Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Where The Hummingbirds Fly

The winter winds receded. Her lands awakened with green knowing.  A myriad of blossom color once again filled in the empty spaces of her backyard. There she eagerly waited on that wonderful spring day in May with her coffee and cigarette.  Where were they?, she thought worriedly. 

Over the years, she perfected a place for the hummingbirds and orioles to nest.  In her home, she eagerly mixed her magic potions of sugar water and orange mix for her favorite birds.  She'd fill up her feeders with grape jams enticing tanagers and orioles alike to visit. In fact, her home became a diner stop on the migration route.  But over the years, several of those birds discovered that they could count on her for food to help them raise their young.  So they stayed and made her backyard their home.  

Generations and decades later, the now older lady waited on her birthday for the arrival of her hummingbirds.  How many years had she done this ritual?  She couldn't remember nor did she care.  Every special experience was blurred into one lifetime moment during her conversations with family. And during her chats with her grandson, they'd discuss it all. 

These two had spent a lifetime together.  He was luckier than most people because he had a grandma who was always there for him.  At times, he thought she was immortal but knew deep down that nothing lasts forever.  Many times during his visit home, he'd sit outside and sip a red beer with her by the feeders. They'd speak fondly of the past, gossip about the present and wonder about the future. And all while watching her backyard birds. Her lands were magical and ALIVE.  So many birds.  So many wild things.  She was very much a part of that land as it was of her.  IT was her world for decades and she simply acknowledged this other family member as "THE LAND". 

As a child, the grandson helped her garden.  There he learned the secrets about growing cherry tomatoes, kohlrabis, radishes and onions.  Sometimes a Snapping Turtle would try and lay eggs in the garden.  Sometimes, a little country mouse would nibble on her sacred radishes. She'd get frustrated and proclaim that those "damned rabbits" were eating her carrots. They'd then proceed to fence off the "carrot section". 

And when they weren't gardening together, he'd wander off and chase fireflies and frogs.  On a warm June night before a rain, the swampy forest next to her house came alive with sparkling lights.  During the day, he'd run along the river and look for critters around the bee house.  He'd grab an apple off the tree and eat around the worms.  The deer liked it there too as they'd feast from the tasty carpet of fruit. 

During the winter, the river would freeze over.  Winter scenes, like those imagined on Hallmark Cards, were real.  Ice skaters seamlessly moved in their scarves and mittens against the muted grays and whites of the forest. At night, some would get on their snow mobiles and race.  

And at the end of their fun on the LAND, she'd be waiting for them at the house with a drink.  In winter, she'd have hot chocolate for the grandkids and cocktails for the adults. In summer, it was a cool slice of melon.  In fall, it was apple cider.  During holidays, a nice frosty mint grasshopper.  On boating trips with his Grandpa, she'd make their lunches. There were always fresh vegetables to eat. But breakfast was always the best.  There they would sit and plan their days out. As a child, each day was an memorable event. 

She, along with his grandpa, nurtured and fostered the love of all things nature and outdoors. It wasn't a special event.  It was part of every day country life.  Cleaning up the river, mowing the huge tracts of grass, cleaning up the autumn leaves(not the grandson's favorite activity!) or working out in the garden were every day things. It was all woven together like the barkcloth of the past.

This year, two days after her birthday, the hummingbirds arrived just as she had predicted.  She called her grandson and let him know that they had returned.  She was relieved and happy. A few days later, a red and black tanager was also feeding from her grape jelly.  She excitedly told him about the experience.  "Grandma!!  You just saw a Scarlet Tanager!"  She said it was one of the most beautiful birds she had ever seen.  Well, next to her Baltimore Orioles. 

