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Mindo Manakins

2012 June 23
by Seth Inman

As I had a spare couple days on mainland Ecuador before flying to the Galápagos, I took a very brief trip to Mindo for a day and a half, where Mari Gray, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the Tomás de Berlanga school in Santa Cruz, told me I should be able to see lots of cool birds. Perhaps not too coincidentally, my host in Quito had asked me if I’d heard of Mindo just a few hours after Mari emailed me about the town, similarly informing me that the biodiversity was incredible, particularly for birding.

Even after taking a pretty intense ornithology class at Cornell University and working for the Lab of Ornithology, I don’t really consider myself a birder. When I went on a number of field trips for the class it was the first time I’d really used binoculars with the intent of just spotting birds, and I don’t even know the difference in calls of an American Robin from an Eastern Bluebird, though I can tell you their species, genus, family, and order, as well as those of 149 other common North American birds. Still, when I read that over three hundred bird species reside in the Mindo area, I knew it was an opportunity that nobody should pass up, and this was confirmed by one of my ornithology classmates who knew beforehand over half the bird families we learned. Then I read that the Club-winged Manakin, a bird I’d learned about in class, was fairly easily seen performing its lek courtship display, I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up.

A lek, although the basic monetary unit of Albania, in this case is the Swedish-based term for a small area where males of a species communally display for females in the hopes of attracting one or more (the Manakin family, Pipridae, is polygynous) as a mate. The Club-winged Manakin, Machaeropterus deliciosus (the name portrays some of its visual and auditory allure), which has been closely studied by Cornell University professor Kim Bostwick, is a truly bizarre creature. The sound you’ll hear (or perhaps have heard) when the male puts its wings together behind its back is the rubbing of feathers together, akin to some well-known insects with their own adapted body parts. For a bird to do this, and achieve such a thrilling trill, is fairly stupefying. It was especially exciting because the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation’s Milpe Sanctuary contains a lek that is quite easily accessible and presumably rewarding to anyone who comes during breeding times—even inexperienced birders such as Mari and myself could have found these guys quite quickly without the very skillful help of our hired guide Irman Arias (who I’d recommend if you happen to travel for birding anywhere in Ecuador).

One of the other two species of Manakin found in the Milpe Reserve, the Golden-winged Manakin, is generally, and was, a bit harder to find. We had to search around for a while and double back on our trail a couple times before we located a calling male, and then it took a bit of waiting and mimicking the call (an amusing grunt) to get close to one. Even then, the bird showed why the Spanish name for Manakins is Saltarines (“little jumpers”), and was also surprisingly stealthy for what I’d always taken to be a fairly charismatic family. When flying and alighting the Golden-winged was absolutely silent, just like the superhero it resembled (in the guide-book illustrations it struck Mari and me as strongly reminiscent of Batman), and in the late morning light spotting the dark bird and filming it was pretty difficult (but again, I’ll try to get images, stationary or rolling in film, up next week).

Including the two manakins, my day and a half in Mindo yielded about 41 species, over 30 of which I had never seen before. That was roughly 18 bird families and 8 orders! My next post about Mindo will describe some of them, and include photos and video, as well as the species list!

Here is the video of the manakins. The round glare you often see in the video is the lens of the camera reflecting against the scope that provided most of the zoom to capture the images—I discovered the annoying way how difficult it is to perfectly align the two device’s lenses. Thus, some of my footage has required heavy splicing to edit out the seconds spent trying to focus the scope (which in addition had a bad leg) in one hand while keeping the lenses in line with the other hand. Unfortunately, the most evasive bird, the Golden-winged Manakin, was the subject of the most troublesome equipment management.

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