Cabañas Copalinga: March 28-April 2, 2010

Considering my target of seeing 1000 birds in Ecuador before moving from the country in just a few months, and having limited vacation time left, I had to decide where to spend Semana Santa in order to maximize the potential number of new birds seen as well to provide Aimee and me with some much needed rest and relaxation. Should we tour the western coast, birding from Esmeraldas to the Santa Elena peninsula? Should we return to the eastern lowlands for another expensive but rewarding stay at one of several lodges there? Should we stay close to Quito and visit a number of well-birded sites in search of a few birds at each location? Of all the places we've visited over the last few years, Cabañas Copalinga clearly stood out as the finest balance of birding potential and peace and quiet. To southern Ecuador it was, then, and we set off early on Sunday morning by plane from Quito to Catamayo, which serves as the airport to Loja, Ecuador's southern most city in the highlands.

Birders visiting Ecuador for the first time typically don't make it down to southern Ecuador, choosing instead to explore the Chocó region, the eastern lowlands, and perhaps a few sites in the northern highlands. That would certainly be my plan, if I hadn't have lived here for the last six years. It's usually on the second or third trip that birders are attracted to the Tumbes region in southwestern Ecuador, making a grand tour of it by also visiting famous sites in the highlands and southeastern Ecuador as well, including Tapichalaca Reserve, Podocarpus National Park, and more and more frequently Cabañas Yankuam in the Cordillera del Condor. For those who eventually do visit the region, there's no question that Cabañas Copalinga is their favorite place to stay, rivaling Cabañas San Isidro for the best small-scale, all-inclusive birding experience in Ecuador. Owned and managed by an intelligent, sincere Belgian couple, Copalinga is located within walking distance from the Bombuscaro entrance of Podocarpus National Park, offering exquisite private cabins, delicious food, and outstanding bird habitat whether on the grounds of the lodge itself or the extensive trail network leading back up the ridge.

Despite Bombuscaro's well-deserved fame, I spent two full days of my stay here simply birding the private reserve at a variety of different altitudes, finding an impressive collection of species I had almost no chance of seeing in the park, including Gray Tinamou, Scarlet-Breasted Fruiteater, Band-Bellied Owl, White-Shouldered Antshrike, Blackish Rail, White-Breasted Parakeet, and Crimson-Bellied Woodpecker. In our downtime, Aimee and I spent hours watching the hummingbirds at the verbena bushes in the parking lot and observing mixed flocks passing through the forest from the comfort of the dining area. We even did a bit of birding from the balcony of our cabin, finding a pair of Golden-Winged Tody-Flycatchers in the bush just in front of the railing and a group of Speckled Chachalacas roosting in a nearby tree every evening. Catherine, the owner and star birder of the region, is probably the best reason to bird the private reserve as much as the park since she knows exactly where and when to find each bird on the Copalinga list, tipping me to some of my best observations on the trip, most notably those of the near country-endemic White-Breasted Parakeet.

After enjoying a cup of coffee with Catherine upon our arrival mid-morning on Sunday, Aimee and I spent a while marveling over the hummingbird activity at the flowering verbena hedges surrounding the parking lot. Several Spangled Coquettes were busy dipping into the lavender flowers while avoiding aggressive Glittering-Throated Emeralds and Violet-Headed Hummingbirds, including a juvenile male that already boasted an orange crown feather. Then, a breath-taking adult male Wire-Crested Thorntail zipped in and proceeded from flower to flower unmolested by the other hummingbirds. Over the next few days, we'd check in periodically, noting a low-feeding Ecuadorian Piedtail on one occasion, an adult male Long-Tailed Sylph on another, and a magnificent raptor gliding across the canyon just overhead at dusk, most likely the scarce Solitary Eagle. While enjoying a beer late one afternoon, we were shocked to see what appeared to be a diminutive Spangled Coquette moving rapidly from flower to flower, only later to be informed that it wasn't a baby hummingbird but a Sphinx's Moth whose coloration and flight immitates that of the coquette, a ridiculous mistake.

