Saturday, November 7, 2020

Ecuador 2019 part 1: Victoria BC to Quito, Mindo area

*Written in Jan/Feb 2020*

After a long field season, Siobhan and I decided to take a trip somewhere. With her beginning a PhD, we had about a month to work with, instead of our originally-planned 2-3 months, and decided that Ecuador would be a great introduction to neotropical birding for her, while still offering a nice selection of potential new birds for me. With plans to include the Galapagos (a bucket-list destination for both of us), we booked our flights about three weeks in advance, and between work, packing and moving out of our accommodations, and life in general, there wasn't much time to plan out the trip. As seems to be typical for me on recent trips, we didn't book much ahead of time - our accommodations for the first few nights, a car rental for the first week, and our accommodations in Galapagos as there is a new law requiring tourists to have these things booked ahead of time... Anyway, the trip worked out great, with no major mishaps or misadventures, loads of new birds and scenery, and was a fantastic experience overall. I'll include costs and other logistics here, as we did Galapagos on a modest budget and explored the south independently; two areas that have little in the way of 'budget' birding info out there. Prices are in US dollars, unless otherwise stated. As usual, we flew carry-on only; travelling light means skipping luggage lines and avoiding getting stuck in customs lineups!

Note: we did not get a SIM card for Ecuador, although they are pretty cheap. For navigation, we used the offline-capable OSMAnd app. I hadn't heard of at the time but it looks like it could also be great. The OSM app had more roads and useful places on it than Google Maps as well, especially in the more remote areas. 

Nov 2

All packed (carry-on only, of course!) and ready to go, our cab arrived on time and we were off to catch the 07:00 ferry to Vancouver. Our flight wasn't until 14:15, but I wanted to make a detour beforehand. In Tsawwassen, we caught the bus toward the city, and hopped on the SkyTrain to the station just before the airport. From there we caught a cab out to Iona Island, walked into the inner ponds area, and promptly found Peter Candido staring through his scope at a stubbornly-sleeping shorebird. As I was pretty confident this was our target, we sat and waited for it to wake up (it was in an awkward position/light that did not allow for easy ID). Eventually it moved a bit, revealing itself to indeed be our target - a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper! My first lifer of the trip, and we hadn't even left Canada ( Out of time, we called a cab and headed to the airport. After a smooth flight, we landed in San Francisco where we had a seven-hour layover before our 23:55 flight to Houston. 

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Vancouver

Nov 3

Landing just before 05:00, we quickly made our way to the Hertz counter where we had a rental car reserved for the day (~$80 CAD). After figuring out their system (you just pick a car of the right 'class' and the keys are already in it), we had a Kia SUV and made our way out of the city in the predawn gloom. On the outskirts, we stopped in at a Denny's for breakfast just as the sun was rising. Despite the rather urban setting, Siobhan added her first lifer of the day as a couple of nice male Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flew over ( Wolfing down our rather large breakfasts, we made our way east toward Anahuac, adding Anhinga and a few other birds along the freeway ( and making a quick stop for a rather cooperative Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, flushing a pair of Inca Doves in the process ( 

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Arriving at Anahuac NWR, our first stop was the Shoveler Pond Loop, where we sifted through the masses of ducks, coots and swallows; the highlight for me here was a King Rail that ran across the road right in front of us ( Making our way farther into the refuge, we stopped in at the Woodlot, a tiny patch of trees that acts as a magnet for migrants - we had lingering Eastern Wood-Pewee and Red-eyed Vireo along with a few species of warblers. The road to Frozen Point wasn't very active for birds, but we did have some sunning American Alligators before heading back for another loop of Shoveler Pond. Not finding our target Mottled Ducks, we wandered around the trees at the entrance for a few minutes before continuing eastward.

