The Gone Birding Newsletter
Vol. 5, No. 3
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alexander F. Skutch (1904 - 2004)
I first met Dr. Skutch when he was a youth of 84 summers. Arriving at his home with visiting natural history tourists was always a highlight of any tour. Graciously greeting us and welcoming us to his small private preserve, he would don his machete, binoculars, and light blue "Gilligan's" cap and lead us into the forest. It was an incomparable experience to hear first-hand from him details of the lives of manakins, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and essentially all of the inhabitants of that little patch of forest.
One obligatory stop on the trail was a portly Milk Tree (Brosimum utile). Dr. Skutch would tell of its many uses and how the milky white sap was edible and nutritive. It has always seemed to me an odd coincidence that just about the time that Dr. Skutch stopped accompanying us into the forest, due to a worsening condition of osteoporosis, that milk tree began decaying, and eventually collapsed.
Still, for a number of years, Dr. Skutch would sit on the bench of his wooden porch and gladly talk with visitors. Sadly, though, in the last couple of years, those conversations became awkward and difficult as a result of his loss of hearing. The situation was additionally frustrating because you could tell that Dr. Skutch's mental capacities were quite wholly intact.
The last time I saw Dr. Skutch was on 18 April 2004, when I had the opportunity to participate ina bird count organized by the Tropical Science Center. The activity was one of the events designed around the celebration of his 100th birthday and the results of the census were to be presented to him on 20 May, during the festivity.
Five sites were censused in the area, spanning an altitude range of 700 to 1400 meters above sea level. Together with my wife, Maricia, and three of my children, I was assigned toLos Cusingos. By the end of a very enjoyable day of birding we had seen 103 species and 471 individuals. The combined group effort resulted in a grand total of 224 species and 2723 individuals.
Late in the afternoon, we were invited in to the room whereDr. Skutch was sitting in his hospital bed. We told him of the birds we'd seen and how quite a number of migrants were passing through. In parting, I said I was looking forward to seeing him again in another month at his 100th birthday party.
When I returned to Costa Rica on 13 May, following a birding trip to the US, one of the first things Maricia told me was that Noel Ureña had called that morning to inform us that Dr. Skutch had died during the night. Given the timing of my return, I was unable to travel to San Isidro to attend the funeral services, but here is what Noel wrote about the occasion:
"Without a doubt I was taken by surprise when I heard the news: "Don Alexander passed away last night." Even though we all know our lives on Earth must come to an end, a feeling of frustration was now in the air. Just a few days ago, on 18 April, a group of friends and I had done a bird count in the Los Cusingos Bird Sanctuary and surrounding areas to collect the results as a gift for Don Alexander in his 100th birthday, on 20 May.
"Wágner López and I had compiled the results from the count and with a few more details the report would be ready to be printed for Dr. Skutch. So after the sad news, we got in contact and overnight we finished the work. We wantedto give him the results anyway, as he had alreay shown a lot of interest in seeing them and was very excited about his birthday. Every morning he would ask: "When is my birthday?"
"The night before the funeral, I went to the Calvario Chapel, where many friends of Don Alexander came to spend a few more moments with him. As I was coming in, I heard the scratchy voice of aCommon Barn-Owl (Tyto alba), not a rare bird in this area, but definitely a new location for their night concert, as they used to be in the towers of the Cathedral in San Isidro for many years, and now they were in the towers of El Calvario. Their presence really made me think of something more spiritual than just a coincidence: a way for his closest friends, the birds, to say Good-bye!
"Early in the morning, I was finalizing the report in my computer at home, and as I was doing so, I thought of how nice it would be to have many birds come and say farewell to Don Alexander during his funeral. Then my favorite bird came to mind:Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus). I knew this was not likely to happen because of the type of habitat in Los Cusingos, but at least I was hoping some birds would come to say adiós, just like the Common Barn-Owls the night before.
