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Northwest Ecuador Bird Tour, December 2023

2023-12-15 - 2:24 p.m.

I have finished my first travel since May 2019, and I won't deny that I felt fairly apprehensive. I dipped my toe back in with a relatively short & inexpensive tour to northwest Ecuador, and everything was such a whirlwind that I didn't have time to keep a good diary-- just a few scribbled handwritten notes.

The "too long, didn't read" is that I quickly gained over 200 new life birds, viewed 48 different hummingbird species, and renewed my acquaintance with many other birds-- some not seen since my Bolivia trips-- and I also learned a bit about how it's going to work to try to incorporate photography into birding trips.

Photography Thoughts

Note: Skip down to the trip report if you're not interested in photography.

I'll touch on my lack of images first. Birding to get a lot of species means the core goal is to keep moving to pick up new species. One tour member was a die-hard Ebirder with over 6000 species, & another was in pursuit of a specific numerical goal, so these guys were hard-core. You don't want to be "that guy" who holds up the whole show.

That said, everybody was taking snapshots, & two of them seemed to have a decent technique for getting record shots (or better) even from their Coolpix 950 or 1000. The 6k'er had an older DSLR which also seemed to serve great for getting adequate images to document their sightings for Ebird.

If you want/need record or trip memory shots, you'll get many even on a tour this hectic. My Coolpix P610 is just not up to the job, but I toyed with the idea of making the second camera a Coolpix for these situations. But I probably won't. That isn't the kind of photography I'm interested in doing right now.

At any rate, just from hiking around, I was happy to learn that even as a small person, I can hike a muddy trail with my kit and have no trouble carrying or managing it. Choosing & using my Autofocus options to get on the bird quickly was an expected problem that will be solved by more practicing to increase my speed. But practicing on a group tour would, obviously, take too much time, so mostly I didn't try to grab any shots.

The most important thing I learned? I understood quickly that I want to be creative in my photography, and creativity can't be done in a hurry. For instance, I saw a beautiful potential shot with a lot of mood-- a singing Quetzal in a tree bursting with pink flowers with the cloud forest mist behind him. For a variety of reasons, setting up that shot would have taken a lot of time and a tripod-- time you simply don't have on a group birding tour.

Key lessons:

*I can carry & fly with my kit. (Although, even in first class, if you're on an RJ, the overhead storage is only big enough on the side with two seats, not the side with one seat.) I can also hike with it.

*I need a lot more practice getting on moving subjects. (I strongly suspected this already, ha! Will be making plans for more practice at home in the coming days.)

*If I want to take serious photos in the field, it needs to be a photo-specific trip, not a "get your species numbers up" type of trip. Fortunately, there are photo workshops and also there's no reason I couldn't book a room in a good lodge & just sit back & practice photographing the many beautiful & unique hummingbirds on my own.

Oh, and to jump ahead: My first "real" photograph is of a Giant Hummingbird. Perched, I'm afraid, but we all have to start somewhere...

Dec. 2-3 Travel to Quito

I went first/business on American Airlines via Miami. I had a decent amount of trouble booking the flight since they wanted me to either have multiple connections or a one-hour connection in Miami. If the flight's even a little late, I'm kind of screwed, aren't I? So I booked an overnight layover & stayed in their hotel. It was stressful but not as stressful as trying to make a one-hour connection with a delayed flight.

And yeah, my flight to Miami was indeed delayed including a last-minute side-step to a different gate. I just don't feel like worrying about this stuff anymore. I had enough to worry about with all the people coughing. The only other person I saw in New Orleans airport wearing a mask was a guy getting off the plane from Miami. No wonder this pandemic is now endemic & here forever.

Be that as it may, it's somewhat understandable. One must eat & drink after all, although the poor mask still served a purpose, since the lady seating me in the restaurant in Miami took the hint to put me at a lonely table far away from the other customers. I also noticed they had some air flowing on the plane even when it was parked at the gate & loading, so... they're trying.

The flight attendant MIA>UIO had a great personality and served up the in-flight meal with a lot of style and sass. The Tito vodka Bloody Mary was a double.

