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How to See More Antpittas in Costa Rica Part 2- Low Elevations

Antpittas are most often affiliated with the cloud forests of the avian rich Andes. It makes sense, those fantastic habitats of bird aficionado dreams are where most people see their first antpitta. In the past, as wonderfully birdy as those places are, except for birders wielding a good deal of time, patience, and determination, many an antpitta stayed safely put in the “heard only” category.

That tantalizing dynamic was changed by feeding stations and similar situations. Once they hit the birding scene, Giant Antpittas, Yellow-breasted Antpitta, even the previously near mythical Moustached Antpitta started showing up on trip reports and bird lists that featured satisfied antpitta checks in the “seen!” column. Worm feeding stations in Ecuador and Colombia quickly became the easiest way to see antpittas and in the subsequent years since they became established, they have helped thousands of people test their close focus on antpittas.

These special feathered gnomes reach their greatest diversity in the Andes but they also live in other, hotter places. In the absence of feeding stations, antpittas of the lowland and foothill forests continue to be some of the more difficult birds to see. Like their montane cousins, most are readily heard but unlike some birds in the mountains, they haven’t adopted the way of the fed worm. Who knows, maybe lowland ntpittas would comply if more people tried to make that happen but until then, most situations for such species as the Thrushlike, Spotted, and Speckled-breasted Antpittas will require old fashioned antpitta viewing factors like stealth, determination, and good fortune.

Those and other attributes are needed to see the lowland antpittas that are two of many cherished birds in Costa Rica. Here are some ideas for laying eyes on these prize birds:

Streak-chested Antpitta

Fortunately, in Costa Rica, we have one or two reliable sites to connect with this cool little bird. Go to Carara National Park, especially as soon as the park opens, walk the Quebrada Bonita loop trail, and you should hear its sad whistled song. Invest the time in looking and waiting for the bird and you also have an excellent chance of seeing it. It’s worth keeping a careful eye on the trail as far ahead as you can see, I have noticed this stealthy little ball of feathers hop across and into view on more than one occasion.

streak-chested-antpitta

They can also show at the edges of antswarms but most birders find them by listening for their haunting whistled song. As with other shy forest birds, a key way to see one is by carefully scanning the forest floor and patiently waiting for one to reveal itself. That typically happens when one hops into view but they can also get noticed when they puff their chest feathers in and out. That body inflation isn’t the most obvious motion in the forest but is another reminder to check out any percieved movement, event the hint of one. I recall seeing more than one Streak-chested Antpitta as well as other birds being attuned to such forest hints.

For the Pacific race of this species, Carara is the most accessible spot but they also occur in other forested sites, especially flat areas with tall forest in the Osa Peninsula.

As for the Caribbean slope version of the Streak-chested Antpitta, listen and look for it in the same way at Quebada Gonzalez, deep in La Selva, and other sites with extensive primary forest. It doesn’t seem to readily occur at Arenal but with lowland species moving upslope, this might change. It’s also worth mentioning that ideally, a Costa Rica birding tour should try and see this bird on both sides of the mountain because there’s a fair chance two species are involved.

Streak-chested-Antpitta-intermedius-1
The Caribbean slope subspecies of this cool little bird.

Thicket Antpitta

This vocal skulker is Costa Rica’s other lowland antpitta. Since it might be more at home in the foothills and occurs in second growth, Foothill Antpitta or S and G Antpitta might be more appropriate but in any case, “Thicket” still works.

This secretive bird isn’t shy with its vocal chords. Over and over, it teases with its rising whistled song. A good thing too because otherwise, you would never see the thing. It absolutely loves wet and thick second growth and can occur anywhere in the Caribbean lowlands but may be most frequent in the Tilaran Mountains. That would mostly be the Arenal area. Go birding on the Peninsula Road or various other spots and you will probably hear it. To see it, find a spot near a singing bird where you can actually see the ground and play the patience game.

Other very good sites for this species include Tierras Enamoradas and Pocosol.

It’s worth mentioning that this bird could also end up being a species separate from the ones that live in South America. Maybe, maybe not but there’s nothing wrong with seeing more antpittas.

These are the lowland antpittas of Costa Rica. Birds worth seeing but birds that also require patience, stealth, and determination. A good guide and birding tour in Costa Rica can also make the difference. Speaking of that, I know of a tour available for an excellent price that has one spot open for a woman (sharing a room with another woman). The tour is scheduled in January, 2022 and because of a cancellation, that one spot to see Streak-chested Antpitta and hundreds of other species is available.

Various key sites will be visited including Poas, Sarapiqui, Cope’s, Cano Negro, Arenal, and Carara. Last year, a similar tour saw more than 425 species during 10 days of fantastic birding. If interested or know someone who would love to experience a wealth of tropical birds and close looks at macaws, toucans, tanagers, hummingbirds, and many other birds in Costa Rica, please contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com

As always, I hope to see you birding in fantastic Costa Rica. It’s closer and easier than you think!

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How to See More Antpittas When Birding in Costa Rica- Part One

Antpittas aren’t your averge garden bird. At least not unless your backyard borders Andean cloud forest and other places haunted by these most special of plump birds. Many people (that means non-birders too) have heard of sparrows, pigeons, larks, and a host of additional avian groups but antpittas? Yeah…maybe not so much. Ask your average person about antpittas and you may find that such discourse is a good way to elicit looks of confusion, nervous laughter, or maybe even offending someone. Don’t be surprised, it’s what people do when presented with odd language that sounds completely bizarre.

