The Gone Birding Newsletter
Vol. 2, No. 4
South Polar Skua or Pomarine Jaeger, or both?
After reading theprevious edition of this newsletter, several people responded to the report of a South Polar Skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) seen by Rafa Robles on 15 April 2001 in Tortuguero. It turns out that not only Dennis Wille, but also Gilbert Alvarado, another naturalist tour guide here in Costa Rica, had seen this species there earlier in the year. Unfortunately, I didn't receive any detailed news of their sightings.
However, I received some very interesting correspondence from Ruth Marie Lyons, who had visited Tortuguero with Charlie Gómez and sent this report from her trip journal:
"It was March 27 around 2:30 - 3:00 p.m at Tortugero. There had been a storm during the night, and we were unable to fly out that day. By afternoon it had cleared enough that we could go out in the boat with Don Estrada and Charlie. We were headed to the park when all of a sudden Don swung the boat around and headed toward a sandbar there in the river. The bird wason the wing and then settled down on the water. [Click on the previous two highlighted links to see photos of the bird taken by tour member Jack Dodge.] Charlie immediately said he thought it was a jaeger and he got so excited (as only he can!) I thought he was going to jump out of the boat. After searching the guidebooks, it was determined to be the Pomarine Jaeger. It was quite a thrill for us!"
Great stuff! I particularly like the fatefulness of the whole experience in that if the weather had been better they would have flown out of Tortuguero as per their original itinerary and would never have seen the bird!
Now though (and sorry to be such a spoil sport), no one has stated with any great certainty exactly what characteristics were used to determine the identifications. I admit no familiarity with either species, other than once having seen a nice adult-plumagedPomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus) off the Pacific coast while aboard the M/V Temptress. However, based on the plates and texts of both the Costa Rica field guide and Peter Harrison's Seabirds, an identification guide, it appears to me that correct identification of an immature bird or one in winter plumage is quite difficult, especially for those of us unfamiliar with the jizz of these pelagics. I can't help but wonder now if it was just one bird that was being sighted, or were both species actually present in Tortuguero this past spring?
Middle-of-the-Road Birding in Braulio
It was just like back in the days before the new highway to Limón had opened. We stopped our vehicles wherever we pleased, walked back and forth across the pavement, set up the telescope in the middle of the road, and even identified birds by ear! Most days of the year, I doubt you could do this even at 2 a.m. However, during a series of Sundays in August and September, the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT) closed the road from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. to conduct surveys on the structural integrity of the Zurquí Tunnel.
On 2 September, Bob French unwittingly found himself a "victim" of the highway closings when at 8 a.m., after some early morning birding on the Quebrada González trails, one of the park guards informed him of the situation. Bob proceeded to spend the next six hours enjoying some unparalleled roadside birding as he had the entire highway to himself!
Fortunately, Bob emailed me with news of his adventure and mention of having seen a Sharpbill (Oxyruncus cristatus). The thought of repeating his experience left me almost sleepless in anticipation for several nights.
On 9 September, together with my four sons, Eric Madrigal, and Jeanne Fossani, I was able to take advantage of the final highway closing. We arrived at the Quebrada González ranger station at 6:30 and the boys set off into the forest while I birded the edge of the station clearing -- in part hoping to get some photos, in part waiting for Eric and Jeanne.
Shortly after Eric's arrival, Leonardo emerged from the trailhead saying that they had a perched immature Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) a few hundred meters up the trail. Shouldering my scope and tripod, I followed him to the spot and got one shot before the bird finally flew off (the photo unfortunately did not come out very well).
It was nearly 8:00 when we reached the clearing again. By then, the usual stream of traffic was completely nonexistant, so we set off to experience the unique opportunity. Two large mixed flocks entertained us for nearly an hour in the kilometer-or-so span between the station and the Río Sucio bridge. In addition to more than a dozen varieties of tanagers, including the endemic Blue-and-gold Tanager (Bangsia arcaei) and the rather uncommon Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager (Chlorospingus canigularis), we had superb views of a pair of handsome Cinnamon Woodpeckers (Celeus loricatus) licking up Azteca ants from roadside Cecropia trees, while a Rufous-winged Woodpecker (Piculus simplex) preened itself on a nearby stump. The least-expected sighting for such a low elevation (approx. 500m), though, was a female Orange-bellied Trogon (Trogon aurantiiventris)!
