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caribbean slope identification issues

Identification Tips for White-ringed Flycatcher

Recently, while guiding in the La Selva area, one of our many target species finally showed at the end of the day. Like other birds I was looking for, in Costa Rica, this one only occurs in lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope and thus finds itself sharing a hitlist with the likes of Chestnut-colored Woodpecker, Snowy Cotinga, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and other choice species. Although those three birds failed to show, the White-ringed Flycatcher made an appearance as one of our last species of the day.

A distant White-ringed Flycatcher.

This flycatcher is one of several species that looks kind of like a Great Kiskadee or Social Flycatcher, but isn’t, and that’s why I’m going to talk about it. Based on the images of White-ringed Flycatcher that pop up during online searches, it looks like Social Flycatcher is the biggest contender in terms of mis-identification because 80% of the images that were tagged as White-ringed were actually Socials along with a few kiskadees and even Tropical Kingbird thrown in for good measure. That’s reasonable, I mean they look almost exactly the same, but this is also why you won’t learn much about identification of White-ringed Flycatcher from looking at images in Flckr.

Instead of doing that, check out these tips for an honest to goodness tick of White-ringed Flycatcher while birding in Costa Rica, Panama, or other parts of their range:

Habitat and Behavior: Yep, these factors are mentioned first because they provide the best clues. While other kiskadee type flycatchers can hang out on fences, and even zip down to the ground, the White-ringed has more refined tastes. This fly-catching aristocrat almost always keeps to the canopy, even perching on the very tops of tall trees like a pseudo-cotinga. Yes, it will come lower in some places but if you see a kiskadee-type bird sitting on a fence row, it’s probably not going to be a White-ringed. I am sure this is why so few images of this species are actually available. Unlike the other kiskadees, this one also prefers forest. Thankfully, it will come to the edge and sometimes to semi-open areas, but for the most part, this is a forest species that requires old second growth and/or mature lowland rainforest. Similar to other kiskadees, it sallies for bugs and fruit, and often occurs in groups of four to six birds.

The La Selva entrance road is a regular spot for this species.

Tertials: Instead of checking other parts of the bird in question, check out the back section of the wing. Although some Socials and other kiskadee types can show some pale edging to the tertials, this field mark seems to always stand out more in the wings of the White-ringed Flycatcher, even at a distance.

Hard to see in this image but this shows the pale tertial edging and white meeting on the nape.

White on the head: True to its name, it does have a white “ring” on its head. Actually a diadem, the white eyebrow is broader or wider than other kiskadees, and meets on the front and back of the head. In the Social and Boat-billed, the white on the head does not meet on the nape, but does so in the Great Kiskadee.

Eyelid: Ok, I don’t know if it’s the eyelid or some spot right above the eye, but with a good look, a small white crescent is visible right above the eye of the White-ringed. A far as I can tell, the other kiskadees lack this small but distinctive detail.

Check out the eyelid.

Beak: Not the most principle of field marks but one that does lend itself to the identification equation. Compared to Social Flycatcher, White-ringed has a slightly longer, straighter bill. See enough Socials and this is evident.

Song: As usual with Tyrannids, ear birders are in luck. This one calls frequently, and has a distinctive, even pitched, trilled vocalization nothing like the calls of Social Flycatcher or other kiskadee types.

Places to see it: This species is fairly common at any lowland rainforest site on the Caribbean slope, including the La Selva area and Sarapiqui, Laguna del Lagarto, anywhere near and south of Limon, and various other places. Interestingly, it also occurs on some parts of the Arenal Observatory entrance road.

For more tips about identification of birds in Costa Rica, as well as information about sites, get “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction

Identification Tips When Birding Costa Rica: Small, Plain Hummingbirds Species

Hummingbirds are known for their glittering, jewel-like plumage, ad feisty, sprite-like behavior. I’m not sure if they had anything to do with being part of the inspiration for Disney’s Tinkerbell character but she sure acts like one of the Trochilidae. On a near constant sugar high, more than 50 species of hummingbirds zip around Costa Rica in search of that next nectar fix. Given the high hummingbird diversity, their restless behavior, and their minute size, hummingbirds also come with their own set of identification issues. Get a good look and you can identify most without too much of a problem but there are a few that cause ID headaches and be harbingers of frustration.

