A recent two-week stay at the property of Stephanie and Wilber Arias (see http://eltucan.co.cr/) just outside San Ramon, Alajuela, prompts me to make a comparison of the common birds of the two extreme ends, west and east, of the Central Valley of Costa Rica. The eastern end is my home patch of San Antonio de Santa Cruz, Turrialba.
While we relaxed in San Ramon, Karel and Nicole Straatman stayed at our place at the other end of the valley. I am very grateful to Karel for the use of his beautiful photographs, many of which you will see on this post. The fifty-year old in the photo below is Karel, though rumour has it that he is really a little bit older than that.
The Rio Barranca property is located just outside San Ramón on the road to Piedades Norte. I can recommend it highly as a comfortable and very pretty place to spend a couple of nights if you’re in the area, perhaps on your way to Arenal or Monteverde. The beautifully planted and maintained garden slopes down away from the residences to the river, which then forms a border for the lower end of the property. On one side, a small cascading stream enters and falls into the river, creating even more habitat for birds.
The immediate area is quite dry at this time of year when compared with Turrialba, and we saw not a drop of rain for the whole two weeks. San Antonio, on the Turrialba Volcano slope, has rather more vegetation than the San Ramon region, but the Rio Barranca property, at an only slightly lower altitude, has a very forested look because of its location directly on the river, which is lined with rather large sotacaballo, higuerón, and other native trees. Flowers and fruit trees are more profuse here than at home in San Antonio, where mango and guanábano, for example, do not fare well at all. The property also includes a good-sized pond with tilapia and mojarra. These make good eating both for visitors as well as for herons, egrets and kingfishers.
Here then, proceeding by families and following Garrigues and Dean´s standard guide, The Birds of Costa Rica, is a direct comparison of what I found at Rio Barranca and what normally turns up in San Antonio de Santa Cruz de Turrialba. I omit families not observed and thus begin with:
Curassows etc.: Gray-headed chachalaca is almost as common as at home, but seems much less trusting of humans.
Quails: I found small coveys of Crested bobwhite in the dry hills above the property, while the only family member here at home is the chirrascuá. This bird is heard frequently by my neighbours, but it’s still unclear to me whether this is the Buffy-crowned wood-partridge or, what seems more likely, the Black-breasted wood-quail.
Herons: In the past, I have found Bare-throated tiger-heron and some of the more common heron species at the Rio Barranca property, but this time only the Green heron put in an appearance. This is also the only heron species that has appeared here at home, with the exception of the omnipresent Cattle egret.
Sunbittern: This beautiful bird is easier to find at Rio Barranca but is also present in San Antonio. I saw it several times on the river, but it also frequently walks around the garden next to the tilapia pond.
New World Vultures: Black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and Turkey vulture are present at both locations but the proximity of the San Ramon trash dump ensures a much greater population of the former species. One bird sat on a large rock next to the tilapia pond with wings spread and was surprised by the dogs, Asesino and Coqui. It seemed unable to fly and was seized by one wing by Asesino who romped around the garden with it with owner Wilber in hot pursuit. Luckily, he managed to restrain the dog, and the vulture climbed a few feet up a sotacaballo tree out of harm’s way. Wilber said that the last time that it had happened Asesino had lost the battle and a lump of fur, but this time our bird did not even attempt to peck him. Here’s a Black vulture that didn’t meet Asesino.
Hawks: Soaring hawks, usually in company with the Black vultures, are much more common at Rio Barranca. I had Swallow-tailed kite (one of them minus one of its tail forks), Gray hawk, Broad-winged hawk, and Swainson’s hawk. I did not identify a Roadside hawk, which is the only really common species here in San Antonio, where the Gray hawk, for example, seems not to be found at all. Barred hawk (Leucopternis princeps) has recently been reported (two sightings) for San Antonio.
Sandpipers: I saw one Spotted sandpiper on the river but have not yet observed this species in San Antonio.
