Week 1: Quito, Tandayapa Bird Lodge, Paz de las Aves, Tony Nunnery’s - January 6 – 14, 2009

On Tuesday January 6th the day had finally come.  I said goodbye to my family and left Toronto for Ecuador on an early afternoon flight.  Aside from one tense moment in the Bogotá airport where the drug sniffing dog took a liking to the sandwich in my jacket pocket everything went completely smooth.  I arrived in Quito just after 11pm and made my way to a hostel for the night.

I had to have my visa verified by the Ecuadorian officials before I could head off in search of birds so I spent Wednesday in Quito taking care of that and exploring the city.  To my surprise, when I went to the visa office the woman told me that they would need to keep my passport and that it “might” be ready in the morning.  I wasn’t too pleased about this situation (especially handing over my passport) – but there wasn’t really much I could do about it.  I crossed my fingers and vowed to return early the next morning with high hopes of getting all of the paperwork out of the way.

It was still early in the day so I figured I would do a big walk around Quito and get a feel for the city.  I found a map at a local tourist info center and started to wander.  My first impressions of Quito were all very favourable.  It is a nice city that is clean, easy to navigate, has a great transit system, and has lots of good bakeries – several of which I sampled during my tour J

After lunch I decided I would go and check out the Quito Botanical Gardens.  I thought that perhaps there might be something to photograph so I brought my 50D and 300mm f/4 lens with a 1.4x teleconverter and a flash.  Nothing too heavy or cumbersome – but enough to get a decent photo if the opportunity arose.

After paying the $3 admission I began to stroll through the garden.  It was set up to display the various ecosystem types in Ecuador and was really very nice.  I took a few photos of some of the amazing orchids that Ecuador is famous for (4,500 species) and then made my way into the “paramo” (a highland ecosystem type).  I heard the unmistakable high pitched call of a hummingbird and spun around to see a stunning male black-tailed trainbearer.  What an amazing bird!

I spent the few hours or so trying to get an image that I would be happy with – which was difficult given that I had no tripod and the little buggar refused to come down out of the tree he was perched in.  But eventually I got him…

While I was photographing the trainbearer I ran into a girl that was going through customs at the same time as me the night before.  We got to talking and agreed to meet later on for dinner.  A great way to end my first day in Ecuador.

The next morning I went to try to get my passport back and the security guard told me it would be 3 days.  Damn it! 

Lucky for me there was another girl in the office who was in the exact same situation as me and whose control of the Spanish language was far greater than mine.  She did some wheeling and dealing and we both walked out of there an hour or so later with our verified visas.  Mission accomplished.

With my passport hassles sorted out I was free to head off.  I took a taxi to the Tropical Birding head office to get a ride up to my first destination – Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL).

The drive over the mountain pass was amazing.  Tropical cloud forests never cease to amaze me.  The countryside was very nice and to my surprise there was hardly anyone else out on the roads.  After an hour and a half drive we arrived at TBL. 

What can I say about TBL?  What words can I use to describe it?  I think I will go with – amazing, perfect, relaxing, inspiring, and that this place truly is a nature photography heaven.

When I got here the first thing I did was scope out the infamous hummingbird feeders.  They are completely overwhelming.  Probably several thousand individuals of approximately 16 species are swarming all around.  They are everywhere.  I have never seen anything like it.  And I could hardly wait to get my camera out and start shooting.  So that’s exactly what I did J

Over the next few days I continued to focus on photographing the TBL hummers.  I also explored a few of the trails and other areas that could have potential for nature photography.  There is a blind out in the forest that could yield some photos (although it is really dark).  More promising is the “lower deck” that offers canopy level views of anything that might be flying by or passing through.  There is also a fairly extensive trail system that I plan to explore more fully once I have a better command of some of the bird calls down here.  Right now I feel handicapped because although there are birds calling everywhere I have no idea what species they are or where to start looking.  But I am slowly learning their calls and once I understand them a little bit better I should be able to get some good photos.

A few days ago another young photographer from Israel showed up at the lodge and after we had lunch I invited him to join me for some multi-flash hummingbird photography.  Dubi and I had a good time shooting together so we decided to meet up again the next day and head to a nearby location that had a few different species of hummingbirds.  The next day we headed down to “Tony and Barbara’s” place who have a hummingbird garden that has recorded more species than anywhere else on earth.  Something close to 40 species!  It was amazing to see and, despite the rain, we managed to get a set-up that produced some good results.  That is the beauty of multi-flash hummingbird photography – you can shoot even if it is dark and rainy and still get great photos.  This is definitely a good thing as this is the rainy season here and it has rained steadily every day that I have been here so far.  Thank goodness for flash!

One other day this week I took a day trip with a few of the other tourists at the lodge to Paz de las Aves where a local man has tamed 4 species of Antpittas (normally incredibly secretive birds) to come when he calls them.  We missed out on “Maria” the Giant Antpitta but got “Willy” the Yellow-breasted, “Shakira” the Ochre-breasted and also a Moustached Antpitta whose name I have forgotten.

