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Expecting the unexpected is par for the binocular course when birding in tropical rainforest. The surprise effect can be a challenge for target-based birding but makes every trip into the forest like that box of chocolate quote from Forrest Gump. Basically, while you can have an idea of what you might see, you never really never know what you are going to get.

Quebrada Gonzalez is like that and is probably why it’s one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked past those old, mossy trees on the trail, I really never know what is going to happen. However, every time I step into that dense forest, I am fully aware of rare possibilities at every turn of the trail.

This Chuck-will's-Widow was a nice, recent surprise.

On saturday, I birded the area with friends Susan Blank and Dani Lopez-Velasco, and as expected, we heard more than we saw and had some quiet times in beautiful forest, but also had a couple of mixed flocks, and a few really good birds. We went there because it’s the most accessible site as a day trip for a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Sharpbill, Gray-headed Piprites, and other Megas in Costa Rica. Although I hardly ever see those at the site, the more you go, the better chance you have at finally connecting with them so there’s never anything wrong with a day of birding at Quebrada.

We heard Lattice-tailed Trogon although I did have fantastic views the previous week.

As we quietly walked through the rainforest, the calls of Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers were a near constant companion. Some other birds were with them now and then but nothing incredible. No matter, they were still fun to watch as was White-ruffed Manakin, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Rufous Mourner. One of our best of the day was Black-crowned Antpitta. Always a Mega, Quebrada Gonzalez is one of the very few easily accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica (and in the world for that subspecies- maybe a future split?). Unfortunately, it’s not as regular at Quebrada as it used to be but still haunts the forest, especially near streams and gullies.

This female White-ruffed Manakin stayed in place much longer than the antpitta.

Like the previous week, we heard the bird sing quietly now and then and after a prolonged wait, the male antpitta (gnatpitta) finally hopped out onto the trail for nearly a minute. It was long enough for great looks but still not long enough to get a picture of it in the dim understory. We also had a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles near there.

Despite plenty of staring and listening in the understory, and hearing Dull-mantled, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, we didn’t hit any ground-cuckoo lotteries but we still had a chance on the Ceiba trail. At first, it was dreadfully quiet but some birds eventually started to show on the Botarrama Trail while we searched for Lanceolated Monklet. These were birds like Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Stripe-breasted Wren.

This Dull-mantled Antbird showed well the previous week.

After giving up on the monklet, we made our back up the trail and ran into a good mixed flock. As tanagers slowly made they way across the trail and other birds showed, movement in a tree off to the right materialized into one of our best for the day; Yellow-eared Toucanet! A male was feeding in a fruiting tree and then called high above before retreating back into the forest. Pale-vented thrushes and Black-mandibled Toucans were also feeding at the tree but we couldn’t wait around long enough to see if a Lovely Cotinga would make an appearance.

Striped Woodhaunter posed for a few shots.

The male was a year bird for me and Susan and a major target for Dani because it was one of the only lifers that he could get in Costa Rica. Hopefully, he will pick up the ground-cuckoo for himself and his clients during his Birdquest tour (last year, they got an astounding 590 plus species!).

As always, I can’t wait to get back to Quebrada to hang out in the forest and see what happens. Maybe I will get a picture of a Sharpbill, have Black-eared Wood-Quail quietly creep through the forest, or find a Black and white Hawk-Eagle. All are possible, but you won’t see them if you don’t put in the time and effort.

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admin on March 12th, 2015

A lot of factors come into play for a Big Day and one of the biggest is precipitation. If it’s a little bit of rain, that’s probably alright and might work in your favor in keeping the birds calling all day long. The same goes for showers. What you don’t want is a fat morning thunderstorm or constant, cold front rain because that really knocks out too many bird species to bother with a Big Day attempt.

Last Sunday, we had our Big Day attempt…and a cold front moved in to shut us down before dawn (ouch). As the clock hit seven, we still maintained hope that the rain would break long enough for enough birds to sing, or that it would be raining less in another morning birding spot, but neither of those plans worked out. So, instead of sticking to the schedule, we realized that it would be more fun to just hit a few spots for the rest of the day and not race down to Chomes to snatch looks at shorebirds in the mosquito loving dusk.

