Sunday, July 21, 2013

Up close with Fiery-billed Aracaris

Prior to arriving in Costa Rica, I looked over the bird list for the San Vito area, to see what I should be pursuing in the area that I had not yet seen.  Among a few others, the bird I really wanted to see was the Fiery-billed Aracari, a medium-sized relative of a toucan that has a very limited range in western Panama and southern Costa Rica.  Upon arriving in San Vito, Monique and Alison told me that they see them regularly and I should be able to see them on my visit.  
Fiery-billed Aracari
Fiery-billed Aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) at Wilson Botanical Garden
On my first afternoon at Wilson Botanical Garden/Las Cruces Biological Station, I went for a walk to a small mirador overlooking the valley.  Not much was moving around, and it was pretty quiet.  Just before I turned around to walk back, movement in the bushes below caught my eye, and I saw a large flash of red - the bill of a Fiery-billed Aracari!  This young bird sat in a little clearing in the shrubby vegetation, and I watched it for a while.  Not far away, 3 more aracaris were hopping through the trees, not far from me and easily visible.  As I continued on my walk, I saw a few more aracaris on the property that day as well.  

Fiery-billed AracariA few days later, while the nets were open at Finca Cantaros and we had a group of students visiting from the biological station.  Chespi and I, birds in hand, had our attention focused on processing birds, while the students asked questions and took photos.  Then Alison popped around the corner, with a Fiery-billed Aracari in her hands!  She had just gone on a net run and managed to grab this bird as it was running through a tramel of one of the nets (they are too big to get tangled in the gauge of the nets used).  Everyone grabbed cameras for photos, and Chespi carefully processed the bird.  Even though their bill is hollow, they can do a lot of damage, so Alison and Chespi took good care to keep its beak in control.  

The Fiery-billed Aracari, Pteroglossus frantzii, is a medium-sized member of the Toucan family, Ramphastidae.  They are similar to the widespread Collared Aracari, but have a red-orange upper mandible and a red band across their belly, not black as in the Collared Aracari. Even though that bill looks big and heavy, it is actually hollow, and is used for reaching fruits and berries, their main diet.  It is also believed to be used in temperature regulation.  It is found only in southern Costa Rica (on the Pacific side) and in extreme western Panama.  

~ Jenn 

Bird Banding Bonanza in Costa Rica

A week on the avian monitoring project with the San Vito Bird Club was fantastic!  We caught hundreds of of birds in 6 days, at 3 different sites, and here are some of the highlights.  
White-ruffed Manakin
White-ruffed Manakin (Corapipo altera)
Tropical Parula
Tropical Parula (Setophaga pitioyumi)
The first day of mist-netting at Finca Sofia was our busiest day - we caught 72 individuals of 25 species - half of them were hummingbirds, mainly Green Hermits and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.  Other highlights from the heavily reforested Finca Sofia for the first two days were Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Slaty Antwren, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Orange-collared, White-ruffed and Blue-crowned Manakins, White-breasted Wood-Wrens, Clay-colored and White-throated Thrushes, a stunning Tropical Parula, Slate-throated Redstart, Rufous-capped Warbler, Cherrie's, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, an Orange-billed Sparrow, 4 beautiful Chestnut-capped Brush-Finches and 2 less-common Costa Rican (Stripe-headed) Brush-Finches!
Orange-billed Sparrow
Orange-billed Sparrow (Arremon aurantiirostris)
Saltators proved to be the most challenging because of a horrible bite, and we caught both Streaked and Buff-throated Saltators.  Other hummingbirds included the tiny White-tailed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird and Long-billed Starthroat.  Over the 2 days we caught 3 Blue-crowned Motmots, which despite an intimidating serrated bill, are incredibly calm!  Another highlight was a subtly beautiful Scaly-breasted Wren, a new capture for the San Vito Bird Club!
Blue-crowned Motmot
Blue-crowned Motmot (Momotus momota)
For the next two days, we moved the nets over to Finca Cantaros, a private property open daily to the public, who can come to walk the trails, see the gardens, enjoy picnic lunches and a lovely gift shop.  Here, there is a variety of habitats, including roadside, open areas, woodland, and a small lake.  In addition to a number of the forest birds we caught at Finca Sofia, we caught Violet Sabrewing, the tiny Stripe-throated Hermit, Olivaceous Piculet, Black-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, Gray-capped Flycatcher (4 in 1 net!), a pair of White-winged Becards nesting on the property, Rufous-breasted Wren, Buff-rumped Warblers, Gray-headed, Blue-gray and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Bananaquits, Variable Seedeaters, a stunning male Thick-billed Seed-Finch, Yellow-faced Grassquits, and a few Spot-crowned Euphonias!  The highlight of the day though, was a Fiery-billed Aracari that Alison grabbed as it ran through the tramels of the net (more to come on the aracari)!!
Olivaceous Piculet
Olivaceous Piculet (Picumnus olivaceus)
As Alison and I were opening the nets on the first day at Finca Cantaros, I looked across the pond and saw a white animal, which first struck me as a heron perched on an exposed log.  Then it moved its body and we could see a tail and a head, and it dove into the water, bobbed up and down a couple times and disappeared.  As it turns out, a leucistic Neotropical Otter has been infrequently seen in this pond, and we were lucky to see it!  

