ABA Ecuador 2021 – Amazon and Eastern Ecuador Photo Tour Extension

This tour is designed to be taken together with the ABA Ecuador Birding Bash.

Wildlife photography in the Amazon is as tough as it gets. We had hesitated to offer a photo trip there until we went to Sani Lodge a few years ago, and that totally changed our minds. After a few days there, we came back with chips loaded with great photos, and were convinced that this was THE place to do it. After a few days at Sani, we’ll head back to Quito overland making stops at San Isidro Lodge and Guango Lodge for a completely different selection of birds. We’ll do some multiflash hummingbird photography and also go after some species that we aren’t likely to get during the main ABA event.


Day 1: Quito. The tour begins this evening in a hotel neat the Quito airport. Airport transfers will be provided, and dinner is included.

Day 2: Quito to Sani Lodge. After a short flight to the lowland city of Coca, staff from Sani Lodge will meet us and take us to a dock, where we’ll board a large, covered motorized canoe for the 2.5 hour journey down the Napo River. There won’t be much in the way of photo opportunities during this trip, so just sit back in relax. Upon arrival at Sani’s dock, you’ll have a chance to unpack your camera and get ready. Here in the virgin Amazon rainforest, you never know when something amazing will pop into view and it pays to be prepared! The path to Sani goes along a boardwalk through seasonally flooded várzea forest to another dock at the edge of the Challuayacu River, a small channel that winds through beautiful swamp forest to an oxbow lake. Five species of kingfishers occur along here along with herons and other water-loving species. Shy species like Cocha Antshrike can sometimes be lured into view, and while the dark rainforest makes the photography challenging, with persistence, the right gear, and a little luck, great shots are still possible. We’ll spend the afternoon either on the lake or river, or spend time around the lodge depending on activity. We’ll have four nights total based in Sani Lodge.

A Capped Heron near the dock at Sani
A Capped Heron near the dock at Sani (Nick Athanas)

Days 3-5: Full days based out of Sani Lodge. The day to day activities here are highly subject to change based on current conditions. Local guides are keeping up with the current hotspots, and their knowledge will be vital in deciding where best to spend our days at Sani Lodge. Here are some of the most likely areas we will visit during our time at Sani Lodge:

The lodge clearing. The Sani clearing can be a great place to photography numerous colorful species, especially if any trees are fruiting. White-chinned Jacamar, Scarlet-crowned Barbet, various toucans and aracaris, Orange-crested Manakin, Gray-fronted Dove, Masked Crimson and Silver-beaked Tanagers, Purple Honeycreeper, Golden-bellied Euphonia, are some of the possibilities. This is a great area to spend time in during the heat of the day, which can be slow in other locations.

Masked Crimson Tanagers feed on bushes in the Sani Lodge clearing
Masked Crimson Tanagers feed on bushes in the Sani Lodge clearing (Pablo Cervantes D.)

Oxbow lake and Challuayacu River. Using canoes or a floating platform/blind suitable for tripods, we’ll work the edge of the oxbow lake, which is great for getting photos of Hoatzin, Black-capped Donacobius, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Capped Heron, Pale-vented Pigeon, White-winged Swallow, Lesser Kiskadee, and more. There is usually plenty of light to work with and the photography is easier than in the forest. The previously-mentioned Challuayacu River is darker but offers the chance for perched hummingbirds, manakins, various antbirds, and even monkeys and sloths.

Big flocks of Greater Anis roam the edges of the lake at Sani
Big flocks of Greater Anis roam the edges of the lake at Sani (Pablo Cervantes D.)

Canopy tower. Sani’s canopy tower is built into enormous kapok tree, and the platform is the largest we’ve ever seen, allowing for lots of space to set up a tripod or to move around for the perfect angle. Activity can vary, but if a mixed flock comes through, this can be one of the best places in Sani to get great shots, and there is plenty of light. Some birds we have photographed there include Many-banded Aracari, Paradise and Opal-crowned Tanagers, Great Jacamar, Yellow-billed and White-fronted Nunbirds, Gilded and Lemon-throated Barbets, Cinnamon-throated and Buff-throated Woodcreepers, Black-tailed and Green-backed Trogons, Black-tailed Tityra, Cinnamon Attila, though many more are possible. Near the tower, there is a blind that allows good chances to photograph the dapper Wire-tailed Manakin.

A Green-backed Trogon perches in the tower tree
A Green-backed Trogon perches in the tower tree (Nick Athanas)

Yasuní parrot licks. Not far from Sani Lodge are the famous clay licks that on dry days bring in hundreds and hundreds of parrots. Both have blinds and are well worth visiting. Flash is not allowed here, so a very fast lens and a tripod are recommended. The first clay lick is active early, and is great for Yellow-crowned, Mealy, and Blue-headed Parrots, and Dusky-headed Parakeet. Another lick is about a 20 minute walk into the forest and offers a chance at some rare species like Orange-cheeked Parrot, Scarlet-shouldered Parrotlet, and Scarlet Macaw among the hordes of Cobalt-winged Parakeets.

We may visit the famous Yasuni parrot clay lick for scenes like these
We may visit the famous Yasuni parrot clay lick for scenes like these (Nick Athanas)

Napo River islands. River islands hold a totally different set of birds, and the scrub and young forest makes the lighting easier than inside the rainforest. It can be good to spend a few hours looking for the specialties including Oriole Blackbird, Black-and-white Antbird, Castlenau’s Antshrike, and Lesser Wagtail-Tyrant. Occasionally a roosting Striped Owl is also found here.

