Independent Birding in Ecuador, September 2019

Golden Tanager
Golden Tanager – a common bird in the mid-elevation cloud forests around Mindo.

Most birders visit Ecuador as part of an organized tour, and most of the online trip reports are either from tour guide leaders or their clients. There is nothing wrong with that – a lot of this information is very good. However, there are far fewer resources available for those who want to “go it alone” and bird Ecuador independently, so I hope that this report is especially useful for those who don’t want to shell out the big bucks for a tour.

Golden-naped Tanager2
Golden-naped Tanager

The difficult part of birding Ecuador is not the infrastructure, nor the travel logistics. The area around which I centered my trip – the Mindo Valley – lies within easy reach of the international airport in Quito. The main roads are smooth and well-engineered, and (I am told) much improved in recent years. Even the dirt roads – while rough and steep in places – can be tackled in a regular two-wheel-drive car. Accommodation is plentiful and inexpensive. Nothing about Ecuador would pose a problem for anyone with prior overseas independent birding experience – it is a good deal less challenging than many Asian destinations, for example.

Blue-throated Tanager
Blue-throated Tanager, yet another common and stunning tanager.

However, speaking as someone who has birded in 56 countries – and with some fairly serious international birding trips under my belt – take it from me that nowhere have I more acutely felt the lack of a local, knowledgeable guide than in Ecuador. Let me explain. Cloud forests are not easy places to bird – the trees are high, and the weather is regularly gloomy and misty. Add to that a huge and staggeringly diverse avifauna, and enormous mixed flocks that pass quickly through at treetop height, and you can start to understand how frustrating the birding experience can be in Ecuador – even for someone with broad experience in a number of other nearby countries (I’ve birded Costa Rica, Panama, and Honduras fairly extensively so I am familiar with many of the Neotropical bird families).

Red-headed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet

For the first couple of days, I was identifying barely a handful of species in each mixed flock, and at times it felt like I was spending more time leafing through my field guide than watching the birds! My advice to the independent birder would be to buy a field guide well in advance of your trip, and spend a lot of time reading the guide and trying to nail down the ID of species you are likely to encounter. And even if you do that, you will probably still feel completely out of your depth for several days.

On the other hand, many of the reserves and lodges maintain feeding stations with as many as 12-15 hummingbird species buzzing around, and colorful tanagers coming down to feed at eye level and close range. Spending time at these feeding stations is a good way to build familiarity with some of the more commonly seen species.

Golden-crowned Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Flycatcher at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

The trip logistics were as follows:

Planning: I purchased the bang-up-to-date “Birds of Ecuador” field guide, recently published by Helm. This is a very comprehensive and portable guide to all the birds recorded in Ecuador – some 1,630 species. A Kindle edition of this guide is available, but I much prefer the “old school” paper version to take into the field.

While I was satisfied with the guide overall, I have a few reservations. First, having a guide that covers the entire country brings some confusion to the mix for a first-time Ecuador birder who is covering just a small area. If you can find a more localized guide to the birds of northwest Ecuador, this would provide a useful supplement to the Helm guide.

Second, some of the bird illustrations in the Helm guide didn’t seem accurate to me. This was a problem on several occasions, when I had great looks at what I figured would be an easy bird to identify – and then couldn’t find it anywhere in the guide. I had to resort to online images to get to the bottom of several IDs of birds which to my eye were inaccurately illustrated. I found this to be true of several flycatchers in particular. Admittedly part of this is due to my lack of skill with Ecuadorian birds, but I feel that the field guide must bear some of the blame too.

As well as reading the Helm guide, and researching online trip reports, I also spent a while on eBird checking out different hotspots in the areas I was planning to visit. A good way to form an itinerary would be to combine information from trip reports with the latest reports from eBird to help target any particular species.

Buff-tailed Coronet
Buff-tailed Coronet – a species I saw only at Refugio Paz de las Aves.

Flight: I live in Houston so there are plentiful flights to South America. Direct flights on United from Houston to Quito take only about 5 hours, but they arrive in the middle of the night, and I didn’t want to turn up at night in an unfamiliar country. With hindsight, and knowing how easy it was, I would not have had a problem turning up at night, renting a car and driving off down the road.

I found a flight with AeroMexico via Mexico City which was not only considerably cheaper than the United flight (about $550 vs. $720, round trip), but also arrived in Quito at around 6.00am – perfect timing, or so I thought, to get there in daylight, grab a rental car, hit the road, and be at the Yanacocha Reserve while it was still early enough for some great birding. More on how that turned out later!

Glossy Flowerpiercer
Glossy Flowerpiercer

Car rental: I had been wondering about whether to rent a car, or whether to take a bus from the airport to Mindo, base myself there, and travel out by taxi to the various birding lodges and reserves in the area.

A quick trawl through the internet reveals the usual horror stories of renting a car – a lot of the advice seems to come down to “don’t do it!”. But the seasoned driver has nothing to fear from car rental in Ecuador, and I am very glad I decided to go ahead and rent a car for the greater flexibility, convenience, and – over the course of the week – much lower costs compared to taking taxis.

Avis seemed to have the least bad reviews of a bad bunch at the airport. I found their service to be very good. In common with many developing countries, they go over the car with a fine tooth comb when you pick it up, and note down every small scratch. I didn’t damage my car, so I didn’t find out what would happen if they had found a new scratch when I returned it!

Note that most Ecuadorian rental cars are manual (“stick shift” to Americans). You should assume you will be given a manual car unless you specifically book an automatic. With the steep roads and long mountain passes, a manual is by far the best choice anyway, assuming you are able to drive one.

Another feature of Ecuadorian car rental is that many rental contracts specify a daily kilometer limit – usually 100km per day. I was given the option at the rental desk to upgrade to unlimited km for an additional $11 per day, which I declined. Northwest Ecuador is compact, and although driving times can sometimes be long on slow roads, distances are not far. As it turned out I did go slightly over my allocated mileage for the week. The charge was $0.25 for each excess kilometer, and in the end I paid an extra $20 in total, a lot less than the upgrade to unlimited kilometers would have cost.

I had pre-booked the cheapest possible car, a tiny Chevrolet Spark 1.0, via an online consolidator for around $180 in total for the 8 days. I reserved and paid for the car using my Chase Mileage Plus credit card because it includes CDW and LDW insurance as primary coverage. Not many credit cards have this feature, so this one is an excellent option for overseas car rentals. I did, however, opt to add the maximum liability insurance coverage at the rental desk, making the total cost of my rental around $260.

At the rental desk, I was offered the chance to upgrade my tiny vehicle to a more robust and powerful one. The difference in price didn’t seem worth it, and I am glad I stuck with my Spark – although it was a little under-powered on the long mountain passes, it handled all kinds of rough dirt roads and steep slopes without any issues. If I was traveling with a companion or an extra suitcase, it may have been a different story.

Gas (petrol) in Ecuador is very cheap – even less than the US – and my tiny car hardly used any of it, I spent a total of about $35 on gas for my whole visit. Compared to the US, there are few gas stations – for example after leaving the outskirts of Quito on the E20, heading over the Papallacta pass, there is no gas for 86km until you reach Baeza, so make sure you fill up whenever you can.

Black-capped Tanager
Black-capped Tanager

Driving: All the main roads I encountered were smooth, well-graded, and lightly trafficked. The highway from the airport to Quito, and the long pass to Papallacta, are particularly excellent. The back roads vary in quality, many are all-weather dirt roads but all the ones I used were all passable in my Chevrolet Spark.

Accommodation: I had booked Sachatamia Lodge in advance for the first two nights of my trip, to ease me into Ecuador and give me a comfortable place to aim at from the airport. For nights 3-6, I moved into a cheaper private room in Cinnamon House, an excellent hostel in Mindo town. Night 7 was spent in Papallacta, and the final night in an airport hotel ready for my early morning flight the next day.

I reserved all of the above places on Booking.com, and none of them required prepayment – it was a “cash on arrival” kind of deal. There is a large range of accommodation options, especially in the Mindo area – everything from upmarket luxury lodges to hostel dorms, and the independent traveler is unlikely to encounter any problems finding somewhere to stay.

Sachatamia Lodge: A well-located, comfortable lodge situated just off the main Quito to San Miguel de los Bancos road, close to the Mindo turn-off. Being at the top of the hill above Mindo, it had a noticeably different avifauna compared to Mindo town. This lodge has several trails, excellent feeding stations for tanagers and hummingbirds, and even a blind overlooking a moth trap which was interesting for forest species in the early mornings when they came to eat the moths.

My comfortable room was $65 per night, putting Sachatamia Lodge firmly at the low-budget end of the spectrum for out-of-town bird lodges. A very good breakfast was included, and the dinner menu had plenty of variety and was priced at around $11-$18 for a main course.

Cinnamon House: A basic but clean and comfortable private room, with private bathroom and balcony, was $25 per night. This is a super-friendly hostel geared up to the younger, solo traveler. There is a kitchen so you can self-cater, although the grocery stores in Mindo town stock only the basics.

El Fogon Campero: This budget hotel is on the road to the hot springs in Papallacta. I had prebooked on Booking.com but they seemed surprised when I turned up, and no one else was staying there. My final bill for room and dinner was $26. Nights are cold at this altitude, but my room was well-equipped with blankets and a space heater.

Hostal Mariscal Sucre: This hotel is very close to the airport and costs $25 a night. I wasn’t given a key when I checked in, and when I asked at reception they couldn’t find one for my room, so I had to leave the room unlocked when I went out to dinner. I guess they are used to people just turning up, crashing for the night, and leaving the next morning without needing a key. It was a perfectly functional night halt although there is nowhere to eat in the evening within walking distance (but a very good Italian-owned pizza restaurant is a short drive away).

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin, a common and highly distinctive hummingbird.

Food: Sometimes I had lunch if it fitted in with birding (for example at Mirador Rio Blanco in San Miguel de los Bancos, where I could eat while watching Rufous-throated Tanagers at the feeders). Otherwise, I subsisted during the day on protein bars, trail mix, apples, and boiled eggs, some of which I brought from home. Coffee is widely available.

