Hummingbirds of Ecuador 2016 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Dec 01, 2016

My October and November 2016 Hummingbirds of Ecuador’s Andean Cloud Forest tours both had equally great success. For this report I have combined both trips into one account and have followed the Tour 1 day-by-day itinerary.

After we meet for a brief introduction on the first evening, everyone retires to their hotel room to prepare for the upcoming eight days. We all meet again for breakfast at 7:30 the next morning. Shortly after breakfast Pablo, our local guide, meets us with the bus and we load up. We are heading for our east Andes lodge located at approximately 8,700 feet. Along the way, we climb to over 13,400 feet as we cross the Papallacta Pass before beginning our descent into the valley.

We arrive at our lodge by late morning. We do a short tour around the property looking for the best locations to set up our hummingbird shooting stations. I have all of the stations set up and ready shortly after lunch. Almost immediately, everyone is having excellent success at capturing hummingbirds in flight. There are several species of hummingbird that we will see only here. Chief among them is the sword-billed hummingbird. This is the only bird in the world whose bill is longer than its body. By the end of the first day, everyone has this species, along with the other area specialties, such as the white-bellied woodstar, tourmaline sunangel, buff-winged starfrontlet, chestnut-breasted coronet and collared inca, well captured in their cameras. It is a great start.

The next morning, before breakfast, we have the chance to photograph the first of five different antpittas that we will see during the trip. Each morning, one of the lodge staff puts out earthworms and then expertly calls this tiny ground-dwelling bird to within close range. At exactly 7:30 AM, the chestnut-crowned antpitta pops into the open to gather the worms. He is easy to photograph as he often stands perfectly still for a few seconds at a time. We move on to our own breakfast at 8:00 AM. The rest of the day is spent rotating through the different hummingbird stations taking full advantage of the different flowers and backgrounds at each one. The photographs improve quickly throughout the day now that everyone is beginning to learn and anticipate the hummingbirds’ behaviors. Some birds regularly visit the flowers. Others tend to prefer the feeders. And still others seem much happier simply fighting all the time. But all of these behaviors offer great shooting opportunities.

The next morning we are again given the opportunity to photograph the antpitta. And once again, he performs for us perfectly. After breakfast everyone is eager to get back to the hummingbird stations. By now, everyone in the group is familiar with the routine as we rotate through the different stations allowing each participant to shoot hummingbirds at different flowers and with different backgrounds. By the end of the day everybody is all smiles as they begin to cull their images. Most everyone is amazed at the shots they are getting, especially since this is the first time many of them have ever tried photographing hummingbirds. We shoot the entire day until about 5 PM. After dinner, I pack up all of the hummingbird stations as we will be hitting the road to our second lodge shortly after breakfast the next morning.

At 7:30 AM we are once again given the chance to photograph our antpitta. And once again he gives us excellent opportunities. After breakfast we load the bus and head out of the valley. As we drive back across Papallacta Pass we are rewarded with clear skies allowing us an unobstructed view of Antisana, a dormant snow-covered volcano towering some 18,700 feet. We stop for a few pictures before heading on toward our next lodge on the western slope of the Andes. The drive takes about 3 to 4 hours, but goes by very quickly. We stop twice along the way for comfort breaks and snacks. We are heading northwest and pass through Quito on our way to the Tandayapa Valley and our next lodge which sits at approximately 5,700 feet. We arrive shortly before lunch and I immediately begin setting up the equipment. Pablo heads further up the mountain to find flowers for our setups. Everyone is immediately overwhelmed by the sheer number of hummingbirds coming to the feeders. Then I point out how many different species they are seeing as well. It is typical to see twelve to fifteen different species of hummingbirds within the first five minutes. And there regularly are seven or eight different species sitting on a feeder at the same time.

Everyone finds their rooms and unpacks. After lunch, everybody is eager to begin shooting. Now familiar with the routine, all head to a setup and spend the afternoon adding hummingbird species to their growing lists. All of the expected players are here. We are getting multiple opportunities to photograph booted racket-tails, fawn-breasted brilliants, buff-tailed coronets, purple-bibbed whitetips, purple-throated woodstars, empress brilliants, green violetears, sparkling violetears, brown violetears, brown incas, white-necked jacobins and others. The prize species here are the booted racket-tail and the beautiful violet-tailed sylph, with its long, flowing tail. We have at least three males and one female sylph frequenting our feeders and flowers. At this lodge, we typically set up one feeding station without a flower. This is where we shoot hummingbirds interacting with each other. And interact, they do! This year, that action was off the charts. I even got the chance to shoot for about 20 minutes and most of the pictures you will see in my slideshow were shot during that short session. I created the video below of this hummingbird station so you can get an idea of the nearly non-stop action we experienced this year. You will see how, with quick reflexes, you can easily come away with some remarkable hummingbird interaction images. 

