|In William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions, his great romantic novel of the American tropics, the young hero Abel is lured into the jungle by the mysterious call of an unseen bird. So stirred is he by the siren song that he follows the haunting sound deeper and deeper into the forest until he eventually discovers the source: a lovely, half-wild girl called Rima, who has learned to mimic the sounds of the birds. The birdsof Costa Rica are so rich and so varied--and often so elusive--that at times it seems as if Rima herself is calling.
With approximately 850 recorded bird species, the country boasts one-tenth of the world's total. More than 630 are resident species; the others are travelers who fly in for the winter. Birds that have all but disappeared in other areas still find tenuous safety in protected lands in Costa Rica, though many species face extinction from deforestation. The nation offers hope for such rare jewels of the bird world as the quetzal and the scarlet macaw, both endangered species, yet commonly seen in protected reserves.
It may surprise you to learn that in a land with so many exotic species the national bird is the relatively drab yiquirro, or clay-colored robin, a brown-and-buff bird with brick-red eyes. You may hear the male singing during the March-May breeding season when, according to campesino folklore, he is "calling the rains."
The four major "avifaunal zones" roughly correspond to the major geographic subdivisions of the country: the northern Pacific lowlands, the southern Pacific lowlands, the Caribbean lowlands, and the interior highlands. Guanacaste's dry habitats (northern Pacific lowlands) share relatively few species with other parts of the country. This is a superlative place, however, for waterfowl: the estuaries, swamps, and lagoons that make up the Tempisque Basin support the richest freshwater avifauna in all Central America, and Palo Verde National Park, at the mouth of the Tempisque, is a birdwatcher's mecca. The southern Pacific lowland region is home to many South American neotropical species, such as jacamars, antbirds, and, of course, parrots. Here, within the dense forests, the air is cool and dank and underwater green and alive with the sounds of birds.
Fortunately, Costa Rica's birds are not shy. Depending on season, location, and luck, you can expect to see many dozens of species on any one day. Many tour companies offer guided bird-study tours, and the country is well set up with mountain and jungle lodges that specialize in bird-watching programs. But the deep heart of the jungle is not the best place to look for birds: you cannot see well amid the complex, disorganized patterns cast by shadow and light. For best results, find a large clearing on the fringe of the forest, or a watercourse where birds are sure to be found in abundance.
The sheer size of Costa Rica's bird population has prompted keen competition for food.... and, consequently, some intriguing food-gathering methods. The jacamar snaps up insects on the wing with an audible click of its beak. One species of epicurean kite has a bill like an escargot fork, which it uses to pick snails from their shells. The attila, a ruthless killer like its namesake, devours its frog victims whole after bashing them against a tree.
Bird-watching, in the On The Road chapter, contains additional information. The website, www.avesfera.org, is a good site for planning bird-watching itineraries
Anhingas and Cormorants
The anhinga (pato aguja to locals) and its close cousin, the olivaceous cormorant (cormorán) are sleek, long-necked, stump-tailed waterbirds with the pointy profile of a Concorde. Though they dive for fish in the lagoons and rivers of the lowlands, and are superb swimmers, their feathers lack the waterproof oils of other birds. You can thus often see them after a dousing, perched on a branch, sunning themselves in a vertical position with widespread wings, which are silvered against their sleek black bodies and sinuous necks (tawny in the female) that have earned them the moniker, "snake-bird." These birds have kinked necks because they spear fish using the kink as a trigger.
Aracaris and Toucans
The bright-billed toucans--"flying bananas"--are a particular delight to watch as they pick fruit off one at a time with their long beaks, throw them in the air and catch them at the back of their throats. Costa Rica's six toucan species (there are 42 neotropical toucan species) are among the most flamboyant of all Central American birds.
The gregarious keel-billed toucan (tucan pico iris) inhabits lowland and mid-elevation forests throughout the country except the Pacific southwest. This colorful stunner has a jet-black body, blue feet, a bright yellow chest and face, beady black eyes ringed by green feathers, and a rainbow-hued beak tipped by scarlet, as if it has been dipped in ink. Its similarly colored cousin, Swainson's or chestnut-mandibled toucan. (Ticos call is dios tedé, for the onomatopeic sound it makes), is the largest of the group--it grows to 60 cm long--with a two-tone yellow-and-brown beak. It is found in moist forests below 2,000 feet, notably along the coastal zones, including the Pacific southwest. Listen for a noisy jumble of cries and piercing creaks.
