Beautiful birds of prey – Costa Rica

During my two trips to Costa Rica in 2018 and 2019, it was a pleasure to see the varied birds of prey flying by and sitting near roads. Unfortunately, both years my photography was not at its best so a good number of the following shots aren’t that great, but they give you an idea of the beauties that can be seen there. My favorite was this gorgeous baby spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) who was staring through the rain forest foliage at us from a distance last year. This photo was taken with my phone through a scope.

 

But first let me explain which types of birds constitute the birds of prey as there are some slightly differing definitions. One explanation focuses on birds that mostly hunt vertebrates that are large in relation to their own size. It doesn’t seem quite specific enough as sometimes a great blue heron will eat a relatively big mammal such as a gopher, while I’ve had red-shouldered hawks in my yard fishing the pond for frogs that are fairly small in relation to them. This photo of a double-toothed kite (Harpagus bidentatus) in Costa Rica carrying a small lizard shows that they will feed on smaller prey as well, however.

Another definition is more specific, focusing on physical traits of these birds: relatively large, hooked bills with which they can tear flesh, powerful feet with sharp talons for catching prey animals, keen binocular vision for detecting prey at a distance, and good hearing. This roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris), seen in 2018 in the first photo below and in 2019 in the other two photos, illustrates these features.

The raptors are further divided into two major groups: the diurnal species that hunt in the daytime (e.g., eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures) and the nocturnal species that are mainly active at night (the owls). We’ll start with the owls, of which I’ve seen four species now in Costa Rica. I already mentioned the lovely spectacled owl. The immature owl is fuzzy and white with huge eyes; the adults have dark heads and backs but retain their striking yellow eyes. I only saw the young owl, which we observed thanks to our local guide, Cope.

 

Cope is not only a guide but also an artist and I couldn’t resist buying a print of his lovely portrait of the young spectacled owl.

 

Our trip guide, Steve, had heard at one reserve that a pair of mottled owls (Ciccaba virgata) were perched in a tree near a trail. They were exactly where predicted and though the heavy, dark vegetation made for a difficult view, we could see the two resting comfortably. These medium-sized owls lack ear tufts.

Last August, Steve spotted a ferruginous pygmy owl (Glaucidium brasilianum) for us near a creek but it was fairly far off, partly obscured by leaves from where I stood. We had seen one closer up in 2018, perched in trees near the road. This owl is crepuscular (mostly active at dawn and dusk) but they also hunt during the day, which may help account for its willingness to be out in the afternoon so we could get a good look at it.

An owl that I did not see last August was the bare-shanked screech owl (Megascops clarkia). One had been spotted at the top of a hill, but it was raining that day, the path was very muddy and slippery and my arthritic knees and ankles were not cooperating in pathway navigation. The rest of my group ascended while I birded below. But my disappointment was not too great as I had had some good looks at one in 2018. Steve had played the owl’s call, not expecting the bird to appear but thinking it might flush another bird that would be investigating if the owl was near. In flew the lovely little screech owl, perching nicely in view amid the forest foliage!

                             

Some scientists now think that the owls may be more closely aligned with the birds of the nightjar group than with diurnal raptors. The nightjars have small feet and don’t walk much. These nocturnal birds, which have quite short bills, feed on insects found on the ground or caught while flying. We saw a member of this family, the common paraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), resting on a pathway one evening; this one was likely a female as the male has more white on its wings and tail. Their plumage is quite mottled so that they blend in well with their backgrounds; these two photos were taken with different amounts of light illuminating the bird.

Another type of nocturnal bird related to nightjars (but also not considered a raptor) is the potoo. In 2018, Steve found us a common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) perched atop a snag along a very dark, unlit country road. This past August, we saw one perched high above us in a tree during the daytime. When this insectivore perches on a snag during the day, it often blends in so well and remains so completely motionless, people often don’t see it because it looks like it is part of the stump or snag!

This past year we also got to see a great potoo (Nyctibius grandis) as well. They eat not only insects but also small vertebrates with their short-beaked but very broad mouths.

 

The diurnal birds of prey that I’ve seen in Costa Rica include a hawk that I’ve also seen in North Carolina – the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus). Some of these have quite long migratory paths but there are also five sub-species that are endemic to the Caribbean region that don’t migrate.

 

There are both white hawks (Pseudastur albicollis, seen flying very high overhead) and common black hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus) in Costa Rica. The white hawks prey on insects, mammals and reptiles. The black hawks mainly eat crabs, supplemented with eggs and small vertebrates. The one we saw was quite vocal.

 

 

Two other species of beautiful hawks are the gray (Buteo plagiatus) and gray-lined hawks (Buteo nitidus). We saw the gray hawk in roadside trees last August; this is a common perch from which they swoop down on prey animals, including lizards, snakes, frogs, birds and small mammals.

