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Costa Rica Birding Update, January, 2018

Wind may shake the branches and rain may soak the ground but it won’t keep me from doing that birding stuff all day long. These days, in Costa Rica, that’s a fair motto to follow. Well, it’s not all that bad actually, just seems that way when you have this vacillation between heavy and light rain for several days. Stick with it, adapt to it, make use of plastic. The birds are still there, they still have to feed, and you will still see a lot.

Speaking of that, here is a brief summary of the latest trends and news in Costa Rica birding:

Sparrows So, the small brown birds with conical bills might not find themselves at the upper echelons of birding excitement up north, but here in Costa Rica, yeah, we get psyched about most sparrows. No, not the Rufous-collared, but other, much more difficult ones to add to our local lists. You know those common ones up in the temperate zone? You know, as in that trilling bird of open pine stands in state parks, or that other triller of the marshlands, or various other sparrows? Or, that one that breeds in boreal and highland bogs and is commonly seen in migration? Yeah, in Costa Rica, all are megas, this year, several folks have seen the latter bog bird at a site in Guanacaste. Much to my chagrin, it happens to be the same exact site where I was hoping to pish up a sparrow or two after finally making the lifer connection with the good old Spotted Rail in December. Either the Lincon’s Sparrows hadn’t arrived yet or they didn’t dig my pishing. No matter, they are there right now. Not that any visiting birder would want to see them but, in Costa Rica, a Lincoln’s Sparrow always makes birding news.

Not a sparrow, not even close, but I haven’t seen them so I’m posting a picture of a totally unrelated White-flanked Antwren instead.

Before I get off the sparrow topic, I should also mention that another lost little brown bird has also made it to our shores. In this case, a country first White-crowned Sparrow wintering in the Osa Peninsula. How a bird that breeds in the treeline tundra manages to survive in one of the more humid parts of Central America is both a mystery and serious testament to adaptability. So far so good, I hope it makes it back to northern Manitoba because it will have one hell of a story to tell! This Indiana Jones of sparrows would likely relate tales of surviving on bananas, seriously hot weather, the danger posed by various snakes, and that the number of mosquitoes was of course nothing compared to a high northern June.

Other odd winter birds– Speaking of lost sparrows, another bird that maybe went too far south also comes to mind. In fact, they might have even hailed from the same wolf and wind howling tundra as the sparrow, might have taken that same lost train way south. American Pipits, as common as they are in winter much to the north, are rare as heck in Costa Rica. One was seen earlier in the year on Cerro de la Muerte, now at least two have appeared in Guanacaste. So, it makes me wonder, are such birds of cold climes here because of the deep freezes that hit the north? Are they here every year? I suspect it’s a bit of both- birds like American Pipit and sparrows come to Costa Rica every year but we don’t find them because they are so few in number (and because most folks in their right mind don’t want to scour brushy, chigger crazy fields). Probability dictates that there are probably more out there. Please keep your eyes and mind open to sparrows and other birds that seem out of place, and report them ASAP to eBird so we can chase them.

Crested Guan- In Costa Rica, not in the last bit odd, even if it feeds in a palm, out in the open.

Cotingas at Arenal– Since you always have a chance of seeing esteemed members of this family at Arenal, it’s almost silly to mention this BUT since we all have a soft spot in our birding hearts for cotingas (that really means we need to very desperately see them), I also can’t help but mention that the umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga have been recently seen on the grounds of the Observatory Lodge. It’s not every day that this happens but it is a somewhat regular occurrence and always good to know. By the way, just to mention, did you know that the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is Endangered? Like not, you know, just hard to see but officially, seriously under mofo threat of going extinct? Yeah, just a filthy reminder about what “Endangered” means. According to Birdlife International, it’s even more likely to go extinct than the Vulnerable and crazier looking Long-wattled Umbrellabird. If we can reforest enough of the lowland areas that meet the foothills, we might be able to do our collective home a favor and remove the “Endangered” status from descriptions of this special bird.

Bold Sunbittern at Lands in Love– Last but far from least, recently, there was an especially bold Sunbittern at the Lands in Love hotel. That or it was seriously wishing that it could have been an egret. No skulking at the shady water’s edge for this one. Nope, it was standing out there in a large, muddy puddle catching tadpoles. Eventually, it did the right Sunbittern thing and moved to the edge. Then, it hung out there for an eternity, absolutely refusing to show its sunburst patterned wings no matter how close it was approached, nor how many photos were taken.

I wasn’t making this up.

Cope’s Place– The bird haven of artist/naturalist Jose Perez just keeps getting better. In addition to the usual roosting Spectacled and Crested Owls, a damn Rufous-winged Tanager was coming to the feeder a few weeks ago, someone took a fricking amazing picture of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle, and he also knows (once again), a spot for a roosting Great Potoo.

Many other things could be said about birds in Costa Rica but it’s mostly what you might expect- lots of great birding just about everywhere you go, awesome feeder action, dozens of hummingbirds, quetzals, you probably get the picture. If not, come on down and get the experience.

 

 

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Two Ornate Bird Species at El Tapir

One of the innumerable cool things about watching birds compared to say, mammals, is that many tend to be colorful, decorative, and downright ornate. Not that there aren’t ornate mammals too but let’s face it, the general color scheme for mammal species happens to be brown. Some bird species have even managed to get “ornate” included in their common English name. Ornate Antwren is one of them and although its plumage isn’t exactly decked out with fancy plumes, compared to other dead leaf inspecting Myrmotherula, it’s a brightly colored bird.

With its striking plumage and fancy feathered spike on top of its head, the Ornate Hawk Eagle earns its name with flair. However, there are many more ornate looking birds that don’t get that adjective included in their names than the birds that do. I saw two such ornate bird species during recent guiding in the Caribbean slope foothill forests of El Tapir.

One was right out in the open among the flowering Porterweed (Stachytarpheta sp.).

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This male Black-crested Coquette entertained on two recent mornings at El Tapir. If you haven’t seen one of these gems in person, it’s like a feathered flying bug that has been decorated for a fancy little nectar party. The wispy crest makes this and other coquette species about as delicate and elegant as a bird can be.

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They like to perch on bare twigs to show off those crazy plumes.

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“Behold my plumes!”, says the coquette (which only hummingbirds and bats can hear because it has such a high-pitched tinkly voice).

The other sort of ornate species we saw is much larger than a coquette and hangs out on forested streams and rivers. It’s a nemesis bird for many but eventually turns up if you take enough boat rides on the Sarapiqui or check enough rocky rivers.

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The pristine stream at the end of the main trail at El Tapir is a good spot for Sunbittern. It’s also a good trail for many other things but be prepared for ticks!

This fancy blend of heron, rail, and crane was pretty shy but eventually let us take pictures once it ventured out to the middle of the stream. It slowly swayed back and forth as we admired everything from its reddish eyes to the white spots on its wings and sunburst pattern in the primaries as it took flight

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My, what orange legs you have!

Sunbittern, the neotropical Kagu.

The main species that people hope to see at El Tapir was also present. In fact, there were at least four Snowcaps buzzing around the flowers. I wouldn’t refer to these snowy-crowned gems as being ornate but I would venture to say that the males look like surreal birds only seen in dreams.

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Crazy purple and glaring white. What’s up with that!

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The female brings you back to reality with much more homely hummingbird plumage.

Nevertheless, she still strikes a coy pose now and then.

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The Costa Rican Riverbird Flush

Cost Rica abounds with rivers, streams, rivulets, brooks, ravines, and glens. Even aquatic ecologists bound by profession to maintain strict definitions for bodies of water that flow down gradients would find all of the above and more in Costa Rica. The mountainous terrain and giant bucketloads of rain combine forces to fill the country with so much rushing water that they would probably feel obliged to come up with new terms to describe their observations.

“Dr. Perry, what definition would you give to this body of water? I can’t seem to find a definition for its clear, then muddy, then marshy appearance.”

“Yep! It’s one of those crazy tropical bodies of water that seems to defy an easy definition! Let’s call it a streamaswampus!”

“Ok, I noted that, have taken water samples, and pictures above and below water with the waterproof camera to document our find.”

“Great! Now back to looking for giant neotropical crayfish.”

While Dr. Perry and his trusty graduate students were marveling at tropical aquatic ecosystems and broadening the lexicon of their field of study, even if they weren’t looking for birds, they probably would have gotten the Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. This doesn’t mean that they would have contracted some unfortunate and frightening skin disorder. No, what I am referring to is seeing at least five bird species that are principally found on rivers when birding Costa Rica. These are the birds that make us stop at every bridge to scan the rocky shore with our binoculars, that encourage us march down steep sets of stairs constructed for viewing scenic waterfalls, and that even drive some of us to risk killing our digital cameras by picking our way upstream on slippery rocks until the feathered, riparian-loving quarry is glimpsed.

Three of these species are perennial favorites on target lists of birders visiting Costa Rica, the fourth is frequently overlooked as a possibility by North American birders because it is more commonly seen in the Rocky Mountains, and the fifth can be any one of a number of river-loving bird species that are practically a given when birding Costa Rica.

The three Costa Rican river birds that get top honors are: Sunbittern, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and Torrent Tyrannulet.

The Sunbittern is so strangely cool that even non birders should want to see it. Is it a rail? Some freaky anhinga thingy? How about a heron (after all it does have bittern in its name)? The Sunbittern is none of the above although it kind of looks like a mutant avian patchwork quilt of all of the above and more. Recent molecular studies have shown that its closest relative is the Kagu, a bizarre and very wanted bird species from New Caledonia that has also defied clear taxonomic placement since its discovery. The Sunbittern gets its name from the large, sunburst-like patches on its wings that it shows when excited or threatened. They can turn up along just about any river or stream that runs through humid forest in Costa Rica but are most easily and regularly seen on the Sarapiqui River near Puerto Viejo. In fact, this might be the easiest place to tick this bird away from the Llanos of northern South America and the Pantanal of Brazil and Paraguay.

Any birder visiting the Sarapiqui area has a very good chance of seeing this species if they just keep scanning the river during their stay. A boat trip should also do the trick but watching for it from the bridge at Chilamate will probably work. You should also see one if checking the river from such hotels as Selva Verde, Tirimbina, Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, or El Gavilan. On a recent trip to the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat, we spotted our first Sunbittern as it foraged on the other side of the river and then were spoiled by an individual that frequented the lodge’s football pitch and area right next to their cabins!

Unless they are standing on a football pitch (aka soccer field), Sunbitterns can be surprisingly difficult to spot because they tend to move slowly and carefully along the edge of the river and blend in very well with a background made mottled by shadow, river rocks, earthen banks, gravel, and sand bars. Watch especially for the white markings in their wings.

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The one on the other side of the river.

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The unofficial mascot of the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat!

The Fasciated Tiger-Heron is also more easily seen along rocky sections of the Sarapiqui than at many other sites in its range. This species isn’t more common in Costa Rica than elsewhere, it’s just that birding guests at any of the eco-oriented hotels located along the Sarapiqui can sit around and watch the river until one moves through its necessarily linear territory. We also had one of these very cool herons while river watching from the Chilamate Rainforest Retreat. Like the Sunbittern, the tiger-heron also blends in amazingly well with its background. The one we recently had at Chilamate looked a lot like the gray river rocks when seen from behind (so much so that I never would have seen it without binoculars). Fasciated Tiger-Heron could turn up at any number of rocky rivers in Costa Rica but it seems to be easiest along the Sarapiqui.

Torrent Tyrannulet is the third of the five most wanted river birds in Costa Rica. like the other two esteemed species that crown a Costa Rican Riverbird Flush, this little flycatcher has a large range outside the country. In my opinion, it’s easier to see in South America and may have declined in Costa Rica in some areas but it can still be found at a number of in-country sites. You probably won’t see it while scanning the river rocks for the Sunbittern or tiger-heron around Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui but could find it at any number of middle elevation, forested rivers. I recently got my 2011 bird along the Balsas River down the road from the San Luis Canopy.

The fourth bird species of the flush is the American Dipper. These plump, aquatic passerines are widespread along clean rivers of the Costa Rican mountains but are rather uncommon. You might see one while looking for the tyrannulet as they occur in the same sort of habitat. I was surprised to get one at Quebrada Gonzalez two years ago but regularly see them at Tapanti National Park and also recently had one on the same stretch of river as my 2011 tyrannulet.

Once you have the four more challenging species, getting the fifth is a far easier task. Just go out birding along any middle elevation stream or river in humid forested areas of Costa Rica and you will see Black Phoebe (a common and conspicuous bird at any time of the year), Lousiana Waterthrush (fairly common during the winter months), or at least a Buff-rumped Warbler (also common in the lowlands).

We aren’t even done with the first month of 2011 and I already have my Costa Rican Riverbird Flush. I hope this is a good portent for the year and a sign that I will reach 600 species by December 31st.