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May 2018 – Chris Llewellyn's "Birds Eye Views"

Month: May 2018

More birds from mysterious Costa Rica.

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Here I am on top of a volcanic mountain in north west Costa Rica, above the clouds.

High mountains of Costa Rica









I found these mountains and cloud formations too beautiful and thought provoking to describe so I guess you need to go see for yourself.  You can also see the lighting difficulties I faced while trying to photograph tiny birds like the endemic Volcano Hummingbird.

Volcano Hummingbird













We were able to find several females of this species to shoot but no males. The Volcano Hummingbird is restricted to the Costa Rica and Panama Highlands Endemic Bird Area, where it is generally common in highland pastures and open grassland with scrub, usually above 2000 m elevation. This tiny hummingbird is mainly green above, with a brilliant wine-colored gorget in the male (replaced by dark spotting in the female), a white breast band, and greenish (males) or pale rufous (females) over the rest of the underparts. The tail is slightly forked in both sexes, more noticeably so in males. Three subspecies have been named, and these principally differ in the color of the gorget, being purplish gray to brilliant green in the southernmost form. In the non-breeding season, both sexes may defend territories around certain patches of small flowers.  We hiked and hiked looking for a male with no success but while doing this we were rewarded with a chance to photograph a Volcano Junco.  Look close and you can see that this bird has a leg band.

Volcano Junco












I chased this bird threw scrub brush and around rocks for what seemed like an hour before it finally got tired of me and stood posing for 5 seconds so I could take a picture.

The volcano junco (Junco vulcani) is an American sparrow endemic to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

This junco breeds above the timberline, typically at altitudes above 3000 m, but there is an isolated population at 2100 m on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica, and forest clearance on Cerro de la Muerte has allowed this species to descend to 2600 m. The habitat is open grassy or brushy areas with some stunted scrubs. The nest is a neat lined cup constructed on the ground under a log, bush or rock, or in a cavity on a vegetated bank. The female lays two brown-spotted pale blue eggs.  The volcano junco is on average 16 cm long and weighs 28 g. The adult has brown upperparts with dark streaking especially on the back. The wings and tail feathers are dark fringed. The underparts are grey. The sides of the head are grey with a black mask through the eye, a yellow iris, and a pink bill and legs. Young birds are brighter brown above with blacker streaking, and have buff-grey underparts.  Volcano junco calls include a thin tseee or a clearer wheew. The song is a mixture of squeaks and buzzes; k’chew chu k’wee chip chip chueee.

The volcano junco feeds on the ground on seeds, fallen berries, insects and spiders. It runs and hops, but flies only short distances.

Time to leave the always windy, very cold mountaintop.  Down in the forested areas I was able to take a photo of a colorful bird that has a mean expression to it’s face, a Red-headed Barbet.

Red-headed Barbet












Lots of people enjoy birds.  Actually, bird watching is one of America’s most popular hobbies.  There are folks that enjoy “backyard” birdwatching.  There are many that go for a walk in the park to see birds.  Me, I guess I’m an extreme birder.  Carlos and I would hear a bird call way off the trail we were walking and no matter what, off we would go through tick and chigger infested woods.   The Red-headed Barbet is a spectacularly colored, small barbet of montane forest. The male’s brilliant red head and breast contrast with the green upperparts and horn-colored bill. The female lacks the red, and has pearly blue-gray cheeks. This species is conspicuous as it moves about middle and upper strata with mixed flocks or feeds in fruiting trees. Its song, a purring trill, is also loud and distinctive. The Red-headed Barbet feeds primarily on fruit, but also take arthropods, which it sometimes gathers by searching through dead leaf clusters. The nest is an enlarged woodpecker cavity or a self-excavated hole in a rotting tree.

What’s that Carlos?  Me referring to a bird’s call from up in a tree.  Mountain Elaenia he says and asks “do you have it”?  “Do you have it” means have I taken a photo of this bird.  I shake my head no and off we go again.  Up a leaf-covered game trail Carlos stops and whistles a pygmy owl’s call.  Many birds will try to mob a pygmy owl and come to escort the owl out of their territory.  Among other birds here comes the Elaenia.

