, when the rain hadn't started yet.
Yanacocha is a must for those in search of endemics, because it is the only reliable site for Black-breasted Puffleg, a very restricted bird that has only ever been found on two volcanoes near Quito. The site is easily reached from Quito if you have a car. If not, it's probably going to have to be a very expensive taxi ride from the city. I paid $30 one way, and I doubt that you can get it for less. The ride back is usually not a problem, and people from the little village can take you.
Directions are given in Hejnen et al., though somewhat confusing: Once you take a left at the Escuela Fiscal (a little less than 10km along the cobble road), you get to a fork after ca. 1km, where you have to bear right. From here, it is basically straight (always stay on the track that looks better if in doubt) until you reach the water company's buildings, from where you have to continue another 1-3km to a little village consisting of 4-5 houses. A few hundred meters before the village, a gated track splits off to the left: Walk this track, which will eventually get you into the best habitat. After 1-2hr you will get to a tunnel, which you can cross, as the path continues on the other side. Due to heavy rain, I didn't go much further from here.
The Black-breasted Puffleg's future looked pretty bleak at one point in the 90s, when the water company, the owner of the land, continued degrading much of the habitat. Finally, the Ecuadorian organization CECIA (or maybe other people prompted by CECIA) purchased the best habitat and declared it a private reserve. These days, CECIA is running restoration programs, and they use one of the buildings in the village as a greenhouse for their plant experiments. I had the pleasure of meeting one of their volunteer workers, a very nice young lady from Quito.
This is essentially a hummingbird site, and most people don't see much else of interest. The Black-breasted Puffleg is by no means guaranteed, and the presence of two other (partly more abundant) puffleg species made the whole thing more difficult for me, though nowadays ID should not pose too much of a problem with the new Ecuadorian ID book. I encountered many Sapphire-vented Pufflegs and was very lucky in that I saw (/strung) one female Black-breasted feeding at the same tree as two Sapphire-venteds right when the heavy rain started: It was noticeably smaller and shorter-tailed and had some light on its underparts, and after careful consideration, I am happy enough to count it, as Glowing and Turquoise-throated (the only other two such pufflegs) don't occur here.
Other hummers included Purple-backed Thornbill, Mountain Velvetbreast and Buff-winged Starfrontlet. Unicolored Tapaculo, Andean Guan and even Smoky Bush-Tyrant were very common, and mixed flocks produced Rufous-naped Brushfinch, Blue-backed Conebill, Black-chested and Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Rufous Wren, Glossy Flowerpiercer, Golden-crowned Tanager, White-throated Tyrannulet and Superciliaried Hemispingus.
Cerro Mondragón (=Cerro Mongus)
In early August, I came for one afternoon, a full day and the subsequent morning. I was short of time anyway, but the constant freezing drizzle up in the elfin/páramo made my departure a welcome event.
Locally known as Cerro Mondragón, but called Cerro Mongus by Hejnen et al., this site stretches from upper temperate forest to heavily grazed páramo. You won't find much forest left below the upper temperate zone (3200m according to Hejnen et al.), where all the land has been converted to potato fields. The locals have apparently been complaining about receding precipitation levels, so they all agreed to discontinue any further forest conversion. How much of this is true remains sketchy. While I was there, the páramo and forest was constantly shrouded in heavy mist and drizzle, but the clouds never reached the lower potato elevations around the village of Impuerán. Get prepared for a very cool time!
It remains to be mentioned that you will have two main targets at this site, both very localized and hard-to-get species: the recently discovered and elusive Chestnut-bellied Cotinga in the elfin-páramo intergrade and the rare and beautiful Crescent-faced Antpitta in the temperate forest.
Without a car, this site can be very hard. Busses from Ibarra (2-3hr north of Quito) to Impuerán run about three to four times a week (for sure on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays or Saturdays, mostly leaving at , sometimes in the morning). The trip takes 3-4hr. In the spread-out village of Impuerán, there is no hotel, and other birders have been known to spend the night in the church (crazy without warm clothing!) or camp at the forest edge (lethal without warm clothing!). I was invited by a nice guy to sleep in his house, and he also gave me a ride up to the forest edge in the mornings: He didn't explicitly charge for the accommodation and food he gave me (though I certainly paid him something), but he charged a rather expensive $4 for each ride he gave me up to the forest and each ride he picked me up, even though on 3 out of 4 occasions we only made it halfway on his motorbike. His name is Juan B. Mafla Cadena, and you are welcome to get into contact with him if you need a place to stay in Impuerán or if you need a ride to the forest edge. Call him at 649-116 (from Ibarra) or 06-649-116 (from outside of Carchi Province/Ibarra). Say hello from Frank.
If you can't find him, you would have to walk the 3-5km to the forest edge steep uphill every morning. From the lower edge, it is only ca. 1km through temperate forest before you reach a cattle gate where the forest abruptly gives way to grazed páramo (see Hejnen et al.). From there, walk into the páramo and uphill, bearing left where possible, staying close to the forest edge. Eventually the path re-enters elfin forest along a water canal. Walking along the canal, you will pass three big landslides before the trail once more leaves the forest and ascends the páramo. The three land-slides are the area that should be investigated for the Cotinga.
I am exceedingly happy that I saw the Chestnut-bellied Cotinga. I know that people have missed it during 5-day visits, so I was certainly lucky, but I guess I employed the right strategy as well. One morning, I walked straight up to the landslides and didn't let 5 hours of complete bird silence and coldest and windiest drizzle deter me from patrolling the three landslides, as long as it took to see the bird. Amazingly, the only other birds I saw during that time were a Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and a Rufous Antpitta (which was common lower down the slope).
A mixed flock near the elfin edge the first afternoon provided some spectacular and rare birds that I was not to see again: Masked Mountain-Tanager (2-3), Black-backed Bush-Tanager (ca. 8) and Slaty Brushfinch (2) (besides Golden-crowned Tanager, Black-chested and Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Pale-naped Brushfinch, Glossy Flowerpiercer and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant). Hummers in the upper elfin were represented by Golden-breasted Puffleg and Rainbow-bearded Thornbill. In the temperate forest, I searched for the Crescent-faced Antpitta in vain, but I did see White-chinned Thistletail instead. Mixed flocks comprised Streaked Tuftedcheeks, White-banded and White-throated Tyrannulets, Black Flowerpiercers, Black-capped and Black-headed Hemispingus, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant and Plain-colored Seedeaters. Buff-winged Starfrontlets and Andean Guans were common, and I spotted Streak-throated and Smoky Bush-Tyrants. In the potato fields on the way down I spotted a Plain-colored Hawk.
One of two Undulated Antpitta sightings involved an obviously confused bird that was hopping down the trail in front of me out of the forest and into the potato zone over a distance of more than 400m, approachable up to 2m, until it finally disappeared into a hedgerow!
El Placer is situated in a zone of eternal drizzle and rain with little seasonal variations in precipitation. I was lucky that my 2 ½ day stay in late July was not clouded by serious rainfall.
Ibarra in the highlands and San Lorenzo on the coast used to be only connected by a railway that gave access to a good elevational array of Chocó habitats. Nowadays, the road to San Lorenzo has been completed, and railway service was discontinued a few years ago. The road and the railway tracks are largely parallel all the way down via Lita (hotels) to the little village of Alto Tambo (no hotels), leading through mostly degraded habitat (with primary habitat seemingly inaccessible and persisting only farther off the tracks). At Alto Tambo, the two split, and the road pursues a more northerly route, while the old tracks descend to the coast via a few villages that have recently become cut-off from the outside world as a result of the discontinuation of train service, most notably El Placer (ca. 5km from Alto Tambo). Local people along the road are not farmers, but live off timber harvest, and ever since the abandonment of the railway, large numbers of people have moved off from the railway villages and newcomers have moved into the villages along the road. I strongly suspect that there is not much accessible forest left along the road below Alto Tambo, though I didn't proceed farther down. The best way to get into some good habitat is therefore a stay in El Placer along the cut-off parts of the railway tracks.
