by Diego Quesada, February 2021.
Many birders I know have memories of themselves scanning through the pages of a particular birding field guide and thinking, “I want to see that bird someday.”
When it comes to a tropical country such as Costa Rica, you have 900 plus options to choose from but, as long I can remember, for me it was always bird number 10 on plate 21 of Stiles and Skutch’s A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica. Haven’t got that book? Try then page 177 of Garrigues and Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica Second Edition.
Yes, you got it now, the ghost of the rainforest, the enigmatic and elusive Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo (Neomorphus geoffroyi), a species found from Southern Honduras through South America as far as Northern Bolivia.
The behavior of these terrestrial birds makes them really hard to find since they run around the understory of very forested areas in lowlands and foothills through their range.
Their co-relation with army ant swarms offers probably the best chance to find them while they forage for insects, invertebrates and other vertebrates that are flushed out by the ants. There are recordings of them following peccaries and some species of monkeys as well, to forage on the possible preys or fallen fruits.
So, why are they so hard to find, if one knows where to look? Well not only do you have to be on the right habitat, but also you need to be lucky enough to find an active ant swarm, plus you have to be extra lucky to spot a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo on stealth mode, while they move in the dark and thick undergrowth.
In my 20+ years of birding, the only thing I have ever known for certain is that you never know where you will find this bird, and, even if you do, there are high possibilities that your encounter with your “nemesis bird” will be as brief as a glimpse of the bird crossing the trail or hiding behind the vegetation.
Believe me, I’ve tried on countless occasions, visiting locations where the bird was spotted, but always coming back home empty handed and hoping for the next time. One of the locations that I have visited many times with the hopes of finding them is the Children’s Eternal Rainforest at Pocosol Station. The largest private reserve in Costa Rica protects nearly 57,000 acres of tropical rainforest and is the perfect place to find this elusive species. However, is not easy to find them, and I have lost count of the many times that I have been there armed with binoculars, camera and lots of expectations.
That’s the magic of birding I think, you never know when your time will come. Sunday February 7th 2021 was written in the stars for me and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.
It all started a couple days earlier when I saw a post on social media by fellow birder and manager at Children’s Eternal Rainforest, Fabio Araya. The bird had been spotted the day before by a Swiss volunteer named Lorenzo as it followed a massive army ant swarm. Lorenzo took a picture with his phone. Fabio went to check and the word was out.
Fellow birder and co-owner of Birding Experiences, Jehudy Carballo, was set to check it out on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, I already was engaged with helping the monitoring efforts of the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl Project on Friday and it was going to be all night long at a 9,000 ft elevation looking for this other ghost of the highlands.
Saturday morning came and, after a very successful night, later in the day I got word from Jehudy. He and fellow birding friends María José Alvarado, Jorge Campos, Juan Diego Vargas, Anthony Arce and Fabio Araya spotted not 1 but 4, YES 4, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoos. The footage they kept sharing was amazing beyond words. How lucky they were and how I wanted to just drive like crazy to get there, but I was beat up after a whole night without sleeping, so I decided I would go the next day.
I drove that night to my parents’ home so I could be closer to the reserve the next morning. I invited my brother David to join in and on Sunday morning at 5:00 am we were on the way. Got there by 6:00 am just at sunrise and were greeted by Juan Diego, María Jose and Fabio. We had some coffee while they told us all about their experience the day before.
The expectations and anxiety were starting to take over. Are we going to see them and will they behave the same way as yesterday? I knew that following Juan Diego’s keen advice on when and how to find them was the way to go.
At 6:45 am we started to hear the other species of antbirds getting active and that was the sign we were waiting for. We started walking down the trail and very soon we stopped to the calls of Ocellated, Bicolored, Spotted and Zeledon’s Antbirds, Tawny-faced Gnatwrens, Spotted and Northern Barred-Woodcreepers, Song Wrens and Carmiol’s Tanagers. That meant only one thing, the ants were on the move. Let the Hunger Games Begin!
Not 5 minutes had passed when María said “there it is,” and sure enough, not 6 feet from where we stood, the juvenile Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, named Lorenzo, after his discoverer, was perched on a branch surrounded by several Ocellated Antbirds, completely oblivious of our presence. The only thing on the bird’s mind was checking the movement of the ever-growing swarm of army ants now coming out of the forest into the trail, in an endless flow of thousands of hungry ants.
The frenzy had started and, although I was by then getting ants crawling up my boots, I only had eyes for that bird. I looked at it with my binoculars, although it was so close it was almost unnecessary, and started to take pictures, trying to get the right settings for the very dark conditions.
Lorenzo started to move around checking for any movement that would translate into a nice juicy breakfast. And I moved around trying to get a good angle for a perfect picture or video. Every now and then an Ocellated Antbird would get in the way of the lens. How rude, right? You know you have a MEGA bird in front of you when you don’t have time to photograph Ocellated Antbirds perched in plain sight just 3 feet away from you.
I kept moving to avoid the ants, and at one point I had to step back because Lorenzo was standing in the middle of the trail, too close for my 300mm lens. Suddenly one of the adults appeared in the understory in front of us just to disappear a second later in the darkness of the forest. In my mind that was the look I always knew I was going to get, if I ever had a chance.
Not long after I got good views of one the adults hidden in the thicket below the trail. Then I continued walking along the trail to get a view of the second adult.
Finding an ant swarm, especially one as big as that one, is just incredible. To witness the interaction of those birds preying on insects and all kinds of living creatures that are trying desperately to escape from the ants, is something really unique and a bit cruel, but such is life. Actually, there are studies that back up the thesis that this interaction should be considered parasitism, since the birds are actually stealing from the ants.
After a while and several looks at my watch to check my heartrate, 3 other fellow birders from La Fortuna showed up and we introduced them to Lorenzo. Shortly thereafter we went farther down the trail to the place where the core of the ant swarm was. This is a living mass of interlocked ants that protects their queen and larvae called the bivouac.
And sure enough, we were rewarded when one of the adult ground-cuckoos had the same idea and came out of the area where the bivouac was placed. It was probably just double checking the trajectory of the hunting troops. The bird was yet again showing that stealth behavior,but this time came out in the open and stood there for a moment. It was enough time for me to get my best shot of the day and maybe, because of the subject, one of my best shots ever. It went up the hill in the direction of the action and we had it in the open again for a moment, enough for the other birding party to get great views. Then it went into the thicket and the safety of the forest understory. By then more birders started to show up and we helped some of them to find the birds.
For me 2 hours of adrenaline rush was enough. I had one of the most exciting and bizarre birding experiences ever, which is what I try to give to my clients when I show them the birds they so long to see.
We encountered several more birders coming in as we departed which is great because the Children’s Eternal Rainforest has taken a big blow from the lack of visitors (thank you COVID). It is great to know that so many people in Costa Rica are getting to see these birds and, at the same time, supporting the great work they do to protect their habitat
A day to remember indeed, let there be more…