It is natural to want an escape from winter. As the season progresses, the stronger becomes the desire for palm trees and white sandy beaches.
Toucans, the Fruit Loops bird, are natural inhabitants of the forests of Costa Rica. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram
In this day and age, the possibility of whisking away to a tropical destination has never been so easy. But a birder’s idea of an escape to a warm destination is a little different than your average person.
Palm trees and sandy beaches are nice, but that is not where most of the birds are. Birders are looking for tropical locations with forest. This can be a short walk from the palm treed beach, which could be important if you are travelling with a non-birding spouse.
Just say Costa Rica to a birder and see the eyes light up.
Costa Rica means Rich Coast in Spanish. Costa Rica means rich birding to a birder. The country of Costa Rica is just over half the size of the island of Newfoundland and has about 900 species of birds, more than Canada and the United States combined.
Intensive three-week birding tours of Costa Rica regularly tally over 500 species of bird. Costa Rica is situated just north of the equator, so it has tropical warmth. It also has plenty of beaches and palm trees.
Costa Rica is popular birding destination for birders from around the world during the winter. December to April is the dry season in Costa Rica.
It is a relatively prosperous country with tourism bringing more money into the country than the leading exports of pineapples, bananas and coffee.
It is full of exotically coloured birds. There are toucans, wild parrots, scarlet macaws, honeycreepers, more than 50 species of hummingbirds, scores of tropical tanagers and much more. There is an endless array of novel colour combinations.
Some of the tourist lodges have bird feeders. Instead of putting out bird seed, in Costa Rica it is bananas, watermelon, papaya and pineapples that bring in the birds. Brilliantly coloured tanagers and honeycreepers are standard feeder fare in Costa Rica. The feast of colour is enough to blow your synapses.
While the brightly coloured birds are an exhilarating breath of fresh air for a visiting Newfoundland birder, sooner or later you realize that more than half the species of birds in Costa Rica live in the jungle.
They will not come to bird feeders. In fact, many of them shun sunlight. They are often coloured in blacks and primitive browns to match the shadowy elements of their world.
The undergrowth on the floor beneath 100-foot-tall trees in the jungle is impenetrable by human beings. You are forced to birdwatch from the roadside or nature trails carved out of the jungle in parks and reserves.
Even then, most of the bird sounds you hear you do not recognize. They will not be enticed out into the open using the tricks we use in Canada such as making the pishing sound.
Patience is your friend. You have to wait for the birds to come to you.
When you glimpse a movement you’d better get on it right away. If you are lucky enough to lock on to a bird, try to memorize the features. Hopefully you have studied the bird book enough to at least have an idea what family of birds it belongs to.
Watch the bird as long as you can because you will probably not get a second chance. Jungle birds often occur in mixed feeding flocks.
Count your lucky stars when this happens. You may have to hold onto the images of several unfamiliar birds in your brain before you can get out your field guide to find out what species of birds you just saw!
There are frustrating moments when you narrow a bird down to two similar species but you didn’t retain enough information to make a firm identification. But the successes can be very sweet.
You can greatly increase your payoff in the jungle by hiring a local bird guide. These guys know their birds. They are often young keeners with a genuine interest in birds and make their living showing visiting birders jungle birds. I hired a guide, Johan Fernandez, for six hours in the famous Carara National Park.
Giant blue morpho butterflies danced along the trail. Cicadas buzzed loudly in the trees. Howler monkeys roared in the distance. The air was thick and humid. Every pore in my body was sweating, even though we were in the shade of tall trees and moving slowly.
Johan was a magician. In the first 100 metres of the trail, he pulled out birds that were dreams for me. A pair of dusky antbirds, a chestnut-backed antbird followed by a dot-winged antwren, a royal flycatcher and a blue-crowned manakin.
Any one of these birds would have made my day. It was one exotic jungle bird after another. I was in seventh heaven.
The ultimate sighting
But Johan had something better in mind. He was after a bird that I knew existed but never even considered that I, the ultimate jungle neophyte birder from Newfoundland, would ever get to see in my lifetime.
There is a group of birds occurring in the jungles of Central and South America called the antpittas. They have long legs and very short wings that they hardly ever use. They live on the forest floor like mice. In the dim light of dusk and dawn, they are known to step out into the open on a jungle trail. They are mythical to birders of the tropics.
Johan knew where they were. He played a recording of its call. Finally one responded. It was not coming out to the trail so we crawled into the undergrowth.
He looked back at me saying in his Spanish accent watch out for fer-de-lance, just one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. A great tinamou, a secretive jungle chicken-like bird walked off to the side unconcerned.
We stopped and played the recording again. The antpitta sounds closer. We hardly breathed. Scanning with binoculars through the dense underbrush, in a miracle moment, I spotted the antpitta. It was the streak-chested antpitta standing all of 10-centimetres tall on a small stump, heaving out its little chest issuing its call, a series of six or seven piping notes.
I couldn’t believe little old me was looking at the epitome of jungle birds.
It was the moment of the trip. It was the barb on the hook that has me hungry for more jungle experiences like this.
I am already thinking about next winter’s escape — Columbia? Ecuador? More of Costa Rica?
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental
consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org,
or by phone at 722-0088.