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admin on December 18th, 2014

The Catarata del Toro is a massive, scenic waterfall at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. if you are wondering where that is, think central Costa Rica, the mountains between Poas and La Fortuna. If it helps, it’s also near Bosque de Paz. If you aren’t headed to Bosque de Paz, it’s a bit of a detour off the route between Arenal and Sarapiqui but here are some reasons why the detour is worth it:

  • A couple of loop trails through good cloud forest: Although I have only birded on them twice, I think there is a lot of birding potential. The elevation is around 1,200 meters, the forest has a lot of big trees (indicators of quality habitat), and the forest is connected to the national park. On my limited time on those trails, I have had Highland Tinamou, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Pale-vented Thrush, and various common middle elevation species. I bet a lot more could occur.
  • Hummingbird feeders:  This is the main reason for paying a visit. Sometimes, they can be slow but during rainy weather and, when hummingbirds are hungry, the Colibridae action is out of sight.

Some of that sweet hummingbird action.

The feeders are also scenic.

Lots of fantastic Violet Sabrewings to look at.

  • Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:

Juvenile Green-crowned Brilliant.

Adult Green-crowned Brilliant.

Adult male Green-crowned Brilliant with photo-bombing White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

White-bellied Mounatin-Gem

Green Hermit

  • Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.

Black-bellied Hummingbird

Black-bellied Hummingbird showing its flat crown.

  • Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).

    Coppery-headed Emerald shaking off the rain.

    Coppery-headed Emerald showing its colors.

  • Black-breasted Wood-Quail: They used to come into the garden but one of the owners told me that she thought their recent absence might be related to Coatis showing up now and then. She is probably right but the wood-quail should still be in the forest. I wonder if Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas are also around.

Not to mention, the owners also provide good service, can provide meals, and also offer 3 simple rooms. Sounds like a good place for a lone birder or small group to stay and check out. If you do, please send me a report to publish on the blog.

There's also that waterfall to look at. Probably harbors some good swifts.

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Birding Field Guides Releases New Version of Birdwatching App for Costa Rica

For Immediate Release: December 15, 2014

The first birding app for Costa Rica is a digital field guide that includes photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 700 species of birds.

San Jose, Costa Rica – A new version of the Birding Field Guides app for Costa Rica became available in the iTunes Store on December 12, 2014. This is the only digital field guide app in the iTunes Store that is completely focused on the bird species of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has been a pioneer for ecotourism since the early 1990s and continues to be a major destination for birders and people in search of outdoor adventure. As birding has increased in popularity as a hobby, many have paid a visit to Costa Rica in search of the near-mythical Resplendent Quetzal, dozens of glittering hummingbirds, exotic toucans, macaws, parrots, and literally hundreds of other bird species. This small Central American country appeals to birdwatchers and other tourists on account of its stable, democratic government, stunning scenery, and protected areas that host a wide array of wildlife.

This recent version of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app has been updated with new images, information, and range maps for more than 700 species, and vocalizations for more than 500 species. Along with a suite of new species, sounds, and improved images, version 3.0 also has a search by name function along with other easy to use search functions.

Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, expects that the new images, species accounts, vocalizations, and search functions will make it easier to study before the trip, and identify birds while watching them in the rainforests of Costa Rica.

He said, “I’m excited about this new version because we have improved the search functions, images, vocalizations, and now have more than 700 species on the app.  We listened to what our customers had to say and made changes to improve their experience. I am looking forward to hearing how this new version enhances time in Costa Rica for beginning birders, experts, and birding guides.”

This app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch, iPad, and iPhone devices, and will be updated for 2.3.3 and higher Android devices in early 2015.

About Birding Field Guides

Birding Field Guides was started in 2012 and develops birding and nature-related apps and products for digital devices. For more information, please visit http://birdingfieldguides.com.

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admin on December 11th, 2014

The first thing that comes to mind when I reminisce about the recent Arenal Christmas Count is rain. At this time of the year, cold fronts often come on down to Costa Rica. Unlike other visitors from the north, cold fronts aren’t so welcome because they bring constant rain. While the forests on the Caribbean slope do need tons of falling water (they really do), if you don’t happen to be an amphibian, constant rain is kind of annoying. It’s pretty self explanatory but to give an idea of what it’s like, imagine light rain followed by heavier rain followed by light rain and repeat that process for several days and nights.

Getting ready for the count!

Note the umbrella on the ground- a break in the weather.

