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ECUADOR -- Southeast

17 - 23 November 2007

by Martin Reid

From November 17 – 23 2007 three of us plus a local driver Mauricio (who is becoming a good birder and is very good at finding birds) visited a few spots, mostly in southeastern Ecuador. The weather became a major factor, as it was unusually rainy and wet – it rained every day, and on most days there was some torrential rain. As a result we lost perhaps a fifth or more of our possible birding time, some trails were much wetter/more difficult than expected, and most afternoons were rather dead for birds, even when the rain had abated.

Despite this, we managed to find some of the rarer species, and as some of the locations we visited are not covered very well in recent birding reports, I thought I’d provide a personal summary that may help others thinking of visiting these places.

Our Itinerary:

Nov 17: left Guayaquil airport at 1:00am and drove to Saraguro via Cuenca, arriving there just after dawn. Birded Huasapamba and Anacama (= Incapirca) for most of the day, then drove to Loja for the night.

Nov 18: left before dawn for drive to Cabanas Yankuam. Stopped to bird along lower part of Old Loja Road (near La Fragrencia, a few kms before Zamora) for a couple of hours soon after dawn, then drove via Zamora and Zumbi to Paquisha on the Rio Nangaritza. Birded the Paquisha road (up into the Cordillera del Condor) for a couple of hours in the afternoon then returned to the fork 3kms west of the bridge in Paquisha, where the signs point to the south for Cabanas Yankuam (CY). Drove to CY, with a few birding stops on the way, arriving just before the light started to dim at c. 5:15pm.

Nov 19: left lodge at 7am (an hour late; staff had overslept) for spectacular boat ride upstream to the Shuar village at Shaime (took just under an hour). Walked the “cutover” route to the oilbird cave, and returned via a forested loop that rejoined our original trail. This took all day, partly due to very difficult trail conditions. Boat back to CY took 40 minutes, arriving just before dark at c. 5:45pm.

Nov 20: birded on the CY grounds and along the entrance road all day, with lunch at the lodge.

Nov 21: left before dawn and drove back to Paquisha (1hr 45 mins from lodge), then up the Paquisha road as far as we could, then birded up and down the upper, partly forested, part of this road for most of the day, losing a few afternoon hours to heavy rain. Back to CY for the night.

Nov 22: left CY just before 6am (delayed again by oversleeping staff) for drive to Copalinga. Constant rain persuaded us to head straight to Zamora rather than attempt more birding on the Paquisha road. From c. 10am until c. 3:30pm spent at Copalinga and along the road between there and the entrance to Podocarpus NP., then drove to Loja for night in constant rain.

Nov 23: pre-dawn drive to Catacocha, and thence a few kms south to the San Antonio turning. A rare rainless morning in the dry scrub forest, then the long drive to Puerto Pitahaya near Santa Rosa (with more rain), with a final stop along the highway at Manglares Churute before it got dark. Evening arrival at Guayaquil airport for flight home.



This pleasant small town east of Zamora is the gateway to the southeast sites. In the town square during the rain I found a male White-chested Swift fairly low among some Chestnut-collared swifts and Chaeturas About 3 kms east of the square on the road to Paquisha you pass through a largely deforested fairly broad valley with decent foothill forest cresting the distant hills to the north. We stopped to ‘scope a Laughing Flacon here, and to our surprise and delight found an adult Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle soaring around to the north for quite some time, occasionally drifting in with some Swallow-tailed Kites. We were all able to enjoy ‘scope looks and soak in the details.


I can’t find any reference to birding east of this town in any of the various reports – but it might be known by a different name - ? The road from Zumbi heads southeast for almost an hour, when you then arrive at a fork. There is a large sign indicating that Cabanas Yankuam is 46kms down the right fork (actually it was 50 kms on our odometer), with nothing signed for straight-ahead (= left fork). Going straight ahead you arrive – after about 3 kms – at the bridge over the Rio Nangaritza, and on the far side the small town of Paquisha. All distances mentioned below are from this bridge. Drive straight ahead through the middle of the town (there is a small hosteria on the left as you get to the middle; it was closed but a lady at the next-door tienda said that the owner would come and open it for guests) until you get to a small roundabout/traffic island with a statue of an indigenous person in the middle.

