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birds to watch for in Costa Rica

The Situation with Yellow-Green Vireos and Related Species in Costa Rica

Vireos are, more or less, these small warblerish, deliberate birds with miniature shrike-like bills. The Vireonidae family also includes the tiny, active greenlets of Central and South America, the small chattering vireos of scrubby habitats (such as the White-eyed and Bell’s Vireos), and the big and hefty shrike-vireos with equally impressive hooked beaks. Lest we leave them out of the Vireo picture, this family also has some colorful representatives in montane zones of southern Asia; the aptly named “shrike-babblers“.

However, the vireos that seem to capture the heart and soul of this avian family are the ones that take it easy, that take their sweet time to forage in the foliage of trees and bushes, constantly singing as they do so. On account of that repeated carefree song, these are the vireos that tend to engender familiarity among birders of all stripes, the leader of the bunch probably being the Red-eyed Vireo.

When spring gets truly warm up north, go birding, take a walk, or just listen in a park in almost any wooded area from eastern Texas and Florida north to the Great Slave Lake and you will probably hear Red-eyed Vireos. Be as patient as the bird you are looking for, watch for the slightest movement in the leafy scene above and you will eventually espy one, a bird with white underparts, olive above, and a white eyebrow separated from a svelte gray crown by a fine line of black. That’s the Red-eyed Vireo, a plain yet clean-cut bird with a sweet June song. Always one of the first migrants I would come across as I rode my bike to experience May migration on Goat Island, I would hear them throughout the day for for the next two months.

In Costa Rica, although thousands, more likely millions, of Red-eyed Vireos that migrate through this part of Central America on a biannual basis, “our” most familiar of the Red-eyed bunch is actually the Yellow-green Vireo. The Red-eyeds don’t sing around here, they barely even act like the summer birds of the north. In Costa Rica, they don’t have any time for that happy, lazy attitude because they have a vital appointment arranged by the imperative of instinct. The destination isn’t exactly just around the corner. To reach the leafy woods of western New York, the forests of Ontario, at just the right time, these small birds have to fuel up fast and in Costa Rica, this is why we see flocks of them busily picking bugs and larvae from the leaves, eating small berries to bulk up so they can take that personal bird express to the north.

They are only here for the eating business, just passing on through until they can get back to regular vireo business, that of casually foraging while singing all day long. In Costa Rica, that vireo job, living “la dolce vireo vita” is held by the Yellow-greens.

Although they also migrate through, large numbers fly in from habitats in the Amazon to stay and breed. As with their Red-eyed cousins of the north, Yellow-green Vireos likewise come to breeding grounds to take advantage of a sudden wealth of invertebrates, in their case, brought on by the onset of the wet season. Like the Red-eyeds, their constant singing is an essential part of the summer birding scene in the Central Valley and the dry forests of the Pacific slope. Unlike the Red-eyeds, they share their breeding surroundings with the likes of Masked Tityras and Clay-colored Thrushes and have to avoid the nest depredation antics of toucans.

They act and look quite similar but with a good view, these two vireo species are pretty easy to identify. Some of the ways in which they differ:

Red-eyed Vireo

-Daintier grayer bill.

-Mostly white underparts.

-Hint of pale brown on face.

Yellow-green Vireo

-Can have somewhat diffuse face pattern.

-Largish, mostly pale bill.

-Lots of yellow below, mostly on vent and flanks.

Although these are two of the most common Vireo genus species in Costa Rica, they aren’t the only similar Red-eyed type vireos to keep in mind. Granted, the following two are very rare and one has yet to be documented for Costa Rica but they are possible. The Black-whiskered occurs as a rare vagrant and is likely overlooked among the large numbers of very similar Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos. Although a birder still needs a close, definitive look at the head, a Black-whiskered can also reveal its true identify when it sings its distinctive, double-noted phrases. These can be reminiscent of a House Sparrow, the only problem is that it probably keeps quiet in Costa Rica.

While watching for vireos with a black line on the lower part of the face, we can also challenge ourselves (or drive ourselves crazy) by looking for the Chivi Vireo. Although its name might make you wonder if I’m joking, save the laughs for when you see how ridiculous it would be to find one of these pseudo Red-eyed Vireos, a species that would also be a first for Costa Rica. The Chivi Vireo breeds in South America and because it looks so similar to the Red-eyed, was formerly considered to be that species. Some are resident in northern South America, others migrate from places like Brazil and Argentina to the Amazon and ever since genetic studies showed that they are more closely related to Black-whiskered Vireo than the Red-eyed, Chivi Vireos have been recognized as a distinct species.

BUT, since they look just like Red-eyed Vireos, how on Earth would we even recognize one that just happened to overfly its usual destination? In all likelihood, we wouldn’t, but given the right circumstances, finding one in Costa Rica is possible, this is what we would need:

Look for a Red-eyed Vireo from June to August, this is when a Chivi would mostly likely occur.

Take a close look at the undertail coverts. If it looks like too much yellow for a Red-eyed Vireo, the bird might be a Chivi.

