Duration:15 days
#Heard Only:45

2006 Southern Ecuador Birding Tour

Our tour of southern Ecuador began with a morning flight from Quito to Guayaquil. We were met by our driver upon arrival and headed south, birding en route along the road. The best roadside birding is within Manglares-Churute Reserve. We saw our primary target species, Horned Screamer perched in a scrub tree a few hundred yards from the road. We had great looks at a lowland specialty, the lovely black and white Masked Water-Tyrant. The open country is also prime habitat for seedeaters, and we soon found Large-billed Seed-finch, Lesser Seed-finch, and Saffron Finch among other species. We enjoyed numerous sightings of the lovely little Pacific Parrotlet as well. Perhaps the most notable species we found en route was a female Cinnamon Teal, which our master guide Lelis Navarette carefully scrutinized and was sure he had identified correctly. This is a species for which there are few if any recent records in Ecuador, so it was a spectacular find.

From Manglares-Churute we continued on to Zaruma, where we stayed at the Roland Hotel our first two nights. We had intended to stop en route at the Santa Rosa Marshes, but our visit was at the end of dry season so the marshes were dry. Tours during wet season can produce a lot of aquatic birds there, some of which we picked up anyway elsewhere on this tour. We enjoyed the Roland Hotel but in future we'll be staying at the Umbrellabird Lodge within Buenaventure Reserve because it is closer to the birding.

The following day we birded the upper part of Buenaventura Reserve. Ground fog rolled into the lower valleys in the morning, but going to higher ground allowed us to get above the fog layer. Highlights included several groups of El Oro Parakeets flying overhead and great looks at a Scaled Fruiteater . We heard El Oro Tapaculo but could never get any birds into view despite giving it a good try with playbacks. We found the endemic Loja Tyrannulet and Tumbes Pewee, species we saw several times over the next few days. Among the many tanagers we saw were Golden Tanager, Rufous-throated Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, and Swallow Tanager as well as Thick-billed and Orange-bellied Euphonias. This was the only place where we found Black-winged Saltator in the south. The most common hummingbirds at feeders were Violet-bellied Hummingbird and Green Thorntail. We had great looks at the spectacular White-tipped Sicklebill as well as Tawny-bellied Hermit along a forest trail plus a White-whiskered Hermit that came in to the feeders. Another spectacular hummingbird we found was the beautiful Violet-tailed Sylph with its incredibly long violet tail feathers.

We spent half the next day birding the lower part of Buenaventura Reserve. We could easily have spent the whole day there and will allow more time for this area on our future tours. This is a wonderful forested area that has been preserved through the efforts of Fundacion Jocotoco. It is an important habitat island in the largely deforested southern Andes. The biggest highlight was certainly prolonged fantastic looks at a pair of Long-wattled Umbrellabirds. We had great looks of Orange-crested Manakins that made strange whirring sounds with their wings while displaying on a lek. We had a fleeting look at White-bearded Manakin partially hidden in the understory and a good look at the stunning Flame-faced Tanager. That afternoon we continued on to Macara near the Peruvian border, a good 3-4 hour drive. En route we picked up the endemic Tumbes Hummingbird as well as Amazilia Hummingbird and female Purple-throated Woodstar. We checked a scrub area near Macara for Elegant Crescent-Chest and White-headed Brush-Finch but arrived a bit too late and missed both. We did pick up Elegant Crescent-Chest later in the tour.

We stayed at the Hosteria Los Conquistadores on the main street in Macara. The hotel is comfortable and the best available in Macara, but we arrived during presidential primary season so were subjected to substantial noise from a bandstand set up right outside the hotel the second night of our stay. Macara allows easy access to Jorupe Forest Reserve, a dry lowland forest area preserved by Fundacion Jocotoco that offers excellent birding. We had great looks at the endemic Watkin's Antpitta thanks to some persistence combined with the excellent skills of our guide. We also found a nice mixed flock of Ecuadorian Piculet, Henna-headed Foliage-gleaner, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, Highland Hepatic Tanager, and White-winged Brush-finch.

