Birding in the Tapichalaca and Buenaventura Reserves in southern Ecuador
Participants in the Jocotoco Birdathon did more than find one of the world's rarest birds - they helped preserve the global epicenter of biodiversity
Published: May 1, 2008
|Our 737 began a tight corkscrew descent. Our destination was Catamayo, a small Ecuadorian enclave sitting at the bottom of a dusty bowl surrounded by the towering peaks of the Andes. Silence spread throughout the cabin. Luggage shifted in the overhead bins. The jet's laboring engines moaned. |
After several slow-motion minutes, rubber tires made contact with terra firma with a solid whump, and the relief was palpable. You didn't need to be fluent in Spanish to understand smiles. We later learned that because of the skill required to land a passenger jet on Catamayo's spartan runway, only Ecuador's "top dogs" are allowed to fly to the town -- 10 pilots in the whole country.
It was a fitting start to our avian adventure, a fundraiser called the Jocotoco Birdathon. Hatched 3,000 miles north, the event was finally fledging in southern Ecuador. Its beneficiary was the Jocotoco Foundation, a pioneering nonprofit organization that since 1998 has been purchasing and managing land in Ecuador to protect some of the world's most endangered and most magnificent birds. Held in September 2006, the birdathon would prove to be the trip of a lifetime for me and 11 other participants.
Eighteen months earlier, a serendipitous discussion with renowned ornithologist Robert Ridgely, co-author of the two-volume field guide The Birds of Ecuador (Comstock/Cornell, 2001), provided critical mass for a desire I had incubated for years -- mobilizing birders to protect Latin America's avifauna, the world's richest. I told Ridgely I wanted to do more than return from a tropical birding trip with a worn checklist and sparsely feathered memories.
Since he had devoted his life to studying Latin America's birdlife, he was eager to help. His expertise spanned continents, but his heart lay squarely in a tiny mountainous country perched on the shoulder of South America.
In November 1997 in a cloud-enshrouded corner of southern Ecuador, Ridgely had led a team of biologists that discovered the Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi), a striking black-capped antpitta with distinctive white cheek patches. The discovery sparked creation of the foundation, now one of the country's premier conservation organizations. Its system of eight reserves strategically spread throughout the country provides an anchor for Ecuadorian birds drifting toward extinction.
Since avitourism is a financial cornerstone for the group and birders need trails, Ridgely suggested organizing an "international-service trip" to improve the foundation's trail system. The thought of 12 birders wielding chainsaws and pickaxes in remote, steep mountain terrain, however, gave the foundation staff pause -- too risky. So we decided to help financially by traveling to Ecuador not on a garden-variety birding tour, but on a conservation expedition in support of the foundation's land-protection efforts.
Tropical Birding, expert Quito-based tour guides, offered to run the trip at cost, a gesture consistent with the company's policy of donating a portion of its annual profits to bird conservation. In addition to covering expenses, participants were required to ante up on behalf of birds -- $500 each for habitat protection. Many raised additional money via pledges from family and friends.
The American Bird Conservancy agreed to co-sponsor the event. The organization's substantial conservation success south of the border is built on the twin pillars of sound science and effective partnerships. Since the Jocotoco Foundation is ABC's Ecuadorian partner, donations to ABC were transferred directly to its land-acquisition fund. Recognizing the importance of protecting habitat for both neotropical migrant birds and resident tropical species, the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative also co-sponsored the event.
Our first day was spent in bumpy transit to Tapichalaca, the foundation's flagship reserve on the east side of the Andes. We arrived at sunset dusty, rumpled, and famished.
The air was cool, vegetation was shedding moisture from an earlier rain, and the hummingbird feeders were busy. Now little more than silhouettes, nervous hummers were taking turns tanking up for the chilly night ahead.
The reserve's warm lodge, known as Casa Simpson, was bustling with activity. We peeled off our boots, shelved our binoculars, and sat down to enjoy what may have been the best avocado soup south of the equator.
Named after 3,400-meter (11,000-foot) Cerro Tapichalaca, the highest local peak, the reserve owes its existence to the Jocotoco Antpitta. News of the spectacular bird immediately aroused concern for its future since chainsaws were already snarling within earshot of its known range at the time of discovery. A lightning round of strategic land purchases gave birth to the reserve and the foundation. In short order, a bird the size of a cantaloupe became a giant catalyst for an internationally supported conservation initiative.
The importance of Tapichalaca is best understood from a global perspective. Born of tectonic exuberance, the jagged corrugations of the Andes coalesce along South America's western fringe, forming the mountainous spine of the continent. In the equatorial latitudes, constant temperatures and abundant moisture conspire with rugged topography to create a frothing pot of species. Eminent British ecologist Norman Myers calls the tropical Andes the global epicenter of biodiversity. It is amid this profusion of life that one finds Tapichalaca.
