Mar 192018

On our final day we drove ~ 1 1/2 hrs from Papallataca up to Antisana Ecological Reserve. Antisana is huge, at 125,000 hectares (~300,000 acres), and it is a great day-long birding destination that starts only an hour or so southeast of Quito, with a nice list of high-quality high-altitude target species. Unfortunately, we only had half a day to explore this location, but we made the best of the opportunity.

Antisana and paramo

Antisana Volcano and the vast paramo on a gorgeous day.

The altitude within the park ranges up to 18,714 ft at the peak of Antisana Volcano, but most birders travel the main road up to Mica Lake (Laguna Micacocha), which is at 13,000 ft. The road is entirely paved except for a mile or so near an active quarry, providing easy access, and there is no entry fee. Our first stop was the Tambo Condor Restaurant beyond the outskirts of the small town of Pintag.

Condor Restaurant

The entrance to Tambo Condor. The cliffs in the left background are where Andean Condors roost, but unfortunately this wooden sign was as close as we got to a Condor.

Tambo Condor is a convenient and worthwhile stop, partly because it is one of the few places (if not the only place) to get food along this road, but also because some quality birds can be seen here. To start, across the valley from the restaurant is a cliff face where Andean Condors roost. We were able to see many splotches of whitewash on the cliffs here, but alas, no condors. Another target that we were told could be found here is Giant Hummingbird, the largest hummingbird in the world at 9 inches long with an 8.5 inch wingspan, which to put in perspective, is approximately the same dimensions as our Northern Cardinal.(!!) Here we were more successful, spotting this outsized but otherwise plain bird several times. While waiting for breakfast to be served, we also spotted Black Flowerpiercer, a gorgeous Golden Grosbeak, Sparkling Violetears, and our only Stout-billed Cincloides of the trip. They have a small cabin for rent here, which could provide a nice base for a more relaxed exploration of the paramo. For somebody like me who has a few years under his belt and is used to the amount of oxygen at sea level, it would be interesting to see if sleeping at this altitude (11,550 ft) would be difficult. I certainly felt winded just walking up the short and slight incline from the restaurant up to the road.

Black Flowerpiercer

Here’s a nice Black Flowerpiercer that was in the garden at the Tambo Condor Restaurant.

Giant Hummingbird alert

An alert Giant Hummingbird. What it lacks in color it makes up for in size. Unfortunately it is hard to gauge the size of this bird from this photo, but it is a LARGE hummingbird, approximately the size of a cardinal.

Giant Hummingbird acrobatics

I was able to capture a Giant Hummingbird doing an aerial maneuver shortly after taking off from its perch. Note the distinctive white rump patch.


A Golden Grosbeak visited while we were waiting to see the Giant Hummingbird at Tambo Condor. Now that is what I call a gross beak!

After leaving the restaurant we progressed further uphill, constantly scanning the skies and the horizon for raptors. We did have one quick but otherwise great sighting of an Aplomado Falcon swooping across a field near the road. This was a large bird with the distinctive pointed falcon wing shape that appeared, swooped, and was gone in a flash. Very impressive. We spotted two other raptors along the road; Carunculated Caracaras are abundant up here, and on the way back down we found a perched Variable Hawk.

Carunculated Caracara alert

An alert Carunculated Caracara in the paramo. They were very common, with somewhere between 50 and 100 of them spotted during our day in Antisana Reserve.

Our target destination at the end of the road was Mica Lake (or Micacocha). Shortly before arriving there we spotted a pair of Black-faced Ibis conveniently feeding near the road. This is a large ibis, with a thick neck and legs, presumably to help withstand the cold at this altitude.

Black-faced Ibis calling

One of two Black-faced Ibis that we saw in the paramo. This is one of the rarer target birds up here.

When we arrived at the visitor center parking area, we were already running short of time. We barely had enough time to scan around the area, and then take a rushed walk to the overlook of the lake before needing to start our drive back downhill in time to get to the airport for our homebound flights. Although our time at the visitor center was very limited, we found several excellent birds within a ten-minute span, including nesting Ecuadorian Hillstar, multiple Tawny Antpittas, Plumbeous Sierra-finch, and Andean Tit-spinetail. At the lake we had poor scope views of Andean Coots and Ruddy Ducks before the alarm went off signaling that our birding time was up.

Tawny Antpitta

I missed getting a photo of a perched singing Tawny Antpitta at Papallacta Pass, but captured this one near the visitor’s center at Mica Lake.

Plumbeous Sierra-finch male

Here is a uniformly slate-gray male Plumbeous Sierra-finch. Yes, it is quite plumbeous indeed. The females have no gray, but instead look very much like a typical streaked brown sparrow.


A quartet of alpacas roamed around the grounds near the Mica Lake visitor’s center.

It was unfortunate that we were unable to spend more time up here; it is worth a full day to drive at a relaxed pace, stopping occasionally to scan the spacious 360-degree horizon, and to walk from the visitor center to the lakeside. I’m sure that there were plenty of other good high-altitude birds to be found along the lake and in the polylepis patches in the lower altitudes of the reserve. We were forced to leave them for another day and another vacation.

 Posted by at 9:59 PM
Mar 122018

After leaving San Isidro, our plan was to head upslope, staying one night in Guango Lodge and then treating ourselves on our final night at the Papallacta Hot Springs Resort, just 10 minutes beyond Guango. But then again, plans are meant to be flexible, right? Somehow we drove past Guango Lodge (apparently the navigator was sleeping or looking elsewhere), but since it was such a gorgeous cloudless day, we decided to continue driving even further upslope to Papallacta Pass. The weather up here is legendary for being fickle and nasty, as it was when we drove eastward over the pass after arriving on our first day, so we unanimously decided to take advantage of the clear skies while we had the chance. We found the rough dirt side road by the virgin shrine (there always seems to be a virgin shrine) and started driving up it towards the radio antennas where some high-quality birds can be found. The problem was that our Chevy Sail was not equipped for the 14,000 ft altitude, based on its frequent stalling, and the poor traction caused by the loose gravel and rocks was getting worse as we ascended. We decided not to risk tumbling down the steep hillside, so we turned around and headed back to Guango. It was a nice try, and we did pick up a few Variable Hawks, Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch, and a singing Tawny Antpitta (finally an antpitta that we found ourselves, not at a feeder station!!), but Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe would have to wait for another day and another year.

Papallacta and Antisana

On the level section of the road up to the Papallacta radio towers. Notice that trees are mostly replaced by low grasses up here. Snow-covered Antisana Volcano is peeking out behind the clouds on the left. We didn’t know if it would be out the next day when we were scheduled to drive up there.

Guango Lodge (8,600 ft elevation) is a delightful small lodge consisting of a single building with perhaps only 10 rooms that has a distinct feel from the other lodges that we visited on this trip. It is a birding lodge that hobbits might be comfortable in, with an alpine feel despite being near the equator, two fireplaces in the dining room, and small but cute rooms with nicely detailed curved ceilings.

Guango room

Our small room at Guango Lodge. I love the feel of the curved detailed ceiling and the rounded windows.

Guango hallway

The hallway at Guango, with its stone walls, again showing the curved ceiling.

Before we even unpacked our car at Guango a group entered the lodge and showed us photos of a Mountain Tapir that they just spotted ~5 minutes from the lodge. So without even unpacking, we rushed out on to the trail, armed only with their confusing directions. Amazingly, we found the location fairly quickly, but to no avail, although their report did serve to remind us of the wildlife possibilities up here.

Having spent a few hours on the Papallacta and tapir detours, we could now get back to birds. Our late afternoon walk was only mildly productive; although we didn’t see many birds, we did find one of the big targets for this location, a Gray-breasted Mountain-toucan on the Torrent Duck Trail. Coming back on the Pipeline Trail we bumped into a nice male Masked Trogon, and a Blue-and-Black Tanager. We stopped at the feeders hoping to find the stunning Sword-billed Hummingbird mixed in among the Long-tailed Sylphs, Collared Incas, and the numerous Tourmaline Sunangels, and Jeanine finally spotted one just as it was getting dark.