Arrival in Quito was quick & efficient. I was on the pavement getting picked up by my driver almost before I knew it. The US could learn something from Ecuador about not having endless lines at immigration.

There was a dinner included at the hotel, so I ate it or some of it anyway. I wasn't very hungry & wandered off before dessert was served. Later a guy had to come up to my room to get me to sign something I neglected to sign. Oops!

Dec 4 Zuro Loma & Yanacocha

It was a beautiful day, but it was also one guide for eight people. Like, I knew in advance it was an inexpensive tour, and there would be eight people, but the reality of it was... there were eight people, which is too many people for one guide, no matter how nice everybody is-- and, cut to the chase, everybody was super nice. But I definitely felt a little "short" at times.

Well, I am short, alas. But of eight people, I was the shortest, so at times I felt a bit like a toy participant. Only the guide was shorter than me...

Also my note-keeping for this trip was NOT good, so no doubt I'll be skipping over a lot but let me touch on a few unforgettable Day #1 experiences:

*A male Sword-billed Hummingbird perched atop a nearby low green bush to keep an eye on the feeder. Whenever Mr. Sapphire-Vented Puffleg darted in for a taste, an angry Sword-bill was hot on his tail to chase him away.

*We observed two Antpitta species-- but the Ecuadorian Antpitta (the birb formerly known as Rufous Antpitta) was especially notable for its huge serious soulful eyes.

*If you want cuteness overload, watch a Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager take a bath!

*Ocellated Tapaculo was a surprising struggle to see, considering how close it was but victory was FINALLY ours.

*All in all, Zuro Loma was an impressive first stop with many hummingbird & tanager species, as well as the 2 Antpittas & the 3 Flowerpiercers. However, there were several other tours & tourists there, which meant there were a lot of people to work around. I don't know how you could fix that, since it feels like a "don't miss it" spot.

Later in the day, we hiked on a trail at Yanacocha to a hummingbird feeder where we could easily pick up Shining Sunbeam & Great Sapphirewing. The feeders were great but the raptors we met along the way were the stars of this mid-day show.

A pair of Andean Condors popped up to soar lazily overhead, giving us great views. We also observed a pair of Aplomado Falcons harassing some Carunculated Caracaras. After some searching of the cliffside, our guide got the Caracara nest in the scope. The poor Caracaras won't be moving on despite the harassment, since the youngster in the nest was already good-sized...

It was already getting dark as we drove to the lodge, but we managed a few sightings along the drive to Tandayapa. An especially cute sight was a Crimson-rumped Toucan poked halfway out of a tree trunk. I thought they dug burrows but maybe that's only for breeding, and this individual was maybe just settling in to roost for the night? Hmm.

Dec 5 Tandayapa Valley

We'd arrived at Tandayapa Lodge after dark and woke early for our first impressions. A moth trap attracted a trio of popcorn-popping Toucan Barbets as well as an assortment of other interesting birds-- including our first looks at the small but feisty Ornate Flycatcher.

Great (& easy) hummingbird feeder set-up. One doesn't realize how tiny White-booted Rackettails are until you see them darting around with other hummingbirds. Male Violet-tailed Sylphs were a constant presence, scuffling over feeders or perching nearby in the bushes as they plot their next assault.

Woodstars are the "bee-like" hummingbird, sort of buzzing and also moving like the bee Godzilla would be if Godzilla was a bee. This feeder was a great place to get acquainted with Purple-throated Woodstar, an oversize Godzilla bee that fears nothing-- just ask them.

A hike in the Upper Tandayapa Valley introduced us to a variety of forest birds. For my money, the best were the Plate-billed Mountain Toucans and the impressive male Powerful Woodpecker. This big & bold woodpecker lingered to give us many great views.

It rained buckets in the afternoon, giving me my only real opportunity to take a couple hours for myself. I spent them wisely trying to practice getting on the many hummingbirds at the feeders. Yes, flying. Yes, in the rain & the dark. While I doubt I got any keepers, it was good practice, and I truly enjoyed seeing how much the Violet-tailed Sylphs enjoy the rain. These birds are half fish!

