While we didn’t have far to drive to begin our birding at the northeast entrance to Podocarpus NP, we still needed to get an early start. That’s when birding is most active. A charming candlelight breakfast got us off in the right direction.
Pordocarpus NP is part of the El Cóndor Biosphere Reserve, which covers over 2.6 million acres in southern Ecuador. Podocarpus is critically import for protecting endemics like the White-breasted Parakeet, just one of many target birds today.
We would spend time hiking a trail at roughly 1100 meters in elevation (3800 feet). A bit overcast but that’s fine since full sun would have heated us up pretty quickly. One bird in particular we hoped to find was another one of the umbrella birds, the Amazonian Umbrellabird.
There were a few parakeets as heard only: White-eyed and White-breasted. Blue-headed Parrots did a nice flyby and landed within viewing distance. A short detour off the main trail to the Río Bombuscaro netted us a male Torrent Duck. Nice looks at Coppery-chested Jacamar and Black-streaked Puffbird. A Lineated Woodpecker (heard only) and Ash-browed Spinetail were added along with Plumbeous Pigeon and Swainson’s Thrush. Montane Foliage-gleaner put on a nice show along with a Strong-billed Woodcreeper and Lined Antshrike. Flycatchers included Ecuadorian Tyrannulet, Golden-winged Tody-Flycatcher, Common Tody-Flycatcher, Olive-chested Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Cliff Flycatcher. Oh, yes, and a Lemon-browed Flycacther. We added a few tanagers: Yellow-throated Bush-Tanager and a Summer Tanager observed feeding a Shiny Cowbird youngster. Alas, while one was heard, we whiffed on the umbrellabird.
We eventually reached the headquarters building where a few families had pitched tents in primitive campsites. Their children seemed to be enjoying the experience – what a terrific opportunity. With the sun now overhead, a number of butterflies were found in a large clearing near the headquarters building. Oh, yes. And a much needed potty stop (not in the open field but in the restroom!).
By the time we began our hike back to the bus, the trail had become saturated with dozens of boisterous locals enjoying their Carnival holiday. Another reason for an early start: avoid heavy trail traffic, which was now made it difficult to bird.
Wow! No box lunch today! We returned to the lodge for instead. As we ate we were constantly distracted by more bird watching from the dining area. A new hummingbird species: Ecuadorian Piedtail. The “Tanager Tree” was quite productive: Orange-eared Tanager, Golden-eared Tanager, Paradise Tanager, Green-and-gold-Tanager, Spotted Tanager, Yellow-billed Tanager. We had caught passing glimpses of tanagers while hiking earlier but now through a scope, we had great looks. Included in the mix were some of the tanagers we had seen the day before.
After a very filling lunch, we took a short break and relaxed around the lodge. About 3:00 PM we regrouped and boarded the bus to try the Old Zamora Road. Our route took us back through town where we were subjected to many more Carnival water baths.
The Old Zamora Road used to be the main road connecting Loja and Zamora. The new paved highway now bore the brunt of traffic, which left the old road (still needed to reach distance farms) open to more sedate pastimes – like bird watching.
As we crossed a “suspenseful” cement bridge over a swollen river we observed a Fasciated Tiger-Heron perched on a boulder in the raging river. Just down stream we finally caught up with a “Jim bird” – a White-capped Dipper. For real this time.
Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet and for some in the group, a decent look at a Cock-of-the-Rock as it flew across the road – if one happened to be looking in the right direction at the right time.
After a brief break on the road, José stopped and began to setup up his scope. We all had learned by now that this was a good sign. With the scope in place he said two words, “Lanceolated Monklet”. He didn’t have to say repeat them. Carol was on the scope in a shot. Happy Valentine’s Day! How on earth José had plucked that bird out of the tree was nothing short of amazing.
During the course of the trip there was a good deal of comical banter (for José’s benefit) about what a bird’s rating should be. “Charming” or a “cute” or a “pocket bird”. This was definitely a “pocket bird”, a bird so small and “adorable” that one wanted to scoop it up, put it in one’s a pocket and take it home.
Golden-eyed Flowerpiercer, Black-billed Thrush, and a typically secretive but eventually cooperative Blackish Antbird after José recorded and then played back the bird's call. Yellow-breasted Antwren, Little Woodpecker and another pocket bird: Lafresnay’s Piculet rounded out our walk. Old Zamora Road had turned out to be very productive. Before leaving the lodge in the afternoon, José had asked us to bring flashlights. We would be returning to the trail head at Podocarpus to try for an owl and a nightjar.
Darkness descended as we parked the bus. José played a Blackish Nightjar recording. Almost immediately one landed on the road near us. José shined his beam and there was the bird in plain view. Boy, was that easy or what? Next he played a Spectacled Owl call as we walked a short way in on the trail (I expect some in the group were wondering just how far we would walk in the dark!). The owl didn't pop out as the nightjar had done. In fact, it didn’t even bother to return our call. We whiffed on the owl.
Back to the lodge for another scrumptious meal and our daily checklist. The next morning we would return to Podocarpus to mop up of a few species we had missed and won't have a chance at elsewhere. Like the Amazonian Umbrellabird.
An “honorable mention” bird species for the day was the Highland Motmot. A number were heard and seen over the course of the day. This is considered a subspecies of the Blue-crowned Motmot. It doesn’t appear that the SACC (South American Checklist Committee), an official committee to the AOU, is going to upgrade it to full species status any time soon. Technically it's not a "countable" bird since it lacks this status. We refer to these birds as “bankable birds”. That's a bird we take note of having seen in the hopes that some day it will be granted full-species status and thus become countable. It reinforced the idea of keeping reliable field records. You just never know.