I had been back in Ecuador, after our Kenya holiday, for only a short while, and had not really given a thought to going birding just yet, with a trip to Peru looming, and much to catch up on. Then on Thursday I happened to glance at the Surfbirds website, and my eyes quickly locked on to Roger Ahlman's amazing shots of a Banded Ground-Cuckoo, and wheels were rapidly set in motion. This species is extremely rare, like all ground-cuckoos, and is confined to the Choco region of Ecuador and Colombia, and is extremely rarely seen in the province of Pichincha, with most records coming from the more northern province of Esmeraldas which borders Colombia. Most people who encounter them do so when they bump into a good antswarm of army ants where they occur, but even then they are often notably shy and difficult to see, let alone photograph. I had been lucky enough to see one, and see one well, in 2006 at Manga Loma, with no small thanks to Jose Illanes in locating it that day. For a long time after this sighting I frequently stated this as my "best bird in the world", which was only really knocked off its perch this year in China and Borneo, due to outrageous showings from Lady Amherst´s Pheasant and Blue-banded Pitta respectively that made me rethink this "world order".
Shortly after seeing Roger's photo, a plan was hatched with Iain Campbell, who was currently ground-cuckoo-less, even after a dozen years living in Ecuador, (although this is no surprise, and no shame, as many Ecuadorian-based birders still lack this bird). A few frantic e-mails later between myself and Roger, and Nicole Buttner, who runs the biological station at Un Poco del Choco private reserve, and we were soon booked in for Friday night, with the plan to look for the bird on Saturday morning. The news was clear: an antswarm had arrived at the biological station around a week before and so had at least two Banded Ground-Cuckoos, which were reported to be insanely confiding, far from their usual retiring nature, at times during a week of near continual sightings. However, glum news reached us on Friday: it had NOT been seen all that day, and the ants, considered vital to its continuing presence, had not been seen since Wednesday. I have to admit I wobbled and almost decided not to go. However, after some name-calling, and comments regarding backbones, Iain persuaded me to go. Thank goodness.
We awoke on Saturday morning and walked the near trail (just meters from the station where we slept), to no avail; no sight nor sound of the cuckoo. Having heard that the swarm was also attended by Immaculate Antbirds we kept our ears open for calls of them too, hoping this may lead us to a swarm. A few of these birds called downslope, (down a precariously steep slope), and I discussed the idea with Iain that I might go off-trail and try and relocate the swarm in the direction of those sounds. Iain went off to check another trail, and I lingered around the area on the trail the cuckoo had been seen before. Our time was not completely wasted though as we got some cracking looks at a Spotted Nightingale-Thrush in the area, and disturbed a typically noisy Crested Guan too. I was alone, and was feeling very pessimistic about our chances, with not an ant in evidence. I continued to muse on the idea of heading down that ominous looking slope, when a loud rustle of leaves reached my ears, and I caught a large movement out of the corner of my eye. I just knew, in my blood, this had to be the cuckoo, so I crept very slowly forward and was hit with the distinctive crested head shape of a superb Banded Ground-Cuckoo. Forgetting to snap a photo in the heat of the moment, I simply ran in the direction of where I had last seen Iain. He was quickly back on the scene, and the cuckoo quickly evacuated the scene, and was typically furtive in a brief showing. I left to try and find it elsewhere, and Iain was then gifted rare opportunities to photograph it at close quarters, while he was all alone. On returning to this news I concentrated once more in the same area, glimpsing it a few times before I too had a private moment with this uncharacteristically confiding ground-cuckoo. Over the next hours or so we had repeated views of one bird (Rudy Gellis, also there managed to see two), which gave extraordinary views and led me to these photographs; photographs of a bird I never expected I would ever have the chance to photograph in my life. A magical moment. I sincerely hope it stays around for everyone to get the thrills out of seeing it that I did. And maybe, I could even return to see it again one day!?
If you need updates on the bird, or would like to visit Un Poco del Choco, contact Nicole Buttner at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Nicole for hosting us so well, and of course for hosting the cuckoo, and to Roger Ahlman for his help in getting us to the bird.