"The time for the funeral came. I went along with my wife Silma and my mother, who had always appreciated Dr. Skutch very much. The funeral began and we all started driving towards Los Cusingos, where Don Alexander had asked to be buried. I was paying attention to the birds along the road. Flycatchers, seedeaters, and tanagers were not very active and just pretty much perched as if they were watching the funeral procession. Maybe I was just looking too much and feeling spiritual.
"After a little while on the road, we left the asphalt and turned onto the gravel country road to Quizarrá. We entered the first patch of isolated forest and just as we crossed the little stream named Quebrada Chanchos, my wife pointed out a bird perched in the woods approximately 18 feet above the ground. I looked and then immediately stopped my car. My skin got goose bumps. We were seeing an Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and the magnificent bird was actually looking at the limousine with the coffin! I stepped out of the car, the bird turned around on its perch and flew off through the woods. Everyone behind in the line of cars must have been wondering what I was doing, but fortunately for me, my wife and my mother and other people in a little van saw the bird, too. Definitely a gift from God, a tribute to Dr. Skutch, and an amazing Good-bye!"
Thank you, Noel.
Few, if any, birders had the opportunity to spend as much time with Dr. Skutch in the past several decades as didDana Gardner, who has kindly permitted me to include here a most eloquent message he sent following Dr. Skutch's death:
I just returned from five weeks in Costa Rica to find dozens of e-mails commenting on Alexander Skutch's recent death. This prompted me to send you all this letter telling of my visit with him during the last week of his life.
As many of you know, for the past 28 years I have made yearly pilgrimages to Skutch's farm, Los Cusingos, to visit and do some painting in the peace and quiet of his little patch of tropical forest. This year I planned my trip to coincide with his 100th birthday. A couple of weeks before the event, however, I went down to stay with him for a few days. I am very, very glad that I did, as he passed away eight days short of his birthday. Because it was unseasonably rainy, I set up my painting table in the end sala where Skutch would sit and read each morning, and we kept each other company.
Although Alexander had been deteriorating physically for the last couple of years, was confined to a wheel chair, and had become hard of hearing, he remained mentally alert and in very high spirits. Last year when I arrived for a visit I found him reading a book on planetary physics. (He asked me what I thought of the Big Bang Theory.) This year he was rereading many of his own books that he had written years earlier. He told me he was refreshing his memory. He still received occasional visitors, and graciously welcomed them, apologizing for not being able to rise to greet them. He wished them a pleasant walk in his forest, something he had been unable to do for several years, but he enjoyed hearing about what birds they saw.
Only on the next to the last day of my stay did a nagging cough rapidly escalate to the point where he could barely talk and his breathing became erratic and labored. I sat with him that night and held his hand; I was sure he was about to die. He half opened his eyes, saw me, and struggled to tell me something. I thought I was to hear the last words of this wise old naturalist, and they turned out to be a request to have a dentist appointment made for him the next week!!! His tired old decrepit body was sending him a message, but he was having none of that -- he was making plans for the future. I realized then that he wouldn't die quite yet. The next day was my planned departure day. He had quit coughing and had slept well, had eaten breakfast, and was once again reading. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, the first sunny morning in more than a week of overcast weather. A beautiful Turquoise Cotinga came out to sun itself in a bare tree at the edge of the yard. I left Los Cusingos in the early afternoon and planned to return for his 100th birthday party the next week, but I found out later that Alexander's health quickly deteriorated in the afternoon, and he died peacefully early that evening.
One way for us to pay tribute to Dr. Skutch would be to emulate that life philosophy to every extent possible. Amazingly, Dr. Skutch never trapped any birds in order to band, measure, or examine them, much less did he ever shoot any in order to prepare museum specimens. In fact, I'd wager that anyone studying any of the species that he ever wrote about would learn far more regarding them by reading his works than by inspecting any number of stuffed skins scattered around the world in the drawers of museums and universities.
