Birding Northwestern Ecuador Part 1: Yanacocha, Calacali, Bellavista, Paz de las Aves, and Mindo

24 October – 2 November 2015.

After a slow start in Ecuador and a couple of vehicle problems, we were elated to finally have everything sorted and mostly in working order. We spent a couple of quick days in Quito meeting some local birders and seeing a little bit of the town. We met two of the best birders in Ecuador, Rudy Gelis and Roger Ahlman. Thank you for the local birding tips. With plenty of information stored away from Rudy and Roger we were finally back on the road!

Our first stop was Jocotoco Foundation’s Reserva Yanacocha.  Yanacocha is a pretty good sized reserve that protects upper elevation cloud forest, polylepis forest, and dwarfed forest up to tree line, on the northwest slopes of Volcan Pichincha, just above Quito. Despite the proximity to Quito, this is a great site and is far more than just a remnant forest patch; it is contiguous with other reserves and large amounts of forest that connect down to the Tandayapa and Mindo areas. Yanacocha notably protects the Critically Endangered and very little known Black-breasted Puffleg. This species is known from only two other locations, the adjacent Veredecocha reserve and an area above the Intag valley in PN Cotacachi-Cayapas. An informal estimate puts the population of this incredibly rare species at a mere 20 individuals in Yanacocha. It is generally only seen in the first half of the year, especially from April – June, when it is perhaps breeding. The rest of the year, the whereabouts are still a mystery. There are a very small smattering of observations from the Tandayapa area, but it is thought to make a large seasonal movements, but to where we do not know. We spent 4 days surveying some of the lower parts of the reserve via a new trail in an effort to document the occurrence or lack of occurrence of this species in the reserve in the months of Oct/Nov. Unfortunately, we were unable to locate the Black-breasted Puffleg during our first monitoring period. On the flip side, spending several days in Yanacocha did give us ample opportunity to connect with a couple of other awesome specialties and we saw a ridiculous number of Rufous and Undulated Antpittas on the new trail. If there is one thing that Grallaria antpittas like, it is a freshly cut or recently groomed trail. The disturbance and cut vegetation and piles of branches and leaves make for a buffet apparently, as we saw 2-3 Undulated Antpittas and up to 4 Rufous Antpittas in the trail daily.

Chestnut-naped Antpitta can be heard all day long from far below in the canyon, but they don’t appear to come up to the elevation of the trail system. We made a trip up to the Polylepis forest one evening to try for a couple of other species. We had no luck with Curve-billed Tinamou in the upper grassland areas just before the Polylepis forest, which is purportedly a good area for it, but we heard a couple of Imperial Snipe. Unfortunately it was too foggy to get a view of them displaying. Back on the main trail system, we got an early enough start each morning to look for nocturnal species and had good luck. With clearer morning weather, we saw Imperial Snipe displaying from the main trail, about 800 m from the reserve buildings, up on the hill more or less where the Polylepis forest is. We also found Swallow-tailed Nightjar on the rocky roadcuts and cliff areas in about the same spot. Band-winged Nightjar is common and easily spotlighted along the main trail as well. We also saw Short-eared Owl several times at dusk and dawn, and saw Carunculated Caracara a couple of times. Overall bird diversity here is not enormous at 3500-3700 m elevation, but we logged about 50 species per day. This is a great site for Undulated Antpitta, as mentioned, as well as Ocellated Tapaculo, Crowned Chat-Tyrant, Andean Pygmy-Owl, Golden-crowned Tanager, Grass-green Tanager and Barred Fruiteater; all of which are quite common here. We found a pair of Bar-bellied Woodpeckers in a mixed flock and a pair of Plushcaps on one occasion. There are hummingbird feeders spread along the main trail and there is a new set of feeders along the Masked Trogon trail. We also setup a handful of trial feeders on the newest, lowest trail (this new trail forks right just 100-200 m down the Masked Trogon trail). Between the various feeders we logged Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, Sword-billed Hummingbird, Great Sapphirewing, and massive numbers of Tyrian Metaltails and Buff-winged Starfrontlets. We saw a single Mountain Velvetbreast and a Gorgeted Sunangel in the forest but didn’t find any coming to feeders.

