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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

2017 July Narrative

In Brief: For a relatively short tour, Northwest Ecuador never fails to deliver. This was the first region I ever visited in the Neotropics around ten years ago, and despite many trips since then, I have never gotten bored of such a special and bird-rich place. In just a week, our fun and easygoing group explored the varied elevations and habitats in the greater Mindo area from our comfortable base at Septimo Paraiso, seeing over 300 species including many stunning Choco endemics and over 40 different hummingbirds! Highlights were many: the winner of the “bird-of-the-trip” contest was Booted Racket-tail, and for good reason – this miniscule little creature is always a delight to watch. But also consider our multiple views of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, a cooperative pair of Scarlet-breasted Dacnis in the top of a bare tree from the Rio Silanche canopy tower (in the same scope view as Gray-and-gold Tanager for ten minutes!), exquisite Lyre-tailed Nightjars sallying out from a cliffside and a bonus female on a nest, three species of antpittas at Angel Paz’s reserve, and toucans and quetzals and fruiteaters and…trying to pick a favorite is simply out of the question!

In Detail: Our first morning began in the thin chilly air at Yanacocha, a Jocotoco Foundation reserve situated on the slope of the Pichincha volcano just outside the bustling city of Quito. Despite the elevation of over 11,000 feet, the trail here is refreshingly flat and wide, making the two-mile walk to the far feeders manageable despite its length. The morning was mostly clear, which might have reduced flock activity a little bit – but we were certainly able to enjoy a steady trickle of temperate forest species that we wouldn’t see again on the trip. Highlights included the hulking Hooded Mountain-Tanager, several Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers (singing their strange nasal mechanical song!), our first flowerpiercers (Masked and Glossy), a cute White-throated Tyrannulet, a bustling party of Rufous Wrens, and several cooperative Spectacled Whitestarts. The clear weather seemed to help with raptors, however, and we had some nice studies of several Variable Hawks alongside a super distant dark raptor high above our heads that could only have been a Black-and-chestnut Eagle…and I nearly forgot to mention the perched Aplomado Falcon!

The hummingbird feeders at the end of the trail slowly provided the regular species for this elevation, including Buff-winged Starfrontlet (the most abundant), Sapphire-vented Puffleg, Tyrian Metaltail, Great Sapphirewing (they area awesome) and a fleeting glimpse of a Mountain Velvetbreast. The star of the show, undoubtedly, was Sword-billed Hummingbird – the only bird in the world with a bill so long that it has to preen with its feet! Several Purple-backed Thornbills in the nearby canopy were also nice to catch up with before we began the slog back to the entrance.

After a delicious lunch punctuated by some snazzy Shining Sunbeams at the nearby feeders, we saddled up and prepared for the drive downslope towards our lodge. There’s no way to make this anything but a long afternoon in the van, but thankfully we broke up the drive with some quality birds – including Red-crested Cotinga, Andean Lapwing, White-capped Dipper, Andean Cock-of-the-rock, and Slaty-backed Chat-Tyrant!

After our first comfortable night at Septimo Paraiso, we awoke in a completely new habitat and different suite of birds than the day before. We walked slowly along the driveway for a couple hours, stopping and enjoying the incredible morning activity so close to the lodge. Flocks of tanagers passed through, including Golden, Silver-throated, Flame-faced, Bay-headed, Beryl-spangled, Blue-necked, Black-capped, and Fawn-breasted; Buff-throated and Black-winged Saltators squeaked noisily from the roadside trees; Ornate Flycatchers sallied out just above our heads; a Rufous Motmot perched stoically in the canopy as Collared Aracaris flew through and Golden-headed Quetzals sang from the surrounding slopes. After a couple hours, we headed up to the main highway in the van to a relatively new set of fruit feeders in the village of San Tadeo, where we leisurely watched Flame-faced and Golden Tanagers just a few feet away at eye level and learned how to separate female Thick-billed and Orange-bellied Euphonias. The hummingbird feeders here weren’t too shabby, either – they gave us two of my favorite hummingbirds in the world, Violet-tailed Sylph and the incomparable Velvet-purple Coronet!

In the afternoon, we worked our way down into the Mindo Valley, where we walked a few kilometers along a dirt road near the Rio Nambillo. Our first target fell easily – at least two Torrent Tyrannulets were flitting actively from boulder to boulder in the river. The conditions were perfect as we continued on – overcast with occasional light drizzle – and we enjoyed more tanager flocks (including dazzling Swallow Tanagers in the scope, a pair of Guira Tanagers, and two more Fawn-breasted Tanagers), Squirrel Cuckoos, a Smoky-brown Woodpecker, abnormally confiding Orange-billed Sparrows, plus a cooperative Purple-crowned Fairy and a pair of flyover Barred Hawks! Songbirds settled down noticeably as daylight began to fade, and we soon found ourselves at a large landslide listening for the querulous song of Lyre-tailed Nightjar. As soon as we exited the van, we heard at least two individuals singing, but it took a few minutes before we saw one extraordinary male fly out from the hillside with his ridiculous tail streamers trailing behind. And then he did it again – and again! A spectacular end to a birdy day.

