Birding the Ecuadorian Chocó

16-25 November 2015.

For about the third time, the van seemed to be mostly repaired and in good shape, so we headed back out on the road to visit the Chocó region of Ecuador, this time with no serious misadventures, at least yet! Fingers are well crossed here.

The Chocó biogeographical region extends from the Darién in Panamá along the pacific coast of Colombia, to northwestern Ecuador. The Chocó is one of the world’s 10 most important biodiversity hotspots and it is one of the last coastal tropical rainforests left on the planet. It is home to more than 900 species of birds and 11,000 vascular plants, many of which are endemic to the region (they exist nowhere else). This area is also among the very wettest places on earth. Areas near Quibdo, Colombia receive 510 inches of rain a year!

Unfortunately, the Chocó region is also severely threatened by deforestation. In Ecuador alone more than 90% of the Chocó rainforest has been cleared for timber harvest, palm oil plantations, and cattle grazing. The negative consequences of palm oil plantations have been in the news lately, especially the horrific fires and loss of critical orangutan habitat in Indonesia. But palm oil plantations are also decimating habitat in the Americas. Only a few places are left in Ecuador that support enough Chocó forest for species like Baudo Guan, Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Brown Wood-Rail, Indigo-crowned (Purple) Quail-Dove, Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Plumbeous Hawk, Plumbeous Forest-Falcon, Choco Woodpecker, Yellow-green Chlorospingus, and Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. Among them are the Awa indigenous reserve, Jocotoco’s Canandé Reserve, Reserva Bilsa, Playa de Oro, and a few more places with remnant forest patches such as Tundaloma Lodge. Unfortunately, we only had time to visit the Awa reserve, Tundaloma Lodge, and the Canandé reserve.

Relative to other endemic-rich areas many of the Chocó specialties are rare, reclusive, and local birds that can take a lot of time and effort to track down in the limited habitat that remains. As a result, despite having seen a ton of amazing and rare Chocó birds in places like Parque Nacional Darién, RNA Titi Cabeciblanco, Anchicayá and San Cipriano, and the Mashpi area, we were still missing a solid dozen quite rare and/or hard species.

The site that is known to birders as “Awa/La Union” is a “road” that is really more of a 15 foot wide extremely muddy and absolutely not drivable track that leads a few kilometers into the Awa indigenous reserve and a small village called La Union. This site is probably the single best site for two very hard Chocó endemics, the Chocó Woodpecker and the Yellow-green Chlorospingus. The “road” is incredibly muddy and is covered in huge logs to try to provide some flotation above the muddy abyss (side note: it looks as if they are preparing to gravel the road so the walk might get easier). This means that rubber boots are mandatory. The footing is less than amazing and you will mostly be looking down while you walk. However, you don’t have to walk very far (1-2 km) to cover a lot of good forest and there is a lot of activity, so you can stop and pick a stable place to stand each time you hear something interesting. And we did have lots of interesting things to investigate. Along with a well seen Chocó Woodpecker we saw two more probably Chocó Woodpeckers but they were distant and we couldn’t see them well enough to entirely rule out the similar Red-rumped Woodpecker, which does occur here as well. Of note, every Chocó Woodpecker we saw was foraging on palm trees, so be sure to check the palms.

