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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…

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