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Ecuador, Mindo & Antisana - August 2023 (1 Viewer)


Well-known member
Dear All,

Let me share some brief notes from my recent birding trip to Ecuador. This was my first birding trip to that country, and, indeed, my first birding in South America altogether. This was not a hardcore birding trip, but rather a mixture of a family and birding vacation – I was travelling with my wife and our daughter who was just 10 months old at the time of the trip.

I would not expect this report to add much new information to experienced birders, but perhaps it could be useful for people just like me who were travelling for the first time to this part of the world, perhaps also with their family.

I asked Jorge Luna to be my guide for this trip. This proved to be a great choice – Jorge is a great person and a very skillful and experienced guide; he contributed greatly to making our trip a success.

With Jorge offering to drive us in his car, we did not have to bother about car rental (which we would do under standard circumstances).

Day 1 – Quito to Mindo (through Alambi and Luzmilita Lodge)

From the birding viewpoint our trip started unremarkably. Under Jorge’s plan we were supposed to leave Quito at 5am and head straight to Yanacocha. The “reality of life” was that departing at 5am with my wife and infant daughter was simply a non-starter, so we had to postpone until 9am. This meant that we would skip Yanacocha and this would cost me the Sword-billed Hummingbird along with several other precious species. I remember myself being despondent about that initially, but ultimately those misses were more than covered by what we were able to see in the next days.

Given the late start we went straight to Mindo, with our first stop being the Alambi reserve. I understand that feeders of Alambi hold one of the biggest varieties of hummingbirds you can see in Mindo. We counted 14 species, including Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Western Emerald and bee-like Purple-throated Woodstar. 6 Tanager species also showed up, including Blue-necked and Golden-naped Tanagers. A quick walk along the trail towards the river produced a pair of White-capped Dippers, who were going around their business and did not seem to mind our presence at all.

A stop at a nearby restaurant allowed us to spot a male White-winged Tanager (trip-only).

After that we headed to the (still unknown) Luzmilita lodge, which was still under construction. That lodge possesses a terrace with both (a) feeders and (b) a great view of the cloud forest valley in front. The weather was cloudy with a slight rain, which was beneficial for our daughter’s day-nap – without having much of a negative impact on our birding!

Within 10 minutes we saw the Toucan Barbet – one of the most iconic birds of the Choco region (even if not the rarest bird by far). The distance was 3-4 meters, and the experience was pretty much remarkable (not least for my wife, who, while not being much into birding, certainly enjoys observing such colorful birds at a close distance!). We recorded several new species of Tanagers (including Flame-Faced and Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers) as well as several new hummers, including the important Velvet-purple Coronet and the appropriately named Long-tailed Sylph.

A trip down the trail into the valley produced White-winged Brushfinch, White-tailed Tyrannulet and several other species.

We were waiting for the Mountain Toucan, but perhaps the weather was not 100% favorable. We did, however, get some distant views of the Crimson-rumped Toucanet.

After that we headed to Mindo town itself (we were staying at Terrabambu lodge). My wife and daughter would be enjoying several days of tranquility there, while Jorge and I would get down to a slightly more active birding 😊

Day 2 – Sachatamia Lodge and Bellavista area

We set several priority birds for that day and started trying to find them one by one. Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl was a big target for me as a fan of owls, so early in the morning we headed to Sachatamia Lodge (which had a recent sighting according to ebird). Arriving at 6am (when it was still fairly dark) we first headed to the moth-trap hide. The idea of that place (which I saw for the first time) is quite simple and ingenious at the same time – a white sticky blanket is illuminated at night, attracting and trapping insects. Early in the morning various birds come to enjoy the feast, while curious birders sit 5 meters to the side in a special hide – enjoying the show.

Having spent about 30-40 minutes at the hide (Strong-billed Woodcreeper, female Masked Trogon, Scaly-throated and Lineated Foliage-gleaners being some of the highlights) we got down to the “owl business”. Well, luck (and perhaps just a bit of skill 😊) was on our side that morning, and within half an hour we successfully heard, tracked down, saw and photographed this precious Choco endemic.

With the main target being under our belt, we proceeded with birding and added some nice birds, including Choco Toucan, a pair of Golden-headed Quetzals, juvenile Tricolored Brushfinch and a very hungry Central American Agouti at the tanager feeders 😊

Not willing to let Agouti do all the eating, we had our own breakfast and then headed to search for our next big target – this being the Plate-billed Mountain Toucan.

What I learned from Jorge was that this was a bird of higher elevations, and it was not common to see it in the area around Mindo town. This also means that, contrary to what is mentioned in some birding reports, this bird should not be expected at the famous Paz de las Aves Lodge – that lodge is located too low for this toucan to be a regular visitor there.

So we headed to Bellavista Lodge (2,300m elevation), while doing birding along the way. That proved to be quite productive, with such nice birds as White-throated Quail-Dove, Pearled Treehunter, Sharpe’s Wren and, most importantly, Uniform Treehunter making their way onto my lifelist. We heard an Ocellated Tapaculo several times and spent some time trying to see one, but without success.

Success did come almost immediately, however, as soon as we climbed above 2,000 meters. We first heard and then observed a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan from a comfortable distance, admiring the variety of colors on this bird on the process! We then saw or heard several more birds and even couples. I would say that the road between these points should give great opportunities to see this iconic bird: -0.0268,-78.6890 and -0.0166,-78.6810.

We then proceeded to Bellavista Lodge, where we met the owner Richard – who proved to be an interesting person to talk to and he also invited us for lunch. We birded for several hours along the trails and spotted a decent number of good birds, including the important hummer Gorgeted Sunangel, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Flavescent flycatcher (photographed straight out of Richard’s dining area!), Green-and-black Fruiteater, Spillmann’s Tapaculo (which I was able to observe for a tapaculo-like eternity of about 1.5 seconds) and, last but definitely not least, Striped Treehunter.

With 2-3 hours remaining until the sunset we started looking for our last big target of the day – Andean Pygmy-Owl, the higher elevation version of our Cloud-forest friend from Sachatamia. Ebird indicates a slightly higher number of records for the Andean vs the Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, so I was having positive expectations before the start of our search. But the reality turned out to be different, as we failed to hear a single sound of the bird or identify its presence through the commotion among smaller birds.

Despite this setback, we were still quite satisfied with the day!

Day 3 – Paz de Las Aves and a bit of rest afterwards

Mindo is obviously rich not only with diurnal owls, so next morning (or still night?) Jorge and I were up in arms at 4am at a location known by Jorge to look for the rare Rufescent Screech-Owl (formerly named Colombian Screech-Owl). The screech-owl did not disappoint and within 30 minutes or so we had it successfully observed and photographed.

But ultimately it was not the screech-owl that was the main star of our flashlight-illuminated endeavors in the total darkness. While waiting for the owl to vocalize its presence, we heard a strange sound like two metal plates rubbing against each other with force – coming straight from a big branch nearby! Our flashlights then illuminated two red eyes staring at us in the darkness, and when the animal fully came into view Jorge recognized an Olinguito! This Choco endemic species was only discovered and recognized as a separate species in 2013, so seeing one was quite a pleasant surprise.

As the first light started to break we then travelled to Paz de Las Aves area to observe the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. What can I say – an impressive and probably unforgettable experience, made even more so by the fact that we had two females visit the lek that morning (not a common occurrence, as I was explained subsequently). Having observed the lek prior to and after the arrival of the first female I can certainly say that the atmosphere changes dramatically!

I will not be re-telling all the details of our experience at Angel Paz – so much has been written about that place. We were lucky and saw all five antpittas that the place has to offer, plus several other rarities like Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Maroon-tailed parakeet and White-throated Daggerbill (a Choco endemic hummer that makes birders’ lives difficult by not visiting the feeders).

I have to admit that the whole antpitta experience does leave a bit of an “artificial” taste, a feeling that grew even stronger when at about 7am Angel Paz walked into the cock-of-the-rock hide with a Giant Antpitta following him in his footsteps 2-3 meters behind!! (it was literally like that, no exaggeration 😊) But, well, these are still wild antpittas after all, so you can’t ask for more!

I was also very pleased to personally meet Angel himself, as well as his brother Rodrigo and cousin Andy – and to listen about the wonderful conservation work their family has been doing.

On the way back we were able to see a pair of roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawks and, amazingly, a Stygian Owl – which conveniently decided to roost in a big leafy tree right in the middle of the town of Mindo!

Being quite satisfied with our progress by that time I decided to take a break from birding in the afternoon, asking Jorge to take my wife to see the cock-of-the-rock lek (these birds, it turns out, have a kind of a “training exercise” in the afternoon). My wife certainly enjoyed that a lot!

Day 4 – Amagusa and back to Quito

Jorge and I had a bit of a discussion about where to go next morning (our last in Mindo) and whether it made sense to spend nearly 2 hours one way driving to Amagusa. But we did ultimately decide to go there - and this turned out to be a very good decision.

A lot of good birding in Amagusa can be had between three places located within 20-30 meters of each other – the back terrace, a small café with tanager feeders and a place with hummingbird feeders a bit up the hill. The weather was crappy, with constant light drizzle, but important birds were really appearing thick and fast! Within 2 hours we had recorded 10 Choco endemics, including the coveted Dark-backed Wood Quail (they are fed there), Moss-backed and Glistening-green Tanagers, Rose-faced Parrot, 4 endemic hummingbirds (two of them lifers), Indigo Flowerpiercer and the all-important Black Solitaire.

A walk along the road to the Reserva produced a Pacific Tuftedcheek as well as some truly memorable sounds made by the (apparently) numerous but hard-to-see Andean Solitaires.

By the time we were leaving at around 11:00 I was already fully satisfied with our visit. But Jorge was not planning to slow down the tempo, and just as we were leaving the area he heard the right sounds through the car window, we pulled over and, high in the canopy, spotted and photographed a male and female Orange-breasted Fruiteaters.

In total we recorded 11 Choco endemics and 41 species in total in about 3 hours – clearly the most productive birding of the trip for me!

On the way back we picked up my family and drove back to Quito.

Day 5 - Antisana

After a couple of days exploring Quito and enjoying time with my family I went for my last birding adventure – to the area of Antisana volcano.

Totally different environment, giving you the chance to see high Andes specialties, plus some non-bird wonders – like the paramo fields (high-mountain grassland in the Andes) and, of course, spectacular views of the Antisana volcano (provided the weather cooperates).

We were quite successful on that day, having recorded most species of interest: Andean Condor, Ecuadorian Hillstar and Stout-billed Cinclodes (both near-endemics), Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Giant Hummingbird, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Andean Ibis, Paramo Pipit, Many-striped Canastero, Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant, Black-winged Ground Dove, Andean Teal, Silvery Grebe and a series of others high-altitude beauties.

A particular joy for me was the Tawny Antpitta – we heard or saw 6 individuals during the Antisana trip, with one of them conveniently located right behind the public toilet near the entrance to Laguna de Mica protected area! Was good to find at least one Antpitta by myself after the Paz de las Aves show 😊

We tried looking for the Spectacled Bear, but without success – I guess you need much more time (or luck) to have a reasonable chance to spot one.

Well, that was the end of my birding in Ecuador. Looking back, would I have changed something? Probably not, but had I had an extra-day (which I somehow seem to miss on every trip I make 😊) I would have added Yanacocha and Milpe to the list of places visited.

I hope this report was not too long (I appreciate I might have failed here, lol) and at least mildly helpful to some folks who are planning their first trip to this beautiful country.

Have fun in Ecuador!!
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