Today was an early start, with us leaving around 4 towards what's likely the most popular birding hotspot in the whole of the Mindo area, Refugio Paz de las Aves. Normally, such an early rise isn't needed, but Nelson brought the temptation by saying we would try for owls before sunrise. The first stop was just outside of the turn to enter Mindo, and outside of the gigantic cock-of-the-rock statue, no birds were seen or heard, though we heard plenty of rain frogs, thankfully no rain.
From here we moved to the entrance road of Paz de las Aves in an attempt for two nocturnal specialties of the area. The first was the strictly nocturnal Rufescent Screech-Owl, there's a known roosting site high up on the forest next to the road and we spent about 40 minutes playing back and forth with this vocal but uncooperative for views owl. While waiting, I couldn't help but take notice of how clear the sky was and how many stars I could see in it, the lack of light pollution was a huge welcome and needless to say that I cursed my incapability to take a good shot with either my phone or camera of the view. Eventually, while Nelson was trying to switch calls to see if the owl could be coaxed into view, a brown blur flew past us and I only saw it because of luck and the spotlight hitting the right area. This was the only views we'd get from the owl, but while trying to spotlight it and find the eyes (now from the bird calling below us), I noticed a snappy flight with two long extensions following behind it, my brain short-circuited for a bit because I thought I saw seeing a Scissor or Fork-tailed Flycatcher, before I properly registered that it was a male Lyre-tailed Nightjar! I told Nelson to get on it and eventually the bird perched in front of us for about 5 minutes! At this point, the sun was rising and there was a change morning chorus, so we had to hurry to reach the first attraction of this great place, in the cock-of-the-rock lek. We met with Rodrigo Paz on the way and we told him of the nightjar since there wasn't one roosting elsewhere within the property to show guests, but it turns out the bird left the perch soon after we left and nobody else saw it.
The property currently has two different leks, with normally one having a shorter walk but a much further view of the birds, so we went to the one that required a slightly longer walk, but much better views of the birds. Along the way we heard a number of cloud forest species but we stopped for none, except for a calling, male Golden-headed Quetzal. When we finally reached the lek, we had about 40 minutes of activity before the birds dispersed for the morning, but I doubt anyone in the group complained of seeing a dozen Andean Cock-of-the-rock calling and showing off at eye level, at one point, a female briefly came in and needless to say, the males got a bit too excited. While in the lek, we were hearing the whistling calls of a Scaled Fruiteater, which sadly did not come to show, making it my only dipped fruiteater of the trip; we also heard a Dark-backed Wood-Quail further down the hillside and as we got ready to go to the first lek where Angel normally feeds plantains to them, instead he told us to follow him up the trail since he was trying to get a new bird accustomed to him. This bird gave us a good 30 minutes of expectation before we got some views of it in the understory, while waiting for it however, we had great views of Gray-breasted Wood-Wren, Mountain Wren and heard a few Plumbeous Pigeons.
Once we saw the wood-quail, we began alking back to the car, which we soon realized it was easier said than done with the overwhelming activity in the forest. From the trees in the distance called Andean Solitaire, Ecuadorian and Pale-eyed Thrush, a small mixed flock showed us views of Montane Woodcreeper, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart and Dusky Chlorospingus among others. A female White-booted Racket-tail was briefly seen by me before it flew off, and it would turn out to be the only one we'd see in the property, when we reached a clearing, we had a flock of Maroon-tailed Parakeet feed in the trees while a flock of Barred Parakeet showed themselves as they flew above us. Eventually we got back to the car and made our first antpitta spot of the morning; the bird in question is the Yellow-breasted Antpitta, of which Rodrigo called in to come get their "spaghetti" (chopped worms), Nelson later told me that there was a Crested Guan calling in the back, but antpittas are king here.
