20 October 2013


Four years ago, I landed in Costa Rica for my first taste of Neotropical birding. As any birder could testify to, there is no ‘easing’ into the Neotropics. I had enough trouble identifying the birds I could comfortably see, without digging for the the skulkers. I had over this short time seen enough to be certain of two things - finding Resplendent Quetzal was tricky and I may as well stop birding without some lengthy trips to the Neotropics. Last year  I packed away my life in Europe and returned for an entire years worth of birding in South America. 

With liberty to move at will, I set about tackling the difficult and elusive species first, on the assumed basis that the commoner stuff would follow. Spinetails, Woodcreepers, Tyrant flycatchers, other flycatchers, Antbirds, Tapaculos. My introduction was made all the more difficult due to the fact that Argentina is still not in possession of a decent field guide. 

As one is bound to do, a favourite family or grouping of birds soon emerges. Perhaps it was on one of my numerous forays through my digitised field guides that it came to me, perhaps not, either way I chose a family that contained a little over 50 species (on a continent that plays host to 3500+). All the more bizarre, I had not even seen a representative of the family yet!. My colours had been nailed squarely to the Grallariidae mast. Long-legged, short-tailed, drab, a little bit squat with large dark eyes and a generally repetitive, somewhat haunting voice. Practically tied to the ground, the Antpitta family are for all money, the birding worlds version of ghosts. Living predominantly in the mist and cloud shrouded forests of the Andes, they move stealthily about seemingly intent on avoiding peering binoculars and cameras.

Over the course of the last year I managed to lay my eyes on some of them, my camera lens on only a fraction. I have sat for hours waiting, crawled through wet leaves and mud, route marched to high altitude bamboo forests and for the most part failed miserably in my quest to get but a glimpse. They certainly aren’t overly attractive or even particularly rare for the most part, but they are without doubt my most sought after and equally frustrating birds in South America. 

The short excerpts below reflect some of my successes and failures. Some of the text was originally published on this blog. Many of the photos are courtesy of some of the great team of birders and photographers I work with at Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures :

Adam Riley
Luis Segura
Forrest Roland

Variegated Antpitta, Grallaria varia
22/08/2012. Urugua-i Provincial Park, Misiones, Argentina

Having spent the better part of two days searching the Misiones forests, I finally connected with my first Antpitta - 53 days after the tour started.

Just then, a bird flushed off the path. Must have been a thrush, other than doves they are the only things that sit on paths. The bird has landed where I can still see it though, even if behind plenty of tangles. My tongue almost falls out of my mouth, I want to do a jig, I really want to get a photo too - but there is no chance in hell I am going to get an image. My long sought after Variegated Antpitta, at 14:00 in the afternoon. I sit down on the path and hope that it might consider coming back out to do whatever it was doing when I disturbed it. After 20 minutes my patience ebbs, it is clearly not coming back out. A few yards down the path I find the likely reason for the bird being in the open like this - a thick trail of large ants.  

Tick number 1, in the bag.

Speckle-breasted Antpitta, Hylopezus nattereri
25/08/2012. San Sebastian de la Selva, Misiones, Argentina

My next Antpitta would not require another 53 days of birding, only 3 on this occasion. This was an unintended tick, for the purpose of my twitch this morning was a different beast - the Spotted Bamboowren. I’d win on both accounts thanks to my own persistence and Ramon Moller Jensen, top bird photographer and owner of San Sebastian de la Selva.

Breakfast at 07:00 before Ramon was due to take me off to find Spotted Bamboowren. Filled up on coffee and then got an unexpected bonus, there would be no long walk to the top of the property, Ramon and I jumped onto an ATV and headed up at speed. Arriving at the site, Ramon hauled out two very large machetes - just in case some trail clearance was required. We headed along a small trail, but machetes were not required. Just before reaching the Bamboowren site, Ramon heard a Speckle-breasted Antpitta calling. Out came the mobile phone and he started some playback. We were in luck, our bird was interested and crept over to see who was invading his patch. Not the greatest view, but as anyone that has ever seen an Antpitta will testify, good views are nigh near impossible. Happy to add a second Antpitta in a matter of days.

