Sunday, February 11, 2018

Post #130 - Mindo, Ecuador!

OK, let's pick up the great Ecuador adventure in Mindo, a small town/city of about 3000 people located about 2 hours west of Quito. Mindo is known - beyond birding - as an outdoor-adventure destination, and with zip-lining, river tubing, hiking, and other activities there is no lack of things to do. Town is very lively, and we found a nice assortment of local food right along the main street.

While interesting birding can be found anywhere, Mindo isn't so much a specific birding destination as it is a great base of operations to access a variety of nearby birding and photography locations. We spent three days in Mindo, and I am going to use this post to highlight some of the day trips that we took from that base. What I present is hardly an exhaustive list, so please know that there is a ton to do beyond what's here. Really, though, all you need to do is pull over on any back road and you're going to find great birding.

Locations that I visited and that I'll cover

Refugio Paz de los Aves
Rio Silanche
The Birder's House

Getting there
The easiest way to get to Mindo - from the airport is - to drive north and west through Quito to join Highway 28, the main (paved) artery west. The turnoff to Mindo is well signed, and from there one follows another well paved road down the hill several miles to reach town.

Highway 28 route

Alternatively, the more adventurous can follow the unpaved Nono-Mindo Road from Nono through Tandayapa and farther west to reach Mindo. As I described in previous posts, there is fantastic birding all along that road, particularly in the cloud forest that surrounds the Bellavista Lodge between Tandayapa and Mindo. The Nono-Mindo Road is probably passable in a two-wheel vehicle, but we had a high-clearance SUV-type that made the ride significantly smoother than it would have otherwise been.

Nono-Mindo route

Places to stay
There are all sorts of places to stay in and around Mindo, from lodges to cheap hotels to Airbnbs. As we did lodges in Tandayapa, my wife wanted to do Airbnbs in Mindo to mix it up. It's also worth noting that Airbnbs are much cheaper than lodges and are a great option for the budget-minded traveler. We did stopped into Septimo Paraiso to check it out and found it really nice. It's very well located and would make an ideal base of operations. They feed hummingbirds, so there's that going on right on the property. But really, everything is so close together that it doesn't really matter where you stay.

Airbnb tree house in Mindo

Excursions from Mindo

Refugio Paz de Los Aves
This place is world famous and is right off of Highway 28 between Nanegalito and Mindo. It is a private reserve run by Angel Paz and his son Vinicio and is a must-do for anyone in Mindo. I suggest the 4-hour, early morning tour (6-10am) that includes antpittas, lekking Andean Cock-of-the-rock, some general birding, and a full breakfast. Be warned that the tour rarely ends at 10; Ours ran until almost noon! So, two important points. First, eat something substantial before you go since you won't get fed until much later than advertised. Second, don't make any other plans between 10am and noon as your tour will likely run into that time. Also be aware that Giant Antpitta has become significantly more difficult to locate in recent years. It is not like with the original "Maria" individual that appeared on the same log at the same time every morning. At present, it is estimated that only 1 in 4 tours scores the Giant, and much work is now required to find it in-habitat. We missed Giant and Yellow-bellied Antpittas but observed the widespread Chestnut-crowned, the rare Moustached, and the tiny Ochre-breasted (only 4 inches long!). We had great views of cock-of-the-rock, albeit too early and too misty for decent photographs. Beyond the advertised species, we saw Powerful Woodpecker, Golden-headed Quetzal, Scaled Fruiteater, and a host of other birds.

***click bird images for larger, high-resolution views***

Ochre-breasted Antpitta - Grallaricula flavirostris
Refugio Paz de Las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/100 at f/4, ISO 2000

Rio Silanche
Administered by the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, Rio Silanche is located about 50km/30mi west of Mindo on Highway 28. The turnoff to Silanche is at km 127. Ad additional 7km on a dirt reqoad is required after that. At just 1000 feet of elevation, Silanche is several thousand feet lower than Mindo and as such the birdlife is completely different. There's no faster way to fluff up your trip list than to spend a day birding at Silanche. We spent a rainy morning at Silanche and found a wide array of birds including Hook-billed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Blue-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Pacific Antwren, Bronze-winged Parrot, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-faced Dacnis, and Green Honeycreeper. Silanche is MUCH better for birding than it is for photography. So, I would leave the big lens back at your place of lodging and just roll with a 100-400 for documentation purposes. Also, there's not much civilization near the reserve, so be sure to bring plenty of food and water if you're going to spend the entire day.  Again, the eBird checklist represents only the things we could identify visually as we didn't know any of the calls!