For anyone interested in acquiring some of Dr. Skutch's books in hard cover and in excellent, near-mint condition, my friend Kris Hansen is willing to part with the following titles:
Published by the Nuttall Ornithology Club, Harvard Univ, Cambridge, MA:
Life Histories of Central American Highland Birds, 1967, 213 pp
Studies of Tropical American Birds, 1972, 228 pp
New Studies of Tropical American Birds, 1981,281 pp
Published by the Cooper Ornithological Society, Berkeley, CA:
Life Histories of Central American Birds
Families Fringillidae, Thraupidae, Icteridae, Parulidae and Coerebidae, 1954, 448 pages
Life Histories of Central American Birds II
Families Vireonidae, Sylviidae, Turdidae, Troglodytidae, Paridae, Corvidae, Hirundinidae and Tyrannidae, 1960, 593 pages
Life Histories of Central American Birds III
Families Cotingidae, Pipridae, Formicariidae, Furnariidae, Dendrocolaptidae, and Picidae, 1969, 580 pages
Published by the University of Texas Press:
Parent Birds and Their Young, 1976, 2nd printing 1979, 503 pp, w/ dustcover
Interested parties may contact Kris directly <email@example.com> for more details. She also has some other volumes, so if you're looking for a particular book not listed above, feel free to inquire.
If you've never read it, or would like to reread it, I didan interview with Dr. Skutch in 1997.
On 17 May 2004, National Public Radio honored Dr. Skutch by playing thisinterview with him on All Things Considered.
For those of you who are able to read Spanish, Costa Rica's leading daily newspaper, La Nación, published thistribute to Dr. Skutch on 23 May.
And theAsociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica dedicated the June 2004 edition of Zeledonia to the memory of Dr. Alexander F. Skutch.
Given his great contribution to neotropical ornithology, and especially with respect to our knowledge of birds here in Costa Rica, I could go on and on with this tribute. However, I'd like to finish with this thought passed along to me by Rafa Campos:
"We share in the sadness of such a loss. Although we never had the honor of meeting him personally, he touched us as he did many others through his books and through the love and enthusiasm he nurtured in you toward neotropical birds. A love that you, in turn, pass on to all of the people you guide in your tours. Regards, Bob and Edith Wilson"
First Costa Rican Record of Shiny Cowbird
The country list continues to grow with the arrival of another widespread, open country species. On 26 April 2004, Ernesto Carman and Daniel Martínez observed a femaleShiny Cowbird (Molothrus bonarienses) near Hone Creek, Limón. They watched the bird for about twenty minutes in the middle of the day as it foraged in recently-cut roadside grass. Writing in the abovementioned recent edition of Zeledonia, they report being able to distinguish this new arrival from the resident Bronzed Cowbird (M. aeneus) by its brown (not red) eye, grayish coloration with dark streaks on the back [sic], and obvious pale eyebrow.
I would greatly appreciate reports of any further sightings of this new species in SE Costa Rica, or anywhere else in the country. For as Ernesto and Daniel mention in their article, this species has the propensity to colonize Costa Rica the way bothGreat-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) and Melodious Blackbird (Dives dives) have. Unfortunately for many native passerine species, the shiny, like other cowbirds, is a nest parasite. Thus, all the more reason to keep tabs on the potential spread of this species.
Crested Eagle Seen at Esquinas
Rafa Campos wrote to tell how he managed to miss what would have been his lifeCrested Eagle (Morphnus guianensis) when birding at Esquinas Rain Forest Lodge on 23 June 2004. While Rafa was leading a group of birders on a walk down one of the forest trails, a local guide at Esquinas called to Rafa's driver, Greivin Alfaro, to come look at a very large raptor that was flying low over the compound. Much to Rafa's chagrin upon eventually hearing the report, the bird was identified as a Crested Eagle.
More Rarities From Esquinas and Environs
It seems that Esquinas Rain Forest Lodge and the road leading to it from the PanAmerican Highway have been veritable birding hot spots inrecent months.
Rolando Delgado was at Esquinas during the second week of June and reported seeing a Cinnamon Woodpecker (Celeus loricatus) near the end of the Ocelot Trail where it leaves primary forest and enters an area of second growth. This is apparently the first sighting of this handsome woodpecker on the Pacific side of the country.