Birders familiar with the hummingbird ID challenge in western North America have first-hand knowledge of the difficulties that hummingbirds can bring to the ID table and may even be cringing at the thought of 50 plus species to sort through. Ironically, though, despite the greater variety of hummingbird species in Costa Rica compared to northern hotspots like Arizona and New Mexico, it’s a lot more difficult to identify hummingbirds in those places than Tiquicia. Nevertheless, there are still a few species that can throw monkey wrenches into the works and four that have a tendency to confuse are females of Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magenta-throated Woodstar, Volcano Hummingbird, and Scintillant Hummingbird. In my opinion, even those aren’t as tough as the likes of the Calliope/Anna’s/Costa’s, etc conundrum but it’s still nice to have some help in identifying them so without further ado, here are some tips:

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: With their dark, forked tails, white spot behind the eye, and dark red gorget, males are pretty straightforward. Duller plumaged females, though, are always throwing visiting birders for a loop until they realize that Ruby-throateds are a common wintering species in many areas of the Pacific slope and that there is almost nothing else in the country that looks like them. The closest things are the much larger Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (also has a more decurved bill, is duller, and has larger white spots in the tail), female Canivet’s Emerald (white stripe behind the eye and more white in tail), and the female Mangrove Hummingbird (plainer, lacks white spot behind the eye).  Although it’s worth it to check every, small hummingbird on the Pacific slope with whitish underparts, most are going to be female Ruby-throated Hummmingbirds.

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birding Costa Rica

Note the white spot behind the eye, whitish underparts, slightly decurved bill, a hint of a “semi-collar”, and a bit of white in the tail.

Magenta-throated Woodstar: While the male is pretty easy to identify with his longish tail and white spots on the lower back, the female can be a source of confusion for visiting birders. Like the male, she hangs out at flowerbeds and flowering trees in middle elevations in many parts of the country but tends to be uncommon. The best places to study this species are at feeders in the Monteverde area and at El Toucanet Lodge in the Talamancas. Like the male, the female Magenta-throated Woodstar also cocks up the tail when feeding but the best way to identify this species is by noting the two white spot on the flanks/lower back and the orangish belly.

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birding Costa Rica

Female Magenta-throated Woodstars

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Note the long tail on this young male Magenta-throated Woodstar.

Volcano and Scintillant Hummingbirds: Keeping with the Selasphorous tradition, this and the following species probably present the most consistent challenge to hummingbird identification in the country. Tiny and very similar, you have to get a good look at the tail to be sure of their identification. They actually tend not to be found together but can certainly overlap at sites with an elevation of 2,000 meters. The Volcano isn’t restricted to volcanoes but since so many mountains in Costa Rica are actually sleeping, fiery-breathing geological giants, the name kind of rings true at many sites. The Scintillant isn’t any more shiny than most of its Trochilid brethren but what the heck, it’s a cool sounding name anyways! The orangeish gorget of male Scintillants separates them from Volcanoes in most areas (although male Volcano Hummingbirds on Poas have slightly similar pinkish gorgets) but a close look at the tail is the best way to identify females. Volcano Hummingbirds have green central rectrices while those of Scintillants are rufous. Both species also have dark subterminal bands but this characteristic is broader in Volcanoes. Volcano hummingbirds also have less rufous on the underparts and tend to show a thin, rufous eyebrow that extends to the chin (although that field mark may vary by subspecies). Get a good look at the tail, though, and the bird’s identification will be obvious.

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The green on the tail is evident in this Volcano Hummingbird even at a distance.

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Here’s a closer look at a Volcano- note the rather greenish flanks and green on the tail.