This place is probably 1.25 hours northwest from Mindo (via Pacto) and is a must for birders and photographers. It is a small, family run operation with very nice grounds and awesome feeder set-ups (directions here). In particular, Mashpi-Amagusa is an incredible spot for Choc√≥ endemics such as Indigo Flowerpiercer, Moss-Backed Tanager, Glistening-green Tanager, and Black-chinned Mountain Tanager. Many of these birds come right to the feeders for close views. Hummingbirds are also very-well represented and present very nice photo opportunities. One thing to note: Mashpi-Amagusa is often very foggy, and that fog can make shooting very challenging if not completely pointless. Such was the case on my visit (see example below). I could shoot through about 5 feet of it, but anything more and the fog took over the shot. Regardless, Masphi-Amagusa is worth a visit just for the birding.

Fog ruined most of my Amagusa shoot - bit's that's life.
This Flame-faced Tanager woulda been sweet w/o fog.

Juvenile Empress Brilliant that really
wanted to be identified. He also spent 
a fair amount of time sitting on my head.

Close-up of juvenile Empress Brilliant - Heliodoxa imperatrix
Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

Velvet-purple Coronet - Boissonneaua jardini
Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/160 at f/7.1, ISO 1600

All that being said, I need to make a VERY IMPORTANT clarification. There are two places that people refer to as 'Mashpi'. The first is the Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve, the birding spot that I have discussed above. There is also the Mashpi Lodge, an obnoxious and elitist accommodation right next to Mashpi-Amagusa. All local birders hate the Mashpi Lodge as the building was build against their explicitly solicited advise. The building is large, all glass, and functions as the perfect bird killer right in the middle of the jungle. Locals who toured the place while it was being built noted dozens of dead birds around it. Worse, they builders/owners somehow managed to get the place endorsed by the National Geographic Society (with what I can only assume was a direct cash payment to NGS). So, I strongly urge everyone to visit the Mashpi-Amagusa Reserve and to avoid the Mashpi Lodge. With rates of $700/night and up, I imagine that won't be a problem for most people. Ecolodge my ass. No real birder would ever be caught dead there. Here's a photo of it. I'm not even going to link to the website.

The bird killer

The Birder's House
This place is a diamond in the rough. We had never heard of it before saw a sign for it as we drove the Nono-Mindo Road from Tandayapa/Bellavista to Mindo. We decided to stick our heads in, and were we ever impressed. This property is the SINGLE BEST PHOTOGRAPHY SPOT that I visited in the highlands. It was so good that we scrapped our plans for the following morning so that I could have an additional session on the property. The guy who runs the place, Vinicio Perez, is very friendly and speaks English quite well. He is a photographer and has set the place up perfectly. He has an extensive hummingbird array that is covered my a high, plastic canopy. He also has 2 two permanent blinds that attract a wide very array of birds. Importantly, he has set the blinds up with plenty of space between the subjects and the backgrounds so that you can get smooth, uncluttered backgrounds for your shots. I literally could have spent 3 full days shooting at his place. He has several small cabanas and serves hot meals, and had I known that we could have stayed on site we certainly would have done so. Really though, the results speak for themselves!

Inside on of Vinicio's blinds - it's pretty sweet!

