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Updated: Dec 10, 2018

Antpitta – the “Forest Angel”

They are well loved by Central and South Americans because they are so elusive and an encounter with one is very rare.

One thing is for certain, Ecuadorians love the little elusive birds called Antpittas. You can tell by the way the word Antpitta universally comes out of their mouths with childlike joy and excitement. At first I did not understand the delight they found in this bird because the bird does not look impressive at all. They are a far cry from competing with other indigenous species like, for example, an iridescent golden-tailed sapphire hummingbird, or the outrageous red-combed Cock of the Rock. Instead, they are the color of leaf litter with variations on a beige or speckled chest. Its behavior makes it less than intriguing too. They do not fly but instead, live and scamper along forest floors near streams in a perfectly camouflaged suit of feathers. It can hop and flutter up a little to land on a low branch but that is about all.

Birding Lodges in Ecuador like to draw visitors in with species unique to their lodge. Having an antpitta appear every day would be a great attraction, so Jose, an employee at the Lodge spent a year placing worms every day at 7am and 3pm in a remote spot to entice the Antpitta to emerge. They finally did.

To see them, we walked straight down a steep 500-step, slippery, moss-covered rock pathway toward an isolated part of the dense cloud forest jungle near a stream.

Out of breath from the thin mountain air, I was happy to sit on a narrow earthen perch planting the tripod firmly in the dirt on a ledge with a large drop-off. I aimed my camera nearly straight down to focus thirty feet below on a small dark opening on the jungle floor where Jose had placed a handful of unsuspecting worms. They were wiggling enticingly, and I was hoping they would lure in the Antpitta.

Jose repeatedly called to them with a low slow sound. While he continued to call, a red tipped butterfly landed and rested on Jose’s head.

While I focused and waited I realized we were not alone. There was some noise and motion behind us far up in the canopy. I turned to see that there was a group of capuchin monkeys watching us. They were angry and obviously didn’t want us there because they tore off branches and threw them at us while bearing their teeth. But they have appealing little faces, so I couldn’t be afraid. I just enjoyed their show.

“Look one is coming”…Jose said. ”there it is!”, the guide whispered! For the life of me I couldn’t get the bird in my scope. I couldn’t see the Antpitta. It’s color had melted into its surroundings perfectly. Frustrated, I said bad words. (Sorry Mom) Really bad words. But finally I had the Antpitta in the scope. It had peeked its head out of the bushes and made a run for it, stopped a second, grabbed a worm, looked around for danger and zoomed back to the dense underbrush of the forest. Luckily, I was able to fire off a round of shots. It was all over in less than 5 seconds. Words don’t describe the feeling of the adrenaline rush one feels when time is of the essence in either getting or missing the image. Luckily, the Antpitta returned and I had another chance. Those fat worms lured them back.

Since looking more carefully at my images of the Antpitta, I find that there is something very endearing about this little bird. Its face and eyes remind one of an innocent baby summoning the protective instincts that say, a baby dear would. Also, a person can’t go out and simply find an Antpitta. They will find you in a random encounter when you are walking in the forest. So it feels like a touch of magic when they cross your path, like a little forest angel that gives you a couple of seconds of sweetness. I think I am a little closer to understanding the lure of the Antpitta.

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Susan Rouillier
Bird Photographer and Painter

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