Costa Rica - Chasing the Colorful Birds
October 10, 2019 ~ After coming home from Costa Rica and thinking about it a bit it seems to me that bird photo opportunities there can be divided into three categories.
The easiest way is from a slow moving boat that can stop and backup and turn and get you closer and closer to your target. We got fantastic shots of the Bare-throated Tiger Heron I told you about a few days ago and still more Yellow-headed Caracaras and Boat-billed Herons I haven’t gotten to yet. Plus, all the Kingfishers we saw on the Rio Frio in Cano Negro. We even saw a Pale-billed Woodpecker plus Green Iguanas and monkeys, and a lot of smaller birds we would not have seen except by boat. Boat drivers know where the birds like to hang out and many of them are conscious of what makes a good photo and will maneuver the boat for the best sun angle possible.
Boat rides are just plain fun and highly recommended.
Another way to get great shots is at feeder locations such as Cinchona Soda y Mirador in the mountains, Dave and Dave’s Nature Park and Bogarin Trails. Many restaurants and lodges also work to attract birds. Fruit and seeds are put out on low tables or even stuck on limbs for the local birds. They make their way closer and closer, stopping on strategically placed perches as they wait their turn.
It is great fun and you can set up your tripod and take a kazillion shots of tanagers, parakeets, chacalakas, woodpeckers and hummers swarming around the feeders. And if it rains you are under a cover and can keep right on clicking.
It is not unusual for Toucans and larger birds to show up at the feeders. We even got photos of a Gray-necked Wood Rail at Bogarin Trails. He was on the ground near a small pond; there was a tiny Crake that joined him but only for a second.
Aside from the feeders around venues and lodges you should know the jungle is not just teeming with birds flitting around at eye level. They are mostly in the tops of really high trees going about the business of being birds. In giant trees over a hundred feet tall on a hillside towering above you. This is where knowledge and fieldcraft pay the biggest dividends. A skillful guide can use sounds and a variety of other methods to get opportunities that would be extremely difficult to encounter otherwise. And this takes a huge investment of patience and time on your part. I think this is where binocular birders have an advantage as they are used to this kind of slow-paced birding.
Photographers, not so much.
It was really hard, y’all.
The birds will fly down a bit off to one side and then maybe cross over to drop a little lower on the other side. So you wait. And wait... and may only get a glimpse of the chosen bird through a small opening between heavy foliage. The light will probably not be good. There may be obstructions. The birds flit off and hopefully come back to a more open well-lit spot.
But you can be rewarded with seeing birds that do not come to feeder tables. Antshrikes and antbirds, woodcreepers, wrens, ephonias, jacamars, grassquits and mot mots, even owls. We often looked for birds in lodge parking lots early mornings and then along country and mountain roads where it was safe to park.
All are fun (if not frustrating!) and you can be rewarded with some great bird shots. There are some stunning small birds in Costa Rica, but takes a lot of hard work. Many areas are darker than you are used to requiring high ISOs and slower shutter speeds. Action shots in the darker forests and jungle are just not going to happen. IMO. The little White-whiskered Puffbirds above were taken at ISO 5000 (!) and at 1/160 sec. The f/7.1 was a real trade off; it made it darker but I was trying to get both in the shot. We had waited and waited as one moved closer and finally was right there in front of us. Then suddenly there were two of them on the branch!
We only stopped when a couple of people showed up and then… it started to rain. Big time.
The Olive-backed Euphonia was one of the cutest birds I saw. This one was near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui . The guide books tell me he is mostly in the Caribbean lowlands and foothills and eats fruit and berries. This is a male (with the russet belly) and evidently he was singing up a storm.
One of the most colorful and exciting little birds is the Green Honeycreeper. Above is a male, and we saw them at feeders AND in the wild. I think they may be quite common in the lowlands and middle elevations of Costa Rica as we saw a lot of them. The shocking turquoise is just that bright. They eat fruit, nectar and some insects.
The female Green Honeycreeper is lime green and I thought this was a female until I verified the ID with our guide, Greg Lavaty. It is a young male just getting his big boy feathers; now that he pointed it out I can see spots of turquoise coming in.
And this is one I was completely stumped on. Greg quickly identified it as a female Shining Honeycreeper. The blue stripes and bright yellow legs plus the curved bill are clear markers. The male is bright blue but I don’t remember seeing one that day and I think I would.