We logged Stub-tailed Antbirds, and potentially some Zeledon’s Antbirds as well, but the songs are deceptively similar and we didn’t feel 100% confident of most of the bouts of song we heard. Chocó Tapaculo, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Esmeraldas Antbird, Brown-billed Scythebill, Northern Schiffornis, White-whiskered Hermit, Pacific Antwren, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Black-headed Antthrush, Black-tipped Cotinga, Lita Woodpecker, Golden-chested Tanager, and Chocó (Golden-bellied) Warbler were all birds that we thought were interesting enough to stop for through the course of the day! Our best find was undoubtedly on our return, when we stopped for lunch (finding a place to sit down that was not a swampy mud-disaster was a challenge). Having mostly finished lunch, we heard a slightly different song coming from the distance and realized that the studying we had done was paying off. We were hearing, quite distinctly, Yellow-green Chlorospingus. This is a pretty non-descript bird and a pretty rare one. It’s not as splashy as a rare Cotinga or Parrot, but it’s still a very cool and rare bird. It’s also hard to confidently ID if it is not heard or seen well. Fortunately for us, a pair came slowly in to playback, arriving about 10 m overhead where we got excellent prolonged views. We could clearly see the overall green color, the yellower throat, the dusky cheek patch, and the all dark bill. It was very rewarding to find this bird by ear and then get great looks that didn’t leave us forever scratching our heads and saying “Well, I GUESS we saw Yellow-green Chlorospingus.” One other nice species that occurs here is White-thighed Swallow. This bird has a fairly large range but seems scarce in the other areas we have been. Here, however, it is common and flies low up and down the road and perches overhead on the powerlines, it was nice to finally get great looks at this guy in flight and perched! See our eBird list for a complete list of species.

However you label it/whatever you call it, the Awa/La Union track/road heads north into the forest from the Lita-San Lorenzo road at GPS coordinates 0.9611,-78.5608, where power lines leave the road as well and near an abandoned two story house. We have heard that car break-ins have occurred here, so we followed advice and left our vehicle at the first occupied house on the opposite (S) side of the road, 600-800 m further along in the direction of San Lorenzo (0.9642, -78.5637). This is west of the La Union road, just to be explicit! They watched our vehicle and we gave them a couple dollars when we returned.

The Brown Wood-Rail is another Chocó endemic that is declining due to habitat loss. The Brown Wood-Rail prefers forested wetlands and mangroves, two types of habitat which are increasingly hard to find. Mangroves in the Chocó have been decimated largely due to shrimp farming. This already rare and local bird has become increasingly scarce, now being only regularly found in 2-3 sites in Ecuador and perhaps a similar number in Colombia. The Tundaloma Lodge preserves a small patch of forest next to the Tululbí River where the Brown Wood-Rail can sometimes be seen with patience. We arrived in the late afternoon and headed straight for the river. You can walk along the river a ways, but what little trail there is soon peters out. The make-shift path is pretty overgrown, but this is the spot to look for the Wood-Rail. With rubber-boots, pants, and long sleeves (the mosquitos are bad here! Don’t tell us that we didn’t warn you) you can bush-whack around pretty well. We spent a couple hours in the late afternoon exploring the riverside area and a couple of swampy backwaters where small streams flow down into the river, but we found no trace of the rail. However, just as we were walking back to the lodge we heard the unmistakeable explosive whooping and yelping of a Wood-Rail! Game on! We jogged back down to the river. Once we got close we snuck closer and closer to the calling bird and started scanning the thick understory. The Brown Wood-Rail was calling super close to the trail so I thought we would surely see it, but somehow it managed to cross the trail without our knowing, and now it was calling from the edge of the river. We walked slowly down the path to try to get views of the muddy river bank. We scrambled along the slippery river bank and got ourselves stuck in vegetation but couldn’t find the bird. By now the bird had stopped calling. We continued to work our way along the trail and river edge, when finally I got a clear view of the riverside thickets and the Brown Wood-Rail was walking in the open on the mud flat! What luck! We managed to watch it for several minutes through the thick vegetation. We then quickly escaped the sticky heat and the cloud of mosquitos and celebrated with a nice cold beer and settled in for the night. Maria, the owner of the lodge is incredibly kind and is a wonderful host. She allowed us to camp in the parking lot for a small fee. In the morning we had breakfast on the deck and birded the deck area for a short while. Without taking more than 100 steps and with cups of tea in hand we logged 66 species, including Blue Cotinga and many more (see our eBird list).

