Antbirds just might win the prize for being the most popular family of birds with the least amount of colors. It seems like just about anyone who birds in the neotropics ends up feeling a certain degree of fondness for antbirds. Even before I came to Costa Rica for the first time, I was fascinated by these odd-looking little birds, especially the ones with blue skin around their eyes. I wanted to see an Immaculate Antbird because I had never seen anything even close to it in the temperate-zoned north and ditto magnified a 100 times for wacky looking things like the Black-crowned Antpitta.
I suppose that it’s lack of experience with anything close to antbirds that makes us want to see them, see what they are all about. I mean, just what the heck are those things? It’s kind of an odd fascination when you consider that they only come in shades of black, brown, and gray but that’s the way we birders roll and we make no excuses (at least I don’t). So, after having studied the illustrations of Costa Rican antbirds on hundreds of occasions, I was more than ready and sure that I was going to see a good number of weird and wild antbirds on that first sojourn to Costa Rica.
Needless to say, and to make a long story short, I came home from Costa Rica in early 1993 with less than a handful of antbirds on my list and wondering why I hadn’t see those intriguing birds despite birding where they were supposed to occur. On consecutive trips, I realized that the birds were there, it’s just that most of them are veteran skulkers, and many seemed to be naturally rare or uncommon. They require specific habitats, most of those being forested in some way or another. It helps to know their songs and calls and you will see more if you stalk them with sharp eyes and ears buoyed up by a solid foundation of eternal patience.
In other words, they are kind of a royal pain to see.
That said, some places are better than others for antbirds and in Costa Rica, one of the better places to see members of this auspiciously dull-colored family is Carara National Park. On a recent day of guiding on the main loop trail, I was reminded that the quality, primary rainforest at Carara is ideal habitat for antbird species. We had many looks at such birds as Dot-winged Antwren and Black-hooded Antshrike, and indeed these are two of the more commonly seen species in the park.
Like a typical small insectivore, the antwren is hyperactive, and always searching the foliage for some tasty arthropod.
The antshrike sort of does the same but isn’t nearly as active and this makes it easier to watch at length.
On the forest floor, Black-faced Antthrushes are often seen as they waltz through the leaf litter like an out of place crake and many a lucky birder has gotten their lifer Streak-chested Antpitta at Carara. They also occur elsewhere but seem to be easier to see at Carara because the understory is more open than many other sites. We had amazing looks at two of those plump antpittas as they foraged at the edge of an antswarm!
They opened and closed their wings and one even briefly jumped on the back of the other.
Bicolored Antbirds were also at the swarm and we had great looks at Chestnut-backed Antbird too (commonly seen at Carara).
Other antbird species seen that day included Slaty Antwren and Dusky Antbird in second growth at the edge of the park on Bijagual Road. Although we dipped on Barred Antshrike, I usually see it on Bijagual Road, the Meandrica Trail, or any other number of edge and second growth sites. Great Antshrike skulks in second growth but isn’t nearly as common as at other more humid sites. The same goes for Russet Antshrike and Plain Antvireo although they occur inside the forest.
It’s kind of interesting that the forests at Carara and the southwestern Pacific slope are similar to the rainforests of the Amazon in several ways, one of these being the prominent role that antbirds play in avian communities. Although Carara still can’t compare with Amazonian sites that host the 30 and 40 antbird species, the birding is always good when you can watch Streak-chested Antpittas hop around and Black-hooded Antshrikes beat their tails in time to the notes of their song.