Take a close look at the color of the eye– if it looks pretty dark and without the slightest hint of red, it might be a Chivi.

If it sings, record that song! Both main groups of Chivi Vireos sound different from the Red-eyed Vireo. To my ears, the migrant ones we are most likely to get have a sort of warbled or trilled note.

To sum things up, if you see a bird in Costa Rica between June and August that sort of looks like a hybrid between a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-green Vireo and happens to be a singing a song with a trilled phrase, there’s a fair chance it’s a seriously lost bird new for the Costa Rica list. In the meantime, if birding up north, enjoy the cheerful summer phrasing of the Red-eyed Vireos. Birding in Costa Rica? Be happy with the rainy season songs of Yellow-green Vireos but keep listening and watching for something different, you never know what you might find even when birding from home.

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The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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Target Birding in Costa Rica? Expect Fantastic Birding

Birding can be practiced in more ways than one might think. A lot of people just watch the birds that come to the backyard feeder and take a casual interest with identification. They are happy with the relaxed avian scene at home and leave it at that. Others try to identify whatever they come across but aren’t over concerned with finding new birds, lifers if you will. We also have people in the birding tribe who have goals of seeing many certain species and even take very necessary trips to outlying places like New Caledonia because crazy cool birds like Cloven-feathered Doves and the one and only Kagu don’t live anywhere else.

In Costa Rica, we see the closest relative of the Kagu on a regular basis.

Birders who visit Costa Rica fall into every category of birding. I have guided folks who just enjoy seeing whatever crosses their path be it a common Blue-gray Tanager or a less common Red-headed Barbet.

Both are nice to look at.

There have been people who would rather get stunner photos of Squirrel Cuckoos and Groove-billed Anis than feed the mosquitoes while waiting for an Agami Heron no show. I have also guided people with specific target lists, folks who have seen thousands of bird species. However, no matter how someone wants to watch birds, most of all, the majority of birders want to see lots of birds. I think most folks realize that there is little control over what occurs, what one can see during a day or two of birding, especially when many of the species are naturally rare or may seem to be part of the anti-birder conspiracy (such as Barred Hawk was and still seems to be with my partner).

This raptor is more nefarious than one might think.

Fortunately, no matter how adept a bird may be at avoiding birders, we always see a lot and this is because Costa Rica is fantastic for birding. Biased? Maybe but I would say the same about many other countries. Honestly, there are literally hundreds of bird species within easy striking distance and the logistics available to reach just about all of them. It’s easy to see a lot of birds here and even if I do focus on target species, mega specialties like Black-crowned Antpitta just don’t get in the way of seeing lots of other birds. This is because most target birds require quality habitats that also support many other species. For this reason, when I was guiding in the Arenal area a few days ago, while we did see target White-fronted Nunbird and Bare-crowned Antbird, we also had the joy of watching a pair of bullish Great Antshrikes at close range,

admired the shining beauty of a male Gartered Trogon,

the odd exotic appearance of Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

beautiful Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Golden-olive, and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers,

and the babblerish behavior of Black-throated Wrens.

There were no Keel-billed Motmots on that day (we could always blame it on the overly wet conditions), but we did watch several Broad-billed Motmots and finished a century species morning with Yellow-throated Toucans perched in the fine light of the post rain.

It does help to know where and how to find every target species but in Costa Rica, even if the rare birds don’t show, you can always expect a lot of many other things. Hope to see you here!

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Some Costa Rica Birding News for March, 2019

March marks the final month of the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Although any time is a good time for birdwatching in this mega diverse country, most tours and birders pay a visit between January and April. Based on the number of birders I have recently seen at Carara, the Dota Valley, and other hotspots, a lot have opted for trips in February, 2019. We can expect a lot more birders in the next four weeks, if you are one of those lucky people, the following information might be of help:

Cope, Excellent as Always! But Make a Reservation…

A recent trip to Cope’s place turned up the usual assortment of quality bird species. Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by some of the folks from Rancho Naturalista (Lisa, Harry, and two guests) who got us on to perched White-tipped Sicklebill and American Pygmy Kingfisher. Chestnut-headed Oropendola and a few other nice feeder birds quickly followed.

A bit further afield, he brought us to a roosting Spectacled Owl and a Great Potoo. Nothing like quality birds one after another in one or two short hours! I really wished we could have stayed longer, I would have loved to but we had to move on for more birding and our lodging for the night. The Cope experience is a must but before you decide to go, make a reservation. Otherwise, he might not be able to accommodate you and you could be turned away. To make a reservation, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Early Spring Migrants are Late

March migrants elsewhere might take the form of geese, huge flocks of blackbirds, or groups of thrushes moving from tree to fruiting tree. In Costa Rica, our early birds are Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, and Yellow-green Vireo. Since this country tends to have such a wet and productive rainy season, these tropical species come to Costa Rica to take advantage of it. Some usually arrive in January and most are gone by August or September. This year, they are definitely coming back later rather than earlier. While Harry Barnard, one of Rancho Naturalista’s excellent guides, was telling me that he has seen very few of these migrants so far this year, I realized that I hadn’t even had a Sulphur-bellied in 2019 and only one or two Yellow-green Vireos. At some point, they should arrive in force but at the moment, seem to be rather thin on the ground. Well, except for Piratic Flycatchers. More seem to be calling day by day.

