The Choco lowlands are fast disappearing in Ecuador as logging and mining interests have overwhelmed private conservation efforts. Even public reserves such as the Cotocachi-Cayapas National Park are severely threatened by illegal logging, hunting, and colonizing due to poor management and a lack of resources. Only three major sites in the northwestern province of Esmeraldas remain, and these are generally remote and difficult to access for independent birders: Rio Canande Reserve managed by the Jocotoco Foundation; Bilsa Biological Reserve, run by Fundacion Jatun Sacha; and Playa de Oro Reserve, operated by the small Afro-Ecuadorian community of Playa de Oro. All three reserves offer huge tracts of humid lowland and foothill forest with many of the region's best endemic species on display, including the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, and Blue-Whiskered Tanager; however, the 10,400 hectare Playa de Oro Reserve is unique for being the only one that is community owned and operated.
Indeed, birding Playa de Oro is a truly unique experience, as it offers perhaps the most difficult but rewarding birding in the entire country. The challenges are many: arranging a visit takes considerable preparation as there are no means of communicating directly with the lodge; accessing the reserve requires first multiple trips by bus or an arduous and expensive journey by car, and then an expensive ride upriver in a motorized canoe; walking the trails can be extremely wet, muddy, and confusing as insects hound you incessantly while birds move rapidly more than forty meters overhead; and the lodge itself, although comfortable, is basic with few of the conveniences found at high-end lodges in the eastern lowlands. There are no canopy towers, knowledgeable guides, or dry cabinets, and almost 90% of the birding, as Scott Olmstead notes in his informative trip report from 2008, is first done by ear (Dušan Brinkhuizen echoes the sentiment in his own excellent 2009 trip report). This is experts-only, Indiana Jones-style birding, one might say, where the rewards are barely enough to cover the expenses of the trip.
What are the rewards then, I reconsider, as I sit here writing this while still covered in hundreds of chigger bites? Canopy flocks contain Scarlet-and-White, Blue-Whiskered, Rufous-Winged, Emerald, and Golden-Chested Tanagers, as well as Rufous Mourner, Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis, Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Lita and Choco Woodpeckers, and Orange-Fronted and Five-Colored Barbets. Antswarms attract Bicolored, Spotted, Immaculate, and Ocellated Antbirds as well as Spot-Crowned Antvireo, Song Wren, and Tawny-Faced Gnatwren. Understory flocks boast Broad-Billed Sapayoa, Lemon-Spectacled Tanager, Green Manakin, Pacific Flatbill, Checker-Throated Antwren, and Black-Striped and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers. And the forest floor is home to Berlepsch's Tinamou, Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Tawny-Faced Quail, Black-Headed Antthrush, Rufous-Crowned and Streak-Chested Antpittas. While you might go for hours on an individual day without seeing or hearing any of these or other outstanding birds, their promise should sustain you through the various hardships involved in a visit (see Choco lowlands expert Olaf Jahn's extensive bird list for the reserve, courtesy of Andean Birding).
I recently dragged Aimee out to this remote destination for four days with several promises of my own, to tour a new area of Ecuador, to enjoy some good coastal food, and to see a few Choco restricted-ranged species, perhaps even the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, with which she's mildly obsessed. We first drove down the Ibarra-San Lorenzo Road early on Saturday morning, passing through Lita and Alto Tambo along the way, which are remote birding sites in their own right, and then hooked back up the Rio Santiago on a dirt road to the village of Selva Alegre. For better security we left our car at a village further upriver, and then traveled by boat to El Tigrillo Lodge along with one other tourist with whom we divided the $50 charge. After installing ourselves in our rustic room, which gratefully contained a mosquito net, we sat down to a delicious lunch as the humidity started to rise. We were soaked in sweat before we started birding our first trail, La Paila Trail, which leads upriver starting behind the lodge. We picked up Song Wren, Immaculate Antbird, and Northern Barred-Woodcreeper before it started to pour, and the rest of the rainy afternoon was spent birding from the covered balcony of the lodge. The woodland area right around the lodge ended up being quite productive as canopy and understory flocks frequently passed through. On different occasions I recorded Red-Legged Honeycreeper, Lemon-Spectacled Tanager, Red-Rumped Woodpecker, White-Bearded Manakin, Purple-Chested Hummingbird, and Choco Poorwill from the same spot on the balcony.
