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Birding at Bilsa - Northwest Ecuador
30 September to 5 October 1999
Niels Poul Dreyer
Although Bilsa is located between the Tumbesian and the Chocó Endemic Birding Areas, its habitat consists mainly of Chocó forest. It is one of the last stands of the Chocó forests in Ecuador, as more than 97% of this important forest have been removed by logging companies and farmers. The area was saved just in time from logging by the conservation organization Fundación Jatun Sacha. About twenty percent of the reserve had been damaged and cut down but the foundation is working on replanting this part with seeds from several endemic rainforest trees. The altitude of Bilsa is between 300-700 meters and the forest looks more like a cloud forest engulfed in mist than a true lowland rainforest. According to the Birdlife International, the Chocó Endemic Birding Area (Chocó EBA) is one of the world's richest lowland biota with exceptional richness and endemism in a wide range of taxa, including plants, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. (Dinerstein et al 1975 in Stattersfield A.J. et al 1998). Over 50 species are endemic to the Chocó region which 44 occur in Ecuador. A total of 16 the restricted-range species are presently thought to be threatened with a further 14 Near Threatened. (Stattersfield A.J. et al. et a.l 1998).
A field team lead by K.S. Berg recorded 289 species over a period of 6 months between February and October 1998, spending approximately 1600 man hours along about 12 km of forest trails and in adjacent areas. Some of the most interesting birds found on this survey were Plumbeous Forest-falcon, Stump-tailed Antbird, Banded Ground Cuckoo, Lita Woodpecker, Lanceolated Monklet, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Brown-bellied Scythebill, Orange-crested Flycatcher and White-throated (Dagua) Thrush Turdus assimilis daguae. The latter was classified as a race according to Ridgley and Tudor 1989, but is now split to a separate species daguae, as it is has a different vocalisation, look and behaviour from its Central American counterpart. (Berg, K.S. 1998). Of the above mentioned species, I saw only Lita Woodpecker, the umbrellabird and the thrush during my stay. Although I spent a long time watching a big antswarm, the ground-cuckoo proved to be too elusive.
The lower part of this EBA is poorly protected, particularly in Ecuador, so consequently Bilsa represents the last hope for such rare birds such as the Long-wattled Umbrellabird and the Banded Ground Cuckoo. The reserve supports 5 threatened and 4 near-threatened species.
I went to the Fundación Jatun Sacha office in Quito and booked my stay at the “Estación Biológica Bilsa”, paying 100 dollars for my 5 night stay. As I was told that the road to the station was very muddy, I decided to hire a horse in order to make the trip easier. I paid about 25 dollars extra for this. I took a Ejectivos Esmeraldas bus from Quito to Quinindé which took 4 hours and thereafter stayed in a reasonable place called Hotel Sanz with a nice pizza restaurant. However, breakfast was not available the next morning. As malaria is widespread in Quinindé, I had to put up my mosquito net while sleeping in this hot town.
The next morning, I asked where I could take a truck by the name Rodo to "A la y de la Lagouna" which is about 35 km from Quinindé. The truck could only bring me the first 30 km the way, and I had to walk about 2 hours, because the road was in very bad condition. Fortunately, at the "A la y de la Lagouna" the horses were waiting for me, as the rest of the way was extremely muddy and heavy going. The trip took all day, and I was extremely exhausted when I arrived to the station.
I was a bit shocked to see an armed warden standing at the gate to the reserve. The station was locked up during the nighttime, and the guards were waiting outside, perhaps awake. The reserve has been attacked by bandits possibly hired by a logging company and a couple women raped and everything valuable stolen. Conservation in this part of the world is a risky business, as the logging folks do not like having conservationists telling the locals that the mahogany timber sold by them for 20 dollars would fetch 20,000 in Europe and America. The logging company which previously had felled 30,000 hectares in the area would not accept they were not entitled to destroy the remaining 10% of the forest. Obviously they hoped to scare away the greens so they could harvest the last remaining patch. It apparently did not work out that way, and consequently they moved farther to the north, where the timber interest now are in the process of harvesting primary forest trees with less opposition.
The station was a bit rustic, and it was not easy to get to a toilet at night as everything was locked up and I had to find the guards before getting outside. The accommodation itself was okay, as I had my own room with a bed and mosquito net.
The birding was somewhat affected by the moist foggy conditions which prevail in the so called dry season from September to December. It was very muddy on the trails, particular in the secondary growth areas. Fortunately the folks were able to lend me some rubber boots, as I did not bring any. In the primary forest and along the creeks the conditions were better. I stayed away from the road, as it was nearly impossible to move around without carrying 10 kilograms of mud under my boots.
The fog made it hard for me to see the parrots, and I got only satisfactory views of Rose-faced Parrot, Mealy Parrots and Dusky-winged which were feeding in some fruit close up. I could hear a few other parrot species such as parrotlets in the mist, but never got enough light to be able to identify them. Only one day the fog cleared enough to get a view of a Black-tipped Cotinga sitting in the top of a distant tree.