Blue-capped Tanager - Thraupis cyanocephala
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Buff-tailed Coronet - Boissonneaua flavescens
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/250 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Dusky Chlorospingus - Chlorospingus semifuscus
Canon 500mm f/4 IS on Canon 5D Mark IV
1/250 at f/4 ISO 2000

Violet-tailed Sylph - Aglaiocercus coelestis
Canon 100-400 f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 7D Mark II
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Like I said, there is way more to do in Mindo than these 4 places, but those should give you at least some ideas as to what sorts of things are available. That's where I will leave things for the moment. Next time we'll pick up much farther east, in the Ecuadorian Amazonian Basin. That will be the fifth and final post in this Ecuador collection.


  1. This is an excellent post Dorian. We too, (I and several friends), have also just returned from Ecuador where we also visited several of the places that you are writing about. It rained heavily on many days of our trip, so the roads were an adventure. We did see the closed gate to the Mashpi Lodge and we were told that it cost $150.00 to enter the grounds and $800/night to stay. We were told by a local guide that it was very exclusive. We did not do either of those things, but now we know what the place looks like. Thanks for including this, amongst all of your other great comments and photos.

  2. First of all, thank you so much for posting all this valuable intel from your experiences in the area. We are planning a trip in June, and this is all invaluable. Second, excellent picture of the Velvet-purple Coronet (among other great shots). I have a couple questions:

    1. Paz de Las Aves - For the most part this place seems awesome. But to what extent did it feel like visiting a petting zoo? While most descriptions are very favorable, some hint that it lacks the component of exploration that most birding locations offer and that it seems more like a choreographed animal performance. I think we'll go either way, but just curious your thoughts.

    2. I see most of your pictures are high ISO (usually 1600). I am a beginner photographer, but never usually think of going that high because they don't come out well when I do. Your images are excellent, so you seem to have handled cranking the ISO quite well. I take it that in this forest the light is lacking, and thus high ISO is necessary. Any tips on taking pictures with ISO set at 1600 or above? (shooting with a Nikon D7200 + 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 VRII lens).

    3. Great info on the Birder's House. This looks promising.

    Thanks again for posting all this info.


  3. Thanks for doing these blog posts, they are very informative for us as we plan our upcoming trip to the Mindo area. Excellent photos! I notice that they are generally at pretty high ISO. I suppose that is necessary when in the forest. I am planning to do some photography when there, but I'm somewhat inexperienced when it comes do using high ISO to compensate for lack of light. Despite being shot at 1600 or 2000, your photos came out amazingly, and without the issues that seem to plague my shots whenever I jack the ISO up. Curious if you are doing any kind of noise reduction in post? Thanks!

  4. Hi Conor

    Thanks for the kinds words. I'm happy that you found some of this useful. As for your ISO questions, you will effectively be at ISO 1600 the entire time. You'll aways be under canopy or cloud (and usually both) and there just isn't that much ambient light available. I do use a modest amount of noise reduction, but the real trick is getting close to the subject so that you can avoid cropping as that is where noise really rears its head. If you only toss/crop half the frame (i.e. of the total pixels) noise is rarely an issue even at ISO 1600 or 3200, but the further in you crop the more noise is going to be an issue. Some can be fixed in post, but every body is going to generate noise differently, crop sensors being much noisier than full frames. Luckily at set-ups you can get close enough that you can go at the birds with a 400 or 500mm lens. Just realize that anything above f/5.6 (or maybe 6.3) is going to be mostly useless. Hope that helps!

    1. Thanks Dorian for the tips. I didn't actually know that cropping was so exacerbated the ISO factor. I do use a crop sensor D7200 (w/ 80-400mm lens), so high ISO is tough already. I'm spending the next few weeks shooting in riparian shaded areas of Southern California to get some practice. I also noticed that you commented on a few places that were good for birds, but not photography. What exactly makes a place good for photography for you over another?

    2. Photography is all about being able to get close to birds that you know will be there, like at areas where they are drawn in by food. If birds are high in the canopy, it's just not wort shooting them. For something like shorebirds or ducks, it not only the ability to get close but also the ability to right down to ground or water level. Shooting down on shorebirds - like from a boardwalk or a dike - is a waste of time. The general rule bird photography is that you want to position yourself at eye level with your subject. Steep shooting angles - up or down - rarely deliver decent results.