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The Integration Period

January 30, 2020

Hello from the cloud forest!


Bridget and I (Henry) are about to begin week 4 of managing the reserve — woah! We got here on January 8th (my birthday yay!), and haven’t been alone until now. We were lucky enough to overlap with Dusti, the owner of the reserve, for a few days, and with the previous managers, Ayla and Guillermo, for 5 awesome days before taking on all responsibility. On the 12th, we welcomed our first volunteer, Jory, who was with us up until the 26th. So, here we are now with a moment to breath and have the reserve all to ourselves. Let’s catch you up on the highlights of the last 3 weeks!


First and foremost, I’ll give some background on who we are. Interestingly, Bridget and I were both born in California, but didn’t meet until the very beginning of 2018 in Peru for a semester abroad with the School for Field Studies. We both recently graduated from undergrad; Bridget from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in Wildlife Biology and myself from Tufts University with a dual degree in Biology and Environmental Science. Bridget spent most of her life growing up in Pittsburgh, PA, and I grew up in Exeter, NH. We are both wildlife ecologists, and were primarily drawn to Reserva Las Tangaras by the sheer potential of research that could (and should) be done. That, and we have some time to kill before starting grad school in the fall. Bridget’s research interests focus on conservation biology and species interactions within an ecosystem (e.g., how coffee agriculture affects pollinator communities, or how birds adapt to parasites), whereas I focus entirely on conservation ornithology with a tropical emphasis. Our past field jobs and internships (some together and some not) took us to New Mexico, New Hampshire, Cape Cod, Mt. Pocono, Costa Rica, and Belize. Ecuador will likely be the most challenging and rewarding of them all! 


Travelling from Boston (we were in New Hampshire before coming here) to Quito was surprisingly straightforward — except for the fact that I found a bat in my hiking shoe when we were waiting to check our bags, and freaked out about rabies for a while after that even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t get bit. But the actual travelling was really quite easy. Actually, Copa Airlines almost didn’t let us check in because our return flight was more than 90 days after our arrival flight, and the tourist visa only lasts 90 days. Me trying to explain to them that getting the extended visa was really quite straightforward once we were in Ecuador didn’t help, so we just booked an earlier flight home and then cancelled it once we arrived (PSA for anyone else planning an extended visit to Ecuador: apparently you can get your extended visa in Connecticut before leaving).


Taking the bus from Quito to Mindo only costs $3.10 per person despite being a trip of 2 hours! I forgot how much I love prices in Latin America. We arrived in Mindo and walked around for about an hour before meeting up with Guillermo, Ayla and Dusti at a boujee (well, boujee for Mindo) place called El Quetzal, where we learned about “el almuerzo” — if you go into practically any restaurant in Mindo, you can ask for “el almuerzo,” which isn’t advertised on any menu but is often the cheapest lunch item available. We got “el almuerzo” at El Quetzal, which consisted of a big soup and a main plate of trout, rice, beans, and veggies, plus juice, all for $5. 


(L to R: Henry, Bridget, Guillermo, Ayla)

After lunch, Guillermo and Ayla showed us around town and pointed out every shop we’d most likely have to visit during our stay here. There are 3 main “grocery stores,” which are the size of a gas station minimart but somehow contain an amazing variety of food, and each of the owners seem to be easily offended if they know you’ve been shopping at another store. If you don’t visit them once a week, they start questioning and guilt-tripping you: “Didn’t see you last week. Where were you? Why don’t you like us anymore?” It sort of feels like we are dating each one of the owners and they have major trust issues. Our solution is to visit all 3 stores each time we go into town. Seems to be working so far. I’d imagine we’d probably have to do that regardless, because so far it’s been impossible to find everything we need at one store. And the prices vary wildly from store to store for some items. Peanut butter and olive oil are two recent examples. Speaking of peanut butter, if you’re coming to visit the reserve sometime between now and July 1, PLEASE bring us American peanut butter. The peanut butter here comes in bags and is often dry.


Anyway, fast forward to our training at the reserve. For the first couple of days, we’d spend the entire day absorbing important manager information from Guillermo and Ayla, who are amazing, friendly Spaniards. As we had anticipated, there is always so much to do here. Keeping the trail system clear has definitely been the most time-consuming duty thus far, and we often go clear trails every other day (doing it every day wears you out FAST). When we aren’t clearing trails, chores around the cabin are often the priority, including but not limited to: cleaning, sanding/maderoling/varnishing, fixing the water system, cooking for guests, collecting hummingbird abundance and weather data daily, trapping giant spiders and bringing them outside, etc., etc. 


