The Gone Birding Newsletter

Vol. 2, No. 3

July 2001



South Polar Skua Seeks Tropical Sun in Tortuguero

Rafa Robles wrote to say that on 15 April 2001 he observed a lone bird flying low over the breakers along the Caribbean coast fronting the Mawamba Lodge. Although Rafa had no previous experience with South Polar Skua (Catharacta maccormicki), he eliminated the possibility of one of the jaegers or Brown Booby (Sula luecogaster) based on the bird's robust body and rounded tail. The previous day, Dennis Willie had told him that he had seen this species from the beach. Dennis is familiar with this skua from his guiding stints aboard the Clipper. In his note, Rafa also mentioned that a friend of his who is just beginning to watch birds claimed to have seen a South Polar Skua at Punta Uva, Limón, in February. The same individual perhaps?

Rafa has spent about as much time in Tortuguero over the years as anybody in the local guiding fraternity and remarked that he doesn't recall ever seeing Brown Booby there. That's interesting because I don't either, though I did observe a single bird flying about 10 meters above the sea and about 50 meters off the coast when I was at Mawamba in early March. It was a clear day and I had nice looks at the bird -- definitely an adult Brown Booby.

On the subject of seabirds, I've heard a couple of reports of possible albatross sightings off the Pacific coast within the last year or so, including Cocos Island. This would represent an entirely new family for the Costa Rican bird list! Based on current species distributions, my guess would be that Waved Albatross (Diomedea exulans) ought to be the most likely candidate to appear in Costa Rican waters, but at least half a dozen other species could potentially do so, too.

As they say in the field guides, "to be looked for!"



First Record of Silvery-fronted Tapaculo Nest

In early April, Willow Zuchowski found the nest of a pair of Silvery-fronted Tapaculos (Scytalopus argentifrons) in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. Bruce Young notified me of the discovery reporting that the nest was "just two meters from the Sendero Nuboso, about 200 meters from the parking lot. It was a domed nest made of moss and fungal rhizomorphs placed inside of a burrow on a hillside. A veil of moss covered the entrance hole. . . . Two chicks apparently fledged from the nest."

Bruce and Willow were able to get photographs and plan on publishing this nesting record, which, as Bruce noted, is just "the ninth species of the 40 in the genus Scytalopus to have a nest discovered."

Another rarely seen species, the Scaled Antpitta (Grallaria guatimalensis), was also found nesting in the Monteverde area this year (late June - July). The nest was only about 500 meters from La Colina Lodge (formerly the Pension Flor-Mar). Michael and Patricia Fogden were photographing this nest, so we should be seeing some great shots of the process in the near future.




Now More Than Just Owls in Orotina

A swing into the town of Orotina to check on the Black-and-white Owls (Ciccaba nigrolineata) that roost in the village's central park has become an almost obligatory part of any birding trip passing through the area. However, birders should now also keep their eyes open for tiny raptors perched on wires and bare branches or flying overhead in the general area, because on 14 June 2001, Alex Villegas, Sergio Vega, and Clay Taylor spotted a Pearl Kite (Gampsonyx swainsonii) just outside of Orotina! This sighting represents a significant range extension for this recently arrived species in Costa Rica. [In fact, in the previous newsletter I mentioned that Dominical (about 120 kms farther down the Pacific coast) was the current northern limit of the species on the Pacific side of the country.] Using a digital camera and a Swarovski AT-80 High Definition spotting scope, Clay was able to get some great photos of the bird.

How much longer will it be until we have the first Pearl Kite report for the Central Valley?



Macaws Making Their Way to San José?

Speaking of birds working their way up the Río Grande de Tarcoles watershed, Morris Quesada informed me of an unusual sighting: Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao) at Balsa de Atenas. Morris and Rafa Robles were with a tour group at the Escuela de Ganaderia (Livestock School) on 23 June 2001, when a pair of macaws flew past high overhead. According to personnel at the school, it's uncommon to see macaws there, however, they do see them occasionally and even in small groups. That would suggest that these are most likely wild birds, not just a pair that might have escaped from local captivity. Of course, Carara Biological Reserve is not all that far away -- just 30 kms as the macaw flies.

