It’s 2014 and it looks like the El Nino warm water deal is back in town. This is when the normally cold, nutrient rich water in the eastern (South American) Pacific becomes much warmer and less nutrient rich than normal. The small fish aren’t where they are usually found and the birds and larger fish that feed on them suffer. It’s actually a bit worse than suffering because they sadly perish if they lack the strength to find food elsewhere. Die-offs of boobies and other birds in Peru and Chile show that El Nino is having its sinister effect and yes, some birds are making it north of their usual haunts (Gray Gull and Peruvian Booby have shown up in Panama).
There is a fair chance that those two species and other vagrants are looking for food in Costa Rican waters right now (!). All it takes is someone to find those feathered needles in a watery haystack but given the size of the search area and need for a boat, chances of crossing paths with those El Nino birds are about as small as a lost barnacle. We knew that when myself and some friends took the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry the other day, but that didn’t stop us from watching, waiting, and hoping.
To jump to the end of the story, no, we did not find an Inca Tern, Gray Gull, or other rare visitor to our shores, but we did see some nice seabirds, including more Blue-footed Boobies than normal.
Even before we reached the ferry, scoping the morning waters of the gulf revealed distant flocks of Black Terns and a few unidentified storm-petrels!
At 9 AM, we left the dock along with a bunch of people headed to the beaches of Tambor, Montezuma, and other places on the Nicoya Peninsula. While they enjoyed the scenery and drank a few beers, we scanned the water, made odd exclamations like, “There’s a booby!”, and hoped for avian weirdness.
There weren’t huge numbers of birds on the the way to Paquera, but we still managed several Brown Booby, two Common Terns (hey, they aren’t that common in Costa Rica and it was a year bird), a few Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels, and our first Blue-footed Booby (a distant one on the island). Gulls and other terns, except for a few Royals, were notably absent.
After exiting the ferry in hot Paquera, we just got right back on, found a good spot at the front top deck, and started watching.
Further out, we noticed schooling fish and a lot more Sulid activity than the way to Paquera. We saw quite a few Brown Booby and were happy to see almost the same number of Blue-footeds, some right near the boat!
Even better, we got fairly close looks at several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and a few Black Storm-Petrels zipping over the waves.
Since we didn’t have any large groups of birds, we decided not to have another ferry ride, and made a quick stop at the Caldera mangroves instead for Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and a glimpsed Mangrove Hummingbird.
While the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry isn’t going to chum or stop for any birds, it is a stable, cheap way to get in a bit of pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Save money by parking the car at Franks Cabins (just down the street from the ferry and 800 colones an hour or 4000 colones for more than 5 hours) instead of putting the vehicle on the ferry ($24 or so each way). I hope I get the chance to do some more ferry birding soon because there is probably a few super good birds out there in the Gulf of Nicoya!
All of us birders love cotingas. Along with the manakins, those weird, beautiful birds are the neotropical convergence answer to the birds of paradise, and like those Papuan feathered crazies, a lot of cotingas are brightly colored, make weird noises, have weird shapes, and would be proud, card carrying members of the feathered fancy fab club if there was such a thing. The only problem with cotingas is that several are kind of hard to see, especially the shiny blue ones. This is no fault of their own because they evolved to live in large areas of primary rainforest and not patches of forest in a hot, chiggery sea of cattle and grass.
Since they can’t live in pastures, some of these amazing birds have also declined and have even become endangered. In Costa Rica, the Yellow-billed is critically endangered, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is endangered (and maybe on its way to being cricitally so), and the Turquoise is Vulnerable. Since there are few reliable sites for the Turquoise Cotinga, especially possible as an easy day trip from San Jose, it was a happy surprise to see this beauty at and near Rancho Mastatal the past weekend. I wondered if the species might be present but didn’t have high hopes because it’s usually rare and hard to find just about everywhere in the country (the exception being Luna Lodge and other sites in the Osa Peninsula).
