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Polar vortices don’t reach as far south as Costa Rica but that doesn’t negate their effect. The icy fingers of the latest freeze up north have touched enough air masses to push some of the cold stuff down this way. It’s way too far south for any substantial amount of snow or ice but we do get cool temperatures and, most of all, sort of ridiculous amounts of rain. These aren’t the typical reliable tropical thunderstorms where one can bird all morning and take a nap accompanied by the soothing sound of falling rains in the afternoon. Nope, more like a near constant barrage of falling water that goes from light to heavy to mist in wave after trying wave.

Yeah, like how do you watch birds with conditions like that? What happened to the dry season? Patience and perseverance are key to birding success in such wet times as these, as for the dry season, in January that has always been more of a Pacific slope thing anyways. The funny thing about the dry season in Costa Rica is that it’s not really the dry season for the entire country. While the rains don’t happen on part of the Pacific slope, it has always been another story for the Caribbean and during cold fronts, the rains soak the waterways of the mountains and lowlands that flow to the Atlantic basin.

The water that falls on Arenal Volcano heads to the Caribbean and during a cold front, its slopes catch a lot of that moisture. Recently, while guiding four fellow birders from New York state, I was witness to the effects of a cold front. Despite the frightening prospect of near constant rain, we actually had more good birding news than bad. It did not end up raining the entire time and we still connected with several nice targets during birding at the Observatory Lodge and the Peninsula Road. Some hits, misses, and observations:

Take advantage of the buffet breakfast– Yes, seriously, and this worked in our favor because we could start birding at dawn, take a break at 8:20 to stock up on gallo pinto, cheese rolls, and other food, and then continue right on through lunch.

Antbirds played well– Continuing the birding on through lunch is especially important when it might rain for the rest of the afternoon, and many of the target species require an investment of birding time. We would not have seen our target antbirds if we had not stayed out there on the Hormiga and Saino Trails post breakfast. We got looks at Dull-mantled, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated at an antswarm. It started raining shortly thereafter just as we were about to see a Thicket Antpitta. Over on the Peninsula Road the following morning, we heard several Bare-crowned and had brief looks at one or two.

A Spotted Antbird from another trip to the Arenal area.

The White Hawk Villa really does have White Hawks– If you want lots of space, stay at the villa! Although we didn’t take advantage of all that extra floor space to throw a White Hawk dance party, we did have excellent looks at the signature raptor species.

Cotinga dip– No, we did not make finger foods out of shiny birds. Birders will know that we barely missed seeing a cotinga in the morning, missed again that afternoon, and then did not see it the following morning. Ouch. Serious ouch to see pictures of the male Lovely Cotinga from the day before and then the day after we left. No senor Cotinga, you were not supposed to take a day off from that fruiting fig.

Cracids, tanagers, and toucanets still come out in the rain– Or, at least in cloudy conditions. Great Curassows walked the grounds, Crested Guans posed and made weird honking noises (the local version of a goose?), chachalacas appeared, several tanagers showed including Emerald, and we couldn’t help but see another Yellow-eared Toucanet!

Female Yellow-eared Toucanet at the Casona. The fourth for the trip, you would think these were reliable!

The Black and White Owl is still there– One of these beauties frequently feeds at a light at the entrance to the Casona at the Observatory Lodge. Much to our delight, it was there during our visit as well.

A few other dips but a few other good birds too– We couldn’t escape the rain entirely and it likely resulted in us missing seeing that antpitta, and finding Song Wren, Nightingale Wren, and a few other birds. But, we did see a distant soaring Great Black Hawk, saw a roosting Great Potoo, got our Keel-billed Motmot, and at the last second of guiding, White-fronted Nunbird!

I went back there later that day with a friend and the nunbirds were still there, this time doing imitations of kingbirds.

We also had more views of the star motmot.

Unfortunately, more cold fronts in Costa Rica are expected due to a cold water Nina effect in the Pacific. Be ready for rain but if you are also ready to persevere, you can still see a lot.

