Friday, February 2, 2018

Post #129 - Ecuador's Tandayapa Valley

OK, last time we left off at 11,500 feet of elevation, high above Quito at Reserva Yanacocha. In this post, we are going to move north and west, dropping elevation until we reach the birding hotspot that is Ecuador's Tandayapa Valley. What makes the valley cool is that the birdlife changes as one drops elevation from its higher, southern end towards its lower, northern end. Even better, there are nice lodges at the top, middle, and bottom of the valley, so it is possible to bounce around within the valley and stay at a couple of different elevations. So, with that, let's get going.

Getting there
There are basically two ways to reach the Tandayapa Valley. The first is the faster, more straightforward, and shown below. This route utilizes the paved but twisty Highway 28 to get you to the valley. Once you turn off of that road you'll be at the north end of well-maintained dirt road that runs the south length of the valley and connects to the Nono-Mindo Road at its southern end.

Route 1: Paved Highway 28

The second way is the route that I outlined in the last post, the one that ultilizes the unpaved Nono-Mindo Road to reach Tandayapa. That route connects well with a visit to Yanacocha as described in that last post. This is the same map I showed in that post.

Route 2: Unpaved Nono-Mindo Road

A Closer look at the Tandayapa Valley
Now that we've reached the Tandayapa Valley, let's talk a closer look at it. The valley rises from 5,000' at its northern end at Reserva Alambi to 7,350' at Bellavista Lodge at its higher, southern end. Tandayapa Bird Lodge sits midway between those two endpoints, at rough 5,900'. Tandayapa Bird Lodge sits right above the town of Tandayapa, right where the Nono-Mindo Road intersects the road that runs up the valley and connects the various lodges. The town of Tandayapa is so small that you shouldn't expect anything from it. If you want a restaurant, proper store, or cell service you should head to Nanegalito, ~5 miles beyond Alambi on Highway 28.

Reserva Alambi - Alambi is AWESOME, as much because of the wonderful family that owns the place as the birding on and around the property. Alambi is less a lodge and more a guesthouse, the sort that you might find on Airbnb; It only holds 6 guests at a time, and hosts Jairo, Favian, and Maria come and go over the course of the day, completing vacating the premises at night. Sonia and I had the place to ourselves the 2 nights that we were there, so it was a really intimate and personal experience. Since it is so small, Alambi is NOT suited for big tour groups; It is much better for a couple or small group of friends. Breakfast and lunch are served on the back porch so the birding never stops! Dinner is indoors. It is also the easiest lodge to reach from Highway 28, being just 100 yards down the dirt from that paved main thoroughfare.

Alambi backyard feeder array

Lunch with a view

Alambi dinner area and attached kitchen

Hummingbirds starred at Alambi. All of the action was on the back porch where a dozen hummingbird feeders were hung. In the course of our 2 days and nights, I think we had 15-16 hummer species right from the porch. It was constant action, and the birds were so stunning that it makes Alambi the perfect place to stay with a casually-birding spouse. The hummers allowed very close approach for photography. My only critique is that the feeders are hung so close to the backing foliage that it is very tough to get shots will clean, smooth backgrounds. I took the time to set up some of my own perches and wait for birds to land on them. That's how I got the first two shots below. Headshots were easy as I could usually find a smooth background patch against which to shoot such a small area of the bird.

***Click images for larger, sharper views***

Andean Emerald - Amazilia franciae
Reserva Alambi
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS IIon EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/6.3, ISO 1600

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird - Amazilia tzacatl
Reserva Alambi
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 7D Mark II
1/125 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Crowned Woodnymph - Thalurania colombica
Reserva Alambi
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/320 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

The grounds beyond that feeding area were also very birdy, and we took several walks up the main dirt road in front of the place to find additional species. It is also possible to visit Alambi as a guest, and many tour groups do just that. If you come on your own, please do leave $5-10 per person as a tip to help defray the cost of sugar water and the incredible amount of labor that such a wonderful hummingbird array requires. There is a tip jar at the far end of the porch. Bottom line is that Alambi and those who run it are wonderful. You simply cannot go wrong! Jairo really knows his birds and is available for private guiding upon arrangement.

Beyond all the hummers, bird highlights included Barred Hawk, Red-faced and Slaty Spinetails, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Blue-necked Tanager, Black-winged Saltator, Tricolored Brushfinch, White-winged Tanager, and Golden Grosbeak.

