by Katie Stacey
I’m peering through the scope allowing my gaze to be directed by the student who has been studying the nest for the past 2 weeks. I can see the muddy scrape, but the chick apparently sat to the right of it is just not appearing for me. “Do you think the parents will come?” I ask hopefully – I’m confident there’s no way I’d miss them! “They tend to only visit in the morning,” he replies, and as it’s now the afternoon I’m guessing he doesn’t fancy my chances, which is a real shame as we only have one day up here in the Andes.
It’s my first time in Ecuador and as we only have 9 days, wildlife photographer Luke Massey and I had set ourselves the limit of only exploring within two hours of Quito, it’s capital city. This way, we believed, we would be able to do the area justice and maximise our chances of seeing the target species of the area but now I’m not so sure. That’s not to say the trip hadn’t started brilliantly – at our first stop, a place called Tambo Condor (a name which gives away the bird I am currently scouring the opposite hillside for) we have already seen a giant hummingbird as well as long-tailed train bearer, scarlet violet ear and green thorntail (at this location you can see 15 different species of hummingbird, and the country boasts 150!) along with a glut of masked flowerpiercers. But the Andean condor, Ecuador’s national bird, that’s what I’m really after. Our guide Fernando is not dissuaded by the birds apparent schedule – “Let’s try another spot!” he suggests.
We move a little further up the road to the Antisanilla viewpoint, and in the scrub below a tufted-tit tyrant and black flowerpiercers flit about while overhead a black-chested buzzard eagle and carunculated caracaras catch thermals. I start at these soaring birds – could it be? But I am assured that when I see the Andean condor, I will know – they are after all the biggest flying bird with their combination of wingspan and weight. And then a cry from behind and I look up just as the male condor glides overhead, his size is breathtaking, his crest distinctive. He effortlessly covers the distance between our viewpoint and the opposite side of the valley, where I can now make out an excited little chick flapping its wings expectantly, and sure enough the adult sets down beside it and begins to feed its offspring. When it is done it spreads its mammoth wings and takes once more to the sky, and with the show over we continue up the hill to the Antisanilla Reserve proper, an area protected by the Jocotoco foundation, in search of another target. Above 3,000m we hit the paramo where short tailed deer graze amongst the paja grass and a black chested hawk eagle perches on a fence post feeding on an unfortunate rabbit. We pull up and continue on foot past little watering holes where Andean teal, Andean coot and Andean lapwing feed and then we head a little higher towards an area of bright orange flowers – chuquirahua, a favourite of the Ecuadorian hillstar hummingbird – an endemic to the paramo. It doesn’t take long to spot them as they whizz from flower to flower. Overhead two more Andean condors are circling – in Ecuador the condor count is 60 and on the Antisanilla Reserve their best count in one day was 28 different individuals – not bad for a bird that is in danger of extinction!
From the Andes south east of Quito we then head to the cloud forests north west, and with this drastic change in habitat came a dramatic change in species. If it is possible there are even more hummingbirds – and you can quite understand why Quito’s emblem is the hummingbird. Most lodges leave out sugar feeders that entice an incredible variety, but Alambi takes the cake with a record 22 species seen in one day! And I could believe it for in the morning that we are there we saw 18 of them, including the violet bellied hummingbird which owner Favian Luna Castilla said had only been visiting for the last 3 weeks. To top off our morning Favian showed us down to the river where a pair of white capped dippers bobbed for their lunch.
Our accommodation for that night, Tandayapa Bird Lodge, also boasted an impressive array of hummers as well as some very confiding toucan barbettes, but for me the show-stopper there is the habituated scaly antpitta which visits each evening.
For the majority of our stay we were based at Bellavista Cloud Forest, and without even leaving our bedroom we are treated to masked trogan and plate-billed mountain toucan. The dining room over looks a lush green valley and for lunch a black and chestnut eagle and a broad-winged hawk swirl in the thermals, while a white-faced nunbird perches nonchalantly on a branch beside the window. In the evenings our dinner is disturbed with news of a unique nocturnal visitor – a newly named species as of 2013 – the olinguito, a cute creature with a long tail and a brown fuzzy coat and a gremlin like face.
Part 2 of Katie Staceys reportage will be published on June 12 2020.