While perusing the Birds of Ecuador field guide, it's easy to imagine how many amazing birds you'll see in Ecuador even on a short trip. If you're inexperienced in the neotropics or lack the proper equipment though, you'll see frustratingly little of what you had hoped. Sure, there are more bird species in this country than in the entire continent you're probably reading this in, but that doesn't mean there are actually more individual birds. With the confusing variety of species, towering and dense forests, and poor weather and light conditions, you could go several hours on your own without properly identifying a bird. A successful birding trip to Ecuador, then, requires extensive study and preparation, the right equipment for a wide variety of conditions, and also a lot of luck.
Bring your scope but don't expect to use it much, especially in the forests where obstacles abound and birds move quickly. You'll being seeing most of the birds through your binoculars, then, so make sure these are comfortably secured on your body and are in good working condition. I recommend approximately 8x42 binoculars that are nitrogen purged with phase-coated lenses, the combination of which should maximize viewing in the typical wet and low-light conditions. Don't forget your rain guard when you go out in the field either, even if the weather is perfect when you get started in the morning.
If you'll be birding without a guide, make sure to bring audio equipment into the field every day. With so many different bird species calling in the morning, you need to be able to determine which sounds to ignore and which to follow up on. Audio equipment is not only good for confirming bird calls, but also for bringing in skulkers with playback. Although playback should always be used responsibly, most birders in Ecuador estimate they see about 25% more birds than they would have otherwise seen without the use of playback. I recommend using an iPod or other mp3 player and first loading Birds of Ecuador by Jonas Nilsson and Niels Krabbe onto it; then you can fill in some of the gaps with free recordings from Xeno-Canto America. Small portable speakers are also required; make sure they're lightweight and small enough to pull out of a pocket or backpack quickly.
I wear breathable rain pants and a jacket in the field every time I go birding, and if it's too hot or humid to wear my jacket, then I always carry it in my backpack. Keep in mind that your clothing must not only protect you from wet weather but also sunny weather and insects. Light-colored skin will burn in approximately ten minutes in sunny weather, and the insects can be particularly bad in the lowlands, where mosquitoes, spiders, and chiggers all abound. If you're birding in the highlands or in montane forest on either slope make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes too, including a wool cap and gloves for altitudes above 3000m. Finally, dark-colored clothes are best for forest birding to maintain a low profile when searching for skulking birds.
While there are a variety of safe and inexpensive means of transportation linking all regions of Ecuador together, independent birders will struggle at times to get from one birding site to another efficiently. One typical problem for low-budget birders is arranging daily transportation from the lodging to the birding site, at which one usually wants to arrive by dawn. Renting a car is a good option for short trips or to regions like southern Ecuador, where the birding sites are isolated and far apart; on the other hand, driving in Ecuador is difficult as roads are often in bad condition and poorly marked, weather conditions are challenging, and other drivers are unpredictable and prone to high-risk maneuvers. A visit to the popular northwest slope can easily be accomplished by independent budget birders, but getting off the beaten path will take considerable effort and patience to accomplish. Unless you're staying at a birding lodge, expect at least a third of your day to be involved in transportation.
Birders cling to their expensive hiking boots and swear they can handle the worst of conditions, but while hiking on a muddy trail during the rainy season you're best wearing cheap rubber boots, available at hardware stores in major cities for ten to twenty dollars (these are also sold at local markets throughout the country, although don't expect large sizes to be available). Even if you're not crossing streams or sinking up to your knees in mud every time you go birding in the forest, you'll be grateful for how easy these boots are to clean compared to ordinary hiking boots. Also, many birding lodges like Bellavista or those in the Oriente now provide these to their guests for free.
It's going to rain a lot, and you'll want to feel secure about the expensive optical and audio equipment in your backpack. Plus, you'll probably be carrying around the field guide and your notebook, too. Invest in a waterproof back pack, then, that you can literally submerge in water and keep the contents of your pack dry. I use a kayaker's backpack made by Seattle Sports that is truly the envy of all hikers and birders that I encounter in the field.
Even if you're traveling with a birding tour, you'll probably get gastritis at some point during your trip, so it's also a good idea to have an over-the-counter medication to deal with diarrhea. Prescription strength antibiotic drugs akin to Ciprofloxacin are available at any pharmacy here without a doctor's note. As for malaria and scary diseases like Dengue fever, it's best to research in detail exactly where you're going in Ecuador and to discuss with your doctor whether extra vaccinations or preventative medications are necessary. I don't worry about malaria in the areas where I typically bird myself, but poor Ecuadorians living in the western lowlands suffer from a variety of outbreaks in the rainy season. The jungle lodges in the eastern lowlands generally claim to be in malaria-free areas.
In addition to all your other rain gear, bring a small, collapsible umbrella. Serious downpours usually don't last long, but an umbrella will keep you more comfortable and protect your equipment from getting unnecessarily soaked. Adept birders will eventually be able to hold an umbrella in one hand while focusing binoculars in the other.
Don't forget sunscreen and a variety of bug repellent. Sunscreen should be applied before dawn to prevent forgetting about it until midday, and repellent should be reapplied regularly in lowland forest. Basic DEET products are available at any pharmacy in Ecuador. I haven't figured out how to prevent chigger bites yet, although some jungle-savvy individuals recommend rubbing alcohol as a preventative.
You'll also want to have at least a point and shoot digital camera in the field. While photographing birds is another discussion, you never know when you might come across a landscape or a mammal worth documenting, as sloths, monkeys, and even bears are seen in the forest on occasion. In this case, the lighter camera is the better.