Sunday, April 20, 2014

Birding Tortuguero

Tortuguero National Park lies in the northeast corner of Costa Rica, a vast swath of dense rainforest penetrated by only a few caños, which are slow-moving backwaters (what we in NC would just call "creeks").  Its limited access makes Tortuguero a haven for an incredible, diverse array of wildlife unlike anything I've ever seen.

Spider Monkey, one of the most conspicuous animals in the area.
The first thing most visitors notice in Tortuguero are the monkeys - Spider, Howler, and Capuchin Monkeys can be found all over the park.  Even though they're not birds, I have to admit that they were pretty cool.  Also present were massive crocodiles that made jumping in the water to cool off suddenly seem like a bad idea.  Blue Morpho butterflies (one of the few insects I can safely ID) flew lazily around the rivers and canals.

But I wasn't focused on sighting these non-avian animals.  I wanted birds.  Montezuma Oropendolas, the golden-tailed brethren of the Orioles, are common in the area, and thus were the first birds I saw that morning.  The males pick a tall palm tree to perch in, then start singing and swinging around upside down, which apparently impresses the females.  It was quite a sight, and reminded me of the crazy Arfak Astrapia video I saw at the Birds of Paradise exhibit back in Raleigh.

We spent the morning exploring the park from a small john boat, led by our expert guide Angelo.  He was glad to have guests who were just as enthusiastic about birds as he was, and he stopped at every little mixed flock along the banks of the canals.  My first lifer of the day was found this way - a Northern Waterthrush, beginning its long journey northward.  Northern Waterthrush is a transient warbler that passes through NC every year in decent numbers, but I've never been able to track one down.  Fortunately, this guy was very cooperative.  Also in this flock was a Red-eyed Vireo and two Olive-backed Euphonias.  A Green Kingfisher flushed from along the bank - the first of 5(!) kingfisher species we would see that day.  Also very common in Tortuguero are Little Blue Herons and Bare-throated Tiger-Herons - birds that never seem to get old.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron
The next lifer of the day was another pesky North American species that had always eluded me - Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.  We spotted one sunning in the bank of a small island, on which a few Anhingas were also drying their wings.  Soon after, we spotted a Common Black-Hawk soaring in a kettle with some vultures and two Magnificent Frigatebirds, both lifers.  We veered off from the main canal and entered the national park.  Tortuguero is exactly what I envisioned a tropical forest to look like - huge palms lined the shores of the caños, with the impenetrable lushness of the forest stretching out behind.  I was amazed.  And I was excited - I knew great birds were out there waiting.

Northern Jaçana, a noisy sandpiper relative.
We rode past dozens of colorful Northern Jaçanas, a shorebird with a preference for the weedy margins of swamps and marshes.  We rounded the corner and began hearing a snappy, energetic call coming from the river's margins.  These were male Red-capped Manakins displaying in hidden lek sites.  A lek is a place where males gather to impress the females - usually by dancing or displaying.  Angelo steered the boat right up to the shore, and I caught a glimpse of two of these spectacular little birds.  These two particular Red-capped Manakins were jumping around and dancing on different branches in a small "arena" to impress hidden females.  Red-capped Manakin is possibly my favorite bird I've ever seen, and watching these crimson-capped fellas dance around will be seared into my memory for quite a while.

Red-capped Manakins displaying at their lek site.

We continued  to work our way through the park's waterways.  A large raptor was perched above the river, and we cruised in slowly to investigate.  To our surprise, it was a spectacular Ornate Hawk-Eagle, the second eBird record for the area and the first one Angelo had ever seen.  It sat still, focusing on a basilisk lizard crawling along the shore.  It was definitely the coolest raptor I've ever seen.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle, a pretty menacing bird.
Next, I spotted two King Vultures soaring up high with the familiar Turkey Vultures.  King Vultures are actually beautiful (yes, actually), with their white underwings and colorful head.  A population may have once existed in Florida, but this has never been confirmed.  We also had excellent views of a Ringed Kingfisher, which is essentially a larger version of the Belted Kingfisher that lives in eastern North America.
King Vulture soaring above the rainforest.
Ringed Kingfisher, with its comically-large head.
That afternoon, we went out for a few hours to go kayaking along Caño Mora, a narrow creek that winds its way deep into the jungle.  Unfortunately, I did not feel comfortable bringing all of my camera gear onto the open kayak, so I don't have any photos of the birds I'm about to describe - you'll just have to take my word for it.  While we were watching a mixed flock... er... I mean mixed troop... of Capuchin and Howler Monkeys working their way through the forest, I spotted an immature Barred Forest-Falcon perched on an open branch.  We heard some raucous calls coming from the forest, and Angelo called out "Great Green Macaw" just as three of these beautiful (and endangered) parrots flew overhead.  Great Green Macaws use their massive bills to crack seeds that we would need heavy machinery to break open.  Habitat loss from deforestation has been a major factor in their decline, but luckily they are recovering in the remote corners of Costa Rica.

Next, Angelo spotted two trogons for us - first a female Black-headed followed shortly by a beautiful Slaty-tailed Trogon.  Both were lifers, and were spectacular.  Trogons are one of the most beautiful families of birds - and though these are no Resplendent Quetzals (as you will see soon enough), they are still quite a sight.  Surrounded by the vast, steamy quiet of the rainforest, these sightings were even more memorable.

Angelo really wanted to show me an American Pygmy Kingfisher, which we unfortunately failed to turn up on the paddle.  So, he took us out in the main boat to try and find one.  First he spotted a Boat-billed Heron in its usual roost, a alien-looking relative of the Night-Herons.

Boat-billed Heron - if you look hard enough, you might see it...
But still no Kingfisher.  We had already seen Amazon, Green, Belted, and Ringed Kingfishers that day... why not go for five?  Six are known to live in the park, and the two that evaded us were the smallest: American Pygmy and Green-and-rufous.  These two species prefer narrow, shaded creeks away from the main channels, so we had to go deep into the rainforest to try and find them.  Just as we were turning around to return for the evening, Angelo stopped the boat.  We heard chattering coming from a small slough off to the side.  We all peered in to see a stunning Green-and-rufous Kingfisher just a few yards away, seemingly oblivious to our presence.  Click on the link above - you have to check this one out!

I can't believe how long this post was for just one day of birding, but it was an incredible one.  It was one of my top two (yes, the other one happened later in Costa Rica) days of birding, and will probably forever remain in the forefront of my memory.  Having the opportunity to see such a diverse and rich ecosystem was amazing!

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