Birdwatchers in paradise! A visitor calls the Yanacocha Biological Reserve ‘my Garden of Eden’

Jun 21, 2023 | 2 comments

The Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager is a standout in the forest, for obvious reasons: the bright red belly and cheek plumage instantly attract the eye. The electric blue wing epaulets are an extra feature that further distinguishes them. Fairly widespread in South America, they can be seen from the western fringes of Venezuela down to Bolivia. (Photo by Robbie Lisa Freeman)

By Robbie Lisa Freeman

Not long ago, I travelled to Ecuador on a mythic quest to see as much of the country, its natural wonders, and its 1,600+ species of birds as possible over a 28-day trip. In short, to find my Shangri-La, my Utopia, my Garden of Eden!

Along the higher-altitude Andean Snipe Trail at Yanacocha reserve, several Rufous-naped Brushfinches enjoyed a treat of banana. This bird has a striking cinnamon-colored crown and nape, contrasting with bright yellow underparts against primarily black overall plumage. (Photo by Robbie Lisa Freeman)

But where to start? Although the country is only about the size of Colorado, it’s ranked as one of the most important biodiversity hotspots on the planet, with a plethora of prime birding regions: Along its eastern border lies the vast and lush Amazon Rainforest; bisecting the country is the towering Andean Mountain Range, with its verdant cloud forests; and to the west is the Pacific Coastal Region, home to tropical forests and other significant ecosystems. As if that’s not enough, the iconic and mysterious Galapagos Islands lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. With so many diverse and complex biomes, it’s no wonder 23,000+ taxonomic species of animals and plants are found here. That’s more than 6 percent of species worldwide! And it’s no wonder I’d felt challenged to map out the perfect trip that would maximize my adventures, bird life list, and insights into what makes this tiny country a paradise to so many people.

The main trail of Yanacocha Biological Reserve leads visitors to the beautiful Jardín de Colibrís, or Hummingbird Garden, where birders can delight in observing roughly 20 species of hummingbirds, including the female Great Sapphirewing depicted here. (Photo by Randy Freeman)

After a day of exploring and acclimating to the 9,350-foot altitude in Quito, the second highest capital city in the world, I was excited to do some serious birding. I was in luck. Just over an hour northwest of Quito lies an important birding area: Yanacocha Biological Reserve. Yanacocha is known for protecting the Black-breasted Puffleg, a critically endangered hummingbird with a very limited range of distribution — and with only about 250 individuals left in the wild. What a thrill it would be to see one! But the reserve also plays an important role in protecting habitat for other globally threatened birds, including the Andean Condor, Imperial Snipe, and Giant Conebill. With 120 species of birds on the Yanacocha bird checklist, it seemed like a fine place to kick off my Ecuador birding adventures. But first I had to get there!

When I googled Yanacocha for an address, a map popped up listing its location: VCQ8+832, Unnamed Road, Quito…. Hmmm. I typically favor roads with names. Equally concerning was the map view of the road: Its perfectly straight line near Quito soon morphed into a tangle of twists, hairpin turns, zigs, zags, crooks, curls, and other squiggles as it headed up to a high-altitude cloud forest on the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano. Getting there had seemed like a daunting challenge for my second day in Ecuador, so I was thrilled when Verónica Enríquez-Ruiz, program director and legal representative at Fundación Jocotoco, offered to take me under her wing to not only see some striking birds of the reserve, but to get a glimpse into some of the important conservation efforts happening at the foundation’s Yanacocha Biological Reserve and across Ecuador.

One of the most striking tanagers of the high-altitude forests, the Masked Flowerpiercer has the characteristic hooked beak for feeding, a black mask and bright reddish eyes, and sapphire-blue overall plumage. (Photo by Randy Freeman)

The next morning, I found myself piling into a large van at Fundación Jocotoco headquarters in the La Floresta district of Quito with Verónica and an entourage of her associates: destination Yanacocha reserve. As our driver traversed farther from the city and pavement gave way to rough, rutted roads, I was happy to be in a sturdy, high-profile vehicle accompanied by this team of eco-heroes. Deep, muddy potholes did their best to ensnare us, but our experienced driver eluded the worst of them.

Along the way, Verónica filled me in on Yanacocha reserve. Acquired in 2001 with the goal of protecting the Black-breasted Puffleg, the reserve had been expanded through the years to roughly 2,668 acres of high Andean Forest, Elfin Forest, and paramo (plateaus above the forest line).

“We constructed eight trails, an interpretation center, restaurant, and some feeding stations,” she said. “Reforestation to further increase habitat has been a big goal. Our current project is focused on planting native tree species like Polylepis pauta, which is one of the most critically threatened tree species in the world. Six thousand Polylepis trees were planted by our field team already; Our goal is to plant 10,000 trees overall. The Polylepis forest is an important ecosystem for many bird species. For example, the rare Giant Conebill exclusively lives in this kind of high-elevation forest.”

Buff-winged Starfrontlets primarily inhabit cloud forests, elfin forests, and nearby surrounds. Their key ID feature is the buffy wing patch. Males have a purple throat patch, while females have a buffy throat. (Photo by Robbie Lisa Freeman)

But it’s not just birds that the reserve protects. Mammals found at Yanacocha include the Spectacled Bear, Andean Wolf, Western Andean Coati, Red Brocket Deer, and even the Puma. As we neared the reserve, I glanced out at miles of cleared farmland on one side of the dirt road, imagining it had once been precious forest and home to these magical and increasingly rare species.

