Continuing the South American theme from my previous post, there is another group of birds found in South America that genuinely set my pulse racing and guarantee I will make that extra effort to see them. They are enigmatic, unpredictable, inhabit the mysterious depths of the forest floor and are the devil's own job to see. Any birder worth his or her salt who has visited South America will have plenty of tales of how this group of birds have led them to distraction and left them feeling downcast after a supreme effort to see one comes to nought.
They are not particularly brightly coloured, in fact often the opposite and usually their plumage is various shades of brown and olive, and why not as they spend virtually their entire life on the ground in the forest, existing in gloom and deep shade, secure and hidden under the myriad leaves and stems of countless plants and trees, hopping about on very long, thin legs, their plump bodies hunched and rounded and virtually tailless.
This however is the reason they engender such fascination and desire. They are a challenge like no other, extremely elusive, more often heard than seen, so if and when you finally achieve that all too brief glance of one after undergoing a trial of both physical and mental torture, it is all worth it and the previous failures and privations are totally forgotten.
Here below are the various antpittas I have managed to see so far on my three trips to South America, (twice to Ecuador and once to Colombia). There are others that I have come close to seeing but ultimately failed to do so, having to be content with just hearing them call or having to accept that I had failed utterly to see or hear one. That is what keeps you coming back.
There are no guarantees with these birds but there is, however one silver lining, for the antpitta afficianado. A small number of reserves have habituated antpittas to come to be fed worms, usually first thing in the morning, where you can forego any trial of will and sit quietly in a small clearing as a man calls to them and if you are lucky one or more species will come for an all too brief spell to feed on some chopped worms. They rarely remain for more than minutes, as if unwilling to expose themselves for too long in the open, anxious to return to that with which they are familiar, the security of the dense forest understorey, their true home.
Without the sites where they are habituated it is immensely difficult to see antpittas. Tape luring will sometimes work but is unreliable as often the birds fail to respond. Walking forest trails in the early morning or late evening can sometimes be rewarding, as antpittas can emerge from the forest onto the trails at these times.
Refugio de Las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador, November 2018
On my first trip to Ecuador in 2014 I failed to see this much coveted antpitta. It is the largest of all antpittas, about the size of a Blackbird and if it shows up is the ultimate prize for any birder. They have been familiarised to come for worms at Refugio de Las Aves but are totally unpredictable and often do not show up or are inexplicably absent for months on end, as was the case on my first visit.
However, on my second visit to Ecuador in 2018, one had been showing reasonably regularly but nonetheless the anxiety levels were very high, as having travelled all the way to Ecuador I literally had thirty minutes on one particular morning, on one particular day, to see one. If it decided not to come out of the forest then that was my one and only chance gone and I would be very unlikely ever to see one.
You can imagine how I felt as Angel Paz, who founded and runs the reserve called gently and suddenly one emerged from the dense and fecund ground foliage to stand just a short way from me flicking its wings and showing off as bold as you like. It was the culmination of a year's hoping and wondering and here it all came together. The feeling was indescribable. So sweet after having failed four years earlier.
Having seen a number of different antpitta species, all of which are much smaller, the bird's sheer size does take your breath away. Arguably the largest of antpittas it was a vision of plumpness and solidity with a large head and heavy bill, its body supported on two long but sturdy legs. Like most antpittas its plumage was a combination of browns of varying hues, its upperparts dark olive brown, the colour of the rotting leaves on the forest floor, while the underparts were rich orange brown, liberally patterned with narrow bands of dark crescents. Its crown was the colour of wet slate. The size of its bill remarkable. A giant indeed and mightily impressive.
To crown a wonderful experience a second one appeared, so I watched not one but two, obviously a pair. It did not last long, no more than twenty minutes before they both flew back into the impenetrable density of leaves and understorey and were gone. Fabled and magical birds and I would have it no other way.
Giant Antpittas are currently divided into three sub species of which the ones I saw were Grallaria gigantea hylodroma and all three subspecies inhabit two small areas in northwest Ecuador and a similar restricted area in Colombia but more needs to be done to establish their exact distribution and numbers and, as ever, time is running out.
As with many antpitta species little is known about their biology, ecology, evolution, taxonomy, behaviour and conservation needs. It is vitally important that this is addressed as the threat from continued deforestation and loss of habitat is an ever present and growing problem. The first nest was only found in 2009 on this very reserve I was visiting and maybe the reserve can be where it is studied to learn more about this shy and secretive bird.