Robert, Susan, and I still saw some nice birds including a few rare ones. The following are some of the highs and lows of scouting on Saturday and birding on Sunday:

  • Green-winged Teal: A male had been reported from a site near our route. Saturday scouting showed that it was definitely close enough to fit in and also gave us chances at Killdeer (uncommon), Blue-winged Teal, and another wetland bird or two. It was nice to see the teal because this is a very rare species for Costa Rica and was new for my country list. We made this our final stop on Sunday and saw the teal straight away along with the Blue-wings, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Mockingbird, and a few other species.

    Green-winged Teal!

  • Scouting around San Ramon: Brief but cool to find a couple of birding spots, one of which may have given us Rufous-breasted and Rufous and white Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and other dry forest species.
  • Least Bittern: Another new one for my country list! Although we didn’t see it, we heard one bird that called once at Medio Queso. That was in the middle of the night but despite good weather, not as many birds were calling as I had hoped. That said, we did pick up Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, and Boat-billed Heron.

    What Medio Queso looks like during the day.

  • Great Potoo: After looking and listening for a reliable one at the San Emiliano bridge near Cano Negro, we were just about to give up when I noticed the monster sitting on a low post under a street light. We couldn’t ask for better views and one of the highlights of the weekend! After that, as we tried for Ocellated Poorwill and Common Potoo, the rain turned on.

    Great Potoo

  • Cano Negro to Upala: This turned out to be a low during our supposed 24 hours of concentrated birding madness. It was raining in earnest, the rocky road loosened a bracket underneath the vehicle, there were no birds to be seen, and it was slow going in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty happy to see pavement even with all that falling water.

    We saw this sloth during scouting at Cano Negro. It's looking up because I called like a Harpy Eagle. I know not so nice but I wanted to see if it recognized the call by instinct- it did.

  • Eastern Whip-poor-Will: A nice surprise! This is a tough/rare bird in Costa Rica and another welcome first for my country list. We saw it between the turn off for Castillo and the entrance to the Observatory Lodge along with dozens of pauraques en route. When I saw it, I knew there was something different about it and sure enough, it wasn’t a pauraque. As we drove up, it seemed to have a shorter tail and lacked white in the wings. A look through rain and bins showed enough to make us realize what it was. It also makes me wonder how many Whip-poor-wills and Chucks are out there in the dark night and overlooked? They rarely vocalize in-country so you just wouldn’t know if they were around. Speaking of chucks, Juan Diego Vargas mentioned several on the peninsula road at Arenal. Speaking of Juan Diego, he gets a huge thanks for filling us in on lots of gen before the Big Day.
  • The Arenal feeders: It was raining and the dawn chorus was minimal but at least we saw some birds; nice ones like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, several hummingbirds, and Hepatic Tanager.
  • Yellow-breasted Chat!: Despite looking for and not seeing on Saturday, the chat that I had seen with the guys from 10,000 Birds in December, we managed to turn it up in a different, tiny corner of vegetation in the same area on Sunday! Yay, especially because this was a new country bird for Robert and Susan.
  • Some birds around Penas Blancas: We left Arenal in search of clear weather and did find some at the Penas Blancas river. Birds were active and we picked up a fair number of expected species including Long-tailed Tyrant. Not enough stuff to make up for the lost morning but it was worth a try.

    Southern Roung-winged Swallow was one of the common birds we saw.

  • LoveEats Cafe: Always a highlight and always good! We decided to stop there and enjoy capuccinos after accepting that the day was a literal wash. Unfortunately, weather there was way too windy and dry. We saw a Swallow-tailed Kite but little else. It was the same way too dry weather at the Manuel Brenes road. If these sites continue with such dry weather, I don’t see how there won’t be full ecosystem collapse in an area that typically hosts hundreds of bird species.
  • San Luis Canopy: The nice people at this excellent zip-lining site and restaurant let us check out their feeders and trail through cloud forest. It was a nice walk and we saw several expected middle elevation species despite the sunny weather. No Sunbittern on the river but it does occur. I hope to visit soon to survey the place with a resident birder/guide and will post about it.

