Hummingbirds of Ecuador 2015 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Jan 19, 2016

On arrival in Quito in late October we were met at the airport and driven to our hotel. All tour participants arrived a day early, so the evening before the trip began we were able to meet for a short welcome talk about what to expect. Everyone was excited to begin the next morning.
After breakfast, we were met by George, our local bird guide. We boarded our bus, which was the perfect size to handle all of us and all of our gear without difficulty. Our first lodge was in the Tandayapa Valley about three hours northwest of Quito. The majority of our drive was on well-paved highway, with the final five kilometers on a bumpy mountain road up to the lodge. At approximately a half kilometer from the lodge we switched to a smaller vehicle to make the final trek. Our lodge is nestled into the Andean cloud forest at an elevation of 5,740 feet. When we arrived, we are greeted by countless hummingbirds coming to the feeders for a drink.
I gathered flowers and began setting up our hummingbird stations. In the meantime, everyone was photographing the hummingbirds around the lodge using on-camera flash. At first, it was a bit difficult for participants to differentiate among the 20 to 30 different hummingbird species here. Some of our first sightings were of rufous-tailed hummingbirds, green violetears, brown violetears, sparkling violetears, fawn-breasted brilliants, empress brilliants, buff-tailed coronets, purple-bibbed whitetips, Andean emeralds, western emeralds, purple-throated woodstars and brown incas. The two stars of the show were the booted racket-tailed hummingbird and the violet-tailed sylph. Both species were well represented and would offer us many good photo opportunities in the days ahead.
Shortly after lunch—the food here and throughout the tour was very good and plentiful—all of the hummingbird stations were ready. We used radio transmitters and receivers to trigger the four or five strobes to freeze the hummingbirds in flight. Almost immediately, everyone was capturing wonderful images—many of which I wished I would have shot myself. I did not shoot much at all at the hummingbird stations. Instead, I made sure everyone was getting the photo opportunities they had hoped for. Besides the flower setups, we also had flashes set up on popular perches. The perching stations gave us the opportunity to balance flash with natural light backgrounds. After a little practice, the technique became easier and also served us well at the fruit feeder on the other side of the lodge where we were regularly visited by other birds, such as the rufous motmot, crimson-rumped toucanet, blue-winged mountain tanager and others. The fruit feeder was a nice distraction from the frantic activity at our hummingbird stations!
We spent the next three days shooting at the hummingbird stations and around the lodge, breaking only for lunch or to change batteries. We rotated about every hour, so that everyone got a chance to shoot at each location. Each setup had a different local flower to attract the hummingbirds. By now, everyone was comfortable with the process and, as I looked over their shoulders at the backs of their cameras, they were getting truly amazing images.
We had long, full days of photography from breakfast until dark. But, since we were shooting only a few feet from the lodge doors, it was easy for everyone to take breaks whenever they wished. There were also some really interesting insects to be found for the macro photographers. And, for those who were a bit adventurous, they could walk one of the trails at night to search out unique frogs, such as the Pinocchio frog.
One day, we were up for an early 4:15 AM breakfast to be on the road by 4:45 AM. We were headed to Refugio Paz where, after a short trek through the underbrush, we ended up in a small, covered blind in front of a cock-of-the-rock lek. At first, we could only hear the birds as they chattered and displayed to each other. It was still very early and there wasn’t much light so we used higher ISO settings to shoot these incredibly beautiful birds. Finally, one jumped out onto a branch into the open and gave us about 45 seconds to photograph before flying back into the canopy. After our time was up we headed down the dirt road in search of a few other subjects. On the nearby river bank our guide managed to coax out a tiny bird called the yellow-breasted antpitta. These secretive little birds are very hard to find and even harder to photograph. But our guide was expert at drawing them out to within camera range.
After a short walk up the road we were able to photograph a group of dark-backed wood quail. Another short took us to a trail leading higher up into the cloud forest. This was a medium-difficult hike as there are some steep areas and slippery spots. On the trail we managed to find the giant antpitta and the rufous-breasted antthrush. Still further up the trail we also had the chance to photograph the adorable ochre-breasted antpitta. Once back in our bus we headed further up the mountain for a “brunch” stop. There were a couple of bird feeding stations there, but it was mostly a place for us to simply take a relaxing break and refuel.
We continued to Milpe. There were several hummingbird feeders set up here, as well as a fruit feeder. We saw a number of hummingbird species that we did not see elsewhere, including green-crowned woodnymphs, wedge-billed hummingbirds and green thorntails. All of the photography here was with natural light balanced with on-camera flash. We spent about two hours before heading to a wonderful restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was hidden in a tiny town and overlooked a river valley with a spectacular view. We enjoyed our lunch and the view before driving back to our lodge. We returned in the late afternoon and still had time to shoot at our hummingbird setups. We took full advantage of the remaining light.
We enjoyed our last day of shooting at our lodge. Everyone’s images were getting better and better, despite the occasional “rain delay”—being nestled in the cloud forest means there is always a chance for rain. Fortunately, most showers we experienced were light and fleeting.
The following day, we headed to our second lodge, located southeast of Quito. The road was almost completely newly-paved highway, so the drive was easy. I began setting up the gear after lunch. In the meantime, everyone was getting settled in and beginning to shoot with their on-camera flashes. Here, we concentrated on an entirely new batch of hummingbirds, including the white-fronted woodstar, buff-winged starfrontlet, tourmaline sunangel, glowing puffleg, mountain velvetbreast and chestnut-breasted coronet. The main attractions were the sword-billed hummingbird, the long-tailed sylph, and the collared inca. The numbers of hummingbirds found here were smaller than at our first lodge, but with a little persistence, one could easily come away with six to ten new species, as well as several other bird species. Some of the other interesting birds here included the beautiful, deep blue, masked flowerpiercer and the torrent ducks that cruised in the rushing river below our lodge. There was also a small colony of northern mountain caciques with their bag-shaped hanging nests. Early in the morning, one of the lodge personnel was sometimes able to call out another antpitta species for us, the chestnut-crowned antpitta.
After three days of photography at our second lodge we headed to our hotel back in Quito to repack and have our final dinner together. Along the way, we stopped at the high-altitude (13,000 feet) Antisana Ecological Reserve. It was interesting to see the landscape above the tree line, but, unfortunately, there were few things for us to photograph. We did encounter some Andean ibis, carunculated caracara and Andean gulls, but they mostly kept their distance from our lenses. We ended with lunch at a nice hacienda. Although the landscape was interesting, the area was not very productive photographically and the Antisana side trip will not be repeated on future tours.
By the time our tour ended, everyone had very good images of at least 20 different hummingbird species, as well as several other varieties of birds. The images I saw on the backs of cameras and on laptop screens were truly spectacular! Next year, I will have to do my best to shoot more as well.