Ecuador, May 2007

I'd always wanted to do some birding in South America, after all it is not known as the 'Bird Continent' for nothing, having the highest number of species of any continent and my chance came in 2007 when I decided to begin with a trip to Ecuador which, despite its small size (around the same size as the UK but with a lot less people) holds around 1663 species. In at the deep end, perhaps, especially as my Neotropical birding experience was to date precisely zero, but how exciting!
I flew from Heathrow to Quito, via Madrid, on 11th May 2007, landing late in the afternoon, where I was met by representatives from Bellavista Cloud Forest who took me to the B&B that Bellavista own in Quito. On the way to the B&B, in rush hour traffic, I had nice views of the volcano Cayambe, one of the many volcanoes which surround the Ecuadorian capital, a nice snow-capped volcano with a squared-off top.
The following day, I woke up at 0530 and could hear a melodious bird song from just outside the window, so I looked out and there was my first bird of the trip, a Great Thrush. A bit later, when it was light, the second bird of the trip (ignoring the feral pigeons and introduced House Sparrows), a Rufous-collared Sparrow, appeared on a window box on the balcony across the road.

12th May: After breakfast, we set out towards Bellavista, which is the other side of the looming volcano Guagua Pichincha to the west of Quito. We didn't see much on the way out, despite stopping at the extinct volcano Pululahua, which provides a magnificent view down into the crater. On the way up the Old Nono-Mindo Road we got lucky, the driver, Jhonny, stopped and pointed, there was a male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock in the tree by the road, a piece of good fortune!

Arriving at Bellavista (00.948 S 78'40.82 W) a short time later, I dumped my bags and watched the activity around the feeders. There were hummingbirds everywhere and the tiny birds were constantly on the move, as they have to be as they need to constantly feed to sustain their fast metabolisms. Within a few minutes I'd identified Booted racket-tail, Collared Inca, Speckled Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Purple-throated Woodstar and Fawn-breasted Brilliant. There were so many new birds, a whole new avifauna, to see it was hard to know where to look next. It was like being let loose in a sweet shop and told to help yourself but not knowing what to go for first! The new species were coming thick and fast, the completely stunning Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, Golden-crowned Flycatcher (on the balcony outside my room), the spectacular Violet-tailed Sylph with its long blue-purple tail, Buff-tailed Coronet (the commonest of the Bellavista hummers), Dusky Bush-tanager, Brown-capped Vireo, Turquoise Jay, Streaked Tufted-cheek, Western Hemispingus, Black-crested warbler, Montane Woodcreeper and a distant Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, a spectacular and colourful Choco endemic.

Blue-winged Mountain-tanager
During the first afternoon, I went for a walk with Bellavista guide, Gabriel Bucheli, around some of the trails. Gabriel is very knowledgeable about the birds and there is not much, if anything, he doesn't know about them and, as a result, he's now working for Tropical Birding at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (where I stayed later in the trip). We hit the 'F' trail, one of the steep mountain trails at over 8000 feet. The trail was quiet although we did hear Spillman's Tapaculo calling but, unfortunately, we couldn't lure the bird out with taped calls, but we did get excellent views of Plate-billed Mountain-toucan. By then it was raining, so we headed back down the road.
The last bird of the day was Common Potoo, out in the car park.