Another species that relies on coastal mangroves in the Chocó is the Humboldt’s Sapphire. The Humboldt’s Sapphire is extremely rare and has only been reported from a few locations throughout its tiny range. Although deserving of endangered species status too little information exists to classify them as endangered. They may be more numerous in Colombia but because the area where they occur is not considered safe to visit, the population status is unclear. Clearly though, this is one rare bird and on in great need of conservation. Following a tip in eBird we headed to Las Peñas and Majagual along the coast in search of the Humboldt’s Sapphire. Roger Ahlman reported seeing Humboldt’s Sapphire with some regularity at the Majagual river bridge in a patch of mangroves. We staked out the bridge for two days but come up empty handed.

The wholesale loss of forest was all too apparent as we drove to our next destination, the Jocotoco Foundation’s Canandé Reserve. Palm plantations extended as far as the eye could see.

Palm Oil Plantations on the way towards Canandé

Palm Oil Plantations on the way towards Canandé

Ecuador is not alone, Colombia is now the biggest producer of palm oil in the Americas with much of it being exported for biofuel. Yes, palm oil is also being used for biofuel which is a bit of a conundrum. Biofuels are nominally considered better for the environment, but palm oil plantations are destroying millions of acres of critical rainforest habitat across the globe. When governments mandate a certain percentage of biofuels or subsidize biofuel producers, suddenly a “green” fuel is a commodity and people will produce it in any way they can if it makes money. Beyond the wholesale loss of tropical forest and its associated biodiversity, palm oil plantations increase air pollution as acres of forest are burned releasing Carbon Dioxide into the air.

Palm oil is not likely to disappear anytime soon; it is very productive and produces more oil per area of land than many other plant-based crops, hence its popularity. Palm oil, similarly to Coconut oil, is popular with food producers as it is solid at room temperature (due to the fact that it is a saturated oil), allowing them to produce creamy products that won’t melt on store shelves without resorting to hydrogenated oils or animal oils. Even if palm oil production was halted, some argue that the alternative oil crop could have more harmful environmental consequences, in part, because more land would be needed to produce the same amount of oil. I agree that if it is not palm oil it will be something else, but I also argue that we would probably be better off with fewer processed products that require such oil. However, I doubt that enough people will be willing to give up their favorite processed snacks to have much of an impact. There is hope, however, as there is a push for the production of sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil must be certified that no virgin rainforests were removed, no chemicals or pesticides were used, and workers were treated fairly. The challenge with sustainable palm oil certification however, is oversight and policing. Currently it is difficult to ensure that the palm oil in your products has been produced sustainably, but there is hope.

Although palm oil is not likely to disappear we can still push for sustainability and maybe we can try to consume fewer processed foods. Here is a good new year’s challenge: avoid purchasing and eating products made with palm oil unless it is made with certified sustainable palm oil. Palm oil is found in numerous products including snack foods, make-up, detergents, and even ice-cream. The hard part is that the innocuous “vegetable oil” in any given product could be Canola oil, palm oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, corn oil, or any combination of these or other vegetable derived oils. If you are really motivated, every time you are tempted to purchase something made with palm oil, put the cost of that item in a jar and at the end of your challenge donate the money to a conservation organization that is working to protect tropical forests and pushing for sustainable production. If you are interested in reading more about palm oil, the Guardian has published several interesting articles and can be found here.

Despite the miles and miles of palm oil fields and hours on extremely bumpy roads, the Canandé Reserve is worth the trip. Of course, as is our style we took the longer and bumpier road into the reserve and when we arrived all of the eggs in our refrigerator had scrambled themselves quite well. Once at the reserve, however, we settled in for an extended stay, which is really warranted here. The birding at the reserve is incredible, and this is one of very few places to see some amazing Chocó endemic species such as Banded Ground-Cuckoo, Purple Quail-Dove, Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Baudo Guan, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and Plumbeous Forest-Falcon.

Trees coming out of Botrosa lands

Trees coming out of Botrosa lands

The reserve is quite large (2000 hectares) and is surrounded by forested land owned by Botrosa, a timber company, that is supposedly sustainably harvesting timber from their lands. Don’t be surprised when you see trucks rumbling down the road loaded with the largest trees from the forest. It really presents an ethical quandary. It is certainly hard to stomach the logging trucks rumbling down the road all day but short of declaring the area a national park and evicting the current owners, which is not likely to happen, selective logging is probably a far better alternative than allowing colonization.

