A birdwatching and photography tour in the Ecuadorian Andes
Text and photos by Canadian wildlife photographers M.-F. and D. Rivard.
In April 2019, we visited four ecolodges in Ecuador for birdwatching. We had made arrangements directly with the lodges which are part of the San Jorge network of ecolodges and botanical reserves. From Canada, we flew from Montreal to Panama City, and then to Quito. A car took us to the first lodge, an 18th century Spanish hacienda called San Jorge Ecolodge/Quito in the upper Andean Forest Reserve. The San Jorge Eco-lodge/Quito, San Jorge de Tandayapa and the two San Jorge de Milpe lodges (Forest ecolodge and cliff lodge) each have a network of trails, as well as bird feeders for tanagers, hummingbirds, toucans and more. Overall, we observed close to 250 species of birds during our ten-day tour. With about 1600 species of birds in Ecuador, there were a number of opportunities for “lifers”.
From these lodges, we visited a number of reserves and birdwatching locations, including the Yanacocha Reserve (highland cloud forest), the Amaguza Reserve, Rio Silanche (lowland tropical rainforest) and the Antizana Nation National Park (a reserve for the Andes condor). Birdwatching covered a wide range of habitats, including altitudes ranging from 700 m to 3500 m in the Choco region of the Andes. There are many species endemic to the Andean-Choco region in Ecuador and our guide spent a lot of effort trying to find them.
The Crimson-rumped toucanet - Toucanet à croupion rouge - was a common occurrence at feeders.
Tawny antpitta - Grallaire de Quito
Orange-bellied euphonia - Organiste à ventre orange
Some of the hummingbirds, like the black-tailed train bearer, the violet-tailed sylph, and the sword-billed hummingbird were spectacular. Most hummingbirds were seen at feeders but some were also seen in the forest where photography was difficult. These are the white-whiskered hermit, stripe-throated hermit, woodnymph, sparkling and lesser violetear, shiny sunbeam, booted racket-tail are just a few of the hummingbird species seen during our trip.
Sparkling violetear - Colibri d'Anaïs
Shining Sunbeam - Colibri étincelant
Purple-throated woodstar - Colibri de Mitchell
Brown violetear - Colibri de Delphine
Violet-tailed sylph - Sylphe à queue violette
Purple-bibbed whitetip - Colibri de Benjamin
With 152 possible species, the tanagers are well represented in Ecuador and include species or groups like bush-tanagers, mountain-tanagers, honeycreepers, flower piercers, dacnis, bananaquits and grassquits. Most are spectacular in their display of colours and they are often easy to see as they come to the feeders specially set for them. However, some can be difficult to see as they prefer to stay high in the canopy where they eat fruits.
Masked flowerpiercer - Percefleur masqué
Scarlet-bellied mountain-tanager - Tangara à ventre rouge
Blue-winged mountain-tanager - Tangara somptueux
Black-capped tanager - Calliste à calotte noire
Golden tanager - Calliste doré
Golden-naped tanager - Calliste à nuque d'or
Moss-backed tanager - Tangara d'Edwards
Silver-throated tanager - Calliste safran
Rufous-throated tanager - Calliste à gorge rousse
Flame-faced tanager - Calliste à face rouge
Glistening-green tanager - Tangara étincelant
Yellow-throated chlorospingus (also called bush-tanager) - Chlorospin à gorge jaune
Reserva Amagusa, Pinchincha
In Reserva Amagusa, Pinchincha, as we were having lunch at a picnic shelter, a large mammal jumped on a bird feeder set with fruits. Most photographers had already left the shelter as their morning had been very productive and our small group opted to stay at the shelter for a quiet lunch. We had never seen such an animal, which we ended up identifying as a tayra, an omnivorous mammal of the Andes. As we reached for our cameras, the tayra quickly jumped off the feeder and started to walk away. However, it came back quickly, attracted by the fruits laid out in the open.
Reserva Amagusa was also the home of toucan-barbets. These are beautiful birds. Earlier during our tour, we had heard them across a valley but had been unable to locate and to see them. At Reserva Amagusa, the toucan barbets were often coming to feeders nicely set for photography and observation. While we quickly heard them respond to the calls of a local guide, it took 10 to 15 minutes for the barbets to get closer. When both the male and the female appeared at the feeder, it was a magical moment.
Also at Reserva Amagusa, we saw a perfectly camouflaged nest with the female orange-breasted fruiteater. She was sitting on the nest while the more colourful male was perched higher on the same tree.
Tayra (Eira barbara) - La Tayra ou Martre à tête grise
Toucan barbet - Cabézon toucan
Orange-breasted fruiteater (female) - Cotinga jucunda (femelle)
Orange-breasted fruiteater (male) - Cotinga jucunda (mâle)
On a previous trip to South America, we tried to see a cock-of-the-rock but our attempts were in vain. Ironically, a few days before going to the lek, a cock-of-the-rock landed on my telephoto lens set behind us on a table at lunch time. Our guide saw the cock-of-the-rock land on the lens and perch there momentarily before realizing how close people were. We had a quick look at the bird and its rich red colour as it flew away. This was our first look (sighting) at the cock-of-the-rock but, as our tour included the visit of a lek, we knew that we would have a better opportunity to capture the cock-of-the-rock in photos.
Andean cock-of-the-rock - Coq-de-roche péruvien
To reach the hide from which we could see the cock-of-the-rock, we left early from the lodge as it was necessary to get in position before sunrise. A 45-minute car ride led us to the entrance of the trail leading to the lek. A local guide joined us for the 30-minute walk leading to the lek. Walking uphill in the dark and crossing a stream en route to the lek tested our determination to see these birds at close range. As we approached the lek, our lead signed us to stay quiet. As we got nearer, we could hear the calls from a number of cock-of-the-rock readying for their morning ritual. We reached the photo hide when it was still dark, with enough time to get in position with our cameras. Our friends were directed to a second observation hide, set downhill from the photo hide. As we set up with our cameras, we were glad to see that some of the birds were within reach of our telephoto lenses. Our guide told us that there were eight males, all trying to impress a female (that we did not see). It was still dark and the first impressions were blurred but a quick adjustment to the iso setting gave us some positive results. It was well worth the drive, the walk in the dark, and the crossing of the river.
Then, the bonus…! We have been looking for quetzals from some time but these have remained our nemesis birds, to the point that we wrote about it in "Samuel à la recherche du Quetzal". A “call” from the observation hide indicated that quetzals were around and moving closer. We quickly got our gear together and moved downhill towards the observation hide. Up in the canopy was a quetzal, perched deep into the leaves. Good enough for a first sighting… but no photo record.
Reserva Antisana, Provincia de Napo
At Reserva Antisana, the weather was nice, ideal for the Andean condor… With volcanos Cotopaxi and Antisana as a background decor, the landscape around us is awesome. As we were working out endemic species with our guide at our first stop, two Andean condors appeared in the sky, together with a carunculated caracara. With a wing span of 3m, they had no problem soaring in the sky above us. The freshwater lakes in the area gave us some waterfowl, such as the Andean teal, the Andean duck, the slate-coloured coot, the black-faced ibis and the silvery grebe. The Ecuadorian hillstar and the giant hummingbird were welcome additions to our life list.
Andean condor - Condor des andes.
Carunculated caracara - Caracara caronculé.
Ecuadorian hillstar - Colibri du Chimborazo
Plumbeous Sierra-finch (female) - Haplospize gris-de-plomb (femelle)
Andean fox - Renard andin
One evening, as we were leaving the dining area overlooking the bird feeders, a small mammal appeared at one of the feeders. As it was getting dark and the cameras had been put away for the day, I used my mobile phone to capture the moment. It was an olinguito, as called by locals. This mammal escaped the reach of science for many years, having first been described in 2013. The olinguito is like a little raccoon living in the forest of the Andes in western Columbia and Ecuador.
The windows of our room had been left open during the day to reduce the heat from the sun. Late into the night, we felt that something was getting close to our ear. We thought that it was a large moth as they were abundant in the balcony leading to our room. However, the sustained displacement of air close to us led us to believe that it could be something else. It was… a bat, flying around our room in search for food. While this could help to keep mosquitoes at bay, we preferred to ask to be moved to another room for the next night.
The following evening, as we entered our new room, we noticed a number of insects, mostly moths, flying in the room. The walls and ceiling were covered with bamboo, leaving a gap between the concrete walls and the bamboo-decorative layer. Around 9:00PM, a loud noise emerged from the ceiling. We thought that the noise was from the insects behind the bamboo layer trying to make their way in the room. We recorded the event, as the noise was surprisingly loud. We thought it was an invasion of insects and, as we could do nothing about it, we went to sleep with that noise, ....well covered by our sheets. On the next day, we reported the event and played the recording to our guide. He laughed and indicated that this strange noise was from oilbirds that had most likely landed on the roof of our building, with the noise reverberating through the concrete wall into the room.
We stayed at San Jorge Eco-Lodge Quito, San Jorge Tandayapa Eco-Lodge, and at San Jorge/Milpe Forest Eco-Lodge. From these lodges, we visited the Upper Andean forest and dry desert at Bosque Protector Jerusalem, the highland cloud forest at Yanacocha Reserve, the western Andean Cloud forest, Amaguza Reserve, the lowland tropical rainforest at Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary, as well as the Antizana National Park and Andes Condor Reserve (Paramo).
A detailed list of observations is provided here (247 species overall).
For the identification of bird species, we used “McMullan M. And L. Navarrete. Fieldbook of the Birds of Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands and common mammals. Second Edition 2017. Ratty Editiones, Ecuador. 228 pp.
Our guide for the entire journey was Julio Ayala, Birdwatching and butterfly guide, Ecuador (with his permission).
More photos from Ecuador:
Rufous antpitta - Grallaire rousse
Scaled fruiteater (male) -Cotinga écaillé (mâle)
Squirrel cuckoo - Coucou écureuil
Collared aracari (Pale-mandibled) - Araçari à collier (bec clair)
Tricolored Brush-finch (Choco region variety) - Tohi tricolore de la région Choco
Zeledon's antbird - Alapi de Zeledon
Red-headed barbet (male) - Cabézon à tête rouge (mâle)
Red-headed barbet (female) - Cabézon à tête rouge (femelle)
Ecuadorian thrush - Merle d'Équateur
Great thrush - Merle géant