With already 963 bird species seen and only half a year remaining in Ecuador, I've been thinking more about the highlights of my time birding here. While the following ten birds aren't necessarily the rarest or most charismatic that I've seen in this country, they were certainly the most memorable for one reason or another.
The Zigzag Heron is a legendary nocturnal heron of Amazonia that is difficult but not impossible to see; indeed, a number of jungle lodges in the Ecuadorian Amazon have found territories along various oxbow lakes, including Sacha and La Selva Lodges, where playback and patience sometimes yield views of the bird. On the final evening of our memorable stay at Sacha this year, our birding guide Oscar Tepuy took us deep into the varzea forest, where we played recordings of the heron for half an hour as it responded with its powerful croaking call. Just before we gave up, the heron flew out of deep cover and landed in the open with its short tail flicking nervously back and forth right in front of us. I remember Oscar was almost bitter when he told us it was his best sighting in over twenty years of birding in the region.
The Pacific Royal-Flycatcher is endangered and not destined to exist much longer on our planet due to habitat destruction. While flycatchers aren't renowned for their beauty, this rufous-colored one has a great red fanned crest, which it normally wears tucked along its head like a collapsed hand-held fan. Although I have made several visits to its habitat on the western coast and in the southwest, I definitely didn't deserve to find this bird so easily. As it was, Aimee and I were hiking up a steep trail in Manglares-Churute National Park, fiercely hounded by mosquitoes all the way. I was so distraught, in fact, that I wanted to turn around and get the hell out of there despite wearing my rain coat and tons of repellent on my face and hands. Aimee encouraged me to relax and keep going, though, as we were getting some much needed exercise on what was to be a long day of driving. I had already passed by a number of calling birds without looking for them as the insects were insupportable, when we stumbled on a single Pacific Royal-Flycatcher just off the trail. The experience radically altered my state of mind as if the mosquitoes suddenly all just buzzed off.
The Andean Condor is the iconic bird of Ecuador as it's displayed prominently on the national emblem, but the population of condors is dwindling fast: sadly, the 2009 condor census yielded approximately 40 individuals, and predictions are that the species will be extirpated within the decade. Amazingly, I've seen Andean Condors on over fifteen occasions while birding or hiking in the eastern cordillera reserves of Cayambe-Coca, Antisana, and Cotopaxi. By far my best sighting was just recently on a mountaineering adventure in Antisana Reserve, when two adults and a juvenile passed repeatedly by the cliff I was resting on while one member of our party was splayed out on the ground exhausted far below.
The White-Faced Nunbird was the bird that began this blogging adventure for me. I had been birding the Tandayapa Valley for a few months every weekend, learning how to bird through trial and error and making my way painstakingly through the sites and sounds of subtropical and temperate forest on the northwestern slope. My low-budget weekend routine had been to camp well above the cabins at Bellavista Lodge and bird the trails and the road all day. Late one morning I was returning to the camp site via the Ridge Trail, and I flushed a bird that had been perched nearby. As it landed, it startled a pair of Toucan Barbets that had been feeding quietly, and when the birds quarreled the intruder flew up and landed just above my head. I admired the beautiful nunbird for ten minutes before it flew off and I've never seen it again on either slope. Instead of telling the guides at the lodge about seeing such a rare bird, which felt like an extremely bold claim coming from such a novice birder, I started this blog.
The Jocotoco Antpitta is the most famous and beautiful of the antpittas in Ecuador, and though it's also one of the largest it was only discovered ten years ago, just as the field guide to the country was being completed. Another extremely rare and local bird species, it's only found in the Jocotoco Foundation's Tapichalaca Reserve in southern Ecuador, where one of the park guards is now feeding several birds worms every morning. Aimee and I visited a few summers ago when she was researching the region for Lonely Planet, and it was a strange and unsettling experience for me, as it was pouring rain and I hadn't slept the night before in expectation. I had worked hard to see a half dozen antpitta species on my own at that point, and I was shocked when one came hopping up the path withing two meters of me in response to the guard's call.
The sexually dimorphic Torrent Duck must be the most charismatic duck in the world, as it lives in rushing Andean streams that thrill-seeking kayakers would hesitate to brave. The beautiful male is streaked black and white with a bright orange bill while the female is a subtler ochre and teal, but both birds possess a powerful spiked tail with which they can navigate class-four white water rapids. Until we finally tracked a pair down on the Rio Cosanga, Aimee and I used to drive around the eastern and western slopes on duck duty: at every bridge we would break into song and slowly roll across as we scanned each boulder and shore for the Torrent Duck. Since then, I have found them pretty regularly on the Rio Papallacta at Guango Lodge.