    A bridge at the San Luis Canopy

  • Good company: As always, no matter where we go, birding with Robert and Susan’s is always a good day.

The obvious solution to being rained out on a Big Day is rescheduling but so far, we haven’t found a date to do it because we need free time and a late afternoon high tide to coincide. If that happens, we might still make it happen and I do think we would have a chance at a record. Of course, the weather would still have to cooperate too!

A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture flies low over the marsh at Medio Queso.

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admin on March 5th, 2015

It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:

  • The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
  • Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
  • Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.

Royal Flycatchers are still reliable.

  • Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
  • Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
  • There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.

This Mangrove Hummingbird is actually from Mata de Limon.

  • Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.

This quetzal is from the Poas area.

  • Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
  • Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!

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If you have birded the Carara area during the past seven years, are birding it some time soon, or would love to raise the bins in that birdy place at some treasured future time, then you have probably heard about Cerro Lodge. Read any recent birding trip reports from Costa Rica and there’s a fair chance that Cerro Lodge gets a mention. This is because it’s one of the only ecolodges within close striking distance of the national park, Black and white Owls sometimes hang out with you during dinner (not as regular as the past but they still show up from time to time), and the birding is pretty dang good.

You might see a Red-lored Parrot feeding next to the lodge.

One of the most special of bird species possible at Cerro Lodge is the Yellow-billed Cotinga. This peace dove looking bird from avian dreams is an endangered species (and may be close to being critically so), and only lives from the delta of the Tarcoles River south to around David, Panama. If that range wasn’t small enough, the bird also lives in a very specific and limited ecotone, that of mangroves and rainforest. Nope the picky species just can’t have one or the other. It needs both and they need to be close to each other.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincon de Osa, the most reliable spot in the world for this species.

At Cerro Lodge, you can actually see a male just about every morning as it displays on a distant bare tree in the mangroves. Although us birders are accustomed to focusing our eyes and bins on distant objects, in this case, the “distance” is kind of extreme. I’m not sure how far away that tree is, but the bird looks like an honest to goodness speck. If it weren’t snow gleaming white, we wouldn’t be able to see it all but luckilly (I guess), that bright light plumage lets us tick it off our lists albeit with a big fat BVD next to the sighting (no, not as in underwear; “better view desired”). It helps when the bird swoops from one branch to the next because then we know that we are looking at a bird and not some lost snowflake or trick of the eye.

The spot to look for the cotinga is just to the left of this image.

So, the big question is, “Where does that bird go?” It doesn’t stay in the mangroves all day and probably moves to and from the park. At least that’s the theory since it has to go find food somewhere. Although it probably passes right through Cerro Lodge at some time or another, it seems that at least one male shows up around 200 meters down the road from the Cerro Lodge entrance from time to time.

This one showed up down the road from the lodge last week.

This species is quite the expert at putting a branch in between you and the camera.

and off it goes...

The other main question is “How many live in the area?” Although the answer to that one is unknown, unfortunately, it’s probably “very few”. When Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre fame  carried out surveys for Yellow-billed Cotinga, they estimated that there might be a dozen or less in the Carara area and that the population was, likely, slowly declining. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that this doesn’t add up to a happy future for this species at Carara. Take into account the increasingly dry climate around Cerro Lodge and the national park, and the future for this species around Carara isn’t nearly as bright as the cotinga’s plumage.

Reforestation in the much needed corridor seems unlikely (not impossible but those cows do need their pasture after all…) but the species probably wouldn’t survive in a drier climate in any case. Nevertheless, since I don’t have the time to do it myself, I hope that others can somehow keep this species going in the area because when we stop seeing a male or two displaying from that distant tree, Yellow-billed Cotingas at Carara will always be lost in the haze.

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admin on February 16th, 2015

Birding in Costa Rica hasn’t been going on as long as watching for wood-warblers in Central Park,  counting hawks at Cape May, or taking pictures of birds at Ding darling Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, we do have our own little set of classic sites and Virgen del Socorro is one of them. It earns “classic” status mostly because the rocky road into the forested canyon has felt the hiking shoes of hundreds of birders since the 1980s. I daresay that people have also birded the spot in the pre-history of Costa Rican birding (this would be pre-1989, the publication date for The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch).

