Ex-hunter thrills bird watchers on Ecuador preserve

After hunting birds for decades, Angel Paz now guides bird-watchers who flock to his forested mountain preserve in Ecuador, home to one-sixth of the world's bird species.

In 2005, the 47-year-old farmer traded in his rifle for binoculars after realizing that tourists would dole out large sums to view birds on the private preserve near Nanegalito, some 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Quito.

"I used to hunt. Now I safeguard the birds. I give them food and they allow me to feed my family," Paz told AFP, boasting of his ability to imitate the calls of 100 different bird species.

Six months after the creation of his "Peace of the Birds" refuge, it has already attracted ornithologists and "birders" or "twitchers" -- bird-watching enthusiasts -- from the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan and India.

Paz has patiently gained the trust of his birds by offering them food, and now when he calls out their names select birds will come out of the thick foliage to greet visitors.

Minutes after arriving at the reserve, visitors are surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds of different sizes and colors, including rare and endangered species such as the tiny black-breasted puffleg (eriocnemis nigrivestis).

"One tourist who really wanted to visit could not believe his eyes when he arrived, and he broke into tears," Paz recalled.

One of his favorite birds is the endangered tawny antpitta (grallaria antpitta), which he has named after the Colombian pop star "Shakira" because of its unique rhythmic tail wag.

He is especially proud of his dark-backed wood quail, a shy, endangered ground bird native to the high forests of Colombia and Ecuador.

There is also a giant antpitta named Maria, which Paz said was difficult to attract to his reserve.

On his 25 hectares (62-acres) perched 1,400 meters (4,200 feet) above sea level, virtually on the equator, Paz feeds fruits and earthworms to more than 220 bird species.

On the reserve Paz has el oro parakeets (pyrrhura orcesi) and toucans as well as sparrows, doves, wild turkeys and owls.

After the birds finish eating, two olingos -- mammals that look like a cross between a monkey, a squirrel and a miniature bear -- swoop down to scoop up the leftovers.

Thanks to its variety of micro-climates, from rain forests to the snowcapped Andes, the Latin American country is a bird paradise.

"There are in Ecuador nearly 1,600 bird species representing 13 percent of the world's bird species," guide and birdwatcher Roberto Cedeno, who has spent 20 years observing birds, told AFP.

For comparison, there are 914 wild bird species in the United States and Canada, according to the American Birding Association.

There are 130 different types of hummingbirds in Ecuador, nearly half of the 300 species in the Americas. Hummingbirds are native to the western hemisphere.

Tourism linked to birdwatching has flourished in Ecuador in recent years, and Paz says it could take a birder days to find the vast variety he has in his reserve.

"The birds are jewels in the forest and there are people who, instead of scanning images, prefer to make their own observations about these small treasures," said Cedeno.

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