Well, as Samwise Gamgee would say, I’m back. As I explained in my last post- way back at the beginning of July- these past few months have involved a lot of time away travelling and working in Ecuador and Colombia. I’ve been over high paramo, to steaming jungles, to remote islands, and to the heady Caribbean coast. It’s been quite the privilege- and, as always, I took along my SLR to capture some of the stuff I’ve seen. Although at times I feared the humidity and sand might finish it off entirely, I’ve ended up with thousands of photographs- so many, in fact, that trying to divide them up into posts feels a little overwhelming. The best strategy, however, seems to me to start at the beginning- so my first post is about one of the very first places we visit in Ecuador on the field course, and a bird with a pom pom on its head…
Gallos de la Peña, or Cock-of-the-Rocks, are one of those birds that are so weird and wonderful that their existence seems pure fantasy. Before I started going to the jungle I didn’t really entertain the thought that I would see these bright orange cotingas with an enormous pom pom of feathers sitting across their beak in real life- surely, something that splendid would be confined to the deepest, hardest-to-get-to lodges, or merely glimpsed through the canopy if you were really lucky. Happily, I was wrong on this front- and, to my surprise, one of the best places to see them was in an unassuming little orchid reserve of the side of the road to Nanegalito.
Pahuma Orchid Reserve covers a modest area and has only six trails; on the field course, we briefly visit it before climbing into the cloud forest proper. We usually have around 40 minutes to run up the reserve’s main trail to a waterfall and back- but it’s definitely not enough to see all it has to offer. You see, aside from the orchids, the hummingbirds visiting the feeding station, the bright blue tarantulas, and big stripy yellow opiliones (harvestmen), the aptly named Gallo de la Peña trail leads to a rocky crevice where, if you know where to look, you can see a female cock-of-the-rock sitting on eggs. You’d think for such a colourful bird the nest would be obvious- but the female is so still against the dark cliffs that if it wasn’t for a guide pointing her out a couple of years ago, I would have missed the amazing sight entirely. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a closer look through binoculars revealed the deep crimson a female’s plumage and a bright yellow beak peeking out from that elaborate crest of feathers.
Remarkably, female gallos de la peña build the nest, incubate the eggs and tend to their young entirely alone (you can make out a white speckled egg and a brown fluffy nestling in the photo above). This is because, in addition to being one of the brightest birds in the neotropics, gallos have some of the most elaborate breeding behaviour. They use a system called lekking; which, in zoology jargon, means that the males gather together in a specific place to collectively display their sexiness to females. In the case of the gallos, they gather into sub-groups of three of four birds, taking it in turns to complete a noisy dance where they slide up and down branches and show off those amazing crests. Though I’ve been lucky enough to see a lek in action I haven’t been lucky enough to film it- but there’s a good YouTube video of some of the male dances here.
While most of my time in Pahuma is invariably spent gawping at the gallos, it would be rude not to also mention some of the other species there. The feeders, located right at the beginning of the trail next to a small (but highly impressive) collection of orchids, draw in a steady hum of hummingbirds which bicker and fight over the nectar (below is a buff-tailed coronet and fawn-breasted brilliant). The reserve also has a funny habit of expulsing anole lizards from trees as our group walks past (maybe they get spooked?)- this has happened twice in four years of visiting. This year, a bright green anole fell onto crumpled brown cecropia leaves. He posed for a couple of photographs before scurrying off into the undergrowth.
For such an unassuming place, Pahuma really is extraordinary. If, for some reason, you’re driving on the Nanegalito road to Quito, please visit it. I’ve never been dissapointed.