Introduction: Birding Ecuador

Welcome to the birding blog I maintained during the years that I lived and birded in Ecuador. Actually, I only became a birder after a few years of exploring this country, from the high Andes to Amazonia, and being regularly confronted by its remarkably diverse avifauna, almost in spite of myself. Whether it was the rare Andean Condor circling overhead as I climbed one of the country’s famous volcanoes, the Blue-Footed Boobies diving dramatically as I surfed the fine breaks along the western coast, or the many tanagers, hummingbirds, and toucans that my partner Aimee and I regularly encountered on our weekend travels, I couldn’t help but become interested and passionate about neotropical birds. As is the way with birding, I soon grew obsessed with seeing and learning as much as I could about the birds of Ecuador, publishing my experiences and insights as they developed on this blog while recording well over a thousand species.

One of my principles of birding in Ecuador was to bird independently whenever I could, acquiring knowledge and understanding first-hand, instead of simply ticking species off a list with the help of a guide. Indeed, as a resident of the country, time and proximity were luxuries of mine, and I could afford to return to birding sites multiple times to locate most of the specialties on my own. Birding is a human endeavor, however, and hence by nature a social activity, and while most of my trips were conducted independently, I am indebted to many ornithologists, conservationists, guides, and friends for sharing information, insights, and experiences with me. In turn, I share my observations and resources with you, hopefully creating the impression that Ecuador is a spectacular and safe country that birders of every level can successfully visit, whether on a tour or by themselves. If you read through my reports, please keep in mind, though, that these are only the thoughts and impressions of one birder and that the country has much more to offer, for better or worse, than I had time and opportunity to experience.

As you consider Ecuador as a future birding destination, please feel free to contact me with any questions. I’ve since moved on to living and birding in Tanzania, but Ecuador will always be the source of my passion about wildlife and my commitment to conservation.

Planning a Birding Trip to Ecuador

Despite being a relatively small country, planning a birding trip to Ecuador can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when it's your first time visiting the country. With over 1600 bird species spanning several major biomes, including the Galápagos, it's tempting to try to see everything in one go. That's because for most birding enthusiasts, it's simply not practical to make repeated trips to the same country. When I receive inquiries from birders regarding which sites they should visit in a ten to fourteen day period, I always point them towards Northwestern Ecuador. In no other region is there better infrastructure or higher endemic species concentration than in the Chocó Region. Starting from Quito, you can easily spend a week working your way down the western slope of the Andes, visiting multiple sites, such as YanacochaTandayapaRefugio Paz de las Aves, Mindo, and Milpe, even including a full day in the western lowlands at Rio Silanche. Throw in a day trip to Antisana National Park for a chance at seeing Andean Condor and then another day touring Quito, one of South America's greatest colonial gems, and you have an excellent first trip to Ecuador.

For those birders who have a bit more time on their hands, I ask whether they've birded the Amazon before. If not, then I encourage them to spend three to five days along the Rio Napo at one of several excellent ecolodges, such as La Selva, Sacha, or Sani Lodge. Although Peru and Brazil obviously include a wider swath of the Amazon region within their borders, birding the Amazon in Ecuador is relatively cheap and easy. Otherwise, I recommend that they make a similar journey down the northeastern slope of the Andes, starting from the Papallacta region and working their way down to the Loreto Road, with the excellent Cabañas San Isidro and Wild Sumaco Lodge being the most obvious places for birders to stay. Of course, birders on a tighter budget can see the same birds, albeit with a bit more time and for considerably less money, if they stay in cheaper accommodation in small towns instead, such as Papallacta, Baeza, Pacto Sumaco, Archidona, and Tena. Either way, two weeks exploring both slopes on the Andes, as well as a day in the highlands, could yield hundreds of species to your life list.

I'm planning a birding trip to Ecuador myself these days. Although I lived there for six years, I was generally busy with work and could only travel on the weekends. I rarely had the chance to go birding for weeks at a time, but I managed to cover the country fairly well at least once. For example, I only birded the Southwestern Ecuador circuit once but made it to the Napo Region in the eastern lowlands at least four times, depending on what technically counts as a birding trip. Based temporarily in the U.S. and with a few weeks of vacation, I've decided to have another go at a few regions, specifically targeting regional endemic species that I previously missed. Using lists of regional endemics, I identified the areas in which I was most likely to see lifers and then figured out how to arrange logistics as economically as possible. While most Ecuadorians travel around the country by bus, this can be constraining and time consuming for birders, who would rather travel outside birding hours and explore areas in between cities or off the beaten path. Thus, renting a car is almost a necessity, if you want to explore remote Northern or Southwestern Ecuador. To make matters worse, in these regions road quality deteriorates, and the costs or renting a high clearance vehicle are even higher.

