The Antpittas of Central America

A brief article on encounters with one of my favorite bird families. I am tempted to take three months and track down the rest of the family in South America, maybe next summer.

While the neotropics harbor an immense diversity of birds, more than 3000 species, for me the antpittas, a relatively small family, are the quintessential denizens of impenetrable jungles and misted cloud forests of Central and South America. Their haunting songs, resonant notes, hollow trills, and harsh calls add mystery and challenge for birdwatchers visiting topical rain and montane forests of the New World. Antpittas are mainly ground dwelling birds, with only the smaller species regularly perching and foraging on low perches above the forest floor. Perfectly adapted to their terrestrial lifestyles, antpittas have long strong legs and vestigial tails, standing upright in dark woods.

Giant Antpitta, Ecuador Photo Stephan Lorenz

Antpittas hop through thickets, catching large insects or stand on logs, to advertise territories. When disturbed, most flush with solid wingbeats, quickly disappearing from view. Clad in somber brown, gray, and black many species blend into their shaded surroundings, safe from predation and excellent at avoiding detection. The best way to see antpittas is to surprise them on a narrow and quiet forest trail, either very early or late in the day. Or track down a calling individual. Numerous species can only be seen after extensive playback and even then only with extreme patience and luck.

Antpittas are songbirds closely related to antbirds, tapaculos, and anthrushes, but the taxonomy of the groups has been heavily revised recently. The “true” antpittas are now placed in their own family, Grallariidae, while two species closely related to that family still retain the common name of antpitta, but are placed with the gnateaters, Conopophagidae. In addition, new species of antpittas are still described, either from better understanding of species limits or completely new discoveries. It is a bird family that still harbors many secrets.

Antpittas construct rough open cup nests that are placed against tree trunks or in heavy vines, oftentimes close to the ground. Depending on species one or two eggs are incubated and cared for by the male and female. The pair also shares brooding and feeding of the nestlings. For several species the nest has not been described.

Naturalists and birders have long been fascinated by these shy and achromatic birds. In South America, following the example of Angel Paz in Ecuador, who after years of dedication lured rare antpittas into the open with juicy earthworms, a few guides and lodges can now easily show off their priced species. The unique Jocotoco Antpitta, a bird unknown to science two decades ago, can now be studied closely by visitors as locals have trained a pair to visit a feeding station, where they receive worms on a daily basis. While birders greatly enjoy seeing these rare creatures close at hand and these flagship species can help educate the public about conservation issues, it does take away, in my opinion, the essence of the antpittas. These are birds that for the privilege of a glimpse require birders to crawl on their hands and knees, literally. In Central America, not a single antpitta has been enticed to come to handouts yet, and birders still have to put in some serious effort.

On a steep path winding through Andean cloud forest, I hear an antpitta call far down a muddy slope so severe I am amazed the trees weighed down with bromeliads and ferns can cling on. I strain my ears to pick up the simple whistle rising with the mist from the valley below. I contemplate the angle and the tangle, I could clutch roots most of the way down, but I know that this bird is out of reach, again, even if I would make it down there alive. So I listen, comforted to know that they are there. The opposite in the Amazon rainforest, I hear nearly a dozen antpittas calling from the dense undergrowth, all within a small area near a quiet stream. I push past the roots and branches, treading softly. The bird is close, I kneel and listen, less than five feet, it calls again and again. I don’t even spot a shadow. Mystery, difficulty, frustration, and exhilaration, these lie at the soul of antpittas.

antpitta habitat Costa Rica, Photo Stephan Lorenz

Of the 51 currently recognized species, only four occur in Central America, but these comprise some of the most sought after birds. I still consider the Black-crowned Antpitta, an extraordinary bird, part of the antpittas. Even though it has been classified with the gnateaters, but most likely deserves to be placed in its own family. All five species occur in Costa Rica and Panama. Moving north diversity decreases, with only three species occurring in Nicaragua and Honduras, and one species barely ranges into the tropical regions of southeastern Mexico. Costa Rica might the best destination to track down North America’s “five” antpittas.

The Scaled Antpitta (Grallaria guatimalensis) is one of the most widespread members of its family, it occurs from southern Mexico throughout Middle America all the way south into Brazil and Peru. It is the only member of the most speciose genus, Grallaria, in Central America. Even though the species can be found in many countries, it is an especially tough one to see among a group of skulking birds. I know, after crouching in cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador, until I was soaked to the bone from dripping leaves, I had just caught a glimpse of a dark shape flying between two mossy stumps. I waited patiently for nearly an hour as half a dozen birds called around me, without a single decent view.

Luckily, one year prior I fared a lot better. I was birding in Tapanti National Park, an incredible area of montane forest in central Costa Rica that sees surprisingly little traffic by birders. Nearing the end of a memorable day, point blank views of Rufous-breasted Antthrush come to mind, trudging out of the muddy forest I came across a tour van, obviously filled to the brim with birdwatchers. I approached their guide in the passenger seat and exchanged some information. Unfortunately I forgot his name, but he was helpful enough to tip me off to a good location for Scaled Antpittas. “Wait around the picnic area near the river at dusk and there might be a chance to see the antpitta”. While I already had eleven hours of continuous birding under my belt for the day, I was reluctant to return to the place I was staying three miles down the road. I wanted to give it at least a try.

