For the Birds Radio Program: Silvery-fronted Tapaculo

Original Air Date: Feb. 15, 2001

Some birds are harder to see than others.

Audio missing


The hardest thing about birding in tropical forest is the thick vegetation. A Costa Rican bird can be inches away yet hidden away in impenetrable jungle. When you actually see movement, sometimes the darkness makes subtle field marks, and even brilliant colors, difficult to see.

I’ve always been wary of getting off the trail in any forest-I don’t want to risk of stepping on a rock or fallen branch and inadvertently crushing a salamander, or accidentally stepping on a nest. People feel distressed when a bird, bat, or other wild animal enters their house, knocking things over and making a mess, but it seems to me that many animals feel at least as distressed when we enter their home. In Costa Rica, there is an even more compelling reason to stay on trails and roads. Rainforest plants are pharmaceutically active, producing all kinds of complex chemicals including toxins, so it’s dangerous to touch any plant. And myriad poisonous insects, frogs, and snakes make things even more dangerous. So birders stay on trails and paths in most situations.

But sometimes a calling bird can drive you crazy when it’s right there and you just can’t see it. Sometimes patience and sturdy knees are all that are necessary. If you crouch down and keep scanning the forest floor, eventually most antbirds and other ground birds will come out from behind a tree. They move deliberately and warily but aren’t particularly trying to elude our view, and if you pay close attention, one will eventually pass into view, at least for a few seconds.

On my Costa Rican trip, one of the hardest-to-see birds was the Silvery-fronted Tapaculo. This 4 Ā½ inch wren-shaped bird of the highlands lurks in the densest thickets, especially tangles along streams. It hops and creeps about in search of insects, spiders, and other tiny invertebrates hidden in crevices, and frequently calls but always stays just out of view. This tapaculo seems conscious of our presence, taunting us with its loud calls as it cleverly stays out of sight. In their field guide to Costa Rican birds, Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch write that tapaculos are curious, responding to squeaking but virtually never leaving concealment, but that they DO often peer out from their hiding places at the person who does not obviously watch them.

Silvery-fronted Tapaculos are so difficult to see that Mike Mulligan, the leader of our group, had never seen on in the dozens of trips he’s made to Costa Rica, although he’s heard them bazillions of times. While we were in appropriate highlands for four days, we heard them many times.

Kevin Easley, our guide, recorded them a few times and played back the recording, getting the birds to come in quite close, but when they finally did come out, it was always only for a few seconds, near the ground in a thick place only visible to one or two birders at a time. One by one the people in our group finally got a glimpse—sometimes satisfactory, sometimes just a flash of a part of a dark bird that was taken on faith to be this species. This bird LOOKS like a skulkerĀ­ soft dark browns and grays, with subtle but lovely barring beneath the belly and on the rump.

The male has one distinctive little field mark-a silvery-gray eye-stripe-which the female lacks. And finally, after so many attempts, we finally got one in view long enough that the whole group saw it, and Mike got his lifer. For some reason, this last one we were to see stayed out long enough that everyone got a great look. I couldn’t help but wonder why that one came out for us. Maybe its life in hiding finally started to wear on it, and it suddenly had to speak and tell us where it was, as in Robert Frost’s poem:


We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

‘Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.