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Ecuador Birding Trip Report - Mostly PN Podocarpus
September 25 – October 19, 1999
by Ottavio Janni
Via Orti 16, Milano, ITALY
I had about a month off in late September – October 1999 and decided to spend it in Ecuador where I had done quite a bit of birding on previous trips. As I was on my own and the trip was a little last-minute with not much time for planning, I decided to spend most of my time in Loja where I have friends, and where I had previously helped local NGO Fundación Arcoiris with bird surveys in Podocarpus National Park. I added a short stay at Sacha Lodge where I had not been before (I had been to La Selva twice), and hired drivers for two free days in Quito and Guayaquil (my flights were originally supposed to be both out of Quito, but with the closure of Quito Airport due to Volcan Pichincha spewing ashes I had to change my return flight to Guayaquil). While in Loja I stayed with a friend from Fundación Arcoiris, Fausto Lopez, and did most of my birding with another friend, Pablo Andrade, who is a very good birder and now works as a birding guide in Loja (web site members.dencity.com/jatumpamba ). Pablo knows the birding sites in Podocarpus and the Sozoranga areas very well. While in Loja we used public transportation throughout, this is a cheap and efficient way to bird most of Podocarpus National Park. I had no fixed itinerary in mind, and originally planned to spend some time at other good birding sites near Loja, such as Pinas/Buenaventura and the Sozoranga area. However, as I had visited these sites on previous trips and was having good luck at Rio Bombuscaro, I decided to spend more time there, which turned out to be a good decision. Having spent much time at Cajanuma previously I only gave it one day.
While I did keep daily lists, I did not compile a cumulative trip list, so I did not include one in this report. Also, as I had been to most of the sites before I had seen most of the key specialties, so did not focus on those but tried to find some of the more uncommon birds.
Field Guides: Hilty & Brown's “Birds of Colombia” and Ridgley & Tudor's “Birds of South America” Vol. 1 and 2 are the standard references for Ecuador until the new field guide comes out. As I was not planning to spend much time at high elevations I did not take Fjeldså & Krabbe's “Birds of the High Andes” with me, though I've found it very helpful on past trips.
Birdfinding and distribution: “A Guide to Birdwatching in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands” by Heijnen, Best, and Williams is an excellent birdfinding guide and includes most of the sites I visited. For Podocarpus National Park in particular “The Birds of Podocarpus National Park: an Annotated Checklist” by Rasmussen et al is very helpful but may be hard to find. Simon Allen's “A Birders Guide to Mindo” is very useful for the Mindo area including Pedro Vincente Maldonado. For general distributional information “An Annotated List of the Birds of Mainland Ecuador” by Ridgley, Greenfield, and Guerrero is extremely useful.
Most of the birding sites I visited are well covered in Heinjen et al, so I will only offer some brief updates to what is already in the book.
Pedro Vincente Maldonado
Also known as the “Chocó Forest”, this tiny patch of forest near the town of Pedro Vincente Maldonado is mentioned briefly in Heinjen et al and described in detail in Simon Allen's book. While the forest here was always patchy and degraded, the habitat seemed to have deteriorated quite a bit between my last visit in December 1998 and September 1999, and the birding was not as good (it had been exceptional on previous visits). I don't know if the situation has deteriorated further at the time of this writing (March 2000).
Well covered in the bird-finding guides, and one does all their birding here with a guide so there is not much time to go out on your own. Compared with La Selva the two sites are quite similar, each has a few specialties that are difficult at the other site (ex: Rufous-headed Woodpecker is a Sacha specialty, Cocha Antshrike and Zigzag Heron are La Selva specialties). Accommodations are similar (though Sacha has electricity and hot water) and very comfortable. The food is good at both places (better at La Selva IMHO). The tower at Sacha is much better than the one at La Selva.
This city park at the edge of Loja is by no means an important birding site, but may be of interest to those with a free afternoon in Loja, as Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is relatively easy to see here as the openness of the vegetation makes it easier to track down vocalizing birds. The park is on the southern outskirts of Loja, on the main road to Vilcabamba, several hundred yards before the first military roadblock. It is easily accessible by taxi (all drivers should know it) and city buses. The park mostly holds common dry cloud forest species, apart from the antpitta Rainbow Starfrontlet may also be of interest.
