Refugio Paz de las Aves: February 27, 2010

Refugio Paz de las Aves is the best birding show on the northwestern slope, as Angel Paz and his brother Rodrigo orchestrate a veritable symphony of performances from a wide range of bird families, including antpittas, cotingas, toucans, hummingbirds, and tanagers. Each morning on a small patch of subtropical forest outside Mindo, visiting birders are witness first to a raucous Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, then to a feeding frenzy at the fruit feeders, next to a series of mystifying antpitta encounters, and finally to a gorgeous display of hummingbird activity. Typical highlights of a visit include sightings of a fine handful of Chocó restricted-ranged species, including the Toucan Barbet, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, Velvet-Purple Coronet, and Violet-Tailed Sylph, and occasional appearances are also made by Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, Dark-Backed Wood-Quail, Dusky Bush-Tanager, and Purple-Bibbed Whitetip.

The creation story of this spectacle is now well-known, and Angel Paz is currently enjoying celebrity status in the world of neotropical birding. His reputation is well deserved as he's changed the nature of avitourism, with sites all over the Andes now practicing his unique feeding techniques, succesfully habituating different antpitta species from Venezuela to Peru. Antpittas, of course, are a notoriously difficult family of birds to observe, and with a few exceptions species are generally heard way more often than seen as they skulk in dense undergrowth and rarely come out into the open. Angel Paz has habituated four different species which can be seen more or less regularly on his property, the Giant Anpitta, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Moustached Antpitta, and Ochre-Breasted Antpitta, and he is currently working on a fifth species, the Scaled Antpitta, which is proving to be more difficult than the others. He has trained park rangers at other reserves in Ecuador, including Cabanas San Isidro and Tapichalaca Reserve, helping to guarantee almost ten ticks on visiting birder's country lists, including the famous Jocotoco Antpitta.

On my first visit I had missed the Moustached Antpitta, which seems less predictable than the other two, with the Ochre-Breasted Antpitta being only a seasonal visitor. Although I've heard this elusive species at a few sites on both the eastern and western slope, I figured the easiest, and most fun, way to see it was with Angel's help. Aimee loves visiting with Angel as well, respecting him more for his innovative conservation efforts than his aplomb with antpittas, so we decided to make a weekend out of this single twitch, hopefully finding a few others. It's quite easy to arrange a morning's visit to Refugio Paz de las Aves, by the way. All you have to do is call him on his cellphone (087253674) a day or two before to coordinate the logistics. Given the popularity of the site, just don't expect to be the only group of birders there.

Arriving from our hotel in San Miguel de los Bancos, we met Angel and his brother at 6am along the road to his property which branches discretely off the main highway from Quito to Mindo around kilometer 66. In the half light of dawn, they took us down to the new Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek, as the one on Angel's propery has diminished significantly in activity in the last few months. Approximately fifteen birders and guides in three groups marveled over this classic neotropical avian display while I tried to locate a Scaled Antpitta that was calling nearby. Although I didn't manage to see it, I've now seen or heard every antpitta species in Ecuador except for the Ochre-Striped Antpitta of the eastern lowlands, with just three heard-only species, the Moustached, Scaled, and Bicolored Antpittas. The real treat of the first stage of our visit, though, was the incredible tanager flock that was feeding in the fruiting trees near the lek. In the growing light we had amazing eye-level looks at Metallic-Green, Golden, Flame-Faced, Beryl-Spangled, and Golden-Naped Tanagers all of the beautifully colored tangara genus.

Driving up to Angel's property, we then descened into a steep forested gorge to his fruit feeder, where a host of large frugivores were anxiously awaiting him. Indeed, a Toucan Barbet practically jumped onto Angel's shoulder as he tied up some bananas to a tree limb, the barbet impatiently calling all the while from just a foot away. Sickle-Winged Guans mobbed the fruit while a pair of Crimson-Rumped Toucanets looked on, and the rest of us stared in amazement from a few meters away. The local Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanagers failed to make an appearance but the equally colorful Blue-Winged Mountain Tanagers soon descended as Angel through sticks at the guans to clear some space at the feeding platforms. The last time we were here an Olivaceous Piha came in to eat some grapes, but Angel said that it wasn't around these stays as there was plenty of natural fruit available in the forest.

