Skip to content

Birds Less Seen

April 29, 2023

While many people think of the tropics as a birdwatchers paradise, this is often a deceptive misconception. Yes, the rates of endemism and biodiversity are unparalleled. It is very easy to move up or down a thousand meters and easily see ten or twenty birds you’ve never seen before (as I recently did with a friend, taking taxi just twenty minutes up a nearby road to a higher elevation zone and getting to see many new species of tanagers and hummingbirds that occur on the reserve but much less frequently). Despite this, the combination of low light, the rain, the bugs, and the fact that many of the birds you are hoping to see flit sporadically between tree branches a fifty to a hundred feet above your head can be absurdly frustrating. This is a challenging and rewarding part of birding on the reserve. Because of this, every new species you see is that much more satisfying. For me though, one of the most difficult and gratifying parts of birding here has been trying to find the ground birds.

This group of birds, which comprises many diverse families from antbirds to warblers, hides not in the tall swaying branches of the cloud forest. Instead, they quietly (sometimes noisily depending on the species) lurk in the shadows, darting quickly in and out of the understory. Some birds prefer the thick brushy interior of post disturbance areas, while others seem happy to trot down the trails we maintain on the reserve. Many of these you would miss if you weren’t paying close attention.

A glimpse at the stunningly complex understory of the cloud forest.

The Rufous Breasted Antthrush (Formicarius rufipectus) for example, we hear frequently and have picked up on our camera trap almost every day for a whole month. Despite walking the trail where it struts near daily, we have only seen it one time and she ran off before we could snap a picture. This strange, awkward ground bird walks with a bobbing strut, bouncing up and down as she does so. Formicarius rufipectus ranges from Panama to Peru, and prefers thick understory vegetation in steep mountainous regions, exactly the kind of places that are challenging to see anything, let alone walk.

This female Zeledon’s Antbird was kind enough to pose for a moment.

Not all of these understory birds are so stealthy. For the first two months of being here, we almost never saw the Zeledon’s Antbird, Hafferia zeledoni. However, in the last two months we have begun to find it throughout the reserve. It is a not an obligate ant follower, meaning it does not have to follow the army ant swarms that take over the forest floor. Still, it feels like every time I see the bird, I am simultaneously realizing just how many ants are crawling up my pants. Even though they’re very noisy, making a long dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee call, they hop quickly through dark brush, seemingly trying to hide themselves from any pictures or curious binocular-wearing humans. Lately, we have seen a larger group of them hanging around a giant copal tree that several different species of ants seem to congregate around and flow out of like living streams.

The male on the other hand, refused to show himself and stuck to his underworld fortress of darkness.

Another bird that many would not typically think of as being a “ground bird” but actually eats almost entirely off the forest floor is the Buff-rumped Warbler, Myiothlypis fulvicauda. This cute, yellowish warbler bounces its tail and hops down the trail, grabbing insects off of the forest floor as it does so. I say hop because it doesn’t walk like other ground birds such as the Ruddy Quail-Dove or the Rufous-Breasted Antthrush; instead it constantly jumps up and down as it searches. We frequently see him while visiting our favorite swimming hole on the Motmotos Trail. Occasionally, he’ll flit up to a low hanging branch before returning to his hunting ritual with feet on the earth. This tiny warbler ranges from Central America to western Amazonia, and we always delight in getting to see him, though he is much easier to see than other ground birds.

Buff-rumped Warbler looking for it’s next bite to eat.

Like Zeledon’s Antbird, the Ruddy Quail Dove, Geotrygon montana, is another quiet ground-dwelling species that is much more often heard than seen. This wide-ranging forest dweller can be found from Southern Brazil all the way to northern Mexico, and very occasionally Florida and even south Texas. It eats what it can find on the floor of the forest, small fruits or invertebrates. The one time we did see it on the reserve, it quickly and silently trotted around the corner and disappeared into the brush.

A blurry shot of the Ruddy Quail-Dove captured from our water damaged trail camera.

This is not an uncommon experience with many birds, for them to appear for a second and be gone the next, and yet with ground birds it feels even more so. They live in a world that on the surface seems more accessible to humans, because we too walk the earth, unlike those that prefer the high branches of towering trees. And yet, upon further attempting to find these birds it becomes clear as day how different their world is. In the dramatically steep cloud forests of the western Andes, cliffs can make canopy level trees appear at eye-level if you’re at the right location. This provides a much easier glimpse into the world of those birds that live far above us. No parallel exists for ground birds. They move up and down the steep areas that we humans prefer to avoid, and relish in the otherworldly darkness of the understory. I frequently find myself looking at ground level of the forest and thinking about what a hidden universe of its own it really is.

Chocolate Milk Rivers

April 2, 2023

March was the rainiest month in the reserve’s recorded history; a relatively short history that only dates back until about 2010, but a decade’s worth of days where the monthly rain total never amounted to more than 740 millimeters. The giant tree that stands out against a landscape of smaller trees on the ridge in front of the house passed behind and in front of many clouds carrying water that ran down the mountains, turning the Rio Nambillo into Nesquik chocolate milk. Trails flooded, trees fell, land slid, and we got tired of the rain.

In the rainforest, the rain erases. Water inundates already narrow trails, smoothing the ground into uniform standing pools of water. Understory plants soak up the rain and crowd into trails, turning brown mud into thirty shades of green. Branches already heavy with the weight of bromeliads become heavier and break, leaving the trail spattered with vines, moss and epiphytes. Yet, in the in-between moments, when a night passes without rain, the footsteps of our neighbors are allowed to remain. It is on these mornings that we wake to mountain lion tracks around the cabin.

For Christmas this year, my sister gave me Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. In the story, when Tayo is in one of his most dire moments a mountain lion comes to him. He has fallen off his horse, exhausted from searching for the spotted cattle that were taken from his family years ago– cattle that his now-passed uncle, spent the remaining part of their family’s money on. Paralyzed by fatigue, Tayo collapses under a tree near a hole he had cut in the barbwire fence of the Texans who had the cattle. He awakes in the night to a mountain lion entering the grove in front of him “moving like mountain clouds with the wind, changing substance and color in rhythm with the contours of the mountain peaks: dark as lava rock, and suddenly as bright as a field of snow.” The mountain lion makes eye contact with Tayo and moves onward to the southeast. Tayo awakes in the morning to the Texans, trying to take him to the police for trespassing; but within minutes they notice the lion tracks and leave Tayo be, heading southeast to hunt the lion. A snowstorm follows suit, covering any tracks that remained with a heavy snowpack.