On our first morning of birding, my scope scanning of a forested ridge hit paydirt when the bright blue image of a male cotinga appeared, as per usual, right at the tip top of a tall tree. Luckily, it stayed long enough for everyone in our group to parse the distant blue bird out of the green background. We were pretty happy to see this tough species once so it was a surprise to get another one on the walk back to Rancho Mastatal! This other bird seemed far enough from the first to be a different individual and was seen perched high in the bare branches of a dead tree. We would have easily missed it if it hadn’t fluttered and revealed itself with one of the only sounds it makes, that of twittering, twinkling sounds made with the wings. After hearing that sound and catching some movement in the tree, it dawned on me that we had another cotinga! Even then, it wasn’t easy to find because most of the bird was obscured by a branch. Eventually, we positioned ourselves for more scoped views before it flew off into the forest.
There were no more cotingas that day but on the following morning, while watching the canopy near the goats at Rancho Mastatal (yes, goats, it’s a working organic farm), a bird flies into the top of a Ceiba and becomes another male cotinga in the binocs! More scope views, this time closer, to appreciate the gem-like colors before it flew away. This could have been the same male as the one in the dead tree on the previous day but when it comes down to it, we had three sightings of Turquoise Cotinga with rather little effort. I don’t know how big or small the population is at that site but even if you don’t find a fruiting tree, Rancho Mastatal lends itself to seeing this and other canopy birds because there is more than one excellent spot to view the canopy of the forest and tall trees ( including figs that could be amazing when fruiting), both on the grounds of Rancho Mastatal and along roads next to Cangreja National Park.
Other benefits of birding this area are:
- Not too far from the San Jose area: While it’s not a mere 40 minute drive, it probably takes around two hours or so along a curvy road that leaves from Ciudad Colon.
- Birding en route is alright: The first part of the road is awfully deforested but eventually passes through patches of nice habitat along with one area that might be the best site in the country for Costa Rican Brush Finch (we had 4 or more in an hour on the side of the road). This is the patch of habitat just after Salitrales.
- Birding at all hours: The national park sticks to the same 8 AM opening office hours as other parks but you can see most of the same species along a couple of quiet roads that pass by the edge of the park. We had the cotinga on one of those roads (main one between Mastatal and Salitrales).
- Several other humid forest birds: This area is more humid than accessible forests in Carara. Therefore, birds like Golden-naped Woodpecker, Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, and Ruddy Quail Dove are fairly commn. As for Blue-crowned Manakin, that pretty bird is one of the most common species in the area!
- Lots of herps: Frogs seem to be more common here than other sites. The park should really be checked for possible populations of Harlequin Toads and other rare species.
- Rancho Mastatal: This very special place mostly focuses on giving hand-on courses to learn how to live more sustainably with our surroundings, especially in the tropics. They are actively doing this, work with the local community, and grow a huge variety of organic crops. I would describe the food as being “organic gourmet” and if you like all natural foods with creative recipes, you will love this place! Lodging is also offered and they have some nice trails.
If you need the cotinga and brush finch, and would like to bird an under-birded place with a lot of potential, take a trip to Rancho Mastatal and nearby. Even if you don’t stay at the Rancho, there is plenty of excellent birding at the edge of the national park, and can ask about using the Rancho Mastatal trails.
Summer seems to be this ironic time of the year when birders don’t watch birds. Yes, to any non-birders out there, this is oddly true. Despite the warm, inviting weather, breeding birds, and lots more life than the dead of winter, this is when birders tend to sit back, sip a Mint Julep, or partake in other activities that don’t include binoculars. The birders out there know why a lot of us tend to get lazy in June and July but for those of you are wondering what the deal might be, it all comes down to seeing the same old stuff.
Yes, a lot of birders get lacadaisical about getting out and birding sites near home at this time of the year because they don’t expect to see anything new. They feel that they already know what’s out there (and getting up at dawn doesn’t help either). However, as much as we think we know about our natural surroundings, we usually know a lot less than we think. If we don’t turn off the TV and get out into the wild, we won’t see any changes that might be happening in bird populations (especially with climate change going on), and aren’t going to find a Brown-chested Martin, out of range hummingbird, or some other wacko vagrant.