Such very wet weather is par for the course in the Arenal area in December so we couldn’t have expected less. However, despite the precipitation, we still managed quite a few bird species on our Finca Luna Nueva route, mostly during times of light rain and breaks in the weather. Such breaks lifted our hearts and gave birth to sighs of relief until the pressure dropped and the rain fell again (along with our drowned, soggy hopes). Ok, enough complaints, now for some highlights!:

  • Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds, Tomohide Cho, Ismael Torres, and Johan Weintz: Mike Bergin and Corey Finger a la 10,000 Birds were visiting Costa Rica and we did the Arenal count together. Lots of fun before, during, and after the count with these guys in our search for lifers and shelter from the rain. Tomohide takes lots of great pictures of birds, Ismael is the resident guide at Luna Nueva and Johan is a guide.birder from Cartago. This was our team and I am grateful for spending the day with them.

    Mike and Corey wading through yet another stream.

  • Cinnamon Woodpecker: First, we had one so close that it seemed like it wanted to help out with the count. Three or so more during the day showed that Luna Nueva is a good spot for this beautiful species.

    I want to count birds!

  • Great Curassow: Regular around Arenal and at Luna Nueva but always a highlight. Although we didn’t get the barred morph and honorary count bird at Luna Nueva, we did see one of those semi-psychadelic creatures at Arenal Observatory Lodge on the following day.

    This was the count mascot.

    This was the one we saw.

  • White-fronted Nunbird: Mike Bergin gets the prize for spotting this target! The quality forests around Arenal are good for this formerly common species but it’s still easy to miss.
  • Hooded Warbler: Uncommon in Costa Rica and a year bird so it was a highlight for me. We did not re-find the much rarer Nashville that Mike, Corey, and Ismael had seen the day before the count!
  • Keel-billed Motmot: We got one from the tower just before lunch! Great looks but too far for a good shot with my camera.

    View from the canopy tower.

  • Magnificent Frigatebird: Weird stuff goes on during cold fronts and this was one of them. Nope, not even near the coast and no other team happened to see this juvenile fly past during the count!
  • Song Wren: Another good one, we got looks up on the trails at the Texas A and M Soltis Center. We did super good for wrens before and after the count too, with 10 species seen and Plain Wren the only heard only (yes, great looks at the almost invisible Nightingale Wren at Arenal Observatory Lodge).

Big misses included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, owls, and other birds that probably didn’t call because they were sick of the rain. I forget how many species we got but I think it was around 130 and that’s not bad, not bad at all for a day of birding!

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admin on November 27th, 2014

Whether putting the focus on birds or just checking out nature’s details in the backyard, there’s always something to see. Keep that open mind and you still go birding during the post-breeding doldrums or when the rain pours down. But let’s face it, it’s always going to be easier to get more excited about birding in places that always offer a chance at something new, rare, or mysterious. That’s pretty much the score for tropical rainforests. The natural complications of those ecosystems make them unpredictable and always capable of delivering a rare experience. Frustrating? Maybe, but frustration can be easily pushed aside by the excitement of the unknown.

This was why I was excited to do a day of guiding/birding at Virgen del Socorro last week. Although I have been there dozens of times over the years, I still never know what I am going to run into, and I know that there is always that chance of seeing a Lovely Cotinga, finding a fruiting tree with Red-fronted Parrotlets, or even espying a Solitary Eagle. Any of that trio is unexpected and would indeed make for a rare, red letter day but it’s always possible! Our group wasn’t so lucky on our recent trip but still managed some quality birds.

The unlucky factor was the ironic sunny day. Ironic, because it’s beautiful weather yet dismal bird activity. A good day for scenery but not many birds. I always wonder where they are because the difference between avian activity on a cloudy day and during tropical, sunny weather is uncanny. So, we had a hot, sunny, fairly birdless day in the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we still got onto some nice birds.

A first stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up an American Dipper.

We didn’t spend much time at Cinchona because we were going to stop there in the later afternoon anyways but still got in your face looks at a Green Thorntail.

Down in Virgen del Socorro, our first stop turned up Collared Trogon and a fruiting tree with Black-mandibled Toucans and Emerald Toucanet. The realization that it was a Lauraceae raised hopes for a cotinga or other uncommon frugivore but despite a lot of careful checking, the tree was cotingaless. I would have loved to have left a camera there to record the birds that came and went for the rest of the day because it was ideal for a Lovely Cotinga.

In that same area, we also saw a few tanagers and got excellent looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher.

After that, the sun took over and birds quieted down. Black Phoebe was the only bird at the bridge but at least the sunny weather brought out the raptors including hoped for White and Barred Hawks, Short-tailed Hawk, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.

The corner by the bridge is a good area for Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Saturday was no exception. We got really good looks at that tiny thing while Crimson-collared Tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpeckers, and Sooty-faced Finch called from the understory.

The mixed flock failed to appear over in the better forest on the other side of the river but we got nice looks at flocks of Vaux’s Swifts and listened to Striped-breasted, Bay, and Nightingale Wrens. Further on, we went up and out of the canyon and head to the good forest just past Albergue del Socorro. Although it was naturally quiet at 2 p.m., fruiting Melastomes produced Black and Yellow Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, and Hepatic Tanager.

