Archive for the ‘Boat-billed Heron’ Tag

Costa Rica part 7: northernmost Costa Rica; 15/4 – 17/4 2017   Leave a comment

This post covers two areas in northernmost Costa Rica, the areas around Celeste Mountain Lodge and Heliconia Lodge,a boat trip on the Rio Frio near Cano Negro and birding in nearby marshes..


From Monteverde we made our way to the beautiful Celeste Mountain Lodge.


This lodge, with it’s open plan architecture was a delightful place to stay with great views of the surrounding forest and excellent food. The birder on the left is looking out of a slidable picture window that looks straight onto an elevated bird feeding platform.


Hoised up by pulleys, the platform is host to Passerini’s, Palm and Golden-hooded Tanagers, Black-cowled Oriole and Clay-coloured Thrush.


Visitors included common birds like Great Kiskadee ….


….. and male and female Passerini’s Tanagers. The male looks almost identical to Cherrie’s Tanager of the south-west that I uploaded previously but the female has a greyer head and a reddish blush to the upper breast and rump.


Joining them here are the subtle Palm Tanager and gaudy Golden-headed Tanager.


This was the only place we saw Crimson-collared Tanager, a life bird for me.


Another of the look-alight euphonias. The fact that the yellow comes to a point below the bill rather than there being a wholy dark-blue chin shows that this is a Yellow-throated Euphonia rather than one of its congeners.


Black-cowled Orioles appeared at the feeder and in the nearby trees.


We stayed overnight at Celeste Mountain Lodge and before we left the next day ….


…. we were rewarded with excellent views of the elusive White-tipped Sicklebill which seldom sticks around for photos. A specialist of heliconia flowers (hence the unusual bill shape) the species ranges from Costa Rica to northern Peru but is difficult everywhere and I have only seen it once before (on my 1981 Costa Rica trip).


These were not the only feeders in the area; at the entrance to the nearby national park Passerini’s and Palm Tanagers were joined by a Red-legged Honeycreeper.


Honeycreepers are part of the main tanager family Thraupidae. Here is daddy ….


and this is his ‘son’ (females don’t have the dark remiges and coverts).


We spent much of the following morning at an area of rainforest behind nearby Heliconia Lodge. This deep gully was crossed by several suspension bridges.


Mel crosses the bridge in the morning mist, but worryingly another bridge had collapsed forcing us to cross the gully the hard way.


Birding here was difficult and although we scored with a few nice birds progress was slow. Perhaps the highlight was our best view of Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth. I know what you’re thinking ‘its got three toes’ All sloths have three toes on the hind limbs, its the number on the forelimbs that separates the three-toed and two-toed species. From here we had distant views over a large body of water with land beyond it. Initially I thought it must be the Gulf of Nicoya that we had seen on route to Hacienda Solimar, but that was far to the south. Others said it was the Caribbean coast but that was too far away as well. It was in fact the enormous Largo Cocibolca in Nicaragua. Unfortunately due to mist and heat haze I didn’t bother with any photos.


In the late afternoon we checked out a site for Lovely Cotinga, which looks quite like the Turquoise Cotinga that I illustrated in post #2. Some of us spread out looking for the bird, but it was those who hung around by the bus who scored. I was some way way down hill and arrived breathless only to see it fly. This was the most disappointing experience of the whole trip.


A gathering of Swallow-tailed Kites, nice as they were, were little compensation.


We arrived at out next destination, the hotel at Cano Negro well after dark and were welcomed by an imitation Mesoamerican statue converted into a water feature.


Early the next day we took a boat trip on the nearby Rio Frio some 10 km away from the Nicaraguan border (although the area was anything but frio once the sun got up). There were two main targets, Grey-headed Dove which we saw in the half-light before boarding ….


…. and the diminutive Nicaraguan Grackle which just crosses the border into northernmost Costa Rica. The male is far smaller than Great-tailed and lacks the purple gloss ….


…. whilst the female, as well as being smaller than female Great-tailed, has a paler belly and more prominent supercilium.


Waterbirds that I haven’t featured before on the blog included  Anhinga ….


…. Neotropical Cormorant,


…. and Pale-vented Pigeon (for such a colourful pigeon couldn’t they find a better name than ‘pale-vented’?)


But some birds I couldn’t resist posting for a second time, such as this male Ringed Kingfisher ….


