I was well into my forties before I got to see a wild toucan, but this first encounter wasn’t quite the thrilling ‘seek-pursue-and-find’ moment that quickens the heart of a birdwatcher.
It was May 2003 and we’d crossed the Atlantic from Johannesburg to Atlanta, Georgia – an unavoidable overnight stop in the USA on route to Costa Rica. I’d been enamored with this small Central American country – or at least its avian and other biological riches – ever since I had read the wonderful books of Alexander Skutch. From the 1960s, this great naturalist studied in detail the nesting and other habits of many species of Neotropical birds that were practically unknown, and described in great detail his natural history observations and life in this Spanish-speaking country.
Our first destination in Costa Rica was the La Selva Biological Station close to the Caribbean shore of what is a skinny country divided geographically by a central cordillera (mountain chain) that separates the Pacific from the Caribbean. La Selva is a protected area comprising about 1,600 hectares of steamy lowland rainforest and is owned and operated by the Organisation of Tropical Studies as a research site. Accommodation for tourists is limited, but of the kind that I relish. Simple little log cabins, with a communal dining room and bar where it was possible to meet and chat with researchers who were studying hummingbirds, sloths, poison-dart frogs and leaf-cutter ants.
It was just moments after our arrival, while carrying our bags from the car park to the cabin, that I saw not one, but two species of toucan! There, in the highest, dead branches of an unidentified tree bounded a pair of Chestnut-mandibled Toucans. The birds were about crow-sized, but with an enormous bill of about the same length. No sooner had I dropped the bags to untangle my binocular strap from around my neck, than an equally impressive toucan – the Keel-billed – appeared in an adjacent Cecropia tree. My camera was as yet unpacked, so there was no chance to try and photograph these marvelous birds, but I needn’t have worried. We had numerous subsequent encounters with both species (the latter really should be called Rainbow-billed Toucan), as well as the much smaller Collared Aracari.
With their oversized bills, toucans appear to be related to the hornbills of Asia and Africa but they are in fact closer to barbets in general anatomy. They feed primarily on berries and other fruit but are also opportunistic predators of large insects, lizards and bird nestlings. Although direct evidence of these birds raiding nests is limited, it is plain to see that it is far from being an uncommon habit, as they are frequently mobbed and chased away by oropendolas, tanagers and other smaller birds.
Largest of the 40 or so toucan species (taxonomists haven’t quite decided what is what) is the iconic Toco Toucan – beloved of cartoonists and brand managers in need of a striking emblem. It was a few years later – July 2006 – that I got to see and know this bird which has such a huge bill that it appears to defy the laws of gravity by not plummeting to the ground when airborne, or constantly tipping of its perch. As it happens, the luminescent tangerine bill is hollow and no heavier than if it were made out of stiff paper. Unlike most other toucans, which inhabit the fringes and canopy of rain forests, the Toco also occurs in open palm savanna of the Brazilian Pantanal. Here, in one of the world’s most incredible places to view wildlife, it must compete for attention with equally spectacular Hyacinth Macaws, Giant Anteaters and Jaguars.
One of my most memorable toucan encounters took place in the cool, damp and misty heights of the Andes in Peru. We were on the fabled Manu Road that connects the ancient city of Cuzco with the Amazon Basin – a perilous mountain track with hairpin bends and switchbacks suitable for an Indiana Jones movie scene. Some way before a spot known as Pillahuata, we’d pulled over at a roadside clearing to see what birds were present in the epiphyte-laden elfin forest that blanketted the slopes at an elevation of about 3,000 metres above sea-level (the highest point on the Manu Road pass over the Andes is 3,720 metres and a personal high point for me on Planet Earth). I was, at any rate, trying to work out whether the tiny, long-tailed birds foraging among the moss, orchids and lichen were thistletails or spinetails, when a Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan suddenly arrived on the scene. It was immediately joined by a companion, then both uttered a shrill protest call before disappearing back into the mist from which they had come.