In February, I joined an international crew of birding writers & professionals on a spectacular, whirlwind trip around Ecuador sponsored by Neblina Forest Nature & Birding Tours. I was the sole representative from the US and was honored to also represent the Leica brand amongst this group of enthusiastic British and European birders.
I left my home in Florida flying from the Miami International Airport (10 feet / 3 m above sea level) and landing at Quito, Ecuador’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport (9,350 feet / 2,800 meters elevation).
I had only begun to scan the crowd when I saw Xavier Munoz’s smiling face coming toward me. Always cheerful, Xavier wore his beard and moustache neatly trimmed, but had left his familiar wide-brimmed felt field hat at home. I’d first met Xavier and his wife Mercedes at the American Birding Association’s annual conventions, 15 years earlier when we both guided trips and worked booths for our respective companies. Neblina Forest Birding Tours was the very first bird tour company based in South America. Founded in 1994 they have been at this longer than anyone, so I knew I was in good hands.
“Amigo, how was your flight?” he asked taking my bag and leading me to the waiting vehicle. Light was fading but I still managed a couple more species of birds for my Ecuador trip list, the widespread Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia species related to our White-throated Sparrow) bounced in a bush at the edge of the parking area and high-pitched, incessant calls of a Sparkling Violetear, an abundant local species of hummingbird a bit further off brought my Ecuador bird species list to three!
‘…tomorrow we’ll be going high!’ he said. From my Floridian perspective, I was already high in elevation, sitting a full 9,300 feet higher than the foundation of my home, so I wondered what a native Ecuadorian might consider as “HIGH”.
We left Quito before first light and headed east toward the continental divide of the Andes Mountains. We drove for an hour, ascending steadily until finally reaching “Tambo Condor” a small lodge and restaurant with an amazing view that is adjacent to the private Antisanilla Reserve, preserved by the Jocotoco Foundation from 2011-2014.
This is where the real birding began. We were over 11,550 feet elevation and were looking for some of the higher elevation specialty species here. Widespread common species like the Great Thrush, Eared Dove, and aforementioned Rufous-collared Sparrow & Sparkling Violetear were all around, with a smattering of new species like Shining Sunbeams (a spectacular rust colored hummingbird with iridescent back), Páramo Pipits, Black-tailed Trainbearer (a long streamer-tailed Hummingbird), Andean Gulls… so many new birds, but there was no time to stop and enjoy these now. The local guides on site were watching a Spectacled Bear down the trail, so we zipped by all of these high-stepping our way to the ravine ahead.
It only took a few minutes to make the hike but with the adrenaline rush from the expectation of seeing such an amazing creature and the thinner air, it seemed as though we were moving in slow motion. The guides gave us perfect directions “…on the opposite slope come down and left from the large triangular pile of rocks… about 50 meters…” I quickly set my scope down and found the rock pile, then tracked down and left until I found a furry black shape. It was rooting around at the base of a large ground bromeliad plant at first, but finally brought its head up showing its distinctive facial pattern and white chest patch. This was a 2 year-old, male bear that had a single white diagonal slash above its left eye. The guides here knew this animal well and would see him fairly regularly. It was an amazing spectacle (pun intended) to see this amazing creature that I had not honestly anticipated seeing! Hard to believe this was basically the first creature observed at our first stop out of the vans on our first morning! This was going to be a great trip for sure.
After watching the bear for some time we moved on to all of the other wildlife buzzing around us, including the numerous hummingbirds. Tawny Antpitas teased us with their calls that seemed to come from all directions hidden in the grasses throughout.
On the water below Andean Teal & and Yellow-billed Pintails fed side by side as more Andean Gulls streamed past. On a short cliff to our left a Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle perched. I swung the scope around digiscoping some of these and scanning for other wildlife, occasionally moving back to the bear to watch it devouring bromeliads. Then someone shouted “CONDOR overhead!!!” I’d almost forgotten the species for which “Tambo Condor” was named, the iconic Andean Condor is the largest flying land bird in the Western Hemisphere with a wingspan of over 10 feet! Looking up I saw the unmistakable shape of a large male Andean Condor sailing just over the cliffs on the opposite slope White collar flashing each time it spiraled up. Amazing to have two of the regions most iconic species, both of which are endangered “flagship” species in view at once. It was almost surreal and I was so in awe I actually didn’t bring up my camera to take an image until the bird had spiraled much higher.
We’d been birding for over an hour when the friendly staff at Tambo Condor told us they had coffee, tea and a light breakfast prepared at the restaurant back uphill. We birded our way back, adding additional species as we did: Brown-bellied Swallow, Tyrian Metaltail, Band-tailed Seedeater, Black Flowerpiercer, and a gorgeous male Great Sapphirewing. The sapphirewing was a stunner and larger than any other hummingbird we’d seen to that point. However, that soon changed when the Giant showed.
The Giant Hummingbird is the largest hummingbird species in the world over 8.5 inches long with over a 9 inch long wingspan! What it lacked in colorful plumage, the Giant more than made up for in mass and presence. The bird feeder cleared out quickly when the Giant zipped in to feed, then buzzing off in a beeline, level flight that was nothing less than remarkable! It was like an arrow shot from a bow, and it zhot over the horizin in a flash. Tambo Condor was an incredible first stop my mind was already blown just hours into the trip. Our list stood at 22 bird species in less than two hours, including numerous “must see” species including an unexpected Spectacled Bear!