I wonder what became of the macaws that were being raised at Iguana Park? It's my understanding that the project shut down a year or so ago. Does anyone know if those birds were released or if they're still in captivity somewhere? If they just opened the cages, perhaps those birds might be the ones now being seen further upriver near Atenas.



Digging Digiscoping

You gotta love it! Anyone who enjoys trying to take beautiful photographs of birds will instantly become hooked on digiscoping. If you clicked on the above Pearl Kite links, you'll have seen what I mean.

For anyone who may not as yet be familiar with the term -- and you won't find it in your dictionary -- digiscoping is the art of taking digital photos through the lens of a telescope. This is a wonderful breakthrough for would-be bird photographers who were put off by the thought of having to carry around a huge 300mm (or longer) lens plus all the other accoutrement of the serious photographer, PLUS birding gear. Now with just a high quality telescope (actually, any telescope will work, but the better the quality of the scope, the better the photographic image) and a decent digital camera (one capable of capturing images of at least two megapixels is recommended) you're in business!

I've been playing around with a Kodak DC3400 digital camera and a Swarovski AT-80 HD scope for the past month and have gotten some nice results of a few common yard birds. My technique is simple. Focus the scope on the subject, bring the camera lens up to the eyepiece while viewing on the LCD screen, zoom in enough so that there is no vignetting (the dark ring around the edge of the image caused by getting some of the barrel of the scope in the picture), press the button, and hope that the bird didn't fly in that precise instant! Although it should have been fairly obvious, I've also learned that the same basic rules of lighting and composition still apply to digiscoping in order to obtain really good images. Another common problem is camera shake, which will cause the image to be blurred. If you really want to get serious about digiscoping you'll probably eventually buy or make some sort of camera mount so that you won't have to risk camera shake by hand-holding each shot.

In addition to the mere photographic aspect of digiscoping, this new development in birding also means that we should expect to start seeing a lot more rare sighting reports backed up by this relatively easy-to-obtain hard evidence.

There are already a number of sites on the web with lots of info on this subject, but for starters I'd recommend looking at this article on the web site and also this nice piece by Andy Bright on the digiscoping web site.



Resolving My Mystery Monteverde Hummer

Another use I've discovered for my new digital camera is that it can effectively be used as a scanner. I'd been having zero success finding someone with a scanner and a 35mm slide adapter here in Costa Rica. Then I got the idea to try and take digital photos of my slides by putting the camera lens up to the eyepiece of my little slide viewer. It worked!

So now, for all who might be interested, you can see the photos (by clicking here and here) I took of a hummingbird in Monteverde that may turn out to be a rare Blue-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia cyanura), rather than the common Stripe-tailed Hummingbird (Eupherusa eximia), which I assumed it was at the time I was busy taking the pictures.

You can read the original article here. I welcome any comments on the identification of this bird.



A New Hummingbird Mystery from Monteverde

If you enjoy a good mystery, I'm sure you'll like this.

On 28 January 2001, James Barton and Luis Brunicardi were birding at the Monteverde Skywalk. It was about 11:00 on a cloudy, windy day with frequent bouts of rain, when they spotted a hummingbird "hovering near the middle of one of the suspension bridges . . . at the level of the footwalk, well above any vegetation," which was beneath the span where it crossed a deep ravine. Jim and Luis were about 50 meters from the bird, but had a good view.

In Jim's words, "Clearly, this was an extraordinary creature. Green head and upper body. Bill appearing straight and short, not much longer than the depth of the head. Eye dark. No evidence of a white post-ocular spot. Center of back down to tail and along tail very rich, deeply saturated greenish blue. Tail extremely long, at least three to four times the length of the body. Tail gently decurved throughout its length, e.g. )). Tail feathers unseparated except at the very end of the tail, where the ends flared slightly outward." Luis adds, "The color, for me, was dark blue with dark green on the chin and breast."

Obviously, there's nothing in Costa Rica that fits that description, so they checked the Venezuelan and Colombian field guides. Luis also examined specimens in the Phelps collection when he returned to Caracas, and concluded that their bird may have been a Black-tailed Trainbearer (Lesbia victoria). This Andean hummer is known from northern Colombia to Bolivia. Jim, however, after reviewing Birds of Colombia, was more inclined to think that perhaps they had seen a Long-tailed Sylph (Aglaiocercus kingi), whose normal range doesn't get any closer to Costa Rica than the trainbearer's.

