Day one we left Quito on our blue bus at 6:00 a.m.; fourteen birders, three guides, Paul, Steve and Juan plus our bus driver, Enrique. Soon the rush of Monday morning traffic thinned and we traveled the black top highway easily. Before long we left the highway to wind our way over the northwestern flank of the massive Pichincha Volcano to the Yanacoche Reserve.
First we traveled a cobblestone road, and then negotiated gravel switch backs to bring us to a parking spot complete with toilet facilities, picnic tables covered with a thatched roof and a spectacular view.
The group hiked the flat and easy trail, lined with mossy, entangled vegetation. Because the Reserve is at 11,000 ft., three of us didn’t attempt the hike due to our queasy, high altitude feelings. We stayed at the picnic tables for the three hours the group was gone, spotting a number of birds there, including the Buff-winged Starfrontlet hummingbird.
When the group re-gathered, a picnic at the parking lot gave us all energy to go on to the next adventure. We proceeded down the slopes along the “Paseo del Quinde” Eco-route towards the Mindo Valley. The name for this pilot Eco-route – Quinde is the Quechua term for hummingbird and a paseo is an excursion or stroll.
As we crossed the bridge into Tandayapa Village two local men waved us down. Leaving the bus, these men lead us through a villager’s home and down a short rocky trail to the edge of the water. After climbing down the rocks on the river bank, we saw the female cock of the rock sitting on her nest under the bridge. She flew off down the river before I got into a position to see her. After returning to the bridge, Enrique motioned me to come with him down the bank on the other side of the river. Climbing down the steep bank without his help would have been impossible, but he led me to a spot near the bridge, motioned for me to stoop down with my camera and capture her picture. The dim light made it nearly impossible to see this large dark carmine bird, but I pointed the camera, hoped and shot.
Driving another short distance, we arrived at our lodge, Septimo Paraiso, in time for dinner. My husband and I were assigned a lovely big room with an open balcony. Looking out over the trees, we realized we could stand there forever and see many birds.
Our group visited two of the Mindo Cloud Forest Foundation’s newly created bird sanctuaries. The first, the Milpe Bird Sanctuary is located a few kilometers north of the village, San Jose’ de Milpe. The entrance is on a gravel road just before San Miguel de Los Bancos. At 3,650 feet in the Andean Foothills, the Milpe Bird Sanctuary is a birder’s paradise in this Los Bancos-Milpe Important Bird Area (IBA) as defined by Birdlife International.
As we entered the sanctuary we saw a neat refreshment area with five hummingbird stations and a separate gift shop building. The shop is stocked with crafts and items designed and produced by the local villagers. Luis Yanca and his wife Germania manage the area and operate the gift shop. Luis is the president of the Los Bancos village organization.
We hiked through the forest on a fairly flat path, stopping frequently to check for mixed flocks of birds. Then down a steep, rough path to search for more species of birds. The steep paths had steps carved or built with stones or logs and a rope “handrail” to aid the searching birders at the steepest spots.
A respite of drinks and snacks provided a pause in the day. Hummingbirds zoomed around us, providing more entertainment. After our rest, we walked out to the reserve’s entrance road. The foundation has proposed this road be designated by the government as an Eco-route also. Designation as an Eco-route authorizes a rural road with access to good habitat to be managed by the community for sustainable nature tourism with a conservation focus. We hiked a long way down the road constantly spotting more birds.
Another day after an early breakfast, we drove from our lodge, up the hill to the intersection with the highway. Tall street lights at the bus stop attract moths all night. At first light, flocks of birds frantically chase the moths for an early morning banquet. Explanations, pointing and identifying birds kept up at a frantic pace. It was hard to decide where to look, here, no here, no over here! The trees were full of blue, green, yellow and red beautifully feathered creatures greedily gulping moths. The whole scene was encased in floating clouds over the forest so each picture we took was framed in a white mist cover. After the frenzied eating died down, we walked the road back down the hill to the lodge scanning the forest for more birds along the way.