Maked Trogon male

A male Masked Trogon.

Tourmaline Sunagel

The delightful Tourmaline Sunagel was the most common hummingbird species at Guango.

Long-tailed Sylph

In contrast with the Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Long-tailed Sylph is elongated at the rear end.

Masked Flowerpiercer

Masked Flowerpiercers could be found near the Guango hummingbird feeders.

While Pete was taking a break, Jeanine and I took another stroll along the river, still hoping for a Fasciated Tiger-heron, even though this is at the far upper end of their range, or perhaps finding that tapir. We were surprised when a bird flew by quickly from the Papallacta River and up a smaller feeder stream. “White-capped Dipper!”, I shouted out.  “White-capped Dipper?” was what I was wondering. We had to find out. Well, to be more accurate, I had to find out to silence the doubters. We walked uphill on the streambank as far as we could, but came up empty. I thought it must be further upstream, and being a notoriously stubborn individual, suggested crossing the stream and following a small side trail that was on the opposite bank to see if we could find this bird. We crossed the stream. Nothing past the first bend. Nothing over the small ridge. One more small ridge and then I’d give up. But there it was. A gorgeous White-capped Dipper feeding close by along the shoreline, and it didn’t seem to care that we were watching it creep onto and over and around the rocks. What a treat.

White-capped Dipper

The White-capped Dipper that delighted us for an extended period with its feeding behavior along a small feeder stream.

Slaty-backed Chat-tyrant

A Slaty-backed Chat-tyrant posed for us near the river’s edge.

The next morning we had what was without a doubt the best few hours of birding of the entire trip. It started out with Turquoise Jays around the lodge. We took the short walk up to the Waterfall trail, which was then level and ran parallel above the highway. We were spotting birds all along this trail, often at eye level in the downslope treetops. Among these flocks we saw Northern Mountain-Caciques, Blue-backed Conebills, Black-chested and Lacrimose Mountain-tanagers, Pale-naped Brush-finches, Handsome Flycatchers, and multiple Pearled Treerunners. It was pure birding heaven; one of those times where new birds are almost coming too fast and furious. This is how birding always should be.


Serving as a great example of the change in species at different elevations, at the high elevation of Guango, Turquoise Jays replaced the Violaceous Jays that were at low elevation and Inca Jays that were at at mid-elevation.

Waterfall Trail

The Waterfall Trail where we had our best birding of the trip. It was level and comfortable, with great eye-level views of birds in the treetops below. Most importantly, it was full of good birds.

Pearled Treerunner

We found several Pearled Treerunners in the big flock on the Guango Waterfall Trail.

Blue-backed Conebill

Several Blue-backed Conebills were in the mixed-species flock at Guango.

Northern Mountain-Cacique

Northern Mountain-Cacique at eye level.

Hummer on flower

This is a hummingbird.

Gray-hooded Bush-tanager

Birds in the tropics are often skilled at hiding behind the thick foliage. This Gray-hooded Bush-tanager didn’t fool us.


This is a Pale-naped Brush-finch that landed and fed in the middle of the Guango Waterfall Trail.

After such a great morning, it was tough to move on, but hot springs were calling us. Our final night was to be spent in a spacious two-story cabin in the Papallacta Hot Springs Resort, a high-end resort complete with three hot spring pools that we had to ourselves. Before taking advantage of the pools we drove into the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve that begins just beyond the resort grounds. Here we saw two new high-elevation lifer hummingbirds, Shining Sunbeam and Mountain Velvetbreast; it’s always a treat to find hummingbirds away from feeders. Another treat  was seeing the lovely Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager and Hooded Mountain-tanager, completing a super four Mountain-tanager day.

Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager

A Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager that we found in Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve.

Shining Sunbeam

Our first Shining Sunbeam (a lifer for me) in the polylepis forest of Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve.

It was time to sample the hot spring pools. Wow! How great to treat ourselves to some relaxing time. It was funny that while we were soaking in the pools, the adjacent flowering trees were visited by Great Thrushes and several Shining Sunbeams (don’t you just love some of these hummingbird names?), along with Sword-billed Hummingbirds that we were having trouble finding at Guango. Isn’t that the way it is sometimes? When you stop looking for some bird, then they show up.

Great Thrush

This Great Thrush was eating berries the way that I eat blueberries; just keep popping them in the mouth until it’s full.

Sword-billed Hummer

The bill of the Sword-billed Hummingbird is almost beyond belief. I saw this species on my two previous trips to Ecuador, but still let out a childlike “WOW!” when I saw it again. Pinocchio has nothing on this bird.

Hot spring pool

One of three hot spring pools, each at a different temperature, that we had all to ourselves, with Antisana in the background.

Tomorrow we head up to the paramo in Antisana National Park on our final day.

 Posted by at 3:31 PM
Mar 072018

After spending two days in the lowlands, we were prepared to head back upslope to what is perhaps THE go-to birding lodge on the east slope, Cabañas San Isidro. San Isidro is located at 6,800 ft, just a mile or two from the village of Cosanga. On our way upslope we continued our quest to find a Fasciated Tiger-heron, stopping at nearly every convenient river access, but to no avail. Nearly every stop yielded the requisite Black Phoebes and occasional Torrent Tyrannulets, and at one location we happened upon the most cooperative Torrent Duck. It seems that most ‘good’ birds drift away from us after they are spotted, but this bird kept feeding and coming closer and closer and closer, delivering a lengthy exhibition of Torrent Duck feeding behavior. Diving in and out of these raging rivers, including swimming upstream, has to be a tough way to earn a meal.

Torrent Duck

A Torrent Duck that treated us to extended close views.

It was great returning back to San Isidro. I had been here seven years ago, on my first-ever trip to Ecuador. Interestingly, I could even remember which cabin brother Rich and I occupied on that trip and where we spotted specific birds. It will forever be a mystery to me how I can remember where I saw my first and only Chestnut-bellied Thrush seven years ago, but now I can’t remember the name of a person that I met 10 minutes ago. Our cabin at San Isidro was spacious, with a private balcony and nice view. The grounds immediately surrounding the cabins are fairly level and sparsely vegetated, making it relatively convenient to find the birds. Our routine at San Isidro was to meet at 6:15AM near the lightpost, which draws in insects that the birds feed upon at first light. Montane and Olive-backed Woodcreepers, Inca Jays, Russet-backed Oropendolas, Crested Quetzal, Smoke-colored Pewee, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and Black-eared Hemispingus were found each morning. After breakfast and in the afternoons we would either stroll down Las Caucheras Road (the entry road from the highway), or sit by the hummingbird feeders, or walk down one of the trails. We enjoyed seeing Bluish Flowerpiercer, Azara’s Spinetails, Mountain Wren, Handsome Flycatcher, Powerful Woodpecker, and mixed flocks that included Beryl-spangled and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, which were all new species for our trip. New hummingbirds for the trip included Bronzy and Collared Incas, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and Fawn-breasted Brilliant. One morning we spotted a pair of large raptors soaring above the ridgeline, and after consulting the field guide realized that we we viewing our first Black-and-chestnut Eagles. It sure would have been nice to have our scopes with us then.

San Isidro room

Our spacious room at San Isidro, complete with our own personal balcony.

Inca Jay

Inca Jays were among the first birds to appear in the morning by the street light.

Russet-backed Oropendola

Russet-backed Oropendolas joined the Inca Jays in the morning feeding spree.

Montane Woodcreeper

Montane Woodcreepers were fairly common on the grounds.

Crested Quetzal

A male Crested Quetzal. Note the yellow bill, emerald green head, and the namesake crest.

Crested Quetzal2

The female Crested Quetzal, with her brown bill, brown head, and belly that is half red and half gray. Photo by Jeanine Apgar.

