Ground-Cuckoos are an extremely interesting, much desired group of birds, whether you are talking of the Asian species or the Neomorphus species in the Neotropics. This is for two main reasons – they are all attractive, striking birds and all of them are downright difficult to see, some of them almost never being encountered in life. Banded Ground-Cuckoo falls into this latter category: It has for many years been one of the hardest and least seen of all the endemic birds of the Chocó region (this region encompasses northwest Ecuador and western Colombia). To put this fully in perspective there are only 3 records, TOTAL, mentioned in Handbook of the Birds of the World since the 1950s from Colombia and only one from Ecuador since the 1930s. The ‘Birds of Ecuador’ field guide lists only a further 2 records in recent times from there. The Handbook of the Birds of the World states that there is ‘no information’ on breeding and lists the call also as ‘unknown’ (this has since then been recorded and been documented).
Things have changed a little in recent years with the discovery of several in the area of Bilsa in northern Ecuador, although the bird remains extremely difficult to see and the effort required to get into that reserve, especially during the wet season, requires an almost mini-expedition to see the bird (when many of the tracks become undriveable). Many long-time birders to the Ecuador region are still found wanting with this bird. In short it is a bloody hard bird!
When news reached us at Tropical Birding that a small reserve in Pichincha province (the province that includes Quito, Ecuador’s capital), had fairly recently been found to hold this species, some of us guides (Sam Woods, Nick Athanas, Jose Illanes) got visibly twitchy and simply had to go and try and see it. The latest news we had was that the bird had most recently been seen in August (2006), and although it was now December, few people had visited the reserve since. Obviously though, we were far from confident of seeing such a notoriously rarely seen species.
Our first morning (of two) drew a blank and although Nick and I found an interesting army ant swarm, little was in attendance there. Almost all known sightings of Banded Ground-Cuckoos have been at army ant swarms. Unbeknown to Nick and I at the time, Jose had found another swarm in one of the higher areas on the property and had heard the cuckoo several times, but had frustratingly only glimpsed the bird feeding on the periphery of the swarm. On bumping into Nick and I later and relaying this news to us, we persuaded (i.e. forced) Jose to back track to the spot. On reaching the area we found thousands of ants that was a promising sign, but little initial evidence of birds in attendance. However 5 minutes later first a Bicolored Antbird and then an Ocellated Antbird called closeby – 2 of the species that Jose had encountered the cuckoo with only an hour or so before. Despite Jose’s advice that the cuckoo had been completely unresponsive earlier, we tried an initial short period of playback of the cuckoo’s call, and immediately received an unequivocal reply from the bird. The low dove-like moaning call was unmistakable, and a frustrating time went by when the bird called back (seemingly at very close range), but we just could not see the bird that remained in dense impenetrable cover the whole time.
We all left the area just before dusk, a little forlorn to say the least. Sure we would return the next day but what would make seeing this bird any easier then, if the ant swarm remained in this difficult terrain?
Nick and Sam arrived first at the same site the following day, and soon found thousands of ants still around at 8am. Ant bites were the least of our worries, and we waded straight into the center of the swarm. Soon afterwards a small group of Bicolored Antbirds were seen very close to us and Sam tried playing Ocellated Antbird calls to see if this was the same flock that the cuckoo had been in. Immediately, a pair of gorgeous Ocellated Antbirds popped up out of the undergrowth at very close range – we were with THE flock. I don’t know about anybody else but this sign was enough to get the juices flowing, and I am ashamed to admit I might even have been visibly shaking with nervous excitement at this time (proving that the term ‘twitching’ truly can be wholly appropriate!) With ants attacking us en-masse we remained steadfastly in the area, as clearly there was a melee of birds attending the swarm causing almost constant twitching movements of the foliage around us as they did so.
Not long after a misty shape in a dark hole in the understory had Sam training his bins on the area, only to be shocked to find the unmistakable black crested head and thickly barred breast of a Banded Ground-Cuckoo. Before we could all get on the bird though it flapped through the gap into the misty undergrowth, ghosting out of view once again. Despite having just got the bird, the briefness of the view in the misty gloom made it a frustrating one and we all remained fixated on the area around the center of the swarm. We manoeuvred ourselves into a great spot where we could regularly see Antbirds coming and going at the epicentre of the ant swarm – Bicoloreds, a pair of Ocellated Antbirds and several Immaculate Antbirds all jostling for position in the thick of the swarm, while an Esmeraldas Antbird called a little way down the slope. If ever there was a time and place to see the bird now would be it, as we had not exactly clear, but a good view of the ground there and could see many birds coming and going on a regular basis. Despite this, little was seen over the next 30 minutes or so except the aforementioned species. Staying in our position was none too easy either, as we were on an extremely steep, slippery muddy bank, with a siege of angry soldier army ants attacking us all the while. We tried as best we could to ignore this relentless attack, but when you see a wave of them emerging over the top of your rubber boots and start biting chunks out of your leg we found ourselves inevitably reacting! After what seemed like an age, a large bird ghosted in on the periphery of the flock initially running rapidly down slope, straight towards the main melee of antbirds. Not daring to suggest what it might be, I waited until I caught a good view of the rich rufous upperparts and alerted Nick, just as Jose fortuitously turned up on the scene. There was more than a little nervous few minutes as this shape disappeared with none of us getting more than a cursory glimpse of this mythical bird. We all knew where it had ran to, but there was no sign of anything other than the usual antbirds, until a large-beaked, black-crested head appeared suddenly from behind a large leaf that had obscured our view. Then the bird disappeared once again, and similarly just in time to ensure that not all of us saw the bird well. More nervous minutes followed while we frantically scanned the area this magnificent Neomorphus had appeared. Then suddenly there it was, standing slap bang in the open at the base of a palm, a good reference point that had us all straight onto this glorious Ground-Cuckoo. There it was, standing brazenly in an open patch on the forest floor, with its puffed-out chest covered in thick black bars, (that encircled the neck forming a barred collar that extended onto the nape); and distinctive black, crested head, rich reddish upperparts and long blackish-green tail. What a bird, just one of those moments you dream about as a birder – seeing an almost mythical species, and not only seeing it, but being able to really enjoy every perfect plumage feature, before the bird ran further down slope and away from us, to be seen no more. It’s not often a bunch of bird guides get openly emotional, but I have to say we did at that time! (There may have even been a few handshakes and aerial punches!)
Other than the Ground-Cuckoo we recorded several small groups of Scarlet-and-White Tanagers; Jose saw an amazing 4 Indigo-crowned Quail-Doves in one morning; we heard Long-wattled Umbrellabird (although put little effort into seeing the birds); Plumbeous Hawk; Esmeraldas Antbird; Ocellated Antbird; Choco Screech-owl; Brown-billed Scythebill; Northern Barred Woodcreeper; Rufous Mourner and almost certainly heard Tooth-billed Hummingbird (that has previsouly been recorded on the property). Blue-whiskered Tanagers, Orange-fronted Barbet and Black-tipped Cotingas are all also listed for the reserve and the property also holds a lek of Long-wattled Umbrellabird on site. The other star bird on the reserve is undoubtedly Rufous-crowned Antpitta, and there are several territories in the area, although we didn’t hear or see any in our short time there.
ARRANGEMENTS FOR VISITING THE RESERVE
The reserve – Manga Loma is a 200ha private forest reserve comprising of secondary and beautiful primary foothill forest (in elevations of around 700-900m). The property is owned and run by a small foundation, which also runs an adventure tourism site close by called ‘Tucanopy’.
If you wish to visit the reserve there are several ways of doing this. The Quito-based International bird tour operator Tropical Birding can arrange a guided trip there. Tropical Birding can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org TROPICAL BIRDING or by calling 00593-2-244-7520 or calling toll-free from the US on 1-800-348-5941. In order to directly arrange a non-guided trip to the reserve call Augustina Arcos (or her husband, Alejandro Solano), whose family run the foundation that owns and manages Manga Loma. They are both extremely helpful scientists who know the birdlife of the reserve well, having carried out extensive fieldwork there, that led to them making the magnificent discovery of the Banded Ground-Cuckoo in the first place. They can be contacted by telephone at 084-798-986. If you wish to visit the reserve alone it is first necessary to pick up a key from their other off-site property, Tucanopy and then drop this back there on your return journey. Please be aware if you intend to go to the reserve that some of the trails there are steep and fairly difficult, and that a 1 mile walk with all your own food for the stay is required before getting to the reserve, if you are undertaking this alone. Please also remember there is no on-site electricity. It is essential to have rubber boots (‘wellies’) for the trip as the trails can be muddy and it maybe necessary to wade across the river to access the main areas. Another thing to note is that a good high-clearance vehicle is recommended to get to the access point for the reserve.
The reserve is only a short distance off the main Calacali Independencia Highway that runs from Quito to Mindo, and then continues on down to Pedro Vicente Maldonado and Esmeraldas beyond there. The reserve is off the right side of the highway (when approaching from Quito), at km104.5. Take the turning there signed for ‘Pachijal’ and follow this dirt road for around 3km and then take the first left turn off this road. This is also a dirt road and a little trickier than the first one, therefore a high clearance vehicle would be needed to use this road at many times of year. Travel down this to the ‘end’ which is around 2km along, where you reach a track going straight ahead that is no longer driveable, although is said to be driveable in the dry season (although we doubt this though looking at the condition of the track now). We parked our car in the farm on the right (the owner is familiar with reserve visitors and was happy to let us do this, although we ensured we gave him a few dollars for this on our return). To get to the reserve it is then necessary to walk straight ahead between the fence posts (there is a another track on the left although this simply runs to another farm). This tracks runs though degraded forest and pastureland for around 1 mile and then the first of two gates are reached. The first gate was not locked when we went there, although the second was and this is why the key needs to be collected first from the foundations other, off-site property (Tucanopy). On arrival at the second gate we were greeted by the caretaker’s dogs and soon after the warden himself, who let us in and showed us to the accommodation that is just beyond this second gate, to the left of the main trail.
The on-site accommodation is fairly basic, in that it does not have electricity, although does have cold, running water and a kitchen where food can be prepared (this is fully stocked with cutlery, gas cooker, and plates etc.). Please note that if you are visiting this reserve alone it is necessary to bring in your own food (i.e. walk your own food in along the muddy 1 mile track to the reserve entrance), and prepare it on site yourself. There is no resident on-site staff, except for the park ranger/warden.