San Martin de el Para Reserve: January 23, 2010

San Martin de el Para is a privately owned 600 hectare reserve in the foothills of the eastern slope of the Andes. Located about 15 km east of the town of Archidona, the reserve is usually birded from a base at Hosteria Paraiso de Orquideas, which is situated along the road to Tena just 2km on the right before Archidona. Although this obscure reserve rarely graces birding trip itineraries, with an exception being those of Andean Birding, it is especially noteworthy for containing forested bamboo habitat, which is difficult to find in eastern Ecuador. Here you'll encounter scarce and local bird specialists such as the Large-Headed Flatbill, Striated Antbird, and Bamboo Foliage-Gleaner, among a general but impressive mixture of eastern lowlands and foothills birds.

Now that the highway is almost entirely paved from Quito to Tena, getting to the eastern foothills is relatively painless, and I made the approximately 200km drive on Friday afternoon after work. After arranging for a guide to accompany me to the reserve the following morning, I bedded down comfortably at the hosteria, which is something of an adventure in itself with a host of animals, both caged and free, inhabiting the premises, including a pair of Spix's Guans just oustide my cabin. While independent visits to the reserve aren't allowed, I was relaxed the following morning in my guide Umberto's company, who didn't know much about birds but was happy to carry my scope around and answer general questions I had about the area. My half-day visit cost $30, which seemed expensive just for access and a trail guide but well worth it considering the excellent birds I observed.

Umberto and I made the drive to the reserve before dawn, passing along a packed dirt and rock road through several Quichua communities and finally over a seriously dilapidated bridge spanning the Rio Hollin, a beautiful tributary of the Rio Napo. As the sun rose, I spent a few hours birding the cleared area at the entrance to the reserve which contained several large fruiting trees and plenty of dense ground cover. Canopy flocks bombarded the area, including Paradise, Green-and-Gold, and Yellow-Bellied Tanagers, the latter being a difficult distinction from the Spotted Tanager unless you see it feeding upside down. After coaxing a pair of White-Browed Antbirds from some dense shrubbery next to the car, I walked backed towards the road, finding a pair of excitable and stunning Golden-Winged Tody-Flycatchers in an overgrown drainage ditch. After combing through another flock for the Lemon-Throated Barbet, which I would miss today, and finding the unique Orange-Fronted Plushcrown instead, I decided it was time to enter the forest too see what I had come for, the bamboo specialists.

Although I had read some negative reports about the quality of the trail, I had no trouble taking the lead from Umberto and setting my own pace as we wound through good secondary and primary forest for the next few hours. Initially, the antbirds dominated the morning, as I first encountered Black-Faced, then Warbling, and finally Spot-Backed Antbirds, all singing from surreptitious positions and difficult to find. Later, I nearly walked right onto a Thrush-Like Antpitta, which was calling from just a few meters away but still nearly impossible to see. A few understory mixed flocks passed us by containing the usual antwrens, woodcreepers, and foliage-gleaners, and I didn't note anything out of the ordinary. After just glimpsing a magnificent pair of calling Scale-Breasted Woodpeckers, we finally reached a large patch of bamboo-dominated forest. Here, I successfully called in a pair of Large-Headed Flatbills with my iPod, and then scored great looks at a female White-Shouldered Antshrike in the undergrowth, all richly colored rufous with its tail pumping cautiously as it emitted a single-note call at uniquely long intervals. Aside from the flocks, I'm not sure whether Umberto saw a single bird that I did while we were on the trail, given that most of them were difficult skulkers. Usually, the guides are the ones seeing all the birds.

Emerging from the forest all of a sudden, having looped back around to the parking area, I realized that I hadn't tried for the Striated Antbird, which I figured I would hear calling at some point, like the similar-looking Long-Tailed Antbird usually does in subtropical forest. Walking back a few hundred meters along the trail, I tried calling it in several places. Within a few minutes I had a response and a delicately-patterned but angry-looking antbird in the bamboo several meters overhead. Rarely can you simply call birds in despite being in the right habitat, but there it was, answering right on call. Elated by my success, I spent the final hour of my visit on a cleared slope high above the parking area, watching mixed flocks pass through the area and periodically checking on a pair of Yellow-Billed Nunbirds that were hanging out in some cecropia trees nearby. A pair of Opal-Crowned Tanagers capped off a terrific and productive day of birding that almost ended badly on the return drive over the bridge, which had fallen into even further disrepair since that morning.

Notable birds seen: Speckled Chachalaca, White-Bearded Hermit, Amazonian White-Tailed Trogon, White-Fronted Nunbird, Yellow-Billed Nunbird, Gilded Barbet, Scale-Breasted Woodpecker, Little Woodpecker, Orange-Fronted Plushcrown, Rufous-Rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Buff-Throated Woodcreeper, White-Shouldered Antshrike, Plain-Winged Antshrike, Short-Billed Antwren, Striated Antbird, White-Browed Antbird, Black-Faced Antbird, Spot-Backed Antbird, Gray Elaenia, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Golden-Winged Tody-Flycatcher, Large-Headed Flatbill, Chestnut-Crowned Becard, Gray-Capped Flycatcher, Olivaceous Greenlet, Red-Eyed Vireo, Black-Faced Dacnis, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Opal-Crowned Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Slate-Colored Grosbeak, Crested Oropendola.

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