Birding By: Lou Jost, illustrator of Common Birds of Amazonian Ecuador
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Most birders are aware that bird diversity varies according to latitude. The arctic region has few resident birds, the temperate zone has more, and the tropical belt has the most. Half-way between the United States and the equator is tiny Costa Rica, which has over 850 species — more species than in the entire United States. Ecuador, sitting right on the equator, is the culmination of this trend:
With over 1500 species of birds, Ecuador offers more bird diversity in less space than any other country in the world.
Geographic good fortune has blessed Ecuador with a wide variety of faunal zones, including some of the richest on this planet, each with its characteristic birds. Ecuador’s Amazonian faunal zone alone has more than 600 species of birds, and several other Ecuadorian zones are nearly as rich.
Toucan. Painting by Lou Jost.
Ecuador’s small size (equal to the U.S. state of Colorado) and well-developed transportation system means that this diversity can be easily accessed and experienced even by those with limited time and money.
The key to seeing lots of species in Ecuador is to visit as many different faunal zones as possible. However, if your goal is to observe a selection of birds closely, you will have a more satisfying experience by picking one or two zones and remaining there as long as
For birding purposes, Ecuador can be divided into eight faunal zones:
- Amazonian Lowlands
- Northwestern (Choco) Lowlands
- Southwestern (Tumbesin) Lowlands
- Eastern Subtropics
- Galapagos Islands
These zones are largely the result of the uplift of the Andes mountains, which separate and isolate western Ecuador from the eastern part of the country. Additionally, the western lowlands experience a strong moisture gradient from south (arid) to north (very wet), causing even more diversity.
For complete descriptions of the various fuanal zones, please check out our faunal zones page.
A birding trip to Ecuador can be cheap or expensive, depending on your degree of independence and your required comfort level. The low-end budget traveler can take public transportation (very cheap) to small towns near good forest. Cheap hotels in small towns run USD 2- 3 per night, and meals about the same. If you intend to bring your own food (there are seldom restaurants in good forest), make sure to do your shopping ahead of time in a big city, or be prepared to live on sardines and crackers. At the other end of the price scale are the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon lowlands; the best Amazonian lodges charge USD100-150 per day (including airfare from Quito to Coca, motor canoe transport, all meals, and a birding guide).
The birder with limited time would do well to arrange a tour with a professional bird guide. Tropical birds can be hard to find, especially the rare ones, and a good guide who knows bird songs can be invaluable. Unfortunately many unqualified people call themselves bird guides. Some of the most highly celebrated guides are Lelis Navarrete, Paul Greenfield and Jonas Nilson but several lodges and tour operators have good guides.
Several birding companies outside of Ecuador offer tours here with excellent guides. Field Guides Inc., Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and Birdquest among others, offer excellent birding experiences.
If you choose to go on your own, you can follow certain strategies to improve your chances of seeing that once-in-a-lifetime rarity. The most important thing is to bring a tape recorder and directional microphone. (Look for my bimonthly column, one of which will be devoted to a discussion of this kind of equipment.) The above equipment will cost you as little as USD 150 and yet allow you to call in many species that I guarantee you will not see otherwise.
If you can afford it, invest in a good pair of binoculars for tropical birding.
Tropical forests are dark and wet, so you’ll need binoculars with large front lenses (bigger than 40 mm in an 8x or 10x binocular) and with some water resistance.
“Gas-sealed” binoculars are best; these never suffer from internal condensation, a common problem in humid environments with cheap binoculars.
One unsettling characteristic of tropical birds is their habit of foraging in large mixed-species flocks. This means that a birder might not see any birds at all for a long while, and then suddenly be confronted with forty or more species flitting around for ten minutes or so, followed once again by silence. Tropical birding depends on finding these flocks — you should search hard if you hear chirping in the distance. Try to follow (or better, anticipate) the flock, and learn to look for the conspicuous “core” species that usually indicate the presence of such a group. Use a tape recorder to take verbal notes of the birds you glimpse. Become familiar with your field guide in advance, perhaps tagging some of the plates with the most confusing birds, so you can quickly open to those pages after you’ve just seen a woodcreeper, foliagegleaner, or flycatcher. Don’t waste precious time looking up tanagers and other brightly patterned birds; you can look those up later, after the flock has gone.
At the moment, the best field guide for Ecuador is Birds of Colombia by S. Hilty and W. Brown. It covers over 90% of the birds you are likely to see in Ecuador.
Common Birds of Amazonian Ecuador, Canaday and L. Jost, (available at Libri Mundi in Quito) highlights the 50 most common birds in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The high elevations are completely covered by Birds of the High Andes by J. Fjeldsa and N. Krabbe.
Watch for Birds of Ecuador by R. Ridgely and P. Greenfield which will be available before the next millenium.
Fjeldsa and N. Krabbe 1990. Birds of the High Andes. Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen.
Canaday and L. Jost. 1997. Common Birds of Amazonian Ecuador. Quito: Ediciones Libri Mundi
S. Hilty. 1994. Birds of Tropical America, a watcher’s guide to behavior, breeding and diversity. Shelburne: Chapters Publishing Ltd.
S.Hilty and W. Brown. 1986. A Guide to the Birds of Colombia. Princeton: Princeton University Press.forestation, nevertheless, patches of forest still remain.