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A Break from Bird Blogs

February 1, 2022

Our Reserve is famous for its birds. However, there are many interesting mammals that make their homes here as well. Below I have outlined a few of our favorites (in no particular order).

Central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) – Local name: guatusa. One of the most frequently seen mammals on the Reserve. Agoutis are large rodents, about the size of a jack rustle terrier, but with much longer legs and dainty lil’ paws. When alarmed, they thump their paws on the ground and make a series of grunts. Agoutis can jump about 6 feet horizontally, and when we startle them on the trails they often appear as a blur as they rocket themselves into the brush. As seed predators, agoutis will cache seeds when they find more than they can eat, making them important forest seed dispersers (Kritcher 1999). We regularly observe agoutis calmly foraging behind the Cabana without noticing us.

Central American Agouti in the Backyard (Aidan Sullivan)

Ecuadorian White-Fronted Capuchin (Cebrus aequatorials) – A critically endangered species. Ecuadorian white-fronted capuchins are endemic to northern Peru and Ecuador and have lost 99% of their habitat in the last few decades. The lowland Chocó-Manabí region has largely been deforested and habitat converted to agriculture/ranch land. Large tracts of forested land are needed to sustain their foraging troupes as they have home ranges of 500 hectares (Abrams 2019). Occasionally, a troupe of capuchins will travel through the Reserve in the search for fruiting forest trees.

Southern River Otter (Luntra longicaudis) – In the past, these otters were intensively hunted for their fur and are not often seen (Emmons 1990). We were lucky and got to see an individual playing and foraging in the rapids at one of our favorite swimming holes. After it got out of the water, it sauntered past Mary without noticing her. While this was happening, I was running back to the cabana for my camera. By the time I returned to the beach, I was only able to get a blurred shot of it as it departed. Luckily, Mary took some good iPhone videos of the encounter. They are posted on RLT’s social media

Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) – Mostly nocturnal, armadillos frequently forage for insects in the soil along our trails. They have poor eyesight, and it is sometimes possible to get a close look at them before they notice you.  When startled, they jump straight up into the air, then trundle speedily into the undergrowth. Armadillos’ defense is their armored bands, not their stealth, so they often move very noisily through the bush. If you hear something crashing through the undergrowth beside you at night, it is probably just an armadillo. If there was a jaguar next to you in the bush, you wouldn’t hear a thing.

Squirrels – Belong to the order Rodentia, which is the largest order of mammals worldwide. Squirrels are seen frequently all over the Reserve. We have two species:

  • Western dwarf squirrel (Microsciurus mimulus). Seen regularly around the Reserve, just cute as a button. I don’t have any interesting facts, I just wanted a reason to include a photo in the blog.
Just Cute as Heck (Aidan Sullivan)
  • Red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis). A larger and significantly less cute squirrel. No photo needed.

Bats – Belong to the order Chiroptera, the second largest order of mammals worldwide. Bats make up 39% of neotropical mammals. Bats are very beneficial to ecosystems, as they eat large quantities of insects and are important pollinators for many plant species including balsa, chicle, and calabash. In a given neotropical forest, there are likely as many species of bats as there are all other mammals combined (Emmons 1990). We see them frequently in low light, and it can be difficult to determine their species. We do have one very special bat that roosts near the toolshed inside our cabin. We’ve named the bat ‘squeakers’ and it uses a cardboard box to do its business.

Squeekers in his/our home

Kinkajou (Potos flavus) –The largest arboreal mammals we have at the Reserve. Kinkajous are a member of the raccoon family (Procyonidae) and are nocturnal. One can find kinkajous with a bright flashlight as they have incredibly bright orange eyeshine that will reflect the light back to you. During the day you might see their tails sticking out of their dens high in a tree.

Spectacled Bear (Tramarctos ornatus) – Once ranging from California to the eastern seaboard and all of Central America, the spectacled bear now has a limited range in North-East South America. The spectacled bear has been hunted relentlessly and has lost much of its former habitat to deforestation (Kritcher 1999). Since 2014, spectacled bears have only been observed once at the Reserve. During Katie & Nick’s tenure (winter 2021), a mother and cub walked right up the back stairs of the Lodge. Sightings like these remind us of why it is so important to preserve large areas of tropical forest.

Spectacled Bear Cub at the Reserve (Nick & Katie Ebanks)


Abrams, Sylvie. Ecuadorian White-Fronted Capuchin. New England Primate Conservancy. Web 2019

Emmons H. Louise, Neotropical Rainforest Mammals: A Field Guide. 1990, University of Chicago Press

Kricher, John. A Neotropical Companion. 1999, Princeton University Press

December 2021 Bird Banding Expedition

December 30, 2021

Usually Reserva Las Tangaras is a quiet place. At lower altitudes the dominant sound is the rushing of the river, while up on the trails the buzzing of insects and croaking of frogs provide a constant but soft white noise broken only by the occasional raucous mixed flock. This month was different. The quiet cabana and peaceful trails were bustling with the arrival of 13 visitors for the biannual Reserva Las Tangaras birding expedition. 

First to arrive were five Ecuadorians to help run the project: two men experienced in local bird ID, mist netting, and bird banding, two wonderful cooks, and their six-year-old daughter who never failed to entertain us with her drawings, card games, and questions about our favorite colors and animals. Next arrived an enthusiastic, bird-savvy group of volunteers from North America led by Dr. Dusti Becker, Co-Director of Life Net Nature and the Reserve’s owner. Over the next two weeks the group would conduct standardized surveys and mist net and band birds in order to assess avian community composition around the reserve and contribute to the long-term dataset from previous years’ expeditions. 

We jumped into work the very first day. After a classic Ecuadorian lunch of soup followed by rice and lentils, accompanied by fresh juice, we went outside to review the basics of mist netting and bird banding.  

So, as you might have guessed by this month’s topic, it’s Mary writing this month’s blog (yes, I know, yet another post about birds). However, as bird banding has been a primary aspect of all my jobs over the past few years, I was excited to use this month’s expedition as an opportunity to write a bit more about bird banding and its importance to avian research. But before we jump into how mist netting and bird banding are used in avian research, let’s review the basics: what even are mist netting and bird banding?

Mist nets are a tool commonly used in avian field research to safely catch birds. Similar to a giant volleyball net, a mist net consists of two upright poles with a large net strung between them. The fine mesh of the net is difficult to see so birds fly into it and become trapped in its pockets. Once in the net, birds can be safely removed and banded. Bird banding involves placing a small metal ring on a bird’s leg. The metal bands are extremely lightweight and sized and placed so as not to be painful or cumbersome to the bird. Each ring has a unique combination of numbers so that individual birds can be identified if they are recaptured in the future. Along with receiving a band on its leg, captured birds are often measured (weight, wing length, bill length, etc.), checked for breeding condition or ectoparasites, and in some studies feather or blood samples are taken.

Banding crew carrying net poles from one netting site to another. Although it was hard work carrying supplies on the steep trails between banding sites, we all stayed in high spirits. Photo by Erin Bell.

