On a clear day from the trailhead, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet, you can see nearly to the flat expanse of the Amazon. The Guacamayos Ridge Trail is cut into a steep slope on the Eastern side of the Ecuadorian Andes. The slope here create a temperate habitat island surrounded by the more typical subtropical habitat of this elevation of the Andes.
That unique habitat means unique animals, and in particular, a wide variety of birds. I am here with a guide, and a friend of his from the nearby San Isidro Lodge, who is known as one of the most accomplished birders in the region. Their goal is to find an Andean Potoo, a difficult-to-spot bird which had been seen by a group the day before not far from the trailhead. My goal is to look for and photograph a frog.
The night before, Gabriel and I had visited the Yanayacu Biological Station, a biological research facility in the area, because we knew that a variety of frog species were known in the area. When we pulled up at the station, we were greeted by two dogs behind a chain-link fence that were terribly angry at our presence. Their enclosure followed the path to the facility, so they had a football-field length to follow us and bark menacingly.
We arrived at the station in the late afternoon, and the staff explained that across the main road was a trail that followed a small river. We would have to wait until night before the frogs would start calling. In the meantime, they explained, we could look at their caterpillars.
The Station had been collecting data on caterpillars in the region. They were hoping to find specimens that had been invaded by parasitoids. The idea was to collect hundreds of cocoons and wait for the possibility of a parasite wasp to come crawling out.
Many of the cocoons had been hatching as regular caterpillars, and one of the researchers offered to pull them out of their research bags and let us watch them crawl around. Each caterpillar was even more incredible than the next: intricate spines, horns, patterns of unlikely color.
Seeing these caterpillars in nature is so rare, that I found it hard to believe they had all been collected within a few miles of this facility.
That fact, which confounds me every time, is an important one to remember for the jungle. New visitors are notoriously disappointed to find out that the jungle is just green, and not nearly as filled with life as they were hoping. In fact, that green jungle is filled to the brim with crazy life, but if you’re not looking for something, and didn’t try to find it, you can’t expect to see much of anything.
As the afternoon turned to evening, we followed the small trail near the Station, following the river. Just a few minutes before the sky turned pitch black, frogs began to croak alongside the river. We had both forgotten our flashlights, and so we had to borrow a pen light from the research station. We followed the calls of frogs up the stalks of trees and out onto the limbs of branches.
Each attempt to find a croak would end in defeat, and so we continued on along the trail. Gabriel suggested that we walk through the river, because I had told him that I read that frogs in Ecuador tended to live on leaves above rivers.
Even as we approached a section of the river where the frogs croaked more densely, we failed to spot a single frog.
Again, the jungle may just be green, but its crawling with life. Even if you're looking hard, you might not see it if you don't know how to look for it.
Today, I am more determined to find a frog in Ecuador. Both Gabriel and I had been told that we just need to look down into every bromeliad we can get within reach of.
The extraordinary steepness of the Guacamayos trail makes it so that trees and branches are almost always hanging over or tangling alongside us, which gives me more access to look down the throats of bromeliads.
The way life, even intensely bright life, presents itself here is confounding. You can be standing just a few footsteps from a brightly colored Masked Trogon, and have no idea it's there. And even the gawdiest hummingbirds seem to be perfectly camoflauged in the layers of green.
I've always wanted to know why animals could have such extravagent colors in the jungle. In temperate North America, most animals tend towards the neutral pallets of the seasons: browns, grays, whites and olives. So how can the jungle come in pallets of lime, orange and watermelon?
There are a lot of theories about color in the tropics, but seeing how inconspicuous a brightly colored bird may look while perched solemnly on a bare branch is a testament to the idea that bright colors may actually help animals evade predators.
Certainly, the fact that diversity is so high in the tropics must mean that each species must adapt to a greater degree to make itself uniquely identifiable. But when you see a flock of parrots fly overhead, with the sun funneling down unevenly, the parrots' bright colors have quite a different effect on the viewer from below. Rather than appearing simply bright, the effect is more of chaos, a play on the complex light coming down from above.
Like the birds, the plants and insects rarely offer up their color to casual observation. But they are there as well. I ask Gabriel about the infrequency that we seem to see blooming orchids. "But they are blooming everywhere," he says. "We just aren't looking."
When I look carefully at a leaf, I am surprised to find that often the leaf is filled with living color - azure leafhoppers, and tiny beetles, housed in shells of orange, gold or brilliant red.
But here is observation of color in the jungle. If you live in the understory, where you are susceptible as prey to jungle cats and snakes, your colors will almost invariably come in the hues of North America - brown, gray, tan, white and black.
The birds we associate with neotropical color - toucans, parrots, quetzels and trogons - are birds of the upper stories of the jungle, far from the reach of predators. Perhaps the adaptation of extravagent color happens when a species has few predators, and so the evolution of the female's preferences in males dominates?
I do not have the answers to these questions, but walking on the Guacamayos Trail is a good place to think about them, to try to take a crack at these natural puzzles. I know that the biological sciences also struggle with these questions. Perhaps because they appear to be frivolous questions, or because they appear to have such a simple answer, they make good mysteries.
We find the Andean Potoo easily, because a cairn had been left behind to mark its position. Potoos are nocturnal birds, related to nightjars and whip-poor-whils. They are known mostly for their ability to completely blend into the tree upon which they sleep, so that it is nearly impossible to distinguish them from the tree itself.
True to form, the potoo has taken residence at the tip of a branch hanging out over the slopes below. Again, life doesn't present itself to you in the jungle.
Seeing the potoo, which is related to owls, reminds me of the owl we saw perched not far from our cabins at the San Isidro Lodge last night. Since birds are so well studied, it is quite infrequent that new species are discovered.
But last night, we spotted what may be a species which has yet to be described by science. For years, ornithologists had been confused by the owls that perched themselves near the lodge, and occasionally near the town of San Isidro.
Ecuador has two species of similar owls: the Black-and-white Owl, and the Black-banded owl.
Black-and-white Owls have a range that is limited by elevation and slope. They simply don't exist on the eastern slope of the Andes, nor at such a high elevation. Black-banded Owls, which exist on this slope, are never seen higher than three-thousand feet.
Between the eastern and western slopes of the Andes is a dry, almost desert-like valley. For an owl to cross that valley, in habitat quite unsuitable to these tropical species would be almost impossible.
The San Isidro owls have characteristics of both owl species, but because at least six individuals have been seen in the area, it is unlikely that this is a simple case of cross-breeding. What is more likely is that the San Isidro owls are a new species, waiting to be confirmed by science as its own unique species.
The owl stays on my mind while the trail grows narrower and the slopes on either side steeper. If we can witness an undescribed species right above our cabins, who knows how many undiscovered animals and plants lay just beyond our vision in these steep, foggy trees, dripping with dew and shrouded in cloaks of air plants and moss.
Everywhere you look on the Guacamayos Ridge Trail, it's all layers and layers of green. But I keep looking down every bromeliad's throat, hoping for a frog.
After walking on the trail for the better half of the day, Gabriel calls us over and says, "look!"
Beneath a pile of leaves at the bottom of a bromeliad is a frog. It is so small, maybe the size of a pinky. He is not entirely spectacular, but seeing him, after working so hard to find him, is rewarding.
This tiny needle in a haystack reminds me of the lesson of the jungle, best described by Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”