Leaving Mashpi a long drive followed by a fairly short boat journey finally brought us to Playa del Oro just before darkness descended. Playa del Oro is the premier accessible birding locality in the Ecuadorian Chocó lowlands but is still somewhat remote compared to many sites in the country. Located at the edge of the largely uninhabited Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, Playa del Oro is precisely the kind of forest locality I love in that it is undisturbed and extensive.
Tigrillo Lodge is basic but comfortable and surrounded by excellent habitat with many of the areas best birds occurring close by. Our first morning began with a pre-dawn excursion of no more than a few hundred metres to see Chocó Poorwill. This was one of my favourite caprimulgids of the entire trip, the dark plumage serving to highlight the conspicuous white spots on the wing-coverts. This species was formerly considered conspecific with Ocellated Poorwill and both are forest dwellers but Chocó Poorwill will vocalise close to the forest edge which is helpful when trying to track one down. This individual was clearly audible from the lodge every morning during our stay.
Chocó Poorwill. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
In the lodge garden there is a tree at the top of the slope leading down to the jetty which, when fruiting, can attract some spectacular visitors. We were fortunate enough to discover after breakfast that it was fully in fruit and a steady procession of birds were moving in and out of the canopy. That the best of these on our first morning was a stunning male Blue Cotinga gives some idea of just how remarkable and exciting is the birding at Playa del Oro. It was time to head for the trails and we boarded the boat full of anticipation soon to be realised.
We began our exploration of the trail system on the famous Cascada Trail and one of the first local speciality birds we encountered was one I had long wanted to see, Stub-tailed Antbird. We enjoyed great views of a singing male at close range.
Stub-tailed Antbird. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
Spotted and Bicoloured Antbirds followed but Ocellated Antbird was uncooperative and only a couple of people managed glimpses. This was however the only real disappointment of the morning and we soon tracked down our first Sapayoa. I am not a family collector but I do love many of the sub-oscine passerines especially cotingas and manakins, originally developing an interest in Sapayoa as it was formerly placed in the latter group. Recent work has now decreed that it belongs in a monogeneric family and its closest relatives are the Old World broadbills, another favourite group of mine. Thus, dull as it is, I was pretty keen to see it. Playa del Oro is arguably the most reliable site in the world for Sapayoa which is fairly common there and we saw three that morning. The photo below illustrates the feature which contributed to the species former common name and hinted at its then unknown affinities, Broad-billed Sapayoa.
Sapayoa. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Stripe-throated Wren and Lemon-spectacled Tanager were also picked up in the flock before we moved on to a mirador for lunch.
We secured our primary target here with distant views of three Black-tipped Cotingas and a spectacular bonus in the form of a group of five Great Green Macaws. This species is rare in Ecuador where it is restricted to the west slope and I was particularly pleased to see it as whilst serving as Conservation Officer of the Neotropical Bird Club I awarded a small parcel grant to an environmental education project dedicated to protecting Great Green Macaw in the country. Another good find here was a showy Rufous Piha. Birding the canopy along the ridge was hard work and we craned our necks at horribly acute angles as birds flitted rapidly from tree to tree. The rewards were however great and chief among them were the Chocó endemic and super attractive Scarlet-and-White and Blue-whiskered Tanagers. Other good birds seen over the course of the afternoon included Cinnamon Woodpecker, Gartered Trogon, Yellow-margined and Pacific Flatbills, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-browed and Rufous-winged Tanagers and Fulvous-vented Euphonia. Chief culprit among the ‘neck breakers’ was a spectacularly difficult Five-coloured Barbet whilst among the avian highlights of the lower strata were Checker-throated Antwren, Southern Nightingale Wren, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Dusky-faced and Tawny-crested Tanagers.
During the pre-breakfast walk on day two a torch beam picked up a pale grey lump which turned out to be a vent on view of a roosting Great Tinamou, a species I had previously seen but nowhere near as well as this.
Great Tinamou. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
Post-breakfast the vigil at the fruiting tree produced both sexes of Scarlet-bellied Dacnis, another stunning looking Chocó endemic for which Playa del Oro is renowned and which I had been desperate to see. Another west slope bird new to me in the garden that morning was Purple-crowned Fairy. Back in the forest and starting the trail from the other end one of the first really good birds we encountered was another I had been hoping for, Green Manakin. I kind of like the odd dull representative of otherwise colourful groups, though of course female manakins are dull and present the challenge in identifying Green Manakin. On the west slope the only form occurring is litae which is duller and even harder to identify accurately. Larger and longer tailed than females of other manakin species Green Manakin has a pale yellow central belly not shown by Sapayoa. We had gone in from the other end of the trail to try again for the Five-coloured Barbet which performed marginally better this time around. Lita Woodpecker, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Western Woodhaunter, Black-crowned Antshrike, White-tailed and Black-throated Trogons were among the best of the birds found during the walk. We added Moustached Antwren and Black-capped Pygmy Tyrant to the list before heavy rain stopped play early in the afternoon. The downpour left everything so wet we opted for a boat ride the key encounter on which was a frustrating one involving the boat men picking out a small party of guans which dropped out of a riverside cecropia before we could get any kind of a look at them. Luckily the rain had stopped before the planned evening excursion on the loop trail behind the lodge. Juan Carlos Cavalchi who had joined us as a second guide for this section of the tour had a trick up his sleeve for securing views of our target species, Streak-chested Antpitta. It involves luring one in at dusk and then spotlighting it. Our bird responded enthusiastically enough but circled for some time and when it eventually settled right in front of us remained blocked from view. It was now dark and the bird went silent. I thought we had cashed in our chips but I hadn’t reckoned on the skill of Juan Carlos who correctly guessed the bird had dropped down to roost and stepping in to the forest quickly found it.
Streak-chested Antpitta. Photo by Jonás Oláh, Birdquest.
So ended the second of our days at Playa del Oro, nowhere near long enough but we did spectacularly well with them.
It seems a shame the Tigrillo Lodge which is run by local villagers does not get more visitors. It is a little basic but a great place to stay and the food is good. It really is a premier birding destination and given the popularity of family collecting and the relative ease with which Sapayoa can be found there it would perhaps be an idea to rename it Sapayoa Lodge and develop a marketing strategy designed to attract birdwatchers. Other eco-tourism initiatives could then follow on. It strikes me as critical for Playa del Oro, the forests of the west slope already largely lost and the people of the area somewhat remote from the capital and the regular tourist routes incorporating the high Andes and Amazon. Over exploitation of the west slope based on unsustainable agriculture has done untold damage but the people have to make a living and the brutal truth is that in the absence of an alternative and sustainable economic model the destruction is likely to continue. Places like the Tigrillo Lodge are the best hope the lowland forests of the Chocó have.