July in the birding world is when many birders take a break from binoculars. The weather is hot, it’s green out there in the middle of the summer but go birding and you may feel like you are walking through a set of terrestrial doldrums. Few birds sing and many seem to be just as lethargic about the hot humid days as crowds at the beach, as the auto-fanning auntie sipping cold drinks on the porch. The breeze in the trees seems tired, taking a rest after a busy first part of summer. It’s a good match for kids on swing sets, going to the pool, having a family reunion. Not so much for major avian action.
But the birds are still there, they just have other priorities in mind. Not as obvious and showy as the breeding times of May and June, birds in July might be finishing or starting a second brood. They might be molting, laying low as they change their natural dress before moving back south. Some, the first shorebirds to leave the breeding grounds of the Arctic, have already started their long distance movements towards the tropics. Birding in Niagara, in western New York and southern Ontario, was waiting for those migrants, checking the wetlands at the wildlife refuges and the Lake Erie shore to see if some were around. At the same time, we watched the post-breeding movements of Yellow Warblers, might find a rare Henslow’s Sparrow singing in the summer night, maybe find a Sedge Wren. We kept an eye out for other birds too, especially the vagrants, the adventurous birds that moved far north of regular haunts. One summer, one of those lost individuals was my lifer Tricolored Heron.
A first year bird, it flew north instead of south. Heck, at that time of year, it didn’t need to fly anywhere but then again what did we know about its situation? It must have needed to move to find food. The wetlands it had come from may have dried up, may have been drained, or there might not have been enough room for it. Whatever the reason, it made its way to the junction between two of the Great Lakes and I got the chance to see it.
In Costa Rica, the birding situation in July is not nearly as quiet. Birds are still singing, many are moving with juveniles in mixed flocks. There are always a lot of birds to see, I guess one of the biggest differences is the absence of the winter species. The Summer Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles and wood-warblers are still on breeding grounds in the USA and Canada, they won’t be in Costa Rica for a while. But, the birds that are present are the resident tropical species that most visiting birders would rather see anyways. Birds like the Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush I saw yesterday while driving through the Cinchona-Varablanca area.
Near endemic Birds like Costa Rican Warbler, Prong-billed Barbet, Ruddy Treerunner, Black-faced Solitaire, and other species that I also saw and heard yesterday. We were just passing through, if we had stayed longer, we would have seen a lot more. A brief stop in Cinchona produced Coppery-headed Emeralds and Brown Violetears, lower down, a Bat Falcon flew alongside, vying with the speed of the car. A few toucans called and flew from the tops of trees, and other birds made it into our trip list.
There’s more to see than a birder might expect during July birding up north. In Costa Rica, there’s a lot more to see no matter which month you go birding, even in July.
The peak of the northern spring migration is over, especially in Costa Rica. The many thousands of Scarlet Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, Purple Martins, raptors and other bird species that winter in South America and move through Costa Rica have come and gone. Although various wood-warblers and other May migrants are still entertaining birders way to the north, in Costa Rica, we won’t see any migrant Parulines until the late August return of Cerulean and Yellow Warblers.
That said, some birds are still migrating through Costa Rica. Even this late in the game, and so far south from their boreal breeding grounds, the remnants of spring migration can still be encountered. There aren’t a whole lot of migrant birds out there but based on the daily eBird reports, there are enough and I have been kicking myself for not venturing further afield to look for them. Although I do keep a close eye on the hedgerows visible from the homestead, locating most of these last minute migrants requires several hours of dedicated birding that covers more ground and reaches more habitats.
One of several Eastern Kingbirds that was using the hedgerow.
Fortunately, other birders have been spending more time in the field in more places. Some of the interesting stuff that has been seen:
White-rumped Sandpiper– Based on reports from Cano Negro, it sounds like now is a good time for this high Arctic migrant in Costa Rica. If we had more coverage at Palo Verde and various other small inland wetland sites, I wonder how many more reports we would have? I am sorely tempted to drive to a local reservoir to look for this bird, I still need it for my country list.
American Golden Plover– A few of this fine species have also been reported. With fewer birders in the field, I can’t help but wonder how many more are around. Still need this one for the year list although we will have a fair chance when they fly back south.
Broad-winged Hawk– This was a surprise! However, it turns out that a few are around or passing through during late May of most years. One of a few were reported this past weekend during a semi-Big Day carried out by Ernesto Carman, Paz Irola, and Juan Diego Vargas. The Broad-wing they had at the edge of Carara was one of more than 220 species they identified as part of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group bird-a-thon to raise funds for the Las Brisas Reserve. 220 species in a day is fantastic anywhere and they would have found more if they had not been rained out for the afternoon!