Another Site for Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow Bites the Dust

Or maybe I should say, “goes up in flames”?

Historically, Costa Rica’s newest endemic lived in a mosaic of brushy, semi-wooded habitats in the Central Valley. When coffee farms replaced much of those original habitats, it had to adapt to the new neighborhood. However, the species couldn’t help but draw a line with the latest changes to its already limited world. The nouveau habitat of asphalt, concrete, and housing might work for grackles and Rufous-collared Sparrows, but it just doesn’t do it for the local, endemic “towhee”. While this handsome sparrow does seem to persist in remnant bits of green space and riparian zones, it never seems to be common and is likely Near Threatened or even one step closer to being officially Endangered.

With that in mind, every bit of green space counts, especially when it’s a fairly large area of brushy habitat. Unfortunately, half of one such area is no more, a site where I have regularly seen and showed this species to people. Half of it was recently burned and on Monday, the blackened bits of field and vegetation were being eliminated with a tractor. This vegetation was also used by several migrants from the north. The other half of the site still retains a mix of coffee and brush but who knows for how long? To support conservation of this endemic species, please contact the folks at the Cabanis’s Project.

Great Green Macaws Feeding on the La Selva Entrance Road

It must be that time of year. Fruiting palms on the entrance road into La Selva are attracting macaws for fantastic close looks! They aren’t there all day but hang by those palms in the morning and you might get close looks of this spectacular mega.

Jabiru Show at Cano Negro

Low water levels have been concentrating the birds at Cano Negro. I’m not sure how long it will last but if your boat driver can bring you to one of those last remaining pools, you will likely be treated to several Jabirus among a few hundred other wading birds. When you take your eyes off the huge storks, take a careful look at the other birds, there might be something even rarer in there.

In addition to the species mentioned above, visiting birders can expect calling quetzals, birds building nests, fairly dry conditions, and the usual exciting birding found in Costa Rica. Have a great trip!

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Fine Birding on the Slopes of Poas

In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.

Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.

On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:

Resplendent Quetzal

The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.

Hummingbirds

 

Brown Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Coppery-headed Emerald

From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.

Northern Emerald Toucanet

Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.

Nightingale-thrushes

Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

A few were singing and showed nicely.

These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.

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Looking for Cotingas in the Rain

The rains have calmed down the past week or so. That doesn’t mean that the roaring precipitation has stopped and by no means should the sky tap actually be turned off. Water means life and the more the better! Well, maybe not to the degree of causing floods and landslides but yes, a steady series of downpours will work out fine. I see that rain coming down to smack the leaves and as always, I can’t help but wonder, how do birds deal? What do they do when it rains for hours? Do they get out and forage or do the tanagers and Russet Antshrikes hunker down to conserve energy and wait for their window of respite?

The Russet Antshrike is a common member of mixed flocks at many humid forest sites in Costa Rica, If you see a foliage-gleaner looking bird checking dead leaves in the canopy, it’s probably this species. 

I’m not sure what they do and it must vary by species but in general, it seems that most birds of forest and field get active when the heavy rains turn to mist; they seem to take advantage of that window when the pounding rain won’t drive them to the ground. As for raptors, it seems like they also take advantage of the almost dry window to use an exposed perch. Indeed, in such situations, I see Bicolored Hawk more often. Other birds can also perch in the open, some of them even doing so under the curtain of heavy tropical rains. It’s a good time to look for cotingas and not necessarily because you will find them, but because when it rains, there’s not a whole lot of other birding you can do. If it does pour, at least you can scope and scan the canopy from under a roof.

Bicolored Hawk perched in the rain.

This is basically what it takes to see some of the more esteemed and wanted members of this fantastic bird family. Although I would have to put the endangered and amazing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the top of the awesome cotinga list for Costa Rica, the four classic cotingas are still very much desired and not just by those who travel to Costa Rica for birding. Those of us who live in Tiquicia want to see Snowy, Yellow-billed, Lovely, and Turquoise Cotingas just as badly and many a local birder has yet to lay eyes on any of these fab four. And even if you have admired the four classic canopy dwellers, they still get priority because you just can’t get enough of those cool birds. They look too weird and wonderful to not get excited about the prospect of seeing them, and, we just don’t see them that often.

Such a cotinga situation keeps me looking for them, keeps my eyes on the highest points of trees, keeps me looking for trees with cotinga food. And, especially when I’m birding with special people who have yet to see these local beauties. Recently, I have kept an eye out for cotingas on the Caribbean slope, rain or shine (I guess mostly rain). Whereas most birders in Costa Rica get a good visual taste of cotingas at the Rincon bridge, the duo on the Caribbean side of the country are much more evasive. Head south of Limon and the Snowy becomes much less of an issue but the Lovely is always rare, no matter where you bring the binos. Given its eye-catching appearance, I guess the shining blue and purple thing should be rare. Yes. Shiny and blue as Cheyenne turquoise, ornamented with amethyst. I have only seen it twice, I’d like to see it again! Most of all, I’d like to admire the bird with someone who likewise feels that cotingas are fantastic.

