Tuesday, July 21

Registration Great Green Macaw watching in the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco, Guayaquil - Ecuador

On July 8, 2015, the rangers  Armando Manzaba (Keeper of the wild) and Benito Choez reported the presence of six Great Green Macaw (Ara ambiguus guayaquilensis) near the Jaguar station guard, located in the Northwest part of the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest.

The Great Green Macaw arrived around 6:30 am and stayed for a period of approximately two hours, after which they flew in the same direction from which they came (northwest), this area is characterized by a forest of Pigio trees (Cavanillesia platanifolia). During the time the birds remained close to the guard station, they were perched on a Pigio tree.

Subsequently, on July 16, 2015, six macaws were seen in the same area. Like the previous occasion, the birds arrived at about 6:30 remaining in place for two hours, then they flew in a northwesterly direction.

The arrival of the birds, is perhaps due to the presence of 5 Great Green Macaw in a flight rage as part of a program to release captive macaws bred to help bolster the local population.  The Great Green Macaw is listed as critically endangered in Ecuador with an estimated population of between 60 and 80 individuals remaining in the wild. 

During the time that the macaws were in the field, they were constantly vocalizing which were answered by the birds in the flight cage.

It is important to note that during the months of June to October macaws area present in the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest in search of nesting areas in forest dominated by Pigios.  Later, when the eggs hatch and the young fled the Great Greens leave these areas.

Wednesday, July 8


A quest spanning 15 years has unearthed one of the rarest parrots in South America.
Dr Mark Pilgrim, Chester Zoo’s director general and one of the world’s leading experts on Amazon parrots, made the 11th hour discovery which could now save a species - known as the Ecuador Amazon parrot - from extinction.

Dr Pilgrim said:
“The rate at which animals are becoming extinct is higher today than at any other time in history. In the face of this crisis, and a lack of adequate resources with which to properly address it, it’s not really surprising that subspecies are seen as being of lesser conservation importance to full species.
“This places great significance on taxonomic evaluation studies of threatened animals, as misclassifying a species as a subspecies will mean it’s likely to be overlooked as a conservation priority.
“Whilst working as a bird keeper at Chester Zoo in the late 1980s, I was fascinated by a little green parrot called the Ecuador Amazon (Latin name Amazona autumnalis lilacina). At that time we only had a pair of these parrots which came to the zoo after being confiscated by customs officials in the UK. They were part of a haul of 150 birds that had been illegally trapped and exported to Europe where they were destined to be sold illegally into the pet trade.
“I soon started to believe them to be different to three other much more common Amazona autumnalissubspecies that, historically, the Ecuador Amazon was grouped with. I thought that this parrot might actually be something very special and perhaps a species in its own right. Little did I know then that those birds would go on to play such an important part in my life.”
Dr Pilgrim therefore set out to determine whether or not A. a lilacina is sufficiently different from the other three A. autumnalis subspecies to be considered as a separate species.
Between 1992 and 2013, he visited museums, bird parks and zoos across Europe to try and discover more.
“The first step was to look for any morphological differences – basically body shapes and colour patterns,” said Dr Pilgrim. “So I travelled to museums in different parts of Europe to analyse more than 60 specimens, taking measurements such as wing-length, tail-length and beak shape. Not only were the specimens few and far between, some were in very poor condition which only added to the challenge. I also looked at 17 live parrots, kept at Chester Zoo, and took opportunities to analyse them only when they were anaesthetised for any pressing veterinary reasons.
“Next I looked at their genetics. Using labs at Liverpool John Moores University, I extracted DNA from feathers and looked at small differences in specific genes that were selected for sequencing. Freshly moulted, primary, secondary and tail feathers of captive Amazona parrots were used as the DNA source, as opposed to taking blood or tissue samples, to avoid causing them any stress. These feathers came from birds kept by zoos and private aviculturists from all over Europe and were collected by a strict protocol to ensure their reliability.
“Finally, I devised an ethogram – a way of cataloguing the birds’ behavioural repertoire, looking at possible differences in their courtship behaviour.”

