by Katie Stacey
Our first day trip is to Refugio Paz de Las Aves, a 25-hectare nature reserve owned by Angel Paz or as I came to think of him, The Man Who Talks to Birds. Angel is primarily a beef farmer but he has a keen passion for birds. In 2005 Angel discovered an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek and that is where our day begins, amongst a tangle of forest watching flashes of orange as the males manically dance from tree to tree in an effort to impress the females. After that first hour of dawn the lek draws to a close, but our day with Angel has only just begun for he has a plethora of highly cryptic and notoriously hard to see birds to show us. He begins with the family of dark backed wood quail, a pair with one chick, which appear on Angel’s call and pose prettily for pictures in exchange for a banana. This is just the start of Angel’s now world-famous flock, which all began with a bird named Maria. Maria, as it turns out, is a giant antpitta – a bird only rediscovered in the early 90’s after decades of essentially being ‘lost’ – who answers to her name and a few scattered worms. Since Maria has come Andreaita – a rufous headed antpitta, Philamina – a yellow bellied antpitta as well as a moustached antpitta and a pair of ochre breasted antpittas whose names I didn’t catch.
Day two we head in search of a rather unique bird – in fact it is the only nocturnal, fruit eating bird in the world and each night they can fly up to 75 miles from their cave in search of food. It is the oilbird. Their name comes from their nestlings which become very fat, often double the size of their parent, who indigenous people used to collect to boil down for their oil. Our guide for the morning is Antonio, a man who used to sell oilbirds to collectors but who now takes people to see them instead. In a slow month Antonio has around 100 visitors, and in a busy month this number goes up to 250. I can immediately understand what attracts people to come and visit these furby-like creatures. Sat in pairs on rocky ledges in a narrow cave, some are merely silhouettes – their long whiskers and heavy hooked bill their most defining features. But a few sit out, rufous brown with a white-spotted plumage – to me they look like overgrown nightjars (in fact they come from the same order, Caprimulgiformes). Antonio warns us not to be afraid of the screams, snarls and snoring sounds they make – I’m surprised to learn that people find them scary? Instead I find their noises rather endearing. Oilbirds are monogamous and spend most of the day in their pairs, even when they are not nesting, mutually preening and reaffirming their bond.
On our way back we drove through the valleys where swallow tailed kites and white collared swifts played on the thermals, while pale mandible aracari and red billed parrots foraged in the tree line. On the last stretch approaching Bellavista, amidst the swirling clouds, we caught a glimpse of a hook billed kite, and just up the road from there a crested quetzal sat perched on a low hanging branch across the road.
Our final day trip from Bellavista was to the Amagusa Reserve; 130 hectares of privately protected land that boasted an incredible list of stunning tanagers. It’s jewel in the crown the glistening green tanager – an endemic to the Choco region. Others of note included the flame faced, lemon rumped, golden, golden naped, blue grey, black chinned and moss backed tanager who would clear the feeders when the crimson rumped toucanette turned up. A little further down the road we saw the most incredibly camouflaged lyre tailed nightjar, and we even caught a quick glimpse of the indigo flower piercer. Then at the heart of the reserve, after 25 minutes of tackling a very steep, slippery slope down and then up again we came across a club winged manakin lekking. Not a hike for the faint hearted but a location guaranteed for that species according to our guide.
We finished the trip at Macquipacuna, one of the pioneers of nature reserves in Ecuador, and known to be the best place in the world to see Andean bear. Unfortunately our stay didn’t coincide with the fruiting of the trees that attract the bears, so no sightings for us, but in its beautiful forests and pristine rivers can also be found an astonishing 4% of the planet’s bird species! Our first walk out from the lodge revealed rufous crowned motmot, barred and white whiskered puffbird, swallow tanagers, common pootoo and choco toucan. While down at the river we had a very close encounter with one of the world’s deadliest snakes – the fer de lance.
When faced with a trip to South America you can be in awe of the options, the habitats and species to explore – it can be a tough choice. But not only is Ecuador the country with the second most bird species in the world, it’s size makes it easy and accessible to explore – especially with locations only a stones throw from Quito. Within an hour of the airport you can be viewing over 15 hummingbird species in one location!
A version of this article was first published in Bird Watching magazine October 2019