Winter wonderland – sharing and spats at the feeders

I thought I had published this blog in early February and just discovered that I had only saved a draft. Since we had snowflakes last night (in April!), I’m going to go ahead and post this now – a break in the series about Costa Rica! When the snow began falling during our day of one-foot accumulation, the feeders were inundated by some of the dark-colored bird species who tend to come in crowds. At first, they were peacefully sharing space.

 

  

Although I sometimes have a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at the feeders, during the storm only one pair showed up for a brief visit and the other birds left them alone.

 

The mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) often share feeder space with other birds, including those that are smaller than they are.

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are known to other people as domineering birds at the feeder, but those in my yard have always been polite, even though they seem to have a permanent expression that expresses anger.

 

 

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) sometimes share space nicely and sometimes fuss at one another as they vie for a good perch. They don’t try to chase off other species though and are not apt to “yell” at other birds.

The birds who do “yell” are the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Young ones yell at their parents after fledging, begging to be fed. Adults yell at each other when they are trying to all crowd together onto a feeder. And adults yell at other species to drive them away so they can have all the space for themselves.

At my feeders, however, they have found their match in the male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). One day, I watched as they managed to intimidate him for a few minutes, but he then returned to the feeder and refused to give up. Now he is no longer frightened of them and stands his ground when a starling does its best to make him move.

    

It turns out that studies have shown that the red-bellied woodpeckers are the birds most apt to resist attempts by other birds to displace them from feeders.

The red-bellied woodpecker also was not intimidated by me at one point. He doesn’t like it when he flies in and notices at the last moment that I am sitting or standing on the porch; often he will swerve away and wait for me to leave. During the snow storm, however, he decided to display his displeasure with my close presence, both from a frontal and dorsal view!

 

  

      

 

I guess that the little bird spats do make for sometimes more interesting birding observations. Seeing the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) warning off a rival a few days before and after the snow melted did show off a gorgeous and brave little bird.

 

 

I’m looking forward to seeing what the springtime observations of animal behavior will reveal.

 

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 5A: the Talari Mountain Lodge

This edition of Costa Rican rambles will be a two-parter. Remember that you can click on a photo to see it larger and then click the back arrow to go back to the blog. The Talari Mountain Lodge, located in the El General Valley next to the Chirripo River, became our pied-à-terre for two nights. We had lush surroundings, as you can see from our view looking out of the dining area.

 

Several of the signs were made of old tires that had been artistically cut and painted – beautifully and colorfully done! Some hanging plant holders had also had a previous life as tires.

There were some other decorations, too – a brightly painted cart and some snakes (we only saw one real one during the trip).

Having gotten some coffee and tea, we set out to see the lodge surroundings before breakfast. After passing a strangler-fig covered tree (Ficus aurea), we stopped by the rooms in which some of our group were staying. There we were welcomed by a very handsome roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris).

We neared the river, which was rather low. Some of our group members managed to catch sight of an otter there a few times but I never had that sighting. I did see a sandpiper on a rock in the river, which our guide said was a spotted sandpiper but it looked like a solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) to me.

 

The trees along the banks were filled with birds. One of the first that really caught my eye was the bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola). I would have given it a different common name, but its distinct head color really did set off its beautiful blue and green feathers, which looked almost neon in the bright sunlight  .

 

 

   

Now that spring has come to North Carolina, I’ve been having fun watching the blue-gray gnatcatchers building their nests. They have a counterpart in Costa Rica, called the tropical gnatcatcher (Polioptila plumbea). It seems to be about the same size as our gnatcatcher, with its gray feathers and tendency to move about a lot, but its head reminds me more of a Carolina chickadee. Perhaps this is what a hybrid blue-gray gnatcatcher/Carolina chickadee would look like.

 

The next bright bird to occupy my attention, while my fellow birders peered through their binoculars at other species, was the yellow-crowned euphonia (Euphonia luteicapilla). The adult males have bright yellow and blue plumage; I only saw younger males and a female who seemed to be checking out a nesting cavity.       

 

A scaly-breasted hummingbird (Phaeochroa cuvierii) put in a brief appearance, while several species of swifts were circling overhead.

On our way back to breakfast, I admired the lodge’s stone bird bath and noted they have an invasive plant that we have in North Carolina, too, the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis).

 

   

Then I got some photos of a banded peacock (Anartia fatima) and a Cucullina ringlet butterfly (Hermeuptychia cucullina).

 

I was not able to find out the species (yet) for a brown skipper, a white moth and another pretty butterfly.

 

The feeders at the lodge had a black-headed male green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) visiting along with a lovely male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) whose red feathers looked like a fringed shawl covering his lower back. The next morning the female honeycreeper came by as well.

  

 

Our first trip of the day involved a visit to the UNA (Universidad Nacional) campus, where I had my first views of a double-toothed kite (Harpagus bidentatus). The stripe underneath its chin, along with its coloring, made it a very attractive bird for me.

 

 

 

   

We then drove to another university campus site, stopping along a road where we saw a white-crowned parrot (Pionus senilis) in the distance.

   

 

Our guide, Steve, had warned us to wear hats as we would be in areas with lots of cicadas, which are called chicharras locally. We had already heard them in the morning – there seemed to be at least hundreds of them in various wooded areas. The 23 Costa Rican species emerge from underground during the breeding season of several bird species that feed on them, such as motmots, trogons and flycatchers. Their cacophony of mating calls was sometimes so loud that you had to speak loudly to other people to be heard over it. But why would we need hats – don’t they just perch in the trees and call?