After the downpour but while it was still semi-drizzly, some of us walked around to the village to pick up a few village birds. This would be the only place we saw Pale-legged (Pacific) Hornero. We also found one of those "good" trees where multiple species had gathered to feed.

Dec 6 Rio Silanche

An early start to travel to a much lower elevation, where we would encounter a whole suite of new birds, many in easy locations along a dirt road. As you probably would expect from the lowlands, there was not as much forest & indeed we could see a large open gravel pit-- and needed to watch for trucks coming up and down the road-- but we got a mind-blasting number of species. Highlights include a magnificent pair of Guayaquil Woodpeckers, a Gray-line Hawk that flew in & perched to show well in the scope, & great looks at a Bronze-winged Pionus, also in the scope. Funny, I always thought Bronze-wings were sort of, mmmm, not the most beautiful of their genus, but in the right light they can really show well.

Olivaceous Piculet came up close & perched on a thick vine right in front of me but only gave it a single peck before flying off again. The guy next to me did not even register the bird as a woodpecker because you just don't realize they can be that tiny until you see it for yourself. He said he'd missed it, and I said he hadn't. The bird he was looking at was the Piculet and he would have realized it for himself if borb had the chance to peck more than once. But I feel like nine people that close, many raising cameras, were just too many for the little guy.

At one spot where we heard a singing Berlepsch's Tinamou, the guide used playback to call it in. I saw the bird well, but let's just say the folks trying to photo the bird... did not. Before the trip, I had learned that this species is seldom photographed (and never well), and this bird was happy to maintain its notoriety. It flew in low, zipped back under some tree roots, and somehow vanished.

We visited a wonderful hummingbird spot in the light rain with sun from the west. The great light provided lots of "flash" & glitter from beautiful species like Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, and many more. Definitely a place to return with more time & a tripod to let you select your compositions since so many flashy hummingbirds were staging in the surrounding vegetation.

We had lunch at the top of the canopy tower. Light was harsh since the sun was directly overhead but we still had many remarkable sightings. Mountain Cacique flew through so fast it about knocked my head off.

On the drive back, we passed our first Golden-headed Quetzal. Alas, it was sitting on a wire. On a busy road. Where another birding tour van had already stopped so we couldn't also stop and block the only road. I saw it well enough to count even through the rain-spotted window glass. The two-toned nature of head & body were easily noticeable in life. But there would be much better sightings...

Dec 7 Upper Tandayapa Valley & Milpe

A remarkable day in the Upper Tandayapa Valley and Milpe areas. Twenty-one species of hummingbirds, and that's before I toss in the out-of-normal-range Emerald-Bellied Woodnymph subspecies lurking among the many many Green-crowned Woodnymph subspecies. If and when these Crowned Woodnymph subspecies are split, it will magically become a 22 hummingbird day!

It was raining when we visited the spot for the Rufous-gaped Hillstar. I don't think some of the bigger birds were delighted because the banana table was under-utilized, but hummingbirds crowded in to take advantage of the dizzying array of sugar feeders. I noticed yet again how very much Violet-tailed Sylphs in particular delight in bathing in a light rain. They seem to just know how the even gray light makes their "glitter" flash with color.

Another special sighting in the rain came when we were strolling along a forest road. A dark hunchy shape was settled into the low trees beside the road to wait out the rain. When we got close, we were suddenly eye to eye with my life Barred Hawk. The bird was enormous, the bird was wet, and-- sigh-- the bird flew when the people behind me all lifted their cameras as one. Fortunately, I was right behind the guide and had a magnificent view.

Another exceptional sighting came on the drive back. A Golden-Headed Quetzal flew down to a tree in the valley, where we could see him singing his little song surrounded by all the pink flowers in the tree. The soft mist behind him added to the atmosphere. He looked like something out of an old-time Japanese flower and bird painting...

That bird was a whole mood.

Dec. 8 Mashpi Amagusa

Another big day where I never had a minute to stop & make any notes. Early in the day, we had a remarkable encounter with a small flock of Rose-Faced Parrots who came to feed on the bananas hanging very close to us.

