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.