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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

2019 July Narrative

In Brief: This tour is hard to beat for a great sample of habitats and birds from a single comfortable base. We explored the many excellent locations within an easy drive of Mindo, from the cool high-elevation forests of Yanacocha to the steamy lowlands at Rio Silanche. Along the way, we racked up a great diversity of hummingbirds, tanagers, and various Choco regional endemics. As usual, it’s difficult to narrow down the list of highlights, but Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan stands out, along with White-throated Screech-Owl, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Glistening-green Tanager, Aplomado Falcon, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Black-tipped Cotinga, antpittas like Chestnut-crowned, Yellow-breasted, and Ochre-breasted, Andean Cock-of-the-rock…the list goes on and on. I never tire of these beautiful birds and locations, and can’t wait to see what next year’s tour will hold!

In Detail: Our first tour morning was spent in the high-elevation forests of Yanacocha Reserve, just outside the bustling city of Quito. We spent some time enjoying the feeders around the headquarters, where Andean Guans and Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanagers battled for our attention with Sword-billed Hummingbirds and Shining Sunbeams – quite a fun introduction to birding in the Andes! Once we’d had our fill, we took a walk along the flanks of Pichincha Volcano out to another set of hummingbird feeders. Although flock activity was low, we were shocked by a stunning display of Aplomado Falcons flying around at eye-level, a flash of a Rufous Antpitta zipping through the understory, and a shy Ocellated Tapaculo for some. Once at the distant feeders, we were surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds including Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sapphire-vented, and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, another Sword-billed Hummingbird, a quick Mountain Velvetbreast, and even a (backlit) Purple-backed Thornbill in the canopy! Add to the hummingbird show a gorgeous White-throated Screech-Owl, and I’d say we had a very enjoyable morning!

After lunch, the rest of the day was spent driving down the long and winding road towards our base in Mindo, not without a stop for a family of White-capped Dippers and a roadside Golden-headed Quetzal along the way. We settled into Septimo Paraiso in the evening, ready for more birding to come…

The area right around the lodge is great for a whole new suite of cloud forest birds. A few hours of wandering the gardens and entrance road produced a few goodies, like our first Booted Racket-tail, a small party of Crimson-rumped Toucanets, a Slaty Antwren, several species of tanagers including Fawn-breasted and Beryl-spangled, and the outrageous display of Club-winged Manakin. Later on, the feeders at San Tadeo were quite active, providing good studies of up-close tanagers (including the stunning Flame-faced), a pair of Strong-billed Woodcreepers, and even a hybrid hummingbird – presumably a Buff-tailed X Velvet-purple Coronet, the first of this combination I’ve ever seen.

We decided to have a fairly relaxed afternoon at the nearby Milpe sanctuary, which was just fine – the hummingbird feeders were very impressive, with boatloads of Green Thorntails, White-necked Jacobins, Crowned Woodnymphs, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, and Green-crowned Brilliants especially. A few close Yellow-throated Toucans at the feeders were much appreciated, as was a nice mixed flock along the road with Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, a single Swallow Tanager, and a couple of Slaty-capped Flycatchers.

Our next morning saw us descending lower in elevation to the Mashpi-Shungo Chocolate Farm, where after quite a bit of effort we had to declare the Rufous-crowned “Antpitta” a miss…although we did see other exciting species including Crested Guan, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Hook-billed Kite, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and Dusky-faced Tanager. The drive back was broken up with a comfortable stop at the Mirador Rio Blanco, where the feeders held an attractive pair of Rufous-throated Tanagers among other things.

Given the stomach virus that had overtaken most of the group, an afternoon off seemed like a good decision – so we’d be ready for tomorrow, feeling better for our long day in the lowlands. We arrived at the entrance road to Rio Silanche at a good time, ready for yet another batch of new birds. We had a phenomenal day, with overcast skies and pleasant temperatures (not something you can often say about this place!) We started with Guayaquil Woodpeckers, a Gray-lined Hawk, and outrageous views of Great Antshrike on the drive-in, followed by a great stint on the canopy tower with plentiful Choco and Yellow-throated Toucans, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift, Purple-chested Hummingbird, White-tailed Trogon, Orange-fronted Barbet, Red-masked Parakeet, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Streaked Flycatcher, Orange-crowned Euphonia, Scarlet-breasted and Yellow-tufted Dacnis, and Blue-necked and Rufous-winged Tanagers among many others!

