The huge and spectacular Jocotoco Antpitta has become a symbol of conservation in Ecuador and is resident at the Tapichalaca Reserve. Photo: Rich Hoyer
Although Ecuador is renowned for epic birding, the south stands out like a string of pearls - accessible and vastly different habitats supporting an astounding diversity of species and most of this small country’s endemics. We’ll sample these habitats, from the paramo above treeline in the high Andes, to the rainforest of the Amazonian foothills, to the elfin forest and lush cloud forest of the southeast, to the dry thornscrub and deciduous forest of the southwest, and to the edge of mangrove woodland along the coast. Each has its own speciality birds, and each is close by comfortable and often brilliantly situated accommodation. This tour is perfectly set up for a memorable two weeks of birding.
Day 1: Everyone should arrive in Guayaquil by this evening. Night in Guayaquil.
Day 2: We’ll start the tour birding the dry forest and scrub west of Guayaquil on the Santa Elena Peninsula. After a morning with possibilities of Gray-cheeked Parakeet, Collared Antshrike, and Crimson-breasted Finch we’ll pass through Guayaquil heading south to a large and diverse coastal forest reserve at Manglares-Churute. This remnant mangrove forest bordered by dry forest and agricultural fields (rice paddies) is awash with interesting bird life and we have chances here for the southwestern forest specialities like Jet Antbird, Baird’s Flycatcher, and Orange-crowned Euphonia. Further, the rice fields often have waders and shorebirds and unbelievable numbers of Snail Kites, and the mangrove forests have Mangrove Yellow Warbler. Leaving the lowlands, we’ll drive up and east into the mountains to the edge of El Cajas National Park on the outskirts of Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city. Time permitting, we may stop on the way up at one of the “miradors” for a look out over the scenic countryside or pop into some polylepis woodland for a chance of seeing a Giant Conebill. Night in Cuenca.
Day 3: Today we’ll be out birding near tree-line in El Cajas National Park, where we can expect such characteristic high-elevation species as Tawny Antpitta, Blue-mantled Thornbill, Chestnut-winged and Stout-billed Cinclodes, and Tit-like Dacnis, and we can at least hope for the local Ecuadorian Hillstar and endemic Violet-throated Metaltail, all against the dazzling backdrop of the high Andes. Night in La Union.
Day 4: We’ll start in the scenic Yunguilla valley acacia woodlands at the reserve protecting the tiny range of the endangered Pale-headed Brush-Finch, a species rediscovered after being unrecorded for decades. Leaving here, we’ll drive south and east deep into the Andean ridge to the remote mountaintop of Cerro de Arcos. If there is good weather in the afternoon we will make our first attempt at finding Blue-throated Hillstar, a hummingbird only first discovered in 2017 and known only from this location. Night at Casa Refugio Cerro de Arcos.
Day 5: We’ll spend the morning birding the area around the lodge where, in addition to the Blue-throated Hillstar other high elevation specialities can be found, some that we may have seen already at El Cajas National Park but others, as well. Jameson’s Snipe is often calling in the pre-dawn around the lodge and we may be able to track one down. Streak-backed Canastero, Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant, Mountain Caracara are all possible. The hummingbird feeders around the lodge can have Shining Sunbeam, Great Sapphirewing, and Virdian Metaltail. We will likely stay until mid-morning then descend toward the city of Loja, stopping along the way for tanager flocks that may include Golden-crowned Tanager, Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager, and Superciliaried Hemispingus. From these high elevations we’ll drop toward the east and the town of Zamora ending the day at Copalinga Lodge in the Amazonian foothills. Night at Copalinga Lodge.
Day 6: The charming Copalinga Lodge lies along the Río Bombuscaro just outside the vast and amazing Podocarpus National Park. An easy trail along the river permits access to this lower elevation part of the park, and the list of potential birds is impressive. The brilliant Coppery-chested Jacamar and the local White-necked Parakeet are possible, as are more subtle species such as Black-streaked Puffbird and the recently described Foothill Elaenia. The grounds of Copalinga Lodge are superb for birding as well: fruit feeders can attract gangs of tanagers (Golden, Magpie, Green-and-gold, and Golden-eared top the mix), Speckled Chachalacas gobble up bananas, and Little Woodstar sometimes visits the verbena. A more recent addition to the lodge is a feeding station that has attracted Gray and Gray-fronted Doves. Night at Copalinga Lodge.
Day 7: After a morning of birding around the lodge or back at the park, we’ll drive farther east. As the elevation sinks toward lower Amazonian foothill habitat, we could encounter Green-backed Trogon, Long-tailed Tyrant, raucous Black-capped Donacobius, and a few new tanagers like Turquoise, Masked and Yellow-bellied. We’ll reach our lodge, Cabañas Yankuam, in time to settle in and perhaps do a little birding before dinner (there are often White-tipped Swifts flying around in the late afternoon). Night at Cabañas Yankuam.
