Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Ecuador's Drier Side

Ecuador's natural values are well-known and for very good reasons; tropical lowland rainforest, Andean cloud forests, alpine páramo above the tree line, and of course the ever magnetic and fabulous Galápagos. But dry deciduous forests, where no rain falls for half the year? Well they certainly exist and support their own suites of plants and animals, but there is a reason you may not be familiar with them - most of them have gone, converted to crops, stock pasture and cities. They grow along the southern near-Pacific coastal strip, and in a land where most of the surface area is mountainous or Amazon rainforest, the flat fertile coastal plains have inevitably attracted intensive agriculture. The rich volcanic soils washed down from the Andes now support crops of bananas, sugar cane, rice, cocoa and cattle. Tiny Ecuador is the world's leading banana producer and exporter, and the eighth largest exporter of cocoa. And, in the last decade the insidious palm oil industry has begun taking up land in the northern sector of the coastal strip. The remnants of the dry forests now represent barely 5% of what they once were.

But despite all this, all is not lost. 
Cerro Blanco Reserve, on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city.
It is a 2500 hectare private reserve, owned by a large cement company and staffed and
researched by volunteers, many of whom are students.
The big deciduous trees are Bottle-trunk Ceibas Ceiba trichistandra.
South of Guayaquil, by the highway to Machala, is the much bigger Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve of 35,000 hectares. The majority is dry forest, but not all; manglares means mangroves in Spanish and the reserve protects 8000 hectares of mangroves, another highly threatened habitat in Ecuador. (Here the burgeoning prawn farming industry is the chief culprit.)
Mangroves and dry forest, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.
There are other small scattered reserves too, such as the wonderful Jocotoco Foundation's Yunguilla Reserve near Cuenca; this 370 hectare reserve was purchased to protect the last known population of the Critically Endangered Pale-headed Brush Finch Atlapetes pallidiceps. Although I've been fortunate enough to have fleeting views of this very rare bird, I'm afraid I can't offer you a photo!
Looking across Yunguilla Reserve.
Due to Jocotoco's efforts, the finch has been downgraded (or upgraded surely!) from Critically Endangered
to Endangered; nonetheless there are still only 250 birds left, all of them here.
What lives in the these forests? Well, rather a lot of species still, despite their decline. Here are some of them. I apologise for some of these photos, but most of the species are scarce and I felt it worth introducing them anyway.
Male Northern Violaceous (or Gartered) Trogon Trogon caligatus Cerro Blanco.Trogons are a delight, especially to those of us who don't normally see them.
They form a tropical Family (and indeed Order) found especially in South America but also
across Africa and Asia.
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Cerro Blanco Reserve. It is now regarded as a tanager;
it is widespread, but is too beautiful not to include here.
Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A species not restricted to these dry forests; a snake and lizard specialist.
Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
One of the numerous tyrant-flycatchers, an ancient South American
passerine grouping.
Pacific (or  Peruvian) Pygmy Owl Glaucidium peruanum, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
This tiny owl, often found by following mobbing small birds, is a dry forest specialist, though it has
also adapted to urban living as the forests are cleared.
Streak-headed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes souleyetii, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
The woodcreepers are trunk and branch probers, funariids or oven birds, the 'other' big group
of South American sub-oscines, ancient passerines. Most woodcreepers are wet forest birds,
bu this one specialises in dry forests.
White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A scarce species apparently declining further through habitat clearance.
Grey-cheeked Parakeet Brotogeris pyrrhoptera, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Loss of the dry forest has led to this subtly-hued little parrot being listed as Endangered.
This reserve and Cerro Blanco are two of only four reserves that protect them, including one in Peru.
White-necked Puffbird Notharchus hyperrhynchus Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Again, most puffbirds live in wetter forests; this one is described as 'rare to uncommon' in Ecuador.
Mantled Howler Monkey Alouatta palliata, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
While common in South America, this species is not at all common further south, and this reserve
is a stronghold for them in Ecuador.
Tegu, Family Teiidae, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
Unidentified skink, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
I love that tail!
Cracker Butterflies Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, above and below.
Their camouflage is superb.
The name comes from the sound of a displaying male's wings!
Colonial spider web, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
To my shame I have no idea what these lovely flowers are at Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve,
but I find them too interesting to omit. I'd appreciate any assistance you can give.
I was intrigued too by this epiphytic cactus in the same reserve;
the concept was entirely new to me, but maybe I just don't get out enough...
You probably wouldn't got to Ecuador specifically for the dry forests, but when you do go it would be a great shame to miss them.


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