Our new Western Ecuador birding tour completes our tour coverage of this incredibly diverse country. Long ignored and historically tricky to reach, the lowland Chocó forests of Northwest Ecuador and the coastal littoral now make for a very appealing tour. The Chocó is an eco-region and biodiversity hotspot that holds the largest number of restricted-range birds of any Endemic Bird Area in the Americas, with 62 species being endemic to the area. Habitats are typically characterised by tropical humid lowland forests and wet cloud-forests. Unfortunately, the Chocó region is also one of the most threatened areas in South America. Deforestation rates are accelerating and habitat destruction has been most severe in the lowlands, especially the coastal plains and foothills. Departing Quito we are introduced to the Andean region of the Chocó with a bevy of normally difficult species including Moss-backed Tanager, the Indigo Flowerpiercer, Beautiful Jay, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Chocó Vireo, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Black Solitaire, Star-chested Treerunner, and Purplish-mantled and Glistening-green Tanagers. We also make a chance to see a few enigmatic antpitta species like Giant Antpitta, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta and Moustached Antpitta. As we move into the Chocó lowlands, we target Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Brown Wood-Rail, Banded Ground Cuckoo (if it is showing), Ocellated and Stub-tailed Antbirds, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and Scarlet-and-white, Blue-whiskered and Lemon-spectacled Tanagers. Five-colored Barbet, Black-tipped Cotinga, Lita and Chocó Woodpeckers, Yellow-green Bush and Golden-chested Tanagers provide the supporting cast to the drab but monotypic Sapayoa and the exceedingly tricky Rufous-crowned Antpitta.
Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Baudo Guan, Brown Wood Rail, Ecuadorian Rail, Dark-backed Wood-quail, Berlepsch’s Tinamou, Chilean Flamingo, Pinnated Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Waved Albatross, Blue-footed & Nazca Booby, Red-billed Tropicbird, Red-lored Amazon, Rose-faced Parrot, Chocó Trogon, Five-colored, Orange-fronted & Toucan Barbet, Black-breasted & Barred Puffbird, Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, Black-tipped & Blue Cotinga, Red-capped Manakin, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Guayaquil, Lita & Chocó Woodpecker, Ochraceous Attila, Jet, Spotted, Esmeralda’s, Ocellated & Stub-tailed Antbird, Giant Antpitta, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Moustached Antpitta, Streak-chested Antpitta, Sapayoa, Chocó Poorwill, Chocó Screech-owl, Cloud-forest Pygmy-owl, Beautiful Jay, Chocó Vireo, Short-tailed Woodstar, Humboldt Sapphire, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Velvet-purple Coronet, Brown Inca, Violet-tailed Sylph, Hoary Puffleg, Empress Brilliant, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Star-chested Treerunner, Elegant Crescentchest, Black Solitaire, Dagua Thrush, Stripe-throated Wren, Chocó & Nariño Tapaculo, Subtropical Doradito, Pacific Flatbill, Rufous Mourner, Rufous Piha, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, Moss-backed & Golden-chested Tanager, Yellow-green Bush Tanager, Purplish-mantled, White-winged, Scarlet-and-white, Blue-whiskered, Lemon-spectacled, Glistening-green & Gray-and-gold Tanager, Indigo Flowerpiercer, and chances for Banded Ground Cuckoo & Rufous-crowned Gnatpitta (both very rare)
Brown-headed Spider-monkey, Mantled Howler
Chocó tropical lowland forest, Chocó cloud-forest, Tumbesian dry forest, highland lakes
warm to hot and humid
moderate pace with some longer hikes
Day 1: Arrival in Quito
Guests arriving for our Ecuador birding tour from their various points of origin will be greeted at the airport, and transported to our hotel accommodations in Quito. Time permitting, a visit to Old Town in the afternoon, and a fine welcome dinner will be taken overlooking the historic downtown of Quito!