Yellow breasted Antpitta
Refugio de Las Aves, Mindo,Ecuador November 2018
Apart from the Giant Antpitta, which was obviously the star bird, Angel Paz also had a supporting cast of other antpitta species to show us and next up was this beauty, virtually endemic to Ecuador. Much smaller and more retiring than its giant cousin, it is more often heard than seen. We stood to wait as one was coaxed out from wet vegetation above a rocky stream and came to seize some worms. Its plumage was an attractive reddish brown on its head and upperparts and pale citrus yellow below. Like many of its kind it was anxious about being away from cover and would retreat with a worm to eat it out of sight under cover and then return for another.This went on for about five minutes, with the bird returning each time until it came no more. Its small tailless body served to accentuate the length of its long delicate legs. The comparison with knitting needles or pipe cleaners was irresistible.
Ochre breasted Antpitta
Refugio de Las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador November 2018
From one small antpitta to another even smaller. This is one of the smallest of all antpittas, being only four inches in size but like many small beings it possessed a character that more than compensated for its diminutive size.For me the comparison to a tiny tailless Song Thrush was inevitable but as I gazed on this tiny bird I realised that I was in a cloud forest in Ecuador and far, far away from the prosaic surroundings of my home in Oxfordshire.
It is widely distributed throughout South America although there is still not clarity about its precise range. For once I can say it is a relatively common antpitta wherever there are humid wet montane forests. When stationary it had the curious habit of swaying its rear end and inevitably this one was christened Shakira after the famous Colombian singer who too 'shakes her booty'.
Its small size and brown upperbody made it hard to discern against the leaves and detritus on the ground but when it moved up to perch on a small branch all was revealed. A medium brown upperbody, a buff face and breast, the latter streaked with dark lines extending onto the white belly and flanks. It stood for long periods, like a small tennis ball, looking at us with bright and intense large dark eyes before disappearing as silently as it arrived, to resume its solitary wanderings on the forest floor.
|A perfect illustration of how the antpitta's plumage matches its |
humid environment of dead leaves and rotting vegetation
Refugio de Las Aves, Mindo, Ecuador February 2018
Almost as an afterthought Angel Paz asked if anyone would like to see another species of antpitta.I was hardly going to refuse. We walked along a narrow precipitous trail that wound some way alongside a small ravine and stopped where a bank of dark rotting vegetation, mossy logs and thick forest rose up to our right. Angel threw some worms onto the bank and nothing happened. He called and called and just when it was about time to concede defeat the antpitta hopped out of cover to perch on a fallen branch.
A medium sized antpitta and markedly different in colour with a dark grey head, olive brown upperparts, a dark brown breast with random white teardrops, a rufous underbody and of course the white moustaches, it perfectly matched its habitat.We were told this was the shyest and most secretive of all the antpitta species on Angel's property and we had to remain totally silent. The bird was clearly very nervous but for a few minutes hopped around in the open eating the worms before losing its nerve, grabbing a beakful of worms and dashing back into cover, not to return.
Up until 1979 it was known from only a single museum specimen and remained unknown in the wild until the late 1990's when it was re-discovered in both Ecuador and Colombia. They are now known to be fairly common in parts of both countries but their habitat is fragmented and their shy retiring nature in their favoured habitat of humid dark understorey of cloud forests makes their presence and numbers hard to assess.
Rufous Antpitta now re-named Chami Antpitta
Yellow eared Parrot Reserve, Jardin, Colombia, January 2016
The lady that ran the Pro Aves Las Venturas Lodge on the reserve had habituated this small antpitta to come to worms. It lived in a bamboo thicket, its favoured habitat and she had named it Conchita. Often habituated antpittas are given names, I guess so whoever was calling it had something to shout rather than just whistling, which sometimes happens.
After seeing the parrots it took two visits to find it, pre-breakfast when we had no luck and post-breakfast when, after some persuading the antpitta materialised out of a dark recess in its favoured bamboo thicket. A rich rufous brown all over, the colour of a conker, it had the longest thinnest legs possible which gave it an aura of fragility.
This widespread species has recently undergone a taxonomic review with the result that Rufous Antpittas found in Colombia have been split into no less than six species, four of which are endemic to Colombia, although they all look very similar. The Rufous Antpitta I saw at the parrot reserve is now called Chami Antpitta. So now I have another five species of antpitta to look for!