Well…this has definitely been a long enough ramble for what has been an incredible first week.  I promise the rest of the entries will be shorter.

My plan for the next week is to continue to chase after birds at TBL in the mornings (when it is usually not raining) and then keep perfecting my hummingbird techniques in the afternoons.

Week 2: More Tandayapa Bird Lodge + Bellavista Lodge - January 15 – 21, 2009

It’s been another great week down in Ecuador.  I spent a few afternoons working a bit more on my high-speed flash techniques here at the lodge.  I also made a day trip up the hill to Bellavista Lodge to see and photograph a few species of birds that can only be found at higher elevations (birds like the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Grass Green Tanager and Ocellated Tapaculo).

Last week we had no guests at the lodge so the staff wasn’t around.  Even the manager left for a few days.   I had the whole place to myself!  Unfortunately the power went out for 2 full days which limited my evening options for photo editing and such.  But what a treat it was to be all alone in this amazing venue.

On the 17th I walked down to the town of Tandayapa to see what birds might be around.  There were a few species around but nothing to get too excited about.  On the way back I noticed that there had been a mini landslide on the TBL driveway so myself and Richard (one of the staff at TBL) busted out the machetes and got to work…

Another thing I’ve spent a bit of time on this week was photographing the moths and other insects that live around TBL.  There are so many amazing ones that congregate around the lodge during the night and can be photographed in the morning before they move on elsewhere or back into the forest.

Earlier this morning I decided to go and explore the remaining TBL trails.  After a few hours of hiking I had made it to the end of the most distant trail.  I hadn’t covered a huge distance by any means – but there were many fallen trees which made it pretty slow going.  In any case it was a nice hike and I saw some interesting frogs and some good birds.  On the way back I photographed a nice waterfall and took a few landscape images of the trails and forests in the valley.  I was 90% back to the lodge when I realized that I no longer possessed my ipod.  Damn it!  I had dropped it somewhere along the trail.  So back I went, up the hill, over the trees, under the other trees, over the river and all the way back to the very top before I spotted my shining red ipod in the leaf litter.  By the time I got back to the lodge I was filthy, sweaty and starving.  But at least I had regained my ipod.

The mornings longer than expected hike left me drained of energy and I didn’t feel much like taking pictures in the afternoon.  I decided instead to make a pizza from scratch for the TBL staff for dinner.  A nice end to another wonderful week in Ecuador.

Up next…Week 3: Yanacocha, Quito and more Tandayapa Bird Lodge


Week 3-4: Yanacocha, Quito, Paz de las Aves, Scouting mission of NW Ecuador and more Tandayapa Bird Lodge - January 22 – February 7, 2009

The past two weeks have flown by.  I’ve spent most of my time at Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL), but have also made a few day trips outside of the valley.  The first was with my new friend Dubi to a highland area called Yanacocha just outside of Quito.  To get to Yanacocha Dubi picked me up early one morning from TBL and we were on our way.  We had a map drawn by one of the guides that appeared “fool-proof”…or so we thought.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that we had missed a turn just after leaving the lodge and our map was now essentially useless.  I would estimate that we probably stopped to ask at least 15 people for directions before finally making it to Yanacocha.  But when we did the weather was perfect and it seemed like a great day for taking pictures. 

I can’t emphasize enough how essential it was to have the help of a friend for getting to and achieving photos of hummingbirds in flight at this location.  First of all, because Yanacocha is definitely not reachable by public transit and I would have definitely had to rent a car to get there.  Secondly, because with my terrible sense of direction there is no way I would have ever been able to get myself there.  Third of all, because the site is at roughly 4000m and walking even a couple of kilometres with close to 80 pounds of gear would have been nearly impossible.  And I have to add that it is always a whole lot more fun shooting with a friend.

After lugging all that gear along the trails of Yanacocha, Dubi and I found a good area to set up for some multi-flash hummingbird photography.  For me the main target was the gorgeous Great Saphirewing (see photos below).  I was also hoping to get the other species that are only found at these altitudes like the Golden-breasted puffleg and Sapphire-vented puffleg.  I got a good multi-flash set up happening as quickly as possible and we managed some images that I think we were both very happy with.  We then moved down the trail to explore the rest of the area and found another area that was equally productive.  We shot until about 2pm when the rain forced us off of the mountain and back towards Quito.

The trip back to Quito was absolutely ridiculous.  Quito is the most un-tourist friendly city I have ever seen as far as driving around goes.  There are no signs and the ones that exist are so poorly located.  There are way too many one way streets and nothing seemed to make sense.  Add to this the fact that we were trying to get to a hostel that I didn’t know the exact address of and you can imagine the kind of trip it was back to Quito.  I promise you that we asked 30 people for directions.  The standard response - “si, todo directo” (which means – “yes, keep going” and is almost always the wrong advice).  Eventually we made it to the hostel and found some good food and a few beers as rewards for a challenging day of photography (and navigation).

