Posted by: drewtownsend | October 21, 2009

Wildlife Photos at Napo Wildlife Center

Here are a few shots from the Napo Wildlife Center in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was fun using my dad’s tele-photo lens he brought down on the trip. But now I want a nicer one with built in IS. Only gonna cost around $2000 or so. Anyone? Anyone? I hope you enjoy them. Oh and dont forget, you can enlarge the picture by just clicking on it. Makes em a lot better I think.

squirrel monkey
A Squirrel Monkey checking out the scene.

flying monkeys
Yeah, I know, its a crappy picture. But look close the monkey is flying. Oh and it is waving at you. Oh yeah, there is a baby on its back, too.

Watching the wife and kid jump.

masked crimson tanager
Masked Crimson Tanager eating some food.

Limpkin hanging out.

king vulture
King Vulture, a.k.a. Amazon Condor, perched. Relatively rare to see perched.

lineated woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker about to go to work. Note the tail working too.

lineated woodpecker 2
Lineated Woodpecker now working.

cobalt winged parakeets
Cobalt-winged parakeets at a clay click eating well, clay.

many banded aracari
A Many-banded aracari high in the canopy. Taken from the canopy tower.

lesser kiskadee
Lesser Kiskadee.

Not wildlife, but I like it.

Posted by: drewtownsend | October 21, 2009

Parent’s Visit

So my parent’s came to visit a while back. It was a great trip. We did a grand tour of Ecuador and visited Quito, the lowlands, the highlands and the cloud forest. We took maybe a total of 800 or more photos together and these are just a small selection, and probably poorly selected at that, for your viewing pleasure.

don colon
Here we are at dinner at Don Colon. Great view of the city, including nicely lit up 450 year old churches.

So the first day there we were walking around the historic center of Quito checking out all the wonderful architecture and history (sorry no photos of that, internet is too slow) and noticed lots of cops with gas masks, riot gear etc… near the presidential palace. I sort of explained the tenuous political situation in Ecuador and how protests are super common. And of course said we should be careful. Well, a little later on we came across more cops ready to go and then eventually a group of protesters. We checked it out for a bit and it didn’t seem too bad. Nevertheless, I suggested we leave as its not the best place to be. Well my dad wanted to keep watching to see what would happened. Well, it happened, we got tear gassed! Not us specifically, but we were upwind of it and were certainly crying and had a hard time breathing. We can all attest that yes, tear gas works, effectively.

Standard sized fire hydrant. Im not even sure its big enough for a dog to piss on.

Here is a shot of the cabins at Napo Wildlife Center on Anangucocha. Napo Wildlife Center is an ecotourism lodge that is 100% owned and operated (and 100% of profits go to) by the Anangu Quichuan community. It is a wonderful piece of land that is teeming with wildlife. They still have many of the animals that have been driven to near extinction and thus are hard to encounter in other regions of the amazon basin such as giant river otters (which we saw!!!!!!), pink river dolphins, etc… We had great luck and saw lots and lots of wildlife. See my next post for some pics.

Here we are trying to find the Purplish Jacamar, a beautiful bird we never found. Also my moms favorite picture, I think.

Giant Ceiba tree.

Here are some Grubs that were taken out of a fallen palm tree not 5 minutes before this picture. And we ate them not 2 hours later. Pretty tasty. Sixto, our native guide, spotted a fallen palm tree on a canoe trip we were taking that appeared to be at the right rottenness to be harboring beetle larvae. So he stopped the canoe, jumped on the tree barefoot and started hacking away with his trusty mini-machete always hanging on his belt at the ready. And he was right, they were there. Oh and it should be noted too that my mom ate the first one. We didnt get a photo but luckily there was a Latin American travel channel based out of Miami there filming a segment on the lodge and they filmed it. So you may still get to see it someday.

Me and Sixto, our Quichuan guide talking about shamans, conservation and the history of the lodge. He was amazing.

Here is a shot of one of the Papallacta hotsprings outside our door. After the lowlands and on our way to the cloud forest we made a stop in the “paramo,” sub-alpine habitat, to soak in some natural hot springs. It was amazing and very relaxing.

Next stop was Yanayacu. Probably the most relaxing part of the trip, although for some of us that meant working in the greenhouse.

We did a whole lot on this trip and it was pretty much non-stop. But most of all we ate a whole lot of good food. I had to throw this picture in here because my mom took a picture of every single meal I think.


Thanks for visiting, it was a fun trip!

Posted by: drewtownsend | August 9, 2009

Caroline goes to the jungle!

005 Antisana

This is Caroline writing this post. You may be wondering why I’m writing the post, and why Drew’s posts are few and far between. I’m here to tell you that after having lived it myself, he’s right when he says the internet connection is SUPER SLOW at Yanayacu. No, it’s PAINFULLY SLOW. So I decided to give Drew a break from having to wait 30 minutes for one picture to load and do this post myself, since it’s all about me anyway!! So, don’t be disappointed that Drew doesn’t blog as often as you’d like. It’s a big project when you’re dealing with such a crappy internet connection and Drew’s a busy man these days as Yanayacu’s wonderful interim administrator. He’s doing a great job, by the way. So much so that other long term researchers at the station say Drew should stay managing Yanayacu for another year! But, being a busy manager leaves one hardly enough time to do the scientific work he would really rather do, and, after 1 year, Drew’s coming home to ME!

Drew hikes sendero Rio Perdido

Hiking one of the many trails in and around Yanayacu. On the Rio Perdido trail, you have to go around saying, “what, what?” though.

001 View from station

Here’s the view from the station. Drew gets to wake up to this every morning. The cloud forest is absolutely beautiful and tranquil. The forest reaches until the eye can see!

036 drews office
This is Drew’s office! He’s working hard!

So, I came to Ecuador to spend time with Drew for seven weeks. It flew by and I can’t believe I’m back and preparing for school to start. I’m so out of it. I wan’t to go back! I mean look at it, look how beautiful!