Two months had passed at Grandma's house since the hummingbirds had arrived. But this time it was the grandson who reached for the empty hummingbird feeder for the last time. He was scolded by an angry Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Where is my food??!!  The grandson laughed a little to himself and felt terrible that his feeder had been empty for several days. As he put the new nectar out, the hummer was joined by a younger one.  It made him happy and sad all at once.  Walking down the patio steps for the last time, he looked back and tried to memorize all the little details. So many memories.  Standing under the ancient black walnut tree one last time, he said his farewells to the land and his grandmother.  Thank you for everything you taught me Grandma. I love you. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Costa Rica: The Urban Birding Report

Parque Nacional
Every year, I like to take a walk on the wild side and do some urban birding at the places we stay.  I usually add a couple lifers from the long walks, but that's not the main purpose of this type of birding.  It's just a "fun" exercise into the world of local birding.  What do the people living in these urban places see?  So today, I'll take you to THREE places we visited. We'll visit Parque Nacional in downtown San Jose, Parque Metropolitano La Sabana just outside of the downtown, and CATIE near Cartago.

First off.  For those of you following our travel plans.  We left Monteverde by public bus.  There were two times that this bus left Monteverde.  There was a direct bus to San Jose at 7:30 and 2:30 PM. We noticed that the bus was FULL.  So buy your tickets early.  When you travel, you always go during the light of day as it's much safer. Plus you get more birding time for that day.  

Several hours later, we arrived in San Jose at our hotel.  It was very nice and near many of San Jose's museums and restaurants. At this point, Micheal wasn't having anymore birding for the day.  It's hard to switch off the birding button when there are so many lifers to be discovered. For non-birders, they want to kill the birders for their non-stop chatter of birds.

Crimson-fronted Parakeets were common everywhere in and around San Jose
And at this point, I think the true birder, Gordon wanted to strangle me.  I'm kind of a spontaneous birder who likes to sing the song "Qué será, qué será! Whatever will be, will be!"  I tend to meander sometimes and he is super target focused:) We push each other to do better and that's teamwork. But I kinda got a day to play and research. And be a gyspy. 

Always seen in pairs feeding or just....cuddling
We did add the very common Crimson-fronted Parakeets to our lists.  I love parrots and parakeets so it was pretty exciting.  As for the safety at the Parque Nacional?  It was safe during the day, but according to the locals, not so safe at night.  Watch your things at all times.  While we were there, I spotted a group of guys watching people.  Fortunately for us, there were lots of school kids, families, tourists and locals enjoying the park. 

Blue-gray Tanagers were common almost everywhere we went
Then we passed the train station on the way back to our hotel and said, "Hey, let's take a look."  I saw this schedule and got excited.  We could take a train to Cartago for cheap!  Why not??!!  I asked the workers in the train station if that schedule was legit and their shook their heads yes.  

LOL!!!  The next day we were on our way to Cartago to meet up with friend and birder, Serge Arias.  This train was CRAZY!  It was open, as in NO doors, and very rocky.  At times, I thought the train would fall apart.  Our taxi driver was shocked that we even took that train.  "That's not safe! Cars hit that train all the time"  LOL!  Again, we traveled by day and were surrounded by nice people. So that's always a good thing. And it took us to the very beautiful city of Cartago for a little more than the US $1.50!  You can't beat that price!

Ahhh, look at Gordon's face.  This is classic.  And Micheal!  They're enjoying the torture:)  Serge Arias met up with us and we had a blast.  I'll focus more on Serge and his guides in the next two posts.  Right now, we're going to explore a really cool location just outside of Cartago to expand on this idea of urban birding. 

University of Costa Rica-Cartago division
Universities are great places to explore.  Granted, in Costa Rica, there were always guards at the entrances.  Normally you need a student pass, but I've discovered several ways I can weasel my way onto most campuses. I'm also an educator so I'm part of the academic world. Not that it matters, but it's the unknown benefits of teaching that can help open doors:) Plus, we're adding data to ebird.  So how is that not citizen science at work for the academic world?:)  During our treks to San Jose and Cartago, we'd explore two campuses.  For the San Jose campus, I spoke with the guard in Spanish and he was really kind to let us enter through the gates.  And for the Cartago entrance, Serge was able to get us into the area without any problems.  Although he warned us that we might be turned away.  Oh yeah....:)

Boat-billed Heron
We had almost given up hope that we'd ever see a Boat-billed Heron after dipping on the bird at Playa Tamarindo.  But Serge knew that there were several around this lagoon/lake.  And there were!!

