Heliconia Help Line: Ask Us Anything!

Excellent field guide by Fred Berry and W. John Kress.

Do you have a hankering to learn to identify something other than birds? How about the wild and beautiful tropical plants called heliconias?

We’ve become hooked on these exuberant blooms recently after walking in the Wilson Botanical Garden Heliconia area where all the plants are sprouting improbably-shaped and wildly-colored inflorescences holding small flowers for hummingbird species with just the right bill. The bills fit perfectly into the varied flowers which, if you weren’t looking closely, you might miss or mistake for detritus, hidden as they are in the bright framework.

Green-crowned Brilliant on the widely-cultivated Heliconia bahai. Photo by Jo Davidson



In fact, here is the ideal transition photograph by Jo Davidson to move your mind from birds to blooms. This is an ‘early Jo Davidson’, taken in 2009 — one of her first attempts at capturing a hummingbird — this time, a Green-crowned Brilliant.


Heliconia lingulata, Peru to Bolivia. Photo by Ellen Beckett

Here is another beauty, an erect yellow showing off in the sun. Geographic distribution of Heliconia is restricted primarily to the American tropics. A disjunct group is found in the Old World tropics from Samao to Sulawesi, all of which have primarily green bracts and flowers with coppery red leaves.

The OTS Las Cruces Biological Station aka Robert and Catherine Wilson Botanical Garden is open for visitors  — a stroll through the newly-renovated Heliconia Garden is worth the trip all by itself but other highlights await, for example, the Maranta Garden, the Pollinator Garden and the Canopy Tower.

At Heliconia Central, on a recent visit, every plant was in bloom and birds were busy investigating available nectar and fruit. So it’s a must-see stop for birders and natural history photographers will hardly be disappointed.

Wipe off your lenses, be they eyeglasses, spotting scopes, binoculars or cameras — it is all out there, waiting for you! Send an email request to visit to: recepcionlc@tropicalstudies.org with the date, number in your party and then just follow the four new rules:

— Wear a mask

— Pay at the Entrance Gate, fee is $10 tourists or $3 residents

— Have your temperature taken

— Wash your hands

Pendant ‘Sexy Pink’. Photo by Julie Girard

We can practically guarantee your spirits will be lifted by some intensely beautiful  tropical plants, feathered delights in every direction and the occasional agouti gambolling across the grounds.



Hairy Black Caterpillars

A wild roller coaster ride. That phrase describes the fluctuating annual population numbers of many insects. Some years insect ‘X’ is just EVERYWHERE! Other years, insect ‘X’ just can’t be found.

This year, that wild roller coaster is apparently nearing its apex for hairy black caterpillars! (see photo below) I’ll bet you’ve noticed them all over the place.

I’m sure Dr. Daniel Janzen* knows exactly what these caterpillars will transform into; hell, he probably first named the species. But I do not know the species or even the family. I’ll bet it’s a moth.

Most folks who have been down here for more than a day or two already know the Hairy Caterpillar Cardinal Rule–NEVER TOUCH A HAIRY CATERPILLAR. Those hairs are urticating** hairs and will cause pain, swelling, rash and possibly even a systemic reaction. So, do not touch…no tocar…ne pas toucher…non toccare…不要碰.


**causing a stinging or prickling sensation like that given by a nettle.”the urticating hairs”.

ps: I’ll bet some of you know the species; let us know.


