Simply put, Podocarpus National Park in southern Ecuador is one of the world's great natural reserves, protecting an exceptional amount of plant and animal diversity from the paramos of the high Andes to the humid montane forest of the eastern foothills. While access to the park is somewhat limited with only two principal entrances, the Cajanuma Sector outside Loja and the Bombuscaro Sector outside Zamora, visiting birders can tick upwards of two hundred bird species in just a few days of exploring the trails in these two regions. Although basic and inexpensive accommodation is available within the park in both sectors, it's much more comfortable to stay in a hotel in Loja or Vilcabamba when visiting the Cajanuma Sector or in Zamora when visiting the Bombuscaro Sector. And for those birders willing to spend a few extra dollars for additional comfort and convenience, Cabañas Copalinga is the perfect base for visiting the Bombuscaro Sector, located just two kilometers from the entrance to the park along a quiet dirt road.
Looking for peace and quiet, as well as a few new bird species, Aimee and I spent the recent Semana Santa vacation in the province of Zamora-Chinchipe, staying four nights at Copalinga and one night at Cabañas Yankuam in the Cordillera del Condor. Although I had birded Bombuscaro several years before, I missed a number of the unique bird species often found in the reserve, including the White-Breasted Parakeet, Black-Streaked Puffbird, and recently described Foothill Elaenia. As I was missing relatively few species at Cajanuma, including the Neblina Metaltail and Orange-Banded Flycatcher, I decided to concentrate my efforts on birding the eastern foothills and locating these and other species unique to southeastern Ecuador. (The Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager is not unique to southeastern Ecuador, by the way, and is almost annoyingly common at Bombuscaro, traveling in large, noisy, monospecific understory flocks.)
Aimee and I spent one afternoon and two full mornings birding the small network of trails at Bombuscaro, which are basically restricted to an elevation of 1000m (the private trails at Copalinga, on the other hand, offer access to an elevation of 15000m while passing through outstanding montane forest). Each morning a pair of Highland Motmots greeted us in the parking lot, perching out in the open as they casually flicked their tails back and forth like a grandfather clock, while I geared up to search for my target birds, including the Northern White-Crowned Tapaculo, Olive Finch, Sharp-Tailed Streamcreeper, Equatorial Graytail, Striped Manakin, and Orange-Crested Flycatcher, as well as the above mentioned species. Despite making our first visit to the park this trip on a sunny afternoon, Aimee and I quickly found a group of calling Foothill Elaenias around the park headquarters. This confusing flycatcher wasn't described until after the publication of the Ecuador Field Guide by ornithologists Niels Krabbe and the late Paul Coopmans; it is best identified by voice but also has a distinctive facial pattern and three yellow wing bars. I've heard the elaenia is regularly found at the park headquarters, which is a small clearing in the middle of good foothill forest, where visitors purchase their entrance ticket. I also saw a small flock of White-Breasted Parakeets fly into the crown of a large tree from this area but was unable to locate them after they had perched within.
On the next morning, our first good find was a pair of Black-Streaked Puffbirds calling along the Green Jay Trail. With patience and a bit of playback, we were able to located these scarce birds in the mossy branches of the trees way overhead. Moving on along the trail, which regularly receives rave reviews from birders as it offers a seemingly birdier understory than the principal Higuerones Trail, we found a Blue-Crowned Manakin, flushing a Short-Tailed Antthrush onto a low perch in the process. Proceeding deeper into the park along the Higuerones Trail, which runs alongside the Rio Bombuscaro, we eventually came to a footbridge off the Campesino Trail. Here in the undergrowth I thought I heard the persistent call of the rare and secretive Olive Finch above the noise of the river. With just a modicum of effort we were both onto this foothill specialty, long enough to capture a few record shots, including the photograph below.
Bombuscaro, though, is famous for its canopy flocks, which reportedly bombard the entrance trail, park headquarter, and Higuerones Trail. Indeed, the trick isn't finding the flocks but locating a good viewing point as they often pass above at ridiculous speeds and horribly back-lit conditions. Fortunately the Higuerones Trail winds through several open quebradas, or ravines, in which birders can usually find open lines of site into the canopy of fruiting trees below. On the way back from the Olive Finch sighting, Aimee and I encountered a megaflock that contained about a dozen species of tanagers, many woodcreepers and furnariids, and a few even more desirable species, including the Yellow-Breasted Antwren, Gray-Mantled Wren, and Equatorial Graytail. The latter is truly a specialty of the reserve, but although I heard a pair of them calling in the canopy far above, I never caught even a glimpse of the bird. Figuring I would catch up with them later, Aimee and I returned to Copalinga for lunch, startling a feeding Amazonian Umbrellabird along the entrance trail and noting a Fasciated Tiger-Heron further down on the river.
Several mornings later, I returned to the reserve by myself hoping to bag a few more new species for my country list. Passing quickly into the forest without so much as a wave at the Highland Motmots, I soon found a canopy flock and ran to the nearest viewpoint in the hopes that they would come my way. Amazingly, the flock entered the quebrada below me, and I watched entranced as one species of tanager after another passed by close enough for photographs. Although this flock didn't contain the Equatorial Graytail, I was lucky to observe a mating pair of Yellow-Breasted Antwrens at close range from above, even noting the subtle spotted crown of the male. Particularly confusing in this flock were the several species of bristle-tyrants, one of which might have been the subtle Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant, although I wasn't familiar enough with the field markings of the bird to make the identification at the time. In general, the avifauna at Bombuscaro is loaded with tyrant flycatchers, and visiting birders would do well to study the sector's bird list well in advance, paying particular attention to the tyrannulets, flycatchers, flatbills, and bristle-tyrants.
Speaking of tyrant flycatchers, later that morning I would finally run into one of my last target birds for the trip, the Orange-Crested Flycatcher. This small, understory flycatcher is highly local in the southeastern and northwestern foothills, and while Bombuscaro is a regular site for the bird, it still took me several visits to locate it. Catherine at Copalinga might be able to give you more up to date information, but I found a small group of them at the first quebrada just after the Green Jay Trail meets back up with the Higuerones Trail (I had been trolling for them briefly in each quebrada during my other visits, having heard that they were somewhere along this several kilometer long trail). Very similar to the Flavescent Flycatcher, this little yellow bird was a subdued but fitting reward to my efforts at Bombuscaro.
Notable birds seen: Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Ruddy Quail-Dove, White-Breasted Parakeet, Green Hermit, Black-Eared Fairy, Brown Violetear, Fork-Tailed Woodnymph, Highland Motmot, Inca Jay, Coppery-Chested Jacamar, Red-Headed Barbet, Black-Streaked Puffbird, Lafresnaye's Picculet, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Ash-Browed Spinetail, Montane Foliage-Gleaner, Rufous-Rumped Foliage-Gleaner, Yellow-Breasted Antwren, Short-Tailed Antthrush, Variegated Bristle-Tyrant, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Foothill Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Flatbill, Olive-Striped Flycatcher, Ruddy-Tailed Flycatcher, Orange-Crested Flycatcher, Olive-Chested Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Lemon-Browed Flycatcher, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Blue-Crowned Manakin, White-Crowned Manakin, White-Breasted Woodwren, Gray-Mantled Wren, Buff-Rumped Warbler, Black-Faced Dacnis, Yellow-Bellied Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Bay-Headed Tanager, Masked Tanager, Blue-Necked Tanager, Orange-Eared Tanager, Golden-Eared Tanager, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, Slate-Colored Grosbeak, Olive Finch, Orange-Billed Sparrow, Crested Oropendola.