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Ecuador - February - March 2011

Published by Mark Gurney (mgobc AT yahoo.com)

Participants: Mark Gurney, Jacqui Weir

We spent almost three weeks in northern Ecuador from 12 February to 04 March 2011. We split the trip into three parts: the west slope, the far north, and the east slope. I had previously lived in Ecuador for two years, so for me it was an interesting mix of familiar places and some new ones.

It was the wet season on the west slope, and we saw some rain most days. During the downpours we usually sat and watched hummingbird feeders.

There are lots of trip reports covering northern Ecuador, including my own site guide from 2006, which is already looking rather out of date (http://www.surfbirds.com/trip_report.php?id=1171). But there are lots of places to be discovered. I have included details about some of the less well-known places here, and mentioned the more popular ones only briefly.

We got around by hiring drivers, and taking taxis and buses. Other birders have their own horror stories about using public transport in Ecuador, but we had no problems on the buses, which were comfortable and efficient. On the west slope, we had a driver because we wanted to go to places that were not served by buses. We also had a driver for the Chical Road. San Lorenzo is easily reached by bus, but we were wary of being there without our own trusted transport. I have a table of which species I saw at which site; I can send this to you if you e-mail me.

Places visited

El Nido, Cumbayá
Renato Carillo met us at the airport and we stayed with him in Cumbayá. This is about 15 km east of Quito, and is a nice peaceful alternative to the city, so we used it as a base (and laundry service) whenever we were passing back through Quito. To go in to Quito from Cumbayá you can take a taxi ($8-10 each way) or a bus. Renato's bed and breakfast house overlooks the reservoir and a small park where we saw Vermillion Flycatchers and Southern Yellow Grosbeaks in the morning. Renato has worked as a driver for several of the bird tour companies and he knows the main sites well. He drove us to some of them, and he was very helpful with reservations at some of the lodges. I e-mailed our itinerary to him, and by the next day he had already phoned the places I had not been able to contact and booked our rooms for us. He speaks English very well, is very friendly and welcoming, and has a great sense of humour, even if you need him to get up at 0400 to take you somewhere. Renato is keen to help people get to some of the less visited places, so if you want to stay somewhere away from the regular bird tour circuits, I would especially recommend him. You can contact him through his website at http://elnidobb.com/english/index.html.

Mindo Loma
We stayed here while we explored the subtropical forests of the west slope. Mindo Loma is at km 74 along the main road from Quito to Mindo. It is easily reached by bus, with only a short walk to the lodge from the entrance on the road. The accommodation is in a wooden building with two large rooms on the top floor and smaller ones below. Our room was clean and comfortable with a good supply of hot water.

Velvet-purple Coronet and Empress Brilliant were common at the feeders at the restaurant, and Black-chinned Mountain-tanagers feasted on bananas only a few metres away. Other regular visitors to the bananas included Golden-naped and Golden Tanagers, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, and the dazzling Flame-faced Tanager. In the evening, Kinkajou and White-eared Opossum took the place of the birds: we often reached for our binoculars during lunch or dinner. The natural fruit on the trees attracted Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Andean Solitaire, Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, and Tricoloured Brush-finch. Every morning, Golden-crowned Flycatcher and Strong-billed and Montane Woodcreepers visited the lamp-post outside the restaurant to eat moths.

We walked the trail to the forest trail to the waterfall on one morning, and found a very obliging Nariño Tapaculo, as well as a couple of flocks with Uniform Treehunter and Olivaceous Piha amongst the more common species.

The Herrera family made us feel very welcome, and Boris and Patricio provided us with good information on what we could see where. They arranged our visits to Paz de las Aves, Tandayapa, Mashpí, and Cueva de los Tayos. Both of them work as bird guides, and the driver they arranged for us, Daniel, knew all the best spots.

The Mindo Loma website is http://www.mindolomacloudforest.com/index.html.

Paz de las Aves
This has been covered by many other trip reports. The antpittas were elusive on our visit, and the only one we saw was Yellow-breasted. Even though Ángel Paz has caused a revolution in the way people look for skulking birds, nothing can be taken for granted with these elusive species. But the wood-quail and the forest feeders had been added to his attractions since I was last in Ecuador, and I was amazed by both of them. Half a dozen Sickle-winged Guans appeared out of the treetops and fed on bananas with no concern at all, and the sight of a man coming round the corner pursued by three Dark-backed Wood-quail like a mother duck with her ducklings was an unforgettable moment. The bolones back at the house were even more delicious than I remembered, and Orange-breasted Fruiteaters performed very well for us.

