Birding Ecuador’s Montane and Cloud Forests

Inca Jay

A white moth drifted down and settled on the trail in front of me as I was walking to the dining room at Cabañas San Isidro in Ecuador’s eastern montane forest. It was barely light. Almost simultaneously, I heard a harsh call as a bird swooped down in front of me and snagged the moth.

“Do they have Green Jay’s here?” I inquired when I reached the rest of our group?

“It is an Inca Jay,” Dieter told me. It looked identical to a Green jay, except that the top of its head was white. It sounded like a model-T horn.

After breakfast the moths and birds were still active and we spent about half an hour watching the feeding frenzy. In addition to neotropical specialties, e.g. Black-billed Peppershrike, Slaty-throated and Spectacled Whitestarts, Blueish Flowerpiercer and several species of flycatcher and tanager, I was surprised to see some North American migrants – lots of Blackburnian Warblers, a Canada Warbler and a Swainson’s Thrush.

A female Masked Trogan did not seem perturbed by our presence and sat motionless on a nearby branch.

female Masked Trogan

Ecuador’s montane forests, located on the east and west slopes of the Andes, are at elevations over 6,500 ft. and are characterized by their cool, misty and humid weather.

At 7:30 we joined the lodge’s manager to see two different antpitta’s. The first one was a White-bellied Antpitta. The manger whistled to imitate its call, and before long it hopped out of the trees.

White-bellied Antpitta

We then took a different trail to see the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. The filled tires used to form steps in the muddy forest worked great – until I stepped on a slippery edge and landed on my rear end. Luckily, I was not hurt; however, evidently when I slid, the bottom of my camera rubbed across my fanny pack, opening the battery compartment. Until I tried to take a photo of the antpitta and the camera didn’t turn on I didn’t realize something was wrong. I thought at first that it was the moisture; however, when I returned to my cabin, I discovered the battery missing. The good news is that one of the employees found it for me – and after re-charging it, the camera worked fine!

After lunch, Edwin announced that he had a Christmas present for us and led us up another muddy trail where we were treated to an Andean Potoo.

After dinner, Edgar, our bus driver, helped us find the famed mysterious “San Isidro owl.” The black-and-white barred owl was amazing sitting on a branch near the parking area.

painting of ‘San Isidro’ Owl

I decided to stay back at the lodge the next day to rest and enjoy the hummingbirds. While enjoying the hummingbirds, an agouti wandered out of the forest’s edge to check things out.


Ecuador has more species of hummingbirds than any other country – of all sizes, colors and distinctive characteristics – and with amazing names, e.g. lancebill, emerald, thorntail, racket-tail, sapphire, puffleg – to name a few. That morning, I enjoyed Collared Incas,

Collared Inca

Long-tailed Sylphs,

Long-tailed Sylph

Green and Sparkling Violet-ears,

Sparkling Violetear

and Chestnut-breasted Coronets.

Chestnut-breasted Coronets

In the afternoon, as I saw in the sunroom that was situated in the ‘canopy’ of the cloud forest, mixed flocks of birds passed by, giving much better looks than I had in the early morning hours the day before, including, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager,

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager

Saffron-crowned Tanager, and

Saffron-crowned Tanager

Montane Woodcreeper.

Montane Woodcreeper

The next day we were off to the western cloud forest, but not before a stop at Guango Lodge at a slightly higher altitude, and with a different set of birds. We stopped about a half mile away to walk out and look over the Rio Chalpa Chico in hopes of spotting a White-capped Dipper. As we were searching the river, some local farmers walked across the bridge with their can and pail of milk.

Dairy farmers carrying milk

Deb’s sharp eyes first noticed a Spotted Sandpiper, and then located a dipper bobbing on one of the rocks.

We walked up and over the hill to the lodge, stopping to check out the trees for birds. Highlights were a Turquoise Jay, Black-eared Hemisphingus, and Rufous Chat-tyrant.

Guango trail

“This is the first time I have added a Hemisphingus to my list,” Chris laughed.

Outside of the lodge were numerous hummingbird feeders – and a new set of hummingbirds, along with a Masked Flowerpiercer.

Masked Flowerpiercer

My favorite hummingbird was the Sword-billed Hummingbird.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

After a delicious lunch, we walked down to the river, fed by one of many waterfalls

where we got good looks at a pair of Torrent Ducks.

male Torrent Duck

And, then it was off to Mindo, where Sachatamia Lodge in the cloud forest on the west slope of the Andes would be our home for the next three nights. As I gazed out of the window of our second-story room, I noticed stunning-colored Velvet-purple Coronet sitting on a twig in the fading light. It would be there each time I looked out of the window during our stay.

Violet-purple Coronet

While the cloud forest is at a lower elevation (5,000 ft.) than the montane forest, it is still characterized by moist, damp weather. Moths were the main course for the birds at this location as well.

As we scanned the shrubs and trees after our breakfast, we enjoyed 19 different species of birds, including Pale-mandibled Aracari,

Pale-mandibled Aracari

Golden-headed Quetzal, and

Golden-headed Quetzal

Squirrel Cuckoo.

Squirrel Cuckoo

Then we headed over to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary operated by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation. As we approached the reserve, we stopped to watch a group of five Choco Toucans flying back and forth, calling to each other.

Choco Toucan

One of the highlights of our walk through the preserve

was watching the lek of the endangered Club-winged Manakin. There were several calling all around us as they flew from tree to tree.

At the hummingbird feeders we enjoyed the stunning colors of a Green-crowned Woodnymph,

Green-crowned Woodnymph

Green-crowned Brilliant,

Green-crowned Brilliant

and Green Thorntail.

Green Thorntail

We had the opportunity to observe several species of tanagers as we sipped coffee at a nearby restaurant in Los Bancos with banana feeders adjacent to its large windows – including Silver-throated Tanager,

Silver-throated Tanager

Golden-crowned Tanager,

Orange-crowned Euphonia

Guira Tanager,

Guira Tanager

Golden Tanager,

Golden Tanager

and Flame-faced Tanager.

Flame-faced Tanager

In the midst of a rain storm that afternoon, we tentatively walked down a barely-visible trail leading to the home where Tony Nunnery and his wife Barbara maintain several feeding stations for hummingbirds.

“Keep an eye on the pendulous, trumpet-shaped blossoms of the nightshade plant,” Tony stated. “The Wedge-billed Hummingbird doesn’t go to the feeders, it uses its bill to pierce the flower near the stem to extract nectar and pollinate.” While we were lucky to see one perform this maneuver, I was not able to capture it in a photo.

As we huddled under the overhang behind his house, we watched a variety of hummingbirds – over 10 species – dart in and out of the tropical plants to drink from the feeders, including Violet-tailed Sylph,

Violet-tailed Sylph

a Booted-Racket-tail that looked as though it was wearing white fur socks, and

Booted Racket-tail

Fawn-breasted Brilliant and Andean Emerald.

Fawn-breasted Brilliant (l) and Andean Emerald (r)

“You need to be ready to get on the bus at 3:30 tomorrow morning,” Edwin told our group at dinner that night. “It takes about half an hour to drive to Angel Paz’s place and then 30 – 45 minutes to walk down the trail to the Cock-of the Rock viewing area. We need to be in place before dawn.”

Alicia, our tour organizer, had arranged for the bus driver to provide me with assistance to walk down the dark, muddy trail. Moths tickled my nose and drops of mist swirled in front of my headlamp as I took hold of Edgar’s arm. We couldn’t even see the sign.

The rest of the group quickly left us behind as Edgar and I carefully picked our way down the trail. As we reached a fork in the trail, I panicked and wondered whether Edgar had been down the trail before and knew which fork to take – even though he seemed sure of himself. Before long I could hear the sound of the river, but it was so dark I couldn’t see anything except the lighted spot in front of me. Just as the first dim light of dawn appeared, I was relieved to see the rest of the group sitting on a bench in the blind.

We didn’t have too long to wait before I could hear a sound like someone being strangled and then a whir of wings and a flash of red about 20 feet away in the dense cloud forest as an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock entered the lek. Since the Cock-of-the-Rock nests on steep cliffs – located on the other side of the river – they choose a forested site nearby (lek) to conduct their courtship displays. As it became lighter, we could see two different birds calling in a tone that sounded like they were yelling at each other and then flying from limb to limb. We watched their display for about 45 minutes before they flew off.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock Photo by Bonnie Long

Angel Paz then led us to several antpitta and wood-quail locations. When Angel, once a struggling farmer, was building the trail to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek in 2004, normally secretive antpittas came out of the forest to eat the worms that were unearthed. The first was a Giant Antpitta, which followed him, and then learned to trust him and to get the worms he had to offer. He named her Maria. Now there is here is more than one Giant Antpitta that comes for the worms. He mimics its call with a whistle and then calls for them by name.

Angel Paz calling antpitta

The one we saw was called Pancho.

Giant Antpitta – “Pancho”

At the next feeding station he whistled for a covey of Dark-backed Wood-Quail. Their treat of choice was not worms, but a special type of banana. The adults appeared first and when they were busy chomping on the banana, two juveniles joined them.

Dark-backed Wood-Quail

We also watched while he called Ochre-breasted (Shakira) and Moutached (Jose)Antpittas.

Moutached Aantpitta – “Jose”

Then it was back to an area near his humble home where his wife had prepared a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast in her open-air kitchen.

“Would you like to see an Ocellated Tapaculo?” Edwin asked us after breakfast. We were game. The group headed up the road, while Bonnie and I followed with Angel in his pick-up truck. We all then struck out across a cow trail to the edge of the woods.

“Tomás, Tomás, Tomás,” Angel called softly. There was no response after he had summoned the tapaculo for about five minutes. He was about to give up, when suddenly a dark bird with white spots and a rusty head tentatively appeared at the edge of the forest. It quickly ran back into the trees, but then reappeared to get the worms Angel had laid out for it.

Ocellated Tapaculo – “Tomás”

The mist was rolling in as we trekked back across the field.

trail to Ocellated Tapaculo

As we were riding back in his truck, I said “Le gustan pajaros (You like birds).” He broke into a big smile.

“Si,” he replied.

In the afternoon we drove through Mindo to see what could be seen along the river. One of Chris’s target birds for the trip was a Sunbittern, and she was the one that spotted it picking its way through the rocks and then into the river.


We were also fortunate to see a Green Kingfisher and a Torrent Tyrannulet, among other species.

And, then it was time to leave the cloud forest and head back to Quito for the night. The montane and cloud forests had been a kaleidoscope of color – from the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock to the brightly painted tanagers. In addition, we were on hummingbird over-load – having seen over 30 species.


5 thoughts on “Birding Ecuador’s Montane and Cloud Forests

  1. Whoa, Judy, I had no idea you were still there in Ecuador! Its overwhelming me from here, each day must be so amazing for you. Enjoy, enjoy, and take your time in Ecuador.

  2. What a trip!! Soooo many fascinating things to see and experience! Your descriptions and photos are wonderful! You have the nack of making me feel almost like I was there with you!

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