Nowadays, Short-tailed Hawks are more frequently seen.
Black-billed Cuckoo– I just saw the report and photos this morning! Always a rare migrant in Costa Rica, a good number likely pass through the country but since this species is so reluctant to take the birding stage, very few are seen. I think that most records are from fall migration, it was interesting to hear about this May bird. As with many records of this bird in Costa Rica, this one was also seen in the highlands. More are likely out there, I wonder how many? I’ll keep watching the hedgerow, maybe one is lurking nearby.
Flycatchers– Expected late migrants, we have still had a few reports of Yellow-bellied and Willow Flycatchers along with Eastern Wood-pewees. Last week, I had a flycatcher out front which sadly never called. I suspected it was an Alder but actually, it also looked a bit like a White-throated! So, I’m not sure what it was.
Whenever I read the daily rare eBird report, it reminds me that there is always more waiting to be discovered, waiting to be seen. I can’t wait to get in more birding to see what’s around, to see what’s nesting away from my place of residence. In terms of a good place to check, Villa San Ignacio comes to mind. I’m not sure if any migrants will still be around but I will see about doing a bird count there soon.
Every once in a while, I pay a visit to Cope’s place. When passing through his lowland rainforest neighborhood, I stop in to say hello, exchange stories, and see what’s around. I also visit when guiding clients, usually starting the day at El Tapir. That way, we can begin with Snowcap and end the morning with a potoo or roosting owl (par for the birding course with the Cope experience).
One of those roosting owls.
This past Saturday, while guiding some friends from the Birding Club of Costa Rica, the El Tapir/Cope experience combination paid off with some quality birds. These are the species that a birder either doesn’t see that often or are only at specific sites. Although the universal rules of birding state somewhere up in the clouds that every bird is worth just as much as the next, the unwritten rules on the other side of the sky state that some species are worth ten or more Blue-gray Tanagers, or like twenty or more Rock Pigeons. Not on a Big Day mind you but during a regular, average day of birding, maybe yes.
Snowcap is one of those quality birds. It’s not your average, everyday hummingbird and not just because the male looks like some exotic piece of flying candy. Not only is this hummingbird accessible at few sites, this fantastic creature also looks like it belongs in the Harry Potter universe. Exaggeration? Wait until you see one flying around! We had a male and one or two females at El Tapir. As a bonus, Tapir was also rocking with several other hummingbirds including such standouts as Brown Violetear and Blue-throated Goldentail.
Over at Cope’s, the feeders were predictably quiet. Cope explained that it’s usually quiet at this time of year because birds are out nesting and taking care of their young, they don’t have time to feast on fruit. Nevertheless, we still had the pleasure of being investigated at close range by several White-necked Jacobins and had good, close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Crimson-collared Tanager.
After some feeder action, we paid a visit to another quality bird, a Great Potoo. And, it was with a baby!! A baby potoo is about as precious as precious gets. Forget your puppies, never mind that big (bug?)-eyed Pug, a baby Great Potoo looks like something from the planet of weird, ultra cute fuzzballs. Come to think of it, the adults sort of look like that too but the baby really is something else.
It can sort of be seen in this phonescope image.
After our fill of potoo cuteness, off we went to the nearby rainforest where Cope often has owls and other species staked out. It was actually pretty quiet but we still had scoped views of Spectacled Owl.
The views of the Honduran White Bats were also priceless. These little living plushies are so amazing they should be allowed on bird lists.
However, despite the quite nature of the forest, chance was in our favor because we saw an Agami Heron! One of the prize species of the Neotropical region, the Agami is widespread yet typically difficult to see. Unlike so many other waders, this exquisite heron species skulks along forested streams. On Saturday, we lucked out big time when one in beautiful breeding plumage flushed from the side of the trail and perched where it could be admired for several minutes! It was only the fourth time Cope had ever seen it at that site. A fantastic year bird for Mary and I, lifer for others, and much appreciated by all.
We finished the day at Guarumo, a nearby bird photography and lunch site owned by a local birder. Things were quiet although we still managed to add our 12th hummingbird species for the day when a Blue-chested Hummingbird came to the Porterweed.
It’s the Monday after Global Big Day. I write this as the Grayish Saltators call and a breeze threatens to bring rains and almost find it hard to believe that we birded from midnight until dawn and on through to the next night, from one side of the mountains to the other. From the hot low coastal region up to more than a cool 2,000 meters. A non-stop birdathon, a day dedicated to celebrating birds collectively shared with thousands of birders across the globe and to think that we almost didn’t partake in Global Big Day, 2019. We wanted to, I had a route planned, but Mary’s daughter had exams, she had to study, needed help studying and we also needed someone to watch her.
