Costa Rican rambles 6A – Los Cusingos

Finally, back to Costa Rica (in memory)! The past couple months were very busy and often stressful for me, so it is so very nice to again look back to the wonderful days we had looking for Central American birds (and other wildlife) in Costa Rica. On the fourth day of our 9-day trip, we moved to another hotel for a couple nights, stopping several times along the way to bird along roads. The photos from this day were not that great, but they do provide an impression of what we were seeing.

Before we left, we birded the grounds of the hotel where we had spent the night. There were some pretty flowers and a white-crested coquette hummingbird (Lophornis adorabilis), as well as a rather large long-horned borer beetle (perhaps Callipogon barbatus species, but that’s not certain).

We spent some time peering into a rather dark and dense brushy area, looking for uncommon wrens. I was able to photograph a rufous-breasted wren (Pheugopedius rutilus) with some difficulty. Then, just before boarding our bus, a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) perched in a nearby tree, giving us some nice views.

  

Our first stop, however, was a park called Los Cusingos, which is a property formerly owned by US botanist Alexander Skutch. He lived there for 63 years until his death at the age of 99 years. While Skutch earned an income collecting plants for museums, his passion was birds and he wrote more than 40 books and 200 papers on ornithonology.

  

Now his former home is part of a bird sanctuary run by the Tropical Science Center and you can see a variety of birds, like this buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus) and the yellow-olive flycatcher (Tolmomyias sulphurescens).

        

The staff had put out fruit on a feeding station to attract birds and this brought in several, including a female Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) and a golden-hooded tanager (Tangara larvata).

     

The station was also very attractive to a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis), who was not in the least perturbed by our presence nearby.

We set off onto the trails in search of new avian species but also had time to admire many types of trees and plants, which I still must identify. Some had very sharp spines.

The dense foliage with a little sun creating dappled views made photography a challenge for me. But I did get a couple photos of a little bird called the plain xenops (Xenops minutus).

As we hiked, a few beautiful butterflies appeared; the one with orange spots was, I believe, a crimson patch (Chlosyne janais) and the other was a zebra-striped hairstreak (Panthiades bathildis).

A chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), familiar to me from North Carolina, put in an appearance and a lovely little lesser greenlet (Hylophilus decurtatus) peered out from some large leaves.

A summer tanager (Piranga rubra), which I’ve been lucky to have in my own yard, was a pleasure to see, as was a spot-crowned euphonia (Euphonia imitans).

  

One of my favorite birds, of which I unfortunately had blurry photos, was the entertaining red-capped manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis). He stayed very high in the canopy and was sometimes behind leaves but, when he emerged, he did a great sideways moonwalk back and forth on the branch, which was part of his courtship behavior. What a very cool sighting!

   

Back near the entrance to the reserve, there were some lovely orchids and a brilliant green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) to see us off as we set off on the road – to be continued in the next blog!

  

Costa Rican rambles 5B: the Talari Mountain Lodge and environs

 

After fully experiencing the “honey dew” (another name for cicada urine), we set off for the next university site, an area where students learn about planting. A statue of the Virgin Mary welcomed visitors and we admired some of the beautiful plantings and their seeds that were attracting plenty of insects.

   

 

We then left to make a quick stop at a park called Los Cusingos, that we would visit at length later; this was just a quick bathroom break before we took to the road again. My photo of the gray-headed tanager was not that great but you can see how beautiful the red passionflower (Passiflora vitifolia) at the entrance was.

As we drove to a place called Las Nubes, we passed private homes with their filled metal framework trash bins in front, a cemetery and plenty of banana plants.

 

   

One of our group members stepped in an anthill when trying to avoid puddles and traffic, which led to some stinging bites. In the meantime, others were trying to see various species of birds that were staying low in the vegetation along the road. I spotted a rather large wasp nest in a nearby tree, likely of the Synoeca septentrionalis species.

   

 

 

At some distance, there was a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) sitting on a branch. These raptors are about 16-18 inches in length (41-46 cm) and part of their diet is carrion. They also eat reptiles, amphibians and other small birds, while avoiding birds as food. They take ticks off cattle as well, which gives them a thumbs up from me – any bird that eats ticks is a friend.

