The Highs and Lows Of Birding In Ecuador A Paradise For Birds

We saw fantastic birds during our year long travel adventure - Sword-billed Hummingbird.

A look back at our crazy birding adventure on 2008 when in January we were just getting into our "big year" ....

Way before dawn we stumbled into the 4x4 and were once again in the dark streets of Quito. A few blocks away, we picked up Nick Athanas, from Tropical Birding. Nick was wide awake, having very sensibly turned in early knowing we had an early start. Nick grilled us as Iain had done. Numbers, misses and best birds were duly given. Iain guided the 4x4 uphill out of the city, and we climbed steeply leaving the chaos of the capital behind. The first signs of dawn crept across the sky from the east, and we had a spectacular view across Quito to the high Andes beyond. We were heading for Yanacocha, a nature reserve high on the slopes of Pichincha Volcano, towering above the city at 11,100 feet or 3,400 metres. The reserve was established to protect pristine temperate forest, and holds some very special birds. As the light came, we saw our first bird of the day, Rufous-collared Sparrow, one of the commonest birds in Ecuador, but right now a new bird for The Biggest Twitch.

Spectacular scenery to match the spectacular birds up here!

The forest was cloaked in low cloud, a common condition here, and it was eerily quiet as we set off on the wide, level trail. We didn’t have to wait long for our first new bird, as a gang of Rufous Wrens burrowed through the dense vegetation just below the path, then exploded out across the trail right next to us. A flash of colour announced our next bird, a Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager. It is certainly well-named, as the belly is deep scarlet, but there is more: the rump blue with another splash of blue in the wing, and a lovely red crescent behind the eye. A small flock of these beauties moved quickly through the treetops above us, leaving us hungry for more. With mist still shrouding the trail, we moved farther along, scanning ahead for movement that would betray our next new bird. A hummingbird popped into view, but just as quickly dropped below the edge of the path. We waited, and sure enough it returned and hovered by a tiny yellow flower, giving a few seconds to enjoy this colourful sight. It was a Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, a real gem of a hummer that does indeed have the colours of the rainbow on his throat. Suddenly, our attention was caught by a shout from Nick. “Sword-bill!”

Another hummingbird swept past, and we just had time to make out an enormous bill like a medieval knight’s lance! We hurried along the track and soon found this oversized-billed bird sitting on a bare branch above the path. Through the scopes, we could marvel at this piece of evolution. How does a bird with such an enormous bill live out its daily life? How does it preen and feed its young? Someone should make a wildlife documentary on this species, it would be fascinating. Our enjoyment was ended with a curt “Move!” from Iain. As we walked along the trail, the cloud began to lift and we glimpsed the stunning views that Yanacocha has to offer. From our height of around 11,000 feet we could see for miles, with ranges of hills that swept away to the distant horizon. Sadly, many of these slopes have been deforested to make cattle pasture, underlining the importance of this great forest reserve.

At the end of the level trail, we had a choice of retracing our steps or plunging down the Spectacled Bear Trail, which winds back through the dense forest to the car park. For our guides the choice was easy, so down we went, slipping and sliding in the wet mud! The main trail provides great birding with easy viewing; here it was very different. The narrow twisting trail only allowed restricted views, but to see some of the skulking species you have to get in amongst the trees, and this bear trail certainly does that. It was hard going, and we slipped and stumbled our way, trying to look ahead for movement. Something dark shot across the path. Nick was pretty sure what it was, and signalled for silence and to keep still. We waited as Nick spun the wheel on his iPod to select the required track. We stared at the bank of dense vegetation where the bird had dived for cover. A burst of song from Nick’s speaker, and, nothing. We waited, nothing, another burst of song and then bingo! There was the bird, a small black bundle of rather wren-like proportions: Blackish Tapaculo and a new bird for the year. The Tapaculo had a good hard look at us and the offending loudspeaker, then turned and ducked back out of sight, leaving us well pleased. Iain and Nick know this trail well and further along they told us to sit on the edge of the path and watch a stand of bamboo. Out came the iPod again, and a call played softly. Almost instantly, a reply came from the bamboo. The reply got louder as it came closer and we saw movement at the base of the stems. We held our breath as the movement became stronger. The bird was very close, but we still couldn’t see it. Then suddenly it popped out into view - a cracking Rufous Antpitta. We had only seconds to soak it up before it hopped back in to the bamboo and vanished. Our last bird on the trail was Stripe-headed Brush-Finch, normally a shy species that decided to show off nicely, a lovely end to our birding at Yanacocha. With steady rain now falling, it was time to get off the mountain.

