Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Bananaquits are small tanagers found from Mexico and the Bahamas south through the Antilles and Central America to much of northern South America. Bananaquits were once classified as Honeyeaters, but this family proved genetically to be a collection of unrelated species. Across this large range, their plumages are highly variable—41 races are described (Handbook of Birds of the World).

They are primarily necter-feeders, but will also consume fruits and insects. They are not birds of heavy forest, preferring shrubby forest borders. They probe their bills, hummingbird-style, into flowers. Sometimes they pierce the flower bases in search of nectar. They are easily attracted to bowls of sugar or to hummingbird feeders, where they can become both bold and tame. Such was the case at the Hummingbird Gallery cafe near Monteverde, Costa Rica, which we visited on 5 July 2017.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Birding without Borders

Birding Without Borders. Noah Strycker. 2017. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing: New York. 326 pp. Hardcover and digital formats. $27.00 Hardcover (but note link above).

The book begins with a forward by Kenn Kaufmann and continues with an attempt to justify extreme birding—breaking the world record for seeing more birds than anyone else in one year. No such justification of expense and consumption of fossil fuel (contributions to a carbon-offset program or not) can be made. This story is really a description of a man on a personal, obsessive quest. Such quests, however, make for good reading—especially for anyone interested in birding. Strycker quit his job, broke up with his girlfriend, and depleted his savings. Strycker enjoyed an advance from his publisher, corporate sponsorships and the hospitality of hundreds of birders around the world—he spent “about $60,000 on travel, lodging, food guiding, [and] gear” —a cost of about ten dollars per bird.

His gear list is actually one of the more interesting features of his book. Also fascinating is his itinerary. He begins in Antarctica—an odd choice given the relative paucity of bird life there. He then works his way up most of South America, stops in Jamaica, and continues through Central America and Mexico. He only visits five US states (taking about ten days)—Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, and New York. Then it’s off to Iceland and Norway. He goes to Spain by way of Turkey. Single species are added in France and Germany. Strycker must be bored by European birds, because they are almost completely left out of the book. He then crisscrosses Africa. Arabia and India are next, followed by Southeast Asia and China. He then does Australia and New Zealand, finally returning to India.

He checks off 6,042 bird species. Only a fraction of these are discussed in his book. The book is surprisingly sparsely illustrated. A photo section only includes nine birds! The most interesting photo is a selfie of Strycker standing next to the bird identification guides that he digitized to download to his laptop. One assumes such an endeavor is compliant with copyright laws.

Strycker writes well (although I am surprised by a trend by his editors to incorrectly use the words “I” and “me.”) His prose does, however, occasionally wander. He takes almost ten pages to get to his first bird sighting. Do we really need to know the American Birding Association’s birding rules or that some birders cheat? (I wonder if Strycker’s capturing a Common Poorwill qualifies as a bird seen under ABA rules.) I can’t say that I needed to read so much about Strycker’s angst over birding as a competitive sport. Strycker might have quoted Pete Dunn that beginners may occasionally misidentify birds, but experts have misidentified thousands. Can you count species you only hear?  Strycker counted just over 5% of his birds by sound alone. What constitutes a bird species, anyway? Can you list species that someone else sees and identifies?

Strycker relied on local birders as guides. Locals often know a region better than professional international guides and can protect birders from bandits or corrupt officials. Local guides usually come free of charge. We are told tidbits about these people, but we learn very little about them. We also get glimpses of some of the environmental problems in places Strycker visits. One chapter covers a very brief history of American birding and Big Years. These subjects are all well and good, but I was left feeling they took the place of more discourse about or images of the birds Strycker saw.

