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In the world’s top bird watching country, Cuenca and Southern Ecuador are a land of opportunity

By David Morrill

For Cuenca tour guide Carlos Lara, life offers no greater pleasure than watching the birds.

“I love doing anything outdoors. For me, there is nothing better than escaping the artificial world, where we spend most of our lives, and going out to explore nature,” says Lara. “The very best of nature, however, are the birds. They are the jewels.”

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The Red-Rumped Bush Tyrant

Lara, who has specialized in history and naturalist tours for 15 years and has developed a reputation for being Cuenca’s premiere bird-watching guide, acknowledges that he has great material to work with. “If you are a birder, you are in heaven in Ecuador. There are so many to see.”

In fact, according to a number of studies, including a recent one by biologists at the University of California, Ecuador boasts more birds per square kilometer than any country on Earth. The total ranges between 1,650 and 1,690 species, depending on the source. By comparison, the U.S. and Europe together, with 200 times the land area of Ecuador, have less than 800 species.

According to Robert Ridgely and Paul Greenfield, authors of the Birds of Ecuador, the seminal work on the country´s birds, it is not only the number of species that is impressive, but the variety. “In this tiny country, you have a remarkable variety of habitats, from the Galapagos and other Pacific islands, to the jungle on both side of the Andes, and mountains that rise to almost 21,000 feet.” The authors add, “The amazing thing is that there are probably some species yet to be discovered here.”

Expat bird watchers in Parque Paraiso.

Expat bird watchers in Parque Paraiso.

An indicator of the sheer number of birds in Ecuador is the size of Ridgely and Greenfield’s Birds of Ecuador field guide. The paperback edition weighs in at a hefty three-and-half pounds.

According to Lara, the Cuenca area, as well as southern Ecuador in general, offers some of the country´s best birding. “Within a few miles of Cuenca, it is possible to easily see forty species in a day,” he says. “You can start at Parque Paraiso in downtown, where the Tomebamba and Yanuncay rivers come together, drive into the Cajas mountains, and then go to the north end of the Yunguilla valley and see more birds in a few hours than you would see in other parts of the world in a week.”

Although Lara guides both experienced and beginner birders, he says he avoids the obsessional bent of some serious bird watchers. “I find my pleasure in the colors, the bird calls, and tracking the birds through the forests and mountains,” he says. “The bureaucracy of bird watching really doesn´t interest me.”

The super-serious aspect of bird watching is showcased in the recent movie, The Big Year, starring Steve Martin. The movie, based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mark Obmascik, chronicles the story of Greg Miller, a computer consultant from Ohio, who set a record for seeing the most birds in the U.S. in a single year.

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Sparkling Violetear

“I guess that´s fun for some folks, but I don´t get into the competitive part of birding,” Lara says.

Referring to the U.S. species record set by Miller, Lara notes: “I think he saw about seven hundred in a whole year and spent tens of thousands of dollars to do it. In Ecuador, you can see that many in three or four weeks for a few hundred dollars.”

Lara leads private and small group tours in the Cuenca area as well as around Zamora and Zaruma, near the Peruvian border. In particular, he focuses on Cajas National Park west of Cuenca, Podocarpus National Park south of Loja, and Jocotoco Buenaventura Reserve between Machala and Zamora.

Although Lara says he has no single favorite, there are several birds he admits enjoying the most. “My short list would include the gray-breasted mountain toucan, the Ecuadorian rail, the purple-throated hummingbird, and the pale-headed brush-finch. When I spot these guys, my heart races.”

Lara says that bird watching is not about list-making for him. “It´s the pleasure of seeing these amazing creatures and sharing the environment with them,” he says. “My other great pleasure is helping other people share the experience with me.”

Bird watching challenges for beginners:
According to Ridgely and Greenfield, “The diversity of birds in Ecuador is tremendous, and this diversity can be confusing and even overwhelming to beginners. The hardest part is getting started and learning to recognize some of the basic groups or families of birds. In 25 years of leading bird tours, both of us have noted that the greatest difficulty novice birders have is placing the bird they are looking at in its correct family or, in the case of large family (e.g., the tryant flycatchers), in the correct group.”

Required equipment:
Clothing and rain gear suitable for the birding area and a sturdy 7- or 8-power binoculars. A camera is optional.

Contact Carlos Lara:
Email: green_explorador@yahoo.com; phone: (593) 9 979 7394 or (593) 7 280 5546.

Photo Credits: Carlos Lara.

Reposted from the Miami Herald, June 2013.

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About the Author

David Morrill

A California native who spent most of his life in north Florida, David Morrill has been a newspaper and magazine editor, columnist, and book and art reviewer. He was also a public relations agency owner and university administrator. He has lived in Cuenca since 2004.