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