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!

“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