They were by far the biggest worms I'd ever seen. More than a dozen of them. In an old margarine tub I was holding in my hand. As they coiled up on one another and rose into the air like a basket of snakes in an Indian fakir's market sideshow, I looked across at my guide with a slightly nervous grin. He assured me they were necessary if I wanted to see my bird. He continued hacking away at the vertical muddy bank with his shovel and produced another two fine wriggly specimens for our collection, one of which he dropped straight into the tub, the other he swung around his head laughing uproariously. "For you breakfast?" he suggested, offering the thing to me. I crinkled my nose up and shook my head in reply.
Jocotoco Antpitta A recently discovered species in southern Ecuador, with fewer than twenty pairs known. So how do you get this close? Read on... (photo: Mark Harper)
I was standing in high Andean cloud forest in southern Ecuador, close to the border with Peru, in a place called Tapichalaca: and I was here for one very special reason. Just a few years ago, in the last decade of the 20th century, a new bird species had been discovered here - the Jocotoco Antpitta, an obviously very rare and very retiring bird that had shown briefly to Andrew Ridgeley (author of the superb Field Guide to the Birds of Ecuador) and a small band of American birdwatchers he was leading through the forest.
In the ten-year period following the discovery of Jocotoco Antpitta, dedicated fieldwork and conservation efforts involving both North American and local Ecuadorian volunteers had turned up about a dozen pairs of the new species, and a designated area of forest has been set aside for protection. (The 'Jocotoco Fountain' has become symbolic of the recent upswing of interest within Ecuador for such conservation issues.) This much I knew before setting off. I was aware of only one or two reports of birders actually going to search for the Jocotoco Antpitta on their travels through South America, and those who did came back with the impression that the bird was practically impossible to see in a short visit: "very dense habitat; tape-recording of call would be practically essential," said two of my friends, a view that was confirmed by one or two others. Such was the unlikelihood of bumping into a Jocotoco Antpitta on the path on a casual visit, I didn't once consider a visit to the Reserve in the planning stages of an intended three-month trip through Ecuador and Peru in the summer of 2007. Bumbling along through Northern Ecuador, happily collecting four or five other Antpitta species (see below), I was happy in the knowledge that the Jocotoco existed without the need for me to have to go and see it.
Then something very interesting happened. I was sitting having lunch by myself one day in a small, family-run bird reserve in eastern Ecuador, when I heard one of the bird guides at the adjacent table talking to his two clients: two Brits from my old neck of the woods, north-east England, as it happens. "Yes, there are now nine species of Antpitta currently being hand-fed throughout Ecuador. You have the Giant, the Moustached and the Yellow-breasted at Mindo; the Chestnut-crowned and the White-bellied here; the Jocotoco at Tapichalaca..."
The Jocotoco Antpitta, a bird discovered less than ten years ago, was now being hand-fed at...what was the name of that place?!
Trying to appear as calm and polite as I could manage, I casually introduced myself to the Ecuadorian guide and his two clients, and asked if they'd mind if I joined in their chat. I didn't want to simply jump in, shine a torch in his eyes and demand he told me everything possible about how to get to this...what was the name of the place again? But I still artfully managed to curve the conversation back round to the subject within the first couple of minutes. Very helpfully, Juan Carlos told me 'Yes it is true, they've been feeding two birds every day for the past ten weeks now.' He told me where exactly the place was, how to get there, which buses to take, etc.
This was the most exciting news I'd heard in a long while, and some of the old twitching fever began to course through my veins. I was still a fortnight away from that particular section of my trip, but I could wait, and hope.
