Trip report: Southern Ecuador (Nov-Dec 2019) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods. This was a custom tour, covering the same sites as our scheduled birding tour.

Southern Ecuador ranks as one of the most popular South American tours among professional bird guides (not a small claim on the so-called “Bird Continent”!); the reasons are simple, and were all experienced firsthand on this tour…

Ecuador is one of the top four countries for bird species in the World; thus high species lists on any tour in the country are a given, this is especially true of the south of Ecuador. To illustrate this, we managed to record just over 600 bird species on this trip (601) of less than three weeks, including over 80 specialties. This private group had a wide variety of travel experience among them; some had not been to South America at all, and ended up with hundreds of new birds, others had covered northern Ecuador before, but still walked away with 120 lifebirds, and others who’d covered both northern Ecuador and northern Peru, (directly either side of the region covered on this tour), still had nearly 90 new birds, making this a profitable tour for both “veterans” and “South American Virgins” alike.

Secondly, the south of Ecuador offers up a circuit that delves into the widest variety of bird habitats in the country. The tour focused on where the greatest avian treasures can be found, in the Andes, comprehensively covering a range of altitudes in these bird-filled mountains.

Starting in the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s southern capital, we begun in coastal lowlands (where Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Ecuadorian Trogon, Jet Antbird and (Pacific) Royal Flycatcher were early highlights); before quickly moving up into the foothills (500m/1640ft) of the western slope of the Andes. The wonderful Buenaventura Reserve was our base for this time, which led us to the extraordinary dawn displays of “mooing” Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, the extremely rare El Oro Parakeet, and the very local Ochraceous Attila, along with swarms of hummingbirds at their hyper-active feeders. We made a significant side-trip from there, up into the high paramo grasslands, above the treeline (c.3500m/11,480ft), at Cerro de Arcos, a site that hit the birding headlines for the first time as recently as 2018, when a completely new hummingbird was described from there; the dazzling Blue-throated Hillstar. A male of this already, critically-endangered species (estimated to number only 150 individuals currently) was enjoyed at length, while dawn display flights of Andean (Jameson’s) Snipe was a bonus find there too. Staying in the western side of the region, we moved out of evergreen tropical forests into deciduous woodland with characteristic giant Ceiba trees at the Jorupe Reserve, (at around 480m/1575ft), looming above the border with Peru. This reserve revealed multiple Tumbesian specialties, many only shared with northern Peru. These included a car-park dwelling Watkins’s Antpitta, a Pale-browed Tinamou foraging in the forest, gaudy White-edged Orioles and White-tailed Jays competing with each other at feeders, and Tumbes Tyrant, Elegant Crescentchest, and White-headed Brushfinch in the surrounding area. The montane forest higher up (2000m/6560ft) in the southwestern Andes held some superb hummingbird feeders, where the dazzling Rainbow Starfrontlet (photo next page, Chris Sloan) headlined, alongside Purple-throated Sunangel.

After there, we changed course, moving into high temperate forest on the eastern slope of the Andes, with a brief stop in the city of Loja to check in on the recently discovered Koepcke’s Screech-Owl, a former Peruvian endemic, found to also occur in this Ecuadorian city in recent years too. In the chilly, wet Andean forests of the eastern slope (c.2600m/8530ft) some of the greatest avian prizes were found, not least the Jocotoco Antpitta, another endangered species, which can only be seen at a single reserve in southern Ecuador. Other highlights of this zone included the Neblina Metaltail during a blustery morning up high, and Golden-plumed Parakeets hanging out near their nesting area. We continued on the eastern side of the Andes, by venturing lower into the diverse foothills (c.900m/2950ft), where the rare and extremely local Orange-throated Tanager resides, and was the clear standout species of our time there, as was a small party of Gray Tinamous at a unique forest feeding station at the wonderful Copalinga Lodge. A new, small private reserve was a must visit for the opportunity to admire plentiful beau male Spangled Coquettes (photo above, Sam Woods) feeding on the local, lilac, Verbena flowers, and a male Fiery-throated Fruiteater was found by Mike in the gold-laden hills near Yankuam. Next up, we returned to chilly temperate forests (3400m/11,155ft) on the same eastern side of the Andes, this time adding the enigmatic Crescent-faced Antpitta, and a polka-dotted Ocellated Tapaculo in doing so.

The final days saw us continue in high-altitude areas, where the country endemic Violet-tailed Metaltail pushed us well over 50 hummingbird species for the tour. Some of the highest forests featured a much-wanted Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, and Tit-like Dacnis and Giant Conebill crept around the distinctive ruddy, peeling bark of the polylepis trees, the highest growing trees on Earth, once we’d reached around 3700m/12,140ft.

By the end of this very varied tour, we had covered multiple sites on both the west and east slopes of the Andes, and locales from near sea level to up to 4160m/13,650ft, leading to a large bird list, weighed down by a bounty of rare and local species hard/impossible to find elsewhere within this.

Thirdly, the region is home to many rare and local species, best looked for there, or a few sites in northern Peru. Southern Ecuador sits at the crossroads of a number of endemic bird areas and bioregions (e.g. the southernmost point of the Choco, and northernmost point of the Tumbesian bioregions). Aside from those already mentioned above, we also saw Ecuadorian Piedtail, Tumbes Hummingbird, (West) Peruvian Screech-Owl, Ecuadorian Piculet, Rufous-necked Foliage-Gleaner, Blackish-headed Spinetail, and Foothill Elaenia. Other, less local species that were understandably highly-appreciated too, included Ecuadorian Hillstar, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Hoatzin, Solitary Eagle, Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Lanceolated Monklet, Amazonian Umbrellabird, White-capped Dipper, and a bounty of tanagers, especially in the eastern foothills of the Andes (78 species from the tanager family were found on this tour).

Finally, a note should be made concerning the conservation of many of these birds. An Ecuadorian NGO, the Jocotoco Foundation (or Fundacion de Jocotoco) has purchased vital bird habitat, and set up a network of fantastic birding reserves in which to view many of these species; we visited 6 Jocotoco reserves, and stayed in 4 of them (Umbrellabird Lodge in Buenaventura; Urraca Lodge in Jorupe; Casa Simpson in Tapichalaca; and Copalinga Lodge). This in itself, was another valued highlight, seeing (and contributing to), very productive, real conservation in action.

The top five birds of the tour, as voted for by participants, were:
1-Jocotoco Antpitta Tapichalaca Reserve
2-Orange-throated Tanager Maycu Reserve
3-Long-wattled Umbrellabird Buenaventura Reserve
4-Blue-throated Hillstar Cerro de Arcos (currently unprotected)
5=Crescent-faced Antpitta Cerro Acanama
5=Sword-billed Hummingbird El Cajas National Park

LINKS TO FULL REPORTS BELOW:

Full 2019 report PDF format, LOW RES VERSION (file size 6.8MB)

Full 2017 report PDF format, HIGH RES VERSION-BETTER QUALITY PHOTOS!(file size 26.5MB)