Rolando also got to see fiveSouthern Lapwings (Vanellus chilensis) flying across the entrance road, some 500 meters before the elementary school in the little community of La Gamba.
While birding along the same road in the afternoon of 22 March and the morning of 23 March 2004, Kevin Easley and Mike Mulligan heard Gray-breasted Crake (Laterallus exilis) and saw large numbers ofBrown-throated Parakeets (Aratinga pertinax) and Blue-headed Parrots (Pionus menstruus), along with a pair of Pearl Kites (Gampsonix swainsonii).
Kevin and Mike's Very Excellent Birding Adventure
Actually, on that trip back in March, Kevin Easley and Mike Mulligan, together with three other birders, had quite a number of good birds.
Highlights included seeingWhite-tipped Sicklebill (Eutoxeres aquila) and a male White-crested Coquette (Lophornis adorabilis) at Bosque del Río Tigre, as well as the Uniform Crake (Amaurolimnas concolor) mentioned in the April GBN. Near the Río Rincón bridge, they had a male Yellow-billed Cotinga (Carpodectes antoniae) and a male Turquoise Cotinga (Cotinga ridgwayi) feeding in the same tree.
Along the lower section of the road that climbs from Ciudad Neily to San Vito, they came across two colonies ofCrested Oropendolas (Psarocolius decumanus). At the San Joaquín marsh just beyond San Vito, they found a Wattled Jacana (Jacana jacana) and three Masked Ducks (Oxyura dominica). And while checking out the Rosy Thrush-Tanager site, Kevin was able to photograph this Olivaceous Piculet (Picumnus olivaceus), which "appeared to be using a small twig to work some larvae (termites?) out of a small dead tree. The photographs were not clear enough and the wind was blowing strong so it was difficult to see what exactly he was doing with this twig. Wondered if anyone has seen this before. Reminded me of the Woodpecker Finch on Galapagos."
Traveling north along the Pacific coast, Kevin reported "spectacular views of Spot-fronted Swift (Cypseloides cherriei) in several locations just south of Quepos. The bonus was thatBlack Swifts (Cypseloides niger) were also present. This is about the same day Jay Vandergaast on his Field Guides tour reported Spot-fronted and Black Swifts together along the La Selva entrance road - ironic!"
The grand climax came on 28 March 2004 while birding the "Peninsula" road in Arenal NP. Mike picked up his CR tick #699 with very good views of aWarbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus) in nice breeding plumage. This was only the second time that Kevin had seen this rare migrant in CR -- the first sighting was "years ago at Lankester Gardens" -- and it's a bird that I'm still looking for here.
Not long afterwards, celebration was truly in order as Mike achieved the 700 milestone with nothing less than aKeel-billed Motmot (Electron carinatum)! Congratulations, Mike!
[For those hoping to see this rare motmot, the eastern end of the Peninsula road (near the Arenal Dam) has been a fairly reliable spot for the last year and a half.]
Another Magpie-Jay Report from the Southern Pacific
In early May, Luis Sánchez Arguedas, Administrator of the La Amistad International Park, wrote to say that several of his co-workers at the park had seenWhite-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa) in the vicinities of both Ujarrás and Potrero Grande de Buenos Aires, Puntarenas Province. For the last several years, there have been scattered reports of this dry forest species at lowland sites between Dominical and Sierpe, but now it seems that some birds have worked their way up the Térraba River system. The latter site, though some 50 km inland from the coast, is not at any great elevation; Ujarrás, some 10 km NE of Buenos Aires, lies at the very base of the Talamanca massif at an elevation of nearly 600 meters.
