Jewels of Ecuador’s Cloud Forest

Overview

 The Untamed Jewels of Ecuador’s Cloud Forest Expedition whisks you off to the western slopes of the Andean mountains. Here, close to Ecuador’s Andean capital city of Quito, lies one of nature’s surprising gems. Unique conditions have created not only a biodiversity hotspot in terms of bird species, many of which are endemics to the Chocó, but the hard work and dedication of local people not only allows us to visit and see some of their strange and wonderful birds, but created situations of unparalleled photographic opportunities.

Regular swathes of clouds cloak the canopy in a dense mist, giving life to an abundance of epiphytes such as mosses, lichen, bromeliads, orchids and more amongst the gnarled branches of the forests. Home to strange and rare species such as the spectacled (Andean) bear, tayras and the newly described olinguito, plus hundreds of bird species including the much sought after Andean cock-of-the-rock and Long-wattled Umbrellabird.

This Expedition aims to give you the chance to see and photograph some of these feathered jewels including the aforementioned Cock-of-the-Rock & Umbrellabird, as well as shy antpittas, quetzals, trogons, toucans, flowerpiercers, barbets, manakins, tanagers & hummingbirds being the cream of the cake.

While the area is a birder’s dream with hundreds of different species crammed into such a small area, this Expedition is focused on photographic opportunities of just some of these gems, and as such it is best suited to small groups of bird photographers.

The area has a range of accommodation options, of which we can choose from various for their location in terms of target species and their photographic opportunities, or proximity to such locations.

The trip will start in Quito, located at 2,850m above sea level, and spend 1-2 days at different locations, descending down the slopes of the Andes to about 800m above sea level.

All our Expeditions are tailor made to cater to your preferences and will guide you on your journey to experience the best of the Ecuadorian cloud forest. To make the most of your visit, we suggest a 10 days/ 9 nights trip.

This Expedition can be combined with a visit to Ecuador’s Amazon Jungle or extended to bird the higher slopes of Ecuador’s Andean mountains.

Example Itineraries

All our Expeditions are private, personalized and specialized in wildlife observation or photography. We help you with the local knowledge of where to go and what to see, but you decide what your priorities are.

To enjoy all that the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest has to offer we suggest a version of the following:

Such a bountiful location with lots of accommodation options, many of which with their own great birding and photography opportunities or ideally situated near to such locations, accommodation his highly flexible.

Day 1:

Quito to Upper Mindo

Having arrived in Quito in the early morning or the night before the Expedition, we will set out west, taking either the main route out of Quito, crossing the equator as we do, or go via the old Nono-Mindo road, now recognized as an EcoRoute. Arriving at our first destination for lunch, there may be time for some exploration and photography before hand, but otherwise an afternoon dedicated to enjoying your first birding and photography opportunities.

Day 2-9:

Mindo Area

Spending 2-3 nights in 3 to 4 different locations to enjoy different bird assemblages found at different elevations, as well as the different photography set ups different areas provide.

 In these days we will most likely visit:

 Yanacocha Biological Reserve– home to 21 species of hummingbird, including the impressive Sword-billed Hummingbird which we hope to see, and the endemic and critically endangered Black-breasted Puffleg (rare).

 Reserva Amagusa– home to 165 species of bird, including several species at risk of extinction such as the Banded Ground-cuckoo and Olive Finch. Here we will focus on the hummingbird garden which brings in Empress Brilliant, Velvet-purple Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Purple-bibbed White-tip, White-whiskered Hermit and Green Thorntail. Also, the fruit feeders attracting tanagers including the stunning Glistening-green Tanager, Moss-backed Tanager, Black-chinned Mountain-tanager, Golden-naped Tanagers, Golden Tanager, Flame-faced Tanager and more.

In August and September there is the chance to see the Chocó endemic – Black Solitaire – visiting fruiting trees in the area.

