ECUADOR BIRDING TRIP REPORT
2010 Ecuador Birding Tour to Esmeraldas
Following our June 2010 Southern Ecuador Tour, we conducted an extension directed primarily at Esmeraldas Province in NW Ecuador. Since our southern tour ended in the Cordillera del Condor, our most direct route was to drive to Macas and from there cross the Andes to the northwest. In the process we visited some little known and lightly explored birding areas, namely the road into Sangay National Park and the road into the Cutucu Ridge area.
June 20 - We arrived in Macas the preceding evening, where we met our guide, Galo Real, for this extension to the tour. We departed early for the Macas-Guamote Road through Sangay National Park with the aim of doing an altitudinal transect from the subtropical zone up to paramo, eventually reaching Lago Atillo. Unfortunately, we encountered a landslide and significant road construction blocking the road half way up the mountain. As a result, we never reached the temperate forest or paramo zones as planned. In the subtropical zone we found Gilded Barbet, Golden-faced Tyrannulet, Smoke-colored Pewee, Yellow-cheeked Becard, Chestnut-bellied Thrush, Orange-eared Tanager, Golden Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, and Black-faced Dacnis. We missed Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater and Fiery-throated Fruiteater that we had hoped to see. Sangay is a promising birding destination once the road construction is completed, which is unlikely until late 2012. Until then one can expect delays along the road up to the highlands.
June 21 - Our plan this day was to bird the fairly new road through the Cutucu Ridge area, which has been rarely visited by birders. The region features an interesting mix of subtropical zone and Amazonian birds. We left early from Macas, as it takes 2 hours to reach any birding habitat. The dirt Trans-Cutucu road turns off the Macas-Puyo Road and is very slow going because it is heavily pot-holed. We didn't reach good birding areas until somewhat later than hoped, and birding seemed pretty slow. We did find some lowland specialties such as Black Caracara, Gilded Barbet, Ivory-billed Aracari, Euler's Flycatcher, Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Yellow-cheeked Becard, and Russet-backed Oropendola. It was a sunny day and by 10:30 the birding had slowed to a virtual halt.
From Cutucu Ridge we continued north, reaching the resort town of Baños by mid-afternoon. Baños is very much a tourist destination because of the many hot springs in the area. It's located at the base of Tungurahua Volcano, which had erupted 3 weeks earlier. The volcano was quiet while we were there. The only interesting bird we saw near Baños was a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle soaring above the ridgeline. We enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant in the Hosteria Dusseldorf that evening.
June 22 - We spent much of the day driving from Baños to Rio Palenque Reserve in the lowlands of the northwest. The transect across the Andes has been deforested and heavily developed for agriculture. There was very little intact paramo habitat and we saw very few birds en route.
Following our arrival mid-afternoon, we birded a trail near the lodge within Rio Palenque Reserve. Notable birds we saw included White-whiskered Puffbird, Collared Aracari, which used to be split with the Ecuadorian form named Pale-mandibled Aracari, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-flanked Antwren, and Black-crowned Tityra.
June 23 - We spent the morning birding the same trail we did the previous afternoon. We saw a flock of Pacific Parrotlets flying overhead but didn't have really great looks at them. It's a bird we had already seen well in the south. We had excellent looks of Little Cuckoo displaying nicely for us. We saw several Purple-throated Fruitcrows calling in the treetops but didn't see them in full sunlight when their throats can really glow. We saw Gray-and-gold Warbler several times. We also saw another specialty bird of the northwest, Ochre-breasted Tanager, a very drab bird compared to most tanagers. Other birds of interest included Pied Puffbird, White-flanked Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Band-backed Wren, and Ecuadorian Thrush.
A light rain started falling around 8:45, strange since we were almost a month into the dry season. The rainy season had continued longer than normal this year. The rain didn't last long, so we went out birding a loop trail near the road leading to the river. Here we heard a Black-headed Antthrush calling not far away. We spent quite a while trying to see it, using playback to lure it in. Our client finally saw it quite well in the shadows of the understory. I just never could pick the bird up.
After lunch we birded the road down to the river. Along the way we spotted a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner with a beak full of insects working its way toward a nest in the road cut. It finally went into the nest. We had great views of it meanwhile! Down by the river we spotted one of our target birds, Snowy-throated Kingbird, which breeds farther south but spends the non-breeding season beginning in June in the northwest. We also had good looks at Collared Plover along the river, as well as more common aquatic birds.
