Northwest Ecuador: In Search of Chocó Endemics

Part of the Chocó bioregion, northwest Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse regions of any mainland area on Earth, holding over 70 endemics. This tour covers the whole range of altitudes from the cool temperate forests of Yanacocha to the humid lowlands of Playa de Oro, targeting as many of these specialties as possible. With luck, this tour will feature such thrilling specialties as Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Rose-faced Parrot, Blue-tailed (Chocó) Trogon, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Moss-backed, Glistening-green and Scarlet-and-white Tanagers, and the astonishingly beautiful Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, and Velvet-purple Coronet.



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

Day 2: Yanacocha. We’ll kick off the tour in the Yanacocha reserve, a beautiful reserve of temperate forest cloaking the scenic slopes of Pichincha Volcano, not far from the city. Although the surrounding terrain is steep, walking here is easy and the birds are amazing. There are mixed flocks of gorgeous tanagers such as Scarlet-bellied, Hooded and Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers, Blue-backed Conebill, and Superciliaried Hemispingus, and sometimes these flocks also hold other species like Spectacled Redstart, White-throated and White-banded Tyrannulets, Rufous Wren, Yellow-breasted (Rufous-naped) Brush-Finch, or scarcer birds like Barred Fruiteater and Bar-bellied Woodpecker. The hummingbirds here rank as some of the most spectacular in the world, with Great Sapphirewing, Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and Sword-billed Hummingbird all regular at their well-located feeders within the forest. Glossy and Masked Flowerpiercers are also regulars at the feeders. The critically endangered and very unpredictable Black-breasted Puffleg can also be seen here very occasionally, but should not be expected. Other skulkers occur within the reserve, like Tawny and Rufous Antpittas, White-browed Spinetail, Blackish Tapaculo, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Gray-browed (Stripe-headed) Brush-Finch, so with luck we will pick up some of these too.

A well-named Choco endemic: Beautiful Jay
A well-named Choco endemic: Beautiful Jay (Andrew Spencer)

After a full morning in the reserve, we shall have a boxed lunch on site, before departing down the Old Nono-Mindo Road towards Tandayapa Bird Lodge, which will be our base for four nights. The Old Nono-Mindo Road is a valid birding site in its own right, so rather than driving directly to Tandayapa, we will spend much of the afternoon birding along the way, searching for Andean Lapwing, Red-crested Cotinga, Golden-bellied (Southern Yellow) Grosbeak, and, as we move lower down, White-capped Dipper, Beautiful Jay, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant. If we are lucky we might also find one of the regular pair of Torrent Ducks in the area, as we work our way along the road, which flanks the Rio Alambi. We’ll try to arrive at Tandayapa Bird Lodge before dark to get our first views of the incredible hummingbird feeders, which can attract up to twenty species in an hour, and a dozen species regularly, including Chocó endemics like Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Purple-bibbed Whitetip and Western Emerald, as well as other superb species like Green and Sparkling Violet-ears, Booted Racket-tail, Buff-tailed Coronet, and Purple-throated Woodstar.

Andean Cock-of-the-rock; a must-see species in South America
Andean Cock-of-the-rock; a must-see species in South America (Pablo Cervantes)

Day 3: Tandayapa Valley. We’ll begin the day with a pre-dawn walk to the Tandayapa Bird Lodge blind, where birds like Zeledon’s (Immaculate) Antbird, White-throated Quail-Dove, Russet-crowned Warbler, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, and sometimes Scaled Antpitta come in to feed around dawn. While breakfasting back at the lodge, it is not uncommon to experience birds like Masked Trogon, White-winged Brush-Finch, Streak-capped Treehunter, Slate-throated (Whitestart) Redstart, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, or Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant right around the lodge. After breakfast, we depart for the Upper Tandayapa Valley. The birding can be terrific and the walking is fairly easy, as we will be birding from wide open dirt roads, along we may take short walks on forest trails if something is heard from the road that makes this sound worthwhile. The most wanted species here are the rare and local Tanager Finch, the beautiful Toucan Barbet, and the spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. A host of other subtropical species also occur such as hummingbirds unlikely lower in the valley like Collared Inca, Speckled Hummingbird, and the endemic Gorgeted Sunangel. Mixed flocks roam the upper valley, which can hold a wide variety of species, including Turquoise Jay, Grass-green Tanager, Dusky Chlorospingus (Bush-Tanager), Blue-necked, Beryl-spangled and Golden Tanagers, and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers, Green-and-black Fruiteater, Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, White-tailed Tyrannulet, Flavescent Flycatcher, Sierran Elaenia, Montane Woodcreeper, Streaked Tuftedcheek, and Pearled Treerunner, sometimes along with understory species like Sharpe’s (Sepia-brown) Wren, the elusive Striped Treehunter, and Plushcap. In the evening, weather permitting, there will be an opportunity to look for nightbirds like Lyre-tailed Nightjar or the scarce Colombian Screech-Owl.

