Parque Condor: August 23, 2009

Zoos typically aren't very inspiring places to watch birds, but Parque Condor serves a particular need for birders in Ecuador, giving them the unique opportunity to get familiar with rare raptors that they might only glimpse from a great distance in the field. Parque Condor is not a typical zoo either, as it provides refuge to injured birds and those that have been decapacitated from living in captivity, releasing them back into the wild when appropriate; in fact, it's important to note that no bird at Parque Condor was taken directly from its original habitat. Scenically located on the top of a hill between Otavalo and Laguna San Pablo, the reserve boasts panoramic views of Imbabura province, including those of two spectacular extinct volcanoes, Imbabura and Cotacachi. Housed in ample and respectful enclosures, birds of prey from all over Ecuador are found here, ranging from the Harpy Eagle of the Eastern lowlands to the Andean Condor of the northern highlands.

For the average visitor, the principle attraction is the bidaily falconry exhibition, in which different birds are taken from their enclosures and allowed to fly around and perform tricks such as catching pieces of meat in the air. On several different visits in the past couple of weeks, I've seen Black-Chested Buzzard Eagle soaring triumphantly for kilometers and then return on call; Aplomado Falcon diving in a blur of speed for a lure; and Harris's Hawk violently overpowering a wild American Kestrel that was competing for its food. Variable Hawk, Solitary Eagle, and White Hawk are also part of the exhibition on occasion, although I haven't seen them perform myself. At the end of each show, a pair of American Kestrels are taken out to the amphitheatre, where members of the audience can admire them up close wearing the falconer's glove for themselves.

In the permanent enclosures there are some beautiful raptors, only a few of which I've seen in the wild. First is a pair of massive Barred Hawks, photographed nesting in the wild by Murray Cooper in his excellent book Plumas: Birds in Ecuador. Second, I believe, is a pair of Black-Chested Buzzard-Eagles, a common enough but still impressive raptor of the highlands. Third is perhaps my favorite, a glorious Black Hawk-Eagle, which I've witnessed both perched and in flight in the wild but never with as much admiration. Just look at the jaunty crest, the flashing orange eyes, the black and white barred thighs, and the powerful yellow talons. Now, imagine watching it from below as it is taking off in flight, revealing thick black and white barring on the underside of its wings and tail. What a glorious bird. Further along are enclosures containing two juvenile Andean Condors, an adult female Harpy Eagle that has given birth to sixteen birds while in captivity, a large collection of American Kestrels, a pair of Harris's Hawks, and a final massive enclosure with two adult Andean Condors. The Harpy Eagle simply must be seen to be believed.

Also worth mentioning is the nice collection of owls at the refuge. Again, this is a great opportunity for birders to familiarize themselves with confusing birds that they might only see for an instant or in poor light. Here you'll find Mottled and Spectacled Owls, both large owls from the lowlands, as well as powerful Burrowing Owls, cute Pacific Pygmy Owls, and the odd Stygian Owl. There are also a few owls that aren't found in Ecuador that have somehow made their way here to the Parque Condor, such as the Snowy Owl. In conclusion, while this is not a mandatory site for birders to visit in Ecuador, it makes for a rewarding stop on the way back from the market at Otavalo as well as being an invaluable opportunity for study. Open all week except for Monday, with falconry exhibitions at 11:30am and 4:30pm, stop by for an hour or two, if you're in the area.

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