The Swallow-Tailed Nightjar is one of the more spectacular nightjars in the world as the male has incredibly long tail streamers that extend two to three times the length of the bird's body. Rare and local in Ecuador, it's difficult to find without the help of a guide who knows a roosting site. On our eight-day excursion up Sumaco, an active 3800m volcano that rises up out of the eastern lowlands and is draped with primary foothill, subtropical, and temperate forest, we had the good fortune of finding one feeding at night. We had already gone to bed in the refuge next to a beautiful parasitic crater lake located about halfway up the volcano. Our bird guide, Borris Herrera, was already in the habit of waking us up in the middle of the night to track down calling Collared Forest-Falcons, Wattled Guans, and various owls, so we weren't surprised when he shouted for us a few hours later. From the back porch of the refuge with clear views out over the eastern lowlands we spotlighted a male Swallow-Tailed Nightjar swooping back and forth in the clearing, tail streamers rattling like a kite.
The Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan, like all of the mountain-toucans, has a powerful hold over me. Gorgeously patterned, it moves stealthily and is always surprising to find even at its well-known sites on the eastern slope. I've only encountered the bird three times, at Tapichalaca Reserve, the Cajanuma Entrance to Podocarpus National Park, and at Guango Lodge, but each encounter was rich and prolonged as I was able to follow the birds through the forest, watch them in the scope, or photograph them. I'll always treasure first finding a pair far below the access road to Cajanuma and then chasing after a bus that was leaving the park carrying Paul Greenfield, artist of the Birds of Ecuador, and his birding tour group; every member of his group shook my hand in gratitude!
The Ocellated Antbird is fairly widespread in Central and Southern America, but it's the most impressive of the obligate antswarm followers that I've seen, or at least had a good look at (I've only caught the White-Plumed Antbird out of the corner of my eye without binoculars). There's nothing more subtle but spectacular in the rainforest than the sight of a half-dozen species of antbirds gathered around a swarm of army ants with their dark eyes gleaming and tails pumping in expectation of an arthopod dashing out from the leaf litter. It's an incredibly fragile scene, though, as the slightest sound or movement scatters the birds deep into the understory, where they'll remain much longer than you'll care to wait. Amazingly at Jocotoco's Rio Canandé Reserve I found a family of Ocellated Antbirds foraging away from a swarm, their huge blue ocular patches and ornate orange and black mantles captivating in the low light. I watched them for over an hour as they cautiously moved about and still wasn't satisfied.
The Waved Albatross is basically pelagic but famously breeds on the Galápagos Islands, where it engages in elaborate courtship rituals with its heavy long yellow bill. Like all albatrosses, the bird is magnificent in flight as it soars for hours on stiff outstretched wings that span over two meters. A few mating pairs also breed on Isla de la Plata, a small island a few hours' boat ride off the western coast, where Aimee and I saw one incubating an egg that had been laid directly on the ground. The ride out to the island was spectacular as we passed several migrating humpback whales on the way, the males in full display as they breached and slapped the surface of the ocean with their tail and fins. Once on the island, to reach the nesting albatross we had to hike for several hours passing nesting Blue-Footed and Nazca Boobies and spotting other good birds along the way, including Short-Tailed Woodstar, Gray-and-White Tyrannulet, and Red-Billed Tropicbird.
Honorable mention: Black-and-Chestnut Eagle, Ocellated Tapaculo, Club-Winged Manakin, Rufous-Bellied Seedsnipe, Rufous-Headed Woodpecker, Peruvian Antpitta, Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, Masked Mountain-Tanager, Long-Wattled Umbrellabird, Ecuadorian Hillstar, Blue-Whiskered Tanager, Gray-Winged Trumpeter, Pinnated Bittern, Gray Tinamou, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Noble Snipe, White-Tipped Sicklebill, Striated Antthrush, Barred Antthrush, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Scarlet-Breasted Dacnis, White-Capped Tanager, Bicolored Antvireo, Tanager Finch, Golden-Plumed Parakeet, Giant Conebill, Chestnut-Breasted Wren, Purple-Throated Cotinga, White-Capped Dippe, Moss-Backed Tanager, Black-Crested Tit-Tyrant, Scarlet-and-White Tanager.