Chester Zoo’s director general, Dr Mark Pilgrim, sorts through more than 100 feathers which have been sent to him by parrot keepers from all around Europe. DNA tests on the feathers have led to the Ecuador Amazon parrot being recognised as a full specie, which could now save the parrot from extinction

These investigations have uncovered strong evidence that the Ecuador Amazon parrot (A. a lilicina) is indeed morphologically, behaviourally and genetically distinctive, providing justification for it to be recognised as a full species.
But the findings, and the parrots’ impending re-classification, have far-reaching consequences. With full species recognition, the Ecuador Amazon parrot is now likely to be considered as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Birdlife International, meaning it faces a very high risk of extinction in the near future. It has a greater than 50% chance of disappearing altogether in the next 20 years.
“The Ecuador Amazon parrot was previously included within a group of subspecies of which there may be as many as five million. The main implication of this work is that they are so distinct they are now considered as a full species, of which there are only 600 left. This makes a huge difference to their conservation priority.
“So having shown that it’s a species in its own right, we now need to make sure we don’t lose it.
“With 80 Ecuador Amazon parrots in European zoos as part of a conservation breeding programme, now almost a fifth of the world’s population, we realise how precious they are.
“My fear was always that the results of my work would come too late, however there is still time to save it and that’s exactly what we are trying to achieve.”


To add to the work Chester Zoo is now sending an expedition to carry out more vital research on the parrots in the wild.
A team of 11, including experienced conservationists and bird experts, will study the birds during their nesting season in the Cerro Blanco Forest in South West Ecuador. The team is tasked with monitoring the parrots, collecting important data and setting camera traps to try and learn more about them.
Dr Pilgrim said:
“Despite my 15 years of research there are still so many questions that need to be answered. We need to know what trees the parrots feed on, what else may compete for that food in the forest, where they nest and what their behaviour is whilst they nest. This basic biological information is vital to produce a conservation action plan.
"Additionally we need to do an accurate head count – we want to find out as precisely as we can just how many of these wonderful birds are left so that we can judge if and how fast the population declining. This will help us to understand what we need to do to raise the level of protection of the Cerro Blanco Forest and for the parrots.
“Having this basic information will help us to discover the best ways to protect and preserve their habitat.
“Ultimately, this expedition and the work and research the team will do in Ecuador is essential for the survival of this species in the wild.”
Follow the team’s progress through blogs, updates and photos via the zoo’s conservation website atwww.actforwildlife.org.uk

Fast Facts

• Chester Zoo currently has 12 Ecuador Amazon parrots, housed in its rare parrot breeding centre
• Dr Pilgrim has co-ordinated the European breeding programme, spanning 18 zoos and bird centres, since 1992
• With full species recognition, the Ecuador Amazon parrot is now being classified as endangered by the IUCN and Birdlife International, meaning it faces a very high risk of extinction in the near future. It has a greater than 50% chance of extinction in the next 20 years
• Ecuador amazon parrots depend on forest and mangroves in western Ecuador – the most severely threatened habitat in the world
• 90-98% of the forest has been cleared for agriculture and 80% of the mangroves have been destroyed for shrimp farming. The clearance of these areas and the accompanying road building has literally paved the way for other activities such as hunting, trapping and taking youngsters from nests
• Chester Zoo already has links to the Cerro Blanco forest having earlier this year pledged support to the Pro Bosque Foundation, a local conservation organisation working in the area. Part of the zoo’s plan includes helping to rehabilitate parrots that have been confiscated by the national police and ministry of the environment and release them back into selected areas of the forest
• The Pro Bosque Foundation was set up by Eric Horstman in 1993 and works intensively to protect and restore over 6,000 hectares of dry forest that is home not only to the Ecuador Amazon parrot, but a vast array of other species including the jaguar
• Ecuador is extremely biodiverse and classed as one of the earth’s 17 "mega-diverse" countries
• Ecuador is home to over 1,600 species of birds - 17% of the world's total number of birds
• Chester Zoo’s expedition team leave the UK in late January 2014

Thursday, December 11

The Cerro Blanco Protected Forest 25 Years Young

The Pro-Forest Foundation which administrates the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest celebrated its 25th birthday with the participation of 985 visitors on Sunday, December 7th. The celebration revolved around the event ¨Festival of Nature and Culture¨ which included an eco fair with 25 stands promoting ecological projects and products with the participation of the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, Environmental Unit of the Ecuadorian National Police, sister ecological groups such as Cerros Vivos and Amigos del Estero as well as vegetarian food and workshops on meditation among others.