Here we met birds from a wide range of families. My unhelpful notes say, "so many new birds." Let me just touch on a few unusual faces to set the tone:

*White-throated Quail-Dove was a beautiful (& well-named) bird

*White-tipped Sicklebill -- not a feeder hummingbird, but we encountered one close along the road and, whoa, that was an odd-looking one for sure

*A soaring Barred Hawk gave us a good look at this raptor's field marks while flying

*Saw all the Barbets in range-- Orange-fronted, Red-headed, & Toucan

*Zeledon's Antbird with its funny face

*A pair of Pacific (Buffy) Tuftedcheeks kept checking us out and eventually one of them was so bold as to tap the back of one lady's hat-- she didn't seem to notice the light tap but a couple of us saw it happen. I began to wonder if we were too close to a nest and was just as glad when we departed a moment or two later. Those birds were something else.

*Club-winged Manakin came with a sad story of folks taking advantage of the former famous lek site by doing intensive banding and filming. That's right. Former. The famous gathering spot of the Club-winged Manakins was abandoned thanks to human interference. Fortunately, this little bird has a very distinctive song. After we heard one of those weird notes, a tour member located where the bird was perched in the thick of the nearby greenery-- allowing us to get a good look in the scope at one male bird who obviously thought he was well hidden. Though surprisingly near the feeder, he never actually emerged to feed-- at least not while those busybody humans were on the premises.

*I was one of the few who actually had a decent look at the elusive Black Solitaire with its bright white cheek patch. Sometimes, it ain't skill... it's pure luck.

*I just realized I haven't said much about Tanagers, but there were many, and today was another very good day for this group. Moss-backed, Black-chinned Mountain, Glistening Green, & Flame-faced joined my already Tanager-heavy trip list. We also had great views of cousins like Golden-collared Honeycreeper and Indigo Flowerpiercer. The Indigo must be seen in the right light to be fully appreciated for its color-- luckily we got one in the best possible light as we were driving out.

Dec 9 Refugio Paz de las Aves

This is another "must see" stop on the Northwest Ecuador birding trail. As we pulled up to park, we noticed another packed van unloading more people than you'd think would fit inside. Age and experience gave us the ability to spot the competition, and we hit the trail faster than we'd hit the trail on any other day so that we could arrive first & foremost at the viewing blind.

No sooner had I grabbed my spot then the first of the colorful male Andean Cock of the Rocks arrived, and the game was on. The lek is actually spread out over a tree-lined forest, not an open stomping ground, but I still managed to easily confirm at least four birds present. Frequently, one or two male birds were displaying directly in front of me. (The other two+ were usually off to my right.) There was a lot of dancing, sorta-singing, displaying, and chasing, and, all in all, they put on a fine show for a bit under an hour. We could still hear them for some time after they'd gone off to the left, but we could no longer see them.

This stop is famous for its antpittas, including the famous Giant Antpitta. Sadly, we missed out on the Giant because the birds were nesting in a distant location, but we did have excellent sightings of three other species.

At one feeder that was supposed to attract two Antpittas, there was a Mean Girl Rufous-breasted Antthrush. This bold and striking bird wanted to control the worm feeder, and the Moustached Antpitta approached with obvious trepidation, stopping and starting several times before it got close enough to grab a snack. This nervous birb was clearly aware the Antthrush was ready to chase any Antpitta nervy enough to go for the food. A second Antpitta expected at that feeder didn't show its face at all.

Still, we had a three Antpitta day-- and it's pretty hard to top that!

In my notes for this day, I have scribbled the words "mental overload." Real helpful, huh? But it was another big day with a ton of variety.

We again met Golden-headed Quetzal, this one singing in a tree by the road. Another great moment.

Later in the day, we made a stop in Callicalli, where we met the impressive Black-tailed Trainbearer. First, we met a female or two. Then we spotted the male in the distance or chasing away in bad light. Finally, incredibly, as we were already turned around to walk back to the van, we passed a clump of beautiful orange flowers-- and a very impressively be-ribboned male Black-tailed Trainbearer came and then lingered to feed at those very flowers. An astonishing sight.