This road is well covered in Heinjen et al. One site they do not mention is “La Fragráncia”, where the old road meets the new road about 10-15 km above Zamora. From here it is possible to walk up the old road among pastures and forest patches which are surprisingly rich in mixed flocks. Many of the species that occur at Rio Bombuscaro occur here as well, including some sought-after ones such as Torrent Duck, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Equatorial Graytail, Orange-eared Tanager and others.
This site is also well covered in Heinjen et al, and most of the main specialties (White-breasted Parakeet and Coppery-chested Jacamar foremost among them) are relatively easy to find. This area however also holds an enormous variety of rarer foothill specialties, and is really worth as much time as one can give it. Apart from the areas described in Heinjen et al, birders should also check the track towards Zamora from groves of flowering Inga trees, which are well worth watching carefully as they can produce a hummingbird bonanza. The edges of the open areas near the finca (farm) about 4 km upstream from the HQ were swarming with birds both times I went there. One could either stay at the HQ as we did (pretty basic), or stay in Zamora and hire a driver to get dropped off and picked up at the park entrance, which would still be pretty cheap as hotels in Zamora are inexpensive.
Besides being the type locality for the recently described Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgleyi), it also offers an excellent variety of temperate and upper subtropical species, as well as being the only regular site in Ecuador for Chestnut-crested Cotinga, and one of the better ones for Golden-plumed Parakeet. In order to bird it from Loja using public transportation one would have to camp at the site, however by staying in Vilcabamba (which has plenty of accommodation), one could take an early AM bus and come back to Vilcabamba in the late PM pretty easily. Having a vehicle here would be an advantage however.
Arrived in Quito at night, spent the night at Hostal Santa Bárbara.
Sept. 26 – Pedro Vincente Maldonado
I had arranged a day out with Juan Ventimilla (phone 593-2-343305), a driver who knows most of the birding spots in Ecuador as he drives the van for VENT tours. Juan picked me up at 4:30 AM and we headed to Pedro Vincente Maldonado. I had visited this small patch of forest three times previously, and while the last time I was there (Dec. 1998) the forest was being cut down even as I was birding it, I had always found the birding to be fantastic. However, this time the habitat was even more degraded and the birding was not as good. Highlights were Dusky Pigeon, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Black-capped Pigmy-Tyrant, and Scarlet-browed Tanager. On previous visits here however I had seen species such as Purple-chested Hummingbird, Green Manakin, Griscom's (Pygmy) Antwren, Esmeraldas Antbird, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-and-white and Emerald Tanagers, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis and many others which were nowhere to be found today. In the afternoon we tried Finca 106 (described in Simon Allen's Birders Guide to Mindo, located near km 106 on the Quito-Los Bancos road). After waiting about 30 minutes for the owner to show up, he took us on a tour of the forest. The hot, sunny afternoon was not conducive to birding, and I saw few species (Gray-and-gold and Tawny-crested Tanagers, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Buff-rumped Warbler among them) but the forest looks great and this is apparently a regular site for Rufous-crowned Antpitta. The owner, Cesar Plazas, is very friendly and helpful, and charges a small fee. Spent the night in Quito at the Hostal Santa Bárbara.
Sept. 27 – Sacha Lodge
Bought round-trip plane tickets to Loja from the TAME office downtown in the AM, then took the flight to Coca and Sacha Lodge at midday. I was the only birder there so I had the bird guide, Oscar (excellent) all to myself. After a fairly uneventful boat ride on the Napo to the Lodge, we went for a short late PM walk on the trails behind the lodge, highlighted by a small group of Marbled Wood-Quail, and Short-billed Leaftosser and Long-billed Woodcreeper spotlighted as they roosted on some tree buttresses.
Sept. 28 – Sacha Lodge
AM to 10:45 on the tower at Sacha, then walked back to Lodge till 12:45. Spent 3 PM till dark in second growth and fields by the Rio Napo. The tower was good and we had several excellent birds, including Slender-billed Kite, Dugand's Antwren, Plum-throated Cotinga, and Amazonian Umbrellabird. The walk back to the lodge was exceptionally quiet with a distinct lack of vocal activity, which unfortunately was to continue throughout my stay at Sacha. In the PM the second growth areas near the river had much more bird activity, though most of the species were common ones we still saw some very enjoyable birds such as Brown Jacamar, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Orange-fronted Plushcrown, Cinnamon-throated Woodcreeper and others. On our way back to the lodge Oscar called in and spotlighted a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl for some great looks, and we saw Common Potoo from the lake as we were paddling back to the lodge.