Before we left I got The Birds of Costa Rica Field Guide and it was invaluable during the trip to try and remember what we were seeing. And of course after we got home to identify all these new birds.
If you are a first time visitor to Costa Rica I want to emphasize the need to study before hand. I thought I did. But I got too hung up on wet and dry seasons and altitudes and this area and that. And I know the general shape of a kingfisher, flycatcher, wren. But what the hell is an Antbird? or an Euphonia? Why are there so many tanagers? And what is the difference in Mot Mots and Trogans?
Knowing the general size, shape and color of a new bird is extremely helpful when your guide is saying "he is just to the left of that forked branch behind the light colored vertical tree on your right next to the big curved vine. You can’t miss it" and you have no idea even what color bird to look for!
Things can happen fast in the jungle and I could have been much better prepared.
Speaking of colorful birds, we had a lot of opportunities for the Turquoise-browed Mot Mot. I love this image even though his fantastic lolly-pop shaped tail is mostly covered up. These guys will just sit on a branch above you, wagging their tail and often turn to show you their backs. It eats insects and small reptiles and nests in a tunnel in an earth bank.
The Dusky Antbird is not colorful, but is still handsome and interesting. Imagine yourself trying to photograph a tiny shy black bird in the darkest part of LaFitte’s Cove except the trees are a hundred feet high and you are peering through dripping leaves and branches… and you can appreciate the challenge. I am not sure I even could see the bird in the viewfinder. Never have I shot such high ISOs and low shutter speeds. And to think I debated even bringing the tripod! It is a necessity for these low light-low shutter speed occasions. And there are a lot of them.
Wikipedia says this about the Dusky Antbird: “It is easier to hear than see in its dense habitat.” Antbirds are a huge family and quite common in Central and South America. They eat insects and arthropods gleaned from foliage and some do follow swarming army ants to feast on the flushed invertebrates.
Oh, off the subject but we saw lots of those Leaf-cutter Ants.
I don’t recall either of the Barred Antshrikes showing up at any feeders but I could be wrong. They eat insects and are typically found in territorial pairs. The female, above, is a beautiful russet and has some serious markings around her face. Both have light eyes.
The male is a dizzy pattern of black and white which allows him to blend in well in dappled light. Both have cute crests that make them look so animated.
The bright pink-magenta in the background of the image above is some variety of the Cordyline plant we see at Houston Patio and Garden back in the covered shady areas. It grows all over Costa Rica. In fact, I saw so many plants I have tried to grow at home that either died here from too much sun or a freeze.
Still, it has inspired me to work a bit harder on my backyard. I need some mid-level planting for the birds to land on between the tall trees and the bird bath.
And more flowers.
And a water feature…
Around the Arenal area we checked a running stream several times for the Fasciated Tiger Heron but had no luck. BUT, off in a relatively clear area near some fence rows we found this Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. Some of the literature say they used to regularly occur in South Texas but are rarely seen now. They are all through Mexico down to Panama in brushy scrubland eating insects and grasshoppers; probably a similar diet as our familiar Common Yellowthroats. Who knows why it stopped venturing north?
Another bird we didn’t find at feeders was the Rufous-tailed Jacomar. It reminds you a bit of a large hummingbird but flies out from its perch to catch insects. Beautiful bird and we found this one because he was calling. My hearing is awful but they make a loud pee-op sound. I am thinking this is a male because of the white throat.
The first few days I couldn’t see anything. I would stare in the direction Greg was pointing and the only movements I saw were leaves in the breeze. It was extremely frustrating on top of not knowing what settings I was going to use if I did see the target bird. Often times they are in the dark and eventually move into a relatively brighter location. Finding movement in the foliage from a tripod is not easy and the very idea of shooting at 1/100 sec was just so foreign. But little by little with practice it got easier. By the last few days I was feeling much more comfortable and getting a bit better than bird-on-a-stick shots. I would still like to have more images of birds grabbing insects or wings up or interacting more with the environment. But that is what it all about, right? Setting challenges and goals, improving and getting better.
Oh, the beautiful bird in the feature spot is a Golden-hooded Tanager. He showed his face the very first morning in Puerto Viejo; what a welcome to Costa Rica.
Are you all fired up to go to Costa Rica now? Were the Toucans and Tiger Herons were just a warm-up for all these strange and beautiful exotic birds? Let me know what you think in the comments below.