The Most Difficult Bird

My initial visit to Costa Rica was in 1989. There was not a guidebook for birds. I bought one for adjacent Panama, which was so unhelpful, I barely opened it. When the now classic A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch was published later that year, I was one of the first owners. This book remains the standard for details about behaviors of Costa Rican birds, but the color plates are too small for many species. Nonetheless, as I thumbed through that first copy, which I eventually wore out, one bird particularly caught my eye–the Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

Thrush-Tanager! Much is happening with that name. Birders recognize thrushes and tanagers as distinct families of perching birds. This is like naming a bird a “duck-goose” or a “sparrow-blackbird.” Which is it? Early taxonomists did not know what to do with it and gave it both names.

Subsequent study indicated it is not a thrush or a tanager. It is monotypic, therefore, not closely related to any other species. Its closest relatives are the non-colorful, open-country snow buntings and longspurs which, except for some southerly seasonal movements, are birds of the far north. The relationship seems especially preposterous considering the Thrush-Tanager’s tropical range, preference for living in thick brush, and bright color. The Thrush-Tanager male is rosy-pink on its face, chest, and belly, contrasting with the jet-black of its back and tail. The female has the same pattern but is rusty-orange where the male is pink.

That first guidebook by Stiles and Skutch was not encouraging to would-be Thrush-Tanager viewers, calling the bird “shy and retiring” and “rare and local.” The bird’s distribution is little more than a spot on the map of Costa Rica as shown in Garrigues and Dean’s The Birds of Costa Rica. Cornell’s eBird website says that it is “skulking and rarely seen.” Indeed, ebird showed that during the first 11 months of 2021, Rosy-thrush Tanagers were reported only on twenty-six separate days in heavily-birded Costa Rica. There were only four days in which more than two were reported.

Worse yet, as noted in the Wikipedia entry, the bird’s favored habitat is “heavily degraded former forest.” In the tropics, such a description is code for dense nearly impenetrable tangles filled with vines, thorns, and thick brush. Moreover, if a formerly forested area was left to degrade, it means the slopes were too steep and the ravines too narrow for crops or pasture. Therein resides another problem. What National Park or biological reserve emphasizes “degraded former forest?”  Consequently, suitable locations for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers are privately-owned, small patches of ravine amidst heavily grazed or farmed land. How does a foreigner even find places to look for a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? Even if you drive by a location that appears suitable, how do you gain access?

In contrast, there are shy, retiring, and skulking birds in the forest reserves. Antpittas, antbirds and Quail-Doves are examples. If you walk the trails often enough, especially at dawn or dusk, you might be lucky and see one of these on your own. You might be super-lucky and encounter an ant swarm which can make it easy for some of these species.

As my life list for Costa Rica grew, the intrigue of seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager grew with it. After much research, I have not found a location where a person might walk public trails in hopes of an accidental sighting of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager. I learned of general areas where the Thrush-Tanager was heard and seen, but none had trails or public access.

One area is known for harboring the species—the Dúrika road east of the village of Buenos Aires. A bird guiding friend had suggested locations to stop along the road and call for the Thrush-Tanager. He instructed me on which calls and how to use them. He told me, however, that the road was bad. It could not be accessed without 4wd.

I could rent 4wd, but then an additional problem surfaced. Degraded former forest is not necessarily where accommodations are readily-available. Of the numerous places we have stayed in Costa Rica, not many would be called “sketchy.” Two were because of my quest for the Thrush-Tanager.

Buenos Aires is an agricultural area surrounded by large fields of pineapple. There were no obvious tourist accommodations. Speaking with my guiding friends, I learned they mostly woke up quite early at birding lodges 2 or 3 hours away and drove in the early morning.

This is an area with a large indigenous presence, so we decided to avoid a 3AM start by staying in a new tourist cabin in the village of Salitre at Bribripa Kaneblo a project of the Bribrí—Costa Rica’s largest indigenous group. It was an interesting experience. They were very welcoming and truly hoped to attract tourists. There were 3 or 4 clean, rustic tourist cabins. They had set up an interesting demonstration of their cultural practices. The road, however, was terrible, not because 4wd was required but because of the bone and teeth jarring ruts that required going terribly slow.

