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Costa Rica (2018) #3 – Birding Dominical: Small Birds

Golden-hooded Tanager Dominical Costa Rica

Golden-hooded Tanagers add sparkle to mixed flocks

Birding Dominical: The Tiny Birds

In a previous post , I covered the big birds we saw from the property at Villa Chill near Dominical, Costa Rica.  In this post, I’ll cover the small birds I identified (think tanager and smaller). The rate of identified birds per bird seen was much lower here than with the toucans and hawks and such. Many were moving quickly at the tops of trees or moving quickly through dense cover. Some were calling but never seen. Others were calling, and staying perfectly still. There are many ways to detect but not identify a bird. And I succeeded in them all.

The first full day we had on the property, I got up at the crack of dawn and wandered around. I thought at times I’d never make it back to the house. At nearly every turn, you could stand still for five minutes and a dozen birds would be moving all around you. Some were easy to ID. The easiest were the familiar birds, like Summer Tanager, Chestnut-sided Warbler, House Wren and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I had also studied up, so I was ready to identify birds I’d never seen before. Great places for prep work on Costa Rica bird knowledge: Patrick O’Donnell’s blog about birding Costa Rica, and the best (and delightfully compact) field guide to the birds of Costa Rica.

But nothing can prepare you for your first big mixed flock in Costa Rica. It happened to me about 45 minutes into my walk. And it was like being a kid in a candy store. We don’t get fallouts on the West Coast. And this surely wasn’t anything close to a big fallout. But I’d never seen so much activity in a single tree. All told, I found in the same damn tree all of the following: Golden-hooded Tanager, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Palm Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Blue Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Philadelphia Vireo, an apparently unusual Blue-headed Vireo, and countless other unidentified birds. A nearby row of brush held a Mourning Warbler, Blue-black Grassquit, and a Riverside Wren. This is the reason you come to Costa Rica.

A family scene from a birder’s dreams (they’re actually pointing at spider monkeys)

It really didn’t matter where I wandered. The bushes and trees around the property were buzzing with activity. Regular small visitors to the backyard included Variable Seedeaters, Scarlet-rumped Tanager, Bananaquit, Blue-gray Tanager, and Palm Tanager (so apparently boring I never even took a photo of one), (not to mention the hawks and whatnot soaring overhead, and the woodpeckers, cuckoos, tityra and flycatchers coming to and fro).

Costa Rica has over 50 species of hummingbird. But they aren’t all called hummingbirds. There seem to be nearly as many names for hummingbirds as there are species of hummingbird. There are sicklebills, hermits, barbthroats, lancebills, sabrewings, jacobins, violetears, mangos, coquettes, emeralds, woodnymphs, goldentails, plumeleteers, snowcaps, thorntails, mountain-gems, brilliants, fairies, starthtroats, and woodstars. The property didn’t have any hummingbird feeders, so it was up to mother nature herself to bring in the hummers.

A few were easy to identify. The White-necked Jacobin‘s blue head and clean white lower body made it obvious. Same with the long tail of the Long-billed Hermit. The orange-red bill of the Blue-throated Goldentail helped seal the ID. But many hummingbirds zipped past and disappeared into the foliage,  gone in an instant. All told, I managed to identify 8 species on the villa property. I only managed to photograph three.

Band-tailed Barbthroat Dominical Costa Rica

Band-tailed Barbthroat

There’s nothing like being in a foreign bird land to make plain the power of bird call knowledge. Mysterious sounds abounded, Was I hearing a single bird with a repertoire like a Northern Mockingbird? Or are there seven species of something in that row of bushes? Frequently, I’d track one curious call for minutes to no avail, only to begin tracking down the source of another strange sound. The small birds are a challenge, but I loved every minute of it.

Red-legged Honeycreeper Dominical Costa Rica

Red-legged Honeycreepers were welcome regulars on the property

Tropical Gnatcatcher Dominical Costa Rica

Tropical Gnatcatcher on a big tropical leaf

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Spooked and ready to flee, frustrating ID efforts

Dark Hawk ID Challenge

A few days ago, I spotted a dark hawk flying over the Ballona Creek. I  first saw the bird at a long distance. The coloring suggested a turkey vulture (white underwing, white undertail, otherwise dark), but it wasn’t wobbling.  I thought it could be a Zone-tailed (would be a 5MR lifer), but it was too far away to tell. Frustratingly, it went out of my view.

