Flying from Quito to Santa Rosa on the southwest coast, we dropped over 9,000' in an hour. Once assembled in the van of our trusted driver Nestor, we were off to the coast. Enroute, we were impressed by the dazzling red of a Peruvian Meadowlark, the chatter of Pacific Parrotlets, and the melodious song of the Streaked Saltator. Once at the shrimp ponds, we counted hundreds of White-cheeked Pintails and had close up views of Wattled Jacanas working the roadside ditches. At the mangrove estuary, we enjoyed the tour's only encounter with coastal denizens with the highlights being Gray-hooded Gull, Cocoi Heron, and the always scintillating Roseate Spoonbill.
A short climb into the western foothills brought us to Buenaventura Reserve at 1700'. A kettle of Swallow-tailed Kites overhead provided entertainment along the way. At the reserve, we had close up views of White-whiskered Puffbird, Choco Toucan, and the rather scarce Chestnut-headed Oropendola-a life bird for our guide Marcelo. After enjoying the lodge hummingbird feeders attended by White-necked Jacobin, Green Thorntail, and Violet-bellied Hummingbird, we were led by refuge naturalist Leo to a steep nearby ravine. The muted sound of air being blown across an empty bottle alerted us to the presence of at least one Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Patience (and the keen eyes of Leo) eventually rewarded us with great looks at this bizarre cotinga that the lodge is named after.
The following morning brought intermittent rain but we managed to watch a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and a rather stoic Highland Monkey. We left the forest and drove to a higher, more open part of the preserve to wait at an active nest box used by the endangered El Oro Parakeet. Following a half hour vigil, we saw a group of parakeets fly over a nearby ridge. Soon the flock landed right in front of us in the nest box tree affording us superb views. Heading back to the lodge we viewed a Red-faced Spinetail "apartment"-a large communal nest with entrances at both top and bottom. Next day, we were off to a vastly different part of Ecuador, the dry Tumbesian region on the southwest border with Peru. Our lunch stop on a ridge near Chaguarpamba proved to be the road birding highlight of the day. Having entered a zone where songbirds responded to Peruvian Pygmy Owl tape, we lured in a compliant assembly to several leafless trees below us. The bird smorgasbord included groups of Swallow Tanagers, Saffron Finches, Bay-headed Tanagers, Ecuadorian Thrushes and a pod of rare Saffron Siskins. Truly Christmas come early! Later in the afternoon on yet another twisting mountain highway, Marcelo heard a pair of Gray-cheeked Parakeets which we stopped to observe along with a pair of One-colored Becards at a nest. After we passed Catacocha, another side road revealed a Whooping (Blue-crowned) Motmot and the winner of "the cute bird of the trip award"-an Ecuadorian Piculet. We reached Jorupe Reserve (2,100'), in the land of giant ceiba trees, as night fell and the clear whistles of the Pale-browed Tinamous faded. Morning at the Urraca Lodge got us off to a quick start. In the predawn darkness a pair of Spectacled Owls called close to our cabins. As we ate breakfast, we watched a diverse mob at the feeding station which included Red-Masked Parakeets, Ochre-bellied Doves, and the impressive White-tailed Jays (quite reminiscent of the Tufted Jay from West Mexico). Birding up the road on foot, we quickly found Tawny-crowned Pygmy Tyrant, Ecuadorian Trogon and the "muy guapo" Collared Antshrike. Several Watkin's Antpittas were calling nearby and our local guide Jorge persistently kept peering into the understory. He finally spotted a bird, surprisingly 4' off the ground, and we all managed scope views of the upper third of the bird's body. Amazing how such a loud bird can be so close and still remain invisible. Soon the sun (yes it does exist in Ecuador) drove us to a rest period but we revived in the late afternoon for another outing which produced both White-edged and Yellow-tailed Orioles, Baird's Flycatcher, and a close Laughing Falcon. We ended the day with our whole group (after 25 minutes) getting a look at one of the many Pale-browed Tinamous calling near the cabins. The longest travel day of the trip faced us so we were packed and in the van by 6am. Heading northeast, we took our last look at Peruvian soil just across the river (no montruous border fences down here). Elevation change came fast and furious-over a 5,000' gain by mid morning. As we approached the Jocotoco Foundation's Utuana Preserve at 8,400', we enjoyed some fast paced roadside birding. Silver-backed Tanagers gave us repeated looks while a Gray-browed Brushfinch only gave us a sunlit glimpse. Both male and female Chapman's Antshrike showed well-somewhat surprising to have an antshrike at this altitude! Black-cowled Saltator lurked in several spots and most everyone finally had decent views of this southern Ecuador specialty. Moving along a high ridge into Utuana we experienced brilliant sun and low bird activity. The reserve hummingbird feeders gave us lengthy views of the jaw-dropping Rainbow Starfrontlet and the more subtle but equally impressive Purple-throated Sunangel. Our efforts to find Black-crested Tit Tyrant didn't work out but in the process we had looks at Jelski's Chat Tyrant-another highly range restricted species. After crossing several more high ridges, we began to descend into the much drier Catamayo Valley (4,000'). At our roadside lunch stop, we had the first of many Peruvian Pygmy Owl sightings and quick looks at a loud pair of Superciliated Wrens. We then transited through Loja (6,630'), over another 8,000' pass, and began our steep descent to Zamora near the eastern base of the Andes. The new highway was a breeze until a detour forced us onto the old Loja-Zamora Road-a muddy narrow track that made us greatly appreciate the highway we had just left. Unfortunately, a massive landslide blocked the new highway further downslope. What should have been 25 minutes more to Zamora turned into