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Always bring a camera to a lek visit!

September 13, 2016

It can be hard to wake up for visit to the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek.  The sun hasn’t risen and the birds aren’t singing, and your bed can feel so comfortable at 4:45 AM…

But the thing that always gets me out of bed early for a lek visit is the knowledge that I never know quite what I’m going to get. Walking up to the lek, you have to wonder – when will the birds start calling? How many will we see? And will there be banded birds?

If you’re bringing your camera (and you should bring your camera), you might be thinking about your equipment, or dreaming about that perfect shot.

And you are also wondering – what else will show up to the lek? Theoretically, a regular gathering of the largely fruit-eating Andean Cock-of-the-Rock should lead to a healthy growth of fruit-bearing trees in that part of the forest (thanks to their feces). So, maybe a toucanet will show up, hopping along a branch. Dwarf squirrels and coatis very occasionally make an appearance. Hummingbirds and wrens can also be seen from the hide – but you never know! That’s the exciting thing about lek visits. Sometimes the best way to explore the jungle is to sit quietly in a good hiding place and let the wildlife come to you.

And sometimes, you just get lucky.

The Cocks-of-the-Rock showed up right on time and displayed for about half an hour.

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That’s shorter than average, but no female showed up, so perhaps the males were only displaying half-heartedly. By the late morning, the birds were leaving the lek. I had resigned myself to a subpar experience, and was looking forward to breakfast back at the lodge.

But the trees near the hide started to shake, and the branches began to move in such a way as to indicate something heavy – something climbing – a mammal moving through the trees. From the movement I could tell that it was too big to be a squirrel. Was it a kinkajou? I had seen one down by the river, crossing the bridge and foraging in the trees near the water.

When I finally got a glimpse…

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And that, folks, is why you always bring a camera on a lek visit.

 

My breath caught in my throat. It was a white-fronted capuchin!

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Too excited for an in-focus picture…

Now, white-fronted capuchins are not particularly rare, but they are very uncommon at Reserva Las Tangaras. This may be due to the fact that this forest, like most of the forest around Mindo, was recently farmland, and so only represents secondary growth. Perhaps these monkeys prefer older, more mature jungle. So while this is an exciting sight at our reserve, dedicated mammal-watchers probably wouldn’t be too impressed.

That being said, watching monkeys climb and leap through the trees as they forage is one of the great joys of tropical wildlife watching.

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I stared, hardly believing my luck, as one monkey emerged, then another. Five in total – two juveniles and two adults – one with a baby clinging tightly to her back. It was very clear that at least one of the monkeys knew I was in the hide, from how it looked intently in my direction. Even though I was silent and only moved to take pictures or get better looks, I could tell that it knew someone was there.

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I knew I couldn’t leave until they did, because I didn’t want to disturb them (and because watching them was too much fun). So when they moved off, I packed up and left, walking back to the lodge by the typical route.

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And who did I find on my way?

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I crossed paths with the family of monkeys again, and this time they definitely knew I was there. The juveniles made high, squeaking calls, and the adults hurried to their defense, climbing low in the trees – as low as two meters above my head! – screeching, baring their teeth, and shaking branches at me. Even at three times their size, I’ll admit I was intimidated.

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This monkey is not happy to see me. Bared teeth is not a good sign.

Only by staying perfectly still and crouching low behind a tree could I avoid their notice.

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After the group had passed by, I made my way back down to the lodge, exhilarated. I was happy that I had woken up early that morning – but I was much happier that I had remembered to bring my camera!

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7 Tips for Birdwatching in a Tropical Forest

August 22, 2016

When travelers step off the bus in Mindo, one of the first things they see is a bus station covered with posters like this one.

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Brightly colored birds peer down, next to the words “Mindo: Capital Mundial de las Aves.”  Mindo has earned its reputation as the “World Capital of Birds” thanks to stellar performances in the annual Christmas Bird Counts.  Last year, birders in the Mindo area recorded 465 species!  So it’s no wonder that visitors flock to Mindo  for the birds.

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Who could resist the charming face of the red-headed barbet?

 

As we saw in our last blog post, many visitors to Las Tangaras are from temperate areas, mostly in North America and Europe. Many of these travelers expect to see toucans and parrots, but even the experienced birdwatchers among them may not realize that birding in the tropics may be very different from birding at home.

So here are a few tips to make your birding in the tropics easier and more successful. Our first piece of advice is one that all birders will recognize….

