From Jane A. Lyons at Reserva Las Gralarias—
Summer 2020: This summer has brought us more surprises than normal. By late July and early August we were enjoying sunny summer weather and able to check out the trails. Along the entire Santa Rosa River property we found numerous bear tracks and markings, as well as downed palmito trees and torn-apart bromeliads, both of which are favorite foods of the only bear species in South America, the Spectacled Bear. A female bear and her cub had been seen a week earlier along the upper road, and we also found what appeared to be some sort of regurgitated fibrous meal (probably palmito bark – the bears only eat the hearts of the palm).
Birdlife was also active and diverse with several very interesting surprises, including two hummer species that are among the scarcest at the reserve plus one new hummer species confirmed for the reserve. A new population of Hoary Puffleg was observed in our lower Santa Rosa zone at approximately 1800 m. It included 3-4 individuals at their favorite flower which is a tiny red flower of the Ericaceae family. In the same area a small group of Tawny-bellied Hermit with their crowns covered in pollen from an unidentified flower were photographed. Another rare hummingbird, a female Wedge-billed Hummingbird was observed feeding on a different species of Ericaceae flower, one that we normally see being utilized by long-billed hummers. This hummer species has now been split from its eastern cousin and so is now called the White-throated Daggerbill (Schistes albogularis), a rather ferocious name for such a small hummer.
A new confirmed species for the reserve, the Green-crowned Brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula), was observed on two occasions in early August. The male bird was somewhat hesitant as it was trying to feed at our feeders but hopefully will be able to fend off the very territorial resident species. Normally found at much lower elevations (up to 1550m) this one was at 2068 m elevation.
We had two additional very exciting surprises. While watching a Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl on 29 July two Chestnut-breasted Chlorophonia were observed mobbing the owl. This beautiful chlorophonia is very rare on the west slope and has never been observed at the reserve or by our guides on the west slope. This was in our lower Santa Rosa area along a ridge above the river and at approximately 1850 m elevation.
In early August Wattled Guan was heard calling near the guest houses and was watched at length feeding on arrayán (laurel) tree seeds at our antpitta feeding site. Also vocal were Dark-backed Wood-Quail, numerous Golden-headed Quetzal, Crested Quetzal, 3 groups of Toucan Barbet, Scaled Fruiteater, White-faced Nunbird, and even a very territorial male Pauraque (and a female with a nest).
However, the best surprise of the summer was what appears to be an immature Broad-winged Hawk perched on tree limbs overlooking the Rio Santa Rosa valley. We normally have at least two Broad-winged Hawks at/near the reserve observed and sometimes calling their very mournful call during fall migration or even over-wintering, and which is quite normal behavior. However, to have these migratory birds ‘over-summering’ at the reserve is pretty astonishing as they all normally return north by May to spend the summer breeding months in the eastern US and Canada (assuming this is the northern subspecies Buteo platypterus platypterus). I guess this individual decided it preferred the beauty of the montane cloud forest – which is something I can certainly understand!
Since they prey on many different types of vertebrates including reptiles and amphibians as well as small mammals, small birds and also invertebrates and insects, the hawk/s no doubt have found an abundant supply of both food and water at RLG. We have seen that juvenile forest-falcons sometimes hunt while walking along the ground or trail or road and end up with worn tail feathers, which may explain the worn tail feathers of this hawk.
What a busy and quite surprising summer!
Late February 2020: December and January were some of the busiest months ever at RLG, with visitors from Japan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, New Zealand, England, Tennessee, Finland, California, Ohio, and Ft. Worth Audubon Society.
Fortunately, the weather mostly co-operated and the bird activity was amazing, including the discovery of the first-ever Andean Cock-of-the-rock nest located on our property. The nest was spied by Milton Delgado on a ledge in a rock wall along the Santa Rosa River and had two large chicks in it.
Many juveniles were at our feeders and on our patios, including a juvenile Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush learning to feed on our bananas.The rare and endemic Beautiful Jays were heard and seen by numerous guests at the guest house. In the photo below, one visits our guest house garden among the Abutilon flowers.
Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans were seen regularly at our banana feeder, and a record five Toucan Barbets plus a record five Black-chinnned Mountain-tanagers were feeding together at the banana feeder.
In late January we welcomed Dr. Carlos Henrique and his wife, Viviane, who began some work on various research projects.
By February we were busy looking for our glassfrogs and finding many individuals of several critically endangered species. We also began a systematic study of our innumerable orchid species.
Late January and early February also brought us at least four records of Spectacled Bear activity, mostly with tree scratchings and destroyed palmito trees and bromeliads, which the bears tear apart to eat what is inside.
On 11 February two people saw a puma on Waterfall Trail and the next day multiple tracks of puma were found along the Santa Rosa River trail – areas where puma have been occasionally recorded for many years. Possibly the puma spotted on Waterfall Trail was this same one photographed there previously on one of our trailcams.
September 2019: I’m writing this at Reserva Las Gralarias (RLG) on the twenty-first of September–two days before the autumnal equinox and one day after the world-wide Climate Change protests.
The first bird I saw today was a male Pauraque sitting outside my kitchen and flycatching in the dim dawn light. I soon heard a nearby Glossy-black Thrush singing his dawn song, then a Crested Quetzal calling his strident two-note song in my front yard. A Golden-headed Quetzal sang a bit farther away.
At 6:09 a.m. as I went out the door to begin feeding the hummers, a Buff-tailed Coronet fluttered up in my face to urge me to hurry up. I noted a female Collared Inca feeding in the rapidly brightening sunrise, darting from flower to flower in the patch of Abutilons behind my house. The male Sepia-brown Wren that has recently claimed a territory in the other direction behind my house began his loud and complex dawn song.
I quickly cleaned and filled the 20 hummer feeders (mostly trays) on my back patio and noted the flower-piercers, hummers and mountain-tanagers that immediately descended to feed from them. I am always happy to feed the birds but do hope they will continue feeding on their regular natural foods as well. I have to assume they do.
I heard nearby Yellow-breasted Antpittas calling loudly. Chocó Brush-Finches also began their dawn songs. I put four bananas at the guest house patio feeding station, knowing those would soon be gone. The two Dusky Chlorospingus were waiting and the male Glossy-black Thrush almost comes to my hand.
Soon Orange-bellied Euphonias, Golden-naped Tanagers, Golden Tanagers, Flame-faced Tanagers, Masked Flower-piercers, Blue-winged and Black-chinned Mountain-Tanagers flew in to feed on the bananas and at the hummer feeders. I filled the hummer feeders – all of which had been completely emptied by the nighttime bats. I noted that a few Montane Violet-ears were still coming to the feeders and some seemed to be molting, along with 13 other species of hummers. I said hello to Pumpkin and P.J. (Pumpkin Junior) as I filled their feeders.
By 7:18 a.m. the Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans were calling nearby. There are now at least one pair and one solo bird that come to our banana stations. They call from high in the trees nearby to scare everyone away and then zoom in like pterodactyls to gulp down pieces of bananas. That is usually when I think, thank goodness a stalk of bananas costs only $5 here in Ecuador, the world’s largest banana-exporting country.
I noted a male White-sided Flower-piercer bathing in the bird bath – as he does every morning. Two White-tipped Doves fluttered noisily down from the tree, seemingly trying to scare away the other birds. But the birds are now accustomed to them and not a single one was scared away. A Plumbeous Pigeon called his “who-cooks-for-you” call from a tall tree above the dog pen.
My weekend helper Karina arrived at 7:20 a.m. and knew to dash quickly to the other feeders across the road to give bananas to the two pairs of hissing and clacking Toucan Barbets as well as other mountain-toucans awaiting their morning treats.
I noted some Actinote butterfly chrysalises and an immobile Long-tailed Skipper on the patio as well as a weevil egg mass plastered on the outside wall. A nearby orchid caught my eye as the sun hit its yellow flowers. I had seen two different blooming orchids at our new property the day before. The strong sweet fragrance that encompassed me was as lovely as any perfume in a bottle. It came from a cluster of Melastomataceae in front of my house.