Northern Jacana
Safety factor?  Safe.  Well, except for the caiman in the area.  We always had to watch out for them while birding the perimeter of the lake. 

Purple Gallinule
It rained and rained......

Cattle Egret
.......but the birds were really cool.  

After our day with Serge, we returned to San Jose via a local bus. During my research, I was shocked to discover Yellow-naped Parrots at a local park.  Now had I known what I know now, we wouldn't have gone because we added this bird later in Liberia.  But this story is worth telling.....

I think we walked 20 some miles on this day.  The Yellow-naped Parrot is endangered in several areas of Central America due to poaching.  The bird can mimic sounds and is very popular with people. So we headed to this park, La Sabana.  I'm ALWAYS careful with my camera.  I put it in a backpack away from the public eye and I ONLY take it out once we are at our location and in a "safe" area. 

Parque Metropolitano La Sabana is not for the faint of heart.  It may be an ebird hotspot but it's not a safe one
I've tried several times for this bird during my various treks into Central America and have dipped.  And this bird is the reason why we went.  We arrived at the park and I was already getting a sketchy vibe, but I saw joggers and elderly people walking.  THAT'S always a good sign.  But the park was unevenly safe.  People had warned us that there were areas where men would disappear into the bamboo groves with other men. oh oh.  But that didn't bother me.  Bamboo doesn't scare me, but here's what did.  

Variegated Squirrel
No.  No.  It wasn't this Variegated Squirrel above either.  We had located the Yellow-naped Parrots, or at least one of them.  I took out my camera and put it together to snap photos.  The area was clear and there was a kind woman walking on the track.  Safe.  Right?  WRONG.  She warned Micheal that I needed to hide my camera because of two boys in the distance.  She pointed in their direction.  I kept my eyes out for them.  But the birds distracted and before I knew it, they were closer. 

Yellow-naped Parrot seen at a restaurant stop heading towards Monteverde.  This was a captive bird. 
At one point, the young sketchy man told his friend in Spanish to stop riding his bike because he saw that I had a camera. Little did he know that I knew Spanish. What did we do? Before any of this had happened, I made a gamble. I had located the patrolling police with my eyes and also kept my eyes open as to where the runners were in case the teenagers got close.  And as predicted they got CLOSE!  I stopped and looked at the biker letting him know I knew he was eyeing up my camera. I should have taken a pic with my Iphone:) Wait?!!  Just how many thousands of dollars do birders carry on their bodies? We're like walking banks!  Then I signaled for the police at the other end of the lake.  They came.  As they did, we moved quickly to where the crowds were. Poor Micheal was wearing flip flops. It was serious at the time. I disassembled my camera and packed it back up.  The young men were trapped by the police and we left the area. We got our bird but I would not recommend gambling like this.  If the police hadn't come when they did, I might have been without a camera. Or worse! This isn't my first time at the rodeo though.  Again language is super useful here. I would not have played this game in any new culture that I was unfamiliar with.  In short, I won't forget our first experience finding the Yellow-naped Parrot anytime soon. 

When we returned back to our hotel, we were greeted by these little kittens.  I wanted to be a hoarder so badly and take them all home with me.  So, for this Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, I would, based on our experience, not recommend for birding unless it's on the weekend when there are lots of families grilling out.  People do bird there and it is a hotspot on Ebird but unless you're with a group of people, I would not recommend visiting alone.  

