Pululahua: December 12-13, 2009

Just a short drive north of Quito, Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve lies within one of the largest volcanic craters in the Americas. At 6km in diameter, the massive crater surrounds an impressive resurgent cone in its center, and the steep inner walls are richly draped in temperate woodland and scrub, including huge swaths of chusquea bamboo. As the most recent eruption was well over two millennia ago, the fertile bottom of the crater is now farmed extensively and inhabited by a small community of approximately fifty people, including our amiable hosts last weekend, Renato and Paola, the owners of Pululahua Hostal. Designed with an ecological conscience, this comfortable hostal boasts both wind and solar power as well as offering excellent birding, hiking, and horseback riding excursions.

Hardcore listers will no doubt be familiar with the site for harboring one of only two populations of the Rusty-Breasted Antpitta, a diminutive skulker that was found in Ecuador so recently that it's not even included in the field guide. The site deserves attention from more casual birders, though, for the number of difficult temperate forest birds that lurk in the dense vegetation below the crater rim, including the Undulated, Chestnut-Crowned, Chestnut-Naped, and Rufous Antpittas; Ocellated, Ash-Colored and Unicolored Tapaculos, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch; White-Browed Spinetail; and Plain-Tailed Wren. Although you won't find mature montane forest here like at the nearby Yanacocha Reserve, you'll have a greater chance of locating these hallowed skulkers, especially with the help of local knowledge. While I had birded the crater by myself on several occasions previously, I was delighted by the facility with which Renato and I located the Rusty-Breasted Antpitta, Ocellated Tapaculo, and Undulated Antpitta, all lifers for me.

Our first target was the Rusty-Breasted Antpitta, and late Saturday afternoon Renato and Paola took Aimee and me to one of their stakeouts not far from the hostal. With a touch of playback and a lot of luck, I soon had the beautiful antpitta in sight, its white lores and deep rusty breast stunning against the browns and greens of the bamboo. An early start the following morning found us along a trail near the crater rim, where our second target, the Undulated Antpitta, was spotted several times out in front of us, hopping daringly out in the open in search of worms. This very large antpitta looks quite similar to the Giant Antpitta, which is now a commonly seen and photographed bird thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Angel Paz; the Undulated Antpitta, however, is more deeply scalloped on its underparts and has a white throat and dark malar stripe, features which are barely visible in the photograph above. Aside from the elevation at which we saw this scarcely-seen bird, there was no doubt in its identification when we first encountered it on the trail as it stood facing us several meters ahead, its unique underparts clearly visible.

Despite all the antpitta action, the bird of the trip was undoubtedly the magnificent Ocellated Tapaculo, one of the finest skulkers of the upper slopes of the Andes. When Renato had asked me earlier if there were any birds in the crater that I hadn't seen before, he was surprised when I told him that the tapaculo was missing from my list. The bird is quite common in certain locations within the crater, he explained, and promised we would have a good chance at seeing it the following morning. Although we had three birds loudly calling in close proximity at his stakeout, we didn't lay our eyes on one until later on the trail where we had our close encounter with the Undulated Antpitta. While the Ocellated Tapaculo typically remains in incredibly deep cover as it forages and piercingly claims its territory, this individual bird was relatively visible as it moved in the undergrowth at eye level just off the trail. In fact, at one point the bird was only a meter in front of me, oddly unaware of my camera shutter clattering away several times per second.

Notable birds seen: Andean Guan, Squirrel Cuckoo, Collared Inca, Black-Tailed Trainbearer, Sapphire-Vented Puffleg, Turquoise Jay, White-Browed Spinetail, Rusty-Breasted Antpitta, Undulated Antpitta, Ocellated Tapaculo, Unicolored Tapaculo, White-Tailed Tyrannulet, Smoke-Colored Pewee, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Yellow-Bellied Chat-Tyrant, Red-Crested Cotinga, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Rusty Flowerpiercer, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Buff-Breasted Mountain-Tanager, Rufous-Chested Tanager, Band-Tailed Seedeater, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch, White-Winged Brush-Finch.

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