We have just arrived in Ecuador to what, I hope, will be our holiday of a lifetime. It is based on experiencing nature and we will visit the Andes, the Amazon and of course the Galapagos Islands. I remember as a kid reading wonderful stories of Charles Darwin, HMS Beagle and the natural history of these magical islands. It is something that excited me from an early age and I never did think that one day I would be able to visit this country and the Galapagos Islands.
After a long and tiring journey we arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which at 9,350ft, is the second highest capital of the world. We stayed nearby that night to recover a little bit of lost sleep. The next day our nature guide picked us up for a leisurely drive to our lodge at Guango (8,500ft) via the high pass of Papallacta at 13,500ft. I have to say that any thoughts about being relatively fit soon disappeared as both of us struggled for breath after very little physical effort. Our first two guides, Edwin and Mauricio, inadvertently reminded us how difficult the pandemic was for people in less economically developed countries. Clearly tourism stopped abruptly when the pandemic hit town. They were both self-employed and their incomes dried up immediately. In Ecuador there was no state help and they were left without any means of support. They both moved out of the city and moved back to their home towns in the countryside where life was much cheaper.
Edwin lived for two months in his car, then contracted COVID and was at death’s door. If he wanted to survive he would have to use private medical care as there was no public hospital available. Although his family were willing to pay the 60,000 dollars needed for his treatment, he refused the help as his family would have had to work at least one lifetime to re-pay the debt. Fortunately (Edwin described it as a miracle), an altruistic doctor took him under his wing and treated him for a fraction of the price. Over a year later, Edwin still has health problems, but he is alive and with a far smaller and more manageable debt.
Mauricio returned to his village in the jungle and lived a simple and frugal life in a cabin without running water and electricity. During the pandemic he built himself two large pools and started a fish farm. Due to his initiative he survived the pandemic and has returned to his nature guiding with body and mind intact.
It certainly made us think how difficult it was for many people around the world and how lucky we have been in the last few years.
At the eco-lodges we have stayed in there are terraces with feeders for Hummingbirds. I understand that there are an incredible 152 different species in Ecuador and it is hard to comprehend this incredible diversity. It is amazing to sit quietly on a terrace watching the Hummingbirds coming and going at what seems like the speed of light. They are incredibly fast and very confident in their abilities to avoid the dangers of clumsy and slow-moving human beings. Consequently, they are quite happy and totally unconcerned if you approach within a foot of them. It has been an amazing experience!
We are currently like beginners, as the birds we are seeing, (and missing), are completely new to us, both in looks and songs. It has been a godsend to be accompanied by a professional bird-guide on all our excursions. Considering their knowledge and field craft, the amount they earn is relatively small and exceptionally good value. We have certainly seen far more birds and learnt so much more than we would have by ourselves. I would strongly recommend that you organise something similar if you are lucky enough to visit the area.
Each morning we set the alarm at 5.45am and went to the lodges for a wake-up coffee. We then went to the terraces where a light had been left on overnight to attract moths to a screen. I thought it was for moth lovers, but not so. It was for providing avian breakfasts! It was an unforgettable experience to watch these jungle birds coming to feast on the moths. Often they were birds that normally live and feed in the jungle canopy and are difficult to see. The birds seem to fall into two categories, either LBJ’s (little brown jobs) or extremely bright and colourful. I knew it was going to be difficult to see any bird in the first category, but I was stunned to discover it was equally true of the bright and colourful ones. How do they manage to hide in full sight!?
The eco-lodges with their private nature reserves are a real help for visitors as they have learned over the years how to manage the reserves sympathetically for nature, but still give their paying guests an opportunity to view the wildlife and walk the jungle trails. I’m sure that our trip has been enhanced by thoughtful management and viewing facilities.
Guango lodge is at 9,350ft above sea level and our next port of call, Cabañas San Isidro was at roughly 6,200ft above sea level. Our current location at Wild Sumaco is still lower at 3,600ft. The altitude is rather important, as the habitat and birdlife changes as you descend from the high Andes.
We had seen a few hundred different species of birds by now, which is too many to mention here, so I will just highlight a few that have caught my eye. The first one, is a quite large and very colourful bird called a Masked Trogon (Trogon Personates). There are twelve different species of Trogon in the country and they are all very colourful. It is fairly common at San Isidro where it lives in the mid-altitude rain forests. It eats fruit and insects and excavates a nest hole in decaying trees. The male is very brightly coloured, whereas the female being true to her avian gender, is mainly brown and much less noticeable.
Rather common, but very photogenic birds are the Green Jays (Cyanocorax Luxuosos) that tend to travel around the jungle mob-handed. They are very gregarious and quite bolshy when a juicy moth makes an appearance close by.
At higher altitudes they are joined by gangs of Turquoise Jays (Cyanolyca Turcos) that, along with their close cousins, provide a stunning kaleidoscope of colour.
At Guango, we went down to the river in the bottom of the valley. I say river, but it was really a raging torrent with spectacular white water rapids. It was fascinating just to watch the water, but we really came to find a rare duck called a Torrent Duck (Merganetta Armada). The name really says it all as it lives and feeds in the rapids of the river. It is quite a sight to see it swimming upriver! I can’t imagine how the young ducklings survive the raging waters!
Another very striking and colourful bird that sometimes puts in an appearance at ‘bird breakfast’ is the bright red male Summer Tanager (Piranga Rubra). It is a North American bird that migrates south to spend the winter here. It tends to be quite solitary, but from time to time there was an aggressive youngster that would try and muscle in for a free meal, but it didn’t take long for the alpha male to put him in his place.
A couple of LBJ’s also caught my eye. The first being a Streak-Headed Wood-Creeper (Lepidocolaptes Souleyetii) that would start looking for food at the bottom of a tree trunk and walk upwards looking for insects in the bark, moss or lichens that covered the rain forest trees. Although being plain brown to blend in with its surroundings, I found this bird subtly attractive.
A bird that looked remarkably like our native Song Thrush would turn up sporadically and see what all the fuss was about. It looked slightly different from our Song Thrush and it turned out to be a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus Ustulatus). It is a North American species that breeds in higher altitude woodlands and is quite shy, so it was proving a popular sighting for our American friends. I was particularly pleased to see it, as it is a rare vagrant to the UK; a bird I have never previously seen.
At Wild Sumaco, we were escorted by a laid-back young man called Byron, who was a professional bird-guide who still had to pass his English exam. He needed to pass his English to qualify as a professional English-speaking bird guide. However, he had passed his birding exams and his birding skills were spot on. Although, many people spoke English we communicated all the time in Spanish as it made life easier for our hosts.
It turned out that over the years Byron had been feeding a very shy, forest floor dwelling LBJ called a Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria Rufula). It was the smallest of the plain antpittas to be found in Ecuador and was nicknamed ‘Shakira’ because of the way it moved its hips! I have to say it was very cute for a LBJ. The other strange thing is that it was extremely good at telling the time! If you turned up to its feeding place a minute early it wasn’t there and if you were ten minutes late it was gone!
Byron also managed to find a lone Blue and Yellow Macaw (Are Ararauna) perched on a tree a huge distance away and even managed to take a photo on my mobile phone using his telescope. I was very impressed!
Oops, I nearly forgot the Andean Cock of the Rock (Rupicola Peruvians). How could I forget such a colourful emblematic bird! I sort of remember collecting cards of the birds of South America when mum bought Tetley’s Tea (I think). The cards were free and you could write to Tetley’s for a booklet to put them in. The Cock of the Rock was the only card that I can now remember, probably because it was so colourful. Now I’ve actually seen a real one in the jungle in Ecuador! Wow!
Next month I will tell you about our trip to Napo Wildlife Centre in the Amazon rain forest.
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