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Neotropical migrants of the human and bird varieties

October 29, 2021

Greetings from Reserva Las Tangaras! And more specifically, greetings from us, the new managers: Aidan and Mary. This month we’ve had a wonderful time exploring the reserve and becoming familiar with the work required to keep this place running. We started with a few days of training from Jack and Meg, the wonderful previous managers. Now we’ve jumped right into the trail clearing, hummingbird counting, wood varnishing, etc. that being a manager here entails. It’s lots of work, but has so many wonderful perks: refreshing dips in the swimming holes, being lulled to sleep by a chorus of frogs, and becoming wonderfully distracted every time we hear a mixed flock start to move through the canopy above our heads.

Aidan and Mary, the Reserve’s new managers, at their first day “on the job”.

This month we’re taking our blog post as an opportunity to introduce ourselves and, in honor of the spectacular birdlife at the reserve, to cover one of our favorite bird-related topics: migration. (Mary here with a quick aside: we’ve decided to alternate who writes a blog post each month. This month is my turn. Between Aidan and myself I am admittedly the more bird-obsessed of the two, and have taken the liberty of dedicating my first post to the incredible avifauna that makes Reserva Las Tangaras such a magical place. For now, a bit more about us, but don’t worry, we’ll get back to the birds soon!).

We come to Ecuador from the USA. We both have a passion for the natural world and are lucky to work in fields dedicated to its study and preservation. While we both grew up in Northern California, we’ve spent the past few years working various field jobs in the western United States. Most recently, Aidan worked as a biological science technician at a wildlife refuge in southwestern Montana setting up trail cameras, completing moose browse surveys, and running the refuge’s invasive species management plan, among other tasks. Mary’s most recent job was also in Montana, but she was stationed in the prairies of the state’s northeast where she spent her days nestsearching for birds and fitting some of them with trackers. It was doing just that, putting tiny tags on birds that would allow researchers to know where the birds went throughout the year, that her interest in bird migration was sparked. (Again, I promise we’ll get back to that soon). As one would expect, moving to Ecuador’s cloud forest was a big adjustment from the Big Sky State. Elk and Bald Eagles have been replaced by red brocket deer and Choco Toucans, and instead of bison out our back window we have an agouti who, although shy, seems to have become a reliable backyard visitor. True to its reputation as a biodiversity hotspot, the wildlife in Ecuador’s cloud forest is incredible. And of that fauna, one group has been especially exciting. That’s right, BIRDS!

As promised, this week’s blog is about migration. Specifically, bird migration. It is also about the importance of places like Reserva Las Tangaras to this incredible phenomenon, in which birds fly up to tens of thousands of miles in a year to travel between breeding grounds and areas where food is most plentiful. In our first month at the reserve we have seen incredible birds: the tiny Purple-throated Woodstar hummingbird, whose buzzing bee-like wingbeats alert you to their presence before they arrive to the feeders, zany Andean Cocks-of-the-rock, whose striking crimson plumage and lively mating displays have made them a favorite bird of locals and international travelers alike, the stunning Yellow-throated Toucan, with an echoing song that resonates across the valley, and the rotund White-capped Dipper, whose playful movements along the water’s edge are as spirited as the bubbling rapids themselves. Seeing all these birds, so colorful, so exotic, so different from what we’re used to in the States, has been incredibly exciting. However, not all the species we’ve seen here are new to us. We’ve seen and heard a few species that live in Montana and California as well. Turkey Vultures, Black Phoebes, Snowy Egrets, Olive-sided Flycatchers, to name a few. While some of these birds are simply individuals of the same species that live in a different part of the world, others might be the exact same individuals that we see in the United States. Birds such as Olive-sided Flycatchers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Blackburnian Warblers, all these are neotropical migrants. Every spring, individuals of these species migrate to North America where they breed. At the end of the summer those same individuals, as well as many young birds that hatched that spring, fly south to the neotropics (Note: the neotropics is a region encompassing the tropical part of southern Mexico as well as Central and South America. Hence, a neotropical migrant species is a species that travels between its breeding grounds in North America and its wintering grounds to the south).