Mindo town has a reasonable choice of restaurants for dinner, I particularly recommend the Dragonfly Inn just next to the bridge as you come into town. If I find somewhere I like, I tend to eat there for every meal, purely for convenience – this was after all a birding and not a gastronomic trip.

Money: Ecuador uses the US Dollar as its currency, but with more coins – they have a 50 cent coin, and $1 coins typically replace dollar bills here. I took about $500 in cash in a variety of bills with me. There are also ATMs available in towns which accept foreign credit and debit cards.

Weather: This is a cloud forest region and the weather is unpredictable. The main enemies of the birder are fog and low cloud, which occurred frequently during my trip especially in the afternoons, and of course rain. Persistent rain was only really a problem on one day of my trip, with occasional showers at other times. Bird activity was noticeably higher on cloudy days versus sunny ones. Up at 13,000+ feet ASL at the Papallacta Pass, you can expect the default weather conditions to be cold, foggy, and drizzly, even in the early mornings.

Thick-billed Euphonia
Thick-billed Euphonia

Itinerary: I had a broad plan to follow a tour company’s itinerary for the Mindo area which I had found online, making small tweaks based on the fact that I was staying in a different lodge to them. But I didn’t stick to my plan, and instead ended up using it as a “rough guide” to the best places to visit for the widest variety of birds. Be prepared to change course at short notice and be flexible due to weather conditions. On several afternoons, I ended up at the (very birdy) Yellow House Trails in Mindo when rain and fog had closed in on the surrounding hills.

Daily Overview:

Saturday 21st September Morning: Drive from airport via the old Mindo “Eco Ruta” and Alambi Lodge. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Sunday 22nd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge then Mindo village area. Afternoon: Sachatamia Lodge.

Monday 23rd September Morning: Sachatamia Lodge. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Tuesday 24th September Morning: Rio Silanche then Mirador Rio Blanco for lunch. Afternoon: Mindo Yellow House Trails.

Wednesday 25th September Morning: Refugio Paz de las Aves. Afternoon: Milpe Bird Sanctuary.

Thursday 26th September All day: Rio Silanche.

Friday 27th September Morning: Old Mindo Road (Eco Ruta) then Yanacocha Reserve. Afternoon: Drive to Papallacta.

Saturday 28th September Morning: Papallacta Pass, then Papallacta village area. Afternoon: Guango Lodge and Laguna Papallacta.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmots

DAY ONE – Saturday 21st September: My flight arrived on time and the staff at the Avis rental desk were friendly and efficient. I was soon on the road towards Quito. Google maps served me pretty well getting me through the city and out into the hills on the other side, but unfortunately at that point it let me down.

Despite being near Quito, the Yanacocha Reserve is located in quite a remote area, and although the map appears to indicate three different ways to get there, there is in fact only one possible route from Quito. At first, Google took me up a private road to a hacienda, and my second attempt – approaching from the village of Nono – ended at a locked gate. I had somehow missed the sign at this spot: Google Maps Link. If you turn left (south) at this concealed turning, you should pick up signs all the way to the Yanacocha Reserve. The roads are pretty rough but passable with care in an ordinary car.

Having failed twice to get to Yanacocha, and with the best of the morning’s birding hours already behind me, I decided to press on towards Mindo via the “Eco Ruta” – the old Mindo road which gradually descends in altitude and eventually joins the main highway 28 near Tandayapa. This is a dirt road and takes an eternity to drive along. I stopped here and there, but the only notable bird was a Rufous-chested Tanager, my only one of the trip.

I got my first taste of some “feeder action” at the Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge, where I spent a couple of hours getting to grips with some of the more regular hummingbirds and tanagers. I saw nothing here that I didn’t commonly see elsewhere during the week, but it was a nice introduction to Mindoese bird life. Next door to the feeding station, a trout fishery and restaurant provided an excellent lunch stop and I was invited to eat with a father and son who had spent the morning fishing there – my first taste of Ecuadorian friendliness, hospitality – and of course, trout.

I found Sachatamia Lodge very easily thanks to a brand new sign along the highway. The weather was foggy and drizzly. A staff member named Johnny, who is a keen wannabe bird guide learning his trade, offered to show me a pair of roosting Crested Owls for $10, an offer I could hardly refuse! The rest of the afternoon was spent getting frustrated trying and failing to identify bird silhouettes in the gloom, but at least the hummingbird feeders at the lodge were busy with a nice variety of hummers of about 15 species including Booted Racket-tail, Purple-bibbed Whitetip, Purple-throated Woodstar, Velvet-purple Coronet, and numbers of Violet-tailed Sylph.

Crested Owl
Crested Owls at their day roost along the river trail at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY TWO – Sunday 22nd September: I met with Johnny, and another couple of birders, at 6.00am outside the lodge, and a few minutes later we were seated in a hide overlooking a moth trap. Overnight, powerful lights are shone on a white tarpaulin, to which large numbers of moths are attracted. This is an excellent place to start the day as, even before it gets properly light, various forest-dwelling birds hang out there to enjoy a tasty moth breakfast.

Birds seen from this blind today and on subsequent mornings included Masked Trogon, Strong-billed, Spotted, and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, Scaly-throated and Lineated Foliage-gleaners, Gray-breasted Wood Wren, Flavescent and Golden-crowned Flycatchers, Smoke-colored Pewee, and my first looks at exquisite Ornate Flycatchers which turned out to be common birds of the cloud forest.

Ornate Flycatcher
Ornate Flycatcher

As well as several short trails around the lodge itself, Sachatamia Lodge has one fairly long trail that descends all the way to a river. Along here I encountered goodies such as Golden-headed Quetzal, Club-winged Manakin, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Glistening-green and Metallic-green Tanagers – as well as the roosting Crested Owls which I saw daily once I had been shown where to look.

One notable visitor to the tanager feeding station near the Lodge was a Scrub Tanager, which I saw several days running. This is a highly unusual record for cloud forest at this altitude. This was also the only location where I saw the stunning Flame-faced Tanager during my trip.

Scrub Tanager
Scrub Tanager – a bird of high-altitude arid scrub, so completely out of place in mid-elevation cloud forest. This one visited the feeding station at Sachatamia Lodge for several days running.
Flame-faced Tanager
Flame-faced Tanager. I wish I had gotten a cleaner photo of this bird, but I guess the camera focus was confused by the incredibly vibrant colors.

I took a trip into Mindo at lunchtime to “scope out” the town and figure out where I was going to stay after I departed Sachatamia Lodge the following day. There was a Pale-legged Hornero along the dirt road to Cinnamon House, which I took to be a good omen so I decided to stay there.

I also stopped by at El Descanso Lodge, where $4 buys you a grandstand seat overlooking lots of hummingbird and tanager feeders. It was fun to watch but I didn’t add any new birds to my list here.

Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Strong-billed Woodcreeper at the Sachatamia Lodge “moth trap”.

DAY THREE – Monday 23rd September: After birding at Sachatamia Lodge for the first five hours of daylight (70 species), I checked out and moved down the hill to Cinnamon House. In the afternoon, I spent a few hours on the Yellow House Trails on the outskirts of Mindo village. These trails often feature as one of the top spots to watch birds in the Mindo area – eBird shows that 397 species have been recorded there. The entrance fee is $6, but on the second day, the owner recognized me and I didn’t have to pay again.

The Yellow House Trails were far more extensive than I had been expecting, and quite a long uphill walk through suboptimal habitat is required before you even reach the trails proper. But the birds aren’t too choosy, and even on these lower stretches I encountered some great birds including Guayaquil Woodpecker, Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, and Fawn-breasted and Swallow Tanagers. Further up in the forest, the highlights included Wattled and Crested Guans, Zeledon’s Antbird, and White-winged Tanager.

Bird activity at the Yellow House Trails seemed to stay relatively high throughout the afternoon, and another excellent reason to visit this location is that it is slightly lower and was therefore sheltered – on both of my afternoon visits – from the fog and rain which covered the surrounding hills.

Violet-tailed Sylph
Violet-tailed Sylph. Common at some of the feeding stations in the Mindo area and also seen occasionally in the forest at Sachatamia Lodge.

DAY FOUR – Tuesday 24th September: I had been planning to visit the Milpe Bird Sanctuary, but I awoke to persistent rain in Mindo village, which only got worse as I climbed up the hill. When I got to the turnoff for Milpe, it was pouring with rain and visibility was just a few feet. It made no sense to attempt birding in such conditions, so I made the executive decision to continue driving to Rio Silanche, which at about 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level, was to be the lowest altitude place on my week’s itinerary.

I was hopeful that once I had descended from the hills, the rain would stop, but unfortunately this hypothesis turned out to be false! The rain continued all day, but at least the visibility was slightly better lower down the mountain.

After turning off the main highway 28, you reach the Rio Silanche reserve by driving a rather long, and in places rough, dirt road through areas of cleared forest, agricultural land, and secondary growth. Many tour groups have their best day in this general area in terms of the number of species seen, with up to 150 species regularly recorded in a day. I later learned the day record for the Rio Silanche area is around 180 species.

Entry to the reserve costs $12; when I arrived there was no one on site to take my money, so I paid on the way out. The Rio Silanche reserve features a canopy tower, which is an exciting place to be when a large mixed flock passes through. I spent several hours on the tower, but bird activity was low in the rainy conditions today.

The rarest birds of the morning were on the drive out; a pair of Groove-billed Anis, which I photographed – this species is found in other areas of Ecuador but is a little out of range here.

Groove-billed Ani
Groove-billed Ani along the road to Rio Silanche. An unexpected find. Several days later I found the more expected Smooth-billed Ani in exactly the same area.

With bird activity in the Rio Silanche reserve dying off in the late morning, and the rain showing no sign of abating, I cut my losses and drove back towards Mindo, stopping at the Mirador Rio Blanco restaurant in San Miguel de los Bancos. This is a great place to enjoy a meal in a warm, dry restaurant while watching the bird feeders through the windows. It is a known location for the scarce Rufous-throated Tanager, and I saw a pair of these lovely birds on several occasions as they came to feed on the fruit put out for them.

As previously noted, the Yellow House Trails in Mindo seem to have a slightly dryer microclimate, so this is where I went for the second afternoon in a row and once again enjoyed some good birding there.

Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager
Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager – a real stunner and a frequent sight at the Sachatamia Lodge feeding station.

DAY FIVE – Wednesday 25th September: The story of the Refugio Paz de las Aves is famous and probably needs little introduction for those who have visited, or are considering visiting, the Mindo area. The short version of the story is that a family located on a sprawling property in the hills outside Mindo have spent many years habituating various rare and reclusive forest birds to human contact. These individuals are fed daily and over a period of many months and years become tame. A visit to this sanctuary provides the only realistic opportunity to add semi-mythical species like the Giant Antpitta to ones list.

Giant Antpitta
Giant Antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves – a “must visit” on any itinerary in the Mindo area.

Today was probably the best day of my trip and this was largely down to luck. I had contacted the “Refugio Pas de las Aves” on WhatsApp several days prior and tried to book a tour, but had received no response. On Wednesday morning I decided to visit the refuge “on spec”. Shortly after dawn, as I neared the refuge on a dirt road, I saw a bunch of cars and tour buses parked beside the road. I spoke to a driver who indicated I should take a small side path. Turns out this was the location of an Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek! I figured I could do worse than associate with the tour groups, and so it proved, with views of Lyre-tailed Nightjar and Giant Antpitta further up the road.

Andean COTR
Male Andean Cock-of-the-Rock at a lek. The birds were a little distant, high in the trees, and in poor light. Nonetheless, the lek was an entertaining spectacle!

Eventually I was approached by one of the members of the refuge “family”, Angel, who asked me what I was doing there. After I had told him the story of not getting a response to my messages, he allowed me to join the tour, which included breakfast at a cost of $35. This turned out to be money well spent, with 5 Antpitta species (Giant, Moustached, Chestnut-crowned, Ochre-breasted, and Yellow-breasted) seen and photographed. The Moustached and Ochre-breasted were at the same spot, but the other antpittas were spread all over the property in different locations.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Other great birds seen during the morning tour included Powerful Woodpecker, Dark-backed Wood-quail, Choco Daggerbill, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Blue-capped Tanager, Golden-naped Tanager, and White-winged Brushfinch.

Powerful Woodpecker
Powerful Woodpecker
Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Crimson-rumped Toucanet at the Refugio Paz de las Aves feeding station.

I was lucky today but you are officially not allowed to visit the Refugio Paz de las Aves without a prior reservation, and they are often fully booked, especially at the weekends. So plan more carefully than I did and make sure you reserve this wonderful tour well in advance of your planned visit.

It would be hard to beat such a successful morning, and so I had a less spectacular but still very rewarding afternoon at the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (entry cost: $12). This is one of the area’s more famous hotspots, and on this cloudy afternoon was abuzz with bird activity and big mixed flocks throughout the time I was there.

Birds I saw at Milpe which I did not encounter anywhere else included Black-and-white Becard, Spotted Nightingale-thrush, and Golden-bellied Warbler. This was the day when I finally started to feel like I was getting familiar with many of the commoner mixed-flock species.

Green and Black Fruiteater
Green-and-black Fruiteater at Refugio Paz de las Aves. A real skulky stunner!

DAY SIX – Thursday 26th September: The weather looked a lot better when I woke up, so I decided to return to Rio Silanche for a second attempt at some lower-altitude species. I had a much more successful morning today, with 89 species observed between 7.00am and 3.30pm.

Again, luck had a big part to play today – I bumped into Alex Luna, a Tropical Birding guide, and his client, whom I had met the previous day at Refugio Paz de las Aves. Today I spent a while with them on the canopy tower at the Rio Silanche reserve, and came to realize just how useful an expert local guide can be in Ecuador!

Some of the birds that Alex picked out from the tower included Violet-bellied Hummingbird, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, One-colored Becard, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, and both Blue-whiskered and Scarlet-browed Tanagers. Many of these birds I would have been hard-pressed to find for myself, and I suspect they would not have made it to my list if it weren’t for Alex. We also had an Olive-sided Flycatcher – a familiar bird from “back home” which turned out to be an eBird flagged rarity here!

White-tailed Trogon2
Male White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche, a species I heard and saw several times there on my second visit.
White-tailed Trogon
Female White-tailed Trogon at Rio Silanche.

But I didn’t have absolutely everything handed to me by Alex on a plate, and I walked the loop trail alone several times and self-found some excellent birds including Little Tinamou, Rufous-fronted Wood-quail, White-bearded Manakin, multiple White-tailed Trogons, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Dusky-faced Tanager. On the drive out, a mixed flock of seedeaters included at least one male Black-and-white Seedeater outside of its usual altitude and range.

Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper at Rio Silanche.

DAY SEVEN – Friday 27th September: A very early start today. I packed up my bags and departed Cinnamon House, aiming to tackle the “Eco Ruta” before it got light, and hit the Yanacocha Reserve during peak morning birding hours.

Predictably – and as is normal for Ecuador – the drive took longer than planned. After getting slightly lost just once, I found the “short cut” up to Yanacocha from the Eco Ruta – which was steep and exciting in my under-powered car – and I finally pulled into the Yanacocha Reserve parking lot just before 9.00am.

This is a reserve that would warrant several visits to get the most from the trails and the potential birds here. It is a site for the very rare and poorly known Black-breasted Puffleg, which for the casual visitor would be an outside chance at best. Bird activity was fairly high at first, but once the clouds rolled in at around 11.00am, it slowed to almost zero. I had both Rufous and Tawny Antpittas along the main trail, and the hummingbird feeders here are famous for the magnificent Sword-billed Hummingbird, which showed reliably. Black-chested Mountain-Tanager and Golden-crowned Tanager were two really excellent birds I encountered here, but in fact most of the birds were new to me, due to the extreme change in altitude compared to Mindo.

Sword-billed Hummingbird
Sword-billed Hummingbird – an absolutely crazy-looking bird!

After the birding slowed, I made my way down the mountain, crossed through Quito, and continued along the excellent highway all the way to Papallacta. It was a clear afternoon, and the views across the snow-capped Andes mountains were simply breathtaking in places.

Tyrian Metaltail
Tyrian Metaltail – a common high-altitude hummer.

DAY EIGHT – Saturday 28th September: After spending the night at the Fogon Campero hotel in Papallacta, I awoke to a cold start, dressed in most of the clothes I had, and made my way to the top of Papallacta Pass for a stab at some of the true Andean high-altitude specialties.

The weather was chilly, foggy, and drizzly – as expected – but I still managed to see some of my target birds on my walk towards the radio antennas, including Andean Teal, Chestnut-winged Cinclodes, Andean Tit-Spinetail, and Many-striped Canastero.

By mid-morning, with the weather closing in and visibility steadily getting worse, I decided to abandon the exposed pass and drove back down to Papallacta town where I found two eBird rarities – nothing exotic, just a Bank Swallow and a Western Wood-Pewee!

Continuing lower still – and finally getting below the rain and fog – I enjoyed several hours at the well-known Guango Lodge. This is a popular spot on the bird-tour circuit, and being on the eastern slope of the Andes, has a number of different species to the Mindo area in the west. Here, I added Tourmaline Sunangel, Long-tailed Sylph, Collared Inca, Pearled Treerunner, Turquoise Jay, Mountain Cacique, and Black-eared and Black-capped Heminspingus, among others, to my list.

Tourmaline Sunangel
Tourmaline Sunangel at Guango Lodge.

With the weather eventually lifting in the late afternoon, and the sun making an appearance, I made a final stop at Laguna Papallacta, where I was adding birds to my trip list right up to the moment I left – such is the richness of Ecuadorian birdlife.

My final night in Ecuador was spent at an airport hotel before an early flight back to Houston (via Mexico City) the following morning.

Toucan Barbet
Toucan Barbet

Conclusion: Ecuador is an easy-to-navigate and exciting destination for visiting birders. The independent birder will likely see considerably fewer species, in total, than the birder on a guided tour. But this should be weighed against the greater fulfillment of finding and identifying birds for yourself, instead of having them pointed out to you by tour guides.

I look forward to returning for a second visit!

Trip list:

