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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

2018 July Narrative

In Brief: Where to begin?! Even a short tour in Northwest Ecuador is always productive, and this time was no exception. Our days of birding spanned from the high elevation forests of Yanacocha, with Sword-billed Hummingbird, Golden-crowned Tanager, and White-throated Screech-Owl, to the cloud forest of Bellavista with its Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans and Tanager Finch, to the steamy lowlands with treats like Lanceolated Monklet and Orange-fronted Barbet. We visit different habitats and elevations every day on this tour, racking up nearly 300 species of birds, including nearly 40 hummingbirds and 40 tanagers. As usual, weather in this region in July is fairly dry, with warm days and comfortable nights. We had a great time with a fun, helpful, easygoing group – thanks for making the trip a success!

In Detail: After our introductory meeting and dinner at Puembo Birding Garden outside Quito (with Black-tailed Trainbearer and Scrub and Blue-and-yellow Tanagers at the feeders), our birding started in earnest after an early departure the next morning for Yanacocha Reserve. We were blessed with perfect weather and some good flock activity, with Golden-crowned Tanager and Sword-billed Hummingbird right off the bat, followed by noisy Aplomado Falcons flying around overhead. We worked our way along the flat trail (with stops for White-browed Spinetail feeding young and a stunning male Barred Fruiteater) to the far hummingbird feeders, which held another ridiculous Sword-billed Hummingbird along with oodles of Golden-breasted and Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Tyrian Metaltails, Buff-winged Starfrontlets, and at least two Mountain Velvetbreasts. Most shocking was a trio of White-throated Screech-Owls that have apparently developed an affinity for hunting hummingbirds in the middle of the day – they were incredibly active even at 10am, and provided stunning views just a couple meters away!

There’s no way to avoid a long drive in the afternoon towards our base at Septimo Paraiso near Mindo, but we broke the drive up with birds like Andean Lapwing, Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant, White-capped Dipper, and some Andean Cocks-of-the-rock across a distant valley. Not a bad way to wrap up our first day of the tour, as we settled into our comfortable lodge and enjoyed our first of many tasty dinners.

Our next morning was spent exploring the grounds of our lodge, which seemed a little quiet today. Nonetheless, we were offered an introduction to some of the regular birds that we’d be seeing over the next week: Bronze-winged Parrots, Montane Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Cinnamon Becard, Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Slate-throated Whitestart, Golden-naped Tanager, and Black-winged and Buff-throated Saltators were all enjoyed. The sun was out in force and bird activity was dying out quickly (save for a load of Swallow-tailed Kites), so we moved just upslope to a relatively new spot with feeders called San Tadeo. This was extremely productive: the fruit feeders were pumping with a constant flow of tanagers (White-lined, Lemon-rumped, Blue-winged and Black-chinned Mountain, Blue-gray, Palm, Blue-capped, Golden-naped, Black-capped, Flame-faced, and Golden…wow!), plus Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Red-headed and Toucan Barbets, Thick-billed and Orange-bellied Euphonias, and more. Most unexpected was Giant Antpitta that was seen briefly foraging under the feeders – the owner of the property has never seen this speices here before! Crazy. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy to leave. After lunch and a siesta at Septimo, we descended into the town of Mindo and birded some roadsides near the Rio Mindo and Rio Nambillo, scoring the hoped-for Torrent Tyrannulet and the less-hoped-for but much more locally rare Snowy Egret before a grand finale with a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar sitting pretty for us in the scope at dusk! This spectacular bird was a fitting end to a great day of birding.

An early start the next day brought us into the hot lowlands at Rio Silanche, a small reserve that holds a number of interesting birds that we wouldn’t see again on the tour. Unfortunately, I was quite sick today, but the group saw some great birds from the tower in the morning: Lanceolated Monklet was a surprise (this species is scarce and unpredictable throughout its range), and other favorites included White-tailed Trogon, Orange-fronted Barbet, Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Choco Toucan, Blue-necked Tanager, and others. A walk around the trail was fairly quiet, although a brief second duck into the forest produced great close views of a Northern Schiffornis along with a Purple-chested Hummingbird perched up near the tower. After our picnic lunch in the parking lot, we started making our way back towards Septimo. I was feeling truly deathly at this point, but the group still enjoyed some birding in the afternoon at San Tadeo and around Septimo before another great dinner.

After yesterday’s blitz in the lowlands, today we headed up to the higher elevations around Bellavista. Our first roadside stop was for a couple of Turquoise Jays that eventually showed well for the group, and we then worked our way through the forest patches to the pass. The undoubted highlight was a trio of Tanager Finches that bopped around the roadside ferns not ten feet away! They often remained hidden, but some patience produced amazing views of this rare and extremely local species. A few Collared Incas and Gorgeted Sunangels zipped by, Ocellated and Spillmann’s Tapaculos were vocal, and we worked some flocks for Russet-crowned Warblers, Pearled Treerunners, and more Turquoise Jays. As the sun rose higher and bird activity dropped, we headed over the far side of the pass to Pacha Quinde, a private reserve owned by Barbara and Tony Nunnery. This is always a tour highlight, as Barbara and Tony are full of knowledge and stories from their life in the cloud forest. It doesn’t hurt that their yard is full of birds – highlights here included Barred and White-rumped Hawks flying over, a stunning White-throated Quail-Dove feeding on rice and corn, a male Green-tailed Trainbearer on the Verbena (Porterweed), a pair of Toucan Barbets, our first Metallic-green Tanagers, and great comparisons of three species of brushfinch: Chestnut-capped, White-winged, and Tricolored (Choco).