The next day Dubi, his friend Noam, and I headed back up to Yanacocha - this time without the burden of all of the multi-flash gear.  Travelling lighter it was a much more enjoyable hike and I managed to pick off perched shots of all of the target species.

Later that afternoon Dubi dropped me back off at the lodge.  Yanacocha mission accomplished!

My next day trip was to return to Paz de las Aves with another group of tourists that were visiting the lodge.  When I was there a few weeks back it was great – but I missed out on the Giant Antpitta that is normally pretty cooperative.  This time Angel Paz was able to locate “Maria” the Giant Antpitta and she was extremely cooperative – jumping up on to a fantastic perch and posing long enough for me to snap off a few photos (and by a few I mean about 350 J - see below).

After a few more days around the lodge I went on another day trip with a different guest who wanted to scout out some locations in northwest Ecuador for a tour he is going to lead in a few weeks.  This was a really great opportunity for me because I got to see 5 or 6 different locations and assess whether they would be good photo locations for later in my trip.  As it turned out a few that sounded great based on the descriptions that I had gleaned from websites turned out to be terrible from a photography perspective.  At the same time, I was happy to find that others had a lot of potential.  All in all it was a great day and I even managed to get a few decent photos.

The next day a group of Canadians arrived at the lodge without the assistance of a guide.  With them being my fellow countrymen and women I felt it my duty to try to help them out and find a few good birds for them.  As it turned out it was actually really fun to show them around Tandayapa and I really enjoyed the time they were at the lodge.

A few days back my friend Brian (who set me up with the volunteering gigs at Tandayapa and Milpe) dropped by the lodge to see if I wanted to head down to the Milpe and Rio Silanche reserves with him and his friend Juan.  I had no reason not to go – so off we went.  I actually didn’t even bring my camera because I just felt like a bit of a break from photography.  It was nice to have a day to just explore.  I saw some good birds at the two reserves (Choco trogon and Toucan being the highlights) and got to meet a few of the folks from the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation as well.  One lesson I definitely learned was to not touch the fuzzy caterpillars!  My hand inadvertently brushed up against one while I was watching for birds and it felt like I had been stung by about 10 bees.  Each little spike left a welt and the sting lasted for at least half an hour.  Ouch!

Today is my last day at TBL.  It has been a great month.  This place is so ideal for nature photography it is incredible.  But after a month I am ready to move on to a new location, new birds, new people and hopefully lots of new photos. 

Up next…

Week 5-6: Mindo Cloudforest Foundation’s Milpe Reserve

Week 5-6: Mindo Cloudforest Foundation’s Milpe Reserve – February 8 – 21, 2009

I headed off from Tandayapa Bird Lodge on the 8th and made my way to the town of Los Bancos.  I was making my way towards my next stop which would be the Milpe reserve.  On the way though, I wanted to stop in and do some photography at the fruit feeders at the Restaurant Mirrador Los Bancos.

I spent two nights in Los Bancos at this fantastic little restaurant.  It was such a comfortable base and the views over the river valley made for a spectacular back-drop.  But of course my focus was on photographing the birds that frequently came in to the fruit feeders.  In all honesty the conditions for photography were not ideal and it was a challenge to pull out some quality images.  But by the time I left I was pretty happy with the images I had managed (especially of Guira Tanager, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Silver-throated Tanager and Blue-gray Tanager).  An added bonus was meeting and having lunch with a few “Quitenas” (girls from Quito) who promised to show me around town when I get back to the city :)

On the 10th the owner of the restaurant (Patricio) was kind enough to give me a lift over to the reserve that is located only a few kilometres outside of Los Bancos.  I was excited to be at Milpe but I was also really tired so it was straight to bed for me.

I awoke to find out that the Milpe reserve is a really cool place.  There are some good trails working through the property that are very active with bird life.  They have hummingbird feeders that attract 7-8 species including some really cool ones like Green Thorntail, Velvet-purple Coronet and White-whiskered hermit.  There is also a bird-friendly shade coffee plantation and the main road that leads to the reserve can also be productive.  Plenty to keep me busy for the next 2 weeks!

I spent much of the first week walking the trails in the morning and then shooting hummingbirds in the afternoon.  I was usually forced under cover by early afternoon when rain came nearly every day (torrential at times).  But fortunately there is a perfect area where I could keep shooting hummingbirds and stay dry.

All the rain meant that the power was intermittent and out for a several days.  We had no running water for most of the 2 weeks that I was there.  And I couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee to save my life!  I have also been hearing rumors that several of the main roads are washed out or have been covered by landslides.  It’s a bit hard to type right now because my fingers are crossed that I can actually get back to Quito tomorrow.  Oh how I long for a hot shower (or any shower for that matter) and a good cup of coffee…

There are plenty of good birds around here at Milpe.  But to be honest photography has been challenging.  I definitely haven’t got as many “WOW” factor images as I had hoped for.  But it has been a good stop nonetheless.  I am looking forward to a few down days in Quito to relax and explore the city.  Afterwards I’ll head back up into the highlands around Papallacta and Antisana.  Should be fun!

