Choco Photo Journey: The Ultimate Ecuadorian Bird Photography Tour

This short Ecuadorian bird photo tour has been specifically scheduled to link up with our Galapagos Bird and Nature Photography Cruise, to combine for one of the ultimate photo journeys in all of the Americas. Running immediately after the Galapagos Bird and Nature Photography Cruise, you will barely have time to download your unforgettable images of displaying frigatebirds, dancing Blue-footed Boobies, and giant, lumbering albatrosses waddling around their breeding colony; before you will train your lens on other Ecuadorian gems, specifically, a range of tropical species in the cloudforests of the Andes. The jewels of the Andes, the hummingbirds will feature heavily as much of this tour will take the shape of a Hummingbird Photopraphy Tour. Fantastic feeder set-ups will allow both extremely close approach to these delicate birds, but also excellent photographic opportunities of these “winged gems”, which could include such delectable species as the comical Booted Racket-tail, the gorgeous Violet-tailed Sylph, and shockingly beautiful Velvet-purple Coronet, among a horde of other hummingbird species, at feeders jam-packed with both high hummingbird diversity, but also impressive numbers of these regal birds.


While hummingbirds are undoubtedly a front and center feature of this short photography and wildlife tour, they will also be accompanied by other colorful tropical birds on the tour, such as a bevvy of tanagers, toucans, trogons, woodpeckers, and even the incredible, vivid scarlet Andean Cock-of-the-rock, one of the most outstanding birds in the World. If you’re looking for something utterly different to sit alongside the ultimate bucket list destination, the enchanted Galapagos Islands, then the glorious Tandayapa region of the Andes is the perfect fit, and will raise the number of bird species photographed considerably, in a delectable combination of cruise and land-based photography tour, at one of the countries most well-known birding lodges.

One of the most abundant hummingbirds at Tandayapa is the amazing Booted Racket-tail
One of the most abundant hummingbirds at Tandayapa is the amazing Booted Racket-tail (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

The photos on this page were all taken at sites visited on this tour.

While this is a tour that links with the Galapagos Birding and Nature Photography Cruise, it can also be taken as a stand alone Bird Photography Tour, and will be limited to just 6 people, for an intimate photography experience like no other. Tropical Birding Tours also guarantees this will run with just 2 people.

The outrageous Flame-faced Tanager will be one of a handful of very colorful tropical birds during our photography session at Mashpi
The outrageous Flame-faced Tanager will be one of a handful of very colorful tropical birds during our photography session at Mashpi (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 1: Arrival in Quito. After arrival in Ecuador’s capital, a World Cultural Heritage Site, you will be transferred to a wonderful downtown hotel with excellent views overlooking Quito, and see firsthand how this urban center sits right in the very heart of the picturesque Andes Mountains. One night will be spent in Quito.

The bee-like Purple-throated Woodstar photographed during a recent workshop at Tandayapa Bird Lodge
The bee-like Purple-throated Woodstar photographed during a recent workshop at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 2: Quito to Tandayapa Bird Lodge. In the morning we shall head west, out of the dry semi-arid Intermontane valley, where Quito is located, and drop down into the verdant cloudforest of the Andes, on the western slope of the mountains. Our location for the remainder of the day, and the next 4 nights, is the wonderful Tandayapa Bird Lodge, a place where hummingbirds, and hummingbird photography, take center stage. The bird feeders here are famous worldwide amongst both avid birders and nature photographers looking for excellent hummingbird photography opportunities, as the place to see and photograph a dizzy variety of hummingbird species. For this reason the BBC Natural History department (the ones behind series such as “Planet Earth I” and “Planet Earth II”), have chosen to locate their cameras at Tandayapa Bird Lodge on more than a few occasions to document the extraordinary hummingbird photography there.