In Costa Rica, we have less of a problem with avoiding the outdoors during the summer months because the high degree of biodiversity always guarantees chances at rare birds throughout the year. Although we aren’t going to see any Boreal migrants right now, there are more than 600 breeding birds to look for, and chances at a rare Austral migrant or two. Here are some other tidbits and things to look forward to if you happen to be headed to Costa Rica this July:
- It might rain more than you expect: Ok, so that might not be what you hoped to read but one should always be prepared. Forecasters are saying that this year’s mini dry season in July will be wetter than normal so bring the rain gear and get ready for birding that may be just as challenging as it is exciting. However, to be honest, I hope it does rain more than normal in July because the rainy season started late anyways. Ecosystems in Costa Rica need the rain because the plants, birds, and so on are adapted to an environment at some sites that see 4 to 6 meters a year. Two meters just isn’t going to work.
- Don’t be discouraged by the forecast: So, if you thought, “Crap! I should have gone to Costa Rica in March”, put the reins on fustration because it’s probably not going to rain the entire time and cloudy weather with some rain boosts bird activity in the (you guessed it) rainforest. Seriously, a cloudy day with occasional showers is always exciting for birding in Costa Rica.
- Expect birding similar to the dry season: Other than the lack of northern migrants, the birding is pretty similar to the dry season. In other words, this is a great time of year to bird Costa Rica and that means chances at heart-racing mixed flocks, fruiting trees full of tanagers, manakins, and maybe a cotinga or two, no shortage of hummingbirds, and the excitement goes on… The main difference might be the lower numbers of tourists compared to the high dry season months and that’s not so bad either.
- Bare-necked Umbrellabird appears to have nested at Curi-Cancha: A female and young have been seen at this excellent reserve near Monteverde! Lots of other great birds to see there too.
- Keep an eye out for frugivores in odd places: After nesting, most of the frugivorous species in Costa Rica move around in search of food and many move to lower elevations. This is a time of year when Red-fronted Parrotlet can show up at fruiting figs in the Central Valley and other sites, and who knows what else might turn up?
- Enjoy the bellbird serenade up in the mountains: Although the bellbird population that nests in the mountains above San Jose is very small and a tiny shadow of what it probably was when there was forest in the Central Valley, you might hear one or two around Poas, Barva, and other sites. To catch the best bellbird action, visit the Monteverde area, and sites near San Ramon, on the Pacific slope of the Talamancas, and the Rio Macho Reserve near Tapanti. Three-wattled Bellbird sound.
- Keep an eye out for odd seabirds: Forecasters have also predicted a major El Nino effect and this could turn up some serious rarities in July. Reports of Inca Tern, and Blue-footed and Nazca Boobies could be indicators of more rarities to come! I know that I will be looking for them in July!
- The latest update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is available: There are now more than 620 species on the app and vocalizations for more than 360 of them (including Black-crowned Antpitta, Ocellated Antbird, and Keel-billed Motmot along with hundreds of more common species), lots of updated and improved images, and a quicker way to look for birds by group. If you already bought the app, get the update for free.
Enjoy your July trip to Costa Rica, hope to see you in the field! – I will be the short guy with a Swarovski ghetto scope and gray Adidas hat.
Any birder who has been to Costa Rica knows what “San Gerardo de Dota” means. This montane location translates to “Resplendent Quetzal” and/or “Savegre Lodge” for most birders but for me, it also means “Miriam’s Cafe”. The birding is definitely great in this Talamancan Valley, especially at Savegre, but there are other options for accommodations. The budget birder will enjoy a stay at Miriam’s Quetzals (the teasing official name) and not just because a clean, cozy cabin goes for around $40 bucks a night. There really is a Miriam and this super nice senora is also super accommodating and makes delicious, local food. I’m not kidding. I have been to a bunch of small hotels and the like in Costa Rica and elsewhere and Miriam is at the upper levels of niceness. She also bakes/grills the best cornbread I have had in Costa Rica and the birds think so too!
Miriam has a feeder just out back and it gets some really cool birds. You can watch this feeder while eating, and when I was there, she also left Enya’s Watermark playing with every meal. Since I dig the ethereal, elfie sounds of Enya, that was cool with me.