Overall, Birding Without Borders is well-written and one of the best books of this genre.  High points include his account of seeing a Harpy Eagle—the raptor and its ecology are entertainingly described. I wish he devoted more to other species he listed. I could have lived without as much minutia as he sometimes writes about nonbirding topics such as two pages on the dangers of driving in Peru. A photograph or drawing of a Marvelous Spatuletail would have been a nice addition. Perhaps it is a good thing that the book does not devolve into an annotated list of birds. Enjoyment of the book does require that the reader develops some sympathy for Strycker’s frenzied running around the world listing birds. I enjoyed reading Strycker’s account and, unlike with some similar books, I was never bored. His account was much less of “I had a good day today, these are the birds that I saw” book and, for better or worse, much more like a typical travel book, covering snapshots of countryside and human encounters.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Green Hermit

Green Hermits are found in a variety of habitats, both pristine and human-altered. They specialize in relatively large flowers, like the heliconias in the second photo, not surprising given the length of their long, curved bills. They also hut for small arthropods and spiders. The first of these photos is a male from the Hummingbird Gallery near Monteverde on 5 July. The second photo is a female from the Arenal Observatory, where we stayed a few days later. Their long, white central tail feathers are not clearly visible in either photograph.

Like many other species, they forage by trap-lining, making a regular route to favorite flowers. As do many of the other hummingbirds we saw, hermits form leks during the breeding season. Females, in quick succession, mate with multiple males. Curiously, at their leks, males often perform false-matings with small pieces of vegetation (Cornell).

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Striped-tailed Hummingbird

The Stripe-tailed Hummingbird’s tail stripes are hard to see. They are best identified by their copper wing patches. Males defend flowers and are aggressive. They occasionally pierce flower bases, thereby robbing longer-billed species that specialize on larger flowers. This hummingbird is found in mountains from sotuhern Mexico to Panama.

Costa Rica recently passed a law forbidding the feeding of wildlife. The law is probably well-meaning. Feeding changes eating habits. An abundance of bread and popcorn does wildlife no good. Feeding may also attract wildlife to roadsides, with potentially disastrous consequences of both animals and people.

Presumably this law includes prohibiting bird feeders at hotels and refuges. Many studies conclude that feeding birds results in no harm. Feeding birds also greatly enhances the ecotourism experience for bird and nature loving tourists of all nationalities who flock to Costa Rica. Ecotourism is a large contributor to Costa Rica economy. Far more injurious to birds than bird feeders is deforestation, monoculture, and urban sprawl. Curiously, those activities do not seem to be included in the wildlife law.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Coppery-headed Emerald

Coppery-headed Emeralds are only found in the highlands of Costa Rica. They were relatively uncommon at the hummingbird feeders at the Hummingbird Gallery near Monteverde on 5 July. I do not recall seeing a female (which have green-speckled, white breasts). Like many hummingbirds, Coppery-headed Emeralds form leks, where males sing and females mate with one or more of the males. Males spend most of their time in the forest canopy, wheres females are found closer to the ground (Neotropical Birds). The two photos in this post are both males, which gave me a bit of confusion, since they look so different. Presumably the difference is caused by different angles of light against the iridescent feathers.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lesser Violetear

Lesser Violetears are found from Costa Rica south to northern Argentina. In my youth, birding in Mexico, I would have identified this bird as a Green Violetear. But populations north of Costa Rica are now thought to be a separate species, the Mexican Violetear. The two species have different plumages, the Lesser Violetears lacking the northern birds’ blue breast patch. I assume the violetears that occasionally stray into the United States are the Mexican species.

The violetear in this photograph, like other hummingbirds at the Monteverde feeders, appears to be sleeping during a rain shower. The species was fairly common at the hummingbird cafe. I identified the species, not by the violet ear feathers, but by the dark band at the end of its iridescent tail. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Perhaps the most striking hummingbird we saw on 5 July near Monteverde was the Purple-throated Mountain-gem. This species inhabits mountain cloud forests from Nicaragua to Panama. As you can see in these photos, males (upper image taken by Erika) look quite different than the ochre-breasted females. Unlike many tropical birds, this hummingbird usually breeds in the rainy season (Cornell).

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Green-crowned Brilliant

Green-crowned Brilliants were also abundant at Monteverde’s Hummingbird Gallery on 5 July 2017. These large hummingbirds are found from southern Central America to northwestern South America. Across their range, these relatively high-elevation inhabitants often visit local bird feeders. The first of these photos is of a male, the second—a female.

This species often uses a trapline feeding technique. Here birds follow a specific route to visit flowering plants. Presumably this strategy helps reduce competition among nectar-feeders by spacing them apart. Trap-lining, named after human trappers who check trap lines, has been described in various hummingbirds and also bees, bats, rats, and other fruit-eating mammals. Clearly, however, the hoards of competing hummingbirds at the Hummingbird Gallery do not force brilliants into trap-lining—although I suppose they may parade from one feeder to the next.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Violet Sabrewing

The afternoon of 5 July 2017 became increasingly overcast, with widely scattered downpours. Our normally laid-back dragonfly enthusiasts became downright glum. Arriving at Monteverde, instead of checking into our hotel, our intrepid guides decided to detour to the Hummingbird Gallery.  This small, hillside, coffee house was surrounded by forest at the end of the road next to the entrance to the Monteverde National Park. The gallery sign promised a “gift shop, local crafts, photo exposition, mail box, green disposal, Welcome.” The draw, however, was dozens of hummingbird feeders and hundreds of hummingbirds. The birds zipped back and forth in a feeding frenzy. I suspect at least two species of hummingbirds (and a Bananaquit) are in the first photo. Sorting out field marks and identification still leaves me astounded. The species diversity was like being in an aerial Great Barrier Reef.
Violet Sabrewings were the most common species, or, at least, the most belligerent. These hummingbirds range from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. They dominated the feeders, chasing interlopers away. Oddly, almost all were males. The males are polygamous and form leks, which are areas where males sing and females pick their mates. Several females may mate with one male. The males do not participate in raising the young. I only recall seeing one female, the bird in the second to last photo in this post.
We quickly figured out that we got better photos if we looked for birds perched away from the aesthetically distracting feeders. As rain began to fall, this male sabrewing appear to be taking a short nap. Violet Sabrewings get their names from their sabre-shaped outer wing quills. Dennis Paulson says that this strange feather shape makes an impressive rattling sound when the Sabrewings fly.
The rain developed into a short-lived downpour. We tourists were glad to be under the eaves of the cafe. A few of the sabrewings bathed under the downspouts from the roof. The birds spread their wings and fluffed the body feathers. Clearly these hummingbirds did not mind getting soaked.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pileated Woodpecker

Our backwoods become gold in the fall. Up flew a noisy, male Pileated Woodpecker. I have previously written about this crow-sized woodpecker. After a day of rain and two days of wind, most of the golden leaves are now in my banding nets. Winter can not be far behind.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Roseate Skimmer

Real dragonfly entusiasts net their quarry. Many species can be positively identified no other way. With binoculars, camera, notebook, and eBird list on cell phone, I’ve never had enough hands for a net. Nevertheless, before our Costa Rica tour, I asked Dennis Paulson if I needed to invest in a net. He replied, “no.” He had a net, and that would be enough. Furthermore, dragonfly collecting would require permits. The dragonflies we did net were all released. Some, like the Wandering Glider perched on Dennis’s nose, were reluctant to depart. On the other hand, the Roseate Skimmer in the bottom photo was the only one I saw during the tour. I took the photo, but regretted the creature was hand-held. The resulting photo is never as aesthetic as an unrestrained dragonfly. This individual is the first adult male I have seen, but I have photographed a couple of wild Roseates in southern Texas.

Friday, October 20, 2017


Erika wondered what Karen Kearny and I were stalking in the restaurant parking lot puddle (across the highway from the dragonlet cattle pond). You never know on a wildlife tour such as ours. Turns out to be a Malachite (Siproeta stelenes), a butterfly found from Brazil, through Central America and into the southernmost United States. This insect is also found in southern Florida, presumably migrating there from Cuba or Hispanola in the 1960s. In Florida, Malachites inhabit citrus orchards; in Central America they fly in forests.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Red-faced Dragonlet

Just north of the town of Sardinal, Costa Rica, on 5 July 2017, our tour bus came upon a grassy cattle pasture. A few trees shaded a pond. Our guide, Dennis Paulson, exclaimed that this looked like prime dragonfly habitat. Erika and I looked at each other with dismay as Dennis announced that we would definitely require two and a half hours at this location. Fortunately, the only nearby building was a small restaurant across the street.