Nevertheless, thanks to being able to study during the week and family members who were happy to watch her, it all worked out. With enough refreshments, snacks, sandwiches and caffeine drinks on hand to last us through a night and day, Mary and I (aka Team Tyto) were ready to dedicate ourselves to finding as many birds as we could in Costa Rica, on May 4th. Luckily, I even had a chance to sleep during the day before the clock struck midnight. That happened for us somewhere on the road to the Pacific Coast and there was no quick first bird. Only highway and occasional street lights, no luck with roosting birds, nor a serendipitous flyby Barn Owl.
The first of many happened at our first stop, a dusty road in the Pacific lowlands. Common Pauraques took that distinguished title as they called and leaped from the road. No Pacific Screech-Owl though, no other night birds, no faint calls of migrants up there in the dark sky. There was a light rain and that probably kept things extra quiet but we pushed on, eventually picking up shorebirds that roost at salt ponds. As we arrived, the “terlee!” of Black-bellied Plovers echoed over the dark still waters and Black-necked Stilt gave their sharp barking calls. Eventually, by way of brief looks and vocalizations, we picked up several other shorebird species and even Wood Stork before flying through the night to the next stop, the mangroves at Caldera.
A brief stop there was just as quiet but spotlighting paid off with close, perfect looks at a target Northern Potoo! With that excellent addition to our GBD, we continued on towards more humid lands south of Carara National Park, spotlighting roadside wires en route. Despite our efforts, Striped Owl failed to show and Barn Owl never called but we did pick up the faint notes of a Pacific Screech-Owl just before needing to move on to our main birding venue for the day, the Jaco area.
Although it was tempting to start the morning at Cerro Lodge (and that plan might be just as good or better), the combination of forest, edge, and open country birds near Jaco seemed to promise bigger returns. Not mention, our starting point is also very good for owls. At least it was in February and much to our pleasure, it was just as good on May 4th! Tropical Screech-Owls called from the second growth, thick-knees vocalized, and then we heard Mottled, Black-and-white, and Crested Owls calling from the hills. At one point, a flying shape materialized right over our heads and quick work with the flashlight got onto our only Barn Owl of the day!
We had 7 owl species under our belts and the first light of day was quickly approaching; just how you want a Big Day dawn to happen! It came with a cavalcade of bird songs that issued forth from a good combination of habitats. We must have had 50 species by sound alone before actually seeing anything and that included several key species like Great Currasow, Crested Guan, Marbled Wood-Quail, tinamous, woodcreepers, two motmots, Slate-colored Seedeater and others. As the light of day grew, we started picking up more species by sight including a surprise Shiny Cowbird, Giant Cowbird, both tityras and others. At the same time, more birds vocalized giving us five species of trogons among many others!
Whether because of the cloudy weather, time of year, Zen attitude birding or a combination of the above, The Big Day birding was good and it kept getting better.
Just before leaving the Jaco area, a last minute attempt brought in such key species as Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. No luck with Upland Sandpiper but well over a 100 species by 7 a.m. was nothing to complain about! Onward we went to Tarcoles before entering Carara National Park at 8 a.m. We added most key waterbirds at Tarcoles and then, just as last year at this time, the park treated us very well with vocalizations from a high percentage of possible species. Green Shrike-Vireo! Streak-chested Antpitta! Dot-winged Antwren and a few dozen others. Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting off the trail! We didn’t get everything and hummingbirds were disturbingly absent but at times, it almost seemed too easy! And that’s just how we want a Big Day because although I welcome challenges in birding, I absolutely treasure and am very grateful for a day when all the birds are calling and making themselves available.
After Carara (where we ran into other teams of GBDers, including the guys who got a mega Gray-hooded Gull!), we went back to Tarcoles, checked a roadside wetland, and made a stop in dry forest. Although the beach was more sand and water than birds, we still picked up a few expected species, got onto Solitary Sandpiper and a couple other shorebirds at the wetland, and connected with several dry forest birds before beginning the two hour drive to highland habitats on Poas.
Thankfully, the driving was also quick, and we even picked up Vaux’s Swift and a few other birds before birding the road to Poas. Thanks to lots of vocalizations and knowing the area quite well, we managed a high percentage of key species in a short amount of time, best of the bunch being Resplendent Quetzal, Wrenthrush, and Yellow-bellied Siskin. As both silky-flycatchers also showed along with several other birds, I mentioned to Mary how good that afternoon would have been for guiding. With more time, I think we would have found 90% of the species that live up there. But, we had run out of time, we had other places to be and so we drove down to Varablanca and Cinchona.
En route, we picked up several more species by call and got some birds at Cinchona. At a stop between Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, we also found our best bird of the day, a Yellow-winged Tanager! The only one for GBD in Costa Rica, we lucked upon it on the side of the road while also adding Black-throated Wren, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and some other species.
