January – February 2016.
The east slope of the Andes rise suddenly and dramatically out of the Amazonian lowlands and a good number of species are found only found here at the base of the Andes. However finding good foothill forest on the east slope is not always easy – not a lot of roads exist and where they do, not much habitat remains. In Colombia eastern slope forests are a little more difficult to access; we only visited two or three eastern sites in Colombia. As a result, we still had a lot of eastern slope species on our target list. In Ecuador access to foothill forest on the east slope is easier and there are a good variety of protected yet accessible areas. It is no surprise that many of the birding destinations on the east slope are well-known.
Near Baeza, Ecuador lies Cabañas San Isidro, long one of the most popular birding sites in Ecuador. The fantastic cloud forest (~2100 m elevation) here bosts Peruvian Antpitta, White-bellied Antpitta, Crested Quetzal, Black-chested Fruiteater, Barred Antthrush, Andean Potoo, Sulphur-bellied Tyrannulet, Wattled Guan, Spot-fronted Swift, Pale-eyed Thrush, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, and the yet to be described San Isidro Owl. Besides these specialties, a number of other great birds can be found along the trails and road here (San Isidro bird list). San Isidro is definitely worth two or three days of birding, or perhaps more, especially if you want to try to see some of the rarities like the Peruvian Antpitta, Barred Antthrush, or Andean Potoo. We got extremely lucky and saw a Peruvian Antpitta hop up on a branch right next to the trail without the use of playback. Fortunately I also managed to get Josh on the bird before it flew off deeper into the forest. With enough time in the forest, eventually you get handed a miracle spotting, this one was ours. In exchange, we spent 5 nights striking out on Andean Potoo!
The yet to be described oddity locally called the San Isidro Owl comes by the lodge nearly every night and is almost a guarantee. The owl looks like nominally like a Black-and-White Owl or a Black-banded Owl but in Ecuador Black-and-White Owls are only on the west slope of the Andes and Black-banded Owls are restricted to the Amazonian lowlands, 1500 m lower in elevation. The other odd thing about this owl is that it apparently has not been found in the nearby forests and is, as far as is known, restricted to the forests right around the lodge. It is hard to imagine that there is an unknown subtropical east-slope population of Black-and-white Owl AND an unknown subtropical population of Black-banded Owl that have both escaped detection, though the “San Isidro Owl” does look something like a cross between the two. No one knows, but if Black-and-white and Black-banded Owls are considered separate species, then the San Isidro Owl could well be a new species, though it is little known and has yet to be described.
Given that Cabañas San Isidro is already well-known in birding circles we don’t need to describe at length the birding around the lodge, but here are a few tips and tricks for some of the specialties in the area. The Andean Potoo is said to be regularly found along the road near the first street lamp past the lodge, however we used up our luck with the Peruvian Antpitta and in five nights of searching up and down the road for several kilometers, we failed to turn up an Andean Potoo.
The Black-chested Fruiteater is vocal in the mornings but this fruiteater is a challenge to see as they stay quite high in the canopy and rarely, it seems ventures into the subcanopy or to the edge of the forest. We had several good neck craning sessions before we finally saw a male and female Black-chested Fruiteater high in the canopy, inside primary forest.
The Barred Antthrush is another one of those skulky, shy, and hard to see birds. They sing from a very low branch in thick vegetation inside of primary forest, but their song carries a long way. It seems that once they start singing, Chamaeza Antthrushes can stay on one perch for a very long time. The best strategy we found was to zero in on where it was singing and scan the understory patiently from every angle. It took a solid hour but I finally found the Barred Antthrush when I noticed a piece of vegetation moving when there was no wind. I scanned around and landed on the back of a Barred Antthrush, it was disturbing the vegetation ever so slightly each time it sang. It wasn’t until it turned around that it was more noticeable. Scanning impenetrable understory for such prolonged times may seem futile but sometimes it pays off.
Further down the road from Cabañas San Isidro is Yanayacu Biological Station, owned by Harold Greeney, otherwise known as Mr. Antpitta. Harold has found and described a number of antpitta nests and was the first to describe a Peruvian Antpitta nest. They normally do not allow visiting birders to use the trails as it is a research station, but if you are interested in volunteering at the station, visit their website and/or contact Harold to learn more.
