Ecuador: The Andes Introtour

The Neotropics are widely regarded as being packed with thousands of confusing birds in difficult birding conditions. This can be true, but the rewards of birding here are unsurpassed. After just a week of seeing numerous new families and having the intricacies of Neotropical birding explained, you will find it is highly addictive. It just does not get better than this. For those of you who would feel empty if you left Ecuador without a condor, we have added a short High Andes extension.

Many participants combine this tour with the High Andes extension, other Ecuador tours, a Galapagos cruise, or Amazon lodge package. These are usually very easy to organize; please ask for details if you are interested.


 

The day-to-day activities may be modified at the tour leader’s discretion based on weather, recent sightings, or other factors.

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. Most flights arrive in the evening. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a hotel in Quito.

Day 2: Yanacocha to Tandayapa. We’ll start in Yanacocha, a beautiful reserve in the elfin forest cloaking the scenic slopes of Pichincha Volcano, about an hour and a half from our hotel in Quito. Although the surrounding terrain is steep, walking here is easy and the birds are amazing. It’s a great place to start since most of the birds are easy to see and the diversity is lower than at the sites visited on the remainder of the main tour. There are mixed species feeding flocks with gorgeous mountain-tanagers like Scarlet-bellied, Hooded, and Black-chested, which mix with other species like Spectacled Redstart and Supercilaried Hemispingus. However, arguably it is the hummingbirds that will be the highlights of the first morning. Some of the hummingbirds at Yanacocha rank as some of the most spectacular in the world, and are easy to see by virtue of a marvelous set of well-placed feeders, which regularly attract Great Sapphirewing, Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and Sword-billed Hummingbird. The reserve is run by an Ecuadorian NGO, the Jocotoco Foundation, and was bought in order to preserve vital habitat for another hummingbird, the critically endangered Black-breasted Puffleg. Although it occurs in the reserve, it remains rare and poorly known, and we would need a lot of luck to see it!

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers are common around Tandayapa
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers are common around Tandayapa (Sam Woods)

After a full morning in the reserve, and taking lunch in the field on site, we will continue our journey towards Tandayapa, driving down the Old Nono-Mindo Road in the afternoon. This road is an established birding “ecoroute”, and we will make selected stops to look for a few other birds such as Andean Lapwing, Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant, White-capped Dipper, and, with luck, maybe even Torrent Duck. There is always the chance too of bumping into another mixed flock, which as we are driving down in altitude, into the subtropical zone, could comprise many new species like Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Capped Conebill, and Beryl-spangled Tanager. Later in the afternoon, we’ll arrive at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where we will be based for the next five nights. We’ll try to arrive before dark to get our first view of the incredible hummingbird feeders, which can attract anywhere from 12 to 20 species in an hour, including Booted Racket-tail, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Purple-bibbed White-tip, Western Emerald, and Purple-throated Woodstar.

Sword-billed Hummingbirds usually come to the feeders at Yanacocha as well as Guango on the extension
Sword-billed Hummingbirds usually come to the feeders at Yanacocha as well as Guango on the extension (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: Lower Tandayapa Valley. A forest blind, a ten minute walk from the lodge, allows for great opportunities to see some very shy cloudforest species up close, such as White-throated Quail-Dove, Russet-crowned Warbler, Zeledon’s Antbird, Streak-capped Treehunter, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and sometimes even Scaled Antpitta. The birds are attracted there by a large light which attracts a variety of moths during the night, and which are then preyed upon by the attendant birds early in the morning. We’ll return to the lodge for breakfast, which can also be a peak of bird activity around the building itself; there are often several brush-finches (White-winged and Tricolored), Masked Trogon, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Golden-crowned Flyctacher, Slate-throated Whitestart, Toucan Barbets, and others, close-by and easy-to-see. Activity at the fruit feeders varies seasonally, but when they are busy they can be superb, with the likes of Golden and Golden-naped Tanagers, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Red-headed Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, and several others coming in very close.

Red-headed Barbets often drop in to munch on Papaya at Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Red-headed Barbets often drop in to munch on Papaya at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (Sam Woods)

After breakfast, we’ll bird nearby trails and the entrance road of the lodge, looking for mixed feeding flocks that are formed by a variety of colorful tanagers including Metallic-green, Flame-faced, Golden, Silver-throated, White-winged, and Beryl-spangled together with other attractive passerines like Black-winged Saltator and Ornate Flycatcher. This walk can also produce some less common birds like Beautiful Jay, Golden-headed Quetzal, Streak-headed Antbird, and possibly even soaring raptors including the rare Black-and-chestnut Eagle.

The afternoon plan will depend on how we did during the morning; we might bird again the lower portions of the valley, or move up in elevation depending on which birds we decide to target. Weather permitting, we may stay until dusk to try to find some nightbirds, such as Lyre-tailed Nightjar.