The following morning we traveled fifteen minutes by motorized canoe upriver to the Cascada Trail. The boatman gave us instructions about the trail and we agreed to meet back at the river six hours later, as Aimee and I set off alone into towering humid forest. As the trail climbs steeply, we got good looks at a pair of Spotted Antbirds, several Lemon-Spectacled Tanagers, lekking Red-Capped Manakins, and a singing Dagua Thrush. The trail then continues along relatively flat ground passing by several magnificent trees. A few canopy flocks were heard overhead, but I could only pick out Rufous-Winged and Scarlet-and-White Tanagers, as I craned my neck upwards for ten minutes in hopes of finally seeing a Golden-Chested Tanager. After scaring, and getting scared by, some noisy Rufous-Headed Chachalacas, we spotted a large group of Stripe-Billed Aracaris in a bare tree in the distance. I encouraged Aimee to search the group perhaps for the umbrellabird, but it went unobserved. Returning from the picturesque waterfall, we made our way back along the same trail, locking on to a pair of Broad-Billed Sapayoas that were trilling softly to each other while moving with an understory flock. This subtle but unique bird is perhaps the top target species at the reserve as it's very rare at other sites in the northwestern lowlands. As we neared the river I pointed out a Spotted Antbird right out in the open, just as Aimee exclaimed that I was standing in the middle of an antswarm. We gaped around in amazement as waves of ants climbed over our rubber boots and started biting us, leaving us with little inclination to look or listen for other antbirds that might be attending the swarm.
Having stumbled into one of the great natural spectacles of the neotropics, I decided to remain at the swarm for a while and then walk back to the lodge on foot via the recently constructed ridge trail that connects the Cascada Trail with the Penon del Santo Trail. Bitten but smitten with our excursion, Aimee returned to the lodge for lunch and a nap. The swarm had moved a few meters off the trail, but many more birds were in attendance, including a large group of Bicolored Antbirds, a Song Wren, and several Tawny-Faced Gnatwrens. I waited for an hour on the off chance that an Ocellated Antbird, Rufous-Crowned Antpitta, or Banded Ground-Cuckoo might join the swarm but without any luck. Continuing on the new ridge trail as it started to rain, I encountered another understory flock with Lemon-Spectacled Tanager and Broad-Billed Sapayoa. Shortly afterwards, I found another antswarm just off the trail with a family group of Ocellated Antbirds in attendance. Easily the star antbird of the northwestern lowlands, the gorgeously patterned Ocellated Antbird typically dominates antswarms, presiding at the front and having the first chance to snatch up arthropods fleeing the leaf litter from marauding ants. I was disappointed Aimee wasn't with me to observe these charismatic birds, but managed to take a few blurry photographs for her enjoyment. An hour before completing the journey back to the lodge, I flushed a Tawny-Faced Quail from the undergrowth and quickly chased after it to get amazing looks at this striking bird. Flushing several more on the following day, I noticed that the bird doesn't usually fly far and is fairly easy to follow as it perches on a low branch.
Julio the boatman took me back across the river to the lodge, and I rested for a while on the balcony with Aimee. Despite the light rain, at dusk we heard a pair of Choco Poorwill's calling right nearby, so I got out the spotlight to track them down. I managed to locate one as it flew overhead into a tree in response to playback and then returned to the balcony of the lodge to spotlight it at eye level. That night it rained so hard I dreamed I was submerged in water, swimming through the forest as I looked for birds; in fact, later on in the week a state of emergency would be declared in the province due to the torrential rains. On the following morning, Aimee and I made the reverse journey that I had completed the previous afternoon, birding the Penon del Santo Trail, the new ridge trail, and the lower part of the cascade trail. There's an outstanding mirador along the ridge trail that offers incredible views of the canopy below and the forest on the other side of the river, and I was hoping we'd arrive there in time to observe a few mixed canopy flocks. Approaching the mirador we didn't see much, though, encountering little more than a pair of Cinnamon Woodpeckers and a mixed understory flock with Broad-Billed Sapayoa and Black-Striped Woodcreeper. I managed to track down a Double-Toothed Kite that I spotted shifting perches overhead, and we also located a diminutive Golden-Crowned Spadebill after much difficulty, but the morning was disappointingly quiet overall. Even stumbling upon a pair of Blue-Whiskered Tanagers singing in the understory was more frustrating than rewarding as I failed to get Aimee on to the birds before they moved on. By the time we arrived at the mirador, the sun was blazing high above and we were exhausted by the journey. My hopes of watching a Golden-Chested Tanager from above were squelched as we moved on to complete the morning's excursion.
