By Harold Eyster
I sit on a bench, painting the Green Honeycreepers that indulge in the hummingbird feeders at Buenaventura Reserve in southern Ecuador. I’ve been here for two weeks, painting and observing the birds of this preserve.
My concentration on my painting is pleasantly disrupted by the fluid elocutions of a group of French birders returning from a hike at the reserve. I don’t speak any French, but this didn’t stop me from understanding the expressions of joy and fulfillment on their faces.
One look at their smiles and I knew that they had seen the Long-wattled Umbrellabird. I could sympathize with the joy they felt, for just the previous day I too had seen this odd-looking forest denizen. I had been hiking through the reserve when I came upon a flock of flame-colored Collared Aracaris, which were soon joined by a larger blackish bird. I focused my binoculars and saw the glaring yellow bill of a Black-mandibled Toucan.
This bird was soon joined by another toucan. But even before I was able to raise my binoculars, the second bird turned towards me, and I saw that it wasn’t a toucan at all. Solid black body, long, rope-like wattle, and a black crest that reached over its bill, giving it an expression of provocative consternation. This was the Long-wattled Umbrellabird.
And the word “long” is an understatement, for the feathered wattle extends from the chin clear past the feet. This is the kind of bird that, when you see a photo of it, even the least gullible observer says, “Wait a minute, is that photo-shopped?” I had finally proven to myself that, yes, this bizarre bird really does exist.
But the elation resounding off the faces of the French birders told me that they were pleased about something else as well; they must have also seen the El Oro Parakeet.
The endangered El Oro Parakeet was discovered by 1980 in on the western slope of the Andes in southern Ecuador. The entire population of this endemic species is restricted to a strip of forest only 3-6 miles wide, and this thin band of habitat is being narrowed by agriculture, logging, mining, and cattle farming. In 1999, the Jocotoco Foundation, with help from American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others, began purchasing this section of subtropical forest to create a safe haven for the bird. And thus Buenaventura Reserve was born.
And they were just in time: 57% of this forest in the lower part of the parakeet’s range was cleared between the discovery of the bird and the creation of Buenaventura Reserve.
Thanks to additional land acquisition last year supported by ABC, the reserve now measures 4,600 acres and protects the majority of the parakeet population. But the Jocotoco Foundation’s efforts don’t end there: they’ve also begun putting up nest boxes for the parakeets, from which 50 birds successfully fledged in 2011. They’ve also initiated an educational program with local schools to build an appreciation for the outstanding local wildlife.
But the El Oro Parakeet is still endangered. Because the parakeet is a communal nester, it needs large populations in order to breed successfully. Thus the habitat destruction and fragmentation outside the reserve are having devastating effects on the species. But with the continued land acquisition and innovative conservation by the Jocotoco Foundation and its partners, this species has a good chance of persisting.
The creation of Buenaventura Reserve perhaps had a narrow goal: to protect the El Oro Parakeet. But it has accomplished so much more. More than 330 species of birds call this protected hillside home, including other endangered species like the Ecuadorian Tapaculo and the Gray-backed Hawk, and more than 31 species of hummingbirds.
But this preserve does more than directly protect the birds within its borders: it also fosters a veneration and appreciation of Ecuador’s natural heritage, both within Ecuador and internationally. The reserve and accompanying lodge, Umbrellabird Lodge, connect people from across continents and cultures. Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swiss, German, and English can frequently be heard in the reserve and lodge. But you don’t need to be a polyglot to understand the words. They are exclamations of wonder at the feathered fugitives this reserve protects.
You can learn more about places like Buenaventura Reserve where you can participate in incredible birding while helping to save species on ABC’s Conservation Birding website.
Harold is donating the above paintings and more to the Jocotoco Foundation to raise money for bird conservation. Harold would like to thank the Harvard David Rockefeller International Experience Fund Grant for funding this painting experience in Ecuador.
More of Harold’s paintings from Ecuador can be found at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hneyster/sets/72157644847167339/