Remembering Costa Rica Part 6

Wildlife photography can be very difficult at times - you have to put a lot of effort into finding the animal, setting up a shot, getting to the remote location and yada-yada-yada. Other times you don't have to work up a sweat at all. Sometimes you find wildlife in your own backyard or, as was in this case, at the side of the road.

The first place we were supposed to visit was a large parking lot with a bunch of Magpie jays. We had to get there by car, driving through the mountainous landscape on winding roads... And that screwed it up for me. In the beginning of the trip I warned my colleagues that I get really carsick if I ride in the back. This started a few years back and was a really baffling and disappointing turn of events for me - someone who literally grew up in the backseat of her father's car. But here I am now, tossing cookies after 15 minutes of riding in the back seat. Anyhow, my fellow photographers must have thought I was lying or exaggerating, but someone else called shotgun. I decided not to press the issue since it was a 20-minute drive. I figured I'd survive it and didn't think it was worth antagonizing my fellow photographers over. And just like clockwork 15 minutes into the drive I turned green. In the next 5 minutes I was a clammy quivering mess. Thank goodness it was a short drive. As soon as we stopped I was on the grass dry heaving and spitting like a friggin' camel as my body attempted to purge my empty stomach (I don't usually eat breakfast, even on expeditions). It was a painful and miserable experience that left me with shaking hands - a terrible thing for a photographer.

When we got to the parking lot it was obvious that I could hardly hold my camera. Also, my head was spinning and my eyes were still watering, so I couldn't focus my own eyes on the birds, let alone make quality images with the necessary precision. This left me with fewer shots than I wanted or anticipated, but at least from now on noone questioned my goddamn word. This, to me is sad, because I do not consider myself to be an entitled person and I try to ask others for anything as little as possible. Just not my style. But when I do ask, it comes from necessity. I don't BS people and to have had to prove it by actually enduring severe motion sickness made me miserable. When I looked through the images I made of the gorgeous magpie jays it turned out that way too many had been affected by the tremor in my hands. Now I don't shy away from being more persistent on the matter on expeditions, I cannot afford to make this mistake again. I did screw up that time though, I have to admit!



Which is a shame not just because this could have been avoided, but because these jays are some of the most elegant and beautiful corvids I've ever seen. Now, the corvids are among my favorite birds and I will even reluctantly admit that the city-dwelling winged pests have some awesome qualities. But this family includes some real lookers! The magpie jay, in this case the White-troated magpie jay, is a surprisingly large bird, reaching almost 60 cm in length with its long tail. The overall look is very stylish. The light blue and white colors, the cute crest of a few long feathers on its head look incredibly handsome. In its appearance this is a magnified and fancier version of the North-American Blue jay.



Interestingly enough, the blue in bird feathers mostly doesn't come from pigments, it's what is known as a structural color. Microscopic  air pockets in the barbs of the feathers scatter incoming light which is then refracted by an organized structure of keratin proteins in the feather. In the case of blue feathers all other colors are absorbed and blue is refracted. You can actually see the true color of the feather if you compromise its structural integrity by applying something like epoxy resin. I discovered this while using such feathers in DIY craft projects which left me with a bunch of black, grey or brown feathers instead of the pretty blue ones I wanted to preserve. Keep that in mind if you do arts and crafts - you need pigments if you want to use lacquer or epoxy on blue feathers, but since that color doesn't usually occur by natural pigment (not just in feathers, but also butterfly wings and some other things), it will have to be artificial.

Another roadside treasure was supposed to be a striking Emerald toucanet. Somewhere on one of the small roads between the scattered villages was a run-down shack of an eatery with a bird feeder that attracted this wonderful creature. All we had to do is determine which one of these dilapidated structures was the one. We even tried asking the locals since this particular place was supposedly well-known for its feathered main attraction. None of us knew Spanish and none of the locals knew English, but by some miracle my brain managed to string the very few  Spanish words I remembered into a broken but somewhat intelligible "¿Dónde está el Restaurante de pajarito verde?" (and yes, I do know enough to pronounce "pajarito" with an "h". That is almost all of the extent of my knowledge of Spanish).

But as often the case the locals knew jack-squat about their neighboring wildlife or surrounding area. Strange but true, people are surprisingly oblivious to the presence of animals living close to them and villagers in many parts of the world do not travel further than a few kilometers from their home. We had to resort to just scouring the roads in hope of finding the spot we need. We did find it not far from a place where we unsuccessfully asked for directions and whatta you know, it had a big sign with a green bird.