Birders have visited Virgen del Socorro for years because it has offered easy access to some fine middle elevation birding. Although the 2009 Cinchona earthquake put a hiatus on visits and diminished the habitat, it is currently accessible and can still be great for a nice mix of foothill and cloud forest species.

Nevertheless, there is “another” Virgen del Socorro that deserves our attention. This “other” is really just the part of the road that goes from the northern side of the settlement and loops over to the main road to Sarapiqui just north of San Miguel. Since classic Virgen del Socorro birding is typically limited to birding in the canyon, most birders haven’t made it to this other nearby site. In fact, I wasn’t aware of it until a few months ago although I have wished that I could fly over to those forest from San Miguel every time I see them from afar.

Last weekend, I was finally able to check out the site for a morning of birding with faithful birding friend Susan. Here is a brief report and synopsis:

After crossing the mountains at Varablanca, we drifted downslope to pass the waterfall and Cinchona Cafe, eventually reaching the foothills and San Miguel around 6:30 am. We hadn’t made any real stops except at a service station where a Mourning Warbler popped out of a nearby bush. White-winged Doves were also present and a reminder that they are almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The entrance to the lower Virgen del S. loop is just after San Miguel and can be recognized by the semi-creepy presence of a cemetery.

Fortunately and amazingly, there are also a couple of signs.

The road is paved and takes a few curves down through farmland with scattered trees, lots of Social Flycatchers, and other common, edge species before reaching the first river.

One of the rivers.

As is required of anyone with binoculars, we searched the river rocks and boulders for a lurking tiger-heron or Sunbittern but despite seemingly ideal habitat, came up with zilch. The same thing happened at the next one or two rivers, one of which was the Sarapiqui. Although we failed on those river birds, they should show up. The rivers were also good places for watching the forest in the riparian zone although we didn’t see much at the big river.

At the most forested river ( a smaller one, I think it is the Rio Volcan), we had some birds. Actually, we had a lot and thanks to a major fruiting fig, only needed to stand in place and swivel back and forth to see dozens of species. This was a major rather than minor fruiting fig because it was big, filled with fruits, and jumping with birds. Yes, it was a veritable avian disco fruit fest with several Black-mandibled Toucans doing their best John Travolta. Their dance consisted of reaching with the beak to pick off a fig and gliding between branches as thrushes, tanagers (mostly common ones), and flycatchers rustled the dark green foliage. After 30 minutes of action, the birds were upstaged (and scared off) by eight hungry Spider Monkeys! This was a treat because this primate has become decidedly uncommon in many parts of Costa Rica.

A Spider Monkey in action.

When this happened, many of the birds rushed over to decorate the branches of a nearby bare tree. Most were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers but we also had several Golden-hoodeds, honeycreepers, and our only Plain-colored Tanager of the day. We also had our first of three White Hawks during the morning.

As the monkeys settled down, some birds came back but it looked like most weren’t going to be foolish enough to hang out with a bunch of hairy primates so we moved on up the road. On the side of the bridge, the road switchbacks up through some alright forest and I surmise that this part of the road in particular has a lot of potential. Although we didn’t get any results when  playing the sound of the monklet at likely spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. Nor did we get any response from Black-crowned Antpitta but who knows? Maybe it could show up too if some ants came marching through. One indication of good habitat was a response from Ocellated Antbird, and we had a few other good birds further up the road.

A good spot just down the road from the fig tree.

Some of our best birding was on a straight road that dead ends at a small hydro project. Although there weren’t many places to pull off the road, it passes through nice forest, we had a lot of mixed flock activity, heard Black-headed Antthrushes kind of far off, and had killer looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

The straight hydro road. I would love to bird there a lot more.

The eagle was calling down in a nearby canyon and since it was giving an atypical call, to make sure that it was an Ornate, and not a Black and White, I imitated the call to bring it into view. The bird complied and showed that it was indeed a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Ornate Hawk Eagle indeed!