almost 2 hours. With great relief, we arrived at Copalinga Lodge (3,075') just south of Zamora in time to see a female Spangled Coquette at the verbena bushes and both Green and Gold and Golden-eared Tanagers at the fruit feeders. The next morning we were off to nearby Podocarpus National Park along the Rio Bombuscaro. Our morning hike was quiet for the most part but the birds we saw-White-necked Parakeet, Amazonian Umbrellabird, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, and Green (Inca) Jay-were truly outstanding. Back at Copalinga, the feeders kept us entertained with new arrivals such at Swainson's Thrush (odd to see it feasting on a banana), Crested Oropendola (very shy for such a big bird), and a vibrant Red-headed Barbet. The hummingbird show had picked up as well with Golden-tailed Sapphire, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Green Hermit all putting in appearances. Some of the group kept birding through the afternoon rest period along the entry road. Several flocks moved through containing Paradise and Spotted Tanagers, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Wire-crested Thorntail, and a memorable Black-faced Dacnis. Back at the lodge, a male Spangled Coquette, sporting head feathers that made it seem like a miniature bird of paradise, had shown up and stayed long enough for all to see it. Shortly before dinner, we took a two minute drive to a Blackish Nightjar roost and watched as the bird hawked insects in the fading light. With two road blockages to navigate, we were off early heading back up to Loja. Then, taking the road south past Vilcabamba, we arrived at a road construction site one hour before cars would be allowed to pass. What to do? More roadside birding of course. Rain was getting heavier but we managed looks at Hooded Mountain Tanager, Yellow-bellied Chat Tyrant, and Golden-crowned Tanager-an understory foraging tanager whose crown lights up the gloom. Once the roadblock opened, it was 20 minutes of sliding through the mud to the entrance of Tapichalaca Reserve (7,800'). Marcelo suggested we bird the main road below the construction, so off we went. Turned out to be a great move as the rain held off and we quickly encountered a mixed species flock. We had rapid fire views of Green and Black Fruiteater, Barred Becard, Lacrimose Mountain Tanager, Blue-capped Tanager, and Blue-backed and Capped Conebills. What a colorful display in this dreary, high altitude cloud forest! Further downslope, Marcelo heard White-capped Tanagers calling at quite a distance. Using playback, we kept luring the birds closer as they were triangulating the sound source over several drainages. Finally the group of three flew right to us and landed within easy scoping range. With their white crowns almost glowing in the dim light, these tanagers became an instant trip favorite. For the last full day of birding on the trip, we geared up for a wet hour plus hike to the Jocotoco Antpitta viewing station. Along the way, Franco, our lodge guide, spotted a roosting Andean Potoo, placidly enduring the rain. Amazing to think of that nocturnal, large insect eating bird just perched motionless for hours in a cold downpour at 8,000'. Finally, we slogged up to the shelter and, even before we settled on the benches provided, the first Jocotoco Antpitta zipped out to start snagging its worm breakfast. Over the next hour and a half, we watched entranced as one of the rarest birds in the world (there were two individuals) hopped and twirled barely 5 feet in front of us. The experience made me wonder how many species had been lost on the clear cut slopes leading to this rainy ridge before they were even known by humans. Kudos to the Jocotoco Foundation for buying habitat all across Ecuador to give many critically endangered species, such as this antpitta, a chance to make their last stand. The rest of the day was a wash out as we couldn't even view the Golden-plumed Parakeet nest boxes due to heavy fog and rain. (Tapichalaca receives an astounding 5 meters of rain annually). Instead, we caught up on our list, dried out clothes, and watched the hummingbird feeders. Although the feeders are dominated by Chestnut-breasted Coronets, they also host the highly localized Little (Flame-throated) and Amethyst-throated Sunangels. Last day in the saddle. We sneak past the road construction before the work commences at 6 am so that we can maximize our birding opportunities. Just south of Loja, we climb the road at the Cajanuma entrance to Podocarpus NP. We are able to skirt a smaller, recent landslide and reach the parking lot at 8,800'-our highest birding venue of the trip. From there it is all downhill road birding-just the kind we like-with Nestor following us in the van. Our first find is a Barred Fruiteater followed quickly by Masked Trogon, Smoky Bush Tyrant, and Black-capped Hemispingus. Both Black-crested and Russet-crowned Warblers show and sing incessantly despite the drizzle. A Glowing Puffleg pauses close, affording us a chance to view its dazzling, sequined rump. Lower down the road, while chasing a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Marcelo spots a Gray-breasted Mountain Toucan -a life bird for all including myself. Following our transit through Loja, we descend back toward the airport in Catamayo but on the old road this time. We are back in dry country in the blink of an eye! Highlights here included singing Slaty (Andean Slaty) Thrush, Amazilia Hummingbird (loja subspecies), Croaking Ground Dove, and numerous calling Elegant Crescentchests. Alas, after 8 attempts by Marcelo (we counted every one), we were unable to catch even a glimpse of this unique, dry habitat tapaculo. Just before heading to the airport, we finally found several Tumbes Sparrows in the company of a Drab Seedeater. Across from the airport, we found our last group trip bird-a Band-tailed Sierra Finch. Our flight back to Quito included one of the more sublime sunsets I have ever witnessed. We left the country the next day, grateful for our chance to experience the birds and the land of a very rugged southern Ecuador.