Birdwatching in the Yanacocha Reserve, Ecuador

Discover a prime birdwatching site near Quito, the capital of Ecuador, that’s protecting the Critically Endangered black-breasted puffleg

Ecuador’s capital Quito, wrapping around the eastern slopes of the towering Pichinicha Volcano, is just an hour away from the Yanacocha Reserve. As we head out of the city and towards the volcano’s summit, our truck winds up the 1,000-meter ascent across vast fields of agriculture.

I’m traveling with reserve manager, Efraín Cepeda; it’s 45 minutes into our journey, we’ve reached an altitude of about 4,000 meters, but I still don’t see any forest.

Suddenly, as we turn around yet another corner, the pastureland gives way to greenery. Trees rise up on the slopes in front of us, they spread down the valley and across to the opposite mountains that are shrouded in early morning cloud. It’s a dramatic display of what creating protecting areas achieves – a thriving wildlife habitat surrounded by a lifeless monoculture.

We start heading out into reserve and within minutes Efraín is pointing out an area of forest in the valley that the community is looking to sell and a good opportunity for Jocotoco to extend the protected area.

Birdwatchers’ haven

On our way we meet three different groups of tourists, accompanied by naturalist guides, with binoculars and long-lensed cameras at the ready.

Efraín tells me the reserve attracts about 2,000 tourists a year. Designated as an Important Bird Area by Birdlife International, it’s a prime location for any keen birdwatchers and the two miles of trails have been designed to give a great opportunity to see some high altitude rarities up-close.

As we reach the first station of hummingbird feeders, tourists are already busily snapping shots as an array of different species flitter and fight – defending their food source aggressively.

Species to spot

Some of the most notable species often seen here are the extraordinary sword-billed hummingbird and the spectacular great saphirewing, as well as two species of puffleg: the sapphire-vented and golden-breasted.

Unfortunately, the sought-after black-breasted puffleg, the Critically Endangered species that the reserve was created to protect, is not often seen and researchers are continuing studies to find out why.

A favourite: the andean condor

While watching the hummingbirds, we chat to ranger Silvio Calderón, who is busily cleaning and refilling the feeders. Silvio is supported by Keepers of the Wild, a ranger programme by the World Land Trust. He has worked for Jocotoco for seven years, after leaving his job within the construction industry.

He tells me that the andean condor, which is classified as near-threatened, is his favourite species to spot within the reserve. This impressive bird, with a wing-span of up to 3 meters or 10 foot, is mostly spotted in the high páramo but can also sometimes be seen soaring above the reserve’s trails.

There are only two rangers protecting the 2,670 acre reserve and I wonder if Silvio worries about his safety when patrolling alone. “No, it’s very tranquil work”, he says.

“I don’t see any illegal activities within the reserve, such as hunting or logging, although this does happen in the surrounding area.”

This is rare and welcome news; it is extremely common for conservation groups to suffer an on-going struggle to prevent illegal activities within protected areas. But Silvio, who lives in the nearby town, tells me they have a good relationship with surrounding communities; the local people respect the protected area and often work with Jocotoco on conservation projects.

“In the past”, explains Silvio, “when the fences had deteriorated, people would cut down trees to replace the old posts. But now we support them to plant living barriers using native trees. The community are happy with this support and they no longer cut down trees. But there are many more people that want support, so we need to increase the reach of the project in order to achieve this.”

Silvio takes us to a small clearing next to the trail, where we’re joined by other tourists; he begins whistling and throwing a handful of worms on the forest floor. We wait expectantly and soon a tawny antpitta hops out into the clearing.

A willing model, the antpitta stays with us for several minutes as we excitedly shoot photos. “Feeding the antpittas is the favourite part of my job”, says Silvio with a big grin, “they’re so funny.” He’s not wrong: the antpitta is a strange-looking bird, with a round body perched on long legs that they use like pogo sticks to hop across the forest floor.

Silvio obviously takes great delight in his work. “There are no activities in my job that I don’t enjoy”, he says.

“I think my work is important; to protect the trees, the flora, and the water. For me, it is a pleasure to work with the community. It’s an excellent job.”


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