Up next…

Week 7-8: Quito, The Papallacta Pass, Guango Lodge, Antisana and Otavalo

Week 7: Quito, The Papallacta Pass, Guango Lodge, Cotopaxi Volcano, Antisana Volcano and Otavalo – February 22 - March 1, 2009

I made it back to Quito on the afternoon of the 22nd and found my buddy Dubi hanging out at the Hostel that we both use.  It was so great to see a familiar face!  I was craving a good cup of coffee and an indulgent meal so after sucking back an Americano at a local café I demolished a massive hamburger and fries at one of the “gringo-ish” restaurants in town.  After our meal Dubi and I began to scheme a plan for the next 4 days of highland birding.

The next morning we headed off for the Papallacta pass.  More specifically we wanted to go to the area that is famous for the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe.  We managed to get there with minimal navigational errors (for once) and were greeted by perfect conditions for photography.  It was freezing cold…but the light was great!

Wandering around the top of the mountain we found a number of good birds to photograph.  Unfortunately we didn’t locate the Seedsnipe.  The weather was beginning to turn on us so we headed down 1000m or so in elevation to Guango Lodge that has infamous hummingbird feeders.  What initially seemed like an ideal opportunity for photography turned into a frustrating escapade (for a variety of reasons beyond our control).  Nevertheless, we both came away with a handful of nice images – including an awesome Sword-billed Hummingbird!  With the light dwindling we returned to our hostel in Papallacta for a meal and a much-needed soak in the thermal pools. 

The Seedsnipe thorn was still sticking in both our sides and so we decided to return to the Pass the following morning to try for this bird again.  The weather was spectacular.  The sun was shining and we could see the snow-capped peaks of 3 volcanoes that stood not far in the distance.  When we arrived at the top we asked the guard if he knew of the Seedsnipe and if he had seen it recently.  Nonchalantly, he led us a few paces from our car, pointed down the slope at the bird we had been chasing, and said “eso”? (that one?).  We were all smiles…

After photographing the Seedsnipe we headed back to Guango for another day of multi-flash hummingbird photography.  Unfortunately the weather was TOO good.  There was a bit more light than is ideal for this type of photography which made setting up a challenge.  To add to this the sunny weather meant that the flowers in the wild were producing more nectar and therefore fewer birds were coming to the feeder station.  Once again Guango wound up being a frustrating experience.  The place has so much potential but we just weren’t able to fully take advantage of it.  I guess I’ll just have to go back again J

On our third morning of highland birding Dubi and I made our way south to the Cotopaxi Volcano (one of the peaks we had seen the previous morning).  Our main target that day would be the endemic hummingbird called the Ecuadorian Hillstar.  The drive took longer than expected but shortly after entering the park we were fortunate to find a great opportunity to photograph an Andean Lapwing.  Afterwards we made our way to a large lagoon where a lot of ducks were congregating.  Wandering around the lake we found what we were looking for – a large patch of the Chuquiragua flower (the favourite food of the Ecuadorian Hillstar).  I was almost certain that if we found the flowers we would find the bird so we set up our gear and started searching.  Sure enough within a few minutes we spotted our target.  The sun had popped out by this point which made for terribly contrasty light.  We had no choice but to wait for some cloud cover if we wanted to get the shots that we both desired.  Eventually the weather and bird cooperated in unison and we got photos that I know we are both thrilled with.  Mission accomplished!

Our luck the previous three days had been almost too good.  As we left Cotopaxi a crazy hail storm started and lightning struck the peak right beside us (check out video blog #3 to see this first hand).  Was this Karma trying to balance the scales?  Or should we try our luck and try for one more day of highland birding?

The final spot that we both really wanted to go was the Antisana Volcano.  Unfortunately you cant just show up to Antisana.  You have to arrange for a permit by direct depositing money into the owners bank.  He will then fax you 3 sets of permits that you must show at the checkpoints passing through his land.  Needless to say this was not something that could be arranged overnight.  After contemplating how much it would take to bribe 3 checkpoints, and deciding that it would be more than we were prepared to part with, I decided to call the folks that I had been volunteering for earlier in January.  As it turned out they had pre-purchased a number of passes and were more than happy to sell me 2 for $20.  It seemed that our luck was indeed meant to continue.

After a night in Quito we set off for Antisana.  I had read some trip reports the night before and made a list of 10 or so species that I thought would be possible (e.g. Black-faced Ibis, Silvery Grebe, Black-winged Ground Dove, etc.).  If you asked me before we left I would have told you that I would have been happy to get 2 or 3 of these.  Antisana though offered us one of those unbelievably amazing days that seem to come around far too infrequently.  It was ridiculous!  We had perfect weather.  We not only found, but photographed, all of the birds on my list.  And we had a great time in the process.  It couldn’t have been a better day.