…. or the wonderfully bizarre Boat-billed Heron.


One of the highlights was getting great views of both sexes of Sungrebe, the Neotropical representative of the Heliorthinidae. a very ancient family that are not related to cormorants or other similar waterbirds. The female (above) is more brightly coloured than the male, although unlike the plumage and role reversed phalaropes and buttonquails where the male incubates and cares for the young, both sexes share parental duties.


That said the duller male has something unique in birds, a flap of skin under each wing. If danger presents the two chicks can clamber into the flaps and the male can fly with them on board to safety. Sungrebes and the two Old World finfoots do not generally dive for food, rather pick insects off overhanging vegetation.


Surprisingly a boat trip can provide a good vantage from which to to tape out elusive birds such as this Spot-breasted Wren.


This bird took me completely by surprise. I have seen Grey-necked Wood Rail on several trips but had forgotten that the populations from southern Mexico to extreme northern Costa Rica had been split as Rufous-naped Wood Rail (not to be confused with Rufous-necked Wood Rail that we dipped earlier in the trip).


The river bank was full of Spectacled Caimans ….


Some were a bit apprehensive when we got out of the boat at this marsh where the caimans were abundant. However it was good to remember the old adage ‘if it runs away from you its a caiman, if it devourers you it’s a crocodile’. These ran away.


If searching for birds is called birding and searching for owls is known as owling then this must be craking. We formed a line and stomped through the marsh hoping to flush a crake or two.


We flushed a single Grey-breasted Crake and two or three Yellow-breasted Crakes. By leaving the camera on a wide-angle setting and pressing the shutter the moment a crake flew (without even moving the camera up to my eye) I was able to get this shot of a Yellow-breasted Crake.


Widespread from Canada to northern Costa Rica, Red-winged Blackbirds were abundant in the marshy areas.


They looked particularly attractive when they raise their red and yellow epaulettes in display.


On my return to the UK I heard that a female Red-winged Blackbird had been found on North Ronaldsay in Orkney. A first for Britain (if you discount some deliberate releases in the 19th C) it attracted a lot of twitchers. Although I like to add to my British list I’m not in that league. That said if it was a world lifer and I couldn’t easily see it on a planned future foreign trip I’d have be enquiring about charter flights!


On the edge of the marsh was a lake with the usual run of stilts, egrets etc but a group of Blue-winged Teal (just visible in the centre) and American Wigeon (which are not) made the visit worthwhile.


In the wet grassland were a few Collared Plovers, a resident wader species ….


…. and the highly migratory Pectoral Sandpiper. Recent research has shown that when Pecs have completed the arduous journey from Patagonia to the Canadian/Alaskan tundra, the males then fan out, some visiting the entire breeding range from the tundra of the northern Ural Mountains to Canada’s Baffin Island in a single season. Here they display at a series of leks attempting to mate with as many females as possible over their entire 4000km breeding range before flying back to Patagonia to winter. Aren’t birds just marvellous!


It was back to the hotel and it’s weird statue for breakfast, then on again to some areas of marshes and irrigated fields.


Here we found that aberrant wader, Wattled Jacana in some abundance. The bird at the rear is a juvenile. Interestingly the Lesser Jacana of Africa looks just like a small version of juvenile African Jacana and is a rare example (in birds at least) of neotony, speciation by remaining in juvenile plumage until of breeding age.


Green Kingfishers were particularly photogenic in the irrigation ditches surrounding the fields.


Thee same ditches gave us wonderful views of White-throated Crake ….


…. our third crake of the day (fifth if you include rails and galinules) although as often happens the bird hasn’t been named after its most obvious field characteristic.


I have posted a number of photos of adult Bare-throated Tiger-heron before but here is a tiger-striped juvenile ….


…. but this heron, Pinnated Bittern was a real surprise. I have been searching for this bird since the 80’s and have drawn a blank across its huge Neotropical range. It was one of five write-ins on the trip, ie species that have never been recorded in Birdquest’s 30 years of running trips to Costa Rica. Three of these are species that have been added due to taxonomic revision (that is recorded before but not when they were considered full species) another was Wilson’s Phalarope, which was just a scarce migrant and the fifth was this bird – which just goes to show how thinly spread they are over their enormous range. Maybe not quite the bird of the trip but one of the contenders certainly.


