The Gone Birding Newsletter V4, N2

The Gone Birding Newsletter

Vol. 4, No. 2

April 2003



Large-billed Tern Seen in Tortuguero

Around noon on 10 March 2003, the phone rang and there was Charlie Gómez on the other end. When he said he was calling from Tortuguero, I knew I was about to receive some interesting news. Sure enough, a report of a new avian species for Costa Rica: Large-billed Tern (Phaetusa simplex)!

According to Charlie, a local guide named Luis Mungrío was the first person to realize that there was a strange-looking tern frequenting the Tortuguero River in front of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) facilities. Several of the CCC researchers (Ana Thaler, Gabriel David, Elizabeth van Pelt, and Jean Gerhardt) also witnessed this South American vagrant.

Then, on 15 March 2003, another local naturalist guide, Daryl Loth, was able to take several photos of the bird and later sent this description:

"When I saw it on March 15th it had already been recorded [several] days before. It stayed around for two or three days after and has not been reported since. I got the photos by putting my Kodak digital camera up to the eyepiece of a pair of Nikon 8X40 binoculars. Not the clearest of images but certainly enough to capture the important features.

"It was accompanied by four Black-necked Stilts (see photo for scale). I don't remember the last time I saw Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) so close to Tortuguero village! The tern would fly off on its own and dive down to the water swooping just as it met the surface and putting its beak into the water. I never actually saw it catch a fish. It would fly off as I approached it and go for several hundred meters in a broad arc before returning to a perch on one of two logs stuck in the shallows directly across from Tortuguero village."

Although this essentially freshwater tern is native to northern South America, east of the Andes, there is one record from Cuba and two from the US, where Large-billed Tern has turned up in both Ohio and Illinois!



A Green Heron Plays Cricket

In addition to passing along the above info and images of the Large-billed Tern, Daryl Loth included this fascinating account of some astounding bird behavior that he was privy to:

"I have always meant to put something I observed about three years ago to paper...

"I was touring up Caño Harold [Tortuguero NP] by electric motor just fifty meters upstream from two big Almendro trees (Dipteryx panamensis) when I observed, along with two Swiss-Italians I was guiding for, a lone Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing on some water hyacinth and looking into the water. We stopped to silently observe it from a short distance. It was looking down into the water. Floating in the current directly in front of the heron was a cricket which was on its back with its legs moving in the air. It was unable to right itself and was probably injured. To my surprise the heron did not pick it up to eat it but was observing it closely as it floated slowly by. Suddenly when the cricket appeared to be almost out of reach the heron plucked it out of the water and placed it back in the water just slightly upstream. It again observed it closely as it floated by. After repeating this four or five times it suddenly lunged its head forward at the cricket catching a small fish which had come up to eat it. It then quickly swallowed the fish.

"I asked my clients if it would be all right to continue observing the heron for a few minutes more and they agreed as they were just as surprised as I was to have witnessed this.

"A short time later the bird flew over to the other side of the river and landed on the weeds on the far side. I followed it with the electric motor and we came upon it again within a short distance of less than ten meters. The heron was walking back away from the river towards the trees. I was observing it with my binoculars when it suddenly lunged forward to catch what turned out to be another cricket. I could clearly see through the binoculars that it was crushing the cricket repeatedly in its bill. It walked out to the edge of the river and placed the still live-and-kicking cricket in the water. It repeated the plucking and replacing routine with the cricket in the water and after a few tries caught another fish!

"A short time after swallowing this second fish it flew down river beyond view.

"I have not ever seen this behavior in other Green Herons or any other birds, however, a friend who is a captain with one of the local lodges told me that he has seen similar behavior near the same location only that what he saw was a Green Heron fishing with downy feathers that he witnessed the heron pluck out from its own belly."