There are also two species of toucanets, smaller cousins of the toucan: the green emerald toucanet, a highland bird with a red tail; and the black yellow-eared toucanet, found in the Caribbean lowlands.
Aracaris (tucancillos) are smaller and sleeker relatives, with more slender beaks. Both the collared aracari (a Caribbean bird) and fiery-billed aracari (its southern Pacific cousin) boast olive-black bodies, faces, and chests, with a dark band across their rust-yellow underbellies. The former has a two-tone yellow-and-black beak; the latter's beak is also two tone--black and fiery orange.
Birds of Prey
Costa Rica has some 50 raptor species: birds that hunt down live prey seized with their talons. The various species have evolved adaptations to specific habitats. For example, the large common black hawk (gavilán cangrejero, or "crab-hunting hawk" to Ticos) snacks on crabs and other marine morsels. And the osprey is known as agula pescadora ("fishing eagle") locally for the skill it applies to scooping fish from rivers or sea while on the wing. It has evolved especially long talons, barbed between the toes, all the better for snatching slippery fish. The bird is found throughout the world and, in Costa Rica, throughout the coastal and inland lowlands.
That lunatic laughter that goes on compulsively at dusk in lowland jungles is the laughing falcon (locally called the guaco for the repetitive "wah-co" sound it makes), which feeds on lizards and snakes. Its plumage is predominantly white, but with brown wings, a black-and-white banded tail, and black spectacles around its eyes.
Eagles: The endangered neotropical harpy eagle (águila arpía) at one-meter-long, the largest of all eagles, is renowned for twisting and diving through the treetops in pursuit of unsuspecting sloths and monkeys. However, sightings in Costa Rica--where in recent years it has been relegated to the Osa Peninsula and more remote ranges of the Talamancas--are extremely rare, and it may already be locally extinct.
Costa Rica's two species of caracaras are close cousins to the eagles, though like vultures they also eat carrion. You'll often see these large, fearsomely beaked, goose-stepping, long-legged birds picking at roadkill. The crested caracara is named for the black crown atop its bright red face. Its white neck fades into a black-and-white barred body and tail, though the wings and back are charcoal black. The name speaks for its buff-colored cousin, the yellow-headed caracara.
Hawks and Kites: Though in many regards identical, hawks are physically robust, with broad wings and short, wide tails, compared to the sleeker kites, which have longer, slender tails and wings.
The most ubiquitous hawk is the small, gray-brown roadside hawk (gavilán chapulinero), commonly seen perched on telegraph poles and fence posts spying for mice and other potential tasty treats. Like many hawks, it has a yellow beak tipped by black, plus yellow feet and eyes, and is also distinguished by the thin rust-red bands down its chest. Its cousin, the larger, browner, migratory broad-winged hawk wings in for a visit September-May and also favors a low perch from which to swoop in for a kill.
The white black-shouldered kite, as its name suggests, wears a black shawl across its back of white and light-gray feathers. It favors open habitat and is thus easily seen. You can't confuse it with the black-chested hawk, a predominantly black-plumed forest dweller with a white underbelly and telltale white tail band. Its polar opposite is the white hawk (gavilán blanco), sporting a black tail band.
Nor can you mistake the black double-toothed hawk, with its white-and-black banded belly and tail, bright-red chest, and white throat, for the graceful, black-and-white American swallow-tailed kite, easily recognized by its long, deeply forked black tail. It takes insects in midair, as well as small lizards nabbed from branches.
Owls: Costa Rica's 17 species of owls are nocturnal hunters, more often heard than seen. An exception is the spectacled owl (Ticos call it bujo de anteojos), which also hunts by day. A large dark-brown owl, it is conspicuous for its yellow chest and white head with black eye patches and black crown.
Doves and Pigeons
Doves and pigeons--called palomas locally--are numerous (Costa Rica has at least 25 species, including endemic neotropical species and migratory visitors familiar to North Americans). The birds belong to the Columbiformes order characterized by the ability, unique in birds, to produce milk for the hatchlings. Remarkably, both genders do so. The secretions gradually diminish, replenished by regurgitated food.
