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Encounters with Brown Wood-Rail in Ecuador

Brown Wood-Rail
A Brown Wood-Rail feeds on bananas in the author’s yard in western Ecuador. The little-known species is only found in Ecuador and Colombia. Photo by Lisa Brunetti

One bird’s distinctive voice punctuated the morning’s natural soundtrack. It sounded like a rubber ball dropped onto a hardwood floor: bop bop bop bop bop bop bop-bop-bopbopbopbopbop and a sometimes barely audible final ahhhhh, as if the bird expelled (or inhaled) one last segment of air.

For weeks, I had wondered what bird made the unique sound — often quite close yet undetected by my novice eye. Orange-fronted Barbets often appeared at the same time, but they seemed mysteriously silent when foraging nearby.

“What. IS. That. Bird?” I wondered.

With childlike curiosity and a quest to learn about this protected tropical humid forest, I tuned into the surroundings that cocooned my home and began the task of identifying the new-to-me species.

How did I start? Where did I start?

One bird at a time.

It’s a lesson I took to heart; it would be useful several weeks later, when a completely unexpected bird walked into my life.

Before I get to that story, I admit to being one of the luckiest people in the world. Immersed in wrap-around nature just a few minutes of latitude south of the equator, I live where temperatures never dip to freezing and rarely reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The site is near the Poza Honda Reservoir in western Ecuador’s Manabí Province.

Ecuador is one of the most bird-rich countries on Earth; more than 1,640 species have been tallied. According to eBird, 557 bird species have been recorded in Manabí, which is about equal in size to New Jersey.

Whooping Motmot is a colorful, long-tailed resident of lowland forests in the tropics. Photo by Lisa Brunetti

Poza Honda is a place where wild heliconias stretch their fingers toward the skies while Long-billed Hermits dart from flower to flower. Petite Amazilia Hummingbirds flit between many varieties of flowers, then patrol from higher perches like little Napoleons.

I eventually determined that the owner of the mystery voice was the Great Antshrike, a scarlet-eyed bird of the tropics that adds its staccato call to the daily soundtrack. The male, attired in crisp black and white plumage, contributes a classy presence to the scene while the equally handsome female dresses down in cinnamon.

Tree-top rainforest views

A seldom-used gravel road became my wide and easy trail, where White-necked Puffbirds watch from specific perches with stunning views of the reservoir. Pockets of green hold on against deforestation that claims more of this supposedly protected forest each year.

A Huckleberry-Finn childhood in the Mississippi Delta prepped me for life in the Neotropics. I learned to be forever watchful for snakes and to navigate the woodlands in stealth mode while looking for birds, animals, and reptiles. My artistic training fine-tuned those observation skills. This artist’s eyes never rest, and the 150-plus bird species at Poza Honda keep me well entertained.

My home provides tree-top views of a tropical humid rainforest that borders the 7-kilometer-long reservoir. Several meters from one window, stunning Orange-fronted Barbets sample the ripened starfruits before darting to a nearby orange tree. The female barbet’s black bib is as lovely as her mate’s bib of pale yellow. At a safer distance in the bird-popular tamarind tree sit the yellow-bellied Gartered Trogons with tails painted with bold black-and-white stripes. In slightly more daring attire, the Ecuadorian Trogon sports splashes of vivid red with matching eye rings. The Pale-billed Aracari drops in for an occasional roll call, loiters long enough for a few photo ops, then breezes back out of the scene.

The region’s many bird species include Barred Puffbird, an uncommon bird that occurs in Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador. Photo by Lisa Brunetti

As I write, the near-threatened Pale-browed Tinamou’s distinct whistle announces its close presence, while a second answers from afar. “Catch a glimpse of me if you can,” it taunts. Stripping threads from palm leaves, Scarlet-rumped Caciques weave pendulous nests in easy view. They probe heliconias for selective morsels but seem equally happy at the fruit feeder. Black-cheeked Woodpeckers often challenge the caciques for the bananas, yet a pair of Whooping Motmots visit the feeder most often.

