Thursday 31 December 2020

2020 Part 3: Spring and Early Summer

Spring migration was a different experience for many of us in 2020. This is usually a very busy time of year; Iike many others, I temporarily relocate to the Point Pelee area for a chunk of May to maximize the bird migration experience. With national and provincial parks closed for the duration of spring, this was simply not possible. Our two weeks in quarantine during late March and early April further cut down on naturalizing opportunities, but we made do where we could. 

Ruffed Grouse

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Tuesday 29 December 2020

2020 Part 2: Costa Rica

We left Colombia behind and flew to San José, Costa Rica for the next leg of our adventure. Neither Laura nor I had visited this country before but we had grand plans. Costa Rica is obviously much smaller in area than Colombia and so less time is needed to cover off the country to the same degree; I expected that six weeks would be sufficient for this trip. Of course, one could spend a lifetime in a country as diverse as Costa Rica and still miss out on significant portions of its natural history. But we had budgeted 2-2.5 years to travel throughout the Americas and so six weeks would do, this time. By mid-April, I had plans to travel to Canada for a couple of days and then to Spain, where I had a tour scheduled for Quest. Laura, meanwhile, would stay in Costa Rica for a few additional weeks and volunteer her time at a wildlife rehabilitation clinic.

Collared Redstart

Monday 28 December 2020

2020 Part 1: Colombia

Oh 2020. What a year. I mean, what more can really be said? As per tradition, I am writing a few blog posts about my highlights from this year, in roughly chronological order. Today's post will be about Colombia.

Black-tailed Trainbearer

Heading into 2020, Laura and I were pretty excited for a year filled to the brim with travel and all the accompanying wildlife sightings. The previous August we quit our jobs, flew to Ecuador, and explored there for the final three plus months of 2019. Following a short two weeks in Canada to celebrate Christmas with our families, we were soon back on a jet to South America. Our first two months of the year would be spent in Colombia! 

Saturday 26 December 2020

Boreal Butterflies and Woodpeckers in Fraserdale

The morning of June 20 dawned cool with a completely overcast sky, a moderate breeze and the threat of rain. These conditions were not great since I had planned to spend the morning looking for several species of butterflies. Butterflies seem to be solar-powered and the day's lack of sun meant that most would stay out of sight. 

Fraserdale, Cochrane District

Fraserdale is surrounded by vast, boggy taiga, where the dominant trees are stunted Black Spruces and the dominant animal species seem to be the blackfly and mosquito. My main interest this day lied in seeking out a few species of butterflies - species which are tied to these northern forest types and which fly during June. As I mentioned before, searching for butterflies is all about habitat and seasonal timing, since many species are "on the wing" for only a few weeks each year. The habitat was excellent for Taiga Alpine in particular, but I was also hoping to come across Grizzled Skipper, Frigga Fritillary, and Greenish Blue. These species have all been found in the area but some are more common than others. It may have been just a touch too early in the year for Greenish Blue as well. 

I cooked breakfast while wearing my bug jacket - the blackflies were ferocious, even with the breeze - geared up, and headed out to see what I could find. I began by walking down the dirt road pictured above. It cut through the boggy landscape, eventually crossing the railway tracks and continuing to the west.  

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Thursday 17 December 2020

The Hot Springs Lodge and Area, North of Quepos


From Jacó we drove southeast along the Pacific coast. The drive was pleasant and we only stopped only once, at the Río Hollin which produced a pair of Collared Plovers, some Northern Jacanas, two Roseate Spoonbills and some Blue-winged Teals, among other common shorebirds and wading birds. At around 1:30 in the afternoon we arrived at our home for the next two nights. Tucked away in the foothills and next to a gorgeous creek, this property which we had found on AirBnB seemed like just the perfect location to spend a few nights.  

We had been informed that we could order meals at the Hot Springs Lodge. This building was located just down the road, and owned by the same people who had rented us the AirBnB property. It appeared that no guests were staying here at the moment, but we eventually managed to find the manager. Unfortunately, he had not been made aware of our arrival from the lodge owners and so he did not have the supplies to cook meals. Not a big problem for us since we had recently purchased groceries. It just meant that we would be stuck eating wraps for our next few meals! The property was also missing a few essential items that had been promised, but the setting was absolutely beautiful and we did not mind too much. 

 Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon, complete with a swim in the crystal clear waters of the creek. Laura made use of the hammock for a siesta, while I explored here and there in search of birds. Without a doubt, the highlight was a reasonably cooperative Turquoise Cotinga that perched high above the house in the bare branches of a tree. Even in the terrible light, its electric blue plumage was unbelievable. 

Turquoise Cotinga - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The bird activity picked up a notch as the afternoon gave way to evening. Blue Ground-Doves provided nice views next to the house, a Little Tinamou sang from somewhere within the forest, and small flocks of tanagers and occasionally passed through the tops of the nearby trees. Melodious Blackbird, Olivaceous Piculet, Buff-rumped Warbler, Shining Honeycreeper and White-crowned Parrot were some of the memorable species for me. 

Scanning for birds - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

It had been a while since I had set up my moth sheet and light and so I was eager to give it a shot. The visibility near the house was very good, and the surrounding gardens, creek, and secondary forest gave me hope that a solid diversity of species would show up. 

Antiblemma neptis - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Hylesia sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with the showing. Of course, we still found quite a few interesting insects, but the numbers and diversity did not match my expectations. Looking back now our results seem pretty good, at least when compared to the insect diversity that I see here in Ontario. I guess that Laura and I were just spoiled from some of our previous mothing exploits in Ecuador and Colombia!

Conchylodes bryophilalis - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Tiger moths (Arctiini) are a highly diverse group of moths that seem to be well-distributed in the Neotropics. The shapes and patterns of these variable insects can be quite incredible, and most of the wasp mimics are a type of tiger moth. Below are a few which we encountered this evening. 

Rhynchopyga flavicollis - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Unidentified tiger moth (subtribe Phaegopterina) - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Macrocneme sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Not all of the moths were that exotic looking. In fact, some genera that we see in Ontario are also well represented in Central and South America. Others, while belonging to a different genus, look rather similar to some of "our" species from back home. Below are a few examples. 

Meganola bifiliferata - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Petrophila sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Anomis sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Pearl Moths (subfamily Spilomelinae) are diverse in Ontario, and indeed they are also commonly encountered in Costa Rica. While the Ontario species are, with a few exceptions, various shades of drab brown, at least the Neotropical versions are fairly colourful.

Phostria dohrnii - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Syngamia florella - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Eulepte sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

My favourite species of the night was not a moth. Instead, it was this truly awesome fulgorid planthopper called Odontoptera carrenoi

Odontoptera carrenoi - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Below are a few more of my favourite hoppers and beetles from the session. 

Unidentified lady beetle (family Coccinellidae) - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Calyptoproctus sp. - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Alagoasa illigeri - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Oreodera glauca - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I will finish off this post with a few more photos of moths. This moth thing, it is addicting I tell ya...

Prorifrons antonia - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Artace cribrarius - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Mursa phtisialis - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Hypsopygia amoenalis - Hot Springs Lodge area, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Late at night there was one more avian surprise in store. The unmistakeable, hissing scream of a Barn Owl from close to the Hot Springs Lodge. Such a cool vocalization!

Tuesday 1 December 2020

Relaxing Days on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica


When Laura and I put together the itinerary for my parents' visit, we tried to fit in a variety of activities and planned to explore a diversity of areas in Costa Rica. A trip to Costa Rica would not be complete without some beach time. Following several days in the jungles of La Selva, our next two nights were spent in the town of Jacó on the Pacific coast. 

Jacó is a popular beachside town known for its surfing, dining and nightlife. Tourism is very popular here and the volcanic, black sand beach is a frequent hangout for surfers, families, honeymooners and other sun-seekers. We had rented an apartment through AirBnB in Jacó for two nights; it was located about a three minute walk from the beach. Laura and I usually do not spend much time relaxing near beaches when traveling but I have to say that this was a nice diversion! We tried to unwind, a somewhat difficult proposition due to the quickly escalating concerns about Covid-19 around the world. Once our flights home were booked, this was somewhat easier to manage. Laura and I were coming to grips with the fact that our world travels would be temporarily put on hold; of course, at the time we did not know or anticipate that it might be a year or longer until we could resume them. Ignorance is bliss. 

During the afternoon of our first full day we went for a drive up the coast. Our destination was a particularly famous bridge - Puente Río Tarcoles - which is famous for the large numbers of American Crocodiles which can be seen loafing along the banks of the river. We parked next to the bridge and spent the last hour and a half of the afternoon scanning for birds and other wildlife. 

 Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Despite being situated along a busy road, we noted quite a lot of wildlife from the bridge! My eBird checklist eclipsed 60 species. 

Blue Grosbeak - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Great Egret - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

A gaggle of male Great-tailed Grackles were putting on quite the show, trying to catch the eye of a nonchalant female, perched nearby. 

Great-tailed Grackles - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Great-tailed Grackles - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The crocodiles were easy to find since at least a half dozen were within a few dozen meters of the bridge. During our afternoon vigil, dozens of tourists stopped at the bridge to check out the crocodiles. I don't think many of them noticed the large diversity of waterbirds and other species that were also around.

American Crocodile - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

American Crocodile - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Most of the "expected" waterbirds could be found, such as these comical Purple Gallinules. We also noted five species of shorebirds, a flock of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks and a single Muscovy Duck. 

