Rio Canandé Reserve: October 9-11, 2009

During my last visit in June to the Jocotoco Foundation’s Rio Canande Reserve, Galo, one of the park rangers, explained that October was by far the birdiest month of the year in the area. With the dry season in the northwestern lowlands coming to a close, the birds vocalize throughout the day, he explained, establishing their mating partners and nesting territories just before the wet weather begins. Although neither of us are ornithologists, it certainly sounded reasonable, and I vowed at the time that I would return the following October in search of some of the birds that I had missed the first time. These are, of course, the Chocó lowlands, home to the endemic Broad-Billed Sapoya, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis, and Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, and no visiting birder should really wait for October, or any other month, to visit.

The reserve is a tricky place to visit independently, though, even with your own transportation as the route is tortuous and the road unforgiving. Aimee and I decided to drive from Quito to San Miguel de los Bancos after work on Thursday, bird Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary early Friday morning, and complete the drive to Rio Canande during the middle of the day on Friday. From Pedro Vincente Maldonado, the road winds through many kilometers of degraded foothill and lowland forest, much of which has been cleared for African Palm plantations. Aside from Lemon-Rumped Tanagers, Yellow-Bellied Seedeaters, and Masked Water-Tyrants, there’s not a lot to see along this stretch. Just before arriving at the Rio Canande, the area is still almost entirely cleared, although there are sometimes a few birding surprises. We spotted the Blue-Headed Parrot perched on a dead palm stump, and the House Sparrow on some barbed wire fencing along the road; last time I also found a Barred Puffbird on a telephone wire. It’s also possible to travel to this point from the town of Quininde, which is located along the road to Esmeraldas, and busses to Hoja Blanca, a community beyond the reserve itself, pass along this route regularly.

Once we crossed the fairy, which is operated by the Botrossa logging company and requires written permission to board, I put the car in first gear and drove the final few kilometers to the reserve with my head out the window, listening for mixed flocks. Stopping the car to follow up on every bird call, I was soon standing in the road watching a flock of antwrens that contained a pair of smart Slate-Throated Gnatcatchers, my first lifer of the trip. A much larger flock down the road yielded the Pacific Flatbill, One-Colored Becard, and a variety of uncommon and spectacular tanagers found in the region, including the Emerald and Rufous-Winged Tanagers. Amazingly, from the same spot in the road I was watching the flock, I also glimpsed the Ocellated Antbird through the undergrowth, its massive blue eye patch lit brightly by a shaft of sunlight, and the White-Tipped Sicklebill feeding at a stand of heliconia flowers. As Aimee was sleeping in the car while all this activity was going on, I almost didn’t have the heart to share these magnificent observations with her.

After we arrived at the reserve and got settled in our cabin, where we were the only guests, I headed out on the Banded Ground-Cuckoo Trail to see if there were any antswarms. Passing through the overgrown cacao orchard near the dining hall, I spotted the Common Potoo roosting out in the open on an exposed branch. I also spent some time photographing a preening Purple-Collared Woodstar just overhead. As it turned out, both of these birds had yet to be registered on the reserve’s bird list. Later on along the trail, I noted several Chestnut-Backed Antbirds and a solitary Green Manakin, or at least that’s what I think it was. Never having seen the Green Manakin before, I was shocked by how closely it resembles the Broad-Billed Sapoya in appearance and behavior, according to the field guide. Without a guide, or at least someone more familiar with these two birds, I struggled to confidently identify it as it moved silently in the undergrowth. As it turns out, I would see this same bird several times along the trail, photographing it successfully, and Galo would confirm my suspicion that it was indeed the manakin.

The following day we made the circuit to the Black-Tipped Cotinga Viewpoint and back, advancing considerably beyond the viewpoint along the Golden-Chested Tanager Trail in search of, yes, the Golden-Chested Tanager. Ascending to the ridge via the Tawny-Faced Quail Trail we first heard a pair of Rufous-Crowned Antpittas calling just beyond the turn-off to the Red-Capped Manakin Trail. Now, this mythical antpitta is rarely seen anywhere in Ecuador, and Galo himself has only seen it once on accident as it crossed the trail in front of him. I was beginning to believe that it no longer inhabited the reserve, but we immediately recognized the bird as soon as we heard its distinctive call. Ten minutes later of periodic playback, we had worn them out and they fell silent, one impossibly deep in a ravine and the other probably scared far away from the trail. We never really got close to seeing them, and I’m not sure where they were calling from anyway in the relatively open understory. At any rate, the bird certainly lives in the reserve and should be looked for in this area, only a ten minute’s walk from the cabins.