Powerful Woodpecker female

A female Powerful Woodpecker appeared while we were looking at tanagers. The female is very distinctive, with its brown-and-black barred belly.

Masked Trogon female

This female Masked Trogon flew in at eye level so close to us that I had to back up to get her in focus.

We were trying to cut down on the big lunches, so on two days we drove the tow or three miles down to Cosanga, where we found a small cafe that served great sopas. It was perfect…a large and light but tasty bowl of delicious homemade soup with great veggies and a chunk-o-chicken. A great lunch for $1. Try getting that in the US. After lunch we stopped by the Cosanga bridge (still searching for Fasciated Tiger-herons and more), and in the nearby field a spirited game of futbol was occurring in the rain. What great fun watching them all slide around in the mud, with much of the town in attendance. Between the field and the river we found cooperative Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters and Torrent Tyrannulets. It was a great afternoon of easy birding and sampling the local culture.

Chestnut-bellied Seedeater

We had great looks at a Chestnut-bellied Seedeater alongside the soccer field in Cosanga.

Chestnut-breasted Coronet

Chestnut-breasted Coronets were the most numerous hummingbirds at San Isidro.

Like most of the birding lodges, San Isidro has an antpitta feeding station, where they attract White-breasted Antpitta. We went to the station on our first morning there as the guide tried whistling in a nearby calling antpitta, but it never came any closer, so that was a bust. The next day Jeanine and I had experienced enough of the antpitta circus, so we were birding elsewhere that morning, but Pete attended and was able to get good looks and a photo of the antpitta. Just our luck to pick the wrong day. But we went down to that area shortly afterward, and the antpitta still was singing its repetitive three-note call. I tried to imitate it in desperation, and surprisingly the bird came closer! I whistled again, and it appeared on the edge of the feeding area. Wow! Now THAT was unexpected…Greg the antpitta whistler.

White-breasted Antpitta

A White-breasted Antpitta. Photo by Pete Mooney.

San Isidro sunset

A nice sunset from the rooftop lookout above the entertainment building at San Isidro, looking toward Guacamayos Ridge.

I should mention two things about San Isidro that impressed me this time around. First of all, the quality of their food preparation seemed to be a level above the other lodges. Well done, Alejandro and staff. Second, they now have a covered pool area on the hillside. It is not really very hot here, but this could be a great place to just relax (I hear that the pool is slightly heated) with a short dip as a welcome change of pace. One minor letdown at San Isidro is that the Cock-of-the-Rock lek that used to be on the grounds is no longer active, but we already saw them at Narupa Reserve, so it was not such a great loss for us.

San Isidro pool

The new pool at San Isidro. It’s a nice touch, being covered, with an open modern architectural feel, and having a nice view of the hillside. I wish we found some time to use it. This amenity would be great if you are traveling with a non-birding partner.

Next stop: heading further upslope to Guango Lodge and Papallacta.

 Posted by at 7:57 PM
Feb 222018

On my previous trips to Ecuador we focused mainly on the mid-range altitudes, so on this trip we scheduled three days in the Napo River lowlands, hoping to find a new group of species. The Napo is a large tributary that eventually feeds into the Amazon River, but I hesitate to call the area that we visited ‘Amazonia’, which to me implies traveling downriver by boat to remote and untouched terrain. Due to time and budget constraints our goal was simply to get to a lower altitude by car and see as many convenient lowland species as possible.

We anticipated needing a break from birding after our first six days in Ecuador, so we scheduled a single night in Hosteria de las Orquideas, a comfortable roadside resort in Archidona, located around 1 1/2 hour drive from Wildsumaco Lodge at 1,900 ft elevation. We were fortunate to make it to the resort without incident, as our gas tank was nearly empty. Here in the US we are used to having gas stations spaced at convenient intervals, but during our entire two weeks in Ecuador we only saw maybe three gas stations, so it is a good idea to keep the tank as filled as possible to avoid running on fumes like we did. Whew.

Hosteria Orquideas was nice, with spacious cabins and a large swimming area that Jeanine and I put to good use. The resort is also advertised as Isla de Los Monos (Isle of Monkeys), and we found out why, with wild monkeys roaming freely on the grounds and occasionally even in the dining area.

Orquideas pool

The pool at Hosteria de las Orquideas was a delightful distraction after six straight days of birding.


A large troop of Squirrel Monkeys came for handouts outside the dining area at Hosteria de las Orquideas.

Monkey family

Squirrel Monkeys with youngsters.

Alert monkey

The Squirrel Monkeys were a photographer’s dream, with their color pattern and alert faces.

We did try birding the grounds, but partly because of the rain, we didn’t find too much new. Our best birding was along the river, where we spotted a Ringed Kingfisher (our first kingfisher of the trip), along with Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts and calling Greater Kiskadees. We were anxious to get to lower and more remote territory, so instead of birding the resort grounds the next morning, we drove towards Puerto Misahualli and the Jatun Sacha Reserve (1,300 ft), stopping for a few minutes to scan at river crossings. In this way we found the lovely White-banded Swallows, Yellow-headed Caracara, Torrent Tyrannulets, Chestnut-bellied Seedeaters, Amazon Kingfisher, and large flock of White-collared Swifts.

We were scheduled to stay for two nights at the Jatun Sacha Tropical Rainforest Station, which is one of five properties run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation with the goals of preserving native forests, conducting research, and providing ecological education for the local people. I loved the atmosphere here, where we dined on simple food at long communal tables with the volunteers and students.

Jatun Sacha talk

A busload of students arrived at Jatun Sacha for an overnight exploration. Here they get an opening night presentation in the dining area by the director of Jatun Sacha and a few volunteers.

Hammock time

Pete and Jeanine taking advantage of the Jatun Sacha hammock area after dinner.


A tarantula that Pete found on our evening stroll.

I was very much looking forward to our first complete day at Jatun Sacha, which included a full day of guiding and an early morning visit to a parrot lick.  I won’t go into details, but the day was very disappointing, with our guide Milton Orozco showing up nearly an hour late with no explanation or apology, leaving early, getting lost on the trail, and trying to overcharge us despite showing him e-mails with the quoted price. In addition, the trail that he took us on ended above the cliff where the parrots were supposed to mass, so we wouldn’t have been able to even see them on the clay. Since we arrived late, there were few parrots to see anyway, but this entire morning was a major disappointment.

We spent the remainder of the day with Joy, a volunteer from Germany, who had a day off from her volunteering duties. It was a treat to chat and visit with her, to learn about what volunteering was like, to hear about their projects, and to have her and the staff show us the grounds.

Creek crosssing

On one hike we had to ford a small creek, carrying our shoes across.


For all you chocolate lovers out there, this is a cacao fruit sliced open for us on the Jatun Sacha property. Those individual white ‘nuts’ had a somewhat slimy covering with a delicate chocolate flavor.

Black Caracara

A Black Caracara on the Jatun Sacha Laguna Trail.

One of our more productive locations while at Jatun Sacha was a simple roadside farm that contained a few small watering holes just a short walk from the reserve. Stops here over the next two days yielded multiple new species for the trip, including Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jaçana, Bare-faced Ibis, Black Caracara, Cocoi Heron, Red-breasted Blackbird, Blue-black Grassquit, and Lesser Seed-finch.

IMG_2346 copy

Black Caracara and Little Blue Heron seem like odd perchmates, but here they are.

Cocoi Heron

Our only Cocoi Heron of the trip, roosting regally in a tree on the roadside farm.

Black-faced Nunbird

Black-faced Nunbird, which we saw near Jatun Sacha and at Laguna Paikawe.

Greater Ani

Greater Ani, which we saw at both Jatun Sacha and Laguna Paikawe. You can get a sense of how large and long-tailed and blue these birds are, especially when seen in flight or in better light.

