Guided by Jose Illanes.This was a set departure tour, and it included the High Andes extension.
This tour has felt like a home from home for me, as I have now led this tour so many times in the last 13 years. It also remains a firm favorite of mine; as it is set up so that almost the entire tour is based at one comfortable lodge (Tandaypa Bird Lodge). The central location of the lodge allowed us to dip into a variety of varied forest habitats in the Andes, all with their own discrete selections of birds. This makes it a very diverse tour, relative to the amount of time spent in the field.
We started off, not far from Ecuador’s capital Quito, at the wonderful Yanacocha Reserve. It proved to be a bumper start with Aplomado Falcon, and Hooded, Black-chested and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Andean Guan, Barred Fruiteater the bizarre Sword-billed Hummingbird, Purple-backed Thornbill, and Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs all seen during our single morning there. From there we dropped in altitude as we drove along the Old Nono-Mindo road towards Tandayapa Bird Lodge, picking up Plain-tailed Wren, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, Blue-backed Conebill, the rare and erratic Blue Seedeater, and Sickle-winged Guan along the way. We spent some time right at our base, Tandayapa Bird Lodge, the next day chalking up 14 species of among the hundreds of hummingbirds at their feeders, including the cute Booted-Racket-tail, Empress Brilliant, Andean Emerald, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, the funky looking Violet-tailed Sylph and the bumble-bee like Purple-throated Woodstar. At the forest blind on the property, we also admired Zeledon’s Antbird, Spotted Barbtail, Tricolored and Chestnut-capped Brushfinches, and a White-throated Quail-Dove. The lodge fruit feeders were also active at the time, with Crimson-rumped Toucanet, White-winged Brushfinch and Red-headed Barbet all visiting. We also spent some time at the upper end of the Tandayapa Valley, where a different species mix occurs, and found the must-see Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, in addition to Grass-green Tanager, Gorgeted Sunangel, and the striking Pearled Treerunner. The shock find was not a bird though, but a cat, as a Margay, was seen standing alongside the road! We also searched the lower end of the valley too, where highlights included Flame-faced Tanager and Golden-headed Quetzal, in addition to a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar at dusk.
One of our day trips took us much lower down to the Rio Silanche area, which was as birdy as ever, with Masked Water-Tyrant, Pacific Antwren, Pacific Parrotlet, Bronze-winged Parrot, Purple-chested Hummingbird, White-tailed and Choco Trogons, Olivaceous Piculet, Orange-fronted Barbet, Little Cuckoo, Tawny-crested, Scarlet-browed, and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Yellow-tufted Dacnis and White-bearded Manakin all featuring. We also got nice views of a roadside White-throated Crake, which was unusual. Another lower altitude site than the lodge, Milpe, was also visited that is located within the Andean foothills. This special site led us to see Collared Aracari, Choco Toucan, Rufous Motmot, Flame-faced, Blue-necked, Silver-throated, Golden, and Rufous-throated Tanagers, and a Pallid Dove coming to the fruit feeders. The forest trails there also produced some regional specialties like Choco Trogon, Choco Warbler and Ochre-breasted Tanager. Our rarest sighting of the day was the subdued Fulvous-breasted Flatbill, a rarely seen species in this area. The hummingbird mix is very different here than the other sites we had visited, and gave us Crowned Woodnymph, White-whiskered Hermit and Green Thorntail as new species for the trip.
Although this tour is not especially focused on seeing the regional endemics, we always see plenty of them, as we visit a number of key sites for them on the itinerary. Not least among these is Mashpi, a site, which seems to burst with scarce endemic species, many of which are also extremely attractive ones too, making a must visit site. Among the many highlights in this cloudforest area were Orange-breasted and Scaled Fruiteaters, Black Solitaire, Uniform Treehunter, Club-winged and Golden-winged Manakins, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and Glistening-green, Rufous-throated and Moss-backed Tanagers.
On our last day in the Northwest of Ecuador, we visited Refugio Paz de Aves another very special site, famed for two main avian aspects; it is home to one of the best Andean Cock-of-the-rock leks in the country, and it is also where the local farmers have learnt to lure in and feed a number of normally difficult forest birds. We saw half a dozen scarlet male Andean Cock-of-the-rocks dancing at dawn, and also saw the feeding of birds like Dark-backed Wood-Quail, and Yellow-breasted, Ochre-breasted and Moustached Antpittas. Away from the feeding stations, the birding was also good, and yielded Golden-headed Quetzal, Metallic-green Tanager, Wedge-billed Hummingbird and a roosting Lyre-tailed Nightjar while we waited for one of the antpittas. The site, like so many in this extremely rich birding area, also possesses fruit feeders, which attracted Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager during our visit, while the on-site hummer feeders produced Empress Brilliant, Brown Inca and some glowing Velvet-purple Coronets. Later the same day we visited Calacalí a dry country site on the way to Quito, where our short birding session led us to see some final new birds of the main tour, like Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch, Tufted-Tit-Tyrant, Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant, and our main target, the scarce White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant.
Unfortunately for some participants, the trip ended there, as they could not be part of the short High Andes Extension, covering the most scenic sites of the entire tour. So, after a final night altogether in Quito, the extension group traveled up to Antisana National Park where we saw the Ecuadorian Hillstar, Carunculated Caracara, Black-faced Ibis, Andean Gull, Andean Lapwing, and Silvery Grebe gave us such a nice look. However, arguably the star bird of the morning was Ecuador’s enormous national bird, the Andean Condor, 4 of which were found resting on their regular cliffs. We also enjoyed a lunch in a café just outside the park, where a few feeders attracted Shining Sunbeam and Giant Hummingbird. Our next stop was Guango Lodge, another in a long list of top notch hummingbird sites in the country, and where the feeders drew in Collared Inca, Long-tailed Sylph, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sword-billed Hummingbird, White-bellied Woodstar and Tourmaline Sunangel during our visit. The surrounding property was very productive with Masked Trogon, Turquoise Jay, Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, Slaty Brushfinch and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta all making an appearance. We also birded at Cayambe-Coca National Park, near Papallacta town, where we saw Masked and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers, Black-backed Bush-Tanager and Viridian Metaltail. Unfortunately, the pass at Papallacta had some serious weather issues, limiting our time there, but we did still manage to find Red-rumped Bush-Tyrant, Many-striped Canastero, Andean Tit-Spinetail and Red-crested Cotinga during our time there. However, and not for the first time on this fortunate tour, an animal other than a bird was the highlight, as encountered a mother and cub Spectacled Bear on the last day of the tour, for a fantastic finale to the tour!