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You Have to Do What? On Being a Steward at Reserva las Tangaras 

January 7, 2023

By Dr. Dusti Becker

As the owner of this tropical paradise and/or, let’s be honest, rainy and muddy challenge, I know it takes hard work and passion. Shout out and kudos to all those who have succeeded in taking care of Reserva las Tangaras.

The 51-hectare (~130 acre) protected area is in the wilds of the Andes in western Ecuador.  While the cabin and land are within a 2-hour walk of the popular tourist destination of Mindo town where crepes and chocolate, and massages with lemongrass-scented oil are on offer, the reserve, in contrast, is a wilderness outpost. For example, Reserva las Tangaras, or The Tanagers Reserve boasts 25 kilometers of hiking trails, but they all must be cleared, sign-posted and kept safe for visitors. This means stewards must master the machete, which is not something taught at university, much less in urban-focused societies. Most stewards find it easier to serve up a mocha latte, than to sharpen a machete.  

After conquering the bridge over the Nambillo river, akin to balancing on a tightrope for some, stewards maintain a large cabin powered by a solar panel, change heavy cylinders of gas, keep business records, and host guests, all on top of doing ornithology projects. On one of my social media advertisements for reserve stewards someone commented that the job sounded like a 10-person position. One person can do it, but we always hire a dynamic duo. 

If you like to socialize, then the ecotourism part of the job is good fun. You can chat about travels and adventures and share your knowledge of the natural world at the reserve. You make meals and provide lodging to visitors, which requires creativity buying local foods and planning menus. Stewards guide guests on nature walks, including visits to a large Andean Cock-of-the- Rock display area called a “lek”,  where around 20 foot-ball sized, red birds, gather each morning, year-round, squawking, bowing, and even fighting talon to talon as they hop about the trees.  It’s a spectacle of sound and sight, but entails getting up early, hiking up the mountain for 30 minutes to be at the lek before dawn (0545). 

A miracle in my book is the crystal clear and potable water that comes pouring from the taps in the reserve cabin where guests sleep, shower, and enjoy home-cooked meals. The water comes from a spring-fed pool nearly a mile away, and travels down a hose to a couple of tanks, and finally to the cabin. Why two tanks? You might be wondering. One is a back-up, as much can go wrong with the water system, and does, and having enough water for a day or two while making repairs is sanity saving. At best, it’s a minor fix requiring the opening of a few connectors along the hose, “burping the pipes”, and whoosh, the tanks fill again and water is restored to the cabin. A more dramatic repair entails slogging the entire way to the source located in a pool below a waterfall where the pipe sits (or no longer does) gurgling the glorious elixir of life. As a prelude, one must cope with a hair-raising rock scramble along the tributary. If you are a flat-lander and maybe a tad clumsy, you will abhor fixing the water system. It’s for the adventurous rock-climbing types, for sure, not a job for old ladies like me, hip replacement on the horizon!

Then there are the ornithology projects, which are probably the easiest part of the job, especially for stewards with a biological science background. I especially enjoy watching the 3 hummingbird feeders for an hour each day to determine which species are around from day to day, season to season, year to year, and if some are increasing or declining. I get my cuppa ready, space 3 feeders about 5 feet apart and sit down with the data sheet to watch the hummer show. Almost always, a purple-bibbed whitetip female arrives first, raising her wings as she lands – ta daa! Huge Empress Brilliants swoop in and out like big bats, while Andean Emeralds, with their perfectly white breasts, shimmer and rattle. Usually, 10 to 14 species of hummingbirds visit the feeders during an hour. 

One slightly frustrating study is activity at the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock (ACOR) lek. For those who enjoy chaos and uncertainty it’s a fun show, but I seek patterns, and these are elusive at best. Stewards estimate how many males are on the lek, in how many subgroups, based mainly on sounds. They note color bands on the legs of the ACOR males, but these guys hide behind leaves and move around fast, so it’s hard to see those bands. Was that on the bird’s right or left leg? Still, we have had enough confirmed re-sights of color bands to estimate annual survival of adult male ACOR. The results show that any adult male seen on the lek in one year has between 87 to 97% chance of being alive on the lek the following year. We found a few ACOR males persisting at the lek for 14 years!

So that’s a flavor of what reserve stewards do at Reserva las Tangaras. If you think it’s a job for you, please contact me, Dr. Dusti Becker, We’ll need stewards in 2024.

I have been caring for the reserve for just 3 weeks now, and confess, that it is way too much for one person. Well, Rushi did it all by his lonesome from October to December 2022! I cheat a bit by hiring local guys to clear trails and repair things, including the water system that just went out in a monster rain storm. Still, I have really enjoyed hosting guests, doing the science data collection, and keeping the cabin tidy. It really is paradise in so many ways.

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