One Thousand Birds!

Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Lepidocolaptes souleyetii

My number 1000 was a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper seen on a mountain trail above the Savegre Lodge in Costa Rica. It was one of those strenuous days when our guide, Olivier Esquivel, was pushing Mel and me past our comfort zones. I was lagging behind on the narrow trail, just putting one step in front of the next, trying to keep up. Ollie and Mel waited patiently for me to catch up whenever they spotted a new bird. Now I’m glad they did. On March 14, 2022 I saw the woodcreeper.

Red-legged Honeycreeper, Cyanerpes cyaneus

Unfortunately I did not get a picture of the now famous bird, but did get a reasonable shot of his cousin, the Streak-headed. These birds are active, medium-sized woodcreepers usually found in the highland forests. As the name suggests you’ll discover it creeping up the trunks, poking its curved bill into the epiphytes looking for insects. I remember having a hard time spotting it, but finally got a reasonable binocular view with an assist from the laser pointer.

At the time we did not know my milestone had been reached. I knew we were closing in on it, but the tabulating was left to supper time, back at the lodge where the breathing was easier and we had a chance to reminisce about our day. Raised drinks and a small celebration occurred before we planned for the next day’s birding. Dinner tomorrow would be on me, as a gesture of appreciation for the guidance of Ollie and the encouragement from Mel.

Mel and I, somewhere on the trail in Costa Rica.

Like many birders, I’m a little sheepish in admitting to the listing habit. Aren’t we suppose to revel in the mere observation of the avian world, noting bird behavior, mating and nesting habits, etc., while we explore their world in our backyard and abroad? But to my way of thinking record-keeping only enhances this pastime. Where did I first see that bird; how many birds have I seen in Florida this year; or what is my current yard or patch list? All of these are easily answered if you use eBird.

King Vulture, Sarcoramphus papa

The world has seen some serious bird listers. John James Audubon’s four volume set, The Birds of America could be considered his list of 435 species. Three birders mentioned elsewhere in this blog are Phoebe Snetsinger, Kenn Kaufman, and Noah Strycker. In her incredible lifetime Phoebe created a world list of 8398 birds, but died doing it. Ken made a record 671 sightings for a 1973 record in North America when he was still a teenager. More recently in 2015 Noah, a 28 year-old, established a one year world mark of 6042. Now that’s a big year!

Great Curassow, Crax rubra

eBird is a database of the world’s bird observations submitted by amateurs and scientists alike. It was launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society as a tool for tracking bird distribution and abundance. It accepts over 100 million bird sightings a year and makes all this data available to every user. You can easily determine what birds are being seen at virtually any location in the world on any given day, current or past. It is valuable for planning a birding trip or for chasing rarities. Your interface in the field is your smart phone. The program will even question you if you try to enter a bird not usually seen at your location. You can also add photos and birdsong recordings.

Yellow-headed Caracara, Milvago chimachima

Better yet, the tool is a permanent record of all your personal observations that can be sorted by location or date. We birders are a somewhat obsessive compulsive group and this software nicely satisfies that exact character trait. If you are a new eBird user you can add all you old sightings and bring your life list up to date. All of this is free; one of the best bargains you’ll find.

Orange-collared Manakin, Manacus aurantiacus

I was an early convert to eBird and added my hand written data going back to 1983. The first entry was an Osprey seen at an old farmhouse we rented for a couple years on the Chesapeake Bay. My 500th bird was a Bewick’s Wren we ran across high in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona on November 30, 2016.

Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii

Now that the 1000 bird milestone has been reached and surpassed (the final count after Costa Rica is 1092), is 2000 in my sights? I don’t think so. Even though I’ve seen only ten percent of the world’s birds, adding to the list becomes harder and harder. To add more you must travel further from home and spend much more time and money. The legs and other body parts are no longer young. Oh, I’d like to take a trip to Patagonia; I’ve never laid eyes on a penguin. A trip to Alaska would be great, but I suspect New Guinea and Australia will be left for another life. For now I’m content to just return to my home patch and check up on the Cardinals and Jays. They’re pretty impressive themselves.

