The Buenaventura Reserve was established in 1999 to protect the type locality of the El Oro Parakeet (Pyrrhura orcesi) which was discovered there by Robert Ridgely and others in 1980 and described by him and Mark Robbins in 1988. By the 1990s forest cover had been very substantially reduced and depleted, with much larger pastures by then having been established and almost all large tress having been removed; we arrived here just in the nick of time. The reserve has grown from an initial 400ha to about 2000ha by 2011. With an altitudinal range from ca 400m above sea level to over 1200m, it now protects one of the largest tracts of foothill cloud forest remaining on the west slope of the Andes in southwestern Ecuador. This zone, which combines elements of both the deciduous Tumbesian Forest of southern Ecuador and northwestern Peru with the wet Chocó forest of northwestern Ecuador, is one of the most depleted anywhere in the world – it is estimated that only 5-10% of the original forest cover remains. More than 330 species of birds have been recorded at Buenaventura, of which 12 (13?) are classified as globally threatened, and another 34 species are local endemics. This reserve is notable for the sheer abundance of birds present. It is located about 8-15km south of Piñas on the road to down to the coastal lowlands of Santa Rosa and Machala. The main road traverses the reserve. The new airport outside Santa Rosa is about a 45 minute drive from the southern entrance to the reserve; the northern entrance is about 8km south of Piñas
These tropical cloud-forests depend on moisture (locally called “garua”) that drifts in from the Pacific Ocean and cools as it start to ascend the mountains; this relative lack of sun greatly reduces evapotranspiration and keeps the forest relatively damp even if, as during the dry season, it doesn’t actually rain very much. The lowest section of the reserve is much sunnier, drier and ‘Tumbesian’ in aspect – this is where small populations of the globally endangered Gray-cheeked Parakeet and Pacific Royal Flycatcher occur. An accessible lek of the threatened Long-wattled Umbrellabird, without question one of the world’s more bizarre birds, is located a few minutes’ walk from the Visitor Lodge (which therefore we call “Umbrellabird Lodge”). At least half a dozen pairs of the near-endemic Gray-backed Hawks are resident on the reserve, likely the largest population of this threatened species in any protected area; they’re easily seen.
Many of the 31 hummingbird species that have been recorded here can be seen at feeders at Umbrellabird Lodge and at a second public facility along the main road. Rufous-headed Chachalacas (another threatened and endemic species) and Chocó Toucans are often to be seen in the trees around the lodge, as are a wide variety of other birds, especially as the forest nearby continues to recover from its former condition as cattle pasture. The higher altitude section, above ca. 800 m, is the habitat of the reserve’s signature bird, the El Oro Parakeet. The reserve hosts about two thirds of the presently known world populations of this parakeet, and their numbers – currently at 150-200 birds - have been steadily increasing as a result of a successful nestbox campaign designed to supplement the scarcity of suitable nest-trees. Another flock on an adjacent mountain comprises the rest of the known world population. Various other rare birds are also present in these lush cloud forest: besides the parakeet, perhaps the most notable is the El Oro Tapaculo (Scytalopus robbinsi) was discovered here only in 1985 and appears to be even rarer than the parakeet; the population here is thought to comprise a few dozen pairs at most, and the species is no longer known to occur anywhere else in the world.
The nationally critically-endangered Western White-fronted Capuchin monkey was previously known to be present at Buenaventura, but was hunted out in the 1990s. A re-introduction project for this species was started in 2010. At least three troops of Mantled Howler Monkeys are present on the reserve, and one of these often forms part of the dawn-chorus at Umbrellabird Lodge. Other threatened mammals present include the Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth, Western Tamandua (an anteater), and Oncilla; even Pumas are occasionally seen. An initial survey of the reptiles and amphibians of the reserve by the herpetology group of the Museo de Ciencias Naturales in Quito recorded 41 species, one third of them endemics and five considered threatened. One new species of frog and one new lizard have been discovered and duly described. Brightly colored ‘poison-arrow’ frogs are very numerous at certain times of year along many of the small streams.
The cloud-forest trees are ideal habitat for abundant epiphytes including many orchids. Patches of various species of Heliconias are found along the 10km ‘Ruta Escenica” that traverses much of the reserve, passing by Umbrellabird Lodge and emerging far above near a memorial to soldiers who died defending Ecuador in the 1941 war. When the sun is shining slow-flying Morpho butterflies are almost sure to appear, but the butterfly fauna remains to be studied in depth. The flora of Buenaventura, like the birds and amphibians, has a high component of endemic and threatened species. Almost none of the original forest remains – just one or two giant trees remain to show the glory that once was found here. However due to the area’s rich soils and abundant moisture, natural regeneration is remarkably fast, and the forest is recovering, some of it naturally but much of it abetted by the foundation’s major reforestation program. Significant parts of what is now Buenaventura Reserve were, until recently, used as cattle pasture, and had been planted in the very aggressive and tough ‘African Grass.’ The larger pastures in particular have been the focus of our effort to plant seedlings of a wide variety of native tress species, with over 400 hectares now having been treated in this way. Recovery has started. Smaller pastures, closer to seed sources in adjacent forest areas, have often been allowed to regenerate naturally; a good example around Umbrellabird Lodge as recently as 2003 was entirely pasture. Now some of it is rapidly becoming closed-canopy woodland, and many birds dependent on such habitat are now also in the process of recovering. It’s incredibly exciting to see, and gives one hope for our long term success.