Our hired van for Peru was scheduled to end on July 6th. We were dropped off in the city of Chiclayo and had planned to find a bus straight in to Ecuador. However, buses from Chiclayo into Ecuador were nonexistent and we had to adjust our schedule to accommodate for a bus into Tumbes, a city in Northern Peru, and then transfer ourselves into Ecuador.
The next, and final country on our 6-month birding trip is the country of Ecuador. Ecuador, a country located right at the equator, has varying climates largely based on what altitude one is at. Ecuador is home to 1,600 bird species in the continental area and 38 more endemic to the Galapagos. Although we weren’t visiting the Galapagos on this trip, the biodiversity of the country was enough of a tug to get us there and we planned to spend the majority of our time in the southern portion of the country picking up the country’s specialties.
After entering Ecuador early on July 7th, we hopped on a bus to the city of Machala, arriving just around lunch time. I’ll never forget being left on the side of the road guarding our bags while Ross went walking around town searching for a good deal on a hotel. (We tended to opt for this tactic when hostel-searching so as to not have to carry our big bags all over the place.) We were lucky to find reasonably priced accommodation and we opted to take the rest of the day easy, casually meandering around the big city, grabbing food and watching Wimbledon on TV from the comforts of a hotel. However, the main reason for this “hotel break” was to take the time to transfer all of the Ecuador bird audio onto Ross’s iphone. Birders know that having audio can prove to be essential when learning the calls of the local birds and looking for elusive species. We were expecting the transfer of audio to be an easy task. I mean, how hard could it be to transfer 9,000 bird recordings from iTunes onto an iPhone?! Unfortunately, what we thought would take a few hours that evening, turned into an 18 hour ordeal! Ross, using an iPhone 4, did not have a phone that was processing the overload of music well and at one point the fire alarms in our hotel started going off and after feeling the hot door, we were concerned for the worst and unplugged the laptop and started running outside only to find out that it was a false alarm… whoops. We ended up taking the next day ‘easy’ as well because the audio took much longer than expected, and we didn’t attempt to leave Machala until late afternoon on July 8th.
From Machala we caught a bus to the city of Pinas, the only location to find two endemics, El Oro Parakeet and El Oro Tapaculo. Pinas was a quaint little town full of people who probably haven’t seen anyone resembling a tourist in a very long time. We grabbed a hotel and some dinner, all the while having multiple eyes watching us at every given moment. Nothing we weren’t already used to by now…
While walking around Pinas, we scoped out the taxi situation trying to figure out how hard it would be to find one around 5AM the following morning. At first we were confused because we didn’t see any vehicles resembling a taxi and that’s because the ‘taxis’ in Ecuador are not what one would picture –they are actually white and green pickup trucks! Anyway, we hired one of these pickup trucks to drop us off at the edge of a birding location known as Buenaventura Reserve, just outside of town where the endemics we were looking for could be found. We were dropped off on a gravel road and spent the morning birding the road that wandered through farmland and fragmented sections of forests just above Buenaventura Nature Reserve. This area is a known hotspot for the endemic El Oro Parakeet. After a morning at Buenaventura we tallied 24 NEW birds for our trip list! Some highlights included Rufous-throated tanager, Scaled Antpitta, Silver-throated Tanager, Gray-headed Kite, Gray-backed Hawk, Sulfur-rumped Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, Bay Wren, Whiskered Wren, Song Wren and last but certainly not least, we had a group of six El Oro Parakeets in a nearby tree.
Unfortunately we never heard nor saw an El Oro Tapaculo. By midafternoon we were already back at the hotel! (Anddddd taking a break this early in the day is how you know we are starting to feel the effects of extremely fast-paced, nonstop birding over these past 5 months! Normally we birded, hiked and stayed out from dawn until dusk!) We took the rest of the afternoon off and the next day planned to walk the trail from the top of Buenaventura Reserve down past The Umbrellabird Lodge and back out to the main road, a trek of over 8 kilometers! We were not staying at the Umbrellabird Lodge because the cost of a room at this lodge is $140 PER person, PER night! Just to walk the trails they charge $15 per person, but we heard the birding was good and decided it would be worth it. So the next day we grabbed a taxi at 5am to get an early start on our walk. Unfortunately it was raining so we waited about 45 minutes under the shrine to the statue of Mary, the location we referred to when trying to tell the taxi drivers the direction we wanted to go, and our drop off point for today’s adventure. Although the rain lightened up, it never quit and despite the rain, we decided to just start on our walk along the trail.