Meeting up on the Cascada Trail with the other tourist who was staying at the lodge and her guide, I decided to push on ahead in search of birds as Aimee lingered behind to chat with them as we all made our way slowly down to the river. Far above in the canopy I located a pair of Guayaquil Woodpeckers bickering with each other, pointing them out to the group as they moved past. After getting Aimee on to the birds, I noticed she was missing her walking stick, which she had left a few minutes back up the steep trail at the tree swing the guides had made from some lianas. Offering to get it for her, I hustled uphill and found the stick upright in the mud just where she had left it. Turning to go, I heard an unusual plaintive bird call from the undergrowth just behind the tree that sounded familiar only because I had listened to it dozens of times on tape. Quickly and quietly I made my way towards the source as I spun the wheel of my iPod to the Streak-Chested Antpitta. This boldly patterned antpitta is only found in Ecuador in the far northwestern lowlands and is much more frequently seen than heard according to the field guide, so I held my breath and nervously searched for the calling bird before it fled deep into a nearby ravine. Positioning myself behind a tree, I peered around it while playing a recording of the call, briefly catching the bird through my binoculars as it flitted its wings with its back turned towards me. Another brief playback of the call had the bird turned towards me and fully out in the open for five seconds as it fluffed its breast feathers and returned fire. Five minutes later, I was blabbering to Aimee about this remarkable encounter, which seemed the very pinnacle of luck and skill as this was the only instance that I would hear the antpitta during our four-day visit and wouldn't even have happened had not Aimee forgotten her stick and I had done my homework.
In the afternoon I headed back out on the trails behind the lodge as it threatened to rain. In an understory flock I finally found a pair of Pacific Flatbills as well as a single Green Manakin tagging quietly along. Along with the Sapayoa, these three birds are easily confused by sight and should be closely studied in advance by visiting birders. Passing by the resident Tawny-Faced and Lemon-Spectacled Tanager flock at the beginning of the Pueblo Trail, I shortly came across a treefall, surprising a female Stub-Tailed Antbird at her territory. A short burst of playback brought the male on the scene as he slowly circled the territory calling loudly at each stop. This Choco endemic isn't as fun to observe as the Ocellated Antbird, for example, but it prefers edge habitat and open treefalls and is usually seen out in the open, making it easy to observe at least. Heading further up the trail, I finally decided to turn around after flushing a Ruddy Quail-Dove, sadly not the Olive-Backed Quail-Dove I had been hoping for. It soon started to pour again, and I returned to the lodge for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Although we had carved out a few hours on the following morning for birding before we made the return journey back to Quito, the rain had continued all throughout the night to the following mid-morning, making the prospect of birding the trails unpleasant and unproductive. Having seen ten new species on the trip and a good number of Choco restricted-range species, I decided to chill on the balcony instead and enjoy the mixed flocks that were braving the wet weather through my scope. Indeed, the Rio Santiago had risen dramatically over the last few days, and we would later have to wait in our car at a small river crossing for several hours as the water level diminished enough for us to drive safely across. Throughout our stay at Playa de Oro, I kept remarking to Aimee that I was so glad I had waited to visit the reserve until I had several years of experience birding in Ecuador and enough knowledge to successfully track down difficult species on my own. With a guide, or with much lower expectations, a novice birder in the neotropics could definitely have an amazing time here, but for me the trip was truly a consummation of all my previous effort and observation.
Notable birds seen: Little Tinamou, Neotropic Cormorant, Little Blue Heron, Turkey Vulture, Double-Toothed Kite, Tawny-Faced Quail, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Maroon-Tailed Parakeet, Rose-Faced Parrot, Mealy Amazon, Choco Poorwill, Bronzy Hermit, Band-Tailed Barbthroat, White-Whiskered Hermit, White-Necked Jacobin, Green Thorntail, Purple-Chested Hummingbird, Ringed Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Broad-Billed Motmot, Rufous Motmot, White-Whiskered Puffbird, Stripe-Billed Aracari, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Red-Rumped Woodpecker, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Western Woodhaunter, Buff-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Northern Barred-Woodcreeper, Black-Striped Woodcreeper, Spot-Crowned Antvireo, Pacific Antwren, Checker-Throated Antwren, Spotted Antbird, Immaculate Antbird, Stub-Tailed Antbird, Bicolored Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Black-Headed Antthrush, Streak-Chested Antpitta, Olive-Striped Flycatcher, Pacific Flatbill, Golden-Crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Gray-Capped Flycatcher, Rufous Piha, Red-Capped Manakin, Blue-Crowned Manakin, Green Manakin, Broad-Billed Sapayoa, Dagua Thrush, Stripe-Throated Wren, Song Wren, Southern Nightengale-Wren, Tawny-Faced Gnatwren, Slate-Throated Gnatcatcher, Choco Warbler, Red-Legged Honeycreeper, Yellow-Tufted Dacnis, Scarlet-and-White Tanager, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, Rufous-Winged Tanager, Lemon-Specatacled Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Dusky-Faced Tanager.