Tapichalaca, the Foundation’s first reserve, was established in September 1998 to protect the type locality of the Jocotoco Antpitta - the name ‘Jocotoco’ is an onomatopoeic representation of the call of this elusive bird by the few local farmers who actually knew it. This impressive large forest antpitta was discovered by Dr Robert Ridgely on 20 November 1997 while visiting southern Ecuador with four colleagues mainly to make recordings of bird song. A very strange call was heard in the cloud-forest which Dr Ridgely and Lelis Navarrete, an Ecuadorian bird expert, both realized was ‘unknown’. The spectacular new species was named Grallaria ridgelyi in honor of this discovery and Bob’s extensive contribution to Neotropical ornithology.
Within 10 months of the discovery, the Jocotoco Foundation was formed and ca 700 hectares of montane forest containing the main population of the antpitta was purchased. Now after fourteen years of searching seemingly suitable habitat nearby and elsewhere in the region, Tapichalaca Reserve remains home to more than half of the known world population. Tapichalaca is situated in Zamora-Chinchipe Province just across the Continental Divide on the east (or Amazonian) slope of the Andes, adjoining the southern extremity of Podocarpus National Park, and just north of Valladolid on the road south from Loja toward Zumba and the Peruvian frontier.
The reserve extends to about 3500 hectares (8500 acres) with an altitudinal range extending from 1800 to 3400 meters. The majority comprises very wet cool montane cloud forest at altitudes of 2200 to 2900m. Over 5 meters of rain falls annually in this zone (compared to a typical 2 meters in lowland Amazon forest in Ecuador, and significantly less than in most nearby Andean areas, perhaps accounting for the rarity of the reserve’s signature bird, the Jocotoco Antpitta). Temperatures typically remain in the 10-20 C range, and though it can feel very damp and chilly, it is virtually always frost-free. The terrain is exceptionally steep and as a result, and because of the excessive rainfall, is prone to landslides. This results in a dense mossy forest of only moderate height, with the trees laden with moss, ferns, and other epiphytic plants especially bromeliads and orchids. This is the habitat of the Jocotoco, which especially searches out especially the damp places and seepage zones that are habitat for its primary food, large native earthworms. The lower parts of the reserve comprise subtropical Andean forest where temperatures are typically 20-30C and the flora and fauna change dramatically, and even begin to show a few characteristics of lowland Amazonian forest. Above 2900m treeline forest, now very low and shrubby, gives way to a cold and windy grassland called paramo. But even at these altitudes frost does not occur – unlike on the larger paramos on the great volcanoes further north in Ecuador.
In 2004 the reserve was extended beyond Cero Tapichalaca to the west side of the Río Valladolid/Río Tapichalaca drainage. This sector was named the Christopher Parsons Forest in memory of the producer and director of the famous “Life on Earth” television series in which Sir David Attenborough presented the history of the evolution of life. This series was the first of the many world famous television programs Sir David was to narrate, focusing on a multitude of topics concerning the ecology of our planet. In 2009 the Yacurí National Park was declared, extending protection of the highest elevations in the cordillera from Podocarpus National Park south all the way to the Peruvian frontier. This very remote area is now well buffered by Tapichalaca Reserve, with the whole comprising a huge extension of exceptionally rich and almost totally undisturbed montane forest, one of the finest in all of South America.
Tapichalaca, like Podocarpus National Park, lies in a region of exceptional species richness combined with an equally important proportion of endemic species (these being species with a very small geographic range). Actually, these endemics may be even more important. These characteristics of richness and endemism are exceptional at a world scale as they apply here in the Tropical Andes to all of the groups - mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and plants in the same location. A survey of amphibians and reptiles in the reserve by the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MECN) has so far found 34 species of which fully 70% are considered endemics, with about 50% being globally threatened. The Tapichalaca Tree Frog (Hyloscirtus tapichalaca), discovered here in 2001, is not known to occur anywhere else, and indeed is known only from a few special sites on the reserve. Several additional potential new species are currently being researched.
