The Gone Birding Newsletter
Vol. 1, No. 1
First Sighting of Green-winged Teal by Birders in Costa Rica!
The new millenium certainly started off with a bang! After all the fireworks and hoopla over Y2K had faded away, I took my children out to Finca Las Concavas (between Cartago and Paraiso) to look for a Northern Pintail that had been reported there during the Cartago Christmas Bird Count, held December 19, 1999. Our outing took place on January 4, 2000 -- a little more than two weeks after the count -- on a partly overcast but generally pleasant day, especially considering all the rain that the area received during December and January.
Many who visit Las Concavas bird around the large pond visible from the entrance road, but our experience has been that there is far more "action" at the tiny pond below the dairy barn (turning right and staying behind the houses after passing the guard house). And it was the small pond we checked first in hopes of finding a duck that would have been new for us in Costa Rica -- never dreaming what we were about to discover!
It was Leonardo, my oldest son, his eye at the telescope while panning through scores of Blue-winged Teals, who made the discovery. "Hey! Look at this!" he shouted in astonishment. One by one, we took our turn at the eyepiece to marvel at a cracking male Green-winged Teal calmly standing on the far bank of the pond, flanked by blue-wings.
According to the account in A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, this species had been known in the country on the basis of one banded bird shot at Ochomogo in 1962 and "several unconfirmed reports by duck hunters of birds shot in Tempisque basin." As we stood admiring the bird, I called Julio Sánchez, curator of birds at the National Museum of Costa Rica, to report our find and inquire if he knew of any other reports since the publication of the field guide. The answer: Negative.
It was one of those rare incomparable moments as the awareness set in that we were undoubtedly the first birders ever to observe this species in Costa Rica!
Since this was literally "a sitting duck" and the chances were very good that it would not leave the spot, that evening I began making phone calls and sending e-mails to local birders to get the word out. During a phone conversation just the other day with Robert Dean, he informed me that he visited Las Concavas in mid-March and the bird was still there. Jim Zook, who went to see "our" Green-winged Teal shortly after the discovery, saw another male of the species at Palo Verde National Park in February! He also thought that someone had seen another individual somewhere else this year -- when it rains, it pours. I'll try to follow up on that report in the next newsletter.
By the way, the Northern Pintail report that started this whole thing turned out to have been an error on the entry log!
Male Painted Bunting Makes Backyard Appearance
A scant four days after our encounter with the Green-winged Teal, David (one of the twins) was birding out in the yard when a male Painted Bunting flew in to one of the Gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba) trees along the back property line. News of the sighting came bursting through the windows like bricks hurled by demonstrators and those of us inside went scrambling for binoculars and the nearest exit.
Once outside, we awed at the bird's beauty as the afternoon sunlight illuminated every detail of its fine plumage. A life bird for everyone in the family but me, it was also a new yard tick that currently has our house tally at 121 species in eight years of living here on the western edge of San Antonio de Belén.
Lifer Takes Backseat to Out of Place Antbird
January was worrisomely slow for tourism here in Costa Rica, as perhaps it was for much of the world since the blame was placed on the great Millenium Bug (Diurnata interrupta), a malicious nuisance of pandemic proportions. Thus, I was understandably relieved to receive word that a two-week tour with Full Circle Tours had confirmed for February -- albeit with just two people.
The trip got off to an auspicious* start as we traveled to Limón and then up the canals to Tortuguero on February 13. We had just enteredTortuguero National Park from the southern entrance at Jalova and were enjoying the jungle ambiance of the narrow, winding waterway when our boatman, Modesto Watson, cut the throttle. Following his instructions, our attention was brought to a Green Ibis sitting on a nest. From what we could see, the nest consisted of a platform of twigs placed on a horizontal portion of a Raffia palm (Raphia taedigera) frond about three meters above the water. I mention this because as of the publication of the field guide, the nest of the Green Ibis was undescribed (although I strongly suspect that nearly every native boatman in the Tortuguero region has long known what one looks like!).
Several days later, our itinerary had us in Guanacaste where we visitedSanta Rosa National Park at dawn on February 18. Coming in the paved entrance road from the PanAmerican Highway, we spent more than an hour birding the patch of primary forest encountered at about five kilometers in from the park entrance. The birding was quite entertaining with a good variety of native species and North American migrants, although the mutually agreed highlight was the performance of the Long-tailed Manakins -- two males and two females that allowed us the privilege of witnessing their entire courtship song and dance routine THREE TIMES!
