Friends and Faces of the Forest
The cloud forest lies before me, like a woman reclining in a steamy bath, filled with foaming water. All curves and hollows, hills and valleys. The mist collects in the valleys, like the foam enveloping the woman, moulding itself to her shape. The water gently laps against her body, constantly shifting and changing, never still, just as the mist ebbs and flows against the hillsides, swirling in amongst the branches, rising up into the canopy, evaporating into the air, condensing on the leaves and branches.
The cloud forests and lowland rainforests of Ecuador. Full of life, full of movement, full of sounds never heard before. You may not get to see all the life contained within these mystical forests, but you will certainly get to hear much of it. The toucans call to each other from the tops of the trees, while the Inca jays click and rasp back and forth, these harsh sounds interspersed with clear, bell like notes that puncture the heavy, humid air. A noisy group of oropendolas invade first one tree and then another, constantly chattering, their song a liquid harmony, like fresh water bubbling up in a small, refreshing spring, starting on its journey down a mountain creek on its way to bigger, faster streams to eventually join that mighty river, the Amazon. As you walk along the muddy path, surrounded by towering trees all smothered with their hanging gardens of bromeliads and ferns, an insistent buzzy screech begins to build up around you. The noise increases, building up to a wall of sound that completely engulfs you as it reaches its nearly deafening crescendo. The sound vibrates every cell of your body until, suddenly, all the cicadas stop their screaming and the jungle returns to its relative peace. Now the only humming that you can hear is the softer, more peaceful hum of a humming bird as it whizzes right past your ear and up into the canopy. In the cloud forest, the mist gently caresses your skin, clinging to your hair and eyelashes, slowly permeating your clothing to cool your skin. In the lowland rainforests, the moisture comes from within, as sweat oozes through all of your pores, drenching your clothing, which clings and sticks uncomfortably to your body. Water is the life giving force of these forests. At times the rain thunders down on the canopy, crashing through the leaves and down to the forest floor. Once the rain has finished, the dripping has just begun, as the water makes it way, drip by drip from a million leaves, percolating its way through all the layers of the jungle until it reaches the leaf litter below. The jungle is never quiet.
Now, since there is no way that I can write about all the wonderful creatures that we have seen in the forests on this trip to Ecuador, I have decided to give you some of the highlights (and perhaps lowlights) of the fascinating fauna of Ecuador. I have picked five categories and awarded winners in each. So, here we go:
1). Most Beautiful. This was probably the hardest category (along with cutest), because nearly all animals are beautiful in some way. But since we have spent rather a lot of our time looking at birds (some might label us with the term “bird nerds”), I decided to go with a bird. And the winner is.............. the Inca jay. This gorgeous creature is a social bird, always chattering away with other nearby jays. They are also very intelligent(as far as birds go), one of the few known species that make use of tools, using sticks to probe into crevices and holes to retrieve insects to eat.
2). The Ugliest. OK, so I realise that I just said that all animals are beautiful in some way, but I am struggling to find the beauty in this one – the golden silk orb weaver. These skin-crawling, stomach-lurching, sweat-inducing giants are everywhere, building huge webs that I swear are big enough to capture some poor, unwary biologist. Actually, that is what is beautiful about these spiders, their webs. If you look at them with the light hitting them in just the right way, the silken threads of their webs look like finely spun gold. In fact, I believe that their silk has been used to craft one of the most intricate, delicate and fabulous piece of cloth ever made. It was made from the silk of over a million spiders and is now on display at the American Museum of Natural history. Oh, and I thought that I should just mention that the females generally eat the males after mating. Talk about dangerous sex .........
3). The Most Bizarre. This prize just has to go to the tail-less whip scorpion, aka a whip spider, that we saw on one of our night hikes. The photo does not really do it justice, since you cannot see just how long its legs and “antennae” are. These arachnids, relations of the spiders and scorpions are, despite their sinister, nightmarish looks, completely harmless to humans. Of course, if you are some small bug, trying to make a living on the forest floor, you might not want to meet this guy on a dark night. You can see that its first pair of “legs” are large and grasping, covered in spines that can catch any unwary, unlucky creature that strays too close. These “legs” are, in fact, mouthparts. If you then look at the next pair of legs, you will actually find a pair of very long, slender “antennae” that wave back and forth, their incredibly sensitive tips seeking out movement of any kind. Following this first pair of legs that act as antennae, you can then count another 3 pairs of walking legs, giving this most bizarre of creatures the eight legs required of an arachnid. Whilst these animals may look like your worst nightmare, they are one of the few arachnids that show any sort of social behaviour and parental care. When the young hatch, they climb onto their mother’s back, who then carries them around and cares for them (unless they fall off, then she eats them ........ there are apparently limits to the tender loving care of this mother).
4). The Cutest. Ahhh, now this one was quite the competition. Bear in mind that I am the judge and I find weevils to be cute, so I had quite the hard time with this one. I ended up with a runner up – a most gorgeous tree frog, all goggle-eyed and legs and elbows with a mouth a mile wide. How can you not go “Ahhhhhh.....” when you see this little guy? But then, something that even I have to admit is even cuter came along. We are driving down the road with a very knowledgeable guide who suddenly decides that we really should stop on the corner of a mountain road with very limited visibility. Hmmmm, is this really a good idea, given the way Ecuadorians drive? I ask myself. And why are we stopping here anyway? The guide hops nimbly out of the vehicle, I fall out. He starts to climb a small, overhanging cliff, reaches up and picks something off the wall of the cliff. I can’t quite see what it is, due to the veil of water that is dripping down in front of the overhang. He comes back down with his precious haul and opens his hand to reveal two of the cutest baby hummingbirds that you ever did see. He pulls out his notebook, ruler and balance and starts taking measurements of the birds. He then places them gently into the palm of my hand and I have a little teary moment. These tiny, delicate, gorgeous creatures are just sitting there, looking up at me, turning me into one big, soft smile. There goes my heart again, melting into a little pile of goo. A bird in the hand may be worth two in the bush, but two baby hummers in the hand are priceless.
5). Comedy Face of the Week. Now, this prize was hotly contended, mostly by Greg. I particularly liked the “Bloody hell, this is cold” face that he pulled when he leapt into the Napa River, and came up spluttering something about how cold the water was. Then there was the face he pulled as his new girlfriend, Yolanda, started to chew on his ear. But, despite his best attempts, he has been pipped at the post by the stick insect with its novelty jumping act. Taking this photo was quite the challenge, since every time I got too close, this leggy insect would leap up into the air. If he was so inclined, he could even throw in a backward somersault, with a half twist.
So, there you have just a few of the creatures that we have encountered while on our travels in Ecuador. We have met many people and even made a few friends. Here is one of mine – Rain. She is probably one of the most spoilt dogs in Ecuador, but she has quite the talent for pulling the most hard done by, please feel sorry me faces. Just look at her. Anyone would think that she was beaten three times a day and never fed. Still, being the sucker that I am for a sad face, I let her curl up with me on my bed every afternoon for a little cosy nap. As for Greg, well, his fine feathered friend was Yolanda, a parrot that we met at the Yachana Jungle Lodge. She was rescued from the pet trade and now lives at the lodge, terrorising the guests. She likes to stalk feet and dangle on the corners of the table cloth. I am not sure that she is quite all there, but she seemed to take quite the shine to Greg and the feeling was mutual.
And then there was my roommate. I was not quite so sorry to say goodbye to her......