Q&A with Trip Leader Nicole Büttner
Trip leader Nicole Büttner is a passionate biologist, nature guide, and conservationist based in Ecuador. For her master’s thesis, Nicole researched the ecology of hummingbird pollination in Mindo, Ecuador and then in 2008 established the private nature reserve and conservation project “Un poco del Chocó,” which she now manages. She has also taught undergraduate tropical ecology courses, supervised the the research work of graduate students at a nearby biological field station, and leads environmental education workshops for kids.
What do you do when you’re not leading trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions?
I manage my own conservation project “Un poco del Chocó“, a nature reserve and biological station in the montane rainforest of Northwest Ecuador. I spend most of my time teaching students and supervising their field research in the reserve. I also work on my own long-term bird banding project and am engaged in local conservation work and birding tourism.
What has been your proudest achievement so far in your career?
My biggest achievement so far is probably the establishment of “Un poco del Chocó“. It was a lot of hard work to fulfill my dream of living and working in the rainforest, and I am very proud that I found a way to combine my passions for conservation, education, and research on a daily basis.
You’ll be leading our Ecuador & Galapagos expedition this summer. What is your connection to this part of the world?
The first time I traveled to Ecuador to do an internship in the Amazon rainforest, I fell in love with the country. I returned a year later
to study pollination ecology for my master’s and that’s when I met my husband. I have been living in Ecuador for more than ten years and it’s my home now.
What part of the Ecuador trip are you most excited for students to experience this summer?
The most amazing thing about Ecuador is its diversity, from people and cultures, to landscapes and its diverse flora and fauna. But if I had to pick one specific part of the trip it’s definitely the wildlife experience in the Galapagos. Snorkeling with sea lions is simply unique!
What is your favorite local food in Ecuador?
Tigrillo (which means ocelote in english), a mash of cooked green plantains with vegetables and cheese, served with a fried egg.
What do you hope students take away with them after traveling with National Geographic?
I hope students get a broader perspective on the world, that they get a deeper connection to nature and get inspired to help conserve what’s left of it, and that they build long lasting friendships.
What do you think is the best part of a National Geographic Student Expeditions trip?
On National Geographic trips we encourage students to be open minded and to see the world through a different lens. We encourage them to ask questions, to explore and to push their limits. For a lot of students this is a life changing experience and for me as a trip leader it’s a great opportunity to have an impact on how a student perceives a country while traveling. I also love the flexibility we have on the trips. We are not strictly tied to a schedule and that gives us a lot of room to adapt the program to the passions of the group.
Where is the first place you traveled that left a lasting impression on you?
When I was 20, I backpacked through Australia and New Zealand for six months. It was the first time that I spent most of my days camping outdoors, hiking and exploring nature and I realized how much I loved it. This trip definitely had a huge impact on my future career and life. It wasn’t so much the places I traveled that impacted me, but rather the way I traveled.
What are your hobbies, aside from traveling and sharing your insights with NGSE travelers?
I love mountain biking, birding, hiking, baking bread and cakes, and watching (Tarantino) movies.
What is the next destination on your travel wish list?
I would love to experience the African wildlife of the Okavango River Delta.
What item won’t you leave home without when traveling?
One fun fact about yourself?
Amongst birders in Ecuador I am known as the Cuckoo-lady. My husband and I found one of Ecuador’s rarest bird species, the Banded Ground-Cuckoo, in our reserve and I habituated several individuals. I spent almost two years handfeeding them grasshoppers and studying their behavioral ecology.