045 Cuyuja

It’s soccer season in Ecuador (isn’t it always soccer season in Latin America?) and I got to witness the sweet moves of the Cosanga Juniors’ star player, Zinedine Zidane! Seriously, the crowd, his teammates, and opponents would call him that and make jokes saying the gringo was hired from the US! One interesting thing about soccer in the cloud forests of Ecuador is that the fields are always muddy ’cause it’s ALWAYS rainy and humid (well, I was there for the rainy season, so it’s actually not always so wet). So Drew’s nice, white uniform was brown by the end, no, middle of the game! This game was in a town called Cuyuja, about an hour away, going west (back toward Quito).

Following are some images from various visits to Quito:

Quito is huge! It sits in a valley, so it’s really LONG. This view is from the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Visitors are allowed to climb the sketchy, winding, creaky stairs all the way up to the bell tower and even climb out onto the freaking roof, as we saw some Qutio hippie kids do. This would never fly in the US. Oh, I love foreign countries!


Here we are in the paramo, 14,000 ft about sea level. The paramo is land that has short, brushy trees and bushes, is dry, cold (’cause it’s so high up), and has the coolest carpet plant that’s been around since the dinosaurs. In this pic, Drew and I took the Teleferiqo, a cable car ski-lift thing that takes you up into the mountain, and here we are standing in front of a volcano, Pichincha!

DSCN9723 pitahaya

This pitahaya was our volcano-hike snack. They are natural laxatives because of all the little seeds! Don’t worry, nothing happened up there. Oh, and I forgot to mention earlier that from up where we were, you could see 5 volcanoes surrounding Quito! A few of them are still active. In fact, Cotopaxi is the biggest active volcano in the world! Go, Ecuador!


We went to the Capilla del Hombre, one of Guayasamin’s museums in Quito. He is a famous Ecuadorian artist who created beautiful and tragic images mostly of war and human suffering, but also many landscapes of Quito and the volcanoes. I like the roughness of his paintings, they way he does the hands, the looks on the subjects faces. This chapel he built during the last 10 years of his life and it is actually unfinished and they left it that way. There’s a dome in the center that you could tell he was working on. Oh, and his house is on the property, too.

Ok, enough of Quito. It’s great but you get really tired of it because of the pollution and because, well, the city is so drastically different from the tranquility of the isolation of Yanayacu. Also, foreigners live in fear of mugging in Quito, so, it’s not exactly fun to walk around expecting to get mugged.

Drew got some time off when Harold came back for about a month, so we got to do some traveling around Ecuador. First we went to the Amazon, then to the coast. The Amazon is the most amazing place I’ve ever been.

First, the Amazon.


That’s where we stayed! See the little tent under the palm-thatched roof? Yep, that was home for 3 nights. It wasn’t exactly roughin’ it, the tent was on a raised deck, under the roof. There were clean restrooms, and a mattress in the tent! Someone even came to our tent each morning and made our bed! Sani Lodge also has cabins, but camping is cheaper and cooler, I mean, we were “beach front” on the blackwater lagoon. There was even a huge black caiman that hung out in front of us at night! You need to see this website and stay at Sani Lodge when you come to the Amazon of Ecuador, It is a jungle lodge completely operated and owned by the indigenous community of Sani. They take turns working there as guides, cooks, builders, cleaners, etc. All other jungle lodges in the area are run by foreigners. They may hire locals, but the idea is not of the natives nor in their power. This makes the Sani Quichuan community autonomous, independent, unique, and awesome!

558 Javier Sani Lodge native naturalist guide

This was our guide, Javier. At just 22 years of age, Javier is a leader of the Sani community and Sani Lodge. He has been the manager of the lodge, and now he is the lead guide, in charge of all other guides (many of them his elders). He is amazing at finding wildlife by just hearing animal calls and jungle noises (pair him up with Guillermo, another excellent guide, and they can find ANYTHING). Since birding is so popular, and Javier is so good, he has been sent all over Ecuador, Costa Rica, and even to Florida to promote Sani Lodge. He’s not just “good” because he’s a good guide. Javier is wise beyond his years. He understands his community, the struggle of the Ecuadorian, the struggle of the Quichuan, and the struggle of life in the Amazon, where oil companies are in constant pursuit of exploiting the jungle’s natural resources, destroying it, and taking advantage of the indigenous populations that call the Amazon home. I wish I could call the Amazon home! Aside from a little fear of the poisonous equis–or Fur de lance–snake (which we saw, by the way!), as well as the Bushmaster snake, Drew and I think we could live in the Amazon for a period of time. Gosh, if not just for the people! The amazing, wonderful, happy, full of life people. Most would call them “poor” by US standards, but it was apparent that they are not poor (at least at Sani)–have everything they need: shelter, food, education, (well, I guess access to healthcare is still an issue, but that seems like something that could easily be improved, if so much money and energy wasn’t going into oil exploitation). And, they live with dignity. It is when an indigenous person is extracted from her home and way of life and forced to move to the city that she starts to believe her way of life is poor and she loses her dignity and becomes a beggar on the street, making her kids sell chicles in the bars and restaurants. Anyway, Javier understands all of this. Most 22 year olds in the United States don’t understand anything to this level. So, anyway, we are thoroughly impressed with him and want him to come to the Valley to promote birding at Sani, since the Valley is a world birding site. He could stay with my parents or Drew’s parents! Ok, we’re doing a lot of dreaming here, and I’m doing a lot of blabbing, but, basically, Sani Lodge was so freakin’ amazing because of the wildlife, beauty, tranquility, and because of the people.

Please enjoy some more Amazon pictures!


¡El Equis!


“Camping 1” (Said with Ecuadorian accent, “cam-pin-wan.”)


Night hike centipede crawling among some fungus, and Drew’s amazing photographic skeeellz!