The road was bad enough that it took us longer to reach the Thrush-Tanager habitat than if we had stayed further away in Buenos Aires. And then there was the whip scorpion in our room. Although harmless to humans (I read later), waking up to the fearsome appearance of a 6-inch arachnid on the cabin wall was unsettling.

This Tailless Whip Scoprion (Amblypygi) in our room was 6-inches across. We did not know until later that they have no venom and mostly eat cockroaches and worms.

Nonetheless, I encourage anyone who would like to learn about and support the Bribrí to stay at the village. It was secure. They provided simple meals. We were welcomed, but it was not a good place to use as a base for birding.

Anyway, by dawn, the next morning, I was in a location where Rosy Thrush-Tanagers supposedly lived but I saw and heard nothing resembling my quarry. The rest of the morning was equally futile. Meanwhile, my wife Mary was back at the village learning about Bribrí religious practices.

Not one to give up, I convinced my wife to try again on a subsequent visit. We agreed that staying in the nearby town of Buenos Aries made more sense. We had been advised of a small hotel that would be suitable. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to reserve a room by phone and internet failed. We decided we would just show up—which we did—to find it full. We asked the receptionist for help. She suggested another location and indicated that it was dangerous for us to use any of the “cabinas” or “habitaciones” for which we saw a few hand-lettered signs. I should state here, that “dangerous” means with respect to property theft. A rare tourist vehicle in this area is obvious and an invitation for a break-in. (It is worth including here that, as I write this, after approximately thirty trips to Costa Rica, most involving rental cars containing belongings, we have never had an incident.)

We found the “motel” recommended by the receptionist and rented a room. We had never seen anything like it. There were two rows of basic, square concrete block rooms—unattached but side-by-side. Down the middle was a concrete ditch to conduct runoff with barely enough room to access the rooms on either side. The parking area, clearly designed for semi-trucks, and almost full of them, was in front of the rows of rooms. The entire area was enclosed in a high chain-link fence with razor wire on top. Steel posts supported a single large metal roof which covered the entire compound and funneled runoff down the ditch. Finally, a large metal electric gate was used to lockdown the inhabitants.

The room inspection did not go well. Besides the prison-like appearance of unadorned concrete blocks, there were dusty accumulations in many of the mortar joints. If you brushed the dirt or dust, out crawled a small spider.

There was a shower stall, but no shower head, simply a pipe that one turned on and off with a spigot. It did seem that the bedding had been washed but our trust was not high. Fortunately, close inspection of the mattress under the bedding and underneath did not reveal bedbugs. Still, for sleeping, we removed the pillowcases and used clean t-shirts instead.

And then, there was the problem of our timing. We were going to search for a rare nightjar that evening, returning quite late. In addition, I wanted to leave at 4AM to be in the Thrush-Tanager’s habitat by dawn. The guard/gate-operator told us the hours were 6AM to 9 PM. In between, everyone and everything was locked in.

As Mary and I discussed this with consternation, the guard overheard and told us he would be awake when we returned in the evening and that he would get up and open the gate in the AM if we called his phone. This was still another example of what our universal experience with Ticos (Costa Ricans) has been. This place probably had not had a tourist before. This man did not have ownership in what was not a lucrative business anyway, and yet, he offered to do us a favor.

Retaining our valuables with us in the car, we headed up the difficult road. This area is unique because of its extensive grasslands, the Alto Salitre Savannas, an endangered ecosystem of uncertain origin, found nowhere else in the country. Hence, there are birds found nowhere else. One of these was the White-tailed Nightjar. By mid-November 2021, it had been reported on fewer occasions than even the Thrush-Tanager. Of course, the lack of sightings for this bird is also based on the number of people willing to be up on that bumpy rural road after dark, more than an hour from the nearest village. The nightjar was alleged to hunt on a small soccer field located at the top of the range of hills that comprise the grasslands. It is a curious soccer field because it sits atop a rounded ridge and an errant kick could send the ball hundreds of meters down the hillside.

