Big-beaked birds – lovely or laughable?

I don’t know how many of us would find a human being with an extremely large nose (e.g., even bigger than the face) and multi-colored head, facial and body hair to be beautiful or even attractive. Perhaps it would depend on the nose shape and which color combinations would be in play? But it is certainly a fact that many of us find big-beaked, multi-hued birds to be alluring and enticing, if not just plain gorgeous, magnificent and delightful to say the least.

Well, Costa Rica does not lack for a variety of big-beaked birds and I found them all appealing, each in their own way. Some were not completely colorful but had splashes of color, like the brown-hued Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) with its white bare patch on the cheek with a pink wattle underneath and mostly yellow tail feathers.

An unusual fact about this bird is that the males are generally twice as heavy as the females. They are called “colonial” nesters, meaning that the females build their pendulous nests (24-71 in/60–180 cm long) near one another in “colonies”. Unfortunately, their nest success is not great with only about one-third of colony nests resulting in a fledgling!

 

These oropendolas tend to forage in small groups in the tree canopies, searching for insects and fruit. Their love of fruit also brings them to feeding platforms, like this one set up to not only entice birds but also the tourists who want to see them. They seemed to especially enjoy papayas and watermelon.

The call that the males especially emit from their bi-colored black and red-tipped beaks is said to resemble water being poured from a bottle, bubbling and gurgling.

The chestnut-headed oropendola (Psarocolius wagleri) resembles the Montezuma species but is a bit less colorful with a pale bill. They are a bit smaller than the Montezumas and fly more quickly. Like their cousins, their broods in hanging nests are also threatened by giant cowbirds (nest parasites) and botflies.

 

We were lucky to see two toucans and a toucanet during our trip to Costa Rica this past year. We had a glimpse of a keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) high up in trees on a cloudy day. Their large bill measures 4.7-5.9 in (12–15 cm), which is about one-third the size of their entire length! Their zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forwards and two facing backwards) help them balance on branches.

 

We got an up-close and personal view of a couple when we visited a hotel with an adjacent bird park and animal displays. A couple of these birds were in a large aviary, accompanied by two attendants who let people pose for photos with them. I just took photos of the birds and did not have a self-portrait done.

The second toucan that we got to see was the yellow-throated toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus), one of whom seemed to be posing for us during an early morning walk. They have an even larger bill than the keel-billed toucan, which ranges in length from 5.1-7.9 in (12.9-20 cm).

 

 

In 2018, I was able to photograph a couple that were flying by over a river.

     

 

The Northern emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) is a smaller toucan that also sports a large beak in comparison to its head size. We saw one of these birds every morning at one hotel where we stayed as it was hanging out in trees next to our room cabins. It was often overcast, however, and it wasn’t easy to get a good photo; the same situation arose several days later when we saw one on another rainy day.

 

Luckily, that bird came down to a feeding station set up to attract birds for tourists. You can see its beautiful green body set off with a multi-colored bill that has a distinctive white band at the base.

 

Like other toucans, the toucanet will eat insects and lizards but it, too, has a real fondness for fruit meals, especially berries.

 

In contrast to the oropendolas, this bird’s calls resemble frog croaking and barking!

Unfortunately, it appears that these birds are popular as pets and they are taken from the wild to live in cages. They are popular because they can be affectionate and interact with their “owners” and they can learn tricks.

 

Going back to the bigger birds, Costa Rica has two aracaris, which are also members of the toucan group. They differ from other toucans in their sociability, often roosting in groups of several birds.

We did not see the fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) during our August 2019 trip, but I had seen one flying by during a trip to Costa Rica in 2018.

It looks similar to the collared aracari but is distinguished by a bright red breast band and its bill is somewhat more colorful. It, too, is mainly frugivorous.

 

The collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) was a frequently seen bird during our August trip through Costa Rica.

 

 

 

 

We visited several spots where people were earning tourist dollars by setting up feeding stations with plenty of fruit to attract a variety of birds. The aracaris were enthusiastic and voracious feeder visitors.

 

When the young aracaris are born, they are blind, naked and have short bills. Their feet also have specialized heel pads to help protect their feet from the rough nest floor. Not only the parents but also other birds help feed them for six weeks, at which point they fledge. The adults will still feed them for a time after they leave the nest as well.

These aracaris are interesting in that their large colorful bills also have a sawtooth pattern on the cutting edges. It can take up to a year for the young birds to develop the notches and color pattern on their beaks.

Now all these photos might give the impression that all the big-beaked birds are large in size, but this is definitely not the case. There are also medium- and small-sized colorful birds that tote around bills large in size when compared to their heads. Among the middle-sized range are two beautiful motmots.

We saw our first turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa) early one morning when it was still dark. A flashlight showed the bird sitting quietly in a tree as we made our way to breakfast. Oddly (to me at least), it didn’t seem very bothered by the bright light and just watched us as we drew near.

We later saw one sitting in a shady area alongside a road. They often perch on fences and wires as well, scanning the area for their diet of insects and lizards. They use their racketed tails for communication purposes, as part of a mating display or as a “pursuit-deterrent signal” to warn predators that they have been seen and will not be able to capture the aware birds. In Costa Rica, these birds have the nickname pájaro bobo (foolish bird) because they will allow humans to get quite near.

         

The broad-billed motmot (Electron platyrhynchum) is also an insectivore and has not been seen consuming fruit. These motmots are less studied than the turquoise-browed species; for example, it is not known how they use the tail rackets for communication.

 

The smallest bird in this account of the big-beaked avians is the rufous-tailed jacamar (Galbula ruficauda), which I first thought might be a large hummingbird. (Some hummers also have enormously large bills and will feature in a later blog.) They measure only 10 inches long (25 cm) with a 2-inch (5 cm) bill.

They are insectivores who will remove an insect’s wings before they swallow it. A surprising finding for me was that they nest in bare earth burrows. They do not keep the burrows clean and the nestlings do not lie down but remain standing so that they protect their feathers from accumulated debris!

On that surprising note, I wish my blog readers a wonderful start to the next decade and hope you all will have a great 2020 with good health, a comfortable living situation and as many hours enjoying our beautiful natural world as possible!

Costa Rican mammals, part 2 – those quite different from our Carolina wildlife neighbors!

Seeing mammals that we don’t get to enjoy during nature outings in the Carolinas was one of the treats of my Costa Rican trip. Although we spotted spider monkeys during our outings, it was the mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) that we saw – and heard – most often. My first sighting of one was last year, when its white scrotum identified it as a mature male.

These primates eat mostly leaves (50-75% of its food), designating its diet as folivorous (new word for me!).

This low-energy diet means that they sleep and rest a lot – all night and about 75% of the day! They will supplement their leafy meals with fruit and flowers, and they get their water from bromeliads and holes in tree trunks.

Their large hyoid bones amplify the sound coming from their vocal cords so that their calls echo up to 3 miles (5 km) throughout the forest.

Interesting fact: if the howler is disturbed or irritated by humans, it will sometimes urinate or defecate on them, having surprisingly good aim from high in the tree canopy!

Another arboreal mammal that everyone in our group found endearing was the three-toed (brown-throated) sloth (Bradypus variegatus). These animals are apparently quite popular with tourists and often appear in logos and signs. An orphaned sloth was brought to one hotel where we stayed; the staff let the youngster go up in a tree in the courtyard where we could see it.

     

I had seen (and touched) a sloth in a friend’s back yard in Bolivia once (right); seeing another one close-up outside a zoo was a new treat. I love how they move in slow motion. Their sluggish movement is a result of their diet – just like the howler monkeys, they are folivorous and conserve energy as a result of their mostly leafy diet.

 

That slow movement and the fact that they cannot walk on all fours, unfortunately can also be the cause of their undoing. Their movement on the ground consists of dragging themselves forward by their forearms and claws. Our guide told us that when they cross roadways in that position, drivers may not notice them on the pavement until it’s too late to avoid them. ☹

An interesting fact is that their rough hair eventually comes to harbor various organisms, including cockroaches, beetles, moths and algae. So picking them up and holding them is perhaps not advisable – both for the human who can get insects all over them and for the sloth, who can get upset by being held. (The sloth I touched in Bolivia, below, was at the base of a tree and when I put my hand on its chest, it made no movement but I could feel its heart rate suddenly increase rapidly, so I backed off!)

 

Another interesting behavior – once a week, the sloths leave their trees to defecate on the ground. At this time, they become vulnerable to predators. (The sloth in my friends’ yard unfortunately did this and was killed by a neighborhood dog.)

 

On the ground, a slender dark mammal that frequents hotel gardens, people’s yards and nature reserves is the white-nosed coatimundi (Nasua narica). These mammals are related to raccoons and people in Costa Rica will tell you that they are Costa Rican raccoons.

 

Coatis, as they are popularly known, travel both on the ground and in trees, although I only saw one arboreal individual. They usually spend the nights in trees and then come down to look for food, which includes small vertebrates such as mice and lizards, eggs, snakes, insects, carrion and fruit – a varied diet, for sure!

The coati below was busy at the side of a mountain road we walked; it was unclear to me what it was doing. There was obviously another animal there and at first, I thought it was a young coati, but I don’t think that was the case. I now wonder if another mammal had died and the coati was investigating it as a food source.

 

They do not appear to be very wary of humans; this one passed by fairly close in a wooded area. Apparently, people will feed coatis strawberries along roadsides, which will undoubtedly make them less wary of humans. This coati might have been a male as they are solitary except for mating season when they will join a female group for a time.