Twelve months before this current trip I was undertaking, I had witnessed the Antpitta feeding phenomenon at first hand. This story begins really with a remarkable little chap in north-west Ecuador called Angel, who astonished seasoned South American birders in late 2005 with the announcement that he had succeeding in 'taming' a Giant Antpitta on his property two hours west of Quito. I've spoken to one of the ex-pat birders who now plies a living as a bird guide in northern Ecuador and he told me of the widespread disbelief when the news first filtered onto the local birding grapevine. Giant Antpitta was one of the most sought-after birds on the continent, and certainly one of the most difficult to see. But seeing was believing - at least initially...until Angel managed, over the following two months, to produce not just one Giant Antpitta, but three different Giant Antpittas (each of which he named: Manuel, Maria, and Lucio!), two Yellow-breasted Antpittas and a Moustached Antpitta. Some say the Yellow-breasted Antpitta is the hardest of all Antpittas to see, and here this patient magician presented them to his audience, feeding at their feet. Then the experienced bird tour leaders could barely even believe their own eyes.
Together with three friends, I saw this remarkable event in February 2006 (anyhow, we saw Manuel and the two Yellow-breasted Antpittas, but the others didn't show up for us). I have to say it was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen in the world of birds. The magician, Angel, together with his assistant, leads you down a steep trail into the forest, and then he proceeds to whistle and call the birds' names. He tosses out a few worms that he's washed in the stream, and voila! My first sight of the Jackdaw-sized Giant Antpitta, perched, waiting, on a boulder at the side of the trail, and then bounding down the track straight towards us is one I'll always remember.
Giant Antpitta One of the astonishing birds in the Paz de las Aves 'collection' near Mindo (photo: Sam Woods/Tropical Birding).
And now, in a way, I was about to go one better. I said the story begins with Angel (pronounced An-gel), and it continues with my guide, Lucien: the nutcase digging up the earthworms and swinging them around his head. In February of 2007, the apprentice Lucien had been sent by the Jocotoco Foundation to study for 11 days with the master, Angel. What were his secrets? One of his 'secrets' it turned out, was that the Antpittas had to be supplied with freshly dug earthworms each morning - which is where we came into this tale.
We'd already walked two miles from the reserve headquarters, and now, deep into the bamboo, it was another mile to the 'site'. As we walked on through the forest, I practised my hesitant Spanish. Since coming back from northern Ecuador, my guide told me he had tried unsuccessfully for two days to lure out the elusive Jocotoco Antpitta: whistling the call; tossing out the earthworms on to the trail. On day three, there it was, standing by the side of the path, awaiting his arrival. Within a week, two birds together, presumably a male and female, began the habit of appearing every single day, a circumstance that had gone on now for two and a half months, practically guaranteeing (cross fingers) my sighting.
It was 9:30 when we arrived on site: a partially cleared area of bamboo forest, complete with a small, recently built wooden shelter to stave off the rain, of which there was plenty. There was no question of this being a hide. There was no need. Just as big as the Giant Antpitta before it, here, I encountered the indescribably remarkable sight of a species unknown to the world less than ten years ago, standing boldly erect, calmly awaiting our appearance, ready for its grub. Lucien quietly cut up the enormous worms with a pair of scissors and then began tossing little pieces on to the track. The Jocotoco Antpitta - Pancho to his friends - bounded forward on incredibly long legs, and gobbled up the lot. I was breathless, ecstatic. Bells were ringing inside my head: little balls of light bouncing around going wheee and wahey! What a moment!
Jocotoco Antpitta (photo: Sam Woods/Tropical Birding)
After an hour of the two of us sat there, talking occasionally in hushed, respectful tones, my guide announced he'd had enough and he was going back for a coffee. This, after all, had become a daily occurrence for him. I could stay here if I wanted to, and do what I liked. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and I was happy to prolong it. I took the margarine tub with the last few remaining pieces of chopped up food from him, overcame to some extent my initial squeamishness, and there I was: alone with the Jocotoco Antpitta, tossing little segments of still-wriggly pink earthworm at it. It gobbled up the lot.
