Birding Palo Verde Part II

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

After the boat tour we did some birding down a dirt road which was initially lined with trees on both sides before opening up onto a large field on the right-hand side. The mosquitoes in the treed area were terrible, and even though we sprayed up with Deep Woods Off! both Doran and I got bit – the nasty little creatures even bit me right through my clothes in several places.

Right near the beginning of our walk Ollie heard a Tropical Gnatcatcher and finally found it about 20 feet up in a tree. It was difficult to see in the branches, so I asked if pishing would bring it in. Ollie said that they were more responsive to the call of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl – which sounds exactly like our Northern Saw-whet Owl. Ollie started whistling the owl’s call, but the gnatcatcher stayed up in the canopy. It appeared to be a cute little bird, just like the Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers of southern Ontario with a black cap, and just as active.

As we passed beneath the trees we realized there were at least 15 Mantled Howler Monkeys making their way through the branches above us and resting along the large limbs. They could have easily surrounded us, if they had any ill intentions toward us, but they ignored us and went about their lives high up in the branches. I found one monkey resting with its face visible and stopped to take its picture.

Mantled Howler Monkey

We passed by a small open area where we heard about a dozen frogs calling, sounding almost like a chorus of Wood Frogs though with quite a different tone. We didn’t go looking for them as they were on private property, and Ollie was in a hurry. It was a relief to enter the sunlight again where we found quite a few dragonflies buzzing about, but none were as friendly as the Racket-tailed Emeralds in Ottawa that snap up the flesh-eating mosquitoes and deer flies that swarm people. There were quite a few colourful reddish dragonflies, and I managed a slightly blurry shot of one that was a brilliant shade of rose pink. It looked similar to the Roseate Skimmer which I hoped to see on my Florida trip, except the face and eyes were bright red. As the eyes and face of the Roseate Skimmer are usually darker than the body – either a deep purple or dark red – I believe this is a Carmine Skimmer, which was split from the Roseate Skimmer some ten or fifteen years ago. This species ranges from Central Texas and Arizona south into Central America, preferring ponds and still water with abundant shade. While the male Roseate Skimmer has a pink abdomen and violet-coloured thorax, the abdomen and thorax of the Carmine Skimmer appear to be the same colour.

Possible Carmine Skimmer (Orthemis discolor)

This dragonfly is a Flame-tailed Pondhawk, and was resting near the bottom of the wet ditch running next to the road. I identified it by doing Google image searches on every skimmer on this list of Costa Rican dragonflies. It’s a tedious way to ID a dragonfly, but sometimes persistence pays off! At least it helps to recognize it as a skimmer rather than, say, a darner; the thick body and the fact that it was sitting still ruled out the other dragonfly families, though I wouldn’t have guessed it was a pondhawk!

Flame-tailed Pondhawk (Erythemis peruviana)

The trees on the right-hand side disappeared, revealing a large grassy fenced-in field. A few cattle were grazing in the tall grass, and we saw a Cattle Egret foraging among them. Several vultures were soaring high in the sky, and Ollie pointed out a Snail Kite gliding overhead, its white rump immediately identifiable. The Snail Kite swooped around over the field a couple of times, and although I was hoping that it would land in a tree, it disappeared. It was followed by a Zone-tailed Hawk passing over. It flew in a straight line across the sky, circled above us twice, then kept going.

There was a large, deep wet spot in the middle of the grass, perhaps three or four times as large as my backyard. There were all sorts of birds in it – we saw half a dozen Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks too far out to photograph, several Northern Jacanas half-hidden in the grass, and four Least Grebes!

Temporary Wetland (click to enlarge)

Least Grebe

The Least Grebe is the smallest grebe in the Americas and is a smaller, darker, golden-eyed version of the familiar Pied-billed Grebe. It has a year-round range that extends from southern Texas to Argentina, inhabiting temporary or permanent wetlands such as ponds, lakes, ditches, and slow-moving rivers. It was no. 197 on my list, having been listed on only 1.5% of all complete checklists.

While the grebes were swimming in the open areas of the pond, the jacanas were hiding in the taller grass at the back so that only the yellow bills and frontal shields were visible. Eventually we spotted two that were much closer, and I was able to take some distant photos.

