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Headline: More covid… sorry

June 8, 2020

Each month that passes, I hope that the next will be covid-free and we can return to discussing the beauty of Ecuador like we used to. But, Ecuador continues to suffer from the silencing grip of this global pandemic. And, although things are finally calming down in Guayaquil (the epicenter of the virus in Ecuador), more and more cases are appearing in the Pichincha province — where Mindo and Las Tangaras are located.

Luckily, Mindo has done an excellent job of remaining isolated from the chaos. With the exception of one food truck per week, no one is allowed to enter the town, and only a select few are allowed to leave if they’ve acquired a “salvoconducto” from the chief of police. Will restrictions lighten up or get worse? Who knows… Certainly not Ecuador’s politicians. Luckily for the entire country, many citizens (especially in Mindo) have taken curfew extremely seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we couldn’t even buy more propane for the cabin. Yikes… Interesting to compare that to the hundreds of Americans that splashed around in the Ozarks and contracted the virus. Is it bad that I kinda hoped they would get it? I sure do wish I was literally any other nationality…

Switching gears to a lighter subject, we have exciting news: the manuscript Bridget described in her last blog post on the avian species composition of Las Tangaras has finally been accepted and will be published in Cotinga, a peer-reviewed journal that focuses on tropical ornithology, at a later date. We are ecstatic that years of data collected by Las Tangaras staff and volunteers will finally enter the public sphere. It’s about time!

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Now, let’s both be real here — you probably aren’t going to read the article when it’s published. I get it, you’re busy. So allow me to summarize some of our most exciting results with you here! I’ll start with the numbers. After removing dubious records, we finalized the official Las Tangaras list at a mouth-dropping 356 bird species. In other words, that’s more than 3% of the total bird species in the entire WORLD (I know Bridget used this fact in her last blog post but I’m reusing it because how incredible is that??) in an area of just 100 hectares. Amazing. Of those 356, 19 are endemic to the Chocó biogeographic region, a megadiverse ecosystem that ranges from Colombia down to southern Ecuador.

High numbers of species are exciting and everything, but for ornithologists, quality is more than important than quantity. In other words, does Tangaras support species of conservation concern? That’s an excellent question, Henry, and the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, 32 species of conservation concern in Ecuador use Tangaras for breeding, foraging, overwintering and/or dispersal. Such species include the charismatic Long-wattled Umbrellabird, the adorable Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, the chunky Dark-backed Wood-Quail, and the elusive Slaty Becard.


A Long-wattled Umbrellabird visiting Las Tangaras. Found and photographed by Zak Pohlen.

As it turns out, Tangaras even supports species unrepresented in the local Mindo area, and often contributes unique species to the annual Christmas Bird Count (fun fact: the Mindo Christmas Bird Count usually records more species than any other count in the entire world!). Such species include the Lanceolated Monklet and White-throated Hawk, and, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll be looking at the right place at the right time and see one of these gems next time you’re visiting the reserve!

Unfortunately, not all our results are uplifting. Our long-term dataset allowed us to determine which species have undergone local declines over time, and unfortunately, this seems to be the case for species such as the Russet-backed Oropendola, Crested Quetzal, Powerful Woodpecker, and Toucan Barbet, among others. While these species are still detected sporadically on the reserve, their total abundances have dropped noticeably since the founding of the reserve just after the turn of the century. Figuring out the drivers for their declines is a crucial, yet extremely difficult, task for future research, especially given the list of potential culprits. Is climate change gradually shifting their ranges upwards in elevation? Has local habitat destruction forced them to seek larger patches of undisturbed habitat than Tangaras? Is fruit availability controlling their movements? Who knows, besides that it’s time for some serious science to happen in Latin America.

Bridget and I have been lucky and privileged to pursue our dreams in science. We were lucky to have families that supported us emotionally and financially in our decision-making, and for the opportunity to attend and focus on school throughout our lives. Unfortunately, not every aspiring young scientists shares our luck and privilege. There are students in Latin America and around the world who want to contribute to the growing field of ecology but simply lack the means to do so. In the midst of such dark times, we loved following #BlackBirdersWeek and the Binoculars for Black Birders event and hope similar initiatives can support Latin American scientists in the future. A pair of free binoculars can change someone’s life forever (it certainly did for me), but there are so many other ways we can encourage science in Latin America, like hiring locals for research projects and promoting community-based conservation schemes. Hopefully, in a post-covid world, Tangaras will be a place where Ecuadorian students learn to identify and band birds — and prepare them to combat the 6th extinction.

Sorry, didn’t mean to end on such a dark note. Here’s a picture of us and some pretty flowers:


Remember to keep quarantining until health officials give us the green light!

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