Ecuador’s Faunal Zones

Ecuador’s Faunal Zones

For birding purposes, Ecuador can be divided into eight faunal zones:

  • Amazonian Lowlands
  • Northwestern (Choco) Lowlands
  • Southwestern (Tumbesin) Lowlands
  • Subtropics
  • Eastern Subtropics
  • Temperate
  • Paramo
  • Galapagos Islands

These zones are largely the result of the uplift of the Andes mountains, which separate and isolate western Ecuador from the eastern part of the country. Additionally, the western lowlands experience a strong moisture gradient from south (arid) to north (very wet), causing even more diversity.

Amazonian Lowlands

Ecuador’s richest faunal zone, the Amazonian lowlands, is by many measures the most biodiverse of all the earth’s faunal zones. Fortunately, the Ecuadorian portion is relatively intact, with large areas of real wilderness still to be explored. Here the diversity is truly overwhelming: a birder can find new lifers even after a year of steady birding in this zone.

At any good site in the Ecuadorian Amazon you can see six or seven members of the trogon family, five species of macaws, seven species of toucans, dozens of tanagers, and more than sixty species of antbirds!

Spectacular Amazonian species worth looking for include: Zigzag Heron, Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Pavonine Quetzal, Fiery Topaz, Ochre-striped Antpitta, and Reddish-winged Bare-eye. The magnificent Harpy Eagle can still be seen here, as can the elegant Agami Heron and extravagant Plum-throated Cotinga. Tanager flocks include such colorful species as the Paradise Tanager, Opal-crowned and Opal-rumped Tanager, Green-and-gold Tanager, and many others.

Ecotourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon is popular for birders and nature lovers alike, so there are many lodges to choose from. The best primary forest full-facility lodge (good food, comfortable housing, canopy tower) for birding is the Tiputini Biodiversity Station (run as a nonprofit research facility by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (e-mail). Because there are no indigenous people nor oil near the station, all species are at their natural level of abundance, and large birds such as Salvin’s Curassow are still relatively common.

Other noteworthy full-facility lodges include Sacha (excellent for the Amazonian island specialist birds), La Selva (great for rarities such as Cocha Antshrike and Zigzag Heron), and Yuturi (best lodge for the Black-necked Red Cotinga).

Kapawi, in the southern Oriente, has many species not found at other lodges, but lacks a canopy tower. (Even a Paradise Tanager looks like a black speck viewed against a tropical sky from one hundred feet below.) Once its tower is built, Kapawi will be an excellent place for birding.

Less expensive options are generally less remote and therefore less wild, with fewer large raptors, cracids, or macaws. Additionally, these areas normally lack good canopy access, but are worth a visit if you are on a tight budget. One of the best sites in the low-budget category is the Jatun Sacha Reserve.

The Amazonian zone is driest December through January and August and wettest May through June and then again October through November. However, the climate varies considerably from year to year. Birds are most vocal during the transition months as dry periods change to wet periods; the worst times for birding are the dry months, with their endless hot, sunny, silent days.

Northwestern Lowlands

The northwestern lowlands are almost as rich in bird species as the Amazonian zone. This area represents the southernmost extension of the famous Choco faunal zone, centered in western Colombia. It is one of the wettest rainforests in the world (especially from December to May) and features a high percentage of endemic species.

Some of the spectacular Choco endemics include the Scarlet-and-white Tanager, Scarlet-breasted Dacnis, Rufous-crowned Antpitta, and the extremely rare Banded Ground Cuckoo. Many Central American species, such as the Blue Cotinga, Red-capped Manakin, and Ocellated Antbird, reach their southern limits here.

The Ecuadorian portion of this zone is highly endangered, and almost completely destroyed except near the Colombian border. There is one birding lodge, El Encanto, accessible by canoe. Several new roads have been constructed in the northwest causing rapid deThese zones are largely the result of the uplift of the Andes mountains, which separate and isolate western Ecuador from the eastern part of the country. Additionally, the western lowlands experience a strong moisture gradient from south (arid) to north (very wet), causing even more diversity.

Southwestern (Tumbesin) Lowlands

In contrast to the rainy northwest, Ecuador’s southwest is so dry that many trees lose their leaves during the dry season (July – October). This area is the northern half of the Tumbesian faunal zone (northern Peru contains the other half). It has fewer species than the other lowland zones, but many of the birds are extremely range-restricted birds, endemic to this zone. These include the Blackish-headed Spinetail, Henna-hooded Foliagegleaner, Rufous-necked Foliagegleaner, and Saffron Siskin. Good places to find these birds are Machililla National Park and Cerro Blanco Reserve (Fundación Natura). This zone, like the Northwestern lowlands, is severely threatened.