On down the road we went, scoping and adding a Roadside Hawk, American Dipper and some other species before reaching our final main stop, the San Miguel-Socorro road. Thinking that we wouldn’t reach the lowlands in time and knowing that this area harbors a high number of bird species, we focused our final efforts at this site. Broad-billed Motmot, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Cinnamon Becard, Carmiol’s Tanager, and other birds of the Caribbean slope came out to play. Although I have had many more species on other days at this site, we still added a good number of birds especially when a Central American Pygmy-Owl (!) appeared.
A last ditch attempt to reach lower elevations was mostly futile except for a roadside Rufous Motmot ticked from the moving car. Nor did any more owls or other nightbirds call but by 7:45 p.m., I was ready to call it a day. In a small hotel in Puerto Viejo, I submitted our final lists and we tallied the results. We checked it once, we checked it twice, and we were pleased indeed to see that we had surpassed 300 species, 305 species to be exact! Although Mary almost talked me in to heading back out to see if we could find a Green Ibis or that missing Spectacled Owl, no amount of caffeine energy drink could have moved me back into birding action.
But we had more than 300 species (!) and although the guys who had found the gull got the highest bird list for Costa Rica (with 335 species!!), we still ended up with the fourth highest list in the world for Global Big Day, 2019! Although eBird shows us in 14th place, that’s because several of the lists with more species are actually group lists and should therefore be shown in another category.
It was satisfying indeed to finally break 300 species in a day in Costa Rica. Now if I look into that route a bit more, I wonder how much better we could do…
Like most birders from the eastern USA, I became familiar with the Gray Catbird shortly after receiving my first binoculars. They were 7 x 32 Jason-Empires from Sears and had a fast focus lever. Although I can’t recall the moment, I must have used that focusing lever to get a close look at many a catbird during my first days of summer birding. It’s a common bird up that way, a species of sumac thickets and sweet scented vegetation of June mornings. They were easy to hear too, those sleek dark gray birds with their mewing calls.
On my last summer visit up north, I was surprised at how abundant they were in the thickets along the Niagara Gorge. Catbirds were probably always just as common, but since they are decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, I had a new found appreciation for them. Those cool Mimids migrate south but most just don’t go quite as far as southern Central America. This is why it can be a tough one to add to a Costa Rican year list, one that many local birders still need, and a bird that you can’t just take for granted. With that in mind, Mary and I targeted Gray Catbird and a few other choice species during a recent morning of birding in the Sarapiqui lowlands.
A classic birding zone, Sarapiqui lays claim to such famous hotspots as the La Selva Biological Station, Selva Verde lodge, Dave and Daves, and other places that will give your binoculars a work out. Thanks to inspiration from Chris Fischer’s wonderful blog, , we tried for the catbird along with Yellow-breasted Chat and various resident lowland birds required for our year list.
Starting at the Comandancia Road, we found suitable chat habitat that must have been the same spot where one had been seen in January. Although the chat failed to come out and play, Mary was successful in calling in a catbird! True to its name (and the sacrificial birder effect), when I went to fetch the car, she heard its mewing cat-like calls. Luckily, it stayed long enough for me to also see it. An excellent year bird, it was also a long awaited lifer for Mary. In fact, she had waited so long to see one, she could hardly believe it was a catbird when looking at it. She told me, “But it looks like a thrush, it looks dark, I have waited so long to see one, it just doesn’t seem possible.”
But it indeed was and our year Gray Catbird joined a very productive list that also included two species of macaws, brief looks at a Snowy Cotinga, and many other year birds including Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Semiplumbeous Hawk, Scaled Pigeon, Plain-colored Tanager, White-ringed Flycatcher, and other key species. We even heard Purple-throated Fruitcrows (!) a species I have never encountered at the edge of La Selva Biological Station.
With Gray Catbird in the bag, hopefully we can continue the trend of seeing species common up north but kind of rare in Costa Rica. Those would be birds like Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, other warblers, a Sharpie and a Coop. At least if we don’t see them now, we can still look from them in November. In the meantime, we also have more than enough cool resident species to search for, species like nunbirds, antbirds, and a small owl that lacks spots.
Just as with every place on the planet, this Mother Earth, Costa Rica has its own list of bird species endangered with extinction. On that list, we find such birds as the Yellow-naped Parrot (threatened by a nasty combination of habitat loss and capture for the pet bird trade), Yellow-billed Cotinga (habitat loss for that surreal beauty), and the Bare-necked Umbrellabird (yep, the big black bird with the pompadour also needs more habitat). Much of that list coincides with assessments made by BirdLife International however, there is one “new” bird that needs a new assessment by the world leader in bird conservation, and it needs it now.