Common Potoo

13th May: An extremely early start, at the uncivilised hour of 0330 to get to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek near Mindo. The lek at the wrong end of a very steep and slippery climb of 1000 feet, in the dark, but it was worth it. Just before first light the racket began; the birds have a very raucous call and were extremely vocal as they showed off to their ladies. Despite their bright red plumage they are surprisingly hard to see although we did eventually get good views. The photo above was taken there, but my photos were all of poor quality, due to the low light levels. As it got properly light, the display died down and the birds dispersed back into the forest. We heard a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta calling and managed a glimpse of it before it flew off.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock
The descent was much easier, although slippery, than the ascent and, on the way down, we got good views of Yellow-bellied Euphonia and Crimson-rumped Toucanet. At the bottom, and along the dirt road back to the car, we also got views of Black Phoebe, Tropical Kingbird, Lemon-rumped Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager (very beautiful indeed), Golden Tanager, Red-headed Barbet (a fleeting view), Montane Woodcreeper, Pale-mandibled Aracari and Rufous Motmot. In Mindo, we stopped at an Orchid garden where I sat in the cafe area and watched the hummingbird and tanager activity at the feeders, and the lifers continued to come thick and fast with Blue-Grey Tanager, White-necked Jacobin and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. Later on, we saw Masked Water-tyrant and Swallow-tailed Kite.
We stopped at the Mirador Rio Blanco restaurant at Los Bancos where they have feeders set up, mostly with fruit, and you can watch the birds from inside the restaurant. Here, the birdlife is incredible, including Green Honeycreeper, Ecuadorian Thrush, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Crimson Toucanet, Blue-necked Tanager, Rufous-throated Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Western Emerald, Green Thorntail and Green-crowned Brilliant.

14th  May: An early morning walk round the road brough lots more lifers for the list, including the Grass-green Tanager, which is a striking mostly racing-green bird with bright red legs, face and bill. We also heard Ocellated Tapaculo calling. This is a secretive, skulking bird, but one I was particularly hoping to see, and Gabriel managed to lure them into view with iPod play back. I managed to photograph two out of the three birds we saw which I was very pleased with, considering how hard these are to see. The blue spot on the birds wing is, I think, a fault on my camera's sensor. I certainly didn't see it myself on the actual bird in the flesh.
The rest of the day was lazy, spent photographing the hummers and other birds around the feeders.

15th May: Most of today was spent walking the trails and adding new birds to the list. I tried to track down Spillman's Tapaculo and actually see the thing but had no luck, despite the fact it was so close to the path and calling to another one. I spent the afternoon again photographing birds and wishing I'd brought my laptop with me to see what the photos were going to come out like. ISO speeds were 800 and above just to get a decent exposure, but this added noise to the photos

16th May: This was another early start, at 0400, this time to 'Refugio Paz de las Antpittas', run by farmer Angel Paz and his family - on the way out to the main road we saw White-winged Nightjar. We walked to another Cock-of-the-Rock lek, fortunately downhill; the climb back was steep but not so much as at the Mindo lek a few days earlier.
Angel and his brothers put worms out for the antpittas and call them in: "Maria, Maria, Maria, venga, venga, venga!" ("Maria, Maria, Maria, come, come, come!"); 'Maria' is a Giant Antpitta, she is a genuinely wild bird but is used to coming when called because she knows worms are available. I took one photo of Maria, no flash as I didn't want to scare her (and annoy people!) and it came out pretty well. We also saw Yellow-breasted Antpittas but it was too dark in the forest to photograph them.

Giant Antpitta

There were even more wonderful birds to come and they came thick and fast, with the fantastic Golden-headed Quetzal, the colourful Toucan Barbet and the Black-chinned Mountain-tanager, all stunning birds. We also saw a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk on the branch of a tree and superbly camouflaged; it was very much a case of having to know it was there in order to see it, otherwise it would have been easily overlooked.

A Cattle Egret was at Mindo, where we visited a butterfly farm. I'd already been to the farm so I went birding along the road with Gabriel, adding a few more hummingbirds to the list. After that, the group went o the Los Colibries (The Hummingbirds) restaurant for lunch, where there were more lifers, including Bananaquit and Brown Violetear. The road contained some new birds, too, such as Social Flycatcher and Smooth-billed Ani.
We also got to witness road repairs, Ecuador-style. A gang of men with a truck would dump stones and tarmac into the potholes then leave it, apart from removing the biggest rocks which could damage vehicles, for the traffic to flatten. Quick and effective although I don't think that sort of repair would be welcomed here in the UK, despite it being a lot quicker than our method of road closures, temporary traffic lights and delays.

