Refugio Paz de las Aves: April 8, 2014

Refugio Paz de las Aves is a bird photographer’s studio of sorts. At his modest farm on the northwestern slope of the Andes, Angel Paz has habituated some spectacular subtropical Chocó bird species, such as the Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Toucan Barbet, and Velvet-Purple Coronet. Here photographers can set up their equipment and compose the perfect shot as Angel tosses grubs to antpittas and tapaculos, hangs fruit for tanagers and toucanets, and fills nectar feeders for flowerpiercers and hummingbirds. There’s even a Cock-of-the-Rock lek, where photographers can stake out one of South America’s best birds. To commemorate my first serious birding trip to Ecuador since I moved away from the country in 2010, I purchased a new camera lens. Despite reading some negative reviews about its autofocus, I decided that a 80-400mm telephoto lens with vibration reduction was a good fit for my opportunistic style of bird photography. Plus, it wasn’t so expensive that I’d have a heart attack if I dropped it. I reasoned that a visit to Refugio Paz de las Aves would be the perfect opportunity to become familiar with my new lens before I started using it in the field.

I had rented a Chevy Spark from Hertz at the new Quito airport the night before and would use if for the next four days while exploring the Ibarra-San Lorenzo road. I left my friend’s house in Quito at an unpleasant hour and arrived at 5:30am at the turnoff to the Refugio, which is located between km 65 and 66 on the Calicali-Independencia road. I met Angel and another small group of birders a few kilometers up the dirt road towards his farm, where there is a new bridge being built. To start the morning off, Angel imitated a few antpitta and owl calls, trolling for a response or perhaps letting the birds know that he would be coming for them shortly. Then, we climbed downhill towards the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, where a male was already squawking in the predawn gloom. There used to be another lek on his property itself that was better for photography because it had a blind and looked down on the birds from upslope, although Angel was cagey when I asked him about it, stating simply that the area was no longer good for birding. He pointed out a pair of roosting Rufous Nighthawks nearby, and then we tried luring in a Cloud-Forest Pygmy-Owl using playback.

Angel told me that he had rented out a patch of forest along this lower section of the road and built new trails, habituating new individual birds since I had last visited in 2010. While the trails are well constructed and include steps and handrails, the setup for photography isn’t nearly as good as the original. Despite not being photographers or serious birders, the other visitors didn’t seem interested in cooperating with my pursuits, and they repeatedly blocked my view as shy birds darted around grabbing grubs. While antpittas often pause dumbly after taking a few hops along the forest floor, tapaculos and antthrushes can unpredictably race in and out, and photographers have to be ready to fire away at a moment’s notice. Indeed, considering the group’s dynamics I had no chance at photographing the beautiful Rufous-Breasted Antthrush that made a brief appearance (the other guide got some excellent photographs as he stepped in front of me, though). If I had been less tired that morning, I would have been more annoyed, but considering I was operating on less than two hours of sleep I apathetically shrugged it off.

Meanwhile, Angel was struggling to rally the antpittas, and Shakira, the Ochre-Breasted Antpitta, never did make an appearance despite nearly an hour of effort. On the other hand, three adult Giant Antpittas squabbled for several minutes over a huge handful of worms, looking very much in shape like footballs on toothpicks. Angel still calls one of them Maria, the name of the original antpitta he habituated nearly ten years ago, although I doubt it’s the same individual (why haven’t the forest-falcons caught on to the daily feeding routine as well, I wondered?). Again, I had to fight for space in order to snap off a few shots, but these Giant Antpittas have a knack for posing motionless out in the open. In addition along this trail, we saw Sepia-Brown Wren, Ornate Flycatcher, and Dusky Bush-Tanager, and Angel proudly took us to a Golden-Winged Manakin lek that he had found recently, where there were three males displaying. Otherwise, it was turning into kind of a lackluster morning with no mixed flock activity and a couple of big misses, including the Lyre-Tailed Nightjar, a male of which often roosts along the road.

After teasing a Yellow-Breasted Antpitta down to the opposite side of the stream over which they are building the new bridge, we moved uphill towards Angel’s farm. A few kilometers further, the avifauna shifts subtly from subtropical to temperate forest, where he has habituated both a Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta and an Ocellated Tapaculo. For most visiting birders the tapaculo is one of the primary target birds of their trip to the Andes, but it’s a difficult skulker and doesn’t generally approach in response to playback (the bird will respond though, and its piercing cry is one of the loudest bird calls I’ve ever heard). Thanks to Angel’s hard work, birders can now get an eyeful of this hulking tapaculo with relative ease; however, photographers shouldn’t expect it to pose on a tree stump like some of the antpittas. Again, the other group’s guide sat right in front of me and filled up his memory card until he generously stepped aside as the tapaculo retreated into dense cover. This time when Angel asked me how my photos turned out, I grumbled that too many people were in my way.

