Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
Gary Rosenberg and I had been trying to synchronise our schedules in Latin America for a few years, and the stars finally proved to be in alignment in Feb 2006. We arranged to rendezvous in Quito at the end of one of Gary’s Wings tours, and devised a trip to take in a range of Ecuadorian habitats, with particular emphasis (as ever) on finding as many species of Antpittas and other ground-dwellers as possible. In the end we exceeded our expectations, seeing 13 species of Antpitta in 2 weeks, (with an amazing 8 species photographed,) plus 8 Tapaculos, (including Ocellated-, plus Elegant Crescentchest,) 2 Formicarius Antthrushes and a heap of other great birds. Doubtless our overall trip total suffered a little as a result of spending time sleuthing out the Antpittas but it was well worth it, and we still saw an impressive 519 species, with an additional 33 heard-only, 552 in total. Of these, 3 were Ecuador country endemics, (Jocotoco Antpitta, El Oro Parakeet, and Western Hemispingus,) 33 (+ 3 heard) were Choco endemics, 34 (+ 1 heard) were Tumbesian endemics, and 2 were (extra-limital) Marañon endemics.
Flights: I flew into Quito from Mexico City where I had been working, rendezvousing with Gary in Quito on the evening of Friday 27th January. We both flew back on American Airlines to Miami, and I then returned (after a long delay) to London landing Sunday Feb 12th. We also took an internal flight from Quito to Guayaquil, splitting our trip into 6 days in the North and 8 days in the South. We had planned to head East over the Andes to bird the Cabañas San Isidro area near Baeza, but the threat of a strike in Napo province meant that there was a strong possibility that we would not have been able to get back to Quito for our flight to Guayaquil. As a result we cancelled our San Isidro plans and spent extra time around Mindo etc, including more time at a lowland site (PVM Road) than would otherwise have been possible, and with a morning at the Papallacta Pass squeezed in.
Itinerary: Day 1: Evening Fri 27 Jan: Arrive in Quito.
Day 2: Sat 28 Jan: Left Quito at 5am, firstly heading 1.5 hours NW to Reserva Ecologica Yanacocha (altitude c3500m.) Worked our way towards Mindo via the town of Nono and the Tandayapa Ridge to overnight at Septimo Paraiso.
Day 3: Sun 29 Jan: a.m. Septimo Paraiso trails, p.m. Milpe Road, Mindo Road. Night Septimo Paraiso.
Day 4: Mon 30 Jan: a.m. Angel Paz’s ‘Refugio de las Aves’ trails, Milpe Road, p.m. PVM Road trails around the new tower. Night Septimo Paraiso.
Day 5: Tues 31 Jan: a.m. Tandayapa Ridge nr Bellevista, Tony Nunnery’s trail on the ridge, Milpe Road via Nanegalito. Night Septimo Paraiso.
Day 6: Weds 1 Feb: a.m. PVM Road trails/tower, p.m. “Upper” Milpe Road, Calacali Pass, night Quito.
Day 7: Thurs 2 Feb: 6a.m.-2p.m. at Papallacta Pass, South-East of Quito. Late p.m. flight to Guayaquil in S. Ecuador.
Day 8: Fri 3 Feb: a.m. Drive from Guayaquil to Manglares de Churute, and Santa Rosa shrimp ponds. p.m. drive to Buenaventura, birded Umbrellabird Trail above main house. Night Buenaventura.
Day 9: Sat 4 Feb: a.m. Upper Buenaventura (Perico de Orces Trail, ‘top forest’.) p.m. trail opposite/above Jardin de Colibries. Night Buenaventura.
Day 10: Sun 5 Feb: Upper Buenaventura (El Oro Tapaculo Trail, ‘top forest’.) p.m. drive to Tapichalaca via Cajanuma section of Podocarpus NP. Night Tapichalaca.
Day 11: Mon 6 Feb a.m. Tapichalaca: two-thirds of Jocotoco Loop, Mule Trail Abajo, back via Rocky section of Mule Trail. Late p.m. 4kms South of Valladolid. Night Tapichalaca.
Day 12: Tues 7 Feb: Tapichalaca; Mule Trail Abajo, back via Rocky section of Mule Trail. p.m. long drive to Macara via Loja, Velacruz etc, arriving Jorupe Forest 720p.m. Night at Fundacion Jocotoco building.
Day 13: Weds 8 Feb: a.m. Jorupe Forest, p.m. scouted Utuana. Night F.J. building, Jorupe Forest.
Day 14: Thurs 9 Feb: a.m. Utuana, p.m. long drive to Buenaventura. Night Buenaventura.
Day 15: Fri 10 Feb: a.m. Upper Buenaventura; (Perico de Orces Trail, El Oro Tapaculo Trail.) Drive to Guayaquil. Night Guayaquil.
Day 16: Sat 11 Feb: a.m. flight home via Miami, arriving London Heathrow a.m. Sunday
Reading: Read up before you go; Ecuador is biodiverse and requires/deserves advance planning! In particular, it is of course helpful to know which species occur at which altitudes/in which habitats in order to make the ID process more manageable. Learn as many songs as you can before you arrive, otherwise you’ll waste considerable time chasing common species. Useful resources are:
The Birds of Ecuador: Ridgely and Greenfield. Helm Field Guides. The essential guide; it covers 99% of the species likely to be encountered. It’s almost compact enough to carry in the field, and the detailed text is good throughout, although the very latest splits/a few recent advances in knowledge need to be checked elsewhere.
The Birds of South America Vols I + II: Ridgely and Tudor, Oxford University Press. An essential bible for research before/after the trip, especially Vol II. Volume 1 covers the Oscine Passerines (Jays, Swallows, Wrens, Thrushes and allies, Vireos, Wood-warblers, Tanagers, Icterids and Finches.) Volume 2 covers the Suboscine Passerines (Ovenbirds, Woodcreepers, Antbirds, Gnateaters, Tapaculos, Tyrant-flycatchers, Cotingas and Manakins). Great for reference, but far too bulky for use in the field. (Use to decode scribbled field notes after the event. Copy colour plates and take with you into the field if possible.)
Handbook of the Birds of the World (HBW) Volume 8: Eds. del Hoyo, Elliott, Christie. As per BOSA Vol I and II above, this is a heavy tome, but very useful for the antbirds, furnariids etc with amazing photos of many of the skulkers you are about to dip. Buy it if you can afford it and copy plates of Antpittas, Antthrushes, Tapaculos to take with you…
The Birds of The High Andes: Jon Fjeldsa and Neils Krabbe; Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen. 1990 (Apollo Books, Denmark.) Another superb though relatively old guide covering many of the species likely to be encountered in the temperate and puna zones. Although not quite as large as the above volumes, still too damn heavy to include in the luggage/use in the field. Now out of print I believe, so may be difficult to find?
I sourced the following report from the internet:
Dave Klauber “The Antpitta Trip & Then Some”- Ecuador Jan 24 - March 10 2005
Trip report Southern Ecuador 22 Aug - 15 Sep 1998, John van der Woude, NL http://home.tiscali.nl/jvanderw/
I also built a spreadsheet of our most likely 1000 or so species. If you'd like a copy of this file (Excel for Mac or PC) to edit for your own use, e-mail me at chrisg @ focusrite.com (All e-mail addresses in this report have spaces inserted in them; remove these before use.)
Getting There/Getting Around: My American Airlines flights in and out worked out at approx. £800 for London-(Miami)-Quito, Guayaquil-Miami-London, booked 6 months ahead. All were on time except the AA return Miami-London delayed 3 hours on the ground with a technical problem. (Still, as I once heard a Jamaican flight announcer say, ‘it’s better to be on the ground wishin’ you was in the air, than the other way around.’) Allow an hour and a half check-in for local flights and two hours for international when leaving Ecuador, and check all flight times locally a day or so in advance- all our Ecuadorian flight departure times moved by a few minutes vs. their original scheduled departure times. Reconfirming is less required than in the old days, but is still a good idea with smaller airlines/more remote airports. Flight time from Quito to Guayaquil is 35 mins. (considerably longer by road…)
Ground Logistics: Can be done yourself, but it’s necessary to book lodges etc ahead of time as some are small/tour groups can occupy 100% of the rooms at peak times, i.e. Jan through March which is when you want to be there too…There are a number of local companies who can help, check the Jocotoco site for links. We used: Neblina Forest (www.neblinaforest.com Sñr Xavier Munoz Tel: 1-800-538-2149 (toll free from U.S.) or 011 593 2 2 460189 / 393014 E-mail: nforest @ q.ecua.net.ec) who were fine; a couple of our bookings went awry, although not critically.
Accommodation: We pre-booked accommodation throughout as follows:
Quito: Grand Hotel Mercure (aka Alameda Real.) Amazonas 239 y Roca Quito Tel: 011 593 2 2 562345
Mindo: Septimo Paraiso. Highly recommended, comfortable and friendly. Pablo and Anna run a great place, speak fluent English and know their birds. www.septimoparaiso.com There are a number of other alternatives in the area, e.g. Mindo Loma (contact: Hernan Herrera, 234-0410 (Quito), cell 097322850 (Spanish only) see www.tandayapa.com/birdingsitesnrtandayapa.htm)
Buenaventura: Jocotoco Foundation cabin. Great view, hot shower, cold beer. To book all Jocotoco accomm., use the links at www.fjocotoco.org/reserves-visit.html or mail email@example.com
Tapichalaca: Jocotoco Foundation building (Casa Simpson.) Good, clean and bug-free, with hot showers and plumbing etc, and friendly staff as ever.
Macara: Jocotoco Foundation building (Jorupe Forest). Very basic, no hot water (and often no water at all,) but effective mosquito nets/helpful staff. As always with FJ accomm, right where you need to be. Alternatively stay in a small basic hotel in Macara or Sozoranga, (10 mins/30 mins away from Jorupe respectively.) Sozoranga is closer to the Utuana reserve than Macara (1 hour 20 mins’ drive) or Jorupe (1 hour 10 mins.)
Guayaquil: Gran Hotel Guayaquil.
Clothes: Wellington (rubber) boots, or lightweight waterproof hiking boots are best. Trails are often steep and can be extremely muddy when wet, as during our visit. Dull coloured clothes are of course advisable when searching for skulking species. Breathable fabrics and a small sweat towel are useful for the humid lowland forest areas in the South. A collapsible umbrella is essential! Note that highland birding e.g. Papallacta, Utuana, Yanacocha at dawn may require warm clothing, possibly even gloves etc.
