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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Ask the Experts: Question #1

Please join me in welcoming our three birding Experts as you San Vito Bird Club members have your birding questions answered on a weekly basis:

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 #1: What family of Costa Rican birds are your favorites?  And why?

Pepe Castiblanco: Wrens are by far my choice. They not only have a unique physical characteristics that differentiate each one of them but they also have a remarkable sense of rhythm, making them the most musical family of all, battling each other in complicated musical lines when one of them often starts the phrase and the other one completes it making a perfect composition worth of a Grammy or a Figaro selection!

Jim Zook: Too many to pick just one. My favorite family to listen to is the Troglodytidae (Wrens). Think Song Wren. My favorite family for common names is the Trochilidae (Hummingbirds). Snowcap, Coquette, Woodstar, Mountain-gem. My favorite migrant family, the ones I most miss when they aren’t here? Parulidae (Wood Warblers). My favorite family name is the Rhinocryptidae. Camouflaged Rhinoceroses? Sorry, it’s just the Tapaculos. My favorite new family is the Rhodinocichlidae (Rosy Thrush-Tanager). If ever there was a species deserving of its own family this is it. Favorite pelagic bird family and the one most likely to produce some stunning surprise? Procellariidae (Tubenoses). But the family that has probably been my favorite, ever since I started birding, is the Accipitridae (Hawks). Lot’s of old familiar faces and challenges that still make my heart soar, plus the possibility of something new – that Harpy Eagle that’s out there waiting for me.

David Rodriquez Arias: It is hard to tell which are my favorites family, but well, here I give you three that I like the most. My favorite family of birds of Costa Rica is Trogonidae, because my first project when I started getting in touch with birds at my university was about Trogons. Also, thanks to my father (who is a farmer) I have been in touch with Quetzals since I was 5 years old, due to I went with him to his farm, and Quetzals were nearby us. So, that also made me focus in this family when I was at the university.

I also like the Charadriidae (plovers and sandpiper-like birds) family, because of the incredible journeys they do every season. I always think about all the things they can see during their migration movements. I also like to watch them when they go to rest. All together in a small place, sometimes hundreds of individuals of different species sharing that place they have chosen.

And the last one is Trochilidae (hummingbirds), because of the amazing adaptations they evolved to survive in different habitats. I also like the way how the evolved to fly and their stunning plumages. Moreover, they play an important role in the forest, another incredible adaptation of natural selection between a bird with a plant.

Thank you gentlemen for your responses; insightful and wise.

Next week we pose Question #2, which was submitted by SVBC 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?’

Far From the Madding Crowd? Birding in San Vito, Costa Rica

Notice the four people in the photo below. Two of them are birding and two of them are whimsically making a statement on the importance of social distancing. Which two are the closest together? CORRECT! The two that are making a point of staying a meter of two apart. The other two that are just birding? They’re already several meters apart…without even trying.

The point is…If you’re worried about social distancing, get outside and GO BIRDING! If you’re not worried about social distancing, get outside and go birding! (Feel free to replace ‘birding’ with ‘nature exploring’)

This coming dry season, we will very likely see a tsunami of foreign tourists coming to Costa Rica. Many of them have been stuck inside their homes, staring at the walls. When the travel barriers are lifted, these folks will look around and say, ‘Hmmm, I need a vacation. Where should I go on vacation? Where is a safe, healthy place to visit that doesn’t look anything like the four walls of my house? COSTA RICA!’

Tourism will return my friends…oh yes, it will return. If you are one of those wall-starers or know of any, the San Vito Bird Club and Coto Brus tourism welcome you.

(photo courtesy of Alison Olivieri)

Justa Birds?

Birders can be pretty strange people. 

(That opening sentence may be tied for ‘Most-Obvious-Statement-Ever-Made’.)

But a couple of weeks ago during the height of our Rufous-crested Coquette-mania when we were all standing along the Pintada road peering up into the Inga flowers, I actually heard someone say, ‘Ah, it’s justa White-crested Coquette.’

Prior to this Rufous-crested Coquette sighting, anyone who got a good look at a White-crested thought themselves to be highly blessed and fortunate!  So how did the White-crested Coquette descend into being a ‘justa’ bird?

I can answer that question in one word: human nature.

We are most enthralled by that which is new.  The newest iPhone that includes a digital cup-holder, we must have it.  The newest food trend where the food must be cooked underneath a magic pyramid, we must eat it.  And in case of birders, the newest bird to show up…we must see it.