The constant influx of clouds and precipitation at the reserve is a lot like how Silko describes the mountain lion: “relentless motion” as it’s “greatest beauty”. Just as the lion transfigures shape with every step, the rain transforms the forest—erasing trails, falling trees, and feeding the ever-hungry understory.

Midway through the month, Logan hurt his foot, and I took over our shared responsibilities for the week. This meant, I had to go up to the Andean Cock of the Rock lek alone—something that requires walking up the ridge in the just-before-dawn darkness on the same trail where we often see the mountain lion on our camera. For many people, this may sound like a simple task; but, I am very afraid of the dark. I passed the night before dreaming again and again of encountering the lion, waking up nearly every hour. When five o’clock came I sat in the early morning stillness alone drinking my black tea and thinking of Tayo. At 5:30 I took what courage I had and walked out into the darkness.

It was the foggiest morning I have yet to see; there was so much precipitation in the air, the drops clung to the rays of my headlamp, obfuscating the light into a hazy curtain I couldn’t quite see through. An enormous spider dangled at the entrance to the trail, ominously wriggling its legs and spinning slowly from its descending web. I willed myself to not read it as a sign. Around the next curve sat two bats on a branch staring back at me. I could not will myself to not read it as a sign. I thought again of Tayo and did not turn around.

Halfway through my ascent to the lek I rose above the fog. The sun was beginning to paint the sky to the east, and a deep shade of pink bled over the ridge-line. The early dawn light crept above the canopy and I didn’t feel scared anymore. Despite my many dreams, I did not see the mountain lion that morning– but maybe if I had her eyes “would have caught twin reflections of the moon”, just like in Ceremony.

March marched on and so did the rain. Many of the trails became rivers and as the earth gave way to water the Olive Finch migrated up from his riverside tree to sing to us from the below the house. A familiar friend from our favorite swimming hole became our neighbor, sharing his song with us every morning over breakfast. The Olive Finch is a beautiful olive-colored bird with a slate-gray face and throat. He wears a striking maroon streak on top of his head and is frequently found near riversides or dark ravines. On a rainy day, he blends in with the muted greens of the understory, but his high-pitched melody pierces over even the loudest of torrents. The Olive-Finch is found only in the cloud forests of the Andes and is near-threatened. During our short time here, he has become one of our favorite birds.

When the sun finally came out, Logan ran out the door to eat his breakfast in the only ray of sunshine that touched the porch. Toast, eggs, potatoes, and a very much needed serving of vitamin D. 

Mindo Christmas Bird Count 2022

March 21, 2023

By: Lisa Mills at The Weekly Warbler

I was a part of the December 2022 banding and Christmas Bird Count team at Reserva las Tangaras (3rd from left on top). Here is the full team on the big day, all wearing our special shirts!

Mindo, Ecuador – A Global Hotspot For Bird Diversity

In December 2022, I had the honor to participate in the 28th annual Mindo Christmas Bird Count at Reserva las Tangaras. This annual event brings birding enthusiasts from all over the world together to document the number of bird species seen around Mindo, Ecuador. This area is continually ranked 1st or 2nd in the world for the total diversity, often with over 400 species reported.

The Mindo Christmas Bird Count at Reserva las Tangaras truly was a memorable adventure. Over 360 species of birds have been documented just in this single hotspot. So, in just one short day, an adept team of birders and I set out to find as many species as we possibly could in the boundaries of the reserve and two neighboring properties, and area of about 250 acres. We found an astounding 161 species in a single day.

Learn more about this once in a lifetime experience, and discover why the Mindo Christmas Bird Count at Reserva las Tangaras is a must-do for any birdwatcher.

Masked Trogons are a spectacular species seen and heard around the reserve.

What is the Christmas Bird Count?

The Christmas Bird Count is one of the biggest citizen science events in the world. Many places host this annual event including other areas of Ecuador, South America, and North America. Mindo was the first location in Ecuador to establish a Christmas Bird Count in 1994, and with only 12 participants, managed to find over 250 species during the first count. Since then it has blossomed into a huge event, with hundreds of participants and a pep rally in town the day before.

At Reserva las Tangaras, we had our own pep rally at the reserve the night before the event. Special shirts and posters were made up for the event, and we even got our own packed breakfast. The day before, the Reserva las Tangaras team meticulously planned our routes to try to get the most species possible in a single day. 

Our most enthusiastic birders eat their breakfast on the go. No stopping when there’s more birds to see!

The Bird Count Begins at Midnight

The Christmas Bird Count takes place in a 24-hour period, midnight to midnight, and one extra enthusiastic birder decided to go out at night to seek a few secretive species of owls to add to the count.

Before sunrise, we had already added 4 species of owls, 3 Common Paraques, and an Oilbird to the count. Special thanks to Nick, who took it upon himself to track down these elusive nocturnal species, and to Dusti who heard a few from her tent on the back porch! The rest of us were content to start around sunrise and get some sleep for the day ahead.

For my morning route, I was a part of a group with reserve manager Rushi and excellent naturalist Anna Belle. Our route covered a small section of the river, and a long climb up a mountain to the highest point of the reserve, where spectacular views, amazing birds, and a majestic waterfall were waiting for us.

The view from my morning route – well worth the long hike up the mountain.
A sneak peek of the waterfall at the end of our hike.

On our route we found 68 species… and we considered it a slow morning! Highlights of our route included a few North American migrants, a Summer Tanager and 2 Olive-sided Flycatchers, lots of spectacular Tanagers, including the elusive Glistening–Green Tanager, stunning Swallow Tanager, and the more common but always amazing Flame-faced Tanager. We heard Toucan Barbets honking at each other from across the valley, saw the iridescent masterpiece that is the Velvet-purple Coronet, and spotted a new species for our trip, a Strong-billed Woodcreeper.

A Velvet-purple Coronet. In the right lighting, the feathers on this bird explode into a rainbow of colors.

The Mystery Bird

Perhaps the highlight of our morning (other than getting to dip our toes in the waterfall) was tracking down an extremely evasive small yellow bird hidden in a brushy field on top of a mountain. An open field was a different habitat type than the rest of the routes, so we knew we could find a new species of bird if we looked hard enough.

I caught a glimpse of a plain yellow bird in the grass, followed by short and very indistinct chip note. We knew this was a new species for our count, but we didn’t have many ID cues to go off of.

Rushi was very invested in getting a photograph of this mystery bird, so we resorted to trying to flush it out of the grass. 

A bit of the field habitat where we found the mystery bird.

I’m sure the scene must have been funny if any non-birders happened upon us. Three people on top of a mountain with binoculars and cameras strapped to us, wading through wet chest-high grass, stalking a single nondescript bird. 