Roosting nightbird stakeouts. Local guides usually know where at least some nightbirds are sleeping during the day, such as Common and Great Potoo, Tropical and Tawny-bellied Screech-owl, and Crested and Mottled Owls. Sometimes they are partly obscured our badly backlit, but other times they show very well allowing for nice shots. It’s always worth checking them out.

Local guides at Sani often have day roosts staked out for owls and other birds
Local guides at Sani often have day roosts staked out for owls and other birds (Nick Athanas)

Night photography. Numerous bizarre insects, colorful frogs and reptiles, and other macro targets can be found on a night walk behind the lodge. If you are into macro photography, or want to try it out for the first time, it’s a lot of fun. Of course there is also a chance for a nocturnal bird or even a night monkey as well.

Day 6: Sani to San Isidro. After some final early morning shooting, we travel back up the Napo River to Coca. We’ll board a bus and drive for several hours back up into the Andes, where we spend the night in the very comfortable San Isidro Lodge. Depending on when we arrive, there may be enough time to set up for some multiflash photography at their hummingbird feeders, where Bronzy Inca, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and Long-tailed Sylph are among the colorful visitors.

The spectacular Long-tailed Sylph is easy to find at Guango and San Isidro
The spectacular Long-tailed Sylph is easy to find at Guango and San Isidro (Sam Woods)

Day 7: San Isidro to Guango. Morning bird activity around the cabins at San Isidro can be fantastic as hungry birds come in and eat insects that were attracted to lights left on through the night. Inca Jay, Andean Motmot, Subtropical Cacique, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Pale-edged Flycatcher, Black-billed Peppershrike, Common Chlorospingus, Montane Woodcreeper, and Saffron-crowned Tanager. Chestnut-crowned and White-bellied Antpittas sometimes visit a worm feeder, and if they are coming during our visit we’ll be sure to try for some shots. We’ll then set up for another multi-flash session with hummers for the rest of the morning. After lunch, we’ll check out and continue upslope to Guango Lodge, where we spend the night. While this site is visited during the main ABA event, having additional time here gives us better chances at some of their amazing hummingbirds like Sword-billed Hummingbird, Collared Inca, and Tourmaline Sunangel.

Inca Jays are easy to see around San Isidro in the early morning
Inca Jays are easy to see around San Isidro in the early morning (Nick Athanas)

Day 8: Guango Lodge to Quito. The morning is somewhat flexible. If we are happy with our multi-flash shots, we may concentrate more on other birds around Guango, such as Masked Flowerpiercer, Turquoise Jay, and Torrent Duck. Depending on weather, we may also venture into the páramo grasslands of the high Andes around Papallacta Pass; on clear days we can enjoy spectacular views of several snow-capped volcanoes. The high altitude birds that reside there can be remarkably confiding. Comical cinclodes bound around on the páramo, Tawny Antpittas hop along the roads, and with the use of playback, shier birds like canasteros and tit-spinetails can often be brought in close. In the afternoon we head for Quito to arrive in time to prepare for the ABA welcome dinner and the start of the main event.

A female Torrent Duck standing sentry near Guango Lodge
A female Torrent Duck standing sentry near Guango Lodge (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. Breakfast times are typically 5:30-6:30am, with an earlier breakfast required on one or two days of. A few days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos, especially at Sani Lodge where it is typically hot and slow in the middle of the day.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. A fair amount of walking is done at Sani Lodge to reach some of the important sites like the canopy tower. We may walk up to 3 miles (4.8 km) and sometimes on trails that are very muddy (the lodge provides rubber boots), and accessing the canopy tower requires climbing up 120 ft. (37 m.) via a sturdy and well-made staircase. After we leave Sani, much of the rest of the trip will be spent near feeders, with some short walks to target a few things. Parts of the last day will be spent at high elevations above 11,500 ft. (3500 m.), however little walking is done at these altitudes.

CLIMATE: Extremely variable. Hot and humid at Sani Lodge (up to c. 90°F/32°C), pleasant at San Isidro, chilly at Guango, and cold in Papallacta (though little time will be spent there unless the weather is nice). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings, and intense downpours are not unexpected at Sani (good rain protection for your gear is essential).

ACCOMMODATION: Good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. At Sani Lodge, electricity is provided by generator that is turned on for limited hours, but it provides sufficient time to charge camera batteries and devices. Other lodges have full time electricity.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: On the main tour, at least half the time will be spent on birds coming to feeders (with the option for some multi-flash hummingbird photography) or photographing birds that come in to eat insects that were attracted by the lights over the night. The rest of the time will be spent targeting things along roads or short tracks/trails. On the extension, only a little time will be spent at feeders, and the rest of the time will be divided between boats, the canopy tower, the boardwalk, trails, the parrot lick, and other sites depending on current conditions.

GEAR: A good 300mm lens (or high end zoom that covers 300mm) and a full-frame camera are ideal for hummingbirds, but a longer lens is better for most other birds. A 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm are the best options, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A smaller lens can be nice for scenery shots in the high Andes. A flash (where permitted) is also useful since light can be quite low early in the morning and inside forest. Weather permitting, there will be some opportunities for optional nocturnal macro photography, especially at Sani Lodge, where a good macro lens and flash (a ring flash or off-camera flash is best) would be useful.

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?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 7; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to lunch on day 8; safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at Sani Lodge, San Isidro Lodge, and Guango Lodge at any time; one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 8; one arrival airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); airport transfers for the group to the airport on day 2; one way flight Quito-Coca; roundtrip boat transport from Coca to Sani Lodge (may be shared with other lodge guests), private boat transport and local guide while at Sani Lodge, van and driver from day 6 to day 8; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what you have photographed (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to guides, drivers, lodge staff, and luggage porters in the Quito hotel (if you require their services); international 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.