Moving on after Yanacocha, we made a morning stop at the Calacali shrine trail (0.0043,-78.4882). This trail is not far from Quito and is a known stakeout for White-tailed Shrike-Tyrant, Spot-billed Ground-Tyrant, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, and Purple-collared Woodstar. Giant Hummingbird is also seen here from time to time, presumably tied to flowering agave.

The trail descends from a roadside shrine, gently contouring down a scrubby xerophytic hillside, and ending in a network of small trails near an abandoned horse racing track. While diversity is low in such a dry environment, it was certainly birdy. However, we missed all of our target birds, not a sniff of a one! We did turn up absurd numbers of Black-tailed Trainbearers, Tufted Tit-Tyrants, and Golden-rumped Euphonias, as well as handfuls of Hooded Siskins, Cinereous Conebills, and Blue-and-yellow Tanagers, and singles of White-bellied Woodstar and Rusty Flowerpiercer.

After our complete whiff at Calacali, we decided to return on a later date rather than try again immediately, so we headed to the Tandayapa/Mindo area, where our first destination was Bellavista Cloudforest and Lodge. The Lodge graciously let us park/camp and use the facilities for a nominal price, which we greatly appreciated. However you can also just bird the roads here without staying at the lodge as the roads are public and the birding is fantastic. Our main target was White-faced Nunbird and Bellavista and the roads surrounding it may be the single best site for this species, but we didn’t find it in our two days. It appears to show up about once a week or perhaps a touch more frequently, however never with any regularity. Birding the roads, however, we had a huge diversity of species. We had non-stop mixed flocks and easily turned up 75+ species each morning without trying to run up the list. Toucan Barbet and Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan are everywhere, and Crested Quetzal is quite common, particularly in the area where the Nono-Mindo Road and the road to the Bellavista Research Station and Armenia intersect. By some odd and poor luck, we never managed to even hear Crested Quetzal in Colombia, despite logging Golden-headed dozens of times. Here, however, we only heard Golden-headed once each day (probably the same individual), but had up to 4 Crested Quetzals per day.

We also had amazing luck and stumbled upon a very close and cooperative Semi-collared Hawk. This guy is never very common and you can’t ask for a better look! Other good birds that seemed to be reasonably common here were Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush (a territory near the parking area just 20 m uphill from the lodge), Flavescent Flycatcher, Black-and-white Becard, White-throated Quail-Dove, Uniform and Striped Treehunters, and Western (Black-eared) Hemispingus. The very local and quite uncommon Rufous-chested Tanager is regular in mixed flocks, which was interesting to see as the last time we saw this species was in a very dry area on the lower slopes of Puracé in Colombia. We also had a couple of early morning Barred Parakeet flyovers. Nocturnal birding was pretty good – we spotlighted a Black-and-white Owl (known from this site despite the elevation), and heard Colombian (Rufescent) Screech-Owl, Swallow-tailed Nightjar and Oilbird. There are banana feeders at the lodge that in the evening attract Kinkajou and a recently described species of Olingo. Along the road we also found a giant earthworm, that defies description. Sure it was just an earthworm but it was HUGE! 

Map of the Mindo area and birding sites in Northwestern Ecuador

Map of the Mindo area and birding sites in Northwestern Ecuador

In this area, we also visited the well-known and well-documented Paz de las Aves. Angel said no problem to crashing in the van in his parking lot, so we showed up the afternoon before, chatted a bit and slept in the parking area. Visiting here independently is no problem. There is a sign along the road (between Armenia and Mindo, directions here) and the road is in good shape (a 2WD vehicle can make it no problem). They charge $30/person, which at first might seem a bit steep, but this is Ecuador, not Colombia, and your entrance fee does include breakfast (albeit pretty fried). If you go, be sure to call ahead to make reservations and try to schedule your visit when there are fewer guests. At the moment Angel and Rodrigo are feeding Giant, Moustached, Yellow-breasted, and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, and Dark-backed Wood-Quail. As well, there is the ever active Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, and the forest hummingbird feeders attract a Wedge-billed Hummingbird among more common species. There are a handful of records of White-faced Nunbird, though it is still rare here. Scaled Fruiteater is actually pretty common and they usually know where to find one; we ended up seeing three. A visit to Paz de las Aves is, admittedly, a bit like a visit to a zoo, but don’t get me wrong, it is still very cool, despite not being like birding in the traditional sense! The Giant Antpittas are certainly the stars of the show. They currently are feeding two different pairs, but either way you have to track them down in the forest (which took an hour or two) as they do roam around and the brothers try not to always feed them in the same spot, to avoid attracting predators. It was certainly more of a rewarding experience than some Antpitta feeding stations and there are few other places to go looking for Giant Anpitta, at least reliably. Honestly, given that it took us 6 months to see Undulated Antpitta, which has a massive range and is considerably more common, we were not upset to see Giant Anpitta in this manner and were genuinely content with the experience. As well, even at Paz de las Aves, seeing Giant Antpitta is not a guarantee, several folks we talked to who had gone recently had missed them! The Dark-backed Wood-Quail, on the other hand, was unfortunately a bit of a letdown. Instead of searching the forest for them and seeing them in the woods, Rodrigo took us to a clearing, told us to sit down and watch the hummingbird feeders and went off in the forest looking for the covey. He found them pretty quickly and brought the covey back to the clearing, calling them along like puppies, and hand feeding them bananas, which was a less satisfying experience for sure.

