San Rafael Falls: February 23, 2009

Located a few hours from Baeza on the road to Lago Agrio, San Rafael Falls is Ecuador's most spectacular waterfall. Though not the tallest, it definitely is the most powerful, as the voluminous Rio Salado plunges down 150m in a two-tiered cascade, sending huge clouds of mist up towards the viewpoint. To reach the falls visitors must travel a rocky and sometimes muddy trail through patchy subtropical forest, crossing several streams along the way. The area is rife with bird life as the heavily vegetated cliffs surrounding the falls function as a bridge between the Cayambe-Coca and the Sumaco-Galleras Reserves located on either side of the river.

Aimee and I arrived around midday just after a rain shower, and bird activity was very high. We encountered several flocks with outstanding tanagers, including the outrageously colorful Paradise, Blue-Browed, Golden-Eared, Orange-Eared, Spotted, Golden, and Blue-Necked Tanagers. Red-Headed Barbet, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, Handsome Flycatcher, and Variegated Bristle-Tyrant were also moving in the flocks, as well as three migratory warblers: Blackburnian, Canada, and Cerulean Warblers, the latter of which I had never witnessed before. The Andean Cock-of-the-Rock was definitely the highlight, though, and several males and a female were frequently seen foraging about the middle section of the trail (Nigel Wheatley in Where to Watch Birds in South America reports there is a large lek in this area).

Perhaps due to the holiday, there were great crowds of people visiting the falls today, making understory birding an impossibility (on my previous visit my friend Griffin and I had been the only people there), but the activity in the canopy was rewarding enough. (For better birding conditions, an early morning visit from a base at nearby Hosteria Reventador is recommended.) The falls, of course, were spectacular, and Aimee especially appreciated them after her recent visit to Kaieteur Falls in Guyana. On the way out, we ran into the White-Tailed Hillstar, a dark understory hummingbird which flashes much white in the tail while in flight, near one of the stream crossings. Despite all the construction currently underway near the trailhead (we were told Coca-Cola is building an encampment there), we also spotted a noisy group of Lemon-Browed Flycatchers moving along the canopy at the edge of a clearing. Supposedly, this unique flycatcher uses old oropendola and cacique nests, of which there are many in the area.

Notable birds seen: Red-Billed Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-Tailed Hillstar, Inca Jay, Red-Headed Barbet, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Southern Rough-Winged Swallow, Swainson's Thrush, Cerulean Warbler, Paradise Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Orange-Eared Tanager, Golden-Eared Tanager, Blue-Browed Tanager, Summer Tanager, Magpie Tanager, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, Chestnut-Bellied Seedeater, Subtropical Cacique, Russet-Backed Oropendola.

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