From Antpittas to Academia or How do you solve a problem like Maria



Giant Antpitta Ecuador 1

Giant Antpitta a once near impossible bird to see in the forests of Ecuador.



We huddled together just before a bend in the narrow forest trail, silent, motionless, our binoculars poised for rapid lifting. The path was level but the terrain around us was vertiginous, steep hillside above, sheer drop below, the vegetation a mix of low bushes, spindly trees and thick rope-like vines, all covered with moss and lichen. We waited. The Ecuadorian subtropical forest lived up to its damp reputation as a drip fell from an oversized leaf above me and ran down the back of my neck, but I didn’t flinch. Then, from just around the corner ahead of us floated a voice. ‘Maria! Maria!’ it carolled, bouncing off the steep hillside before being absorbed by the dense, dripping trees. Again, ‘Maria! Maar-ee-aa!’ came his call, as our host backed around the corner towards us. Clad in T-shirt, jeans and wellington boots, he carried a small pot from which he dropped a trail of earthworms like breadcrumbs along the muddy path. He continued to call, more softly now, and sprinkled the earthworms until he re-joined our group. Finger to his lips to silence us, he motioned us to lift our binoculars in readiness.

From Antpittas to Academia or How do you solve a problem like Maria

We huddled together just before a bend in the narrow forest trail, silent, motionless, our binoculars poised for rapid lifting. The path was level but the terrain around us was vertiginous, steep hillside above, sheer drop below, the vegetation a mix of low bushes, spindly trees and thick rope-like vines, all covered with moss and lichen. We waited. The Ecuadorian subtropical forest lived up to its damp reputation as a drip fell from an oversized leaf above me and ran down the back of my neck, but I didn’t flinch. Then, from just around the corner ahead of us floated a voice. ‘Maria! Maria!’ it carolled, bouncing off the steep hillside before being absorbed by the dense, dripping trees. Again, ‘Maria! Maar-ee-aa!’ came his call, as our host backed around the corner towards us. Clad in T-shirt, jeans and wellington boots, he carried a small pot from which he dropped a trail of earthworms like breadcrumbs along the muddy path. He continued to call, more softly now, and sprinkled the earthworms until he re-joined our group. Finger to his lips to silence us, he motioned us to lift our binoculars in readiness.



Maria came around the corner. She was stocky, fat even; her back was plain grey-brown, her rotund belly a marvellous rufous colour, the throat and breast feathers lined in black giving her a faintly banded appearance. Her robust bill was dark, and she stood upright on sturdy grey legs, while her stubby tail could hardly be seen. Her posture reminded me of a tail-less thrush. Her bright button eyes took in the scene: earthworms and birdwatchers. She paused for a second, then darted forward to pick up an earthworm in that large bill. One gulp and it was gone. Two paces forward and another earthworm was hoovered up. Nearer and nearer she came, cleaning up the path of all the earthworms until she hopped onto a moss-clad tree stump just feet in front of us. She paused again, surveying us with her head tilted slightly. She turned around and assessed the situation from the other side. Deciding we were no threat, Maria swallowed a few more earthworms with gusto. Then, appetite satisfied for now, she collected up all the remaining worms in her large bill and hopped down from the stump. A few strides on those sturdy legs and she headed into the vegetation, blending into the background and completely disappearing.


On our most recent Birdwatching Trips Tour to Ecuador we enjoyed six species of Antpitta here Moustached.



Maria was a Giant Antpitta, Grallaria gigantea, a bird found in Ecuador and southern Colombia. Giant Antpittas are the largest of all antpittas, standing up to 28cm tall and weighing in at up to 300g but despite this impressive size, they are incredibly difficult to see. Their preference for tricky montane forest, their traditionally skulking habits and camouflaged colouration makes them almost mythical birds, and as their preferred habitat has come under threat from more cultivation by man seeking fresh land to farm, so the future of Giant Antpittas has looked increasingly bleak. Giant Antpittas are one of the most sought-after species on birdwatching trips to Ecuador but good sightings have traditionally been few and far between. Enter Angel Paz, the ‘Antpitta Whisperer’. As a farmer, he worked this land with his family. Life was tough, but they were instilled with a determination to improve their lot in life. They began by creating a bird reserve on their land and by encouraging visitors to witness the Andean Cock of the Rock lek. However, progress was slow with few visitors. Then one day as he made his way to the lek, Angel encountered a Giant Antpitta on the track. With immense patience, he eventually encouraged the Giant Antpitta to trust him and come to his call in exchange for a meal of earthworms. He named the Giant Antpitta ‘Maria’ after his wife, and the fortunes of both that antpitta and his family were turned around.


Not only Antpittas here these Dark-backed Wood-Quail also came in and wowed us.



There have now been several generations of Maria, and Refugio Paz de las Aves is firmly on the birdwatching map of Ecuador. There is now a regular stream of birdwatching visitors to the area, and for a small entrance fee, they are led into the forest to get close views of Angel’s special birds as he lures them out of the undergrowth in return for a tasty meal.

This is a brilliant example of ecotourism at its simplest and most effective. Those entrance fees over the years have added up and allowed Angel to send his son to university, the first member of his family to benefit from further education. The money from visiting birdwatchers hasn’t just found its way into Angel’s pockets, it’s also spread across the wider community. Hotels, restaurants and cafes, taxi services in the area have all benefited from birdwatchers visiting, staying and spending their money here. The antpittas and the forest themselves are now cherished for their importance to the community as a whole and everyone appreciates that their value as a healthy, long-term, living resource is greater than any short-term financial quick fix from clearing new tracts of land for farming. It’s a win-win situation all round.


So many mind-blowing birds at this site including this real beauty - Toucan Barbet.



Angel Paz’s simple but effect model of ecotourism has been rolled out to other areas and for other species too. Now other, equally difficult-to-see species on the Refugio Paz de las Aves have succumbed to Angel’s patience and his offerings of earthworms, such as Ochre-breasted Antpittas and Dark-backed Wood-Quail. The same tactic has also been tried with success elsewhere, for example with Jocotoco Antpittas in southern Ecuador now coming to food, and even as far afield as Vietnam, similar ecotourism projects are benefiting birds, the local community and visiting birdwatchers.

So, if you happen to have a handy antpitta, a supply of earthworms and limitless patience, what are you waiting for? You could become the next ‘Antpitta Whisperer’.

Of course a wonderful way to see more birds is to join one of our Birdwatching Trips and learn a lot about the birds you are enjoying too. We have tours suitable for all from beginners to experienced birders that are seeking particular species. Just drop us a line here and we can arrange a perfect custom tour for you!

info@birdwatchingtrips.co.uk

We look forward to enjoying wonderful birds with you as soon as it is safe.





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