This year the 23rd of September marks the autumnal equinox and the official end of summer. Here on the equator the change is subtle. It is still warmer than normal and the sun is directly overhead, but by afternoon the waning moon is losing its hold and clouds begin to sneak into our forests both from the west lower slopes and the southeast upper slopes. The birds seem constantly ravenous as the days become the tiniest bit shorter and the nights the tiniest bit cooler. Winter is on the way but in the meantime most of the birds are finishing their molt, defending their territory and feeding enough during the shortening day to make it through the lengthening and cooler night. The nighttime critters are commencing their main season of longer nights with perfect breeding conditions.
As the morning sun soon shared the sky with puffy clouds I thought that autumn is on its way and so, hopefully, are the northern migratory birds that spend the winter at RLG – the beautiful Blackburnian Warblers high in the trees, the Swainson’s Thrushes in our gardens, the Broad-winged Hawks calling their mournful calls from various sites in our properties. Yet, I wondered, what if they do not arrive this year? Like many of you, I have seen on the news a report that since 1970 some 30% of the birds in the USA and Canada have disappeared.
I think every single day about how amazing this planet is, how it has provided us over millennia with every single thing we have ever utilized. How can some people want to keep nature out of cities, when cities are 100% constructed by materials from our earth? Everyday I marvel at the beauty and resilience of nature. I am in awe at how responsive nature is to a bit of kindness from humans. I am reminded of the network of people who spend money, time, effort helping maintain and restore nature. I am deeply saddened and troubled by the thought of millions of humans suffering from wars, cruelty, disease, poverty–and who will never have the chance to experience the wonders and beauty of nature. Yet I am heartened by the people in every corner of this planet who are working to bring change, to save nature, and improve human conditions. Yesterday was the first Climate Change protest world-wide, some 5000 protests in 140 countries demanding action to protect our planet. It is exciting that the youth of today realize the earth needs their activism.
August 2019: Summer is always interesting here as well as a welcome relief from our 100% humidity! June and July 2019 were busy with biology students from Ohio Northern University and a young butterfly intern from Austin, Texas. The biology students are finishing up their posters, and the butterfly intern racked up photos of some 65 species of butterfly plus 8 species of skipper. All of the students’ final reports will be finished over the coming months.
We’ve had some interesting birds, too, such as the one shown in the photo below: an adult Common Potoo with a single nestling frozen on its snag where the female laid and incubated the egg during the first half of summer. The young bird grew yet stayed as still as possible until 20 August when it fledged and flew off the nest. This all occurred right behind the guest house.
By 11 August, the young bird was alone on its snag. In the left photo below, the bird’s dark bill is facing left and its tiny sliver of a barely open eye is visible in the middle of its head. In just twelve days, by 13 August (right), the nestling potoo looked much like an adult.
We also had regular observations of three species of guan along our trails: Wattled Guan (calling), 2 Crested Guans and 4-5 Sickled-wing Guans (at our feeders). It was fun to watch a band of some 6 noisy male Golden-headed Quetzals, plus at least two males and a female Crested Quetzal were heard and seen. A family of delightfully vocal Sepia-brown Wren entertained those willing to be out at 6am plus a pair of very busy but always secretive Gray-breasted Wood-Wren built their bulky nest below the kitchen. And, of course, all of our regular hummingbirds (18 species) have been at our garden feeders. Always glorious are the evening calls of the male Lyre-tailed Nightjar and the less glorious but loud and persistent calls of a co-dwelling Pauraque. These call from my front porch!
In the photos below, at left is a male Golden-headed Quetzal, a number of whom were busy and vocal around the guest houses throughout the summer months. At right, a juvenile Giant Antpitta was found several times along Waterfall Trail. A beautiful Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, shown in the last photo being pestered by a Buff-tailed Coronet hummingbird, was found near our Yellow-breasted Antpitta feeding station.
Finally, our summer sightings also include variety! Below is an amazing shot of an Andean Coati.
June 2019: What great new sightings we have had at Reserva Las Gralarias (RLG) recently! I cannot list them all here, but the best is a video made on 25 May by RLG worker Segundo Imba of a small group of our critically endangered monkeys foraging in the trees off the back patio of one of the guest houses.
We have had four reports over the years of these fairly small, non-descript brown monkeys somewhere in our mid-elevation Santa Rosa property but never any confirmation photo. The species of monkey is the Ecuadorian White-fronted Capuchin, once widespread in our area but now considered Critically Endangered. The video taken recently also recorded some interesting single-note barking calls of the monkeys.
In addition, we finally confirmed on several occasions in early June that both Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans and Crimson-rumped Toucanets are now (finally!) feeding at our banana feeders. Another great sighting was a Black-and-chestnut Eagle calling, recorded and observed over the course of two days around our guest houses – maybe looking for monkeys to eat? (Listen to the sound file!)
More great sightings include two groups of Toucan Barbets feeding constantly at our feeders, a Kinkajou feeding late at night from our hummingbird feeders, agoutis under our banana feeders, Wattled Guan calling along Sister’s Loop trail and glimpsed by birders, many juvenile birds arriving to our feeders at the end of nesting season, and a new Buff-tailed Coronet nest with nestlings in the exact same place as last year. Summer 2019 seems like it is going to be a busy time of year!
May 2019: In our Fall 2018 HUM, we brought everyone up-to-date on what we have done and achieved in our first 20 years at RLG. Plus we looked back to say “Thanks!” to all the people who have supported us in so many ways over the years. Many of our supporters and friends have visited the reserve on multiple occasions and have been able to see how we have worked to transform denuded cow pasture back into fully functioning cloud forest habitat brimming with creatures large and small.
Thanks to generous donations, last year we were able to purchase another 250 acres of mostly beautiful cloud forest with pristine creeks on both sides of the Santa Rosa River and adjacent to our uppermost property.
Our lands are so beautiful that it is hard to imagine that anyone would cut down all of the forest, burn the “brush,” spray chemicals such as Roundup all over hundreds of acres in order to plant potatoes and tree tomatoes. Unfortunately this is exactly what is now happening in our area.
Lower, flatter and more accessible lands in this area have been transformed over the past 20 years into big agribusiness, mostly for African palm oil, non-native palmito and some fruit trees. Now such agribusiness is moving upslope. They do not even buy the land but just rent it and then destroy it. Our zone is supposedly “good” for growing cabbage, raspberries, potatoes, squash and some local fruits such as naranjilla. Below are recent photos of what such agribusiness is doing just across the old Nono-Mindo Road from our upper properties. Remnants of cloud forest are visible in the distance.
Fortunately, this recently destroyed property is not within our Santa Rosa watershed and does not really affect us directly. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the town of Mindo all the run-off from this now pesticide-laden agribusiness project drains south directly into the watershed of the Mindo River and its various feeder creeks including the first one that is seen when crossing into Mindo town.
This is the main reason that Las Gralarias Foundation (LGF) is now trying to raise as soon as possible the funds to buy the single largest remaining accessible parcel of land that drains directly into the Santa Rosa River. The 87-hectare (217.5 acres) tract is directly adjacent to our mid-elevation properties. It has much cow pasture but we now know very well how to regenerate those areas. It has been a functioning cow ranch for about 50 years and has a two kilometer boundary with our main mid-elevation property.
Our main concern is its drainage into the Santa Rosa River and into our Chewbacca Creek and also into the Kathy’s Creek. This system of drainages and creeks are where numerous rare frogs live, including our own Las Gralarias Glassfrog, known only from this and one other creek on our uppermost properties. This is also the key area where the rare Hoary Puffleg hummingbird nests and the same area where we have multiple trailcam photos of Spectacled Bear.
Because the cows have to be milked every day, the ranch hands keep them as close as possible to the house and road and hence fairly far away from the creeks. However, for the first time, the property is now officially up for sale via a real estate company. I, of course, have nightmares about big agribusiness buying it or even just renting it as that will no doubt eventually result in serious damage to our creek systems.
The asking price is not inflated but in fact is a very good price for such property here: $736 per acre for a total of $160,000. So we are launching a campaign to try to find 200 people to donate $800 per acre which would immediately allow Las Gralarias Foundation to buy the land. Remember that donations to LGF in the USA are tax-deductible.
