Ecuador Photo Journey

Ecuador is famed for its extraordinary diversity. With a superb selection of lodges and reserves, many of them with excellent feeders, it is one of the premier bird photography destinations in South America. The jewels of the Andes, the hummingbirds, will feature heavily; fantastic feeder set-ups allow excellent photographic opportunities of these “winged gems”. While hummingbirds are undoubtedly a front and center feature of this tour, they will also be accompanied by other colorful tropical birds, including an assortment of tanagers, toucans, trogons, woodpeckers, and even the incredible, vivid scarlet Andean Cock-of-the-rock. An optional extension to Sani Lodge in the Amazon is also available.



For more photos, see our Flickr page.

Note: On some departures, the tour is run in reverse order.

The tour leader may modify the plan on any particular day based on weather, feeder activity, recent sighting information, newly opened sites, and other factors. As most of the tour is based in just a few lodges, there is a certain amount of flexibility built into the itinerary.

Day 1: Quito. The tour starts this evening in Quito, and you will be transferred to an excellent hotel for the night.

The snow-capped peak of Antisana is breathtaking on a clear day
The snow-capped peak of Antisana is breathtaking on a clear day (Nick Athanas)

Day 2: Antisana to Guango Lodge. Our first morning of the tour will be truly spectacular and for good reason, as we visit the open grasslands surrounding the enormous Antisana volcano. This is often voted as the favorite site of the tour by many, for the wonderful surroundings in which we will be shooting. The towering peak of the Antisana Volcano itself is impressive, with a large snow-covered top, and dramatic rocky sides. The páramo (grassland) is interspersed with rocky outcrops and scenic high Andean lakes dotted with high altitude waterfowl. Indeed the scenery itself may be our biggest photo asset. Aside from these breathtaking Andean scenes, the upper páramo is carpeted with Carunculated Caracaras, a striking pied raptor that occurs here in impressive numbers. Black-faced Ibis patrol these high plains as do Andean Lapwings and large flocks of Andean Gulls. It is a site that will leave a lasting impression, and provide ample shots for processing at the end of the tour. After lunch at a hacienda on site, we shall drive to Guango Lodge, where we will spend two nights

Carunculated Caracaras can be extremely tame in Antisana
Carunculated Caracaras can be extremely tame in Antisana (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Guango Lodge. Guango is a small lodge with great hummingbirds; it will complement our later visit to Tandayapa very well. Guango has a varied set of feeders that attract dozens of hummingbirds, including such extravagant species as the “cartoonesque” Sword-billed Hummingbird, the dapper black-and-white Collared Inca, aggressive Chestnut-breasted Coronet, tiny White-bellied Woodstar, and sublime Tourmaline Sunangel. The hummer feeders are also a target for other local birds, most notably the indigo blue Masked Flowerpiercer that will make a tempting subject for our cameras. The temperate forest that overhangs this comfortable Andean lodge also attracts passing flocks of birds, some of which can be remarkably confiding and photogenic, that including the cerulean-blue Turquoise Jay.

Masked Trogons occur right around the lodges used
Masked Trogons occur right around the lodges used (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

Day 4: Papallacta and Guango to Quito. Weather permitting, we will 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. At lunch time we will return to Guango, where will have the most of the afternoon to shoot hummingbirds, walk the forest trails behind the lodge, or scan the river alongside for Torrent Ducks. In mid-afternoon, we shall pack up and head to Quito for a night.

Booted Racket-tail is the most common hummer at Tandayapa
Booted Racket-tail is the most common hummer at Tandayapa (Sam Woods)

Days 5-8: Northwest Ecuador based out of Tandayapa Bird Lodge. After leaving Quito, we’ll have four nights based in Tandayapa Bird Lodge, nestled within lush subtropical forest on the west slope of the Andes, an area renowned for its high bird species diversity. This is especially evident in the impressive hummingbird community found right around the lodge that will occupy much of our photographic energies. The lodge feeders attract thousands of individual hummingbirds, with 10-20 species visiting on most days. The most common is usually is the outrageous Booted Racket-tail, the male of which has a strange long tail, with two paddles at the end. Other regular drop-ins are a number of glistening species like the audacious Violet-tailed Sylph, the standout Purple-bibbed Whitetip, and the gem-like Western Emerald., dinky Purple-throated Woodstar that regularly buzz around the Tandayapa balcony.

Golden-naped Tanager sometimes visits feeders, allowing great photo opps
Golden-naped Tanager sometimes visits feeders, allowing great photo opps (Sam Woods)

If hummingbird photography is your goal, you are likely to come away with plenty of shots of over ten species of hummingbird, many of which are hard to photograph elsewhere. Fruit feeders at the lodge can also attract “technicolor” birds like Red-headed Barbet, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, or Toucan Barbet. Other species often come in to eat insects attracted to lights, such as flycatchers, woodcreepers, and more.