El Placer is a largely abandoned village and the first spot where good forest (accessible on trails) comes really close to the tracks.. I stayed with one of the few new families that moved in from a village that's even farther down the tracks and thus more isolated. They were surprised at the number of birdwatchers they've hosted within few months, and they decided to build a new hut for future visitors. They gave me good food and their hut is excellently located near the head of a trail that leads into some lush primary forest for about 4km. The forest edge is only 200m from the tracks at their house. Theirs is the second house along the tracks in El Placer (Finca Santa Monica, KM 301, Familia Paredes). You can walk there from Alto Tambo, but many people along here own four-wheeled railway carts that can be a convenient way of downhill travel (though the carts will have to be pushed uphill). I hitched a ride down to El Placer on a little trustworthy cart loaded with sacks of rice and 7 people on top!
The Paredes Family owns the parcel of forest in the back of the house (all the way to the end of the trail). They live off agriculture, and they will have to clear-cut parts of the forest for new plantations and subsistence, but they will first wait and see how their ecotourism cabaña will do.
Go there, have some divine birding, don't be skimpy with the tip and that will be a valuable contribution to Chocó rainforest conservation.
The Lita Woodpecker Story:
Right near the forest edge not far from the finca, I saw a pair of woodpecker that pretty much looked like the eastern lowland Yellow-throated Woodpecker on the second day. I observed the birds for a while, but didn't quite know how to name them, since "Birds of Colombia" doesn't depict such a bird for the western lowlands. Finally, I remembered that some new taxon called Lita Woodpecker was recorded from this site, so I just assumed them to belong to that species.
Later, at home, I was surprised to find out that Lita Woodpecker is actually a split from White-throated Woodpecker, which does not really look like the birds I saw at El Placer in "Birds of Colombia", since the yellow on their head was much more extensive. Ridgely and Greenfield's "Birds of Ecuador", however, does depict a somewhat yellow-headed bird. I also found out that there is an as yet undescribed taxon, possibly a subspecies of Yellow-throated Woodpecker, that's only been recorded from adjacent Colombia so far. The birds I saw actually match the description of the latter new taxon in "Woodpeckers: A Guide to the Woodpeckers, Piculets and Wrynecks of the World" by Hans Winkler and David Christie, a book that renders the Lita Woodpecker as a bird devoid of yellow on its head.
Obviously, Lita Woodpecker is currently not identifiable if one is to give equal credence to the books in question. The problem arises of whether one should believe Winkler and Christie or Ridgely and Greenfield in their depiction of Lita Woodpecker. I am eagerly awaiting "The Handbook of the Birds of the World" (HBW)'s 7th volume (to be published in spring 2002) to settle the matter for me, but in view of the fact that other people have been convinced they've seen Lita Woodpecker at El Placer in the past, I will accept this identification pending the publication of HBW.
Some of the best birds at this site were all seen at an ant-swarm that was attended by a huge flock containing Bicolored, Immaculate and Ocellated Antbird as well as a Rufous-crowned Antpitta. A female Long-wattled Umbrellabird was seen among Chocó Toucans and Stripe-billed Aracaris. A productive flock near the forest edge produced Emerald Tanager. Common birds at this site included Moss-backed, Ochre-breasted and Golden-hooded Tanager, Golden-bellied Warbler, Orange-billed Sparrow, Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreeper, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Crowned Woodnymph and White-whiskered and Stripe-throated Hermit. Birds only encountered once along the trails comprised Chocó Woodpecker, Eye-ringed Flatbill, Dusky-faced Tanager, Golden-headed Quetzal, Brown-billed Scythebill, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Esmeraldas Antbird, Chocó Tapaculo and Tooth-billed Hummingbird.
Other notable species in the forest were Western Woodhaunter (2-3 times), Slat-colored Grosbeak, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Pale-vented Thrush, Nightingale Wren, Russet Antshrike, Green-fronted Lancebill, Rufous-throated Tanager, Checker-throated Antwren, Spot-crowned Antvireo, and Broad-billed Motmot.
The secondary habitat along the tracks, around the finca and near Alto Tambo harbored Variable and Yellow-bellied Seedeaters, Cinnamon Becard (common), Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Tricolored Brushfinch, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Black-winged Saltator, Slaty Spinetail, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Purple-crowned Fairy and Band-rumped Swift.
I spent three full days in early August at the highly recommended Tandayapa Bird Lodge. The weather was excellent: sunny mornings, overcast afternoons.
Tandayapa is one of the most wonderful examples of what ecotourism can accomplish in a country like Ecuador: As little as a decade ago the destruction of the upper subtropical and temperate forests in Tandayapa Valley proceeded apace, now this is one of the best accessible and most widely popular birding spots in South America with an outstanding birding infrastructure and habitat restoration efforts underway.
Note that the birding situation has changed substantially in the last few years, and Hejnen et al.'s account is therefore highly out-dated.
Tandayapa Valley is bisected by the Old Nono-Mindo-Road, and most birding is either done from here or on the trail system of one of the two lodges in the Valley.
Hardcore budget birders will have a hard time here, since cheap hostal-type accommodation is only available in Nanegalito, but public transportation to the Old Nono-Mindo Road is non-existent and unreliable rides would have to be hitched. I do encourage even those on a minimal budget to treat themselves to Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL), doubtless one of the most fantastic places in South America to watch birds. (Contact Iain Campbell, Office: Mariscal Foch 714 y J.L. Mera, Quito, Phone: (593-2)543-045 or 735-536, firstname.lastname@example.org ). The beautiful lodge is located in the lower valley, near Tandayapa Village, in a zone where the road is lined by pastures and where all birding has to be done on trails. TBL sports an extensive trail system that explores the upper subtropical forest on the adjacent slope and has (within its short time of existence) attained world fame for the spectacular gathering of up to 20 hummingbird species at any one time at its hummingbird feeders.
At the upper end of the valley near the pass, Bellavista Lodge (ca. 6km uphill from TBL) towers above the serpentines that climb up the valley. Birding in this region is possible along the road (and apparently even better than along Bellavista's extensive trail system), though most of the habitat there is secondary. The birds here are markedly different from the lower valley, and you have to make sure enough time is spent in both parts.
Those who plan on staying here for a longer time may also consider a third option: Ca. 2km below Bellavista and well hidden from the road, an American-German couple (Tony Nunnery and Barbara Bolz, email@example.com ) have built their own house and a couple of cabins for long-term visitors. You would have to bring your own food. The hummingbird feeders in their yard have been good for surprises in the past, and they also have a small trail system.
