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November in the clouds

November 26, 2011

We´re the new managers at Reserva Las Tangaras, Armando y Tita, and here´s what we´ve written!

An excellent way to attract hummingbirds is to wear a red t-shirt. Up on the high Mirador trail at Reserva Las Tangaras, the forest expresses its duality. On a windy day, overcast by the encroaching mass of a chilly cloud, a sound of branches trembling and cracking can evoke the hopeful, but equally terrifying idea of a spectacled bear or perhaps some large cat. This time, it’s only a squirrel foraging in the understory. On a different day, when the sun has just risen above some wayward puffclouds, its spears of warm yellow light, thickened by pollen and exhaled steam from the trees, illuminate the mind and warm the nostrils. It was on one of these days that a male violet-tailed sylph confronted me, nervously twitching as it hovered before my red t-shirt and noticeably disappointed at the lack of nectar. Then, it’s gone. Off in an arbitrary direction, into the depths of a thousand leaf shapes, and you are left under a billion different hues of green.

Descending down the slope, the gentle roar of Rio Nambillo’s fast flowing waters indicate the research cabin is near. Here, several hummingbird species zip past each other, propel themselves to infinity, dive-bomb their neighbors and hover before a plastic receptacle containing sugar water. These are some of our research subjects. Both interspecific and intraspecific aggression are obvious within a minute of observation, and we hope to document any patterns related to this. Are certain species more aggressive? Do they ‘target’ some species over others? Is this related to phylogenetic or morphological relationsips? In our ‘methods’ section we’ll be sure to include the part about sitting down at a table and comfortably sipping some of Mindo’s freshly ground coffee. “Is it bad for a human being to want to sit around all day, watch hummingbirds and drink coffee?” Tita asks.

Yes, this research is easy on the feet, but we are often mesmerized by our subjects and having our brains teased to bits by our findings. The view from the front deck is the opposite slope to the river, where a jillion tree species form a crisp skyline. Alwyn Gentry comes to mind, and his immense undertaking to document the woody plants of South America. E.O. Wilson wisely called him a researcher who “succeeds in order to do science,” and not the other way.

Despite the intoxicating tranquility of the front deck, the forest is relentless in its effort to recapture the cabin. Its minions take the forms of wasp nests, crawling vines, cute roosting bats, tarantulas in our towels, mold and general weed growth in the garden and trails. The reserve is kept in order for visitors, which have been coming regularly thanks to the thorough flyering of Mindo by Jaime and Bex. We’ve also been getting to know shop, restaurant and hostel owners in the all too hospitable and sleepy town down slope from us.

Much of our forest time is spent gazing at the multitude of birds. Tanagers hop around in the canopy; furnariids tumble in the understory and creep up trunks. Flycatchers patiently perch, quetzals slowly move their head about like they’ve been drinking, and toucans are simply toucans. But of course, our star is the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, for which we are collecting behavioral data for an ongoing study. These big, bright red puffballs gather at dawn in order to flap, scream, and snap bills at each other all in hopes of impressing a passing female. This is the main attraction for visitors to the reserve and a fitting symbol for Andean biodiversity. Its fantastic appearance, absurd vocalizations, and perplexing behaviors would make it a good character in a Lewis Carrol story. I wonder how often a hummingbird pokes at a male cock-of-the-rock only to find that it too, does not provide nectar.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 26, 2011 11:21 am

    Hey,

    Nicely written piece, we live around your neck of the woods so will have to come check it out.

    Tanya

  2. November 26, 2011 1:52 pm

    Beautiful! Glad you are filled with and able to express so wonderfully the experience of Las Tangaras.

  3. November 26, 2011 7:25 pm

    Hi guys,
    glad things are going well! Sounds awesome still.
    loved reading the blog.
    hope its all chebre
    nos vemos

    jamie and bex

  4. alex permalink
    November 26, 2011 8:09 pm

    touched my heart bro

  5. Luke Eberhart-Phillips permalink
    November 27, 2011 8:11 am

    Hola Armando y Tita!
    Wow, fantastic! I’m stoked for you two. Sounds like you have found the perfect place to find adventure. In Orni, Mark and I just showed the Life of Birds episode with the Cock-of-the-rock…puts the biggest smile on my face to imagine you two studying them down there in Ecuador. Your hummer studies sound fascinating. It must have been tough to quantify aggression at first, but I’m sure you become well in tune with the behaviour your little Trochilid friends. Good luck and keep up the adventure Armando y Tita!

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