Wild Sumaco Wildlife Sanctuary: November 28-30, 2008

Located in the eastern foothills of the Andes, Wild Sumaco Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the premier birding locations in all of Ecuador. It's also one of the newest, although intrepid birders have explored the area surrounding Volcán Sumaco for over a decade. Co-owned by an affable North American couple and Jonas Nilsson, arguably the most experienced, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic birder in Ecuador, the sanctuary is home to some of the country's rarest and most unique bird species, such as the Coppery-Chested Jacamar, Chestnut-Crowned Gnateater, Plain-Winged Antwren, Chestnut-Breasted Wren, and Andean Laniisoma. In addition to the foothill specialties, at 1400m there's a nice mixture of cloud forest and Amazonian lowlands species, too. Indeed, the sanctuary holds "one of the richest avifaunas in the world" and is well worth the price if you can afford it.

I was extraordinarily lucky during my visit over the recent holiday weekend, enjoying an entire day and a half of birding without being impeded by the weather (the Sumaco region receives up to 6m of rainfall annually). Lady Luck was also on my side with respect to the birds, starting immediately upon my arrival when two Chestnut-Fronted Macaws perched in a bare tree near the main deck of the lodge and continuing until my final hour of birding when at midday I encountered the Rufous-Breasted Picculet tapping away at a dessicated vine next to a trail in the Residence Area. Jonas might of had a hand in my good fortune, though, as I understand that he designed all the trails himself to wind through a rich variety of bird territories (these trails are also the best-maintained that I've walked in Ecuador). How he managed to bushwhack through the forest for weeks and not be consumed by chiggers I have no idea.

My goal during this trip was to focus on seeing some of the eastern foothill specialties, so I spent most of my time in primary forest walking trails, especially the Piha Trail and the Laniisoma Trail. Early on my first morning as I was kneeling on the ground watching the first of several Chestnut-Crowned Gnateaters I would encounter during the trip, my attention was drawn to a squabble between two birds nearby in the subcanopy, both of which turned out to be Gray-Tailed Pihas, a sporadically vocal and notoriously difficult bird to spot, especially given its highly localized status. One individual was perched momentarily in the sun, breathing heavily as the light illuminated its gray tail and olive plumage. I would hear the bird call often during the next day and a half but never see it again. A few minutes later the Yellow-Throated Spadebill, another foothill speciality, started vocalizing, but I failed to catch a glimpse of a pair as they moved quickly down the trail and over a nearby ridge.

Later in the day on the Laniisoma Trail, named after the Andean Laniisoma that was observed regularly over a three-month period last spring, I scored an incredibly fortuitous view of the Plain-Backed Antpitta calling withing a desperately dense tangle of undergrowth. This large and rather dull-colored antpitta has a haunting call that is heard only in a few places on the eastern slope, and I was thrilled to have good views of it without having to use playback. On the other hand, I would encounter another individual later that evening on the Streamcreeper Trail as it picked through the leaves on the trail just a few meters in front of me (I would see the bird yet again on the Laniisoma Trail the following morning, so maybe it wasn't such a big deal after all). Although I didn't witness much else in the primary forest that afternoon besides a host of White-Capped Manakins, the secondary or regenerating forest was chock full of birds, including the Slaty Antwren, White-Backed Fire-Eye, Slate-Colored Grosbeak, Red-Headed Barbet, Chestnut-Breasted Wren, and Smoky-Brown Woodpecker.

Despite my proclivity for forest birding, I did encounter a few canopy flocks while walking the road to different trail heads. A group of toucans was making quite a racket on the second morning, including the Black-Mandibled Toucan, Channel-Billed Toucan, and Many-Banded Aracari. I also followed one particularly rich flock up the Benevides Trail containing the Blue-Browed and Orange-Eared Tanagers as well as the Rufous-Naped Greenlet; amazingly the Black-and-White Becard perched just in front of me for this photograph. Who knows what else the flock contained as I only managed to identify half of the probably forty species present, which is actually pretty good for birding in the neotropics.

The second and final morning was a little slow as far as birding goes, but the few birds I encountered were simply outstanding: the Ochre-Breasted Antpitta was calling just over the Laniisoma Trail, perched three meters above the ground in a small and sparsely leaved tree; the striking Crimson-Bellied Woodpecker was busy hammering out a huge divot in a dead trunk on the Piha Trail right at eye-level just a few meters from the trail; finally, the industrious Rufous-Breasted Picculet was only an arm's length away as I rushed by it while hurrying to reenter the primary forest on the Piha Trail. The hummingbird feeders near the Residence Area weren't bad either, as the Napo Sabrewing and Black-Throated Brilliant are frequent visitors (the Gould's Jewelfront drops by occasionally, too).

If seeing all these eastern foothill specialties sounds good to you, then rush to the Sumaco region as current conservation efforts can only delay the process of colonization for so long; in fact, much of the primary forest you see in this photograph is unprotected and most likely destined to become first naranjilla plantation and ultimately cattle pasture. To help you can make a contribution to the Rio Pucuno Foundation, which has been established to keep Sumaco wild.

Notable birds seen: Black Caracara, Speckled Chachalaca, Sickle-Winged Guan, Chestnut-Fronted Macaw, Maroon-Tailed Parakeet, Napo Sabrewing, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Black-Throated Brilliant, Collared Trogon, Gilded Barbet, Red-Headed Barbet, Many-Banded Aracari, Channel-Billed Toucan, Black-Mandibled Toucan, Rufous-Breasted Picculet, Crimson-Bellied Woodpecker, Smoky-Brown Woodpecker, Slaty Antwren, White-Backed Fire-Eye, Spot-Backed Antbird, Plain-Backed Antpitta, Ochre-Breasted Antpitta, Chestnut-Crowned Gnateater, Gray-Tailed Piha, White-Crowned Manakin, Blue-Rumped Manakin, Golden-Winged Manakin, Black-and-White Becard, Masked Tityra, Chestnut-Breasted Wren, Rufous-Naped Greenlet, Orange-Eared Tanager, Blue-Browed Tanager, Swallow Tanager, Slate-Colored Grosbeak.

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