We were starting at the top of the trail (thank God!) knowing that this “trail” was once used as a connecting road. With several landslides taking out parts of the mountain, the ‘road’ is now no more than an overgrown trail with a few old hints that a car once was able to drive here. One area was so eroded we had to cross using both hands and feet to keep from falling off the cliff! And that’s when we realized why the trails above the lodge are so overgrown – no one comes this way anymore. The clientele staying at the lodge wouldn’t want to scale a cliff get back to the lodge.
We stopped periodically along the way playing for El Oro Tapaculo, but again never heard nor saw the bird. We did however have a few new birds that morning in the form of Crested Guan, White-whiskered Hermit, Checker-throated Antwren, Esmerelda’s Antbird, Zeledon’s Antbird, Pale-mandibled Aracari and great looks at some lekking Club-winged Manakins. (Being July, it wasn’t the time of year to see or hear the lodge’s namesake Umbrellabirds lekking so we didn’t even try for them. But later on we did check eBird and noticed that a group had had the Umbrellabirds not long after we were there! If we had known they could have been a possibility, we certainly would have done our due diligence trying to see them!)
We started just before 6AM but didn’t arrive to the lodge area where the hummingbird feeders are located until after 2PM! We stood at the feeders for a few minutes observing Green Thorntail, Green-crowned Brilliant, Emerald-bellied Woodnymph, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Violet-bellied Hummingbird as they came to drink. We were able to stand extremely close to the feeders, so close that we didn’t even need binoculars to see the intricate details of these tiny birds buzzing around our heads! A few were brazen enough to use our fingers as a perch while drinking the nectar from the feeders!
From that point on we more or less walked as fast as we could through the rain back out to the main road in hopes that we could get back to our hotel before dark. Although catching a bus was rather painful, we were able to ride into town just as dusk was setting in.
The following morning, the day of the ladies Championship at Wimbledon, I stayed back at the hotel while Ross went back out birding to Buenaventura Reserve, the same location as on our first day in Pinas. That afternoon we caught a bus headed to Loja but got off early so we could catch another bus to Macara, a small town right on the border between Peru and Ecuador. Macara, being a border town, is notoriously more dangerous than other towns in Ecuador, and lucky for us, we would be arriving well after dark. (That being said, I never felt unsafe as we transferred to a nearby hotel for the night.) The following morning Ross headed to Jorupe Reserva while I stayed back in the hotel with a debilitating cold (and to watch the gentlemen’s Wimbledon final.) Ross had a productive morning (so I heard) hitting all of his target birds and even seeing Ochre-bellied Dove, a very difficult bird to find this time of year as they are not heard calling.
When Ross returned back to the hotel, we packed up our bags and took a collectivo to the small town of Sozoranga. I say that lightly and if you re-read the last sentence you would probably think “okay, no big deal. Have fun in Sozoranga.” Well let me just say this –there is ABSOLUTELY NO REASON for anyone to visit this remote town other than if you were going to see the range-restricted Gray-headed Antbird. But if it is the case that you are tracking down range-restricted South American birds, it makes perfect sense to visit Sozoranga since this town is the easiest place to see the bird. If the people in Pinas hadn’t seen tourists in quite some time, the people of this small town certainly hadn’t for twice as long.
There is only one place to stay in the town so that is where we stayed. We received the keys to our room but had to wait outside for them to clean it before we could go in and drop off our bags before heading out. Upon entering the room, we found there was not enough space to put our bags on the floor without having to step over them. The room was extremely small, cramped, and full of bugs. Although we had just watched the girl clean our room, the room did not feel very clean (had to pick a few black hairs off of my pillow before going to bed that night) and the overpowering smell of cleaning chemicals was nauseating. The bathroom was terrifying and one glance at the shower was enough to know that we were not nearly dirty enough to even consider taking a freezing cold shower in there. (Now that the trip has concluded I can say with certainty that this night was the most uncomfortable night spent in hostel of the entire trip! A pretty impressive feat considering the terrible time we had at a hostel while chasing after a Scarlet-banded Barbet in Peru…) Either way, we woke up early the next morning and headed out in search of the Gray-headed Antbird, our only main target for the day. We hired a taxi to drop us off and pick us up again in three hours. Although we heard several pairs of Gray-headed Antbirds calling all morning, the terrain made it impossible to leave the road and it took us the full three hours before these extremely secretive birds made it close enough to the road that we were able to get a glimpse of a single female!