The first thing that will catch your eye in TBL is the hummingbird feeders in the back yard. The composition of species changes greatly over the months and years, with new species showing up and old ones disappearing. While I was there, I was able to see Andean and Western Emerald, Purple-throated and White-bellied Woodstar, Brown, Green and Sparkling Violetear, Green-fronted Lancebill, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, White-necked Jacobin (rare!), Wedge-billed Hummer, Brown Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet and Purple-throated Whitetip amongst other more common ones. The TBL trail system is probably one of the most reliable places on earth to see White-faced Nunbird, though it is rare even here and I missed it. The trail system does go up all the way to a ridge where some of the more high-elevation species can be seen, but most of those are easier along the road at Bellavista. On the other hand, the TBL trails host a few quite rare subtropical species: I saw Olivaceous Piha (on average one sighting per day!), Dark-backed Wood-Quail (1 occ.), Nariño Tapaculo (easy with knowledge of call), Sickle-winged Guan, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Flavescent Flycatcher (surprisingly common, 5 sightings in 2 days!), Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Golden-winged Manakin, Black-and-white Becard, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Golden-naped and Metallic-green Tanager, Slaty Antwren, Uniform Antshrike, Long-tailed and Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-breasted Antthrush (heard only) and Ochre-breasted Antpitta (heard only). Ask the TBL guides about the night roost of the Powerful Woodpecker: This is where I saw a pair of woodpecker competing for the tree cavity with a Strong-billed Woodcreeper. The latter was eventually chased off by a very aggressive pair of Streak-capped Treehunter.
From the two canopy platforms, which oversee a side-valley, I saw Golden-headed Quetzal, Red-billed Parrot, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (the more beautiful western ssp.), and Golden-crowned Flycatcher. The orchards along the road near TBL are good for Black-and-white Seedeater and Tricolored and White-winged Brushfinch (Black-capped Tanager seems to favor this habitat, too). The walk up the road to Bellavista takes about 3-4 leisurely hours, with bad habitat along the first 2-3km, but this is where you have to pay attention to swift flocks overhead, with the rare White-tipped Swift being one of the most common species (besides Chestnut-collared and White-collared Swifts). I missed the even scarcer White-fronted Swift that has been reported from here.
At mid-range between both lodges, the hummingbird feeders at Tony and Barbara's place host one or two species usually found at neither lodge (Empress Brilliant, Green-tailed Trainbearer), otherwise supporting species that can either be found at TBL or Bellavista. You won't find their place without someone's directions. Please consider that they ask people to show up after (better for hummers anyway) and to pay a $5 contribution.
The farther up this road you get, the more likely are sightings of Toucan Barbet (go by call!) and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (very common at top, the only guaranteeable mountain-toucan in Ecuador). The area around Bellavista is of noticeably temperate character, and flocks include Dusky-bellied Bush-Tanager, Plushcap, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Capped Conebill, Sepia-brown and Plain-tailed Wren, Black-capped Tyrannulet (1 occ.), Fawn-breasted, Rufous-chested and Grass-green Tanager, and Green-and-black Fruiteater. This area can be exceptional for furnariids, and is where I finally saw my first Rusty-winged Barbtails (common) after many years of waiting (also 4 Striped Treehunter sightings and a Lineated Foliage-gleaner). Spillman's Tapaculos were seen on several occasions, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Crowned Chat-Tyrant and White-throated Hawk on one.
The hummingbird feeders at Bellavista ($5 if you're not a guest) only hold 5-8 species (because of higher altitude). Of these, Gorgeted Sunangel and Collared Inca cannot usually be found at TBL, but the former is very common along the road at Bellavista.
The best two birds I saw around Bellavista are Tanager Finch and Western Hemispingus. The former is exceedingly difficult to see here and even more so anywhere else on earth, so do make an extra effort. The most reliable spot for years has been the sharp hairpin bend 200-300m down the road towards Nanegalito from the Bellavista intersection (this road also leads to a Biological Station which is signposted). If the guides at the lodges can't tell you of a better site, just stay around the secondary roadside bank vegetation at this hairpin bend for as long as it takes to see the bird (2hr on one afternoon in my case). This hairpin bend usually has a good flock circulating around, which also contains Western Hemispingus, a bird that looks more like a very strange tanager than anything else.
Milpe-Pachical Trail (near Los Bancos)
one full day with overcast but mostly dry weather.
By early August, time had been getting really short, and I knew I would have to skip a few sites if I was to cover all the regions I had envisaged. It was just remarkable that I ended up skipping one of the sites I had been looking forward to most, namely Mindo, on advice from the people at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL), because Mindo's elevation is precisely between TBL and Los Bancos, so there would have been a huge species overlap if I had done them all. In retrospect, I think it was a good move, even though I would under no circumstances skip Mindo if I had the time, because in the end I am certain I missed a few species that would have been easy at Mindo. I will have to come back some day.
The Milpe track is a popular destination for guided visits from Tandayapa to look for Moss-backed Tanager and a few other lower subtropical species that don't quite make it up to Tandayapa.
If visiting this place on your own, stay in Los Bancos ( = San Miguel de Los Bancos). Milpe is a small, spread-out roadside village along the new road to Quito, about 2-4km from Los Bancos. Either walk here in the morning or hitch a ride (busses to Quito might not want to give you such a short ride). At Milpe, an inconspicuous track splits off to the north (left when going to Quito, and just 100m or so from a KM sign). The track goes all the way to a small river (ca. 2-3km), leading through increasingly good habitat (the last few hundred meters are entirely forested). At the river (White-capped Dipper), a suspension bridge for pedestrians enables access to the other side, where a good log trail continues up an excellent forested slope (ca. 1km) until it reaches pastures. From here, the trail continues to the village of Pachical (another 2-4hr) through cleared land.
Strangely, Moss-backed Tanager is mostly sighted in the more degraded forest patches along the first KM. I concentrated more on better habitat, and I didn't mind missing the tanager since I'd seen many at El Placer. However, I did see Reddish-faced and Slaty Spinetail, Ecuadorian Thrush, Tricolored Brushfinch, Bran-colored Flycatcher and Purple-crowned Fairy along the more degraded parts.
The log trail beyond the bridge has a "forest interior character", and I saw Rufous-breasted Antthrush (after use of playback). Flocks in here and especially around the bridge contained a few pretty spectacular species: Rufous-throated, Vermilion, Silver-throated, Glistening-green and lots of Dusky-faced Tanagers, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet (common), Black-tailed Flycatcher (2 occ.), Pacific Flatbill, Chestnut-crowned Brushfinch, Chocó Warbler, Golden-winged Manakin, Spotted Woodcreeper, Red-headed Barbet and Rufous-rumped Antwren (2 occ.). The area proved especially rewarding for furnariids, with Uniform Treehunter (2 occ.), Pacific Tuftedcheek (1 occ. near forest edge, supposedly very rare!), Streak-capped Treehunter (1 occ.), Lineated Foliage-gleaner (1 occ.), Spotted Barbtail (1 occ.) and Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner. Hummingbirds included Wedge-billed Hummer and White-whiskered Hermit.
Finca KM 106.5 (between Los Bancos and Pedro Vicente Maldonado)
one dry day in early August
In the largely deforested hilly terrain between Los Bancos and Pedro Vicente Maldonado, there is one piece of land (about half-way between both towns) that has been saved from clear-cutting. Its owner, Felipe Quiroz, is a serious conservationist who will not permit the destruction of this 0.5km-wide land parcel. The parcel stretches from the road ca. 3-4km south to some remnant forest that is about the same size as Felipe's land. Though very narrow indeed, you still get the impression of being deep in the interior of the jungle when walking the network of trails that explores most parts of the property.
Stay either in Pedro Vicente or Los Bancos and take an early morning bus to Quito or Esmeraldas respectively. I showed up without prior notice and it didn't seem to create any problems. Felipe charged me $4 entry fee and $5 for guiding me around. He does not know too much about birds. He is an exceedingly nice fellow and very good company, too good at times so that talking with him can become a distraction from birding. If I'd had the time to stay for one additional day, I would have been glad to pay him the $9 again but to insist on birding on my own.