Amazon Wood Lizard. We saw this one on the night hike, too! During the night hike, Javier and Guillermo said, “ok, now turn off your head lamps, let’s all be still and quiet, and listen to the sounds of the jungle.” Well it was probably the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It was scary and beautiful at the same time, and just made your jaw drop. The energy was incredible! The sounds were mystifying! I thought, what if I was hiking around in the jungle and it got late and got dark and pretty soon pitch black?? I would DIE out here! (Guillermo did remind us that our eyes would eventually adjust to the darkness–but I’m not sure I wanted them to adjust, ’cause then I could see the shadows or barely make out the images of all the scary things that were going to get me!) Oh, thank goodness for native guides, head lamps, and holding Drew’s hand!) We made it safely back to our tent. It was the scariest and coolest experience to be in the dark and silence of the jungle at night (which isn’t very quiet, mind you. It was LOUD!)


Drew found this frog. Drew was good at finding things, too. He’s on his way to becoming a jungle guide (You think I’m being silly but I’m actually only half joking…)!


This is a Fulgoridae, Lantern Bug.


This is a Conga Ant, otherwise known as the Bullet Ant. Why named Bullet Ant, you ask? Well, get bitten by one of these ants and it’s comparable to being SHOT! Isn’t that crazy? Only in the Amazon!


Another example of Drew’s photographic mastery!


This is a rare sighting of an Ornate Hawk Eagle (juvenile), thanks to Javier’s jungle mastery! The picture is weird because Drew put the lense of his camera up to the telescopic lense the guides brought for birding. This juvenile was calling for Mama, and we got to see her fly into the nest with a fresh kill for baby! Awwww!


Caroline Cousteau.


We saw this Banded Aracari high up in the canopy of the rainforest! It’s like a Toucan. Guillermo and Javier let us climb up the closed-off birding tower because they thought we were tough! It is made out of wood, so it’s rotting and slippery with moss and tiny epiphytes (the forest reclaiming itself!) so they are in the process of building a metal canopy bird tower, but it wasn’t ready in time for our trip. No problem, they let us up the sketchy tower! Birding is cool and all (ok, it’s pretty spectacular), but I’m loyal to “bugging” (’cause of my dad and Drew :)), but I have to say that being up there at the canopy level of the rainforest is probably the second most amazing thing I’ve ever done, next to turning off the lights during the night hike. We saw SO MANY BIRDS! We even saw a Harpy Eagle, another super rare bird that birders come from all over the world just to see. And we saw it just like that! And so many Tanagers. Wow, they are just beautiful little birds. One of the coolest things about the canopy is that there are so many insects crawling around up there. You’d think it was the forest floor, but it’s so high up in the sky! I remember reading about the rainforest in grade school, and ooooooh, the rainforest and all its levels! You never thought you would ever be in the canopy! It was amazing and kind of scary at the same time (kind of like the night hike). Oh, you need to go!


Walking down the slippery steps of the birding tower.


We saw 5 species of monkey within 2 days! Here is a squirrel monkey crossing a vine. A whole troupe of them crossed that vine. The coolest were the nocturnal monkeys that we saw during the day. They take turns staying awake during the day to keep guard of the nest high up in a tree. I caught one of the guard monkeys nodding off!


Giant amazon leaf, or course, worn by dork!


Giant fallen ceiba (Kapok). Took so long to grow and supposedly in just 3 years it will have been totally consumed by fungi, millipedes, and all the other decomposers. Ceibas amaze me.


This one is for cousin Bryan…


Some of the canoes we used to get around the lagoon.


Javier took us on a hard core hike. He said he had only done that hike with 3 tourist groups before. Everybody gets to the swampy part and turns around. I thought about doing that. It was sketchy! So as you can see here Drew does not appear to be very deeply submerged into the muck. What you don’t see is that he is hanging on to dear life with the bottom of his rubber boots to the narrow logs floating underneath the muck as “support” for the trail. It was this crazy balancing act, and me holding Javier’s hand, worrying about Drew falling in with his fancy camera. It was so slippery and you just had to feel your way across. Slowly, very slowly. Except Javier was crossing the swampy patches with the greatest of ease, carrying a huge telescopic lense on his shoulders, mind you, and having to help me balance myself!


Poison Dart Frog!


Part of the hard core trail consisted of walking down a few kilometers of a narrow patch of forest that was deforested. WHAT?!?! You’re asking, deforestation in the sacred Sani territory? I thought they were “with it.” Well, they are, and here’s how they did it. Years ago the petrolera–oil company–(who knows which one, maybe Texaco Toxico…) came to Sani seeking to extract oil from their land. Javier’s uncle (everyone’s a Gualinga in Sani–their last name), who had been working for the petrolera for 20 years realized how completely messed up it was that this entity was coming in from outside the Amazon to take one the most valued natural resources away from it and pay the indigenous people nothing in return. Actually, what they got in return was polluted, toxic lands that gave them cancer. Anyway, he decided he needed to stick up for his community and Mother Nature. Sani rose up and forbade the oil company from drilling anywhere on their vast territory (thank god they own so much land because they are preserving and protecting all of it!). But the oil company was persistent (very persistent, as they are with all the indigenous Amazonian communities they’ve duped). So, they agreed to not drill on Sani’s land but they needed to get to another community’s land who did not fight back in order to drill on their land. But to get to that other community, they had to go through Sani. So Mr. Gualinga struck a deal with the petrolera. He agreed that they could run their pipe line through his family’s land as long as they installed valves that the community could shut off themselves in case the pipe breaks and leaks, and they had to agree to help Sani build Sani Lodge. So they did! And the rest is history! Sani’s land is pure, save for that one crazy narrow path where the pipe line runs, but there is not drilling! And they were able to make the oil company finally give them something return that is worthwhile.

Oh, yeah, and we saw an Amazon deer and her fawn walk by!


We went to the Sani community (the lodge is at a different location) on a motorized dugout canoe. Mind you, we were going down the Napo River which is HUGE! In our little dugout canoe, we passed this barge. It was probably headed to some drilling sight. The oil companies have to use the river to reach their exploitation sites, there are no roads (thank goodness).


