Due to it's standing as tops in avian diversity, South America has often been called the 'bird continent'. While Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador top the list of most species per country, of these, Ecuador, by far the smallest, may be number one in species per square mile. With over 1600 species of birds in an area the size of my home state of Arizona, Ecuador has become known as one of the top spots in the world for seeing, enjoying, and learning about an impressive variety of beautiful and fascinating birds. Such diversity is paralleled by general floral and faunal richness and a highly varied biogeography, making Ecuador a nature lover's paradise. In recent years, I've had the good fortune to have made many trips throughout much of the country. What follows is a summary of our experiences during southern Ecuador trips that include five outstanding Jocotoco Foundation (JF) reserves - www.fjocotoco.org - Buenaventura, Jorupe, Utuana, Tapichalaca, and Copalinga. All species mentioned have been seen on previous trips.
Our trip begins on the west coast in Guayaquil from where we head south through vast agricultural areas punctuated by remnants of native habitat that includes freshwater wetland, moist and dry forests, and mangroves. During our several stops, we've found the only population of horned screamers outside of Amazonia, comb duck, masked water-tyrant (a bird found only west of the Andes and then on the other side of the continent in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil), short-tailed woodstar, long-tailed mockingbird, jet antbird, superciliated wren, pearl kite, savanna hawk, snail kite, Pacific parrotlet, parrot-billed seedeater, Peruvian pelican, gray-hooded gull, Chilean flamingo, white-cheeked pintail, Peruvian pygmy-owl, Peruvian meadowlark, fasciated wren, Baird's flycatcher, several waders and shorebirds, the rare rufous-necked wood-rail, and many others. Its a busy first day.
Towards the end of our drive, we leave behind the disturbed habitat and enter one of the birdiest places I've seen in one of the birdiest countries in the world, the JF's Buenaventura Reserve (BV). With about 5000 acres of lush, moist forest, BV lies at a unique overlap zone of species from the wet Choco region to the north and the drier Tumbesian region to the south. As is true at just about every other lodge in the country, the hummer feeders are pretty intense. Though the 8-10 species (long-billed hermit, violet-bellied and rufous-tailed hummingbirds, Andean emerald, green thorntail, emerald-bellied woodnymph, brown violetear, green-crowned brilliant, white-necked jacobin) that regularly visit them are fun, it's the sheer numbers, with literal clouds of zipping birds, that are so impressive. Throughout our stay, these feeders, which also attract green honeycreeper and bananaquit, keep us well entertained......as do the bananas which host pale-mandibled aracari, rufous-headed chachalaca, and mountain coatis.
BV has an excellent main road that traverses the property from it's highest to lowest points, offering birders the perfect opportunity to explore an interesting and beautiful elevational transect. The highest point, where the habitat is a little fragmented, is where we've had luck in finding the endemic El Oro Parakeet as well as the stunning and also rare rose-faced parrot, a Choco endemic. The more intact forest below is home to Andean solitaire, violet-tailed sylph, uniform antshrike, the fairly common buff-fronted foliage-gleaner and it's rarer cousin slaty-winged foliage-gleaner, western woodhaunter, uniform treehunter, three manakin species (club-winged, with it's unique wing trill, white-bearded, and golden-winged), Guayaquil woodpecker, Choco and yellow-throated toucans, black-winged saltator, yellow tyrannulet, slaty-capped flycatcher, gray-and-gold and three-banded warblers, brownish twistwing, one-colored becard, gray-browed brush-finch, tawny-faced gnatwren, and much more. Tanagers, some quite colorful, others more subdued, include ochre-breasted, rufous-throated, golden, silver-throated, white-shouldered, Guira, swallow, blue-necked, and others. Though not common, the scaled fruiteater is always a favorite, and we've seen it several times at BV.
Below the lodge, in another area of fragmented habitat, are more open country species such as bran-colored flycatcher, crimson-breasted finch, barred puffbird, Tumbes pewee, sooty-headed tyrannulet, fasciated wren, Ecuadorian thrush, yellow-bellied siskin, and red-masked parakeet, a Tumbesian endemic. Though they aren't common, we've also had good luck in finding fasciated tiger-heron and Peruvian pygmy-owl in this area.
