Despite it being well within my reach for years, I never birded the road between Ibarra and San Lorenzo during my time in Ecuador. Aimee and I once took an epic trip to Playa del Oro, traveling the very same road from Quito, although we didn’t do much birding along the way except for a brief stop at Bosque Yalare. While I certainly explored the northwestern slope of Pichincha, I generally shied away from the border region, which was probably wise considering how the conflict on the other side has displaced tens of thousands of Colombians. Birding groups, however, have continued to hit sites along the road without serious incident, a testament, I guess, to the adage that there is safety in numbers. Having since lived and travelled in some riskier countries, including Colombia, Nigeria, and Tanzania, I decided it was time to man up and nose around this area a bit. It couldn’t possibly be any edgier than birding in Bogotá, Lagos, or Dar es Salaam?
My country list was definitely missing some important Chocó species, including both subtropical species like Beautiful Jay, Purplish-Mantled Tanager, and Star-Chested Treerunner, as well as lowland and foothill species like the Golden-Chested Tanager, Blue Cotinga, and Slaty-Tailed Trogon. Although there isn’t nearly the same degree of birding infrastructure in this region compared with the northwestern slope of Pichincha, there are two relatively new sites that I was interested in visiting, both dirt roads that lead through relatively intact forest. The first is known as El Chical Road. Access is relatively straight forward: descending towards San Lorenzo from Salinas, you’ll come to a town called El Limonal after twenty minutes or so. Take a right, crossing a bridge over the Mira River, and continue to the village of Gualchán. From here, the road ascends a series of switchbacks before mounting a pass (2250m). There is good roadside habitat on both sides, although the far side might be a bit wetter and hence better for some of the specialties. Bird groups often stay at the ritzy Hacienda Primavera just beyond Gualchán while independent birders have the option of crashing at a hostel in the village itself (I stayed in Otavalo the night before and in Lita the following night).
I left Otavalo well before dawn and arrived at the beginning of the forested slope at an appropriate hour for birding. It was a perfectly clear day, and before it got too warm I was eager to get to the pass, where I had the best chance to find my main target bird, the Purplish-Mantled Tanager. Cruising up the switchbacks in my Chevy Spark, a compact car with woefully low clearance and tires no wider than a bicycle’s, I stopped abruptly. Just ahead a massive landslide had wiped out the road, leaving it nearly impassable by foot, much less by car. In fact, the landslide was several hundred meters across and had started over 500m above, taking out a wide swath of forest and three different sections of the road. Well short of the pass where my target bird awaited, I had little choice but to gear up and start walking. And so what had originally supposed to be a leisurely day of road birding turned into an epic march up and over a brutally steep pass. Not surprisingly, given the proximity to Colombia, there were dozens of Ecuadorian soldiers also patrolling the road on foot, all of whom kindly but persistently questioned me as to what the hell I was doing.
By the time I reached the pass, it was midmorning and bird activity was on the decline. I had stopped along the way for some good birds, including Barred Hawk, Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, and Yellow-Faced Grasquit, but I had burned up a lot of time and energy in the process. Now that I was finally in more desirable habitat (some of the rare, or simply difficult, Chocó species apparently prefer mossy forest), the sun was high and I was covered in sweat. But within a few minutes I hooked up with an understory mixed flock, and after a bit of playback a pair of Purplish-Mantled Tanagers emerged at the forest edge. Nearly identical in behavior to the Yellow-Throated Tanager of the eastern slope (I’ve only recorded it in Peru), the Purplish-Mantled Tanager is even more beautiful. Indeed, all five Iridosornis tanagers are breathtakingly gorgeous birds, on the whole radiant blue accented with brilliant yellow or gold (I can proudly say now that I’ve seen four out of five).
After accomplishing such a steep ascent in rubber boots, I struggled for motivation to continue beyond the pass, despite knowing from trip reports that Black Solitaire, Star-Chested Treerunner, and other Chocó goodies awaited downslope. But I pressed on until a thunderstorm moved in and drenched me, shortly after locating a dark morph White-Rumped Hawk in the canopy (amazingly, the bird pursued me along the road, calling aggressively until I left the area). The rain continued on and off as I slowly made my way back to the car by late afternoon. I came across a few more flocks, also with pairs of Purplish-Mantled Tanagers, and got a quick look at the unique Plushcap, but I struck out on the treerunner. There’s no doubt that I would have covered more ground and been more successful if I had been able to drive the entire road instead of having to walk it, but perhaps the extra effort made the reward that much sweeter. I couldn’t have hope for better pictures of my quarry either.
Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Swallow-Tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Barred Hawk, White-Rumped Hawk, American Kestrel, Plumbeous Pigeon, White-Collared Swift, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Collared Inca, Speckled Hummingbird, Masked Trogon (h), Golden-Headed Quetzal, Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Toucan Barbet (h), Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta (h), Rufous-Breasted Antthrush (h), Montane Woodcreeper, Red-Faced Spinetail, Long-Tailed Antbird, Nariño Tapaculo (h), Streak-Necked Flycatcher, Flavescent Flycatcher, Smoke-Colored Pewee, Vermillion Flycatcher, Golden-Crowned Flycatcher, Scale-Crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Golden-Winged Manakin, Blue-and-White Swallow, Rufous Wren, Tropical Mockingbird, Andean Solitaire (h), Three-Striped Warbler, Slate-Throated Whitestart, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, White-Sided Flowerpiercer, Orange-Bellied Euphonia, Saffron-Crowned Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, Metallic-Green Tanager, Golden Tanager, Purplish-Mantled Tanager, Blue-and-Gray Tanager, Yellow-Rumped Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager, Plushcap, White-Lined Tanager, Black-Winged Saltator, Yellow-Faced Grassquit, Yellow-Bellied Seedeater.