17th May: My last day at Bellavista. I went on a birding walk at 0605. the rain was persistent so I didn't see much although a new bird was Long-tailed Antbird plus good views of Plate-billed Mountain-toucan. Because of the rain, the rest of the day was spent idle, photographing the hummingbirds and chatting to people. The day was notable for nearly stepping on the biggest earthworm I have ever seen. I had come out of my room and promptly jumped several feet into the air - I thought it was a snake at first, as it was easily three feet long and a couple of inches thick. It was huge. Ecuador is noted for these giant worms which make even our biggest UK ones (which are usually no more than 6 inches long) look microscopic.

18th May: Moved down to Tropical Birding's Tandayapa Bird Lodge, a large, substantial building made of brick, rather than the bamboo of Bellavista. TBL is more geared towards birders than general tourists or naturalists, as Bellavista is, and the feeders have many more hummingbirds, including greater numbers of Violet-tailed Sylphs. I was also able to see Sparkling Violetear, which is a stunning bird with violet patches on the head and a blue breast, and White-bellied Woodstar.

Violet-tailed Sylph

19th May: A stomach bug means that I don't do much, apart from photographing birds around the feeders, with mixed results. At lunch time there was a huge thunderstorm, very impressive with forked lightning and thunder echoing round the mountains.

20th May: I overslept a bit but was still in time to get up to the hide before light in order to see the Immaculate Antbird. The first birds around - the ones I could see, at least - were White-tipped Dove, which was closely followed by Glossy-black Thrush (a bird very similar to our own Blackbird in Europe). The Immaculate Antbird wasn't too far behind, with a male soon followed by the female. The male Immaculate Antbird is all black, with a conspicuous blue patch round the eye, which makes him look as if he has an oversized eye. The female also has the eye patch but she is dark brown, rather than black. Immaculate Antbirds constantly move their tails up and down, wagtail-like.
Walking back to the lodge along the path produced a male Red-headed Barbet in a tree beside the path and I saw a female later, by the lodge.
Later I went uphill, along the Old Non-Mindo Road.

21st May: It was an early start at 0600 to go over to Rio Silanche and Milpe. First stop was Rio Silanche, a reserve belonging to Mindo Cloudforest Foundation who acquired it, to try and preserve at least some forest from the appalling destruction in western Ecuador. Rio Silanche is one of the last areas of lowland rainforest in western Ecuador but, luckily, the birds are all still there.
I was hoping for Choco Toucan and Choco Trogon. both endemic species, and got both - the trogon was heard at Rio Silanche and later seen at Milpe. Unfortunately I didn't see Club-winged Manakin this time (but did when I returned to Ecuador later in 2007) but I did see Golden-winged Manakin at Milpe, a very pretty little bird with striking colours of yellow and black. Motmots were common and I saw both Broad-billed Motmot and Rufous Motmot, with good views of both, while an Orange-fronted Barbet also provided an unexpected close up view at Rio Silanche. Another unexpected sight was Bat Falcon, quite a rare bird. Another rare followed a bit later, the Moss-backed Tanager. I also found a 'mystery bird', later identified as a Buff-rumped Warbler. We headed back to TBL via Rio Alambi, where there was a Torrent Tyrranulet and White-capped Dipper on the rocks in the river. I was hoping for Torrent Duck but saw none (I eventually saw one on my second visit to the country later in the year).

22nd May:  An early visit to the hide produced Spotted Barbtail. The rest of the day was lazy, thanks to a migraine that came out of nowhere. Sadly, it was my last full day in Ecuador so, after dinner, I packed before going to bed early.

23rd May: The morning was spent getting last-minute hummingbird photos before leaving for Quito Airport. There were no new birds, except American Kestrel just outside the city. After a boring wait at the airport (although airport waits are rarely interesting!), I boarded a Iberia Airbus A340-300 to Madrid via Guayaquil, where we had to deplane and reboard, which seemed pointless as well as annoying. The next day, we landed at Madrid and I made my connection to London.

It was a good trip and while my list wasn't as big as I'd hoped, around 200 species, it was still productive with quality over quantity. I love brightly coloured birds and Ecuador has plenty of these. It was such a great trip and I liked the country so much, I immediately made plans to return later the same year.