Sept. 29 – Sacha Lodge
Spent basically the whole day on the trails behind the lodge, but unfortunately vocal activity was low and the birds generally unresponsive. Still had some nice birds, the highlight being a stunning Agami Heron in a swampy area, and also Spix's Guan, Sapphire Quail-Dove, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Brown Nunlet, Cinnamon-rumped Foliage-Gleaner, White-browed Purpletuft, Blue-backed Manakin and Casqued Oropendola. At night we tried for the Crested Owl behind the lodge, which was calling but did not come in to a tape. Consolation prize was a Rufescent Tiger-Heron.
Sept. 30 – Sacha Lodge
Early AM on some river islands in the Rio Napo, and the rest of the day (till 3:30, a thunderstorm later prevented more birding) in terra firma forest on the south bank of the Napo. The river islands were quite good and we eventually found many (but not all) of the specialties, including Olive-spotted Hummingbird, Lesser Hornero, Parker's Spinetail, Castlenau's Antshrike, Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant, Orange-headed Tanager, and Solitary Cacique. A familiar song announced the presence of a Willow Flycatcher. The boat ride to the south side of the Napo produced a pair of the rare Ecuadorian Cacique as well as Capped Heron, but the forest itself was again quiet, with the best bird being Striped Manakin (White-lored Antpitta was heard only). The stakeout sites for Rufous-headed Woodpecker failed to deliver, but as we were walking back to the lodge on the north bank on flew in front of us and allowed us to watch it for about 10 minutes, one of the highlights of my stay at Sacha.
Oct. 1 – Sacha Lodge
The boat back to Coca left around 8 AM but Oscar and I managed to fit in some birding, which produced Golden-collared Toucanet, Am. Pigmy Kingfisher and good looks at Cinereous Tinamou, a common voice but generally hard to see. PM in Quito at an internet bar and night at Hostal Santa Barbara.
Oct. 2 – Loja (La Argelia)
My flight to Loja left at 6AM. Upon arriving in Loja I settled in at Fausto Lopez's house where I would be staying, then Pablo Andrade and I headed to La Argelia, a park on the southern outskirts of Loja on the road to Vilcabamba. This park only holds a few, widespread species but due to its fairly open understorey Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is relatively easy to see here, and I got good looks at one of several calling birds. Other birds here included Amazilia (Loja) Hummingbird (split in HBW and the latest Clements checklist), Rainbow Starfrontlet, Red-crested Cotinga, White-tailed Tyrannulet and Blue-capped Tanager.
Oct. 3 – Loja-Zamora Road (“La Fragráncia”)
Pablo and I decided to check an area on the Loja-Zamora Road known as “La Fragráncia” at the junction of the new and old Loja-Zamora roads about 10-15 km above Zamora. We took a 6AM bus from Loja and arrived at La Fragráncia at 6:50. We birded the old Loja-Zamora road for a couple of km enjoying many good flocks, with good numbers of Tangara tanagers (Paradise, Spotted, Blue-necked, Bay-headed) as well as Orange-eared. Rarest birds here were Ecuadorian Tyrannulet and Equatorial Graytail. Around midday we took a bus to Zamora (about 15 minutes away) then walked part of the way along the track to the Rio Bombuscaro entrance of PNP. Our goal was to reach a grove of flowering Inga trees which had been good for hummingbirds, and it did not disappoint, with good numbers of Violet-headed Hummingbird, Golden-tailed Sapphire, Wire-crested Thorntail, Fork-tailed Woodnymph and Glittering-throated Emerald, along with Booted Rackettail, White-bellied Woodstar, and (PA only) a male Spangled Coquette (I got a quick glimpse at a probable female). Also in the area were Black-and-chestnut Eagle, White-breasted Parakeet, Yellow-vented Woodpecker, Olive-chested Flycatcher, and Olivaceous Siskin. We walked back to Zamora around 4 PM then took a bus back to Loja.
Oct. 4 – Loja/Rio Bombuscaro
AM in Loja buying supplies for a three-day stay at Bombuscaro with PA, 3PM bus to Zamora then taxi ride to Rio Bombuscaro. When we got there the rangers were gone and had locked up their cabin, so we had to break into a nearby one (which did not have beds). We also realized that despite bringing much food we had forgotten to bring matches, so we had to settle for a bread and banana dinner. No birding as we had gotten to Bombuscaro too late in the PM.
