Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see puffbirds when birding in Costa Rica

The Bucconidae, or puffbirds, are one of the many families of birds that rank high on target lists of temperate zone birders on a birding trip to Costa Rica because they are just so darn different from birds of the north. A funny name for a funny bunch of birds, the large-headed, stout-bodied, tiny-footed puffbirds look like a cross between a Kookaburra and some odd stuffed animal won at the ring toss. Although they are probably easiest to see and most speciose in the forests of Amazonia, five puffbird species can also be encountered when birding Costa Rica. The five, feathered stars of this post are:

1. White-whiskered Puffbird

A male from the Trogon Trail near Achiote, Panama.

The White-whiskered Puffbird is the most common and frequently seen of the family when birding Costa Rica. A fairly common resident of humid lowland and foothill forests of both slopes, the White-whiskered Puffbird likes to trick neotropical, neophyte birders into thinking that it’s some sort of owl. One really can’t blame a birder for suspecting that the puffbird is an owl because the shape and coloration are actually a lot like a pygmy owl (and it also moves its tail back and forth like one). This species loves to lurk in the shady understory and usually makes its presence known with extremely high-pitched (and easily overlooked) vocalizations. Although they sound more like a baby bird or a strange bug, if you learn their calls, this will come in handy in looking for other similar sounding Malacoptila genus puffbirds elsewhere in the neotropics. This species is found at many sites when birding Costa Rica but is probably easiest at Carara. I also see it on most visits to Quebrada Gonzalez.

2. White-necked Puffbird

A White-necked Puffbird in the canopy at Carara National Park.

This pigeon-sized, monster-headed bird is a perennial favorite and rightly so. With its oversized beak and striking black and white plumage, the White-necked Puffbird gets my vote for being one of the coolest, widespread bird species of the neotropics. Unlike the White-whiskered Puffbird, when birding Costa Rica, you will have to look high up into the canopy of tall, lowland forest to this species. Like other puffbirds, it prefers to sally out and snatch large, juicy katydids, walking sticks, and lizards from the foliage after a long, immobile wait. This behavior doesn’t make the White-necked Puffbird very easy to see but at least means that it makes for a nice photography subject when spotted. Canopy towers significantly up your chances in seeing this bird but since such wonderful birding aids are strangely absent from Costa Rica, your best bet for seeing the White-necked Puffbird in Costa Rica is to keep an eye on the tree tops and scan the canopy whenever possible (such as when hillsides in areas of lowland forest are visible). Being familiar with the rather quiet, even-pitched, prolonged  trill given by the White-necked Puffbird also helps in tracking them down. This species is widespread in tall forest of the lowlands of both slopes but might be easiest at Carara and in the Golfo Dulce area.

3. Pied Puffbird

Taken along the La Selva entrance road.

Like a miniature White-necked, the Pied Puffbird is easily overlooked when birding because of its small size and loyalty to the puffbird doctrine of lethargic meditation. Fortunately, it is more vociferous than its brethren and gives a loud, easily recognized descending series of trills which at the least make you aware of their presence. They will sometimes perch on dead branches in the open which is nice because Pied Puffbirds can be very difficult to find when calling from the canopy vegetation. The Pied Puffbird is uncommon in Costa Rica but regularly found along the La Selva entrance road. It seems to prefer the edges of lowland forests of the Caribbean Slope. Outside of Costa Rica, the best place I have seen for Pied Puffbird was in Panama around Achiote.

4. White-fronted Nunbird

A bad yet identifiable image from Bijagua.

The nunbirds are striking, strange things with their large coral-colored bills and rollicking laughter-like vocalizations. More active and easier to see than the other puffbirds, they move through the sub-canopy and take large insects and small lizards from the vegetation with frequent sallies. Nunbirds in Costa Rica and elsewhere often forage with other medium-sized birds in mixed flocks and are common in regions with extensive, lowland rain forest. They apparently need large areas of forest to survive because this formerly common species of the Caribbean lowlands has become quite rare in Costa Rica and has all but disappeared from historically reliable sites such as La Selva. It still occurs as a rare resident in lowland forests near Rara Avis, at Selva Verde, at Laguna del Lagarto, Barbilla National Park, and in the forests of the Talamancan foothills near Limon. The best place I have seen for this species when birding in Costa Rica has been at Hitoy Cerere; a little visited reserve near Limon that has the best Caribbean Slope lowland forest I have seen in Costa Rica and is one of the only accessible sites where nunbirds are still common. Other sites in Costa Rica for White-fronted Nunbird are at Bijagua, some forests in the Arenal area, probably Tortuguero, and possibly in primary forests near Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo.

5. Lanceolated Monklet

Sorry, no photo for this one! I still need this species for my Costa Rica list despite it having been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez! This fact is testament to the rarity and difficulty of connecting with this species in Costa Rica. I have often whistled like one at Quebrada Gonzalez but have never gotten a response nor have I ever heard one there so I wonder of it is still present at that site. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was because its small size and firm committment to the puffbird doctrine make it very easy to overlook. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, the Lancelated Monklet is typically found near streams in mossy forest of foothill and middle elevation sites. Although you can’t really expect to get this one while birding in Costa Rica, other regular sites for this species have been VIrgen del Socorro (no longer accessible), the Tuis river near Rancho Naturalista, and Tapanti National Park. It is definitely easier to see in Ecuador (Milpe, Silanche, and Bombuscaro where I have seen several), and in Peru (the Manu Road). Listen for its vocalization to locate this tough species- a series of high-pitched, upslurred notes.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction

How to see Tinamous in Costa Rica

I wish I had photos of tinamous but other than pics of Undulated Tinamous from Tambopata, Peru, I haven’t been lucky enough to get adequate pics of any other of these goofy-looking, wonderful, feathered footballs (and by “footballs” I mean the somewhat cylindrical, all American “pigskin”). So, if you were hoping for lots of breathtaking imagery in this blog post, I am sorry to disappoint.