Once we had reached the area, we parked on the roadside and waited for darkness. After it was quite dark, we quickly found a couple of the nightjars flying and displaying on the soccer field. Their white tails flashing in the beam of my flashlight reminded me of tiny propellers.

We were elated. Finding the nightjar had been easy. Even with the long, bumpy ride, we were not going to exceed the 9PM gate closing by much, if at all. We had a tip for a place to eat pizza. Shockingly, the small restaurant was run by a New Yorker who had met the doctor who ran the local clinic when she did some training in New York. The pizza was great and the proprietor, thrilled to have visitors who spoke English, sat, and talked with us. He had an interesting tale, having uprooted himself from one of the largest most diverse cities in the world and relocating to what was a backwater, even by Costa Rican standards.

Fortunately, other than the unnerving aspects of the room, there were no incidents with creepy-crawlies that night—and with the fence and gate, we had no security worries. When we arose well before 5, the gate operator heard me loading the car and opened the gate before we could call him. With a feeling that we had escaped, we headed back up the road. Now all I had to do was find the Thrush-Tanager. Again, I was in the right places at the right time. If there was a bird listening to my recording, he never answered in a manner that I recognized. No luck—not even a hint.

Subsequently, I lamented my lack of success to another one of my bird-guiding friends. He said, “Oh where you are going is too difficult to get close enough. There is an easier place to see it right now. Several people have been finding it. I’ll give you the directions.” I should mention now that this bird can be a bit of a phantom, in that a productive location for a while can become useless ultimately. Anyway, I decided to try the new location on our next trip.

This location was in the village of Volcán, not that far from Buenos Aires but not requiring access on the difficult road. Neither Mary nor I wanted a reprise of our previous accommodations so, we stayed at the nearest birding lodge which was quite a distance requiring us to arise before 4 AM.

Regrettably, despite careful consultation with my friend and having his hand-drawn map, we could not find the location in the early morning darkness. We drove around too much and were frustrated when we finally arrived. No birds were calling and again, none responded to playback. The habitat patch was small and unsurprisingly, not long after, no one was seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager there anyway. At this point, I had already expended more effort for a single bird than I ever had. I was now 0-3 and understanding that the only way to see this bird was with a guide.

We had been staying frequently in the small town of San Vito. Although not THE hotspot for Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, I had noticed sporadic nearby reports. They were, however, universally by well-known professional birders at locations difficult to decipher.

I knew a local guide. The first time I asked him about finding the Thrush-Tanager he declined. I knew from the online database eBird that the bird had been found nearby and asked if he could direct me to the locations so I could try by myself, but he demurred. We did spend a morning looking for other species and did very well. When, we returned a year later, I contacted Pepe again and he excitedly told me he knew of a Rosy Thrush-Tanager location with easy access, but it was not nearby. We would have to be on the road at least by 4 AM. Well, why not? I thought.

A long drive on winding roads found us in the small community of El Valle, in the middle of pastures, and mixed cultivation. Pepe had told me that the locals were excited with the idea that a particular bird in their midst might bring ecotourists—birders like me. Pepe had called ahead and obtained permission for us to access the private property. The Thrush-Tanager habitat consisted of narrow ravines between fields. These ravines were much narrower than those near Buenos Aires. It did seem we might more easily access the birds. We could walk mostly in open fields and then enter two or three feet into the ravine and attempt to call the bird.

After a couple of futile tries, one of the birds answered. It was as shy as advertised but it was approaching as Pepe played the call. I detected movement deep in the brush. Was I finally going to see a Rosy Thrush-Tanager? At that very moment, the local alcalde (mayor) of the community arrived with his daughter and their dog to watch the ecotourist. Did I say this bird was shy and skulking? I again detected movement, but the bird was leaving. Then it was gone. No other Thrush-Tanagers responded that morning. Now I was 0-4 and more than ever resigned to never seeing a Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

That second outing with Pepe occurred in the year before the covid-19 pandemic so it was almost two years later when I was again in Costa Rica, this time accompanying a friend who was on a target-trip, that is, one aimed at finding only specific birds that she had not seen elsewhere. We shared a couple of targets, so I was delighted to go along when she invited me.

