Going to the Birds

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Ex-Farmer-cum-Birdman, Angel Paz, owner of the Paz Bird Refuge in Mindo with a Giant Antpitta.

We wake up at 3.00am, yawning and stumbling around in the dark, getting dressed in warm clothes and trying not to wake other guests at the hotel, but not succeeding very well as we kick the furniture and stagger noisily down the stairs. The manager has thoughtfully left us a packed breakfast in the fridge. We retrieve the bag and then mumble unintelligibly to each other, rubbing our arms to warm ourselves while we wait for our driver, the steam from our breath clouding in the chilly air. Segundo shows up a few minutes late and we finally take off, rattling down the narrow winding track towards our destination. Headlights bounce all over the place as we navigate through mountain streams in the battered 4WD, going slowly on the bumpy road. It rained during the night. The vehicle slips and slides. Catching a few extra winks of sleep enroute is impossible.

“Oh no!” exclaims Segundo in the dark, cursing under his breath, before pulling up abruptly in the middle of the muddy track.

We have a flat tire. Wondering if we will still make our pre-dawn appointment on time, we work quickly together to change the tire, some of us shining flashlights on his work, others undoing the spare tire and rolling it to the front of the car. The road is slick. Just as he pulls the old tire off the studs, the jack falls over. Segundo moves it to another spot and jacks up the car again. This time, it stays. We help him to lift the new tire and fasten the nuts to the studs. He lets the car down and checks the studs again. After ten minutes driving, he checks them again. The clock is ticking. We don’t want to miss our appointment, but we do want to make it there in one piece. We arrive at the appointed meeting place less than a minute after our guide arrives. Everyone whispers in the dark, as if afraid to break the magic of the night before it’s time.

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Following our native guide, and some wildly dancing flashlights, we make our way down a very narrow slippery track. Just barely keeping our balance, we silently follow Angel Paz, a local ex-farmer and hunter who became a passionate birdman, to the edge of a small cliff as the first grey light of dawn begins to break. Angel indicates we should stay still and remain silent. The ghostly outlines of the trees begin to take shape in front of our eyes. Then, a strange clatter begins in the trees. We can’t see the birds yet, but we can certainly hear them.

As the light increases, just on sunrise, the bizarre red heads of the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock appear in the branches as they dance and chatter, all competing for the affections of the plain brown-colored female. The Rupicola Peruviana is one of only two species that live in the neotropics. The noisy mating display goes on for over half an hour, the birds leaping about on the branches, chasing each other off, calling and dancing, until the female chooses her partner. Suddenly the forest is quiet again. We trudge back to the 4WD and head up the hill to another location, snacking on our packed egg sandwiches along the way.

Another hike down a steep slope takes us deep into the forest. Angel goes slowly, shushing us with a finger to his lips.

“There it is,” he whispers, pointing to a tree branch high above our heads.

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The White-Faced Nunbird dances along the branch, hopping back and forth, searching for breakfast. Angel tells us it’s a rare species that many birdwatchers have yet to spot. We have no trouble watching this avian treasure as it flits from branch to branch for a few minutes. Leaving it to find sustenance, we head back up the path, our guide whistling and twittering as he walks. On the way, a Rufous Potoo hides itself on a branch, blending into a tree. We nearly miss it, but Angel points it out with a green laser light.

“Shhh!” says Angel, stopping mid-step with his arms wide. We freeze. “There!” he whispers, barely making a sound as he points to the underbrush.

The Moustached Antpitta is hard to see at first, camouflaged in the thick undergrowth. Then, he hops around, digging worms from the ground just under the path. He flits back and forth, “hohoho”ing as he feeds on rich proteins. We silently observe as one of the most vulnerable species sings and eats.

Further up, Angel sets out breakfast for some Green Toucans. Slicing bananas and placing them on tree branches, he offers the birds almost 30 ripe plantain bananas. We sit back and wait, once again silent and unmoving in the early morning. Soon, the tree branches are buzzing with activity as Crimson Rumped Toucanets compete with Toucan Barbets, Blue Winged and Black Chinned Mountain Tanagers, until a couple of Sickle Winged Guans come in to hog the breakfast offerings. Fluttering and chirping, the birds come and go, feasting on the ripe bananas.

“Look!” says Angel, pointing up into the trees, where a red-breasted bird with a yellow head, a green coat and a black tail rests. The Quetzal. There is silence in the hide as the bird comes closer, easily spooked by the slightest movement. We freeze. Sitting just a few feet in front of our eyes, the Golden-Headed Quetzal pecks at the fruit. Cameras click. Then, it’s gone. On the ground, a pair of White-Throated Quail Doves waddle around, picking up the scraps dropped by the toucans.

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We continue along the rough track, heading upwards until Angel stops us again. A rare Giant Antpitta gathers worms in her beak to feed her offspring. She jumps back and forth, stuffing food into her mouth and then vanishes to her nest in a nearby tree branch, returning a few minutes later to eat her own breakfast. Nearby, an Ochre-Striped Antpitta dances on a branch, swinging its hips from side to side, assessing the danger. “Huewee! Huewee!” It sings. We don’t move. No one speaks. Soon, they both disappear.

At the top of the path, hummingbird feeders are attracting a number of species: Velvet-Purple Coronets, Fawn-Breasted Brilliants, Rufous-Tailed Hummingbirds, and the shimmering Andean Emeralds, amongst several others whizzing by too fast to identify. There are 137 species of hummingbirds in Ecuador and we spot at least a dozen of the 49 species in the region. After a feast of raspberries picked from the vines behind the hide, we trek up the final part of the path to dine richly on a traditional Ecuadorian breakfast of Bolon (green plantain banana balls), sweet Empanadas (cheese pastries) and aromatic local coffee, before heading back into town feeling sleepy but satisfied by our early morning adventure.

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