We took our time gaining elevation, certain that our only problem might be a change in the gorgeous weather. However, we were surprised when vehicles began passing us just before noon. It was far from a constant flow of traffic, but nevertheless enough to break the enchantment and make us more careful about where we left our vehicles!
We spent more than an hour at a spot known as La Montura ("the saddle") trying for Sharpbill. Prior to the highway's opening some 15 years ago, there was an active Sharpbill lek here, but periodic playing of tape produced no results. Perhaps it was the wrong season, or maybe the birds have simply abandoned the area, but we didn't have Bob's luck (though it's unclear exactly where he saw his bird a week earlier).
As both traffic and the threat of rain were increasing, we called it a day at 14:30 with 80 species seen (including 21 types of tanagers) and another four heard only. But more than anything, it was the sheer wonder of having had the park essentially all to ourselves for several hours that made this such a magical day.
Migration Underway with "The Usual Suspects"
The first report of a northern migrant to reach my attention this season came from Eduardo Amengual, who saw anEastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) on 25 July in Monteverde. From that same part of the world, Bruce Young saw a Northern Waterthrush (Seiurus noveboracensis) in his yard on 10 August. Elsewhere, reports of migrants are "normal." On 20 September, while watching the under-17 soccer match between Costa Rica and Mali at the Candela Bar, located on the south side of the international airport, I saw at least eight Upland Sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) feeding in the grass along the edge of the main runway.
The rarest migrant species to be reported thus far has been aLong-billed Curlew (Numenius americanus) seen by Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual at Chomes on 15 September. The bird was among some 50 Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and strikingly different in comparison. In his telephone debriefing, Robert also said there was plenty of action at the shrimp ponds, including six species of terns: least, black, gull-billed, sandwich, elegant and royal, along with oystercatchers, skimmers, and a good variety of peeps.
It was good to hear that they had no problems entering the area. I haven't even bothered to attempt birding this site in years, ever since receiving a rather unpleasant welcome and hearing similar stories from others back in the early '90's. Has anyone else out there been to Chomes recently without incident? Let's hope this rich site for shorebirds is indeed accessible to birders once again.
Lovely Cotingas Lurking in Cordillera de Tilarán
Along with the waterthrush report, Bruce Young passed along news that there apparently had been sightings ofLovely Cotinga (Cotinga amabilis) in Los Llanos, which is on the Pacific side of the ridge, about two kilometers down the road from Santa Elena. According to Bruce, the birds were "at a farm that was recently purchased to conserve Pacific slope forest, where they may be going after the Lauraceous fruits that are ripe at this time of year, attracting bellbirds and quetzals." This may represent the first record of Lovely Cotinga for the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
News of the sightings had Robert Dean heading up into the mountains at the first opportunity. (Although it didn't hurt any to also have a report from Eduardo Amengual of a foray to nearby San Gerardo in late August during which he saw two (singing!) Ochre-breasted Antpittas (Grallaricula flavirostris), two Scaled Antpittas (Grallaria guatimalensis), Rufous-breasted Antthrush (Formicarius rufipectus),Streaked Xenops (Xenops rutilans), Tawny-throated Leaftosser (Sclerurus mexicanus), and Ornate Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus)!)
Afterwards, Robert sent word that he and Eduardo visited the San Gerardo area during the first weekend of September and "ended up staying on someone's finca below the ranger station. There were a couple of rough trails on the property. We heard Black-headed Antthrushes (Formicarius nigricapillus) and saw a Great Curassow (Crax rubra), and the usual mixed flocks of tanagers, etc. On the trails of the reserve we got a brief glimpse of a Rufous-breasted Antthrush but no sign of the antpittas. On the road close to the finca on the first afternoon we had some birds convening around some army ants. Got amazing views of a pair of Black-banded Woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptes picumnus) foraging among the army ants at ground level. Interesting that Stiles and Skutch mention nothing about them following army ants. Finally I can say that that is a particularly finely-patterned woodcreeper -- quite handsome, in fact! The second morning was very slow, highlight being a fairly low-flying Black Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus tyrannus). (The Los Llanos area was a bust, by the way. We went there on Thursday afternoon. Nothing but common birds). Anyway, just as we were about to leave after lunch at the finca on Saturday afternoon, I spotted a white-ish bird with a pale brown back and dark wing edges about 15 feet up in a tree by the clearing. It was indeed a female Lovely Cotinga, confirming that the one Patrick and I saw at Bijagua several months ago was the same. OK, so it wasn't a brilliant male, but it was still a very good bird, and my 721st Costa Rican bird, too! Current year list total: 623."