White-tailed Kite

Not long after, I spotted a pair of Mottled Ducks in a roadside pond (, and we stopped in at Bob Rd in Bolivar so Siobhan could see Roseate Spoonbills ( We stopped in at Bolivar Flats briefly, but there was not much activity ( As we were starting to run out of time we made our way back toward the city, making a quick stop at High Island ( Having grown up reading about the magic of this place during the spring, I was interested in checking it out, even though the bird activity in November would be low. It's easy to see why it attracts so many migrants now that I've been there! Back at the airport, we dropped off the car (no issues), grabbed dinner and made it to our gate for our 18:15 flight. The flight ended up being delayed about 25 minutes on the tarmac due to baggage loading issues, but we landed in Quito pretty much on time (00:40).

Nov 4

After sailing through customs, we caught a taxi ($10) to Tababela, where we had booked a room at Chester B&B for the night ($40). This place was a bit on the pricey side for us, but it included a nice breakfast, there was some birding to be had in the yard, and most importantly the owner was very gracious and willing to let us in at our arrival time of 01:30! After a decent sleep, we birded the yard a bit, with our first bird for the trip being a Rufous-collared Sparrow, unsurprisingly ( Another $10 taxi ride and we were back at the airport to pick up our rental car through Avis. It turned out that we had to get the CDW/LDW, increasing our rental price from $215 for the week to $512, although they gave us a free upgrade from a Chevy Spark to a Chevy Aveo in the process. In figuring out our trip logistics, we had decided that renting a car for the first week would be our best option, as we were hoping to see both the west and east slopes in this short time. Despite all the warnings online, this did prove to be a great (if pricey) choice, and other than Quito I found the driving to be pretty easy. If I were to go for my first time in the tropics though, I would likely want at least a week on each slope to do it justice. Anyway, with our stuff packed in the car, we hit the road. Driving through the north end of Quito in a small, manual transmission car was interesting as I hadn't driven standard in a few years. Thankfully I managed to stall only once while entering a roundabout, and we made good time out of the city. Closer to Mindo, we stopped at the Pacto turnoff for gas, as our gauge was reading that we'd already gone through a quarter tank. $2.00 later the attendant was giving us weird looks - turns out our car was reasonably good on gas and with prices at $1.86 per gallon we didn't spend much on gas for the trip! After a quick lunch stop nearby, we made our way up the road as the rain started to fall. With prospects of a rainy afternoon, I decided to skip going directly to Mindo and turned off on the (very bumpy) road to Bellavista to visit the Santa Rosa Lodge for the afternoon, where it turned out there were no guests staying so we had the place to ourselves ( Shortly before our arrival, the light rain turned to torrential downpour, and so having paid our $20 per person entry fee, we sat and watched the feeders for a few hours. Gorgeted Sunangel, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan and White-winged Brushfinch were all new for me here, but the hoped-for Hoary Puffleg did not put in an appearance for us. With a nice mix of Choco hummingbirds at point-blank range, there was no complaining from us and we happily clicked away at the hummers, tanagers, toucans and whatever else came in to the feeders while the rain pounded on the tarps above. 

Flame-faced Tanager

Violet-tailed Sylph

Gorgeted Sunangel

Masked Flowerpiercer

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan

Empress Brilliant

Fawn-breasted Brilliant

Satisfied that we had seen everything and that the puffleg would not be making an appearance today, we gave one of the lodge workers a ride into town, and he showed us a longer but significantly less bumpy road that led back to the highway. After dropping our stuff at the hostel we'd booked ($58 for a private room for four nights at Hostal Melyang), we wandered to the town centre to find a place to eat and get some groceries, getting distracted by all the birds at the central park ( As we were both pretty exhausted from a few long days of travel and little sleep, we called it an early night, skipping any potential night hikes or owling, although we did hear a Common Pauraque from the room.

Running trip list (Ecuador only from here on): 59

Nov 5

An early departure saw us heading back up toward Bellavista, where it took us about an hour to navigate the holes and bumps in our low-clearance, 2WD Aveo before reaching our parking spot at the turnoff to the research station. From here we walked down to a point about 1.5 km past the lodge and back ( With bright sunshine, activity quickly dropped off and we did not find any decent mixed flocks along the road, although with effort we still found a nice variety of birds and butterflies, and Siobhan spotted a scorpion wandering up the road.