About 30 minutes later, I found what I assume was the same hawk perched on a low snag along the Ballona Creek bike path. The back and chest/belly were all pretty uniformly dark brown, with a little white splotching on the wing. It had yellow legs and pale eyes. The bird flushed, and I saw that its underwing and undertail was white with faint grey barring. The bird landed on the ground in the middle of a large field scattered with tall grasses. After 5 minutes, it moved 50-70 yards and landed on the ground again, this time out of view. 

I found the landing on the ground to be the most notable behavior I observed. I couldn’t recall ever seeing any Red-tailed Hawks settle on the ground in this field before. And this bird did it twice. That, with the dark coloring, had me thinking that I had found something other than a dark western Red-tailed Hawk. But I don’t have the birding chops to make an ID.

On top of that, my photos that first day were pretty bad. They were taken with a pocket zoom camera I bring along on bikes rides. The photos did show some barring on the white sections of the underwing and undertail. You could see that the upper undertail was dark. And the back and upper wings were, other than a few white speckles, uniformly dark dark brown.

I posted my photos and description to LACO Birds listserv (an invaluable resource for anyone, but especially those like me who don’t use facebook or eBird alerts. Indeed, I love local bird sighting listservs. Anytime I travel in the U.S., I look up the local birding listservs). The reactions were both unanimous (“better photos would help”) and mixed (Zone-tailed Hawk, dark morph juvenile Western Red-tailed Hawk (calarus), dark morph juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s), and dark morph Ferruginous Hawk were all mentioned). 

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles California

Seeking better photos and a more certain ID, I rode out to the spot a couple of days later. I found the dark hawk again, perched on a low snag in the same field. Once again, just after I started to take pictures, it flushed. And just as before, it flushed to the middle of the field and landed on the ground, out of view. I biked around the area, trying to re-find it. There were at least 4 obvious (though varied) Red-tailed Hawks in the field. One had a dark belly, but a rufous tail.

I re-found the target dark hawk after 20-30 minutes: in the middle of the field on the ground. It eventually flew to a low snag perch closer to the bike path. The bird was still all dark dark brown, but more white mottling on the upper wing and some white streaking on the chest were apparent. When it flushed, I was able to get better looks at the underwing. The barring on the white underwing areas was more obvious today, and the dark portion of the underwing looked more mottled with white. Again, it flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. None of the obvious western Red-tailed Hawks around (at one point I saw 3 perched and 3 soaring at the same time, so there were at least 6 others in the area) ever landed on the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk Ballona Los Angeles CA

Birders far more expert in hawk ID than me felt better about calling the bird a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk after the second round of photos. Features that these folks noted as supporting a Harlan’s Hawk ID were the uniform dark brown color, the dark upper undertail, and the pale iris. A couple of other birders have seen the bird, and got even better photos. My report of Red-tailed Hawk (Harlan’s) was confirmed in eBird, which I take to be the stamp of approval on the ID. Not everyone agrees, though.

Harlan’s Hawk has been a separate species in the past, but is now considered a subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. They breed in Alaska and northwestern Canada in taiga. Many of them winter in the central U.S. plains. A Harlan’s Hawk is a good find for L.A. County.  There are a couple of reports of Harlan’s Hawk in the Antelope Valley (northern L.A. County over an hour from my house), a 2017 report from Long Beach, and a wintering Harlan’s Hawk in the very same Ballona area in 2013-2014.  They undoubtedly occur more frequently, but the variability of Red-tailed Hawks means they are likely overlooked. The best comparison of Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks with Western Red-tailed Hawks is here

Harlan's Hawk Ballona California

I saw the hawk again on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon. Nothing had changed. I found it perched on a low snag not far from the bike path. It flushed as soon as I got off my bike and peered at it through binoculars. It flew to the middle of the field and landed on the ground. Maybe it will stay all winter like the 2013-2014 bird, and I can study it a bit and maybe get the bird to do a close flyover in good lighting.

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