Day 8: Cabañas Yankuam lies along the Río Nangaritza in the Cordillera del Condor, a special habitat on a sedimentary stone spur ridge of the Andes and home to near-endemic species and others at range limits or in isolated populations. Orange-throated Tanager is striking and possibly tops the list of local specialities we’re likely to encounter, but other likely prizes include Purplish Jacamar, Zimmer’s Antbird, and Gray-tailed Piha. In these primeval forests literally at the end of the road, Black-and-white Tody-Flycatcher and Fiery-throated Fruiteater are resident, and Ecuadorian Tyrannulets are almost common. Other birds occasionally seen along the road here are Lemon-throated Barbet, Yellow-backed Tanager, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, and White-bellied Pygmy-Tyrant, a bird known in Ecuador only from this location. One feels on the verge of a great discovery every step of the way in the forests of this remote locale. Night at Cabañas Yankuam.
Day 9: We’ll bird the Cabañas Yankuam area this morning before returning east and back up into the mountains. Night in Loja.
Day 10: Today will be a varied day, beginning with the high-elevation part of Podocarpus National Park in the humid cloud forest of the Cajanumas sector just south of Loja, where we could find Rufous Antpittas, Chusquea Tapaculos, Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, and perhaps a couple of flashy tanager flocks with the bulky Hooded Mountain-Tanager and ridiculous Grass-green Tanager catching the eye. There are some out-there birds, too, and if we’re really lucky maybe something wild like Neblina Metaltail or Masked Saltator could happen. After the morning there, things change fast, and we’ll first descend through arid, scrubby valleys, where Tumbes Hummingbird and Elegant Crescentchest are possible, and finally we’ll go back up to reach the very humid high-elevation woodland of the Jocotoco Foundation’s wonderful Tapichalaca Reserve. Night at the homey Casa Simpson.
Day 11: At Casa Simpson we’re only steps away from excellent birding, starting with the hummingbird feeders on the front porch. Surrounding the lodge, the Tapichalaca Reserve is the home of the flagship species of the nonprofit organization, and we’ll walk the forest trail to where the huge, spectacular Jocotoco Antpitta is now coming to earthworms at a feeding station. Golden-plumed Parakeets, White-throated Screech-Owl, Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Black-throated Tody-Tyrant, Dusky Piha, and White-capped Tanager are also possible while we wander the roads and trails that pass through the reserve. Also easily accessible from Casa Simpson are the upper reaches of the Río Marañon watershed, which flows south through the Amazonian foothills of Peru and marks a major ecological divide. Only a touch of this watershed enters the far southeast of Ecuador, and here we can find birds at the edge of their range, such as Black-faced Tanager, Marañon Thrush, and Rufous-fronted Thornbird. Night at Casa Simpson.
Day 12: After a final morning in the Tapichalaca Reserve, we’ll bird our way to Loja. Night in Loja.
Days 13-14: Beginning this morning the remainder of the tour takes place on the Pacific slope of Ecuador. We’ll depart Loja for the southwest, spending the next two days birding dry country - tropical deciduous forests and arid thornscrub - for the speciality birds of this seemingly strange habitat in a country mostly known for being lush and green. We’ll visit the Utuana and Jorupe Reserves, which are Jocotoco Foundation properties as well, and spend two nights at the Jorupe Reserve’s Urraca Lodge. Notable birds to look for include Rufous-necked and Henna-hooded Foliage-Gleaners, Black-crested Tit-Tyrant, Watkins’s Antpitta, Blackish-headed Spinetail, and Gray-breasted Flycatcher – but, even the fairly common species like Whooping Motmot, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Wren, and Chapman’s Antshrike are worthy distractions. The feeders at the lodge are usually busy in the morning with Blue Ground-Doves, White-tailed Jays, and White-edged Orioles. Nights at Urraca Lodge.
Days 15-16: After some morning birding in the dry habitat, we’ll drive west, passing out of arid terrain and back into the humid low foothill forest of Jocotoco’s Buenaventura Reserve and the very comfortable Umbrellabird Lodge.
The Buenaventura Reserve protects some of the most threatened forest in the country, and the drive there through mostly cleared pasture land makes one appreciate the value of this spectacular piece of forest. We’ll have breakfast to the sounds of distant Howler Monkeys and squabbling hummingbirds before we take an easy hike to look for the namesake of the lodge: the amazing Long-wattled Umbrellabird which has a lek nearby. Its foghorn call is often heard, and we should be able to find one or more sitting unobtrusively in the forest sub-canopy.
The reserve also protects the scarce and local El Oro Parakeet, which we have a chance of seeing at the upper end of the reserve. We may get to see a few Club-winged Manakins displaying or a White-tipped Sicklebill tap into a heliconia flower. We could run into Gray-backed Hawk, Barred Puffbird, or Ochraceous Attila among throngs of other birds. The fruit feeders around Umbrellabird Lodge’s dining area can attract tanagers, araçaris, and coatis, and its hummingbird feeders are among the best in Ecuador. Nights at Umbrellabird Lodge.
Day 17: We’ll leave late in the morning for Guayaquil, stopping along the way at some ponds and mudflats and patches of coastal dry forest for a few hours of birding before returning to the big city and our final night in Ecuador. Night in Guayaquil.
Day 18: The tour concludes this morning in Guayaquil.
Updated: 17 November 2020