Day 2: Mashpi Road
This fairly new site holds some of the best Chocó endemic cloud-forest species. A mere 2 hour drive from Quito, we will walk this rarely travelled road, providing superb birding and access. We will be targeting Chocó endemics at several sites along the road, the variable elevations (3 000 – 5 000ft / 000 1 600m) corresponding with different species. At the banana feeders we have chances of seeing a host of tanagers including the sought after Moss-backed, Glistening-green, Black-chinned Mountain, Rufous-throated, Flame-faced, Golden-naped and Golden. The hummingbird feeders attract spectacular hummingbirds including Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Purple-bibbed Whitetip and Empress Brilliant (all Chocó endemics). In the mixed-species flocks we will be looking for rare Chocó denizens such as Indigo Flowerpiercer, Chocó Vireo, Pacific Tuftedcheek, Uniform Treehunter and Orange-breasted Fruiteater. If we get really lucky during our Ecuador birding tour, we might run into both Black and Rufous-brown Solitaires! Moving further along the road to lower and warmer elevations, we’ll be searching for such crackers as Grey-and-gold Tanager, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Orange-fronted Barbet and Barred Puffbird.
Day 3: Paz de las Aves & Milpe
Perhaps the most amazing bird show on earth, this morning on our Ecuador birding tour, we will visit the famous Refugio Paz de Las Aves at 5 900ft (1 800 m) in a private cloud-forest reserve. This affords us an outstanding way to support a local conservation project for long-term habitat protection. Walking along the forest trails, we will specifically be targeting the difficult forest undergrowth skulkers that a couple of entrepreneurial Ecuadorians have managed to coerce into cooperation through the use of daily feeding rituals! One of the stars of the show is undoubtedly the goliath Giant Antpitta, which often approaches to within only a few feet! Other targets include Dark-backed Wood Quail, Moustached Antpitta, and unusually bright Yellow-breasted Antpitta as well as more widespread species such as Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Nariño Tapaculo and the vocal Grey-breasted Wood Wren. Another highlight is visiting a lek with a regularly attending population of Andean Cock-of-the-rock, one of the gaudiest of all South American birds. Along the way we might also find a fruiting tree with possible attendants including Crimson-rumped Toucanet, the elusive Olivaceous Piha and the stunning Toucan Barbet. We will then spend this afternoon of our Ecuador birding tour visiting the wonderful pair of preserves known as Milpe and Milpe Gardens. These two sites can host the most astonishing mixed species-flocks of the region and we hope to come across such spectacular species as Chocó Warbler, Chocó Tyrannulet, Spotted and Strong-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-fronted and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaners, Cinnamon and One-colored Becards, the stunning Ornate Flycatcher, and a wide host of other canopy beauties! Silver-throated, Bay-headed, Rufous-throated and Ochre-breasted Tanagers, Yellow-tufted Dacnis and the gorgeous White-necked Jacobin and Green Thorntail are all found here with regularity, as is the range-restricted Yellow-collared Chlorophonia. While all of these species make the visit more than worthwhile, both Golden-winged and the incomparable Club-winged Manakins have leks on the property, and we will visit them both. We also have an opportunity to find other Chocó specials that could include Chocó Trogon, Chocó Toucan, Esmeralda’s and Zeledon’s Antbirds on our Ecuador birding tour.
Day 4: Long-wattled Umbreallabird lek to Canandé
Today we have an early start to reach a Long-wattled Umbrellabird lek near San Miguel de Los Bancos. A local community protects a small patch of forest where we have a good chance of seeing this spectacular, but rare Chocó endemic. In the early morning several individuals disperse from the forest patch and if we get lucky birds sometimes perch nearby our viewpoint. After (hopefully) seeing this major target species, we start a long (and rather depressing) drive through mainly African Oil Palm plantations to Rio Canandé. We hope to arrive at the Chocó lodge in time for lunch and some afternoon birding around the lodge gardens where fairly common species nclude Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Bright-rumped Atilla, Red-headed Barbet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Snowy-throated Kingbird, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut-mandibled and Chocó Toucans amongst others.