Please tell anyone you think may be interested to “buy an acre!” Of course, if anyone wants to donate more than $800 that is fine too! We would also love to have everyone find 2 more people who might be interested in our project, or in nature conservation in general, to add to our mailing list.
We will be working hard on some additional fundraising ideas and plans and welcome any and all assistance!
March 2019: March brings changes to Reserva Las Gralarias. The cold winter rains make way for the warmer spring rains, and by early February the migratory violetear hummingbirds begin to show up at our feeders. First, just a few Green (Lesser) Violetears but by early March we have numerous Sparkling, Green and Brown Violetears trying to dominate our feeding areas. They are all vocal and aggressive, but the resident hummers just basically ignore them.
March also brings us a round of juvenile birds being introduced by their parents to our banana feeders, especially Gl plus numerous Purple-bibbed Whitetip and Purple-throated Woodstar. While some species are finished nesting for a while, others are beginning a new nesting cycle: hawks, kites, forest-falcons calling repeatedly on sunny mornings.
March brings us spring growth on many of our plants and our Monkey Pot Tree seeds are growing well, with new leaves having survived the hungry insects that want to feed on them.
Rainy season at RLG is also frog season and in February-March we welcomed Colombian doctoral student Anyelet Valencia to study the tiny Dappled Glassfrog (Centrolene peristictum,) (18-21 mm long). This is our only glassfrog species in which the male, in surprisingly complex behavior, cares for the egg masses laid by the females that choose him.
During their nightly field work RLG caretaker Segundo Imba heard an unknown frog calling and went to see what it was. It ended up being the Emerald Glassfrog, (Espadarana prosoblepon) known from lower elevations but a first record at RLG. This now gives us 6 species of glassfrog which means that all the extant species found in the Mindo area are now recorded at RLG.
The first nocturnal visit to our newly purchased property was to begin a list of frogs. Wow! They started by finding two critically endangered species of glassfrog – Centrolene heloderma and Centrolene ballux. We have small populations of these rare frogs elsewhere on the reserve but the new disjunct populations will be of enormous benefit for the survival of these species.
On 3 March 2019 we marked the 8th anniversary of our resident Velvet-purple Coronet, named Pumpkin, who first showed up on 3 March 2011. He still arrives on his perch at his feeders by 7.15am, stretches a few times and then begins to protect his feeding zone which normally includes two feeders although he occasionally tries to control all four of the feeders in this garden. The other hummers basically now know that the two corner feeders are his and just do not even attempt to intrude. When the morning sun comes out he flies up into the trees to sun himself a bit but always ready to zoom back down to his feeders. He also is about our only hummer that actively fly-catches during the day.
January 2019: From 2005-2012 we had some intensive frog field work at Reserva Las Gralarias (RLG) which resulted in a list of the all amphibian species found at that time on the reserve, important new data on a number of species, some new species discovered and described, various theses and publications, interviews, films and internet sensations. Our “frog madness” was begun by Kathy Duffey when she joined her then-boyfriend Tim Krynak on a visit to RLG. The rest is history…on many levels!! They went on to discover the Shape-shifting Frog (Pristimantis mutabilis) as well as document and photograph most of the amphibians known at RLG. They also made contact with amphibian researchers at the Catholic University and elsewhere, all of which eventually resulted in the extensive amphibian field research at RLG. The frenzy of that early research has calmed down but since 2012 we have continued with amphibian research and periodic publications and even in 2018 there are 3 new papers published on amphibian work at RLG :
The most recent paper describes a new species of rain frog (Pristimantis genus) known only from RLG and only from one individual frog. I recall when Prof. Juan Guayasamin saw one of our frogs and he knew it was something he was not familiar with. How did he know? Because the frog had such slender fingers and toes. So, now you know how hard it is to id frogs! – yes, you even have to compare toe width…and even just upon seeing those toes with the naked eye! So at that time we called this frog the “slender-toed frog” and assumed at some point more individuals would be found. This was in 2012.
That frog, an adult female, had been found at our upper Santa Rosa site in February 2012 at approximately 2200m (7260 ft) elevation and near a trail that only crazed herpetologists visit.
This was a beautiful frog and memorable because of its mixed green and red colors as well as its slender toes. Unfortunately over the years not another such frog was ever seen anywhere. But, fortunately, because of its uniquely long and slender toes, plus some DNA work and intra-generic comparisons, Prof. Guayasamin has been able to describe this new species**.
He states that the name “refers to the type locality of the new species, Reserva Las Gralarias … [and] We take pleasure in dedicating this species to the reserve and the team of people, led by Dr. Jane Lyons, for efforts on the conservation and research of Ecuadorian cloud forests.” We are delighted to have a new frog named after the reserve and also thank Prof. Guayasamin for his very nice comments.
We are hopeful that this new frog species may be re-found at a similar elevation in our newly purchased property so that we can eventually learn more about the species and its habitat. Currently due to its minimal known population and extreme rarity at its type locality the authors consider Pristimantis gralarias as Critically Endangered, following IUCN (2001) criteria.
We salute all those crazed herpetologists, as well as their assistants and volunteers, who have worked so hard during many nights and usually all night long, in the pouring rain, slogging up and down the Andes searching for and studying some of the most enigmatic and beautiful amphibians in Ecuador.
September 2018: Late summer at RLG is normally a time of being rather laid-back, hanging-out, waiting for some migrants to show up, waiting for the autumnal equinox, waiting for some rain to get the resident birds to start their nesting activity again…. But 2018 offered a really different late summer.
In 2018 we have had nesting birds all through August and September: Buff-tailed Coronet with a nest and successfully fledging 2 young; Fawn-breasted Brilliant with nest and still awaiting the outcome; Speckled Hummingbird carrying nest material, Brown Inca taking a strand of my hair for nesting material, many juveniles at the feeders even while adults were in moult.
And it was not just the hummers that were busy. In fact we observed nesting from at least 8 different families of birds: Yellow-vented Woodpecker nesting and successfully fledging young on Waterfall Trail; juvenile Spillman’s Tapaculo photographed; White-tailed Tyrannulet nesting and fledging young (in spite of harassment by an anole!); Green-and-black Fruiteater nesting along Sr. Tim’s Trail; Gray-breasted Wood-Wren carrying nest material to a nest site above the main patio; Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush and Glossy-black Thrush with juveniles on our patios; Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager and Golden-naped Tanager feeding their young at our banana feeders; Russet-crowned Warbler with nest and 2 eggs. Other species such as Lyre-tailed Nightjar, Wattled Guan, Beautiful Jay and Scaled Fruiteater were actively calling as if ready to nest.
Following all the nesting activity and trying to get good photos of each made for an exciting late summer. These forest birds are always very reclusive and even more so with their nests, so we were lucky to see them. Thanks to all our guests and staff who reported their sightings.
But the most exciting late-summer sighting was of three sprouting Monkey Pot tree seeds!! This species of tree (fam. Lecythidaceae, Eschweilera sp.) was first discussed in our July 2017 Chirp where I described our first-ever astounding seed-pods from this amazing tree.
We ended up with about 30 total seeds and planted them from 8 June – early August 2017. By mid-August 2018 we had foot-tall seedlings with leaves as well as some seeds just sprouting roots.
Not only is this exciting because the tree is reproducing and its seedlings are growing, but also because we now know the whole life cycle of this wonderful tree.
The flowers are beautiful (seen only once here in 15 years). The pixidia and seeds are stunning, and once the seeds are planted they sprout within about a year (given the right conditions no doubt, i.e., rain). How cool is that?!
August 2018: Today is 12 August 2018, almost exactly 15 years from the day I moved into my house at Las Gralarias. By that time the reserve included 91.5 hectares of land, or 229 acres, much of which was still basically pasture. Today I awoke at 5:50 am and was outside by 6:10 am to fill the 20 or so hummingbird feeders, hoping in my early morning pre-coffee stupor that the nighttime bats had left some sugar water for the earliest hummers. But, no, they had not.
My stupor was ended by the deafening chatter of a nearby flock of 20+ Red-billed Parrots with their 4-5 screaming-bleating-begging juveniles who were clearly starving and still unable (or unwilling) to feed themselves.