The Quetzal Quest

Costa Rican montane cloud forest

It was 1530 when Tecun Uman decided he and his Mayan people had had enough from the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado. He entered battle armed with just a bow and arrow and a beautiful green bird perched on his shoulder for good luck. He was fighting the armored conquistador mounted on horseback. It was unfair from the start and after a heroic fight Tecun was run through with a spear and killed. The quetzal, however, survived, landed on his vanquished master’s chest and bathed himself in the red blood. The previously all-green bird now donned the amazing resplendent colors we see today, but as a sign of grief it vowed to never sing again until the land was free.

Resplendent Quetzal, Pharomachrus mocinno (photo by Ryan Acandee, CC by Wikimedia Commons)

When a birder chooses to visit Costa Rica for the first time the Resplendent Quetzal is usually the number one target on the list. Olivier, our guide, and my birding companion Mel, designed the itinerary with a two-night stand at the beautiful Savegre Hotel and Spa with this in mind. It’s in the foothills of the Talamanca Mountains, several winding miles off the Pan-American Highway. The gravel road descended into a valley along the Savegre River to the lodge, still nestled 7000 feet above sea level.

The Quetzal inhabits the montane cloud forests of southern Mexico and Central America and is a cavity nester, often taking over and remodeling the vacant homes of woodpeckers. In fact, our guide and many of the hotel’s guests knew the location of an active nest just up the road. The cameras were loaded and with great anticipation that was our obvious first stop at the break of day.

Collared Trogon, Trogan collaris. (female, orange-bellied)

The Resplendent Quetzal is the largest bird in the Trogonidae family. All of the members are large and colorful, and so very different than any of our birds. They are generally sedentary and if you’re lucky you may spot one between the branches posed for a photograph. We were fortunate to see seven of the ten Costa Rican species on our recent trip.

Gartered Trogon, Trogon caligatus

The resplendent male is an amazing emerald green that seems to glow in the sunlight. The lower chest is red with the lower body and tail showing areas of contrasting white and black. The male sports long green plumes that trail behind in flight. When perched these feathers hang several feet below the bird. My first photos were zoomed too tightly before I realized the extent of the tail.

When we arrived at the hollow tree there was already a small crowd gathered staking it out. I noticed that among the obvious birders there were many brightly dressed tourists without binoculars and cameras other than their smart phones. This bird clearly draws fans from far and wide, even the non-birders. The watchers told us that in the very early dawn light the male emerged from the hole and flew off, and was replaced with the less resplendent female. We could barely detect her head in the dark hole, and after a short wait and several poor photographs we decided to resume the quest for the male elsewhere. Apparently their tag-team approach to nesting and incubation is characteristic of the species.

Quetzal hole with female barely visible

Less than a mile up the dirt road we found a parked tour bus and a much larger crowd. This time there was clearly more excitement in the air with scopes and cameras aimed out over the ravine toward a dense tree. Somehow someone had spotted the well camouflaged bird and cameras were clicking away. I had great difficulty seeing the bird but finally took a few shots through a small gap in the foliage, zoomed to the maximum. Suddenly the bird took off and flew right over the road and crowd, with feathers streaming behind. I wish you could have heard the squeals of delight from everyone. I was much too slow to get a flight shot, but he landed just a hundred yards down the road. I was swept in the stampede toward the new perch. This one was a bit better, but his back was still turned to the crowd. I never did get a photo showing that red breast.

The Quetzal Crowd

You have to wonder at the selective advantage of evolving such bright colors and long gaudy feathers. They must make take-offs and landings difficult. I’m told that the iridescent green feathers resemble wet leaves and helps the bird hide in the forest from his main predators, the hawks, eagles, and owls. I’m sure the female quetzal must have played a critical role in this evolution, likely demanding the resplendent display when choosing a mate.

My photo of the Resplendent Quetzal

Unfortunately the population of the Resplendent Quetzal is decreasing, but not yet severely depressed. It’s estimated that up to fifty thousand birds remain. Their primary threat is from deforestation and loss of habitat. The conquistadors have long since moved on, Costa Rica is free, and once again the wicka-wicka call is heard as this spectacular bird flies by.