Total species seen: 278

# Species Location where first seen
1 Little Tinamou Rio Silanche–general area
2 Yellow-billed Pintail Laguna Papallacta
3 Andean Teal Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
4 Andean Guan Reserva Yanacocha
5 Crested Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
6 Wattled Guan Mindo–Yellow House Trails
7 Rufous-fronted Wood-Quail Rio Silanche–general area
8 Dark-backed Wood-Quail Refugio Paz de Las Aves
9 Rock Pigeon Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
10 Pale-vented Pigeon Mindo–Yellow House Trails
11 Ruddy Pigeon Rio Silanche–general area
12 Ecuadorian Ground Dove Rio Silanche–general area
13 White-tipped Dove Sachatamia Lodge
14 Eared Dove Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
15 Smooth-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
16 Groove-billed Ani Rio Silanche–general area
17 Squirrel Cuckoo Sachatamia Lodge
18 Lyre-tailed Nightjar Refugio Paz de Las Aves
19 White-collared Swift Sachatamia Lodge
20 Gray-rumped Swift Rio Silanche–general area
21 Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift Rio Silanche–general area
22 White-necked Jacobin Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
23 White-whiskered Hermit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
24 Tawny-bellied Hermit Sachatamia Lodge
25 Stripe-throated Hermit Rio Silanche–general area
26 Choco Daggerbill Refugio Paz de Las Aves
27 Brown Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
28 Lesser Violetear Sachatamia Lodge
29 Sparkling Violetear Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
30 Purple-crowned Fairy Rio Silanche–general area
31 Tourmaline Sunangel Guango Lodge
32 Green Thorntail Cinnamon House, Mindo
33 Speckled Hummingbird Guango Lodge
34 Long-tailed Sylph Guango Lodge
35 Violet-tailed Sylph Sachatamia Lodge
36 Tyrian Metaltail Nono Village Main Street
37 Glowing Puffleg Guango Lodge
38 Sapphire-vented Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
39 Golden-breasted Puffleg Reserva Yanacocha
40 Shining Sunbeam Reserva Yanacocha
41 Brown Inca Sachatamia Lodge
42 Collared Inca Ecoruta–Alambi Valley (Nono-Tandayapa Road below 2500 m)
43 Buff-winged Starfrontlet Reserva Yanacocha
44 Mountain Velvetbreast Laguna Papallacta
45 Sword-billed Hummingbird Reserva Yanacocha
46 Great Sapphirewing Reserva Yanacocha
47 Buff-tailed Coronet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
48 Chestnut-breasted Coronet Guango Lodge
49 Velvet-purple Coronet Sachatamia Lodge
50 Booted Racket-tail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
51 Purple-bibbed Whitetip Sachatamia Lodge
52 Fawn-breasted Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
53 Green-crowned Brilliant Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
54 Empress Brilliant Sachatamia Lodge
55 White-bellied Woodstar Sachatamia Lodge
56 Purple-throated Woodstar Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
57 Crowned Woodnymph Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
58 Andean Emerald Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
59 Purple-chested Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
60 Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
61 Violet-bellied Hummingbird Rio Silanche–general area
62 Slate-colored Coot Laguna Papallacta
63 Spotted Sandpiper Guango Lodge
64 Lesser Yellowlegs Laguna Papallacta
65 Andean Gull Laguna Papallacta
66 Snowy Egret Mindo–Yellow House Trails
67 Cattle Egret Sachatamia Lodge
68 Black Vulture Nono Village Main Street
69 Turkey Vulture Sachatamia Lodge
70 Hook-billed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
71 Swallow-tailed Kite Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
72 Roadside Hawk Rio Silanche–general area
73 Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
74 Short-tailed Hawk Sachatamia Lodge
75 Crested Owl Sachatamia Lodge
76 Golden-headed Quetzal Sachatamia Lodge
77 White-tailed Trogon Rio Silanche–general area
78 Masked Trogon Sachatamia Lodge
79 Rufous Motmot Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
80 Broad-billed Motmot Rio Silanche–general area
81 White-whiskered Puffbird Rio Silanche–general area
82 Orange-fronted Barbet Rio Silanche–general area
83 Red-headed Barbet Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
84 Toucan Barbet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
85 Crimson-rumped Toucanet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
86 Collared Aracari Sachatamia Lodge
87 Yellow-throated Toucan Rio Silanche–general area
88 Choco Toucan Sachatamia Lodge
89 Black-cheeked Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
90 Smoky-brown Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
91 Red-rumped Woodpecker Rio Silanche–general area
92 Powerful Woodpecker Refugio Paz de Las Aves
93 Guayaquil Woodpecker Mindo–Yellow House Trails
94 Golden-olive Woodpecker Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
95 Carunculated Caracara By pass Pifo, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.2335,-78.3266)
96 American Kestrel Reserva Yanacocha
97 Rose-faced Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
98 Red-billed Parrot Mindo–Yellow House Trails
99 Blue-headed Parrot Rio Silanche–general area
100 Bronze-winged Parrot Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
101 Maroon-tailed Parakeet Refugio Paz de Las Aves
102 Chestnut-fronted Macaw Rio Silanche–general area
103 White-flanked Antwren Rio Silanche–general area
104 Slaty Antwren Milpe Bird Sanctuary
105 Zeledon’s Antbird Mindo–Yellow House Trails
106 Giant Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
107 Moustached Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
108 Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
109 Yellow-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
110 Rufous Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
111 Tawny Antpitta Reserva Yanacocha
112 Ochre-breasted Antpitta Refugio Paz de Las Aves
113 Plain-brown Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
114 Wedge-billed Woodcreeper Milpe Bird Sanctuary
115 Strong-billed Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
116 Spotted Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
117 Streak-headed Woodcreeper Rio Silanche–general area
118 Montane Woodcreeper Sachatamia Lodge
119 Plain Xenops Rio Silanche–general area
120 Pale-legged Hornero Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
121 Chestnut-winged Cinclodes Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
122 Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
123 Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
124 Lineated Foliage-gleaner Sachatamia Lodge
125 Streak-capped Treehunter Refugio Paz de Las Aves
126 Striped Woodhaunter Rio Silanche–general area
127 Pearled Treerunner Reserva Yanacocha
128 Andean Tit-Spinetail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
129 White-browed Spinetail Reserva Yanacocha
130 Many-striped Canastero Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
131 White-chinned Thistletail Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
132 Red-faced Spinetail Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
133 Slaty Spinetail Mindo–Yellow House Trails
134 White-bearded Manakin Rio Silanche–general area
135 Club-winged Manakin Sachatamia Lodge
136 Green-and-black Fruiteater Refugio Paz de Las Aves
137 Andean Cock-of-the-rock Refugio Paz de Las Aves
138 Black-crowned Tityra Rio Silanche–general area
139 Cinnamon Becard Mindo–Yellow House Trails
140 Black-and-white Becard Milpe Bird Sanctuary
141 One-colored Becard Rio Silanche–general area
142 Streak-necked Flycatcher Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
143 Slaty-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
144 Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant Milpe Bird Sanctuary
145 Common Tody-Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
146 Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
147 Cinnamon Flycatcher Guango Lodge
148 Ornate Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
149 Brown-capped Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
150 Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet Mindo–Yellow House Trails
151 White-tailed Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
152 White-banded Tyrannulet Reserva Yanacocha
153 White-throated Tyrannulet Laguna Papallacta
154 Yellow Tyrannulet Sachatamia Lodge
155 Greenish Elaenia Rio Silanche–general area
156 Torrent Tyrannulet Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
157 Choco Tyrannulet Rio Silanche–general area
158 Flavescent Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
159 Olive-sided Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
160 Smoke-colored Pewee Sachatamia Lodge
161 Western Wood-Pewee Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
162 Black Phoebe Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
163 Plain-capped Ground-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
164 Masked Water-Tyrant Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
165 Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
166 Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
167 Dusky-capped Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
168 Boat-billed Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
169 Rusty-margined Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
170 Social Flycatcher Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
171 Golden-crowned Flycatcher Sachatamia Lodge
172 Streaked Flycatcher Mindo–Yellow House Trails
173 Piratic Flycatcher Rio Silanche–general area
174 Snowy-throated Kingbird Rio Silanche–general area
175 Tropical Kingbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
176 Brown-capped Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
177 Chivi Vireo Sachatamia Lodge
178 Turquoise Jay Guango Lodge
179 Blue-and-white Swallow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
180 Brown-bellied Swallow Reserva Yanacocha
181 Southern Rough-winged Swallow Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
182 Gray-breasted Martin Rio Silanche–general area
183 Bank Swallow Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
184 Tawny-faced Gnatwren Rio Silanche–general area
185 House Wren Sachatamia Lodge
186 Mountain Wren Sachatamia Lodge
187 Sedge Wren Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
188 Bay Wren Mindo–Yellow House Trails
189 Rufous Wren Reserva Yanacocha
190 Gray-breasted Wood-Wren Sachatamia Lodge
191 Andean Solitaire Sachatamia Lodge
192 Spotted Nightingale-Thrush Milpe Bird Sanctuary
193 Ecuadorian Thrush Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
194 Great Thrush Nono Village Main Street
195 Glossy-black Thrush Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
196 Thick-billed Euphonia Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
197 Orange-bellied Euphonia Sachatamia Lodge
198 Yellow-bellied Siskin Sachatamia Lodge
199 Hooded Siskin Papallacta–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
200 Yellow-throated Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
201 Ashy-throated Chlorospingus Mindo–Yellow House Trails
202 Dusky Chlorospingus Sachatamia Lodge
203 Gray-browed Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
204 Orange-billed Sparrow Rio Silanche–general area
205 Chestnut-capped Brushfinch Sachatamia Lodge
206 Rufous-collared Sparrow Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito EC-Pichincha (-0.1252,-78.3602)
207 Tricolored Brushfinch Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
208 Pale-naped Brushfinch Laguna Papallacta
209 Yellow-breasted Brushfinch Reserva Yanacocha
210 White-winged Brushfinch Refugio Paz de Las Aves
211 Scarlet-rumped Cacique Rio Silanche–general area
212 Mountain Cacique Guango Lodge
213 Shiny Cowbird Mindo–pueblo y alrededores inmediatos (town and immediate surroundings)
214 Scrub Blackbird Sachatamia Lodge
215 Tropical Parula Sachatamia Lodge
216 Blackburnian Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
217 Three-striped Warbler Sachatamia Lodge
218 Black-crested Warbler Laguna Papallacta
219 Buff-rumped Warbler Rio Silanche–general area
220 Golden-bellied Warbler Milpe Bird Sanctuary
221 Russet-crowned Warbler Mindo to Nono road – higher elevations
222 Slate-throated Redstart Sachatamia Lodge
223 Spectacled Redstart Reserva Yanacocha
224 Dusky-faced Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
225 White-winged Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
226 Black-capped Hemispingus Guango Lodge
227 Black-eared Hemispingus Guango Lodge
228 Superciliaried Hemispingus Reserva Yanacocha
229 Rufous-chested Tanager Old Tandayapa Road
230 White-shouldered Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
231 Tawny-crested Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
232 White-lined Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
233 Flame-rumped Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
234 Black-chested Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
235 Scarlet-bellied Mountain-Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
236 Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
237 Golden-crowned Tanager Reserva Yanacocha
238 Fawn-breasted Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
239 Glistening-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
240 Blue-gray Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
241 Palm Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
242 Blue-capped Tanager Refugio Paz de Las Aves
243 Rufous-throated Tanager San Miguel de Los Bancos–Mirador Rio Blanco
244 Golden-naped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
245 Gray-and-gold Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
246 Black-capped Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
247 Scrub Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
248 Golden-hooded Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
249 Blue-necked Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
250 Beryl-spangled Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
251 Metallic-green Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
252 Bay-headed Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
253 Flame-faced Tanager Sachatamia Lodge
254 Blue-whiskered Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
255 Golden Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
256 Silver-throated Tanager Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
257 Swallow Tanager Mindo–Yellow House Trails
258 Black-faced Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
259 Scarlet-thighed Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
260 Blue Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
261 Scarlet-breasted Dacnis Rio Silanche–general area
262 Green Honeycreeper Rio Silanche–general area
263 Scarlet-browed Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
264 Guira Tanager Rio Silanche–general area
265 Blue-backed Conebill Reserva Yanacocha
266 Glossy Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
267 Black Flowerpiercer Reserva Yanacocha
268 Masked Flowerpiercer Old Tandayapa Road
269 Plumbeous Sierra-Finch Papallacta–radio antennas (Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca)
270 Gray-hooded Bush Tanager Guango Lodge
271 Blue-black Grassquit Rio Silanche–general area
272 Variable Seedeater Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
273 Black-and-white Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
274 Yellow-bellied Seedeater Rio Silanche–general area
275 Plain-colored Seedeater Road from San Jorge Ecolodge to Yanacocha Reserve
276 Bananaquit Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
277 Buff-throated Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
278 Black-winged Saltator Alambi Cloud Forest Lodge
Velvet-purple Coronet
Velvet-purple Coronet

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, July 2019

Graces Warbler
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon. A specialty of the southwestern USA, this species only just reaches Texas and can be seen in small numbers in high-altitude pine forests in the Guadalupe Mountains.