We left Antisana around 1pm and, I guess as a bonus prize, managed to get amazing photos of a Black’tailed Trainbearer on the way back into town.  What a day!

Dubi had to race of to the airport to get back to Israel and I definitely felt the tear of mixed emotions saying goodbye.  Of course I was sad to see my friend go.  But I was also so happy to have such a great new person and friend in my life.  We had some great times shooting together and I’m sure that we will be doing more photography together in the near future…country TBA.

The past 4 days had been incredible.  Good times, and even better photographs.  But hiking at those elevations for 4 consecutive days left me slightly drained.  I needed a day off!  I basically just roamed around Quito during the day and then went out for drinks with the girls I had met a few weeks back.

Saturday morning I boarded an early bus for the city of Otovalo.  This town is famous for its amazing Saturday market and I definitely didn’t want to leave Ecuador without checking it out.  I was mildly concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find a hostal room on market day – but lady luck was still on my side and the first place I walked in to had a sweet room with a nice double bed, private bathroom and satellite TV for the whopping price of $8. Nice!

Accommodations sorted, I was craving a decent coffee.  I found a little café and ordered my beverage.  The place lacked adequate seating and so, being the gentleman that I am, when I noticed a girl standing around I asked if she would like to join me.  Martina (from Poland) turned out to be super-cool and after we downed our coffees we decided to tour the market together.  It was so much fun helping each other haggle down prices and pick out souvenirs.  We worked up an appetite and so decided to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Replenished, we went for a hike to a waterfall that Martina had heard about the day before.  The hike was nice and the waterfall was definitely worth the walk.  Martina and I figured we deserved a few beers and so it was back to Otavalo for a meal and beverages. A great way to end another fine day in Ecuador…

The next day it was back to Quito for me to re-pack my bags, do my laundry, etc.  I will add at this point that I now hate Quito.  It is a dodgy, unsafe, ugly city.  People get mugged every night and there is very little worth seeing.  So needless to say I was anxious to get going again. 

I knew that my next destination was the town of Cuenca in the south.  As it turned out there were two other American girls with the same agenda so we decided to take the 11 hour bus ride together bright and early the next morning.

I write this now from a cute little café in Cuenca – my new favourite city anywhere I have travelled in the world.  It is so nice here.  I would seriously live here. 

My plan for the next week is to visit the Cajas National Recreational Area (about an hour from town) at least 3 times to clean up on the highland birds I still need.  I also want to spend some time visiting some museums and just enjoying living in a beautiful, warm and safe city.

Up next…

Week 8: Cuenca

Week 8: Cuenca – March 3 - 12, 2009

I took a long 11 hour bus ride from Quito to Cuenca on the 3rd of March and settled in to what would be my home for the next 10 days. I found a fantastic hostel to be my base camp right in the interesting part of town. My first day here in Cuenca I wandered around quite a bit and found Cuenca to be an absolutely beautiful city. There are churches and cathedrals everywhere, the architecture is stunning, there are tonnes of museums and loads of cafe's. In addition, Cajas National Park is only an hour away by bus making it an easy day trip. I was falling in love with Cuenca already.

I spent my 10 days in Cuenca visiting the national park for 3 days, the local parks for 3 others and spending the rest of the time relaxing and meeting wonderful people. I spent a lot of time at a little coffee shop that I found on my first day here - "Cafe de la Eli". The owner is such a wonderful woman.

It was a pretty relaxed couple of days but I still managed to capture some images I am pleased with from Cajas (including the endangered Giant Conebill and Violet-throated Metaltail).

Up next…

Week 9-10: The South - Buenaventura, Jorupe, Utuana, Tapichalaca and Copalinga...

Week 9-12: The South - Buenaventura, Jorupe, Utuana, Tapichalaca and Copalinga... – March 13 - April 4, 2009

From Cuenca I caught a bus south to the town of Pinas.  The following morning I was able to hire a pickup truck to take me in to the Jocotoco Foundation’s Buenaventura reserve.

Buenaventura has a lot of really interesting opportunities for wildlife viewing or photography.  There is a lek for the Long-wattled Umbrellabird, another for Club-winged Manakins, it is one of the only places to see the El Oro Parakeet and they also have fantastic hummingbird feeders.  Definitely lots to keep me busy for the 3 days I would spend there.

My time at Buenaventura went quickly.  And although I was happy with some of the images I was able to create I never managed that one really special one that I was hoping for.  But I definitely got some cool hummingbird shots! J

My next destination took me even further south to the very edge of the Ecuador/Peru border and to the town of Macara.  From Macara my plan was to visit two more of the Jocotoco Foundation’s reserves – Jorupe and Utuana.  On my first morning in Macara I headed off to the nearby Jorupe reserve.  I was excited to try for some of the many bird species that live here.  But after 6 hours of hiking around all I had was a few more mosquito bites, a sunburn, and a bit of a sore back.  I walked back down to the main road and hitchhiked back to Macara – extremely disappointed.