Only for the Mindo Christmas Bird Count!

Our efforts paid off however, as the mystery bird ended up being a female Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, which was not only was a new bird for our trip, but was a unique species for the entire Christmas Bird Count!

A Spectacular Finish to the Christmas Bird Count

The other groups had amazing success on their morning routes, and added a few more unique species to our total trip list.

Ornate Flycatchers are always a delight to see – we found 17 of them on the day of the count.

However, the biggest surprise of the day came at sunset, right when we thought our birding was done for the day.

A few of us decided to take a stroll along the river in the evening to finish off the big day. I was looking for Sunbitterns and Torrent Ducks, but Anna Belle found something even cooler.

A huge black bird with a giant mohawk swooped right behind me. I heard its enormous wingbeats, but I didn’t get a look at it. When Anna Belle said she saw a huge black bird, I figured it was a Black Vulture, and kept my eyes on the river.

Well… apparently it was the coolest bird of the entire trip, a Long-wattled Umbrellabird! Besides looking super cool, this is a fairly rare bird, and endemic to the Chocó bioregion of Ecuador and Colombia. And it was our final sighting for the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks again to Nick for getting the final ID on this spectacular species! 

The Final Results

The Reserva las Tangaras team identified 161 species of birds with our joint efforts, with a few exceptional finds and unexpected twists. 

Altogether, 26 routes participated in the 2022 Mindo Christmas Bird Count with a total of 354 species reported. Reserva las Tangaras contributed 9 unique species to the count that were found nowhere else that day, which included the Choco Screech-Owl, 2 migrant warblers, the Canada Warbler and Cerulean Warbler, and 2 species we found on my morning route, the Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Olive-sided Flycatcher!

Here are just a few of the amazing birds we found on the big day:

It truly was such a fun day, and I would encourage anyone looking for a once in a lifetime adventure to come down to Mindo and explore the natural beauty that is Reserva las Tangaras. 

Being a part of the Mindo Christmas Bird Count was an incredibly enriching experience that I will never forget. The amazing scenery, along with the sheer diversity of bird species and enthusiastic people made for an adventure like no other.

If you’re a bird lover or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of nature, I highly recommend making the trip to Mindo and exploring the wonders of Reserva las Tangaras for yourself. Not only will you have the opportunity to see spectacular wildlife, but you’ll also be supporting a local non-profit that is committed to preserving and protecting the natural world.

Until the next Christmas Bird Count!

For more amazing birding and wildlife conservation stories, visit my blog, The Weekly Warbler!

And contact Reserva las Tangaras if you want to find out more about visiting this spectacular gem in the Ecuadorian cloud forest. I promise you won’t regret it!

A Rufous-tailed Hummingbird shows off his iridescent green throat.

Becoming the Hummers

March 3, 2023

Two months have passed since we arrived. On every day of those two months, Hattie and I have sat for an hour and counted the number of individual hummingbirds from each species at the hummingbird feeders off the front porch. The porch overlooks the Río Nambillo, though you can hardly see it behind the thick riparian forest below. Below, our bridge can just barely be detected through the ferns and leaves. Across the river from us sits a massive tree in the middle of our viewshed, dwarfing all the other trees. Our neighbor and owner of the Sendero de Las Aves, Germán, comments on how much bigger it is than all the other trees around every time he comes to visit.

Every day we sit here and watch the hummingbirds buzz around. We take turns or we do it together, often drinking a tea or coffee between peeks through our binoculars. They whip and zip around, greedily guzzling down sweet sugar water until another jealous visitor runs them off.

Just based on our short observations, we have noticed some species seem to be much more aggressive than others. To begin, the Crowned Wood Nymph (Thalurania colombica) males frequently run off other species and individuals at the feeders. With a seemingly angry deet-deet-deet-deet, they spread their wings and tails wide making themselves look big before surging towards their target. For a while, a Green-crowned Brilliant (Heliodaxa jacula) male sat on the post on which our second feeder hangs. He would sit there not drinking from the feeder except for the occasional quick sip; instead, he would wait for any other bird to attempt to land at his chosen feeder then run them off into the trees. We noticed this occurring for about a week before he seemed to get bored and stopped guarding the feeder so intensely.

White-necked Jacobin (Florisuga mellivora)

While we haven’t seen the White-necked Jacobins (Florisuga mellivora) fighting with other species so much, they definitely fight with each other frequently. Sometimes three or more of them will begin to go at it. It begins by two of them expanding their wings and tails till they look enormous, each paralleling the other. Soon this devolves into them spinning around each other, flying away in a whirlwind towards the trees. Occasionally one hops out of the apparent fight to go grab a quick sip of sugar water, but it’s just as likely to see them fly together all the way into the tree tops. The Andean Emerald (Uranomitra franciae) behaves similarly, generally only picking fights between its own kind.

Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni)

A few of the other species tend to be much shyer. One of our favorite birds to see at the feeders is the Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni). This large brown hummingbird, with a beautiful white spot on its neck, shows up far less than the other birds we see at the feeders, though he or she will generally show up once a day. Rarely have we seen more than one at a time, but it does happen. He comes in and takes a sip, then quickly flies backwards, hovering for a second before returning to sip. A few repetitions of this sequence, and if it hasn’t been run off yet by its more aggressive neighbors, the Brown Inca typically takes off. This bird’s range is extremely limited, only existing in the cloud forests on the western slope of the Andes in norther Ecuador and southern Colombia.

Brown Inca (Coeligena wilsoni) coming in to drink its favorite drink.

When we first arrived, we hardly saw any Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (Amazilia tzacatl). However, we started putting vegetable oil on the surfaces of the hummingbird feeders, as the bees were taking over and it seemed to be bothering the birds quite a lot. Since putting oil on the feeders, the bees have completely stopped investigating the feeders (and subsequently drowning themselves in sugar water after stubbornly crawling their way inside). Closely following the departure of the bees, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird started coming much more frequently. Now we seem him about once a day, and have even seen two at once. He is a much shyer bird than the others that visit the feeders, so we suspect that the bees pushed him out of his comfort zone to the point he no longer felt it worth it to visit. While he is seemingly less likely to attack other birds at the feeders, we have noticed it defending a feeder twice now!

