Trip report: Ecuador, The Andes Introtour (Jan 2021) by Tropical Birding

Guided by Sam Woods (main tour) and Jose Illanes (High Andes Extension).This was a set departure tour, and it included the High Andes extension.

This Andes Introtour did what it set out to do; show people the wonder and extraordinary diversity of tropical birds, in the mountains of Ecuador. Two chains of the Andes run like a vertical spine through this small South American country, with a deep valley in between, dividing up some of the birds, so that some occur only on either the western or eastern slopes. The entire main tour was based on the outward, western slope of the Andes, within various types of cloudforest. Each of these (“temperate”, “subtropical” and “foothill”), forests are defined by small altitudinal changes that is represented by markedly varied birding opportunities within them. This 8-day main tour visited the most famous and accessible bird region in the country, the northwest, just west of the country’s capital, Quito. In this famous Choco bioregion, a series of diverse reserves were visited by staying at a central location, Tandayapa Bird Lodge for five straight nights, this bioregion comes with its own special set of birds. Thus, while introducing the group to many widespread, classic tropical species and families, a selection of these were from this discrete group of Choco specialties (i.e., found only in Northwest Ecuador and neighboring Western Colombia). After the main tour, a few days were spent in a higher area of the Andes, just over on the eastern side of the mountains. This latter extension mixed temperate forest birding with open country, paramo grassland birding above that, and was joined by all, when a further 40+ species were added, including the massive Andean Condor, robin-sized Giant Hummingbird, a torrent-dwelling Torrent Duck that shared the rushing Andean river with a pair of bouncing White-capped Dippers, a very showy Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, the well-camouflaged Andean Potoo roosting in plain sight, a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes found by taking a short drive up the highest point of the tour, and a specialist tanager, called Giant Conebill, which resides only in patches of polylepis trees above the timberline, and behaves in the fashion of a nuthatch. The latter was virtually the last bird of the tour.

Hummingbirds are an integral part of any tour in the American tropics, or “Neotropics”, (this is where the highest species numbers are). We got more than a tiny taste of this during this tour, notching up 45 hummingbird species, (a third of Ecuador’s total list), in just 8 days birding. Some of the most spectacular species not already mentioned, from this group were the gorgeous Velvet-purple Coronet, the feisty Shining Sunbeam (photo page 5), the outlandish Sword-billed Hummingbird (photo page 2), Black-tailed Trainbearer and Booted Racket-tail, and striking Sparkling Violetear and Violet-tailed Sylph. Tanagers were also a striking feature on this tour, with more than 50 tanagers seen, and seeming to hold every single conceivable color between them. Tanagers were observed at a series of feeders or found within the exciting feeding flocks that pervade the forests of the Andes. Among the tanager highlights were Scarlet-bellied and Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers on our first birding day, and Buff-breasted Mountain-Tanager on our final day. In between, we got other arresting species, like Glistening-green, Moss-backed, Flame-faced, Grass-green, Blue-necked, Emerald, Gray-and-gold, Scarlet-browed, Rufous-throated, Blue-and-yellow, and Black-chinned and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers, as well as the stunning Yellow-tufted form of Black-faced Dacnis and Indigo Flowerpiercer, which are both also from the same bird family.

Other standouts moments were provided by a male Orange-breasted Fruiteater gorging on fruits by the feeders at Mashpi, a daytime White-throated Screech-Owl, a night time Lyre-tailed Nightjar (a shockingly shaped night bird with an immensely long tail), Andean Lapwings foraging in pastureland in the highlands, a Tawny Antpitta that hopped out below a feeder full of tanagers at Yanacocha, an amazingly co-operative Golden-headed Quetzal (above, thanks Angel) at Paz de las Aves, which simply refused to budge from his open perch in a fruiting tree, no matter how many of us were in a photo frenzy! Among the other popular birds, within the group, were a dapper penguin-suited Black Solitaire that say for an age for repeated scope looks and ream of photos, a scarlet-hooded male Red-headed Barbet (photo below) over lunch at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, and a hip-wiggling Ochre-breasted Antpitta (nicknamed “Shakira” for good reason!) in Mindo, a Barred Puffbird that just sat above us on a wire as if we were not there, a cute Ornate Flycatcher that was hunting bugs by the lodge at dawn at Tandayapa, Toucan Barbets, which felt like they were easier than ever before, being encountered regularly at three feeders, and could accurately be perceived as emblematic of this particular Andes Introtour, the always cute and colorful Cinnamon Flycatcher that Debbie found early on, a raucous mob of Russet-backed Oropendolas that conspicuously took over the feeders at Tandayapa (it is scarce in western cloudforests, but common in the Amazonian lowlands), and then proceeded to give their odd call nearby, a fruit-chomping pair of Choco Toucans at an active set of feeders that saved a rainy afternoon, where an Orange-billed Sparrow also memorably hopped around below the trays of fruit! A three antpitta morning (including the endemic Yellow-breasted and Moustached Antpittas) at Paz de las Aves Reserve, courtesy of Angel, was nothing to be scoffed at either, (even when with this bird “master” who is known for his “way” with antpittas in particular.

The northwest of Ecuador is not known for its conspicuous mammals, (the Amazonian lowlands of the east is the place for them in Ecuador, generally), but we did not do bad on this front either, having a Kinkajou at the fruit table one night, and then a mother and kit Tayra when taking our final lunch, also at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, which was rightly commended by group and guide alike! In reality, the tour was wetter than we had expected, the rainy season having come with a vengeance this year, in this typically wet, tropical region. However, this early part of the wet season is a great time for birds, and in spite of heaver rains in January this year, I think you can tell from the text, we had some great luck, some truly great spotters among us (thanks Bradley, Debbie, Bob, Jeffrey, and John for all your combined efforts that contributed to this admirable trip list), and some very, very nice birds! Combined with this was excellent company, with the group clicking from the get-go (making this a joy to be part of for both guides), which included our ever attentive, experienced bird driver, Dario who contributed every day, including clearing a small tree that unexpectedly fell on the road! We also could not pass over Luis’s contribution, in Tandayapa Bird Lodge. While we enjoyed the birds, he prepared the excellent food as a wonderful compliment to that; all of the group openly commented on the quality of this, from local cuisine like quinoa soups, to his take on barbecue ribs and ceviche, everything kept our taste buds well-oiled too. Let’s just say, this was an enjoyable trip, at a time when many of us needed it, having been recently barred from travel for some time. We ALL made the most of it and took in every sight and sound of nature in Northwest Ecuador with relish!

Top Ten Birds of the Trip (as voted for by the participants and guides combined):

1 Sword-billed Hummingbird (Guango Lodge, High Andes Extension).
2 Sparkling Violetear (Antisana, High Andes Extension Antisana)
3 Golden-headed Quetzal (Paz de las Aves)
4 Andean Potoo (Guango Lodge, High Andes Extension)
5 Lyre-tailed Nightjar (Tandayapa Valley)
6 White-throated Screech-Owl (Yanacocha)
7 Torrent Duck (Guango Lodge, High Andes Extension)
8 Glistening-green Tanager (Amagusa Reserve, Mashpi)
9= Toucan-Barbet (Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Mashpi, Paz de las Aves)
9= Shining Sunbeam (Yanacocha, Antisana)

Click the link below to view FULL report and photos.

FULL Ecuador: The Andes Introtour Janury 2021 trip report (7.1 MB PDF)