Utuana Reserve: April 20, 2014

Revisiting the Tumbes Region in Southwestern Ecuador was the primary goal of this trip, and I had budgeted four full days to find birds that I had overlooked on my initial visit in 2008. At that time I was a novice birder who didn’t fully appreciate how to focus on endemic species when visiting a unique biome, such as the dry tropical forest of Tumbes. Plus, that summer Aimee and I were traveling primarily to research her section of the Lonely Planet Guide to Ecuador. Each day I would slip away and bird for a few hours while she visited different tourist sites, hotels, and restaurants; consequently, I was often birding in habitat that wasn’t formally protected and had to be content seeing the more common birds. Actually, I was pretty lucky on my last visit to the Jocotoco Foundation’s Utuana Reserve: although I didn’t arrive until the early afternoon, I still ticked Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, one of the site’s specialties.

This time I was fully prepared with a list of target birds and the entire day at my disposal. Staying at Hotel Conquistador in Macará the previous night, I was up early to make the one hour drive up to the tiny but critically important reserve. Unless you’re an avid country lister, the key species here is no doubt the Gray-Headed Antbird, which can be found in the dense undergrowth of deciduous and semi-humid forest from 600-2500m (Utuana’s paltry 200 hectares cover a small hillside at an elevation of 2500m). I had read in trip reports and a site guide that the access road to Utuana, which rises from the town of Sozoranga, is a good place to start looking for this tiny antbird, whose conservation status is vulnerable due to habitat loss. Indeed, there isn’t much semi-humid hilltop forest left in Loja Province, having been long cleared for firewood and agriculture.

About 14km from Sozoranga, or 2km short of Utuana Reserve, there are some obvious patches of forest along the road, where I stopped at dawn. Lifers came relatively quick and easy in the first hour, as I spotted Line-Cheeked Spinetail, Bay-Crowned Brush-Finch, and Chapman’s Antshrike. After a bit of trolling in areas where there was significant chusquea bamboo, I got a response from a male Gray-Headed Antbird that came in close enough for a clear identification. Frankly, the bird wasn’t patterned as strikingly as is depicted in the field guide, although it wasn’t yet light at this point. Not wanting to molest this individual bird too much, I moved on and found a mixed flock up the road with some birds more or less unique to Loja Province, including Black-Cowled Saltator and Silver-Backed Tanager.   

The final stretch of the access road to the reserve itself was dry, and I cruised all the way to the top of the hill in my trusty Chevy Spark. It doesn’t rain much in this area, with most of the moisture coming from low-lying clouds; consequently, the trees are draped in moss, giving the forest a spooky feel. I walked the Piura Hemispingus Trail for a while but had trouble picking out birds in the understory. Much of the bamboo has died here too, and so I headed to a more open area to look for Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant. The appropriately named Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant Trail houses several territorial individuals, and a spectacular individual approached almost immediately after playback. At this point, I checked in with the park ranger and inquired about the other site specialties, including the Piura Hemispingus, Rufous-Necked Foliage-Gleaner, and Leymebamba or Rusty-Breasted Antpitta.

At his suggestion, I followed a trail heading downslope that had been recently maintained. Although it’s not a loop trail, there is dense undergrowth on both sides, and I shortly surprised a Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant at the forest edge, behaving very much like the Crowned Chat-Tyrant that it replaces in this highlands of Southwestern Ecuador. This area also appeared ideal for Gray-Headed Antbird, and when the bamboo is seeding Slaty Finch and Maroon-Chested Ground-Dove as well. I spent some time luring in a Slaty-Backed Nightengale-Thrush, managing a few quick looks at this shy and retiring bird. Apparently, the best spot for Piura Hemispingus is to follow the access road on foot down the other side of the hill, where it becomes a narrow track through bamboo tangled undergrowth. Considering it was midday at this point, I passed on the opportunity and photographed hummingbirds at the feeders for a while instead. It's always wise to leave a bird or two unseen for the next visit.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Speckled Hummingbird, Rainbow-Fronted Starfrontlet, Purple-Throated Sunangel, Sparkling Violetear, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Smoky-Brown Woodpecker, Line-Cheeked Spinetail, Azara’s Spinetail, Chapman’s Antshrike, Gray-Headed Antbird, Chesnut-Crowned Antpitta (h), Unicolored Tapaculo, Loja Tyrannulet, White-Banded Tyrannulet (h), Streak-Throated Bush-Tyrant, Jelski’s Chat-Tyrant, Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, Chestnut-Collared Swallow, Brown-Capped Vireo, Slaty-Backed Nightengale-Thrush, Black-Crested Warbler, Masked Flowerpiercer, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Silver-Backed Tanager, Blue-Capped Tanager, Rufous-Chested Tanager, Black-Cowled Saltator, Variable Seedeater, White-Winged Brush-Finch, Bay-Crowned Brush-Finch.

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