To leave the area, we took the road to San Miguel instead of backtracking through Virgen del Socorro. This gave us Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck at a small reservoir, and a glimpse at a very promising birding area with an overlook of extensive forest, and access to foothill forest. I’m looking forward to checking that site on some fine morning to survey it!

We finished the day at Cinchona accompanied by Emerald Toucanets, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, and a few other birds.

If you want to look for Lanceolated Monklet, tanagers, and other middle elevation species at Virgen del Socorro and are coming from the Sarapiqui area, take the road to San Miguel and go left at the police checkpoint. After crossing the first big bridge, take the first road on the left and down into the canyon. If coming from Cinchona, head downhill and watch for the short sticks with red and yellow markings on the right that mark the entrance to the road into the canyon. This is just before the road makes a sharp left to head down to a big bridge

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admin on November 20th, 2014

“This is your mission. If you choose to accept it, we will deny any and all knowledge of its existence”. Yeah, or something along those lines. Since Robert, Susan, and I were successful with our ground-dove mission last month, we figured that we could be just as successful with a mission for an avocet. If the mission failed, we knew that we would still have fun anyways so off we went in search of senor skinny sandpiper!

No, the American Avocet is not endangered and doesn’t even come close to the mystery of the M.C. Ground-Dove BUT, in Costa Rica, it’s certainly chase-worthy. A chase-worthy bird is, of course, a species for which the frequency of occurrence is so darn low that you jump up and chase it when you get the news. The avocet shows up just about every year in Costa Rica but may or may not stay for long. What can I say, it’s a fickle bird! Must be that weird up-turned bill. I mean how do you eat with that? In any case, if you want to check it off the good old Costa Rican list, you have to head down to some salt pond and hope that it hasn’t flown ASAP after the news.

Salt ponds.

The way things worked out, we had a chance at chasing the avocet or a possible Yellow-winged Blackbird with a Savannah Hawk thrown in for good measure. Since that second option involved a longer drive, we opted for the first, our sub-mission being that of the Spotted Rail.

Off we went at dawn on Saturday morning to head to the coast and meet Robert at the turn-off to Monteverde.

Always a nice view at Caldera.

A quick check of Caldera didn’t reveal anything of note. There were some birds out there but nothing crazy.

Although the avocet was reported from salt ponds near Punta Morales, our first stop was the shorebird bastion of Chomes. Anything can show up at Chomes so it’s always worth a stop, especially during high tide (not to mention being the neighbor of Punta Morales). You might also see some dry forest birds on the way in. We didn’t stop for any although we did see like 50 Double-striped Thick-knees lounging about in a dry field.

Once we got to the shrimp ponds, as has been usual for the past few years, we found most of the birds inthe last ponds on the left. There was a fine, healthy bunch of shorebirds.

Note that one of then is a Long-billed Curlew.

Lots of shorebirds!

After feeling pretty sure that there weren’t any crazy rarities around, we headed back out to the highway and got back on to our main mission for the avocet. First stop was the salt or shrimp ponds at the end of the road from the turn-off just after the El Huevo restaurant.

The dikes were covered in birds.

Holy shorebirds, that place was jammed with high arctic migrants!

Lots of Western Sandpipers were around.

I had never seen so many shorebirds at the site, including my first Red Knots for Costa Rica, Stilt Sands, and Surfbirds among other more common species. We also got another Long-billed Curlew and were entertained by a calling Lesser ground-Cuckoo while doing so but check as we did, the avocet was a no show.

Fortunately, it was present at the next set of human-made shorebird habitats!

Mission accomplished.

This was at the end of the road at the turn off just across the road from a sign for “camarones frescos”.

With the avocet in the bag, and the pressure off (at least for shorebirds), we checked Ensenada and the Colorado salt pans at a more leisurely pace. The birds were being a bit too leisurely though because we didn’t see anything of note.

Nice looks at Lesser Yellowlegs though.

And Roseate Spoonbill.

By this time, it was two in the afternoon and we had to decide if we could make it to rail produucing rice fields before the sun set. The reservoir at Canas seemed too far, same for the catfish ponds. So, we opted for rice fields on the way in to Palo Verde. That seemed within reach and it was despite the wacky, very possibly dangerous aspect of the road construction of the Pan-American highway. Seriously, be very careful, it’s hard to see where a section of road might abruptly end, there are surprise sharp turns, and some people driving in the wrong lane (as in approaching head on traffic wrong).

On the road to Palo Verde, after a brief stop for a couple of scampering bobwhites, we sort of rushed back to rice fields, found a suitable spot and played Spotted Rail vocalizations. Red-winged Blackbirds flew around and we checked them for yellow-headeds sans success.

