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!

“Wattle” I do to get a better photo of you?

In mid-August 2019, it was my privilege and good fortune to participate in an interesting, engaging and VERY fun “Birding Plus” tour in Costa Rica thanks to a great roommate, Nan, knowledgeable guide and tour organizer, Steve and Sherry, and group of fellow travelers (Ann, Art, Bill, Gordon, Len, Tom and Ylva). My next blogs will mostly focus on the birds, amphibians, mammals and insects we were fortunate to see there. The photos are not all great as taking shots in the rain and dark cloud/rain forests was challenging for multiple reasons. But they will give you an idea of the fascinating and beautiful sightings we had. (Clicking on photos enlarges them; then back arrow.)

One of the most difficult birds to “capture” in a good photo was likely the one about which I was most excited, the three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus). This species, which also lives in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, only breeds in the mountains of Costa Rica. These bellbirds are known to be shy, secretive and elusive as they remain mostly in the dense, high canopies of the forests. They apparently prefer to perch on uncluttered branches that are 33-72 ft (10-22 m) high and 0.98-2 in (25-50 mm) in diameter.

The males usually sing from March through June, so we were lucky that some of them were calling out in mid-August. Here we see a couple digiscoped photos of a male bird. The females look very different with olive coloring and a streaky yellow breast (we did not see a female). They are quite different in size, with males in one study having a mean wing length of 6.5 in (165.5 mm) compared to 5.7 in (145.1 mm) for the females.

 

 

The common name for these birds comes from the sound they make. In some articles, it is described as a 3-part song. To me, it sounded like they first made a high-pitched brief screech, squeak or whistle sound and then a deeper call.

 

Others have described their calls/songs as a “boink,” “bonk” or “Hee-aahh” sound. In any event, they obviously work at producing the sound. As we watched, “our” bird would open his mouth very wide, so that you could see the white and black lines surrounding the bill.

He seemed to be breathing in plenty of air as he sat there silently for a while. You could see his neck getting ridges, which I assumed was due to the oxygen he was gathering and holding to be expelled in the call. (This turned out to be a correct assumption according to one study!)

Then, he moved his head up and down a bit and you knew the sound was coming. It is unmistakable once you have heard it as in this brief video that fellow traveler Ylva made.

It is said that the bellbird’s sound is one of the loudest avian calls, audible to humans who are more than 0.5 miles (0.80 km) away. The calls and songs are not instinctive – the birds learn the calls and there are different “dialects” among the birds from different areas! One bird studied in Costa Rica could perform the song/call repertoires of Talamanca and Monteverde – in other words, he was bilingual!

 

Research has also shown that immature male bellbirds not only take 6 years to achieve their full adult plumage but also to perfect their entire song repertoire! Kroodsma et al. also note that: “Males appear to be highly attentive to the nuances of songs produced by their competitors, as both immatures and adults visit each others’ display perches, listening there for up to several minutes at a time.”

The other really striking characteristic of this species is the three wattles on the male’s head which begin growing when he is 6-12 months of age. One dangles from each side of the bird’s mouth and one is affixed to the base of the upper bill.

The wattles have been described as “wormlike”. Nan and I thought they looked a bit like hair-braids and on the flight home I sat next to a woman who had three braids ending in a point with interwoven gold thread that immediately made me want to give her the nickname “Bellbird”. (I didn’t tell her that though.)

The wattles are about one-third of the bird’s size (9.5-12 in or 25-30 cm). They cannot be controlled by muscles or made rigid, but they can be extended in length up to 3.9 in (10 cm) when the bird is interacting with others or singing.

The birds are frugivorous (eat only fruit) and prefer wild avocados (Lauraceae). They play an important role in the tree’s seed dispersal.

 

Due to habitat loss and hunting, the numbers of the three-wattled bellbird have declined to about 20,000 individuals and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared its conservation status to be vulnerable. They obviously inspire artists in Costa Rica, however, as witnessed by a mural at a restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

 

 

After three blogs in quick succession, I’ll now take a break to process and sort some more photos from Costa Rica to share with you. In the meantime, bye bye from the bellbird!

Further information

Quebec chronicles – landscapes and signs of humanity: part 2

 

Continuing on from my previous blog about people and landscapes in Quebec: walking along the shorelines was a pleasant activity; the rocky beaches could be quite beautiful and revealed different kinds of plant life there.

 

 

 

 

There were many signs along the roads we traveled; as elsewhere, many indicated how to get from one place to another.

The public toilets were a nice amenity.

In one Native Canadian village, the signs were not only in French but also the indigenous language. And it was nice to see scientific symbols on signs indicating research centers.

Other signs (photographed while in the car so somewhat blurry) advised about reporting crime and safe driving, including one about “cleaning your teeth” (an inside joke about mispronunciation of the French for flashing lights).

 

 

We were asked to watch out for wildlife. We never did see a moose but I saw several white-tailed deer during our trip (just not on the road).

 

We passed houses during our outings, as well as an “old time” covered bridge, for which we made a detour so we could drive through it. One car game was counting the number of “two-toned” houses, i.e., painted in two colors.

 

Barns dotted the landscape as well.

 

I noticed that people in this area used exactly the same recycling and garbage containers as we do in my town; the school buses look like US buses as well.

 

To get to the Tadoussac dunes, we had to cross a waterway on a ferry, which was really quite nice with a viewing deck and clean, spacious restrooms. They did have some signs that made us scratch our heads in a bit of wonderment, however.

