Milpe Bird Sanctuary: September 20-21, 2008

With a whole weekend on my own, but without a car, I had to choose a birding destination that offered the chance to see new birds but was still easily accessible by bus. For me, Milpe Bird Sanctuary fit into those two categories nicely, and I set up my base of operations in San Miguel de los Bancos for two nights while staying at Restaurante Mirador Rio Blanco. What I forgot to plan for was the chiggers.

Birding in Ecuador below a certain elevation, let's say 1500m, does pose its own unique set of challenges, the issue of chiggers being perhaps the most formidable. These practically invisible insects are transferred from leaves to your person when you make casual contact with plants on the side of a trail. Then, they maneuver their way underneath your clothes, finding a warm, protected patch of flesh to burrow into, usually underneath a binocular harness strap or a waist belt. For the next several weeks they cause insufferable pain and anguish as they feed and multiply, and the resulting wounds suppurate uncontrollably without the slightest scratch on your part.

At any rate, I spent about twelve hours birding at Milpe on Saturday, most of them deep in the forest as it rained more or less all day, making for poor conditions for viewing canopy birds. In the afternoon, I was fortunate to find a large swarm of ants down near the river, and I spent several hours watching the various antbirds jockey for position nearby. The situation was one that I had read quite a lot about but never seen for myself and definitely requires a bit of explanation.

Antbirds, most of them at least, don't eat ants. They actually just associate with ants, large swarms of which sweep through the forest floor kicking up a wide variety of other insects fleeing for their lives. Opportunistically, the antbirds prey on these other insects, fighting with each other for the best position in front of the oncoming swarm. Usually, the large terrestrial antbirds dominate while smaller antwrens and even understory flycatchers compete to pick up the scraps. It's an incredibly dynamic but unstable sight, as the slightest disturbance created by observers can scare off this rich hierarchy of birds in the forest.

While hiding motionlessly in the undergrowth of the trail, I watched intently as the Immaculate Antbird, Slaty and Pacific Antwrens, and others simultaneously fought for position near the swarm and scooped up prey. I worked particularly hard to capture a few photographs of the Immaculate Antbird, whose striking pale blue eye patch reflects an impressive amount of light. Meanwhile, the chiggers were making their way under my rain gear, leaving me with well over fifty bites on my torso, waist, and shoulders to contemplate over the next few weeks.

Severely chastened by my experience, I avoided the forest and spent most of Sunday morning birding the road beyond the entrance to the reserve, enjoying a large number of mixed flocks as well as a spectacular early morning calling display by the Choco Toucan. The series of photographs should give an idea of how the bird rotates rhythmically in all directions while projecting its call radially out over the canopy.

Despite the bites, it was a highly productive trip, and I saw a handful of new and spectacular species, including the Brown-Billed Scythebill and the Maroon-Tailed Parakeet. The Moss-Backed Tanager continues to prove elusive, though, and I'd like eventually to see the Esmeraldas Antbird as well.

Notable birds seen: Common Potoo, Broad-Billed Motmot, Rufous Motmot, Collared Trogon, Crimson-Rumped Toucanet, Pale-Mandibled Aracari, Choco Toucan, Immaculate Antbird, Pacific Antwren, Slaty Antwren, Brown-Billed Scythebill, Uniform Treehunter, Lineated Woodpecker, Purple-Crowned Fairy, Club-Winged Manakin, Golden-Winged Manakin, White-Bearded Manakin, Guira Tanager, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Purple Honeycreeper, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Orange-Billed Sparrow, Snowy-Throated Kingbird.

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