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July Bird Banding Project

August 5, 2013

 For the past few weeks we have hosted the reserve’s yearly bird-banding party. This is a two week stint in July where volunteers arrive from all over the world to mist net, categorize and take vital statistics from some of the 305 species of bird to be found in what we like to refer to as ‘our garden’ – all 50 hectares of it!

For Tom and I the work started early as we were tasked with helping to catch, measure and take blood samples from the resident Cock of the Rocks at the lek. Written down like this, it really looks like a straight-forward brief, but the Cock of the Rock are not partial to flying at ground level so you have to raise nets as close to canopy as you can; they are angry when you catch them so will happily take a chunk out of your finger with their talons; and they learn extremely quickly, seemingly to enjoy flying within an inch of the nets purely for the fun of it. 

 For a week Tom, myself and our brilliant jeffes Pascual and Mauritzio Torres could be found sitting in the jungle in a cloud of insects watching Cock of the Rocks whizz around our heads and, most often, straight past, over or under our nets. We did manage to catch 4 ‘new’ birds and place colour bands on their legs as well as take measurements and blood from them. The reason for this seemingly irrational behaviour was in fact very scientific and I will explain what I can here. Every week Tom and I sit at one of the three research points at the lek and observe which males attend the lek, who they display with, how long those displays last and if any females birds stop by to watch or to mate. The colour bands placed on the right leg of the bird allow us to construct a very clear picture of the interactions going on between the birds attending the lek . We can clearly see which birds are most dominant and monitor their breeding success. In this week we also took the measurements from the birds including weight, wing length, beak length, length of tarsus and the size of their crest. Doing this allows us to monitor the condition of the birds as well as keep track and test the specific idiosyncrasies in a birds’ measurements which arise in the measuring process.  Taking blood from the birds also allows us to keep track of genetic trends within the group. For example are the dominant birds at the lek related in some way? We are told there is very little scientific data being collected on this species of bird so all the data we collect is vital to understanding the behaviour, genetics and condition of these bizarre creatures.


After a week of climbing up the ridge at 4.30am and sitting in the dark being mauled by birds we were pretty ready for a lie in, but instead we trotted into town to get ready for the bird-banding groups arrival. As we left the ‘internet’ shop we ran straight into a crowd of people all with binoculars pointing straight up to the the trees in Mindo’s main square. Here they were!

 2 mules and 6 dogs arrived the next morning carring supplies and bags (the dogs weren’t carrying anything to be honest but they helpfully ate all our bird food) followed by 7 volunteers for lunch. So we were now a group of 13 people in the cabin.

 The schedule was a tough one. We had 1 day of surveying different areas of the reserve to see what birds we could both see and hear, 2 days mist netting the top of the ridge line, another days survey on the grassland surrounding the reserve, 3 days mist netting in the grass edge, another survey and then 3 days mist netting around the house.

This way we could catch and collect the maximum number of species and compare the species diversity of riperion, primary growth, secondary growth and pasture/forest edge. Similarly to the Cock of the Rock’s we took measurments of weight, brood patch if female, beak, wing, tail and tarsus as well as looking at plumages and parasites the birds were carrying. This data collection is vital for looking at the condition of the birds at the reserve, for example we had at least 2 birds with bot fly infestations which was thought only  to be a problem for birds living at lower altitude. Also the study is vital for seeing exactly which birds are thriving where. This year in particular we saw a rise in the numbers of birds that should be living at lower altitudes being caught in our nets. Examples were the South Yellow Grosbeak and the Slaty Antwren, pictured below.  We speculate that the disturbance at lower altitudes caused by slow deforestation and, more locally, the rise in Mindo’s tourism as well as the possibility of climate change, are the two main factors in the changes we are seeing in Las Tangaras’s Bird life. Saying that, we did catch more birds than have been caught in previous years and have added 4 new species to the bird list (Thrush-like Schiffornis, White-throated Spadebill, Buff-rumped Warbler and Streak-necked Flycatcher) so the positive story is that we remain a safe haven for birds to retreat to.


A young Slaty Ant Wren



Southern Yellow Grosbeak

 We also caught a huge number (over 35) of Andean Solitaires pictured here, which is not unusual, but 3 years for 2 years running, we caught absolutely none whatsoever. So for some reason the population at Las Tangaras is booming. It is trends like this in the data that pose questions that we can look into in more detail using this type of scientific research.

ImageAndean Solitaire

 We caught the most diverse range of bird species in the pasture/forest edge. The reason for this being that the nets were ideally located to catch both forest and pasture specialists. For example this is where we caught most of our tanager species as they enjoy foraging on pasture edges. Below we have pictures of the Beryl Spangled, Flame Faced and Bay Headed Tanagers.


Beryl Spangled Tanager


Flame Faced Tanger


Bay Headed Tanager

 In other areas such as the primary forest the species diversity of caught birds was lower. The reason for this is that our nets were only high enough to catch understory birds and forest floor specialists so often missing birds who stay in the canopy (to catch the Cock of the Rock we had used higher nets). Here we did catch a Blue-winged Mountain Tanager which, although not a first for the reserve, is more commonly seen at higher altitudes and a Barred Forest Falcon, pictured below.


 Around the house we caught both Mot-Mot species, Rufous and Broad-billed, pictured below. It is difficult to see but the Rufous Mot-Mot is significanly bigger than the Broad-billed, more rarely seen and note the serrated beak used for catching a killing lizards and the like. Around the house is the only place we caught the Orange-billed Sparrow and Rufous-rumped Antwren pictured below.


Broad Billed Mot Mot- Smaller with rufous chest only coming half way down. Also no serrations on bill.


Rufous Mot Mot – Bigger bird with serrations on the beak.


Rufous Rumped Antwren

 In every habitat we caught the Andean Solitaire, Tawny-bellied Hermit and Three-Striped Warblers in large numbers. The numbers of Tawny-bellied Hermits caught personally suprised us both as they are rarely seen at the feeders and we only see fleeting glimses of them in the forest. Another reason why mist netting sometimes provides us a more accurate picture than simply just looking and listening!   


Tawny Bellied Hermit


Three Striped Warbler

 Some of the rarer or harder to see birds we had in the nets were the Olive Finch, the Rufous-breasted Antthrush (common but hard to see) and the Southern Nightingale Wren (again, one of the hardest birds to spot in the jungle!).



Olive Finch

So after three weeks of good, hard work we were all done and had collected collected an impressive amount of data. This data can now be used not only to inform the management of the reserve itself, but to built our knowledge of the massive diversity of bird life in Mindo’s incredible cloud forests. If we know exactly what is here and thriving we can act as advocates of keeping more of the forest undisturbed. Mindo’s tourism has boomed over the past 10 years, but this boom started as a result as being one of the best places in the world to see and experience incredible bird life. It makes sense to understand and protect it.



One Comment leave one →
  1. katy lord permalink
    August 5, 2013 1:15 pm

    I’ve seen nathan do something similar at the trip….. Not the lek…… Lovely photos xx


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