In contrast to the disastrous day of guiding by Milton, the best part of our stay in the lowlands was a stop at Laguna Paikawe, a small lagoon with two islands just across the Napo River from Puerto Misahualli. The caretaker (owner?), Pedro Aguinda, paddles birders around the lagoon for perhaps an hour for only $5 per person. We had no appointment, but fortunately Pedro just finished a tour with two other birders when we arrived. The birding gods were smiling on us today! There were birds all over the lagoon…Pedro started by whistling in a Point-tailed Palmcreeper even before we entered the boat, and very soon afterward we were seeing Greater Ani, Striated Heron, Bare-necked Fruitcrows, Scarlet-crowned Barbets, Lemon-throated Barbets, Black-fronted Nunbird, Masked Crimson Tanager, a group of more than a dozen Hoatzins (including one on a nest!), and more. This boat tour gets my vote for the top highlight of our entire trip, and I encourage you to schedule a visit if you are in the area.

Laguna Paikawe

Pedro preparing to pole us around the laguna. I didn’t realize at the time what a treat this little tour would be.

Scarlet-crowned Barbets

Male and female Scarlet-crowned Barbets at Laguna Paikawe.

Striated Heron

Our only Striated Heron of the trip.


The enigmatic Hoatzin, perhaps my top target species for this trip. We found three in the treetops at Jatun Sacha, but then got great views of at least a dozen at Laguna Paikawe.

Double Hoatzins

A pair of Hoatzins patrolling near the nest site at Laguna Paikawe.

Hoatzin on branch

Hoatzins are such interesting birds. When you see them it is not surprising that they constitute their own separate family.

Upright Hoatzin

We saw perhaps fifteen Hoatzins at Laguna Paikawe.

Hoatzin on nest

Hoatzin on nest alongside the Laguna Paikawe canal.

After leaving Pedro, we started the ~2 hour drive up to San Isidro Lodge, our home for the next three nights. Before leaving the lowlands, however, Jeanine spotted a nearby Chestnut-eared Araçari for our final ‘good’ lowland bird.

Chestnut-eared Aracari

Chestnut-eared Araçari, our final ‘good’ bird from the lowlands. Jeanine captured it tossing a morsel of food into its own mouth.

 Posted by at 8:37 PM
Feb 182018

The next four days of our trip were spent in the area surrounding Wildsumaco Lodge. Although Wildsumaco is further along the Loreto road from Narupa Reserve, it is actually at a slightly higher elevation (3,590 ft at Narupa, 4,900 ft at Wildsumaco). There is considerable overlap therefore in the species seen at the two locations. Wildsumaco has a stronger reputation than Narupa, due the advantages of having a comfortable lodge with enough rooms to handle group tours and an extensive well-maintained trail system that provides access to excellent forest, whereas there is only sparse lodging (besides the two-room Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin) to stay overnight near Narupa Reserve.

WS lodging

One of the simple Wildsumaco cabins.

Birding began soon after we exited the Loreto Road at the village of Wawasumaco, driving on the ~6 km unpaved (and at times rough for our non-4WD vehicle) access road to the lodge. For approximately half of that distance the road passes through disturbed habitat that allowed us to stop occasionally and search for birds in the open areas. Several Swallow-tailed Kites flew overhead, we found our first Masked Tityra, and Blue-rumped Manakin and Buff-throated Saltator made brief appearances. Upon arrival at the lodge we settled into our new surroundings and immediately were provided with a late lunch. Lodging at Wildsumaco includes three meals per day (complete with soup and dessert), so we ate far more here than we typically do at home.

Wildsumaco dining

Dining at Wildsumaco Lodge. The fireplace with its nearby sofas at the far end of the lodge was a great place to re-live the day’s sightings.

Over the next few days we explored the Wildsumco trails and walked the road ~1 mile beyond the lodge toward the village of Pactosumaco. Mornings were typically spent near the lodge, starting in the parking area where birds were drawn in to feed upon insects that accumulated near the lights. Here we found our first Collared Trogon up close and personal, and Cerulean Warblers were feeding low, but we couldn’t find the nearby and very vocal Barred Forest Falcon. After breakfast we then explored the trails or walked the road. Our best forest birds included Fulvous Shrike-Tanager, Montane Foliage-gleaner by the Research Station, and we worked hard to identify a Golden-winged Manakin. On one rainy walk on the F.A.C.E. trail one of the employees interrupted his trail maintenance duties to show us a well-hidden Band-bellied Owl. It can be difficult to spot birds in the dense forest, so we enjoyed the change of pace when birding the open areas near Pacto, where we found both Chestnut-bellied and Black-and-white Seedeaters, Scaled Pigeon, and Bronze-green Euphonia.

Wildsumaco trail

Pete and Jeanine on a typically steep and dense Wildsumaco trail.

On two days we took the ~15 minute walk down the Coopman’s Trail to the antipitta feeding station. Most lodges only attempt feedings in the morning, but at Wildsumaco they provide worms both in the morning and at 3PM. At both feedings Plain-backed and Ochre-breasted Antipittas made multiple appearances, and they were joined both days by a White-crowned Tapaculo. It was quite amazing to view such difficult species in close quarters. These ‘high-quality’ birds were joined by Gray-cheeked Thrush, a species that we see back home in New Jersey. It struck me how similar the antpittas were to the thrush in appearance and feeding style, looking like longer-legged thrushes without a tail. On our return back from the feeding area we spotted a Yellow-throated Toucan calling from a distant treetop (toucans always seem like a treat), and both Red-headed and Gilded Barbets were nice to see.

Antpitta station

Waiting patiently at the Wildumaco antpitta feeding station.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta

The shy and diminutive Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

Plain-backed Antpitta

The appropriately-named Plain Backed Antpitta is nearly twice the size of its Ochre-breasted relative.

White-crowned Tapaculo

White-crowned Tapaculo, a super ‘bonus’ bird at the antpitta station.

Birding was good and with a relaxing change of pace at the Wildsumaco veranda, where we could sit and watch Golden-collared Honeycreepers feed consistently in the cecropia trees, joined by occasional surprises. One afternoon Jeanine spotted a Golden-collared Toucanet skulking in a tree just a few feet behind the hummingbird feeders and the following morning she spotted a Sickle-winged Guan walking along the sturdier branches. A band of Napo Tamarin monkeys had daily excursions to feed on bananas hung in a tree near the veranda. Of course, the hummingbird feeders were delightful and constantly busy, although with much overlap with the species that we saw at Narupa Reserve the previous two days.

Wildsumaco veranda

Birding the treetops from the Wildsumaco veranda.

Wire-crested Thorntail

Wire-crested Thorntail, one of the more distinctive hummingbirds that we saw at both Narupa Reserve and at Wildsumaco.

We were often too tired to do much owling, but one night we managed a post-dinner burst of energy to walk along the access road, hearing Tropical Screech-owls and spotting an unidentified nightjar with its bright eyeshine hunting in a field by the entrance to the F.A.C.E. Trail.

This might be a good time to mention the weather pattern. During our days at both Narupa Reserve and at Wildsumaco, we had considerable rain throughout the days, yet somehow the rain didn’t interfere with our birding. Most days typically started clear and dry, allowing a morning of good birding, but then around lunchtime we had some strong downpours. I call that great timing. The afternoons were more spotty weather-wise, but after the mid-day showers birding picked up, and by evening we were completely exhausted. So in a way we were thankful for the showers, since they forced us to rest for a while indoors or on the veranda, the rains often resulted in better birding afterwards, and we always had a full day of birdwatching. On our final morning the sun finally emerged for a full day and we enjoyed a clear view of the conical peak of Sumaco Volcano.

Wildsumaco clouds

Clouds sometimes contributed to the dramatic vistas at sunrise and sunset.

Despite the fact that Wildsumaco has a deservedly strong reputation, the lodge was relatively empty during our stay. On our first night we overlapped with a group of ~12 birders, on the second night we shared the facilities with a single birder and his guide, and on the third night we were the only patrons. It is quite nice to feel like an entire lodge and its property is entirely yours.