One of many hummingbirds on offer: Violet-tailed Sylph
One of many hummingbirds on offer: Violet-tailed Sylph (Pablo Cervantes Daza)

On its own Tandayapa is a fantastic spot for bird photography, and we will spend a good amount of time shooting around the lodge (with chances for multiflash hummingbird photography); however it also serves as an excellent base to explore numerous other private reserves in the region. The exact places that we visit on the tour, and the order, will depend on various factors like weather, feeder activity, and most importantly, up-to-date local knowledge on which places have the best activity at the moment, and which places are best avoided. Listed below are some of the options we have available, though we will also not hesitate to do something different if we obtain info on a new site or hot sighting.

Rancho Suamox
Rancho Suamox is a private farm in the lowlands where the owner has set up both fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders that attract tanagers, woodpeckers, and a couple of different hummingbird species only found in the lowlands. 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, can all often be seen and photographed at the feeders.

Flame-faced Tanager often visits feeders in the area
Flame-faced Tanager often visits feeders in the area (Sam Woods)

Milpe Bird Sanctuary
Milpe is a small reserve within the foothills of the Andes that offers a very different suite of birds from Tandayapa. This reserve, run by an Ecuadorian NGO, the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, has some nice forest and a tiny café with very busy hummingbird feeders. The new set of hummers complement the ones found higher up and include the incredibly cute Green Thorntail, the exquisite, jewel-like Green-crowned Woodnymph, and “butch” Green-crowned Brilliant, and the hyperactive White-whiskered Hermit. The area will also offer up other photo opportunities as fruit feeders sometimes attract colorful tanager species, euphonias, motmots, and toucans. For those who don’t mind a short hike, there is also a display area for the bizarre Club-winged Manakin.

The gorgeous Blue-necked Tanager regularly visits fruit feeders
The gorgeous Blue-necked Tanager regularly visits fruit feeders (Sam Woods)

Mashpi Amagusa and Oilbirds
This is a long but extraordinary day trip from Tandayapa to an important conservation area that is home to many birds difficult to find elsewhere in Ecuador. The lush forest-cloaked slopes make a breathtaking backdrop to the area. We will visit a small private reserve in the region (Amagusa), where a young couple are not only conserving important bird habitat but have also set up a small but spectacular set of feeders. Some of the species that can visit on any given day rank in two special categories: those that can only be reliably photographed here, and those that are just downright beautiful. Birds like Glistening-green Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Moss-backed Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager, Golden Tanager, and Crimson-rumped Toucanet are all possible among other more common species. Hummingbird feeders offer chances at two of the best hummers around, the glowing Velvet-purple Coronet and the impressive Empress Brilliant. In the afternoon, we’ll visit a spot where an odd nocturnal bird, the Oilbird, can be photographed on its daytime roost. This is one of the best sites to shoot this species in the world – there are caves with greater numbers, but the location of the birds at this site makes them much more photo-friendly.

Glistening-green Tanager is one of a throng of tanagers that occur in the region
Glistening-green Tanager is one of a throng of tanagers that occur in the region (Sam Woods)

San Tadeo
A local family has set up fruit feeders in their yard that have become a sensation among bird photographers. Some of our recent trips have spent hours here shooting the constant stream of tanagers and other species that visit. Some of the possibilities include Black-capped Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager, Ecuadorian Thrush, Black-striped Sparrow, Rufous-collared Sparrow, Golden-naped Tanager, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet, and Lemon-rumped Tanager. We often visit site on the same days that we visit Milpe and Suamox.

Upper Tandayapa Valley
A short drive up the road from the lodge gets us into slightly cooler forest with some different birds. The photography here is not easy, but we sometimes spend a few hours up here trying to get shots of the mindblowing Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan.

Yanacocha
This is a high-elevation site located between Quito and Tandayapa, accessed by a long dirt road. While this is often included in birding itineraries, it has not featured as often in photographic tours, since it is a long walk to get to some of the feeders. However, new feeders are being put in close to the parking area, and depending on how they go, Yanacocha may become a key site. Some possibilities include Scarlet-bellied and Black-chested Mountain-Tanagers, Shining Sunbeam, Great Sapphirewing, Sword-billed Hummingbird, and Yellow-breasted Brush-Finch. Due to its location, we often visit it on day 5 en route to Tandayapa.

