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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Striped Cuckoos are common in Costa Rica but where’s the Pheasant?

During much of the year in Costa Rica, the song of the Striped Cuckoo is a common part of the auditory scenery. I hear them near my house singing from scrubby fields around the coffee plantations. I hear them call from the tangled second growth of deforested areas in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific Slopes. It seems like any humid place in Costa Rica below 1,400 meters with enough edge habitat supports a population of  Striped Cuckoos.

They get overlooked though, because they tend to skulk. Like Anis, Roadrunners, and most of those Old World Coucals, the Striped Cuckoo is a terrestrial cuckoo species. It will ascend into the subcanopy of some edge trees or get up on top of some bush when it sings (and thank goodness because otherwise we would hardly EVER see them) but usually, it creeps around in dense, tropical undergrowth where it does who knows what. Sometimes, you can get lucky and see one take a dust bath on some blazing hot, lowland tropical track, or see one spread its wings and flash its black alulas. Is this a mechanism to catch more grasshoppers? To attract a mate? Evidence of madness? Who knows!

What I do know is that at least their song is pretty easy to imitate and often gets them to show themselves.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

A Striped Cuckoo coaxed out into the open at El Gavilan in the Sarapiqui lowlands.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Striped Cuckoos love to raise their crest….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and lower it….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and raise it, over and over. It’s pretty cool to watch so I apologize for not having a video of it.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Here’s a frontal view of the same Striped Cuckoo.

When birding Costa Rica, listen for their clear, two noted whistle that might remind you of a Bobwhite, the first note lower than the second. They also have a longer song with a few lower notes that follow the second note.

This longer song sounds more like the much rarer Pheasant Cuckoo. By the way, if you ever see a Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica, PLEASE let me know right away because there are very few sites known for this species in the country. The only regular site seems to be savannas near Buenos Aires although they have also been recorded from Carara in scrubby habitat near the crocodile bridge, around Esparza, and close to the Panamanian border near San Vito.

Why they are so rare in Costa Rica is another of those neotropical, bird distribution enigmas. I mean they aren’t too difficult in cloud forest near Valle Nacional, Oaxaca, are regular in Metropolitan Park, Panama, and are found in the Amazon of southeastern Peru (where I used to hear them just about every darn morning but never saw them!). Based on where they have been found, I suspect that their rarity in Costa Rica has something to do with them not liking the high amount of precipitation that falls here.

So, Pheasant Cuckoos are tough to see but they should at least vocalize if around so seem to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica as opposed to just being ridiculously shy and mute.

No picture of the Pheasant Cuckoo yet! One day though, I’m going to do surveys and run around the country whistling like a Pheasant Cuckoo until I figure out where they occur.

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

A Dozen Birds to watch for when Birding Costa Rica part one

Michigan “has” the Kirtland’s Warbler, we thought that Arkansas had the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (who knows-maybe it still does), and Texas is the easiest place to see endangered Whooping Cranes.

So what does Costa Rica “have”? Which birds are easier to see in its rainforests, cloud forests, montane oak forests, mangroves, and edge habitats than elsewhere?

Birders use range maps to get an idea of which birds they might encounter but experienced birders also read trip reports and information about the natural history of their target species because they know how misleading those maps can be!  These visual aids can make it seem like a bird species is evenly distributed within that splotch of color when in reality, the bird in question has a more spotty distribution determined by patchy microhabitats.

Good field guides try to avoid the fomentation of false birding expectations by providing text that details aspects of habitat, behavior, and rarity but it’s still easier to just look at the range map and expect to see the bird.

Although tempting, this methodology for planning a birding trip to the tropics could result in a lot of frustration because for many birds the situation is much more complicated.

For example, a range map for Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet might show this broad swath of color that blankets southeastern Mexico and colors its way down through Central America to Costa Rica. Likewise, the Lovely Cotinga is represented by a blanket of color that enshrouds southeastern Mexico, and the Caribbean slope of Central America south to Costa Rica.

Oh, these two species do occur in Costa Rica, but don’t expect to see them! Here in Costa Rica, both the tyrannulet and the cotinga are pretty rare and local (who knows why?). They are, however, more common and easier to see up in Mexico or Honduras.

Costa Rica is at the southern limit of their ranges, so that might have something to do with it, but for some other bird species, possible reasons for their absence aren’t so forthcoming.

