by Kenn Kaufman
July-August 2006 issue
THE ANTPITTA WHISPERER
After a lifetime of pursuing rare and wonderful birds on all seven continents, I have just had the strangest experience of my birding career. The following may sound like weird fiction, but it’s all true.
The story begins with the Andean cock-of-the-rock. It’s a bird as odd as its name, the size and shape of a football, living in mountain forests of western South America. Males are brilliant flaming orange-red, but in mating season they don’t rely on mere color. Groups of males, a dozen or more, gather at traditional dancing grounds called leks at mid-levels in the forest, and hop about while they make odd calls. At times, perhaps when a female is nearby, the lek erupts into a frenzy of bobbing and bowing, twanging and growling and squealing. This is a bird made for stardom, made for television, and the weirdest thing is that it’s not even the subject of this story. It’s just the catalyst.
Ecuador was the first nation in South America where ecotourism had a significant impact on the economy, with hordes of tourists visiting the Galapagos and the Amazon Basin. On the west slope of the Ecuadorian Andes, in the Mindo - Tandayapa area, a number of lodges cater specifically to traveling bird watchers, and several locals now make their living as birding guides. This news was not lost on a local farmer named Angel Paz, a man who loved nature. Of the 70 hectares that he owned, he farmed only 30 and had left the other 40 covered with its original growth of subtropical forest. On his property there was a lek of Andean cocks-of-the-rock, and Paz reasoned that tourists might pay to watch these birds, generating some extra income to help support his family.
So Mr. Paz set out to make a good trail through the forest from his house to the lek. He was by nature a quiet, gentle man, and one day as he was working on cutting the trail, he noticed a large, plump, gray-brown bird lurking nearby. He didn’t know its name but he knew it was a ground-dweller with a haunting, hooting voice, a shy bird, hard to approach. But this individual was only a few yards away. Paz’s shovel had just turned up an earthworm, and on a whim, he tossed the worm to the lurking bird. Instead of running away, the bird bounded forward on its long legs and swallowed the worm.
Intrigued, Paz took on the challenge of winning the trust of this shy forest bird. He would watch for it every day, and if he could approach closely enough, he would toss a worm to it. The bird learned to associate Paz with these morsels, and eventually it would come when he called - - he had named it “Manuel” - - to grab a handout before vanishing into the forest undergrowth. Paz began working to train other shy forest birds to take worms from him. For a quiet farmer who loved nature, this was just a way of getting closer to the wildlife on his land.
Paz had not abandoned his plan to bring birding tourists to see the Andean cocks-of-the-rock, and after he contacted the local birding lodges, he had his first group of visitors. The birders enjoyed watching the lek, and as they were on their way out, Paz thought they might be interested to see Manuel, his shy forest bird. But they were a lot more than merely interested. The visitors went berserk. Manuel, as it turned out, was one of the most legendary elusive birds in all of South America, a giant antpitta.
Antpittas live only in the American tropics, and they are unlike anything found in the United States. Round-bodied, short-necked, short-tailed, long-legged, an antpitta looks sort of like a dingy grapefruit perched atop two soda straws. Even their name is cobbled together: they bear a vague resemblance to birds called pittas in the Old World tropics, and they are distantly related to tropical American birds that habitually follow army ant swarms. To say that antpittas are heard more often than seen would be the grossest understatement. In my travels in Central and South America I have seen a few antpittas, but usually it has required an excruciating effort. Many types of antpittas are easy to imitate, and you can whistle an imitation, or play a tape recording, and the bird will call back to you for hours, approaching closely through the undergrowth, but most of the time you will never get a glimpse. Even the most numerous antpittas are exceedingly difficult to see. Those antpittas that are genuinely scarce are almost never seen by anyone. So it’s not hard to understand why the visiting birders went crazy at the sight of unassuming Mr. Paz feeding worms to one of the rarest and least-known of this whole tribe of elusive birds.
And it’s not hard to understand why Kim and I had to go see this phenomenon for ourselves. We had run into our friend Martin Reid at Guango Lodge on the east slope, and he had told us all about it, so as soon as we arrived at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge we had to ask: “What’s the deal with this guy who has the antpittas?” It’s easy, we were told. We’ll just make a phone call, and Mr. Paz will meet you in the morning and take you to his bird sanctuary.
So an hour before first light, we were driving down the Tandayapa Valley to the main highway and turning west toward the town where Paz was to meet us. It was raining, and we wondered if he would show up after all; but right at the main intersection in the highway town of Nanegalito, under a streetlight, sat a motorcycle with three rain-jacketed figures. Mr. Paz had come through the rain by motorbike, and he had brought his wife and young son along. His wife climbed in the back seat of our rental jeep to make sure we didn’t get lost, and Mr. Paz and his boy went speeding up the highway ahead of us, then zooming off on a side road, muddy with the night’s rain, across a couple of rushing streams, through slick patches and deep patches, miles through the dark until we finally reached the humble home of the Paz family.