 

The dunes where we saw the thousands of birds flying over in migration were lovely, albeit quite windy at times.

 

In the towns we saw some interesting people. I don’t know if the gentleman on the left was doing something in an official capacity, but the puppeteer on the right had apparently just entertained people. At Pointe-au-Pic, a woman was getting in her daily (?) exercise.

The birds continued getting their exercise by looking for insects, buds and seeds in the various deciduous evergreens and other trees.

 

The combination of forests, dunes, beautiful shorelines and waterways, charming villages and friendly people made our stay in Quebec a real pleasure. We were also greeted every morning and evening by a couple white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) who sang loudly to one another. One was singing when we left, too, and it was a very nice goodbye song.

 

 

My memories of the Quebec spring migration journey will be wonderful, too, and the beautifully blooming forget-me-nots (Myosotis) we saw were an apt symbol of remembrance!

 

 

 

Quebec chronicles – landscapes and signs of humanity: part 1

   

To conclude the series on my springtime bird migration trip to Quebec, I’d like to share some of the scenery we saw during our daily outings to and from nature reserves and birding sites in two blogs.

Our rental house in the municipality of Saint Irénée was located on a quiet street, lined with houses that seemed to be mainly rentals. It was a good birding street, lined with lots of vegetation as the houses were mostly set back from the road.

The variety of plants and trees there and in the forests that we visited was lovely.

 

 

 

A number of home-owners had taken time to make nice signs for their houses, presumably so they would be easy to find by renters.

 

 

 

One house caught everyone’s eye as they walked the road; it sat high on a hill and was a striking construction that seemed to be mostly glass. The views from there must have been wonderful.

 

 

Other houses’ yards were brightened with art work and nice gardening features.

 

 

When we left to reach each day’s destination, our route invariably passed along the St. Lawrence Seaway, which we could see in the distance as we also passed by permanent residents’ homes and churches.

 

The paper birches and quaking aspens were really beautiful trees that we saw almost everywhere.

 

 

 

The piers at Pointe au Pic and Saint-Irénée were charming and we returned there several times.

One day, a couple had brought a picnic to enjoy, even though it was a bit cool.

The piers were interesting. Fellow traveler Chloe posed near an “object of interest”!

To my delight, one pier had a little neighborhood lending library there.

Numerous signs advised visitors on behavior during their walks on the piers.

 

 

At Saint-Irénée, signs with photos related the history of the town and its pier.

We did not only stay around Saint-Irénée and Pointe-au-Pic, however; see the next blog for other sights we saw while driving around.

Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow and green colors, part 2

My last “bird blog” from Quebec! The passerine birds that we admired during our trip there included the vireos and grosbeaks. But I saved one warbler for this blog since I often had to look at the photos to be sure which species I had seen. The Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) could namely be mistaken for a Philadelphia vireo if it goes by quickly and you are not an experienced or expert birder. (It also can be easily mistaken for a female black-throated blue warbler.)

This very charming bird seemed to be everywhere we visited in great abundance. I had seen one last summer in North Carolina; now I got to see dozens of these little beauties.

 

 

Like the bay-breasted warbler, it specializes in eating the spruce budworms and hence its numbers wax and wane along with the availability of this food source.It was gleaning in all kinds of trees as well as along the shore, however, and obviously also looking for other types of food.

 

Besides insects, this bird also likes nectar and gets it by piercing flowers at the base of their stems on trees.

 

On the one day that it rained, I saw one waiting out the shower in a yard tree. On another morning, I surprised a Tennessee taking a bath in a little puddle formed by a streamlet flowing from a yard to the street where we were staying. The bird was still wet but fluttered its wings and dried off very quickly, looking fresh and pretty for a possible new partner.

 

 

The Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) is another attractive avian. It has the same coloring as the Tennessee warbler but has a bit of a hook at the end of its bill.

Like the Tennessee warblers, they migrate to Mexico and environs during the winter. Their meals of choice are insects and some berries (e.g., bayberry and dogwood). The birding websites and Wikipedia do not have anywhere near the same amount of information on this species as some others, so they likely have not been studied very much.

 

One day as I walked a path in one of the nature reserves, a Philadelphia vireo followed me a bit as I walked, finally perching on a nearby branch and fluffing its feathers. S/he looked like someone showing off a party dress.

 

 

The blue-headed vireo (Vireo solitarius) is a much darker bird, with olive-green feathers, a blue-gray crown and white “spectacles”. I haven’t seen many in North Carolina and I only saw two in Quebec – decidedly a somewhat shyer bird than many of the others that crossed my paths.

Finally, some birds that gave me very good looks were the stunning evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus).

These birds only very rarely show up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in the winter but last year I had the privilege of having a male and two females visit my feeders for one day. During this trip, we visited a neighborhood where a whole flock was busy feeding in the trees.

The males have rich deep yellow coloring offset by white and black accents on their heads, wings and tails. At one feeder, I was surprised to see one male apparently feeding another. It turns out that they may be territorial in wintertime around food sources but in the spring and summer, they are quite social and tolerant because there is a greater abundance of insects, buds, berries and seeds.

 

 

The females are much more muted in color with light yellow highlights against a pale gray background but they also have beautiful patterned black and white wing feathers. Their light yellow-lime-green beaks serve well to break apart seeds.

 

 

 

The oldest evening grosbeak on record reached the age of 16 years, 3 months. It appears that their numbers may be decreasing, although the population as a whole is not yet at risk. I look forward to another “irruptive” year, when they expand their winter territory – perhaps I’ll have a couple unexpected visitors again!