Sam Woods and I recently spent ten days visiting some sites in the south of Ecuador, mostly in search of species that cannot be found in the areas we regularly go to in the north of the country. Because we were focussed on these specialties, we did not spend a lot of time looking for other birds so the overall species list was not as long as it would have been on a normal birding trip, and I have mentioned only the highlights in this report. The main species we were looking for were Violet-throated Metaltail and Tit-like Dacnis near Cuenca; the extremely rare Pale-headed Brush-Finch; Neblina Metaltail and Masked Mountain-Tanager in Podocarpus National Park; Jocotoco Antpitta; and the Marañón endemics near Zumba. We also took the opportunity to do some more relaxed general birding at Río Bombuscaro and other sites near Zamora while we were down that way. In total we found 23 restricted-range species (six Ecuador–Peru East Andes endemics, six Central Andean Páramo endemics, four Tumbesian endemics, three Marañón Valley endemics, three Southern Central Andes endemics, and one Upper Amazon– Napo Lowlands endemic).
For the first part of the trip, we flew to Cuenca and picked up a vehicle from Bombuscaro car rental. This was a 4WD double-cabin pickup, which was perfect for where we were going. High clearance is needed for the Cerro Toledo road and Ancanama, and some of the muddier parts of the road to Zumba. We returned the car to Loja, and then took the bus to Zamora, where the sites are easily and cheaply reached by taxi. We returned to Quito from Loja airport, which is actually at Catamayo, about 45 minutes from the city by bus.
The visitor centre at Laguna La Toreadora is about 40 minutes drive from Cuenca along the paved road to Naranjal. There is a checkpoint at the entrance and the visitor centre, where food is available, is a few kilometres above this. We went straight from here to Laguna Illincocha, on the left of the road only a kilometre or so past the visitor centre. A short track (c50 metres) by the sign to the laguna leads to a park building. Several Tit-like Dacnises were in the small patch of woodland behind the centre, with Blue-mantled Thornbills and a Violet-throated Metaltail feeding on the flowering composite bushes. The lake had Andean Ruddy-Duck.
This reserve is owned by the Jocotoco Foundation and is the only known site in the world for Pale-headed Brush-Finch. The nearby town of Santa Isabel is about 1 hour 30 minutes drive from Cuenca along the paved road that passes through Girón. We stayed at the hostería Sol y Agua, on the left of the road a few kilometres past the petrol station at La Unión. It was clean, quiet, and comfortable, with friendly staff. The Yunguilla reserve is open to visitors, but you must first obtain a permit ($15) from the warden, Enrique Calle. The cost of your permit will help run the reserve and conserve this critically endangered species, and if you can afford the air fare to come to Ecuador you can afford to buy one. The warden lives along the dirt roads above La Unión, accessed by turning off the main highway at the petrol station or by a statue of a man and some horses (the road through town does a loop between these two points). You then need to turn off uphill on a track by a green shop at the edge of the town and head up through a maze of tracks. His house is down a left turn on a bend just after a little shop called La Karlita. If you are planning to visit it is best to contact the Foundation to ask for directions www.fjocotoco.org. Enrique accompanied us on our visit and showed us the Brush-Finch territories and an orange tree where we saw the birds coming to feed on fruit. We also saw Stripe-headed Brush-Finch eating from the same tree, many Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrants, Pacific Elaenia, Amazilia Hummingbirds of the un-named Azuay race, Purple-collared Woodstar, and Rufous-browed Peppershrike, as well as a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta in the road on our way in to the reserve.
A track leads to temperate forest here off the main highway between Cuenca and Loja, near Saraguro (about 2 hours 30 minutes from Cuenca). We stayed at the Samana Wasi in Saraguro. About 5km along the main road south of Saraguro a track turns off left (coming from Saraguro) through pastures and a quarry and reaches forest after a few kilometres. A left turn leads up to some radio masts (a high clearance vehicle is needed to drive this section). Just below the masts a trail leads along a ridge through elfin forest and páramo. In a small woodland below this trail we saw a superb Crescent-faced Antpitta. Shortly after the turn to the radio masts the forest has been cleared, but there is another block further down and the track continues and re-joins the main highway just before San Lucas. The road between Cuenca and Loja is now paved all the way except for a c5km stretch near Oña, and Loja is one hour from San Lucas. Mixed flocks in the temperate forest here contained many Scarlet-bellied, Buff-breasted, and LacrimoseMountain-Tanagers, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Black-headed Hemispingus, Flammulated Treehunter, Black-crested and Citrine Warblers, Blue-backed Conebill, Golden-crowned Tanager, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, and Rufous-chested Tanager. Hummingbirds included Glowing Puffleg and Rainbow Starfrontlet, and Chusquea Tapaculo and Plain-tailed Wren were seen in the undergrowth of bamboo.