This antpitta is predominantly solitary or found in pairs but will sometimes join mixed species flocks and is more prone to do this than many other antpittas
Chestnut crowned Antpitta
Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco, Manizales, Colombia January 2016
This is a common and widespread antpitta if you can say such a thing about antpittas and because of its attractive plumage a popular one with birders. It is often the most frequently observed of the antpittas in the wild and fortunately they seem particularly prone to be habituated to come for worms but as with all antpittas never remain for long. The plumage is a pleasant combination of colours with the most striking feature being its orange head. The upperparts are olive green and the underparts white with the flanks heavily marked with thick black streaking. This was one of the first antpittas I ever saw and once I had I knew I was smitten and had to see more.
It seems more amenable to living in non pristine habitat and can be found in mainly agricultural areas so long as a few woodland patches persist. It will also hop into the open more often than other antpittas.
Lake Mica, Antisana Ecological Reserve, Ecuador, November 2018
For once we managed to locate an antpitta without having recourse to worms and habituation.This one was singing away in a bush by the side of an alpine lake, quite oblivious to us standing watching it. It is both common and numerous, and by antpitta standards often conspicuous and easy to see.It inhabits a variety of habitats such as woodland, scrub and even agricultural areas, between 3000-4500 metres, betraying its presence by singing. I have sometimes encountered them by accident whilst looking for other birds - I found one at over 4000 metres in the paramo of Colombia, feeding on the mud under a bank of a lake whilst looking for a Chestnut Winged Cinclodes! And there were other occasions too involving Bogota Rails and Noble Snipe. They seem willing to show themselves in the open more than most antpittas although still remaining a shy and wary bird and never straying far from cover.
On another occasion one was singing lustily by the road when we went to see an Andean Condor near the Antisana Ecological Reserve and a Naturetrek group could not believe their luck as it sang away while they stood close by taking its photograph.
A very nondescript bird which I christened the M&S Antpitta as its plumage is featureless, consisting of various shades of beige and nothing else! Nevertheless it was an antpitta and I still got the same thrill at seeing one as with other antpitta species. On any trip to Ecuador or Colombia I would expect to see and hear at least one or two Tawny Antpittas provided I was in the right habitat and at a high elevation.
Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco,Manizales,Colombia, January 2016
Virtually endemic to Colombia and described as small and difficult to see, it certainly lived up to its reputation as this plump little bird only granted the shortest of audiences when it came just once for worms and then fled. It showed us its lovely two toned plumage of rich chestnut head and upperparts and grey underparts as it hopped up onto a small branch, posed for a minute and was gone, leaving me with wanting so much more. In such situations it is customary to say 'Well at least I saw it' but I could have done with a few extra minutes and felt slightly frustrated that it had not remained longer. A few days later we found our own and only saw that one for a minute, if that!
Virtually its entire range, apart from on reserves, has been deforested in Colombia and its only known locality in Ecuador remains unprotected. It is however reasonably tolerant of disturbance so there may be hope it will cling on in less than ideal habitat although one fears the worst.
Fenwick's or Urrao Antpitta
Colibri del Sol Bird Reserve, Colombia, January 2016
This antpitta may not look anything exceptional but it is extremely rare only being found on the reserve and numbering less than 400 individuals.The reserve is located on the south east slope of the Paramo de Sol massif at the northern tip of the Western Andes of Colombia
Fenwick's Antpitta was first discovered in 2010 and that in itself sparked an ongoing controversy as two different individuals claimed the discovery of this antpitta, one calling it Urrao Antpitta and the other calling it Fenwick's Antpitta and even today the debate goes on. Not that the bird itself cares.
I made a two hour horseback journey up to the reserve in order to rise first thing the next morning to go and see it. Fortunately one or more had been habituated to come for worms but it was still a lottery if one would turn up. We made a short walk across a very unstable wooden bridge that had seen better times and took a narrow track up into the cloud forest on the other side. A short wait commenced at the designated spot and soon bore fruit when one emerged from the bamboo to feed on the proffered worms.
The bird itself is fairly non descript. It is medium sized with wings and upperparts, including its head, dull olive while the underparts are generally pale grey with some areas suffused with olive tones. Hardly a stunner in looks but its rarity gives it that certain 'je ne sais quoi'.
Conservation action is urgently needed, even though the birds are largely protected in the reserve. Despite the protection there are threats to its habitat from cultivation and stock grazing right up to the borders of the reserve so there is little chance of the bird's population expanding from the reserve. Outside the reserve there may be other individuals in various pockets of suitable habitat but no one knows and no comprehensive survey of likely habitat has been done.This is now urgent as land in the Paramo de Sol massif is not well protected and is facing increasing pressures from timber extraction and mining. It is, sadly, a familiar tale of human greed and short sightedness and if great care is not taken a bird so recently discovered may become extinct before we know anything of its ecology.
