In my Costa Rican garden – Montezuma Oropendola

Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma): Oropéndola de Moctezuma; Montezumastirnvogel; Cassique de Moctezuma

In these continuing pandemic-plagued days, Costa Rican rural life here on the Turrialba Volcano slope is to a large degree unaffected. Or so it seems. Despite what looks like continued development in most of the local villages, in actual fact most of the effects on human life seen around the world can be found here, particularly those related to close human contact, and to a lesser degree to economics. I thus find myself still in a semi-quarantine position with little chance of making excursions into the field. However, the abundance of bird species in my garden remains a source of joy, with more than 50 species making fairly regular appearances.

In these pre-dawn hours I note already the calls of the ever-present Brown Jays announcing the imminent rising of the sun. I note too the disagreeable smell, towards the back patio, of a very recently deceased and surprisingly large armadillo, whose corpse, and its odour, will be rapidly despatched by the Black and Turkey Vultures that have already found it.

And now, here’s the subject of today’s post, the Montezuma Oropendola:

Adult Montezuma Oropendola sporting blue face, ominously large bill and yellow tail; photo by John Beer

This bird is hard to miss on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, especially in the northern half of the country. Its full range extends from southern Mexico to central Panama. Males measure up to 20 inches in length, females rather less at about 16 inches. Their gurgling calls are interspersed with a sound much like someone fiercely crumpling up a newspaper. This bird is a colonial nester, as the next photo shows:

Montezuma Oropendola nests; photo by John Beer

These spectacular, mostly chestnut-plumaged birds normally have a nesting site in a tall eucalyptus a few hundred yards uphill from here, but as I write this they are rapidly building near the top of one of my own eucalyptus trees, with two or three large nests already swinging precariously though safely in today’s wind and rain. Giant Cowbirds (Molothrus oryzivorus), a parasitic species with adults not much smaller than female Montezumas, are already perched close by, ready to lay their eggs at the bottom of the long nest pouches. A lone male Montezuma acts as sentinel but if he becomes distracted the cowbirds will quickly take advantage. Was it a distracted Moctezuma who allowed Cortés and his band of adventurers to take possession of Tenochtilán?

Giant Cowbird at Santa Rosa; photo by John Beer

A much more recent sight in my garden is the Tropical Mockingbird (Mimus gilvus). When Stiles & Skutch published their groundbreaking and still in many ways definitive Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica in 1989, this accomplished mimic was not a Costa Rican species. Any individual reported was considered an escaped cage-bird. It has since colonised most of the country although it is still considered uncommon. The pair on my feeder table this week were the first of that species to appear regularly in my garden, though San Antonio has seen them before, as here in January 2016:

Tropical Mockingbirds in San Antonio; photo courtesy of Steven Easley

Confident in the presence of man, they can turn up almost anywhere up to an elevation as high as 1700 m. Today’s final photo shows a bird on the ground in Santa Rosa, further downhill from us.

Tropical Mockingbird; photo by John Beer

I’m still restricted mostly to the garden and the immediate surroundings, but you never know what will turn up, particularly during migration. The birds are now on the move again as they prepare for their return journey north or, in the case of a few, such as the Yellow-green Vireo and the Piratic Flycatcher, for their nesting season in my garden here in San Antonio!

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