(The bridge to get to the reserve — haven’t fallen off yet)

Our biggest issue so far has been dealing with the external water heater, known locally as a “calefon.” The damn thing broke the day Guillermo and Ayla took off, and I’m convinced that Mother Nature was testing us or something. Anyway, after 7 hours of trying to figure it out, I finally gave up and called Cesar “el maestro,” a local guy from Mindo who is known for being able to fix gadgets like calefons. He fidgeted with it for a while and determined that the ignition system — three wires with little metal elbows connected to the main battery that generate sparks to ignite the propane — was on its way out. Only one of the metal elbows still sparks, so each time we want to start the calefon, we have to manually warm up the ignition system but flicking the switch that generates sparks 3-4 times until its able to ignite the propane. At least that’s what I think is happening. My dad would normally help me out in this type of situation. 


Let’s talk about something more exciting: BIRDS!!!!! The birding here is phenomenal. Since we’re located in subtropical cloud forest, the trees aren’t super tall (like they were in the Amazon), meaning many of the canopy-dwelling bird species (which include most of the species you can possibly see here) are actually visible. The diversity and coloration of the tanagers here is awe-inspiring. Look up pictures of Flame-faced, Metallic-green, Glistening-green, White-winged, and Golden Tanagers and see for yourself. I’m amazed that these rainbow-colored gems don’t get sniped by raptors more often!


Every June and December, a banding expedition comes to the reserve to band birds every day for 2 weeks, so there is an extensive set of mist-nets and banding kits here that we’ve been able to use during days when we don’t have any priority maintenance work to complete. *NOTE: we have a strong background in extracting and banding birds, otherwise we would not be attempting this! Our most recent banding outing (and the most exciting one) was focused on Andean Cock-of-the-rocks. One of the main attractions of the reserve to tourists is the fact that it holds the largest Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek in the Mindo Valley area, and many of the males have been color-banded here as part of a long-term monitoring study. Color-banded birds have two types of bands: the traditional aluminum band with a unique serial number, and several plastic bands that are a solid color. For those of you unfamiliar with leks, they are essentially a spot in the forest where males of a species congregate to display for females. Usually, they are more open areas in a forest (e.g., a dead tree with snags), but the Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek on the reserve doesn’t really look any different than the surrounding forest besides the fact that is along a ridge. Anyways, some of the younger males at the lek haven’t been color-banded yet, so we set out to attempt to capture these unbanded males and add them to the study (and to recapture males that are already banded — resighting color-banded individuals is a useful way of “recapturing” them without having to catch them, but actually catching them and reading the number on the aluminum band gives 100% certainly that it is the same individual you originally banded). Anyways, we were able to recapture one color-banded male, an unbanded male, and an unbanded FEMALE! Catching the female was super cool because it’s normally very difficult to see them. We gave the new male two green color bands and called him “the Hulk.” I thought it was kinda funny. I really wanted to use two yellow color bands and call him “Big Bird,” but unfortunately that combo was already taken… Our next banding targets are Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owls and Club-winged Manakins, both regionally-endemic species that are data deficient. We hope we can combine our banding data with existing data collected by the banding expeditions and get a few short publications.


(New color-banded male, “the Hulk”)

Something we were somewhat dreading coming into the job was the ridiculous 5-km-long walk to get from the cabin in the reserve to Mindo and visa versa. But, having done it now 3 times, it really isn’t that terrible–it’s more annoying than anything, especially if it’s raining. I secretly kind of like it because it’s a great workout. Pretty much the only types of workouts we can do here are hiking and pushups/ab circuits, but we often find ourselves too tired to workout after a day of macheteing. Since we’re in the mountains on the side of a valley, we have to hike if we want to go literally anywhere that isn’t the cabin, so that’ll hopefully keep us in shape during our 6 months here. 


Well, that’s all the major news here! I’m sure we’ll run into some more problems before too long, and then Bridget will tell you all about our highs and lows in the next blog post! We decided it would probably be easiest if we switched off writing each blog post, so she’ll update you all in February. 


Thanks for reading! And remember — you are extremely lucky to enjoy good peanut butter and hot showers on a regular basis. And electricity in general. And refrigeration. Yeah, we don’t have that either. But we don’t have to deal with the news, so who’s laughing now?

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