There are moments of rapture in the life of a nature lover, and it doesn’t matter if you are rookie or seasoned veteran. Tropical birdsong evoked one such moment, capturing the wonderment of everyone on a recent Seattle Audubon International Birding Trip Program tour in Ecuador. Jill Ericsson and Roland Kilcher, both avid birders and long-time Seattle Audubon volunteers, recounted with a shared fairy-tale awe the particular day on the week-long trip.
“One afternoon when we came across what sounded like somebody playing beautiful flute music in the shrubs along the side of the road. It was one of the few times our guide Xavier Munoz did not immediately know what it was,” says Kilcher.
“When (the bird) began to sing, I lost my heart,” says Ericsson. Munoz quickly discerned the song was from a Musician Wren. The group listened to its melodious serenade for a few minutes, each person entranced by the song.
Munoz himself was deeply moved. “Yes, he literally just sat down on the road with a look of wonder on his face,” says Ericsson. “He was smiling and laughing and saying, ‘I love that bird!’ It was only the third time in his life that he'd heard it, and never before in that area,” says Kilcher.
The origin of the trip
Special moments like these punctuate any birding trip, but an international birding trip compels a birder into a whole new realm of experience. This trip to Ecuador was the second international birding trip organized by Seattle Audubon for its community of birders. “We launched the International Bird Trip Program as a way to educate the birding community that ‘our’ birds are not ‘our’ birds, that we share a lot of them with localities along their migration route,“ says Toby Ross, Seattle Audubon’s Science Manager, who was the primary organizer of the trip.
Yes, that’s right; birds such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher and Western Wood-pewee make Ecuador their home during our wintertime and in our spring and summer months they breed in the Northwest boreal habitats. It’s possible that a bird seen by Ross, Ericsson and Kilcher in Ecuador in February might live in our region this summer.
Ross worked with Naturalist Journeys to find an itinerary for Southern Ecuador which uses in-country companies that could provide a more authentic experience and build local capacity. The best itinerary match was designed around staying at lodges and birding in reserves established and managed by the Jocotoco Foundation, an Ecuadorian NGO whose principal purpose is to protect endangered species of birds and habitats in Ecuador. As one of the goals of SAS’s International Birding Trips Program is to support establishments and reserves that are focused on protecting birds and their habitat, the itinerary was an ideal fit.
On the ground
The tour group, including Ross as leader, flew into Ecuador’s capital Quito to meet their in-country guide Munoz, who owns the wildlife ecotourism company Neblina Forest and was also host--along with his wife--at their bed and breakfast, Puembo Birding Garden for the group’s first and final nights of the 9-day trip.
The next day’s flight to the southern part of the country deposited the group in rich birding territory, where they remained for the rest of the trip. Over 7 days, they explored the Tapichalaca Reserve, Podocarpus National Park (which covers two spurs of the eastern Andes range) and the Buenaventura Reserve. The group traveled by small hired bus and birded along quiet roads and on trails near or within the reserves they visited.
Throughout the trip they stayed at Jocotoco lodges, which are managed through the Jocotoco Foundation as part of its ecotourism initiative. Munoz, who is a founding member of Jocotoco and the foundation’s current vice president, explains: “The Jocotoco Foundation monitors specific lands where birds migrate and works with local actors (to) buy land in order to create private reserves and do different activities there such as reforestation, education, ecotourism; basically creating new income sources for people and (an) awareness of the importance of watersheds and forests.” Munoz is a firm supporter of ecotourism as a critical part of local conservation, both through the lodge accommodation and the birding and wildlife viewing tours such as the ones he leads.
And birders who share the same ecotourism ethic are rewarded too. Ericsson describes a sultry tropical evening watching hummingbirds from the lounge of the Jocotoco Umbrellabird Lodge at the Buenaventura Reserve: “The open covered lounge area was surrounded by hummingbird trays filled with sugar water as well as banana stations for other fruit eaters,” she says. “The variety of hummingbirds was amazing with occasional tanagers or bananaquits sneaking in as well. We could also watch chachalacas and coatis eating fruit in adjacent trees. That last evening torrential rains began. At first some of the hummingbirds stayed out in it, bathing and spreading tails and wings in the rain, but soon the feeders under cover were crowded with squeaking and jostling hummers, at one point 46 on one tray. Watching that while listening to the downpour was memorable.”
How to make it yours
“Traveling to see exotic birds in tropical places is not really a hard sell,” says Ross. The next SAS trip to Guatemala is coming up February/March 2018. The trip is under the umbrella of National Audubon’s International Alliances Program which aims to strengthen its conservation work in five central and south-American countries by developing bird-based tourism that conserves natural and threatened habitats near rural areas, while also supporting poverty alleviation.
Here are compelling reasons why a birder might consider a Seattle Audubon International Birding Trip:
- The confidence to know that SAS has vetted the tour company in terms of safety, logistical expertise and service.
- Knowing all of those on a Seattle Audubon trip are from the same birding community already places everyone on familiar ground, taking away some of the unknown.
- The trips are not solely designed to tick boxes on bird checklists. Trip participants learn about local conservation issues and, where possible, support conservation projects with their tourist dollars. Furthermore, when opportunities arise, the tour will encourage community preservation of bird habitat through guide training and other conservation measures.
- Finally, a small portion of the trip fee goes towards supporting the work of Seattle Audubon which also supports Seattle-based efforts to protect birds and nature.
Protecting New World flyways through ecotourism and volunteering
Both Ross and Munoz support the idea of a continued collaboration between U.S. bird conservation groups and in-country Latin American organizations providing ecotourism to advance bird conservation for the migratory and resident birds we love. “I think that ecotourism is the best tool for conservation because it gives local people empowerment and promotes reforestation--Creating awareness and pride of our forests,” says Munoz.
With most of his clients coming from the U.S. or United Kingdom, Munoz is also developing volunteer vacation programs for English speaking visitors who want to stay longer or devote hours and skill as well as time on the ground birding. “We need people to come for one or two months; Biologists, English teachers, naturalists--people willing to work in our reserves in order to work with our local rangers and to work on trails. Also people with skills to organize our material and data to produce informative flyers for visitors.”
For more information about ecotourism or volunteering in Ecuador with Jocotoco, visit Neblina Forest or Jocotoco Foundation. And keep an eye on the SAS site for updates about the upcoming trip to Guatemala. There’ll be more to come on this blog, in fact!
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