Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hummingbird Babies

A female Rufous-tailed Hummingbird sits motionless on her eggs only inches above people passing underneath her.

The ecotourists on their way to dinner at La Salva Lodge, Costa Rica, don't notice her just off the canopied trail in the rain.

Broad leaves conceal and protect her as she patiently incubates her eggs. Keeping her eggs warm and dry during the frequent rains will require 15-17 days of attention.

To go unnoticed for that long she needs to be discretely feathered. Her rufous tail is her only showy feature. Yet still, most of her tail is hidden.  

A few miles away at the La Selve Biological Station, a Band-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird rests on her nest. She too, wove it herself.

Shaped from twigs and other plant matter, woven with spider's silk, she hangs suspended over a pond. The leaf provides her with protection from the rain.

She looks wary, but if she felt threatened by our passing she would have flown off. She didn't.

It is safe to assume she is incubating eggs, too.

A new generation of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds has hatched at Savegre Lodge in the Talamanca Cordillera mountains of Costa Rica.

Having hatched from an egg smaller than a green pea and now still only the size of a peanut shell, the pair rests defenselessly.

Remaining motionless, eyes closed, they wait for their mother's return.

Mother rufous-tailed drops to the edge of the nest and immediately freezes to avoid attracting attention.

But, the hungry babies can't wait and give away their location...three feet high in a four foot bush.

Consisting of mashed-up midges and gnats combined with nectar, these feedings will continue for weeks at the nest, still longer after they fledge.

The feedings take place deep down the throat.      
It seems unfair that the male hummingbirds get all the attention, while the female does most of the work of raising the next generation, but it works out that way. By necessity female birds are less colorful. How and why it evolved this way I can't explain, other than to say female birds choose the most colorful males more often. Color may be an indicator of health and strength in the female's mind.

A male Magnificent Hummingbird rests on an equally beautifully adorned branch. Always wary, but faster than his enemies, he glows in the late morning sun. Common to the mountainous reaches of Costa Rica, although reaching into Southeastern Arizona, too, the Magnificent Hummingbird is a rare find in the USA.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Credit: The Sibley Guide to Birds
Credit: The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues & Robert Dean

Monday, March 16, 2015

Resplendent Quetzal

The people of Central America can be rightly proud of their Resplendent Quetzal.

When shortened to just quetzal (pronounced: KETS' al), he still has the ability to impress.

Together the male and female Resplendent Quetzals are elegantly feathered in shades of blues, green, red, yellow and white.

The male sports a long tail-like feather, which isn't an actual tail feather, rather just a look-alike one. His tail is white on the underside and is largely hidden.

The female is similar in shape and size, but lacks the helmet-like head feathers and the red breast of the male.

This pair was building a home in what may have been a woodpecker hole in the past, but it wasn't quite roomy enough for them, so they were remodeling.

Diving head first into the hole, with only his long tail dangling outside, the male excavates wood chips mouthful by mouthful.

The female was just watching for now, but she too took a turn at enlarging the hole.

You could call the mountain highlands where the Resplendent Quetzals lives remote, but it is easily accessible by car or truck.

Tourists make the trip often and there are businesses and shops throughout the small Talamanca Mountain village of San Gerardo de Dota.

A specie's chances of survival is mainly dependent on the survival of its habitat. To that extent, Costa Rica has a good record of maintaining its bird populations by maintaining the habitats of lush rainforests, deserts, sandy beaches and cloud forests.

The small West Virginia-sized country of Costa Rica has more bird species than all of North America...more than 830 species.  

It was confusing to me why the female quetzal suddenly started to make a hole on the opposite side of their nest tree.

Could this be a backdoor?

The male quetzal watched in amazement as she hammered her stout bill into the old dead tree. For all her work she was making little progress while exerting much effort.

If her mate could look confused, he looked confused to me. Starting this new hole when there was a perfectly good hole on the other side of the tree seemed odd.

He didn't help her.  He just watched.

It didn't take long before she abandoned that project and the work continued on the first hole. Whatever the outcome of the nest building project, the Resplendent Quetzals will be raising their family living in a beautiful place...on a mountain a Costa Rica.


Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Credit: The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean
Credit: Wikipedia  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Green Honeycreeper, Costa Rica

A Green Honeycreeper watches anxiously.  Having scored a prize bunch of bananas hanging at a local restaurant only to lose it to a larger Clay-colored Thrush, the Green Honeycreeper can only watch and wait.

A Clay Colored Thrush, the ubiquitous national bird of Costa Rica, laid claimed the bananas and felt no need to share.

The bananas hang in an opening where a window would be, if the Neotropical Costa Rican restaurant needed a window.

An abundance of birds populate the trees surrounding the restaurant, but only the bravest birds will fly inside.

