Christopher and I just returned from three exciting days birding in northwest Ecuador, where we found 220 species of birds in less than three days. Known as the chocó region, these agriculturally-dominated foothills and subtropical woodlands in northwest Ecuador and southwest Colombia are one of the most threatened habitats in the world.
We started our trip at a Milpe reserve, a piece of subtropical cloud forest protected from the logging that has wreaked havoc with neighboring hillsides. In the late afternoon we witnessed the amazing display of Club-winged Manakins on a jungle hillside. Their metallic clicking song is not even remotely bird-like.
Sunday begins in Mindo with the soft ringing of our alarms at 4:00am. Soon we are listening to hooting Black-and-white Owls and the melancholy whistling of Pauraques in the predawn darkness. As the sun rises, we listen to the soft whistling of a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, a species only recently described to science. The air smells thickly of leaves, and my cotton shirt clings to me in the humidity.
We climb higher through the cloud forest, into hills far above the Nambillo River, where our morning’s trek began. Soon bird activity slows down as the sun grows high in the sky and the tree’s shadows shrink into the mid-day heat. By afternoon, thunderstorm clouds drift off Volcan Pichincha; with dropping temperatures, giant flocks of woodcreepers, barbets, and flowerpiercers appear out of nowhere in the trees. After nearly 10 kilometers of hiking uphill, we turn back.
Our day concludes with a hilly, three kilometer detour to an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. Scrambling down jungle-choked ravines, crossing rickety bridges, and bounding up slippery hillsides, we just barely beat the rain to the hilltop. From the crest of the hill, we wait and wait. And wait. Finally we hear a strange raucous growling from the crown of the trees. A strawberry-red crow-sized ball of feathers suddenly appears in front of us. With shining silver wings, a huge scarlet head with a strange bulging crest, and a tiny glowing eye, this must be one of the strangest and most beautiful living creatures on earth. A rain drop falls, but the cock-of-the-rock joyously bounces his head and swings back and forth on a limb, displaying for an invisible female lurking nearby. Two more of these peculiar birds appear in the trees around us, and we watch them dance through the treetops as thunder cracks over the river and the skies open up overhead. The hike home through the downpour is a mixture of mud, exhaustion, and satisfaction. Our day couldn’t have been any more successful.
By six pm, fourteen hours after our day began, we had tallied over 145 species of birds, including 30 species of tanagers and an amazing 19 types of hummingbirds, ranging from green with foot-long purple tails to tiny with purple backs and glowing green heads.