Field Stories from the Andes of Peru

Field Stories from the Andes of Peru

Evening clouds move over the Cordillera Alto Mayo.

By Ian Ausprey

You’ve probably encountered the term “Big Data” a lot in the news. From Google to Facebook to scientists sequencing genomes, the digital revolution has allowed an unparalleled ability to explore the world across vast scales of space and time. Yet, behind the sophisticated advances of supercomputers, machine learning, and artificial intelligence lies an essential core ingredient: data. Here at the Biodiversity Institute researchers investigate biological and environmental datasets that inform the origin, maintenance, and conservation of global biodiversity. The development of such datasets requires an immense amount of effort from thousands of expert observers around the world. I’d like to share a few stories from my own experiences in the field to help you understand what it takes to collect the data that fuel biodiversity research.

My dissertation work is based in the Andes of northern Peru and examines how habitat loss and fragmentation due to agriculture affects cloud forest bird communities.  Cloud forests are beautiful places, rich with mist, moss, and exquisite orchids, bromeliads, and other epiphytes.

Persistent mist and high humidity throughout the year allows growth of exquisite tree ferns, orchids, and bromeliads.

The core of my work involved surveying bird communities in forested and agricultural landscapes. Much of this work involved identifying some 300 species of birds by their songs, which is only possible in the first few hours after dawn when bird song peaks. Over the course of 12 months in 2016 and 2017 I spent most mornings waking well before dawn to hike up to survey routes in remote cloud forests, remnant forest patches, and agricultural landscapes.

Conducting bird surveys with a classic view of agriculture in the high Andes: remnant forest fragments surrounded by pasture and potato fields.

Many species of birds in the tropics sing infrequently and are hard to detect by sound. So, we also use mist nets to quickly capture birds, mark them with a numeric leg band, and take various measurements before releasing them back into their environment.

A mist net used to safely capture birds.
Banding and measuring captured birds. Over a dozen students from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia have learned ornithological field techniques assisting with our project.
A few of the amazing birds we are fortunate enough to experience.

Sometimes our work requires hiking to remote areas and camping in rustic huts.

Trails can be muddy due to the frequent rain!
Many communities maintain rustic huts called “casitas” where farmers find shelter or store equipment. The community of Levanto permits us to use theirs while working within its communal forest reserve.
The casitas provide necessary shelter from wind, rain, and temperatures that can reach freezing.

Most of the time we work out of rural “campesino” communities. There we live with local families, learning about their lives, cultures, food, and agricultural practices.

Two important agricultural products: sugar and milk. The top left photo shows a “trapiche”, an ox-driven press for extracting cane juice, which is then boiled down to produce “panela”, a rich and delicious form of raw sugar. Dairy can also be a lucrative product, especially when turned into cheese. In the bottom left photo, Don Diego is curdling the morning’s fresh milk. Later that afternoon he will grind the curds, add salt, and use molds to make the “queso fresco” available in markets throughout the region.
The women’s tourism association of Corosha prepares meals for our field crew: yucca, rice, and chicken.
Much of our work is based in private conservation areas managed by local landholders and communities, such as Bosque Berlin (above) and Las Palmeras de Ocol (below).

Integration with local communities has inspired opportunities to share our work with school groups through workshops and birding excursions.

Students in the community of San Lorenzo learning how to use binoculars.