This post could have easily been wrapped into the other post I am planning about my post-tour trip. After a week in the Galapagos Islands, we were going to be spending four days in the Mindo area. Comparatively, I do not have a lot of photos to post. I really wanted to make a special post about this place, though. It is a remarkable place and experience.
Angel Paz is an interesting figure in the birding world. You can read a far more eloquent article about Angel at this link. In short, Angel is a legend in the birding world. Logger turned ecotourism leader. He pioneered feeding antpittas. For those that do not know, antpittas are incredibly shy birds of the dense forest. Seeing one takes a lot of time and a fair amount of luck. Angel has turned a grueling hunt into an easy affair. Well, the road leading to the family-owned farm is not the easiest drive, but it is not that difficult, either. Angel and his brother (Rodrigo), along with some nephews, have turned the property into a birding mecca. In addition to antpittas, you can find an array of hummingbirds, tanagers, potoo, wood-quail, quetzal, nightjars and nighthawks, and even Ocellated Tapaculo and Toucan Barbet. Tours of the farm can find many other deep-forest specialties, too. If you have been some place where they feed antpittas, you can thank Angel for the experience. Until he did it, no one thought it could be done.
After a couple years of pandemic and limited tourism, things were finally picking up again for Angel. Times had been tight. Tourists were finally flowing back into Ecuador. Then the matriarch of the farm passed. With the passing of Angel's mother, the farm was to be split between the remaining siblings; most of them were not interested in the birding. In fact, most have considered it a waste of time from the beginning - actively encouraging Angel to give it up. The future of the farm was now in question, and Angel and others vowed to raise money to purchase the farm from the other siblings. A Go Fund Me was started and even fully funded. Donations poured in from around the world, and I made sure to contribute. Time will tell how successful the venture proves. All I can really say is that it was still there and running when I arrived.
We arrived a little late at a parking lot looking down a long hill. We could see some people from another party at the bottom of the hill. Our guide hurried us out of the van and down the hill; instructing us to follow as they moved into the forest. Blindly walking down a newly constructed trail, we finally arrived at a small blind set on a hillside. No flash. Focus assist lights needed to be covered. You needed to be quiet. You could already hear the raucous calls of the birds from the other side of the blind. We would be starting with Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. The sun had just risen shortly before we arrived. It was dark, and I was woefully underprepared. The camera was not setup for this, and I was only getting about 1/10s exposures and trying to hand-hold. It was not going to work. As a bird flew up onto an exposed perch for a few minutes, I could only look on in frustration. Finally, I got some settings changed. I was at 1/100s but shooting at ISO 6400. Even then, I was underexposing by a full stop. By this time, the perched bird had flown, and it was a frustratingly long wait for another opportunity. Finally, another bird flew into view, and I squeezed off a number of shots; bracing against the railing as a make-shift tripod. Not long after, the birds cleared out, and we followed about 10 minutes later.
As we were walking down the trail back to the parking lot, a Giant Antpitta popped out ahead of us. Suddenly, we were right back in the moment that changed Angel's life. The antpitta quickly scurried off and was lost to the thick undergrowth. We spotted a female Golden-headed Quetzal on the way out, and a Tropical Parula greeted us near the parking lot.
We funneled back into the van and headed to breakfast. Along the way, we made a couple of stops. The first was to visit a pair of Yellow-breasted Antpitta. It was a bit of a surreal experience. Earlier, when we saw the Giant Antpitta, Angel started calling it with an amazing impression. He followed this up by tossing small pieces of dirt and rocks from the trail towards it. It seemed odd. Here, he did nearly the same. Instead of impersonating the call, he simply called out the bird's name, William, and the phrase "venga! venga!" (come! come!). While doing this, he was tossing a constant barrage of small pieces of dirt, stems, whatever he could find. A couple minutes later, the bird popped up out of the underbrush and perched on a log. This is when Angel started tossing small bits of worm. The bird, for its part, dutifully scooped up pieces of worm and somewhat cooperatively posed for photos. A second bird showed a minute later. When they were full, they left. Such a crazy way to see such a reclusive little bird.
Our last pre-breakfast stop was at a cow pasture. A rowdy group of calves where here to greet us when we arrived. The fence was opened up, and those of us who wanted close looks headed down the steep hillside. Those up top would be using a scope, and, by later reports, herding calves. The fence was left open and they were not sure if the cows should be out; so, they shooed them back in. What were we looking at? A Common Potoo in classic potoo pose. The bird was harshly backlit, and I could not really get into a favorable position. It was great to see it, though. I had always hoped to see one like this. Their camouflage is amazing.
As we climbed the steep hill, I watched as Angel took another participant by the arm and gently help them up the hill; stopping to allow them to catch their breath along the way. Truly a nice and incredible individual.
Birding stops out of the way, we headed to the breakfast area. Home cooked traditional Ecuadoran breakfast was on tap. Conveniently, a set of tanager feeders and some hummingbird feeders were nearby. At the tanager feeders, Angel repeated an impression of a Golden-headed Quetzal; something he did often. Suddenly, a male burst out of the trees behind the feeders and flew close by. It was a beautiful. While waiting for food, I took some time to shoot hummingbirds.
I had already been served a starting dish of some sort with onions in it; so, I was more than happy to jump up and shoot the Purple-bibbed Whitetip when it was called out. I spent so much time shooting it that I nearly missed out on the best cheese empanada I have ever had. It was amazing. If I had known a couple minutes later that breakfast was going to get cut short, I would have greedily grabbed the last one and ate it. The way it was, the call went out that Maria had shown and was ready for her close-up.
Maria. Maria is where it all started. This is the name of the Giant Antpitta. The bird lives up to its name - "giant", that is. It is large; especially by antpitta standards. We drove a short distance, maybe a mile, and arrived at a small pull-off. Here, we got out and were enthusiastically greeted by Rodrigo, Angel's brother. Gracious and full of smiles, Rodrigo laid out some worms on a log. The magic phrase of "Maria! Venga! Venga!" was uttered, and the bird popped out on the trail. It was wary at first. Rodrigo put more worms up on the log, and the bird hopped up and pecked at his hand. The story is that the bird had not been seen for a few months, and it was angry that it had not been fed for a while. Nevermind that the bird had not been there. It is hard to say what the truth is. Angel has a history of making up small soap opera type stories for each of the birds to explain their comings and goings. Whatever the case, I was happy to get a better view of this bird. The view on the trail earlier was not particularly great.
Two antipitta species in one day is pretty spectacular. As we walked back to the van, Angel informed us that we had three more that we could see that day. I could not believe it. Next on tap was a double-header. It was almost a double strike.
The trail was not long, but it was steep in places. Not knowing where you are going always makes things seem longer than they really are. The anticipation draws time out endlessly. Truth be told, we had probably only walked a little over a 100 yards. There, we stopped, and the routine started. Small bits of stuff was thrown. Names were called. The plea to come was issued. After 15-20 minutes, there was nothing. A little further down the trail, Angel was trying the same. Angel and his nephew did impressions of calls. No joy. We finally hiked further down the trail to a decent sized shelter. Here, bananas were put out and loud grunts and calls were issued. High above, Toucan Barbets were seen feeding in some fruiting trees. We got distant looks, but the birds never came down. They were much larger than I expected. For some reason, I rarely look at size when studying the field guide. These were not barbet sized. They were toucan sized. Seems they got the name reversed. After a few minutes, we moved back up the trail and tried a bit longer. While waiting, a Brown Inca flew in and took a bath on the damp moss hanging in the trees.
Finally, the Moustached showed. I hurried down to the location in time to see the bird poke its head up from behind a log.
A second one showed, and they were tossed pieces of worm. They did the typical antpitta thing. Quick bursts of movement followed by long periods of standing perfectly still. It is part of what makes them hard to see. Their ability to stand motionless for a period of time is the only thing that makes them photographable. There is not much light in the underbrush of the cloud forest. Unfortunately, they usually have their head tilted at a weird angle. We were also stuck on trail about 10 foot above the birds. That was the case for most of the birds we photographed that morning. You take what you can get. I was just stunned to have my third species for the day.
We gave up on the fourth species and started trudging up the hill to the lot. I got about a third of the way up the steps when calls of "It's here!" rang out. Back down the steps. I did not have to head back too far. There, I was told that an Ochre-breasted Antpitta was sitting on a small branch about 20 foot away. I could not see it. Calls of "Shakira!" (the bird's name) and tossing of worms did nothing. The bird stayed frozen. My anxiety was shooting through the roof. Finally, I spotted it through a small window in the underbrush. The bird eventually moved and ran towards the worms, but it never really came out into the open. It also never fed. It was explained that the bird was not hungry, and, after ensuring we had all seen it, we left.
I was up to four species of antpitta and a bit beside myself at our streak of luck. Yeah, I was dying to see the Toucan Barbets lower. They were one of my "must-see" birds of the trip. Barbets are one of my favorite families of birds. They look spectacular. And Toucan Barbet looks amazing. I would just have to come back for photos some other time.
Our last target of the morning was Andrea, the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta. We drove to the location and then bobbed under a strand of barbed wire. Easing down a steep hillside, we sat down and waited. Worms were set out. The ritual was invoked. I could see the bird moving around in the underbrush. In anticipation, I prefocused on a particular log and waited. Luckily, the bird hopped out directly in that spot. Unlike the other birds, this one did not stay long. I got off a quick series, and then the bird moved back to cover. Setting the focus ahead of time saved me. Even then, most the photos were useless. Poor technique. I should have setup to use my knee for stabilization. Instead, I hand-held the entire weight of the camera without any support. I ended up with one picture that was sharp. The bird never came back into full view again. It hopped around a bit, but it stayed mostly hidden. After a bit, Angel ensured we were all satisfied with our looks and then called it.
Back in the van one final time and up to a set of tanager feeders. We said goodbye to Angel and thanked him for his work before parting ways. He was leading another group to the Ocellated Tapaculo. If only that was on our agenda. Another thing to come back for.
I snapped a few pictures at the feeders while our guide paid for the visit, but I really did not have much time here. Yet another thing to come back for.
Right after we paid and got in the van, the fog rolled in. It rolled in thick. It is a good thing we wrapped up when we did. Pictures would have been impossible. We slowly rode back down the rocky road. As we passed through some trees, our guide spotted a Roadside Hawk. This hawk takes its name literally. I did not think it would work, but I snapped a few shots through the van window, anyway. Digital shots are free, right?
In the words of an old Chuck Berry song, it goes to show you never can tell. The shot came out better than I expected.
We headed back to the lodge and finished packing up. This was the last day of the post-trip. We had had a few days before this visit and another stop left this day before it was officially done. That will all be covered in another post. I really just wanted to highlight what a special experience this was. Angel has fought against a lot of odds to make this place what it is. He offers lodging and tour packages through his website, now. If you are going to be in the area and have time, I could not recommend visiting here enough. If you just want to stop by, you will need to call ahead.
Thanks for reading,