The bird in question is the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. Formerly known as the Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, this small brown bird with a fun, fancy face shares a common ancestor with the familiar Canyon and California Towhees of the western USA. In other words, it’s basically a tropical towhee. Given its evolutionary history and occurrence on coffee farms, I personally like the sound of “Coffee Towhee” for this striking sparrow. Not only does that place the bird where one often sees it, but it also invokes delicious thoughts of high quality volcanic brews, not to mention, the two words also just sound good together. Coffee Towhee also gives it more marketing potential, something that this bird really, truly needs. Perhaps that could be used in conjunction with “Comemaiz Rey” (King Sparrow), the local name for this species and one that also works to get people’s attention. Over at Birdlife, more good news in terms of marketing suitable names comes in the form of Costa Rican Ground-Sparrow, a moniker that might work best to help acquire funding to study and protect this endemic species.
Yes, thanks to being split from the White-faced Ground-Sparrow of northern Central America, the towhee of the cafetales is our “newest” endemic, and although it doesn’t require mature forest, it nevertheless has a serious problem. Despite being a bird of scrubby vegetation, the ground-sparrow just happens to live exactly where most people in Costa Rica also reside. Always a bird of the Central Valley, it likely thrived in the combination of low woodlands and marshy, scrubby vegetation that covered much of the valley way back before the latter era of the Anthropocene. It showed its resilience as woodlands were replaced with rows of coffee plants, and continues to hang on in riparian zones, even in places where the sounds of traffic and presence of parking lots have become part of the natural scene. But, it hangs on in such places likely because it has nowhere else to go, and the bird isn’t exactly abundant there either. In fact, on another worrisome note, they are far from abundant anywhere.
As anyone who has birded any amount of time in Costa Rica can attest, this species is typically tricky to find, even in what seems to be appropriate habitat. Even taking skulking behaviors into account, based on years of experience, it appears to be honestly, truly uncommon and local in most of its very small range and has likely been declining for some time, especially with the steady conversion of its habitat into landscapes dominated by concrete and asphalt. Although the present assessment at Birdlife gives it a status of Least Concern, and that the bird is likely increasing, this just doesn’t jive with reality. In fact, the reasons given for the bird to not be included in the Red List don’t reflect what we see on the ground.
According to Birdlife,
“This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation).”
Actually, it has a very small range (just 1,800 square km), its habitat is certainly declining in extent and quality, it has likely declined, and there seems to be severe fragmentation in various parts of an already small range).
“The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations).”
I really don’t think there are any data to support this, and, based on personal experience and in speaking with others, field observations seem to always run contrary to this assessment.
“The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure).”
Given the tiny range and paucity of observations in the best of habitats, it seems highly unlikely that the population is very large and more than 10,000 individuals. For example, when I survey an area of coffee fields that have this species, the most I have encountered are 5 individuals on the best of days as opposed to 20 Rufous-collared Sparrows in the same area. Granted, I could only survey along the edge of those fields but even with extrapolation to account for birds in the entire field, it doesn’t seem likely that the area could support more than 30 individuals. Sadly, on a note that further demonstrates the precarious nature of this bird, this population was likely impacted since a fair part of that site was recently burned and might be cleared for other use.
These factors point to the need for a more accurate assessment of this endemic species, and why it is probably Vulnerable or even Endangered:
–A very small range heavily impacted by urbanization.
–Continued loss of habitat.
–Impact by cowbirds, mostly Bronzed but maybe also by increasing numbers of Shiny (according to a study carried out by Stiles, this taxon was a preferred host for the cowbird).
-On the losing side of competition withWhite-eared Ground-Sparrow. A possible factor since Stiles and Skutch mention the White-eared being uncommon in forested ravines, the endemic ground-sparrow being common in coffee fields. For the past 15 years, White-eareds seem to be much more common in many coffee farms.
–Predation by feral cats. Although assessment is needed, given the abundance of cats in areas frequented by this species, this is likely yet another contributing factor that limits population size.
–Effects of pesticides. How does heavy pesticide use on coffee farms and other agricultural landscapes affect this species? An unknown but fewer prey items and unhealthy chemicals won’t do them any favors.
Fortunately, there are several people in Costa Rica who know how important it is to assess the status of this bird, including Ernesto Carman and Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! They actually have a Cabanisi project to help this endemic species that includes surveys for it and working with local farmers to educate and protect habitat. Soon, they will also be doing a Big Day to raise funds to help this bird species while also trying to break their own incredible Big Day record of 350 plus species! Click on the link to see how you can help protect Costa Rica’s newest endemic species, a bird that might actually be sliding closer to extinction.
