Ecuador in South America is home to a multitude of wonderful and colourful birdlife
A host of exotic bird species await those who visit Ecuador in South America, but conservation action must be taken to secure their long-term future
BANKING HIGH OVER the Ecuadorian Andes, the closeness of Quito comes as quite a shock. The whitewashed city rises to an elevation of 2,850 metres above sea level, making it the highest official capital city in the world. Located in the Guayllabamba river basin, on the eastern slopes of Pichincha – a menacing active stratovolcano – it is also the closest to the equator. South of Quito, the two parallel cordilleras of the Andes running the length of Ecuador rise to their most dramatic and spectacular heights in the central sierra, forming a double row of snowcapped peaks the 19th Century Prussian naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, memorably christened “The Avenue of the Volcanoes”. The highest of them all, Cotopaxi, dominates its neighbours at 5,987 metres. This almost perfectly symmetrical cone is the highest active volcano in the world and is largely covered by permanent fields of snow and ice. Suffice to say, the scenery on arrival is utterly spectacular. Acclimatisation is crucial when arriving directly into the Andes, thus a day in Quito is recommended before proceeding any higher – and the city is unmissable. Our second day would involve driving southeast of Quito and up into the (literally) breathtaking Antisana Ecological Reserve at 3,800m. This beautiful reserve is made up of windswept, and often wet, páramo – an ecosystem above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline, composed mainly of terrestrial bromeliads, ferns and grasses. This is the domain of birds such as Black-faced Ibis, Andean Condor, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle, Andean Lapwing, Andean Gull, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Black-tailed Trainbearer, Shining Sunbeam, Giant Hummingbird, Carunculated Caracara, Aplomado Falcon, Páramo Ground Tyrant, Black-billed Shrike-tyrant and Stout-billed Cinclodes. The views of Andean Condor were the best I have ever experienced. Our base for the next three nights was Tandayapa Bird Lodge. First stop on the way to the lodge was a diversionary climb in altitude to the Yanacocha Reserve at 3,400m.
It was established in 2001 to protect almost the entire known world population of the critically endangered hummingbird, the Black-breasted Puffleg, whose known range is restricted to the imposing Pichincha Volcano that towers spectacularly over the reserve. Other birds seen here include Imperial Snipe, hummingbirds such as the impressive Sword-billed Hummingbird, Buff-winged Starfrontlet, and Sapphire-vented and Golden-breasted Pufflegs, plus a chance of seeing Black-breasted Puffleg, mostly from May to September. There are also Barred Fruiteater, Black-chested Mountain-tanager and Grass-green and Golden-crowned Tanagers.
Birding at its best
Tandayapa itself is situated northwest of Quito in the cloud forest on the western slope of the Andes. A thousand metres lower in altitude than the city, it is relatively balmy. Wet, green, vibrant and extraordinarily beautiful, the cloud forests feel like the prehistoric habitat of dinosaurs. Our first day was spent in the Tandayapa Valley – a showcase for Ecuadorian birding if ever there was one. The diversity in the Andean cloud forests is simply astonishing. There are currently 1,676 bird species in Ecuador, a country less than a quarter the size of Colombia (1,924 species) and no bigger than Colorado. Therefore, there are more birds per square mile than any other country in the world. This is due mainly to the proximity of Andean highland temperate forests and Amazonian lowland tropical forests. Ecuador’s position on the equator and the height of the Andes strengthen this diversity further. Subsequently, the region covering Western Colombia and Western Ecuador supports the largest number of restricted-range species of any Endemic Bird Area in the Americas. Known as the Chocó bioregion, there are more than 50 endemics birds in these parts alone. Starting at the lodge itself, the feeders and trails buzz with species such as Violet-tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Velvet-purple Coronet, Booted Racket-tail, Empress Brilliant and Purple-throated Woodstar. Within the valley’s environs, one could encounter Gorgeted Sunangel, White-tailed Hillstar, the brilliantly colourful Toucan Barbet (and the species of the trip for me), Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Ocellated Tapaculo, Beautiful Jay, Blue-winged Mountain-tanager and many other colourful tanagers including Rufous-chested, Grass-green and Metallic-green Tanagers. There is always the possibility of glimpsing the endangered Black-and-chestnut Eagle, White-faced Nunbird and Tanager Finch, too. On day two, we ventured further afield and headed west down into the foothill forest and open areas of Milpe, where a raft of new species awaited us. This area is productive for Green Thorntail, Choco Toucan, Golden-winged and Club-winged Manakins (males of the latter producing extraordinary musical
There are currently 1,676 bird species in Ecuador
sounds while lekking), Moss-backed and Rufousthroated Tanagers, Yellow-tufted Dacnis, Ochrebreasted Tanager and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia. Further stops in the Mindo Valley were incorporated along the way. In the right places, and with the usual element of luck, the intrepid birder has the chance of seeing Sunbittern and Lyre-tailed Nightjar, as well as cotingas, such as Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Olivaceous Piha and Long-wattled Umbrellabird. Our last day in the cloud forest was spent at Refugio Paz de las Aves – in the subtropical forest west of Tandayapa. This is predominantly due to the owner Angel Paz (‘Peace’) calling in and feeding worms to up to six species of antpitta, daily, including Giant, Moustached, Scaled, Chestnut-crowned, Yellowbreasted and Ochre-breasted, along with Rufousbreasted Antthrush. Other species found on Angel’s refuge (bought with his own money and expanded with numerous loans) include Wedge-billed Hummingbird, Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, Western Emerald, Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Orange-breasted Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-rock (a predawn arrival is required for wonderful close views of a lek), Golden-winged Manakin and Black-chinned Mountain-tanager. There is also the possibility of finding Dark-backed Wood Quail, Rufous-bellied Nighthawk, Lyretailed Nightjar, Scaled Fruiteater and also Olivaceous Piha. Ecuador is clearly a country that prides itself on its wildlife. Although relatively small, the Ecuadorian cloud forests are considered the single richest hotspot on the planet, containing 15-17% of the world’s plant species and nearly 20% of its bird diversity. The Ecuadorian Andes support the highest diversity of orchids in the world – 3,700 species at the last count. In northern Ecuador, it is possible to record well in excess of 400 bird species in 10 days, 600 in a fortnight and 800 in three weeks, including upwards of 50 hummingbirds. However, there are problems here. Ecuador’s rainforests are being cleared at a rate of approximately 198,000 hectares per year, including large areas of cloud forest. At this rate, it is predicted that Ecuador will be completely deforested within the next 30 years. In 2008, the country’s 20th constitution made it the first in the world to extend ‘inalienable rights to nature’, in the declaration that nature ‘has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution’. It is commendable that the government of Ecuador recognises the riches on its doorstep, but if this Eden is to last the 21st Century, actions must speak louder than words. Can you imagine a world without any hummingbirds?
Antisana Volcano, Antisana Volcano Ecological Reserve Andean Condor (also above)
ALPACA AND FRIEND Cotopaxi, at 5897m, stands guard over a long-haired Alpaca and its owner at Suri Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador Great Sapphirewing TRAINBEARER Black-tailed Trainbearer (a hummingbird) in the Ecuadorian highlands
Caption for on a picture Olinguito APLOMADO FALCON One of the birds of the Páramo zone in Ecuador