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What’s an Olivaceous Piculet?

I haven’t gone birding lately. Vehicle restrictions a la pandemic have kept me in place and far from the shorebirds of the coast, heavy biodiversity of humid forests, and other sites of rural birdiness. But hey, there’s still birds around here; the Grayish Saltator singing out back, the duet of Barred Antshrikes from the thick vine tangles, other neighborhood birds heard and glimpsed through the windows. Evidence of their presence reminds me that at least a few Yellow-green Vireos are still around and that the first migrant swallows are moving south.

I had a typically handsome Cliff Swallow on Sunday.

While gazing out the back window and wishing for Yellow-billed Cuckoos, I find myself thinking about other birds. The other day, between calls of hidden Cabanis’s Wrens and exclamations of Great Kiskadees, one of the birds that came to mind was the Olivaceous Piculet. It doesn’t live around the Central Valley and I wouldn’t expect it but it’s an interesting bird to ponder, least not, because of its sing-song name.

As with boubous, ioras, foliage-gleaners, and others with unfamiliar, confusing names, unless we already know what a piculet is, we have no idea what an Olivaceous Piculet looks like and might even pass it off as some artsy kitchen utensil. Fortunately, we have the Internet and field guides for Costa Rica to give us answers to all sorts of bird-related questions. In the case of the piculet, a search quickly shows that this is a name for any number of tiny woodpeckers, most of which occur in South America.

In Costa Rica, as with so many birds, thanks to the isthmus joining the North and South of America, one of those piculets lives here and its olivaceous. In normal language, that means that we have a small woodpecker-like bird with some olive in its plumage. Here’s some more information about the one and only piculet of Central America:

Like a Chickadee x Downy Woodpecker

As with other piculet species, the Olivaceous is a funny, miniscule bird that likes to hang off of twigs so it can peck at stems from odd angles. This Cirque du Soleli stuff is par for the course for piculets. Although they can also nearly perch upright, miniature acrobatic manouvers are their real thing.

In Pairs and Mixed Flocks

Olivaceous Piculets can be found on their own or they can join a group of birds. Either way, it’s impressive how adept they are at avoiding detection.

Easy to Overlook

On account of their small dimensions, unobtrusive, focused behavior, and high-pitched vocalizations, piculets can be very easy to overlook. For a while, surely because I didn’t know how to look for it, the Olivaceous was one of my Costa Rica bogey birds, I didn’t see one until my third trip to this birdy nation. I recall how easy it was to overlook another similar bird from Tambopata, Peru; the Fine-barred Piculet. Despite spending several birdy mornings in its river island habitat in the Peruvian Amazon, I didn’t notice that tiny woodpecker until I investigated a series of seriously high-pitched sounds emanating now and then from the dense second growth. That afterthought of a song turned out to be a pair of Fine-barred Piculets, a lifer easily hiding in plain sight. Another piculet species in that area, the Bar-breasted, lived in the canopy of the forest. Suffice to say, despite having spent more than a year birding in Tambopata and seeing everything from Harpy Eagle to Amazonian Parrotlet, I never laid eyes on it.

More Common Than You Think and Spreading

Since the Olivaceous Piculet is naturally evasive, it’s more common than a birder realizes. In fact, I think it’s way more common than we realize. Any time I go birding in edge or garden habitats from the Carara area and the Valle del General on south to Panama, I can usually find one or more pairs of Olivaceous Piculets. If I go birding up north in the Cano Negro area, I also find this species and nowadays, the same thing goes for birding in the Arena area. I have also had piculets at and near Finca Luna Nueva and if they use the same type of edge habitat with scattered trees elsewhere, then there must be thousands of those tiny woodpeckers and in more places than we expect. The key to finding them, to know how many are around, is knowing and listening for their high-pitched song.

It can be hard to pick out from the blend of wren calls, flycatcher sounds, and insect noise but once you do, you might start to hear them all the time.

2 replies on “What’s an Olivaceous Piculet?”

The Olivaceous Piculet, a bird I never even considered possible to view. Thank you for the educational profile.
News from the coast: Playa Guiones and Playa Pelada have begun seeing a return of shore birds. Willets and Semi Palmated Plover numbers are increasing above the usual resident numbers. Small numbers of Sanderlings, Western and Least Sandpipers have returned. Wilson’s Plovers are back. Surfbirds have made a grand entrance, this week I observed flocks of 40+ feeding on the tidal rocks on both beaches.
In the forest, I have seen a few species in molt: Turquoise browed Motmots, Black Headed and Elegant Trogons, and Rose throated Becards.

@Joe- thanks for the update! Good places to see the piculet are gardens in the Cano Negro and Arenal area, and any garden and edge habitats from the Carara area south.

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