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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ecuador: Mindo and the Northwest Andes

February 2024 Narrative

With just a short week to bird a single area, Mindo, in the cloud forest of northwest Ecuador is a hard place to beat. From one comfy lodge, our day trips took us to high-elevation elfin forests, low elevation rain forest, and other microhabitats in between. As such, it was no wonder that we found about 300 bird species. The most iconic birds of the region, the hummingbirds and tanagers, made up about a quarter of all species encountered, with 40 hummingbird species and 35 species with “tanager” in the name. The highlights were many and kept coming with each passing day. Some of the stand-out experiences were: our visit to a noisy Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, our encounters with a few antpittas, the pair of Sword-billed Hummingbirds that we watched have a straight-up sword fight, and the sedate White-faced Nunbird as it slowly worked at and finally consumed a giant beetle. There was great stuff every day and never a shortage of stuff or things to look at.

With only one morning in the high-elevation, temperate forest, the pressure is often on. Sometimes it’s too foggy, rainy, windy, or all three to even see birds.  Today, however, was a gem. It was clear, calm, and sunny for much of the morning  - good soaring weather, so that started us with a trio of Aplomado Falcons. One perched a while for us, before joining the others to presumably go hunt swallows. Also in that crisp, beautiful morning we watched a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill build a nest on some hanging vines, and a gaggle of Rufous Wrens worked on a nest, comically carrying huge blades of grass into a globe of vegetation over the trail. We watched mountain-tanagers, flowerpiercers, and guans eat bananas, and hummingbirds bickered over the nectar feeders. A singular highlight was a serious fencing match between two Sword-billed Hummingbirds. No one got hurt, and it was clearly a duel between masters. Our descent from the heights was not without excitement as we found a duo of White-capped Dippers in a roadside stream and a little further down saw a Golden-headed Quetzal hanging out on the power lines. It rained a little during our drive down, and before we knew it, we arrived at our lodge in Mindo, home base for the week.

On our first day out in Mindo, we didn’t go too far. We started down the hill a little at the Milpe reserve, or we tried to. We stopped along the entrance road and spent nearly an hour within only a few meters of where we stopped the bus as Bronze-winged Parrots moved around us and a Yellow-throated Toucan yelped above us. Swifts and tanagers and seedeaters, and a Choco Tyrannulet kept us too busy to get further. We did eventually make it to the reserve and encountered some fun mixed flocks and enjoyed the hummingbird feeders when it got rainy. Hummingbirds are a theme of this tour, so adding to our haul from yesterday were many more including crowd favorites like diminutive Green Thorntails and a positively glowing Western Emerald.  Not a bird, but an enormous green katydid on the railing was a leaf… until it wasn’t! We spent the afternoon mostly around the lodge touring the grounds and enjoying the forest. An accommodating Ornate Flycatcher earned high marks as did Red-faced Spinetail. We even found one nesting in a light fixture on the outside of the lodge. Some went to relax before dinner, but a few of us couldn’t stop birding and went up the street to another hummingbird feeding station. There, the hummers were in swarms. It was fun, but the frenzy gave a frantic atmosphere to it all. The Velvet-purple Coronets were beautiful, but not very nice.

A visit to the lowlands is a special day. Get ready for heat and humidity and bugs, but also birds. We hit it on a good day. It was hot and sticky, but the sun never came out. We got a little rain, but just enough, and the little tower at the Silanche Reserve was bumping. Actually, it wasn’t at first. A few things trickled by, then it all broke loose for a solid hour and a half. We saw Blue-tailed and White-tailed Trogons, Blue, Black-faced, Scarlet-breasted, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, more tanagers than would fit in this paragraph, and even more furnariids, antbirds, barbets, and flycatchers. All the while a pair of Scarlet-rumped Caciques tried to build a nest over our heads. After lunch we drove out stopping for a Bat Falcon on a snag eating a bat. Well named. From Silanche we tried a new spot nearby with hummingbird and fruit feeders. The show was amazing with perhaps hundreds of squabbling hummingbirds including lowland specialties like Long-billed Starthroat, Black-throated Mango, and Bronzy Hermit. Eating bananas were dozens of Ecuadorian Thrushes, tanagers, euphonias, a vagrant Baltimore Oriole, and even a Lineated Woodpecker! While that was going on there was a Great Antshrike chilling in the bird bath. It was quite an experience.