Mountain Elaenia










The Mountain Elaenia is a small flycatcher of highlands in Middle America.  The species ranges from Guatemala south to Panama, and also in northwestern South America from northern Venezuela west to central Colombia, primarily in shrubby areas and open woodlands from 1500 to 2500 meters in elevation.  It is olive-brown above with a yellowish-white eyering, rounded crown, two off-white wingbars, and yellow-olive underparts.  Like many other Elaenia species, the Mountain Elaenia is more identifiable by its calls than by its visual appearance:  listen for its descending, two-part, whistled call to clinch identifications.

Easy to see where this bird gets it’s name.  The Yellow-thighed Finch proved especially difficult to photograph.  It seemed to know exactly what I wanted to do, (take his picture), and it would stay just out of range in the dark woods.  I would sneak up and just when I was get ready to shoot, off it would fly across the dirt road.

Yellow-thighed Finch











Like I always say, “It’s not just the birds that I love, it’s all about the places birding takes me”.  I see places in the world I would have never seen staying at 5 star resorts, etc.  ’til later,     Happy Birding                                                                                                   




Costa Rica welcomes this Baja birder with open…

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Well, you can see what I mean.  These Caiman (an American Crocodilian species) lined the slough banks with mouths open cooling themselves in the very humid, warm weather of the Costa Rican low-lands.  My guide, Carlos Urena curenach.cr@gmail.com and I were searching for Jabiru, my main target bird for this trip.  I’ll say that Carlos is a fantastic birding guide, birds by ear, speaks english, knows what he is doing and I am already booked for next year.

Caiman in Costa Rica







I’ll blog about the Jabiru in my next post but today I’m gonna focus on the owls and other night birds we successfully hunted.  I’ve never liked using flash photography to shoot birds at night because of the red-eye effect and the possibility of injuring the bird.  After doing a lot of on-line research, I purchased a five star rated light that does a wonderful job of “painting” owls and nightjars without bothering the birds.  Fenix TK35UE is the name and I’m pleased as pie with it.  Check out this Bare-shanked Screech Owl I photographed at about 30 feet at night under a forest canopy, dark as can be.

Bare-shanked Screech Owl










I’ve been to Costa Rica before but, with the expertise Carlos possessed, I was able to to add about one hundred fifty new birds to my camera’s list.  The nights were full of the sounds of cicadas and and all sorts of animals but Carlos recognised the call of this owl. The Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is found from Costa Rica to extreme northwest Colombia, although it is largely absent from most of Panama, except the far west and the extreme east of the country. It is generally found at altitudes of 900 to 3300 m, and the species is strongly dependent on dense montane forest. Compared to other Megascops in the same range, it can be separated, given reasonable views, by its tawny facial discs, which lack any obvious rimmed effect, and its whitish-spotted underparts. It is also a relatively large screech-owl, with a proportionately large head, but small ear-tufts. However, like other Megascops, the Bare-shanked Screech-Owl is most likely to be located by its deep-whistled song, hu-hu, HOO-HOO hoo

Another owl I was able to get a shot of was the Black and White Owl.  This bird seemed very shy and kept it’s distance, maybe fifty feet.  Still lit up fairly well.

Black and White Owl












It’s an eairy(sp) thing to do to hunt owls at night in the forest in a strange country.  Black and White Owls are only active at night.  Both sexes are similar, but female is larger than male and has longer wings. 
Adult has sooty-brown to blackish upperparts. The tail shows four narrow white bars. The legs are feathered white with dark bars. 
Underparts are white, all narrowly barred dark brown to blackish.
This black-and-white pattern extends to the neck sides, the nape and the upper back.The head is rounded, with black facial disk. Eyebrows are speckled white. Crown is blackish.
Eyes are dark brown. Bill and feet are orange-yellow.Juvenile has whitish face, white barred dark brown upperparts and buffy-white barred dark underparts. 

