HOTSPOT: Tropical Andes [Ecuador]

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Reserva Tapichalaca, Ecuador

After an early breakfast, we head to the field. As we head along the trail, we pass windows in the foliage that look out upon immense peaks and valleys. In sight are Podocarpus and Yacuri National Parks, and Tapichalaca Reserve, which forms an expansive corridor between the two. The distant forests are tightly earth-bound masses of green clouds… but the frame of foliage in the foreground is made up of a rich tapestry of woven orchids, bromelia, ferns, and trees.

Landslides are natural in this habitat. One can see these natural landslides on opposing mountains: they are thin and snaking in appearance, like waterfalls without water. However, they have been widening the road along the valley; cutting into these fragile mountainsides apparently to increase the export capacity of the local limestone mine [for cement]. On the opposing mountains, one can see that the new road is comprehensively laced with its own cohort of landslides. These landslides are wide and destructive. The difference between the naturally and instigated landslides is like the difference between a scratch and a gouged wound.

After 45 minutes, we arrive a roofed area with benches. We sit down, and one of the park guards scatters some earthworms, cut into tantalizing bite-sized pieces, onto two cleared sites on the ground [NB apparently, these native earth worms can grow to be up to the length of your arm!]. Silence. Waiting. Cold hands. No–don’t move.

With a sound like the cooing of an owl then the whining of dog, he arrives:  the male Jocotoco Antpitta [Grallaria ridgelyi]. My eyes immediately start with tears. He is awkward, with his extraordinarily long legs and seemingly absent tail.  He is tame enough to approach the feeding spots, only a few meters away from where we are seated; but so alert and cautious that your slightest shift in position causes him to dart away. Soon, his mate and their chick arrive to share the feast. The chick is distinguished by the mottled colouring of his face, which in his parents have developed into distinct black and white markings.

We didn’t even know that these Jocotos existed until 1997. I immediately feel an immense gratitude towards those who mobilized to protect this endangered species immediately upon its discovery, founding the Jocotoco Foundation and creating Tapichalaca Reserve. Only 150-700 mature Jocotocos are thought to exist. They have been found in only five geographic sites, over half of the known population being found within Tapichalaca itself. Already, I had seen the foundation’s Jocotoco Antpitta logo emblazoned all over the place… but until I met the bird in person, I did not realize how motivating and uniting this logo must be for conservationists working here. The Jocotoco Antpitta is simply charismatic and endearing.

I am only at Tapichalaca for a week…  and the fact that my camera was stolen on the bus from Cali makes my principal task of filming a promotional video a bit tough. However, I will piece together the video by borrowing cameras and footage. I am also creating one watercolour for each guest bedroom. As the ecotourists here are almost exclusively birders or ornithologists, these paintings will all be portraits of birds found on the reserve.

See all my pictures from Ecuador HERE

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© Copyright Emma Steigerwald | Vanderbilt Traveling Fellow