There are moments in a person’s life that one immediately knows one will remember forever.  Every tiny little moment seems crystal clear when it happens but afterward it might seem like a blur.  The loss of one’s virginity.  Meeting the love of one’s life.  The birth of a child.  Hand-feeding a Giant Antpitta.

Wait.  Hand-feeding a Giant Antpitta?  How could I include such a trivial thing on a list of amazingly important moments?  If you had ever hand-fed a Giant Antpitta you wouldn’t be asking such a question.  For my justification and rationalization please keep reading.  This really will make sense, I promise.

Refugio Paz de Las Aves is famous in birding circles as the best place in the world to see a Giant Antpitta.  And we are not talking about any old antpitta here, but one Giant Antpitta in particular, the much-lauded and much-loved Maria.  But how did this antpitta get recognized as an individual and become so famous?  It is all thanks to a patient and kind man with the absolutely fitting name of Angel Paz.

The following is adapted from the Refugio Paz de las Aves website:

Back in the beginning of the 21st century Angel and his family, who had made their living logging, had plans for their property, and it did not include antpittas.  They were going to log their cloudforest in northwestern Ecuador and farm the land once the trees had been sold.

Fortunately Angel had a chance meeting with someone who let him know that tourists might like to see the bright orange birds, Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, that gathered at a lek in his forest to display to female cock-of-the-rock.  Angel learned that if he constructed a good path to the lek people would pay to come see the birds!  Of course, this sounded like a better way to live than chopping down the forest so Angel started building a trail.  As he did, several of a tasty species of bird known as the Giant Antpitta would come out to the edge of the new trail and eat the worms exposed by the trail building.  Angel briefly considered eating the antpittas but decided he would first find out if anyone wanted to see them.  The answer was a resounding YES so he not only did not eat the antpittas but managed to get several individuals of different species trained to come to him in search of juicy, succulent worms.  Maria, the Giant Antpitta, however, became and remains the star of the show.

Maria and Angel Paz

Why has Maria become famous?  Antpittas in general are described in The Birds of Ecuador as “shy and elusive” and it is noted that they “are infrequently seen.”  The Giant Antpitta in particular is described as “rare and seemingly local” and “normally elusive.”  For such an infrequently seen species to be willing to not only be seen, but to put on a show, is astounding.  Birders the world over, who have beat a trail to Rufugio Paz de las Aves, owe Angel Paz a debt of gratitude.  Angel, on the other hand, knows to whom he owes his success, and he makes sure that Maria is well-fed and content.

Of course, with the great trails, hummingbird feeders, and quality habitat that Angel has preserved there are now many birders who visit Refugio Paz de las Aves to see not just antpittas and cocks-of-the-rock but a variety of tanagers, hummingbirds, barbets, quetzals, and a host of other species.  Angel Paz, without aid from foundations or governments, managed to preserve a sliver of habitat and support his family from the proceeds of ecotourism.  His story is a successful one and he should be both lauded and emulated.

Maria and me.  Photo by Alison Mirth.

So how does this story end up with me feeding Maria?  Well, shortly after the picture up above with Angel petting Maria was taken Angel signaled Renato and Renato told me to go over by Angel.  I thought I was just going to get my picture taken with Maria on her stump of a pedestal, which was cool enough, but the next thing I knew Angel was handing me worm-chunks and I was giving them to Maria.  She not only took several worms from me, once nipping my finger, but she made a sound that was somewhere between a purr and a coo.  I am not anthropomorphizing when I say that I could tell that this bird was happy.

Me and Maria.  Photo by Alison Mirth.

Making a rare and elusive bird that is as iconic and awesome as a Giant Antpitta happy and hearing that happiness expressed was a magical experience.  It was better than seeing my 1,000th bird, better than breaking 300 species in New York in one year, better than self-finding a rarity, better than winning a prize in the Superbowl of Birding.  It was the best moment I have ever had while birding.  So, yeah, I rank it up there with the seminal moments of my life.

That Angel Paz maintains the trails, keeps the feeders stocked, guides visitors, gets the antpittas to come out, and provides (absolutely delicious) food and drink, all for fifteen American dollars a head, is simply amazing.  Of course, the tour companies charge the birders they bring to Refugio Paz de las Aves a whole lot more than what Angel charges them.  Angel, after all, just recently got a website up (thanks to Renato), and he does not speak English, which makes it difficult for him to book tourists on his own.  He is dependent upon the tour companies to bring him visitors.

The money spent on tour companies by and large leaves Ecuador and serves to enrich folks in the first world.  Money spent at Refugio Paz de las Aves directly supports a family that is working to conserve and protect habitat and birds.  This is not to say that birders shouldn’t visit Maria through big tour companies.  Big tour companies are, after all, how most people find their way to Refugio Paz de las Aves.  Birders should, however, be aware that when they visit Refugio Paz de las Aves they are getting an incredible bargain and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pick up a few souvenirs while they are there.  It is often difficult when one is giving money to a conservation cause to ascertain if one’s money is actually going where one hopes for it to go.  At the Refugio Paz de las Aves it is abundantly obvious that the money one spends is going directly to someone who has staked his livelihood on preserving habitat and birds.  And saving habitat and birds like at the Refugio Paz de las Aves is worth far more than a mere $15.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.