Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher at Aquiares

Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher (Poecilotriccus sylvia): Espatulilla cabecigrís; Todirostre de Desmarest; Graukopf-Todityrann

In our area there has been a very recent and quite impressive sprinkling of reports of rather uncommon northern migrants. I hope to address some of these very soon but first I’d like to deal with some equally unusual sightings of resident flycatchers. Happily, some of these were captured for confirmation by John’s camera. First up are the tody-flycatchers. Almost all reports of tody-flycatchers in the Turrialba area are of the Common Tody-Flycatcher (Todirostrum cinereum), a regular nester in many Costa Rican gardens, including mine and John’s:

Note the yellow iris of this Common Tody-Flycatcher at Santa Rosa de Turrialba; photo by John Beer

This tiny, dainty, yet often fairly conspicuous bird was studied in great detail in the late 1920s at Almirante near Changuinola, Bocas del Toro, Panama, by Costa Rica’s leading ornithologist Alexander Skutch. He remarked at the time on its diminutive size, noting that the only smaller bird in the whole of North America was the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. And he described in detail its tick-tick-tick call, its tail-wagging habits, its long, flat bill, and its peculiar nest construction (see my earlier post on ).

When I review my sightings lists for Costa Rica I find that I spent my first seven years here unable to identify either of the country’s other two tody-flycatchers, the Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher (Todirostrum nigriceps) and the Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher (Poecilotriccus sylvia) In retrospect this seems unforgivable but it can, I hope, be explained by their infrequent occurrence in our area and by their habitual behaviour. Neither of these species is usually found much above an elevation of 1,000 m, and the Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher is pretty much restricted to the Caribbean side of the country, except north of the Irazú Volcano. I can find no national sightings at all for the Pacific slope west of Cartago or south of the Parque Nacional Tapantí. Todirostrum nigriceps is distinguished by its white throat and the marked contrast on its upper parts, where the black cap meets the yellowish-green back. I first learned to recognise it from the trailing series of chipping notes that it emits, which friend and guide Steven Aguilar first drew to my attention. A satisfactory view of this miniature bird is very hard to obtain because it stays mainly in the high tree tops. Only fairly recently have I been lucky enough to enjoy prolonged good views. John´s first photo was taken well away from our area at Cocles on the southern Caribbean coast ……

Dark-eyed Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher; photo by John Beer

…..but the second one is actually from our Cartago Province, albeit very close to the Limón Province line at Lagunas de Bonilla:

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher at Lagunas de Bonilla; photo by John Beer

Finally, here are the photos of the species that warrants this particular post:

Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher at Aquiares; photo by John Beer

Steven and John found and photographed this Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher at the sedimentation laguna in the coffee fields at Aquiares on March 7, 2021. The species is found on both the Caribbean and the Pacific side of the country and is even fairly common in the southern Pacific region, where Steven has had much experience with this and similar flycatchers. However, I believe that this is only the third documented report ever submitted for Cartago Province and perhaps the first to be supported by photographs. The bird was still at exactly the same location the following day. The next photograph shows the bill in profile, thus excluding the Northern Bentbill for identification purposes. At the same time, the absence of any hint of crest discounts a second flycatcher species that is reasonably common in our area, the equally diminutive Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant. You can’t be too careful with identifying flycatchers in Costa Rica, where nearly 80 different species of Tyrant Flycatchers can be found.

Long bill, grey head and yellow belly help identify the Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher; photo by John Beer

John was both patient and fortunate in being able to procure these photos of a species notorious for its tendency to hide out in thick tangles of low underbrush. Here’s a final, well-focused shot:

Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher at the sedimentation pond, lower elevations of the Aquiares coffee fields; photo by John Beer

You can find the day’s sightings list at: https://ebird.org/checklist/S83029705

Further photographs are included there, as are the notable reports of migrant Worm-eating Warbler and Ovenbird, scarce in the Turrialba area. These and other recent highlights from Aquiares will be the subject of a later post.

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