It's quite some year that Robert's been having, it's no small feat to add more than twenty country lifers in nine months when you're already at 700 Costa Rican species! He's also on pace to top the annual tally of 630 spp. that Jim Zook logged last year.
Dry Forest Species Forge Southward
Speaking of Jim Zook, even though he hasn't dug up a new species to put on the country list so far this year, he has seen bothCinnamon Hummingbird (Amazilia rutila) and White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa) south of Dominical. These sightings represent significant southward extensions of the ranges of both species. Given the El Niño period that we are entering and the subsequent drier than normal weather to be expected on the Pacific side of the country, who knows, maybe Panama will soon be able to add a few new species to its list.
I.C.T. Finally Vindicated?
And has another species worked its way north from Panama?
While visiting Rancho Naturalista in July with Rob and Sharon van Zandt, I heard an interesting rumor. According to Steven Easely, who was working as one of the local guides at Rancho, there have been reports ofBlue-and-yellow Macaw (Ara ararauna) in the southern Caribbean part of the country. Obviously, sightings of a species such as this could easily be the result of escaped caged birds, but any additional information would be most welcome.
Should the Blue-and-yellow Macaw actually turn up in Costa Rica as a bona fide wild species, it would prove the I.C.T. (Costa Rican Tourist Institute) to have had some truly visionary people in its publicity department over the years, since they repeatedly have insisted on including this non-native species on posters and brochures promoting tourism to the country!
For me, however, the best part about that visit to Rancho was finally coming to grips with another of my nemesis birds: White-tipped Sicklebill (Eutoxeres aquila). It seems that every birder I know here, including my own sons, has seen this widespread species somewhere or another. I just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time. So, when Steven and Andy Walker (the other resident birding guide at the time of our visit) told us of a nesting sicklebill, it didn't surprise me that when we went out to check the nest, the bird wasn't there! Fortunately, persistence paid off and I eventually got a great look at the bird.
Where I seem to have better luck is with Bicolored Hawk (Accipiter bicolor). During a visit in August 2000 with Paul Murgatroyd, we added this species to the Rancho year list when a bird flew into the large Erythrina tree in front of the balcony and then dive-bombed the Erythrina with the oropendola colony just off the end of the balcony, sending oropendolas, chachalacas and jays squawking off in every direction. History managed to repeat itself in July when a Bicolored Hawk appeared just after breakfast and followed essentially the same route, albeit, without all the commotion. Again, another tick for the Rancho year list (and mine, too).
Still, the biggest news from Rancho was the sighting of a Lanceolated Monklet (Micromonacha lanceolata) on the property! Several days before our visit, Jay VanderGaast, who used to work as resident guide at Rancho, was back there leading a group for Field Guides. While way up on the top part of the trail system (near the White-crowned Manakin (Pipra pipra) lek), an unfamiliar, high-pitched call was heard. After some diligent searching and tape playback, the bird was finally spotted perched high in a large tree: a Lanceolated Monklet!
"Imagine, I spent 6 years there and never saw the bird on the property until now," wrote Jay in a recent message. Perhaps with this nearly mythical species we shouldn't be so surprised.
Additional Notes on Rare Bird Sightings from Jay
Jay VanderGaast also passed along a list of sightings he's had over the years here in Costa Rica of birds that were either rare or out of expected range or time frame:
Sora (Porzana carolina) - One at the oxbow lake in Carara, 3 May 1998. This seems to be a pretty late record for this species.
