Central & South America / Chronological / Destinations / Hotels & Resorts

Sometimes Travel is for the Birds: The Ecuadoran Andes

It was a dizzying way to start our trip – especially after a late night landing in Quito and only four hours of sleep. But here we were standing on a mountain more than two miles high. We were on a slope of the Pinchincha Volcano, part of the Yanacocha Reserve in the Ecuadoran Andes. It was our first stop on the way to a week at Tandayapa Bird Lodge, an all-inclusive accommodation built precisely for bird enthusiasts like me and my traveling companion, Jean. We traveled specifically to see some of the region’s 591 bird species, 75 of which are endemic, meaning they can be found nowhere else on earth.

Booted racquet-tail hummingbird, Ecuadoran Andes
Booted racquet-tail hummingbird

To my weary eyes, the clouds hovering below us looked like an inviting down coverlet spread out between the peaks. A part of me wanted to just lie down and close my eyes. But as we looked out, there were seemingly infinite layers of mountain ranges, each melting into a lighter shade of blue against the hazy sky. It didn’t take long to forget all about our sleep and breakfast deprivation. I barely even noticed I was slightly short of breath as I watched the sun scorch holes into the clouds, morphing the mist into new shapes.

The Lodge provided us with our own private bird guide. Although only in his 20s, Steve was already an experienced guide in his native England. We were often oblivious when Steve stopped suddenly, took down the spotting scope and tripod from his shoulder, and focused the lens on something much too far away for the average eye to see. This ability to spot a speck within miles of green blur or to hear a specific bird’s call in a cacophony of birdsong is the hallmark of a good birding guide.

Our driver did his best to navigate the whiplash-inducing roads with appalling potholes and then dozed in the van while we hiked the dirt roads of Yanacocha searching for avian treasure. Only an occasional cottage peeked through the endless trees, the varied shades of green marbled against the sky. With no other humans in sight, it was a shock to suddenly find benches and nectar feeders placed on the mountain by the local lodges. Oddly enough, certain bird species exist only at this elevation, despite the thin air and brisk 50-degree temperatures.

One of those species is the sword-billed hummingbird, a remarkable creature with a bill that reaches to 4-1/2”, causing it to tilt its bill upward to keep from tipping over when it perches. I knew it was possible to see this bird during our week’s visit, but I also knew we might not be so lucky.

There were many different species at Yanacocha’s feeders, and the sun moved in and out of view, causing their iridescent feathers to glow one moment and go dull the next. Turning my head rapidly from one feeder to another in an effort not to miss anything, my eye caught something unmistakable, and I gasped. “It’s a …! It’s a …!”

“Sword-billed,” Steve said, completing my sentence.

It was a female, her bill impossibly long and almost needle-thin, her white breast covered with metallic splashes of green. She fed briefly and vanished, but she and her darker male counterpart returned several times before we left. I could have gone home right then and not felt at all cheated.

Of course, if I’d left early, I would have missed the true hummingbird circus on Tandayapa Bird Lodge’s verandah. With ten feeders just outside the Lodge doors, it’s not uncommon to see more than 50 birds buzzing, twittering, fighting, chasing, and scattering in what looks like chaotic choreography on an invisible high wire.

Thirty-one species have visited the feeders, seven of which are endemic, such as the booted racket-tail. His body is no longer than a woman’s little finger, and his tail is twice that long. His so-called boots are disproportionately large fluffs of white feathers hanging down over his tiny white feet. The rackets are two flat, round blue circles of feathers at the end of two thin streamer tails. When defending territory, he leans back in mid-air, flaring his white boots menacingly as he squeaks like a dog’s chew toy. These displays of bravado are common among hummingbirds, but since they’re the world’s smallest birds, the show is as much a clown act as a trapeze act.

Female sword-billed hummingbird, Ecuadoran Andes
Female sword-billed hummingbird

Other species at the feeders include the purple-throated woodstar, a bird not much larger than a bee which sounds like a miniaturized helicopter or a distant lawn mower.

Hummingbirds are famously unafraid of humans, perhaps because of their ability to instantly lift off and fly in all directions, including backwards and upside down. This gave us the opportunity to stand within inches of the birds as they drank from the feeders, observing the details of their miniature feathers, which resemble the iridescent scales of a fish.