Arriving at the lodge, we encountered more hummingbirds. A circular bench in the center of a large area encircled by shrubs in front of our lodge offered more hummers buzzing, darting, hovering and zipping by us. Six double hung stations with two hummingbird feeders each surrounded the area. I tried to catch photos of the hummingbirds not sitting on the feeders as I struggled to know the optimum pointing of the camera.
We visited the Rio Silanche Sanctuary, at 1,350 feet, located just north of the town of Pedro Vicente Maldonado. This sanctuary protects the tropical lowland forest, and is the last bit of forest in that area. The next nearest forest is 78 km away. This reserve is part of the foundation’s intent to increase the number of protected forest fragments in the area and to implement forest regeneration with native species on marginal farmlands to form a biological corridor.
At Rio Silanche, we climbed the canopy tower, a forty-five foot construction. Six sets of switch-back stairs led up to a platform about eight feet square that looks out over the forest. All the binoculars scanned the foliage looking for movement in the trees. The first half hour was a bust…nothing. Discouraged, we nearly gave up. Suddenly the trees exploded. First on one side and then another. For the next three hours it was non-stop. Mixed flocks of tanagers, dacnis, barbets, toucans, treehunters, wood creepers and antwrens swarmed first on one side of us and then on another with viewing 360º.
Birder’s calls rang out, “There’s a dusky bush-tanager in the top of that tree at 11:00 just left of the tallest palm.” All eyes swerved to that point and three spotting scopes focused in that direction.
Many of us appreciated the functioning baño located at the base of the tower. The ever-present hummingbirds swarmed the flowers around the tower. The Birds of Ecuador Field Guide pictures one hundred thirty-one species of hummingbirds in the country. Our group saw thirty-seven varieties during the week.
We finally left the tower reluctantly, and explored a couple of forest paths, the easiest we had walked all week. Split into two groups, different understory mixed flocks entertained us before lunch. Our picnic lunch in the yard of the local family who manages the reserve gave us an opportunity to rest and continued to scout for more birds.
On our most amazing day, we rose early, ate a bite of breakfast and boarded the bus by 4:45 am. We wanted to arrive at an Andean cock-of-the-rock lek by dawn. After a lengthy drive in a thick fog, we arrived at the Paz Antpitta Reserve. A magical time awaited us. Angel Paz and his brother, Rodrigo, met the bus and led us in the dark down a difficult path of steep steps. On my forehead, a climber’s headlamp lit my way as I groped my way down the path.
Angel and his brother manage their mother’s land. About 30 hectares are farmed and another 40 hectares left in its original growth of sub-tropical forest. Farmers usually follow the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers before them to make a living. Cutting down trees to farm the land has been the accepted practice for generations. As the idea of conservation is raised, some farmers begin to see that perhaps there are different ways to do things. One of these farmers is Angel Paz.
Two things happened to Angel. He had been cutting down the trees to create farming areas. He loved the trees, but this seemed necessary. Also he had shot and killed an eagle that was catching his chickens. He began to think there had to be a better way.
He heard about some of his neighbors attending a workshop that offered some alternatives. He attended one of the eight workshops offered by the Mindo Cloud Forest Foundation. He remembered the cock-of-the-rock lek on his land and recognized that tourists would pay to see these spectacular bright red birds call and display. He also realized that tourists wouldn’t pay to stomp through the thick foliage.
Angel went home and began to cut out steps down the steep slope to the lek. Over time he has built a platform – both to aid the tourists in focusing where to see the birds and to restrain the tourists from wandering into the bird’s area of calling and dancing.
The cock-of-the-rocks call constantly for that brief period at dawn and dance through the thick forest. They come into view through the thick foliage just enough to excite those viewing then. Nearly every day, some tourists come. On behalf of the birds, Angel manages how many people can come each morning.
Angel has improved the path with uneven steps of stones rocks, mud or logs. Heavy rope strung along some of the steepest parts of the path serve as handrails. We stayed on the platform watching and listening to the loud squawking and grunting calls of the cock-of-the-rock until the activity on the lek died down.
