My trip to the Galapagos Islands began with a long day’s journey to Quito, Ecuador. Prior to flying to my main destination of the Galapagos, it seemed like a visit to the rain forests of Ecuador was a good idea in order to spend a few days photographing a wide variety of birds.
Intro to Quito, Ecuador
At 9,350 feet, the Quito, Ecuador airport is second only to La Paz, Bolivia in altitude. Coincidentally, we will be flying into La Paz this coming January. Prior to the new Quito airport being completed in 2013, it was known as one of the scariest and most dangerous airports in the world. Now it is just a long way from town. While the city center is only 8 miles from town as the male green-crowned woodnymph hummingbird flies, it is a long 28 mile bus ride.
When I saw this sign in the restrooms, as a somewhat experienced traveler, it was quickly apparent I had arrived in a third world country.
Fresh Pork Delivery
Traveling along the Ecuadorian roadside it is not uncommon to see pigs and chickens in people’s yards. If you are lucky you will get to see a just-killed pig in a wheelbarrow making its way along the food chain. If you are really fortunate you will get to see three pigs being delivered from the bed of a Chevy truck to the local carnes market .
Tandayapa Hummingbird Lodge
Tandayapa Lodge in the mountains of Ecuador provides relatively luxurious accommodations to birders and photographers. The last 150 yards to this lodge was too much for our travel van, so we had to trek uphill with our camera gear and suitcases. Here they provided three wonderful meals each day where we learned of the Ecuadorian tradition of serving popcorn with soup. In addition to the fine accommodations, the lodge has many hummingbird feeders, training the birds for their paying guests.
The goal at the lodge might be to photograph the more unusual birds like the male violet-tailed sylph with the really long brightly colored tail. I only saw this beautiful hummingbird for fleeting moments at a time, so no photographs. This would be just the start of many frustrations with my bird photography.
Overnight we collected moths attracted to a bed sheet by an illuminated bright light. The mornings were spent photographing the wide variety of moths collected. This one has large fake eyes to deter predators.
Exploring the Ecuadorian Rain Forest
I am by no means a nature or bird photographer. The talented, driven people I traveled with could name most birds we saw and desired to take hundreds of photos of each. Their results are quite impressive, but to me we were often photographing a brown bird on some brown leaves.
Angel Paz, the famous Antpitta Whisperer
Our local birding guide, Angel Paz, used to be like the other farmers in this rural area, cutting timber, clearing land to plant blackberries. He was very industrious and was said to be one of the better loggers, clearing more land than most. About 15 years ago some wandering birder spotted a beautiful Andean cock-of-the-rock bird doing a mating dance on Angel’s property. The tourist told Angel that he could charge a lot of money for birders and photographers alike to come photograph birds on his property. Apparently Angel Paz listened to this business opportunity and soon began attracting paying tourists.
One day a rare giant antpitta wandered out from the nearby underbrush of the rain forest in front of the photographers viewing the beautiful birds. To the surprise of Angel, the brilliant red cock-of-the rock was no longer their main interest. The photographers were suddenly mesmerized by the appearance of the rare (but very bland looking) bird. It resembles a small football on stilt legs. Angel then learned if he could produce the giant antpittas with some predictability, he could charge double.
In the years which followed Angel Paz has trained a few antpitta birds to come out of the brush to the delight of paying tourists. Through a series of whistles, tossing a few worms and calling “Venga, Venga,” Angel can coax these seldom seen birds out from the forest floor almost on command. He has become a legend to many birders who for years had tried in vain to get just a glimpse this elusive bird. Now they can watch Angel feed his favorite giant antpitta named Maria by hand on a mossy stump.
The switch from farming to birding has been a wildly successful venture for Angel Paz. Granted, there was much hard work involved making the trails and steps in the rain forest. His financial success has allowed him to expand. He has now built a medium-sized lodge for the tourists who come to see several varieties of antpitta. Presumably, it is his wife who serves empanadas and bolones, a delicious ball of fried cheese and unripe banana, for breakfast to the tourists.
The ripe bananas are saved for the wide variety of other colorful birds in the area.
Fortunately, the ‘quaintness’ of the traditions have been maintained at Angel’s lodge….
In nature photography the interaction between animals will enhance any photograph. Otherwise, you just have a bird in a tree. Seeing two toucan barbets on a branch, I knew there was a good possibility for some interaction. During the mating season one barbet will sometimes feed the other. What are the chances that this behavior would happen in front of me, yet directly behind a branch? With other photographers on each side of me, I did not have the freedom to move about, plus how can you know the exact location where this may happen again. Another missed shot.
NEXT STOP…. Quito to catch a flight to the Galapagos Islands…