Tapichalaca Reserve: April 18-19, 2014

Since I left in 2010, Ecuador has continued to develop economically, further harnessing its natural resources and developing its infrastructure. This was evident throughout my trip, but nowhere was the clash between progress and preservation more clear than at Tapichalaca. The Jocotoco Foundation’s flagship reserve was once relatively isolated in remote southern Ecuador, accessed only by a long, winding dirt road prone to closures due to landslides. Now a concrete road connects it to Vilcabamba, and soon the road will continue all the way to Peru through the border town of Zumba. The goal is to increase trade and traffic between the two countries, but the natural environment has certainly suffered as a result of its construction, as huge sections of steep montane forest have been cleared along the road. The argument, as always, is complicated: the loss of trees and tranquility at Tapichalaca is disappointing, but a wealthier country can better afford to protect and promote its natural environment. 

Despite the rattle and roar of trucks during the day, a stop at Tapichalaca is still mandatory for birders visiting the region. I once compared the reserve to the Holy Land for birders in Ecuador, and I believe the comparison still holds despite the increased commotion. By now the story of the antpitta is well known: on an ornithological expedition in 1997, Robert Ridgely and company recorded an unfamiliar bird call in the very humid cloudforest south of Podocarpus National Park. Within a year the Jocotoco Foundation had been established, and 700 hectares of land was purchased to protect the habitat of the only known population of a new species of antpitta, Grallaria ridgelyi. This measure likely saved it from extinction before it was scientifically described. Since then, land purchases have increased the size of the reserve to 3500 hectares, and the foundation has established similar reserves throughout the country, targeting endangered bird species like the Black-Breasted Puffleg at Yanacocha Reserve just outside of Quito.

The discovery of the Jocotoco Antpitta was also the capstone to the decades of research that went into The Birds of Ecuador Field Guide, that indispensable two-volume tome that birders must contend with on their trips to the country (many sacrilegiously tear out the color plates and have them bound to reduce weight in the field). Its image graces the cover of the second volume and looms large over the other miscellaneous additional species on the first volume’s final plate, apparently having been discovered after Paul Greenfield had painted Plate 65, which depicts the other Grallaria antpittas including the Chestnut-Naped Antpitta, to which it is superficially similar. Indeed, the bird has reached iconic status, and its silhouette can be seen on roadside signs promoting conservation throughout the region (there is even a monstrous two-meter tall antpitta sculpture in Las Piñas near Buenaventura Reserve).

All too often great symbols of conservation are practically impossible to see in the wild (who hasn’t heard the story about the Giant Panda researcher who has never seen one in the wild despite decades in the field?). Happily, at Tapichalaca Reserve visitors can also witness the antpitta for themselves, as several individual birds attend a worm-feeding station every morning. Here, a park ranger utilizes Angel Paz’s innovative method of summoning secretive antpittas from the forest. From the relative comfort of a bench under a thatched roof hide, birders can set up their cameras and sit back as antpittas hop around in the open feeding on hand-harvested worms. There’s no need for playback or long minutes of anxious waiting, as the antpittas come in hungrily like clockwork, rain or shine. It’s a remarkable way to observe one of the world’s rarest birds.

The Jocotoco Antpitta, then, is perhaps South America’s greatest symbol of scientific research, conservation, and ecotourism. Based on looks alone, it’s definitely a bird worth seeing twice. So, while relatively few lifers awaited me at Taphichalaca, I couldn’t revisit Southern Ecuador without stopping here again, especially considering I was armed with upgraded photographic equipment. Birders often opt for low-cost lodging in the town of Valladolid, but I decided to stay at Casa Simpson this time, in part for comfort but also to support the conservation effort (reservations can be made through Jocotours). The rooms in the two-story wooden lodge are simple but comfortable, and the food is both ample and delicious. I was the only guest during my stay, but the staff was happy to accommodate my every whim, including serving extra cold beer and bringing a space heater into my room.

After birding Cerro Toledo in the morning, I rushed to Tapichalaca, where I could see that the weather was better than usual. My last visit in 2008 was plagued by rain, and I was eager to explore the trails further, searching for more skulkers than just the antpitta. After depositing my belongings in my room, I set out slowly on the Undulated Antpitta Trail, looping back on the Tangaras Trail. The forest is relatively low here because of the steepness of the hillsides, but the understory is very dense and choked with chusquea bamboo. With effort I spotted, Chusquea and Unicolored Tapaculos, Plain-Tailed and Rufous Wrens, and Slate-Crowned and Rufous Antpittas. A few mixed flocks held the hulking Hooded Mountain-Tanager and the showy Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, as well as Pearled Treerunner, Masked Flowerpiercer, and Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, all pretty common temperate forest birds. Considering it was midday, this wasn’t a bad haul.