BV is one of the better spots for raptors, and over the years we've seen quite a few including both black and ornate hawk-eagles, a suite of hawks (gray-lined, short-tailed, great black, and barred), gray-headed and hook-billed kites, and laughing falcon. But perhaps the biggest raptor prize is the gray-backed hawk, a member of one of my favorite raptor genera, Pseudastur. This Tumbesian endemic can put on quite a show, with birds perched, soaring above, and flying below eye-level. A nocturnal bonus is a pair of black-and-white owls that in recent years has been regularly seen adjacent to the lodge almost every night. In the early morning, that same light, having attracted insects during the night, hosts a feeding parade about 20 species that can be seen in great light at eye level. These include slaty-capped flycatcher, one-colored becard, gray-and-gold warbler, streak-headed, spotted, plain-brown, and olivaceous woodcreepers, red-eyed vireo, scale-crested pygmy-tyrant, dusky-capped flycatcher, and Pacific and greenish elaenias.
One can't talk about BV without mentioning one of the all-time coolest birds anywhere, the long-wattled umbrellabird.....of which there is a lek on the property. Early in the morning and again in the evening, one of nature's most amazing spectacles takes place at the bottom of a small canyon, amidst thick, evergreen forest. As you approach the lek, you're usually greeted by what you swear (at least if you grew up in San Francisco, like I did) is a foghorn.......which seems not at all out of place as BV can be quite foggy. This low-frequency, far-traveling sound is the male umbrellabird's first card played in the mating game. With a little patience and some luck, it's not too difficult to find one of these impressive birds on his perch where he may splay his crest (the umbrella) forward and outward and simultaneously elongate and flare his impressive wattle while giving the amazing call. The show is not one you'll soon forget. When not on the lek, umbrellabirds are key seed dispersers for an Oenocarpus palm. On several occasions we've even had several males away from the lek and perched in the open on bare braches next to the lodge.
As we leave BV and head south towards the border with Peru, the climate changes almost instantly as we trade the fog and wet ground for sunny blue skies and a little dust. Arid-adapted plants gradually replace the evergreen species, and soon I feel like I'm in the tropical deciduous forest of west Mexico with Ceiba, Cochlospermum, Guazuma, Erythrina, and Pithecellobium trees. The species of Ceiba found here, C. trichistandra, with its green bark and branches going every which way, is one of the most striking I've seen. On our way to the JF's Jorupe Reserve, we make a key stop in cactus and acacia scrub to look for a few localized species - Tumbes hummingbird, superciliated wren, white-headed brush-finch, and elegant crescentchest - all of which we've had occasional success with despite the skulky, close-to-the-ground habits of the brush-finch and crescentchest. Other birds that aren't so skulky are ash-breasted sierra-finch and long tailed mockingbird. After our previous travels, which have had us spending most of our time in evergreen forest, arriving at Jorupe is like arriving in a different country..........but one in which the birding is just as awesome. The semideciduous nature of the forest in September and October, as well as the very different plant and bird species, is exciting to say the least. Almost every bird is 'new for the trip'.
The fact that the lodge is set amidst the best Tumbesian dry forest that the area has to offer becomes clear upon arrival. Some simple fruit and corn feeders (though you don't need them to see these birds) are great for getting beautiful views of whooping motmot, white-tailed jay, white-edged and yellow-tailed orioles, plumbeous-backed and Ecuadorian thrushes, and black-capped sparrow. Occasionally a pale-browed tinamou, very common by voice on the property, comes near the feeders, and Watkin's antpitta, also fairly common by voice, is sometimes seen on the grounds around the cabins. Though there are no guarantees for this bird, so far we haven't missed it.