Northern Jacanas

We turned around at that point and started heading back. I heard the monotonous tones of a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl calling right next to me and assumed Ollie was trying to call something in; then he said it wasn’t him, but an actual owl! He scanned the tree branches above us and eventually located it just as it flew across the road. It landed in a tree behind the fence, swooped down to the ground, caught something, then flew back up into the tree to eat it. After it was done it returned to the tree on our side of the road again. I was amazed by the performance, especially as I never expected to see any owls on the trip! At no. 79 on my target list, this is the easiest owl species to find in Guanacaste in May.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

I took my fill of photos, and then we resumed our walk back to the van. A female Hoffmann’s Woodpecker perched out in the open long enough to get a photo; three Inca Doves walking along the dusty shoulder did not. The Inca Doves were a lifer for me, and I was disappointed they didn’t stay in view long enough for at photo. However, at no. 5 on my list of target species, this was a bird I expected to see again on the trip.

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (female)

A pretty greenish-yellow and black butterfly caught my attention. Fortunately it was one of the species in my wildlife book, and I identified it as a Malachite Butterfly – a neotropical butterfly named for the mineral of the same colour. I was quite taken with it, and would have lingered to get some better pictures if we hadn’t places to go and birds to see.

Malachite Butterfly

On our way back to the van Ollie pointed out a flycatcher perching on a branch directly above the road. It was a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, one of a pair of similar-looking species that includes the Streaked Flycatcher. The Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher has a deeper shade of yellow on the belly, as well as a white supercilium, a thick, dark malar stripe, and a mostly black bill. The Streaked Flycatcher has a whitish belly, a cream-coloured supercilium, a pinkish basal half of the lower mandible, and a thin malar stripe. I wish I’d gotten a photo as the heavily streaked bird doesn’t resemble any of the flycatchers that breed in Ottawa.

We got into the van, enjoying some water with the cold blast of the air-conditioning, though it wasn’t long before Ollie asked the driver to stop and enthusiastically waved me outside. He pointed to a beautiful male Blue Grosbeak was sitting in a tree across the road. Although it wasn’t a lifer, it was the first male I’d been able to photograph.

Blue Grosbeak

From there we drove around some of the back roads west and north of Ortega. Much of it was open country, with the roads nestled between two grassy banks that were too high to see over. I got my lifer Blue-black Grassquit along the western road out of Ortega. It was no. 61 on my list of target species; the male was a small, pretty black member of the seedeater family. A little later we found ourselves on a road lined with trees, looking for a wet spot which Ollie said was reliable for one of the smaller kingfishers. We didn’t find it, but we did see a Clay-coloured Thrush, a couple of Rufous-naped Wrens, and a Turquoise-browed Motmot sitting right out in the open.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

We stopped a little further along when Ollie spotted some birds in a wet ditch running perpendicular to the road. I saw the Northern Jacanas first, and the male and female White-collared Seedeaters second. Then I saw the tiny bird with the black belly perching in the grass. Like the House Sparrow, the Tri-colored Munia is a non-native species that has established a small population in Costa Rica, although it is believed that this population was founded by escaped cage birds. They were first discovered near Filadelfia in 1999, and have been increasing in number and in range in the 18 years since. They are nomadic by nature, depending upon the availability of grass seed as a food source, and are often seen in tall grass along the edges of cane fields and irrigation ditches. They are difficult to find, and Ollie was particularly surprised to see it, calling it “unexpected”. Perhaps this is why species was so far down the list of expected species; at no. 338, it had been reported on only 0.2% of all complete checklists from Guanacaste in May. (There were only 35 species on my target list left after the Tri-colored Munia for a total of 373 possible species. These included hummingbirds such as Snowcap and Magenta-throated Woodstar, Bridled Tern, Masked Duck, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Common Potoo. Needless to say, I did not see any of them.)

Tri-colored Munia

The road emerged from the woods and took us out into the open grassland again where we found a few more Turquoise-browed Motmots, a Groove-billed Ani, a single Red-winged Blackbird, and more Blue-back Grassquits and White-collared Seedeaters. I was happy to get this photo of a male White-collared Seedeater out in the open as it was much nicer than the photo I got in Mexico.

