For a North American birder, a month in Panama and Costa Rica is almost overwhelming. Exotic birds are ubiquitous, and although shades of brown and rufous are predominant (more on that later), hundreds of birds sport breathtaking color combinations. Both countries have documented more species than the U.S. and Canada combined, all the more remarkable considering their limited territory. Costa Rica is regularly compared in size to West Virginia, but if you’re a Mountaineer visiting this Central American country, you’ll feel like Dorothy in Oz.
It’s not that you won’t find a familiar bird, especially in winter when many North American species head south like snowbirds. In spite of many trips to Washington, D.C., we saw our first Baltimore Oriole in Costa Rica seven years ago, and again more of them on this 31-day trip that ended last Friday. We also recognized old friends like Yellow Warblers, and enjoyed birds not typically found in Arizona, like Bay-breasted Warblers. Still, it’s hard to concentrate on these discoveries when the same flowering poro tree holds four Montezuma Oropendulas, a Buff-throated Saltator, a Blue-crowned Motmot and five tanagers you’ve never heard of.
With this in mind, you might imagine my surprise one morning, having breakfast outside at Hacienda Baru on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, when what looked like a Cactus Wren, Arizona’s state bird, landed four feet away. The bird was quickly followed by an identical mate, both large, brash and chattering, just like my yard wrens. They showed the same eye stripe, crown, big bill, wing patterns and tail as Cactus Wrens, but a second look showed they had differences, too. For one, their breast was white, not spotted like the Cactus Wren, and their shoulders were feathered in a beautiful reddish brown. In addition, although they chattered like our Cactus Wrens, they also sang melodiously, something our quacking wrens never do. They were inquisitive, posed for pictures and raided the tables for scraps, behavior so much like our birds that my curiosity was sparked.
A quick look at the Costa Rican field guide confirmed a suspicion: The bird, a Rufous-naped Wren, belonged to the same genus as our Cactus Wren, Campylorhynchus. Little wonder I was fooled; they are cousins, and as the saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I’m not sure how many wrens are found in Costa Rica. Figuring this out is not as easy as you might think. There are 26 wrens listed in Stiles and Skutch’s definitive guide, but also there are variations we aren’t used to in the U.S. There are wrenthrushes, wood-wrens, antwrens, gnatwrens and probably a few more I missed. For a traveler missing his state bird, though, the Rufous-naped was my favorite.