Enigmatic wildlife of the Neotropics
A NW Ecuador tour in search for its astonishingly diverse bird- and wildlife. To name a few: Spectacled Bear, Banded Ground Cuckoo, Mountain Tapir, Toucan Barbet, Oncilla, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill, Mountain Coati, Ocellated Tapaculo, Olinguito, Buff-fronted Owl, Tayra, Peruvian Antpitta, Culpeo, Velvet-purple Coronet, Colombian Night Monkey & Scarlet-and-white Tanager.
The high Andes near Quito, Ecuador – the world’s best place to observe Spectacled Bears
The itinerary is built around watching Spectacled Bears; the only bears found in South America where they occur in a narrow strip from W. Venezuela to the Andes of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and northern Argentina.
Despite their extensive distribution across the Andean cordillera, sightings everywhere are rather sporadic and rare. However, this does not apply to Ecuador. Less than an hour’s drive from the metropolis of Quito, you are in the middle of the core area for bears. The region has recently become known as the only place in the world where the species is viable. Providing good weather conditions, sightings of this bear species in and near the parks of Cayembe Coca and Antisana are reliable. That this is not a myth was apparent from our prospecting during the latter part of 2021 into the New Year 2022; we saw no less than eight different individuals in just a few days.
Supporting cast of different mammals
Apart from the Spectacled Bears (the main purpose of the trip), we also mapped some other areas and places that are home to some either beautiful, rare or striking mammal species: Olinguito, Kinkajou, Tayra, Andean, Fox, Mountain Tapir, Colombian Night Monkey and Oncilla.
Tapirs require a serious effort. Something that won’t suffice for Oncilla as chance and luck are even more important for this feline in terms of sighting of this species. Without a doubt the two toughest target species of the trip! From our prospection point of view: three Mountain Tapirs were seen and even more important: we know core trails which they use on regular basis. Strolling around near those trails mornings and evenings a key to succeed in spotting them. Oncilla wise we will visit two lodges where they have been spotted on irregular basis.
The Choco region: a heaven for restricted-range bird species
During the trip we will spend a few days on the western side of the Andes in NE Ecuador. The region we visit falls within the boundaries of the Choco region; an area supporting the largest number of restricted-range birds in the Americas with over 50 species being endemic to an area characterised by wet forest. Indeed: with up to 16,000 mm of rain per year in some places, the Choco is probably one of the wettest places on earth.
However, as we will spend most of our time here (Olinguito & Tayra locations) at an altitude of between 1000 and 2300 meters, we will escape this intensive rainfall mostly as the wet tropical forest from lower down is replaced by subtropical forest. Despite the lower amount of rainfall, humidity will be very high. Therefore the area is also known as cloud forest. Although wet it is nevertheless a Neotropical paradise teeming with birdlife.
Into the more open landscape of bears and tapirs
Once leaving Quito (at 2500 m) and heading higher into the Andes towards the treeline the trees become increasingly stunted with altitude and eventually give way to wet grassland or páramo, which is characterised by stands of tall composites like Bromelia, Espeletia and Puya. Isolated, small dense patches of Polylepis forest dominate in sheltered areas. It’s in such an open area the bear and also tapir occur. The first foraging on bromelia’s during day time; the latter browsing on all kinds of leaves, plants and grasses during dusk and dawn.
Avian beauties and goodies
Since the beauty of some bird families in the area, specific attention will also be paid to tanagers, antpittas, hummingbirds and cotingas. After all, they are among the most beautiful of birds in South America.
A family of passerine birds living in the forest. They tend to feed on insects at or near the ground since many are specialist ant eaters. Compared to other birds that specialise in following ants, this family is the most tied to the ground. The long, powerful legs, which lend the birds a distinctive upright posture, and an essentially vestigial tail aid this lifestyle. This led to their common name of antpitta. For about two decades now, several lodges, reserves and locals in South America have managed to get several individuals of different antpitta species trained to come in search of juicy, succulent worms. Three such locations will be added to the tour program. Luring these beauties (with nicknames like Maria, Shakira, Daniella…) out of the cloud forest by calling ‘venga venga venga’ a life changer!
The vast majority of the species (360 in total) are found in the tropics. Many male hummingbirds have a plumage of bright, varid coloured feathers of the head, gorget, breast, back and wings. Sunlit feathers split into wavelengths that reflect to the observer in varying degrees of intensity. In the wild, hummingbirds visit flowers for food from which they extract nectar. Hummingbirds also take sugar-water from bird feeders, which allow people to observe and enjoy hummingbirds up close. Several such locations will be added to the tour program as these birds are just enchanting and downright beautiful to watch!
Small to medium-sized, brightly coloured birds restricted to the Western Hemisphere and mainly to the tropics. About 60% of tanagers live in South America, and 30% of these species live in the Andes. Most species are endemic to a relatively small area. Naturally, the species are most often encountered in single-species or mixed bird flocks. But, like antpittas they also appear at several feeders. Several such locations will be added to the tour program as these birds are just so gorgeous they are a must see, the more the better!
When visiting the tropics, finding raiding columns of army ants is always a unique experience and a certainty for an encounter with a set of birds that are seldom encountered anywhere else in the forest. These birds, following the army ants, have found it advantageous to wait around the margins of these swarms and pick off the invertebrates trying to flee. They come to capitalise on the frenzied escape of insects chased by the ants. The list of these birds that are army ant specialists is long: antbirds, antthrushes, antwrens, antshrikes, antvireos and antpittas.
Then there are others including tanagers, woodcreepers, woodpeckers, cuckoos and even a few raptors that benefit from the food bonanza. The birds at army ant foraging columns tend to ignore people. They can be approached relatively closely and observed as they wait patiently maybe a foot off the ground for the opportunity to snatch a fleeing insect. With rubber boots an army ant column can safely be approached within a foot as long as you don’t step on them. The ants do bite and sting! Unfortunately, the phenomenon of army ants is also subject to global warming. They have not been observed on the eastern side of the Andes for several years. But can still be found on the west side.
If, when out in the field, we hear from our network of local contacts about an ant swarm the program may be changed. Especially when a twichable Banded Ground Cuckoo is in the swarm you can be confident that the journey will take a positive and spectcular turn!
Mammaling and birding with a binocular, telescope and a lens for those into shoot and push photography.
In summary, a trip for flexible people wishing to see Spectacled Bears plus some other remarkable mammals complemented by tropical birds. The journey also offers extraordinary opportunities from a photographic point of view!
The trip is the result of prospecting carried out around the turn of the year 2021-2022. This on top of a visit to the country by the tour guide in 2006. In total he has been to the Neotropics eight times.
Everywhere there is luxurious accommodation; one of the lodges has a swimming pool, another has hot water baths fed by volcanic water.
People have to be able to walk but not into trekking as the trails are, in general, not that long or intensive. While looking for bears we mostly watch from the van (high clearance) or 4WD vehicle.
Apart from an EB5 guide, there will also be a driver and local naturalist as part of the guiding team to guarantee the best possible result regarding spotting the local wildlife.
Oh yes, taking an umbrella is in any case advisable – haha!