The Gone Birding Newsletter
Vol. 3, No. 4
First Costa Rican Record of Golden-cheeked Warbler!
More than anything else in birding, the thrill of never knowing just exactly what might show up is what keeps us coming back for more.
In the introduction to The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley states, "Most birders who find rare birds are looking for rare birds." He goes on to explain that a familiarity with the common birds of a locality will help alert one to the presence of a rare bird when the observer realizes that there's "something not quite right" about a particular individual.
This was essentially the case with Jim Zook on the morning of 02 September 2002 while birding on Cerro Pata de Gallo between San Ramón and Palmares. At an elevation of 1450m, this is an area of mostly coffee plantations with shade and some small relict patches of native vegetation. It was a relatively slow morning birdwise with little sign of any northern migrants, but then Jim spotted a warbler flitting in the branches. From the looks he got, he wasn't quite sure what it was, so after it flew from sight he made a sketch and some notes, before continuing on. A bit farther down the dirt lane, it reappeared. This time Jim had even better looks at the busy little bird, but was still uncertain of it's identity. He further embellished his field notes and sketch before returning home, where upon consulting various field guides he realized he had seen a first winter femaleGolden-cheeked Warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia).
This species is among the rarest of the wood-warblers that breed in North America, the entire breeding range being confined to a dozen counties in central Texas. It's normal wintering range extends from Mexico to Nicaragua, where it often occurs in conifers. No conifers ever made it beyond Nicaragua on their own, however, our species has busily been planting pines (mostly Pinus caribbea) and Mexican Cypress (Cupressus lusitanica) here in the Costa Rican highlands for the last 50 years or so. In that same interval, our species has likely also been responsible for the removal of a good deal of the native conifer growth farther north of here in other parts of Central America. So perhaps it shouldn't be entirely unexpected that at least some individual Golden-cheeked Warblers might occasionally venture this far south in search of appropriate wintering habitat.
In his research on the species, Jim told me that he found a mention of female Golden-cheeks tending to winter farther south than males, so that also fits with his observation.
Additionally, the congeners with which this species would most likely be confused (i.e., Black-throated Green, Townsend's, and Hermit Warblers (D. virens, townsendi, and occidentalis, respectively)) had not arrived yet in CR. The first reports (see next article) for these to-be-expected species came on 02 October, 28 September, and 22 September, respectively.
Accompanied by Dennis Rogers, Jim returned to the site on 05 September, but after five hours of searching were unsuccessful at relocating the bird. On 08 September, I took the family on a Sunday drive out to the west end of the Central Valley, where we located Jim's spot and gave it a shot. As we were returning to where we had parked the car, we bumped into Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean, who had come from Monteverde to chase this bird (OK, Eduardo had to come into San Jose anyway, but Robert came down and back for the day). Between us, we must have put in a total of three hours of fruitless observation-though we did see a good variety of other early migrants and the boys and I had fun trying to view some Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges (Dendrortyx leucophrys) that were calling in one of the coffee fields.
Jim Zook didn't have a chance to get back to the site until 18 September, when four hours of diligent seeking likewise proved futile.
If Costa Rica had such a thing as a Records Committee, this would admittedly be a difficult call, having only one person's word to go by. However, based on Jim's unquestioned birding ability, thoroughness in notekeeping, and not being completely out of the realm of geographic possibility for the species, I personally see no reason to doubt Jim's most recent addition to the Costa Rica list.
Migrant Monitoring Effort Attempted
Ever since discovering the marvel of electronic correspondence, Rafa Campos has been sending reports of his birding exploits-whether they be here in Costa Rica, in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, or the dark depths of Prospect Park in Brooklyn-to a number of colleagues in various countries. Upon returning to his beloved "Tiquicia" in early August to formally tie the knot with his likewise beloved Jane Zucker, Rafa emailed us with reports of Barn Swallows (Hirunda rustica) seen at the Juan Santamaria international airport. That got me thinking, "Why not receive migrant reports from birders throughout the country in order to get "the big picture" of what's going on during these few months?"
Combining Rafa's mailing list with other addresses I had, I came up with about 50 recipients that I hoped would be interested in colaborating on this little experiment. On 11 August, I sent out an email explaining the monitoring idea and inviting local colleagues to join the project. The initial response was extremely positive with eight replies within the first 48 hours. Reports continued to come in at an average of nearly two a day throughout the month of August.
