It is now just over three weeks since Cindy and I returned from a marvelous trip to Ecuador. I have spent hours each day going over the 8000 plus photos I took, editing, organizing, discarding and enjoying them. I am finally sitting down to start what I expect will be at least several blog posts trying to recapture some of the highlights of the trip and I am struggling trying to determine the best way to share our adventure. Should the posts be a recital of what we did and saw in calendar order, or organized by the diverse ecoregions we visited, by the species we saw or featuring some of the special adventures we so fortunately were able to enjoy together? Since our trip was organized to visit three different areas of Ecuador: Mindo and the Western Andes, the Amazon and the Eastern Andes in somewhat equal time blocks of 4 or 5 days each, I am going to mostly follow the itinerary/timeline of the trip perhaps with some sidebars and detours along the way.
First some background and an overview. Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Towards the northwest corner of South America, bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the West, Colombia to the north, and Peru to the South and East, its area is just under 110,000 square miles. Well that is if you exclude the ocean between the Galapagos Islands (part of Ecuador) which are about 600 miles from the mainland. If it were a U.S. state it would be the 8th largest – just between Colorado and Nevada but it is the 4th smallest of the 12 countries in South America. The highest point in Ecuador is the summit of Mount Chimborazo at 20,549 feet and the lowest of course is the coast next to the Pacific Ocean. In between most of the country is dominated by the Eastern and Western Andes where we spent 2/3 of our trip at elevations of 5,000 to 14,000 feet and even the Amazon region that we visited was almost 1000 feet above sea level. The capital city of Quito is at 9,350 feet. It is this change of elevations plus the amazing richness of the Amazon region that creates the many habitats of the country. It is the resulting biodiversity that drew us to Ecuador because of the many bird species found there.
Although the science of speciation is changing with DNA studies, it has generally been believed that there are about 11,000 species of birds in the world. In all of the continental United States plus Alaska and Canada (to birders “the ABA area”), which together are about 7.6 million square miles, around 1100 bird species have been seen – including many that have been seen only a few times. By contrast in tiny Ecuador, more than 1650 species have been recorded, the fifth most in any country behind Colombia, Peru, Brazil and Indonesia. All except Indonesia include parts of Amazonia and the Andes range. Of these, Ecuador is by far the smallest, less than 25% as large as any of the others. Here is a stunning comparison: If the same proportionate number of species by area was found in Ecuador as on the ABA Area, there would only be 16 species in the entire country!!! Turned around, if the number of species per square mile in Ecuador were found in the ABA Area, there would be 114,000 species. Wouldn’t birders love that?
It is the opportunity to see a large number of species in a relatively small area that puts Ecuador near the top of every world birder’s list of places to go. I had visited both Peru and Brazil before with the trip to the former being almost exclusively for birds and to the latter with much less focus on birds. There is significant overlap in the species found in all of those countries. It takes even expert birders many trips to any of the countries to find even a majority of the birds. Before the trip, my world Life List was at 2744. I was hoping to see over 500 species in Ecuador including at least the 256 needed to get to 3000. Friends who had visited Ecuador last year in November on essentially the same itinerary as we would follow had seen more than 550 species. That is a somewhat better time to go but my goals seemed possible if not probable. It did not quite work out that way as will be detailed later.
Unlike our trip to Oaxaca Mexico last year which combined birding with cultural and artistic activities, this was going to be hard core birding only and at first I was concerned that it might not appeal to Cindy. However, as we visited websites for the lovely lodges where we would stay and saw photos of some of the birds we would see and learned of the different areas we would visit, Cindy was eager to go. It would be her first trip to South America, to the Andes and especially to any rainforest, let alone the Amazon. Then there was the question of her physical condition. She had been in great shape from dedicated workouts with a trainer over the past year plus, but that had stopped when she had knee replacement surgery just 10 weeks before our departure. She had recovered quickly from the same procedure on her other knee two years earlier. We had to schedule the trip before the second surgery and agreed we would change the timing if there were complications or she might sit out certain activities – like climbing the giant canopy towers in the Amazon if need be. Later you will see how she did. Frankly, I was more concerned about the need to head out early every morning for our birding. I am a morning person and she is not, so having breakfast at 5:00 or 5:30 would be a heavy ask. No suspense here. We did start early every morning and she made it without anything negative every morning.
Our visit was arranged through an Ecuadorian touring company, the same company that my friends had used in November 2021. We would have been happy to join a small existing tour, but as it worked out we had a private tour with our own vehicle, driver and guide. Another friendly interesting couple may have been great, but this worked out really well, even though it was a bit more expensive. We flew out of Seattle on June 14th on a red-eye flight to Miami. After a not too bad layover we then flew to a very nice relatively new airport in Quito arriving in the early afternoon. There is always a moment of apprehension when arriving in a foreign country where the tour company is supposed to meet you. Every detail of our interactions with Xavier Munoz, the owner of Neblina Forest, had been fantastic and reassuring – but that was from the familiar safety of our own Edmonds home. This was different but all apprehension was immediately put to rest as Jorge Luna, our guide and companion for most of the next two weeks, was there as we exited the baggage claim area with our names on a sign. We were in Ecuador. We were in good hands and we were ready for adventure.
The next blog post will begin our journey at Puembo Birding Garden, near the Quito Airport and just outside of Quito. Not to shortcut the story, here is a summary of our birding during the trip. We saw a total of 450 species in Ecuador, photographed 300 species and I added 207 species to my World Life List – admittedly short of what was hoped for to get to 3000, but the quality of birds seen and photographed and of the trip itself completely overshadowed any disappointment. Every day was incredible, fun and rewarding. Those 450 species included more than 50 species each of hummingbirds, tanagers (broadly defined) and flycatchers. Additionally among our favorites were 6 species of Antpittas and 6 species of Barbets plus many trogons, toucans and toucanets, parrots, parakeets, motmots, woodpeckers, raptors (including an incredible 15 Andean Condors), both forms of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and the bizarre Hoatzins in Amazonas.
Unfortunately I have to add a word about the civil unrest and demonstrations that occurred during the second half of the trip. Spurred by an increase in gas prices (which are regulated and set by the government in Ecuador) but greatly complicated by politics, there were many days of demonstrations that closed roads and parks, shut down commerce and caused many tour operators to cancel or modify trips. We came close to ending our trip early as access to some areas we were to visit and even to the airport were threatened. We had excellent up to date information from Neblina Forest and decided to stick it out. Two parts of the trip were modified. Instead of being picked up at Coca in the Amazon region by our guide and then heading back to Quito through the Eastern Andes, we flew back to Quito and covered most of the same area in reverse order. Also at the very end, as access to the airport was a big concern, instead of spending the last night in Puembo, we went to the Airport early and spent the night there before our flight back to Miami the next morning. Not fun, but we made it out on schedule and it is now just part of the story which will be told in blog posts to follow.