Northern Ecuador: Birding with a Camera (BwC)

This is a Birding with a Camera Tour (BwC). We try to balance seeing as many birds as possible while also trying to take great photos of them. We still target endemics and other specialties. We will also try to see and photograph other animals if any are around. Click here to see a comparison between our different types of tours. If you are looking for a more hardcore photography tour that includes multiflash hummer photography, check out our Ecuador Photo Tour. If you are looking for a traditional Birding Tour, you should check out one of our other Ecuador tours such as our very popular Ecuador: The Andes Introtour.

Ecuador is world famous for its amazing number or variety of birds. This BwC tour visits renowned birding sites that are also terrific for bird photography. There will be feeders at nearly every place we visit, though we will not limit ourselves to just those, as we will also bird along dirt roads, easy trails, and even a canopy tower, to see large numbers of species, and try to photograph as many of them as possible. The “jewels of the Andes”, the hummingbirds and tanagers, will feature heavily, and we are sure to enjoy numerous delectable species including Booted Racket-tail, Violet-tailed Sylph, Velvet-purple Coronet, Flame-faced Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager among a horde of other memorable species. While hummingbirds and tanagers are undoubtedly a major feature of this tour, they will also be accompanied by other colorful tropical birds, such as a bevvy of toucans, trogons, woodpeckers, and even the incredible, vivid scarlet Andean Cock-of-the-rock, one of the most outstanding birds in the world.


Day 1: Arrival in Quito. After arrival in Ecuador’s capital, a World Cultural Heritage Site, you will be transferred to an excellent hotel in the city.

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. Photographing them is not always easy unless they are the downslope side of the path, but we’ll make an effort. However, arguably it is the hummingbirds that will be the highlights of the first morning, and they are much easier to get shots of by virtue of a marvelous set of well-placed feeders; they regularly attract Great Sapphirewing, Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and Sword-billed Hummingbird.

Flocks of Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers roam the elfin cloudforest at Yanacocha
Flocks of Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers roam the elfin cloudforest at Yanacocha (Nick Athanas)

We hope to find Sword-billed Hummingbird at Yanacocha
We hope to find Sword-billed Hummingbird at Yanacocha (Nick Athanas)

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 views and photos of the incredible hummingbird feeders, which typically 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.

Violet-tailed Sylphs often perch near the Tandayapa feeders
Violet-tailed Sylphs often perch near the Tandayapa feeders (Nick Athanas)

Swarms of Booted Racket-tails visit the Tandayapa feeders
Swarms of Booted Racket-tails visit the Tandayapa feeders (Nick Athanas)

Day 3: 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. There is very little light when these birds come in, and shooting them is tough, but with a fast lens and full frame camera, or a flash, shots are occasionally possible. However, later on when we return to the lodge for breakfast, light will be much better, and it 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 often 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. 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.

Toucan Barbet often feeds on insects around the lodge in the morning
Toucan Barbet often feeds on insects around the lodge in the morning (Nick Athanas)

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers often visit the feeders at Tandayapa
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers often visit the feeders at Tandayapa (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Rio Silanche and Rancho Suamox. One of the reasons why birders have been coming back to Tandayapa Bird Lodge since its opening in 1999 is the fact that it sits within one of the interesting and diverse bird areas in Ecuador. A variety of superb birding and photography sites are located within an easy drive. On this day we will leave early and head down to the Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary at the western base of the Andes to look for a suite of new birds not possible higher up. 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. A canopy platform in the reserve can offer eye-level views and photos of some of them if we are lucky enough to have a flock come through. 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. 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. While the habitat is very fragmented, the combination of forest edge, cleared areas, pastures, plantations, and remaining forest patches make the birds relatively easy to see and we should get photos of many of them as well. In the afternoon, we’ll visit the feeders at Rancho Suamox, where we’ll have a chance to see and photograph Golden-olive and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot, Dusky-faced, Flame-rumped, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Ecuadorian Thrush, Buff-throated Saltator, Thick-billed and Orange-bellied Euphonias.

