GNATEATERS Conophagidae The Gnateaters are plump, short-tailed, and long-legged bird of tangled forest undergrowth in South America. Ridgely & Greenfield (2001) say they "are elusive birds that occur in low densities." Indeed, back in 1986 when Peter Kaestner became the first birder to see a representative of every family in the world, these were his final family (Kaestner 1990; the list of families was somewhat different back then).

Given their scarcity and dark forest floor habitat, I doubt I'll ever photograph a gnateater. Thus there is no headline photo for this family page. Instead, to the left is a shot of Rita Carratello and our guide Fausto at La Selva, Ecuador. Together we saw my only gnateater to date: a Chestnut-belted Gnateater. I did a field sketch that day which I later filled in with colored pencil (below):

I will have more on the story of this gnateater to follow, but first a few generalities about gnateaters as a group.

There are just eight species of gnateaters, all in the genus Conopophaga. All are cute, round birds of the forest floor, and my sketch (above) doesn't really show the upright stance very well. Family status for the gnateaters has been controversial. Meyer de Schauensee (1970) considered them to be a subgroup of antbirds so during my early trips to South America I didn't even think of them as a family. Sick (1993) considered them distinctive but still just a subfamily of the antbirds. But Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) and Sibley & Monroe (1990), relying on DNA-DNA hybridization evidence, reinstated them as a family. They may be as related to tapaculos as to antbirds. The recent authorities have considered them a family (e.g., Ridgely & Tudor 1994, Ridgely & Greenfield 2001) and this will apparently be the position of the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

 

In their small size (4.5 to 5.5 inches in length), long legs, and upright stance, gnateaters do resemble very small antpittas. Most species are sexually dimorphic and males are quite striking. In all but one case the species have a white postocular tuft; agitated birds may flare these tufts. This portion of a plate by Guy Tudor (right) shows six of the eight species. It is from Ridgely & Tudor (1986) and this scan is not nearly as dramatic as the printed plate. Every birder interested in world birding should have that outstanding book. The plate is part of a painting that includes various antpittas. The gnateaters shown are Chestnut-crowned C. castaneiceps (labeled "11"), Rufous C. lineata (12), Black-cheeked C. melanops (13), Ash-throated C. peruviana (14), Chestnut-belted C. aurita (15), and Black-bellied C. melanogaster (16). The only species not shown are Slaty C. ardesiaca and Hooded C. roberti.

Most species are Amazonian in distribution but some are in the subtropical zone of the Andes or in southeast Brazil. One of the latter is the Rufous Gnateater which is local in eastern Brazil and northern Argentina. This was Kaestner's species for his final family, and he described his experience this way:

"The rosy dawn of 1 October 1986 still glowed in the eastern sky of Argentina's Iguazu Falls National Park when I heard the distinctive churr. My heart skipped a beat as I realized that my most wanted bird was skulking in the bamboo tangle in front of me. I tried to mimic the sound as I peered into the dense undergrowth, and in an instant, a small brown bird appeared and vanished. The rufous color, wren-like shape, short bill, and white postocular streak all confirmed that the fleeting visit has been the Rufous Gnateater (Conopophaga lineata), a member of my last unobserved family of birds. A shout of joy escaped me as the weight of a lifetime quest lifted off my shoulders." [Kaestner 1990]
Ridgely & Tudor (1994) says that Rufous Gnateater can be locally common in undergrowth of humid forest where individuals or pairs perch close to the ground, and forage on the ground. They sometimes follow understory flocks. "Sedentary and not very shy", they say, "at times even approaching a quiet observer." Sick (1993) explains that the distinctive churring sound is made by a modified flight feather on the wing. As the male flies around its territory it makes a mechanical buzzing that it can turn on and off in an instant. Because of this wing buzz, produced only around dawn or dusk, it "becomes one of the most conspicuous crepuscular birds, whereas during the day it passes almost unnoticed."

My own story with a gnateater centers around a visit to La Selva Lodge in eastern Ecuador. Visiting a remote Amazonian lodge is a wonderful experience. I'll explain just a little bit of the adventure via their map (below)

First one flies to Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, and then on to the riverside town of Coca. There the traveler is met by representatives of La Selva and transported two hours down the broad Napo River (blue #1 on the map above) by motorized launch to a landing. Here the guest walks a boardwalk (blue #2; top photo on this page) through riverine forest (porters carry the luggage) to a canoe landing on Garzacocha (blue #3), a large blackwater oxbow lake surrounded by jungle. One is paddled across the lake to La Selva Lode itself (blue #4; photo below left). The individual bungaloos are very pleasant and the food served in the group dining room is superb. Forest trails head mostly north; the broad main trail ends at Mandicocha (blue #5; photo below right), a smaller oxbow lake with many lily pads. A birder can spend days on the main trail itself (and there is a canopy tower worth numerous visits) but the remote terra firma forest is on the other side of Mandicocha (blue #6).

We spent a whole day on this distant trail on the far side of Mandicocha with Fausto on 7 Apr 1992. It was while Rita & I were looking for a Lanceolated Monklet that Fausto had seen (we never did find it) that Fausto saw a Harpy Eagle grab a monkey from the canopy! [and we missed that by moments also.] My notes describe these highlights, though:

In looking back on those notes and sketch today, my impression is that the Paul Greenfield painting in Ridgely & Greenfield, which shows a richer chestnut-colored bird that the painting in Ridgely & Tudor (1994), better matches my field impressions.

Rather little is known about the biology of gnateaters. They remain "elusive" birds indeed.

UPDATE: Since this page was created back in 2001, my friends Kim Risen and Parker Backstrom visited Bolivia, and Kim Risen photographed this Slaty Gnateater (right). Thus I can now add a photo of an actual bird to this web page! It is quite an accomplishment to photograph any gnateater, given their secretive ways and dark undergrowth habitat.

Photos: The photos of La Selva Lodge, Ecuador and vicinity were taken in April 1992. Guy Tudor painted the gnateater plate for the Birds of South America. Kim Risen photographed the Slaty Gnateater at Refugio Los Volcanoes, Bolivia, in Sep 2002. All photos are © 2001 Don Roberson except that of Mandicocha which is © 2001 Rita Carratello and the Slaty Gnateater © 2003 Kim Risen (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Family Book: There is no "family book" per se but Ridgely & Tudor (1994) have a fine selection of species illustrated in color, and provide a good summary of the basics about this small family. Beyond that I certainly look forward to the Handbook of the Birds of the World chapter.

Other literature cited:

Kaestner, P. 1990. Filling in the families. Birding 22: 34:37.

Meyer de Schauensee, R. 1970. A Guide to the Birds of South America. Livingston Publ., Wynnewood, PA.

Ridgely, R. S., and P. J. Greenfield. 2001. The Birds of Ecuador. 2 vols. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

Ridgely, R. S., and G. Tudor. 1994. The Birds of South America. Vol. 2: The Suboscine Passerines. Univ of Texas, Austin.

Sibley, C. G., and Ahlquist. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C. G., and J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sick, H. 1993. Birds in Brazil: A Natural History. Translated from Portuguese by W. Belton. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

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Page created 22 July 2001, revised and updated 24 May 2003