Photographing the Antpitta: My Favorite, Elusive Bird

Tips & Techniques

Occasionally, someone sees my long lens and asks me the question, “What’s your favorite bird?” If I have too little mood or time to explain my answer, I usually pull out one that doesn’t disappoint. Birds like eagles and harpies are usually a safe bet. But if I were to answer truthfully, my heart beats for seemingly boring and colorfully dull birds – the Antpittas.

Tawny Antpitta_02
Tawny Antpitta. NIKON D850 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR @ 300mm, ISO 1250, 1/4000, f/5.0

Now that I have the mood and the time, and you have opened my article, let me share my passion for these long-legged creatures with you. The vast majority of the approximately 60 species of Antpittas are birds that inhabit the forests of Central and South America. You can encounter them from the Pacific lowlands to the high-altitude páramo or Polylepis forest at 4,500 meters above sea level (almost 15,000 feet).

Well, I say you can encounter them, but that is both the challenge and the reward. Antpittas don’t give away their refined beauty very easily. Quite the opposite! Any encounter with them is, with few exceptions, a rare and great event.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta
Yellow-breasted Antpitta. NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S @ 560mm, ISO 3200, 1/400, f/4.0

A typical environment in which to look for Antpittas (I deliberately write to look, not to find) is the impenetrable thickets of the cloud forest on both slopes of the Andes. If you have ever explored this off-trail environment, you will agree with me that it’s not inviting for Sunday walks with the family. Without a machete and the skills to wield it, you’ll find it virtually impossible to move around at all.

Add to that the notoriously secretive behavior of the antpitta. These birds can remain virtually motionless for long periods in the cover of dense vegetation. Like mice, they skitter through the densest undergrowth in search of insects, earthworms, and sometimes frogs or small snakes. They know very well where you are – and if you look at them, they immediately evaporate like steam over a pot.

Brown-banded Antpitta
Brown-banded Antpitta. NIKON D750 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 3200, 1/160, f/2.8

Of course, knowing their voices will (in theory) be useful for locating them in the field. But therein lies another difficulty. Some Antpittas only rise for their songs in the early hours of the morning, when it’s impossible to find them, let alone photograph them!

Still, their voices are beautiful. At one time, I even had Chestnut-crowned Antpitta’s voice as a ringtone on my phone. I usually kept the caller waiting for a while before answering the phone. Or the Giant Antpitta trill that echoes in the morning gloom of the cloud forest? Pure beauty.

Giant Antpitta_02
Giant Antpitta. NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S @ 400mm, ISO 3200, 1/125, f/3.2

Antpittas move through the undergrowth on their long, thin legs that carry an upright, egg-like body. Not exactly the epitome of elegance. But some of them can dance. Oh, my! It’s not for nothing that one female Ochre-breasted Antpitta inhabiting the Angel Paz forest was named Shakira.

So far, I have hardly talked about photographing these beauties. But as you probably see by now, photographing wild Antpittas is not like photographing a squirrel in a city park. Few feathered creatures are as uncooperative as they are. Tawny Antpittas inhabiting the Andean paramo are the easiest to photograph. They will give you a few precious seconds to get the shot if you’re lucky.

As for antpittas elsewhere, you must be equipped with a great deal of patience, luck and time.

Rufous Antpitta
Rufous Antpitta. NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 3600, 1/400, f/4.0

On one of my field research trips in Peru’s Wayqecha Reserve, my group came across a juvenile Rufous Antpitta just off the trail during a morning bird count. After returning from the field and corresponding with a biologist colleague of mine, we realized that my group was likely to first to ever photograph a juvenile of this species in the wild.

Admittedly, things are getting a bit easier in recent years. Some owners of intact forests have decided to preserve or even restore their land. Instead of selling the timber and turning the bare land into grazing areas for cattle, they instead use the forest for agro-tourism. In these places, bird watchers and photographers have a chance to see antpittas more easily, in their restored habitat. Though photographing them is still a challenge!

Rufous Antpitta_Chick
Chick of Rufous Antpitta. NIKON D300 + 17-50mm f/2.8 @ 17mm, ISO 400, 1/40, f/8.0

As I wrote about in a recent “Photography News” article, this usage of the land is one of the driving forces protecting local nature. As photographers, we can visit places like this and show local people that it’s more profitable to protect the rainforest than dismantle it.

And several months ago, when I discussed one amazing place in Ecuador’s Tandayapa Valley, our readers helped contribute to buying a local piece of land for preservation for the “Save the Antpittas” campaign. That piece of land is no longer doomed to serve a single species – cows. Instead, an entire ecosystem full of life has survived. And it all goes back to the small, inconspicuous antpittas that live in the depths of the cloud forest.

What about you, what’s your favorite bird as a photographer? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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