A closer look at this powerful raptor- they can catch a curassow.

After that high point, we followed the road to a point where there are steps that lead to a small overlook above the hydro project. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers reminded us that we were approaching the lowlands. We also had Fasciated Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and other lowland species on another side road that eventually led to unbirdy farmland. Continuing on up the main road to Virgen del Socorro (more signs!), we passed next to more forest and saw things like Crimson-collared Tanager, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Collared Aracari. This road eventually loses its pavement (and may require four wheel drive), then goes through flat, fairly deforested farmland before reaching the settlement of V. de Socorro but also passes by a small reservoir en route that had Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and one Ring-necked Duck.

We also saw a few Russet Antshrikes. These birds are really into dead leaves.

One can keep following this road on up to the good middle elevation forests around Albergue del Socorro, or can follow it to the right and down through the classic V del Socorro canyon. We did a but of both, highlights being one or two White Hawks, heard only Barred Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon, and saw other expected species including Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

The lower loop looks like a good one to take if birding Virgen del Socorro because it accesses forest at 500 meters elevation, goes through some nice habitat, and allows more views of rivers (not to mention our killer looks at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle). Check out this eBird list to see which birds we saw and heard.

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admin on February 12th, 2015

Last week, I started out a day of guiding at El Tapir. We arrived just after dawn, the sky was overcast, and the old butterfly garden was jumping with birds. A group of Black-faced Grosbeaks fed on fruits in a low tree, Silver-throated Tanagers were flying back and forth, and Black and Yellow Tanagers (our only looks for the day) came to the edge of the canopy. Several Black-mandibled Toucans moved through the trees along with flock after flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.

Down in the flowers, in contrast to a visit just a week before, we had several species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Plumeleteer. The Rufous-taileds were still there but may have come out later in the day, and although the coquette was elsewhere, we did get a few Snowcaps! I don’t know where they had gone on other days, but on Friday, they were back, hopefully for good.

This Green Thorntail was still around.

We ventured into the dark morning woods and heard a few birds but it was quieter than other days. Maybe they knew something we didn’t because not long after, it started to rain…and never stopped. We birded for a couple of hours from the shelter of the main building and did pick up a few other species during brief respites but the rain wasn’t going to stop. So, instead of hanging out in the same rain at Quebrada Gonzalez, we decided to head into the lowlands. My client still needed Keel-billed Toucan and maybe the weather would be better?

That turned out to be a lucky choice because, yes, we managed to escape the rain, got a couple of Keel-billeds at our first stop, and had serendipitous birding for the rest of the day. After seeing the toucans, we checked out the entrance road to La Selva around 10:30 am. It was extremely quiet but I had a hunch that would change. We eventually got some birds near the second entrance gate, the first being a Laughing Falcon perched over the road.

Not long after, we watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Long-tailed Tyrant and then bird activity exploded like a feather bomb. It wasn’t just the mixed flock I had hoped for but flyby parrots as well, the highlight being a pair of Great Green Macaws that perched in a nearby tree! We had been hearing the macaws as they slowly approached us and I hoped to see them fly past. Instead, they stopped and let us admire them as other species showed up in the surrounding trees.

I don't get to see these perched that often.

As with a typical mixed flock experience, almost everything shows at once. Luckily, the birds weren’t streaming through the canopy, so we got good looks at most of them. I forget which bird started off the madness but things went something like this:

“There’s the jacamar”.

“Oh, here’s a Bright-rumped Attila! Got it? Band-backed Wren? Got it?”

“What’s that on the wire?”

“Gartered Trogon!”

“Here’s a Fasciated Antshrike. White-collared Manakin. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Cocoa Woodcreeper calling. Yellow-billed Cacique in the open! Squirrel Cuckoo. Rufous-winged and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. Plain Xenops. Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Nice looks at Cinnamon Becard. Lesser Greenlet. Bay Wren in the open. Golden-winged Warbler. Never mind (the name we gave to Passerini’s Tanager). Buff-throated Saltator.”