Many neotropical species are far more colorful than their northern counterparts. The large band-tailed pigeon, for example, though predominantly gray, has a green nape with white band, blue wings tipped by brown, a yellow bill, and mauve chest and belly. The mauve-gray red-billed pigeon has a red nape, bright red feet and forewings, and pale-blue rear quarters fading to a black-and-gray tail. And the ruddy pigeon and its ground-dwelling cousin, the ruddy ground-dove, are flushed in various shades of rust and red.
Egrets, Herons, and Relatives
Some 25 or so stilt-legged, long-necked wading birds--members of the Ciconiiformes order--are found in Costa Rica. Most common is the snowy white cattle egret whose numbers have exploded during the past four decades. Uniquely, its preferred turf is terrestial (it favors cattle pastures) and it can often be seen hitching a ride on the back of cattle, which are happy to have it pick off fleas and ticks. The males have head plumes which, along with the back and chest, turn tawny in breeding season. The species is easily mistaken for the snowy egret, a larger though more slender bird wearing "golden slippers" (yellow feet) on its black legs. Largest of the white egrets is the great egret, which grows to one meter tall.
There are three species of brown herons--called "tiger herons" (garza tigre)--in Costa Rica, most notably the bare-throated tiger heron. The little blue heron, commonly seen foraging alongside lowland watercourses, is a handsome blue-gray with purplish head plumage (the female is white, with wings tipped in gray). The northern lowlands are also a good place to spot the relatively small green-backed heron, fronted by rusty plumage streaked with white. The dun-colored yellow-crowned night heron is diurnal, not nocturnal as its name suggests. It is unmistakable, with its black-and-white head crowned with a swept-back yellow plume. Another instantly identifiable bird is the stocky, gray boat-billed heron, named for the keel-shape of its abnormally wide, thick bill. It, too, wears a plumed crown (of black), and has a rust underbelly.
Storks--notable for their fearsomely heavy, slightly upturned bills--also inhabit the lowland wetlands, notably in Caño Negro and Palo Verde National Parks, where the endangered jabiru can be seen. This massive bird (it grows to over one meter tall) wears snow-bright plumage, with a charcoal head, and a red scarf around its neck. Its relative, the wood stork, is also white, but with black flight feathers and featherless black head.
The roseate spoonbill (espátula rosada)--also relegated to Caño Negro and Palo Verde National Parks--is the most dramatic of the waders, thanks to its shocking pink plumage and spatulate bill. Unlike its relatives, it feeds by sight, stirring up the bottom with its feet and disturbing tiny fish and other critters, then snap!
Costa Rica also has three species of ibis, recognizable by their long, slender, down-turned bills handy for probing muddy watercourses. Nicoya and Guanacaste are good places to spot the white ibis, with its startlingly red bill and legs; to see the green-black green ibis, head to the Caribbean.
Of all the exotically named bird species in Costa Rica, the hummingbirds beat all contenders. Their names are poetry: the green-crowned brilliant, purple-throated mountaingem, Buffon's plummeteer, and the bold and strikingly beautiful fiery-throated hummingbird. More than 300 species of New World hummingbirds constitute the family Trochilidae (Costa Rica has 51), and all are stunningly pretty. The fiery-throated hummingbird, for example, is a glossy green, shimmering iridescent at close range, with dark blue tail, violet-blue chest, glittering coppery orange throat, and a brilliant blue crown set off by velvety black on the sides and back of the head. Some males take their exotic plumage one step further and are bedecked with long streamer tails and iridescent mustaches, beards, and visors.
These tiny high-speed machines are named because of the hum made by the beat of their wings. At up to 100 beats per second, the hummingbirds' wings move so rapidly that the naked eye cannot detect them. They are often seen hovering at flowers, from which they extract nectar and often insects with their long, hollow, and extensile tongues forked at the tip. Alone among birds, they can generate power on both the forward and backward wing strokes, a distinction that allows them to also fly backward!
The energy required to function at such an intense pitch is prodigious. The hummingbird has the highest metabolic rate per unit of body weight in the avian world (its pulse rate can exceed 1,200 beats a minute) and requires proportionately large amounts of food. The white-eared hummingbird consumes up to 850 percent of its own weight in food and water each day. At night, it goes into "hibernation," lowering its body temperature and metabolism to conserve energy.