Weather: Even given the fact that Jan-Mar is the rainy season in Ecuador, February 2006 was unusually wet. It rained heavily every day, often for extended periods, and it was necessary to retain a flexible attitude to what altitudes we would bird, depending on localised weather conditions. (Often fog and rain will prevent birding at e.g. 2500m but at 1500m or 3000m it may be fine. On the other hand, dense fog and rain over an entire region are also possible, in which case birding time will be lost.) We were relatively lucky, and only got rained out a couple of times, at Mindo, and at Utuana in the SW. Be prepared to bird under an umbrella in light rain/mist and fog at times. Also if you plan to bird lowlands and higher altitudes in the same day be prepared for both climates; the difference between the hot and humid lowlands and cloudy/wet highlands should not be underestimated, especially in the South.
Birding Hours: It was light enough to start birding at 6.15am each day, and was dark by around 6-30pm. We were in the field at dawn every day; activity can die off pretty quickly mid-morning e.g. by 10 am, especially if it’s hot/sunny. If it’s cloudy and/or misty, activity can go on later in the day, but thick fog has the opposite effect; we witnessed flocks of tanagers etc fleeing up the hillside ahead of the fog banks on the Tandayapa Ridge. Once the fog monster has the forest in its clutches, expect the birding to be very slow. The only option in thick fog is of course to bird trails and try for ground dwelling species…even in the densest fog, a Scytalopus tapaculo can be seen 3 feet away…
Endemics: Although there are only 10 truly endemic species in mainland Ecuador, (Pale-headed Brush-Finch, Violet-throated Metaltail, White-breasted Parakeet, Jocotoco Antpitta, Turquoise-throated Puffleg, Black-breasted Puffleg, El Oro Tapaculo, El Oro Parakeet, Western Hemispingus and Ecuadorian Hillstar,) there are a large number of near-endemics (e.g. 62 ‘Choco endemics’ (EBA041) in the NW which otherwise occur only in W. Colombia, and 55 ‘Tumbesian endemics’ (EBA045) in the SW, which otherwise occur only in NW Peru, plus a few ‘Marañon endemics’ (EBA048) whose ranges just extend into SE Ecuador from N Peru.) Besides, the overall country list stands at c1,600 total, so there’s a fair number of birds to go at…For details on endemic bird areas (EBA’s) see www.birdlife.org/datazone/ebas/index.html Note that a few of these restricted-range species (e.g. Collared Antshrike) do cross over into another EBA. All restricted range endemics referred to in this report are defined by the Birdlife criteria of “being restricted to a particularly small range – smaller than 50,000 square km’
Visas: UK passport holders do not require a visa for stays of at least 90 days. Passports should have at least 6 months left to run before expiry. Photocopy the picture page and keep it separately in case of loss.
Insurance: Get some before travelling- the UK’s post office offers reasonable deals. I used Columbus, www.columbusdirect.com. Take your insurance documents with you; local hospital facilities etc are often basic to say the least.
Language: Speaking Spanish is extremely useful and is appreciated; few people speak English outside of the tourist hotels in Quito/Guayaquil, and it would be difficult to arrange your own logistics without at least the basics.
Maps/Driving etc: We used only one map, “Ecuador”: Reise Know-How 1: 1,650,000. (www.reise-know-how.de) We used this basic map and added our own detail; there are relatively few roads in the country areas, but our map gave only a basic outline even so, and the detail for the Mindo area was very basic. Driving is on the right i.e. the same as the US. Roads are generally paved and in relatively good condition throughout Ecuador, though watch out for occasional major potholes etc. Care is necessary when driving to avoid a.) the manic local drivers b.) livestock- meeting horses/cows/dogs/pigs/chickens around a blind corner is a daily event; mixed species flocks occur! c.) oncoming buses/trucks on the wrong side of the road. They are bigger than you; get out of the way. We used 4x4 vehicles in both the North and the South; most roads would be fine without, but if it rains a 4x4/high clearance vehicle may well be necessary off paved roads in places, and even to get past landslides on paved roads. The worst roads we encountered were the last kilometre or so at Utuana, sections of the Ecoruta around Tandayapa, and the entrance road at Buenaventura. There are also a few tolls ($1 max.) but most toll stations seemed to be derelict or unmanned. Take care at roundabouts, where no set rules seem to apply. You need to carry your passport, driving license and the car registration document at all times when travelling between cities, as there are occasional police checkpoints. Check the registration document when renting the car, you will need it, and it needs to be current and to bear the requisite official stamp. Fill up whenever you can in the South-West, as the few gas stations often run out of fuel. Approximate driving times are:
Quito-Mindo area: 1.5 hours Quito-Papallacta: 1.5 hours
Guayaquil to Buenaventura: 4 hours Buenaventura to Tapichalaca: 5.5 hours
Macara/Jorupe to Utuana: 1.15 hours Macara/Jorupe to Buenaventura: 5 hours
Tapichalaca to Macara/Jorupe: (290kms) 5.5 hours (Tap. To Loja: 2 hours)
Audio: We used GR’s extensive i-pod library of Ecuador bird recordings extensively. Some kind of playback is absolutely vital if you want to see skulking and elusive species in dense forest; our list would have been c30% smaller without using audio, and many of the more difficult/desirable species would have been missed. Pishing sometimes works too, though less well than elsewhere in the tropics for some reason. The usual precautions apply when using playback- do not overuse, especially at frequently birded sites etc. We relied heavily on GR’s encyclopaedic collection, but the following are commercially available:
• The superb 3-volume ‘Songs of the Antbirds: Thamnophilidae, Formicariidae, and Conophagidae’ CD by Phyllis Isler and Bret Whitney (Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds.) libnatsounds @ cornell.edu
• The Birds of Northwest Ecuador Vol I: John Moore, Robert Ridgely, Mitch Lysinger (John V. Moore Nature Recordings) Upper Foothills and Subtropics. http://johnvmoorenaturerecordings.com
• Birds of the Ecuadorian Highlands, CD1-4: Niels Krabbe, John Moore, Paul Coopmans, Mitch Lysinger, Robert Ridgely (John V. Moore Nature Recordings) Upper Montane and Paramo Zones.
• Voices of Andean Birds Vols I and II: Thomas Schulenberg (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) Hill Forest and Cloud Forest respectively.
(Any references to ‘tape’ below actually refer to i-pod tracks; old habits die hard.)
Photography: Conditions can be tough for photography in the forest, much of which is dense, but with a digital SLR or compact digital camera + scope you can still get decent images with patience. It’s difficult or impossible to find memory cards or even batteries outside the major cities, so bring all supplies with you. We had no problems either with cameras or digital media, even in high lowland humidity, though cloud and rain made life difficult. Carry tissues to dry lenses; these worked much better than regular lens cleaning cloths.
Other Equipment: All our accommodation had electricity, and hence some basic lighting, but a head-torch is useful for moving around at night. (Available from specialist outlets e.g. www.field-trek.co.uk) An altimeter, (most are now built into wristwatches, prices start at c£100,) is also useful for checking altitude and thus defining likely species’ altitudinal ranges etc. We didn’t use one, so treat all altitudes cited below as estimates. A spot-light is essential for night birding. Mosquito repellent is essential at some sites e.g. Manglares de Churute, Jorupe. Other essential items include: a small rucksack for half-/full- day excursions, long sleeved shirts, warm clothes for high altitude, rain gear, collapsible umbrella, batteries, sweat towel, bins!
Water: Not safe to drink in most of Ecuador- we drank mineral water exclusively, which is widely available; bottled water can be purchased from lodges, hotels and shops everywhere.
Money/Security/Costs: The currency is the US dollar. We took cash and hid it ingeniously; travellers cheques are not widely accepted outside of major cities. If you do take them get US $ TC’s, not UK Pounds or Euros. Our total costs were c$1200 US excluding flights each, but GR’s contacts helped minimise accommodation costs; $2000 for a two week trip would be a more realistic budget unless camping/staying in cheap hotels throughout. Camping is a low cost option in some places, but would have been extremely wet and uncomfortable given the amount of rain we experienced. You need to be security conscious in Quito/Guayaquil, but looking after your valuables, (carry your passport and tickets on your person not in a bag etc,) not flashing money around and a little common sense are all that are needed for a hassle-free trip. Be careful where you park, especially if you have to leave gear in the vehicle. We had no problems.
Altitude Sickness: Some parts of Andean Ecuador (e.g. at Yanacocha at c3400m, and the top of the Papallacta pass at 4200m) are high enough to require some acclimatisation. We suffered no adverse effects other than slight breathlessness at times, but it’s wise to avoid strenuous exercise, big meals, smoking and excess alcohol until you are acclimatised. Drugs such as Diamox can help, but although they alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness they can also mask the onset of more serious altitude-related problems (AMS.)
Other Health: The usual immunisations against Tetanus, Typhoid, Hepatitis and Cholera are recommended. Malaria prophylaxis is also recommended, although the incidence of Malaria is low in Ecuador, and neither of us took precautions for the latter, other than spraying exposed areas with deet-containing insect repellent i.e. don’t get bitten in the first place. Dawn and dusk are the highest-risk times, but mosquito numbers were very low when we visited, except in the SW. Chiggers are common (I got c100 bites on my ankles,) and ticks are present but we did not encounter any, other than one seen attached to a Mouse-colored Thistletail! A reasonable degree of fitness is necessary for some trails e.g. Mule Trail Abajo at Tapichalaca, but most areas we covered on foot were pretty easy going.
Beer: Available properly chilled everywhere, woohoo. Septimo Paraiso even chill the glasses…
Food: Pretty basic unless you are with a tour group in a fancy lodge. We survived on the Ecuadorian staples (chicken and rice or rice and chicken…) The ‘jugos’ (juices) are wonderful however, served at most meals, ranging from orange and pineapple to custard apple and the ubiquitous tree tomato.
Laundry: Some of the smarter lodges offer a laundry service, e.g. Septimo Paraiso; we did our own as we went along. It can be difficult to get things dry…
Habitat types/zones: Ecuador has everything, from lowland Tropical forest to Paramo. For the most part we did not get into forest below c500m, and did not venture into the Eastern Amazonian region. With these exceptions, we birded as many different habitats as possible to maximise our species count. These included: (ref: Ridgely and Tudor vol. #1, P20: habitats.)
Paramo: Open, dry southern grassland of upper Andean slopes/plains, 3400-4500m. (Includes remnant Polylepis woodland in Ecuador; High altitude (3500m+) monotypic gnarled bluish shrub-forest with flaky reddish bark, above the treeline on Paramo
Temperate zone: Upper elevation forested zone 2300-3500m. Often features cloud forest or elfin forest.
Subtropical zone: Mid-elevation zone 1000-2500m. Often humid montane forest.
Upper Tropical zone: 500-1000m. Mostly humid forest.
