Irazu is an 11,000 plus foot high volcano just outside of San Jose. I can see it looming large just outside my back window and can even discern the cell towers right up on top. Heck, if I had a 10,000 zoom scope, I would just point it at the mountain and scan for Silvery-throated Jay, quetzals, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. As long as we are in the realm of imagination, I might as well mention that teleporting up there would be way better than a telescope. That would be so much easier than creeping through traffic to reach Cartago followed by a subsequent drive on up to the upper reaches of the volcano. But don’t assume that the fun stops once you make it to the volcano. To see some of those rarities, there’s a fair chance that you will still need to scuff your way up some steep slopes or freeze the feet in cold, wet grass.
At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….
Yes, this ground-dove that pretends to be a quail-dove was very nice to Robert, Susan, and I this past Sunday. It called almost non-stop and even gave us time to trudge up slope and get into a position where we could inspect it in detail. To start things off, a female briefly showed before the male made an appearance. We got brief looks at both before they fluttered off and we were indeed pleased but the rare ground-dove experience wasn’t over yet. Much to our joy, the male started calling again and did so from a spot where we could watch it for 15 minutes (since almost no one ever sees this bird, those were some 15 precious minutes).
Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.
The ground-dove is probably the rarest regularly occurring species on Irazu. It is, no doubt, always present but if it isn’t calling as it forages in thick vegetation, you would never know it was there. As far as rarity on Irazu goes, it’s only superseded by the Oilbird. Now for that one, we just don’t even have any idea if it shows up on a regular basis or if it’s a vagrant. Assessment evades because the bird is nocturnal and doesn’t call as nearly as much as an owl. In other words, how the heck would you know if it was around, especially when you would have to chance upon one in the cold, often rainy night?
Speaking of night, Irazu is also a good spot for the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. If you thought saw-whets from the north were tough, its more southerly cousin takes the owl-spotting challenge to a new level (and you thought that “Unspotted” referred to its plumage…). I don’t think anyone has ever seen a roosting one in Costa Rica and maybe not anywhere else either. To see it, you have to head out into the cold night and listen for a calling bird during calm weather. With luck, you will be able to track down the calling nocturnal creature, find it, and prove to youirself that yes, it does look like a plush toy. After that, you can go back to the car and try to unfreeze your toes after pouring yourself a celebratory drink, spiked coffee seems appropriate.
While the owl is present on Irazu, it still isn’t common. Like the ground-dove, it’s a naturally rare bird that always requires more than casual birding to find it. The same goes for some other species that make their home up there on the volcano. For example, Peg-billed Finch and Slaty Finch also occur but nope, sorry, not common. Downright rare and they require lots of looking. The Peg-billed is certainly less difficult than the Slaty because after glassing 30 or so Slaty Flowerpiercers in the paramo, you eventually find one. Not so for the Slaty Finch. For that pseudo-junco weirdo, seeding bamboo is key but guess what? You can still have seeding bamboo and neither hear nor see it! That’s what happened after we looked for the ground-dove. After birding a very nice area of seeding bamboo, we were surprised to neither see nor hear Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, or other bamboo birds, especially because Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles head them the previous week.
But, that’s how it is with rare birds. There are so few of them that it’s just naturally tough to locate them. As with any needle in the haystack experience, chances at success are correlated with number of observers. Go up there with a bunch of people, spread out, and have everyone looking and you might find the rare ones. In the mean time, when birding on Irazu, at least you can also be entertained by the calls of Buffy-crowned Wood-Patridge (might see one too), and views of Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, silky-flycatchers, and Resplendent Quetzal…
A big thanks goes out to Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles- they found the ground-dove and other rare birds the week before and were gracious with the gen.