For example, Wing-banded Antbird is known to occur in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua found to the north of Costa Rica and in some lowland rainforest areas of Panama to the south of Costa Rica. So why can’t you see this strange antbird when birding Costa Rica? Nobody knows although the answer is probably related to any number of factors such as habitat differences, competition, and biogeography. One a side note, the main birding guide at Rara Avis swears that he saw this species in the foothill rainforests of this site on two occasions.

Likewise, don’t expect to see Orange-breasted Falcon in Costa Rica despite the presence of seemingly good habitat. Although this beautiful, tropical falcon is on the Costa Rican list, it may have never occurred in the country despite residing in forests to the north and to the south.

Instead of focusing on bird species that are rare or that don’t occur in Costa Rica, though, let’s focus on the bird species that you are more likely to seen when birding Costa Rica (excluding Cocos Island) than elsewhere in their range.

In systematic order…

1. Great Curassow. This neotropical turkey-looking thing with a curly crest has a large range that extends from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador. However, since it probably tastes as good as a turkey but lays far fewer eggs,  it has become extirpated by over-hunting in most accessible areas. Although the Great Curassow has declined in Costa Rica too, they aren’t too difficult to see in the larger national parks and protected areas such as Santa Rosa National Park, Tortuguero National Park, Corcovado National Park, Rincon de la Vieja National Park, and most of all, at La Selva. With wild, tame individuals strolling the grounds of La Selva, this has got to be the most reliable and accessible place in the world to see the magnificent Great Curassow.

2. Black Guan. Almost by default, Costa Rica is the place to see this neat looking guan of the highlands because of its limited range.  Only found in Costa Rica and western Panama, although I don’t think it’s too difficult to see on the slopes of Volcan Baru, Panama, it’s pretty easy to see at several sites in Costa Rica. The Black Guan is pretty common in any of the protected highland forests of Costa Rica like Monteverde, Tapanti, and Cerro de la Muerte.

3. Black-breasted Wood-Quail. Like the Black Guan, this wood-quail is only found in the highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. It is definitely easier to see in Costa Rica, especially so in forests of the Monteverde area.

4. Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The large range of this raptor makes its placement on this list somewhat debatable but from personal experience, I still think it’s easier to see in Costa Rica than many other places. You can find it at any number of areas with extensive rainforest when birding Costa Rica. Corcovado and Braulio Carrillo are especially good sites. I watch this awesome eagle on 70% of visits to Quebrada Gonzalez (!).

5. Chiriqui and Buff-fronted Quail-Doves. These can also be seen in western Panama, but there are more sites for them in the mountains of Costa Rica. Like all quail-doves, they aren’t exactly easy to see, but you have a pretty good chance of running into the Chiriqui at the Finca Ecologica or Bajo del Tigre trail in Monteverde, and the Buff-fronted in the Monteverde cloud forests or on Cerro de la Muerte.

6. Black-and-white Owl. These are more common than birders think and can be seen in many places, but the easiest ones are in the Orotina plaza. Expect more stake-outs of other owl species in Costa Rica later this year…

7. Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds. Also found in western Panama, the fancy Fiery-throated and tiny Volcano Hummingbirds are found at more accessible sites and feeders in the highlands of Costa Rica.

Fiery-throateds at La Georgina
female Volcano Hummingbird, Volcan Barva

8. Mangrove Hummingbird and Coppery-headed Emerald. Well, they aren’t found anywhere else so you have got to see them here! The emerald is pretty easy at feeders in Monteverde, La Paz Waterfall Gardens, and San Luis, but the Mangrove is tough. Check for it in any flowering mangroves on the Pacific Slope.

male Coppery-headed Emerald, Cinchona

9. Black-bellied Hummingbird. It also occurs on Panama but is pretty easy and accessible at Tapanti.

Black-bellied Hummingbird, El Silencio

10. All three mountain gems. These also occur in the highland forests of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama but are easier to see at various, more easily accessible sites in Costa Rica. The Purple-throated is one of the most common highland hummingbirds, the White-bellied is easily seen at Tapanti, and the White-throated is common in the oak forests of Cerro de la Muerte.

male White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Cinchona
male Purple-throated Mountain-Gem Varablanca
male White-throated Mountain-Gem El Copal

11. White-crested Coquette. This fantastic little bird also occurs in western Panama but it’s more widespread and easier in Costa Rica. It’s not exactly common but not too difficult to see if you find flowering trees with the small flowers it prefers (although I have also seen it take nectar from massive Balsa flowers!).

12. Snowcap. It ranges from Honduras to Panama, but is easiest to see in Costa Rica at several, easily accessible sites such as Braulio Carrillo, Arenal, Rancho Naturalista, and El Copal.

male Snowcap El Copal

Stay tuned for the next dozen or so bird species easier to see when birding Costa Rica than elsewhere!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds

Four Common Black Birds of Costa Rica

Up north in the temperate zone, black birds are a common part of the avian landscape.  In North America,  American Crows and  Common Grackles are some of the most frequently seen bird species in many areas. Birders in Europe can hardly miss seeing Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and Blackbirds (a thrush). In Costa Rica, there aren’t any crows. Instead, there are birds that occupy similar niches (Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles), and birds that are crow-sized and somewhat shaped like crows (oropendolas).

When birding Costa Rica, birders will also see plenty of four species with black plumage. These four bird species are the Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Groove-billed Ani, and Melodious Blackbird. All are common edge species of lowland and middle elevations that make their home in deforested areas and often live around towns. Although their black plumages are fairly similar, they have different shapes that help with their identification.

Since they occur in so many places, I won’t even say where you can see them when birding Costa Rica. I will talk about their identification, though, because a number of birders seem to have trouble in separating them.

1. The first on our list is often the first bird that people see in Costa Rica upon exiting the airport- the Great-tailed Grackle. This large, noisy bird has become amazingly adapted to living with people. A scavenger and opportunist of beaches, riversides, and wetlands, urban environments apparently mimic these open habitats because Great-tailed Grackles seem to be right at home as they forage on city streets, pick at garbage, and sing crazy songs from trees in a busy park. A large, black bird with a long, wedge-shaped tail seen when birding Costa Rica will be the male of this common species.

Male Great-tailed Grackles can look kind of nice at close range.
Quoth the Grackle..."Got any garbage"?

2. Melodious Blackbird. I wouldn’t call their vocalization melodious, but they are pretty darn vocal. Birders will hear their ringing song in most deforested areas of the country. This is pretty impressive considering that the Melodious Blackbird entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua only since the 1980s. This common, black-plumaged bird has a very generic bird shape. They sometimes occur in flocks but are most often seen as pairs perched together at the top of a tree in edge habitats. An American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird sized, all black bird with a medium length tail, flat head, and longish beak seen when birding Costa Rica will almost certainly be this species.

Click here to listen to one of its vocalizations:

Melodious Blackbird

Melodious Blackbird- a good bird to know when birding Costa Rica because you will see them all over the place.

3. Bronzed Cowbird. With deforestation, this has become a very common bird species in Costa Rica. Like its northern cousin with the brown head, the Bronzed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of a number of other birds. Unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird, few studies have been carried out to ascertain how its nesting behavior affects local bird species. When birding Costa Rica, if you see a small group of dark birds in flight that resemble “winter finches”, you have seen Bronzed Cowbirds. Their dumpy body and shortish bill gives them this finch-like appearance. When seen close up, they look kind of cool with that red eye.

My cool, red eyes are on the lookout for cows and unguarded nests.

4. Groove-billed Ani. The Smooth-billed is also pretty common in southwestern Costa Rica (and replaces the Groove-billed there), but the Groove-billed Ani is the one encountered the most because it has a larger range. These animated cuckoos are always fun to watch with their odd, parrot-like bills, short wings, long tails, and interesting social behavior. If you catch them in good light, their plumage can also show beautiful greenish and blueish iridescence. Similar in size and shape to the Great-tailed Grackle, Groove-billed Anis have shorter wings, are lankier, and have that short, arched bill.

Not all birds in Costa Rica look as exotic as quetzals or bellbirds but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them when birding Costa Rica. The birds talked about above are so common that it will be tough not to watch them.

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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
biodiversity Introduction non avian organisms

Snakes and Birding in Costa Rica

Recent conversations and inquiries about snakes (especially the venomous ones) followed up by a close encounter with a Fer-de-Lance has prompted me to finally write “the snake post”. Like many birders, although I focus on the feathered, I am also interested in many other aspects of nature (I almost said, “the natural world” but how could it be anything but natural). Among the myriads of life forms on our precious planet, snakes rank pretty high up there as creatures I would love to see more of and I admit that I keep a casual world snake list (my best species are Anaconda and Eastern Hog-nosed) but the list is pathetically short because I hardly EVER see any of the 130 plus species found in Costa Rica. While tromping around the tropical woods, I often wonder where they all are and you probably will too unless you spend all of your time herping instead of birding (and even then it might be easier to see birds). In actuality, snakes are probably somewhere in the vicinity no matter you go in Costa Rica; they just don’t want to be seen. Since they are easy to catch and have such a wide spectrum of predators that include coatis, peccaries, a variety of birds, other snakes, and unforgiving people, they have more than enough reasons to remain hidden. Some have even evolved to hide in plain sight with the help of fantastic camouflage; a trait that despite being very impressive, tends to promote anxiety and paranoia among guides and field biologists. One starts to get a little paranoid because the more time one spends in tropical habitats, by sheer probability, the more likely it is that one will be too close for comfort to a Fer-de-Lance. Realizing that that they are common and incredibly camouflaged doesn’t help either even though there are plenty of stories of people walking close to or even grabbing this highly venomous snake without getting bit. As of this past Sunday, I can now add my own encounter with a Fer-de-Lance to the long list of stories with happy endings that involve this infamous pit-viper.

I was at Quebrada Gonzalez with a client and my driver for the day and we were doing the loop trail behind the station for the second time (I often find different species doing the trail more than once, the additions on Sunday being White-whiskered Puffbird, Streak-chested Antpitta, and Spotted Antbird). Earlier on, during our morning walk, one of the rangers had passed us on the trail and had casually mentioned that he was going to use the long pole he was carrying to remove a large Fer-de-Lance from the path. Being occupied with staring into the trees on our search for birds, we didn’t see him move the snake but didn’t see the Fer-de-Lance that first time around. Although he had lifted it off of the trail, he apparently didn’t relocate it far enough away from the path because much to our nerve-racking surprise, it came back in the afternoon. Despite knowing where the snake had been hanging out and watching where I was stepping, I didn’t see the 5 foot serpent until it was practically underfoot. Its camouflage worked so well that I only noticed it because it was kind enough to move off of the path before I stepped on it. Although it was rather alarming to find that I didn’t see the snake until it moved, at least I can say that I am pleased with my instincts and reaction time. As soon as I perceived motion near the ground, I moved so fast that the only thing I recollect is possibly flying for about ten feet while exclaiming, “Stop! Snake! Snake on the trail! Don’t move!” After uttering a few other choice words to release the tension, I quickly calmed myself down (kung-fu birding at its best), and noticing that Linda and Janet could make a safe detour around the snake, directed them past the scaly beast. Although I didn’t notice exactly where the Fer-de-Lance had been at the start of this encounter, it ended up moving entirely off of the trail and took up a defensive posture.

See if you can find the snake below!

Here is a close-up of the head.

And if you had trouble finding the snake, here it is outlined.

It was pretty big and I am very lucky that it didn’t strike. Its reaction, though, is consistent with most other encounters that I have heard about. The few people who have gotten bit in Costa Rica have not been birders. They are usually people who picked one up, were cutting low-lying vegetation with a machete in a garden, or were walking at night along a forest trail in bare feet (this from a Bribri woman who told me that she got bit during a full moon and so of course her foot aches at every full moon). Although it sounds like the Fer-de-Lance typically reacts the way this snake did, that doesn’t mean that you should ever get that close to one! I take this encounter as a warning of sorts and in addition to never walking where I can’t clearly see the ground, will also scan the trail 10 meters ahead with binoculars to specifically check for snakes, and will watch 2 meters ahead of where I am walking. If I had done this, I am pretty sure that I would have seen the snake before almost stepping on it because I was only checking the ground directly beneath my feet. Rubber boots probably also add some protection (I usually wear those anyways).

It was actually a bit unusual to see a Fer-de-Lance deep inside the forest as they are much more common in second growth, grassy areas, at tree-fall gaps, and along streams. Be especially careful near marshy areas or other habitats that harbor lots of frogs because contrary to what has often been said about this infamous viper in books and TV shows, at least on the Caribbean Slope, they appear to be strict connoisseurs of the “grenouille”. I found this out last year when speaking with a naturalist who lives in the Reventazon Valley and is probably more of a herper than a birder. Over at least twenty years, in checking the stomach contents of at least a 100 Fer-de-Lances, every single one had fed almost exclusively on frogs no matter what size the snakes were. He also said that Bothrops asper were very common in fields with tall grass-keep that in mind next time you want to leave the trail! On his property, the venemous snakes that were taking larger rodents were Bushmasters. Much rarer and harder to find than Fer-de-Lance, on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica, they appear to be restricted to mature foothill forests (such as that of Quebrada Gonzalez) rather than in lowland forest. These observations also reflect my own experiences in Costa Rica and southeastern Peru. When I worked at the Posada Amazonas lodge in Tambopata Peru, during occasional explosions of mouse opossum and rodent populations, it was never Bothrops that suddenly showed up but Boas and Bushmasters (although it still took a lot of effort to find either of those). Regarding Bushmasters, they also blend in with the leaf litter but are more likely to occur near a log or base of a tree than on the trail itself (unless the log is lying across the trail). They are also pretty darn rare in Costa Rica so it is very unlikely that you will run into one (although rangers have told me that this species is untypically common at Hitoy Cerere).

Bushmaster or “Matabuey” at the Monteverde serpentarium.

Other snakes to watch our for on the ground are Jumping Viper (sounds scarier than it is), two species of Hog-nosed Vipers, and the Tropical Rattlesnake. The first three are rather small vipers that blend in quite well and could occur on a trail. Although I haven’t seen either of the Hog-nosed Vipers in the wild, I had a run in with a Jumping Viper at Bijagua that left me pretty frazzled. We were both in a hurry and like pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk, nearly ran into each other. Although I was the only one that jumped, I think it was just as startled because the viper opened its mouth and hissed at me. Hoping that it would continue on its way if I left it alone, I backtracked and birded for about twenty minutes before walking back up the trail. Much to my dismay, it hadn’t moved an inch and even knowing where it was, I still didn’t see the two foot snake until I was within ten feet of it. Oh yeah, just to make sure that I couldn’t miss it, the unfriendly serpent also hissed again. I ended up lifting it off the trail with a very long stick (which it struck repeatedly), and was hissed at as I walked past the snake even though it was at least ten feet away from me. Needless to say, I focused on the trail so much on my way out that I didn’t see any more birds.

Jumping Viper at the Monteverde serpentarium.

Western Hognose Viper at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

I don’t have any personal encounters with Tropical Rattlesnakes to relate but assume these are pretty easy to avoid because they would be easy to see along roads or the wide trails where most birding in the Pacific Northwest is done (don’t walk into the tall grass!).

Tropical Rattlesnake at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

In addition to watching where one walks, one also has to always be careful of the understory vegetation. In other words, don’t brush up against the leaves and do not grab any stems or tree trunks. Spines, thorns, nasty caterpillars, and sting-happy ants are just waiting to give you a surprise, and Eyelash Vipers won’t ask if you really meant to grab them before biting. The Eyelash Viper could be the most common venomous snake in Costa Rica and is the one most often seen. Rather small, this arboreal pit-viper rarely reaches more than two feet in length. It prefers to sit and wait in bushes, and on the understory vegetation for lizards, frogs, and birds. The beautiful golden phase stands out but the more typical mottled, green phase blends in perfectly with the mossy vegetation. Just don’t get too close to the vegetation though, and you will be alright.

A small Eyelash Viper at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Another at Bijagua.

There are also other rarer, arboreal vipers found at higher elevations but I don’t have any images of those.

Coral Snakes are far from rare in Costa Rica and at least a few species occur here with the two most common being the Central American and Allen’s Coral Snakes. I see a Coral Snake every once in a while in the woods, on a grassy lawn, or even in a coffee plantation. Although highly venomous, since they don’t blend in with their surroundings, you aren’t likely to step on one and are only likely to get bit if you pick one of these cobra relatives up and play with it (an obviously bad idea that herpetologists somehow can’t stop themselves from doing).

Central American Coral Snake at at the Monteverde Serpentarium.

Of course the poisonous snakes are the most exciting but in reality, on the rare occasions when I come across a serpent, it is of one of the many non-venomous species. One of the more frequently seen species is the Oriole Snake. This arboreal species can get quite big- in fact the largest snake I have seen in Costa Rica was a 8-9 foot individual of this species hanging out in the trees next to the HQ at Quebrada Gonzalez.

Oriole Snake in the Monteverde Serpentarium.

And here is a Tiger Rat Snake I saw at Rara Avis.

Some other fairly common snakes that I do not have pictures of are Salmon-bellied Racer, Mussarana, and Vine Snakes. I would like to have more images or at least augment my snake list but it’s just so hard to focus on looking for herps when there are so many birds to look for, watch, and study.

In any case, I hope this post doesn’t scare anyone from visiting Costa Rica. I think no matter where one travels, visitors will be safe as long as they take proper precautions for any potentially dangerous organisms. In Costa Rica, this means staying on the trail, watching where you walk, and it doesn’t hurt to hire a guide.

Categories
Asian birds biodiversity

New bald-headed bird discovered in Laos; lessons for Costa Rica

Ok, so I’m talking about Laos, that narrow, southeast Asian country and not a town in Costa Rica. The importance of this news though, supersedes both human-constructed frontiers and barriers imposed by continental drift and so I mention this discovery at a blog about birding in Costa Rica. Although It seems that with every exploration and attempt at understanding our world’s biodiversity, species new to science are described, these tend to be arthropods, fish, and amphibians. Among the most studied and watched of organisms, it is a rare occurrence when a “new” bird is found, especially so when the bird looks as amazingly distinct as this recent find from Laos.

First seen by an ornithologist in 1995, when R.J. Timmins related his sightings to his colleagues, no one even considered that he may have seen an undescribed taxon. A bald-headed songbird just sounded too strange and since a “naked head” is a condition that can be explained by factors such as molt or disease, the initial discovery was overlooked. When the birds were seen a second time in 1999, they were once again overlooked and written off as possibly being Light-vented Bulbuls. It wasn’t until 2008, that ornithologists carrying out surveys in Laos realized that they had definitely come across an undescribed species. A bird guide and tour operator for southeast Asia also independently discovered the Bare-faced Bulbul the same year; his account of finding this amazing bird highlighting the gap too often found between ornithologists and birders as he hadn’t heard about any of the previous sightings.

If you are wondering why this bird went overlooked for so long, the answer can be neatly summed up in saying, “Never underestimate how incredibally biodiverse Earth is”. The Bare-faced Bulbul was at first overlooked because assumptions were made based upon a faulted hypothesis; that there weren’t any undescribed birds in the area they were surveying. Even though the first two sightings didn’t match any known bird species, it doesn’t sound like the possibility of an undescribed taxon was given much consideration. Instead, the hypotheses that the birds had to be diseased or were a variant of another species of bulbul was assumed despite there being little evidence to support these ideas. Therefore, nothing was made known to the birding community about these strange sightings, information that may have led to the Bare-faced Bulbul being described sooner. The importance of describing a bird that is new to science sooner rather than later, can’t be emphasized enough in light of the high degree of habitat destruction occurring on both the local and global scale that has been detrimental to hundreds of bird species. I realize that one doesn’t want to raise false alarms about the occurrence of “possible new species”, but information about sightings that merit further investigation could at least be shared with the birding community to increase the chances of undescribed birds being found before they go extinct

Fortunately for the Bare-faced Bulbul, it probably isn’t endangered at this time because there is a good deal of the habitat in which it was found; dry forest on top of limestone karst. This hot, craggy, inhospitable habitat also explains why it went undetected for so long and brings up the second manner in which the biodiversity factor was underestimated. In modern times, bird species tend to be described from little known areas that host unique vegetation types such as the white sand forests of Amazonia (which probably harbor more bird species awaiting description). If a distinctive, new bird species were to show up in Laos, it would likely be something that was adapted to unique, restricted habitats such as karst forest or unique vegetation types at higher elevations, especially since there are already several Asian bird species known to be highly adapted to this habitat (Sooty Babbler and Limestone Wren-Babbler for example).

So what does this say about Costa Rica? Although discovering an undescribed bird species in Costa Rica is pretty unlikely, habitats overlooked because of their inaccessibility or because they were thought to be “species-poor” should be investigated and birded just as much as rich, rainforest habitats because once again, biodiversity on this planet should never be underestimated. Although access might be limited at the peaks of Guanacaste volcanoes, Barra Honda National Park, or just south of Lake Nicaragua, and there might be fewer species than other better-known sites, bird species that are rare elsewhere might be more common here, and maybe something new for the country will turn up.