Felipe's property and house is signposted from the road ("KM 106.5"), but note that this KM reading (and that of most other places around here) refers to the old road that used to pass his property. The readings along the newly-built highway differ by 20 or 30km. Felipe lives there with his brother and his mother (very nice people), and they all plan on building a cabaña for eco-tourists in the future: a stay will include the delicious meals cooked by his mother. If you are interested and want to contact him, call his brother Jesús Quiroz in Quito (Phone: 581-433).
This site is only about 15km from the Milpe Trail as the parrot flies, but it is completely different in character and bird composition, with little overlap (Spotted Woodcreeper, Pacific Flatbill, Golden-winged Manakin) and many a lowland species replacing the montane species of Milpe: E.g. at dusk, I heard and saw Black-headed Antthrushes (as opposed to Rufous-breasted at Milpe), and mixed flocks contained Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers (2 sightings, opposed to Black-tailed Flycatcher at Milpe).
Rain during the previous night had it that the whole forest patch was full of ant swarms that readily crawled up my legs, stung different parts of my body and made me take my pants down on many an occasion. On the other hand I saw flocks of Immaculate, Bicolored and Chestnut-backed Antbird attending those ant swarms.
Other goodies that hung out with mixed flocks were Brown-billed Scythebill (1), Lita Manakin (1), Spot-crowned Antvireo, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwren, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Plain Xenops. I also saw a fair sprinkle of shy terrestrial birds, including Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush and Nightingale Wren (Song Wren was only heard). A pair of Guayaquil Woodpeckers competed with a pair of Crimson-bellied Woodpeckers for the same cavities. Other notable birds at this site: Thrush-like Mourner, Esmeraldas Antbird (near stream), White-whiskered Puffbird, Red-masked Parakeet, Slaty Grosbeak, Black-winged Saltator, and Ochre-breasted Tanager.
La Celica (near Pedro Vicente Maldonado)
one heavily clouded day in early August.
From Pedro Vicente, situated in widely cleared land, a good track leads north-east to the little village of La Celica (½ hr ride), where the road splits into two tracks (the right one of which leads to distant villages near the frontier to the Cotacachi-Cayapas wilderness, the left one eventually turns back to the main road at Quinindé). Near La Celica, there is a semi-primary forest fragment of ca. 10-20ha that is apparently owned by some Consejo Municipal (municipal council) and can therefore not be logged. This is where some worthwhile birding time can be spent.
Stay in one of Pedro Vicente's three or four basic hotels and take the first camión that leaves for La Celica from in front of the market (usually ). At the intersection in La Celica, take a left to the end of town, near where a privately owned track splits off to the left. 100 or 200m from here along the main (right) track, a muddy dirt path goes off to the right (ask locals to show you the "path to the river"). This path leads down (500m) through partly cleared, partly secondary vegetation to a big stream (Green Kingfisher), on the opposite side of which you will find the municipal forest. The whole patch is intersected by a good network of trails, but it can be hard to find the trailheads. One of them is right across from where you get to the stream and a little towards the right.
The pastures along the track to La Celica held Blue Seedeaters, White-thighed Swallows and Black-striped Sparrows. The secondary scrub along the mud path down to the river was way better than expected, with a White-bearded Manakin lek and mixed flocks containing Lesser Greenlet, Olivaceous Piculet, Cinnamon Becard, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Black-faced Dacnis (yellow-tufted western ssp.), Pallid Dove, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Pacific Antwren, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet and Ecuadorian Thrush.
The forest itself has a pretty disturbed understorey with only few sightings of terrestrial birds (like Chestnut-backed Antbird), but its mid- and high-canopy flocks were quite good: I saw White-shouldered, Dusky-faced, Ochre-breasted, Tawny-crested and Silver-throated Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Dot-winged Antwren, Spotted Woodcreeper, Black-and-white Becard, Pacific Flatbill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Russet Antshrike, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops and White-whiskered Puffbird. Notable hummers included Violet-crowned Fairy, Band-tailed Barbthroat and Green-crowned Brilliant.
Río Silanche (a.k.a. the Pedro Vicente forest patches)
one partly overcast day in mid-August
Since the late 1990s, birders have been reporting "exceptional birding" at a few fast-disappearing forest patches near Pedro Vicente Maldonado, with such outstanding sightings as Double-banded Graytail and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Finally, in late 2000, the first person announced on the internet that the last of these forest patches has disappeared and that there is no more hope for the birds.
Apart from species lists and anecdotal reports, information about and directions to those patches have always been scant, and apparently people have been talking about different areas, since a few sizeable patches still persisted in August 2001 when I traveled there.
Most people visit this area on an organized tour or arrange to be taken here while staying at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL), and I encourage everyone to take advantage of the excellent guiding service of Iain Campbell, the owner of TBL, or one of the other guides at TBL. If you are on a minimal budget, stay in Pedro Vicente, take a pre-dawn bus down towards Esmeraldas and get off at a little hamlet called Simón Bolívar (about halfway between Pedro Vicente and Puerto Quito). There, a track goes off to the right (north), giving access to little settlements in the hinterland. Most of the roadside habitat is fairly degraded, but there is one area of scattered secondary forest patches after 2-3km.
The best area, however, is found about 10km from the main road (follow the main track and bear left if in doubt), where the track crosses a stream called Río Silanche. Beyond this stream, the track ascends a forested slope with excellent views of the canopy. This is the area whence birders have reported "the Big Flock" in the past, a mixed feeding party containing rare species and circulating around the little forest patch throughout the morning hours. Try to get here first thing in the morning, though camiones from Simón Bolívar might not enter before . I only got here in the afternoon and still saw a fair share of spectacular species.
I picked up the Big Flock around and was able to see a male Scarlet-and-white Tanager and a female Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. Iain Campbell, who had come here just days earlier with a group of birders, observed the flock throughout the morning, seeing such delights as Blue-whiskered Tanager and Griscom's Antwren.
Other mixed flock members include Yellow-tufted and Blue Dacnis, Golden-hooded, Dusky-faced, Ochre-breasted, White-shouldered, Tawny-crested, Guira, Scarlet-browed and Silver-throated Tanager, Lesser Greenlet, Gray Elaenia, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, Pacific and Dot-winged Antwren, Western Woodhaunter, Streaked Xenops, Orange-fronted and Red-headed Barbet, and Golden-olive, Red-rumped and Cinnamon Woodpecker. The more degraded habitat hosted Streak-headed Woodcreeper, White-bearded Manakin, Cinnamon Becard, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-winged Saltator, Variable Seedeater, Yellow-bellied Siskin and even a Blue Ground-Dove. Psittacids were plentiful, represented by Blue-headed and Bronze-winged Parrot and Maroon-tailed Parakeet. In the least degraded parts of the forest, I saw Crimson-mandibled Toucan, Chocó (White-eyed) Trogon, Double-toothed Kite and White-whiskered Puffbird. Other notable sightings included Western Slaty Antshrike, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Guayaquil and Lineated Woodpecker, Pale-mandibled Aracari and Crowned Woodnymph.
Aldea Salamandra (near Puerto Quito)
one full sunny day in mid-August.
The Aldea Salamandra is a so-called "eco-lodge" 1km from the Quito - Esmeraldas Road adjacent to a minute 1ha piece of supposedly primary rainforest. Most of the clientèle is Ecuadorians who come here on the weekend to take a swim in the river and enjoy the food. While I didn't see much in the way of birds in that fragment itself, I had some outstanding birding in secondary patches further afield (to my surprise). A stay in one of the lodge's basic cabañas including one meal on the subsequent day cost me $11.