We also managed to scope a few birds in the distance including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, before leaving for lunch. Regarding lunch, I thought that Rancho Magellanes would be a good choice. It’s a 10 minute drive from La Selva, not long after Selva Verde, and can turn up some good birds on the river. The forest canopy can also be scoped from the restaurant and they serve good food for good prices. Although we didn’t see any birds while eating, we were surprised by a Summer Tanager that flew down right next to us (one or two feet away). After it flew to a nearby perch, I put a french fry (chip) on the table and it immediately came down to snatch it.  That was a first for me.

That's a french fry.

After lunch, we heard but did not see an Olive-backed Euphonia. However, that miss was quickly made up for by a male Snowy Cotinga perched right where it should be- at the top of a huge bare tree!

Can you see the cotinga?

A good day so far and it wasn’t over yet. We went back to the entrance road and although the activity didn’t approximate that of the morning, we still saw quite a bit with several species coming to a fruiting fig (including euphonias we had missed), good looks at Gray-headed Kite and both tityras, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and heard all three tinamous. Yes, a good day indeed. I woud love to see how many species I could detect by birding along the entrance road and edge of La Selva at dawn.

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admin on February 5th, 2015

Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.

This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.

It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.

We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:

It even caught a bug!

The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!

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admin on January 29th, 2015

“La Selva” is the term that birders and biologists use for the O.T.S. La Selva Biological Station. Although there are lots of places to watch a lot of birds in Costa Rica, La Selva is one of the better known sites on the block. Biologists, birders, and people who happen to be particularly enthused about  neotropical biodiversity have been going to this haven for decades. The first visitors had to arrive by boat to a station surrounded by large areas of primary forest. Oooh, that sounds nice and what an amazing place it must have been!

Check out Slud’s notes on surveying birds at La Selva during the 50s to get an idea of what the avifauna was like when the surrounding area was mostly forested. I’m not sure if he mentions it, but others have told me that Great Jacamar was regular, Golden-crowned Spadebill and Black-faced Antthrush were very common, and even Harpy Eagle was present. Since those glory days for birds and healthy rainforest ecosystems, deforestation just outside of La Selva has taken its toll on the species that live within the boundaries of the station. Although the forests in the reserve are intact, larger areas of contiguous forest are probably needed to sustain healthy populations of various animals that live there. Throw other edge effects into the mix, including an overabundance of Collared Peccaries that have a detrimental impact on the forest understory (by devouring everything), and the place doesn’t exactly mirror Slud’s experiences (nor others who worked there during the 70s and 80s).

Can we please cull and eat some of these?

Most understory species have become very rare, and various other bird species have declined but there is hope. Yes, there is hope and you can see it when you bird the entrance road. Not too long ago, this part of La Selva was young second growth but bird it nowadays and you can see a lot of forest species. Those regenerating areas do indeed provide habitat for a lot  of birds and one sees a lot more forest species compared to 15 or even 10 years ago. It also shows that if we let enough forest come back in other areas next to La Selva, in time, it may once again support similar numbers of species and individuals. It will take a while, but the sooner we can get started, the better. Since that would also involve reforesting of private land used for farming Teak and other cash crops, the solution is far from straightforward but there are solutions, they are just harder to find.

Ok, so now for some birds. While guiding the other day, after a morning at El Tapir, I decided to check out the La Selva entrance road to see if we could find some of the lowland targets needed by my client. Despite it being the true blue middle of the day, it was pretty darn good!

We had nice looks at Squirrel Cuckoos.

This Stripe-breasted Wren was also hanging out in the thick stuff.

Always nice to see a jacamar.

We saw most of our birds just hanging out near the stream as bird species eventually vocalized and/or passed through their territories.

Including Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers that performed at eye level!

The male liked the camera too.

We also saw White-ringed Flycatchers way up in the canopy as usual.

To see a list of the birds that were identified, here is a link to the eBird list for that birdy pause during the day. I would love to survey that are at dawn to see what shows up!

