Podocarpus National Park, Cajanuma Entrance: April 17&24, 2014

Podocarpus, in my imagination at least, is the wildest place in Ecuador. This massive national park in Loja Province spans high altitude paramo down to foothill forest on the eastern slope of the Andes, encompassing well over six hundred bird species, including the Jocotoco Antpitta, a wonderfully unique bird that wasn’t described until fifteen years ago. The upper section of the park is accessed just outside of the city of Loja, at an entrance called Cajanuma, while Bombuscaro near the city of Zamora is the name of the entrance to the lower section. Logistically, it makes sense to visit Cajanuma at the end or beginning of a birding trip to Southern Ecuador, depending on whether your trip begins or ends in Loja (I flew there from Quito early in the morning). I enjoy the site so much that I stopped there twice this time, and on both visits the weather was highly variable, pouring rain one moment only to clear dramatically the next, with high winds buffeting the epiphyte-laden trees.

The real purpose of my visit to Southern Ecuador was to see more of the Tumbes species that I had overlooked on my relatively few trips to the region. This two-day side trip to Podocarpus and Tapichalaca Reserve was mainly just for photographs, although there was certainly potential for me to add a few more birds to my country list. Possible lifers included several hummingbirds and flycatchers, such as the Neblina Metaltail, Rufous-Capped Thornbill, Orange-Banded Flycatcher, and Black-Throated Tody-Tyrant. At all three sites that I would visit — Cajanuma, Cerro Toledo, and Taphichalaca — there was a good chance at finding these temperate forest eastern slope species, weather permitting. Touching down at 7am at the airport in Catamayo, I first shared a long taxi ride with two delightful indigenous women, chatting about local politics and traditional food. Then, after picking up my rental car from Avis in Loja, I raced out to Cajanuma to test my luck at this fickle but promising site.

The entrance road is excellent for birding and in clear weather you can scan the canopy for miles in search of perched raptors, mixed flocks, or the Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan. I drove slowly with the windows down, climbing slowly as the weather became progressively misty but stopping occasionally to survey the area. Arriving at the refugio, where there are several cozy cabins in which visitors can stay, I took a look around for birds at the forest edge, not finding much. Then, I started walking the Mirador Trail that ascends the ridge leading towards the transition zone between elfin forest and paramo. This narrow band of habitat is where the Neblina Metaltail resides, although I hadn’t had any luck on my previous visits. Instead of hustling up there, I paced myself with two short warm up loops that branch off the main trail. I encountered a confiding understory flock with Russet-Crowned Warbler, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Mountain Wren, Black-Crested Warbler, and Rufous-Naped Brush-Finch. The low-light conditions made me feel grateful that I had opted for a lens with vibration reduction (I had naively contemplated buying a 300mm prime lens without VR to use with a teleconverter).

Rounding a tight turn in the trail, I nearly booted an Undulated Antpitta back into the forest. Fortunately, it only flushed a short distance ahead on the trail, and I was able to stalk it from behind the next bend. From this vantage point, I actually spied two Undulated Antpittas hopping along in this muddy section of the trail. What a pleasure it is to see antpittas without assistance, especially after the unrewarding visit I had made to Refugio Paz de los Aves the previous week. This antpitta is nearly as massive as the Giant Antpitta and just as neatly scalloped on the underside. With a bit of luck I would later glimpse a Rufous Antpitta out of the corner of my eye as well (judging from their frequent vocalizations, this species is much more common at Cajanuma). Pushing further up the ridge in a large patch of chusquea bamboo, I rolled the dice for Flammulated Treehunter, getting a brief and distant response from playback. On a week-long ornithological expedition up Sumaco volcano in Napo Province, we caught one in a mist net, although I haven’t seen one since.

Finally, I arrived at the Mirador and started searching for the Neblina Metaltail, killing time by trolling for Mouse-Colored Thistletail as well. After ten minutes, I noticed a hummingbird feeding low in the waist-high dense shrubbery. When it perched briefly and gazed in my direction, I was blown away by its brilliant red gorget. Distinctly metaltail and size and shape, and not like a sunangel, I was forced to conclude this was my target species, but I wanted another look. I was wandering around looking for more flowering shrubs along the ridge when all of a sudden a hummingbird buzzed me and started nonchalantly probing a flower within arm’s reach. Again, this was a full adult male Neblina Metailtail right in front of me. Within a few seconds the hummingbird was gone again, but I’m confident enough to add the lifer to my list having seen all the other treeline specialties.

On my second visit, I was able to extend my rental car reservation for a few more hours, killing time at Cajanuma before my flight back to Quito (it never hurts to ask if an informal arrangement can be worked out). With nearly half a day of unexpected extra birding, I was jubiliant and grateful to have one more chance at seeing the Orange-Banded Flycatcher (I had subsequently missed it both at Cerro Toledo and Tapichalaca). Although the weather was even wetter than before, almost immediately upon entering good habitat I spotted a Red-Hooded Tanager perched along the entrance road. Panicking, I scrambled to assemble my gear so that it wouldn’t get too wet, meanwhile praying that the tanager wouldn’t take off (they are scarce to begin with and can be erratic in their movements). But within minutes I had over a hundred photographs of both male and female Red-Hooded Tanagers, as they had perched for minutes at a time in nearby treetops. 

Along with the tanagers were a host of other temperate forest birds in a mixed flock, including Grass-Green Tanager, Streaked Tuftedcheek, and Hooded Mountain-Tanager. While pursuing the flock along the road, I also stumbled upon two Bearded Guans and a solitary Northern Mountain-Cacique. It had already been a great haul and optimistically I though I was merely getting started. Unfortunately, the rain continued rather heavily and over the next hour I saw little more than a male Barred Fruiteater braving the elements. I decided against climbing the Mirador Trail again, although I did make the two shorter loops trails, finding another mixed flock near the refugio that included Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Pearled Treerunner, and Masked Flowerpiercer. I also glimpsed a skulking Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch, a bird I don’t recall ever seeing outside of Yanacocha Reserve near Quito.

I had saved an hour to bird the entrance road on the way out, and as I started to head back the weather miraculously cleared. Birds started calling from up and down the slopes, and I could detect a flock of Golden-Plumed Parakeets as well as several Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucans reconnecting after the rain (I could also hear two hikers yodeling from up along the ridge). White-Collared Swifts swept by at tremendous speeds, and when standing along the edge of the cliff I felt as if I were in a crossfire. The mixed flock from before had either disbanded or since moved on, and I wondered how many weeks it would be before the group of Red-Hooded Tanagers would reappear in this area. As I neared the edge of this great wilderness, my last bird was a lovely Variable Hawk rising ever higher in the wind.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Bearded Guan, Variable Hawk, Golden-Plumed Parakeet (h), White-Collared Swift, Neblina Metaltail, Tyrian Metaltail, Glowing Puffleg, Flame-Throated Sunangel, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan (h), Streaked Tuftedcheek, Flammulated Treehunter (h), Rufous Antpitta, Undulated Antpitta, Chestnut-Naped Antpitta (h), Unicolored Tapaculo (h), Ocellated Tapaculo (h), Barred Fruiteater, Mouse-Colored Thistetail (h), White-Banded Tyrannulet, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Great Thrush, Spectacled Whitestart, Black-Crested Warbler, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Rufous Wren, Plain-Tailed Wren (h), Mountain Wren, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Masked Flowerpiercer, Red-Hooded Tanager, Grass-Green Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Pearled Treerunner, Blue-and-Black Tanager, Blue-Capped Tanager, Rufous-Naped Brush-Finch, Stripe-Headed Brush-Finch, Northern Mountain-Cacique.

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