I heard a Wattled Guan calling his bizarre mechanical call from somewhere along Señor Tim’s Trail, a single call of a Golden-headed Quetzal, hummers buzzing and flower-piercers dashing around me as I filled their feeders, and tanagers, doves, brush-finches and thrushes patiently awaiting their bananas. I finished feeding the birds, let my dogs out of their pen, made some coffee, and sat for the next 30 minutes watching all the hummer antics at the feeders. The Chief Scientist for Cambridge, UK-based BirdLife International Dr. Stuart Butchart, was here last week and was in awe that he saw 17 species of hummers at our feeders. Today there were 18 as an uncommon male Collared Inca also showed up.
I heard a pair of Russet-crowned Warbler duetting their beautiful song, a burst of song from a nearby but hidden Nariño Tapaculo, more calls from the Wattled Guan now farther away along Puma Trail, and a few White-collared Swifts zooming overhead. I heard soft drumming on a nearby tree and, thinking it was possibly a Yellow-vented Woodpecker, searched for it in the 30-foot-tall tree over the patio. To my surprise, it was actually a male and female Powerful Woodpecker, which are commonly seen here but normally call and drum very loudly. This adult pair was silent except for the soft drumming. They were also surprisingly unconcerned about my presence. They are always fun to watch although I would just as soon they not whack holes in the trees we have planted and tended so carefully over 15 years.
The wonderful RLG staff arrived at 7:30 am and I headed up to the second story roof (to try to get an internet signal). The view was stunning – perfectly blue sky and forest all around me, even trees towering another two stories over the roof – some 40 feet tall. I was also looking to see if the pair of White-tailed Tyrannulet was still at the nest where I had seen them a few weeks earlier. They soon came fluttering in and chattered loudly their bubbly call, seemingly in total panic that I was on the roof and within a few meters of their nest. It is interesting that they have nested since July 2016 in the exact same tree and only some 2 meters from the previous nest.
As I sat enjoying the morning, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of luck and honor that has allowed me to witness all of this amazing life in what only 15 years earlier had been a denuded cow pasture.
Given a chance and a little help, nature can rebound from many disasters that we humans have inflicted on her. I always think it is so amazing that every single thing that humans have ever used, produced, built, eaten, created . . . every car, plane, bus, train, mine, boat, weapon, TV, telephone, house, church, store, theatre, movie . . . every book, every piece of cloth, every glass of water . . . has come solely from the resources that this wonderful planet provides us.
This planet has kept us alive for millenia. It is certainly time for everyone to give at least a little back and it can be surprisingly easy: plant a native garden, buy habitat no matter what size nor where, recycle or better yet cut back on plastics and other garbage, go solar . . . . In 15 short years it can make a huge difference if we all do something.
This year RLG celebrates the 20th anniversary of its founding. It has been a truly unbelievable two decades.
April 2018: Mammals in the cloud forest are so elusive. And in the Andes of South America they are still being studied and classified. Over time we have received photos, videos and trailcam images of most of the mammal species that we know exist at Reserva Las Gralarias so that by 2017 we were able to publish Mammals of Reserva Las Gralarias, a booklet documenting 37 species of mammal that occur on the reserve.
Even though these coatis are seen on occasion and in other areas, very little field research has been done so that their full life histories remain mostly unknown. Two subspecies were split in 2009 so that ours is now known as Nasuella olivacea quitensis known only from the Andes of Ecuador and currently considered Near Threatened due to its small range and never-ending habitat destruction. Oddly, these small coatis can be found in family (?) groups of up to 6-8 individuals and even large “herds” of dozens of individuals are reported. The ones seen and photographed at RLG show some odd color combinations, so clearly much research is still needed on this small, (supposedly) carnivorous mammal.
March 2018: Pumpkin arrived to us on 3 March 2011 as a fledgling and is still in our hummingbird gardens now after seven years. He is the sole owner of one entire quart-size feeder (photo bottom left), has learned if he sits under the feeder he can stay out of the rain, and will not allow any other hummer to feed from his feeder. All the other hummers recognize him and most do not even approach his feeder now. He also feeds on tiny flying insects, loves to perch and preen in the sun, loves to bathe in the downspout when the rain is just right, and has endured innumerable cameras taking his photo. Velvet-purple Coronets are abundant at our feeders and no doubt some are offspring of Pumpkin. This beautiful hummingbird is an endemic species of the Chocó bioregion and found only in a narrow elevational band of cloud forest in the northwestern Andes.
January 2018: One of the least known of our hummingbird species at Reserva Las Gralarias (RLG) is the Hoary Puffleg (Haplophaedia lugens). Usually these birds visit our feeders in the second half of the year, and we were happy to have them as a nice Christmas present beginning 24 December 2017.
The Hoary Puffleg is a small inconspicuous hummer and one that nests and stays in dark tangles of vegetation in the cloud forest, making it very difficult to find. At RLG we have found one active nest as well as have irregular visits by different individuals to our feeder areas.
When it does arrive at our feeders, the puffleg is invariably attacked by the resident sylphs and coronets, and as a result it normally retreats fairly quickly from the area. A few do seem able to withstand the attacks for a while but they too eventually fly away to a less belligerent area.
The individual birds do have different markings especially on the lower belly, postocular spot and bill coloration. Some have large leg puffs and others fairly small leg puffs. We assume these variations have to do with age differences and male and female plumage variations.
We have also found a tree and flowers that this species utilizes. Thanks to the sharp eyes of RLG employee Segundo Imba, we can now show guests where this species lives and no longer have to just wait and hope it will show up at the feeders.
At 2050m elevation, a large and very old unidentified hardwood tree hosts an old and lengthy vine of Ericaceae, probably Macleania genus (still to be determined) with a handful of tiny flowers. An adult Hoary Puffleg has been seen regularly feeding on these tiny red tubular flowers and then receding to hide in the interior dark vegetation of the tree (see below).
This feeding tree is about 100 m from our nearest hummingbird feeder zone so it could be an individual that visits our feeders—or perhaps does not.
Clearly, much more is still to be discovered about this special species and its secretive habits!
September 2017: Monkey Pot Tree Update!
We planted the 6 seeds of pixidium #1 and within a week, 2 had disappeared. We are thinking probably an agouti, opossum or tayra may have carried them away, although it seems odd they would not have just eaten them on the spot. At 1/6th of a pound each I think they were too heavy for a squirrel or rat to carry off. The remaining 4 seeds of the first pixidium are still intact where we planted them.
By late July the second pixidium was still sealed shut. I took care of it, was sure it was watered whenever it rained, left it to nature except protected from ‘furry thieves’ and bugs. Eventually the stem portion at the top rotted away.
Then it dawned on me that this rotting-of-the-stem is no doubt when the pixidium is supposed to fall to the ground. So I had Gera, our gardener, take the pixidium to where it had been hanging and let it drop to the ground below. And guess what?? The bottom cracked open along an obviously pre-determined line which made it easy to remove just the bottom part of the pot. The seeds stayed inside, this time only 5 seeds, 3 large and 2 smaller. I smelled the inside and it had a strong odd aroma, perhaps a mammal’s version of yummy baked cookies or something similar.
Then – lo and behold! – I found a third pile of 6 seeds still inside the bottom of their pixidum on the ground beneath the
same tree. We could never find the top of this pixidium but did notice that these seeds had little rodent teeth markings on them. We planted all 16 seeds and continue to care for the 14 that have, so far, not been carried away. I assume those missing 2 will also eventually sprout somewhere also.
We have decided based on the flower that the species is closest to Eschweilera antioquensis but because the pixidia and the bark are somewhat different we are calling it Eschweilera cf antioquensis.
July 2017: One of my favorite trees at RLG has always been a hugely strong and what I call “moss-resistant” tree laden with bromeliads which are full of rain frogs (at elevation 2060 m). I have wondered what species of tree it is ever since 2002. The flowers and bark are quite different from any other trees I have found on the reserve but I never have been able to ID the tree – until now.