Second Sighting of Golden-cheeked Warbler in Costa Rica

On 04 April 2003, while birding at La Paz Waterfall Gardens with Ann and Matt Pettigrew, we ran into a small mixed flock just beyond the entrance to the Fern Trail. The flock had pretty much moved on and we had continued a bit farther down the trail to where it nears the river, when we spotted a warbler directly overhead. Looking up at its black throat and white belly, I called it a Black-throated Green Warbler (Dendroica virens). Then, as the bird moved through the vegetation, it gave us a view of its face and crown. Seeing a dark line through the eye and a very dark olive crown with black streaking on it, I modified my ID to Townsend's Warbler (D. townsendi). However, the complete absence of yellow on the breast bothered me. Matt pulled out his copy of Stiles and Skutch, but the illustrations were of no help, nor did the plumage descriptions in the text resolve our dilemma. "No worry," I thought, "I'll check my copy of Sibley this evening and he'll probably have this 'strange juvenile plumage' illustrated."

By the time we reached La Selva, where we were spending the next two nights, it was nearly meal time, so I went straight to dinner without unpacking. In what now seems an amazing coincidence (or classic outburst of cosmic humor), we sat at the same table with Jim Zook and two entomologists who had also just arrived at the station. In the course of the where-are-you-from part of the conversation, it turned out that the "bug man" sitting next to me was from Austin, Texas, and (even though he tried to deny it) was somewhat interested in birds. At least he knew that some of his local beetle studies were conducted in the very limited breeding range of the Golden-cheeked Warbler (D. chrysoparia). Mention of this species caused Jim and I to exchange knowing looks across the table, since just six months earlier Jim had seen the first Golden-cheeked Warbler ever in Costa Rica. At this point, the table talk turned to Jim's discovery and subsequent fruitless attempts to find the bird again.

Several hours later, I finally got around to pulling Sibley from the bottom of my suitcase and flipped to the Townsend/Black-throated Green Warbler pages. Little did I imagine that right there would be exactly the bird I had seen: an adult female Golden-cheeked Warbler!! It took all the restraint that I could muster not to go knocking on Ann and Matt's doors (at the ungodly hour of 9:30 p.m.).

You can bet that first thing the next morning I was handing them Sibley opened to the specific plates and asking, "Do you see anything there that looks like what we saw yesterday?" Ann was almost instantaneous in her response, though obviously a bit incredulous at the same time, "Female Golden-cheeked Warbler!" Matt couldn't be completely sure. Nonetheless, I feel quite confident that our bird, improbable as it seems, was indeed the second Costa Rican sighting of Golden-cheeked Warbler.




Butterbutts Abound

In contrast to the appearance of one lone Golden-cheeked Warbler, this year there have been Yellow-rumped Warblers (Dendroica coronata) by the bushel, and in dozens of localities. To anyone who birds in North America, this is one of the more common wood warblers -- and one of few species whose populations have actually been on the increase in recent years. However, to put this species in perspective from a Costa Rican view point, let me give a few examples:

Leonardo saw the species again at Cerro Danta (in Braulio Carrillo National Park above San Rafael de Heredia) and along the Río Sucio from the Botarama trail in the Quebrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo NP. I had further sightings at Playa Hermosa (Southern Lapwing site south of Jacó), El Tigre de Sarapiquí (wet pasture south of village on highway -- the Pinnated Bittern site), and Rancho Naturalista.

Rafa Campos saw butterbutts on three consecutive days in February: at Palo Verde NP, Liberia, and the mouth of the Tarcoles River. Freddy Madrigal reported one (along with a Blackpoll Warbler) near the entrance to the Hotel Sueño Azul in Horquetas de Sarapiqui. And Kevin Easley mentioned seeing three birds in a banana plantation near Sixaola on 26 March 2003.

But the most remarkable report came from Charlie Gómez. While visiting Tortuguero in mid-January with Carrol Henderson and his group, they awoke one morning to "thousands of birds" on the hotel grounds! It's uncommon to get migrant "fall outs" in Costa Rica, but this certainly sounds like that type of phenomenon and the timing coincides with when the species began being seen around the country. [During our fall migration monitoring activity, the only report of Yellow-rumped Warbler came from Puerto Viejo de Limón on 18 September 2002.]

Cedar Waxings, too!

Another uncommon migrant species, Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum), also popped up at a number of sites in the past few months.

A group of about 16 birds was seen at La Ensenada Lodge in late January by Julio Sánchez. Victorino Molina, who was there monitoring Three-wattled Bellbirds (Procnias tricarunculata), also saw them. On 28 January, Rudy Zamora ran into the flock. And at dusk on 26 February, while I happened to be looking the other way :-( , Michael Biro spotted three birds flying overhead near the salt ponds.