What if I told you that, even over the busy July 4th weekend, there is a place in Texas where you can turn up and camp – without making a reservation – at a near-empty campsite in a pristine mountain wilderness, with an 80-mile network of lightly trafficked, breathtakingly gorgeous hiking trails starting just a stone’s throw from your tent?

As unlikely as it may sound, there is such a place – Dog Canyon, located in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The downside is that this Utopia is nearly 800 miles from Houston, putting it out of reach for anything less than a 4-day weekend or for anyone unprepared to do a serious amount of driving.

In essence, you drive to an already very remote spot – Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico – then take a 60-mile dead-end road that loops around the northern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains and at the last minute – two hundred yards before the end of the road – sneaks back into Texas.

Texas NM Border at Dog Canyon
Crossing back from New Mexico into Texas, just a few hundred yards before the Dog Canyon campground.

At Dog Canyon, I was able to combine five of the things I like most: birding, exercise, remote places, long road trips, and being alone. And I don’t care if I sound antisocial – this really was a wonderful experience.

Day One:

I left Houston at lunchtime on Wednesday and headed west, arriving late afternoon at a targeted stop for Varied Bunting. Easter Pageant Hill is located just off i-10 at Junction, in Kimble county, some 300 miles west of Houston. With temperatures still in the high 90s, I wasn’t expecting a miracle, but literally one of the first birds I laid eyes on was a handsome male Varied Bunting singing its heart out from the top of a small tree. This completed my sweep of all 4 buntings (Painted, Indigo, Lazuli, and Varied) in Kimble county in 2019.

Varied Bunting2
Male Varied Bunting at Easter Pageant Hill, near Junction, Texas.

With a quicker-than-expected result here, I aimed high and decided to try and make the Fort Lancaster rest area before nightfall. This remote spot near Sheffield is a renowned location for the very local Gray Vireo – indeed, it is the only place I have ever seen this species. The sun was already dipping close to the horizon when I arrived at the site, but my luck continued; I soon heard and briefly saw two Gray Vireos here at this picturesque canyon, with the surprise appearance of a flock of Bushtits an unexpected bonus.

Fort Lancaster Sunset2
Sunset at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster. This place sums up West Texas for me: wild and remote, empty and (apart from the birds and the wind) silent.
Fort Lancaster Road
Sunset on the road at the Gray Vireo site near Fort Lancaster

I considered sleeping in my car overnight here, which I have done before at this location, but I was feeling full of energy after my success with the birds, so I continued on the long road west.

One thing about car camping in Texas in July is that it is HOT, and my plan was to aim for higher altitudes where the weather was hopefully a little cooler. It was just before midnight when I arrived at the Lawrence Wood picnic area on a remote road in the Davis Mountains, a spooky place in the woods with literally no passing traffic all night, but thankfully, cool temperatures allowing a relaxing night’s sleep in the car.

Day Two:

Morning Coffee
Morning coffee at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.

I awoke before dawn hoping to hear a Western Screech-owl or Mexican Whip-poor-will, but I was out of luck with the night birds here. Daybreak, however, produced a slew of good sightings at this excellent spot, including first-of-the-year Plumbeous Vireo, Western Bluebird, Gray Flycatcher, Hepatic Tanager, Canyon Towhee and Black-headed Grosbeak – which are all common birds in the mountains of west Texas but rare or absent further east. A Hutton’s Vireo was also a year tick and an excellent bonus bird, one which I knew I would be very unlikely to see in the Guadalupe Mountains.

Black-headed Grosbeak
Male Black-headed Grosbeak at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Woodhouses Scrub Jay
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay at the Lawrence Wood picnic area in the Davis Mountains.
Fort Davis Highway
Highway in the Davis Mountains. It really is no chore driving hundreds of miles on roads like this.

I then wasted some time trying to find Lucy’s Warbler at an out-of-range location near Van Horn where a pair had been seen on territory earlier in the season. When I finally arrived at Van Horn a little later, I was dismayed to discover that I was still 170 miles – a 3-hour drive – from my final destination. It was starting to dawn on me that Dog Canyon is a seriously remote place!

I wasn’t complaining about the scenery, though, with the road from Van Horn passing through expansive deserts before climbing up into the Guadalupe Mountains, then crossing over into New Mexico. Dog Canyon is at the far northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a two hour journey by road from the national park headquarters at Pine Springs, or a full day’s hike.

Dog Canyon campsite
View across to my campsite (orange tent!) at Dog Canyon.

I was getting a little nervous as I neared Dog Canyon, because there are just 9 campsites. Reservations cannot be made – the sites are allocated on a “first come first served” basis – and I suspected that the July 4th week would be one of their busiest times of year. However, I needn’t have worried, as I was literally the first person to arrive (although perhaps 5 other campsites were occupied later).

Dog Canyon is a perfect spot; each site is equipped with a camping “pad” and picnic table, and with my pick of all the sites I could select the most shaded one. There is a bathroom with sink and flushing toilet but no shower (although taking a “stand-up” shower at the sink is straightforward enough).

I wandered around the campsite area for the rest of the afternoon, but the weather was unusually hot – even up here at 6,000 feet above sea level – and I didn’t see many birds.

Dog Canyon Indian Meadows
View from the Indian Meadows trail, which is the shortest and most easily accessible trail from the Dog Canyon campsite.
Dog Canyon sunset
Sunset at Dog Canyon.

Day Three:

I am reliably informed that the best way to truly relax on vacation is to have no idea what the time is. Dog Canyon is a great place to follow this philosophy – most of Texas (apart from the far western tip near El Paso) lies in the Central time zone, whereas New Mexico is on Mountain Time, one hour behind. By the time I had driven up from Van Horn, cut through New Mexico, and dropped back into the very edge of Texas again, my phone (and me) were both thoroughly confused. My car clock also changes automatically with time zones, so I had no help there either. I set my alarm super-early to make 100% sure I was up and about before sunrise – which turned out to be a good move because the first thing I heard as I awoke was a Common Poorwill calling from a rocky slope near the campsite.

Loading plenty of food and water into my day pack, I set off on the Tejas Trail up Dog Canyon. I had received some great advice from other birders that the best way to find birds here is by walking in the bed of the canyon itself, not on the trail along the edge. This worked out well, and by the time I had reached the “switchbacks” further up the canyon, I had already amassed a great list including Black-throated Gray and Grace’s Warblers, Cordilleran and Gray Flycatchers, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Mountain Chickadee, and plenty of Western Tanagers and Black-chinned Sparrows.

Graces Warbler2
Grace’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

This single-track trail then passes through some open, exposed areas, where the birds were fewer in number but a Zone-tailed Hawk passed overhead. After passing the intersection with the McKittrick Canyon trail, at around 7,700 feet altitude, the Tejas Trail gradually enters forested areas once again; some high-altitude pine forest birds such as Steller’s Jay, Hairy Woodpecker and Dark-eyed Junco began making appearances along here. I got as far as the Tejas Camp, around 7 miles from my starting point, before turning around and retracing my steps back to Dog Canyon for a total day hike of just over 14 miles and an elevation gain of around 2,000 feet.

Bowl View
View of pine trees nestled in The Bowl at the top of the Guadalupe Mountains, as viewed from the Tejas Trail near the turn-off to McKittrick Canyon.

By the time I turned around, it was already early afternoon, and at this altitude the sun is very strong. In remote areas like this, it pays to be hyper-aware of things like drinking water, sun exposure, and exhaustion levels – especially considering that I was totally, utterly and completely alone; I saw not a single person on the trails all day. For some, this would be alarming; for me, it was inspiring and wonderful. We get so few chances to be alone in our busy lives.

Western Tanager
Male Western Tanager, Dog Canyon.

I was also constantly aware of the potential threat posed by bears and especially Mountain Lions, both of which inhabit the Guadalupe Mountains in good numbers. I would have loved to encounter either one of those – at a safe distance, of course! – and I spent some time scanning distant ridges and slopes but to no avail.

The birding was still good on the way back, even in mid-afternoon, and the highlight was discovering a family party of Virginia’s Warblers near the top of Dog Canyon – a life bird for me and one of the main targets of my trip.

Virginias Warbler
Virginia’s Warbler at Dog Canyon.

Day Four:

Having cleaned up on nearly all the Dog Canyon specialties already, I was anxious to try and get into more of the high-altitude pine forest habitat I had just touched the edges of during yesterday’s long hike. From the map, it looked like the best place to do this would be from the other side of the mountain, starting at Frijole Ranch and taking the Bear Canyon trail up to “The Bowl” – a two-mile-wide relict habitat of old-growth pine forest at an altitude of over 8,000 feet above sea level. The Bowl is literally the only place in Texas where certain Rocky Mountain species – Red Crossbill, Pygmy Nuthatch, and sometimes Juniper Titmouse – can be found at the very southern edge of their range.

I packed up my tent in the dark and drove out of Dog Canyon, flushing two Common Poorwills off the road when a few miles into New Mexico. It takes a full two hours to drive around to the opposite side of the mountains; when I arrived at Frijole Ranch the sun was already up and I hiked as quickly as possible so as to make up time and maximize my opportunities to find my target species at the top.

Frijole View
Looking back from the Frijole Trail towards the Frijole Ranch area. The serious climb had not started yet …

A pair of Scott’s Orioles along the Frijole Trail was a welcome distraction from my march, and a Texas year tick, completing the full sweep of orioles in Texas for the year (Baltimore, Bullock’s, Orchard, Hooded, Altamira, Audubon’s and Scott’s).

