24 November 2012

West Slope Bears Fruit...ECUADOR (14 Nov)

For our final day on the WEST slope of the Andes, myself, and co-guide Jose Illanes, and the Cape Bird Club visited a small reserve near Mindo, Paz de las Aves, most famed for a number of tame antpittas that have been habituated there and are seen almost daily, with the help of the local landowners, and farmers-turned-bird-guides, Rodrigo and Angel Paz. An ungodly hour saw us arriving at the reserve just as the sun should have been breaking the horizon. I say should as all we got on arrival was a good dose of light rain and "mizzle", threatening to derail our birding completely. But, typically for the Andes, by the middle of the morning the rain was just a distant memory and we felt foolish being loaded down with heavy, sweat-inducing rain gear! However, back to dawn, when we made our way down to the now familiar cock-of-the-rock blind/hide, where at least one of these scarlet beauties came in to visit, give a loud pig-squeal like call, and then was gone. However, Jose Illanes, the other person guiding with me soon alerted us to one of the reserve's star birds: he had bumped into a covey of extraordinarily tame Dark-backed Wood-Quail, which included five birds, three of which were juveniles. Next stop was the reserve's most famous resident of all, and the species which put this tiny, unknown reserve onto the birding map. On this day it took a little longer than usual, although "Panchito" the local Giant Antpitta duly obliged by hopping up on to its favoured rotting tree stump and gobbling down the daily worms laid out for it, while the photographers among us were whipped into a frenzy by this extraordinary,  though now almost expected, scene. A brief male Crested Quetzal distracted while we waited for the next "performance"...

Angel and his brother Rodrigo were busy trying to find their local Moustached and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, and finally Angel found two of them at the same spot! The Ochre-breasted Antpitta, amusingly nicknamed "Shakira" by Angel due to its habit of wiggling it hips somewhat in the manner of the Colombian popstar of the same name, was the most obliging, lingering on an open branch for a long time, while the Moustached Antpitta was typically more furtive, remaining very much in the background and reluctant to show itself to all. Having climbed up the steep hill from the cock-of-the-rock lek/display area we were relieved of the break, with the altitude taking its toll on some. However, while Angel had shown us some of "his" birds upslope, his brother had been working busily downslope to try and lure in one of the other, more difficult, species. Thus, before long, and before we had barely caught our breath from both the climb and incredulity of the avian events unfolding, we were being summoned back down again. Unsurprisingly, some of the group point blank refused to descend again and face another uphill struggle. However, a handful of hearty folks joined me as we looked on while two Rufous-breasted Antthrushes wandered in and out of sight in the darker recesses of the forest. 

With all this action, the morning was quickly slipping away, and Angel beckoned us once more to make our way through a cow pasture to the edge of the cloudforest, where he was hoping "Thomas" may just show up. Thomas is the latest of the reserve's avian celebrities, an Ocellated Tapaculo, which while being easy to hear, had been proving difficult to see of late, and so we waited nervously while Angel tried to whistle it in. The birds attention was soon peaked and began loudly crying back. However, for an age it seemed it remained well downslope, and seemingly uninterested in making the climb to greet us. However, slowly but surely the cries of the tapaculo came closer, and closer, and then suddenly the black, white, and orange, polka-dotted form of the Ocellated Tapaculo apeared right out in the open, looking every bit as spectacular as any field guide illustration. A very happy group were then happy to take a break and have one of the reserve's famous hearty brunches made of local traditional food: Bolones (a ball of plantain stuffed with chicken), and cheese empanadas. Although, the birding did not stop for brunch, as Black-capped and Golden-naped Tanagers appeared by the makesift restaurant, before the morning's prize bird, a startlingly bright male Orange-breasted Fruiteater graced a fruiting tree, visible while coffee (or empanada) were in hand; a great end to our time in the northwest Andes of Ecuador.

My Cape Bird Club tour continued though with two days up in the high Andes just over on the east slope, where both staggering scenery and fantastic birds, not to mention a natural hot springs, awaited us...

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