On 23 January, Paco Madrigal found a single Cedar Waxwing accompanying a flock of Long- tailed Silky-Flycatchers (Ptilogonys caudatus) near the Soda El Junco, a short way down from the PanAm Highway en route to San Gerardo de Dota and the Savegre Mountain Hotel. Could it have been this same individual bird that Ray Belding saw flying from tree to tree at Savegre on 16 March, while the attention of yours truly was focused elsewhere? #/@&!

Likewise, Rafa Campos reported observing a solitary waxwing at the Wilson Botanical Garden (Las Cruces) on March 24, 2003. Despite attempts at finding others, no more were seen that day.

The way things were around here the first three months of the year, I'd be surprised if there weren't various other sightings of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cedar Waxwings that never reached me; though I did receive word from Soo Whiting in Stuart, FL on 23 January 2003 that not only was it freezing cold up there, but there were "tons of Yellow-rumps, Cedar Waxwings and huge flocks of Robins -- kind of weird for this area of FL." Makes you wonder, doesn't it?



Those Dam Motmots

Larry Marin sent word that he picked up a new species on 23 December 2002, in the vicinity of the Sangregado Dam on Lake Arenal: Keel-billed Motmot (Electron carinatum)! Pamela and Gary Gerritsen, from Austin, TX, were with him at the time. [The following day, on the road up to Arenal Lodge, they saw a Blue-winged X Golden-winged Warbler hybrid (though Larry didn't mention whether it was the Brewster's or the Lawrence's form).]

A little more than a month later, Paco Madrigal added this species to his life list, possibly at the very same site. At least, Paco's directions were more explicit: Just after crossing the Arenal Lake Dam (coming towards La Fortuna from Arenal/Tilarán) look for the gravel road on your right. The bird was about 200 meters beyond the park guards' house, perched low beside the road.

Paco wrote that "It took me a good while to identify it since I knew how similar it is to a juvenile Broad-billed Motmot (Electron platyrhynchum), having already heard that the bird that appeared in the Selva Verde forest was a juvenile Broad-billed, and was even called a Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota) by some. The people with me were able to take lots of photos, from every angle and from only 12 feet away. As soon as I get copies of some of those photos, I'll e-mail them to you.

"I also recommend birding this road as that same day we saw, among lots of other birds, Great Curassow (Crax rubra), White-fronted Nunbird (Monasa morphoeus), and Great Potoo (Nyctibius grandis)."



Recent Sightings of Red-throated Caracara on Caribbean Slope

A visiting Turkish birder, Cagan Sekercioglu, sent this interesting account:

"On Wednesday, 22 January 2003, I was looking for Snowcaps (Microchera albocoronata) at the abandoned Tapir butterfly garden, 1.5 km from the Quebrada González entrance of Braulio Carillo NP. After seeing and videotaping a male Snowcap, I packed and started walking towards Quebrada González at 6:50 a.m. Then I heard two very loud, raucous calls. My first thought was "Great Green Macaw?" Then I saw two Red-throated Caracaras (Ibycter americanus) flying over the road. I had a 10-second look in excellent light and clearly saw the white belly, black breast and tail, red throat and yellow bill. I am familiar with this bird from Amazonia and they were unmistakable. Given how loud and obvious they were, it may be possible to confirm this. I asked the rangers and visiting Costa Rican birder Carlos (?) if they had ever seen one around [the area], but they had not."

That's not surprising, since most people haven't seen these rare caracaras in the Quebrada González area. However, on 23 March 2003, Paco Madrigal did see a single bird of this species at QG. Previously, he had seen Red-throated Caracaras at Rara Avis on two occasions, in 1989 (one bird) and again in 2001 (two birds). "Without a doubt, it's great to know that they still exist in 'Tiquicia'," wrote Paco.

On 18 April 2003, another sighting took place in Tortuguero (Caño Palma??). Local guide, Lisa Mora, and a boatfull of visitors had the good fortune to see this Red-throated Caracara.