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And here’s a female Volcano Hummingbird that was nice enough to spread its tail and show that prominent subterminal band.

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Note the rufous on the flanks of this female Scintillant Hummingbird from El Toucant Lodge and the mostly rufous tail with a small subterminal band.

Snowcap: The male is a stunning little piece of work but the female is about as colorless as they come. Whitish below and greenish above, female Snowcaps are pretty darn basic. However, since almost nothing else fist that description in their foothill distribution, if you see a small hummingbird with white underparts in a place like Quebrada Gonzalez, you will have to admit that you latched your eyes onto a female Snowcap. About the only other hummingbird species that she could be confused with in her range might be a female Coppery-headed Emerald that decided to wander downslope (not unheard of at the upper limits of Snowcap distribution). Both have white in the tail but the Snowcap still shows a straight bill (decurved in the case of the emerald) and none of the green on the sides of the upper breast that female emeralds exhibit.

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Female Snowcap

birding Costa Rica

Female Coppery-headed Emerald

To sum things up, identification of some of the small hummingbirds in Costa Rica isn’t as difficult as one might think but you might want to hire a guide anyways because finding them could be another story.

Check the Costa Rica Living and Birding Blog on a regular basis For more information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica identification issues Introduction

Where to see Becards when Birding in Costa Rica

Almost everywhere is what comes to mind after writing the title for this post. No matter which woods you walk, riparian forest you frequent, or mangrove boat tour you take, you have a fair chance of running into a becard species or two when watching birds in Costa Rica. The becard experience in Costa Rica is quite the contrast from that of the ABA listing region (essentially Canada and the USA). Up in those temperate latitudes, North American birders consider themselves fortunate to run into the only becard species in town and to get that Rose-throated bird, they have to look for it in either southeastern Arizona or southernmost Texas.

Head south of the border, though, and these lunky-headed tropical birds become a regular feature of the avian scene. Formerly considered to be cotingas, lumped with flycatchers, and mysteriously categorized as “Incertae sedis”, becards have finally come into their own by being placed in the recently recognized Tityridae family. There are five species of becards in Costa Rica and you have a good chance of running into most when visiting this country on a birding trip. It pays to be familiar with becards before birding in Costa Rica to avoid being tricked into believing that you are espying some weird-looking antshrike or funny flycatcher. Here is a run-down on the Costa Rican reps of these funky little birds:

1. Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae): That’s right, you don’t need to bird the northern fringe of the tropical zone in Texas or Arizona to see this one. Come to Costa Rica and you will get your fill of Rose-throated Becards when birding most Pacific Slope sites. The subspecies here lacks a rose throat so if you really want to see that pretty patch of magenta, you need to see them north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (at least I think that’s the case).  Some rose-throated birds actually do winter in and migrate through the Caribbean slope in Costa Rica but they are pretty rare. Whistle like a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in places like Cerro Lodge, riparian zones in dry forest, around the HQ at Carara or at the University of Peace and a pair of Rose-throated Becards will probably show up. Or, just watch birds in the Pacific slope lowlands and foothills and you will probably see some.


Male Rose-throated Becards are almost featureless.

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Female Rose-throated Becards are nice-looking birds.

2. Cinnamon Becard (Pachyramphus cinnamomeus): A bit smaller than the Rose-throated Becard, this handsome species is common on the Caribbean slope. It’s also fairly common in mangroves on the Pacific slope. Look for this rufousy little guy along rivers, in second growth, and at forest edge. It sometimes joins mixed flocks of edge species but is just as often seen on its own. I won’t even name sites because there should be a pair or two at just about every edge habitat in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills.

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Cinnamon Becard from near La Selva.

