We spent 10 days in the Choco region of north-west Ecuador in search of a number of ‘specials’ missed on previous visits. We re-visited the Jocotoco Reserve at Canandé and went to Reserva de Los Tigrillos, Playa de Oro for the first time. As with all our previous trips to Ecuador, ground transport, general arrangements and accommodation bookings were faultlessly arranged by Jane Lyons (Mindo Bird Tours) – thanks so much once again Jane. Thanks also to our driver Juan Carlos for all his help and understanding. At Playa de Oro we found the following trip reports to be very useful: Dušan Brinkhuizen & Frank Bills (2009), Scott Olmstead (2008) and Derek Kverno (2010). We ended up with 18 lifers.
While we took the invaluable Robert Ridgely’s ‘Birds of Ecuador’ with us as always, on this trip we walked the trails with something much less weighty to carry, namely ‘Birds of Northwest Ecuador’ by McMullan and Vasquez. This 42 page guide was a handy reference in the field (www.spotfieldbooks.com).
5 July – Drive from Reserva Las Gralarias to Canandé
6 July – Canandé
7 July – Canandé
8 July – Canandé
9 July – Canandé to Otavalo. Overnight Otavalo
10 July – Drive to Selva Alegre for canoe to Tigrillo Lodge
11 July - Tigrillo Lodge
12 July - Tigrillo Lodge
13 July – Depart Tigrillo Lodge to Selva Alegre and drive to Quito
5 July 2012
An uneventful drive until after we crossed the Rio Canandé ferry when the road deteriorated. It was in poor condition compared with our previous visit in 2009 and our 2-wheel drive van had problems. We eventually made it to the reserve where Juan Carlos negotiated with the manager to bring us back to the ferry on 9 July using his 4x4. We had enjoyed our stay previously at this comfortable lodge and felt back at home in the same room we used on our previous visit. We walked down to the dining room for a late lunch and at about 3 pm set off on the Tawny-faced Quail trail which starts behind the dining room. Quite soon, just after the end of the old cocoa trees area, we came upon ant columns and considerable bird activity. The ant swarms were attended by several Ocellated Antbirds – new for us – and so close! Another new species attracted by the ants was Northern Barred Woodcreeper. We returned to the lodge just before dusk and used the new viewing tower which has been constructed just next to the road, affording good views of the canopy in most directions. In the half hour or so before dark the following notable species were recorded using a scope from the tower: Rose-faced Parrot, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Orange-fronted Barbet, Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, Lesser swallow-tailed Swift, Black-faced Dacnis, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Blue-whiskered Tanager, White-shouldered Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, White-vented Euphonia, Orange-crowned Euphonia, and Long-tailed Tyrant.
6 July 2012
After an early breakfast and carrying a packed lunch we set off for the ridge via the Tawny-faced Quail trail. Compared with yesterday it was fairly quiet. Near one of the stream crossings before starting the climb up to the ridge we found a mixed flock that included several Spot-crowned Antvireo – they were very responsive to the tape and hence we had good views of another of our target species. Present in the same flock were Dot-winged Antwren and Checker-throated Antwren. On the steep climb up to the ridge we recorded Western white-tailed Trogon, Broad-billed Motmot and Tawny-faced Gnatwren. Once on the ridge trail we headed for the mirador. Birding was quiet and the only notable species were Rufous Piha, White-whiskered Hermit, Orange-billed Sparrow and lots of Tawny-crested Tanagers. We had an early lunch at the mirador – noting White-collared Swift, Swallow-tailed Kite and Choco Toucan over the forest below. We returned to the lodge via the Ground-Cuckoo Trail (no sign of it!). By 3.30 pm we were installed again at the viewing tower and recorded the following species: Grey-rumped Swift, Slaty Becard, Black-striped Woodcreeper, Purple-crowned Fairy, Choco Woodpecker, White-thighed Swallow, Bronze-winged and Blue-headed Parrots, Guayaquil Woodpecker and Green and Purple Honeycreepers; and finally another of our target species missed on the previous visit – Grey-and-Gold Tanager.
7 July 2012
Started today at the tower – watching the sun rise. Nothing new, but the following noted: Guira Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Lineated Woodpecker and Snowy-throated Kingbird. After breakfast we set out once more on the TFQ trail and soon came upon more ant swarms. We got close views of another of our target species, Bicolored Antbird, several were following the ant swarm, as well as more Ocellated Antbirds! Both Northern Barred Woodcreeper and Plain-brown Woodcreeper were also in attendance. Also in the vicinity of the swarms were Purple-throated Fruitcrow and Lanceolated Monklet. After this excitement we turned off on to the Manakin Trail and soon came across a large troop of Spider Monkeys, including many young, who resented our presence, shaking branches throwing sticks and trying to urinate on us! Great views of a relatively rare species! Bird-wise it was, not surprisingly, quiet! At the far junction where the Manakin Trail rejoins the TFQ trail a mixed flock rewarded us with two new species: Grey-mantled Wren in the canopy and Green Manakin low down. Also noted were lots of Dusky-faced Tanagers and an Olive-striped Flycatcher. As previously we returned to the lodge and spent from about 4 pm until dusk at the tower. Additional species recorded here were: Masked Tityra, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Green-fronted Lancebill and Purple-chested Hummingbird. Mealy Amazons flew past over the forest. Tonight we searched for Choco Screech Owl without any luck – no calls heard and no responses to playback.