A badly bruised banana reveals the fruit's soft insides. Today, the Clay-colored Thrush is being served first at the Rancho Magallanes Restaurant, Chilamate, Costa Rica. The reward went to the strongest.

While waiting to be served, the Green Honeycreeper grabs a little protein to go with the carbohydrates of the banana. A bee will do nicely. Seed and nectar eating birds commonly catch insects to supply protein for themselves and their nestlings.

Eventually the Green Honeycreeper gets a turn at the banana, too.

For a country smaller than West Virginia, Costa Rica is rich in bird life. With 850-900 bird species depending on whose data you choose, even the brilliant Green Honeycreeper barely stands out in a country with so many beautiful birds.

In Costa Rica even if you don't actually go looking for birds...they're all around you.

While enjoying a soup 'n sandwich at a roadside open-air restaurant the birds entertained us for nearly an hour.


Credit: The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Costa Rica, Day One

This series is about my second trip to Costa Rica. My first trip was back in 1990, during my working life as a television photojournalist. At that time I was working on a story for WITI-TV6 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with meteorologist Vince Condella. Then the story was on the newly evolving ecotourism trend. Today, on this trip, my goal was to find and photograph beautiful birds. I believe I accomplished some of that. 

My wife, Linda, joined me along with our good friends, Mark Laux and Wendy Jabas, for a ten day trip divided into three parts...a Caribbean tropical rainforest, an interior mountain highland and a dry season Pacific Coast national forest.  

This blog is not a travelogue, but I feel I need to explain a brief shift in format. I will include other animals in the next several posts, simply because I found them new and interesting.  I hope you find this focus shift interesting also.

As the departing sun darkened the sky above me, a toucan landed in a rainforest tree. The Chestnut Mandibled Toucan immediately began claiming his rights to this tree and seemingly every other tree in sight. He was being quite vocal and quite insistent. His calls carried far beyond the Selva Verde Lodge and Rainforest Reserve where we were staying.

The Chestnut Mandibled Toucan is the largest toucan in Costa Rica and one of forty-two species of Latin American toucans.

Male and female Chestnut Mandibled Toucans look alike with the male being only slightly larger at 22 inches (56 cm). They live in a colorful bird family, too, all with outsized bills.

The impressive bill may look intimidating to enemies, but it is not a defensive tool. Instead it is made of a spongy material called keratin...extremely lightweight, largely hollow (think: fingernails).

Additionally, the bill serves another propose. It's a cooling system to regulate body temperature. Arteries in the bill expand when it's hot to expel excess heat into the steamy rainforest.

He didn't seem to mind as I lit up his eyes with bright flashes. Instead he turned to give me another pose of his finely feathered body. Blue legs and red under tail coverts brighten this beautiful bird's color palette even more.

More at eye level is a Summer Tanager. Hidden by darkness, but not really hiding, the Summer Tanager perches as proudly as rainforest conditions permit, reflecting nicely when sufficient light is applied.

The Summer Tanager rarely makes it to Wisconsin, although a similar red bird, the Scarlet Tanager comes to Wisconsin in the warm weather months.

The strawberry colored Summer Tanager is the only completely red bird in North America. Living on a diet of bees and wasps, the Summer Tanager is a challenging bird to find and photograph.

Usually preferring the upper story of tall trees to wait for prey, this one was driven down into the dark understory by the rain.

Also sheltering from today's steady rain is the Olive-backed Euphonia, a small songbird in the finch family. This female Olive-backed Euphonia is accustomed to rain.  The rainforest is her year-round home.

Preferring the Caribbean side of Central America, the Olive-backed Euphonia lives mostly on fruit and so must maintain a home range that provides for a fruit diet.

The male Olive-backed Euphonia is similar in appearance with only his yellow forehead identifying him.

(Click any picture to enlarge)

In the low-light reaches of the rainforest you may also find bats sheltering from the storm. My guide, Ivan Castillo, found this group of four clinging to the side of a tree waiting for even more darkness to descend.

Bats are just as important to an ecosystem as birds in pollinating, dispersing seeds and balancing a healthy rainforest. As evening progressed bats swirled and swooped around gathering flying insects nearly invisible to us.

The tale of bats getting caught in your hair is folklore, legend and outrightly false. Night hunting bats have adequate nighttime vision, can echo-locate flying insects in the dark and have no interest in interplay with humans. Bats seldom hunt in the rain though. Rain interferes with their echolocation.

We quickly left this small group, not out of fear, but rather concern my flash would disturb their daytime sleeping rhythm.

Rain in a rainforest is to be expected. As challenging as it is to photograph birds in the rain, I feel grateful to have seen the number of species I encountered on this first day in Costa Rica.


Credit: The Birds of Costa Rica,
Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean
Credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds
Credit: Wikipedia