The bird we saw remained for half an hour and then, as they always do, decided it had enough and would return to the comforting density of the forest.
Two days later we left the reserve in the early morning by the same track and l saw at least three birds fully out in the open, hopping along on the track.
Slate crowned Antpitta
Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco, Manizales, Ecuador, January 2016
My only encounter with this delightful little antpitta was memorable for a number of reasons.First we found ourselves sitting quietly in a small clearing, a truly idyllic situation deep in virgin cloud forest surrounded by lush vegetation, epiphytes and orchids, the sunlight permeating the canopy to create a soothing green light. Albedo who had the worms to lure the antpitta told us they were not here and he would have to call them. He whistled. I assume it was an approximation of the call of a Slate crowned Antpitta. At first there was no reply but then from a very long way deep in the forest there was an answer. Albedo smiled and told us 'they will come but we will have to wait for quite some time, maybe twenty minutes'. It was no hardship, sitting in a forest, warm in sun filtered through a myriad of leaves on trees that reached the sky, a host of unfamiliar bird calls echoing through the forest and cicadas zizzing in the trees.
The time passed quickly enough as we sat in silent hope. A call came, much closer now and then closer still. Suddenly, as always seems to be the way with antpittas, a branch that was previously unoccupied suddenly hosted a tiny antpitta perched on it. Prettily patterned on its head with a slate grey crown and buff eyerings, giving it a slightly quizzical look, and otherwise olive brown upperparts with rich rufous underparts, it did not seem that interested in the worms but unhurriedly sampled one or two. Then to our delight a second one arrived but was less emboldened and perched discretely, further away in the forest edge, whilst its presunmed mate perched near to us.
It is times like this that you do not want to end but it did and the two tiny birds melted back into their forest home as mysteriously as they had arrived. One last call came in the distance and then silence.They were gone.
Brown banded Antpitta
Another small antpitta with unremarkable plumage described in one book as 'uncomplicated and dull.'. I was sitting in a small clearing with Albedo and his worms as he called to the antpitta. I looked to my right and the tiny bird just popped out of a dark recess in the vegetation, feet from my right shoulder and stood on a mossy log looking at me. It seized a worm and fled back into the dark recess it had emerged from but soon re-appeared to seize another worm. After ten minutes it was gone for good.
Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco, Manizales,Colombia January 2016
It is endemic to Colombia and was for a long time considered to be extinct but was re-discovered in 1994. Much of its habitat has been degraded and deforested. but it appears tolerant of living in such conditions, provided the habitat is not completely cleared. Thankfully it is protected in reserves such as Rio Blanco but like all antpittas its natural history and breeding biology are undocumented. It inhabits sub tropical and temperate forest from 1800-3150 metres
Rufous crowned Antpitta
Mashpi Artisanal Chocolate Farm, Mashpi, Ecuador November 2018
Pittasoma rufipileatum or Pittasoma for short. If it can be said that there is one antpitta supreme above all others then this is it, or at least for me. The daddy of them all, encapsulating just about everything that is fascinating and alluring about this family of birds. It is unpredictable, elusive and usually unattainable, leading you on in wild hope that is more fantasy than reality. Rarely can you plan to go and see one with even the slightest chance of success, they are just so rare and elusive. Any sighting is by mere chance and the odds of that happening in thousands of square miles of cloud forest are minimal. You can be walking the forest trails for days with never a sign and then one just pops out of the thick understorey at random, a chance encounter and you feel you have won the lottery, so great are the odds stacked against you ever seeing one. Even experienced local bird guides will see one, possibly two a year, if that.
Apart from the above the pittasoma adds yet more to its allure as, for an antpitta, it is remarkably beautiful, possessing a colourful and attractively patterned plumage, sporting a strongly marked head with orange on the crown, a broad black eye stripe and creamy face and throat. The upper body is olive grey, with wing coverts delicately tipped white. The underparts are white, barred with black, its rotund tailless body supported on the customary pair of long grey legs.When I first saw one illustrated in a field guide the image leapt out at me and I knew then and there I had to see one.
On my first trip to Ecuador in 2014 I walked all the forest trails with Dusan, my birdguide, playing tapes but we never got a response nor ever heard one.We even went to the site where Dusan had seen one a few months prior, which typically had hopped out of the forest without any intimation it was there but there was predictably no sign of it. I returned home and kept the memory of this marvellous creature and total failure to see it, close to my heart. I had wanted to see one so badly it almost physically hurt but accepted that I had to reconcile myself to failure.