Coming from Pedro Vicente and just a few hundred meters before Puerto Quito, there is a big turn-off to the left. Follow this track 500-700m past a few abandoned hosterías to Aldea Salamandra. The trailhead of the round trail through the primary forest fragment is well hidden (though it does have a few arrow signs) and will have to be shown to you by the staff.
The bigger secondary forest patch that held some fantastic birdwatching for me is not too far but hard to find, so closely follow these directions: Get to the spot where the little stream that runs through Aldea Salamandra enters the property on its far side (excellent sighting of White-throated Crake at this spot). (To get here, you will have to cross a barbwire fence at some point, but that is only to get OUT of the Aldea property, not INTO some other property). From here, a conspicuous trail runs roughly parallel up the stream, lined by fenced-in pastures. A few hundred meters up this trail, fences force you (or at least forced you at that time) to take a slight right and enter a big pasture with scattered big trees. Follow the thinned-out trail straight across this pasture and walk towards the secondary forest, where the trail enters. From here, you can follow the trail for at least 2-3km through old overgrown forest-like orchards and secondary forest. The trail occasionally thins out and reappears, and eventually splits and re-merges at times.
Vegetation along the river below Aldea Salamandra supported Red-billed Scythebill and Great Antshrike. Hedgerows and thickets in the pastures held goodies like Pacific Parrotlet, White-necked Jacobin, Black-striped Sparrow, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Slaty Spinetail, Pacific Antwren, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Seedeater, White-bearded Manakin, Ecuadorian Thrush, Olivaceous Piculet and Violet-bellied Hummer. Big snags and giant trees in clearings and pastures were good for Orange-fronted Barbet, Gray Hawk, Band-backed Wren and Black-cheeked Woodpecker.
The primary forest patch was visited only briefly in the afternoon and had Ruddy Quail-Dove. In the most high-grown parts of the secondary remnant described above I saw Lita Manakin, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird and Dot-winged Antwren. Little Tinamou was calling from everywhere and was relatively easy to see in the open understorey of the more orchard-like parts. This is also where I flushed a Pauraque. The best feature about the secondary forest patch was an immense mixed flock observed during 60min around noon, containing such spectacular species as Scarlet-breasted (1 female) and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis (1 female) besides less rare ones like Sooty-headed and Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Guira, White-shouldered, Scarlet-browed and Golden-hooded Tanager, Gray Elaenia, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Red-rumped and Yellow-olive Woodpecker, Red-headed Barbet, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Yellow-tufted and Blue Dacnis, Lesser Greenlet, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher and Streaked and Plain Xenops. Other noteworthy species found in the secondary forest patch were Short-tailed Pygmy-Tyrant, Little and White-whiskered Hermit.
Jatún Sacha Bilsa (or "Mud's Revenge")
Although I visited in the "dry season", my whole stay was characterized by drizzly and misty conditions with occasional rainfall. Apparently, Bilsa sees more sunshine in the rainy season, when heavy downpours closely follow sunny weather. I came for 4 days in mid-August, which gave me two full days of birding plus a morning and an afternoon.
Sadly, Ecuador has lost almost all its Chocó lowland forest, and compared to Colombia, where large tracts are said to survive, Ecuador now only hosts two big blocks of remnant forest: one is the Cotacachi-Cayapas region north-east of the Quito-Esmeraldas Road, that can now be visited at a new lodge called Playa de Oro, and a second (smaller) one between the road triangle of Santo Domingo - Esmeraldas - Chone. This latter tract of forest is now fragmented over wide parts, with its center piece(s) being gnawed at from all four directions.
I wanted to visit at least one area of pristine Chocó lowland forest on my trip, but for reasons of time and money I soon persuaded myself of skipping Playa de Oro and going to Jatún Sacha Bilsa instead.
Situated in one of the bigger remnants of forest that remain west of the road to Esmeraldas, Bilsa is a biological station owned by a non-profit organization and popular among European and North American twens who want to do some voluntary work in the ecological sector. It has a very extensive trail system that cannot fully be explored on a one-week visit. The track that leads past Bilsa has been deteriorated through local use of mules over the decades, so vehicles have not entered for years now. Consequently, Bilsa can only be reached after a long hike or mule-ride that can take up to 7hr if conditions are muddy. I was all the more surprised to arrive at a house full of youthful gringo boys and girls busily working at projects to improve the infrastructure of Bilsa or to restore habitat along the track.
From pleasant Quinindé along the road to Esmeraldas, camiones leave for a village called "La Y" (=la Ye; a common Ecuadorian name for villages situated at a crossroads) from a street block called "Cinco Esquinas". The ride takes almost 2hr. La Y has a frontier atmosphere, because it is where the motorized world meets the people with machetes and mules. Here, you will probably want to arrange for someone to carry your luggage to Bilsa by mule, unless you are a light traveler. You can also organize a second mule for yourself. The official price per mule to Bilsa is $6 for those who have arrangements. I didn't have Bilsa's contact address, so I came without prior notice (usually no problem) and managed to get a mule for $2. In the rainy season (roughly during the northern winter), it will definitely take you 4-7hr to reach Bilsa (13km), depending on mud conditions, physical shape, how much in a rush you are and how much birding you do along the way. I hardly birded on the way there, but I took my time on the way back and saw many good birds in the secondary groves and hedgerows, so keep in mind that some of the best birds may actually be seen along here.
Bilsa itself has a few wooden houses with basic but cozey accommodation and a swimming hole at a stream where you can take your nightly shower. The pleasant company of so many other young people makes it hard to go to bed early. Non-volunteers are charged $5-10 per diem for accommodation and three meals a day. Contact Cesar Aulestia from Ibarra via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) well in advance if you feel nervous about arriving without prior notification. He takes turns with his brother in supervising the gringo volunteers and may not check his e-mail account for weeks if he's out in the field.
The mud will not be over when you get there: Most trails at Bilsa that are used by more than 2 people per week are so muddy that walking becomes a conscious task, though not quite covered in knee-deep mud as the access track. All these adverse factors notwithstanding, Bilsa is well worth the effort: Activity can be low and birding tough, but the reward may be a few of the most enigmatic and endangered birds on earth.
Definitely take your time on the walk there and back. The secondary thickets and woodlots can be replete with good birds. I saw Blue-whiskered Tanager (!), Striped and Little Cuckoo, Violaceous Trogon, Northern Tufted Flycatcher, Guira Tanager, Yellow-tufted and Blue Dacnis, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-tailed Oriole, Masked Water-Tyrant (in La Y), Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Orange-fronted Barbet, Brown-capped and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Cinnamon Becard, Tropical Gnatcatcher, White-bearded Manakin, Pacific Antwren, Slaty and Red-faced Spinetail, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Black-cheeked and Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Variable and Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Blue-headed Parrot and Red-masked Parakeet.
I did poorly in hummingbirds (White-whiskered and Little Hermit, Crowned Woodnymph, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy), with many an unidentified species.
Bilsa's trails are arranged according to different color codes. Let them explain to you where each trail goes to. I mainly frequented two trails, the one going down to the canopy platform erected in 2000 and continuing to the confluence of two rivers, and the loop going past the "piscinas" (idyllic waterholes carved into rocks). The latter gives access to foothill elevations, while the former leads to lower elevations.
The confluence is where I got wonderful looks at a perched Plumbeous Hawk. The canopy platform is nothing for the faint-hearted and requires great physical strength to be accessed; it was largely quiet during my stay, with only one remarkable sighting of a White-necked Puffbird.