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At times, the number of birds on the Costa Rica list seems endless. Although some websites mention a robust 850 plus species, actually, the total has grown a fair bit since the list was pegged at that number. Some new birds were expected, some weren’t, but in any case, at the moment, the official list stands at more than 920 species, one of which was added just the other day (Great Black-backed Gull in Tortuguero!).

With such a large number of birds, we can also expect a fair number to be rare or hard to find. As anyone who has tried to see Tawny-faced Quail, Gray-headed Piprites, or Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica can tell you, this is indeed true. Those three and several other species can be pretty tough whereas quite a few others are just plain uncommon. The uncommon ones are the birds that frequently escape detection on brief trips or even when you only have one day to bird a site. Check that same area over three days and you have a much better chance at connecting with the uncommon and secretive ones but who has the time for that when you have other sites to get to and just ten days to work with?

At the end of the day, this means that whether a birder resides in Costa Rica or visits once a year, he or she always has the chance to see new birds, at least for their country list. One species that frequently escapes detection during an average tour is the toucan species that most folks still need after two or even three trips to Costa Rica. The lack of a check (or tick in Brit-birder lingo) next to its name derives from its decidedly reclusive behavior, likely low density population, and often inaccessible foothill forest home.

Unlike bold toucan species that yelp and rattle from exposed perches, the toucanet with the yellow ears clacks from the shady depths of tall rainforest trees. It rarely if ever ventures into the open and would rather stay quiet than demonstrate any degree of vocal capability. In other words, a real stickler to see but there’s good news! When certain types of trees are fruiting, this species can’t help its hunger and lingers for as long as the tree provides the banquet. Lately, in foothill forests, those very trees have been laden with purple, round fruits, and the toucanets have come out to dine.

This male was with a female on the Ceiba trail at Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other day, despite near constant rain, we had three different Yellow-eared Toucanets at such fruiting trees in Quebrada Gonzalez, and we weren’t the only ones to have soul satisfying looks at this local mega. Other birders have also been reporting and posting fantastic pictures of the toucanet from the Arenal area. Since I am headed there soon, it will interesting to see if we find more of this fine bird species. Whether we see more toucanets or not, it will still be worth it to watch those clumps of purple fruits because they look just as delectable for umbrellabirds and other birds, maybe even a lovely bright blue and purple one.

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admin on January 3rd, 2018

According to the calendars on my computer, iPad and around the house, another year has started. On December 31st, I was also made aware of this fact by way of a flurry of small, controlled explosions that went off just around midnight. I wasn’t up on purpose, I was attempting to sleep or at least get enough rest to guide the following morning. The good thing is that whether because I had gotten enough rest or because of exhilaration at starting a new year list, fortunately, I did not feel exhausted on January first, 2018. I birded/guided all day long and lists at the end of the day included a bunch of quality species.

We started at El Tapir, right at dawn. No bat-like silhouettes of Short-tailed Nighthawks appeared but we made up for that with these and other highlights:

First birds were small hummingbirds: But wait, aren’t all hummingbirds on the smaller end of things? Well, yes, but if we were the same size as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewings might look as big as a Clydesdale, whereas Snowcaps would be sort of like Hobbits. I know, given the unkempt, hairy feet, and hole-dwelling behaviors, probably not the fairest of comparisons. But, when you consider the need for a second or third breakfast, maybe not so far from the mark…

Black-crested Coquette was one of the very first species we saw.

This was quickly followed up by views of Green Thorntail and Snowcap.

Ant swarm in the garden: Bicolored Antbirds called from the edge of the forest and the open areas played host to a few Wood Thrushes, Buff-rumped Warblers, and even Passerini’s Tanagers intently peering at the ground. A closer look revealed a partially hidden carpet of ravenous ants. Yes! Most people  might balk or reach for the Raid when hearing “ants” “swarm” and “garden” in the same sentence. Not us birders and especially not in Costa Rica because an antswarm in the garden means serious bird activity and photo opps. Although the true antbirds stayed in the shade of forest or a hedgerow, we did get looks at Bicolored and one stellar Ocellated Antbird.

Always stunning!