Between the birds and the beautifully landscaped grounds filled with flowers and native plants, I could have easily spent my entire visit on Tandayapa’s verandah. Its location has proven to be perfect for attracting birds. The Lodge straddles the hemispheres in a remote subtropical cloud forest in the Andes 40 miles northwest of Quito at an elevation of 5,500 feet and just 200 yards from the Southern Hemisphere. While most eco-travelers to Ecuador visit the Galapagos Islands or the Amazon basin, bird watchers and adventure travelers are beginning to discover the richness of the mountains that tower over the more well-known destinations. In addition to the prolific bird life, there is a fascinating array of flora in the region including 80 species of orchids, as well as opportunities for mountain biking and climbing, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting.

Getting to Tandayapa involves driving up a precarious concrete and gravel track at a sharp incline and then walking up numerous stairs. But once you arrive, the Lodge building is rustic and comfortable with Indian blankets on the walls and couches in a living area made for reviewing the list of birds seen during the day. The 12 rooms are modest but include comfortable beds, a closet, a small bureau, towels, soap, and, most importantly, a hot shower.

The Lodge is the largest employer of the diminutive Tandayapa Village in the valley below, population 22. Among the employees from the Village are the cooks, who prepare traditional Ecuadoran meals for the guests. We had chicken, beef, fish, and pork during our stay, and upon request, dairy products were carefully omitted from my plate. Soups are an important aspect of Ecuadoran cuisine, and while I’ve never been a great lover of soups, I found our cook’s creations to be a highlight of each lunch and dinner. Dessert was often ice cream or a local fruit called the tree tomato served with a topping of sugar.

Since bird-watching is a hobby for early risers, we were usually out of bed by 4:00 or 4:30 a.m. for a 5:00 a.m. breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast. No matter how tempting it was to relax on the verandah, there was much to see on day trips from the Lodge. One day, we were taken on a 45-minute drive to a town called Mindo, where we visited a thatch-roofed restaurant called Los Colibris. Its owners have discovered they can make as much money from their hummingbird feeders as their food. People pay a few dollars to watch the feeders and enjoy a complimentary glass of wine. You can enjoy traditional Ecuadoran fare on an outdoor terrace and take a walk in the garden.

The forest near Mindo was filled with bromeliads, giant other-worldly leaves, and an unimaginable variety of ferns that varied in size from the length and width of a pencil to more than ten feet by five feet. From the forest floor to the tops of the trees, delicate flowers occasionally peered out from within the lush greenery. Butterflies flitted about with pale green cellophane-like wings that looked as if they’d been sketched upon with a fine black felt-tip pen. Noisy flocks of parrots passed overhead, silhouetted against the sky.

A rider on an Andean road, Ecuadoran Andes
A rider on an Andean road

Traveling on the bumpy roads to various elevations from 2,600 to 6,500 feet, we were able to see birds that have evolved in virtual isolation in these mountain ranges. We stood on the roads and watched for mixed flocks of flycatchers and tanagers. It was a rainbow of electric green, sunflower yellow, crimson, azure, and periwinkle blue.

The weather in the region is temperate year round from 75 to 45 degrees, and November to May is the rainy season. On a rainy day, we watched birds through the Lodge windows. Carefully placed lights around the building attract moths, which, in turn, attract birds. We saw several species fly toward the building to pick moths off the outer walls for breakfast.

Another day, we hiked the very narrow and steep trails on the Lodge grounds. These are not for the faint at heart, but certain species are most easily found on these walks, such as the rare cloud-forest pygmy-owl and a pale green miniature toucan called the crimson-rumped toucanet.

Our last morning, I was glued to the verandah for my final glimpses of the hummers when a new bird suddenly landed on one of the feeders. I searched for Steve, exclaiming that I thought I’d just seen a female green-crowned brilliant. “No, we almost never see those here,” he said. I took out the Ecuadoran bird identification book but couldn’t find another bird that looked exactly like the one I’d seen. Dejected, I forced myself to my room to pack, only to return to a very excited Steve who had seen my bird. Yes, she was a green-crowned brilliant, the first one recorded at the feeders in a long time. Ah, satisfaction!

We left Steve on the verandah looking out at the mountains and watching the manic activity of the hummingbirds. “Do you ever grow tired of this?” I asked him.

“Not a chance,” he answered.


Leave a Reply