Buff-tailed Coronet often features during our workshop sessions on the 2 days at Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Buff-tailed Coronet often features during our workshop sessions on the 2 days at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

One of the features of this day will be the opportunity to take part and be tutored in taking unforgettable images of these wondrous creatures by using multi-flash technology provided by the lodge to capture them, frozen in time, with pin sharp shots from beak to tail tip, and wing tip to wing tip, in flight! There are few better places to get those shots, evidenced by the regular stream of professional nature photographers who choose to locate their workshops there for the timeless images and photography images available each and every day. While this tour is not a workshop in its entirety, this day will consist of this workshop component, with plentiful tips from our experienced photo tour leader throughout; (who lived in Ecuador for more than 15 years, and founded Tandayapa Bird Lodge, one of the great champions of hummingbird photography worldwide).

The Milpe feeders sometimes host the awesome Choco Toucan, a local specialty
The Milpe feeders sometimes host the awesome Choco Toucan, a local specialty (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 3: Rancho Suamox and Milpe. One of the reasons why birders have been using, (and returning regularly to), Tandayapa Bird Lodge since its opening in 2000, is that its sits within one of the interesting and diverse bird areas in Ecuador. A variety of established birding and photography sites are located within an easy drive, and this day is about visiting two of these, which are both totally different from that of the lodge itself. While the lodge sits at a comfortably warm (though not chilly) elevation of 1750m/5740ft., Suamox and Milpe are at lower elevations, in the humid foothills of the Andes, between 600-1100m/1970-3610ft. What this means for the visiting photographer, is a vastly different photo experience at these sites from at the lodge itself. Feeder set-ups at both sites offer an entirely new suite of birds, which could include the tiny Green Thorntail, glistening Crowned Woodnymph (both new hummingbirds), but also the potential for other exotic tropical birds attracted to the fruit tables at each site, such as Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Golden Tanager, Flame-rumped Tanager, and the striking Rufous Motmot. After a morning session at the Suamox feeders and the birdy surrounding secondary forest, we will move higher into the foothills of the Andes, to Milpe, taking lunch at a local restaurant and long-established “birder’s hangout”, where the tasty dishes are often accompanied by tanagers and hummingbirds at their very own tableside feeders. After an afternoon inside nearby Milpe Bird Sanctuary, we will ascend back into the cloudforest once more, and return to the comforts of Tandayapa Bird Lodge.

Black-chinned-Mountain-Tanager-WEB176A1524
Black-chinned-Mountain-Tanager-WEB176A1524 (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Mashpi and Oilbirds. Today will be another day where we will sample the extraordinary photographic opportunities off site from Tandayapa itself, but that will be markedly different from the other days of the tour. An early start will be required for the 90-minute drive to Mashpi, a much-publicize conservation area that is home to many birds found within only this small, fragile area of the planet. We will again be in the Andean foothills, with jagged forest-cloaked slopes being the breathtaking backdrop to our morning shoot. This though 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. Spectacular, as some of the species that can visit on any given day rank in two special categories; those that can only be reliably photographed here (as they are restricted range species), and are just downright gobsmackingly beautiful; birds like Glistening-green Tanager, 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 while not being the best set for photographing these species (which we visit on the last day of shooting), they nevertheless bring in a regular horde, including Brown Inca and Empress Brilliant.

This is one of the only tours in the World that offers the chance to photograph the
This is one of the only tours in the World that offers the chance to photograph the (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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, once more, to Tandayapa Bird Lodge for more of their signature freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices, and flavorsome Andean soups.

A small cavern will be visited for the rare opportunity to photograph the nocturnal Oilbird
A small cavern will be visited for the rare opportunity to photograph the nocturnal Oilbird (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 5: Tandayapa Bird Lodge. After a few days enjoying the substantial offerings for bird photography offsite, you may have got the feeling that we have neglected the tour’s centerpiece, the lodge itself, so this day will center here again, and once again to view and photograph yet more hummingbird species, like Andean Emerald, Purple-throated Woodstar, and perhaps too Purple-bibbed Whitetip, a local specialty. This will be one of the most relaxed days of the tour, with plentiful downtime if needed, but also plentiful opportunities again at using the lodge’s multi-flash set ups to get that sharp shot of the local hummingbirds.

