The Gone Birding Newsletter

Vol. 3, No. 3

July 2002



Dr. Skutch Gets a Second Opinion

In the previous edition of the Gone Birding Newsletter, I reported on the apparently delicate state of Dr. Skutch's health. However, I was delighted to hear recently that he seems to be doing quite well.

On 17 July, Noel Ureña and Walter Odio of Selva Mar stopped in for a visit at Los Cusingos and found Dr. Skutch in good condition and glad to have the company. They spoke for about an hour with the venerable naturalist and—other than having to speak up due to his hearing loss—said that he seems to be doing just fine. Seeing how their visit really perked up his spirits, Noel suggested that anyone passing through the Valle del General area make the effort to drop in and say hello. Since Noel and don Walter live in San Isidro, they'll be attempting to make regular visits in the future.

By the way, Noel also said that the birding there was excellent that morning (as usual - Ed.).



A New CBC Covers the Dominical Area

Noel and Walter have also been busy in the past couple months preparing the groundwork for a new Christmas Bird Count here in Costa Rica. The area to be covered extends approximately from the Hacienda Baru south to Punta Quebrada Grande, along the Pacific coast, and inland to beyond Tinamastes. Going from sea level to over 1200 meters in elevation, the count territory contains mostly tropical wet forest and premontane rain forest life zones, with numerous types of habitats including open ocean, sandy and rocky coasts, river mouths, mangroves, riparian forest, primary forest, second growth woodlands, open fields, cropland, etc. The date has been set for 03 Jan 2003, which avoids any conflict with the other existing CBCs and also with holiday festivities. Hopefully we can expect a large turnout for the inauguration of this count. For more information call Noel at 771-0691 or send an email to



Unripe Veraguan Mango Seen at Marenco

The Veraguan Mango (Anthracothorax veraguensis) seems to be a rare species in the southern Pacific quadrant of Costa Rica. (The field guide suggests that it "may eventually be found on the S Pacific slope.")

While birding in early June at Marenco Lodge, south of Drake's Bay on the Osa Peninsula, biologist Daniel Mennill of Queen's University in Ontario saw "a juvenile Mango hummingbird feeding at the flowers outside the dining hall! It had a dark stripe running down the middle of a white breast, and there were rufous lines running down the margins of the white breast." Comparing the descriptions of Green-breasted (A. prevostii) vs. Veraguan Mango in the CR and Panama field guides, respectively, it seems that the only plumage difference is that in the latter species the median stripe down the breast is blue, not black, in both adult sexes. Immature Veraguan Mangos have a "more blackish" stripe than their parents, making them almost impossible to sort out from their green-breasted counterparts based on plumage alone.

I asked Jim Zook, who has spent a good deal of time birding in the southern Pacific zone, if he had seen this species in Costa Rica. His reply was that on several occasions he has seen mango hummingbirds down there, mostly in mangroves, but that it is usually hard to discern the actual color of the median stripe under field conditions.

I recently met Liz Jones, of Bosque del Río Tigre Lodge, who said that they have also occasionally seen mango hummingbirds in their area of the Osa. So, based on geographical location and current AOU taxonomy, it would appear that these birds are most likely Veraguan Mangos.



White-tailed Emerald Crosses Cordillera

On 19 June, Andy Walker spotted a male White-tailed Emerald (Elvira chionura) on the grounds of the Kiri Lodge, near Tapantí National Park. The bird was working the verbena hedge just outside the restaurant. This could well be the first record of this species on the Caribbean side of the Cordillera de Talamanca.

Since the sightings there last November, this species has also continued to be found at Savegre. While birding there in March, I saw a male of the species foraging along the stream on the Quebrada Trail. Marino Chacón confirmed that there had been various other sightings, as well.



Nicaraguan Border Crossing Imminent

While political leaders of Costa Rica and Nicaragua continue to argue over the use of the San Juan River, two species of birds seem hell-bent for Nicaragua, totally oblivious to our species' squabbling.

Ernesto Carman reports having seen Pearl Kite (Gampsonyx swainsonii) about 22 km north of Liberia. Cameron Gilles, the researcher that Ernesto works with, has also spotted this small hawk about 20 km north of town. Both sightings were close to the PanAmerican Highway. Jim Zook said he's seen this species along the entrance road to Palo Verde National Park. These three observations represent significant northward extensions from the previous northernmost report of this species in Costa Rica, which was near Orotina.

Jim mentioned the fact that there is a local population of Pearl Kites in Nicaragua, which could be the source of the birds that have appeared in Guanacaste. However, he also countered that it does seem strange that suddenly there would be a southward expansion of the Nicaraguan population after all these years, while we do know for a fact that this species has been spreading rapidly north from Panama on the Pacific side of Costa Rica (see almost any previous edition of this newsletter). 

