Ex­otic bird­ing

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: ED HUTCH­INGS

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

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