10 June 2014 and 24 June 2014
The Ocellated Crake is another one of what we have taken to calling unicorn birds … people say they exist but no one ever sees them. That could not be a more apt description of the Ocellated Crake; they are, quite literally, nearly impossible to see. Imagine trying to find a small (6”), secretive, miniature chicken like bird in towering thickets of grass. While other crake species can be frustrating to see they will often times step out into the open only if for a brief moment, crossing a bit of open ground or wandering onto a mud flat. This appears to not be the case with the Ocellated Crake, as they stay hidden in the clumps of grass and basically will not let themselves be seen by mere mortals.
In Costa Rica, Ocellated Crakes were recently documented for the first time since 1976 when one dead individual was found. In 2012, Carlos Ureña, Jose Acuña, Warner Venegas, and Noel Areñawent to great lengths to document the existence of the Ocellated Crake in Costa Rica. They spent hours and days trying to catch a glimpse of the bird and with shear persistence Noel Areña managed to photograph and take a video of an Ocellated Crake (Read the full story here). Quite an accomplishment!
When we arrived in Alto Salitre grasslands above Buenas Aires we tried playback at the first good looking spot and to our surprise we immediately got responses from all over the place out in the grass! They are here, they are here, Ocellated Crakes everywhere! We stepped off the side of the road into the grasslands, tried to pick a good spot with thick grass that we could still see into a little bit, and pressed play again and instantly were surrounded by the calls of Ocellated Crake. We spent a good bit of time trying to see them, with crakes on all sides and apparently moving around us in circles but, of course, never coming into view. We tried several different spots throughout the grasslands on two different days but never laid eyes on a crake. For me, I am just happy to know that they are there sulking around the grasslands, and we did not want to abuse playback or harass them overly.
We also were in the area to look for White-tailed Nightjar, another fairly widely distributed species that isn’t too easy to see, though certainly nothing near the difficulty of Ocellated Crake. Our first afternoon in the grasslands we had great weather while we were not seeing crakes, but just as dusk settled in it started to rain. We tried in vain to look for nightjars, turning up only a fairly wet and put-out looking Common Pauraque. Our second visit to the grasslands, we got rained out earlier in the afternoon but it cleared wonderfully an hour or two after dark so we headed back out. Once in the good grassland habitat (White-tailed Nightjar seems to be a savannah bird) we started spotlighting and driving slowly and soon turned up eyeshine. A quick glance through the bins showed a nightjar in the road that didn’t appear to be a Common Pauraque. We hopped out of the truck and soon had great looks at a White-tailed Nightjar calmly sitting in the middle of the road. Unfortunately by the time I got the camera ready it had decided that the lights were a bit annoying and moved on. We continued up the road, soon turning up a Common Potoo on a roadside fencepost. Shortly after this, the weather started to deteriorate. We kept at it a bit as the fog moved in and it started to drizzle but it was soon a lost cause and we retreated, again, having seen the bird very well but unfortunately having missed photos and having missed a real chance at the Rufous Nightjars that are also, at least seasonally, in the area.
In addition to our target birds, this is a great place to turn up a Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Pale-breasted Spinetail, Lesser Elaenia, and more (eBird list).