Next day we set out for Loja, stopping en route to bird Utuana Forest Reserve, a higher elevation site also owned by Fundacion Jocotoco. En route we found Chestnut-collared Swallows flying around Sozoranga. Notable birds we found at Utuana included Plain-breasted Hawk soaring overhead, Speckled Hummingbird, the spectacularly colorful Rainbow Starfrontlet, the lovely Purple-throated Sunangel, Ecuadorian Trogon, our first looks at Golden-headed Quetzal, Line-cheeked Spinetail, Gray-headed Antbird, the endemic Tumbesian Tyrannulet, Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Three-banded Warbler, Blue-capped Tanager, and the endemic Black-cowled Saltator. From Utuana we continued on to the Catamayo Valley, an agricultural area good for a few open country birds. There we picked up Croaking Ground-Dove, the endemic Loja Hummingbird, and the endemic Tumbes Sparrow. We also saw Long-tailed Mockingbird, which was quite common.

After staying the night at a nice hotel in Loja, we drove 20 minutes or so to the higher elevation Cajanuma entrance to Podocarpus National Park. At the park we had great looks at both Chestnut-naped Antpitta and Rufous Antpitta along a forest trail. We had good looks at Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Rufous Spinetail, Azara's Spinetail, White-browed Spinetail, Pearled Treerunner, Streaked Tufted-cheek, the endemic Chusquea Tapaculo with a bit of diligence, Red-crested Cotinga, Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, Plain-tailed Wren, Spectacled Whitestart, the lovely bright green Grass-green Tanager, Black-headed Hemispingus, a distant view of Hooded Mountain-Tanager, the striking Blue-and-black Tanager, White-sided Flowerpiercer, Pale-headed Brush-Finch, and Northern Mountain Cacique. We also saw a variety of hummingbirds, including Chestnut-breasted Coronet, the stunning black/green and white Collared Inca, the beautiful Rainbow Starfrontlet, Flame-throated Sunangel, Purple-throated Sunangel, and the range-restricted Viridian Metaltail. That afternoon we drove to Vilcabamba, famous for the longevity of its residents, where we stayed at the Hosteria Vilcabamba, a nice resort hotel. The main problem with staying there is it takes more than an hour to reach Tapichalaca Reserve from there and is too far to visit Zumba to pick up Maranon endemics in a single day. On future tours we'll stay at the fairly basic lodge operated by Fundacion Jocotoco within Tapichalaca Reserve.

We spent the next day birding along the Quebrada Honda and nearby trails within Tapichalaca Reserve. These trails are fairly up and down, giving rise to a bit of strenuous going at times but offering excellent birding opportunities. Our primary target bird was of course the recently discovered Jocotoco Antpitta. This bird is very difficult to see, and it no longer responds to playback due to overuse of that technique by prior birding groups. Even though our guide was co-discoverer of this species and knew of some less visited sites, we were unable to see the bird and indeed did not even hear it vocalizing. We had some early birding success, picking up a quick look at the endemic Bearded Guan that flushed from undergrowth near the trail, the endemic Golden-plumed Parakeet, Chestnut-collared Swift, Golden-headed Quetzal, Montane Woodcreeper, Barred Fruiteater, White-crested Elaenia, Black-capped Tyrannulet, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Rufous-tailed Tyrant, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Rufous Wren, Mountain Wren, Citrine Warbler, Three-striped Warbler, Rufous-chested Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, a female Plushcap, Glossy Flowerpiercer, and Rufous-headed Brush-Finch. We also saw a variety of hummingbirds at the feeders, including Chestnut-breasted Coronet, Collared Inca, Rainbow Starfrontlet, Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Flame-throated Sunangel, Glowing Puffleg, Rufous-capped Thornbill, Long-tailed Sylph, and White-bellied Woodstar.