Descending from the tower, our walk around the loop trail was fairly quiet, although we eventually connected with a nice Choco (Blue-tailed) Trogon. After lunch in the parking lot, we kept working the roadside for flocks – with these clouds and temperatures, motivation was easy to uphold! An obvious highlight was a Cinnamon Woodpecker perched right next to a Black-striped Woodcreeper, followed closely by a Barred Puffbird…wow!

The birds kept coming on our drive out – Ecuadorian Ground-Dove, Pacific Parrotlets, Gray-and-gold Tanagers, Green-breasted Mango – but the best was when we were almost at the quarry, and stopped briefly to scan for raptors and other birds perched up on the canopy. Almost everyone was back in the bus when a bright white bird flew across the road…Black-tipped Cotinga!! This stunning Choco endemic is being seen at Rio Silanche with less and less frequency, so I was quite surprised. After piling out of the bus again, and several minutes of tense searching, we finally found it again; this time perched in the canopy for plenty of scope views.

The next morning, we awoke with eager anticipation for our visit to Angel Paz’s reserve, made famous with its many antpittas (and various other secretive birds) coming in to feed. Our visit was excellent, starting with a great show from Andean Cock-of-the-rock, continuing to a nestling Lyre-tailed Nightjar on the bridge, heading up to the top of the property for Yellow-breasted Antpitta (Willimina), back down to the house to enjoy the feeders…but wait! Called up to the top again because the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta (Andreita) had come in! And finally, the cutest of them all, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Shakira) shaking her (?) hips. The best part of all, in my opinion, is the lunch – fried plantain/chicken balls and cheese empanadas, while tanagers and Toucan Barbets frolic around the restaurant. Not bad.

After a siesta, we walked some roads down in the Mindo Valley, finally scoring views of Rufous Motmots among other things. We waited for dusk at the river, before our dusk appointment with Lyre-tailed Nightjar…this did not disappoint, with amazing scope views of the singing male, complete with his absurdly long tail.

Our visit to the Mashpi area was, yet again, very successful with a whole list of highlights. This special area holds many species that aren’t easily found around Mindo, so it’s a necessary addition to any birding tour in the region. The new Amagusa reserve has made this easier with its excellent feeders – and they were simply off the hook today. We must have seen at least 50 Velvet-purple Coronets, 25 Empress Brilliants, plus Purple-bibbed Whitetips, Brown Incas, Violet-tailed Sylphs, Booted Racket-tails…it was a hummingbird feast. And let’s not forget the banana feeders on the opposite side of the veranda, with tons of tanagers…dozens of Golden, families of Flame-faced and Golden-naped, plus the real stars: Moss-backed (feeding from my hand!), Glistening-green, and Rufous-throated, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and Golden-collared Honeycreepers. It was by far the best I’ve ever seen these feeders.

Roadside birding was not to be outshone, though…we again connected with Choco Vireo, plus multiple Indigo Flowerpiercers, Orange-breasted Fruiteaters, three Black Solitaires including an adult feeding a juvenile, and a great pick by Noah of an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle! This area always produces some goodies, and today was certainly no different. We returned to Septimo fully satisfied!

Our final day of birding around Mindo was spent along the Old Nono-Mindo Road, up around Bellavista. We started out with a visit to the Birdwatcher’s House, which produced some goodies at a forest hide (Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Streak-capped Treehunter, Spotted Nightingale-Thrush, Uniform Antshrike), a few new hummingbirds at the feeders (Gorgeted Sunangel and Collared Inca), and the real star of the show, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans…visiting the feeders, no less!

Some roadside birding nearby gave us a nice mixed flock with Turquoise Jays, Pearled Treerunners, Green-and-black Fruiteaters, Cinnamon Flycatchers, Blue-capped Tanagers, and Capped Conebills plus some flyover Scaly-naped Parrots and Azara’s and Rufous Spinetails nearby. We arrived at our lunch destination, the beautiful Pacha Quindi with friendly hosts Tony and Barbara Nunnery, just in time for amazing views of a Tayra at the feeders. A couple of hours here were a bit quieter than normal, but it’s hard to complain when your picnic companions are Toucan Barbets and a couple of species of tanagers.

Before long, it was time to head back to Quito, where the main tour would finish but we would prepare ourselves for a little extension to the east slope. Our first destination, the high-elevation paramo above Papallacta, was quite an adventure. As usual, the weather was far from perfect…in fact, it was about as bad as it could possibly be! High winds (50+ mph?!), dense fog, rain, and sleet didn’t exactly make our search for Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe easy. We had given up when we flushed one from the bus on the drive down…it barely perched atop a little hill before disappearing into the mist. Hardly a success, but we decided to escape the brutal weather and descend to Guango Lodge, where we’d have lunch and enjoy the hummingbird feeders. A whole suite of new species awaited: Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Glowing Puffleg, Chestnut-breasted Coronet, and White-bellied Woodstar kept us occupied, along with a great mixed flock that included Bar-bellied Woodpecker, Tyrannine Woodcreeper, tons of Pearled Treerunners, White-banded Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Slaty-backed and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant, Pale-naped Brushfinch, Black-crested Warbler, Spectacled Whitestart, Black-capped and Black-eared Hemispingus, and Gray-hooded Bush Tanager. After our scrumptious lunch, we continued on to San Isidro, our base for the next couple nights.

One of the main targets of the extension was the “San Isidro” Owl, perhaps a form of Black-banded Owl or perhaps something else…whatever it is, it’s cool, and it showed brilliantly right outside the dining room on multiple occasions! We split our birding time here among a few locations. Our first morning, we attempted to explore the Guacamayos Ridge Trail, but were thwarted by rain and fog. Nevertheless, we scored a couple nice birds just from the parking lot: Flammulated Treehunter, Turquoise Jay, and Grass-green Tanager were all appreciated before we descended to lower elevations to escape the rain.

This plan worked pretty well. Despite some continued drizzle, conditions were manageable, and we saw quite a few nice species along the Loreto Road. Amazonian Umbrellabird was a pleasant surprise, as was the bright-orange subspecies of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, a nice contrast to the red birds on the west slope. Other goodies included Long-tailed Tyrant, Russet-backed and Crested Oropendola, Magpie Tanager, Black-faced Dacnis, Purple and Green Honeycreepers, Chestnut-bellied Seedeater, and Chestnut-bellied Seed-Finch. The hummingbird feeders at Rio Hollin were our last stop before heading back for lunch, with yet another set of new hummingbirds: White-tailed Hillstar is the main target here, with a supporting cast of Black-throated Brilliant, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Fork-tailed Woodnymph, Many-spotted Hummingbird, and Golden-tailed Sapphire.

Our drive back was punctuated by a pair of much-wanted Torrent Ducks on the river, a great spot by our driver Edgar. The afternoon and next morning were spent exploring the trails and roadside around San Isidro, which is very birdy. Mixed flocks held some new tanagers and flycatcher (Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Saffron-crowned Tanager), bamboo patches eventually gave up their prizes in the form of Streak-headed Antbirds and Rufous-crowned Tody-Flycatchers, while the lodge deck almost always held attendant Masked Trogons, Inca Jays, Montane Woodcreepers, Cinnamon Flycatcher, and Subtropical Caciques. The White-bellied Antpittas coming to feed were almost too easy…waiting for us as we approached…but much appreciated nonetheless.

Before long, it was time to head back to Quito and say our farewells…but not without some scanning the slopes below the pass for Spectacled Bear. Just as I was beginning to lose hope, I spotted a black object moving on the hillside…there it is!! We piled out of the bus and soaked up scope views of a gorgeous Spectacled Bear, a perfect end to a fun tour. Here’s looking forward to next year!

Created: 25 September 2019