Orchids, bears, and tapirs
More than 300 species of birds, including several teetering on the brink of extinction, call the reserve and adjacent Podocarpus National Park home. Scores of orchid species, many new to science, cling to life in the soggy canopy of the reserve's forests. Spectacled bears forage in treetops, while 80 feet below, globally endangered woolly mountain tapirs navigate the sodden understory.
The reserve's 5,000 acres straddle a ridge and spill downslope toward the small town of Valladolid. On a clear day -- they're almost as rare as the antpitta -- you can stand on the porch of Casa Simpson and gaze southward to distant mountains in Peru. But most days, the hot, moist breath of the Amazon rises and condenses over the Andes' eastern peaks, swallowing the reserve in clouds and dousing it with rain.
Despite a gray, damp sunrise, our first morning brimmed with expectation. We were on a mission to find the enigmatic antpitta. José Illanes, our guide, was confident. A Quechua Indian from the steamy lowlands of eastern Ecuador, José sports a shock of shoulder-length obsidian hair and radiant smile on a frame a couple inches better than five feet tall. His ability to identify birds "without glass" was uncanny, and second nature. It was a skill that would prove invaluable for our expedition.
Rafts of dense clouds passed overhead as we struggled single-file up the slick entrance to the Quebrada Honda Trail, the muddy mule path on which Ridgely had first heard the antpitta. Faint chips and whistles signaled the presence of a mixed flock veiled in fog.
Yellow-bellied and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrants, mid-size flycatchers found at high elevation, emerged and bounced between shrubs accompanied by smartly dressed Slate-throated Whitestarts and Masked Flowerpiercers. A lone Rufous Wren dove into a leafy tangle only to resurface 20 feet away. Despite its kinetic disposition, it remained frustratingly difficult to see, as did a pair of skulking Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches.
The star of the flock was a Plushcap, an imperious, sparrow-size bird with a vivid golden crown, slate gray back, and rich chestnut breast. Neither wholly a finch nor entirely a tanager, the bird is the fodder of heartburn for taxonomists and has ping-ponged between scientific classifications for years. (Not too long ago it was known as the Plush-capped Finch.) Today ornithologists consider it a tanager.
In an apparent lapse of judgment, the generally inconspicuous Plushcap ventured bravely onto the trail, providing a delightful glimpse before hightailing it back into the shrubs.
Fifteen minutes later, the nasal whuck from a quintet of Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans fell from the leaden sky. The group materialized apparition-like out of the mist in short order but vanished just as quickly. Mountain-toucans, signature species of the tropical Andes, have multi-hued bills and clownlike, boldly patterned plumage and are favorites among birders. Ecuador's three species (Black-billed, Plate-billed, and Gray-breasted) are considered near-threatened with extinction due to habitat loss.
Ankle-deep in mud and soaking wet, José led us down a trail into a dense stand of multistemmed chusquea bamboo, antpitta habitat. We assembled quietly three deep, like Hessian soldiers armed with optics, and turned in unison to face a secluded wooden box filled with mulch. The recipient of our attention was a low-tech antpitta feeder. The bird's fondness for worms ensures periodic visits.
Several minutes of hushed anticipation passed, then José cautiously broadcast the antpitta's call from a small tape recorder -- silence.
A second time -- nothing.
Then again -- paydirt.
An antpitta called from down slope. We stood still as statues. The call grew louder, but we saw nothing. Then, magically, the antpitta materialized on the far side of the feeder, its snowy white cheek patches distinctly visible.
After several seconds, the bird melted away again. Andy Paulios, Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the youngest member of our birdathon group, rotated rigidly toward us. Wide-eyed, he whispered, "It's on the trail."
The bird had flanked us. We chaotically reassembled 15 feet to our right - but too late. Or was it?
In a brazen display of feathered bravado, the antpitta hopped onto a large branch over the trail, threw its head back, and cut loose with a low, agitated hoo, hoo, hoo. We had come face to face with one of the world's rarest birds, and we were awe-struck. Our quest for the "Holy Grallaria" was a smashing success.
For three more days, Tapichalaca's wet forests hosted an avian spectacle that exceeded our wildest expectations. The Jocotoco Foundation's Buenaventura Reserve, our next destination, would prove comparably birdy.
Located several hours to the northwest, Buenaventura is a sylvan oasis in a largely deforested landscape. It protects several thousand acres of cloud forest on the west slope of the Andes. A quirk of geography imparts its biological significance. Buenaventura lies at the nexus of three distinct biogeographic regions -- the Andes, the warm, wet Chocó, and the hot, dry Tumbesian -- and supports an amalgam of birdlife reminiscent of each.
