It’s still a long drive from Macará to Piñas, but it takes about half the time it did in 2008 when I last traveled in Southwestern Ecuador. The road is as windy as ever, but now it’s surfaced with concrete, making it possible to spend a few hours birding at Jorupe Reserve in the morning and a few hours of birding at Buenaventura Reserve before dark. Opting to do some roadside birding at El Empalme instead, I hit the road midmorning, stopped for lunch in Balsas, and drove straight to the reserve headquarters, hoping to see the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird congregating at the famous lek in the late afternoon.
Buenaventura is another of the Jocotoco Foundation’s excellent reserves, protecting, and increasing through reforestation efforts, a rare swath of cloudforest in El Oro province. Bridging the Chocó and Tumbes bioregions, the reserve’s bird list is impressively long and laden with endemic species. While the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird is certainly the reserve’s flagship bird, and a Chocó endemic species itself, Buenaventura Reserve is also home to two highly localized country endemics, the El Oro Parakeet and Tapaculo. These two species were my primary target birds for my visit, although I would save their pursuit until the following day.
The reserve is modest in size, although it has expanded from 400 to 2000 hectares since its founding 1999, but if you keep your eyes open along the drive, either from Guayaquil or Loja, you’ll understand its importance. The principal section of the reserve is nestled tightly in a steep valley, which receives so much precipitation each year that it’s best to measure rainfall in meters. Landslides as well as pastures blemish the surrounding slopes, diminishing the overall sense of wilderness within the reserve. Above this valley, the reserve continues patchily, small islands of forest in a sea of pastureland, some of which is being reforested. Once you strap on your binoculars, however, you’ll be amazed by the diversity and splendor of the birds.
Upon arrival, I checked in at headquarters, where I purchased my entrance ticket and chatted with a few park guards. When I planned this trip I expected the entrance road to be impassable in a compact car, but it was in great shape, and I heard that the rains had let up over the last week. If I had known this in advance, I would have arranged to stay at the adjacent Umbrellabird Lodge, although access to the upper part of the reserve is easier from Piñas than headquarters. The track continues up the steep valley and eventually reconnects with the highway along the ridge, although the gate at the end is locked. I birded this track starting from both ends but didn’t inquire whether I could obtain the key to the gate.
Headquarters at Buenaventura Reserve is home to some of the most active hummingbird feeders in the neotropics; there is even a webcam trained on them! Since I had been there last, they had significantly cut back the surrounding vegetation, which appeared to reduce bird traffic at the feeders. In 2008, there were thick clouds of hummingbirds everywhere, and Pale-Mandibled Araçaris and Rufous-Headed Chalalachas would mob the fruit feeders. Without better coverage nearby, birds seem less willing to expose themselves momentarily at the feeders, I think, or perhaps I was simply witnessing a seasonal variation. Regardless, I spent an hour admiring the hummingbirds, finally spotting a female White-Vented, or Bronze-Tailed Plumeleteer, depending on which taxonomy you’re following (for this blog I’ve decided simply to go by the book, Ridgely and Greenfield’s Birds of Ecuador Field Guide).
Then it was time to head up the hill towards the umbrellabird lek. Except for a few exceptions, I didn’t come across another birder on my entire trip to Ecuador, and I was the only visitor at Buenaventura during my stay. With no one to follow or show me around, I spent some time trying to determine the exact locality of the lek itself. Although the trail is clearly marked, and there is a paved walkway including handrails, I wasn’t sure where to find the umbrellabirds, if there were truly any around. In response to the presence of a female, lekking male cotingas will normally make a spectacular visual and aural display, and the Long-Wattled Umbrellabird is no different, emitting a foghorn like sound and extending its wattle to an enormous length. However, this late in the rainy season the lek might have already been conquered by an individual male.
After an hour of searching, I finally found a solitary male just overhead. The sky was growing gloomier by the minute, and I was sweating profusely, not just as a result of my efforts, but because the humidity had spiked. Clearly, it was about to rain, and I made haste to document this male. It spent many minutes preening and precious few moments actually displaying, but I did witness it extend its wattle to well over twice its body length, at the same time pushing forward its crest feathers as if it were taking shelter under an umbrella. Not a single boom shattered the silence, likely because there was no female nearby to impress, but I certainly got an eyeful, spending nearly an hour in the bird’s company before it left.
After it rained all night, I spent the next morning in the upper portion of the reserve, hoping to encounter a flock of El Oro Parakeets in one of the forest patches. I also had some intelligence on an El Oro Tapaculo lek, but the narrow trail leading down to it was desperately overgrown. I found a few mixed flocks, including Russet Antshrike, and spotted a Gray-Backed Hawk on two occasions, once drying out on a snag and another time hunting from a perch within the canopy. Finally, while taking a break in a clearing, I first heard an explosion of squawks and then a flock of parakeets burst into the open and streaked by in front of me, their distinctive red wing patches briefly but clearly visible.
In the afternoon, I birded the road back down the reserve’s principal valley, starting from the locked gate near the shrine frequently mentioned in trip reports. I hooked up with a major mixed flock of over twenty different species of flycatchers, funariids, woodcreepers, and tanagers and allies, following for nearly an hour as the birds terrorized the forest edge. Although for me there was no particularly new or exciting species in the flock, the spectacle was still a marvel of diversity of bird behavior and appearance, a fitting conclusion to an epic three-week trip back to Ecuador. (I actually squeezed a few more hours of birding out of the trip on the following day at the Cajanuma Entrance to Podocarpus National Park).
Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Swallow-Tailed Kite, Gray-Backed Hawk, Barred Hawk, Northern Crested Caracara, White-Throated Crake (h), Plumbeous Pigeon, Bronze-Winged Parrot, El Oro Parakeet, Squirrel Cuckoo, Violet-Tailed Sylph, Green Thorntail, Green-Crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, White-Necked Jacobin, White-Vented Plumeleteer, Andean Emerald, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, Violet-Bellied Hummingbird, Rufous Motmot, Chesnut-Mandibled Toucan, Spotted Woodcreeper, Wedge-Billed Woodcreeper, Azara’s Spinetail, Streaked Xenops, Plain Xenops, Lineated Foliage-Gleaner, Scaly-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Western Slaty Antshrike, Russet Antshrike, Slaty Antwren, Immaculate Antbird, Yellow Tyrannulet, Slaty-Capped Flycatcher, Loja Tyrannulet, Sulphur-Rumped Flycatcher, Ornate Flycatcher, Western Wood-Pewee, Vermillion Flycatcher, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Golden-Winged Manakin, Club-Winged Manakin, Gray-Breasted Wood-Wren, Song Wren (h), Lesser Greenlet, Rufous-Browed Peppershrike, Ecuadorian Thrush, Andean Solitaire (h), Bananaquit, Green Honeycreeper, Orange-Bellied Euphonia, Orange-Crowned Euphonia, Bay-Headed Tanager, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Golden Tanager, Silver-Throated Tanager, Yellow-Throated Bush-Tanager, Common Bush-Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Ochre-Breasted Tanager, Ashy-Throated Bush-Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Yellow-Bellied Seedeater, Scrub Blackbird.