The next day I thought I would try my luck at Utuana.  This reserve is about an hour from Macara and was a bit more difficult to get to.  But the real difficulty began once I had arrived.  You see, the main target for me at Utuana was the Rainbow Starfrontlet hummingbird.  I wanted to capture images of the bird in flight and this meant that I had to carry over 80lbs of multi-flash gear with me several kilometres up the muddy trail to the area where the hummingbird feeders are located – not an easy task!!

Eventually I made it to the area.  I was sweaty and muddy…but I had made it.  Unfortunately, to my dismay, the situation for trying to photograph these little beauties couldn’t have been worse.  I was confronted with direct sunlight (exactly what you don’t want for multi-flash hummingbird photography) and not a lot of options in terms of what I could do to move things about.  It was very frustrating to have gone to all that effort to get there and then realize that I might not get the images I wanted so badly.  But I was determined to make something work.  I rigged up a shade for the area where I would be photographing the hummingbirds using some branches and one of my artificial backgrounds.  This meant that I would no longer have to compete with the natural light and could go about trying to photograph the Starfrontlets.  They were tough to photograph…but eventually I managed an image or two that I am proud of…especially given the ordeal to get there and then get set-up.  Mission accomplished!!

I had originally planned to spend a second day at both Utuana and Jorupe but decided instead to move on directly from Utuana to Loja.  I spent a few days there just relaxing and editing images before catching a bus towards Valladolid to visit the Tapichalaca reserve.  On the bus ride to Tapichalaca we were stopped for 2 hours while a crew was doing roadwork.  I watched as the heavy machinery balanced precariously on the edge of the cliff and was amazed that I did not witness anyone plummet down the hillside to their demise.  Alas, the wait wasn’t all bad.  I saw one of the most amazing rainbows of my life.  It seemed so close.  I felt like I could almost have gotten off the bus, reached out and touched it.

For those who haven’t heard of Tapichalaca or don’t know the story - Cerro Tapichalaca is a mountain in southern Ecuador where in 1997 Dr. Robert Ridgely (Author Of the field guide to the birds of Ecuador) discovered a species of Antpitta that was new to science – the Jocotoco Antpitta.  This discovery sparked the formation of the Jocotoco Foundation and the creation of the Tapichalaca reserve. 

Rather than have birders and photographers chasing after the extremely rare Jocotoco’s (perhaps as few as 10 pairs exist), the foundation decided to try to tame a few as has been done at other locations in Ecuador.  After 3 months of trying to get the birds accustomed to coming in to feed on worms they finally succeeded.  It is an amazing thing to come to this reserve and see such an extremely rare bird, one that has been known to science for barely a decade, at such close distances.  It was a real pleasure to be able to spend a few mornings with these beautiful birds.

On my second night at Tapichalaca disaster struck.  I woke up in the middle of the night and immediately knew something was wrong.  That night I was as sick as I can ever remember being in my life.  It was brutal.  I’m not sure if it was something I ate, or drank, or a virus, or what.  But all I know is I would like to wipe the memory of those 6 hours I spent in the bathroom from my mind forever.

Needless to say the next day was a complete write off.  I slept for 22 of the next 24 hours.  Miraculously though the next day I was fine.

I spent one more (extremely rainy) day at Tapichalaca before moving on back to Loja and then on to Zamora and to Cabinas Ecologicas Copalinga.

I spent an unbelievable week at Copalinga.  It is such an amazing place.  If you come to Ecuador and are anywhere near the south – YOU HAVE TO GO!!  The grounds of the lodge are fantastic and there are so many great birds around (e.g. wire-crested thorntail, paradise tanager, spangled coquette, blackish nightjar, yellow-cheeked becard, etc.).  Add to this that you can easily walk to Podocarpus National Park (3km) and also can visit the famous “old” Loja-zamora road and Copalinga truly has a lot to offer the birder or nature photographer.  Furthermore, the owners Catherine and Baudouin are really fantastic people.  Catherine is a wealth of knowledge about the local avifauna and on numerous occasions during my week at Copalinga she got me onto the birds.

I spent a fair bit of time around the grounds of Copalinga and also visited the park three times to try for Ecuadorian piedtail and Coppery-chested Jacamar.   One morning I went to the “old” Loja-Zamora road and another afternoon I went to the Cordillera del Condor region on the border of Peru to try for a few very restricted range species like Rufous-browed Foliage-Gleaner.

The highlight of my time at Copalinga though was one incredible afternoon when I got onto a mixed tanager flock and was able to photograph 10 species of tanagers in less than 10 minutes.  It was insane!!  I would have to say that it was one of the most exciting events of all of the time I have spent photographing birds in the tropics.