So great, now we’ve got a bird with a little metal band on its leg and we have some numbers representing the bird’s size, mass, and general body condition. However, given all the work involved in setting up and taking down mist nets (especially challenging on the muddy hills around Las Tangaras, as any of the volunteers would surely tell you!), extracting birds from nets, banding and measuring birds, and entering and managing data, what is the point of all this? Without a doubt, it’s an incredible experience to hold a bird in one’s hand and to see the wonderful details not visible from a distance. However, far beyond seeing pretty feathers up close, bird banding is a crucial tool in avian field research. Below are the primary ways in which bird banding is used in bird research:

  • It may seem obvious, but a main point of bird banding is to provide us with basic information about birds. With a bird in the hand, we can take various body measurements, feather and blood samples, and check for ectoparasites. It is important to know this basic information about a species in order to understand its anatomy and physiology. Furthermore, blood and feather samples can tell us about energy sources and relatedness of individuals, which is important for understanding social interactions and energy needs. 
Green-crowned Woodnymph in the hand. You can see the tiny band on its right foot! Photo by Erin Bell.
  • Another purpose of banding is to understand species distributions. Mist netting is a valuable tool for determining what species are present in a given area. It can be especially helpful for detecting species that are quiet and rarely seen, thus less likely to be detected with other survey methods. For example, during our two-week expedition we caught a Plain Xenops, a species we haven’t yet seen or heard during our 2.5 months at the reserve. By capturing the Plain Xenops in the nets, we know this species is present in the area surrounding the reserve. 
Volunteer Ana holding the Plain Xenops that made its way into our nets. Photo by Mary De Aquino.
  • Mist netting is also a great way to gather demographic data on bird populations. Recapturing a previously banded bird gives us information on how long birds of that species live. In addition, certain characteristics, such as plumage, skull development, and breeding condition, can help biologists determine a bird’s age and sex. Examining trends in age and sex ratios of a population can allow biologists to determine demographic trends and possible mechanisms of any changes. For example, if researchers have been collecting data at a given site for multiple years, they can determine a normal age ratio (number of juveniles compared to adult birds). Seeing changes in this ratio can give researchers an idea about where in birds’ life cycles these changes are taking place. Fewer juveniles can indicate a decline in reproductive success, which suggests more research conducted on the breeding grounds may reveal the cause of the decline. Fewer returning adults during spring migration may indicate problems on the species’ migratory route or wintering grounds. Such information can help researchers decide where to allocate research time and money. 
Volunteer Brandon holding an adult male Pale-eyed Thrush. This bird was aged and sexed based on plumage and breeding condition. Photo by Erin Bell.
  • Mist netting is also a helpful tool for bird tracking efforts. Recapturing a previously banded individual, either at the same banding station or another location, lets us know where a bird is during that time of year. Mist netting is also valuable as a way of capturing birds to put tracking devices on them. Tracking birds is especially valuable for conservation because it gives us information on where a species goes during its full annual cycle. This is important for preserving habitat throughout a species’ range.
Bay-headed Tanager in the hand. Photo by Mary De Aquino.
  • Finally, bird banding is valuable as an educational tool. While seeing birds in their natural habitat is a great way to foster in people an interest in birds and the environment, seeing birds up close is a wonderful opportunity to educate people about aspects of bird anatomy that are not so easily seen from a distance. Seeing a bird in the hand, or getting the opportunity to hold and release a bird, can spark a whole new appreciation for these incredible feathered critters. From the beautiful details on individual feathers to marveling at how such a light animal can travel such huge distances, banding provides an opportunity to gain a new perspective on birds. Many banding stations are open to the public and provide a place for school field trips and scientists alike to learn about and appreciate birds and bird research. 
Banding instruction on the first day of the project. Photo by Aidan Sullivan.

Many of these valuable aspects are incorporated in the banding efforts at Las Tangaras. Through the Reserve’s research, we are collecting valuable biometric and demographic data on many tropical species. Not only do the Reserve’s banding efforts sample what species are present in the area around Las Tangaras, but by mist netting in different habitat types during the two-week project, we are sampling how avian community composition varies by habitat type. Capturing the same individuals multiple years in a row also gives us information on survival and site fidelity (that is, the likelihood of an individual to return to a previously occupied location). Finally, by incorporating volunteers, the banding project serves as an educational opportunity to teach people a valuable tool used in avian research. 

Volunteer Maureen with an Olive-striped Flycatcher. Photo by Erin Bell.

From setting up mist nets on the first afternoon to participating in the Mindo Christmas Bird Count on the final day, this year’s expedition was a great success. During the two-week project, we detected a whopping 183 species. Furthermore, we are grateful for all that we learned from both the volunteers and Ecuadorian staff. It is inspiring and heartwarming to know that there are such talented, passionate people working to preserve the planet’s biodiversity.

The whole team on the last day of the expedition. This year’s Christmas Bird Count shirt featured the Sunbittern, a species we were lucky to see several times during the project.

The Reserve is quiet again. The sound of chopping from the kitchen and conversation from the front porch have been replaced by katydids in the lawn and Three-striped Warblers in the bushes around the cabana. But some reminders of this December’s project remain. We frequently see banded birds around the cabin. Perhaps they will be caught in July during the next banding expedition, contributing just a bit more data to the long term dataset here at RLT. 

Invasive Species and the Reserve

December 1, 2021

I wanted to write about something close to my heart for the November blog post, so I chose invasive species. Mary and I have been working on removing invasive species from around the lodge recently. However, before we get to that, let’s kick things off with some dry definitions and depressing statistics.

First off: what is an invasive species?

According to the Invasive Species Advisory Council (ISAC) the definition is “a species that is non-native to the ecosystem under consideration and whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health” (ISAC 2006). That definition might sound a little vague, but the distinction of invasive species can have many nuisances. Most non-native species are not invasive. For example, you could bring a tropical houseplant that is native to Central America to Minneapolis, thus making it a “non-native” species. But if you release your houseplant into the winter of Minnesota, your houseplant likely will not survive long enough to do any harm. Many ornamental and agricultural plants fall under this umbrella of “non-native ” but not necessarily “invasive.”  Let’s move on to an example of an invasive species: West Nile Virus (WNV). WNV was introduced to the US from its native range in Africa, therefore making it non-native. It also causes harm to humans and the ecosystem, making it invasive. That example is easy to understand because West Nile Virus causes direct harm to humans by making them sick and harm to the environment by killing native bird species. Other examples aren’t so straightforward. Many invasive plant species cause harm to the environment, but indirectly. Invasive plants can reduce forage for wildlife, outcompete native plants for resources, impact water systems, and change the ecosystem around them by altering soil chemistry, fire regimes, and biome type.

One example of an invasive species that is well known in the western United States is cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).  Cheatgrass is a cool-season annual that has invaded the Great Basin from its native range in Eurasia. It takes over sagebrush steppe and creates so much thatch that it increases the frequency of fires from every 70-100 years to every 3-5 years. Sagebrush is not able to reestablish within such a short fire regime, so cheatgrass effectively alters the ecosystem from sagebrush steppe to annual grassland (Knapp 1996). This is terrible news for biodiversity. Native birds that nest in sagebrush such as sage grouse and other sage-dependent species cannot survive in a cheatgrass monoculture. Native grasses and forbs are outcompeted for water and sunlight. Cheatgrass is unpalatable for wildlife and livestock after it dries out and its seed heads can cause infections in the eyes and mouth. Mammal and insect communities that rely on native plants cannot find food or shelter. Within decades, a once vibrant ecosystem that has been “invaded” can become increasingly biologically desolate, even if it still looks “natural.”

Female Sage Grouse, a charismatic sage dependent species. Credit: Aidan Sullivan

In the US, it is estimated that 42% of threatened and endangered species are at risk from invasive species (NWF). Globalization has already introduced many invasive species to high Human Development Index (HDI) countries. Within the next century, it is predicted that air travel/global trade, expansion of agriculture, and changes in native plant communities, due to climate change, will lead to many more invasions in low HDI countries (Early, et al 2016). So, what can be done?

As with many issues, prevention is the best option. On the national level, requiring agricultural inspections at all ports of entry, setting strict standards for horticultural and animal imports, funding early detection rapid response teams (EDRR), and sharing data and expertise internationally are some of the best prevention tools.  When invasive species slip past prevention measures, then it’s time to look at your management options.

