The road running down the eastern slope of the Andes along the northern border with Colombia starts from the Panamerican Highway in the town of Julio Andrade, which is just south of Tulcan. This paved road first winds through an extensive agriculture zone, gradually descending to the town of El Carmelo, where it ends. Just before the town a packed dirt road branches off to the right, first towards the town of Santa Barbara and then La Bonita; eventually, this road reaches the eastern lowlands and access to the city of Lago Agrio is possible. Most of the temperate and subtropical forest along the road at higher altitudes has been cleared, but there are several deep forested ravines that harbor remarkably diverse mixed flocks, including some outstanding eastern slope specialties, such as the Red-Hooded and White-Capped Tangaers and Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan. Supposedly, the road is more forested the farther you descend, with the Colombian side to the north still being in a pristine state.
If you're looking for good eastern slope temperate and subtropical forest, then there are definitely better, and easier, birding sites closer to Quito, including the Papallacta region, Las Caucheras Road, and the Guacamayos. Birders visit the La Bonita Road in extreme northern Ecuador to experience something new and perhaps exotic as there is a decent possibility for rare eastern slope birds or Colombian endemics in this area, including the Chestnut-Crested Cotinga and Bicolored Antpitta. The avifauna at the site is also interesting for the birder based in Ecuador as some of the more common birds, such as the Spectacled Whitestart and Capped Conebill, bear unique variations not seen elsewhere in the country. As I was already in the region to visit Cerro Mongus, I decided to drive further north for a couple of hours to check out this little-birded road, following in the footsteps of the incomparable Roger Ahlman in his outstanding country report from 2003.
Despite its intimidating location along the border, the road feels quite safe as there is a sizable military presence in the towns and almost no car or bus traffic. Like other eastern slope sites, the weather is unpredictable and frequently poor, and this morning it was very wet with extremely low visibility, offering almost no chance for me to scan the forested ravines from above for mixed flocks. As I pulled up at 8:00am to the Bicolored Antpitta site, which is detailed in Roger's country report, I heard the bird calling in a dense stream bed just off the road, it's simple one-note whistle clearly identifiable. While it didn't respond to playback or call again that morning, a fine Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrant appeared nearby. Due to poor weather I turned back a few hours, or five kilometers, later, having only picked up a few birds in roadside flocks with nothing unusual seen. Returning to the antpitta site, I walked the road for a while, coming around the bend and finding myself at eye level with a glorious Red-Hooded Tanager. A small group of them were moving rather lethargically with a huge mixed flock, which provided a solid hour's worth of birding. At one point the weather even cleared and the sun came out for a few minutes, offering the chance to take a few photographs. After the flock finally passed, a solitary Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan crossed the road just overhead, pausing to check me out before moving on.
Having seen my target bird, the Red-Hooded Tanager, near midday, I was anxious to start the long journey back to Quito in order to return to work on Monday. As I rounded a corner towards the last forested ravine, I spotted a massive raptor perched on a distant treetop. Hitting the breaks on my car and quickly lining the bird up in my binoculars, I recognized immediately that it was a Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, its pointed crest obvious even at a distance of over a kilometer. In spectacular fashion, the eagle took flight three times as it approached me from perch to perch passing just above the ravine. Finally, it soared high above a ridge and into the mist, leaving me floored by its incredible size and obvious dominion over the forest. Indeed, this rare temperate forest eagle had eluded me for years, making me speculate whether I hadn't actually seen it before confusing it for some other raptor as it soared high overhead. Trust me, then, when I say there's no mistaking the Black-and-Chestnut Eagle.
Update: This morning I received this warden message from the U.S. embassy in Quito:
The U.S. Embassy in Quito advises American citizens visiting or resident in Ecuador to exercise caution when traveling to the northern border region of Ecuador, to include areas in the provinces of Sucumbios, Orellana and Carchi, northern Esmeraldas, and southern Esmeraldas, south of Atacames. U.S. Government personnel are under strict limitations with respect to travel in these areas due to the spread of organized crime, drug trafficking, small arms trafficking, and incursions by various Colombian narco-terrorist organizations.
Local media reports indicate that on January 18, members of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces engaged in an exchange of gunfire with three individuals on the Opuno River in the Sucumbios Province of Ecuador, on the border with Colombia. The exchange of gunfire reportedly resulted in the deaths of the individuals. Local press also indicated that on the same day, an Ecuadorian Military detachment was fired upon by unknown individuals. It is suspected that the second incident was a reprisal for the earlier engagement.
Notable birds seen: Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, Andean Guan, Tourmaline Sunangel, Masked Trogon, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Grey-Breasted Mountain-Toucan, Pearled Treerunner, Streak-Necked Flycatcher, Black-Capped Tyrannulet, Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Barred Becard, Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, White-Crested Elaenia, Black Phoebe, Red-Crested Cotinga, Spectacled Whitestart, Citrine Warbler, Masked Flowerpiercer, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Blue-and-Black Tanager, Grass-Green Tanager, Red-Hooded Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Slaty Brush-Finch, Rufous-Naped Brush-Finch, Northern Mountain-Cacique.