A Limpkin showed off its ibis-like head while perched in a bush.

We even saw a few Wilson's Snipe and Jabirus!

No Spotted Rail though. Come to think of it, we didn’t even see a gallinule. No rails amand when the sun set, no White-tailed Nightjar either (as pretty much per usual), so we headed to Liberia for the night. A good night and good deal at the El Sitio Best Western- very much recommedned on account of the extensive birdy grounds (including a small lagoon in the back), big included breakfast, and comfort. However, be careful about staying on the weekend because a bar across the street plays loud music literally all night long.

We had nice looks at Spot-breasted Oriole.

The next morning, the rail quest continued over at the rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa, and at the catfish ponds (aka Sardinal lagunas, no more catfish). Once again, no response form any rallid although we did connect with Tricolored Munia, Painted Bunting and other dry forest birds, and a few hundred ducks. Among the ducks were Blue-winged Teal, a couple of shovelers, Ring-necked, and Lesser Scaup but no Masked.

A Banded wren from the ponds.

In keeping with ducks, our next site was the reservoir at Canas. Although there weren’t as many ducks compared to last winter (yet…), we nevertheless had fun looking through hundreds of Lesser Scaup and in the process, got a Ring-necked Duck, and a Redhead! The Redhead was a major bonus as it was first recorded in Costa Rica just a few years ago and I had missed the one at Canas last winter.

Find the Redhead!

Mission success on the avocet, not so for the Spotted Rail, time to go back to the drawing board for that one…

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admin on November 13th, 2014

If Costa Rica has a pioneer birding lodge, it would have to be Rancho Naturalista. I am pretty sure that this gem of a destination was the first place in Costa Rica to put most of the focus on birders and continues to please birdwatchers to this day. Rancho’s legacy includes several in-house guides who have gone on to guide tours around the globe, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of happy photographers, and legendary food. In trip reports, that culinary aspect of Rancho is at times overshadowed by the birds but oh how it does deserve a mention!

For example, after a recent trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we finished off the first day with a dinner of Morrocan Chicken. Meat falling off the bone, scrumptious, honest to goodness Morrocan recipe chicken. Every meal was just as fantastic and it prepares you for the fun birding on and off the grounds of the hotel.

As far as birding goes, feeders and birdy habitats always ensure plenty to look at. Upon arrival, we were treated to the ongoing hummingbird party. This glittering festival never ends and includes such guests as

White-necked Jacobin,

Green-breasted Mango,

Crowned Woodnymph,

Brown Violetear,

and Black-crested Coquette visible in the Porterweed for most of our stay. We also had other hummingbird species along with more than a few close looks at birds coming to fruit and rice feeders. Among those were

Brown Jay and

Gray-headed Chachalaca along with other species.

On more than one occasion, we also saw one of the least common, widespread raptors in the neotropics-

Bicolored Hawk! Rancho just might be the most reliable place for this species anywhere in its range.

But these birds were just some of the ones around the buildings. Up on the trails, the birding wasn’t as easy but we still saw White-crowned Manakin, heard Zeledon’s Antbird and Carmiol’s Tanager, and saw a fair selection of other middle elevation species. If you spent the whole day on the upper trails, you would have a fair chance at Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Brown-billed Sythebill, tanagers, and lots of other species.

Female White-crowned Manakin.

Although we didn’t do much on the upper trails, we had fun with one of the coolest attractions at Rancho. This gem was the moth sheet. The insects that come to the sheet at night are in turn eaten by birds that show up early in the morning and most are shy, forest interior species. The most common bird was Red-throated Ant-Tanager although we also had close looks at Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and great looks at another reliable rarity at Rancho, the Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Staying at Rancho isn’t cheap but you get more than what you pay for with excellent birding, fantastic food, excellent service, and the oportunity to hire very good guides. Take the La Mina excursion and you have a 95% chance of seeing Sunbittern.

We saw this pair!

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admin on November 6th, 2014

While growing up near the thundering waters of Onguiaahra, I always associated November with dark, slate gray. The short days seemed cloaked in a steely sky, the trees had gone to sleep, and the first bit of snow was drifting down from the north. Things were frozen once more and the summer birds were long gone and replaced by the calls of chickadees, big flocks of ducks on the river and lakes, and clouds of gulls.

November in Costa Rica is a far cry from the month that lays out the ice-dead winter welcome mat of the north. Much closer to the equator, the hands of Jack Frost are held at bay by an eternal summer. Instead of “losing” birds, we gain them in the form of wood-warblers, Philadelphia Vireos, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Wood Thrushes, and other migrants. However, we aren’t exempt from the heavy changes happening up north. We might not get any snow but we do get the gray skies. They come loaded with heavy rain and sometimes, it falls for days.

Common Bush Tanagers like the rain.

If you have birded in Costa Rica in November, you probably know what I am talking about. But, you probably also saw lots of cool birds anyways. For us local birders, this is actually an exciting time of the year because this is when the vagrants can show up. It represents that first, brief window when lost birds appear. Since they are out of range and far from familiar surroundings, the odds aren’t in their favor so you have to find them pretty much as soon as they arrive. So far, the most noteworthy rarities have been a Yellow-headed Blackbird found in the Coto marshes near the southern border by Leo Garrigues and some other Tico birders.

You are far more likely to see Slaty Flowerpiercers than Yellow-headed Blackbirds in Costa Rica.

I was wondering when this one would show again and suspect that it turns up more often, just not enough people scouring rice fields and marshes (the clouds of mosquitoes are a likely deterrant). Another very experienced observer was pretty sure that he glimpsed an Aplomado Falcon up by Medio Queso. He only got a brief look but strongly suspected that he saw one. It wouldn’t be out of the question as this vagrant has been seen there before.

Yellow-backed Oriole was also found near Quepos! Whether a natural vagrant or escapee, it’s a first for Costa Rica!

There have also been reports of Pine Warbler (serious vagrant) at the Belmar Hotel in Monteverde, and Reddish Egret at Puntarenas. No reports of Spotted Rail yet but since this seems to be the best month for that tough species, I hope I see one!

In other bird-related news, the second edition of the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean is out! I think it becomes available on Amazon and elsewhere in December but some of us birders in Costa Rica have been very fortunate to get copies now. I have mine and yes, it is definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition. There are more illustrations of birds in flight, more species are shown, improved maps, nice habitat descriptions, and so on.

In semi bird-related news, Turrialba Volcano has been erupting. Not just letting off the steam either but big clouds of ash and flying boulders. The mouth of the volcano has also been growing, people have been evacuated from a few places, and the activity is expected to increase.

Reports about the birds mentioned can be seen at the AOCR Bird Alarm Facebook page.

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admin on October 29th, 2014

Irazu is an 11,000 plus foot high volcano just outside of San Jose. I can see it looming large just outside my back window and can even discern the cell towers right up on top. Heck, if I had a 10,000 zoom scope, I would just point it at the mountain and scan for Silvery-throated Jay, quetzals, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. As long as we are in the realm of imagination, I might as well mention that teleporting up there would be way better than a telescope. That would be so much easier than creeping through traffic to reach Cartago followed by a subsequent drive on up to the upper reaches of the volcano. But don’t assume that the fun stops once you make it to the volcano. To see some of those rarities, there’s a fair chance that you will still need to scuff your way up some steep slopes or freeze the feet in cold, wet grass.

During the day, the view is pretty nice from high up on the volcano.

At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove.

Yes, this ground-dove that pretends to be a quail-dove was very nice to Robert, Susan, and I this past Sunday. It called almost non-stop and even gave us time to trudge up slope and get into a position where we could inspect it in detail. To start things off, a female briefly showed before the male made an appearance. We got brief looks at both before they fluttered off and we were indeed pleased but the rare ground-dove experience wasn’t over yet. Much to our joy, the male started calling again and did so from a spot where we could watch it for 15 minutes (since almost no one ever sees this bird, those were some 15 precious minutes).

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove with eyes closed.

Maroon-chested Ground-Dove from the side.

Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.

The look of success.

The ground-dove is probably the rarest regularly occurring species on Irazu. It is, no doubt, always present but if it isn’t calling as it forages in thick vegetation, you would never know it was there. As far as rarity on Irazu goes, it’s only superseded by the Oilbird. Now for that one, we just don’t even have any idea if it shows up on a regular basis or if it’s a vagrant. Assessment evades because the bird is nocturnal and doesn’t call as nearly as much as an owl. In other words, how the heck would you know if it was around, especially when you would have to chance upon one in the cold, often rainy night?

Speaking of night, Irazu is also a good spot for the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. If you thought saw-whets from the north were tough, its more southerly cousin takes the owl-spotting challenge to a new level (and you thought that “Unspotted” referred to its plumage…). I don’t think anyone has ever seen a roosting one in Costa Rica and maybe not anywhere else either. To see it, you have to head out into the cold night and listen for a calling bird during calm weather. With luck, you will be able to track down the calling nocturnal creature, find it, and prove to youirself that yes, it does look like a plush toy. After that, you can go back to the car and try to unfreeze your toes after pouring yourself a celebratory drink, spiked coffee seems appropriate.

Irazu can also be good for Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl.