My guide had been puzzled over the absence of the second bird and his records showed only one Jocotoco for the first time in weeks. I couldn't be 100% sure, because I never actually saw the two together, but I think the second bird, indistinguishable in plumage, but slightly smaller and sleeker appeared fifteen minutes after he'd gone, and thus I believe I ended up seeing an even bigger percentage of the total known world population! There was one very slight disappointment lingering in the background of this realization. Up until just a few days ago, the arena in which the Jocotoco Antpittas now paraded had also been frequented by a pair of Chestnut-naped Antpittas - another incredibly hard-to-see bird, several of which were calling all around us. In my faltering Spanish, I learned that Lucien believed the Jocotocos had finally seen off the Chestnut-napeds after a month of tolerating their presence. My chances of seeing this more widespread second species in the pouring rain were thus effectively nil, especially seeing as I'd left my recordings back at the hotel for safekeeping from the weather. As I say, the disappointment was present - that twitching fever just keeps on gnawing, doesn't it - but it would have been crazy to let it develop. It wasn't just a case of looking at a glass that was half-empty or half-full. The glass was already brimmed to overflowing - quite simply an outstanding occasion at which to be present.
The Jocotoco Antpitta was the most notable of my encounters with the Antpitta family on my travels through South America, but as I've already hinted above, it wasn't the only one; each bird was collected with a resounding sense of excitement and satisfaction which made the hard work of looking for them all the more worthwhile. Antpittas are a pretty special group of birds for a lot of birdwatchers. They are a classic example of what you might call 'birders' birds'. Totalling about 50 species in all, many are skulking and hard to see, a product as much of the dense vegetation they tend to inhabit as any particular shyness on their behalf. Unlike the Pittas - or 'jewel-thrushes' - of southeast Asia, the Antpittas lack colourful iridescences in their plumage, and one could argue they are correspondingly less beautiful. However, they share with the Pittas an utterly compelling and enticingly enigmatic character: a combination, perhaps, of their secretive ground-dwelling existence, their evocative vocalizations, and their somewhat 'familiar' (thrush-like?) shape and behaviour - long-legged, pot-bellied birds with stout bills for raking though the leaf litter for insects and other invertebrates. Like the Pittas, they reverberate with an indescribable sense of 'presence' on the few occasions you happen to chance upon one; time seems to stand still as you grip your binoculars and try to garner everything you can from the occasion.
In the main, my three-month trip was based loosely on an itinerary to visit as many potential Antpitta hotspots as possible. There is a combined total of 34 species of Antpitta across Ecuador and Peru, a number of them in isolated parts of the country that I didn't visit, but the majority - occupying an altitudinal range of around 1000 to 3000 metres above sea level - were certainly on my radar.
Having spent a full week on a previous short visit to Ecuador trying to track down the fairly common and very vocal Chestnut-crowned Antpitta without success, I decided this time I needed some assistance. Before setting off, I invested in a portable CD player and speakers, and a recording of about 60 different species of bird - 20 Antpittas in all - downloaded from the World Wide Web. It was the first time I'd gone to such lengths on an overseas trip, and though it didn't guarantee me any particular individual sightings, it would certainly put me in much better stead than to go without. Please note, I had no intention of overdoing the bird-luring: I saw it as an adjunct to my fieldcraft, not a replacement for it.
My first attempt to lure out an Antpitta with the CD player ended in a disappointing failure. How, I don't know. A Scaled Antpitta - a not uncommon, medium-sized, dark brown Antpitta with (as the name suggests) heavily scalloped underparts - called for fully two hours in the first days of my trip, and I went every which way around it - playing the CD; not playing the CD: standing back quietly and patiently, marching about boldly, clattering about in the vegetation. The haunting, hollow, vibrating sound of the bird, typical of a number of members of the genus, seemed to come from above, below, to the left and right of me, and still I could not see it. Several times I thought I must have flushed it to kingdom come, but still it did not seem to be perturbed by my existence within its little patch of forest. It continued to call, mocking my efforts.
I was a little low in confidence, therefore, when I arrived at the Guacamayos Ridge, a legendary site in north-east Ecuador where many exciting species - two or three Antpittas - are known to occur. I'd been using my CD intermittently for a week, attempting to lure four or five different species - Owls, Antpittas, Antbirds - and I'd had zero success. Was there something wrong with the pitch of my speakers, I wondered? Are they too loud, or too quiet?
It was against this backdrop of self-doubt that I began walking along the trail in one of the most notoriously wet areas in all of Ecuador. Surprisingly this morning it was dry. About fifteen minutes into the morning, it began to dawn on me that the series of thin, piping whistles I could hear coming from directly below me in the bamboo forest - a sound quite different from most Antpitta species - was the sound of a Slate-crowned Antpitta: a miniature Antpitta, the size of a European Robin. It was a bird I desperately wanted to see. I fiddled with the CD player; found the right track; switched on the speakers... a shadowy movement below... The next moment I was stood stock still, frozen in place by the sudden appearance of this gorgeous little Slate-crowned Antpitta on a tree stump right next to me. It was too close to focus binoculars. I took a step back. "Surely it will fly off?" No, it didn't! I grilled it for two minutes straight. It was a lovely round Robin shape: olive above, dull rufous below, with a greyish crown and nape (hence the name) and a cute teardrop marking extending well below the eye. It continued to give short, vibrant bursts of song while sitting there, right in full view. I don't carry a camera with me anymore. But it was just one of those moments when you wish you did...
Slate-crowned Antpitta This is the Venezuelan race, a slightly brighter bird than the one I saw (photo: Nick Athanas/Tropical Birding).
I had more failure than success with my CD player as I travelled the length of Ecuador - at least with Antpittas I did. (I did succeed in pulling out one or two other cripplers that are not part of this piece.) However, my Antpitta list inched forward by virtue of a variety of different methods: a Chestnut-crowned Antpitta that I encountered by chance in the middle of the track on the Guacamayos trail; a White-bellied Antpitta being hand-fed worms at San Isidro, in north-east Ecuador; and one afternoon, when I somehow managed to creep up on a calling Thrush-like Antpitta for five minutes super views through a dense tangle of spiders webs! At Bombuscaro, in south-east Ecuador, I struggled and failed again with Scaled Antpitta, but I did - not without a guilty conscience - eventually tick Plain-backed Antpitta after a series of naked-eye glimpses in the half-light, on the trail, in the very early morning. To get better views, I tried using my poncho as a makeshift hide, and crouched miserably for an hour in the middle of the forest while a million tiny insects nibbled at my ankles. I failed in my quest. Such memorable one-off encounters and frustrating setbacks are all typical of what you can expect if you go in search of Antpittas in Ecuador, or indeed anywhere in South or Central America.
White-bellied Antpitta This confiding individual is now being hand-fed at Cabanas San Isidro on the east Andean slope of northern Ecuador (photo: Sam Woods/Tropical Birding).
And so it came to pass that one day I crossed the border, on foot, from Ecuador into northern Peru. Most gringos cross into Peru by the coastal route, but this new route I took through the mountains had been open for a year or two, since border skirmishes between the Ecuadorian and Peruvian armies had ended in the early 90s. It was a route more convenient for birding. In particular, I was heading for a patch of cloud forest in northern Peru that I referred to in emails as 'Antpitta Central'. Only a few hours from the Ecuadorian border, there were half a dozen Antpittas here that were endemic to Peru. I dipped one very rare species (Pale-billed Antpitta) after finding there was very little forest left in the area they were supposed to occur, but in a patch of pristine, preserved cloud forest at 2200 metres - an area known as Abra Patricia - I scored three notable successes. On my third day at Abra Patricia, I had the extraordinary good fortune to see a particularly rare Antpitta species (perhaps in a similar bracket to the Jocotoco Antpitta above) that, at the time of writing, has eluded even the number one all-time Peru top bird-lister: ex-pat Brit Barry Walker. I met Barry on the night of my fortieth birthday in the Cross Keys pub he owns in Cusco, the Peruvian capital of culture, 3,600 metres high in the Andes. After one too many of the local pisco sour cocktails I don't quite remember how the night ended, but I do remember gripping him off with the following completely fluky sighting, minutes before blacking out completely.
Ochre-breasted Antpitta is one of the very small Robin-sized Antpittas in the genus Grallaricula, the same as the Slate-crowned Antpitta above. It is quite widespread, but nowhere common, and typically inhabits Andean cloud forest between 1500m and 2500m from Venezuela to Peru. It was the only Antpitta that, according to the distribution maps, had followed me from day one to the very end of my three-month trip...yet somehow I had failed to see it. I kept hoping for a chance encounter by the side of the path, as had occasionally happened with one or two species, but it never happened. I had the call on CD alright - the problem was, it's such an indistinct, brief whistling sound, one that sounds like a dozen other much commoner species of bird, I had little chance of recognizing it should it ever call within earshot.