Day 9: Paz de las Aves to Quito. We’ll depart very early and head to one of the most important bird sites in the area, the wonderful Paz de las Aves Refuge. This beautiful reserve is set within subtropical forest where the moist, moss-covered trees are burdened with bright red bromeliads. Our early rise will let us visit an area deep within the forest where a short time after dawn the bright scarlet forms of several displaying Andean Cock-of-the-rocks will start the day off with a spectacular forest performance. However, what has made this place such a joy for photographers and birders alike is the habituating of several rare and shy species of the forest floor, especially the antpittas. Giant, Moustached, Yellow-breasted Antpittas, Ochre-breasted, and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas are all possible, with usually at least two of them cooperating on any given visit. Other birds we will be trying to photograph include Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, and White-capped Dipper. Later in the morning, we may visit one of the other sites mentioned above, or we may return to Tandayapa for a few hours, before returning to Quito for the final night of the tour.

Day 10 Departure. If not joining the extension, the tour ends this morning with transfers to the airport.
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AMAZON EXTENSION TO SANI LODGE

Wildlife photography in the Amazon is as tough as it gets. We had hesitated to offer a trip until we went to Sani Lodge in early June 2015, 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. The staff and guides are determined to improve things, and are setting up feeders and blinds to make the most of the photo opportunities, as well as constantly looking for new stakeouts. This extension can also be done at any time as a custom tour, and longer and shorter packages are possible.



Day 1: 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 have lunch at Sani, and spend the afternoon either on the lake or river, or spend time at the feeders depending on activity. We’ll have four nights total based in Sani Lodge.

Days 2-4: 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:

Feeders and fruiting trees around the lodge. The Sani clearing can be a great place to photography numerous colorful species coming to either fruiting trees or the new feeders. 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.

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.

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.

Forest blinds. Antpitta feeding has arrived in the Amazon! Sani has had some success putting out worms for a White-lored Antpitta, which is normally an amazingly tough bird to even see. A blind has also been erected that allows good chances to photograph the dapper Wire-tailed Manakin. More blinds may be installed in the future as well.

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.

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.

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 nightbird or even a night monkey as well.

Day 5: Sani to Quito. Depending on flight schedules, there may be time for some early morning shooting before we have to travel back up the Napo River to Coca and fly back to Quito, where we spend a final night. Flight schedules are variable – sometimes you are back in Quito by lunch, giving you the afternoon to relax, whereas other times flights don’t arrive until late afternoon or evening.

Day 6: Departure. The extension ends this morning with transfers to the airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Breakfast times are typically 5:30-6:30am, with an earlier breakfast required on one day of the main tour and one or two days of the extension. 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 on the extension when it is hot and slow. A few of the days will involve several hours of driving.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Much of the main tour will be spent near feeders which are accessed by only a short walk. At Refugio Paz we will 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 will also be short walks on trails to target a few things at Milpe and Guango. Parts of at least three days will be spent at high elevations above 11,500 ft. (3500 m.), however little walking is done at these altitudes, and those nights are spent much lower at 8500 ft. (2600 m). On the extension, much more walking is required, up to 3 miles (4.8 km) a day, 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.

CLIMATE: Usually very pleasant (mostly 55°-75°F, 13°-24°C), but cold at Papallacta and Antisana (possibly down to near freezing) and hot on the one day at Suamox and for the entire extension (up to c. 90°F/32°C). Some rain can be expected, especially in the afternoons and evenings, and intense downpours are not unexpected on the extension (good rain protection for your gear is essential).

ACCOMMODATION: Good, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. All lodges on the main tour have 24hr electricity. On the extension, electricity is provided by generator that is turned on for limited hours, but it provides sufficient time to charge camera batteries and devices.

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 on 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. On the extension, rain can be expected year round, but it usually falls in short, intense bursts; December-February are usually the driest months on average in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but even then you will likely get some rain.

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 on the extension, where a good macro lens and flash (a ring flash or off-camera flash is best) would be useful. Flash is not permitted at Paz de las Aves or Mashpi Amaguza.

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 9 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 10 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); safe drinking water and/or juice during meals; safe drinking water as well as tea and coffee are available at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Guango Lodge, and Sani 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 9 if taking only the main tour, and to the afternoon of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; 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 9 in a suitable vehicle with a local driver; if taking the extension, airport transfers to and from the Quito airport, roundtrip airfare from Quito to Coca, roundtrip boat transport from Coca to Sani Lodge (may be shared with other lodge guests), private boat transport while at Sani Lodge, and private Sani local guide are also included; 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 the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in the Quito hotel (if you require their services); flights (except for the included roundtrip flight from Quito to Coca on the extension); 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.