Later that evening I returned to my cabin to take a shower and get ready for dinner.  Just as I was ready to step into the shower I realized I was not alone.  I was sharing the shower with a massive (larger than my hand) tarantula!  It took me a while to shoo him out of there…but eventually he did vacate the area and I was able to get cleaned up J

My week at Copalinga was so wonderful - perfect weather, fantastic hosts, a beautiful lodge, and of course great birds.

I am now back in Cuenca for a few more days before I head back to Quito to take care of some business and then head to the coast.

Up next...

Week 13-15: The Coast - Puerto Lopez, Isla de la Plata, Ayampe and time for some surfing :)

Week 13-15: The Coast - Puerto Lopez, Ayampe and Montanita – April 7 - 21, 2009

After the standard few days in Quito I caught a bus headed for the coast.  My first stop would be Puerto Lopez where I wanted to visit both Machalilla National Park as well as Isla de la Plata.  It sure was nice to be at the beach and feel the sun.  Unfortunately, I over indulged a bit on my first day and got good and burnt.

The next day I headed to Machalilla and toured around the park a bit.  The habitat is all super dry scrubland.  Not much in terms of biodiversity and really nothing that couldn’t be photographed from town.  I basically just did a hike, went to the beach and then returned to Puerto Lopez.

On my third day I went on a tour to Isla de la Plata.  Normally I absolutely hate tours.  But when it comes to the Isla there is no choice - you have to go with a guided tour.  And this is really terrible for photography because it means you get to the Island at roughly mid-day.  The lighting situation was absolutely terrible for photography.  But I made the best of it and tried to come away with a few shots.  It sure was cool to see all the nesting Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds as well as a few other species.  On the way out we even saw a big pod of dolphins which was really amazing.

The following day I took a bus down the beach to the town of Ayampe.  Ayampe is a tiny but pleasant place with a nice beach and access to some of the best bird watching in the area.  I spent 3 nights here doing a bit of photography, reading, relaxing, surfing, etc.  I wasn’t really sure where my next stop would be so I decided to take a day trip to the next town – Montanita.  When I arrived I found an ideal spot to spend my second week on the coast.  There were good waves, cool places to stay and the town had an amazing vibe. 

I spent the next 7 days surfing and relaxing.  It was great!!

Up next…

Week 16-17: Wild Sumaco Jungle Lodge...

Week 16-19: Wildsumaco Lodge, Mindo Loma, Mindo and Rio Palenque – April 22 - May 18, 2009

I spent a few days back in Quito after getting back from the coast.  Normally I just relax and don’t do a heck of a lot when I am in Quito.  But this time I went out on a few missions with my new friend Rudy.  We went up to Yanacocha one day to try for a few highland birds (including the Rainbow-bearded Thornbill) and to the Jeruselem reserve the next to search for the Giant Hummingbird.  In both cases we were successful.  Now as much as I would like to take credit for these finds – I cannot.  You see Rudy is a bird guide here in Ecuador and knows the avifauna of this country amazingly well.  So all credit goes to Mr. Gelis :)

From Quito I ventured off up and over the east slope of the Andes to Wildsumaco Jungle Lodge.  This reserve is run by an American couple and one of the best birders in South America – Jonas Nilsen.  It is a fantastic place with lots of good birds that are really difficult to find in other places (e.g. Yellow-throated Spadebill, Scarlet-breasted Fruiteater, etc.).  The hummingbird feeders can be spectacular as well with a good number of species.  More importantly they have species that don’t come to feeders elsewhere making Wildsumaco unique.

I spent 9 days at Sumaco trying to photograph the birds there.  The hummingbirds cooperated beautifully.  The forest birds however did not.  I walked around the trails (which are fantastic by the way) every single day and I basically got nothing but bug bites to show for it :(

In any case I enjoyed my time at Wildsumaco.

From Wildsumaco it was once again back to Quito.  I visited the Botanic gardens to photograph some orchids and then headed off in the direction of Mindo.  I had heard really good things about the reserve called Mindo Loma located near the town of Mindo and I wanted to check it out for myself.  I was not disappointed!  Literally within 10 minutes of arriving I had photographed the rare Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager and after another 20 minutes or so the Golden, Golden-naped, Palm and Blue-winged Mountain-Tanagers as well.  It was awesome!  Especially after grinding it out on the trails at Wildsumaco – it was nice to get some nice new images.

I spent four days at Mindo Loma hanging out with Boris and Patricio (the sons of the owners) who are both excellent bird guides and photographers.  While there I was extremely happy to photograph my 70th species of hummingbird (the rather boring Hoary Puffleg).  70 species was a goal of mine so it was sweet to achieve this J  I also got some solid photos of the Toucan Barbet on my last morning.

After Mindo Loma I moved on 10 minutes down the road to Mindo.  I basically just wanted to see the town.  Other than a few good pizza places there isn’t much to see.  But it was a nice stop for a few days.

From Mindo I caught a few more buses to the Rio Palenque reserve near the town of Patricia Pilar.  I was very pleased to find such a laid back place with really nice staff and nice wide trails to wander around on for 3 days.  I found a few good birds while I was there including a really cool White-whiskered Puffbird that I photographed devouring a big frog.  Gross…but cool!