Less than ten minutes drive from Loja along the paved road to Vilcabamaba, this part of Podocarpus National Park is easily reached. Entrance to the Park is $10 and is valid for five days, so make sure you get a ticket and keep it if you are planning to go to Río Bombuscaro later on. From the entrance gate, where Fasciated Wrens were moving nosily through the hedges, the unpaved road winds up 4.5km through pastures and then passes through 2.5km of forest before ending at the headquarters building. The entrance road can be good for mixed flocks, but we were more interested in two tree-line specialists, found higher up where the forest gives way to páramo: Neblina Metaltail and Masked Mountain-Tanager. Walking up the Lagunas del Compadre trail, it takes between 1 hour and 1 hour 30 minutes to reach the tree-line. Due to exceptionally high winds and fog we did not see much, but we did glimpse a Neblina Metaltail feeding by the trail about 50m before the edge of the forest. Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and Glowing Puffleg were also seen, and we coaxed a Páramo Tapaculo into view in the shrubby páramo. Mouse-coloured Thistletails were the only birds braving the high winds up on the top. On the walk back down, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Pale-footed Swallow, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Red-crested Cotinga, Barred Fruiteater, Pale-naped Brush-Finch, and Rufous-chested Tanager were the highlights. There was a male Swallow-tailed Nightjar by the roadside on our drive in just before dawn.
The original Jocotoco Foundation reserve is just over two hours south of Loja. The road is paved till 10km after Vilcabamba, after which it is an hour and a half along an unpaved road which can become muddy. There is a lodge on site here, and reservations to stay can be made through the Jocotoco Foundation's office in Quito. If you are not staying at the lodge, you can buy a permit for the trails for $15 at the reserve. Like most visitors, our main target here was Jocotoco Antpitta. We had originally planned to stay two nights at the lodge, but we saw the antpitta on our first morning and I was keen to push on south to the areas I had never been to and to escape the depressing rain, so we left early. However, there is plenty to see here besides the Jocotoco Antpitta, with good mixed flocks usually always present along the trails. On our visit these contained Grass-green Tanager, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Golden-crowned Tanager, Black-capped Hemispingus, and Black-throated Tody-Tyrant. There was a lot of seeding bamboo, which attracted Slaty Finches and a female Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. The feeders at the lodge had Chestnut-breasted Coronets, Amethyst-throated and Flame-throated Sunangels, Rufous-capped Thornbill, White-bellied Woodstar, Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, and Tyrian Metaltail, and Mountain Wren and Rufous-naped Brush-Finch frequented the garden. A female Swallow-tailed Nightjar came and sat on the cobbles under the balcony at dusk. We did not spend time looking for the other ground birds, but we heard Chestnut-naped and Slate-crowned Antpittas.
From Tapichalaca it is 12km down to the town of Valladolid, where the first of the Marañón species appear. Marañón Thrush is common along the road from a few kilometres south of Valladolid all the way to the Peruvian border. Another 20km down the road is Palanda, and 30km beyond this there is still a large block of roadside forest (where the Marañón Thrushes are joined by White-necked Thrushes hopping in the road). Zumba itself is 48km beyond Palanda, the drive from Tapichalaca taking 3 hours or so (without stops). There is a petrol station 1km before Zumba. Before Zumba the road becomes very muddy and we used 4WD in places. We stayed and ate at La Choza in Zumba, which was basic, and set out along the road heading towards La Chonta and the south the next morning. We found Marañón Spinetail in a roadside scrub 5km out of Zumba (distances are from the campamento at the edge of the town where roadwork machinery is kept), together with Great Antshrike. Rufous-fronted Thornbird nests were common, and the birds were seen in several places. There were several small patches of forest along the road, the best being 12.3km out of town, 500m after an inconspicuous area on the left with a military guard and an 'Area Restringida' sign. We stopped here originally because I saw a woodstar in some bare trees at the side of the road, which turned out to be a male Little Woodstar. While we were waiting for it to return to the flowers it was feeding on, we found Yellow-cheeked Becard, Lafresnaye's Piculet, and three Marañón Slaty-Antshrikes. Black-faced and Buff-bellied Tanagers, Dull-coloured Grassquits, and Andean Emeralds of the race cyanocollis were seen in several areas along the road, Streaked Saltators were as common as Marañón Thrushes, and in one place we found a pair of Black-lored Yellowthroats. The drive from Zumba to the military checkpoint where the road splits near the border (La Chonta to the left, la Balsa and the border crossing to Peru to the right) is 16.4km, but the roads are not good, and because of all the stops we made, it was midday by the time we got here and we did not have time to explore the area around La Chonta. On the way back to Palanda, we found a small flock 13km above Zumba, with more Yellow-cheeked Becards, Blue-black Grosbeak, and a Black-capped Sparrow of the green-backed Marañón race nigriceps. The border dispute with Peru was settled several years ago, and this area is no longer as sensitive as it was. There are now no problems with access and it is as safe as any other part of the country. There are still a couple of military checkpoints along the road, but we were just waved through them.
