“Wait. What’s that up ahead ?!?” We had been trudging slowly but surely uphill, one step after another, through the foothill rainforests of the Soltis Center in the Tilaran Mountains of Costa Rica. It was midday and expectedly quiet; peaceful but not the best hour for birding. Even so, while birding in rainforest, anything can happen, at any time. Even during the quiet times, you can’t let your guard down. You have to be constantly ready, always on the alert for a shy bird to pop into view, to notice a deathly still viper, or hear the soft notes of a mixed flock.
While our group of five participated in the 2022 Arenal Bird Count, fortunately, despite the noon time quiet, Robert Dean, the artist of “The Birds of Costa Rica” and other field guides had kept his bird radar on. The bird he had noticed was one of the truly rare ones, one of those species often possible but rarely encountered. Even better, the bird didn’t flush and fly off into the woods. Our lucky number fluttered from a low perch and down onto the trail, right in front of us. As I focused in on it, I could barely believe what I was seeing.
“Violaceous Quail-Dove!” There it was, right in the middle of the trail, the most elusive and weirdest of quail-doves in Costa Rica (and maybe elsewhere too). Uncharacteristically, the male dove let us watch it for several minutes as it walked back and forth and eventually flew back to its low perch. I should stress here that “several minutes” in quail-dove watching time is equal to at least three hours. Most forest encounters with quail-doves are painfully brief and give you scarce chance to appreciate their beautiful iridescence and plumage patterns. In other words, they might be pretty but away from any feeding situations, they aren’t all that birder friendly.
In fact, not long before we saw our super birder-friendly Violaceous, I might have glimpsed another quail-dove. I say “might have” because in true Q-Dove fashion, I saw a plump dove shape in the undergrowth and just as I raised my binos, the bird fluttered off into dove sp. netherland. It could have certainly been a Gray-chested Dove too but oh well, whatever name that missed species went by was made up for by our crazy good views of the V Q-Dove.
The bird sat on its perch until our need for more trail progress flushed it into the safety of the forest. This sighting was arguably our best bird of a 150 plus species day and the best I have ever had of that species. Given that I’ve only seen this species something like three times, that’s a pretty easy statement to make. Yes, it’s a dove, a bird in the same family as the classic pigeon of cathedrals and city streets, as Mourning Doves, Collared Doves, and other familiar birds but, along with several other little known dove species, it’s an odd and elusive one.
The ironic thing about the V Q-Dove is that despite it being very little known and infrequently seen, the bird is not considered threatened. This is mostly on account of its large, if disjunct, range and because we know little about the bird. It’s assumed that it occurs in regular numbers in various parts of its range and that may be true but honestly, what do we really know? How many are out there? Are they just tough to find?
I suspect that the answer is a little bit of low numbers and being difficult to detect but if it were more common, it seems that there would have to be a lot more records. Based on my experience with the species in Costa Rica, what I have read and heard about it from other places, and known life histories of other uncommon doves, here’s my take on the bird as well as a tip or two for seeing and identifying it:
This dove doesn’t like to stick around. Well, it probably will if the habitat is to its liking but it likely rolls with the changes and needs to keep moving until it finds what its looking for. This would explain its scarcity and why there are random records from heavily birded places like La Selva and San Luis Canopy. Similar nomadic behavior is also shown by several other dove species in various parts of the world.
I wish I knew what sort of food it was looking for but I do have an idea about its preferred microhabitat.
Advanced, Viney Second Growth in Mature Forest
I don’t know for sure but what I can say is that the bird we saw at Soltis seemed tied to this one distinctive part of the forest that was dominated by old second growth decorated with hanging vines. In fact, its favorite perch was this classic, thick, hanging u-shaped vine. Sturdy, maybe a meter above the ground, good visibility, and a nice ruddy color…I mean if I were a bird, I’d be claiming that perch too.
This microhabitat also happened to look very much like the other spot where I have encountered more than one individual of this species in Costa Rica. This was in Hitoy Cerere in advanced second growth at the edge of mature rainforest. For what’s its worth, that spot also had lots of hanging vines and at that site, Robert and I also saw the dove perched in them.
I don’t know if this microhabitat is what the bird truly needs but a preference for such a limited type of habitat would explain its scarcity and likely nomadic behavior.
There’s no way to know how many of this species are in Costa Rica or elsewhere but I don’t see how they could be numerous, at least not in Costa Rica. Even taking into account the challenges of seeing them, they are still very rarely seen or heard even in the most reliable of places. If they do need some special type of habitat, then any degree of deforestation could further limit their numbers. I doubt they are in serious trouble overall but then again, who knows?
In Costa Rica, I owuld guess that their numbers are probably pretty low, maybe less than 500 total.
Perhaps More Common in Moist Forest of the Nicoya Peninsula and Mountains of Guanacaste
According to Stiles and Skutch and sightings by local birders, this species is somewhat more reliable in moist forests of the Nicoya Peninsula and the northern volcanoes in Guanacaste. The plain dove with the amethyst nape and rufous tail is seen and heard more regularly in such places but even then, it’s not in any way common. Bird forested ravines near Cabuya, Bijagua, and Rincon de la Vieja and you’ll have some chance of finding it but it could still take a fair bit of focused effort.
What to Look For
With a good look, the V Q Dove is pretty easy to identify. Just in case, here are some tips.
- Like a Leptotila– As in, it looks and even sounds a lot like a White-tipped Dove. This raises a further subset of questions; like has it evolved to mimic the White-tipped Dove (or other Leptotila) and does this perhaps help it blend in while looking for habitat? Or, did it evolve similar plumage and voice because it occurs in similar ecological situations? In any case, with its pale underparts and plain head, it looks a lot like a Leptotila (albeit a very elegant one).
- Pale, plain head, white underparts, rufous rump and tail, rufous wings– Although other descriptions don’t mention the rufous tail, the bird sure has one and in conjunction with other field marks, this is a good characteristic.
- Reddish bill– Although this wasn’t noticeable on the bird we watched, this is usually a good field mark.
- Listen for calls, look for the perch– If you hear a funny sounding White-tipped Dove in appropriate habitat, look for that perched bird. It can sit high or low on a favorite hanging vine.
Will you see a Violaceous Quail-Dove when birding in Costa Rica? To be honest, the odds aren’t in your favor but I sure hope you see one anyways. Hopefully, the tips above can up the odds. To learn more about finding birds in Costa Rica, including the rare and elusive ones, support this blog by purchasing my recently updated bird finding book for Costa Rica, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Happy birding and wishing you the best of happy holidays, I hope to see you here!
All photos of Violaceous Quail-Dove were gracioiusly provided by Nancy Stevick.