Another ground-dwelling mammal we saw on multiple occasions in different areas was the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata). This rodent plays an important role in the forest as it is a seed disperser. Like squirrels, the agoutis bury caches of seeds and nuts for lean times; when they do not re-visit a storage area, the seeds and nuts may germinate to create new trees.

 

The agoutis eat other foods as well, including leaves, roots and fruit. They will sit on their hind legs and hold the food in their front paws to dine.

These cute animals mate for life; the young are unusual in that they are active right after birth. The mother takes them to nest sites dug by other animals so they can claim their own home burrows! The young then line their home with leaves and twigs.

It is worth noting here that the Costa Ricans are protecting their ground mammals and all other wildlife. The country was the first in Latin America to ban sport hunting in 2012; it is also forbidden to keep, import or export wildlife for the pet trade.

And finally we get to the smallest mammals we viewed during our August trip. Last year, our group had been surprised to find that a group of bats was flying into a hotel’s outdoor restaurant to roost each night. The staff accommodated the creatures, which they listed as two-lined bats. After reading about Costa Rican bats, I think these might be lesser white-lined bats (Saccopteryx leptura). It was interesting to see how they would hang by one leg as they engaged in some grooming.

This year, we came across a small group of similar-looking bats roosting under a bridge. They had white lines down their backs but appeared to be long-nosed proboscis bats (Rhynchonyceteris naso). Their colonies often number 5-10 individuals.

One of our most interesting walks took place the day after our bridge sighting. We were visiting a self-taught local artist named Cope, in La Union, Guapiles. He created a wildlife viewing site around his home where he welcomes tourists to see hummingbirds and other avians. He offered to take us into the nearby forest to find a particular owl (coming blog!), as well as a couple species of bats and some interesting amphibians.

While we may be used to thinking of bats living in caverns, various species in the rain forest have found other roosting sites. The tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) create a home by biting through the middle vein of a large leaf so that the sides droop down and form a hanging shelter. The structure is recognizable and after Cope found us a couple tents, members of our group knelt or hunkered down so we could peer upwards at the sheltering mammals.

 

At one site, after photographing the bats, I unfortunately stumbled backwards after taking a photo; I startled the bats, who took off in haste. Apparently, it is known that they spook easily since the slightest movement of their leaf could indicate that a predator is approaching. Cope fortunately located another tent so that the other group members could peer upwards at the creatures.

Our guide was kind enough to use people’s cell phones to take photos of the little bats.

At another tent, it turned out that adorable Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba) were roosting. Of the approximately 1300 known bat species, only six have entirely white fur.

These bats are frugivorous, with one fig species being a preferred food.

The Honduran white bats are unique in being able to convert lutein into a form that better helps protect the retina and it is speculated that understanding how they do this could be helpful in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Our final bat species had a different type of residence – a termite mound, which may be abandoned or actively harboring termites. I believe that the species we saw was the pygmy round-eared bat (Lophostoma brasiliense), an insectivore although it will also eat fruit. Their daytime roosting site is maintained by a resident male bat, who prevents termites from repairing the cavity made by the bats. Seeing these nocturnal mammals in an unexpected home was truly an interesting way to conclude our bat-watching outing.

 

Many thanks to Nan DeWire and Ylva Byars for letting me include photos they took in this blog. After a foray into North Carolinian wildlife in the next posting, it will be back to Costa Rica to take a look at the woodpeckers there – and elsewhere!

Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 1

 

When a hummingbird other than a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is seen in the Triangle area of North Carolina, it is listed as a rare bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology listserv. One year, I did have a chance to see a buff-bellied hummer visiting in a nearby town though; another year a rufous hummer frequented my own feeders in the winter. Mostly, however, it is the ruby-throats who take up residence at my address, which is just fine as these feisty tiny birds provide loads of entertainment.

 

During a trip to Quebec earlier this year, we also saw ruby-throated hummingbirds there – early arrivals during the spring migration.

 

A few years ago, one of my blogs focused on their preening and cleaning, so this time I’ll mostly feature some of my favorite photos of them taken this summer in various places. (When looking through the shots, I had a LOT I liked, so this is now going to be a 2-part blog!)

At Sandy Creek Park in Durham, one female hummer had made a coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) one of her preferred dining spots.

 

 

A butterfly garden featuring blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and bee balm (Monarda) also attracted her and some other hummers.

 

One female found the bee balm to be a good place to rest, understandable since these bundles of energy have a high metabolic rate. Their hearts beat up 1260 times per minute and they take about 250 breaths per minute even when they are resting! Taking a few sips while remaining perched has to be a welcome luxury.