Scorpion sp.

Actinote sp.

New birds for me along this stretch were Dark-backed Wood-Quail (heard), Plain-tailed Wren (heard) and Turquoise Jay, while Siobhan's mind was visibly melting as new tanagers, flycatchers, quetzals and hummingbirds were to be had every few minutes. On our way back up the road, the clouds started rolling in, and by the time we got back to the car it was quite foggy. Hoping that this would boost activity, we had a snack and then headed up the research station road. 

White-rumped Hawk

Cloud forest at Bellavista

Thick fog meant we could basically only see the trees beside the road, and not even the tops of them at that, however the birding was still decent and we slowly picked up new species. After a while we decided to head back to the car as the fog was really too thick to see much, and about halfway back we finally ran into a large mixed flock. Staying with it for a while, a lifer for me was a Rufous-chested Tanager that we had great looks at, while a Plushcap along with various furnariids, flycatchers, tanagers and warblers kept us busy. Eventually the flock moved off, and we made our retreat to the car as the fog had turned to mist and then to proper rain, picking up a pair of Green-and-black Fruiteaters right near where we'd parked.

Green-and-black Fruiteater

Making our way back down the road toward Mindo, we stopped at a few spots to try for Tanager Finch, as they had yet to make an appearance. We were unsuccessful in that venture, although we did find another decent little mixed flock near a flowering tree ( Back at our hostel, the rain continued so I sat on the third floor of our hostel (a nice open area with views out over the town) and checked out the birds in the surrounding gardens while Siobhan napped ( As it was still raining after dinner and we were both pretty tired, we had another early night.

Running trip list: 135

Nov 6

Sunrise near Mashpi

A 04:30 departure saw us on the road toward Mashpi, where we arrived at the entrance road 1.5 hours later, only stopping for some sunrise photos over the mountains. We parked at the top and made our way down toward the Amagusa reserve, with good bird activity along the road ( Siobhan's first-ever antbird was an Esmeraldas quietly foraging in the open along a road cut - normally quite a difficult bird to see! A couple of Plain-backed Antpittas joined the dawn chorus; quite a localized species on the west slope. We had just made it to the Choco Vireo spot at the second large Amagusa sign when a couple on a motorbike pulled up. Noticing binoculars around his neck, I figured he must be the reserve manager, and this proved to be correct. It was Sergio and his wife Doris, and we were in luck. I guess normally there is nobody at the reserve unless a group has made visiting arrangements, and it just so happened that Dusan Brinkhuizen would be arriving soon with his Rockjumper Tours group. They asked us what birds we were looking for, and if we'd seen the flowerpiercer or the vireo yet. We hadn't, so Doris kindly offered to look for them with us while Sergio went and got the feeders ready. We first tried for the vireo, which proved unresponsive (although I was pretty sure I heard one sing way off down the valley), and then went up the road a little ways to find the flowerpiercer. Somewhere along this stretch I noticed a bit of movement in the undergrowth, and was surprised when an Ochre-breasted Antpitta popped out and sat on a branch fairly close to us! The Indigo Flowerpiercers were close behind, and we had a couple staked-out for when Dusan arrived with his group.

Indigo Flowerpiercer

Ochre-breasted Antpitta

In the meantime, Sergio had made arrangements that we would bird with the tour group for the morning, as it was easier for them to manage one group than two - an arrangement we were perfectly happy with given Dusan's reputation. With everyone getting good looks at the flowerpiercers, we moved back to the Choco Vireo spot. Of course, this time it popped up immediately, and proceeded to forage in the low trees right along the road giving everyone great views and photo-ops. During this stop, a Moss-backed Tanager (lifer) and an Orange-breasted Fruiteater made appearances as well.