Similarly over 130 species of plants found in Tapichalaca are classified as endemics in the Plant Red Data Book of Ecuador, and 90% of these are classified as threatened. About 50 species are currently site-endemics, meaning simply that they are found nowhere else in the world. Orchids are particularly abundant, with several hundred species, nearly all of them epiphytes (meaning they grow on a substrate other than the ground), are present in the reserve including about 30 ‘site-endemics’. In 2004 the Critically Endangered vine Bomarea longipes, ‘lost’ for nearly 130 years, was rediscovered on Cerro Tapichalaca. This species had been previously been known only from the type specimen at RBG Kew Herbarium, dated 1876, collected by the French botanical explorer Edouard Andre. Our investigations have shown that, remarkably, the plant was rediscovered at the exact site of its original collection.
But it is of course the birds for which Tapichalaca is most renowned. The forests here are home to a tremendous variety of Andean bird species, with more than 300 occurring regularly on or immediately adjacent to the reserve. Flocks are a major feature, with the species changing rapidly as you move up and downslope. Perhaps most notable are the tanagers found here – there is perhaps no place in the world has a higher density of the gaudy, jay-like White-capped Tanager – and the hummingbirds, with dozens of individuals constantly zooming around the feeders that are set out for them. Thirteen bird species considered to be globally threatened or near-threatened are present in the reserve. Threatened species are the Jocotoco Antpitta, Golden-plumed Parakeet, White-breasted Parakeet, Bearded Guan, and Coppery-chested Jacamar. The near-threatened species are Imperial Snipe, Masked Mountain Tanager, Peruvian Antpitta, Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan, Greater Scythebill, Neblina Metaltail, Orange-banded Flycatcher, and Masked Saltator. More than 300 species of bird have been recorded in and adjacent to the reserve.
The forests at Tapichalaca support important populations of the Woolly Mountain Tapir and the Spectacled Bear, though it has to be admitted that as yet neither of these rare mammals is very easy to see! The reserve also forms an important migratory corridor between the larger populations in the two National Parks. Other threatened mammals include seven Vulnerable and four Near-threatened species. Puma, Andean Paca, Northern Pudu, Andean Coati, have all been seen close to the Lodge facilities.
Tapichalaca, and in particular the section along Quebrada Honda, was historically known to contain the most magnificent stands of Podocarpus trees, but during the years 1950-2000 the majority of these were removed because of their high value as timber. A very small number remain, but it is encouraging that young trees are appearing naturally in the forest – although most are still only a few meters high. Natural regeneration of forest is part of the local cycle of landslides in the unstable geology of this part of the Andes – and may have played a part in the evolution of the habitat preference and biology of the Jocotoco Antpitta. Since 2005 the Foundation has also had an active program in which large numbers of native tree seedlings are grown and planted in old pastures where natural regeneration was not occurring at a sufficient rapid rate.
Three staff members – we call them guardaparques - are present on the reserve at all times (on rotation from a team of five), and there is a reserve administrator to oversee activities. Besides ensuring overall security, the guardaparques carry out infrastructure maintenance (in particular of the extensive trail system, also of the ecolodge), observation and surveillance of plants and animals, and participate, sometimes with help from researchers, in the several scientific projects that are active. These include the operation of motion-sensitive trail cameras, artificial nest boxes for rare parrots, and hummingbird feeders. No less than 29 hummingbird species have been recorded from the reserve, and many of these can be seen at unbelievably close range at feeders around the reserve’s comfortable ecolodge.
Of special importance is the worm-feeder in the forest for the reserve’s, and indeed the Foundation’s, flagship bird, our very own Jocotoco Antpitta. This program was implemented (with initial help from Angel Paz of Mindo) so that visitors could obtain close up views of a habituated pair of Jocotoco Antpittas, and usually their offspring, and sometimes one or two other antpitta species. Prior to this innovation it had almost always been necessary to employ ‘tape-playback’ to obtain a view, all too often unsatisfactory, of a territorial bird. With ever-larger numbers of people coming to see this spectacular bird, a level of disturbance this high clearly was not going to be acceptable over the long-term, hence this new and much more satisfactory system. As an unexpected bonus, the abundance of food for this pair – they are fed daily - has resulted in a sequence of no less than seven fledged birds over about 3 years (over double expected productivity), and the discovery of the first nests of the species. It should be noted that only visitors overnighting at the reserve’s ecolodge are permitted to witness this incredible show – Jocotoco Antpittas literally at your feet!