This post is dedicated to Jenny Luffman, someone with whom I grew up with at Sacred Heart grade school in Niagara Falls, NY, and who died in an accident in 1998. She would have celebrated a birthday on April 8. She loved birds, if she had lived longer than her 20s, I dare say she would have become a birder, I think she always was and never knew it. She would have loved to have seen this ground-sparrow and many more. I hope that Jenny has been watching and laughing with the most beautiful of birds since the day of her passing.
Each year, I look forward to an autonomously motivated event where myself and trusted birding companions try to see as many bird species as possible in one, 24 hour date. That is, we do a Big Day, and it is preceded by far too many hours of planning and sorting out probabilities, Such scheming is necessary because it all comes down to probability, each factor playing a distinct role in determing the final count. Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of our attempt this past March.
I think it was a good plan, that beginning in Cano Negro, a jaunt through the humid forests in the Arenal area, and a hot, dry finish at Chomes, but morning rain prevented us from giving that route the full, power birding test. Getting rained out was disappointing to say the least. Instead of testing the Big Day route, it ended up being a Zen-test of my ability to accept changes that ruined my super important plans for that one day out of the year when we could maybe break the Big Day world record..(in the famous “words” of Charlie Brown, “Arggh!”). Well, since hoping for clear weather in rainforest on just one day is always a silly gamble, I couldn’t really be that surprised or upset.
BUT, much to my surprise, thanks to Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and their Global Big Day idea, here I am, once again, about to do another Big Day! The Global Big Day is the perfect excuse to give this thing another shot. With most of the small migrants serenading birders in Ohio, I did not foresee May as being an ideal time of the year for this endeavor, and it really isn’t but, according to eBird, there are more migrants in Costa Rica right now than I expected. No, not a lot, and we would see more in February or March, but there are more chances at various bird species than I had hoped.
On a plus note, we have a better chance at shorebirds, and more birds will be singing. This will also be a slightly more comfortable Big Day because, no, we will not be listening for birds in dark places at the stroke of midnight. Nope, no exploration of Medio Queso in the middle of the night. Instead, we will start the night-birding at 3 am and be in one of the best forested sites in the country in the pre-dawn hours. My hope is that the dawn chorus will give us several rare forest birds that we would not have gotten otherwise. Since we will be staying at a biological station, we will also have the luxury of a Big Day, sit down breakfast! Well, in all honesty, we will probably be standing up and scanning the canopy while wolfing down the morning vittles but they will be fresh and hot!
Then, it’s off and up the road to San Ramon with brief stops to scan the sky and canopy for raptors, swifts, swallows, and treetop birds, check a small marsh and other small wetlands, and make another stop in cloud forest. We hope that the birds in moist forest near San Ramon will jump up and sing, that the highway down to Chomes is open (along with a flyby Fiery-billed Aracari and singing Scaly-breasted Wren porfavor), and then it’s off to Chomes for a whole new set of birds. Will we break 300 species? Will we find a Great Jacamar? Will it be another test of Zen? Find out next week!
Some birds are common, some are tough to see, and others are downright rare as mangos in the arctic. As if a tropical fruit next to a Gyrfalcon wasn’t improbable enough for you, we also have these bird species that are enigmas. These are situations like the 21st century Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pink-headed Duck sightings, and in Costa Rica, the Alfaro’s Hummingbird. If you want to look for Alfaro’s Hummingbird, scour the high elevations of Miravalles Volcano but don’t get your hopes up. Only one specimen was ever collected, and subsequent searches came up zilch.
I don’t want to discourage searches for the Alfaro’s by any means because after all, who knows? Not to mention, you will probably see some cool birds anyways and have close encounters with other tropical biodiversity. However, if you really want to solve a bird enigma in Costa Rica, give a shot at finding the Wing-banded Antbird.
We know that this bird does indeed exist and it’s not even endangered. BUT, what we don’t know is if or where it occurs in Costa Rica. In Stiles and Skutch, the Wing-banded was mentioned as a possibility based on one possible sighting in the forests of the Fila Carbon in southeastern Costa Rica. No sightings have been substantiated since then BUT…it…just…might..occur (if William Shatner was a birder, that’s how he would say it…).
Seriously though, I believe that this funny cross between an antthrush and an antwren probably does occur in Costa Rica. Or, at least it did, if it hasn’t recently been extirpated from the country. It couldn’t have been widespread because if that were the case, the antbird would have turned up in a mist net somewhere. So, it sure ain’t or never was common but why insist that it’s a possibility anyways?
