Costa Rica, Day 3: An Early Morning Walk

Turquoise-browed Motmot

After our birdwatching excursion on Monday we spent Tuesday relaxing at the resort. Once again I awoke hideously early and slipped out just after dawn to go birding around the resort. I heard the chatter of the parakeets coming from behind our building and headed off in that direction instead of the hummingbird spot. The usual White-winged Doves and Great-tailed Grackles were around, and I heard a couple of Rufous-naped Wrens near the mango trees. In the dead tree by the pool I found about ten Orange-chinned Parakeets perching out in the open.

Orange-chinned Parakeets are gregarious and spend a lot of time in large flocks, even during nesting season when several pairs may excavate separate nesting cavities in the same termitarium, the mound of mud constructed by termite colonies. They are most often seen flying about or feeding on exposed branches in open woodlands, savanna, forest edge, parks, and gardens. In the late afternoon, Orange-chinned Parakeets begin gathering together in large nighttime roosts. Staging begins in a few hours before dusk with the arrival of one or two pairs that sit high in bare trees and emit contact calls to parakeets flying over. These birds then drop out of the sky and join the roosting pairs. Some parakeets may land in a different tree perhaps 50-100 metres away. Eventually the smaller groups will join the larger ones until the flock has gathered together into a single tree. As it grows darker the parakeets then fly into the sleeping tree and hide themselves beneath the foliage for the night. The flock may use the same general night roost area used for weeks before moving on to a new site which is often several kilometres away.

Orange-chinned Parakeet

Given that large numbers of parakeets were always present in the mornings and evenings I suspected that they were roosting somewhere on the resort property. I never did witness the full late-afternoon staging ritual, though I certainly saw them in the bare trees by the pool in large numbers on a couple of occasions. Usually by mid-day both the Orange-chinned and larger Orange-fronted Parakeets were gone.

I also saw a White-throated Magpie Jay pick up a piece of mango off the ground and carry it up to a large branch where it began to peck at it. It was nice to finally get a photo of one in good light!

White-throated Magpie Jay

I saw both Tropical Kingbirds around the nest site. One was sitting on the nest while the other was perching close by. It was nice to have only one confusing kingbird species to worry about – Western Kingbirds have a squared-off tail, and have already returned north for the breeding season, while the range of the Couch’s Kingbird extends only as far south as Guatemala. The Tropical Kingbird forages almost exclusively by hawking insects from a perch, which makes me wonder where the second bird usually spends its time – I don’t often see it near the nest site.

Tropical Kingbird

As I was checking out the bird life by the pool area I noticed some swallows flying around a large antenna on top of the roof of the main building of the resort and decided to get a bit closer. Along the way I came across this White-winged Dove in a tree next to the grand staircase.

White-winged Dove

I climbed the hill up to the patio next to the main building, then instead of continuing on to the open-air check-in lobby, turned left until I found myself at a picnic table beneath the antenna. Swallows were flying around and landing on the antenna there, and I noticed while some of them had upperparts that were a dark cobalt blue, many appeared brown, with smudgy brown undersides. Most of the perching birds appeared to be juveniles, and as I wasn’t sure that I had actually seen the blue upperparts, I wasn’t able to tell whether they were Gray-breasted Martins or Northern Rough-winged Swallows, both of which are year-round residents throughout Costa Rica. It wasn’t until I pointed them out to Ollie when he picked us up the next morning that he put his scope on them and identified them as Gray-breasted Martins. I was thrilled to find another life bird on my own, although I wasn’t sure where they nested – our Purple Martins back home nest almost solely in man-made martin houses, and I had seen none so far during my vacation. Ollie told me that they nested in the openings beneath the metal roofs, which made sense as I had seen many roofs that appeared to be out of corrugated metal. I was a bit disappointed that none of the adults perched close enough for a photo, though it is always exciting to see newly-fledged youngsters learning how to be birds.

Gray-breasted Martin

I decided to take a walk out the gate and down the road, which was very quiet – there is only one other building along the street, which is fenced off and appears abandoned, and as the road forms a loop back to the secondary highway there is no reason for any through-traffic. Just outside the resort was a huge pit, like an abandoned quarry. A few trees marched along the edge of the pit, which had a sandy bottom a couple of storeys below the street with large clumps of shrubs and vegetation further back. It was fenced off, of course, and most of the fence was covered with a protective green fabric. Still, there was a large uncovered section right near the resort so I peered down into the pit to see what was around.

I must have startled a large bird perching just on the other side of the fence, for it flew off and landed on a branch of a tree growing out of the embankment. I was thrilled when I recognized it as a Ringed Kingfisher – the largest kingfisher in the Americas! It is separated from the similar-looking Belted Kingfisher by its mostly red underparts. It sat still enough for a few photos, though it was really far off. At least this one wasn’t in silhouette!

Ringed Kingfisher

I walked further along the fence, just noticing the Turquoise-browed Motmot sitting right on top of it before it flew off. There were three others perched in trees just inside the pit – I was beginning to suspect they were everywhere, which was an awesome thought; they were quickly becoming my favourite bird of Costa Rica. I also saw a couple of pairs of Groove-billed Anis and several doves scuttling around on the ground below. I thought they might be Inca Doves, but they were too far to ID with only the binoculars.

