Guided by Sam Woods.
This tour is one of my favorite tours that I am privileged to lead; Ecuador has become my home now, and we visited some of the birdiest areas in the region; from the endemic-rich Tandayapa region in the northwest to the scenic high Andean paramos of the east on the extension, which come complete with dramatic views of volcanoes as well as a discreet set of high altitude birds like Andean Condor, Giant Conebill, and Ecuadorian Hillstar.
This tour provided a great overview of the region by dipping into different elevations during the main tour in the endemic-rich Choco region of northwest Ecuador: We began in the TEMPERATE ZONE at the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation reserve of Yanacocha (3400m/11,150ft), where Sword-billed Hummingbird and a pair of Rufous Antpittas were the highlight. From there we traveled down the infamous Old Nono-Mindo Road, dropping into the SUBSTROPICAL ZONE as we did so, and picking up Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper in the process. Our following day was spent entirely in the Tandayapa Valley, at both the upper elevations of the valley, and around Tandayapa Bird Lodge (1750m/5740ft), both also within the subtropics. The lodge is world famous among birders and nature photographers for hummingbirds in particular, and we feasted on a wonderful variety of these there, totaling SIXTEEN species, including such stunners as the comical Booted Racket-tail and the beautiful Violet-tailed Sylph. The lodge blind provided some great sightings too, with a visiting Scaled Antpitta, and a pair of White-throated Quail-Doves that mated on a branch at eye-level just feet away. Our time lower down in the FOOTHILL ZONE was split between two areas: the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (MCF) Reserve of Milpe (1100m/3610ft), and the relatively new site of Mashpi. At Milpe we saw the magnificent displays of several male Club-winged Manakins, as well as three toucan species. Mashpi (1300m/4265ft) is one of the premier sites in the region, in terms of endemics of this Choco region, and it did not disappoint with Glistening-green and Moss-backed Tanagers, Indigo Flowerpiercer, and the ultra-gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater, a clear contender for bird of the trip. Our next stop was another vital MCF sanctuary, Rio Silanche (350m/1150ft), which provided a good insight into the LOWER FOOTHILLS, where the bird fauna reflects both foothill and lowland elements. In a head-spinning day there we amassed around 130 species including the rare and stunning Scarlet-breasted Dacnis; Barred Puffbird; Gray-and-gold and Rufous-winged Tanagers; and a surprise sighting of Plain-breasted Ground-Dove; not a looker, but a rare and very recent colonizer, and one of the first records for this well-visited site. The main tour ended with time back up in the SUBTROPICAL ZONE at the small private reserve of Paz de Aves near the birding town of Mindo, where the local farmer-turned-bird-guide helped to lure in 3 different species of antpitta (2 Ochre-breasted Antpittas, 3 Moustached Antpittas, and 2 Yellow-breasted Antpittas, page before); while the Andean Cock-of-the-rock display there was scintillating and put it in hot contention as one of the birds of the trip. We also enjoyed further stunning hummingbirds there, most notably the breathtaking Velvet-purple as well as a day roosting male Lyre-tailed Nightjar, complete with its long, train-like, tail.
Our group of four was halved for the High Andes Extension, as two departed home for Christmas, while Jim and Kris stayed on for a vastly different experience from the main tour. While the sites on the main tour are largely forest areas, the extension visited two high Andean sites (3800-4300m/12,465-14,110ft), above the treeline, where the dominant habitat is open grassland, known as paramo. This made for the easiest birding of the tour, due to a combination of open country birding, and some abundant high elevation species. The extension, as usual, produced some of the true standout birds of the entire tour, including Ecuador’s massive national bird, Andean Condor; along with a gorgeous, purple-helmeted male Ecuadorian Hillstar; lots of Carunculated Caracaras (photo above), on the plateau at Antisana; the Andean version of the nuthatch, Giant Conebill in the haunting polylepis woods near Papallacta Pass; an adorable family of Torrent Ducks surfing the rapids along the Guango River; and the Ptarmigan-like Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe on a cold, foggy morning at Papallacta. We stayed at the famed Guango Lodge (2600m/8530ft) where we got another final hit of hummingbirds to add to all the other high Andean avian treasures on the tour, as their feeders yielded a heady ten species, some of which were unique to the extension.
We had covered altitudes from as low as 350m/1150ft (Rio Silanche), to up to 4300m/14,100ft (Papallacta), and amassed a trip list of 380 species in just 8 days birding; (for both the main tour and extension combined). This included a good mix of hummingbirds (45 species), and species from the tanager family (60+ species) in particular, and also included over 30 Choco regional endemics being seen too, (e.g. Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Violet-tailed Sylph, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Glistening-green Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager).
A special THANK YOU also to Tandayapa volunteer, George Lin, who proved both great company, and a great asset, on our day trips to Mashpi and Silanche. Thanks George!