Regardless, I forged ahead and made plans to revisit Northwestern Ecuador, along the border with Colombia, and Southwestern Ecuador, along the border with Peru. I'll also spend about five days birding foothill and temperate forest along the northeastern slope at Alto Coca, at Mark Thurber's private reserve, which I visited briefly last year in February while working in Bogotá. Although the number of new species I could see is pretty small (I would be surprised to add more than thirty ticks on my country list during the trip), their quality is exceptionally high, including target such as Golden-Chested and Purple-Mantled Tanagers in the northwest, White-Streaked Antvireo and Rufous-Vented Whitetip in the northeast, Neblina Metaltail and Chestnut-Bellied Cotigina in the southeast, and Elegant Crescentchest and Gray-Headed Antbird in the southwest. For birders on their fourth or fifth trip to the country, then trip planning is based on the success of their previous trips and generally involves a fair amount of backtracking.

In terms of resources, I found the new website Where to Find Birds in Ecuador extremely useful, both for its bird lists and site maps (of course, information gets dated quickly, and it was useful to have a few contacts to follow up with about more recent findings). Renting a car and buying domestic playing tickets in advance is easy now that companies have bilingual websites. Xeno Canto continues to be the best online resource for bird songs and calls. Visiting Jocotoco Reserves can now be arranged directly through Jocotours Ecuador, which is another nice innovation since 2010, when I last lived in the country. The observation database at Aves Ecuador continues to be a great resource for getting the latest information on what birds are being seen and where, and Dušan Brinkhuizen also regularly updates his twitter feed on current notable sightings. Many of the lodges and reserves will also update their sites or related blogs when notable birds are seen, including El Poco del Chocó, where Banded Ground Cuckoo sightings have been a regular occurrence (by the way, if the ground cuckoo shows up again during my trip, then I am abandoning my plans and heading straight there!).

Ultimately, Ecuador is a country that deserves multiple visits, but using the above resources birders can design their trip to be as efficient and effective as possible. Just keep your fingers crossed that you don't get rained out!

Buenaventura Reserve: April 22-23, 2014

It’s still a long drive from Macará to Piñas, but it takes about half the time it did in 2008 when I last traveled in Southwestern Ecuador. The road is as windy as ever, but now it’s surfaced with concrete, making it possible to spend a few hours birding at Jorupe Reserve in the morning and a few hours of birding at Buenaventura Reserve before dark. Opting to do some roadside birding at El Empalme instead, I hit the road midmorning, stopped for lunch in Balsas, and drove straight to the reserve headquarters, hoping to see the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird congregating at the famous lek in the late afternoon.

Buenaventura is another of the Jocotoco Foundation’s excellent reserves, protecting, and increasing through reforestation efforts, a rare swath of cloudforest in El Oro province. Bridging the Chocó and Tumbes bioregions, the reserve’s bird list is impressively long and laden with endemic species. While the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird is certainly the reserve’s flagship bird, and a Chocó endemic species itself, Buenaventura Reserve is also home to two highly localized country endemics, the El Oro Parakeet and Tapaculo. These two species were my primary target birds for my visit, although I would save their pursuit until the following day.

The reserve is modest in size, although it has expanded from 400 to 2000 hectares since its founding 1999, but if you keep your eyes open along the drive, either from Guayaquil or Loja, you’ll understand its importance. The principal section of the reserve is nestled tightly in a steep valley, which receives so much precipitation each year that it’s best to measure rainfall in meters. Landslides as well as pastures blemish the surrounding slopes, diminishing the overall sense of wilderness within the reserve. Above this valley, the reserve continues patchily, small islands of forest in a sea of pastureland, some of which is being reforested. Once you strap on your binoculars, however, you’ll be amazed by the diversity and splendor of the birds.