Other specialties include Golden-collared Honeycreeper, Indigo Flowerpiercer, Rose-faced Parrot, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Orange-breasted Fruit-eater

(Orange-fronted Barbet, Choco Vireo)

Tandayapa Valley– the old Nono-Mindo road, now EcoRoute, passes through the area of Tandayapa spanning from 1800 to 550m elevation. Here is home to several lodges and gardens dedicated to birding, feeders and photography. In this area we will be looking for:

Hummingbirds – White-necked Jacobin, Tawny-bellied Hermit, Brown Violetear, Lesser Violetear, Sparkling Violetear, Gorgeted Sunangel, Speckled Hummingbird, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Collared Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, Booted-racket Tail, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Green-crowned Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, White-bellied Woodstar, Western Emerald, Andean Emerald and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Quetzals and Trogons: Golden-headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon and Rufous Motmot

Toucans and Barbets – Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Plate-billed Mountain Toucan

Tanagers: Grass-green Tanager, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, Black-capped Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Golden Tanager, Flame-rumped Tanager

Others: Green-and-black Fruiteater, Turquoise Jay or even the Beautiful Jay, Masked Flowerpiercer and White-sided Flowerpiercer

 

Located off the main highway from Quito, on the other side of the hills from Tandayapa valley is a very special place. Two cattle farmers found themselves the land owners of an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek, and thankfully decided not only to protect it, but allow visitors to come and see these strange and gawdy birds. So, one morning on the trip, we will get up early and set out for this site, meeting the brothers as they guide us to a hide where we will wait for the light to arrive, and fingers crossed, so will the birds. These completely orange birds with a crest hiding their bill gather almost daily at their lek – a dance area carefully chosen and maintained where they can display together in the hopes of attracting a drab female.

Once the morning display is over, including the bizarre calls these creatures make, the brothers have another surprise up their sleeve – they have taught themselves the way of the antpittas. Today will be one of the more challenging days of the trip as they lead us up steep trails into the territory of different antpittas. Here we hope to see Giant Antpitta, Moustached Antpitta, Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Yellow-breasted Antpitta and Ochre-breasted Antpitta. These birds are highly cryptic and seclusive, making this a unique opportunity to see and photograph these birds.

After the early start and busy morning, we will stop for a break at their home where they have hummingbird and fruit feeders set up and we can photograph Speckled Hummingbird, Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Buff-tailed Coronet, Velvet-purple Coronet, Booted Racket-tail

Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Green-crowned Brilliant, Empress Brilliant, Purple-throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and various tanagers

One morning we will visit this site owned by a local guide who has turned his garden into a bird photographers dream. Here there is a hummingbird garden and fruit-feeder with all the typical species of the area. He has also designed the latter with a raised pool and photography hide to get some of the jewels of Ecuador’s Cloud Forest with a perfect reflection, plus a light trap feeder drawing in insectivorous birds. We would start with the light trap, getting there early to catch the birds before they eat all the insects attracted overnight by the light traps, photographing species such as Strong-billed and Montane Woodcreeper, Streaked-capped Treehunter and Masked Trogon before moving on to the other feeders as the light improves.

Mindo– the area of Mindo has various options, including another site with a light trap hide, and San Tadeo Bird Feeders, a small but intimate and highly active garden of feeders. Here we will great opportunities to see and photograph Red-headed Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, as many as 10 species of Tanager up close, eye level, feeding, drinking and bathing in the pools. We might get a chance to see brocket deer or coati passing through – the latter of which often stealing the fruit from the feeders. There is also a separate area dedicated to hummingbirds.

Long-wattled Umbrellabird Lek– this trip requires an early morning and some hiking to get to the right spot. Taking a packed breakfast, we will head out towards the small town of Los Bancos, then, crossing the river we will start to climb again, making up for any elevation lost, ending up at a small village where we will meet our local guides and owners of the land where the Umbrellabird lek is found. Continuing up the foothills, we will eventually have to abandon our vehicle and walk the last 700m or so to the lek. Unlike the Cock-of-the-rock lek which is just a small area. The Umbrella-bird lek is highly dispersed with favorite spots scattered around the hillside, but a rest area has been created near the best spots. It is also a good place to see Collared Aracari, Yellow-throated Toucan and Choco Toucan, although photography opportunities can be hit and miss.

Day 10:

Final morning photography session before breakfast, packing up and transfer to Quito for afternoon flights or your hotel.

 

About The Area

The area of Mindo is located on the western slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes. Conveniently close to the capital Quito, it makes it one of the most easily accessible biodiversity hotspots. It is here that two habitats meet – the Chocoan lowlands, home to many endemic species, and the tropical Andes, spanning from 960 to 3,440 meters elevation above sea level, and just south of the Equator. In fact, we will likely cross the Equator at some point in your visit. The Andean-Chocó has extremely high levels of rainfall, and this, combined with its tropical climate and separation from the Amazon by the Andean mountains, has made it not only biodiverse, but an area of high endemism (as much as 25%).