The Thrush-Tanager was not on the agenda, and besides, Barb related to me that the bird was easy to see in a certain metropolitan park in Panama City, Panama. I had heard this before. There are other examples of rare or difficult-to-see birds that come to a particular feeder or have an isolated population somewhere that has habituated to humans. Well, the bird being easy in Panama City was no help. Not only did I not have intentions of going to Panama, I wanted to see it in Costa Rica.

My wife and I had planned another stay in San Vito, and I knew Pepe and his family had sold their business and moved on. I asked the guide on the target trip, Fito, if he knew other guides in the San Vito area. He enthusiastically suggested Henri Sandi. I knew the name because I had noted some of his eBird reports—occasionally in conjunction with Pepe.

We corresponded by email and Henri said we could try in the San Vito area for the Rosy Thrush-Tanager. He did mention the original location near Buenos Aires as possibly being more of a sure-thing but that would have been a 2-hour drive in the early morning darkness. I was ready to try elsewhere. “All right,” said Henri, “I think I can show you the bird nearby.”

“The bird is easiest to see early,” Henri said, “pick me up at 5.” We had not met before, I learned subsequently that Henri, a few inches shorter than my 5’10,” was a wiry 28. He had not asked about my age, 72 at the time, or conditioning. Henri lived near where Mary and I were staying. I picked him up, we did a few turns down the main road and were soon on a gravel road close to a secondary paved road when he said, “park here.” This path had been cut across a steep slope. There was just room to get the car far enough off the road without having a wheel down in the ravine. Then with a “Don’t trip on that piece of barbed wire,” Henri charged up the slope.

Although the sky was becoming light, it was still dark once we were inside the small trees. The undergrowth was dense shrubbery and vines, and it was steep. I am proud of the conditioning that I maintain, but as I struggled to keep up with Henri, I decided he was a little reckless not to have appraised me of how we were to access the location. I would have told him not to worry, but that did not mean the approach was easy. Besides the steepness, this was the end of October—the rainy season. It had been raining and the slope was very slippery. It occurred to me that Pepe certainly knew of this place. I wondered if he decided discretion was in order — that it was not smart to take someone he did not know up there.

Up we went. We had to make a few zig zags and eventually crossed through a barbed wire fence a couple of times. Again, I am in good shape, but being close to out of breath and having to climb through barbed wire fences on steep, slippery slopes was a challenge. More than once, one of my feet slipped back down the slope and I had to crawl before I could get back up. Another time, I started to slide and performed a tropical “no-no” by grabbing blindly. The sapling that prevented me from falling was covered in thick rose bush-like thorns. I stabbed myself directly in the joint of one of my fingers. It was sore for days. Now bleeding, I still managed to mostly keep up with Henri. Finally, he stopped and said, “this is a good location.”

Unsurprisingly, we were on a small ridge. Deep down in front was the type of shrubbery and small trees we had just busted through on the other side of the ridge. The area below was by no means “open,” but there were “holes” in the vegetation that would allow us to see a bird from a reasonable distance.

A Rosy Thrush-Tanager answered Henri’s playback within minutes. Knowing how much more Henri’s ability to detect the bird exceeded mine, I stayed as close as the slippery ground and steep hillside allowed. “It’s coming,” he said. “There!” “Where?” I responded. He started to describe a location, then shook his head. “It kept going.” He played the call again. Once again, Henri spotted the bird, and I could not see it. “Through that hole in the vegetation,” he said. I missed it again and then the bird left for good. Henri explained that Rosy Thrush-Tanagers, if they are interested in a call, typically make one approach and then they are gone. It is useless to try again for the same bird at that time.

(You might be thinking Henri should have used a laser pointer to help me out, but the vegetation was too thick and the bird’s appearance too brief. It would have been useless.)