Between the bouts of manakin antics, a bit of flock activity materialized just a few meters down the road and as I approached to get a better view an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper came working its way up a small tree trunk at eye-level. A life bird! And along with the Gray-fronted Dove, the only dry forest species in Costa Rica that had thus far managed to avoid my gaze.
At this stage in the game (723 spp.), life birds in Costa Rica tend to be few and far between and, thus, usually all the more to be savored. My elation lasted less than a minute, however, as another bird caught our attention almost immediately. It was an immature antshrike foraging in vine tangles on the other side of the road. It came in and out of view, but each time that it was briefly visible I became more and more certain that it was a Western Slaty-Antshrike -- a bird that should not be in the northern Pacific dry forest! As lately I've taken quite an interest in bird distribution and status throughout the country, I was far more impressed by this juvenile out-of-place antshrike than I was by a bird which was perfectly at home in the habitat, even though I had never happened to have seen it before!
As a postscript to this story, upon returning home from the trip a week or so later, I checked my mailbox at the local post office and found the Spring 1999 (sic, it's a long story) edition of Cotinga, the Journal of theNeotropical Bird Club. And whaddya know? There on page 21 was an article by Mark W. Lockwood, "Occurrence of Western Slaty-antshrike Thamnophilus atrinucha on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica." On March 8, 1998, he observed and photographed a pair of adult birds in the same patch of evergreen forest.
I guess we got to see Junior.
*Do you know the etymology of the term "auspice"? According to my Random House Dictionary of the English Language, it derives from the Latin "auspicium a bird-watching, divination from flight of birds = auspic- (stem of auspex one who observes birds, soothsayer) + -ium noun suffix."
A "Pearl-less" Journey to San Isidro
From mid-March through early April, Costa Rica was plagued by outbursts of social unrest resulting from a general discontent with a controversial new telecommunications/ power-generation bill being debated in the Legislative Assembly. The sporadic roadblocks that appeared on various of the country's main thoroughfares made for difficult and unpredictable traveling. For reasons I'm not really sure of, the town of San Isidro del General was one of the most ardent centers of dissent.
It was also one of the places I had most wanted to visit since my son Leonardo had attended the Birding Club of Costa Rica's outing to the area in mid-February.
Following a morning visit to Los Cusingos -- Dr. Skutch's farm -- a few of the keener participants spent the afternoon birding on the grounds of their hotel, the Talari Mountain Lodge. It was in an overgrown pasture with scattered trees down by the Río El General where they saw a Pearl Kite "sitting high in the branches of one tree for several minutes before disappearing into the denser leaves of an adjacent smaller one. Very close investigation failed to flush it, making us suspect it had fled unnoticed, yet when we eventually decided to give up, it took the opportunity to fly out, landing on an exposed branch some twenty feet up in another tree, affording us our best views yet . . . . Meanwhile, George Wallace had been vigilantly scouring the tree in which it had remained silently for so long and discovered a nest, attended by our bird's mate!" (from Robert Dean's trip report).
This handsome little raptor has been working its way north on both sides of Costa Rica during the last ten years, but this is apparently the first report of an actual nest in the country. Jim Zook did observe what appeared to be pre-nesting courtship behavior a year earlier in the area of Palmares, just a few kilometers southeast of San Isidro, but found no nest.
And speaking of Jim Zook, his phone call on March 13 was the REAL reason for my desire to get down to the San Isidro area. That very morning, he had seen three Southern Lapwings in a field near the El General sugar mill. (And to sweeten the pot, he also mentioned seeing Red-breasted Blackbirds and a Pearl Kite in the same area-all three of these species would be new for my Costa Rica list, and the former two would be lifers.)
Actually, in a curious way I have seen Southern Lapwings in Costa Rica: while sitting on my living room sofa! I was watching a locally produced nature/travel program in May of 1997 when up came full-screen images of a pair of Southern Lapwings standing on a gravel bar in the middle of the San Carlos River up near the Nicaraguan border. The announcer mentioned that these birds were not to be found in the field guide, and I thought to myself, "You bet they're not!"
