Friday, April 11, 2014

Buenaventura's Umbrellabirds

Buenaventura Reserve protects a remnant patch of tropical cloud forest at about 3000 feet elevation. The cloud forest occupies a narrow zone, and most of the surrounding land holds seasonal tropical dry forest. Another jewel in the Jocotoco Foundation's system of reserves, Buenaventura is small, only about 6 square miles. Yet it protects 12 globally threatened species of birds, another 30 rare and regionally endemic birds, and notable mammals like the Ocelot, Mantled Howler Monkey, and Two-toed Sloth.

The reserve has been cobbled together since 1999 from patches of forest and old pasture land. The cleared areas are now being reforested, with the help and support of local communities. Growth of the reserve itself continues; the target size is about 20 square miles, or more than three times its current size. 

Remnant cloud forest at Buenaventura Reserve 
(Photos by Narca)

Welcome to Buenaventura Reserve!

Graceful Swallow-tailed Kites are frequent

Soon after we check into Umbrellabird Lodge (actually it's a more casual affair than "checking in" implies!), we ask about the famous umbrellabird lek, and learn that it's only about a 10-minute walk from the lodge. Young Leo is appointed to show us the spot. We learn that the umbrellabirds are most active early in the morning, but there's a chance that we can see them at dusk as well. And see them we do!

Umbrellabirds are big, very odd cotingas, an exclusively New World family. The male sports a long, inflatable wattle hanging from the center of his chest, used in courtship. They also boast an impressive crest, which shadows their faces and bills. During breeding season, the males gather under the forest canopy at a traditional lek to strut and perform before the females. Their low-pitched booming calls carry far through the forest.

Of the three species of umbrellabirds, two are in Ecuador. The Amazonian Umbrellabird is scarce and local; we met it in Podocarpus National Park. Buenaventura has the Long-wattled, a bird I have never seen before. It lives up to its name: the wattle can be as long as the whole body! The Long-wattled is also exceedingly rare.

A male Long-wattled Umbrellabird, with his astounding wattle

Looking up at the umbrellabird and his feathered wattle; 
the eye is actually dark –– here you're seeing reflected light.

For comparison, here's a male Amazonian Umbrellabird, with his short wattle and pale eye. From most angles, you'd also see a white patch at the base of his crest, making a great spotlight that's obvious even from a distance.

Male Amazonian Umbrellabird

The trail to the umbrellabirds is steep, but very well maintained, with a sturdy metal railing where it's needed. Buenaventura has adopted the best system I've seen for dealing with mud: the concrete steps have been poured into small tires (that untrustworthy toy size that rental and new cars sometimes use). The result is a stable, easy-to-use trail through otherwise slippery terrain. A far better use for that kind of tire than on an automobile!

Dusk catches us on the trail. Further exploration awaits another day!