Over Christmas and New Year 1991/92 I spent two months travelling around Ecuador on public transport with Steve Smith and Guy Kirwan. I have wanted to return ever since and finally got round to it when I joined the Birdquest ‘Ultimate Ecuador’ tour in October 2016.

On my first trip I spent a lot of time at Mindo and Guy and I became friends with several people who had set up a foundation devoted to improving the local economy whilst preserving the character of the village and the forests surrounding it. We were asked to contribute data and determined that on our return we would publish a review of avifaunal records from Mindo. It was a well known birding locality but up to that point no systematic list for the area had been compiled. Another project which stemmed from discussions on that trip was the establishment of the Neotropical Bird Club and we eventually published in the club’s journal Cotinga in 1996. Though the review was only possible with the generous co-operation of notable Neotropical ornithologists I did have the idea of collating the information on threatened species and endemics to highlight the conservation significance of Mindo and the wider area. Species not known from the immediate environs of the village but which could plausibly occur at lower elevations were also discussed. In 1997 the wider Mindo area was declared the first Important Bird Area in the Neotropical region by Bird Life International. Since then ecotourism, driven by birding, has mushroomed to the degree that it is a significant, if not the principal factor supporting the local economy. Mindo is now popularly known as the ‘bird capital of Ecuador’ and I was fascinated to see the changes that had taken place in the 24 years since I was last there.

A species re-discovered in the area after my first visit was Giant Antpitta. Once the vocalisations were known it became apparent they were distributed sparingly but quite widely in the forests around the village. It remained however an extremely difficult bird to see, even when armed with recordings. All this changed when local resident Angel La Paz had the staggering idea of trying to habituate one to come to mealworms (it having been established that the birds diet included large worms and that they would even occasionally break cover to forage for them at the edges of pasture adjacent to forest edge). Angel succeeded and the first habituated bird Maria became what must be one of the most famous and well appreciated individual wild birds in history. I finally got to see Giant Antpitta on the second day of our trip and it lived up to expectation.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves.

The species truly deserves its common name and I thought it may have been even larger than Giant Pitta but it appears to measure a few centimetres smaller. Whilst hylodroma, the race occurring in NW Ecuador has darker underparts than the nominate and lehmanni (which is restricted to Colombia) those of this individual are particularly rich, the bird being just six months old. As I understand it they have distinct micro-habitat preferences, favouring damp gullies and generally sing for a limited period. Though chance encounters occur it would remain a very challenging bird were it not for Angels extraordinary work. The image below, taken by tour leader Jonás Oláh gives some idea how difficult they might be considering that the bird was just a couple of metres away.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

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Giant Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

The operation is a slick one and begins with a visit to a lek of the spectacular Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. A short descent takes you to a hide directly overlooking the display area, the bizarre ‘strangled cat’ vocalizations heightening the anticipation as you approach. No matter how many times you have seen them they remain an astonishing spectacle.

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Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

Meanwhile Angel and his staff have been busy tracking down antpittas and various other species ready for your subsequent viewing pleasure. On our visit the second skulker on the menu was Rufous-breasted Antthrush. I did see this species at Mindo my first time there but it was hard work and the views were nowhere near as good or as protracted as those afforded by a habituated bird.

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Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Refugio pas de las Aves.

The Chocó endemic Yellow-breasted Antpitta followed, another species that would be extremely difficult to connect with using the usual methods. Indeed one of Angel’s birds refused to co-operate on our visit but we had outstanding views of two at a second territory.

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Yellow-breasted Antpitta, Refugio pas de las Aves. Photo by Jonás Oláh , Birdquest.

Even as we snacked on empanadas at the visitor centre good birds were lured in to view at bird tables and feeders including another Chocó endemic, the spectacular Toucan Barbet.

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Toucan Barbet, Refugio pas de las Aves.

An amazing thing is that the morning described here was a slow one. Dark-backed Wood-Quail and Ochre-breasted Antpitta are usually seen and Moustached Antpitta is regular though the least reliable of the habituated birds. Additional species such as Ocellated Tapaculo occasionally come to provisioned food temporarily and for short periods. A truly encouraging thing is that this tract of forest is now safe and testifies to the economic benefits that can result from preserving habitats and developing innovative eco-tourism initiatives.

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A view across the Cloud Forest at Refugio pas de las Aves, Mindo.