The small toucan with yellow ears: The other toucans in Costa Rica have normal ears. This one’s are yellow and it’s the one that we all want to see. Unlike its boisterous relatives, the Yellow-eared Toucanet is a much more stealthy creature. Usually seen in pairs, it creeps through the canopy of foothill and middle elevation rainforest as it searches for fruiting trees and small animals. Sort of like a ninja. Come to think of it, its mostly black plumage also makes it look a bit like an avian ninja. Well, then again, maybe not it’s still a champ at avoiding detection. That’s why watching one at El Tapir on the first day of the year was a major win in the realm of autonomous challenges.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager: Is it a shrike? How about a tanager? It’s actually sort of both- a tanager that has a shrike-like bill but also acts like a flycatcher. I know, like what on Earth is going on here? To top off the weirdness, shrike-tanagers also make lots of noise. Like the toucanet, this bird is another mature forest snob. You gotta venture into the old woods to see the White-throated Shrike-Tanager. It was very nice to encounter three or four at El Tapir.

Other tanagers: In Costa Rica, foothill rainforests are also where the other tanagers roam. Hard to think of a better way to start the year than watching a colorful display that included Emerald, Speckled, Black and yellow, Tawny-crested, and Silver-throated tanagers among other species.

If you see an Emerald Tanager in good light, please feel free to gasp.

It was a great first day of the year, especially when we ended it with an afternoon of Great Green Macaws, Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, trogons, and Broad-billed Motmot in the Sarapiqui area. Are you birding in Costa Rica? Wishing you a Snowy Cotinga and lots of other birds in 2018!

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admin on December 28th, 2017

At this time of year, I tend to be bathing in the warmth of my parent’s home in Niagara Falls, NY accompanied by family and a plate of good old fashioned gnocchi from the Como Restaurant.

Yum.

My daughter also lives up to her yearly promise of hitting me with a snowball as I enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of red cardinals, chickadees, and juncos. This, year, though, we didn’t make the trip and given the reports of soul-biting temperatures and abundant white stuff, I kind of don’t mind that we stayed in Costa Rica, that I missed out on Como gnocchi in late December. It’s not so bad, I mean I got the chance to do some awesome Christmas Bird Counts, pushed up the year list total a little bit more and finally even saw a Spotted Rail!

While staying here for the changing of the years, I was also reminded of some things to keep in mind when birding in Costa Rica. These are five of them:

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are the de-facto Empid: Never mind the Leasts, here’s the Yellow-bellieds! No matter how uncommonly seen it may be up north, most winter Empids in Costa Rica are this one. Pish and it will probably call back, take advantage of studying them but do keep an eye out for Acadians. The southern Empid is here as well, just not as common as the little flycatcher on vacay from the boreal zone. An occasional Least is also seen but know that the small Empid with the gray head is quite the rare find this far south.

The Yellowish Flycatcher is also common in middle elevation forest but its much more obviously yellow than migrant Empids.

I may have a yellow belly but I still rule the winter Empid scene in Costa Rica.

It’s cooler now: Just like up north, temperatures go down but instead of sinking to bitter freezing cold, they only skip-drop a few degrees. This makes for slightly more welcome temperatures in Carara and other sun-baked areas of the Pacific lowlands, as well as a nippy climate when owling for the Unspotted Saw-whet.

Beware of festivals: Not that there’s anything bad about streets being taken over by prancing horses, random fireworks, and loud music. It’s just that when you need to get somewhere to see birds, such activities can become rather problematic. At least festivities tend to be held in urban areas and not on major highways, and Waze should let you know when you need to make that detour (unless you do feel like partaking in beers, horses, and experiencing the local version of “yee-haw!”).

Dry and windy in the west, rain in the east: Or, is that north and then south? Yes, you could say that too, I suppose it’s easiest to remember that it’s dry on one side of the mountains and wet on the other. A generalization for sure but more or less true at this time of year. It probably won’t infringe upon the birding too much, stick with it and you will still see a lot!

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

Birds take vacations too: Many in Costa Rica move to lower elevations and odd places in quests for food and more pleasant climes. Watch for fruiting trees and bushes in lowland and foothill rainforests on both slopes. That’s where a lot of the birds are!

