A feast for the eyes: toucans and barbets are essential species in Costa Rica

Brown-mouthed ToucanChestnut-mouthed Toucan in Costa Rica. Photo by Ray Robles

Spectacular colors, strange names, dramatic shapes! North American birders looking to broaden their horizons invariably find a guide to the birds of Costa Rica in their hands. Field guides to the country’s birds are impossible to put down, the stuff of birdwatcher travel dreams, and the eye candy comes in three flavors.

toucansA version of this article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of BirdWatching. Subscribe

The first consists of familiar families with unfamiliar shapes and names – raptors called Tiny Hawk and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The second includes familiar families with incredibly unimaginable color combinations – tanagers with names like Golden-hooded and Spangle-cheeked. And then there are the totally unknown and exotic families with extraordinary and unexpected profiles.

Nothing prepares the uninitiated for this third category. No family in the category captures the imagination quite like the Ramphastidae, the toucans. They have been called the quintessential neotropical birds, most of them recognizable at a glance by their oversized, colorful beaks. Whether or not you grew up eating Kellogg’s Froot Loops, whose mascot, Toucan Sam, featured on every can, the family members are sure to be the must-see species on your first trip to Costa Rica. The good news is that five of the six family members are considered common or fairly common.

Our first toucan

Although my wife and I have been lifelong North American birdwatchers, our first trip to Costa Rica has been described as a “cultural and environmental experience.” Nothing on this label prepared us for what we saw and heard when collared aracari stopped above us to crack and devour ripe fruit in a grove of papayas in the turtle sanctuary that is Tortuguero National Park on the northern Caribbean coast.

Let me set the scene: collared aracari are the size of a crow. Their head, throat and back are black. Their underparts are bright yellow and marked with a broad black bar and a large black spot. A crimson collar surrounds the nape of the neck, and the rump, legs, and bare skin around the eyes are also red. The beak is huge, half the size of the bird’s body. The lower mandible is black, while the upper mandible is horn yellow, with a black tip and deep serrations with forward-pointing teeth. A handful of crimson highlights on the bill matched the dripping papaya peel perfectly.

Our first toucan! The sight was breathtaking, the sounds raucous. The experience delivered a palpable adrenaline rush. Even before breakfast we were wide awake and the non-birders in the group were amazed. We knew right away that our next trip to Costa Rica would be just for the birds.

The beak, characteristic of most members of the toucan family, is light for its size, made up of bony struts surrounded by keratin, and evolved for a purpose. Aracari are forest birds with small wings and short tails. Their curved, serrated beaks allow them to pick any berries within reach while sitting in one spot, saving energy. Although primarily frugivorous (fruit eaters), toucans opportunistically seek out protein to feed their young. The size and shape of their wonderful beaks make it easy to reach cavities and hanging baskets to loot other birds’ eggs and nestlings.

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We had a spectacular display of the toucans’ mastery of their beaks on our first real birding excursion in the country. Glazing an area where a Harpy Eagle had been seen, we heard a noise behind us and discovered a Brown-mouthed Toucan feeding on the dense foliage of a fruit tree. It is the largest of the Costa Rican toucans, about the size of a red-tailed hawk, and it has the largest toucan beak, spectacularly bright yellow on rich brown, as its common name suggests. Using just its tip, the bird delicately plucked small red berries the size of cranberries.

The most spectacular toucans

We finally caught up with the most spectacular of the toucans north of Boca Tapado in north-central Costa Rica, where the feeders at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge lure Keeled Toucans. Keelbills are intermediate in size between the chestnut mandible and the aracaris, but their beaks are otherworldly. The bird is mostly black, but its face and chest are bright yellow, and its lime-green keeled beak looks like it was filled in by preschoolers. The upper mandible has an orange stripe, the lower mandible turns light blue in the middle, and both end in a crimson tip. The white rump and crimson undertail-coverts add to the coloring book effect.

I have yet to mention our two favorite family members, Fire-billed Aracari And emerald toucanet. The Fiery-billed is similar to the Collared but has a broader, crimson ventral stripe, and its upper mandible glows a fiery orange-red for most of its length. We saw our first Fiery-billeds on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica shortly after crossing a rocky, raging river to reach the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge, just outside the Corcovado National Park. The foraging aracari have added an exotic twist to the sense of splendid isolation travelers feel on the Osa, labeled as one of the most “biologically intense” places on Earth.