For contact details see http://www.refugiopazdelasaves.com.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge
I used to work here, and we made a brief visit so that I could feel nostalgic. It was a damp afternoon and the hummingbird feeders were even more busy and incredible than I remembered.

The lodge website is http://www.tandayapa.com.

Mashpí Road
This was almost a two hour drive from Mindo Loma. Indigo Flowerpiercer was our main target here, and we found one by the quarry at the road entrance. I would like to have spent more time here, as the forest was excellent. Metropolitan Touring is building a luxury lodge at the end of the road, and access was allowed only along the first kilometre or so, as far as the gate. There were forest patches here, and many of the specialties have been seen in this part: we found Moss-backed Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, and a group of Rose-faced Parrots. Daniel, our driver, knew a couple of biologists who were working on the site and he got us permission to go with them beyond the gate. We went a couple of kilometres down the road before we had to turn back so we could get to the Oilbird cave in time. But we encountered a couple of good mixed flocks in that time, with Pacific Tuftedcheek, and Club-winged Manakin amongst them. The biologists told us that the forest along the road went from 500 m to 1500 m altitude. That range could include many of the most sought after Chocó endemics.

Cueva de los Tayos
The Oildbird cave at Chontal was another site that had been found by the birding world since I left Ecuador. It took about an hour to get there from the Masphí Road. We were met by the owners of the farm and then we drove across the Río Guayabamba and down a track to the entrance to the cave. This was small steep gorge rather than a cave, so the birds could be seen in daylight and the gorge was only a few metres from the end of the track. There were sixteen Oilbirds roosting on the sides of the gorge. One of them got up and flew to the back, calling noisily, but most of the birds did not seem concerned by us (there was a fence to stop people getting into the ravine itself, so this might provide the Oilbirds with a sense of security).

To arrange a visit, see http://www.cuevadelostayos.com/ for contact details.

Mirador Río Blanco, San Miguel de los Bancos
I mentioned this in my report on North-west Ecuador. Most of the details are the same: it was still excellent value ($120 for two nights for both of us, including all food and drinks), the food was delicious, and Patricio the owner was very friendly and arranged for a taxi to take us to Mangaloma and Milpe. A few things have changed: we did not see many tanagers during our stay, and the cabins had been re-painted to feature some of the birds of the area, which was a nice touch. Because we were leaving early, we bought our breakfast from the bakeries the night before. The bus to Quito took 2 hours and cost $2.50.

The phone number for the Mirador is 02 2770307.

Mangaloma
This was as close as we got to lowland forest on our trip, and it gave us our most species-rich day on the west slope. Others have mentioned the parlous state of the trails here, but they were in good order when we visited and we had no complaints about them. The taxi ride from Los Bancos cost $8 each way and took about half an hour. From the entrance gate it was a short walk (less than a kilometre) to the forest. Other trip reports have covered the birds that can be found at this site, but the access arrangements have been simplified since some of the older reports were written. We arranged our visit in advance by e-mailing Rheinhard Krusche (see the website below for details). We did not need to get a key, we just had to ring the bell when we arrived and we were let in. Entrance was $10 per person. There was accommodation available here, which could be a good option if you want to be on site very early and stay all day. A taxi from Los Bancos cost $8 each way.

The reserve is administered by Fundación Imaymana http://imaymanaforestconservation.org/mangaloma/index.html.

Milpe
I was amazed how much this had changed. The large reception building was not there when I last visited and there was a walk through pasture to the mirador beyond the car park. Now the car park is surrounded by forest and there is a good network of trails through the reserve and the neighbouring Milpe Gardens site. All thanks to the good work of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation (http://www.mindocloudforest.org/). The Club-winged Manakins were the star attraction, but we saw a few other good things during our quick visit, including Pacific Tuftedcheek and Pale-vented Thrush. The taxi from Los Bancos cost $3 each way, and entrance to the reserve was $9 per person.

Reserva Biológica Guandera
The páramo in the far north is much wetter than the grasslands I was familiar with from further south. The spectacular Espeletia plants were the main attraction here, and I also wanted to look for Black-thighed Puffleg. Cerro Mungos is a traditional locality for both of them, but it is hard to reach without an off-road car, so we decided to stay at the Jatun Sacha research station at the Guandera Reserve. This was one of our favourite places on the trip: I had never seen so many bromeliads as there were here, and the forest was so atmospheric. It was damp and cold, but there were no other visitors at the reserve and it felt like a magical story-book place. Renato drove us to Mariscal Sucre where we met José Cando who runs the station. We continued up a track for a few kilometres, then we walked for the last twenty minutes. At 3300 m this felt like hard work, but José helped us with our luggage.

The station was a characterful building, looking out across temperate forest dripping with epiphytes. The kitchen/dining room had a fire place, and there was hot water in the showers and electricity in the rooms. The bedrooms have bunks, but because there was nobody else there we had a room to ourselves. It was cold, but there enough blankets to keep us warm at night.

Mixed flocks passed by the station several times a day, and Grey-breasted Mountain-toucans, White-capped Parrots, and Andean Guans visited the trees outside the balcony. We walked up to the páramo early on our first morning, taking a packed lunch and returning at about 1500. It was a cloudy day, but when the clouds lifted the view from the top was stunning: thousands of Espeletia plants covered the grassland, which gave way to forest further down the slopes. In the distance, perhaps a thousand metres below us, there were green patchwork fields and villages with more mountains rising up behind them. Somewhere out there was Colombia.

I found a flowering tree along one of the trails by the station. Tyrian Metaltails and Purple-backed Thornbills seemed to be buzzing round its flowers most of the time, but every fifteen minutes or so a Black-thighed Puffleg appeared briefly and I was very happy. The mixed flocks usually contained Pearled Treerunner, Lacrimose Mountain-tanager, Citrine Warbler, Superciliated Hemispingus, Blue-backed Conebill, Black-capped Hemispingus, Scarlet-bellied Mountain-tanager, Blue-and-black Tanager, Spectacled Whitestart, and White-throated Tyrannulet. Birds we found less frequently included Black-headed Hemispingus, Agile Tit-tyrant, Black-chested Mountain-tanager, Smoky Bush-tyrant, and Bar-bellied Woodpecker.

On our second morning I walked the trails in search of antpittas just as it was getting light, and I was rewarded with a Rufous Antpitta walking along one less than twenty metres from the start. After more mixed flocks, we had an early lunch and walked out to the entrance track. Our driver from the village was reluctant to take his car as far up as Renato had, so we had to walk another fifteen minutes, but at least it was downhill. He took us to the main road for $10. We did not have to wait long for a bus to Salinas, from where we could catch another bus towards the coast.

Visits can be easily arranged with the Jatun Sacha Foundation (http://www.jatunsacha.org/). The cost was $30 per person per night, which included all meals. Renato drove us here, but we got a taxi to the main road on our way out ($10) and a bus to Salinas ($2, 1 hour) and another to El Limonal ($0.75, 40 mins).

Bosque de Paz
This small fruit farm in El Limonal was our base to explore the far north-west. The area is deforested, and much drier and scrubbier than I expected. This has created habitat for some uncommon birds, like Scrub Tanager ad Tumbesian Tyrannulet, which I presume have arrived since the forest was cleared.

El Limonal is on the main road from Salinas to the coast. Bosque de Paz is 300 m from the road, up a track behind the village. The farm is owned by Piet Sabbe and his wife Olda. They have been planting trees and bamboo to try to restore some forest cover on the slopes, along with their orchards which were home to common agricultural birds like seedeaters and sparrows. Their bed and breakfast accommodation was spacious and comfortable, with a warm shower and a large bathroom, and a balcony overlooking the garden. Everywhere we went we had good food, but Olda's cooking was outstanding. Piet arranged a driver to take us up the Chical road and to San Lorenzo. We took the bus back to Ibarra ($1.25, 1.5 hours) then a bus to Quito ($2.50, 2.5 hours).

The farm's website and contact details are at http://www.bospas.org/.

Chical Road
Several groups have visited this site recently and seen some birds that had been considered very hard to find in Ecuador. Star-chested Treerunner was the one that particularly appealed to me, and I was keen to spend a morning here. Unfortunately, only patches of forest remain, and we had to drive for an hour before we found anywhere that looked as though it was worth a look. There was thick fog when we arrived, but it was just clear enough to see a small flock at the top of the trees. Our luck was in: there was a Star-chested Treerunner amongst the tanagers, climbing along the underside of moss-covered branches, and moving with a distinctive waggle. I was pleased that it had a character of its own and was very much not just another brown furnariid.

This flock was just before the pass, but we carried on over the top. We passed clearings and small patches, but every time I thought we had got into a patch of forest that was big enough to merit exploring, it ended and we were presented with another clearing. But we made a few stops and saw something good at most of them. A Hoary Puffleg feeding on roadside flowers was an unexpected find, but our biggest surprise was when we stopped to look at a raptor perched on a stump by the road. We tried hard to turn it into something more likely, but there was no escaping the fact that it was a splendid Semicollared Hawk posing beautifully for us. By this time the heavy rain appeared to have set in, so we headed back, but this was another place I would like to have explored more thoroughly.

The road starts at El Limonal and it was fairly easy to follow, but there were a few villages where things would have been confusing if we had been driving ourselves. It would be best to ask directions and also to check the security of the area before you go: the road leads to the Colombian border. We had a driver for the morning to take us to the road and back ($70).

Reserva Ecológica de Manglares Cayapas Mataje, San Lorenzo
I had never been to this part of the coast, and Jacqui was very keen to see the mangrove forest so we went down the road to San Lorenzo. The lower hills here were encouragingly covered in forest, and this must be a prime region for finding new birding destinations. Piet had booked us a boat, which cost $80. We went out to Isla de los Pájaros, where there were many roosting Royal and Sandwich Terns, and then we cruised along the channels between the mangroves. The forest was eerily quiet apart from the song of Mangrove Warblers, but we saw a few good birds here, including Mangrove Black-hawk and Tumbes Pewee.

Papallacta
We stopped at the pass on the way to Papallacta, and went up to the masts at the top: the sites around here are all well covered by other trip reports. We did not see any seedsnipe, but we did not look very hard because we wanted to get to the village for lunch and to look for Spectacled Bear (also called Andean Bear, which I think I prefer). We had dinner with Sam Woods, one of my former colleagues at Tropical Birding, the night before, and he told us that several people had seen a bear coming to a dead cow on the hillside above the Termas de Papallacta recently. Unfortunately, when Sam had tried there was a group of photographers very close to the carcass and he unsurprisingly did not see any bears, but it seemed to be a reliable spot.

We arrived at the car park at the Termas at about 1430, but the gates to the track up the hill were closed and the guard would not let us drive through unless the staff in the Exploratorio (a small exhibition centre at the entrance) gave us permission. Renato went to ask them, but there was nobody there so we waited in the car park from where we could see the dead cow distantly up on the hill above. A couple of Andean Condors glided across the top of the ridge behind the cow. This kept us happy, but after fifteen minutes we thought that it might be better to come back later in the day, so we decided to go to Guango Lodge to drop our bags off and then come back. I had one last look through my scope before we packed up and saw a big black shape approaching the cow through the vegetation. The shape soon became a face with large pale rings round its eyes and I uttered an expletive before quickly letting Jacqui and Renato look through the scope. We watched it coming and going for the next five minutes and I managed to get a few distant heat-hazed photos. When we returned later to go to the hot pools, the Exploratorio was open and the man there told us they started putting out dead animals to try to attract the condors, but the birds had not shown much interest. A bear discovered the first carcass, and one or more have visited on most days since. That was six years ago! Fresh dead cows have been put out to replenish the supply, and if what he says is true, this must be one of the most reliable places to see Andean Bear. Apart from Sam's misfortune, four other groups I know went there since January 2011 and all saw the bear, but it does not seem to have been seen since. The termas are easily reached by bus and taxi.

Guango Lodge
This was one of my favourite places when I worked in Ecuador, and it got our vote for nicest lodge of the trip this time too. The highlights during our short stay were four Torrent Ducks, Andean Pygmy-owl, Dusky Piha, and Grey-breasted Mountain-toucan. But Guango's appeal is as much about its cosy atmosphere, pleasant climate, and good food as its birds. It was easy to reach by bus, and a taxi back from the Termas cost $10. Contact details and a bird list can be found at http://cabanasanisidro.com/pages/guango_lodge.htm.

Wildsumaco
This lodge has made the eastern foothills easily accessible. The main appeal for me was the prospect of seeing some new hummingbirds at the feeders, and a list of hard to find species of which I hoped we would be able to see at least one or two. The bus from Guango to Baeza took half an hour, and it was another hour to the junction with the Loreto road at El 24 (if you catch a bus going to Tena you do not need to change at Baeza). There was a bus waiting at El 24 when we got there, and it was another hour to Wawa Sumaco and the road to the lodge. We had ordered a ride from Wildsumaco for this last part (which is about 6 km), but a couple of trucks that went past taking people to Pacto Sumaco while we were waiting, so it might be possible to get a ride up independently. All arrangements were made direct with the lodge (see http://www.wildsumaco.com/ for contact details and bird list).

The lodge was comfortable, the food was good, and Bonnie and Jim were very friendly hosts. It was more expensive than lodges of a similar standard I have stayed at elsewhere. The hummingbird feeders by the balcony were not very busy, but they were usually attended by Golden-tailed Sapphires, Fork-tailed Woodnymphs, and Sparkling Violet-ears, and we did not have to wait long for Napo Sabrewing, Gould's Jewelfront, Wire-crested Thorntail, Many-spotted Hummingbird, and Booted Racket-tail (here with pale orange leg puffs, unlike the western birds). There were more feeders about half an hour's walk down the road where some more trails start. The activity and species were similar to that at the balcony, but they also had Ecuadorian Piedtail, and we saw one visit from Blue-fronted Lancebill, Green Hermit, and Black-throated Brilliant. In the morning, the flowering shrubs around the lodge were popular with Violet-headed Hummingbird, Wire-crested Thorntail, and Gorgeted Woodstar.

On our first morning we walked along the Benavides Trail, which starts from the lodge. A juvenile Buckley's Forest-falcon was calling from the trees before it was light, and we saw it a couple of times later on. There were a couple of White-tailed Hillstars by the trail, the only ones we saw. In the afternoon I walked down to the lower feeders where I found the hoped-for Blue-fronted Lancebill and Ecuadorian Piedtails.

The Waterfall Trail and Piha Trail were our destination on the second morning. The walk down the road was productive at this time of day, with big birds perching in the open: Scaled Pigeon, Channel-billed Toucan, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, and Many-banded Aracari. The trails were rather quiet, but even if we seen nothing other than the Grey-tailed Piha we found at the junction of Piha and Waterfall Trails it would have been worth the walk. At the junction of Piha and Manakin Trails a russet-coloured South American Coati walked across the path. Back at the lodge I was watching the hummingbird feeders in the afternoon when the birds became very agitated. A large bird flew into the bushes, and I expected it to be a hawk, but it was a Black-billed Cuckoo. The hummingbirds mobbed it noisily and it flew off into the forest, where the alarm calls marked its progress towards the road. After lunch, we tried the FACE Trail, about ten minutes' walk from the lodge. The White-crowned Manakin lek was good here, as was a Chestnut-crowned Gnateater.

We recorded 117 species on day three here; not bad considering we had no transport and no wetland. The morning began with Black-billed Treehunter, Marble-faced Bristle-tyrant, and Olivaceous Greenlet eating moths at the lamp-post by the car park. Later, we found a pair of obliging Foothill Elaenias by the road near the entrance to Waterfall Trail. This was a bird I never really got to know while I was in Ecuador before, so it was good to see and hear them so well. Puffbird and Manakin Trails were rather quiet to start with, but towards the end we found a group of Spix's Black-mantled Tamarins, a noisy Black Antbird, and a very obliging Short-tailed Antthrush. While we were watching the lower feeders before lunch we found a Lined Antshrike on its nest and a Black Hawk-eagle flew over advertising itself with its loud call. At last a beautiful male Black-throated Brilliant appeared at the feeders briefly, and we headed back up to the lodge. In the late afternoon I tried the FACE Trail again where I stalked a singing Spotted Nightingale-thrush.

There was time for a quick walk along the FACE Trail before we had to leave on our last day. I got there early enough to find a Plain-backed Antpitta out on the path, and a Grey-throated Leaftosser flew in and flicked over a few leaves before heading off into the forest. A Chestnut-tipped Toucanet was a final highlight for me before I had to head back to the lodge for our ride down to the main road and the bus back to Quito. The bus to El 24, the junction where you get the Quito bus, cost $1.50 and took 1 hour; from here it was 3.5 hours back to Quito ($5).