Alexandra Bowers, an Earthwatch volunteer from the UK, was astounded by the cloud forest she worked to help save on the Climate Change, Canopies, and Wildlife expedition to Santa Lucia Reserve, Ecuador, in July 2008. Here's her account from her Field Diary:
High up in the cloud forests of Ecuador, a group of local people, scientists, and volunteers are working together to contribute to the sustainable future of this ecosystem, which supports thousands of species of plants, more than 300 species of birds, countless insects, roughly 45 known mammal species-and perhaps many more species which remain undiscovered. This is the Santa Lucia Cloudforest Reserve, my home for the next two weeks.
Journey to Santa Lucia
At our rendezvous location in Quito, the team and our pile of backpacks assembled. We're 12 volunteers with different backgrounds, origins and ages, but united here with a common commitment to conservation, along with our Principal Investigator Dr. Mika Peck and his research team from the University of Sussex and two Ecuadorian researchers, co-Principal Investigator Ana Mariscal and Field Biologist Miguel Angel Chinchero Lima.
We descend by coach from Quito's 2850m altitude through a volcanic landscape, across the Equator into the northern hemisphere, and into an increasingly dense, tall, green forest. And until the road runs out! The rest of the journey is made on foot up a winding trail which takes us from an altitude of 1300m to 1920m, with a group of mules kindly taking up our bags. A couple of hours and several photos later, overwhelmed by my first encounter with a tropical rainforest, I arrive at the lodge of Santa Lucia, greeted with a glass of much needed home-made local fruit juice.
We have the afternoon off to relax and settle into our cabanas-the view from these little wooden cabins is spectacular. Considering we are in the middle of a cloud forest, a two hour walk from the nearest road (and farther from the nearest village), Santa Lucia is relatively self-sufficient. It appears from nowhere and sits among nothing but wilderness, but has everything you need, and is a heavenly retreat from everyday life.
Threats to the Cloud Forest
The cloud forest itself is astounding. There is almost too much to take in-the sound of birds and insects and running water, the color of the birds and butterflies, the power of the waterfalls, the size of the leaves! I am amazed at how everything here is so co-dependent-every tree is covered in a species of another kind, the black wasp uses the tarantula as a nest for its eggs, plants depend on monkeys for seed dispersal, and the clouds are fundamental for the survival of this ecosystem. We are informed that climate change is causing the clouds to rise by 1-2m every year. What will happen to the plants that depend on this moisture? What will happen to the animals that depend on those plants?
This expedition is part of a project which recognizes that these forests will have to adapt to climate change. And to do that there needs to be room for species to adapt, to move to higher altitudes to keep up with the rising cloud cover. For this to happen, forest reserves, fragmented by deforestation, need to be connected to allow seed dispersal and to sustain viable animal populations. In addition to climate change, deforestation for agricultural expansion and mining is another pressure. The projects we work on in the reserve gather data to compare vegetation and species composition between primary forest, secondary forest, and pasture, to help track changing ecosystems.
Time is of the essence. A quick methodology for sampling the forest and the species that live there is therefore essential to record what is there now, and to monitor change. This expedition tests rapid sampling techniques to record birds, mammals, and the forest canopy. We're divided into four groups to work on these three main projects, and trained in the survey and sampling methodologies before setting out into the field to start work.
My favorite project is the bird survey. Rising early, we set out at dawn with a local field biologist, on one of several trails that lead off in different directions from the lodge. The air is filled with diverse, unfamiliar bird songs. We identify and record birds we see and hear, and soon begin to recognize many of the main species, such as the distinctive Andean solitaire (Myadestes ralloides). We encounter toucans, hummingbirds, parrots, and a variety of other colorful and vocal species. All data is entered into a lab computer upon our return to the lodge.
We set up camera traps to record the presence of pumas, spectacled bears, and other large mammals. Pumas act as indicator species: if they are found, it means their prey species are around, which means that there's food to support the prey species, and what they eat, etc. Camera traps are fixed to trees around the reserve, and every day a team of volunteers collects the cameras' memory cards from a trap, or set up a new one. At each location, we assess the habitat characteristics to provide a context for the results. One group captures an image of a puma and a spectacled bear, which is very exciting. We also look out for these animals' tracks and, when they are found, make plaster-casts.
The aim of this aspect of the project is to identify the forest canopy from the air by formulating a key. We set up large quadrats, marking the corners by catapulting geo-markers high into the canopy, identify each canopy tree inside that quadrat, and then take an aerial image of that quadrat using a remote controlled helicopter. If this method works, it will be possible to identify tree type over a large area, as well as whether it is primary or secondary forest. This project involves scrambling, sliding, and climbing off trail into wild forest, which is good muddy fun!
There's plenty of time to relax in the hammocks on the porch of the lodge, or play cards and chat with the rest of the team, strum a few chords on the resident guitar, or brush up on some Spanish. We have a fiesta on the last night where we listen and dance to traditional live music. After dinner on most evenings we hear from local or visiting specialists about the natural history and geology of Ecuador or the local area.
On our recreational day, we have options to go to an archaeological site, sleep overnight in the forest, or watch the breeding bird display (the "leck"). I choose the leck, and set off with a group at 4am, using our head-torches to guide us along the 1.5 hour walk to the site. We arrive and wait for dawn, when the Cotingas ("Cock-of-the-Rock") start their incredible display of color and sound and movement.
Any field diary for this expedition has to have a food section. The food is just incredible, and totally unexpected-every day, a delicious breakfast of fruit (some I'd never heard of before), eggs, or cereal, always with fresh fruit juice and freshly baked bread or pancakes. Lunch is always soup followed by hearty rice and pulses or plantain, always welcome after a morning in the field. We have a variety of evening meals, which includes pizza, omelets, and meat stews, followed by dessert - the cake is good! And there's a supply of snacks and treats for the chocoholics.
Find out more about the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change, Canopies and Wildlife.