Mark Pretti Nature Tours, L.L.C.

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Ecuador Trip Report - the following is a summary of my 2008-2012 northern Ecuador trips.

Due to it's standing as tops in avian diversity, South America has often been called the 'bird continent'.  While Columbia, Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador top the list of most species per country, of these, Ecuador, by far the smallest, is hands down number one in species per square mile.  With over 1600 species of birds in an area the size of my home state of Arizona, Ecuador has become known as one of the top spots in the world for seeing, enjoying, and learning about an impressive variety of beautiful and fascinating birds.  Such bird diversity is paralleled by general floral and faunal richness and a highly varied biogeography, making Ecuador a nature lovers paradise.  In recent years, I've had the good fortune to spend four months traveling throughout much of the country.   What follows is a summary of our experiences during northern Ecuador trips that include the eastern and western slopes of the Andes, a bit of the northwest lowlands, a touch of Amazonia, and the high paramo.  All species mentioned have been seen on previous trips.

For birders and general nature enthusiasts, the interandean city of Quito is perfectly situated to access the wonders of Ecuador, many of which are easily reached by often very scenic drives.  Climbing out of the dryish valley and crossing to the western slope, one begins a spectacular descent through a rich biological transect, passing through temperate, subtropical, foothill, and lowland forests.  Throughout the world, habitats and species are restricted by elevation, but in Ecuador and other Andean countries, where elevations may range from sea level to over 20,000 feet in a relatively short distance, this concept reaches a zenith, and short elevation changes take on inordinate significance in terms of species distributions and variety. 

My trip begins in the northwest foothills and lowlands at Tinalandia Nature Reserve, a well known hot spot for a large variety of birds, including several Choco endemics and 'west slope only' species.  Despite the slightly fragmented forest in the area, Tinalandia is one of those places where the birding can be outstanding right outside your front door.  During the two days we spend here, and in the short walks we take, we usually find over 100 species.  The main road from the cabins to the lodge can be a challenge, not because of the hill between them, but because there are sometimes just so many birds to look at!  Mixed flocks can include orange-fronted and red-headed barbets, brown-capped tyrannulet, slaty-capped shrike-vireo, cinnamon and one-colored becards, yellow-tufted dacnis, blue-necked and silver-throated tanagers, streak-headed woodcreeper, red-billed scythebill, yellow-throated and ashy-throated bush-tanagers, and scale-crested pygmy-tyrant.  The fruit feeders are a good spot to see the typically skulky dusky-faced tanager as well as more easily seen birds such as lemon-rumped tanager, pale-mandibled aracari, green honeycreeper, orange-billed sparrow, and three species of euphonia (orange-bellied, orange-crowned, and thick-billed).  Hummingbird feeders, though not as busy as those at higher elevations, can provide excellent views of green-crowned brilliant, white-whiskered hermit, green thorntail, and green-crowned woodnymph.

Other birds that we see regularly at Tinlandia include Pacific parrotlet, several owls (Peruvian pygmy-owl, spectacled, and black-and-white), crimson-rumped toucanet, Ecuadorian thrush, band-backed and bay wrens, fawn-breasted tanager, slaty and red-faced spinetails, pallid dove, buff-rumped warbler, Pacific hornero, slaty-capped shrike-vireo, and rufous and broad-billed motmots.  Not so common are several woodpeckers including Guayaquil, scarlet-backed, and red-rumped.  The many patches of heliconia attract white-tipped sicklebill which we've had perched in good light for many minutes on several occasions.  At a small pond near the cabins, we've yet to miss white-throated crake and masked water tyrant.  While both are found only on the west slope of Ecuador, the water-tyrant is particularly interesting as it occurs in two widely disjunct populations, one in west Ecuador and the second on the opposite side of the continent in the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil!  Mammals we've seen include tayra, Central American agouti, and red-tailed squirrel. 