Days 5 & 6: Canandé
Rio Canandé is an important Jocotoco reserve and protects one of the final tracts of Chocó lowland forest in Ecuador and is our first key Chocó lowland site on the itinerary. The primary forest is a refuge to many rare birds including Great Curassow, a species that was thought to be extirpated in Ecuador. The Critically Endangered Black-headed Spider Monkey still persist here in good numbers, and it is probably the best site in the world to see it. Rare species including Banded Ground Cuckoo, Rufous-crowned Antpitta, Baudo Guan, Indigo-crowned Quail-Dove, Tawny-faced Quail and Berlepsch’s Tinamou inhabit the forest interior, and we have good chances of running into all these high calibre species. While walking the extensive forest trails, we hope to chance upon an army ant swarm, which are typically attended by a host of antbirds including Ocellated, Bicolored and Spotted, a true spectacle! Other goodies that are regularly seen inside the forest during our Ecuador birding tour include Black-headed Antthrush, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Green and Red-capped Manakin, Rufous Piha, Rufous Mourner, Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Chocó Tapaculo, Pacific Flatbill and Dusky Pigeon. Even on our lodge doorstep, the forest edge provides excellent tanager flocks with Scarlet-breasted, Scarlet-thighed and Yellow-tufted , Golden-hooded, Bay-headed, Rufous-winged and Blue-necked Tanagers. The flowers at the lodge attract several species of hummingbirds including Purple-chested Hummingbird, White-whiskered Hermit and Purple-crowned Fairy. Overhead, Rose-faced Parrots are frequent fly-overs and the ‘pearl of the Chocó’, the all-white male Black-tipped Cotinga is often spotted from the small lodge tower.
Day 7: Canandé to Las Penas
After breakfast we start our journey to the coast of Esmeraldas. We will make a few short stops en route, looking for such rare targets as Slate-colored Seedeater and Large-billed Seed Finch, while also stopping at a colony of Magnificent Frigatebirds. In the afternoon we will bird the coastal road between Las Peñas and La Tola. Here the freshwater wetlands are full of birdlife and hold a wide array of interesting residents such as Pinnated Bittern, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Wood Stork, Tricolored Heron, Cocoi and Little Blue Herons, Wattled Jacana, Mangrove Rail, White-throated Crake, Black-necked Stilt, Black-bellied and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, White-cheeked Pintail and Gull-billed Tern to mention but a few. The surrounding fields and scrub hold a handful of interesting species; Ecuadorian Ground Dove, Pacific Parrotlet, Chestnut-throated Seedeater, Olivaceous Piculet, Striped Cuckoo, Red-breasted Blackbird, Masked Water Tyrant and Vermillion Flycatcher. If time permits we can also scan the shrimp ponds at La Tola that often have large numbers of migrant shorebirds. Dinner at the beach will bring the day to a close.
Day 8: Las Penas to Playa de Oro
This morning on our Ecuador birding tour, we visit the nearby mangroves (the tallest mangroves in the world!) and coastal forests near to the village of Majagual. This site holds a number of interesting species such as Mangrove Warbler, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Red-lored Amazon, Panama Flycatcher, Jet Antbird, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Ochraceous Atilla and the rare Humboldt’s Sapphire. After a successful start to the day, we then travel to our second key Chocó lowland site; Playa de Oro. Playa de Oro is an Afro-Ecuadorian community located along the Santiago River in the province of Esmeraldas. It is the last village found upriver, can only be reached by canoe. The community land covers roughly 10 000ha and borders with the Cotacachi-Cayapas National Park. Most of the land is covered with pristine Chocó lowland pluvial forest ranging from 170 – 1 700ft (50 – 500m). After lunch, we enter pristine forest which begins right behind our lodge. If we happen to run into any understory flocks, we will have our first chance at seeing the highly sought after Sapayoa – a species of indeterminate genetics, currently placed in the African and Asian Broadbill family.
