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.


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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.

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.


Please continue to send your questions for our panel of experts. Send to:

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.