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl)

The most exciting visitors we’ve gotten, just at the end of February, are the Brown Violetear (Colibri delphinae), the Purple-crowned Fairy (Heliothryx barroti), and the Purple-throated Woodstar (Philodice mitchellii). So far, these have been more elusive than the other birds at the feeders, coming in for a second, getting a drink, then flying off to not be seen again. We have only seen these birds a couple times. The Purple-crowned Fairy flew right up to my face, perhaps attempting to interrogate me about whether I had sugar in my coffee (which I did and always do) but my camera sat and by the time I grabbed it the bird was flew off leaving me to snap a blurry action photo not worth much. The Fairy is a bit gaudier than the other elusive birds. The Brown Violetear, however, has shown its face a few times and acts somewhat similarly to the Brown Inca as far as I can tell in my very limited interactions with it. The violetears are beautiful birds with strange ear shaped and violet colored tufts on their face (hence the name violet-ear) that at times puff out making the birds face look much larger than it is.

Brown violetear (Colibri delphinae)

The Purple-throated Woodstar is a tiny hummingbird. Despite its small size, it makes itself very noticeable because of its flight pattern which resembles a bumblebee. Both times we have seen it, I thought it was a large bug at first! Like the Brown Inca, the Purple-throated Woodstar has a very small range, occurring in norther Ecuador and southern Colombia along the western slope of the Andes in cloud forest and secondary forests. Not that having a very small range makes these birds more important than others, but it does speak to the incredible biodiversity and high rates of endemism in this region, and the importance of protecting key habitat for birds like these. Without protected areas in these highly biodiverse areas, we will easily lose countless species. We count ourselves lucky to be able to spend time in the homes of these species that exist nowhere else in the world.

Purple-throated Woodstar (Philodice mitchellii)

For better or for worse, Hattie and I have started to notice ourselves imitating the hummingbird habits. Not imitating their constant bickering or ability to fly backwards, but their incessant craving for sugar water. While they dip their long beaks into the feeders and lap up our homemade mixture of four parts water to one part sugar, Hattie and I sit watching them with our binoculars and our sugary drinks, whether that be a large coffee sweetened by copious amounts of honey (to be clear Hattie drinks their coffee black) or a tall pitcher of very sweet, deep red jamaica tea. The jamaica goes quick and before long we find ourselves filling a new pitcher with the red liquid, about as frequently as we fill up the hummingbird feeders. It would be hard to beat a hummingbird at its own game, but we sure seem to be trying!

Introductions and a Couple Snapshots

February 1, 2023

Hello all from Hattie and Logan. Though maybe not as hardcore of birders as past managers have been, we are both aspiring naturalists and have been finding our time in the cloud forest of Ecuador to be a dramatic and incredibly refreshing breath of air. We both come from hot, dry and sunny southern Arizona where the yearly rainfall is often less than half what we get here on the reserve in a month. We have only been at the reserve for just over three weeks now, and yet it feels far longer due to the days being packed with many challenges, animal encounters, and people we have met. Time moves differently here. Every day there are a wide breadth of interactions with a stunning variety of animals, from toucans to tayras to snakes and millipedes, that it is perhaps more helpful to serve it up for our readers in a less linear narrative. We want to keep our blog short and sweet in the hopes that our entries can act as little vignettes of the life on the reserve and document our trials, tribulations, and successes along with the joy we are finding in the bosque nuboso of northwest Ecuador.

Morning Forest Dwellers

It was another rainy, early morning in the cloud forest. Sometimes it rains so hard the rain on the tin roof wakes us up and this time it did around 5. We got up, downed a coffee and a cinnamon roll I had baked the night before and headed up to the Andean Cock of the Rock lek just in time to hear the first call. After spending the first twenty or so minutes in the hide, watching the usual suspects jump around from stick to stick, hooting and hollering as they do in the off chance they are able to attract a mate, we made our way up to Observation Point Four, where the biggest group of males gathers.  Ten minutes into trying to spot bird bands on their ankles, Logan drops his old, yellow backpack and says “Time for a forest poop.” The only thing consistent about doing the ACOR data collection is that Logan will have to take a poop right in the middle of it.

In his absence, the forest felt surprisingly quiet. The Andean Cocks of the Rock had begun to quiet down as the day inches onward and the morning fog seeped into the moss, making everything soft and muffled. I began to hear an eerie and echoing hoo, hoo, hoo coming from the forest below me— a call we heard yesterday but weren’t able to place. I pulled out my phone, opened Merlin, and began recording. No results. Within minutes, the same call started up behind me. I hopelessly pressed record on Merlin again and was watching the call graph onto the screen when I heard a yelp behind me. I turned around, and watched a Dark Backed Wood Quail run out from the bushes and directly over my foot. He screamed and frantically circled below me like a chicken being chased at the county fair. I nearly jumped out of my pants. Fortunately for the little guy he found an opening in the brush, and with apparent relief headed down the hill.  

Hattie getting a glimpse at some banded birds.

Logan emerged from the trail, arms raised in a shrug and looking for an explanation as to the sound. I filled him in on my encounter with what I now know lovingly as the forest chicken. The Dark-backed Wood Quails began their call again, this time together in a duet. We stayed and listened for a while enjoying the morning drizzle and the views afforded to us by the small spaces in between trees, revealing small glimpses of distant deep green hills embraced by fog.

Distant Cousins

Sundays in the cloud forest are a little harder to get going. This day in particular we woke up later than we had planned. After feeling disappointed in our ability to make it up the trail at 6 am as we had hoped, we leaned into feeling sleepy, made tea, read for a bit, then eventually got back on track.

Logan sharpened the machete, pulling the fila down the blade over and over. I still don’t like to watch. Too scary.

Logan’s face while thinking about the impacts of a poorly swung machete.

Somedays it feels like no matter how many times you check that you have everything you need with you, something always manages to sneak its way out of your backpack and back inside between locked doors. The Sunday Sleepies got the best of us again, and we made two trips back to the house to retrieve forgotten items, each time taking our boots off to not drag mud over the front porch.

We hiked up the trail slowly, discussing which steps we ought to replace and where to install water bars to eliminate the gulley effect the hard rains here have on the trail. At the Tucanes intersection up on the ridge that heads to the ACOR lek, we stopped to check the game camera we had set up the day before. There was a video on it from five minutes previous of an indiscernable dark creature with a long curly tail ambling up towards the Bosque trail. Logan thought it was a monkey in pure excitement, but I didn’t think so. It didn’t make any sense for it to be crawling around on the ground like that, but Logan was excited so we decided to follow the creature up the trail in the off chance we could catch a glimpse.

We bring our laptop to check the SD cards in order to be able to check them easily, so we had to get creative in the rain!

We crept up the trail slowly, trying not to break any sticks under our feet. We elected to stay to the left, and follow the Bosque trail further. Two large trees had fallen into the trail and blocked our way. We stopped for a while, and took it as a sign that we’d lost the “monkey” and turned around. We hiked back talking loudly, breaking sticks and stepping on large leaves left and right. As we neared the game camera, a loud crash interrupted our conversation. I heard something move directly above me and thought to myself “Damn that’s a big bird.” I looked up, and saw a small white monkey peering over a branch and staring directly at me. We were following him after all!