Another well-known birding destination in the area is Guacamayos Ridge, where the star bird is undoubtedly the Greater Scythebill, a dead rare species that is extremely hard to connect with anywhere else that is reasonably accessible. Guacamayos Ridge is also known for its weather; fog and nearly constant rain. We stopped by the ridge on four different occasions and only once did we have reasonably clear conditions. So be prepared to get wet. That being said we did not have a problem tracking down the Greater Scythebill in the rain in the first large flock we encountered. On our lucky rain free day we hiked all the way to the pipeline where Black Tinamou has recently been reported. But we had good activity the whole way and by the time we made it the 3 km to the pipeline it was much too late in the morning and no Black Tinamous were heard. We did however come across some nice mixed-species flocks, including one at the pipeline with Orange-eared Tanager, Olivaceous Piha, Bronze-green Euphonia, Vermillion Tanager, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, and Golden-naped Tanager among others. Other nice birds along the trail are Slate-crowned Antpitta, White-bellied Antpitta, Moustached Antpitta, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Rufous-vented Whitetip (probably rare here, we had a lucky encounter with one feeding high in Mistletoe blossoms), Powerful Woodpecker, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, Streak-capped Treehunter, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, and Chestnut-bellied Thrush.
The ridge trail is located at the top of the summit where there is a large shrine and a small wooden building that serves as the National Park office. You will be asked to sign in if anyone is around. The ridge trails starts immediately behind the park office. The shrine is also worth checking out in the morning, not for its gaudy décor, but rather for the insects, moths, and beetles that are attracted to the light that is left on all night long. We saw some really amazing critters here including a 6” rhinoceros beetle.
A bit below Guacamayas Ridge you come to a Y in the road along highway 45. To the left is what is known among birders as the Loreto Road. Loreto Road heads down into the Amazon, passing through Loreto on the way to Coca. Two stops are worth mentioning along the road, one is the cliff where there is a nesting Orange-breasted Falcon 13 km from highway 45. The other is a trail next to a large road cut 11 km from highway 45. There is large pull off on the right side of the road to park and a large road cut/cliff on your left where you can regularly find Cliff Flycatcher, Blackish Nightjar, and Lyre-tailed Nightjar. On the left side of the parking area there is a trail that initially heads steeply up the ridge towards a transmission tower. This trail is well worth exploring especially if you are looking for the rare Buff-throated Tody-Tyrant. The trail goes through secondary forest heading up and down before coming to another trail junction after about a kilometer. The trail to the right goes for about 500 meters until a small clearing with an abandoned shack. This section of trail is great and is where we found the Buff-throated Tody-Tyrant as well as Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater, Golden-collared Toucanet, Western (Striolated) Puffbird, Gray-chinned Hermit, Chestnut-crowned Gnateater, Black Antbird, and more.
Though not as well known as Cabañas San Isidro or Wild Sumaco, another amazing birding destination in this area is Jocotoco Foundation’s Narupa Reserve, located approximately 15 km from Hwy 45 (-0.68810, -77.73605). The reserve is on the left side of the road and is unfortunately not signed (more on access later). The birding at Narupa is fantastic and is probably the best spot in all of South America to see and/or hear the Black Tinamou. We spent five mornings birding the reserve and heard the Black Tinamou every day. However, Tinamous being Tinamous we couldn’t catch a glimpse. Mario and Geronimo, Jocotoco’s site managers, have incredible video footage of a Black Tinamou eating fallen fruits on the trail in the middle of the day!
Several trails crisscross the reserve but we found birding to be the best along the entrance trail that leads about 600-800 m from the road to the ranger station, and the trail immediately across the river that heads up the hill and makes a big loop. The Hollin river passes through the reserve and is one of the more beautiful rivers I’ve seen in a while.
White-capped Dippers, Torrent Tyranulets, and Torrent Ducks dot the river’s edge and if you lucky you may even spot a Fasciated Tiger-Heron. Along the entrance road we had good mixed-flock activity almost every morning with Orange-eared Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-Gold Tanager, Yellow-breasted Antwren, Golden-eared Tanager, and more. The entrance trail is also a good spot to look for Plain-backed Antpitta and Wing-banded Wren. While both of these species can be a bit difficult to actually see we found them to be fairly easy to see here. The birding along the entrance trail can often be so good that you don’t make it to the actual reserve until well into the morning. We were also told that the mythical Shrike-like Cotinga (aka; Andean Laniisoma) has also been seen along the entrance trail, but to us this bird is still a unicorn.
The loop trail that heads up into the reserve is THE place to look for the Black Tinamou, especially near the top of the loop. We heard the Tinamou on many occasions near the top of the loop trail but failed to find it wandering around on the forest floor. Few recordings of the Black Tinamou exist and all are of just a single hollow sounding note. This species also has a longer song, which we heard regularly – quite different with the first hollow sounding note drawn into three beautiful, haunting parts, followed by several more gently descending notes. Nothing like this has been recorded before. Unfortunately the morning that the bird was calling close to us, it was raining on and off quite a bit so I left my recording equipment behind. All we managed to get was a recording on our old iPhone (listen to the recording on eBird). Still, the recording is extremely interesting. Perhaps the multi-part song is given by only one sex, as is thought to occur with the multi-part song of Gray Tinamou.
