I started my morning on the porch with a hot cup of Ecuadorian chocolate, watching Empress Brilliants, White-tailed Hillstars, and Purple-throated Woodstars jostling at the hummingbird feeders mere feet from me. A group of Choco Toucans sat nearby, throwing back palm fruit. Peter was upstairs leaning out the window with a pair of binoculars, making a list:
- Golden Tanager
- Red-headed Barbet
- Orange-bellied Euphonia
- Glistening Green Tanager
The best part is that we’re not on vacation; we’re at work.
We are the managers of Reserva las Tangaras (named after the ubiquitous tanager, of which there are about 30 species in the area) for three months: a period of time long enough to become familiar with the birds, to make friends with the resident Central American Agouti, and to significantly improve our Spanish, but not long enough to get too demoralized by the daily rain that washes out our trails and leaves everything in a film of white mold, no matter how much bleach or fungicide we apply.
Reserva las Tangaras is in Mindo, Ecuador, a small but touristy town situated in the cloud forest of Pichincha province (the province that includes Quito, the country’s capitol) at the western base of the Andes. The reserve is owned by a private non-profit organization, LifeNet Nature, and its main purpose is to serve as a sanctuary (and study site) of a population of Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock (ACOR).
This is a showy red bird with an almost ridiculous crest that just about covers its beak completely. The males display in a group called a lek, shimmying up and down branches, bobbing their heads, and squawking. Females sit and watch the performance, conveniently able to choose their favorite from the whole lek. At Las Tangaras, this amounts to around 12 males. Typically, ACOR leks (distributed throughout the narrow bands that are the eastern and western foothills of the Andes) are active just during the mating season. The lek at Las Tangaras is unique for being one of the few where displays occur year-round, every morning (and often afternoon). In order to better understand the dynamics of the lek, Peter and I are tasked with observing it once per week. This entails a 5:20 a.m. start to a twenty-five minute hike straight up the hillside to the lekking site. Here we sit in a small hide, waiting for the first male to call. When he does, we begin collecting data on leg bands, behavior, and location of the birds. The displays can last from one to two hours, and by the time they are over, we are ready to get back to the lodge for breakfast and our next task of the day: hummingbird data collection.
At Las Tangaras, we see sixteen species of hummingbirds regularly. We collect basic information about who (what species and sex) we see at the feeders and their behavior for one hour each day. Until recently, hummingbird feeders were not commonly used in Ecuador, and as a result, many species were difficult to find and identify, never mind study. Now, many reserves and hostels have feeders, contributing to visitors’ appreciation of Ecuador’s wildlife, and to scientific studies.
The other data collection we do at Las Tangaras is keeping a monthly species list of the birds we see. We also do 2 to 4 “big days” each month, taking our time to bird the reserve trails all morning. Our big days have rewarded us with some of our favorite personal new species: Club-winged Manakins, Bay-headed Tanagers, and most recently, a Golden-headed Quetzal.
As the only employees of the reserve, we are also responsible for feeding and housing guests who brave the muddy, cow-trodden, 45 minute long entry trail to the cabin. We also take them to see the ACOR lek displays. Indeed, this is the primary reason that guests come to the reserve. Maintaining the trails, fixing roof leaks, plumbing, and other general housekeeping and maintenance are also part of the job. At risk of this reading like a blatant advertisement for my alma mater, I will say that Sterling provided us with practical skills and experience that prepared us for this work. As recent graduates, we were already comfortable living in remote locations, jumping into a new environment and having to quickly familiarize ourselves with the wildlife, and interacting with a different culture. Sterling prepared us for these challenges, even managing the latter, in spite of its rural location.
Although our time here is coming to a close, we’re excited for our next upcoming adventures, working with plants and wildlife in the alpine of Wyoming and the prairie of Montana respectively. We’re confident that our Sterling experience will continue to assist us in many more interesting positions in the field.
Written by Kayla Scheimreif.