This guy looks as surprised to see us as we did him!

 Cebus aequatorialis peeked down at us from the branch and began running deftly, then jumping from tree to tree. Trees began to shake all around us and leaves started exploding from the bromeliads high above our heads. We spotted one, two, three, seven monkeys clambering around, nimbly jumbing between vines and branches with ease while vigorously shaking large bromeliads. A loud crash ensued and I looked over at Logan. He stared wide eyed at the forest floor, clearly thinking that a monkey had fallen, but upon waiting for something to appear it dawned on us that the monkey had simply knocked loose one of the bromeliads it had been beating up on.

These small, New World monkeys were previously categorized as simply a subspecies of the capuchin monkey, but have since been recategorized as their own species, the Ecuadorian capuchin monkey or mono capuchino. Estimates say their populations have been reduced by over 80% and that they have lost 99% of their suitable habitat mainly as a result of deforestation and human conflict. For this reason, they are considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

Hungry after a hard day of smashing up bromeliads and leaping from tree to tree.

We stood and watched these far distant primate cousins of ours for about thirty minutes. For a short moment we caught a glimpse of a monkey that was much larger than all the rest of the group, but it quickly fled deeper into the trees. One smaller monkey seemed to get cut off from the rest of the group and sat in its own tree making a high pitched hooting like noise for a while. Deciding we didn’t want to disturb him after he started making this noise, we ambled off down the Tucanes trail to clear out the path, pondering this brief encounter with a species that once called most of western Ecuador its home and now has few places of refuge left for it. At least this tiny corner of the cloud forest we are caretaking can provide it a bit of sanctuary from the existential plight it faces. To think we were fortunate enough to have made all the mistakes we did that day and still run into this creature who’s population clings to life. The places a few forgotten items, a fallen tree in the road and a mistaken monkey on a camera trap (this turned out to be a tayra or Eira barbara, a widespread typically tropical dwelling member of the Mustelidae family) can take you awes me with their chaotic creativity. Until next time monkey!

The misidentified “monkey” the tayra or Eira barbara

Water Trail on a Rainy Day

I’d been having this feeling. A kind of sneaking feeling in your gut like you know something is going wrong but you don’t know what. Except, I had an inkling of an idea. We hadn’t checked the water tanks in a couple days. And it had been raining. Hard. We had big plans to get our garden started and clear trails, but I thought I should investigate first. While Hattie stayed and worked on their bird flashcards (they really help!), I jumped up the short, yet steep and slick water trail to our two blue tanks that hold the life force for our toilet, shower, and drinking supply. I popped the first one open knowing what lay in wait and lo and behold there sat almost nothing in the tank. I popped the next one and the same predictable outcome was laid bare. Both tanks were totally empty. We’d been caught with our pants down. I walked into the house with a big grin. “It’s water day.”

Oh the water trail. I do love it, but it is without a doubt the most treacherous trail on the reserve (for which reason it’s closed to visitors. Just us managers get the joy of walking it). It starts with a steep slippery incline, tricks you into thinking it’s benign with a couple nice fairly level curves, then becomes an off camber slip fest of flattened plants pretending to be a trail. Soon you find yourself nimbly holding a large bolder that you slip around above a big enough fall to make you worry before entering the canyon section. The canyon section involves a longer than you think slippery (again) scramble through a large creek that turns into several small cascadas requiring a couple small rope ascents and swings and a final short scramble to the last cascada where the intake sits. It’s actually really my favorite trail on the reserve. However, I don’t like hiking up canyons when an inch or more of rain can fall on any given day and change the creek to a flood, so as we hiked up the trail I very much hoped that we didn’t have to head up that last bit, as exciting as it is.

Hattie trying (and failing) to avoid getting wet while fixing our pipes.

After opening and closing several sections of the water pipe with no water rushing out, we got closer and closer to the canyon section. The sky loomed quite cloudy above. Only one opening remained before having to start heading up. I cross my fingers and Hattie twisted open the last pipe only to get absolutely doused by water spraying out. Dark silty water soon followed indicating that some dirt had gotten washed in. Quickly it cleared up, meaning we were good! The canyon section would be left for a sunny day. Now we just had to close this pipe as a huge amount of water sprayed out of it. While Hattie held one end I tried to twist it. Water sprayed both of us to the point all of our clothes were completely drenched in water. We started laughing hysterically as it kept spraying us until finally we got it closed.

We walked back and a light rain started, getting heavier as we walked. I was real glad we were heading back down the trail and not up it now. All that was left was to clean out the tanks and wait for them to fill up to make sure it was all working (along with walking back and opening all the little connections to let air bubbles out). We even went swimming after despite already getting our daily dose of water for the day!

A successful day!

You Have to Do What? On Being a Steward at Reserva las Tangaras 

January 7, 2023

By Dr. Dusti Becker

As the owner of this tropical paradise and/or, let’s be honest, rainy and muddy challenge, I know it takes hard work and passion. Shout out and kudos to all those who have succeeded in taking care of Reserva las Tangaras.

The 51-hectare (~130 acre) protected area is in the wilds of the Andes in western Ecuador.  While the cabin and land are within a 2-hour walk of the popular tourist destination of Mindo town where crepes and chocolate, and massages with lemongrass-scented oil are on offer, the reserve, in contrast, is a wilderness outpost. For example, Reserva las Tangaras, or The Tanagers Reserve boasts 25 kilometers of hiking trails, but they all must be cleared, sign-posted and kept safe for visitors. This means stewards must master the machete, which is not something taught at university, much less in urban-focused societies. Most stewards find it easier to serve up a mocha latte, than to sharpen a machete.  

After conquering the bridge over the Nambillo river, akin to balancing on a tightrope for some, stewards maintain a large cabin powered by a solar panel, change heavy cylinders of gas, keep business records, and host guests, all on top of doing ornithology projects. On one of my social media advertisements for reserve stewards someone commented that the job sounded like a 10-person position. One person can do it, but we always hire a dynamic duo. 

If you like to socialize, then the ecotourism part of the job is good fun. You can chat about travels and adventures and share your knowledge of the natural world at the reserve. You make meals and provide lodging to visitors, which requires creativity buying local foods and planning menus. Stewards guide guests on nature walks, including visits to a large Andean Cock-of-the- Rock display area called a “lek”,  where around 20 foot-ball sized, red birds, gather each morning, year-round, squawking, bowing, and even fighting talon to talon as they hop about the trees.  It’s a spectacle of sound and sight, but entails getting up early, hiking up the mountain for 30 minutes to be at the lek before dawn (0545). 