The Jorupe area is known for its many Tumbesian endemics, which, along with many other birds, make for a great birding experience. Three furnarids - blackish-headed spinetail, rufous-necked foliage-gleaner, and henna-hooded foliage-gleaner - are highly sought after, and we've had reasonably good success, though not every time, with all. Sooty-crowned and gray-breasted flycatchers, gray-cheeked parakeet, Ecuadorian piculet, Peruvian screech-owl, Peruvian pygmy-owl, spectacled owl, Tumbes swift, Ecuadorian trogon, Pacific elaenia, collared and Chapman's antshrikes, slaty becard, fasciated wren, long-tailed mockingbird, and saffron siskin are some of the local specialties. Other interesting birds, at least in terms of distribution, include Harris's, zone-tailed, and savanna hawks, all of which are widespread in the Americas but in Ecuador only found in the southwest corner. No less than three ground-dove species - blue, croaking, and Ecuadorian - are found on the grounds, while hummingbirds, generally uncommon here, include Amazilia hummingbird, long-billed starthroat, and gray-chinned hermit. In addition to the teeny piculet, other woodpeckers include the gorgeous scarlet-backed and the impressive Guayaquil.
After several unforgettable days at Jorupe, we head south to Jocotoco's Tapichalaca Reserve. Before arriving, however, we make a stop at the JF's Utuana Reserve. Here in Tumbesian cloud forest, we always see one of the most spectacular hummingbirds in the Americas, the rainbow starfrontlet. In the past we've also seen purple-throated sunangel, red-crested cotinga, blackish tapaculo, line-cheeked and Azara's spinetails, Chapman's antshrike, and black-crested tit-tyrant. We'll also make several stops to look for Tumbes sparrow, Plumbeous rail, chestnut-collared swallow, and, at a pass just above the lodge, mouse-colored thistletail, a shrubby treeline skulker. The 7000-acre reserve is where the large and beautiful Jocotoco antpitta was discovered in 1997, subsequently inspiring the formation of the highly effective conservation group that bears its name. Set in beautiful temperate cloud forest, Tapichalaca offers rich biodiversity accessed by numerous trails as well as the main road. Upon arrival, the lodge's hummingbird feeders are an instant distraction. Hovering eye-candy includes flame-throated and amethyst-throated sunangels, collared inca, chestnut-breasted coronet, white-bellied woodstar, and long-tailed sylph. Sometimes green-fronted lancebill and rufous-capped thornbill are nectaring on nearby flowers. While many birds are possible right at the lodge, masked flowerpiercer, rufous antpitta, Chusquea tapaculo, white-banded tyrannulet, pale-naped and yellow-breasted brush-finches, blue-backed conebill, lacrimose mountain-tanager, and rufous wren are the most regular. Certainly one of the main events at Tapichalaca is the Jocotoco antpitta itself. With assistance from Angel Paz (of antpitta taming fame), the staff at Tapichalaca has habituated a family of these remarkable birds. With several individuals hopping around at our feet, the time we spend with these amazing birds has been unforgettable. The Jocotoco isn't the only antpitta on the property. Starting in 2011 they had undulated and chestnut-naped antpittas also coming to a worm feeder, and rufous is an occasional visitor.
On the trails and the main road, we find a spectacular assortment of birds, many of which are found in Ecuador's always exciting mixed flocks. Flocks in the dense understory can include glossy and white-sided flowerpiercers (often dueling with each other or with hummingbirds), golden-crowned tanager, rufous spinetail, pale-naped and yellow-breasted brush-finches, rufous-breasted tanager, black-capped and black-eared hemispingus, and up to four species of Basileuterus warblers - black-crested, citrine, russet-crowned, and three-striped. Canopy flocks generally come in two forms. First are those with large species such as gray-breasted mountain-toucan, turquoise jay, mountain cacique, hooded mountain-tanager, and perhaps dusky piha. Flocks with smaller species may have white-banded and black-capped tyrannulets, gray-hooded bush-tanager, citrine and black-crested warblers, blue-backed conebill, pearled treerunner, and many others. Sit-and-wait ambush species, usually found on their own, include diminutive black-throated tody-tyrants, larger smoky bush-tyrants, and small groups of orange-banded flycatchers. Bamboo specialists, always on the skulky side, include the Chusquea tapaculo and plain-tailed wren. While we almost always get glimpses of the wren, amazingly we've yet to fail to get great views of the tapaculo ! Though they're uncommon, we've had some unforgettable sightings of one of the world's most spectacular tanagers, the white-capped, as well as one of the most striking raptors, black-and-chestnut eagle. A few other uncommon raptors we've seen near the lodge are white-rumped hawk, a resident, and white-throated hawk, and Austral migrant.
