11 September 2015

PITTASOMA...Ecuador (11th September)

OK, so I have been a bit slack on the blog lately, and I apologise for that. I have had plenty to blog about, what with recent (July-September) tours for Tropical Birding in Costa Rica and Sulawesi and Halmahera, all of which will follow soon. However...

So what got me back blogging again; it needed something special to wrench me out of my social media slumber, and boy was it something special. I have resided in Quito, Ecuador, in the Andes of South America for the past ten years. In that time I have built a healthy, though not outstanding Ecuador list of around 1300 species (I do not keep a strict count on it to be honest, unlike some other manic birders in the country-you know who you are Dusan, Roger, Jonas etc. !!!) I am not an avid Ecuador bird lister, but always enjoy seeing something new in this "dream birding" home that I find myself in. There are few countries like Ecuador, where lifers still creep in this many years after moving in, but that is what happens when you live in the north Andean countries of the "Bird Continent" of South America; the diversity is so high, it is barely fathomable. There are simply too many birds tucked away in this country to pick up in a short time, it takes a lifetime, as people like Robert Ridgely and others would attest to, that have spent the best part of their lives here.

Back to today then; for some years there have been a number of "Holy Grail Birds" in Ecuador that have been spoken of in hushed tones for years, and mean envious glances have been thrown towards the birders who could claim to have seen them. I am thinking of birds like Giant Antpitta, Jocotoco Antpitta, Peruvian Antpitta and Banded Ground-Cuckoo especially, which could rightly claim "grail status", but have in recent years been "humbled", with feeding sites bringing them into the the realms of the possible for surprisingly many birders. And I sincerely applaud those that have put the effort into achieving this, and have made these birds remarkably available to many birders - people like Angel Paz (with Giant Antpitta near Mindo), Nicole Buttner (with the ground-cuckoo at the wonderful Un Poco del Choco reserve), the staff at Tapichalaca reserve for the amazing Jocotoco Antpitta, and Cabanas San Isidro for the Peruvian number. I fully support the feeding of birds, which makes them suddenly available and loved by more people; that can only be good for the spread of the joy of birding, and the ultimate conservation objectives for the species, with heightened interest in them.
So it appeared to some from afar anyway, perhaps that all the most wanted Ecuadorian birds had been "unblocked", and become shockingly gettable after years in the proverbial wilderness, with few being able to claim them on their own life lists. However, those who dwell in Ecuador could see one species that had escaped the spate of feeding that has slowly spread through the country (and beyond into Colombia, Peru, and even Brazil now), to the delight of world birders and photographers alike. This bird has been known to many Ecuador-based birders for years, but few can claim many or any encounters with the species, even after years of roaming the Andes in search of birds. Rumors abound about this bird; it sings in the dry season, sings in the wet season but only late in the morning, when everything else is quiet; it is best on sunny days, when activity generally is slow for everything else; it hardly ever calls; it is best looked for at antswarms, though few could have claimed to back this up with personal sightings, and so on. In short, sightings were few enough that few birders can claim expertise with the species; the sample size was simply too small. With the "discovery" and development of Mashpi as a relatively "new" birding destination in the last decade increased the contact with this species, these rich, humid forests, which were relatively poorly known (compared with say, nearby Mindo that is), until fairly recently. Since then, the influx of birders and ornithologists, eagerly lapping up the chances to see good numbers of scarce species like Glistening-green Tanager and Moss-backed Tanager, and the rare Choco Vireo, among others; led to further sightings of this avian pimpernel, and people like me started to believe a day would come, where maybe, just maybe, I might be able to catch site of one. Of course, I had tried at other places for the bird, for example in the dense, difficult to bird jungles of Playa de Oro, in Esmeraldas province of Ecuador, which until now, could arguably have represented the best site for the species. However, in spite of many visits there, by many birders, few among them walked away with an encounter with this bird. To add to its mystery and allure, the species was originally thought of as an antpitta, a shy, elusive family of ground-dwelling birds that hold special appeal among birders chasing a big world or South American list, The family has kudos, and to have a rare beast among them, with few sightings just gave this bird even more appeal. Then, recently, genetic evidence suggested the two species within this genus (the other being a rarer, though more regularly seen species in Central America), were, in fact, NOT antpittas after all, but may be Gnateaters instead. This might appear to have made the bird less appealing, but far from it, this just added an air of mystery to it, and oddity that birders like me eat up in spades. Of course, the bird I am talking about is the "Pittasoma" of Ecuador and Colombia (where it only seems to dwell within areas that are still considered too dangerous to travel to), the Rufous-crowned Antpitta. In spite of its recently changed status to a Gnateater, and not an antpitta, the bird's name remains "Rufous-crowned Antpitta" with many in the birding community supporting a name change to "Rufous-crowned Gnatpitta"  that has not yet been adopted, but is widely spoken among birders who have seen it, or have not but can still bare to speak of it.

During a prolonged period of guiding recently in Costa Rica and Indonesia, dating back to July, news reached me that Ecuadorian based birder, conservationist and ornithologist, Alejandro Solano, had managed to track one of these special birds down, and had done the unbelievable; he'd managed to habituate one to come in an feed on worms, much in the manner of the other species spoken of earlier. This was great news, had it not been that I was in the midst of a 12-week guiding period, where I personally, could do nothing about it, but look on with envy! Of course, I had amazing times guiding on all three of those tours; BUT, I always had one idea on what was happening back in my adopted country, with a certain denizen of the forest floor. On reaching back home last week, my attentions, once again, turned to the pittasoma, which yesterday we found out was still around, at least for 85% of the time (a pretty impressive percentage for a bird so rare!) And so, today, I traveled to the site to meet Alejandro, and hope to meet his increasingly famous bird, with fellow Tropical Birding guides Andres Vasquez, Iain Campbell and Nick Athanas. We ALL wanted this bird bad.

On arriving at the site Alejandro seemed calm, and so did we; however underneath the surface, Ia m sure some, if not all, among the Tropical Birders were anything but. We walked through the Cocoa plantations for which the site is growingly famous for (it produces high-end, Artesanal chocolate on site), and entered the pleasant shade, and welcoming gloom, for that is both our regular home, as Tropical Birding guides, and the realm of the pittasoma. We climbed up the trail, and reached the site apparently a little early, according to Alejandro (before 4PM). Within the hour Iain glimpsed an antpitta-like bird fleetingly, which saw tensions visibly raised among the group; Nick, in particular, and perhaps me too, became nervy and instantly focused, our eyes flocking this way and that across the forest floor, in the hope of our quarry. Alejandro worked tirelessly to find the bird that he had so shockingly befriended; then, suddenly his low whistles were answered by some low whistles from the real thing! It was painfully quiet though, and it was not clear if it was "whispering" closeby, or was indeed, frustratingly distant. It answered again, then silence returned to the forest, save for the sounds overhead of fruitcrows and caciques foraging noisily in the canopy. After some time with no further reply, it appeared that it may not be close, or, worse still, the bird had slipped away from us, just when it had appeared so close. And so we walked deeper into the forest, walking offtrail and downslope, hoping, though not knowing that we may be moving closer to our avian quarry. We stood on a steep valley side, while Alejandro tried whistling and calling to the bird again; when suddenly a flurry from Andres stated the bird had appeared dramatically just 15 feet away, but was frustratingly hidden from me behind a large buttress, and it was clear Andres was filling his boots with it, as it sat in full glorious view. I wanted impatiently, and then suddenly, the bird darted, lightning like through the undergrowth, hopping swiftly from one side of us to the other, only lingering in the sunlight for brief moments, when this photo was taken. Then, it calmed down, and sat on a log in the deep shadows of the forest, and preened for five whole minutes, when, with backs to the forest floor, and necks twisted this way and that, we were able to soak in every striking feature, from the boldly barred belly that appears to suggest it was a male, the rich, red-brown cap, and broad black stripe running through the eye, and prominent bill protruding from the front end, lending it a somewhat evil expression. Then, suddenly after five minutes of calm, stopped preening, took a quick glance around, then melted back into the background, and was gone! I for one hope this becomes a regular routine, and hope to return. Thanks to Alejandro, for finding the bird, and working to protect the local forest, which is so very, very needed, as it is home to some birds that really need protection, as birds like this and others are confined to this fragile Choco biogeographic region, which has thus far undergone more than enough devastating habitat fragmentation. I encourage everyone to go there (the details of the place are here: Choco Mashpi), buy their excellent chocolate (we sampled this on site); and, of course, take the chance to see this rarely seen bird...for me and a few others anyway right now, a myth no more!

Anyone wishing to visit to contact Alejandro Solano, who is needed to guide you to the bird, who can be contacted through the website contacts for the Chocolate farm and forest reserve: Choco Mashpi


john said...

Seeing your first photo, before reading the article, I thought that the bird must be some obscure Southeast Asian Pitta. The article had me reading on the edge of my seat. Great story.

Lee Dingain said...

What a bird! Very envious of that one.

Lee Dingain said...

What a bird! Very envious of that one.

Unknown said...

Wonderful story and photo, Sam!!

Gareth said...

Stunning! Also your Minahassa Masked Owl from Sulawesi, that would be worth a post.

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