As I stood on the road, photographing the parrot, I thought we had run into a quick shower – then I realized what the slightly sticky (to me) droplets were – cicada rain!!! The cicadas drink xylem, which is tree sap, and urinate as they process the nutrients– when they do so in large numbers and you are standing underneath them, an umbrella would not be out of place. I tried to photograph the rain to give an idea of the falling pee.

 

 

   

More on Talari Lodge and its surroundings in the next blog!

Costa Rican rambles 4: Bosque del Tolomuco

After lunch on our first day birding, we set off to visit a lodge called Bosque del Tolomuco, named after a weasel-like mammal called a tayra (tolomuco in Spanish). Located in the Talamanca mountains, the gardens featured three fruit feeders and numerous flowering plants, shrubs and trees that attract varied birds.

About 600 of the 870 species of birds recorded in Costa Rica are year-round residents and a considerable number are endemic to this West Virginia-sized country (and Panama). In addition, about 200 species of birds migrate there during the North American winter. At this stop, I saw a couple migrants as well, notably a Baltimore oriole and a rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus).

A large bird was at one of the fruit feeders when we arrived; it was a gray-headed chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps). This particular feeder seemed to attract larger creatures – a little while later, a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis) showed up.

   

Some smaller birds were feeding on fruit and nectar shrubs. One was the bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) with a striped head; the other was a somewhat drab bird with a fancy name, the paltry tyrannulet (Zimmerius vilissimus).

 

 

 

 

The male and female red-headed barbets (Eubucco bourcierii) were anything but drab; in fact, they were quite eye-catching. Their striped abdomens made me think of a man’s striped trousers.

   

High overhead, making a good shot a bit difficult, were some blue-headed elegant euphonias (Euphonia elegantissima). At least I got a recognizable photo of them, unlike my attempts to photograph some sparrow species who appeared in darker shadowy areas.

  

Several of my birding friends are raptor fans; a couple others are very partial to warblers. On this trip, I realized that I am quite fond of tanagers. I saw a few summer tanagers in Costa Rica but was really delighted by the species native to this country. Several were enjoying fruit at feeders, including a beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus). Some birds are not so brightly colored but have a muted beauty, which was how I saw this species.

The male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) with his black plumage highlighted by a red rump is eye-catching; his female companion was also a real looker with her soft orange, olive and yellow colors.

 

 

The silver-throated tanagers (Tangara icterocephala) immediately became one of my favorites; their beautiful shades of yellow were stunning as far as I was concerned.

They were accompanied by a larger bird, a buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus), which is related to the tanagers.

  

 

Another very attractive bird was the speckled tanager (Tangara guttata).

 

 

The flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata), which I had seen before, continued to delight with its bright colors. There were also several hummingbird species, which I think I have identified properly. Their rapid flights on an overcast day that was darkening as the afternoon progressed made for some challenging photography, but it was fun trying to capture them. The snowy-bellied hummingbirds (Amazilia edward) were the first ones I saw.

   

The bottlebrush flowers (Callistemon) appeared to be a very attractive food source for them.

     

A green hermit (Phaethornis guy) was dashing in and out among the hanging flowers to get some nectar.

       

 

The very cute white-crested coquette (Lophornis adorabilis), on the other hand, was flitting from bush to bush for quick meals and then finally decided to pose for a while. I couldn’t resist taking multiple photos of this little beauty.

 

 

 

  

  

The green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) was a much larger hummingbird. Both females (with white and green spotted breast) and males were taking nectar from feeders and then taking little rests on nearby shrubs.

     

The stripe-tailed hummingbird (Eupherusa eximia) was enjoying the bottlebrush blooms, too.

The gray-tailed mountain gems (Lampornis cinereicauda), which I’d seen earlier in the day at Miriam’s restaurant, were here as well and much more difficult to photograph in between flowers rather than feeders. However, I was able to get better glimpses of their colorful feathers as they turned their heads in the light.

 

Finally, the white-tailed emeralds (Elvira chionura) rounded out the group of hummers to admire at the Bosque del Tolomuco.

We finally left the lodge after admiring a blue and white swallow on our way to the Talari Mountain Lodge. Along the way, I saw a horse (Equus caballus) – which finally satisfied my desire to see an animal other than a bird! We then stopped along a street and later at a soccer field in San Isidro El General, where local boys were having a game – half of them wore shoes and half were barefoot (perhaps their way of identifying team membership).  A tropical mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) was moving along treetops, while a great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) perched in another tree.

 

The bromeliads were again beautiful. Our guide directed our attention to the underbrush, however, as he had spotted an Isthmian wren (Cantorchilus elutus). We stared at the dark leaves, waiting for some movement that would indicate where the little bird was; finally, it emerged from behind some leaves for several seconds so we could get a better look.

 

  

As cattle egrets flew by overhead, we saw a lesser elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis) and then a yellow-bellied elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster), which reminded me of the great-crested flycatcher I have seen in my own yard.

  

A cool seed pod and rose-breasted grosbeak caught my attention.

 

 

And then the highlight of that stop for me came by – a streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii).

  

We arrived at the Talari Lodge for a quick stroll in the garden before our meal and then prepared for an early morning walk to the nearby river. More to come!

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!