One day recently walking below the tree, I saw a brown clay pot hanging from a branch of the tree. I said something like “What the heck is that?” to the group I was with. We all mused about what it was and what might be inside and then we noticed a second hanging pot in the same tree. I thought some human must have left clay pots in the tree and for some odd reason I had never noticed them. Kathy Krynak thought the pots might have some kind of bees, wasps, ants or other social creatures nesting inside. Not knowing what might be living inside, we left both pots alone.
I considered the lidded pots could perhaps be a sort of seed pod of the tree or of an inquiline in the tree, similar to our cloud forest mahogany tree fruits. So I checked my Gentry guide and eventually found nice illustrations of the tree family Lecythidaceae (the Brazil Nut family), with illustrations of some of the pot-like seed capsules found in some of the trees in this family. Although the descriptions did not fit exactly our tree, they were close enough to make me think this was the family our tree belonged to and that, indeed, these were its seed capsules. “Lecythidaceae” is a word that comes from Latin meaning “vessel” or “flask” (common English name is sweetgum), and the clay-pot-looking fruit is called a pixidium (“monkey pot”). In Spanish, our Monkey Pot Tree is Árbol de Ollas.
One of the pods was slightly cracked open and it fell to the ground on 31 May. It weighed slightly less than one pound. When the bottom portion came off of the pot, I felt as though I had found a pot of gold! Inside there were six large “seeds” sitting cozily within a thin, sticky caramel-colored goo.
Considering that this tree is about 60 m from my house and at the start of a frequently walked trail, I have to think the tree has not borne any such fruits since at least 2002, at least none that I nor any visitors to RLG have ever seen. Now after at least 15 years and at the end of one of our rainiest rainy seasons, it has produced a grand total of TWO pixidium fruits/pot-like seed capsules. And with these it has given away its secret identification.
We have planted the six seeds of the first pod and are awaiting the second pod’s grand opening. According to some references, these pot-like fruits take 10 months to ripen. According to the New York Botanical Garden, “Neotropical Lecythidaceae are among the most spectacular plants in the world because of their showy flowers and large woody fruits.” With the help of experts at the New York Botanical Gardens and the University of Guayaquil we have identified the genus as Eschweilera and are trying to determine the exact species of this tree.
April & May 2017: A pair of Plain-breasted Hawks pestered our feeder birds and caught at least some. Most of the feeder birds quickly shifted to alert mode and have stayed hidden and/or moving quickly with mixed species flocks which come through our gardens. The birds stop only briefly to feed and especially seem to want to bathe (including the first foliage-gleaner I have ever seen bathing in our bird baths).
Late May – early June 2017: At least 3 different male Wattled Guans heard calling a lot both in the Parrot Hill area and nearer the river. It is nice to know our three species of guans (Sickle-winged, Wattled and Crested) are all doing well at RLG.
9 June 2017: Club-winged Manakins singing and displaying around the houses.
10 June 2017: FOS Monarch Butterfly on our patios (2068m elevation), looking a bit bedraggled which makes me wonder from how far away did it travel?
March 2017 Happy Anniversary to Pumpkin, our most famed and photographed Velvet-purple Coronet!
If you missed Pumpkin’s story, you can read it here.
On 2 March 2017 we welcomed the intrepid researchers Dr. Katherine Krynak, Dr. Eric Snyder and graduate student Dana Wessels. Dr. Krynak is based at RLG for a USA-Ecuador Fulbright research project that is studying the effects of trout farm activities on frogs on the Santa Rosa and Alambi Rivers. Currently there are no trout farm activities that affect RLG and we hope that continues to be the case. Dr. Snyder and Dana are studying aquatic insects in our creeks and streams as well as in additional sites in the wider Mindo area. We look forward to seeing the results of all this exciting research.
January-February 2017 are busy months of planting seedlings that we have been growing during the drier months. Now with our winter rains the seedlings grow quickly. There are also several key species of trees that drop fruit during this time and we collect those to plant in areas with sparse tree cover. As detailed in our January 2016 CHIRP we had recently collected the fruits of the Arrayán tree, one of the key emergent hardwoods of the cloud forest. This year again in December – January we noticed our 12-year old fruit-bearing Arrayán had produced fruits. This shows that the species bears fruit only once a year, and very few fruits at that! This year we found only 9 fruits of which 4 were immediately ‘stolen’ by our unidentified sweet-toothed critter, so that we now only have 5 fruits still to grow for another year. And we have now planted 4 seedlings from the fruits collected a year ago.
So we have now documented the growing cycle of this very important species of tree: it takes at least 11 years to mature enough to drop (a handful of) fruits and then another year of growing the fruits to seedling size. A total of 12 years to reproduce just a seedling! And these trees may be somewhat dependent on fruit dispersal by rodents. This species of tree is one that can support huge (and heavy) planets of moss where our Punkrocker frog (just described in 2015 as Pristimantis mutabilis) lives. The Arrayán is what I call a ‘mother tree’ in the cloud forest, without which the true cloud forest would not exist. It is also interesting that the tree produces and then drops its precious fruits at the perfect time to take advantage of our winter rains!
Others share their exciting sightings–
New Zealanders Janine and Andy Pearce shared some great videos taken during their stay at RLG. (click on the image to play)
By 3 January 2017, our Hoary Puffleg was back at the feeders on a consistent basis. This rare Chocó endemic hummer nests along Canyon’s Trail but is difficult to see at the feeders until after nesting season. Often described as drab, this hummingbird in the right light is a very pretty, albeit subtle, bird.
We also have had several Giant Antpittas calling their wonderful hypnotic song near the guest houses and which were seen by guests, as well as numerous Yellow-breasted Antpittas waiting for worms at the front gate and on the patios. [See the Late Summer 2016 note below for the full account of our Yellow-breasted and Moustached Antpitta activity.]
December 2016 – Christmas Bird Count – On a day of sun, cloud and mist the total number of bird species recorded at RLG was 163 species – 38% of all the species in the entire Mindo-Tandayapa count area. The three new bird species for the reserve were found by the team led by Marcelo Quipo. The species were Brown-billed Scythebill, Scarlet-rumped Cacique and the rare, endemic and beautiful Indigo Flower-piercer.
The team also found other rarities for the reserve including Scaled Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (adult with fledgling), Pacific Tuftedcheek, Orange-breasted Fruiteater and Black-billed Peppershrike. (And a few weeks later Marcelo added Southern Nightingale-Wren to our RLG bird list.)
The CBC team led by Nick Keller found specialties White-rumped Hawk, Wattled Guan, Barred Parakeet, Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl and White-tailed Hillstar.
Other highlights were 20 species of hummingbirds, including Buff-tailed Coronet, Violet-tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant and Hoary Puffleg. The birders also tallied 22 Toucan Barbets, 5 species of woodpecker, 14 species of furnariids, 19 individuals of Yellow-breasted Antpitta and 5 total species of Grallaria antpittas, 2 species of manakin, 3 species of fruiteater, and rare species such as Rufous-winged Tyrannulet, Yellow-collared Chlorophonia and Glistening-green Tanager as well as 11 individuals of Beautiful Jay.
The highest number of individuals was 60 White-collared Swift followed by 45 Dusky Bush-Tanager and 39 Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager.
A late afternoon visit to the upper site added Ocellated Tapaculo and Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. The team led by Mauricio Ruano not only recorded 114 species but also filmed a White-nosed Coati (Nasua narica). Many years ago a volunteer had said he saw a coati with a white nose along Sr Tim’s Trail. However, with no photo and no more reports for some 10 years I discarded the record assuming that it must have been one of our ‘regular’ and fairly common Western Mountain (or Andean) Coati (Nasuella olivacea), with perhaps some white on its nose from pollen, fruit, the late afternoon light or the occasional white hairs. However, now we have a video record of what appears to be White-nosed Coati, giving us two species of coati on the reserve.
We have had rather astonishing Spectacled Bear activity between mid-October 2016 and end of the year, with 4 trailcam photos and numerous chewed palmito trees and other bear sign along various trails.
On 15 October 2016 we got a great photo of a Spectacled Bear meandering along Canyon’s Trail at 11:03am. One of our older trail cams had been set up there by intern Nick Keller a few weeks earlier.
