Toucan Barbet at Tandayapa

Acknowledgments: I am grateful to many people for making this experience possible: First and foremost, to Iain Campbell of Tropical Birding for extending the offer for me to volunteer at Tandayapa; also the Columbus Audubon Society for funding through the John Wilson Memorial Scholarship Fund; and to the staff at Tandayapa and Tropical Birding for making Ecuador a home away from home.

“Quick! Frank! There it goes!” I say, grabbing the nearest person to me in the group. Frank turns his head just in time to see the lyre-tailed nightjar shooting out from its well-camouflaged day time perch and flying overhead, with its namesake tail streaming behind it. Oohs and ahhs arise from the whole group surrounding us. We are on the Andes Introtour from Tropical Birding, a whirlwind 10 day trip that manages to cover almost every habitat in the mega-diverse Choco region of Ecuador, plus some of the High Andes, usually picking up over 300 species. It’s the first real guided trip I’ve been on.

Choco Cloud Forest
Choco Cloud Forest

I spent last summer at Tandayapa Bird Lodge in the Choco cloud forest of north-western Ecuador, seeing what it’s actually like to work in ecotourism. I hiked every day trying to accomplish my first goal: actually learn all the new families of birds. Trying to learn the difference between foliage-gleaners, tree-hunters, leaf-tossers, and any other subset of the almost-entirely-brown Furnariidae family was a challenge. And that wasn’t even starting on the near 200 species of flycatchers in the country. Although I had studied my encyclopedia-esque guide for months, I was still overwhelmed. There are quite a few differences birding in the tropics vs. birding up here.

The first and biggest of these differences is the idea of the feeding flock. In the tropics, there is no real well defined breeding season like in North America. Maybe some birds are more likely to breed in certain months, but overall there is no real significant change between seasons. As a result of this, instead of having well defined territories, you’ll find many birds simply moving through the jungle feeding on fruit and insects wherever these resources are most abundant. This can be seen in a toned-down form during the winter in North America when chickadees, titmice, and the like have a good chance of being seen moving around together.

This flock dynamic creates an interesting atmosphere. It is completely possible, even likely, to walk for half an hour through the forest and not see or hear a single species. Then you turn a corner, and have trees practically alive with thirty or more species. This flock could then hang around for half an hour, or disappear in five minutes. This makes the birding run at a bizarre start-and-stop pace. Eerie calm as everyone slowly moves down the trail…when suddenly, frantic activity! Five species of tanager! A woodpecker! Barbets! A Guan! And then just as suddenly, calm yet again, without a bird to be seen.

The other difference applies more to the Andean region specifically than to most tropics. This difference is the extreme relationships between birds, habitats, and altitudes. Ecuador, a country maybe about the size of Colorado, has more than twice the number of species than all of the United States and Canada. Much of this can be attributed to the incredible cross section of habitats present when there’s a huge mountain range running through the center of a country located in the tropics.

To put this in perspective, I lived at an elevation of approximately 1700 meters, at the bottom of a valley. If I spent one morning, about a 3-4 hour hike, walking 8 kilometers up the mountain, I was at an elevation of 2200 meters. And there would be entirely new species. This concept applies to the entire country. Driving 30 minutes west from the lodge yields the same results. Foothill forest yields different birds from lowland forest, which yields different species from upper subtropical, lower subtropical, and temperate. This doesn’t even get into eastern vs western slopes, which tend to have different species from each other in all the respective altitude levels.

I learned a lot of this while tagging along on two separate tours that used Tandayapa as a home base and visited most of the different habitats in the north-west of the country. I was expecting to learn a lot about birds on these tours, but I also learned a lot about guiding in general.

One of the most interesting things I learned about was the difference between a pure birding tour, and a photography tour. Birders and photographers are looking for entirely different things when they go on a tour in the tropics. Birders have no issue waiting 20 minutes for a glimpse of the small, black, skulky, and very rare Esmeraldas Antbird. Photographers aren’t having it. For photographers, the bird better be big, colorful, and in the open.

Pale-mandibled Aracaris at the banana feeder, Milpe, Ecuador
Pale-mandibled Aracaris at the banana feeder, Milpe, Ecuador

The best way to illustrate this is how visits to a park called Milpe differed on two different tours. First, some background on Milpe. Milpe is a reserve very close to the somewhat famous Mindo cloud forest of western Ecuador, but slightly lower in elevation. This makes it foothill rainforest, and host to an entirely different set of species than Tandayapa. Milpe has banana feeders (literally bananas nailed to trees…pretty funny the first time you see them) set up just like Tandayapa. However, these feeders are frequented by tons of aracaris, toucans, and different species of tanagers that don’t get as high up in elevation as Tandayapa. The park also has trails, home to many more, but sometimes more difficult to see antbirds, furnariids, and woodcreepers.

Going to Milpe on the birding tour, we spent about an hour at the feeders watching the aracaris and Choco toucans, then hiked and birded the park looking for other cool species. Trails were hiked, calls were played, and the thrill of coming across a flock could make everyone’s day. On a birding tour, people are always eager to see, and when they have, they’re excited to move onto the next bird around the corner.

