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Ecuador is one of the best places in the world for bird-watching. With approximately 1,600 species, counting resident species and migrants, the country has a greater diversity of birds than China or India, and nearly twice as many bird species as the United States. Though the neighboring nations of Colombia and Peru may boast more species, no nation in the world has as great a diversity of birdlife in as small an area as Ecuador. The country holds approximately one-sixth of the world's bird species in an area about the size of Colorado, and gives birders the possibility of spotting more different species in a week or two than they would have just about anywhere else.

Ecuador's varied feathered creatures are scattered across its main geographical regions: the Sierra, Oriente, Pacific coast and lowlands, and Galápagos Islands. For birding purposes, the Andes could be further broken down into the highlands, Pacific cloud forest, and Amazon cloud forest. The Andean condor may be the Sierra's avian king, but the highlands' smaller species are also quite impressive, and much easier to see, especially the varied tanagers and hummingbirds. Birdlife in the Andes varies depending on the altitude, with some species found only around the peaks and high-altitude paramo, and others found only in the Sierra's valleys. There is also a good bit of difference between the birdlife of the northern highlands and that of the country's southern mountains.

The cloud forests of Ecuador's Andes are considered one of the planet's biodiversity "hot spots," with a greater diversity of birds than just about anywhere else in the world.

The Oriente, or Amazon basin, is home to some amazing birds, including colorful toucans, macaws, and jacamars, as well as the unusual hoatzin. Whereas the Oriente is relatively homogenous, the country's Pacific lowlands have a greater variety of habitats, which translates into more bird species, with the Chocó rainforest to the north giving way to tropical dry forest in the southwest, which is home to such species as the Pacific parrolet and the Ecuadorean trogon. The Galápagos Islands are often a birder's top spot in Ecuador, with a mix of endemic species, such as Darwin's famous finches, and such common species as the blue-footed booby and the red-billed tropicbird.

If you're serious about birding, you'll definitely want pick up a copy of the Birds of Ecuador Field Guide, by Robert Ridgely, Paul Greenfield, and Frank Gill, as well as a pair of gas-sealed binoculars. While the field guide is helpful, you'll get much more out of your time in the woods if you are accompanied by a naturalist guide, and fortunately Ecuador's best tour operators and nature lodges have some very experienced, dedicated birding guides. The following specialty tour operators tend to use designated lodges, several of which organize their own tours.

U.S.-Based Tour Operators

Exotic Birding (tel. 877/247-3371 in the U.S. and Canada; www.exoticbirding.com) specializes in bird-watching tours with very small groups (usually six people) to several Latin American countries. The company offers occasional 2-week tours in Ecuador that combine the highlands, cloud forest, and Amazon basin.

Field Guides (tel. 800/728-4953 or 512/263-7295 in the U.S. and Canada; www.fieldguides.com), a specialty bird-watching travel operator, offers long tours of Ecuador and stays at nature lodges for small groups accompanied by expert guides. The company's 18-day "Jewels of Ecuador" tour travels across the highlands and Pacific slope for a cost of about $4,575 (£3,050), not including airfare. They also offer a 2-week "Rainforest & Andes" trip, as well as tours that concentrate on the highlands, Galápagos, and southwest Ecuador.

Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (tel. 800/328-8368, or 512/328-5221 in the U.S. and Canada; www.ventbird.com), a well-respected, small-group operator specializing in bird-watching, runs several Ecuador trips. These folks offer a variety of tours, generally focusing on one or two bioregions.

Wings (tel. 888/293-6443, or 520/320-9868 in the U.S. and Canada; www.wingsbirds.com) is a specialty bird-watching travel operator with more than 30 years of experience in the field. It offers various 1- and 2-week packages with small groups at nature lodges in the cloud forest and Amazon basin.

Ecuadorean Tour Operators & Lodges

Andean Birding (tel. 02/2244-426; www.andeanbirding.com) was founded by an American and a Swede who have dedicated most of their lives to studying birds. They invest 10% of their profits in conservation and research. They offer a 1-week cloud-forest and paramo tour, a 10-day Amazon-to-the-Andes package, and 2 intensive weeks in northern Peru. Their trip costs average $1,750 to $3,700 (£1,167-£2,467).