A similar phenomenon is occurring on the eastern side of the mountains, where Red-breasted Blackbirds (Sturnella militaris) may already have reached the border.

On 21 April, Eric Castro and Jim Zook took a day trip "to explore the area just south and east of the Río Sarapiquí - Río San Juan confluence which can be reached by bumpy gravel roads that head north out of the banana plantations. The devastation is pretty complete until you get real close to the Rio SJ. We only went up to about 7 km south of the border, where the gravel ends, but were starting to get into nice forest on the road to La Aldea (at that point any forest was nice forest). Didn't find anything foresty of interest except that some local folks we spoke with mentioned that both Great Green and Scarlet Macaws* come to eat the Almendro fruits in season. But we had a big surprise out in the wet pastures where we ran into Red-breasted Blackbirds (RBBBs) in 6 different locations. We had them in the last pasture we visited just 7 km south of the Nicaraguan border. I don't think they have penetrated Nicaragua yet, at least in that area, as the forest is still intact on the Nicaraguan side of the Rio SJ. Would depend on how far west they have gone. Also note that the area we visited is at the southernmost tip of Nicaragua. Birds going west from there will also have to continue pushing north in order to keep to the border. Mixed in with the RBBBs were also many Red-winged Blackbirds which would appear to be expanding their range in the opposite direction."

Jim also passed along a report that Red-breasted Blackbirds had been seen in Tortuguero National Park by naturalist guide Lisa Mora in April.


*Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) seem to be making a comeback in the northeastern corner of the country after having been essentially extirpated from the area several decades ago. I've recently heard of sightings both east and west of where Jim and Eric were birding near the mouth of the Sarapiquí River. To the east there have been reports from Tortuguero, and to the west macaws have been seen in the area around Laguna del Lagarto Lodge, near the San Carlos River.



More News from up North

Charlie Gómez wrote with news of a two-week birding foray in April to the eastern flanks of Cacao and Rincón de la Vieja Volcanoes. Accompanied by Pat and Bill MacCallum in this remote and seldom-visited region of the country, he twice saw Tody Motmot (Hylomanes momotula) and also observed Lattice-tailed Trogon (Trogon clathratus), which the field guide lists as occurring "N at least to Volcán Miravalles."

On 10 July, I was poking around on the southwestern slope of Rincón de la Vieja trying to find Rock Wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) or any of the three sparrows that also inhabit "grassy, windswept, boulder-strewn slopes" along the northern cordillera. My sons and I drove out of Liberia at dawn and headed up the dirt road that parallels the Río Liberia, reaching an elevation of slightly more than 500 meters before running out of our allotted time. On the way back down to town, we spotted two Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) about a kilometer apart from one another. Given the time of year, it seems unlikely that these were northern migrants. There is a local resident population of this species in the Cartago area, including the slopes of Irazú Volcano, so I wonder if perhaps our birds were permanent dwellers here, also?

Lastly, Ernesto Carman mentioned having found a Violet-crowned Woodnymph (Thalurania colombica) around Cañas Dulces, north of Liberia. This bird seems to have strayed quite a bit from its normal habitat on the Caribbean side of the country.



Action Continues at Chomes Even in Summer

Although you would expect the majority of shorebird species to be up north on their breeding grounds at this time of year, there's still plenty of activity in the shrimp ponds and along the coast at Chomes. Allan Kimberley remarked to Eduardo Amengual that he'd seen some Wilson's Phalaropes (Steganopus tricolor) there in June, which was all that was needed to prompt Eduardo and Robert Dean to drive down from Monteverde on 05 July to check things out.

In addition to finding the phalaropes, including some in partial breeding plumage, they discovered two Red Knots (Calidris canutus)—one in breeding plumage—and five Surfbirds (Aphriza virgata), all in breeding plumage.

A bit farther south, on the beach at Tarcoles, Jim Peterson found a group of ten Sanderlings (Calidris alba) on 26 June. Though the field guide mentions occasional phalaropes being encountered in Costa Rica during the northern summer months, there are no summer records for any of the three above-mentioned species of peeps.



Pinnated Bitterns Put in Appearance

In May, Eric Castro and Gerardo Vega discovered a pair of Pinnated Bitterns (Botaurus pinnatus) a few kilometers east of La Selva. While searching some flooded fields near Isla Grande for Red-breasted Blackbirds—which they also found—they came across the bitterns. One of them was vocalizing and doing a display in which it exposed white feathers under the wings.

When Jim Zook and Bruce Young went to look for the birds on 22 May, they crossed some 200 meters of field with no luck. However, when they turned around to go back, there was a bittern, in the open, just 20 meters from the gate they'd come through! The bird stood immobile in typical bittern posture, neck extended and bill pointing skyward, as it tried to hide in the "imaginary vegetation"—as Jim termed it—since there was nothing growing near it that was higher than 10 cm.