Paint-billed Crake (Neocrex erythrops) - One photographed at Las Palmitas (?) north of Guacimo. First seen by me on 27 November 1996, though discovered a week or more earlier by Jeanne Fossani. Though I only got pictures of one, there were at least 2 birds, and most likely 3. One was duller than the others, and appeared to be a younger bird, and I suspect they bred here. They were present for at least two weeks but were not checked after this time. I also saw another Paint-billed Crake at E.A.R.T.H. [near Guácimo], along the road to the reserve, in about July 1999.
Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) - One in breeding plumage was on the mudflats at Tarcoles on the morning of 3 May 1998. Only the second record I'm aware of for CR.
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) - One in breeding plumage on the beach at Playa Azul [near Tarcoles], with other terns, including two Common Terns (Sterna hirundo) which allowed for some direct comparisons. I photographed this bird, but haven't looked at the photograph closely enough to see if it is diagnostic. I know of no other records for Arctic Tern in the country.
Least Tern (Sterna antillarum) - One in 1997 (I think, I didn't note the date at the time) at the pond in CATIE [near Turrialba]. Quite an unusual record, I think. I only saw the bird on one day.
Violaceous Quail-dove (Geotrygon violácea) - One male was seen very well along the Sendero Meandrico [oxbow lake trail] in Carara on 17 August 1995. When I first spotted this bird on the forest floor I expected it was a Ruddy Quail-Dove (Geotrygon montana), but then it walked out into the trail and stopped long enough for me to get an excellent clear view. I know of no other records for Carara, and that remains the only one I have ever seen there, or anywhere else.
Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) - A flock of 20+ birds was at the reservoir at Rio Birris on 18 November 1996. Another was seen (along with Dennis Rogers) at Carara in April 2000.
White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) - a dark-eyed juvenile was seen in the old cacao plantation at EARTH on 5 November 1999. Jeanne F. also saw this bird.
Nashville Warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla) - one was present at Rancho Naturalista for several days, from 20 November 1994 onwards.
Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) - a female was with a mixed flock at Savegre Lodge on 12 December 1996.
A Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) - a male was present at Rancho Naturalista for several days in the end of 1995, I believe (exact dates unknown). This is pretty unusual for the Caribbean slope.
American Pipit (Anthus rubescens) - I saw a pipit which I identified as this species at Tarcoles in late 1993. Unfortunately it flew off after we studied it for several minutes, never to be seen again.
Peregrine Perching on Puntarenas Hospital
Allan Kimberley dropped a line to report seeing aPeregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) land on the Monseñor Sanabria Hospital in Puntarenas on 21 September. He saw it again the following week, indicating that maybe the bird will be a regular feature there throughout the coming months. As Allan pointed out, it has a perfect hunting grounds in the area with plenty of White-winged Doves (Zenaida asiatica) around that feed on the grain spilled along the roadsides by freight trucks.
New Trail in Tapantí
The Park Service recently added a lengthy spur trail to the existing La Pava Trail inTapantí National Park. The original trail is a fairly short (300 meters?) affair that descends from the small pull-off along the road down through beautiful mature premontane rain forest to the bank of the Orosi River. About halfway down the trail is the new trail that goes off to the left, more or less following the contour of the hillside as it eventually takes you to the riverbank farther upstream. The trail continues on upstream passing through what looks like excellent monklet habitat (i.e., vegetation very similar to that found along the Río Tuís above Rancho Naturalista and the "Monklet Trail" at La Virgen del Socorro) until ending at the river with a view of the waterfall on the slope across the way.
José (El Indio) Calvo, José Sáenz, Rudy Zamora and I birded this trail on 26 September from 9:00 until 11:00. Although we didn't see anything terribly noteworthy, we were suitably entertained by fairly constant mixed (tanager-warbler-furnariid) flock activity -- and that despite the hour of the day and the fact that it was a sunny morning! The trail certainly ought to have good potential for producing the occasional sighting of rare species.
Christmas Bird Counts Coming Up Soon
Here are the dates and contact information for the various CBC activities that traditionally take place in Costa Rica. All interested birders are welcome to participate. Hope to see you out there!
Cartago: 16/12/01 Julio Sanchezjesornis@racsa.co.cr 551-2509
Grecia: (TBA) Rafael Campos 444-6572
La Selva: 29/12/01 Orlando Vargasovargas@sloth.ots.ac. 766-6565
Monteverde: (TBA) Alex Villegasalexmont@racsa.co.cr 297-2548
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,