19-24 January 2002
by Dennis Rogers
With the opportunity for a necessarily short and cheap trip, southern Ecuador appeared the most reasonable possibility. With only a week on the ground, I settled for three sites: two in Podocarpus NP and one near Guayaquil itself. I was able to bird two days at each, with the first day lost to travel. My total list for the trip was about 250 species, with virtually no waterbirds or other padding.
The new Ridgely & Greenfield book constitutes a quantum leap for birding in Ecuador, most of all in the Guayaquil area where the local endemics aren’t covered in Birds of Colombia. To puzzle out vocalizations from the book’s descriptions was difficult but at least possible. I didn’t carry the Ridgely & Tudor volumes, though they would have been useful. A Guide to Birdwatching in Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands by Williams, Best, and Heijnen was more than adequate for the sites I visited; the fact that it had already fallen apart without ever having been in the field made it easy to remove the relevant pages and not carry the whole book. Their checklist for Podocarpus doesn’t agree with the Ridgely book in some cases, but many species do seem to reach higher altitudes in that valley.
All in all, Ecuador is a cheap place to travel, though dollarization means it will no longer be exceptionally so. Dollarization is not surprisingly affecting different people differently, with the benefits far away while the pain is now. Still, being short-changed gets tiresome. There is also a chronic shortage of small change, so bring as many coins and dollar bills as you can get, i.e. don’t arrive at the airport with nothing but hundreds or even twenties. (The U.S. treasury finally found a place to dump those Susan B. Anthony dollars.) Specific costs are noted for each site. In all I spent about $200 for the week, not including flights and the airport tax. Good food was hard to find anywhere, but it is generally cheap, with most lunches or dinners less than $2.
The sites below proved easy to reach by public transport, either by bus or taxis. Inter-city buses are reasonably efficient and frequent, though except between the main cities there is little choice of service, and the buses are not too comfortable. I basically did not sleep at all on the two overnight trips. Saved on hotels though. The bus service to Playas (as well as Salinas etc.) goes right by the entrance to Cerro Blanco. It was easy to arrange taxis from Zamora to Rio Bombuscaro and from Loja to Cajanuma. The drivers were punctual, though on the second day up from Loja, the driver did start to whine about the road and wanted more money.
I didn’t get a good impression of the people in Guayaquil, what with the usual airport taxi hustles and bus station squalor, but even at the beach the mood is a little rough. Ecuadorians speak a very fast, clipped Spanish that can be difficult, and most seem to have little experience with foreigners, so my perfectly fluent but accented Spanish tended to throw them. “Mande?”, literally “tell/command me” but more like “what”, is often the first response when one starts to talk, even before any attempt to understand is made. Things are more comfortable in Loja and Zamora, though even people in the hotels didn’t seem used to foreigners. Loja in particular seems a straightforward, unpretentious city.
Jan. 17-18—arrive Guayaquil via Panama about 10 p.m. Intended to stay overnight and fly to Loja the next day, but information on TAME flights was lacking even at the airport. TAME is not an IATA member so basically no information is available through travel agents or the internet. I finally found out that there are flights Guayaquil-Loja only on Tuesday and Thursday, but daily from Quito. Of course they spread a jet across a mountainside the next week, but it’s still safer than the bus. At the airport they said there were no more buses to Loja (wanted a commission from the hotel?), but the taxi driver said there were, so I went directly to the bus station. No problem to get a night bus with a change in Cuenca. This really did not cost me any birding time, especially given the hassles getting to/from the Loja airport. Arrived Loja about 10 am after 11 hours of torture on drafty buses ($12). Went to Zamora that pm by bus ($2).
Jan 19-20—Taxi to Rio Bombuscaro station from Zamora. Efrain Orellana is recommended, 60-6113 or 60-6004, Spanish only so have someone at the hotel call. Cost $3.50 for each trip, though he’d probably want more for a group. The road is pretty good. I had him pick me up at the end of the day, but it would be 6-7 km or so to walk back through pastures with little birding. The Hotel Gymyfa was good value at $6. Entrance to the park has been lowered to $5, good for a week at any of the entrances. It’s possible to camp at the park, but you would have to bring all food and fuel.