Army ant swarms can be found anywhere, but the species composition will be different according to elevation. I found one big swarm at the Piscinas Trail attended by a flock containing Bicolored, Chestnut-backed, Immaculate, Ocellated and Spotted Antbird. Finding one a little lower would have increased the chances of seeing the Ground-Cuckoo (prime target species at this site) and Northern Barred Woodcreeper (which I both missed).
The semi-secondary cecropia groves along the first 2km of Piscinas Trail were good for Long-wattled Umbrellabird (mixed with Chocó and Crimson-mandibled Toucans and Pale-mandibled Aracaris), but there are said to be even more reliable spots and you won't have to leave without seeing this bird. That spot was where I also saw the restricted Dagua Thrush and Gray-and-gold Tanager.
Other noteworthy species seen in the forest interior include White-eyed and Black-throated Trogon, Crested Guan (once), Rufous Piha (common with mixed flocks), Black-striped Woodcreeper (only near platform), Red-capped Manakin (lek), White-ringed Flycatcher (with high canopy flock), Stripe-throated Wren and Ruddy Foliage-gleaner (both with same flock in forest interior), Slaty Grosbeak, Emerald, Ochre-breasted, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, Dusky-faced, Silver-throated, and Golden-hooded Tanager, Golden-bellied Warbler, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, Nightingale Wren and Song Wren (latter heard only), Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Thrush-like Mourner, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Blue-crowned and Lita Manakin, Black-headed Antthrush, Dot-winged, Slaty, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwren, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Western Woodhaunter, White-whiskered Puffbird, Red-headed Barbet, Guayaquil, Crimson-bellied and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Spotted Woodcreeper and Plain Xenops.
one partly overcast day in mid-August
Río Palenque is a unique forest fragment of nearly 200ha situated between the Chocó and the Tumbesian Zoogeographical Region and inhabited by a strange mix of restricted-range species from the north and south, some of them highly threatened and hard to find anywhere else. As such, Río Palenque is probably the only comparable site remaining. The fragment can be explored on a good network of trails and merits more than one day on any extensive itinerary (so don't run out of time as I did).
Intensive day-time birding and night-time traveling in the previous three months had it that I arrived at Río Palenque in a pretty exhausted and semi-sick state. Birding suffered considerably, so I will definitely have to come back to do Río Palenque full justice.
In August 2001, they were just working on the completion of a lodge-style house that is meant to accommodate birders in the future. Otherwise, you will have to stay in Santo Domingo (47km, 1hr by bus) or Patricia Pilar (2km, 20min on foot) and take one of many pre-dawn busses towards Guayaquil. Note that bus drivers usually don't know about Río Palenque, even though it's right beside the road and conspicuously signposted. If in doubt, tell them to drop you off just a little beyond Patricia Pilar. At the gate, pay $5 entrance fee (important: have the exact change, otherwise you will run into serious time-consuming problems like I did). From there, the primary forest patch is a 10min walk through garden plots for agricultural experiments (lots of Masked Water-Tyrants).
The forest is highly heterogeneous: some parts are noticeably secondary, others with giant trees but a disturbed understorey, yet others appear completely undisturbed. This makes for some great birding with shy terrestrial birds, high canopy flocks dominated by tanagers and undergrowth flocks dominated by suboscines.
Forest species included Ochraceous Attila, Slaty-winged and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Western White-tailed Trogon, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Red-billed Scythebill, Plain Antvireo, Checker-throated and Dot-winged Antwren, a Long-tailed Hermit lek, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Plain Xenops, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-margined, Ochre-bellied and Black-tailed Flycatcher, Slaty Grosbeak, Whiskered Wren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Red-headed Barbet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and Red-rumped and Golden-olive Woodpecker.
Edge species were represented by Dusky Antbird, Black-winged Saltator, Guira, White-shouldered and Dusky-faced Tanager, Yellow-tufted Dacnis, Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Cinnamon Becard, White-bearded Manakin, Western Slaty Antshrike, Slaty Spinetail, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Little and White-whiskered Hermit, Violet-crowned Fairy, Crowned Woodnymph, Little Cuckoo, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove and Orange-fronted Barbet.
Río Ayampe (Machalilla NP)
Time Investment/Weather: I could only stay for one sunny afternoon and one morning in mid-August, since the date of my return flight was getting nearer.
Some laid-back birding can be had at Machalilla NP along the coast, where good Tumbesian dry forest remains on coastal hills. Recently, it has become possible to visit the more interior parts of the NP, where some so-called evergreen fog forest can be found on the highest peaks of the coastal range. This forest hosts plant endemism, but birdlife is more similar to the foothills farther north, so I declined to participate in one of the expensive tours (arranged out of Puerto López).
In the past, most birding has been done along the Río Ayampe slightly south of the NP (and therefore not subject to the $25 entrance fee), and this is where I went as well. However, if I had known sooner, I would have probably opted for the good roadside forest that persists a few kilometers south of Ayampe along the coastal highway to Salinas.
Ayampe (a small village) is about 20-30min south of Puerto López. Presently, there is no accommodation in Ayampe, but I talked to a nice fellow by the name of David Cardenas who has just started putting up hummingbird feeders to attract Esmeraldas Woodstar and who wants to start some birder's bed & breakfast. Contact him (in Spanish) at Tortuga@porta.net to ask if the hummer has shown up yet (the right season for the hummer would be the northern winter, not August).
Otherwise, stay at a hotel in Puerto López or at one of the pleasant roadside hosterías along the highway. I stayed at "La Barquita", an idyllic and economic place with cabañas situated about halfway between Ayampe and Puerto López at a wonderful beach and only a few hundred meters from the super-expensive eco-lodge Alandaluz. Contact the French owner Patrick Pécaut at Patpecs@yahoo.com to book in advance. From here, early-morning busses can get you to Ayampe by at least .
At Ayampe, you can follow the river upstream. This has been recommended by birders in the past, but I found it disappointing for two reasons: 1.) You don't get the dry forest specialties, but only some of the more widespread Tumbesian species, because you don't enter any forest, and most of the vegetation is secondary. 2.) You can't really concentrate on birding since you have to take your shoes off every 200m for yet another river crossing.
The better deal is to walk the trail that splits off inland 300-500m south of the bridge and runs roughly parallel to the river. This trail, which frequently splits and gives access to private properties along the way, leads through some better secondary (and even primary?) forest until it re-merges with the river after 2-3km.
Also, check out the extensive patch of excellent roadside forest several kilometers along the road just a few minutes south of Ayampe (which I only saw driving by on a bus). This may be the best area to concentrate on.
The trail parallel to Río Ayampe had some nice species, mostly along the parts with the oldest persisting forest: Saffron Siskin, Gray-breasted Flycatcher (2 ind.), Anthony's Nightjar (seen perched in secondary thicket), Yellow-billed Cacique, Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner, Speckle-breasted Wren, Black-tailed Flycatcher, Red-rumped, Guayaquil and Golden-olive Woodpecker, White-backed Fire-eye, Slaty Antwren, Plain Antvireo and Tropical Pewee.
The secondary parts along this trail and the riverside itself were good for Red-masked Parakeet, Crimson Finch-Tanager, Variable Seedeater, Pacific Parrotlet, Black-capped and Black-striped Sparrow, Gray-and-gold Warbler, Ecuadorian and Plumbeous-backed Thrush, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Croaking Ground-Dove, Sooty-headed and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, Slaty Spinetail, Amazilia and Rufous-tailed Hummer, Gray Hawk, Collared Antshrike and Yellow-tailed Oriole.