1. Get started early. Just as in the temperate zones, dawn in a tropical forest brings a flurry of avian activity.  Territorial birds sing and call to advertise their presence, as   hungry birds search for food.  The dramatic increase in sound and movement is worth waking up early for, especially in the tropics: some tropical species call only at dawn and are silent (or nearly so) for the rest of the day.  Other birds, like the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, give unique displays at dawn.  At the Las Tangaras lodge, the birds will wake you up at 6:00 or so.

This is what you’ll hear when you roll out of bed at 6:15.  And once you’re awake…

2. Take your time. In a tropical forest, you’ll quickly realize that most birds are very tough to spot in the sea of greenery.  Compared to a temperate forest, tropical forests are often denser, with larger leaves and a fuller understory.  Vines and bromeliads further obscure the view.  Finding birds in such a forest requires patience.  Walk slowly—very slowly.  Don’t be ashamed if a one-hour hike takes you two hours. Be ready to raise your binoculars at the slightest glimpse of motion or bright color.  You never know who might be hiding in the leaves…

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Oh hello there.

Brightly colored birds may be easy to spot in a dark forest, but you really should…

3. Realize that not all tropical birds are colorful. It turns out that every birdwatcher’s biggest annoyance, the “little brown birds,” are everywhere, even in the tropics. I spent my first weeks at Las Tangaras peering through the underbrush at small brown and gray birds.  When I’d open Fieldbook of the Birds of Ecuador, I’d find page after page of images like this…

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Which tiny,  indistinguishable brown bird did I see?

You can choose to ignore the dull birds in favor of the more colorful, but if you really want to boost your bird list, all is not lost.  Extremely similar-looking birds can often be distinguished if you…

4. Pay attention to a bird’s behavior. Every birder knows that a bird’s behavior can provide a clue to its identification.  This advice is even more useful in the tropics, where the incredible diversity of birds causes intense specialization of behavior.  Closely related birds living in the same habitat have to eat slightly different foods in order to co-exist.  So you may see one flycatcher species catch insects by flying out from a perch, while another flycatcher hops up from the ground to snatch a bug from under a leaf.  Pay attention to these behavioral differences to help you identify species.

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The broad-billed motmot rigidly swings its spectacular tail back and forth as it perches, looking much like a clock with a feathery pendulum.

But maybe you don’t care so much about identification; you just want to see birds!  In that case…

5. Hit the hotspots. Although a tropical forest’s sea of green may look uniform and unvaried, it is anything but.  Compared to temperate woods, tropical forests are patchier—in other words, resources are more widely scattered across the landscape.  For example, there might be large distances between individual flowering trees of the same species.  For this reason, birds are also patchily distributed, with some areas containing more birds than others on average.  So you’ll want to try and find these natural bird hotspots. The Las Tangaras managers may be able to point you toward good areas, which may be as simple as a single fruiting or flowering tree.

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These two male orange-bellied euphonias spent several minutes probing these bright orange flowers.

Habitat patchiness also contributes to a tropical bird behavior that you won’t want to miss…

6. Keep an eye out for mixed-species flocks. In tropical forests, there are birds who spend a great majority of their lives in a flock composed of many other species.  These mixed-species flocks travel together, moving between flowering plants and fruiting trees, frantically picking at insects as they go.  Imagine standing in a silent patch of woods, when suddenly, the trees fill with euphonias, woodcreepers, flycatchers, wrens, and barbets.    You’ll only have moments to get a few in your binocular sights before they all disappear! If you encounter a mixed-species flock, you may get to see multiple species of the group that gives our reserve its name: the tanagers.

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Rufous-throated tanagers like this one are common members of mixed-species flocks at Las Tangaras.

But let’s say it’s the end of the day, and you haven’t yet had the pleasure of being surrounded by a mixed-species flock.  Here’s our advice:

7. Spend plenty of time here. If, at the end of your first day at Las Tangaras, you’ve seen fewer birds than you’d like, there’s a very good chance that you’ll encounter just as many entirely new species on your second or even third day.  Why?  Because the wonder of the tropics is in bird diversity, more than bird numbers.  One scientific study found that about as many individual birds can be found in a New Hampshire (USA) woods as a tropical rainforest in Peru, even though Peru has many more species.  This means that each species was present at a lower density in the tropical forest than in a temperate one.  The same may be true at Las Tangaras:  You probably won’t see many more individual birds here in a day than you would at home, but you should see more species, if you have enough time.