Emerald Toucanet graces the cover of Richard Garrigues and Robert Dean’s popular field guide (second edition, Cornell University Press, 2014), so it often becomes the first go-to target for novice birders in the country. Since toucans nest in cavities, using tree hollows and woodpecker excavations, we staked out a potential nest for several days to no avail before seeing one in the forests of Tapantí National Park to the south. -east of San Jose. The size of a large jay, fairly common and very vocal, the emerald toucanet has nonetheless proven more elusive than toucans and aracaris, as it is the only predominantly green toucan in a country known for its mountain forests. shaded green. Its beak is smaller and less showy than that of its larger cousins ​​but still has a spectacular color scheme: yellow on black, with a red patch at the base of the upper mandible, all enhanced by a blue throat .

The two barbets of Costa Rica

Until recently, taxonomists included the two Costa Rican barbet species, prong-billed and red-headed, in the toucan family. They share some of the physical characteristics of closely related woodpeckers. Similar in size to our most common North American woodpeckers, barbets have zygodactyl feet (two toes forward, two back) for better climbing ability, large heads on short necks, and large pointed beaks surrounded by hairs. Although much smaller in proportion than the toucan’s beaks, which are not at all evolved for excavation, the barbet’s beak is built to dig nests in trees, banks and termite mounds.

Fork-billed barbet, a member of the Semnornithidae, the toucan-barbets, is a rather plain bird with a burnt orange cap and cheek patch and a red eye. Its common name says it all, as the tip of its lower mandible is notched, or serrated, while the upper mandible has a hooked tip and a notch on the cutting edge. Adaptation helps the bird remove and then open the tropical fruit that is the mainstay of its diet.

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Anything but simple describes the plumage of the male red-headed barbet, a member of the Capitonidae or New World barbets. Its scarlet head and chest and large yellow beak still catch the eye, even in the dark interior of its cloud forest habitat, where we saw our first. He was feeding in the pouring rain. (Females have an olive crown, grayish-blue face, and black forehead.)

Top of the wish list

Yellow-eared toucanet.  Photo by Christian SanchezYellow-eared toucanet. Photo by Christian Sanchez

If you count the dots at home, you’ll realize that we only saw five members of the Ramphastidae family. On several trips we missed Harpy Eagle, which is now rare in Costa Rica and may require traveling to adjacent Panama, and saw only one of the eight ants and anthills formerly grouped in the Formicariidae, the ground ants. All are rare to uncommon, and each is an elusive stealth from the forest floor. As exciting and certain as future Costa Rican bird forays make it for us, it’s the missing member of the toucan family that’s now at the top of our wish list – the unusual to the rare. yellow-eared toucanet.

Let me set a future scene: the yellow-eared toucanet is larger than the emerald, almost the size of the aracari. The back of the male is olive and the crown, chest and belly are black. It has a ruby ​​patch on the rump and a touch of orange on the flanks. The usually oversized toucan’s beak is horn yellow over brown, and yes, the male sports a wide stripe of yellow behind the eye. (The yellow-eared females have a brown crown and nape and lack an ear flap.) The male’s yellow feathers flare out from the patch of fluorescent blue-green bare skin surrounding the red eye and cover everything the side of his face. Overwhelming!

We’ll probably look first around the slopes of Arenal Volcano or the steep, muddy trails of Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua de Upala in northwestern Costa Rica. We hope to see you there.

Jim Burns is an outdoor writer and photographer and the author of four illustrated books of his photographs: A Beginner’s Field Guide to Phoenix Birds (Maricopa Audubon Society, 2004), North American Owls: Journey Through a Shadowed World (Willow Creek Press , 2004), Arizona Birds by Jim Burns (University of Arizona Press, 2008) and Owls Rock (e-book, 2012). In our October 2016 issue, he described a close encounter with an elegant trogon.

Three nature lodges

Here is where you can find more information about the three lodges mentioned in this article.

Lodge Laguna del Lagarto

Pital de San Carlos, Boca Tapada 995-1007, Costa Rica
Telephone: (+506) 2289 8163 (San José office)
[email protected]

Tiger River Forest Lodge

Outside of Dos Brazos de Rio Tigre, Dos Brazos, Puerto Jimenez, Golfito, 60702, Costa Rica
Phone: (+506) 8705 3729
[email protected]

Heliconias Lodge

Bijagua de Upala, Alajuela, 21304, Costa Rica
Phone: (+506) 2466 8483
[email protected]

See photos in our galleries of toucans and toucanets, aracaris and barbets

Bird Watching in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula