El Noroccidente, the Ecuadorian “Northwest”, is famed for its birds: it’s actually officially one of the most bird-rich regions in the world. One can set out to find them —all exotic versions of them— in their own natural environment; a vast majority of visitor sites —hotels, restaurants, reserves…— feature feeders, which attract the most common species. But the Paz de las Aves Refuge takes this experience to a new level.
Dim light breaks through the treetops… green is still a navy blue, the morning hasn’t yet fully announced its grand entrance… But every second brings us closer to the light as our group walks along the muddy trails through a dripping forest. Trills hum, squeal… some sounds seem like strange beeps on flying saucers… sounds from a world inside… We are transported. The forest surrounds us in uncanny wonder.
There is something profoundly exciting about seeing movement in the leaves, the shadows of the first bodies among the branches. Attentively, we spy on these creatures that don’t seem to be aware —perhaps don’t even care— that we’re watching. Every second, light reveals the scene ever more distinctly as we identify the beautiful carmine coloration. A gathering of Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock, an avian specialty of the Chocó bioregion, flutters among the trees. This ‘hangout’ is actually called a lek, a collection of males that meet at this specific point in the forest to engage in unusual dancing duels that define who’s most suited for an onlooking female. As the lush-green curtain opens before our eyes, we quickly notice there are few moments in the forest as intimate as this.
This natural display is just the beginning of the Refugio Paz de las Aves experience. Considered a true “bird whisperer”, Angel Paz has become a celebrity amid birders from around the world. Like many inhabitants of northwestern Pichincha, he began his life as a logger (cutting down trees to support himself and his family), a subsistence farmer, and a hunter, when one fine day he ran into nature lovers who would pay much more than what he was earning from selling wood and/or anything else he could come up with to see the unique birds he had in his backyard. That was a propitious beginning to an impressive new career, because today he not only protects the trees he used to cut down, but offers his visitors the possibility of enjoying an array of exotic species —hummingbirds, quetzals, toucans, tanagers of all colors—, not only does he offer the special opportunity to spy on a Cock-of-the-Rock lek in action, Angel shows us his intimate relationship with some of the most secretive and rare species of his forest world.
Shakira, Susan, Andreita…
The highlight, especially for birdwatchers, is watching Ángel’s performance: that is, bringing some of the most hard-to-find birds out from the depths. To the sound of “come, come… Andeíta… Susan… Shakira…” —among other names he has given specific individuals of each species that, as if they were his intimate friends, come to his hand to feed—, one by one he invites each to hop right out from the densely-tangled undergrowth, each in due time, to make their way to him. Several are antpittas, stubby bodied birds with longish legs that roam around leaf litter, which, only with incredible luck and a great deal of patience could one wish to see in their life. Ángel summons them out with an affectionate call (and some earthworm morsels), so that all visitors can see each species like most could not have imagined possible —you can photograph them, study the most cryptic details of their plumage— at no distance at all. They come hopping out on their two lanky legs, survey the situation, identify their friend, Ángel, and trustingly make their appearance. They pose. They hang out… until their rarity turns almost banal.
Giant, Yellow-breasted, Chestnut-breasted, Moustached antpittas are some of the protagonists, all different in size, pattern, colors… personality. A group of Dark-backed Wood-Quails, chunky forest denizens distantly similar to European quails (though not really related to them and only found in the Americas), also approach. Through these unusual encounters, the forest changes its tone, ceases to be as enigmatic as when we first set foot in it; with the warmth of mid-morning, one begins to feel more connected. Contours turn familiar; dwellers, friendly, inviting.
Apart from the species Ángel manages to “bring out”, an assortment of cloud forest specialties come forth to feeders and flutter by and perch on nearby trees: tanagers, guans, barbets, parrots… some even look for Ángel and suddenly perch on his hand. More than an outing, it sometimes feels like a performance, as awe-inspiring for bird experts as for newbies.
An experience difficult to forget, in the heart of the Chocó bioregion and its cloud forests, so much in need of protection these days in our plight to ensure climate balance and healthy environments. Through the support of tourism projects like these, trees can be protected rather than felled and amazing faunal communities can continue to thrive.
To crown this beautiful adventure surrounded inside one of the most biodiverse forests in the world, a delicious traditional mid-morning breakfast awaits with a delicious bolón or empanada and coffee, courtesy of Diana and María, wives of the Paz brothers.
ONLY IN ECUADOR
Angel Paz was the first bird enthusiast to develop a technique of luring the skulking, difficult-to-find antpittas from the forest deep to his hand; he actually knows the birds by the individual names he’s given them. Ecuador holds the record of most bird species per 1000 m. sq.; most bird species seen in a single day; and is a regular frontrunner during the annual worldwide Christmas Counts.