The Critically Endangered hummingbird, the Black-breasted Puffleg (Eriocnemis nigrivestis), has a tiny world range centered on and near Volcán Pichincha, the volcano that towers over Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. There have also been a few recent reports of the species from above Intag, a little further north in the Andes, but its status there remains unknown. Judging by the relatively large number of specimens that were taken in the 19th century, Black-breasted Pufflegs may have been more numerous then, but since about 1950 there has been a dramatic decline in the frequency of sightings. Yanacocha, a small Quechua village on the northwest flank of Volcán Pichincha at ca. 3200-3400 m above sea level on the northwestern flank of the volcano remained one of the more reliable remaining locations for it. Field studies on the species had begun under the auspices of CECIA (now Aves y Conservation), and this led to the suggestion that an extensive area of forest where the bird was present be purchased and established as a reserve for the species. So in 2001, ca. 950 hectares of the best forest was acquired by Fundación Jocotoco, and the area has subsequently been managed as private reserve by the foundation. Small additions have followed, and by 2010 the reserve had expanded to about 1200 hectares. In 2005 the puffleg was adopted as the ‘emblematic bird of Quito’ and the reserve declared as a ‘natural patrimonio’ of the city. This forest has provided water for Quito since pre-Columbian times, and today it remains an important source of water to northern Quito and the town of Nono.
The reserve is open to the public, with primary access – after ascending ca. 15 kilometers on a narrow and scenic road up through partially cultivated countryside (raptors are regularly seen, and watch for the scarce Curve-billed Tinamou in the pastures) – being along a main trail that actually is on top of the aqueduct and therefore is essentially level (a rarity this high in the Andes!). This trail extends for more than two kilometres through the high-elevation forest, with flocks of birds being regularly encountered. Several stations with multiple hummingbird feeders are situated at various spots, and visitors can obtain point-blank views of the many species that regularly arrive to feed. Of these, the extraordinary Sword-billed Hummingbird and the spectacular Great Saphirewing are perhaps the most notable, but there also are two other species of puffleg (Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted) and a couple species of flowerpiercers (e.g., Glossy and Masked). Unfortunately the sought-after Black-breasted Puffleg is not seen regularly, and researchers are continuing to try to figure out why. The Andean flora which provides normal provisioning (nectar) for the hummingbirds is very evident along the trail, with genera such as Bomarea, Centropogon, Fuchsia, Macleania, and Palicouria being especially prominent. Giant Gunnera plants with their huge but prickly leaves are very obvious beside the trail. Many birds besides hummingbirds are also to be seen, with mixed species flocks dominated by various tanagers including spectacular mountain tanagers (Hooded, Scarlet-bellied, Black-chested, and Buff-breasted), Barred Fruiteater, Pearled Treerunner and many others. Pairs and family group of notably tame Andean Guans are also regular. A recent addition is a worm feeder for the Tawny Antpitta right behind the reserve entrance building; in addition Rufous Antpittas are now increasingly often seen hopping on the trail itself. Three globally near-threatened species are present at Yanacocha: Andean Condor (mainly in the high páramo, but also sometimes flying high above the trail), Imperial Snipe (wait for it at dusk), and Giant Conebill (with mixed flocks). Side trails down into the valley below the wide level trail can be taken to get a more intimate view of the forest interior, and provide a better chance to see shy species such as the Undulated and Chestnut-naped Antpittas and Ocellated Tapaculo.
Amongst mammals, the Spectacled Bear, Andean Fox, Western Mountain Coati, Andean Paca, Northern Pudu, Red Brocket Deer, Oncilla, and Puma are all present – but not easy to see (come early or late, and avoid weekends). Puma tracks are often seen along the main trail. Five species of frog (one of them newly described), and one reptile have so far been recorded.
An active habitat restoration programme is ongoing, involving the reforestation of some recently purchased pastures along the lower edge of the reserve and also some higher areas that were burned off in decades past. This involves the planting of thousands of young Polylepis trees as well as several other native species. A nursery for these seedlings is maintained close to the entrance office.