So stick around! Spend more than just one day at Las Tangaras.  You could visit our Cock-of-the-Rock lek on your first morning, spend the next dawn birding on our trails, and still have plenty of time to watch birds from the second story of our lodge.  I’ve seen some of my favorite birds without ever having to leave the lodge.

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Thanks to our recent visitors, the Zimmer family, for this lovely shot of a golden-headed quetzal!

What do you think, fellow birdwatchers?  Have I completely missed a crucial tip for tropical birding?  Let me know in the comments!

To learn more about tropical birdwatching, I recommend Birds of Tropical America: A Watcher’s Introduction to Behavior, Breeding, and Diversity by Steven Hilty, which greatly inspired this post.  You can read it for yourself in the Las Tangaras library.

Where in the world are our guests from?

August 2, 2016

August is a wonderful month to visit Mindo.  The dry season is fully underway, with gorgeous sunny mornings and (relatively) little rain.  Plus, the summer holidays in the Northern Hemisphere bring many tourists to Mindo and to Reserva Las Tangaras.

But where do all these people come from?  We decided to find out.

For the past five years, we have asked guests to write their country of origin in our guestbook.  Now, we have quite an impressive data set to share with you all.

From June 2011 to July 2016, the guestbook at Las Tangaras has been signed 760 times.  These guests represent 36 nations and every continent (except Antarctica).


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Thank you mapchart.net for this lovely graphic.

(By the way, any guesses as to what the map colors signify?  Hint: It has nothing to do with our dataset, and everything to do with our location…)

It probably comes as no surprise that the United States have contributed the most guests to Las Tanagaras, since Life Net Nature is a nonprofit based in the USA.  But some of the other Top 10 Countries surprised us.  Do they surprise you?

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Top Ten (actually eleven) home countries of Las Tangaras guests

Here the distribution of all 36 countries, territories, and autonomous regions that our guests call home.

In the graphic above, the number next to each country represents the number of guests  from that country.  The chart on the right is a zoomed-in version of the white slice of the chart on the left, representing countries with fewer than 5 visitors.

As you can see, exactly ten countries have sent us only one visitor: Norway, the Canary Islands, India, Singapore, Nicaragua, Panama, Japan, Peru, Uruguay, and Brazil.  If you were one of those visitors, we sure do appreciate you!

Truly, we appreciate the diversity all of our guests, especially since they all bring such interesting travel stories.  If you’d like to be added to our guestbook (and any future infographics), please drop by for a visit!

A Walk from Mindo

July 13, 2016

So you’ve just arrived in Mindo!  If you’re like most of our visitors, you probably came on a bus, possibly from Quito, and you’re looking forward to stretching your legs and exploring this new area.

Maybe you’ll spend some time in Mindo’s lovely town square….

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…or sample an Ecuadorian almuerzo in a local restaurant.

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Today’s almuerzo: tilapia

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Rio Mindo

Now, are you ready to travel to Reserva Las Tangaras?  You have two options.  If you’re carrying a lot of luggage, you might want to take a taxi.  It’ll cost you $6 and take about fifteen minutes.  But if you’re feeling energetic, you can walk all the way to the Reserve from Mindo.  The road winds its way through the jungle and crosses the Río Mindo just outside of town.

Your walk is mostly uphill.  Do you wish you’d taken a taxi now?  If you had, you might have missed some good birds that you can see as you walk:  parrots, tanagers, flycatchers, and wood wrens—even the occasional swallow-tailed kite.  Plus, you’ll see some nice views of Mindo and the surrounding area.

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When you see this sign, you’ve made it to the reserve’s entrance!  Get ready for a two kilometer hike through the jungle.  Fear not:  this part is all downhill.  It should take you about forty-five minutes.

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All downhill from here!

DSCN0943Las Tangaras’s entrance trail is adjacent to private land, so you might see people herding cattle or cutting grass.  Give them a “Buenos días,” if it’s morning, or a “Buenas tardes,” if it’s afternoon.  We like to be good neighbors.

As you walk, watch your step!  The trail can get slippery and muddy, especially when it has just rained.  (There’s plenty of rain in the cloud forest.)  It’s important to place your feet carefully and go slowly.  A leisurely pace gives you a chance to admire the view and any animals and birds you might see.