And, in the midst of all of this, the wonderful northern migrant songbirds made their way back from North America to Las Gralarias! Our first-of-season Blackburnian Warblers, male and female, were spotted on 1 October 2016 along Puma Hideout Trail and also near the guest houses.
Mid-October 2016 brought us a wonderful visit by very long-time (34 years!) friends and fellow conservationists Paul and Georgean Kyle from Texas. Authors of several books on Chimney Swifts, they were especially excited to see our White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts, as well as a good variety of our resident cloud forest birds and even a giant earthworm. Thanks to them also for carrying down one of our new trail cams.
In early October 2016, Reserva Las Gralarias hosted a group of herpetologists from Costa Rica. Led by Raby Nunez, six field biologists visited us from Sierpe Frogs Costa Rica. They birded by day and searched for frogs and other herps by night.
Also in early October 2016, a producer and cameraman, along with their 28 crates of equipment, visited RLG for two weeks to film our frogs, other critters, and habitat for an upcoming BBC TV documentary on mountains, the Andes, and cloud forests. They especially focused on the amazing Shape-shifting Frog discovered at RLG by Kathy and Tim Krynak, our longtime volunteers and LGF President and Secretary. This species of frog, officially known as Pristimantis mutabilis (and what was our very own “Punk Rocker”), was described in 2015 and is the only known vertebrate that can change its body shape. This, among many other creatures that inhabit the cloud forest, has become a symbol of not only how diverse the cloud forest biome is, but also how little is known about it. They also brought us a copy of Life Story, a seven-episode documentary which featured some of our RLG hummingbirds filmed in 2012.
In September 2016 I was invited by the Municipality of San Miguel de los Bancos (our county seat) to give my thoughts and ideas on their first city park. The park is being developed to recuperate and regenerate a local stream that had been used as a trash dump for many years but still maintained a small population of iguanas and other native fauna. I met with the city officials in charge of the project and visited the park on 23 September. I was very impressed with their serious efforts and success with a very tiny budget and a host of enthusiastic volunteers. They said they consider RLG as the leader of revegetation efforts in the county and hence wanted my input into their similar efforts. It was exciting to meet with such dedicated and energetic young people, and it bodes very well for the city that now other neighborhoods are requesting their own local eco-parks!
Nick Keller joined our staff on 15 September 2016 to work as an intern managing our trail cams which continue to give us photos of our surprising yet difficult-to-observe mammal life here. Thanks to Nick and the Las Gralarias Foundation for providing new trail cams for our mammal monitoring. Nick also helps feed our ever-hungrier antpittas (now including Giant Antpitta), hummers, and tanagers, etc., and is responsible for bird monitoring, updating our trail map, and guiding visitors, both birders and herpers. He has made some excellent observations in his first month, including a new bird species for the reserve–a Broad-billed Motmot on Brother’s Trail at 1800m elevation, which is a 100m elevational range extension for this beautiful bird.
Late Summer 2016 – For several years, RLG caretaker, Segundo Imba, has been successful at feeding some of our antpittas. This type of endeavor has now become fairly common at various birding lodges but for numerous reasons, was never anything that we actively tried to do at RLG. One day, though, I saw a Yellow-breasted Antpitta (YBA) in a garden behind the kitchen. When a few days later several of us saw one in front of the kitchen, we decided to throw a few worms to it in hopes of keeping it nearby and easy for our birding guests to see. Named “Yellow” by Segundo, that bird became a regularly photographed celebrity here at RLG. “Yellow” eventually moved down towards the creek though continues to call his very identifiable version of a typical YBA song. Just when we were ready to take worms off the menu, in August this year, a Moustached Antpitta appeared near the entry gate and in front of the kitchen. So of course we have had to feed it also. Worms are back!
Some other nice sightings in August 2016 included a very territorial male Powerful Woodpecker at the guest house, our always-favorite Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans, many tanagers at our fruit feeders including the timid Blue-capped Tanager, and, for those who ventured out at night, an adorable family of Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrants.
In late August 2016, we were happy to host at RLG a group of dedicated bird photographers from the island of Taiwan and mainland China.
1 August 2016 – Three–yes, THREE!!!!–White-faced Nunbirds were seen on one branch along – where else? – Nunbird Ridge Trail. Two were probably juveniles since the species is known to nest in May (from the one nest ever documented).
July 2016 was the month of male and female Crested Quetzals beginning to nest again at RLG. These beautiful birds return in early summer every year to nest and rear their speckled fledglings which look like Scaled Fruiteaters, except with quetzal-green backs.
The end of July 2016 brought us very vocal Cloud-Forest Pygmy-Owls, Club-winged Manakins along Parrot Hill Trail, and a pair of Crested Guan along Brother’s Trail. Daily we saw Tayras, Sickle-winged Guans and Toucan Barbets as well as many doves, tanagers and brush-finches at our banana feeders.
Update on our Lyre-tailed Nightjars – All summer our Lyre-tailed Nightjars have been observed around the guest houses. Two males were calling and one male was regularly perched on one wall while a female perched on a different wall. The female can offer something of a show as she occasionally jumps straight up for almost twometers and emits a loud “pok” and then settles to her perch again, giving the overall impression of a very large kernel of popping popcorn. On the evening of 31 July we saw two females on the same wall, perhaps one being the offspring of the adult female. One also made the “pok…pok” sound.
4 July 2016 – A nest of White-tailed Tyrannulet was noticed by guest Janet Duerr while birding from our staff building rooftop. The nest was some 25m above ground on a moss-covered branch of a Croton (Euphorbiaceae) tree. Although the species is widespread and commonly seen at RLG, no published description of the nest of this species exists.
While monitoring the nest I saw an adult feeding the one nestling snuggled inside the moss. Two days later the nestling was obviously beginning to want to stretch its wings and fly. However, it ended up on the ground below the tree. With scarcely audible chirps the adults and their fledgling stayed in contact, and the adults flew down to the ground to feed the young bird. The first day out of the nest it could not fly well, but by the second day it was able to fly in a straight line and was still being well tended by both adults. We are delighted to have these pretty flycatchers rearing their young in our gardens.
19 June 2016 – We heard the first-of-season song of a male Crested Quetzal. These quetzals come to RLG early in the summer to nest. They are not well-received by our resident Golden-headed Quetzals but for the rest of us they are a sure sign of our summer’s delightful and very special treats.
12 June 2016 – We were surprised by the appearance of a beautiful and uncommon lizard, Stenocercus varius, who ventured out to enjoy the sun behind the patio at the guest house. An endemic species of the Pacific Andes of Ecuador, this Cloud-forest Whorltail-Iguana is classified as Vulnerable and in the Mindo area has only been found at Las Gralarias.
4 June 2016 – Monkeys!!! A troop of 4-5 monkeys was observed in mid-afternoon by guests from the patio behind the guest house. Scrambling through the tops of the trees one of the monkeys was seen well. This observation adds a few more details to the previous four sightings, always too brief for photos but always described as 4-5 individuals, large, brown (definitely not black), long tail and ‘simple’ (i.e., no color patterns or obvious adornments such as ruffs or beards, etc), no sounds made.
They always swing/scamper quickly high in trees making a lot of movement in the branches which is what draws the attention of the viewers. We hope to someday get a photo of them to be sure of the ID!
Early June 2016 – Keen to have one more nest of soft moss before it dries out over the summer, our hummingbirds gathered spider webs and bits of moss to construct their last nests of the season. By 4 June a female Buff-tailed Coronet had her nest ready and a few weeks afterwards was feeding 2 nestlings. Buff-tailed CoronetWe also watched panicked fledglings of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and White-sided Flower-piercer as they skittered like mice around the patios. And we were very excited to see Arrayán seedlings! In early December 2015 we collected the seeds from anArrayán tree that we had planted as a seedling about 11 years go. We planted seeds in our seedbed and almost exactly six months later the delicate red stem and shiny leaves of this myrtle (Myristacaceae discolor) appeared. We now have two generations of this important primary forest hardwood helping to regenerate previously pastured areas of the reserve. And even though the fruits have a very sweet fleshy covering, we now know the Arrayán seeds do not need to be scarified or eaten by anything in order to sprout.
