The Chocó Vireo Vireo masteri is one of the hardest to get Chocó endemics in Ecuador. The species was first described in Colombia in 1996 (Salaman & Stiles; Ibis 138:610-619). It was found in remote NW-Ecuador only very recently. It inhabits very wet and mossy cloud and foothill forest on the west-slope of NW-Ecuador. It is a very rare and Endangered species with just a handful of sightings coming from the Alto Tambo and Cristal area in the province of Esmeraldas. Now it is possible to see the species at Masphi in the province of Pichincha! This place is absolutely recommended for birders visiting the Mindo area.
On 26 May 2010 I did a short expedition together with Boris Herrera to El Cristal, near Lita, Esmeraldas. After getting to the community of Cristal it was a long and strenuous hike to get to the forest. Our trip involved camping and a lot of slow hiking on a muddy mule-trail. Imperfect conditions for tourism I would say. We only found one territory of Chocó Vireo along the entire trail close to the ridge (ca. 1500m asl). The male was actively singing and we were able to get some recordings of the song and calls (click here). A presumed female joined the male at a regular basis and they were foraging almost exclusively high up in the canopy. Twice we were lucky and the male came down at eye-height where we were able to get some photographs. Other rare species we saw during the trip were Star-chested Treerunner Margarornis stellatus, Indigo Flowerpiercer Diglossopis indigotica, Blue Seedeater Amaurospiza concolor and many more regular species like Pacific Tuftedcheek Pseudocolaptes johnsoni, Moss-backed Tanager Bangsia edwardsi, Glisting-green Tanager Chlorochrysa phoenicotis etc. A very successful trip I would say!
The last year I have been birding a few times at Masphi road. This new birding destination is easily reached by car from Nanegalito. Masphi is a reliable site for the rare Indigo Flowerpiercer and recently many birders and tour guides include it in their itinerary. Species like Moss-backed Tanager, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Orange-breasted Fruiteater Pipreola jucunda, Esmeraldas Antbird Myrmeciza nigricauda, Rose-faced Parrot Pyrilia pulchra and Glisting-green Tanager are surprisingly common and I have seen them on all of my visits (including the flowerpiercer). A few times I have also seen Black Solitaire Entomodestes coracinus along the road.
On 14 June 2010 I did a guided tour to the Masphi road. We first picked up the flowerpiercer along the main road and later continued on to the Masphi road. After seeing some good birds like Pacific Tuftedcheek and Moss-backed Tanager it started to rain again and visibility (thick mist) was low. Just as we wanted to drive back I vaguely heard a familiar song. I stuck my head out of the car window and again I heard a soft single song strophe. Chocó Vireo!!?? We jumped out of the car and I tried to locate the sound. It came from below and the bird sounded far away. Nevertheless I was 100% positive that is was a Chocó Vireo! After playback the bird came closer and I was able to get “hard evidence” in the form of sound recordings (click here). The bird was singing exclusively from the high canopy and visibility was very minimal. However, at a certain moment we got the singing bird into view and it was indeed a Chocó Vireo!
As far as I know this is the first record of Chocó Vireo for the province of Pichincha, a significant range extension and the southernmost record for the species. The discovery of this bird will certainly attract more birders to Masphi road. Other species that yet have not been seen, but have potential to show up at this site include Star-chested Treerunner and Purplish-mantled Tanager Iridosornis porphyrocephalus.
From Nanegalito take the La Armenia Highway to the town of Pacto (45min by car). In Pacto ask directions for La Delicia, a little community above Pacto (20min). Once at La Delicia stay on the main road that passes through the little town. The road starts to drop and good habitat can be found along the road (ca. 1600m asl, this might be the place to look for Purplish-mantled Tanager!). After driving down hill for about 4km you will get a curve with a quarry on your left hand side. This is at ca. 1300m asl. At the quarry a smaller track forks off to the left and goes up. This is the Masphi road. The start of the Masphi road at the quarry is the best spot for the Indigo Flowerpiercer (especially the steep walls with flowers along the main road). If you follow the smaller Masphi road up it will soon start to drop down again. About 800m after the small pass you get a house on your right and little later a house on your left. The first 500m after the 2nd house are good for Black Solitaire. The road drops down steadily and nice forest and birding continuous on both sides. I usually walk the road from here. After a few kilometers you hit a large gate (ca. 1100m asl). This is the entrance to the Masphi reserve but you will need permission to enter. We saw the Chocó Vireo about 800m before getting to the gate.
Dušan M. Brinkhuizen