Andean Forest Program Details

What Species: Many residents species, including Rainbow Starfrontlet (Coeligena iris), Violet-throated Metaltail (Metallura baroni), Azara's Spinetail (Synallaxis azarae),Rufous Antpitta (Grallaria rufula),Mountain Wren (Troglodytes solstitialis), Russet-crowned Warbler (Basileuterus coronatus), Spectacled Whitestart (Myioborus melanocephalus), Black-crested Warbler (Basileuterus nigrocristatus), Black Flowerpiercer (Diglossa humeralis), Masked Flowerpiercer (Diglossa cyanea), Blue-and-black Tanager (Tangara vassorii), Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager (Anisognathus igniventris), Stripe-headed Brush Finch (Buarremon torquatus), and Rufous-naped Brush Finch (Atlapetes latnuchus).

Where: Cajas National Park, Ecuador.

Who: Dr. Steven Latta (National Aviary), Dr. Catherine Graham (Stony Brook University, New York), and Boris Tinoco (University of Azuay, Cuenca, Ecuador).

When: 2005 – present

Why: Anthropogenic habitat fragmentation and degradation is so pervasive that it can be considered the greatest threat to biological diversity. Because degradation of natural habitats jeopardizes the survival of species and communities, it is critical to understand the patterns and processes that occur within human-altered landscapes. Ecuadorian habitats, especially broadleaf forests, harbor extraordinary levels of biodiversity, but are also being lost at alarming rates. In order to document and understand how habitat alteration influences biodiversity, both monitoring (pattern) and detailed behavioral studies (process) are needed.

Project Description and Current Status: South America is the world's richest continent for bird species (3,200), of which approximately 658 are range restricted (species with breeding ranges less than 50,000 sq. km). The center of this diversity is the Andes, which harbors the greatest concentration of restricted-range species in South America, has one of the highest concentrations of the world's threatened bird species, and as such ranks first among the world's 25 “hotspots” in terms of diversity and endemism of both plant and vertebrate species. Like other major biodiversity hotspots, the tropical Andes region has already suffered extensive loss of habitat.

Cajas National Park covers more than 28,000 hectares in the high Andes of southern Ecuador and is situated on the continental divide approximately 35 km west of Cuenca. Elevation in the park ranges from 3160 to 4450 meters and about 90% of the park is paramo interspresed with small patches of Polylepis forest.

The original vegetation of the remaining area was high Andean cloud forest, but much of this area (though now protected) has been affected for several decades by human disturbances including forestry and grazing. The park serves as a major water catchment for the city of Cuenca and other surrounding villages; approximately 80% of the city's water comes from rivers and streams originating in the park. The park is designated as a wetland of international importance (RAMSAR) and an internationally important bird area (IBA). It is home to at least 144 species, 6 of which are migratory and 9 of which are threatened.

We are quantifying how avian community structure, demographics (age and sex), and fitness correlates (i.e. parasite loads, fat, muscle mass, plumage condition, and site fidelity) varies by habitat type. Given that there is extensive deforestation in the region, and that habitat change is a continuing threat to birds, it is imperative to evaluate how community structure will change with continued deforestation or reforestation.

By conducting a mark/recapture study we will be able to assess abundance patterns, general health and fitness correlates of birds, and site fidelity in different habitat types. Ultimately, this work will also provide estimates of survival and reproductive success, and will inform species level studies focused on species of conservation concern, or more detailed studies of habitat selection and behavior.

Community level studies are being completed through mist netting and point counts. We are focusing on three habitat types: 1) Polylepis forest (bosque de quinua), 2) High elevation cloud forest (bosque altoandino primario) which varies in disturbance levels resulting from extraction of large timber trees from accessible areas, and 3) secondary high elevation cloud forest (bosque altoandino secundario) which varies from open pasture type habitat to a more dense forest of 2-7 meter stature. We are conducting two days of netting per site, four times a year. Point counts are being conducted monthly as a complementary means of determining relative abundance and community structure. Point counts also allow us to confirm habitat relationships of understory birds determined through mist netting, and allow us to also quantify habitat relationships of those species that primarily frequent the canopy and so are not well cesused with mist nets.

We are also focusing additional studies on questions of management concern for Cajas National park administrators. For example, we are interested in how cattle grazing impacts bird abundance and diversity, and whether or not vehicular traffic is impacting the avifauna. These studies are being conducted in collaboration with thesis students from the University of Azuay.

The research outlined here will be followed by more intensive study of a limited number of bird species where we will focus on factors such as movement behavior, habitat use, survival, and nesting success (where possible). We will use spot mapping, radio telemetry, nest-searching, DNA sequencing, and other appropriate methods in these efforts. Again, this work will be done in a landscape context.

Current Goals: To date, research on the effects of habitat degradation often focuses on abundance and richness of bird species in both natural and disturbed habitats. More rigorous studies are needed that compare variation in the condition of individual birds by recording, for example, changes in mass, fat levels, muscle mass size, and parasite load among habitats. In addition, few studies have examined how reproductive effort, reproductive success, site fidelity, juvenile dispersal behavior, and survival vary with habitat conditions, but such information is vital to predict the long-term viability of populations in degenerated habitats.

We are addressing these deficiencies with a two pronged approach: one focused on intensive long term monitoring across a landscape composed of different natural and human-altered habitats, and a second on behavioral and demographic studies of specific species in the same landscape.

Next Steps: We are continuing this multi-year study, and expanding the study with new projects looking at specific potential impacts such as cattle grazing and vehicular traffic.

Recent Results: See publications list below.

Funding: This project has been supported by Parque Nacional Cajas, National Science Foundation, EcoCiencia, SUNY-Stony Brook, and PRBO Conservation Science.

Related Scientific Publications:

Latta, S. C., B. A. Tinoco, C. H. Grahm, and P. A. Webster. 2011. Patterns and magnitude of temporal change in avian communities in the Ecuadorian Andes. Condor 113:24-40.

Astudillo, P. X., B. A. Tinoco, C. H. Graham, and S. C. Latta. 2011. Assessing methods for estimating minimum population size and monitoring Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) in Southern Ecuador. Ornitologia Neotropical 22:257-265.

Tinoco, B. A., P. X. Astudillo, S. C. Latta, and C. H. Graham. 2009. Distribution, ecology and conservation of an endangered Andean Hummingbird: the Violet-throated Metaltail (Metallura baroni). Bird Conservation International 19:63-76.

Latta, S. C. and J. Faaborg. 2008. Benefits of studies of overwintering birds for understanding resident bird ecology and promoting development of conservation capacity. Conservation Biology 23:286-293.

Latta, S. C., C. J. Ralph, and G. Geupel. 2005. Strategies for the conservation monitoring of permanent resident landbirds and wintering Neotropical migrants in the Americas. Ornitologia Neotropical 16:163-174.