Costa Rican rambles 3 – Parque Nacional Los Quetzales and Miriam’s restaurant

Our usual daily trip routine in Costa Rica began on the first day: coffee and tea at 5:45 a.m. (except the last day when we had it at 4:30 a.m.!) – birding – breakfast around 7 a.m. – travel & birding – lunch around noon-1 p.m. – travel and birding – dinner/supper around 7 p.m. And on two nights we went owling after supper. One of our group members tracked our steps – over 8 days, we walked and hiked a bit more than 50 miles. This meant that although I ate more than usual, I didn’t gain any weight, which was an added bonus!

On the first day, we set off for the National Park Los Quetzales, passing small settlements and villages along the way. Between them, we saw the rolling hills and mountains covered with lots of vegetation – this was the end of the dry season, so when the rainy season begins the scenery must be even much more lush.


We were going to see several species of birds which are endemic only to parts of Costa Rica and Panama, which was a treat for the birders who keep life lists counting how many species of birds they have seen.

The day had an overcast start, which made photographing the birds at Los Quetzales a bit challenging. Sometimes they blended in really well with the vegetation in which they perched and discerning them was a bit of a feat (especially if you don’t have binoculars). One of the first birds we found was the slaty flowerpiercer (Diglossa plumbea). The male has a rich blue-gray color while the female is a much drabber olive gray – it was her upturned beak that helps her pierce the base of flowers for nectar that helped me ID her in the photos.


The black-capped flycatcher (Empidonax atriceps) gave me some issues, too, until one finally alighted atop a plant – giving me a chance for a quick, backlit photo before he flew off.

There were many flowering bushes and shrubs and bees were buzzing among them. A timberline wren hopped around these bushes, but I was unable to get a photo of her. I did succeed in getting some shots of a couple volcano hummingbirds (Selasphorus flammula), who were very active – challenging one another and hunting insects. These very small hummingbirds only breed in the mountains of Costa Rica and Panama; they are only 3 inches (7.5 cm cm) long and very quick flyers. One ended up posing for a while!


A sooty-capped bush tanager – also called a sooty-capped chlorospingus (Chlorospingus pileatus) was scurrying about the same bushes. At first, I couldn’t get any photos of him, but finally he emerged from behind some leaves. At our lunch stop, I was able to get a close-up photo of this species.


A large-footed finch (Pezopetes capitalis) made its arrival known as s/he perched in a nearby tree branch; a few hours later, I was able to get a closer photo of this bird, too. This is one of the larger birds we saw, almost reaching 8 inches (20.3 cm) in length.


Another larger bird, the sooty thrush (Turdus nigrescens) posed prettily atop a tree. These 10-inch long (24 cm) birds behave similarly to American robins, rooting around in leaves for insects and spiders.

The flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) showed up nicely against the green foliage.



In some flowering bushes nearby, a fiery-throated hummingbird (Panterpe insignis) put in an appearance. These hummers are larger than the small volcano hummingbirds.  Like other hummers, their brilliant colors may only show up when the light rays hit their feathers at just the right angle. My only shot demonstrating a bit of their fiery beauty was unfortunately a bit blurry.


A black and yellow silky flycatcher (Phainoptila melanoxantha, below) was hopping around in a distant leafy tree and then finally emerged for a couple minutes before flying off to another leafy abode. In contrast to many of the other birds who dine on insects, these birds favor berries and plant materials. A yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli, right) emerged briefly, rounding out our endemic species sightings.


Before leaving the park, I was lucky to see a forest forager (otherwise known as a branch bird) and some lichens growing on the ground. 😉

For lunch, we stopped at Miriam’s restaurant, a well-known birding station in the San Gerardo de Dota area. In addition to a very nice lunch menu, there are nectar and fruit feeders behind the eatery, which attracted a large number of birds when we first visited (a return visit a few days later had very few birds – perhaps they were all busy with nests and insect feeding by then). Besides the rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis), there were gorgeous flame-colored tanagers (Piranga bidentata) – both males and females/immature males.



A group of five acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) came to enjoy the fruit, perfectly willing to share the space with the other birds. These birds, which are also seen in the Western USA, do eat lots of different nuts but insects and fruit are obviously also desired meals.


There were three main species of hummingbirds at the nectar feeders. According to some bird websites, the white-throated mountain gem is only found in Panama, while the very similar gray-tailed mountain gem (Lampornis cinereicauda) is seen in southern Costa Rica. They are beautiful birds, with the females sporting a cinnamon-colored breast and the males a blue-purple crown when the light hits their feathers just right.



