Book Club Members Discuss a B.A.O. (big-ass owl)

Shown below, San Vito Bird Club members discussing their most recent book club selection ‘Owls of the Eastern Ice, A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl’.

(Row 1: top left–Charles and Sara Beeson-Jones, Lydia Vogt. Row 2: Helen LeVasseur, Jennifer Talbot, Julie Girard. Row 3: Alison Olivieri, Jean Schroeder)

The world’s biggest owl; from the book.

Ask the Experts: #8

Do bird song playback devices do any harm? Let’s ask our experts.

From SVBC member Elizabeth Van Pelt from Devon PA:

Hello San Vito Bird Club Experts!

As a long-time birder and believer in ‘going with guides’, I find myself more and more uncomfortable with too much guide-generated playback to attract birds’ attention and get them closer to the group. It seems to me this practice forces birds to use energy to check the source of the calls/songs, fight off ‘intruders’ and otherwise engage in extra, unnecessary behaviors. How do you, as professional guides, suggest I handle this?

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

Playback has always been a topic of division between both bird guides and birders. On one hand we have the birder that travels thousands of kilometers to see as much as possible in two weeks and on the other hand you have the guide that wants you to be happy and satisfied with his/her sightings. However, there is an ethical paradox because most of your success as a guide for that particular customer or in general as a guide that wants to give a good tour, will depend on playback in order to produce and materialize as many and as exciting bird species as possible.What I do in that regard is to evaluate the situation and know my birds. If someone asks me to find a Bran-coloured Flycatcher in January, is very likely that I will wait to hear the call and walk in that direction instead of playing it back since I know that they are nesting and I won’t under any circumstances, do it myself or allow anybody in my group to do it cause I have the moral authority and the ethical obligation to do so. When a bird is not in a nesting season and I’m playing it back and it doesn’t react after hearing the first couple of calls, it’s also a very clear sign that it’s not interested and I won’t play it any longer. So there are some times when we don’t use it:Nesting, feeding and mating season,and when we don’t have a reaction from the bird. For the rest, I could play it a couple of times for the bird to come out from behind a tree and move a couple of feet to the side so we can see it. If it stays long enough for the picture, that’s a bonus but seeing it should be enough.

Omar Sidebe: Turacao Tours owner and guide, Loango National Park, Gabon (Africa)

Oh my goodness, as to the use of bird song playback devices it is a question of degree. Just as with ice cream bars…to much is not good but once in a while is most pleasant.

Birds are quite robust and generally not the frail creatures some think. Birds are perfectly capable of handling a bit of added stress now and again; it may even strengthen and embolden them. Playback devices do, indeed, cause them added stress. But we must also remember, stress that comes when these same birds see a group of massive upright bipedal primates walking through their neighborhoods…’pishing and pishing and pishing’.

Playback devices? Limit the frequency and duration of the playback; the birds will be fine. And limit your ice cream bar intake too!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

As guides, this is one of the most interesting and important aspects that we have to deal with. Using playback to attract birds works most of the time. Nevertheless, those aspects you are concerned about, in terms of what we are really doing to the birds, is still unknown. Based on my experience, using playback to attract one specific species is sometimes the best tool I can use. There are customers who really like birds and like to get at least a glimpse of one target, but in some situations these people cannot go right into the place where the bird is found. I think at times it is better to attract the bird to us, instead of going deep into the bushes with the risk of being bitten by a venomous snake. I know people who say: “You don’t need to do that, go and look for some other species.” But we all (as birders) know the joy we have when we can find that nemesis we have been chasing forever.

I have to be very clear about this, because I know there are always people who just want to find a bird, no matter the way. Those guides/customers are the ones who sometimes show less respect for Nature. Nowadays there are different ways to use a song or a call of a bird, so my recommendation is if you want to use them, remember we don’t know exactly how the playback is affecting the species we want to attract, so be careful to use playback for short periods of time and not close to the nesting areas. And always keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, you are still affecting the routine of the species you would like to find.

(Black-chested Jay responding to a playback recording; courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)

Bernie and Seidy: A Farewell

The San Vito Bird Club wishes to express our extreme sadness at the untimely and unexpected passing of our two wonderful neighbors and friends…Bernie (Bernard León La Duke) and Seidy (Seidy Sánchez Chaves). They will be sadly missed.

We will miss Bernie; a man of infinite energy, business acumen, generosity and good cheer. And on a personal note, I (Greg), will miss his glorious sense of fashion and style.

We will miss Seidy. Seidy of the laughing eyes. No one who ever visited Seidy’s Magic Garden of Teacup Chihuahuas ever left without an uplifted spirit and a wide smile!

Our most sincere regards and sympathy go out to their daughter Alicia. Alicia, please reach out to us as needed.

(If you are viewing this posting on Facebook, please leave a comment, memory or photo.)

(photos courtesy of Donna Goodwin)

Ask the Experts: #7

Ever thought about buying a spotting scope? Our Experts have some advice for you.

Question: From SVBC Member Calvert Byles in Swansea in Wales. “I am fairly new to birding and would like to know about spotting scopes.  Should I invest in one?  What should I look for in a spotting scope?  Thank you.”

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

A few ecosystems demand the use of a telescope which are reduced to coastlines and shallow extensions of water. This is because the primary species tend to be scattered in these vast areas visited by shy birds thus making identification very difficult with just a pair of binoculars since you can’t get too close or because the access is not fitted for humans. Sometimes in the forest there is a weird-shaped bird sitting on a branch on a top of a hill where access is also limited and here is where a telescope can come in very handy. Europe and some of the east coast of the USA have a large coastline visited by migratory shorebirds that also justify the use of a telescope. In practical cases, you will always need one for sure when you didn’t bring it! If you don’t want to expend extra buying a camera, a telescope can also play a good part in digiscoping: the art of taking photos with your phone through a scope. Today you can find all kinds of adapters that can cost $10 or less and be able to take very good videos and photos of not moving or very slow birds. So it all comes back to what could be the primary reason behind the purchase and where will it be used the most.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

If you are a new birder, I don´t think it is very necessary to buy a spotting scope. It is true that spotting scopes help us a lot to be able to identify species, but for a beginner, my recommendation is to buy a pair of good binoculars and enjoy watching birds with them.In case you just really want to buy a spotting scope to have it, my advice is to buy a good one, and when I say that it means to buy one that is not cheap. I know people who buy cheap ones and after a year or so they need to buy a new one, so at the end of the day in five years you will spend almost the same amount of money as if you made the decision to buy an expensive one.To give you an idea, I already have used the same scope for five years, it is a Swarovski ATX 65 mm HD. This model comes in pieces, so you have to buy the objective lens, the eyepiece, and the tripod with the head. For me, this was a great investment because besides being a bird nerd, I am a tour guide and in many cases, my clients don´t have binoculars, so the spotting scope is like my machete that I use to show them the species of birds we find.But like I said, if you just want to buy one to have with you, it would be a good tool to go birding, especially if you go out looking for shorebirds or if you are going to stay in one place where you don’t have to move.

Basil (Baz) Kirilenko: Owner and Operator of Mindo Valley Tours; Mindo, Ecuador

If you’re fit and strong and fit enough to tote a spotting scope around (or can hire someone to carry it for you), I say…It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Ask the Experts: #6

Welcome back friends. Question #6 for our Ask the Experts feature comes from SVBC member Kyler Pham, who lives in beautiful Prescott Valley, Arizona.

I’m thinking about becoming a birding guide and would like your advice.  When you are leading a group on a bird walk, what are some of the do’s and don’ts?  What can I do to maximize the birding experience for the people I am guiding?

Now please enjoy the responses from our three Experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

When practicing the craft of guiding, it does not matter if you know all bird sounds or can recognize each species by its nest shape, first you have to identify the capabilities of the participants and determine how far they can go physically and measure their interest in birds in order to select a course and look for species that will be enjoyable for everyone. Right then you can relax and start showing your knowledge off!

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

To become a bird guide you need to have special skills. Sometimes people may think that bird guides are just having fun traveling around a place, country, region, continent or worldwide. It is true bird guides have the chance to know a lot of places, but they also need to study—study a lot! For example, they need to learn: the songs, calls and chips of residents and non-residents species; the different plumages and colors to identify a male or a female; the immature plumage and adult plumage; how birds behave; the best time to go to look for a specific target species; and about the habitat. Of course, you also need to learn about the culture of the places where you are thinking about going birding, to connect with the communities in a way that you can explain why it is so important to protect the forest habitat to keep species of birds. In other words, as you see, it is all about practice and experience, but the most important thing is to go out to the forest as much as you can, thus all those skills will start to appear soon or later. 

In terms of how to deal with groups, it is very variable, because as a bird guide you will be in touch with completely different points of view, so probably the most important thing to have is patience. There will be always situations when you have to say a bird name 20 times in a single day, due to the fact that your clients are just learning that name. If you can make the clients feel de-stressed, even when they can’t find a target species, you are doing well. How can you create that feeling? You have to go into the woods with the feeling that you are entering a holy place and show respect for every single creature; after that, the feeling you have will start to transmit to the people with whom you are sharing that moment. And remember it is always better when you go that extra mile to create the best experience for your client!

