Andrew Benson recently visited Ecuador for Rough Guides. A short break spotting rare and beautiful birds was one of the highlights...
Watching hummingbirds sip nectar while you breakfast is one of life’s greatest pleasures. At each of the three San Jorge eco-lodges located in the cloudforest to the northwest of Quito – the highest capital city in the world, at around 2500m (8200ft) above sea-level – this is how you start the day.
Housed in a rambling colonial hacienda in the Andean foothills, the Quito lodge is a fine place to spend a first night after arriving at Ecuador’s chaotic capital. The magic birding tour promised by San Jorge’s promoters begins as soon as you meander downhill from your rustic room. The mesmerizing buzz of nectar-thirsty hummers, including specimens of the endemic Ecuadorian hillstar, with its striking purple head, fills the dusk air.
That evening I met my birding companions, four US citizens, Elaine, Carol, Sam and Andrew, who all shared a love of nature and a fondness for the animal kingdom. Nobody was looking forward to the next day’s early start, but everyone was eager to see the Ecuadorian countryside and its treasures of flora and fauna.
The ornithological extravaganza got under way the following morning – a typical circuit lasts four days – as we set off with our driver and guide and bumped along the unmade Nono road, binoculars and viewing-scope at the ready. One of our first sightings was of the aptly named Sword-billed Hummingbird, the only bird whose beak is longer than its body. It was sitting proudly on a telegraph wire, brandishing its bayonet-like bill in the air with admirable elegance. I checked it off in the handy guidebook, The Birds of the Metropolitan District of Quito, written and illustrated by Dr George Cruz and his son, Jorge Jr., kindly given to everyone who books a San Jorge tour.
Birdwatching guides - especially the highly enthusiastic kind, such as George himself - have aptly hawk-like vision combined with an insider’s knowledge of where given birds are likely to be at any given time. This combination certainly gives them the aura of a magician, something demonstrated later that morning, when a pair of perfectly camouflaged burrowing owls was “spotted” on a hillside opposite. We all needed the scope to see them - just - but soon, after a short drive towards them, we were striding through fields of spiky artichokes to get a much closer look.
After lunch at the magnificently located San Jorge de Tandayapa Hummingbird Lodge, the magic was again conjured up, as we stopped in the middle of virgin cloudforest for a sighting of one of the prize species in the region, the strange and very shy Andean Cock-of-the-rock. We first heard them as a group of rival males strutted about and squawked deafeningly to attract the females’ attention. Our vantage point was across a deep valley from one of their leks - a Swedish word for assemblies of males of any species for the purpose of courting the opposite sex. Again thanks to the scope, we were able to see a number of male tunquis (as they are known locally) in vivid detail. The females are dullish brown birds, but their polygamous partners seem to come in two parts - a lower black-and-grey section topped by a spectacular orange-red top, that includes a weird rounded crest atop their heads that comically makes them look beakless. A very odd look but the ladies seem to like it...
Tandayapa Valley is a fair bit lower than Quito and feels decidedly more equatorial (which also means rainier). A short trail through dense jungle in the company of local guide Julio allowed us to marvel at orchids and other exotic-looking plants, while we saw - or in some cases only heard - dozens of bird species. One of the most common yet enchanting families of birds in these parts is the tanager clan - we spied the Grass-green Tanager, the White-winged Tanager, the Golden-napped Tanager, the Metallic-green Tanager and the Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, whose names mostly speak for themselves.
As at the San Jorge Quito Lodge, strategically located feeders plus bananas placed on tree branches attract a host of birds, including more of those hummingbirds. If I had to choose one, it would have to be the extremely cute Booted Racket-tail (pictured above) - emerald green, it has fluffy white booties and a long, slender tail terminating in paddle-shaped plumes, hence its descriptive name.
Lower down still, the San Jorge de Milpe Orchid & Bird Lodge, the last of the trio, overlooks a dramatic tree-cloaked ravine. Yet more feeders allow you to ogle at more racket-tails plus Brown Incas, White-whiskered Hermits and other beguilingly named hummers. On the approach to the lodge we walked along a stretch of road where there were so many bird species you really didn’t know which way to look - Chocó toucans here, Yellow-bellied Siskins there, White-thighed Swallows up above, Slaty Spinetails flitting hither and thither...
On our return to the urban turmoil of Quito we had certainly had a full dose of wildlife - numbers are not everything but I had counted a total of nearly 150 different bird species, ranging from familiar-sounding hawks and pigeons to mysteriously-named tapaculos and xenopses. We had returned to a world of traffic fumes and busy shopping-malls, but our minds were full of colourful images of darting plumage and the elusive sounds of shy wrens and never-to-be-seen antpittas.
It hadn’t always been easy, what with dawn rises and muddy trails, but it had been a magical insight into Ecuador’s incredible biodiversity. After all, it’s not every day you see a Pale-mandibled Araçari in its natural habitat.