The area had been known to serious ornithologists for years, but it was not until 1999, when the foundation purchased several tracts of land to create the nucleus of the reserve, that hope took wing for the area's beleaguered birds. As with all of the foundation's properties, Buenaventura provides a safety net for some of the planet's rarest feathered denizens - the world's entire population of the recently discovered endangered El Oro Parakeet finds safe harbor here, as does the endangered Gray-backed Hawk, the endangered Ochre-bellied Dove, the recently described endemic El Oro Tapaculo, and more than 200 species of winged associates.
Mornings at the Umbrellabird Lodge, reserve headquarters, are anything but relaxed. Binoculars assume their rightful place next to the coffee cups. Eggs are served hot but finished cold.
Hummingbird feeders ring the outdoor breakfast table. Scores of tiny dervishes representing a dozen species battle for a quick drink, frequently muscled aside by larger Green Honeycreepers and Bananaquits. Fruit-bearing trees and shrubs add to the bedlam, attracting a technicolor procession of euphonias, trogons, saltators, finches, tanagers, woodpeckers, and flycatchers. Mary, my wife, quipped it would be easier to eat before going to breakfast to prevent distraction by the food.
Forays into the reserve were an immersion in avian exotica. Twice we encountered overwhelming mixed flocks and surrendered to sensory overload. Each contained a mass of hyperactive birds representing more than 20 species, almost all of them life birds -- that is, species we were seeing for the first time ever -- distributed from the canopy to the understory, flitting, twittering, and gleaning their way through the forest.
Our favorite resident was the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Jet black and 16 inches long, it is the largest of 33 species of cotinga, a diverse family of exclusively neotropical birds. Crest feathers on the male's head form a large pompadour, suggesting an impish crow doing an Elvis imitation. Even more bizarre is the impossibly long feathered wattle, which dangles from the umbrellabird's neck like a bulky knit scarf.
We found a lone male sitting stolidly on a branch for minutes at a time. Periodically he puffed up, elongated his wattle, leaned forward, and issued a deep, resonant wooom.
The bird's bovine utterance has earned it the local monikers Vaca del Monte (Mountain Cow) and Ave Toro (Bull Bird). An inhabitant of mid-elevation forests along the west flank of the Andes from southwest Colombia to south-central Ecuador, it is now considered rare and local due to extensive deforestation.
Reluctantly, we left the Buenaventura reserve and headed to the sprawling coastal city of Guayaquil for our flight home. For eight days we had reveled in the enchanting culture and biological wealth of the Andes. After the dust settled, our trip list totaled 385 species. More important, with resolve and elbow grease, we raised $14,000 for the Jocotoco Foundation, enough to protect 100 additional acres of the biologically richest turf on the planet.
The birdathon was not so much about seeing birds as harnessing the power of birders for conservation. We arrived in Ecuador full of anticipation. We left with a hardscrabble view of the daunting challenges facing conservation in Latin America. We also left with the realization that we, as birders, can make a difference. In the end, it wasn't what we brought home, but what we left behind that makes the future of South America's magnificent birdlife a bit brighter.
Craig D. Thompson is chair of the International Committee of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative and a regional land program supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
|How the antpitta got its name|
Like many tropical bird species, the Jocotoco Antpitta is occasionally heard and seldom seen.
Singing antpittas, wrote Danish ornithologist Niels Krabbe in The Auk in 1999, pump their tails and throw their heads back. The song is repetitive and low-pitched, lower than that of other antpittas. "At a distance the notes may be confused with a barking dog."
The call is softer, a two-note ho-co. Local farmers no doubt had been listening to it for years. They were so familiar with it that they dubbed the mystery bird Jocotoco (pronounced HO-co-TOE-co). Its English name is a direct transcription.
|Eight safety nets|
The eight reserves established to date by the Jocotoco Foundation are home to not only 800 species of birds, 45 of which are globally threatened and near-threatened, but also extraordinary plants and bears, tapirs, pumas, jaguars, monkeys, and other large mammals.
Cloud forest at 500m altitude on seasonally dry west slope of the Andes in southern Ecuador.
Two square miles of deciduous forest in the Tumbesian region of southwest Ecuador.
200 ha tropical forest at 1100m altitude on the east slope of the Andes, just above the Amazon lowlands.
4 Río Canandé
Wet forest at about 300m altitude along the Río Canandé in the Choco region of western Colombia and northwest Ecuador.
Protects most of the world's population of the Jocotoco Antpitta. An unusually wet temperate-zone forest at 2500m altitude on the east slope of the Andes, below Cerro Tapichalaca.
A remnant hilltop evergreen forest at 2500m altitude between humid montane forest and the dry forest of the Tumbesian region.
964 ha area of elfin Polylepis woodland at about 3500m altitude on the slopes of Pichincha volcano, outside Quito. Protects the entire range of the Black-breasted Puffleg hummingbird.
27 ha area of deciduous/semi-evergreen scrub in the Tumbesian region in southwest Ecuador. Protects the only habitat for the Pale-headed Brush-Finch.