 

 

 

 

The hummers’ main wing bone, the humerus, is adapted to hovering flight and they have very large deltoid pectoral muscles relative to their size.

 

 

Male birds produce sperm that flows through the vas deferens (sperm duct) to the cloaca. When they mate with a female, they transfer sperm by touching the tip of their cloaca to that of the female; they do not have a penis. Females only have a functional left ovary; the right one atrophies early in her development, which allows her to avoid the extra weight of a second ovary and makes her lighter for long migratory flights.

One big treat for me this year was finding two ruby-throated hummingbird females tending a nest, the first time I had been able to spot this.

 

Later, I was able to take a quick photo of one female collecting cattail fluff with which to line her nest.

Even when several ruby-throats are frequenting an area, the (temporary) coloring of their feathers can help distinguish them. This young male had a few olive-green dots under his eye and a bit of white on the crown of his head.

 

A somewhat more mature male has a little white patch behind his red gorget.

 

They are all little beauties! Second part of this blog is coming up and then on to Costa Rica!

Oh, those ravishing raptors!

Numerous people who attract birds with feeders feel regret and sadness when one of their avian visitors is captured to serve as a meal for a raptor in the neighborhood. I, too, feel that pity and discomfort when I see one of the hawks or owls capture a bird or animal because my thoughts go to the pain and fear that the prey must feel. But of course all wildlife has to eat and I want members of the predator species to survive as well. And the beautiful predators can be really interesting to observe.

 

A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii, left) sometimes frequents my yard looking for a bird to take. This particular day in November last year, the hawk flew to the front-yard feeders but came up empty-taloned. Raptors, also known as birds of prey, are not the only birds that eat something other than seed. Some smaller birds, like the shrike, do so and many songbirds eat insects. The raptors, however, often go after prey that is fairly large in comparison to their own body size. In January this year, I came across another Cooper’s hawk at a nature reserve. The bird flew soundlessly past me to land in a tree downslope and paused for a bit before flying on, providing time for me to get a gorgeous portrait.

I’ve been lucky lately in seeing barred owls (Strix varia) at the Brumley Nature Preserve North. This owl was sitting silently next to a walking path, looking out over the adjacent field.

A couple weeks ago, I was startled by this barred owl who suddenly flew in front of me from behind my right shoulder. I hadn’t noticed him/her in a tree behind me. I tried to follow its flight but lost it. I thanked the owl for letting me glimpse it and said it would be nice if s/he came back so I could get another look. Sure enough, after I had turned back to the vicinity where I originally was surprised by the silent predator, it flew in and perched on a branch. The bird had a snooze, keeping one eye partially open to keep me in view.

  

Lately, I’ve been seeing many red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). They have been flying overhead at the nature reserves. The other day, two flew by calling raucously and then they alighted at the top of a far distant tree. I couldn’t get a photo but did see them mating in silhouette against the late afternoon sky.

  

 

A few weeks ago, a pair of red-shouldered hawks began constructing a nest just down the street from where I live. One afternoon, I happened to see them and one was collecting twigs to build or refurbish a nest.

 

 

   

This pair roams our neighborhood looking for prey; sometimes, one or both will perch in my back-yard tree for a little rest.

    

When one of the red-shouldered or Cooper’s hawks pauses for some time in the tree over the small pond, I figure it is watching for frogs or one of the chipmunks that live in the rocks surrounding the pond. The chipmunks appear to be very good at eluding capture.

 

 

A couple weeks ago, our neighborhood family of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was making a racket in my yard and when I looked out the window, I could see them harassing a hawk. I couldn’t make out why they were so angry but grabbed my camera for some shots through the window.

 

  

It turned out that the Cooper’s hawk had caught one of the numerous Eastern gray squirrels that live here. The squirrels sometimes annoy me but on the whole, I enjoy watching their antics, so I felt badly for this squirrel, who obviously was not going down without some struggle.

What made it easier for me to watch was that I didn’t really see the squirrel’s head and it was not making a sound. I think the hawk had silenced it early on when it had its claws around its neck and chest.

The hawk was determined and kept hold of the rodent, eventually subduing it.

The hawk as not unscathed, however, as you can see from the wound on its leg.

When the raptor flew off suddenly with the squirrel hanging from its talons, the three crows chased it in hot pursuit. I don’t know if they were just upset that the hawk was present or if they wanted to steal the squirrel away. On walks through the neighborhood, I am now regularly seeing the hawks in trees and on power lines. They are not too shy and seem to be adapted to the human presence in their territory.

  

While I may be feeling a bit wary for the other animals and birds when the stunning raptors appear, it still is a thrill to see one up close. Only about half of the red-shouldered chicks make it through their first year of life, so I hope the hawks keep coming by. And who knows, maybe we will have some of the long-lived birds who can reach an age of 15-19 years!

 

 

 

Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”