We awoke early the next morning to head to one of the most exciting destinations in the region – Mashpi. This site was discovered by birders relatively recently (around seven years ago), and holds many rare and beautiful Choco endemics that are rarely found closer to Mindo. With a packed breakfast and packed lunch, we embarked on the hour-and-a-half-long drive, stopping first at a nice patch of roadside forest just after dawn. Our first bird here was Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager followed quickly by a quick glimpse of a male Orange-breasted Fruiteater. Bingo! These are some of the birds that make Mashpi such a magical place. We quickly snarfed some breakfast and walked down the road, where in rather short succession we found Indigo Flowerpiercer, a pair of Moss-backed Tanagers feeding a juvenile on the powerlines (!!!), and a Uniform Treehunter. It was barely 9:00! Edwin picked us up and drove us a little way along the entrance road to the Amagusa Reserve, where we decided to walk a little while longer and enjoy the mixed flocks. This turned out to be a good move – the first flock we came upon was a writhing mega, with a pair of cute Choco Vireos (a lifer for me; this is the only spot known for them in Ecuador!), more Indigo Flowerpiercers, dozens of tanagers including Glistening-green, a pair of Rufous-rumped Antwrens, and more unbelievable Orange-breasted Fruiteaters! Phew. We finally made it to the feeders at Amagusa, where we relaxed until lunch and enjoy more close views of Glistening-green and Flame-faced Tanagers and a pair of Golden-collared Honeycreepers (rare in northwest Ecuador), among other things (like the Velvet-purple Coronets and Empress Brilliants coming to the feeders right behind us!)

The afternoon was expectedly slower, but as we walked down the road below the reserve, we continued to pick up new birds here and there. Esmeraldas Antbird played hard-to-get but provided a few quick glimpses for some of us; Blue-tailed Trogon was much more cooperative, sitting still for a solid fifteen minutes. A nice mixed flock held lots of little brown things, like Plain Xenops, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, Pacific Flatbill, and Yellow-throated Chlorospingus. Before too long, however, it was time to head back to Septimo in time for a quick break before another scrumptious dinner.

Given our early start and long drive the previous day, we stayed a bit closer to home base this morning, only driving about forty-five minutes up to the Bellavista area. Being significantly lower than Yanacocha and significantly higher than Mindo, we were excited for a whole new suite of birds – and we weren’t disappointed! Our morning started with a large fast-moving flock that included some hulking Streaked Tuftedcheeks, Blue-and-black and Beryl-spangled Tanagers, Hooded Mountain-Tanagers, Capped Conebills, Pearled Treerunners, and White-tailed Tyrannulets. We tried for the local Tanager Finches a little further down to no avail; they’ve become quite tricky in recent years – however, we enjoyed some close vocalization and even a quick glimpse of Spillmann’s Tapaculo, dubbed “supertrill” by Andy for its fast song! More flock activity further up gave us the stunningly dull Black-eared (Western) Hemispingus following a bunch of Dusky Bush-Tanagers.

As we worked our way down the other side of the pass, we were finally rewarded with one of the star birds of Bellavista – Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan! It took a bit of a scramble to get the whole group in position on a precarious mountain slope, but eventually scope views were enjoyed by all. As lunchtime approached, we made it to Tony and Barbara Nunnery’s place (but not before stopping for some Turquoise Jays), where we had lunch and enjoyed their excellent yard and hummingbird feeders for a few hours. Small numbers of White-tipped Swifts flew low overhead; the feeders were buzzing with Buff-tailed Coronets, Lesser, Sparkling, and Brown Violetears, Andean Emeralds, and Booted Racket-tails; the banana feeders were occasionally visited by various tanagers including Golden-naped and Flame-faced. It was difficult to tear us away from such a serene spot, but eventually we loaded back into the van and worked our way back down the road towards Septimo. Along the way, we found a flock including Grass-green Tanager (maybe my favorite tanager) and even more Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans!

