Palabra del día: páramo
On our last full day of adventure in Ecuador, we booked a day trip with Tropical Birding, a tour company which offers birding trips in several exotic locales, based on the amazing trip report I found at the Accidental Birder. We were extremely happy with our decision to use this particular company; the service was amazing, and the trip was, well, let me just show you where we went:
We begin at the crack of dawn; a van arrives at the hostel just after 6:00am bearing our driver, Antonio, and guide, Andres. We pack an extra jacket each, expecting the weather to be chilly and windswept; our guide is dubious that even our layers will be enough for us. We have brought granola bars and extra water in a backpack, but we search around for a grocery store that’s open to grab extra water and a pastry before undertaking the journey to Antisana.
Several times on the road, we stop to listen for birdsong; it is early enough in the morning that only a few lorries from the area quarries pass us by. Small orange-and-green birds flit among the harsh brush as we ascend to the páramo, the highland plains of the Andes. We keep an eye out for a particular bird, though we miss it at its usual haunts.
At a small hacienda with several bird feeders, we finally spot our first quarry: a giant hummingbird.
No, really, that’s what it’s called. The giant hummingbird is the largest hummingbird in the world, with much slower wing beats to compensate for its increased size. The other hummingbird we hope to see is the Ecuadorian hillstar, whose male has a deep blue iridescent head, a black collar, and a brilliant white breast. While we don’t see a male, we do see a few female hillstars, as well as several Tyrian metaltails and sparkling violetears.
As we enter the farmlands which surround the reserve and occasionally dip into its lands, we scour the surrounding cliffs for the first signs of Andean condors. We are successful in seeing our first one riding a thermal over the crest of a hill.
On the sides of the road are myriad carunculated caracaras and Andean lapwings. We first see the lapwings by their unmistakable white underwings, flashing as they complete a display at the bottom of a small hill. Something else we hope to see are black-faced ibis, which our guide informs us are usually very far away and hard to see.
We laugh and tell him that now that he’s said something, they will be on the road up ahead. He shakes his head in wonder as we come up on a trio walking up the road just around a bend. They fly off a short distance as we approach, giving us excellent looks at them as they feed.
I cross my fingers and hope for an Andean condor to fly up to us, but my wish doesn’t immediately work, much like the last time. We reach our destination at a control gate near a highland lake. Antonio drops us off before going to find parking. We walk to speak with the guard, where Andres shows him our permit and beseeches him to let us drive through the reserve, as it has started sleeting. The guard kindly acquiesces, and we are able to drive down to the lake, where we use the van as a windbreak while searching for silvery grebes in the choppy waters.
Another group guiding a photographer meet us on their walk back up the road and let us know where a pair of grebes are. Although the wind has picked up, my fingers are frozen, and I have to squint to see the birds, they are just off the road, not 50 feet away diving near a single Andean coot and a ruddy duck. I am ecstatic.
At this point, we make the decision to head back before the weather becomes worse. As we top a rise to return to the control gate, Antonio nudges us and pulls over. On the thermals comes an adult Andean condor. When he notices us, he floats ethereally over and hovers only a few yards above our heads. We are awestruck by just how massive and powerful it is.
Our guides inform us that they can’t top that encounter, and we heartily agree with them. On the ride back, we discuss spectacled bears, which have been sighted in the area several times. Although we are tired and exhausted, it is most definitely a worthwhile end to our time in Ecuador.