There might be thousands of photographs on the Internet of the Giant Antpitta, which is strange considering its rare and local status. How are so many birders not only finding this impossibly furtive bird but also capturing its image while it's out in the open on a trail? As it turns out, almost all of these photographs are of one individual Giant Antpitta, Maria, the original bird that started the antpitta revolution now underway in Ecuador. Currently, there are multiple sights in the country where trained guides are feeding antpittas, including at Tapichalaca Reserve where visitors regularly see the famous Jocoto Antpitta. (Incidentally, this photograph is of Cariño, most likely Maria's mate this breeding season.)
The founder of this revolution is none other than Angel Paz, once a struggling Ecuadorian farmer on the northwestern slope of the Andes, now a bird guide and conservationist extraordinaire. In the last five years, Señor Paz has transformed his modest hillside property located just outside Mindo into the hottest birding site in all of Ecuador. Here birders can enjoy a thriving Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, regularly observe several species of antpitta in the open, watch a variety of uncommon frugivores visit fruit feeders at close range, and marvel at some of the busiest and most spectacular hummingbird feeders in the country.
How did this incredible instance of grassroots conservation come to pass? The story is fast becoming legend, but the kernel of truth is that Angel responded to an increasing interest in the birds on his land by inventing techniques to feed them. Through experimentation, and perhaps a bit of consultation, he has habituated a surprising number of wild birds to the point where they respond to his voice and are relatively unperturbed by the presence of humans. Giant, Yellow-Breasted, and Moustached Antpittas are his most famous friends, but Dark-Backed Wood-Quail, Toucan Barbet, Sickle-Winged Guan, and Olivaceous Piha are also becoming regular participants in the daily spectacle. Don't expect the Antpitta Whisperer's ambitions to stop there either, as he has plans to expand his circle of friends.
Feeding birds undoubtedly affects their behavior and development, and some would argue negatively (physicists would assert that the act of simply observing them would affect birds as well). But most birders are now comfortable with the act of feeding hummingbirds, so why not feed tanagers, cotingas, and antpittas? Ultimately, the more exposed birds are to the public, the more profitable they become and the more their habitat is protected. Isn't that the goal of conservationists? It's not as if every farmer on the northwestern slope is going to start feeding worms to the antpittas on his property every morning and thereby dramatically alter the evolution of the entire species. He'll only be more aware of the value of his land and the costs, both financial and biological, of deforesting it.
For now, these issues are only incipient, and birders should be able to enjoy the experience free of guilt. Aimee and I had just such a visit, marveling equally at the man and the birds as they seemed to collaborate in orchestrating a truly remarkable morning. Descending in the predawn darkness to the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, we encountered the Rufescent Screech-Owl, gently coaxed by Angel into revealing his position (the man is a master of imitating bird calls and forbids the use of playback on his property). The lek itself was like many others in the area in terms of bird activity, but the view from the blind was unique as it allows birders to look down for once on the action instead of gazing up into the canopy at neck-breaking angles. Taking a break from the rock cocks, as Aimee likes to call them, we took a few steps down the trail to observe a male Scaled Fruiteater grazing casually in a nearby fruiting tree.
The ingenuously rigged fruit feeders are located nearby the lek, and a few minutes after Angel had hung some bananas and grapes from the lines we were treated to excellent looks at a male and female Sickle-Winged Guan. In what was the highlight of my morning, the subtle Olivaceous Piha soon made its way cautiously up to the feeder, gulping down a single grape after much hesitation. It was a little early in the morning at this point to expect tanager flocks to find the fruit, but their absence only added to the magical quality of the morning as we had only observed scarce and difficult birds up to that point.
Next, it was time for Angel to feed the antpittas, which sounds a little more formulaic than it turned out to be. Although he is well acquainted with the habits and territories of the birds, he still has to track them down every morning, which involves plenty of effort, whether imitating the birds' calls or literally shouting their names: "Maria, venga!" He first located Willamena, the Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, down by the stream at the border of his property. Then, with the help of his brother, he found Maria, the Giant Antpitta, nestled in the nook of a tree, busy constructing a nest. Meanwhile Cariño, another Giant Antpitta, hopped briefly onto the trail to gobble up the worms. Although we had heard the Moustached Antpitta calling before dawn, we were unable to locate it, or him or her, I should say.
While searching for the antpittas, we ran into several mixed flocks, getting great looks at the Toucan Barbet, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, and Beryl-Spangled Tanager. The White-Breasted Wood-Wren and Sepia-Brown Wren were also seen skulking about. Ascending back up the ridge and out of the forest, we were hoping to track down the Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, a Choco specialty, but it was either overlooked or never materialized. Instead of stressing about the birds we missed, we spent the final hour of the morning digging the terrific hummingbirds at the feeders located just at the forest edge. Highlights included the Booted Racket-Tail, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, and Empress Brilliant, all top-shelf birds.
Visiting Refugio Paz de las Aves is most easily arranged through a birding lodge in the Mindo area, such as Bellavista or Septimo Paraiso, but independent birders who speak Spanish should have little trouble setting up their own visit. Just call Señor Paz several days in advance on his cell phone (087253674), making sure you have transportation to arrive at his property by 5:30am (the turnoff from the Calacalí-Independencia road is between kilometer 65 and 66 and marked by a hand-made wooden sign). It takes about 45 mintutes to arrive from either Mindo or the lower Tandayapa Valley, and the price of the visit is $15, which includes a delicious breakfast of coffee, bolones de verde, and empanadas de queso served after the show.
Notable birds seen: Swallow-Tailed Kite, Sickle-Winged Guan, Rufescent Screech-Owl, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Purple-Throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald, Booted Racket-Tail, Brown Inca, Violet-Tailed Sylph, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Empress Brilliant, Crimson-Rumped Toucanet, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Giant Antpitta, Olivaceous Piha, Scaled Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Sepia-Brown Wren, White-Breasted Wood-Wren, White-Winged Brush-Finch, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch, Yellow-Faced Grassquit.