Another Nicaraguan bird that just creeps over the border into Costa Rica is Nicaraguan Seedfinch. After some searching we found this huge-billed gem in a fallow field.


Seedfinches don’t usually feature very high on birders want-lists but with a bill like that this qualifies as a ‘mega’.


Our final destination on this action packed day was a visit to a private reserve at La Fortuna. Grey-head Chachalacas were common and tame but we failed to score with the elusive Uniform Crake, (although we did hear it and it was probably glimpsed). Shame as a four crake day would have been something special.


Ominous clouds were gathering as we left and headed for the nearby Arenal Observatory Lodge.


At Arenal Observatory Lodge some of us went out owling after dinner and saw the magnificent Black-and-White Owl. I didn’t take any photos through. The point of telling you this is that this means I saw eight life birds today, unprecedented in my recent birding history – what a day!


Costa Rica part 4: Rio Grande de Tarcoles and Carara National Park; 8th-10th April 2017   Leave a comment


This post covers the boat trip on the Rio Grande de Tarcoles and our time at Carara National Park.


After departing the Rio Rincon area (which was covered in the last post) we headed north along the Pacific coast until we reached the Rio Tarcoles. We spent much of the afternoon on the river seeing a great variety of birdlife.


Amongst the many species present were White Ibis ….


…. here with a Roseate Spoonbill,


…. adult Little Blue Heron (immatures are predominately white) unfortunately it lined itself up with some discarded plastic.


…. Tricoloured (formerly Louisiana) Heron,


…. and the diminutive Green Heron,


…. but pick of the bunch was the bizarre Boat-billed Heron. Their huge and weirdly shaped bill has evolved to scoop fish and other prey items from the surface of the water, whilst the enormous eyes are an adaptation to a nocturnal existence.


Another speciality of the mangroves is ‘Mangrove’ Black Hawk, once thought to be a separate species, it is now lumped in with Common Black Hawk.


There are only six kingfishers in the New World (compared to 108 in the Old World) and the appropriately named American Pygmy Kingfisher is the smallest of the six.


As we reached the mouth of the river we saw other tourist boats ….


…. their main interest seemed to be the enormous (and rare) American Crocodiles ….


…. but we also enjoyed more views of the pretty White Ibis ….


…. and a camera-shy Roseate Spoonbill.


We had the luxury of staying at a lodge near Carara NP for two nights, it was one of those all-inclusive places, so most of us swapped an evening beer for numerous cocktails, but of course we were out at dawn the following morning. The Park was surprisingly busy with tourists, especially by mid-morning and there was quite a grockle-jam to photograph beauties like this Scarlet Macaw.


Some of the biggest of the worlds parrots, the raucous screech of the large macaws carries for miles. Many species are threatened due to the demands of the pet trade and indeed some species have gone extinct, whilst others hover on the brink.


The acrobatics of a Central American Spider Monkey entertained the crowds.


Only Neotropical monkeys have prehensile tails which they can use as a fifth limb and which can support their entire weight.


A Tarantula on the path produced gasps of horror from the grockles but many stopped to photograph it.


We saw about a dozen species of woodcreeper on the tour but this one, Northern Barred Woodcreeper was one of the best.


Antthrushes are placed in a different family from other ‘ant-thingies’. Skulking around the forest floor with their tails cocked up like a tiny chicken, they are one of the great prizes of Neotropical birding. This is Black-faced Antthrush.


And here is one of the many ‘ant-thingies’ we saw on the tour, a Chestnut-backed Antbird.


Puffbirds are more closely related to kingfisher and jacamars than to the passerines. They have a habit of sitting still for long periods which means that once found they can be easy to photograph. White-winged Puffbirds were unusually common on this trip with up to 20 seen. Although they have quite a large Neotropical range I have never seen more than three on a trip before.


We only saw one species of jacamar, Rufous-tailed, but they were quite common and conspicuous.


Tanagers are no longer a monophyletic group, some are now placed with the cardinals, others with buntings, whilst seedeaters, saltators and even some grosbeaks have been moved into the traditional tanager family Thraupidae. This means tanagers turn up in many different places in the field guide and checklist. Fortunately this White-winged Tanager is still in Thraupidae.


In the afternoon we sat quietly on a little used trail and kept our eyes on a nearby stream in the hope that birds would come to bathe. We didn’t have to wait long until a couple of male Red-capped Manakins appeared.


