Friday, 11 October 2013

Refugio Paz de las Aves; a good news ecotourism story

Ecuador is a wonderful destination for anyone who cares about nature, and it seems that the government actually realises this. One of the wonderful things about the country to me is that it has an official National Avitourism Strategy! I wish my country did... An important part of the strategy is the involvement of local communities in helping people see the astonishingly rich birdlife of Ecuador - in just 280,000 square kilometres (about the size of Victoria, for my Australian readers) there are some 1600 bird species, which is an amazing 15% of the world's total, and more than half of all South America's! One of the cornerstones of birding tourism in Ecuador is the rich Mindo Valley area, a little north-west of Quito, part of the Chocรณ cloudforest bioregion, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. Many people have worked to protect and promote it, significant among them being members of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, but one resident, a quiet smiling man, has earned a place in birding folklore.

Ten years ago Angel Paz and his family were poor farmers, contributing in their small way to the incremental loss of the cloud forests. Today they are regarded as pioneers and leaders in cloud forest conservation tourism. Until recently their place - open only through bookings - was better known as Paz de las Antpittas, but the more general name seems now to be preferred. Paz in Spanish means peace; 'Peace of the Birds' is a lovely name, apart from the allusion to the family behind it.
Angel Paz (and a blogging birder you may have heard of).
Photo courtesy of Juan Cardenas - gracias amigo!
In 2004 Angel discovered a small Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek in a forest gully and, encouraged by local bird lodges to diversify his income, he built a track down to it to attract birding visitors. 
Cloud forest, Paz de las Aves.
During the building process he noticed a plain bird following him in the hope of obtaining worms; all he knew of it was that it was edible. Fortunately on this occasion he resisted any temptation in that direction, and local ecotourism operators convinced him that if the cocks were silver attractions to birders, then Giant Antpittas were pure gold. 
Giant Antpitta Grallaria gigantea, Paz de las Aves.
Antpittas (not at all related to 'real' pittas) are a group of mostly ground-dwelling members of the uniquely South American funariids, notoriously hard to see anywhere - until the advent of Angel Paz.
Angel took to feeding the birds with worms. It took months, and persistence in the face of objections from his wife who suggested on more than one occasion that there were better ways of spending his time than feeding his forest chooks, but eventually individuals of four different antpitta species had become habituated. These birds are notoriously shy and hard to see, so the concept of them coming out to a group of visitors is remarkable. 
Ochre-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula flavirostris, Paz de las Aves.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta Grallaria flavotincta, Paz de las Aves.
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Grallaria ruficapilla, Paz de las Aves.This is a relatively recent addition to Angel's successes; I first saw it there in 2014.

Moustached Antpitta Grallaria alleni, Paz de las Aves.
Angel has tried tempting them with worms from the garden, but they are adamant that free-range forest worms are best, requiring a lot of work on his part. 

These are not the only birds he has patiently trained to come to his call to feed either. Dark-backed Wood-quail Odontophorus melanatus are New World quail, not related to the Old World quail; it is another heart-breaker of a bird to find normally - my trusty Ecuadorean field guide says it is normally encountered "only by chance". Not so at Paz de las Aves.
Dark-backed Wood-quail, Paz de las Aves, another dream-like encounter.
Here the attraction is not worms, but fruit.
By now nothing should surprise about Angel's abilities, but when I returned in 2012, the latest addition to his list of bird familiars still startled me. Tapaculos are another almost mythically skulking group of dense forest ground-dwellers, also funariids. A bird often heard in the Ecuadorean cloud forest where its piercing whistle carries long distances - but almost never seen - is the wonderfully named Ocellated Tapaculo Acropternis orthonyx, an unusually large and spectacularly coloured tapaculo.
Ocellated Tapaculo, Paz de las Aves.
As I sat within a very few metres of this extraordinary bird, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.
Reserve managers now come to Angel from other parts of Ecuador and further afield to learn the tricks of the trade. I understand that different species of antpittas in Peru and Colombia at least are now being attracted by regular worm-feeding. 

Angel's fruit-feeders attract many other very special forest birds too, especially at that period when the rainforest fruiting trees are drying up. 
Black-chinned Mountain Tanager Anisognathus notabilis (above),
and Sickle-winged Guan Chamaepetes goudotii (below),
both succumbing to the lure of Angel's bananas.

I should note that the birds are in no way permitted to become dependent on the hand-outs, which are strictly limited. And there are of course many birds which do not have any interaction with people, but are present simply because of the excellent habitat. The remaining three photos, all taken at La Paz de las Aves, are of mostly indifferent quality, but they portray very special birds; I trust you will forgive me.
White-faced Nunbird Hapaloptila castanea, a very rarely encountered bird and this is the only one I've seen
Orange-breasted Fruit-eater Pipreola jucunda, a delightful little cotinga.
Toucan Barbets Semnornis ramphastinus, one of my favourite South American birds,
not least for their wonderful honking duets.
It has relatively recently been recognised that the New World barbets are not closely related to the Old World ones; the Toucan Barbet and one other species are now placed in another family again.
Golden-headed Quetzal Pharomachrus auriceps.Truly a glorious bid; pity about the branch in front of it!
Today the Paz forest is a must for any visiting birders, the family is comfortably off, and they have diversified into fruit growing, which in turn attracts more birds. It is very hard to see a downside to the story, and I'm sure there will be more spinoffs as the word spreads further.

Try to visit Ecuador if you possibly can, and be sure to include a visit to La Paz de las Aves when you do so. Things change there constantly; you probably won't see all of these species in one visit, but on the other hand you're very likely to see others. That's the joy of it.



Susan said...

People like Angel are utterly remarkable, and yet a few pop up all over the world. Somehow they see beyond their subsistence lifestyle. The most remarkable thing is that they persist, even in the face of indifference, scorn or outright opposition from family and neighbours. We should treasure them and be very glad for their change of fortune.

Ian Fraser said...

Quite agree Susan, and in this case the benefits that Angel has shown to be possible are already spreading.