Legendary among birders who have enjoyed the best of the Americas is the man who speaks to antpittas. Long before I ever traveled to Ecuador, I heard tales of Angel Paz, of how he has trained special, secretive birds to come when he calls. The absurdity of antpittas, these large, charismatic underbrush-lurking antbirds, putting on a performance for some warm worm salad is matched only by its allure. Could the original antpitta-whisperer call out his charges for me?
My second day in Ecuador dawned while we (I, David, Renato & Paola, and many others) waited at the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek at Refugio Paz de Las Aves. Spotting these scarlet birds, among the coolest and most coveted in the tropics, would be enough to rouse me from an all-too-short sleep. Yet at Paz de las Aves, the cocks-of-the-rock were simpy the appetizer. What a way to start the day!
Actually, my day began hours earlier and involved way more mud than I’m accustomed to before sunrise. But a slick descent into lush, vertical cloudforest brought us to a large lovely blind right up against the lek. The grunting of Sickle-winged Guans, the common cracid in these parts, should have signaled the approach of our quarry but merely portended more guans crashing through the trees. It seemed the cocks-of-the-rock had better things to do that morning than lek. Fortunately, one brilliant red bird observed us from afar and was consequently observed by us.
The lek was a part of the grand show presented by Angel Paz and his brother, one act in a wild carnival of birds that every bird watcher on this planet should endeavor to see. From the one blind, we moved to a second one nearby, one rigged with an elaborate system of pulleys laden with bananas, papayas, and other tropical fruits. At least four continents were represented as we all jockeyed for position, expensive optics at the ready. What followed was honestly the most spectacular parade of feeder birds I’ve ever seen in my life.
First came the Sickle-winged Guans
Next, some magical Crimson-rumped Toucanets
Soon, an Olivaceous Piha took center stage
Toucan Barbets were stars of the show for obvious reasons
Once they cleared out, tanagers had their moment. Observe how slight the distinction is between Black-chinned and Blue-winged Mountain-tanagers…
Of course, these weren’t the only species to stop by for a nosh. Crimson-mantled Woodpeckers, Red-headed Barbets, and various hummingbirds also buzzed by. But the staggered, almost ritual procession of the birds above blew me away, as did the astonishing opportunity for pictures of a lifetime. The care that the Paz brothers put into creating a setting that offered such a panoply of species at point blank range in near perfect light established them at that moment as true geniuses of neotropical birding. And I hadn’t even seen any of their famed antpittas yet…