Rio Palenque is perhaps the worst-case scenario for the future of conservation in northwestern Ecuador. Created in 1970 as a biological station in the western lowlands along the Santo Domingo-Quevedo corridor, the one-hundred acre reserve has gradually become an irrelevant island of forest in a thriving agricultural sea of African palm, banana, and pineapple. The once mammoth bird list, which included a substantial number of both Choco and Tumbesian endemics, is now diminished by dozens of species, and further decrease is inevitable as the reserve becomes even more isolated from the Andes and other patches of forest in the western lowlands. This is certainly the fate of Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, and perhaps to a lesser extent the significantly larger Rio Canande Reserve, both located further north squarely in the Choco lowlands.
Given the limited options in the region, the reserve is still an amazing place to spend a weekend birding, offering a wide variety of habitat, including humid forest and woodland, as well as scrub, open ares, and riparian habitat. It's definitely possible to see one hundred and fifty species in a few days, if you're motivated and already familiar with the avifauna. I hadn't been to Rio Palenque for a few years, and on this visit it was remarkable how much better I had become at birding, or at least at identifying what was worth following up on as I walked the trails. I recall originally being baffled by the heat and mosquitos and impossible diversity of bird song, but this morning it felt like I was perusing the shelves of my library while strolling along Trail 3: "Let's see, Bright-Rumped Atilla, Western Slaty-Antshrike, White-Bearded Manakin, Ochre-Bellied Flycatcher, Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, ... Wait, what's that? That sounds interesting."
Indeed, I had returned to the reserve this weekend with hopes of finding a few unseen birds on my country list, including Red-Billed Scythebill, Dusky Antbird, and Crimson-Breasted Finch, among others. With respect to logistics, there is decent and very reasonable accommodation available on site. The drive from Quito takes around four hours, depending on the traffic coming down the Andes from Aloag to Santo Domingo (the route is a tortuously winding, precipitous, mostly two-lane road that is in a state of perpetual construction and heavily used by the trucking industry). Birding tours hit this site frequently, although I've never encountered one there; usually they have their clients stay elsewhere in the area, such as Tinalandia or at a nicer hotel in the Santo Domingo area.
I left Quito on Saturday morning before most people went to bed, but it was worth it as I arrive before 8am with plenty of time to investigate the morning bird activity. Instead of plunging into the forest like I usually do, I spent a few hours birding the entrance road and the grounds of the hotel, which yielded trogon madness as many individuals of three species were calling in the trees all around, including Collared, Ecuadorian, and Western White-Tailed Trogons. Aimee can't stand trogons anymore due to their phlegmatic nature and dopey look, but I appreciate any bird that lets me get this close to admire them. Also conspicuous in the area was a pair of noisy Band-Backed Wrens, Gray-and-Warbler, Golden-Olive Woodpecker, Orange-Fronted Barbet, Purple-Crowned Fairy, and Boat-Billed Flycatcher.
I spent most of the day walking the trails near the hotel, which descend into a densely vegetated ravine and pass by some impressively large trees bejeweled in lianas and bromeliads. At the bottom of the ravine, I found a rather tolerant Rufous Motmot, a pair of Great Antshrikes, and a Little Tinamous just off the trail. Black-Headed Antthrush was calling from everywhere, but I didn't make much of an effort to see this common but difficult terrestrial bird. Circling around towards the hotel on a wide open track, I encountered a terrific tanager flock that included Bay-Headed, Blue-Necked, Guira, and Golden-Hooded Tanagers, as well as the target Crimson-Breasted Finch. I was shocked by the contrast between it's crimson breast and buff underparts, thinking for an instant that it was the similarly colored but larger Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis. Next, passing a large stand of heliconia flowers, I spotted Stripe-Throated, Tawny-Bellied, and Band-Tailed Hermits (I wouldn't find Baron's Hermit until the following day). Before climbing back up the ridge to the hotel, I stopped by the river and found a Little Cuckoo, as well as Pacific Antwren, Chesnut-Backed Antbird, and Ecuadorian Thrush.
The following morning, I drove to the other end of the reserve to bird Trails 6-9, which pass through forest on relatively flat ground, thinking the avifauna might be different there. Although the trogons continued to plague me from overhead, I focused on the understory birds, shortly finding a pair of amazing and very vocal Red-Billed Scythebills. Watching another one later with a mixed flock, I was shocked when it probed deep into a tree with its incredibly curved bill, finding a beetle deep in a hollow. Imagine the beetle's dismay when it saw the highly-adapted creature that extracted it from its hiding place! The morning's excursion yielded some other fine birds, including Olivaceous Piculet, Speckle-Breasted Wren, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Rufous-Tailed Jacamar, and, after much hard work, Bright-Rumped Attila. The latter bird, like all attillas, is very loud and vocal but extremely difficult to locate as it screams away thirty meters above in the canopy.
Before breaking for lunch and returning to Quito, I decided to venture down to the river again, this time at La Playa, which is located at the far end of the reserve. The property is certainly multi-use, as much of the land I drove by was dedicated to cultivation, although of a more forested nature, including stands of balsa, macadamia, and bamboo. These areas are probably alright for birding too, although I was interested in just checking the river for raptors and shorebirds. As soon as I pulled up at the beach I found a mixed flock, including Crimson-Breasted Finch and Sooty-Headed Tyrannulet, an unexciting, tiny flycatcher but a lifer for me nevertheless. Although there was nothing else around of note, I felt elated to finally pick up this tyrannulet, having targeted it before my trip, noting its habitat and behavior and studying its call. This is what getting to 1000 species seen in Ecuador is going to take.
Notable birds seen: Little Tinamous, Laughing Falcon, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, White-Tipped Dove, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Pacific Parrotlet, Bronze-Winged Parrot, Little Cuckoo, Band-Tailed Barbthroat, Stripe-Throated Hermit, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Baron's Hermit, Purple-Crowned Fairy, Ecuadorian Trogon, Rufous Motmot, White-Whiskered Puffbird, Orange-Fronted Barbet, Pale-Mandibled Aracari, Olivaceous Piculet, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Buff-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Red-Billed Scythebill, Great Antshrike, Western Slaty Antshrike, Pacific Antwren, Chestnut-Backed Antbird, Sooty-Headed Tyrannulet, Black-Headed Tody-Flycatcher, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Bran-Colored Flycatcher, Bright-Rumped Atilla, Black-Crowned Tityra, Ecuadorian Thrush, Band-Backed Wren, Speckle-Breasted Wren, Bay Wren, Gray-and-Gold Warbler, Buff-Rumped Warbler, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis, Guira Tanager, Orange-Crowned Euphonia, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Crimson-Breasted Finch.