Giant Antpitta at Paz de las Aves
Giant Antpitta at Paz de las Aves (Nick Athanas)

Day 4: Paz de las Aves. Paz de las Aves is a small private reserve between Tandayapa and Mindo. It came to fame when a local farmer, Angel, began feeding a Giant Antpitta at the site over ten years ago, and since then he has had success with up to five species of antpitta, including Chestnut-crowned, Moustached, Ochre-breasted, and Yellow-breasted Antpittas too. The antpittas seen on any given day vary greatly; this remains very unpredictable with some species disappearing for periods of time, and likewise some species remaining loyal to the feeding areas for months at a time. On average, two species are seen, but up to four in a morning have been enjoyed by some groups. The reserve is much more than just an “antpitta farm”, as it has been dubbed on a number of occasions; it also offers the best lek site for Andean Cock-of-the-rock in the area; and the hummingbird feeders attract the likes of Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant. Other Chocó specialties sometimes found in the area include Nariño Tapaculo, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Toucan Barbet, and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager. It is also a good site for birds like Ochraceous Piha, Golden-headed Quetzal, and Crimson-rumped Toucanet. We will need to leave very early in order to arrive at the site at dawn to ensure we can witness the amazing displays of male Andean Cock-of-the-rock. The afternoon birding will depend somewhat on what we have seen already. We could spend further tome searching for Beautiful Jays along the Old Nono-Mindo Road, try again for Tanager Finch in the Upper Tandayapa Valley, or head down into the foothills near Milpe to begin our exploration of that altitudinal zone, among other options.

There's a great chance to see this brilliant endemic, Orange-breasted Fruiteater
There's a great chance to see this brilliant endemic, Orange-breasted Fruiteater (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Mashpi. This cloudforest site offers one of the longest day trips from the lodge, but is well worth it, as it offers a superb selection of Chocó endemics, many of which could be argued are some of the most highly-desired of the entire tour. Brightly-colored passerines like Indigo Flowerpiercer, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, and Moss-backed and Glistening-green Tanagers are more easily found here than anywhere else in the area; it’s also one of the best sites for Pacific (Buffy) Tuftedcheek, Uniform Treehunter, Esmeraldas Antbird, and Black Solitaire. Mashpi also hosts the very rare Chocó Vireo, although this has become very difficult in recent years, and therefore a lot of luck is needed to see this bird. Other more widespread species can be found here too, such as Bronze-olive Pygmy-Tyrant, Toucan Barbet, Emerald Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, Pale-eyed Thrush, White-throated Spadebill, and Ochre-breasted Tanager.

Glistening-green Tanager is rare and local, but generally easy to find at Mashpi
Glistening-green Tanager is rare and local, but generally easy to find at Mashpi (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Rio Silanche. Silanche is another MCF reserve in the lower foothills/lowlands, a 90-minute drive downslope from the lodge. We’ll spend much of the day here, searching for species like Orange-fronted Barbet, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, the very rare Blue-whiskered Tanager, and Gray-and-gold Tanager, though finding them will totally depend on our luck with the mixed-species flocks. Other possibilities in the area include Guayaquil and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, Barred Puffbird, Dusky Pigeon, and Stub-tailed Antbird. Birding will be either from roadsides or easy trails. At the end of the day we will move into a simple lodge in foothills of the Andes for the next two nights.

Rose-faced Parrots are quite common around Playa de Oro and Alto Tambo
Rose-faced Parrots are quite common around Playa de Oro and Alto Tambo (Nick Athanas)

Day 7: Veintitres de Julio Reserve and Milpe. We will leave early to reach the small private reserve of Veintitres de Julio by dawn. In recent years a small population of the rare Long-wattled Umbrellabird has been found here. While not guaranteed, it is seen here fairly regularly and will likely be our best chance to see it on the tour.

