Rio Canandé Reserve: June 17-20, 2009

Perhaps the most critically important of the eight Jocotoco Foundation reserves, Rio Canande protects several thousand hectares of humid forest in the fast disappearing Choco lowlands. Here you can find dozens of endemic bird species, including the spectacular Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, and Banded Ground-Cuckoo, as well the more widespread Ocellated Antbird, Great-Green Macaw, and Lemon-Spectacled Tanager. Indeed, visiting extreme northwestern Ecuador is a must for hardcore birders and listers, but access is limited to a handful of reserves and protected areas, such as Bilsa Ecological Reserve and Playa del Oro. Although reaching Rio Canande is certainly an adventure of its own, no other site in the Ecuadorian Choco lowlands offers such safe and varied access to the region´s exceptionally rich avifauna.

Departing via private transportation from Pedro Vincente Maldonado, the most northwestern of sites on the typical Choco birding circuit, it´s still a four-hour drive along dirt roads through a labyrinth of clearings, African palm plantations, and balsa woodlots to reach the actual Rio Canande. Birders will feel their blood pressure rise when they approach the river, as relatively pristine humid forest blankets the dramatic foothills that rise impressively from the other side, but access via ferry is strictly controlled by Botrosa, an Ecuadorian logging company that owns tens of thousands of hectares of land on the other side. Be advised that in addition to making reservations with the Jocotoco office in Quito well in advance, you must also receive written permission to cross the river (I had to wait a few hours myself as park guards scrambled to make emergency arrangements). The reserve itself is still another hour down the road, which now winds steeply along forested ridges and past a few settlements; have your binoculars ready.

I passed three nights here myself, and it would be ridiculous to stay any fewer as at least one full day should be spent walking the trails and another birding the logging road approximately 10km past the reserve. The park guards, Alcides and Galo, will gladly accompany independent birders, sharing their local knowledge of specific bird territories and calls, but they´re also willing to let you explore the trails on your own, as I did for much of the time. The trail network is truly impressive, as a variety of well-marked paths take you through a nice range of habitats, including classic lowlands and ridge-top foothill forest. Imagine walking the Banded Ground-Cuckoo Trail and facing a fork to the Choco Tapaculo and Golden-Chested Tanager Trails; that´s a fine decision to consider! A typical full day on the trails takes you up to the Black-Tipped Cotinga viewpoint and further along the ridge in the morning, and then loops back down to the lodge; this circuit gives you a good chance of encountering an antswarm and attending antbirds as well as mixed understory and canopy flocks.

The target bird for my week-long trip to the Choco lowlands was the strange and beautiful Ocellated Antbird, so as soon as I arrived at the reserve in the early afternoon I hit the trails by myself in search of an antswarm. Although I haven´t had much luck with antswarms in Ecuador myself, in dry weather they´re supposed to be frequently encountered, at which a variety of birds can be found, including the Ocellated, Bicolored, and Spotted Antbirds as well as the Spot-Crowned Antvireo and various antwrens and woodcreepers. There were no antswarms along the Red-Capped Manakin Trail this afternoon, but I did find a bustling mixed canopy flock at one of the viewpoints, admiring the Lita Woodpecker for five minutes as it drilled impressively into an exposed branch of a tree. Dusk fell soon after when I encountered a pair of Esmeraldas Antbirds near a stream, pumping their tails vigorously as they foraged in the growing darkness. A noisy understory flock of Tawny-Crested and Dusky-Faced Tanagers finally alerted me to the need to get back to the lodge before total darkness, and I ended up jogging back, which left me in a rather panicked, sweaty state.

The next morning, Alcides and I headed up to the Black-Tipped Cotinga Viewpoint in search of foothill flocks and antswarms along the way. The Black-Throated Trogon highlighted an otherwise unexciting morning as we found little more than the more common birds such as Chestnut-Backed Antbird, White-Whiskered Puffbird, and Rufous Motmot. On the other hand, we did hear the Plumbeous Hawk calling from inside the forest below the ridge and perhaps even spotted it from the viewpoint, although it was perched too distant to be certain. Hardly any birds were visible from the viewpoint, and walking the Golden-Chested Tanager and Great-Green Macaw Trails yielded only the Song Wren, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, and Rufous Piha, among a few others. Descending back to the lodge wasn´t much more productive, although we flushed several Great Tinamous and actually watched one scamper up the trail ahead of us. Definitely the best bird of the day was the Broad-Billed Sapoya, which we encountered alone, foraging in the understory just next to the trail. This subtle but distinct bird is richly olive-colored with large dark eyes, behaving somewhere between a manakin and an understory flycatcher as it perches for long intervals and sallies out occasionally for insects.