At Sani we joined the community in watching a Sunday soccer game. Sani vs. another community up the river. Then we went to one of the guide’s houses, Guillermo. His wife makes artesanias for Sani Lodge. They showed us how they make the purses, which is a process that takes about 2 months! The fibers come from a palm and are rolled up and down the leg to make it into a very skinny rope. Then you send your son out to find some plant and he knows exactly where it is and comes back in 5 seconds with a leaf and you dye the rope red or blue, depending on the plant, by rubbing the leaf up and down the rope. Then the weaving happens. Good lord!


So, we ended up going to the community with Javier, Guillermo, and Guillermo’s guests whom he was guiding for, a Mexican couple. We were actually paired up quite often with the Mexican couple, but they were really cool and Javier and Guillermo together was like Superguide. Anyway, earlier in the day the Mexican woman had gone off with Guillermo to fish for piranha’s while the rest of us stayed on a trail. She caught these two and Guillermo’s wife cooked them up for us, along with hearts of palm, and plantains, in the typical cooking method of the Quichuans. You wrap the food in a banana leaf and cook it on a grill over a little fire. Mmmmm, it was delicious! And it was really cool to see their house and children, and spend time with them in this authentic setting.


We passed around chicha, an alcoholic drink made by fermented yucca. That’s Diego. He’s from Mexico. He used to live in Monterrey and he’s been to McAllen! On the walk back to the canoe from Guillermo’s house is when we saw the Equis snake, but I already showed him to you up there because I got excited!


Here we have my very good, handsome friend, Drew, in front of me on the dugout canoe en route back to the lodge. He took the following picture.


Sunset on the Napo River. Look how the jungle on the banks is pink from the sun!


And there you have it, a glimpse of our time in the Ecuadorian Amazon. You should put a trip to the Amazon on your top ten list of things to do before you die. By the way, this photo was taken in Coca, a Napo River port city that is the major stopping point before journeying down the Napo by canoe to the various jungle destinations. These are supposed to be statues of Huaroni indians in their native dress…

And now to the coast. Drew got a longer vacation this time because Harold came back to the station for about a month. It was nice to get away because a group was coming in with Harold, and it would have been stressful, just like the Wyoming group was. We went to Quito and then flew to Guayaquil, otherwise it would have been like a 9 hour bus ride, and I’ve come to value my time more than my money these days.


Quiteños are lucky. From the window in the airport you can see one of the many volcanos that surround the city. It’s not everyday that I look out the window and see a volcano (much less, mountains!).

DSCN9379 Rio Guayas

Welcome to Guayaquil, located in the southwest. It’s larger than Quito, like double! It’s HUUUUGE! It’s a major port city but it’s not off the Pacific coast. The port is off the Guayas River, another huge river in Ecuador. Everything and it’s mother gets shipped in and out of Ecuador through Guayaquil (via barge or dugout canoe, apparently…).

DSCN9369 Guayaquil Plaza del Centenario

Here we are at Plaza del Centenario, a quaint little park plaza in the historical center of Guayaquil. These iguanas just hang out at the park. Doesn’t seem to be a big deal to anyone.

DSCN9375 mercado Guayaquil

Here’s the mercado in Guayaquil. It is the cleanest, most organized mercado I’ve ever seen. And you better know what you’re looking for and where exactly it is because people are moving in there, man. Moooving. They will cut you off in the salchicha aisle. Guayaquil was a very hustling, bustling city. People were kind of rude and in a rush. For a hot, coastal(-ish) city, I thought it was going to be all laid back, but no, Guayaquileños mean business. It was faster-paced than Quito.

DSCN9374 mercado Guayaquil

And here we are in the salchicha aisle!


Drew trying to rid Ecuador of all McDonald’s and other global corporate chains. Actually, there weren’t too many big chains in Ecuador. Not like other countries I’ve been to.

DSCN9386 Malecon 2000

This is Malecón 2000. Guayaquil is a very modern city. I’m sure there are areas that are very poor, too, though.

DSCN9406 Barrio Las Penas

This is Barrio Las Peñas. It’s a very picturesque little neighborhood at the end of the Malecón that blankets a hill. The only way to get around is on foot, climbing stairs and winding paths. The interesting thing is this a poor neighborhood. The government came in recently and painted all the façades of the houses bright, beautiful, coastal colors, but the insides are still crap. It’s really weird. At least they didn’t kick them out, though. And it’s bringing revenue into this neighborhood because people have opened up little convenience-type stores for tourists and such. I just hope they don’t end up kicking these people out.


And now we’re in Montañita, at the hostel we stayed at, on the northern end of town. This is a weird town. It’s a happy little beach town with hippies, rastafaris, and surfers. It’s the best place to surf in Ecuador, or at least, the most popular. Apparently the locals have been surfing here forever but in the last 15 years this town got popular with outsiders. The outsiders stay, make jewelry and sell it all these little booths lining the streets, smoke pot, and surf all day. What more could you ask for?! Tourism is booming in this former fishing village. There was all kind of construction of new hostels. Former fisherman now tend bar in booths lining the streets, not the jewelry booth street, though, that’s the next one over. It’s kind of a place to party, but that was mostly in the central part. That’s why we stayed north. It’s a weird place, that’s the best way to describe it. Drew and I were saying that we hope it doesn’t get Disney-fied.


This was at the north end of town, where our hostel was. This is the premo-surfing spot because of that crazy rock formation, it makes the waves big. Speaking of surfing, Drew and I rented some boards! After about a minute I decided to pay for a surfing lesson, which was great. I’m glad I did that. Surfing is HARD! But I can see why people like it so much. It’s a great work out and it’s just a lot of fun! Drew did pretty well on his own for a South Padre Island surfer going against these big Montañita waves! Unfortunately there was no camera present during the surfing debacle…


Puerto Lopez! This is where Drew and I spent most of our coast trip. This is the place to go for scuba diving and snorkeling, to see humpback whales, to see the dry forest, and to go to the Poor Man’s Galapagos, Isla de la Plata. It’s a dirty little fishing village being encroached on by tourism, but it’s charming, nonetheless. We had a great time here. We just wish some hippies from Montañita would make their way up here and bring it upon themselves to pick up trash from the shores. It’s too bad, really, because the water is beautiful. Puerto Lopez could be beautiful. But the fishermen think the ocean is a big trash can (then why would you be getting your food from the trash?) and it all just washes up to shore and no one cares.

