September – October 2015.
Birding in Colombia was so intense and amazing that when we arrived in Ecuador we were spent and needed some down time. We also arrived woefully unprepared and needed time to simply look at a map and a field guide! We had little more than a few names of sites in mind, and no real plan for where we wanted to go birding. Thankfully we had a lovely spot to cool our heels for a little while in Cotocachi. From Cotocachi we took a number of day trips to explore northern Ecuador while we continued to plan.
Ecuador does not have an up-to-date published bird finding guide, but there is a wonderful online resource that describes nearly all of the birding destinations in Ecuador complete with directions and bird lists: Where to Find Birds in Ecuador written by Lelis Navarrete. When describing sites throughout Ecuador we will generally refer to this online resource and will provide updates where needed. A smaller but useful e-Book (Birding Northwestern Ecuador available on Amazon) describes birding destinations in Northwestern Ecuador.
While we were driving south, leaving Colombia and entering Ecuador, I was struck by the dryness of the central Andean Valleys. Sure, parts of central Colombia Andes were hot and dry, such as the Magdalena Valley, but to me Ecuador seemed much drier.
The valleys in the north are a mix of grasses, acacias, agaves, cactus, and other shrubs. Surprisingly, though, there are not many endemic birds in the region, especially given how different the vegetation is. There is one, however, the Blue-headed Sapphire, which occurs in the dry upper Cauca valley in southwestern Colombia and in the interandean valleys in northern Ecuador. We did not have time to track down the Blue-headed Sapphire in Colombia so we headed to Rio Palacara, which is located north of Ibarra along the road from Salinas to the coast. We parked (with permission) roadside in front of the sand and gravel operation (0.52590, -78.15390) and walked through the sand and gravel operation, generally following the stream. By the time we arrived the sun was blazing and we had sand flies chowing down on us mercilessly. Thankfully we found a Blue-headed Sapphire rather quickly and decided to head out and take refuge from the sand flies. We did not explore the dry valleys much but there are other sites for this species nearby, and you can probably find Blue-headed Sapphire along any riparian area in the northern dry valleys.
We stopped at Lago Yahuarcocha one morning, as rumor had it that the Ecuadorian (Virginia) Rail can be easily seen from shore. Perhaps it is true but in many areas the reeds are cleared from the actual shore and occur only in patches. As well, we arrived on a weekend and the lake shores were busy with people fishing and enjoying the weekend which made finding the rail a no go. The lake, while not super interesting bird wise, makes for a nice stop if you are looking for Slate-colored Coot, Andean Gull, or Neotropic Cormorant. The better spot to look for the rail is Lago San Pablo. Lago San Pablo is located just south of Otavalo, the city known for its crafts market.
We stopped at the first likely looking reed bed on the north side of the lake and within seconds of broadcasting one song, two Ecuadorian Rails popped out of the reeds. While technically not considered separate from Virginia Rail, it is hard to imagine that this rail, located thousands of miles away, is the same Virginia Rail that we know from North America. The lake itself was covered with Yellow-billed Pintails and Slate-colored Coots with a few Andean (Ruddy) Ducks in between. We drove all the way around the lake, checking side roads for lake access. The best lake access other than the northern side (0.2185, -78.2368) is probably the aquatic park on the southwest side of the lake (0.2113, -78.2118). Here there are good views of the lake, access to reeds (we heard the rail calling here as well), and access to dirt side tracks (0.2095, -78.2057) that go through agricultural scrub which we found to be quite birdy. The roads and edges were covered with Band-tailed Seedeaters, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches, Golden Grosbeaks, and of course the ever elusive Rufous-collared Sparrow. We also turned up White-crested Elaenia, White-bellied Woodstar, and a Fork-tailed Flycatcher (eBird list).