3. White-winged Becard (Pachyramphus polychopterus): This third one is the other most common becard species in Costa Rica. It’s one of those really widespread neotropical species that usually occurs in forest edge habitats. In Costa Rica, it can also show up inside rain forest but you usually find it at the edge or in semi-open areas. I have had them in moist forest near the University of Peace and around Cerro Lodge but they seem to be most common in gardens and at the edge of lowland rainforest. Although they aren’t as obvious as Rose-throated Becards, when you learn their plaintive vocalizations, you realize how common and widespread this species actually is. Watch for this cool-looking becard at any humid, lowland site. I often see them with mixed flocks in Carara and get them at just about any place where I expect them to occur (think any forest edge habitat in the humid lowlands).

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Male White-winged Becard from the Chilamate area.

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Female White-winged Becard from the Chilamate area. No, not the greatest picture but realistic in that this is how it might look through your binos.

4. Barred Becard (Pachyramphus versicolor): And now for one of the uncommon becards. In Costa Rica, this attractive species is much less common than the trio above but it’s still regular in many areas. It loves to vocalize and hearing the distinctive sound emitted by the Barred Becard is typically how I find this species. When you do hear one, you also know that a mixed flock is somewhere in the neighborhood because it is rarely seen away from groups of foraging birds. Look for it in highland forest sites like Tapanti, Cerro de la Muerte, or Poas. I actually see Barred Becard just about every time I bird humid forest above 1,500 meters. If you see one or two, don’t be surprised when it looks small and bar-less. That impression is influenced by the fact that they are actually quite small (a whopping 5 inches), usually stay high in the trees, and have faint barring in spite of their name.

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A wonderfully cooperative male Barred Becard near the La Paz waterfall.

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It’s slightly shyer mate.

5. Black and white Becard (Pachyramphus albogriseus): Last and definitely the rarest, this species is a tough one to get in Costa Rica. It’s much more common in western Ecuador (and probably western Colombia) so if you really want to see one, go birding there. However, if you just have to get this one for your Costa Rican list, try looking for it at El Toucanet Lodge, Quebrada Gonzalez, El Copal, or Tapanti. It doesn’t seem to be common anywhere but I have had it at those sites. To give an example of how sneaky this species is, at El Toucanet, although I heard a few singing at dawn, I didn’t see them during the day despite spending most of my time birding in the same area. When I have seen them, they have been both on their own and with mixed flocks. They are probably seasonal at Quebrada since they appear to move up and down slope (interesting for a supposed insectivore- maybe they are eating more fruits than is thought).

Sorry, no photos of this one but they are still pretty easy to identify with a good look.

Want to see becards while birding in Costa Rica but aren’t sure where to look? I am available to guide you and would be happy to show you becards and hundreds of other bird species in Costa Rica.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica identification issues preparing for your trip

Tips on parrot identification when birding Costa Rica

I never tire of watching wild parrots. Since I don’t exactly get tired of observing any birds, perhaps what I really mean to say is that an inescapable twinge of excitement accompanies every screech and sighting that can be attributed to any of Costa Ricas 17 Psittacid species.

Whether it’s the daily flyovers of Crimson-fronted Parakeets that screech from the skies above my house in the Central Valley, Scarlet Macaws that grumble from the canopy of the tall forests in Carara, or elusive Barred Parakeets that remind me of crossbills as they chirp and zip over the ridges of the high Talamancas, there’s always something special about seeing a wild Psittacid. I think “wild” might be the key word here because the parrots or macaws we saw in Niagara Falls, New York were either in the pet store or featured in television commercials. They just couldn’t be real, wild birds no matter what those bird books said because that would be just too cool to be fact. Therefore, every time I see a parrot, parakeet, or macaw in Costa Rica, I feel a flurry of excitement and recurring revelation that vanquishes my childhood doubts about the existence of such amazing birds.

Parrots in Costa Rica are as essential to the local landscape as Cecropia trees, Blue-gray Tanagers, and volcanoes and thank goodness because they add a bit of excitement to each day lived in this snow-free, tropical country. Not all are easy to see and there are identification challenges but I hope that the following information will give you a fair idea about what to expect as far as Psittacids go when birding Costa Rica:

Macaws, genus Ara– two species, easy to identify.

