Earlier this year, the birding world was shocked to learn that the Refugio Paz de Las Aves near Mindo, Ecuador is in danger of losing its land. That news spurred many of us to find ways to contribute to the campaign to save the reserve and the birds that live there.

Enter Tim Marlow, Founder and Principal Ecologist of Rainsbrook Ecology and dedicated birdwatcher. An avid supporter of the Paz family and their ecotourism project, Tim wanted to do more than donate. He wants to help spread the news.

We hope you enjoy his article about the Giant Antpitta and share it widely among your friends and family. FYI – Tim is British. Therefore, we have retained British English spelling & grammar to better reflect his writing voice.

The Giant Antpitta

by Tim Marlow

Refugio Pas de las Aves is the best-known locality in the world for the apparently very rare Giant Antpitta. The forest the birds depend on is part of a wider block in the Mindo area that is critical. This forest has become the flagship for ecotourism in Ecuador. Refugio Paz de las Aves is one of, if not the most-famous locations within it and simply must be protected.

Giant Antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador | ©Tim Marlow
Antpittas are a family of birds occurring only in Central and South America. Largely terrestrial, most are found in tropical forests and are, in consequence, very difficult to see. This makes them among the most sought-after birds in the region. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World currently recognises 68 species of antpittas. Some are little-known and appear to be genuinely rare.

One of the rarer species is the Giant Antpitta (Grallaria gigantea) which occurs in Colombia, with few recent records, and Ecuador, where it was seldom recorded prior to 1991 when Paul Greenfield heard what he suspected to be this species along the old road from Tandayapa to Mindo. Following Greenfield’s breakthrough, once the vocalisations of Giant Antpitta were known and recorded, it was established that the species occurred sparingly in the cloud-forests around the small town of Mindo, Ecuador which lies at around 1500 metres on the west slope of the Andes, to the north-west of Quito. Whilst records of the race gigantea remained extremely unusual, those of the western form hlyodroma became a little more regular in the wider Mindo area.

A short, stocky bird on long legs holds a worm in its wide beak.
Giant Antpitta appears to favour damp gullies and sing infrequently, and it was extremely difficult for all but the most skilled of ornithologists to see it. All this changed when local resident Angel Paz had the staggering idea of trying to habituate (train) one to come to worms he collected and put down for it.

Sightings from the Mindo area have established that the bird’s diet included large worms and that they would even occasionally break cover to forage for them on the edges of pasture adjacent to the forest edge. Angel succeeded and the first habituated bird,  Maria, became what must be one of the most famous and widely appreciated wild birds in history.

Since then, several generations of Giant Antpittas have been habituated by Angel on land owned by his family, now known as Refugio Paz de las Aves. Formerly classified as Endangered by BirdLife, the species is now listed as Vulnerable. It is nonetheless the case that records of Giant Antpitta away from the Mindo area, indeed away from Refugio Paz de las Aves, are few and far between and the total global population is estimated to be between 600-1700 individuals.

A Giant Antpitta with its long legs, stocky rufous colored body, and wide beak poses for the camera
Giant Antpitta is not the only special bird living in the cloud-forests of north-west Ecuador. I learned this first-hand whilst travelling there over Christmas and New Year 1991-92. Guy Kirwan, Steve Smith and I became friends with a group of people who had set up a foundation in Mindo dedicated to improving the local economy whilst preserving the character of the town and surrounding forests. We were asked to contribute data and determined that on our return we would publish a review of avifaunal records from Mindo.

Another project that stemmed from discussions on that trip was the establishment of the Neotropical Bird Club and we 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 information on threatened species and endemics to highlight the conservation significance of Mindo and the wider area. There is one race of another antpitta species, the Ochre-breasted, named for the town, and a number of birds occurring around Mindo that are endemic to the Chocó, a belt of ‘super-wet’ rainforest extending from north-west Ecuador through Colombia, eventually connecting to the Darién. Species not then known from the immediate environs of the village, but which could plausibly occur at lower elevations were also discussed and many have subsequently been found in the wider area.

Dense forest in foreground, view of foothills and overcast, cloudy sky in background
The following year Mindo was declared the first Important Bird Area in the Neotropics by BirdLife. 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. The Ecuadorian government has since christened Mindo the ‘bird capital of Ecuador’. Mindo has also become popular with Ecuadorians who visit to relax by the river.

I returned in 2016 and finally got to see Giant Antpitta at Refugio Paz de las Aves. I was absolutely thrilled to see the forest there and in the wider Mindo area. It is likely clearance would have occurred widely were it not for the fact that these forests support the local economy through tourism.

Request for donation to Refugio Paz
Request for donation to Refugio Paz