Ecuador is one of the smaller countries of South America, but has both a huge number of species which can be seen and also a great diversity of habitats. The Andes cut a line more or less from North to South, which results in a delineation of altitudanal environments across the East/West divide. Similar altitudes on the West of the Andes can have a totally different mix of birds on one slope as compared to the other. With this in mind, the trip was based in one area on the Western slope highlands, with the intention of exploring the mix of altitudes within this limited geographical area within the week.
The Tandayapa area is only about 2 hours from Quito, which is one of the two major airports for international flights. It thus offered a useful base for experiencing a small sample of Ecuador’s birds. Tandayapa Lodge is the best known of the accommodations within the area, if not the country itself, but we chose Bellavista Lodge, which is 6km further up the slope than the former, and we found that it offered all that Tandayapa had, with the option of visiting the latter for the birds when required. Most of the birding in the vicinity is within the dense surviving forests, and hence a lot of work needs to be done to hunt down the bird parties and speciality birds. On the other hand, most of the hotspots also have bird feeders, which makes for easy birding when required. Most of the feeding stations are designed for hummingbirds, and this results in a vast array of hummers seen at very close quarters. It can be quite eye opening to witness the difference in species mix that a few hundred metres in altitude can make.
Bellavista Lodge www.bellavistacloudforest.com
The location for this idyll in the cloud forest is superb, being located about another 6km up from Tandayapa. “Greater” Bellavista covers a large area, and much of this was reclaimed and replanted from farmed land, despite the surrounding forest looking natural on first inspection. The accommodation is more than comfortable, and blends unobtrusively into the environment. The package that we bought was for full board, and the meals are of a very good standard. Many of these couldn’t be made, since we were out in the field from the early hours, but packed meals were prepared in lieu. The original idea was to spend a few days wandering the tracks around the lodge, and then use one of the drivers to deliver us to the various birding areas which couldn’t be reached on foot, and to explore ourselves. However, we took up the offer of using one of the guides (Gabriel) from the lodge, who doubled up as both driver and expert guide. This worked particularly well, since many of the locations weren’t straightforward, and an extra pair of locally experienced eyes (which knew what they were looking at many times more than we did!) helped our enjoyment of the trip considerably.
Despite some reports to the contrary, Bellavista does have electricity points in the rooms, using US type pins, and there is a payphone on site (a phonecard needs to be purchased from the reception).
Richard Parsons, who owns Bellavista, also owns a B&B apartment in Quito. For the princely sum of $17 per person, this is well worth booking for one night on departure (the flight was early the next morning). On our last full day, we birded the Old Nano Mindo Road from Bellavista to Quito, stayed the night in the apartment (visiting an excellent and reasonably priced Argentinian restaurant around the corner), and paid a flat $20 for one of Bellavista’s drivers to take us to the airport.
Other locations visited
Tony Nunnery’s house
This is located about 1.8km down the track from Bellavista Lodge. Tony and his wife bought some bare pasture land 10 years ago, and proceeded to replant with indigenous vegetation. He also built the house himself. He extends a warm welcome to birders, including serving coffee and biscuits on the balcony, showing warm thanks if a donation is made towards the bird food. There is no electricity or telephone on the property (he doesn’t see the need), so booking ahead is not usually possible. The mainstay of the garden is the lawn with hummingbird feeders, but there are also 17km of trails throughout the whole of the property, which can offer a great variety of extra species.
Tandayapa Lodge is renowned for being one of the most famous locations in the world to view hummingbirds at close quarters. It is essentially a single storey accommodation, which was originally built on open meadow, with replanting around resulting in it having a present day forest location, with a mass of hummingbirds visiting the feeders on a restricted size balcony. There are also some trails through the forest, and a hide has been set up with night lighting to attract birds which would then feed on the nocturnal moths and other insects drawn in by the artificial lighting. We were fortunate on our single visit, since there can be a good number of people vying for position on the feeder balcony, but we missed a party of 18 as we left.