Again go straight ahead, and you embark on a road the winds up for more than 13 kms into the upper foothills. The first 9 kms is largely cut-over, but even small patches of forest here were birdy on our first afternoon visit. The better forest patches start after 9kms or so, with some very nice ones after c. 11kms. Eventually (a bit more than 13kms) the road peters out by becoming heavily overgrown with tall grass and no surfacing. At this point an obvious foot trail continues up hill on the left. Our driver ran up there a way and said there seemed to be lots more good forest. We birded our way back downhill along the road. I estimate from using various maps on the internet that the end of the drivable road is at c. 1450 meters elevation, while the Paquisha bridge is c, 820 meters. We birded back and forth along uppermost 3kms of the road for one morning, and a bit of the mainly-rained-out afternoon.

Less than 100 yards from the end of the road there is a stand of very tall trees on both sides of the road, and here we saw a pair of Scarlet-breasted Fruiteaters, a Black-streaked Puffbird, and possibly a pair of Blackish Pewees (in the field the size and call seemed right, as did the behaviour, but my poor pics look a bit more like Smoke-colored Pewee). In one of the better small patches of forest and second-growth a bit lower down (7 – 9 kms from the bridge) we had a good mixed flock that contained Ecuadorian Tyrannulet and a singing Spectacled Bristle-Tyrant, while overhead the light rain pushed down a number of swifts among which were Pale-rumped Swifts flying with Gray-rumped Swifts for a useful comparison. In the first patch of good forest (c. 10kms from the bridge) we came across a large mixed flock feeding in the middle and upper levels close overhead; this produced female Cerulean Warbler, Rufous-rumped Tyrannulet and a long-studied male Plain-winged Antwren.

Just above this spot there is a lone small house on the left – the last dwelling on the roadside. 1.3kms up-road from this house a small quedabra runs under the road from the right side, and just yards above this point there are two trails into the forest, one on either side. We only explored a very short section of the one on the right, which goes uphill through lovely forest; our driver scampered along the one on the left (which initially goes up through a small regenerating patch) and he told us the trail quickly descends through more good forest. We did not see the trails at first because the first time we stopped at this spot in the mid-morning a huge mixed-species flock comprising mostly of Tangara tanagers (primarily Blue-necked, including a couple of funky immatures) was swarming around in the fruiting trees above us.

I think we probably missed some good birds in this flock because soon after we started working it we found a pair of Straw-colored Tanagers – but not all of us saw them, so it was a bit frantic as we concentrated on relocating these birds. Eventually the flock moved off downhill, but two hours later we tried there again, and found at least part of the flock having a siesta at the top of one of the taller trees. It was interesting as we saw some of them arrive in the tree, preen for a couple of minutes, then shuffle in under the dense leaf cover and completely disappear, leaving no trace of their presence. I might have glimpsed a Spectacled Prickletail in that flock, but could not confirm it.

The upper part of the road plus the two trails by the quedabra have the potential to produce quite a few rare/restricted species found in the 1300 – 1400m elevational range. Based on comments made by a local woman we met on the upper part of the road, the main trail at the end of the road continues for many kilometers, and probably climbs much higher, providing access to some of the specialties found above 1700m. Note that the latest issue of the “Guia VIAL del Ecuador” map shows that this road continues almost to the Peruvian border. Perhaps it is in the works to extend this road, as that woman we met thought that were engineers, there to work on extending the road.

Cabanas Yankuam:

There is a web site from which you can contact them.

Getting there:- here are the directions supplied by the lodge (with some of my comments embedded):

Coming from Quito/Cuenca to Loja, at the Terminal Terrestre take left at the traffic roundabout to Zamora. Loja – Zamora 1h30min (it can take longer if the upper section is socked-in by clouds, as on our descent).

Coming to Zamora, continue straight on, the Terminal Terrestre will be on left hand side, straight on at two roundabouts, pass the bridge over river Zamora, turn right at the T-cross, Avenida del Ejercito, straight on. (the last proper gas station is on the eastern outskirts of Zamora, so be sure to fill up; you can buy a small amount of gas at Cabanas Yankuam).

Follow the main road until you get to the hanging Saquea bridge, cross that bridge, after the bridge take right, sign Yantzaza. (this hanging bridge is beyond Cumbaratza).

Before Yantzaza, there is a village Zumbi where you leave the main road turning right at the roundabout and cross the bridge over river Zamora.

Zamora-Zumbi 40min

Entering Zumbi, turn right so that you have the city park on your left hand side. Turn left so that you still have the park on your left hand side. Continue straight on slightly uphill, the gravel road to Guayzimi begins. (the road actually then turns back left again, roughly joining up with the road on which you entered the village; the first small restaurant on the right after you turn right at the city park makes a nice, inexpensive packed lunch – and it was from there that I saw a White-chested Swift among other Cypseloides and Chaetura.)