I wish I could say that I have seen or heard one but nope, that wouldn’t be honest. However, I did speak with someone who insists that he did see one and not just once but twice. He was a guide who worked at Rara Avis for many years and therefore knew the birds in that area quite well. I found his story to be very credible because after all, he wasn’t exactly bragging about it. Basically, he said that when he saw the bird, he didn’t know what it was it because it didn’t look like any of the birds in the book nor like any he had seen around Rara Avis during literally years of birding. He said that the only bird it matched was the picture of the Wing-banded in Stiles and Skutch. Not only that, but his description of its behavior also matched that for our enigmatic target species. He also showed me exactly where he had seen it. Despite always looking for it, though, he never saw it again after a brief second sighting.
No picture, so no inclusion in the guide but if one considers that his sighting came from a nearly inaccessible area of dense foothill forest around 600 meters elevation, that could partly explain why it hasn’t been found again or at other sites. Interestingly enough, that elevation is somewhat similar to the elevation where Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann found Wing-banded Antbird at Cerro Musun, Nicaragua. What? It lives in Nicaragua and Panama but not Costa Rica? Yes, but as strange as that may seem at first glance, “leap-frog” distribution patterns occur for a number of taxa in tropical forests (probably explained by evolutionary history and tropical forest ecosystems being more heterogenous than we think). BUT, maybe it does (or did) live in Costa Rica albeit in the following situations:
Low density populations: This is the case for most tropical forest species and maybe even more so for the Wing-banded Antbird. After all, it doesn’t appear to be common in most parts of its range.
Large areas of lowland and foothill rainforest: No, it was never recorded at La Selva but maybe it never lived there either. Maybe it lived in the hilly rainforests of the San Carlos lowlands, now mostly deforested and never adequately surveyed before the trees were cut down. But what about foothill sites like the Arenal area and Braulio Carrillo? Maybe it never occured there either or perhaps it just lived in spots with the right microhabitat.
Microhabitat: Speaking of microhabitats, Josh and Kathi noted something else about their sighting- the bird was found in an area of old growth forest with an open understory. I have heard others say the same thing about sightings of this species in Panama and the Guianas so maybe that is the key to finding them. If you don’t find this particular microhabitat within a large area of primary forest, then maybe you are looking in the wrong place.
But back to why it might live in Costa Rica. The possible sightings from Rara Avis/El Plastico aside, there are definite records for this species from Refugio Bartola, Niacaragua. This amazing gem of a site is literally across the river from Costa Rica. Sure, rivers can act as barriers for species like the Wing-banded Antbird BUT when one takes into account that very few surveys have taken place in Costa Rica just across the San Juan river, and that this area (Crucitas) and nearby is rarely if ever visited by birders, it sounds like a worthwhile place to search.
So, based on the information here is where to look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica:
Hilly forests in the Las Crucitas area: This includes the forests just east of Las Crucitas and indeed, I think that area is the place where the bird occurs because based on Google Earth, there seem to be intact rainforests at elevations up to 200 and 300 meters in elevation. I’m not sure if hilly areas play a factor but they might if such topography results in well-drained forest.
Forests in the Maquenque and Laguna del Lagarto area: If the hilly forest west of Maquenque can be accessed, this seems like a good place to look. The same goes for rainforests near Laguna del Lagarto. It wouldn’t hurt to look near those lodges as well but since they have been well birded, the presence of the species at those sites doesn’t seem likely.
El Plastico and Ecolodge Yatama: El Plastico is on the way to Rara Avis and one of the spots where a possible sighting occured. Ecolodge Yatama is near there and situated in a large area of good forest. Elevations are around 400 to 600 meters.
Fila Carbon and the base of the Talamancas: Since a possible sighting occured there, why not check again? Also, given the amount of habitat and few surveys carried out in forests along the base of the Talamancas, it’s worth checking there as well. Sites to check would be Yorkin, Hitoy Cerere, and Barbilla National Park. Since there are no sightings from adjacent Panama, this might not be the best region to look but since we are talking about a very secretive, very difficult species no matter where it lives, you never know!
Well drained, primary forest with a fairly open understory:Since this situation matches places where it is seen most often, this could be the microhabitat that this species needs.
Why look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica when you can see it in Panama and northern South America? Well, not only would you possibly document this species for the country, you would also certainly see a lot of other rare species in the process. Bird those remote rainforests near Maquenque and Crucitas and I think you have a chance at both huge eagles, Red-throated Caracara, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and everything else. The main challenge is accessing the sites mentioned and carrying out intensive surveys for at least a week. If you can manage that in the forests east of Crucitas, I bet you will find it.
A lot of factors come into play for a Big Day and one of the biggest is precipitation. If it’s a little bit of rain, that’s probably alright and might work in your favor in keeping the birds calling all day long. The same goes for showers. What you don’t want is a fat morning thunderstorm or constant, cold front rain because that really knocks out too many bird species to bother with a Big Day attempt.