Lots of other birds show up in the area too, including Yellow-bellied Siskins, Yellow-winged Vireos, quetzals from October to January, and even Unspotted Saw-whet Owl on one of their trails (seriously!).
I look forward to my next visit to Miriam’s. Maybe next time, I will get pictures of the wood-partridge, the spotless little owl, and other cool mountain birds.
There a bunch of super cool birds to see once you head south of the border. Since you are reading this blog, you are probably well aware of that statement but if you have yet to raise the bins below the Tropic of Cancer, let’s just say that yes, you are in for a heckuva treat! Biodiversity goes crazy south of the border and among all of those flycatchers, wrens, and other familiar families are several unfamiliar bunches of birds. One of those new avian groups is the Momotidae family. These are the motmots and they are just as exotic as their family name implies!
Yep, these are must-see birds for sure so that is why I am writing this post. I want every birder to see motmots in Costa Rica (along with casual birders and the non-birding crowd). For the birder, these racket-tailed crazies are sweet as a coconut creme pie. For those who use tiny 10 x 20 binocs and people who say “seagull”, motmots have a fair chance at being a serious starter bird. I think they would work very well as birding starter ambassadors because they are sort of big, have beautiful colors, weird tails, a cool, black mask that gives them even more character, and usually sit still long enough for a photo or two. In other words, motmots are hard to ignore when you see them and they can even get noticed by non-birders. The best news for the brider, however, is that motmots are common!
Sure, two species in Costa Rica are tough but even those are regular in the right places. So, here is where you can see those two tough motmots ones along with the common ones:
- Gardens and coffee farms in the Central Valley: Yes! Ok, so only the Blue-crowned is present but it is still a motmot and a fantastic looking one. Go birding in moist forest or any coffee farm in the morning or evening and you have a really good chance of seeing this cool backyard bird. I often espy them on roadside wires near the house just after dawn.
- Dry forest, even scrubby areas: This is where you see Turquoise-browed Motmot and once again, amazingly, this stunner is a common species. Cerro Lodge is a great place to watch this beautiful bird at your leisure but they are also common in most lowland Pacific Slope habitats from Tarcoles north to the border.
- Lowland and foothill rainforest: Bird the Caribbean slope in these habitats and you have a fair chance of seeing Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots. Both are fairly common wherever there is forest (even tall second growth) and embankments where they can nest. Sarapiqui, Laguna del Lagarto, and any lowland or foothill site with some forest usually has these beauties.
- The northern volcanoes, Arenal Hanging Bridges, and the Arenal Peninsula Road: Places like Heliconias Lodge, Celeste Mountain Lodge, Las Bromelias, and other forested sites on Rincon de la Vieja and Volcan Tenorio will put you in reach of Keel-billed Motmot. It never seems to be as common as Broad-billed and who knows how they partition habitat but these areas are the best place to find it. Except for around Arenal, these sites are also the place to find Tody Motmot, especially in moist forests on Rincon de la Vieja. It’s actually kind of common there! Listen and look for the Tody in the understory.
- Riparian zones: All motmots seem to like riparian zones. Whether due to embankments that work well for nesting (they nest in tunnels), because there are bigger bugs in those places, or a combination of those factors, forested ravines and streams are often good places to find motmots.
I suppose the other key for seeing motmots in Costa Rica is looking for them right after dawn and at dusk, and knowing their songs. Motmots might show themselves in more open habitats at dawn and dusk but usually hide out in dark ravines at other times of the day.
When we go on birding trips, I am pretty sure that we spend more time preparing for the trip than actually watching the birds when we get there. Seriously, how many of us birders study a new field guide for countless hours before we offically start the trip? How many hours do we spend planning the trip and salivating over sites? How often do we browse through photos and vocalizations on a birding app for Costa Rica? We look at those birds to learn their field marks, and read the text so often that we start seeing those feathered targets in our dreams.
“Whoah, there goes three giant umbrellabirds flying with vultures? Oh shoot, they don’t soar around with vultures…”, and when a bespectacled, bino sporting, smiling werewolf in tweed walks on past, darn (!), definitely just a dream! No matter how cool or crazy our pre-trip birding dreams may dare to be, they of course never compare to the real thing.
