The Gone Birding Newsletter

Vol. 3, No. 2

April 2002



Birders Abducted by UFO in Corcovado!

Well, perhaps not exactly. Nonetheless, reports of Harpy Eagle (Harpia harpyja) in Costa Rica have come to share some of the characteristic elements of most UFO sightings: plausible stories, but no hard evidence. Most of the supposed sightings in recent years have been fly-overs. Having had the opportunity years ago at La Selva to observe a perched Crested Eagle (Morphnus guianensis) for several wonderful minutes, I can personally attest to the difficulty in distinguishing between these two large eagles—even when perched!

There was even the story of a farmer in the Carate area of the Osa Peninsula who reportedly shot a ringed bird a few years back. However, the ring never materialized for posthumous identification of the bird.

So, during a phone conversation at the beginning of the year, when Charlie Gómez mentioned that some tourists had photographed a Harpy Eagle eating a prey item at the Sirena Station in Corcovado National Park, I expressed my usual skepticism. Then, following the usual UFO sighting syndrome of conflicting reports, I received an email from Neyer Campos at the end of January saying that the photo had been taken in Marenco by someone named Fox.

I'm not sure whether people were just getting the news second or third-hand and mixing up the place names, or whether there really were a rash of sightings, but I heard reports of Harpy Eagle observations from Drake's Bay to Carate. Neyer even made cryptic mention of a possible nest site somewhere in Los Planos, behind Drake.

Fortunately, hard evidence in the form of the rumored photograph finally did appear. Julio Sánchez received a copy and confirmed the ID: a third-year sub-adult Harpy Eagle!

So it's true. The question now remains: Was this a wandering young individual that flew in from Panama or South America, or are mom and dad around somewhere?



A Naturalist Nears 98

Dr. Alexander F. Skutch will turn 98 this year. However, despite a lifetime of simple, healthy living and a vegetarian diet, the years seem to be taking their toll on Don Alejandro. When visiting Los Cusingos in November, 2001, I learned that Dr. Skutch's hearing is failing him enough that one has to practically shout at him, which hardly seems an appropriate way to address someone so kindly and respectful.

On Sunday, 10 March 2002, while enjoying splendid views of a male Turquoise Cotinga (Cotinga ridgwayi) feeding in a tree just behind Dr. Skutch's house, we were informed that Don Alejandro had suffered a fall two days earlier and had been taken to the hospital in San Isidro de El General. Although his condition was listed as "stable", he spent three weeks in hospital before returning home to Los Cusingos.

During my most recent visit, 14 April, we found out from Ana, the woman caring for Dr. Skutch, that the fall itself apparently had not caused any great damage; however, the doctors discovered that he has prostrate cancer. And if I understood Ana correctly, he may also be suffering from lung and brain cancer. At any rate, the situation did not sound good and I could not bring myself to go into the house and see him under these circumstances.

I did note that he seemed to be watched over—by a Golden-naped Woodpecker (Melanerpes chrysauchen) sitting atop a snag in front of the house and by a Laughing Falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans) perched vigilantly in a breadfruit tree behind the house. Was it mere coincidence that these are the two species that he spoke fondly of at some length during the interview that we did five years ago?



Rare Shorebirds Seen Outside of Peak Migration Periods

On 31 January 2002, while traveling on the Tortuguero Canals, Rafa Robles saw a lone American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) among a group of Black-necked Stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) some 200 meters north of the Barra del Río Matina. The bird was about 20 meters away on a sand bar.

This may well be the first record of this species on the Caribbean side of the country. As I heard no other reports, I'm curious to know if this bird stayed around or disappeared.

* * *

Ever since last September, Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean have been making monthly trips to Chomes to check on shorebird activity. Here's a report of some of what they've seen:

"On 04 January 2002, Robert Dean and I visited Chomes. Among a large flock of waders, terns and gulls were several plovers that we identified as American Golden Plovers (Pluvialis dominica). At least one of them had an intense buffy breast and face with a yellowish eyebrow that called our attention as unusual. On 07 January, I purchased a shorebird identification guide by Peter Hayman and upon reviewing the golden plovers was surprised to encounter an illustration of what we had seen in Chomes: a first winter plumaged Pacific Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva)!!

"I don't know if this species has been seen previously in Costa Rica, although it wouldn't be so strange since it winters in California and there are sightings from such far flung places as Chile, the Galapagos and the Pacific coast of Mexico. Do you know of any other sightings of this species in Costa Rica?