Alambi Alambi web site
Alambi Guest House is not nearly as well known as Bellavista and Tandayapa, but is well worth a visit. It is a small B&B situated just down the valley from Tandayapa village. The rooms looked comfortable from the brief view of them that we had, but the feeder garden is very rewarding. As well as a selection of hummingbirds at very close quarters, the owners also have a lively fruit feeder, which attracted more non-hummingbird activity than those of both the better known hostelries. There is also a nice stretch of river behind the lodge which can hold both Torrent Duck and White-capped Dipper.
Paz de las Aves
This is a very recent development, set up by former farmer Angel Paz. He discovered not only the presence of Giant Antpittas on his land, but also that they could be attracted by offering them worms and calling their (given) names. His subsequent business has been much more lucrative than his former profession, which is also good news both for the sustainability of his birds and land, and also for others who may be drawn to the same activities. Since that first encounter, he has now found reasonably reliable sites for other Antpittas (Yellow-breasted & Moustached being the most reliable – relatively), and also has built a hide within the forest to view an active Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. Booking ahead is advisable, and also a pair of walking boots and torch for the muddy walk down before first light.
This small town is on lower slopes East of Bellavista, and has a variety of habitats surrounding. It is not too distant from Paz de las Aves, and so can be added on to the day’s birding after hopefully having captured the ticks of Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and Giant Antpitta first thing in the morning.
More specifically, the Restaurante Mirador Rio Blanco in Los Bancos, where a good meal and variety of birds at close quarters can be lazily watched while they attend the provided food (most active is the fruit feeder, as compared with the hummingbird feeders). The property looks very inauspicious from the main street entrance, but the birds are of a high quality, and the views from the rear balcony across the river valley below breathtaking.
This is located just outside the town of Los Bancos, and is situated in the foothills, giving a lower elevation mix of birds than those around our chosen accommodation. Both Milpe and Rio Silanche are run by the Mindo Cloud Forest Association. Milpe has an excellent open feeding area around the car park, with some reasonably open forest (good for bird parties) on the trails to the denser forests on the slopes down to the river.
This is the second of the major forests being preserved by the Mindo Cloud Forest Association, and possibly of even more significance, since lowland rainforest is more endangered than the higher altitude plantations. Various tracks run through the forest, and are much more level than the steep sided ones we had become used to. In addition, there is a tower from which to view roving bird parties from, as well as birds overhead. A short walk away, on the main track, are African Palm Oil plantations, which signifies the threat that the land could be under.
Ranchos Suamox www.suamoxforest.com
Abutting on to Rio Silanche is this interested piece of land, which is maintained as a fruit farm, but is very large in acreage and also attracts some excellent birds. As with some of the other sites visited, reforestation has been undertaken here. It is pleasant to be taken around the property next to the main reception for an hour or so by the owner and see some nice birds in the process. Then, as an added treat, we were given juice and a salad of a selection of the fruits grown on the farm. Delicious!
The best field guide available is unfortunately also designed to be used as a brick when required. “The Birds of Ecuador” by Ridgely & Greenfield is in two parts, but even the field guide on its own is monumental in size. However, with the potential number of birds being present in mind, it is an essential.
We relied on Bellavista Lodge and our guide for an indication of sites to be visited. Nigel Wheatley’s “Where to Watch birds in South America” gives a flavour before you go, but doesn’t go into a great deal of detail regarding the area we covered.
The rainy season centres around February, but we still experienced the tail end of this – it is likely that the term rainy season here is purely relative and that the concept of a dry season is fictional. The rains were almost predictable, with fine weather in the mornings, and then cloud preceding rain in the afternoon. Only one day turned the tables on this, when heavy rain in the morning at Rio Silanche led to sun and high temperatures mid morning. Despite being more or less on the equator, the altitude kept the temperatures down to comfortable (sometimes cold at night), apart from when visiting the lowlands of Rio Silanche, when sun protection was needed.
The high likelihood of rain means that rainwear is a definite benefit, and an umbrella additionally helps with keeping optics dry. Whilst Wellington boots were available at the lodge for the many muddy tracks that were encountered, a good pair of waterproof walking boots are preferable, since they are sufficient to copy with the wet, and also have additional traction on the slippery mud.
The locality is on the fringes of a malarial zone, making prophylactics worthwhile. Despite the height, mosquitoes do occur, and are even more numerous in the lowlands.