I was really missing Costa Rica and am happy to be back on my home patch. Karel’s typical Tico photo above shows a still traditional ox-cart somewhere near Cerro de la Muerte, which I can see in the distance from the house on most days. My return home after a lengthy absence gives me an excellent opportunity to review what the first-time birder can expect to find here on the slopes of the Turrialba Volcano. If you’re visiting for the first time and are interested in the local birds, here we go with a little list of the more common species. I include only resident birds that you just can’t miss.
Here’s wildlife enthusiast Karel Straatman in my back garden poised to take yet more great photos of the local bird life.
Let’s start with the big guys:
A noisy flock of Gray-headed chachalacas hangs out here regularly. They have a soft little whistle in addition to the big cackling ruckus that probably gave them their name. Lots of young birds are with the flock; they are considerably smaller in size.
The other large and noisy bird hanging out on a daily basis is the Montezuma oropendola. I was amazed to see a huge flock of more than 100 birds just down the hill at San Diego at the property of good friends Gonzalo and Hannia Porras. San Diego is a collection of a couple of dairy farms and some cabins with stupendous views down to the Caribbean. It’s a lovely twenty-minute walk from San Antonio and is considerably lower in altitude. Gonzalo will confirm the exact elevation!
From the large to the small, here’s our common hummer, the Rufous-tailed hummingbird. It zooms around everywhere and finally has also taken to using the feeders.
You can find other pigeons or doves in the area, but the only one you can just not miss is the Red-billed pigeon. It’s qute shy and does not allow a close approach, but it is large, conspicuous and handsome. Last year a pair nested in a huge heliconia behind the small pond.
Many flycatchers are conspicuous garden residents. The Yellow-bellied elaenia is not as noisy as some and frequently confuses me by lowering its raggedy crest. Here it is in its classic posture.
The Common tody-flycatcher is so small that it can hardly be called conspicuous. It is nonetheless ever-present, hangs its long stocking-shaped nest in the garden and is easy to find. The immature has a dark eye but wags its thin little tail just as frequently as the adults.
Four different flycatchers are baptised by the locals as pecho amarillo, yellow breast. They are all very common and call loudly from prominent perches. Biggest and noisiest is the Great kiskadee, here with nesting material in his bill.
The Social flycatcher seems on first sight to be a smaller version of the kiskadee but the size difference alone, especially of the bill, makes it unlikely to be confused.
Your confusion will come, in this area at least, because of the similarity between the Social flycatcher and the bird pictured below, the Gray-capped flycatcher. However, the grey cap is fairly easy to spot because, like the other yellow-bellied birds considered here, this one sits in prominent locations where it can be observed with ease. Note the light-coloured eye. It also has a single, short call note that is much different from the high-pitched squeaking of the Social flycatcher. The Golden-bellied flycatcher and the White-ringed flycatcher, shown on the same page in the Garrigues field guide, are complete unknowns to me, and I’m assuming it’s fair to discount them from this area, despite the distribution maps.
Our fourth yellow-belly is common in the tropics as its northern counterpart and look-alike, the Western kingbird. The Tropical kingbird has a much different call, however, and no white edging in the tail feathers.
The Brown jay, which gives its Spanish name, Piapia, to a popular bar up the hill, is one of the loudest of birds. It inflates a throat sac and makes a big popping noise as it calls. The bird pictured here is a juvenile with a yellow eye-ring.
Our resident swallow, the well-named Blue-and-white swallow, is occasionally joined by other species, but this is the one you’ll find most frequently once you get away from the lowlands. It often zooms around the house as if looking to nest, but hasn’t done so up until now.
As for wrens, there are many in the Turrialba area, but in my garden the following two species are always present. The Plain wren is a beautiful bird, despite its name, and its loud whistles give it away every time.
Even easier to find is the drab little House wren, a southern version of the same species found in the United States. It nests regularly inside the car port and in the eaves of the house.
The national bird of Costa Rica, the Clay-colored robin, sometimes called the Clay-colored thrush, is the chief representative of the thrush family in this and most other areas of the country. Its loud song has diminished in recent weeks as the nesting period has for the most part ended.
Nobody seems to be able to classify with any certainty the Bananaquit. It feeds on the same plants as hummingbirds, taking nectar with its relatively long, decurved bill.
Tanagers are well represented throughout the country. Here are the big three, always easy to find in this area, beginning with the strikingly handsome Passerini’s tanager:
You will think that the female is of a different species at first, but it does have the same bluish bill as the male. In the Pacific side species, Cherrie’s tanager, the female displays orange on the rump and breast.
Next photo shows the Palm tanager, always one of the first to arrive at the banana feeder. Its modest plumage is rather attractive, with light shades of green on the head.
The third of my three very common tanagers, and probably the most familiar tanager in the country for most Ticos, is the Blue-gray tanager, affectionately known as viuda or viudita, the little widow. It is well-named in English, because, depending on the light, it looks either grey or blue.
Pretty sure to appear also is the Golden-hooded tanager. It draws cries of delight from visitors when they first get it clearly in the sights of their binoculars. Its typical call is aptly described in the Garrigues and Dean guidebook as a “buzzy twittering”, quite different from the higher-pitched twitterings of the Palm and Blue-grey tanagers.
Small birds in hedgerows and grassy places are likely to be one of the two following species. First, here’s the Yellow-faced grassquit. The male is beautifully marked but the olive-green female is harder to identify.
The Rufous-collared sparrow is found in huge numbers throughout our area. Like the Yellow-faced grassquit, it is much harder to find in the lowlands. It hops out into the open much more often than the grassquit, and you must watch out for the immatures, which have a streaked breast. This sparrow is has a slight crest, not seen in the photo below.
Saltators are usually grouped together with the grosbeaks, and the Black-headed saltator does have a pretty formidable bill. It’s the loudest and most prominent of the saltators in my garden; it has a yellowish-green back and is called chayotera locally because of its fondness for a much-cultivated squash, the chayote.
The pretty whistle of the Grayish saltator means that it too is easy to find. Its muted plumage does not bring it much attention, but the buffy vent and undertail coverts help with the identification.
My final two species are both fairly recent invaders from countries further north and are not much appreciated by most birdwatchers. Their presence invariably indicates man-made habitat and deforestation. The extremely loud whistles of the Melodious blackbird are impossible to miss, while the bird itself is uniformly black without the light eye of the male Great-tailed grackle.
Here are three male Great-tailed grackles, here called zanates, during courtship display. All Ticos seem to despise them as nest-robbers.
This ends my listing of local residents. Once the beginning birder here has ticked these off, he is free to concentrate on the other 800 or so species that visit the country. But a day won’t go by in San Antonio de Santa Cruz de Turrialba without seeing all of the above.
My best thanks once again to Karel Straatman for his beautiful photographs.