Elaenias around Turrialba

Elaenias are medium-sized flycatchers found only in the Americas, and then only from Mexico southwards. The name means ‘of olive oil’ and refers to the general colour of their plumage. Identification of many of the 21 species can be difficult, but in the Turrialba area only two of the four species that occur in Costa Rica are really common, the Yellow-bellied Elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster) and, at higher elevations, the Mountain Elaenia (Elaenia frantzii).

The latter descends to lower altitudes only seasonally, while flavogaster, a very common and noisy garden bird, is rarely found above 1500 m in our area. I do have two isolated sightings from as high as 2200 m at Llano Grande, between the Turrialba and Irazú volcanoes. These two elaenias are additionally readily distinguished because of flavogaster‘s ‘bad haircut’ crest, which is generally held conspicuously aloft:

Yellow-bellied Elaenia at Santa Rosa; photo by John Beer

By contrast, the Mountain Elaenia seems very nondescript and has much less yellow on the belly and no crest. I find that the head often has a rounded look and the lower mandible is noticeably pink:

Mountain Elaenia with its typically ‘dotted’ wing bars; photo by John Beer taken on the Turrialba Volcano slope

Often the Mountain Elaenia’s plumage looks quite dull:

Mountain Elaenia at El Tapojo; photo by John Beer
Mountain Elaenia

Four Costa Rican flycatchers bear the English name Elaenia but only three of them are named elaenia scientifically. The exception is the Greenish Elaenia (Myiopagis viridicata), seen in the following series of photos. Its distribution is wide but spotty and it is a very uncommon bird in our area. Possible confusions: The Greenish Elaenia is a smaller bird and is more likely to be confused with one of the Tolmomyias flycatchers, the Yellow-margined Flycatcher or the Yellow-olive Flycatcher. Note, however, the incomplete eye-ring similar to that of the female White-winged Becard. (The latter has buffy wing bars). The Greenish Elaenia is further distinguished from the Mountain Elaenia by this lack of wing bars. Compare the following photograph with the first one shown above of the Mountain Elaenia. John found the individual below at nearby Peralta in December 2017:

Disturbingly difficult to identify! The Greenish Elaenia; photo by John Beer

Greenish Elaenia at Peralta; photo by John Beer
Greenish Elaenia, final pose; photo by John Beer

Even harder to find in the Turrialba area (no reports that I know of so far this year) is the Lesser Elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis). This bird often shows a bit of a crest, but you won’t confuse it with flavogaster, the Yellow-bellied Elaenia, and perhaps not even with frantzii, the Mountain Elaenia.

It does have an eye-ring and wing bars but is what my wife would call a ‘drab dude’. Here’s a photo showing a Lesser Elaenia about as pretty as it gets, courtesy of Richard Garrigues, the author of the standard field guide The Birds of Costa Rica:

Lesser Elaenia, courtesy of Richard Garrigues

We have no photographs taken locally but Larry found the following individual not far from San Vito in the south of the country:

I bet this one had Larry thumbing through his field guide! Lesser Elaenia near San Vito; photo by Larry Waddell

To sum up, if you’re visiting this part of Costa Rica you’ll easily find both the Yellow-bellied and the Mountain Elaenia, but either of the other two will be hard to find and perhaps even harder to identify!

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