Upon arrival, I checked in at headquarters, where I purchased my entrance ticket and chatted with a few park guards. When I planned this trip I expected the entrance road to be impassable in a compact car, but it was in great shape, and I heard that the rains had let up over the last week. If I had known this in advance, I would have arranged to stay at the adjacent Umbrellabird Lodge, although access to the upper part of the reserve is easier from Piñas than headquarters. The track continues up the steep valley and eventually reconnects with the highway along the ridge, although the gate at the end is locked. I birded this track starting from both ends but didn’t inquire whether I could obtain the key to the gate.

Headquarters at Buenaventura Reserve is home to some of the most active hummingbird feeders in the neotropics; there is even a webcam trained on them! Since I had been there last, they had significantly cut back the surrounding vegetation, which appeared to reduce bird traffic at the feeders. In 2008, there were thick clouds of hummingbirds everywhere, and Pale-Mandibled Araçaris and Rufous-Headed Chalalachas would mob the fruit feeders. Without better coverage nearby, birds seem less willing to expose themselves momentarily at the feeders, I think, or perhaps I was simply witnessing a seasonal variation. Regardless, I spent an hour admiring the hummingbirds, finally spotting a female White-Vented, or Bronze-Tailed Plumeleteer, depending on which taxonomy you’re following (for this blog I’ve decided simply to go by the book, Ridgely and Greenfield’s Birds of Ecuador Field Guide).

Then it was time to head up the hill towards the umbrellabird lek. Except for a few exceptions, I didn’t come across another birder on my entire trip to Ecuador, and I was the only visitor at Buenaventura during my stay. With no one to follow or show me around, I spent some time trying to determine the exact locality of the lek itself. Although the trail is clearly marked, and there is a paved walkway including handrails, I wasn’t sure where to find the umbrellabirds, if there were truly any around. In response to the presence of a female, lekking male cotingas will normally make a spectacular visual and aural display, and the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird is no different, emitting a foghorn like sound and extending its wattle to an enormous length. However, this late in the rainy season the lek might have already been conquered by an individual male.

After an hour of searching, I finally found a solitary male just overhead. The sky was growing gloomier by the minute, and I was sweating profusely, not just as a result of my efforts, but because the humidity had spiked. Clearly, it was about to rain, and I made haste to document this male. It spent many minutes preening and precious few moments actually displaying, but I did witness it extend its wattle to well over twice its body length, at the same time pushing forward its crest feathers as if it were taking shelter under an umbrella. Not a single boom shattered the silence, likely because there was no female nearby to impress, but I certainly got an eyeful, spending nearly an hour in the bird’s company before it left.

After it rained all night, I spent the next morning in the upper portion of the reserve, hoping to encounter a flock of El Oro Parakeets in one of the forest patches. I also had some intelligence on an El Oro Tapaculo lek, but the narrow trail leading down to it was desperately overgrown. I found a few mixed flocks, including Russet Antshrike, and spotted a Gray-Backed Hawk on two occasions, once drying out on a snag and another time hunting from a perch within the canopy. Finally, while taking a break in a clearing, I first heard an explosion of squawks and then a flock of parakeets burst into the open and streaked by in front of me, their distinctive red wing patches briefly but clearly visible. 

In the afternoon, I birded the road back down the reserve’s principal valley, starting from the locked gate near the shrine frequently mentioned in trip reports. I hooked up with a major mixed flock of over twenty different species of flycatchers, funariids, woodcreepers, and tanagers and allies, following for nearly an hour as the birds terrorized the forest edge. Although for me there was no particularly new or exciting species in the flock, the spectacle was still a marvel of diversity of bird behavior and appearance, a fitting conclusion to an epic three-week trip back to Ecuador. (I actually squeezed a few more hours of birding out of the trip on the following day at the Cajanuma Entrance to Podocarpus National Park).

