I recently returned from a wonderful, 10-day birding trip to the cloud forests of the Ecuadorian Andes.
This was a small tour of only eight bird enthusiasts from the states and led by a top Ecuadorian bird guide.
The tour, organized by two Arizona ornithologists, had the unique objective of trying to find as many species of hummingbirds as possible. Despite being such a tiny country, Ecuador is home to 97 of the world's roughly 330 species of hummingbirds.
In the Andes, elevation is a major determinant of bird distribution. For example, at 5,000 feet there may be 200 species of birds, and at 8,000 feet also 200 species, but maybe only 40 species occur at both elevations. So, in a very short period of time on a mountain road you can travel from one bird community to a largely different one.
Our strategy was to stay at various lodges at various altitudes to try to maximize the number of hummingbirds we could encounter. We did this on both eastern and western slopes of the Andes, because the high mountains are a barrier for many species. As a consequence, the species at 8,000 feet can be quite different between east and west.
Because Ecuador is on the equator, lush sub-tropical vegetation extends beyond 6,000 feet of altitude, after which it is gradually replaced by almost-as-lush temperate forest. Both habitats are great for hummers, but the density of the vegetation makes it very difficult to see most birds.
Over the past 20 years, entrepreneurs in the ecotourism business have greatly expanded efforts to lure birds out of the forest so that even the most casual of birders can see them easily and identify them. All lodges now have arrays of hummingbird feeders that may bring in as many as 20 species practically close enough to touch. In addition, more and more lodges are putting out various fruits that attract species like tanagers and toucans, as well as monkeys and other small mammals.
Several lodges we visited had a special place in the nearby forest where they shine a very bright light against white sheets through the night. By dawn, large numbers of moths and other insects cover the sheets, providing a veritable smorgasbord for difficult-to-see forest birds like antbirds, woodcreepers and leaftossers. Nearby would be a sitting area where birders can sip their coffee and watch these species feast on the moths, unaware of their silent and grateful audience.
Because of its bird diversity and the relative ease and safety of in-country travel, Ecuador has always been a magnet for birders. But ecotourism lodges are really thriving now that they can literally bring the birds to the birders.
Even restaurants and private homeowners are cashing in by luring "customers" with their wild bird shows. The most astonishing example I saw there was where a landowner, Angel Paz, has given up his former profession of deforesting his land for the lumber and turned his land into a birding destination sought out by birders from every corner of the world.
His trick: training antpittas. These are notoriously secretive birds that are virtually impossible to see and therefore high on the list of must-see species that all world birders have.
He has spent up to three months training individual wild antpittas to respond to sounds he makes and come out into the open to eat mealworms he provides. Among the birds he has trained is the giant antpitta, one of the rarest birds in South America. Angel is now making a comfortable living leading local birding tours on his land and setting an admirable example for others as to how they might turn habitat destruction into habitat preservation and make it a lucrative profession.