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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

July 2021 Narrative

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 Long-wattled Umbrellabird and Oilbird really stand out, along with Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Toucan Barbet, Glistening-green Tanager, Lyre-tailed Nightjar, Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, Slaty Finch, antpittas including Giant, 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!

Our tour starts on the slopes of the Pichincha volcano, just outside the bustling city of Quito. We first spent some time enjoying the feeders around the headquarters of the Yanacocha reserve, where Andean Guan 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! A stunning Black-chested Mountain-Tanager was another highlight right off the bat. Once we’d had our fill, we took a walk along the trail out to another set of hummingbird feeders. Although flock activity was low, we managed some nice views of Blue-backed Conebill and Spectacled Whitestart and a pair of Carunculated Caracara mobbing a young Black-and-chestnut Eagle overhead! Finally at the end of the trail, more hummingbirds entertained us, including Buff-winged Starfrontlet, Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, and more Sword-billed Hummingbirds. We even managed to tease out an Equatorial (formerly Rufous) Antpitta for a quick but excellent view!

After lunch, the rest of the day was spent driving down the long and winding road towards our base in Mindo, not without stops for Andean Lapwing and a White-capped Dipper attending a nest along the way. We settled into Septimo Paraiso in the evening, ready for more birding to come…

The grounds of our lodge provide a nice introduction to cloud forest birding, with Club-winged Manakin providing a nice show just over the driveway, and various tanagers, flycatchers (including an adorable Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant), ovenbirds, and hummingbirds to keep us occupied. We visited a number of feeder setups in the area, which seemed to have diminished activity due to a good amount of natural fruiting trees in the forest. However, hummingbirds were still plenty active, and our first views of Velvet-purple Coronet, Booted Racket-tail, and Empress Brilliant were simply spectacular! Perhaps the ultimate highlight of this day in the Mindo area came at dusk, when we gathered on the side of a seemingly random dirt road—and soon heard our target, the querulous whistle of a Lyre-tailed Nightjar! The male, complete with his insanely long tail, gave unbelievable views, perched in the scope for as long as we could handle. We even saw multiple females sitting in the road! Wow—an awesome experience with a very special bird.

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 – although they weren’t pumping with activity today, we still picked up the eye-melting Glistening-green and Flame-faced Tanagers among other things. Nearby roadside birding was excellent, too, especially at the end of the road. Black Solitaire is always a treat, and one of my very favorite birds of the Choco region. Ornate Flycatchers were seemingly around every corner, and a little family party of Pacific Tuftedcheeks were quite entertaining. Indigo Flowerpiercer only gave us the shortest glimpses today, as did the vocal Yellow-collared Chlorophonias…but hey, they can’t all cooperate for scope views!

We descended even lower the following day, past the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado and towards the small Rio Silanche reserve. We arrived at the entrance road at a good time, ready for yet another batch of new birds. Overcast skies and pleasant temperatures nearly all day made our stint on the canopy tower much more enjoyable and productive. Yellow-tufted and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis flitted nearly at arm’s reach, Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts flew over, White-tailed Trogon perched below eye-level, Purple-chested Hummingbird played hard-to-get, Orange-fronted Barbets posed for photos…among many other things! Perhaps most entertaining was the size discrepancy between two woodpeckers: the tiny Olivaceous Piculet that appeared on Margaret’s command, compared with the hulking Guayaquil Woodpecker not long after!

Descending from the tower, our walk around the loop trail was quiet (a pair of Tawny-faced Gnatwren was super quick), but we struck gold on the roadside just outside of the entrance gate…a gorgeous Barred Puffbird perched in the scope…quickly followed by another pair seen from the bus window on our way out! Wow!

The birds kept coming on our drive out…adorable Pacific Parrotlets were much-appreciated, along with Purple-crowned Fairy, Long-billed Starthroat, Yellow-throated Toucan, Snowy-throated Kingbird, and Sooty-headed Tyrannulet…but before long, it was time to head back to Septimo, with an obligatory ice cream stop in Los Bancos on the way.

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 nothing short of spectacular, starting with the hard-to-believe Andean Cock-of-the-rock, continuing to a Dark-backed Wood-quail eating bananas, heading up to a little roadside trail for Giant Antpitta (advertised as requiring a fairly long and strenuous walk…which turned out to be about five steps off the road!). The birds kept coming—a whole family of Yellow-breasted Antpittas, gorgeous Toucan Barbets in a fruiting tree, a stunning Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, and finally the cutest of them all, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Shakira) shaking her (?) hips. The whirlwind was dying down as we headed to the newly constructed café for lunch, but not without ogling a Common Potoo roosting just off the roadside. The best part of the entire experience, in my opinion, is the lunch – fried plantain/chicken balls and cheese empanadas, while beautiful hummingbirds zip around the garden outside. Not bad.

We pulled an audible in the afternoon, driving further north to look for Oilbirds. This bizarre creature is a nocturnal, echo-locating frugivore that lives in wet caves…a total oddball! Our experience was well worth the bumpy drive…a quick walk into a dark ravine, and we were face-to-face with a couple dozen of these fantastic birds! A very special end to an awesome day.

Our next day of birding took us up the Old Nono-Mindo Road, towards Bellavista. We started out with a visit to the Birdwatcher’s House, which produced some goodies at a forest hide (Streak-capped Treehunter, Uniform Antshrike, Russet-crowned Warbler), a few new hummingbirds at the feeders (Gorgeted Sunangel and Collared Inca). We enjoyed more Toucan Barbets in the garden but had to wait quite a while for the real stars of the show: Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans! We finally soaked in excellent scope views of this stunner right as we were about to leave.

The rest of the morning was sunny and rather quiet, with roadside birding only producing a quick couple Cinnamon Flycatchers and a Blue-capped Tanager. Exciting Spot-fronted Swifts were flying high overhead, for those who are into such things. Most surprisingly, we ran into an old friend of mine, Jacob Drucker, along the road near Bellavista Lodge. He’s working on a PhD in the area, and graciously showed us his mist-netting operation…complete with a shocking Slaty Finch!! This species is quite an enigma, tied to seeding bamboo and thus rare and erratic throughout its range. What a cool surprise!

And just like that, it was time for a final morning of birding before heading back to Quito. We decided to again drop to lower elevations and visit a Long-wattled Umbrellabird lek near the tiny town of 23 de junio. This turned out even better than expected! At least ten umbrellabirds frolicked around in the trees overhead, giving their low cow-like vocalizations. Two males even started fighting and tumbled to the ground nearly at our feet! We couldn’t have asked for a better show—complete with a supporting cast of Glistening-green Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, Cloud-forest Pymgy-owl, Velvet-purple Coronet, Empress Brilliant…even a Striped Cuckoo perched up in the distance as we feasted on empanadas and coffee back in town.

Even though this is a short tour, it’s so difficult to choose any one highlight. We saw some amazing birds, and it was a delightful first international tour for me in the Covid-era. I couldn’t have possibly asked for a more fun and easygoing group—thank you all; I look forward to crossing paths in the future!

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