White-throated Spadebill
White-throated Spadebill (Platyrinchus mystaceus)
Our final station was at Alison's finca, Finca Cortesa.  Here the habitat hasn't been touched and this small property supports a lot of bird life!  The first morning here kept us busy with a constant stream of birds, including a family of Thick-billed Euphonias in the nets which provided a great identification challenge as we dealt with all ages and sexes!  This finca was also full of juvenile thrushes, both Clay-colored and White-throated.  On our last day, we recaptured a previously banded White-throated Spadebill, a wonderful little bird to see up close!  

Thick-billed Euphonia
One of 8 Thick-billed Euphonias (Euphonia laniirostris)
caught at Finca Cortesa
Overall it was a very successful session, everyone was very happy with the finds and we had a lot of fun!  I'm already looking forward to visiting the San Vito Bird Club again and hope to join another mist-netting session in the near future.  

~ Jenn 

Avian Monitoring with the San Vito Bird Club in Costa Rica

I feel fortunate to have had some great field experience in Latin America.  From tracking Harpy Eagles and Orange-breasted Falcons in Central America, to conducting various surveys for birds, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and more in Ecuador, I have gained a wide range of experience dealing with a variety of taxa, and I feel it leaves doors open for more opportunities.

In February, I was on the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center tower, and I met Alison Olivieri, the president of the San Vito Bird Club in southern Costa Rica.  We chatted for a while on the tower, and she asked me if I had any experience in mist-netting and bird banding, because they were in need of volunteers for their control monitoring session in July.  We swapped contact information and were in touch immediately.  She contacted me in May with the set dates for the session, and I accepted.  It worked out perfectly, since it was to the date of when I needed to exit Panama for my visa purposes as well.  So on July 11, I boarded the night bus to David, en route to Costa Rica.  

Yellow-headed Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracaras (Milvago chimachima) in San Vito
Four buses and a border crossing later, I arrived in San Vito, a small town set in a picturesque valley in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountain Range in southern Costa Rica, not far from the Panama border.  The fresh air was a welcomed break from the heat and humidity of Gamboa, and I got settled in for my week in Costa Rica.  I was met by Monique and Marcel Girard, a Canadian couple from Quebec who moved to San Vito 19 years ago.  Since I arrived a day before the project was to start, they offered me one of their beautiful cabins for my first night there for a very reasonable rate.  They were so lovely - they made me feel like family, offered me lunch (and breakfast the following day), took me on a driving tour of scenic San Vito and the surrounding area, and showed me their beautiful property, where I immediately started birding!  An Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wrens, Cherrie's, Silver-throated Tanagers, and Gray-capped Flycatchers foraged in the trees and shrubs, while Swallow-tailed Kites and Yellow-headed Caracaras soared overhead.    