 The area has many attractions – it produces some of Ecuador’s best coffee and chocolate, with activities such as chocolate tours and chocolatier classes, rafting, trekking, mountain biking, zip-lining, herping, and of most interest to us – bird watching and photography.

 

 

Historically affected by land conversion to cattle ranching (1980-1990’s), as much as 98% of Ecuador’s coastal forest has already been cleared. This has resulted it being one of the most endangered forest systems in the world as well as many of its inhabitants, but some remnants of which can be found in this area. It’s importance in terms of biodiversity combined with various attractions of the region has resulted in large areas now being protected and maintained so that visitors can enjoy the cloud forest landscape, its rivers, waterfalls and biodiversity. This means there is an abundance of reserves and lodges to visit, many of which focus on their avian wildlife and have worked to create the ideal opportunities to enjoy their feathered jewels.

 The area of Mindo is home to over 450 bird species, along with butterflies, mammals, including the iconic Spectacled or Andean bear, reptiles and amphibians.

 

What To Expect & Packing List

Physical Requirements

 A moderate Expedition due to altitude and cloud forest terrain. While we will be focusing on the top photographic opportunities which are typically found around the creatively designed gardens of the lodges and reserves, there will be certain species we wish to target which can only be found in specific areas. As such we may be traversing trails which, while generally well maintained, can be over steep and even slippery terrain, so a basic to moderate level of fitness is required and is unfortunately not suitable for individuals with mobility restrictions.

Weather

Come prepared for both hot and humid, and cold and wet weather. Higher elevations can get cold at night, though during the day the sun can be strong, so cooler, but protective clothing is required. Long-sleeved shirts, walking trousers, wide brimmed hats or caps, sunglasses etc., and for the evenings, a warm fleecy jacket. In the cloud forest, a perpetual cloak of mist can envelop the forest, or deposit its water content in the form of downpours, so waterproof walking shoes, trousers, jacket and covers for any equipment you might have is highly advisable.

Insects

All the regular beasties are present – mosquitos, ticks, chiggers, ants, wasps, bees etc. If you have any allergies or reactions to bites, bring medicine and have it with you on every outing. No recent outbreaks or mosquito borne diseases have been reported.

Chiggers are small but highly annoying skin mites. Very difficult to see, in good light they can be identified as tiny red dots the size of a pinpoint, usually in the middle of a red rash the size of a fingertip. Their saliva as they feed causes a reaction that is very itchy but does no real harm unless you scratch too much. Alcohol supposedly helps kill them, and anti-itch cream will help with the effects.

Ticks are present, but it is rare that guests get them, especially if taking precautions such as tucking in trouser legs, not sitting on your bed or wearing clothes you have been out in for a long time and checking yourself for ticks. No diseases are reported.

Packing Suggestions:

 Sun and insect protection

  • Light, quick-drying long-sleeved shirts
  • Light, quick-drying long trousers
  • Wide-brimmed hat / cap with neck protection
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun cream
  • Insect repellent

Rain & Cold

  • Warm jacket
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Thick pair of trousers
  • Waterproof trousers

Shoes

  • Comfortable, waterproof walking boots
  • Trainers or other indoor shoes

Additional

  • Comfortable clothes for relaxing in
  • Extra warm set of clothes in case some get wet
  • Small day pack or camera bag
  • Camera equipment (and water proof covers)
  • Binoculars
  • Re-fillable water bottle
  • Head torch
  • Toilet paper (some roadside facilities will not provide toilet paper)
  • Cash in US Dollars (this is the official currency of Ecuador
  • Flat two-pronged plugs are used so many US appliances won’t need adaptors (110v)

 

Wildlife

Wildlife

Mammals

While the area is home to a number of mammal species, including pumas, ocelots, the Andean bear, opossums, anteaters, sloths, monkeys and other strange creatures, many are extremely rare to see. There may be chances to see squirrels, deer, coati and some species of monkey.

Birds

Birds out the wazoo! While there may be stretches where the forest seems devoid of life, all of a sudden, we come across a flock of various species, fluttering about the canopy or the undergrowth, bringing the forest alive with calls before they disappear, and it descends back into silence. As we stop to look over a steep, montane valleys, we may hear the distant call of that ever-elusive toucan we have been searching for. For this reason, this trip will focus on the different lodges and reserves that attract these species which would otherwise be up in the canopy looking for flower and fruiting trees, down to lower levels with treats of sugar water and fruits. The trip will aim to visit different locations chosen for the bird species present at those particular elevations or areas, and their photographic opportunities and set ups.

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