Let us leave the anoles of Pahuma behind and carry on to the field course’s next stop- the Andean cloud forest. Or, rather, a small part of it on the eastern slopes of the mountains in Pichincha, that captures the imagination in a way that few other habitats can.
The first five days or so of the Manchester Field Course are spent at the scientific research station owned by the Bellavista Cloud Forest reserve- a 2000 acre private reserve spread across steep sided slopes veined with small streams and sprinkled with waterfalls. Cloud forests are so called because they are almost perpetually covered in mist- this is because warm air from the pacific blows in with the prevailing winds, gets pushed up by the Andes, cools, and condenses over the steep mountain slopes. As a result, you can spend the majority of the day on the trails walking around in a fine, light drizzle that would make Manchester proud. Because of their height, cloud forests are also cold- which is a jarring experience if, like me, you’ve only experienced the close heat of the tropical forests in the Amazon basin. That unique combination of mist and height, however, makes for forests that are truly spectacular. Every tree positively groans with epiphytes- spongy mosses, tiny delicate orchids, big heavy vines straight out of The Jungle Book- and the birds- the birds- well, let’s just say that the species list includes things with names like ‘hoary puffleg’ and ‘flammulated treehunter’. You can’t really go wrong, can you?
I couldn’t dedicate just one post to Bellavista and feel like I was doing it justice- so, for my first post, I’m sticking to the two things that most stood out to me on my first ever visit, back in 2014. Number one was the views of rolling forest stretching as far as the eye can see. Though you have to be up at the crack of dawn to beat the mist, being at the top of the hill as the sun rises and illuminates the trees- accompanied by a concerto of over 300 species of birds- is nothing short of magical. As a bonus, it also means that you get to exchange smug knowing looks with fellow members of the 5am club at breakfast- those that slept in may well be more rested, but they weren’t there for something I would genuinely rate as one of the most sublime spectacles in all of Ecuador.
Bellavista was also the first place where I got to see hummingbirds up close- up to 14 species regularly visit its feeders by the main lodge, passing so close to your head that you can feel the turbulent air currents created by their wings. The first time I saw one hover to sip nectar, I distinctly remember thinking that it was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen. Some of them were so small, and their wings beat so fast, that they made exactly the same noise as bumblebees. Some, like the green violetear, announced their arrival with fast whirring clicks and carried on making them every time they paused in mid-air. Others, like the booted racket-tail, had two elaborate spatulas at the end of their tail feathers and fluffy white booties covering their feet. The violet-tailed sylph, probably the most show-stopping species that visits the feeders- had an electric blue tail which fluttered behind it like a train on a wedding gown. Most of these pictures here are of the buff-tailed coronet, by far the commonest species at the feeders. Even these guys were astounding, with green metallic feathers that shone when they were caught in the light, and bolshy temperaments that lead them to constantly squabble with one another and with any other hummingbird that dared get too close.
That there were acres and aces of protected forest for these little sprites to disappear off into was quite a reassuring thought. I always marvel at how things like feeding stations can show you species that might otherwise require weeks of hiking and patience to see. In this regard Bellavista has some other truly special ones- but that’s a story for another post.