Then there was the photo tour. I didn’t think it was possible to bird the same location for more than four hours, but they managed it photographing those feeders. Photographers couldn’t care less how many species you all saw. It’s all about how many they were able to photograph—and more importantly, the quality of the photos. A feeding flock doesn’t matter for a photographer unless it’s in the open, and they will happily sit and wait for one to stop by the feeders. One good photo of a toucan is more important than getting glimpses of 10 species of antbird.

Along with these differences in types of tours, there are differences in etiquette between birding on your own, and birding with a tour or guiding. I can use the same day at Milpe to illustrate this. While the photographers were busy taking their hundreds of photos of Aracaris, I hiked a few trails to do some birding on my own. On my way back to the feeders, I encountered an excellent feeding flock of assorted tanagers, flycatchers, and furnariids.

Years of birding on my own had taught me, “Hey! Let everyone know! Maybe they’ll see it; maybe they won’t; but they’ll be glad to know one was here.” At Magee Marsh, I would often do this. If a worm-eating warbler appeared, even if I knew it might disappear I’d call people over and hopefully we could find it again.

I came back and excitedly told another guide leading a birding tour about my find. Later I was informed by the leader of the photo tour that this was in fact a very bad idea and had actually made the other tour leader angry. This is not what you do leading a tour.

Why? When I go up to a leader and tell them that, and the clients hear, it can create problems. “Hey, why aren’t we out seeing those birds? We’re paying you good money.” It can derail plans that the guide already had. All in all, just not good.

But even with the occasional faux pas, I experienced a ton while living there, and not just with the birds and tourists. Spiders. I quickly learned about living in the tropics that no matter where you are, you’ll have a few eight-legged friends to keep you company. This ranged from walking on trails and panicking when I walked through webs, to wanting to take a shower and being forced to do battle with a spider that had taken up residence in my bathroom.

Tarantula in a wastebasket
Tarantula in a wastebasket

But probably the worst (coolest) experience with a spider was walking to the kitchen one day to see one of the staff with a broom and trashcan. Curious as to what they were doing, I walked in and then jumped onto a bench as an enormous, black, hairy, mass shot out from beneath one of the cabinets. After the tarantula was safely confined, we took it outside. Where it began marching back into the kitchen. After that, we carried it all the way down the mountain.

The tarantula wasn’t the only furry friend to make it into the lodge at one point or another. The lodge truly is situated in the wilderness and along with the odd bat, bird, or lizard, some bigger creatures would occasionally have to be removed. I remember another night walking by the kitchen and hearing a scream and then laughter from the lodge’s manager as she yelled for me to come see la raposa. La raposa turned out to be a large type of opossum known as the Andean white-eared opossum that had smelled some of the leftover food.

Andean White-eared Opossum looking for a midnight snack: Milpe, Ecuador
Andean White-eared Opossum looking for a midnight snack: Milpe, Ecuador

And I really can’t blame the raposa for wanting some of the food. The food at this lodge was amazing. All the food was fresh, and the cook who came up from the town nearby even introduced me to some dishes I’ve gone out of my way to cook back here in the states, like the Ecuadorian aji hot sauce, and dishes containing quinoa, pork, and plantains.

Food is important in Ecuador, and what’s really interesting to see is when it combines with the culture. It’s common to serve popcorn in soup, a distinctly Ecuadorian tradition. The food has also combined with the language. Rice is ubiquitous with almost every meal in Ecuador (and a lot of the world, really) and people will stock 40-pound bags of it to cook over the course of months. Seemingly unrelated is the fact that Ecuador is a Pacific Rim country with several snowcapped volcanoes such as Pichincha, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo. But if someone wants a lot of rice with their meal, they may ask for un Chimborazo de arroz, “a Chimborazo of rice,” a reference to the volcano.

Noticing this as being odd is probably a perk of being an outsider in the country, and there were plenty of cool things to notice. Not one person in Ecuador batted an eye when traffic would come to a halt because some farmer’s llamas escaped. No one was particularly surprised either when landslides wiped out a road. All of Quito was plastered with signs and billboards welcoming Papa Francisco, the Pope. People talked about seeing volcanoes erupting and how they had to sweep ashes off the street like it’s a normal thing. One erupted not two weeks after I left the country.

It’s suppertime, and we’re back at the lodge after eight hours of birding on the Andes Introtour. I’m starving. “Frank, can you pass the aji?” I ask. As the man across the table hands me the aji, he gives me a strange look. He asks, “Who is Frank?” as I realize he’s not the same guy that I pointed out the Flycatcher to. Now the whole table is looking at me. One by one, all of the guys at the table said something along the lines of “Yeah, he called me Frank today too!”

I guess Frank is just my default name for male birders, because there wasn’t a single “Frank” on the whole tour. After all the time I spent memorizing Ecuadorian bird names so I wouldn’t look like a fool, I never imagined it would be the human names that did me in.