Walking amongst the clouds may seem like paradise but it is no easy feat. In the name of research I brave a three hour steep hike to the top of the mountain where I will spend the next few weeks. The air thins with every step and I watch with jealousy as my luggage takes the first class route on the back of a mule. I am in Santa Lucia cloud forest in Ecuador, an isolated 713 hectare reserve owned by 12 local families who have saved this biodiversity hotspot for ecotourism rather than clearing it for agriculture.
The reserve is home to 390 bird species and each morning we conduct detailed bird surveys with our native guide, who can remarkably identify every bird by call and sight. We record the species name and how far away it was heard or seen at 8 different sights for 10 minute intervals. The best birding sights are always directly down the side of a steep mountain where there is no path so our guide must machete out a path, creating the best opportunity for endless spiders to descend as they are hurled off their shattered webs.
At dawn one morning we visit the local Cock- of -the -Rock lek, a place where male birds display to attract females. The noise is like something out of ‘Planet of the Apes’. You can hardly believe that only a dozen or so small red birds are creating such a commotion all in the name of love.
The reserve has been monitoring the mammal population of the area since 2007 using a technique called camera trapping. This year the focus is on small spotted cats such as Margays and Oncillas and the cameras have been lowered in order to capture these small feline species which have hardly been studied and are only 20 centimeters in height. The cameras are set up along the trails to capture opportunistic behaviours. Each day we visit different camera sights, replace the SD cards, remeasure the measuring stick which provides scale and check for tracks and scat. This year, 5 new individual small spotted cats have been identified as well as two pumas.
The final project is carbon sequestion which measures how much carbon is stored in each hectare of cloud forest within the reserve. This can allow governments to sell carbon credits which offset destructive environmental activities in other parts of the world. It also applies high value to the forest as an important contributor to reducing the impact of climate change by continuing to absorb high levels of carbon. Each hectare of forest is divided into 20×20 quadrants and each tree larger than 5 inches is marked, measured in great detail, including how alive or dead it is and it’s position in the forest is also recorded so that it can be remeasured again at a later date for comparison. As you clamber through the understory measuring trees you get a wonderful appreciation of how changable the forest is as epiphites take over dying trees and the foilage crumbles around tiny hummingbird nests. Researching in the cloud forest is a true encounter with the fragility and beauty of nature.
Nardine, I am reading all your blog posts and am so amazed and impressed with all you are doing and photographing. The photos are just perfect to illustrate your narratives.
Louis well done
it is beautiful pictures pretty birds amazing cats.