Next, it was time for the antpittas, for which Angel and Rodrigo had been calling throughout the morning as we slowly walked the trails. Having meticulously prepared worms for the birds, the brothers then call them by name out from the forest to feed them, which isn't always as easy as it sounds. First, was Maria, the Giant Anpitta that made Angel famous, who we found perched out in the open on a mossy tree stump. Having successfully raised a brood in recent weeks, Maria looked proud and self-content, remaining perched for almost ten minutes on the stump as Angel photographed her from a meter away. Then, we proceeded further down the trail to the stream at the bottom of the gorge, where Willy, the Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, was waiting expectantly for a handout. Sometimes, this bird can take an hour for Angel to locate and prod down to the feeding site, but this morning it took less than a minute before we were face to face with this simply patterned Chocó endemic. My blood pressure rose as it was now time to look for Susan, the Moustached Antpitta, as Shakira, the Ochre-Breasted Antpitta, hadn't been seen recently. We spent the next hour calling for it in its usual areas without any luck despite Angel's dogged persistance. On the other hand, with Rodrigo's help we did find a male Orange-Breasted Fruiteater sitting stolidly in a dense tree for several minutes.

Although I was a bit disappointed with missing the Moustached Antpitta, as well as the Barred Hawk that was heard calling overhead as we waited expectantly, we spent a few happy minutes at the hummingbird feeders watching the Velvet-Purple Coronet, Violet-Tailed Sylph, Empress Brilliant, and Booted Rackettail before heading up to have breakfast at the entrance to the reserve. Angel's wife lovingly prepares visiting birders coffee with bolones de verde and empanadas de queso, which satisfyingly rounds out the morning. Granted this isn't the type of birding that helps me work up an appetite as it mostly involves standing around while Angel and Rodrigo deliver the birds, but it's a great treat nevertheless.

Notable birds seen: Sickle-Winged Guan, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-Rumped Toucanet, Long-Tailed Antbird, Giant Antpitta, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Golden-Crowned Flycatcher, White-Breasted Wood-Wren, Metallic-Green Tanager, Golden-Naped Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Golden Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager.


Renato said...

I love this place, I have brought people to show it many times and I still see new birds every time I go. Recently I saw the ocre-breasted antpitta called Shakira and was able to video her mocking imitation of Shakira. I will get her breast pumping action published on youtube as soon as I get caught up with my homework.

Dont forget the most amazing thing of this place is that it is a tree saving story where eco-tourism has reach the state of sustainability.

Matthias Fehlow said...

Hi Derek,
I went to Mangoloma on 13th of February with a friend after reading your blog about the Rufous-crowned Antpitta there. We saw the bird withz no problems and got fantastic views for about 5 minutes down to 10 m. Thanks a lot.
I went to Cabanas Yankuam on the 26th of February and found a mega flock with at least 4 Orange-throated Tanagers along the logging road on the opposite side of the river from the Cabanas. The flock was 4.3 km from the ferry close to the lodge at the other sied of a largely deforested hill. The flock contained a lot of other nice species like Masked Tanager, Ecuadorian Tyrrannulet (at least 4 birds), White-throated Woodpecker. Close by were Black-mandibled Toucan and Cinnamon Neopipo (tyrant-Manakin).
This saved me the expensive boatride and the long walk through the mud at the traditional site. The next day an ecuadorian guide and his group saw the tanagers about 1 km farther along the logging road.
The next day I climbed the tepui with a local guide (Don Martin) from the village. Quite a hard climb (850 m straight up)on a very bad trail, but had a beautiful male Royal Sunangel on the top and 3 groups of Bar-winged Wood-Wren coming in to the tape between 1700 and the top. No roraiman Flycatcher, but I did not have a tape and did not know what to listen for.
Hope this helps with your trip,

best regards,

Matthias Fehlow, Germany

Derek Kverno said...

Thanks for the information, Matthias. We heard a lot about your recent visit to Southern Ecuador from Catherine at Copalinga, who reported that you observed Royal Sunangel above Yankuam and Rufous-Browed Tyrannulet at Copalinga. Very nice observations!

We observed two different groups of Orange-Throated Tanagers on the road you describe as well as a group of Military Macaws feeding in a tree. We saw a few mixed flocks that morning as well, but didn't see much more than what we had already observed at Copalinga and Bombuscaro. We didn't stay an extra day to look for the sunangel or the wren on the tepui, but if I had been traveling by myself I certainly would have.

Congratulations on seeing the Rufous-Crowned Anpitta and on having such a productive trip!

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