First half of June 2016 – As soon as the summer sun dominates the mornings many critters are quick to take advantage: birds preening high in the trees in the sunshine, butterflies flitting through the gardens, Roadside Hawks calling as they soar overhead, large kettles of Swallow-tailed Kite circling low in the sky prior to their migration eastward. And all of a sudden there are flowers in full bloom, especially the Asteraceae that our butterflies love, while the flowering orchids decline and the forest mushrooms fade.
But no doubt our best and most exciting sighting was of a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar regularly perched on a wall in front of the door at the guest house, even flying and displaying over the cars parked nearby! By 15 June we also watched a female feeding and perched as the male sang its rather bizarre song.
Last week of May 2016 – The practically silent, rare and enigmatic Olivaceous Piha was observed several times along Parrot Hill Trail. Plus we were treated to wonderful views of flocks of Barred Parakeet, Maroon-tailed Parakeet, Blue-fronted Parrotlet, Red-billed Parrot and two flocks of 18 and 21 very noisy individuals of Scaly-naped Amazon.
22 May 2016 – Volunteer Ray So released the final 17 tadpoles of the 24 Centrolene peristictum glassfrog eggs that hatched in our lab. Not much larger than an eyelash, these tadpoles are the next generation of the small glassfrogs found in Lucy’s Creek and famous for the male’s careful cleaning and maintenance of several egg masses laid on one-creekside leaf.
May 2016: We finished up springtime with a week-long Tropical Biology course from Grand Valley State University (Michigan, USA) led by Dr. Eric Snyder, Dr Katherine Krynak and Las Gralarias Foundation President Tim Krynak. It was very exciting to see so many young students become enthusiastic tropical field biologists, studying aquatic insects in our streams, hummingbirds in our forests, finding surprising numbers of anoles asleep among the vegetation, watching bats in the gardens, frogs in the creeks, epiphytes on the trees and so much more.
1 January 2016, 11.30am – A first-of-season Swallow-tailed Kite was seen flying above the treetops at RLG. This is a migrant species that comes back to the Mindo area during the rainier season to nest in tall open palms and other trees often in groups of 10+ pairs. After nesting, the species normally leaves the Mindo area by late August.
1 January 2016, 8.00am – Numerous small noisy flocks of Barred Parakeet flying low over RLG. A widespread but almost impossible bird to see perched, this parakeet is abundant in our areas during the first half of the year. Considered rare and unpredictable and possibly a bamboo specialist, small groups can be seen – with luck and good eyesight – feeding quietly in low thick bushy green vegetation.
1 January 2016, 7.15am – A new “yard bird” to begin the new year! A Pale-eyed Thrush was singing his rather strange song next to the kitchen. Considered scarce and local and having been recorded only occasionally in the lower part of RLG, this is the first time it has been recorded at this higher elevation (2068m) at RLG.
Eight birders chalked up an impressive 137 species in just one day on the reserve. That’s 30 more species than the 2014 count and half of the total number of species recorded on the reserve!
The three teams were led by Gabriel Bucheli, Mauricio Ruano and Segundo Imba plus Jane Lyons counting at the feeders and around the houses. Each team covered a quadrant of the lower reserve and then a late afternoon visit to the upper property added such goodies as Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and Ocellated Tapaculo.
To everyone’s delight, Mauricio was able to get a fantastic video of the tapaculo; seemingly unaware of being filmed, the bird preened and vocalized to another tapaculo calling in the distance. View Mauricio’s stunning video of this elusive bird!
The weather included pretty much everything possible and the birds were amazing. Highlights included: Wattled Guan, Dark-backed Wood-Quail, 4 species of psittacines, 18 species of hummingbirds (wow!), Crested Quetzal, White-faced Nunbird, 11 species of furnariids, 4 species of Grallaria antpittas, 13 species of flycatcher, 3 species of fruiteater, 3 individuals of Olivaceous Piha, 2 species of manakin, and 19 species of tanager including the gorgeous Glistening-green Tanager! The team is now determined to do even better next year–as if that is even possible. The 2016 Christmas Count is scheduled for 17 December. We are also thinking about doing a frog count as our frogs were very vocal the morning of the bird count.
9 December 2015, 3pm – After looking for 10+ years for a nest of our most abundant hummingbird, the Buff-tailed Coronet, – FINALLY on 9 December 2015 – one was found by RLG caretaker Segundo Imba near the guest house! At about 4 meters (12+ feet) above the ground, no wonder it has been so hard to find.
Another new species from Reserva Las Gralarias!
December, 2015 — Another new frog species has been described from RLG! This new rain frog, known as Pristimantis pahuma was described in the paper Hutter and Guayasamin, 2015, Neotropical Biodiversity, 1: 42. The main field work was done at RLG and the holotype was collected at RLG on our upper Santa Rosa property at 2235 meters elevation. As with two other new frog species described from Las Gralarias, this new rain frog was discovered initially by noticing differing songs among one species, in this case of Pristimantis calcarulatus. This led to collection of bioacoustic data and eventually molecular data which confirmed that what had been thought was and what appears morphologically to be one species is in fact two species. This discovery also underlines the importance of in-depth research of the species in the field – song, behavior, and, such as in the case of the recently described P. mutabilis, potential physical changes. It also points to the ever-changing taxonomy of Andean frog species!
6 December 2015, 10.28am — The rarest hummer in our area is the Hoary Puffleg, a fairly nondescript and timid hummer that we have been fortunate to have visit our feeders on an irregular basis for many years. For some reason, the resident hummers just do not tolerate a Hoary Puffleg, and they all attack it as soon as it arrives. Though not prone to fighting, the puffleg does defend itself a bit by showing its white leg puffs but usually it just flees. This season it appears to be a bit more aggressive or at least stays hidden near the feeders trying to avoid the bullies. It now even feeds at the feeders in what was previously our barbecue pit.
26-27 November 2015, mid-morning — I had known for years that at least one Barn Owl had been at RLG because I found the feather of one, and having worked extensively with Barn Owls in the US, I recognized the feather. But no one had ever seen or heard the species at RLG–until now! Finally, we have confirmed a Barn Owl on its day roost along Crossover Trail. A visiting birder snapped several good photos and commented on how large the bird was compared to the same species in Europe. The Barn Owl in Ecuador is Tyto alba contempta, a race confined to western Colombia, Venezuela, mostly western Ecuador, and Peru.
25 November 2015, 11.40am — An amazing larva was found by our cleaning staff on the walkway near the lab. The larva was attached by a bit of its own silk to a Croton sp. leaf that had fallen from an overhead tree. It had a prominent “X” pattern on its dorsum and thorny projections on its “face.” When disturbed, the larva reared up, expelled a strange odor, and ejected a bifurcated purple tongue-like structure.
Thanks go to Dr. Gunnar Brehm of the Phyletisches Museum in Jena, Germany, who identified the creature as a larva of the family Papilionidae, the swallowtail butterflies. The tongue-like structure is called an osmeterium, which is a defensive organ unique to the family Papilionidae. We have only recorded two species of swallowtails at RLG, Pterourus cacicus and Eurytides servile, and it is nice to know these beautiful butterflies are reproducing here.
The only question is: what is this larva mimicking with a big ‘X’ on its back? In the Amazon, larvae are known to mimic small arboreal and highly venomous fer-de-lance snakes. Hence, this larva’s potential mimicry of an X-decorated Bothrops sp. (fer-de-lance) snake is a bit disconcerting. Are there possibly small arboreal Bothrops in the cloud forest?
22 November 2015, 9.40am — A chick of the Common Potoo was found by birders along Guan Gulch Trail. The downy chick with just the beginning of a tail was trying to look like the top of a dead stump. Potoos are nocturnal and known for spending their days perched upright on tall trees or even on fence posts and appearing to be part of the wood itself. The female lays one egg on the top of a stump and the egg hatches there. This chick is now large enough that the mother no longer fits on the stump but she no doubt is keeping a close (and not quite closed) eye nearby.