In 2016 or was it 2017, I heard rumours that a pittasoma had been found near Mashpi, frequenting the organic Artisanal Chocolate Farm that incorporates a reserve of 60 hectares of remnant virgin cloud forest. This pittasoma just appeared out of the forest while some steps were being dug on a trail and commenced picking up the disturbed invertebrates.No one knew it was there until it appeared. It was there the next day when work resumed and contact has been maintained with it ever since. A colleague of mine Richard Fairbank saw it, not without some effort, on a trip to Ecuador in February 2018.
I commenced formulating a ridiculous plan to go and try to see it myself if it remained which was a huge gamble on my part. In April 2018 I booked a flight to Ecuador for November that year and engaged Gabo, a local birdguide recommended by Richard Obviously I would see many other birds on my trip but if I am honest my focus was on the pittasoma. It was a crazed wild excursion into dreamland but that is how birding can take you. It was a gamble but if you do not go you will never have the chance to see the bird.The intervening months passed and still the pittasoma was being occasionally reported from the forest above the chocolate farm.
Fast forward to mid November and I arrived in Ecuador and virtually the first question I asked Gabo when he met me at the airport was of news about the pittasoma. The answer he gave me did nothing to calm my anxiety.Yes it had been seen a month ago but there had been no reports since. He had spoken to Danilo who works at the reserve and had found the pittasoma. He would take us looking for it in two days and try to find it for us. Two days! Can we go now? Of course this was ridiculous and having waited over a year, two days would make no difference.
The fateful day arrived after a night of heavy rain. We met Danilo in the early morning, he was clasping a jar of grasshoppers to which he had habituated the pittasoma to come to be fed at his call.Apparently he had learnt the pittasoma much preferred grasshoppers to the traditional worms. He said he was doubtful of finding it as the rain would make it very difficult. We ascended up into a cathedral of forest, luxurious, wet and dripping, the sweet smell of rotting leaves pungent on the humid air. Danilo went off into the forest whistling to the pittasoma which he had named Shunguito and came back after ten minutes with nothing to report. We walked on further into the forest and he told us to wait once more as he disappeared down another muddy trail. More whistling ensued in the distance from Danilo.Nothing answered. Silence and then Danilo called us to join him.
We assumed it was to inform us of ultimate failure but on getting to Danilo he pointed down to the ground just in front of us and there, yes right there, standing under the wet dripping leaves on the forest floor was a pittasoma.
I had won the birding equivalent of the lottery.
Transfixed we watched as it fed on grasshoppers offered by Danilo.Then it stood and commenced calling, a loud single whistle repeated over and over which rang through the huge overarching trees and seemed to embody the very soul of the forest.
Twenty minutes passed in what seemed no time and then with the antpitta equivalent of a shrug it turned and vanished back into the darkness of the forest.
Pittasomas are suffering a fairly rapid population decline due to considerable fragmenation of their habitat by road construction, agriculture and logging. They inhabit the understorey of humid lowland and foothill forests usually below 1100 metres.
Virtually nothing is known about the pittasoma's life cycle.No study of its ecology, breeding biology, diet and behaviour has ever been undertaken. It will be a very diffcult task as the bird itself is totally unpredictable and rare. The pittasoma we were watching presents a golden opportunity for someone to study it but nothing has or can be done. Many bird tours will not come to see it as it cannot be guaranteed to be found so why waste a day with clients who want to see as many bird species as possible?
No nest has ever been found but Danilo told us he thought there was another pittasoma in the forest as he had heard one calling. The one we saw was thought to be a male. If the other was a female then there is a chance of finding a nest and studying the breeding biology but there is no one to do it and time is running out..
It is such a shame and it looks like the pittasoma will remain an enigma for the foreseeable future, that is if it has a future, for deforestation continues across Ecuador and no one knows whether that includes habitat that holds pittasomas
Such a tragedy in the making but hopefully the birds on the chocolate farm at Mashpi or their descendants will remain and one day someone will find the time and resources to go and study them. I would love to do it but too many years have passed me by - or have they?
A word about habituating antpittas to come to worms.
There are some who think this somehow is cheating but when you have very limited time there is not the luxury of spending hours or even days looking for antpittas. Even if you could the brief views achieved by doing it the purists way are not nearly as satisfactory as when they are enticed into coming for worms and remaining on view for some minutes. The birds are still wild and in no way predictable and sometimes, even when fed worms, they fail to co-operate. Personally I have no problem with habituating antpittas as it has allowed me to get close to many wonderful species of antpitta and enjoy their beauty and charisma in majestic surroundings.