A miracle in my book is the crystal clear and potable water that comes pouring from the taps in the reserve cabin where guests sleep, shower, and enjoy home-cooked meals. The water comes from a spring-fed pool nearly a mile away, and travels down a hose to a couple of tanks, and finally to the cabin. Why two tanks? You might be wondering. One is a back-up, as much can go wrong with the water system, and does, and having enough water for a day or two while making repairs is sanity saving. At best, it’s a minor fix requiring the opening of a few connectors along the hose, “burping the pipes”, and whoosh, the tanks fill again and water is restored to the cabin. A more dramatic repair entails slogging the entire way to the source located in a pool below a waterfall where the pipe sits (or no longer does) gurgling the glorious elixir of life. As a prelude, one must cope with a hair-raising rock scramble along the tributary. If you are a flat-lander and maybe a tad clumsy, you will abhor fixing the water system. It’s for the adventurous rock-climbing types, for sure, not a job for old ladies like me, hip replacement on the horizon!

Then there are the ornithology projects, which are probably the easiest part of the job, especially for stewards with a biological science background. I especially enjoy watching the 3 hummingbird feeders for an hour each day to determine which species are around from day to day, season to season, year to year, and if some are increasing or declining. I get my cuppa ready, space 3 feeders about 5 feet apart and sit down with the data sheet to watch the hummer show. Almost always, a purple-bibbed whitetip female arrives first, raising her wings as she lands – ta daa! Huge Empress Brilliants swoop in and out like big bats, while Andean Emeralds, with their perfectly white breasts, shimmer and rattle. Usually, 10 to 14 species of hummingbirds visit the feeders during an hour. 

One slightly frustrating study is activity at the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (ACOR) lek. For those who enjoy chaos and uncertainty it’s a fun show, but I seek patterns, and these are elusive at best. Stewards estimate how many males are on the lek, in how many subgroups, based mainly on sounds. They note color bands on the legs of the ACOR males, but these guys hide behind leaves and move around fast, so it’s hard to see those bands. Was that on the bird’s right or left leg? Still, we have had enough confirmed re-sights of color bands to estimate annual survival of adult male ACOR. The results show that any adult male seen on the lek in one year has between 87 to 97% chance of being alive on the lek the following year. We found a few ACOR males persisting at the lek for 14 years!

So that’s a flavor of what reserve stewards do at Reserva las Tangaras. If you think it’s a job for you, please contact me, Dr. Dusti Becker, We’ll need stewards in 2024.

I have been caring for the reserve for just 3 weeks now, and confess, that it is way too much for one person. Well, Rushi did it all by his lonesome from October to December 2022! I cheat a bit by hiring local guys to clear trails and repair things, including the water system that just went out in a monster rain storm. Still, I have really enjoyed hosting guests, doing the science data collection, and keeping the cabin tidy. It really is paradise in so many ways.

Eat or Be Eaten

July 25, 2022

It is not uncommon for our guests to ask us this one interesting question: Where are all the animals? When people imagine a tropical forest, they often picture a place so teeming with life that everywhere you look you see an animal. This isn’t a wrong assumption- the tropical forests are home to the highest diversity and biomass of animals of all the Earth’s terrestrial biomes. The problem is that most of the animals here are hoping not to be seen. Many of the animals are so well camouflaged that we walk right by without even noticing. 

On the other hand, tropical forests are home to some of the most brilliant and outlandishly colored animals in the world too. Butterflies, beetles, birds, and amphibians come in every imaginable hue. 

What determines the way an animal will look? Today we will explore three major driving evolutionary factors that can influence this outcome. 

The first is the fear of being eaten. One of the best ways to avoid being eaten is to camouflage. Many animals have adapted to blend in with their environment. 

The small fish in our rivers and streams are brown on top and white on bottom. If you stand above them on the bank, much like a predatory heron might, their brown dorsal side blends in with the rock, sand and gravel of the riverbed. If you are swimming under them, like perhaps a hungry dragonfly nymph, their white belly blends in with the light filtering through the surface of the water. 

Nightjars are a family of birds which are famous for their complex and effective camouflage. Their cryptically colored feathers so closely resemble dead leaf litter or a branch that even keen-eyed birders often walk within feet of them without seeing them. These birds are nocturnal, so this plumage helps protect them while they sleep during broad daylight.

Lyre-tailed Nightjar and Chick

Surprisingly, predation is also responsible for producing some of the brightest creatures as well. Some animals have evolved the ability to either produce or sequester toxins in their bodies, making them dangerous or at least unpalatable for predators to eat. These animals don’t worry about hiding, but instead use their bright coloration as a method of warning would-be predators to stay away. Giant bright red millipedes emit cyanide gas, fuzzy yellow caterpillars advertise their poisonous skin and spines, and the jewel-colored skin of dart frogs are all examples of this kind of adaptation. 

We all know that a flying insect with yellow and black stripes might be a bee or wasp, so when we see an insect that looks like that we give it a wide berth. Many species of harmless flies have evolved to look superficially similar to bees or wasps so that other animals leave them alone, even though they themselves have no venomous sting. This is called Batesian mimicry. This same phenomenon is seen in butterflies, snakes, frogs, and toads, which have evolved to look like their more dangerous counterparts.

The second driving factor is the need animals have to eat. The hunters, like the hunted, tend to rely on camouflage to better be able to sneak up on and attack their prey. The spots and stripes of the ocelot help it hide amongst the shadows of branches and leaves in the underbrush. Mantids disguised as leaves remain motionless, just waiting for a tasty morsel to wander within reach of its deadly appendages. Many hawks have the same dark-above light-below pattern as the fish, for much the same reason. From above they blend in with the ground and from below they blend in with the sky.

Mantid disguised as a leaf

The third and last driving factor is sexual selection. This is responsible for many of the absurd and most colorful appearances in the animal kingdom. Due to their ability to fly and quickly escape from predators on the ground, many birds have evolved bright colors. On the Reserve we have species of tanagers that pass through the treetop in an assortment of colors, parrots, toucans, and of course the unmistakable crimson plumage of the cock-of-the-rock. All these bright colors are advertisements of sexual fitness. 

It is interesting to note that in many bird species it is predominantly the males that present these incredible colors. The females are often drab browns, olives, and grays. In this way we can see how predation’s selective pressure is not entirely absent in these species. Males, who are able to provide much genetic material with minimal investment, and who on average spend less time on the nest than their female counterparts, are more subject to sexual selective pressure than defensive selective pressure. The opposite is true of the females.

