Jewels of the Andes

Like most North American birders, you’ve probably wandered south from time to time, at least among the colorful plates of the many exciting books on the birds of South America. If you find the comfort of cooler temperatures appealing, you’ve probably been drawn to the birds of the Andean countries. If you have yet to make the plunge, which species do you dream of seeing? What would you list as the classiest birds of the Andes?

Powerful Woodpecker, Ecuador
Powerful Woodpecker photographed by participant Kevin Heffernan.

Do you dream of Torrent Ducks repeatedly plunging from rocks into rushing water and bounding back onto the rocks? Do you imagine a White-capped Dipper hopping through the mist at the base of a tall waterfall? Or have the showier birds grabbed your attention? How about a tree full of displaying Andean Cocks-of-the-rock? Or maybe a fruiting tree with both Crested and Golden-headed quetzals? Surely you would include a mountain-toucan, probably Gray-breasted, for the dynamite colors on its bill! Then there’s the multicolored Toucan Barbet, with a bill so strange it has recently been accorded family rank (along with Prong-billed Barbet of Costa Rica and Panama). You might throw in a dramatically beautiful woodpecker, maybe a Powerful or a Crimson-mantled? How about a flock of Turquoise Jays, gleaming blue as they hop along mossy branches? If you’re into raptors, you’ve probably imagined a massive male Andean Condor circling in the sun below a snow-capped volcanic peak…or a Black-and-chestnut Eagle diving for prey at close range. If you love night birding, you may have imagined a spectacular male Lyre-tailed or Swallow-tailed Nightjar circling overhead, its tail streamers flowing in the spotlight. Oh, or maybe the mysterious Andean Potoo or a big, spectacular owl, something like Band-bellied perhaps? (Or how about an undescribed species!)

Ecuador hummingbirds
A pair of jewels, Brown Violet-ear and Velvet-purple Coronet. Photos by guide Richard Webster.

Speaking of spectacular, can it be that I haven’t yet mentioned hummingbirds or tanagers? These two families—at their greatest diversity in northwestern South America—must certainly contain among the foremost jewels of the Andes. But which species to include among the “classiest”?  Would it be the Sword-billed for its incredibly long bill? Or the male Booted Racket-tail with its unique tail and extensive, puffy boots? Or one of the long-tailed sylphs with their iridescent crowns and tails? For exuberant color, you might pick the chartreuse-and-violet Purple-backed Thornbill, the Glowing Puffleg (which glows all over!), the splendid Rainbow Starfrontlet, or the unreal Velvet-purple Coronet? There are so many gems among the hummers, it’s impossible to choose.

Ecuador tanagers
A pair of colorful tanagers, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and Golden-naped Tanager. Photos by guide Richard Webster & participant Alan Wight.

As for tanagers, one can throw the whole Thesaurus at the many colorful Tangaras that seem so distinctive on the plates and then challenge the observer to retain their complex patterns long enough for ID: things like Paradise, Flame-faced, Golden, and Golden-eared. And what about the lovely mountain-tanagers of the high-elevation forests…or the tasteful Iridisornis (like Golden-crowned Tanager)? You might have to consider the stunning Red-hooded Tanager that sings from treetops above epiphyte-laden cloud forest? And what of those noisy flocks of aberrant White-capped Tanagers, flying along a distant Andean ridge, that approach suddenly and begin screaming and bowing, jay-like, their plush white crowns erect? Would you include a Giant Conebill foraging under the tissue-like scales of the Polylepis bark?

Ocellated Tapaculo, Ecuador
A preeminent skulker, the Ocellated Tapaculo, photographed by guide Richard Webster.

If you’ve been to The Bird Continent, you may be dreaming of slightly more subtle species, perhaps some of the tougher ones, or some that have grabbed your attention for their unique behavior or structure or their specialized habitat. Maybe you dream of a pair of ptarmigan-like Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe picking through cushion plants on a paramo peak? You may be thinking of such scarce and intriguing loners as Black-streaked Puffbird, Lanceolated Monklet, or Scaled Fruiteater? If you’re into skulkers, you’ve probably mused about a big, spectacular Ocellated Tapaculo emerging from the bamboo to sit out sunning on a mossy log…or an Elegant Crescentchest working its way to the top of a dense thornbush in an arid interior valley…or a covey of twittering wood-quail (of any species!) emerging from the dark understory of a neblina-enveloped cloud forest? How about the scarce and aberrant Tanager Finch, with colors befitting a tanager but a brush-finch-like pattern and song (and now placed in the Emberizids)? If you’ve pored through the South American field guides, you could be lusting after an entire spectrum of shy and rarely seen antpittas, ranging from the largest (Giant) to the fanciest of the tiny Grallaricula’s (Crescent-faced). Of these rarely encountered ground-antbirds, the more the better!

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Ecuador
And another skulker, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta photographed by guide Richard Webster at San Isidro.

You may have caught the news in Science of the discovery of the stridulation mechanism—unique among vertebrates—by which a male Club-winged Manakin produces harmonic tones during his courtship display; it’s essentially the way a cricket produces its sound! If so, you’re likely to include that species in your “classiest” list. Or you may have read of such threatened species as Red-faced Parrot, White-necked Parakeet, or Orange-breasted Fruiteater and be eager to track them down. If you’re into birdsong, you may have read that scientists now regard the song of the group-living Plain-tailed Wren as “one of the most complex singing performances yet described in a nonhuman animal.” While some may dream of dramatic tanagers, a precisely singing Plain-tailedWren may be a jewel to you! (And while we’re dreaming, how about a Spectacled Bear?)

Well, you may have surmised by now that there’s only one Field Guides tour on which every one of these species has been seen: our JEWELS OF ECUADOR: HUMMERS, TANAGERS & ANTPITTAS tour. Though we’ve never seen them all on any one tour (such is the nature of birding in the Andes), we keep trying—and we do see the majority on each tour. Some sixty-five species of hummers is par for the course, along with jillions of so-called “tanagers.” With some help from the antpitta feedings at Refugio Paz and San Isidro, we’ve actually seen as many as 10 of the 15 possible antpittas on one tour!

We typically see the beautiful “San Isidro Owl,” still undescribed officially as of this writing; we’ve seen coveys of Dark-backed Wood-Quail, and we’ve seen Spectacled Bear on at least five tours! In our 16 days of birding, we see oodles of additional species, of course, usually totaling some 500+ species. How’s that for an immersion in Andean birding? In the process we stay in some wonderful settings (right in good habitat), eat gourmet food, and enjoy wonderful Ecuadorian hospitality. JEWELS offers a good introduction to South American birds, and it’s great for veterans as well. In fact, you veterans should hear some late-breaking news: Marcelo at San Isidro recently succeeded in training a Peruvian Antpitta (such a rare and recent addition to the Ecuador list that it’s not even in the book) to come for bits of earthworms! Feelin’ lucky? Come join us for one of our upcoming tours to survey the Jewels of Ecuador.

Ecuador hummingbirds
A few more hummers of the sixty-five or so usually seen: Empress Brilliant, Violet-tailed Sylph, and Long-tailed Sylph, photographed by guides John Rowlett, Jan Pierson & Richard Webster.