The Oilbird “cave” near Chontal

Well, it’s not actually a cave, it’s a deep, dark ravine where as many as 100 Oilbirds Steatornis caripensis make their homes. I visited it for the first time with José Illánes on April 12th 2009, so I’ll provide some info for those of you who don’t yet know about the site. It is well worth a visit if you are keen to see Oilbirds.

The cave is on the farm of the Morales family, located near the town of Chontal in northern Pichincha, very near the border with Imbabura. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Tandayapa or Mindo, or close to 3 hours from Quito. You can usually do it in a normal car, but the last part of the road can be a bit tricky without high clearance in the wet season. Reservations are a must, or there may not be anyone there to take you to the cave; calling the day before is usually fine. Reservations can be made by calling their cell phone at 082671837, and must be done in Spanish. Ask for Sr. Hugo Morales; if he is not there, his wife or son will likely answer the phone. Tell them you want to visit “La Cueva de los Tayos” and give them the date and time you plan to visit. They currently charge $6 per person, and guides go free. I recommend you visit towards the middle of the day to get the best light on the birds.

When you arrive at the farm, they might show you their collection of local artifacts while they get the tractor started up. The tractor is slow and noisy, so some people might prefer to walk the 1.2 km of farm road to the start of the trail rather than deal with the tractor. If you have a sturdy 4WD, you might be able to drive to the start of the trail – ask when you get there. The first part of the trail is easy and goes about 300 m. to the start of the ravine. Here you have the option of climbing down some ladders (bring rain gear as you will get wet) to get very close to the oilbirds. The birds flew away when we did this, causing disturbance to several active nests, plus it was very dark, so I don’t recommend this. Alternatively, you can take a fairly steep, muddy trail for about 800 m., which takes you to the lower side of the ravine. Here you cannot get as close to the birds, but the light is much better, you don’t disturb them, and with a good ‘scope you can see them very well. Check out the digiscoped photo I took when we were there. We did not see many other birds there. There is some secondary forest on the trail to the far end of the ravine, but we were there in the middle of the day and the activity was low. Away from the ravine, the habitat is very cut-over, and we saw mainly common open-country birds.

Directions to the oilbird cave

You need to take the road to Pacto, which goes northwest from the main Quito-La Independencia highway between Nanegalito and the Mindo turnoff. If you are coming from Quito or Tandayapa, this road is on your right a few minutes past Nanegalito, a few hundred meters after the Restaurante Zagal. The road to Pacto is paved but potholed – drive about 13 km on this road, then take a right on a dirt road signed for Chontal and La Cueva de los Tayos. You have to go about 17 km on this road to get to the farm, which is on the left. There is another sign for La Cueva de los Tayos here, and you might have to open a gate and drive in. Park at the buildings and they should come out and meet you.  If you reach Chontal you have gone a little to far.

Nick Athanas (text and photo)

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Aves Ecuador by Dušan M. Brinkhuizen