El Empalme: April 22, 2014

Despite the success of the last two days, I still was missing a handful of dry forest specialties, including the Tumbes Hummingbird, Elegant Crescentchest, and White-Headed Brush-Finch. Trip reports covering the region always cite El Empalme as a reliable place for the hummingbird, which can be particularly difficult to find and even then not very rewarding to see (it’s about as drab looking as the Sombre Hummingbird of Brazil). Instead of staying another magical night in the lodge at Jorupe Reserve, I crashed at the reliable Hotel Conquistador in Macará and got back on the road well before dawn. Although I couldn’t admire the scenery in the darkness, the road north winds through a beautiful valley, which at this time of year is covered in verdant deciduous forest and scrub, including massive ceiba trees. El Empalme is about an hour’s drive from Macará, and I was counseled by several sources to turn left at the fork and start birding along the road after a few kilometers.

Another concrete road has just been finished here, and drivers can now speed maniacally around turns, their tires squealing in competition with the birdsong. Fortunately, I was here early enough to enjoy relative peace and quiet, picking out a few places along the road to search in the scrub for my target species. White-Headed Brush-Finch proved common and several pairs responded inquisitively to my pishing noises. Large flocks of Red-Masked Parakeets streamed overhead while I ticked other common Tumbes species, including Ecuadorian Piculet, Plumbeous-Backed Thrush, and Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker. I also had a series of quick encounters with several male Saffron Siskins, looking vibrantly yellow-colored in comparison to the familiar Hooded-Siskin of the highlands. A Pacific Pygmy-Owl piped away in the distance reminding me that I hadn't seen one yet on this trip.

Although I had received a lot of advice, the trick to seeing the Tumbes Hummingbird was simply to be patient. I walked the road back and forth along several sections, scanning low shrubs for a feeding hummingbird. After an hour I finally found one, and later in the morning I was buzzed by another as it crossed the road zipping uphill. With that tick finally out of the way, I was free to focus on a more photogenic bird, the Elegant Crescentchest, whose congener, the Collared Crescentchest, graces the header of my Birding Brazil blog. In my experience, crescentchests rarely fail to respond to playback, although they often remain deep in cover and are slow to call in response. This one behaved similarly, but I was surprised to see it approach so close on the ground until it eventually found the right bush in which to escond and reply.

Another puzzling bird also came in when I played tape for the crescentchest. After some debate, I decided the relatively featureless bird in question was an Ash-Breasted Sierra-Finch. Wondering what else was around, I tried stirring up passerines by playing the call of the Pacific Pygmy-Owl, which proved effective although it didn’t turn up anything new. Despite the high-speed traffic and the general weirdness of birding alone on a highway in the middle of nowhere, it was a productive and enjoyable morning. Indeed, there’s a lot of good roadside habitat to explore in the area, including along the road to Macará, and a site report suggests that both Black-and-White Tanager and Ochre-Bellied Dove are possibilities here in the rainy season. At this point in the morning, I had exhausted my potential for lifers and sped north myself to Buenaventura Reserve.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): American Kestrel, Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Croaking Ground-Dove, Eared Pigeon, Red-Masked Parakeet, Gray-Cheeked Parakeet, Pacific Parrotlet, Pacific Pygmy-Owl (h), Tumbes Swift, Amazilia Hummingbird, Tumbes Hummingbird, Scarlet-Backed Woodpecker, Ecuadorian Piculet, Streak-Headed Woodcreeper (h), Collared Antshrike (h), Elegant Crescentchest, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Tumbes Pewee, Southern House Wren, Fasciated Wren, Long-Tailed Mockingbird, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Plumbeous-Backed Thrush, Saffron Siskin, Southern Yellow-Grosbeak, Ash-Breasted Sierra-Finch, Parrot-Billed Seedeater, White-Headed Brush-Finch, White-Edged Oriole.

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