By Doug Hansen
In 1998 a small group of birdwatchers saw a diminutive bird dart along the ground and realized they had discovered a Jocotoco Antipitta, once thought extinct. The species was alive and well in Tapichalaca's cloud forest in southwest Ecuador, a fact that galvanized them into action. Within a short time the group founded the Jocotoco Conservation Foundation and raised enough money to buy more than 12,000 acres of the steamy forest. Next they built a lodge at Tapichalaca and hired a local staff to maintain the reserve. The foundation has steadily expanded to 11 reserves that conserve some of the planet's most endangered birds.
You don't have to be a hard-core bird-watcher in order to be mesmerized by the dazzling display of hummingbirds and other tropical birds that swarm to the feeders at the reserves we visited, especially our favorite, Buenaventura. The larger birds provided momentary excitement when they appeared, but what captured our attention was the stream of hummingbirds of every description — ranging from tiny brown-green hummers with almost no tail to large, rainbow-tinted ones, some with tails longer than their bodies. When a family of long-snouted coatis (related to raccoons) emerged from the forest and clambered onto the porch searching for a snack, it was clear that we had arrived in an Ecuadorian nature nirvana.
My wife and I discovered this organization in Quito, Ecuador, at the beginning of our four-month tour of South America, and through Jocotoco Tours we managed to experience some of the best bird-viewing in the world. Ecuador has 1,600 bird species compared to around 800 in the United States.
Our introduction took us to the Yanacocha Reserve, about 45 minutes from Quito. Perched high in the Andes Mountains at 11,000 to 13,000 feet, this reserve was established to protect endangered birds — in this case the 300 remaining black-breasted puffleg hummingbirds, found nowhere else on earth.
The next phase took us to Cuenca, and from there we set out to discover three other Jocotoco reserves. We opted for the four-hour drive from Cuenca so we could see more of the countryside. During our 120-mile drive, the landscape changed from arid, rocky hillsides covered with cacti and bromeliads to lush junglelike forests. Near our destination banana groves lined both sides of the road.
Buenaventura Reserve felt like an oasis in a vast expanse of tropical forests. After many miles of bumpy, winding roads, the hammock on the large deck beckoned us to slow down and appreciate the view of the mountains cloaked in deep green foliage and the birds in nearby trees.
With only three cabins and the nearby restaurant and expansive porch, the facility imposed itself little on the surrounding landscape. We were able to observe many gorgeous creatures and plants, either from the porch or while hiking. Nothing in our previous bird-watching experience compared with our ability to gaze at the frenetic procession of hummingbirds that whirred around the feeders, providing entertainment and photography opportunities.
During our three-day Buenaventura stay, we particularly enjoyed hiking on a dirt road through the cloud forest, inspecting colorful insects and tropical plants while being serenaded by distant howler monkeys and melodic birdsongs. Later our host drove us to a distant part of the reserve to see their new hummingbird park, primarily built to entice local Ecuadorians to better appreciate and conserve their unique natural heritage.
During our return drive to Cuenca, we stopped at the 378-acre Yunguilla Reserve, tucked away in the hills at the end of a rough dirt road. The reserve's "forest guard" met us, and machete in hand, he led us across a stream and up a trail into the hills until we reached a small grove of trees harboring two bird-feeders. Soon a diminutive gray and white bird, the pale-headed brush finch, appeared — one of the rarest birds in the world, whose 200 remaining members reside in this one small reserve.
Farther south in the town of Vilcabamba we decided to spend two days at our final Jocotoco reserve, Tapichalaca. The 75-minute journey led us along a scenic road that offered beautiful panoramas along with the adventure of dodging occasional landslides, overflowing streams and rocks randomly sitting in the middle of the road. Upon reaching our lodging we donned calf-high rubber boots and marched into the dense cloud forest along soggy trails wrapped in a cloak of tropical plants. Sitting quietly while our guide placed juicy worms on a special spot, we were soon treated to a rare, close-up view of a trio of the famed Jocotoco birds. Back at the lodge we spent our time watching the hummingbirds, especially the chestnut-breasted coronets, which resembled prismatic flying jewels.
Our memories of Ecuador will include hearing the intense whirring of rainbow-colored hummingbirds' wings, seeing yellow-billed toucans sitting in nearby trees and watching shy Jocotoco birds emerge from the dense forest, living freely because people cared enough to protect them.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.jocotoursecuador.com or to make a donation www.fjotoco.org.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer. See more photos and articles at www.hansentravel.org or Instagram @doug6636. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.