Our first full day was spent along the Mashpi Road, at lower elevations than the other sites we visited in the broader Mindo area. The road is justly famous as a locality for a number of Chocó endemics and other speciality birds of the W slope. Our morning began well enough with a White-throated Quail-Dove sitting in the open at the roadside towards the higher end of the elevational range covered, which is approximately 1400-800m. A female Golden-winged Manakin turned out to be the only one we saw, making me glad I had good views of males around Mindo on my last visit. Next up was our first Orange-breasted Fruiteater, followed by Narino Tapaculo and a bit lower down an Indigo Flowerpiercer. By the time we reached the Amagusa Reserve the mist had descended and cloaked us entirely making birding extremely difficult. Several more Orange-breasted Fruiteaters gave excellent views and other interesting birds seen whilst we walked in to the reserve included Slaty Antwren and Bronze-olive Pygmy Tyrant. Yet another bird tourism innovation that has occurred in recent years is the establishment of feeding stations for frugivores and those at Amagusa take a certain amount of the stress out of looking for two of its star birds. I am not a serious tanager fiend but the Chloroochrysa are something special and the Chocó endemic Glistening Green Tanager is no exception. Given the dense mist I was quite glad of the opportunity to view them a super close range on the feeder. Numerous hummingbirds were coming to nectar feeders around the observation point and an unusual bird to pick up there was a Zeldon’s Antbird. A feeding station in the forest, just off the road, was our next stop for another Chocó endemic tanager I had waited a long time to see, Moss-backed Tanager. We did see another of these along the roadside later but it was nice to get the first ones under the belt and the views were of course superb despite the murky conditions.
Moss-backed Tanager, Amagusa Reserve. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
Leaving the reserve we continued downhill as did the weather and the visibility. The conditions were atrocious and though we soldiered on and found a few good birds, most notably three bedraggled Barred Puffbirds, the afternoon was somewhat disappointing. It is not called cloud forest for nothing.
Our other excursion in the Mashpi area was for the second of my most wanted birds of the trip. Recent work has suggested that the species formerly known as Rufous-crowned Antpitta is actually more closely related to the gnateaters, hence the use of the new common name Gnatpitta, but I prefer to use Pittasoma from the scientific name and differences in morphology and vocalisations may indicate the Pittasomas are best placed in a monogeneric family. Another Chocó endemic the species appears to be scarce in Ecuador and its Colombian range has been seldom visited in recent years due to the security situation there. Work by Dusan Brinkhuizen suggests it calls irregularly and this combined with its retiring habit of foraging from the forest floor make it exceptionally difficult to see. It often appears to be quite tame when encountered but would be physically difficult to see at any distance, its rapid movement through the undergrowth punctuated by extended pauses during which it remains motionless. In August of 2015 a local conservationist who farms cocoa and produces high quality chocolate on his property near Mashpi began habituating a Rufous-crowned Pittasoma in a remnant forest patch which he both owns and surveys. He was successful and I was fortunate enough to hear this staggering news around Christmas time so I called Birdquest in the New Year to ask if a visit could be included on our itinerary. Jonás was aware of developments and I was assured we would give it a try if the bird was still coming in at the time of our visit. So it was that I entered the forest with intense anticipation on the morning of our transfer from Mindo to the Choco lowlands. Firstly the bird has to be located within its large territory by a local guide. Our guide was gone for a long time, not a good sign. Whilst waiting we had seen a couple of Lanceolated Monklets, which is a very smart bird indeed but I could not really shake ‘the fear’. On his return the guide led us further along the trail and after a short distance we met the owner Alejandro who was out surveying birds. He, it transpired, had heard the Pittasoma earlier that morning but the location was a poor one in that the sound had come from a gulley we could not see in to. Our guide went off in to the forest in the direction the sound had come from and some serious machete work was audible for a while then silence. Suddenly the word went out, the bird had been located and we were to ditch all but essential kit and move in as quietly as possible. After a fairly short descent we gathered in the middle of an ant swarm attended by a flock including a number of Bicoloured Antbirds. I am told that Pittasomas don’t follow ant swarms and maybe they don’t but Shungito (the name used to call the habituated Pittasoma) had clearly spent that morning with one. The anticipation was killing me as Alejandro called softly and suddenly the Pittasoma hopped in to view a few metres away. It stood back on and then obligingly turned to give us a full view of the underparts. After allowing us a suitable time period to fully admire him Shungito hopped away and was very soon lost to view in the undergrowth, having not taken a single worm. Whilst the bird appeared to come to the call that is only different to luring one in to view with playback in so much as the individual is habituated and the encounter was still quite an electric one.
Rufous-crowned Pittasoma, Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm project represents another initiative delivering benefits for both wildlife and local people in the wider Mindo area. Alejandro bought abandoned pasture and transformed it in to an organic cacao plantation. Bird surveys conducted when he first purchased the farm found 40 species and the number has risen to 150 in five years. Alejandro hopes to promote organic cacao production which is far more sustainable than farming cattle and sugar cane and project activities include research, eco-tourism development and community work . The web site can be found here http://www.chocomashpi.com/index.php/en/chocolate/artisanal-chocolate-and-cacao. Numerous range-restricted birds occur in the forest including Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Baudo Guan, Indigo-crowned Quail-Dove, Rose-faced Parrot, Brown Wood-Rail, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Yellow-collared Cholorphonia and Blue-whiskered Tanager. A good write up about the pittasoma including directions and maps can be viewed here https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/2015/11/28/mashpi-amagusa-rerserve-mashpi-artisanal-chocolate-farm/. I can recommend the chocolate too.