Typically loners, hummingbirds bond with the opposite sex only for the few seconds it takes to mate. Many, such as the fiery-throated hummingbird, are fiercely territorial. With luck you might witness a spectacular aerial battle between males defending their territories. In breeding season, the males "possess" territories rich in flowers attractive to females: the latter gains an ample food source in exchange for offering the male sole paternity rights. Nests are often no larger than a thimble, loosely woven with cobwebs and flecks of bark and lined with silky plant down. Inside, the female will lay two eggs no larger than coffee beans.
The motmot is a sickle-billed bird that makes its home in a hole in the ground. Of nine species of motmot in tropical America, six live in Costa Rica. You'll find them from humid coastal southwest plains to the cool highland zone and dry Guanacaste region and, yes, even San José. You can't mistake this gaily colored charmer: Motmots have a pendulous twin-feathered tail with the barbs missing three-quarters of the way down, leaving two bare feather shafts with disc-shaped tips resembling oval pendant earrings.
Two commonly seen species are the blue-crowned motmot and turquoise-bowed motmot. The former has a green-and-brown body with red belly, a scintillating turquoise head, and beady red eyes peeping out between a black Lone Ranger-style mask. The latter is similarly colored, but with a red back and a large black spot on its chest, plus longer bare "handles" on its racquet-like tail.
| WHY THE MOTMOT LIVES UNDERGROUND |
According to Bribrí legend, the god Sibo asked all the creatures to help him make the world. They all chipped in gladly except the motmot, who hid in a hole. Unfortunately, the bird left his tail hanging out. When the other birds saw this they picked the feathers from the motmot's tail but left the feathers at the tip.
When the world was complete, Sibo gave all the tired animals a rest. Soon the motmot appeared and began boasting about how hard he had labored. But the lazy bird's tail gave the game away, so Sibo, who guessed what had happened, admonished the motmot and banished him to living in a hole in the ground.
Image © Bob Race
If ever there were an avian symbol of the neotropics, it must be the parrot. This family of birds is marked by savvy intelligence, an ability to mimic the human voice, and uniformly short, hooked bills hinged to provide the immense power required for cracking seeds and nuts. Costa Rica claims 16 of the world's 330 or so species, including six species of parakeets and two species of macaws, the giants of the parrot kingdom.
The parrots are predominantly green, with short, truncated tails (parakeets and macaws, however, have long tails), and varying degrees of colored markings. All are voluble, screeching raucously as they barrel overhead in fast-flight formation.
Macaws: Although macaw is the common name for any of 15 species of these large, long-tailed birds found throughout Central and South America, only two species inhabit Costa Rica: the scarlet macaw (lapa roja) and the great green or Buffon's macaw (lapa verde). Both bird populations are losing their homes to deforestation and poaching. The macaw populations have declined so dramatically that they are now in danger of disappearing completely. (There are far more macaws in captivity than exist in the wild.)
What magnificent creatures these birds are! No protective coloration. No creeping about trying to blend in with the countryside. Instead, they posture like kings and queens. The largest of the neotropical parrots, macaws have harsh, raucous voices that are filled with authority. They fly overhead, calling loudly, their long, trailing tail feathers and short wings making it impossible to confuse them with other birds. They are gregarious and rarely seen alone. They are usually paired male and female--they're monogamous for life--often sitting side by side, grooming and preening each other, and conversing in rasping loving tones, or flying two by two.
Macaws usually nest in softwood trees, where termites have hollowed out holes. April through July, you might see small groups of macaws clambering about the upper trunks of dead trees, squabbling over holes and crevices.
They get their names because they supposedly feed on the fruits of the macaw palms. In fact, they rarely eat fruit, but prefer seeds and nuts, which they extract with a hooked nutcracker of such strength that it can split that most intractable of nuts, the Brazil nut--or a human finger.
The scarlet macaw (lapa roja) can grow to 85 cm in length. It wears a dazzling, rainbow-colored jacket of bright yellow and blue, green, or scarlet. Though the scarlet macaw ranges from Mexico to central South America and was once abundant on both coasts of Costa Rica, today it is found only in a few parks on the Pacific shore, and rarely on the Caribbean side. Only three wild populations of scarlet macaws in Central America have a long-term chance of survival--at Carara Biological Reserve and Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, and Coiba Island in Panamá. The bird can also be seen with regularity at Palo Verde National Park, Manuel Antonio National Park, and Santa Rosa National Park, though these populations are below the minimum critical size. An estimated 200 scarlets live at Carara and 1,600 at Corcovado.