Days 9 & 10: Playa de Oro
Playa de Oro is the only community along the river that has not yet extensively logged its forest. Luckily, members of the community are well aware that preserving their forest is important for many reasons. Eco-tourism is the way to go and our visit will directly support the conservation of this critically threatened habitat. The birding is simply superb, though as with any primary forest birding, it can also be tough, and Playa de Oro is no exception. Of the many species to be found here, our key targets that are often quite easily here and nowhere else include Five-colored Barbet, Lita Woodpecker, Stub-tailed Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, Streak-chested Antpitta, Dagua Thrush, Stripe-throated Wren, White-breasted Wood Wren and Lemon-spectacled Tanager. Other Chocó endemics such as Dusky Pigeon, Rose-faced Parrot and Chocó Trogon are common here. Baudo Guan, Great Green Macaw and Rufous-crowned Antpitta are rare targets, but Playa de Oro is probably the best site for them. Understory mixed-species flocks are frequently encountered in the forest, and common flock members include the much sought-after Sapayoa, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwren, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-crested Tanager and Lemon-spectacled Tanager. The lodge garden is a good place to look for secondary forest species and migrants that prefer forest edge and riparian habitats. Many of these species are fairly common and widespread, and the second floor balcony is a perfect dry spot for scoping and scanning the canopy. The forest edge often has canopy flocks with Yellow-margined Flatbill, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Scarlet-breasted and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Golden-hooded, Bay-headed, Blue-necked, Grey-and-gold and Blue-whiskered Tanagers, Griscom’s Antwren and Slate-throated Gnatcatcher. The dense secondary growth and vine tangles are home to Dusky Antbird, Pacific Antwren, Bay Wren and White-bearded Manakin, while Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Long-tailed Tyrant both nest in the garden.
Day 11: Playa de Oro to Tundaloma
After breakfast today on our Ecuador birding tour, we take the canoe journey back to Selva Alegre and leave Playa de Oro behind us. We will make an exciting birding stop at Humedal Yalare which lies along the Esmeraldas – San Lorenzo highway. The Ceropia dominated forest here is home to Black-breasted, Pied and White-necked Puffbirds, Five-colored Barbet, Chocó Toucan, Stripe-billed Aracari and Slaty-tailed Trogon. We expect to arrive at our lodging in Tundaloma in time for lunch. In the afternoon we will bird around the lodge or make some short drives to nearby sites depending on the required target species that we still need for the lowlands.
Day 12: Awa Reserve
An early morning start will see us continue our journey back into the Andes targeting the lower foothill specialties of the Chocó. The area is rather muddy, but an important site because it holds some very rare Chocó endemics. Possibly the only reliable site in the world for Chocó Woodpecker and Yellow-green Bush Tanager whilst Golden-chested and Scarlet-and-white Tanager are other major targets that are fairly common here on our Ecuador birding tour. Aside of the above target species, we will also look for Tooth-billed Hummingbird, Rose-faced Parrot, Lita Woodpecker, Chocó Tapaculo, Northern Tufted Flycatcher, Stub-tailed Antbird, Black-winged Saltator, Tawny-crested, Ochre-breasted, Emerald and Scarlet-browed Tanagers. In the afternoon we depart for our comfortable lodgings at a Hacienda.
Day 13: Chical Road
The Chical Road goes through the finest Chocó cloud-forest in Ecuador and is the only area in the country where such cracking species as Star-chested Treerunner and Purplish-mantled Tanager can be seen. Other Chocó endemics that are frequently observed along this road include ed Mountain Toucan, Toucan Barbet, Beautiful Jay, Hoary Puffleg, Black Solitare, Uniform Treehunter, Glistening-green, Black-chinned Mountain and Dusky Bush Tanagers, as well as Western Hemispingus. Barred Hawk and Black-and-chestnut Eagle nest in the area, and along with Maroon-tailed and Barred Parakeets and Scaly-naped Parrot are frequently seen overhead. Rufous Spinetail, Streak-headed Antbird, Plushcap and Striped Treehunter prefer the dense bamboo while the recently split and rather rare Ecuadorian Seedeater is also fairly regular here. Mixed-species flocks are often productive with Barred Becard, Streak-necked and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Golden-faced Tyrannulet (another potential species aside from the elevated Chocó), White-tailed Tyrannulet, Handsome Flycatcher, Beryl-spangled, Rufous-crested, Saffron-crowned (normally found on the east-slope!), Flame-faced, Golden-naped and Golden Tanagers, Streak-capped Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner and Montane Woodcreeper. The gardens are surrounded by secondary habitat and are often very birdy with the likes of White-winged, Fawn-breasted, Swallow and Scrub Tanagers, White-winged Becard, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Western Emerald and many others.