Thanks to: Anna, Pablo, Lily and team at Septimo Paraiso, Darwin and the guys at Buenaventura, Franco, Vincente and Ephraim at Tapichalaca, Leonidas and the crew at Jorupe, Xavier Muñoz et al at Neblina Forest who helped with our ground logistics, but most of all to Gary Rosenberg for his companionship in the field, tireless driving despite the endless bus persecution, and impeccable birding skills as always.
Site Details (i) The North-West
Please note: This version of the report does not include the maps referred to below/elsewhere in this report. The maps are available free from myself via e-mail, (chrisg @ focusrite.com (remove gaps from e-mail address when mailing)) in exchange for making a contribution to the Jocotoco Foundation. Please just mail me for details.
Mindo area NW of Quito (Tandayapa/Bellevista/Milpe Road/PVM Road etc) - MAP # 1
Access: by vehicle on paved roads/some parts latterly on dirt roads, approx. 1.5 hours North-West from Quito. We birded:
• Tandayapa Ridge/Bellevista/the ‘Ecoruta’- the highest elevation accessible forest in the area at c2300m. The Ecoruta is a dirt road accessed off the main “Mindo road” (actually the road which runs between e.g. Santa Rosa and Pedro Vicente Maldonado,) intersecting at three spots; KM77, KM60, KM56.
• Septimo Paraiso- a little lower at c1000-1400m, located just to the West of the side road to Mindo, which joins the main “Mindo Road” at KM78. We walked the long trail, accessed off the house end of the main dirt entrance road. This drops slowly down c400m along its length, and the owners are at present in the process of extending it further into the next valley to include even lower elevation forest. High densities of Rufous-breasted Antthrush here.
• Angel Paz’s property. (See map #3.) 4.7kms along the dirt road that joins the main Mindo Road at KM66.
• Milpe Road- below Septimo Paraiso. A famous site; basically a dirt road that runs North off the main Mindo Road at KM89. The MCF reserve (trails) is very approx. 1.5kms in on the right.
• Upper Milpe Road. A dirt road that runs North off the main road just above the main Milpe Road (at cKM88) as the name suggests.
• PVM Road. PVM is an acronym for the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado. (See map #2.) Access is off the main road at KM126. Note that this turn is c10kms West of PVM town (beyond it if coming from the main Mindo area.)
PVM Road detail- MAP #2
Accessible off the main Mindo Road as described above at KM126, (c50 mins. drive from Septimo Paraiso which is at KM78.) The far end of the road is best for birding, from the new tower and on the surrounding trails/along the stretch of road just before the car park. This area is all 7.5kms in from the main road after passing the quarry, crossing the river bridges etc. It’s a great lower elevation forest site, now with the added attraction of a new canopy tower. There’s a fee for the tower/trails, $5 for foreigners, or $8 total to cover this area plus the MCF reserve trails on the Milpe Road. Permits for both sites can be bought at either, and seem to last for at least three days? (We only paid once for two visits three days apart.) There are lots of Choco endemics here, and a few threatened but more widely distributed species are also supposed to occur e.g. Brown Wood-Rail Aramides wolfi.
Angel Paz’s Property- MAP #3
Access: Access is at the KM66 marker, c30 mins. drive from Septimo Paraiso door to door. The (dirt) access road is off to the right on a sharp right hand bend (as you head West) at the bottom of a hill; be very careful making the turn in and out as this is a blind corner and the road can be relatively busy. The site is signposted from the main road, “Refugio Paz de las Aves” (look for the pictures of Giant Antpitta and Cock-of-the-Rock on the sign…) Follow the dirt road, (4x4 advisable, but 2WD might make it,) driving through a deep ford after 0.6kms and then turning right after c1.7kms just after the river bridge crossing, see map. The property is 4.7kms in along this dirt road in total, approx 3kms beyond the river bridge, (fork left after 4.7kms and the property is immediately on your left.) Angel is the owner of the property, and can be contacted on tel: 2116-340 or 2116-243 or 2116-026. He speaks only Spanish, but making the arrangements is 100% worthwhile! So long as you pre-arrange your visit, he will meet you at his tiny farm and walk you down the trails to the area. Early morning is obviously best, arrange for e.g. 6am. We had heard parts of Angel’s amazing story, but discovered more when we visited; Angel is a farmer turned eco-tourist development officer for the forest that he owns. The history is that he occasionally encountered Giant Antpittas on his trails and became aware that these were special birds that birders were very keen to see. He started to leave them occasional worms etc along the trails, and gradually, over a period of many months, managed to habituate the birds to his presence. He subsequently discovered Yellow-breasted- and Moustached Antpittas also on the property, and these birds have similarly become less shy than usual. By the time we visited, he was able to call birds in, (Giant Antpittas by their individual names!) and they would approach relatively close to him and take worms flung in their direction. Truly incredible stuff, and to say we were somewhat sceptical ahead of time that a guy whose name translates as “Angel Peace” could charm Antpittas from the forest would not be the half of it. However, I have now seen it with my own eyes and I am a true believer…See daily diary below for the breathless details…Angel charges $10 US per head for the experience, with all 3 Antpittas a real possibility. He says there at least 6 Giant Antpittas on the property, (we tried for ‘Manuel’, Maria’ and ‘Lucho’, seeing only the former,) and he has also succeeded in bringing in e.g. Dark-backed Wood-Quail (with fruit left out for nocturnal animals that he is also trying to attract.) His son Benecio is also learning to call the Antpittas but is not yet able to bring them in as his father does. Olivaceous Piha is also here, as is the sanguinolenta race of Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. If you don’t speak Spanish, Xavier at Neblina Forest, or one of the other agencies (see the list on the Jocotoco website links page) should be able to arrange a visit for you.
Papallacta Pass- MAP #4
Easy to access from Quito, even in a standard vehicle, all on paved roads, an hour’s drive in light traffic. To get out of town, take the Avenida Seis de Deciembre to the tunnel. After passing through the latter, (toll here if it’s ever manned,) follow signs for Pifo/Tumbaco, and latterly for Baeza. The pass itself is marked by a large metal road-sign which stretches above/across the road, and which reads ‘Troncal Amazonica’ etc. All the birds can be seen within 3kms either side of the pass; the radar station on the old road above the pass is on a good dirt road which may require 4x4 in poor weather. The old (dirt) road extends in three directions from the pass itself, and has good habitat alongside; it’s also easier to stop along this little used highway than on the new main road, although many of the best Polylepis patches are alongside the latter. There’s room to park at the pass itself. Specialities up here include Giant Conebill, Paramo Tapaculo, Paramo Seedeater, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Andean Tit-Spinetail, White-chinned Thistletail, Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, Tawny Antpitta, Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Andean Condor etc.
Site Details (ii) The South
Manglares de Churute- MAP # 5
Access: Easy from the main road which runs North/South between Guayaquil and Naranjal, approx. 1 to 1.5 hours’ drive/c50kms South-East of Guayaquil, at the KM46 marker. It is necessary to obtain an entry permit first from the reserve centre, which is c1km S. of the access road; the centre is on the left as you head South. Once you have obtained a permit turn around and head back North for 1km, then turn left near the KM46 marker onto a dirt road to the West. Cross over a river bridge, and then take the obvious 90º right turn when you get to the small group of houses ahead and to your left. Follow this road North to the base of the hills, and bear left, pulling over after less than a kilometre where a track runs off to the right. Bird the scrub left and right down the road, and up the track for 200m from the parking spot towards the hills as far as a small derelict building. Jet Antbird, Pacific Royal Flycatcher etc are in the general vicinity. Mosquitoes are appalling here thanks to the nearby mangroves, wear abundant repellent. Horned Screamers can often be seen from the main road, roosting early morning in the trees on the left as you head South; these trees are set back c200m from the main road, after the access road on the right but before the reserve centre on the left.
Buenaventura- MAP #6
Access: Located in El Oro province, approx. 4 hours’ drive South-East from Guayaquil; take the main road South through Naranjal, (bypassing) Machala, (bypassing) Santa Rosa, (easier said than done; if you get lost just ask for help getting back to the main road; there are very few signposts at junctions in this area,) eventually (16kms before the town of Balsas) turning left (East) and driving through Saracay (keep left) towards Piñas. Note that the Buenaventura reserve is essentially divided into two halves, upper and lower:
Lower: Very approx. 3kms after passing through Saracay, look for a large green Foundacion Jocotoco sign to “Reserva Buenaventura” on the left with a picture of the Jocotoco Antpitta, Umbrellabird etc. There’s a large painted mural on the wall on your left here. Fork left up the dirt road, and drive c20 mins. to the main Jocotoco buildings near the top of the valley. You will go through a couple of gates en route- leave them as you find them i.e. if they are closed when you arrive close them again behind your vehicle. There is a pair of cabins on the right as you drive up (a 2nd (200m lower) pair were being built whilst we were staying; these should be ready by early April ’06,) and the main house is 50m up on the left. The Umbrellabird Trail, (which leads to the most reliable Long-wattled Umbrellabird lek,) is a few hundred metres further up on the right, (room to park just off the dirt road,) and is well signposted. The trail is fairly steep but well maintained with steps cut into the dirt etc. The best area for the Umbrellabird when we were there was directly over the trail, on the first relatively flat part of the trail after you start to parallel the stream. Ask at the main building for the latest information. There is a fee if not staying on-site which goes to help cover the costs of the Jocotoco foundation. Birding can also be good anywhere up and down the main track.
Upper: Drive back down to the main road from the main reserve building/cabins and turn left (at the wall mural) up the hill towards Piñas. You pass the Hummingbird Garden (Jardin de Colibries) on the left after 5.9kms, then the “Baño Viringo” washing area/waterfall on the right after 7.4kms. 10.4kms above the lower Buenaventura road, look for a small architecturally stylish (!) shrine on the left (steps to the right of the road) with a dirt road off to the left immediately above the shrine. Turn left here, and after only a few metres fork left and drive to the first gate. (If you don’t have a 4x4, park at the shrine and walk in.) It may be possible to drive beyond the gate, (although this was blocked by a landslide whilst we were there.) The best forest starts approx. 0.5km beyond this gate. c1km beyond the gate look for a poorly marked trail off to the right on a sharp left hand bend- this is the Perico de Orces trail. The forested dirt road between here and the gate, and the trail itself offer some of the best birding at this elevation. The trail ends after less than 1km at a small gate, which marks the start of cleared open pasture; beyond this point you’ll encounter a.) cow sh*t alley and b.) no birds, so turn around and retrace your steps. There is supposed to be an El Oro Tapaculo (Ecuadorian Tapaculo) territory at the start of the Perico de Orces trail, by the stream that crosses the trail, but we had no sight nor sound despite two visits.