The spectacular Velvet-purple Coronet
The spectacular Velvet-purple Coronet (Andres Vasquez)

Day 4: Mashpi area. An easy dirt road passes through verdant cloudforest loaded with some absolutely superb Chocó endemics not easily see elsewhere, including Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Moss-backed Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, and Buffy (Pacific) Tuftedcheek. With luck, this area could also produce Uniform Treehunter, Black Solitaire, or Esmeraldas Antbird. Other targets in the Mashpi area include Blue-tailed (Chocó) Trogon, Ochre-breasted Tanager, and Rufous-throated Tanager. There are dizzying flocks that roam the humid forests in this area, which hold birds like Red-faced Spinetail, Scaly-throated, Buff-fronted and Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Golden-crowned (Choco) Warbler, Slaty Antwren, Tawny-breasted Flycatcher, and Cinnamon Becard.

We’ll visit a small, local reserve where the owners have set a system of feeders that attract some of these desired birds for us to get splendid views, and with some luck, some great photos. The hummer feeders attract some of the more localized species, and this is our best chance to see the astonishing Velvet-purple Coronet and the elegant Empress Brilliant. The plan for the afternoon is somewhat flexible depending on the weather, and we might bird some lower elevations where sometimes we can find rarities like Black-tipped Cotinga and White-ringed Flycatcher, or we may return to Tandayapa early and have more time around the lodge.

This region is packed with an array of dazzling tanagers, like this Flame-faced
This region is packed with an array of dazzling tanagers, like this Flame-faced (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 5: Upper Tandayapa Valley After breakfast, we head up the road to higher elevations of the valley (about a 20 minute drive), looking for the very rare Tanager Finch, the beautiful Toucan Barbet, and the spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. A host of other subtropical species also occur such as Gorgeted Sunangel, Collared Inca, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Grass-green Tanager, Dusky Chlorospingus (Bush-Tanager), and Pearled Treerunner. After returning to the lodge for lunch, we might spend some extra time at the hummer feeders before we head out again. Later that afternoon, depending in rain and bird activity around the lodge, there may be another, optional, excursion a short distance upslope from the lodge. Those who wish to soak in the hummingbirds further, or simply spend some further time relaxing around the lodge, are welcome to do to. We typically return to the upper valley to try for more difficult skulkers like Plain-tailed Wren, Striped Treehunter, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant, Ocellated Tapaculo, or Chestnut-crowned Antpitta.

Choco Toucans often come to feeders in Milpe
Choco Toucans often come to feeders in Milpe (Jose Illanes)

Day 6: Rio Silanche. We’ll spend the day in lowland tropical rainforest at the Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, and we can expect to see loads of new birds. It’s a 1½ hour drive, but well worth it when the birds start coming in thick and fast. Luckily, after the previous five days, you will be ready for this onslaught. A whole host of new and spectacular tanagers is possible, such as Scarlet-browed, Rufous-winged, Gray-and-gold, Guira, Blue-necked, Bay-headed, and Golden-hooded, and up to four species of dacnises can be seen here on a good day. Understory flocks have a bewildering array of skulkers like antwrens, foliage-gleaners, and flycatchers, while larger birds can include several species of trogon, toucans, trogons, and maybe even some interesting raptors. The area is also rich in woodpeckers, with Guayaquil, Lineated, Cinnamon, Golden-olive, Black-cheeked, and Red-rumped all possible, along with Olivaceous Piculet too. There are also puffbirds in the area with both White-whiskered and Barred Puffbirds regularly seen. While the habitat is very fragmented, the combination of forest edge, cleared areas, pastures, plantations, and remaining forest patches lead to big day lists; it is no uncommon to pick up well over a hundred species in a day here, and therefore it is easy to see why it is often a favorite. The area is also good for toucans and parrots, with afternoon drives along the road near the reserve regularly finding Choco and Black-mandibled (Chestnut-mandibled) Toucans, Collared (Pale-mandibled) Aracari, and Bronze-winged Parrot. The birding is along roads and easy trails, with the toughest aspect of the day being the high humidity of the lowlands.

We'll visit the best cock-of-the-rock display site in the country
We'll visit the best cock-of-the-rock display site in the country (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 7: Paz de Aves and Calacali to Quito. Paz de Aves is a small, private, reserve near the town of Mindo, and is sure to be a highlight of the tour. Here, a local farmer became an instant birding sensation when he started feeding worms to Giant, Moustached, Yellow-breasted, Ochre-breasted, and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas with amazing success. Every visit is different, but we typically see at least two antpittas, and sometimes more. The appeal of this site is that these normally shy birds of the dark forest floor often come into view and can be seen very well by everyone present. We will need to leave very early in order to get there at dawn, as the antpittas are not the only attraction on site. At dawn (around 06:00am), it is possible to watch the amazing displays of a handful of male Andean Cock-of-the-rock, which gather each day at “leks” in order to compete for the attraction of any passing females. The trail down into the forest is quite steep and sometimes muddy though not very long, and a walking stick is recommended. The reserve also has a small set of hummingbird feeders which regularly bring in the spectacular Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant, if we did not see them at Tandayapa or Mashpi. Other possibilities here include Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Toucan Barbet, Olivaceous Piha, and Sickle-winged Guan. We’ll return to Tandayapa for lunch, and, after some final time with the hummingbirds of Tandayapa, we’ll pack up and head back to Quito. We’ll make a short stop along the way at some dry montane scrub, which holds species like the rare White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Black-tailed Trainbearer, and Ash-breasted Sierra-Finch.