Oct. 5 – Rio Bombuscaro
All day at Bombuscaro, AM mostly near HQ due to rain, heavy at times. The weather cleared in the PM and we walked along the track to Zamora, spending a couple of hours by the Inga trees. AM birding was uneventful, with several of the commoner Bombuscaro specialties (Coppery-chested Jacamar, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Black-streaked Puffbird), and excellent looks at Amazonian Umbrellabird. The PM hummingbird watch was however outstanding, in addition to all the species from Oct. 3 we had great looks at a male Black-throated Brilliant (new to PNP), male Spangled Coquette, and a female Little Woodstar! Interestingly, the coquette seemed to be the most submissive of all the hummers, it made a quick pass before being aggressively chased away. The mixed tanager flocks were as good as always, and another highlight was White-crowned Manakin as we were walking back to the HQ in the evening. Fortunately the rangers had returned and we spent the night in the main cabin, PA in the one free bed while I slept in my sleeping bag.
Oct. 6 – Rio Bombuscaro
All day at Rio Bombuscaro, AM on the trail upriver from the HQ for about 3 km, then PM on the track to Zamora and at the Inga trees. Highlights of the AM walk were several singing Short-tailed Antthrushes, one of which I taped in for close looks, while other birds included Equatorial Graytail, White-backed Fire-eye, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Flavescent Flycatcher, Amazonian Umbrellabird, and Olive Finch. The PM hummingbird watch had the same species as Oct. 5 minus the coquette and woodstar (the brilliant did put in an appearance), but the highlight was a pair of Torrent Ducks on the Rio Bombuscaro (by the old bridge over the river). Night in the main cabin.
Oct. 7 – Rio Bombuscaro
Bombuscaro in the AM, then bus back to Loja, best bird being a Black-billed Treehunter calling and taped in near the HQ at dawn.
Oct. 8 – Loja-Zamora Road (San Francisco trail)
I took a cab from Loja in the AM to the San Francisco trail at 2100m on the Loja-Zamora Road, where Arcoiris are building a small guesthouse. While this trail supports some good species, birding is somewhat difficult due to restricted visibility, and activity seems to drop dramatically after 9 AM. Best birds were several calling White-bellied Antpitta, one of which was responsive to playback but due to the extremely dense undergrowth I was never able to see more than a shadow. Other interesting birds were Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Amethyst-throated Sunangel (the commonest hummer here), Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Pale-edged Flycatcher and Yellow-throated Tanager. After 90 minutes of trying to flag down a passing bus (all were full as it was Sunday) I finally hitched a ride back to Loja with some people from Arcoiris.
Oct. 9 – Quebrada Honda
PA and I had decided to go to Quebrada Honda to look for the recently-described Jocotoco Antpitta, which Pablo had heard previously. We spent the AM buying supplies then took a bus to Palanda, which dropped us off at the beginning of the trail to Quebrada Honda (about 3 hours from Loja, this spot is also known as La Cruz del Soldado). The antpitta has apparently been heard in this immediate area, and we spent the PM listening for owl- or bark-like hoots (neither of us had a tape recorder), which we didn't hear. Four other species of antpitta were vocalizing however (Rufous, Chestnut-crowned, Chestnut-naped, and Slate-crowned), while Rufous-capped Thornbill was a good sighting. We spent a rather chilly night camping on the main trail to Quebrada Honda, just off the road. With a vehicle, it would be much easier to spend the night in Vilcabamba less than two hours away. Even without one, one could sleep in Vilcabamba and take an early AM bus, coming back in the PM (note however that the road is little traveled and buses only come by every other hour or so).
Oct. 10 – Quebrada Honda
Woke up at dawn and fruitlessly spent the morning trying to hear something that matched the description of the call of Jocotoco Antpitta. A Chestnut-crested Cotinga perched on a high snag was an excellent consolation prize, as this is its only regular site in Ecuador (and even here it is not easy). Other birds typical of Cajanuma put in appearances, including Bearded Guan, Flame-throated Sunangel (split from Tourmaline), Barred Fruiteater, and Hooded Mountain-Tanager. We gave up around midday and waited about an hour for a bus back to Loja. The Quebrada Honda area is excellent for birding however, during a visit in 1995 I had Golden-plumed Parakeet by the main road, and some very good birding in subtropical forest by two streams about 2-3 hours walk from the main road. As for the antpitta, I don't know exactly where the best areas are, and it is thought that it is only vocal for a short period each year, making it difficult to find.
