Ecuador: The Northwestern Andean Slopes Nov 13—21, 2011
Posted by Paul Greenfield
Ecuador's northwestern region offers some of the very best birding to be found anywhere on Earth! In a compact week, set within a compact "area of operations"—staying at only one lodge—with excellent opportunities to see a great diversity of bird species under superb viewing conditions at relatively short distances from "home," we are able to sample a variety of habitats in four different life-zones. And that's exactly what we did! This is hummingbird heaven, for one thing, not to mention tanager treasure-trove (oops, I just did!) along with a tremendous variety of additional Neotropical lowland and Andean species. Each site we visited (some located right next to another) brought new perspective to the term "biodiversity." From an altitudinal selection of hummingbird feeding stations to fruit feeders, a canopy tower, street lights that attract some two dozen hungry bird species, a local farmer who feeds four species of antpittas, and manakin leks, getting good looks at birds has become one of the major characteristics of this tour.
We headed out from our Quito hotel somewhat leisurely on our first morning, with one major stop in mind, the high-Andean Yanacocha Reserve. This is actually slated as a travel day to work our way down to our principal destination, but our half-day spent at this site is a key component to the northwest experience. The action began almost immediately as we stepped off the bus—hummingbirds buzzing about all around us. The entire morning was like this, at each different group of feeders set up to attract these amazing creatures, as we walked along searching for mixed species foraging flocks of high Andean species. We reached the end of the first section of the trail, and this was as far we needed to go; a concentration of feeders here basically blew us away: Tyrian Metaltail, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted pufflegs, Shining Sunbeam, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, the incredible Sword-billed Hummingbird, and Great Sapphirewing fed and interacted in a dizzying, mesmerizing frenzy—were we having fun yet? We walked up a narrow trail to a few more feeders and there, one of the reserve's guards led us to a spot where he called in a lovely pair of Rufous Antpittas. After this rather successful "starter," topped off by Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Smoky Bush-Tyrant, Blackish Tapaculo, Rufous Wren, Superciliaried Hemispingus, Blue-backed Conebill, Black-chested and Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanagers, and Glossy and Masked flowerpiercers, among other species, we continued downslope along the "Paseo del Quinde" Ecoroute, making just a few pointed stops to pick up more and always different species.
A brief stop at Bellavista Lodge added a whole different suite of hummingbirds—Green Violetear, Speckled Hummingbird, Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, and Purple-throated Woodstar among them—along with a few other goodies, including Masked Trogon and White-throated Quail-Dove. As we continued on our way, additional stops brought welcomed prizes, like Gorgeted Sunangel, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, and Pearled Treerunner. As we finally pulled into Séptimo Paraíso—our comfortable headquarters for the week—we couldn't help but sneak a peek at the still active hummingbird feeders they keep—oh boy, Violet-tailed Sylph, Booted Racket-tail, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, and Andean Emerald closed out our first day. Not a bad introduction to what was about to come!
The following morning began with an optional pre-breakfast outing (everybody took it!) to the top of the Mindo entrance road, known as the "Y" de Mindo, to see if any birds had come to feast on the moths that are often attracted to the large street lights during the night. This time around, due to clear skies and a bright moon, it was not that successful—we only found some 22 species! As we continued towards the lodge we picked up a few more, including the spectacular Toucan Barbet. I would call this second day a "warm-up"; we spent the rest of the morning birding the grounds around the lodge. After lunch we headed out to check on a few nearby sites: first to Mirador Río Blanco where we enjoyed some delicious local juices and fried yuca (manioc) while watching nectar and fruit feeders. We then headed over to Sachatamia Lodge to feast our eyes on their spectacularly active hummingbirds, and to top it off we drove down to and passed the town of Mindo, where we found a Lyre-tailed Nightjar on its very convenient day-roost. Some of this day's highlights included Brown Violetear; Green Thorntail; Brown Inca; Velvet-purple Coronet; Purple-bibbed Whitetip; Empress and Green-crowned brilliants; Green-crowned Woodnymph; Broad-billed Motmot; Red-headed Barbet; Red-faced Spinetail; Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner; Ornate Flycatcher; White-capped Dipper; Guira, Golden, Silver-throated, Flame-faced, Golden-naped, Metallic-green, Blue-necked, Beryl-spangled, Black-capped, and Swallow tanagers; Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager; Black-winged Saltator; and Tricolored Brush-Finch.
