Guided by Jose Illanes.
This classic circuit of Southern Ecuador took in an extraordinary array of habitats; we started out in the sweltering lowlands near the coastal city of Guayaquil, scouring mangroves and wetlands near there (and finding the local Horned Screamer and “Pacific” Royal Flycatcher); before ascending into the Andean foothills, and the Buenaventura reserve, where our time in their tropical forests produced some of their most special birds, like Long-wattled Umbrellabird at a display site, the mouthy Ochraceous Attila, and the above El Oro Parakeets, gathering at a breeding spot. From there we changed habitat entirely moving into the true Tumbesian realm, and the humid deciduous woodland of Jorupe, with its horde of endemics. The feeders at this site are superb, and aided in seeing some of these, like the normally shy Pale-browed Tinamou (apart from at these feeders!), and the stunningly beautiful White-tailed Jay. The area of Jorupe was combined with Utuana, (upslope and wetter montane evergreen forest), to add birds like the impossibly cute Black-crested Tit-Tyrant, and sturdy Black-cowled Saltator among others. From there we headed up to an even higher site, the temperate and Elfin forest of Cerro Toledo, where we picked up another rare and local species, the Neblina Metaltail, as well as the difficult Masked Mountain-Tanager too. We remained within temperate forest on the east side of the Andes for the next site, Tapichalaca, where we saw one of the most famous birds in all of Ecuador, the formerly fabled Jocotoco Antpitta (which, in spite of its continuing rare status, continues to be easy to see at this site). This area also produced Chestnut-naped Antpitta, and Bearded Guan too.
Moving on from there we stayed on the east slope, but this time moved significantly lower down, to the foothills around Yankuam Lodge, the haunt of the exquisite and rare Orange-throated Tanager, which was seen with some effort in rainy conditions, here at the only reliable site on Earth. As usual this site yielded a number of other rare birds too, like the recently discovered (in Ecuador that is) White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, the local Zimmer’s Antbird, and the decidedly rare Blackish Pewee. We remained in the eastern foothills for our next stop, where we temporarily moved into the very popular Copalinga Lodge, located near the edge of Podocarpus National Park; here we were thrilled with the pair of normally very difficult Gray Tinamous coming to their grain feeder (the only place in the World where this can be seen in this way), while inside the park highlights included specialties like Black-streaked Puffbird and Coppery-chested Jacamar, and outside the national park White-breasted Parakeet and Foothill Elaenia (a recently described species) also featured, along with always popular Andean Cock-of-the-rock. The next stop was a small and little visited reserve that holds one of the rarest birds in South America, the Pale-headed Brush-Finch, numbering just a few hundred individuals (all confined to a very small areas in southern Ecuador). Thankfully, we saw four of these at the feeder on site, and so in spite of its great rarity the bird was remarkably straightforward!
After this short visit, our final major site of the tour was one of a very different nature to all the others, El Cajas National Park, where we birded in two markedly different habitats; temperate forest and paramo grasslands above the treeline. This yielded many new birds for the tour, even on this last day of the main tour, with the rarest and most vaunted of them being Violet-throated Metaltail, the oft-difficult Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, and the nuthatch-like Giant Conebill, as well as some very confiding, azure blue Tit-like Dacnis. For the extension we moved first onto a coastal, arid peninsula, west of Guayaquil, where birds like the rarely seen Sulphur-throated Finch, Parrot-billed Seedeater, and Crimson-breasted Finch were found, as well as Chilean Flamingoes on the coastal pans. Heading north we moved to our final major site of the entire tour, Ayampe, the seasonal home of the very rare Esmeraldas Woodstar, where several males were seen, both foraging and perched, another species probably only numbering a total world population of several hundred only (and all confined to Ecuador). At the end of this grand southern Ecuador circuit we had witnessed some very special birds indeed, among a heady haul of over 600 species SEEN. This remains one of Ecuador very best birding regions, with some of its rarest birds well staked out, and yet, remarkably, it remains very under birded, so it was common that we were birding alone, unlike some of Ecuador’s more popular northern sites.