On the other hand the forest was very lively and the hummingbirds were very active especially in the heliconias. The most conspicuous were the White-whiskered Hermit and a few Green-crowned Brilliants. Down in the banana growth near the riverbed the strange White-tipped Sicklebills were sucking nectar from curve formed flowers from the heliconias. On the trails in the forest the Green-crowned Woodnymph were dominant, but a few Purple-crowned Fairy were around higher up in the trees. At the edge along the river in primary forest at the end of the long trail the Barbthroat and Baron's Hermits were busy feeding in several types of flower, but the real prize were the sighting of the Tooth-billed Hummingbird. It was sitting on a small vertical branch singing persistently and always returned after each venturing out. According to Berg 1998, the expedition got the first tape recording of this bird, but I must have obtained the second, as it were very actively singing and preening.
Just next to the hummingbird lek I saw 6 umbrellabirds flying into a fruiting tree. It took a while to get a view of the long wattle, but is a truly amazing bird. I still wonder why it is necessary to carry around with a 25 cm long wattle! During my stay I got terrific views of one sitting in a cecropia and feeding in a palm inside the forest. In the morning we heard a persistent long drawn booming sound through the misty forest just like a warning horn from ships moving though fog. I have been told that the umbrellabirds tend to approach more open areas during the rainy season when the palms fruit. Bilsa is the last stronghold for this species in Ecuador and almost everybody visiting the place sees one. Alternatively, it is possible to encounter the Long-wattled Umbrellabird along the Lita Road to Lorento. However, it is rarer there as hunters shoot the birds, and I did not see any along that road.
Bilsa appeared to be the place to watch professional ant-following antbirds and woodcreepers. At the botanical gardens there was a huge antswarm. About 15 Plain-brown Woodcreepers were present at all levels and even two rare Northern Barred Woodcreepers approached the area as it gave some snarling calls. At the front of the antswarm 2 pairs of Chestnut-backed, 2 pairs of Immaculate, +20 Bicolored Antbirds, 2 Ocellated Antbirds, 1 Tawny-faced Gnatwren were busy feeding on insects disturbed by the antswarm. The next day I observed the same antswarm 100 meters farther downhill. After having spent several hours watching this spectacle, I did not encounter any Banded Ground-Cuckoos, but people working at the station have in the past seen ground-cuckoos running across the road. I played a tape of the Scaled Antpitta near the antswarm, but no bird came into view. I expect it would better to try for it during the so called "wet season". On the other hand, I was rewarded with a sighting of the rare Broad-billed Sapayoa (Manakin) sitting quietly in midstorey level, and in a mixed species flock it was possible to watch the special dark race of White-throated Thrush feeding in a tree together with some tanagers. In the cecropias I got a good view of a Lita Woodpecker which looked more like a Yellow-throated Woodpecker than a White-throated. It had a large yellow cheeks and a crimson crown. Of non bird sightings were orange Harlequin Poison Dartfrog (Dendrobrites histrionicus), several interesting lizards seen along the riverbed and a group of five Mantled Hower Monkey (Alouatta palliata). Other people at the station saw a Collared Anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla) while I was birding.
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Roadside Hawk Buteo magnirostris
Barred Forest-Falcon Micrastur ruficollis
Spotted Sandpiper Tringa macularia
Ruddy Pigeon Columba subvinacea
Pacific Parrotlet Forpus coelestis
Rose-faced Parrot Pionopsitta pulchra
Bronze-winged Parrot Pionus chalcopterus
Mealy Parrot Amazona farinosa
Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana
Tooth-billed Hummingbird Androdon aequatorialis
Band-tailed Barbthroat Threnetes ruckeri
White-whiskered Hermit Phaethornis yaruqui
Western long-tailed Hermit (Baron's) Hermit Phaethornis longirostris
White-tipped Sicklebill Eutoxeres aquila
Green-crowned Woodnymph Thalurania fannyi
Green-crowned Brilliant Heliodoxa jacula
Purple-crowned Fairy Heliothryx barroti
White-tailed Trogon Trogon viridis
Collared Trogon Trogon collaris
Black-throated Trogon Trogon rufus
Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americas
White-whiskered Puffbird Malacoptila panamensis
Red-headed Barbet Eubucco bourcierii
Pale-mandibled Aracari Pteroglossus erythropygius
Chocó Toucan Ramphastos brevis
Lita Woodpecker Piculus litae
Lineated Woodpecker Dryocopus lineatus
Red-rumped Woodpecker Veniliornis kirkii
Guayaquil Woodpecker Campephilus gayaquilensis
Plain-brown Woodcreeper Dendrocincla fuliginosa