I have looked lately but not quite enough. Checking the treetops in the Sarapiqui area has so far failed to turn up any bright white birds. I drive through the rain and steal glances at the tops of every tree in range. I’ve seen a few other things; parrots, oropendolas, sloths, and caracaras, but no Snowy Cotinga. In the Socorro area, I have made a few concerted attempts to find a Lovely. The extensive canopy views are right and so is the elevation and timing but the birds are rare and I haven’t put in the many hours likely necessary to connect.

A good place to look for Lovely Cotingas.

But, there’s hope in cotingaland! Although the Snowy has certainly declined in Sarapiqui, it’s still around, if we keep looking, we will find it perched high in the rain, hopefully drying in the sun. As for the Lovely, I did notice fig trees beginning to fruit around Socorro including one massive tree that might even be hosting a living doveish jewel as I write this. I hope to check it tomorrow. I won’t be able to spend hours watching and waiting for the cotinga but the blue and purple bird has to be visiting that tree at some point, maybe even calling it its new temporary home. I’ll be there to check it, at least for a bit. If I see it, I’ll share the gen. on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter because everyone should have a chance to see a cotinga, especially one of the lovely kind.

Want to learn more about finding cotingas and the best places to see them in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing the 700 page plus e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Birding in Costa Rica? Some of the Coolest Resident Birds

Birding in Costa Rica now? If so, lucky you! It’s a good time to be raising the binos in the land of quetzals, hummingbirds, and friendly folks. Don’t worry about not birding during the birding ides of March because although there isn’t as much rain, the dry times come at the expense of braving a solar beat-down. In Costa Rica, since the third month is when Helios is at all of its tropical strength and splendor, I don’t recommend any degree of tanning, most birds don’t really dig the near equatorial UV rays either. Visit now and it might rain more often but the cloud cover does help to lower the temps and, even better, there’s more avian activity.

Steely-vented Hummingbirds might come out to play.

There are lots of birds to look for and watch, including many common ones. Some, are, in fact, cool. Although the “cool” label is subjective and transient for human stuff like movies, music, clothing, eateries, and places to be, it’s less ephemeral for birds. Not that we can compare organic chocolate or Arthur Fonzarelli or parachute pants or The Last Drago movie with real life feathered awesome things but since they are far more permanent than the trivialities of human culture, when a bird gets the “cool” label, it stays.

The Green-crowned Brilliant can be one cool character.

Speaking of cool labels, I look forward to the day when we have birding tech that shows our own personal read-outs for the birds we are looking at. The cool ones will have something like an embossed silver script that appears above them on our visor or our special scope glasses . It will say, “officially cool” or, customized versions of “cool” because since “cool” will still be subjective in the future, it will be up to birders to choose their own coolest birds because let’s face the truth, we can’t expect Larophiles to slap the cool label onto something as non gullish as a Brown Creeper or titmouse. And, how we say “cool” will also differ by region and age group. For example some Bostonians might feel more comfortable saying “wicked cool” for a Blackburnian in breeding plumage. Other folks might just say “awesome”, while yet others might prefer to refer to a bird as “MEGA”, “Triple F” (“fave feathered friend” or “fabulous feathered friend” ), or, in the case of future youngsters, “jelly” or “mantis” or “nova” because kids in the future will probably say those words instead of “cool”.

In any case, these are some of the birds in Costa Rica that would get the “cool” read out on my future birding visor, at least in my opinion:

Chachalaca…not! Sorry, this bird is not cool.

Sorry, although you do look more like one of your dinosaur ancestors than a Yellow Warbler, you just aren’t that cool. Ever since I saw a young chachalaca walk straight over the open flame of a candle in Peru and then ignore a Black Hawk-Eagle trying to snatch it on another day, I just feel too tempted to use the word “fool” instead of “cool” for members of the Ortalis clan.

Now for the real cool birds, the ones that would wear sunglasses and be kung-fu experts if they were human….

All eagles– Like obviously. I mean these birds could easily get away with wearing shades. They could almost lead biker gangs and get away with it. In Costa Rica, we got goshawkish terrors known as hawk-eagles, the rare giant black-hawk that goes by the cool name of “Solitary Eagle”, and of course, our pair of ultra rare monster favorites, the Crested Eagle and the ultimate in Neotropical cool, the legendary Harpy Eagle. A real rainforest A-Lister, much to our dismay, the Harpy would rather avoid the limelight that deal with the paparazzi. Same goes for the Crested, and as for the Solitary, well, it also just feels too cool to come out and have its picture taken. Not that we can blame the monster Buteogallus though because after all, it’s not called “Solitary” for nothing.

At least the super cool Ornate Hawk-Eagle is doing well in Costa Rica. We see this beautiful raptor at many sites.