That night we collapsed into bed and were asleep instantly; we were only two weeks into The Biggest Twitch but were already exhausted. The prospect of another fifty weeks like this was worrying. But we were seeing amazing numbers of birds, 487 so far, a lifetime of birding back home in the UK and we had done it in two weeks, actually thirteen days!

The small jet roared out of Quito and turned sharply, giving us stomach-churning views of the city and mountains on all sides. It is only a short flight to Coca, and we soon began our descent. We soon saw why the flight had been delayed. The area was soaked with standing water. There had obviously been torrential rain earlier and we were glad the airline had not tried to land in those conditions. As it was, the plane skidded when it hit the wet tarmac and we were relieved when it came to a safe stop. We piled out into the steamy, humid air of lowland Ecuador, very different from the thin dry air of Quito.

We were soon on a motorised canoe, heading down the Napo River for Sacha Lodge, with high expectations. The canoe held about twenty people all heading for Sacha and we roared away from the busy quayside at Coca. Out on the river proper, we settled back to take in river life, lots of other local boats ferrying people, beer, vegetables and timber to and from who knows where. Two hours later we jumped ashore and luckily were told to leave our heavy bags for the porters and set off in to the jungle. A boardwalk led us through wonderful, pristine rainforest alive with weird calls and strange-looking plants and insects. Our guide was on a mission, and we moved pretty quickly, so didn’t see many birds, though we did pause to enjoy a handsome Double-toothed Kite and to laugh at the antics of a gang of squirrel monkeys swinging through the trees. We reached a water-filled channel where a cluster of small dugout canoes were moored, and gingerly stepped in to one of these six-seaters. Our boatman expertly manoeuvred the small craft along the narrow channel, and soon we broke out onto a blackwater lake. As we serenely paddled across the flat water, a large bird flapped about in the low trees at the water’s edge, a Hoatzin! Now this is an amazing bird, a cross between a turkey, a pheasant and a reptile! It is an ancient species that has evolved very little, as fossil remains show. The young even have a claw on their tiny wings when they hatch, which they use to cling to branches so they don’t fall into the water below the nest. This was a great bird to welcome us to Sacha Lodge! The canoe slipped into another channel, and we saw for the first time the thatched buildings of the lodge. Marcelo, our local guide, met us for a welcome drink. We had met Marcelo at the previous year’s ABA conference, where he was also guiding for Tropical Birding. As a native of the Amazon, Marcelo knows the birds here better than anyone, and has the eyes of a hawk. The staff at Sacha introduced themselves and told us a little bit about the lodge and how everything worked.

The alarm woke us at 4.30am on 15th January, and we were quickly down for our first excellent breakfast at Sacha. We met up with Tim and Janet, our birding companions for the next few days. They were of good Lancashire stock, so we knew would get along just fine. They seemed really pleased to be a part of The Biggest Twitch, and were keen to hear about our adventure so far. It was at that moment that we realised why it is called rainforest. Thunder roared overhead, lightning flashed, and the heavens opened, not just rain but torrential rain. Marcelo thankfully decided we should wait a while, and we agreed. After half an hour, the rain eased and we ventured out. Donning ponchos and wellington boots we splashed out on the trail to the canopy walkway deep in the forest. We slipped and squelched our way along the sodden path, soon finding our ponchos were more for looks than practicality, as the rain passed straight through! We were soaked after half an hour of slogging through the mud, and the rain was torrential again. Worse, we hadn’t seen a single bird, let alone any year ticks. Finally, we reached the base of one of the towers of the canopy walkway. Thankfully a shelter here gave us respite from the downpour, and we huddled inside and glumly watched the rain. At last the rain eased to a light drizzle, and Marcelo gave the word to start climbing. What a climb, 180 steep steps and it was pretty scary as the tower swayed with our movement as we climbed ever higher. With scope and tripod in one hand it was pretty nerve-racking making height on the slippery metal steps. Of course Marcelo was used to this and made short work of the steps though it was several minutes before we joined him at the small metal platform above the tree canopy. Even in these grim conditions, the view was breathtaking. A green carpet of leaves stretched away as far as we could see. We had climbed above the forest canopy and could now look down on birds that from the ground would have been neck-breaking to see. The platform was a little cramped for five people, so we decided to head across the walkway to the next tower which was considerably bigger. I found it very scary stepping off the platform out onto the swaying suspended walkway, Ruth, however, had no such problems and was happily leaning over the ropes snapping pictures! The whole walkway was held together by steel ropes. It was a very long way down. I found the best strategy was to keep looking straight ahead and keep moving. It was about 100 metres to the next platform though it felt a lot longer as I inched my way across the swaying path. It was impossible not to have daft thoughts about when was the last health and safety check on all these ropes, and would we survive if it all came crashing down! Why was it bouncing so much, was that normal, and why was the hand rope so low? Of course we made it safe and sound to the next platform and were very glad that it was much larger and we could set up the scopes. Just as my knees had stopped wobbling and we were ready to get stuck in to some birding at last, the heavens opened again and it poured. This wasn’t funny. We needed birds, and not one was showing. We stood and waited again for the tap to be turned off, amusing ourselves by trying to dry out our optics under the shelter of the roofed platform. Despite the downpour, a pair of White-throated Toucans climbed up into a dead tree and see-sawed their calls out across the forest. These are marvellous birds, and we watched spellbound. A Russet-backed Oropendola swooped past the tower and vanished below the carpet of the canopy.

