Above Río Nangaritza with our butterfly net
By Julia Robinson Willmott
Senior Principal Ornithologist and Group Manager
Gainesville, FL, Office
Butterflies feeding on bait consisting of 2-week old rotting fish
Méndez is the starting point for the road east to Santiago, a small town at the edge of the Amazon basin surrounded by low hills, ridges, and flat-topped sandstone tepuis, and our base for the first week. During the many hours of cloud and resulting butterfly inactivity, we searched for caterpillars to find new information about this often poorly known part of the life cycle of these insects. One of the first caterpillars was initially baffling, seemingly with traits from multiple butterfly families, including long, blunt head horns and paired "tails." As it attached its pupa with a silk thread, we realized that it was a member of one of the most unusual Lepidoptera families, a small group of 30 or so species, the Hedylidae, an evolutionary branch within the butterflies with deceptively moth-like adults. Another memorable find was a bright yellow hairstreak caterpillar feeding on the equally brilliantly colored flowers of legumes along the forest’s edge. With the help of friends and local guides we explored an epic forested ridgetop to look for hill-topping butterflies, recording a new butterfly species for Ecuador. Navigating up the Río Yaupi in a peque-peque canoe designed for shallow, rocky rivers, we hacked into the middle of wickedly thorny bamboo patches along the banks to look for bamboo-feeding butterflies.
Looking for caterpillars along the Río YaupiOur next destination was the town of Yantzaza, a day’s drive south, on the road from Gualaquiza to Zamora, and a base for visiting several sites in the east Andean foothills. Our hotel had an open roof, ideal for inspecting the morning weather and deciding, usually unsuccessfully, where best to spend the day. Nearby sites included several prominent hills and ridges, which are magnets for metalmark and brilliant blue hairstreak butterflies, and the Cordillera del Cóndor, an isolated mountain range rich in endemic butterfly species.
Sandstone "tepuis" near Yantzaza
White-tailed Deer in the páramo of Volcán Antisana
Then it was time to head back to Quito; several long days driving were interrupted by a detour on our last day to spend four productive hours at a legendary cloud forest ridge site. We arrived back in Tababela late and the next morning set off early on our last day to visit the nearby Reserva Antisana in hope of seeing Andean Ibis and other inhabitants of the high páramo grasslands. Alas, we did not see the ibis, but we did encounter White-tailed Deer, Andean Fox, and numerous other highland birds, including four hunched Andean Cóndor silhouetted on a far ridgeline.
Field work in Ecuador is something that we have undertaken as a family since before our son was born, and we have made research trips every year with him. COVID-19 restrictions and global pandemic concerns through 2020 have made us even more grateful for the opportunities we have had, and the opportunities that we hope to continue.