The first morning of birding started with a bang! We heard Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail but they were too far off to pursue. Not too much further along the trail, we heard what sounded like a Guan beating its wings. We spent quite a while looking for windows into the treetops in the area the noise had come from. Eventually Josh found a Guan, but now the challenge was to determine which Guan species we were looking at; the rare and endangered Buado Guan or the more common Crested Guan. They look remarkably similar and probably the best field mark is size, which we all know is extremely difficult to judge. In addition to size, Buado Guans have distinctly less rufous color on their thighs and under their tail. After several minutes of careful study, despite the dim morning light, we were confident we were seeing little or no rufous under the tail, pure black thighs, and at most a dark brown rump that lacked rufous coloration. As well, the Guan did seem smaller, so we recorded Buado Guan in our field notebook. We also made a careful estimate of its size relative to the cecropia leaves that it was perched among, then found one of the leaves on the ground to confirm that it was sized more like Baudo Guan than the similiar Crested Guan. Later in the day we found a Crested Guan. Despite already being familiar with this species, seeing it again not long after the morning’s Baudo Guan sealed our identification. This Crested Guan was decidedly larger and the rufous thighs and vent were quite obvious. The day turned foggy but that didn’t slow things down. We soon came across an Indigo-crowned (Purple) Quail-Dove walking down the trail. I can’t tell you how many times we have stalked trails in search of Quail-Doves and I can’t tell you how many times we have failed to see Quail-Doves, so it was nice to finally be rewarded with great views of a beautiful Purple Quail-Dove walking down the trail. Higher, along the ridge close to the view point we had tons of great birds including Lita Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Rufous Piha, Gray-and-Gold Tanager, and many more (eBird list). In one full day of birding we logged 93 species and we barely spent any time in the garden or other disturbed areas near the lodge.

We spent the next two days birding the trails and scouting the garden areas in the afternoon hoping for raptors or a Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. We easily recorded over 100 species each day, but because we used all of our birding good luck on the first day we did not see any of our Chocó targets. We did however finally get a great, prolonged look at a close Green Manakin, an uncommon, quiet and very inobvious and easily overlooked species on the Red-capped Manakin Trail.

On our fourth day we hit the trails again and we got excellent views of Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail at the beginning of the Chocó Tapaculo trail. As well, we got distant but definitive looks at a female Scarlet-breasted Dacnis from the observation tower in the garden. Unfortunately we never saw the fancy boy nor had a closer look at the girl. Canandé is a great place to see the Scarlet-breasted Dacnis and the guards see them quite frequently around the lodge.

On our second to last day we hiked the Tawny-faced Quail trail to the Chocó Tapaculo trail and back to the lodge. Of course we were still on the lookout for a miracle Ground-Cuckoo. But another species we continually were straining our ears for was Berlepsch’s Tinamou. For the past several days, everything we heard sounded just like their whistle, but every time it turned out to be a calling Stripe-throated Wren or a Tawny-faced Gnatwren. On this day, we tried some very sporadic playback but weren’t getting any bites. We were walking along the Chocó Tapaculo trail, near to the junction with the Tawny-faced Quail trail, when we came through an area of gallery forest with low understory that you could see into quite well. Josh commented “This looks like a great place to actually see a Tinamou,” so we played the whistle twice, waited several minutes, and unsurprisingly heard nothing. We continued down the trail and soon came upon a large mixed flock. After birding this flock for 10-15 minutes, Josh excitedly yelled out “Berlepsch’s Tinamou behind us!” “Yeah, right” I said, “it’s just a distant Stripe-throated Wren.” But Josh was adamant so I listened again and he was right! A Berlepsch’s Tinamou was calling behind us! We walked quietly back down the trail, getting closer and closer, and sure enough the tinamou was calling in the area with open understory where we had played the recording. It appears that we may have called it in although it took a good 20 minutes to respond. Literally no more than 5 seconds after arriving in the area, Josh had the bird in his bins! The tinamou proceeded to actually walk towards us, pause in the trail for a minute, then make a slow circle around us (without using additional playback). Talk about the wrong day to leave the camera behind (Josh’s specialty). Wow! After soaking up the views, we made our way along the trail and shortly encountered another mixed-species flock. Amid the activity, we both saw something large fly into a tree just overhead; looking up for a raptor or oropendola, we were surprised to find not one, but two Long-wattled Umbrellabirds! Shortly before getting back to the lodge we also stumbled upon a perched Plumbeous Hawk. That afternoon we birded the garden again and kept an eye on the skies. We still didn’t have any better luck with the Scarlet-breasted Dacnis but we were treated to a great raptor show. The highlight was a Gray-backed Hawk that circled directly overhead. We also saw Short-tailed Hawk, perhaps 30 Swallow-tailed Kites, a couple of Plumbeous Kites, and a trio of Hook-billed Kites. We finished the day with over 130 species.

