Diary of a fledgling birder

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I was less than a beginner. I was barely aware that birdwatching was a thing. In fact, if it weren’t for my work at Ñan, I wouldn’t have even imagined myself doing it… On my first official birding excursion, I did not even manage to write down how many species I saw.

I barely had time to get the complicated official names of one or two species in my notepad. The truth is, I was so absorbed by the nature and the wonder of these feathered creatures, I left the jotting-down for later. I focused on feeling the cloud forest embracing me, observing every detail of every bird I saw through my eyes —and their newfound extensions, the binoculars lent to me for the day. I observed the bird’s behaviors meticulously during the brief moments I had to see them.

The thing is, when you’re birding, you unconsciously assume an almost meditative state; a kind of nature-infused trance. You become as aware as possible of every movement the forest makes. Even the most subtle movements absorb your concentration completely. It’s easy to give in to the magnetism of a forest. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the symphony of birdsongs.

Heading northwest, a birder’s place to be

My first trip to see birds took place Northwest of Quito, what they call ‘el noroccidente‘, beginning at the Paseo del Quinde Eco-route (a dirt road that connects the town of Nono to Mindo with over 600 species of birds).

I must confess that my first experience as a birder was pure luxury. Accompanied by Paul Greenfield and Angel Paz in his now-famous bird refuge (famous at least in the birding world), I was next to two “celebrities” in the field, and there I was… without any birding knowledge whatsoever and like the millennial that I am, calling them by their first names.

A Cock-of-the-Rock waiting to get a groove on for its female at Angel Paz’s ‘Refugio Paz de las Aves’

In Spanish, we have a saying: God helps early birds. It must have been penned by a religious birdwatcher. Because I got up at 3:30 a.m. to get me all the way to Nanegalito in time to make it deep into the forest to witness the dawn chorus and a particular performance that was due to begin at around 6:30 am!

It’s worth all the trouble when what you come to discover is a serenade of love: a tree with over 15 Cock-of-the-rock, a spectacular bright red bird with the most bizarre helmet-like crest, ready to woo a dame. The only female on-site, much duller in plumage, will eventually choose a suitor (it’s more squealing than a serenade, but I vowed not to take away the romance from the moment…).

“Stare at a point and just lift the binoculars to your eyes. Don’t look down,” Paul tells me when he sees I’m having problems handling one of birding’s essential tools. Then he reveals the names of the species we’ve seen. He takes out the Birds of Ecuador book (a bible amongst those who bird in the country, which he co-wrote and illustrated), and shows me the plate the bird is on.

“Look, that’s a Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager because both its coronary stripe and its underside is bright yellow,” he said. The Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, although similar, differs because its yellow is more orange and the black mask on its face is thicker and reaches the chin and crown. Yes, I can already differentiate between several tanagers. This multicolored family abounds in the Northwest and occupies six plates of the Birds of Ecuador. I must have seen about fifteen of those!

A quetzal flushes into the forest along the Paseo del Quindo Eco-route

The birding continues

After my experience with Angel Paz where I ticked a few more (very rare) antpittas and quails (future birding trips made it clear that it wasn’t as easy as Ángel arranges it at his picture-perfect reserve), we continued to the town of San Tadeo, right before the turn-off to Mindo, to Rolando García’s farmhouse, otherwise known as San Tadeo Birding.

Rolando’s smile is only surpassed in breadth by the size of his hug. He is always happy to receive people, ready to share his love for birds. It’s hard to believe that years ago he wasn’t as smiley. He had issues with his wife, who furiously opposed his birding endeavors. Now both have found happiness, and to their colorful garden dozens of tanagers, euphonias and toucans arrive. Rolando comes by with a banana and sets it on a branch he has designated as a feeder.

As a result of the Paseo del Quinde eco-route, we now can boast many local top-notch birding ventures in the Northwest, making the area ever-friendlier for visiting birdwatchers. Further on, at San Miguel de Los Bancos, we visit Mirador Río Blanco restaurant, which, besides being the cheapest option for decent lodging in the area, is also an ideal place to see birds while enjoying your meal. The huge windows and bird feeders attract tanagers, woodpeckers, the dapper Araçari toucan with its deep red eye-rings, black head and chest, and yellow belly. One of the araçari species actually looks like it’s been shot in the heart!

Birding just off the road in the town of San Tadeo, near Mindo.

By this time, I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on the subject. While enjoying my trout in a white wine sauce, I point to the birds that appear outside the window and begin to name them! (I’ve come a long way… since this morning!) “That’s an Orange-bellied Euphonia; that’s a Thick-billed Euphonia; that one’s a Lemon-rumped Tanager, for sure.” As I list them, showing off to Paul my identification skills, I feel I could really get the hang of this!

Our next and final stop was Milpe Bird Sanctuary, a reserve managed by Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, with over 100 hectares of protected forest that only 10 years ago was grazing land for cattle. It took three years to reforest it all. Paul walks with confidence here and with his recorder replays bird vocalizations to attract specific species. I stood behind, fascinated by the hummingbirds that buzzed around me, brushing my ear without ever crashing into me, an amazing feat indeed, as they drank desperately from the feeders. They couldn’t care less that I was around.

<h2 class=“subtitle”>Is birding my new thing?</h2>

After a few more outings into the Llanganates National Park, the temperate forests of Mundug, and the subtropics of Baños, I can identify my share of species. I can tell you if a bird has a short, long, or curved bill; if a belly is mottled, striated, or chevroned. I may not be a consummate birder yet, but I already fell in love with this curious adventure.

I already dream of my next outing and can say the birding ‘seed’ is already inside me. I’m fascinated by these colorful, feathered creatures that suddenly appear from the forest deep, from a world we cannot fathom and only for a moment honor us with their fleeting beauty.

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