Ecuador is a small jewel of a country, lying astride the Andes. Its volcanoes tower to more than 20,000 feet, and many slopes are still verdant with forest. Can any other place rival Ecuador for its brilliance of hummingbirds and tanagers? I rather doubt it.
Recently Alan and I joined our traveling buddies, Noel Snyder and Jim Shiflett, for another immersion in sweeping landscapes and exquisite biodiversity. We focused on several regions: Mindo on the northwest slope of the Andes; the cloud forest of the Yanayacu-San Isidro area; eastern foothills at Wildsumaco; hot lowland rainforest at Jatun Sacha; and (retreating from the heat!) the high expanses of Yanacocha, Papallacta Pass, Chimborazo, and Cotopaxi. I'm planning posts for all of these regions.
Let's start with Mindo and the justly famous farm of Ángel Paz, who has mastered the high art of taming antpittas! These shy creatures usually elude all but the most persistent of birders... but they have a taste for earthworms. And Ángel provides them with earthworms aplenty. He knows their individual territories within the deep forest (Ángel has preserved an extensive forest fragment on his farm.)
Ángel Paz, the grand master (all photos by Narca)
Our morning starts very early. At 3:45 (yes, AM!) we rise in our very basic lodgings at Bellavista Research Station and have a quick breakfast by candlelight. We're out the door by 4:10, pick up our new friend Carlos, and drive to kilometer 66 on the main highway to Mindo, about an hour away. Ángel meets us here and guides us through several turns and through a creek to his farm.
We don boots, skirt the food crops, and plunge immediately down the steep slope into cloud forest. The well-maintained trails can be muddy but today are mostly dry. Rope and bamboo provide a railing in the steepest reaches. Ángel's technique is simply to call the bird by the name he's given it: "¡Venga! ¡Venga, María!" and a Giant Antpitta––María, or Manuela, or José––hops onto the trail! Unbelievable. Today Manuela doesn't need to be called. She's already on the trail, waiting for her breakfast of earthworm bits.
Manuela, the Giant Antpitta
We continue, with new antpittas popping out of the forest as we enter their territories. Ángel has now tamed four species of antpitta and each appears in turn--the Moustached, the cute little Ochre-breasted named for a well-known Latina singer because of the way she swings her body from side to side.
A very small Ochre-breasted Antpitta
We descend all the way to the river for the fourth species, the Yellow-breasted, which appears in the tangle across the stream, then flits across the water to our side, where she dines on earthworms served on a river rock.
Later in the trip, Dr. Harold Greeney at Yanayacu Biological Station offers a theory about why antpittas have proved easy to tame: he believes that it's their habit to forage behind large mammals like javelinas in the forest. Based on that, birders have been using the wrong technique of quietly stalking or luring them in by tape and much patience. Instead we should have been thrashing through the forest! If anyone tests this, let us know!
I have assumed that the outing is finished at this point, but further wonders await us. Ángel seems to have set out to befriend every bird in the forest. Our next stop is a fruit feeder for toucans, tanagers and other frugivores. Suddenly, almost within touching distance, a Toucan Barbet lands at my feet--surely one of the most extravagant of Ecuador's birds!
Toucan Barbet, a dweller of cloud forest
Also at the feeder, here in this remote Ecuadorian cloud forest, we talk to others who have come for today's Antpitta Fest--and one of them is a neighbor from Portal whom we have never met. With him is Louis des Tombe, a relative from Holland who says, "Oh, I read your blog!" Quite fun.
Back up by the crops, hummingbird feeders lure in a slightly different suite of hummers than we have been seeing up on the ridge at Bellavista. Chief among these is a stunning Empress Brilliant.
But don't think the morning is over! The last hundred yards bring a very beautiful Orange-breasted Fruiteater and a tiny, striking Rufous-winged Tyrannulet. Fresh empanadas cooked by Angel's wife await us at the top.
Orange-breasted Fruiteater, a spectacular cotinga
And who would have guessed: when we return to Bellavista Lodge (en route to our more humble lodgings), a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta is rummaging through the compost! It is a FIVE-antpitta day!
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta at Bellavista Lodge