Thursday 25 April 2019

North-west Ecuador - Background and 24th April (Day 1)

I had long wanted to visit Ecuador having only visited Bella Vista for a days birding prior to a long trip through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Tierra del Fuego. There are around 400 ticks for me in the country and having worked through various trip reports and studied lists of the Endemic Bird Areas (EBA's) in the country I had decided that the Choco region in the north-west of the country offered the best return for a two week trip.

The Choco region extends the length of western Colombia and Ecuador and includes the coastal lowlands and the eastern slope of the Andes up to an altitude of 3,800m. The region is one of the wettest areas on earth with 16,000mm of rain annually and the habitat is dominated by humid to wet forest of varying types. Commonly for most countries in the tropics, deforestation in the region is described as major. At the highest altitudes the forests give way to paramo habitats characterised by wet grassland with tall composites such as Espelitia and patches of Poylepis woodland. There are over 50 species of bird endemic to the region and high levels of endemism in plants, reptiles, amphibians and butterflies. There are over 4,000 species of butterfly present, an amazing total for such a small country. The majority of endemic bird species are found in the lower tropical areas and up to the subtropical foothill forests with relatively few species in the higher altitude areas.

I was to undertake this trip alone with a guide, most of my other travelling buddies have already been to Ecuador, often on multiple occasions, and so I opted to undertake my first lone, longer duration foreign birding trip. Having been recommended a guide, Gabriel Bucheli, we worked through various iterations of an itinerary and settled on one that followed an ant-clockwise circuit from Quito northwards towards the Colombian border before dropping down westwards into the lowland forests at Playa del Oro and returning south and then east via the Mindo area.

I provided Gabriel with a list of around 150 species that I still needed and occurred in the NW area of Ecuador, some were ridiculously rare in this part of Ecuador or occurring in too remote an area for this trip and eventually we whittled the list down to around 120 potentially gettable species. Clearly, in the Neotropics one will never see all targets due to the nature of the habitats and the species but I considered a target or around 100 new species to be a good goal.

Gabriel (or Gabo) was a first rate guide and I would fully recommend him for a guided trip to Ecuador he knew the birds and their calls exceptionally well and new the locations of territories of many, if not all, of the target species. He was great company and we became good friends over the course of the two weeks, by the end of the trip I was planning my next trip to Ecuador with him. Gabriel can be contacted on but note that he is often in the field and may not respond immediately.

Gabo charged me $6,250 for the full trip which included all accommodation, park entrance fees, food, vehicle and guiding. I then spent an additional $20 a day on beer, laundry and tips. I am sure the trip could be done cheaper especially without a guide, its an easy country to travel in but of course using a guide has massive advantages. Gabo has a good vehicle which could easily accommodate a group of three and so this would make a similar trip for such a group pretty good value.

Photography and Equipment
This was my first major trip with my Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II and I took with me the 300 F4 Pro lens with a 1.4 converter and also the 28-100mm lens (which I didn't use). It took me a long time to decide to take this camera/lens combination rather than my Canon 1DX Mark 2 and 400mm DO Mark 2. It was partly David Tipling who convinced me to take my Olympus set-up while I was on a course with him in February. My biggest concern was the poorer high ISO performance of the Olympus over the Canon, a potential significant constraint when birding in the dark forest interior. David showed me how to overcome this by becoming confident in using the camera at slower shutter speeds than I would the Canon. This confidence in use of the slower shutter speed allowed me to keep the ISO low, and for much of time I was shooting below at or below 400 ISO, in the dark forest interior I would sometimes go up to 1250 ISO. As an owner of a bad back, I love the light weight and portable nature of the camera and lens and so I was keen to give it a try in forest conditions.

My doubts about the Olympus before the trip were well and truly laid to rest when using the kit in the field. I found this to be a truly remarkable camera, perhaps not quite as pin sharp as the Canon set-up but I found the lens to be more versatile than my Canon set-up and a better performer in low light conditions primarily due to the in-camera and in-lens stabilisation. This means that you can shoot at far slower shutter speeds than you can with the Canon while still achieving no image blur. There were images that I obtained, okay not award winning, of species that I would never have achieved with the Canon set-up. Take my images of the Pittasoma, these were shot with the bird in thick understorey cover in very low light and at around 30th/second – I simply would not have been able to obtain images of the quality I did with the Canon that I did with the Olympus. Time to sell my remaining Canon kit when I return home!

I also took with me my Sennheiser microphone and Olympus recorder but I hardly used it. The reason for this is that, having not been to South America since Colombia in 2012, I found the sheer number of birds at times overwhelming and so I concentrated on looking at them and photographing where possible – to take sound recordings as well would have detracted from one of the other two.

We had a lot of rain! On most days we had at least some heavy rain, this was especially so in Playa de Oro and in the Bellavista area. Rain often fell in the afternoon but we had several days where there was also continuous or at least intermittent rain in the morning. At Playa de Oro it was particularly hot and humid when not raining, most notably on Day 6. Awa Road, Tundaloma area and Silanche were also hot. On the remaining days we were at higher altitudes and the temperature was pleasant. Finally, we had a lot of fog when birding the Bellavista area and this often combined with rain to make fairly unpleasant conditions. At times the weather definitely had a negative impact on birding, most notably on the afternoon of Day 4 and Day 6 and much of Day 12.