We enjoyed our picnic lunch at the Nunnery’s place as the clouds started to roll in, and at the very last minute, three gorgeous Tayras came in to eat bananas! This large weasel is fairly common in the cloud forest but always difficult to see, so it was fun to see a mother and two young ones close and in the open. Eventually we tore ourselves away and worked back along the road beyond Bellavista. We finally connected with Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, one of the principal targets of this elevation, and played hide-and-seek with a Striped Treehunter (the treehunter won this game handily). A Rufous Spinetail eventually popped out and gave decent, if quick, views, and a pair of Grass-green Tanagers paraded about in the open – what a stunner! Quetzals calling in the distance taunted us, but it was eventually time to head back to Septimo in time for dinner.

A visit to Angel Paz’s refuge is a highly anticipated part of any tour in Northwest Ecuador. Our morning here was incredible, as usual for this special spot. We started at dawn with the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, which was very active – at least fifteen males were making quite a ruckus, dancing around and squealing. Angel put a roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawk in the scope, before moving on to search for a calling Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl. The owl gave us a good fight, but eventually surrendered, coming quite close and perching in the open. After this success, we worked up the road, stopping for a trio of Dark-backed Wood-Quail feasting on bananas, a trio of Crested Guans downslope, a single Golden-headed Quetzal, and a duo (mother-and-baby) of Common Potoos roosting just feet away from the trail!

Our antpitta tally was suffering, so we went to the very top of the road and waited as Angel and Rodrigo called in Chestnut-crowned and Yellow-breasted Antpittas in fairly short order. Phew! Amazing views, especially of the Chestnut-crowned as it filled its bill with worms, presumably to bring to nearby nestlings. With the pressure off, it was time to enjoy the best part of the day, the delicious fried balls of chicken and green plantain – my favorite food in all of Ecuador. There was plenty to keep us entertained during brunch, including Toucan Barbets, Crimson-rumped Toucanets, and a supporting cast of tanagers and hummingbirds.

After a siesta and light late lunch at Septimo, we headed out for an afternoon visit to the nearby Milpe reserve. The rain wasn’t great, but the covered seating area helped us stay comfortable as we watched Choco Toucans coming to the feeders along with some new hummingbirds including Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, and White-whiskered Hermit. A short walk along the road during a break in the rain produced some nice birds like Rufous Motmot, Streaked Xenops, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Ornate Flycatcher, and a female Club-winged Manakin. Time flew by and soon it was time to return to Septimo for yet another meal!

Relatively new on the Northwest Ecuador birding circuit, the Mashpi area is now a must-visit for a number of rare and exciting Choco endemics that are difficult or impossible to find closer to Mindo. As usual, we had a long but very rewarding day, starting at the mirador near the quarry with a perched Bat Falcon, continuing up the road towards Reserva Amagusa with an Indigo Flowerpiercer and a singing Whiskered Wren, and working into a full frenzy with mixed flocks and rarities around every corner! It was difficult to know which way to look - a Long-wattled Umbrellabird was perched far up the slope, eventually flying over us; a pair of Rufous-rumped Antwrens gave us a runaround as they frenetically worked through the roadside trees; Ornate Flycatchers flashed their lemon rumps along the roadside; a pair of Orange-breasted Fruiteaters sat still just a few meters in front of us, shortly followed by a male Scaled Fruiteater!

It was an action-packed couple kilometers, and the fun wasn’t over yet, as we arrived at the Reserva Amagusa feeders in the mid-morning and relaxed for a while, enjoying things like Glistening-green, Moss-backed, Black-chinned Mountain-, and Rufous-throated Tanagers, Golden-collared Honeycreeper, and Crimson-rumped Toucanet at the bananas, while a dizzying swirl of hummingbirds fed behind us (so many Velvet-purple Coronets!). Perhaps the most unexpected highlight was a ridiculously cooperative Pacific (Buffy) Tuftedcheek working an open mossy trunk at eye-level – much better than the typical view of this species.

Our afternoon was spent dodging rain showers and working our way down the Mashpi Road, stopping occasionally for mixed flocks (and roadside fruit stands!). The rarity award goes to a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, but we also enjoyed Orange-fronted Barbet, Collared Aracari, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-crowned Tityra, Slaty-capped Shrike-Vireo, Choco Warbler, Gray-and-gold Tanager, and Ochre-breasted Tanager among others. A drizzly stop in some pastures produced the simply magnificent Dull-colored Grassquit, its grayish-brown plumage gleaming against the lime green grass, plus some Red-rumped Woodpeckers and Thick-billed Seed-Finches. Eventually we made our way back through Los Bancos and back to Septimo, ready for dinner after a tiring but exciting day of birding!

Our last full day of birding started in the upper subtropical zone along the Bellavista Research station road, where we had a few possible targets left to clean up. Chestnut-crowned Antpitta wasn’t one of those targets, as we’d already seen it at Angel Paz’s place a few days prior, but a truly “wild” bird hopping along the road was much appreciated. We enjoyed some mixed flocks that included tail-wagging Capped Conebills and a cooperative pair of Streaked Tuftedcheeks, and a whole bunch of flyover Scaly-naped Parrots gleamed lime-green in the morning sunlight. Before too long, we dropped down to Pacha Quinde for another visit with Tony and Barbara, scoring a close pair of Barred Hawks, lots of fast-flying swifts including our best views of White-tipped and Chestnut-collared, and plenty of tanagers and hummingbirds at the feeders – but it was quite sunny by mid-morning and bird activity dropped significantly, so we headed down the Tandayapa Valley toward our lunch spot before too long.

After a scrumptious meal at Guayacapi, it was time to head back to Quito, with a quick stop in the dry scrub at Calacali for a few final new birds (Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Golden-rumped Euphonia, Harris’s Hawk, etc.) Our farewell dinner at Puembo was delicious as usual, and then it was time to head our separate ways after a fun and bird-filled week – thank you all for making it such a great trip!

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