One of the highlights of a visit to Tapichalaca is the possibility of seeing rare golden-plumed parakeets. Being the only parakeet in the area at that elevation (other than the much smaller barred parakeet, which we've seen several times, but only as fly-bys which is the usual case for this species) makes identification fairly easy. A small grove of wax palms (Ceroxylon sp.), some with nest boxes, is the most reliable spot for the golden-plumed parakeets, and so far we've enjoyed many good views of perched and flying birds at the nesting site as well as several eye-level views in the sun of feeding birds about 50 feet away !
From Tapichalaca, we head to the eastern foothills and Copalinga Lodge. Copalinga's beautiful forest, with great birds right on the grounds, is a fitting gateway to the lower elevations of Podocarpus National Park. Though hummer feeders at some lower elevations in Ecuador tend to be less active than those in cloud forest, Copalinga turns out to be one the hottest spots for these smallest of birds, and over the years, we've seen almost two dozen species. While the feeders are good for fork-tailed woodnymph, sparkling violetear, many-spotted hummingbird, gray-chinned and green hermits, and violet-fronted and black-throated brilliants, the Verbena flowers attract spangled coquette, wire-crested thorntail, violet-headed hummingbird, and golden-tailed sapphire. Copalinga's feeders are particularly remarkable, at least to me, for being the only place I've ever seen a fairy, in this case the black-eared, come to a feeder.
In the denser forest of Podocarpus NP, near the Rio Bombuscaro and just five minutes away, the birds are a bit different. Here rarities that we've seen include coppery-chested jacamar, black-streaked puffbird, and Amazonian umbrellabird. Large and exciting mixed flocks can have many tanagers (paradise, yellow-bellied, spotted, flame-crested, orange-eared, golden-eared, bay-headed, and golden), Lafresnaye's piculet, yellow-throated and ashy-headed Chlorospingus, montane foliage-gleaner, gray-mantled wren, subtropical cacique, and orange-crested flycatcher.
Fifteen minutes from the lodge is the old Loja-Zamora Road, a well-known birding spot where good forest and relatively easy viewing can yield gray-mantled wren, bronze-green euphonia, cerulean warbler, Equatorial graytail, lanceolated monklet, slaty-capped shrike-vireo, Ecuadorian tyrannulet, Andean motmot, black-faced dacnis, chestnut-tipped and emerald toucanets, lined antshrike, and eye-level or from-above views of white-collared, chestnut-collared, and gray-rumped swifts. Though very rare and dificult to see, we once had a maroon-chested ground-dove walking along the edge of this road for about ten minutes ! While the forest and birds are superb in the Copalinga area, the hospitality, comfort, and delicious food provided by our JF hosts are always major highlights.
As with all of my trips, in addition to birds (and their evolutionary history and ecologies), there is plenty of natural history as well, and we always find interesting insects, plants, mammals, and maybe a few reptiles and amphibians along the way. Among the dozen mammals we've seen are brown-throated three-toed and Hoffman's two-toed sloths, red brocket deer, mantled and red howler monkeys, white-throated and white-fronted capuchin monkeys, black and Central American agoutis, Brazilian rabbit, Uroderma bats, olingo, Guayaquil and red-tailed squirrels, and mountain and South American coatis. We also learn about the work (land purchases, habitat restoration, research and monitoring of rare species) of the Jocotoco Foundation at each reserve.
Southern Ecuador has the beauty, diversity, and comfortable lodging that make for a rewarding and memorable trip, one that I hope to make many more times in the future.
Chusquea tapaculo, coppery-chested jacamar, lanceolated monklet, gray-backed
hawk, and pale-browed tinamou by Misty Vaughn