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Birds Less Seen

April 29, 2023

While many people think of the tropics as a birdwatchers paradise, this is often a deceptive misconception. Yes, the rates of endemism and biodiversity are unparalleled. It is very easy to move up or down a thousand meters and easily see ten or twenty birds you’ve never seen before (as I recently did with a friend, taking taxi just twenty minutes up a nearby road to a higher elevation zone and getting to see many new species of tanagers and hummingbirds that occur on the reserve but much less frequently). Despite this, the combination of low light, the rain, the bugs, and the fact that many of the birds you are hoping to see flit sporadically between tree branches a fifty to a hundred feet above your head can be absurdly frustrating. This is a challenging and rewarding part of birding on the reserve. Because of this, every new species you see is that much more satisfying. For me though, one of the most difficult and gratifying parts of birding here has been trying to find the ground birds.

This group of birds, which comprises many diverse families from antbirds to warblers, hides not in the tall swaying branches of the cloud forest. Instead, they quietly (sometimes noisily depending on the species) lurk in the shadows, darting quickly in and out of the understory. Some birds prefer the thick brushy interior of post disturbance areas, while others seem happy to trot down the trails we maintain on the reserve. Many of these you would miss if you weren’t paying close attention.

A glimpse at the stunningly complex understory of the cloud forest.

The Rufous Breasted Antthrush (Formicarius rufipectus) for example, we hear frequently and have picked up on our camera trap almost every day for a whole month. Despite walking the trail where it struts near daily, we have only seen it one time and she ran off before we could snap a picture. This strange, awkward ground bird walks with a bobbing strut, bouncing up and down as she does so. Formicarius rufipectus ranges from Panama to Peru, and prefers thick understory vegetation in steep mountainous regions, exactly the kind of places that are challenging to see anything, let alone walk.

This female Zeledon’s Antbird was kind enough to pose for a moment.

Not all of these understory birds are so stealthy. For the first two months of being here, we almost never saw the Zeledon’s Antbird, Hafferia zeledoni. However, in the last two months we have begun to find it throughout the reserve. It is a not an obligate ant follower, meaning it does not have to follow the army ant swarms that take over the forest floor. Still, it feels like every time I see the bird, I am simultaneously realizing just how many ants are crawling up my pants. Even though they’re very noisy, making a long dee-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee call, they hop quickly through dark brush, seemingly trying to hide themselves from any pictures or curious binocular-wearing humans. Lately, we have seen a larger group of them hanging around a giant copal tree that several different species of ants seem to congregate around and flow out of like living streams.

The male on the other hand, refused to show himself and stuck to his underworld fortress of darkness.

Another bird that many would not typically think of as being a “ground bird” but actually eats almost entirely off the forest floor is the Buff-rumped Warbler, Myiothlypis fulvicauda. This cute, yellowish warbler bounces its tail and hops down the trail, grabbing insects off of the forest floor as it does so. I say hop because it doesn’t walk like other ground birds such as the Ruddy Quail-Dove or the Rufous-Breasted Antthrush; instead it constantly jumps up and down as it searches. We frequently see him while visiting our favorite swimming hole on the Motmotos Trail. Occasionally, he’ll flit up to a low hanging branch before returning to his hunting ritual with feet on the earth. This tiny warbler ranges from Central America to western Amazonia, and we always delight in getting to see him, though he is much easier to see than other ground birds.

Buff-rumped Warbler looking for it’s next bite to eat.

Like Zeledon’s Antbird, the Ruddy Quail Dove, Geotrygon montana, is another quiet ground-dwelling species that is much more often heard than seen. This wide-ranging forest dweller can be found from Southern Brazil all the way to northern Mexico, and very occasionally Florida and even south Texas. It eats what it can find on the floor of the forest, small fruits or invertebrates. The one time we did see it on the reserve, it quickly and silently trotted around the corner and disappeared into the brush.

A blurry shot of the Ruddy Quail-Dove captured from our water damaged trail camera.

This is not an uncommon experience with many birds, for them to appear for a second and be gone the next, and yet with ground birds it feels even more so. They live in a world that on the surface seems more accessible to humans, because we too walk the earth, unlike those that prefer the high branches of towering trees. And yet, upon further attempting to find these birds it becomes clear as day how different their world is. In the dramatically steep cloud forests of the western Andes, cliffs can make canopy level trees appear at eye-level if you’re at the right location. This provides a much easier glimpse into the world of those birds that live far above us. No parallel exists for ground birds. They move up and down the steep areas that we humans prefer to avoid, and relish in the otherworldly darkness of the understory. I frequently find myself looking at ground level of the forest and thinking about what a hidden universe of its own it really is.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 30, 2023 11:21 am

    Superb essay!


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