Rufous-necked Wood-Rail at Los Sueños
Paul Murgatroyd sent me this note about a great sighting he and his wife had:
"Elizabeth and I saw a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail (Aramides axillaris) just after dawn on June 12 at Los Suenos [the Mariott hotel complex north of Jacó]. It had rained very heavily for a long time the night before. Although it was out of habitat and, according to Stiles & Skutch somewhat out of range we got very good looks at it and are certain of the ID. It was crossing the road from the golf course into steep mountainside rainforest. I initially assumed it was aNorthern Jacana (Jacana spinosa), of which we have many, then realized it was bigger than a Jacana and had a long yellow bill with a very slight downward curve. My next thought was Gray-necked Wood-Rail (Aramides cajanea), which I have seen once but not near Los Suenos, though it had no gray on the head, but rather an all red head with just a small grayish patch on the back. Skutch describes immature Gray-necked Woodrails as similar to the adult, but belly sooty black flecked with buff. Legs were more of an orange red than the coral red that is described in Stiles & Skutch. Size was far more consistent with Rufous-necked than Jacana albeit looking closer to the described size for the Gray-necked than the Rufous-necked in my view. I didn't see it bob its tail which Skutch says Gray-necked Wood-Rail does constantly. We were in our car and watched it for maybe 10 or 15 seconds as it was in no hurry to move into the dense vegetation."
Congratulations, Paul, wish I could've been there!
Mystery Bird Photo Quiz
I received relatively few responses tothe quiz image in the previous newsletter and wonder if it was generally viewed as too easy or, more likely, too difficult. At any rate, congratulations to Joel Alvarado and Daniel Garrigues who submitted: Royal Tern (5), Sandwich Tern (1), Laughing Gull (1) and the feet of 2 Brown Pelicans. Four species total.
The difficult (nearly impossible?) part, of course, was the Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis), which had its head down and was largely blocked by two of the Royal Terns (S. maxima) in the image. If you based your shot-in-the-dark choice on sheer commonality of terns other than royals in CR, then sandwich was the logical conclusion. Given the difficulty (unfairness?) of the quiz, honorable mention must go to Lori Conrad, Chris Sloan, and Ray Belding, who got the other three species but guessed either Common or Gull-billed Tern (S. hirundo and nilotica, respectively) for the obscured bird.
Here'sa more revealing view of of the problematic tern.
Let's try something different for this edition's puzzler. Can you ID the birdsin this nest? [Hint: the photo was taken in the southern Pacific portion of the country.]
The answer will be announced in the October 2004 newsletter.
Bird Geography Quiz
Congratulations to Alex Lain, who was the only person to correctly surmise the area where, on 21 November 2003, during a day's birding at just one site, without ever crossing the continental divide, I saw Sunbittern (Eurypyga helias), Violet-headed Hummingbird (Klais guimeti), Collared Araçari (Pteroglossus torquatus), White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa), and Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryothorus rufalbus). Alex replied that Rincón de la Vieja NP was the location, and offered the stream about 2 km from the Las Pailas ranger station as the place of the Sunbittern sighting. The actual site was on the property of Buena Vista Lodge, which abuts Rincón de la Vieja to the northwest of the Las Pailas sector and is basically a continuation of the same tropical humid forest life zone; both are on the Pacific side of the divide.
Several of you guessed Monteverde, however, I'm not aware of any reports of either Violet-headed Hummingbird or Collared Araçari in the premontane moist forest on the Pacific side of the ridge (the area where all the hotels are located). Likewise, neither the magpie-jay, nor the wren occur on the Caribbean side of the reserve (e.g. Peñas Blancas area), where the hummer and the araçari might be expected.
The real surprise for me that day in November was seeing Violet-headed Hummingbird on the northern Pacific side of the country. The field guide only mentions it being on the southern Pacific slope. Apparently, as is the case with various Caribbean foothill species (e.g. Yellow-eared Toucanet (Selenidera spectabilis), Spotted Antbird (Hylophylax naevioides), and Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (Catharus mexicanus)), this little hummer does slip around to the Pacific side of the Guanacaste Cordillera, at least seasonally, as we saw three individuals that day.