Choco Vireo
Choco Vireo

 A few small mixed flocks later and we were at the feeder stations in the reserve proper ($10 per person entry fee), where the feeders were swarming with a nice mix of difficult-to-see Choco specialties. Moss-backed Tanagers came in as close as you could want, actually eating out of Doris's hand at one point, and the cameras were pointed in various directions as Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Glistening-green Tanager, Purple-bibbed Whitetip and an assortment of other hummers and tanagers came in to eat. We ate our own lunch while the birds were feasting, then headed off down the road as the fog rolled in, where the stakeout Lyre-tailed Nightjar at the Mashpi Lodge gate was a no-show. Back up the road to El Yumbo (the local name for Toucan Barbet), where some feeders in the forest brought in a few of their namesake bird along with a Crimson-rumped Toucanet and a similar variety of tanagers as the other feeders. 

Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager entertaining the group

Toucan Barbet
Moss-backed Tanager
Glistening-green Tanager
Violet-purple Coronet
Moss-backed Tanager
Rufous-throated Tanager
Hercules Beetle?

From there, we said goodbye to the tour group as they headed off in their van and we walked with Doris back up to where we had parked (Sergio had taken off on the motorbike to attend to some other business). We were supposed to be meeting up with some friends after dinner in Mindo, but as it was still pretty early in the day we decided to head down to lower elevations to try for a few more species ( We ran into the tour group again, as they were stopped a little ways down the road. It turned out they had just had a Long-wattled Umbrellabird fly across the road a few minutes earlier! It didn't return, but a short drive farther on we ran into a big mixed flock, where I picked out my lifer Orange-fronted Barbet (we ended up with three along the road) and two of the locally-rare Emerald Tanager, and at least a few of the group got on them among the horde of other birds.

Orange-fronted Barbet

After this bonanza of new species for the trip, the flock moved off and we worked farther down the road. It didn't take long before we finally hit a stretch that was just too deep with mud for the Aveo, so we turned around and went back to where the mixed flock had been. It turned out that there was a huge fruiting tree just around the corner (0.18327, -78.85115), and the flock had moved over to it. We spent a good amount of time staking out this tree, and had at least 50 species of birds using it and the immediate surroundings. Highlights were brief but satisfactory looks at a Rufous-brown Solitaire, a heard-only Club-winged Manakin and a nice variety of other Choco specialties. All too soon, we were out of time, and headed back up the road toward Pacto. Along the way, Doris was still waiting at the bus stop (now three hours after we'd left her there), so we gave her and another lady a ride to Pacto. Along the way, we made a detour up the road to Paz de las Aves, to see if our car could make the muddy trek up, and also to see if they had availability for the next day as we didn't have a phone that worked in Ecuador to try calling. It turned out that the car did make it up, and they did have availability, so we booked that and went on our way as darkness was falling. Back in Mindo, we grabbed dinner then met up with my friends Josh and Laura, and her dad Mark to check out their moth sheet that they'd set up at the Mindo Yellow House. Despite the rain (it seemed to always rain in Mindo in the late afternoon/evening, but have nice weather in the mornings), there was a decent variety of moths and other insects on the sheet, and it was great to catch up with Josh and talk a little bit about our upcoming adventure to the south (the topic of another post!).

A neat moth on the sheet!

Running trip list: 221

Nov 7

An 05:15 departure saw us making the half-hour drive to meet with Angel Paz for the antpitta tour at Refugio Paz de las Aves ($35 per person, Our original plan had left this day open, with options to go to Rio Silanche, Milpe area, 23 de Junio, back to Bellavista or to Paz de las Aves. We opted for the latter, as it would give Siobhan a chance to see Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks (one of her most-wanted birds for the trip) and me a shot at Giant Antpitta, although it had been unreliable over the past few months. The tour began at the cock-of-the-rock lek where we met up with the other groups on the tour (they all had private guides, we were the only independent party), and at least 9 males were displaying for a female at the lek site, providing us with nice but somewhat dark and distant views. A Dark-backed Wood-Quail also came in to get its morning feed of banana; it was pretty neat to see this shy bird from less than a metre away! 