They had great looks at the bird for several minutes before it flew, landing some 300 meters away amid tall vegetation and disappearing from view. They were unsuccessful in their efforts to see it again, but did flush a female Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) in the process. They also discovered a Red-winged Blackbird nest with two nestlings, but no Red-breasted Blackbirds were about that day.



Bellbird Drops in for a Bite in Santa Ana

The phone rang early Saturday morning, 08 May, and there was Rudy Zamora on the other end saying, "Richard, listen to this!" After a moment of silence came the distinct "Eeennk!" of a Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata).

"A recording Rudy made somewhere?" I thought before Rudy could exclaim, "It's been in the fruiting fig tree in front of my house all morning. Can you believe it?"

Admittedly, it was strange. Even though bellbirds are well known for their intraregional wanderings outside of the breeding season, in early May one would expect a male of the species to be staunchly proclaiming himself from some exposed perch well up in the mountains, and not feeding on ripe figs in the Central Valley village of Santa Ana.

Of course, as we begin another El Niño cycle, weather patterns have been somewhat deviant from the "norm" (such as that is in regards to weather) and may well affect flowering and fruiting cycles of the local vegetation, in turn influencing where frugivores, like Rudy's bellbird, may turn up. Indeed, no bellbirds were to be seen or heard this past March/April in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve (at least in the area of the "triangle," where most visitors are concentrated), which seemed quite abnormal. Whereas, they were thick in the area from the Santa Elena Reserve down the Caribbean slope to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Eternal Children's Rainforest.



Orotina Owls at Night Are a Real Hoot

The pair of Black-and-white Owls (Ciccaba nigrolineata) that roost in the park in Orotina's town square are arguably Costa Rica's premier stakeout. It would be interesting to know just how many birders stop by during the course of the year to add this species to their life/trip lists. (Come to think of it, that would be an interesting project for the fellow who sells ice cream there, and who will gladly help you find the birds, as well as the Hoffmann's Two-toed Sloths (Choloepus hoffmanni), if you're having difficulty.)

I'd often wondered if the owls don't spend essentially their entire lives within the confines of that one city block. Obviously, it's where they are during the daytime, but I suspected that they may well be able to do quite well in terms of nocturnal foraging right there with all the street lamps that line the walkways transecting the square. Despite its rather large size, this species "eats mainly large insects, especially beetles and orthopterans [katydids and kin - Ed.], small rodents, and bats, which are seized in midair; sometimes attracted to insects swarming at bright lights." Again, the spot-on information in the field guide allows you to see how all their dietary needs are provided for in, or near, the Orotina town square: insects coming to the street lamps, bats coming to the insects, and rodents scurrying across the ground (the town's marketplace is just half a block to the north).

However, I'd never had the opportunity to stop by at night until, on 30 May, David Koeppel and I found ourselves in the neighborhood just after dusk. It was about 18:15 when we entered the square, the lights were on, and a few people were sitting on benches or strolling across the park. Then, a dark form glided across the center of the square, right in front of the gazebo, and landed on a low branch over one of the walkways. There was enough light from the street lamps that no additional illumination was necessary to have an excellent view of a Black-and-white Owl in full hunting mode!

Active and alert, the owl leaned forward to a nearly horizontal position, looking this way and that. Suddenly, it swooped down to within inches of the ground, just a few feet in front of some slightly startled pedestrians, then back up to another low perch. It was apparently an unsuccessful attempt.

Moments later, the second bird showed itself, landing on another nearby perch. Unfortunately, as we still had some distance to travel to reach our evening's lodging, David and I couldn't stay to enjoy more of the show, but as we returned to the vehicle the owl's began their deep, resonant vocalizations. What a hoot!



Photo Page Added to Web Site

During the past month or so, I've been busy uploading more than 100 bird images to my web site. These are digital photographs I've taken through a Swarovski AT 80 HD telescope (mostly). Hopefully this will be a useful resource to birders who visit me on the web. I'll continue to add more images as I accrue them, so check back from time to time.



Mystery Photo Contest

And speaking of bird images, here's this edition's Mystery Photo Contest.

We all know how confusing female hummers can be. At least the one in this photo isn't going to fly away, but can you correctly identify the species?

The answer will be announced in the October 2002 edition.

Congratulations to Jim Zook, Rafa Campos, Ernesto Carman, and Tim Fitzpatrick who were able to ID the mystery bird in the last edition. Jim and Rafa even went so far as to ascertain the exact location of the photograph! For those of you who are still scratching your heads, here's a more revealing angle of the same Gray-capped Flycatcher (Myiozetetes granadensis)

And for a real challenge, how about trying to identify this mystery vocalization?



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



April 2002

January 2002

October 2001

July 2001

April 2001

January 2001

October 2000

July 2000

April 2000