Angel then led our group back up a hill and around on a loop path through the trees. An off shoot climb down to another small platform revealed several pullies rigged to pull fruit out to notches in the trees. A pair of sickle winged guans and a squirrel cuckoo came in to eat the fruit while we watched.
We ventured on uphill and down, stepping carefully so as not to fall. We stopped periodically to look for mixed flocks as they fly through the trees eating fruit.
We soon discovered we had not yet seen the most magical site on this reserve. Angel had discovered, while digging the steps to the lek, that giant earthworms are the food of choice for the antpittas. As he had fun offering these elusive birds a treat of worms, gradually they came to get the worms as he called them.
Finally, down another steep slope, we see a semi-circle beach Angel and Rodriquez had built in a clearing. Sitting was a welcome relief. Angel moved about fifteen or so yards away from us and indicated we needed to stay very quiet. He began to call softly, “Maria, venga, venga!” (come, come). As we waited breathlessly, Angel called again, two or three times. To our astonishment, even though we knew this was to happen, out of the dense undergrowth quietly walked a gorgeous rufous bird. She looked like a tilted football on toothpicks. As she came toward Angel, our cameras clicked, “no flash” had been requested.
Maria took a couple of worms. Then Angel placed some worms on a tree stump about fifteen inches high. Maria hopped up on the stump and enjoyed this treat. Then she hopped back down and disappeared into the forest.
Angel motioned for us to stay quietly where we were and he called again, “Maria, venga, venga.” This gorgeous giant antpitta came strolling out of the dense undergrowth again to receive another feast of worms. A repeat performance, over to Angel, and then up on the stump. Too soon, she hops down and disappears again.
The group then is invited to descend a steeper trail to the river. On the river bank, Angel called out Willy, a yellow-breasted antpitta who strolls into view for a treat of worms.
Three of us didn’t go down the river trail, but sat resting where we had watched Maria. While the group was gone, Maria came back out on the path for a private showing for those of us who stayed behind. It was as if she remembered there were worms left on the tree stump. Three times she came back out of the tense brush. Scarcely daring to breath, we watched in wonder.
When the “river” group returned, we all started the hard climb back to Angel’s house and our bus. On the way up a steep incline Angel stopped at a dark, cave like spot along the trail. Lurking back in the dark was the moustached antpitta, Susana. While we watched in quiet Angel called and she also came close for her share of the worms.
For birders, antpittas are notoriously difficult to see. Birds of the forest floor, they disappear from site in their shades of brown, rufous and gray. They may be heard, but seldom seen. Anyone who has birded in the South American tropics has looked for antpittas in mostly frustrating, semi-successful bits and starts. That is what makes the happenings on the Paz Reserve so unbelievable. As Robert Ridgely, an American ornithologist, specializing in the neotropics said, “What Angel Paz has managed with the antpittas is impossible, it’s amazing, it’s incredible.”
After the climb past Susana, the moustached antpitta, I assumed this show was over – NOT.
Struggling upward on a few more slopes, round a curve, and there…on a relatively flat area is a string of hummingbird feeders. Those who find a log, sit down in grateful rest and take in another spectacular humming, buzzing, shirring show with 19-20 species of hummers. I was sure we must be back at the house by then, but no, quite a bit more path, more open and easier to climb remained. By now, mid-morning, mixed flocks of tanagers, becards, kingbirds, and wrens are seen.
Finally, returning to our point of departure, we now see a breathtaking view and find picnic tables on a thatched covered platform. All enjoy a traditional breakfast prepared by Angel’s wife which includes bolon de verde (fried green plantain dumplings), empanadas (fried pastry shells stuffed with sweet or savory filling), fruit salad and steaming hot café.
Our last day brought another early departure to find other important species. Walking along the Eco-route, we branched off on several side roads. Finally the hour was getting late and the clouds were beginning to roll in. We rejoined the highway and returned to Quito for a final celebrative dinner with lots of conversation about the many spectacular birds we had seen. Northwestern Ecuador had provided many incredible memories and photos to enjoy forever.