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New Species Put the Buzz into Birding

by Richard Garrigues

If I recall correctly from a college course on fisheries management, the weight of a fish in a pond or lake is dependent on the amount of food available and the total number of fish in the local population.

If nutrients are present in more or less fixed quantity, then the fewer the fish, the larger we could expect the average individual to be. Of course in the end, genetics must determine size limits for each species (no matter how much food you sprinkle in their bowls, goldfish just don't grow to the size of groupers). Still, people continue to pull new record catches out of the world's seas, rivers, and lakes.

For some, I suppose, that's part of the thrill of fishing.

In bird watching, however, it's a bit different. If you somehow increase the food supply for a certain species in an area, all you're likely to get are more of that species, not bigger birds. What puts the excitement in birding for most people is finding new species (for them, not for science).

If you pay attention to birds (or butterflies, or beetles, or anything else for that matter), you will occasionally observe new species even in your own backyard. We've had a half dozen or so new sightings this year to add to our yard list, which has grown to 80 species in five years of living in San Antonio de Belén, not far from the airport. Most of the recent additions have been North American migrant species, as would be expected since these wide-ranging flyers can show up almost anywhere on their annual migration routes.

But in many ways the most interesting new species has been Dives dives, otherwise known as the Melodious Blackbird. This is because our neighborhood birds represent part of a recent range expansion. In the first edition of Birds of Costa Rica, by F. Gary Stiles and Alexander F. Skutch, published in 1989, the authors include a description of this species with the following mention, "Known in Costa Rica from a single bird photographed by S. G. Howell...in trees beside a pasture near Sarmiento...in extreme NW Provincia de Puntarenas." Since then, this species has been reported from different localities around the western half of the Central Valley and on the Pacific Coast just south of Carara. And it looks as though they're here to stay.

Ecosystems and their component plant and animal species are dynamic entities. Highly mobile species such as birds (and fish) ought to constantly be showing up in new places. Once in a while, these pioneering nomads will encounter suitable conditions for founding new populations, but most of the time they just appear and then disappear, either having moved on or perished.

This natural circumstance makes it impossible ever to have an exact and final figure to answer the question, "How many bird species are there in Costa Rica?" Or anywhere else.

The approximate number of 850 species that many of us have been using for years should now be amended to 860 (at least) since nearly a dozen new species have been recorded for Costa Rica subsequent to the publication of the "bird book".

Roughly half of these sightings easily fall into the category of North American wanderers, represented by species such as Arctic Tern, Greater Shearwater, and Lark Sparrow. The other half consist of South American species that may be working their way northward from neighboring Panama. Among these are the Pearl Kite, Brown-throated Parakeet, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet.

And then there are the mysteries.

Steatornis caripensis, the so-called Oilbird, is foremost among these. The bird itself is strange. Looking like a reddish-brown, white-spotted, giant version of a Whip-Poor-Will, the Oilbird is the only nocturnal fruit-eating bird in the world and the only New World species with the ability to use echolocation (as bats do) for navigating in the dark.

Colonies of Oilbirds breed in caves and deep ravines from Bolivia to Colombia and Venezuela, and even on the island of Trinidad, but none has ever been found in Central America.

There are, however, a handful of records of this species from Costa Rica and Panama. The same Steve Howell who photographed the Melodious Blackbirds was birding on Cerro de la Muerte in January, 1986, in the company of Peter Pyle and Simon Perkins, when they came across the remains of an Oilbird beneath some power lines. Recently, another dead specimen was found on a road in Monteverde. A third Costa Rican record comes from Rara Avis where an Oilbird was photographed roosting in a tree.

Is this species established in Costa Rica with a breeding population somewhere? Or have these simply been wandering individuals? Either way, the species is now definitely known to occur here, at least accidentally.

To help keep track of the new additions to the country's bird list, the Costa Rican Ornithological Association and the National Museum will soon be publishing a bulletin with an updated and revised list. (Note: Good news for local bird watchers whose command of English is minimal, the aforementioned bird book has been translated into Spanish and is now available at book shops around the metropolitan area! ¡Que disfruten!)

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