Other than regular rain and fog Ecuador was a very pleasant place to travel. I took no malaria pills as the risk in the north-west is very low and non-existent in the mountains. The only issues we had were largely in the lowlands. At Playa de Oro I picked up some mild food poisoning but it didn't really affect my birding. Also at Playa de Oro both Gabo and I picked up a fairly heavy dose of Chiggers which were incredibly itchy. Also in the lowland areas and as far up as at least Milpe we were almost constantly followed by small numbers of mosquitos which seemed to like to target the hands and wrists for their lunch.

Summary Itinerary
  • 25th April (Day 1) - 06:20 flight Heathrow to Madrid then 11:50 flight to Quito. Flight arrived at 16:00 then transfer to HosterĂ­a El Oasis in Urcuqui.
  • 26th April (Day 2) - Cerro Mongus AM, then drive to Limonal.
  • 27th April (Day 3) - Chical Road and Awa Road. Then drive to San Lorenzo.
  • 28th April (Day 4) - Tundaloma area AM. Then drive to Selva Alegre and boat to Playa de Oro.
  • 29th April (Day 5) - Playa de Oro.
  • 30th April (Day 6) - Playa de Oro.
  • 1st May (Day 7) - Playa de Oro AM then drive to Pendro Bicente Maldonado stopping at Playa las Penas en-route.
  • 2nd May (Day 8) – Silanche and Rancho Suamox AM then drive to Chontoloma Lodge near to Mashpi town.
  • 3rd May (Day 9) - Mashpi Shungo AM and Santa Rosa Road PM.
  • 4th May (Day 10) – Mashpi Amagusa AM then Oilbird Caves PM. Drive to Los Bancos. 
  • 5th May (Day 11) - 23 de Junio AM then Milpe Gardens and reserve late AM/early PM. Rest of PM spent on Old Nono - Mindo Road.
  • 6th May (Day 12) – San Jorge de Milpe Lodge AM. Bellavista area PM. 
  • 7th May (Day 13) – Paz de las Aves and Bellavista AM. PM drive to Nono via Tandayapa.
  • 8th May (Day 14) - Yanacocha Reserve AM then drive to Quito for 17:40 flight to Madrid.
  • 9th May (Day 15) – Flight Madrid to London arrive London 13:35.

Map showing the key sites and species recorded during our trip. Zoom into map and click on pins for more details (note the map has not yet been fully populated with species and I shall complete this as I prepare additional blog posts).

25th April - International Flight to Quito
On the 24th I was in bed by 22:30 but awake by 01:00, for the next hour I snoozed but struggled to sleep. At 02:00 the alarm went off and I hurriedly had coffee, finalised my packing and at 02:45 my taxi arrived to take me to Heathrow Terminal 5, after an easy journey with little traffic I arrived at 04:15, checked in and was soon through security. It was not until 05:30 that shops and lounges opened and so I sat and read for a while. Boarding the 06:20 flight to Madrid at 05:45 I soon drifted to sleep and the two-hour flight was soon over. The transfer from the London-Madrid flight to the Madrid-Quito flight was very swift and I was through security by 09:00 and by 09:15 was relaxing with a coffee in the Iberia Airways lounge genning on the trip. My 11:50 flight eventually left the runway at 12:15 and I began the flight relaxing with a wine or two and trying to get my head around the myriad of birds that was possible over the coming days; not easy with a memory as poor as mine. I managed around four hours sleep and awoke to turbulence as we passed over St Maarten in the Caribbean we passed over Caracas and headed south-west along the spine of the Andes passing over Bogota. As we landed into Quito at 16:30 the lush vegetation of the basin in which the city is located looked remarkably European with tall tree-lines, copses and pastoral fields.

The outskirts of Quito

Passing through immigration, collecting my bags and passing through security was remarkably fast and by 16:50 I was out in the foyer looking for Gabo who was due to be there at 16:45. I wandered around scanning all the signs with various names but my name was nowhere to be seen. 30 minutes passed of searching and I began to wonder whether I had been shammed by a person pretending to be a bird guide, I then cooked my plan to stay in a hotel overnight and then book a flight back to the UK tomorrow and abandon foreign birding entirely. And then, out of the now very sparse crowd appeared a smiling and apologetic Gabo, he had forgotten that he needed to help his wife organise for a fair and then, on leaving home to collect me, he had realised that he had his wife’s mobile in the car and so had to head back to his home in Quito. All was good and we hurriedly loaded his 4x4 and headed out of the airport. A short way out we stopped at a small reservoir where we added our first birds to the list as darkness fell with Slate-coloured Coot, Yellow-billed Pintail, Pied-billed Grebe, Snowy Egret, Neotropical Cormorant, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

We then began the two-hour drive to Urcuqui making various stops en-route for fuel and water. We arrived at our hotel the HosterĂ­a El Oasis at just gone 20:15, grabbed a quick fish and vegetable dish and a couple of beers and crashed ready for tomorrows first proper birding.

Links to Other Days of the Trip (Click to View)