Taxonomy Update: 2020

If you are looking for something to keep you amused during quarantine, this probably
won’t fill that bill. However, even in these crazy times, the American Ornithology
Society’s North American Classification Committee (NACC) continues its mission to
update the taxonomy of North American birds, and it is my duty to report its decisions.
There are two new English names for Costa Rican birds. These changes were made last
year by the South American Classification Committee (SACC), and so are already
included in eBird and Merlin. The NACC adopted these changes this year.
1) The Paltry Tyrannulet is now officially called Mistletoe Tyrannulet. It’s scientific name
has been changed from Zimmerius vilissimus (which is now Guatemalan Tyrannulet) to
Zimmerius parvus.
2) The Checker-throated Antwren (Epinecrophylla fulviventris) is now Checker-throated
Scientific name changes (In order as presented in Garrigues and Dean’s 2nd edition):
Canivet’s Emerald – Cynanthus canivetii
Coppery-headed Emerald – Microchera cupreiceps
White-tailed Emerald – Microchera chionura
Blue-tailed Hummingbird – Saucerottia cyanura
Snowy-bellied Hummingbird – Saucerottia edward
Sapphire-throated Hummingbird -Chrysuronia coeruleogularis
Blue-chested Hummingbird – Polyerata amabilis
Charming Hummingbird – Polyerata decora
Blue-throated Goldentail – Chlorestes eliciae
Chestnut-backed Antbird – Poliocrania exsul
Dull-mantled Antbird Sipia laemosticta
Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner – Dendroma rufa
White-crowned Manakin – Pseudopipra pipra
White-shouldered Tanager – Loriotus luctuosus
Comb Duck (listed as a rarity in the back of the guide) – Sarkidiornis
For the further edification of anyone who has not fallen asleep by now, the remaining
changes made by the NACC have to do with changing the linear sequences within
groups. For example, in Garrigues and Dean’s second edition, Selasphorus scintilla,
Scintillant Hummingbird, comes before Selasphorus flammula, Volcano Hummingbird. In
future editions, that will change.
To see the complete report of the NACC, you may visit

(Article content and photo below from SBVC ‘Taxonomy Tsar’, Jo Davidson).

It’s Time to Play: What’s…My…Hypothesis!

This could be fun.

First of all, what is a hypothesis? The traditional definition of a hypothesis is–an educated guess; or a guess made upon observations. A theory, on the other hand is also known as a ‘hypothesis that has grown up’. A theory is much more than a guess. A theory has behind it not only observation but much testing and statistical data. For a theory to become fact the data must go through significant and extensive review. The data must be tested by other experts in the same field. The numbers must be crunched in an unbiased manner. In the scientific world, even after a theory has become fact it is always subject to further testing and review as new data is discovered. Contrary to what you may have heard about a certain global climate theory, the science and scrutiny is NEVER done. Fine; so back to What’s…My…Hypothesis.

Here’s how we play. Send me (see address below) your birding/natural history hypothesis. Based upon your observations and deductive reasoning, share your hypothesis or hypotheses (plural). Feel free to copy the template below and paste it into an email. Your hypothesis can be very brief and based solely upon something you have observed or even just wondered about.

Here are a couple of examples:

Hypothesis #1:

This what I have observed: Whenever I find a mixed flock of birds, there always seems to be a woodcreeper moving about and calling somewhere in the middle of that mixed flock.

This my hypothesis: Different species of birds often flock together in a loose affiliation. I believe they flock, both above and below a woodcreeper, because woodcreepers are both active and noisy and make for an obvious target around which to flock.

Hypothesis #2:

This is what I have observed: Leaf-cutter ants will travel relatively great distances to harvest leaves from citrus trees.

This is my hypothesis: Chemicals or odors found in citrus leaves could serve as a deterrent to unwanted pests down in the Leaf-cutter Ant nest. Or maybe they just make the place smell better, like one of the things you hang on the rearview mirror of your car.

Have fun with this. I will post some of the more interesting hypotheses on this website in the coming days. Who knows? Maybe your hypothesis will some day grow up to become an actual THEORY!

Please keep your observations to natural history topics, birding if possible. Here is the template:

This is what I have observed:

This is my hypothesis:

Send to:


Streak-headed Woodcreeper, courtesy of Jo Davidson

Pigeons and Doves of San Vito: ID by Call

You’re all getting plenty of exercise, right? Walking and birding and gardening and home projects. Good! Keep it up, San Vito Bird Club members.

About 3 years ago following one of our Bird Walks (when you all were pretty much a captive, coffee-drinking audience) I delivered a brief tutorial on the calls of our local Pigeons and Doves. Following the tutorial, I promised deliver it again ‘…some day.’ That day has come.

All seven of these birds are easier to hear than to see. And they each have a distinctive call or song. See how many you can identify by song when you’re out and about.