June 24 - We left Rio Palenque early for the 6-hour drive to Rio Canande Reserve. We had to reach the Botrosa ferry across the river before it shuts down at 3:00 PM. We drove straight through and reached the river by early afternoon. Not far beyond the ferry crossing we found a nice patch of forest. There the guide and our client found Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, one of the northwest specialties we hoped to see on the tour. I unfortunately missed it. In the same area we found another target bird, Orange-fronted Barbet and also Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and Purple Honeycreeper. We reached Rio Canande Reserve an hour later, where we saw Gray-breasted Sabrewing, the main hummingbird species visiting the feeders.
June 25 - Our plan this day was to bird the trail up to the mirador overlooking the valley below. We departed early and walked a trail we thought led up to the mirador. However, we evidently missed the fork in the trail, so 2 hours later we found ourselves back where we started. We did see Tawny-crested Tanagers displaying nicely, and had a good scope view of Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. Our client had a short scope look at Scarlet-browed Tanager which I missed because the bird flew. We also had good looks at a troop of Brown-bellied Spider Monkeys. We decided to take the longer Tapaculo Trail that joins the Rufous-banded Ground-Cuckoo Trail to the mirador. By this time the sun was out, it was getting hot, and the bird activity had slowed. We did have good looks at Rufous Piha and a poor look at Scarlet-browed Tanager silhouetted against the sky. We all saw a female Green Manakin, but only the guide picked up the male. On the way back down the trail we caught a male Moustached Antwren on a horizontal branch in the open. It quickly flushed to cover, but not before we had a good look at it. We didn't see any army ant swarms, which are supposedly active even during dry season, and hence had no luck finding avian followers.
We spent the late afternoon looking at birds from the balcony of the lodge. There we had terrific views of a pair of Rose-faced Parrots that landed in a nearby tree. We also had another good scope look at Scarlet-breasted Dacnis perched in the top of a tree. That evening we drove up the road a ways to do some night birding and were able to get a Choco Screech-Owl to respond to playback. We spent quite some time trying to spot the bird, but it never came into the open.
June 26 - We departed early intending to reach the gated section of the Botrosa Road by 7:30 AM. Normally the drive takes a half hour, but road conditions were abysmal. Due to the extended rainy season plus brutal treatment by the dump trucks used by Botrosa to remove logs as part of their logging operations, the road was muddy and deeply rutted. We stopped several times on the way up to assess road conditions. On one of those stops we had very good looks at Pacific Parrotlets perched in a tree. We also had another good look at perched Rose-faced Parrots, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Pacific Antwren, and Golden-hooded Tanager. Farther up the road our van slid off the road into a ditch. Fortunately, one of Botrosa's trucks radioed ahead for help. A half hour later a front-loader/back-hoe came down the road and pulled us out. While we were stuck we had a nice scope view of one of our target birds, a Barred Puffbird responding to our playback from a bare, mossy tree snag a hundred yards or so away. We also got our only look at a Choco Toucan there. We could only drive to within a mile of the gate, so we walked the rest of the way, reaching the gate at 11:30 AM. While walking up the road, we spotted a Barred Forest-Falcon perched in the open a bit up the road. This bird is usually a denizen of thick forest and difficult to see well, so a case could be made that it was the bird of the tour. By the time we reached the gate, it was hot and bird activity was low. We decided to bird the road for half an hour beyond the gate before turning back Just before noon we spotted a female Black-tipped Cotinga perched in a tree ahead of us. We had very good scope views of her before she flew. In the same spot I finally got an excellent scope look at Scarlet-browned Tanager. The tanager actually scared off the cotinga when it landed.
Our very late arrival at the gate meant we missed a number of birds we had hoped to see. Unfortunately, because our guide's plan was to return to the lodge for lunch, we didn't have much food with us. We were also concerned about getting back down the road safely. So, we headed back down to the lodge earlier than we would have liked. Part way down, the van buried it's front end into a rut in the middle of the road. We were again stuck. The men in a truck following us down the road had a couple shovels with them, and they helped dig us out. We got back to the lodge mid afternoon for a late lunch. That evening we again tried for Choco Screech-Owl and again had a bird responding to playback. We again failed to actually see it. We did get a brief glimpse of a Choco Poorwill we flushed along the road.
June 27 - Our last day was a transfer day. It normally takes about 6 hours driving time to reach Quito, but we were concerned about road conditions so we left very early. The roads turned out to be fine on the way down. We stopped at the Mirador Rio Blanco at mid-day to view hummingbirds coming in to the feeders. The owner is building cabanas overlooking the valley, so in future it looks like it would be a very good place to stay. Just as we arrived in Los Bancos, we encountered a thick blanket of fog. We had intended to bird the road toward Milpe Bird Sanctuary, but that was precluded by the fog. We did see several birds coming to feeders at the Mirador, notably Green Thorntail, Andean Emerald, Red-faced Spinetail, and Golden Tanager.
- Jim Wittenberger, Exotic Birding LLC