So, ready to try again? Just to remind you, the idea of this geography quiz is to see how many readers can guess the actual site -- or at least come close in terms of naming the region of Costa Rica -- where a given set of five bird species occurs together.
On any given day of the year, from a single spot in CR, where could you see (and/or hear):
Red-billed Pigeon (Columba flavirostris)
White-crowned Parrot (Pionus senilis)
Dusky Nightjar (Caprimulgus saturatus)
Flame-throated Warbler (Parula gutturalis)
Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager (Chlorospingus pileatus)
I'll look forward to your answers!
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,
Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Striated Heron, Red-billed Tropicbird, Masked Yellowthroat, Black-headed Grosbeak, Cape May Warbler, MacGillivray's Warbler, Bullock's Oriole, Crested Eagle, Uniform Crake, Paint-billed Crake, White-rumped Sandpiper, Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Tropical Mockingbird, Blue Seedeater
Christmas Bird Count results, American Bittern, Gray Kingbird, White-eyed Vireo, Brewster's Warbler, Great Swallow-tailed Swift, Unspotted Saw-whet Owl, Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, Worldwide Ornithological Literature website
Cory's Shearwater, Swallow-tailed Gull, Black Tern, Gray-breasted Crake, Gray Kingbird, Orange-crowned Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, Bobolink, Lincoln's Sparrow, Peg-billed Finch, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, rare raptors
Greater Ani, Green Heron, Bat Falcon, Orange-breasted Falcon, Swallow-tailed Kite, Keel-billed Motmot, Spot-tailed Nightjar, Black-whiskered Vireo, Lincoln's Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Mouse-colored Tyrannulet, Strong-billed Woodcreeper
Large-billed Tern, Green Heron, Golden-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Keel-billed Motmot, Red-throated Caracara, Pheasant Cuckoo, Wattled Jacana, Tropical Mockingbird
Christmas Bird Count results, Southern Lapwing , Short-tailed Nighthawk, Lanceolated Monklet , Sunbittern, Magnolia Warbler, Prevost's Ground-Sparrow, Tricolored Munia
Golden-cheeked Warbler, Migrant monitoring, Southern Lapwing, Harpy Eagle, Violaceous Quail-Dove,Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Rusty Sparrow
Dr. Skutch update, Veraguan Mango, Pearl Kite, Red-breasted Blackbird, Tody Motmot, Mourning Dove, Red Knot, Pinnated Bittern, Black-and-white Owl
Harpy Eagle, American Avocet, Pacific Golden Plover, Ruff, Cave Swallow, Southern Lapwing, South Polar Skua, Maroon-chested Ground-Dove
Southern Lapwing, White Tern, Chipping Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Migrant warblers, hummers and more hummers
South Polar Skua, Pomarine Jaeger, Sharpbill, Long-billed Curlew, Lovely Cotinga, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Blue-and-yellow Macaw, White-tipped Sicklebill, Bicolored Hawk, Lanceolated Monklet
South Polar Skua, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Scaled Antpitta, Pearl Kite, Scarlet Macaw, Mystery hummers, White-eyed Vireo, Nashville Warbler, Masked Duck
Crested Oropendola, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Wattled Jacana, Brown-throated Parakeet, Lanceolated Monklet, Black-banded Woodcreeper, Lovely Cotinga, Cinnamon Teal, Silvery-throated Jay, Migrant wood-warblers, Violaceous Quail-Dove
Crested Oropendola, Lark Sparrow, Oilbird, Double-striped Thick-knee, Pheasant Cuckoo, Y2K CBCs, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Crested Eagle, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail
first migrants and rare warblers, disappearing migrant shorebird habitat, Mallard (sic), Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, Scaled Antpitta, Black-and-white Owl
Blue-tailed Hummingbird, Prairie Warbler, Tiny Hawk, Red-throated Caracara, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Red-breasted Blackbird, Clapper Rail, Swallow-tailed Gull
Green-winged Teal, Painted Bunting, Green Ibis, Western Slaty-Antshrike, Pearl Kite, Southern Lapwing, Lanceolated Monklet