To find the area referred to as the ‘Top Forest’ elsewhere in this report, drive along the dirt road that starts immediately above the shrine (ignore the left fork to the gate/Perico de Orces Trail described above) and continue for 2.5kms to the patches of higher elevation forest. These are the first decent patches of forest after you pass the pasture/small horse farm on the right driving in. We had El Oro Parakeet here.
There’s a 2nd trail opposite/slightly above the shrine, i.e. on the right hand side of the main road as you head up the hill. Park at the shrine and walk c100m up/East, and look for the not-at-all-obvious trail entrance. (There is a sign on the trail itself which reads “Sendero El Oro Tapaculo” or similar, but this is only visible once you are already on the trail.) The first 200m of the trail are also supposed to host a tapaculo territory, but again no joy for us. We did see Scaled Antpitta, Rufous-headed Chachalaca and Song Wren here, and heard Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail.
There’s also a trail lower down the main road, opposite/300m above the Jardin de Colibries on the right as you drive up. Park with permission near the house on the left and cross the road and walk up to find the trail entrance. This trail is steep and slippery, but we did see our only Ochre-breasted Antpitta up on the ridge here, as well as Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. If the Heliconia are flowering White-tipped Sicklebill is also possible here.
The birding in both sections is great, with a host of specialities including the Parakeet, El Oro Tapaculo, (though we dipped despite extensive searching,) Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Plain-backed Antpitta etc.
Tapichalaca- MAP #7
Altitude: c 2300-3200m
Access South from Loja on paved and (beyond Yangana) good dirt road, 2 hours’ drive from Loja, 5-6 hours in total from Buenaventura. The main Fundacion Jocotoco house (“Casa Simpson”) is on the left up a short steep driveway, beyond the last pass that marks the boundary between Loja and Zamora Chinchipe provinces. The house is 5.4kms beyond the pass, and 10.2kms before the town of Valladolid. This was my favourite site; hard work on the steep trails, but great birding, and home to the Jocotoco Antpitta of course.
The main Jocotoco Loop trail leads up from the back of Casa Simpson, (just to the left of the toilet block,) and climbs steeply uphill for 1.5kms; hard work immediately after breakfast, (though the trail is well maintained with steps cut into the side of the hill etc). It then descends a little way again, until reaching a junction on the trail. The Mule Trail Abajo (‘down’) and Mule Trail Arribe (‘up’) are to the right here, (when you come to a fork c50m after turning right the Arribe is to the right and the Abajo to the left- one obviously goes uphill and one down, so it’s easy to figure out which is which.) The second section of the Jocotoco Loop Trail leads off to the left, passing a small wooden shelter (‘The Mirador’ (lookout)) before snaking off North-West to join the Quebrada Honda Trail, on which the Jocotoco Antpitta was first discovered.
The Mule Trail Abajo descends steeply down the valley, passing through two areas of open pasture (uppermost at 2350m elevation, c2.5kms from Casa Simpson) before plunging into lower elevation forest after c3kms. As one might expect, the species set lower down is somewhat different from the higher elevation forest. This lower forest was the only place we saw Yellow-vented Woodpecker and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta for example; the latter is common here judging from the number of calling birds we heard during our one brief visit. White-faced Nunbird, Masked Saltator, Chestnut-crested Cotinga and other goodies have been seen around the forest edge just above the first open pasture area; we missed all of these, but did see Black-billed Mountain-Toucan, Emerald (Andean) Toucanet, Dusky Piha etc. The first section of the Mule Trail Abajo is also excellent- we had 3 Slate-crowned Antpittas, a White-rumped Hawk, 2 Ocellated Tapaculo, Yellow-bellied Chat-Tyrant, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, heard Barred Antthrush etc. We birded this trail on two consecutive mornings; it seems to have been little explored until recently, but there’s plenty of good stuff here, including a Jocotoco territory in the first 500m of the trail after the Abajo split. It is possible to access the Mule Trails directly from the main road- an unsigned rocky mule trail leads up to the left from the open area just above the main road, c0.3kms below Casa Simpson, and meets the Abajo/Arribe junction c1km above. We came back down this trail both times, it’s shorter than taking the first half of the Jocotoco Loop trail to get to the Abajo/Arribe spit, but the forest is not as good as the Jocotoco Loop.
The Quebrada Honda trail itself can be accessed directly from the main road; park c1.3kms up the hill from Casa Simpson on the road and walk in, keeping right until you meet the Jocotoco Loop Trail joining on the right. Take this right to loop c2kms back to Casa Simpson, or bear left here down the Q. Honda Trail, which descends into the valley. The first 1km of this trail is supposed to be the best forest, although we did not bird this area. There are two other trails, neither of which we had time to check out: The Tapir Trail heads South off the main road at a point very approx. 3kms above Casa Simpson. The Las Pavas Trail heads North-East and then South-East on the other side of the road. There’s now a great trail map in the sightings book in the main accomm. building at Casa Simpson; most of the details on my map are lifted from this. Distance markers have recently been added to the trails; look for these small coloured tapes attached to trees as you progress.
Jorupe Forest- MAP #8
Access: About 5.5 hours drive from Tapichalaca, 3.5 hours from Loja, all on paved roads. The Fundacion Jocotoco property and house are situated immediately off to the left of the main (paved) Macara to Sabiango/Sozoranga/Utuana Road, 3kms (NE) after leaving Macara. (This road is signed (c200m N of the actual turn) left off the main Velacruz/Macara road, c0.3kms before you arrive in Macara, c0.5kms after passing the gas station on the left hand side (outskirts of Macara) coming South from Velacruz.) The entrance to the Fundacion Jocotoco house is the 2rd dirt road entrance on the left along the Macara/Utuana Road, c0.7kms after the large F. Jocotoco side on the right hand side of the road. The main dirt road up to the Jorupe Forest is c200m (?) before this, also on the left as you head towards Sabiango/Utuana etc.
Access: This F. Jocotoco reserve is along a dirt road accessed to the right (South) c30m before the police checkpoint in Utuana village. Follow this dirt road for c0.7kms, and take the first dirt road off to the right (4x4 only, or walk in.) After another c500m you reach a fork in the road. The left fork leads almost immediately only to a private gated property; take the right fork and drive very carefully as far as the F. Jocotoco sign- park here on the grass. The entrance fee paid at Jorupe also covers Utuana. There are two signposted trails, one through elfin moss forest for Piura Hemispingus, (creatively titled the sendero ‘Piura de Hemispingus’…) and one through more open stunted forest/scrub, (novelly entitled the sendero ‘Cachudito Crestinegro’ (Black-crested Tit-Tyrant in Spanish.) We saw the latter easily with tape c300m along this trail, but dipped the Hemispingus and Rusty-breasted Antpitta, a N. Peruvian Grallaricula known only from this site in Ecuador. We did however find the main prize at the site, Gray-headed Antbird, which was tough (tape required) but do-able in tall dense bamboo. The best area for this species seems to be c500m down the main rocky path beyond the parking spot towards the warden’s house, where there’s good tall bamboo- we had a pair here. We also had a pair perhaps 1km along the Piura de Hem. trail, again at the start of the tall bamboo section. Get inside the bamboo for the best chance of seeing this arch skulker as it comes in. We also came extremely close to seeing Undulated Antpitta here, getting within 1.5m of a calling bird, and latterly getting directly underneath a 2nd bird which was calling from a well-hidden perch c6m up a tree. Sadly just as we confirmed its exact location the fog rolled in and we had to admit defeat. The warden at the site is very helpful, though he did see the Undulated and flushed it when my head was 3” behind his left boot as we crawled through the bamboo at the edge of the trail! We also saw some amazing black beetles with bright red legs here, c4” long and with huge pincers; tickle them and you’d never play the guitar again. There’s other good stuff here too, Jelksi’s Chat-Tyrant, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Purple-throated Sunangel, Black-cowled Saltator, Rufous-chested Tanager, Rufous-necked Foliage-gleaner, Line-cheeked Spinetail, Golden-rumped Euphonia, subcinereus Unicolored Tapaculo etc, all of which we saw. Weather here was appalling during our afternoon visit, (2.5 hrs pouring rain, 1 bird seen…,) early mornings probably the best bet.
Daily Birding Diary
Fri. Jan 27th: Having completed my last pesky work assignments in Anaheim, LA, Mexico City and Quito, Friday evening Jan 27th finally arrived, and it was time to pack away the suit and tie and break out the boots and bins. Gary R. arrived on schedule, waking me from an unscheduled nap, and after a quick dinner we turned in, ready for an early start the following morning.
Sat Jan. 28th: Yanacocha, Tandayapa: Roused from our slumber at some obscure hour in the morning by the dulcet tones of a battery of travel alarm clocks, we stumbled down to the hotel lobby and checked out. The mighty roar of a single horse emanated from beneath the bonnet of our miniature 4x4, and we chugged up the edge of the volcanic bowl in which Quito is located and slowly wound our way up to the reserve at Yanacocha. After a brief unscheduled detour around a couple of Quito’s less salubrious neighbourhoods, (allowing time for a few skirmishes with GR’s nemesis, the local bus drivers,) we reconnected with our intended route and within an hour and a half were de-misting our bins beside a small stretch of Andean West slope. The sound of multiple Tawny- and Rufous- Antpittas greeted us, and we had soon secured views of the former, although the latter refused to emerge from the dense moss forest despite our best efforts. Our first slew of Andean species were soon chalked up, including Black- and Glossy- Flowerpiercers, Mountain Velvetbreast, Bar-bellied Woodpecker, and Buff-breasted- and Black-chested Mountain Tanagers. We drove a little further along the dirt road, parking up at the edge of a curving ridge, and walking the latter, while a c1km diversion along a narrow trail allowed us to add 2 latrans Unicolored (‘Blackish’) Tapaculos, Black-crested Warbler, both Golden-breasted- and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, and a splendid Sword-billed Hummingbird. 3 Barred Fruiteaters showed well just overhead, and a pair of White-browed Spinetails and a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill were welcome additions.
After a few hours birding we drove lower, paying our $5 per head fee at the gatehouse on the way out. We stopped for lunch 1km below the town of Nono, (how did it get its name?) and this slightly lower elevation forest yielded White-sided Flowerpiercer, a single Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet, an exquisite Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, (as ever along a stream,) and a pair of Plain-tailed Wrens. As we arrived for our first crack at the Tandayapa Ridge, we hit cloud and fog, though we still managed to pick out 2 White-tailed Tyrannulets, a few Montane Woodcreepers, a female White-winged Tanager, and a Metallic-green Tanager. We stopped in at the house of a friend of Gary’s, Tony Nunnery, and whilst the pair of them caught up on the gossip we watched a panoply of hummingbirds come and go, including Purple-throated Woodstar, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, 2 Brown Incas, a single Velvet-purple Coronet, 1 Tawny-bellied Hermit and best of all, a lone Empress Brilliant. A pair of Toucan Barbets duetted mournfully off in the distance, but would not come in. We drove back down through heavy rain, slipping and sliding our way through an increasingly unnavigable quagmire, until at last we squelched our way through the rustic but charming portals of the Septimo Paraiso, pausing only to admire the crooning of a Scaled Antpitta at dusk. A cold beer in a chilled glass was the perfect accompaniment to dinner, and we retired at 9pm to crash out, dreaming of the forests full of ground-dwellers awaiting our discovery in the morning.