All the trails from the end of the road in to and past the park buildings were good, with scattered flocks. A fruiting tree on the entrance trail was the highlight with Cock-of-the-rock (never saw a male) and spectacular looks at a pair of Amazonian Umbrellabird, but the next day pigeons had stripped it clean and there was nothing. Local specialties Ecuadorian Piedtail and Ecuatorial Graytail were no problem but dipped on the Coppery-chested Jacamar. A nest of the graytail was along the trail past the station; it’s apparently undescribed and would appear to clinch the genus’ placement in the Furnariiadae.
Rio Bombuscaro 19-20 Jan 2002 (including a few in Zamora)
Speckled Chachalaca HO
Plumbeous Pigeon HO
Short-tailed Antthrush HO
White-bearded Manakin HO
Piratic Flycatcher HO
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
N. River Warbler
Jan 21-22: I arranged a taxi to take me to the park station ($10), any Loja taxi should do though probably not all have “rights” to that area. It was about a three-hour walk with limited birding back down to the highway, then catch a bus or shared taxi back to Loja. The walk is a total of 8 km, of which the first three are forest. The only park employee I saw was the one tending the gate at the highway, in fact I saw no humans at all the first morning while in the park proper. Getting there early wasn’t much of an advantage, though Undulated Antpitta in the trail was a highlight of the trip.
In Loja I stayed at the Hotel Vilcabamba, a bit overpriced at $15, but with rather more attentive service than elsewhere. It has four stars, must be out of nine. Nice and quiet the first night, the second not so much. Just the usual Latin American slamming doors and blaring televisions, no disco.
I was reasonably prepared for the cold on the mountain, but still a biting wind made birding difficult and uncomfortable. I managed to get chilled while standing around watching a big mixed flock in the unsheltered parking lot. You could camp here too, in shelters, but I wouldn’t. After the wind died down in the pm, some of the best birding was on the road below the station. Inside the elfin forest, birding is very difficult, as in most places you literally can see only 2-3 meters off the trail. Plain-tailed Wren’s song was the most common vocalization, but I never saw one. Tapes would be more useful here than at the other sites.
Cajanuma, 21-22 Jan 2002
Andean Pygmy-Owl HO
Chestnut-naped Antpitta HO
Unicolored Tapaculo HO
Andean Tapaculo HO
Blue & White Swallow
Rufous-chested Tanager H
Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager
Blue & Black Tanager
Jan 23-24: I timed my bus trip from Loja (direct this time, 8 hours downhill, $8) to arrive at the Guayaquil terminal at dawn. Took a Playas bus to Cerro Blanco in the Chongon Hills, with the entrance right off the highway about 45 minutes from the terminal ($1, $2 to Playas). The guards at the gate took care of my stuff, and didn’’t seem at all fazed when I wanted to go in before the official opening time of 8:00. Entrance $2. After birding I continued 1.5 hrs to Playas, that being the nearest town with accommodation, having decided that cheap and safe was a combination I was not going to find in Guayaquil hotels. It is an undistinguished beach town with a range of hotels, overpriced at the start of the high season. My room at the Hostel Brisas Marinas was a dirty, stuffy concrete cube for $8. The bus line was an experience in itself, marking the first time I’’ve ever seen a bus run out of fuel; also the 4 am bus back to Guayaquil that doubled as a fish truck was a new low.
Both days the weather was good though it heated up in the pm of the first one. Activity was intense and the birding very easy after Cajanuma, in fact the blackbirds, caciques, and female Crimson-bellied Finches got to be quite a distraction. Also, Ecuadorian Thrush was as common as I’ve ever seen a Turdus anywhere. Fabulous trails and a nice campground. This was the only place I saw mammals on the trip, with deer, agouti sp., howler monkeys, and Guayaquil Squirrel.
As a region I am unlikely to revisit, it was critical to get the Tumbesian specialties. I did see what appear to be the most difficult of those, Ochre-bellied Dove and Henna-hooded Foliage-gleaner, both upstream from the bridge along the creek. Still I missed nine of the 30 Tumbesian endemics listed in Williams et. al. for the site, plus the Necklaced Spinetail and several recent splits not on the list.
Cerro Blanco 23-24 Jan 2002
Laughing Falcon HO
Ecuadorian Trogon V
Great Antshrike HO
Pacific Royal Flycatcher
Piratic Flycatcher HO
San Jose, COSTA RICA