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Ecuador – A Little Gem

A month in Ecuador would give any birdwatcher a real flavour of the ornithology of the whole of the Neotropics. The variety of habitats is amazing if you only consider travelling in a straight line from the west coast to the eastern border with Peru. The arid coastal zone soon gives way to lowland tropical forests followed by the huge diversity of the west Andean Slope. Two parallel chains of mountains make up the backbone of the Andes with a high and relatively dry valley in between. Then down the east Andean slope to the Amazon Basin in the Oriente. More than 80% of the families endemic to the Neotropics occur here and nearly 1600 species have been recorded making this a must for all Neotropical birders and an ideal starting country for the new comer.

Ecuador is situated on the west side of South America on the equator after which the country is named. In relative terms for South America, this is a very small country with a stable and well-developed infrastructure. The small size of this country cuts down the amount of travelling required which greatly enhances the amount of birdwatching that can be fitted in. One fifth of the road network is paved and although the road system is improving much is still poorly maintained making for interesting and entertaining driving at times, not to mention the buses and lorries that appear to have their own agendas. A two-wheeled drive would be fine for the sites described here but for the more adventurous birders a four-wheel drive would be important. A cheap, fast and exciting bus network caters well for the budget traveller and a fairly extensive air network can help travellers with restricted time.

A wide range of budget accommodation is available with many cheap hosterias, while better quality hotels can be found in most large towns. Food is available at or near all of the following sites, but some of the more remote areas require a bit of planning and stocking up with essentials before-hand is necessary.

Ecotourism is expanding all of the time on mainland Ecuador and has been in full swing for years on Galapagos. The normal range of tropical diseases occur and have to be treated with great respect. Several of the good birdwatching sites are at high altitude and so avoiding altitude sickness needs to be considered. A well-organised trip to any of the Andean countries would start in the lowlands and gradually move uphill giving time to acclimatise. The first time travellers to these altitudes will find this an interesting experience.

During two month-long trips with other British Birders I have travelled widely in Ecuador, but still there is much to see. Most of the major habitat zones can be covered in a few weeks and my choice of the top 6 sites attempts to do this. Four weeks visiting these six sites would notch up 5-600 species. With a more frantic effort, adding a few more sites but spending less time at each, a total of over 700 is possible.

The West Andean Slope – Mindo

Quito, the capital of Ecuador is within easy reach of one of the best areas for birdwatching in South America. A one hour drive on tarmac roads will take you down the west Andean slope to an area of subtropical and temperate forest around the town of Mindo.

There is sufficient accommodation and food in Mindo and good birding is to be found in all directions from the town including the road in. Travel on some of the tracks in this area is time consuming, especially for us on one occasion when we had punctures in three tyres at the same time: one inner-tube alone required eight patches. The birding habitats are situated between 5000ft and 7500ft and the scenery is not unlike mid-Wales with all but the valleys covered in forest. A snapshot of the area can be had in four-five days although two-three weeks would be needed to do the wide range of habitats justice. More than 400 species have been recorded in the Mindo area which is a good cross-section of all of the birds that can be found on the west slope. The list is phenomenal and ever expanding, but just a few of the stars are Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, Toucan-barbet, Booted Rackettail and of course Andean Cock-of the-Rock.

Toucan barbet

The High Andes – Cotopaxi NP

On a good day Cotopaxi is clearly visible from Quito. This elegant snow-topped and cone-shaped volcano is still active and is the centre piece of the Cotopaxi NP. This is an ideal site for an introduction to paramo species and can reasonably be covered in a long day out from Quito. The long entrance track gradually rises through conifers, then paramo and it is possible to drive up to a car park just beneath the snowline at 15500ft. Good birding can be had around the visitors centre, the campsites, the plateau and lake at 12500ft and the track to the high car park. The plateau and lake at 12500ft have a selection of high-altitude species giving a true flavour of what the paramo has to offer.

Andean Gull, Andean Lapwing, Carunculated Caracara, Puna Hawk are regulars and several hummingbirds can be seen the finest of which is Chimborazo Hillstar. Ground-tyrants, cinclodes and canasteros all add to the picture for birders new to the Neotropics. Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe can be seen from the track to the high car park although searching at this altitude can be very strenuous. Food is left out for Andean Condor by the park authorities making Cotopaxi the best chance to see Andean Condor in Ecuador. Be warned – harsh weather can severely reduce the number of species seen and care should be taken when planning a visit for conditions can change dramatically in minutes.

Amazonas – Sacha Lodge

A trip to the Amazon Basin is not cheap but well worth it for the experience and the tremendous variety of birds. Packages to Sacha Lodge include flights to the town of Coca and transfers by canoe down the Rio Napo to the lodge.

