Ecuador Travel Diary - p. 5
14 April 2002
My last stop in Ecuador is Guandera Biological Station,
owned and run by the Ecuadorean conservation group Fundación Jatun Sacha. Guandera is 2500 acres of
highland forest and paramo between 10,000 and 12,000 feet elevation. One does not
need a lecture on conservation to appreciate Guandera. We arrive here after
traveling for hours past endless potato fields, corn fields, and villages. Guandera
is the only substantial tract of natural vegetation that I see in this heavily populated
region of northern Ecuador.
15 April 2002
The station has 5 volunteers, college students from around the world whose chores include
trail maintenance and the like. Meals are casual affairs - a roll of toilet paper
sits on the dining table for anyone in need of a napkin.
Juan Freile, an ornithology student from the University of Quito, is here studying
flowerpiercers, a group of birds that "cheat" by piercing the base of flowers
and drinking the nectar without doing any polllination. He and friend Gabriella are
mist-netting the birds on a mountain slope near the station. They inadvertantly
catch a Black-thighed Puffleg, a rare high-elevation hummingbird, whom I photograph after
it is released.
16 April 2002
The forest vegetation here is the most fascinating I have ever seen: a riotous
garden of orchids, bromeliads, ferns, parasitic plants, trees and shrubs of every
description. It is in truth a harsh climate for plants: in these high
mountains the temperature drops to near freezing every night of the year, and the
ultraviolet-rich radiation can be brutal. Most plants have adapted with small
leathery leaves, held in a near-vertical position. New shoots are rich in red and
purple pigments which protect from the sun.
The trail to the paramo goes mostly straight up the mountain. At
this elevation I stop, gasping for breath, every hundred meters or so. It is
impossible to whistle.
The ensemble of birds here is almost completely different from
Tandayapa. At 11,700' I encounter a nice feeding flock of Scarlet-bellied,
Black-chested, and Lacrimose Mountain-Tanagers, joined by Slaty Brush-Finch, Agile
Tit-Tyrant, and Streaked Tuftedcheek. Farther on the forest drops away, replaced by
paramo, the Andean equivalent of alpine vegetion. This is the kingdom of
frailejones (Espeletia pycnophylla), relatives of sunflowers. Their soft
woody stems, topped by a rosette of wooly leaves, rise to six feet or more. The
paramo is great for scenery, but not for birds - except for Grass Wren and Tawny Antpitta,
few are seen or heard.
21 April 2002
I have spent the last 4 mornings at a forest opening created by a raised bog. Here
feeding flocks of birds pass by every few hours. The star bird is Golden-crowned
Tanager, one of the most beautiful of the family. Easier to see are Hooded and
Lacrimose Mountain-Tanagers. These large, chunky mountain-tanagers illustrate
Bergmann's Rule, which states that animals living in a cold climate (high latitude or high
elevation) will be larger than their counterparts in warmer regions.
Conditions are difficult. Thick clouds flow over the ridges,
producing an almost constant fine mist. It's cold enough to see one's breath.
The Lacrimose Mountain-Tanager, so-called because of the yellow "teardrop" below
its eye, is the only cooperative bird. I return day after day, hoping to get
Golden-crowned, but it is not to be. This time no last-day chance presents
itself. I leave the mountains with mixed feelings: disappointed that I missed
photographing some of the beautiful birds here, happy that I was able to see this unique
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