In Jim's first email contact with me (3 May), he asked if anyone keeps hummingbirds in captivity here. As far as I've been able to ascertain, no. I also sent an email around to some 70 local birders and guides with information of this strange sighting, but to date no one has mentioned seeing anything like this long-tailed hummer at the skywalk, or anywhere else.

Definitely a mystery.  



Another Singing White-eyed Vireo Report

After reading in the last newsletter of the White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) that was seen and heard at Cahuita in April, Nancy Newfield dropped me a line to say that she had a similar encounter in Monteverde a few years ago.

On 11 March 1997, while checking in with a group at the Hotel Heliconia, one of the tour members came up to the front desk and told Nancy that he'd just heard a White-eyed Vireo singing. Nancy says that she diplomatically suggested that perhaps it was another vireo species since there are only a very few records in Costa Rica.

However, the next day upon returning to the hotel for lunch, Nancy heard what sounded like a White-eyed Vireo singing from a fruiting tree above the cabins. There was a lot of activity in the tree, but no sign of the vireo. Intent on visual confirmation, Nancy continued searching for about 20 minutes, until "the vireo made a brief appearance -- perhaps 20 seconds. I noted his white eye, white wing bars, and yellow spectacles. Then, he dove back into the foliage and did not reappear. I didn't see or hear him again."



Nashville South, Way South

It seems that Robert Dean, who saw that vireo in Cahuita, is trying to catch up with all of Nancy Newfield's rare migrant sightings here in Costa Rica. On 18 May 2001, en route to the Wilson Botanical Garden, Robert, along with Eduardo and Patricia Amengual, stopped to check some roadside bird activity not far beyond the town of San Isidro del General. In the flock was what appeared to be a very brightly colored Lesser Greenlet (Hylophilus decurtatus). When we met at the garden (during the Birding Club's monthly outing), they mentioned the sighting and wondered if maybe there was a southern Pacific race of greenlet that was more yellow below. The field guide made no mention of any such difference, and I couldn't say that I'd ever noticed any change in plumage in the country's southern region.

While birding on the Río Java trail the following morning, Robert and Eduardo saw Lesser Greenlets in a mixed flock and it definitely was not what they had seen the day before! In retrospect, they realized that their bird must have been a Nashville Warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla). The field guide mentions just two sightings of this species, one being Nancy's at La Virgen del Socorro on 8 March 1987. [I was there that day, but about 50 meters down the road at the time and never saw the bird @#?/!] Nancy has told me that she saw this species again a few years later on the University of Costa Rica campus in San Pedro.

Let it be lesson to all of us that when something looks "different" about a common species, it's a good idea to check all of the possibilities, no matter how rare they may be.



Nothing But Nests, or, Looking for Lifers in San Vito

High on our agenda during that May trip to the Wilson Garden was to find Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus), but despite two excursions to different areas where they had been reported, the closest we came was a large tree with a dozen or so nests. Perhaps even more frustrating for me was hearing but never even glimpsing a Masked Yellowthroat (Geothlypis aequinoctialis) at the pond beyond the San Vito airstrip. At least it was a treat to see three Masked Ducks (Oxyura dominica) -- two hens and a drake in eclipse plumage -- floating in open water on the pond. I'd only seen this species once before -- amid floating vegetation in shallow water by the airstrip at Palo Verde (it seems that water near airstrips is their preferred habitat) -- and as far as I'm aware, they were lifers for everyone else in our party on that outing. The birds apparently had been there for more than a month, because Morris Quesada mentioned having seen five ducks at the pond during Easter week.

Should you be in the area and decide to visit the pond, walk up the dirt road on the righthand side of the pond (as you face it from the paved road) and at the third house on the left stop and ask for Danny Ruíz. If he's there, he'll accompany you down to the edge of the marsh and gladly do his excellent imitation of the yellowthroat's song. Even though we never saw the bird that sang from the far side of the pond, Danny's vocalization sure got a quick response.



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 2001

January 2001

October 2000

July 2000

April 2000