One of several birds that looks as if it comes from the land of birding dreams is the Ocellated Antbird. No small brown thing this one. It’s sort of like pumpkin orange with black and buff scale-patterned plumage, has a black face and throat, a tawny crown, and (get ready for this), a big blue face. Yep, not just an eyering but a whole, big blue face.
Despite its incredible appearance, this super cool Central American king of the antbirds is not too difficult to see when birding in Costa Rica. You go to the right places and can run into this gem on several occasions. You have to go to the right place of course, but bird enough at any lowland or foothill site on the Caribbean slope with good forest and you have a very good chance of focusing in on that exotic blue face. I was reminded of that while birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann the other day. If you haven’t heard, these birding heros are birding their way from California down to Costa Rica and beyond and are seeing like almost everything! Check out the adventures at their Birds of Passage blog.
While birding near Albergue Socorro, a foothill site near Virgen del Socorro, we ran into a small antswarm with a couple Zeledon’s Antbirds, Spotted Barbtail, and a few other birds along with a few of our star species for the day, the Ocellated Antbird. We got lots of perfect looks, saw lots of vegetation moving instead of seeing them, and did not see or hear any much wanted Black-banded Woodcreepers. Josh and Kathi were mentioning that they had seen Ocellateds on several occasions in Costa Rica to the point of it being just about expected. I think this is because they have focused a lot of time and effort in quality rainforest but nevertheless, it shows that this fancy antbird is not all that tough to see if you go to the right places.
Those are places with lots of nice, intact Caribbean slope rainforest like Pocosol, El Tapir, Quebrada Gonzalez on occasion, Arenal, San Gerardo, and so on. I have had several so far this year but the ones near Virgen del Socorro were especially nice because one let me take its picture. Thanks, dreambird!
We all have target birds whether we admit or not. You can be the most altruistic of Zen birders who insists that every bird is the same but when you open a field guide for the birds of Costa Rica, you have to admit a hidden, deep down desire to see certain species more than others. I mean, lets face it, someone who puts a House Wren into the same category as a Violet Sabrewing is probably a non-birding imposter.
Or, how about giving a super common Tropical Kingbird the same degree of importance as an Orange-collared Manakin?
Yeah right. Exactly. Some birdies just ain’t the same and that’s why we make statements about the bird of the day, trip, and year. It’s also why we have lists of target species. The Zen birder might say this with a steady calm voice that he or she doesn’t care which bird species they see on a birding trip to Costa Rica but they don’t tell you about that big, bold, booming inner voice that bellows, “I WANT TO SEE SOME COTINGAS DAMMIT. SUNBITTERN! UMBRELLABIRD, HOLY CRAP!”
The Sunbittern in particular is a much wanted species for anyone who hasn’t seen one. This is because the bird is unique, odd, and defies placement. It’s a genuine weirdo and that’s why we love it. Everything about it is different from everything you have ever seen, even if you are one of the lucky few to have watched its ancient closest cousin, the equally weird and awesome Kagu.
Despite its name, it’s not a bittern and doesn’t even come close to looking like one of those hefty, fat-necked, frog eating terrors of the marsh. The neck is sort of like a snake, the head is like a cross between a heron and a rail, the body is horizontal and sort of duck-like, and the legs are bright orange and like those of a heron. It also has a crazy sunburst pattern on each wing. Unlike the Kagu, the Sunbittern has a really big range (Central America to southern Amazonia), and loves to hang out along forested streams, rivers, and other wetlands. In Costa Rica, there are several places where they occur but they can still be tough to find because they blend in surprisingly well with their surroundings. If you can only check one section of a river, that also limits your chances of seeing one because it could be hanging out just around the next inaccessible bend.
Last weekend, I visited La Marta Reserve with a friend of mine. I had heard that Sunbittern was pretty easy there but didn’t expect it to be foraging in the grass next to one of their camping areas!
This Sunbittern was just doing its weird quick step walk around the grass as it foraged for grasshoppers and other choice insects. One of the guys who works there also told me that the bird is there just about every day so if you desperately need Sunbittern, make the trip to La Marta, and walk down to the camping spot that is closest to the river and next to a tiny pond with water hyacinth. A Sunbittern should show up sooner or later and then you can give the list a big fat target species check.
