“Hey, Daddy! What was the coolest bird you saw in Colombia?” This was one of the first questions my children asked me upon my return from this biodiverse country. Some people might have expected me to name one of the toucans, parrots, or hummingbirds. My children, however, are already aware of my preference for stranger, more unusual birds. So they weren’t too surprised when my answer was the Ocellated Tapacullo.
Before I introduce you to this bird, let me just say that I’m not a complete outlier in my tastes. Just look at the bird that made it onto the cover of the identification guide, Birds of Northern South America, or Volume 8 of the birding bible, Handbook of the Birds of the World. Yes, you guessed right. Out of thousands of species, the Ocellated Tapacullo was chosen for both covers.
What is so interesting about this songbird? I think it’s a beautiful bird, but the more noteworthy thing to most avid birders is its mysterious life. Interestingly, we know almost nothing about this bird. We know what it looks like, and we know what it sounds like; we know where it lives, and we have a vague idea of what it feeds on. But that’s pretty much it.
It is amazing that even today there are terrestrial creatures on our planet whose biology is as mysterious to us as the moons of Saturn. For example, we have no idea what their nests look like, let alone their eggs. (In fact, of the 55 species of tapaculos, only for 18 of them is it known what their nest looks like.)
If you have the heart of an explorer and haven’t been recruited into the NASA space program, South America may be a promised land for you. In fact, my colleague Tomas Grim and I recently discovered – with a fair amount of luck – the nest of another songbird, the Black-throated Flowerpiercer. A relatively well-known species, but with a nest unknown until recently. But that’s another story.
So… back to the thick undergrowth of the northern Andes. It is there, between 1900 and 3600 meters above sea level, that the Tapaculo lives. The bird’s presence is only revealed by its song, which carries quite far. But following its voice is usually an impossible task in the tropical montane forest.
The Ocellated Tapacullo’s favorite habitat is a tangle of chusquea bamboo – a thorny, impenetrable wall of green where even a sharpened machete won’t help. You’d be stuck on one of the thorns after a few steps, like an earthworm on a fishing hook. In this gloomy environment, the tapaculos weave in search of food.
It was about fourteen years ago that I first saw this remarkable feathered creature. It was in the crater of the Pasochoa volcano in the Ecuadorian Andes. After a few days at the site, I was unable to photograph more than the head and part of the body covered with a bamboo stem.
But things looked much more promising in the forests near Pereira, Colombia. Although I didn’t have long there, I already saw an Ocellated Tapaculo appear when I first arrived, and I understood that photographing this phantom here was not unrealistic. The following morning was the real success.
For the first hour, there was an ominous silence. Tapaculo didn’t make a peep. It didn’t look good. The second hour wasn’t much better. A few tentative whistles suggested that the tangle of dead branches nearby was not entirely lifeless. The moss-covered stone that I wanted to use as a perch was not seeing any action. And my group needed to leave in just a few minutes.
Now, you may think I’m coloring the story to give an otherwise boring scene some momentum. But that’s when a reddish-brown head emerged from behind the rock, and the bird’s whole body followed. The Ocellated Tapacullo was posing on the mossy stage! I was so excited that I captured this essentially static scene at 15 frames per second.
I have found that shutter speeds below 1/30 second are risky even for perched birds. So, I stayed just above that threshold to get reasonably sharp images at the lowest possible ISO. Then as suddenly as the Tapaculo appeared, it vanished. Was I really photographing it, or was it just a hallucination caused by several hours of watching a single rock?
My heart was still pounding with excitement as I glanced at the display to confirm that it had really happened! It’s there! I look at my watch – time to go. Fate had dramatized this story up to the last minute. I packed up the tripod and camera and moved onto the next location.
As far as I know, there are two places in all of South America where the Ocellated Tapacullo is likely to be seen and photographed. One is in Ecuador and the other is in Colombia. If you visit these or similar sites, you will be helping to protect the local wildlife and, of course, you will be experiencing something very special.