No bird family captures the imagination like the toucans. Here's an introduction to Costa Rica's six members of the family and its two similar barbets.
By Jim Burns | Published: 10/10/2017
Spectacular colors, strange names, dramatic shapes! North American birders looking to expand their horizons invariably find a guide to Costa Rica’s birds in their hands. Field guides to the country’s birds are impossible to put down, the stuff of birders’ travel dreams, and the eye candy comes in three flavors.
The first consists of familiar families with unfamiliar forms and names — raptors called Tiny Hawk and Ornate Hawk-Eagle. The second includes familiar families with smashingly unimagined color combinations — tanagers with names like Golden-hooded and Spangle-cheeked. And then there are the totally unfamiliar and exotic families with extraordinary and unexpected profiles.
Nothing prepares the uninitiated for this third category. No family in the category captures the imagination like the Ramphastidae, the toucans. They have been called the quintessential Neotropical birds, most of them recognized at a glance by their oversize and colorful bills. Whether or not you grew up eating Kellogg’s Froot Loops, whose mascot, Toucan Sam, appeared on every box, members of the family will surely be the must-see species on your first trip to Costa Rica. The good news is that five of the six members of the family are considered common or fairly common.
Our first toucan
Although my wife and I are lifelong North American birders, our first trip to Costa Rica was labeled a “cultural and environmental experience.” Nothing about that label prepared us for what we saw and heard when Collared Aracaris stopped above us to break open and devour ripened fruit in a papaya grove in the turtle sanctuary that is Tortuguero National Park, on the northern Caribbean coast.
Let me set the scene: Collared Aracaris are the size of crows. Their head, throat, and back are black. Their underparts are bright yellow and marked with a wide black bar and a large black spot. A crimson collar circles the nape, and the rump, leggings, and bare skin around their 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 smattering of crimson highlights on the bill matched the dripping papaya rind perfectly.
Our first toucan! The sight was stunning, the sounds raucous. The experience delivered a palpable adrenaline rush. Even before breakfast, we were wide-awake, and the nonbirders in the group were gasping in awe. We knew right then that our next Costa Rica trip would be just for the birds.
The beak, the signature feature on most members of the toucan family, is lightweight for its size, composed of bone struts surrounded by keratin, and has evolved for a purpose. Aracaris are forest birds with small wings and short tails. Their down-curved and serrated beak allows them to pluck every berry within range while sitting in one spot, conserving energy. Though primarily frugivorous (fruit-eating), toucans opportunistically seek protein to feed their young. The size and shape of their marvelous beaks make it easy to reach into cavities and hanging baskets to plunder the eggs and nestlings of other birds.
We had a dramatic demonstration of just how adept toucans are with their bills on our first real bird tour in the country. Glassing an area where a Harpy Eagle had been seen, we heard a noise behind us and discovered a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan feeding in the dense foliage of a fruiting tree. This is the largest of Costa Rica’s toucans, the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, and it has the largest toucan bill, spectacular bright yellow over rich brown, as the common name suggests. Using just its tip, the bird was daintily plucking small red berries the size of cranberries.
The most spectacular of the toucans
We finally caught up with the most spectacular of the toucans north of Boca Tapado, in north-central Costa Rica, where feeders at the Laguna del Lagarto Lodge attract Keel-billed Toucans. Keel-billeds are intermediate in size between Chestnut-mandibled and the aracaris, but their bills are otherworldly. The bird is mostly black, but its face and chest are bright yellow, and its lime-green, keeled bill appears to have been filled in by preschoolers. The upper mandible has an orange stripe, the lower mandible goes soft 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 members of the family, Fiery-billed Aracari and Emerald Toucanet. Fiery-billed is similar to Collared but has a wider, crimson belly band, and its upper mandible glows fiery orange-red for most of its length. We saw our first Fiery-billeds on the Osa Peninsula, in southwestern Costa Rica, shortly after fording a rocky, raging river to reach the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge, just outside Corcovado National Park. The foraging aracaris added an exotic touch to the sense of splendid isolation travelers feel on the Osa, labeled 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 must-see target for birders new to the country. Since toucans are cavity-nesters, utilizing tree hollows and woodpecker excavations, we staked out a potential nest hole for several days to no avail before finally seeing one in the forests of Tapantí National Park, southeast of San José. The size of a large jay, fairly common, and very vocal, Emerald Toucanet nonetheless proved more elusive than the toucans and aracaris, because it is the only primarily green toucan in a country known for shade-dappled green mountain forests. Its bill is smaller and less spectacular than that of its larger relatives but still presents a dramatic color palette: yellow over black, with a red patch at the base of the upper mandible, all set off by a blue throat.
Costa Rica’s two barbets
Taxonomists included Costa Rica’s two barbet species, Prong-billed and Red-headed, in the toucan family until recently. They share some of the physical features of the closely related woodpeckers. Similar in size to our more common North American woodpeckers, the barbets have zygodactyl feet (two toes face forward, two face backward) for enhanced climbing ability, large heads on short necks, and large, stout, pointed bills surrounded by bristles. Though much smaller proportionally than the toucan bills, which are not at all evolved for excavating, the barbet bill is built big for digging out nests in trees, banks, and termite mounds.
Prong-billed Barbet, a member of the Semnornithidae, the toucan-barbets, is a rather plain bird with a burnt orange crown and cheek patch and a red eye. Its common name says it all, as the tip of its lower mandible is notched, or pronged, while the upper mandible has a hooked tip and a notch on the cutting edge. The adaptation helps the bird remove and then pry open the tropical fruit that is the mainstay of its diet.
Anything but plain describes the plumage of the male Red-headed Barbet, a member of the Capitonidae, or New World barbets. Its scarlet head and breast and large yellow bill always catch the eye, even in the dark interior of its cloud-forest habitat, which is where we saw our first one. It was feeding in a drenching rain. (Females have an olive crown, a grayish blue face, and a black forehead.)
Top of the want list
If you’re keeping score at home, you’ll realize we’ve seen only five members of the Ramphastidae family. On multiple trips, we’ve missed Harpy Eagle, which is rare in Costa Rica now and may require going to adjacent Panama, and we’ve seen only one of the eight antpittas and antthrushes formerly grouped together in Formicariidae, the ground antbirds. All are uncommon to rare, and each is an elusive skulker of the forest floor. As exciting and as certain as that makes future Costa Rica bird forays for us, it is the missing member of the toucan family that is now atop our want list — the uncommon to rare Yellow-eared Toucanet.
Let me set a future scene: Yellow-eared Toucanet is larger than Emerald, almost the size of the aracari. The male’s back is olive, and the crown, chest, and belly are black. It has a ruby rump patch and a splash of orange on the flanks. The typically oversize toucan beak is horn-yellow over brown, and yes, the male sports a large swath of yellow behind the eye. (Female Yellow-eareds have a chestnut crown and nape and lack the ear patch.) The male’s yellow feathers flare out from the fluorescent blue-green bare skin patch surrounding the red eye, and cover the entire side of his face. Smashing!
We’ll probably look first around the slopes of Arenal Volcano or on the steep muddy trails out 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 books illustrated with his photos: A Beginner’s Field Guide to Phoenix Birds (Maricopa Audubon Society, 2004), North American Owls: Journey Through a Shadowed World (Willow Creek Press, 2004), Jim Burns’ Arizona Birds (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’s where you can find more information about the three lodges mentioned in this article.
Laguna del Lagarto Lodge
Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge
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