DSCN9470 our cabana at Hostal Itapoa Pto Lopez

This is our little cabaña at Hostal Itapoa. This was such a great place! The owners own land in the western cloud forest that they preserve and protect, and they also grow coffee and chocolate there and teach the locals how to sustainably do so. They then use the coffee and chocolate at the hostel, and it was DELICIOUS!

DSCN9471 Pto Lopez

Caption Contest time! Who can come up with the best caption to this photo?


This billboard is an example of the billboards that dot the major roads all over Ecuador. It’s a campaign to promote the production and consumption of locally-made goods, as well as all the touristic opportunities available to locals in Ecuador. This particular billboard says, “Nourish yourself of Ecuador.” And this was at the entrance to Machalilla National Park, a dry forest reserve and UNESCO world heritage sight. Ecuador has many of those.

DSCN9477 on the road to Machalilla

We rented bikes from the hostel and rode them to Machalilla, on the same road all other coastal traffic was driving, including 18-wheelers and kamikaze buses!


In Machalilla you can get to a handful of beautiful little beaches. And since it’s a national park, there are no houses or businesses there, and people tend to take a little more care of not littering and such. Here’s Drew with our little beach friend at Los Frailes beach.

DSCN9482 Los Frailes

It was a pretty good swimming beach but we ventured over to the ends to explore the tide pools in the rocks. They had such neat creatures like sea slugs, urchin, coral, crabs, silver fish, and anemones!


Look closely! ; )

DSCN9515 Bosque seco

You have to pop your collar in the dry forest.
The dry forest is not this drab all the time, by the way. But I think it’s cool drab, too. Anyway, this is the dry season here. All the trees have shed their leaves to conserve resources. It’s pretty spectacular that Ecuador has so many different kinds of forests: cloud, rain, dry. What a country!


This was taken from the mirador (look out). It’s not in this picture, but looking out to the horizon we saw a humpback whale way in the distance!


These pictures just do not do this place justice. You have to see it for yourself! In the distance is the town of the same namesake, Machalilla, which was an ancient indigenous culture of the area.


This is one of the 7 or so species of lizards that inhabit the dry forest.

DSCN9588 Machalilla

Just another view of the hike!


Isla de la Plata is about 9 km from the mainland. It is known as the poor man’s Galapagos because you can see many of the same species of birds, but the topography is totally different. Galapagos is volcanic, this is a chunk of continent that broke off. It is the same dry forest on land and it was a very cool place. We even got to do some snorkeling which was the very first time for me. We were shivering in that cold, Pacific water! We saw schools of beautifully colored fish, an eel, and Drew saw an octopus! Unfortunately, again the camera was not available to record the snorkeling odyssey.

DSCN9629 courtship

These blue-footed boobies are in the midst of striking a mating deal. Yes, he is courting her. He is the one on the left with his little foot raised. He’s doing this really sexy dance for her and giving her little gifts such as twigs, which he passes to her ever so gently with his beak. She accepted his twig and then violently shook it away. Awww, come on! I think he’s cute… So, these birds don’t mate for life, but they stay together for each brood, taking turns raising the children. Looks like most Ecuadorian men need to learn from boobies…
DSCN9635 male frigate

The frigate bird! This is the male. He’s trying to impress somebody. Supposedly these birds are lazy hunters. Blue-footed boobies may be goofy on land but they are excellent flyers and fishers. So, frigates steal their catch from them. That’s mean!

DSCN9642 Isla de la Plata nazca booby

At the bottom of this photo we have a Nazca Booby. There are 3 types of Booby on this island: Blue-footed, Nazca, and Red-footed. Unfortunately the Red-footed colony is tiny and far away from the path, so we didn’t get a very good photo. I don’t think the Nazca is on Galapagos, so, yeah, take that, Galapagos!

DSCN9646 humpback breech

Ok, we’re on the way back to the mainland here and we did some whaling on the way. We saw this humpback breech! They come to the waters of the Ecuadorian coast to mate. Guide companies have to be careful with the whales because in the past they didn’t know too much about them and would just charge to get a closer look when they spotted one, but some biologists think that overtime this may annoy the whales and they’ll look elsewhere for breeding waters.


And we end with our coastal excursion with this poster of a very excited turtle. We were walking along the street going to an internet cafe or something and noticed this sitting outside a tour shop. We could not stop laughing! Drew and I want Beans (dog from Yanayacu) and this turtle to meet. They are meant for each other.

DSCN9529 Los Frailes

Well, I hope you enjoyed Drew and my photos of the 7 weeks I spent with him in Ecuador. It was an amazing trip for me and I’m sad that it’s over but I’m grateful that i got to have this experience. I miss Drew terribly but I wouldn’t have been able to do these wonderful things had he not been there in the first place. I can’t wait until he comes home, though, so we can start planning another abroad experience that we can do together! He’s still got some months, though, so you should take the opportunity to go visit, because Ecuador is an amazing country with a lot to offer. I highly recommend it! I hope I get to go back someday.

Posted by: drewtownsend | May 23, 2009

Broke Down in the Middle of Nowhere

Alright, so I’m back.  It’s hard to keep up with a blog.  It’s really a pain.  I hope you appreciate it!  Just joking.

