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biodiversity Butterflies and moths of Costa Rica Introduction non avian organisms

The Uraniidae moths are invading Costa Rica!

When birding Costa Rica and many other exciting, birdy neotropical countries with rain forest, one can’t help but notice a striking black and green moth that looks like a butterfly. It doesn’t look anything like the usual, amazing, hairy little beasts that show up at night lights and resemble miniature lost aliens. This beautiful creature doesn’t goes against the moth standard because the lepidopterists say that it’s mimicking swallowtail butterflies. I won’t deny that they resemble swallowtail butterflies in shape but its green and black coloration sure seems one of a kind. I mean it really does look more like some refrigerator magnet or sticker that shows a butterfly dreamed up by the design team of the Fukien All Purpose Happy Factory in China.

“Leung Chu, we have an order of 50,000 butterfly magnets for our biggest customer- the Dollar Store. Quick, design a pretty butterfly!”

“Sure Mr. Wong! That’s easy to do because all butterflies are pretty- how about this?” He shows a sketch of a black and green butterfly.

“Yes, that will be perfect!”

These Uraniidae moths look incredible but I have to admit that I have become habituated to feeling a bit let down when I see one because I think, “Now that’s one heck of a butterfly! Oh wait that’s right, it’s just a moth…”  I realize this a very discriminatory thing to do and I can’t justify it but all I can say in my defense is that the Urania moth tricks me. It throws me for a loop into thinking that I am watching some super cool, psychadelic butterfly instead of a mere masquerading moth. I really shouldn’t put it that way because I love seeing moths, especially the bizarre and beautiful creatures that make their appearance in the dark of the night, so I will attempt to overcome my feelings of betrayal and enjoy their presence.

That’s a pretty easy thing to do these days because the Urania moths are currently invading Costa Rica. I think the scouts showed up two weeks ago before the main drive on September 18th. On that day, while birding at Quebrada Gonzalez, a constant broad wave of Urania moths were flying in a general west to east direction over the canopy of the forest. The skyscape was littered with butterly-like moths and none were observed stopping to alight on the vegetation. The message must have also gotten out long ago about their bad taste because they were completely ignored by birds (of which we saw few due to the hot, sunny weather). I have also seen them up here in the Central Valley as they bravely (more dramatic sounding than the truth- hopelessly driven by blind instincts) flutter among the concrete and cinder block structures of Costa Rica’s urbanized sector.

Urania fulgens moths apparently undertake massive migrations like the one we witnessed once every eight years or so and might make it all the way to Colombia. In looking for information about their movements, I didn’t find as much as I had expected but did come across a paper written by Neal Griffith Smith who studied a migration of these awesome looking insects in Panama in 1969. He estimated that several million moths flew over the canal zone during Autumn of that year and hypothesized that they might migrate to take advantage of greater resources available to larvae during the wet season. Whatever the reasons are for the massive movements they make, judging by the small number of papers I found that investigate this moth, I don’t get the impression that the migrations of Urania fulgens have been studied very much.

If so few studies have been carried out on such a lovely, day-flying moth as Urania fulgens, just imagine how incredibly little is known about the majority of the fuzzy-antennaed creatures that flutter in the night and get eaten by owls (had to throw that last bit in- this is a birding blog after all).

Image of Urania fulgens at top is from Mike Quinn’s Texas Entomology website.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction preparing for your trip

Updates on birding at the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station, Costa Rica

I had the fortune of birding Quebrada Gonzalez for two consecutive Saturdays after a three or four month hiatus.

birding Costa Rica

The entrance to Quebrada Gonzalez.

It was good to be back, especially so because it wasn’t pouring down monstrous sheets of rain. Yes, the area does get its fair share of precipitation. The heavy load of epiphytes and moss growing on everything from metal railings to understory leaves hints at the 6 or meters (18 feet) of rain that soaks the area on an annual basis. What’s even crazier is that locals claim that the northern Caribbean lowlands and foothills used to be deluged with even more falling water in the past.

Therefore, I always appreciate sunny weather at Quebrada Gonzalez despite the fact that it tends to make the forest quieter than the steps of a dormouse ninja.  While I relish the fact that my  umbrella (a poncho is too hot) can remain rolled up and tucked out of sight in my day pack, I wonder why the darn birds can’t also enjoy the absence of rain by becoming more active. Maybe they’re sun bathing up in the canopy? Whatever the antbirds, tanagers, toucans, and trogons are up to, they sure don’t shake the foliage and sing to their hearts content like they do on cloudy days.

So things were pretty quiet on Saturday but as with every visit to Quebrada Gonzalez, we still saw birds, including several species that are tough to see elsewhere in Costa Rica. One of our best sightings was Dull-mantled Antbird. This ravine-inhabiting, understory bird is regular at Quebrada (and at most Caribbean slope foothill sites) but it’s always a pleasure to watch them sing and show off the white patch on their backs.

Where we saw the Dull-mantled Antbirds.

Other bird species from the morning included a Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher flitting around the undergrowth, Emerald and Black and Yellow Tanagers feeding on berries in the subcanopy, and Buff-rumped Warblers hanging out on the trails.

Buff-rumped Warbler birding Costa Rica

A blurry, Buff-rumped Warbler that was foraging in the parking lot on different, rainy day.

With the hope that the sunny weather would encourage raptors such as Barred Hawk and hawk-eagles to show themselves, we made our way back to the parking lot by 10 am.

Where we watched the skies for raptors.

It took awhile for anything to show itself but eventually we were rewarded with 2 King Vultures. We also saw the other two commonly occurring vultures but no other raptors whatsoever! This was rather surprising to me because I usually see one or two other species of soaring raptor from the parking lot on every visit. Did they take to the air earlier than expected? Were they pretending to be antbirds? We will never know but I suspect it had more to do with the fact that one of our group was hoping to see his first hawk-eagle. No doubt, all three hawk-eagles showed up on Sunday or as soon as we left the area.

Still hoping for soaring raptors, we took the trail on the other side of the road to an overlook with a broad view of a forested ridge. We watched and watched and heard some Dusky-faced Tanagers in the nearby undergrowth and scoped a nearby Broad-billed Motmot but saw nary a vulture! Out on a river island, however, we noticed over 100 Band-tailed Pigeons hanging out in the crowns of a few trees!

birding Costa Rica

The gray things are distant Band-tailed Pigeons.

I have seen these elevational migrants on several occasions at Quebrada Gonzalez but never at this time of year and never in such large numbers. This sort of unpredictable occurrence is one of the reasons why I always love birding at this site- no matter how often I visit, I never really know what I am going to see. There are several species that I encounter on a regular basis but the vagaries of fruiting trees and other not so obvious factors that influence bird distribution in tropical forests always keeps me wondering what will turn up as I walk down the trail.

The trail of surprises.

The solitaires and White-crowned Manakins of the previous week had mostly returned upslope to their usual middle elevation haunts but we still managed to get looks at one female White-crowned Manakin. Hyperactivity on the manakin’s part conspired with vines and leaves to keep us from getting a clear look at her head (and thus identifying her) but perseverance eventually paid off with prolonged views of two diagnostic field marks- a mostly gray noggin and reddish eyes.

Around this time, the vocalizations of one or two Bicolored Antbirds had nearly convinced me that an antswarm was in the works but neither ants nor antbirds showed themselves. However, at least some of us got looks at a Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush and Pale-vented Thrush before we headed back to the parking area for lunch.

short billed pigeon birding costa rica

We watched the antics of these three Short-billed Pigeons during lunch.

In the afternoon, back into the forest we went and a mere ten minutes later I heard the telltale signs of a mixed flock as  a White-throated Shrike-Tanager called. We barely had time to prepare ourselves before we were overrun by a horde of small birds that flitted, crept, and hopped through the surrounding vegetation. As is typical of mixed flocks at Quebrada, Olive (now Carmiol’s) Tanagers were the most abundant member of the flock and their chunky, green forms manifested again and again in our binoculars. Other birds showed up too including Emerald Tanagers, Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Russet Antshrike, a sneaky Plain Xenops that refused to give an encore, Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and the flock leader, a nice oriole-like White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

Aside from a beautiful, male White-ruffed Manakin that briefly displayed on a mossy log, that mixed flock was our last hurrah for birding on Saturday before the rains came back to push us out of the forest.

Back out in the parking lot, I met the new manager of the station, Rodolfo Tenorio. Jovial, upbeat, and friendly, Rodolfo seemed eager to support birding at the site. We will probably set up a sightings log so visiting birders will know where Bare-necked Umbrellabirds have been seen, where antswarms have terrorized communities of arthropods, or where the Tiny Hawk has been perching. He also wanted me to get the word out about rules for visiting the place before 8am:

Although the station doesn’t officially open until 8am, birders can enter as early as they want as long as they let him know in advance. He asks to be contacted at rtenorio45@hotmail.com or and can also be reached at 8823-7678.

Since he can’t check his email on a daily basis, make sure to email him at least a week before your visit to tell Rodolfo the date and time of your visit.

This is excellent news because it leaves open the possibility of looking for owls at the station-something I will certainly be doing sometime soon!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction sites for day trips

What will show up tomorrow at one of the most challenging and rewarding sites when birding Costa Rica?

Tomorrow I will guide a small group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica at one of my favorite and most frequented sites when birding Costa Rica- Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

I have walked the trails through the old growth foothill forests of this Caribbean slope site on countless occasions since 1992 but that never takes away from the excitement I feel before each visit. I can’t help but look forward to walking into the mossy forest, breathing in the scented, humid air, peering up into the high, epiphyte laden canopy, and carefully listening for avian life.

I don’t deny that these feelings are partly related to my first impressions of the place. On my first visits, I saw striking target birds such as King Vulture, White Hawk, and White-necked Jacobin, the shy Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and amazing mixed flocks of glittering tanagers.  It’s easy to see how I could be biased about birding here but I’m also the first to admit that it can be as challenging as playing Jeopardy with Alex Trebek, or as painfully slow as watching a 500 meter sloth race.

I often hear Black and Yellow Tanagers and Cinnamon Woodpeckers somewhere up in the canopy but the dense vegetation hides them or they just don’t venture close enough to see, understory birds are for the most part, shy ventriloquists that detest the limelight, the Lattice-tailed Trogon “laughs” while you search the abundant foliage in vain, and mixed flocks appear to follow a frustrating policy of traveling deep into the forest (and out of sight) as soon as they are detected.

Yes, the birding is challenging at Quebrada Gonzalez, but it’s invariably rewarding IF you spend an entire day there. The mixed flock that stayed behind the curtain of leaves in the morning might cross the trail in plain view in the afternoon. Lattice-tailed Trogons could reveal their square-tailed selves by hover-gleaning for fruit. An Olive-backed Quail-Dove might scurry along the trail up ahead, and a horde of fantastic tanagers just might come down from lofty branches to feed on berries at eye level.

There are also other, more fantastic possibilities such as Black-crowned Antpitta deciding to come out and play on the trail, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo snapping its bill at an antswarm, Bare-necked Umbrellabird making an appearance, or a Tiny Hawk pretending to be a thrush as it perches high up in some rain forest tree.

All of these and more are possible- I wonder what we will see tomorrow?

Here’s a checklist for Quebrada Gonzalez (scroll below the tour details).

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds preparing for your trip

The El Tapir Hummingbird Hotspot has Been Destroyed

Update about El Tapir- Since I wrote this post, happily, the Porterweed bushes have grown back and the place is still great for Snowcap and other hummingbird species. When I wrote this. it didn’t seem likely because every bit of green in the garden looked herbicided, brown, and dead. Current entrance fee is $12 and also includes use of the trails. The forest is excellent foothill birding but be careful about the high number of small ticks on the trails.

El Tapir was this fantastic birding site in Costa Rica that mysteriously became defunct about ten years ago. Situated a few kilometers after Quebrada Gonzalez along the highway that connects San Jose and Limon, it provided access to foothill forests that buffer Braulio Carrillo National Park. There were a couple of trails into this beautiful, mossy habitat, one of which led to a stream where you could see Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron.

On the way to the stream, there were amazing mixed flocks, Dull-mantled Antbird, and all the other foothill specialties. I also saw my best antswarm in Costa Rica along that trail- although the ground-cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpittas had apparently taken the day off or were competing with each other in a skulking contest,  everything else was there. By everything, I mean Barred Forest-Falcon, Rufous Motmot, Striped Woodhaunter, Song Wren, Northern Barred and Plain-brown Woodcreepers, and those stars of the show: Bicolored Antbird, Spotted Antbird, Ocellated Antbird, and the fastidiously clean Immaculate Antbird. At one time, this latter species was known as Zeledon’s Antbird. That’s the name I learned in the decades old Irby Davis field guide for Central America and I kind of wish that name would come back because it has such a ring to it- rather like the name of a rapper or a a foe of Conan the Barbarian.

“Who’s that imposing, musclebound, hooded guy with the blue paint around his eyes?” asks one of Conan’s temporary sidekicks.

To which Conan replied, “Crom! That be my foe ZELEDON! The prophets say that one day a feathered one that follows army ants will be named after him.”

“Huh?!” (it was some centuries or ages before the idea of birding for fun was invented)

“Oh never mind. The prophets are always spouting nonsense anyways- saying things like one day people will watch birds through magic eye pieces. If I weren’t a barbarian, I would laugh in a hearty, good-natured manner at such a silly idea instead of doing my usual hoarse, hacking guffaws heavy with the effects of mead. Enough! Time to challenge ZELEDON!….”

Anyways, El Tapir was one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica and it probably still is but the nets of the butterfly garden have fallen into mold-patched disarray, the buildings are empty and probably home to hordes of scorpions, and the trails probably aren’t trails anymore. Cabins were also being built but were never completed. If they would have been finished, I tell you this would have ranked among the best accommodations for birding in Costa Rica. I have no idea what happened but suspect that it had something to do with that evil and insane affliction of governments called bureaucracy or that the money ran out.

So the El Tapir began to resemble some haunted place in the tropics that had started out as a bastion of hope and sunshine until the decay of the jungle slowly worked its natural, nefarious magic via the vectors of disease, itchy fungus, and eventual madness until the survivors ran for their lives…BUT the bold and courageous hummingbirds carried on (well, they were always there but someone has to play the hero in this story and because barbarians aren’t allowed to be heroes, hummingbirds are the chosen ones)!

Formerly trimmed patches of Porterweed exploded with flowers and took over the abandoned gardens and grounds. For hummingbirds, this was nothing short of trick or treating in rich neighborhoods while Halloween just repeats itself day after day after day.

Green Thorntail birding Costa Rica

Green Thorntails buzzed around like a swarm of bees.

Snowcap birding Costa Rica

Snowcaps set up shop.

Violet-headed Hummingbird birding Costa Rica

Violet-headed Hummingbirds moved into the neighborhood.

The place became a veritable supermarket for the Colibridae, a metropolis for small nectar feeding creatures, and a jackpot for hundreds of birders who have popped in to get their lifer Snowcap or take photos.

HOWEVER, all of that changed sometime during the past two weeks.

During a day of birding Quebrada Gonzalez with Michael Retter and Alan Knue (they were down in Costa Rica for two weeks of scouting out bird sites for tours and getting Talamancan lifers), we scooted over to El Tapir to get more looks at Snowcaps (you can never get enough of that bird) and maybe glimpse a Black-crested Coquette when we came upon a strange sight.

The overgrown hummingbird hotspot looked oddly clear and upon closer examination, all of the Porterweed bushes appeared to be dying! Aside from a Green Hermit that happily zipped around from heliconia to heliconia, there were no other hummingbirds! It was a good thing that Michael and Alan had seen loads of Snowcaps two weeks before because on Saturday, there was almost nothing. Nary a Snowcap. Not even a Rufous-tailed. None. Nada. Zilch.

We could only surmise that whomever was taking care of the place had finally decided to eliminate the flowering bushes that were so delectable to dozens of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds will hopefully find food elsewhere but birders hoping for a quick and easy Snowcap at El Tapir will from now on be out of luck.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip raptors

Where are the raptors when birding Costa Rica?

The perceived scarcity of raptors (non-owl raptors) when birding Costa Rica is a recurring topic of conversation between  birders whom I guide and myself. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the following questions and observations:

“We haven’t seen many raptors other than Black and Turkey Vultures”.

“We have seen motmots, lots of hummingbirds, some tanagers, and a bunch of flycatchers. We haven’t seen any of those antpittas or antbirds though (another common theme), and very few raptors”.

“Where the heck are all of the hawks”?

With a field guide (that new classic, “the Garrigues and Dean”) that illustrates 53 (!) species of vultures, hawks, kites, eagles, and falcons, it’s no wonder this is a recurring topic of conversation.

I can’t recall if I wondered the same thing during my first trip to Costa Rica but I know that my raptor list had more holes than a Swiss cheese festival when I boarded the plane back to New York.

The raptor list for Costa Rica is certainly robust so where is the thrush-sized Tiny Hawk, the pint-sized Barred Forest-Falcon, the hefty Ornate Hawk-Eagles, and that king of the rain forest canopy, the monstrous Harpy Eagle when taking a birding tour in Costa Rica?

Well, all I can say is that they are out there, but there are some  factors that explain why we don’t see raptors as often as we do north of the Tropic of Cancer. In no particular order, the reasons for the perceived paucity of raptors when birding Costa Rica is:

1. High diversity=natural rarity. Instead of the raptor scene being dominated by a pair of Buteo species, two Accipiters, a couple of falcons, and a scavenger or two, Costa Rica has a much larger variety of raptors that occupy more specific niches. This means that most species occur at population densities that are lower than birds of temperate zones and are therefore naturally rare. This is demonstrated by raptor lists after two weeks of birding in Costa Rica. A fairly typical count after a two week visit to 4 main sites during the high and dry season might be:

Turkey Vulture- lots

Black Vulture-even more

King Vulture-1 (yay!)

Roadside Hawk (2)

Roadside Hawk birding Costa Rica

Gray Hawk (4)

Gray Hawk birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawk (4)

Osprey (3)

Double-toothed Kite (1)

Double-toothed Kite birding Costa Rica

White-tailed Kite (1)

Plumbeous Kite (2-they went to Cerro Lodge)

Crane Hawk (1-Cerro Lodge again)

White Hawk (1)

Barred Hawk (1)

Common Black-Hawk (4)

Red-tailed Hawk (2)

Crested Caracara (4)

Yellow-headed Caracara (6)

Laughing Falcon (1)

As you can see, the species number is fairly high (18) but few individuals. I should add that this is a pretty conservative count and if one goes to certain sites, uses a guide, and specifically looks for raptors, several more species should be seen.

2. Most Costa Rican raptors are forest species. Not only does this mean that they are harder to see in appropriate habitat (because all of those trees and epiphytes are in the way), but it also means that unless you bird areas with fairly large tracts of primary forest then you won’t have a chance at watching cool stuff like Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, Barred Hawk, or Semiplumbeous Hawk among others.

3. Not all raptors soar. The Red-tailed Hawks, buzzards, falcons, and kites of the north spoil us into thinking that all one needs to do to see a raptor is look up into the sky…..and there they are (!) beautifully soaring and calling up in the blue saying, “Here I am in all my raptorial glory! Watch as much as you like and study my subtle shape to master raptor identification!”

If only the raptors in Costa Rica (and elsewhere in the neotropics) were so extrovert and unashamed! Other than vultures, soaring raptors in Costa Rica are far and few between and the ones that do regularly soar either don’t do it that often or spread their wings as part of their hunting strategy and therefore “hide in plain sight”. Among regularly soaring raptors that are often seen with vultures that kettle up into the hot mid-morning sky are Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. The first two are seen just as often in their preferred edge habitats while the Short-tailed is one of the birds that attempts to “hide in plain sight” by flying so high that it becomes a speck way up there in the clouds.

Of course there are also the massive migrating flocks of Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks that pass through but they don’t linger to show off. A good number of Broad-winged Hawks stay for the winter but they don’t seem to get kicks out of soaring around to show off their splayed primaries. What? You aren’t of the opinion that raptors get their kicks, their cheap thrills, demonstrate their joie de vie from soaring around on widely splayed wings? You might change your mind after watching American Swallow-tailed Kites for a few hours.

4. Many Costa Rican raptors hunt with surprise and ambush tactics. The problem for birders is that this effective strategy only works when your prey can’t see you which means that the forest-falcons and other forest raptors are naturally inconspicuous. Very short birders who do sloth imitations in the Osa Peninsula might get lucky (or very UNlucky) and attract a Harpy Eagle but in general, one has to be as attentive and disciplined as a fire-walking Shaolin monk and/or just get lucky in catching a glimpse of raptors inside the forest.

You can and do see raptors when birding Costa Rica but no, don’t expect to see them soaring all over the place. Hire a birding guide who knows how to find them and go to the right places, however, and you will fill in a bunch of those gaps in the raptor list.

In general, areas with extensive forest are your best bets. Some of the better places in Costa Rica for seeing a good variety of diurnal raptors in no particular order are:

  • Carara National Park and vicinity. The variety of forested and open habitats make the area around Carara a consistently good place for raptors. Cerro Lodge and vicinity is good for Plumbeous and Gray-headed Kites, Crane Hawk, Common Black Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Osprey, and both Caracaras. The nearby national park also has these and Double-toothed Kite, White Hawk, Black Hawk Eagle, King Vulture, and Collared Forest Falcon are regularly seen.
  • The Osa Peninsula. The extensive forests of the Osa and Corcovado National Park offer the remote chance of glimpsing Harpy and Crested Eagles, a fair chance at all three hawk-eagles and Tiny Hawk, and a good chance at seeing White Hawk, Common and Great Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, and several other species.
  • Cano Negro. Cano Negro is a waterlogged, protected area with low rain forests and open country. This adds up to lots of raptors including species that are uncommon in Costa Rica such as Black-collared Hawk, Snail Kite, and Harris’s Hawk.
  • Braulio Carrillo National Park. Spend the mid-morning hours in the parking lot at Quebrada Gonzalez and you have a good chance of seeing King Vulture, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Short-tailed Hawk, Barred Hawk, and a fair chance at White Hawk, Double-toothed Kite and all three hawk-eagles. You might also see Bat Falcon and Tiny Hawk.
  • El Copal. The vantage point from the balcony of the lodge is perfect for raptors in that it provides an ample view of a forested ridge. Barred Hawk, Black Hawk-Eagle, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Short-tailed Hawk are regular while other species such as Solitary Eagle, Great Black Hawk, and Ornate Hawk Eagle could also make an appearance.
  • El Ceibo ranger station, Braulio Carrillo National Park. I haven’t been to this site located well off of the beaten path on the western side of the national park since 1994 but it looked pretty darn good for raptors at that time! White Hawk was easily viewed as it hunted for toads at the forest edge, Bat Falcon was in the area, I got my lifer Barred Forest-Falcon in the forest (pure chance though and could happen at any number of sites), and the view from the ranger station overlooked a large area of forest.
Categories
Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

“Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

“Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

“Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

“Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.