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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.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. humanity777 permalink
    February 21, 2022 3:00 pm

    Great shots!


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