Birding On Top of the World in Ecuador’s Andes

“We’ll pull over here and walk awhile along the road,” Edwin our Ecuadorian guide told us. “There is a mixed flock working this area.”

Our bus had wound its way west through the outskirts of Quito, climbing higher and higher towards the Pichincha Volcano and the Yanacocha Reserve at 10,500 ft. We were driving through a mixed farming and elfin forest.

Once we alighted from the bus, it was hard to keep up with the flitting of the birds – Red-crested Cotinga,

Red-crested Cotinga


Barred Fruiteater, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager, Hooded Mountain Tanager, and

Hooded Mountain-Tanager


Tufted Tit-Tyrant.

A woodpecker flew across the road – a Crimson-mantled Woodpecker, another species we had seen earlier, but I had not counted because I didn’t see it well.

After the flock dispersed, we headed back up the road until we were engulfed in the clouds covering the mountain. When we reached the parking area at the Yanacocha Reserve, we could hardly see the ranger’s little station.

Yanacocha trailhead


Our first stop was at an antpitta feeding station up the hill behind the ranger station. Edwin whistled softly until one hopped out of the shrubs – a Tawny Antpitta. We would hear them calling all along the trail, but would not see any more.

Tawny Antpitta


The trail, a service road, hugs a cliff with low-growing trees and shrubs – hanging from the rock-face on both the up and down-hill sides of the trail.

An Andean Guan sat silently in the top of a low-growing tree on the downhill side. Its dark gray feathers blended into the cloudy landscape.

Andean Guan


As we walked along the trail, the clouds swirled in and out around us. A Tawny-rumped Tyrannulet hopped in the scrub, and then disappeared over the edge.

After about a mile, we came to the hummingbird feeding station. Yanacocha, known for its high altitude hummingbirds, was established to protect and restore the endangered Black-breasted Puffleg. While we saw two other pufflegs, this one had moved to higher elevations to begin its breeding cycle.

Saphhire-vented Puffleg


In addition to the Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, we watched a Sword-billed Hummingbird, Buff-winged Starfront, Great Saphhirewing, and Golden-breasted Puffleg.

Then we walked up a hill a short distance to the feeding area of the Rufous Antpitta. We had to look quickly, then back up and let others view it, so I was not able to get a decent photo.

Further up the hill were another hummingbird feeder and a water tray where we had the opportunity to view a Rufous-naped Bush-Finch that kept coming to the water tray, as well as several Glossy Flowerpiercers.

Glossy Flowerpiercer


On the way back to the bus, we stopped to look at a Barred Fruiteater.

Barred Fruiteater


As we descended back to Quito, we heard loud claps of thunder, followed by torrential rail.

The sun was shining as we left our hostel in Quito – a first for the trip. It was our last day in Ecuador and we were heading to the Antisana Ecological Reserve, which includes Volcán Antisana. Since we would be birding at 12,000 feet, we all drank coca tea at breakfast, in addition to our coffee, to help prevent altitude sickness.

At a bus stop southwest of Quito we stopped to pick up Pedro, an official guide representing the national parks, a requirement when foreigners plan to visit the reserve. The bus then began ascending through picturesque villages and farmland where Great Thrushes cavorted in the fields.

Great Thrush


“To your right is the volcano Rumiñahui,” Edwin gestured out the window. “It was named after an Inca Warrior at the time of the Spanish conquest. This particular volcano is dormant.”

Volcan Rumiñahui


Further along, Edwin pointed out a quarry where lava is being mined.

lava mining


Soon after, we pulled off to bird along the road. While the rest of us were busy checking out the slopes for a possible Giant Hummingbird, Chris was scanning the sky and spotted our first Andean Condor of the day! It was circling with a Carunculated Caracara some distance away.

“We are lucky,” Edwin told us. “When I was here with a group last month, we didn’t see any.”

The flowers that the Giant Hummingbird likes to pollinate were dried, so it must have sought greener pastures. However, the walk along the road produced a Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant and Black-tailed Trainbearer.

“I finally was able to see the tuft on the tit-tyrant,” I exclaimed.

As the road climbed higher, we spotted Blue-backed Conebill and Black-winged Ground Dove.

By time we reached the entrance station to the reserve, we were in the páramo above the treeline. We quickly turned our attention to high-elevation grassland species. The first was a Stout-billed Cinclodes,

Stout-billed Cinclodes


followed by Plumbeous Sierra-finch, and Plain Seedeater.

Plumbeous Sierra-Finch


“Condor,” someone signaled. A pair was circling. Three so far. Not long after, we encountered our fourth, and then fifth – and then one right overhead!

Edwin explained that even though the condor is the national bird of Ecuador and used to quite prevalent, there are only about 80 remaining in the country. The condor was revered by the Incas; however, when Catholicism was introduced by the conquistadors, they didn’t want the Inca’s worshiping natural phenomena, so they told the Inca people that it was sent from hell.

Adult pairs mate for life and only breed every other year; therefore, it has been up to captive breeding programs, including the San Diego zoo, to assist with reproduction and reintroduction. It was their experience with the Andean Condor that prepared them to establish a captive breeding program for the California Condor.

Andean Condors are among the largest birds that can fly, with an 11 ft. wingspan, and they depend on the high altitude thermals to provide enough lift for them.

Bonnie captured a wonderful photo of an adult male, distinguished by its white collar.

male Andean Condor – photo by Bonnie Long


As we climbed higher, we began to see Carunculated Caracaras in the fields – hundreds of them – as though they had each been assigned a patch to watch.

Carunculated Caracaras


Andean Gulls were foraging further away. When we looked through the scope we could see their black heads.

Andean Gulls


And, amongst the caracaras, we spotted two Northern Lapwings.

It was the perfect spot to take out box lunches and sit on the tundra; however, since I can’t sit on the ground, I sat on the bus step.

lunch on the tundra


After lunch, we spotted a Paramo Ground-Tyrant.

Edgar parked the bus at the top of a service road leading down to the lake and we walked the remaining .25 mi. to check for high-altitude water species. There were two Silvery Grebes that were doing a courtship display just moments before I snapped my picture.

Silvery Grebes


There also were Andean Teal and Andean Coots.

Andean Coot


On the way back through the grasslands we stopped in the caracara field when we spotted two Black-faced (Andean) Ibis at the northern end of their range.

And back at the cinclodes location, we were able to see both a Bar-winged Cinclodes, as well as an Ecuadorian Hillstar.

Ecuadorian Hillstar


Our final hummingbird of the trip was a Shining Sunbeam.

Our birding had literally been ‘on top of the world’ high in the Andes. What a wonderful end to our Ecuadorian birding trip!

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6 thoughts on “Birding On Top of the World in Ecuador’s Andes

  1. I do enjoy your writing about your adventures and love the pictures. I wish I could see pictures of all the birds you mentioned. Thanks for letting me part of you journey.

    Jan Micali

  2. What a thrill for you to see so many incredibly beautiful and interesting birds!! Enjoyed your photos and the descriptions of your experiences!
    Penny

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