We were back up early the next morning to visit one of the most famous reserves in the country – Refugio Paz de las Aves. Angel Paz and his brother Rodrigo have created a truly extraordinary show here, managing to habituate some extremely rare and shy species into view. But every day is different, so you never know quite what to expect. Today, by any measure, was excellent: we started with boisterous Andean Cocks-of-the-rock at the lek site, followed in quick succession by roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawks, a female Lyre-tailed Nightjar on a nest, and a female Andean Cock-of-the-rock on a nest. Oh, and a Dark-backed Wood-Quail eating a banana! Heading a little ways up the road, Angel called “Willie” the Yellow-breasted Antpitta into view. We then continued towards the new lodge and restaurant, where we ducked down a trail into the forest for “Susan” the Moustached Anptitta along with some bonuses – a Tyrannine Woodcreeper and a pair of Toucan Barbets in the canopy overhead (FINALLY! After hearing them everywhere for the last several days). The final leg of the show was at the top of the road, where we scoped Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, and Scaled Fruiteater, and got a tantalizingly brief glimpse of an Olivaceous Piha. To top it all off, a gorgeous Chestnut-crowned Antpitta stuffed its bill with worms before bounding back into the undergrowth

My favorite part of any visit to Angel’s place might be the brunch – big fried balls made with green plantain and chicken followed by cheese-filled empanadas. After satiating ourselves, we headed back to Septimo for a break before our afternoon outing to Milpe. Although it was a bit quiet and drizzly (it was difficult to pull many birds out of the backlit flock in the canopy high above our heads!), the hummingbird feeders were buzzing – we got our first long views of White-whiskered Hermit along with dazzling Crowned Woodnymphs and Green Thorntails.

Every day of this tour is so different – we awoke each morning eagerly anticipating a different set of intriguing possibilities. Today was perhaps the best example of this, as we headed down into the true lowlands at Rio Silanche. Instead of birding our way along the entrance road, which has now been severely degraded, we headed straight for the reserve. This turned out to be a good call – the activity around the canopy tower in the early morning was excellent and our bonus birds far outweighed any common open-country species we would have seen on the way in! The birds came at a steady pace for a couple hours on the tower – first with a loose flock of over fifteen toucans streaming through (probably both Choco and Yellow-throated – we heard both, but they’re difficult to distinguish visually), then a Ruddy Pigeon in the scope, then some Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts low overhead, a Chestnut-fronted Macaw, and finally some nice tanager flocks. A pair of Rufous-winged Tanagers were nice to see, but I nearly lost my mind when a male Scarlet-breasted Dacnis popped up in a bare tree. I needn’t have been so stressed, though, as he sat there preening in the scope for a solid ten minutes. And there was even a Gray-and-gold Tanager right next to him for good measure! An equally stunning pair of Scarlet-thighed Dacnis showed in a different tree, right next to a pair of Black-faced Dacnis – quite a dacnis party.

After deciding that activity around the tower was waning, we took a hike on the loop trail, which turned out to be extremely slow. But as we neared the parking lot, we came upon another flock, this time including Slate-throated Gnatcatcher! Patience was rewarded when Brian adeptly spotted a Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo that had been driving us crazy as it sang from the canopy. Other highlights around lunchtime included a gorgeous Black-striped Woodcreeper, Gray Elaenia, Black-crowned Antshrike, and a quick Purple-chested Hummingbird feeding on some low flowers.

Our was back to Septimo was broken up with a few stops on the entrance road – now rather quiet in the heat of the afternoon, but we did manage to add a few new species to our list including Osprey and Great Egret. Once we reached the town of Los Bancos, we took a refreshing beer/ice cream break at the Mirador, enjoying their hummingbird feeders loaded with Green Thorntails and Bananaquits and gazing down the spectacular valley to the river far below.

The next morning was our last chance to clean up a few desired species before making our way back to Quito. We started up in the Bellavista area again, where we ran into a few nice flocks that included Green-and-black Fruiteater and more Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans – not a bad way to start! We quickly made our way back to the Nunnery’s yard, where Tony had tipped us off that Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers usually came in the mornings. We weren’t disappointed – prolonged scope views of one of these gorgeous birds will long be etched in our minds! We took a walk down one of the trails to the platform, where a passing understory flock provided some glimpses of Three-striped Warbler and Rusty-winged Barbtail, and a few distant raptors over the ridge turned out to be White-throated Hawks – an austral migrant that had just returned to the valley for the season. On our walk back to the house, we looked up and spotted a striking White-rumped Hawk soaring low overhead. Two high-quality raptors to score on the last morning!

A lunch stop at Alambi was loaded with hummingbirds – nothing we hadn’t already seen, but a fitting farewell to our favorite cloud forest denizens like Booted Racket-tail. We had to tear ourselves away and drive back through Quito, but not without a stop at the old racetrack near Calacali where we puzzled over worn and molting seedeaters (mostly Band-tailed, at least one Plain-colored, and a couple Ash-breasted Sierra-Finches). More appreciated than the drab little finchy birds was the fact that the equator runs through the middle of the racetrack: it was a fitting spot for some group photos!

After one last dinner at Puembo Birding Garden – perhaps the best meal of the entire tour, in fact! – it was time to say our farewells. It was a truly enjoyable week that went by all too quickly, but was filled with some incredibly beautiful birds, scenery, and food. Thanks to everyone for making the tour so much fun!

Luke Seitz

July  2017

Created: 18 August 2017