Saturday 3 August 2019

A quick trip to Ecuador: Part 1 (Mindo Valley)

Part 1: Intoduction, Mindo Valley (March 24, 2019)
Part 2: Rio Silanche Bird Sanctuary (March 25, 2019)
Part 3: Mindo Waterfall Trail, Papallacta Pass (March 26, 2019)
Part 4: Guango Lodge (March 27, 2019)
Part 5: Papallacta Pass (March 27, 2019)
Part 6: Travel to Sani Lodge, first night hike (March 28, 2019)
Part 7: First full day at Sani Lodge (March 29, 2019)
Part 8: Second full day at Sani Lodge (March 30, 2019)
Part 9: Amazonian river islands (March 31, 2019)
Part 10: Last nighthike, final morning at Sani Lodge (March 31 - April 1, 2019)


This past winter Laura and I decided that we should do a trip somewhere to escape winter's icy grip for a few days. In January of 2018 we had flown south to Guyana for two weeks, getting our first taste of the Amazon(ish) rainforest, and we were itching to get back into that ecoregion. The Amazon proper would have been a "bucket list" item if I ever kept such a list and so naturally we narrowed the potential destinations to countries that had accessible Amazonian lodges. We eventually settled on Ecuador and in particular, Sani Lodge. It is located on the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon and the setting for most of the Amazonian ecolodges in Ecuador. Staying in the Amazon basin and having access to trails is difficult to do unless one shells out the cash to stay in a fancy ecolodge unfortunately. You can't just rent a car and arrange a room on Air BnB and hit the road, for instance. There are ways of doing the Amazon relatively cheaply but Laura and I wanted a basic level of comfort while also having a chance at seeing a wide range of Amazonian wildlife. We bit the bullet and booked with Sani Lodge for four nights, choosing their camping option to save over 50% of the cost (their website made the camping look luxurious, anyways).

With our time in the Amazon booked, we figured out what we would do for the rest of the trip since we had about four full days to explore in Ecuador prior to the Amazon. I had been to northern Ecuador after my Galapagos tour in November and was relatively familiar with the area - especially the locations for all the birds I "needed" there! I put together a quick itinerary, we booked a car rental and a room off Air BnB in Mindo and began counting down the days until our flight. 

March 24, 2019

It felt great to be back in Ecuador! The previous day was spent mostly in transit as we navigated the airports in Toronto and Mexico City, and finally, Quito. It was evening when we landed and so we arranged a ride to the hotel near the airport where we were staying. Hotel Alpachaca is only a five minute taxi ride from the hotel, is clean and quiet and comes with wifi and breakfast for around 40$ a night - I definitely recommend staying there. Since most of the staff do not speak English a basic level of Spanish is necessary, but fortunately the Spanish in Ecuador is relatively easy to understand (a nice change from my trip to Cuba in February). 

We enjoyed our breakfast while Sparkling Violetears fed on the flowers outside the hotel. Due to the elevation we could feel the intensity of the sun's rays even though the air temperature was barely 20 degrees Celsius, but we would not be at this altitude for long. We collected our rental car back at the airport and hit the road! 

The first order of business was to stop at the famous ponds just down the road from the Quito airport. I was thankful of my decision to bring my spotting scope and we enjoyed distant views of Yellow-billed Pintails, several shorebirds including two Pectoral Sandpipers and my first Slate-colored Coots. A huge flock of approximately 300 White-collared Swifts was a sight to behold as they flew over our heads, twittering away. 

Silver Garden Orbweaver (Argiope argentata) - Quito airport ponds, Ecuador

We traveled around the edge of Quito, enjoying minimal traffic under an impossibly blue sky. Heading west we soon left the city behind to begin our descent down the western slope of the Andes. The vegetation turned from xeric to mesic, the temperatures increased by a degree or two and soon we were under an overcast sky surrounded by lush vegetation as we approached the Mindo Valley.

Mindo is situated in the rain-soaked western Andes at an elevation of around 1300 m, and is a popular town frequented by tourists. Here you can do all the standard tourist activities: ziplining, visiting a chocolate or coffee farm, going on a "jungle walk", etc. The reason we based ourselves in Mindo was due to the abundance of reasonably priced accommodations and its central location to many good birding areas, plus it was a place that Laura wanted to check out in case we came back to this part of Ecuador in the near future. We did not have much time planned for Mindo - just two nights - but we were planning on making the most of it!

Our accommodations in Mindo, Ecuador

We checked in to our accommodations pictured above and then drove up the famous Nono-Mindo road, well-known to most birders who have visited northwest Ecuador. Our plan was to visit the hummingbird gardens at the Santa Rosa bird lodge. This would be a great way to acquaint ourselves with the hummingbirds at this elevation, with about a dozen species regularly occurring. A hummingbird feeding frenzy in the Andes is something that Laura had never experienced before. Additionally, a very localized hummingbird called the Hoary Puffleg had been frequenting the feeders; a species I had never seen before.

Fuschia sp. - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

We had barely made it five minutes up the road when Laura spotted a huge tarantula slowly making its way across. It was spectacular!