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Swallow-Tailed Kite, Gray-Backed Hawk, Barred Hawk, Northern Crested Caracara, White-Throated Crake (h), Plumbeous Pigeon, Bronze-Winged Parrot, El Oro Parakeet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Violet-Tailed Sylph, Green Thorntail, Green-Crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, White-Necked Jacobin, White-Vented Plumeleteer, Andean Emerald, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, Violet-Bellied Hummingbird, Rufous Motmot, Chesnut-Mandibled Toucan, Spotted Woodcreeper, Wedge-Billed Woodcreeper, Azara’s Spinetail, Streaked Xenops, Plain Xenops, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Scaly-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Western Slaty Antshrike, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Antwren, Immaculate Antbird, Yellow Tyrannulet, Slaty-Capped Flycatcher, Loja Tyrannulet, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Ornate Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Vermillion Flycatcher, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Golden-Winged Manakin, Club-Winged Manakin, Gray-Breasted Wood-Wren, Song Wren (h), Lesser Greenlet, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Ecuadorian Thrush, Andean Solitaire (h), Bananaquit, Green Honeycreeper, Orange-Bellied Euphonia, Orange-Crowned Euphonia, Bay-Headed Tanager, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Golden Tanager, Silver-Throated Tanager, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, Common Bush-Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Ashy-Throated Bush-Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Yellow-Bellied Seedeater, Scrub Blackbird.

El Empalme: April 22, 2014

Despite the success of the last two days, I still was missing a handful of dry forest specialties, including the Tumbes Hummingbird, Elegant Crescentchest, and White-Headed Brush-Finch. Trip reports covering the region always cite El Empalme as a reliable place for the hummingbird, which can be particularly difficult to find and even then not very rewarding to see (it’s about as drab looking as the Sombre Hummingbird of Brazil). Instead of staying another magical night in the lodge at Jorupe Reserve, I crashed at the reliable Hotel Conquistador in Macará and got back on the road well before dawn. Although I couldn’t admire the scenery in the darkness, the road north winds through a beautiful valley, which at this time of year is covered in verdant deciduous forest and scrub, including massive ceiba trees. El Empalme is about an hour’s drive from Macará, and I was counseled by several sources to turn left at the fork and start birding along the road after a few kilometers.

Another concrete road has just been finished here, and drivers can now speed maniacally around turns, their tires squealing in competition with the birdsong. Fortunately, I was here early enough to enjoy relative peace and quiet, picking out a few places along the road to search in the scrub for my target species. White-Headed Brush-Finch proved common and several pairs responded inquisitively to my pishing noises. Large flocks of Red-Masked Parakeets streamed overhead while I ticked other common Tumbes species, including Ecuadorian Piculet, Plumbeous-Backed Thrush, and Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker. I also had a series of quick encounters with several male Saffron Siskins, looking vibrantly yellow-colored in comparison to the familiar Hooded-Siskin of the highlands. A Pacific Pygmy-Owl piped away in the distance reminding me that I hadn't seen one yet on this trip.

Although I had received a lot of advice, the trick to seeing the Tumbes Hummingbird was simply to be patient. I walked the road back and forth along several sections, scanning low shrubs for a feeding hummingbird. After an hour I finally found one, and later in the morning I was buzzed by another as it crossed the road zipping uphill. With that tick finally out of the way, I was free to focus on a more photogenic bird, the Elegant Crescentchest, whose congener, the Collared Crescentchest, graces the header of my Birding Brazil blog. In my experience, crescentchests rarely fail to respond to playback, although they often remain deep in cover and are slow to call in response. This one behaved similarly, but I was surprised to see it approach so close on the ground until it eventually found the right bush in which to escond and reply.

Another puzzling bird also came in when I played tape for the crescentchest. After some debate, I decided the relatively featureless bird in question was an Ash-Breasted Sierra-Finch. Wondering what else was around, I tried stirring up passerines by playing the call of the Pacific Pygmy-Owl, which proved effective although it didn’t turn up anything new. Despite the high-speed traffic and the general weirdness of birding alone on a highway in the middle of nowhere, it was a productive and enjoyable morning. Indeed, there’s a lot of good roadside habitat to explore in the area, including along the road to Macará, and a site report suggests that both Black-and-White Tanager and Ochre-Bellied Dove are possibilities here in the rainy season. At this point in the morning, I had exhausted my potential for lifers and sped north myself to Buenaventura Reserve.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): American Kestrel, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Eared Pigeon, Red-Masked Parakeet, Gray-Cheeked Parakeet, Pacific Parrotlet, Pacific Pygmy-Owl (h), Tumbes Swift, Amazilia Hummingbird, Tumbes Hummingbird, Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Piculet, Streak-Headed Woodcreeper (h), Collared Antshrike (h), Elegant Crescentchest, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Tumbes Pewee, Southern House Wren, Fasciated Wren, Long-Tailed Mockingbird, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Plumbeous-Backed Thrush, Saffron Siskin, Southern Yellow-Grosbeak, Ash-Breasted Sierra-Finch, Parrot-Billed Seedeater, White-Headed Brush-Finch, White-Edged Oriole.