One of the Reserve’s more charismatic bird species, the Andean Cock-of-the-rock. Reserva Las Tangaras boasts the largest Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek in Mindo.
We were very excited to see our first toucan at the Reserve. Yellow-throated Toucans are quite common at Las Tangaras and their yelping calls can be heard echoing across the valley most afternoons.
The White-capped Dipper is always a welcome sight at the water’s edge.

Aidan and my trip here was powered by jet fuel and pretzels: jet fuel for the airplanes and pretzels for us, as we sat comfortably in our seats watching more back-to-back movies than we’d care to admit. At the same time, billions of birds were making the same trip south. Their journeys, however, were powered by precious fat stores accrued on the breeding grounds and at stopover sites: insects, berries, and crustaceans turned into precious fuel for fall migration. These birds are unfathomably small compared to the approximately 400,000-500,000 pounds of an average Boeing. The smallest, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, is as light as a penny, weighing just over three grams. Migrating birds don’t have the luxury of closing the airplane blind to shut out a bit of bad weather. During this incredible journey birds travel hundreds to thousands of miles pushing through bad weather, predators, and exhaustion until they finally reach their wintering grounds.

This is where places like Reserva Las Tangaras come in. Every year, large sums of money and many field hours are spent studying birds on the breeding grounds. Scientists do their best to quantify every measurable aspect of avian reproduction, striving to understand the breeding biology of these feathered critters. In doing so, many biologists hope to gain information that will help to stop and reverse the mass declines so many bird species have experienced in recent decades. While protecting birds and their habitat on the breeding grounds is incredibly important, species also require safe migratory corridors and reliable overwintering habitat. And Reserva Las Tangaras provides just that. Since 2002, Reserva Las Tangaras’ 51 hectares have been allowed to sit, virtually unaffected by development. While some of the reserve is primary forest, part of the reserve was used for agriculture in the past. To an untrained eye like mine, it’s difficult to believe this land has been anything other than rainforest. Now, the clean water of the Río Nambillo and its tributaries rushes through the bottom of lush valleys walled by towering trees and flowering understory plants of enough species to stump even expert botanists. The trees themselves are their own microecosystems, their trunks and branches laden with bromeliads, orchids, and countless other plant and fungus species. This wild state, this lush vegetation, clean water, and perhaps some other ingredients that our clumsy human senses can’t quite detect, provides invaluable habitat. While other parts of the cloud forest nearby may be developed for ecotourism, agriculture, or housing, the goal with Reserva Las Tangaras is to leave it in an undisturbed state. On the Reserve, with plenty of habitat, food, and little disturbance from human activity, wildlife can thrive. The incredible diversity of birds, insects, mammals, and herpetofauna on the reserve are in large part owed to the healthy habitat which the reserve boasts. Some birds may fly south only to find that a patch of forest that once served as a reliable wintering site has been bulldozed and is now a parking lot for an apartment building. Perhaps these birds waste valuable energy locating a new wintering site. Perhaps they don’t make it at all.

The Reserve’s lush vegetation and flowing waters provide excellent habitat for birds and other wildlife

Places like Reserva Las Tangaras ensure that neotropical migrants have a safe place to live for the winter. While birds still face myriad other threats (some natural, like predation, others, like climate change, human-caused), having intact habitat to spend the winter is crucial for the persistence of migratory birds. For that reason we’re so excited to see the golden face of a Blackburnian Warbler dancing among the leaves and to hear the sharp pips of an Olive-sided Flycatcher from the treetops. These birds have made an incredible journey to arrive here. And we’re glad they have a place like Reserva Las Tangaras to spend the winter.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dusti Becker permalink
    October 29, 2021 1:19 pm

    Wonderful blog!


  2. October 30, 2021 8:05 pm

    Awesome! I can wait until your next post.


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