Birding In Costa Rica - March 2017 & April 2013

No birding trips to Central America would be complete without a visit to Costa Rica. Although it is only a small country (smaller than West Virginia state), it has more bird species than the whole of the USA and Canada combined, the greatest density of bird species of any country in the Americas. 918 species have been recorded (out of the total worldwide of roughly 10,000), including 6 endemics, 62 accidental or rare, and 4 introduced by man. Some 600 species are resident, the remainder being largely migratory.

The topography of Costa Rica is hugely diverse and with very high mountains (up to 3500 metres) forming the spine of the country. These mountain chains (stretching down through Panama) form such a geographical barrier that some resident bird species have developed separately on the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the country (and there are some 30 endemics associated with the mountains themselves).

Our recent cruise called at Puerto Limon on the Atlantic side of the country. From there we took a boat trip along the much-visited Tortuguera canal through the mangrove forest, not far from our port, but unaccompanied by any local birding guide (though that had been requested). Our earlier 2013 cruise was more productive. From the port we took a boat ride on the Tarcoles river, a place Bob Punchard once told me was a highlight of his birding career. On that occasion the boat captain was a birder too.

Here is an atmospheric photo (late in the day) of the Pacific coast at Puntarenas, where our first trip docked.

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To maximise bird sightings one has to venture inland into the jungles, etc., spend several days exploring, and most definitely with a guide. So the prospects for our two short visits were limited. But given the extraordinary number of species in the country, we could hardly fail to see some great birds. And that we did! Here are some of the highlights of both trips.

As we stepped off our ship in Puerto Limon, this pair of smart Gray-breasted Martins conveniently landed at the side of the jetty, not bothered at all by humans walking by.

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On the canal trip itself I saw my first Montezuma Oropendulas. Here is a photo of a colony of their nests that we passed in our boat. With a microscope, at least one bird can be seen in this photo (yellow tail just visible), entering a nest near the top of the picture. The largest species of the Blackbird family, apart from its odd name (after the Aztec emperor), it is supposedly unusual for several reasons. Like deer and monkeys, the dominant male mates with most of the females in the colony (typically 30 to 150 nests). Rather than the male, it is the females who weave these large elaborate hanging basket nests and raise the young (the male is no doubt too busy mating with his harem and driving off competitors). There is also an unusual mating display from the male, involving much bowing.

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But here is a far better image of the colourful male out in the open, supplied by a friend. The females, who seem to do all the domestic work, are smaller and slightly less colourful.

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The canal trip also produced my first sighting of the medium-sized Amazon Kingfisher, with a punk hairdo typical of Costa Rica’s Kingfishers. Conveniently, this female flew into an overhanging tree as we passed in the boat.

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There were several Great Kiskadee flycatchers in the trees along the river. Here is the best shot I managed. I like the deep yellow breast contrasted with the brown back. The bird also has a concealed yellow stripe on the top of its head (not visible here), which it can raise as a crest like a Goldcrest. Quite a large and commonly seen flycatcher, its range extends from the southern USA down as far as Argentina.

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Finally we spotted this adult Yellow-Crowned Night Heron standing in the reeds, awaiting nightfall to start foraging.

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As to larger creatures, apart from Iguanas, we did see a Howler monkey swinging about the forest, a baby Cayman lurking in the water under an overhanging tree, and this shaggy Sloth snoozing in a tree.

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Our earlier trip on the Pacific side of the country was much more productive for a birder. Here are close-ups of an ugly American Black Vulture and a Crested Caracara standing on the river bank. Both species will eat whatever they can find – and in the case of the Caracara, it was a scrap of meat that the boat captain had thrown its way.

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There were a massive number of crocodiles in the river and the captain’s party trick was to tease them with titbits, as in this photo. Not sure about the risks here!

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Flying up and down the river were these tiny Mangrove Swallows (only about 4½ inches long) with their iridescent blue-green plumage.

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The most spectacular bird on this trip was, without doubt, the Turquoise-browed Motmot (see below). This is a truly tropical bird, flamboyantly coloured and with a ridiculously long racquet tail. Apparently the only practical use of this tail so far identified is to wave it about, in a wag-display, on detection of a predator – perhaps to warn other birds. Omnivorous, it is an efficient flycatcher too. Its long curved beak, typical perch and tunnel excavated nesting is very reminiscent of our Bee-eaters.

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As one would expect, the river environment produced a number of water-loving birds such as Kingfishers, an Anhinga, Egrets, Herons, a Northern Jacana, some waders and a White Ibis, with a red curved bill and red legs (which I managed to photograph). Also, here is a better photo of a juvenile White Ibis (accompanied by Snowy Egrets) which I took on our recent cruise when in the mangrove swamps near Cartagena. Whilst the adult plumage is entirely pure white, the juvenile here is largely brown with pink bill and legs.

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And hiding in the undergrowth of the river bank was this unusual heron – the Boat-billed Heron, another nocturnal feeder. I read that this enormous beak is used to scoop up fish and other prey, as pelicans do.

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We also saw a Little Green Heron on the riverbank, but this image of the bird I took a few days later in Mexico is a much better photo. Here the bird was patiently sitting in a blossoming tree above the walkway, trying to catch large insects that visited the flowers for nectar.

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Amongst the waders was this very long-legged, but elegant, Black-necked Stilt – very similar in all respects to the European Black-winged Stilt.

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We also got close enough to this resident Southern Lapwing to get a fair photograph. Very similar in shape and overall plumage design to our Northern Lapwing, the colouration is quite different and so is the brilliant red eye. But its foraging and breeding activities are very similar, including the broken-wing technique of defending its young. Apparently this bird has been increasing its range rapidly, as a result, it is believed, of deforestation.

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As a final image I have to include this close-up of a bedraggled migrant Storm-Petrel, probably a Leach’s. I watched with concern as the poor bird struggled in the water through the incoming tide onto the beach, got to its feet, and promptly lay prostrate on the sand. What could I do? We were about to walk the jetty to rejoin our ship just before it was due to leave. Reluctantly, I decided the cruise ship could not offer sanctuary. So I had to leave nature to its course, hoping the poor bird would be able to dry itself out and fly again, before a predator found it.

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Peter M
April 2017

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