In blue morpho butterflies we see these pressure interplay in a different way. The upper side of their saucer-sized wings are an exquisite bright blue. It is hard to miss it when these beauties float over tropical streams and fields. When they land their wings fold up vertically over their backs, completely hiding the blue. The undersides of their wings are a cryptic brown and black design which helps them blend in with the foliage. Thus these butterflies are able to accomplish both goals. When they are active, they are able to advertise their presence to potential mates, but when they are at rest they are better able to hide from predators.

Life in the tropical forests is full of examples of bizarre and strange adaptations brought about from the interplay of these and other selective pressures. Every time we walk the trails here at Reserva las Tangaras, if we keep a careful eye out, we have the opportunity to see these forces at play.

Mindo: Yesterday, Today, & Tomorrow

June 27, 2022

When Ecuadorians talk about their country a real sense of pride shines through. Ecuador has a bit of everything. The Andes slices down through the center of the country resulting in a pleasing symmetry with either side surrounded by lush, wet rainforests. Ecuadorians have certainly earned their boasting rights. For a relatively small nation it packs a punch.

Just on the bus from Quito to Mindo one witnesses how quickly the landscape here changes. Quito resides on the western slopes of the Andes and in the two hour bus ride to Mindo the world outside the window transforms. The drive begins at an impressive elevation of 9,350 feet, and then the bus descends in elevation. The surrounding scenery quickly changes to something new. Shrubs and temperate plants of the higher elevation fade and soon the hills are covered with shades of green. Trees begin to drip with moss and mountainsides are carpeted with a thick layer of plants. A mountainous temperate zone transforms into the cloud forest, and deep in the heart of this region we find Mindo comfortably nestled.

A view of Mindo surrounded by cloud forest

But Mindo has undergone some major changes in the past few decades. If you choose a spot in Mindo and look out to what is now thick forest, there is a good chance that 50 years ago you would have been looking at farmland. Where today we see tall trees and dense canopies was once grassland and cattle. Mindo is now a renowned ecotourism destination with only a few patches of grazing space to be found relative to massive tracts of forest. 

So how did the cloud forest return to this area? Mindo is a real success story of reforestation.

The South American rainforests are home to some incredibly valuable hardwood trees: mahogany, tropical oaks, and Spanish Cedars to name a few. These woods are desired worldwide for product manufacturing. Furniture, desks, and flooring in homes everywhere come from these trees. Hardwood’s value lies in its strength and strong wood takes years to grow. Loggers came through the area, virtually wiping out the hardwoods, many of which are of vital importance to the ecosystem as sources of food and shelter. 

In the wake of the loggers came ranchers who saw the potential of the area to support cattle for meat and dairy production. The ranchers used a technique commonly referred to as slash-and-burn agriculture. This means that in order to make space for their herds of cattle, they cut down what remained of the forests, made massive piles of this vegetation, and set it on fire. Once vast tracts of virgin rainforest are quickly reduced to piles of ash and smoke. 

Around 50 years ago a handful of locals were convinced that a better future for Mindo would be based around ecotourism. These young men left Mindo to travel and in their travels learned about environmentalism and the idea of ecotourism. They returned to their home with a seed to plant. Through their efforts, these men convinced their friends and neighbors to reforest the land that had been clear cut for cattle. They assured them that the economy would change in due course and people could make livings as well or better than before. At first they were met with disbelief and trepidation, but as the money started to come in from visitors the movement picked up steam. Since then, large sections of secondary forest have regrown making Mindo the ecotourism Mecca that we know it as today. The cloud forest in and around Mindo is a young and healthy entity.

Mindo is a testament to the success of these reforestation efforts. Reforestation requires hard work and patience, especially when contrasted with the speed that deforestation can occur. But with the return of the cloud forest return many natural gems, like the highly endangered White-fronted Capuchin Monkey, the jewel-colored Golden-headed Quetzal, and the elusive jungle cats like ocelots, jaguarundis, and pumas.

Despite the overall success of reforestation in the area, certain species have continued to remain absent, like many of the slow-growing hardwoods that were first targeted in the logging days. One of these species is the Aguacatillo tree. This tree’s name is Spanish for “little avocado,” and as its name suggests it is a close relative of the avocados we all know and love to put on toast. Their fruits are a favorite of many of the bird and mammal species of the cloud forest. Andean Bears, a species listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, are one of the animals that most heavily rely on the Aguacatillo as a food source. Here at Reserva las Tangaras we have been busy trying to reintroduce this important plant species to the area. We managed to acquire 50 seedlings from a native plant nursery in the area and have planted them around our property. We hope that with proper care and a little luck these seedlings will grow and provide food for the bears and other animals for decades to come.

A lovely guest helping plant Aguacatillo seedlings at Reserva las Tangaras

If we wish to see successes like Mindo’s repeated in other vulnerable habitats around the world, we should strive to support ecotourism globally. The foreign money brought in by tourism provides the means and incentive for locals to be able to invest in the preservation of their natural resources. In the absence of tourism the only options left for people to make a living tend to be harmful for the environment, like logging and agriculture. Choosing sustainable and eco-friendly travel destinations can have a dramatic positive impact on some of the world’s most valuable ecosystems.

Listen Closely

May 29, 2022

Several years ago I moved to Chile from the United States. Before I went I took an intensive 9-week Spanish training course so that I would be able to communicate when I arrived. On the plane to Chile I remember feeling confident and excited about my language capabilities. By the end of my first day in the country, I was convinced that either the Chileans were not speaking Spanish or that they taught me the wrong language in my class, because I could not understand anything anybody said to me. Pretty soon I began to be able to pick out words here and there, over time I started to follow the general idea of conversations, and finally after several months I could understand and speak about complex and varied topics. I fell in love with the Spanish language. I was blown away by the idea that I could now connect with millions more people than before. One of the things I most enjoyed about learning a second language is that it taught me a whole new way of thinking about and understanding the world. 

When we made the decision to come work at Reserva las Tangaras, there was a new language we were surprised we had to learn: the language of the cloud forest. Just as learning Spanish opened up a hidden world to me linguistically, learning to understand the way the forest communicates opens up a fountain of information and connection. From birdsong to buzzing insects, and from the warning colors of a poisonous caterpillar to the beautiful advertisement of an orchid blossom, each organism has a message it wants to convey.