We can’t blame them, after all, the word “antpitta” is likewise confusing to birders who have never seen pictures of antpittas. Ask your backyard birding Uncle Billy about them and he might respond that last time he checked, ants were insects. If he has been studying Birds of the World or scrolling Flcker for colorful bird pictures, is prone to mansplaining and has never birded outside of the confines of his garden, he might also add, “Oh, you mean pittas! Now that’s a beautiful bird. You need to see a pitta, they only live in…Singapore. Go there, there’s tours to see them, you should sign up for one. Oh, and bring your binoculars and a camera, you can’t go on a tour without those. You could learn a lot about birds, there’s a guide that will help you.”

In response, after calming the urge to punch him in the arm, you could mention that yes, you are aware of those jewels of the forest floor but that actually, no, you weren’t referring to them or insects. You had anther bird in mind, the one you had even mentioned..antpittas.

Ochre-breasted-Antpitta

If you still managed to harbor enough patience and good will to continue conversing with your uncle, you could then show him a page or two from a field guide, birding app, or search results that demonstrate some choice members of the Grallaria genus. Who knows? Such a kind gesture might open his eyes and mind to antpittas and if he reacts like many other birders do, his eyes will go wide, he may say things like, “Well I’ll be darned!”, “It’s a football with legs!”, or even “What the hell is that thing…what is it?!?” No matter what his exclamation at the discovery of the antpitta, he will then want to go and see them.

This is because once people who use binoculars learn about antpittas, most really, really want to experience them. One might assume that birders would prefer to ogle the iridescence of tanagers, fill their eyes with eagles, and enjoy the fairy moves of hummingbirds. Therein lies some truth but birding is so much more than the fancy side of avian life. Attraction is also found in unexpected appearances, in birds that hop right into your imagination.

In the case of antpittas, they jumpstart your sense of wonder by looking like forest gnomes wearing feathered capes, by mournfully whistling at you from the depths of the rainforest, and by rarely letting you see them. The taming of antpittas with worms has erased some of that antpitta fantasy but it hasn’t made a dent in their popularity. If anything, feeding them has brought these odd birds into the birding spotlight, has made more people aware that these weird and wonderful creatures exist.

In Costa Rica, we are blessed with 5 antpitta species and although you won’t find any antpitta feeding stations, there still are ways to see them. This post is numero one in a short series about antpittas. Let’s start with the megaist one of the bunch:

Black-crowned Antpitta

Actually in a related but separate bird family (the Conophagidae) and therefore more properly known as a “Gnatpitta“, this fancy bird is one heck of a mega. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why it’s a “mega” is because you don’t see them.

Black-crowned Antpitta digiscoped Costa Rica
A Black-crowned Antpitta I digiscoped some years ago in Costa Rica.

Despite being big enough to take on a chicken in a fair fight, this gangstapitta is also adept at avoiding birders. Sadly, it does it all the time and not by merit of its skulking prowess. It’s also honestly uncommon and seems to have declined in the few sites where used to chuckle at passing birders (seriously, listen to it chuckle). As with so many other birds and climate crisis life in general, this decline is likely associated with consistently drier conditions that have resulted in less things to eat.

With that extra bit of scarcity factor in mind, seeing this special bird in Costa Rica has become that much more difficult. Since this Pittasoma is also regular at sites in Panama, most save a date with it whle birding there. However, since the ones most often seen in Panama are another, distinct subspecies, connecting with it in Costa Rica is worth the effort.

If that’s the case, why isn’t it seen on birding tours in Costa Rica? As in any tours? The answer is basically “other birds” and “logistics”. While a tour could see Black-crowned Antpitta on one or more of the regular circuits, making that happen would take up time more easily dedicated to seeing many other birds much easier to see and photograph. It can take hours, even days to find (or majorly dip) one of these birds.

The Costa Rica Pittasoma equation is further complicated by logistics. The sites where the bird is regular are off the regular tour track and most aren’t very suitable for group tours. Until we find accessible and reliable places for the antpitta in northern Costa Rica, tours will need to detour or focus on southern Costa Rica.

Given the excellent birding near and south of Limon, that’s not such a bad idea! The best option for a group tour would probably be Selva Bananito while more indepedent birders could stay in any number of places near Cahuita or Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and look for the antpitta at Kekoldi and other suitably forested sites. The best places seem to be streams and other wet and muddy areas in primary rainforest and adjacent old second growth. As with other antpittas, even then, the bird isn’t easy to find but your chances improve if you can quietly scan for it on forest trails at dawn and in the late afternoon, and listen for its distinctive vocalizations.

But wait, that’s not all! Luckily, in common with some other challenging understory species, this bird loves to follow Army Ants. If you find an ant swarm in good habitat for the gnatpitta, keep waiting and try to stay with the ants until the antpitta makes an appearance. The nice thing about this birding hat trick is if the antpitta doesn’t show, you will still a bunch of other cool birds, maybe even a darn R.V. G. Cuckoo.

Finding this special antpitta is never easy but you can’t go wrong looking in the right places; in the homes of antpittas, the birding trends towards the awesome end of the spectrum.

To be continued…