So me and a few other folks from Yanayacu went down to Tena as a sort of going away party for Mattias, a student who was hear for a while, as well as to go collect some caterpillars and check out Hoatzin nests.  If you don’t know what Hoatzin’s are check em out.  They are these incredible, ancient, bizarre, dinosaur-like birds.    Anyway, the night in Tena went great.  We had lots of fun and got up at 7:00 a.m. to head out of town further down into the Amazon basin to get to our destination with the plan of returning by mid-day.  So the place we went to was a Quichuan community close to the Napo river and was on a side road from the “main” road (a dirt road that dead ends) and really isolated from any sort of town.  The closest anything pretty much was Tena, about 1.5 hours away by truck. So it started off great.  We found the Hoatzin nests, saw a snake hanging out over the lake hunting, and collected some caterpillars.  It was ridiculously hot so we decided we would drive down about another mile or so to the Napo River (big tributary to the Amazon) and go swimming as we were done with our adventure.  Or so we thought.  I went to start the truck, and nothing.

1Here is the first broken down shot.  Note the boy carrying practically nothing while the woman has a baby tied around her neck and basket full of stuff hanging from her head, pretty standard around here (they were together).

So the truck was turning over just wasn’t getting gas to the engine it seemed.  First reaction, fuel pump gone bad.  We checked the fuses first and everything was good.  Then the next thought was that the fuel filter or fuel lines were clogged as the gas here is always suspect.  Good idea, we just had no tools to speak of other than a pair of needle nose pliers, 4 flathead screwdrivers (seriously), and a size 11 metric wrench.  Well turns out we needed a size 10 wrench to take out the fuel filter.  We went around to some of the houses but nobody had tools.  But the “platanero” (the plantain guy who has a big truck and buys plantains from the Quichuans and then trucks them to the city and sells them to veggie venders) was around and we were told he has tools.  Luckily he came by and had the size 10 wrench.  He let us use it quickly.  We took out the fuel filter, and it looked fine.  Also tried turning over the car to see if gas would spurt out of the open hose… no luck.  It must be the fuel pump.  We really were lacking the tools necessary to take out the fuel pump as it requires taking off the bed of the truck, or taking off the entire gas tank from the truck.  But the platanero suggested we just get a long hose and a 3 liter bottle and siphon gas out of the truck into the bottle, run the hose from the bottom of the bottle to the engine and get someone to stand in the back of the truck with the bottle up high so that the force of gravity would act as a pump and get gas to the engine.  Brilliant idea, but we decided we would try and fix it properly.  So I hitched a ride with the Platanero to the nearest “big” town about 3 miles away.  Hitching a ride meant hanging on to the back of this huge truck while standing on the bumper.  I didn’t realize he had more work to do on the way.  We stopped at a few places to pick up plantains and papayas from some of the locals and he put me to work.  We finally made it to the town and I went on my quest for a hose to siphon gas, 2 three liter bottles, electrical wire, a philipps screwdriver, and size 13, 17, 18 and 19 wrenches.  I was fairly succesful.  I found the hose, bottles, electrical wire, and 13, 18 and 19 wrenches.  However they all came from different people and all needed to be returned to their respective owners.  And yeah, nobody had a phillips screwdriver!

2The bed is off!

It took lots of work (and mind you it was like 95 degrees) but we got the bed off.  And were able to access the fuel pump.  Oh, I should mention that the four flat-head screwdrivers came in quite handy.  We were missing the 17 wrench, remember?  Well 4 of the bolts holding the bed on were size 17 so one person used the 19 wrench while another shoved 3 screwdrivers into the spaces to get the wrench to work.  And well, it worked.

3Jose wiring up the pump to test if it is electrical or indeed the pump.

So we took out the pump from the fuel tank and decided we should try and run current to it to check if it was an electrical problem or if the pump had kicked it.  So we siphoned some gas into one of the 3 liters, put the pump in it and then ran the electrical cable from the tail-light cable to test it.  Nothing, and the wires were hot.  Must be the pump!  Yaa we figured it out.  So Jose called his friend in Tena (a feat in itself as nobody had minutes left on their phones except me but I had a dead battery-luckily lucia and i have the same phone so we switched batteries and made it work) and begged him to buy us a new fuel pump and then pay for a camioneta to bring the part out to us.  And luckily he agreed.

4Installing the new pump.

So we got the new pump, put it in, fired up the truck… and nothing.  So the apparatus you see in Jose’s hand is the entire unit that houses the fuel pump, the fuel pump itself is just the shiny gold thing you see only the top of.  Well when we checked for electrical problems we ran current to the outside of the unit, we didnt check the wiring on the unit itself (yeah there are live electrical wires in your gas tank).  So we ran current directly to the pump, and it worked!  Must be the wiring in the apparatus.  And sure enough a circuit where the cables plug in (the little white piece you can see if you look close) was completely burnt (this burning happened in the gas tank).   So, next plan of action – Jose was going to go to Tena and try and buy this little white piece in Tena at 10:00 at night.  Impossible you say?  Thats what I said too.  He was sure of it though.  So Mattias, Miguel, Tom and I stayed while he went to tena with the idea that he would return and we would fix it and leave that night.

5The bed of our truck in the bed of the truck.

So off they went with the bed to Tena so that if we fixed the pump we could drive it without the bed to Tena and then put it back on where there was actually light.  I soon thereafter got a call that all the auto stores were closed and he wouldn’t be returning until the morning.  Luckily, Jose and I know a guy that lives in a community about 4 miles away so those of us who remained went to his house to sleep for the night.  Luckily he took us in and let us crash there and cooked us a great breakfast in the morning.  So Jose made it back the next morning with good and bad news.  Bad news is that you cant buy that little piece, you have to buy and entire new apparatus, a few hundred dollars.  Good news is that Ecuadorians are great improvisers and the mechanic in Tena gave him some parts and told him how to ghetto-rig it enough to get us back to Tena.

6Putting the tire back on and getting ready to head out with no tail or brake lights!

So we rigged it up, re-installed it, and it fired right up!  26 hours later we were finally on our way out.  We returned all of the tools to their respective owners, and made it to Tena in one piece.  There the mechanic properly ghetto-rigged the piece and put the bed back on.  We were finally able to head home.

Sorry this is so long, but it was a really crazy, almost surreal experience that can’t quite be captured in words, although I tried.