Despite nearly a week of birding and hoping we did not come across the elusive Banded Ground-Cuckoo and we only saw one small ant swarm. The Banded Ground-Cuckoo hasn’t been seen in the reserve for the last year or so, but with this bird you never know when it might turn up and it is certainly still in the area. We also did not have luck finding Plumbeous Forest-Falcon, which is seen with some regularity at the reserve, despite a good bit of pre-dawn effort.

The garden and observation tower are definitely worth spending some time at. From here you can easily see Orange-fronted Barbets, Chocó Tyrannulets, Purple-chested Hummingbird, Green Thorntail, Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, an occasional Black-tipped Cotinga, and many more. The observation tower is also the place to see Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. Apparently we had worse than average luck with this one; as mentioned it took us several days to finally see one female and we never managed to see the male.

All of the trails at the reserve are worth visiting, but it is best not to take the Tawny-faced Quail trail straight to the mirador as the trail is very steep. Instead we recommend taking the Chocó Tapaculo Trail to the Banded-Ground Cuckoo Trail to get to the mirador. The trail is longer but it is much less steep. If your knees are up for it, you can return via the Tawny-faced Quail trail, where you will have a section of steep downhill (good footing though, and good canopy views here for birding, which also makes this section better to hike downhill than uphill).

The forest at Canandé

The forest at Canandé

The diversity in the Chocó is amazing and Canandé is a great place to experience this marvelous region. We spent five days birding the reserve and every day we saw new species. We tallied 173 species in the end, and most of our effort was focused on rarities. But because the Chocó is one of the wettest places on earth we did not get any good bird photos; we hiked a lot and it rained daily so Josh left the camera behind. In addition to incredible bird diversity there are also numerous amphibians, insects, snakes, and any number of creepy crawly critters. In the jungle you sort of get used to things landing on you and brushing them off without much notice. On my way to the bathroom in the dark something landed on my shoulder. I used the strap of my head lamp to brush off the critter and imagine my surprise when a scorpion landed on the floor! That was my first close encounter with a scorpion and while I did admire the scorpion from a safe distance, I don’t need any more close encounters. Guess how many times I checked under the toilet seat and other places for lurking scorpions after that?

To visit Canandé you need to make arrangements with JocoTours (give them at least two weeks’ notice). They will make sure the lodge is ready and send you a letter giving you permission to cross the Rio Canandé on the barge operated by the Botrosa Timber Company.

The barge that takes you across the river

The barge that takes you across the river

Getting to the lodge requires a truck with clearance. Four wheel drive is probably not absolutely mandatory but is a very, very good idea. The trails were muddy when we visited and required rubber boots. The trails also require a little bit of fitness as some sections are steep. You are also likely to be out for a half-day to a full day instead of just a couple of hours and it can get quite hot and not to mention wet. You know it’s going to be wet when the staff puts an umbrella on every bed for guests! In our opinion, Canandé ranks with Anchicayá (Colombia) and PN Darién (Panamá) as one of the very best Chocó birding sites!

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