Above the sleepy town of Cotacachi lies the Bosque Protector Neblina Reserve which has some excellent roadside cloudforest. There are no trails but the birding along the road that heads from Cotacachi towards Intag is pretty good and the traffic isn’t too bad either. The forest starts at around 3100 m and continues down to around 2500 m. We logged 48 species (eBird list), including Spectacled Redstart, Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Turquoise Jay, Plain-tailed Wren, Gorgeted Sunangel, Tawny-rumped Flycatcher, and White-winged Brushfinch. But the bird, and spot, of the day goes to the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. Josh was driving back up the road as we were about to wrap up our day of birding when I yelled stop! Lo-and-behold there was a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan perched roadside that we could see from the van. We quickly hopped out of the van and enjoyed not one but two Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans; not a rare bird but these were our first, and what lookers!
Cerro Mongus is the best known site to go looking for the very rare and local Chestnut-bellied Cotinga. Chestnut-bellied Cotinga has reached near-mythical status as so few are seen, and never with any regularity. Ranging from southern Colombia to Ecuador, they are extremely local and have only been reported from two locations in Colombia and five in Ecuador. The site where Chestnut-bellied Cotinga seems to occur most regularly is Cerro Mongus, but that could be because it is the site where most people go looking, and there is definitely no guarantee that you will see one there. We heard accounts of a birder that spent five days up on Cerro Mongus and came home empty handed, and of another who spent four days before seeing this species. We decided to try out our luck; maybe, just maybe we would be lucky this time. Having trudged up and down the mountain twice in Colombia, and whiffed, we were due for a bit of luck!
Armed with food for several days, we headed up to Cerro Mongus, not really knowing how long we were going to stay there. We were also prepared for a terrible road and the prospect of hiking 5 km up the mountain every day just to get into elfin forest. We read accounts of a miserable road that when wet is impassable. Apparently, if it has been raining, you have to park near the town of Impueran and start hiking (directions provided below). Luckily for us, the road was dry, so we headed up the steep and bumpy road. We made it all the way to the end of the road without incident and set up camp. We asked the locals if we could camp and they said, “sure, no problem”, but they also warned us that if it started raining we could get stuck. Ah well, we have enough food and water for several days, let’s go looking for the Chestnut-bellied Cotinga already! Having driven up in the morning, we started hiking around 10AM. By the time we arrived at the forest edge it was after noon, but we figured if nothing else we would scout the area so we would know where to look first thing in the morning. On our way up we ran into several men from Impueran who were clearing vegetation from the town’s aqueduct. Everyone was super friendly, with handshakes all around. One super chatty gentleman, named Juan Malfa, was super excited to see us and asked us what we were up to. When we told him that we were looking for birds his face lit up. “Can I see your binoculars?” he asked. I passed my binoculars to him and he proclaimed “WOW” with the first look. We chatted with the group of guys for several minutes showing them the birds that we were looking for in the field guide and explaining how important their area is for these birds and many others. Juan has hosted at least one birder in the past and was familiar with the Cotinga. He was really interested in learning how the community could provide accommodations and horses for tourists to visit the mountain. Hopefully this is the start of a small project that helps to ensure protection of the forest while providing a little income to the villagers from visiting birders.
After we said good-bye, we came across the first land slide area that provides a good view of the forest below. We scanned the treetops looking for dark lumps but all we found were Red-crested Cotingas, which by the way are quite common on Cerro Mongus! Shortly after this is another view point, though it is more of just a view over the vegetation than another landslide, but no Cotingas there either. We continued to walk through the elfin forest to the second, much larger, land slide. By this time it was lunch time, so I started digging in my bag for lunch. I had barely gotten my pack open when Josh proclaimed, “I got it!” What?! No way, where? Sure enough, about 200 m distant was a Chestnut-bellied Cotinga! Not only were we lucky enough to see the Cotinga, but it came in closer for even better looks and some passable photos. Wow! With the prize bird so quickly in the bag, we continued down the trail to see what else we might find. Birding was slow in the afternoon but we did see a few nice birds, and we saw what was surely the same male Chestnut-bellied Cotinga two more times that afternoon (eBird list).