During the day, a series of activities were carried out including a special event to commemorate Cerro Blanco´s anniversary led by Eric Horstman, Pro-Forest Foundation Executive Director as well as Camila Morales delegate of the Municipality of Guayaquil´s Tourism Department and Mr. Andres Aspiazu representing the family of one of Cerro Blanco´s founders Eduardo Aspiazu X, former President of the Guayaquil chapter of Fundacion Natura, which along with La Cemento Nacional (now Holcim Ecuador) worked to create the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest. Andres Aspiazu led the participants in a toast to Cerro Blanco and happy birthday sung with birthday cake distributed to the participants.

Workshops on different themes such as recycling and composting were carried out as well as special activities for children including games and art about the conservation of birds and bats among other topics. Guest speakers gave presentations on the dry tropical forests and the birds of the Tumbesian Bioregion. Cerro Blanco´s dedicated group of guides led visitors on walks in the forest throughout the day.

Artistic presentations including a puppet show and music were very well received by visitors as well as yoga and Indian traditional dancing. 

The event also marks the official inauguration of Cerro Blanco´s new installations including camping and picnic area, trails and interpretative signboards.

Wednesday, December 10

Monitoring nest boxes at Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco during the bird breeding season 2014 for management of the avian parasite Philornis downsi

The main objective of this study was to find out if the parasitic fly Philornis downsi, which is an invasive species accidentally introduced into the Galápagos Islands, occurs naturally on mainland Ecuador. In order to do this, we needed to observe bird nests after the birds finished rearing chicks and abandoned it. An easy, well-established method to follow bird reproductive behavior consists of installing wooden nest boxes with a side door that can be opened and the inside nest (and bird activities) easily monitored. The Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco is the perfect place for this study given its high bird diversity.

Nest box set in the trunk of a tree in Cerro Blanco with a Streak-headed Woodcreeper standing on it.

On November 2013, a team of biologists from the University of Minnesota (USA), Universidad Nacional del Litoral (Argentina) and Universidad de Guayaquil (Ecuador) installed a total of 158 nest boxes inside the perimeter of the Bosque Protector Cerro Blanco.

Between January and June 2014, the nest boxes were monitored weekly in search of any sign of bird activity (nest construction, incubation, tending to the chicks, etc.). Many of the boxes were not occupied, as is normal during the first year in most studies. It takes time for the birds to get used to the presence of the nest boxes and actually use them. In some cases, nests were constructed inside the boxes but they were abandoned. In only four nest boxes, birds laid eggs and fledged chicks.

 Nest constructed inside a nest box.

On March 1st 2014, we found five House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)’s eggs in a nest box. Five nestlings hatched but only three nestlings remained on March 22nd, they fledged on March 29th. We found 8 Philornis pupae in the nesting material. After examination under the microscope in the laboratory, we confirmed the presence of Philornis downsi in mainland Ecuador.

House Wren nestlings in the nest. On the bottom right there is a 
Philornis downsi puparium.

Our study recorded two new host species for the genus Philornis: the Fasciated Wren (Campylorhynchus fasciatus), a common species restricted to western Ecuador and northwest Peru where it principally inhabits arid and semi-arid habitats; and the Streak-headed Woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii), a furnariid found in Central and Northern South America. Our data indicate that Philornis downsi occurs naturally on mainland Ecuador and is relatively abundant in the vicinity of Guayaquil. Cerro Blanco is located approximately 15 km from the Guayaquil airport and 20 km from the Guayaquil harbor. These data support the hypothesis that P. downsi could have been introduced to the Galápagos from mainland Ecuador.

