Costa Rica’s official bird species list now confirmed at 924

Southern Martin (Progne elegans): Golondrina negra; Hirondelle sombre; Blauschwalbe

Purple Martin (Progne subis): Golondrina purpúrea; Purpurschwalbe; Hirondelle noire

Gray-breasted Martin (Progne chalybea): Martín pechigrís; Graubrustschwalbe; Hirondelle chalybée

On June 30, 2022, John Beer took what is now the first officially verified photograph of a Southern Martin (Progne elegans) in Costa Rica:

Southern Martin in flight at Aquiares, Turrialba, June 30, 2022

After John Beer´s Southern Martin sighting at Aquiares he has now received the following confirmation via Richard Garrigues, author of the now standard Costa Rican field guide, The Birds of Costa Rica (Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean):

The Scientific Committee has unanimously voted to accept your observation of Southern Martin (Progne elegans) as the first record for Costa Rica.

The photograph will be housed in the National Museum of Costa Rica’s Natural History Department.

Astonishingly, John’s photograph has captured the northernmost ever verified report of this common South American swallow. His hard work and dedication to our knowledge of bird species distribution in Costa Rica deserve the highest praise.

Avibase, the World Bird Database, considers Progne elegans to be a subspecies with a range extending principally from Argentina north to Colombia. Previously it had been reported on eBird in neighbouring Panama, but only twice, on both occasions near the Caribbean Coast. The earlier of the two is from Fort Davis, near Colón, where a ´historical’ and ‘incomplete’ report (unsupported, it seems, by any description or photograph) of a single bird was recorded for July 22, 1995. The observer is listed as ‘Audubon Panama Data’ with the following detail: “Report by Dodge Engleman. Engleman D. The Field Editor’s Report. At: Panama Audubon Society’s The Toucan. 1995; 21(8): 6-7.” Subsequently, and much more recently, on June 30, 2019, José Pérez photographed a single all-dark bird accompanied by other swallow species at Shelter Bay, Colón. He noted, in English, “Well seen, fork tail, blue black color“, though this laconic note does not discount a possible Purple Martin. However, it is also interesting to take into account that in July of this current year of 2022, very shortly after John’s Costa Rican report, there have been four well-authenticated reports of a single bird accompanied by other Hirundinidae species from various locations near Gamboa, Panama. Most of these are dated July 3, with one on July 4, and another on July 17.

Identification of this bird when it is so far outside its normal range is by no means a simple matter. John’s most immediate problem was to eliminate any possible confusion with the Gray-breasted Martin (Progne chalybea), a Costa Rican resident and the only species seen here regularly – or with the migrant Purple Martin (Progne subis), a much more difficult task. Actually, Progne subis is quite uncommon in the Turrialba area andI much regret that I have no current access to Costa Rican photos of adults the species for purposes of comparison. Local birder Fabian Torres saw and photographed a Purple Martin perched on a wire at our local Angostura hotspot here in Turrialba in 2021, but this shows a juvenile bird with white underparts. This is the only local photograph that I have been able to trace so far. It can be readily found on eBird, either in their Macaulay Library photo collection or at the following checklist:

At all events, most North American readers will already be very familiar with the Purple Martin as it is a common migrant that frequently nests in martin houses purchased and cared for by many bird enthusiasts during the North American spring and summer periods.

Costa Rica’s resident martin, the Gray-breasted Martin (Progne chalybea), has steely-blue upperparts but always shows mainly white below. It is therefore less likely to be confused with any martin species other than the female Purple Martin. Here are two nice shots of Progne chalybea taken by friends and regular contributors Larry and John:

Gray-breasted Martin at Angostura; photo by Larry Waddell
Gray-breasted Martin at Angostura; photo by John Beer

Note in addition, however, that historically there have been several Costa Rican sightings of the Brown-chested Martin (Progne tapera). Like the Southern Martin, this is also a South American species, but there have been no verified reports here in the last 30 years. Its dark chest band and general coloration make Progne tapera look like a large version of the common North American migrant Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia). N. B. Possible nomenclature confusion because in the UK the Bank Swallow is known as the Sand Martin! In migration period you will regularly see Riparia riparia in good numbers in Costa Rica.

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