Stepping off the Academic Treadmill and into Ecuador
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Its been a while between posts, but I am finally snatching a moment to put something together. Life has felt hectic! My blog is going to transition for a bit to some personal travel stories. I will attempt to ignore the squeamish feelings brought on by self-indulgent writing, because I (yes, really) enjoy writing, so I’ll persist in the hope that, at the very least, it provides some self-entertainment!
Ok, to recap. It had been almost 6 years of being a postdoc; spread across 3 postdoc positions, 2 cities, multiple projects, 5 bosses, multiple (excellent) higher degree students, and distractions in the form of threatened species needing advocacy, an assault on the environment by the powerful, and trees needing protection, etc etc. Then, at the start of this year I took on my first ever university course coordination role, which involved coordinating and teaching a course of 130 students. I was still trying to meet existing research commitments, plus existing ‘service’ commitments (namely to birds and particularly threatened ones), and the weight of it all just about did me in.
So I decided to take the looming end-of-contract date as an opportunity. I wanted to get off this cortisol-fuelled academic treadmill for a bit. Why not take a trip to South America for a few months?
So this finds me in Quito, Ecuador. A lab mate from PhD days, Andres Merino-Viteri, is hosting me here in Ecuador. Andres is the Director of ‘Iniciativa de Conservación de Anfibios "Balsa de los Sapos"’, at the Zoology Museum (QCAZ), in the School of Biological Sciences at the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Ecuador. Andres has introduced me to his frog research, and the amazing website his team have created with all of the frogs of Ecuador with maps and species information. Andres explained that a book goes out of date as soon as it’s printed, but the website is constantly updated with photos, range extensions and information. Its inspiring work.
My trip’s highlight so far was a whirlwind trip to Yasuni National Park in the Amazon Basin where Andres had to go to collect micro climate data loggers that have been in place for 3 years. We stayed at Pontificia Universidad Católica’s research station. It was my first ever trip to the Amazon and I was just beside myself with excitement, running around with my binoculars trying to feast my eyes on as much as possible. We’d only been in Yasuni a few hours when we found a flock of eight hoatzin by a little lagoon formed by an old meander of the Tiputini river, carrying on as they do. They are possibly the strangest bird in the world. I love this description by Cornell:
"Hoatzins in effect are flying cows: their diet primarily is young leaves and buds, which are digested in the crop with the aid of bacteria and microbes. Hoatzins nest over the water. The young can swim, and so may drop to the water when threatened. The nestlings retain claws on their wing (lost in the adult), which they use in climbing back to the nest."
Down the river a bit we found a log that had some small bats roosting under it – most likely Rhynchonycteris naso (Emballonuridae). Yay bats!
And what luck to travel with a local herpetologist! Andres tirelessly answers my millions of questions. We found over 15 species of frogs, including a poison arrow frog and monkey frogs. And, to my delight, a salamander out hunting! What a ferocious sight!
The next day we took a boat trip up the river, and saw both blue and yellow macaws, and scarlet macaws, flying overhead. They are like rosellas on steroids, unbelievably large. On a little sandy bank we saw sun bitterns, which act and sound remarkably like bush stone curlews.
But possibly the best moment of the Yasuni visit was when the resident Brazilian tapir wandered into camp. Wow wow wow.
We spent a week back in Quito, where I took Spanish classes at the Simon Bolivar Spanish School. I wanted to add a little plug for them here – the one-on-one lessons were very reasonably priced, and I’ve had 4 hours of classes a day for 4 days. I was very impressed by how much content my teacher crammed in to this time, in a very digestible manner, focussing on what will be most useful for me. I highly recommend them, so if you want to learn Spanish consider a holiday in Ecuador to study with them.
Today we took a drive up to the Paramo, to near the base of the mountain Antisana (which reaches 5758 m ASL; we got as high as 4060 m). The wind was bitterly cold so I was reluctant to leave the car. Lucky I did though, because we saw an Andean condor soaring past the cliffs. Further on we saw carunculated caracara flying past, and loitering by the side of the road (one had found some bacon near the guard’s house), and Andean lapwings in the grass.
The strike-me-dead-I-can’t-believe-my-eyes moment was seeing the shiny coat of the Andean spectacled bear amble up the mountainside. While it was on the other side of the ravine, we could make out its black-and-white patterned face when it looked our way. It wandered up through the low vegetation and had a rest on a rock ledge for about 15 minutes.
The trip hasn’t yet been as relaxing as would be ideal, with a bit of work to finish off (review a paper, attend to my own paper revisions, edit some submissions), and there’s been a bit of organising to do, but hopefully I will be able to ease into travel mode in the next few days.
The article above has been kindly provided by Dr. April Reside, postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland. Be sure to check out Conservation on the Fly for more fascinating entries: https://aprilreside.wixsite.com/conservation