Dec 10 Antisana, Papallacta, & Guango The next couple of days were high-altitude birding in the more open areas above the tree line of Antisana Volcano. Once again, we met the Andean Condors and Carunculated Caracaras. The Condors flying around one particular cliff face put on an excellent show, with two of them choosing to perch together. A third flew and circled right up close to us. And, of course, we also encountered the good-looking Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle.

My notes are sparse once again, but I really should have written about the many high elevation White-tailed Deer which the guide said may be split as a separate species-- just in case anybody's counting their hooved mammal species. A different species from "our" White-tailed Deer they may be, but they share the same instinct for self-destruction. I watched one of the deer spot our parked van, approach the road, and then stand there waiting for another vehicle to start coming down the road-- at which point said deer leaped in front of the vehicle. Fortunately, the vehicle missed the deer-- but it wasn't for lack of the deer trying.

At lunch, we ate at the restaurant patronized by the Giant Hummingbird, which uses the feeders there. I'd only seen it previously in the Bolivian puna, where it was using a large bushy plant that looks like Mexican cigar if Mexican cigar was larger with all yellow flowers. One of them perched nearby, and I may actually have a crisp, bright picture of it. My first "real" photo!

When we arrived at Guango, I had barely took two steps down the path before we spotted yet another hummingbird species, the Tourmaline Sunangel. The feeders teemed with so many, many different species and individuals, and we didn't have to wait long to add the striking Long-tailed Sylph.

In the late afternoon we had to don rubber boots (ugh!) to track down the muddy path to the river, where (yay!) we soon spotted an adorable family of Torrent Ducks. The male was first spotted where he calmly stood guard, while the female hunched low.


Suspiciously low?

We hung out for a while and, sure enough, eventually, she relaxed enough to get up, stretch her legs, and let her three ducklings go wandering. Two of them stuck close to Mama at first, but the third ducklet was a rebel who went wandering into the white water. (Despite one of our tour member's fears that the poor birdlet would be washed away, the little guy soon bobbed back up to Mama with no evidence of any harm or even a dented spirit of adventure. Soon all three were exploring in their different directions. It was all too cute!

Dec 11 Guango & Papallacta

Another early day. We hiked down to the lodge's moth blind, where we enjoyed a richness of insect-eating species, including an abundance of Turquoise Jays and a family of Inca Jays with two beautiful adults and one sorta ratty young one who was big enough to feed itself but preferred to beg.

A second hike after breakfast brought us breathtaking views of two Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucans-- but not until we'd had to wait & watch an Andean Guan fly up to the fruit feeder to take ALLLLL the grapes.

There was a little adventure to get to the seedsnipes. The park was closed up and gated even though we had a permit. There was a scribbled note with a number on it to call when we needed someone to let us in-- but no phone service.

At first, it looked like a disaster, but one of the tour members had some kind of super-duper cell phone that found signal even though there wasn't signal -- don't ask because I don't know -- and then our guide was able to call the park ranger & get the secret location of the gate key. You wonder why the ranger couldn't have just scribbled that information on the note & saved everybody a lot of time because I didn't see much evidence that anybody other than die-hard birders would be using that road. But who knows.

Once inside the breezy park, we got checked out by a light morph Variable Hawk who came in close & sort of hovered with the help of the very strong winds. (Later in the day we would also see a flying dark morph.) Apparently, we passed the test, because we were soon hiking through the atmospheric mist and fog until we encountered a pair of Rufous-bellied Seedsnipes who strolled around to give us good long looks. They were bigger than I expected. "Christmas dinner," was my little joke. Strangely, nobody laughed.

I think I've mentioned how much the Violet-tailed Sylph males appeared to enjoy the rain. At high elevation, we met a Viridian Metaltail who seemed to love it just as much. He perched high on this weird bush shaped like a tallish pyramid that let him just stand on top & get wet, then he flew over to a leafy bush that let him "surf" on some damp leaves on top. What a cutie. Viridian is a shade of green, and the more he bathed, the greener he looked!

While it isn't technically true, I'm calling the amazing Tawny Antpitta my "official" last bird of the trip. This bird came out, perched in the open with an insect in its bill, and began to sing (loudly!) all the while displaying its creepy crawly prize. He was still singing and displaying from the perch when we left, so I will never know if he found love in the end... but I prefer to believe he did!

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