From Sozoranga we took a truck back to Macara and from there set off on the four-hour bus ride to the city of Loja, the capital of Loja Providence known for its coffee and chocolate and old Spanish heritage.
We’ve found ourselves taking the Ecuador portion of our trip very lackadaisical, even taking an entire day off to relax and walk around the city of Loja. Loja is said to be the “cultural capital of Ecuador” and has many old Spanish churches scattered around the city so taking a day off here was quite nice. The next day we headed to Podocarpus National Park in search of a few range-restricted species. We arrived early via a taxi planning to drive the five and a half kilometers up the park road to the area where good habitat can be found. Unfortunately a chain blocking the gate and a sign saying the park doesn’t open until 8AM left us saying goodbye to our taxi and walking up the gradual but noticeable 5 kilometer incline. Thankfully we found a man inside the park who agreed to give us a lift to our forested destination. Along the main road we had Bearded Guan and Powerful Woodpecker.
The overcast weather conditions kept bird activity minimal so we walked the last two kilometers up the road to the parking lot and started on the trail where our main target, Mouse-colored Thistletail and Neblina Tapaculo can be found. The trail proved to be much steeper than anticipated and despite our good hiking shape, we were exhausted shortly after starting. Ross, who hikes at a much faster pace, headed on ahead of me and eventually caught up with Mouse-colored Thistletail and Neblina Tapaculo once he reached an elevation of 3000 meters, but due to extremely strong winds, heavy fog, and rain, he never heard nor saw the range-restricted hummingbird, Neblina Metaltail. The weather was unfavorable so we walked the 7 kilometers back down to the main road and caught a bus back into the city.
Early the next morning we caught a bus headed to Valladolid and asked to get let off early at the famous (among birders at least) Casa Simpson Lodge, where we would be staying for two nights. Casa Simpson, part of the Foundacion Jocotoco and Reserva Tapichalaca is the only reliable location in the world for the Jocotoco Antpitta, a usually skulky bird only discovered to science in 1998! But thanks to conservation of habitat and the food provided to it by the lodge, this endangered Antpitta is now habituated to being fed and can reliably be seen two kilometers from the lodge. We arrived early morning and were escorted to the feeding station where we had fantastic looks at two Jocotoco Antpittas! Coming up close and perching in the open, they quite possibly could be the most cooperative birds we’ve encountered yet!
The remainder of the morning, the entirety of the next day, and the following morning were spent walking the trails maintained by the lodge. A few highlights included seeing multiple Chestnut-naped Antpittas really well, Undulated Antpitta, Golden-plumed Parakeet, Red-hooded Tanager, Golden-crowned Tanager, White-browed Spinetail, Orange-banded Flycatcher, Green-and-black Fruiteater and a handful of rather cooperative Tapaculos.
It also rained a lot while we were at the lodge which made birding a bit difficult. Although we spend most of the time on the trails during the light showers, during the heavy downpours we would retreat to the lodge and entertain ourselves with the hummingbirds. Numerous species came to visit including Amethyst-throated Sunangel, Little Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, White-bellied Woodstar, Speckled Hummingbird, and Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and Fawn-breasted Brilliants.
The lodge we were staying at, located on the Tapichalaca Biological Reserve, was the first lodge to be operated by the Fundación de Conservación Jocotoco, an Ecuadorian foundation that now has multiple lodges located in diverse Ecuadorian habitat protecting approximately 800 species of birds! And thanks to the lodges, secretive and rarely observed birds can now be seen easily! However, with all of the good that the Fundacion Jocotoco does, the costs of staying at lodges such as this, is very pricey and often out of the budget of most shoe-string birders. For a modest room the price seems astronomical, but for birding tour groups with deep pocketed clients, they have no problem forking out the $140 per person per night! For Ross and I to spend two nights at Casa Simpson (there’s a 2-night minimum) it cost us $560.00 USD, not a place two people on a budget would think of staying. But thankfully Ross’s good friend Dr. Vu Neighm, who wanted to return the favor of me watching over his Honolulu Condo for him while he and Ross were deployed, covered the lodge’s expense for us! Thanks again Vu, it was nice to eat fancy meals and take a warm shower on our trip for once!