17 November 2015, 7am — I first heard an unknown (to me) owl calling on 11 July. I told our caretaker Segundo Imba to try to get a recording of it when he was staying at night at the reserve. He finally managed to get a very good recording of it and birding guide Marcelo Quipo identified it as Rufous-banded Owl, a new species for RLG and our seventh owl species! Although regularly seen and heard on the east slope of Ecuador, this owl is considered rare to uncommon on the northwest slope.
16 November 2015, 1.30pm — Two Crested Guans were seen feeding along lower Brothers Trail. This sighting along with recent records of Wattled Guans and our regularly occurring Sickle-winged Guans is exciting as together they indicate that all of these large birds, historically hunted, are at least stable on the reserve. Let’s hope the two Crested Guans were in fact a pair.
1 November 2015, 8.am — Our “resident pair” of migratory Blackburnian Warblers were finally again seen feeding in the tall Croton sp. trees near the kitchen. Of course we do not know if it is the same pair that returns every fall, or even if they are really a pair, but it is always exciting to see any of these beautiful northern migrants once again at RLG.
15-18 October 2015, 8-11.00am – Green-fronted Lancebill seen at a flowering Psammisia ecuadorensis shrub of the Ericaceae family about 150m above the guest house at 2100m, found by Marcelo Quipo. Very nice record!
11 October 2015, all morning – A banner day for birders at RLG! Both Scaled Fruiteater and the very rare Hoary Puffleg were seen at the guest house. Also, first records of Lemon-rumped Tanager Green-fronted Lancebill (very common at lower elevations) and Rufous-chested Tanager at our banana feeders. Plus first-of-season northern migrants Blackburnian Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo seenalong our trails. Finally, a Rothschild’s Porcupine was observed feeding in a tree!
5 October 2015, 11.30am – A mother membracid caring for her tiny, spiny young was found on a Euphorbiaceae tree near the staff house. This amazing family Membracidae (relatives of cicadas and planthoppers) is otherwise known as treehoppers. Our species is similar to a Thorn Mimic (Umbonia spinosa) and the lime green females are ever vigilant, protecting their young by flicking their stiff ‘tail’ at any approaching ant or other bothersome intruder and quickly tossing it off the branch.
4 October 2015, 8.15am – Our exciting sightings are not limited to our cloud forest fauna but also include the amazing flora found here. By late summer we’re excited to see how much our newly planted and carefully tended trees and plants have grown over the growing season. The very slow-growing and long-lived hardwood called Cloud Forest Mahogany (Carapa sp.) sprouts new droopy brown leaves that appear dead instead of tender, thus discouraging hungry insects.
4 October 2015, 7.45am – First record of Wedge-billed Hummingbird (female) at our feeders. Although this is a species we see on occasion in the lower parts of the reserve, it has never been recorded at our hummingbird feeders before. A nice addition to our feeder list, which now totals 24 species of hummers recorded at our feeders! We also have 3 species to be confirmed and one species, Green-fronted Lancebill, that is seen mostly along Lucy’s Creek but has not (yet!) been recorded at our feeders.
2 October 2015, 10.45am – First record of Rusty-margined Flycatcher at RLG. Very vocal individual at the guest house and up to 2100m elevation, although it is supposed to occur only below 1400m.
29 September 2015, 4.30pm – Commonly called the Spiky Lirecko (Lepidoblepharis conolepis), this tiny dwarf gecko was found wiggling along the outer guest house wall. Considered uncommon, this endemic species is usually found in leaf litter in cooler forested zones between 1600-2200m in the Pacific Andes in Ecuador. In the Mindo area, it has been found only at RLG.
20 September 2015, 8.40am – Birds are on the move!! First record of a Black-capped Tanager (female) at our banana feeders.
9 August 2015, 11.20am – A banded adult male Masked Flower-piercer was seen behind the guest house feeding at the hummingbird feeders. During our 10-year banding project we banded only three of this species, all adult males. Two were banded in June and September 2001 along Entry Trail in the lower part of the reserve and a third was banded by Tim and Kathy Krynak on 26 May 2008, about 300 meters west of the recent sighting and at the same elevation. Assuming this latter was the bird recently observed means it is at least 7.5-8 years old and is still living in the general vicinity where it was originally banded.
2 August 2015, morning – Two female and one male Club-winged Manakin observed near the guest house. This Chocó endemic manakin forms large summertime leks at RLG and these were the first to be seen this summer.
2 August 2015, 4.30pm – Jane watched a rare Olinguito as it fed among the branches of a tall unknown species of tree above the guest house. This first confirmed sighting at RLG of the newest carnivorous mammal described in the Americas lasted about twenty minutes as the animal fed on tiny fruits, drank from a bromeliad and ran up and down the branch. In the ten years we have owned this property this is the first time this tree has dropped fruits, so the next day we collected them by the hundreds and are now growing them in our seedling bed in hopes of replanting them during the growing season to attract more Olinguitos and to eventually identify the species of tree.
27 July 2015, 8am – A small seemingly dead lizard was found by caretaker Segundo Imba on one of our patios. It turned out to be a young Echinosaura brachycephala, or Blunt Hedgehog-Lizard. Endemic to the Pacific slopes of Ecuador and known only from 6 localities, this lizard is dependent on chilly well-preserved montane forests. Only a few dozen of this species have ever been seen, only two individuals are known from the Mindo area and those two are from our patios at RLG. The first found on 13 January 2012 was an adult and this second one found was a smaller and much younger individual. It was found within 3 meters of where the adult had been found. We placed it in a sunny spot and it recuperated and wiggled away. The next day another one was also observed nearby, seemingly larger, but could have been the same individual. Regardless, it is nice to know we have a reproducing population of this very rare and rather bizarre lizard.
The Las Gralarias Foundation is thrilled to publish the Amphibian Survival Alliance (ASA) press release heralding the discovery of a “Shape-shifting “punk rocker” frog by researchers working at Las Gralarias:
Scientists have discovered a frog in Ecuador that can do what no other vertebrate has ever been documented to do—rapidly change skin texture from smooth to spiny.
Researchers from Reserva Las Gralarias, Universidad Indoamérica and Tropical Herping in Ecuador revealed their findings March 20 in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, challenging the traditional scientific knowledge and underscoring the critical need for habitat protection in the Ecuadorian Andes. Farming practices, urban sprawl and mining continue to put pressure on the Ecuadorian cloud forests.
“These types of new discoveries, those that defy—and improve—our understanding of the natural world, are only possible as long as we protect the most biodiverse corners of our planet,” said Robin Moore, conservation officer at the Amphibian Survival Alliance. “If we close the door to new discoveries, we may never be able to fully understand
the extent of what we’ve lost.”
Katherine Krynak, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University and her husband Tim Krynak, project manager at Cleveland Metroparks Natural Resources Division, discovered the new species, called the Mutable rainfrog (Pristimantis mutabilis), in 2006 at nature preserve Reserva Las Gralarias. The couple nicknamed the amphibian the “punk rocker” frog for its thorn-like spines. It wasn’t until three years later that the couple discovered the species’ secret shape-shifting skills, which may help the marble-size frog be better camouflaged in its mossy surroundings.
“Discovering a new species is incredible enough,” Katherine said. “You wouldn’t think anything could top that. And then you discover that it also changes shape, suddenly growing spines that then disappear. I just kept asking ‘did that really just happen?’”
The papers’ authors worked to confirm that the Mutable frog is a new species by conducting morphological and genetic tests and studying the frogs’ calls. They found that the Sobetes robber frog (Pristimantis sobetes), a related species, can change its skin texture, too. According to paper co-author Carl R. Hutter, from the University of Kansas, the next steps in the research are to determine if additional species share this ability and then to look for the physiological mechanisms that allow the species to do what scientists once thought only invertebrates such as octopuses and cuttlefish could do.
The Krynaks helped form Las Gralarias Foundation, an Amphibian Survival Alliance Partner, to support the reserve’s conservation efforts. They plan to continue surveying Mutable rain frogs and to work with fellow researchers to document their behavior, lifecycle, and to estimate their population, all in effort to better conserve both this paradigm-shifting species and its habitat.