The next day, I met Alison to help set up the mist nets at the first site.  With a good crew, we set up 15 nets in an hour, and we were ready for the next day.  Alison dropped me off at Wilson Botanical Garden and Las Cruces Biological Station in time for lunch, where I stayed during the session days.  The combination of a botanical garden and biological station makes for the most beautiful biological station I have ever seen.  Manicured gardens full of native and international flora, and beautiful trails through primary and secondary forest, attracts a great diversity of wildlife.  That evening, our banding expert - Pablo "Chespi" Elizondo and intern Isabel Martin arrived for the session as well.  We got acquainted and prepared for the next several days of bird banding.

The San Vito Avian Monitoring Project is a 10-year long-term monitoring project that focuses on resident and migrant species.  They run 4 sessions a year, at 3 locations near San Vito.  This session is the control session, in July/August, when there are no migrants present.  What we did expect was young birds hatched this year, and some breeding birds, which take advantage of a high food supply to raise their young when no migrants are there to compete.  The project is in its 9th year.  

San Vito
View of San Vito from Finca Cantaros
Our first morning at Finca Sofia was fantastic, our best of the 6 mornings and 3 locations - we netted 72 individuals of 25 species, and 35 individuals of those were hummingbirds, mainly Green Hermits and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds (stay tuned for more highlights).  The other mornings followed with a constant stream of birds as well, and the last morning was the quietest, where we were actually able to stop in between net rounds and eat some breakfast.  We banded 2 mornings at each of the 3 locations (Finca Sofia, Finca Cantaros and Finca Cortesa), and lucked out with the weather, thankfully for the "San Juan Veranillo" we managed to avoid rain every morning.  At Finca Cantaros, a public-use garden, we welcomed a 5th-grade class of "Detectivos de Pajaros" for an up-close experience with the mist-netting project, which challenged our small team in terms of continuing with the bird banding in the morning, as we ran the hour-long program for the kids.  It was a big hurdle for me, as it was the first time I had conducted an education program in Spanish!  I can now check that one off the list and I look forward to more! 

Please read more for bird and other wildlife highlights, and photos!

~ Jenn 

Lesson Learned - Always Bring a Camera!

I enjoy bird-watching, wildlife-watching and finding fascinating creatures and plants.  Furthermore, I enjoy documenting what I find through taking pictures.  I don't have a big, fancy, high-quality camera, but my compact Nikon Coolpix S9100 with 18x zoom does a pretty good job sometimes, and I try to have it with me at all times in case I come across something of interest, which often happens here.  

Two weeks ago, I went for a walk on a gloomy Sunday morning in Gamboa before heading to work.  It's the rainy season, and the sky was heavy with dark clouds and mist.  I didn't want to risk damaging my camera with imminent rain, so I left it at home this time - big mistake!  As I was walking behind the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a large white bird flushed up out of the marsh into a Cecropia tree.  It was a beautiful adult Capped Heron, a rare species that occasionally presents itself in central Panama.  The clouds had started to lift, and this shy bird sat in good view, in good light, for approximately 5 minutes.  I considered running back home to grab my camera to grab some photos of this stunning heron, but I realized that even better, I could spend valuable time enjoying watching the bird.  Although I really enjoyed watching this bird, my favourite heron, of which I have not seen in years since volunteering in Amazonia Peru in 2007, I still wished I could have gotten some photos!

