Skip to content

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.

Our Cloud Forest Home

March 14, 2022

¡Hola! Our names are Liat (lee-aht) and Alex (hopefully you can pronounce this one), and we are excited to be the new managers of Reserva Las Tangaras! We arrived here just over a week ago from our home country, the United States, and are currently acclimating to our new lifestyle here. However, between fresh tropical fruit and the wonders of the cloud forest, acclimation could be a lot harder. Thus far, managing and being at Reserva Las Tangaras has been an absolute treat.

Reserva Las Tangaras is beautifully nestled in the cloud forest that surrounds Mindo, Ecuador. While sitting on the reserve’s porch and peering in all different directions one gets a sense of the vast scales and incredible density of the forest. The physical comforts of the reserve are just that much more comfortable when contrasted with the wildness of the jungle. We’d be hard pressed to think of something more luxurious than a hot shower and a tasty warm meal while in the middle of wilderness (except maybe a butler fanning us with banana leaves and dropping fresh fruit into our mouths, but we can’t have it all, can we/that’s not in our budget). Until then a hot shower and warm meal suit us just fine.

Curry with fresh naan bread

Very quickly one realizes that the rainforest does not exactly want our manmade projects to exist here. It is always ready to swallow them up with heavy rains and all the fungi and micro life. So, we must make our efforts to persuade the forest to let the reserve stay here. We do that with a good amount of maintenance to the property; sanding, maderol, varnishing, and waxing are necessary precautions to keep the massive quantities of water circulating through the forest out of our wooden structures. Rio Nambillo, the river lining the northern edge of Las Tangaras’ property, can be heard coursing from the reserve’s porch, but despite its intensity it still offers serene swimming holes for a dip in between rain showers. The swimming holes are gorgeous and look like the quintessential images of tropical paradises from adventure novels or Bachelor in Paradise.

Waxing the floors. A necessary chore to live in the tropics.

It seems best to be honest upfront and confess that we are both biology nerds, but much like a job interview perhaps we can claim that this ‘weakness’ is actually a strength… At least out here in the cloud forest it may just be. It would be difficult not to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of biology that is present in a cloud forest. Layers upon layers of life exist here, whether or not they are directly visible to onlooking human eyes. 

Seeing this extent of biological magnitude begs the question: Why exactly is there so much biomass here?

With large amounts of biomass, there must be a large amount of energy to produce so much life. The sun, an awesome source of energy, is, according to some sources, very hot. Too much or too little of its immense heat and light, or rather its energy, and climate conditions change drastically. Mindo’s cloud forest, due to its location as a next door neighbor of the Earth’s equator, receives little fluctuation in sunlight intensity and duration. The days here receive a fairly consistent amount of sunlight year-round, and unlike places that have intense seasonal variations, the temperatures here remain fairly consistent as well. Without intense seasonal fluctuations the air here does not gain or lose a significant amount of heat. For example, think of the extreme environment of the arctic. The arctic is characterized by long, freezing cold winters with almost no daylight and short, intense summers with near constant daylight minus a few hours. The arctic air will fluctuate in temperature tremendously, losing immense amounts of heat in the winter and warming up significantly in the summer only to be lost again next winter. 

Interestingly, both regions in this example, the cloud forest and the arctic, receive the same number of hours of sunlight throughout the year. The stark difference is when that sunlight is received and the angle at which it hits the surface of the Earth. The tropics receive nearly direct sunlight due to a perpendicular angle of their location along the equator relative to the sun and thus receive a higher concentration of photons (energy packets from the sun) throughout the year. Contrastingly, the angle of sunlight at the poles varies drastically but never approximates the perpendicular equatorial rays. These differences in when and angle – consistent sunlight/air temperature and high concentration of photons – are key to the success and existence of the cloud forest.

Now, the other key component for the cloud forest to generate so much biomass is, maybe not so shockingly, water. And a lot of it. Fortunately and not coincidently, a cloud forest is a type of rainforest. Not only is it a rainforest, but it is among the rainiest of rainforests. Mindo’s cloud forest receives nearly 5000 mm of rain annually.  Rain is amazingly abundant here, with the dry season receiving about 345 mm of rain per month and the wet season receiving about 486 mm per month. Although ‘dry season’ seems to be a bit of a misnomer, the name is relative. Perhaps we should call it the ‘not quite as wet as the wet season season,’ but we digress. These rain values reveal substantial differences in the amount of rain, although it is still abundant year-round. In temperate zones plants shed their leaves when it is cold and dry. As we addressed before, cloud forest temperatures rarely drop significantly, and looking at the rain value in the ‘not as wet as the wet season season’ one can see that it never gets very dry here. This means plants do not shed their leaves seasonally, and so the leaves, called by some the photosynthetic launchpad, are shed throughout the year. Leaves are always abundant and collecting sunlight for photosynthesis, which is a critical piece of the tropical puzzle we laid out. Except for some of the bizarre alien creatures that live on the bottom of the ocean, all of the energy that is used by life on Earth is captured by photosynthesis. Generally speaking, more photosynthesis yields more biomass.