"That same day, just as Robert and I were about to leave Chomes, we found a small group (6-7) of Baird's Sandpipers (Calidris bairdii). Supposedly, they winter from Ecuador south, principally in Chile. I also remember a year ago (06 January 2001) in Montezuma when Robert and I discovered an Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) in a pasture. This is another wader that supposedly winters only in South America."

Upon returning to Chomes in February, they also managed to locate a Dunlin (Calidris alpina).

* * *

Jim Watt sent the following reports from his visit to the San Isidro de El General sewage lagoon and La Selva:

"We stopped there on Tuesday, 12 February 2002, at 13:15 for a quick look and saw two shorebirds that we believe to be possibly Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax). The birds were located on the middle causeway between the two ponds, but after allowing us only a couple of minutes of looking, walked down the small embankment and out of sight from the road. Bill was straight and all black; mantle was gray/brown above, feathers with dark centres; legs orangish; throat, belly and ventral area white; flanks were washed with buff/gray. This bird was definitely not a willet, whimbrel, stilt, dowitcher. We considered a Buff-breasted Sandpiper but these birds were much more substantial in size. Now my report is somewhat qualified (i.e. possible Ruffs) because we have only seen one Ruff each as these birds are rare in southern Ontario; furthermore, I am not familiar with other vagrnats that could possibly arrive in Costa Rica.

"On 04 February, at 8:00 while standing on the grounds at the Admin office at La Selva chatting to guides Jimmy Trejos and Joel Alvarado, we had a Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra) fly over! This really bowled us over, and the guides were really excited!"



Cave Swallows in Gulf of Nicoya Area

While birding at La Ensenada Lodge on the morning of 30 January 2002, Jim Zook, Eric Castro, Adolfo "Fito" Downs and Jim Black discovered at least eight Cave Swallows (Hirundo fulva), plus one Violet-green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina), among a flock consisting of hundreds of Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica). The field guide suggests that Cave Swallows ought to be looked for during fall migration on the Caribbean coast, though these were obviously on the Pacific side of the country.

On the same trip to Chomes in February that produced the Dunlin, Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual also saw Cave Swallows. So it appears that some of these rare hirundids chose to winter in the Gulf of Nicoya area this year.



Southern Lapwing Update

The two birds that caused such a stir at the end of last year continued to be found at the same spot behind Playa Hermosa for more than a month. As the dry season advanced, however, the birds eventually disappeared. When I checked the site on 21 February 2002 with Ted and Kristin Kenefick, we could only find one individual. Then on 12 March 2002, with Bob Quinn et. al., no lapwings were seen and the wet pasture area where they had been was quite dry. In fact, of the other species that had been in the area (i.e., Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), and Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)) we only saw Northern Jacana (Jacana spinosa). This experience was echoed by several other birders who visited the site from mid-February to mid-March (e.g., Rafa Campos, Rudy Zamora and Kevin Easley).

About the time that the Southern Lapwings (Vanellus chilensis) disappeared from Playa Hermosa, there was a report that Paco Madrigal had seen four birds on the road to the Río Tarcoles river mouth. However, in the numerous trips I've made to the river mouth since, I haven't encountered any lapwings, nor have I heard of any further sightings. Anyone have any more news?



South Polar Skua Seen off Osa Peninsula

Early this year, Charlie Gómez reported a possible South Polar Skua (Catharacta maccormicki) near Carate. Here's his report translated from Spanish:

"I consider the bird I saw to have been Catharacta maccormicki, of course not being 100% certain since as you know the taxonomy of this genus is still complicated. I saw it on 02 January 2002 at about 16:30 by the mouth of the Carate River on the Osa Peninsula. There was a fishing vessel near the coast and around it were Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster), Larus spp. and some Neotropical Cormorants (Phalacrocorax brasilianus). A small group of Sandwich Terns (Sterna sandvicensis) was fishing at the mouth of the river, when what I thought was a large immature gull suddenly attacked them. I immediately recalled having seen such behavior by a skua years ago on the beach at Punta Guiones. I was able to observe this new bird in detail until one of the terns regurgitated or dropped its fish. The skua grabbed the prize in midair and flew rapidly in the direction of the fishing boat until disappearing from view.

"I saw the bird very well and checked Harrison [Seabirds] when I returned to the lodge—I'd seen the illustration in Gary [Birds of Costa Rica] and I didn't see as much contrast between the head and the rest of the body. I also saw the underside of the bird, which was an obvious gray-brown and which Gary doesn't show. After reading Harrison, I think that it was a juvenil pale morph."