The scintillating Swallow Tanager regularly pops up at Milpe
The scintillating Swallow Tanager regularly pops up at Milpe (Andrew Spencer)

Day 8: Departure. Unless you are continuing on to the extension or another Ecuador tour, the tour ends this morning with a transfer to the Quito airport.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

High Andes Extension (3 days)

Day 1: Antisana Reserve. This reserve just east of the city is one of the best high altitude sites in Ecuador. On clear days, you can enjoy some of the most dramatic views in Ecuador, and the combination of great scenery and easy birding often mark this as people’s favorite site of the tour. Birding in the shadow of the huge snow cone of Volcan Antisana we will seek out Ecuador’s national bird, the Andean Condor, as well as Black-faced (Andean) Ibis, the exquisite Ecuadorian Hillstar, and numerous páramo species such as Chestnut-winged Cinclodes (Bar-winged) and Stout-billed Cinclodes, Streak-backed Canastero, Plain-capped (Paramo) Ground-Tyrant, Paramo Pipit, and Black-winged Ground-Dove. A large lake nearby usually has Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, Ruddy (Andean Duck), and, sometimes, Silvery Grebe.

Scores of Carunculated Caracaras patrol the paramo at Antisana
Scores of Carunculated Caracaras patrol the paramo at Antisana (Sam Woods)

After lunch, we’ll drive over the Andes and stay at Guango Lodge for the night, which its beside a rushing river than often has Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper, and boasts great hummingbird feeders. There will be time in the afternoon to take in the sight of the many hummingbirds buzzing around their feeders which attract species that we may have encountered before like Collared Inca, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, and Sword-billed Hummingbird, alongside others which are sure to be new, like Tourmaline Sunangel, White-bellied Woodstar, Long-tailed Sylph and Chestnut-breasted Coronet.

"Tuxedo-wearing" Collared Inca are regular at the Guango feeders on the extension (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 2: Papallacta and Guango. The exact plan for the day often is weather-dependent, but typically we start the day in some otherworldly treeline forest looking for Masked Mountain-Tanager, Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Agile Tit-Tyrant, Paramo Seedeater, Shining Sunbeam, Viridian Metaltail, and White-chinned Thistletail, and other targets before driving back up into the paramo grasslands higher up. We’ll check stands of Polylepis woodland for Giant Conebill and seek out the beautiful Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe in the paramo itself. A few hummers even eke out a living up here, like Viridian Metaltail, Ecuadorian Hillstar, and Blue-mantled Thornbill. We’ll return to Guango for lunch, and bird there for a few hours, looking for mixed flocks with colorful birds like Lacrimose and Hooded Mountain-Tanagers, Blue-and-black Tanager, and Black-capped Hemispingus. We can also search again for Torrent Duck if needed. Late in the afternoon, we’ll return to Quito.

Day 3: Departure. The extension ends this morning with a transfer to the airport.

Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe is one of the highest living birds in the Andes
Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe is one of the highest living birds in the Andes (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding in the Andes is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will typically start between 4:30 and 5:30am. To get to the farther birding sites (Rio Silanche and Mashpi), drives of 1.5-2 hours each way are required, but the drives are much shorter on other days. On most days there will be some downtime either after lunch, or after arriving back to the lodge after the day’s birding excursion, but on at least one or two days you may arrive back at the lodge after dark. At least four lunches will be packed lunches, and one breakfast will likely be a packed breakfast. Apart from the two nights in Quito, all nights are spent at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, so you don’t have the hassle of packing and unpacking every day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks. Paz de las Aves, which is visited on one day, has some fairly steep and muddy trails (a walking stick helps a lot), but they are relatively short. You can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. All morning of day two of the main tour will be spent at 11,500 ft. (3500 m.) elevation, but most of the walking is on a wide, flat track. Much of the High Andes Extension will be spent at elevations above 11,500 ft. (3500 m.)

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), but cold on one morning at Yanacocha (near freezing) and hot on one day at Silanche (up to c. 90°F/32°C). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings. On the extension, it can be very cold (near freezing) in Papallacta and Antisana, with some wind.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge feeders as well as other feeders visited on the tour, such as those at Mashpi and Paz de las Aves. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Ecuador Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: This tour can be run year round. While climate has become rather unpredictable in recent years, the driest months on average are June-August, the wettest months are March-April, and the other months are intermediate. Birding is slower when it is very dry, but even in the dry season, some rain can be expected. Rainy season tours are usually very productive, since the birds are a bit more vocal, and while you may lose more time to rain, when it is not raining you tend to see more birds.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and all European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 7 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 2 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 8 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at Tandayapa Bird Lodge at any time; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 7 if taking only the main tour, or to the afternoon of day 2 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 7 (and to day 2 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; entrance fees to birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the Quito hotel (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.