San Jorge’s Magic Birding Circuit

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
September 2009

Welcome back to another Audubon season!  After a 3-month break in our general meetings and Peligrams, we come back with enthusiasm to carry out our mission to preserve and protect the animals, plants, and natural communities in Indian River County through advocacy, education, and public awareness.  Our family took a wonderful birding trip to Ecuador.  A major objective was to soak up the Galapagos again this time with our grandkids (and their parents) showing them the genius of Darwin and the islands that changed the world.  Moreover, we have been fascinated with the wildlife particularly birds found in beautiful rain and cloud forests of mainland Ecuador as well.

Green-crowned Brilliant Milpe by Richard & Juanita Baker

Dr. George Cruz at the 2008 Space Coast Birding Festival gave a presentation of his outstanding photography about the excellent birding opportunities at his series of lodges at different elevations called the San Jorge’s Magic Birding Circuit of Ecuador.   Instead of a self-guided tour renting a car like we did in 2001, we decided to visit the various eco-lodges of Dr. Cruz having him arrange our 8-day Galapagos cruise and our 5 days stay on mainland Ecuador around Quito.

In establishing the various eco-lodges Dr. Cruz, a renaissance veterinarian, has a vision to preserve the wonderful tropical cloud and rain forest habitats at different altitudes for the birds and wildlife and to teach local people that tourism to wilderness areas can be a productive and sustainable source of revenue rather than clear cutting and farming all within a 2-3 hour road trip from Quito in the Andes.  He has a dedicated and in-depth knowledge of birds and plants (their medicinal value handed down for generations), photography, digiscoping, and respect for the Ecuadorian people, their culture, and their cuisine, which he generously shares this all with his guests.  He and his wife along with their staff have provided a unique experience—that is rustic, rugged, and rigorous.  Yes, there are steep climbs to get to his lodges, but the views!  Spectacular.  

Designed with the idea to bring nature to the human, yet to provide the basic necessities, the lodges are not luxurious.  In such a beautiful setting, one does not want to spend much time in the room, but would rather be up early for birding or owling at night, viewing the exquisite plant life and varied flora and fauna at each lodge that differ because of the contrasting habitats.  Each lodge had its charms and different subset of the total 52 species of hummingbirds and 904 bird species.   The night sounds of the frogs were amazing.

In Quito, we stayed in a restored hacienda, at about 10,000 ft elevation, built in 1790 on the old Inca Trail about 20 minutes and a 600 plus ft rise up a bumpy dirt road above the 9,348 ft high airport in the middle of the city completely surrounded by many volcanoes.  Dr. Cruz shared the history of the villa and his family’s involvement for the last 20 years.  He has replanted the mountainside acreage of the former farm back to the native plants found in this area particularly those that attract birds.  The hacienda and rooms overlook the garden with feeders and various colors and shapes of beautiful hummingbirds. Oh, to watch the Sparkling Violetear, Shining Sunbeam, Green-tailed Trainbearer, Great Sapphirewing! buzzing around the flowering bushes! In two hours we saw 32 species of birds. 

And beyond, far below, is the magnificent view of Quito the city, surrounded in the background by snow-capped volcanoes.  Dr. Cruz is an expert bird guide, providing quick identification of their calls as well as their flashing visual images.  The lodge is decorated with his art…with paintings of bird life and murals on walls that depict the history and area sights.  What an opportunity to experience the Ecuadorian cuisine, its unique sauces, soups, varied fruits, and always 4-5 courses while we watch birds on or near feeders.

On our way to Tandanyapa, we stopped at the Yanacocha Hummingbird Preserve (elevation 10,500 ft—11 bird species including the amazing Sword-billed Hummingbird, the Sapphire-vented Puffleg, and the Andean Condor).  What a view! 

At the lower Tandanyapa lodge (5,500 ft elevation), we trekked up the steep mountain side to get to the lodge, on the high edge, of this cloud forest. The sight is spectacular and the bird life (53 species…Green-crowned Brilliant, Booted Racket-tail, Purple-throated Woodstar, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Golden-headed Quetzal, Crimson-rumped Toucanet and Andean Cock-of-the-Rock were favorites) and flora entirely different from Quito area. Nita kept saying, “all those ‘exotic and beautiful leafed plants’ in our nurseries are growing wild here!”  Our group ranged from 9 years old to 70 plus, yet we all managed the extensive trails.

The Milpe Lodge (elevation 3,280 ft) had 200 acres of subtropical rainforest…lodges newly built and 7 miles of trails including water falls, and a hilltop overlooking farmland…many birds, good chance for photography. We spent two days in this beautiful area, seeing 109 bird species…such as Rose-faced Parrots, Black-capped Tanager, Golden Tanager, Masked Flowerpiercer, Golden-winged Manakin baby, Cinnamon Becard, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Guayaquil Woodpecker, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Rufous Motmot, Andean Emerald, Green Thorntail, White-necked–Jacobin, Bat Falcon.  Gorgeous!

In the 4 days of intensive birding at differing elevations, we hiked 4-6 hours daily up and down narrow cleared trails seeing about 165 different bird species yet spending ample time viewing and photographing them, stopping whenever needed to catch our breath, swimming at a waterfall, appreciating a plant, insect or butterfly that happened to be near, or spotting the White-throated Quail-Dove fleeing in the undergrowth.

We in Indian River County can learn from Dr. Cruz’s vision…of thinking how to turn our whole county into a tourist haven for artists, birders, photographers, botanists, butterfly specialists, canoe and kayakers, fishers, hunters, hikers, and campers getting close to nature.  We too have wonderful resources and all our yards and ponds could be native habitats with shade trees and diverse flora to recreate our paradise in all our mobile home parks, gated communities, businesses, parks, schools, hospitals, churches and plazas.  Working together we would preserve water, reduce chemical pollution from fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that are used for the current lawn and pond maintenance.  We would reduce energy and water use and enhance economic opportunities for our youth, the beauty of our community, and certainly our quality of life.

We are trying to arrange for Dr. Cruz to talk about the birds of Ecuador in January, followed by a chapter-sponsored tour to Ecuador and the Galapagos.  He has the following websites with some of his excellent photos (click on the last box/album for birds) and a map and for a list of the possible 904 birds at found on his San Jorge’s Magic Birding Circuit in Ecuador. 

Next month we will bring you up to date on our progress with the new Audubon House.

“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.”
– – – Wangari Maatha, Nobel Peace Prize, 2004

The rugged, volcanic terrain of Ecuador. Photo by Richard & Juanita Baker.

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