The next morning we returned to Tapichalaca Reserve. We gave the Jocotoco Antpitta another try, without success. We did have a good look at the secretive White-throated Quail-Dove. We saw Golden-plumed Parakeets once again, along with Scaly-naped Parrots. Other species we picked up included Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, Plumbeous-backed Thrush, Turquoise Jay, and Blue-backed Conebill,. After lunch, we checked out of our hotel and headed to the lower elevation Rio Bombuscaro area of Podocarpus National Park near Zamora. En route we found a pair of Torrent Ducks, Cliff Flycatcher, and an immature White-capped Dipper. That night we stayed at the very nice Copalinga Lodge, conveniently located just down the road from the Bombuscaro entrance of Podocarpus National Park.

We spent the next morning birding the lower elevation portion of Podocarpus National Park. We had great looks at the near endemic White-breasted Parakeet. We encountered a bright orange male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock that perched cooperatively on an open branch just off the trail while we took photos. Birding became hectic in a hurry when we found a spectacular mixed-species flock containing at least 15 different species that included Lafresnaye's Piculet, Golden-olive Woodpecker, the very rare and difficult to find Equatorial Graytail, the endemic Foothill Elaenia, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Canada Warbler, Yellow-throated and Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers, Bronze-green Euphonia, Golden Tanager, Golden-eared Tanager, the spectacularly colorful Paradise Tanager, Green-and-gold Tanager, Spotted Tanager, and Bay-headed Tanager. We also found Ruddy Pigeon, had great looks at a Black-cheeked Puffbird perching unobtrusively in the shadows of a large tree, and saw Ash-browed Spinetail, a female Blackish Antbird, Blue-rumped Manakin, Mottle-backed Elaenia, Orange-crested Flycatcher, Yellow-cheeked Becard, adult White-capped Dipper, Inca Jay, Orange-eared Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Grayish Saltator, and Russet-backed Oropendola during an incredible morning of birding.

Back at Copalinga Lodge, one of the lodge owners Catherine Vits told us she had just seen a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove in the garden of her private residence. This bird is so rare our master guide Lelis Navarette has never seen one during his 16 years as a birding guide in Ecuador. We quickly hustled off to look for the bird, but sadly failed to find it. The bird had evidently already left for "greener gardens". We did nevertheless see some other good birds around the lodge, including Yellow-tufted Woodpecker and various hummingbirds at the feeders and in the gardens such as Green Hermit, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Glittering-throated Emerald, Ecuadorian Piedtail, and Violet-fronted Brilliant.

Later that afternoon we went birding along the Trans-Amazonian Highway with great success. Notable birds we saw included Speckled Chachalaca, Chestnut-collared Swift, Blue-tailed Emerald, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Little Woodpecker, Dark-breasted Spinetail, White-browed Antbird, Short-crested Flycatcher, White-banded Swallow, Black-capped Donacobius, Olivaceous Greenlet, Olivaceous Siskin, the rather different Magpie Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, Yellow-browed Sparrow, Yellow-rumped Cacique, and Crested Oropendola.

The following day was a travel day, but we spent some time in the morning birding the old Zamora-Loja Road. We found another great mixed flock consisting of Red-headed Barbet, Lafresnaye's Piculet, Ash-browed Spinetail, Montane Foliage-gleaner, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Cerulean Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Canada Warbler, Orange-eared Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Golden-eared Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Black-faced Dacnis, and Blue Dacnis. In the midst of all this activity, a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock flew into the tree and perched in the middle of the flock! We saw Sickle-winged Guan that flushed from the side of the road and a flock of White-breasted Parakeets flying by. We had great looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Olive-chested Flycatcher, Crowned Chat-tyrant, Lemon-browed Flycatcher, Yellow-whiskered Bush-Tanager, and Black Flowerpiercer. We then continued on toward Cuenca, stopping far up a side road en route for lunch. In that area we found Sierran Elaenia and Tufted Tit-Tyrant.