From Tinalandia, we head northeast and uphill, making a stop at San Miguel de Los Bancos where hummer and fruit feeders keep us entertained during our delicious lunch.  Golden, silver-throated, rufous-throated, and flame-faced tanagers can make for a colorful show.  Nearby is another MCF preserve, the Milpe Bird Sanctuary.  We spend the afternoon at Milpe where we've had good luck finding club-winged and golden-winged manakin, snowy-throated kingbird, ornate flycatcher, glistening-green tanager, white-thighed swallow, olive-crowned yellowthroat, purple-bibbed whitetip, and more.  We complete this bird-filled day as we arrive at Septimo Paraiso, a well-known bird lodge in a gorgeously forested valley above the town of Mindo.  We spend two nights at Septimo, enjoying the grounds where red-billed parrot, yellow tyrannulet, Choco toucan, red-faced and Azara's spinetails, spotted barbtail, 15 or more species of hummers, and many more species are found.  A 'must-do' highlight during our stay in the Mindo area is a visit to the Reserva Paz de Las Aves.  By now, countless birders, photographers, and general nature enthusiasts have heard the amazing story of Angel Paz, a local farmer who has “tamed” four species of antpitta – giant, moustached, yellow-breasted, and ochre-breasted.  Typically secretive and difficult to see, the antpitta show at Angel’s will seem like a miracle.  Though the diminutive ochre-breasted can be tough, we've had great luck in the past in seeing all four species.  He also has fruit feeders where toucan barbets, crimson-rumped toucanets, and several mountain tanagers are regular eye-level, close-up visitors.  There is sometimes an olivaceous piha at the feeder or on a nest, and, as of 2010, he has also habituated a rufous-breasted antthrush.  His hummer feeders are noteworthy for empress brilliant, and I almost forgot to mention the opening act, a lek of Andean cock-of-the-rock............and, as of 2012, an ocellated tapaculo coming to a worm feeder !! 

Amazingly, at this point in the trip, though we've already seen a mind-boggling diversity of species, we're just getting warmed up.  On our way to our next stop, the incomparable Tandayapa Lodge, where we spend two nights, we make a lunch stop at Mindo Loma, a cloud forest site that is excellent for velvet-purple coronet, empress brilliant and many tanagers, including black-chinned mountain tanager.  Now one of the most popular birding spots in the world, the Tandayapa area is well known for it's hummingbirds and cloud forest species.  On a good day, the lodge feeders alone can host up to 16 hummingbird species including booted racket-tail, fawn-breasted brilliant, western emerald, gorgeted sunangel, violet-tailed sylph, purple-throated woodstar, Andean emerald, and sparkling violetear.  The damp, epiphyte laden forest, rich with the sounds of exotic birds, has a mystical quality.  This is the home of tooting toucan barbets, the far-carrying calls of plate-billed mountain-toucans, the sweet musical song of russet-crowned warbler, the descending whistle of ocellated tapaculo, the frequent calls of chestnut-crowned antpitta, and the chatter of fast moving mixed flocks of tanagers, furnarids, and warblers.  Among the hundreds of species possible, we usually see montane and strong-billed woodcreepers, Spillman's tapaculo, crimson-mantled woodpecker, golden-headed quetzal, Azara's spinetail, plain-tailed and mountain wrens, streaked tuftedcheek, pearled treerunner, green-and-black fruiteater, white-tailed tyrannulet, white-throated quail-dove, scaly-naped parrot, spectacled whitestart, and many tanager species (blue-capped, blue-winged mountain, beryl-spangled, golden-naped, blue-and-black, grass-green, and dusky-bush).  Though rare, raptors possible in the area include black-and-chestnut eagle and barred hawk.  

After a final morning, we leave Tandayapa and make the spectacular crossing of the Andes to the eastern slope and Guango Lodge.  If skies are clear, we sometimes have views of the big three nearby volcanoes - Antisana, Cotopaxi, and Cayambe.   Our late afternoon arrival at Guango Lodge is met by a flurry of hummingbird activity.  Of the many species found here (tourmaline sunangel, speckled hummingbird, tyrian metaltail, glowing puffleg, chestnut-breasted coronet, buff-winged starfrontlet, and white-bellied woodstar), perhaps the star of the show is the amazing sword-billed hummingbird.  This seemingly improbable bird eventually makes sense as one travels through the area and sees the many long, trumpet-shaped Brugmansia flowers on which these hummers specialize.  The Rio Papallacta passes through the Guango property and is a very reliable spot for torrent tyrannulet, white-capped dipper, and the beautiful torrent duck whose ease at moving through a raging river is impressive.  The lodge grounds are great for mountain wren, gray-breasted wood-wren, turqouise jay, northern mountain-cacique, chestnut-crowned antpitta, and occasionally gray-breasted mountain-toucan.  At times, the trails can seem quiet.....until one encounters a mixed flock in which case it may become every birder for his or herself.  Flocking species in the canopy can include four species of mountain tanager (scarlet-bellied, blue-winged, buff-breasted, and lacrimose), capped and blue-backed conebills, gray-hooded bush-tanager, white-banded tyrannulet, and cinnamon flycatcher.  Understory flocks are equally exciting with four species of brush-finches (pale-naped, stripe-headed, chestnut-capped, and slaty), plushcap, cinereous conebill, black-crested warbler, and black-capped and black-eared hemispingus.  Tyrannine and olive-backed woodcreepers, masked trogon, bar-bellied woodpecker, dusky Piha, rufous-breasted and slaty-backed chat tyrants, and rufous antpitta are other Guango favorites.