Pigeons & Doves: Rock dove is found in San Ramon town centre but I did not find it at Rio Barranca. It has disappeared from San Antonio after having been a resident at the church before its renovation. Red-billed pigeon, White-winged dove, Inca dove and White-tipped dove were all present, but I found no ground-doves this time. In past visits, I had observed both Ruddy ground-dove and Common ground-dove. San Antonio does not have the latter species, and neither the White-winged dove nor the Inca dove have appeared in the village in my three years here.
Parrots: I found the same two common species at Rio Barranca as here at home, namely Crimson-fronted parakeet and White-crowned parrot.
Cuckoos: Squirrel cuckoo, slightly more common than in San Antonio. The locals call it Bobo chizo (perhaps spelled chiso, squirrel). Strangely, no Groove-billed anis appeared, usually fairly common at both localities.
Nightjars: Common pauraque, as at home.
Swifts: White-collared swift, perhaps more numerous than here at home.
Hummingbirds: Definitely more variation at Rio Barranca. Here at home it’s been weeks, almost months, since I’ve seen anything other than the Rufous-tailed hummingbird. At Rio Barranca, although the Rufous-tailed is by far the most abundant, I also had several views of Stripe-throated and Long-billed hermit, and of Canivet’s emerald (Chlorostilbon canivetii) (female only).
Trogons: I got one quick look at what I judged to be a female Black-headed trogon. I suppose it could have been a Violaceous trogon, the only trogon species likely to be found in San Antonio but not yet recorded any nearer than Guayabo National Monument.
Motmots: The beautiful Blue-crowned motmot was a regular, while it is difficult to find at San Antonio.
Kingfishers: Only the Green kingfisher has appeared at my house, but both the Green and the Ringed kingfishers were frequent visitors to the tilapia pond at Rio Barranca.
Toucans: I found only the Keel-billed toucan this time, though the Collared aracari and Emerald toucanet were there in previous years. By coincidence, an Emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus)showed up in San Antonio the very day of my return, its first appearance in more than two years. The Keel-billed is much more common here at home than at Rio Barranca.
Woodpeckers: Two species, Hoffmann’s (Melanerpes hoffmannii) and Golden-olive, were easily seen most days at Rio Barranca, while I have seen no woodpecker at home (where, in addition to the above, we also sometimes get Black-cheeked and Rufous-winged woodpeckers) for several weeks.
Woodcreepers: Streak-headed was the one species I observed and is also the usual woodcreeper here in San Antonio. As with woodpeckers, however, it has been some time now since I have recorded one here at home.
Flycatchers: Observed at Rio Barranca: Yellow-bellied elaenia, Piratic flycatcher (calling loudly every day, as at home), Yellow-olive flycatcher, Common tody-flycatcher (busy weaving a beautiful nest right at the door of the house), Black phoebe, Dusky-capped flycatcher, Boat-billed flycatcher, Great kiskadee, Social flycatcher, Sulphur-bellied flycatcher and Tropical kingbird. Of these, the only species I have not yet seen in San Antonio is the Boat-billed, while the Yellow-olive, Dusky-capped and Sulphur-bellied are all, in my experience anyway, quite rare. We do, however, commonly have the Gray-capped flycatcher and the Paltry tyrannulet, neither of which I could find at Rio Barranca. I saw neither Contupus nor Empidonax species at San Ramon this time and so can make no comparison.
Becards etc.: A pair of Masked tityras (Tityra semifasciata) was present most days, while it is difficult to find at San Antonio.
Vireos: Yellow-green vireo was present in numbers, chirping loudly rather similar to a House sparrow at times. I have not seen this bird at San Antonio in the last two years and am beginning to doubt the veracity of my observations in my first year here. It is a summer migrant and the various pairs at Rio Barranca were all displaying nesting behaviour. The common northern migrant Yellow-throated vireo is found in small numbers at both locations.
Jays: There was no sign of the White-throated magpie-jay this year at San Ramon, so the only family representative common to both sides of the Central Valley was the loudly ubiquitous Brown jay.
