20 October 2016

Fighting Cocks….ECUADOR (5 Oct)

In 2005 a young farmer in Mindo named Angel Paz found a display ground of the extraordinary Andean Cock-of-the-rock on his land, and so proceeded to build a trail to it. The rest that followed is something of a birding legend

While doing the backbreaking work of digging a trail through the steep cloudforest, Angel noticed a large brown ball of a bird following him through the newly turned earth. He thought little of it, but was endeared to his new forest friend, not knowing the true gravity of this sighting. He noticed that it would forage for worms on a recently cut path, and so took to feeding the bird its chosen food. Not long after, Angel was ready to present his newly built trail, and blind, to the birding world, so they could marvel too at the displays of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, one of the most beautiful forest birds in the Andes, and one famed for drawing crowds of avian-loving onlookers. The first groups came, and were suitably impressed with the fighting cocks, and were then, somewhat nonchalantly, made aware of his other habituated bird, which hopped out on the trail, and was then named quickly by people with considerably more bird knowledge in the visiting group, as none other than the rare, and highly desirable Giant Antpitta, a species that had eluded most from the birding fraternity, even those who called Ecuador home. Word spread like wild fire, a gettable Giant Antpitta was red hot news, and within just a few weeks, this new reserve Paz de as Aves, was quickly entered on the regular birding circuit, and has remained there to this day. While Maria, the Giant Antpitta brought fame to this locale, Angel and his determined brother Rodrigo swiftly studied their birds, and learned them well, quickly developing into the top quality guides they have become today. Now they boast not only a Giant Antpitta or two, but a whole series of scarce forest birds that not only call their reserve home, but also regularly show for visiting birders at close quarters. More than a decade on, the list of birds that the Paz Brothers have managed to habituate has grown long: 5 species of antpittas – normally shy forest birds that only the most determined birders can claim to have seen – Chestnut-crowned, Yellow-breasted, Ochre-breasted and Moustached having all joined the list with the original species; Rufous-breasted Antthrush; Dark-breasted Wood-Quail; Sickle-winged Guan; Ocellated Tapaculo; Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan, Crimson-rumped Toucanet, Olivaceous Piha, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager, and Toucan Barbet have also all been involved at various times, although some of these have gone just as suddenly as they came. Simply put, this reserve has become a fixture on almost every tour to the area, and for good reason, as nowhere offers these species so easily, or so often. Since it opened its doors in 2005, the taming of antpittas in this way has been learned by others and spread not only to other reserves in Ecuador, but also across the northern part of the continent; antpitta feeding stations have now been initiated in the forests of Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, making many species of antpitta more available than ever been before!
So, as you can imagine, we approached the site with some excitement. I have been there on numerous previous occasions, but my enthusiasm for the site, and respect for the achievements of the extraordinary Paz Brothers remains undiminished. Angel met us, and others (for this is a place that you rarely experience alone, due to its widespread birding fame), and led us down into the deep and dark rainforest, to a moss-encrusted blind, where even before we got stepped inside had revealed its subject; the raucous, ugly, and pig-like squeals of waking Andean Cock-of-the-rocks were heard as we descended the trail, and announced the coming of another dawn time display by these birds, a daily ritual since time immemorial. While the birds will never be revered as great songsters, they more than makeup for this in their gorgeous appearance; the males are retinal-burning, bright scarlet, with a permanently raised crest that hides its bill completely, below a tuft of red feathers. The bird is bright red pretty much from head to toe, save for black-and-silvery-grey wings. You are extremely unlikely to mistake this species for any other, as it is utterly unique. On arrival at the blind, the noises of the excited birds were conspicuous, but the birds were not. In spite of their dazzling colouration, these striking cocks used the abundant rainforest tangles well, using the multitude of hanging vines as an effective screen from our eager, prying eyes. Our cameras remained dormant, and the gathered group grew frustrated. However, Angel watched calmly by; he knew these birds well, and saw no cause for alarm. Dawn came and went, and the birds continued their excited wing flapping, which only the most generous observer could label as a display dance, and loudly proclaimed their abilities as a worthy male, and mate. Meanwhile, the people assembled eyed them with considerable yearning, an open branch lying conspicuously empty of birds in front of the blind. Then, once dawn was already well into the rearview mirror, one of the Cock-of-the-rocks finally obliged, and dropped onto to this perfect perch. If there had been any doubt that there were plentiful cameras among the assembled group, the sound of shutters working away furiously soon dispelled this myth! The cock-of-the-rocks displays grew ever more frenzied, and the birders excitement quickly seemed to equal that of the birds themselves. Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, they shot off into the forest, with a blurred burst of vivid red; their raucous call notes trailing behind them. They were likely gone for the day, until the next day, and the next dawn, when this immortalized ritual will no doubt start all over again once more.
A visit to Paz de las Aves is an odd birding experience, as you are shuffled from one great bird to another, as if every individual bird has been booked for a prompt appointment. So, next up, was a covey of Dark-backed Wood-Quails, a species that is rare and local in South America, being confined to the Choco bioregion of western Colombia and northwest Ecuador. Even where it occurs, it is scarce, and rarely seen without considerable effort, and a drop of good fortune. This applies everywhere, except Paz de las Aves. Just moments after the peak of the performance from the cock-of-the-rocks, we turned to see the wood-quail excitedly gathered around Angels feet as he tossed juicy chunks of banana on to the forest floor! Not long after we were herded onto another near forest trail, where this time the subject was rarer still – Giant Antpitta. Like the wood-quail, it never gave itself away as a rare and shy forest species that birders had longed for, for many years before the birds here became so readily available. On this occasion, a young bird hopped into the open, rejecting the words of both shy and difficult as it did so! Not long after, a second group of half a dozen Dark-backed Wood-Quail appeared to, appearing more like pets than the wild birds they actually were, as they swarmed around the feeder!
We then took a short walk down to a nearby rushing mountain river, stopping for Angel to gesture at a cryptic shape lurking deep within the dark shadows of an overhang, which showed itself to be a Lyre-tailed Nightjar. Once at the river our focus narrowed, and we waited while both Angel and his brother Rodrigo worked tirelessly to get the attention of the local Yellow-breasted Antpitta, by whistling it to them with a flawless imitation of the birds call. This is often one of the most reliable of the local antpittas to see, although on this day at least, it gave us a little scare, making us wait for a while, until it finally emerged out of the forest gloom. It was now only an hour or so after dawn and we had already seen some very special birds: Andean Cock-of-the-rock, Dark-backed Wood-Quail, Giant and Yellow-breasted Antpittas, and Lyre-tailed Nightjar. However, we did not stop there. Unlike the previous species, the next one required us to be patient, and to work for it, relatively speaking, as we were required to climb up to the top of a short, though near-vertical, cloud forest trail. Waiting for us at the top, we hoped, would be a Rufous-breasted Antthrush. It was not actually waiting, although several loud whistles from Angel later, and the bird scurried along a fallen tree right in front of us to pick off the worms laid down there for it. This was the species that was marketed as the least reliable of the regular birds on site, so we left feeling pretty happy with ourselves, as we headed further up to the road to another forest trail. This penultimate, penultimate stop was to try for a further brace of antpittas: Ochre-breasted and Moustached Antpittas. The former proved elusive and unresponsive, never appearing, while the latter took a little time to show, though eventually hopped alongside the trail, where we needed to squeeze up tight to all be able to see it, taking our turns patiently to take a position with a view to it. 
It was then time for a long-standing tradition at this site; a tasty brunch of bolones and empanadas, cooked by the women of the Paz clan. Their small Café overlooks both hummingbird feeders and some fruit feeders too, allowing us to take in such avian treats as Velvet-purple Coronet, Empress Brilliant, and Flame-faced and Golden-naped Tanagers while we ate. Late on, some of the local Crimson-rumped Toucanets and Toucan Barbets also appeared, before we departed for one-more-antpitta
The last one required us to walk 20 metres into the forest, but this was no great burden for a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, which was arguably the best looking of all the antpittas seen that morning. After returning to Tandayapa for lunch again, and to check out, we regrettably, needed to head back into the Metropolis of Quito, leaving the cloudforest, and many, memorable avian moments behind

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