Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher's Introduction to Behavior, Breeding, and Diversity
Renowned ornithologist, author of the field guides Birds of Colombia and Birds of Venezuela, and VENT birding tour leader, Steven Hilty has written a collection of essays answering some of the most frequently asked questions by birders visiting the neotropics for the first time. For me, this has been the best book to help make sense of the whole, placing my individual experiences birding in Ecuador in the larger context of bird life in the neotropics. The titles of essays include Antbirds Don't Eat Ants, Anatomy of a Fruiteater, and A Good Song and Dance. Hilty writes beautifully as well, evoking wonderful birds with striking imagery and precise language.
Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America
Biologists Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata published this seminal work about neotropical ecosystems, emphasizing that of humid lowland forests, or what is typically referred to as rainforest. There's some good information about birds here too, but this book is primarily for developing a sense of appreciation for the complexities of bird habitats and their remarkable degree of biological interdependence. As my friend, a biology teacher, tells me, "it's all connected, Man." And in no ecosystem are more things connected than in the rainforest.
Birding and oil are inseparable in Ecuador, and Joe Kane's moving account of his experiences with the Huaorani, an indigenous group living in the Yasuni National Park, provides a dark history of oil exploration and production in the country. This important book should give you a sense of the people who inhabit the Ecuadorian Amazon basin, as well as help you reconsider your use of petroleum products, especially on birding trips (remember your mode of transport, clothes, boots, optical equipment, and the lodges where you're staying are all dependent on oil, the same resource responsible for the destruction of birding habitat).
At the age of fifty-three, Moritz Thomsen volunteered for the Peace Corps and was posted in Ecuador, where he attempted to graft his knowledge of farming and raising livestock onto a small community on the northern coast. This honest and touching chronicle of his failure is both timely and timeless, as it depicts a special era and place in Ecuador as well as captures what is universally Ecuadorian. For a country that still has a plethora of Peace Corps volunteers, it also provides some insight into the types of local development projects that are currently underway.
The Farm on the River of Emeralds
For better or worse, Mortiz Thomsen staked his entire claim in Ecuador after his experience in the Peace Corps, returning to start a farm with a young man from Esmeraldas province that he had befriended earlier. This is another heartbreaking story of failure and disappointment, but it reveals truths about poverty and race in Ecuador that no other author has expressed. Thomsen is a powerful writer, and his account will spark travelers' imaginations, and sympathies, as they travel between birding sites and consider the stories of the people who live there.
The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon
A popular but erudite read for tourists in Ecuador, Robert Whitaker's narrative history covers both La Condamine's scientific expedition to the equator to measure one degree of longitude and Isabel Grameson's disastrous journey through the Amazon basin, two fascinating and interconnected 18th century chronicles that captivated contemporary European audiences. This is a great read for birders who could use a break from bird taxonomy in the evening but still want to develop their understanding of Ecuador's place in the history of science. My dad, a surfer and Michael Crichton fan, couldn't put the book down and finished it in one long, flat day at Mompiche.
The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazon Jungle
A massive work of anthropology in the tradition of Claude Levi-Strauss, Philippe Descola writes at great length of his experiences with the Achuar indigenous group in southeastern Ecuador. Poetic and profound, the book offers birders a serious study of one of the indigenous cultures of the Ecuadorian Amazon, going way beyond the cursory lecture about medicinal plants and hunting weapons that they are likely to hear on a cultural excursion at one of the jungle lodges in the Oriente. This work should help you understand where your native birding guide is most likely coming from.
Land of Ghosts: The Braided Lives of People and the Forest in Far Western Amazonia
While not directly about Ecuador, this brilliant book portrays the disastrous colonization of the Amazon in western Brazil while also presenting the scientific work of botanist David Campbell. After thirty years of research and travel, the author is intimately acquainted with the people and plant life of this final frontier, and he writes beautifully and elegiacally about this fast disappearing region. Be warned that a close read involves looking up in the dictionary poetic and obscure language found on almost every page.
Plundering Paradise: The Hand of Man on the Galapagos Islands
A counterpoint to the typical tourist experience in the Galapagos, this book presents the story of the human development of the islands, focusing on the crazy characters and nomadic naturalists that make up some of the 30,000 people that populate the islands. As most visitors are shielded from this type of evolution on the Galapagos, this is an important primer for understanding the conflicts that threaten to destroy one of Ecuador's most valuable natural resources.
The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature
Jonathan Rosen's recent meditation on birding has nothing to do with Ecuador, but it is an intelligent and poetic rumination on birding as a modern, or even postmodern, act. If you've ever wondered why you're obsessed with birding but lacked the insight or introspection to fully address the issue, then Rosen's book should help promote some self-knowledge. Highlights include his experiences birding in Central Park during migration season and his expeditions to track down the perhaps recently rediscovered Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.
Sibley's Birding Basics
Even if you've birded your entire life, you'll still benefit from reading this short primer on how to identify birds. David Sibley, one of North America's best birders and bird artists, presents in a few easy-to-read pages how to enhance your skills in identifying birds by paying closer attention to their physical characteristics, habitats, behaviors, and sounds. This refresher should prove invaluable to birders new to the neotropical bird families and who might be a little overwhelmed by Ecuador's 1600 bird species.