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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: The South

2016 Narrative

In Brief: After two solid weeks of birding across the huge range of elevations and habitats of southern Ecuador, five hundred some-odd bird species, and numerous highlights, it’s difficult to condense it all into anything short of a book. Though if one thing were to capture the climax of the tour, it would be all of us standing in the shade of the humid forest of Reserva Buenaventura while three male Long-wattled Umbrellabirds postured in the trees above, tossing their ridiculous wattles about and emitting their sonorous, fog-horn-like calls. Elsewhere and before along our path there were encounters with antpittas and tanagers and tapaculos, tinamous and jacamars and parrots, all special in their own right, but there and then with those great, black cotingas we were present with something amazing.

In Detail: The circuit through southern Ecuador meanders through a lot of change: ups and downs and arounds as we cross through arid rain shadows, and humid jungles, above and below treeline, and across the continental divide back and forth. Each location and overlap of habitats securing its own ecological niche, with birds both generalist and specialist, and a few so special that they occur nowhere else. We started up high at treeline in El Cajas National Park outside Cuenca. On this clear day, the birds were nearly a distraction from the scenery as rocky cliffs jutted up from grassy paramo, and clear cold lakes sat in ancient glacial hollows. Tiny flowers poked from prostrate alpine vegetation and llamas ran down the road beside us. With that all in the background we enjoyed its unique birds. A Tawny Antpitta ran around in a meadow – not knowing we were there watching it from the hill above. The big, showy Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant represented flycatcher kind conspicuously as it moved between the tops of the stunted trees, and Ecuadorian Hillstars, one of the big alpine hummingbirds, zipped between yellow flowers.

The next day we continued birding south along the Andean ridge. We began at a reserve protecting a part of the tiny range of the Pale-headed Brush-Finch, a bird rediscovered in the 1990s after decades of believed extinction. The brush-finches did not disappoint after the park ranger put out orange halves and bread (?!) for them. And, what else likes orange halves and bread? Chestnut-crowned Antpittas, of course, and apparently so do Gray-browed Brush-Finches, White-tipped Doves and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushes. It was surreal, but no complaints and we had great looks at these things. Further south and back in stunted high-elevation forest we found a family of Mountain Caracaras, a species with a very restricted range in Ecuador. We started squinting at one in a distant tree, then we found another one closer, then another one, and another two, then a few circling with a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, and it went from there. High mountain excitement ended for now, and we dropped down into the Amazon foothills and ended up at Copalinga Lodge.

Forest birding commenced along the Rio Bombuscaro in the lower elevations of Podocarpus National Park. Like magic we stood next to the interpretive sign (explaining the value of the park for such scarce species as Coppery-chested Jacamar and White-necked Parakeets) when conveniently a flock of White-necked Parakeets flew in and landed in the trees in front of us. Then a Coppery-chested Jacamar called a few times and perched in a tree over the trail. All according to plan… Further along by the headquarters we got into the tanagers with Spotted, Bay-headed, Blue-necked, and Paradise showing well, and two Amazonian Umbrellabirds joined the berry-eating crowd. Back at the Copalinga we had point-blank looks at a Gray Tinamou in the trail behind the lodge. We then did a dusk visit to a rocky outcropping for the ever-faithful Blackish Nightjar. Though the bird always seems to pop up at exactly 6:35PM it isn’t always accompanied by dozens of French women jogging by for a women’s rights awareness event in Zamora. So there we were, spectators for two good causes, though perhaps the Blackish Nightjar isn’t always used to applause.

We continued east to the base of the Cordillera del Condor in far southeast Ecuador, literally at the end of the road. In these primeval forests surrounded by the karst ridges and right up against the Peruvian border, birding discovery and excitement lurks.  We beheld the big and colorful Orange-throated Tanagers and the tiny and inconspicuous White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrants in their only known locations in Ecuador. We also watched a White-necked Puffbird survey the scene from a canopy snag, and a Fiery-throated Fruiteater stolidly perch in a Cecropia tree. Purplish Jacamars and Golden-crowned Manakins, and Swallow Tanagers building a nest were also seen well.

As we left the humid low country of Amazon foothills for the humid high country, we traversed more diverse habitat, back into arid rain shadows with thorny acacias and the striking Elegant Crescentchest. We then arrived at Reserva Tapichalaca, where we saw such birds as Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Grass-green Tanager, and Golden-plumed Parakeet, but the reserve is nearly all about one special thing. One big, weird thing that the reserve and it’s parent conservation organization, Fundacion Jocotoco, is founded upon – the incredible Jocotoco Antpitta. Discovered on the property in the late 1990s, it’s now the mascot of a countrywide conservation movement, and not too hard to see on the trail behind the lodge. It posed, strutted, ate, and jumped around for us, hardly shy and often too close to photograph.

From there, habitat and birds changed considerably and the remainder of the tour was on the Pacific slope of the Andes. We left the humid forest and moved into the dry, decidcuous forests of the southwest. The dry forest in the dry season was mostly leafless and dead-looking, but birds were there, numerous, and different than what we had encountered before. Striking White-tailed Jays hopped about at Urraca Lodge in Reserva Jorupe, joined by Whooping Motmots that apparently also like fresh papaya. We even got good looks at the dry-forest specialist Watkin’s Antpitta, poking around on the edge of the caretaker’s garden. Nearby the reserve we got to see some Comb Ducks, including an adult male with it’s bizarre knobby face, while overhead swirled swifts and swallows including Tumbes Short-tailed Swift and the scarce and local Chestnut-collared Swallow.

Then, for two days we were back in humid forest, this time at Reserva Buenaventura in the state of El Oro. Again, the birds were different and special. Hordes of hummingbirds visited the feeders, troughs now lined with iridescence, and aggression put on hold long enough so each little monster could get a quick drink. White-necked Jacobins, Green Thorntails, and Violet-bellied Hummingbirds dominated the feeders, while White-tipped Sicklebill and White-vented Plumeleteer hit the flowers away from the fray. The endemic El Oro Parakeets and rare Gray-backed Hawks were special, but the show was really stolen by the Long-wattled Umbrellabirds at their forest lek. First one arrived, and then we found a second, and then a third. Their low calls and bizarre displays were otherworldly, more the domain of a cartoon than the tangible world.

Tearing ourselves away, we left for the city and the coast. We stopped along the road for dozens and dozens of Snail Kites, and for more dry forest specialties like Jet Antbird, of which we had great un-antbird-like looks. Out in the thornscrub we found Necklaced Spintetail, Ecuadorian Piculet, and a few Pearl Kites. The actual coast gave us a distraction from our usual birding (in and around vegetation) as we scoped for shorebirds and waders on mudflats, saw a few Peruvian Boobies with the Blue-footed Boobies, and a Pomarine Jaeger visiting from the arctic circle flew by. Somehow, at the end, we were all in Guayaquil, the big city around us, sitting around a table, eating well, drinking wine, and talking about the good times.

Jon Feenstra

November 2016

Updated: n/a