I spent the late afternoon and evening birding the grounds of the lodge and the road, which was highly productive. I finally had good looks at the Little Tinamous which was feeding with a juvenile in some roadside scrub as the huge Laughing Falcon called raucously overhead. A mixed flock moving about the road contained a variety of good birds such as the Red-Rumped Woodpecker, Scarlet-Thighed Dacnis, and Orange-Fronted Barbet, and the hummingbird feeders near the worker´s quarters attracted the endemic Purple-Chested Hummingbird among others. The vine-covered secondary forest leading down to the dining hall was good for the Pacific Antwren, Bay Wren, and Golden-Hooded Tanager, and during the early part of the night I heard the Black-and-White and Crested Owls calling; Galo said he heard the Spectacled and Mottled Owls that night, too.

My luck changed for the better on the following morning as Galo and I birded the Botrosa road, which is covered in the next post. That afternoon I was back on the trails, picking up several male Red-Capped Manakins at the lek before stumbling upon a group of Ocellated Antbirds just off the trail. Three or four of these magnificent birds were behaving as if they were at an antswarm, flitting from sappling to sappling less than a meter above the ground all the while pumping their tails, but no other birds were in attendance and I saw no sign of ants anywhere. Regardless, I was thrilled and relieved to see my target bird and spent the next hour absorbing their amazing appearance and remarkably shy, almost bashful, behavior. It´s funny how despite my complete sense of satisfaction I was still annoyed when Galo reported he had found an antswarm on the Banded Ground-Cuckoo Trail that afternoon with both the Ocellated Antbird and others in attendance.

Before driving back to Quito, I spent the final morning by myself on the trails, making a loop around the Tawny-Faced Quail, Choco Tapaculo, and Banded Ground-Cuckoo Trails. With so many terrific birds already seen, I felt that any others would only be gravy so to speak, and I birded that morning with little expectation and no anxiety, which is pretty rare on the last day of a birding trip. The Immaculate Antbird and Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher were decent finds, but the bird of the morning was the Indigo-Crowned Quail-Dove, which was digging through the leaf litter on the Choco Tapaculo trail as I rounded a bend. While I had seen this bird a few times in Milpe, nothing could prepare me for the sight of it gloriously out in the open, its complex mantle morphing colors as it moved about completely unaware of my presence. Again, there were no antswarms, but I spent a good hour waiting at a large stand of heliconia flowers, catching in compensation several glimpses of the White-Tipped Sicklebill with its claws clenched and its head burried deep within.

Notable birds seen: Great Tinamous, Little Tinamous, Plumbeous Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Indigo-Crowned Quail-Dove, Pacific Parrotlet, Blue-Headed Parrot, Bronze-Winged Parrot, Pauraque, White-Collared Swift, Gray-Rumped Swift, Bronzy Hermit, Band-Tailed Barbthroat, White-Tipped Sicklebill, Tooth-Billed Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, Purple-Chested Hummingbird, Black-Throated Trogon, Rufous Motmot, White-Whiskered Puffbird, Orange-Fronted Barbet, Choco Toucan, Lita Woodpecker, Red-Rumped Woodpecker, Plain-Brown Woodcreeper, Black-Striped Woodcreeper, Spotted Woodcreeper, Pacific Antwren, Checker-Throated Antwren, Immaculate Antbird, Esmeraldas Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Masked Tityra, Rufous Piha, Red-Capped Manakin, Blue-Crowned Manakin, Golden-Winged Manakin, Broad-Billed Sapoya, Dagua Thrush, Stripe-Throated Wren, Song Wren, Southern Nightingale-Wren, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, Buff-Rumped Warbler, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis, Scarlet-Thighed Dacnis, Gray-and-Gold Tanager, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Scarlet-Rumped Cacique.

1 comment:

Pat O'Donnell said...

Cool post of a fantastic area I would love to bird some day. I've done a fair amount of birding in Ecuador but that was before this and some other reserves existed.

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