Tiny Hawk– On the other end of the raptor spectrum, we have this ferocious, thrush-sized terror. Like a flying shrew, it snatches hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and even tanagers. Very cool!

Jabiru– It’s massive, it’s weird, it’s super cool, the one and only Jabiru. Biggest stork on this side of the planet, I gotta call it cool.

Great Green Macaw– To be honest, I’m not sure if this large in charge spectacular parrot is more “majestic” than “cool”. But, when it casually flies over and rends the humid air with prehistoric shrieks, it’s just too easy to imagine it with sunglasses.

Plus, when you see a pair of these fantastic bad boys, it’s all too easy to whisper, state, or exclaim, “cool”.

Bat Falcon– A cool looking hobby-like falcon that perches on exposed snags and even pylons, and then zips around to snatch swallows, parakeets, and bats. Based on those factors, this Neo Falco is a strong contender for being the coolest species in Costa Rica.

Laughing Falcon– Really, all falcons are cool but if I had to limit the choices to one or two birds, it’s hard to leave the “Guaco” off the list. I mean, this masked feathered bandit chokes down snakes! And, it has a loud maniacal laughing call often heard at dawn and dusk. It’s also fairly common, especially for being a raptor.

 

Great Potoo– Owl? Giant Nightjar? A creature of the night? Oh yeah, if any bird is, it’s the Great Potoo. This big, bug-eyed fluffy monster has one of the coolest calls of the deep tropical night.

White-tipped Sicklebill– All hummingbirds are cool for various reason, but with its bizarrely curved bill, this bird is one of the coolest.

Lesser Ground-Cuckoo– I give the cool label to this one because it has a heiroglyphic face and likes to creep around thick ground cover and give cool vocalizations.

Bare-crowned Antbird– Since all antbirds are automatically cool, it’s hard to pick just one. But, since this guy looks like a bird that might have flown out of a Tim Burton movie, this bald headed skulker ranks among the coolest.

Manakins– Most dance, some have super sonic wing snaps, and one even has moves like the late King of Pop. Very cool little birds, check out some Long-tailed Manakin action if you don’t believe me.

Yes, this bird moonwalks.

Royal Flycatcher– This big-headed, miniature Hammerkoppish flycatcher can spread the beautiful feathers of its crown and move its head back and forth like a snake. Although the display is a very rare sight, seeing one is always cool. I had a couple last week at Carara National Park and yes, seeing them was cool.

Three-wattled Bellbird– Bizarre, over the top, but cool. What isn’t cool about a bird the size of a pigeon that has wormy things hanging from its beak and makes super loud bonking sounds?

Wrenthrush– Nothing like birds that make you wonder what the heck they really are to be cool. That’s partly why birds like the Yellow-breasted Chat and the Wryneck are cool and why this one is especially cool. Not a wren. Not a thrush. Now, not even a wood-warbler. It’s all on its own and its the Wrenthrush, a sneaky bird that looks like a Tesia and is endemic to highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager– Yet another one with a confusing yet intriguing name and appearance, it has a few different cool things about it. The bird is a tanager yet acts sort of like a flycatcher. It has a shrike-like beak. The male sort of has oriole-like colors. And, other birds think its cool! They follow it around because it gives alarm calls to warn them of predators. Little do they know that it also gives those same alarm calls to make them hide so it can snatch some choice insect prey.

Yellow-thighed Finch– It’s always cool to see this endemic, arboreal towhee-like bird. And, best of all, it sports these little yellow puff ball things on its thighs that look unreal. A cool bird to watch and one that’s also common in highland forests.

Lots more birds around here are also cool, come to Costa Rica to decide which ones should receive your “cool” label. Keep in mind that some birds are more cute or regal than cool and might be why they didn’t make this list. Or, it might also just be that I think most birds are pretty cool and I had to stop at some point. Get ready for your trip and identify all birds in Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. You can also support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” – more than 700 pages of information to find and identify birds in Costa Rica. Hope to see you here!

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Changes to the Costa Rica Bird List – Plus One, Minus Two

Recently, the North American birding community had some exciting news. No, not the appearance of an Ivory Gull or super rare owl in someone’s backyard that then posed for a suite of photos taken by each and every birder that showed up. No, because that sort of thing is typically relegated to the realm of the birding dream. Oddly enough, the news in question doesn’t have anything to do with bird sightings yet it still acts as on of the more important and anticipated pieces of information of the birding year. This coveted publication becomes available to birders on an annual basis, and oh how the serious (aka obsessed) among us look forward to the news. Those of us who keep lists and are extra concerned about bird identification can’t wait to see the publication, the big news of the year, because it tells us whether or not we will be upping the life list with armchair ticks or subtracting from it by ways of the dreaded lump.

The Northern Emerald Toucanet was one of those sweet armchair ticks from a previous supplement.

As any birder in the know must have surmised, I’m talking about the AOU supplement to the checklist for the birds of North America. Although the checklist is already established, thanks to occasional species additions to the list (by way of adventurous or mal-adapted birds that fly in from Asia, Europe, or South America), and studies that assess and elucidate the evolutionary histories of everything from tyrant-flycatchers to foliage-gleaners and Yellow-rumped Warblers, changes to the list are inevitable and happen each and every year.