Oftentimes there are more invasive plant species to control than there is available funding so it is necessary to prioritize. A good prioritization scheme considers an invasive species’ potential to spread further, its risk to threatened/endangered species, human health, or agriculture, economic damage, and the chance to be successfully eradicated. Once you’ve ranked your invasive species, then you’re ready to select your control methods:

  • Cultural. This means getting people to adjust their practices. Examples include only buying certified weed-free livestock feed or sanitizing heavy timber harvesting/wildfire equipment before going to a new worksite. Livestock and heavy machinery are common vectors for invasive species.
  • Mechanical. An example would be a volunteer pulling up invasive species at a weekly volunteer event or a land manager mowing their field to stop an invasive mustard before it has the chance to go to seed.
  • Biological. A biological control can be a fungus, insect, or an animal like a goat. This method often sounds frightening, since people often associate biological controls with such ecological nightmares as private individuals with the sugarcane industry releasing mongooses in Hawaii. However, biological controls are rigorously researched and only released if they will only impact the intended invasive species. Many non-native species have natural checks and balances in their native range that don’t exist in the introduced range. For example, in the 1940s, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) covered over 400,000 acres of Northern California’s rangeland. St. John’s Wort induces photosensitivity in livestock when ingested and threatened the cattle/sheep industry. A beetle (Chrysolina quadrigemina) that fed on St. John’s Wort was found in its native range in Europe. After the beetle was put through extensive tests to see if it would damage crops or wreak ecological havoc, it was released in California. Within 10 years this beetle had reduced St. John’s Wort to just 1% of its original range, saving California an estimated $3,500,000 per year between 1953 and 1959 (Shelton, A).
  • Chemical. Also a controversial control method, but if used correctly an invaluable tool in any ecologist’s toolbox. Many invasive species cannot be managed with cultural or mechanical methods, and no effective biological control agent has been found for them yet. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissim) is one of many such invasive species. It grows in dense monocultures and releases allelopathic chemicals, meaning it inhibits other plants from growing near it (Heisey 1990). If you simply try to cut one down, it will send up shoots all around the stump. The only viable method of controlling tree of heaven is called cut-stumping. Cut-stumping involves painting on a small amount of concentrated herbicide on the phloem of a freshly cut stump. This method will treat the invasive species without causing unintended damage to native plants.

Here at the Reserve

I am just starting to learn the native and non-native plants of the Ecuadorian cloud forest but one thing that struck me right away was how few invasive plant monocultures I saw at the Reserve. In the Bay Area or western Montana, one didn’t have to look too hard to see an invasive species taking over. At the Reserve, there is no shortage of plant life, but there are no monotypic stands of invasive plants that we have found. Except one. Many years ago, Brazilian red-cloak (Megaskepasma erythrochlamys), was planted around the lodge to attract hummingbirds. Despite the common name, it is a mid-sized shrub native to Venezuela. As with the introduction of most ornamental plants that become invasive species, it was done with good intentions. Unfortunately, Brazilian red-cloak is a voracious grower and has few natural checks to keep it from out-competing native plants. Simply cutting it down just spreads the plant. It can re-root from just about any piece of stem, even one that is just a few inches long. When Mary and I got here, we found that red-cloak surrounded the lodge to the depth of a few meters, and it was advancing into the forest. We have been working hard to get the Brazilian Red-Cloak under control and we are excited to choose native plant species with which to replace it.

So what can an individual do?

  • Clean your outdoor gear. Especially your boots, socks, and bottoms of your pant legs and undercarriage of your car if you’re driving off-road. While this is a good idea when traveling locally, it is especially important before traveling long distances. Seeds can be very small, and travel in the soil or as burs stuck to clothing. Throw any seeds in the trash. It is also important to clean your waders and boat if you are traveling between water bodies.
  • Plant locally native plants. They are often better adapted to local environmental conditions and provide food and habitat for wildlife.  The Xerces society will often have regional guides that focus on native plants that benefit pollinators. You might also be able to find local chapters of native plant societies. They can provide great information and often have native plant sales. Don’t plant anything from the internet called something like “native wildflower mix” unless it specifies to where specifically it is native.
  • Manage invasive species on your own property. It is a good idea everywhere and some states like Montana you have a legal obligation to remove noxious weeds on your property.
  • Write to your local city council and ask them to landscape with native plants. I linked a great podcast below about how urban forestry can create habitat for wildlife.  
  • “Burn it where you buy it” We hear the phrase all the time. It boils down to: don’t travel more than 30 miles with firewood. It can be an easy vector for invertebrates and plant pests.
  • Never dump pets, the contents of an aquarium (including the fish), or houseplants in the wild.
  • Volunteer with your local land management agency. All land management agencies from local parks to the National Park Service must do invasive species management. Many agencies are underfunded and unstaffed and really appreciate volunteers helping out.
Volunteers planting native plants at a restoration site in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (Credit: Aidan Sullivan)

Thank you for sticking around through the end. Something I didn’t get a chance to touch on was invasive pathogens. Sudden Oak Death (SOD), Rapid Ohia Death (ROD), White-nose syndrome, chytrid, and even the death of the American chestnut are all caused by invasive pathogens. Maybe I will do my next blog post about that. Hopefully, this blog post inspired you to plant some native species in your yard or volunteer with your local land management agency. Or hey, you could even volunteer here at the Reserve.

Awesome podcasts

Work Cited

Early, R., Bradley, B., Dukes, J. et al. Global Threats from Invasive Alien Species in the Twenty-First Century and National Response Capacities. (2016) Nat Commun 7, 12485.

Heisey RM. Evidence for allelopathy by tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima). J Chem Ecol. 1990 Jun;16(6):2039-55. doi: 10.1007/BF01020515. PMID: 2426400

Invasive Species Advisory Council (ISAC) Invasive Species Definition Clarification and Guidance (2006)

Knapp P. A. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) domi­nance in the Great Basin Desert: History, persistence, and influences to human activities. (1996) Global Environ. Change 6(1):37–52.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Invasive Species,and%20economy%20cost%20billions%20of%20dollars%20each%20year.

Shelton, A. Eccleston, J. Successes in Biological Control. Cornell University

Migrantes neotropicales del tipo humano y tipo avifaunal

November 8, 2021

¡Saludos desde Reserva Las Tangaras! Y más específicamente, saludos de nosotros, los nuevos cuidadores voluntarios: Aidan y Mary. Estamos un poco atrasados, pero queríamos compartir nuestro blog de octubre con nuestra audiencia hispanohablante. Entonces, aquí está:

Este mes hemos disfrutado de la exploración de la reserva y nos hemos familiarizado con todo el trabajo necesario para mantener la reserva en buena condición. Empezamos con algunos días de entrenamiento de Jack y Meg, los amables últimos cuidadores. Ahora, estamos ocupados con todo el mantenimiento de senderos, conteo de colibríes, y aplicación de barniz a madera que requiere este empleo. Es mucho trabajo, pero tiene muchas beneficias: nadar en los pozos de bañar refrescantes, dormirse al sonido tranquilo de un coro de ranas, y distraerse cada vez que oímos una bandada mixta en el dosel sobre nuestras cabezas.

Aidan y Mary, los nuevos cuidadores voluntarios, en su primer día en la reserva.

Este mes estamos tomando el blog como una oportunidad para introducirnos y, en honor de las aves espectaculares en la reserva, a cubrir uno de nuestros temas favoritos relacionado con las aves: la migración. (Mary aquí con un breve comentario extra: hemos decidido alternar quien escribe el blog cada mes. Este mes me toca a mi. Tengo que admitir que entre Aidan y yo, soy, la más obsesionada con las aves. Por ende, he tomado la libertad de dedicar mi primera blog a la avifauna increíble que hace Reserva Las Tangaras un lugar tan mágico. Ahora, un poco más sobre nosotros, pero no te preocupes, ¡pronto volveremos a las aves!)