After the nerve-wracking drive, it was a relief just to take flashlights and walk the trail to the observation blind to watch the cocks-of-the-rock displaying and showing off at first light. Amazing and spectacular they were, a fitting warm-up act. For nearly an hour we watched them, and after they dispersed, Kim and I followed Mr. Paz deeper into the forest.
This was our first chance to really look at Angel Paz in daylight. His first name had the Spanish pronunciation of AHN-hel, of course, but it meant the same thing as the English word, and his last name translated to “peace.” As if his personality had been shaped by his name, he was an exceptionally gentle man, his voice soft but filled with conviction. He had named his land Refugio Paz De Las Aves, a nice play on words meaning both the Paz Bird Refuge and the refuge of the birds’ peace. He was at peace with the birds, all right. We would soon see that for ourselves.
His son had brought a dish of earthworms dug up elsewhere on the farm. Stopping by a stream, Paz explained that he had to wash these worms before offering them to the antpittas.
Wash them? He didn’t just wash the worms. He bathed them. He baptized them. The careful, intense washing of the worms went on for twenty minutes. It brought to mind a master chef preparing gourmet delicacies for the queen, not a farmer preparing bird food. But Paz was no ordinary farmer. Finally finishing the ritual of washing, he stood looking and listening intently for a minute, and then led us slowly down the trail.
My curiosity had reached a fever pitch now, wondering what would happen next. The forest had been relatively quiet in the rain this morning, with few bird calls, and even now that the rain had stopped I had not heard anything that sounded like an antpitta. Where we were standing now there was no sign of any bird. But apparently Paz was going to call the bird to come to us.
“Manuel!” Paz shouted suddenly, and I jumped; it was the first time we had heard him raise his voice. “Manuel! Venga, venga!” (Come, come!) “Venga, venga, venga, Manuel!” Yeah, right, I said to myself. This had to be some kind of practical joke. At any moment now, no doubt, Mr. Paz would laugh and start speaking English, and would tell us that he and our friend Martin had hatched this crazy stunt to see how gullible we were. But looking into his face, it was clear he was not joking. Paz was peering with a deep intensity at a spot in the dense undergrowth alongside the trail ahead. . . a spot where a hulking shape lurked among the foliage. It had come silently and it was barely visible, a darker shadow among shadows, and then it was gone again. But we knew something had been there. Paz knew it too. “Manuel,” he said, more quietly now. “Manuel! Venga.”
And before our unbelieving eyes, Manuel did come. The bird hopped out into the open, out into the center of the muddy trail.
Books describe the giant antpitta’s size by giving a total length of about ten inches from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. That’s about the same as an American robin, but the robin is a slim bird and its tail accounts for about a third of its length. The giant antpitta, by contrast, is a bulky round-bodied bird with essentially no tail at all, and on its long legs it stands well over a foot tall. It’s a big bird, and a weird-looking one as well, with a punched-in bill, fat neck, big eyes, and squiggles of black on its rusty belly. Some might call it ugly. For us, it was beautiful.
We were frozen where we stood, but Paz crept forward a couple of steps and then gently tossed an earthworm out onto the trail. The giant antpitta cocked its head, bounded forward with great springy hops, grabbed the worm, and retreated into the undergrowth. A few moments later it reappeared, coming closer this time. Paz fed the antpitta three more times, and for one of these the bird came up to only a few inches away from his outstretched hand. But it never lost its furtive look, and after four worms it melted away silently into the forest.
During the next hour and a half, numb with disbelief, Kim and I followed Paz as he led us along the trails through his forest. He called out a smaller species, the yellow-breasted antpitta, and then a second one at another spot, and then a third. He tried calling another giant antpitta (“Maria”), but she didn’t come, and Paz explained that she might have been out of earshot. He called out a moustached antpitta, quite a rare bird in Ecuador, and he called a nervous little flock of dark-backed wood-quail.
These were all birds I had never seen before, for all my travels in South America, and I went away with a profound respect for Mr. Angel Paz and his Refuge of the Birds’ Peace. My friends and I had always pursued these shy forest birds with our high-quality tape recorders and binoculars and maps and reference books and rented four-wheel-drives, and we usually struck out on actually seeing the birds. We were outclassed by a quiet man armed only with patience, love of the forest, and a dish of earthworms.
As naturalists, we value diversity, and we go to places like Ecuador because there are so many varieties of birds there. However, diversity among the naturalists is a good thing too. Our standard American / European approach to bird watching is fine, but it’s not the only one. No doubt many international birders will descend on the Paz Bird Refuge as its fame grows, and they will be thrilled to see their first giant antpitta. I hope they will all understand that the rarest creature there is not the antpitta, but the remarkable Mr. Paz himself.
---Copies of this issue of Bird Watcher's Digest are available online by clicking HERE.