The form of communication we are probably most familiar with as humans is acoustic communication, since our languages fall under that category. Many animals rely on sound to carry their messages through the fog and foliage. The air here is constantly full of the sounds of birds, insects, and frogs. Most of these animals are sending sexual advertisements or establishing territory. One of the most interesting bird songs we have here is that of the Club-winged Manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus). This bird is only found in a small range of cloud forests on the western slope of the Andes in Ecuador and Colombia. Instead of vocalizing like most songbirds, this bird rapidly flicks its wings together over its back, which makes a beeping sound due to a series of modified feathers that vibrate about 107 times per second. This way of generating sound is very similar to how crickets and grasshoppers make noise. They are the only birds in the world known to make a mating call in this manner. 

Reserva las Tangaras is home to two virtually identical species of toucan in appearance, The Yellow-throated Toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus) and the Choco Toucan (Ramphastos brevis). They are closely related and theoretically could interbreed and have viable offspring. However, these two species appear to have maintained distinct genetic lineages because they have very unique voices. While they forage and go about their daily routines, it is not uncommon to see these species mix, but when they call for a mate they only select other members of their own species.

Fireflies fill the bushes around the cabin with flashing lights at night. Most emit sequences of flashing yellow light. Others emit a constant orange light, which Liat? describes as looking like a flying cigarette butt. Each species has a unique flashing pattern to draw in other members of its own species. The females generally pick a prominent leaf in the  understory and sit and flash while the males fly around looking for the females. There are some predatory fireflies which mimic the flash pattern of other species, and when the males draw near expecting an interested female, they are then overpowered and devoured. 

Most animals in the cloud forest try to blend in and camouflage to avoid being eaten. Some species of invertebrates and frogs are highly toxic and are brightly colored as a warning sign to would-be predators. Poison dart frogs eat toxic ants and store the compounds in their own tissues. Bright red millipedes emit cyanide gas when provoked. Caterpillars with venomous spines come in every color imaginable. Lots of animals here are sending the message “You had better leave me alone.”

The cloud forest is filled with flowers of all shapes and sizes. There are roughly 4000 species of orchids in Ecuador alone! The different colors and fragrances emitted draw in different species of pollinators, each adapted to carry the pollen of different varieties of flowers. Long, red or orange flowers tend to be trying to attract hummingbirds. Bats tend to visit big white flowers. Bees pollinate flowers of all colors but are especially drawn to blues. Yellow flowers are most attractive to flies. There are even some flowers which emit putrid smells akin to rotting meat that draw in scavenging insects. 

This is just barely scratching the surface of the diverse and fascinating methods of communication exhibited by the cloud forests’s inhabitants. The longer we are here the more in tune we become to the messages of the forest, spoken and unspoken. As a species we are still not fluent in the languages of nature. We are at the point of merely understanding the general themes of its conversations. Continued scientific exploration and caring for the natural world will surely unveil new and exciting messages for us to learn from.

A Tree Grows in the Cloud Forest

April 20, 2022

There is much wisdom to be gleaned from the old expression admonishing us not to “miss the forest for the trees.” I think it probable that whoever first said that never made it to the cloud forests of Mindo. Here it is so difficult to miss the forest that I would say the opposite applies- don’t miss the trees for the forest. The vastness of the forest and density of life within are nearly impossible to comprehend. The feeling of first entering the cloud forest is akin to being swallowed by some strange, amorphous, green beast. The amount of life supported by each individual tree in the cloud forest is staggering.

Right in front of the lodge at Reserva las Tangaras we have a large tree that has served as a case study for us in the importance of every tree in the rainforest. 

Photo of “Our Tree”

One of the things that first struck me when I got to the cloud forest was the carpet of vegetation coating nearly every limb and trunk of every tree. These hanging gardens are composed of a huge variety of orchids, mosses, ferns, and bromeliads, to name a few. They adorn the forest with blossoms of every size and color. We refer to these plants as epiphytes which in Greek roughly means “upon plants” because that’s where they grow! These plants are remarkable for their ability to thrive suspended in the treetops away from the soil. Our tree is covered with so much moss that it looks like a melted candle, with large gobs of green dripping off its branches. This moss layer is vital in trapping the water necessary for the other epiphytes to take root and survive. Only in the cloud forests do epiphytes reach their full potential due to the copious amounts of rain they receive. 

In addition to epiphytes, our tree hosts plants that still need contact with the soil for survival. Most of these plants have fruit that are particularly delicious, luring birds and mammals to eat them. Their seeds have a tough and sticky exterior that helps them adhere to the upper branches of the trees as they are expelled from these animals in the form of scat. The seeds sprout in the treetops, and then send roots dropping down to the ground. These so-called aerial roots are the “vines” that’s most people imagine when they think of the jungle. Some of these plants, like the strangler figs, or matapalo in Spanish, are parasitic plants that send their roots winding down the trunk of the host tree and lianas winding up around the canopy, eventually smothering and killing it. Luckily for our tree, it doesn’t appear to be host to any of these yet. All these plants are simply vying for space up in the canopy where light is abundant. Epiphytes and aerial plants have found a way to reach the canopy without investing all the time and energy that trees require to grow.

The abundance of plant life is great news for the animals of the cloud forest. All these plants need to reproduce, and they do so by means of their flowers, fruits, and seeds which are important food sources for insects, birds, and mammals who are in turn food for reptiles, amphibians, bigger birds, and bigger mammals. Almost any time we look at the tree, there is some amount of movement from the animal life it draws in. A whole food web can be seen being played out in our front yard. 

A Masked Flowerpiercer dining on flowers of an aerial plant

Our tree also provides shelter for its many inhabitants. It is full of katydids and stick insects disguised to look like its leaves and twigs. Birds hide under its leaves during rain storms. Squirrels nestle in the crooks of its boughs. Under its bark is a network of insects and their larvae. There are species of frogs that use the pools of water that collect in bromeliads to raise their young, and others that simply use them as cool, damp, hiding places during the day. Our tree is basically a bustling metropolis, home to a community of animals of all sizes.

White-necked Jacobin relaxing in the branches

Looking out at the forest surrounding the reserve, it is hard to think that one tree being cut down would make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Surely all the animals would just move a few feet to the left or the right and find equally suitable places to live. On a small scale this may be true, but sadly in Ecuador approximately 198,000 hectares of rainforest are deforested a year. Averaging about 500 trees per hectare, that means about 99,000,000 trees like ours are cut down in Ecuador alone. The Chocó region of Ecuador, which includes our reserve, has already lost about 98% of its area. If the rate of deforestation doesn’t decrease, the entire country would be deforested in 30 years ( Facing these odds, our tree becomes an invaluable resource, because it and the other trees on our reserve are some of the last few refuges many of the amazing plants and animals of the cloud forest have to go.