Yesterday, while out for another short walk on a gloomy rainy day, I decided to leave my camera at home, again.  The bird life was surprising quiet after the heavy rain, but I continued to enjoy the walk.  As I passed a streetlight along the road, I looked up on the lamp and a leaf-like shape caught my attention on the other side.  I took a second look, and it wasn't a leaf stuck there after the rain but a beautiful Rothschild's Moth (Rothschilidia sp.), one of the largest silk moths in the Americas, and resembles the Atlas Moth (Attacus atlas) of southeast Asia.  I was mad at myself for not having my camera, again!  Figuring it would be resting there for a while, I walked home, grabbed my camera and went back to grab some photos.  
Rothschild's Moth

Rothschild's Moth
Rothschild's Moth (Rothschilidia sp.)
Maybe I tend to find the coolest things when I do not have my camera with me; regardless, I do not want to miss future opportunities, as here, you never know what will show up!  I have learned my lesson, and even in the wet season, I will always try to have my camera with me (and some plastic bags to keep it dry if it rains!). 

More to come on my week of bird banding in Costa Rica!

~ Jenn

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Guests for lunch

Yesterday I spent some time at the Canopy Tower, to do some work and some birding along Old Gamboa Road in the afternoon with my friends from Cheepers! Birding on a Budget.  Everyone is enjoying their time on their tour in Panama, and have seen some exciting birds and animals so far.  While sitting down for a delicious lunch at the tower, this Collared Aracari perched outside the window of the dining room, looking rather interested in what was on the menu!  Of course, a majority of the group abandoned their food at points to take advantage of the photo op, including myself! 

Collared Aracari
Collared Aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus, at the Canopy Tower
Collared Aracari
Collared Aracari, Pteroglossus torquatus, at the Canopy Tower
Old Gamboa Road extends through scrub and dry forest, and is a great place to find wrens, raptors, Lance-tailed Manakins (which we heard) and roosting Spectacled Owls right along the road!  Our quiet presence did not disturb this one and everyone in the group got fantastic views and photos (I have yet to get a good Spectacled Owl photo but this one will suffice for now).    
Spectacled Owl
Spectacled Owl, Pulsatrix perspicillata, roosting along Old Gamboa Road
Happy Birding! 

~ Jenn 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sunny Days in the Rainy Season

Now that the rainy season has started here, we have enjoyed dozens of great storms, warm tropical rains and lush greenery just about everywhere you look.  Bird and animal activity continues to increase as frogs and other water-loving wildlife have reached their peak season.  The forests are full of life.  

It had been a while, so yesterday we packed some water & snacks, grabbed the camera and binoculars and headed out to Pipeline Road for a walk.  We fully anticipated getting rained on, so we were sure to bring a plastic bag to protect the camera, and with that, rain was welcome!  Even though there was rumbling in the distance throughout the afternoon, and dark skies approached as we headed back home, the day proved to be as beautiful a sunny day as ever! 

CecropiaIt was a hot walk to the entrance of Pipeline Road, but once inside the forest, we enjoyed the cool breeze and cooling effect of the canopy above.  We came across troops of White-headed Capuchins and Mantled Howler monkeys, a sleeping Hoffman's Two-toed Sloth and the bird activity picked up while we were out there too, as we ran into mixed flocks of Song Wrens, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, Dot-winged Antwrens and more.  A lone Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, the world's smallest passerine, was singing along the roadside as well.  

We reached a sunny spot along the road where a group of Scarlet-rumped Caciques, a Black-striped Woodcreeper and a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons were quite active.  The female trogon caught our attention as she perched in the full sun, flared her tail and wings, opened her beak and sat there, motionless, and sunbathed!  They look rather strange at times, but she seemed to be enjoying the sun, as were we!  
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Sunbating Slaty-tailed Trogon, Trogon massena
A few years ago I was birding along Semaphore Hill and saw a Broad-billed Motmot do the same thing - it perched in a sunny spot, flared its wings and tail, threw its head backwards so that it touched its back and just sat and enjoyed the sun!    
Broad-billed Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot, Electron platyrhynchum, sunbathing in 2009. 
Whether its sunny or raining, there's always something to enjoy.  We took almost 200 photos yesterday as the opportunities seemed endless.  Check out more of my favourite photos on my Flickr page, and happy birding!

~ Jenn