Back down at camp, we enjoyed a nice dinner and hit the sack only to wake up to rain in the middle of the night. Oh No! I laid awake for a while listening to the rain hoping that we’d be able to make it down the road. The road was still wet when we woke up so we decided to bird the forest again and wait for the road to dry. In the lower forest patch we heard a Crescent-faced Antpitta singing and managed fleeting looks. Later, in the upper forest along the water canal, we saw two more individuals! Pretty incredible to see 3 of these rather rare and local antpittas in one day. We scanned the canopy again from the landslides for the Chestnut-bellied Cotinga, but this time we only turned up Red-crested Cotingas before the fog rolled in and obscured our view. Other noteworthy birds we logged on Cerro Mongus include Golden-breasted Puffleg, Paramo Pipit, and Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan (eBird list).
After lunch we packed up the van, put it in 4-wheel low and crossed our fingers that we would make it down the dirt stretch. We very slowly headed down, sliding in a few places but staying safe. I can imagine that if the road was any wetter it would be hard to make it safely down or up the road. Sneaking out just ahead of even bigger rains, we headed back towards the highway and on to our next destination. Happily rolling along we heard an awful sound coming from the brakes. We stopped immediately and checked what we could and all looked fine, but the sound and shuttering did not stop. Ugh, Houston, I think we have a problem. We put the van in 4-wheel low and used the engine to brake as we very slowly came back down and immediately went to a mechanic. We spent the next two days at the mechanic getting new parts. Luckily we got the last pair of rotors for the van in all of Ecuador!
Directions to Cerro Mongus are given in “Where to Find Birds in Ecuador” and are pretty easy to follow, however we have updated the directions with GPS coordinates to help make finding the turns a little easier. From Ambuquí, which is located along the Pan-American Highway, continue north along the highway to Piquiucho. Just after crossing the river, turn right in Piquiucho at 0.4408, -77.9548. After 0.2 km merge left going downhill. Continue on this (paved) road to the town of Caldera. After passing through Caldera look for a bus stop and a cobblestone road that heads steeply uphill to the left at 0.4328, -77.9299. Take the cobblestone road on the left here. Continue on the cobblestone road for 7.5 km to the town of Aloor (Alor), where you make a left turn around the small plaza/soccer field to continue out of the tiny town. Continue on the cobblestone road and avoid any turns, switch backing up a large hill, and continuing further up, until you see a fork where both roads are cobblestone. Take the left cobble stone fork at 0.4440, -77.8811 and continue for another 6.5 km where there will be an intersection in the bend of the road at 0.4550, -77.8732. The original directions say to stay on the road that is the same level for another 0.2 km after which you turn uphill to the right. However, you can take this first cobblestone track leading uphill for a more direct route. Shortly after you head up this cobble track, another track comes in from the left, this is where you would come in following the other directions. Continue up the hill until you see a 3-way intersection at 0.4494, -77.8651. Take the middle dirt track that heads steeply uphill; from here on up you will need 4-wheel drive. Even with 4WD, if it has been raining, the track will be very slick (really slick clay, like a fine mixture of Crisco and snot); park here and start walking. If you are lucky, you can drive to the end of the road just below the first forest patch. There are no accommodations in Impueran, but if you are looking for basic accommodations you can ask in Impueran for Juan Mafla. He has provided simple rooms and food for birders in the past. If the track is too slick to drive you could probably arrange horses here in town as well. If you are planning to stay I would recommend bringing some food that the family can cook for you. As well you can camp just above town at the three way intersection, higher up at the end of the dirt track, or even higher in the Paramo if you really wanted to carry all your stuff up there.