Henri thought there was another territory adjacent to this one. We climbed further up the slope and shortly thereafter a second bird responded. Unfortunately, the entire scenario repeated. Henri glimpsed the bird twice and all I saw, finally, was a black flash as the bird detected us. I have a way I classify bird sightings as “sufficient not satisfying,” but this was not sufficient. Even calling what I saw a “flash” overstates what I saw. There was movement and the color black associated with it. Without knowing, it might have been a dead leaf.

As we discussed what I was deeming my abject failure as a birder, it became clear that I had been looking too low. My readings and the photos I had seen of the bird indicated it would be on the ground. “No,” said Henri, “when it responds to a call in this type of vegetation, it often goes up in the trees or shrubs. You are right, otherwise, it is on the ground. But, where there are trees and it is approaching a call, it often hops up into them.”  As I asked him to show me where he had seen the bird, I understood that I had looked under it. With the thick vegetation and the bird’s fleeting appearance, not “getting right on it,” meant not seeing it at all. I was now 0-5.

Disconsolate, we headed back down the slippery slope. I had found something I needed badly, a piece of plastic pipe I could use for a staff. With a staff to support me, I gingerly and safely made it back to the car.

We were both disappointed and then Henri suggested we could try in the afternoon, that sometimes Thrush-Tanagers had an active period about 3PM. I agreed to pick him up about 2:30 and we would try again. Well, the deluge started about 11:30 and, if anything, was going stronger at 2:30. I called Henri and we decided to try again the next morning.

Once again, I picked up Henri at 5 and we climbed the steep slope, now more slippery after the heavy rain, but at least I had my staff. I still lost my footing a few times and had to do a few feet on all fours.

We stopped near where the Thrush-Tanager had responded the previous day. Once again, we had an answer. Once again, Henri spied the bird. “It’s right there in front of you,” he said. I could not find it. He began to explain where the bird was, but it moved. He found it again, “there, right in front,” he said. I still could not find it. “Look in that hole through the shrubbery,” he said. Nope, I could not see it before it moved again.

Henri played the call again, and this time the bird responded within three meters of us. We looked sadly at each other. Between us and the calling bird was as thick a mass of shrubbery and plants as was possible. We knew, as then happened, that after such a close approach, the bird would leave, which we proved by continuing to play the call and receiving silence as the response.

This time, I quizzed Henri very carefully on where he had seen the bird. Which actual limb was it on? I realized there had been a communication problem. Henri’s English is excellent, but it is not his native language, and I took him more literally than he meant. When Henri said, “right there in front of you,” I expected something like 4 or 5 meters and directly in front. He meant it was straight ahead at eye level, but both limbs on which he had seen the bird were at least 20 meters away. With vegetation as thick as it was, if I did not look in just the right “window,” I would miss the bird.

I felt sorry for Henri. He had worked hard to show me the bird. He now had four sightings and I had none. I apologized. Of course, I also felt sorry for me. All this effort over the years: bad accommodations, early mornings, three solo efforts, and three more with guides—all for nothing but a feeling that I was incompetent. I assumed that had been my last chance. It was already as late as when we had quit the day before.

Instead, Henri suggested moving further up the slope and then slightly over the ridge. “I thought I heard one singing down there,” he said. I had not heard it—not surprising with my old inferior ears. Still, it being late, I had lost confidence. We tried one location for a while. No answer. I knew Henri wanted to keep trying for my sake. I formed in my mind what I was going to say. “It’s not your fault, but there’s no point in putting in more time. It is ok with me if you think we should quit.” I almost said this a couple of times, but Henri was intent and then, remarkably, a bird answered.

I heard the Thrush-Tanager down in the ravine in front of us. This time I focused my attention on windows in the vegetation about 25-30 meters away and at about three meters off the ground. Suddenly, there it was–precisely where I was looking. I saw it when Henri did. Not only that, in contrast to Henri’s previous sightings, none of which lasted more than 4 or 5 seconds, this bird remained in sight for at least half a minute as it moved about in a small tree. I had wonderful views of the amazing pink color of its belly and throat, of the bright white superciliaries contrasting with the velvet black back. I was thrilled.

Male Rosy Thrush-Tanager (photo courtesy of Greg R. Homel, Natural Encounters Birding and Wildlife Photography Tours)

                  

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