Dennis was mistaken. He really needed all day in the pasture, but took every minute of his two and a half hours. A number of dragonfly species flew about the area. Most were Red-faced Dragonlets, found from Texas to Argentina, and north into the Lesser Antilles. Their variability makes these dragonflies fascinating. In the United States, Mexico, and northern Central America to northwestern Costa Rica, adult male abdomens are blue. Further south in Costa Rica and western Ecuador, the abdomens are red. East of the Andes and on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, they are blue-tailed. As you can see in these photos, both morphs of Red-faced Dragolets are found in the Sardinal area.

Dennis later wrote me that “It would be interesting to know if a male that stays red is different genetically from one that becomes blue, but because there are at least some intermediates, it doesn’t seem like a simple genetic difference. It’s definitely an interesting situation. In fact it was very near there in 2010 that I first noticed this variation in one spot.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Wandering Glider

On 5 July 2017, we drove northeast from the Villa Lapas hotel to Monteverde. I looked forward to this tourist mecca since quetzals and other highland birds inhabit the area. Along the way, we stopped for gas. Costa Rican law demanded all passengers leave the bus when refueling.

Big yellow dragonflies flew over the asphalt. Wandering Gliders are well named. Erika and I have recorded them from Minnesota. They wander across all continents except Antarctica. I have posted notes about this species in August 2011 and in 2016. Judging from this glider’s ragged wing condition, I suspect this individual traveled some distance as it circled our gas station.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Julia Heliconian

At the Lapas Hotel in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, we encountered our first Julia Heliconian. The scientific name is Dryas iulia (apparently often misspelled as Dryas julia—the letters j and i are often interchangeable in Latin). This wonderful butterfly is found from Brazil to southern Texas and Florida. They often stray north to eastern Nebraska. Heliconians are said to be avoided by birds. Orange butterflies are usually distasteful. This species is often kept in butterfly zoos, since the insect is long-lived and active throughout the day (Wikipedia).

Monday, October 16, 2017

Squirrel Cuckoo

5 July 2017 proved to be interesting. The day began with our usual 6 AM bird walk. Dragonfly chasers are much more laid back than birders. Dragonflies don’t fly until much later in the morning. Erika quickly spotted a Squirrel Cuckoo foraging high in the trees above the river at the Villa Lapas Hotel.

Squirrel Cuckoos are common from Mexico south through most of tropical South America. Across this range, the species is highly variable, with 14 races described. Some of these populations are probably distinct species. These cuckoos are found in a variety of forest habitats, gliding from tree to tree. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Muscovy Duck

Strange ducks perched on the trees along the Rio Tarcoles—Muscovy Ducks. Wild Muscovy Ducks range from Mexico south Argentina. Some may wander into the United States. The problem is that feral Muscovy Ducks have been introduced around the world, sort of like chickens and pigeons. Birds in Texas and Florida are probably escaped domestic individuals. One result is that the feral birds are highly variable in plumage and probably should not be counted on birders’ lists.

Muscovy Ducks appeared to be fairly common in Costa Rica. Many roosted in riverside trees as we returned to the dock in the gathering dusk. Across their range, their numbers appear to be somewhat variable. Often populations suffer from over-hunting, egg collecting, and hybridization with domestic populations (Handbook of Birds of the World). 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Double-striped Thick-knee

“Once more bend in the river,” exclaimed our Tarcoles River boat tour captain, “and we will find thick-knees!” In the gathering dusk, sat two Double-striped Thick-knees, birds I very much wanted to see. Thick-knees are thought to be most closely related to plovers. Ten thick-knee species are found around the world. Erika and I saw Peruvian Thick-knees in Peru, a Bush Thick-knee in Australia, and, in my youth in Somalia, my brother and I listed Water Thick-knees, which we jokingly called Zombie Birds. Double-striped Thick-knees have an odd distribution—Veracruz, the Pacific Coast of Central America, and scattered areas of Venezuela and other locals in northern South America.

