Everyone knows what a cuckoo is, even non-birders and the most disconnected of human beings. Well, maybe more like 70% of non-birders but let’s just say that cuckoos are among the better known of birds because of this one in Europe that constantly repeats its name and has the evolutionary gall to lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The immediate anthropogenic response is something along the lines of “What a feathered cad”!
No point in judging the behavior of an animal that has nothing to do with people but it does at least make folks more familiar that particular family of birds. What the non-birders don’t realize is that there are a lot more cuckoos than the one flying around and dropping its progeny off in the nests of other species. Bird anywhere in the world and you start to realize that cuckoos come in many sizes and are all over the place (sort of). Go to Africa and you realize that some cuckoos are even as pretty as cotingas. Don’t believe me?Jjust take a gander at a few photos of a chlorophonia copying Emerald Cuckoo or a purple and white Violet Cuckoo!
In the Americas, our cuckoos aren’t nearly as colorful but they still entertain with cool, lanky looks, and weirdo behaviors. One of the more interesting groups of cuckoos found in the Americas is that of the ground cuckoos. Up in the USA, we become familiarized with that bunch of birds by way of the Greater Roadrunner (another obviously very well known cuckoo). Go birding in the neotropics and you eventually realize that there are some other crazy looking ground cuckoos out there. We look at their pictures in the field guides and are dazzled by their colored eyerings and exotic appearance and of course can’t wait to see them.
As we read trip reports and look more into the matter, though, we come to the sinking conclusion that they are a pain to see. In fact, some are so tough to glimpse that it sounds as if it takes a major mix of birding effort and luck to tick them off the list. Those much wanted mega birds are the Neomorphus species cuckoos, the official ground-cuckoos of the rainforest. They sort of look like roadrunners in size and shape but unfortunately, the similarities end right about there. Unlike the easy-going, readily accessible roadrunner, the ground cuckoos of the rainforest are super shy birds that live in very low density populations (so it seems). We don’t know much about them because they are so hard to study
The other thing that makes them tough to encounter is because they need big areas of primary forest. These things are top insectivores of the understory so they requite lots of big katydids, frogs, lizards, and other prey items large enough to keep them going. With that in mind, we can surmise where the best places in Costa Rica are for seeing this country’s Neomorphus ground-cuckoo, the Rufous-vented. However, before thinking about the locations of the most intact forests, we also need to consider its geographic and elevational ranges. In Costa Rica, historically, the good old RV G Cuckoo was found on the Caribbean slope from the lowlands up to about 1,200 meters. Sadly, we have to say historically because it just does not survive in pasture, cultivations, and small patches of forest that have become standard in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica.
With that in mind, we can start narrowing the search. Of course, known sightings also help in not only telling us where to look but also in the types of habitats that support that sneaky cuckoo. Overall, the place that stands out in terms of RV G Cuckoo sightings is Las Heliconias lodge. This awesome birding spot is situated in high quality, old growth forest at around 1,000 meters elevation and is indeed located on the Caribbean slope. It’s also a pretty large area of rainforest. If we check Google Earth for sites in Costa Rica with similar amounts of forest at either that elevation or lower, here are some other places to check in addition to Celeste Mountain Lodge and other places in the same forest complex as Heliconias:
- The other northern volcanoes: These would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, and Orosi. Little birding is done in these areas compared to other sites in Costa Rica but if you can find places to stay and access the habitat, it will be well worth the effort. The ground-cuckoo has indeed been seen on the main trail at Rincon de la Vieja and should be possible at other rainforest sites in the park. Given the amount of intact rainforest on the other volcanoes, the bird very likely occurs there as well.
- Caribbean foothills and middle elevations in the Tilaran Mountains: The bird has definitely been recorded on the road to Manuel Brenes (by your’s truly) and from Lands in Love. Given the extent of rainforest at similar elevations at Pocosol, Cerro Chato, and even the Arenal Observatory Lodge, it probably also occurs at those sites too. Even though it hasn’t been recorded from the Observatory Lodge, it should be there based on the amount of quality forest.
- Rara Avis and Braulio Carrillo National Park: It has been seen at El Plastico and might also occur at Rara Avis. The cuckoo has also been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez if very seldom. Since the forests haven’t changed at those sites since known sightings, the species should still be present. It has also been seen at the Rainforest Arial Tram but I hesitate to even mention it because the place seems more intent on selling package tours for the tram than allowing people to pay an entrance fee for birding only.
- Maquenque Lodge and Laguna del Lagarto: Although there are more edge effects in the northern complex of forests than other sites mentioned, I bet it still occurs because there is quite a bit of rainforest up that way.
- Barbilla National Park and Hitoy Cerere: No reports but that’s no problem because those sites receive so little coverage. Nevertheless, the elevation and extent of forest points to them being likely sites for the RF G Cuckoo.
Ok, so now for a few sites where it might occur but if it still does, must be pretty darn rare:
- La Selva and Sarapiqui: Although it would seem that la Selva should be a great area for the bird, given the absence of sightings despite almost constant coverage, don’t count on finding it there. I suspect that the forests of La Selva just aren’t connected well enough with the forests in Braulio where it does occur for it to become reestablished. I hope I am wrong and that it makes it into La Selva without being noticed but given the reduction in other understory species, it seems like La Selva won’t be a place for the ground cuckoo until there is a lot more, older forest in the corridor with Braulio.
- Tortuguero National Park: A lot of forest but since most of it is swampy, this doesn’t seem suitable for the ground cuckoo. The same can be said about Barra del Colorado. Sungrebe yes, ground-cuckoo no.
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo: There is just about no birding being done on the forested hills above these places (the Fila Carbon) so who knows, maybe it occurs? That said, it doesn’t seem like this is a likely area for the ground cuckoo because the forests there lack connection with the more extensive rainforests at the base of the Talamanca Mountains.
So, there is a bit of a round up on where and where not to look for the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. However, knowing where to look is half the battle. The other half is knowing how to look for it. Given its low density populations, there is hardly a guaranteed best way to find the ground cuckoo but finding an antswarm in the right habitat definitely improves your chances. Although people have chanced upon them at Heliconias, local guides there have seen them most often by locating an antswarm and sticking with the swarm until the cuckoos show up (even if it takes two or more hours).
Ok, so this might sound discouraging if you had hoped to see one of those wild, rainforest roadrunners in Costa Rica, but keep in mind that another ground cuckoo also occurs and it’s a lot easier to see! Unlike the big old RV G Cuckoo, the Lesser Ground Cuckoo doesn’t need rainforest. In fact, it doesn’t seem to like forest at all because it is commonly found in scrubby fields and second growth throughout much of northwestern Costa Rica. I have even had it at sites near San Ramon, Alajuela, and close to Santa Elena. Sure it’s shy but with patience, this one is at least 100 times easier to see than its larger cousin.
Good luck with the ground cuckoo and please post a comment if you see one!