I walked down the road a bit and noticed a few birds perching in the dead trees behind the fence across the road. I did a double-take when I realized one was a parrot or parakeet I hadn’t seen before – the red eye-ring and red wing patches were distinctive enough to tell that even from a distance. I had to zoom in all the way with my camera before I could see that the forehead was white and the crown was blue; I was looking at my first White-fronted Parrot! The short, squared-off tail also helped distinguish it from the similar-sized Orange-fronted Parakeets on the resort. It was interesting to see this bird by itself, and I wondered if it ever joined all the parakeets on the resort at the roost – I resolved to keep an eye out for a closer one.

White-fronted Parrot

A Streak-backed Oriole was also preening in the treetops, while a dark bird was doing the same thing in another tree. I have no idea what it is – it was very small, and I only managed this one photo of it in focus – the only other photo I have shows a relatively large, all-dark head as it is looking off to the side. That one was too out-of-focus to be worth posting. Perhaps someday I’ll figure out what it is; for now, it’s a mystery.

Mystery Bird

I turned around after that, and headed toward the public alley that leads to the beach. I saw four small brown doves on the ground, and was happy when I identified them as Inca Doves! I had been hoping to get some better looks and photos of them after seeing them on our Palo Verde tour with Ollie yesterday; I wasn’t expecting to see them only ten feet away!

Inca Doves

The Inca Dove is a small and slender dove whose most noticeable field mark is the scaly pattern created by tan feathers edged with darker brown tips all over its body. Like most doves it has a small head that bobs when it walks. Its long, square-tipped tail is edged with white outer tail feathers, and its pink legs are short. Only when it raises its wings are the chestnut underwings visible.

Inca Dove

The four of them ambled along the road, pecking on the ground, then eventually flew up to the wires. I couldn’t believe my luck; I had thought these would be more common around the resort, as they are listed on over 27% of all complete checklists, and after not seeing any around on my first three days I figured I would need to get out of the resort again to get some photos. If only all birds could be so cooperative.

Inca Doves

Inca Dove

I headed back to our room after that, as it was getting close to breakfast time and the heat was building (it was already quite humid). I showered, picked up Doran, and then we headed up to the dining room for some food.

Along the way I noticed a large black butterfly or moth fluttering against the screens of the Snack Bar. It was huge, and I followed it until it landed on the underside of a beam that formed part of the roof. I was later able to identify it as a Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata), a species which can be found all across the United States as well as in Mexico and Central America. The Black Witch Moth is known as the “Mariposa de Muerte”, the butterfly of death, in Costa Rica. Legend says that if one of these creatures enters your house, someone in the house will die. Fortunately we saw it outdoors and not inside our resort room!

Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata)

After breakfast we headed down to the beach. We met with Larry, the tour salesman, and booked an excursion to Miravalles Volcano for Thursday. The excursion included zip-lining, a horseback ride, a trip to a waterfall in the rainforest – including a walk across a hanging bridge! – and a stop at an active volcano crater. This outing was closer than the hotel’s excursion to Arenal Volcano, and much cheaper than similar excursions. We only had to put a deposit down, and pay the rest on Thursday.

When I mentioned that I was fascinated by the Hermit Crabs, and was hoping to get some pictures, Larry told me that they lived in the enormous hollow tree limbs on the beach, and that they would feed on junk food! To demonstrate he put some crushed-up Doritos chips into a cavity in the rotting wood, and sure enough they ventured out of the darkness to feed on the chips.

Hermit Crabs

There must have been about a dozen inside the cavity; this was the largest of the the bunch. They were shy about coming out into the light, but as long as I stood still they would come out and grab a piece of the Doritos chips.

Hermit Crab

Here there are three different crabs, including a tiny one on the left in the foreground. The variety of shells that they used amazed me, and I wished they could be photographed more easily out in the sunlight.

Hermit Crabs

We walked along the beach for a bit, and I was pleased to find that water was warm when I dipped my toe in. While we were walking we noticed a Brown Pelican fly in and land out on the rocks. This was the only one I’d seen perching so I grabbed a quick photo (click to enlarge).

Brown Pelican (click to enlarge)

It was such a beautiful – and humid! – day that Doran and I decided to go back to our room and grab our swim suits. I decided to leave my camera in the room as I didn’t want to leave it on the beach unattended – the public has access to the beach via a separate entrance, and although there are security guards on the beach, I felt uncomfortable leaving it out in the open. We had a fantastic swim in the ocean – although warm closer to the shore, the water cools off as you get further out. Still, it as the first time we had gone swimming in the Pacific, and even though neither of us consider ourselves “beach people” we did enjoy lounging in the chairs afterward, watching the birds and the butterflies float by. It was a fantastic experience, and one of our best days on the resort so far.

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One thought on “Costa Rica, Day 3: An Early Morning Walk

  1. Hi Gillian, I’ve been flipping through my Garrigues&Dean trying to offer a guess for your mystery bird, but I’m stumped! Doesn’t help that I find bird anatomy confusing when they preen so I can’t figure out where exactly the white is located.

    So envious that you saw a Turquoise-Browed Motmot on a walk from your resort. One of the downsides of where we stayed in Costa Rica is that all the surrounding forest got eaten up by oil palm plantations, so there wasn’t any habitat for all the beautiful forest birds–just common garden birds, water birds on the estuary, and some seedeaters and such in the younger palm stands. I’ve promised myself that next time I go to Costa Rica, I’m staying somewhere within walking distance of rain forest!

    Re hermit crabs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1dnocPQXDQ

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