Bear Canyon trail turned out to be a serious workout. Frijole Ranch, where I parked the car, is located at 5,500 feet above sea level; the point where the Bear Canyon trail arrives at The Bowl is almost exactly 8,000 feet up. Much of that altitude gain takes place in the last 2 miles of the trail, and it was as tough of a hike as I have ever done, anywhere (including the Himalayas!). Canyon Wrens taunted me all the way up, and a pair of Cordilleran Flycatchers gave great views in a shaded, rocky gully.

Cordilleran Flycatcher
Cordilleran Flycatcher at the Bear Canyon trail, Guadalupe Mountains NP.

For birders, The Bowl is a kind of fairytale wonderland where it feels like anything can turn up. It is a unique habitat in Texas and also – due to the difficulty of access – one that is rarely visited by birders. There is a real sense that discoveries can still be made up here. It’s a gorgeous place, with the fragrant pines providing shade and the high altitude making for temperatures in the low to mid 70s – even on a July afternoon when the valleys and deserts far below swelter at over 100 degrees.

Bowl Top
View from the edge of The Bowl towards the Guadalupe Peak.

Birding was slow at first, until I discovered an area with lot of bird activity, along the trail downhill from the rusty water tank ….. basically a right turn then a left turn from the top of the Bear Canyon trail. The highlight was a flock of 5 Red Crossbills, likely a very scarce resident bird up here but seldom seen (my sighting was the first record of this species anywhere in the Guadalupes this year).

I also enjoyed views of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, Grace’s, and Virginia Warblers, and several species that in other areas of Texas are usually only available in winter: Brown Creeper, Dark-eyed Junco, Hermit Thrush, and Spotted Towhee.

Red Crossbill
Record shot of one of the Red Crossbills I discovered at The Bowl. These birds flew around a lot but – as always with Crossbills – were easily located in flight by their loud calls. I was lucky when one spent a few seconds perched in a nearby pine, allowing me to take this photo.

With dark clouds building, and distant rumbles of thunder, I had to cut short my wandering in The Bowl and start making my way down. Getting caught in a thunderstorm on the exposed reaches of the Bear Canyon trail would have been no joke – dangerous even! – and fortunately I got back to the car before the storm got too close. It took just an hour to get down, compared to almost three hours going up!

Bear Canyon
View from near the top of the Bear Canyon trail, looking back at the trail winding up the mountainside. Did I mention that this is a seriously hardcore hike?!

Day Five:

I overnighted near Van Horn – thankfully, evening storms kept the temperatures unseasonably low – and before dawn I was checking out the area near Culberson County airport for year list targets Gambel’s Quail, Crissal Thrasher, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. The quail proved to be easy to find (and completed my sweep of all three Texas quails seen and photographed in 2019), but I drew a blank with the gnatcatcher and thrasher here. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher made it onto my list a little later, thanks to an opportune roadside stop at a washout on the road towards Marfa …. the habitat looked good for this species and my hunch proved to be correct!

Welcome to Marfa
The road to Marfa, a town which has become a hipster hangout in west Texas and is a curious combination of old and new: the ubiquitous Dairy Queen and Napa Auto Parts stores can be found next to cool organic cafes, and old ranch trucks fight for parking spots with new Subarus.

Two out of three isn’t bad, and I continued towards Marfa, grabbing some Presidio county ticks beside the road including Burrowing Owl, Swainson’s Hawk, and Curve-billed Thrasher.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl beside the road to Marfa.

The reason for the detour (and scenic drive) was to take in the long-staying Yellow-green Vireo, which has been singing its heart out in a riverside park near Marathon all summer. This attractive vireo is normally a rare passage migrant on the Texas coast; a summering bird is very unusual. As soon as I arrived at the site and opened the car door, I could hear the bird singing very loudly, and it took just a few seconds to locate.

Yellow-green Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo near Marathon.

After that, I hit the road back to New Braunfels, and the following morning to Houston. It’s a long, long way back from west Texas, but somehow the drive never seems too bad …. the speed limit on i10 along here is 80mph, and traffic is always very light, so the miles get eaten up pretty fast.

Logistics:

A four-wheel drive vehicle is not necessary for this trip – there is very little off-road or even dirt-road driving involved. With that said, my Subaru Outback is probably the perfect vehicle for this kind of adventure, with plenty of luggage storage in the back – and the reassurance of high ground clearance and 4WD should it become necessary!

One challenge on long trips like this is eating healthily. Rural Texas is not renowned for healthy roadside eating options – and indeed, in remote areas in the Guadalupes, there is no food available for purchase at all.

I figured that even in my “Coolest” cooler, ice would probably not last for 5 days in July, so I packed only foods that did not need to be kept cool. My healthy pantry contained the following:

  • Heather’s Choice freeze-dried meals (grass-fed bison chili, Sockeye Salmon chowder, and African Peanut Stew varieties – all of which were delicious).
  • RX Bars
  • Larabars
  • Organic apples
  • Natural organic peanut butter
  • Nature’s Choice gluten free crackers
  • Bumblebee tuna sachets (various flavors)
  • Organic oats
  • Single-serving Tetrapaks of organic milk (I would have preferred coconut milk or almond milk, but I couldn’t find any small sizes in the store and it was too late to order online).
  • Trail mix (raisins, cashews, almonds and walnuts)
  • Three one-gallon water containers (drinking water for refills is available at Dog Canyon, as well as other trailheads in the Guadalupes).
  • Freshly ground Bulletproof coffee, with Bulletproof instamix.
  • Small saucepan
  • Aero Press coffee maker.

This was the first outing for my new North Face 2-person tent and my Coleman camping stove – both of which were excellent.

I ended the trip on 398 bird species in Texas in 2019 so far …. already ahead of my entire total of 384 for the whole of 2018.

Prada
The iconic Prada store, in the middle of nowhere about 20 miles north of Marfa. Hard to pass by without taking a photo!

Israel, Feb/Mar 2019

Little Crake2
Male Little Crake at the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat. It is rare to get such good views of this reedbed skulker!

This one wasn’t a birding trip, but – naturally – I had my eye on a few Western Palearctic species that I needed for my list! In the end, I scored with 15 life birds and an additional 5 Western Palearctic ticks, taking my life and Western Palearctic totals to 2,381 and 546, respectively.

I was most excited about heading to Eilat, which had been my dream destination when I was cutting my teeth as a young birder in Europe. However, maybe I am getting jaded in my old age – and I was definitely too early in the season for proper migration – but Eilat didn’t really have the “wow” factor I had been anticipating.

The desert areas to the north of Eilat were especially tough to bird, with one visit to Amram’s Pillars yielding literally nothing at all, neither seen nor heard, apart from a few passing Pallid Swifts and Rock Martins overhead – which, let’s face it, could have flown over almost anywhere!

On the other hand, desert birding in Wadi Mishmar, near Ein Gedi on the shores of the Dead Sea, was unexpectedly good – and produced most of the specialties over a couple of visits.

White-crowned Wheatear
White-crowned Wheatear, a stunning bird that I saw in just a couple of spots in dry, barren desert.

Birding locations:

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem: Both cities harbored a quite surprising variety of birds. In Tel Aviv, the seafront area produced my first Armenian Gulls, there were Palestine Sunbirds and White-spectacled Bulbuls in the leafier streets – and even a Hoopoe probing the turf along the promenade, oblivious to the hordes of people passing nearby.

Jerusalem’s Bird Observatory, centrally located in Sacher Park, is a well-known migration spot, and although I was a little early for spring migrants, there was still plenty to see (although unfortunately I did not connect with the wintering Pine Bunting there).

Yellow-vented Bulbul
Yellow-vented Bulbul in Tel Aviv – an attractive, common and widespread species in Israel.

The Sea of Galilee: The highlight here was great looks at hulking, stunning Pallas’s Gulls in breeding plumage – a five-star Western Palearctic tick and surely one of the most impressive gulls in the world. The whole area was quite rich in birds, especially in the hills on the Golan Heights side of the lake, where Long-billed Pipit was a target lifer (scored!) and I also encountered a singing Clamorous Reed Warbler in the reeds along the eastern shore.

Pallas Gull
Gorgeous breeding-plumaged Pallas’s Gulls patrolled the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a real treat to see …. my only previous experience of this species had been just a handful of winter-plumaged birds in coastal Thailand.

The Eastern valleys along the Jordan border: We were just driving through this area, and I wish I could have spent more time here. An hour in the Gesher Fishponds area produced over 50 species including plenty of shorebirds, both Dead Sea and Desert Sparrows, several migrating Black Storks, and a Booted Eagle.

Sand Partridge
Sand Partridge at Wadi Mishmar – an almost unbelievably attractively marked species.

Wadi Mishmar, near Ein Gedi: Two visits – late afternoon, and early the following morning – turned up 24 species, which for a desert is a good tally. I found many birds here that I saw nowhere else on the trip, including Sand Partridge, Fan-tailed Raven, Trumpeter Finch, Striolated Bunting, Scrub Warbler, Cyprus Warbler, and Arabian Babbler.

Trumpeter Finch
Trumpeter Finch at Wadi Mishmar.

Eilat: The highlight here was undoubtedly the two Black Scrub-Robins in Samar, about 25 minutes north of Eilat, which were overwintering in a dense patch of desert scrub and have been enjoyed by many birders. This is one of the most sought-after of all Western Palearctic species, and is only irregularly found in the region.

Black Scrub-Robin
One of the two Black Scrub-Robins at Samar.

The International Birding and Research Center in Eilat was good for close views of Little Crake among a fairly wide range of species, and it obviously has a lot of potential as a migrant hotspot in April. However, the North Beach failed to yield White-eyed Gull, which I had falsely assumed was a “gimme” here!

Western Reef Heron
Western Reef Heron in the early morning sunshine at North Beach, Eilat.

Overall, I saw 120 species in two weeks, even though I was “non-birding” the majority of the time. Israel can definitely be recommended as an easy, comfortable birding destination with good infrastructure and a wide range of species in a relatively small area – not to mention a handful of Western Palearctic specialties which can be hard to find anywhere else in the region.