While the owl is present on Irazu, it still isn’t common. Like the ground-dove, it’s a naturally rare bird that always requires more than casual birding to find it. The same goes for some other species that make their home up there on the volcano. For example, Peg-billed Finch and Slaty Finch also occur but nope, sorry, not common. Downright rare and they require lots of looking. The Peg-billed is certainly less difficult than the Slaty because after glassing 30 or so Slaty Flowerpiercers in the paramo, you eventually find one. Not so for the Slaty Finch. For that pseudo-junco weirdo, seeding bamboo is key but guess what? You can still have seeding bamboo and neither hear nor see it! That’s what happened after we looked for the ground-dove. After birding a very nice area of seeding bamboo, we were surprised to neither see nor hear Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, or other bamboo birds, especially because Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles head them the previous week.

Peg-billed Finches chowing down on bamboo seeds.

But, that’s how it is with rare birds. There are so few of them that it’s just naturally tough to locate them. As with any needle in the haystack experience, chances at success are correlated with number of observers. Go up there with a bunch of people, spread out, and have everyone looking and you might find the rare ones. In the mean time, when birding on Irazu, at least you can also be entertained by the calls of Buffy-crowned Wood-Patridge (might see one too), and views of Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, silky-flycatchers, and Resplendent Quetzal

Black and yellow silky Flycatcher

A big thanks goes out to Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles- they found the ground-dove and other rare birds the week before and were gracious with the gen.

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We all have our favorite places to bird and one of mine is Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica. No, it’s not an easy place to bird and even more difficult for bird photography but since it was my introduction to birding in rainforest habitats, the place has become firmly established in my subconscious core. I don’t get back to that site often enough and it was better when mixed flocks and coquettes visited fruiting and flowering trees at the edge of the forest, but the rangers did need a place to stay.

On Tuesday, despite knowing that we would miss the dawn chorus, a friend and I spent a fine morning at the site. We started at the non-birdy hour of 9 a.m. and worked the main loop trail until noon. After that, we did a quick walk on the Ceiba trail before rain chased us away around 1 p.m.

One of the things I like about Quebrada is that you never really know what the heck is going to show up. It’s always a surprise and if you hit an antswarm or find a good fruting tree, you have a chance at jackpot birds like the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo, Ocellated Antbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. Chances are slim on a brief, mid-morning visit (and we didn’t connect with the winning numbers) but you bird there for three or four days in a row and it might happen. On a day visit, you could have an experience like we did in the summary below or something totally different. Either way, you will probably see something good and of course there’s always that re-energizing, oxygen-ruich atmosphere to boost the soul.

A summary of Quebrada birding at that typically non-birdy part of the day:

After seeing nothing around the parking area, we walked into the forest and carefully walked along the trail. As quiet as the forest may be, based on past experience, I know that a wood-quail, quail-dove, or some other shy forest floor species can appear (and disappear) in a moment. You have to be ready at all times, especially if you want photos! I did want photos but also knew that my chances were as slim as the legs of a stilt.

I have seen Black-eared Wood-Quail next to these steps more than once. Not on Tuesday though!

After the stairs, we heard a few birds here and there. These were species usually recorded at the site like White-breasted Wood-Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. We didn’t see anything at a new overlook (thanks to recent super-heavy rains) but both thought that it would make an interesting place to just sit and wait for a few hours.

View from the overlook.

Further on, a male White-necked Jacobin checked us out, and we ran into a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We hung out with the flycatcher for several minutes to see if I could get a recording of its call (I eventually did). Shortly after that, the calls of Carmiol’s Tanagers and Black-faced Grosbeaks pulled us up the trail. Those species usually mean “mixed flock” and yes there was one around but unfortunately, the birds were too far off in the forest to see. We also heard our first Buff-throated Goliage-gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager at that time.

What a Black-faced Grosbeak in a mixed flock looks like.

At the back part of the loop, we lucked out with another mixed flock and this one was at least partially visible. It was also a big one! Oddly enough, since I was more focused on getting pictures and recording sounds (and because I had lent my binos to my friend as he had forgotten his), I just listened and watched bird movement with the naked eye. I may have missed out on espying Sharpbill for the year but that’s Ok, it was interesting to try and ID the birds without bins. Most of the flock was composed of Black-faced Grosbeaks but there were also Spotted and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Lesser Greenlet, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Russet Antshrike, White-throated Shrike, Hepatic, Black and Yellow, Emerald, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, and Carmiol’s Tanagers, one Collared Trogon, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and other birds.

This female shrike-tanager posed for a shot.

This is what a male White-shouldered Tanager usually looks like. Note the Black-faced Grosbeak blur.

We were able to stay with the flock for a while but I couldn’t get a break with a good picture of a Carmiol’s Tanager.

Is the Carmiol's Tanager photo-shy because of its moss-green plumage? It does have a complaining sounding call...

When we departed ways with the flock, it was about 11:30 a.m. and the forest quieted back down. For the rest of the trail, we heard a few Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, I had a flyby of a Ruddy Quail-Dove (a first for me on that trail!), and we had a group of Swainson’s Thrushes and other small migrants.