However, if you want to find out how to see tinamous in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) read on!

Tinamous as a family range from tropical Mexico all the way south to the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia. They stick to the ground in both humid and dry forests, thick second growth, above the treeline in the October-colored paramo, and in the grasslands of the southern cone. They are also pretty tough to see no matter where you go but at least love to vocalize with haunting songs that are easy on the ears; a boon for birders who happily make ticks on their life list with “heard onlys”. For those of us who need visual confirmation to add one more precious bird to our life lists, though, the ventriloquil songs of Tinamous can quickly turn from being magical and beautifully mysterious to being maddening and horribly frustrating. Although they may be rather “primitive” birds, tinamous aren’t exactly dumb. On the contrary, they must be pretty smart to have survived as a family for several million years and are very adept at remaining unseen. Like avian ninjas of the neotropics, tinamous start the day by taunting birders with their loud, beautiful songs, but then carefully slink through and hide in the undergrowth as soon as binocular-toting, khaki-wearing people hit the trails. After a tinamou-less day inside the forest, and usually while musing about tinamous over drinks right around 5 P.M., the football-shaped birds laugh at the birders with a flurry of vocalizations emanating from deep within the forest. Some tinamous think the joke is so good that they just can’t help themselves and insist on singing in the middle of the night. Really, its’ no wonder that so many people who live near tinamous want to shoot and eat them!

I don’t want to do tinamous any harm whatsoever, nor do I even mind their sneaky behavior. As Zen as I would like to believe myself to be, I have to admit that it’s easy to withstand the tremulous laughs of the tinamous because I am the one who gets the final guffaw. You see, I think that one must think and act like certain birds to see them. In the case of tinamous, this means taking the birding gloves off and getting downright sneaky. You can try playback with tinamous, but aside from over-harrassing the birds, they don’t respond so well. I admit that I have had some success with playback on tinamous, but don’t find it to be as useful of a tool as some other tricks to see these guys.

The most basic and best way to see more tinamous is to walk carefully, quietly, and slowly through the forest. Stop often, be patient, constantly scan the undergrowth, and keep an eye on the trail ahead. Most of all, do not talk, and remember to think like a ninja! Don’t worry about rushing; there are birds around and some might be looking at you. In addition to tinamous, I often end up seeing other ground birds this way such as quail-doves, antthrushes, and wood-quail.

Watch for food sources. Although tinamous mostly eat small creatures such as bugs and lizards, many will also take fallen fruit. Watch for tinamous at antswarms, below fruiting trees, and at spots where flowers that have fallen from the canopy may attract more insects.

Track down singing tinamous at dawn and dusk and bring a flashlight. Get out there when they sing- you might be able to sneak up on one close to the trail.

If the above advice pays off and you do see a tinamou in Costa Rica, at least their identification is pretty straightforward. The five species in Costa Rica are:

Great Tinamou : Common in lowland and foothill rainforest, if you see a brown tinamou with grayish legs that looks bigger than a chicken, it’s this one. Although found at a variety of sites, the most reliable places are Carara and La Selva because Great Tinamous tend to be more tame in these protected forests. It sings with deep, tremulous whistles.

Slaty-breasted Tinamou : Restricted to the northern half of the Caribbean slope, there aren’t too many places to see this species in Costa Rica because of extensive deforestation. To me, they don’t seem as common as they used to be at La Selva although they are still fairly reliable there. Other possibilities are Tortuguero, the forested areas around Laguna del Lagarto lodge, and around the Arenal area. Slaty-breasted Tinamous also occur at Rara Avis and Quebrada Gonzalez, although they are more common in the lowlands. This species might be easier in countries to the north. I recall seeing one or two at Palenque in Mexico. Listen for two very low-pitched whistles that are the song of this one and watch for the gray breast.

Thicket Tinamou : If you see a tinamou in the dry forest, it’s probably this one. Watch for the barring on the upperparts, rufescent tones of the plumage, and reddish legs. During the dry season, especially watch for it in gallery forest and listen for the low, whistled song.

Little Tinamou : The most common and at the same time most difficult to see tinamou in Costa Rica, you will know that one is near when you hear what sounds like a horse that has been sucking on helium balloons whinny from the thick, humid, second growth. Their preference for dense vegetation makes them very difficult to see. Peering into the forest edge might reveal one or you might see one foraging below the Rara Avis feeders or at shaded kitchen middens behind restaurants in the lowlands that are adjacent to thick second growth. The Little Tinamou is indeed little (American Robin-sized) and is mostly plain brown.

Highland Tinamou : This is a tinamou of the cloud forest and the one you are most likely to see along the trails at the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves. In fact, try as hard as you can to see it at these sites because the Highland Tinamou is more regularly seen here than other sites in its range. Watch for the lightly spotted back, and the gray head with rufous throat. It doesn’t not sing as much as other tinamous, nor does it sound anything like the other species in Costa Rica. Listen for the repeated, short, rather harsh notes that make up its song.