However, it soon became apparent that there were many recipients on the list that weren't being heard from. In the first two weeks of monitoring, only 15 people contributed sightings, and only about half of those were regular contributors. (The original proposal message included an opt-out statement, but not a single person ever asked to be removed from the mailing list.) As more than two months have now passed, there are fewer than 10 regular reporters of migrant sightings, which obviously diminshes the value of the exercise.
I confess to being at somewhat of a loss to understand why the lack of interest, especially since nearly everyone on the mailing list is either an active local birder or a tour guide with a supposed knowledge of birds. The latter group may have the excuse that it is low season and there are few paid opportunities to get out in the field at this time of year, but I would have hoped that it was obvious from many of the regular contributors' reports that all you have to do is spend some time checking your own back yard each day, and don't necessarily have to visit a national park or other prime birding site.
So I'm left wondering whether the majority of people are either unable, unwilling, or unready to participate in such an activity. I know that several on the list have had computer/internet problems that have made it difficult or impossible to electronically share their data, while others have been out of the country, at least for part of the time period involved. I cannot fathom why anyone with a sincere interest in birds would be unwilling to participate, but maybe my imagination has its limits. And sadly, others may simply be unready to participate in the sense that they don't grasp the concept and/or value of sharing this type of information, or they may in fact not even realize that some birds are seasonal visitors to the neotropics and are therefore clueless as to what we're trying to do.
Well, enough venting of my frustration with the limited response to this endeavor. On the bright side, we still have received a broader image of what's going on with migration than any one of us could have had based solely on our own observations. By tabulating the data on an Excel spreadsheet, it was easier to visualize where and when different species were arriving (or departing as was the case with species such as Plumbeous Kite (Ictinia plumbea), Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), Piratic Flycatcher (Legatus leucophaius), Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (Myiodynastes luteiventris), and Yellow-green Vireo (Vireo flavoviridis), which breed at these latitudes, then move south until early the following year).
As of this writing, 126 migratory species have been reported. The first returning boreal migrant to be spotted was a Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla), seen on 29 July 2002 at theLa Paz Waterfall Gardens by Harry Castro y Leo Chaves. A day later, Jim Zook observed six Orchard Orioles (Icterus spurius) in Dominical. Other early arrivals reported within the first half of August (exclusive of shorebirds, since it's harder to know with them if what you're seeing has been here all summer, or not) included: Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus), Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), Barn Swallow (Hirunda rustica), Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis), Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia), Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica), Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia), American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla), Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia), Blackburnian Warbler (D. fusca), and Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), in that order.
One important site, from which we received periodic updates, is the Kéköldi Hawk Watch near Home Creek, Limón. Unfortunately, they don't have a web site of their own with online species data, buthere's an article about the project (scroll down about one screen). The Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica hosted a field trip to the site on 12 - 13 October 2002 and saw thousands of migrating hawks (in order of abundance: Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), Mississippi Kite (Ictinia mississippiensis), Swainson's Hawk (Buteo swainsoni), and Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis)) and Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura). In his report of the trip, Ernesto Carman also mentioned the first sightings we've had this season of Veery (Catharus fuscescens), Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus), and Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas).
Of course, everyone wants to know about the rarities, and so, in order of appearance, here are some of the least common species reported so far:
Yellow-throated Warbler (Dendroica dominica): seen on Cerro Espiritu Santo in Naranjo on three occasions (10 & 30 August, and 22 September-four individuals!); in Sabalito, near the Panamanian border, on 12 September; in La Angostura de Pérez Zeledón on 02 October (all of these sightings were by Jim Zook); and on the campus of the Universidad Nacional in Heredia on 13 September by Wayne Hsu.
Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus): reported from Monteverde on 21 August by Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean, and on 06 October by Sergio Vega.
Hermit Warbler (Dendroica occidentalis): seen on Cerro Espiritu Santo by Jim Zook on 22 September and 12 October, and in Monteverde on 05 October by Robert Dean, who reports that it's in the same spot as it was last year behind the cheese factory.
Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens): appeared in a Surinam Cherry tree (Eugenia uniflora) on 03 October in Charlie Gomez' backyard in Sabanilla-Charlie's sole contribution to the monitoring project, at least he made it a good one.
Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata): spotted on 10 October by Ernesto Carman at the family farm in Birrisito de Paraiso, east of Cartago.
Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus): found by Jim Zook on 12 October while birding the Cerro Espiritu Santo. (On this particular day, Jim had 26 migrant species, including 17 species of wood-warblers!)
Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus): as mentioned above, at Home Creek on 13 October.
Any further noteworthy outcomes of this monitoring project will be included in the January newsletter.
A Veritable Invasion of Vanellus
One of the beneficial spinoffs of the migrant monitoring project has been a distinct increase in communication among local birders. And with this have come three different reports ofSouthern Lapwing (Vanellus chilensis) from around the country.
On 31 August, Bruce Young informed us of a lapwing at Los Lagos—the two roadside ponds by the turnoff to the San Ramón Forest Reserve along the road from the town of San Ramón to La Fortuna. When they came to look for the abovementioned Golden-cheeked Warbler on 08 September, Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean made a detour down to look for the lapwing, and sure enough, it was still there. More recently, Gustavo Abarca wrote saying that on 09 October, with Gustavo Orozco and Rudy Zamora, they found the bird still at the same ponds.
(Gustavo also mentioned seeing a Green Ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis) at the smaller pond. I was quite surprised to see this bird there on 21 April 2001, as it seems both a high elevation and a very open setting for this species. Interesting to know that it's still there.)
A pair of lapwings were reported at a pond between the Los Sueños Marriot Hotel and Herradura beach on 23 September. They were seen by W. Granados and the report was forwarded on by Rafa Campos.
Two days later, on 25 September, Jim Zook saw a lapwing at the sewage treatment ponds just outside of San Isidro de El General (on the road to Dominical). It was on the dike between the two ponds and, according to workers at the facility, it has been there for a while now.
The question still remains as to whether this species is a rare migrant from the south, or possibly a recently arrived resident.
Harpy Eagle Seen Again on the Osa
On 18 September, a Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) spent the afternoon atLuna Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. About 20 people, including lodge guests, lodge employees and guides, and the lodge owners, were privileged to witness this spectacular raptor as it perched in trees on the lodge property, flew to three different perches, and generally scared the @#%&! out of the local monkey population. Owner Lana Wedmore reported that they enjoyed watching the eagle through Swarovski 10x42 binoculars and a Swarovski AT-80 telescope. She also mentioned that one of the lodge workers got "some pretty good photos" and that her visiting sister took some digital pics, as well. Unfortunately, those digital images did not turn out very well, but maybe one day we'll get to check out the photographs.
Lana later informed me of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) that paid a visit to the lodge on 24 October, perching not far from a mother sloth with her baby.
In between these two raptor reports, on the opposite side of the peninsula, Soo Whiting and Flip Harrington were inspecting the Puerto Jimenez area. On 29 September, they were taking a trip up the Río Tigre towards the Dos Brazos ranger station of Corcovado National Park when they saw a perched hawk. After good looks and consultation with the field guide, they determined they had seen a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle (Spizastur melanoleucus)!
Another Species Added to La Selva's List
For three weeks during the month of July, there were repeated sightings of Violaceous Quail-Dove (Geotrygon violacea) atLa Selva. Two adults and a juvenile were seen together in the vicinity of the second bridge on the Sendero Tres Ríos (STR 800). This rare quail-dove had never been reported previously on La Selva's property—and apparently the birds have not been seen again since.
There have been sightings not too far from La Selva at La Tirimbina Forest Reserve. Also, in a phone conversation with Rudy Zamora in early August, he mentioned having seen Violaceous Quail-Doves at Valle Escondido Lodge, as well as the similarly rare Keel-billed Motmot (Electron carinatum).
Pair of Parrotlets Cause Puzzlement in Central Pacific
On 12 July 2002, Neyer Campos came across a pair of parrotlets perched in a Savanna Oak tree (Tabebuia rosea) just as he was coming to the end of a morning bird walk along the Quebrada Seca in the Jacó area. He was able to observe them through his telescope and later came to the conclusion that they were parrotlets of the genus Forpus.