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It’s the day after guiding at El Tapir and it’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was looking at White-ruffed Manakins and listening to the whistles of hidden wood-wrens. Such is the big old contrast between a computer desk and the humid, dim interior of rainforest. There weren’t any crazy highlights but we had some nice birds nonetheless. The antithesis of a highlight was the odd absence of the Snowcap. Odd, because I have never not seen that fantastic hummingbird at El Tapir. I hope they come back soon and have not returned to the dream dimension to which they obviously belong.

Yes, this bird is from a dream dimension.

No Snowcaps, but we did see some other nice birds, one of which is easy to hear but is a menace to try and see. That toughy was a Nightingale Wren and oh how nice it was to come in and hang out a few short meters from our feet.

What a Nightingale Wren usualy looks like.

Now you know why the Nightingale Wren prefers to stay out of sight- it looks kind of like a piece of dirt.

Another look at this ridiculously reclusive rainforest soprano.

If you hear someone whistling out of tune in foothill rainforest, you are listening to a Nightingale Wren and not a short, bearded fellow with a pointed red hat (although some claim to have seen those beings in the forest as well).

No elves but we did have a nice view from an overlook. It was not so easy to get to this spot.

Other “good” birds we saw inside the rainforest were Spotted Antbird, Pale-vented Thrush, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, and a bunch of White-ruffed Manakins.

Male White-ruffed Manakin.

The manakins were feeding on fruiting Melastomes. Several other birds paid visits to those important trees too but no hoped for cotingas or random Sharpbill.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we were treated to one of the other top candidates for bird of the day, a male Black-crested Coquette. We got to watch that fine little bird as much as we wanted along with a couple of Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet-headed Hummingbirds among the over-abundant Rufous-taileds.

We often saw it through the flower stems.

Then it would fly into view.

Or put its head into the flowers.

Scoped views on a perch were also nice!

I will be at El Tapir again within a week for another Snowcap vigil. I hope they come back from their vacation from parts unknown.

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admin on January 15th, 2015

For birders in North America, a quail-dove is far from familiar. Certain other dove species might be as normal in the yard as the family dog but not yee quail-doves. In the official ABA area, the main dove/quail that we hope to see is the one named after an island and seeing it is no easy task. The Ruddy is also possible but that would be an even bigger, rarer prize.

A Ruddy Quail-Dove from Luna Lodge, Costa Rica, a place where it is common.

Even if quail-doves did breed and thrive in Florida, they would still be a challenge because that’s the quail-dove M.O. no matter where you yield your bins. Unlike the happy go lucky Cooper’s Hawk prey item known as the Mourning Dove (now you know why they are always mourning…), or the bold and permanently unphased Rock Pigeon, the quail-doves are opposed to the limelight. Heck, given their skulking behavior, they are pretty much opposed to any light. Like miniature fangless vamps, the quail-doves stick to the shade like its going out of style and give new meaning to “agoraphobia”. To see them, one usually has to sneak through dense forest to glimpse one as it scurries off the trail in search of deeper, darker thickets. As one may surmise, they are typical pains but every once in a while, a quail-dove manages to ignore its birder frustrating genes and come out into the open.

A brave Buff-fronted Quail-Dove.

It’s a rare occurrence indeed but can happen, especially on rainy and/or very cloudy days (don’t forget that these terrestrial doves are related to vampires…). It also seems more likely to happen in places where they are used to people. One such locale is the Monteverde Reserve. Bird those trails and you have a pretty good chance of glimpsing a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. Or, you might even get lucky with the super friendly quail-dove that hangs around the parking lot!

The Monteverde parking lot Buff-fronted Quail-Dove (aka "Super Friendly")

It wasn't even shy about turning its back to us.

This Buff-fronted friend shows up now and then at the edge of the parking lot and maybe on a regular basis. It still likes things quiet and stays away from people but the open, friendly, and attention getting attitude (for a quail-dove) is downright astounding. To see this bird, just keep checking the edges of the parking lots at Monteverde, especially when few people are around. The one we watched would have stayed longer if a motorcycle hadn’t ridden up to within one meter of it (although I couldn’t blame it for scooting back into the forest at that point).

The Buff-fronted Quail-Dove motorcycle run.

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