I’m not being critical (except for that magic pyramid thing) but I’ve never liked calling any bird, no matter how common and plain, to be a ‘justa’ bird.  Justa Clay-colored Thrush…justa Chestnut-sided Warbler…justa Black Vulture? Hell, when I used to take people birding in north Queensland, Australia the first time they saw a Rainbow Lorikeet (see below) their heads would practically explode with glee.  But after a few weeks of seeing these same Rainbow Lorikeets, as common as city pigeons, they too became justa birds.

Ah, justa flock of Rainbow Lorikeets.’  Crikey.

I know…’human nature’ is two words.

Friends From Afar — We’ve Got Mail!

Greetings, members of the SVBC:

We wish to convey to you all our sincere thanks for the welcome that the SVBC members extended to us during our recent visit to San Vito this past March. Our little group of six was comprised of short term visitors (a few days for four of us; an additional couple of weeks for two of us). Although there was only one formal SVBC member among us, we were all treated as regulars and included in a delightful variety of birding adventures: the walk and brunch at Cecilia Sansonetti’s beautiful finca; the walks at Cántaros (with the opportunity to meet new owner, Lilly, and managers, Yei and Marylin); the tense photo competitions, the awards, the refreshments, etc.

Greg Homer took two of us on an early morning walk to Tres Rios in search of, among other birds, the albino vultures. Peter Wendell gave us a primer on using eBird. Alison Olivieri gave us perfect directions to Rio Negro. And everyone else was equally gracious. We were also impressed with the club’s industriousness—from its nascent effort to merge with the Pajareros del Sur, to the continuing inclusion of young birders, the involvement with the local schools and the Detectives de Aves education progam. You folks gave us all great memories of San Vito, its birds and its birders. Thank you! 

David and Audrey Fielding, on our own behalf and on behalf of our friends: David Rorick, Sandra Braden, John Denvir and Miriam Rokeach.

David and Audrey Fielding, members from San Francisco


PS – It must be about time to renew our membership, so for David & Audrey Fielding, our check is in the mail (via Paypal).

The SVBC responds: this is the nicest news we’ve had in forever, so thank you both for your note and your Membership Renewal.

The ‘Clean-up Crew’ Gets a Cool Drink

Good citizen and San Vito Bird Club member Tom Wilkinson noticed something the other day.

A couple of his local vultures (aka: The Clean-up Crew) were walking about his property, gazing forlornly into his near empty rain barrel.  Recognizing how dry and dusty it has been lately, Tom surmised that the Crew members might be a little dry!  Keeping the countryside clean, as vultures do, probably works up quite a thirst, thought Tom.

So being a good citizen, Tom put a couple of bowls of fresh, clean, pure water out for them.  At first, noticed Tom, the Clean-up Crew members were were suspicious of the water bowls.  And being normal vultures, it’s possible they were not familiar with anything fresh, clean and pure.  But little by little they approached the water bowls; after a short while the two crew members drank the bowls dry!  Tom refilled them.

Well done Tom!  Good deeds, good fellowship and keeping a close eye on the creatures around you should be recognized and shared.

What is most amazing from this tale?  That Tom was able to recognize a ‘forlorn look’ on the face of a vulture.

SVBC members; please share your unique bird observations with us.  Click on the links below to send an email to Greg, Alison or Peter.

Greg Homer

Alison Olivieri

Peter Wendell

(photo courtesy of Tom Wilkinson)

Vultures thirsty

The ‘Unmistakable Landmark’ Technique: Better Than “In that green tree over there.”

Birdwatching is usually best (and the most fun) when conducted as a collaborative effort.  Solo birding can be jolly good fun but birding with others is oh so much more efficient.  Two, three, four, five pairs of eyes are capable of seeing so much more than just a single pair of eyes.  But here’s the rub; what if birder #3 has very sharp eyes but is not very skilled in sharing the location of what he/she sees with his/her fellow birders?

We’ve all experienced this.

Birder #3: ‘I’ve got a Collared Forest-Falcon?’

Birder #1: ‘Where is it?’

Birder #3: ‘It’s right up in that green tree over there.’

Birders 1,2,4,5 all look up at an immense forest of ‘green trees’ and all the trees are ‘right over there’.  Next, there invariably follows a protracted and semi-comical routine of pointing, jockeying for position and further veiled descriptions of location such as:

‘It’s at 10 o’clock.’

‘It’s near those dark green leaves.’

‘See that shrub?  Go to the top of that shrub and you’ll see another shrub to the left but this one has some bare branches.  Well, from the top of the second or third highest of the bare branches you’ll see a green tree and…’

Often, by this time the Collared Forest-falcon has flown to a beach resort in Guanacaste.

And so, how can we improve in our ability to share a bird’s clandestine and often distant location to a group of fellow birders?