The diner - and I use that term generously - was squatting between the mountain road and a steep drop-off. It was noisy and full of people none of whom seemed to be acknowledging the one redeeming thing about this dump - the birds. We had to buy a portion of food each to justify our extended stay at the bird feeder. That in itself is understandable, but I was not a fan of the dish I was served. I'm not a picky eater at all, but I do have a thing about street food, especially in hot tropical countries. In fact, I am paranoid about it. But all I had to do was pay for the food (served on a suspicious looking plate), no one said I had to eat it. After paying my dues to the establishment, I directed my attention to the actual purpose of our visit.

There was a small terrace with a rail suspended above the edge of the gorge. Just beyond it was a simple make-shift feeder - a long pole with half a papaya impaled on it.


Words cannot convey what a powerful effect this bright green gem of a bird has when it first appears before your eyes. Like all toucans it has presence and a very characteristic way of moving - toucans boom onto the scene with almost a superhero landing. One second the branch is empty, the next - a large bird powerfully drops onto it with. Even though toucanets are smaller, they still have the same effect. Toucans glide through the air smoothly and quietly, but you can really hear their landings - the sound of the impact of their feet on the wood, the feathers rustling. In the quiet collected anticipation of a photographer lying in wait this sound jolts you out of that transic state. You look at the bird and it takes your breath away -  it is drop dead gorgeous.



There are several subspecies of emerald toucanets and the one I encountered is, in my opinion, the prettiest one of them - the Blue-throated toucanet. All the benefits of the striking plumage with an extra bonus of equally rich blue splash on its throat. However, it is not uniformly recognized as a separate subspecies and in some sources it is still called an Emerald toucanet. The systematics of Emerald toucanets are a little messy. There's little I can say about these birds, they mostly conform to the toucan family ways. So let's just admire the eye-candy.



The feeder attracted a couple of smaller birds. One was a Silver-throated tanager. In body shape and size it resembles the humble sparrow, but the colors are vivid and juicy. It's like a little feathery lemon is skipping through branches. A very lively little bird, this particular tanger has an odd characteristic. It doesn't sing. It has a sharp buzzing call, like some shady dude calling out "Psst!" to try and sell you a fake Rolex, or like an ill-mannered troglodyte drawing air through his teeth to get a bit of food stuck between them. That chirp cannot be qualified as a song. Good thing the bird is pretty.



Another mountain species present at the feeder that day was a Prong-billed barbet. New World barbets and Old World barbets belong to the same order of Piciformes (which also includes woodpeckers and toucans) and used to be classified as one family - Capitonidae. Then Asian barbets were found to be distinctive and formed their own family while African and American barbets formed their own families. Despite this they are all related to toucans and woodpeckers, but the American barbets are closer to toucans than others.

One thing all barbets have in common - and it actually gave them their name - is a row of bristles at the base of their beaks called rictal bristles. The bristles give these plump birds a very distinct and curious look, but their purpose isn't entirely clear. It is generally thought that the whiskers protect the birds from the insects they feed on and other debris, much like eyelashes protect our eyes. But there are plenty of insectivorous birds that don't have this adaptation and barbets themselves do not stick to insect-only diet. The Prong-billed barbet eats plenty of fruit, you don't need bridtles for that. They do not appear to have a sensory function like the whiskers of a cat, experiments have shown that removing these bristles does not affect the birds' ability to hunt.

Also, note the small tooth-like barbs on the barbet's beak. This is what gave this species its name and what an interesting feature it is! Much like the aracari this barbet has a pair of serrations on the beak. Whether they are for show or for other purposes I honestly do not know, but they do give an already unique-looking bird an extra edge. Over the course of their evolution from dinosaurs the birds lost their true teeth which added unnecessary weight to an airborne animal. This doesn't mean that they didn't develop their own version of teeth, after all, teeth are useful! It's an interesting subject, but I won't go into it now. Let's just say any tooth-like structures of the beak give a bird a somewhat prehistoric look and that has an extra appeal for me.


This particular bird drew my attention for another reason. I didn't even realize it was a barbet until later on, because - not being too familiar with barbets in general and based on my trip to India - I was expecting bright colors and more noticeable whiskers. It honestly looked more like a grossbeak from afar, but that was nonsense and at that moment I decided to shoot first and ask questions later. I am notorious for my superficial attraction to bright colored birds and almost complete dismissal of what I call "little brown birds". I'm not even ashamed of it. I don't care if indiscriminately throwing all small modestly-colored birds into one pile makes me a bad birdwatcher, I want something eye-catching in my avian models! And the way this barbet was sitting actually did catch my eye, because I have never seen a bird sit up like a ground squirrel. It looked very peculiar and comical at the same time. After missing out on its Asian kin I finally got me a barbet.


I was not fortunate enough to observe mountain humming birds this time, but my night photo shoot with other species of humming birds and bats made up for that. I will share that experience in my next - and final - Costa Rica post.