Uzvaldo Franzinni: Monthly contributor to the Zanti Journal of Ornithology.

I use the word TANAGER…it always reminds me of my birding do’s and don’ts when leading a group:

Take time to get to know the folks on your walk. Beginning birders? Advanced birders? Plus, you are responsible for the safety of each person you are guiding. Unless everyone can safely cross that stream…don’t cross that stream.

Ask questions.of your group. The birding experience will be a lot more fun and memorable if you engage your group with questions (.’Can you describe shape of the bill?’) rather than just saying ‘That is a Brown-billed Scythebill.’

Never bluff! If you’re not sure what a bird is…tell them you’re not sure.

Assistance; always give it when needed . When a bird is being secretive, assist everyone to a good vantage point. Use the unmistakeable landmark technique. (see below)

Gracious. Listen to everyone and respect what they say. I guarantee you’ll get a lot of comments like, ‘Well, back in Idaho we have a bird that looks a lot like that one. I remember one time……….’.

Expertise. Have it…do your homework.

Review. Following every walk (time permitting) go over and review what you saw on the walk. eBird is a great way to do that.

Best of luck, Kyler.

(photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur)

Ask the Experts: #5

Please join me in welcoming back our three birding Experts as they once again answer a birding question as submitted by our most excellent San Vito Bird Club members.

Jim Zook: Professional ornithologist, bird population specialist for Stanford University and co-author of ‘The Wildlife of Costa Rica‘.

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

QUESTION #5: From SVBC member Vincent Albright; Hall’s Gap, Victoria in Australia.
‘On my previous two visits to Costa Rica I’ve been fascinated by the diversity of your Flycatchers.  There are SO many different species!  Can you provide some tips on how I can best learn to identify them?’

Pepe: If you were looking for the most diverse family of birds of America, stop. You found it. Flycatchers are fascinating birds that range from very local to long distance migrants. All of them eat insects, except for the ones who don’t! (bad joke). Despite their name, many had been the pressures that have split these birds in over 400 species across America, going from bright scarlet, to dull gray/brown, long crests and tails to tiny pigmy tyrants, true insect catchers to berry eaters. 

So how can you ID them? 

Insect eaters are very acrobatic and like to jump up in the air in pursuit of a fly. So they mostly perch on a bare branch or a place with visual advantage. Easier to spot since most of them have a yellow belly-breast and are dull brown or gray on the back. Great Kiskadees or Social Flycatchers are great example. Their color patterns and their blatant nature helps them find themselves or confirm if a perch is free or taken. Fruit eaters are more passive. Their prey is not going anywhere so you can find them among the foliage of fruiting trees like ficus, melastomes, rubiaceae family or berry bushes. A couple fruit eaters have long crests and tails like the Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher or the Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Their colors are also very subtle. Most blend with the foliage. The deeper you go in the forest, the harder it will get to find and ID them for they turn almost invisible to the inexperienced eye and their colors get dark green, gray, rusty and their size gets smaller and so their physical appearance also varies a lot. So you can have super specialized birds like the Bentbills, or the Todies. All insect eaters but filling a different niche and found at various levels of the forest. 

Field guides and apps like Merlin are good companions to have but a local expert will be ideal to help you pick them out by call, habits or even bill shapes.

Below, a couple of extreme bill size differences between a Boat-billed Flycatcher and a Black-capped Flycatcher.

(photos courtesy of Pepe Castiblanco)

Jim: Yes, there are a bunch of flycatchers in Costa Rica. The Tyrannidae, or Tyrant Flycatchers (to distinguish them from Old World Flycatchers) is represented in Costa Rica by 81 species (mas o menos). Some of those are very rare species that have only been seen a few times here, others are migrants that are present only during the northern hemisphere winter or during migration, but at any one birding spot in the country one can expect to encounter regularly 10 to 20 different species – more if you include the rarer possibilities. One key is to know what the common species are in any given area, and learn to identify them well first. Then you’ll have a base for comparison and if you see something odd you can ask yourself “why isn’t this one of the common species?” Less common species are often associated with specific micro-habitats, so knowing what a species prefers is also important as in “that looks like a Yellow Tyrannulet, but those are only found in short, scrubby vegetation and we are in dense forest, so we can rule that out”. If you have to focus on one physical trait I’d say pay close attention to the bill – It’s length and width, color, and if bicolored the pattern, shape of bill tip (hooked or not), etc. But probably the best trick is to learn the vocalizations as that will be the key for separating those little green and gray birds that all look the same.

David: You’re right about the flycatchers diversity, in fact it is the most diverse family. It’s a new world family, which means that it is distributed only in the Americas. My recommendation is to observe the behavior; for example, flycatchers fly to try and catch an insect and then return to the same perch, making a loop. You can also learn the song and the call. When you’re fed up you catch them and analyze their features up close, because you when you catch them you can observe special characteristics on the primary and secondary feathers (I am talking about the Empidonax genus). You will understand that sometimes it is so difficult to identify them that you just give up and go to look for some other birds.


Reminder: Do you have a birding question you’d like to ask our Experts? Send it to…

Ask the Experts: Question #4

Welcome to Question #4 of our Ask the Experts feature where each week we pose one of your questions to our birding experts and then see their responses.

Please welcome this week’s two birding experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Question #4: (from SVBC member Janelle Boyett-Hinds from Winnipeg, Canada) ‘I was visiting San Vito (and other parts of Costa Rica) I noticed some bird species could be found all over the place.  In particular, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Scarlet-rumped Tanager and the Clay-colored Thrush.  Why are these species so successful?’

Pepe: Just as there are many species that don’t tolerate habitats with human impact, there are also species that won’t survive in primary forests. At some point in the evolutionary race, many saw the potential and wide range of food opportunities in the urban areas and adapted to them. Birds exist longer than humans and topographic and/or climatological changes were back then the trigger that would push a species to split into two or several more species. When humans also took part in that game by building cities, roads and plantations, birds did what they had been doing already for millions of years: they continued adapting. Our Thrushes and dear Grackles are no exception to that. Many others couldn’t find a quick way to adapt and disappeared as fast as new species replaced them filling the empty niches. Humans did that too until the Homo sapiens took over.

David: Surely there are others reasons in addition to what I am going to say, but in my opinion, these species of birds evolved in a such an interesting way that allows them to be adapted to live in different habitats. No doubt diet is one of the main reasons they can live in different places. There is a variety of things they can eat: worms, pollen, nectar, fruits, insects, seeds, spiders… The fitness of these species is definitely way stronger than the fitness of some other species that need a specific habitat, or elevation in order to nest and survive.

The best part of all this is that they all are special, one with amazing flight adaptation, one with a beautiful combination of colours on its feathers, and finally, one with a lovely melody.

Land Use Survey: You Can Participate!

The San Vito Bird Club is pleased to introduce you to Savannah Lenhert, a Graduate Student from Northern Arizona University. Ms. Lehnert is requesting your help.


Estimado Señor,

Soy una estudiante de maestría en Northern Arizona University y estoy trabajando en un estudio acerca de la administración de la tierra y programas de conservación del gobierno. Me gustaría saber sus opiniones y preferencias en la administración de la tierra y los programas que ofrece el gobierno. Esto nos ayudará a entender las necesidades de los propietarios en Coto Brus, y nos ayudará a contemplar maneras para hacer la tierra más accesible para la vida silvestre. La encuesta sólo le tomará 5 – 10 minutos, y sus respuestas serán totalmente anónimas. 

Usted podrá llenar la encuesta una sola vez, pero es libre de compartirla con otras personas en su domicilio o comunidad. Como agradecimiento por llenar la encuesta, usted puede elegir a participar en una rifa para ganar una orden de compra en Súpermercado BM. Para llenar la encuesta por favor haga clic en el link:

Si tiene preguntas me puede contactar por correo a: 

Muchas gracias por su participación.

Savannah Lehnert



I am a Master’s student at Northern Arizona University and am conducting research on land management and government conservation programs. I would love to hear from you about your preferences for land management and thoughts on government programs. This will help us to understand the needs of land managers and landowners in Coto Brus, and consider ways for making the landscape more accessible to wildlife. The survey should only take 5 to 10 minutes, and your responses will be completely anonymous.

You can take the survey once, and are free to share the survey link with others in your household or community. As a big thank you for taking the survey, you can choose to enter in a raffle to win a $40 gift card to Súpermercado BM.  To take the survey, please click on the link:

If you have any questions about the survey, please email me:

I really appreciate your input!

Savannah Lehnert

Ask the Experts: Question #3

Welcome to Question #3 of our Ask the Experts feature where each week we pose one of your questions to our birding experts and then see their responses.

Please welcome this week’s two birding experts:

Jim Zook: Professional ornithologist, bird population specialist for Stanford University and co-author of ‘The Wildlife of Costa Rica‘.

Basil (Baz) Kirilenko: Owner and Operator of Mindo Valley Tours; Mindo, Ecuador.

Question #3: What are your thoughts on bird feeders? Do they help the birds or is it possible they do some harm. From SVBC member Ellen Beckett.

*****The San Vito Bird Club recognizes that Costa Rica currently has a nationwide policy forbidding the feeding of wildlife. Please do not interpret this article…or the responses from our Exerts…as giving permission or approval to feed Costa Rican wildlife.*****

Jim Zook: I feel that feeders can provide a valuable opportunity for wildlife appreciation and thereby education. The negative impact on birds can be reduced by limiting the size of feeding stations and set-ups and the frequency at which they are replenished, by maintaining the quality of food and the cleanliness of the entire operation and by locating feeders where exposure to predators or window strikes is minimized. Bigger, all day feeding setups that are poorly sited, stocked with inappropriate food and that fail to practice proper hygiene would certainly be more likely to cause problems. For tourist operations a good feeding setup can be a major added attraction, even to the point of becoming legendary (think of Cope’s or the Monteverde Hummingbird Garden) and I don’t think it’s right to deny them the option of having a well run feeder. Perhaps there could be some kind of certification. An outright ban is certainly the easiest solution.

Basil (Baz) Kirilenko: Our main concern is, and always should be, the protection of wildlife. Let’s remember, the wildlife has been here longer than we have…a lot longer…and wildlife has thrived successfully without our food augmentation. But as a young boy I remember sitting near a platform feeder (with guidebook and Tasco binoculars in hand) enthralled by the diversity of life so close at hand. That experience proved to be very influential in my future life’s work and no doubt the same goes for many other naturalists. Yes, this is a paradox. Great…just what we need right now…another paradox.

Ask the Experts: Question #2

Welcome to Question #2 of our Ask the Experts feature where each week we pose one of your questions to our three birding experts and then see their responses.

Please welcome this week’s three birding experts:

Pepe Castiblanco: Co-owner and proprietor of Casa Botania B&B and professional birding and nature guide.

David Rodriguez Arias: Tropical Biologist and natural history guide in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

Uzvaldo Franzini: Birding guide and monthly contributor to the prestigious Zanti Journal of Zoological Sciences.

Question #2: (from San Vito Bird Club member David Fielding) ‘The Sunbittern’s wings, when spread, each have a big beautiful eye-like spot. What do you suppose is the evolutionary reason for that spot? Is it to scare away predators? Is it to attract a mate? Are the wings spread to display the spot during courtship? . . . Or is it for both reasons?’

Pepe: This is a question that goes beyond my knowledge and has to be answered based on my observations in the field. Two things trigger the bird to display the ‘sunset’ or evil eyed patterns: gliding and landing and/or deterring others to approach their nesting site by standing between the nest and the intruder and lowering its head and spreading its wings fully. Does it work now? Will it have to adapt through the next thousand years? Very likely yes to both questions. For now, all we can do is enjoy every sighting with respect and keeping our distance discreetly. 

Below, a picture of the wing display when landing on a rock in Turrialba.

(photo by Pepe Castiblanco)

David: That’s an excellent question! As far as I know, the Sunbittern (both male and female) use the spots on their wings to communicate both things. They use the spots to express their interest in each other, or to sound the alarm when there is an intruder in their territory. We can’t forget that those colours look different to them, because the spectrum of colours that birds see is wider. 

And since we’re talking about the Sunbittern, I would like to share something else interesting about its closest relative. The Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus) is found in New Caledonia, and because of this, it is believed that at one time they shared the same habitat in Gondwana. With Continental Drift, however, the two species were separated. 

I hope one day those readers who haven’t seen the Sunbittern yet have the opportunity to marvel at this stunning species!

Uzvaldo: I am reminded of that great song by Donnie and Marie Osmond; ‘A Little Bit Country-A Little Bit Rock ‘N Roll’.

I love the Sunbittern.  It’s one of those birds existing in its very own private family (Eurypygidae).  The Sunbittern’s appearance gives us ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of that’.  Imagine if evolution tried something new…combining the best parts of a heron with the best parts of a rail.  Then, to top off the experiment, evolution added some spectacular colors and bold eye-spots on the wings.  Are the eye-spots for defensive purposes?  Are the spots there to attract a mate?  Once again we have a situation where we get ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of that’.  Most researches suspect both purposes are in play!  

I can think of another Costa Rican bird that uses the ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of that’ evolutionary strategy; our very own Rufous-tailed Jacamar.  Even though the Jacamar is not closely related to hummingbirds or to kingfishers, it looks a little like both of them.


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