Three common highland flycatchers – and a flatbill!

I frequently take a quick excursion from home, here in San Antonio, up the Turrialba Volcano slope to enjoy the very different scenery and vegetation that highland elevations in Costa Rica can offer. I can choose from among several possible routes but the easiest to navigate if I’m short on time are the road from Santa Cruz up to Calle Vargas and Las Virtudes, or else the main, paved volcano road that eventually leads to the dairies at La Central just below the volcano itself.

Road to Los Bajos del Volcan

Mountain road high above Santa Cruz

Flycatchers are frequently an identification problem given the fact that the Garrigues and Dean field guide shows illustrations of some 77 species of Tyrannidae or Tyrant Flycatchers. If, as a visitor to the country, you venture into the highlands on the Turrialba Volcano slope, it may help to know that the following three flycatcher species are almost certain to be met with:

Flycatcher, Yellowish, Camino al volcan (1)

Yellowish Flycatcher with its distinct eye-ring, on the Turrialba Volcano road; photo by John Beer

  1.  From Santa Cruz up to just below the volcano look for the resident Yellowish Flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens). The empidonax flycatchers are notoriously tough to id but this one is really not so hard to distinguish, especially if you know it’s to be expected. Some individuals show a lot of yellow on the underparts but be careful with juveniles, which show a brownish wash on the chest, well noted in Stiles & Skutch, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica.
Flycatcher, Yellowish, Calle Vargas (9)

The not-so-yellowish juvenile Yellowish Flycatcher; photo by John Beer taken at Calle Vargas

Lower down, and still in San Antonio at the Las Truchas bar, Larry Waddell found the following individual in a dark, wooded environment:

Yellowish Flycatcher Las Truchas

Rear view of a Yellowish Flycatcher; photo by Larry Waddell

2.  Not until you get much higher up the volcano slope will you see the Black-capped Flycatcher (Empidonax atriceps), another resident empidonax. This little beauty is endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. Here are two slightly contrasting views:

Flycatcher, Black-capped Bajos del Volcan (4-2)

Both of these species often allow a close approach. Here is an inquisitive Black-capped Flycatcher at Bajos del Volcán at the very end of the Calle Vargas dirt road. Photo by John Beer.

The key field mark for this species is the elliptical eye-ring, which is seen to good advantage in this picture taken high up at El Tapojo:

Black-capped Flycatcher

Black-capped Flycatcher, courtesy of Larry Waddell

3.  The Mountain Elaenia (Elaenia frantzii) also appears occasionally here in San Antonio but is found much more easily as soon as you get above the village of La Pastora. It is frequently seen feeding on berries, like its lowland counterpart the Yellow-bellied Elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster).

Flycatcher, Elaenia, Mountain, Volcan Turrialba (1)

Mountain Elaenia, courtesy of John Beer; Garrigues is spot on when he tells you to look for the wing bars and the round head.

The final flycatcher for this post is the Eye-ringed Flatbill (Rhynchocyclus brevirostris), which surprised me just recently by putting in an appearance well above Calle Vargas en route to Las Abras. I searched the same location again this week but failed to find it. This is NOT a highland species but has been sighted as high as 2000 m above sea level. The big eye immediately made me think of Yellowish Flycatcher at this location, but when you get a good view the identification is not difficult.

Flycatcher, Flatbill, Eye-ringed, Aquiares (1)

Eye-ringed Flatbill: Its eye-ring is even bigger than that of the Yellowish Flycatcher. Beautiful photo by John Beer taken lower down in Aquiares.

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