Posted by: drewtownsend | April 4, 2009

Yanayacu Exposition

So every town in Ecuador has their “Fiesta” to celebrate their existence with a parade, a beauty pageant, a little carnival, food, dancing, drunken debauchery etc…  Cosanga, the closest town to Yanayacu, had their fiestas a while back and Yanayacu was asked to put on an exposition where we show and talk about the things we do at the station.  It was amazing to see that after so many years of existence, most people don’t really have an idea of what we do.  They think it is some sort of rich gringo club and those adults who actually stopped at the booth were impressed and excited that something like this exists in their community.   Of course, the kids were the ones who were really excited as we had collections of giant beetles, flashy butterflies and moths, binoculars they could use, tadpoles, computers with frog and bird calls playing etc…  The kids asked every single question imaginable and would go play and come back repeatedly.  Hopefully this generation of kids keeps their interest and doesnt end up like their parents (most of the adults didn’t even bother to come over and check it out and likely dont know or care that they live in the most diverse region in the world by many accounts).   However, the exposition was a success overall, cause the kids were who we were mostly targeting and they had loads of fun and learned a lot.

expoOur booth (the only booth, we were the expo) with kids checking out bugs, Jose showing a huge bird nest, and Esther showing kids tadpoles and frog calls.

kid1This kid was the best!  He asked a question (typically the same question) about every single bug.  And note the insect painted on his face (we did not have a face painting booth).

carnyYour standard carnival attractions with a few games that cost money and are impossible to win and a carousel with Shrek for seats.

truchaSo, on the brochure advertising the “Fiestas de Cosanga” right next to the space for the Yanayacu Exposition was “La Trucha Mas Grande en Todo el Mundo” (The biggest trout in the world).  So, I figured it would be a “biggest fish” competition or something (trout have been introduced into the streams and there are lots of trout farms around) where folks would bring in their biggest fish to be judged.  Nope, the biggest trout in the world is this metal contraption used to cook the trout wrapped in banana-like leaves.  Notice the head on the close end (filled with trout heads, if you look close) and the tail on the far end.  Another thing to note is the extreme sanitation of some of the workers.  This is extremely rare in Ecuador and as not to freak out people too much they had a couple bare-handed, maskless  and hatless folks touching all the food.

Posted by: drewtownsend | March 13, 2009


Ok I lied, the post with pictures was supposed to follow about the exposition Yanayacu put on, but I didnt get around to it.  Things have been crazy busy for me.  Good news is that I went to a forum about the conservation of the Sumaco Biosphere Reserve (which lies in the heart of the number one hotspot of biodiversity in the world according to most who study species diversity) and will be a part of the biodiversity monitoring.  It was great to see that things are being done to monitor the state of the reserve, protect the reserve, and give people living in the region a sustainable alternative to their way of life.  More about this project will surely follow.

Ok, I am off the states tomorrow for one week of vacation (of which I will be working some) tomorrow.  So no new blogs for a while probably.

Posted by: drewtownsend | March 8, 2009

More Parasitoids

Ok, just getting around to another post and some of the questions you guys had. I have been busy and this dinosaur of an internet connection here makes making a post quite a long task.

Ok, so yeah, that was the same caterpillar in the previous post, just a few days later.  And the adult wasps haven’t emerged yet, but I suspect they will soon.  And a cool fact about the Microgastrinae subfamily (a smaller group within the braconid parasitoids) is that some are polyembryonic.  This means that all those wasp pupa you saw on the outside of the caterpillar in the last post developed from a single egg laid in the host!  One egg is laid, which then divides within the host into many eggs.  Quite bizarre.  All other groups of parasitoids that are gregarious lay one egg per individual.  So 10 emerging means 10 eggs were laid etc…

So, why study parasitoids?  There are lots and lots of reasons, but I will only touch on a few here.  The study I am working on is part of a Biological Survey and Inventory grant through the National Science Foundation.  So the main objective is just as it sounds – a survey and inventory of caterpillars and their associated parasitoids.  However we are rearing all of our parasitoids and so are gaining a wealth of previously unknown information about their biology.  So we documenting what known species are here,  finding loads of new species and discovering their biology and natural history in the process.  Many insect species are described from specimens collected in traps and nets and you know nothing about it other than that it was flying on a certain date, not much else.   Knowing the biology and natural history of a species opens up lots of other options and lays the framework for additional studies that can be done.

For example, if you want to protect an organism from extinction or endangerment you need to know what it needs to survive –  where it lives, what it eats, when it is active etc…  (this mostly applies to larger organisms, cause lets be honest no one is out there explicitly trying to protect parasitoids, although they are extremely important, and without a doubt species of parasitoids are going extinct as we speak, or i type, i guess).   Another important reason to study the biology of parasitoids is their potential for use in biological control programs.  Biocontrol is basically the use of organisms (insects, mites, plant diseases, weeds etc..) to control “pests”.  Parasitoids are some of the most common biocontrol agents, especially for agricultural crop pests.  So, rather than spraying chemicals to control crop pests for example you could find out what your pest is, what its parasitoid is, and then release the parasitoids to control your pest.  It is actually a lot more complicated than that, but thats the gist of it.  Ok, once again I could type on and on, but I will save more for later.  But below are a couple of links to cool articles about parasitoids, thanks to Ryan!

The above link is an article about the use of parasitoids as “sniffing dogs.”  Seriously, wasps have a more acute “sense of smell” than dogs and can be trained in mere minutes.  Coming soon at an airport near you.

This link is an article about the use and presence of polydnaviruses in braconids.  So when some groups of braconids (and ichneumonids) “sting” their host and inject their eggs, they also inject these little virus packets.  These virus packets cause all kinds of effects on the host (and all beneficial to the wasp!) including  immunosuppression, behavioral changes, metabolism changes and development changes.  This is fascinating.  So how do these wasps get the viruses to inject in the first place?  Why it is integrated into the wasps own genome, of course.  Think about that for a while, it is really amazing.  Does anyone know of another example of a virus being beneficial to an organism?  That wasnt rhetorical, if someone knows an example please let me know.