It is impossible to tell male from female. The scarlet's bright red-orange plumage with touches of blue and yellow does not vary between the sexes or with aging.
The Buffon's macaw (lapa verde), or great green macaw, is slightly smaller than the scarlet. It has a pea-green body, with a white face splotched with red, blue wingtips, and a red tail. Fewer than 50 breeding pairs of Buffon's macaw are thought to exist in the wild, exclusively in the Caribbean and northern lowlands. The bird relies on the almendro tree--a heavily logged species--for nest sites and calls have gone out for a ban on logging almendros.
| SAVING THE MACAW |
|Several conservation groups are working to stabilize and reestablish the scarlet macaw population. Deep in the forest of the Carara Biological Reserve, Sergio Volio oversees a project to build artificial nests high up in jallinazo trees beyond the reach of poachers. Although macaws are the biggest attraction at Carara, they are threatened with extinction by poachers who take the chicks to sell on the black market. Most die, however, even before they are sold. Volio estimates up to 95 percent of natural nests at the reserve are poached. Volio's is the first project that will protect the birds' breeding grounds in their natural habitat. Your donations will help build the birdhouses, which cost about $100. Contact: Geotur, P.O. Box 469 Y Griega, San José 1011, tel. 534-1867, fax 253-6338.
Zoo Ave at La Garita, west of Alajuela, has the most extensive macaw breeding program in the nation, and plans to release 10 macaws to the wild each year.
Amigos de las Aves, Apdo. 2306-4050, Alajuela, tel./fax 441-2658, email: email@example.com, is a macaw-breeding program on a three-hectare estate--Flor de Mayo--in Río Segundo de Alajuela. Here, Richard and Marge Frisius, two experienced aviculturists, raise scarlet baby macaws using special techniques and cages (in 1997 they also succeeded in a first-ever experiment to breed green macaws in captivity). The goal is to teach domestically raised macaws how to find native food and then release them into carefully selected wilds of Costa Rica with the intent of reestablishing flocks of these magnificent birds in parts of the nation where there is still appropriate habitat for viable populations to establish themselves.
Dr. Dagmar Werner--famous as the "Iguana Mama"--heads the Macaw Program, a captive breeding program run in collaboration with the World Wildife Fund and Costa Rica's National University's School of Medicine (see Iguana Park in the Central Pacific chapter).
For more information on how you can help save the great green macaw, contact George Powell, tel./fax 645-5024, email: firstname.lastname@example.org; or Vivienne Solis, World Conservation Union, Apdo. 1161-2150, Moravia, tel. 236-2733, fax 240-9934.
Seabirds and Shorebirds
Costa Rica has almost 100 species of seabirds and shorebirds, including a wide variety of gulls, with the most common being the laughing gull (gaviota reidora). Many are migratory visitors, more abundant in winter months, including the sanderling, a small light-gray shorebird that scurries along the surf line in a high-speed jittery gait, like a mechanical toy.
The large, pouch-billed brown pelican (pelicano) can be seen up and down the Pacific coast (and, in lesser numbers, on the Caribbean), where they can be admired gliding in superb formation over the water, diving for fish, or lazing on fishing boats, waiting for the next catch to come in.
Boobies inhabit several islands off Nicoya, as do storm petrels, jaegers, the beautiful red-billed, fork-tailed royal tern, and a variety of other seabirds. Oystercatchers, whimbrels, sandpipers (often seen in vast flocks), and other shoreline waders frequent the coastal margins.
Frigate birds, with their long scimitar wings and forked tails, hang like sinister kites in the wind all along the Costa Rican coast. They hold a single position in the sky, as if suspended from invisible strings, and from this airborne perch harry gulls and terns until the latter release their catch (bird-watchers have a name for such thievery: kleptoparasitism).
Despite the sinister look imparted by its long hooked beak, the frigate bird is quite beautiful. The adult male is all black with a lustrous faint purplish-green sheen on its back (especially during the courtship season). The female, the much larger of the two, is easily distinguished by the white feathers that extend up her abdomen and the breast, and the ring of blue around her eyes.