A Triple Dose of Doves

On two different occasions in March, Julio Sánchez heard and saw Maroon-chested Ground-Doves (Claravis mondetoura) on the slopes of Irazú Volcano. These seldom seen highland doves were near the little village of San Juan de Chicuá. More specifically, the birds were about 200 meters down the first road on the right after passing the old Hotel Robert.

By the way, both Julio and I have noticed some bamboo in various stages of flowering and seeding on Cerro de la Muerte within the last month or so, though neither of us have seen any of the bamboo specialists associated with them as yet. However, if you're up on the mountain, keep yours eyes open.

Kevin Easley and a group of birders visiting the Carara area a few months ago saw a Gray-headed Dove (Leptotila plumbeiceps) on the dirt road above Hotel Villa Lapas (on the way to the waterfall). Kevin tells me that David Wolf saw this species several years ago on the trail that used to go upstream (before high water washed it away) beyond the Villa Lapas complex. This means that all three Leptotila species occur in the area, so you may wish to exert extra caution when making IDs.

During the Grecia CBC last December, Bill Howard observed a lone Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto) sitting on a phone wire in the housing development behind Rancho Monticel on the road between La Garita and Atenas (on the right just before you start dropping down towards the La Garita Dam). This is the first report that I've heard of for Costa Rica, although the way that this species has been spreading through the Caribbean and southern US, maybe it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Another one to watch for.



Get Ready for an Urania Explosion

No, this is not a terrorist threat. This is a very real, yet irregular population irruption of a splendid species of day-flying moth, Urania fulgens. I apologize to the purists for adding this entomological note in the Gone Birding Newsletter, nonetheless, be prepared for a natural spectacle that we haven't seen here in Costa Rica for several years now.

Every four to five years (on average), the regional populations of this handsome black-and-green swallow-tailed moth reach such high levels that an intratropical migration is triggered. As far as I know, it's still unclear as to exactly where the adult moths are headed. But based on the amount of "staging" activity I recently witnessed while in Carara Biological Reserve with John Rothman, it looks like we're in one of those migratory years.



Bat Falcons Display Cooperative Hunting Behavior

In January, I received this fascinating account from John and Ann Maxine Patton, who live in the mountains above Dominical:

"We have a pair of Bat Falcons (Falco rufigularis) nesting in a tree just outside our house. They moved into an old termite nest almost two months ago. Since then they have been defending the area against all birds, no matter how big. They have also been mating frequently recently. We started seeing them mating almost two weeks ago and we have observed mating almost every day at least once. They spend a lot of time together, but we have seen them hunting alone, as well. Very frequently, however, they hunt together and cooperate very effectively.

"On several occasions I have seen them attack other birds with perfect cooperation. They time their attacks to hit as birds reach the top of saddles in the terrain, where the birds are very low to the ground and have little ability to escape downwards. They attack at exactly the same time from opposite sides, perpendicular to the direction of flight of the prey, at 45 degree angles to the ground and at a 90 angle from each other. It is hard to imagine a better system for two birds to cut down the escape possibilities of their prey. I have seen them use this system to kill birds as large as White-crowned Parrots (Pionus senilis) and I have seen them attack toucans in the same manner. I have never seen them kill a toucan and I am not sure they mean to do so, but they certainly attack them in this same cooperative manner. They also cooperate in chasing away eagles, kites, vultures, etc., but not in a manner so structured as the hunting described above."



Mystery Photo Contest

The inception of the Mystery Photo Contest in the previous edition was indeed a great success. Thanks to all you readers who took a stab at IDing the two birds in the photo. And congratulations to the seven of you who knew exactly what you were looking at:

Ernesto Carman, Chris Fagyal, Ric Zarwell (though these last two people were standing next to me when I took the photo, so they should have gotten it right!), Brian Scott, Jim Zook, Tim Fitzpatrick, and Dave Tripp (who passed along the definitive field mark: "The brown line on the back of the nape is a give away.")

But if you're still in doubt, here's another view of the same pair of birds that should dispel any disbelief as to their true identity: Pearl Kites (Gampsonyx swainsonii)!

Ready to try again? Can you accurately identify the bird in this photo? If so, email me with the correct answer and you'll win a free lifetime subscription to the Gone Birding Newsletter!

The answer will be announced in the July 2002 edition.



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



January 2002

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April 2001

January 2001

October 2000

July 2000

April 2000