Narupa is also full of flycatcher fun; here along with the more common Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, you can find Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant and Foothill Elaenia. Slaty-capped Flycatcher is by far the easiest to distinguish as it is rather vocal and it has a very unique song, though by appearance it is quite like a Bristle-Tyrant; overall size and bill length are the most obvious field marks, but take care. Foothill Elaenia’s song is distinct enough if you’re lucky enough hear it. We studied this song a lot and we finally heard it on our second to last day. Physically Foothill Elaenia looks quite similar to Forest Elaenia which could conceivably overlap in some areas. Probably the most challenging group, however, are the Phylloscartes Bristle-Tyrants (which include Ecuadorian Tyrannulet). Distinguishing among these guys requires careful study of bill color, face markings, and wing-bars. Voice can also separate the Phylloscartes, but vocally they are all very similar. Over the past year we have spent quite a lot of time studying the songs of these guys and there are still plenty of times when we are scratching our heads in the field. But, with careful study and lots of back and forth, we positively identified each of the Bristle-Tyrants at Narupa.
We had a couple of nice mixed-species flocks along the loop trail including Fulvous-shrike Tanager, Tawny-breasted Flycatcher, Gray-mantled Wren, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, and several species of tanager. Ornate Antwren, Foothill Antwren, White-backed Fire-eye, Coppery-chested Jacamar, and Ecuadorian Piedtail are not too uncommon either along the same trail. And for the first time on our trip we actually found, for ourselves, a day roosting owl along the trail. We startled a roosting Band-bellied Owl and it reperched nearby, we had awesome looks from only about 10 m! In the reserve and along the road you can also find Amazonian Umbrellabird, always a cool species to see.
The hummingbird feeders near the main building attract Many-spotted Hummingbird, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Black-throated Brilliant, White-tailed Hillstar, Violet-fronted Brilliant, and Gould’s Jewelfront. The porterweed (often called verbena in Ecuador) with purple flowers attracts Violet-headed Hummingbird and sometimes the Amethyst Woodstar, seasonally at least (they have been spotted in July at the reserve). They are in the process of planting more porterweed in the hopes that the Amethyst Woodstar might stick around longer.
The birding at Narupa really is fantastic and makes for a good stop to pick up some eastern foothill birds. Contact Jocotours to make arrangements to visit. If you are driving, the best thing to do is to drive 16 kilometers from highway 45 to Comedor Susanita and Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin (-0.69512, -77.73100). Park here and walk 1 kilometer back up the road to the reserve entrance (-0.68810, -77.73605). There is no lodging available at the reserve but they do have a nice covered camping platform with bathrooms and cold water showers available. If you are looking for a place to stay we recommend staying at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin/Comedor Sasanita. The cabins are very nice and offer a fantastic view of the waterfall. Food is available at Comedor Susanita on the same property. The family that runs the cabins and restaurant are extremely friendly and will no doubt offer to help you with anything you might need. The cabins are $20 per person with hot showers and a private bathroom. They also have a basic room with a shared bathroom and cold shower for $10.
Wild Sumaco is perhaps the best known birding destination on the east slope, and for good reason. More than 450 bird species have been recorded in the area and some of them are real unicorn-level rarities, some of the rarest birds in South America. Specialties include Shrike-like Cotinga (Andean Laniisoma), Plain-winged Antwren, White-streaked Antvireo, Buff-throated Tody-Tyrant, Yellow-throated Spadebill, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater, Short-tailed Antthrush, Plain-backed Antpitta, White-chinned Swift, Large-headed Flatbill, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Red-billed Tyrannulet, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, Gray-tailed Piha, Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher, Napo Sabrewing, Rufous-breasted Wood-Quail, Foothill (Vermiculate) Screech-Owl, Rufescent Screech-Owl, Band-bellied Owl, Buckley’s Forest-Falcon, and Blue-browed Tanager. There is even a single record of Red-winged Wood-Rail. The list of possible rare species is just staggering. We headed there, full of hope, to look for said rarities, and spent a lot of time slowly pacing back and forth on the trails in search of the Yellow-throated Spadebill, Plain-winged Antwren, White-streaked Antvireo, and the Fruiteaters. We finally connected with Plain-winged Antwren, White-streaked Antvireo, Fiery-throated Fruiteater (one of us at least), Gray-tailed Piha, Black-and-White Tody-Flycatcher, and Buckley’s Forest-Falcon. We also had exceedingly good luck with owls at Wild Sumaco with Foothill Screech-Owl (aka Vermiculated Screech-Owl), Rufescent Screech-Owl, Band-bellied Owl, and Tropical Screech-Owl.
Wild Sumaco is already plenty well-known, not much else needs to be said other than you need to go there. The guides and Jonas, one of the owners, at Wild Sumaco know where to find just about any bird in the area. A huge thank you to Jonas and the staff at Wild Sumaco for sharing your knowledge and allowing us to camp for a few days! Wild Sumaco is one of the best destinations to see many of the eastern slope birds and the accommodations and food (so we hear) are excellent.