A very early pre-dawn departure followed. Today was "Angel Paz Day," including some challenging (but well worth it) up-and-down trails. Here we were treated to a true spectacle—under the direction of Sr. Angel Paz (a local farmer) himself, we enjoyed a Cock-of-the-rock lek, and incredible views of a wonderful family group of Dark-backed Wood-Quail, along with the "pièce de resistance"—intimate encounters with Giant, Moustached, Yellow-breasted, and Ochre-breasted antpittas, and an adult Olivaceous Piha feeding its nestling. This was followed by—after the traditional mid-morning brunch of local Bolones de Verde and Empanadas de Queso prepared by Angel's wife—an impressive mixed species foraging flock complete with a family of Orange-breasted Fruiteaters. We then headed over to Milpe Bird Sanctuary for a relatively leisurely visit—well, maybe not so; we hit an impressive mixed foraging flock and racked up quite a list of new species! We spent the entire next day at Milpe and its adjacent Milpe Gardens where we revisited some of the species we saw the afternoon before, but then picked up a slew of new birds, among them: Barred Forest-Falcon; Maroon-tailed Parakeet; Bronze-winged Parrot; Chocó Trogon; Rufous Motmot; Chocó Toucan; Guayaquil Woodpecker; Esmeraldas Antbird; Snowy-throated Kingbird; Golden-winged, Club-winged (displaying!), and White-bearded manikins; White-thighed Swallow; Chocó Warbler; Ochre-breasted, Glistening-green, and Rufous-throated tanagers; Green and Purple honeycreepers; and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia.
The following day we visited an unprogrammed site, sort of on a whim. Mashpi is a new, and as yet unfinished, high-end eco-lodge set in a 1,000-hectare (2,471-acre), private cloud forest reserve, and we decided to give it a shot. The drive there took longer than expected and we hit a very uncharacteristic sunny day (not great for seeing these cloud forest species!), but we did well, with a few nice highlights—Moss-backed Tanager was common here! Some additional sightings included Double-toothed Kite, Collared Trogon, Orange-fronted Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Bay Wren, Rufous-brown Solitaire, Chocó Warbler, Glistening-green Tanager, Slate-colored Grosbeak, and Scarlet-rumped Cacique. We topped this off with a final day-trip to an "old" favorite—Río Silanche Bird Sanctuary. What a birdy place! We spent much of the morning atop the 15-meter (49 ft.) high canopy tower, just picking off the odd species that flew by or overhead, and watching for mixed species foraging flocks…and boy did we get some close-up views (there's nothing like being up at eye level with these canopy flocks)…Dot-winged Antwren, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flatbill, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, and Gray-and-gold tanagers, among other species, were seen exceptionally well. Purple-chested Hummingbird, Purple-crowned Fairy, Checker-throated Antwren, Masked Water-Tyrant, and Yellow-tufted and Blue dacnises were also seen well down at ground level.
We headed out early on our final morning, driving along slowly as we watched for mixed foraging flocks and anything else that caught our eye, in hopes of picking up species we might have missed on our initial drive in. Just minutes after our departure, a Crested Guan popped up, followed a few minutes later—as we entered the Ecoroute we traveled along on our first afternoon—by a nice mixed foraging flock and a wonderful pair of Golden-headed Quetzals. Another mixed flock brought nice views of a Streaked Tuftedcheek, followed by a beautiful Turquoise Jay, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Grass-green Tanager, and so on. We made a last stop, before our final ascent to Quito, at the scenic gardens of Pacha Quinde, the private residence of VENT leader Tony Nunnery and his lovely wife Barbara Boltz, where we enjoyed a relaxing lunch and afternoon of hummingbirds and mixed foraging flocks—a fitting grand finale to another successful bird-rich journey!