Oct. 11 – Loja-Zamora road (San Francisco trail)
I took an early AM bus to Zamora and got dropped off at the San Francisco trail, where I spent the AM. Birding was rather slow, with more calling but unseen White-bellied Antpittas and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrants being the highlights. Bus back to Loja around midday.
Oct. 12 – Loja-Zamora road (“La Fragráncia”)
PA and I headed back to La Fragráncia, taking a 6AM bus from Loja. Birds were similar to those of Oct. 3, and where highlighted by a pair of Chestnut-tipped Toucanets and close looks at a Mouse-colored Tyrannulet (very rare in eastern Ecuador). Also around were Wire-crested Thorntail, Red-headed Barbet, Cerulean Warbler and 20 species of tanager. A huge mixed flock around 11 AM was especially productive. Early PM bus back to Loja.
Oct. 13 - Cajanuma
Took a cab to Cajanuma around 5:30 AM, arranging to be picked up at midday. I had spent much time at Cajanuma in previous years so did not have any particular target birds. The weather however was foul, with heavy rain, very strong winds and low temps (actually not uncommon at Cajanuma, though I had always lucked out before). As a result bird activity was almost non-existent, with the exception of two spectacular Chestnut-naped Antpittas feeding right in the open on the lawn next to the HQ (along with an Andean Coati)! While this bird is quite common by voice at Cajanuma, I had only managed to see it once in about 25 previous days there, so maybe bad weather can bring them out in the open. Almost nothing else was around though, I did manage to see Bearded Guan and hear a couple of Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans, as well as hearing numbers of the recently described (and very common) Chusquea Tapaculo.
Oct. 14 – Rio Bombuscaro
PA and I went back to Rio Bombuscaro, taking a midday bus from Loja and arriving in the early PM. We spent the afternoon on the trail upriver from the HQ, seeing some nice birds including Gray-chinned Hermit, Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, and Orange-crested Flycatcher. Night in ranger's cabin.
Oct. 15 – Rio Bombuscaro
AM on trail upstream from HQ, about 4 km to cleared area by a finca, PM on track to Zamora. An exceptionally good day. AM highlights included White-tailed Hillstar (new to PNP), Ecuadorian Piedtail, Greenish Puffleg, Lanceolated Monklet (about 2-3 km upstream from HQ), Coppery-chested Jacamar, Buff-fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Yellow-breasted and Rufous-winged Antwrens, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (heard only and tape recorded), plenty of Andean Cock-of-the Rocks, and Wing-barred Piprites. In the PM, a mixed flock near the HQ held a gorgeous male Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater (new to PNP) and another flock had Golden-collared Honeycreeper. Pale-eyed Thrush finished up an excellent day. Night in ranger's cabin.
Oct. 16 – Rio Bombuscaro
Another very good day, spent in much the same way as the previous one. Highlights were Sickle-winged Guan, 40 White-breasted Parakeets, Pale-tailed Barbthroat, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper (excellent looks at the first small stream crossing several hundred meters upstream from the HQ), a Myiopagis Elaenia which may have been the still-undescribed species which occurs at Rio Bombuscaro (near the clearing by the finca 4km upstream from the HQ), Olivaceous Flatbill, Andean Slaty-Thrush (new to PNP and one of the few records for the east slope in Ecuador), and Vermillion Tanager. Got a ride to the Zamora bus station in the late PM, just missing the 6PM bus back to Loja and taking a cab ($10) to avoid waiting 2 hours for the next bus.
Oct. 17 - Loja
In Loja, no birding.
Oct. 18 – Guayaquil-Lagunas Ecuasal
Took a 7AM flight to Guayaquil from Loja. Upon arriving at the hotel, I hired a driver to take me to the Lagunas Ecuasal for some coastal birding, which I had not yet done in Ecuador. The area is rather bleak and was a little disappointing for birding, with highlights being Peruvian Pelicans among the Browns, Blue-footed Booby, 16 shorebird species, 300 Gray-hooded and 2 Kelp Gulls. Parrot-billed Seedeaters were common. On our way back to Guayaquil I asked the driver to stop in some desert scrub near the village of Atahualpa, which turned up Merlin, West Peruvian Dove, Short-tailed Woodstar, Tawny-crowned Pigmy-Tyrant, Short-tailed Field-Tyrant (pretty cool bird), and Superciliated Wren in about an hour of birding.
Flew back to Washington DC
Very many thanks to Fausto Lopez and his family for their hospitality, and to Pablo Andrade and his family for hospitality and companionship in the field.