Venimos a Ecuador desde los Estados Unidos. Los dos tenemos una pasión para la naturaleza y tenemos la suerte de trabajar en campos dedicados a su estudio y conservación. Aunque crecimos en el norte de California, hemos pasado los últimos años trabajando en varias posiciones de investigación científica en el oeste de los Estados Unidos. Más recientemente, Aidan trabajó como técnico científico en un refugio de vida silvestre en el suroeste de Montana. Entre otras responsabilidades, instalaba cámaras trampas para capturar imágenes de mamíferos, investigaba como los patrones de comer de las alces afectaban los sauces, y coordinaba el programa de control de las especies invasivas. Mary también trabajaba en Montana, pero ella estaba en las praderas del noreste. Pasaba sus días buscando los nidos de las aves y marcando algunas de las aves con localizadores de GPS. Fue exactamente esto, poner localizadoras pequeñas en las aves que les dan información a los científicos sobre donde van las aves a lo largo del año, que ella encontró la chispa que empezó con su interés en la migración de las aves. (Volvemos a esto pronto, ¡te lo prometo!).

Como es de esperar, mudar al bosque nublado de Ecuador fue un cambio grande de la vida en el estado del cielo grande, como lo llamen Montana en los Estados Unidos. Los ciervos canadienses y águilas calvas han sido reemplazados por los venados colorados y los tucanes, y en vez de ver bisontes por la ventana tenemos una guatusa que, aunque tímida, se ha convertido en una visitante frecuente. Fiel a su reputación como un centro de biodiversidad, el bosque nublado tiene vida silvestre increíble. Y de todo la fauna, destaca un grupo en particular. Sí, ¡las aves!

Como prometí, el blog de Octubre se trata de la migración. Específicamente, la migración de las  aves. También se trata de la importancia de los lugares como Reserva Las Tangaras a este fenómeno tan impresionante, en lo que las aves vuelan hasta diez de miles de millas entre los lugares en los que reproducen y las zonas en las que la comida está más abundante. En nuestra primera mes en la reserva hemos visto aves increíbles: El colibrí estrellita gorjipúrpura diminutivo, cuyas alas, como las de una abeja, hacen un zumbido que se puede oír aun antes de que llega a los bebederos, los gallos de la peña tan extraños, cuyo plumaje carmesí y danzas de apareamiento entusiasticas los han hecho un favorito de tanto los locales como los viajeros internacionales, el Tucán del Chocó elegante, con un canto que resuena por todo el valle, y el mirlo acuático coroniblanco redondo, cuyos movimientos al lado del río son tan animados que las mismas rápidas burbujeantes. Ver todas estas aves, tan brillantes, tan exóticas, tan diferente de las a que estamos acostumbrados, ha sido muy emocionante. Sin embargo, no todas las especies que hemos visto son nuevas para nosotros. Hemos visto algunas especies de aves que también viven en Montana y California: los buitres americanos cabecirrojos, mosqueros negros, garcetas níveas y pibís boreales, para nombrar algunos. Aunque algunas de estas aves simplemente son individuos de las mismas especies que viven en un parte diferente del mundo, otras son las mismos individuos que tenemos en los Estados Unidos. Aves como el pibí boreal, zorzalito de Swainson, y reinita gorjinaranja, todas estas son migrantes neotropicales. Cada primavera, individuos de estas especies migran a América del Norte donde reproducen. Al fin del verano, los mismos individuos, junto con muchos juveniles que salieron del cascarón esta misma primavera, vuelan al sur a la zona neotropical. (Nota: la zona neotropical se refiere a una región que incluye el parte tropical del sur de México, junto con Centroamérica y Sudamérica. Así que un migrante neotropical es una especie que viaja entre la zona donde reproduce en Norteamérica hasta su hábitat de invierno al sur).

Una de las especies más carismáticas en la reserva: el gallo de la peña. Reserva Las Tangaras tiene el lek más grande y activo en Mindo
Estábamos muy emocionados de ver nuestro primer tucán. Los tucanes de pico negro son muy comunes en la reserva y se puede oír sus cantos casi cada día por la tarde.
Siempre estamos felices de ver un mirlo acuático coroniblanco al lado del río.

Para Aidan y yo, nuestro viaje fue alimentado por el combustible de avión y galletas: combustible para los aviones y galletas para nosotros mientras relajábamos cómodamente en nuestros asientos mirando más películas sucesivas que nos gustaría admitir. Al mismo tiempo, billones de aves hacían el mismo viaje al sur. Sin embargo, sus viajes eran alimentados por acumulaciones de grasa corporal adquirido en las áreas de reproducción y sitios de descanso: insectos, moras, y crustáceos convertidos en energía preciosa para la migración otoñal. Es difícil comprender cuán pequeñas son estas estas aves en comparación con los 400,000-500,000 libras de un Boeing promedio. La más pequeña, el colibrí gorjirrubí, es tan ligera como un centavo, con un peso de un poco más que tres gramos. Las aves migratorias no tienen el lujo de cerrar la contraventana para excluir un poco de mal tiempo. Durante su viaje increíble, las aves viajan cienes hasta miles de millas enfrentando tormentas, depredadores, y la extenuación hasta que, por fin, llegan al lugar donde pasan el invierno.

Esta es donde entran los lugares como Reserva Las Tangaras. Cada año en Norteamérica, se gastan grandes cantidades de dinero y muchísimas horas en el campo para investigar las aves en los áreas de reproducción. Los científicos hacen todo lo que pueden para cuantificar cada aspecto medible de la reproducción de las aves en un intento de entender la biología reproductiva de estos animalitos con plumas. A través sus esfuerzos, muchos biólogos esperan ganar información que les ayudara parar y reversar los descensos masivos que tantas especies de aves han experimentado en las últimas décadas. Aunque proteger las aves y su hábitat de reproducción es increíblemente importante, las especies también requieren rutas de migración y hábitat de invierno seguros. Reserva Las Tangaras provee exactamente esto. Desde 2002, las 51 hectáreas de Reserva Las Tangaras han existida protegida del desarrollo. En la reserva, con mucho hábitat, comida, y poco disturbios de actividades humanos, la vida silvestre puede prosperar. La diversidad de aves, insectos, mamíferos, y herpetofauna se debe en gran parte al hábitat saludable que ofrece la reserva. Muchas aves llegan al sur para encontrar que una sección del bosque que una vez servía como un lugar seguro para pasar el invierno ha sido demolido y se ha convertido en un parqueadero para un nuevo edificio de apartamentos. Tal vez estas aves gastan energía valiosa buscando un nuevo lugar para pasar el invierno. Tal vez no sobreviven.

La vegetación exuberante y aguas limpias de la reserva proveen hábitat excelente para las aves y otra vida silvestre.

Lugares como Reserva Las Tangaras aseguran que los migrantes neotropicales tienen un lugar seguro para vivir durante el invierno. Aunque las aves enfrentan muchos otros retos (algunos naturales, como los depredadores, otros, como el cambio climático, causado por los humanos) tener hábitat intacto para pasar el invierno es crucial para la persistencia de las aves migratorias. Por eso estamos tan emocionados cuando vemos la cara dorado de una reinita gorjinaranja bailando entre las hojas y cuando oímos el bip agudo de un pibí boreal desde el dosel. Estas aves han hecho un viaje increíble para llegar aquí. Nosotros estamos felices de que tienen un lugar como Reserva Las Tangaras para pasar el invierno.

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.