From Guango, we make an afternoon visit to nearby Papallacta Pass.  The dense shrubs, grassy paramo, bizarre cushion plants, windswept slopes, wetlands, and small lakes offer a variety of habitats with surprisingly diverse birds.  Here we've seen Ecuadorian hillstar, bar-winged and stout-billed cinclodes, brown-backed chat-tyrant, black-billed shrike-tyrant, plain-crowned (paramo) ground-tyrant, tawny antpitta, Andean tit-spinetail, many-striped canastero, variable hawk, black-chested buzzard eagle, Andean teal and lapwing, and plumbeous sierra-finch.  At the highest (and often windiest) point, we search the bunchgrasses, cushion plants, and bare ground for the well camouflaged rufous-bellied seedsnipe, a large and intricately patterned bird that defies the elements in this harsh (at least for humans) environment. 

From Guango we drop lower to the subtropical forests of San Isidro Lodge where we're spoiled by comfortable rooms and superb food, not to mention great birds right on the lodge grounds.  Hummer feeders are visited by bronzy inca, green and sparkling violetears, and gorgeted woodstar, there is a possible new species of Strix owl on the grounds, and, like many of Ecuador's bird lodges, San Isidro has a habituated antpitta, the white-bellied, and in 2011, a rare Peruvian antpitta was coming to a worm feeder.  Fruiting trees by the lodge entrance can be magnets for morning flocks, and we've often had a hard time getting to breakfast or out on the trails while watching Andean solitaire, barred becard, ashy-headed tyrannulet, white-crested elaenia, black-billed peppershrike, brown-capped vireo, green (Inca) jays, pale-edged flycatcher, subtropical cacique, and many others. 

The forest at San Isidro can be particularly rich with challenging canopy flocks which may include  variegated and marble-faced bristle-tyrants, yellow-vented woodpecker, chestnut-breasted chlorophonia, and rufous-crested as well as many other tanagers.  Other species we've enjoyed at San Isidro include flavescent flycatcher, bluish flowerpiercer, black-capped tanager, golden-collared honeycreeper, Andean (highland) motmot, rufous-banded owl, crested quetzal, emerald toucanet, sulphur-bellied tyrannulet, long-tailed antbird, rufous-crowned tody-flycatcher, fulvous-breasted flatbill, handsome flycatcher, tyrannine woodcreeper, and pale-eyed thrush.  Rufous-bellied nighthawk is an occasional evening visitor that can be seen well from the lodge rooftop, and n some years, there is a stake out for Andean potoo on the entrance road.

From San Isidro, we make a day trip to lower elevations eventually reaching the western edge of the Amazonian lowlands and some of its species.  Our first stop is Guacamayos Ridge where we walk a trail through spectacular subtropical forest.  In addition to many of the same species seen around San Isidro, we've found Andean guan, golden-eyed flowerpiercer, rufous-headed pygmy-tyrant, rufous wren, barred fruiteater, black-billed mountain-toucan, grass-green tanager, and the rare greater scythebill.  

After a final morning at San Isidro, we return to Quito where we spend the night before a final day trip to the Antisana Reserve.  Antisana, like Papallacta, is a high elevation area with expansive grassy paramo.  While the lower portions are good for giant hummingbird, red-crested cotinga, streak-throated bush-tyrant, shining sunbeam, green and black-tailed trainbearers, and others, the high grasslands offer an entirely different suite of species.  Endless fields of grass are bounded by rocky ridges against which Andean condor, black-chested buzzard-eagle, variable hawk, and Aplomado falcon are seen.  Cinereous harriers glide over the grasslands which can be dotted with many carunculated caracaras and small flocks of black-winged ground-doves.  We've occasionally had great luck in finding the rare and local (as well as beautiful) black-faced ibis, and once had perhaps two rarer species for that location - upland sandpiper and red knot.  With the striking peak of Antisana itself as a sometimes visible backdrop, the high lakes are home to a number of high Andean specialists, including Andean teal, lapwing, coot, gull, and ruddy duck, yellow-billed pintail, silvery grebe, and wintering Baird's sandpipers and greater yellowlegs.  While the birds and scenery are memorable, what's most striking to me about the Antisana Reserve is its wildness.  It remains one of the few unspoiled places on planet Earth and provides a perfect ending to an unforgettable trip.  

This itinerary is designed to provide optimum exposure to most of the habitats found in northern Ecuador while minimizing our travel distances.  With much of our birding done right at the lodges, the pace is easy and the action is rich.  I look forward to sharing this amazing place with many of you in the future.

Masked water-tyrant, dusky bush-tanager, velvet-purple coronet, cushion plant, and Volcan Cotopaxi by Misty Vaughn.  
Tandayapa Valley by John Dicus

Last updated: October 21, 2013.