Mangaloma is a sizable reserve in the northwestern lowlands located only a thirty minute drive from San Miguel de los Bancos. At 200 hectares itself, plus another 500 hectares of non-protected humid forest, the site contains more than enough habitat to support a healthy population of birds, making it a clear winner over Rio Silanche in terms of its birding potential and longevity as a conservation project. While not often visited by birding tours, Mangaloma is famous for its occasional sightings of the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, which is one of the great mythical birds of the world, a magnificent Chocó endemic that is basically never seen except at antswarms and even then rarely. The site deserves more notoriety, though, for its other outstanding endemic foothill and lowland species, including the Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, which has almost reached mythical status itself due to habitat loss.
I arranged my visit by phone, following the instructions in Charles Hesse's excellent trip report from 2006 (making arrangements beforehand is mandatory, and non-guided visits cost $10). Scouting out the site on Friday evening, I found the reserve without trouble following Sam Woods' thrilling account of his twitch of the Banded Ground-Cuckoo of 2006, noting that the access roads have improved to the point where four-wheel drive is no longer necessary (high clearance still is, though). I saw a few good birds in the woodland approaching the entrance to the reserve including Silver-Throated Tanager and Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, and heard a pair of White-Throated Crakes calling loudly from some pastureland. Returning to los Bancos for the night, I spoke with Patricio, the owner of the Restaurant Mirador los Bancos, who told me that Dusan Brinkhuizen and two clients had visited Mangaloma on Wednesday having seen both the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird and Rufous-Crowned Antpitta. The latter obviously shocked me, as the antpitta is rare and local even where the boldest birders fear to tread in the northwestern lowlands (it could be just uncommon and local in unexplored parts of Cotocachi-Cayapas National Park, though). Now knowing the full potential of my visit, I had trouble getting to sleep that night.
Starting early enough that morning to encounter several Pauraque on the access road, I rang for Alvaro, the park ranger, at the gate, and he led me down to the beginning of the Blue Trail, from which two loop trails, the Red and Yellow, branch off. It was raining lightly and the trail was wet, muddy, and very slippery as I made slow progress up the hill from the river. Stopping at a clearing full of vines, I found a pair of Dusky Antbirds that were joined by Chestnut-Backed Antbirds, all calling noisily from the undergrowth and difficult to get good looks at. Leaving my scope behind at a fallen tree, I entered mature forest finding an understory flock after a few minutes, filled with Ochre-Breasted Tanagers and several species of antwren. Between the two junctions where the Red and Yellow Trails rejoin the Blue, I suddenly walked into what seemed like an antpitta crossfire, as at least two Rufous-Crowned Antpittas were loudly calling away on either side of the trail. Having only heard but not seen this unique antpitta at Rio Canande several months ago, I steeled myself for a battle to get a glimpse of one. Strangely, it didn't take much effort, as they were already so close to the trail and stopped moving once they launched into their thirty second series of monotone whistles (check out Roger Ahlman's superb recording at Xeno Canto). Breathlessly, I watched just the head of a male as he called from deep within the undergrowth, his long, black eye stripe striking and crown richly colored. I caught up with him again down the trail and pushed into the undergrowth deeper this time, as he let me approach within a few meters as he continued to call for almost a minute. This time I had my camera ready and with my ISO value set to one million, or something, I fired away on my 300mm lens (this photograph hasn't been cropped). The bold facial pattern, the fine barring on the breast and belly, the delicately spotted wings, the richly streaked back -- this is perhaps my finest bird seen in Ecuador.
With something like pure joy in my heart, I made my way further up the Blue Trail, slipping and falling repeatedly in the mud, smiling like an idiot all the while until I eventually lacerated my forearm on some cut bamboo. Pushing ahead, I encountered some great forest birds including Golden-Winged Manakin, Black-Headed Antthrush, and Indigo-Crowned Quail-Dove. Groups of Tawny-Faced Gnatwren were everywhere, and I located a Plumbeous Kite perched in a bare tree way overhead. When I reached the top of the hill it finally stopped raining for a few hours, and the bird activity increased dramatically with large tanager flocks moving overhead and Choco and Chestnut-Mandibled Toucans calling from all sides. One great flock in particular held Gray-and-Gold Tanager and Rufous Mourner, which were both seen at eye level given the steep slope of the ridge. Frankly, I thought the mourner was a cotinga but it's classified as a tyrannid, despite looking just like the Rufous Piha and very similar to the laniocera mourners, all cotingas. Sometimes I'm glad that the construction of knowledge isn't my business.
With my arm bleeding through my shirt it was only fitting at this point as a reward to see a displaying Long-Wattled Umbrellabird out in the open, almost at eye level in a relatively bare tree thirty meters away. Jet black and back lit, the bird was a little tough to see at first despite its large size, but as my eyes adjusted I slowly parsed its outline, visually tracing its incredible features for the first time. First, one notices the heavy crow-like beak that is almost completely umbrella-ed by a dashing crest combed over into a ridiculous curl that would make any greaser proud. Almost by some force of gravity, the eyes are then dragged down the male's shocking, almost vulgar, wattle which at first looks like a branch or thing apart from the bird. Dramatically extending below a perched bird at rest, the wattle can then be elongated almost to twice that length, reaching 30 cm at its most dangled. The male I was watching seemed to be bouncing his wattle up and down as if it were a spring, making its booming foghorn call several times at widely spaced intervals. Eventually it flew higher into the canopy of a dense tree, but I heard several males calling during the next few hours before it started raining again, very low-pitched and far-carrying. Ready to leave by noon, then, I was soaked, bloody, and covered in mud, but deeply satisfied by my marvelous encounters with two jewels of the Chocó crown.
Update: Alejandro Solano, one of the owners of the reserve, wanted me to reiterate that the playback of calls of threatened and rare birds is strictly prohibited on the property, including that of the Rufous-Crowned Antpitta. Obviously, birders shouldn't be walking the lower trails trolling for the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, either.
Notable birds seen: Plumbeous Kite, Indigo-Crowned Quail-Dove, Pauraque, White-Whiskered Hermit, Green Kingfisher, Pale-Mandibled Aracari, Choco Toucan, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Black-Cheeked Woodpecker, Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Streak-Headed Woodcreeper, Pacific Antwren, Checker-Throated Antwren, Dusky Antbird, Chestnut-Backed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, Black-Headed Antthrush, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, Sooty-Headed Tyrannulet, Sulphur-Rumped Tyrannulet, Rufous Mourner, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Golden-Winged Manakin, Swainson's Thrush, Ecuadorian Thrush, Bay Wren, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, Choco Warbler, Buff-Rumped Warbler, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis, Gray-and-Gold Tanager, Silver-Throated Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Dusky-Faced Tanager, White-Shouldered Tanager, Scarlet-Rumped Cacique.