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Look out for trails of ants!  If you stand still, they might crawl up your legs.  You might end up sharing the trail with them for a hundred meters or more!  Who can blame them for taking the easiest route through the forest?

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This sign means you’re almost here.   Maybe you’re looking forward to a coffee or a mug of hot tea—or maybe you’re just ready to sit down for a while!

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Keep a sharp eye when you’re crossing the bridge over the Río Nambillo.  If you’re lucky, you might see a white-capped dipper or a torrent duck.

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Welcome to the lodge at Reserva Las Tangaras!  This two-story building doubles as a research station and your new home in the cloud forest.  Please take a moment to sign our guest register—we love to see where our guests are from.

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Then come up onto the porch and meet us, the new reserve managers!  We arrived at the end of June.  Annie is from West Virginia (United States) and has a background in environmental education and avian biology.  She’ll be happy to teach you about the dramatic and entertaining hummingbirds at our feeders.  You might catch her strumming a tune on the reserve’s ukulele.

Skyler is from Ohio (United States).  His background is a mixture of biological research and land conservation and stewardship.  He enjoys the challenges of maintaining the trails and property here, and can often be found in the reserve kitchen baking bread, muffins, cookies, and other treats.

More than anything, we love guiding visitors to our spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek and preparing tasty (mostly) vegetarian meals for our guests.  If this sounds tempting to you, and you’d like to book a guided lek tour or stay overnight, email us at lastangarasreserve@gmail.com, or call us at 96-982-4972.  We’d love to host you!

 

 

Solar Power at Reserva Las Tangaras

June 28, 2016

A part of the charm of Reserva Las Tangaras comes from the remote location and off-grid aspect of the cabin. Here you are removed from the noise of cars, dogs barking, and roosters crowing. You fall asleep to the sounds of frogs calling and the river flowing, and wake up to the chorus of songbirds in the forest just outside. Dinner is eaten by candlelight, and evening activities and chores carried out by the light of headlamps or flashlights when necessary.

Despite the romantic and tranquil atmosphere that comes from being off-grid, a certain amount of electricity is necessary in order to keep the reserve functioning well. Managers need to keep laptops charged for data entry, cameras for documenting species sightings, and the reserve cell phone in order to communicate with potential visitors.

Previously, all of these tasks and more were accomplished using an efficient gasoline generator. While the generator will still be necessary to run power tools, all other charging tasks can now be accomplished via solar power!

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The first successful phone charge via solar power!

We were able to install a 120 watt polycrystalline solar panel on the roof of the cabin. This panel, connected to a charge controller, deep cycle battery, and inverter, supplies noiseless and environmentally friendly power to meet most of the needs of the reserve. The panel can even produce power in cloudy conditions and during light rainfall (though at a lower rate).

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The newly installed 120 watt solar panel, soaking up some sun.

Installing solar power is the newest of several sustainability efforts that are ongoing at Reserva Las Tangaras, including maintenance of a fruit orchard, composting biodegradable waste, recycling and reusing a variety of materials, and encouraging a sustainable level of tourism to the area. We are happy to have been able to contribute to these efforts, and though we are sad to be leaving we hope future managers and guests enjoy harnessing the power of the sun here at the reserve!

A Nature Walk Through Las Tangaras

May 20, 2016

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We would like to take you on a trek at Las Tangaras Reserve through one of our most popular trails: Sendero de Quetzales! The trail is 1.0 km in length climbing from 1330 m elevation to 1440 m along the ridge behind the lodge and through old growth forest. So put on your hiking boots and get ready to see some cool plants and animals.

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Right off the bat an agouti leads the way to the trailhead. Agoutis are some of the more commonly seen mammals on the reserve. By foraging for fruits and nuts, and sometimes burying their food for later, they serve as an important seed dispersal mechanism for native trees. This guy was in a hurry to get back under the cover of the understory!

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It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the enormous diversity of plant life in the tropics. Hiking through the cloud forest you’re surrounded by plants of every shape and size. In fact, there are so many plants and so little space that they often grow right on top of each other! Many plants, called epiphytes, are structural parasites that use the trunks of larger trees as a kind of ladder to climb up and reach a sunnier elevation than the forest floor. Often these epiphytes don’t directly hurt their host plant, but a branch (or even a whole tree) can become so heavy with them that it can break and fall.

