Monday 27 September 2021

The Birds of Atenas

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TODAY COSTA RICA – Atenas likes to proclaim that it has the best climate in the world. I can’t vouch for “best in the world”, but at 2,290 feet of altitude (698 meters) it is significantly warmer than my previous home in Heredia. This altitude is for Atenas Centro, the center of town. In fact, there are many hotels, homes, and neighborhoods located in the surrounding hills—at higher elevations.

This variety of altitudes combined with a great deal of agricultural land and forest, makes Atenas an attractive place for many species of birds. The birds in this article were all photographed from where I live—a little outside of and higher than the center of town.

Keel-billed toucan

The Keel-billed Toucan (Spanish – Tucán Pico Iris; Species – Ramphastos sulfuratus) is the most common toucan in Costa Rica. I have even heard they are beginning to return to the Central Valley.

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People tend to think of toucans as benevolent and humorous creatures.

I believe there is even a cartoon toucan who sells breakfast cereal. In fact, they are omnivores and rapacious nest raiders. I recently watched a small group of juvenile toucans raid and destroy the nest of a pair of Blue-gray Tanagers. They eat fruit, seeds, lizards, snakes, and the eggs or nestlings of other birds.

They are social birds, rarely seen alone. They live in groups—piling into a hole in a tree to maintain body heat through the night.

Blue-crowned Motmot

The Blue-crowned Motmot (Spanish – Momoto Coronado Azul; Species – Momotus momota) is a common bird found in a wide range of environments. It can be seen from lowland forest to highland coffee farms and shady gardens.

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Despite this, it is a highly sought-after bird by visiting birders. I have heard birders describe in hushed reverent tones the sighting of a Motmot.

Most of the six species of Motmots in Costa Rica (the Blue-crowned is the most common) share very distinctive tail feathers—they have two round feathers that protrude beyond the main body of the tail. These are known as racquet-tipped tails. Motmots tend to swing their tails in a pendulum motion, giving them the nickname Clock Birds.

They are mostly carnivores—small reptiles, insects, worms—but consume some fruit as well. They have two attributes that aide them in the hunt. First, they have fearsomely serrated upper beaks. Secondly, they are impressive acrobatic flyers.

Gray Hawk

The Gray Hawk or Mexican Goshawk (Spanish – Gavilán Pollero, Busardo Gris Norteño; Species – Buteo plagiatus) lives in open country or on the edges of forests. Their diet consists of lizards, snakes, small mammals, birds, and frogs.

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This bird is often confused with the Gray-lined Hawk. Costa Rica is the only country where this confusion can take place because the ranges of these two species do not overlap.

The range of the Gray-lined Hawk runs from southern Costa Rica to the south, while the range of the Gray Hawk is from southern Costa Rica north.

Montezuma Oropendola

The Montezuma Oropendola (Spanish–Oropéndola de Montezuma; Species–Psarocolius montezuma) is a very attractive bird that gets far more attention for their nests than their captivating appearance.

They build the long hanging woven nests that can be seen swinging in the breeze, high above the ground. Many restaurants and hotels display these nests for the enjoyment of visitors.

The folk wisdom on these birds is that they eat noxious creatures like scorpions and poisonous spiders that other birds will not go near. In fact, the males are more than twice the weight of the females.

Therefore, males will hunt larger prey on thicker branches while the females can venture out onto the smaller branches and pick insects off the undersides of leaves. They also eat fruit.

They inhabit forests and open woodland. They are very gregarious birds, nesting in groups.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

The Crimson-fronted or Red-fronted Parakeet (Spanish – Perico Frentirrojo; Species – Psittacora finschi) is a common bird in most of Costa Rica.

Even in the Central Valley they can often be seen—flying in pairs or small flocks high overhead and squawking loudly.

They are the largest parakeet in Costa Rica and feed on fruit. There is a large tree about 20 feet from my rear patio—nobody has been able to identify it—and recently its fruit ripened. I awoke to find it alive with these raucous colorful birds. There was also a plague of squirrels and several other birds. They pretty much picked it clean in one very loud day.

Atenas is less than an hour from the western suburbs. In addition to wonderful birds, it offers many fine hotels and excellent cuisine of all sorts.

It’s an easy place to visit and a great escape from the hubbub of San José.

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Jack Donnelly
Jack Donnelly is a writer, photographer, and speaker living in San Pablo de Heredia. His topics of interest include Costa Rican folk culture, national traditions, traditional cuisine, ecotourism, and wildlife. Donnelly is the author of COSTA RICA: Folk Culture, Traditions, and Cuisine which is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

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