Friday, May 23, 2014

Condor Flyby

I saw so much that took my breath away during my tour of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to relating my best wildlife sightings.

But since raptors are among my favourite birds I have decided to begin with the condors I saw in Ecuador.

Condors are the largest flying land birds with a 10.5ft wingspan and the Andean condors I saw at the Zuleta Andean Condor Research Centre were very impressive.

This rehabilitation centre has some captive birds but also has a feeding station supporting wild birds. Although the condor is a national symbol for Ecuador, its future is seriously threatened due to habitat loss, trophy-hunting and secondary poisoning and there are only 60 condors left in the whole of Ecuador.

The Zuleta hacienda is dramatically situated in a deep forested valley high in the mountains and on the way there we saw a spectacled bear moving through the steep valley sides.

This Andean bear is named for the white markings on its short face which make it look as though it is wearing an outsized pair of spectacles.

I only spotted the bear because I was watching a condor through my binoculars as it swept down the valley and the condor flew straight past the bear – as if it was guiding me to it.

The bear was too far away to photograph but we stopped to watch it as it moved through the undergrowth before continuing on our way to the research centre.

As our car arrived at the feeding station, a female condor landed on a cliff, stopped for a while then flew off. Then a male chased her down the valley.

It was a fantastic welcome and I rushed to get my camera trained on the huge wings of these birds as they swept along the skyline.

I saw a total of five condors that day and watched them spellbound as they glided so gracefully against the skyline.

It was interesting to see how they lifted their huge bodies off the ground. A condor can weigh up to 25lbs.

As I watched I noticed one condor was using the updrafts at the ridge of the valley to gain lift off. I decided I would climb to the top of the ridge the following day on the off chance of a flyby.

I set off early but the pick-up that I had hired to take me there got stuck half way and I had to walk the rest of the way. It was only one kilometre but at an altitude of 10,000 feet and 30kgs of gear on my back it was hard work.

When I arrived at the viewing platform I felt confident it had been worth it. The view was spectacular.
But then, after one and a half hours of waiting, I saw a condor on the opposite side of the valley trying to lift on the updraft.

It was a young bird, about three years old, only just developing a white collar round its neck but yet to get the white band on its wings.

It wasn’t long before an older bird joined it, also trying to find lift. It occurred to me that I had climbed to the wrong side of the valley especially when a third condor appeared on the far side of the valley.
I tried to remain positive. This was my only chance to photograph them on this trip as I was due to leave that afternoon.

Then at 12pm my guide suddenly let out: “Condor! Condor!” and we watched as a pair flying in tandem swept down the valley towards us.

This time they came right to us and pitched and turned in front of us. It was spectacular. I would have waited three days for that moment. I felt privileged to get it in just three hours!

And it wasn’t over yet. Again and again the pair flew by, once at just 20m away. You could hear the wind as it rushed over its wings.

It is incredible how such huge birds can look so effortless in the air.

This was the dominant pair in the area and they seemed to be quite inquisitive about our presence. I saw them later on the opposite cliff top.

The stood close to one another, rubbing their heads together and preening in a touching courtship display.

Ecuador is big mountain country with big birds to match and I left feeling I had spent the day amongst giants.

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