La Fuenta de Agua

September 24, 2021

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” — Jacques Yves Cousteau

Our ‘Fuente de Agua’ at Reserva Las Tangaras

The trials and tribulations of living off-grid are the challenges that make one appreciate many of the things that we take for granted in the modern world. With the average household in the West using 1000+ litres of water a day, such a vital resource can pass through our taps, toilets, showers, washing machines, dishwashers, and mouths, without a moments thought or contemplation. Transparent, tasteless, odourless, its no wonder its so easy to forget about. Yet we are surrounded by it. Made of it. Depend on it. No more so does this become apparent to those that become custodians of Reserva Las Tangaras. With a water system that is gravity fed from a local tributary, it is a “free” resource. That being said it does not come without its challenges and remains the bane of all managers lives here at RLT. A storm, a drought, a landslide can all decide whether or not that day the water will flow when you turn on the faucet.  It is humbling to be at the mercy of the elements, but it can also be frustrating. As seems to be human nature, we have innovated and tried to adapt to these conditions (or fight them).

Our most recent, and arguably most triumphant addition to the Reserve has been installing a back-up water tank. A simple system utilising two tanks, one that acts as the “main” body of water which then feeds into a smaller reservoir (see diagram below). This provides us with a number of benefits. Firstly, sediment is collected in the first tank meaning that water heading to the cabin is cleaner and puts less strain on the filter. Secondly, it gives us an early warning when the source is disrupted. This is due to the fact that the smaller tank is fed from a higher level and will only fill if the water in the back-up reservoir is at a height equal to or greater than that of the other. Therefore if the water level drops in the first tank it will stop filling the second. Thirdly and most importantly, should something happen up stream that stops the flow of water, we simply turn the valve and our reserve chamber will see us good for 2-3 days of normal use, that means hot showers, clean dishes, and drinking water!

Whilst its nice to think we have an unlimited supply of (free) water its worth treading with an air of awareness when using it. There are a number of simple steps, which can have you saving water in no time, steps which we employ here at RLT and will transfer to our normal lives back in the UK. 

In the bathroom:

  • Half of all water usage takes place in the bathroom.
  • Turn off the tap while shaving or brushing teeth.
  • Showers use less water than baths. A hot shower is one of our greatest luxuries at RLT but it’s worth keeping an eye on how long you’re in it for.

In the kitchen:

  • Plug up the sink or use a washbasin if washing dishes by hand.
  • Use a dishwasher—and when you do, make sure it’s fully loaded!
  • Scrape your plate instead of rinsing it before loading it into the dishwasher.
  • Keep a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator instead of letting the faucet run until the water is cool.

In the laundry room:

  • If it’s not dirty don’t wash it! It can be customary to wear an item of clothing once and assume it needs washing – this is not true! Albeit we have been known to take this to extremes… a natural musk is nothing to be ashamed of!
  • Wash only full loads of laundry
  • Try use a biodegrable, planet friendly detergent if possible – the majority of our water at the reserve goes back into the local water cycle.
  • A great natural alternative to commercial laundry detergents is soap nuts – these little guys contain a natural surfactant, saponin, which breaks the surface tension of water to penetrate the fibres in clothing to lift away dirt and stains. Soap nuts can be re-used multiple times, they are non-toxic and sensitive-skin friendly, and most importantly they don’t pollute the water cycle like chemical detergents!

It’s also important to stay on top of leaks; small household leaks can mount up to gallons of lost water every day!

When we take water from its source we invariably alter it in some respect. Phosphates from cleaning products, microplastics, and cooking oil all contribute to water contamination. Water used in agriculture can hold onto residues from fertilisers and pesticides even after being extensively cleaned and treated. Even air pollutants can make their way into rivers, lakes and seas. Why is this important? The Earth’s water system is constantly recycling itself. Whether it is evaporating from the ocean or sublimating from ice and snow into water vapour, water is being circulated around the atmosphere at all times. Chemicals and microplastics that make their way into the cycle negatively impact, not just human health, but also all organisms that live in or use Earths water. Human activity also impacts the distribution of it. Water taken from one body of water can sometimes find itself transported to the other side of the world. What begins as a local resource and thus presents local environmental issues should be seen as part of a bigger picture, a global body of water, that we all draw from and that we are all custodians of.

This is the final instalment from Jack and Meg as our tenure here draws to a rapid close. Living at Reserva Las Tangaras has been instrumental in more ways than one and an experience we would urge anyone to take. It has taught us humility and a greater appreciation of the natural world that surrounds us. We wish the next volunteers the best of luck and hope that they enjoy their time here as much as we have.

A Late Introduction..

August 29, 2021

We have been here living la vida loca since the start of May. It feels like no time at all, but soon we’ll be leaving this magical place and passing the baton to the next stewards. It’s only now that we’ve realised we neglected to fully introduce ourselves!

So! We are Jack & Meg, a couple from the UK. Meg is a Wildlife Researcher, showing itself in her day-to-day life, practically all of her hobbies and her kindle. Show me an animal that she hasn’t attempted to watercolour. She recently returned from India where she was studying bat bioacoustics and otter behaviour. Jack jestingly describes himself as ‘a man of the world’ but Meg would agree. He’s a dab hand at knocking up a water system and a dinner to rival the very best. He spends his spare time here playing guitar and fixing things.

We thought we’d use the next two blogs to blather on about things that are close to our heart. I’ll begin today, and next time Jack will be writing of one of his passions… compost toilets (actually building them, but you get the idea).

With the IPCC 2021 Climate report coming out last month and various ‘we’re doomed’ articles having been published worldwide, I’m sure that climate change and species loss are no stranger to any readers of this blog. BUT before you wearily sigh and scroll to exit the page, instead of discussing already vastly-addressed and miserable facts and figures, I’m here to present you with a positive and innovative solution, a technique that has recently been creating huge waves in the conservation world, and better yet – in most cases it takes minimal effort to achieve maximum results. Sounds too good to be true, right?

One of the reasons I was so eager to work here was that the reserve is such an example of this methodology. Rewilding. Letting nature do it’s own thing by relinquishing overbearing management. Reserva Las Tangaras was once livestock-heavy pasturage, used mainly to breed cows to sell for meat in Quito. The short-cut grazing of the cattle will have meant that minimal vegetation could subsist there, and the wildlife that did inhabit areas surrounding the pasture would have been restricted by fences, specifically designed to prevent creature entry or exit. LifeNetNature saw the rewilding potential for the 50-hectare farmland and sought to purchase it. Now after 20 years, this once-farmland is a bustling mix of primary & secondary forest, on one side neighboured by 20,000 hectares of the protected forest ‘Bosque Protector Mindo Nambillo’ and thus, teeming with life. Any boundaries were removed to let wildlife move freely through the surrounding landscape. For years now, steward’s (such as ourselves) jobs have been to protect the space and the abundance of species therein, from harm or extraction. This removal of control has allowed natural processes to take over throughout the reserve and thus restored food webs, natural dispersal and resilience to disturbances.

As a result of this thriving Wildlife Sanctuary, LifeNetNature and teams of volunteers are able to utilise the Reserve twice a year to study the abundant and diverse birdlife and the impacts that different environments have on their diversity. Sharing this space with likeminded visitors, and the sheer authentic wilderness it provides them, gives proof that if nature is given chance to heal, it can bounce back.

In evidence of the bounce-back here at the reserve, we recently found a ‘Blue-groin Rain Frog’ on one of our trails that explores secondary forest. Secondary Forest is a woodland area that has regrown after human disturbance, and is usually characterised by a minimal canopy structure, less diversity and smaller trees. It was particularly exciting as this specific rain frog has historically been closely tied to Primary Forest (pristine, untouched forest that still exists in its original condition) on account of that habitat’s complexity. Finding the Blue-groin Rain Frog in this new area is definitely something to celebrate as it shows the development of our Secondary Forest and it’s progression to more complex systems.  