Geographically, the nearest member of this genus is the Spectacled Parrotlet (F. conspicillatus), which occurs from eastern Panama into northern South America. In some of his correspondence Neyer referred to the birds as Blue-rumped Parrotlet, which is a species endemic to western Mexico (F. cyanopygius). Both possibilities seem remote at best for birds that might have arrived here on their own-which is precisely the problem with the Psittacidae family in general. Many human beings have a strange penchant for depriving these noisy, nonmelodious birds of their liberty. In fact, an Internet search for the word "parrotlet" returns page after page of sites dedicated to the incarceration of these birds. Understandably, eventually some jailors tire of the constant cacaphony and open the cell doors. Or, as these are very intelligent birds, some make their own escape to freedom.
Given the fairly large and multicultural population of the Jacó area, it is entirely possible that someone had these birds in captivity and they're now at large and surprising unsuspecting birders. However, as there are at least two individuals involved, it will be interesting to see if they manage to establish themselves in the area, as has happened so often elsewhere with escaped psittacids.
While many of us have been enjoying some down time in recent months, Jim Zook's field survey work has kept him quite active, particularly in the southern Pacific sector of the country. Here are some of the more newsworthy sightings he's had to report.
While birding in the Sabalito area on 23 August, Jim ran into numerous Slate-colored Seedeaters (Sporophila schistacea) that were feasting on seeding bamboo (Chusquea sp). He mentioned that the males were singing and quite conspicuous.
On 29 September, Jim picked up a lifer: Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch (Emberizoides herbicola)! Within about a kilometer of walking, he had six sightings as birds flew up out of the grassy field anywhere from one to twenty meters from him. Three times birds flew and then landed again, burying themselves in the grass 20 to 50 meters away. Twice they perched on tall grass stems, allowing views. And once a bird sat on a fence wire, where Jim got great looks. None of the birds sang, they merely gave high, sharp "chips" and they also seemed to respond to pishing.
The birds were in natural savanna at a place known as Los Altos de Salitre, which Jim describes as having no trees or bushes and looking from a distance like just another damn bare pasture. The site is reached by driving from the church in Buenos Aires nine kilometers up a gravel road towards the village of Dúrika. The birds were at an elevation of about 800 meters, which is twice the elevation given in the field guide for this species, but as Jim noted, everything below this area is now pineapple plantation.
And in another report that truly gives pause for thought, he wrote: "Had another sighting of Black-chested Jay (Cyanocorax affinis) on 22 August, this time near Agua Buena. And in a swampy pasture near Sabalito on 23 August, in a matter of minutes, Iheard Melodious Blackbird (Dives dives), saw a perched pair of Pearl Kites (Gampsonyx swainsonii), and a Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and two Brown-throated Parakeets (Aratinga pertinax) flying. How things change!"
Regarding the blackbirds, it looks like Panama is about to add a new species to the country list, if it hasn't already.
Birds of a Bill Flocking Together
On 28 August, while driving up to Monteverde via the Sardinal-Guacimal road, Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean spotted a group of araçaris. Being an uncommon species in the dry forest, they decided to stop and watch them. Much to their surprise, they discovered the group consisted of fourCollared Araçaris (Pteroglossus torquatus) and one Fiery-billed Araçari (P. frantzii)!
Normally, the ranges of these two congeners do not come into contact, though this site is only some 40 km northwest of Orotina, where fiery-bills occur. Eduardo wrote that the fiery-bill was following the rest of the group and occasionally engaged in "bill battles" with the Collared Araçaris.
A similar occurrence took place on 09 August, when Noel Ureña was birding in Ceibo on the eastern side of the Fila Costeña, near La Angostura to the south of San Isidro de El General. While watching a group ofChestnut-mandibled Toucans (Ramphastos swainsonii), he was surprised to hear the call of a Keel-billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus). A bit of searching soon revealed a keel-bill that seemed to be following the chestnut-mandibles. Now, if this site were on the Caribbean side of the country, there would be nothing noteworthy about the sighting since both species often forage together in the same tree. However, Keel-billed Toucans are for some reason completely absent from the southern Pacific half of the country. So what was this lone bird doing in Pérez Zeledón? Another escaped caged bird, or a lost vagrant??