We wrap up shooting at around 5 PM to allow the hummingbirds to refuel for the night. Our dinner is at 6 PM. After dinner, I walk out onto the patio to listen to the frogs. Since we are not getting any rain, the frog chorus is fairly minimal. All of the hummingbirds are now sleeping in the forest. But there is something going on at one of the hanging feeders. Our nighttime visitors to the feeders are not birds…but BATS!!!! These are a variety of nectar-eating long-tongued bat. We photograph nectar bats on our Costa Rica tours, so any time I travel to South or Central America I always bring my bat-shooting gear with me. Bats are one of my favorite subjects to capture. And the nicest part is that the entire group can shoot at the same time with our setups. I immediately set up our strobes again and align an infrared triggering system which lets the bats trigger our flashes for us. I invite everyone who is interested in photographing bats to join me. This is a unique situation that is not part of our original itinerary, but there is no way I can let this opportunity slip away. We shoot the bats for several hours and come away with some very nice shots. Now that I know the bats are here, Pablo and I start thinking about which flowers we could use for the bats tomorrow night. Pablo finds an excellent bunch of hanging tubular flowers. And I keep my eyes peeled for banana flowers, both hanging and upright. Both would work well.

The next morning we take a half-day trip to a nearby bird refuge where there are more hummingbird feeders and fruit feeders. We shoot here using natural light and balanced fill flash. We are at a lower elevation and see a new mix of hummingbirds, including several white-necked jacobins, white-whiskered hermits, crowned woodnymphs and green thorntails. And at the fruit feeders we are treated to extended visits by a pair of pale-mandibled araçari, a rufous motmot, lemon-rumped tanagers and blue-grey tanagers. After about two hours, we head to a local restaurant for lunch. This restaurant sits atop a deep, picturesque river valley. It has lovely planted gardens and very active fruit feeders and hummingbird feeders. We order our lunches and spend time shooting at the feeders before our meal is served. We enjoy a leisurely meal and then return to our lodge after Pablo and I collect a few more flowers for our setups. The hummingbird stations are made ready in short order and everyone is eager to get back to work capturing more activity.
In the cloud forest, it is normal for us to receive light rains daily. But this year, we were very fortunate to not have any rain to speak of at all other than about 30 minutes’ worth at our first lodge. We shoot until 5 PM and then have dinner. I eat quickly so I can get things ready for the evening’s bat photography. I have everyone join me at about 7:30 PM and we go through the camera settings for the bats. The bats come to the feeder and flower in waves. Several will visit repeatedly over the course of about ten minutes. Then there may be twenty minutes of inactivity before the next round of feeding occurs. We shoot for several hours using a couple of different flowers. Just like with the hummingbirds, our bat photographs improve with every outing. We soon have dozens of nice bat images in our cameras—with more nights yet to come.
We spend the entire next day rotating through the hummingbird stations at the lodge. Everybody is getting better and better pictures with each passing hour. We continue rotating flowers and backgrounds to get the most variety possible. But our “confrontation” feeder (the one without the flower) continues to be a crowd favorite. After dinner, we have an abbreviated bat shoot as we will be getting up quite early the next morning for another great road trip.

Breakfast at 4:15 AM. Yes…I said 4:15 AM!!! We are all on the bus by 4:45 AM so we can leave by 5 AM for the Andean cock-of-the-rock lek at Refugio Paz. Here, several of the ornate males display and call. We arrive at 5:45 AM and quietly make our way through the forest to the photography hide. The birds are already there and actively displaying. It is still pretty dark and we rely on high ISO settings and good photographic technique to capture these beautiful birds. Our efforts are rewarded and we get several really good opportunities to photograph this unique species in the open. We leave the blind after about 45 minutes once the birds have departed for the morning. But our shooting day has only just begun. A short distance away, we are able to photograph dark-backed wood quail and two new antpittas, the giant antpitta and the yellow-breasted antpitta, near the river. From here we take the bus up the mountain and arrive, in about twenty minutes, at another trail where we walk through the forest for about fifteen minutes. We get to a small clearing in the forest and our guide begins calling. Minutes later, the very elusive moustached antpitta makes an appearance. And shortly after that, in nearly the same location, the tiny ochre-breasted antpitta appears and allows us to photograph it. Our morning outing ends with a delicious on-site brunch prepared for us by the family whose property we are visiting.

We get back to our lodge by about 11 AM and immediately return to the hummingbird stations where we shoot until lunch and then all afternoon until dinner time. Everyone is exhausted after today’s early morning start and most folks head to bed early. I set up to try bats again. But tonight it is very foggy with a light misty rain and the bats are pretty inactive. A few come by and we get a few shots. With the light rain, the forest frogs are more vocal tonight. So around midnight I hike one of the trails in search of tiny frogs. I find several of them calling from large leaves and even found one of my favorites, the Pinocchio frog. This is a small frog, usually less than an inch long, with an extended protuberance at the tip of his nose. I then head back down to the lodge and dismantle the bat station.

On our final morning at the lodge we can only shoot at the stations until 10 AM so that I have time to break them down and pack them away for the 1.5-hour drive after lunch to our hotel in Quito. Everyone then has a chance to rest before we meet at 6 PM for our farewell dinner.

Both tours were very successful with everyone coming away with hundreds of really nice photographs. I’m already looking forward to next year’s trips—especially since we are adding the bat shoot to the itinerary!!!