Carara National Park is one of the better sites in Costa Rica for seeing ground birds of the forest interior. These are the terrestrial bird species that opt for shade over sun, that relish quiet, careful walks through the leafy texture of the forest floor, that haunt the dark understory with ventriloquial voices. You wont get warbler neck gazing at any of these birds but good luck in just getting a glimpse! The leaf litter may be rife with tasty arthropods but its always a haven for bird hungry predators so to stay alive, ground birds of the forest interior need to keep alert at all times and feign invisibility. The only problem with this strategy is that it also works on birders. You might see one tinamou and antthrush for every 6 heard, a quail-dove if your lucky, and where the heck are the antpittas and leaftossers?
Its always frustrating to walk through beautiful rainforest without seeing such strange and cool birds when you know that they must be somewhere in the vicinity. In most places, the birds hear you coming down the trail and fade away into the recesses of the forest because they decide that its better not to take any chances on whether or not the two legged thing with binoculars will kill and eat them. If they learn that Homo sapiens doesnt pose a threat, however, then the shy, feathered denizens of the forest floor can lower their guard enough to let you watch them at your leisure. You still have to play by their rules and thus walk and watch in a quiet, unobtrusive manner but at least you get to watch them go about their business.
In Costa Rica, there might be no better place for doing this than Carara National Park. La Selva is also a good site for seeing tinamous and antthrushes in this manner but unfortunately, along with many other understory species, they have become much less common. I was reminded of just how good Carara is for seeing ground birds during guiding there this past weekend. During two mornings of birding along the trails that leave from the park headquarters, we had good looks at most of the ground birds that occur in the park. Our main misses were Great Curassow and Marbled Wood-Quail although these species are pretty rare in that part of the forest in any case. As for the more expected species, we had:
Great Tinamou: At least six were heard but only one was seen as it quietly foraged at a small antswarm. It allowed us watch it for at least ten minutes as we hoped and waited for other birds to show (only Northern Barred Woodcreeper made an appearance).
Ruddy Quail-Dove: A female sitting right on the cement pathway of the Universal Access Trail was a bonus. As she slowly made her way into the forest, we watched her for at least ten minutes while being entertained by very tame Chestnut-backed Antbirds.
Gray-chested Dove: This is one of the easier of the ground birds that occur at Carara. Three to four birds total gave us good views.
Streak-chested Antpitta: One of the star birds of Carara, a calling bird revealed itself by hopping near the trail and puffing its breast feathers in and out. We marvelled at the similarities between its plumage and that of other understory species such as thrushes and Ovenbird.
Black-faced Antthrush: None were vocalizing but we still mananged excellent looks at three birds. Each was noticed by the leaves that were being tossed about as it foraged.
Scaly-throated Leaftosser: Speaking of leaves being tossed, this was also how we got prolonged, close looks at the juvenile of this shy species. It was nice for me to get this uncommon species out of the way so early in the year!
Some of the other ground loving species we got that usually arent so difficult to see were Chestnut-backed Antbird, Wood Thrush, Swainsons Thrush, Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Orange-billed Sparrow.
Another reason why Carara is so conducive to seeing ground bird species well is simply because the forest understory is rather open. Although it helps to know their vocalizations, patiently spending an entire day of peering into the understory while carefully and quietly walking along the trails should yield looks at all of the species listed above and maybe some that we didn’t get such as the curassow, wood-quail, Gray-headed Tanager, and Bicolored Antbird.