And finally (we promise this is going somewhere), with the consistent daylight, consistent temperature, and a plenitude of water we get a ton of photosynthesis yielding lots of oxygen and sugar energy for more forms of life! Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

These conditions of daylight and rain make the tropics, and specifically the cloud forest, a unique and magnificent place to marvel at. Understanding some of why it exists has only added to the wonder of the life here in all its forms and abundance. We hope you want to come see it for yourself. If you do, be sure to come say hi to us at Reserva Las Tangaras.

Reserva las Tangaras shrouded in clouds

A Day in the Life at RLT

February 21, 2022

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” My phone’s alarm startled me awake. It took several seconds of fumbling in the dark before I managed to switch it off. 

It was 5:00am, and our room was pitch black. My eyes wanted to close and let me fall back into the pleasant dream from which I had been so rudely awoken. However, remembering what we had in store for the morning, I took a final yawn and rolled out of bed. 

Today was an ACOR morning. ACOR is the acronym for Andean Cock-of the-Rock, a large, quirky, bright red bird found in middle elevation cloud forest. Male ACOR gather at display sites where they vocalize and dance to attract females. This behavior is called lekking, and the Reserve is lucky to have the largest and most active lek site in the Mindo area. For almost two decades, the Reserve has collected data on these charismatic birds. Once a week, the Reserve’s managers make their way to the nearby lek to collect this data. 

Within 15 minutes, Aidan and I were dressed and ready to go, each with a pair of binoculars. A light mist fell as we began our hike up the trail to the lek. Moths danced in the beams of our headlamps, attracted by the light. We had walked this same trail countless times and were familiar with each switchback and mud puddle along the way. However, the trail never felt quite the same twice, as we never knew what new animal or downed tree we would encounter.

Aidan was the first to hear it this morning. 

“Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl,” he said in a hushed voice, pointing into the darkness on our left. I cocked my head and nodded. We hadn’t been lucky enough to see an owl yet, but we often heard the persistent, high-pitched hoot of the pygmy owl on our early mornings. After about 20 minutes of hiking, we reached the lek. It was still dark, but we could see the shapes of trees beginning to appear around us in a dozen of shades of gray. Now all we had to do was wait for the birds to show up. 

“Squaaaak!” we heard from the trees nearby. “Squaaak!” we heard from the other direction. The birds had arrived. Aidan and I lifted our binoculars, trying to catch a glimpse of the ACOR as they filtered into the display area. Many of the males were color banded, and we strained to see their legs to identify who had returned today. For the next hour and a half, we observed the ACOR, taking notes of who was there, who was where, and who was displaying with whom. Although we had surveyed the lek many times in the past five months, I couldn’t help but grin at their indignant, pig-like squeals and frantic dance.

Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock, or “ACOR,” are quite stunning with their bright red plumage. This one is color banded with a green band on the left leg and an aluminum band on the right.

As their display drew to a close, the males began to depart, first leaving one by one, then in small groups. When we finally saw the last one disappear into the trees behind us, we packed up our data sheet and headed back to the cabin. We knew better than to pack away our binoculars, as mixed flocks appear most reliably when your binoculars are at the bottom of your pack or foolishly left at home. The morning’s fog had lifted, and warm rays of sun filtered through the thick canopy.

“French toast for breakfast?” asked Aidan, already knowing my response. 

“Sounds good to me,” I replied. “We can even slice up that pineapple and make some fruit salad with the bananas and maracuya we bought yesterday,” I suggested. However, our breakfast mission was delayed when I saw a twig take a step forward on the branch next to me.

“Woah, look at that stick bug!” I exclaimed. “It’s huge!” And indeed it was. About 6 inches from nose to rear, the stick bug was almost a quarter of an inch thick, the largest we had seen yet. Aidan held out his hand and the bug made its way onto his forest-green jacket without hesitation, moving slowly with jolting steps. 

An especially large stick bug exploring Aidan’s arm. 

After bidding our new friend adieu, we made our way back to the cabin to start breakfast. 

It was almost nine o’clock, and both of us were hungry after our morning excursion. Aidan cracked some eggs into a bowl and started on the toast while I began the fruit salad. A highlight of living in the tropics was the fresh fruit, and on each trip into town we came home with as much produce as we could fit in our packs. Oftentimes there was no room left for a pineapple, so it was unceremoniously strapped to the outside of my bright red backpack, to the amusement of any tourists driving by. 

Thirty minutes later we sat on the front porch, full and content. We watched as the hummingbirds zoomed to-and-fro, getting their morning sugar-water fix. From the front porch we also had a nice view of the hillside across the river, where we often saw flocks of toucans or guans swooping from tree to tree. 

After cleaning up from breakfast, we started in on our first chore for the day: trail clearing. We regularly checked the Reserve’s trails for fallen trees and cleared any understory vegetation encroaching on the paths. The rainy season’s heavy precipitation had kept us especially busy this month, and we sharpened our machetes well before leaving. Although trail clearing could be hard work, it was also fun, as it gave us the opportunity to explore the Reserve’s many trails on a regular basis. Today we decided to clear Momotos, a trail named after the two motmot species regularly seen around the reserve.