8 July 2012
Early morning owling, but no luck. On the tower by 6.15 am, but nothing new noted except Dull-coloured Grassquit. After breakfast we were on the TFQ trail by 8.15 am, but things were quiet and the only new trip species noted were Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, S. Nightingale Wren, White-flanked Antwren and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. Good views of a large male Collared Peccary at the far entrance to the Manakin Trail.
On a previous visit here we had found birding along the road to be quite productive and had also seen a puma cross the road in front of us, but the traffic, consisting mainly of logging trucks, is now much heavier, making birding more difficult. The old trail that used to go off to the left about a km past the lodge does not seem to exist anymore. There is now however, a good forest trail that follows the road on the lodge side (leaves from kitchen end of the dining room). We walked part of this during the afternoon, but saw nothing of note.
9 July 2012
The reserve manager kindly drove us to the ferry crossing where we met up once more with Juan Carlos. We then proceeded to Golondrinas where we had a late breakfast. The rest of the day was spent driving to Otavalo where we stayed the night at the very pleasant and historic Las Palmeras Inn.
10 July 2012
Set off early along the very good highway towards the coast. After descending into Esmareldas we turned left to reach Selva Alegre at about 11 am. On the way into Selva Alegre we recorded White-necked Puffbird (several) perched on the electricity wires. At Selva Alegre we were due to meet Don Julio and the canoe that would transport us to Playa de Oro and the EcoLodge at midday. He was right on time, and after saying goodbye to Juan Carlos and loading up our gear, plus some food and several crates of pilsner from the store, we set off up the Rio Santiago. The river level was quite low, the water fast flowing, and Julio’s skill at traversing the rapids was impressive. After a short stop at Playa de Oro village, we continued for another 15 minutes or so to the Los Tigrillos Lodge, which is set back a short way from the river. The lodge is built entirely of timber and was originally constructed as a small barracks for the Ecuadorian army about 40 years ago. It has two storeys and birding from the upper veranda can be productive.
After lunch and in the mid-afternoon we explored the trails immediately behind the lodge. Our first new bird was Dagua Thrush. Otherwise it was fairly quiet. We returned to the lodge and watched the trees around the lodge, where there was a lot of bird activity, but nothing unusual or exciting. On dusk a flock of Scarlet-rumped Caciques perched briefly in the trees by the lodge before flying off to roost – no sign of any Oropendolas though!
11 July 2012
This morning we explored the downstream branch of the La Paila trail (leading eventually to Playa de Oro village) and managed two more lifers. Firstly, close to the junction with the circular trail and only a hundred metres or so from the lodge, in a wet area, we found Stub-tailed Antbird which was very responsive to the tape. Secondly, further on, on the hill after the stream, we located our first Spotted Antbird. This species proved to be common in most areas. Other species noted on this trail were Green Manakin, Red-capped Manakin, White-bearded Manakin and Chestnut-backed Antbird. We returned to the lodge for a delicious lunch.
Two more new species were seen after lunch: Slate-throated Gnatcatcher in the trees in the garden with a mixed flock and later in the afternoon, Lemon-spectacled Tanager along the upstream branch of the La Paila trail. Towards evening in the Lodge garden we were rewarded with close views of a Collared Forest Falcon and then another lifer, Choco Poorwill, as the light was fading.
12 July 2012
We set out at 4 am to the wet area about a hundred metres behind the lodge in search of Choco Screech Owl. One was very responsive to the tape and by 4.30 am it was perched right above our heads on a branch over the path! Following breakfast and armed with a packed lunch, Julio ferried us across the river to the start of the Peñon trail. On the first part of the trail on a long uphill slope we saw a number of interesting species, but nothing new: Slate-coloured Grosbeak, Western Woodhaunter and Blue-capped Manakin. Further on where the trail is relatively level: White-whiskered Hermit, White-whiskered Puffbird, W.White-tailed Trogon, Spotted Antbird and Rufous Motmot. Some of the forest here is magnificent with enormous trees. In this region we came upon guans – hoping for the elusive Baudo Guan we spent considerable time locating the birds in the upper canopy and eventually decided they were Crested Guans. On the way back to the river we came across Tawny-faced Quail – a real bonus. After about a 10 km walk we were back at the river at a prearranged time for the short canoe trip back to the lodge. Spent the afternoon doing some veranda birding. Late in the afternoon we finally had good views of the sought after Chestnut-headed Oropendola as they alighted in the lodge trees en route to their roosting site, together with a lot of caciques – rewarding our patient watching right up until dark.
13 July 2012
Early morning veranda watching yielded no new birds, but Cinnamon Woodpecker, Choco Woodpecker and Yellow-margined Flatbill were noted. Following breakfast we departed in the canoe with Julio at the helm. Met up with Juan Carlos in Selva Alegre and started on the long drive back to Quito.
Los Tigrillos and Playa de Oro are certainly worth the effort. The lodge is basic but very well run, the staff friendly and helpful, the food excellent and the trails are well maintained. Target species we missed out on, despite searching and the use of tapes were Five-coloured Barbet and Streak-chested Antpitta – as well as Baudo Guan.
This magnificent primary forest bears the scars of a much earlier mining activity. The current preservation of this 10,000 hectare reserve from logging and mining by the Playa de Oro community is truly inspiring. We enjoyed our time in this remote spot very much and look forward to returning to seek those species that eluded us this time.