A phone call to Julio Sánchez the next morning confirmed that this was apparently the first country record of the species. The following year, birders staying at the Laguna del Lagarto Lodge again observed this species when they did a boat trip on the same stretch of the river. Although I don't know the date, it must have been in the first half of the year because I saw the photographs in July of 1998.
Finally, on Saturday, April 1, 2000, I decided to take advantage of the fact that the protesters seemed to be taking the weekends off and made my pilgrimage in search of these three ticks. With the four boys loaded up, we pulled out of the gate at 4:00 and were up at Km 96 by 6:00, enjoying a crystal clear morning on Cerro de la Muerte. By 7:30, we were pulling into the rustic roadside restaurant "El Trapiche de Nayo" situated at about 1050 meters above sea level and just about 15 minutes away from San Isidro. We had trouble ordering breakfast though, not because the menu was extensive (there was a choice of gallo pinto any one of three ways), but because there was so much bird activity just off the balcony that I could hardly get the kids' attention. To make matters worse, we discovered that we were in the middle of hawk migration and small kettles of Broad-winged and Swainson's Hawks kept swirling up from below and passing right over the restaurant. The real breakfast-stopper though was a Black Hawk-Eagle that came right in just above eye-level, glided over the building, and disappeared over the ridge across the highway. Great looks and a lifer for the boys!
Ninety minutes and thirty-seven species later, we resumed our journey.
We spent an hour looking for the lapwings et.al. along the short stretch of road from the PanAmerican Highway to the sugar mill, but alas with no luck. Although we did see 40 species including a couple of lifers for the younger fellows: Fork-tailed and Bran-colored Flycatchers. One amusing moment came when a Swallow-tailed Kite was harassed by a Fork-tailed Flycatcher giving the impression of being a contest to see who had the longer tail!
Arriving at the Talari Mountain Lodge just before noon, we birded a bit, had lunch, and then went off in search of the "resident" Pearl Kites. We stood under the nest tree (though I confess to not seeing an obvious nest) and wandered the grounds along the river, having a nice look at a female MacGillivray's Warbler and an entertaining variety of tanagers, but no kites. Having already seen eight species of raptors that day (with a crippling view of a pair of Bat Falcons dining on a too-dissected-to-identify bird still to come), I had felt sure that the Pearl Kite would be no problem. To further rub it in, the owner of the lodge told us that a group of birders had seen the kites from the swimming pool that very morning.
Well, at least I felt good for having made the effort. It would have been far worse to have lived with the thought that I didn't even try. And, of course, there's always a next time.
Winnie O. Scores Big at La Virgen del Socorro
On March 16, Winifred (Winnie) Orcutt rang to report a goodie she'd seen that day at La Virgen del Socorro: a Lanceolated Monklet! It was sitting on a low branch less than 100 meters in the forest trail to the right just before you reach the old bridge over the Sarapiquí River-in other words, apparently the same spot where at least a half dozen other fortunate observers have encountered it.
I visited the LVS road on March 29, but due to time constraints didn't make it that far down the road (sigh). We did have an army ant swarm marauding right beside the track with at least six Immaculate Antbirds in attendance. Great views! It was fairly open in the understory and I thought we might get to see all sorts of other things attracted by the commotion, but only logged one Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.
Word of a Possible New Species for Costa Rica
Rafa Campos called on Sunday evening, April 2, with third-hand news of a Clapper Rail report. The way I got the story is that a group of North American birders saw this species somewhere along the Tempisque River. Hopefully, Julio Sánchez will have more details that I'll be able to report in the upcoming edition of this newsletter, but he's currently off on a field trip.
And finally, I thought I'd pass along this little tidbit that I stumbled upon while surfing for an image of a Western Slaty-Antshrike (which, by the way, you'll have noticed was not an image, but a sound clip and a brief mention of why this species is no longer called Slaty Antshrike in Central America). It's an abstract of the paper: "A test of the Skutch hypothesis: does activity at nests increase nest predation risk?" published by J.J. Roper and R.R. Goldstein in Journal of Avian Biology, No. 2, June 1997 (ISSN 0908-8857).
I hope that you've enjoyed this newsletter and welcome any comments firstname.lastname@example.org or if you're in Costa Rica, feel free to give me a ring at 293-2710.
Wishing you all a great spring migration,