A Broad-billed Motmot, one of the namesake species of the Momotos trail. 

 Although steep, the trail was one of our favorites. It started off along the river, where we had the opportunity to see White-capped Dippers foraging along the stream and Western Basilisk lizards napping on the rocks. Then it climbed through dense secondary forest and finally emerged close to the ridgeline where the trees opened up a bit and we often saw toucans and tanagers foraging in the canopy overhead. We made our way along the trail, Aidan going ahead to clear any large vegetation that had obstructed the path and me taking my time to cut back smaller plants that had begun to grow into the trail. As we left the river and began to make our way upward, we glimpsed a flash of pink in a tree nearby. Then another, and another. All around us, contrasted starkly against the dark forest around us, were enormous, bright pink flowers. They almost seemed to glow in contrast to the dark forest around us, and it felt a bit like being in the Avatar movie. I stepped off the trail to get a closer look at one and noticed smaller, more delicate purple flowers growing out of the main pink shaft.  

The bright colors of pink quill bromeliad flowers stand out starkly in the dark forest.

“How beautiful,” I mused aloud to Aidan. This was one of my favorite things about the Reserve. With such an abundance of plant, animal, and fungi life, we were constantly seeing new things. 

We finally emerged at the top of the trail and slowly made our way around Tucanes then down Barbudos, two more of our bird-named trails. Despite our large breakfast just a few hours earlier, we had worked up quite an appetite trail clearing and were excited for lunch by the time we made it back to the cabin. Today we decided on arepas. Aidan put the beans on to cook while I began mixing masa flour. One of our favorite new discoveries in Ecuador was the pressure cooker, which eliminated the usual soaking and long cook times required for beans. About 40 minutes later our food was ready to go and we sat down on the front porch to enjoy it. Without the convenience of appliances like a fridge, microwave, or toaster, many of our meals took a bit longer to cook than they would “in civilization.” However, with the ability to make our own schedules and access to abundant fresh produce, we enjoyed slowing down and taking the time to make fresh meals. 

Ecuador’s fresh produce made for many delicious meals, like these arepas.

After lunch, Aidan went inside to wash dishes and I began on a hummingbird survey. For years, the Reserve’s managers have completed a one-hour-long hummingbird survey every day. During the survey, we watch the feeders and tally all hummingbirds we see, identifying the species and sex of each individual. This allows us to keep track of hummingbird abundance and shifts in species throughout the year. Although it might seem a bit tedious, we had both come to enjoy the survey as an opportunity to focus on the birds around the cabin. Today the usual suspects were all at the feeders: Green-crowned Woodnymphs, Purple-bibbed White-tips, Empress, Green-crowned, and Fawn-breasted Brilliants, and White necked Jacobins. We were also visited by a Purple-throated Woodstar female, a less reliable but still frequent visitor. 

 Purple-throated Woodstar female, one of the feeders’ cuter visitors.

By the time the time the survey was over it had begun to rain, and we were glad for an excuse to stay in for the afternoon. Luckily, we had plenty of indoor tasks to keep us busy. The Reserve’s cabin is made almost entirely of wood, and as it is exposed to the elements and constant humidity it takes lots of work to keep it in good condition. Our best tools in these efforts were sanding, disinfecting, varnishing, and waxing, which keep the wood mold-free and resistant to the cloud forest’s famously damp weather. Today we set about cleaning and waxing the living room floor. It was early evening when we finished, and we decided to call it quits for the day. 

For dinner we had lentil soup with fresh bread from town, accompanied by our nightly game of cribbage. Without service and with limited electricity, life at the reserve was an involuntary media cleanse. We didn’t mind, and free from distractions like the daily news, social media, or Netflix, cribbage had become our nightly entertainment. Unfortunately, Aidan was on a four-night winning streak, but as I shuffled the deck I hoped my luck would take a turn for the better. It did not. 

By 8:30pm we had finished washing the dishes, wiped down the counters, and were ready for bed. With nothing much to do after dark, we almost always had an early bedtime. A full day’s work behind us, we climbed gratefully under our mosquito net and into bed. The Reserve had a small library, and both of us had enjoyed reading several of its ecologically-themed books. At the moment, I was reading “Last Chance to See,” a book co-authored by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine. This book had none of the bizarre science fiction of the former’s famous “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy, but was full of his usual humor. The topic, however, was more somber. The book narrates, in an albeit entertaining and often hilarious way, the author’s travels to see some of the world’s most imperiled species. I picked up where I had left off the night before, following Douglas and Mark’s quest to glimpse China’s blind river dolphin, the Baiji. Before long, my eyelids began to droop, and I reached up to flick off my headlamp. As I rolled over and pulled our alpaca blanket closer around me, visions of the Yangtze river mixed with the sound of the Río Nambillo nearby, and before I knew it I was asleep.

The white noise of the Río Nambillo makes for a wonderful night’s sleep.