After everyone got great views and pictures, we drove to the kitchen/garden area, it was around 9, so we were all wanting the famous breakfast that's offered in Paz de las Aves, but before that, our attention was taken to the hummingbird feeders and flowers of the garden. A number of hummers could be seen here including Fawn-breasted Brilliant, Lesser Violetear, Speckled Hummingbird and a total of three White-throated Daggerbills, an uncommon visitor to the flowers within Refugio Paz de las Aves. This last bird is especially noteworthy since it was my lifer number 1,000! I got a decent shot of this milestone bird and saw an attempt of a mating display, before going inside for breakfast; but that didn't stop me from looking outside, which resulted in taking a big gulp of milk before calling out a Crimson-rumped Toucanet. After finishing breakfast, I went out and relocated the bird alongside the couple of British naturalists that were doing a day visit like I was (the other participants of the day were staying within the property's new cabins).
From there, it was back to the cars and time to move to the fruit feeders. The feeders were a mixed reception, as Nelson put it, we came in the low season, most of the big feeder action occur during the wet season since the trees in the forest are not fruiting. However, a mixed reception, is still a positive one when more than half of the species are lifers, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, White-winged Brushfinch, Yellow-bellied Siskin, Orange-bellied Euphonia, and White-crested Eleania were a few of the visitors. In a nearby tree, Angel pointed us to the Black-and-white Owl that normally perches in the feeder at night, although normally the bird roosts far away from the site. The hummingbird feeders provided a bit more variety in both color and size, with Purple-throated Woodstar, Andean Emerald, Brown Inca, Empress Brilliant, Violet-tailed Sylph, Velvet-purple and Buff-tailed Coronet being just a few of the visitors.
But now, it was time for the big show and the stars were the antpittas. First we went down a couple dozen steps until we were signaled to stay quiet and keep an eye out since there were two different antpittas being called. It took less than 10 minutes before we were told to move further down the stairs as the Ochre-breasted Antpitta was coming in, very soon I got a few glimpses of it, along with a decent shot, before we were called to go back up the steps because the Moustached Antpitta came in! Soon enough, I also got views and pictures of this bird before it went into the bushes and I went going back down the steps for better of the Ochre-breasted and hoping the other visitors could take my spot and get better views. Turns out that this was my best decision, since no sooner after I got there, a second Moustached Antpitta showed alongside the Ochre-breasted Antpitta and I got great views and photos of both species out in the open!
Now, it was time to see the bird that truly made Angel Paz a household name for any international birder, the Giant Antpitta, but before reaching that part of the trail, we were greeted with what I can only call my first proper Neotropical mixed flock. There were at least 40 different species represented on this flock, many we had already seen, but some of the new additions included Flavescent Flycatcher, Ashy-headed Tyrannulet, Marble-faced Bristle-Tyrant, Metallic-green Tanager, Black-and-white Becard, Red-faced Spinetail, Rusty-winged Barbtail, Three-striped Warbler and Capped Conebill.
Eventually we moved away from this monster-sized gift, partially because we thought we IDed every possible bird within the flock and partially because the descendant of Maria the Giant Antpitta was finally responding. I got there as fast as I could, I sat down in the dirt and waited to see what was probably one of the most iconic birds of Ecuador, if not all of the Americas, and that without a doubt, none of us would have seen without the effort and protection of the forest that Angel Paz and his brother Rodrigo have done. Sure enough, the Giant Antpitta came in, it saw us, then it saw the worms, it ate a few and took the rest back into the forest, probably nesting somewhere, moment gone in a few minutes but definitely a trip highlight.
After this amazing experience, we began walking back to the trail entrance, but not before we were literally greeted at arm’s length by a female Masked Trogon. Normally, I recommend to take a camera with good zoom if you want to get any good shots of birds, but while in Ecuador, I found out that at least a third of the species I saw, I probably could have taken great ID shots just from my phone, the birds were that close at times. But, even though the Scaled Fruiteater wasn’t cooperating, Nelson and Angel’s nephew, eventually got into a small competition to whistle in an Orange-breasted Fruiteater they were hearing. Soon enough we ended with not one, but two males of this beautiful cotinga moving close to where the owl was roosting alongside a third one singing in the distance.
