I recently spent four weeks in Ecuador leading a tropical biology program. Some of my experiences have been documented in four previous diaries on Isla de la Plata (also in Dawn Chorus), moths in the cloud forest, traveling through oil disrupted forest and really cool night animals. While I was there I did happen to take a picture of a bird every now and then and lineatus was kind enough to invite me back.
But first a little bit about 'why Ecuador?". Ecuador is among the world's megadiverse countries, containing an enormous amount of biodiversity. To use some avian statistics, Ecuador has recorded some 1600 bird species in its territory, approximately twice as many as in all of North America! Why is that?
One reason is Ecuador's location on the equator. A general trend across many groups of plants and animals is an increase in diversity with decreasing latitude. Ecuador also benefits from a complex topography. The country is split into four regions, advertised prominently in all of its airports: Isla (Galapagos), Costa (the western lowlands), Sierra (the Andes mountains), and Selva (the Amazon lowlands in the east). The Andes and the Pacific Ocean form excellent barriers allowing species to evolve independently in the different regions. The tropical forests of the northwest are more similar to those in Central America than to the Amazonian forests in northeastern Ecuador.
Our trip didn't quite make it to all four regions. Despite multiple visits to Ecuador I have still never been to the Galapagos. It is too expensive to take students and the idea of spending more time away from home at the end of an already long trip has not been that appealing. Next year I always say. However we did spend time in all three other regions and paid a visit to Isla de la Plata, known as the "Poor Man's Galapagos" In this diary I'm going to cover the coast and Andean regions and leave the Amazon to another diary. So on with the pictures.
The above picture is a reminder to lower your expectations. Tropical forests are among the most challenging environments to see birds, let along photograph them. Most birds pop into view for a second and then vanish into a tangle of vegetation. There's never enough light. When there is enough light the birds are silhouetted against a cloudy sky.
Here's the red-billed nunbird cropped out of the above photo. This picture is from the Amazon unlike the others in this diary.
We visited the southern coast during the dry season. Because this region is affected by the tail end of the Humboldt current, coming up from Antarctica, the dry season is very dry.
The green vegetation follows a small river.
Some of the bird species in this area are dry forest specialists like this Long-tailed Mockingbird
Note: this photo is from Isla de la Plata. Due to computer problems my pictures of this species from the mainland are not readily available for this diary.
Others occur broadly in lowland habitat like this motmot.
If you go up only a small way the cool air results in a much moister habitat.
This is cloud forest along the Rio Ayampe. This is a famous birding location and we did see quite a few birds. However the weather was quite uncooperative and the only photo I got was of this Gray-backed hawk, one of the species from this region not found elsewhere in Ecuador.
The high point of that day was seeing a pair of Masked Water Tyrants from the car as we were leaving.
Next we visited Intag Cloud Forest in the northern Andes. Lush and green, unlike the coast.
Unfortunately (and somewhat oddly) the place we stayed had no hummingbird feeders so I have no hummingbird photos. A common bird on the farm was the Pacific Hornero, actually more typical of the western lowlands. It is an ovenbird, not related at all to the North American ovenbird which is a warbler. Instead the ovenbirds are a large family of birds in the new world tropics that are named for their oven-shaped nests.
Ovenbirds are members of a larger group of birds known as the suboscines. Suboscines are members of the Passeriformes, a very large group containing about half of all bird species. Warblers, sparrows, vireos, thrushes, wrens, finches, blackbirds and orioles are all examples of passerine birds. All of the above on the list are also oscines, birds that have 'true song'. This means that they have a syrinx (a vocal structure in the throat) and that the neural circuitry that causes them to sing develops in a particular way. Oscines are the dominant group of passerines everywhere in the world except the new world tropics. All the rest of the passerines are suboscines, passerines that lack true song. In North America the only suboscines are the flycatchers. In Ecuador there are many many more.
One of the most spectacular groups of suboscinces are the Cotingas. Some cotingas look more or less like a flycatchers. Others are brightly colored and some are quite large. One of the most spectacular is the Andean Cock of the Rock. There birds are sizeable and brilliantly colored (at least males are). And is if that isn't enough they form leks and display to attract mates. Leks are groups of males that aggregate in a particular area solely to attract females for mating. The linked article provides more of a description.
There was a lek where we were staying and, believe it or not, the above is the best photo I managed to get of the birds. The forest was extremely dense and the birds were mostly invisible and rarely stayed perched in one spot for more that a couple of seconds. It was cool to experience but difficult to record.
Here's another suboscine, one of the myriad number of small flycatcher species in Ecuador.
And then moving on to an actual oscine (song bird) here is probably the most commonly seen bird at Intag and a representative of one of the most diverse groups of birds in South America
Blue-winged Mountain Tanagers
And now up even higher. At the very end of the course we visited Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is one Ecuador's many volcanoes (it is currently dormant). It is second highest point in Ecuador rising to over 19,000 feet. The lower and middle slopes are an excellent example of Paramo, the habitat that occurs at high elevations in the tropics. It is a scrub habitat with many unique plant and animal species. It is cold and wet year round.
At this alpine lake we saw a couple of high elevation specialists
And Andean Coots
And as we headed up to the parking lot at the end of the road we surprised this Carunculated Caracara which had just caught a rabbit right at the side of the road. It ran a little way up the slope and then posed for pictures. Hopefully it went back to the rabbit after we left.