Swallows: Blue-and-white, and both species of Rough-winged swallow (Northern and Southern) were daily visitors at Rio Barranca, the Rough-wingeds often skimming the tilapia pond. Only the Blue-and-white is found at San Antonio with any regularity, although the Rough-winged are quite common fairly close by.
Wrens: Many wrens are sometimes hard to see, but almost all are very noisy. Surprisingly, I found only House wren and Plain wren, our two common species also at San Antonio. There was no sign of our Band-backed wren, which is a Caribbean species.
Thrushes: Clay-coloured robin only, but in large numbers of course. This matches San Antonio, where other species occur only infrequently.
Wood-warblers: I was surprised at the small numbers of the migrants, but the resident Rufous-capped warbler (seen only once at San Antonio in three years) was very common. Small numbers of Tennessee, Yellow, Wilson’s and Chestnut-sided warblers were at Rio Barranca. All of these match what is to be expected at San Antonio, but Black-and-white warbler and Tropical parula seem unusual absences. In past years, Gray-crowned yellowthroat was common, but I didn’t find it this time and have never seen any Yellowthroat at San Antonio. I recorded no other warblers at Rio Barranca, although several other species found sporadically at San Antonio probably also occur there.
Bananaquit: This common little bird, looking like a cross between a warbler and a honeycreeper, is resident at both locales.
Tanagers: Not many surprises. Blue-gray, Palm and Passerini’s, the three common residents, were all there, as at home, while the Summer tanager was the only migrant I saw. It seems to be in much larger numbers at Rio Barranca, however, while the White-lined and the Golden-hooded (there are often a few of each at San Antonio) were conspicuous by their absence. On the other hand, the Red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) was very common at Rio Barranca. The male with its powder-blue cap is truly beautiful and I’d love to see it at San Antonio, where honeycreepers have so far not appeared.
Seedeaters, Finches & Sparrows: At San Antonio, Yellow-faced grassquit is everywhere and there are also a few Variable seedeaters, while the Black-striped sparrow can be heard frequently at this time of the year. Amazingly, none of these appeared in my two weeks at San Ramon. Rufous-collared sparrow was present, but in much smaller numbers than here at home. On a previous visit to Rio Barranca, I had found Prevost’s ground-sparrow in a coffee plantation above the river, but I had no such luck this time.
Saltators, Grosbeaks & Buntings: Of the three common saltators at San Antonio (Black-headed, Grayish and Buff-throated) only the latter two were at Rio Barranca, the Buff-throated being the more common. The Black-headed saltator, our noisy chayotera, is a Caribbean bird. I was rewarded, however, with good views of several Rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus, very occasional in migration at San Antonio), which seem to roost at the Rio Barranca property when they are headed back north.
Indigo buntings hopped out a couple of times to pick on the close-cut lawns. This is not a species that I have seen at San Antonio, though we banded a couple down at CATIE (400 meters lower) during fall migration.
Blackbirds & Orioles: Melodious blackbird and Great-tailed grackle were present, though only occasionally, at Rio Barranca, both being very common at San Antonio. Wilber remarked that the Costa Rican resident Black-cowled oriole (nesting on the property) was a bird that he had not noticed before, and I had not recorded it there in previous years either. It is a Caribbean bird found with some regularity here in San Antonio, but not nesting here at the house this year, it seems. I believe this is a species that is expanding its range. Baltimore oriole and Montezuma oropendola round out the species from this family. Both are of course found in large numbers in San Antonio, the oropendola being much more frequent here than in San Ramon.
Euphonias: It’s been a fair while since I saw a euphonia at San Antonio, but the Yellow-throated (Euphonia hirundinacea) showed up at Rio Barranca, just once, during my two-week stay. This is also the species I have seen most frequently at San Antonio (despite its generally Pacific distribution).
Although no great rarities appeared during my stay at Rio Barranca, I had a marvelous time patrolling the river and gardens daily (not a drop of rain) and must thank Stephanie and Wilber for the wonderfully warm hospitality they showed us. Back home in San Antonio, Karel and Nicole had seen plenty of rain but had also enjoyed taking excursions out of our Turrialba base. I again thank Karel for the use of his lovely photographs.