Urban birding is an adventure.  The number one danger factor in birding comes from...(drum roll)...other people.  Grizzly bears and Jaguars and Tigers got nothing on the evil world of humanity.  Every place has its challenges.  In Arizona, it's the lack of water and extreme heat. Anyhow, here are the reports from our urban trekking.....
For San Jose, Parque Nacional, click here.  Safety factor.  Safe during the day.  Be careful at night. Go with others. 
For the University of Cartago, click here. SAFE! But keep your eyes open for Caiman. 
For the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana, click here. I do not recommend this park unless you visit on the weekend and with a larger group of people. 
For the University of Costa Rica, click here. Safe!  Try to go when the garden is open because there are some great birds hiding in that area.  There is also a river that runs through the campus.  Very nice place to bird.  

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Charm of Hummingbirds

Violet Sabrewing
One would think that finding hummingbirds in the tropics would be easy.  After all, one just needs to put out a feeder and watch them come, right? 

Lesser Violetear

In theory, it would work but the problem here is that many people don't put out hummingbird feeders.  In today's report, I'll share with you TWO amazing hummingbird stations that are located near or in Monteverde's major attractions, Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park(the Hummingbird Gallery) and Selvatura(the hummingbird and butterfly garden). 

male Purple-throated Mountain-gem
The other challenge?  The hummingbirds were the hardest group of birds to ID! I would pull out my 2 pound bird guide and scratch my head. I was distracted by the very purple Violet Sabrewings because I love purple.  

Some of the green ones slipped our radar during our first observations because the pretty purple and blue ones stole the show!  So give yourself time and let your brain naturally sort itself all out. 

Coppery-headed Emerald
During our research to the Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park, we noticed a separate ebird hotspot near the entrance to the park that had a ton of reports on hummingbirds.  Now while we were in the park, we saw only two species of hummingbird AND in poor light!  As we exited and ate lunch, everyone kind of wandered around the area waiting for the city bus. Then I noticed a cafe nearby.  What was THAT? The Hummingbird Gallery? This didn't sound like a place to view wild birds, but what the heck, I'd check it out anyway. Turns out that they not only served pastries and coffee but a healthy dose of hummingbird species!

female Violet Sabrewing
We extended our day trek stay for another hour. Then the rain started coming down.  It's super cheap taking the local bus over the tourist ones.  The only catch with the local bus is, once again, making sure you know when the last bus leaves for the day.  And we were cutting it close. Again, it all comes down to the time we are given.

Our next day trek was scheduled for Selvatura and the hanging bridges hike. This is a great place for ziplining. Transportation to this location was part of the entrance package.  We also mentioned we were birders at our lodge and received free hummingbird passes. 

And at this point (and I'm going to be honest here), we headed to our next destination.  I was not impressed with the help at Selvatura Park. It was overpriced and the workers didn't seem to care at all about their jobs.  Nor did they know anything other than how to collect money.  The ONLY reason why we were there was to see their hummingbird garden and go for the hike to hopefully spot the Three-wattled Bellbird. I don't think it was worth the 30 some dollar package price.  However, I will say that this park is ALL about the ziplining and it looked legit. The guides for the ziplining were also legit as I eavesdropped on their conversations.  They were excited about what they did and the visitors they served.  The nature part is just back drop apparently:)

female Green Thorntail
The Monteverde Cloud Forest National Park had friendly and helpful people.  Selvatura, not so much.  We were there for the rare Three-wattled Bellbird.  I don't want to say that this was a disappointing visit but it didn't live up to the hype.  We did hear the Bellbird a couple times.  The hanging bridges were HUGE and scared several hikers!  There was one bridge where I couldn't stop or look down.  

However, the hike was beautiful.  I added several birds to my lifelist.  When our hike was done, I handed the hummingbird garden pass to the bored ticket taker.  We spent quite a bit of time in the garden watching the spectacular hummingbird show.  We went stretches without seeing these birds and then in two days, we had hummingbird overload!

Coppery-headed Emerald
The ID for this group of birds was the most difficult.  The females seemed easier than the males to ID.  But I can say that after two weeks of post study, I can now distinguish each species of hummingbird we observed. 

Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Living in Arizona, I have come to know and understand all of our local hummingbirds well.  It took me years to distinguish the various female species but now, it's easy. And it gets easier the more one birds.  Instead of years learning bird ID, it takes weeks or days now thanks in part to all the background field experiences. 

So when it came time to ID'ing rain forest hummers, I was once again challenged by ID. Behavior and interaction were also key into understanding these birds better. 

female Purple-throated Mountain-gem
In the pic below, I'd look at the feeders and see green.  And these birds are fast, so we'd get brief glimpses before they'd zip off.  It was tricky. 

At the feeders, hummingbirds would perch on your fingers while they fed.  Some species were more trusting than others.  The Green-crowned Brilliant was VERY trusting. 

male Green-crowned Brilliant
However, the Green Hermit was VERY skittish. There was an even trickier hummer called the Purple-crowned Fairy!  I saw this bird several times on the trip and here's what I'll tell you all.  It's flies like a fairy....not even joking....and it's fast!  By the time I noticed the bird, it was gone.  The flight pattern was spastic and irregular.  I can usually predict a birds' flight pattern.  This hummer, however, was all over the place and difficult to capture on camera. 

Green Hermit
Anyhow,  sometimes I think it would be fun to just do a hummingbird year in the Americas.  There are more than 300 hummers out there.  I printed the list off!  How fun would that be?!  Start in Arizona, hit Texas for 2 of their regulars and head south.  We did well in Costa Rica by the end of our trip with over 20 some hummingbirds seen. 

Most people, whether they like birds or not, are fascinated by hummingbirds.  They are a group of birds only found in the Americas(including the surrounding islands).  And some are in very very special places.  I am currently researching ONE hummingbird in a remote area that I hope to find this year.  Another hummer that I look forward to chasing is up in the Andes Mountains.  It's a chunky hopper that lives in another remote region. So you might be thinking, "What was your favorite hummingbird from this area?"  Ok.  I'll bite.  

male Green Thorntail
I love PURPLE.  So the Violet Sabrewing is awesome.  I also love the Lesser Violetear and Purple-throated Mountain-gems.  But the one that stole my heart was the Green Thorntail.  This tiny hummer with its slow bee like movement buzzed in and out of the feeders courageously.  The other hummers were aggressive but this species stood its ground.  They stick their tail up in the air to give them a wasp/bee like air so that the others will leave them alone.  Just take a look at the video above.  During the observation, I fell in love with this one female as she boldly went for the nectar.  

female Green-crowned Brilliant
Monteverde was a fun adventure. Our hummingbird finds wouldn't stop.  I was looking forward to San Jose and exploring the city and surrounding nature areas.  We'd meet up with friend and bird guide Serge Arias to explore two key spots near the Cartago area.  For birders looking for a guide in this area, Serge is one of the people to contact because he can coordinate your bird list needs with other guides.  But we'll explore that in our next chapter of travel.  For now, it's hard to say good-bye to the misty forests of Monteverde.  
Here are several of our checklists from our journeys in and around Monteverde. 
In Monteverde, the town itself, click here
For Monteverde Cloud Forest, click here
For Selvatura Park, click here.

Just a quick note about the hummingbird nectar used at Selvatura Park as we seemed to have had some comments on Facebook questioning the liquid solution used.  As most of you know in the US, we use 3 cups water to one cup of sugar.  In winter here in the Southwest, we up that sugar content by a little more to help our hummers deal with the cold nights.  No dye should ever be used with the mix.  The red platforms on the feeders will attract the hummers PLUS they are smart birds. The solution here is not honey but it's instead, sugar that has not been bleached.  In the US and many other countries, we "bleach" our sugar with bone char from cattle to give it that desired white look.  Gross but true.  Sugar in its natural state is brown and that is why the water is brown in these feeders:)

Until next time......