We had extended views of the males (and a female) bathing ….


Male manakins are best known for their elaborate displays where a dominant male is ‘helped’ in a coordinated dance routine by a number of younger subordinate males. We didn’t see this with this species but we did in the related Long-tailed Manakin, but I didn’t get any decent photos.


Later an impressive Great Tinamou came down to drink. All tinamous are elusive and timid due to a long history of being hunted by humans and we were privileged to see one so well.


It’s not very often you get to photograph the undertail pattern of a tinamou.


A couple of Central American Agoutis also came to drink.


We also had time to bird around the lodge, both after lunch and before departure on the second day. This huge Iguana was entertaining ….


…. and we had great view of Turquoise-browed Motmot ….


…. one of six species of motmot we were to see on the trip. By the way motmot’s tail feathers don’t grow like this, the birds strip off the barbs with their bills to give themselves their distinctive look.


Of course the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Thrush (Costa Rica’s national bird) was present ….


…. and so was this multi-coloured Painted Bunting ….


…. but pride of place goes to the pair of Spectacled Owls that lived in the huge tree by the dining area ….


…. although there was some uncertainty among some of those present as to who actually feeds the baby!


On 21st March the sun will be over head at midday at the Tropic of Cancer, the latitude of Cuba or northern Mexico. On 21st June it will be overhead over the northern Amazon, however at midday in mid April its overhead in northern Costa Rica and it certainly felt like it was!


On route to some salt pans we stopped by the mangroves to look for Rufous-necked Wood-rail, a species that I have missed on a number of tours. It was in the heat of the day and not surprisingly we dipped.




We were on our way to some salt pans to look at waders (or shorebirds as they say in the New World). I took so many photos of the waders that I thought they deserved a post of their own so this will be following shortly as part five of my Costa Rican narrative.

1st – 6th March 2014 – The Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, part 1: Cancun, Cozumel and Rio Lagartos.   1 comment

Here is another series of photos from Mexico. The Yucatan peninsula part of the trip was sold as a separate tour from El Triunfo, with only Riita from Finland, the tour leader Mark van Beirs and myself taking both parts. This tour was very different from El Triunfo, there we were cut off from the modern word, isolated in the silence of the montane forest, here we were slap bang in the middle of it, something that was accentuated by the Mardi Gras festivals that carried on well into the night. El Triunfo was lovely and cool, Yucatan was hot, El Triunfo required a moderate degree of fitness, hiking up to 10km a day, often uphill with basic accommodation, the Yucatan was perhaps the easiest Birdquest I have ever done, with just short walks from the vehicle on flat terrain and good quality hotels and lodges. I have to say that although the birding in the Yucatan was excellent, overall I enjoyed the El Triunfo part of the trip more.

IMG_0012 Velasque's WP

Our first night was in Cancun, Mexico’s answer to Torremolinos. Fortunately we didn’t have to visit the front, packed with European and American grockles soaking up the sun. A short wander around the hotel grounds produced this Velasquez’s Woodpecker, a recent split from Golden-fronted. Bizarely it chose to drum on the metal covering of a street lamp, which certainly amplified the sound!


IMG_0018 Plain Chachalaca

Most members of the Cradids, the Family that includes Guans, Currasows and Chachalacas, are elusive forest denizens. This Plain Chachalaca stood in full view outside the hotel.


IMG_0055 iguana

Later that morning we drove south to catch the ferry to Cozumel Island. However, although we had allowed lots of time to catch the ferry we encountered huge queues (pre-booking is not available), we later found out this was because of the Mardi Gras festival that was taking place on the island that weekend. There was very little in way of shade, food or drink available whilst we spent four hours queuing in the baking sun (and what little shade was available was already taken by the local Iguanas).


IMG_0048 YB Sapsucker

Even bird photography was hard to perform.  I was almost arrested by some ‘jobsworth’ who insisted that photography was not allowed when I tried to get pics of this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Give a man a cap and a clip board and they become a little tyrant (or should that be tyrannulet?). Note the holes that the Sapsucker has drilled in the back, they will return to each in turn and literally sap-suck.

IMG_0073 Cozumel sunset

By the time we had got to Cozumel and checked into our hotel the sun was already setting.