Ok, another post, with pictures, will follow soon.

Posted by: drewtownsend | February 26, 2009


So, I primarily study parasitoids.  I studied parasitoids for my masters and I am very much still interested in them currently at Yanayacu.  So I know some of you reading this know what they are, but others may have no clue.  Well, here you go.

Parasite – an organism that grows, feeds and is sheltered in or on a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.  So while parasites may make you sick, itchy, uncomfortable, shunned in your local knitting club etc… they are not going to do anything more than be really annoying.  Examples, fleas, tapeworms, some bacteria etc…

Parasitoid – an organism that grows, feeds and is sheltered in or on a different organism for a significant portion of its life and eventually kills its host.  So parasitoids are of course much cooler, sinister and biologically important.  Examples, lots and lots of wasps, some flies and Alien the movie.  So parasitoidism is functionally a type of predation, but is so intricate and specialized that it makes a pack of wolves running down a baby moose on National Geographic relatively boring.  I could type pages and pages of crazy, interesting facts and intricacies of parasitoidism right now, but then I couldn’t have the future 50 posts I plan to have about parasitoids.  So I will solely introduce them now.

Watch this clip.  And you thought Hollywood was original.  Turns out this exact same thing has been happening in the invertebrate world for millions of years!

I mostly study parasitoids of caterpillars.  So the caterpillars are happily munching away when a wasp comes by, “stings” them and deposits her eggs either on or within the caterpillar. The caterpillar may be killed upon oviposition (stinging), but many are not, they continue living while being manipulated and eaten from the inside out.   So we go to the field and collect lots of pretty caterpillars, bring them back to the lab and rear them.


And we (me) hope that they are victims of braconid parasitoids and rather than a moth or butterfly emerging you get wasp larvae emerging to spin their cocoons and eventually become adult wasps.


Beautiful microgastrine (Braconidae) wasps emerging from the same Saturnidae larva as the first picture.

Parasites arent too bad when you think about it.

Posted by: drewtownsend | February 22, 2009

Hombre de Hierro (Ironman)

So on Saturday I competed in the local Ironman competition with Wilmer, a local and Esther, a Phd student doing research at the station. It’s not quite the standard Ironman, but it was still pretty tough.  The competition consisted of biking and running only, no swimming.  You had to compete in teams (2 men, 1  woman) and get to all the checkpoints and finish together.  The overall distance was short (14 km bike, 5 km run) but it was super steep.  Remember, this is the Andes, a very young and steep mountain range.

start Here we are at the start.

Anyway, the journey started before the competition began in the form of finding bikes and then making them work.  We were still repairing bikes with 12 hours to go until race time.  And mind you, the bikes were horrible to begin with, even new.  Think of a cheap chinese mountain bike with no shocks that Walmart wouldn’t even carry and add 5 years of use and neglect and you have the quality of bikes we were using.  And since the bikes werent running until the morning of the race we had no test runs to see how the bikes performed.  Well it turns out the bike I was using had everything switched.  The front brake was normally on the left side of the handlebars, mine was on the right (dangerous when braking on a steep hill and you want to use the rear so you don’t fly over the handlebars but alas, its the front brake!).  The front deraileur (gears, basically) is normally changed by using the shifter on the left side, mine was on the right etc… It was great fun.  I finally got used to it with about 2 km to go, not much help.  Well needless to say, all of the bikes underperformed.  None were able to shift into the full compliment of gears, and the bearings that got repacked in one of the bikes didn’t cooperate and made pedaling very difficult.  I should mention that we were not the only team with bikes like this, there were a few (the winning team had similiar bikes but probably were able to shift into all of their gears).  And, there were also teams from Quito with $2,000 dollar bikes who were laughing at us (but we beat 3 of those teams).  Here is a photo of my

So, the actual competition was great fun.  Teams started solo every 2 minutes with the best time winning.  We started 6th and finished 2nd, but got 6th overall out of 18 teams.  The biking portion was mostly on a dirt road and was more like mountain biking than road biking.  Parts of the road were really steep and impossible to bike (even with perfect bikes) and so we and everyone else hiked them.  I was feeling really good so I would push both my bike, and either Esther’s or Wilmer’s depending on who needed rest the most.  Or, I would ride up ahead drop my bike, run back to the other’s and push one of their bikes up while they jogged/walked up the crazy parts.  It was crazy!


The running portion was half through the town of Baeza and half on an “ecological trail” outside of the town.  Running through town was no problem, but the trail was steep, slippery, muddy and, as you can imagine with the above three, a little dangerous.  We finished the course in a little over an hour and 8 minutes off the winners.  I swear, with better bikes we would have been in the top three and won some money!  Theres always next year.  Coincidentally, Carnaval is going on right now so the typical after race beer drinking was livened up with water fights, silly string and foam spraying, people all over the streets etc…  Great fun


Posted by: drewtownsend | February 18, 2009

Alarm Clock

Every morning around 6:30 or so I get woken up by Yellow-rumped Cacique (a bird) calls.  Oh, that must be nice, you say… No its horrible!  If it was a nice little songbird singing its little tune it would be one thing, but this is a “blackbird” with horrible calls.  At least at 6:30 in the morning they sound horrible.  During the day, its quite impressive.  They have a huge reportoire of calls including a wide mix of sounds and even mimicry.  But always when staring at my window at dawn they choose to use their horrible cackle sound.  And its not just in a tree near my window.  Like most of its cousins (Jays, Grackles, Blackbirds) Caciques are really quite smart.  Being smart, they get bored with the day to day foraging for food so they must find ways to entertain themselves and play.  Well, play time for the local population is flying to the metal bars on the outside of my window so that they can look at a reflection of themselves while screaming and dancing.  It’s lovely.  Here is a picture of one of the guys, if you look close you can see it screaming (mind you this window is about 3 feet from the foot of my bed).


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