• Ed Jenkins

Birding Ecuador: Preparation is key

So, you're planning a birding trip to a brand new region. You've booked the flights and accommodation and are starting to think about learning the myriads of new birds you'll encounter. Firstly, how exciting! Secondly, where do you start?

In a month I will be travelling to Ecuador for a week of high-altitude birding. This will not only be my first visit to Ecuador but to the Neotropics, that incredibly bird-rich bioregion stretching from southern Mexico to South America and including the Amazon. This relatively tiny country (barely larger than the UK) boasts over 1,650 bird species, the fourth greatest total after Columbia, Peru, and Brazil.

World biodiversity (birds, mammals and amphibians) from dark blue (lowest) to red (highest). I've never lived anywhere even a little bit green, let alone yellow or red! Jenkins et al. 2013

When the field guide (Birds of Ecuador by Juan Ferile and Robin Restall and published by Helm Field Guides) dropped onto my desk the house reverberated. This is a hefty, dense guide filled with dozens of families, let alone hundreds of species, that I've never experienced. While I have been lucky enough to visit a fair few countries including in the Old World Tropics, it has usually been a by-product of conducting research, and therefore usually part of a much longer trip. This upcoming trip to Ecuador however is short, which got me thinking about what are the best ways to prepare oneself to find as many species as possible? In this article I've described what I have been doing to prepare for the trip and try give some useful advice for those of you planning something similar.

Mark up the field guide

Now, this might be controversial but I like to immediately start scrawling throughout my brand new field guide. Here is my thought process; I have this book that is only relevant to one particular country or region, and I may only visit that region once, therefore I need that guide to be as useful as possible. For example (as I describe in more detail later), Ecuador is divided up into many ecoregions by geography, climate and altitude, and many species are specific to such regions. As I will not be visiting all the possible regions, I don't want to waste time working my way through five or ten similar species when only one or two are possible in the area I am visiting. My strategy for efficiency when identifying birds in the field is to highlight or underline species to focus on (in pencil only, I'm not a monster!), allowing me to filter out species instantly without having to peer at the text or maps.

My chosen field guide for Ecuador and an example of marking the plates to quicken the identification process in the field.

As an aside, I am not a fan of ripping any pages out of a book. There may well be guides that are so hefty it makes sense to do so to reduce weight but I can never bring myself to do it.

There are many resources out there; take advantage of them

We live in a golden age of easily accessible data. It used to be that you would have to buy the 'where to finds birds in (insert country here)', if one was even available, and then search the dark depths of the internet for up to date trip reports. However, we now have many fantastic resources, including trip report repositories such as cloud birders allowing you to filter reports by site and date, and Fat Birder which has links to everything from checklists to field guides for every country. Of course, a key tool for accessing data so fresh it might be from the day or even morning before you visit a site is eBird. There you can populate bar charts showing relative abundance of species at any site or region, and from any date range. For example, you can search for the nearest hotspot to where you plan to bird (in my case for example, a lodge I might be staying at), choose the month when you're visiting, select the past 10 years of data to account for possible habitat change, and in seconds you have a highly customized bird list to work from.

Unsure of where to go to see birds? Aiming for those dark red hotspots is a good start! Courtesy of eBird from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Now of course, there are limitations such as the amount and quality of the data, and therefore eBird is but one of many tools that should be utilized, but it is a powerful one nonetheless. Just as an aside, eBird also boasts visual and audio quizzes which I have not found to be very useful, often because the photos are heavily weighted by North American species and often not from the area itself. A photo of a sharp-shinned hawk on a snow-covered branch taken in Idaho is not very relevant to my trip to Ecuador! However, alongside eBird the Cornell Lab also produces the Merlin App which combines high-quality photos, short descriptions, and crucially, fantastic audio recordings, into freely downloadable packages for cell phones. As of early 2020 only northern Ecuador is covered but it is still a vital resource.

Of course hiring local expertise is invaluable and will always boost your species count, as well as hopefully imparting some understanding of fieldcraft and the local culture which is hard to learn elsewhere. There are many international and local guides available, although often for a significant cost. Although I have traditionally always tried to find birds by myself, for this upcoming trip we will indeed be hiring some local Ecuadorian guides.