In Costa Rica, since our local national list almost always tracks changes made to the AOU list, we likewise need to keep up on the proposals for name changes, splits, and lumps that have been accepted. In 2018, thanks to a double lump and one split, many of us are going to be subtracting one bird from our Costa Rica lists. Ouch. This will affect Big Days totals! And lead to revisions of all field guides! But, on the plus side, we have one more species on the list, that of a regional endemic and one that I have been stressing the importance of seeing for some time because I was fairly certain that it was a separate species.

That brand newly recognized bird species is the Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner, the former excertus subspecies of the Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner restricted to humid forest habitats in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. As with many other taxa that turn out to better known as species, this one was recognized as perhaps being one by the people who first described it based on morphological differences. While we can’t see many differences in the field, detailed studies of the bird in the hand is another story and who knows what else the birds perceive? However, we do know that they don’t recognize the songs of Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners on the other side of the mountains and vice versa. That lack of song recognition coupled with large differences in DNA (6%) were enough to convince the checklist board to recognize the split. The next thing that comes to mind is whether or not the new species is threatened. Although it does need humid forests, since it can also occur in second growth and seems to be fairly common from the lowlands to lower middle elevations, the “C. Gleaner” doesn’t seem to be in trouble.

A Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner from Luna Lodge.

Now for those sad, hard knocks results for the lister, the lumps (and as with any lump, they tend to be painful).

After years of wondering which tanager with the red rump was a Passerini’s and which was a Cherrie’s while also wondering why the name just had to be changed from the perfectly descriptive Scarlet-rumped Tanager, lo and behold, these two are back to being the same species! The Scarlet-rumped Tanager is back in business in Costa Rica because of little genetic differences and equal recognition of each other’s songs. Nope, not enough time for enough divergence, no more need for Big Day worries about finding those Cherrie’s Tanagers in Carara.

The good old Scarlet-rumped Tanager.

The second lump concerns a wood-warbler and one that lives in a very limited area. Some years ago, DNA studies revealed the Masked Yellowthroat subspecies around San Vito to actually not be a Masked Yellowthroat after all. But, it stayed that way on the list because of the lack of additional studies to show what it really was. Now, after combining DNA studies and playback experiments, the special yellowthroat with the super small range in southern Costa Rica and adjacent Panama is listed as a subspecies of the Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Since they sound and look quite similar and have very little genetic differences, even the most reluctant and die-hard of listers would have to admit that the birds are really the same biological species.

There was also one common name change. White-collared Seedeater is no more! Thanks to the elevation of West-Mexican birds to species rank (and with the cool name of Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater), the ones in Costa Rica are now known as Morelet’s Seedeater (Sporophila morelleti). If you have seen this bird north of Oaxaca, at least you can enjoy an armchair tick that sort of equalizes the removal of one of those lumped tanagers.

There were some other changes to scientific names and the splitting of the storm-petrels into two different families but I won’t talk more about that here. For more details, check out a summary of the supplement at the ABA blog, and the proposals for splitting and lumping the birds mentioned above. Now to get to work on updating birding apps for Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.

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Elusive Birds of Costa Rica- The Mountains

Not all birds are common. It’s not long after opening our first field guide that we discover this punch in the gut fact (Ivory-billed Woodpecker! Wow, what a…bird…that I can’t see.) In North America, the elevator/bipolar feelings of up and down can also occur after become aware of the majestic Whooping Crane, or maybe the way too range restricted Kirtland’s Warbler, or that smart beauty of the Texas hill country, the Golden-cheeked Warbler. In Europe, it depends on where you plan on birding but the feelings of discovery and angst tend to happen after reading about the Aquatic Warbler, or maybe gazing at illustrations of the White-backed Woodpecker. Be prepared to scream and/or cry after reading about the Slender-billed Curlew though. Or, just smashing something, you might opt for killing your television.

In Costa Rica, we also have our share of rare birds. I guess that would be a given for any country with a list of over 900 species. Some just gotta be rare, I mean, there’s only so much room for so many birds, right? Yeah, that is part of the equation and with drier conditions resulting in decreased productivity in forest ecosystems where everything seems to compete with everything else for food, sadly, many a bird seems to be even rarer than just ten years ago. Time to smash yet another appliance or instrument or whatever in frustration.