Jorupe Reserve: April 20-21, 2014

Jorupe Reserve is one of the most unique places in Ecuador, offering first-rate lodging in the surprisingly diverse Tumbes Region, the tropical dry forest that spans Northwestern Peru and Southwestern Ecuador. The landscape is subtly dramatic, with bottle-trunked ceiba trees springing out from the hillsides over deciduous scrub and woodland. It’s wonderfully verdant in the rainy season and starkly leafless otherwise, when the massive trunks of the ceiba trees constitute the only remaining green (they produce cholorphyl and photosynthesize on their bark). On my previous visit in the summer of 2008, during which Aimee and I stayed in the nearby town of Macará, the birding was lively and memorable. Since then the Jocotoco Foundation has substantially improved the infrastructure of the reserve, constructing a marvelous lodge specifically designed for birders.

My plan here was to spend a minimum of a full day and a half birding the lower section of the reserve, staying at least one night at the lodge depending on my success (the habitat of the upper section overlaps with that of Utuana, which has better infrastructure). I arranged my reservation well in advance with Jocotours, and when I arrived at midday after my visit to Utuana Reserve in the morning, the staff rolled out the red carpet for me even though I was the only guest. Leo is the senior park ranger at Jorupe, and we birded together all morning, afternoon, and evening (this is standard practice at Jorupe unlike at other Jocotoco reserves). While I typically bird on my own, I enjoyed his company immensely, as he is knowledgable, determined, and enthusiastic — and generally quiet. He also has a wry sense of humor, and I’m sure I missed the meaning of plenty of more than a few of his jokes, considering how unpracticed my Spanish is.

The lodge was constructed in the middle of mature deciduous forest with an intact understory. There are nearly a dozen beautifully crafted and well spaced cabins, each with a patio from which you can see any bird you might encounter out on the trails. The dining hall opens out on a flowering garden with several bird baths, as well as a grain feeder that regularly attracts different parrots, pigeons, and jays. There is also a hide from which you can photograph some of the more timid species that occasionally visit the feeder, such as the Pale-Browed Tinamou. Trails branch off in different directions from the cabins as well. The whole design and setting of the lodge create the impression that, for the purposes of birding, it’s better to be around the lodge than out on the trails. Indeed, in my down time I saw Pale-Browed Tinamou, Spectacled Owl, White-Tailed Jay, Rufous-Necked Foliage-Gleaner, and Gray-Breasted Flycatcher. Leo has even seen Solitary Eagle and Buff-Fronted Owl right while on the patio of the dining hall.

Although at Utuana I had already made a dent in my list of target birds for Southwestern Ecuador, there was still plenty of new species for me to record at Jorupe. Before heading out in the morning, I presented Leo with a few goals: Black-and-White Tanager, which is present in the region during the rainy season; Ochre-Bellied Dove, also which is only observed in the rainy season, although I’m not sure about it’s breeding status; and Blackish-Headed Spinetail, a relatively common species that I had simply dipped on my last visit. We walked a wide dirt track that slowly climbed back into the reserve, picking up both the dove and the spinetail as well as more typical birds of the region, including White-Tailed Jay, Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, Streak-Headed Woodcreeper, and Collared Antshrike. Not hearing the tanager along the track in its usual haunts, we set out across some neighboring rice fields, where Leo had seen it before.

It was now late morning and getting hotter by the minute. While we kicked up a mixed flock of seedeaters, including Parrot-Billed Seedeater, there was no trace of the Black-and-White Tanager, which prefers choked ground cover found along roadsides and riverbanks, at least at this time of year in the Tumbes Region. Leo assured me we would find one later in the day at another site, and we made a long loop back to the lodge, first bushwhacking down to the highway and then heading back up the dirt track. For our efforts, we found a pair of Henna-Hooded Foliage-Gleaners, seeing them briefly with the help of playback. Then we searched for a West-Peruvian Screech-Owl roost to no avail. Further ahead we stopped to locate the nest of a Rufous-Necked Foliage-Gleaner, which was located within a bromeliad that was affixed to the trunk of a tree. During my brief stay at Jorupe, which was just at the start of the dry season, it seemed like every bird species was raising their young and that I heard the cries of hatchlings all day long.

