Tandayapa Valley: July 20-21, 2009

There is a long and rich history of birding in this valley, going back even before the Calicali-Independencia Highway was built and access became relatively easy. Still, birding has taken a quantum leap here just in the last few years, and there are now four birding lodges located along a ten kilometer stretch of a modest dirt road: Alambi, San Jorge, Tandayapa, and Bellavista lodges. I spent the last two days birding this road, ironically spending the night at lodgings in San Miguel de los Bancos, which at $10 a night was certainly cheaper, if not a little less convenient. I had originally planned to camp at Bellavista, but the valley was already packed uncomfortably with birders, and the campsite was occupied.

While the summer months in the valley are mercifully dry, the birds can be relatively quiet, with a short window of activity in the early morning lasting until about 10am. I spent most of my time driving the road in search of mixed flocks, rarely venturing inside the forest on any of the trails maintained by the lodges (most of them charge day-use fees to bird their trails or visit their hummingbird feeders). The road itself is fascinating in its varied avifauna; in just 10km it rises from 1500 to 2370m, boasting excellent subtropical and temperate forest and woodland along most of the way, with just a hint of foothill forest birds at the beginning and montane forest birds at the end. For example, I spotted a pair of Silver-Throated Tanagers in a mixed flock just off the highway and a pair of Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanagers at the pass.

The showcase bird of the valley has to be the Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, which is rather common towards the pass in the Bellavista Cloudforest Reserve. They can be heard yelping and rattling their bills throughout the day and are relatively easy to track down, although getting good photographs can be difficult without the best equipment. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a pair in the understory just a few meters above the ground; they let me approach quite close as they moved about cautiously in the low light, one feeding the other briefly as if it were a juvenile or being courted. This Chocó endemic bears more than a casual similarity to the Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan on the eastern slope, but its maxilla is unique for its raised yellow plate, which is actually visible in the adjacent photograph.

Although I had birded the valley many times before, I still had a few surprises on this trip, in particular encountering a pair of Scale-Breasted Fruiteaters in a mixed flock. These squat, distinctive cotingas are extravagantly paterned, almost like a fish with dark scaling on their underparts and mantle, even down to their rump. Quiet and slow moving, they almost escaped my attention in the whirl of activity that was the rest of the flock, as various tanagers, flycatchers, and furnariids flitted about. Another unique find was a pair of beautiful Golden-Rumped Euphonias foraging independently, and I also noted a solitary Red-Crested Cotinga perched in a treetop near the pass, another montane forest bird that was out of its normal range. Finally, I continued my good luck with pachyramphus becards, a distinctive genus of tyrant flycatchers, locating both the Barred and Black-and-White Becards in several mixed flocks.

Despite its proximity to Quito, which is little more than an hour away by car, the future of the Tandayapa Valley is bright. Forming a privately-owned natural corridor between the Mindo-Nambillo and Maquipucuna Reserves, the valley seems protected from the island effect which threatens so many of Ecuador's other private reserves. Even the small settlement in the middle of the valley, Tandayapa Village, seems progressive in its awareness of environmental issues and its promotion of ecotourism. Indeed, with its vast network of public and private reserves and steadily increasing domestic and international tourism, the northwestern slope of the Ecuadorian Andes must be one of the finest exemplars of conservation and bird tourism in Latin America.

Notable birds seen: Swallow-Tailed Kite, Red-Billed Parrot, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Red-Headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet, Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Rufous Spinetail, Pearled Treerunner, Barred Becard, Black-and-White Becard, Red-Crested Cotinga, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Scaled Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Turquoise Jay, Red-Eyed Vireo, Glossy-Black Thrush, Golden-Rumped Euphonia, Silver-Throated Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Blue-and-Black Tanager, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Dusky-Bush Tanager, Tricolored Brush-Finch, White-Winged Brush-Finch.

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