Jack EwingNature and Local History Stories


Bare-throated tiger herons
Bare-throated tiger herons

By Jack Ewing

The Season is Here for Bird Watching Fever

The patter of raindrops lightly pelting the leaves far above our heads was the first warning of a change in weather. It would take a minute or two for the rain to filter down 50 meters, through the layers of canopy to the jungle floor. We covered our binoculars with plastic bags.

“Maybe it’ll pass,” I offered weakly.

“You think so?” queried John, hopefully.

“No, not really, but let’s wait and see. When the rain comes this early in the day, it’s not usually a passing shower. If we go back, we’ll be soaked by the time we get to the house anyway, so we might just as well wait a while and see.”

The first bloated drops burst and spattered on the broad-leafed plants of the understory. The sound above was now a dull drumming. John pulled out a small “Write-in-the-Rain” notebook where he had been noting every bird we sighted. He checked the list.

“We’ve got 27 so far. The Orange-collared Manakin is a new one for me.”

“Not bad. We’ve only been out a couple of hours. With descent weather, we could easily top 50 for the day. With this we’ll be lucky to see any birds at all.” We turned our backs to a light gust of wind and hunched over to keep the water out of our eyes.

“So, what do you think we ought to do?” Asked John.

“Why don’t we go on ahead to the jungle camp,” I suggested. “It’s less than an hour from here and it’ll take longer than that to go back. We can’t get any wetter, and who knows, maybe the rain will stop,”

“Yeah, who knows?” he answered.

Hacienda Baru

We set out for the camp. A Bare-throated Tiger Heron, which seemed quite pleased with the rain, was the only bird we logged along the way. We might have walked right on by, but it growled at us. I nearly jumped out of my boots, thinking a big cat was lurking behind a tree, but then John spotted the long-legged, stork-like bird, standing in the stream, fishing. Before hearing that growl, I thought it was named “Tiger Heron” because of its stripes.

It was early afternoon by the time we reached the jungle camp. After fixing coffee and scrounging some crackers from the pantry, we sat down to relax. Now that we were under cover, the rain quit pouring, slowed to a light drizzle and quit.

Orange-collared Manakin
Orange-collared Manakin

“Hey, what was that?” John jumped up from his stool and grabbed his binoculars. “Look! See it right there in that bush, what is it?”

“John, forget that LBJ. (LBJ stands for “little brown job,” or any small nondescript bird that is hard to identify.) Look at that tall snag over there. Four Fiery-billed Aracaris just landed. Put them on the list.”

“We can see aracaris anytime. Look up above them at the tip of the snag. It’s a Black-crowned Tityra.” John was excited. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day. Hey! There’s that LBJ again, right back in the same bush. Get the bird book. Between the two of us we can figure out what it is.”

The rain came back with a vengeance, this time with wind. We settled back down to finish our coffee and crackers. Throughout the afternoon rain came and went. Whenever it stopped for a few minutes, the clearing filled with birds. At one time we had nine Chestnut-mandibled Toucans and 13 Fiery-billed Aracaris in the snag, all at the same time. I logged two birds I had never seen before, a humming bird called the White-necked Jacobin and John’s LBJ, which turned out to be the Riverside Wren. John added five to his lifetime list. Daylight was beginning to fade when the rain settled in for good. We slogged home through the torrent, arriving just before total darkness and in the nick of time to stop a search party that my wife Diane had commandeered to rescue us. It was the best day of birding I have ever known.

* * * *

White-necked Jacobin
White-necked Jacobin

I have long admired British bird watchers. This is mostly because my first birding experience with experts was with a UK couple named Roger and Sharon. The experience took place in the late 1980’s when we had just begun to cater to ecotourism at Hacienda Barú. The couple stopped by one afternoon and scheduled a hiking tour called “The Rainforest Experience” for the next day. When I told them that they would see more birds in the lowlands on the “Mangrove Walk,” Roger agreed, but said the birds would probably be ones they had already logged during their two weeks in Costa Rica. What they wanted to see were the rainforest birds, fewer species in a habitat with limited visibility and unlimited hiding places. We scheduled the “Rainforest Experience” for early the next morning. Little did I suspect that within 24 hours I would be afflicted with bird watching fever, and would return from the hike a full-fledged addict.

Within an hour of hiking we began hearing calls from several distinct bird species. The sounds all seemed to be coming from the same general area. As we approached, the volume and number of different calls increased.

“This is a birder’s dream,” said Roger, excitedly, “a mixed feeding flock. Some species of birds have learned to look for maurading army ants. They hang out nearby and grab everything that flies, hops or runs from the ants. Sometimes they follow monkeys, but ants create more havoc.”

