Antisana Reserve: February 21, 2009

Antisana Reserve is a massive national park that encompasses a wide variety of habitats ranging from paramo to eastern foothill forest, including its namesake, the intimidating Volcán Antisana. Unfortunately, the reserve is difficult to access and rarely visited by independent birders except at the Guacamayos Ridge Trail, which is located in its extreme northeastern corner. As it is surrounded at its western end in the highlands by private haciendas, the reserve can only be entered here by making private arrangements in advance (we contacted the Delgado family the previous week and only received written permission via fax after making a $20 deposit in their bank account).

The private and remote nature of the reserve, though, is what makes it so special for birding. Although there is some domestic animal grazing and water collecting infrastructure (most of the paramo lakes surrounding the northern interandean valley have been carefully rigged to funnel water to thirsty Quito), the habitat is nearly pristine, and the wide open grassy expanses are literally filled with birds. Andean Gull, Andean Lapwing, Carunculated Caracara, and Black-Winged Ground-Dove populate the plains by the hundreds, while Variable Hawk and Cinereous Harrier can be seen regularly patrolling the hills. Waterfowl and shorebirds populate several lakes and boggy areas, and a variety of funariids can be found in protected shrubby stands.

For Aimee and I, it was our first time visiting the reserve despite it being located less than two hours from Quito. With little more than a bird list to guide us, we wound our way from Pintag, past a huge centuries-old lava flow, and up into the paramo, stopping once to bird a small section of temperate montane forest along the way. This excursion was essentially a road birding one, as we drove along the well maintained roads stopping whenever we spied a raptor or a large flock of birds. Our most productive stop came near the base of Antisana, where we found a group of approximately thirty Black-Faced Ibis feeding together in the grass. This striking high altitude specialty is no doubt endangered in Ecuador, its population estimated at around one hundred birds, almost all of them found in the Antisana Reserve. At one point while we watched them for an hour in the scope, they became agitated and flew off magnificently, their black wings bold in the washed out light.

From the same vantage point, I spotted an Andean Condor shortly thereafter and excitedly pointed it out to Aimee who had never witnessed this royal bird in the wild before. A female was rising into the sky as it made wide circles in the air, her white feathered collar and silvery upper wings clearly visible. She was soon joined by a male whose bare pink head and white upper wings stood out strikingly against the gray sky. Both birds soared off overhead to the west as we celebrated in the middle of the empty road by doing the Condor Dance. Amazingly, we would encounter three other individuals in the next few hours, two males and a juvenile, demonstrating that the reserve is truly the crucial last refuge of the Andean Condor in Ecuador (I had encountered only four solitary condors in the eastern cordillera before in my five years of hiking and birding in this country).

With two of our target birds recorded, we decided to drive up to the base of Antisana as the mountain was almost completely visible in the midday sun. I had bailed out of a climbing expedition exactly one year ago, in which my friends and I had hoped to ascend this dangerous and rarely climbed peak, and ever since I had longed to see it up close (they were forced to turn back after a few hours because of the threat of an avalanche). A good dirt road runs close to the glacier and near its end is a large stand of Chuquiragua bushes whose thistle-like flower attracts the Ecuadorian Hillstar, the highest of high-altitude hummingbirds. While we brewed some espresso on our portable stove in the car, a male zoomed by and perched in the shelter of a nearby bush. Aimee was able to approach within a few meters, admiring its gorgeous purple head and contrasting white underparts. A pair of male Andean Condors then rose over a nearby ridge, providing us with an object lesson in evolution as two of the largest and smallest birds in the world made use of the same habitat.

Next, we drove over to Micacocha, a huge paramo lake located about midway between Antisana and Sincholagua, a 5000m rocky peak to the south. Aventura, a fishing club, makes regular use of this lake, and non-birding tourists treat this site as the centerpiece of their visit to the reserve. With windy weather blowing in rain from the east, there wasn't much to see on the lake itself, but near the boat launch there was a nice variety of waterfowl, including the uncommon and very local Silvery Grebe. Only found on a few lakes in the highlands, this rather strange looking bird has striking red eyes and a gregarious manner as it feeds in groups for insects on the surface of the water.

Although we had two-day passes and all of our camping equipment in the car, it didn't make much sense to spend the night braving the wet and the cold for another day of road birding. Visiting the reserve makes most sense as a day tour for birders, where many of the paramo specialties can be seen in a few hours of selective birding and a lot of temperate montane forest birds recorded on the entrance and exit above Pintag. Don't expect to see Andean Condors but don't be suprised either; if the weather is clear and your eyes are open, you'd be unlucky to miss one.

Notable birds seen: Silvery Grebe, Yellow-Billed Pintail, Black-Faced Ibis, Andean Condor, Cinereous Harrier, Variable Hawk, American Kestrel, Andean Coot, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black-Winged Ground-Dove, White-Collared Swift, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Shining Sunbeam, Stout-Billed Cinclodes, Paramo Ground-Tyrant, Plumbeous Sierra-Finch.

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