After about 30-40min from Zumbi there is a Y-cross with a sign Cabañas Yankuam 46 km and Guayzimi 26 km, take right. (NOTE important – this is not the fork shown on maps that is soon after Zumbi; the actual fork is very close to the Rio Nangaritza, and is only shown on the very latest maps).

Zumbi-Guayzimi 1h15min

Coming to Guayzimi take right so that you follow the sign “vehiculos pesados” (this route then turns back to the left, effectively bypassing the main part of the town but continuing south).

Leave Guayzimi for the next village Zurmi

Guayzimi - Zurmi 30min

Coming to Zurmi continue straight on for the next village Orquídeas Zurmi-Orquídeas 1h.

The river Nangaritza is visible on the left hand side.

Pass the village Orquídeas and continue straight on 3 km with the river on your left hand side. Where the road ends you find the Cabañas Yankuam. Welcome! (Orquideas is tiny and you pass through the middle of it, right next to the river; this is the last place to buy stuff at a tienda, and note that while the lodge serves beer and wine, they do not currently offer any soft drinks/cokes – we bought our own and put it in their fridge). Note that we clocked the distance from the main fork as 50kms to the lodge – their sign says 46kms.

The route from Zumbi to the lodge is mostly through cut-over land, with some small, nice-looking forest tracts set back from the road on steep slopes and in ravines. After taking the right fork to the lodge the first c.15 kms goes through a handful of stream gullies that have some forest (and birds), but otherwise there is very little natural habitat until you get beyond Orquideas. From the lodge the road continues only about half a kilometer to a (disused?) vehicle ferry. A trail of sorts continues along the river bank, but appeared to peter out after a short distance.

We found the section between the ferry and the stream just south of the lodge to be very birdy (a close, calling Red-billed Tyrannulet, Rusty-fronted and Golden-winged Tody-Flycatchers, Swainson’s and Euler’s Flycatchers, a pair of Stripe-chested Antwrens, Purplish Jacamar; many swifts along the river at dawn (going upstream) and dusk (going downstream), including at least one White-chested Swift), as was the first kilometer north of the lodge (Blue-crowned Trogon, Stripe-chested Antwren, Chestnut-crowned Becard, Black-faced and Yellow-bellied Dacnis, Paradise, Green-and-Gold, Turquoise, and Masked Tanagers). Directly opposite the parking for the lodge there is a trailhead going inside the forest and uphill. We only went a short way up this trail, but it looks to offer great birding inside excellent forest (we saw White-browed and Blackish Antbirds, Golden-winged Tody-Flycatcher, and a territorial male Black-throated Brilliant). The owners told me that the lodge is at 930 meters elevation, but Google Earth seems to show it as a bit less than 900 meters.

There are currently two large separate buildings close to the main building (dining area), each with two storeys comprising one roomy cabin with private bathroom (no hot water) on each level. Light sleepers might want to be in the upper cabin – from the lower cabin you can hear every movement of those above you. In addition there is a larger building next to (left) the dining room that has bedrooms with shared facilities. The meals were very good, and we especially liked the box lunches. There are two hummingbird feeders one the edge of the dining area balcony, plus one tucked under a bush a few yards into the garden.

There was not a huge amount of activity at the feeders during our four-day visit, and all the hummers were rather timid – only feeding if everyone in the dining area were very still. With patience (and no other people at the dining area) I was able to get some good photos of Grey-breasted Sabrewing at the balcony feeders just before dusk. The only other species we saw visit the feeders (all rather briefly) were Glittering-throated Emerald (the commonest species) and Great-billed and Gray-chinned Hermits. From the dining area we saw Cuvier’s and White-throated Toucans, Amazonian Umbrellabird (each morning just after dawn a female perched for a short while on a bare forked snag located to the right of the dining room – only visible from below the balcony), Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, and numerous commoner species.

We did not attempt the Tepui Trail, but I discussed it with the owner, who told me that it ascends about 600 meters to a campground (or third parcela), and is very steep in places, requiring you to climb short sections using roots and vines. The Royal Sunangel, Roraiman Flycatcher and Bar-winged Wood-Wren are found before the campground.