Bird Ecuador (tel. 02/2547-403; www.birdecuador.com) is a small tour company owned by the same people who run Cabañas San Isidro, one of Ecuador's best birding spots. They offer various tours that combine stays at San Isidro, which is in the cloud forests of eastern Andes, with time at lodges in other parts of the country, including their new Guango Lodge, near Papallacta.

San Jorge Eco-Lodge & Biological Reserve (tel. 877/565-2596 toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, or 02/2493-123 in Ecuador; www.eco-lodgesanjorge.com) is a lodge near Quito that offers a "magic bird circuit" tour to its private forest reserves that protect various forest types.

Mindo Bird Tours (tel. 866/787-9901 in the U.S. and Canada, or 02/3520-366; www.mindobirds.com.ec) is an Ecuadorean tour operator founded by a British biologist; Mindo uses tourism profits to finance research and conservation. They have a good selection of tours to different regions of Ecuador for groups of no more than 10 people for competitive prices. Custom tours are also available.

Tinalandia (tel. 02/2449-028; www.tinalandia.com) is a pretty lodge set in private cloud-forest reserve in northwest Ecuador; bird-watching is the specialty here. More than 350 bird species have been spotted on that hotel's grounds, among them an array of hummingbirds, tanagers, manikins, cotingas, parrots, and other colorful creatures. They also offer day trips to other birding spots in the area.

Tropical Birding (tel. 800/348-5941 in the U.S. and Canada, or 09/9231-314 in Ecuador; www.tropicalbirding.com) is a leading operator specializing in birding tours around the world. They happen to be based in Ecuador, giving them particular expertise in the bird-watching here. These folks specialize in small group tours, with highly skilled guides.

Hummingbird Heaven

The first winged creatures to capture a traveler's imagination may be the legendary condor or the multicolored macaws, but Ecuador's varied and abundant hummingbirds could well be its most impressive avian attraction. With more than 130 different species of hummingbirds, the country vies with Colombia for the distinction of having the most hummingbird species in the world. And because that diversity is spread from one end of the nation to the other, you are likely to encounter hummingbirds wherever you travel -- from the rugged mountain slopes, to the lush jungles, to the patio of your Quito hotel.

The world's 330 hummingbird species are all found only in the Americas, and they can be spotted anywhere from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, but Ecuador lies at the center of the region. With more than a third of the planet's hummers packed into a tiny fraction of its landmass, Ecuador is nothing less than hummingbird heaven.

It is feasible for a birder to spot more than a dozen different kinds of hummingbirds in one morning. The best places to observe them are gardens, plenty of which can be found on the grounds of the country's best hotels. Ecuador's hummingbird rainbow includes the green-crowned wood nymph, the sparkling violet-ear, the amethyst-throated sun angel, the purple-crowned fairy, and the violet-tailed sylph, which has long, blue-green tail feathers that trail behind it when it flies.

The country is home to the Andean swordbill, which has the proportionally longest beak of any bird in the world -- a 10-centimeter (4-in.) bill on a 13-centimeter (5-in.) body -- which allows it to suck nectar from the long tubular flowers that it pollinates. Ecuador also has several species with inordinately long tails, such as the black-tailed trainbearer and the booted racket-tail, which has two bare-shafted tail feathers tipped with green discs. The country is also home to the largest species in the hummer family, called the giant hummingbird, though with a length of 20 centimeters (8 in.) and a weight of 2/3 ounce, the name does seem an exaggeration.

It may be hard to focus your binoculars on them before they zip away, but when you get a good look at one of the country's hummingbirds in direct sunlight, its colors are simply amazing. As they hum about from blossom to blossom and chase each other around, these high-powered, iridescent beauties are bound to impress you, and if you find a spot where several species congregate to feed, you are set for an entertaining morning.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.