Slate-throated Gnatcatcher sometimes comes through with mixed flocks at Rio Silanche
Slate-throated Gnatcatcher sometimes comes through with mixed flocks at Rio Silanche (Nick Athanas)

Blue-tailed Trogon is one of the species that can sometimes be seen and photographed from the Rio Silanche tower
Blue-tailed Trogon is one of the species that can sometimes be seen and photographed from the Rio Silanche tower (Nick Athanas)

Day 5: Upper Tandayapa Valley, San Tadeo, and Milpe. After breakfast, we head up the road to higher elevations of the Tandayapa Valley, where the spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan will be top of our list of targets. We’ll also look for the very rare Tanager Finch along with a host of other subtropical species including Gorgeted Sunangel, Collared Inca, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Grass-green Tanager, Dusky Chlorospingus (Bush-Tanager), Plain-tailed Wren, Ocellated Tapaculo, and Pearled Treerunner. Depending on activity, we may spend some time at feeders that sometimes attract Black-capped Tanager, Black-striped Sparrow, Golden-naped Tanager, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet, and others before heading back into the foothills to Milpe Bird Sanctuary. The centerpiece of this reserve is a lek of the endemic Club-winged Manakin, for which this is arguably the very best site in Ecuador. Other regular Chocó endemics in the reserve include Blue-tailed (Chocó) Trogon, Rufous-throated and Ochre-breasted Tanagers, and Chocó Toucan. Indeed, the site is one of the best sites on the tour for toucans, with Chestnut-mandibled (Black-mandibled) Toucan, Collared (Pale-mandibled) Aracari, and Crimson-rumped Toucanet also occurring there too. The mixed flocks hold a myriad of subtle species like Lineated, Buff-fronted, and Scaly-breasted Foliage-gleaners, Red-faced Spinetail, Chocó (Golden-bellied) Warbler, Spotted and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Spotted Barbtail, Plain Xenops, Russet Antshrike, and Cinnamon Becard. We’ll also spend time at their hummer feeders, trying to get some shots of White-whiskered Hermit, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, and others, before returning to Tandayapa.

We have a decent chance to see the awesome Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, though they are very hard to photograph
We have a decent chance to see the awesome Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, though they are very hard to photograph (Nick Athanas)

Gorgeted Sunangel is one of the scarcer hummingbird species in the area
Gorgeted Sunangel is one of the scarcer hummingbird species in the area (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Milpe hosts a superb lek of the hilarious Club-winged Manakin.
Milpe hosts a superb lek of the hilarious Club-winged Manakin. (Nick Athanas)

