La Union Road: April 10, 2014

If there’s one bird in Northwestern Ecuador that could accurately be described as my nemesis, then it’s the Golden-Chested Tanager. Sure, I definitely should have seen the Beautiful Jay by now, and I certainly would rather see the Banded Ground-Cuckoo if I had my choice between the two; however, it’s the Golden-Chested Tanager that has proven the most tantalizingly elusive. On multiple occasions at Rio Canadé Reserve and Playa de Oro, I just missed seeing the bird in mixed flocks, either because I was too slow or simply unable to spot them overhead in the canopy. To make matters worse, I have been relatively successful with the other Bangsia tanager in Ecuador, the Moss-Backed Tanager, which is observed regularly along the entrance road to Mashpi Reserve. According to recent reports, La Union Road, which branches off the Ibarra-San Lorenzo highway near the town of Lita, was supposedly an equally reliable site for the Golden-Chested Tanager.

After a long day hiking El Chical Road, I spent an unpleasant night in Lita at a $5 flophouse, taking shelter under my mosquito net and finding solace in my flask. Actually, the town has adequate facilities for a truck stop, including several passable diners, and the area is crawling with Ecuadorian soldiers, making it both safe and cheap. I was admittedly anxious to see the tanager the following morning and to search for several other key foothills species, including Chocó Tapaculo, Chocó Woodpecker, and Yellow-Green Bush-Tanager. The logistics for the site are a bit tricky, as it’s easy to overlook the beginning of the road. Driving towards San Lorenzo from Lita, you first pass through the town of Alto Tambo. A few kilometers later you will pass a house on the left with a sign advertising carpentry work. About 1.5km down the road you will pass an abandoned house on the right, just after which starts a narrow gravel track (just look for the power lines heading in the same direction).

Parking 50m off the highway, I put on my rubber boots and trudged down the muddy and very slippery track, which would probably derail a Humvee. Indeed, years of foot and mule traffic have rendered this “road” basically impassible, and a bit of rain makes it downright treacherous. Several times I came out of my rubber boots and stepped into knee-deep mud, nearly burying my camera in the process. In fact, the road was so precarious that I had to keep my gaze down much more than I would have liked. Still, within an hour after dawn I spotted a Golden-Chested Tanager trailing after a mixed canopy flock that included a female Lita Woodpecker as well as both Scarlet-Browed and Emerald Tanagers (I’ll include this record shot to commemorate the moment and to establish a little credibility with my readers). Maybe it was the poor light, or the distance from which I spotted it, but this Bangsia tanager looked much chunkier and behaved more stolidly than the Moss-Backed Tanager (according to the field guide they’re the same size).

Meandering further down the road, I had flyby looks at Stripe-Billed Araçari and Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, both of which were feeding in a fruiting tree. Another mixed canopy flock held a brilliant male Scarlet-and-White Tanager, and at the forest edge I picked up Dusky and Stub-Tailed Antbirds with the help of playback. Later in the morning, a steady trickle of locals started passing by, likely indigenous folks from the Awa community that manages this expansive reserve. While the success of their conservation efforts is debatable, the people I met were gracious and gentle, and each wanted to shake my hand and hear how the birding was going this morning. In principle, the Federation of Awa Centers of Ecuador controls over one hundred thousand hectares of forest, although illegal farming, logging, and mining activities greatly comprise the reserve’s integrity. Still, in terms of birding in the region this site is about as good as it gets, and I made sure to express my gratitude.

There were several other standout birds this morning: I noted a distant Bicolored Hawk preening out in the open; a Tooth-Billed Hummingbird was feeding at the forest edge briefly; and a Cinnamon Woodpecker, the only Celeus woodpecker in the northwest, clung at great length to a bare branch. Both the Black-Headed Tody-Flycatcher and Black-Capped Pygmy-Tyrant were also seen well in the roadside shrub. At one point, I heard a Chocó Tapaculo call from an impossibly deep position in the forest and tried clumsily to follow up on it, flushing a Semiplumbeous Hawk from its hidden perch in the process of leaving the road. Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to say this was a conclusive identification, but I am confident that it was a Leucopternis, and not an Accipiter, hawk, especially after my experience the following day at Tundaloma Lodge. Calling it quits at midday, I continued driving along the highway towards San Lorenzo, but if I could do the trip over again, I would have spent another morning here at this remarkably productive site.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Bicolored Hawk, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Bronze-Winged Parrot, Squirrel Cuckoo, White-Collared Swift, Band-Tailed Barbthroat, White-Whiskered Hermit, Tooth-Billed Hummingbird, Chocó Trogon, Purple-Crowned Fairy, Chocó Tapaculo (h), Rufous-Tailed Jacamar, Chocó Toucan, Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Lita Woodpecker, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Plain Antvireo, Dusky Antbird, Stub-Tailed Antbird, Slaty Antwren, Ornate Flycatcher, Long-Tailed Flycatcher, Black-Headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-Capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Cinnamon Becard, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Stripe-Billed Araçari, White-Bearded Manakin (h), Bay Wren, Emerald Tanager, Scarlet-Browed Tanager, Scarlet-and-White Tanager, Golden-Hooded Tanager, Golden-Chested Tanager, Tawny-Crested Tanager, Lemon-Rumped Tanager, Slate-Colored Grosbeak, Black-Winged Grosbeak, Slaty-Capped Shrike-Vireo (h), Bay-Headed Tanager, Lesser Seed-Finch, Yellow-Bellied Seedeater.

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