Speaking of La Marta, this place also has a lot of potential for other species. During our short visit, we saw several tanagers (Tawny-crested is absurdly common), Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a bunch of other foothill birds (elevation 800 meters).
The main trails seemed to access old second growth but there could be quite a few species present because three sides of the reserve are adjacent to a huge area of beautiful primary forest.
The entrance fee was just $3, the trails were signed better than anywhere in Costa Rica, and basic, cheap lodging is also available. It looks like a place with a lot of potential and of course any day with a Sunbittern is a good one!
May isn’t the biggest month for birding in Costa Rica. In fact, it’s usually one of the months that sees the fewest visiting birders. Most people plan their trip for the classic birding months of January, February, and March to take advantage of dry weather, migrants, and more dry weather. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to do a fair bit of guiding in May, 2014. Trips to Braulio Carrillo, Las Bromelias in the north, and Carara sort of made up for missing spring migration action in the northeast (as in the northeastern US as well as southern Canada).
I already blogged about Bromelias but such a wonderful area for birding always deserves another mention. It’s one of those far flung places in Costa Rica I would love to get back to because there is so much to see, and so many areas to explore.
After gazing at Keel-billed and Tody Motmots near Bromelias, I did a bit of guiding around Cinchona, Poas, and the high elevation forests of the Dota. The day around Poas was marked by a male quetzal that fluttered around the Volcan Restaurant. We also got nice looks at Black-headed Tody Flycatcher at Virgen del Socorro, hummingbirds and Prong-billed Barbet at the Cafe Colibri, and a bunch of other middle and high elevation species. At the Dota, we actually dipped on the quetzal (a heard only no show) but enjoyed looks at common highland species like Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Flame-colored Tanager. No Ochraceous Pewee though, so I still need to head back up there again and dedicate a day to actually seeing the pewee, and getting shots of the jay and a few other fine birds.
Next on the guiding list was a day at El Tapir and Braulio Carrillo. Surprisingly, we didn’t see so many hummingbirds at El Tapir. A male Snowcap eventually showed but there wasn’t a whole lot of hummingbird action, perhaps because they were visiting trees in flower instead. Some of the nice birds we connected with at the El Tapir clearing were Mealy Parrots, White Hawk, Emerald Tanager, Bay Wren, and so on.
Over at Quebrada Gonzalez, we dipped on big mixed flocks but still managged to find White-throated Shrike Tanager, and Carmiol’s, Tawny-crested, Speckled, and Blue and gold Tanagers along with some other nice forest birds like Spotted Antbird, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and excellent, close looks at Lattice-tailed Trogon.
After Braulio, I guided for a few days at Cerro Lodge and Carara. The weather was sort of brutal hot at times (par for the course around there) but the birding was great. Too many species to mention but I average about 140 species identified during a day of birding at Cerro and Carara and these days were no exception. More birds are singing at this time of the year, there are more bugs in the forest, and it’s also a great time of the year for herps.
The other day, in addition to fantastic close looks at a Short-nosed Vine Snake, we also had several Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs, lots of lizards, and a multitude of leaf litter arthropods that were running for their lives from an Army Ant swarm. Although there weren’t a whole lot of birds at the swarm, we still got nice looks at Bicolored Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. On that morning in the primary forest, we also saw Golden-crowned and Stub-tailed Spadebills, saw two and heard at least eight Royal Flycatchers, and had close looks at a Black-faced Antthrush along with dozens of other species.
A week before then, birding along the Laguna Meandrica Trail turned up good looks at four species of wrens (along with Plain Wren near Cerro Lodge in the morning), Dusky Antbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Orange-collared Manakins, and so on. That particular day also started off very well with Black and Chestnut-collared Swifts flying right around Cerro Lodge along with looks at expected species like Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Rose-throated Becard, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows, and the sort of unbelievable Turquoise-browed Motmot. Oh, and Scarlet Macaws of course. We also picked up Southern Lapwing in the fields on the roads below Cerro Lodge, and a pair of thick-knees at the Crocodile Bridge. That night, the Black and white Owls showed at Cerro and the following day, we picked up more species on the road to Bijagual, including scope views of Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet.
