Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!

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!