Refugio Paz de las Aves

Many years before I visited Ecuador, I had heard about Refugio Paz de Las Aves, and its owner, Angel Paz, the “Antpitta whisperer”. You are probably wondering “And what exactly is an ant pitta?”  Antpittas are forest birds that feed on ants and other insects on or near the ground. They are dull-colored birds with unusually long legs and rather plump bodies. Because they are skulkers in the underbrush they are typically very difficult to find. Any serious birder is elated to add antpittas to her lifelist.  Lucky visitors to Paz de Las Aves might see as many as five species thanks to the techniques discovered and perfected by Angel Paz. He is an enterprising farmer who found a lek of Andean Cock of the Rocks on his property more than a decade ago. The Cock-of-the-Rock is one of the most unusual looking birds on the planet. The male’s gaudy reddish-orange head that doesn’t seem to have a beak distinguishes it from anything else.

wp_X5A8694

The males hang out together at a lek during breeding season, squawking, flapping and bowing to attract females. Angel figured that birding tourists coming to his country might be willing to pay a fee for the chance to see this unusual bird. He began to make a trail from the road to the lek. While working on the trail one day, he noticed a rather large brownish bird with long legs at the edge of the trail that was eating the earthworms uncovered by his shovel. It flew away whenever he approached, but he was determined to gain its trust and began finding juicy worms to feed it every day.  Gradually he was able to coax the shy bird to come closer to eat his offerings, and he named her Maria. Eventually, Maria would come when he called. 

When the visiting birders were shown Maria, they were extremely excited. Maria was a Giant Antpitta, a species that is very rare and difficult to find. Not only were tourists willing to pay to see the Cock-of-the-Rock lek, they were ecstatic to add a Giant Antpitta to their life list.

Visiting Refugio Paz de Las Aves was on the top of my list when I first began planning my trip to the Mindo area, and the stop there was to be the culmination of our birding trip.  Unfortunately, the rain and landslides conspired against us. The  tour to the Cock-of-the-Rock lek begins at 5:45 a.m., and our lodge was an hour and a half away. We knew that the landslide would not be cleared by that early in the morning, so we had to be content to bird around the lodge. (See previous post). We were disappointed, but it couldn’t be helped. Our guide, Andres, was not content to let that happen. He worked with Angel and his brother to arrange a time for us to visit the lek late in the afternoon.  It’s not a typical time for a tour because the antpittas only come out in the morning, but the Cocks-of-the-Rock do put on a similar display late in the day.  Andres arranged for another driver and van to meet us on the other side of the landslide. We were driven down as far as our vehicle could take us, and then we walked up and around the mud to our awaiting ride. 

Once we arrived at Refugio Paz de Las Aves, we were met at the trailside by Angel’s brother, Rodrigo.  It was a short hike downhill, but it was a sunny afternoon and the trail wasn’t too muddy. Since this wasn’t a typical tour time, we were the only group there. We didn’t spend too many minutes at the blind before we saw the first flash of scarlet feathers. More birds soon arrived, bopping and hopping. They put on quite a show, and we were thrilled we hadn’t missed this spectacle. We actually felt very lucky, as the light was much better for photos than it would have been at the typical sunrise tour. 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rodrigo offered to meet us again the following morning for a chance to see the antpittas. It would be our last morning in the Mindo area  and it would mean a very early departure to check out of Bellavista, but of course, we had no complaints. Luckily, the landslide had been cleared, so there were no problems arriving again at Refugio Paz de Las Aves the next morning. However, it had started raining again, and some of the trails were extremely slippery. The latest incarnation of “Maria”, the giant antpitta hadn’t been spotted recently, and we opted not to take the most difficult trails for some of the other species, but we did get to meet Andreita, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. She needed a considerable amount of coaxing before she hopped out into the open to grab the worms, but we eventually had some great views of her.

wp_X5A9042
“Andreita

We also had success with the Dark-backed Woodquail, another Choco endemic, and the striking Golden-headed Quetazal that had previously eluded us.

wp_X5A8709
Dark-backed Woodquail

We finished the morning with a sumptuous breakfast of bolones and empanadas served by the Paz family. The bolones were my favorite Ecuadorian food – fried plantain balls stuffed with cheese and chicken.  Nectar feeders surrounded our picnic shelter, and as we dined we were treated to final glimpses of some of our favorite hummers – booted racket-tails, violet-tailed sylphs, and velvet-purple coronets.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It was a wonderful final morning in the Mindo-Tandayapa cloud forest region.