Suddenly, a dark shadow passed over us, and Leo and I both snapped our gaze towards the sky, where a Solitary Eagle was soaring overhead. We both had enough time to pick out features that distinguish it from a vulture, but the sheer size alone was a dead giveaway, even from far below. A few minutes later we had another look at it before it rose even higher on a thermal and disappeared behind the ridge. Leo explained that several groups had seen a Solitary Eagle this year and that one had taken a liking to a snag not far from the lodge. We headed back for lunch with a sense of accomplishment and planned to range beyond the reserve during the afternoon. After my repast, I first spent some time in the hide photographing White-Tailed Jays and then ticked the Gray-Breasted Flycatcher nearby on one of the trails. Both Yellow-Tailed and White-Edged Orioles lingered near the nectar feeders; occasionally, an Amazalia Hummingbird would also dart in for a few seconds.

In the early afternoon, we drove back to Macará and looked for Comb Duck on the sandbars in the river that forms the border between Ecuador and Peru here. Missing the duck, we then birded a few clearings on the other side of the highway in front of the reserve. We immediately flushed a mixed flock on the entrance track, and from the car we had great looks at a Dark-Billed Cuckoo perched just ahead. Leo encouraged me to play some tape for the Black-and-White Tanager, and after a while a male flew by us and across the road. It looked like a Black-and-White Seedeater to me, but he was confident in the identification. A few minutes later we did see a Black-and-White Seedeater, and afterwards I agreed that we had most likely seen our target. Further along the track we spotted a Baird’s Flycatcher on an electric wire, and then we dug out a Superciliated Wren from a dense tangle of vines. Later, along a different dirt tracking leading into the reserve we ticked the Tumbes Pewee and the Tumbes Swift, neither bird being particularly remarkable but both obviously unique to the region.

I planned to stay in Macará that night, rising early to bird even drier tropical forest at El Empalme, which is about an hour north back along the highway; however, Leo was happy to keep birding with me until nearly 10pm as we searched for owls. We were successful the previous night seeing Spectacled Owl right from the lodge but dipped on the screech-owl.  Again, we tried for several hours to see it at different places along the dirt track, and while multiple individuals responded to playback, none revealed themselves to us. Finally, we set out for the site where a researcher had recently stumbled upon the roost of a Buff-Fronted Owl. While we had found it vacant earlier that day, we had a nice response to playback tonight, with an individual emitting its elongated trilling call from nearby. Unfortunately, that would be as close as we would come, a thrilling close to an excellent visit to Jorupe Lodge, the Jocotoco Foundation’s most inspired reserve.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Pale-Browed Tinamou, Neotropical Cormorant, Hook-Billed Kite, Solitary Eagle, Laughing Falcon (h), Harris’s Hawk, Rufous-Headed Chachalaca, Ochre-Bellied Dove, White-Tipped Dove, Blue Ground-Dove, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Eared Pigeon, Pacific Parrotlet, Gray-Cheeked Parakeet, Red-Masked Parakeet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Dark-Billed Cuckoo, Spectacled Owl, West Peruvian Screech-Owl (h), Buff-Fronted Owl (h), Tumbes Swift, Amazalia Hummingbird, Long-Billed Starthroat, Ecuadorian Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Blue-Crowned Motmot, White-Tailed Jay, Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Piculet, Guayaquil Woodpecker (h), Streak-Headed Woodcreeper, Blackish-Headed Spinetail, Rufous-Necked Foliage-Gleaner, Henna-Hooded Foliage-Gleaner, Great Antshrike, Collared Antshrike, Plain Antvireo, Watkins’s Antpitta (h), Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-Olive Flatbill, Pacific Elaenia, Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, Tumbes Pewee, Gray-Breasted Flycatcher, Sooty-Crowned Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Baird’s Flycatcher, One-Colored Becard, Black-and-White Becard (h), Fasciated Wren, Speckle-Breasted Wren, Superciliated Wren, Long-Tailed Mockingbird, Plumbeous-Backed Thrush, Gray-and-Gold Warbler, Orange-Crowned Euphonia, Blue-Gray Tanager, Black-and-White Tanager, Southern Yellow Grosbeak, Saffron Finch, Blue-Black Grosbeak, Parrot-Billed Seedeater, Black-and-White Seedeater, Variable Seedeater, Black-Capped Sparrow, Yellow-Rumped Cacique, Peruvian Meadowlark, Yellow-Tailed Oriole, White-Edged Oriole, Scrub Blackbird.