Purple Gallinules - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Anyone who has visited this part of Costa Rica before can likely attest to the large numbers of Scarlet Macaws that inhabit the area. These impressive macaws are often heard long before they are seen, but they are impossible to miss visually as well. We counted at least eight pairs during our brief afternoon stakeout of the bridge. The Scarlet Macaws of the Pacific coastline of Costa Rica is a conservation success story. 

Scarlet Macaws - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Scarlet Macaws used to be widespread in the lowlands of Costa Rica, on both the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the country. They experienced drastic population declines, partially due to capture for the pet trade. Due to the conservation work of a few dedicated groups, numbers of this beautiful species are slowly beginning to tick upwards on the Pacific slope. 

Scarlet Macaws - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Motmots are among my favourite birds. I love watching them hunt and interact, and they exhibit interesting nesting ecology - excavating tunnels in the side of a riverbank or cliff, much like a kingfisher. It also helps that most species are stunningly beautiful. 

I spotted a pair of Turquoise-browed Motmots alongside the bridge while I was off birding with my dad. We enjoyed excellent looks at this species which is, in my opinion, one of the more spectacular motmots. Laura and my mom were at the other end of the bridge but they were able to return in time to enjoy these birds as well. 

Turquoise-browed Motmot - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Turquoise-browed Motmot - Puente Río Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

We drove back to Jacó, stopping at a nearby beach to catch the last of the sun slipping over the horizon. The end of another day in paradise. The world was quickly undergoing lockdowns in many countries, and in Costa Rica things were starting to shut down as well. But that evening, it was easy to forget about the chaos and uncertainty for a few moments as we observed Scarlet Macaws and Turquoise-browed Motmots and experienced a beautiful ending to another day.

Playa Tárcoles, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I had very few targets birds in this part of Costa Rica, meaning that I could relax throughout our time in Jacó. The one new species that I had a chance at finding was Pacific Screech-Owl. This species is found only on the dry Pacific coast from Oaxaca, Mexico to northwest Costa Rica but seems to be reasonably common within its range. I had never run into this species when birding Guatemala, the only other time that I was in the right area. I resolved to find this species the next morning and set my alarm for 4:30 AM.

The sky was dark as I left the apartment and ten minutes later I had reached my destination - an eBird hotspot known as Humedales Quebrada Bonita. This mosaic of agricultural fields, scrub, and wetlands holds a high diversity of species. My target species had been eBirded there recently so I was hoping for the best!

I checked a few forest remnants close to the road. The sky was lightening very quickly and the dawn chorus was already beginning. I had to hurry if I wished to find a screech-owl! It took a little bit of effort, but eventually one responded to my playback. It refused to make itself seen however. Even more fortuitous, I found a single Striped Owl and managed excellent looks in the dim pre-dawn light! This was a species that I had only seen once before, flying over the Panama Canal in 2014. 

I turned my attention to other birds once the sun began to creep above the horizon. Disturbed areas often hold a surprising number of species and it is easy to rack up a large list. While high quality forest holds many more species, those forests do not give up their secrets easily and many visits are required if one wishes to see this diversity. Quite the opposite in disturbed areas!

Variable Seedeater - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

The presence of the wetlands meant that birds from several different ecosystems could be found here. It was difficult to keep up with the many new sightings! The first couple of hours around and after sunrise are, by far, the most productive hours of the day and I worked quickly to see as much as possible. By mid to late morning, the hot dry air puts an end to the frantic morning bird activity in this region of Costa Rica. 

Scrub Greenlet - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Groove-billed Ani - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I noted my third owl species of the morning by observing the behaviour of some agitated hummingbirds and flycatchers near the top of a tree. A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. These owls are diurnal hunters, unlike the Pacific Screech-Owl and Striped Owl from earlier in the morning. This one even started vocalizing. I found a total of four Ferruginous Pygmy Owls during my walk!

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Kingfisher diversity in the Americas is surprisingly low when compared to Asia and Africa. We have but six species spread throughout the two continents. The American Pygmy Kingfisher is the smallest, and also a species which I have only seen on a few occasions. This one teed up right beside me next to a flooded ditch, allowing some quick photos. 

American Pygmy Kingfisher - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

American Pygmy Kingfisher - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Most of the species that I found were fairly widespread, such as this Green Heron, or migrants, such as the Philadelphia Vireo which is pictured next. 

Green Heron - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

It was a really enjoyable walk with a nice variety of sightings. Scissor-tailed and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Morelet's Seedeaters, Wood Storks and quite a few Black-headed Trogons represented other highlights from the walk. 
Philadelphia Vireo - Jacó, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

I left by 8:30 AM. Already at this hour, the sun was scorching the landscape and wildlife activity was diminishing. I headed back to the apartment to meet up with the others, having maximized the early morning hours. We enjoyed a relaxed breakfast before hitting the road and driving towards the Quepos area.