The river itself was frequented by migrating shorebirds (Spotted, Solitary and Baird's Sandpipers, Wilson's Phalaropes), Collared Plovers, and Green and Ringed Kingfishers. I even saw a vagrant Glossy Ibis!
Isla de la Plata (Machalilla NP)
Time Investment/Weather: one day, no rain.
Going to Isla de la Plata took some serious consideration, since I had to take the time off the days I had scheduled for my return trip to Lima. Also, a boat ride here is not cheap by Ecuadorian standards ($25 entry to NP plus $25 for the boat ride and guide). Furthermore, all seabirds at Isla de la Plata can be seen on a trip to Galápagos, so there is no cogent reason to go. The reason I still went is the fact that Black-and-white Tyrannulet and Short-tailed Woodstar, two rare birds typical of the dry Tumbesian zone which I had missed elsewhere, are supposedly easy on the island, and it boasts some bird endemism in the form of a subspecies of the Long-tailed Mockingbird restricted to the island.
Puerto López is full of tour organizers that offer one-day excursions to the island. You won't have any time to yourself, and there is a strict schedule: usually departure at 10.00am (even if they tell you it's 9.00), whale watching till 12.00, island excursion till , reef diving till , and ride back to Puerto López.
Spectacular sightings of jumping humpback whales are virtually guaranteed in the northern summer, but become rare as from September.
On the island, there are two loops: the left one leads past a Magnificent Frigatebird colony (sporting males with inflated pouches) and past some Red-footed Booby pairs. The right one gives access to a loose colony of Waved Albatrosses. Apparently, it is prohibited for day visitors to do both loops, even though there would be plenty of time for the physically apt.
Sometimes, the choice is up to you. In that case, do it as I did and take the right loop, because the Frigatebirds are easy to see anywhere around the island in flight, and the Red-masked Boobies apparently moved their nest site down the cliff after the last El Niño, so they are only seen very sporadically these days.
All the other breeding seabirds (Red-billed Tropicbird, Brown Pelican, Blue-footed Booby, Masked (=Nazca) Booby) are easy to see from both loops.
Short-tailed Woodstar should be looked out for especially along the first few hundred meters before both loops split. Gray-and-white Tyrannulet was only seen twice, the bushes around the headquarters at the point of disembarkation are probably most reliable. Collared Warbling-Finches eat bread crumbs at the headquarters. Other notable species included Baird's Sandpiper and Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant.
Seabirding on the way to/from the island is hardly feasible on the speedboats used by most companies. I did see storm-petrels, but their identification remains tentative.
Peruvian coastal sites visited en route to/from Lima
Marcapomacocha (Lima Dptmt.)
I went up from Lima (sea-level) all the way to the boggy marsh at 4800m for an afternoon, a few hours before my return flight. The weather is very cold, windy and drizzly. High altitude impedes chasing after the birds.
I didn't want to leave South America from Lima without giving Marcapomacocha a try, a place I had never visited because it is exceedingly hard to reach without your own car. The track to Marcapomacocha splits off to the left from the Central Highway to Pucallpa about 45min above the roadside town of Chosica (better directions are given elsewhere). Gunnar Engblom, a Swede living in Lima, organizes birding tours to just about any destinations in Peru and can take you there. Contact him at email@example.com to inquire about prices. Hiring him to accompany you costs extra, but may be worth the money: I only went with one of his drivers, Lucho, a very nice fellow who doesn't know the bird names, but knows where to stop for them.
Perhaps a little disappointing was that I missed one of the specialties that are customarily guaranteed on a trip up here: Diademed Sandpiper-Plover usually resides on one of the high-altitude bogs (where White-fronted Ground-Tyrant and Olivaceous Thornbill were common), but extensive searching didn't produce the bird (according to Gunnar, I was apparently the first person to dip it). A Puna Snipe at the same bog at dusk was a good recompense. Further up yet from that bog, there is another boggy area beyond a pass where we expectedly spotted the endemic White-bellied Cinclodes - doubtless the rarest bird up here on a global view. That latter bog was also good for Crested Duck, Andean Lapwing and Andean Flicker, and the bleak mountain sides on the other side of the road from here should be scanned for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes (I saw one).
Other than that, we just stopped along the road wherever we saw a bird. This strategy produced many Cinereous and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants, Peruvian and Bright-rumped Sierra-Finches, White-winged Diuca-Finches and Bar-winged Cinclodes, besides an occasional Andean Goose, Variable Hawk, one Black-fronted Ground-Tyrant, Dark-winged Miners, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, one Black-brested Hillstar, a Baird's Sandpiper and a Streak-throated Canastero. Unfortunately, we also missed a second target species, the endemic Junín Canastero.
San Damián (Ancash Dptmt.)
I had some pleasant, dry and sunny weather during the one full day I spent above San Damián. I also saw a few nice birds on my walk to San Damián the previous afternoon.
In Central Peru north of Lima, two main mountain chains are separated from each other by the valley of Huaraz, the capital of Ancash: One of these, to the east, is the snow-clad Cordillera Blanca, famous among alpinists for its highest peak "Huascarán" and among ornithologists for its polylepis fragments in the national park that bears the same name. To the west, the less well-known Cordillera Negra doesn't reach up into the snow zone and is considerably drier, with bare desert-like slopes. Above the little village of San Damián, there are remnants of some dry forest (most of this is secondary) as it must have covered the entire Cordillera Negra in old times, before man started cutting it for firewood and grazing it. Nowadays, the Bosque de San Damián is the only better known place where you can see Russet-bellied Spinetail, a rare Cordillera Negra endemic.
Don't commit the mistake of accessing San Damián from Huaraz, as it will cost you a day: Busses take half a day to reach Coris, and from there public transportation down to the coast (via San Damián) is fairly sporadic, which may only leave you the option of doing the 4-5hr hike down the road. Good birds along this hike were a consolation, though.
Instead, travel here from Huarmey, along the coastal Panamericana, whence busses only take a few hours to San Damián.
In the village itself, you have to ask people to accommodate you. I stayed with a lovely family (the father is the retired teacher in town) that gave me a bed and food.
The hike up to the Bosque is steep and tough and takes 3-4hr. You may want to consider hiring a mule in town, which has been done before by birders.
Up in the "Bosque" (actually it looks more like shrubland), the Russet-bellied Spinetail is by no means guaranteed and chances to see it rise considerably if you have a tape-recording. I didn't, but I was so lucky as to glimpse one a few minutes before I had to turn around and walk back down in the afternoon. In the higher parts of the forest, where vegetation is less disturbed, other nice birds included Scarlet-fronted Parakeet, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Bay-crowned Brushfinch, Rufous-chested Tanager and Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant.
Great Inca Finch was not so much seen in the "forest" area, but on the sparsely vegetated slopes on the way there and also on the hike from Coris to San Damián. A family of Piura Chat-Tyrant was seen in the more degraded, lower shrubby parts of the "Bosque", and so were Tropical Gnatcatcher, Peruvian Sheartail, Highland Hepatic Tanager, Collared Warbling-Finch, Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant, Hooded Siskin, Andean Tinamou and Southern Beardless Tyrannulet.
The agricultural, secondary and settled areas around San Damián were inhabited by Scrub Blackbird, Bare-faced Ground-Dove, Long-tailed Mockingbird, Tumbes Pewee, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Purple-collared Woodstar, Amazilia Hummingbird, Oasis Hummingbird, Andean Swift, Cinereous Conebill, Drab Seedeater, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Croaking Ground-Dove, Southern Yellow-Grosbeak, Aplomado Falcon, and Bronze-tailed Comet (!).