Groove-billed and Smooth-billed Anis provide non-stop chatter from their loosely knit clusters. Both species appear almost daily and provide easy photo ops. Sky-high and motionless on a broken stick of bamboo, the Common Potoo holds its covert pose for hours.

At night, the Spectacled Owl, West Peruvian Screech-Owl, and Common Potoo watch over the area. The potoo offers an eerie melancholy wail that can prompt chills if one does not know the owner of the voice — or a smile from one who does. If I had perched completely motionless for most of the day, I might whimper and cry with equal emotion.

‘Pay attention’

It’s not the antshrikes or the puffbirds or the trogons or even the aracaris that make this the most amazing place I’ve lived; most every day presents a private show that seems to be orchestrated just for me. I learned to ignore the neighbor’s chickens, which roamed the yard in search of insects and fallen fruit. They sometimes leaped to the dragon fruit trellis and devoured the bananas placed for the tanagers.

Have you ever “known” something yet have no idea how you knew? Some inner nudge taps on your subconscious and says, “Pay attention.” I did just that when I noticed a brown chicken-like bird mingling with the chickens one August day a few years ago.

What. Is. That?”

I reached for my camera.

Click. Click. Click.

The bird quickly darted out of the scene. A poor image is better than no image, and the camera captured enough details to compare with my reference materials.

Flipping through my Birds of Ecuador Field Guide, I pondered the bird’s identity and finally reasoned that it must be Aramides wolfi, a Brown Wood-Rail. It’s a species with a limited range — western Ecuador and Colombia — that is listed as vulnerable. It quickly became the darling of my birding experience.

Since I moved there in August 2017, two skittish adult Brown Wood-Rails used the thickly vegetated ravine beside my house as their primary residence. The birds’ raucous dawn yelping often nudged me from a deep sleep, and even if I had painted for half of the night, I embraced their wakeup call. Stealth-like, they often hurried to the thick woodlands on the opposite side of the house.

I asked my neighbors about them.

“Yes, they eat the bananas,” they shrugged.

And they did!

Masked Water-Tyrants engage in a breeding display near the Poza Honda reservoir. Photo by Lisa Brunetti

The rails visited the yard frequently for about five months until the rainy season arrived the following January. Life-giving rains triggered a frenzy of nest building by Scarlet-rumped Caciques, One-colored Becards, Masked Tityras, and Pacific Horneros. Many birds became silent — even the loud-mouthed Rufous-headed Chachalacas and rails. Several months later, I realized why the rails had been quiet. In several seconds’ time, five young wood-rails darted across the yard and back to their safe zone. Yippee! Five precious babies!

A personal emergency called me away from home for almost a month, and when I returned, the young ones presented themselves in the rank ground cover of the back gardens. The juveniles foraged, darted, and dashed — and were sometimes bullied by the territorial chickens.

Once, I planned to go for an early-morning run, but a wood-rail tipped onto the stage. It strutted across the yard, jumped into a low-growing clump of bananas, and began to break its fast. It was a lovely sun-filled morning, and the wood-rails conspired to delay my outing. The juveniles foraged, played, leaped into the bananas, nibbled at fallen star fruit — and provided all-day entertainment.

How lucky am I? Would you say that is luck? No, we would probably all agree: I am blessed.

Brown Wood-Rail has a taste for bananas

The birds appeared to be addicted to bananas. As the low-growing bananas began to ripen, several Brown Wood-Rails foraged around the perimeters of the yard. Pumping its stumpy tail, one strutted across the close-cropped areas, circled the bananas, then darted back to safer areas. At random moments throughout the day, a lone rail would pass the fruits, then hurry back to wilder areas. I anticipated observing the rails as much as they anticipated those ripened bananas. Once the bananas matured, the birds ate their fill. I marveled at my good fortune to witness and document the behavior and quirks of this elusive and highly entertaining species.

