Day 72: Birding With a Local Legend

A former logger now maintains one of the best birding spots in Ecuador.

March 13, 2015, Angel of the Antpittas, Mindo, Ecuador—Edison and I made a pilgrimage today to see a real-life birding angel. His name is Angel Paz (literally “Angel Peace”), and, if you go birding in northwest Ecuador, you pretty much have to pay your respects.  

In a former life, Angel was a logger. His dad bought some property covered with thick cloud forest, and Angel moved in and began chainsawing—he was said to be one of the fastest, most efficient tree-cutters in the region (as he told me at breakfast today, the faster you cut down trees, the more money you make). He hunted the birds on the property, and started a blackberry farm in the cleared areas.

About a decade ago, someone noticed an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek (mating display site) in a remaining forest fragment on the property and advised Angel to charge tourists admission to see the strange birds, so he built a trail to the spot. One day, a group of birders visited and a Giant Antpitta—a spectacular, rare, and elusive species—hopped out of the shadows. Forget the Cock-of-the-Rocks, they said; if you can show people that antpitta, they’ll probably pay double.

So, Angel began stalking the Giant Antpitta. He came to know its habits, and, when he got close enough, offered the bird food. At first, he brought it spaghetti and meat, but the antpitta didn’t like the taste of human fare. When Angel eventually rustled up some worms, the bird scarfed them down. Bingo!

At the time, most birders would have scoffed at the idea of feeding any kind of antpitta. All the books said that antpittas are shy and elusive (which, usually, they are), and seeing one typically involved a taped recording and a lot of patience. But antpittas have been known to opportunistically follow large mammals in the forest to scavenge stirred-up bugs, so, in retrospect, Angel’s breakthrough made a certain kind of biological sense.

Word got around that a guy in Ecuador was hand-feeding a wild Giant Antpitta, and astounded birders began showing up to see it for themselves. Angel had named the bird “Maria” (a common local name for many types of small birds in Latin America), and Maria’s fame spread. Angel quit logging, kept the blackberry fields, and increasingly spent his time with birders and birds.

He now has six different species of antpittas staked out on his property, and he showed all of them to us in about three hours this morning: Giant, Yellow-breasted, Ochre-breasted, Chesnut-crowned, Moustached, and Scaled. Edison and I watched Angel feed worms to four of them (the Moustached was too shy to come in today, and the Scaled preferred to sit up in a tree and sing at us). When we arrived at the Giant Antpitta spot, Angel called out, “Maria! Maria! Venga venga venga!” and bird hopped obligingly out of the bushes within 30 seconds. All the antpittas have names: The Chestnut-crowned is Andrea; the Yellow-breasted is Esmeraldas; and the Ochre-breasted, which has a peculiar way of twitching its chest from side to side, is named Shakira.

More than 2,000 birders visited Angel’s property in 2014, and he just finished construction of a beautiful new house with spare rooms for visitors, decorated with engraved-wood antpitta art (Edison and I stayed there last night, and Angel’s wife cooked us dinner and breakfast). He has planted flowers for hummingbirds, maintains two sets of hummer feeders (with an albino female Booted Racket-tail visiting today), and has learned most of the other birds on his property. This morning, besides the Cock-of-the-Rock lek and the antpittas, he showed us a roosting Lyre-tailed Nightjar, a pair of roosting Rufous-bellied Nighthawks, a reclusive Olivaceous Piha, a Rufous-breasted Antthrush which also eats worms, and a family of Dark-backed Wood-Quail which he’s training to eat bananas!

Angel doesn’t speak English; he only recently put up a website (which, when I just tried to check it, returned an error message); and he doesn’t advertise. He’s so busy that you have to call ahead to visit. Others around Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru have started feeding antpittas now, too, but Angel remains the king. It’s a show not to be missed.

New birds today: 27

Year list: 1621

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