We will try for the difficult Long-wattled Umbrellabird near Los Bancos
We will try for the difficult Long-wattled Umbrellabird near Los Bancos (Andrew Spencer)

After checking this area for this species just after dawn, we will head to Milpe for the remainder of the day, in the foothills of the Andes. This Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (MCF) reserve provides access to the foothills where the centerpiece of the reserve is a lek of the endemic Club-winged Manakin, for which this is 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. Other possibilities in this area include Bronze-winged Parrot, Maroon-tailed Parakeet, Collared Trogon, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, Esmeraldas Antbird, Slaty Antwren, Slaty Spinetail, Masked Water-Tyrant, Buff-rumped Warbler, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Green Honeycreeper, Swallow and Silver-throated Tanagers.

The endemic Velvet-purple Coronet usually visits feeders in the area
The endemic Velvet-purple Coronet usually visits feeders in the area (Sam Woods)

Day 8: Mashpi Shungo to San Lorenzo. Today we’ll return to the endemic rich Mashpi region, though this time focusing on the lower elevations at on a small private reserve, Mashpi Shungo. The reserve is more widely known for producing good quality chocolate from the locally grown cacao, but we will be there to attempt to see traditionally one of the toughest Choco endemics of all, the stunning Rufous-crowned Antpitta. A feeding station on site has made this bird more gettable than ever in recent years, and we hope this continues to the time of our visit there. After a morning chasing this, and other regional endemics, we will head north to San Lorenzo, where we’ll spend one night. We may have time in the afternoon to search for Brown Wood-Rail, and Slaty-tailed Trogon, among others.

Mashpi Shungo offers the best chance for the rare Rufous-crowned Antpitta
Mashpi Shungo offers the best chance for the rare Rufous-crowned Antpitta (Nick Athanas)

Day 9: San Lorenzo to Playa de Oro. We’ll begin the day near San Lorenzo targeting the dazzling (though increasingly rare) Blue Cotinga, the very local Five-colored Barbet, gleaming white Black-tipped Cotinga, sturdy Black-breasted Puffbird, and stunning Scarlet-breasted Dacnis. Later, we’ll drive to the village of Selva Alegre, then take a motorized canoe for 90 minutes to Playa de Oro Lodge. This simple lodge is located alongside dense lowland rainforest, which is home to some of the scarcer and more difficult birds in the region, some of which are more easily seen here than anywhere else in Ecuador. We should arrive with time in the afternoon for some birding behind the lodge, where we can search for Streak-chested Antpitta, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Uniform Crake, and others. At night, weather-permitting, we can try for nightbirds close to the lodge, including Chocó Poorwill, Spectacled Owl, and Chocó (Vermiculated) Screech-Owl.Two nights will be spent at Playa de Oro Lodge, the most rustic accommodation of the trip, but the only lodge that allows access to this kind of habitat in the region.

The unique Sapayoa is one of the top targets at Playa de Oro
The unique Sapayoa is one of the top targets at Playa de Oro (Nick Athanas)

Day 10: Playa de Oro. Most of the best birding here is along narrow forest trails, which are usually extremely muddy and very steep in places. This can be challenging, but the rewards are some of rarest and most difficult of the Chocó endemics. The area boasts such specialties as Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Lita Woodpecker, Griscom’s (Moustached) Antwren, Western Sirystes, Pacific Flatbill, Dagua (White-throated) Thush, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, and even the exceedingly rare Rufous-crowned Antpitta, (should it not turn up at Mashpi earlier on the tour). It is also the best place in Ecuador to find the monotypic family, Sapayoa, which is a regular follower of mixed feeding flocks that roam the area. Of course we will chances to see numerous more widespread birds as well, that might include Tawny-faced Quail, White-whiskered Puffbird, Western (Striped) Woodhaunter, Northern Barred and Black-striped Woodcreepers, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Blue-crowned and Red-capped Manakins, Song and Scaly-breasted Wrens, and Chestnut-headed Oropendola.

Day 11: Playa de Oro to San Lorenzo. After another morning’s birding, we’ll head back to San Lorenzo for another night. There should be time in the afternoon for some birding around San Lorenzo, where we can target any of the rare and local species we may have missed the first time, like Brown Wood-Rail, Blue and Black-tipped Cotingas, Five-colored Barbet, Black-breasted Puffbird, and Scarlet-breasted Dacnis.