Given infrequent sightings at La Selva in recent years, too, perhaps this species may be making something of a comeback on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

[I also heard from Robert Dean that apparently an Aplomado Falcon (Falco femoralis) was recently seen by Ruth Rodríquez during a Tempisque River boat ride. The boatman supposedly claimed to see the bird regularly along the river. In addition to the one record noted in the field guide, Julio Sánchez mentioned having seen this rare falcon three different times over the years.]



Pheasant Cuckoo Found in Carara

On 16 March 2003, William Granados observed a Pheasant Cuckoo (Dromococcyx phasianellus) in all its splendor. It was 14:45 and he was birding the trail along the Tarcoles River, upstream from the highway (crocodile-viewing) bridge -- the entrance is behind the little police building. The bird was singing away from atop a tall shrub.

This sighting brings to mind a similar report of Pheasant Cuckoo from the exact same area years ago. I can't remember now who or exactly when, but it is interesting to have William's "reconfirmation."



Another Carara Surprise

Jay VanderGaast e-mailed with news of various interesting species seen here during a tour he led for Field Guides last August. What most struck my attention was his report of "a calling Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet (Tyrannulus elatus) along the Sendero Laguna Meándrica (Oxbow Lake Trail) at Carara on 06 August 2002! I know of no other records from the park, and from this far north."

Nor did I, until on the afternoon of 25 February 2003, while birding that same trail with Michael Biro and his group from Toronto, we noticed two small flycatchers in a cecropia tree. Closer inspection (and excellent cooperation on their part) revealed them to be a pair of Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets. As we observed them flitting about the tree, they eventually settled shoulder-to-shoulder on a perch just beneath a large cecropia leaf, giving every impression of planning to spend the night in that position, as dusk was fast approaching.



Wattled Jacana Seen Near San Vito

After having the pleasure of crossing paths with Gary Rosenberg at Savegre, he e-mailed with news of how his latest Wings tour fared (539 spp. in 15 days!) and provided this info:

"I wanted to send you a photo of a Wattled Jacana (Jacana jacana) that was present at the San Joaquin Pond at San Vito. Someone had put the sighting in the log book there [at the Wilson Botanical Garden] from about a week earlier, and luckily, it was still there on the 19th of March when we visited the pond. I think that was the only real "vagrant" we had on the trip. Do you know if there are any other photos of Wattled Jacana from Costa Rica?"

No, not to my knowledge, though this species does turn up occasionally in the southern Pacific region of the country.



Still More Southern Lapwing Reports

I really thought that I would finally put out an edition of the GBN without any mention of Southern Lapwings (Vanellus chilensis), however, enough different sightings -- and even a nice photo -- were sent in so that, well, here goes again:

Ola Sandberg, a birder who visited from Sweden in January, came across a lapwing near the mouth of the Parrita River (between Quepos and Jacó). "Just by chance we decided to check out the river mouth and drove towards the Pacific Ocean. After a kilometre or so the gravel road reached and ran parallel with the river so we made a stop. We were just about to leave when my girlfriend saw something flying in and landing on the far side of the river. The distance was quite long so we moved a little closer and took our scopes from the trunk of our car. There it was, a Southern Lapwing in company with a Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus).

"Our sighting of Southern Lapwing by the river near Parrita was at around 2:00 PM, 19 January 03. I have got some video shots to prove our case and can send you an image if you are interested."

Jerry O'Donahoe wrote, "I was crushed to read in your newsletter about the many Southern Lapwing sightings in CR. I thought the pair I saw on 21 March 2003 in the Golfo Dulce area might be a first! Anyway, this photo was taken several miles up the Rio Coto Colorado."

And Kevin Easley sent notice that the Southern Lapwing was still present at Los Lagos between San Ramon and La Fortuna on 27 March 2003. [The individual at the San Isidro de El General sewage ponds and the three birds at Playa Hermosa haven't been seen in the last couple months.]


Harpy Eagles Also Continue To Be Sighted

It's hard to be bored with news of Harpy Eagles (Harpia harpyja). So, here's a report sent by Phil and Doris Brody:

"At 11:45 on Friday, 21 February 2003, we saw a harpy eagle from the deck of a house known as Casa Coronado. It was a bright warm day, about 30 degrees Celsius. The house is located off the Matapalo private road in the El Porton Blanco area of the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. This is about a quarter of a mile from Lapa Rios Resort and also connected by a hiking trail to Bosque del Cabo Resort. The deck overlooks the Golfo Dulce just on the Golfo Dulce side of the cape about 200 yards in from the beach. It is 40-50 feet above the beach side road and looks into the canopy. The bird was first seen when it flew from the beach direction into a tree about 75 feet from the deck at about eye level. The first impression was of a huge bird with very broad wings. The underside was light with barring on the wings and tail. A distinct wide dark band was clearly visible across the chest. The bird landed behind leaves and was pretty much hidden from view. A couple of minutes later it flew out, crossed the space in front of the deck, from left to right and landed in a second, taller tree about 300 feet away somewhat above eye level. It sat there for 8 minutes or so, visible in profile but often turning its head towards us. Its "face" looked like a furry gray mask. We also saw two distinct crest projections on the head. The main impression from the profile view was of huge yellow feet, a very large bill, and a very dark back with lighter sides. We were able to take 14 pictures with 35mm slide film, a tripod mounted camera using a 500mm mirror lens at different exposures before the bird flew away (Doris Brody).

"When the bird first flew into its first perch at eye level, only about 75 feet away, it sat directly facing me. There was a very apparent dark chest band. (Phil Brody)."

Responding to the circulation of this e-mail among local birders, César Sánchez wrote:

"Great News! This individual is for sure a Harpy Eagle. It can be distinguished from the Crested Eagle (Morphnus guianensis) by the size of the talons (smaller on Crested), and by the facial disk, only present in the Harpy. The Crested also has a longer tail. Also this bird is a juvenile. Some brownish feathers can be seen among the dark ones on the wings (adults have solid black wings). I believe it is not possible to know whether it is the same individual seen last year at Luna Lodge or the one of 2001 in Marenco (which very possibly were different individuals). Finally it looks to me like a female, but it is not possible to be certain with these pictures, so keep on looking. Happy birding."



Mystery Bird Seen in San Isidro . . . and Elsewhere

Congratulations to Ernesto Carman, William Granados, Tim Fitzpatrick, Tammy Nickerson, Wayne Hsu, Michael Biro, Bruce Young, Dave Tripp, Cameron Gillies, Jan Cubilla, and Alfredo Scott, who correctly identified the bird in the image sent by Noel Ureña (several regular "contestants" don't appear on this list since they already knew of the bird prior to the publication of the previous newsletter). The bird was indeed a Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) -- and not a Bendire's Thrasher (Toxostoma bendirei), as two different people responded.

The mockingbird still shows up once in a while to partake of the fruit that Walter Odio puts out in his yard in San Isidro de El General. And perhaps even more interestingly, two more reports of this species have come in recently.

On 27 January 2003, while traveling with a group of birders from Savegre to Villa Lapas via Dominical, Freddy Madrigal had the opportunity to observe an individual Tropical Mockingbird near Hatillo. "First we saw it flying towards us and then it perched in front of us so that we had great looks at the bird."

Later, on 30 March 2003, Kevin Easley e-mailed me saying, "Had an interesting bird today on the entrance road to Palo Verde NP, a mockingbird!!!!!!!!!!

"It had no white in the wing and I have no illustrations of tropical but I assumed it was a tropical, I had heard it reported in the last few years but don't remember where. It was 6.5 km in from Bagaces on the Palo Verde road on the right side across from a white post fence (left side) that runs about 200 meters and there is a house on the end of that fence row. I did not expect a Tropical Mockingbird, thought I was dreaming."

Hmmm, hard to imagine that all of these birds are escapes.



Mystery Photo Contest

How many times have you had a reasonably good look at a bird of prey and still not been completely sure of the species ID? More often than you'd care to remember? Well, they can be tough. If you had this view, would you know what you were looking at?

The answer will be announced in the July 2003 newsletter.



Thanks to everyone who contributed news of rare sightings and good finds. I hope that you've enjoyed this newsletter and welcome any comments at or if you're in Costa Rica, feel free to give me a ring at 293-2710.

Wishing you all great birding,

Richard Garrigues



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