After the previous couple of days of doing lower elevation birding, the next day we returned to the higher elevations, still within lush cloud forest, but cooler and with different birds. The tanagers were some of the most fun to see, and say, like Beryl-spangled, Grass-green, Flame-faced, and Metallic-green. Also about were Green-and-black Fruiteaters that supplied uncharacteristic eye-level views and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, big and crazy-looking, and worth extra points since they’re on the cover of the bird book. We finished off the morning at Pacha Quindi enjoying the good vibrations of picnic lunches with hummingbirds off the porch. In the afternoon we got chased around by rain a little bit, but in one quick stop had a riotous Laughing Falcon. We then retreated to some hummingbird feeders and were bombed by hungry hummers as they tanked up at the end of the day.

As evidence of the robust birding infrastructure of the area, the Mashpi area, once very remote, has had an excellent reserve for a few years and it keeps getting better. It’s a similar elevation to Mindo, but on a different Andean spur ridge, and therefore slightly different weather and birds. Species that are uncommon to rare around Mindo are quite common at Mashpi. At a moth sheet, jungle denizens snuck out to grab a morning bite. Bay Wren, Uniform Treehunter, Zeledon’s Antbird, and a Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant made the scene. And, a few Dark-backed Wood-Quail snuck out to peck at some corn. At the bananas we saw multiple subtle Moss-backed Tanagers, outrageous Glistening-green Tanagers, and gaudy Orange-breasted Fruiteaters. Hummingbirds buzzed about and several of the group held feeders or flowers in their hands and were perched upon by Velvet-purple Coronets and Empress Brilliants. We had lunch overlooking the valley and enjoying the honking of Toucan Barbets before heading back to Mindo with an ice cream stop en route.

No trip to the Mindo area can be complete without a visit to Reserva Paz de las Aves. Farmer-turned-birding celebrity Angel Paz guided us around his property beginning with the screaming insanity of an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek. The big, strange birds jumped around, flapped their wings, and yelled at each other for about an hour after dawn. Angel then took us to see his antpittas, birds he has painstakingly conditioned to emerge from the forest to get fed and be enjoyed by every visiting birder. We saw Yellow-breasted, Ochre-breasted, and Chestnut-crowned Antpittas, as well as a Rufous-breasted Antthrush. We ate the classic Andean breakfast (our second breakfast) of bolon, empanada, and coffee prepared in the family restaurant and spent the whole morning birding there. On our way out we stopped for two roosting night birds, a Rufous-bellied Nighthawk asleep on a branch and a spectacular male Lyre-tailed Nightjar on a vine, its crazy tail hanging below. Before the big rains hit later in the afternoon, we had a chance to bird a little around Mindo town, saw another Laughing Falcon, a couple of Masked Water-Tyrants in the road, and some Slaty Spinetails, Smooth-billed Ani, and Bronze-winged Parrots. We made it back just in time to get wet going from the van to the hotel.

Though our last day out was shared with the necessity of transit back to Puembo, we had one of our most exciting days with some of the trip’s highlights. We started in the reserve up on the ridge at the Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge. Unlike down in Mindo, up here it apparently hadn’t rained all night, and, in the parking lot, a light had attracted a good crop of insects and the birds came in to help themselves at this breakfast buffet. There were a pair of Masked Trogons, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Striped Treehunter, and a White-faced Nunbird, plus a peppering of little things like Russet-crowned Warblers, Chivi Vireos, and White-tailed Tyrannulet. The nunbird was particularly entertaining as it caught a rhinoceros beetle the size of its head and proceeded to peel it, tenderize it, and hork it down. After that we made a few stops at hummingbird feeding stations on our way out to get a last look at the flashiest residents of the cloud forest. Then, we crossed the ridge and were in the arid Inter-Andean valley. A quick stop there got us a few more things like a spritely duo of Tufted Tit-Tyrants. And, our final stop was as un-atmospheric as the previous six days had been rife with beauty: a detention basin for airport runway run-off. We saw our only waterfowl of the trip plus vagrant species Cocoi and Great Blue Herons and a Southern Lapwing, just before a huge thunderstorm rolled in and officially ended the birding day. We cruised into our hotel in Puembo in time and it was a great end to a wonderful week of birding.


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