Utuana Reserve: April 20, 2014

Revisiting the Tumbes Region in Southwestern Ecuador was the primary goal of this trip, and I had budgeted four full days to find birds that I had overlooked on my initial visit in 2008. At that time I was a novice birder who didn’t fully appreciate how to focus on endemic species when visiting a unique biome, such as the dry tropical forest of Tumbes. Plus, that summer Aimee and I were traveling primarily to research her section of the Lonely Planet Guide to Ecuador. Each day I would slip away and bird for a few hours while she visited different tourist sites, hotels, and restaurants; consequently, I was often birding in habitat that wasn’t formally protected and had to be content seeing the more common birds. Actually, I was pretty lucky on my last visit to the Jocotoco Foundation’s Utuana Reserve: although I didn’t arrive until the early afternoon, I still ticked Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, one of the site’s specialties.

This time I was fully prepared with a list of target birds and the entire day at my disposal. Staying at Hotel Conquistador in Macará the previous night, I was up early to make the one hour drive up to the tiny but critically important reserve. Unless you’re an avid country lister, the key species here is no doubt the Gray-Headed Antbird, which can be found in the dense undergrowth of deciduous and semi-humid forest from 600-2500m (Utuana’s paltry 200 hectares cover a small hillside at an elevation of 2500m). I had read in trip reports and a site guide that the access road to Utuana, which rises from the town of Sozoranga, is a good place to start looking for this tiny antbird, whose conservation status is vulnerable due to habitat loss. Indeed, there isn’t much semi-humid hilltop forest left in Loja Province, having been long cleared for firewood and agriculture.

About 14km from Sozoranga, or 2km short of Utuana Reserve, there are some obvious patches of forest along the road, where I stopped at dawn. Lifers came relatively quick and easy in the first hour, as I spotted Line-Cheeked Spinetail, Bay-Crowned Brush-Finch, and Chapman’s Antshrike. After a bit of trolling in areas where there was significant chusquea bamboo, I got a response from a male Gray-Headed Antbird that came in close enough for a clear identification. Frankly, the bird wasn’t patterned as strikingly as is depicted in the field guide, although it wasn’t yet light at this point. Not wanting to molest this individual bird too much, I moved on and found a mixed flock up the road with some birds more or less unique to Loja Province, including Black-Cowled Saltator and Silver-Backed Tanager.   

The final stretch of the access road to the reserve itself was dry, and I cruised all the way to the top of the hill in my trusty Chevy Spark. It doesn’t rain much in this area, with most of the moisture coming from low-lying clouds; consequently, the trees are draped in moss, giving the forest a spooky feel. I walked the Piura Hemispingus Trail for a while but had trouble picking out birds in the understory. Much of the bamboo has died here too, and so I headed to a more open area to look for Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant. The appropriately named Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant Trail houses several territorial individuals, and a spectacular individual approached almost immediately after playback. At this point, I checked in with the park ranger and inquired about the other site specialties, including the Piura Hemispingus, Rufous-Necked Foliage-Gleaner, and Leymebamba or Rusty-Breasted Antpitta.

At his suggestion, I followed a trail heading downslope that had been recently maintained. Although it’s not a loop trail, there is dense undergrowth on both sides, and I shortly surprised a Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant at the forest edge, behaving very much like the Crowned Chat-Tyrant that it replaces in this highlands of Southwestern Ecuador. This area also appeared ideal for Gray-Headed Antbird, and when the bamboo is seeding Slaty Finch and Maroon-Chested Ground-Dove as well. I spent some time luring in a Slaty-Backed Nightengale-Thrush, managing a few quick looks at this shy and retiring bird. Apparently, the best spot for Piura Hemispingus is to follow the access road on foot down the other side of the hill, where it becomes a narrow track through bamboo tangled undergrowth. Considering it was midday at this point, I passed on the opportunity and photographed hummingbirds at the feeders for a while instead. It's always wise to leave a bird or two unseen for the next visit.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Speckled Hummingbird, Rainbow-Fronted Starfrontlet, Purple-Throated Sunangel, Sparkling Violetear, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Smoky-Brown Woodpecker, Line-Cheeked Spinetail, Azara’s Spinetail, Chapman’s Antshrike, Gray-Headed Antbird, Chesnut-Crowned Antpitta (h), Unicolored Tapaculo, Loja Tyrannulet, White-Banded Tyrannulet (h), Streak-Throated Bush-Tyrant, Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant, Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, Chestnut-Collared Swallow, Brown-Capped Vireo, Slaty-Backed Nightengale-Thrush, Black-Crested Warbler, Masked Flowerpiercer, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Silver-Backed Tanager, Blue-Capped Tanager, Rufous-Chested Tanager, Black-Cowled Saltator, Variable Seedeater, White-Winged Brush-Finch, Bay-Crowned Brush-Finch.

