Birding Ecuador, Galapagos Islands
March 08, 2015 12:15 am
Birding in Montana is a lot of fun, but when you have 371 of the 428 species, you don’t often find a new one. Last year I did not get a single new life bird in Montana. My life list sat at 1,466 in 2014, and my goal to see one quarter of the world’s birds or 2,588 species remained stagnant.
The best place to find the most birds is along the Equator in both South America and Africa. I have birded South Africa, Kenya, and Belize in Central America, so it was time to bird South America. My wife, Laura, and I and birding friends from Helena chose Ecuador as it is fairly close, safe, and the currency is the U.S. dollar.
The potential birds to see in Ecuador are nearly unlimited with 1,576 species recorded there. In comparison, the lower 48 states have 920 species, and Ecuador is the size of Nevada. We chose to bird the northwest quarter of Ecuador as that area has a high concentration of different species in a relatively small area. We estimated that we had the possibility of seeing around 600 species, but realistically in 14 days of birding we knew we would not see that many. We were extremely pleased that we were able to see 376 species of which 312 were life birds. That is the largest number of life birds I have ever recorded in a single trip. South Africa netted 275 life birds, Kenya 216, and Belize 99.
We flew into the capital city of Quito which lies in a valley of the Andean mountains at 6,500 feet. Quito is a modern city of three million inhabitants. Ecuador has a population of 15 million, with 70 percent of the population living along the west coast of the country in more hospitable climates. The Andean Mountains are much cooler and wetter than the coast.
LAS GRALARIAS RESERVE
From Quito we traveled to the West Andean Mountains and stayed at Las Gralarias Reserve. The reserve is named after the genus of the Giant Antpitta, a bird first photographed there about 20 years ago. The 1,063-acre reserve was purchased by an American, Jane Lyons, in 1999. Lyons and her nonprofit organization restored and reclaimed the area and it is now host to no less than 266 bird species in 44 families. Of these species 30 are endemic (found only at that location) and 13 are considered to be at risk.
At Las Gralarias we were provided with housing, meals, English-speaking Ecuadorian guides and transportation for 11 days. Each day we would bird from around 6 am to 6 pm, then eat dinner, go to bed and rest for the next day’s adventure. We crossed the Equator at least twice daily. Las Gralarias is at 8,500 feet in the Cloud Forest, and days were cool, (in the 60s) wet, and foggy. Nights were cold as none of the buildings has heat, but blankets on the beds made the difference. Annual rainfall in this region is 150 inches, and some years have accumulated as much as 400 inches. It is known as one of the wettest areas on the earth. Thus we birded with raingear and rubber boots. The small town of Mindo, just below Las Gralarias Reserve in the valley, is known as the birding capital of the world. Paintings of birds are everywhere on buildings, brick walls, and football stadiums.
BIRDING BY ELEVATION
Rather than bird different habitats as you do in Montana, such as grasslands, riparian, and coniferous forest, you bird by elevation. Each 1,000-foot change in elevation brings a new diversity of birds to observe. While in the Western Andean Mountains we birded from 4,000 to 15,000 feet finding different birds at each elevation.
There are 131 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and they are everywhere. We found 44 species, which were most of the species in the area that we birded. Tanagers are another large family of birds in Ecuador. In Montana we have recorded three species of tanagers. Ecuador has 148 species and we found 53 species. We also spent two days in the Eastern Andean Mountains rounding out our birding of the northwest portion of the country.
In the east, we spent more time at higher elevations near a volcanic mountain that was covered with snow above 20,000 feet. We birded the steep grasslands to 17,000 feet. One of the highlights of the trip was finding the Rufous-breasted Seed-snipe, a grouse type bird, at 17,000 feet in high winds, with the rain coming vertically across the stunted and cushion plant terrain of this elevation. Finding the Seed-snipe was one of the wettest and coldest birding experiences I have had in a foreign country.
Rare and hard-to-find birds that we observed and photographed included: Andean Condor, Aplomado Falcon, Andean Lapwing, Cock-of-the-Rock, Rufescent Screech-owl, Oilbird, Choco Trogon, Giant Antpitta, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Slaty Finch. Photographs of several of these are included with this article.
We next flew to the Galapagos Islands and stayed for our last five days of birding. Politically, the islands are part of Ecuador, but are separated by 800 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The flora and fauna are unique. Islands never have large numbers of bird species, but many species are endemic and Galapagos is no exception. A chain of 12 volcanic and intrusive lava flow islands comprise the Galapagos. Many of the islands are unhabituated, and only three have roads. Ninety-five percent of the islands are within the national park system and are highly regulated to prevent nonnative species from invading and endangering the natural flora and fauna.
We flew to Baltra Island from Quito via the port city of Quayaquil. Baltra consists of desert cactuses and an airport. Four planes a day come and go, exchanging 800 visitors daily. From the airport you are transported by bus to the edge of the tiny island. Here, you transfer to a ferry going to the main island of Santa Cruz, which has three small communities. The largest city is Puerto Ayora on the opposite end of the island some 22 miles from the ferry landing.
In all, Galapagos has a population of 14,000 of which the majority work either in the tourist or fishing industries. We stayed in Puerto Ayora in a six-room hotel that served breakfast. On Santa Cruz there are around 70 bird species with the total species count for all of the islands at 149.
However, only 60 bird species are year-round residents. The rest are migrants, and most of those are shorebirds. Here we birded, using local naturalist guides, pelagic boat trips, and on our own. We were able to find 61 species of which 24 are endemic to the Galapagos Islands.
Land and aquatic lizards and tortoises are another unique feature of the Galapagos. Often we would see two- to three-foot lizards crawling along the sand as we birded. In the wetter highlands, we would encounter what first looked like large rocks, only they would get up and move. These tortoises were three to four feet across the shell and between 100 to 150 years old.
FAMOUS FOR FINCHES
Galapagos is famous for the 14 species of finches upon which Darwin based his theory of evolution, with his 1835 voyage. We were fortunate enough to find all nine finch species that are on Santa Cruz Island. Other endemics that were life birds were Swallow-tailed gull, the only nocturnally feeding gull in the world, Lava Gull, and Galapagos Dove, Mockingbird, and Flycatcher.
A bonus to the birding on the Galapagos Islands was the fresh seafood in the open air restaurants at reasonable prices.
In all, we observed 430 birds of which 337 were life birds. I also added nine bird families to my list. I now have seen 153 of the 254 bird families in the world or 65 percent. In terms of cost, we spent less than $35 a bird, which is reasonable and well worth the time and effort. We pushed hard for three weeks to find 430 species, but we had to rest up for a week after we got back. We have a personal slogan for our retirement years, “When the nest is empty go birding,” and that we did. I know many of my readers enjoy watching birds and I hope you are able to experience birding in a foreign country; it truly is a memorable experience.
Now, I’m studying the birds of Australia for my next big trip. Australia’s has 780 species, of which I have only seen 121. If I’m fortunate I should be able to add another 350 to my life list and be a lot closer to my goal of 25 percent of the world’s birds. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be fortunate and even get to 26 percent!
Galápagos birds expand their eating habits. A new ecological concept called “interaction release” explains how certain island birds developed a taste for flowers: here.