The road to Cerro Toledo provides access to another sector of Podocarpus National Park. The birds are similar to Cajanuma and Tapichalaca, but there are no easy trails into the forest, so birding is from the roadside. The road starts 700m beyond the checkpoint at the edge of the town of Yangana, on the left if you are coming from the town, and can be reached in just over 30 minutes from Vilcabamba where there are plenty of places to stay and eat (we were at Hostería Paraiso which was far enough out of town not to be too noisy, and got great pancakes at Natural Yogur on the town square). The road goes through pastures but reaches forest after 8km. We found one good flock here, with a group of Orange-banded Flycatchers, Grey-hooded Bush-Tanagers, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanagers, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, and Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant. Three Pale-footed Swallows accompanied Brown-bellied Swallows overhead. As at Tapichalaca, there was a lot of seeding bamboo, and we saw another female Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and three Slaty Finches. However, we were again mostly after Neblina Metaltail and Masked Mountain-Tanager and found both 15.3km along the road at 3045m where the trees become scattered and there is a covering of low bushes and bamboo. Beyond here the road continues into páramo and then splits, with the higher fork continuing to some radio masts, but we did not spend much time in the higher areas because of the extremely strong winds and low cloud. A high-clearance vehicle is needed to drive this road, and after heavy rain, or to continue beyond the fork, 4WD is needed. There is a shop that sells petrol in Yangana, but the nearest actual petrol station (24 hours) is at Malacatos, a few kilometres above Vilcabamba.
This new lodge is a much nicer alternative to the noisy hotels and bad food in Zamora when visiting the Río Bombuscaro sector of Podocarpus National Park. It is along the entrance road to the Park (signposted to Podocarpus, do not follow the Bombuscaro sign as this will just take you down to the river) about half way between the town and the Park entrance. This area is easily done with public transport, and we left our hire car in Loja, taking the bus to Zamora (1 hour 40 minutes, $2) and then a taxi to Copalinga ($2). The cabins are very comfortable, the food is excellent, and Catherine and Boudewijn are very friendly and helpful hosts, giving us a lift to the park entrance and arranging for taxis to take us to the old Loja–Zamora road. See their website at www.copalinga.com. Birding around the cabins was very good, with seventeen species of tanager (including Green-and-gold, Orange-eared, Paradise, Guira, Blue-necked, and Golden-eared), a couple of Yellow-cheeked Becards, Olive-chested Flycatcher, Musician Wren, Long-tailed Tyrant, Yellow-tufted and Little Woodpeckers, Short-crested Flycatcher, and Ash-browed Spinetail. Several flocks of White-breasted Parakeets flew over, and on one evening a group of Spot-winged Parrotlets came overhead. The hummingbird feeders attracted Violet-fronted Brilliants, Glittering-throated Emeralds, and Fork-tailed Woodnymphs. This is also a good place to see some of the birds of open country, including Variable Seedeater, which seems to have successfully crossed the Andes here, Yellow-browed Sparrow, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, Mottle-backed Elaenia, Black-billed Thrush, and Common Tody-Flycatcher.
Getting here is easy, as you just follow the road signposted to Podocarpus from Zamora. There is a car park at the end, and a small hut where a park guard may take your entrance fee ($10, but tickets from Cajanuma are valid here). If there is nobody here you can pay the fee at the Park headquarters, about 1km along the trail. Make sure you get a ticket, as this will allow you to re-enter any sector of the Park for five days without paying again. Birding between the car park and the headquarters was good, with two Olive Finches, Orange-crested Flycatcher, and a Coppery-chested Jacamar. Just after the headquarters is an orchid garden where we saw Highland Motmot and Blue-rumped Manakin, with Green Hermits lekking. At the garden a trail to the right leads to La Poderosa waterfall (where two White-capped Dippers were on the rock face) and a few metres after this trail is another, which does a loop to re-join the main trail further on. Chestnut-crowned Gnateater was along this loop, as were a couple of Ecuadorian Piedtails, Foothill Antwren, Scale-backed and Blackish Antbirds, and Grey-chinned Hermit. After re-joining the main trail we continued for another couple of kilometres, finding a mixed flock with Equatorial Greytail, Black-billed Treehunter, Russet Antshrike, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, and lots of tanagers. A group of Subtropical Caciques and Russet-backed Oropendolas carried an Amazonian Umbrellabird and a stunning male Andean Cock-of-the-rock. We heard Grey Tinamou, Plain-backed Antpitta, and Short-tailed Antthrush but did not spend time looking for them, because we had seen them previously elsewhere.
Old Loja–Zamora Road
The old road to Loja is always good for mixed flocks, and can be reached by taxi from Zamora for $5–6, depending on how far along it you want to be dropped off. Not far out of town back along the new road is a small village called La Fragrancia, and the old road starts here by a shrine on the right. Below the village a bridge crosses the river and forest begins here. We got dropped off c6km after the bridge and walked back down, having arranged for the taxi driver to pick us up back at the bridge at midday. The flocks we encountered had Lined Antshrike, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Pale-eyed Thrush, Chestnut-vented Conebill, Highland Hepatic-Tanager, White-winged Tanager, and Slate-coloured Grosbeak. Hummingbirds were evident, with Sparkling Violet-ear, Glittering-throated Emerald, White-bellied Woodstar, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and a female Little or Gorgeted Woodstar, and away from the flocks we saw twelve White-breasted Parakeets, Lanceolated Monklet, and Andean Cock-of-the-rock.