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Autumn 2001

by Ian Stewart

Here are some comments of my own, having recently returned from a very enjoyable 2 week holiday in Ecuador.

I wasn't there as a hardcore birder, although I did organise my trip loosely around good bird spots (I had originally intended to use Ecuador as a stopping off point for a more grandiose trip to the Galapagos, but financial circumstances meant that I ended up just travelling around Ecuador, and wasn't diappointed).

After a few days getting used to things in Quito's new town, a reasonably safe, hassle-free, westernized area which I recommend to any recently arrived 'gringo', I headed off to Mindo, a famous birding destination a mere 2-3 hour bus ride from the capital.

I liked Mindo, it has a nice small village feel to it, I spent the first morning just walking around in the sunshine, watching old men fixing motorbikes while Latino music blared out through the doorways of various restaurants and shops. Lots of birds to see just around town, my favourite was probably the pale-legged horneros in the park, a lovely rich pale fawn colour. The bridge in the main street was a good spot to sit and watch  black phoebes and torrent tyrannulets, and things like blue-grey tanager and lemon-rumped tanager are common.

I stayed in the Hotel Gypsy, a great place, only four dollars a night for my own room, reasonably comfortable, it has a nice balcony around the back overlooking the garden, a good place to try and photograph tanagers, anis, seedeaters, bananaquits etc, also saw great kiskadee from here.

The staff are very friendly and I ended up eating there every night as the food was good. Very popular spot with budget travellers, lots of backpackers hanging out in hammocks etc etc. The husband of the younger girl knows his birds and tipped me off about a trogon down by the river.

There are several trails you can go on around town, some parts of the forest you have to pay to enter, but there is a road heading out of town east of the Gypsy which was an easy walk and quite productive, I saw several spinetails, antwrens, squirrel cuckoos, tropical parula, euphonias, barbets, brush finches, more tanagers (including the gorgeous golden, and the very dapper swallow tanager!). The road goes over two bridges, I regularly saw white-capped dippers from them, and apparently, torrent dusks and sunbittern are possible from both). Just after the first bridge there is the Hotel Colibres, which boasts a large veranda and a conveniently situated hummingbird feeder. This was a great place, you can sit and eat, or just have a coffee, and watch the hummingbirds close up, a good bunch of them too, including green crowned brilliant, green thorntail, empress brilliant, andean emerald, white-whiskered hermit, and my favourite, white necked jacobin! Be warned however, the lad!
y charges 10 dollars if you want to take photgraphs of them! I thought this was ridiculous and refused to pay, since she didn't tell me this until after I had taken a few photos. To her credit, she let me off!

I went on a guided walk in the morning to see a cock-of-the-rock lek, which was a great experience, we also saw more tangers that day and a stunning pair of golden-headed quetzals bouncing about very visibly in a stand of thin trees. I saw a couple of cock of the rocks even when wandering causally around Mindo gardens during the afternoon, stunning birds. For non-birders, the butterfly rearing farm at Mindo is a nice way to pass the time, and a very rare opportunity to photograph butterflies close up without them flying off (they are inside a large tented garden, and very approachable, presumably used to humans).

I then spent a few days in Quito, and was logging onto BirdChat in one of Quito's many cyber cafes, and found a good report from Tandayapa Cloud Forest reserve, only two hours away. I e-mailed them, since I couldn't find their office (their old one, in the new town, was burgled unfortunately, so they had to relocate to a place a few blocks away), and got a very prompt reply, so I went to the new office and booked a couple of nights, leaving Quito that very afternoon. I had to get the bus to Nanegalito then get a ride up to the lodge (10 dollars), though if you give them more notice they will come and pick you up in Quito (from the airport for instance).
The web site didn't give prices, which in my experience, means it would be expensive, and it was, for a room at least. To their credit however, they do try to accommodate birders at the lower financial level by providing dormitory beds, so two nights, all meals and refreshments included, cost me 80 dollars. I still thought this rather pricey, considering how cheap everything else is in Ecuador, but once I got there I could see why!! It is a very impressive building, spacious dining room with a bar, nice bathrooms, and the dorms were comfortable. Food was nice, and you could get a coffee or whatever at anytime of the day. In retrospect, the Tandayapa dormitory is about as cheap as you could expect to pay to stay at a top of the range bird lodge.

A lot of effort has clearly gone into making it a real birders place, with two very good wooden platforms, well positioned on hillsides to give good views over the treetops and allowing unusually fine sightings of canopy birds such as tanagers. There are several trails, which vary from easy to challenging, named after the sorts of birds you might see (antpitta trail, potoo trail, toucan trail etc), but I saw a range of birds just walking any of the trails (cock-of-the-rock, woodpeckers, guans, wood wrens, doves, tree runners, barbtails, tapaculos, antwrens etc).  There are usually guided tours to see speciality birds, though I was a little unfortunate in my timing as the owner was taking a previous tour group back to Quito, so I had the place to myself (a surreal experience!).

The highlight for me however, was the hummingbirds clustered around the feeders set up by the lodge. I spent a happy afternoon drinking coffee and trying to photograph the 10+ species that occur regularly there. It is a photographer's dream really, and even with my average skills I got passable photos of violetears, incas, emeralds, brilliants, booted racket-tails and a male long-tailed sylph (an unbelievable bird!).

Just to wrap things up, I fully recommend Ecuador to anyone thinking of going to South America for the first time. To me at least, it seemed pretty safe (though even in Quitoo| new town, some shady characters appear on the streets after about 10pm), and I had no trouble from anyone when travelling about. Bus travel is easy, the buses are cheap and frequent. Only a little country, and very diverse topographically, so you see a lot of widely different scenery in a couple of weeks. The people are friendly and helpful, though be warned that as an independent traveller you really need a basic grasp of Spanish. Food is good, and bottled water is widely available, as is the good local cerveza! By and large, people leave you alone, it isn't the kind of place where people are forever trying to sell you things.

Obviously, there are plenty of birds to see too. I fully recommed a visit to Tandayapa to all and sundry. Those on a tight budget could restrict themselves to Mindo and still come away with some great birding moments, though a splurge to Tandayapa for a couple of nights in the dorms wouldn't be regretted. Good luck!

Ian Stewart
T.H. Morgan School of Biology
University of Kentucky
(859) 323-9499

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