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

I hope these reminders are of help for any bird-related trip to Costa Rica. As always, I also hope to see you in the field, especially if we happen to be watching a Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, or a Loggerhead Shrike (nope, not on the list yet and not likely, but I did have a vivid dream about seeing one in Costa Rica).

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admin on December 22nd, 2017

I haven’t posted in a couple weeks but I have a good excuse. At least I think I do, it involves being busy with birding, Christmas Bird Counts, and general family vacation stuff. I’m still doing some of that from now until the final day of 2017 but tonight, I managed to find time to write a post. In terms of birds and Costa Rica, although there’s a lot I could talk about, I’ll limit this one to Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

Rincon de la Vieja is the most prominent mountain visible from Liberia. Just look to the north and there it is, a big blocky uprising of land topped in green, and, quite often, with clouds. Like most mountains in Costa Rica, it’s actually a volcano, and hosts wonderful tropical forests where lots of nice birds live. Last weekend, the very first CBC was held for the park, and thanks to the count organizers, not only was it a success, I also got a cool tee-shirt emblazoned with a Northern Potoo.

The official count bird and emblem wasn’t some birding pipe dream either. Much to our collective happiness, there actually was a Northern Potoo waiting for us at Rincon de la Vieja! One has apparently been hanging out on a typical potoo perch for the past couple of months and did us a huge favor by showing up on that same spot for the morning of the count.

Yes, potoos are seriously weird. An excellent and much wanted year and country bird.

If you are interested in seeing that potoo, ask the park guards at the new information center, they will probably know if it is on the perch. Information Center? Oh yes! The park has a nice new building with restrooms, potable water, where you can learn about the trails, and so on.

If the potoo is on the same perch, you won’t have to walk far either because it’s only about 100 meters past the entrance to the Las Pailas trail. Whether you look for the bird or not, it’s going to be an easy walk because the trail has been recently paved with cement. It’s easy-going, is handicap accessible, and still has lots of good birds.

Speaking of birds, Rincon always has a lot to offer, some of the typical species being Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Golden-crowned Warbler, Long-tailed Manakin, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Ivory-billed, Olivaceous, Ruddy, and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. All of these are fairly common along with a good variety of other species. Choice birds like Tody Motmot and uncommon sparrows for Costa Rica are also present and there’s always a chance at rarities like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo and Violaceous Quail-Dove. As an aside, Army Ants also seem to be more common at Rincon de la Vieja.

Given its position on both sides of the continental divide and rain trapping capabilities, if you visit the Santa Maria sector, you might see more species of humid forest. The Pailas sector accesses moist and dry habitats but don’t expect to be able to hike up to the crater any time soon, volcanic activity has kept that trail closed. Both the Pailas and Cangreja trails have good birding, Pailas being better for folks with limited mobility. Since Cangreja covers more ground and passes through quite a bit of mature forest, this trail probably offers better chances at connecting with rare species. Nevertheless, rocky parts of the trail combined with ascents and descents only make it suitable for folks who can handle such situations.

As for getting to Rincon de la Vieja, thanks to most of the road to the park now being paved, expect a quick 30 minute drive from Liberia. However, thanks to Rincon’s geographic situation, we can also expect it to be pretty windy up there from time to time, probably more so during the dry season. Unfortunately, that constant wind was with us during the count and it took a serious toll on hearing birds. Persevere though, and you will still see a lot, especially when the wind dies down, or, best of all, when it’s not windy at all.

To learn more about birding at this and dozens of other sites in Costa Rica, as well as more than 700 pages on how to find and identify birds in Costa Rica, see my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on December 6th, 2017

For many, December is a month of importance. Major holidays are celebrated, winter makes itself known by way of dim days, long nights, and blowing snow, juncos flit through the woods, and birds feast at the feeder. We laugh and make merry with the family, eat too much, and ponder the utility of spiced drinks.

While some of us have our annual viewing of “Die Hard”, others brave busy stores, crowded roads, and a constant barrage of holiday tunes as we strive to acquire the right gifts. After a few days of the annual madness, many of us understand the utility of fortified beverages all too well, but for us birders, whether we feel like enjoying a fine craft beer or not, we can’t help but smile because we have other very important things to look forward to. This being December, Christmas count season is upon us and oh what a jolly fun time it is!