Thick-knees are crepuscular or nocturnal feeders. They eat insects, worms, mollusks and occasionally lizards and small rodents. Mexicans sometimes keep them around ranches, "where species is held to be a useful controller of insect pests and is kept on patios and in corrals of country houses” (Handbook of Birds ot the World).

Friday, October 13, 2017

Great Blue Heron

Most North American herons and egrets are found in Costa Rica, so I suppose I should not have been surprised to see this Great Blue Heron along the Rio Tarcoles on 4 July 2017. Although they are winter visitors to most of Central and Northern South America, they are year-round residents in Costa Rica. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Banded Garden Spider

Last Monday, this Banded Garden Spider guarded the green-beans at our CSA farm (Community Supported Agricultcure). This view is the bottom side of the spider. This is actually the second species of garden spider (Argiope) we have seen at the farm, the first being a Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider.

Banded Garden Spiders are widely introduced around the world. They prefer fields and prairies. They hang upside-down in their webs, waiting for flying or jumping insects to become entangled. Males die soon after mating. Females last until the end of Autumn. Females lay eggs sacs, each containing about a thousand eggs (Bugguide).

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wood Stork

Wood Storks loitered along Costa Rica’s Rio Tarcoles on 4 July 2017. Despite their wide range—the southeast United States south along both coasts of Mexico and Central America and continuing south through most of eastern Amazonia—local population show little variation and all belong to a single race. To my disappointment, this species is the only stork we observed during our journey. (I was hoping to find Jabirus, but they remained elusive.) I have posted more information about Wood Storks elsewhere in my blog.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Golden-mantled Howler Monkey

A Golden-mantled Howler Monkey watched as our boat headed up the Rio Tarcoles on 4 July. At first glance, this primate may not seem too pleased with our intrusion. This impression may not be accurate. This species of howler, found from Mexico to the western coasts of Colombia and Ecador, eats more leaves than others (up to just more than 50% of its diet). Leaves are hard to digest, resulting in the monkey’s spending most of their days resting and sleeping.

Golden-mantled Howler Monkeys have a wide variety of sounds, but are most famous for their howls. They sound almost like a low, loud, but distant wind. They can be heard for several kilometers. The sounds are amplified by the monkeys’ hollow hyoid bone, which is near the vocal cords. The calls allow the monkey’s to maintain their sedentary life style. The sounds also allow monkeys to locate each other without risking aggressive confrontations (Wikipedia). This source also reports, “the mantled howler is usually indifferent to the presence of humans. However, when it is disturbed by people, it often express its irritation by urinating or defecating on them. It can accurately hit its observers despite being high in the trees.”

Monday, October 9, 2017

Southern Lapwing

Southern Lapwings are found in much of South America, from Tierra del Fuego north into Nicaragua. Their range has been expanding northward (Costa Rica—1993; Nicaragua—2009; Mexico 1996). Records even exist for Florida and Maryland, although these may be escaped captives (Handbook of Birds of the World). Most of these northern records are of vagrants, but the species now breeds in Costa Rica.

We spied this Southern Lapwing along the shore of the Rio Tarcoles on 4 July. After we left the mangrove swamp, we motored upstream in search of Double-striped Thick-Knees. I very much wanted to see a thick-knee, and the captain of our launch was convinced we would see them upriver.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Boat-billed Heron

Boat-billed Herons inhabit swamps from the coasts of central Mexico south through most of the Amazon Basin. Because they tend to feed at night—note the large eyes—these herons can be illusive. They use their out-sized bill to scoop up prey—fish, crustaceans, insects and amphibians. The herons walk along with their bills half submerged in the water. The bill is thrust forward when prey is encountered (Handbook of Birds of the World). We saw several during our Tarcoles, Costa Rica, mangrove swamp tour on 4 July 2017.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mangrove Warbler