The Orange-throated Tanager trip:

From CY this requires a c. one-hour trip upriver by boat (40 mins back, with the current); it goes through some spectacular forested gorges, but we saw very little in the way of birdlife. You arrive at the Shuar village of Shaime, walk through the village and on to the Oilbird Cave trail. Don’t expect to see a Nat Geo-type indigenous village and people; the buildings are a mixture of old and modern, and most of the people I saw were wearing western-style clothes. The villagers largely ignored us, but a few schoolkids in uniforms we walked past tried out their English on us. I can’t tell you if our experience on the trail was typical, as it has rained hard for six days, plus one of our party had vertigo and balance issues that required us to travel very slowly on steep sections and stream crossings. We were supposed to pick up a Shuar guide but apparently he was visiting Zamora. Thus our only guide was Hermes, who worked at Yankuam cooking meals and driving the boat.

Hermes is not a bird guide, but he has been on this trail many times and knew where to find the tanagers, and he knew their vocalizations. The lodge will provide Wellington boots, but they only go up to c. a men’s size 11. Boots are essential unless you are prepared to wear something that you are willing to get completely soaked and caked in mud. There are about 4 or 5 stream crossings to make, and on one of these, the water went over the top of our boots. Some crossings require using rather flimsy log bridges (but I made it and I weigh 240+ lbs!) Long sections of the trail were extremely muddy – at one point I got really stuck and nearly left a boot behind. We estimated that it was c. 5 kms to get to the Oilbird cave via the “short” route, and more than 6kms back via the ”loop” route. Most of the first 3 - 4 kms is through a mixture of second-growth, pastures, and scattered trees.

We did not see many birds, due to a combination of rain and having to concentrate on not falling, slipping, or sinking on the trail. The trail goes up and down many times, so that the net gain in elevation is not great. The last c.1.5 kms goes through larger tracts of forest, and this is where most sightings of the Orange-throated Tanager (OTTA) are made. We had six encounters with them, but the three of us only saw them on two of these occasions (eagle-eyed Mauricio saw them at least four times) All the encounters were of two or three birds very high in the canopy or subcanopy with other species, with views mostly being from directly below the birds. Frankly the looks were not that great, and I failed miserably to get them in my ‘scope the one time they offered the best looks (a bit lower in a fruiting tree).

Given that it was raining most of the time and we had to look almost directly up to see them, spectacle-wearers will have a frustrating time (this applied to all three of us!) All the locations where we had OTTAs were in tall forest over the trail with smallish viewing windows – except for “the clearing”. This spot is a large pasture that has scattered mature trees, and the trail climbs up to the top of a small ridge where more forest begins. Hermes told us that this was a good place to see them, as visibility was much greater than anywhere else. We had no luck on the way in, but then we came out from the Oilbird cave a different route that met the original route at this same pasture, and while we had two OTTAs calling and seen flying from one tree to another, they were always out of sight when perched. I would say that this would be the best place for a large group to get onto these birds, as with better luck you could get them in a ‘scope fairly easily.

At this same clearing we had a flock of 7 or 8 Spot-winged Parrotlets land in one of the trees. The oilbird cave is rather small and drops down from the trail, necessitating a 3+ meter scramble down steep muddy rocks (but not dangerous, and easily do-able with care). This places you on a flat shallow streambed, where you walk into the cave only a few yards (entrance still visible and no illumination needed to get to this point), turn around and look back up to the crevices over the left side of the entrance hole, where a spotlight will reveal a handful of Oilbirds. Apparently there are many more birds further into the cave, but it’s not necessary to go there in order to get great looks at these outer ones (but a spotlight or strong flashlight is essential).

Our second visible encounter with OTTAs was right above the entrance to the cave, and this location has a slightly larger field of view than the other forest spots where we encountered them. It took us from 8am until 5pm to complete the round-trip from the village and back again, with a short lunch stop at the oilbird cave. Plain-backed Antpittas called enticingly at two spots in small forest patches close to the pastures we crossed in the first half of the trail, and had we not been concerned about time, it should have been possible to divert into the forest to find them. In the Village there are a number of wet grassy ditches and swales that probably hold a number of crakes – we got within 15 feet of a responding Gray-breasted Crake, without seeing it.

We saw three different Purplish Jacamars on the trail, but otherwise not much else of note. We three all agreed that this was the hardest trail we’d ever done (and we all have hiked to Boot Springs in Big Bend NP, Texas many times) – most of the difficulty being the condition of the trail itself. Even Mauricio – a Mountain Goat compared to us – said it was a very bad trail. To be honest, we three were all quite miserable by the time we got back to the village, and would not have attempted it had we known what we were in for…


Martin Reid

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