Reserva las Gralarias is an important private reserve on the northwestern slope protecting several critical watersheds located outside of Mindo. Preserving over 400 hectares of subtropical forest and regenerating woodland in the Choco bioregion across an altitude range of 1790 to 2370m, the reserve is host to a hefty number of restricted-range species, including Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, Toucan Barbet, Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Beautiful Jay, Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, Hoary Puffleg, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, and Purple-Bibbed Whitetip. Owned and managed by the erudite Jane Lyons, who is something of a matriarch of birding in northwestern Ecuador, the comfortable guest house makes a great base for birding the region, and groups from Mindo Bird Tours are often found here, a secluded site over three kilometers from the Calicali-Independencia highway (day use of the 12 kilometers of trails costs $10 and must be arranged in advance).
Staying informed about recent bird sightings through the observation database at Aves Ecuador, I noticed that a Moustached Antpitta nest had recently been found and documented within the reserve. As this antpitta has continued to elude me on both slopes, at regular sites such as the Guacamayos Ridge Trail and Refugio Paz de las Aves, it was time to go after what should have been a sure thing, as the nestlings had only hatched a week or so ago. I was also hoping to pick up a few other new birds, including the Rufous-Breasted Antthrush, Beautiful Jay, and Hoary Puffleg, the latter which was regularly recorded at one of the hummingbird feeder stations in January. And if I needed yet another reason to visit, it's always nice to bird in a new area, even if you've visited dozens of sites in the same region and are already familiar with the avifauna.
Leaving Quito around 4am, I arrived at the reserve at dawn with the northwestern foothills and lowlands laid out magnificently before me in the growing light. Checking in with Jane to get a trail map and the latest information on bird sightings, I hit the upper section of trails, finding a few mixed flocks in quick succession. Starting things off with the Streaked Tuftedcheek, Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Flavescent Flycatcher, and Dusky Bush-Tanager, I next lucked on to a group of tanagers, including the excellent Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, several of which were mixed in with a larger group of the similar patterned Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager. After picking up Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Toucan Barbet, and Golden-Headed Quetzal, I moved down slope along the Puma Trail, encountering a noisy group of Powerful Woodpeckers that were calling frequently and drilling loudly into trees as they progressed slowly through the forest.
Reaching the lower section of trails, where the reserve's research station is located, I made my way to the Moustached Antpitta nest with the help of one of the frog researchers who is studying there. Staking out the nest from a respectful distance for a half an hour, I witnessed an adult Moustached Antpitta bringing worms to the nestlings several times. Hopping quickly through the forest and then stopping abruptly, as all larger antpittas seem to do, this secretive bird was shockingly revealed performing its most surreptitious of activities. A bit discombobulated by the experience, I climbed slowly back up towards the guest house, at one point coming face to face with a female Scaled Fruiteater that flew off before I could ready my camera. Taking a break at one of the nectar and fruit feeder stations, I talked for a while with a young man who is researching the courtship displays of male woodstars, focusing here on the Purple-Throated Woodstar. No one has ever really studied these birds before, which adds credence to the feeling that birding in South America is still an act of exploration, where each birding trip has the potential to contribute to ornithological knowledge.
During the rest of the day, I chased after a group of Beautiful Jays that Jane had heard calling from the next watershed to the north. While I never had sight nor sound of them, I did find a few other birds of note, including a pair of delightful Rufous-Crowned Tody-Tyrants, a Spotted Barbtail, and a Purple-Bibbed Whitetip at one of the hummingbird feeder stations. A final surprise was crossing paths with a giant earthworm on one of the trails. Over a meter long and maybe ten centimeters in diameter, this worm almost made me lose my lunch as it inched its way through the leaf litter, its translucent body revealing a huge vein of rich dark earth inside.
Notable birds seen: Sickle-Winged Guan, Andean Emerald, Purple-Bibbed Whitetip, Brown Inca, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Purple-Throated Woodstar, Golden-Headed Quetzal, Masked Trogon, Toucan Barbet, Plate-Billed Mountain-Toucan, Crimson-Mantled Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Streaked Tuftedcheek, Spotted Barbtail, Scaly-Throated Foliage-Gleaner, Buff-Fronted Foliage-Gleaner, Moustached Antpitta, Spillman's Tapaculo, Streak-Necked Flycatcher, Rufous-Crowned Tody-Flycatcher, Flavescent Flycatcher, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Scaled Fruiteater, Turquoise Jay, Sepia-Brown Wren, Gray-Breasted Wood-Wren, Three-Striped Warbler, Russet-Crowned Warbler, Golden-Naped Tanager, Beryl-Spangled Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch.