Three years ago a colony of Oilbirds was finally located outside the town of Chontal which is in the northwestern foothills in the province of Pichincha (residents of the area had been aware of these noisy nocturnal birds for many years without knowing the exact location of their roost). Although the site is off the beaten birding path, it is certainly much easier to visit than other well-known Oilbird caves in the eastern foothills, including those outside of the towns of Macas, Puyo, and Zamora. I heard about this site, which is covered well in this report by guide Nick Athanas at Aves Ecuador, a few years ago but waited to visit until just recently. While Aimee and I had once seen a depleted colony of Oilbirds in a cave near the Shuar village of Shaime in southern Ecuador, we were in definite need of a more meaningful oilbird experience before we left the continent.
Oilbirds are a monotypic family of birds from South America that are unique in a number of ways. First, they are the only nocturnal frugivores of the order of birds; second, they gregariously roost in caves or ravines by day in large colonies of hundreds or thousands of birds; third, they are one of the only bird species to use echolocation, although their low frequency sonar system pales in comparison with the complexity of those of insectivorous bats. While they look similar to nightjars, they are remarkably large with strong hooked bills, and their head shape looks more appropriate to a hawk than a nightjar. When fruit is scarce during the dry season, Oilbirds have been known to travel over 100km in a night while foraging.
After visiting Refugio Paz de las Aves on Saturday morning, Aimee and I drove out towards Chontal to the Morales family farm which is near the gorge where the Oilbirds roost (call the cellphone 082671837 in advance to arrange for a visit, which costs $10 per person). Arriving in the heat of the early afternoon after a bouncy one-hour drive from the main highway, we shortly boarded a tractor which took us a kilometer down a track through cultivated fields towards the gorge. A short walk took led us to the edge of the gorge which is remarkably steep and narrow, creating very dark and cave-like conditions except for during the middle of the day. Descending three tall bamboo ladders, the second of which was wet and slippery due to a waterfall plunging alongside, we got down on eye level with the Oilbirds, which were roosting tightly together in small groups. Although we only disturbed a few individuals that subsequently changed perches, I was ashamed to see that several others were incubating eggs or had nestlings underneath them. Despite my misgivings, the experience was still powerful and haunting as we were surrounded by over one hundred dark and empty-eyed birds roosting in fetid and dank conditions while occasionally emitting strange-sounding clicks and squawks. Indeed, climbing out of the gorge with my safety harness too tightly fastened almost felt like a narrow escape.
Notable birds seen: Oilbird, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis.