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Birding is often unpredictable especially when looking for all things avian in complex tropical habitats. That seems to be the rule whenever I go birding in the rich foothill rainforests of Braulio Carillo National Park. For example, if someone were to ask me about the chances of seeing Black-headed Nightingale Thrush at Quebrada Gonzalez, I would say that yes, although they are fairly shy, expect to hear them and careful searching should turn up sightings of a bird or two. That answer is based on years of experience at the site but during a mid-morning visit last week, guess which bird failed to make a peep? I still got in some nice birding with a couple of healthy mixed flocks and close looks at Dull-mantled Antbird but the unpredictable nature of birding in the tropics was the rule of the day.

Possibly the worst, scariest, identifiable image of a Dull-mantled Antbird.

I saw a couple Streak-crowned Antvireos too.

While that “birding law” makes every visit to rainforest an exciting one, having a bird just show up when and where you hope it will is a very welcome occurrence. It’s even better when the bird sticks around after driving through pouring tropical rain for a couple of hours, but the icing on the brownie is when the bird also happens to be a rare lifer. The lifer in this case was the Oilbird and seeing one in Costa Rica was one of the more satisfying personal birding coupes de grace I have experienced.

Here are a few reasons why seeing an Oilbird on Saturday night was such a satisfying accomplishment:

  • The Oilbird is a one of a kind avian weirdo: Nope, I can’t mince words when it comes to the Oilbird. This nightjarish thing is the only member of its avian family and with good reason. Like some feathered troll, it lives in caves or very dark ravines, makes weird clicking and grunting noises, and only comes out at night. Fortunately, although it sounds like a vampire, this wonderful wacky creature only feasts on fruit. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like some sort of big, feathered fruit bat.
  • The Oilbird is indeed oily: Side effects from gorging themselves on fatty fruits (think mini avocados) are an equally fatty physiology. It’s more pronounced in the youngsters and because of this, Oilbirds were formerly harvested and rendered into fat.
  • Lifer!: Although I have heard Oilbirds once or twice during the night near Jatun Sacha, Ecuador, I had yet to actually see one. I figured that might eventually happen at a cave in maybe Ecuador or Trinidad but no point in betting on unlikely travel when you can see them right here in Costa Rica! Are they vagrants? Do they migrate to Costa Rica on a regular basis? Although I suspect that the latter is the case, no one really knows what’s going on with Oilbirds in Costa Rica except that they have showed up around Monteverde in August for the past few years. This year, several birds have been seen just about every night, so, when a small window of opportunity presented itself, I took the chance and the chase was a success!
  • Not quite a chase but an adventure none the less with a long drive to get there: Actually, to be honest, this was about as far from a chase for a bird as one could get (and I was very fine with that). On Saturday, after realizing that driving up to and spending the night around Monteverde was a possibility, I called Robert Dean to see if the birds were still around. He then made a call to someone in the know and got back to me with the answer I was looking for. An hour later, I was out the door and driving down to the coast. Near Puntarenas, pouring rain slowed me down but I was still on time (had to make it to Robert’s by 6 PM). After watching a few drivers take unnecessary risks at passing slow vehicles in places where they couldn’t really see who might be coming in the other direction (including speeding buses and massive Mack trucks), I was very pleased to leave the madness of the Pan American highway and start driving uphill. Although that pleasant drive lost its happiness when the pavement was replaced by pot holes and stones, luckily, I still had plenty of time to make it to Robert’s because my speed was reduced to an average of 15 or 20 kilometers an hour (which also of course makes that portion of the trip seem to last an eon or two).

    The road to destiny..er Monteverde in the rain

    I shouldn’t complain, though, because the road up to Monteverde used to be much worse. Made it up to Robert’s by 5:30, he showed me some of the paintings for the second version of the Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (which look fantastic by the way), and we left for the Oilbird show by 6:15.

  • Didn’t have to look for the bird: Some birders will say that they like to find their own birds or whatever. Well, that pride of finding their own birds will probably get tossed into an ethereal trash basket when asked if they would (1) like to spend hours, days, or years to look for a needle in a tropical forest haytstack, or if (2) they wouldn’t mind being shown the bird by someone else after a ten minute walk. Yeah, if you don’t mind, I’ll take option number two please at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.

    The reception at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge.

    Thanks to Robert being an insider around there, the reception got in touch with one of the main guides, he came and met us a few minutes later, and then we walked off with him into the dark on an easy, well maintained trail. A short ten minutes later, we come to a group looking at something up in the trees. Robert say, “There it is!” and yes, there it was!

    The first Oilbird was kind of high up and seen from below.

    The third gave a better view. Note the big, hooked bill!

Just like that, I got my lifer Oilbird. Too easy you say? Ha! Getting a lifer is NEVER too easy in the unpredictable tropics. It’s never too easy when the bird in question is a rare, even more unpredictable, nocturnal oddity. Give me easy lifers any day of the week because I don’t have too many more to get in Costa Rica. After watching the first bird for a while, we walked on and got great looks at two more Oilbirds. All of them were quiet, perched birds that slowly moved back and forth with these odd hypnotic movements (hmmm, maybe they are vampires after all..). We also got to see one of them cough up a seed, saw roosting toucans, and two beautiful green Side-striped Pit Vipers (lifer snake, hell yeah!) all in about 40 minutes. I have to mention that Oilbirds aside, the night walk at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge might be the best I have ever seen and other experienced travelers have said the same. The guides are great, keep track of what is seen, and are in constant communication by walkie-talkie so if one group sees something, the others can as well. It also looks like an excellent place to go birding during the day- hope to do that some time!

I probably should have birded the refuge the next morning but the afterglow of getting my lifer Oilbird left me with such a subdued, easy-going demeanor that I felt fine with merely watching the darn House Wrens singing in the backyard. Well, at least I remembered to take a few pictures of some other birds too.

This Rufous-capped Warbler was friendly.

Male Canivet's Emerald- very pleased to get this photo!

Another look at this glittering gem.

Oh, and no trip to the Monteverde area is complete without a stop at one of the best bakeries in the country, Stella’s Bakery! I already regret not having bought a dozen of those fantastic brownies.

Stella's Bakery- center of baked yummy goodness in the Monteverde area. It's also good for birds- we heard some bellbirds calling near there.

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5 Responses to “Finding Oil while Birding in Costa Rica”

  1. What do Vampires actually sound like. Don’t they usually just talk with a Transylvanian accent? Having heard Oilbird calls on Xeno Canto, now I can see why you made the comparison.

    I might try to get Oilbird here in Santander. but apparently they roost in a deep and barely accessible cave near the town of Mogotes. Do you know if they are ever active before it gets really dark, so I can avoid entering the cave?

  2. Hi just thought I’d drop a line and say great blog.
    We are visiting Costa Rica in October (yes I know we will get wet!) on an organised trip focusing on birds, but with some cultural stuff too.

    You’re blog has really whetted our appetite

    Cheers
    Tom (UK)

  3. @Tom- Glad to hear that and hope you enjoy your trip!

  4. @Rob- While sophisticated vampires seem to show an accent that points to the Carpathian Mountains, most make rather disconcerting grunting sounds similar to the Oilbird…at least that’s the rumor…

    I doubt that they are active before dark but perhaps if you can watch the entrance to a cave at dusk, you will see one or two? Good luck! I still hope to see them at a cave some time.

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