Sun Jan. 29th: Septimo Paraiso: Breakfast at dawn prepared us for a morning walking the longest of S.P.’s trails, which winds its way through the hill forest adjacent to the lodge and passes through some more open country, before eventually leading over the river and looping round to the back door of the main building. Tawny-chested Flycatcher was an early highlight, eclipsed only by a co-operative Scaled Fruiteater, the first of 4 seen during the day. A Narino Tapaculo was our second species of Scytalopus in as many days, and was cause for a small celebration; CG’s 4000th world species. A Toucan Barbet proved more inquisitive than yesterday’s pair, before a female Masked Trogon swooped down to a convenient perch. We heard a Cloud-Forest Pygmy-Owl in the canopy, but this recently described species refused to show itself. However, our disappointment was short-lived, when a clipped ‘phewt-phewt’ announced the close presence of a Rufous-breasted Antthrush on a nearby steep slope. CG’s usual Antthrush mania was barely kept in check as we played tape, and almost immediately a bird shot in, apparently in response. However, it was a good 4m up, and CG had only the briefest of glimpses before the bird departed- could it really have been a Formicarius just below the canopy? A sceptical GR was soon convinced when the bird returned, this time perching at eye-level carrying nesting material, before walking daintily along an elevated bamboo strut. It gave amazing views, before slipping behind a large tree trunk and melting back into the nether regions of the forest floor from whence it had doubtless arrived. After a minute of breathless chatter and mutual high-fiving we continued on our way, picking up a Tawny-throated Leaftosser a scant 5m further down the trail, a pair of Sepia-brown Wrens, a Black-winged Saltator, and a Golden-headed Quetzal. We played tape for the White-faced Nunbird that had been seen until the end of December, but without success. After a leisurely lunch, we drove out to try to find the property of Angel Paz, alleged to be only 12kms down up the road towards Nanegalito. We found the dirt road in, and ascertained from Angel’s brother that Angel was indeed the guy who knew about the Giant Antpittas, and that we could call him later in the day when he returned from Nanegalito. We noted down the phone number and headed back out to the main road, pausing to photograph a couple of Golden-headed Quetzals en route. We tried birding a couple of spots along the Septimo Paraiso entrance road, but the weather closed in and bird activity was correspondingly low, so we eventually adjourned to our room before using the lodge’s phone to make our arrangements to visit Angel Paz the following morning. After a protracted conversation in broken Spanish we managed to arrange to meet Sñr Paz at 6am, assured that we would have a good chance of ‘the Antpittas.’ Noting the plural we excitedly discussed what might await us the next day, eventually managing to get to sleep, excited as kids the night before Christmas.
Mon Jan 30th: Angel Paz’s, (Refugio Paz de las Aves), Milpe Road, PVM Road. We turned off the main road at 540am, and crawled up the muddy road towards what we hoped would be the Antpitta experience of a lifetime. Confronted with an unsigned junction soon after crossing a rickety river bridge, we mentally tossed a coin and turned right, spending the next 15 minutes driving in increasingly tense silence. As one corner succeeded another we started to become convinced that we had picked the wrong direction, and as 6am came and went we pushed thoughts of missing our appointed meeting to the back of our minds. Finally at 610am we reached a tiny muddy farmyard, and our anxious question, ‘este es la casa de señor Paz?’ was met initially with a quizzical look. Happily however, it soon transpired that the puzzled expression was only to confirm whether we were the gringos who had booked the night before, and soon we were shaking hands with a young boy, who explained that he was Benecio, Angel’s son, and that he would escort us into the forest to meet up with his father who had gone ahead with two other birders to show them the Cock-of-the-Rock lek. We ducked and weaved our way through a crop of granadillas, before creeping quietly down a dark and narrow trail into the forest beyond. Still convinced that the stories we had heard, (piecemeal from various sources since arriving in Ecuador,) about the man who could call Antpittas from the forest could not really be true, we nonetheless walked silently in single file. This turned out to be a wise precaution, since after only a couple of hundred metres Angel’s son stopped in his tracks, turning to us to indicate something on the trail ahead. We raised our binoculars, and were amazed to see a Yellow-breasted Antpitta hopping along the trail in the dim light, not more than 20m in front of us! We watched, rooted to the spot, picking out the details in the gloom, until the bird hopped into cover and was gone. Edging further along the trail, Benicio paused by a small landslide, and whispered something we did not catch, before leading further down the steep trail, eventually stopping at a muddy corner. We waited here whilst he went to check on his father, returning shortly afterwards and beckoning to us to follow him. After a few more minutes trudging through the mud we rounded a corner, to be confronted by a gentleman holding a small tin, which, we could not help but notice, was full of wriggling worms. We were quietly introduced to the famous Angel Paz, plus 3 other visiting Antpittatistas, before the group of us were led across a small footbridge and asked to wait at the side of the trail. There then followed an enormously protracted spate of worm-washing in the stream that ran beneath the bridge, an apparently endless ritual that had Gary and I raising an eyebrow each and suppressing grins, before Angel began his work. His technique for luring one of the Tropics’ most mythical and elusive species was as simple and low-tech as it was astonishing; he held a writhing worm in the air, before calling softly, “Manuel, Manuel, venga, venga, venga.” This continued for a short while, (during which time our scepticism reached new heights,) but suddenly we became aware of a movement up the slope opposite us. There, flicking its wings nervously, and (incredibly) as large as life, was a Giant Antpitta.
Unable to believe our eyes, we fumbled for our bins and cameras, enjoying unbelievable views of this stunning bird. Having hopped off its perch, it took a good five minutes for the Antpitta to settle, moving in and out of cover, at times melting into the shadows like a ghost, only to appear elsewhere on the slope. At length, Angel threw a couple of worms up the slope, and the Antpitta bounced towards them, gradually being drawn in by the lure of easy prey. Eventually it was persuaded out of cover, and risked grabbing a couple of worms from the edge of the footbridge, before fleeing back into cover with them. Angel then turned to look upstream and whistled a three-note impersonation of a Yellow-breasted Antpitta. One came in and also retrieved a worm that had been tossed out, though only after straying rather too close to the Giant Antpitta and being chased off! At one point, a lone male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock called overhead, displaying noisily in a desperate attempt to gain our attention, but in truth it was a lost cause.
Angel then led us back towards the muddy corner where Benecio had first had us wait, and en route we picked up an Olivaceous Piha, a welcome and unexpected bonus. When we arrived back at the appointed corner, Angel tried to call in a 2nd Giant Antpitta, ‘Lucho’. We had heard a low bubbling call on our way in here, which we now assumed was probably the very same ‘Lucho’, but the bird would not come in. Another Yellow-breasted Antpitta made a cameo appearance, before Angel led us back up the main trail towards his yard. However, our amazing morning was not quite over yet; as we reached the small landslide Angel’s son had waved towards on the way in, our host motioned for us to stop, and we crouched at the edge of the trail as he tossed a couple of small pebbles over the edge of the slope, followed a moment later by a few more small clods of earth. We scanned the bottom of the slope, where within a minute or so we picked up a movement in a tiny gap in the vegetation. As we scanned the foliage at the edge of the landslide, a small shape hopped to the edge of the cover, which, as we silently focussed, we realised was a stunning Moustached Antpitta. As finalés go, pretty hard to beat!
Having grabbed a worm, (competing for a moment with yet another Yellow-breasted Antpitta which had appeared to fight for the spoils,) the third of our wildest-dreams trio bounced back into the forest as quickly as it had come, leaving us to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming, and to gasp at the digital images we had managed to grab. As we emerged back into the morning sunshine at the top of the hill we burst into fits of laughter, unable to quite believe what we had just witnessed.
Angel explained that he had originally bumped into the first of his Giant Antpittas whilst walking one of his trails in the early morning. He had started to leave occasional morsels of food for them, and over a period of many months had gradually worked to gain the birds’ confidence. As time went on, he had learned that worms were a part of their natural diet, and so had switched to harvesting worms to leave for them. He told us that he had discovered no less than SIX Giant Antpittas on his property, and had given them all names. (In the area we had walked, he had also regularly encountered a third bird, ‘Maria’, but when we visited he had not seen her for little while and believed that she may be on eggs.) He explained that he had not given the other Antpitta species individual names, “because they don’t respond to their names like the Giant Antpittas do,” an explanation that seemed entirely reasonable to us! Angel also mentioned that he had been leaving fruit for nocturnal animals in an attempt to be able to show these creatures to eco-tourists too, and with some success. One side-benefit of this, he told us, was that Dark-backed Wood-Quail could also sometimes be seen feeding on the left-overs in the early morning…
We returned to the farmhouse to settle up ($10 per head, which even my shaky maths tells me is $3.33 per Antpitta species…) and to thank our hosts profusely, before driving back to the main road and wondering how on earth we were going to follow an act like that for the rest of the day. After a little deliberation we decided to bird the Milpe Road, hoping to catch up with a few open country species. We turned off the main road and drove 1km or so in, turning into the MCF car park on the right where we soon found Ochre-breasted Tanager, Choco Warbler, Choco Trogon and Pacific Tuftedcheek. Just past the benches on the shortest trail we found an eminently viewable Club-winged Manakin lek, and when the trail brought us out into an area of grassland and forest edge, we were able to add Striped Cuckoo and Pale-mandibled Aracari. As we returned to the car park, the rain set in rather more earnestly, and we elected to drive further down the road to the PVM Road to try to get below the weather. However, even at this lower altitude, grey cloud stretched to the horizon, and we had not long ascended the new canopy tower before the rain forced us back down to terra firma, GR just having time to grip CG with one of the PVM’s most sought-after avian jewels, a male Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. We resigned ourselves to birding under umbrellas, with little prospect of the mist and rain lifting. However, the new trails leading off into the forest looked inviting, and proved highly rewarding when we hit a large feeding flock an hour or so down the trail. Amongst the more interesting members of the assembled cast were a Black-striped Woodcreeper, a Double-banded Graytail, a pair of Scarlet-browed-, at least 3 Gray-and-gold-, 1 Tawny-crested- and 2 Emerald Tanagers, with CG gripping back with an equally scarce bird, a single Blue-whiskered Tanager. Sadly this departed with as much unseemly haste as the Dacnis had, much to GR’s chagrin, although a Slate-throated Gnatcatcher was some minor consolation. We circled back to the car, finding a Purple-chested Hummingbird and 2 diminutive Brown-capped Tyrannulets on the way, before driving slowly back to Septimo Paraiso. As we dried out before dinner, the rain drummed a furious tattoo on the roof, and we contemplated gathering in all the forest animals two by two, just in case. A two-beer evening ensued, as we cross-checked details with each other, to make sure that we had really just witnessed the scenes we each believed we had.
