Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Ok I don't think I've overstayed my welcome on Costa Rica posts yet... When I visited CR in November, one of the first real "tropical" birds I saw occured the first evening at our hotel. The back lawn of the Hotel Bougainvillea was surrounded by beautiful gardens and large tropical trees. A peculiar bird popped onto the lawn and looked around. It's racket-shaped tail was cocked and it's stern red eye and brilliant, irridescent blue crown were immediately noticeable. "MOTMOT!" I cried out. Although I had never seen one in person, the bird was unmistakable. The only problem I had was that I couldn't remember which Motmot it was. Four species of Motmot occur in CR: Rufous, Blue-crowned, Turquoise-browed, and Broad-billed. Based on it's bright blue crown, it turned out that this was indeed the Blue-crowned Motmot.

Motmots are interesting birds. These relatives of the kingfishers are represented by 9 species which are restricted to the neotropics. The name "Motmot" probably comes from the call of the Blue-crowned which can sound like "whoot-whoot" or "motmot". They mainly live in low altitude forests where they dig burrows for nests. Motmots feed primarily on insects, spiders, and small reptiles and amphibians. They frequently sit quietly on a branch or fence, sometimes swinging their tails back and forth like the arm of a grandfather clock. When food comes by, they dart out quickly to snatch it and return to their perch. Their serrated bills allow them to grip the food securely.

Males and females are alike in plumage. During courtship, they call back and forth high up in the trees. They have been observed holding bits of leaves in their bills as part of their courtship. Both males and females dig the burrow nests which will host 2 to 4 eggs.

I found some interesting lore about how the Motmot got its racket-shaped tail and why it nests in burrows. A Mayan legend says that the Motmot considered himself above all other birds due to his beauty. A large storm was brewing and all of the birds were preparing for the storm by building dams and storing food. Meanwhile, the Motmot, who was too pretty and important to be bothered with work, hid in the bushes and slept. He didn't notice that his long tail stuck out onto a trail where the working birds kept stepping on it, causing barbs to fall out. The storm never came. Later, as all the birds gathered to preen and enjoy their fortune, they laughed at the Motmot's tail. The embarassed Motmot fled into the forest, dug a burrow, and became a recluse.

One of my favorite CR memories is waking up early one morning. It was still dark but the call of the Rufous Motmot could be heard loudly from my cabin. We went out searching for the bird, but never found it. I thought the sound of this bird was so mysterious and interesting and it's call became stuck in my head for many days. My friend Mike is planning a trip back to CR in January where I hope to encounter the rest of the Motmots that I haven't seen.

Thanks to Travellers' Wildlife Guides for some info and my buddy John Fox for photos.

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