However, some species have always been on the uncommon side of the birding coin even in the best of habitats. Whether because they are too picky, require equally rare ecological circumstances, or are no longer privy to the types of habitat they require, those choice, less adapted species are far and few between. Each bioregion in this small country has its short list of rare birds, it’s no coincidence that they tend to be the ones that get missed during short visits to Costa Rica. Although most highland species are fairly common, there are a handful of cool birds that can be a true, honest pain to see. These come to mind:

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove

Also known as “the ground-dove” because it’s the one that so many world birders always hope to see and never do. Also one of the closest things we have in Costa Rica to a bleeding-heart (if you don’t know, just search for “bleeding heart dove” but be aware that you may need some self restraint so as not to buy plane tickets to the Philippines). It might not actually be as fancy as one of those amazing bleeding heart doves but our’s is special nonetheless. In fact, so special and tough to see that it might be the official antithesis to the Rock Pigeon. The birds are up there, somewhere in the mountains, but they don’t seem to be common and may prefer hiding in dense cover most of the time. The best way to see this widely distributed mega is to watch for it at bamboo seeding events (I got my lifer this way on Chirripo Mountain, and saw a bunch!), or, better yet, learn the vocalization and listen and watch for it at the edges of forest and riparian zones above 2,000 meters on the way up to Irazu Volcano.

Man were we pleased to see this one!

Unspotted Saw-whet Owl

Thanks to the efforts of Ernesto Carman, we know much more about the habits of this elusive bird of the night but seeing it continues to be a perennial challenge. Unlike its northern cousin, this equally adorable owl doesn’t migrate and thus can’t be found with painstaking searches in coconut palms. Pairs occur here and there at high elevations but you have to venture into the cold dark night to maybe, just maybe find one. Like so many other owls, this small species is likewise unreliable. In other words, just because it is calling and easy to see one night doesn’t translate to a repeat performance the following eight o’clock dark. All you can do is try but at least the more time you spend listening and looking, the better your chances. Because of that test of patience and ability to withstand the cold, if you really need to see this one, you might want to dedicate an entire night to looking for it. Bring the flashlights/torches, warm clothing, and spirits to sites above 2,200 meters on Irazu, Turrialba (when it’s not erupting), and the high elevations of the Talamancas. It’s up to you if you want to enjoy your drink before or after seeing this minute mega. Don’t feel bad about opting for before, it might stave off the cold and make up for hours of not hearing a peep.

Look in places like this.

Ochraceous Pewee

This flycatcher is sort of enigmatic because unlike so many other regional endemics, it’s not common and is a real royal pain to lay eyes on. It masquerades as a hefty Tufted Flycatcher and since they can be seen in the same areas, you have to be careful with identification. It really likes the high spots, like 2,500 meters of higher, and can show up in many a high elevation forested site, it’s just rare! It might not vocalize so much either, maybe because it’s always hunched down and feeling cold, who knows. Watch for it at sites like Paraiso de Quetzales and the upper Dota Valley.

Silvery-throated Jay

Ooh, as senor Mars might say, “A straight up masterpiece”…well, of a jay that is. Smallish, dressed in the dark shades of a deep night, and preferring gnarled, mature oak forests that eat the light of the sun, this choice bird is nothing but Gothic. Tropical Gothic I suppose. As in Sisters of Mercy Gothic…maybe. The pale throat and eyebrow are its mother of pearl and silver jewelry, the feathers a dark, deep midnight blue cloak. Watch for it in large tracts of mature high elevation forest in the Talamancas. Like the Roble Trail at Savegre, or the trails at Georgina, or roads that lead to Providencia. But, don’t be surprised if you don’t find them during a day of birding. They seem to be genuinely scarce and may require several days of searching, or maybe reading some Edgar Allen Poe or the Dark Tower series on a misty day while seated under a massive old growth oak. If that strategy doesn’t happen to bring in the jays, the day is always magic when a good read is accompanied by the beautiful natural flutes of Black-faced Solitaires, nightingale-thrushes, and ancient oaks caressed by cold mist. Rare magic, especially when those jays finally do appear.

Tropical Gothic Corvid Magic. 

Slaty Finch

Not all finches are created equal. In the case of the Slaty Finch, it sits down there on the lower end of the dull spectrum. But, instead of looking like a techinicolor Gouldian Finch, it garners appeal by just being plain rare. Or not, I mean let’s face it, the bird sort of looks like an extra dull junco. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t want to be seen? Well, you might be better off not wanting to see it because, unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot you can do to find it other than listening for its seriously high-pitched song at bamboo seeding events. Whether around bamboo or not, keep an eye out for any dull plumaged birds foraging on the ground. They might be this one. Hope to get lucky with this finch at any high elevation site. If not, just smile at the beauty of Flame-throated Warblers and Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers.

This, believe it or not, is a Slaty Finch.

This, is a Flame-throated Warbler. Take your pick.

Blue Seedeater

Vying with the Slaty for the “dullest rare finch in Costa Rica” prize, the Blue Seedeater is another bird more frequently seen at seeding bamboo and hardly ever encountered otherwise. Usually in pairs, listen for its Passerina bunting-like vocalizations (as in the Indigo variety) in cloud forest, even riparian zones on the upper slopes of the Central Valley. Lately, one reliable spot has been sites with bamboo up above Coronado.