Tues Jan 31st: Septimo Paraiso Entrance Road, Tony Nunnery’s Trails, Los Bancos, Milpe Road. As we drove out along the entrance road to Septimo Paraiso a little before first light, we flushed a Short-tailed Nighthawk, picking out plumage details via our trusty 4x4’s headlights. Our intended destination was the Tandayapa Ridge, where we hoped to sweep up a few of the higher elevation species we had missed on our first visit. We arrived at 615am, but the weather pattern was depressingly familiar; fog and light rain. We birded the first few hundred yards from the t-junction where the Ecoruta meets the connecting road that runs back down to join the main road at KM60. Bird activity was low, but we picked up a few choice species, including our only Western Hemispingus of the trip, a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, plus White-winged Brush-Finches, 3 Sickle-winged Guans and a pair of Uniform Antshrikes. 3 Chestnut-crowned Antpittas and a Spillmann’s Tapaculo called from within cover, but none would come in to our tape. We headed up to say hi to Tony and Barbara Nunnery again, who kindly offered us the opportunity to walk one of the trails on their property. (I haven’t detailed the location for this because it’s on private land.) Since the weather remained stubbornly uncooperative, we gladly accepted, figuring that searching for close-range skulkers within the forest was our best option. The trail was narrow and steep in places, winding down into the valley, across the river and back up to the house. At the second attempt we succeeded in pulling in a fine Spillmann’s Tapaculo, which came in very close in typical Scytalopus fashion. The trail was relatively quiet, but we did find a pair of Green-and-black Fruiteaters, 1 Flame-faced- and 2 Rufous-chested Tanagers, and a couple of Rusty-winged Barbtails, as well as hearing a Moustached Antpitta off in the distance. Tony had mentioned he’d seen a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta on the trail near the house earlier that same morning, but we had no sight nor sound.
As we drove down the hill towards Tandayapa Lodge, we came across a male Slaty Finch, which showed extremely well, feeding at the roadside. We continued losing altitude, adding Spotted Barbtail, Black-capped Tanager, Masked Trogon, and Flavescent Flycatcher before the heavens well and truly opened. We changed our tactics, figuring that if we drove lower to The Milpe Road to try for Moss-backed Tanager we might be able to get below the bad weather. However, the rain had other ideas, and we arrived at the town of Los Bancos in torrential rain. Cutting our losses we stopped at the Mirador Rio Blanco Restaurant, and sat shivering over a couple of café con leches, watching a succession of bedraggled tanagers hopping miserably around the fruit feeders.
Having settled up, we headed to the Milpe Road, and finally at around 430pm the weather cleared. We padded our list with a succession of trash country birds for an hour and a half, before GR finally shouted ‘got it!’, and we were soon both able to enjoy views of a distant Moss-backed Tanager, perching up as always right at the top of an isolated tree. We watched the bird for a few minutes, before a final sweep of the area yielded a male Guira Tanager.
When we arrived back at Septimo Paraiso we received a message from the owner of Cabañas San Isidro, warning us that a strike was planned for Feb 2nd, which would close all major routes in Napo province. Thus, we’d be able to drive to San Isidro no problem, but being able to return to Quito over the Papallacta Pass was far from certain. The strike was supposed to last only for 24 hours, but no-one seemed confident that roads would re-open the following day. Reluctantly we decided to cancel our plans to sample the avifauna of the Northern part of the Andean East slope, since if we missed our flight out of Quito to Guayaquil and the South, our itinerary would be in danger of falling apart.
Weds Feb. 1st: PVM Road, Calacali Pass. Every cloud has a silver lining, and we were determined to put our extra time in the Mindo area to good use. So it was that we left Septimo Paraiso at 5am, in order to allow us time to drive the hour to the PVM Road and still arrive at first light. We turned off to the right near the KM127 marker, and eased our vehicle along the entrance road. Having crossed the first river bridge and passed the quarry, our early start paid dividends when we spotted a diminutive Choco Poorwill 3.6kms in from the main road, sitting on the dirt road ahead of us. After allowing us a couple of good views the bird moved off, and we hurried on to the tower area.
We first walked the main dirt road from the car park back towards the main road as far as the river. Only 200m from the car park we heard a Black-headed Antthrush singing, and luck was with us; there was a way into the forest up the steep bank to our left. We clambered up, hid our scopes just inside the forest cover, and sneaked through the forest as silently as the dense vegetation would allow. Having found a relatively open area of forest floor we played tape, and within a minute or so, the bird started to come in. A couple of minutes more, and we could glimpse movements within the dense cover, until at last the bird emerged at the edge of the semi-trail on which we were standing. It eyed us suspiciously, but we had frozen to the spot, and it seemed happy that we were no threat. It then wheeled left and, pausing only to stop and sing, walked straight towards us, until eventually at less than a metre’s range it had to detour around us to avoid walking over our feet. Truly mesmeric stuff, and a fine way to almost complete the Formicarius set for CG. (Only Mexican Antthrush to go…) We returned jubilantly to our patrolling of the road, hearing Stub-tailed Antbird, and seeing a female Pacific Antwren, a Southern Nightingale Wren for GR only, and another pair of Slate-throated Gnatcatchers.
We headed to the new tower, 100m below the car park, and ascended the sturdy metal frame to the top level, gazing out over the open canopy in front of us. Bird activity was relatively slow, but we did have a few quality birds; a marvellous Semi-plumbeous Hawk circled by us at close range, a single Dusky Pigeon perched up in a distant Cecropia, and a pair of Rose-faced Parrots gave brief flight views.
We walked the trails again in an attempt to catch up with the large mixed flock we had previously encountered but without success, though we did encounter a tiny antswarm with an attendant pair of Bicolored Antbirds, 3 Dusky-faced Tanagers, and a Chestnut-backed Antbird. By late morning the rain had set in again, so we headed back up to the Milpe road area, this time turning left 100m or so further up towards the Mindo area at cKM88 to try our luck on what we dubbed the “Upper Milpe Road.” There is a small pool to the right of the road after a few hundred metres, with a waterfall below to the left, and since the rain was still teeming down we staked out this area from the comfort of the vehicle. A female Golden-winged Manakin miraculously put in an appearance right in front of us despite the deluge, but our other target here, Esmeraldas Antbird, failed to show. The best we could manage was a furtive pair of Uniform Antshrikes that came in to Esmeraldas tape, briefly getting our hopes up.
After a swift lunch we said our goodbyes to the ever-cheerful team at Septimo Paraiso, and headed back to Quito, stopping only to bird the pass near Calacali above Mitad del Mundo. A pair of Golden-rumped Euphonias entertained us, shining through the mist and drizzle, and a Rusty Flowerpiercer put in a brief appearance. Sparkling Violetears proved common, although there was no sign of our main target, White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant; this is one bogey for CG that looks set to continue for a while yet…
In Quito we checked in and decamped to a nearby restaurant for ceviche and steak, reliving a few highlights of the past week. The Northern half of our Ecuadorian excursion was nearly over, but there remained one key site still to visit before fleeing South to warmer climes…
Thurs Feb. 2nd: Papallacta, Guayaquil. We arrived at the Papallacta Pass shortly after dawn, finding the air cold, but (miraculously) the sky clear without a hint of rain- shurely shome mishtake? On the way up we had scored our first success with a single Stout-billed Cinclodes feeding at the side of the road in company with 2 Bar-winged Cinclodes. At the pass, birdsong was already in evidence, and we quickly caught up with 3 Tawny Antpittas, perching up disgracefully on the top of the vegetation to give their ‘quid…pro…quo’ song. Andean Tit-Spinetail and White-chinned Thistletail followed in quick succession, and after a breathless yomp across the paramo, (4200m up here, and the air is decidedly thin…) we elicited a response from a Paramo Tapaculo which showed briefly just in front of us. We paused to enjoy a Blue-Mantled Thornbill, before driving up to the Radar Station, where we duly connected with Paramo Ground-Tyrant, and an Aplomado Falcon, although a brief search for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe proved fruitless. The weather was already starting to close in a little, so we headed down towards the patches of Polylepis forest just beyond the pass whilst visibility was OK. En route, we stopped to check three of the more promising-looking high altitude bogs, with CG scampering noisily around the perimeters in a doomed attempt to flush Noble or Andean Snipe; a good cardio-vascular work-out, but no joy.
By 11am we had tried all the best patches of forest and drawn a blank with our main target species, although we had seen Paramo Seedeater, Pearled Treerunner etc. We turned off the main road beyond the pass and then looped back towards the pass on the unpaved old highway, which skirts another area of Polylepis half a kilometre in. We huffed our way up the slope to the forest edge, and started trawling with tape. At length we pulled in a small mixed flock, which comprised Pale-naped Brush-Finch, Black-crested Warbler, Black-backed Bush-Tanager and, joy of joys, 2 Giant Conebills. A cotinga-shaped silhouette was seen very briefly, perched up in a tree-top high on the ridge above us, but just as we got onto it, it disappeared over the ridge and out of sight. Could this have been the recently discovered Doliornis, Chestnut-bellied Cotinga? (It is not yet known from the site, but occurs further North and further South on the East slope. We did see 3 Red-crested Cotingas only slightly lower down, so perhaps this is a little fanciful, but who knows what else is up on these high ridges, most of which are inaccessible. Crescent-faced Antpitta must be here?) As the old highway returned us to the high point of the pass, we pulled over again and played tape for Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, and were immediately greeted by the sight of a pair flying in and perching up for photos. Feeling this was a good bird on which to end our stint at the pass, we crossed the main road and continued on down the old highway, hoping that trawling the ‘scenic route’ might turn up a few more surprises. The bogs at a slightly lower altitude were no more snipe-infested than their higher equivalents had been earlier, but two raptors cheered us on our way down; a brief Carunculated Caracara, and a majestic Andean Condor, impressive as ever.