In the Reserve’s case, the rewilding has come without much effort. The Bosque Protector forest spread quickly onto this land once fields had ceased to be cleared for cattle, with its seeds dispersed by birds or the wind, from which followed small mammals like Neotropical Squirrels and Nine-banded Armadillos attracting the larger predators such as Pumas and Ocelots, whilst the freshly grown vegetation attracted the larger vegetarians like the Spectacled Bears and White-tailed Deers. Seemingly simple. However, the tools that are employed to rewild can range widely in scale and from place to place. They can be applied incrementally over years, or solely once but they are expressed differently everywhere as different countries have different ecological histories, cultural attitudes towards nature, conservation traditions and thus different approaches for achieving the best results.

Nevertheless in 2016, a general classification of the four main rewilding approaches was formed to give a synthesis of acquired information and a light framework from which to work upon 1, namely:

Trophic Rewilding

This is defined as ‘restoring big wilderness areas based on the regulatory role of large predators’. In a number of ecological cases it has been shown that if the carnivores at the ‘top of the food chain’ are reintroduced or preserved into degraded habitats, then their large impact will cause smaller positive impacts to trickle down the food chain (this is called a trophic cascade) and therefore benefit a broad assemblage of genera, producing a healthy and functioning ecosystem.

Yellowstone National Park is a key example of this rewilding initiative; in the mid-1990s Grey Wolves were reintroduced into YNP after many decades and showed startling effects on the area. Before this, the over-grazing of elk was causing the decline of upland woodland habitats and coyote populations were increasing exponentially which resulted in the decline of many smaller species, their prey. The beneficial impacts of the wolves were almost immediately evident – elk populations were controlled which allowed declining species of tree to recover such as cottonwood, aspen and willow. The recovery of willow lead to the recovery of the park’s dwindling aquatic ecosystems. This, in turn, supported the resurgence of beavers which had similarly become extinct in the region. The new wolf pack also displaced many coyotes, allowing red foxes who shared the same prey base to recover. Furthermore, the elk carcasses that the wolves discarded were found to benefit an extensive range of scavenger species such as cougar, wolverine, grizzly bear and raven. This shows the far-reaching impact that one species can have.


LifeNetNature are currently trying to protect the YNP wolves, by lobbying for a safety buffer area to prevent the trophy hunting and trapping that is occurring as the wolves occasionally leave the boundaries of the National Park. If you would like more information on this, don’t hesitate to contact

Pleistocene Rewilding

This type of rewilding describes the efforts to restore the ecological potential of ecosystems that existed before the demise of megafauna (animals of more than 45kg that lived during the Pleistocene) 10,000-15,000 years ago (which suspiciously coincides with the expansion of Homo sapiens and our carnivorous diets…). This type of rewilding is typically carried out by introducing relatives or ‘equivalent’ species of the extinct megafauna species. You might have heard of the potential to recreate the Woolly Mammoth using unearthed DNA.. yeah, rewilding isn’t advocating those extremes just yet – this only means using large wild cattle species to replace the magnificent aurochs which used to roam the plains of the world. The large cows would have a similar ecological impact as the Aurochs on the environment (specifically in terms of variable grazing, earth compaction and disturbance) and thus allow the ecosystem which many other species are ultimately and historically evolved for, to flourish.

Translocation Rewilding

This is defined as ‘reintroducing extant (surviving) species to restore dysfunctional ecological processes’. This method is for locations that have lost species that still exist in other areas of the world. A good example of this is currently underway here in South America, where they are reintroducing species such as Giant Anteater, Tapir, Peccary and Jaguar, which have been wiped out from regions by hunting.  

Passive Rewilding

This is defined as ‘the release of ecological processes through reducing human control of landscapes.’ This is what is occurring at the moment at Reserva Las Tangaras and spontaneously in many other regions of the world, through abandonment of cultivation land, small farming and traditional herding practices. This method inspires the inherent natural resilience that nature was so famed for. 

To conclude, they are the four main schemes that are being explored right now, but not all of us have enough space to begin releasing wolves, beavers, lynx or woolly mammoths into our back gardens… the best part is that every little goes a long way.

Here are a few examples of rewilding that you can contribute, at home in your garden or in your daily life which make a difference:

  • Only planting native flowers in your garden / sew a wildflower mix
  • Let the weeds grow! (Who decided they were weeds in the first place?!)
  • Ensure there are wildlife corridors in gardens, such as small hedgehog-sized holes underneath your fences to promote wildlife dispersal
  • Create a log pile or an ‘insect hotel’ for bugs and spiders to enjoy
  • Get educated! There are many wonderful books on the subject which I will include in the notes

I seriously had to cut this blog down, and I wish I could have rambled on forever. There is a booklist below if you wish to explore the topic further. I hope this blog has given you a small insight into this new and exciting prospect and inspired you to look into it yourself! Thank you and hasta la proxima,


“Rewilding is also about the way we think. It is about understanding that we are one species among many, bound together in an intricate web of life that ties us to the atmosphere, the weather, the tide, the soil, the fresh water, the oceans and all of the living creatures on this planet.”

Global charter for rewilding the earth
  • Feral – George Monbiot
  • Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm – Isabella Tree
  • Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery – Paul Jepson & Cain Blythe
  • Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds – Benedict Macdonald
  • Grazing Ecology and Forest History – Frans Vera
  • Rewild Yourself: 23 Spellbinding Ways to Make Nature More Visible – Simon Barnes
  • 1 Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation. D NoguésBravo, D Simberloff, C Rahbek, NJ Sanders. Current Biology 26 (3), R87-R91, 2016.

Old Mother Nature’s recipes: That bring the bare necessities of life

July 29, 2021

Gazing out over the vista from the cabaña it is clear to see why Ecuador is famed for its bio-diversity. Like a giant muddled tapestry of green that blankets this country, the flora is one of the most striking and obvious components that hosts and hides Ecuador’s bountiful fauna. With an estimated 20,000-30,000 plant species, with more being added daily, it represents some 10% of the world’s species. Therefore it seemed only befitting, given the opportunity, to write about the medicinal and useful plants that surround us in the cloud forest.

As a self-confessed food-aholic, I herald food as the epitome of culture. I use travel as an excuse to sample the food on offer in the world and as such I found myself walking through the jungle eagerly trying to spot something palatable. Jungle raspberries were one of the first and most obvious things to find and a quick consultation of one of the reserves plant books confirmed that these were indeed edible. They have since become a favourite porridge topping of ours.

Jungle Raspberries “Frambuesa”

However, it quickly became evident through reading and research that the plants here don’t just offer a source of food for animals and humans but they are also the source of many compounds used in medicinal purposes. A quick stroll down one of the many senderos here at the reserve will unveil a multitude of analgesic, astringent, diuretic, emollient and many other useful plants. We have such a limited knowledge of what is on offer in these environments (about 1% of known plant and animal species have been examined for their medicinal properties). It is easy to forget when popping a pill or applying a cream that most if not all of these medicines were at one point derived from natural sources. For example, the blueprint for aspirin is derived from extracts of willow trees found in the rainforest. 70% of plants with anti-cancer properties are found solely in the Amazon. Treatments for malaria, Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia in modern medicine also come from plants found in the Amazon. Therefore it is evident that the protection of these environments is paramount to preserving and discovering the answers to many human diseases.

Whilst it would appear nearly all the plant life surrounding the reserva pertain some use or are consumable, there are a few on our backdoor step which I’d like to draw particular attention to, not only for their beauty but for the numerous usages they hide.  A particularly striking perennial herb that is also a favourite of tanagers for its fruits is the Candlestick Ginger “Caña Agria”. The uses of this plant are seemingly endless. Young plants are crushed and the juice extracted for the treatment of internal fever and bronchitis. The sap is a hypoglycaemic agent used for controlling diabetes. A decoction from the root can be used to treat stomachaches and snakebites. It is also known as a cure for gonorrhoea, one Indian group even making a douche from the flowers to treat vaginal infections. Other known uses are as an application for skin ailments, a treatment for intestinal worms, and an anti-dysenteric. If that wasn’t enough, the sap can also provide a refreshing drink!