Having birded enough temperate forest in the last two days, I decided to save the rest for the following morning and drive down towards Valladolid, where I could do some road birding in subtropical forest. The foundation has purchased several cattle ranches along the lower sections of the road, and reforestation efforts are in full swing (it’s worth stopping here to learn about the succession of trees that are being planted). But road construction along this stretch has also been particularly destructive, and there is little roadside habitat remaining compared to what I saw in 2008. While it was unlikely that I would find any large mixed flocks at eye level along the road, I figured optimistically that my chances for spotting the Rufous-Capped Thornbill were at least increased (this range-restricted hummingbird apparently prefers regenerating habitat along landslides and roadcuts). After a few hours of effort, and more than a few passing trucks, I gave up the search, with a only Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrant as consolation. Back at the entrance to the reserve, I recorded a pair of Smoky Bush-Tyrants and a group of White-Capped Tanagers before calling it a day.

The following morning I was back out on the trails, recording a few more temperate forest birds, including Gray-Hooded Tanager and Bar-Belied Woodpecker, before the park ranger and I ascended the ridge to feed the antpittas. Coming from the back side of the ridge, there is now a blind for observing the White-Throated Quail-Dove, which can be seen feeding on corn meal along the trail. At the worm-feeding station an adult and juvenile Jocotoco Antpitta quickly bounded into the open, almost before I was ready with my camera. They hung around for an hour while I took in the scene, hoping that a Chestnut-Naped or Undulated Antpitta would make a brief appearance (they are usually chased away quickly by the dominant Jocotoco Antpittas). The ranger claimed that a Barred Fruiteater will occasionally descend to the forest floor to clean up any left over worms, although I wouldn’t believe it even if I saw it myself.

Before returning to the lodge for lunch, I explored the Quebrada Honda for a few hours, where the Jocotoco Antpitta was originally discovered. This mule trail descends through subtropical forest towards several small cattle ranches, and is probably the best option for seeing lower altitude species now that the roadside habitat has been disturbed. I found a few mixed flocks but didn’t see anything extraordinary like the Chestnut-Crested Cotinga that is sometimes recorded here. Back up on the ridge, I finally heard a group of Orange-Banded Flycatchers, one of my few target species here, but frustratingly couldn’t catch a glimpse of them as they moved up the ridge in low-visibility conditions. Playing tape for flycatchers didn’t seem like a productive idea, but just down the trail I found an understory flock with Black-Throated Tody-Tyrant, another one of my quarries. Rejuvenated, I returned to the lodge for lunch and then hit the road for the long drive to Macará.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Roadside Hawk, White-Throated Quail-Dove, Golden-Plumed Parakeet, Andean Pygmy-Owl (h), Fawn-Breasted Brilliant, Long-Tailed Sylph, Chestnut-Breasted Coronet, Collared Inca, Amethyst-Throated Sunangel, Flame-Throated Sunangel, Tyrian Metaltail, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Bar-Bellied Woodpecker, Pearled Treerunner, Jocotoco Antpitta, Chestnut-Naped Antpitta (h), Slate-Crowned Antpitta, Rufous Antpitta, Unicolored Tapaculo, Chusquea Tapaculo, White-Banded Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Rufous-Headed Pygmy-Tyrant (h), Black-Throated Tody-Tyrant, Orange-Banded Flycatcher (h), Rufous-Breasted Chat-Tyrant, Slaty-Backed Chat-Tyrant, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Barred Fruiteater (h), Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Plain-Tailed Wren, Mountain Wren, Rufous Wren, Gray-Breasted Wood-Wren (h), Slate-Throated Whitestart, Spectacled Whitestart, Brown-Capped Vireo, Great Thrush, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Masked Flowerpiercer, Glossy Flowerpiercer, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Blue-Backed Conebill, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Scarlet-Bellied Mountain-Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Golden-Crowned Tanager, White-Capped Tanager, Blue-Capped Tanager, Gray-Hooded Tanager, Yellow-Whiskered Bush-Tanager, Rufous-Naped Brush-Finch, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch. 

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