By Steve Estebo, Zoologist at Minnesota Zoo
Although Ecuador covers only 1.6% of South America, it is home to more than 50% of the bird species on the continent. The moist forests of western Ecuador are some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world due to deforestation and population growth.
The conservation-research objective of this Life Net project is to monitor bird populations at Tangaras Reserve and the 50,000 hectare Mindo-Nambillo Protective Forest. We studied aggregations of birds in interior cloud forest and compared them with forest edges to determine which species avoid edges and fragments created by deforestation. Results are used for science, local programs in ecotourism, and for environmental education. We also studied the behavior of Andean Cock of the Rock at a display arena called a “lek”.
Data about the composition of bird communities in different cloud forest habitats are collected by using mist nets, making point counts along trails, and making bird/plant observations. Life Net staff and volunteers opened mist nets in the morning, checked them every 20 to 30 minutes, removed birds from the nets and carried them to the banding station. Extraction of birds from the nets is a skill that takes time to learn. At the banding station each bird is weighed, identified to species, sexed, aged, and photographed. A set of standard body measurements was taken including the length of the wing, tarsus, culmen, and tail. A blood sample is taken from selected species and DNA will be extracted to test hypotheses about gene flow from the Andes. Each bird’s body fat, reproductive status, and molt are also recorded on a data sheet.
Las Tangaras Reserva is home to a historic Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, which is a dancing ground for male Cock-of-the-Rocks to display to females for the purpose of breeding. The biology of these leks is still unknown. To learn more about how this lek functions, we mist-netted birds at the lek, color banded them and released them back into the lek. This allowed us to identify individual birds in the lek and study their daily behavior patterns. Future plans are to trap birds and attach satellite GPS transmitters on the birds in an attempt to determine their daily flight patterns and help determine where they nest in relation to the location of the leks.
The Ecuador Cloud Forest Birds project is in its 4th year at Las Tangaras Reserve. This project is affiliated with CECIA, Ecuador’s major bird conservation organization. In addition to contributing to tropical ecology, the work will continue to inform regional conservation organizations such as CECIA, Fundación Natura, BirdLife International and National agencies (INEFAN) and provide information to local bird guides and naturalists.