Day 6: Mashpi and Oilbirds. An early start will be required for the 90-minute drive to Mashpi, a much-publicized conservation area that is home to many birds found within only this small, fragile area of the planet. It is within the considerably wetter upper foothills of the Andes, where some of the most striking species of the tour may yet feature. We will visit a flourishing new small private reserve in the region (Amagusa), where a young couple are not only saving important vitally important bird habitat for both local tropical birds and boreal migrants that come here for the winter from the US, but have also set up a small but spectacular set of feeders. Birds like Glistening-green Tanager and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager often come in, alongside more widespread, but no less photogenic, species like the aquamarine Golden-naped Tanager and shocking Flame-faced Tanager, a regular tour favorite. Hummingbird feeders are never far away on this tour, and the ones here offer some of the best chances to see and photograph Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant; both species are spectacular Choco endemics. Another set of feeders attracts other species like Moss-backed Tanager and Rufous-throated Tanager. We’ll also bird an easy dirt road where we hope to find Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Buffy (Pacific) Tuftedcheek, Uniform Treehunter, Black Solitaire, and Esmeraldas Antbird. Our afternoon action will be more tunnel-visioned, as we go to a specific Andean cavern, where an odd nocturnal bird, the Oilbird (so odd in fact that it occupies its own family), can be found roosting, and photographed well at its daytime sleeping quarters. This could rightly be argued as one of the best sites to do that with this species in the World – there are caves with greater numbers, but the location of the birds at this site makes them much more photographer-friendly. At the end of the day we shall return for a final night at Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager can be seen at Mashpi
Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager can be seen at Mashpi (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Often considered one of the world's most beautiful hummingbirds, the breathtaking Velvet-purple Coronet
Often considered one of the world's most beautiful hummingbirds, the breathtaking Velvet-purple Coronet (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 7: Paz de Aves to Antisana. Today will see us depart the western slope, but not before fitting in another unique, and locally famous birding and photography, site: Paz de Aves. We’ll depart early to put ourselves in position to see one of the most awe-inspiring birds of the Andes, and one that has no equal in nature, the shockingly bright red Andean Cock-of-the-rock. Once their raucous dawn displays die down, we will have other avian subjects to attend to, as the local farmers who run this utterly unique reserve, have managed to habituate several ordinarily shy forest birds to come in very close. The list of species seen daily changes, but often includes several of the following: Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Yellow-breasted, Giant, Moustached, Ochre-breasted, and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush. At the end of the morning, we will retire to the small local café on site, where we will sample freshly made empanadas and bolones, tasty authentic local Andean cuisine, while we sit alongside feeders. We’ll then drive back east through Quito into the high Andes to the Antisana Reserve. 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. We’ll spend the night in a pleasant hacienda near the reserve.

We will visit the best place in Ecuador to see and photograph the iconic Andean Cock-of-the-rock
We will visit the best place in Ecuador to see and photograph the iconic Andean Cock-of-the-rock (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Dark-backed Wood-Quails can be surprisingly tame at Paz de las Aves
Dark-backed Wood-Quails can be surprisingly tame at Paz de las Aves (Nick Athanas)

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is another crowd-please at Paz de las Aves
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is another crowd-please at Paz de las Aves (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Antisana and Papallacta. The exact plan for the day often is weather-dependent, but typically we start the day looking for anything else we still need in Antisana, and then drive to Papallacta Pass, another high elevation site. Otherworldly treeline forest holds Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Viridian Metaltail, White-chinned Thistletail, Andean Tit-Spinetail, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and other targets, while the highest reaches of the paramo are the home of the beautiful Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. Late in the afternoon, we’ll drive to Quito, where we’ll stay in a hotel not far from the airport.

Antisana is home to the largest number of Andean Condors in Ecuador
Antisana is home to the largest number of Andean Condors in Ecuador (Sam Woods)

Ecuadorian Hillstars flit around the paramo at Antisana
Ecuadorian Hillstars flit around the paramo at Antisana (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

If the weather cooperates, we have a decent chance to find Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at Papallacta
If the weather cooperates, we have a decent chance to find Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe at Papallacta (Sam Woods)

Day 9: Departure from Quito. The tour ends this morning in Quito. A transfer will be arranged for you from our airport hotel to the airport at a time you need it.

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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.

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.

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. Bird activity 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 most days the mornings are dry, and the increased cloud cover means there is usually less harsh sunlight to deal with in the middle of the day.

EXPECTATIONS: A great trip for both birding and bird photography. You could easily see around 300 bird species on this trip, and it would not be beyond the realm of possibility to photograph at least 120 of them.

GEAR: Binoculars are essential. A 300 mm lens with teleconverter or a 100-400 mm zoom work well in most areas. A full-frame camera helps in darker situations for being able to shoot at higher ISOs, but is by no means required. Longer lenses such as 500-600 are fine if you have them, but they can be tiring to carry on some of the walks.

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, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 9; 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 playback gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 8; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 8 in a suitable vehicle with experienced local driver; entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what your records (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 Tropical Birding 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; excess luggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.