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The bird whisperers of Ecuador



Published: Sat, October 1, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

Back in 2004, as birding boomed in many Latin American countries, Angel Paz discovered an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek on his family’s property in northwestern Ecuador.

These chunky, brilliant red birds display on communal mating grounds called leks and are highly sought after by birders. The bird’s prominent crest is laterally compressed and covers most of the bill; it reminds me of a Donald Trump comb-over.

Paz soon discovered that birders from all over the world came to Ecuador for a chance to some of the country’s 1,600 species of birds.

So he began carving a trail through the jungle to reach the lek. There he built a blind where visitors could view the birds’ elaborate courtship displays. The brightly colored males gather for about an hour after dawn to put on a show to attract females.

Paz’s hunch has paid off. Birders happily pay to visit the lek. Last week I had a chance to visit the Paz Reserve. We arrived before sunrise and hurried up and down the steep jungle trails to reach the blind just as the display began. It was a difficult hike that took about 20 minutes.

At the blind I joined seven other birders to watch the courtship behavior. About the size of an ordinary pigeon, the male cocks-of-the-rock put on quite a show. With two to four males on display at any moment, they performed about 20 yards away.

The courtship displays included bowing, strutting and jumping. Vocalizations consisted primarily of loud grunts and squawks. After about 40 minutes, the birds dispersed to feeding areas.

Though the cock-of-the-rock show was over, the main event was yet to come. Paz led the group away from the lek and stopped just a few minutes up the trail. There he pulled out a small container of freshly caught, washed and diced earthworms. He stepped in front of the group to a wide spot in the trail and began calling — “Maria, Maria.”

Almost immediately the dense vegetation on the jungle floor began to rustle, and a strange bird appeared on the trail just 12 feet in front of us. It was a giant antpitta.

Colored in earth tones and about 9 inches tall, it stood on unusual long legs and had a very short tail. This was really the bird I had come to see. As Paz offered pieces of worms, the bird gobbled them up.

Antpittas spend most of their time on the ground in dense jungle vegetation and are notoriously difficult to see. But when Angle Paz was building the trail to the cock-of-the-rock lek, he discovered that they sometimes emerged to eat earthworms uncovered by his trail building activity.

Paz quickly learned that birders would also pay to see these unusual birds. So slowly, over many months as he built his trail, he befriended the antpittas. He collected earthworms, rinsed them and cut them into bite-sized pieces. And each day he fed them and called them by name. In all, four species of antpittas live along the trail.

On my visit to the Paz Reserve, Angel had a very good day. As we continued back to the beginning of the trail, we made several more stops.

Each time, Paz whistled and called out names — “Donna,” “Shakira,” “Jose.” And each time a new species appeared — first the giant, then the ochre-breasted, the mustached and the yellow-breasted antpittas. I had hoped for one species of antpitta, but I got a grand slam.

Then Paz pulled out some pieces of banana and whistled one more time. Soon a covey of seven dark-backed wood-quail appeared. They took turns scrambling up and down the trail for ripe pieces of fruit.

The Paz Reserve (http://refugiopazdelasaves.com) has become one of the most famous and popular birding spots in Ecuador. Reservations are required, so only a handful of people can visit each day. The Paz Reserve illustrates how even small landowners can generate income from tourists without destroying the land. (I paid $20 for my morning adventure.)

And the Paz family’s success has not gone unnoticed. Where antpittas occur, many lodges employ “bird whisperers” who, like Paz, call and feed birds that would otherwise be almost impossible for birders to see.

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or by email via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com


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