When mature bananas once coaxed four wood-rails into easy view, the birds rotated shifts, approaching the bananas and leaping up to the ripest cluster. A clump of bananas supported one rail but became crowded when two ate at the same time. Neither competed for the same banana but feasted in harmony while balancing and adjusting until one of the two leaped to the ground. Always on alert, the birds pecked at the ripening fruit, then raised their heads to watch for danger, then pecked again. Many times, they paused as if to listen to a nuance of sound, then resumed. Or they might suddenly bolt to the ground and race across the yard.

Sometimes one rail waited in the shadows until the feeding bird returned to the ground. They seemed to respect one another, and the banana-stuffed bird usually fluffed its feathers as if to say, “That was tasty,” while the second circled the base of the plants, paused, and then leaped to the top of the cluster. Every so often, a feeding rail barked, much like a squirrel, then jumped down and hurried to the edge of the yard, where another bird appeared. The just-fed rail often faded into the background, and the other jumped to the cluster of bananas.

The banana plants grow near a slab of concrete that covered the shut-off valves for the water system. The wood-rails often circled the bananas, marched to the slab, then leaped from the concrete to the bananas. After depleting the ripe bananas, they forcefully stabbed greener fruits with their bills. Wham-wham-wham. Much like a woodpecker, they pecked, paused, looked around, pecked again — repeating until they broke through the tough husk.

The rails also foraged along the shady trail that connected the yard to the reservoir. The chickens used the same areas, so the dusty-swept areas of trail might suggest both species. Rails sorted through fallen leaves with their bills, yet they stayed alert, raising their heads, looking left and right, holding frozen poses, then pushing more foliage. They clung to areas with light cover with easy-to-reach hiding places. They foraged beneath cascading leaves of tall gingers and heliconias or in the dense forest edge near the reservoir. I often wondered which bird did such a perfect job of cleaning the inside of fallen mandarin oranges. From afar, I watched a pair of rails feasting on similar fruits. The fallen lemons remained untouched.

Chasing butterflies

The Brown Wood-Rails darted from standing still to full throttle with lightning speed. Sometimes a sound startled them, and other times they seemed to enjoy practicing their escape skills. They sensed and dodged any low-flying bird, and one rail once ducked when a Whooping Motmot passed low over the yard. Another time, a rail marched toward its next area of cover, then suddenly darted after a low-flying butterfly, which eluded the rail but provided a comical zigzagged chase.

The rails often foraged in loose clusters and sometimes shadowed the chickens. If a chicken suddenly cackled and scattered, the rails also bolted for cover. The larger chickens sometimes claimed all rights for backyard feeding privileges.

A wood-rail once displayed a serene yoga-like stance as it stretched and bowed in the sun. It seemed to celebrate the strong rays of sunshine after a cool and misty morning. About half an hour after the rail departed, a White-tipped Dove performed a similar ritual in almost the exact location.

One day, a juvenile rail jumped from the bananas, fluffed its feathers, then meandered to the far side of the yard. A second bird appeared from dense cover and approached the first bird. They fluffed feathers, extended their wings, poked and nuzzled each other in what appeared to be a very tender exchange.

Private eureka moments

Taking a break from the rails, I prepared for an easy walk to the reservoir. Hoping to sneak up on a hard-to-photograph Limpkin, I pulled on my boots, placed the camera bag over my shoulder, and tucked an empty cardboard box under my arm. It would hold the peat-like composted water hyacinths to use as potting soil. If lucky, I would also return with better reference images of the loud-mouthed Limpkins.

The squeaky chatter of anis drew me closer to the water, and I paused to confirm the species – Groove-billed. Also nearby were the forever-cheerful Masked Water-Tyrants. These handsome black-and-white members of the flycatcher family flitted from low branches to shrubby herbs to the lake bank and water hyacinths. Almost always in perpetual motion, they danced and sang while searching for insects. So rapt with appreciation for this handsome species, I forgot all about my Limpkin quest until a larger bird revealed its presence in the hyacinths.