Sumaco volcano

On our final day here the skies started clearing, resulting in a nice view of Sumaco Volcano.

There are so many species that can be seen here, and despite having four full days, we felt like we barely scratched the surface. As an example, our drive back out along the access road toward our next destination yielded Speckled Chachalacas with three young, a Channel-billed Toucan, Long-tailed Tyrant, a pair of preening Chestnut-fronted Macaws, and Lineated Woodpecker. Imagine how many more great species are lurking here.

Next: Into the lowlands and Jatun Sacha Reserve

 Posted by at 11:02 AM
Feb 122018

A few days ago the crew returned from a 14-day trip to Ecuador, birding the east slope of the Andes accompanied by my friends Pete and Jeanine. This was a mostly do-it-yourself trip where we hired local guides on only two of the fourteen days, so let me start with an overview of our route and some logistics. We wanted to try a self-guided tour, because an analogous trips that I took five years ago to the western slope of the Andes and last year to Colombia and Puerto Rico worked incredibly well, and as we shall see in a moment and in follow-up blog entries, the results were terrific this time too.

A birding trip to either the east or west slope of Ecuador is relatively easy to arrange and to do on your own, because there are sufficient birding lodges, the primary roads are in excellent condition, and very little city driving is required. The easiest way to increase the number of birds seen on a trip like this is to change elevation every few days. A simple two hour drive on the east slope can easily result in a 3,000 – 4,000 ft change in elevation and a brand new set of birds. Fortunately, on the east slope there are three excellent lodges that cater to birders and are spaced conveniently at different altitudes along the main highway, with Guango Lodge at 8,860 ft, Cabañas San Isidro at 6,800 ft, and Wildsumaco Lodge at 4,900 ft. These are the same three lodges that typically are used by the major birding tours to the area, so despite being a self-guided trip, the quality of our lodging and birding locations was top-flight. Our plan was to stay at these three lodges for 2-3 days each, and then expand a bit further downslope towards the Napo River to search for lower-altitude Amazonian basin species, and spend the final day in the high altitude paramo, organizing the tour such that we work our way upslope to acclimate to the elevation as the trip progressed. Because fourteen days of non-stop birding might be too intense even for me (some people mistakenly believe that the phrase ‘too much birding’ is a foreign concept for me), we interspersed breaks at two hotels where we could relax a little with some quality swimming and hot spring time. Our schedule looked like this:
Trip map2
Day 1: Arrive in Quito, rent car, drive downslope to Narupa Reserve (3,590 ft), staying at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin.
Day 2: guided birding in Narupa Reserve
Day 3: drive to Wildsumaco Lodge, birding along Loreto Road and the access road
Day 4: Birding on Wildsumaco Lodge trails and view antpitta feeding station
Day 5: Birding on Wildsumaco Lodge Trails
Day 6: Bird Wildsumaco Lodge Piha trail, drive down to Archidona (El Paraiso de las Orquideas) (1,900 ft)
Day 7: drive to Jatun Sacha Preserve (1,300 ft), birding along the way and at Jatun Sacha
Day 8: guided birding at Jatun Sacha
Day 9: canoe tour of Laguna Paikawe, then drive to Cabañas San Isidro
Day 10: birding San Isidro trails and Las Caucheras Road
Day 11: San Isidro trails and Baeza – San Borja bypass road
Day 12: San Isidro trails then drive to Guango Lodge; detour to Papallacta Pass
Day 13: Guango Lodge trails, then transfer to Termas de Papallacta
Day 14: drive up to Antisana National Park, then to Quito airport. Finis.

The posts that follow will provide plenty of details and highlights, but suffice it to say that we were able to identify more than 250 species of birds, mostly on our own. It was a great adventure, and although we did have the expected frustration of seeing and hearing birds that we couldn’t identify, we all thoroughly enjoyed two weeks of waking up every morning to new birds that we’d never seen before and having to identify them ourselves. In other words, real birding.

OK, enough with the introductory material. Let’s get the adventure started.

Cabanas porch

Jeanine at the Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin porch. Note the expansive size, detailed woodwork, and polished floors.

GP at Hollin 2

This waterfall view was just a few steps outside our cabina. I’ve seen videos of kayaks going over these falls. Amazing!

Day 1-3 Narupa Reserve. Because we live at sea level here in NJ, the trip was arranged such that we start at least part-way downslope and gradually work our way up the slope to avoid starting our trip with potential altitude problems (realize that Quito is 9,300 ft above sea level!). Fortunately, we arrived on schedule, got settled into our rental car (starting our lists with Vermillion Flycatcher and Sparkling Violetear in the rental lot), and within the hour we were driving over Papallacta Pass in horrendous fog and cold driving rain and towards our first destination, the Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin and Narupa Reserve, fairly far downslope at 3,590 ft above sea level. Along the way we stopped to stock up on supplies (a 5-gallon jug of water and some snacks) and to sample roadside birds. In this way we found our first Smooth-billed Anis, Black Phoebes, and Southern Lapwings, and at the Cosanga River bridge we found our first Torrent Duck, one of my personal target species for the trip.


Meals at Comedor Susanita were simple, in a roadside open-air setting.

We arrived at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin with some trepidation, since we did not know much about it. That trepidation disappeared immediately, and we found this local business to be one of the delights of our trip. If you are planning a self-guided trip to the region, we recommend staying here. Don’t expect anything fancy; just a clean, simple place to say and authentic home-cooked local fresh food. The cabaña consists of a single building with two large rooms that can be rented separately; one room contains two queen-sized beds and the other has three twin beds. There is an expansive deck with polished wood, all positioned a mere hundred yards or so away from a ~30 ft waterfall. The family that owns the cabañas lives on the grounds and also operates the small Comedor Susanita, where we had all our meals. There is a small garden with hummingbird feeders that kept us busy watching the plentiful Many-spotted Hummingbirds interspersed with occasional Golden-tailed Sapphires, White-tailed Hillstars, Black-throated Brilliants, Gould’s Jewelfronts, and Wire-crested Thorntails. After a good night sleep to recover from our travels, we met our guide for the day, Mario Pilataxi (manager of Narupa Reserve) for breakfast at the comedor. Within a minute of finishing breakfast, Mario called out “Amazonian Umbrellabird”, as three of these cotingas landed in a nearby tree. They are not spectacular-looking birds, being all-black, but how can you not love seeing a bird with that exotic name? Great start!

Amazonian Umbrellabird

One of three Amazonian Umbrellabirds that we saw at close range near Comedor Susanita on two consecutive mornings.

We drove uphill ~ 0.5 mile to the Narupa Reserve entrance (run by the Jocotoco Foundation) and walked a short trail there and enjoyed their hummingbird feeders, which additionally hosted Gorgeted Woodstar and Fork-tailed Woodnymph. Here and at nearby stops we became acquainted with species that we would see multiple times over the next few days, including Violaceous Jay, Slate-throated Redstart, Silver-beaked Tanager, Squirrel Cuckoo, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, both Russet-backed and Crested Oropendolas, Blue-and-Gray Tanager, and Ornate Flycatcher.  In addition we were treated to a suite of flashy tanagers including Blue-necked, Paradise, Golden, Spotted, Bay-headed, Orange-eared, and Golden-eared, had a trailside approach by an Andean Cock-of-the-rock, saw Cliff Flycatcher at a traditional location, and enjoyed Red-headed Barbet, Buff-rumped Warbler, Many-banded Aracari, and many others. At our final location we spotted Channel-billed Toucan, Blue-naped Chlorophonia, and we had both Orange-breasted Falcon and Chestnut-fronted Macaw flying by in the same binocular view, prompting Mario to declare that Jeanine has mucha suerte to be seeing so many great species on her first full day in the tropics. I heartily agree; it was quite an impressive combination of birds to start the trip.


