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Want the Birding Experience of a Lifetime? Go to Ecuador!

If you want to gain a greater appreciation for birds all you need to do is book a plane ticket to South America. Then a hotel room. Then a tour guide. Then a wildlife expert. Or you could do what I did and sign up for Dr. Moorman’s Tropical Wildlife Ecology study abroad class where these things are all taken care of for you. In the “Ecuador: the Andes to the Amazon” program I was able to experience birding like never before. As the name of the program implies, over the course of 10 days our class traveled from the high Andes of central Ecuador to the lowland rainforests of the Amazon basin in the east.

By traveling across such varied landscapes, we were able to see everything from endemic high elevation waterfowl, hummingbirds, and Andean condors (also known as the largest birds in the world), to tropical mainstays like parrots, toucans, and macaws. But as much as I enjoyed viewing these unfamiliar birds through binoculars and scopes, my favorite experience of all was being able to hold them in my hands. How does one hold a neotropical bird in their hands you ask? Well first you must catch them. How do you catch them? With mist nets of course! For those unfamiliar with the term “mist-netting”, it is a field technique used by scientists to capture birds and bats for research purposes. A fine mesh net is extended between two poles in a forest corridor or open area up to a height suitable to the flight patterns of the species of interest. Our class was able to use this technique over several days of stay at Yacuma Lodge, an ecolodge located on the banks of the Napo River in the Amazonian rainforest.

Each morning at dawn we would open the nets, returning to check for birds at regular thirty minutes. After a day of being hesitant to participate in remove the netted birds from the white cloth bags we were using to hold them, I finally worked up the nerve to retrieve one myself. And I am so glad I did. I was able to hold two birds on our last day at Yacuma – a Swainson’s thrush and great-billed hermit hummingbird. The experience of holding such a small living thing, particularly the hummingbird, in my hands was almost indescribable. Being able to physically hold something that most people only ever have the chance to see fly over their heads was surreal. It reminded me not only of how beautiful nature is, but also how lucky I am to be in a department that is able to provide such valuable hands-on learning experiences to its students. It is certainly an experience I will never forget!