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Birding Costa Rica identification issues

Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

violaceous trogon1

and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal

It may be revered in Guatemala and grace cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, but the easiest place to see Resplendent Quetzal has got to be Costa Rica. You can definitely watch them at highland sites in Chiapas, Mexico but there aren’t too many places that are readily accessible where the birds are common. The extensive highland forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may hold the largest numbers of quetzals, but much of these forests are inaccessible, and only a few sites with little infrastructure can be visited. In western Panama, like Costa Rica, it’s not too difficult to see Resplendent Quetzal because of good tourist infrastructure (roads, trails, guides, information, accommodation) in excellent habitat. This is only in the westernmost part of Panama, though, whereas in Costa Rica, Resplendent Quetzals can be found in cloud forests nearly throughout the country.

Quetzals in Costa Rica even occur in the mountains that overlook the central valley although most birders see them in one of two places: 1. Monteverde, or 2. on Cerro de la Muerte.

Quetzals at Monteverde aren’t very common but there are always some around and guides for the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves usually know where some of the birds are.You might even see a quetzal or two along the road up to the Monteverde reserve but it’s always easier to see them with a guide. The reason for this is because quetzals are often found near their preferred food source of “wild avocados” and guides will know where and when these trees are in fruit, and may also know the whereabouts of a nest.

On Cerro de la Muerte, most people go to the Mirador de Quetzales or San Gerardo de Dota. The Mirador de Quetzales is located just off of the main road before reaching the turn-off to San Gerardo. Take the quetzal tour, and the owner (Eddie Serrano?) will bring you to fruiting wild avocados for typically fantastic views of one or several quetzals.

Further up the main road is the turn-off for San Gerardo de Dota, a small community in a deep valley not too far from the summit. It takes about two and a half hours to drive there from San Jose and vehicles descending into the valley may need four wheel drive to get back out during the rainy season. This may not be true but that’s the way it looked to me when I was there last month. If you stay in the valley, I’m sure your hotel will give you the best assessment of the driving situation.

Descending to San Gerardo de Dota.

This is the valley where hundreds of birders have seen their first Resplendent Quetzal while lodging at Savegre Lodge, Trogon Lodge, Dantica, or a few other hotels in the area. All of these hotels offer morning quetzal tours. You could also follow the signs for “observacion de quetzales” and pay to see quetzals, or, if you get up there early enough, you can drive along the road through the valley and just stop when you see a crowd of tourists staring at something in the trees. They will almost certainly be looking at a quetzal but you usually have to do this in the morning because if they aren’t looking at a nest, the quetzals may fly off to visit fruiting trees away from the road.

Looking at a Resplendent Quetzal.

To our extreme good fortune, on a short trip to the Dota Valley in search of quetzals a few weeks ago, there was a pair nesting very close to the road. We found the nest thanks to a couple of photographers who were lingering at one spot along the road. Upon arrival, of course the quetzal has “just left” but so what- we knew it had to come back to feed its hidden youngsters some wild avocados. I think we waited around 15 minutes when sure enough, a male quetzal gave its cackling vocalization (yes, the males cackle) and flew overhead, its long tail feathers streaming behind. About five minutes later, things got much, much better as it flew down closer to the nest and paused near the entrance before hopping inside.

Notice the green avocado in its bill. No, it doesn’t look like the avocados we are used to because its a wild one- a fruit of some Lauraceae species.

After hopping inside, its tail feathers were so long that they stuck out of the hole and waved in the breeze!

Eventually and luckily for us, the male had to have a look at us. He was apparently intrigued because he sat there for about 15 minutes and let us take a ridiculous number of  pictures. Here are a few of mine:

After leaving the hole, he then flew to a perch to show off his incredible, iridescent plumage….

and sallied close to the ground for raspberries! Here is a bad action shot as he takes off from his perch.

The female eventually showed up too but by then the battery for my camera had run out. At least I got pictures of the male though!

The places I mentioned are the easiest sites to see Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica because they are easy to get to, and there are usually some people around who know where to find these sacred birds. Keep in mind though, that they also occur in most areas of good, highland forest such as along the trails at La Georgina, other areas in the high Talamancas, up on the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes, and other sites. It might take a while to see them at those other sites though and could be tough without a guide but the birding will always be good in any case.