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Mega Birding in Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto

As is common with subcultural behavior, us birders have also come up with our own set of phrases and terminology, many of those words coming from that bastion of serious birding, The United Kingdom. Thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of British birders, we say things like, “I tried to twitch the Pittasoma but dipped. I suspect that I was the victim of stringing.”

Most readers of this blog probably know what that means but if not, it translates to, “I tried to go and see that Black-crowned Antpitta but failed. I suspect that someone lied about the bird being present at that site.”

Other birding terminology includes such words as “bins”, “pishing”, “lifer”, and “mega”, these last two ranking among the most important and exciting. They are also, by nature, often intertwined. When a bird is a lifer, it’s a species that a birder has never seen before. It’s a lifer because it makes it onto your “life list” but it’s also a lifer because seeing it is a new life event. Pictures of it were probably seen in the field guide, maybe viewed online, but you have yet to see it in life, in person (in bird?). It’s one more goal attained, one more connection made with the incredible proliferation of life on Earth and when the bird also happens to be a mega, the lifer experience takes on even highest levels of birding importance.

A mega is a bird that is exceptionally rare or at least very difficult to encounter. These are the birds that are encountered so infrequently, it seems that they must be ghosts, just don’t seem to exist, because we bird so often in places where they occur and just never, ever see them. Some have referred to such species as “avian unicorns” but birds like the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, the Speckled Mourner, and the Harpy Eagle are indeed real. They are out there, you just have to know the right places to see them, how to see them, and have the time and determination to find them.

My best picture of the ground-dove, some other pictures show a tangle of vegetation which is also realistic when seeing this mega.

One of the mega birds in Costa Rica (and elsewhere really), is the Tawny-faced Quail. Despite the disdain some birders have for grouse and other birds reminiscent of the good old chicken, many pheasant species, ground-loving quails and grouse-like birds are megas because they are just so hard to see, this species included. The grouse are worth the patience, though, and not just because every bird counts but also because most of them have beautiful, intricately patterned plumages. With its combination of rufous, gray, and buff hues, the Tawny-faced Quail is no exception, a shame it’s not easier to find!

The Tawny-faced Quail is a unicorn birding challenge for reasons shared with other members of the mega club:

Shy and unobtrusive– By all accounts, this bird doesn’t exactly enjoy the “Limelight”. Unlike some other ground birds, this little quail is almost never, ever seen as it forages on the forest floor. A birder could do a Zen staring contest on and to the sides of trails in beautiful forest for hours and still come up empty because this quail does not like to play. Although the dapple of leaves, shades of green and network of rainforest vegetation are pleasant to contemplate, this bird is unobtrusive to an extreme and doesn’t even like to vocalize. It does so occasionally but may call for less then a minute and then briefly calls again several minutes later.

Naturally rare– Rarity can be a hard call to make when a species is already naturally tough to find but based on years of looking and what others have said, I feel confident in saying that this species is rare. This doesn’t mean that it’s about to go extinct, just that it probably has low populations even in appropriate habitat. Although this is normal for many rainforest species, it doesn’t facilitate seeing them.

Access to habitat– As with any bird, you can’t have any chance of seeing it unless you can bird where it lives. As for the Tawny-faced Quails of Costa Rica, they have this curious distribution centered on the northern part of the country. This species also only lives in mature rainforest, perhaps more so in hilly areas, from the border of Nicaragua to the slopes of the northern mountain ranges. Oddly it doesn’t seem to live in the Sarapiqui area, nor south of there.

With those factors in mind, a satellite map of forest cover in Costa Rica shows why we have so few chances of finding Tawny-faced Quail in the country. Most of its habitat is gone and the few places where it may still occur are mostly out of reach. Even if you birded the borders of those forests, that’s probably not going to do the trick for this shy bird. You have to venture into the forest and even then, probably won’t see it.

BUT, many many thanks to Juan Diego Vargas, the mega Tawny-faced Quail has become far easier (or less difficult) to actually see. A local expert birding guide who also re-found Ocellated Poorwill, while birding at Laguna del Lagarto on Global Big Day, 2019, Juan Diego heard a Tawny-faced Quail vocalize at dusk and close to the lodge. Despite searching for it at night with Laguna guide Didier, they did not find it. Showing that determination is often needed to connect with a mega, Juan Diego returned to Laguna another evening and after doing another night search for a bird that sang a few times around 6 p.m., they found it!

As an example of how tough this species can be, Juan Diego had looked for this bird at this same site on various occasions over the years. It has been seen there by others on the trails but on very few occasions. Perhaps it only calls during a certain season or in certain conditions? Maybe he was listening at the wrong time of day? In any case, we now know that one or more of this species could be regular right near the lodge. How do we know that? Not only because Juan Diego found it, but also because our group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica heard and saw one this past weekend.

While guiding in the same area where Juan Diego had the bird and at the right time of 6 p.m., I had hoped I might hear one vocalize. Sure enough, the quail called, only for around 15 seconds, but there it was and with that it made it onto my country list. We went back for dinner and I told Didier we had heard it. He went immediately out to look for the bird and despite knowing where it had called, it took him around an hour to find it. But, find it he did and thanks to that, we were able to lays eyes on this mega lifer on its night roost.

Many thanks to Birding Club of Costa Rica member and world birder Pirjo Laakso for sharing this image of my lifer Tawny-faced Quail.

Seeing such a rare species just sitting there on a vine at night was nothing short of surreal. We counted it and it’s no different that seeing a wild bird foraging in the forest or scuttling across a path but it’s hard not to feel that it was almost too easy. Since it took serious effort to find the quail, that’s actually not the case but it was still a surreal way to get a mega lifer.

It remains to be seen if the Tawny-faced Quail will continue to so readily show itself to birders at Laguna del Lagarto, especially if/when a parade of photographers arrive. Hopefully, photographing the bird can be managed correctly and every birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto can lays eyes on this mega for years to come. In the meantime, the birding is always exciting at Laguna, we had Pied Puffbirds, Ocellated Antbirds, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants and more. Contact me to learn about trips to this excellent site.

Want to learn about the best places and ways to find all the mega species in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.