BYO lunches in the parking lot were accompanied by a couple of high flying Black Vultures which were eventually joined by a lone King Vulture, but no other raptors for the day.

Violet-headed Hummingbird visited the Porterweed bushes at the station but nothing visited the Cecropias or other trees at the edge of the parking lot so we crossed the highway and birded the Ceiba Trail at 1 p.m. Although this heavy, humid hour was not the most ideal time to look for birds, the cloudy weather boosted the activity and we quickly had shy Pale-vented Thrushes, and a small mixed flock of understory insectivores. Streak-crowned Antvireo showed, a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner called, and Checker-throated Antwren flitted nearby. Tawny-faced Gnatwren was also present but as much as I tried, nope, that hyperactive little bugger would not stop for a photo (since the bird is obviously functioning on another, more quickly paced wavelength, I guess I can’t blame it).

Spotted Woodcreepers cooperated.

The rest of the trail was quiet and as the air grew heavier, it started to rain. We took that as a sign to head back up the highway and go on home. We had at least 57 species including nice looks at the shrike-tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, and other rainforest birds; not a bad way to spend a Tuesday morning.

Even if you don't see many birds, you do see cool butterflies like this one.

Edit- It turns out that the “cool butterfly” is actually a moth that mimics clearwing butterflies, probably because they taste bad. Thanks to Ernesto Carman for pointing that out.

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In Costa Rica, national parks were established for more than birds. The local avifauna was a big part of the equation in setting aside the wetland wonderlands of Cano Negro and Palo Verde but other places were given protected status because they are watersheds, host tons of biodiversity, or are important nesting grounds for sea turtles. The sea turtle nesting ground reason was the main one for making Tortuguero a national park.

Turtles have been digging holes in the beaches at Tortuguero for who knows how long and they still do. We saw some nests with recently hatched eggs at Tortuguero last weekend but as cool as that was, it wasn’t our main reason for making it to that wonderful Caribbean lowland destination. In staying with the goals of a birding club, we were all about the birds. Migrants were our main targets and yes, we saw a few.

However, since this is a birding trip report, I should start at the beginning:

Friday, the 10th of October, pre-dawn in the Central Valley…

To avoid the morning rush hour traffic, we left pretty darn early. Even so, we realized that we still had time to check the airport for grasspipers. No amount of scanning through a chain link fence could materialize shorebirds of any kind so off we went to drive over the mountains and down into the Caribbean lowlands.

No birds on the way down although I do recall hearing a Dull-mantled Antbird sing while passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park.

After reaching the lowlands, we realized that we should probably eat breakfast. After passing a few closed looking diners, we stopped at one with a bunch of wooden carvings.

We were welcomed by this macaw.

Checking the forest behind the place turned up a few Red-eyed Vireos but nothing else of note and no Sunbittern on the river. The coffee wasn’t the greatest and the breakfast was pretty slim but that was alright. After all, we weren’t on this mission to critique gourmet, buffet breakfasts.

On we went, following the prominent signs towards Tortuguero and seeing a surprise group of 8 Great Green Macaws when getting gas! Other than that, we only made one brief stop for an umbrella (it usually rains in the lowlands) before making an official stop to watch birds. This happened at the only stretch of the road that passes next to primary rainforest. As soon as we exited the car, we got onto a fair bunch of birds. Most were Red-eyed Vireos and a few wood-warblers hanging out with such local birds as White-ringed Flycatcher and Lesser Greenlet. We also had a Cinnamon Woodpecker and probably also had some other lowland birds that I can’t remember.

Although you can't really see the diagnostics, this is a White-ringed Flycatcher.

After that little stop, we had an unpleasant surprise of pasture instead of rice fields that used to have Slate-colored Seedeater, Red-breasted Blackbird, and was a way point for interesting migrants. Nothing was out in the pasture although we did get our first glimpse of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A bit further up the road, we stopped at a forested riparian zone that was the place to be for migrants. Dozens of birds rushed through the trees, Red-eyed Vireos and Swainson’s Thrushes being the most common.

Swainson's Thrush.

Thrushes kept hopping out to the side of the stream and despite their high-anxiety flighty behavior, continuous checking turned up a few Gray-cheekeds and one Veery. The wood-warblers included Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellows, and there were Scarlet and Summer Tanagers there as well.

After feeling like we saw every bird, we jogged up the road to Pavona. This is where you can leave a car ($10 a day), have lunch, and take the boat to Tortuguero (around $4 each way).

The parking lot at Pavona.

Although the outside chance of a Harpy or Crested Eagle makes the boat trip potentially very exciting, you don’t usually see much. Friday was no exception other than a classic look at a crocodile.