The Talamanca hummingbird males (Eugenes spectabilis) have a brilliant gorget and forehead when the lighting is right. The females of this large hummer species lack this coloring but also have a prominent white spot behind their eyes.


My favorite hummingbird at this stop was the lesser violetear (Colibri cyanotus). They have a subtle violet color underneath their eyes and pretty bands of blue in different shades on their tails.


Next up – our visit to the Bosque del Tolomuco!

** Thanks to Janet Kurz for the group photo

All about Ollie – barred owls at Mason Farm Biological Reserve

The end of winter and start of spring is a good time to look for some of the birds that you don’t see so often. They are not hidden by foliage and may come out more to hunt for a meal as they prepare to cope with the rigors of upcoming parenthood. That has proved to be a boon for me during visits to Mason Farm Biological Reserve where there are several pairs of barred owls (Strix varia) in residence. While these birds usually hunt at night, they have recently been seen out and about much more often in the daytime, perhaps getting ready for nesting and brooding in March and April.

These beautiful raptors sit quite still and often make no sound at all as they turn their heads scanning the ground or a creek nearby for small rodents, crayfish, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles.


Their brown and white mottled feathers are a perfect camouflage to help them blend in with the bare gray and brown tree trunks and branches of winter. To spot them, you learn to scan trees in the distance looking for a “lump” which your binoculars or long camera lens can then help distinguish as an owl.

These owls tend to stay in one area; a study of 158 banded birds showed that none of them had ventured further away than 6 miles from the spot where they were first seen. At Mason Farm, we tend to hear the owls in specific areas – along a creek, near a couple of open fields and near a bog. These are likely different pairs who can live there for decades – the oldest known barred owl was 24 years old.

After hearing that friend Mary had been seeing one particular owl daily, I began going there more often to catch a glimpse of him/her. I nicknamed the bird Ollie – short for Oliver or Olivia. It turned out that I was fortunate enough to see both Ollies; the pair has become fairly tolerant of people nearby, sometimes perching in trees right next to the walking path.

One mid-afternoon, I was searching the fields for Ollie, noting some of the other birds who were easier to spot because of their movement, like the red-bellied woodpeckers and song sparrows. I was looking into the mid- and long-distance and then glanced up at a small tree next to the path – there was Ollie staring back at me! I had never been within about 5 feet of a wild barred owl before and was able to see him/her really well – what a beautiful bird!

To get some photos, I actually had to back up as I had a long-distance lens on the camera. Some runners came by and saw that I was focused on something, but they never looked up to notice that they were passing couple feet underneath this large raptor. Ollie just watched silently as they ran by and then returned to scanning the ground for prey.

Another day, Mary and I were following an owl from one field to the next. The hunting pattern appears to be: perch in a tree and look intently at the ground around for 10-20 minutes or longer, fly some 20 or more feet away to scan another patch. It appeared that the owl and caught something and s/he flew to a tree branch at the other side of the field. I happened to glance away in time to see the second Ollie flying toward and past us in the field on the other side of the path.  The owls fly completely silently so you have to be lucky to spot them.

Although I’ve seen the pair fairly often now, I continue to find them really beautiful.


When they spot some prey, the owls drop quietly but swiftly down to pounce on the animal. Sometimes they sit there for a minute or two, presumably swallowing the entire animal if it is small. If it is larger, they will carry it off to have their meal in a tree.

On one of our walks, Mary’s sharp eyes spotted an owl pellet and friend Lucretia and I dissected it. The pellets can contain the remains of several meals and we thought that a couple small animals’ remains were contained in the fur-covered mass. A tiny skull and pair of jaw bones with minuscule teeth could be distinguished – perhaps a vole or baby mole.

On one of my most recent spottings of Ollie, s/he was spending time taking little power naps in between ground scans. On other days, the owls had brief snoozing periods, too. The feathers on their eyelids are very cool! When a pair calls to one another, you can distinguish the male and female. The male’s call ends abruptly while the female adds a little trill to the end of her call.


On my last foray to the reserve to see owls, I was following Ollie’s progress along the field when another birder spotted me taking photos. After a while, about six or seven walkers were watching and Ollie finally flew to the top of a pine tree not far from the path so they could all admire him/her.

The one predator that goes after the large barred owls is the even larger great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).


When people go too close to a barred owl’s nest, the owls will become agitated, so we should keep that in mind and not bother them there. Oliver and Olivia seem not to mind people too much right now, since they will fly to perch near a path where people are passing. I do try to limit how much time I spend following them, though, even though they can fly away. Just like us, the owls do want to be able to go about their business in peace!


An under-appreciated bird?

In the area where I live, many birders are thrilled when spring migration begins and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) arrives. They find its song especially appealing and exclaim over the fact that they had the privilege of hearing the wood thrush in their yard or in the woods.



While it’s a nice song, however, I find that I’m more attracted to our winter visitor, the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), perhaps because this species seems less afraid to emerge from the vegetation when people are around. I find its song quite nice as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have as many trills in it as the wood thrush.



The past couple years, I seem to have been seeing the hermit thrush more and more often. Presumably, this is not because there are more of them but because I have grown a little more adept at spotting and identifying birds as time has passed. The past six weeks, I’ve seen them in various places and have very much enjoyed each spotting.

On the 15th of December, during a walk at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, I spotted one eating berries with gusto.



Ten days later, birds in different parts of the reserve came out on twigs, observing me as much as I was observing them. On the 2nd of January, one caught my eye when s/he was bobbing its reddish tail up and down. It gave me a good view of the bird’s underside, which looked nicely cushioned. That part of the tail is the most colorful part of the bird, which otherwise is a rather muted light brown with a cream-colored, lightly spotted breast.


On the 4th of January, we had a light smattering of snow and I saw a hermit thrush in a crepe myrtle tree, an unusual sight in my yard as their visits are usually few and far between. The next day, the bird returned to the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) to make a few meals of the nicely ripe juniper berries.


The snow melted quickly but the bird was back the next day for more berries; fortunately, the American robins and cedar waxwings had not eaten them all.


In the spring and summer, the hermit thrush’s diet consists mainly of insects and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, they turn to eating berries and fruit. Here, a thrush at the Brumley Forest Preserve had been foraging on the ground and found a seed or fruit.

Back at Mason Farm, the 21st of January was a stellar day for seeing hermit thrushes; I must have seen at least six in different parts of the woods. At one point, I had stopped to listen to a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) calling and then noted a thrush sitting on a sapling branch near the walking trail. S/he flew down to the path to forage and suddenly another one flew in landing atop the first thrush! The attacked bird spread its tail feathers on the ground while the other one glared at it.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that hermit thrushes may respond to predators by crouching and pulling in their heads; perhaps this was an adaptation of that response.

I always think of these little beauties as being peaceful birds so seeing one challenge the other in such a physical way was a real surprise. Then as suddenly as the attack had happened, all was sweetness and light as the two birds began foraging on the path about 2-3 feet from one another. The downy woodpecker even joined them on the ground for a little while.


The oldest recorded hermit thrush was almost 11 years old. Perhaps their generally sweet disposition helps them survive.


Depending on whether these birds are fluffing their feathers against the cold, they can either look like a sleek and slender avian or a puffy little ball of feathers. In both cases, I think they look quite appealing.


Whatever shape they take, I do look forward to seeing more of these lovely, usually demure and delightful thrushes!



A nature walk with some history to ponder

In our area of North Carolina, various nature reserves have some background of historical interest. It may be related to the provenance of the land, the names of the reserve and its trails, or the remnants of structures still in place. A newer reserve in Orange County is the Blackwood Farm Park and it had some historical artefacts which I had not expected to see while I searched for beautiful plants and wildlife of different kinds.

The 152-acre reserve has transformed a former working farm into a place with hiking trails through fields and hilly woodlands, preserved farm buildings (barn, smokehouse, corncrib, milking shed, etc.), and meadows where hay is still sown and harvested every year. The first farmers arrived around 1745 and farming ended with the Blackwood family in the 1980s.


Dogs are allowed but supposed to remain on leash; currently, the trails are for hikers, birders and others who appreciate nature. On my last visit, a small group of dog trainers were putting canines through their paces in front of the old farmhouse, while a few people were chatting at the picnic tables nearby.

In the meantime, a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) was extensively grooming itself in one of the shady yard trees.






As I began my walk through the woods, I heard a distinctive bird call and began searching for the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). Lucky me, he came into sight briefly overhead so that I could admire his handsome but fleeting appearance.

The meadows were filled with flowers, including Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), with its distinctive white and purple flowers, and beautiful moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), which some botanists consider a weed and rip out in glee when they see it (this happened a few days ago when I was volunteering at another reserve!).



Butterflies, like this American lady (Vanessa virginiensis), were investigating the flowers like me and sometimes feeding on the ground.





