Costa Rica - Bare-throated Tiger Heron
October 8, 2019 ~ When we were planning our trip with Greg Lavaty of Texas Target Birds I remember telling him hummingbirds were cool but not that high on my list. We wanted colorful birds, new birds and especially wanted to see long-legged waders that we do not have at home. For the areas we planned to explore the Bare-throated Tiger Heron was pretty much a certainty. In fact, we found them almost every day; I don’t know how many images I have but I quickly processed 30 to choose from for this post.
Bare-throated Tiger Herons are smaller than the familiar Great Blue and Great Egret (which we pointedly ignored on this trip) but much larger than the familiar Green Herons or Little Blues. They are rather medium in size; similar to a Reddish Egret but stockier. My field guide says they are about 30 inches tall. They are not sexually dimorphic; males and females look the same. Adults have a black cap and gray cheeks and interesting tiny overall patterns along the neck and back. There is a striped fore neck and of course, the bare spot on their throat which gives them their name. A very handsome bird a bit reminiscent of night-herons as they quietly watch for prey.
Juveniles do not have the black cap or gray tones but have more of a cinnamon brown coloration, but all have tiny overall patterns that make you a bit dizzy.
We saw a few in the marshy fields around Cano Negro and Greg stopped the car for us to get some shots. But they were far away and generally flew when we finally got them sighted and in focus. And we even saw a few on the boat rides on the Rio Frio but the light was harsh. He assured us we would have more opportunities.
We followed this guy for a bit and he flew up to a low branch. Bare-throated Tiger Herons have relatively short legs compared to say.. a Reddish Egret. It gives them an odd but unmistakable shape.
One afternoon we walked a ways on a levee road looking for Bitterns in the high grass. To get back to the car we had to traverse a cable ferry across a small still creek. I must not have had my phone with me that day because I have no shots of the crossing. Just as we started back across we saw this on the far shore:
A youngster was attempting to consume a snake. We immediately started snapping photos and the ferryman waited a bit so as not to scare him away. A familiar Purple Gallinule walked by hoping for leftovers I guess.
Another time we spotted a young bird in a field. Some of the huge trees have buttressed root structures at ground level for stability in the often waterlogged and nutrient-poor soils.
But our best opportunities were along the Tarcoles River. Greg Lavaty, Bird Guide Extraordinaire, arranged THREE separate boat rides for us. He used the famous Crocodile Man service and those drivers generally show tourists the crocodiles, but they definitely know what birders want. Our drivers, Juan and Luis knew to turn the boat so the sun was behind us, to get in close and would back up and move closer when we asked. They knew likely spots for birds and even used a laser pointer when we couldn’t find the tiny birds in the foliage. Don’t laugh; seeing a Tiger Heron is easy but those little colorful birds I am going to tell you about next is HARD.
We went up and down the river, around to the entrance the Gulf of Nicoya and into the mangroves. The Tarcoles River is slow moving with regular tides twice a day. Crocodile Man Tours is run by a local family or as our guide Emanuel told us “… we are all cousins”.
I didn’t take too many American Crocodile shots. They were all around and are just … creepy. And YUGE. But they are a big tourist attraction. The story is the river boat guides jump in the water with them and wave raw chicken around so they jump up and show off. It was hard to think the nice guys guiding us around do that but I guess it is true. I didn’t inquire.
On one of the trips we watched this guy near a some moving water emptying into the river over some large rocks. I had been watching him but got distracted by something else and Bill Maroldo got the money shot of him catching a fish.
Isn’t that awesome? I have no idea what kind of fish it is but it has a fancy red stripe on the top fin. This really shows off the action and look at that great russet color on his chest. The boat guy would move in very close to the birds; often I had to move to the far side or I was too close with the Nikkor f/5.6 500 PF. But it was perfect for the reach to the tiny little colorful birds hidden in the branches and foliage.
I missed him catching the fish, but I did get a lot of shots of him when he flew high above us. He made no move to actually EAT the fish and stayed on this limb for a long time. Our driver maneuvered that giant boat around to the front so we had a better angle but I think I was half-hanging out of the boat and looking up to get this. After a while we noticed another Tiger Heron in the same tree and speculated he was bringing the fish to impress a female.
She didn’t stick around long with all the activity below and flew off. Hopefully he followed her and got a second chance. It was a really nice fish!
Another day we were cruising along close to the banks where a Bare-throated Tiger Heron had been fishing. He started to walk parallel with us and often looked up as though he was going to hop up to the grass above. We were hoping for a wings up jump shot. Maybe he got annoyed with us but we did see this display of the famous bare-throat before he scampered out of sight.
And no, I didn’t get a good jump shot.
Our boat drivers are on the river all day everyday and knew all the cool spots. Above is a Bare-throated Tiger Heron nest over the river and one youngster is peeking out at us. Costa Rica doesn’t have the same kind of breeding seasons that we are used to. Food and resources are generally available year round, so the birds breed when it suits them. I read that in Costa Rica Bare-throated Tiger Heron nesting may be year round but peaks at the early rainy season (Styles and Skutch 1989). They nests solitarily (not in colonies) in trees above the water, especially in mangroves (Rhizophora). Nests are small to large platforms made of sticks usually lined with leaves and are placed on branches 15-20 feet above the ground. They lay 1-3 eggs but not much is known about incubation or care.
We spent four days in the Tarcoles region. In addition to the three river boat rides, we went to Carara National Park, up and down mountains and the beach plus plenty of backroads. One of the real advantages in staying in one area and making repeated trips to the same locations is you become more familiar with the birds and their habits. I can see my first few efforts are just plain full length shots; nice but no real activity. After repeated visits to the river we were patient and attentive and just plain noticed more. I was thrilled to catch this major fluff up. He went through the same exact sequence of bristling up, a rotary head spin and then a big ripple with both wings extended downward; action that I have seen a million times on other herons.
It was familiar, but so exciting on a new bird. And I got the whole series.
This was taken on the last day and is the same bird that honored us with a fluff up. When I first started photography I was thrilled with a properly exposed shot of a bird facing me and all in focus. Over time I wanted more action and interest and those qualities and abilities took a lot of time to develop. The trip to Costa Rica roughly mirrored that experience. Of course it was much faster, but it did take several days and repetition to start getting GOOD images; interesting shots that show off the bird and its habitat instead of just documentary shots.
In my opinion you have to have time to watch the new bird and his habits. I would not have the same quality of photos if we had spent only an afternoon in one location and moved on.
And isn’t this Bare-throated Tiger Heron just awesome? We tried several likely locations looking for the Fasciated Tiger Heron, but no luck. Maybe next time.
Are you enjoying our trip to Costa Rica? What birds would you want to see if you planned a trip? Are you the type that wants to try as many places as possible in your limited time or would you rather repeat your visits to try to get better shots each day? Let me know in the comments below.