12-15 February 2016.
The foothills in the tropics are hands down one of our favorite zones to go birding in. Anywhere from about 600 – 1500 m in good habitat the birding can be not just good, nor really good, but truly mind-blowing. Not to mention that the climate is typically mild, not too hot, not too cold, and frequently there are fewer bugs; birding paradise! But best of all the number of species you can encounter in these middle elevation zones is incredible. Here you can get a taste of higher and lower elevation species together. Nowhere is this more prominent than at Reserva Rio Bigal located on the east slope of the Andes in the buffer zone of Sumaco National Park near Loreto, Ecuador. Rio Bigal sits between 400 and 1000 m (but the majority of birding is around 700-1000 m) where Pavonine Quetzal, Salvin’s Curassow, White-throated Woodpecker, Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant, and Gray Antwren, occur together with Ecuadorian Pied-tail, Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush and Gray-tailed Piha; how’s that for some amazonian birds and foothill birds together! More than 400 species of birds have been recorded at Rio Bigal and more are being recorded almost daily; we recorded a Black-tailed Leaftosser for the first time during our visit. Beyond the absurd number of great East Andean foothill species and upper Amazonian species that occur here, the prize birds at Rio Bigal are the threatened and range-restricted Blackish Pewee and the Pink-throated Brilliant. Rio Bigal is the best place for the Pewee and the only place to realistically see the Pink-throated Brilliant without incredible luck.
The journey to Rio Bigal starts in Loreto, a small town at the edge of the Amazon. Thierry (the owner) picked us up in a 4×4 taxi and we headed out for an hour drive up into the foothills. Our van would have made it fine, but there is not a good safe parking option at the end of the dirt road so we left it securely parked at a hotel in Loreto. When the taxi could go no further we jumped out, loaded up the horses, threw on our rubber boots, and headed down the muddy track for an hour to the reserve. The walk to the reserve really is not that long, is fairly flat, and not very taxing but it still took us forever because we couldn’t stop birding. In the cutover areas before the reserve Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlets and Chestnut-fronted Macaws screeched overhead. Once we made it into the forest the birding just got better and better; Sapphire Quail-Dove called from a ravine, the tiny Gray Antwren flitted at the edge of the forest, and Gray-tailed Piha shrieked from further inside the forest (eBird list)! And this was just from a few hours in the late afternoon; just imagine what the morning would hold!
As we settled in to our first of several gigantic meals we heard Nocturnal Curassow calling super close to the station. Unfortunately it stopped calling before we could finish our dinner and gear up to go searching. We heard the Nocturnal Curassow every night and morning but due to either timing or rain we never had a fair opportunity to lay eyes on it; turns out we should have set aside dinner the first evening.
We woke to the sounds of the Nocturnal Curassow, Band-bellied Owl, and Vermiculated Screech-Owl and readied ourselves for the field. Our target this morning was the Pink-throated Brilliant and Blackish Pewee. Thierry showed us the flowering vine that the Pink-throated Brilliant prefers and gave us good beta on where to find the flower and the bird. The spot was about 2.5 km down the road off a little side trail near the property boundary (just before the Danish “zoo” sign look for a overgrown trail that forks off to the right. You only need to walk in 50-100 m or so, crossing two downed trees, to find the vine and apparent territory).
We tried to hurry to the spot to make sure that we had plenty of time to look for the hummingbird, but as always we got a little distracted by some birds. We found Great Jacamar along the road, presumably nesting in the cut bank as we encountered it in the same spot multiple times, Fiery-throated Fruiteater, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Eastern (Striped) Woodhaunter, Double-banded Pygmy-Tyrant, Golden-winged Tody-Flycatcher, Euler’s Flycatcher, Dusky-chested Flycatcher, and many more (eBird list). Along the road we also found several Blackish Pewees. Blackish Pewee, although similar in size to Eastern/Western Wood-Pewee looks and sounds different enough from either of the Wood-Pewees or the higher elevation Smoke-colored Pewee that ID is fairly straightforward. Like other pewees it has the habit of habitually sallying for insects from the same perch. We found several Blackish Pewees perched up on snags high above the road.
When we finally got to the Pink-throated Brilliant spot we found the flowering vine right away and began the stake out. After about 10 minutes a hummingbird cruised into the flowers, but it visited only for a brief second and we were not exactly sure it was the Brilliant, so we waited some more and when it returned we got great looks at what we judged to be a juvenile male Pink-throated Brilliant. After we developed an eye for the flowering vine, we found the vine in a bunch of different places and ultimately saw a few more Pink-throated Brilliants, including a lucky sighting of an adult male deep into the PNS trail.
The next day we set out on the interior forest trails for a full day. We hiked the PNS trail to the Palmas trail that makes a giant loop. The birding along the forest trails is just as amazing. We logged 72 species without any of the edge species, the highlights being Black-tailed Leaftosser (new for the reserve), Pink-throated Brilliant, White-throated Woodpecker, Ocellated Woodcreeper, Carmiol’s (aka Yellow-browed) Tanager, Lafresnaye’s Piculet, Spot-backed Antbird, Spot-winged Antbird, and more (eBird list). Due to the steepness of the trails, we recommend hiking the PNS trail to the first steep descent to a creek, turning around there, and returning via the same trail (the last km or so of the PNS trail descends and ascends two very steep and slippery creek crossings, and then the Palmas trail is a bit steep, follows a noisy creek, and requires walking some distance through creek beds, which generally means no time to look up for birds. In comparison, the majority of the PNS trail is nice and level and open through excellent forest with good visibility).
On our last morning we hiked the road north again, finding even more new birds including Pavonine Quetzal, Sooty Antbird, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Black-and-White Tody-Flycatcher, and more (eBird list). We spent a good deal of time early in the mornings and late in the afternoons walking the main road looking for the Salvin’s Curassow. This species has been heavily persecuted in other parts of its range and is very difficult to find outside of going deep into the Yasuni wilderness at Shiripuno Lodge or other equally remote sites. Though this species normally resides (according to field guides at least) in areas < 350 m in elevation, it is somewhat readily found refuge at Rio Bigal. Thierry sees the Salvin’s frequently enough, but in three mornings and afternoons we did not have luck with this species.
We were very sad to leave Rio Bigal as we knew there were many more rare birds out there to find and the birding was super enjoyable. Our three nights were just not enough, five or perhaps even ten would have been far better! The birding really is incredible and there is much more of the reserve to explore, as well as the possibility of hiking into PN Sumaco and camping. Thierry is also a terrific host! Where else in the world can you camp in primary foothill forest and be served excellent homemade crepes?
The facilities at Bigal are rustic but comfortable. The station is truly an eco-lodge with composting toilets and cold rainwater showers. Several raised platforms have been outfitted with tents complete with mattresses and blankets. Surprisingly it can actually get chilly at night so the blankets were welcome; showering before dark is also a good idea as that water can be pretty chilly! We were completely comfortable and loved it all!