We returned to the hotel, checked out, and arrived slightly ahead of schedule at the airport, where to our delight we were offered an earlier flight into Guayaquil. Both we and our bags managed to make it to the South an hour earlier than planned, and despite a short delay at the rental car office, and a minor bridge-and-backstreets rush hour odyssey around the city, we were nonetheless in position to try and wrest sustenance from the haphazard restaurant staff in the Gran Hotel Guayaquil before 830pm.
Fri Feb. 3rd: Manglares de Churute, Santa Rosa Shrimp Ponds, Buenaventura. With GR excited by the acceleration possibilities of our new rental vehicle, (some kind of behemoth land-cruiser upgrade that Localiza had seen fit to entrust to us since they had run out of the more modest 4x4 we had reserved,) we were cruising in style over the bridges spanning the Guayas shortly before dawn, and we connected with the new road East out of Guayaquil without incident. By the time we arrived at the Manglares de Churute reserve the Pacific Horneros were up and about, even if the reserve staff were not. We parked, and rapidly applied insect repellent, as hordes of mosquitoes fell upon us in a bloodlust feeding frenzy. We tolerated them as long as we could, (just long enough to find Jet Antbird, Ecuadorian Trogon, and Pacific Royal Flycatcher,) before continuing our journey South. We stopped off at a shrimp pond complex, just off to the right of the Santa Rosa bypass, adding Magnificent Frigatebird, Parrot-billed Seedeater, Collared Antshrike and the local race of Mangrove Warbler to our ever-growing list, (as well as an impressive Green Iguana,) before diverting into Santa Rosa town for lunch; a plate of fried rice at the town’s least dangerous-looking Chifa, “Fu Weng.” The rather battered character displaying clothes at the fashion store next door allowed us to chalk up a species new to science (“One-eyed Mannequin”,) before we saddled up and got the hell out of Dodge.
A couple of hours down the road, having turned left and drifted through Saracay, we arrived at the sign indicating the entrance road to Buenaventura around mid-afternoon, and 20 minutes and two gate-openings later (practice your knots before your visit…) we were exchanging Spanglish pleasantries with Darwin, our host at the Fundacion Jocotoco accommodation.
We off-loaded our bags into one of the cabins, before spending a few minutes at the hummingbird feeders, the scene of frenetic activity, despite the rebuilding works in progress at the adjacent main building. Highlights included White-vented Plumleteer, Long-billed Starthroat, a Velvet-Purple Coronet and Baron’s Hermit, and the sheer numbers of hummers seduced us into spending a few extra minutes sitting back in our ringside seats. Eventually we drove a little further up the hill, parked, and walked the Umbrellabird trail. By now the daily cold front had caught up with us, and we arrived at the lower reaches of the trail having seen little bar the tail end of a departing snake. However, as we walked the first flat section of the trail, GR motioned to keep still, and with good reason; there, not 20m in front of us, just above head height, was a male Long-wattled Umbrellabird. We crept past the bird, and set up scopes to enable us to digiscope this confiding individual. The main problem was trying to get the whole of the wattle in, and as we watched, the bird unfurled more and more wattle, as if performing a conjuring trick. Returning triumphant to the cabin, we sat drinking beer on the balcony, successfully persuading a small group of Black-and-white Tanagers to come into the upper reaches of the bamboo below us. Dinner was a modest affair on the Western flank of the building site, but the inevitable chicken and rice were tasty and the pilsener cold. Besides, toad numbers were building up nicely to ensure that the evening cabaret was up to its usual standard.
Sat. Feb. 4th: Buenaventura. The reserve at Buenaventura is effectively split into upper and lower sections, and it’s a good 40 minute drive from one to the other, down to the main road and then left back up the hill on the other side of the valley. We flushed a juv. Pauraque on the way down, but otherwise our trip was uneventful, and we pulled off the main road at the shrine, driving down to a spot a few hundred metres above the Perico de Orces trail, and parking up just after dawn. As we walked the track through the morning mist and drizzle, we heard a distinctive song emanating from the forest just to our right, the pitch slightly rising and falling, each note rather end-stopped, as if it were a recording played backwards. A quick selection on the i-pod, and the elusive skulker flew across the trail and perched low in dense cover, but somehow, miraculously visible through a tiny foliage-gap; a Plain-backed Antpitta. We rapidly took a couple of photographs before the bird moved deeper into the undergrowth. Just a couple of corners later, we flushed a White-throated Quail-Dove from the side of the trail, which perched up for a moment before deciding it was too exposed and gliding down-slope. We forked right onto the narrow Perico de Orces trail, trawling for El Oro Tapaculo but getting no response. We did find a bill-snapping Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant and a male Collared Trogon, before reaching an area of open pasture. We pioneered further, sloshing along what we dubbed “cow-s*it alley”, but after half an hour of wet and very muddy exploration had still not found any further forest, so we turned around and revisited the same cow pats we had so enjoyed stepping in on the way up. A few of our good karma points were cashed in en route back through the forest however, when we were able to tape in a sleek male Immaculate Antbird.
We drove further up the main dirt road to some remnant patches of forest at slightly higher elevation, which we named the ‘top forest.’ These proved productive, with Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Rufous-throated Tanager, but there was no question which species stole the limelight, when a small flock of the endangered El Oro Parakeet flew in and perched up on some bare snags ahead of us, resulting in an enthusiastic if unseemly celebration. We took a few rather misty photographs, before returning to the main building across the valley. The drive back down the main road was enlivened by the appearance of a huge purple and orange Tarantula crossing the road, which CG photographed at close range, (after being assured that they couldn’t jump…) After lunch, we drove back to the upper section, giving a lift home to one of the construction workers. He showed us a poorly marked trail entrance, c300m above the Jardin de Colibries on the opposite side of the road, and we struggled up this steep and narrow trail cut into the South side of the valley. The combination of rain, mud, mist and sweat were not conducive to easy birding, but we did manage to pull one gem out of the forest during the ascent; a stunning Spotted Nightingale-Thrush. (The species is amazingly gaudy for a Catharus thrush, can it really be the same genus as the sombre-toned Gray-cheeked and Swainson’s?) We stomped our way almost to the top of the ridge, trawling for Antpittas as we went, and had just decided to give up and turn around when we finally heard the quiet, downslurred ‘psew’ of our quarry. Within 20 seconds we had located it, a tiny Grallaricula, the minute but perfectly formed Ochre-breasted Antpitta. This individual was atypical of SW birds, being wholly unstreaked on the underparts, but with an all-yellow bill. We enjoyed stellar views before the bird tired of us and flipped back into cover. We mud-ski’d back down to the road, emerging dirty but happy into the daylight. Back at the ranch, another dedicated hard-core session of sitting on the balcony drinking beer and scoping the hillside opposite resulted in nice views of a small group of Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, before our insatiable devotion to all things chicken-and-rice orientated won out.
Sun Feb. 5th: Buenaventura and further South. We returned to the upper section for our morning session, this time starting on the El Oro Tapaculo trail opposite the shrine. We saw Rufous-headed Chachalaca on the way in, and heard a Scaled Antpitta, which sang endlessly from a tree-top right above us but refused to show itself. A little further down the trail we heard Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail, (again the birds refused to cooperate,) and also heard a distant Plain-backed Antpitta. Most depressingly, despite checking a couple of known El Oro Tapaculo territories we neither heard nor saw any sign of them. After a final look at the top forest patches, which produced a showy Ochraceous Attila on the pasture fenceposts, we headed back to the main building, scraped a few pounds of mud off our boots and picked up our stuff, before driving East and then South to Loja. The rain was indescribably heavy, and we paused only to buy a replacement umbrella ($1.75 for a forest-green ‘super mini’) and, in a show of defiance, a ‘Pinguino’ ice lolly. We drove South, stopping off for an hour at the Cajanuma side of the Podocarpus NP. (c2800m.) The rain had eased, allowing us to bird the loop trail above the car park. This produced Lacrimose Mountain-Tanagers, a Glowing Puffleg, Red-hooded Tanager, Chusquea Tapaculo, Golden-crowned Tanager, and best of all, perched views of 7 Golden-plumed Parakeet. We also heard a distant Tawny-breasted Tinamou way down in the valley somewhere, roughly a mile too far away to pull in. We pushed on, passing through Vilcabamba and Yangana, all the while wondering if the road would be open all the way to Valladolid given the recent heavy rains. We slid straight through a tricky section somewhere near Yangana, but our luck held and all the landslides we passed appeared not to have blocked the whole road. A couple of Band-winged Nightjars on the road near the final pass were a bonus, and shortly after dark we found ourselves pulling up outside Casa Simpson, the Jocotoco HQ at the Tapichalaca reserve. We were greeted by Franco, Vincente and Ephraim, who prepared dinner whilst GR and I shared the last beer in the place. Was this beer drought to prove a bad omen for our Jocotoco chances? Certainly it seemed we had been lucky to have made it to Tapichalaca at all; the staff informed us that landslides had closed the road in both directions, with Northbound traffic still blocked on the far side of Valladolid, and the road Southbound (our route in) only having been cleared early afternoon.
Mon Feb. 6th: Tapichalaca and South of Valladolid. After a pre-dawn breakfast, we girded our loins to prepare o urselves for the assault on the ridge behind the house. This first part of the Jocotoco Loop zigzags up a steep hill, and requires a methodical approach at 2500m+, especially immediately after breakfast…A small flock of Orange-banded Flycatchers and a Plushcap encouraged us up the hill, and an hour or so of walking brought us up near the Mirador on the 2nd section of the Jocotoco Loop. A Chestnut-naped Antpitta called immediately below us, and we had brief but good views of the bird skulking in the bamboo. We paused to play a little Jocotoco Antpitta tape, and then waited in silence for 20 minutes or so at the Mirador, hearing and seeing nothing. As we walked back towards the Mule Trails we were distracted by a Barred Fruiteater, calling invisibly close by, but our minds were instantly refocused when we heard a Jocotoco Antpitta calling right behind us…We looked up the slope, our hearts sinking when we saw just how dense the bamboo was in this section. However, we managed to find a slightly more open area just to the right, and the bird continued to call, coming lower and lower down the slope above us. Suddenly there was a movement at the edge of the bamboo, and a large antpitta shape appeared. It edged right, before bouncing to the corner. GR was there a couple of seconds ahead of me, and the sound of his camera’s motor drive persuaded me to lean around the corner as brazenly as I dared. There, in full view on a bamboo pole, was the Jocotoco, not 3m from us! We watched it edge along the bamboo, eyeing us balefully for a full minute, before it hopped off into cover, calling all the while. We stood in stunned silence, staring at the images we had managed to shoot, and marvelling at our good fortune.