Good species seen near Huaraz where the bus made a stop on its way to Coris were White-browed Chat-Tyrant, Band-tailed Seedeater, Peruvian Sierra-Finch, Greenish Yellow-Finch, Giant Hummingbird and Streaked Tit-Spinetail.
Chiguanco Thrush was common anywhere.
El Rafán (Lambayeque Dptmt.?)
In late May, when I visited, most days are very cloudy and windy, and bird activity is usually good. I stayed one rewarding day.
El Rafán, a tiny village near Chiclayo, is just 500m from the most famous and accessible site for Peruvian Plantcutter, though additional sites have been discovered recently. It is a tiny grove of old trees amidst the desert, but you can't really speak of an understorey. In the future, Rafán will perhaps gain importance as it now seems to be the only regular site for Rufous Flycatcher, a highly threatened Peruvian endemic. Other Tumbesian birds are present as well.
Stay in Chiclayo and take an early morning carro or bus down (south) the Panamericana. Get off at Mocupe and wait till one of the carros to Rafán fills up with 4 passengers or pay a "carrera". The track goes right through the core of the old grove (ca. 500m before you get to El Rafán).
The Plantcutters are more or less easy to see in the core area of the grove, where the trees are oldest and thickest.
This is also the best area for a number of other restricted species, e.g. I saw Necklaced Spinetail, Tumbesian Tyrannulet, Fasciated and Superciliated Wren, Pacific Pygmy-owl, and Scarlet-backed Woodpecker.
Rufous Flycatcher has to be looked for, but can be found after some searching, especially in the more bushy area of lower vegetation towards the village, less so in the grove itself. These marginal areas were also better for Striped Cuckoo, Cinereous Finch, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Collared Antshrike, Pacific Parrotlet, Streaked Saltator and Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant.
Other notable birds included Harris' Hawk, Coastal Miner (in the desert), the only positively identified Shiny Cowbird of the trip, Lesser Nighthawk, Peruvian Martin (esp. near settlements) and Northern Crested Caracara.
Batán Grande (Lambayeque Dptmt.)
same as El Rafán, one day in late May with cloudy weather
Another dry forest site in the vicinity of Chiclayo, more extensive and noticeably different in character from El Rafán, and recently found to host a good Peruvian Plantcutter population! Batán Grande is now rigidly protected from firewood collection, boasts a park headquarters and is easily accessible from Chiclayo, situated right along a road to a minor village, but better directions are given elsewhere or can be obtained from Gunnar Engblom at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has made a few interesting discoveries here in the past, but unfortunately I wasn't too lucky when I visited and thus missed most of my targets.
I saw many of the more widespread species occuring at El Rafán, including the not-so-widespread Peruvian Plantcutter. The only additional birds of note were Pacific Hornero, White-edged Oriole, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Saffron Finch and Short-tailed Hawk.
Olmos (Piura Dptmt.)
One mellow evening and the following morning were spent searching for ways to get into better habitat. Most of the better birds were seen in the immediate vicinity of Olmos.
Olmos is only a short ride from Chiclayo on public busses. This was an involuntary stop along my route. Actually I had wanted to visit one of the extensive dry forest sites north-east of town where White-winged Guan and Tumbes Tyrant still persist. These sites are not accessible on public transportation. A half an hour north of the town of Olmos along the old Panamerican Highway towards Piura, there is a White-winged Guan breeding station where people can be found that can take you into some good habitat a 2hr ride away. I had to give up, though, because a shortage of cash money prevented me from paying them the $40 they would have charged for the ride, and they wouldn't - of course - accept credit cards. Maybe it's best to come with prior arrangements anyway.
The only good birds I saw around Olmos were Snowy-throated Kingbird, Plumbeous-backed Thrush, Groove-billed Ani and Peruvian Meadowlark.
La Angustura (Tumbes Forest, Peru)
I went for 3 days (1 afternoon, one full day and one morning not counting transport), but the birding was very slow. The beginning of June is probably a very bad time of the year for this dry forest site, and - if coming again - I would certainly try and come in the rainy season.
The department of Tumbes boasts some of the best remaining dry forest in the whole Tumbesian Zone stretching over northern Peru and southern Ecuador, apparently far better than anything degraded Ecuador has to offer. However, access to this sensitive border zone is difficult (though possibly increasingly better as peace continues). If you have your own transportation, there are a few ways to get into the deeper zones of the forest along little tracks, but without it you have to stick to the settled areas and the vantage points from there. Enquiries in the streets of Tumbes indicated that the village of La Angustura (at the dead end of such a track) is possibly one of the better starting points. I hired one of the rickshaws in the streets of Tumbes for the ride to La Angustura since busses only go three quarters of the way, leaving the remaining 4-5km up to your feet. From La Angustura, different paths lead into degraded but also good forest. Note, however, that coming in the dry season doesn't really pay because birds are very secretive or gone altogether.
Accommodation here is basic to say the least (no hotels).
The only good birds that commonly called in the forest during my stay were Sooty-crowned Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flatbill and Pacific Elaenia. Tumbes Swift was abundant overhead. Some of the more secretive birds seen in the forest were Ecuadorian Trogon, Pacific Pygmy-owl and Pale-browed Tinamou.
Other good birds were confined to the more brushy secondary habitat at the forest edge, e.g. Elegant Crescent-chest, Black-capped Sparrow, One-colored Becard, Crimson-breasted Finch, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Collared Antshrike, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant and Plumbeous-backed Thrush.
Some of the more common birds included Black-and-white Becard, Streaked Flycatcher, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Red-eyed Vireo, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Bran-colored Flycatcher, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Pacific Parrotlet and Harris' Hawk.
I heard Common Potoo and Spectacled Owl from the chicken shed I slept in. The river near the village supported Collared Plover and Masked Water-Tyrant.
Manglares de Puerto Pizarro (Tumbes, Peru)
I visited the "Manglares" for an early morning and walked back to Tumbes during the late morning hours.
Situated right at the Ecuadorian border, the Manglares de Tumbes at Puerto Pizarro are a convenient spot to spend a spare afternoon or morning. Stay in Tumbes and take a bus or carro to Puerto Pizarro (10min), where the first thing you will see at the little harbor is the big sign with standard fees for boat tours into the mangroves. These tours are interesting not only for their wealth of widespread aquatic birds, but also for good chances of seeing the rare Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. To see the latter, you will probably have to opt for a more costly round tour around the Manglares rather than a simple tour to the "Bird Island", where nesting frigatebirds and herons can be observed.
Gray-breasted Martins and West Peruvian Doves are common in the village. Great-tailed Grackles are ubiquitous in the mangroves. Waterbirds in the mangroves include Magnificent Frigatebird, Black Skimmer, Tricolored and Little Blue Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Green Kingfisher, White Ibis and Neotropic Cormorant.
To see the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, pay close attention to movements around the edge of mangroves with receding water levels and a little exposed sand. I ended up seeing at least 15 individuals on a 2hr boat ride.
The barrier islands towards the open ocean yield sandy shores supporting Whimbrel, American Oystercatcher, Gray Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling and Wilson's Plover. One of the more notable passerines in the mangrove forests is Mangrove Warbler.
The walk back to Tumbes along the highway was surprisingly
low-key compared to when I visited this area a few years ago during the last
El Niño, when the arid bushy vegetation was full of Tumbesian endmics such as
Baird's Flycatcher and Snowy-throated Kingbird. This time, I only
saw a few interesting waterbirds, such as Least Grebe, at the sewage
ponds along the first stretch of road, and mixed seedeater flocks containing
Chestnut-throated and Parrot-billed Seedeater.
Full Trip List