Last Sunday, we had our Big Day attempt…and a cold front moved in to shut us down before dawn (ouch). As the clock hit seven, we still maintained hope that the rain would break long enough for enough birds to sing, or that it would be raining less in another morning birding spot, but neither of those plans worked out. So, instead of sticking to the schedule, we realized that it would be more fun to just hit a few spots for the rest of the day and not race down to Chomes to snatch looks at shorebirds in the mosquito loving dusk.
Robert, Susan, and I still saw some nice birds including a few rare ones. The following are some of the highs and lows of scouting on Saturday and birding on Sunday:
Green-winged Teal: A male had been reported from a site near our route. Saturday scouting showed that it was definitely close enough to fit in and also gave us chances at Killdeer (uncommon), Blue-winged Teal, and another wetland bird or two. It was nice to see the teal because this is a very rare species for Costa Rica and was new for my country list. We made this our final stop on Sunday and saw the teal straight away along with the Blue-wings, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Mockingbird, and a few other species.
Scouting around San Ramon: Brief but cool to find a couple of birding spots, one of which may have given us Rufous-breasted and Rufous and white Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and other dry forest species.
Least Bittern: Another new one for my country list! Although we didn’t see it, we heard one bird that called once at Medio Queso. That was in the middle of the night but despite good weather, not as many birds were calling as I had hoped. That said, we did pick up Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, and Boat-billed Heron.
Great Potoo: After looking and listening for a reliable one at the San Emiliano bridge near Cano Negro, we were just about to give up when I noticed the monster sitting on a low post under a street light. We couldn’t ask for better views and one of the highlights of the weekend! After that, as we tried for Ocellated Poorwill and Common Potoo, the rain turned on.
Cano Negro to Upala: This turned out to be a low during our supposed 24 hours of concentrated birding madness. It was raining in earnest, the rocky road loosened a bracket underneath the vehicle, there were no birds to be seen, and it was slow going in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty happy to see pavement even with all that falling water.
Eastern Whip-poor-Will: A nice surprise! This is a tough/rare bird in Costa Rica and another welcome first for my country list. We saw it between the turn off for Castillo and the entrance to the Observatory Lodge along with dozens of pauraques en route. When I saw it, I knew there was something different about it and sure enough, it wasn’t a pauraque. As we drove up, it seemed to have a shorter tail and lacked white in the wings. A look through rain and bins showed enough to make us realize what it was. It also makes me wonder how many Whip-poor-wills and Chucks are out there in the dark night and overlooked? They rarely vocalize in-country so you just wouldn’t know if they were around. Speaking of chucks, Juan Diego Vargas mentioned several on the peninsula road at Arenal. Speaking of Juan Diego, he gets a huge thanks for filling us in on lots of gen before the Big Day.
The Arenal feeders: It was raining and the dawn chorus was minimal but at least we saw some birds; nice ones like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, several hummingbirds, and Hepatic Tanager.
Yellow-breasted Chat!: Despite looking for and not seeing on Saturday, the chat that I had seen with the guys from 10,000 Birds in December, we managed to turn it up in a different, tiny corner of vegetation in the same area on Sunday! Yay, especially because this was a new country bird for Robert and Susan.
Some birds around Penas Blancas: We left Arenal in search of clear weather and did find some at the Penas Blancas river. Birds were active and we picked up a fair number of expected species including Long-tailed Tyrant. Not enough stuff to make up for the lost morning but it was worth a try.
LoveEats Cafe: Always a highlight and always good! We decided to stop there and enjoy capuccinos after accepting that the day was a literal wash. Unfortunately, weather there was way too windy and dry. We saw a Swallow-tailed Kite but little else. It was the same way too dry weather at the Manuel Brenes road. If these sites continue with such dry weather, I don’t see how there won’t be full ecosystem collapse in an area that typically hosts hundreds of bird species.
San Luis Canopy: The nice people at this excellent zip-lining site and restaurant let us check out their feeders and trail through cloud forest. It was a nice walk and we saw several expected middle elevation species despite the sunny weather. No Sunbittern on the river but it does occur. I hope to visit soon to survey the place with a resident birder/guide and will post about it.
Good company: As always, no matter where we go, birding with Robert and Susan’s is always a good day.
The obvious solution to being rained out on a Big Day is rescheduling but so far, we haven’t found a date to do it because we need free time and a late afternoon high tide to coincide. If that happens, we might still make it happen and I do think we would have a chance at a record. Of course, the weather would still have to cooperate too!
Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.
This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.
It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.
We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:
It even caught a bug!
The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!