Classic croc.

After getting settled in at the Casa Marbella, we birded the path north towards the airport. Given the absence of birds, it was more like walking with binoculars and hoping but isn’t that was birding is anyways? After two hours of spishing ourselves hoarse, we were over-thrilled to see a single male American Redstart. It even flitted around the trees and let us watch it! This was especially momentous because we saw almost nothing else.

Back at the Casa Marbella, we were mildly entertained by a few distant nighthawks but were all too beat to go looking for owls.

Saturday, October 11th.

The group met the dawn with coffee (much better than the wood carving diner), muffins, and eager scope scanning of the marsh on the other side of the Tortuguero canal. We saw a few common herons but nope, could not parse a Least Bittern out of the grass. That deserves a mention because this skulky little heron was a principal target for more than one person on the trip.

I said Least, not Great!

At 5:45, we took to the boat and headed over to that marsh for a closer look. The next 15 monutes went something like this:

Grass, grass, grass, and more grass. Possible movement? Nope, just grass. Come one! I hear a Dickcissel. Wait, I hear LOTS of Dickcissels! There they are in the bushes at the edge of the forest! And so is that group of birds flying overhead. And that one too, and that bunch of a hundred!

Try as we did, the Least Bittern gave us the marsh grass slip but we at least got excellent looks at Dickcissels perched and in flight as 500 or so migrated through our sphere of detection. Always a cool way to start the day! We then spent the rest of the morning visiting the national park by boat. This is the best and almost only way to check out the park because it has a bunch of canals and swampy forest.

A tantalizing scene.

The sunny weather calmed down the birds a bit too much but we still saw several migrating Peregrines and Mississippi Kites, saw White-necked Puffbird and Green Ibis, and got one of our best birds for the trip, the weirdo Sungrebe!

Sungrebe

This lovely little snakey waterbird swam back and forth in front of us in shameless fashion.

One of the other best birds of the trip was a nesting Rufescent Tiger-Heron. Yes, a new country tick for me and Daryl Loth, the owner of the Casa Marbella, was especially impressed because this was the first nest he had seen of this species in that area and that high up during more than 20 years of boat trips at Tortuguero.

The Rufescent Tiger-Heron is sort of like a grandaddy giant Green Heron.

The boat trip was followed by a late breakfast and relaxation because it was so hot and sunny. However as inviting as relaxation and non-movement may be, giving in to temptation can be a fatal move during migration. I was reminded of that when I missed Gray and Western Kingbirds some time that day (pretty good migrants for Costa Rica). I’m not sure if the miss happened while I was birding the path towards the airport or if it was when I sat down to eat an empanada but either way, I missed them. Well, unless you are able to manipulate time and dimensions you can’t be in two places at once so that’s that. Those sightings are also a reminder of the birds that can pass through the village at any moment. Johan saw them with a group of Easterns as he checked out the birds over near the entrance to the national park. Of course they were gone by the time I arrived but at least a couple of people saw them!

This Eastern Kingbird was my consolation.

We also had another Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Prothonotary, Red-eyed Vireo, and some other migrants (including Streaked and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers in the same spot) but overall, the migrant scene was a slow one. That same slow scene played out later on in the coastal forests of the national park. Very few birds, highlights being a Canada Warbler, and a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

Another highlight was a Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that hung out at the Casa Marbella.

Where were the migrants? What about all of those Bay-breasteds? Were they just late? Keeping things on the down low? What was the deal? We made up for the slow birding and pondered nostalgic music with a wonderful meal at the Wild Ginger restaurant. Yum.

Sunday, October 12th, the final day of the trip.

This morning was a near repeat of the day before. Once again, we stared at marsh grass and tried to will a Least Bittern to appear. BUT, instead of Dickcissels, we had a good bunch of other migrant species feeding in the bushes at the edge of the forest. There were dozens of birds including Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, and Yellow Warblers along with one Golden-winged and a Common Yellowthroat for good measure. We also had several non-calling Traill’s type flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, and a single Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Oh yeah, there were also like 200 Eastern Kingbirds flying around.

Off in the national park, we explored another channel and this time, saw an American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and another Sungrebe. Good stuff!

American Pygmy Kingfisher.

Can you find the Sungrebe?

After breakfast, there wasn’t any more time for birding before our 11 a.m. boat. That was of course uneventful and the riparian zone back near Pavona was dead but the rainforest patch was crazy with a mixed flock. There were at least 29 species including Gartered Trogon, Black-crowned Tityra, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and a whole mess of migrants. Those were mostly Red-eyed Vireos.

Then, it was off for the ride back home, no real birding en route except for a grief glimpse of a probable group of Shiny Cowbirds. Despite pulling a u-turn and searching with intent, the probable Shinys were gone. No large eagles but we didn’t win the lottery either…

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