Day 14: Chical Road & San Pablo Lake to Quito and fly to Guayaquil
We have a few early morning hours to search for any remaining targets along the Chical Road before embarking on a long drive to Quito. We will make several birding stops along the way in the inter-Andean valley. Lago San Pedro, a large natural highland lake surrounded with marshes and reed beds hosts Ecuadorian Rail and Subtropical Doradito, while Andean Duck, Andean Coot and Yellow-billed Pintail are common on the lake. The secondary habitat surrounding the lake holds Southern Yellow Grosbeak, Band-tailed and Black-and-white Seedeaters, Sedge Wren, Vermillion Flycatcher and Eared Dove. In the early afternoon we expect to arrive in Quito for our short internal flight to Guayaquil, and the next leg of our Ecuador birding tour.
Day 15: Cerro Blanco, Puerto Honda & Mar Bravo
Early this morning visit the Cerro Blanco reserve, located just outside Guayaquil. The dry forest habitat is dominated by beautiful Ceiba trees and holds some interesting specialties that include Red-masked Parakeet, Grey-cheeked Parakeet, Rufous-headed Chachalaca, Whooping Motmot, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Ecuadorian and Gartered Trogons, Pacific Pygmy Owl and White-tailed Jay. Mixed flocks hold Plain Antvireo, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Yellow-olive Flatbill, Pacific Elaenia, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, gold Warbler, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Streaked Saltator and Collared Antshrike. We also have a good chance of seeing Red-lored Amazon (this specific sub-species is sometimes considered a full species by some authorities: Lilacine Amazon). A stop at Puerto Hondo will see us scanning the mangroves for Rufous-necked Wood Rail, American White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, Great-tailed Grackle and Mangrove Warbler before continuing on our way to Salinas. The arid plains of the Santa Elena peninsula hold some new species including Parrot-billed Seedeater, Sulphur-throated Finch, Pearl Kite, Burrowing Owl and Peruvian Thicknee. Our afternoon will be spent at Mar Bravo at the saltpans of Ecuasal. This is a great place with large numbers of shorebirds (with up to 40 species possible) including Grey, Grey-hooded and Kelp Gulls, South American Tern, Chilean Flamingo, Collared and Wilson’s Plovers, Surfbird, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, White-cheeked Pintail, Peruvian Pelican and many more.
Day 16: Pacoa saltpans via Ayampe to Puerto Lopez
In the early morning we visit the very tip of the Santa Elena Peninsula, a scenic area known as La Chocolatera. Here we have a scan over the Pacific Ocean for Humpback Whales and South American Sea Lions, whilst also expecting to get scope views of both Blue-footed and Peruvian Boobies. The surrounding scrubby plains hold West Peruvian Dove, Necklaced Spnetail and Short-tailed Field Tyrant and we may also see the lowland (red-backed race) of Variable Hawk. We will then take the ‘ruta del sol’ (the sun route) to Ayampe. En route we will make birding stops at the bird-filled Pacoa saltpans where we may find Great Grebe. In the afternoon we will visit the humid coastal forest at Rio Ayampe. It is the key site for the endemic Esmeralda’s Woodstar, but finding this much sought-after target is far from guaranteed. This tiny hummingbird is seasonal to some extent and its movements are not well understood. The forest hosts an interesting mix of humid and dry forest species including Slaty Antwren, Slaty Becard, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Scarlet-backed Woodpecker, Grey-backed Hawk, Lesser Greenlet, Saffron Siskin, Grey-breasted Flycatcher, Speckle-breasted and Whiskered Wrens, Black-crowned and Great Antshrikes, White-backed Fire-eye, Black-striped Sparrow, Plumbeous-backed Thrush, Black-tailed Flycatcher, Tawny-crowned Pygmy Tyrant and the rare Pacific Royal Flycatcher. If time permits we might have a look on the scenic beach of Ayampe and search for Short-tailed Field Tyrant if necessary as well as roosting Lesser Nighthawks. We spend the night at the coastal town of Puerto Lopez.