Of course we were expected to get into the party mood. Here tour participant Audrey photographs tour leader Mark.


During both our evenings on Cozumel there was a huge procession of floats right past our hotel. Most of the guys on the tour considered this float to be the best, but whether that was because it was advertising beer or because of the beautiful models that accompanied it is open to debate!

IMG_0212 new moon

We spent the following day searching the scrub for Cozumel’s two endemics. There were once considered to be four, but Cozumel Thrasher is probably extinct (perhaps from the double whammy of a severe hurricane in 1988 and the accidental introduction of Boa Constrictors) and Cozumel Wren has been re-lumped with House Wren. The other two, Cozumel Emerald and  Cozumel Vireo were easy to see, as were the only Black Catbirds of the trip. The highlight however was the pair of elusive Ruddy Crakes seen the following evening under the light of the New Moon. Incidently the ghostly glow of the majority of the Moon’s surface is caused by Earthshine,  sunlight reflected off the daylight side of the Earth onto the dark side of the Moon and then back to the dark side of  the Earth. This precise alignment  can only  occur near the New Moon.

IMG_0520 RL Hotel

On Monday morning we got up very early to catch the ferry back to Cancun. In the event we didn’t need to get there quite that early (0400) but the last thing we wanted was another major delay. We arrived on the mainland about 0800 and drove to the hotel we used on ther first night for breakfast. Then followed the long drive to Rio Lagartos on the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula where we checked into our hotel which overlooked the lagoon.

IMG_0671 skimmers

The following species were common and could be seen on the lagoon immediately in front of the hotel: Black Skimmer

IMG_0237 Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican


IMG_0677 Laughing Gull

Laughing Gull


IMG_0406 Royal Tern

Royal Tern

IMG_0527 Mag Frigate

Magnificent Frigatebirds were constantly overhead. This is an immature bird.

IMG_0496 White Pelican

A highlight of our time at Rio Lagartos was a boat trip on the lagoon. We were able to get close to a number of species roosting on various sandbars, such as these American White Pelicans .

IMG_0423 Willet

Willet, a widespread shorebird from North America and the only long-distant migrant shorebird occurring on the Atlantic coast that hasn’t been recorded in the UK (although there has been a record from Norway).

IMG_0462 Caspian tern

The largest tern in the world, Caspian Terns are as big as Herring Gull. Small numbers were seen around the lagoon.


IMG_0426 George

Although not rare, I was pleased to get good looks at first winter American Herring Gulls. A recent split from its European counterpart first-winters can be identified by the all dark tail. There was debate whether the American species should have been given a different English name that didn’t use the word ‘herring”. To suppress any further dissent it was agreed that from this point onwards all American Herring Gulls would be known as ‘George’


IMG_0541 GWE

Great Egret, another New World form that should be split from its Old World counterpart. In the breeding season the bare part colouration and display differs quite markedly and there are differences in vocalisations; see

IMG_0280 Am Flamingos

One excellent birding area that we visited several times was the salinas or salt pans. Here hundreds of American Flamingos could be found along with large numbers of shorebirds.


IMG_0263 Am Flamingos

A recent split from Old World Greater Flamingo, American Flamingos are the brightest of all the six species. As flamingos would be incapable of flying the Atlantic, Old World and New World forms must have been separated for tens of millions of years and on this basis alone, must have evolved enough differences to be treated as separate species.

IMG_0782 Wilson's Plover

A real treat was the discovery of this Wilson’s (or Thick-billed) Plover at dusk.  A specialised feeder on crabs, this species is only found from Delaware southwards on the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean.

IMG_0737 Hud Whimbrel

The American form of Whimbrel, known as Hudsonian Whimbrel has been recently split by the BOU on the basis of its all dark rump and a few other plumage features, however vocalisations seem identical and the split has not been followed by the IOC or other world checklists.

IMG_0755 SemiP & Least

Many shorebirds (aka waders) could be seen on the salinas, including large numbers of ‘peeps’ as the Americans call the smallest sandpipers. Here two very similar species can be seen, Least Sandpiper at the back and Semi-palmated Sandpiper in the foreground. A third species, Western Sandpiper was also present, and this is even more like a Semi-P than  Western Sand is.


IMG_0571  BB Heron

Scrubby areas around small freshwater pools also held some great birds such as this prehistoric looking Boat-billed Heron.