Candlestick Ginger “Caña Agria”

Equally distinctive and found anywhere from roadsides to dangling from the jungle canopy: Angels Trumpet – also known locally as Campaña, Toé, or its Latin name Brugmansia suaveolens. A member of the nightshades family, it produces large, showy, pendant shaped flowers. The leaves of this plant are cultivated and use for a variety of applications. Ranging from the treatment of general aches and pains to relieving tension and anxiety, it is also an ingredient in the preparation of the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca and as a component of the arrow poison curare.

Angel Trumpet “Campaña”

For those of you that haven’t heard of the aforementioned concoctions, read on!

Ayahuasca refers to the ritualistic hallucinogen that has been employed by Amerindians for centuries in communal rituals. It is has been used by shamans in order to communicate with the spirit world to help diagnose illness or to seek answers to tribal crises. There is growing interest and research into its treatment for mental health issues. Ayahuasca also known as banisteriopsis caapi is a giant vine plant found in tropical forest regions of northwest South America. A drink is prepared out of the bark of the B. caapi, sometimes alongside other ingredients such as the Angel Trumpet in order to lengthen and intensify the experience as well as improve the flavour of the beverage.

Curare (or curaré) on the other hand is an arrow and dart poison used throughout northern South America for hunting and killing game. The contents of the poison vary from region to region. Generally the bark of the source plant is scraped, pounded, and then filtered with cold water through a rolled palm leaf. Other notable extracts for curare come from famed the poison-dart frog (genus Dendrobates) or from the venom of large stinging ants. Curare works by inhibiting neuromuscular activity in the target, resulting in paralysis and eventual death. Due to the fact that curare does not affect the heart, it found its way into widespread medical applications, most notably as a muscle relaxant during surgical operations.

Not only do the plants of the Amazon serve as an important carbon dioxide sponge for the planet (absordbing 15% of CO2 in the atmosphere) but they are also clearly vital resources for the eradication for disease. The current pandemic only further highlights the need for greater research into this area. The rate of deforestation in this region of the world threatens much of the primary habitats of these floras. The future health and welfare of humanity will be determined, to a great extent, by the fate of the rainforests. Mother nature has provided the bare necessities of life, it is up to us to use them and conserve them.

Plants upon plants upon plants

June 25, 2021

There are a couple of reasons that cloud forests can look so magical; one being the daily mid-afternoon mist rolling in to settle heavily upon the mountains so that you often find that you are wandering through the clouds on your way home for dinner, another being the strangely primeval-appearing flora; crowds of epiphytic orchids, bromeliads, ferns, mosses and lycopods who have casually draped themselves over what appears to be any available surface, be it tree trunk, crown or yourself, if you were to stand still for long enough.

Epiphytes are found in every major group of the plant kingdom, with the most commonly known species being orchids and bromeliads, as those of you with a penchant for easily maintained houseplants will likely be very familiar with. The word ‘Epiphyte’ is derived from the Greek Epi ‘Upon’ and Phyton ‘Plant’. They are aerial dwellers who firmly entangle their roots on branches or trunks of other plants, capturing water and nutrient-rich soil blown into the canopy to aid their survival.They may sound parasitic as they ‘use’ other plants as a physical support on which to grow, however in a lot of cases they can indirectly benefit their host, rarely impacting them negatively. In fact, over time the accumulated organic mass captured by the epiphytic roots can become dense, allowing fungi called ‘Mycorrhizae’ to populate their newly fashioned soil terrace. This may be for another lengthier blog post but ultimately the mycorrhizae fungi majorly aid in the uptake of scarce minerals and can be of huge importance to many trees and their forests globally.

The aforementioned soil terraces cocooned in the epiphytic roots not only aid the trees, but also provide a safe haven for many animals, such as squirrels and hummingbirds. Additionally, as epiphytes need their own water source – being too far from the soil to extract it in the ‘usual’ plant method – they can be quite ingenious with their solutions, once again indirectly benefitting a whole host of creatures. For example, some bromeliads have evolved to arrange their leaves to capture water and detritus material in a cuplike vessel, which creates an aquatic habitat allowing tree frogs, snails, flat-worms, mosquitoes, salamanders, and even crabs to complete their life cycles ‘aerially’.

For instance, there is a tree directly opposite the Reserva Las Tangaras cabin’s back porch which is so laden with hangers-on that it’s incredibly difficult to identify where the epiphytes end and the tree begins. A quick root around in some of the leaves and I find some vivacious dragonfly larvae, two different species of tree frogs, a number of grasshoppers and crickets who had likely spent their nymph-phase here, not to mention the dreaded thousands of mosquito larvae thoroughly enjoying the nooks & crevices of this crafted aquatic habitat.

The fit-to-burst tree that overlooks the RLT back garden. Where do it’s own leaves begin and the epiphytes’ end?!

In Europe, we don’t have any of these typical ‘tropical’ epiphytic rooted flora to gaup at and scrabble around looking for frogs in, but what we have a lot of, especially where Jack & I are from (the UK) are mosses and lichen. Much less striking but equally as fascinating in what they can do. They are so seemingly inconsequential, yet they cover just about everything in the small villages tucked into Northern England. The structures in these settlements are largely made up of different varieties of stone, which moss & lichen are particularly attracted to in the damper climates. They like to cling, not only onto our local pub’s outside wall, but to all vegetation surrounding us here in the cloud forest too.

Mosses & liverworts appear under the family Bryophytes however their true extent (both diversity and magnitude) is unknown. Much of their biomass is concentrated in the canopies of trees so as such their species diversity is rarely included in forest inventories, having primarily relied on tree falls to obtain such knowledge in the past.

As you climb higher and higher into the cloud forest the appearances of bryophytes increases with your ascent. Perhaps this indicates that they play an integral role in this environment, you wonder. You thought correct! They are infinitely useful within this habitat. One of their main capabilities being to retain water. Their water holding capacity can actually exceed total annual rainfall by 50-90%, the additional moisture derived from fog that settles upon the slopes. This function is especially important for areas that vary more in their seasons (such as the sub-alpine cloud forest at more than 3500 metres above sea level) because the mosses slowly release their harboured moisture to the forest floor and surrounding vegetation during the drier periods.

Now, you may have been here in the wet season but for those of you who haven’t, the wet season is WET. We have actually had 114mm of rain, in a single day! It is difficult to imagine 50-90% more water within the environment, but if one day all the mosses all just got up and said ‘adios’, there’d be a colossal increase in landslides and unstable ground. Not to mention, flooding would become substantial on the heavier rain days and the Reserva Las Tangaras bridge would almost certainly be wiped out. We’d be trapped, albeit happily.

The Bryophyte leaves you see here clinging to this tree resemble mini-waterslides straight to their root system.

Now we all have a deep newfound respect for epiphytes, here’s the sad truth – deforestation of the lowland forests surrounding the cloud forest is predicted to lead to large reductions in cloud generation. This would lead to an irreversible loss of the epiphytes that rely on these hydrological systems. Subsequently, due to the classic ‘snowballing’ ecological effect – that which we have come to know too well in this era – much of the ecosystem in these magical areas will be damagingly impacted with the loss of the epiphytes. Unfortunately, epiphytes play a hugely vital role here not only helping to define the cloud forest but by preventing erosion and landslides, managing flood control, releasing precipitation, sheltering hundreds of species of animals throughout their life cycles, looking beautiful at dawn with glistening dew, adding to the carbon cycle, capturing essential vitamins for the trees they reside on, and much more. So, the next time someone comes up to you and tells you that they’re about to deforest an area adjacent to a cloud forest you can scream ‘But the EpiPHytES!!’ in their face and immediately bombard them with all of this interesting information and they’ll maybe think twice.

