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RARE BIRD IN BRITISH COLUMBIA – And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

And in the movie, “The Big Year!”

A few months ago I wrote about our first out west trip in our “new” Roadtrek camper and the quest to find one of the illusive birds we had been searching for several years – the LeConte’s Thrasher. [See Feb. 6, 2012, “I’ve Got the Bird!”]

An important resource that we always have with us on our birding adventures is phone numbers or internet addresses for rare bird alerts in the states we might be traveling in. A quick call can yield a current report of unusual birds that might be in the area, complete with directions as to how to find the bird. Most birders are anxious to share information, and all we have to do is remember to make the call when we we’re in each different state. And you never know what rare bird will show up, making the trip that much more exciting and memorable.

So in 1998, as we traveled up through Northern California, following the coast towards Seattle and Vancouver, we called the rare bird alert numbers along the way. Nothing earthshaking was being reported until we got into British Columbia. If you have seen the film (or read the book), “The Big Year”, you may remember the rare bird that showed up in the little town of Gibsons, British Columbia.

When we were in Vancouver, Phil called the rare bird phone number, suddenly grabbed a pad and pencil and started writing furiously, eyes open wide. I watched curiously as he wrote down the details of what the bird looked like, and the very complex directions of where we had to go to find it, then looked at me and said, “There’s a Xantus’s Hummingbird in Gibsons!” Whoever heard of a Xantus’s Hummingbird? Not us! It wasn’t even in our bird book. And unless you have a copy of the current sixth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, it’s still not in most bird books! The reason is simple. This bird very rarely steps one foot out of the southern Baja Peninsula in Mexico, where it is endemic. And in the very strong El Nino weird-weather year of 1997, one of them had found her way to Gibsons, British Columbia.

And where was Gibsons? A 45-minute ferry ride northwest of Vancouver. So off we went! We grabbed a quick continental breakfast at our motel, and headed out with directions from the desk clerk about how to find the ferry to Gibsons, a town not reachable by land – even though it is not an island. The mountains come down to the sea, and there are few roads in the area to give access. (Similar to some parts of coastal Alaska.)

We drove through Vancouver on a multi-lane highway and crossed the Fraser River. This is a huge river and Vancouver is actually on a delta, with many islands and a lot of water. Several rivers travel here into the Strait of Georgia – emptying the mountains of glacier and snow melt and rain. It’s really a beautiful area, but, unfortunately, any place where people could build houses and condos up against the mountains, they did. It’s a hugely populated area.

We got to the ferry docks around 8:30 AM, and found long lines of cars, trucks, vans, semi’s, etc. Wow! Had they all found out about the bird, too? We had about an hour’s wait until departure and we were just crossing our fingers that we would get on! And who knew how long the bird would hang around? Or how many other chances we would have to see it? While waiting for the ferry, people got out of their vehicles, milled about, walked their dogs, chatted, bought the morning paper, and we munched on food from our larder, as we had not really had a proper breakfast. We ate Tillamook cheese, a blueberry scone, apples, and cherries. And a couple of cups of tea.

Finally the ferry came in – it was huge! It would hold 3 to 400 vehicles, including us. We spent the entire journey out on deck, of course, looking for birds, at the houses on islands, tall mountains coming right down to the water. It was windy and cold, but sunny and clear. In 45 minutes we landed, and followed the directions Phil had been given. Also, as requested by the rare bird alert information, he had called the owner of the house where the bird was visiting feeders, and our “appointment” was for 1:30, so we had a couple of hours to kill.

We decided we would make absolutely sure we knew where we were going, so we followed Phil’s notes: Go on a new stretch of highway to Upper Gibsons and come to an IGA mall. Turn left 3km to Gower Point Road and right to Ocean Beach. It would be on the second street on the right. Park at the fork, and walk up the paved road to the house. It was up a road from the beach. We drove back to town for a bite of lunch, then returned to the beach for a nap, a walk on the very rocky beach, gathered driftwood, read, wrote in my journal, and wondered if we would really get to see this “lost” bird.

As it got closer to time, we studied Phil’s notes of the bird’s description – “it was a female, with a bill that was black at the base with a red tip. It had a distinctly white post-ocular (behind the eye) stripe that contrasted with a dull greenish crown. Framed with black under the eye stripe, the nape and upper parts were green, and had an all rufous belly.” So we were ready. We knew where to go and we knew what the bird looked like. Now if we could only see it!

At 1:15 we walked down the road and up the 2nd Street to the house and garden. Another car with 4 birders from Victoria arrived, and we all got acquainted and seated ourselves within viewing distance of the hummingbird feeders where the bird had been seen earlier that day. We had only to wait and be alert, since the coming and going and viewing time of a hummer can be very brief! And, sure enough, in a just a few minutes there she was – the lost Xantus’s Hummingbird – right in front of us.

We learned from a handout the hostess had prepared that the bird had appeared on November 1, 1997. It was now July 18 of the following year and the bird was still there. Her daughter had first seen the bird and of course couldn’t find it in any of their bird books – so they called in the big guns – the expert birders who finally checked the Mexican field guides and came up with “female Xantus’s Hummingbird”.

It is thought that the bird got blown north during one of several bad storms off Mexico the previous Fall. And of course – then it didn’t know where to go! It was not a migrant in Mexico, so it had no imprint in its brain of a route to take back, nor an instinct to go anywhere else! Who knows what ever happened to it, but at that point it was satisfied to stay around that beautiful garden and please many visiting birders. It was reported that over a thousand birders showed up to see this bird. It was present for 310 days from November 16, 1997 through Sept 21, 1998.

So we got to look at a beautiful bird we would likely never have seen in our lives. It had certainly not been a target bird on this trip! All we had to do then was get back to the ferry and back to Vancouver, which was much easier than finding your way back to Baja!

Birding in Belize

Our first trip to the tropics (south of Florida) was with 17 of Phil’s high school students and 3 other chaperones in 1997. And what an adventure it was. The trip was sponsored by Save the Rain Forest, a conservation organization based in Arizona, who work with rain forest conservation groups in several other countries in the tropics. The purpose is education – rain forest and coral reef ecology, conservation efforts, and sustainable living by the local, and in many cases indigenous, people.

From my stamp collecting days, I knew that Belize was a small country at the south end of the Yucatan Peninsula, that it had formerly been part of the United Kingdom and had been called British Honduras. I knew they spoke English (and also several native languages), were happy to accept US dollars, the only medical prep we would need was malaria pills, and the country was in no particular political turmoil. I also knew the flight from Miami wouldn’t take long, and that we’d be met by our guides, who would take us by the hand and care for us for 11 days, and show us lots of reef and rain forest creatures. What could be better as an introduction to tropical countries south of the US?

We spent the first 4 days snorkeling on an offshore island near the 2nd largest coral reef in the world – the first being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The island of South Water Caye is located in the western Caribbean, 14 miles east of Dandriga, a city on the mainland of Belize. The island is about 3/4 mile long and about 500 feet wide, we managed to explore most of the nooks and crannies available – both above and below water.

There were many beautiful snorkeling sites close by, and several were accessible simply by wading offshore. We spent most of the time floating on the surface with our masks and snorkels on, just being overwhelmed by the spectacular reef life below us. The colors of the water were very much like the Bahamas – shades of clear blues and greens, the sky cloudless with Magnificent Frigatebirds gliding overhead.

We birded around the tiny island daily and discovered the best spots were a nearby seagrape tree and a non-native almond tree. Also, the palms in bloom and the mangroves along the beach usually had birds, and we saw several species of migrants from North America – orioles and warblers. These birds had been there for the winter months, and would soon be returning to North America for their breeding season. We did manage to ferret out a new bird  on the island –  a Green-breasted Mango – in the hummingbird family.

We usually took our supper plates out to the dock to eat, then explored the water underneath with our flashlights. We watched the comet Hale-Bopp visible high in the sky to the northwest and millions of stars. The moon came up late, so the star visibility was incredible. Sunrise was about 6am, but pre-dawn light was about 5am – and that was when the Great-tailed Grackle alarms went off.

The following 5 days we spent at the edge of a rain forest near the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area, several miles inland at the La Milpa Field Station, the site of several early Mayan settlements. The forest, with its thick canopy of 60 to 90-foot tall trees – many such as mahogany, familiar to us in South Florida – held entangling vines such as giant philodendrons, thousands of epiphytes – orchids, airplants and cacti – and a myriad of hidden wildlife from the gorgeous giant bouncy Blue Morpho butterflies to the ubiquitous and vocal Howler Monkeys. On a night drive in the back of a truck, we found Kinkajous (another rain forest mammal) high up in a tree.

Mornings at La Milpa  began at 5:30 AM with the Chachalacas and Brown Jays serving as alarm clocks, and the occasional whooping of the howler monkeys could be heard off in the forest. Whip-poor-wills called at early light also, and in  trees right outside our back door we found a Collared Aracari, and an Emerald Toucanet. Early morning walks down the nearby road, with forest bordering on both sides, gave us a daily opportunity to find new birds, and one morning we were followed by a small group of Coatimundis, a raccoon relative.

For our first time in a tropical rain forest, we found over 50 species of birds, with amazing names such as Montezuma Oropendula, Citreoline Trogon, White-necked Jacobin, Masked Tityra, Collared Aracari, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Barred Antshrike, Black-headed Saltator, and Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and the bird we always associate with rain forests in Central and South America – the Keel-billed Toucan. And finally we got a bird on our life list who’s name begins with X! The Plain Xenops, a small bird – plain, but with a very strange bill.

Early one morning, our guides took us up into the forest  to a Mayan ruin. The weather was cool (relatively speaking) and clear – the forest was fresh and fully astir – insects, butterflies, birds, and who- knows-what-all scuffling around in the leaves. Half of the living beings in the jungle are invisible! A short hike up through the jungle brought us to the ruin that had been occupied over 2,000 years ago, and for the most part, had not yet been excavated. It was so intertwined with trees and roots, it seemed almost impossible to examine it carefully,  yet not destroy it. There were a few mostly-standing stones with illegible glyphs on them and several smallish pyramid-shaped constructions.

The students went on a tour of the site with the guide, and Phil and I sat nearby, listening for birds, me writing in my journal – enjoying the quiet in that cathedral-like setting. After a while, he got a glimpse of an Agouti– a rather large reddish-brown rodent in the underbrush, so we got up and wandered down a trail where we had also seen a small group of birds. The trail led to a lower elevation with high jungle all around. It was so beautiful and lone and primitive. It was easy to imagine Maya people and temples, here long ago – and the jungle swallowing it all.

Suddenly, we heard a bird calling – “mot – mot”,  “mot – mot”, “mot – mot”. We wandered slowly and quiety around through the ruins in the middle of this wondrous jungle forest, trees towering over us, still hearing the call – “mot – mot”, “mot – mot”. Finally Phil whispered to me and showed me a bird up in the trees – the body and head of the calling bird. We watched – listening, waiting, and finally the bird turned around and we could see its racket tail – two spectacular long tail feathers – with feathery “rackets” at the end of each. What a great bird. A Blue-crowned Motmot. We would see them again in other jungles, but the sounds and image of that bird in that ethereal place would stay with us forever.

We would return to Belize the following year with more students, then eventually Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador, with future plans for many more adventures in the tropical jungles.


MORE ABOUT WOODPECKERS – An adaptation of my article in the Palm Beach Post, March 7, 2009



In 1731 Mark Catesby wrote about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in his book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. “The bills of these birds are much valued by the Canada Indians, who made coronets of ‘em for their Princes and great warriors, by fixing them round a Wreath, with their points outward. . . they purchase them of the Southern People at the price of two, and sometimes, three, Buck-skins a Bill.”

In those early days, the Ivory-bills could be found in the Gulf States and up the Mississippi Valley to Ohio and Illinois and east into the Carolinas. In 1939 Arthur A. Allen wrote in Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers that they remained “in a precarious position” in a few isolated localities in Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Extirpated by extensive logging, the species has been considered extinct since the 1950’s.

In the last several years ever-hopeful ornithologists and birders have been searching the former haunts of this magnificent bird to see if just maybe some still survive. Reports of hearing their distinctive knocks on trees, seeing their characteristic pecking marks on trees, and getting fleeting glimpses of them through the cypress trees have given rise to the belief in their continued existence.

In the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Sixth Edition), they state:

“In April, 2005, came the much publicized announcement that the [Ivory-billed Woodpecker] had been rediscovered more than a year earlier in the Big Woods of the White River-Cache River system of eastern Arkansas. Documentation was provided in the form of sound recordings and brief blurred images on a videotape. [For many years, the only way a bird could make it into the record books was to have the dead body as bona-fide evidence. Nowadays, identifiable photographic records – especially videos and sound recordings – are sometimes considered acceptable.] However, intense searching subsequently has yet to produce more documentation, seemingly not possible in an age when most rarities discovered are photographed and those images are posted on the Internet the same day; many question the original evidence.”

John Agnew, a wildlife artist, photographer, and non-birding skeptic, (and a friend of ours) is occasionally invited to participate in hunts for the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle. One of his illustrations inspired by his experience  is shown above. His blog and website are shown below. I’ll let him tell his story:

“We arrived in the study area . . . and hiked to a known ‘hot spot’ where we found trees that the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers had been feeding on. They leave a unique horizontal groove in the wood when they chisel the bark off dead trees in search of grubs. The next day we got out very early in the morning and stationed 5 people in various spots within a hundred yards of the feeding tree. I heard some Pileated Woodpeckers raising a ruckus about 100 yards from me, and from that direction came a large, dark woodpecker . . . The bird landed on a cypress tree about 20 yards from me, but on the other side. Thinking that I might as well practice on this “Pileated”, I was raising my camera up to focus on the tree when it took off and flew right over my head at about 15 feet up. It was then that my eyes fixed on the brilliant white secondaries, the trailing edge of the wing. In the 3-4 seconds that the bird was in view, I could clearly see the field marks of the Ivory-bill, but still didn’t believe what I was seeing . . . By the time I turned the kayak around, it was long gone.”

Retrospectively, John added, “If only I had been quick to prepare, I would have been focused and ready when the bird took off toward me. A photo would have gone a long way to convince skeptics, and possibly save this area from being turned from pristine river swamp into a major international airport.”

On a recent trip to a 100 square – mile area of Ecuador, we saw over 200 species of birds. In this small country, ornithologists are hopeful that rainforest logging will be curtailed soon so they have an opportunity to discover what “new” birds are out there that they didn’t even know existed. It’s bad enough losing the ones we do know about! In the whole  Earth scheme of things, species come and go, appearing gradually in the universe, lingering perhaps a million years give or take, and gradually fading out, never to return. Except possibly for one time when we thought the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was gone – forever. The search continues.

You can read John’s blog at and see more of his art at

Thanks to Dr. George Rogers for the article inspiration.


If You Were a Woodpecker

Recently,  I wrote an article that appeared in the Palm Beach Post about what it would be like to be a woodpecker. In response to that article, I heard from a school teacher who used the information in her class to introduce her students to woodpeckers. Her email follows the article.

First of all, if you’re a woodpecker, your head, eyes, beak, toes, tongue, ears, tail, and feathers – absolutely every aspect of your body – would be especially adapted to enable you to live in and obtain food from trees. Since most of your time would be spent finding food, the easiest method would be to use your sharp eyes to actually see an insect, your favorite food . If you couldn’t  see one, you could use your unique sense of “hearing”.  Woodpeckers are able to detect insect movement inside a tree through a combination of feeling and hearing while placing their beak against a trunk.  If you heard an insect, you’d use your chisel-like beak to lift a piece of the bark or hammer a hole in the tree to get at the little “bugger”.  Of course, the insect wouldn’t just sit there waiting to be grabbed. It’s going to find a safer location, and you would keep listening and pecking until you could locate it. When you did find it, your incredible long, flexible tongue, made of bone and elastic tissue, would work its way inside the tree or under the bark, and with your “pierce” de resistance with its barbed tip, stab the bug and drag it out. And amazingly, that tongue  is so long that when you retract it, it wraps completely around the inside of your skull!

All the time you’re pecking on that tree, your head is taking a real beating! As adaptation (not luck) would have it, you have very special cushioning in your head for whamming against tree trunks. Without the shock absorber that surrounds your brain, you can imagine the headache you’d suffer. Football players could use such cushioning! In addition, to keep sawdust out of your nostrils while you’re whacking away at a tree, the tiny feathers around your nostrils would act as a sawdust filter.

Keep in mind, while all this is going on,  you’d be hanging onto the side of the tree by your toenails! Your highly specialized feet – two toes pointing forward and two toes pointing backward (on each foot) – are enabling you to remain erect and stable throughout all the violent banging on the tree. Most birds (with 3 toes forward and 1 back) can’t land on a tree like you can. You have a special undulating method of flight, and the swooping action brings you right up against the vertical side of a tree when you land. And last but not least, you would have a special tail with two extra stiff middle feathers that serve as a prop to hold you upright against that tree while you are pecking away.

We have 8 species of woodpeckers that can be seen in many habitats in South Florida, including perhaps your yard. In your neighborhood – if you have trees – the most common you can probably see (from smallest to largest) are Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and if youhave large trees, Pileated Woodpeckers.

Downys are about 6 inches from beak-tip to tail-tip – smaller than a Cardinal, and the smallest woodpecker in North America. Since almost all woodpeckers have some black and white on them and sometimes a bit of red, you’ll have to look carefully at where these colors are to determine which woodpecker you have. Of course size is most important. It it’s smaller than a cardinal, then it’s a Downy.

In South Florida, if it’s a bit larger than a cardinal, it’s probably a Red-bellied Woodpecker, almost 9 inches long and our most common woodpecker, which occasionally visits bird feeders. Now, most beginners call these “red-headed woodpeckers”, but they’re not. A Red-headed Woodpecker has an entirely red head and is very uncommon in our area. Red-bellied Woodpeckers have some red on their heads and a blush of red on their bellies – especially if they’re males.

The really big woodpeckers that might be in your neighborhood, especially if you have large, old trees, are Pileated Woodpeckers. These guys are 16 to 19 inches long! You won’t miss them! They look mostly black, with some red on their faces, until they fly and then you see large white patches under their wings. Don’t get confused and think you’ve discovered the almost-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You haven’t. If there are any of those left at all, they are in swamps and bayous – maybe in Louisiana or North Florida.

During the winter months we occasionally see Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. If you see trees with small holes in rings circling the trunks, you probably have a sapsucker around. They chisel the holes to get the sap running, which they lap up with their brush-like tongues . Also, the sap attracts insects which get stuck and provide some protein for the sapsuckers – and other birds. This practice doesn’t usually hurt the trees, and it’s fun to find a tree that shows clues that wildlife has been around.

Now that you’ve thought a bit about what it’s like to be a woodpecker, get outside and listen and find one! You’ll know when one is near – you’ll hear it whacking it’s head against the side of a tree – or a utility pole. Get a bird book, look up woodpeckers, determine the size of your woodpecker, see how much red is on it and where, look at where the black and white is, see if it’s belly is reddish, and figure out what your woodpecker is. It’s not hard, it just takes practice. And get outside!

Here’s the Fan Mail – From Mary Jane Feeley, Teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Melrose, Massachusetts:

“Dear Ann,

My mother has e-mailed you to say how very much my students enjoyed learning about woodpeckers through my reading your column to them.  I had my students search for images of woodpeckers and we were astonished at how many varieties of woodpeckers exist in the world!  I walked from group to group for at least 10 minutes as students wanted me to see “this one” and their newest favorite such as one that was spotted like a leopard.  I then read your article aloud and had my students look at the photographs again so they could observe the toes and special tail feathers of the bird.  Well, it just escalated from there.  The find of a cutaway diagram of the woodpecker’s skull was a major hit and, running a close second, was a picture of the barbed woodpecker tongue.  We just had so much fun learning about and marveling at this amazing bird.

As if all the fascinating information wasn’t enough, you gave us a wonderful example of how to write well – extremely well, so well that it seems effortless which explains, in part, why you’ve got your own column!  You showed my students how important it is to think about word choice – “whamming” comes to mind here – and how to write with your audience in mind.  Your suggesting my students pretend that they were woodpeckers caught and kept their attention.  In their minds, they were hanging onto trees by their toenails!

This week, as part of our Reading anthology, I read aloud to my class the story “Luck” by Jean Craighead George which is about the migration of a sandhill crane.  It required a map of the U.S. and a world map to show Canada and Russia (Siberia).  Ms. George wove in how the bird species was 20 million years old.  Astonishing.  I am also teaching measurement and had students hold tape measures to show the 6-foot wing span (which is described in the story as 6-foot wings – well, that started a ruckus of disbelief).  Again, photographs from the internet contributed greatly here and the students could see the bird’s “crimson crown”.

Thank you for writing such a wonderful article.”

Thank you, Mary Jane, for being such a wonderful teacher!

“I’ve Got the Bird!”

The summer of 1998 we went off to have one of “Ann and Phil’s Excellent Adventures” in California and as far north as Vancouver, BC. Since there have been more birds seen in California than in any other state, it was high on our list of places to visit. One of the perks of being a “school marm”, as Phil likes to say, is that you can usually get summers off to travel – which is what we usually do. That summer, one of our target birds was the illusive LeConte’s Thrasher – a pale brown, 11 inch-long bird with a curved bill as long as its head, named after Dr. John L. LeConte (1825-1883), an entomologist. At this point in our birding careers, we both had seen all 8 of the species of thrashers that live in North America – except one – the LeConte’s Thrasher. We had looked for this bird several times on previous trips, but had come up empty handed. Maybe this time  would be different!

As is our custom, we start planning for our trips months in advance. When possible, we try to get birders’ guide books that tell us specifically which birds can be seen where we’ll be traveling. If you’re not a birder, you probably think, “Well, how could anybody possibly know where a particular bird is going to be?” Trust me, birders know! And the experts write detailed  books covering the locales they’re familiar with, describing in detail (with maps) exactly what town or park or road to go to for a particular bird, how to get there, and sometimes even what tree or utility pole the bird nests in – AND the best time of day to see it! But even so, we had still not seen the LeConte’s Thrasher.

So, we got our traveling library together, making sure we had a copy of the Birder’s Guide to Southern California (which covered some of the areas we’d be exploring), current AAA tour books, an up-to-date copy of our favorite Road Atlas: Adventure Edition by National Geographic, and a copy of the pertinent Lonely Planet Travel Guide. (Check out these excellent guidebooks at One advantage of belonging to a network of birders is that they are always willing to help out-of-towners find birds, and nowadays this pre-trip planning has been made even easier through the internet and smart phones, with continual up-to-the-minute birding reports of what birds are being seen where.

Another concern was reservations – for ferries, for boat rides to islands, for pelagic trips on the ocean to see birds, for accommodations recommended in “birdy” places, etc. So a lot of research goes into our birding adventures – and fortunately, that process is in many ways as exciting and satisfying as the trip itself – reading up on the places we’ll be, what birds we’re likely to see, studying the birds we could see, planning our routes, and always including such places as national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other outstanding natural sites. The National Geo Atlas is especially good for finding natural areas all over North America.

The trip out – our first in our “new” Roadtrek RV – was fairly fast and direct – about 2,000 miles straight across the country – Interstate 40 across Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, and Arizona. Our first stop in California was Joshua Tree National Park, east of L.A. in the Mojave Desert, and our first chance on this trip to try to find the LeConte’s Thrasher. Maybe this would be the year.

This uncommon bird lives in barren deserts with creosote bushes in Southern California, southwest Arizona, and a corner of Nevada. The National Geographic Guide to Birds of North America says it “runs with surprising speed, tail straight up, across open desert or along sandy washes. Prefers arid, sparsely vegetated habitats.” Almost  like a miniature Roadrunner – rarely flying. After spending time exploring the winding trails among cactuses, creosote bushes, and of course the Joshua Trees, checking each and every one for perching thrashers, and the ground for running-around thrashers, we came up empty-handed – again.

We skirted L.A. and drove up into some desert areas farther north near Palmdale, but struck out again. We managed to talk to a local birder who recommended another place farther north, near the tiny village of Mojave, west of Edwards Air Force Base. His directions included a visit to nearby Red Rock Canyon State Park in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) off-road vehicle area, where we decided to spend some time looking. We were not exactly driving an off-road vehicle. And, I had neglected to get an exact definition of what a “wash” was, so after driving on several rocky roads, wandering on foot up and down several dry creek beds (washes), never really being sure we were in the right area, we gave it up and headed back. At one point, we even explored a higher, rockier road, which had probably never seen the likes of our vehicle. We finally headed back down and drove to Bakersfield to spend the night. Disappointed but not forlorn. And not ready to give up!

One of our birding tools was a set of walkie talkies. We usually stay pretty close to each other when we’re birding. Neither of us wants to miss seeing anything – especially if there’s the possibility of a new bird. What if one of us saw it and the other one didn’t! But on occasion, we can split up and cover more territory – and keep in touch with the walkies. Well, one of those walkies wasn’t working properly, so Phil found a Circuit City store and replaced it. And good thing he did, too! We were now following directions in the Birder’s Guide to Southern California to a tiny town called Maricopa, south of Bakersfield. Maybe here our luck would change.

We made our way to an area outside of Maricopa that looked pretty deserty with lots of creosote bushes, and we spent the next 2 hours walking around in seedy, weedy, brush with the seeds stabbing through our socks and shoes, making every step an agony. Up and down dry washes, under railroad culverts, around and between short bushes and tall grasses. We were now separated and using our walkies and checking in with each other every few minutes – not finding anything. I said, “Phil, if we don’t find this bird by 10 AM, we’re out of here!”.

At 10 AM I came to a small isolated stand of trees, some of them dead. I could hear bird noises ahead of me, so I figured I’d try to lure them out into the open by making some shushing noises – pssshhh, pssshhh, pssshhh. Curious birds will sometimes come to these and other noises. What did I have to lose, right? Out popped a LeConte’s Thrasher. I called Phil on the walkie and tried to quietly say, “I’ve got the bird!” – trying to keep my frantic voice low and quiet. He was about 5 minutes away, but almost ran through that impossible habitat. I tried to keep an eye on the bird and not lose it – but it disappeared before he got there! Now what? Would I count the bird if he didn’t see it? I swear, I hadn’t thrown a rock at it.

We waited, watched, circled the stand of trees, made the shushing noises again, got closer to the trees – we hadn’t seen it fly out. It had to be in there! Suddenly, Phil said, “There it is!” Unseen by either of us it had popped up on a snag on one of the dead trees – certainly not where it was supposed to be. Not running along the ground from one bush to another, hiding. Not perched on a low shrub, calling. So no matter what the books say, you can still always expect the unexpected from the birds. That’s probably one of the reasons birding is such a great sport. The thrasher dropped down, and we followed and saw him a couple more times, until we were sated with wonderful looks at this most elusive, very hard to find, long-tried-for bird. So that wrapped up the thrashers for us. We could now tear those pages out of the bird book. Kidding!!

We treated ourselves to a late breakfast at Tina’s Café on Main Street – hash, eggs, sausages, toast, jam – certainly a proper reward for a job well done – at last. And headed on to the next adventure.

NOTE: You can see a photo of this bird at:

LeConte's Thrasher - Maricopa, California -  VERY RARE


It was Day 6, two days before the wedding – remember the wedding? – and our last day in the cloud forests, so we packed up, had one more delicious breakfast, and checked out of our beautiful cabina at Arco Iris Lodge – a very special place we will long remember. Before leaving the area, we drove back up “The Burma Road” one last time to visit Bosque de las Ninos, the Children’s Rain Forest, and to walk on some different trails to look for the famous Three-Wattled Bellbirds.

The first fauna we saw were 2 Central American Agoutis crossing the trail. These are diurnal rodents that look like fat, brown, plump squirrels with no tails and are about the size of raccoons. We paused at the butterfly garden area again, being impressed as always by the giant Blue Morpho butterflies. Among the largest in the world with a wingspan of 5 – 8 inches, they fly almost in slow motion, a wafting patch of iridescent blue against the many greens of the forest. Again, the dry forest was interesting to see – the total lack of moisture-loving plants with dry, sandy soil everywhere.

As we walked along, we repeatedly kept hearing  a tantalizing bird-like sound off in the forest – a siren call luring us farther along the trail and deeper into the forest. We seemed to get no closer to the bird (or birds) making the  calls. We finally realized we were hearing the odd “dong” call of the Three-Wattled Bellbirds – but they remained illusive and we never saw one. Fortunately, we had seen them on a previous trip to Panama, and it was magical to hear them.

Thunderheads from the Pacific


We drove back down the road toward San Jose , watching lowering clouds coming inland from the Gulf of Nicoya to the west. The approaching thunderstorm was typical in the afternoon at this time of year (middle of August). The unending views on the way downhill were spectacular– mountains and valleys – a hundred shades of green, green, green.   We stopped again for a good meal at the “landmark” La Cuenca Ristorante on the high embankment above the Rio Aranjuez– another arroz con pollo casado.

We got back to our Hotel La Rosa de America (without getting lost very badly) near the town of Alajuela in time to chill out, do some reading, relax by the pool, and finish the last of our special Monteverde Quaker cheese and crackers. We also got re-acquainted with the raucous family of Rufous-naped Wrens that ruled the hotel gardens. These loud, busy, speckled birds are about 2 inches longer than our Carolina Wrens, and much more vocal.

Day 7, and we decided to go back to a favorite birding place from previous trips – the forests near Volcan Poas, a steamy volcanic crater north of Alajuela, that continues to smoke and spit. At a higher elevation, it’s a beautiful place to bird as well as to see an ancient volcano – if you get there before the clouds settle in around 10 AM. Robert our genial host at our hotel, made us a good map and we headed north. The skies were sunny and we could see the lush mountainous countryside all around us as we drove the narrow, busy roads through small villages and fincas (farms) with various crops of coffee, corn, and fields of nursery plants.

We came to a one-lane bridge and pulled off on a very slim verge to look at a dark bird perched on a fence – a Black Phoebe, which was new for us in Costa Rica. I decided to get a closer look at what the bridge spanned and discovered to my horror it was a river located about 1/4 mile down below in a deep ravine with jungle on both sides. It was a tremendous sight! During our driving adventures in Costa Rica, Phil discovered that there is a sign usually on the downhill side of narrow bridges that means “give way” – the driver coming down hill has the right of way. What we eventually learned was that the driver with more guts and grit gets the right of way! We crossed that bridge once more that day and twice more the next day, and both times we saw the Black Phoebes – 2, and each time I held my breath as we passed over that very narrow, very high, very old bridge. And usually, we let whoever wanted it have the right of way!

The road climbed higher and higher toward the crest of the mountain to Vulcan Poas. We had been told that a man had gotten lost on the trails there a few days ago, and that we would probably see police and searchers still in the area. When we arrived at the entrance gate, we were told that we could go in, but the trails were closed since they were going to be using search teams with dogs  – and didn’t want sightseers interfering with their activities. When we left the country, we learned that the man was still missing. We were told that someone disappeared from those trails several years ago and showed up a month later on the other side of the mountain. If you can imagine (or know) what the jungles, rain forests, and even the Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina look like – you can appreciate how easily it would be to become lost and disappear. It happens in Graham County, N.C. every year!

Since the weather was still holding, we walked our slow pokey way up to the crater, watching for birds in the forest and along the paved trail and saw Mountain Elaenias and a Slaty Flowerpiercer. We got good views of the crater, took photos, and fortunately, the winds blew the steamy, sulphurous fumes away from us. Along the side of the crater we could hear Rufous-collared Sparrows singing their sweet song, which ends in a lovely echoing trill.

Crater at Vulcan Poas


We walked back towards the visitor center, and gradually the weather turned and it began to rain. Of course, this was the day we had left our rain gear at the hotel. By the time we got to the café, we were dampish, and since it was chilly, a hot drink was called for. Just as we sat down to tea and coffee, we looked up and there were our cousins, Kalicca and Tom with two of our granddaughter’s friends. They were all in Costa Rica for the wedding. So we warmed up together,  amazed that we had all ended up in the same place at the same time.

When the drizzle stopped, we birded in the area around the parking plazas and found a few more birds – Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers and a Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, but nothing new. We drove back down toward Alajuela and on the way, Phil found a restaurant in the small town of Fraijanes called Freddo’s Frescas. It turned out to be one of our best meals of the trip – all home made things prepared in their open kitchen and we ate delicious fish and yummy fruit smoothies. Even the salad dressing was special. Our waiter (probably Freddo himself) saw our bird book and told us not to miss their gardens across the road.  When we were finished, we walked (under our umbrellas) to the gardens and were very impressed. Many flowers bloomed in colorful displays along winding walkways with lots of hummer feeders and lots of hummers.

On Day 8, we decided we would forgo our hotel breakfast and treat ourselves to a breakfast buffet at La Paz Waterfall Gardens, a side trip off the road to Vulcan Poas. Phil had read in Bird-Finding Guide to Costa Rica (by Barrett Lawson) that there was good birding there with lots of feeders.  We drove back up the same road to Vulcan Poas, only turned right at a fork in the road at Fraijanes, where we’d had lunch the day before. The very rural area near La Paz had suffered a huge (6.2) earthquake in 2009, wiping out a town or two, killing 75 to 100 people, and destroying most of the roads. We’d been told that the road was clear at least to La Paz, so off we went. Another adventure!

The paved road eventually petered out to another “Burma Road”, and we could see that the whole sides of mountains had slid down, and that the place had been devastated, taking houses and whole villages with them. The road was in terrible shape, down to one lane in many places and not repaved as yet – if it would ever be. Things looked pretty sad enroute, so we were pleased when we arrived at La Paz and it was up and running and looking great! It is kind of resort – accommodations, several beautiful restaurants, and patios and balconies – all overlooking gardens, and trails leading through the forest and down into the ravines to the waterfalls.

We started with the breakfast buffet on the balcony overlooking the forest with the mountains in the background, and fruit-filled bird feeders full of birds almost within reach of the tables. It was a truly bountiful buffet – for the birds and for us. We ate leisurely, enjoying the birds and the view of the nearby jungle and mountains, with the sound of the waterfalls below us, and  in the distance views of some areas where slabs of  mountainsides had slid down. Lifer #8 came into the feeders while we ate – a Crimson-collared Tanager.


We finally tore ourselves away from the breakfast decadence and headed down a trail. The trails were excellent, beautifully designed molded slabs of concrete with sides and handrails made to look like logs and branches. One trail led to a zoo area where they had huge cages displaying reptiles, amphibs, insects, birds, monkeys, etc. We managed to skirt those, noting however that they looked extremely well-done,  with many live plants and water streaming through them.

There was a large patio garden area where dozens of hummingbirds were attracted to the flowers and to the numerous feeders hanging all around, with seating (for the birders) in vine-covered gazebos at the edges of the patio. We sat and watched for over an hour and after sorting out the 8 to 10 species in the garden, we managed to find 2 new hummers – LIFER #9 – Black-bellied Hummingbird and LIFER #10 – the Green Thorntail. We enjoyed watching them all and hated to leave, but had not yet seen a waterfall!

We followed one of the trails that led down through a deep jungle gorge to the La Paz River – about a million concrete steps down –  and followed the river even farther down as it tumbled over several waterfalls along the way. Even though some of the waterfalls had been “rearranged” by the quake, what we saw was magnificent and we were glad we went. The stairs and the extensive systems of guardrails were constructed of this same concrete log-like material and was very attractive. The whole thing was an impressive engineering feat, especially accompanied by the roar of the falls and the mist rising up into the vegetation all along the way.

Since the wedding festivities would begin that evening with a rehearsal dinner at the groom’s parent’s home, we returned to our hotel, adjusted our goals, turned off our binoculars, put away the field guides – no longer on a quest for birds, but looking forward to meeting 400 or so new Costa Rican cousins. And the bride was beautiful. It’s a good thing we got there early!

Costa Rica Cloud Forests – 2011 – Part 3

Tropical Butterfly

            On Day 4, after another sumptuous breakfast, we saw a new bird from our front porch – Lifer #3 –  a Rufous-capped Warbler – thanks to Phil’s watchful eye. This was the day we would venture to a new cloud forest – the Santa Elena Reserve, which was opened in 1992 and is a community-managed conservation project now run by the Santa Elena High School Board, and apparently serves as an educational field trip site. It is a bit higher than Monteverde Reserve, and is on the west (Pacific) side of the continental divide, and is usually covered in mist. It’s hard to imagine that the road getting there was rougher than the one to Monteverde, but it was!

The cloud forest habitat there was similar to Monteverde Reserve, and the trails were equally well-constructed – concrete grids and gravel/rock edged by boards sunken in the ground. Signage was also good with lovely depictions of animals and birds soldered in metal. We walked on several trails and managed to see Brown-hooded Parrots, a Yellow-thighed Finch and several Three-striped Warblers. We also found LIFER #4, a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-thrush and LIFER #5, a Collared Redstart. We also added a new mammal to our list. (Yes, we also keep a mammal life list.) We thought it was a reddish brown squirrel with very small ears, but it looked more like our North American martin with a furry tail. After consulting our mammal field guide, we identified it as a Montane Squirrel, common in that area. After hiking on the trails all morning, we enjoyed our picnic lunch of Monteverde cheese, rice cakes and crackers.

We drove slowly back down the road watching for open country/grassland birds along the way, and saw Band-tailed Pigeons, Rufous-collared Sparrows and Yellow-faced Grassquits to add to our trip list. Along the roadsides, I noticed a 6-foot tall flowering plant that was very similar to our Blue Porterweed, only it was purple. We also saw it planted in gardens as a butterfly attractor. We went back to our cabina for a snack and a rest – eating the last of our delicious cheese from the Monteverde Dairy. Then we did our usual afternoon thing – went back up to Café Colibri for tea and hummers, walked on a trail again at Monteverde Reserve, and added a Spangle-cheeked Tanager to our trip list.

The tanagers are a family of  over 300 species of New World birds that inhabit Middle, Central, and South America with a very few species in North America and the Caribbean. In our experience, they are the kind birds you most often see on your first trips to the tropics. They are everywhere – and what a joy they are –mainly because of their spectacular colors, though some can be pretty drab. The Spangle-cheeked Tanager, however, is anything but drab. It reminds me somewhat of a Painted Bunting, with its reddish-orange belly, green rump and dark blue wings. And the spangles! All around the cheek and back of the neck are the silvery spots of color like tiny sequins making it look spangley. When you go to the tropics, you most definitely will see tanagers.

Back at Arco Iris Lodge, we walked to town and found a restaurant that had been recommended by our Lonely Planet guide – the Mirabella. And again I had a typical Costa Rican meal – another casado – my plate of beans and rice, salad, plantains with a big piece of fish this time; and we also had fruit drinks – strawberry and tamarindo. Then we walked around town a while, home to read and write and to bed. The weather had been chilly and we used an extra blanket. There was certainly a welcome contrast between this coolness and the heat and humidity of the rain forests.

Resplendent Quetzal

Day 5 we were up early – 5:30am – and breakfasted at 6:30 – the usual array of lovely fruits, breads, beans and rice, etc. Some of the fruits were pineapple, mango, papaya (my favorite), lady-finger bananas, and watermelon.  They juice every kind of fruit imaginable – only we couldn’t always tell what the fruits were and it didn’t matter. They were sweet and good. And the eggs were huge and orange – from the Arco Iris chickens. Like staying on a farm!

We drove back up to Monteverde to walk on more of their trails.    We had seen the most sought-after bird of this area, the Respendent Quetzal, when we were there in 2008, but this time of year they are silent and almost impossible to see. We walked on the Sendero Quebrada Cuecha until we got near the river area, birding all the way – hearing, but not seeing many birds – then back on the Sendero Tosi. We did see birds we’d seen before, but mainly just enjoyed being in this magical cloud forest and taking pictures.

Children's Eternal Rain Forest

We drove back on the “Burma Road” to the Dairy and drank fruity milkshakes and ate cheese, crackers and apples for lunch. On the way back to Santa Elena, we stopped at the 3rd of our cloud forest reserves – Bosque Eterno de los Ninos, “The Children’s Eternal Rain Forest”. This reserve consists of 82 square miles. Lonely Planet says, “it dwarfs both the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves.” Children from 44 countries donated their coins to raise the money needed to preserve this forest that is used extensively by researchers and has limited accessibility to the general public.

We hiked on only one of the trails and were amazed to see such a different habitat than we’d been in  the past several days. The area was east of the continental divide and much drier – different vegetation and no mosses or other wet-loving plants. It looked strange after having been in forests dripping with moisture. The birds were different also and we found another new one – LIFER #6 – a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. We also found a Gray-headed Chachalaca up in a tree in the parking area, new for the trip.

When we got back to Arco Iris, Phil spotted an Emerald Toucanet in a tree near our porch, and our very own Blue-crowned Motmot. After a rest, we drove back up the Burma Road! Again! Phil was so good to do that – driving a difficult car with a sensitive clutch on difficult roads, with me back-seat driving all the way! We went again to watch the feeders at Café Colibri for the last time and were rewarded with a new hummer – LIFER #7 – the Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. We would miss our afternoons with the hummers at the Café Colibri.

We had dinner at a restaurant recommended by the staff at our lodge – Mar y Tierra – Sea and Land – Beef and Fish. It was located on a second-floor overlooking the street. We both had another casado only this time with loads of delicious rice done in a different way – more flavorings and yellow – and with shrimp – dozens of small ones. It was fun looking down at the pedestrians, the people on bicycles, an ATV with a baby in front of a dad – no one with helmets, buses, a loud-speaker truck announcing something we were never able to identify, church bells ringing, horns tooting, motorcycles zipping through the traffic, taxis jockeying for position – mayhem amid chaos.

We walked home and our bed with blankets felt good. We would re-visit the Children’s Eternal Rain Forest again tomorrow morning to search for the fabled Three-wattled Bellbirds.

Costa Rica Cloud Forests – 2011 – Part 2

Green-crowned Brilliant (L) and Violet Sabrewing (R) at Cafe Colibri, Monteverde Cloud Forest

Day 2 in the Cloud Forest:

After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, beans and rice, fried plantains, watermelon and papaya, we drove up to the Monteverde Reserve again for the first of our birding walks on their trails. On the way we stopped at a tiny grocery store and noticed a small group of people birding at the edge of the forest. We asked them what they were seeing – another good way to find birds! They were happy to share views of a Blue-crowned Motmot in their telescope – a striking bird with a 7-inch-long tai with paddle-like tips on the middle 2 feathers. The motmot wasn’t a new bird for us, but a few minutes later I spotted a bird walking on the ground about 50 feet away that turned out to be Lifer #2 for us – an Orange-billed Nightingale-thrush. You never know when a new bird will show up. By the way, you can go to and see photos of all the birds mentioned in my blogs. Also, has videos of many species.

The Monteverde Reserve is a very popular destination – with as many locals visiting as tourists from all over the world. It’s always satisfying to see local people enjoying their own natural wonders and how much they appreciate them. We hiked first on the Sendero (trail) Quebrada Cuecha, where our first birds were Common Bush-tanagers. We also found Gray-breasted Wood-wrens, Black-faced Solitaires and a Sooty Robin. The birds were few and far between, and tough work to find with all the vegetation. Birders really do rely on calls and songs in these jungles, but we’re just not that good at it – yet.

Some birders use the “play back” technique – they record the sound a bird is making, then play it back to draw the bird closer. Other birders distain this method, thinking that it disturbs the birds too much – the birds have to waste too much energy chasing “fake” intruders out of their territory. So we heard lots of birds we never saw. And since we’re not that familiar with all their sounds, we usually weren’t able to identify them. Although, just hearing all that forest cacophony is a wonderful experience, even if you can’t see who’s making the noises.

The Reserve is well-run, with many knowledgeable guides, and lots of birds – if you can find them. The green paradise of cloud forest with its damp, lush vegetation – towering trees, brightly-colored flowers, vines, lichens, mosses, orchids and other bromeliads, ferns, shrubbery – always makes finding the birds a challenge. We did manage to see a Golden-crowned Warbler, a White-throated Spadebill, and Slaty-throated Redstarts – all as intriguing as their names. Many of the trees and vines were covered with pink and yellow blooms, and one kind of vine burgeoned with masses of blooms hanging everywhere. We decided it had to be related to begonias.

The trails at the Monteverde Reserve are impressive. They’re constructed out of a grid of concrete blocks – shaped somewhat like our paver stones, so water seeps through them – and the trails don’t get muddy, sloppy, or slippery, and the blocks provide a sturdy foundation to walk on. Some of the trails are edged with wood – 2 x 6’s nestled down into the soil, then filled with chips or gravel, providing a non-muddy, non-slippery surface on which to walk. Both of these systems make good, stable trails that can take a lot of use in all kinds of weather.

At lunch time, we drove back down the “Burma Road” and stopped at the Monteverde Dairy Store, which was founded in the late 1940’s when Quakers from the U.S. settled in the area. A group of  44 pacifist Quaker families left the U.S. when they decided they did not want to participate in the Korean War, and they bought land and started a huge cattle industry, producing beef and dairy products. They selected Costa Rica since it had no army and the high, cool elevation of the area was conducive to cattle grazing. We bought some of their cheese and ate some of their ice cream – the Guyabana Sherbet being my favorite – white, icy, and tasting sort of sweet lemony. The Guyabana fruit is also called Sour Sop and made a very good smoothie. We ate the rich, delicious cheese later with crackers and apples, which we had picked up at the “Super Marcado” in Santa Elena.

After a rest at our cabin, we drove back up to Café Calibri, had another te and café, and watched more fantastic hummingbirds – feeding, zooming in and out, diving, slurping up sugar water, perching nearby, and then zooming again – close enough that I could feel the whir of their wings as they whizzed past me. It is a spectacular sight, which always attracts lots of tourists with very long lenses on huge cameras. The largest hummer there was the 6-inch Violet Sabrewing – with a curved bill as long as its head. Among the 7 or 8 more varieties of hummers we saw was the aptly-named Purple-throated Mountain-gem.

For dinner that night, we walked from our lodge to the Tree House Restaurant, which was built in a large old fig tree accessed by a spiral staircase, with tables overlooking the street below – all open air.  We had good fruit drinks and casados – my favorite typical Tican meal – a serving of meat (beef, chicken, pork or fish), beans, rice, plantains, and a salad of some kind – and watched the busy street below. After dinner we walked around the busy, small town for a while – narrow sidewalks, small food shops, the “Super Marcado”, agencies for tourist tours (coffee plantations, zip lining, volcanoes, etc.), taxi stands, bus stops, a small church that seemed very busy, a couple of pensions and hostels, lots of young people – college age – walking around with backpacks, lots of stray dogs, motorcycles, ATVs, a golf cart or two, and the every present “tourismo” buses. After another stop at the Super Mercado for more lunch items and a short walk back to our cabina, we were glad to end another day in the green paradise in Costa Rica.


Since we were going to our granddaughter, Leslie’s, wedding in Costa Rica, we didn’t want to be late – so we went 5 days early and spent some time birding in the Cloud Forest regions northwest of San Jose. Our first night in the country we enjoyed a friendly, fun get-acquainted dinner with the groom’s family – his parents, sister, and his best man – at a local restaurant with an abundance of native foods. The meal was delicious with good conversations and stories and laughter – in English and Spanish. They helped us order, explaining items on the menu and about the wonderful juice drinks, made like smoothies with milk.

Our goal for this trip (besides the wedding) was to explore three cloud forest reserves and find some new birds for our life list. In a country the size of West Virginia, there are over 800 species of birds – almost the same amount as in all of North America! So far, on our mostly non-birding trips to this country, we had only seen about 1/3 of Costa Rica’s avian wonders. When we’re traveling and birding, we generally avoid guided groups. We like to set our own pace, wander where the bird spirits move us, avoid the crowds where possible, and enjoy the pleasure and satisfaction of finding the birds ourselves, rather than having a guide point them out to us. We recognize that we won’t see as many birds doing it our way, and we accept that.

Our 4 previous trips to Costa Rica (beginning in 1999) had been with groups of high school students on a small bus with a driver and guides, so this would be our first trip on our own – doing our own driving, navigating and bird finding. Phil had pre-programmed our GPS for Costa Rica, we had a good map, and I’m a fairly good navigator – so we thought we were prepared. The only thing we hadn’t planned on were roads without route numbers and streets without names. Traditionally, Costa Ricans use landmarks to find locations, such as “50 meters west of the large fig tree”, or “100 meters past the soccer field”, or “the first road past La Cuenca”, a restaurant. This took some getting used to – and as chief navigator, mostly I was a failure. And the GPS wasn’t much better.

After traveling north a while on Rt. 1, the Pan American Highway, we reached the “landmark” restaurant and during lunch, watched a pair of Squirrel Cuckoos cavorting in a Guanacaste tree at the same level as our table on a porch high above a river. A short while later, we turned right onto the road that makes its way up and up about 35 Km to the small tourist town of Santa Elena. The Lonely Planet guide to Costa Rica (our favorite travel books) says about this area, “the road consists of steep, winding and scenic dirt roads with plenty of potholes and rocks to ensure that the driver, at least, is kept from enjoying the scenery.” The narrow road skirts around the edges of mountainsides, with deep valleys and a great expanse of valley after valley and mountain after mountain stretching off into the distance – and off to the west we could see glimpses of the Gulf of Nicoya, on the Pacific side of the country. Lonely Planet also explains that in 1983 a National Geographic article appeared about the unique area and how easy it was to find Resplendent Quetzals there, and hordes of birding tourists descended on the place! Local people decided NOT to pave the roads in order to control the crowds and it worked – it is visited by birders but not without some sacrifice of travel comfort.

Somehow, with the help of many friendly Ticans along the way, we managed to arrive in Santa Elena, high in the Cordillera de Tilaran, the mountain range of the cloud forests. The cloud forests there are protected  in three reserves (similar to our national parks) – Bosque Eterno de los Ninos, The Children’s Eternal Rain Forest, a 82 square-mile reserve; Reserva Biologica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, 40 square miles; and Reserva Santa Elena, a protected area of 765 acres, a community-managed conservation project run by the Santa Elena high school board. These reserves would be where we would spend the next several days. You can get detailed information and see many photos of these forests by doing an internet search on each one.

Our lodging in Santa Elena had been recommended by friends and turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Arco Iris Lodge (check it out on line) was within walking distance to the town, bordered by forest – beautiful little cabins tucked into lovingly tended gardens, with a spectacular breakfast buffet each morning – eggs (laid by their own chickens) cooked to order, delicious Costa Rican coffee, home made breads, rice and beans, many varieties of fruits and juices (some grown on the property), cheeses, etc.

After unpacking and settling into our cozy cabin, we made our first of many jaunts up an even rougher, steeper, narrower, and rockier road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve – a very bumpy 5 Km ride that wound higher and higher up into the clouds – at about 5,000 ft. elevation. The weather looked iffy, and it is usually cloudy, so we weren’t sure what we’d be able to see before the weather closed down. We got to the end of the road at the reserve and went first to our favorite hummingbird place – the nearby Café Colibri – a coffee/craft/art shop and hummer feeding station with numerous feeders. We were glad to see nothing had changed since our previous visit in 2008. Coffee and tea still good, hummers still in abundance, and we sat for over an hour, binoculars to our faces, noses in the open bird books, camera clicking and watched Violet Sabrewings, Green Hermits, Purple-throated Mountain Gems, Green Violet-ears, and Coppery-headed Emeralds zooming in and out to the feeders just a few feet from us. But so far, no new birds.

We chatted with some fellow feeder watchers, and they offhandedly mentioned that a ranger had just shown them an unusual bird up near the office at the Reserve. So we wandered up that way, a short walk, found the ranger, and there was the bird pecking around on a paved trail – a Buff-fronted Quail-dove – #1 new bird of the trip – a lifer for us. None of our other lifers would be that easy!

As daylight waned, we drove happily back down toward town and on the way stopped at Tramanti’s Ristorante, where we had eaten on our previous visit. Great Italian food and our only non-native meal of the trip. During dinner, the rain deluge came down complete with lightning, but it had let up before we were finished and our cabina was cozily waiting for us, with comfortable bed, warm covers for the chilly night, and the sound of rain on the roof.


Palmway Hammock



This appeared originally in a slightly different form in “The Palm Beach Post”, October 9, 2010.

I have no idea whatever possessed me to think I could get a Blue Jay to take a peanut out of my hand. I’m not even sure how common this interaction is between people and Blue Jays, but I had never heard of it. Florida Scrub Jays taking food from people is a fairly common occurrence. Many people have reported human/bird interaction with chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, bluebirds – all birds we don’t have in our South Florida area. I found many articles on the Internet about how to hand – feed wild birds, so it must be fairly commonplace to do so.

It all started with me thinking I could distract and dissuade the every-present squirrels from emptying our bird feeder at “Palmway Hammock”.  I decided I would try offering them peanuts somewhere else in our yard. Talk about a positive attitude! So I set up a flat platform feeder with a handful of peanuts in it. Sure enough, the squirrels found it faster than it took me to write this sentence. They emptied it just as fast, which sent them right back to the regular bird feeder.

For several days I put a handful of peanuts on the squirrel platform, continuing to think that eventually they would forsake the bird feeder for the obviously more scrumptious peanuts. In the meantime, the Blue Jays found the peanuts.  I began going out onto the patio when I heard the Blue Jays making  noises, and said, “Anybody want a peanut?” (Remember this line from the movie “The Princess Bride”?) Then I would put the peanuts on the feeder.

Pretty soon a Blue Jay came over and sat in a small tree by the porch at the edge of the patio, watching me closely. He seemed a bit smaller than the other Blue Jays and had tufts of soft white feathers sticking out of his sides near his tail, which helped distinguish him from the other Blue Jays. I held out a few peanuts in my hand towards him. He cocked his dark eye at me, but would come no closer.

Every day when I heard the Blue Jays  – they can be very vocal – I went out on the patio with a few peanuts in my hand. The fuzzy-sided Blue Jay would sit in the small tree by the patio, and I started holding the peanuts up towards him. Sure enough, one day he hopped down on a branch very close and took a peanut right out of my hand. This was repeated almost daily for several months. And just to reassure you – I am no fool.  They had successfully trained me!

After discussing this with my friend, Sarah, I began to suspect that she might have stumbled onto one explanation for this unusual behavior. When she was a girl, she found a young Blue Jay that had fallen out of a nest, and she put it in a cage and hand-fed it until it grew up, then released it in her yard. It hung around for quite some time, often taking food out of her hand. Eventually, it disappeared. I wondered if perhaps “my” Blue Jay had been a rehabilitated bird. It did seem smaller than the others, and it did have those unusual fuzzy-looking feathers on its sides. And it showed no fear of me. Perhaps this indicated that it hadn’t had a “normal” upbringing.

None of the other Blue Jays that visit our yard will come that close. They will land in the small tree at the edge of the patio, but they won’t come any nearer. When I put a peanut in a crotch of the tree and move away, they will come down and retrieve the nut – but not from my hand.

When we returned from being away almost 3 months this summer, I wondered if “my” Blue Jay would still be around. This would be the second year of our “relationship”. I heard jays in the backyard one morning, grabbed a handful of peanuts, and went out on the patio and said, “Anybody want a peanut?” There in the small tree was my fuzzy-sided Blue Jay, watching my every move. He came closer to me, and as I held my hand out to him, he reached out from his branch and took one of the peanuts. Occasionally, he will see me sitting on the porch, come closer, start fussing at me, and hop onto his special porch, waiting for a peanut.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure why this Blue Jay and none of the others behave this way. And I am torn as to whether to feed it or not. There are plenty of natural sources of food around our yard – berries and bugs. I suppose there’s not much difference between handing out peanuts and dumping a pile of seeds on the bird feeder. There’s a part of me that resists wanting to turn a wild thing into a pet. In fact, I have avoided giving him/her a name. But, on the other hand, there is a childish delight in being that close to a wild bird and having it accept food from your hand. Seeing that dark eye watching you, being so close you can see each and every feather, the scales on its legs and feet, the nails on its toes! There’s no denying it – it is a thrill. And I’ll probably keep right on doing it.

Note: You can do an internet search for my name – Ann Yeend Weinrich – or the Palm Beach Post – to read my previous articles.