Following a good night's sleep at the Hotel San Andreas in Cuenca, we went up to El Cajas National Park, a high elevation site where paramo specialties can be found. We hoped to find an Andean Condor but had no success in that regard. Nevertheless, we saw a number of good birds, including Andean Teal, Andean Ruddy-Duck, Carunculated Caracara, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Mountain Velvetbreast, Violet-throated Metaltail, Blue-mountain Thornbill, Bar-winged Cinclodes, Stout-billed Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Mouse-colored Thistletail, Many-striped Canastero, Tawny Antpitta, one of the easiest antpittas to see because they often run about on open ground, Red-crested Cotinga, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Giant Conebill, the very locally distributed Tit-like Dacnis, and Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.

We returned to Cuenca to do a few errands, such as getting a new bow for someone's glasses which had predictably broken a week into the tour (Murphy's Law!). We checked out of our hotel and proceeded downslope to Yunguilla Reserve, another protected area owned by Fundacion Jocotoco. This is home to the highly endangered Pale-headed Brush-Finch, and we wasted no time going in search of it. However, we had arrived late in the afternoon and had no success finding it that day. We did run into a local park ranger who of course knew our guide (everyone involved with Fundacion Jocotoco does since Lelis is one of the directors of the foundation). The ranger said he would be happy to show us the best place to see the brush-finches the following morning. We did see a few birds that afternoon, including Speckled Hummingbird, Turquoise Jay and a few common birds.

Next day we were up early and back up to Yunguilla Reserve, where we met the same park ranger. We quickly found several Pale-headed Brush-Finches and had nice, though distant, views of them. The park ranger then led us along a grid of trails cut through the valley undergrowth to a vantage point near a Naranjillo tree where the brush-finches were feeding. These trails have been cut because Pale-headed Brush-Finches need openings in the undergrowth for the habitat to be suitable for nesting. En route a normally hard to see Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush popped up and perched in the open along the trail, allowing us great looks. We spent an hour or more watching the brush-finches and other birds coming in to the tree, as well as taking photos. While we were there, we saw Rufous-crowned Tody-Tyrant, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, and Southern Yellow Grosbeak as well. We looked off to the west and there was a spectacular Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle soaring along and over the nearby ridgeline. On the way back to our vehicle, we ferreted out a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and Blackish Tapaculo from the undergrowth. That afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, a very nice place not far from Yunguilla Reserve, and drove downslope, arriving in Guayaquil just in time for rush hour traffic. We were very glad to have a professional Ecuadorian driver to get us through the maze of congested one-way streets to our hotel.

The last full day of our tour, we drove west from Guayaquil toward Salinas on the Santa Elena Peninsula. It was tricky business getting out of town because all the normal roads were closed for construction, and signage is not one of the strong points in Ecuadorian "traffic control". With perseverance and a good map, our guide and driver managed to navigate the maze and get us on our way. Santa Elena Peninsula is fairly arid and, except for Cerro Blanco, features dry scrub habitat. It was a good chance to pick up species we had missed our first day when we traversed Manglares-Churute Reserve. Birds we saw en route to Salinas included Harris Hawk, Northern Crested Caracara, Burrowing Owl, Short-tailed Woodstar, Necklaced Spinetail the prized Elegant Crescent-Chest we had missed earlier around Macara, Greenish Elaenia, Short-tailed Field-Tyrant, White-tailed Jay, Collared Warbling-Finch, Parrot-billed Seedeater, Peruvian Meadowlark, and White-edged Oriole. In the general vicinity of Salinas and at the Ecuasal Salt Ponds outside town, we found various aquatic birds, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Notable among these were Peruvian Pelican, Cocoi Heron, Chilean Flamingo, White-cheeked Pintail, Gray Gull, Kelp Gull, Gray-headed Gull, and Sandwich Tern.

Next morning we flew from Guayaquil back to Quito, where the tour ended. Our future tours to the south will begin and end in Guayaquil, but on this tour it began in Quito because we had a scouting trip planned in the north immediately following our southern tour. We were happy with our tally of 462 species, especially considering the tour was during dry season when birds in the south are mostly not breeding and hence less easily seen. We expect to have even greater success next time when we'll visit the Zumba area for Maranon endemics and schedule the tour during January when breeding is in full swing.