I wandered to the picnic area, nothing more than a few concrete benches and tables set amidst dense forest, and started making loops along a short trail. The day was waning and bird activity had come to a full stop. I listened and scanned the forest floor, nothing. It was nearly dark when I returned to the main picnic area, heading towards the road and home. In the middle of an open patch sat a large antpitta. I slowly raised my binocular and studied the first one I had ever seen carefully. The stout black bill and long gray legs were obvious. In the dim light, I could barely make out the scalloped pattern on the back from which the species derives its name. Hopping sideways a bit, I managed to see the rusty belly and grayish crown. I walked closer as the bird didn’t seem shy at all, but was foraging intently. It even hopped onto the concrete base of the picnic tables and scanned for morsels of food. By the time it moved out of view there was barely enough light to retrace my steps. It was a long walk back to El Finca de Maestro, where I had a rustic room waiting, but fortunately also a great dinner.

The first Streak-chested Antpitta (Hylopezus perspicillatus) I ever saw was in the lowland rainforest of the Darien National Park in eastern Panama. It was a typical antpitta encounter. With the clock hovering somewhere around 6 am the dawn chorus was in full swing. I had started down the trail early, with wan light filtering through the rainforest giants. Twenty feet ahead I spotted movement and lifting my binoculars an antpitta came into focus. It hopped onto a root sticking from the middle of the path and bounced up and down. As I walked forward, it unhurriedly shuffled off into the rainforest. By antpitta standards, the Streak-chested Antpitta is the easiest species to see in Central America. Formerly called, Spectacled Antpitta, it is found from Panama all the way north into Nicaragua, preferring lowland rainforest.

Both its current and older names describe it aptly. For an antpitta it actually has quite a bit of pattern. Medium sized, it sports boldly streaked underparts and a large buffy eye ring. Its back is marked with buffy tear-shaped spots. Birds often call from a low perch like a fallen trunk or exposed stump. A week later I found Streak-chested Antpittas to be common along the well-known Pipeline Road, near Panama City, where birds called throughout the day and were easily tracked down by their monotone descending whistles. Once spotted the birds didn’t seem particularly shy. In Costa Rica, this species occurs in lowland rainforest along both the Caribbean and Pacific Coasts. They are pretty common in Carara National Park, where they were as easily viewed as in Panama.

The second species of the small genus Hylopezus found in Central America is the Thicket Antpitta (Hylopezus dives), a name that perfectly describes any encounter with this species; an impenetrable thicket and an antpitta somewhere in the middle of it, calling, never to be seen. The Thicket Antpitta, formerly known as Fulvous-bellied Antpitta, describing the coloration of its underparts, is relatively widespread and not uncommon, occurring from Honduras through Colombia. Yet, due to its habitat preference, it remains one of the trickiest antpittas to see well. Not bound to pristine rainforest, it occurs in a variety of disturbed and second growth forests, from lowland to mid elevations. Here it calls from bamboo patches and overgrown tangles, often choosing a stout fallen log as a display perch.

I have heard of a guide directing a birder to lay belly down on a log and not move, not even blink. He then imitated the simple rising whistle of the Thicket Antpitta. The territory holder rose to the challenge and jumped out of the thicket onto its display log, right in front of the birder, frozen in lazy raccoon pose on the log. This story, or myth, comes from Rara Avis, a spectacular birding place on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica.

My experience with the Thicket Antpitta, was similar, at least in regards to the not blinking. While birding at Arenal Lodge, Costa Rica, I got a tip that Thicket Antpittas frequent and area of overgrown bamboo encircled by short paved loop trail. I was surprised to find antpittas in such a developed and seemingly civilized patch of habitat, but apparently they were thriving, since I heard two or three birds calling as soon as I arrived in the late afternoon. These birds were not leaving their cover, so I went in. I squeezed through a small opening in the bamboo, crouched down and crawled towards an area where I could see about ten feet in front of me. I could hear the bird calling close, moving back and forth, but completely concealed. Eventually I maneuvered myself into a position where I could just make out a mossy log and froze. It probably took about thirty minutes, but felt like hours, until the bird hopped up onto the log and started calling incessantly. I managed to raise my binoculars and get great views. I crept back to the trail, glad I didn’t surprise any unsuspecting tourist, as my clothes were caked with mud and moss stuck in my hair. As I cleaned up and walked ten steps further, I spotted the same antpitta calling right next to the trail, actually giving decent views. Maybe not so tough after all.