Second only to a frigate bird's concern for food is its interest in the opposite sex. The females do the conspicuous searching out and selecting of mates. The hens take to the air above the rookery to look over the males, who cluster in groups atop the scrubby mangrove bushes. Whenever a female circles low over the bushes, the males tilt their heads far back to show off their fully inflated scarlet gular pouches (appropriately shaped like hearts), vibrate their wings rapidly back and forth, and attempt to entice the female with loud clicking and drumming sounds.
Once the pair is established, a honeymoon of nest-building begins. In the structured world of the frigate birds it is the male's job to find twigs for the nest. The piratical frigates will not hesitate to steal twigs from their neighbors' nests, so the females stay home to guard them. The female lays a single egg, and each parent takes turns at one-week shifts during the eight-week incubation. They guard the chick closely for predatory neighbors; hawks and owls make quick feasts of the unwary young. For five months, the dejected-looking youngsters sit immobile beneath the hot sun; even when finally airborne, they remain dependent on their parents for more than a year while they learn the complex trade of air piracy.
Superb stunt flyers, frigate birds often bully other birds on the wing, pulling at the tails of their victims until the latter release or regurgitate a freshly caught meal. Frigate birds also catch much of their food themselves. You may see them skimming the water, snapping up squid, flying fish, and other morsels off the water's surface. (They must keep themselves dry, as they have only a small preen gland, insufficient to oil their feathers; if they get too wet they become waterlogged and drown.)
Tanagers and Other Passerines
Costa Rica boasts 50 species of tanagers--small, exorbitantly colored birds that favor dark tropical forests. Tanagers brighten the jungle, and you are likely to spot their bright plumage as you hike along trails. The tanagers' short stubby wings enable them to swerve and dodge at high speed through the undergrowth as they chase after insects.
Among the most astonishing is the summer tanager, flame-red from tip to tail. The black male scarlet-rumped tanager also has a startlingly flame-red rump (his mate--they travel together--is variegated orange and olive-gray). The exotically plumed blue-gray tanager is as variegated in turquoise and teal as a Bahamian sea, while the silver-throated tanager is lemon yellow.
Tanagers belong to the order Passerines--"perching birds"--that includes about half of all Costa Rica's bird species. It is a taxonomically challenging group, with members characterized by certain anatomical features: notably, three toes pointing forward and a longer toe pointing back. Sparrows, robins, and finches are Passerines, as are antbirds (30 species), blackbirds (20 species), flycatchers (78 species), warblers (52 species), and wrens (22 species).
Many tropical Passerines are more exuberantly liveried than their temperate counterparts. Look for the blue-black-and-red blue-hooded euphonia, the Day-glo green and yellow golden-bowed chlorophonia, and the black-and-flame orange red-capped manakin.
Costa Rica has 10 of the 40 species of trogons: brightly colored, long-tailed, short-beaked, pigeon-sized, forest-dwelling tropical birds. Most trogons combine bodies of two primary colors--red and blue, blue and yellow, or green and some other color--with a black-and-white striped tail. The orange-bellied trogon, for example, is green, with a bright orange belly beneath a sash of white. The trogons are most dazzlingly represented by the quetzal.
Many bird-watchers travel to Costa Rica simply to catch sight of the quetzal, or resplendent trogon. What this bird lacks in physical stature it makes up for in audacious plumage: vivid, shimmering green that ignites in the sunshine, flashing emerald to golden and back to iridescent green. The male sports a fuzzy punk hairdo, a scintillating crimson belly, and two brilliant green tail plumes up to 60 cm long, edged in snowy white and sinuous as feather boas. In common with other bird species, the male outshines the female, who lacks the elaborate plumage and has a dun-colored head and only a splotch of crimson.
Its beauty was so fabled and the bird so elusive and shy that early European naturalists believed the quetzal was a fabrication of Central American natives. In 1861, English naturalist Osbert Salvin, the first European to record observing a quetzal, pronounced it "unequaled for splendour among the birds of the New World," and promptly shot it. During the course of the next three decades, thousands of quetzal plumes crossed the Atlantic to fill the specimen cabinets of European collectors and adorn the fashionable milliners' shops of Paris, Amsterdam, and London. Salvin redeemed himself by writing the awesome 40-volume tome Biología Centrali Americana, which provided virtually a complete catalog of neotropical species.
The quetzal's territory spans a radius of approximately 300 meters, which the male proclaims each dawn through midmorning and again at dusk with a telltale melodious whistle--a hollow, high-pitched call of two notes, one ascending steeply, the other descending--repeated every 8-10 minutes.
