Planning a Birding Trip to Ecuador

Despite being a relatively small country, planning a birding trip to Ecuador can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially when it's your first time visiting the country. With over 1600 bird species spanning several major biomes, including the Galápagos, it's tempting to try to see everything in one go. That's because for most birding enthusiasts, it's simply not practical to make repeated trips to the same country. When I receive inquiries from birders regarding which sites they should visit in a ten to fourteen day period, I always point them towards Northwestern Ecuador. In no other region is there better infrastructure or higher endemic species concentration than in the Chocó Region. Starting from Quito, you can easily spend a week working your way down the western slope of the Andes, visiting multiple sites, such as YanacochaTandayapaRefugio Paz de las Aves, Mindo, and Milpe, even including a full day in the western lowlands at Rio Silanche. Throw in a day trip to Antisana National Park for a chance at seeing Andean Condor and then another day touring Quito, one of South America's greatest colonial gems, and you have an excellent first trip to Ecuador.

For those birders who have a bit more time on their hands, I ask whether they've birded the Amazon before. If not, then I encourage them to spend three to five days along the Rio Napo at one of several excellent ecolodges, such as La Selva, Sacha, or Sani Lodge. Although Peru and Brazil obviously include a wider swath of the Amazon region within their borders, birding the Amazon in Ecuador is relatively cheap and easy. Otherwise, I recommend that they make a similar journey down the northeastern slope of the Andes, starting from the Papallacta region and working their way down to the Loreto Road, with the excellent Cabañas San Isidro and Wild Sumaco Lodge being the most obvious places for birders to stay. Of course, birders on a tighter budget can see the same birds, albeit with a bit more time and for considerably less money, if they stay in cheaper accommodation in small towns instead, such as Papallacta, Baeza, Pacto Sumaco, Archidona, and Tena. Either way, two weeks exploring both slopes on the Andes, as well as a day in the highlands, could yield hundreds of species to your life list.

I'm planning a birding trip to Ecuador myself these days. Although I lived there for six years, I was generally busy with work and could only travel on the weekends. I rarely had the chance to go birding for weeks at a time, but I managed to cover the country fairly well at least once. For example, I only birded the Southwestern Ecuador circuit once but made it to the Napo Region in the eastern lowlands at least four times, depending on what technically counts as a birding trip. Based temporarily in the U.S. and with a few weeks of vacation, I've decided to have another go at a few regions, specifically targeting regional endemic species that I previously missed. Using lists of regional endemics, I identified the areas in which I was most likely to see lifers and then figured out how to arrange logistics as economically as possible. While most Ecuadorians travel around the country by bus, this can be constraining and time consuming for birders, who would rather travel outside birding hours and explore areas in between cities or off the beaten path. Thus, renting a car is almost a necessity, if you want to explore remote Northern or Southwestern Ecuador. To make matters worse, in these regions road quality deteriorates, and the costs or renting a high clearance vehicle are even higher.

Regardless, I forged ahead and made plans to revisit Northwestern Ecuador, along the border with Colombia, and Southwestern Ecuador, along the border with Peru. I'll also spend about five days birding foothill and temperate forest along the northeastern slope at Alto Coca, at Mark Thurber's private reserve, which I visited briefly last year in February while working in Bogotá. Although the number of new species I could see is pretty small (I would be surprised to add more than thirty ticks on my country list during the trip), their quality is exceptionally high, including target such as Golden-Chested and Purple-Mantled Tanagers in the northwest, White-Streaked Antvireo and Rufous-Vented Whitetip in the northeast, Neblina Metaltail and Chestnut-Bellied Cotigina in the southeast, and Elegant Crescentchest and Gray-Headed Antbird in the southwest. For birders on their fourth or fifth trip to the country, then trip planning is based on the success of their previous trips and generally involves a fair amount of backtracking.

In terms of resources, I found the new website Where to Find Birds in Ecuador extremely useful, both for its bird lists and site maps (of course, information gets dated quickly, and it was useful to have a few contacts to follow up with about more recent findings). Renting a car and buying domestic playing tickets in advance is easy now that companies have bilingual websites. Xeno Canto continues to be the best online resource for bird songs and calls. Visiting Jocotoco Reserves can now be arranged directly through Jocotours Ecuador, which is another nice innovation since 2010, when I last lived in the country. The observation database at Aves Ecuador continues to be a great resource for getting the latest information on what birds are being seen and where, and Dušan Brinkhuizen also regularly updates his twitter feed on current notable sightings. Many of the lodges and reserves will also update their sites or related blogs when notable birds are seen, including El Poco del Chocó, where Banded Ground Cuckoo sightings have been a regular occurrence (by the way, if the ground cuckoo shows up again during my trip, then I am abandoning my plans and heading straight there!).

Ultimately, Ecuador is a country that deserves multiple visits, but using the above resources birders can design their trip to be as efficient and effective as possible. Just keep your fingers crossed that you don't get rained out!

1 comment:

Louise said...

Would you have any recommendation for someone with just 24 hours or so available during a December weekend whilst working in Quito (could start Saturday afternoon if that would help be in place for an early morning Sunday)?
I'd happily watch antpittas or sword-billed hummingbirds... but wherever I go I would need transport and therefore maybe a guide.

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