Carlos and I were slowly driving down a dirt road out in the boonies one night and he heard a call.  “Pacific Screech Owl” and out of the car we go.  Using my light, which is a tiny thing, but has 3200 lumens, we spot the critter.  Just then a guy drives by us, stops and backs up and gets out of his car.  Obviously drunk as a skunk he tries to ask us in a threatening tone, what we are doing.  I stayed where I was, about 30 feet away and Carlos goes to face him.  He’s ready to blast the guy in the face with the high-intensity strobe my light has if he gets aggressive.  The guy just utters something and leaves, whatever.  











So, back to the owl.  He’s still there in the tree and Carlos lights it up and I fire away.  The Pacific Screech-Owl can only be found right along the pacific coast from Oaxaca to Costa Rica (maybe only as far north as Chiapas). It is extremely similar to the Oaxaca Screech-Owl that inhabits the northern extents of its range in Oaxaca.  It has also been compared to the Vermiculated and Western Screech-Owls but, of course, has a distinct call, different markings, and range.

We hear another owl calling down the road a bit.  Driving slowly, the bird’s call becomes faint.  Patients pays off as we stop the car and wait and now the owl is closer.  Pretty far away for night-time photography but Carlos lights up the bird and I try for a shot.  This is a beautiful Striped Owl.

Striped Owl












The striped owl (Pseudoscops clamator) is a medium-sized owl with large ear tufts and a brownish-white facial disk rimmed with black. Its beak is black, and it has cinnamon-colored eyes. It has shorter, rounder wings than most of its close relatives. The upperparts are cinnamon with fine black vermiculation and heavy stripes. The underparts are pale tawny with dusky streaks. It is native to South America, and parts of Central America.

I hear a bird’s night-time call and ask Carlos what this is.  Dusky Nightjar he says.  Not an owl at all but a bird I want to shoot.  We drive around the curve in the road and find a place to pull over.  Out of the car we go and Carlos starts calling the nightjar.  I don’t know what it is about nightjars but they always want to land on my hat and this one tried to as well.  It settles on the ground nearby returning the call and my camera does it’s job.

Dusky Nightjar











Also sometimes called the Dusky Whip-poor-will, on account of it being perhaps more closely related to the other whip-poor-wills than to other New World Antrostomus, this nightjar is restricted to a relatively small range in southern Central America. It occurs from central Costa Rica to westernmost Panama, where it is found in montane forests and woodland between 1500 and 3100 m. This is a mid-sized brownish nightjar characterized by its buff throat band and lack of white wing markings; males have white tips to the outermost rectrices, but these tips are buffish in females. Although Dusky Nighthjar is locally common, very little appears to have been published concerning its ecology or behavior.

The last bird I’m posting about today is the weirdest.  There were two of these things sitting on posts by a river in the dark.  Carlos swatted at a large bug by his head and when it flew away from him both Great Potoos  attacked it, in total silence.  Spooky birds!

Great Potoo












With its characteristic drawn-out moaning growl, the vocalizations of the Great Potoo are among the most exciting and perhaps most unsettling nocturnal sounds in the Neotropics. Apart from its vocalizations, the Great Potoo is an intriguing species. Great Potoos are nocturnal and feed on large flying insects, and occasionally bats, which they capture in sallies from a high perch. During the day, they remain motionless in mimic of broken tree branches. The Great Potoo is distributed throughout humid and semihumid forested habitats in Central and South America. Across this vast region, there is little geographic variation in size or in plumage; two subspecies sometimes are recognized, but these do not differ greatly from each other. Despite the lack of conspicuous geographic variation, populations on either side of the Andes have been found to be very distinct genetically. This level of divergence is similar to the genetic divergence found between other species of potoo, pointing the possibility for ‘cryptic’ species within the Great Potoo lineage.

Carlos and I hunted birds from high mountains to lowlands.  The people of Costa Rica were some of the friendliest anywhere.  I’m going back for more but this time I’ll be ready for the ticks and chiggers, the worst part of my trip.  After every day I had ticks embedded in my legs and chigger bites there as well.  ’till next time, Happy Birding from   chrisllewellyn0211@gmail.com