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 firstname.lastname@example.org
Buenaventura Trail (Piñas)
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: one partly cloudy day with some pleasant light drizzle in early June.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
General: 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).
Logistics: 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 3.30am 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.
Birds: 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).
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
General: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: I spent the best parts of two mid-June days at Utuana (cloudy weather).
General: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: In mid-June, I invested three full days with fairly sunny, dry and windy weather. Temperatures were very low in the morning and afternoon.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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 3.00am 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.
Birds: 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 noon. 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, StreakedTuftedcheek 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.
Time Investment/Weather: On two occasions, I visited La Argelia for a couple of spare hours before sunset (sunny weather).
General: 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.
Quebrada Honda / Jocotoco Reserve
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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 5.00am 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).
Other birds: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: I spent one overcast but dry afternoon and a full morning around Palanda.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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.
Loja - Zamora Road
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
General: 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
Logistics: The San Francisco Area is best worked from Loja, and a 5.00am 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.
Birds: 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
Logistics: 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).
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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.
General: 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 8.00am, I heard a long, forceful, ascending trill exactly matching the description of the new FoothillElaenia'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 11.00am, just before the greatest heat of the noon - 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
Other birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: I invested 4 days, 50% of which were completely lost to heavy rain.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: I invested one full, cold and partly drizzly day with an early morning start.
Logistics: 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).
Birds: 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.
Time Investement/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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 10.30am. 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.
Cajas (near Cuenca)
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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 7.00am and it got me up to Laguna Toreadora by 9.00am, 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.
Other birds: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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 8.00am 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.
Birds: 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.
Río Zamora Area near La Punta de Yangusa (Limón Area)
Time Investment/Weather: In mid-July, I invested three days, almost 30% of which was completely lost to heavy rain.
General: 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.
Logistics: From Limón, take one of the 6.00am 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.
Birds: 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.
Bosque de Domono (near Macas)
Time Investment/Weather: one rainy and unproductive July afternoon and the following (overcast) day.
General: 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.
Logistics: 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 6.00am, but usually doesn’t get you there before 7.00am. Busses back to Macas run only until ca. 4.00pm, 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.
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: I spent one mellow afternoon along Auca Trail.
General: 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 noon, 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.
Logistics: 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???)
Birds: 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.
Sierra de los Guacamayos
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
Logistics: 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.
General: 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.
Birds: 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)
Time Investment/Weather: I spent one mostly dry and surprisingly good spare morning around this area.
General: 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 noon, 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.
Logistics: 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.
Birds: 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.
Time Investment/Weather: 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.
General: 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.
Transport: 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).
Canopy Tower: 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.
Várzea: 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 10.00am. 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 noon 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.
Terra firme: 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.