Wednesday, August 6

Two forests walled in by the growth of Guayaquil

Sunday, July 27, 2014

One coexists together with the other in between roads, parks, housing developments, wharfs and even mining exploitation.  On one side, one grows fragmented in wasteland or in the high parts of the hills.  The other side, the canopy of its trees rise up along the borders of the branches of the estero Salado (saltwater estuary) as a dense mass of vegetation.

Both are the home of birds such as the Red lored Amazon that in the morning flies in flocks in search of food in the higher parts of the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest and in the evening come down to sleep in the foliage at the foot of the brackish waters of the estuary in Puerto Hondo.  They are the dry forest and mangroves, two ecosystems that in the past dominated the geography of what is today the urban zone of Guayaquil and that coexist divided by the via a la costa, the new axis of growth.

Of the two ecosystems that characterize the natural zones of this city, the dry forest is more fragile because its species of flora grow slower, is easily accessible and is being strangled or fragmented by urban expansion.

A report as part of a consultancy prepared by Eric Horstman, administrator of Cerro Blanco and presented in December 2012 to the Ministry of the Environment, established that the areas that have some type of protection in Guayaquil face threats such as hunting, tree cutting to make furniture or charcoal, the burning of forests to later plant crops and invasions (squatter settlements).

The report identifies the possible impacts such as the construction of new roads that isolate more areas like Cerro Blanco, threatened also by mining due to its proximity to ¨the mine quarries with blasting and the production of dust that affects the flora and fauna¨, according to the report.

Horstman asserts that there lacks awareness in the citizenry about the value of dry forest.  ¨There is the idea that a park should always be green and the types of plants that are used require constant irrigated water, without taking advantage of the surrounding conditions¨, he said.

The dry forest contains species that could be used with tourism value if they are integrated in the green spaces of the city, which would give a distinct character to the metropolis, with the presence of trees such as guayacanes or the pigios, according to Horstman.

He mentions an example of this in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), the city that shelters the Tijuca National Park, and a forest where the Christ Redeemer monument was constructed.

In Guayaquil there are 1,892 hectares of green spaces including traffic dividers, parks, plazas, playing fields, riversides, gardens and cemeteries, according to the municipality.

Another problem is that the ecological functions of both ecosystems have not been made used of for development.  The native trees of the dry forest for example have leaves that end in points so that rainwater drips off gradually, avoiding erosion, says Nancy Hilgert, environmental consultant.  Here what has remained in a natural state I believe has been more of an accident than as an objective, sustains Horstman.

The mangroves on the other hand have the function to act as natural barriers against flooding, affirms Mireya Pozo, a specialist on this ecosystem.

The processes of filling (in the mangrove) to urbanize zones such as el suburbia, isla Trinitaria and Las Malvinas in the south of the city and Urdesa, Mapasingue and La Prosperina in the north, exterminated the largest part of the mangrove forest that 50 years ago had an extension of 655 hectares according to investigations carried out by students of Public Communication of Science and Technology (Department) of the ESPOL (Escuela Superior Politecnica del Litoral).  Pozo says that at least 40% of the city sits on what was formerly mangrove forest, in a scenario decades ago when there was less consciousness of the value of this ecosystem.

Mauricio Velasquez, ex Director of the Environment Department of the Municipality of Guayaquil is concerned about the carrying out of extractive activities near protected areas such as Cerro Colorado, from which gravel, rock and clay are extracted for fill.  They destroy hills leaving 90-degree slopes to take out material to fill the banks; ¨ says Velasquez, referring to rivers such as the Daule, which extends to another of the almost disappearing ecosystems, flooded plains.

The installation of housing developments and wharfs or parks along the riverbanks are carried out without taking advantage of the function of mangroves to control flooding.  This is evidenced in sectors such as Las Malvinas in the south of the city, where the Government constructed a wharf on the edge of the estuary and planted trees from another ecosystem for ornamental purposes.

Discharges to the estuary

In addition, another threat remains to be resolved, the discharge of domestic and industrial residual water to the estuary that affects the mangrove ecosystem.  There are complaints that the treatment plants for sewage in the housing developments in the via a la costa do not function in an adequate manner, ¨ says Velasquez.