Red Hot Birding in San Isidro
In August, Noel Ureña phoned to ask if I had ever seen birds here in Costa Rica eating chili peppers. I couldn't recall ever having noticed such behavior, but Noel went on to inform me that he had recently been witnessing this very phenomenon. A variety of local species come to a chili plant in his back yard in San Isidro de El General, among them: Social Flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis), Yellow-bellied Elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster), Lesser Elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis), and Buff-throated Saltator (Saltator maximus). The birds choose the ripest fruit and don't seem to be the least bit bothered by them. In fact, Noel has even seen the saltators feeding their young with the hot peppers!
Coincidentally, this same ability to tolerate chili peppers was reported in an article in a recent edition ofAudubon Magazine. In southern Arizona, Curve-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma curvirostre) also relish these hot morsels.
Feedback From the Last Edition
One of the most enjoyable aspects of putting out this newsletter is the correspondence that it generates with readers, many of whom I have never met personally. As a result of various topics inthe previous edition, I've received the following feedback:
Tim Bickler dropped a line to say: "In March of 1998, while birding at Rainbow Lodge, I had a female mango with a dark stripe down its breast. The stripe was not blue. It was near a patch of mangroves and perched for quite a while. Based on the field guide, I thought it was an out of range Green-breasted Mango [(Anthracothorax prevostii) vs. a perhaps more likely Veraguan Mango (A. veraguensis) - Ed.]. After reading your July piece though, now I wonder?"
Ernesto Carman passed along this information: "Concerning the White-tailed Emerald (Elvira chionura) in the newsletter, I have seen this species a couple times (first about two years ago) on Fila Cachí, the mountains behind Cachí, which includes Quirí. I also believe it has been seen by Daniel Martínez at Monte Sky, on the other side of the valley."
Kevin Easely sent these sight records: "Weird thing, I have been to Santa Rosa one time in my life for one day back in '87 or '88 on my first trip ever to CR. I had seen Rusty Sparrow (Aimophila rufescens) many times in Mexico having gone twice a year for about 8 years there. You don't think it is a big deal when you see one straight off. I remember it was in the park on the left side of the road, not that that is going to help but I do recall it clearly.
"The Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) was in late March on a Limosa (British) tour. It flew into a small bush alongside the road and did not want to leave. This was on the entrance road before Palo Verde and before the rice scheme as I remember. I wanted to make it something else not expecting Grasshopper there but everything pointed to that."
Finally, Jim Zook mentioned during the course of a phone conversation that he has seen Mourning Doves (Zenaidamacroura) in the hills above Naranjo and Zarcero and has heard them calling from April to June/July. So, that certainly sounds like another resident population.
Christmas Bird Counts Coming Up Soon
Here are the dates and contact information for the variousCBC activities that traditionally take place in Costa Rica. All interested birders are welcome to participate. Hope to see you out there!
Grecia: 14/12/02 Rafael Campos <firstname.lastname@example.org> 444-6572
Cartago: 15/12/02 Julio Sanchez <email@example.com> 551-2509
Monteverde: 20/12/02 Alex Villegas <firstname.lastname@example.org> 245-8457
Aerial Tram: 22/12/02 Daniel Torres <email@example.com> 711-0018
La Selva: 29/12/02 Joel Alvarado <firstname.lastname@example.org> 766-6565 ext. 109
La Merced: 03/01/03 Noel Ureña <email@example.com> 771-4582
Mystery Photo Contest
And at last, here's this edition's Mystery Photo Contest.
Sometimes it's not that birds are so hard to identify, but rather just hard to see. Can you find and correctly identify the species inthis photo?
The answer will be announced in the January 2003 edition.
Congratulations to Leo Chaves along with (the now usual crew of) Ernesto Carman, Jim Zook, and Rafa Campos, who were able to IDthe mystery bird in the last edition. This little hummer provoked more wrong answers (hey, at least you tried) than either of the two earlier photo quizzes, so as proof of it's identity, here's a frontal view of the same female Blue-chested Hummingbird (Amazilia amabilis).
And an extra special round of applause to Noel Ureña and Jim Zook, who knew what they were listening to onthe mystery vocalization: Lesser Ground-Cuckoo (Morococcyx erythropygius)! Very impressive, since this is not the more familiar common call of the species.
By the way, as there were so few guesses made on the call, I am not including another one in this issue. However, if you'd like to see this feature reinstalled in future editions, just let me know.
Thanks to everyone who contributed news of rare sightings and good finds. 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 great birding,