With half a dozen difficult cloudforest birds under our belt, we headed back to Angel’s place, where we enjoyed a typical breakfast of coffee with empanadas and bolones, a delicious ball of fried cheese and unripe banana. For me, this late breakfast ritual has always cemented the Refugio Paz de las Aves experience, and I’m happy to report that while the birding and photography opportunities have been degraded somewhat, the bolones are just as good as ever. In the trees across from the breakfast table, Angel has built a new fruit feeder, which this morning attracted a variety of tanagers as well as a pair each of Crimson-Rumped Toucanet and Toucan Barbet (the old one in the forest nearby also brought in Black-Chinned Mountain-Tanager, Olivaceous Piha, and Dark-Backed Wood-Quail). Below are the new nectar feeders, which attract significantly fewer hummingbirds than the previous ones that were located right at the forest edge. Angel’s brother also had little to say about why we were no longer birding on their property. Perhaps the neighbors who had also kept some forest intact were irritated that Angel was profiting from their birds but not giving them a cut.

Normally, breakfast marks the end of the morning at Refugio Paz de las Aves, but afterwards Angel took me out in search of the Orange-Breasted Fruiteater, another lovely Chocó endemic that is occasionally spotted in the area. Even after we had given up an hour later, he took me downslope for more birding at another private property. Despite his growing knowledge and understanding of birds, Angel’s conception of birding as an activity is a little different from mine, though. Instead of walking trails and roads in search of sight or sound of birds, he prefers to set out fruit or make calls to attract birds. Consequently, at the site downslope we simply sat around and waited for frugivorous birds to make an appearance. Of course, some common ones did, including Red-Headed Barbet, Thick-Billed Euphonia, and Tricolored Brush-Finch, but I was nodding off at this point in the day. Only a Tayra managed to perk me up, as he snuck in to steal bananas from the territorial Crimson-Rumped Toucanets.

Finally, I decided it was time to move on and make my way back up into the highlands and further north towards Ibarra. But when I tried to pay Angel for the visit, the price of which has reasonably increased from $15 to $28.50 during the years I have been visiting the site, he demanded an additional $50 for guiding services. Now, I respect the man’s need to make a living, and I generally don’t have a problem with paying inflated prices for the cause of conservation, but I was taken aback by this dramatic increase in price, especially considering it wasn’t advertised on his website, nor did either he or his brother mention it during our email and phone communication beforehand. After I half-heartedly expressed my objection, Angel settled on only an additional $20 instead of the full $50, but I admit to still being angry about the incident. Again, Angel has revolutionized birding in South America with his antpitta training technique and is one of the most inspiring conservation figures in the region, but alienating a loyal customer doesn’t seem like a sound business practice. Hopefully, these pricing issues will be better clarified in the future.

Notable Birds Seen (heard only): Hook-Billed Kite, Swallow-Tailed Kite, Rufous-Bellied Nighthawk, Squirrel Cuckoo, Purple-Bibbed Whitetip, Fawn-Breasted Brilliant, Booted Rackettail, Tawny-Bellied Hermit, Empress Brilliant, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Green-Crowned Woodnymph, Violet-Tailed Sylph, Brown Inca, Velvet-Purple Coronet, Golden-Headed Quetzal (h), Cloud-Forest Pygmy-Owl (h), Powerful Woodpecker, Red-Headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet, Crimson-Rumped Toucanet, Montane Woodcreeper, Streak-Capped Treehunter, Red-Faced Spinetail, Rufous-Breasted Antthrush, Uniform Antshrike, Ocellated Tapaculo, Yellow-Breasted Antpitta, Giant Antpitta, Chestnut-Crowned Antpitta, Nariño Tapaculo (h), White-Tailed Tyrannulet, White-Capped Dipper, Southern Beardless Tyrannulet, Brown-Capped Vireo, Ornate Flycatcher, Flavescent Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Golden-Winged Manakin, Blue-and-White Swallow, Sepia Brown Wren, Plain-Tailed Wren, Mountain Wren, Spectacled Whitestart, Blackburnian Warbler, Orange-Bellied Euphonia, Thick-Billed Euphonia, Swallow Tanager, Golden Tanager, Fawn-Breasted Tanager, Flame-Faced Tanager, Golden-Naped Tanager, Metallic-Green Tanager, Blue-Winged Mountain-Tanager, Blue-and-Gray Tanager, Lemon-Rumped Tanager, Dusky Bush-Tanager, Buff-Throated Saltator, Black-Winged Saltator, Tricolored Brush-Finch, Chestnut-Capped Brush-Finch.

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