 

A gorgeous smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani) was sitting calmly as we milled around in the road. Some people might find this bird homely, but I think it is quite handsome despite a somewhat bulbous beak. They, too, are on my “good birds” list as they sometimes eat ticks and other parasites off of grazing animals. Another nice characteristic is their communal child-raising strategy – several pairs cooperate to build a nest together, in which several females than lay their eggs. They share the incubation and feeding of nestlings – hippies of the bird world!

 

We traveled on and the views along the road were beautiful, with the mountains and valleys in the distance and then we caught sight of some swallow-tailed kites (Elanoides forficatus) soaring over the nearest valley. We saw one land in a tree and it turned out that they were building a nest there. In the photo, you can see a small white patch on the right-hand side of the tree, which is the female kite on the nest.

As we waited patiently, a few kites began flying overhead; one with nesting material clutched in its claws.

 

They soared and swooped, giving us delightful views of their flight and then one came by with a meal that it had caught – a poor little chameleon or lizard.

 

We admired the Talamanca mountain range called La Amistad (Friendship), which separates Costa Rica from Panama. Starting in 1979, these two countries’ governments began a process to conserve the entire range, which is home to four indigenous groups of humans, 600 avian species, 215 mammal species, 250 species of amphibians and reptiles, 115 species of fish and some 10,000 flowering plants! As UNESCO has noted, this is: “one of the very few transboundary World Heritage properties, an excellent intergovernmental framework for coordinated and cooperative management and conservation.”

 

After a nice lunch, we continued visiting other sites, including one near a Canadian project. That afternoon, I saw my first trogon species – the gartered trogon (Trogon caligatus), another handsome bird to be sure.

 

      

While the rest of the group followed Steve’s instructions for sighting some birds hiding in underbrush on a slope, fellow traveler Janet and I watched some leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) at their labors. Sometimes, I was just not tall enough to see over shrubs to locate a bird and I love all wildlife anyway, so watching the ants in their industrious endeavor was fun.

On our way back to the lodge for supper, we passed small roadside stores and Steve spotted a fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savanna) for us.

 

 

Back at Talari, I did some sightseeing from the balcony of my room, spotting a lengthy and messy-looking flycatcher nest, a variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) traversing the tree canopy and a pair of palm tanagers (Thraupis palmarum), who were tending an offspring.

 

                       

At first, I thought the fledged bird was a different species as it sat under a leafy canopy, but later I saw the parents with it. Then it surprised Janet, who was staying next door – she called me over to see the fledgling who had flown into her room and was sitting in the middle of the floor.

   

She also had two nests under the roof of her balcony, one of which definitely belonged to a clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi).

   

After admiring one of the neighbors’ cows and social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis), I caught sight of a quiet beauty sitting on a branch in front of my room.

  

 

The Lesson’s motmot (Momotus lessonii), also known as the blue-diademed motmot, has a bright red eye and beautiful tail with what some birding sites call a “raquet tip”.

 

As we set off for the dining area, we were treated to a visit from a streaked flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus), quite a good-looking bird with its heavily streaked back, breast and face.

  

As we passed through some vegetation before dinner, I saw a gorgeous flowering banana as a blue-feathered and red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) flew high overhead.

   

Even though we often were looking for birds in dark and leafy/shady areas, I avoided using a flash but when I saw the lemur anole (Norops lemurinus) on a tree, I gave in so that I coul d get a photo.

 

As dusk came on and we looked out from the dining area, we got to see some fiery-billed aracaris (Pteroglossus frantzii) in the distance.

 

 

While some others in our group got to see one close up, that was not my fate, but the next morning, the aracaris were in a little better light though still far away, allowing me to get a bit better photos.

 

   

We ended our second night at Talari Lodge with an owling outing – Steve managed to draw in a tropical screech owl (Megascops choliba) by playing its call on his phone. The owl who came had had an injury to one eye, with a pupil that would no longer dilate but s/he seemed to be flying fine and looked healthy. That bird gave us a nice long look at its beautiful self so that we retired for the night with a feeling of birding satisfaction!

 

 

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!