Arenal Volcano in the distance Costa Rica, Photo Stephan Lorenz

One of my most sought after birds in Costa Rica was the Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Grallaricula flavirostris). A miniature version of the antpittas, this bird spends considerable time foraging off the ground, often perching on low branches. While moving about, it twitches and often swings around on its perch, looking nervous. The Ochre-breasted Antpitta is not much bigger than a wren and more active than its larger relatives. The buffy breast and eye ring are offset by a unique yellow bill. Once seen, the bird is unmistakable, but seeing one is not easy. The species is relatively quiet and in Costa Rica favors primordial cloud forest on the Caribbean Slope. After some research I learned that the San Gerardo Biological Station, located on the slopes below famous Monteverde, is the best place in the country to find one. Apparently Tapanti National Park, mentioned earlier, is also a good location, but I had no luck there.

best birding trail in Costa Rica, Photo Stephan Lorenz

I set out in earnest in February 2010, spending one night in the village of Santa Elena near Monteverde, making arrangements to visit the biological station. The station can only be reached on foot, hiking down the mountain from Santa Elena Reserve for about three miles takes 2 to 3 hours with birding. I took my time. Thick clouds rolled in from the east, blanketing the slopes in dense fog. The morning was relatively quiet and I made it to the station before noon. I settled into a spartan room, had a quick lunch and started exploring.

I had planned to stay three nights, but added a fourth as the birding was amazing. There were too many good species to list them all and I want to stick to the antpitta, which literally appeared at the eleventh hour. I had spent three days wandering the trails, mainly the Tabacon Trail, which produced new birds on every loop. During the last day at the station I wanted to reserve enough energy for the hike out, which was going to be uphill, but decided to give it one last try already late in the day. I slowly walked down the path, snaking past massive trees, branches heavy with mosses, bromeliads cradled in the canopies. The understory was relatively open, but gloomy, with poor light in the fog and dark forest. I kept an eye on the trail ahead, looking for wood-quail, quail-doves, and tinamous.

I reached a lighter section of forest and caught something in the corner of my eye. Some movement that looked different. I paused, I was exhausted, my feet tired in the worn rubber boots. Maybe it was nothing, a leaf falling, me going crazy after four days in the forest. A bird hopped up and immediately disappeared behind a trunk. That was it, I was sure of it. Suddenly an Ochre-breasted Antpitta jumped on an exposed vine, twitching. Momentarily I had great views and then the bird vanished as quick as it had appeared. I waited some more and eventually was able to observe the bird for nearly thirty minutes, at times down to five feet, as it foraged unconcerned alongside the trail; success at last, after three days of searching.

Ochre-breasted Antpitta Costa Rica, Photo Stephan Lorenz

While technically not placed in the antpitta family anymore, the Black-crowned Antpitta (Pittasoma michleri), remains a special bird and high on most birders wish list. It is more range restricted than the other four species and is limited to Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, where it is found mainly in wet forest at low to midlevel elevations. The species has a striking plumage of white underparts with crisp black scallops, broken wingbars of buff on the brown upperparts, and the obvious inky crown. The calls are rather harsh and it also often follows swarms of army ants in the company of other antbirds. This species may be easier to see in Panama, where it can be found at various lowland rainforest sites in the eastern part of the country, but Costa Rica has several sites where this rarity occurs.

The easiest access wise is Braulio Carrillo National Park, northeast of the capital, San Jose. The park is easily visited by bus or car from the Guapiles Highway and this might be the best place in the world to get into some pristine rainforest.

I had visited the park before with great success, but hadn’t seen the antpitta. I got an early start and arrived at the small parking lot and visitor center just after sunrise, immediately hitting the trail. It was a wet morning, with thick clouds rolling in ominously off the Caribbean. I walked quickly, trying to make the best of what looked like a short morning. Things got off to a good start when I ran into a pair of Yellow-eared Toucanets, another specialty of the area. An ant swarm early on got my heart pumping, but no birds were in the vicinity.

Bicolored Antbirds often follow army ants, Photo Stephan Lorenz

The short loop trail climbs out of a ravine and traverses an impressive stand of forest, first within earshot of the highway, then completely engulfed in jungle. Birds were sparse and I neared the end of the path as it turned back towards the visitor center. I had never actually expected to come across the antpitta, due to its rarity. Some activity caught my attention, a sparrow, or something near a bare patch of shrubs stripped to nothing by leafcutter ants. Then a bird just in front of me bounced over a large root off the trail. I saw enough to know what it was, but not enough to be happy about it. I waited, I fidgeted, and then it called, a scraping rattle. The bird hopped across the open patch and appeared seven feet away, peering at me through some shrubs. I tried to take it all in, it was a male with a large black crown, chestnut ear and nape, something I hadn’t noticed in the field guide. Before I could muster my camera the bird moved out of view. Soon afterwards it started raining and then poured. I spent the rest of the day in a room, reading.

Central America’s antpittas are just the tip of the iceberg and dozens of more species occur throughout South America. The habitats occupied by antpittas on this continent are more varied, ranging from rainforest to treeless paramo at high elevations. Some species are fairly easy to observe, while others are some of the rarest and most secretive birds on the planet.

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One response to this post.

  1. Great post on Central American antpittas! It seems like the Black-crowneds used to be a bit more regular at Quebrada in the past. They are still there but I hear and see fewer than during the 90s.

    Reply

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