  1. Position your fellow birders behind you, if at all possible.
  2. Instruct them to use their eyes and not their binoculars, at first.
  3. Pick out an UNMISTAKABLE landmark as your starting point. Descriptors such as ‘over there’,  ‘green tree’, ‘dark leaves’ ‘straight trunk’ ‘thick foliage’ usually are not specific enough as a starting landmark.  This unmistakable landmark does not even need to be very close to where the bird actually is; but it must be unmistakable…unique!  In  photo #1 (below), you might select clouds as your unmistakable landmark. You might tell your colleagues, ‘See those two little lonely clouds poking their heads up between the bigger clouds?’

Photo #1

spotting 1

Once you’ve got them focused on the little clouds you can lead to the next most unmistakable landmark, and the next and the next, each one closer to the location.

Of course there are times when you’re trying to share the location of a bird at fairly close range.  The same principle applies; pick an unmistakable landmark!  In photo #2 (below) you might say; ‘See that bright red flower?  Start from that red flower and go about 3 meters to the right.’  Etc, etc.

Photo #2

spotting 2

Is this method foolproof?  Hell no.  But I do believe that using the unmistakable landmark technique as your starting point to share a bird location will give you and your fellow birders a much better chance of seeing more birds…quicker.

And don’t forget; If birding was easy, it wouldn’t be any fun.


Windows vs. Birds: some observations and possible solutions

NOTE: This is a re-post, combining two earlier posts on this subject into one.

Why, At Times, We Hate Our Windows/Porque, A Veces, Odiamos Nuestras Ventanas

Sigue en espanol

Windows kill birds; there is no doubt about that. In a popular book called Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, Daniel Klem, a professor of biology at Muhlenberg College in Muhlenberg, PA, estimates the number of birds killed by striking sheet glass per year at between 100 million and one billion birds in North America alone. Dr. Klem has studied this hazard for more than 25 years.

We did not come to Costa Rica to kill birds; however, in our rush to build a house with a view, we have done just exactly that. Every time we hear the sound of a bird hitting a window in full flight, our hearts sink.

In searching for a mitigation device, we’ve visited many websites by Googling “Window Kills Birds” and, as you might expect, this troubling problem has generated many sources of information.

ABC Translucent Window Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

ABC Translucent Window Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Recently, we purchased translucent tape in two sizes from the American Bird Conservancy and have applied the thin strip type to one of our kitchen windows. For more than a month this window has been bird-collision-free. Click here for more information on this product and other ways to reduce collisions suggested by the ABC.

Continuing this experiment, Roni Chernin, a ‘Detectives de Pajaros’ teacher and birding companion, has just decorated her large windows with the wide kind of ABC Translucent Tape. We will wait to hear about the success of her efforts.  If you’d like to try putting this tape on one or some of your windows, please CONTACT US . We would be more than happy to lend you our tape and will be buying more on our next trip north.

Thick ABC Translucent Window Tape to prevent bird strikes. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Thick ABC Translucent Window Tape to prevent bird strikes. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Creative solutions continue to arise, addressing this issue. For new construction projects, we found a product called Ornilux Bird Protection Glass. Manufactured by a company called Arnold Glas in Germany, it is patterned with a UV reflective coating that birds can see but, apparently, humans cannot. Lisa Welch who works in the Ventura, CA office of Arnold Glas told us recently there is no Costa Rican distributor but it is available to be shipped here. If you or anyone you know wants to try to reduce window kills, contact her at: for more info.

Please let us know if you find ways to prevent this problem that we have not, as we’d like to be in the business of protecting birds, not killing them!

Aqui en espanol

Las ventanas matan aves; no hay duda de eso. En un libro popular llamado Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, Daniel Klem, un profesor de biología en Muhlenberg College en Muhlenberg, PA, ha estimado el número de muertes por estrellarse con una ventana entre 100 millones a un billón de aves por año en norte America solamente después de estudiar este fenómeno por más de 25 años.

No hemos venido a Costa Rica a matar aves; sin embargo en nuestro apuro por construir nuestra casa con una vista, hemos hecho exactamente eso. Cada vez que escuchamos el sonido de un pájaro chocando con nuestra ventana en pleno vuelo, nos da mucho desconsuelo en nuestros corazones.

En busca de un dispositivo que mitigue estos accidentes, hemos visitado muchos sitios web a través de google buscando con palabra clave ’’Ventanas que matan las aves’’ y como ud podría suponer, este tipo de problema ha generado muchas fuentes de información.

Thin ABC Translucent Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Thin ABC Translucent Tape to protect birds. Photo by Alison Olivieri.

Recientemente, compramos cajas de cinta translucida en dos tamaños de la entidad American Bird Conservancy y hemos aplicado una delgada tira en una de las ventanas de nuestra cocina.