I won’t bore you with the names of all the birds we saw, but in the next half hour we identified 18 different species, five of which were new for Roger and Sharon and eleven for me. Roger pointed out that each species was represented by no more than one pair. Any new species was welcome to enter the group because every species took advantage of only one niche or place where its prey might be found, but didn’t interfere with other species. However, if another member of a species already present in the flock tried to join, it would be soundly rebuffed by its own kin. We hiked on through the forest totally vitalized by the experience.

Crested Caracara
Crested Caracara

About an hour later we passed through an area where the under story seemed denser and the vine growth thicker. I heard a loud snapping sound but couldn’t imagine what might be making it. As we got closer, I noticed that the “snap” was preceded by a “buzz.” Ever more curious I carefully scanned the surrounding foliage for the source of this strange disturbance. I spotted the Manakins almost at the same time as Roger.

“Absolutely amazing! I have never seen this,” he whispered. “This must be the mating dance of Pipra mentalis, the Red-capped Manakin. Brilliant!”

The setting was as perfect as a carefully set stage arranged precisely for the actors that were performing in this pristine theater. At center stage sat the dull, light-greenish, rather nondescript female, preening herself while three suitors took turns competing for her favor. Her throne was a small twig. Three longer branches, each coming from a different direction, extended inward toward the princess, with one aspiring beau on each. One by one each of the males danced the length of his branch, starting on the far end with his bright red head bobbing, his vibrant orange thighs and yellow legs in a flurry of movement, carrying his coal black body the length of his branch to within a few centimeters of his lady love. At this point he emitted a “buzz,” leaped into the air and made the loud “snap” that had attracted me to the scene. The “snap” was so quick that it was impossible to discern how he produced it. I remember thinking that it might be by slapping the wings together, but then discarded that possibility thinking that the force necessary to make such a loud “snap” would certainly break wing bones. The fervent suitor repeated his dance in an outward direction finishing with another buzz and snap. Then he waited quietly, the perfect gentleman, while his rivals each made their bids. During the entire performance, the object of all this attention appeared not to realize that she was the big attraction. After each proud performer had received two or three opportunities, the seemingly unimpressed female stopped preening herself, sat up, looked around, and flew away. The three males looked at each other, totally dumbfounded, jumped into the air and flew after her. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

Roger explained that the stage for this incredible mating game is called a lek. A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica confirmed that the loud “snap” was, indeed, produced by slapping the wings together. Each species of manakin has a slightly different version of the dance. Though three other species of manakin are found on Hacienda Barú, Blue-crowned Manakin, White-ruffed Manakin and Orange-collared Manakin, even Roger admitted he couldn’t tell the females apart. The males, however, are quite distinct. All of these forest denizens have leks and ritual dances, and make a high pitched peep each time they jump up into the air from their perch. In Spanish their common names tend to suggest jumping or dancing, “saltarin” or “bailarin”. They are all small and beautiful, but none quite so charming as my redheaded favorite.

Never again would I wonder at the fervency of the typical bird watcher. That day was my initiation into a new world. I now knew what drives birders to traipse all over the countryside, spotting scope and tripod over their shoulders, binoculars slung around their necks, and bird book tucked in a day pack. You might ask why two grown men, apparently in complete control of their mental faculties, would walk for miles in a soaking rain just to get a peek at a new bird. I’m afraid I don’t have the words to answer that question any more than an alcoholic can tell you why he obsessively drinks booze. Over the years my birding fever has settled down to a simmer, but I still get excited whenever a new species is sighted on Hacienda Barú.

* * * *

Speaking of enthusiasts, two couples, all birders, once visited Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge for several days, and stayed at the lodge. From daylight till dusk, they searched every habitat on the reserve: forested hills, wetlands, mangrove estuary, secondary forest, river mouth and brush covered clearings. They had logged close to 150 birds by noon on their fourth day including almost every species on their wish list and some they hadn’t imagined they would see. The sole exception was the Crested Caracara, which had eluded them from the start. At lunch, someone suggested that they hang up the birding and spend their last afternoon relaxing at the beach. Three of them loved the idea, but one of the men, a truly fanatical birder, became downright annoyed with his companions. He carried on as if they were proposing to commit some sort of sacrilege. If they were giving it up, he would carry on by himself.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go to the beach,” said the other man. “But you don’t have to get mad about it.”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to him,” interjected the fanatical birder’s wife, with a wicked little smirk. “He’s just afraid he might see a Liver-spotted Skinny Dipper.”

With that, the man stomped off. And, wouldn’t you know it, the beach crowd logged the Crested Caracara.

Jack Ewing was born and educated in Colorado. In 1970 he and his wife Diane moved to the jungles of Costa Rica where they raised two children, Natalie and Chris. A newfound fascination with the rainforest was responsible for his transformation from cattle rancher into environmentalist and naturalist. His many years of living in the rainforest have rendered a multitude of personal experiences, many of which are recounted in his published collection of essays, Monkeys are Made of Chocolate. Jack and Diane live on and manage the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge, a well-known ecotourism destination on the southwest coast of Costa Rica.