Where to Find the Cock-of-the Rock

Posted on

Two hours northwest of Quito is San Carlos. This small town would be unremarkable if it were not for the fact that it is the gateway to the Mindo Valley. For it is here that the lowlands meet the tropical Andes creating one of the most important watersheds in Ecuador.

Broad-billed Motmot

Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the Mindo Valley to take part in various outdoor activities or relax in the cool mountain air. But it is its biological diversity that has made Mindo world-renowned among bird watchers. And one bird, in particular, is especially sought after: the Andean cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruvianus).

Blue-necked tanager

The tunki, as the Quechua call it, isn’t a particularly rare bird, but it is a difficult one to spot despite the males sporting a dazzling scarlet crest against a black body (the females are a more modest brown). Naturally shy, the cock-of-rock is distributed over a patchwork of mountainous and heavily forested terrain from Venezuela to Bolivia, making a casual run-in with the bird a rarity. Even if you are able to flush one out, the odds of getting more than a quick glimpse are low.

Which is why the Mindo Valley is so vital to birders (note: I am not a birder and God willing will never be one). Here, the tunki can be viewed from the relative comfort of a bird blind pretty much every day thanks to a number of leks in the area. A lek is a place were male birds gather to strut their stuff in an attempt to impress the ladies. In the case of the tunki, this fevered exhibition of plumage includes a wide variety of calisthenics and vocal displays at sunrise (around 6AM). However, if there are no females to impress, which is usually the case outside of Ecuador’s dry season, the male birds will depart. Once the cock-of-the-rocks have left the lek, finding them is nearly impossible.

The Tunki

If you miss the morning routine, you can sometimes catch the tunki making another appearance around dusk, but there is even less of a chance to see a mating display. It can also be hard to appreciate the beautiful colors of these birds as the sun sets and the forest turns to shadows.

Planning Your Visit

Swallow tanager

There are, of course, many other birds to spot in the Mindo Valley, including a wonderful array of hummingbirds, toucans, and tanagers, so it’s well worth the extra money to hire a guide for a few hours. Tours, including an early morning wake-up to see the cock-of-rock, start at $50 and last three to four hours.

Several private reserves in the area with tunki leks charge access fees but are probably you best bet to view the birds. A few of the more popular places include the Refugio Paz de Las Aves which costs $10 for a one-hour tunki visit and $35 for a full morning tour. The refuge also charges a $5 camera fee. Reserva Las Tangaras is another option that only charges a $5 daily use fee. A guided tour to their cock-of-the-rock lek is an additional $20.

Because the Mindo Valley is a major tourist hotspot, there are a wide range of accommodations. If you are not staying at one of the private reserves (a good option for true bird enthusiasts), I recommend booking lodging in San Carlos.

It is also worth noting that the tunki is incredibly shy and will fly away if even momentarily disturbed. To increase your time with the birds, it is recommended to be as silent as possible and not to wear any bright colors.

Getting There

Getting to Mindo is easy with frequent buses departing from Quito’s Carcelén station ($6). While the journey is safe, be on the lookout for pickpockets at the station and in the bus. The route is notorious for thieves discreetly relieving passengers of their possessions while they doze or are distracted. Alternatively, you can hire a car to take you to Mindo for about $75.

Share this post! Share on Facebook
Facebook
Tweet about this on Twitter
Twitter
Email this to someone
email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.