As we slowly climbed the ridge, we came across a large mixed flock, including the Bronze-Winged Parrot, Purple-Throated Fruitcrow, Western White-Throated and Northern Violaceous Trogons, Broad-Billed Motmot, Black-Striped Woodcreeper, and Rufous Piha. Even after we had good looks at these birds, I made everyone wait until the flock had finally moved on, hoping to find the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird tagging along. Hearing the Choco Tapaculo while proceeding up the steep switchbacks in the trail, I then practically stepped on an Hoja Podrida, an incredibly venomous nocturnal viper that curls up in dead leaf litter during the day. In fact, we would come across several other snakes along the trail, forcing me to admit that birding is such a dangerous activity. Snakes are literally everywhere in Ecuador, but we rarely see them as we step carelessly along the trails, our eyes in the canopy and our elbows askew. The last thing I think about when I’m trying to find a bird or race after a flock is whether a snake is nearby, but if it wasn’t for my rubber boots I’d probably have been bitten by now. Anyway, we finally reached the viewpoint without any other noteworthy incidents, but it was devoid of any meaningful bird activity and certainly of any Black-Tipped Cotingas.

I had decided before the trip that the Golden-Chested Tanager was my primary target bird, but the next few hours along the trail past the viewpoint would be my only chance to see it. The bird inhabits the canopy in primary ridgetop forest and though it has a loud distinctive call, it’s quite difficult to locate as it forages high above in mature bromeliad-laden trees. With my iPod paralyzed by the humidity, we were left with nothing but our senses to find the tanager. Indeed, several times during the next hour we would hear the bird calling, and Galo even spotted it once moving with a flock of Tawny-Crested Tanagers that I was diligently working over. While I ultimately missed the tanager, I did have great looks at a group of Bicolored Antbirds which were behaving as if they were following an antswarm, although we were unaware of any ants present. Galo explained that the Banded Ground-Cuckoo was sometimes found with this group of birds, but it also went unseen this morning. After messing around with an armadillo we found rooting around near the trail, we were confronted by an intimidating group of over twenty Collared Peccaries coming towards us on the trail. They approached so close, in fact, that I thought we would have to climb a tree for safety. Come to think of it, that might have been a good idea as it would have provided a good look-out for the tanager.

We had lunch at the viewpoint as the weather cleared, spotting Blue-Fronted Parrotlet in flight and a Collared Trogon in the trees nearby. Aimee pointed out a ghostly white bird flying over the dark green canopy far below, probably a Cattle Egret she said until we informed her that she had just seen her first male Black-Tipped Cotinga! Without a scope, the best we could do was follow the bird as it moved erratically from perch to perch, until it passed out of sight in the distance. Descending back to the cabins via the Banded Ground-Cuckoo Trail, we sent Galo on ahead as he was anxious to catch the soccer game in which Ecuador would lose its last chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Aside from seeing the Green Manakin again and a small flock with the Spot-Crowned Antvireo and Western Woodhaunter, activity was low at this point, and I spent the final hours of the day along the Tawny-Faced Quail Trail as Aimee rested in the cabin. Aside from a pair of Western Slaty-Antshrikes, a Streaked Flycatcher, and the ubiquitous Red-Capped Manakin, there were few birds seen. The next morning along the Botross Road would be another story, though.

Notable birds seen: Bat Falcon, Blue-Fronted Parrotlet, Common Potoo, Bronzy Hermit, Band-Tailed Barbthroat, White-tipped Sicklebill, Purple-Chested Hummingbird, Purple-Crowned Fairy, Western White-Tailed Trogon, Northern Violaceous Trogon, Broad-Billed Motmot, Orange-Fronted Barbet, Red-Headed Barbet, Slaty Spinetail, Western Woodhaunter, Black-Striped Woodcreeper, Spot-Crowned Antvireo, Bicolored Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Black-Capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Scale-Crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-Margined Flatbill, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Boat-Billed Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Rufous Piha, Black-Tipped Cotinga, Red-Capped Manakin, Green Manakin, Red-Eyed Vireo, Gray-Breasted Martin, Southern Nightengale-Wren, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Choco Warbler, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis, Emerald Tanager, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Rufous-Winged Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Black-Winged Saltator, Shiny Cowbird, House Sparrow.

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