White-collared Seedeater

Seedeaters used to be considered members of the family Emberizidae, which includes American sparrows, juncos, and towhees. In 2015, however, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) moved the seedeaters, grassquits, and Bananaquit to the true tanager family, Thraupidae. Exactly what constitutes a tanager is difficult to say given that this family has undergone a large number of changes in the past decade or so. The familiar tanagers of the U.S. and Canada – Western Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, and Hepatic Tanager – are now considered members of the Cardinalidae family (i.e. cardinals, grosbeaks & allies). In contrast, the Saltators were moved out of Cardinalidae and into Thraupidae. These taxonomic changes have arisen as biologists began to place more importance on genetics and evolutionary relationships and less importance on morphology (i.e. bill shape and body structure). The Thraupidae tanagers are now considered to be non-migratory Neotropical species – a huge and diverse family of close to 400 species!

We saw a few doves walking along the shoulder of the road, but they were wary and we couldn’t get close enough for a decent photo – it didn’t help when a couple of cyclists came along, either! I finally managed to snap a few pictures when our driver slowed down and started creeping along the road. The pictures were just good enough to show the scaling on the head and the pinkish bill of a Common Ground Dove. This was a bird I had seen in San Miguel, Cozumel, during a tequila-tasting tour, though I’d never gotten a photo of it as my camera had been in my bag at the time. This isn’t a great photo, but I’m happy with it as my first photo of this species!

Common Ground-Dove

Ollie was able to find both Streaked and The Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers along this road. There were actually two Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher at a nest site. One flew into the nest twice as we watched, delivering food to the nestlings. It was a bit bedraggled-looking, but you can see the distinct yellow belly and white supercilium that distinguishes it from the Streaked Flycatcher.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

The nest was tucked inside the cavity of a broken-off tree limb. Although I tried twice to get a photo of the flycatcher delivering food to the chicks, I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to capture the moment. Once the adult retreated to a nearby tree branch, the tiny bills of the nestlings vanished back inside the nest.

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher nest

We entered a much more open road after that, and scared up dozens of doves in the vegetation next to the shoulder. They all quickly flew away, the reddish-maroon patches in their wings clear indications that these weren’t the doves back home. Ollie mentioned that three species were present – Common Ground-dove, Inca Dove, and Ruddy Ground-dove, a species I had seen in Mexico – but I wasn’t able to get a good look at any as they flew up the road or over the banks into the field beyond. There were probably about two dozen along this stretch, and I itched to stop the van and get out and scan them.

We headed back to the resort after that, until the driver noticed a raptor perching in a tree next to the two-lane highway. It was a Laughing Falcon, bird no 57 on my list! As it’s been reported on 6.5% of all complete checklists, it wasn’t the easiest bird to find in Guanacaste, but chances were still decent. This would be the only one on the trip, and it was silent – it received its name from the maniacal laughing cacophony it makes in an attempt to sing. At dawn and dusk the Laughing Falcon gives several loud calls that sound like GWA-co!, resulting in its local common name, “Guaco.” These raptors are fairly common and widespread in the lowlands of Costa Rica, perching out in the open at forest edges and in open fields with scattered trees – I’m surprised we didn’t see any others on any of our other trips.

Laughing Falcon

We had one last good bird on the way back to the resort, a Squirrel Cuckoo that flew in front of the car as we drove through a treed area next to the Rio Tempisque in Filadelfia.

As we headed north on the highway after that we noticed thick black clouds building on our left. We were fortunate that we didn’t get rained on, as large, heavy curtains of rain showers were moving through the area – though when I asked, Ollie said they were to the west of us, in Santa Cruz.

Doran and I both greatly enjoyed the excursion. We tallied 47 species altogether, and got to see some of the beauty of the country as well. Ollie was a terrific guide – not only was he very knowledgeable and patient, he was very personable, too, which made the day enjoyable for both Doran and I. I was glad we had booked two excursions with him, and was already looking forward to our next outing on Wednesday.

Ebird checklists:

2 thoughts on “Birding Palo Verde Part II

  1. Beautiful photos, especially the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl and the motmot. We saw a FPO across the road from our resort in Costa Rica, thanks to a local birder who was able to call it out with a note-perfect imitation of its call. Too dark for photos though.

    • Thanks Suzanne – those motmots are so darn photogenic, and best of all, they usually just sit there and cooperate! They were really common in Guanacaste; I even saw one along the road while we were driving to the airport. I think it is my favourite bird of Costa Rica.

      The owl wasn’t cooperative at first, but when it returned from its flight across the road it perched out in the open for a moment, allowing me to get these photos. I meant to try to whistle one in at our resort after dark, but never ended up going out much at night (except to eat).


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