The family Araceae are a large group of flowering plants with many representatives along this trail. Check out the “elephant’s ears” growing as epiphytes. These are common houseplants in temperate zones.

This next part of the trail leads us up to the highest point in our hike where we cross a small stream and have opportunities for views out and over the forest canopy so keep your eyes peeled for cool wildlife!

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Check steps and other trail features are maintained by managers to help reduce erosion and mark the trail. Make sure you stay on the trail to reduce your impact on the environment!

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Although not everybody’s idea of cool wildlife, insects abound in the leaf litter on the forest floor and along the trail. Millipedes in particular are important detritovores, helping break down organic material and return the nutrients to the soil.

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Look quickly before it flies away! Toucans such as this Choco Toucan and the nearly indistinguishable Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan are common on the reserve but don’t always stay still long enough for a picture. They use their large bills to reach fruit and seeds but have been known to predate eggs and nestlings of other birds, and even eat smaller adult birds if they happen to be in the same fruit tree!

Eyes back on the trail now or you might miss one of the most common types of plants we encounter on Reserva Las Tangaras: the fern! Ferns reach their height of biodiversity in the tropics. As a group they are characterized as vascular plants that reproduce by spores.

 

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You made it around the whole loop and back to the house, but the adventure isn’t over yet! Our yard creates an ideal habitat for a few small creatures you might not find under heavy canopy cover.

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A huge variety of grasshoppers can be found on a casual stroll through the yard. They, along with other insects, serve as an important food source for lots of cloud forest animals such as rain frogs which are abundant here too.

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Rainfrogs are the most diverse family of tropical frogs with over 900 species throughout the Americas with over 200 in Ecuador alone. Small rainfrogs such as this Pastures Rainfrog (Pristimantis achatinus) don’t require standing water in which to lay their eggs. Instead, they are deposited in moist soil under leaf litter and undergo direct development to emerge as miniature adults, skipping the tadpole stage we so commonly associate with frogs!

We hope you enjoyed your hike around Las Tangaras! There are many more species than we could fit in this one post, so you’ll just have to come out and see them for yourself!

 

*While it is possible and likely to see all of these species in one trek our photos represent a collection taken over a series of hikes*

A Dynamic Landscape

April 18, 2016

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Hello, we are happy to introduce ourselves as the new reserve managers at Las Tangaras! We are Heather and Costi most recently from Phoenix, Arizona and glad to escape the desert heat for the most opposite climate we could think of – the rainy cloud forests of Mindo!

One of the most striking things about the land here is just how mobile it is. You might hike a trail one day and then find it completely different the next. The most usual and likely catalyst of change in the rain forest is water; whether it’s a thunderstorm, over flowing river, constantly flowing runoff or our personal favorite: the landslide. Interestingly, the local word for landslide is “rumba” which is a synonym for “fiesta” making us wonder what kind of ground-shaking parties we’re missing out on!

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Evidence of a landslide on a neighboring ridge

So far during our stay here “rumbas” have been a common event – they have knocked out our water system , which required a re-route of the Aqua de Fuente Trail, destroyed part of the entrance trail (now fixed, feel free to come visit!), and successfully blocked the private road that sometimes allows us to transport heavy items closer to the reserve. We have even heard the distant rumbling and crashing of landslides happening on other parts of the reserve while working to clear damage on the trails.

In addition to keeping us busy with trail maintenance, landslides serve an important ecological purpose. In the dense cloud forest sunlight is a resource subject to heavy competition. Tall canopy and sub-canopy trees and shrubs shade out smaller herbaceous plants growing in the understory, leading to the preponderance of the distinct growing habits of vines and epiphytes. No need to grow thirty or fifty feet tall if you can just grow on top of the tree that already managed that height! When a landslide occurs it opens up a patch of bare dirt and sunlight ready to be colonized by new plants and pioneer species. It creates a new habitat type for birds and animals and may help maintain biodiversity.

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Vegetative growth in a post-landslide area

Recently a more terrifying natural occurrence reminded us again how mobile the land here is. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook Ecuador on April 16th. Fortunately here at the reserve we only experienced a shaking house and items fallen from shelves. The earthquake originated off the coast of Bahia de Caraquez approximately 150 miles from Mindo. Though landslides and earthquakes may cause tragedy and inconvenience for us, we try to remember that we are simply visitors to this amazing ecosystem and we’re humbled to be here to witness the biodiversity maintained by the moving ground.