The trail network at Copalinga is varied and well-maintained, offering birders who are staying in the cabins access to excellent montane forest from 1000 to 1500 meters (day use of the trails or visits to the nectar and fruit feeders are not permitted). I made three separate excursions up the ridge, making two long morning loops up the blue, yellow, and red and then down the green trails, and one afternoon loop up the green, across the yellow, and down the blue trail. My first morning loop was a tremendous experience, as I tracked down a calling Scaled Antpitta, lucked onto a male Scarlet-Breasted Fruiteater, spotted a roosting Band-Bellied Owl, and stumbled onto a Gray Tinamou on the trail. I also found a pair of solitary Foothill Antwrens in the undergrowth as well as a pair of Yellow-Breasted Antwrens in a mixed canopy flock. In search of the Striped Manakin on a hot afternoon, I instead found several Blue-Rumped Manakins, a group of White-Backed Fire-Eyes at an antswarm, and an irritated female White-Shouldered Antshrike in a dense tangle of vines in the undergrowth. And on our final morning, Aimee and I encountered several pairs of Coppery-Chested Jacamars, a calling Olive Finch, and a gorgeous tanager flock, including Yellow-Bellied, Spotted, Guira, Paradise, Golden, Green-and-Gold, Bay-Headed, Masked, and Blue-Necked Tanagers.

Returning from the park one hot afternoon, I asked Catherine for a birding recommendation for the afternoon. In addition to describing a nearby stakeout for the Blackish Rail, she mentioned that there was a small fruiting tree just along the road near the gate whose fruits were the favorite of the White-Breasted Parakeet, which along with the Coppery-Chested Jacamar are the star birds of the region. Having briefly seen a flock of parakeets dive into the crown of a tree earlier that morning around the park headquarters, I was anxious to get better looks at one of my target birds and one of the country's most beautiful. Although the tree was attracting a fair amount of attention from other birds, including the Ecuadorian Tyrannulet and Olive-Striped Flycatcher, the parakeets weren't present, so I set off to find the rail, which I eventually saw after much playback and searching. The following afternoon, though, I briefly heard a group of flying parrots and dashed off to the tree that Catherine had described. Over the next hour, I watched transfixed as four splendid White-Breasted Parakeets gorged themselves on ripe fruit just a few meters away at eye level.

Aimee and I broke up our four-night stay at Copalinga with a single night at Cabañas Yankuam, located three hours away by car in the Cordillera Condor. While the birds there were amazing and the food was quite good, we couldn't wait to return to the Paradise Tanager Cabin at Copalinga, where we would relax on the balcony during the early afternoons and listen to the rushing Bombuscaro each night. With twelve new bird species seen just on the reserve, as well as four rejuvenating nights of deep sleep enjoyed, our stay was exactly what we had hoped for. It couldn't have ended better either when Aimee saw both the Coppery-Chested Jacamar and the White-Breasted Parakeet on our final morning's walk.

Notable birds seen: Grey Tinamou, Solitary Eagle, Speckled Chachalaca, Blackish Rail, White-Throated Quail-Dove, White-Breasted Parakeet, Band-Bellied Owl, Gray-Chinned Hermit, Green Hermit, Spangled Coquette, Violet-Headed Hummingbird, Wire-Crested Thorntail, Ecuadorian Piedtail, Violet-Fronted Brilliant, Glittering-Throated Emerald, Fork-Tailed Woodnymph, Long-Tailed Sylph, Lineated Woodpecker, Crimson-Bellied Woodpecker, Coppery-Chested Jacamar, Red-Headed Barbet, Lafresnaye's Picculet, Golden-Olive Woodpecker, Spotted Barbtail, Streaked Xenops, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Rufous-Rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Lined Antshrike, White-Shouldered Antshrike, Yellow-Breasted Antwren, Foothill Antwren, White-Backed Fire-Eye, Scaled Antpitta, Northern White-Crowned Tapaculo, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Yellow-Crowned Tyrannulet, Olive-Striped Flycatcher, Golden-Winged Tody-Flycatcher, Scale-Crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Olive-Sided Flycatcher, Olive-Chested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Scarlet-Breasted Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Blue-Rumped Manakin, White-Necked Thrush, Tropical Parula, Canada Warbler, Black-Faced Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Swallow Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Yellow-Bellied Tanager, Guira Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Blue-Necked Tanager, Magpie Tanager, Ashy-Throated Bush-Tanager, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, White-Lined Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Olive Finch, Orange-Billed Sparrow.

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