Next week, I head back to Cerro Lodge and Carara for two days of guiding and I hope to get out this Sunday. The amazing thing is that even though I am up to 572 species for the year, I may still pick up a few more by the end of May!
Rincon de la Vieja is this large volcano that looms into the sky near Liberia in northern Costa Rica. Not sure where it is? Just look east and north of the highway anywhere around Liberia. You will see a mountain that stands out from the Guanacaste flatlands like a humongous sore thumb. It’s almost always topped with clouds and thus makes for a common, fine photography subject. As befits its stand-out character, Rincon de la Vieja also beckons to birders with a heck of a fine assemplage of birds.
The Pacific slope parts of the volcano are good for just about every dry forest species and host quite a few Caribbean slope birds as you move into the evergreen forests at higher elevations but what about the northern side of the volcano? What are the forests like there? Well, I paid a weekend visit a couple of weeks ago with the Birding Club of Costa Rica and the forests are pretty darn good.
During approximately two full days of birding while staying at the Las Bromelias cabinas (cheap!), we identified somewhere around 170 species and would have got more with further exploration. While there is the usual disheartening deforestation for cattle pastures at various places en route, the road to the place also passes near and through nice moist forests and foothill rainforests that act as a corridor to extensive areas of rainforest on Volcan Cacao. We didn’t have the time to stop and bird in those corridor areas but I bet they are good for a wide variety of Caribbean slope rainforest species.
As one gets close to Las Bromelias, edge habitats and second growth are quite birdy and host expected species along with goodies possible like Black-crested Coquette (we had one in a flowering tree), and Bare-crowned Antbird (not too rare!). At the cabins, there is a nice and birdy riparian grove, second growth, and a good area of forest along one of their trails. We had toucans and various expected edge species at the cabins and some nice forest birds on the trails.
By nice forest birds, I mean things like Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Ant tanager, Northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Bare-crowned Antbird, Dusky Antbird, an army of White-collared Manakins, Song Wren, and one of the stars of the show, Keel-billed Motmot. We got excellent scope looks at a pair in the back of the quarry and I was very pleased to record it to see if I can parse some sort of difference between its call and that of Broad-billed Motmot. The two species sound so similar that they respond to each other’s calls so I don’t know if I will discern a difference but at least I now have a recording of a definite Keel-billed Motmot.
We didn’t get a chance to do much birding back in the nice forested area but I would love to do some surveys there to see if Tawny-faced Quail and White-fronted Nunbird occur. The R V G Cuckoo might be there too but you can’t really survey for that mega avian wizard of the understory anyways.
The other main area for birding was the road up to good forest and hot springs. We didn’t make it to the volcanic waters but who cares, this was a birding trip by golly! We also had some definite by golly birds. At the edge of the forest, one of our best was a pair of Tawny-chested Flycatchers. It’s always nice to see this colorful Empid.-like bird because they are rare, very localized, and easy to identify. There are only a few reliable sites for them anywhere but based on the places I have seen them, it looks like one of their preferred habitats may be slopes with fairly old second growth (60 year old trees) and various vine tangles near the edge of rainforest.
Further on, we had an antswarm in the forest and had excellent looks at Ocellated, Spotted, and Bicolored Antbirds. No ground cuckoo and few birds overall but we weren’t complaining!
While we watched the swarm, we were entertained by the calls of a couple of Tody Motmots and one eventually showed very well for scope views! In my opinion, this seemed to be even better for Tody Motmot than the Heliconias area at Bijagua because we saw more than one and heard several. We also got Broad-billed Motmot along the road for a nice motmot trip trio.
The road ends at an upscale place known as “Sensoria”. Cars can be parked there and one can continue on foot through nice forest. That spot was especially birdy and gave several hummingbirds coming to flowering Ingas including brief looks at another Black-crested Coquette, Steely-vented Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Goldentail, Violet Sabrewing, and others (we had at least 17 species for the trip). A few tanagers also moved through the trees, the best being Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Rufous-winged Tanager (!).
