Saturday 14 December 2019

Atahualpa dry scrub birding

An hour and a half west of Cerro Blanco lies a small town called Atahualpa. Driving through this area it is apparent just how dry the landscape is. Some cacti and scrubby Acacia-type trees dot the landscape, but overall it is a canvas of muted browns and grays. Despite the bleak environs, the birding can be quite good and a number of the Tumbesian specialties frequent these areas. Since we left Cerro Blanco earlier than anticipated, we had a full afternoon to scout out the area to hopefully get a handle on where to bird at dawn the next morning.

Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We had a few main target species in mind. Sulphur-throated Finch is a nomadic species that is hit or miss in these areas, while Gray-and-white Tyrannulet seemed even scarcer. Short-tailed Field-Tyrant, Collared Warbling-Finch and Parrot-billed Seedeater seemed a bit more likely.

Pearl Kite - Zapotal area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We had read several blogs and trip reports from other birders that provided advice on how to bird the area (shout out to Birds of Passage - thanks Josh and Kathi). The land around Atahualpa is primarily owned by oil companies and as a result there are a number of random side-roads that leave the main road, heading to oil pumpjacks. A good strategy is to pick any of these roads and get out and bird the scrub. Seems simple enough!

Our first side-road was situated west of Atahualpa, on the north side of the main road ( We parked and started to explore, focusing on a wash just beyond where we had parked. In this small gulley there were a few more trees and shrubs, and right away a chattering flock of brownish finch-like birds flew in. Sulphur-throated Finches! That was easy.

Sulphur-throated Finch - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

The wash was quite birdy and we soon observed a Short-tailed Woodstar followed by a small, drab flycacther with a crest. Could it be??

Gray-and-white Tyrannulet - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Indeed it was a Gray-and-white Tyrannulet, a species we were hopeful for, but not exactly expecting. Five minutes in and we had our two main targets in the bag.

Gray-and-white Tyrannulet - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

The wash continued to produce and we had soon observed Necklaced Spinetail, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Tawny-crowned Pygmy-Tyrant, Croaking Ground-Dove, Pacific Parrotlet and more. The Necklaced Spinetails were quite wren-like as they skulked in the thickets. Like wrens, they were equally impossible to photograph.

Necklaced Spinetail - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

 We observed our first of many Knobbed Pacific Iguanas (Microlophus occipitalis) here as well.

Knobbed Pacific Iguana (Microlophus occipitalis) - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Dave and Siobhan spotted a Parrot-billed Seedeater which Laura and I missed, then just when we were about to leave a Collared Warbling-Finch flew in. Another one bites the dust...

Collared Warbling-Finch - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We drove for five more minutes, picking a slightly more major side-road this time ( Two Variable Hawks welcomed us on arrival.

Variable Hawk - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Variable Hawk - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We parked our car and began to explore, taking care to ensure that we were well off the road in case any trucks needed to drive by.

 Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

It started off slow but soon some birds appeared in some scrubby thickets. We finally caught up with one of our last main targets for this area - Short-tailed Field-Tyrant - but it was playing hard to get and refused to let us photograph it. This buckeye was a bit more accommodating.

Junonia sp. - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

 We caught up with a nice mixed flock that included some White-edged Orioles, various seedeater types (Laura and I finally got our Parrot-billed Seedeater), some Sulphur-throated Finches, Superciliated Wrens and a few flycatchers. Some of the Sulphur-throated Finches were unusually approachable, allowing us to take some decent photos of them.

Sulphur-throated Finches - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Sulphur-throated Finches - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We slowly made our way back towards the vehicle, having been gone for about an hour. Up ahead we could see a couple of pick-up trucks and two police cruisers on the side of the road. We didn't think much of it until we realized that it was the exact spot where we had parked our car. As we approached, we could see one of the officers peering in our car's windows and taking notes, and we began to think "Oh shit".

It turns out that one of the workers had spotted our car and called it in to his boss, who in turn notified the authorities. The officers were just about ready to call a tow truck to take the car away when we arrived. We explained the situation, showing them photos on our cameras to indicate that we were just birders, with nothing else nefarious in mind. This seemed to appease the officers and they gave us a stern warning to not explore these areas, as they are private property (despite the lack of "No Tresspassing" signs). The officers informed us that these areas are quite dangerous and we should not be walking around like how we were. Good to know for the future!

Of course before they could let us on our merry way, they had to take a selfie with us! I guess it is not everyday that they run into Canadian tourists in these parts. At the end of the day the situation was resolved without any problems but we were glad that we had seen all of our target species so that we did not have to return and test fate the next morning!

A friendly encounter with the cops - Atahualpa area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

We drove towards the town of Ancón where we had an AirBnB booked for the night. We still had a few hours of light left in the day and so we drove over to a harbour in nearby Anconcito to poke around for a bit. Along the way, we stopped to photograph our first West Peruvian Dove on a wire. It is remarkable how similar these things are to White-winged Doves.

West Peruvian Dove - Ancón area, Santa Elena, Ecuador

The harbour was a great stop since hundreds of pelicans, frigatebirds and gulls were swarming the fishing boats. We were pleased to pick out a few Peruvian Pelicans and a Gray-hooded Gull among the masses. And with that, we made our way to the AirBnB to relax for the evening. It had been a very full day!

Peruvian Pelican - Anconcito harbour, Santa Elena, Ecuador

That evening we set up the moth sheet, hoping for some new species in the dry scrub. It was a cool evening with a moderate breeze which hampered efforts and it was a rather meager showing. Little did we know that the mothing would be off the charts the next night in Ayampe...

Tosale sp. - Ancón, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Melipotus trujillensis - Ancón, Santa Elena, Ecuador

Emerald Moth sp. (Geometrinae) - Ancón, Santa Elena, Ecuador

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