The trail through the woods is partly level and then leads up and down hills and across small streams. Some sections are alive with bird sound and others are fairly quiet. Small signs indicate where the reserve property abuts nearby privately-owned farms.

As I came nearer to the forest edge adjoining a meadow with a pond, I came across an unexpected reminder of history. A sign at the entrance to a clearing announced that it was a burial site for slaves who had been owned by farmer Samuel Strayhorn from 1817 to 1847 and visitors are asked to observe the site with appropriate respect.


Archaeological surveying has identified 34 graves, including adults and children; some are marked by stones and others are now indicated by small metal tags.


Oral tradition relates that not only the slaves but some of their descendants were buried here after the Civil War. It is a sobering reminder of a shameful time in the history of this country, but it is good that the site has been preserved and that further historical research is being done to learn more about the enslaved people who lived here.


After spending some time in contemplation and wondering how the slaves’ descendants are faring now, I wandered on, emerging into the pond area where numerous dragonflies were flitting about.




Male blue dasher dragonfly                      Female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

(Pachydiplax longipennis)

          Banded pennants (Celithemis fasciata)


A couple of amorous damselflies were also in evidence.




Leaving the pond, I entered the woods again and witnessed a pair of six-spotted tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) engaged in mating, but it was not with mutual consent. The iridescent blue male jumped on the greenish female, who did her best to escape. He literally tackled her and at one point had her on her back as he kept hold of her.


She continued trying to escape but he was persistent and finally managed to mount her. She periodically engaged in vigorous shaking, obviously trying to dislodge him but he hung on.


Finally, after some time, she bucked a bit like a horse at a rodeo and threw the male off so that she was able to streak off with great speed. The male remained behind, alone.


A little further on, a black and yellow millipede (Boraria stricta) trundled along the forest floor, its antennae exploring the ground ahead and identifying which obstacles (twigs, stones) it could surmount and which ones it needed to skirt.



At one point, I pondered a tube hung on a tree by someone who was probably doing a study of some kind, rather than making an artistic statement (I hope).




When I left the reserve, a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was flashing its wings near a picnic table, undoubtedly looking for insects as a meal to enjoy there.

My walk that day didn’t result in a wide variety of wildlife spottings, but what I did see was interesting. Coming upon the cemetery was an unexpected educational experience that made the visit well worthwhile. I hope the researchers uncover more information that can be shared with visitors in the future.


The beautiful “baker” bird

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a small bird at close quarters that I had only seen in a couple glimpses in the past, the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). Like the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, this little avian also has a stripe atop its head. Like the golden-crowned kinglet, the stripe is always visible and orange in color, blending in nicely with its other muted brownish and cream colors.


The ovenbird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which is built on the ground in a shape reminiscent of an outdoor or Hopi oven. It is domed and has a side entrance and can be difficult to see.

The ovenbirds spend the winters in the Caribbean region and Central America and then come North for the summer breeding season. My sightings of the singing male have been at our local nature reserve, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where I volunteer as an invasive plant eradicator and sometime planter of native flowers.


The male sings a three- to-five note call in the spring as part of his courting behavior and the call varies among individuals. When males are in neighboring territories, they will sing together in duets and it can be difficult to know how many birds are singing.


The sound is so loud that you expect to see a much larger bird and his song inspired poet Robert Frost to dedicate a poem to him.


If he is sitting on a branch, you can eventually find him but it can be a challenge since they prefer to reside in forests with heavy canopy cover so that it is fairly dark.



Once you see him, you may be able to watch for a while as they don’t seem to be very wary of people. This individual let me observe as he groomed on a low tree branch, pausing now and again to let out a few notes.



These birds prefer areas with heavy leaf litter for their homes – the leaves provide cover for their ground nests and they blend in really, really well as they scurry about foraging in the leaves for insects, worms and snails to eat. Both the females and males participate in feeding the fledglings until they can fly at about 30 days.

When they emerge into a patch with a bit of sunlight filtering down through the leaves overhead, you have a bit better chance to see them. Otherwise, you may end up staring at ground cover until you catch a bit of movement and can zero in on the motion to see them.


Photographing the bird is a challenge since they spend their time in areas with so little direct light. My first photos were a bit dark, but then I increased the ISO on my camera considerably (a tip from fellow photographer, Mary – thanks!) and the photos were a bit better. Still, the somewhat darker photos reflect the environment in which you discover these little troubadour warblers. Now that I know where to look for them, I hope to see them more often in years to come.