Often considered one of the World's most beautiful hummingbirds, the breathtaking Velvet-purple Coronet, (regularly photographed on this tour and few others)
Often considered one of the World's most beautiful hummingbirds, the breathtaking Velvet-purple Coronet, (regularly photographed on this tour and few others) (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 6: Paz de Aves to Quito. Today will see us return to Ecuador’s historical capital, but not before fitting in another unique, and locally famous birding, and photography, site: Paz de Aves. The start of our final photography session of the tour will see us leave the lodge before dawn, on the trail of 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. While this is a very popular site with visiting birders and bird photographers, and crowds of 15 people not unusual, we will have the place to ourselves, as we enjoy both extra, and plentiful time with these birds before they depart following their raucous dawn displays. Once this action dies down, and these crested scarlet birds depart for the depths of the forest once more, we will have other avian subjects to attend to, as the local farmers who run this utterly unique reserve, have managed to tame several ordinarily shy forest birds to come in very close. The list of species seen daily changes, but often includes the locally super tame Dark-breasted Wood-Quail, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, and an outside chance of the rare Giant Antpitta too, if fortune smiles on us for the morning. 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 that can offer up more opportunities for bird photography, and are sometimes home to Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers, and Golden-naped and Flame-faced Tanagers, while hummingbirds also buzz excitedly around the café as we eat. After returning to Tandayapa for a late lunch, we will pack up and drive the 70km back to Quito for a final farewell dinner and one more night; but this time close to the airport for the convenience of late night or early morning departures home.

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

Day 7: Departure from Quito. A transfer will be arranged for you from our airport hotel to the airport at a time you need it.

*Please Note: If you wish for any extra nights in Quito, or some cultural city tour activities to be arranged around the tour please contact our office.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker regularly visits fruit feeders!
Black-cheeked Woodpecker regularly visits fruit feeders! (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Breakfast times are typically 5:30-6:30am, with one earlier breakfast required on the day we visit a cock-of-the-rock lek; (when we take breakfast at 4:45am, for a 5am departure).
Most days will have several hours of downtime to relax or download photos – this is often in the late afternoon when the light may be poor and when it is more likely to rain, or in the middle of the day when it is hot and slow. There is a fair amount of driving involved on the main tour; on 4 days a drive of up to 2 hours is needed (and this is each way for 2 of these days).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Much of the tour will be spent near feeders, which are accessed by only a short walk. At Paz de Aves we will may need to walk roughly half a mile (about 1 km) on moderately steep and often slippery trails in order to photograph some of the special birds. There may also be short walks on trails to target a few things at Suamox or Milpe. The elevations covered on this tour range from 9180ft/2800m in Quito (at the start and end, the highest point), to 5740ft/1750m at the lodge we are based at for most of the tour, and down to 1310ft/400m at Suamox, the lowest point of the tour.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), and hot on the one day at Suamox. Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings, and intense downpours are not unexpected in this naturally wet, tropical region (good rain protection for your gear is essential). This is considered the end of the dry season, and often is associated with good bird activity at this time.

ACCOMMODATION: Good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24hr 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.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: At least half the time will be spent on birds coming to feeders (with the option for some multi-flash hummingbird photography on 2 days at Tandayapa Bird Lodge) 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.

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 can also be useful, but not essential. A 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm is the best option, 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. PLEASE NOTE: Flash is not permitted at Paz de las Aves or at Mashpi.

The photos on this page were all taken at sites visited on this tour.

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 6; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 7; 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; an experienced photography tour leader with camera and audio playback gear (to lure in birds where needed) from the morning of day 2 to the afternoon of day 6; 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 6 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 you have photographed if required -please let us know if you wish to have this in advance of the tour; (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: ALL TIPS: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for 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.

Ecuador is famous for its incredible number and diversity of hummingbirds and tanagers. This tour combines an excellent Hummingbird Photography Tour, with other fantastic bird photography opportunities at multiple feeder set ups, but also “on the fly”. This combines with the Galapagos Bird and Nature Photography Cruise for one of the ultimate bird photography tours in the Americas. The combination of the quintessential bucket list destination of a Galapagos Photography Cruise, with one of the best bird photography countries on the continent, makes for an excellent, heady combination. This short tour, to one of the greatest bird and wildlife countries on Earth, Ecuador, can also be taken alone for those with limited time.