But what about quail-doves, Highland Tinamou, some of the other birds less frequently encountered? Although those choice gems also present frequent challenges to being found in your focused field of view, they still aren’t as tough as the aforementioned species. To learn about the best places to see birds and Costa Rica along with 700 pages of tips for finding and identifying them, support this blog by purchasing my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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In Search of Avian Emeralds in Costa Rica

Assigning “value” to something is, in part, always subjective. Whether looking at an object or experiencing an event, although measurable factors such as “rarity” come into play, the degree to which value is assessed eventually comes down to how we feel. For example, in terms of gem stones, vibrant colors are an important part of the value equation. In fact, if objects like garnet, sapphire, or aquamarine didn’t display hues that please the eye, such dun-colored, regular stones would be tossed aside and forgotten by all except actual geologists and kids with cool rock collections. Not to disparage semi-precious stones but even the value placed on those beautiful bits of matter is eclipsed by the true precious gems. Even though the fantastic sky blue of turquoise can be a wonder to behold, and many do love it (I love how it reminds me of Arizona skies), the value of that semi-precious gem still doesn’t come close to the cost of that green star of stones, the emerald.

They are indeed rare but if it weren’t for the mesmerizing, deep green hues, people wouldn’t pay large sums of money, work in dangerous conditions, and risk life-threatening ambushes just to buy or sell a beryl mineral with traces of chromium or vanadium. A similar thing happens with birds. Sure, we say that every bird is the same and not to discriminate but how many place a quetzal in the same category as a Plain-colored Tanager? That’s not to say that one bird is better or more worthy of life than the other, all are of equal merit and play their respective ecological roles but you won’t find many tours that vote for the tanager as bird of the trip over a quetzal, even when the small gray bird is a lifer.

Not a quetzal.

Whether because the emerald wavelength is of uncommon occurrence among birds or because we just love how it looks, our appreciation of shining green colors extends to birding. At least it does to me, equally as it did when I was into rocks, gems, and minerals. That interest happened right before my birding days at the ripe old age of 5, maybe 6. Around that time, I used to ask my parents to bring me into jewelry stores so I could look at the faceted rocks. I was fascinated by them, I can’t remember exactly why or what was going on in my young developing brain but suspect it had something to do with their colors and shapes. Along those lines, when we got the Sunday paper, I used to take out the inserts for Sears and other stores that sold jewelry so I could marvel over the beautiful royal blue of sapphires, the deep luscious reds of rubies, and the huge price difference between a necklace with amazing emeralds and rings merely set with onyx or topaz. At some point, not long after, in the same library where I perused books about gems, I had my eureka moment with birds and the living, colorful, feathered things took precedence. However, I never lost my interest in stones, minerals, and geology, perhaps that’s why I can’t get enough of birds that shine like emeralds.

The Green-crowned Brilliant has some emerald colors going on.

Although many people are more accustomed to the dull browns and grays of sparrows and pigeons, there indeed are birds that are on par with the most stunning of emerald treasures.

Think not? Just look up images of Cloven-feathered Dove, the Emerald Cuckoos, and Green Broadbill. However, before going that route, just be warned that you could be in for a visual knock-out. That and the strong desire to book a flight to New Caledonia, Borneo, or South Africa. Those places are wonderful for birds but before buying that ticket, you might want to also consider Costa Rica. We have some emerald birds here too and oh yes, everybody wants them!

Emerald Tanager

This sparrow-sized gem combines the colors of wet rainforest green with dappled yellow. Jet highlights on the face, back, and wings round out the striking beauty of a little bird that ranges from Costa Rica to western Ecuador.

Watch for it in mossy foothill and middle elevations rainforests. In Costa Rica, Arenal Observatory Lodge is especially good for seeing this beauty although it can also be espied at several other locales. For extra close looks, make a stop at the San Luis Canopy.

 

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

A bird with a name as fancy as that has to look good. It does indeed. While the female is dressed in gentle greens, the brilliant emerald and yellow plumage of the male always keep it dressed for cloud forest festivities. Despite its fantastic appearance, happily, the endemic chlorophonia is common in forests from middle elevations way up into the mossy oaks of the cold, high mountains. Like other euphonias, this beauty is usually seen at fruiting trees and mistletoes.

 

Green Honeycreeper

 

Although this beautiful bird seems to act more as an avian aquamarine or regular old beryl than an actual honest to goodness eye-blazing emerald, its appearance can still generate a mind-blowing, retina searing effect. As with the chlorophonia, the male is the one who sports the colors in this house. Watch for this common species at any site with humid forest from the lowlands up to cloud forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal

Saving the most important avian gem for last, this bird has so much going for it, it almost ceases to be one. Mayan peoples sort of felt that way, preferring to view the quetzal as a divine messenger. Truly one of the top birds of the world, the R. Quetzal really does border on the verge of ridiculous. See one for the first time and you might be tempted to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t having some fantastic siesta because its bizarre and spectacular appearance make it look more like a dream bird than an actual, live, large trogon. As one might expect from a divine messenger, photos hint at but can’t truly convey the shimmering emerald green, gold, and blues nor the full crazy combination of plush ruby red underparts, white undertail, extra long tail coverts, and a funky crest.

Male quetzal feeling funky on Pas Volcano.

Come to Costa Rica to watch these living emeralds and other precious birds in action. I hope to see you there!