January 2020

Forest tree archway
Sheila Sims

Trees in Ecuadorean cloud forests will sometimes grow into strange shapes. They are influenced by light, the sun, availability of water and nutrients and whether or not they have space among competing trees. A forest can be quite crowded, so each individual plant has to grow as its surroundings allow. Each tree is home to many animals, insects and birds which will either use it for food – fruit, sap and leaves – or a place to hunt, live or nest. Many insects, as we have talked about before, are well camouflaged so that they blend into their forest surroundings and are not easily seen but some tropical birds have evolved to be brightly coloured because they do want to be seen. In the dense forest plants grow very closely together and so a dull coloured bird may not be easily visible to another which it is trying to attract. Toucans, being forest dwelling birds, are good examples of this; they have stunning plumage and outsize bills which vary in their colouration.

Emerald toucanet
Sheila Sims

However, the Emerald toucanet is mainly green so blends in to the surrounding leaves. Why this one should be so well camouflaged is a mystery; perhaps because it is small and may need to remain unseen by a possible predator which could be another bird, a Margay – a type of wild cat, or a tree-dwelling snake. Although Toucans nest in holes in trees they do not use their massive beaks to create these but will use a natural cavity or more usually one excavated by a woodpecker; both parents share the incubation of the eggs. Their diet is mainly fruit but they will take insects and lizards and sometimes other birds.

Cocoa pods
Sheila Sims

Leaving the forest we visited a couple of farms which gave us an insight to the nature of the indigenous people; the Indian ancestry is very obvious by their distinctive looks and some farm as their ancestors did for centuries. One farm specialised in growing Cocoa pods which contain the cocoa beans used to make chocolate products. These pods are cauliflorous, that is they develop from flowers that grow directly from the trunks or large branches of the Cocoa trees, rather than on the smaller branches which we are used to seeing with more familiar fruits; Papaya is another tropical fruit that grows in this way. This farm also grew Dragon fruit and when we were there the trees were in flower, one of the most exotic flowers I have ever seen!

Dragon fruit flowers
Sheila Sims

Guinea pig farm
Sheila Sims

The other farm we went to was also a bit exotic – a Guinea pig farm! This was situated in what I can only describe as a hovel – no insult to the ancient lady who lived there in obviously very poor circumstances. In a dark back room was a pen with dozens of the little animals. You may wish to look away now if you keep Guinea pigs as pets or are at all squeamish, because people in Ecuador, along with those in some other South American countries, eat them! I have eaten all sorts of creatures when travelling, various kinds of antelopes, an assortment of birds and fish, even crocodile, (I do draw the line at insects, though) so, yes, out of curiosity I did try a small piece of Guinea pig. In the city we were taken for lunch to a local restaurant where, as well as the main courses we all had chosen, we were presented with a whole one, spatchcocked and deep fried, complete with head and little feet; it was very greasy and although we expected it to be a bit like rabbit, I can’t say it tasted of much.

Nicking fruit from a market stall
Sheila Sims

After lunch we went to a market, a very lively and interesting place with stalls selling all sorts of local goods. There was a toddler who was wheeling herself around in her buggy and didn’t seem to belong to anyone, but she was very well dressed and healthy looking so there must have been a mum around somewhere. This lovely little child occupied herself by going round the stalls and helping herself to whatever she fancied and could reach, and nobody minded.

Did I say that I draw the line at eating insects? Well, I do if I know what I’m doing! A lady selling snacks did explain what I was about to try but the market was very noisy and I did hear her say the word ‘betal’ and thought I was going to eat ‘betal nut’, a popular snack in some far eastern countries. But, yes, I’m sure you’ve guessed it, it was the legs that alerted me – too late, they were actual beetles! They were called June bugs, a kind of Scarab beetle, that were collected, boiled, fried and seasoned, with the wings, shells, heads and legs removed; someone had not done a thorough job on mine!

Beetle snack
Sheila Sims

Making pan pipes
Sheila Sims

Later in the afternoon we went to a craft place that specialised in making musical instruments and beaded jewellery. Here we watched a lady make pan pipes of various sizes from hollow bamboo sticks; she then joined a band and played one of her creations. A perfect end to an interesting day.

Back in Norfolk next month where hopefully there will be signs of spring and an end to all the wind and rain.

© Sheila Sims 2020. Email: sheila@norfolknaturediary.uk

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