White-tipped Dove, photo courtesy of Helen LeVasseur

Can You Identify Birds from Just a Silhouette?

In a perfect world every bird would pose on a bare branch in the full sun. That bare branch would always be real close to you and to your camera. That bird would slowly turn, showing off all aspects of its plumage and design, always while in full sun. That bird on the bare branch would patiently remain on that branch while you called over all twelve of your birding chums. As all of your loudly talking birding chums fumbled up their binoculars, scopes and cameras that bird would continue to pose.

Ah, but that is not our world.

In our birding world, the scenario described above has a rare-to-never occurrence rate. Birds are often secretive and private. Branches, leaves and the sun seem to almost have a perverse sense of humor when it comes to birding. Ergo, we must be prepared to meet these challenges head on and to identify birds under imperfect conditions. One of those imperfect conditions? Bad lighting. I refer to bird watching when the lighting is either so bright or so low that all you can see is a SILHOUETTE image.

Many bird guides, such as Cornell University’s Merlin Bird ID, offer silhouette images of the major categories of birds. Study these bird silhouettes.

San Vito Bird Club member Tom Wilkinson recently sent me a wonderful photo (see below). It is not actually a silhouette but a shadow! See if you can identify what group this bird belongs to and maybe even what species it is. Take a moment if necessary; and then scroll down to see a photo of the actual bird.

Here is the actual bird; living up in the roof of Tom’s house!

A Tropical Screech Owl! Listen to the Tropical Screech Owl by clicking the link below. The call is quite common at night. Click the green Listen button in the lower right of the screen to hear it.


Perhaps you have some silhouette or shadowy photos of birds? Send them to me and we’ll get them posted on this website and maybe have some fun.

And one other thing. At the start of this article I mentioned ‘…in a perfect world…’. Upon reflection, the world we live in is already a perfect world, even with its many flaws and frustrations.

Send your silhouette photos to:



Two of the Country’s Five Jays Have Hit Our Patch!

Brown Jay, photo by Jo Davidson.

Suddenly we have two species of jays to be pursued in San Vito: the garrulous Brown Jay and the far more flamboyant Black-chested Jay.

Brown Jays have been with us for some time now – not in great numbers as in the rest of the country but every so often one or two pop up, giving their “piyah, piyah” call. This usually brings us up short and, as we struggle to place it, this unmistakeable fellow glides into view.  Traveling in “Boisterous parties” is how they are described in the second edition of The Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean.

Black-chested Jay. Photo by Pepe Castiblanco.

Meanwhile, Black-chested Jays are far less common with a range formerly restricted to southern Caribbean lowlands. They have been seen sporadically over time in and around Coto Brus; for example near the Panama border at Canas Gordas.  In contrast to their brown cousins, they are described as “. . . a bit more furtive.” But now we have a small flock up in Concepcion, above the Wilson Botanical Garden/Las Cruces, that can often be seen in early morning near the open-on-weekends restaurant Los Jilgueros. In fact, Sr. Gamboa, the owner, is quite attuned to these handsome birds and can often point a hopeful birder in the right direction.

Jays fascinate us for many reasons. They are loud and have a big presence — when you are near a jay you know it. They have personalities with definite likes and dislikes, complex social systems, tight family bonds and some species are good mimics. They’re smart and can solve problems posed by researchers like their fellow corvids, crows and ravens. Often Costa Rican birders who visit the United States come back with the North American Blue Jay at the top of their Favorite Bird list.

Welcome White-winged Doves!

We have been waiting for quite some time for these angelic-looking birds to show up in our beloved southern zone and it appears our vigil might be over.

White-winged Doves. Photo by Jim Zook

First, a pair was spotted in September near La Union de Sabalito by Jim Zook who was on the job doing bird counts for Stanford University. Shortly thereafter, one was found by Randall Jiménez Borbón, a Pajarero Del Sur member and Detectives de Aves teacher, in his garden in Linda Vista just south of San Vito on the road to Ciudad Neily.

