Northwest Ecuador: In Search of Chocó Endemics
Cleaning up in the most biodiverse endemic zone in the Andes.
Part of the Chocó bioregion, northwest Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse regions of any mainland area, 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 thrillers as Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and the astonishingly beautiful Velvet-purple Coronet.
Day 1: Quito. You will be met at the airport and transferred to a hotel in Quito.
Day 2: Yanacocha. We’ll start in this beautiful reserve located in the elfin forest cloaking the scenic slopes of Pichincha Volcano. 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 and Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers, and the hummingbirds rank as some of the most spectacular in the world, with Great Sapphirewing, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, and Sword-billed Hummingbird all regular. The critically endangered Black-breasted Puffleg can also be seen here occasionally. We continue on down the Old Nono-Mindo Road to Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where we will be based for the next four nights. This road is a great birding site in it’s own right and offers a good chance at picking up a pair of White-capped Dippers hopping around on the boulders within a rushing Andean river, and the riverside banks also play host to Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrants. The lower stretch of the road is also one of the best sites for the endemic Beautiful Jay. We’ll try to arrive at the lodge before dark to get our first view of the incredible hummingbird feeders, which can attract as many as twenty species in an hour, including Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Western Emerald, and Purple-throated Woodstar.
Day 3: Upper Tandayapa Valley. Today we will concentrate on the upper elevations of the Tandayapa Valley. The birding can be terrific and the walking is fairly easy. The most wanted species here are the very rare Tanager Finch, the beautiful Toucan Barbet, and the spectacular Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. A host of other subtropical species also occurs such as Gorgeted Sunangel, Grass-green Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager, and Pearled Treerunner.
Day 4: Paz de Aves and the Nono-Mindo Road. This now-famous antpitta reserve near Mindo will be a highlight of the tour. Here, a local farmer has started hand-feeding Giant, Moustached, and Yellow-breasted Antpittas with amazing success. We also have a chance to see other Chocó specialties, including Velvet-purple Coronet, Empress Brilliant, and Orange-breasted Fruiteater. A trip along the Nono-Mindo ecoroute in the afternoon gives us a shot at Uniform Treehunter and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager.
Day 5: Mashpi. We’ll visit this exciting site in the western foothills, where such scarce species as Choco Vireo, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Esmeraldas Antbird, and both Rufous-brown and Black Solitaires have been discovered in recent times. It also provides our best shot at the endemic and gorgeous Orange-breasted Fruiteater, that is surprisingly numerous here, along with Glistening-green and Moss-backed Tanagers, and Pacific (Buffy) Tuftedcheek.
Day 6: Milpe. This Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (MCF) reserve is one of the best birding sites in Ecuador. Over a dozen Chocó endemics have been recorded at Milpe, though the highlight for many visitors is the lek of Club-winged Manakins, using their wings to make harmonica-like sounds to impress females. Other targets here include Choco Trogon, and Ochre-breasted and Rufous-throated Tanagers. We’ll spend one night at one of several lodges down in the foothills.
Day 7: Rio Silanche to Tundaloma. Silanche is another MCF reserve in the lower foothills. We’ll spend a few hours here in the morning looking for forest edge species that might be tough to see at Playa de Oro, such as Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, Blue-whiskered and Gray-and-gold Tanagers. Later, we’ll drive for most of the rest of the day to Tundaloma Lodge in the far northwest for the night.
Day 8: San Lorenzo to Playa de Oro. We’ll start the morning birding secondary forest patches, which can still be quite good for Five-colored Barbet, Black-tipped and Blue Cotingas, Black-breasted Puffbird, and sometimes even Yellow-eared Toucanet. Later, we’ll drive a couple of hours to the village of Selva Alegre, and take a motorized canoe to Playa de Oro Lodge. The lodge is somewhat basic, but it’s location near pristine Chocó lowland rainforest makes staying here for three nights well worthwhile.
Days 9-10: Playa de Oro. Most of the best birding here is along narrow forest trails. While it can be challenging, the rewards are some of rarest of the Chocó endemics. Shy game birds like Baudó Guan, Tawny-faced Quail, and Berlepsch’s Tinamou are seen more easily here than anywhere else. Streak-chested Antpitta is quite common, and even the rare and beautiful Rufous-crowned Antpitta is seen here occasionally. This is arguably the best place in Ecuador to see the enigmatic Sapayoa, which recent research has shown to be a monotypic family very closely related to the Old World broadbills. We’ll sort through all mixed-species flocks looking for Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Scarlet-and-white and Lemon-spectacled Tanagers, Orange-fronted Barbet, and more.
Day 11: Playa de Oro to Tundaloma. After a few hours more of birding, we’ll head back to Tundaloma Lodge for another night. There should be time in the afternoon for some birding around the lodge, where we might see the rare Brown Wood-Rail, Blue Cotinga, White-necked Puffbird or Red-legged Honeycreeper.
Day 12: Alto Tambo to Chical. We’ll spend the morning birding a new road near Alto Tambo that passes through rich lowland Choco forest. The star attraction here is the chance to see the endemic Golden-chested Tanager from the roadside. We will also check any passing flocks for the dazzling Scarlet-and-white Tanager, the inconspicuous Yellow-green Bush-Tanager, or the rare Choco Woodpecker. Later we will head up hill towards another exciting new site, the road to Chical. We’ll spend one night in the Hacienda Primavera, a beautiful new hotel about 30 minutes from the main birding area that we’ll visit the following morning.
Day 13: Chical Road to Quito. This recently discovered birding road provides a chance at species very rare in Ecuador, such as the gorgeous Fulvous-dotted Treerunner, Purplish-mantled Tanager, Hoary Puffleg, and Black Solitaire, along with other birds such as Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and Glistening-green and Rufous-crested Tanagers. After a morning on the Chical Road we will head back to Quito, stopping for Blue-headed Sapphire along the way. Time permitting we’ll also make a short stop at Laguna San Pablo to look for Ecuadorian Rail and Subtropical Doradito before finally arriving in Quito.
Day 14: Quito. You leave on homeward flights, or join another Ecuador tour to experience even more of this country’s amazingly rich birdlife.
CLIMATE: Much of the trip will be at middle elevations where the climate is quite pleasant, but it can get cold at Yanacocha, and it is hot and humid in the lowlands. Some rain is likely, though it is often quite dry on the July tours.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate for the most part, with many sites involving only roadside birding. However, there are some difficult hikes on muddy trails around Playa de Oro, and the morning along a new road near Alto Tambo will also involve walking in deep mud at times, although the road is not very steep.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent except for the three nights at Playa de Oro. The lodge here is somewhat basic with no electricity, though it has cold running water. Some of the rooms have attached bathrooms, while others have shared bathrooms.