Book Review: Birds of Western Ecuador, Princeton University Press

Birds of Western Ecuador is an excellent new photographic field guide by Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield. This geographically tiny area is rich in biological diversity and home to some of the world's most spectacular and colorful birds. Visiting Ecuador has long been on the wish-list of every birder, and this book depicts nearly all of the region's bird species in the wild, including almost 1,500 photographs of 946 species. Even the rarest and most difficult birds are presented in full-color, high-resolution photographs, such as the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Black-Chested Puffleg, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, Star-Chested Treerunner, Choco Vireo, Golden-Chested Tanager, and Tanager Finch. The book also includes up-to-date species accounts and range maps, making it the most comprehensive and authoritative field guide to the birds of the region.

Birders have long debated the relative merits of illustrative and photographic field guides. Illustrations present birds systematically and uniformly, and they usually emphasize the distinguishing field marks of a bird. On the other hand, photographs depict birds in context and offer a better impression of size and shape. In the past, photographic field guides have suffered in accuracy and unevenness in quality. Even high-quality photographs do not always depict a bird's field marks clearly or exhaustively, and it is difficult to capture satisfactory images of male, female, and juvenile plumages. For these reasons, most photographic guides focus only on common birds and target novice or casual birders. Birds of Western Ecuador overcomes all these challenges and is the first photographic guide I have seen that surpasses the utility of an illustrative guide.

Nick Athanas is one of the cofounders of Tropical Birding, a tour company based in Quito that runs world-class birding trips all over the world. He has long published his bird photographs on his website Antpitta, a project that has evolved greatly in quantity and quality over the years. Paul Greenfield is coauthor and illustrator of the definitive Birds of Ecuador, a two-volume tome that birders have dutifully carried around in the field since 2001. Athanas and Greenfield are both long-time residents of the country, and they know the birds of western Ecuador as well as anyone in the world. The book contains significant photographic contributions from Athanas's colleagues at Tropical Birding, including Iain Cambell, Pablo Cervantes Daza, Sam Woods, and Andrew Spencer, and a number of other resident birders and guides contributed photos, such as Roger Ahlman and Dusan Brinkhuizen.

I was fortunate to live in Ecuador for six years myself and birded western Ecuador regularly. I have seen many of these birds myself, although not always with the stunning clarity and detail that they are presented in this guide. For example, I have spotted male Scarlet-and-White Tanagers on several occasions in mixed canopy flocks in northwestern Ecuador, but never at eye level. Brinkhuizen has though, and he captured this once-in-a-lifetime moment in a photograph of dazzling color and clarity. Equally impressive, and fortuitous, are shots of the Tawny-Faced Quail, Solitary Eagle, Banded Ground Cuckoo, Black Solitaire, Yellow-Green Bush-Tanager, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, and Pale-Headed Brush-Finch. As is clear from the photographer credits, Ecuador is home to dozens of top-rate birders and guides, each armed with the latest professional photographic equipment. Birds of Western Ecuador is a veritable storehouse of their finest avian encounters.

During the research and development process of this photographic guide, Nick Athanas inquired whether he could use a few of my own photographs. Although I have never had a first-rate camera or lens, I did spend enough time in the field to capture several once-in-a-lifetime moments myself, even on my tired Nikon D80 camera and beat-up Nikkor 70-300mm telephoto lens. Three of my photographs are published in this guide, depicting an adult male Andean Condor in flight at Antisana Reserve, a male Elegant Crescentchest in repose in Loja Province, and a Black-Cowled Saltator feeding near Utuana Reserve. This is a modest contribution given the extent of the guide, but I am proud of it nevertheless. To avoid copyright issues, I have only posted my own photographs to accompany this review, but readers can be assured that those in the guide are even better.

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