Views from the canopy walkway were amazing - Squirrel Cuckoo and White-fronted Nunbird

At last the rain eased, and almost stopped. A brightly coloured bird had landed in the top of a nearby giant tree and what a bird it was, Paradise Tanager, and very aptly named. This large finch-sized bird was a riot of colour, with a bright green head, glowing turquoise blue underparts, blue and black wings with a startling crimson rump. This is what we had come for, mind-blowing birds! We hadn’t recovered from the shock of this beauty when Marcelo called “Spangled Cotinga!” Here we go again, another stunner sitting out on a dead snag and we filled the scope with more turquoise blue, this time set off by a plum throat. Amazing birds came thick and fast: Bare-necked Fruitcrows, Gilded Barbets and Yellow-tufted Woodpeckers all vied for title of “bird of the morning”.

Time had flown by and we realised it was no longer morning but afternoon, so we reluctantly made our way down the tower and headed back to the lodge for a very late lunch. Marcelo was not finished yet though, and he took us off the path into the forest and pointed. Incredibly, two Crested Owls were sitting looking back at us not twenty metres away. This is surely one of the funkiest looking owls in the world! They have huge eyebrows like Graucho Marx lookalikes. How a day can change, from the depression of the morning rain to now being totally elated by mega birds. Experiences like this make you feel so alive; this is why birds are such incredible creatures. We floated back to the lodge buzzing with excitement from what we had seen.

Southern Mealy Amazon jumps the queue for the salt-lick!

Next morning the four of us again waited for the torrential rain to ease before setting off on a motorised canoe along the Napo River in search of parrots. These amazing birds were coming to earth banks near the river to supplement their fruit diets with mineral-rich beakfuls of clay. The first clay lick we saw was from the boat on a steep, exposed bank of the main river and views were a little distant. Mealy Amazon parrots were flying above the cliff and occasionally dropping down onto the exposed earth to grab a chunk of clay. The next lick was a very different setup. We landed and jumped ashore, then took a short trail to a hide below another exposed mud cliff. Here we had jaw-dropping views of the action, as parrots squawked and screamed as they circled above. At first they were reluctant to come down, and sat in nearby treetops squabbling and fighting all the time, with a barrage of raucous calls. Then one lovely Blue-headed Parrot took the plunge and dropped down onto the face and grabbed some clay. That was the signal for the masses to descend, and an army of green bodies tumbled out of the trees and onto the clay. What an incredible sight! Parrots fought and pushed one another for the best position on the cliff, though as far as we could see it all looked much the same. It was just a heaving mass of bills, wings, tails and feet. They ceased to be individuals, just one creature moving on the exposed mud. By looking carefully both at the cliff and up into the trees, we were able to pick out several species involved in this orgy of parrots. There were not only Mealy Amazons, and Blue-headed Parrots, but Yellow-crowned Parrots, and smaller Dusky-headed Parakeets, which all fought for position or screamed from the branches overhead, an amazing spectacle! Watching individual birds, it soon became apparent that each had a different method of getting the clay they needed. First, there were bully boys who barged straight to the point, knocking less dominant birds flying in order to reach the spoils. Then came timid birds who fed around the edge of the flock avoiding the battle in the centre. There were even acrobats who swung upside-down from a low branch above the cliff and grabbed billfuls of clay like circus performers on a high wire act! Hundreds of birds were involved in the frenzy of activity playing out in front of us and the noise was deafening. This is surely one of nature’s great spectacles!

We explored a forest trail which proved to be amazing for Manakins and we were able to watch three species of these wonderful little birds. First up was fine male Striped Manakin, striped breast and a neat red crown, high in the canopy. Next was a real stunner, Golden-headed Manakin. The male was jet black with a head of lovely bright yellow that extended down onto the neck. Last, but by no means least, was Blue-crowned Manakin. Again, the male was black but this time finished off with a lovely royal blue crown.

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