Black-breasted Puffbird is scarce and local in Ecuador, confined to the extreme northwest
Black-breasted Puffbird is scarce and local in Ecuador, confined to the extreme northwest (Nick Athanas)

Day 12: Alto Tambo (La Union Road) to Chical. We’ll spend the morning birding a very muddy mule track that goes to small Indian village (rubber boats are absolutely essential). While the area is sadly being selectively logged, enough forest still remains that the birding can be extremely good, and this area is surprisingly productive for some normally difficult species like Golden-chested, Scarlet-and-white, Rufous-winged, and Emerald Tanagers, Chocó Woodpecker, Chocó Tapaculo, White-ringed and Tufted Flycatchers, Stub-tailed Antbird, Rose-faced Parrot, and the rare Yellow-green Bush-Tanager. We’ll make the most of the morning, then drive east to the Chical Road, which passes through fragmented subtropical cloudforest. It’s perhaps the best sites in Ecuador for two Chocó endemics: Fulvous-dotted (Star-chested) Treerunner and Purplish-mantled Tanager. We’ll also look for Yellow-vented Woodpecker, White-tailed Hillstar, Hoary Puffleg, Long-tailed Sylph, Rufous-crested and Saffron-crowned Tanagers, and Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. It also gives us another chance at species we may have missed earlier in the trip such as Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, Black Solitaire, and Beautiful Jay.

The Chical road offers the best chance to see Purplish-mantled Tanager
The Chical road offers the best chance to see Purplish-mantled Tanager (Nick Athanas)

Day 13: Chical Road to Quito. While it is a fairly long drive back to Quito, there is plenty to see along the way. The early hours of the morning will be spent on another search for any missing species along the Chical Road. Higher up in the Central Valley, the habitat dries out and we’ll look for the local Blue-headed Sapphire in the scrub along with Scrub Tanager, Tropical Mockingbird, Coopman’s Elaenia, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet. We’ll make a short stop at Laguna San Pablo to look for Ecuadorian (Virginia) Rail and Subtropical Doradito before finally arriving in Quito for a final farewell dinner in the evening. Other birds we could see on and the lake include Andean (Slate-colored) Coot, Southern Lapwing, Andean Teal, Yellow-billed Pintail, and Golden-bellied (Southern Yellow) Grosbeak.

A handful of endemic tanagers are offered at Mashpi, like this Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager
A handful of endemic tanagers are offered at Mashpi, like this Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager (Sam Woods)

Day 14: Departure. The tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Intense. This tour attempts to see as many birds as possible, concentrating especially on the Chocó endemics. Early starts are necessary since birding is almost always best early in the morning, and breakfast will usually start between 4:30 and 5:30am. On a few days there will be some downtime after lunch to relax, but most days will be full days in the field. At least five lunches will be packed lunches, and one breakfast will be a packed breakfast. A fair amount of driving is required on this tour, and there will be 4-5 hours of driving on at least three days of the trip.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate to difficult. Most days will involve birding roads or fairly easy trails, but the two days at Playa de Oro, the morning at Alto Tambo, and the morning at Paz de las Aves will involve birding fairly difficult trails or tracks that are steep and very slippery in places (a walking stick helps a lot). You can expect to walk around 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 km) per day on average. The morning of day 2 will be spent at high elevation at about 11,500 ft (3500 m).

CLIMATE: Highly variable. At Yanacocha on day 2, it can be near freezing early in the morning. In the middle elevations at Tandayapa, Mashpi, Milpe, and Chical the climate is very pleasant (around 55°-78°F, 14°-26°C). At Rio Silanche, Playa de Oro, and San Lorenzo it is warm to hot (around 75°-86°F, 24°-30°C) and quite humid. Rain can be expected; it usually falls in the afternoons and evening, but morning rain is also a possibility.

ACCOMMODATION: With the major exception of Playa de Oro, accommodation is in good to excellent lodges and hotels, and rooms have private, en-suite bathrooms, full time hot water, and 24 electricity. Two nights will be spent at a simple lodge in Playa de Oro, which has only cold water and no electricity; the lodge has undergone recent improvements so that now there is limited solar power and more rooms with private bathrooms, though depending on group size, they are not always available for the entire group.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have great opportunities to photograph birds at feeders at Yanacocha, Tandayapa, Milpe, and a few other places; elsewhere the bird photography is usually difficult. Serious bird photographers may wish to check out our Ecuador Photo Journey.

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 13; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 14 (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice, and tea or coffee during meals; safe drinking water between meals either from a designated spot at the lodge or provided by the tour leader; 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 13; local guide at Playa del Oro; 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 8 and from day 11 to day 13 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; private boat transport to and from Playa de Oro, and for the duration of the stay there; 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 city hotels (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.