The felling of trees and fill affects the flow of water that these trees need.  This stress makes the mangroves susceptible to pests¨, he added.

The falling down of mangrove trees in distinctive points of the city is evidence that they are sick although there are a lack of studies to verify the causes of this phenomena, concur Hilgert and Horstman.

Perfecto Yagual, head of the park guards of the Cerro Blanco Protected Forest, one of the last remnants of the dry ecosystem that skirts the western part of the city has observed how the natural areas have been transformed.  He arrived in the zone of the via a la costa in 1958 coming from Libertador Bolivar, in Santa Elena.  He says that at that time, the dry forest began to compete with pastures in the farms that were foreign owned, such as the Hacienda Palobamba.  Despite the pastures, peccaries, birds and deer where seen along the borders of the highway.  Now one has to go into the higher areas to see them¨, says Yagual, who remembers when it was common to see in the streets of Guayaquil the sale of fruits such as caimito, which was extracted from the forest.


Friday, August 1

Green proposals in favor of Guayaquil

Sunday, July 27, 2014 

While walking through patches of dry forest in Guayaquil in the high and deep part of the Cordillera Chongon-Colonche and let a canoe lead you on the calm current of one of the estuaries of the estero Salado that coexist with mangrove forest, Nancy Hilgert and Eric Horstman not only remember how these ecosystems were when they arrived in the city 38 and 24 years ago respectively, they also expound measures that they consider if applied could save these areas.

They are familiar with the howl of monkeys that from a distance announce that the dry forest is their home, with the crackling of the large maroon colored leaves that every six months the trees of this ecosystem drop to survive the dry season, as well as the smells, somewhat rotting of the saltwater estuary.

Although they weren´t born in Guayaquil – Eric is American and Nancy was born in Peru but became a naturalized Ecuadorian, have dedicated themselves to the conservation of these natural areas, Horstman the dry forest through the Pro-Forest Foundation that administers Cerro Blanco and Hilgert both dry forest and mangroves from a professorship, diverse NGO´s and public appointments.

This newspaper invited them to traverse these natural areas in order to evaluate them.  In the visits proposals came out to restore the areas, which according to Hilgert   ¨is a necessity to improve the quality of life of Ecuadorians¨.  This was said while the canoe advanced through the estuary bordered by mangroves where cormorants, mangrove warblers and herons are seen.

Both propose connecting the protected forests that have become isolated in the middle of the city and to do that they propose options including canopy bridges (connecting portions of the forest through the tree canopy), subterranean tunnels so that terrestrial fauna can move through and regenerate zones that make up ecological corridors.

One is connecting the Cerro Blanco, Papagayo de Guayaquil, La Prosperina and Cerro Paraiso Protected Forests with the Cordillera Chongon-Colonche.
Another possible connection they say is to integrate what remains of Cerro Colorado where the botanical garden functions with Los Samanes National Recreation Area.  This could be achieved through reforesting a parcel that borders the Los Geranios housing development.

An action that could be applied for the conservation of both ecosystems is reforestation or ¨restoration¨, as Horstman prefers to call it.

This forester says that in the case of dry forest, reforestation could be done with introduced species such as eucalyptus and teak, but restoration requires instead, endemic species such as pigio, ceibo, Amarillo and cocobolo.  With this, what is returned to the city is what was formerly found there, which was cut down to drive urban development.

As for the conservation of the mangrove forest, Hilgert sustains that the current environmental legislation must be reformed to establish permissible limits to the discharges of residual waters (sewage) to bodies of water, which currently does not establish quantities (volume of discharges).

On this point, both agree that closing ¨the faucets of contamination¨ the estero Salado receives, the mangrove forests can be saved.

According to Horstman, restoration can also be done on adjacent lands to the mangroves to extend them and on the higher land plant dry forest to re establish the connectivity that once existed between the two areas.

In Puerto Hondo, he says trees such as pechiche have been seen to extend down to the waters edge, which means that dry forest once was found down to the edge of the mangroves.