(And yes, epiphytes can also harbour their own epiphytes, adding just another dimension to the biodiversity of these lush cloud forests.)

Learning to Live in & Listen to the Forest

May 7, 2021

Hello everyone, Katie and Nick here again with a blog post for April 2021 🙂

Hard to believe our time here at Reserva las Tangaras is almost over and what an incredible journey it has been. As we are getting ready to say goodbye to this amazing place, we wanted to reflect on some of what we have learned while we were here…not from books, or teachers, or from previous managers, but from the life in the cloud forest.

Living this lifestyle can offer so much to the average, modern-day, management couple or visitor in general. Many people come here to Reserva las Tangaras already having decided they wish to live their lives in a more circular way with nature, rather than linear, but how many of them know how to learn from the forest? How many people truly know how to sit and listen to what mother nature has to say? and What IS living in a linear economy or a linear way versus living in a circular economy or circular way?

Usually, even those of us who arrive here as environmentally conscious individuals live a typical busy life that is socially acceptable in the first world. Many of us are are lucky enough to grow up a relatively “normal” life and receive an education along the way, then we either get a job or perhaps further our education, then we work on climbing the promotional ladder and getting that perfect job, usually accumulating a car or a house or many belongings along the way, while also typically adopting a pet or two and a eventually having a spouse or a family as well. Many of us chose to live either in a city or close enough to a city, that we can commute back and forth efficiently enough to do our jobs well and still have time to spend with our pets, spouse, and family. As an environmentally conscious person, living a socially acceptable life in the first world, likely we would be buying products with as little plastic packaging as possible, recycling when available, choosing to be a vegetarian or vegan, working a job that benefits the natural world in some way (Teacher, scientist, naturalist, etc.), and perhaps even driving a small-economic car or riding a bicycle for transportation. These are all GREAT things that each of us can do in our own small ways to help mother nature, and in fact it is far more than the average person in most first world countries are doing for the environment. So, if this is you, be proud. But, can you do more? Yes. We ALL can do more. And as people who are perhaps more informed about the environmental issues of the world today, it is our responsibility to do more and to be better environmental stewards tomorrow, than we were today. This means not only taking action in your own life, but also sharing your knowledge with others who may not know where to start. All of this can be a lot…can be a bit overwhelming at times. Sometimes, we also need a break. The stresses, the worries, the fast-paced lifestyle, the social and societal pressures, the temptations, the easy-escapes…sometimes those of us living with what we think are the closest relationships to nature, are actually the farthest away. This place, Reserva las Tangaras, and one would assume other places like it, offer a reset. A place to rediscover our passions and remember what drives us to be the best environmental stewards we can be…

Let’s say you have made the commitment to spending some time in a place like this. You needed a restart. A natural reset. You decided that living an off-the-grid lifestyle in a wildly foreign environment would help to re-ignite your passions for the natural world. Good for you. Get ready for a wild ride 😉 You will experience all of the ups and downs of this amazing adventure, hopefully learning from each experience along the way…therefore, there are no negative experiences, only lessons. Besides the lessons that you may encounter mentally and emotionally, there will be many experiences that test you physically and spiritually. For the remainder of this blog, we are going to focus on some of the lessons that we have learned strictly from the natural environment…from the cloud forests of Pichincha.

Let’s start with the basics, orientation. Do you know where you are? If not, how do you figure that out? Well, follow the sun. We all know that the sun rises more or less directly East and sets more or less directly West. Once you know which directions are East and West, you can deduce which directions are North and South. Assign landmarks to those directions, ex. You notice that when you are at the ACOR lek, the sun is directly behind you, therefore the ridge you are on is to the East of the cabin. Continue assigning directions and locations to various landmarks around the reserve, which you can see or figure out their location, from several different vantage points. Now over the next days, weeks, and months, keep paying attention to where the sun is at various locations around the reserve at many different times of day. Pretty soon you will be able to tell what time it is, just by looking at the position of the sun in the sky. You will also be able to tell approximately where you are on the reserve property. This is a pretty basic orientation skill, but one that can also be very useful.

How about the river, have you ever truly watched what the river is doing? Enough to let it speak to you about what is going on in nature around you? Again, starting with the basics…which direction is it flowing? Does it always flow that direction? Likely here in the Andes Mountains, it is always flowing in the same direction…down the mountain. What color is the river? If it is relatively clear, then there is little sediment in the clean water, meaning there has been little to no rainfall lately. If the river is cloudy and brown with lots of debris in it, it’s likely there has been heavy rainfall recently or upriver from the section of river you are looking at. Now, how high is the river? Look to the riverbanks for any trees or shrubs that standout as an easy landmark, then look to the boulders on the riverbed. If you don’t notice anything out of place, then perhaps the river is running at its normal height; But, if you notice darky muddy marks along the riverbank and you can see a clear line of moss/algae growth on the boulders on the riverbed, then likely the river is running lower than its normal height. If you can’t see any of these high-water marks and you notice that many of the boulders on the riverbed are actually moving along the bottom, then likely the river is running higher than normal. Are there any birds on or around the river? If so, then likely the river is running at a fairly continuous velocity and at a relatively normal height. That means the river at the moment is stable enough that fish can be seen for feeding, bugs can skip across the surface for insectivores to eat, and spiders can build their webs. If there are no birds or riparian forest species of any kind in sight, then the river could be ramping up to become more unstable. These are all good signs to watch out for, especially if you are working IN the river. I was always told to stay clear of the river when it’s raining, but here in the cloud forest flash floods happen quickly and occasionally on a sunny day. After all, you never know, it could be raining at the top of the mountain for one hour or more before it reaches you.

Now let’s talk about the BIRDS! You must have some love of birds if you are coming to live in a place like Reserva las Tangaras, it IS the Tanager Reserve after all! So besides identifying them for your life’s ebird list, do you know what else these beautiful little creatures can tell you about your environment? A lot!

For starters, most birds have many different types of songs or calls, but many have a specific “alarm” call that they sound when danger is near. If you hear a loud, shrill, or very blunt call in the forest, this may be an alarm call. Look around for a potential bird predator, perhaps there is an eagle soaring above, or a jungle cat walking the trails below, or maybe they are calling about you! Either way listening out for this “alarm” call can point us in the direction of potential bird danger and therefore something else incredible for us to see in the cloud forest.

Have you felt a strong, cool wind and looked up to see a flock of birds just soaring over you? More than likely those birds are riding the thermocline (a distinct change in temperature, in this case leading to two air pockets of different densities) layer in the air being pushed forward by an oncoming storm. Birds riding this thermocline layer, can often signal that a storm is close by and it may be time for you to take cover! Usually, this sighting is coupled with a cool breeze, or an increase in bird calls, or an overall increase in overall animal movement to take cover in protection of the storm.

And finally, they can teach you to truly live in the moment. As Nick wrote in his last blog, the birds live their life to the minute. They wake up, and are only ever concerned with the basics: food, calling for a mate, more food, mating, probably more food, and perhaps building a nest all while on the constant look out for predators. They wake up and go to bed with the natural light of the day, they dry their wings and bask in the heat of the sun, and enjoy a cool bath in the rain. They bounce around in the fruits and flowers of the trees when they are abundant and supplement their diet with bugs rich in protein and fats when things are not in bloom. Birds travel incredible distances to find the perfect mate or the perfect meal and many don’t leave their home area once they have found the perfect spot. They are beautiful creatures that just exist and BE in nature…which we think can teach us humans quite a lot.

We have learned so much from living in the cloud forest for 6 months, yet we know there is still a lot to learn. We hope to be able to return to this incredible place again one day and see what the birds can teach us that time…now go out there and see what your forest, or garden, or stream, or lakeside terrace can teach you! We bet that if you take the time to sit, observe, and just BE…you will be surprised 😉

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve enjoyed! All our best, Katie and Nick