Tuesday 17 March 2015

Homeward Bound from Costa Rica

Sitting in a hotel room near San Jose, Costa Rica getting psyched up for re-entry into winter. For the last two weeks living and breathing in Costa Rica it was so warm that you could have walked around naked 24/7 and never felt a chill. The temperatures were measured by degrees of warm and hot and always humid. Rumours are strong that it is going to be very different upon arrival in Newfoundland. Reports of a recent blizzard and the pack ice reaching St. John's are mind boggling from this point of view.  

Thinking back on the recent warm and hospitable past there are countless bird highlights.  But one moment stands out above the rest. Birding without local help most of my time in Costa Rica including 2009 and 2014 I was short on the deep jungle birds. The birds that shun sunlight and are the colours of shadows in the jungle undergrowth.  The antbirds are the main group I was yearning to get acquainted with or at least glimpse.  The Ocellated Antbird above all was my most wanted bird. Without using play back luring or paying for help from a local guide who know the songs and can imitate them all your best hope is an ant swarm.  Finally the Antbird God took pity on me and let me have it. Actually it was on a tip from Kevin Easterly that people had been running into antswarms on the Sky Trek trail at Arenal.

The tip was not that fresh and I had no expectations of being lucky but the habitat along this trail was beautiful old growth jungle so there was nothing to loose.  I bagged my first view of a Purplish-backed Quail Dove and added an excellent looking White-throated Shrike-Tanager so it was already a successful hike. After the second hanging bridge (240 feet agl I should add!) I heard a commotion in the underbrush close to the trail. A Northern Barred Woodcreeper flew out landing on a trunk but the commotion continued.  There was movement under the greenry slightly up slope at about chest level.  I looked in with binoculars and was face to face with an OCELLATED ANTBIRD! What? this was way too easy. This isn't happening. But it was and it had a friend and another and another.  There were six birds in there bopping around on logs and twigs - every one a striking Ocellated Antbird. I didn't even know Ocellated Antbirds came by the flock.  I imagined them as rare occurring as a lucky single or maybe a duo. And they were so close.

This began a three hour stint of patrolling a ten metre section of trail trying to get better views of the Ocellated Antbirds.  It took awhile but other antbirds began appearing. What I think happened was the Ocellated Antbirds had discovered the overnight resting place of an army ant swarm. I couldn't see what they were doing behind this log they kept disappearing behind. I also at that time could not see any army ants. By the time the ants began swarming over the leaves the Ocellateds vanished into the background but the other birds came in.  Binos views were sensational but photo opts challenging. I had to use ISO 6400 with a 300 mm f4 lens.  Even then all shot between 1/30 and 1/100 second.
My first encounter with the highly desired Ocellated Antbird was looking up under the thick underbrush and seeing an unbelievable scene of six dancing around a log of interest.

The Ocellated Antbird looks even more odd and amazing in life than in the books. There were at least six, probably eight.

Two Bicoloured Antbirds joined the scene but always kept in the back ground.

There were at least three maybe five Spotted Antbirds. Male above and female below.

This male Zeledon's Antbird showed no fear sometimes coming within 2 metres.  My camera could not autofocus on the body but could the eye.  Manual focus would have come in very handy if only it worked on my battered old lens. There were at least two males and one female (deep mahogany brown) present. 

Surprise Surprise. The bonus bird was this Black-headed Antthrush.  It strutted around like a Sora picking at the ground and turning over leaves. The camera had no hope of AF on this smooth bird in the dark jungle until it walked out on the trail in full view! 

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