Nest holes (often hollowed out by woodpeckers) are generally about 10 meters from the ground. Within, the female generally lays two light-blue eggs, which take about 18 days to hatch. Both sexes share parental duties. By day, the male incubates the eggs while his two-foot-long tail feathers hang out of the nest. At night, the female takes over.
Although the quetzal eats insects, small frogs, and lizards, it enjoys a penchant for the fruit of the broad-leafed aguacatillo (a kind of miniature avocado in the laurel family), which depends on the bird to distribute seeds. The movement of quetzals follows the seasonal fruiting of different laurel species. The quetzal has rather meticulous feeding hours, which you can almost set your watch by. It's fascinating to watch them feeding: an upward swoop for fruit is the bird's aerial signature.
Everywhere throughout its 1,000-mile range (from southern Mexico to western Panamá), the quetzal is endangered by loss of its cloud-forest habitat. This is particularly true of the lower forests around 1,500 to 2,000 meters, to which families of quetzals descend to hollow out nests in dead and decaying trees. This is the best time to see narcissistic males showing off their tail plumes in undulating flight, or launching spiraling skyward flights, which presage a plummeting dive with their tail feathers rippling behind, all part of the courtship ritual.
Despite its iridescence, the bird's plumage offers excellent camouflage under the rainy forest canopy. They also sit motionless for long periods, with their vibrant red chests turned away from any suspected danger. If a quetzal knows you're close by and feels threatened, you may hear a harsh "weec-weec" warning call and see the male's flicking tail feathers betray his presence. Quetzals are easily seen throughout highland Costa Rica at cloud forest elevations.
| QUETZAL CULTURE |
|Image © Bob Race|
Early Maya and Aztecs worshiped a god called Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent that bestowed corn on humans, and depicted him with a headdress of quetzal feathers. The bird's name is derived from quetzalli, an Aztec word meaning "precious" or "beautiful." The Maya considered the male's iridescent green tail feathers worth more than gold, and killing the sacred bird was a capital crime (captured quetzals had their tail feathers plucked and were released to grown new ones). Quetzal plumes and jade, which were traded throughout Mesoamerica, were the Maya's most precious objects. It was the color that was significant: "Green--the color of water, the life-giving fluid. Green, the color of the maize crop, had special significance to the people of Mesoamerica," wrote Adrian Digby in his monograph Mayan Jades, "and both jade and the feathers of the quetzal were green."
During the colonial period, the indigenous people of Central America came to see the quetzal as a symbol of independence and freedom. Popular folklore relates how the quetzal got its dazzling blood-red breast: in 1524, when the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado defeated the Maya chieftain Tecun Uman, a gilt and green quetzal lit on Uman's chest at the moment he fell mortally wounded; when the bird took off again, its breast was stained with the brilliant crimson blood of the Maya.
Archaeologists believe that the wearing of quetzal plumes was proscribed, under pain of death, except for Maya priests and nobility. It became a symbol of authority vested in a theocratic elite, much as only Roman nobility was allowed to wear purple silks.
Costa Rica lies directly beneath a migratory corridor between North and South America, and in the northern lowland wetlands, the air is always full of blue-winged teals, shoveler ducks, and other waterfowl settling and taking off amid the muddy, pool-studded grasslands. Most duck species are winter migrants from North America. Neotropical species include the black-bellied whistling duck and Muscovy ducks.
The wetlands are also inhabited by 18 species of the order Gruiformes: rails, bitterns, and their relatives, with their large, wide-splayed feet good for wading and running across lily- and grass-choked watercourses. Many are brightly colored, including purple gallinule, liveried in vivid violet and green, with a yellow-tipped red bill, bright yellow legs, and a blue dot on its forehead. The order includes many migrants, including the charcoal-gray, white-billed American coot and sunbittern, a long-legged, multihued wader with bright orange legs and bill, and--when in flight--a dramatic sunburst pattern in white, black, and brown beneath the wings, like the markings of a military aircraft.
