Ecuador: The Orange-throated Tanager
March 21-23, 2008
The Orange-throated Tanager, certainly one of the crown jewels of South American birding, was formerly considered to be a Peruvian endemic. This species was first discovered in 1963 on one of the famous LSU collecting expeditions to the remote reaches of northeast Peru, and for most of the next three decades was only known from a couple of locations in that vicinity. It was not until 1990 that the Orange-throated Tanager was discovered in Ecuador in the Nangaritza River valley on the slopes of the isolated Cordillera del Condor. This spectacular tanager, with its brilliant indigo wings and fiery-orange throat, is placed alone in the monotypic genus Wetmorethraupis, named in honor of the 20th century American ornithologist Alexander Wetmore of the Smithsonian Institution. It seems most closely related to the large mountain-tanagers of the genus Buthraupis, found throughout the Andes, and the large barbet-like tanagers in the genus Bangsia, found mostly in the Chocó region of northwest South America.
For birders to see this marvelous bird in Peru is a complicated endeavor requiring both patience and time; all the known localities for the species are extremely remote and within the territory of the indigenous Aguaruna tribe. Some of the known locations have been essentially closed to birders in recent years as the natives have grown hostile toward tourists. Other sites remain open, but visiting requires a mini-expedition. In contrast, seeing this rare species in Ecuador is, at least for the moment, rather simple and straightforward. Cabañas Yankuam, an excellent ecolodge located along the Rio Nangaritza in Zamora-Chinchipe province, can be reached from virtually anywhere in Ecuador within a day; from there the tanager is readily found on a daytrip up the river to the Shuar indigenous community of Shaime. To illustrate the ease with which Wetmorethraupis can now be seen in Ecuador, we did it in a long weekend from Quito, Ecuador's capital. A host of other rare and interesting birds, including the bizarre Oilbird, can be found in the area too, adding even more benefit to a visit to this special part of the country.
Day 1: Travel from Quito & birding at Cabañas Yankuam.
Day 2: River trip to Shaime for Oilbird & Orange-throated Tanager.
Day 3: Return to Quito with afternoon birding at Podocarpus.
Day 1: Our 6:00am flight from Quito put us into the Loja airport in Catamayo around 7:00. Fredrik of Cabañas Yankuam picked us up at the airport for our private transfer to the lodge. The long drive was uneventful, and we stopped only for breakfast in Loja and to stretch our legs a couple of times. We arrived at the lodge (elevation: 900 m./3000 ft.) at about 1:00pm, with the total travel time being about five hours over mostly unpaved roads. After a delicious lunch of fanesca (a typical thick stew of grains and salted fish served only around the holiday of Easter), we decided to spend the remainder of the afternoon birding the Tepui Trail which starts right beside the lodge and runs steeply up the slope of the river valley. At the higher elevations of the trail several specialties of the Cordillera del Condor can be found, including Bar-winged Wood-Wren, Roraiman Flycatcher, and the newly-discovered-in-Ecuador Royal Sunangel. Vermilion and Yellow-throated Tanagers are also reportedly not uncommon in the middle elevations of the trail. However, the trail ascends some 800+ m. (2600 ft.) vertically and the real specialties are found only in the highest areas. Needless to say, we did not have time to make it very far; to reach the highest sections and return to the lodge in one day would require leaving before dawn and perhaps returning after dusk. The terrain is steep and covered in gnarled roots, making walking rather difficult. There is a campsite at the highest part of the trail, and this would make a good option if trying to see the sunangel.
We did find good birds on the lower part of the trail, such as the scarce Zimmer’s (Northern Chestnut-tailed) Antbird, the foothill specialty Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, a very high record for Great Jacamar, and an unusual-sounding Thrushlike Schiffornis. Late in the afternoon we were serenaded by a pair of Blackish Rails in the marsh by the lodge, while Silver-beaked Tanagers flitted around the forest edge.
Day 2: After an early breakfast we birded the gardens around the lodge as the staff prepared the boat and pack lunches. Just outside our cabin we found Golden-winged Tody-Flycatcher and White-browed Antbird on territory. A fruiting tree was attracting fruit-eating birds like Yellow-bellied Dacnis and we caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a Striped Manakin flying out of the tree as well. An Orange-billed Sparrow of the local spectabilis race hopped openly about, showing off its bright pinkish-orange shoulders. By about 7:45am we departed upstream for a spectacular trip up the fast-flowing Nangaritza in a large motorized canoe. We journeyed through dramatic gorges formed by sheer cliffs dropping straight down the river itself, with many tall waterfalls on both sides, and passed through one short set of rapids that can occasionally be impossible to negotiate when the river is exceptionally full. At nearly 1000 m. (3300 ft.) above seal level, the Nangaritza is among the highest navigable rivers in South America. After about an hour we arrived at the Shuar community of Shaime, where we met a few of the locals and picked up our local guide. The locals are currently resisting the incursions of mining interests in the area and are hoping that ecotourism can provide them with a modest income while allowing them to keep their natural surroundings intact.