And today I snagged another bus back to Quito where I now sit in a coffee shop with a delicious Americano and a brownie :)

Up next…

The final chapter - The Amazon...

Week 20-21: Papallacta Pass and Sani Lodge – May 20 - June 2, 2009

I left Quito early on the morning of the 20th to head up to the Papallacta Pass for one final time.  My top target was the amazing Torrent Duck that lives along the Rio Guango.  I was also after a few highland hummingbirds such as the Viridian Metaltail and Shining Sunbeam.

After finding a hostel I headed down the slope to Guango Lodge to begin my search for the duck.  I found a trail along the river and before long had located a beautiful female Torrent Duck.  I was aware that this species is very shy - so I approached with extreme caution.  Even still, I only managed to fire off a few frames before she jumped in the water and scooted on down the river out of sight.  Shoot!

I wandered down the river some more and kept checking every place I could find for her or others.  After an hour or so I found a location where there were not one, but two, male Torrent Ducks.  But they too immediately sensed my presence.  I backed off to let them relax and luckily they didn’t flee.  Slowly I crept into position and managed to get some sweet shots of these guys.  I was stoked!

I made my way back up the trail to Guango Lodge to photograph a few more hummingbirds there as well as the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta that they feed worms.  It was a great first afternoon.

The next morning I headed out early up the mountain to scout out locations for the 2 hummingbirds that I was after.  I found a site that looked promising and vowed to return later to get the photos.  But since Guango was so good to me the day before I decided to go back there for another shot at the Torrent Ducks.  I hiked up and down the river all day and didn’t find a single one.  Just goes to show that nature is unpredictable and fickle at times.  Not to worry though.   I still had one more day to try for these beauties.

The next morning I hiked up the mountain with all of my gear to photograph the Viridian Metaltail and Shining Sunbeam.  They both cooperated and allowed me to get some sweet shots.  I noticed that the Sunbeam was gathering nesting material and so I spent some time stalking her back to the nest she was building.  It was a real treat to see her constructing her nest out of lichen, spider webs and other random things she would find.  The morning up the mountain was a huge success and so I once again ventured back down the slope to Guango Lodge to try one last time for the Torrent Duck. I strolled along the river for a few hours with no luck and then the rain forced me back to the lodge.  There was a group of women there doing some photography at the hummingbird feeders.  Since the light was terrible for what I was trying to do I spent some time trying to give them a few pointers.  After a while the weather cleared and I made my way back down to the river where I found another nice male Torrent Duck how allowed me to get a final few photos.

Overall it was a great few days up in the highlands.

The next morning I caught a bus to Coca so that I could travel into the Amazon. 

And now for a bit of a rant…  There is one thing about Ecuador that I will definitely not miss.  Every time you ask someone how long a bus will take they are so unbelievably optimistic it is incredible (incredibly frustrating that is).  I was told this bus would take 6 hours and it was more like 10.  Brutal!

But in any case I eventually made it to Coca and settled in for the night.  The next day I met one of the folks from Sani Lodge and we boarded our boat to travel down the Napo River (one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River).  After 3 hours on the boat we arrived at Sani Lodge.  I must have been smiling for the whole ride.  I was so happy to finally be visiting the Amazon Jungle!

The lodge is set on a small lagoon far away from anything else.  It is such a fantastic place.   Wildlife was everywhere.  The sights and sounds overwhelming.  I was in heaven.

Now I had expected the Amazon to be exceptionally hot, humid, wet and buggy.  But it really wasn’t that bad.  In fact I had ideal weather for most of my 6 days there.  And because of this the week went by in a flash.  I was out in the field all day every day trying to make the most of the opportunities around the lagoon, up in the canopy tower, at the parrot clay licks and out on the trails.  Fortunately I had an amazing native guide named Guillermo who knew the birds and their calls incredibly well.  We had a great week together and I have loads of new material.  It would be impossible to say what my favourite part of visiting the Amazon was.  But the highlights for me were definitely being able to see and photograph 5 species of Kingfishers, the Parrot licks, the super-cool experience of being able to be up in the canopy towers on a daily basis, and finally the sounds of the owls, nighthawks, frogs and insects at night as I drifted off to sleep each night in my tent.

I will reserve a special place in my heart for the Amazon Rainforest and I hope to return one day very soon.

I am now once again back in Quito.  This time however is the final time.  Five months of nature photography have come and gone.  It has been an unbelievable trip - the trip of a lifetime to be sure.  Even in my dreams I could never have imagined how many amazing things I would be able to see, experience and photograph.  In the end I was able to photograph 375 species of tropical birds and I saw nearly 600 species!

So thank you very much for coming along on the journey with me.  Stay tuned for the book “Birds of Ecuador” that I will be publishing from this trip (should be available by Christmas) as well as more photos and articles that I will be posting very soon.

All the best everyone!

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Home sweet home...