Segua Marsh: October 31, 2009

Segua Marsh is an important wetland system in Manabí Province, located just a few minutes southwest of the city of Chone. While the area is intensively farmed for rice and fished for shrimp, there is a remarkable variety of ducks, grebes, shorebirds, and herons to be found here, making it a worthwhile visit for any birder looking to boost his country list. The best viewing point, especially in the dry season, is located on the road from Chone to San Vincente, just a few kilometers past the town of San Antonio, where a large sign indicates the location of an observation tower a few hundred meters off the road towards the marsh (the tower isn't of much use in the dry season, when birders can approach the shoreline much closer on foot). In the rainy season, the birds are considerably less concentrated, and good viewing conditions can be found along various roadside pools, whether on the road to San Vincente or Tosagua.

During a recent holiday weekend, I made my first visit to the marsh while on the way to Canoa, a small coastal village that's becoming increasingly popular with tourists and Ecuadorians. Leaving Quito well before dawn to avoid the traffic, I arrived at the marsh just before 9am with high expectations, having read extensively about the birding potential here, particularly in Roger Ahlman's well-known country report. As usual, the site was devoid of any other birders, and only a few fisherman were working this side of the marsh in their dugout canoes. A little unsure about where to start birding, I parked my car near the tower and set out on foot past a series of shallow pools, where Striated Heron, Wattled Jacana, and Green Kingfisher were common. Looking out towards the marsh, I could see thousands of Great and Snowy Egrets, Blue-Winged Teal, Neotropic Cormorants, and Black-Necked Stilts; undoubtedly, a pass with my scope would reveal many more species, too. Baffled by the presence of so many birds, I finally focused on a huge group of Wood Storks that were flying overhead while emitting a series of deep grunts. Surely, there were hundreds in flight and roosting in some nearby trees, where Black-Crowned Night-Heron was also common.

My attention then turned to the numerous Snail Kites that were perched on posts around the marsh, their slender hooked bills distinct in profile. Throughout the morning they could be heard vocalizing harshly above the shrill calls of the Wattled Jacanas and Black-Necked Stilts. After noting a pair of shy Limpkins stalking around a nearly dry pool, I spotted an odd-looking heron poking its head up out of some verdant cover. Almost immediately I recognized this as the rare and local Pinnated Bittern, as it was behaving exactly like the Least Bittern I had seen at Sani Lodge a few months ago. I watched transfixed for the next half an hour as it slowly stalked through the heavily vegetated pool, pausing on occasion to stretch its neck skyward in alert. Amazingly I would see five individual Pinnated Bitterns this morning, as they were all concentrated in several shallow pools near the observation tower. I imagine they're much more difficult to located in the rainy season.

Walking west along the shore, I finally set up my scope and scanned the marsh, noting multitudes of Black-Bellied and Fulvous Whistling-Ducks, several Cocoi Heron, and a single Osprey. Thoroughly enjoying myself, I looked around in awe at my surroundings, where barren, dry hills encircled this thriving, green center of life. Then, breaking my reverie, I realized that the fisherman I saw earlier were trying to break into my car. Chone is, of course, famous for being a rough and tumble city, mythically populated by beautiful women and threatening men. In fact, one of my Canadian colleagues married a Chonera and had warned me not to take my personal security for granted while traveling through the region. Anyway, after some long-distance shouting and staring down, the fisherman and I settled our differences, and I returned to birding, albeit a little rattled at this point.

Fortunately, the marsh had one more surprise in store for me, as I scanned another large group of Black-Necked Stilts through my scope: a handful of Glossy Ibis were busy feeding with their heads down. While found in many places throughout the world, these subtle but beautiful birds are only casual vagrants to southwestern Ecuador, although they have been recorded before at Segua Marsh. After a while several other small groups of ibises flew in, offering a good opportunity to photograph their distinct silhouettes in flight.

Notable birds seen: Wood Stork, Limpkin, Pinnated Bittern, Wattled Jacana, Black-Necked Stilt, Cocoi Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Blue-Winged Teal, Black-Bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Glossy Ibis, Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Osprey, Snail Kite, Savanna Hawk, Long-Tailed Mockingbird, Green Kingfisher, Magnificent Frigatebird, Neotropic Cormorant, Pacific Parrotlet, Sooty-Crowned Flycatcher, Vermilion Flycatcher, Masked Water-Tyrant, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-Lored Yellowthroat.

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