Pamphobeteus sp. - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

This individual is in the genus Pamphobeteus which contains some of the largest tarantulas in the world and which are sometimes referred to as birdeaters. Of course I could not resist picking it up and checking it out. Some people may be surprised to hear that tarantulas are not at all dangerous; it is the wandering spiders, recluses, and black widows that are most dangerous but tarantulas are generally safe to handle (there is a reason why tarantulas are frequently used in film). There is a genus of Asian tarantulas that are a little bit more dangerous but in South America there really is not anything to be worried about.

Laura and I with the Pamphobeteus sp. - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

This is Laura's "everything is fine" face while holding her first tarantula!

Laura with the Pamphobeteus sp. - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

A few more photos of invertebrates and plants from along the gravel road.

Euptychoides nossis - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Kohleria sp. - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Pedaliodes peucestas - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Unidentified millipede - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Mysore Trumpetvine (Thunbergia mysorensis) - Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Laura attempting to befriend a local bovine:

making friends along the Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

By 2 PM we arrived at the hummingbird garden under heavy cloud cover and the threat of rain. Nobody was home initially and so we let ourselves in. Right away it was clear that this was a popular spot for local hummingbirds! There were too many to look at.

 Hummingbird feeders at the Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Many of the species that frequent these feeders are specialists of the foothills of the western Andes in the Choco bioregion, including Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Violet-tailed Sylph and my favourite of the bunch: Velvet-purple Coronet.

Velvet-Purple Coronet - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Velvet-Purple Coronet - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Fawn-breasted Brilliant - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Violet-tailed Sylph - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

The Gorgeted Sunangel is one of the specialties that can be found at the Santa Rosa bird lodge. Found only in a narrow elevation band in northwest Ecuador (and barely into southern Colombia), there are few places to view this bird well. My previous experience with the species was of a few distant birds further up along the Nono-Mindo Road near Reserva Bellavista last November so it was great to improve on those views (and photos!).

Gorgeted Sunangel - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Gorgeted Sunangel - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Gorgeted Sunangel - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

I breathed a sigh of relief when the Hoary Puffleg flew in. We enjoyed great views for a few minutes, and a little while later it came in again. But overall it was difficult since it spent much more time away from the feeders than at them. Hummingbirds often utlilize a technique that we call traplining in which they have a defined route containing all their favorite flowers that they visit in sequence. Because of this, the feeders at the lodge are likely only a small part of the trapline and so the Hoary Puffleg is usually absent from the lodge's feeders.

Hoary Puffleg - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Hoary Puffleg is a very scarce species across its small range, usually being encountered in the forest understorey near streams. While visiting a feeder setup might be "cheating" at least it provided incredible views of this rare species.

Hoary Puffleg - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Hummingbirds were not the only attraction here. A nearby hide provided excellent views of a different feeder setup, this one designed more for tanagers and toucans with halved bananas on the menu.

male Black-capped Tanager - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

female Black-capped Tanager - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

White-tipped Dove - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Golden Tanagers - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Golden-naped Tanagers - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Laura's favorite sighting was a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan that flew into the feeders about fifteen minutes after we sat down in the blind. Yet another specialty of the area, Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan has that tantalizing combination of incredible beauty and global scarcity that birders seem to crave.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

This extraordinary toucan is only found in extreme northwest Ecuador, and barely into  southern Colombia. It really is something to behold. How many different colours can be found on this bird? I count at least 10 distinct ones.

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

The owners of the property soon arrived so Laura and I introduced ourselves and settled up the entrance fee. We went back to the hummingbird feeders for a further half hour of observation.

Empress Brilliant - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Buff-tailed Coronet - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Velvet-purple Coronet - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Buff-tailed Coronet - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

Lesser Violetear - Santa Rosa Bird Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador

The afternoon was getting on and there was one other special bird I wanted to search for. The Tanager Finch is a poorly known species that is found in a number of widely-separated locations in the Colombian and Ecuadorian Andes. I had a location for this species up the Nono-Mindo Road near Bellavista Lodge and so we took our little rental car up the bumpy road, only stopping for a Masked Trogon along the way.

Birding the Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

Unfortunately the clouds descended and what was initially an intermittent mist soon became a light rain. By the time that we reached the general area to search for Tanager Finch the rain had become a steady downpour. We waited it out in the car for a while but it was no use. We were losing light as well so we cut our losses and headed back down towards Mindo.

Birding the Nono-Mindo Road, Ecuador

That evening we enjoyed a fantastic dinner at one of the many restaurants in Mindo and prepared for an early night. The next morning we would be driving down into the lowlands to visit one of the last remaining fragments of Choco lowland rainforest in this part of Ecuador. But before sleep beckoned we stopped to observe some of the frogs and insects making their home around our accommodations. 

Cachabi Robber Frog (Pristimantis achatinus) - Mindo, Ecuador

Cachabi Robber Frog (Pristimantis achatinus) - Mindo, Ecuador

Unidentified orthopteran - Mindo, Ecuador

Cachabi Robber Frog (Pristimantis achatinus) - Mindo, Ecuador


David Weaver said...

Josh, excellent photos and descriptions of your trip. Vinicio Perez of Santa Rosa is a friend and his lodge is wonderful location for birders. I believe you have a photo of the Lesser Violetear instead of a Sparkling Violetear as I did not see any blue coloration on the chest. Take care.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks, David! And you are right - I mislabeled the violetear. Cheers!