An Andean Cock-of-the-rock that greeted us in the morning at the start of the Narupa Reserve trail.

Narupa entrance

The indomitable trio in the Jocototo Foundation’s Narupa Reserve.

Red-headed Barbet

We spotted several Red-headed Barbets in the Narupa Reserve.

The next morning we walked and birded from the road before breakfast, re-finding Comedor Susanita’s Amazonian Umbrellabirds again near the bridge, along with another Cock-of-the-rock right in front of the comedor, a Highland Motmot in the garden, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Magpie Tanager, Violaceous Jays, and Short-tailed Swifts feeding over the river. After breakfast we bid a fond adios to Susanita, Leny, Angel, and the rest of the family and left for our next destination, Wildsumaco Lodge.

Violaceous Jay

Violaceous Jays were not uncommon on this trip, especially at lower-to-mid altitudes.

1 ga hollin

Saying good-bye to our host family at Cabañas Cascada Rio Hollin and Comedor Susanita. Gracias Leny y Susanita.

If you would like to stay at the Cabañas, which are extremely reasonably priced, contact Angel Crespo Vasquez at or click here.

Coming next: The adventure continues at Wildsumaco.

 Posted by at 9:37 PM
May 132017

Puerto Rico is a relatively small island with a limited bird list compared to other high-profile birding locations, but it is very convenient for North Americans, and therefore ideal for a self-guided bird tour. We have just constructed a new Slideshow BirdQuiz featuring many of the most desired birds of Puerto Rico. You can access that quiz by clicking here.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

 Posted by at 7:10 PM
Mar 262017

This is part 2 of a two-part series on our recent birding trip to Puerto Rico. If you haven’t seen part 1 yet, please click here.

Day 4: The fourth day of this trip was designed to visit a different type of habitat. Laguna Cartagena NWR is a freshwater wetland just 30 minutes from Parguera that harbored a couple targets. As you enter the NWR from highway 110 onto a dirt access road, grasslands are on the left and a row of brush and trees are on the right. As we drove in, birds were flushing in front of the car. The first birds that we saw were Black-faced Grassquits and their Yellow-faced relatives.  A quick look revealed a flock of introduced exotics, Orange-cheeked Waxbills, and birds that resembled Grasshopper Sparrows. Further investigation suggested that they were instead non-breeding Red Bishops, yet another exotic. A flock of Smooth-billed Anis, including a young bird, was a nice bonus. After pulling into the parking area and setting up our scopes at the first pond, I spotted what was for me the bird of the trip, a Masked Duck. We had been hoping to see this diminutive and secretive duck on birding trips to other countries, but always came up empty, so this sighting was particularly rewarding. The wetlands here are becoming filled in and overgrown, with only a few areas of large open water, so it was important to bird slowly along the trail, checking the openings for feeding waterfowl. At one point we spotted a group of ducks on shore, and when the scopes were set up, we saw the tell-tale appearance of a dozen or so West Indian Whistling-ducks with their long legs and neck and streaked sides, completing the trio of our major duck targets of the trip. Other nice birds seen here were Purple Gallinules, Tri-colored Heron, and our only two Ospreys of the trip. On the way back to our hotel, we drove through some agricultural fields in Lajas, and there picked up our third introduced species of the trip (and the day), with a flock of Bronze Mannikins.

Cartegena Wetlands from the tower

The view of Laguna Cartagena wetlands from the tower. Ponds were scattered and typically small this time of year.

West Indian Whistling-ducks

Part of a flock of West Indian Whistling-ducks, one of our major targets in the wetlands. Note the long legs and necks.


A Black-faced Grassquit found along the Laguna Cartagena entry road.


An extremely cooperative adult Smooth-billed Ani in fine plumage. They aren’t just drab uniform black birds after all. Look at those subtle colors on the feather tips.

Young Ani

A young Smooth-biled Ani that hasn’t yet developed the classic ‘Roman nose’ of the mature Ani (as in the previous photo above).


A pair from the flocks of Orange-cheeked Waxbills seen at Laguna Cartegena


Bronze Mannikin, the third introduced species seen on this trip.

Cave Swallow

Cave Swallow seen in one of the agricultural fields near Lajas.

I neglected to mention our ‘adventure’ the previous night, when the noise and music from the adjacent plaza and bars continued past 2AM. That made two nights when it was hard to get to sleep, and I was not going to endure a third night like that.  We cancelled our third night at Parador Villa Parguera and transferred to the Copamarina Resort in Guanica for our final night in southern Puerto Rico. What a difference! I would never recommend the Parador with the excessive noise, internet connectivity problems, and their trying to give us a room with a single bed instead of the two that we reserved. The Copamarina was more expensive, but it was also perfect. In the evening we walked the Ballena Trail in Guanica State Forest hoping to find Puerto Rican Nightjars. They started calling right on schedule at 6:20 PM, but unfortunately rain started coming down at 6:25. We eventually gave in to the rain and headed back to the hotel.


A small group of White-cheeked Pintails that visited the beach area at the Copamarina.

Day 5: We returned to Guanica at the Rte. 334 gate for another mostly nocturnal species, Puerto Rican Screech-owl. We heard at least 4 Screech-owls and a few Nightjars as the day began, but failed to see either of them. A morning walk through Guanica proved more productive than our mid-day excursion two days ago, with multiple Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoos being a highlight.


A Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo from Guanica. The red eye patch distinguishes it from the similar Mangrove Cuckoo, which is also widely distributed on Puerto Rico.

Having seen or heard all of the endemics except for Puerto Rican Oriole at his point, we drove back towards the eastern end of the island for our final two days. Our home was to be the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge, located at ~1,500 ft above sea level in a forested valley just outside of the southern edge of El Yunque National Forest. This was a simple yet pleasant ecolodge, where we had a spacious room with a balcony overlooking the lush valley, although the shared common-space areas within the lodge were wonderful locations for watching birds flying between the treetops. We had by far our best views of Puerto Rican Spindalis, Loggerhead Kingbird, and many Scaly-naped Pigeons here. After an evening walk on the road and dinner in the lodge’s restaurant located 0.5 miles away, we were ready for a peaceful night’s sleep and a search for our final targets the following morning.

Zenaida Dove

Zenaida Dove was found in several locations on this trip, but this one was photographed at a quick stop at Humacao Wetlands on the way to Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Flycatcher3

A Puerto Rican Flycatcher that was searching for nesting material on the forest floor at the Humacao Reserve


Puerto Rican Spindalis, a species that we saw in several locations, but you couldn’t beat the views of them in the treetops from Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Spindalis female

Here’s the female Puerto Rican Spindalis. It took a long time for us to figure out what this is.

Scaly-naped Pigeon

Scaly-naped Pigeon, another species that we saw from below in the highlands of Maricao, but which were nesting a few feet from the Casa Cubuy balcony, often perching nearby at eye level.

Loggerhead Kingbird

Loggerhead Kingbird, which was seen much less frequently than Gray Kingbird, but they were nesting at eye level at Casa Cubuy. Note the all-dark and peaked cap compared to the similar Gray Kingbird seen in the photo below.

Gray Kingbird

The ubiquitous Gray Kingbird, with its gray cap and black eye patch, was seen nearly everywhere on the island, often perched on telephone wires.

Black-whiskered Vireo2

Black-whiskered Vireo. We saw and heard them all over the island, but by far the best views were from Casa Cubuy, where they nested just below the balcony.

I’d like to say a little more about Casa Cubuy, an ecolodge where we stayed for two nights just outside of the southern end of El Yunque National Forest. We were not expecting too much after already seeing nearly all of the target birds of Puerto Rico, but I really liked staying here. The clean and simple ecolodge atmosphere with good food was very welcome. Communal balconies allowed eye-level photos and views of birds that we normally would strain our neck to see. The road toward El Yunque dead-ends a 0.5 mile or so above Casa Cubuy, so there is little traffic, providing easy comfortable walks on the road through the forest and into the valley. This was my favorite place to stay in Puerto Rico.

