Colombia has 4 new bird species to add to its already large list. This is great news not only to encourage you to come to Colombia, but to visit the Neotropics for bird watching! Update your records, notebooks, and wishlists with the new Colombian Antpittas!
What is an Antpitta?
Antpittas are walker, vocal, small, round, stubby, long-legged, pale and grayish birds that live in the rainforests of the Andes. They look more like an egg with legs (and feathers)… This is a very particular group of species, and they are known as the ghosts of the forest, since you can hear them loud and clear, even feel that they are singing at your feet, but you can hardly ever see them.
As they are birds that move around on the forest floor looking for worms, their favourite food, they have plumages that are very difficult to differentiate from fallen leaves and trunks. Despite this, they are very docile animals that can be easily conditioned to visit “artificial” feeding grounds. However, a lot of commitment and punctuality is needed, as these birds are very regular in their daily journeys and always arrive at the same time to the visiting points.
So much so that when you go on a birding tour that includes a visit to a place with specialized feeding grounds for Grallarias, you have to be the most punctual in life! Because if you miss it, the bird doesn’t come back until the next day. And on these tours there is no next day in the same place, unless you want to. It is usual to see birders settling in up to an hour before the Grallarias cross the feeding points, making sure to have all their equipment ready for when the bird appears.
First it announces itself with its song, then it appears like a ballerina on stage, jumping through the foliage, until it reaches the point where its food has been placed. Sometimes, if there is a lot of noise, it appears in the biggest of silences, eats its worm and leaves without being noticed.
How many Colombian Antpittas are?
So far in Colombia, up to 27 species have been recorded within the family Grallariidae, with 4 endemic species and 16 endemic subspecies. But all that changed in July 2020, when two studies on the taxonomy and phylogenetic diversity of the Grallaria rufula complex changed everything (to the regret of many birders, once again the scientists messing things up!)
The Grallaria rufula blakei complex
The Grallaria rufula blakei complex was considered to consist of 2 species and 7 subspecies distributed from southern Peru to the Colombian Caribbean: the Rufous Antpitta, Grallaria rufula (Lafresnaye, 1843), and the Chestnut Antpitta, Grallaria blakei (Graves, 1987).
Plumage in the G. rufula blakei complex contributed heavily to the traditional classification and description of species and subspecies. Among plumage characteristics, the only characters that show appreciable variation are (1) color of the back, head, and breast, which ranges from olive-gray brown; (2) color or patterning of the belly, including the extent of white coloration; (3) in some cases a contrasting light feather tips and the presence of indistinct barring on the lower and (4) presence or absence of a dull whitish eye-ring.
Studies on genetics and vocalization led to split this Grallaria rufula complex from two, G. rufula (Rufous Antpitta) and G. blakei (Chestnut Antpitta), to sixteen established species distributed along the Andean Mountain Range from southern Peru to the Colombian Caribbean. Seven of them had no name! Leaving Peru with 10 new species, 8 of which are endemic, and Colombia with 5 species, of which 4 are new species and two of them are endemic!
So, now Colombia has 32 species within the family Grallariidae, with 7 endemic species and 12 endemic subspecies, and more are coming!
Five New Reasons to come to Colombia!
The Rufous Antpitta was distributed throughout the three Andean mountain ranges of Colombia and in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Serranía del Perijá. With this study, it was found that practically every population in each mountain range and mountain system corresponded to a different species for the Colombian Antpittas group:
1. Perijá Antpitta – G. saltuensis.
Almost endemic species which is only found in the Departments of La Guajira and Cesar in Colombia, and Zulia in Venezuela. It is found between 2500 and 3250 masl.
- Where to find it? This species can be found in the sector of Manaure Balcón del Cesar, in the department of Cesar, in the Serranía del Perijá (watch our video). There are several places where you can stay there: Centro Turístico y Ecológico Villa Adelaida, in the lower part of the Serranía, or in the Perijá Thistletail natural bird reserve, towards the higher part.
2. Sierra Nevada Antpitta – G. spatiator
Endemic to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Magdalena, La Guajira and Cesar Departments of Colombia. It is found between 2200 and 2900 masl.
- Where to find it? After the town of Minca, in Magdalena, arriving to the sector of the San Lorenzo Ridge. There are several lodging options in the region including a coffee farm Vista de Nieve, the nature reserve El Dorado, and even rural lodging closest to the San Lorenzo Ridge.
3. Muisca Antpitta – G. rufula
It is endemic to the Eastern Cordillera and with a distribution almost parallel to that of the indigenous people of the Muiscas. Its new english name honors this indigenous people of the Cundinamarca-Boyacá highlands. It is found between 1850 and 3800 masl.
- Where to find it? In Colombia it distributes from the Eastern Andes in Norte de Santander, and south to Cundinamarca and western Meta. This species can be found very close to Bogotá, in the national natural park Chingaza. And very probably in the surroundings of Bogotá in private Nature Reserves like El Encenillo.
4. Equatorial Antpitta – G. saturata
Subspecies resurrected and elevated to species. It includes the population of the Iguaque Massif in Boyacá and the Central Cordillera from Caldas, through Ecuador, to northern Peru. It is found between 2550 to 3650 masl.
- Where to find it? In Colombia you can find this species at the Coffee Axes. You can find it on the Jardín-Riosucio road, or on the road to the Nevado del Ruiz in Caldas. You have many lodging options in these regions, in addition to a large number of other bird species that you can observe there. There is a very special place, where spaces have been adapted for the photography of this bird. It is called Hacienda el Bosque, a dairy farm that has also bet on conservation through ecotourism, just 30 minutes from the city of Manizales. The grallaria that arrives at its feeders is called Juliana.
5. Chamí Antpitta – G. alvarezi
It is the new endemic to the Western Cordillera of Colombia, from Paramillo, northwestern Antioquia, south to northwestern Cauca. It is distributed between 2350 to 3650 m.
- Where to find it? It is distributed from Paramillo Natural National Park, through Urrao, Jardín-Riosucio road, and Tatamá, Farallones de Cali and Munchique Natural National Parks, in Risaralda, Valle del Cauca and Cauca respectively. You have many lodging options in these regions, in addition to a large number of other bird species that you can observe there. There is a very nice rural tourism initiative for bird watching in the town of Riosucio, department of Caldas, where you can observe these birds, it is called Bird Watching Mirador El Roble. There, some farmers installed feeders and receive an infinity of birds, including the Chamí Antpitta. Contact us if you want to know the details.
The Importance of Species Names
The Chamí Antpitta had no name, and the scientists took the opportunity to honor two very important people. The scientific name of the Chamí Antpitta honors Colombian ornithologist Mauricio Alvarez Rebolledo, leader of many biological expeditions during Colombia’s worst period of political instability in the 1990s and early 2000s. His role has been very important in the areas of conservation and education. Mauricio Alvarez pioneered bird song recording in the country and founded the Environmental Sounds Collection at the Alexander Von Humboldt Institute.
The english name, Chamí Antpitta, was also given to honor “the people of the mountains”, the indigenous community of the Emberá-Chamí that inhabits the foothills of the northwestern Andes in Colombia. Chamí means “mountain” in the Emberá language.
Ornithologist Andres Cuervo, one of the authors of the study, said that the English name assigned to these species (Muisca and Chamí) is intended to appropriate the species in the country. Also to associate them directly with its geographical location and with the cultural context of the region where they are distributed. It is very special that these indigenous communities still exist in Colombia and it is also important to recognize them in academic and tourism spaces.
Current list of endemic and near-endemic Colombian Antpittas
Endemic species of Colombian Antpittas
- Santa Marta Antpitta (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) Grallaria bangsi
- Cundinamarca Antpitta (Eastern Andes) Grallaria kaestneri
- Sierra Nevada Antpitta (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) Grallaria spatiator
- Muisca Antpitta (Eastern Andes) Grallaria rufula
- Chamí Antpitta (Western Andes) Grallaria alvarezi
- Urrao Antpitta (Western Andes) Grallaria urraoensis
- Brown-banded Antpitta (Central Andes) Grallaria milleri
Endemic subspecies of Colombian Antpittas
- Ruffous-crowned Antpitta (Pacific Region) Pittasoma rufopileatum rosenbergi & Pittasoma rufopileatum harterti
- Giant Antpitta (Southern Central Andes) Grallaria gigantea lehmanni
- Moustached Antpitta (Western and Central Andes) Grallaria alleni alleni
- Bicolored Antpitta (Central Andes) Grallaria rufocinerea rufocinerea
- Chestnut-naped Antpitta (Colombian Andes) Grallaria nuchalis ruficeps
- White-bellied Antpitta (Central and Eastern Andes) Grallaria hypoleuca hypoleuca
- Streak-chested Antpitta (Northern Andes) Hylopezus perspicillatus pallidior
- White-lored Antpitta (South Colombia Andes – Amazon foothills) Hylopezus fulviventris caquetae
- Thrush-like Antpitta (Eastern Andes and Serranía de la Macarena Foothills) Myrmothera campanisona modesta
- Ochre-breasted Antpitta (Western Andes west side and Northern Central Andes) Grallaricula flavirostris ochraceiventris
- Hooded Antpitta (Colombian Andes) Grallaricula cucullata cucullata
- Slate-crowned Antpitta (Eastern Andes) Grallaricula nana nana & Grallaricula nana hallsi
Now, all that remains is to focus on getting to know these new species in depth, and developing effective conservation strategies for their habitats. There are rumors that there may be more splits and new species in this group. So we have to be prepared!
Nature tourism, once again, appears as a way to keep these species alive, which paradoxically are found in areas that require a high commitment to conservation. So don’t wait and come to Colombia to meet these Andean forest singers!
- Isler, M.L. et al. 2020. Taxonomic evaluation of the Grallaria rufula (Rufous Antpitta) complex (Aves: Passeriformes: Grallariidae) distinguishes sixteen species. Zootaxa.
- Chesser, R.T. 2020. Conservative plumage masks extraordinary phylogenetic diversity in the Grallaria rufula (Rufous Antpitta) complex of the humid Andes. The Auk, Volume 137, Issue 3, 1 July 2020, ukaa009.
- Ciencia Café Pa’ Sumercé Interview with Andres Cuervo.
- Andres Cuervo – Curator of Birds, Professor, Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia @amcuervo
- Daniel Cadena – Professor, Dept. Biological Sciences, Universidad de los Andes @cdanielcadena
- Gustavo A. Bravo – Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University Homepage @thamnobravo
- Ayerbe. 2018. Guía Ilustrada de la Avifauna Colombiana.
About the author
Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.