The final stop of the day was for the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta and if you were willing to hike a bit more (and pay a small fee), you would be taken to see the Ocellated Tapaculo, I personally chose to skip the tapaculo in the vain hope to see it elsewhere and instead focused on seeing the last of the five possible antpittas in the property. The views were a bit further away than the other antpittas but great nonetheless and we said goodbye to everyone before driving out. By the end of checklist tracking we had encountered exactly 100 species during our time in Paz de las Aves, marking our first century day (and hotspot) but also showing how lucky we were that morning since we did miss a few species, but all the antpittas showed well without having to spend hours as it’s the case sometimes and the mixed flock was an unexpected treat that nobody can predict.
While driving through Tandayapa Valley, we made a roadside stop in hope to see pretty much any of the big targets possible in the valley, Beautiful Jay, Black-and-chestnut Eagle, Toucan Barbet, you name it. Unfortunately, the best we had was a trio of female hummingbirds with Western Emerald being the clear standout; we opted for a roadside lunch, while attempting for Beautiful Jay, but as anyone will tell you, this species is unpredictable at best, so no luck. Eventually, we began going up the road towards Bellavista Cloud Forest Lodge and made a few stops in hope of seeing the nomadic but regularly reported White-faced Nunbird and coaxing into view a calling Cloud-forest Pygmy-Owl, sadly neither would be gracing us with their presence, but I did get a big target in what’s likely up there among the worst views of this species, with a Toucan Barbet that showed us nothing but it’s behind while calling about 50+ feet above us, the other highlight of the stop would probably the fast-moving flock of Red-billed Parrot that at least showed a nice contrast against the blue sky.
Little past 3, we arrived at Bellavista and went directly to the feeders, the fruit feeders only had a Red-tailed Squirrel taking the last plantain pieces, but thankfully the hummingbird feeders gave us a chance to connect with Collared Inca and the main target of the area, Gorgeted Sunangel. After getting good views of both species, we went down the trail with the cooing call of a White-throated Quail-Dove greeting us by the compost, this compost eventually did give us views of the species on the way out, but since they had just dumped waste, there was little activity. In the length of the trails we were experiencing what can only be called as tapaculo hell for me, we had four different Ocellated Tapaculo and at least two Spillmann’s Tapaculo calling loudly and boldly, some were almost next to us but none came into view. The best birds of the walk were a Turquoise Jay that called above us for a while but never sitting for a photo, and a pair of male Black-and-green Fruiteater that seemed to like the jay’s style, because they did not sit still for more than a few seconds. As we walked out of the trail with mixed results, we heard the wailing calls of a Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan and sure enough, we found one bird perched close to a possible nesting cavity. Words cannot describe how amazing this toucan is and sadly, the distance from the bird and lighting don’t do it justice in my photos.
Feeling good after the toucan, we got on the car and made an attempt for the Tanager Finch, a bird that’s neither a tanager nor a finch, but it’s in fact a New World sparrow, and while it certainly sounds like the sparrows I’m familiar with, its look, behavior and preferred habitat make me thing that it’s anything but one. Sadly, this bird is usually seen early morning, and this time too it was no exception, we spent nearly an hour in the location this species is usually seen at, but all we got was heard onlys of other species I would have liked to see like Cinnamon Flycatcher, Rufous-headed Pygmy-Tyrant and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, thankfully having open views of a male Crested Quetzal, is a great consolation price, even if again, the pictures I took don’t do justice to this gorgeous bird.
From there, the sun was setting and we began the long drive down the valley and back to Mindo, along the way we enjoyed a second gorgeous sunset, which in Nelson’s words, doesn’t happen often in the area. As luck would have it, we would get one more bird for the day in the form of a Band-winged Nightjar in the middle of the road, sadly the bird didn’t stick around for photos, but considering that it was at a lower elevation than where it is normally seen, we were pretty happy and drove back to Mindo after a long, productive day, which after a nice dinner and a shower, made for the best sleeping medicine anyone could ask for.