With the van finally mostly fixed up, we were back on the road to look for White-rimmed Brushfinch along the Santa Barbara – La Bonita Road in northern Ecuador (Directions provided in Where to Find Birds in Ecuador). Our first stop was outside the town of Santa Barbara at the first real patch of forest. We walked a short distance along the road and came across a nice mixed-species flock with Red-hooded Tanager (a new one for us) Hooded Mountain-Tanager, Blue-and Black Tanager, Blackburian Warbler, Beryl-spangled Tanager, and more (eBird list). Not a bad list for the first stop but the skies turned dark and it started to rain. Driving further down, we noticed a touch of activity and on a whim we stopped, dug out the umbrellas, and despite the rain the first birds we saw were a nice surprise – 3 White-rimmed Brushfinches!
We spent the night camped along the very sleepy road and felt totally safe, especially given that there is a police check point outside of Santa Barbara (accommodations are also available in Santa Barbara). In the morning we birded the same stretch of road and heard Bicolored Antpitta, a species that barely makes it into Ecuador, but unfortunately we did not come across the White-rimmed Brushfinches again. I was hoping for a recording and Josh for better photos but they were not to be found. There is good birding along the not too traveled road from Santa Barbara all the way to La Bonita, although we only made it about 16 km from Santa Barbara. If you are in the area and want to explore we’ve also heard that birding is good along the La Sofia Road which heads back up a side valley below La Bonita.
Directions to the Santa Barbara-La Bonita Road are provided in “Where to find Birds in Ecuador”. We got a little turned around when we left Julio Andrade on the Pan Americana Highway. The roads on our mapping application were mislabeled and misplaced, but all of the locals told us to take the highway to El Carmelo and then turn right at the military checkpoint to get to Santa Barbara. Our maps show another road that goes from Julio Andrade to Santa Barbara, but we never found it and if it exists, it is probably just a farm track. My advice is to just ask the locals to point you to Santa Barbara. As you approach Santa Barbara, the road forks just before town, take the right fork steeply uphill and continue on that road through town and shortly to another military checkpoint. This is the La Bonita Road. Before heading out birding remember to inquire with the police at the checkpoint regarding safety. The area has been safe for a long time but given the proximity to the border it is always good to ask.
Next up on our list to explore in northern Ecuador was Chical Road. Chical Road is THE place to see the range-restricted Hoary Puffleg, and the birding there is really great. We were not sure what to expect when we arrived, but man the birding there is really good. Just above the last small town of El Carmen, we birded the first forest patch that starts around 2000 m elevation. In the late afternoon we had a number of mixed-species flocks with Golden-naped Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, and Golden Tanager. Toucan Barbets are at nearly plague levels there. At every turn we could hear the odd laughing song and we saw both those guys and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans numerous times. Speaking of plague levels, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Sparkling Violetears and Booted Rackettails anywhere, even at feeders! As is typical of tropical forests this time of year, the late afternoon rains came in so we headed back to El Carmen, where we parked and camped for the night. In the morning we again birded the first patch of forest up to the pass. Just like the afternoon before, the birding exceeded expectations, non-stop activity included Black Solitaire, Streak-headed Antbird, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Toucan Barbet, Uniform Antshrike, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Flavescent Flycatcher, and more (eBird list). Finally, low in the understory I saw a little movement and my bins landed on a hummingbird that we thought was a Hoary Puffleg! In the dark understory it was a bit difficult to see but we thought for sure we were looking at a Hoary Puffleg, but after inspecting our photos it turns out that our puffleg was a Booted Rackettail without a tail. In addition to the first forest patch before the summit, there is another intact forest patch approximately 1 km long as you begin descending the north side of the pass. We have heard that birding is good down the other side all the way to the town of Chical, though we didn’t investigate the more disturbed forest here. However, on a return visit we birded in the area around the bridge (0.8808, -78.2229) in search of the Hoary Puffleg and this time we actually saw a Hoary Puffleg and got great looks! The Hoary Puffleg seems to be regular around this area. We also saw a Purplish-mantled Tanager (a good bird for Ecuador) in this same area.
We spent the night camped next to a house in the small village of El Carmen, but there are accommodations at Hacienda La Primavera, near the village of La Primavera, which is the other small village immediately below El Carmen.