After arriving at Yanacocha in a light rain, we set out along a path to the reserve’s Café del Zamarrito, named for the Black-breasted Puffleg (Zamarrito Pechinegro in Spanish), where we were treated to a delightful breakfast of empanadas and hot chocolate. The timing was perfect. The rain had dissipated while we ate, allowing us to begin our trek in relative dryness.

The main trail of the reserve is the short 1.4-mile Inca Trocha trail. I appreciated the relative flatness of the trail, given the altitude. Along the path, we stopped occasionally to glimpse down into a wide valley of dense, verdant forest shrouded in clouds and fog. Exotic bromeliads, orchids, fuchsias, and other flowering plants punctuated the mist in bright bursts of oranges, reds, and yellows. Gigantic leaves as large as my body seemed from another time. Then, the path opened up to the Jardín de Colibrís, or Hummingbird Garden, where dozens of bejeweled hummers dazzled us as they hovered, darted, and danced around bright sugar feeders, and large colorful birds flashed through the treetops, whistling, singing and chirping. Eden found!

Glossy Flowerpiercers feed on the nectar deep within many flowers by piercing the base with their upturned, silvery-gray, hooked beaks. Found at high altitudes, this small tanager is predominantly glossy black, with tiny, pale blueish patches on the shoulders. (Photo by Robbie Lisa Freeman)

I excitedly set up my tripod and camera to capture the scene as hummers zoomed past my ears, vibrating with the enormous energy of roughly 70 wing beats per second (4,000 per minute!) Our watchful guide and Yanacocha Park Ranger Manager Luis Hipo kept us busy, pointing out some of the birds: Sapphire-vented Pufflegs, Great Sapphirewings, Buff-winged Starfrontlets, and Shining Sunbeams. The names alone evoked exotica! I was thrilled to see my first puff-legged hummingbird, distinguished by their fluffy white “cuffs” around the leg.

The hummingbirds weren’t the only visitors. Luis pointed out our first Ecuadorian tanager, a Blue-capped Tanager. A larger red flash caught my eye as a Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager touched down on a branch. A blue and bright yellow beauty approached: the Hooded Mountain Tanager. Glossy Flowerpiercers in mostly black plumage were a sharp contrast to the deep sapphire blue colors of the Masked Flowerpiercer, whose red eyes gleamed from its black mask.

Bird after bird appeared as we basked in delight. 40 minutes and 400 pictures later, our guides urged us on to another hummingbird garden, where we lingered, enjoying the sheer numbers and colors of birds, the diversity of flowers and foliage, and the mysterious, misty beauty of the cloud forest.

This immature female Orange-bellied Euphonia doesn’t quite have the pizzazz of its male counterpart, which sports a bright yellow cap and underparts contrasted against a blueish-black mask, throat, and back. Regardless, we were delighted to see her enjoying a banana. (Photo byf Randy Freeman)

Verónica soon challenged us to a steeper path — the Andean Snipe Trail — to view birds at a banana feeding area. At the higher elevation, this station drew different birds. A Rufus-naped Brush-finch, with its cap of rusty brown, crept up to the banana, then indulged with delight. A flash of bright yellow produced an Orange-bellied Euphonia. This beauty has a bright yellow cap, dark blue neck and back, and a bright yellow or orange belly. At one point a Golden-rumped Euphonia made an exciting entrance, showing off its colors. What distinguishes this euphonia is its electric blue crown and nape, contrasting with a dark blue mask, throat, and back, and a bright yellow or orange belly. When it flew, I could see its other distinguishing feature: a yellow rump. As we were thinking of moving along, a Black-capped Tanager pounced onto the feeder log. This Andean species sported an aqua blue throat, topped by a black cap and nape, and overall streaked blue-grey plumage. I was hoping to spy a female – with its characteristic lime green plumage and pale bluish head and breast – but the bachelor remained solo.

Verónica cajoled us to continue up the slope with promises of snipes, conebills, or antpittas, but the path ahead was steep – and though my heart was in it, my lungs were laboring, and my limbs felt lumbering. The altitude of the Andean Snipe Trail can reach 11,485 feet, making it a challenge for even the fittest of folks who are not properly acclimatized.

We were at a turning point and Verónica wisely made the decision for us to turn back. I made a mental note: more acclimatization = greater birding success.

Back at the hummingbird area, we gave ourselves one last shot at seeing the Black-breasted Puffleg. We clicked off more pictures, but none captured this critically endangered bird. For now, the elusive puffleg would remain on our wish list.

But Yanacocha still had some surprises in store for us. As we headed back, loud thrashing in a far-off shrub caught our attention, followed by a plaintiff, waddling call. Tucked into the foliage, I could make out a large, turkey-shaped body and reddish legs! An Andean Guan. Not even close to a Black-breasted Puffleg – but a lifer for my list just the same.

To visit Yanacocha Reserve Monday through Friday, or to visit the restaurant for food, you must book reservations in advance. Call +593 997856954 or email ventas2@jocotoursecuador.com. No reservations required on weekends and holidays. Business hours: 7 am – 3 pm (last entry at 11:30 am) Entry fee: $15 foreign/$5 nationals and legal residents.
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Credit: Los Angeles Audubon Association

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