While we, like many birders, certainly prefer finding birds in the forest for ourselves, we still enjoyed our visit and thought it was worthwhile to see this famous site and the origins of Antpitta feeding! There is no doubt that feeding stations help a lot of people see rare birds, but far more importantly, these visiting birders provide income that funds conservation. Paz de las Aves is successfully sustaining a handful of families and protecting their forest patches instead of cutting them down to raise cattle. All arguments about feeding vs. playback honestly don’t hold any water when you consider that the forest would be cleared for farming and grazing if they weren’t earning a living in this manner. We took some time to talk to Angel and Rodrigo about their business, conservation in the area, and Antpitta feeding, as Kathi is working on an article for Neotropical Birding on the subject of feeding vs. playback and their conservation impacts. The article should be coming soon.

Edit: It appears that we forgot to including information about birding in the Mindo area! Mindo is a famous birding destination and Mindo advertises itself as the birding capital of the world. The birding is most definitely out of this world. We did not visit all of the birding destinations in the Mindo area, but plenty of information already exists online (see Chapter 2 in Where to Find Birds in Ecuador). We birded the waterfall trail, which is a road rather than a trail and had an amazing day of birding. We quickly ticked off 102 species in about five hours of birding (eBird list). Highlights along the road include Club-winged Manakin, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Rufous-winged Tyrannulet, a migrant Canada WarblerRufous-throated Tanager, Guira Tanager, and many more. The Club-winged Manakins can be heard calling from the road, but to actually see the birds you need to look for a side trail on the left side of the road after the power lines cross the road. Drop down the trail a short ways and you should find the Club-winged Manakins. We didn’t make it all the way to the waterfall but I’m sure the birding is good the entire length of the road.

The only other location we visited in the Mindo Valley was the Mindo South Road. This is a great spot to look for the Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Look for the Nightjar along the rocky cliffs along the road. In one evening we heard and/or saw 8 Lyre-tailed Nightjars (eBird list).

If you visit the Mindo area we recommend staying at the new Camping y Cabañas La Bicok. We cannot recommend this place highly enough. The garden is wonderful and is very tranquil. The cabins are almost finished and look awesome. Everything here is just perfect, clean facilities, sparkling pool, fireplace, and great ambiance. Although their website is in French you can make reservations online via TripAdvisor or Kayak.com. The birding around the cabins is also pretty good. We racked up 37 species while enjoying our tea from the social area.

Another place to check out that we unfortunately did not have time to visit due to van problems is Recinto 23 Junio. This community recently started a conservation project and protects the forest where there is a very reliable Long-Wattled Umbrellabird lek. This is THE place to go to see the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. More information can be found on their website.

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2 Comments on Birding Northwestern Ecuador Part 1: Yanacocha, Calacali, Bellavista, Paz de las Aves, and Mindo

  1. Such awesome birding around there. I volunteered at Bellavista for a couple months in 2000. Yep, pretty nice! Too bad there wasn’t any antpitta feeding going on at that time.

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  2. Josh/Kathi, you’re making some very good points about the pros of antpitta (and other) feeding stations. And not only empirical “points”, but I respect your feelings that are leaning toward positive vs. negative about seeing the reclusive birds there. I might have to reconsider my aversion to them, IF (no, when!) I ever get to Colombia and Ecuador–which are at the top of my wish list. Really looking forward to Kathi’s article!

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