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
Dark-backed Wood-Quail

 From there we went up the road a ways to the Giant Antpitta (nicknamed Maria) site. A Scaled Antpitta called from behind us and a few small flocks moved through as we waited for about an hour until finally the star of the show arrived! Apparently this was the first time in almost a week that it had come out for a tour, so we were pretty happy. A second bird was seen briefly farther back in the forest, and then they both disappeared. Moving up the road to the bathroom area, some hummingbird feeders attracted Choco Daggerbill. Another site for antpittas nearby brought in two Ochre-breasted right away (nicknamed Shakira); we watched them do their little dance while two Moustached Antpittas (nicknamed Susanita) called farther down the valley. Despite a long wait and one of the birds coming in fairly close, they never came out in the open. As time was running out on the tour, we high-tailed it up the mountain to the upper site where Chestnut-crowned and Yellow-breasted Antpittas both came in within a minute, and Angel promptly took off after that. We and a few other groups stuck around for a few more minutes before heading back to the dining area, where "breakfast" (by now more like lunch) was waiting for us. Coffee, a chicken and cheese empanada and some kind of fried corn ball were pretty tasty if quite greasy while we watched the birds coming in to the banana and hummingbird feeders. 

"Maria", the Giant Antpitta
Yellow-breasted Antpitta

After paying for the tour we took off toward Mindo, where we spent the afternoon walking the upper parts of the waterfall trail (Via a las Cascadas), in the general vicinity of the cable cars and a kilometre or so on either side ( Activity was good, and we ran into quite a few small to medium mixed flocks. Lifers for me here were Tawny-breasted Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Tyrannulet and Coopman's Elaenia, while Rose-faced Parrot, Dusky Pigeon and others were new for the trip. Our main goal was to find the Club-winged Manakin lek site, which we had no luck with - apparently they sometimes lek under the cable cars. 


Choco Toucan

Back at our hostel, we noticed there was some activity as Siobhan picked out a Masked Water-Tyrant (lifer) on the roof of the next door building, and a male Swallow Tanager was busy stuffing his face with flying ants. The ant hatch attracted a nice group of birds, so we spent some time watching from the third floor ( The Swallow Tanager eventually had a crop and bill full of ants, and flew off to the west, likely to feed some hungry chicks. As it was getting dark, we dropped off our stuff and met up with Josh, Laura and Mark for dinner. Afterward, they went off on a night hike while we decided to catch up on sleep (we were still short from our travel days to get to Ecuador...). In making this decision we ended up missing out on Oilbirds feeding on palms and a Rufescent (Colombian) Screech-Owl sitting right beside the path - argh!

Running trip list: 246

Nov 8

We made an early morning visit to the waterfall trail to give the manakins another shot. Another failure was in store for us although we added a few more trip birds (Rufous-rumped Antwren, Chestnut-backed Antbird and Orange-billed Sparrow - Activity was once again quite good, and we covered approximately the same areas as the afternoon before. As we had a ways to go, we cut our time here short and packed up our stuff at the hostel, giving the third floor another quick vigil ( as I hoped to get photos of the water-tyrant, but it was not around this morning. From there, we left the Mindo area and headed eastward, to Papallacta. That'll be the subject of the next post, though.

Running trip list: 252

Overall, the Mindo area was pretty fantastic birding, and certainly better than I had expected. Having birded southern Colombia earlier in the year, and elsewhere in Colombia in 2015, there were still a surprising number of target species for me in the area, and I added 19 lifers among our 250ish species in a little under four days. A few major ones eluded us though, as we dipped on Hoary Puffleg and Tanager Finch, and did not have time to look for Scarlet-breasted Dacnis at Rio Silanche. It also wasn't the right season for Black-breasted Puffleg up at Yanacocha, so we didn't try for it. Hostal Melyang was pretty decent for the price, and located on the outskirts of town closer to the main highway, so it was quiet at night when there weren't other people staying. I'm pretty glad we had a car for this area though, as it seemed most of the birding sites would be difficult to access by public transit, especially at the best time of day.