Yellow Warbler systematics are complex and confusing. Across their range from Alaska and northern Canada through Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies, and including islands out in the eastern Pacific, at least 43 races have been described. These races sort out into some five groups, which often overlap in plumage coloration. Those with chestnut heads, like this one we saw on our 4 July mangrove tour, once were considered to be a separate species—the Mangrove Warbler. Now they are thought to be a race of Yellow Warbler.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Mangrove Hawk

We found these two Mangrove Hawks at a nest along the Rio Tarcoles on 4 July 2017. The bird in the lower photo is an immature. Mangrove Hawks are found along the Pacific Coast of Central  and South America. Most ornithologists consider them to be a race of the Common Black Hawk of the Atlantic Coast. The two populations are so similar, it is not known if the two hybridize where the two forms come into contact in Panama. Crabs form the main component of their diet. They also consume other small vertebrates and scavenge dead fish. 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Green Kingfisher

On the afternoon of 4 July, we took a tourist boat trip along the Rio Tarcoles and an adjacent mangrove stream. This Green Kingfisher, a female, judging by her lack of chestnut on her breast, greeted us. Her identity is confirmed by her white wing spots. Green Kingfishers are also found in southern Texas and southern Arizona. From there they range all the way into central Argentina. I was happy to get a photo—my first for the species.

Green Kingfishers mostly dive for small fish. They are uncommon the United States, where they prefer small, clear streams.  They have declined in our country as a result of urban development, loss of natural waterways, and pollution (Moskoff 2002).

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

White-tailed Sylph

The White-tailed Sylph is a dragonfly found from northern South America north through Mexico. A few records exist from Texas and Arizona. We found one at the forest edge at the Carara National Park on 4 July 2017. This dragonfly is fond of forests and clearings. They often frequent streams, but this one is making due with the boggy conditions near the park entrance. This photo is a bit confusing. The objects above the dragonfly’s head belong to the plant rather than to the ode. A sylph, by the way, is a fairy-like spirit of the air (Paulson 2016, A Checklist of North American Odonata).

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Plain Amberwing

Amberwings are small dragonflies, usually with orange wings. Males have relatively plain wings, females can have their wings variously spotted with darker colors. Three species inhabit the United States, and the Eastern Amberwing is common here in Minnesota. Four amberwing species inhabit Costa Rica. One, which I will show you later, has yet to be scientifically described.

This Plain Amberwing awaited us at the end of the Carara trail on 4 July. I was hoping to identify it as a Slough Amberwing, but the legs in this photo are clearly pale-colored—Slough Amberwings have dark legs. Its dark sides argue against its being a Golden Amberwing. Amberwings look similar and are difficult to identify. Most of the amberwings we saw in Costa Rica proved to be Plain Amberwings. In any event, the small size and the black and orange striped abdomens are thought to make these dragonflies mimic wasps. Predators may think twice about attacking.

Monday, October 2, 2017


Scientists have always assumed that the eyespots of owl-butterflies are there to scare away small, predacious birds. Only in 2015 was this hypothesis confirmed in a study by De Bona et al. The more closely the eyespot resembled the real thing, the more effective it was. Conspicuous spots that looked less like eyes did not work as well.

Caligo, the genus of owl-butterfies, is found from Mexico to South America. This individual is pobably Caligo brasiliensis, but the various species are difficult to tell apart. Owl-butterflies usually fly at dusk, when fewer small birds are around. We found several during our hike on 4 July through the Carara National Park forest.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

White-faced Capuchin

During our 4 July hike in Costa Rica’s Carara National Park, Erika came face-to-face with a small group of White-faced Capuchins.  These New World monkeys are found from Central America to western Colombia and Ecuador. Across its range, these primates are important seed dispersal agents in the rainforests.

Erika thought that the monkeys were just as curious about her as she was of them. Elsewhere, when fed by tourists,  these primates can become a problem, as they beg for food or steal bags and purses in search of food. I have read that, with human contact, the monkeys are susceptible to human disease. These capuchins and Erika, however, amicably parted ways.