Tandayapa Bird Lodge
With a central location in the valley, Tandayapa Bird Lodge (TBL) is a popular choice, particularly for larger tour groups as the lodge can accommodate 20-30 people at a time. Like at Alambi, we spent 2 nights at TBL. Access to TBL is admittedly a bit tricky as your vehicle must climb an unbelievably steep and rocky driveway to reach the lodge. I would not want to try it in a sedan though it can apparently be done. Built right into the steep valley hillside, TBL feels very secluded and private. That feeling is made greater by the fact that the forest runs right up to edge of the lodge. The hummingbird feeders are very well-positioned on the porch, and it is really easy to get clean shots of birds as they come and go from the staging perches.

Dining/Communal area at Tandayapa Bird Lodge

Porch at Tandayapa Bird Lodge

Fawn-Breasted Briliant - Heliodoxa rubinoides
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Green-crowned Briliant - Heliodoxa jacula
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/80 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Very interesting was the illuminated insect sheet that attracted moths of every size, shape, and description, particularly at night. It was to this sheet that many species of birds, most notably several Toucan Barbets, would come each morning to feed. Photographing around that insect sheet was very challenging as there was very little light and the backgrounds were perpetually cluttered without a decent distance between the sheet, the nearby perches, and the surrounding forest. But is was really cool to see the birds (and the moths!) so close.

There is a nice trail that runs around the property, but do beware as it is quite steep and rocky. It's more suitable for adventurous individuals or couples than it is tour groups. Also very cool was the antpitta blind where we had very nice views of Scaled Antpitta, albeit basically in the dark as they put the worms out super early. We also had fantastic views of Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Rufous Motmot when they came into the feeders. This toucanet was perched on a hummingbird feeder and was using his huge beak to snap at hummingbirds if they approached too closely!

Crimson-rumped Toucanet - Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
Tandayapa Bird Lodge
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/200 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Tandayapa is a really nice place, but unlike Alambi, isn't the intimate sort where you can just sit around on the property all day and feel like you own the place. Tandayapa is a lodge, Alambi is a house. What makes Tandayapa great is its location and size, two things that are really, really good for tours. Alambi possessed a warmth that Tandayapa did not, and Tandayapa possessed a big group functionality that Alambi lacked. So, both places are great, but for different things. With respect to bird diversity, I found Tandayapa to be the lowest of the three lodges I discuss in this post. Much of that is due to the fact there isn't much open, birding space around the lodge. Walking down the rocky driveway to reach the road will also be difficult for some folks. As such, it's tough to just walk out to the main road as you can at Alambi and Bellavista. Tandayapa is a very fine place to stay and sleep, but you're going to have to get off the property (i.e drive somewhere else) to bird.


At the top of the Tandayapa Valley, in proper cloud forest, is Bellavista. We did not stay at Bellavista but used one of our mornings at Tandayapa to drive up there to visit the lodge and bird the area. That was one of the best decisions we made as we saw all sorts of amazing birds up there including Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Pearled Treerunner, Strong-billed Woodcreeper, Green-and-Black Fruiteater, Scaled Fruiteater, Turquoise Jay, Grass-green Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, and the highly prized and absolutely stunning Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, bar far the coolest bird we saw anywhere in the valley. Again, we heard a ton of other stuff but didn't know what any of it was!

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan (Record shot only)

Bellavista shares some attributes of Alambi and TBL. As it is a series of cottages (unlike one big building like at TBL), Bellavista has a charm reminiscent of Alambi, albeit on a scale large enough to accommodate tour groups. They have some feeders on the property, but the best birding is out on the Nono-Mindo Road road as it runs a bit father up the hill. It is very easy to walk out the front gate and start birding. Anyone can handle it.

Location-wise Bellavista has pluses and minuses. It's at the top of the valley and so the cloud forest and associated exiting birding are juts out the front door. But it's also the farthest lodge from any paved road by at least 20 mins. On the other hand, Bellavista is farther along the Nono-Mindo Road, so it's much easier to get to Mindo than from say Tandayapa. From Alambi you'd get right onto Highway 28 and take that paved road around to Mindo instead. I also saw zero photographic set-ups at Bellavista, and I strongly suspect it ranks at the bottom of the three lodges for shooting. I also suspect it is the best birding of the three lodges so what you think of it will depend on your interest. Bellavista is a great place to see the recently described olingito (a cute, furry mammal). They put food out for them each night.

So that should get you started. There is another Lodge, San Jorge Tandayapa, but we neither stayed or birded there. I have generally heard good things about it, but my emails, however, went completely ignored. 

OK, that should get you started. The Tandayapa Valley is a short drive from Mindo, and it is towards that birding destination that well will head in the next installment.

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