There are two trails in this area where the tanager is regularly seen; we chose the longer and somewhat more difficult trail because it also leads to an Oilbird cave, something we were also eager to see. The trail is a public footpath, used regularly by pedestrians and pack animals but seemingly not regularly maintained. Therefore it is very muddy and can be a bit challenging at times. The first parts of the trail pass through secondary woodland, and early on we found a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl being mobbed by a horde of angry birds like Chestnut-crowned Becard, Black-eared Fairy, and Paradise, Green-and-gold, Masked, and Blue-necked Tanagers. Before long we found ourselves in a large clearing where we found Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Silver-beaked Tanager, and Bran-colored Flycatcher (of the rufescent fasciatus race). Dusky Spinetail called from the forest edge. It seemed like any other clearing in the foothills, but suddenly we began to hear our first Orange-throated Tanagers, calling noisily very close by. The birds were moving fast and after just brief views we were left hoping for better. The tanagers were associating loosely with a mixed flock that contained Rufous-winged Antwren, Turquoise Tanager, and Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo. As we waited, we sifted through the flock, hoping that the tanagers would return to the same area, and it was then that we heard a singing flycatcher that we did not recognize. It turned out to be a tiny Blackish Pewee, poorly known in Ecuador and scarce throughout its disjunct Amazonian range.
Satisfied with this find, we resolved to press on toward the cave and hope to encounter the tanagers again. The trail entered the forest and we soon found more Wetmorethraupis; this time a group of them moved through the canopy over our heads, pausing long enough that we were able to enjoy great looks and take in their flamboyant colors. Their orange throats really seemed to glow as we watched from below. Other noteworthy sightings before lunch were Ecuadorian Piedtail, Euler’s Flycatcher, and Scaled-backed Antbird. Arriving at the entrance to the cave around midday, we sat down and took our pack lunch while listening to the occasional strange growl emanating from the darkness. Lunch was interrupted briefly by a Black-and-white Tody-Tyrant, something I’ll never complain about, as this bird is quite uncommon in Ecuador. After lunch, we descended into the cave, which was a rather uncomplicated excercise, only requiring a short scramble down a muddy slope. Once inside, it became a vivid sensory experience as we stood in a shallow underground stream and listened to the fantastic chorus given by the colony of Oilbirds. In addition to the bat-like echolocation clicks given as they fly around the cave, the birds make a variety of ferocious shrieks and hisses that would probably frighten away most unsuspecting intruders. Using Fredrik’s spotlight we had excellent views of these strange creatures, the only nocturnal frugivorous birds in South America.
We decided to return by a different, more forested trail in the hopes of encountering the rare Gray-tailed Piha, which has been sighted a couple of times in the area. We did not find the piha, but we did bump into a good mixed flock that held Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Red-billed Tyrannulet, and Golden-eared Tanager, among others. For much of the walk back it rained steadily, and so we did not find as much bird activity as we had hoped. Near Shaime the weather broke and we found Tiny Hawk and Lineated Woodcreeper at the forest edge. The return trip downstream hardly took 20 minutes and we were back at the lodge with plenty of time to get cleaned up before dinner. The river-fed shower was a bit “brisk”, to put it diplomatically, but nothing could dampen our spirits after a very successful day’s birding! After dinner a short nightbirding excursion produced Parauque and a heard-only Band-bellied Owl.
Day 3: We had a few hours to bird around the lodge this morning, though our efforts were hurt by some early rain. Olive-chested Flycatcher, an east slope foothill specialty, was easily found in the garden and then we decided to walk along the road. We found a huge mixed flock feeding in a fruiting tree, made up of mostly the same tanagers we had seen the day before (Paradise, Masked, Green-and-gold, and Turquoise) but also a pair of Lemon-throated Barbets which we saw brilliantly at almost eye-level and Slate-colored Grosbeak and Yellow-bellied Tanager. In the marsh where we had heard the Blackish Rail we found Black-capped Donacobius and Long-tailed Tyrant. We left the lodge a little after 10:00am and drove most of the way to Loja before a lunch break around 2:00pm. We stopped at the small reserve owned by Fundación Arco Iris, which abuts the San Francisco sector of Podocarpus National Park. Here, at about 2150 m. (7000 ft.) we were able to pick up a nice set of cloud forest species , including Andean Solitaire, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, Black-eared Hemispingus, Beryl-spangled and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, and Long-tailed Sylph. By 5:00pm we were at the Loja airport saying our goodbyes to Fredrik, and a few minutes later after checking in for our 5:50 flight we were back outside looking at a gorgeous Peruvian Meadowlark. We were in Quito by 7:00 and home by 7:30, wishing we had more time to stay at Yankuam!
A longer visit would allow more time to explore the area, especially the intriguing Tepui Trail near the lodge. The area is still rather under-birded and there are certainly surprises to be found, so a stay of several days could be quite rewarding for the adventurous. However, if your only quarry is the Orange-throated Tanager, than a two-night stay is standard. A visit to Cabañas Yankuam can easily be added to any trip to Ecuador, and it will combine especially well with a tour of the south that visits the Zamora-Copalinga-Bombuscaro area.
1. You can book your stay at Cabañas Yankuam directly with the owners (info AT lindoecuadortours.com).
2. Alternatively you can work with an experienced local tour company like Tropical Birding (info AT tropicalbirding.com) to combine a visit to Yankuam with a longer trip that takes in other parts of the country as well.