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For birders from the north, the Grey-necked Wood-Rail is an anomaly. It doesn’t skulk all day in marshes, nor does it demand that you stumble around in the dark of the night to see it. None of that wandering around and playing tapes, making clumsy imitations, or donating blood to the local mosquito population in quantities that would have earned you a plaque of distinction from the local Red Cross.

No dragging a chain through marsh grass, waltzing and swearing your way through cold, Spring sedge marshes, or engaging in other extreme birding behavior.

No, you don’t need to do any of this to see a Grey-necked Wood-Rail. They don’t even live in marshes. It seems that as long as there is a stream, pond, ditch, or wet area with woody vegetation, there is a wood-rail somewhere nearby. I will even go so far as to say that they are downright common from the lowlands up to just below cloud forest. Not only that, but THESE RAILS ARE AS BIG AS CHICKENS and are kind of fancy looking. You can be assured of the chicken-size comparison because a few weeks ago, a client and I actually saw one feeding WITH chickens around some garbage in the village of Tarcoles (which is probably a clue to why they are so common).

Although they stick to the rail motto of being furtive, I still see them just about every time I go birding. A typical sighting is of a chicken-sized bird with long, red legs running away through the undergrowth.

They are also very vocal– I hear a pair calling at dawn from a forested ravine not too far from the house. Garrigues and Dean in their excellent “Birds of Costa Rica” describe the song as “bringing to mind a group of drunken chickens”. Although I have never listened to any inebriated chickens or wild junglefowl (oh yeah, I am proud to have seen wild chickens in Thailand) that I am aware of, I am pretty sure that this is a perfect description. This song gave rise to one of the local names for this bird, “Ponay, Ponay” (pronounced like Monet or a horribly exaggerated, aristocratic version of “poney”).

I learned about the local name when I saw my first Grey-necked Wood-Rail. It was 1994 and my second trip to Costa Rica. After my first visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the birding in Costa Rica. It was exciting, it was fantastic, and it was frustrating. There were all of these birds that I didn’t see that were supposedly common; like antbirds, antpittas, and the Grey-necked Wood-Rail. I was in their habitat (or so I thought), so where were the birds? Oh, there were birds and plenty of great ones like White Hawk, White-necked Jacobin, and Great Tinamou, but I wondered why I had missed other species. I was absolutely intrigued by the wonders and complexities of neotropical birding and so as soon as the Spring semester was over, I went back to Costa Rica for a month. I paid more attention to the behaviors of birds on that second trip, tried to figure out how to find them, and learned how to see more birds in tropical forest (Several years later, I am still learn something new every time I go birding). I learned a lot on my own but there were people who helped. One of those people on that second trip was a park ranger in Braulio Carrillo named, “Santos Ezeta”.

I heard about Santos after asking the rangers at Quebrada Gonzalez about things like umbrellabirds and hawk-eagles. They told me that Santos was the guy to speak with, that he was really into birding. They also told me that I should go visit him at the “El Ceibo” ranger station on the other side of the park, that I could probably stay there, and that it was the best place to see Great Green Macaws. It was a similar elevation to Quebrada Gonzalez and so probably had similar birds, but it sounded promising, so with the hand-drawn map they had given me, I off to El Ceibo.

It would have been complicated to get there even if I would have had a four-wheel drive vehicle. Without a car, it was one of those adventurous treks that test the body and mind. The distance was maybe ten kilometers (?) from where the bus made its final stop near La Virgen de Sarapiqui. What really made it a trying experience, though, was carrying a back pack beneath the tropical sun along stony roads that crawled through shadeless cattle pastures. As I trudged along, my eyes stung with sweat while cows “mood” at me and meadowlarks sang from so much land that used to be covered in fantastic rainforest.

The area was and still is little birded. Despite the ridiculous amount of sweating I was doing and depressing deforestation, the prospect of unexplored territory made the walk an exciting one. I picked up my lifer Grey-headed Chachalaca, was serenaded by toucans that called from huge, isolated trees standing forlorn in the pastures, and saw at least a dozen Great Green Macaws. They were flying around, feeding, and (as macaws love to do) screaming their heads off.

Upon arrival at the station, I met Santos and his family. He was like many Ticos one meets in the country; lean, mustached, and friendly. He lived there with his young wife and four-year old son, had few visitors, and didn’t get the chance to speak much about birds with anyone. This was evident because when I showed up he sure had plenty to say.

We talked birds for hours and I learned about Bat Falcons sometimes seen in the trees in the pastures, about the Great Green Macaws seen during the wet season (they flew right over the station- it was incredible), about the White Hawk that hunted for Marine Toads at the forest edge, about fantastic mixed flocks that could be seen from the porch of the station, and about a strange bird he called the “Ponay Ponay”.  He said it was a ground bird with red legs, a strange call, and something he rarely saw. Until he showed me a picture of a wood-rail in the book, I had no idea what it might be. Not knowing that wood-rails can often be seen when walking near streams in the early morning or evening, and thinking that like other rails I knew, I would have to play a tape, we walked near the forest edge to call in the Ponay Ponay with my cassette player (nope, no Ipods. Heck, there wasn’t even the internet in 94).

I played the tape of its rollicking call and the results were nearly immediate. Suddenly appearing out of the dim forest understory was a nervous chicken-like bird with bright red legs. It twitched its tuft of a tail, stretched its neck and seemed to stand on its long toes as it called back at us. Although he had seen them before, Santos was just as excited as I was to see this bizarre-looking forest bird with the red legs. It was my lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail and like all of my life birds I can still see it standing at the edge of the rainforest as it looks back and forth a few times before hunching down and running back into the gloom. That mental snapshot also includes Santos. He is smiling and laughing and his eyes are shining with that shared birding moment.

I picked up other lifers those few days at El Ceibo and the birding was fantastic. We watched huge mixed flocks of tanagers and other birds troop along the forest edge near the station. We watched raptors soar over the canopy of the forest. Macaws entertained us every morning and evening. We also crossed the river on a small, cable-car contraption to explore the forest on the other side and found that a Puma was using one of the shelters along the transect trail. We didn’t see the cat but found its tracks and the remains of several Great Tinamous. I picked up several other lifers including my first Yellow-eared Toucanet (a male picking berries off some Melastome near the station) and Barred Forest-Falcon (a juvenile perched above the trail).

El Ceibo was great for birding on its own but sharing its birds with Santos made it one of he more memorable places I have birded in Costa Rica. If I ever get a four-wheel drive vehicle, I hope to get back there sometime although I know it won’t be the same. When I came back to Costa Rica a year and a half later, like always, I visited Quebrada Gonzalez on my first morning. After getting reacquainted with those beautiful woods, I asked one of the rangers about Santos, if he still worked a El Ceibo.

Sometimes when someone tells you something unexpected in a language that you are still learning, you doubt what you heard because you wonder if you misunderstood (it was like that on 9/11 when I was in Peru and we heard about the attacks over a not too clear radio deep in the jungle). Speaking with the ranger at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of those times. I apologized and had to ask him a couple of times to repeat what he had said to make sure I heard correctly because I didn’t want to believe it. Santos and his son were on their way to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui on his motorcycle. Maybe the road was wet or he was going fast. Whatever the reason, they had an accident and both died at the scene. I could only imagine how his young wife who had seemed so content and happy must have felt.

I was stunned and 16 years later still feel a bit stunned I think in part because Santos probably would have been great for local conservation efforts. He was from the Sarapiqui area, was engaging, and had a passion for birding. I am glad to have known him however briefly and can’t help but think of him during those times when I help someone get their lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail as it nervously calls from the edge of a forest stream.

The Grey-necked Wood-Rail below was seen near Arenal but looks a lot like the scene that Santos and I witnessed.

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7 Responses to “Tales of Birding Costa Rica: My first Grey-necked Wood-Rail”

  1. Hi Patrick,

    This is a really great post and the story of Santos inspires me to maybe to do a little piece on my own blog about Jorge Fernández, a top-class guide who lives here in San Antonio and who suffered a similar, though not fatal, accident some years ago. I´ve found that it´s even more exhilarating living with the people of Costa Rica than with the birds. I´ll need to interview Jorge, whom you possibly know, before venturing to write anything too detailed.

    Best regards,

    Paul Pickering

  2. Glad you like the post. Yes, you should interview Jorge (I don’t know him). That would be a great post!

  3. Got my first Grey-necked Wood-Rail birding at Caño Negro Wildlife Refuge in March 2008 with Geovani Bogarin (best birding guide in the Zona Norte). Since it was on the mud flats next to the Rio Frio, I was impressed, but not as ASTONISHED when a pair appeared at our doorstep in Puriscal – 3,900 foot elevation, not a water feature in sight, eating from the hank of bananas lying on the ground.

    If I hadn’t gotten photos, my husband (who was napping at the time) would never have believed it!

    Connie Sandlin
    Cerbatana, Puriscal, San Jose Province

  4. My daughter and I were in costa rica for 10 days and hiked a lot. We saw a bird that looked like a big chicken with long red legs, so I googled it and ty now we know what it is called! We saw them in Manuel Antoinio Park.
    My sadness over Santos and his son. We found the people of costa rica to be the great national treasure!

    Helen

  5. @Helen- Glad you were able to identify that funny chicken-like bird. Yes, it was such a tragedy.

  6. Although not dedicated birders my wife and I live in northern Costa Rica and thought your readers might be interested to learn that we host a pair of gray-necked woodrails on our property. Locally they are called “cocole”, pronounced “co-co-lay”. We first saw them soon after we moved here in May 2007 but they were quite secretive in behavior. That changed when we saw them eating bananas at our bird feeder located on a tangerine tree just outside our kitchen window. We started throwing them cooked rice and oatmeal and now, nearly five years later, they come virtually every morning and sometimes several times a day. Often, if we aren’t up by 6:00 am they literally cluck just outside our bedroom window reminding us it is breakfast time. They have become treasured friends here on the edge of the forest.
    Roy

  7. @Roy- What cool birds to have coming to your feeders!

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