The widely dispersed rascón or gray-necked wood rail (common along lowland rivers and lagoons throughout the country) is easily spotted stalking the muddy watercourses in search of frogs and other tidbits. The dark olive-brown bird has a colorful bronze breast, gray neck, yellow legs, and red legs and eyes. The black-and-brown, yellow-beaked northern jacana is also easy to see, especially in the canals of Tortuguero, hopping about atop water lilies thanks to its long, slender toes--hence its nickname, the "lily-trotter." It has a strange yellow shield atop its bill, and yellow streaked wing feathers. The female jacana is promiscuous, mating with many males, who take on the task of nest-building and brooding eggs that may have been fertilized by a rival. Tortuguero is also a good place to spot the sungrebe, a furtive, brown waterbird with black-and-white striped neck and head and red beak; it has a habit--among the males--of carrying its young chicks in a fold of skin under its wing.
You can't help but be unnerved at the first sight of scrawny black vultures picking at some roadside carcass, or swirling overhead on the thermals as if waiting for your car to break down. They look quite ominous in their undertaker's plumage, with bald heads and hunched shoulders. Costa Rica has four species of vultures (zopilotes to Ticos), easily identified by the color of the skin on their heads.
The grotesquely red-headed turkey vulture is common in all parts of Costa Rica below 2,000 meters, noticeably so in moister coastal areas where it hops about on the streets of forlorn towns such as Golfito and Puerto Viejo de Limón. The stockier black vulture has a black head (as do juvenile turkey vultures). Both are otherwise charcoal colored. The two adopt different flying patterns: the turkey vulture flies low, seeking out carrion with its well-developed sense of smell; the black vulture soars higher and uses its eyes to spot carrion and often drops in to chase off smaller vultures from carcasses it has claimed.
Count yourself lucky to spot the rarer lesser yellow-headed vulture, with its namesake yellow head; or the mighty king vulture, widely dispersed, but most frequent in Corcovado. The latter wears a handsome white coat with black wing feathers and tail, and a wattled head variegated in vermilion and yellow.
Other Notable Birds
The three-wattled bellbird, which inhabits the cloud forests, is rarely spotted in the mist-shrouded treetops, though the male's eerie call, described by one writer as a ventriloqual "bonk!" (it is more like a hammer clanging on an anvil), haunts the forest as long as the sun is up. It is named for the strange pendulous wattles that dangle from its bill. The bellbird is one of the Cotinga family that includes many of Costa Rica's most exotically liveried species.
In the moist Caribbean lowlands (and occasionally elsewhere) you may spot the telltale, pendulous woven nests--often one meter long--of Montezuma oropendolas, a large bronze-colored bird with a black neck, head, and belly, a blue-and-orange bill, and bright yellow outer tail feathers. The birds nest in colonies. Their favored trees often look as if they have been hung with cheesesacks. The chestnut-headed oropendola is less commonly seen.
Nicoya and Guanacaste are good places to spot the white-throated magpie jay, a large and gregarious bird that often begs food from tourists. It is sky-blue above, with a snow-white throat and belly fringed by a dark blue necklace, and--unmistakably--has a tufted crest of black feathers curling forward.
The great curassow, growing as tall as one meter, is almost too big for flight and tends to run through the undergrowth if disturbed. You're most likely to see this endangered bird in Corcovado or Santa Rosa National Park.
All four New World species of kingfishers inhabit Costa Rica: the large red-breasted; the slate-blue ringed kingfisher, which can grow to 40 cm; its smaller cousin, the belted kingfisher; and the Amazon kingfisher and smaller green kingfisher, both green with white and red underparts.
The common pauraque (or cuyeo) is a member of the Nightjar family--nocturnal birds that in flight are easily mistaken for bats. They like to sit on the roads at night, where they are well camouflaged (mottled gray, black, and brown), especially on bumpy, dusty roads. The first you know of it is when it suddenly decides to lift off as your car approaches, causing you at least a heck of a scare.
Another neotropical Nightjar is the odd-looking great potoo (nictibio grande), a superbly camouflaged bird that perches upright on tree stumps and holds its hawk-like head haughtily aloft. Its squat cousin, the common potoo, with its beady yellow-and-black eyes, resembles an owl.
Other birds you might expect to see include the 16 species of woodpeckers, cuckoos, any of 11 species of swifts, the tinamou (a large bird resembling a cross between a hen and a dove), and a host of birds you may not recognize but whose names you will never forget: scarlet-thighed dacnis, violaceous trogons, tody motmots, laneolated monlets, lineated foliage-gleaners, and black-capped pygmy tyrants.