This was starting to feel a little easy.

Argentina had only one species of Antpitta left to get, and I would get it at Calilegua National Park where everyone else seems to find it easily. I had already spent an entire day and afternoon searching for this apparently common species. It would happen though, my last morning confined me to defeat.

Another early start. I would not be cycling today, only walking for 5-6km’s up the road and along the river. Unfortunately, I was unable to add the list - if there were White-throated Antpittas here, they certainly weren’t making their presence known. I resigned myself to dipping on a host of species and shifted back to camp.

A few months later I was starting to cycle my way out of Bolivia.
Villa Tunari sits just over 200masl, by the end of the day I am expecting to reach 1900masl. Once I get to the 1200masl level, the cloud forest lives up to it’s name. Thick cloud and rain make the riding conditions treacherous. I pass a recently crashed truck which somehow managed to make a 90 degree exit on one of the few straight pieces of road. 

The rain intensifies, but onward and upward I go. I hear a familiar call bleating out of a roadside bush. A little thought before I check the calls on my iPhone. This is a bird I last chased in north western Argentina some months back. I get the playback going and within a few minutes manage to obtain a rather silhouetted view of a White-throated Antpitta. For all the hours that I walked around the beautiful Yungas of Calilegua National Park trying to find this bird, it shows on the side of a busy motorway in blinding cloud and heaving rain! 

Undulated Antpitta, Grallaria squamigera

Bosque Ampay sits above the town of Abancay, a place of towering mountains and deep valleys in the Chalhuanca Valley. My first attempt at Undulated Antpitta came a few hours after some of the most crushing days I had spent in the saddle.

Up early for my trip to Bosque Ampay. It is Saturday, the streets deserted at 05:45. It only takes a minute or so to find a taxi. Some banged up old Toyota, but it manages the steep uphill out of town as well as the rutted climb up to the entrance of Ampay. There isn’t much to see outside except a vertical cliff face in front of me - the path goes straight up it. After all the climbing I have done on the bike, my legs are not looking forward to doing it all again on foot.

I take slowly to the task at hand, the trail continuing onwards and upwards at a crushingly painful gradient. After 90 minutes I reach the first dense Podocarpus forest of the climb. Undulated Antpitta calls from various places, but none near to the paths.

I would return to Abancay on two further occasions with Adrian. We would again hear them calling, but no visuals were ever had.

Bay Antpitta, Grallaria capitalis
19/03/2013. Paty Trail, Huanuco, Peru

Adrian and I had walked a good section of the Paty Trail, all the time aware that the longer we walked the more painful the climb back up would be. We pause at one of the few clearings, the base of a massive electricity pylon. The opening allows some unhindered birding and we take full advantage.

During a lull in the birding, we hear a mournful call emanating from a nearby clump of trees. Neither of us can pick it, but it sounds like an Antpitta. Not overly useful as there are a number of species here. I run through the playlist quickly and decide that this is a Bay Antpitta.

With camera and bins ready, I start the process of luring the little fellow in - it’s a bit like fishing, sometimes they bite - mostly they don’t. The bird does come in, we both manage half obscured views from 6feet. There won’t be any images of this chap, but it is another good species in the bag. It only occurs to me now that this is Adrian’s very first Antpitta - a Puruvian Endemic to boot.

Pale-billed Antpitta, Grallaria carrikeri
Rusty-tinged Antpitta, Grallaria przewalskii

This will go down as one of the hardest birding days I have yet encountered. It will also be remembered as one of my most disappointing days out, despite being a mostly successful effort.

Another early start to get up the Rio Chido Trail. The trail head was only three kilometres from town, but the hike itself was going to be savage. We began our climb at 06:00 and did not reach the bamboo forests until gone midday. A haphazard affair with many wrong turns and even more stops. We paused to rest and breathe every 50-60 metres for the first few hours. The mountain crushed us for most of the day. At least we were adding the odd species, some of which were particularly important. However, the major target (Pale-billed Antpitta) of the climb did not make an appearance, not even a squeak.

There was little consolation to be had from any of the other Antpittas or Tapaculos. We had to be satisfied with our haul, which admittedly did include Lulu’s Tody Flycatcher at 3 feet... The walk down only took a few hours, while easier on the lungs, it was horrendous on the knees and ankles.

I would learn later that a much easier and more accessible site for the Pale-billed had been found, but it was too late for either of us to tackle it. 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla

Adrian and I had only just put our aching legs and disappointment of the Pale-billed Antpitta effort behind us when we got rather lucky. While driving the Leimebamba road I stopped for a short bird break. Ostensibly, I had pulled over near a large bush of flowers to look for Hummingbirds when we heard a familiar call. Chestnut-crowned Antpitta had spouted a few notes yesterday without display, today it was close - very close.

We tried some playback without success. The bushes in front of us contained the bird - we just could see it, despite their practically barren state. Adrian got onto the bird but was unable to guide me onto it. In fact it took a good 5 minutes of relocating the bird before I saw it. Perhaps a small amount of redemption after yesterdays efforts.

Stripe-headed Antpitta, Grallaria andicolus
02/04/2013. Huascaran National Park, Yungay, Peru

The redemption would continue for us a week later with some of the most uninterrupted views of an Antpitta I had experienced to date. Huascaran National Park in the Ancash mountains of Peru has probably the largest undivided polylepis forest I have witnessed in all of South America.

We would find only one Stripe-headed Antpitta - but it would also sit high above ground level posing for photos. I could probably have gotten an autograph had I thought to offer the wee fellow a pen and paper. We would see this bird again a few weeks later at Abra Malaga. _________________________________________________________________

Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria rufula
Tawny Antpitta, Grallaria guitensis
Crescent-faced Antpitta, Grallaricula lineifrons
19/05/2013. Termes de Papallacta, Ecuador

I spent just over two weeks in Ecuador, and it rained on every single day of my trip. I had had to give up on birding the Amazonian lowlands as well as Guacamayos Ridge. Despite the freezing conditions and light drizzle, the break in complete cloud cover allowed me to bird the patchy forests above the Termes de Papallacta. The rain and cloud would make the afternoon miserable, but I was able to get good views of two new Antpittas in the space of a few minutes. While the Rufous Antpitta played hard to see, the Tawny was more easily located. I ran out of luck trying to find Crescent-faced Antpitta, probably one of the hardest of the family to see anywhere. I would see Rufous and Tawny again - on both occasions I would get face to face, out in the open, completely uninterrupted views. More remarkably, neither of the birds were fed or habituated - nor did I have to tape them in.

A few weeks later I would get some of my best views of an Antpitta. While trudging about Nevado del Ruiz, a huge volcano in central Colombia - I came across the most extroverted of Tawny Antpittas. 

Giant Antpitta, Grallaria gigantea
Moustached Antpitta, Grallaria alleni
llow-breasted Antpitta, Grallaria flavotincta
Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula flavirostris

The Paz family did something remarkable many years ago. Firstly, they turned their backs on logging and then they started feeding antpittas. The story is well written and widely known about (see more here - Paz de las Aves website). I certainly didn’t pass up the opportunity to bag some ‘easy’ antpittas. 

At least thats the theory. True to form, there was a hitch. Maria (Giant) was sitting on eggs and Willie (Yellow-breasted) wouldn’t play ball either. In the end, Angel did manage to coax out two other species : Moustached (Jose) and Ochre-breasted (Shakira). I don’t particularly care how many trips I need to find Maria and Willie - I’ll certainly be back.

Shakira, the Ochre-breasted Antpitta is so named due to it's 'dance'. Apparently this 'Shakira' person is a dancer? 

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria ruficapilla
Bicolored Antpitta, Grallaria rufocinerea
Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
Brown-banded Antpitta, Grallaria milleri
04/06/2013. Rio Blanco, Manizales, Colombia

I’ve mentioned five species of Antpitta available at Rio Blanco, these are just the regulars that visit the worm feeders - 10 have been recorded in this small forested reserve protected by Manizales Water. Colombia fortunately has a number of protected areas due to water security concerns. The down side is that these are not run as tourist areas - meaning bureaucracy! What should have been a mere 4-5 Antpitta species formality turned to dust. 

I received little help from the local governmental body, given that I arrived in Manizales on a Sunday (Monday was a Public Holiday) - I suppose this was not all that surprising. I decided to try my luck and go to the gate in any case. This approach did not work however as they refused to open the gate without a permit. Given the time constraints and days of the week, I was not able to visit the reserve and went to Nevado del Ruiz instead.

One shouldn’t bank on anything in advance - but I felt rather gutted to miss out on such a large spread of ‘easy’ Antpittas. All I have as comfort is the knowledge that when I return in November 2014 - my contact that proved rather unhelpful is actually going to be my guide here!

Chestnut-naped Antpitta, Grallaria nuchalis
Slaty-crowned Antpitta, Grallaria nana
05/06/2013. Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve, Jardin, Colombia

Having overfed on Antpittas during my short tour through Ecuador, I had to wait a little to find my next twitches. My trip to the Loro Orejiamarillo Reserve had nothing to do with Antpittas on the surface - I was here to see the Yellow-eared Parrot, the entire known population isolated to this tiny patch of forest around the town of Jardin. Having had an excellent mornings birding with the resident guide Edwar Guarin, allowed us to focus on the less targeted species. Edwar managed to pull out two new Antpitta’s for me, although he was more excited about the Andean Pygmy Owl we saw!

White-bellied Antpitta, Grallaria hypoleuca
09/06/2013. Arrierito Antioqueno Reserve, Anori, Colombia

I was starting to get a little better at finding Antpittas by this point of the trip - what a pity I had been so poor at it in Peru! This ProAves reserve of Arrierito Antioqueno was again not high on my Antpitta list - my main focus was on the other 9 country endemics found here. I would get all but one as well as picking up White-bellied Antpitta. I fully expected to get better views of this bird elsewhere, but it turned out to be my only success. 

Rusty-breasted Antpitta, Grallaricula ferrugineipectus
Santa Marta Antpitta, Grallaria bangsi
Santa Marta Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria spatiator (rufula)
25/06/2013. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

My tour of South America was coming to a end, and I had left the best for last. The isolated Andean mountain range of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta host 21 species found no-where else on the planet. A number of others will soon be added to that list, including the isolated Rufous Antpitta sub-species.

I initially found success on the lower slopes near Minca. The Grallaricula Antpittas are awfully small, one might even say cute. The Rusty-breasted’s didn’t dance for me like their more southerly cousin, the Ochre-breasted. Further up the mountain I locked into both the Santa Marta and soon to be elevated Santa Marta Rufous Antpittas. It was back to form for both these birds, barely visible among the tangled foliage. As I rode down the mountain for the last time, I had seen the last of my favourite family. In a few weeks time I would have flown from Colombia to Spain, England, Germany, Dubai and finally South Africa. As I sit typing this final entry, I am conscious of the days ticking away until I land in Colombia again - this time I’ll have access to Rio Blanco and another hatful of species.

The final tally then, I have recorded 17 of currently described 51 species. Tried and dipped on a further 15 species meaning I have not even given myself a chance with a further 19! Quite unbelievable given the vast distances and areas I covered in the Andes looking for the little buggers. Lots more work required and hopefully many more photos to come. Bring on Colombia 2014.

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