Scarlet Macaw: Bold, brilliant, and loud, its pretty hard to miss this species. In Costa Rica, they used to range the length of both slopes but habitat destruction and persecution have nearly eliminated them from the Caribbean slope and reduced them on the Pacific slope to two, well-known populations, one at Carara and a larger number of birds on the Osa Peninsula. There is also a small population around the dry forests of Palo Verde and Curu, and they have been making a slow comeback on the Caribbean slope.

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Scarlet Macaws are always spectacular.

Great Green Macaw: This flagship species of Costa Rican conservation is kind of like the “sea turtle of the rain forest” in terms of its status and buzz about its plight. Like sea turtles, this bird is in serious trouble and needs as much help as it can to avoid going extinct in Costa Rica. The main threat to its future existence in Costa Rica is destruction of lowland rainforests and cutting of a tree that it very much depends upon, Dipteryx panamensis or “Almendro”.  Like Scarlet and Red and Green Macaws in southeastern Peru, the Great Green relies upen big, old growth Dipteryx species trees for nesting and as a food source. Unlike, macaws in Peru, however, Great Green Macaws in Costa Rica have not used nest boxes with very much success. This awesome bird can still be seen in the Sarapiqui area and is more common in Tortuguero and near the Nicaraguan border but I doubt that I will see it again at Quebrada Gonzalez (I used to see flocks there during the wet season).

Amazona genus parrots- four species, watch for their distinctive, shallow wing beats and learn the calls!

Mealy Parrot: This large parrot is commonly seen in forested sites of the humid lowlands (although I get the impression that its numbers have decreased since I first came to Costa Rica). When perched, they are easy enough to identify but hard to see as they quietly forage in the canopy. Like most parrots, you are more likely to see them in flight. They are easily confused with Red-lored Parrots throughout their range and with Yellow-naped Parrots on the Pacific slope in the Carara area. Watch for the green front and pay attention to their harsh calls.

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A Mealy Parrot attempting to hide behind a branch.

Red-lored Parrot: Another good sized parrot, this edge species is pretty common in the lowlands and is the only Amazona species parrot in Costa Rica with a red front. Its calls can sound similar to those of the Mealy Parrot but have a more ringing quality to them, like “clink clink” rather than the harsh squawking of the Mealy.

Yellow-naped Parrot: About the same size as the Red-lored, trapping and habitat destruction have reduced its population although it is still regularly seen in a number of areas including Cerro Lodge, Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, and Palo Verde. As the yellow nape can be hard to see in flight, pay attention to its distinctive calls that have a human-like or “laughing” quality to them.

White-fronted Parrot: The smallest of the Amazona genus parrots in Costa Rica, is still flies with shallow wing beats but is more frequently seen in flocks than the other Amazona species and is fairly common in dry forest. Its yellow bill, white front, and red patch on the forewing also separate it from Mealy, Red-lored, and Yellow-naped Parrots. Listen for its more rapid, staccato-like vocalizations.

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A not so great shot of a psycho-looking White-fronted Parrot.

Pionus genus parrots- two species, watch for their distinctive, deep wingbeats.

White-crowned Parrot: This edge species is one of the more common parrot species in Costa Rica and can be seen from the lowlands to middle elevations (including green spaces in the Central Valley). The white crown and bill can often be seen in flight. Also listen for their screeching, “trebled” call.

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A White-crowned Parrot hanging out in the canopy at El Gavilan lodge, Sarapiqui region.

Blue-headed Parrot: An edge species that replaces the White-crowned further south, the Blue-headed Parrot is mostly seen in the Golfo Dulce and southeastern lowlands of Costa Rica although it can show up at least as far north as Sarapiqui. They fly with the same deep wingbeats as the White-crowned but have a darker head and bill and more abrupt vocalizations.

Pionopsitta genus parrots- one species, “a parrot that sounds like a parakeet” and has wingbeats in between those of an Amazona and Pionus.

