Chone Region: November 3, 2009

The modern story of Manabi Province is a sad one. Driving from the city of Santo Domingo out west to the coast, you pass through hundreds of thousands of hectares of deforested land. Only a few decades ago, this region was swathed in humid lowland forest; Harpy Eagles were even found on occasion. But with the introduction of industrial agriculture, most notably the successful production of bananas along the base of the Andes, colonizers rapidly cleared most of the province in hopes of profiting from another fruit or vegetable boom. Unfortunately, the total loss of natural vegetation disrupted the precipitation cycle, much like it's doing in the Brazilian Amazon, and most of the province was rendered parched and unable to support even the most modest forms of agriculture. Now, only thirsty cows roam where over 600 bird species once did, and the people of Manabi have fled to wetter provinces like Esmeraldas.

The southwestern part of Manabi province also forms the conjunction of two important bioregions, the Choco and Tumbes bioregions, and this area has a much different natural climate from the central part of the province and is still home to patches of dry tropical forest. Descending to the town of Chone and continuing to Bahia de Caraquez or further south to Portoviejo, you see brown hills enclosed in leafless, thorny brush with an occasional Ceiba tree standing solitary and bare. These trees look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book with their huge, hollow trunks and sickly green bark that allows for photosynthesis during the dry season when the tree has no leaves. This unique habitat continues southwards, albeit in a much degraded manner, through the southwestern provinces of Ecuador and into northwestern Peru, forming one of the most endemic-rich bird regions in the world.

To really have a chance of seeing the Tumbes endemic bird species you need to visit the region in the rainy season when the deciduous forest springs alive with green leaves, insects, and bird song. It's also best to visit a reserve, such as Machalilla National Park, Cerro Blanco, Manglares-Churute National Park, or Jorupe Reserve, where the forest understory is still relatively intact. The area around Chone isn't on par with these other sites; it's simply a great place for spotting resident and migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, as the Chone River forms a massive wetlands area and estuary.

Segua Marsh is a well-known, if not oft-visited, site for birders in Ecuador, but any roadside pool in the region is potentially good for birding, sometimes providing much closer looks than you would have from the observation area at the marsh proper. Driving back and forth to the coast last holiday weekend, I would pull over every few kilometers at another shallow pool, sometimes finding hundreds of birds compromising over a dozen species. Black-Bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Great and Snowy Egrets, Black-Necked Stilt, Blue-Winged Teal, and Wattled Jacanas occurred in great quantities. Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis, and Least Grebe were also present, although in small numbers. Granted, it's not always the best idea to set up your scope on the side of the road in Manabi Province, but besides a few turned heads I provoked very little reaction from the local Choneros.

Just getting out of the car, though, gives you the chance to pick up a new bird, even if it is a Tumbesian trash bird. Consider this male Black-Lored Yellowthroat that I spotted as it was signing and foraging in some shrubbery alongside a pool. Aimee was also excited about a group of Pacific Parrotlets that landed on the electricity wires above our heads as we scanned another roadside pool. Granted this probably isn't the type of birding you hope to do should you come to Ecuador, but it can be a welcome change to see thousands of birds out in the open instead of only catching glimpses of a few while birding from inside dense cloudforest.

Notable birds seen: Wattled Jacana, Black-Necked Stilt, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Blue-Winged Teal, Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Savanna Hawk, Long-Tailed Mockingbird, Green Kingfisher, Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropic Cormorant, Pacific Parrotlet, Vermilion Flycatcher, Masked Water-Tyrant, Black-Lored Yellowthroat.

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