In the Stiles and Skutch Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica (published in 1989), they were considered a ‘. . . locally abundant permanent resident in dry Pacific NW, south to Jaco.’ In more recent times, they are described as ‘. . . common resident in northern Pacific and across the Central Valley . . . ‘ by Garrigues and Dean in the second edition of The Birds of Costa Rica. You can see the trajectory; it was just a matter of time.

They are pretty easy to see if you are expecting them: Garrigues describes them as “. . . commensal with humans. . . ” and goes on to say they favor open areas and are often seen feeding along roadsides. They look a lot like Mourning Doves except for the white band down the length of the wing – this is easily seen at rest and a lovely display in flight. Further, Mourning Doves have long, tapered tails and black spots on their wings, both of which are lacking in the Whities.

From November to May, our resident populations are joined by migrants from the southwestern US. The entire range goes from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas in the US; throughout Mexico and down through Central America to western Panama, as well as throughout the Caribbean islands.

Breeding season is January to March, so we will try to keep an eye on the Sabalito pair. And, meanwhile, keep a sharp eye out as they may turn up at your house any day now!

October Big Day: Join Us in the Field on Saturday the 19th!

How to participate

  • Get an eBird account: eBird is a worldwide bird checklist program used by millions of birders. It’s what allows us to compile everyone’s sightings into a single massive October Big Day list—while at the same time collecting the data for scientists to use to better understand birds. Sign up here. It’s 100% free.
  • Watch birds on 19 October: It’s that simple. You don’t need to be a bird expert, or go out all day long. Even 10 minutes in your backyard will help. October Big Day runs from midnight to midnight in your local time zone. You can report birds from anywhere in the world.
  • Enter what you see and hear on eBird: You can enter your sightings via our website or—even easier—download the free eBird Mobile app. You can enter and submit lists while you’re still out birding, and the app will even keep track of how far you’ve walked, so you can focus on watching birds. While you’re downloading free apps, try out the Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID app for help with identification. Please enter sightings before 23 October to be included in our initial results announcement.
  • Watch the sightings roll in: During the day, keep an eye on how the lists are growing in different parts of the world. Follow along with sightings from more than 150 countries. Stats will be updated in real-time on our October Big Day page.

An Exquisite Visitor

Stop the presses! Male Rufous-crested Coquette debuts in San Vito. Photo by Pepe Castiblanco.

For several weeks in September, excitement ruled the birding world of San Vito as a male Rufous-crested Coquette was found feeding at an Inga tree on the road to a nearby neighborhood called Piedra Pintada. It was a THRILLING find — a new species for CR!

This captivating, tiny bird was a source of delight and fascination for the many birders who came running to see it, along with unsuspecting motorists puzzling over the crowd that suddenly appeared daily at 5:30 am clamoring out of cars and off motorcycles with telescopes, tripods, binoculars and cameras.

Look at this flare!

The RCCO has a short history here. It was reported in 2016 and again in 2018 at Rancho Naturalista in Turrialba. In the second edition of The Birds of Costa Rica by Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean it is listed in the back under ‘Rarities’. Historically, it is included in A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Gary Stiles and Alexander Skutch, published in 1989, that cites four male specimens taken near San Jose in 1892 and 1906. It can be found in six other countries: Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

What about the tail?

Considered ‘uncommon’ where it occurs, it zooms around like a large bee. It has two ‘country cousins’ that share the same status of ‘uncommon’: the White-crested Coquette and the Black-crested Coquette. ‘Whitey’ is endemic to southern CR and western Panama so we are often hosting birders who hope to see it at the Wilson Botanical Garden. ‘Blacky’ can be found in the Caribbean foothills —  Arenal Volcano National Park is a good place to look — and is likewise beelike and difficult to find.

The lesson here is that you never know! It could easily appear in your garden on one of our beautiful flowering trees – Corals and Mayos will start flowering soon – and roadsides and gardens have hedgerows of Rabo de Gato (Stachytarpheta), favored by many species of hummingbirds.

Can’t have too many photos of this wonder so here is just one more.

A special thank you to Pepe Castiblanco, co-owner of Casa Botania Lodge, for these photos.