Elated, we walked back East, forking left twice to follow the winding course of the Mule Trail Abajo. A couple of hundred yards down we played tape and quickly added our third AP of the day, Slate-crowned Antpitta, which came in close and showed well in bamboo. As we approached the first area of pasture things became more open, allowing us to pick up a Dusky Piha, a White-rumped Hawk soaring over the forested hillside opposite, and a pair of Black-billed Mountain-Toucans. We trawled extensively for two species that we knew had been seen in the vicinity recently, White-faced Nunbird and Masked Saltator, but without success.
The climb back up the Mule Trail was tough; muddy, very steep in places, and all at 2500+ metres, but c500m from the top we were cheered on our way by 2 Ocellated Tapaculos, which came in to tape and showed extremely well; a much-wanted and wonderfully bizarre species. At the top of the hill we paused to enjoy the view and to eat our rather distressed rolls, before stomping down the rocky part of the Mule Trail to the main road. En route we were distracted by Gray-hooded Bush-Tanagers and both Black-capped- and Black-headed Hemispingus, but in general activity was low. We sat by the hummingbird feeders at the entrance to Casa Simpson to recover from our exertions, before driving down towards and beyond Valladolid to try for open country species. Here we saw c10 Marañon Thrushes, (a handsome Zoothera), a Rufous-crested Tanager, a Saffron-crowned Tanager, Yellow-cheeked Becard, and a male Black-lored Yellowthroat.
In the evening we celebrated our three Antpitta day with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, (a tipple which appeared to be much appreciated by our cooks, who downed their share in a single slug apiece!) As we returned to our room we heard a White-throated Screech-Owl calling from the back of the garden, and although it came close we could not pick it out in the spotlight.
Tue Feb. 7th: Tapichalaca and West to Macara. Another early start, to be up in the best forest at first light, and another assault on the hill before our tired bodies knew what had hit them…A creeping blob on the trail as we climbed revealed itself as a Mouse-colored Thistletail, and a second skulker finally revealed itself as an Ash-colored Tapaculo. We returned to the Mule Trail Abajo, this time pioneering lower down beyond the open pasture to spend a little time in the lower elevation forest patch c1.5kms down the Abajo trail. This produced both Yellow-vented Woodpecker and a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, the latter leading us a merry dance before allowing a brief good view. Returning to the higher forest, we heard a Barred Antthrush, but as always seems to be the case, it was a loooong way off. We retraced yesterday’s route back to the main road, where we were greeted by a Mountain Coatimundi, twitching its stripy tail to and fro to lead us back to Casa Simpson. We signed the visitors’ book, said our goodbyes to our hosts, and set out on the long drive to Macara, away to the SW on the N. Peruvian border. We broke the journey up with a stop c6kms W. of Catamayo, where we saw our first Plumbeous-backed Thrush, a couple of Tumbes Sparrows, a pair of Scarlet-backed Woodpeckers, and the lowland race of Amazilia Hummingbird. We pressed on, anxious to reach Macara before dark, but the twisting mountain roads and intensifying rain did not help speed our progress. By the time we arrived at Macara and had made sense of our ‘informal’ map showing the location of the Fund. Jocotoco property it was pitch black and pouring with rain. Finally we managed to find the house at around 730pm, and we hauled ourselves and our bags, all equally damp, onto the concourse. We soon moved inside, conscious of just how many mosquitoes were also taking advantage of the sheltered front porch, and after admiring the geckos on the walls of our basic accommodation, (‘geckos are our friends’: GR) prepared for dinner. This was served outside but under cover, and with the benefit of a fan turned up to the maximum mosquito-turbulence setting, we relaxed and enjoyed the antics of the many toads who had gathered to rival the Buenaventura troupe as the evening’s floor show.
Weds Feb. 8th: Jorupe, Utuana. Just like in the brochure, we breakfasted by the pool. Admittedly the pool was a rather fetching shade of dark green, but the toads at least seemed to like it. We headed up the trail behind the house and into the Jorupe Forest reserve proper just as it got light, accompanied by the grandly-named warden, Leonidas. This gentleman (who we later learned was the uncle of Darwin who runs the accomm. etc at Buenaventura; who picks the names in the family?) sported the twin tools of the trade; an umbrella in one hand and a machete in the other. We were soon seeing a host of new birds; Tumbesian endemics and other SW specialities, plus the commoner birds of the Western lowlands. By the time the sun broke through the clouds at c10am we had racked up Pacific Elaenia, White-edged- and Yellow-tailed Orioles, White-tailed Jay, Pale-browed Tinamou, Ecuadorian Piculet etc. The four highlights were three scarce and range-limited Furnariids, Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner, Rufous-necked Foliage-gleaner, and Blackish-headed Spinetail, plus Watkins’s Antpitta, which we heard everywhere in the SW but only saw once. Perhaps best of all though, and totally unexpected, was the source of a mystery call along trail 2. Leonidas’s description of the bird that was making this sound had us baffled for a while, until we finally twigged and realised that it must be a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, which eventually came in to confirm our suspicions. We heard both Ochre-bellied Dove and Gray-capped Cuckoo, but although we got very close to the latter, both eluded us.
By 2pm we were queuing at the gas station, but the staff advised they could not sell us gas until the military guys arrived. At 2-20pm the military returned, (must have been a better-than-average lunch…) and gas-selling resumed, the soldiers’ presence being required, so we were told, to make sure Peruvian customers were not driving over the border into Ecuador and taking advantage of the cheaper Ecuadorian fuel prices.
We then headed East, climbing up through Sabiango and Sozoranga, (a brief stop produced the hoped-for Chapman’s Antshrike,) ploughing through the remnants of minor and not-so-minor landslides, until we reached the village of Utuana. An unmarked right turn immediately before the police checkpoint led South, and the next turn on the right after c750m to the Hanne Block (Utuana) reserve. We arrived in dense fog and heavy rain, but decided to scope out the environs for the morning anyway. After two hours in the pouring rain, seeing one bird of one species in total, (Purple-throated Sunangel,) we decided we had earned enough karma points to set us up for tomorrow, and surfed back down the hill to Jorupe, exceedingly wet and a little disenchanted. Happily the rain cleared during dinner, and our evening’s owling activities were enlivened by the appearance of a pair of Spectacled Owls and a rather nervous West Peruvian Screech-Owl.
Thurs Feb. 9th: Utuana, El Empalme and back to Buenaventura. An hour after leaving Jorupe we were bumping once more up the rough entrance track at Utuana, acutely aware of the difference in temperature between the humid lowlands and the dank and misty confines of the moss forest, here at c2200m. It was still raining of course, but not a patch on yesterday’s deluge, and certainly bird-able. We walked down the main track, still slick from yesterday’s downpour, and within a couple of minutes had already improved on the previous afternoon’s species tally; Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Black-cowled Saltator and Golden-rumped Euphonia all put in early appearances, but we kept moving until we reached the main area of mature (tall) bamboo, about 1km beyond the car park spot. Within 15 mins. of reaching the bamboo area we had heard the grating contact calls of our quarry, and after embedding ourselves in the bamboo and playing a snippet of tape, finally had great views of one of Utuana’s special birds, Gray-headed Antbird. After good views of a pair, we clambered back up the track, and walked the first trail on the right, (sendero ‘Cachudito Crestinegro’,) quickly finding the Crestinegro in question, a handsome and showy Black-crested Tit-Tyrant. A Unicolored Tapaculo of the race subcinereus was a nice bonus, and before the weather had set in again we were enjoying the antics of a pair of Line-cheeked Spinetails and had started up the Sendero ‘Piura de Hemispingus’ in search of its eponymous resident. Sadly we were thwarted in our ambition to find this final speciality, although we did find another pair of Antbirds well up the trail, again where tall bamboo dominated. The same spot also held two Undulated Antpittas and a Scaled Antpitta and I came within 5 feet of seeing the former whilst crawling around in dense bamboo, just behind the site warden who we had encountered on the trail, (a very helpful if somewhat machete-happy individual.) In the end, one bird went up high to sing, and I manoeuvred myself directly underneath, only to have swathes of fog smother the forest within seconds, denying us our prize; the one that got away…We played tape around promising bamboo-centric spots in the forest for Rusty-fronted Antpitta, a North Peruvian species known only from Utuana in Ecuador, but despite extensive trawling had zero response. A White-throated Quail-Dove was the last bird we saw before departing as the weather worsened, our journey back down at middle elevations once again shrouded in dense fog.
We had lunch on the veranda at Jorupe, settled our beer-bill, and headed back to the gas station for more fun and games; filling up with Super here meant that we did not have to make a diversion in the wrong direction (Catamayo) once we got back to Velacruz. The afternoon was devoted to the long drive back to Buenaventura, (where we had decided to spend an extra night to avoid having to drive all the way back to Guayaquil in one go,) although a couple of stops proved productive, with a roadside Elegant Crescentchest 5km North of Macara town, and Tumbes Hummingbird and Baird’s Flycatcher in a dry valley just S. of El Empalme, an hour or so further North. This site also produced a flock of c15 Scarlet-fronted Parakeets, a species seldom seen in Ecuador.
Despite these diversions we reached Buenaventura at dusk, dropped off our passenger, (Leonidas’s wife, who had hitched a lift to avoid an 8-hour bus journey,) and were discussing the building progress with Darwin by 7pm. There had been some kind of major bug hatching early evening, and dinner (“insectas con arroz”) was by necessity a rather hurried affair. It proved impossible to get soup from bowl to mouth without something landing in it half way, but we did the best we could and then high-tailed it back to the relatively bug-free cabin 100m downslope. At least the resident toads were happy, the smartest two using the piles of sand left by the workers to give them a few inches height advantage in the feeding frenzy stakes.
Fri Feb. 10th: Buenaventura to Guayaquil. Our last morning of birding, and time for one final attempt to connect with El Oro Tapaculo. Sadly, both the sites we tried came up blank once again, but we did add Tricolored Brush-Finch, another Immaculate Antbird, 10 fly-by El Oro Parakeets, and, at the start of the El Oro Tap. trail, brief views of a Scaled Antpitta, the last of our 13 Antpitta species to succumb to the charms of the tape. As we left Buenaventura the clouds cleared at last, and our final species was a Gray-backed Hawk, soaring effortlessly on the thermals with the Black Vultures and Swallow-tailed Kites.
The drive back to Guayaquil was relatively uneventful, save for a minor unscheduled diversion around the town of Pasaje, and a small road accident (happily not involving us) near Naranjal. We found the airport at the first attempt, and were back in our hotel in time for a final meal and the last species log of a great trip.
Sat Feb 11th: A smooth check in and an equally smooth flight back to Miami, although I could have done without three and a half hours on the tarmac at Miami Airport. Just when it was looking as though American Airlines would not be able to fix their altimeter problem, some genius technical type pulled it out of the hat, and I was back in London less than nine hours later, only 3 hours behind schedule.
click here for full species list