   

In 2018, we were able to admire a beautiful gray-lined hawk (Buteo nitidus) sitting atop a snag. These raptors are seen mainly in southern Costa Rica; their hunting style and favored prey are similar to those of the gray hawks.

The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) seems to be a bird of prey that is seen throughout Costa Rica. Adults feed their young frogs, lizards, snakes and small birds, while they mostly eat insects while flying about themselves.

 

Our guide, Steve, spotted a bat falcon for us (Falco rufiularis) but it was so far away that we had to get a reasonable view mostly through a scope (left). Here is a much better view. We had much better luck watching a laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans), which was also one of my favorite raptors.

 

We had been driving down a mountain road when this gorgeous bird flew from a stand of trees to a snag in a field.

 

This handsome avian is a raptor with a specialized diet – they mainly eat snakes, giving rise to the erroneous common name of snake hawk. They supplement this dietary preference with lizards, rodents, bats and centipedes.

I didn’t hear this bird but they can vocalize for up to 5 minutes at a time.

 

The next two birds I saw only in flight and only in 2018. The caracaras are members of the falcon family but, interestingly, they are among the few raptors that hunt for food on foot. The crested caracara (Caracara cheriway) has a widely varied diet, including: rabbits, ground squirrels, skunks, birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, young alligators, fish and large insects. Also of interest is the fact that they not only hunt live prey but also eat carrion.

 

The yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) does not eat birds but also hunts reptiles, amphibians and small animals. In some places, it is called the tickbird as it will take ticks from cattle. It, too, will eat carrion.

 

 

And then the final bird in this line-up – a much better known carrion eater, the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa). This mainly white-colored vulture tends to soar much higher than other vultures and often does so without flapping its wings. They are the second-largest vultures in the Western hemisphere (only the condors are larger).

 

A North Carolina-based blog is next and then back to Costa Rica for some more “exotic” animals.

Thanks to fellow travelers, Ylva Byars and Nan DeWire for photos that they provided!

Costa Rican rambles 6A – Los Cusingos

Finally, back to Costa Rica (in memory)! The past couple months were very busy and often stressful for me, so it is so very nice to again look back to the wonderful days we had looking for Central American birds (and other wildlife) in Costa Rica. On the fourth day of our 9-day trip, we moved to another hotel for a couple nights, stopping several times along the way to bird along roads. The photos from this day were not that great, but they do provide an impression of what we were seeing.

Before we left, we birded the grounds of the hotel where we had spent the night. There were some pretty flowers and a white-crested coquette hummingbird (Lophornis adorabilis), as well as a rather large long-horned borer beetle (perhaps Callipogon barbatus species, but that’s not certain).

We spent some time peering into a rather dark and dense brushy area, looking for uncommon wrens. I was able to photograph a rufous-breasted wren (Pheugopedius rutilus) with some difficulty. Then, just before boarding our bus, a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) perched in a nearby tree, giving us some nice views.

  

Our first stop, however, was a park called Los Cusingos, which is a property formerly owned by US botanist Alexander Skutch. He lived there for 63 years until his death at the age of 99 years. While Skutch earned an income collecting plants for museums, his passion was birds and he wrote more than 40 books and 200 papers on ornithonology.

  

Now his former home is part of a bird sanctuary run by the Tropical Science Center and you can see a variety of birds, like this buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus) and the yellow-olive flycatcher (Tolmomyias sulphurescens).

        

The staff had put out fruit on a feeding station to attract birds and this brought in several, including a female Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) and a golden-hooded tanager (Tangara larvata).

     

The station was also very attractive to a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis), who was not in the least perturbed by our presence nearby.

We set off onto the trails in search of new avian species but also had time to admire many types of trees and plants, which I still must identify. Some had very sharp spines.

The dense foliage with a little sun creating dappled views made photography a challenge for me. But I did get a couple photos of a little bird called the plain xenops (Xenops minutus).

As we hiked, a few beautiful butterflies appeared; the one with orange spots was, I believe, a crimson patch (Chlosyne janais) and the other was a zebra-striped hairstreak (Panthiades bathildis).

A chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), familiar to me from North Carolina, put in an appearance and a lovely little lesser greenlet (Hylophilus decurtatus) peered out from some large leaves.

A summer tanager (Piranga rubra), which I’ve been lucky to have in my own yard, was a pleasure to see, as was a spot-crowned euphonia (Euphonia imitans).

  

One of my favorite birds, of which I unfortunately had blurry photos, was the entertaining red-capped manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis). He stayed very high in the canopy and was sometimes behind leaves but, when he emerged, he did a great sideways moonwalk back and forth on the branch, which was part of his courtship behavior. What a very cool sighting!

   

Back near the entrance to the reserve, there were some lovely orchids and a brilliant green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) to see us off as we set off on the road – to be continued in the next blog!

  

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!