This rainforest lodge is well organised, ideally situated and knowledgeable guides cater for individual requirements. The surrounding variance of lowland rainforest habitats hold upwards of 500 species although less than half of these will be seen during a week long trip. Despite the large diversity of species, the birds are in very low densities and dawn and dusk birding brings forth the greatest treasures. Large numbers of parrots, antbirds, and tanagers abound in the humid conditions. One evening we were lucky to locate a feeding flock of more than fifty individuals from nineteen species. Such flocks are a true test of memory and time-management. As the flock moves by do you make notes and miss birds or try to remember the features of as many species as possible? This is where experience helps because the commoner species can be quickly identified so that the elusive speciality cannot slip by. It is possible to see more than ten cotingas including Amazonian Umbrellabird and other much sought after birds on offer are Hoatzin, Harpy Eagle and a selection of owls.

The East Andean Slope – Guacamoyos Ridge via the Papallacta Pass

A two hour car journey east from Quito rises up to the Papallacta pass and then drops down the east slope to Baeza.

The pass itself is host to several interesting species, not least the Giant Conebill that can be found in the Polylepis forests near the top. Paramo habitats similar to that at Cotopaxi are worth birding as are the remnant tracts of forest beside the road beyond the pass; Sword-billed Hummingbird and Grey-breasted Mountain-toucan should be looked for here. The south road from Baeza to Tena climbs over the Guacamoyos Ridge. Either town has sufficient accommodation and food and is well situated for access to the superb subtropical forests that bathe the slopes of this ridge. These forests are home to many species that are difficult to see elsewhere in Ecuador. Birding is from the road and just a few tracks into the forest. Several antpittas can be seen including the rare Moustached Antpitta. Tanagers and hummingbirds abound in the canopy and several other specialities like Barred Antthrush, Solitary Eagle, Dusky Piha, Black-billed Mountain-toucan and Andean Potoo are present. On a clear day the views of the Volcan Sumaco and the Upper Amazon Basin are awe-inspiring.

The South – Podocarpus NP

Podocarpus is one of the three richest National Parks for avifauna in the world because of its huge size and habitat diversity. It is situated in the south-east of the country south of the towns of Loja and Zamora. Both towns have suitable accommodation and food and both have National Park offices from which to obtain the necessary permits. Loja is close to the temperate and elfin forests at Cajanuma where one should expect to bird in the wet. On our first visit we stayed here for four days and suffered precipitation in various forms for over 90% of the time. The vehicle track up to the ranger station and several tracks beyond provide good birding. Calling antpittas bounce around the floor as hummingbirds and tanagers abound in the moss covered canopies. The bamboo is a good place to look for the mystical Ocellated Tapaculo and Bearded Guan, Imperial Snipe and Masked Saltator are other specialities nearby. Zamora is ideal for access to Bombuscara which is upper tropical forest with an Amazonian influence. Torrent Duck and Coppery-chested Jacamar are to be found near the entrance, specialities like Striped Manakin and Shrike-like Cotinga need a bit more time. Both sites allow access to the rich interior of the park although expedition planning would be required for this.

The Galapagos

Week long budget packages, including flights to and from the mainland, can be organised from Britain or travellers with more time can organise a tour in Quito.

Trips are based on-board boats and although most of the weather is generally moderate, some journeys can be rough. My first views of the nocturnal feeding Swallow-tailed Gull were gained as I chummed over the railings during my first night at sea. On such a trip it is possible to see 20 of the 25 endemics in a week plus much of the other wildlife that Galapagos is famous for. To see all the endemics, then more time and money are required on a trip offered by specialist bird companies. Charles Mockingbird is a difficult bird to see because no-one can visit the islands on which it occurs, even weighing anchor nearby is forbidden. It took considerable friendly bargaining to persuade our captain to sail slowly around one of the islands close enough to scan with binoculars. We only had ten minutes but we scored – two birds bounded across the beach to see what was going on! A total of 50 species in a week sounds incredibly low but this is truly one of the natural wonders of the world and should not be missed.

These are just six of the more well known birdwatching areas although I have not included my favourite site in Ecuador. In the south-west is a small area of remnant tropical forest known as Buenaventura. The area has just a few stands of trees either side of a track, but it attracts a stunning array of species. In one day I have seen Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Black Hawk-eagle, El Oro Parakeet and Club-winged Manakin. True to form for such enigmatic sites, during my next visit I saw a completely new set of birds including Spotted Nightingale-thrush, Golden-winged Manakin, White-tipped Sicklebill and the endemic Grey-backed Hawk.

Grey-backed Hawk

The mind boggles at what this site holds in store for my next visit. Many such sites must exist, but as yet do not have such a high profile as this one. So, when you visit Ecuador, remember, you will marvel at an unbelievable selection of birds, the diversity of forests, the aura of the high Andes and of course, you will get WET!!!