We picked up Stripe-breasted Wren there and also had excellent looks at Nightingale Wren. While walking in the forest, we were entertained by the songs of Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes and White-throated Thrushes. We also flushed a quail dove that could have been Ruddy or Chiriqui, and although we didn’t make it to an area where umbrellabirds have been seen, we also had White-ruffed and Long-tailed Manakins, and an Eyelash Viper!
The trip ended all too soon but next time, I hope to survey the road from Buenos Aires to the Santa Maria sector because it passes through a good-sized area of intact habitat. Probably some nice surprises along that stretch of road!
As a final bonus, the site had the best swift watching I have ever seen in Costa Rica. I’m not sure if it was due to the cloudy weather, or proximity to waterfalls in good forest, but we had fairly low, good looks at such uncommon species as White-chinned and Black Swifts among more common species like White-collared, Lesser Swallow-tailed, and Vaux’s Swifts.
I have this Polish friend by the name of Eva who loves owls. She is also into Hoopoes but owls are what she likes the most. It’s easy to see why Eva and lots of other non-birders would take the time to see an owl but not even give a second glance at say a Connecticut Warbler (not that this one allows looks anyways) or a Black-capped Vireo. With their fluffy plumage, big, staring eyes, and horn-like tufts, they hardly look like birds. We know that they are indeed avian but they seem to be in a special, cool class of their own.
Owls are pretty much eternally cool and it’s a shame that we can’t see a few every day of the week. The problem with owls is that they mostly come out at night, hide out during the day, and usually have low density populations. In Costa Rica, most species are fairly common and even live in unexpected places (like that pair of Spectacled Owls in the middle of San Jose) but they are still a pain to see. They just hide too well and one of the most accomplished of hiders is the Tropical Screech Owl.
It’s not rare, it can live in parks, and it doesn’t screech. Regarding screeching, are there any screech owls that actually screech? Barn Owls screech but screech owls give hooting calls and even horse whinnies but they sure don’t screech! I bet one did when it was “collected” but instead of realizing that even rabbits screech when faced with imminent death, the 18th century collector thought, “Well now, this fine specimen of an owl has thus given a screechy vocalization. I shall name it a Screech Owl!” Meanwhile, the Mahicans, Tuscarora, and other automatic birder native peoples silently chuckled because they knew that the small owls of the eastern woodlands whinnied, gave trebled calls, and hid in plain sight but weren’t really known for their screeches.
BUT, back to the Tropical Screech. This fine little bird is indeed fairly common in the Central Valley but you would never know it. Perhaps because it has to deal with larger owls, it doesn’t call so much, loathes the day, and does its best to stay out of sight. I hear one call now and then from nearby shade coffee farms but hardly ever see one (and I am always on the lookout for a roosting owl). To give an idea of how much of a birding pain this little bird can be, my friend Susan has heard them now and then near her house too but she hadn’t seen one until recently. On that fine day, she noticed that the neighborhood grackles were cackling up a storm and went to check out what they were up to.
Instead of finding a cat torturing a baby bird, she saw a Tropical Screech Owl! She called me, I said that I couldn’t make it because of work but to please call back if the birds stayed. Thirty minutes later, I open an email with owl photos and a short message saying that the grackles had gone. That did it. Next thing I knew, I had packed my digiscoping stuff into the car and was on my way. Twenty minutes of frustrating driving behind a slow clueless car later (yes, he gets the clueless award because he passed a bus on a blind turn), I arrived at Susan’s. She showed me the birds and said, “But look what else is there!”.
Yes! A pair of Tropical Screech and a fuzzy baby as a bonus!
Now where were these birds on our Big Day? We tried for them literally right in the same area. They probably should have been called “Hermit Owls” or “Pain Owls” instead of “Screech Owls”.
To see the Tropical Screech Owl in Costa Rica, look for roosting birds in the big bamboo bunches in the Bougainvillea Hotel gardens (if you stay there and look for ages in the bamboo), or you might try spotlighting for them at any hotel in the Central Valley with a big garden. Another good site for them is Talari Lodge (this is where I made the recording for this species that is on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), and other sites in the Valle del General.