Por más de un mes esta ventana ha sido una ventana libre de colisiones. Presione aquí para obtener más información de este producto y también otras formas o sugerencias para reducir las colisiones en las ventanas hechas por la ABC. Roni Chernin, una “Detectives de pájaros’’ profesora y aficionada a las aves, ha decorado sus ventanas más grandes con la misma cinta translucida pero esta vez la versión más ancha promocionada también por la ABC. Esperamos pronto escuchar noticias del éxito de sus esfuerzos.

Thick ABC Translucent Tape on large windows. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Thick ABC Translucent Tape on large windows. Photo by Roni Chernin.

Si le gustaría a alguno de Uds. poner esta cinta en alguna de sus ventanas, por favor CONTACTENOS. Estaré más que feliz en prestarle un poco de nuestra cinta y estaré comprando más en nuestro próximo viaje al norte.

Nuevas y creativas soluciones están surgiendo para solucionar esta problemática. Para nuestro proyectos nuevos de construcción, encontramos un producto llamado Ornilux Vidrio Protector de Aves. Manufacturado por una compañía llamada Vidrio de Arnold en Alemania, esta patentado con una cubierta reflectiva Ultra violeta (UV) que aparentemente las aves pueden ver, pero que los humanos no pueden. Lisa Welch quien trabaja en Ventura, CA oficina de Arnold Glas nos dijo recientemente que no hay un distribuidor Costarricense pero que podría mandarse sin problemas. Si Ud. o alguien que conoce quiere tratar de reducir este tipo de muertes, contáctenla a para más información.

Por favor, déjenos saber si encuentra o ha encontrado alguna forma de prevenir este problema que no hayamos ya encontrado ya que nos gustaría estar en el negocio de protección de las aves, no matarlas.

Another Way to Bird-proof Windows

In response to the post above about the dangers of windows to birds (Why, At Times, We Hate Our Windows), we’d like to pass on a simple and relatively inexpensive solution that Karen Arras has developed for her home near El Roble de Heredia in Costa Rica using plastic netting hung from eaves in front of windows.

A screen made of plastic netting or mesh hung in front of a window to protect birds. Photo: Harry Hull.
A screen made of plastic netting or mesh hung in front of a window to protect birds.

As Karen explains:

Have you noticed that birds never hit windows with screens? For windows that don’t have screens, I use plastic netting or mesh as thin as possible with squares of about 1/2 inch to make what in essence are hanging screens. To make a hanging screen, measure your window, cut the plastic netting to a size that covers it, and staple this to two thin strips of wood on top and bottom. Add two eyelets to the top piece of wood, one near each end, and hang the entire screen with nylon cord or thin wire from your eaves. If the window opens outward, hang the screen far enough away from the window to allow you to open it easily. Otherwise, hang the screen a minimum of 6 inches away from your window. Hanging screen

Avoid using a heavy material for the top and bottom of the screen; otherwise, a constant wind might set the whole screen swinging enough to hit and damage the window. If the window is wider and taller than the width of the netting, use two or more pieces of netting  to protect the window.

Hanging screen detail

This system has been very effective and low maintenance. We’ve never had a bird get caught in the screen, so I think the mesh of the screens is large enough not to snag birds.

A special thanks to Karen and Rob Arras for sharing this great idea.

All photos by Harry Hull.

Another example of a hanging screen
Another example of a screen of plastic netting hung in front of a window to prevent birds from hitting the window.

Kids Learning to Use Binoculars!

Few things inspire greater optimism for a healthy future than observing excited school kids learn how to use binoculars (see below).

The San Vito Bird Club along with our Detectives de Aves (Bird Sleuth) crew of educators are asking for your financial support.

As our education programs expand across the southern zone of Costa Rica we need more binoculars for the kids to use during their Detectives de Aves lessons; two lessons in particular.  One lesson is dedicated to proper use of binoculars in the field and the last (and most popular) lesson with binoculars is a half-day field trip into a rain forest full of birds!

Click the link below if you’re able to send us a donation.

Or contact us via email if PayPal is not your thing. or

Bino Kids.jpg

Bino kids 2.jpg



Thank You for Your Support!/Gracias por su ayuda!

Many, many thanks to those of you who chose send a financial gift to the San Vito Bird Club in 2017.

Thanks to your generous donations our Detectives de Aves (Bird Sleuth) education program can continue in 2018!  We can continue bringing this wonderful Cornell University curriculum to 5th grade students in the San Vito area.  Click the link below for more info.

If have not yet donated and are able to do so…please do.  We are regularly adding new schools and hope in 2018 to bring another teacher on board.  Click on the link below to send your gift.

This program does some real good, brings joy and pride to a lot of local kids and parents, and who knows…maybe one of our graduates will become the next Alexander Skutch.