Day 17: Isla de la Plata
Today on our Ecuador birding tour, we visit the offshore island of Isla de la Plata, often referred to as ‘the poor man’s Galápagos’. The island does show many similarities to the arid islands of the Galápagos archipelago, even in terms of the birdlife. Blue-footed, Red-footed and Nazca Boobies nest on the island and have no fear of humans thus providing for fabulous photographic opportunities. In fact, Blue-footed Boobies are known to nest right on the trail, so we have to watch out not to step on them! Our rarest target, and perhaps one of the highlight birds on the entire Ecuador birding tour is the Critically Endangered Waved Albatross that nests on the island in small numbers. Magnificent Frigatebirds are abundant and a few Red-billed Tropicbird are always around. The scrub on the island also hosts the sought after Short-tailed Woodstar. We shall also look for the platensis subspecies of Long-tailed Mockingbird, an island endemic while other scrub specialties that we could expect to see include Black-and-white Tyrannulet, Collared Warbling Finch, Tawny-crowned Pygmy Tyrant and Baird’s Flycatcher. From the island, Green Sea Turtles are often seen close to shore, while large schools of colourful fish are numerous (snorkelling is available as an optional extra). We depart from the island in the afternoon and with some luck we may have close views of Humpback Whale and on occasion both Wedge-rumped and Hornby’s Storm Petrels have been seen.
Day 18: Ayampe to Bahia de Caraquez
We head out early to bird the coastal forest at Rio Ayampe again for any species we may have missed. Colombian Crake is a super rare, enigmatic and poorly know species that has never been photographed nor sound-recorded in the wild. However, Ayampe has produced very convincing claims of this species – let’s hope we may be the first people to photograph or record this bird! We will make further stops along the ‘ruta del sol’ at Machallila NP which could produce some surprises such as Ecuadorian Piculet, Tumbes Swift, Pale-browed Tinamou, White-edged Oriole or Elegant Crescentchest. In the afternoon we will have a long drive to Bahia de Caraquez, but if time permits we will have a look at the bridge over the estuary where Chestnut-collared Swallow often nest.
Day 19: Le Segua Marshes to Quito
We start our last days birding at Humedal la Segua, a huge lake system and river estuary west of Chone that has been declared a Ramsar site of international importance. The wetlands are full of wildlife, and the birding simply fantastic. We will scan for species from the observation tower and also take a canoe ride on the lake – allowing us a much closer approach to numerous species, but also directly supporting the local community and their conservation projects. Common water birds we can expect to see include Snail Kite, Cocoi and Striated Herons, Gull-billed Tern, Purple Gallinule, Wattled Jacana, White-cheeked Pintail, Neotropic Cormorant, Fulvous and Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Glossy Ibis and Limpkin. This is the best site in Ecuador for the secretive Pinnated and Least Bitterns as well as the widespread, but never easy to find Masked Duck. The spectacular Spotted Rail, White-throated Crake, Sora and Grey-breasted Crake are found in the reed beds next to the tower. The trees and scrub hold Savanna Hawk, Pacific Parrotlet, Pale-vented Pigeon, Superciliated and Fasciated Wrens, Crimson-breasted Finch, Variable and Chestnut-throated Seedeater as well as Snowy-throated Kingbird. After another action packed morning on our Ecuador birding tour, we will spend the remainder of the day driving back to Quito.
Day 20: Final departures
After breakfast, we transfer to Quito airport where we will catch our international flights back home.