Casa Cubuy

Casa Cubuy. It doesn’t look elegant, but it is clean, simple, and was a wonderful place to stay just outside of the southern border of El Yunque.

Casa Cubuy balconies

A view of the common area and balconies at Casa Cubuy.

Casa Cubuy valley view

Here’s the view from the Casa Cubuy balcony, with treetop views across the lush valley. A great location for photographing treetop birds at eye level.

Casa Cubuy breakfast spread

The communal breakfast spread at Casa Cubuy was all that you could ask for and more.

Day 6: Today’s main target was our final endemic, Puerto Rican Oriole. As the sun rose, the birding gods were smiling upon us, because just 20 ft away from our balcony we heard an Oriole singing its dawn song from a palm tree! Could we get any luckier?! In the afternoon we drove downhill 30 minutes to the coastal town of Fajardo. There are two Caribbean specialty hummingbirds that favor purple-flowered Jacaranda trees on this east coast at this time of year. At the Fajardo Inn we didn’t see any purple-flowering trees, nor any hummers in the flowers in the Inn gardens. We therefore drove ~10 minutes away, planning to bird an abandoned military field in Ceiba called Roosevelt Roads, but while driving there, we passed a road lined with purple-flowering trees. Indeed, in the first tree Rich spotted a hummingbird, and then another and then another. We had plenty of opportunity to scan through the multiple hummingbirds, eventually finding at least seven Green-throated Caribs and an Antillean Crested Hummingbird. These birds completed our target list, and after a hearty breakfast at Casa Cubuy the next morning we were ready to head home.


Puerto Rican Oriole, our final endemic species. They were nesting along the side of Casa Cubuy, but were relatively shy.


Antillean Crested Hummingbird, one of two Caribbean hummingbird specialties that inhabit the east coast. The small size, small bill, and crest makes it very distinctive.


Green-throated Carib, another Caribbean specialty that favors the east coast of Puerto Rico.

A Few Final Comments

I prefer unguided or semi-guided birding trips rather than fully guided tours, with the reduced cost and the pleasure of finding and identifying birds yourself as the main motivating factors.  I realize that this approach is not for everybody, but if you want to try an unguided trip, Puerto Rico is a really good place to start due to the organizational simplicity compared to trips to other countries. We were pleasantly surprised by a few things on this trip. First, Puerto has some poor areas, but overall, the poverty level does not approach the level that we have seen in other countries that we have birded (Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica). Probably for this reason, we had no concerns whatsoever about personal safety in the locations where we traveled, which made for a more relaxed trip. Second, we had heard about the aggressive Puerto Rican drivers and the narrow roads. Yes, some of the mountain roads are narrow and require caution on the turns, but overall we actually found the drivers to be more cautious than those back home in NJ. Overall, the roads were in great shape, equivalent in quality to those in the states. Finally, with concerns about Zika virus and other tropical diseases, any travels to the tropics raises concern about mosquitoes. Yet on this trip we did not see a single mosquito, and had absolutely no pest-related problems (no chiggers, ticks, flies, spiders, or scorpions). Heck, we have much more of a problem with insects in the marshes of NJ. We never even used our bug spray.  Overall, we ended up with a total of 105 species, seeing or hearing all seventeen endemics. Total cost for this seven-day trip (including flight): $1,050 pp.  Thirty-eight new lifers: priceless.

If you are considering a self-guided trip to Puerto Rico and would like advice or more details on how we did it, feel free to contact me at

The endemic bird species of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo We found these to be widespread, seeing or hearing them most days, from highlands to the dry forest of Guanica. Our best views and highest numbers were in Guanica. Learn their calls.

Puerto Rican Screech-owl We only heard them, near the PR-334 entrance gate one morning in Guanica.

Puerto Rican Nightjar A dry forest specialty. We heard them both at night and in the morning at Guanica, but never saw one.

Green Mango A highland hummingbird. We only saw one, at Maricao.

Puerto Rican Emerald We found one near the Guanica visitor center parking lot feeding on a couple stalks of yellow flowers.

Puerto Rican Tody These delightful birds were all over, in good numbers. Learning their calls makes it much easier to find them.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker We saw 1-3 of them nearly every day. Widespread.

Puerto Rican Parrot Very rare, but now able to be seen readily in Rio Abajo State Forest.

Puerto Rican Flycatcher  Not very common for us, but we saw some well in Guanica and Calambache.

Puerto Rican Vireo  Less common than the ubiquitous Black-whiskered Vireo. We saw it in Rio Abajo.

Elfin-woods Warbler A rare highland species. Similar in appearance to Black-and-white Warblers (which we saw in a few locations), but with more black on the face. They also feed very rapidly and erratically, different from the trunk-and-branch creeping behavior of B&W Warblers.

Adelaide’s Warbler Widely reported, and we heard them in a few places, but we saw most of ours in Guanica. The loud trilling song helps to find them.

Puerto Rican Spindalis We saw them in a few places in low numbers, but most readily at Casa Cubuy.

Puerto Rican Tanager Another highland specialty. We saw a dozen or so in small groups at Maricao.

Puerto Rican Bullfinch Listen for the loud call notes followed by a trill. The ones at Casa Cubuy remained hidden, but we had good luck seeing them at Maricao, Rio Abajo, and elsewhere.

Yellow-shouldered Blackbird Many people see this threatened species in La Parguera where they feed on discarded bread near a store in town. We saw them while eating in a local eatery just outside of Cabo Rojo, so we never bothered with the bread-eating version.

Puerto Rican Oriole This was the final species that we needed, and we were obliged with a pair that nested just outside our room at Casa Cubuy. Sometimes the birding gods smile upon us.

 Posted by at 8:35 PM
Mar 242017

Puerto Rico birding trip March 16 – March 22, 2017

OK, get ready; this is going to be a long post, so I decided to divide it into two sections. The crew (me along with brother Rich) just returned from a six-day birding trip to Puerto Rico. We were very fortunate on this trip; the March weather in New Jersey took a strong downturn just before we left and continued while we were gone. In Puerto Rico, by contrast, the temperatures hovered around a high of 85 degrees every day, with comfortable temperatures at night. It always feels like a treat escaping nasty weather, doesn’t it?

Leaving snowy NJ

Leaving snowy NJ…Sandy Hook on top, Shark River just above center.

Let’s start with an obvious question: why go birding in Puerto Rico when there are many other destinations with more species? For example, according to Wikipedia Puerto Rico has a bird list of 349 species (of which 166 are accidental) while Panama has a list of 992 bird species. Yet Puerto Rico has several advantages. It is a relatively small island, only ~100 miles from east-to west, and 35 miles from north to south, so it is easy to sample all the habitats and find most of the key species in just five or six days. Second, there are 17 endemic species and a few Caribbean specialties that together constitute a nice target list of ~50 species. That’s not bad for a small island. Third, because Puerto Rico is part of the US, it is extremely convenient for US birders. For Americans no currency exchange is necessary, phone service is covered on our US phone plans (allowing GPS navigation in the rental car), passports are not required, and many residents speak English. All of that makes it very easy to arrange a do-it-yourself birding tour. To top it off we found a 3 1/2 hr non-stop flight from Newark for only $286. Offsetting those advantages is the absence of several tropical families such as antbirds, toucans, woodcreepers, trogons, and cotingas that can be found in Central American and South American countries. Well, you can’t have everything.