Olivaceous Woodcreeper Sittasomus griseicapillus
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper Glyphorynchus spirurus
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper Dendrocolaptes sanctithomae
Black-striped Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus lachrymosus
Spotted Woodcreeper Xiphorhynchus erythropygius
Streak-headed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes souleyetii
Red-faced Spinetail Cranioleuca erythrops
Spotted Barbtail Premnoplex brunnescens
Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner Philydor rufus
Tawny-throated Leaftosser Sclerurus mexicanus
Western Slaty-Antshrike Thamnophilus atrinucha
Streaked Antwren Myrmotherula surinamensis
Checker-throated Antwren Myrmotherula fulviventris
White-flanked Antwren Myrmotherula axillaris
Slaty Antwren Myrmotherula schisticolor
Chestnut-backed Antbird Myrmeciza exsul
Esmeraldas Antbird Myrmeciza nigricauda
Immaculate Antbird Myrmeciza immaculata
Black-headed Antthrush Formicarius nigricapillus
Bicolored Antbird Gymnopithys bicolor
Ocellated Antbird Phaenostictus mcleannani
Golden-faced Tyrannulet Zimmerius chrysops
Brown-capped Tyrannulet Ornithion brunneicapillum
Yellow-bellied Elaenia Elaenia flavogaster
Slaty-capped Flycatcher Leptopogon superciliaris
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant Myiornis atricapillus
Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant Lophotriccus pileatus
Common Tody-Flycatcher Todirostrum cinereum
Pacific Flatbill Rhynchocyclus pacificus
Yellow-olive Flycatcher Tolmomyias sulphurescens
White-throated Spadebill Platyrinchus mystaceus
Ornate Flycatcher Myiotriccus ornatus
Black-tailed Flycatcher Myiobius atricaudus
Smoke-colored Pewee Contopus fumigatus
Dusky-capped Flycatcher Myiarchus tuberculifer
Boat-billed Flycatcher Megarhynchus pitangua
Social Flycatcher Myiozetetes similis
Snowy-throated Kingbird Tyrannus niveigularis
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus
Cinnamon Becard Pachyramphus cinnamomeus
One-colored Becard Pachyramphus homochrous
Broad-billed Sapayoa Sapayoa aenigma
Red-capped Manakin Pipra mentalis
Black-tipped Cotinga Carpodectes hopkei
Purple-throated Fruitcrow Querula purpurata
Long-wattled Umbrellabird Cephalopterus penduliger
Gray-breasted Martin Progne chalybea
Southern Rough-winged Swallow Stelgidopteryx ruficollis
Band-backed Wren Campylorhynchus zonatus
Bay Wren Thryothorus nigricapillus
Southern House Wren Troglodytes musculus
White-breasted Wood-Wren Henicorhina leucosticta
Southern Nightingale-Wren Microcerculus marginatus
Song Wren Cyporhinus phaeocephalus
White-throated Thrush Turdus assimilis
Tawny-faced Gnatwren Microbates cinereiventris
Variable Seedeater Sporophila corvina
Dull-colored Grassquit Tiaris obscura
Orange-billed Sparrow Arremon aurantiirostris
Buff-throated Saltator Saltator maximus
Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager Chlorospingus flavigularis
Dusky-faced Tanager Mitrospingus cassinii
White-shouldered Tanager Tachyphonus luctuosus
Blue-gray Tanager Thraupis episcopus
Palm Tanager Thraupis palmarum
Orange-crowned Euphonia Euphonia saturata
Orange-bellied Euphonia Euphonia xanthogaster
Emerald Tanager Tangara florida
Silver-throated Tanager Tangara icterocephala
Bay-headed Tanager Tangara gyrola
Blue-necked Tanager Tangara cyanicollis
Green Honeycreeper Chlorophanes spiza
Purple Honeycreeper Cyanerpes caeruleus
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat Geothlypis semiflava
Chocó Warbler Basileuterus chlorophrys
Buff-rumped Warbler Basileuterus fulvicauda
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola
Lesser Greenlet Hylophilus decurtatus
Chestnut-headed Oropendola Psarocolius wagleri
Yellow-rumped Cacique Cacicus cela
Scarlet-rumped Cacique Cacicus microrhyncus
Berg, K.S. 1999. A field survey of avian diversity at the Bilsa Biological Station Province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Fundación Jatun Sacha & Endowment for World Parks, Quito.
Fundación Jatun Sacha. Bilsa Biological Station
Hilty S. L., Brown W.L., Tudor, G. 1986. A Guide to the Birds of Columbia. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Dinerstein, E., Olson, D. M. , Graham, D.J., Webster, A., Primm., L., Bookbinder, M.P., Ledec, G. , 1995. A conservation assessment of the terrestrial ecoregions of Latin America and the Caribbean. World Bank, Washington DC.
Stattersfield A. J., Crosby M.J., Long, A.J. Wedge, D.C. 1998. Endemic Bird Areas, Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Birdlife International, Cambridge UK.
Niels Poul Dreyer
Jordan Karubian et al. Nesting Biology of the Banded Ground-Cuckoo (Neomorphus radiolosis). Wilson Journal of Ornithology 119(2): 221-227 (June 2007). Abstract. A bird was captured at the Bilsa Biological Reserve and a lightweight backpack with a radio was attached. The bird led researchers to two nests, active in March-April 2005 and in May 2005.