Understand the geographic niches that affect biodiversity

Biodiversity can be affected by geographic and climatic factors such as altitude, rainfall, and temperature, while physical features such as a mountain range or body of water can physically split regions up. Understanding how these factors combine to create unique habitats is crucial when trying to maximize a species list, as each will support some generalists but also specialists that may not be found elsewhere. In Ecuador, minor altitudinal shifts can result in very different species compositions, which is compounded by the way the two major ranges of the Andes on either side of Quito differ in aspect and climate, therefore also supporting unique species assemblages. This is why tearing out all the pages of text and maps from your field guide is a bad idea! For example, the eastern lowlands and foothills of the Andes are home to the spotted woodcreeper, while the western Andes, a few short hours drive away, are home to the similar looking but very different olive-backed woodcreeper. By simply being aware of the geographic separation between these two, they need never be confused.

The spotted (left) and olive-backed woodcreeper (right), very similar species separated by the inter-Andean valley system. Photos by Tom Friedel, maps by the Cornell Lab.

If you can't learn all the species, try the families instead

Unless you're visiting a place you are familiar with, or that has a relatively low number of species, it is unrealistic to 'learn the book'. My advice here is to break that huge number of possible species down into more manageable chucks by focusing on learning the families. Some will be familiar to you already. I already know a duck from a heron from a woodpecker for example! However, some may be brand new, especially if you are visiting a completely new region or continent such as in my case. What is an antbird? Is an antwren a kind of antbird or a kind of wren or something else completely? At least the word antbird makes intrinsic sense to my english-speaking mind, but what may I ask is a hemispingus, a chlorophonia or a saltator? You might find it helps to associate them with groups you are already familiar with, these birds are often filling ecological niches that are also found elsewhere after all. For example, antpittas (such as the giant antpitta below) look and behave very similarly to the pittas of the Old World tropics, foliage-gleaners could pass for some Old World babblers, and ground-tyrants are similar to wheatears. Of course some families like the hummingbirds are unique to the Americas, and that is where attempting to break the family itself down into groups is helpful.

Familiarize yourself with some common species

You don't want to "waste time", keying out the most abundant species on your first day or two. Instead, use the resources mentioned above to pick out a manageable number of species that show up repeatedly and try to internalize the key identification features of those species. This will give you a baseline to work from. For example, in the eastern Ecuadorian Andes, one of the most commonly encountered tanagers is the blue-necked tanager, an easy enough species to learn which may mean the next mixed flock that passes overhead is a little less overwhelming.

Similarly, at a few of the sites we will visit there are five or more possible foliage-gleaners, but as the montane foliage-gleaner is the most commonly reported, I have made an effort to learn the diagnostic features of that species.

Learn some songs of secretive or target species

Some species are simply harder to encounter than others, whether due to cryptic plumage, secretive behavior, predilection for tall tree-tops, or simply being naturally uncommon. Owls are a classic example from the northern hemisphere, crakes and rails being others. The Neotropics are home to some famously tough species to see, but many have distinctive calls or songs, and it is these that are worth trying to learn before a trip. Three example families are the bizarre tinamous, tapaculos and antpittas, all secretive, ground-dwelling birds that rarely break cover.

For example, here is the song of the giant antpitta (pictured above).

It's song is very similar to those of some other antpitta species, therefore, by internalizing this type of song, I'm (hopefully) more likely to pick it up while in the field. This black tinamou song is again representative of some other closely related species found in the same region.

On the subject of learning songs, the use of audio recordings to entice birds closer to allow them be seen is very common in the tropics as the vegetation is often very dense. Having used audio, also known as tape-lures, to attract birds for research purposes, I understand that there may be negative knock-on effects on birds that the fleeting visitor may not think about, and there are good reasons that many national parks and bird reserves ban the use of tape luring. All I will say is if you must use this technique, do it sparingly and consider what the energetic and behavioral impacts might be, especially on desirable species in areas that are visited by birders regularly.

Hopefully there's some useful advice in here. Stay tuned for details and photos from Ecuador in a few weeks!

By Ed Jenkins