I was still uncertain about my chances of picking up this undistinguished call note when, one day, at this site, Abra Patricia, I suspected I had heard it. It was a bit of a way off, and in very dense cover, and I wasn't especially confident I'd got it right, but I guessed I might as well give the CD a quick airing. I played the call back once on CD. Silence. I was distracted for a couple of minutes by some Toucans calling above me, and by the time I'd finished with them I'd just about forgotten I'd just played my Antpitta tape. Then came a movement down below...suddenly I was watching this incredibly cute little bird, eyeballing me from a single exposed perch in the middle of a dense bamboo thicket. It looked like an Ochre-breasted Antpitta for sure; the difference being that it sported this very distinctive orange-rufous crown patch - indicative of the little known and very rarely seen Peruvian endemic Ochre-fronted Antpitta, a subtle difference in name, but a considerable difference in status. There were a few other minor plumage features that confirmed the bird was the much rarer species, and when I was later to ascertain that yes, indeed, Ochre-fronted sounds just like Ochre-breasted I was 100% happy. The fact that it had come to the tape of Ochre-breasted; well, that was just lucky coincidence! Like the Jocotoco Antpitta before it, never in all the months of pre-trip planning did I allow myself to believe that I could possibly bump into this species. I watched it for thirty seconds before it vanished into cover - a real bonus bird, a big highlight of my trip. I never did see the widespread Ochre-breasted Antpitta.
On the same Abra Patricia trails, on each of the following two days, I added two more Antpittas to my now highly satisfactory double-figure 'collection'. Rusty-tinged and Rusty-breasted Antpittas - two reasonably common birds of Northern and Central Peru - both came in briefly, but most wholesomely, to CD lure. Just to keep the balance of hits and misses about right, I managed to miss both Chestnut and Bay Antpittas in the same area; the latter I saw horribly briefly a month later in the trip.
A most agonizing encounter, as I moved south through the Andes, was with an Undulated Antpitta that I stumbled into five times on the trail, without ever seeing it well on the deck. I had great flight views - for a mere second! Another of the more widely distributed species of Antpitta - a large, good-looking bird - it had been one of the ones I had most looked forward to seeing, listed as occurring at so many sites I believed it was only a matter of time before I would see one well. It wasn't to be. These brief glimpses, and the tantalizing sound of two or three birds calling before dawn in a misty, elfin forest at 3,800 metres, were my only encounters, underlining again the thin line that separates success and failure even on a long trip such as mine.
Undulated Antpitta It was this photograph I saw before I went to Peru that had me salivating with anticipation. If only I could have had views like this... (photo: Wim Heyer).
Thankfully, my trip ended with two or three more tasty species. A Red-and-white Antpitta surprised us by landing briefly on the road in front of the car, when I joined up with Ian Puckrin to drive the internationally famous road from high Andes to tropical Amazon, the Manu Road. In central Peru, I tape-lured a couple of lovely Rusty-breasted Antpittas, a catch-up tick for my friend. And finally, one of the showiest Antpittas of all, the endemic Stripe-headed Antpitta of Central and Southern Peru, four of which performed rather like garden Song Thrushes for us, in amongst the sparse bushes of the rapidly declining Andean Polylepis forest.
Rusty-breasted Antpitta A typical view of this shy species. I was lucky enough to see three different individuals (photo: Nick Athanas/Tropical Birding).
So that was it. Moments of great excitement and tense frustration; I enjoyed every minute of pitting my wits against this wonderful family of South American recluses. Next time I write for BirdGuides, I'll be off on a different slant altogether. I'll be recalling the enjoyable times I spent watching a family of birds almost diametrically opposite in behaviour to these secretive, subtly coloured forest dwellers: those flashy show-offs, the Hummingbirds.