Brown-hooded Parrot: A bird of rainforests, this species is most common in heavily forested, humid zones although it is also sometimes seen in flight over the central valley or other deforested areas (how I got it on my yard list). Watch for the red on the underwings, look for the brownish head, and listen for the rather musical, parakeet-like calls. That’s probably a bad description of their vocalizations, but is what comes to mind!

Pyrrhura genus- one species, a long-tailed parakeet of the Talamancas.

Sulphur-winged Parakeet: Like most members of this primarily South American genus, it has a small range and is the only parrot species restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. It’s pretty common in the cloud forests of the Talamancas and is usually located by its high-pitched, reedy calls. It is the only long-tailed parakeet likely to be seen in its range although sometimes can overlap with Crimson-fronted Parakeets when they move to lower elevations.

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Sulphur-winged Parakeet from the Dota Valley.

Aratinga genus- four species, rather common, long-tailed parakeets.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet: One of the most common and easily seen Psittacids in Costa Rica, it has fortunately become adapted to nesting on buildings in the central valley. Long-tailed parakeets seen in the central valley are almost always this species. Watch for the red front and red underwings.

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Crimson-fronted Parakeets- I see this species on a daily basis.

Olive-throated Parakeet: A bird of the northern Caribbean lowlands, it needs more forested habitats than the Crimson-fronted. Plain-looking, long tailed parakeets seen in the Caribbean lowlands are this species. They lack red in the plumage and have wings with darker, contrasting flight feathers than the Crimson-fronted.

Orange-fronted Parakeet: This is the common, long-tailed parakeet species of dry forest. They overlap with the Crimson-fronted in the Carara area but can be told by their orange fronts and duller green plumage.

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Orange-fronted Parakeet from Tambor, Costa Rica.

Brown-throated Parakeet: A recent invader from Panama, watch for it in southwestern Costa Rica from the Panamanian border west to Piedras Blancas National Park. It overlaps with the more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet but lacks the red front and has an orangey-brown throat.

Brotogeris genus- one species, common, short-tailed parakeet of deforested lowlands.

Orange-chinned Parakeet: This common species vies with the Crimson-fronted for holding the title of the most frequently encountered Psittacid in Costa Rica. Any small parakeet with a short pointed tails seen in the lowlands is this species (it also occurs in the Central Valley).

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Orange-chinned Parakeet, a species hard to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Bolborhynchus genus- one species, an uncommon highland parakeet.

Barred Parakeet: If you are birding above 2,000 meters in the Central or Talamancan Cordilleras and see small, plain, short-tailed parakeets that remind you of crossbills or other “winter finches”, you have probably seen Barred Parakeets. They could overlap with Red-fronted Parrotlets at certain times of the year but those will show red and yellow in their plumage.

Touit genus- one species, a rare, little known bird of middle elevations.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: If you see this one when birding Costa Rica, you will have hit the Psittacid jackpot. Not much is known about this species, it is seen very infrequently, and yours truly still needs a better look before counting it as a lifer! It mostly occurs in middle elevation forests and appears to make elevational movements in search of fruiting or seeding trees. Who knows, maybe it was more common in the past before so much of the Central Valley was deforested. I wonder about this because friends of mine saw a small flock for a few days in June in their urban backyard near Heredia! The birds were probably moving around in search of fruiting trees after breeding somewhere up in the Central Cordillera. They have also been recorded high up in the Talamancas as well as in lowland areas. If you see a small, short-tailed parakeet with red and yellow in the wings and lots of red on the head, then you may have gotten the coveted Red-fronted Parrotlet. On a side note, if you do see this species, take as many notes about its behavior, location, etc. as you can so we can get a better handle on its natural history.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

“Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

“Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

“Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

“Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica identification issues Introduction

Melanerpes genus woodpeckers of Costa Rica

If you are a birder from North America coming to Costa Rica for birding,  you are probably familiar with at least one of the Melanerpes species. Don’t worry, this isn’t some fun, new disease, it’s the name of the woodpecker genus that includes species such as the Red-bellied, Red-headed, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.

Medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly long bills, members of the Melanerpes clan enliven neighborhoods with their drumming, rattling calls, and flopping flight (especially the Lewis’s Woodpecker) in much of southern Canada and the United States. They also occur further south, including on several Caribbean Islands, and of course in Costa Rica.

When birding Costa Rica, there are five Melanerpes species that occur, each more or less occupying a different region or habitat. If you are used to seeing Red-bellied or Golden-fronted Woodpeckers at your feeder or in your backyard, two of Costa Rica’s Melanerpes species are going to look and sound very familiar. These are the Hoffman’s and Red-crowned Woodpeckers.

Hoffman’s Woodpecker only occurs from Honduras to Costa Rica. Within its small range, this is generally the most common woodpecker species and the one you are most likely to see when birding Costa Rica around San Jose and in Guanacaste. Although it is a bird of the central valley and northern Pacific slope, don’t be surprised if you run into the Hoffman’s Woodpecker on the Caribbean slope. It’s still pretty uncommon there and outnumbered by the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, but deforestation has definitely left the door wide open for this edge species.

Hoffman's Woodpeckers are seen quite often when birding Costa Rica

Hoffman's Woodpecker, Costa Rica

No, I am not a Golden-fronted Woodpecker.

These are very common birds but it’s always fun to watch woodpeckers. This Hoffman’s was feeding down low at Tambor, on the Nicoya Peninsula.

Replacing the Hoffman’s Woodpeckers to the south is the Red-crowned Woodpecker. When birding Costa Rica, watch for it on the Pacific slope from around Dominical south to Panama. Also watch for orange-crowned hybrids from Carara to Quepos (If you see them, I suppose you could put a half-check next to Hoffmans’ and another half check next to Red-crowned on your list).

It acts a lot like the Hoffman’s and also sounds very similar. They are such common, backyard birds on the Pacific slope of Panama that they should have called it the Panamanian Woodpecker. I mean whoever thought of calling them “red-crowned” must not have noticed that most of the 225 or so woodpecker species have red on their crowns.

This Red-crowned Woodpecker was hanging out at Hacienda Baru,

and this one was roaming the shaded streets of David, Panama near the Purple House hostel (yes, everything there is purple).

If you venture into the forests of the south Pacific slope (and you obviously should when birding Costa Rica), you will hopefully run into the Golden-naped Woodpecker. It ranges from the river trail at Carara south to extreme western Panama (where it is very rare because they exchanged most of the forests there for cattle farms). This beautiful woodpecker is more difficult to see than its zebra-backed cousins because it stays within the forest but you could run into it at a number of places within its range.

Check out my golden nape!

This one was along the river trail at Carara National Park. With the white on its back and yellow on its head, it kind of reminds me of Northern Three-toed Woodpecker (a non-Melanerpes but just as cool).

Over on the Caribbean slope, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker replaces the Golden-naped. It’s more common and easier to see than the Golden-naped when birding Costa Rica because it shows less of an aversion to deforestation. You will almost certainly get your fill of this beautiful woodpecker in lowland and foothill forests as well as second growth and edge habitats anywhere on the Caribbean slope.

This Black-cheeked Woodpecker was being conspicuous near Ciudad Quesada.

Our fifth and final Costa Rican Melanerpes species hoards acorns from western North America all the way south to northern Colombia. In Costa Rica, it is a common resident of the high mountain forests and can be seen at a number of sites. These are the avian clowns of the high elevation rain forests (Prong- billed Barbet gets this distinction at middle elevations, and wood rails laugh it up in the lowlands).

This Acorn Woodpeckers was living large at San Gerardo de Dota.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica identification issues

Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

violaceous trogon1

and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds identification issues Introduction lowlands

Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica

People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists.  Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.

And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are  native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!

Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,

male

female

the Yellow-faced Grasquit,

and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male

compared to a Caribbean slope male.

Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.

While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.

Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!

Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.

Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”

whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?

This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!

whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!

On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.

Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.

As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!

In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).