Green Bee-eater
Green Bee-Eater near its nest burrow, north of Eilat.
Desert Lark
Desert Lark at Wadi Mishmar.
Greater Flamingoes
Greater Flamingoes near Eilat.
House Crow
House Crow on Eilat’s North Beach.

“Non-birding” in Mexico ….

Aztec Parakeet
Olive-throated (Aztec) Parakeet. This bird flew in and landed right next to me while I was at the top of the Muyil viewing tower.

Living in Houston, it is just a hop skip and a jump to some excellent birding spots in Mexico. In fact, it can be quicker to get to the Yucatan on a super-cheap flight than driving to many parts of Texas. I recently took a short non-birding break to Tulum, on the coast about 75 minutes south of Cancun Airport. I say “non-birding”, but any birder will tell you that there is no such thing as a non-birding vacation!

Yucatan Jay
Yucatan Jay. Endemic to the Yucatan region of Mexico and, like most jays, a very cool-looking bird. It was common at Muyil, often encountered in large, noisy flocks.

My wife Jenna and I flew out of Hobby Airport in Houston on a direct Southwest flight to Cancun, and I picked up a pre-booked rental car from Enterprise on arrival. This company is not the cheapest option, but there are numerous banana skins, scams and hassles associated with car rental in Mexico, so I was happy to pay a little extra to be with a reputable and well-reviewed company. As it turned out, Enterprise’s service was exemplary from start to finish with no nasty surprises whatsoever. Less than seven hours after leaving our house, we were on a white sand beach under swaying palms, eyeing the Caribbean Sea from our beachfront casita, and not another soul in sight. Paradise indeed!

No stretch of paradise can possibly be complete without some good birds, and it wasn’t long before I had ticked off the local race of Golden-fronted Woodpecker (“Velasquez’s Woodpecker”) which might be good for a split one day. Its smaller, daintier-billed counterpart, the endemic Yucatan Woodpecker, was also encountered on several occasions during our 6-night stay.

Velasquezs Woodpecker
Golden-fronted (Velasquez’s) Woodpecker. A very common bird everywhere in Quintana Roo.

My birding was more or less restricted to the first few hours of daylight each day, as I had many other obligations. This turned out quite well as, in common with many parts of the tropics, birding started fast and furious at sunrise before going almost dead after 10.00am with hardly a bird to be seen or heard.

I settled on the Mayan ruins at Muyil for my main birding destination, seeing as it was just a 30-minute drive from our accommodation, and from recent eBird reports appeared to be by far the richest site in terms of species diversity within easy reach. And so it proved – three early mornings at the site produced 84 species. My one qualm with Muyil is that this archaeological site is gated and locked until 8.00am (or even later, because the arriving staff were never punctual), which is very frustrating as it is broad daylight by 7.00am at this time of the year, and the first hour of the day is without a doubt the best time to be birding.

Hooded Oriole
Hooded Oriole at Muyil, one of five Oriole species seen at this site.

Fortunately, directly across the main road from the Muyil ruins entrance is a nice area of secondary growth bisected by several quiet residential roads, which allowed for some pretty decent birding before the “main event” at 8.00am when the Muyil gates opened.

Muyil itself consists of several ruined and picturesque Mayan structures set amid a parkland landscape, with denser primary forest beyond. At the back of the site, a trail leads through primary forest to a boardwalk, from which wet mangrove forest can be observed. The boardwalk leads to a fine viewing tower with panoramic views across large tracts of old-growth forest, and eventually a beach on a lagoon. It has all the habitat variety and ingredients for an excellent morning’s birding, and so it proved, even on the one day when weather conditions were far from ideal.

Russet-naped Wood Rail
Russet-naped Wood-Rail on the Muyil boardwalk – quite a stunner, as well as being a surprisingly large and lanky bird when seen at close range like this!

Muyil is easily reached from Tulum, simply follow the main road south towards Chetumal for about 20 minutes, until the village of Muyil – the entrance to the ruins is on the left. I imagine it would be an easy trip by bus or “collectivo” minivan for any Tulum-based birders without their own transport. Two fees are payable: 45 pesos (about $2.50) to gain access to the ruins, and a further 50 pesos for the boardwalk and tower.

We stayed on Soliman Bay, to the north of Tulum, which was productive in its own right, with mangroves, scrub and shoreline producing several interesting birds that were absent from Muyil, such as Mangrove Vireo and Black Catbird.

The obligatory one-day trip to the world-famous Chichen Itza yielded large numbers of tourists and not many interesting birds, with the notable exception of a pair of Bat Falcons around the temples and ruins.

Pale-billed Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker at Muyil.

Complete list of birds seen in Quintana Roo, Mexico, October 3rd-9th. Personal lifers are in bold:

Plain Chachalaca
Rock Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Ruddy Quail-Dove
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Squirrel Cuckoo
Vaux’s Swift
White-bellied Emerald
Cinnamon Hummingbird
Russet-naped Wood-Rail
Black-necked Stilt
Black-bellied Plover
Wilson’s Plover
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Willet
Laughing Gull
Royal Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird
Anhinga
Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Brown Pelican
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture
Osprey
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Black-headed Trogon
Lesson’s Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan
Yucatan Woodpecker
Golden-fronted Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Collared Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
Peregrine
Olive-throated Parakeet
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Greenish Elaenia
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Tropical Pewee
Least Flycatcher
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Couch’s Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Rose-throated Becard
Lesser Greenlet
Mangrove Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Yucatan Vireo
Brown Jay
Green Jay
Yucatan Jay
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Purple Martin
Bank Swallow
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Cave Swallow
Clay-colored Thrush
Black Catbird
Tropical Mockingbird
Scrub Euphonia
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Olive Sparrow
Yellow-billed Cacique
Black-cowled Oriole
Hooded Oriole
Yellow-backed Oriole
Orange Oriole
Altamira Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Northern Waterthrush
Prothonotary Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
Northern Parula
Magnolia Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Gray-headed Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Black-headed Saltator
Grayish Saltator

Total species seen: 114
North America life list: 857

Tropical Pewee
Tropical Pewee at Soliman Bay.
Lineated Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker at Muyil.
Altamira Oriole
Altamira Oriole trying to hide in the foliage at Chichen Itza.

Trip Report: South and Central Vietnam, January 17th-February 2nd

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Blue Pitta at Deo Nui San Pass, January 23rd 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

In mid January, I had a great opportunity to revisit southern Vietnam for the second time in less than four months. My friend Yann Muzika had arranged an 11-day birding and photography tour of the Dalat Plateau and central Annam, with well-regarded guide Duc Tien Bui – did I want to join them in return for a very reasonable contribution towards the costs? With a tempting menu of target birds on offer, including some highly sought-after Laughingthrushes, and the chance to connect with one or two Dalat endemics that I missed last time around, it was an easy decision to make.

I followed up the organized tour with a solo five-day trip to Cat Tien, where I had been once before – nearly a decade ago – and still needed several of the key species from there.

I provide a breakdown of the trip below, in the hope that it will be useful to birders visiting the area, without repeating too much of the general information that is readily available in existing trip reports.

Guide: Duc Tien Bui (tienpitta@gmail.com). Tien is a veteran bird surveyor and tour guide in Vietnam. With a personal Vietnam list well into the 700s, Tien really knows his birds and how to find them. Before our trip, Tien spent several days staking out some of the more difficult species, with the result that we connected with very nearly everything on our target list – including not only seeing the birds, but also creating the opportunities for Yann to take some excellent photos.

Additionally, Tien was patient, calm, and flexible – all the key attributes for an excellent guide. I would not hesitate to recommend him for anyone intending on a south/central Vietnam clean-up.

In Cat Tien, I birded alone, getting information on finding the birds from the internet and also from a guide I met on-site, Bao from Vietnam Wild Tour.

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Orange-headed Thrush, Bi Doup, January 20th 2016

Itinerary:

January 17th: met Tien and Yann in the evening in Dalat.
January 18th: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, rest of day at Tuyen Lam lake.
January 19th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 20th: all day at Bi Doup National Park.
January 21st: all day at Ta Nung Valley.
January 22nd: early morning at Ta Nung Valley, then drive to Deo Nui San Pass near Di Linh. Afternoon birding at the pass.
January 23rd: all day at Deo Nui San Pass.
January 24th: early flight from Dalat to Danang. Drive to Lo Xo Pass, birding there until nightfall.
January 25th: early morning at Lo Xo, then drive to Mangden. Late afternoon birding at Mangden.
January 26th: all day at Mangden.
January 27th: all day at Mangden.
January 28th: early morning drive back to Danang to catch afternoon flight to Saigon. I parted company with Tien and Yann at this point.
January 29th: bus to Cat Tien National Park, afternoon birding around resort.
January 30th: all day at Cat Tien.
January 31st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 1st: all day at Cat Tien.
February 2nd: all day at Cat Tien.
February 3rd: bus to Saigon, international flight to Bangkok.

Transportation: Our tour guide Tien arranged two drivers, one for the sites in the Dalat area, and the other for the Lo Xo Pass and Mangden. Both of his drivers drove slowly and safely, which is vitally important on Vietnam’s manic roads.

For Cat Tien, I caught a Dalat-bound Phuong Trang bus from Saigon (195,000VND), and got off at the intersection for Cat Tien – the driver’s assistant will tell you where. From there, a motorbike ride to the national park cost 170,000VND after a lot of haggling. Coming back, I took a taxi from the resort to the intersection (300,000VND), then another Phuong Trang bus to Saigon (200,000VND).

Getting into Cat Tien national park involves crossing the river on a small boat – the park entry fee of 40,000VND includes one return boat ride. If you want to cross the river early, you should buy your entry ticket the evening before at the ticket booth near the boat dock. Multiple tickets can be bought at once if you are planning to visit on several days. Once inside the national park, you can rent a bicycle for 150,000VND per day, but unfortunately the bikes are extremely poorly maintained so get there early to pick a good one. You can rent a jeep and driver to take you around but I didn’t ask about prices. It is also possible to walk to all the key birding areas, but it’s hot and distances are long so take plenty of water.

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Orange-breasted Laughingthrush, Ta Nung valley, January 22nd 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

Accommodation:

Dalat: Dreams Hotel in central Dalat. Very good, centrally located, good value option with excellent breakfast included, which was available at 5.30am so ideal for visiting birders. Lots of dining options within a short walk of the hotel – don’t miss One More Cafe for good Western food and some of the best coffee I have ever tasted.

Deo Nui San Pass: Juliet’s Villa Resort, located here.. Good location just 15 minutes drive from the birding area, in a pleasant rural setting. Swimming pool. Water pressure problems in the resort meant having to go without a shower on several occasions, which was annoying. The food was OK and they prepared breakfast early for us.

Lo Xo Pass: Just a night halt in the next town south of the pass, about 25km away. There is one mediocre hotel in the town, with a local restaurant opposite. These did the job, but only that.

Mangden: This ghost town has many hotels, and we were told that most of them are very poorly maintained – given the failure of tourism in this area, hotel owners are reluctant to invest. Our hotel was barely passable, with almost every bathroom fixture broken, a general feeling of damp, and food available only with advance notice. Instead we ate every day at a small restaurant in the center of town (possibly Mangden’s only restaurant) that served uninspiring but very cheap Vietnamese meals, and was conveniently open before 6.00am for breakfast.

Cat Tien: I stayed at the excellent Green Hope Lodge, in the village just across the river from the national park. Breakfast – included in the room price – was available at 5.30am. The first boat across the river to the park leaves just after 6.00am, which I found to be adequate for my needs, but those wishing to make a pre-dawn start would have to stay in the government-run accommodations inside the park.

Weather: Pleasantly warm and sunny in Dalat, with cool early mornings and evenings (high/low temp about 23C/14C). The Central Annam portion of our trip coincided with a record-breaking cold front across East Asia that produced extremely low temperatures and even snowfall in north Vietnam – it was cold, rainy and windy at the Lo Xo Pass (11C/8C), and generally overcast at Mangden with wind and occasional light rain (16C/9C). Meanwhile, in the south, Cat Tien was hot with unbroken sunshine every day (34C/23C).

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Rufous-browed Flycatcher, Ta Nung valley, January 21st 2016

Birding sites:

Ta Nung Valley: This well-known birding location near Dalat is where most people see Grey-crowned Crocias. Access details are available in many trip reports, including my own from September 2015 here. We spent two early mornings and one full day here – more than most birders, but Yann wanted to photograph the elusive Orange-breasted Laughingthrush. This species was particularly hard to find, being not very vocal, and unresponsive to call playback, which has been heavily (over)used at this site. On the last morning, we finally saw and photographed a pair in the small clearing at the edge of the forest, just across the dam at the bottom of the trail. Among 68 bird species we saw at this site were daily Grey-crowned Crocias, 4-5 Rufous-browed Flycatchers coming to worms at stakeouts we set up in the forest for OBL, but just a single sighting of Black-crowned Parrotbill. Bird activity is very high here – sometimes spectacularly so – until about 9.00am, but then quickly tapers to almost nothing.

Tuyen Lam Lake: We spent our time on the trails around the western shore, approximately here. The habitat is a mixture of pine forest interspersed with pockets of broadleaved forest. A nice range of birds and plenty of bird activity throughout the day. We saw our only Vietnamese Crossbills here, and other notable sightings included Red-vented Barbet, Long-tailed Broadbill, Dalat Shrike-Babbler, Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler, and the infrequently recorded Brown Prinia.

Bi Doup National Park: This location is about 50km from Dalat City, on the road to Nha Trang. There isn’t much in the way of accommodation nearby, so we stayed in Dalat. We spent most of our time on a 2km circular trail in the forest, the entrance to which was between Km 47 and Km 48 on the south side of the road. Our guide had spent a considerable amount of time staking out a pair of Collared Laughingthrushes, which did eventually come to our stakeout for photos, but which we didn’t see or hear at all elsewhere in the forest – a difficult species for sure. The forest along the trail was quite birdy, with target species including Yellow-billed Nuthatch, Black-crowned Fulvetta, Hume’s Treecreeper and Spotted Forktail all seen here. We also saw a single Black-hooded Laughingthrush, but this species is much commoner further north at Mangden. A couple of kilometers further up the road, trees at the high point of the pass provided us with our only sighting of Vietnamese Cutia.

Deo Nui San Pass: This location lies to the south of Di Linh, here.. Most of the birding is along the road, which unfortunately can be fairly busy with traffic. A small cafe at the pass is a useful landmark; most of the good birding is within 2km of this cafe heading back towards Di Linh. Several small trails lead into the forest, where we saw and eventually photographed a male Blue Pitta. Other notable species seen here included Indochinese Green Magpie, Black-crowned Parrotbill, Yellow-vented Green Pigeon, Black-chinned Yuhina, and an unexpected flock of 5 White-throated Needletails. At dusk, Grey Nightjars appeared over the road, and we successfully spotlighted a Hodgson’s Frogmouth.

Lo Xo Pass: This spot is about 3.5 hours drive from Danang airport, approximately here. At the high point of the pass, there is a bridge over a waterfall and a basic cafe. 300 meters to the north, a large lone tree can be seen just above the road. Scrub along the roadside between the bridge and the tree is the place to look for Black-crowned Barwing.

Mangden: About 7.5 hours drive from Danang airport, and 5 hours from the Lo Xo pass, Mangden is the only known accessible site for Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush. Forest surrounding the town is being steadily logged, but for now the laughingthrushes – as well as plenty of other birds – can still be seen. Local road 676 heads north out of town, and holds most of the special birds. There is at least one pair of Chestnut-eared Laughingthrushes on each side of the road at the Km 17 marker, which were responsive to call playback but very difficult to see well – there is little chance to see the birds from the road, you have to find a spot to get inside the forest and try your luck. Other excellent birds seen within half a kilometer of this location included Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler, Austen’s Brown Hornbill, and Indochinese Green Magpie. At other points along the road we had Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler, Grey-headed Parrotbill and Yellow-billed Nuthatch.

There is another spot worth trying along the new road to Kontum, about 4km from Mangden. A dirt trail heads downhill just before the Km 48 marker, passing through some excellent broadleaved forest which ought to be good for Rusty-naped Pitta as well as many of the area’s specialities. My mid-afternoon visit yielded Black-hooded Laughingthrush, Ratchet-tailed Treepie, Grey-bellied Tesia and Rufous-tailed Robin, and no doubt this is just a taste of what could be seen by birders investing an early morning here.

Cat Tien: The place to try for Orange-necked Partridge is the small hill along the paved road about 2.5km west of the HQ, the partridges are among the dense bamboo thickets alongside the road and responsive to call playback, although luck is needed to get a glimpse. Bar-bellied Pitta and Blue-rumped Pitta can both be seen on the “pitta trail” behind HQ.: walk between the buildings to the right of the museum, bear right past a disused cage, and enter the forest. After 200 meters there is an obvious cleared area on the right hand side of the trail, this is a photographer’s stakeout and patiently waiting here may produce views of one or both pitta species. Germain’s Peacock Pheasant is widespread, I saw it on the “pitta trail” just behind HQ, while others get lucky along the first part of the walking trail to Crocodile Lake – it ought to be possible virtually anywhere in forested areas of the park. Pale-headed Woodpecker is only in one spot, bamboo along the dirt road next to the Heaven Rapids – it is very vocal in early Feb and I saw a pair repeatedly there without difficulty. The park is generally rich in birds and a long species list ought to be possible for those investing enough time and effort.

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Collared Laughingthrush, Bi Doup, January 20th 2016 (photo by Yann Muzika)

Key species seen, and their locations:

Orange-necked Partridge – Cat Tien
Green Peafowl – Cat Tien
Germain’s Peacock Pheasant – Cat Tien
Siamese Fireback – Cat Tien
Black Baza – Cat Tien
Mountain Hawk-Eagle – Ta Nung Valley
Rufous-bellied Eagle – Bi Doup and Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Fish Eagle – Bi Doup
Yellow-vented Pigeon – Deo Nui San Pass
Hodgson’s Frogmouth – Deo Nui San Pass
Great-eared Nightjar – Cat Tien
Grey Nightjar – Deo Nui San Pass
White-throated Needletail – Deo Nui San Pass
Silver-backed Needletail – Cat Tien
Austen’s Brown Hornbill – Mangden
Red-vented Barbet – Tuyen Lam Lake, other sites heard only
Annam Barbet – especially Ta Nung Valley
Pale-headed Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Heart-spotted Woodpecker – Cat Tien
Blue Pitta – Deo Nui San Pass
Bar-bellied Pitta – Cat Tien
Dalat Shrike-Babbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Indochinese Green Magpie – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Ratchet-tailed Treepie – Mangden
Grey-crowned Tit – all Dalat area sites
Yellow-billed Nuthatch – Bi Doup, Mangden
Hume’s Treecreeper – Bi Doup
Rufous-faced Warbler – Mangden
Kloss’s Leaf Warbler – many sites
White-spectacled Warbler – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup
Grey-cheeked Warbler – especially Bi Doup
Black-crowned Parrotbill – Ta Nung valley, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-headed Parrotbill – Mangden
Black-chinned Yuhina – Deo Nui San Pass, Mangden
Grey-faced Tit-Babbler – Deo Nui San Pass, Cat Tien
Coral-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Red-billed Scimitar-Babbler – Tuyen Lam Lake, Deo Nui San Pass
Short-tailed Scimitar-Babbler – Mangden
Black-crowned Fulvetta – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Cutia – Bi Doup
Black-hooded Laughingthrush – Bi Doup, Mangden
Orange-breasted Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley
Collared Laughingthrush – Bi Doup
Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush – Mangden
White-cheeked Laughingthrush – Ta Nung valley, Bi Doup, Deo Nui San Pass
Grey-crowned Crocias – Ta Nung valley
Black-crowned Barwing – Lo Xo Pass
Rufous-browed Flycatcher – Ta Nung valley
Rufous-tailed Robin – Mangden
Spotted Forktail – Bi Doup
Vietnamese Greenfinch – common in Dalat area
Vietnamese Crossbill – Tuyen Lam Lake

Total species seen: 266