Subtropical Zones

Ascending the lower slopes of the Andes are the subtropical zones. These zones are almost as species rich as the lowland zones, and some bird groups – hummingbirds and tanagers for example – reach their maximum diversity here.

The western subtropical zone is highly seasonal, with a distinct dry season in July and August, especially in the south. Some particularly ornate birds live here — the Toucan Barbet, Plate-billed Mountain-toucan, Long-wattled Umbrellabird, Violet-tailed Sylph, not to mention all the jeweled tanagers. This is an easy zone to bird, with good forest remaining alongside roads such as the Chiriboga Road and old Nono-Mindo Road. Good lodges abound in the Mindo area (Mindo Gardens, Bijao, El Monte, Amigos de la Naturaleza de Mindo). At a higher elevation near Mindo is the perfectly placed Bellavista Lodge which is good for Tanager Finch (the only known site in Ecuador for this species).

Eastern Subtropics

The eastern subtropics are less well-known but even more biodiverse than the subtropics of the west. In this area, June and July are the wettest months, although any time can be wet. The eastern sub-tropics feature amazing tanagers and hummingbirds, many not shared with the western subtropics, such as the intense Vermilion Tanager and Orange-eared Tanager, the skulking Yellow-throated Tanager, the rare Lazuline Sabrewing, and the tiny Wire-crested Thorntail, to name just a few.

The eastern subtropics are also a good place to see the Crested Quetzal, Black-and-chestnut Eagle, and Torrent Duck.

A few special sites contain Orange-breasted Falcons and Military Macaws.

These zones are largely the result of the uplift of the Andes mountains, which separate and isolate western Ecuador from the eastern part of the country. Additionally, the western lowlands experience a strong moisture gradient from south (arid) to north (very wet), causing even more diversity.

Temperate Zone

The temperate faunal zone is less species rich than the preceding zones, and the difference between eastern and western slopes is less pronounced. Nevertheless, the temperate cloud forests, covered in mosses and bromeliads are extraordinarily beautiful, and have their share of exciting birds. Some of the subtropical species mentioned earlier extend into the temperate zone. Additionally, some superb birds can only be found here — Gray-breasted Mountain-toucan, Swordbill Hummingbird, and Crescent-faced Antpitta, for example.

The polylepis forests at timberline have their own specialty, the Giant Conebill. This zone can be easily reached from Quito on day trips (go east to Papallacta).

The Guandera Research Station (run by the Jatun Sacha Foundation) , is recommended for those who want to access remote and exceptionally beautiful cloudforest in northern Ecuador, near the Colombian border.


Above the forested slopes of the Andes lies a rolling grassland called “paramo.” Here the birds are refreshingly easy to see and quite distinct from those of other zones. This is the place to search the sky for Andean Condor, and watch the ground for the Andean Snipe and Tawny Antpitta (at last, an easy-to-see antpitta!). A ptarmigan-like bird, the Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe, can be found in the highest paramo, near or sometimes even in the snow. Be prepared for any kind of weather — warm sunny days can turn bitter cold and cloudy in minutes. I’ve been in sun, rain, hail, lightning, and snow in a single day at Cotopaxi National Park. (Don’t forget sunscreen!)

Galapagos Islands

You can leave your jacket behind (but not your sunscreen) when you visit Ecuador’s most famous faunal zone, the Galapagos Islands. Compared to the mainland this zone has very few bird species, but the birds it does have are fascinating, unique, and absurdly tame. The various endemic Darwin’s Finches are world famous (check-out the highly recommended book, The Beak of the Finch) and the seabird colonies provide amazing opportunities to observe courtship and breeding at close range. Some species, such as frigate birds, breed all year, while others are most active during the dry season from April to early December. Also unique to the Islands is the world’s only colony of Waved Albatross (outside of a few breeding pairs on Isla de la Plata, off the Ecuadorian coast). These birds have the amazing ability to spend years out at sea without ever touching land. Albatross colonies are active mid-April through December.

Penguins are another unique Galapagos attraction: Go snorkeling and watch them purposefully swim around you. (Where else can you go birding underwater?)

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