I froze. The cardboard box wedged between my left arm and hip; my camera balanced in my right hand. Two hands would guarantee better photos, but dropping the box would startle the Limpkin. I snapped a few unsteady photos, then eased lower and lower until concealed behind meter-high vegetation. Finally, the box touched the ground. I crawled closer, then took several more photos. Unaware of my presence, the bird hobbled to the edge of its hiding place and moved into the water.

The Limpkin then illustrated a talent I was not previously aware of — it swam!

As graceful as a swan, it floated across the surface of the water, meandered along the hyacinths, then aimed for another island of floating vegetation.

“Limpkins can swim,” I continued to marvel while taking photos and video. “Limpkins can swim!”

Surely Audubon experienced similar surprises – as if nature orchestrated private “eureka” moments for a one-man (or woman) audience. I realize how lucky I am to observe and document the changes in this fragile forest in Ecuador. I reflect how each chapter in my life prepped me for the next.

A passage from the author and poet Wendell Berry’s book Given seems apt: “I dream of a quiet man who explains nothing and defends nothing, but only knows where the rarest wildflowers are blooming, and who goes, and finds that he is smiling not by his own will.”

I often realize that I am smiling as I meander to the water’s edge, and I smile while watching the Limpkins and Masked Water-Tyrants and the anis and the caciques. I smile when the barbets drop in for a star-fruit feast and when the Great Antshrike projects its distinct voice. I definitely smile when the wood-rail bolts after the butterfly! My entire body smiles because my soul is happy and at peace. Observing nature provides the secret oh-so-calming ingredient.


Meet the Brown Wood-Rail

Brown Wood-Rail
A Brown Wood-Rail perches among bananas, allowing the author to observe closely the bird’s behavior. Photo by Lisa Brunetti

According to the online resource Birds of the World, Brown Wood-Rail is a “very poorly known species which has a restricted range and appears to have become extremely rare, at least in Ecuador, owing to extensive destruction of its mangrove habitats.”

A 2011 paper in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology on the rail’s breeding behaviors notes that the species “is reclusive, hard to observe, and vocalizes infrequently; its basic biology remains poorly known.” The researchers, led by Tulane University ecologist Jordan Karubian, reported that the rails nested from February through April and laid about four eggs per nest. Two-thirds of 16 studied nests successfully produced young. A radio-tracked bird used a home range of 13.5 hectares (about 33 acres).

On eBird, records of the bird at Poza Honda posted by author Lisa Brunetti and others represent the southernmost sightings of the species. She speculates that birds at Poza Honda have adapted to living near people “perhaps because of their preference for ripe bananas. It’s amazing to see how fast they zero in on ripe bananas, and when the bananas are ripe, the rails are there almost constantly.”

In October 2020, birder Roger Ahlman, one of eBird’s Ecuador reviewers and hotspot editors, visited Poza Honda to view the rails. They represented species No. 1,300 on his mainland Ecuador list.

5 facts about the bird: 

  • One of eight species in the genus Aramides, a group of rails that are found from Mexico to Argentina
  • Listed as vulnerable on the international Red List
  • Population estimate: 1,000-2,500
  • Range: Western Colombia and western Ecuador
  • Habitat: Mangroves and swampy woodlands

Traveling to Poza Honda

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Embassy and Consulate has a Level 3 travel advisory for Ecuador: “Reconsider travel.” When it is safe to travel again, here’s what you need to know about visiting Poza Honda.

The closest international airport is in the city of Guayaquil in southwestern Ecuador. The drive to Poza Honda takes about four hours. Several birding locations and reserves can be found in southwestern Ecuador, so that would add more bird diversity, and time, to your trip.

Aside from overnight lodging on site at Casa Poza Honda, where this story takes place, accommodations in and around Poza Honda are basic. For information about travel, birding guides, and more, visit the website Blessed by Birds produced by author Lisa Brunetti.  

Working to save Ecuador’s Black-breasted Puffleg

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Lisa Brunetti

Lisa Brunetti is an artist and a naturalist who lives in western Ecuador’s Manabí Province. Read her blog and view her art and photos at https://lisabrunettiart.wordpress.com.

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