The Trip (part 1)

Day 1: We land in San Juan in early afternoon, so our opportunities for the day are limited. Most of the best birding spots are located in the central or southwestern parts of the island, where it also conveniently is much drier (less chance to lose birding days due to rain). We did not want to spend time in the city, so we rented a car (from Hertz…a 1 1/2 hr wait…don’t get me started!), and drove 1 hr westward, stopping at Calambache State Forest. Just outside the park we had our first lifer, a colorful Venezuelan Troupial that was easy to spot even at 40 mph. The park itself has nice wide trails that seem to be used more by mountain bikers, where among the birds we were able to see a group of widely distributed and common endemics that we were later to find at nearly all of our stops: Puerto Rican Woodpecker, Red-legged Thrush, and Puerto Rican Tody. It was a nice start. We had time for one more stop before dark, so we headed to a roadside pond near Camuy that was filled with very nice birdage. The first bird that we saw was our main target; a gorgeous bright pink American Flamingo that conveniently was on the nearest shore. Wow. What made it even better was the 50 or so White-cheeked Pintails (another lifer) and more than 100 Black-necked Stilts that were surrounding it. The pond held other goodies, including Least Grebe, Common Gallinules, and the Caribbean white-shielded version of American Coot that used to be a separate species before being lumped with the ‘standard’ American Coot. Now that’s what I call a nice roadside stop. It was a great start for the trip.

Red-legged Thrush

Red-legged Thrush. Our first endemic of the trip, but we were going to see them nearly every day.

Puerto Rican Woodpecker

Puerto Rican Woodpecker: another endemic that we’d see in low numbers at nearly all locations.


An American Flamingo that has appeared at the same location near Camuy for at least three years, surrounded here by Black-necked Stilts, Common Gallinule, and White-cheeked Pintails.

Day 2: Today started with a 30 minute drive southward to Rio Abajo State Forest. The main target here is the rarest bird on the island, the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, with perhaps only ~200 birds in the wild. The parrots are being bred at Rio Abajo and released there and elsewhere. A minute after we exited the car we flushed a Ruddy Quail-dove, a species that I did not expect to see on this trip. The ‘trail’ beyond a locked gate at Rio Abajo is a paved road that is relatively level, comfortable, and convenient, and just a mile or so away from where the breeding facility is located. Before we even reached that area, however, we heard a few parrots flying overhead. Somehow we were able to spot one that landed and get a clear view. One quick photo and then the birds flew off again. Later on we saw another one in flight and heard more flying the area. What a treat. There were plenty of other birds to keep us busy at Rio Abajo, including endemic Puerto Rican Vireo, Puerto Rican Bullfinch, Puerto Rican Spindalis, Loggerhead Kingbird, and Puerto Rican Lizard-cuckoo. For fans of Todies, this was a super location, with at least 25 Puerto Rican Todies being seen here. It certainly helped once we became familiar with their calls. Rio Abajo SF was one of the highlight locations on this trip for us, and is highly recommended.


Puerto Rican Parrot, one of the rarest birds in the world today, found at Rio Abajo State Forest.


Puerto Rican Tody. How can you not like this tiny bird? Before departing for this trip I was wondering if I’d be able to see any, but thankfully, they were easy to find all over the island.

Next we drove at least 2 hours southwest for a short mid-day stop at Guanica State Forest. Guanica is a ‘must’ location for a PR birding vacation, because Puerto Rican Screech-owls and Puerto Rican Nightjars can be heard and sometimes seen here. We’ll return to those species later, but because Guanica is a very dry and hot location, birding is best done here in early morning. Even on this mid-day walk, however, we were able to spot several endemic Pearly-eyed Thrashers near the visitor parking lot, accompanied by Adelaide’s Warblers (which we were to see later at a few other locations, but most frequently here) and a Puerto Rican Emerald that was feeding on a stalk of yellow flowers. We settled into our hotel in Parguera which was to be our base for the next three days (or so we thought).


Adelaide’s Warbler, a species that we saw best at Guanica, but after becoming familiar with their loud trilling song, we were better equipped to find it at other locations.


This Pearly-eyed Thrasher stayed at this faucet for a while, like it was defending its water source in the hot and dry Guanica Forest.


If you find the flowers, you’ll find the hummingbirds. This Puerto Rican Emerald fed on most of the flowers in this stalk for a few minutes. Note the deeply forked tail that helps distinguish it from the five other hummingbirds found in Puerto Rico.

Guanica Dry forest trail

A typical Guanica Dry Forest trail. Very hard, rocky, dry terrain, with low but dense trees.

Day 3: Our main location this morning was Maricao State Forest, which is in the mountains about 1 hour north of Parguera, reached by a winding 1 1/2-lane road. The main targets here are the highland specialties, and we did well in finding them. We saw Puerto Rican Tanagers in several small groups along the main trail at km 16.8 of Rte 120. I was able to get one quick better-look-desired at an Antillean Euphonia. Our main target was proving elusive, however. We were trying to find the Elfin-woods Warbler, a species that was first described in 1972. It looks similar to the more familiar Black-and-white Warbler, but with black cheeks. After trying a few other trails, we returned to the km 16.8 trail, and a little further on from where we turned back in the morning Rich spotted the first one just off the trail. I was unable to get a photo because these birds are much more active than the B&W Warbler, which tends to forage deliberately on trunks and branches. The Elfin-woods Warbler was calling and flitting actively from branch-to-branch. Our final endemic at Maricao was a single Green Mango hummingbird that Rich spotted perched above the trail. One genuine surprise that we had here was a Key West Quail-dove that flushed from near our feet. We were able to re-find it in the dense brush, where it froze for a minute or two. So we were fortunate with two tough-to-find Quail-doves on this trip. Although we did well seeing the highland specialties here, overall we were disappointed with Maricao due to the limited trails and because it was less birdy than some of the other locations that we visited.


Puerto Rican Tanager. A highland species that we saw only at Maricao State Forest.

For the afternoon, we drove to the furthest southwest corner of the island, to a beautiful park called Cabo Rojo, that has a gorgeous beach, a scenic cliffside trail, and an adjacent National Wildlife Refuge containing salt ponds and mangrove flats. We were hoping for extensive shorebird flocks on the flats, but being the dry season, much of the flats were bone dry, so we didn’t spend much time sorting through the few shorebirds here. We did spot Brown Boobies perched on the cliffs and flying by, had a nice view of a White-tailed Tropicbird, and enjoyed a very cooperative Venezuelean Troupial near the parking area. We stopped at a roadside eatery just outside the park, and while eating some home-cooked empanadillas, Rich spotted another target, the endemic and threatened Yellow-shouldered Blackbird coming out of the mangroves. I was thrilled to see them here, because many birders resort to finding them in downtown Parguera where they feed on handouts behind a store. That just seems wrong, but seeing them near these mangroves while eating lunch was a bit nicer.


A cooperative Venezuelan Troupial from Cabo Rojo.


A Yellow-shouldered Blackbird that popped out of the mangroves, presumably hoping for some empanadilla handouts.


Here’s the same Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. The defining yellow ‘shoulder’ isn’t always visible.

Continue on to part 2 of the trip by clicking here.

 Posted by at 3:13 PM
Dec 132016

Colombia can be an intimidating location for birding. After all, more than 1900 species of birds can be found in this diverse country. Birding tours to Colombia typically spend most of the time exploring at different altitudes in one or more of the central Andean mountain ranges and in the inter-Andean valleys. These same tours often include a ~6-7 day ‘Santa Marta extension’ to the Santa Marta region near the north coast. For my style of birding, a 6-7 day ‘extension’ constitutes a complete trip, so my friend Pete and I spent 12 days exploring the Santa Marta highlands and the desert scrub of the nearby and coastal Guajira region, partly guided, and partly on our own. Blog entries describing this trip start here. The photos in this quiz constitute many of the common birds of the region, combined with some of the desirable regional endemics and near-endemics. If you are planning a trip to Santa Marta, this quiz would be a good introduction to the birds that you will see there. Take a bird tour of the Santa Marta region by clicking here.


Part of a flock of American Flamingos at Santuario de Los Flamingos.



Russet-throated Puffbird, a species seen in several locations in the coastal lowlands from Barranquilla to Guajira.

 Posted by at 5:06 AM