The area around the Jocotoco Foundation’s Rio Canande Reserve is growing more degraded by the day as colonizers from Manabí Province clear the land for agriculture after the Botrossa logging company has removed the largest trees from it. In fact, during our visit we passed by multiple fifty-hectare tracts that had recently been cleared and burned for growing rice during the upcoming rainy season. Good road birding, then, is only found well past the reserve itself and beyond the fast-growing community of Hoja Blanca. Approximately 10 km beyond the entrance to the reserve, the logging road takes you up onto a still-forested plateau that sits 500m above sea level, allowing birders access to species only found in the lower foothills of the Chocó, including Scarlet-and-White Tanager, Black-Tipped Cotinga, and Long-Wattled Umbrellabird. Having seen some good understory birds on the previous day while walking the trails of the reserve, Aimee and I decided to spend the following morning on the Botrossa Road in search of mixed flocks and raptors.
The morning got off to a slow start as we made our way up ridge in first gear, climbing slowly as I listened with my head out the window for a tanager flock. Stopping in the same place where I had seen a massive flock during my last visit, we walked up and down the road for a bit, finding monospecific flocks of the Dusky-Faced and Tawny-Crested Tanagers as well as several pairs of Emerald and Bay-Headed Tanagers. Moving on, I then found at an unassuming bend in the road a small tanager flock that contained a pair of male Scarlet-and-White Tanagers. Shouting for Aimee who was slow to exit the car, I soon had her on this diminutive but shocking tanager, showing almost hot pink in the verdant roadside woodland. Rather amped by our early success, I pushed on further, scanning each exposed branch in the canopy for perched birds, while Aimee worried whether I would drive off the side at a ludicrously slow speed of 5km/h.
Spotting a toucan perched in a dead tree near the road, I pulled over and set up the scope as we mulled over the true color of the bird’s bill. Deciding that it was truly black and thus the Chocó Toucan, we were then treated to a group of Scarlet-Browed Tanagers visiting the same tree. As Aimee walked back to the car to brew some coffee, I was startled to find a male Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis lined up perfectly in the scope when I looked through it again. Perched momentarily in the same tree, this gorgeous bird was looking directly at me, it’s yellow irises distinct even at a considerable distance. Shouting for Aimee to return, who was getting a little annoyed at this point, I scrambled to follow the bird in the scope, finally losing it just as she returned. We had seen this bird together several years ago during our first visit to Rio Silanche, and I was really hoping that we could share the experience again, but the mixed flock had moved on.
Compared to the last time I birded the road, it was remarkably quiet and there were no local busses or logging trucks driving around to scare off the birds or intimidate the birders. I stood in the middle of the road for a while as a pair of Rose-Faced Parrots flew by, low and brilliant in the sunlight. Suddenly, a massive black bird flew out of a mature tree on the right side of the road, crossing several hundred of meters to the dense crown of another tree, undulating in flight like a large woodpecker. I shouted aggressively to Aimee who was down the hill a bit as another bird then made the same journey, yelling that a Long-Wattled Umbrellabird was flying overhead. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the pair again, but we would both agree later that the size, shape, and flight were unmistakable. Just a month ago I had witnessed the Amazonian Umbrellabird in a similar situation, flying out it the open across the Rio Napo, so I’m confident that I didn’t misidentify a Purple-Throated Fruitcrow, for example.
Tantalized by the brief sighting, we continued down the road, promising that we would seek out the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird at a lek somewhere in the future for more prolonged views (the Buenaventura Reserve in southern Ecuador has just such a site that is active during the rainy season on the western slope). Passing the encampment, which is a large cleared area, we stopped again for a mixed flock, this time locking on to a pair of Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis at eye level along the roadside. Although I was firing away furiously on my camera, I never photographed the bird out in the open, only capturing pieces of it, namely the scarlet-colored breast and white belly of the male. Also moving with the flock was the Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Lita Woodpecker, and Barred Puffbird, all of which were also seen well by Aimee. Before moving on I noticed a solitary monkey feeding not far away in the crown of a low tree. It was revealed to be a Spider Monkey as it moved gracefully under the canopy, showing much brown in its flanks. We then made one last push to what seemed to be the far end of the plateau, where there was a viewpoint looking to the north. Way off in the distance was a King Vulture circling high over a group of Black Vultures.
Heading back towards the reserve, I desperately sought the Black-Tipped Cotinga, stopping to check out every perched bird in the crown of distant trees. While it never materialized, I did find another terrific mixed flock, this one at eye level just off the side of the road. Pouring over the birds, which included Western White-Tailed Trogon, Orange-Fronted Barbet, One-Colored Becard, and Streaked Flycatcher, I discovered a pair of Blue-Whiskered Tanagers in the understory. My pulse shot up as I followed these two birds moving up and down the mossy branches, their distinct blue wing and facial streaking clearly visible. Concluding this impressive sweep of tanagers, we made good time returning to the lodge, where we would quickly pack up and start the journey back to Quito. Before arriving at the ferry, I paused once to photograph a Laughing Falcon perched above the road at a stream crossing; the Green Kingfisher was also working the area from a log nearby. At the Rio Canande, there was a fair amount of midday bird activity, including a juvenile Pied-Billed Grebe and a Spotted Sandpiper, the former being a new addition to the bird list for the reserve.
Notable birds seen: Snowy Egret, King Vulture, Swallow-Tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Spotted Sandpiper, Rose-Faced Parrot, White-Collared Swift, Bronzy Hermit, Purple-Crowned Fairy, Western White-Tailed Trogon, Green Kingfisher, Barred Puffbird, Orange-Fronted Barbet, Pale-Mandible Aracari, Choco Toucan, Lita Woodpecker, Black-Striped Woodcreeper, Slaty Antwren, Yellow-Margined Flatbill, Long-Tailed Tyrant, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Masked Water-Tyrant, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, One-Colored Becard, Purpel-Throated Fruitcrow, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, White-Bearded Manakin, Red-Eyed Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis, Scarlet-and-White Dacnis, Emerald Tanager, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, Rufous-Winged Tanager, Summer Tanager, Scarlet-Browed Tanager.