Posted by: ktzefr | June 17, 2010

Three Days with the Condors…Hiking in the Andes

All creatures (birds) great and small…

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have migrated back to my feeder from their winter homes in the tropics.  A male and female come several times a day to drink from the red plastic flower that hangs in my maple tree.  I marvel at their tiny size and incredible speed.   They’re substantial, however, in comparison to the bee hummingbird, which at only 2 inches long is the smallest bird in the world.  The bee lives in Cuba where people call it zunzuncito.  (The name even sounds like a tiny motor revving.)  My ruby-throats, on the other hand, can grow to 3.5 inches and, in a dive, can fly more than 60 miles per hour!

A few years ago we got a chance to see one of the largest flying birds in the world — the Andean Condor.  While hiking in the Andes you may see one of these incredible birds in the wild — at a distance — if you’re really, really, lucky.  In recent years their numbers had dwindled to about 75 in the whole country, but we saw a flock of them up close at the Condor HUASI Rehabilitation Project at Hacienda Zuleta in Angochagua Parish, Imbabura Province, Ecuador.

We took the favorite mode of transportation, an old blue school bus, and headed north from Quito.  Two hours on the road, 9,600 feet above sea level,we were surrounded by green valleys, towering mountains, stunning vistas, and ice-capped peaks.  Zuleta is a 4,000-acre colonial working farm. The property has been in the family of Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador, for more than 100 years.  Besides the condor project, there’s an embroidery workshop that supports the local village, as well as a cheese factory, trout farm, an educational center for local children, and a tourist inn.  If you really want to get away from the rest of the world, this place fits the bill!

In La Rinconada de San Pedro we turned onto a one-lane dirt road and passed several flat-topped step pyramids built by the Caranqui Indians in the 13th century.  These perfectly-shaped mounds covered with high-altitude grasses and grazing cattle, were in sharp contrast to the jagged towering peaks on every side.

Once off the bus we headed on foot uphill in a heavy mist that was wet and cold but never became a full-fledged rain.  Halfway up the slope, away from the threat of hunters and poachers, a colony of wild condors have found a safe haven. The birds range in age from 3 to 25 years and have all suffered human aggression of one sort or another.  They’re housed in huge cages with protection from the rain and sun.  A semi-captive arena allows the birds to make contact with wild condors and offers scientists an opportunity to gain valuable information about condor colonies before these birds return to the wild.  The biologists who work here hope that eventually the condors will become accustomed to flying freely around the area and will return each day to La Rinconada to spend the night and be fed.

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The condor is the national bird of Ecuador.  These birds have no voicebox and cannot produce normal bird calls, but their flight is extraordinary.  They are able to travel up to 200 miles a day at great heights, relying on warm air currents to soar for long periods.  Full-grown condors can be 4 feet tall, weigh 20 to 30 pounds, and have a wingspan of 10 feet!

In these Andean villages the condor has traditionally been a symbol of power and health.  It has been hunted for its meat, organs, and even the skin due to the false belief that it has medicinal powers.  Almost every village has a curandero (healer) and people come from all over the highlands to be treated.  Condor bones have been ground to treat rheumatism, the eyes roasted to sharpen eyesight, and feathers placed under blankets to ward off nightmares.  Hunting will likely remain a threat to the condor population until old practices give way to new environmental awareness and appreciation.

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After a hike back down the mountain and a quick ride on the blue bus, we have lunch with the former president’s family in the main dining room of the hacienda, enjoy ice from purified water for the first time in days, and talk about birds.

The condor is not the only bird around these parts; it’s just the largest.  But it dwarfs most others, especially the Andean hillstar, a tiny hummingbird that shares this high mountain habitat.

Although the hummers that come to my garden feeder follow the sun and head South every autumn, the hillstar is able to survive the freezing nights by lowering its body temperature from 104 degrees during the day time to about 59 degrees at night.  (Ecuador is located smack on the equator, and at high altitudes the temperatures during the day feel like summer while at night they can fall to freezing.) So the hillstar’s ability to regulate its own temperature is a remarkable feat.

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Andean condors are making a comeback today, thanks in part to small projects like the one at Zuleta and to larger conservation and research efforts, such as an ongoing project at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Ohio, which tracks and studies Andean condors and their migratory habits.

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Responses

  1. I love the picture of the Condor! I’d love to see one in person some day.

    • I would love to actually see one flying in the wild!

  2. I am going to Zuleta with my husband and two adult children (23 and 21) this coming August. Can’t wait. We are most looking forward to horsebackriding, but I know we will be fascinated by the Condors! Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Hi Linda…thanks for commenting. I also have an older post about horseback riding in Ecuador at Hacienda Cusin. Zuleta will be such fun with LOTS of territory to explore.

  3. The conservation efforts of Hacienda Zuleta and Fundacion Galo Plaza Lasso have been expanded. We now offer two internships. One to help directly with the condors and the other to research the ecosystems (flora & fauna) that keep the condors healthy. For more information please see our Idealist.org site (http://www.idealist.org/view/org/dpFNP5B8tnp/) or our webpage (http://fundaciongaloplazalasso.org/en/) and facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fundaci%C3%B3n-Galo-Plaza-Lasso/469766279719606).

    • Thanks for the info, Robyn. I’ve posted on my FB page and will add to my “Ecuador” posts. We visited the Condor huasi project years ago. What a wonderful and beautiful place in the Andes!


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