Reflections on Ecuador
by Dawn Hewitt | Managing Editor, Bird Watcher’s Digest
We saw 46 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador, four species of antpittas, two species of quetzal in one tree, and a mind-blowing number of brilliantly colored, sometimes iridescent tanagers while we were in Ecuador. Let’s not forget the leks we visited, where Andean cock-of-the-rocks and club-winged manakins strutted their very impressive stuff. We watched two spectacled bears, and had close-encounters with an owl that still doesn’t have a clear taxonomy or species name, plus several trogons, an Andean weasel, and several birds whose names we hadn’t bothered learning (including cinclodes and horneo). Then there was the wonderful food and the fresh juices, our nightly checklists, and the night we broke two wine glasses. We made a lot of memories in Ecuador, didn’t we? We even drove across the equator—twice!
But let’s start at the very beginning. We met up at the lovely and comfortable San Jose Puembo Garden Hotel—some of us on February 6, and the full group at 5:50 a.m. on February 7, after a hearty breakfast that included a healthy assortment of fresh fruit, including taxo, and several others that were unknown to us. Many of us picked up a couple dozen life birds before we even got on Edgar’s bus! Thanks to our wonderful guide, Lelis Navarette, we were off to an auspicious start!
Our first stop was at an overlook at a steep canyon, where, along with a few tanagers and hummingbirds, we counted 35 white-collared swifts overhead. As we headed northwest, we stopped at Alambi Cloud Forest Reserve, and got our first taste of Ecuador’s hummingbird density at numbered feeders. “Look at feeder 4! It’s a pair of female white-bellied woodstars. And a white-necked jacobin is about to land!” It was dizzying, almost overwhelming, but totally amazing. At any given moment, there were probably 50 hummingbirds of a dozen species just a few feet in front of us. And then a golden-olive woodpecker landed at the banana feeder, only to be displaced by a red-headed barbet! And all of this before lunch!
Just down the road, we had a delicious lunch—ooooh, the blackberry juice and fried cassava—at a modern restaurant perched on an overlook, where we looked down on hummingbirds and tanagers and barbets. The light on the crowned woodnymph took my breath away.
Early in the afternoon, we checked into our rooms at the charming Septimo Paraiso (Seventh Heaven) Country Inn and Cloud Forest Reserve. The nectar feeders out front, under a shelter with benches, were swirling with hummingbirds, many of them new species for the trip!
On February 8, we got up in the dark, boarded the bus, and drove to Refugio Paz de las Aves. We parked along a country road, and in the dark hiked down a steep, slippery slope—thank goodness it was a short walk to the blind. And there, as the first rays of light turned the scene from black to gray, we saw big, red birds: Andean cock-of-the rocks! Holy cow! Then a family of wood-quail visited the blind at the coaxing (aka bribery) of a resident guide.
Up the hill we drove to Angel Paz’s lodge and visitor center, where we hiked to two antpitta feeding spots, where guides enticed four species of antpitta to visit! What a thrill! What fascinating birds! The snacks we had afterward were delicious and filling, and oh, the close encounters with blue-winged mountain-tanagers! The hummingbirds! The tanagers! What an amazing place!
We tallied dozens more species on the property of Septima Paraiso on several hikes and at the hummingbird feeding stations. We hiked along the road at several locations in the Mindo Valley, and visited several preserves in the Mindo Cloud Forest Reserve, including the Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, where we climbed a 50-foot canopy tower—in the rain. Conditions for bird photography were less than ideal, but birding was still good, and we saw many tanagers, toucans, and many other good birds. Roadside birding yielded a close encounter with a hook-billed kite, and many swallow-tailed kites in the sky. We stopped to eat our delicious boxed lunches at Rancho Suamox, and enjoyed their gardens, nectar and fruit feeders, and shady viewing area.
On February 10, we visited the Milpe area for some roadside birding. We got great looks at regional endemic Choco toucans, and stopped to take a group photo with #FlatWilliam. It was at the Milpe Bird Sanctuary that we watched club-winged manakins on their lek, as well as busy hummingbird feeders. We stopped briefly in the small town of San Miguel de los Bancos so Dawn could buy some rubber boots to replace her filing hiking boots. Many of us enjoyed a short shopping break. It was a rainy afternoon, so after lunch at Septimo Paraiso, we drove around the recreational tourist area of Mindo, and from the bus spotted a sunbittern walking along the road! It was crazy cool.
On February 11, we checked out of our charming hotel, and took the slow route back to Quito, with some road birding along the way. We happened upon a pair of powerful woodpeckers along the way! We spent the late morning and had lunch at the amazing Birdwatcher’s House, where the nectar and fruit feeders were jaw dropping. With the blind and the sheltered garden, rain was no problem here. We also enjoyed Rex, the lucky resident dog. Plate-billed mountain-toucans, and diverse tanagers put on a show at the fruit feeders. We were sad to leave, but we headed back to Quito—encountering a dipper high on a steep waterfall—and later, aware that we were crossing the equator.
On February 12, we headed southeast, through the Papallacta Pass, stopping a few times along the way for roadside birding, to take a look at a carunculated caracara, and to admire a pair of spectacled bears! This was the day we drove into the paramo, above 14,000 feet. It wasn’t that cold, but it was a bit windy and drizzly. It was at the highest point that we found two species of cincloides (chestnut-winged and stout-billed). We didn’t stay too long at that elevation, but pressed on to the east side of the Andes. At one pull-off along the highway, we found torrent ducks in a raging river! We stopped for a delicious lunch at the cozy Guango Lodge. After lunch: Oh, the hummingbirds at the feeders! Most species were completely different! We got sword-billed hummingbird, and the spectacular tourmaline sunangel! (If anyone has a photo that does this bird justice, please send it to Dawn.)
We could have lingered, but instead pressed to Cabanas San Isidro, our base for two more days of excellent birding. The balcony at the dining room was buzzing with hummingbirds, Inca jays, subtropical caciques, montane forest-gleaners, and so much more. Roadside birding was good, and yielded a very determined russet-crowned warbler. The fruit served for breakfast was fascinating, beautiful, and delicious. The accommodations were comfortable, and Alejandro, the manager, was fun! We did some roadside birding, and later, night birding for poor looks at an uncooperative rufous-banded owl. But the local specialty, dubbed the San Isidro owl, was oh, so cooperative, perching just outside the restaurant’s balcony.
We enjoyed more roadside and even rooftop birding at San Isidro, and scored some southern lapwings in a nearby farm field. We befriended a sweet dog while admiring a pair of torrent tyrannulets. The scenery was gorgeous and the weather was pleasant.
As we headed back to Quito, we stopped at another amazing fruit and hummingbird. feeding site, which is where we happened to spot two quetzals in a tree (golden-headed and crested).
Later, as we climbed the east side of the Andes, we stopped along the highway to look down to some ponds, and spotted Andean teal and yellow-billed pintails. But we had a close (but brief) look at an Andean weasel as it scurried across the road with a mouse in its jaws.
Back at San Jose de Puembo for the third time, we enjoyed one last dinner together after our final checklist. What a week it was! What amazing birds—and other wildlife—we saw! And what good friends we made. It’s true: Birding is better with friends. Thanks to Lelis Navarrete for being an amazing guide; to Partnership for International Birding for arranging such a wonderful trip; to Edgar to being a competent and friendly driver, and to the people of Ecuador for making us feel safe and comfortable in their beautiful country.