There’s nothing like heading out into the freezing cold pre-dawn to listen for owls in a sky so damn cold it feels like the stars might just shatter. It’s even better when you wonder if your frozen nose is still sitting on your face as you issue forth owl imitations that begin to sound more like, “This sucks for you!” instead of the usual words. It all changes, though, when the voice of an honest to goodness Barred Owl echoes through the winter forest. The sudden communication and connection with nature fosters the warmth and satisfaction associated with birding success and keeps us going throughout the long, cold day. As the day moves forward, we are rejuvenated by each new bird, wonder what is being seen by other counters, and rejoice in just being out there in the woods, fields, shore, or other natural places.

We give ourselves over to birds, just for a day, and that eggnog tastes so much better for having done so because when you get up before dawn, walk miles through wild lands, and share it with like-minded people, you damn well know you are living! It’s always better when a lifer joins you for the personal counting party but if not, it’s still glorious to experience the beauty of the count.

It’s even better when you can do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and this is why:

It’s not cold– It might rain all day but you won’t have to worry about putting on that parka. This here is the tropics; all those Baltimore Orioles, wood-warblers, and other migrants don’t come here for nothing! No need for gloves or a cozy hat up in this house. Instead, we are concerned about wearing clothing that keeps us cool, carrying enough water to stay hydrated, and keeping up with the chattering of parakeets, chortles of wrens, and the sights and sounds of hundreds of other birds.

No snow in the rainforest at wonderful Finca Luna Nueva.

Constant birds– Unlike some counts up north, in Costa Rica, you will be hearing or seeing birds all day long, many of which will be different. The new birds keep coming in the rich tropical habitats of Costa Rica- be ready for the challenge!

Keep the tanagers coming- this is a Black and Yellow.

Rare stuff– Since many tropical species are naturally rare, you can expect to run across one or more of those birds that you just don’t see that often. You never know what you might find but you walk hand in hand with excitement because the rare ones can take the form of anything from a Yellow-eared Toucanet to a Sunbittern or even Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

It’s an event!– Christmas Bird Counts in Costa Rica are often all out events. A count meeting is usually held the evening before count day and can include a talk or two about a special bird in the count circle, recent bird studies, and/or overviews of the routes. Route leaders are named, counters assigned, and bag lunches are handed out. When the count is finally over, we gather together once more to tally up the 300 plus species, exchange stories, and share a dinner and drinks. Distributors of optics and arts and crafts might also be present and someone might even make a speech.

This year, I have done one count so far, the Arenal Christmas Count, I sure hope I can fit in one or two more so I can end this year with a fine birding blast. Here is a link to counts being held, sign up to experience one or two!

 

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Another end of the year is nigh. Although the keeping of time is a subjective endeavor, putting a name to the end of another solar cycle is still a good excuse to get in more birding. I know, like any of us birders require a reason to put the focus on birds. We do it anyways, most of the time, so why try and get more busy with digging nature now? Although we don’t really need to watch more birds now than say June, with Christmas counts on the near horizon and year lists coming to an end, I guess we just better get out there and put the binos to an end of year, smash bang kung-fu birding test!

Test them on a Double-toothed Kite.

If you happen to be in Costa Rica these days, there are few better excuses to carry on with some non-stop birding. Literally hundreds of species await including more than a few with some seriously fancy looks. Here are five tips to see more of those cool birds in Costa Rica right now:

The Arenal Christmas Count– Ok, so you need to see this blog tonight or tomorrow to make it happen but if you are in Costa Rica on November 30th and want to participate in an awesome count in a super birdy area this weekend, contact the count organizers now at conteoavesarenal@gmail.com I’m going and I can’t wait to see what we find. Hopefully a rare migrant warbler or two (although I guess I would trade them for a Crested Eagle).

Visit Cope– Some time with Cope is especially well spent if you are into photography. If not, roosting owls, fine feeder displays, and a chance to purchase excellent bird art might also float your boat. Since he is in the lowlands, and the lowlands have lots of trees in fruit right now, there’s always the chance that Cope also has some good frugivores staked out.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique at Cope’s.

Hire a guide for a day trip– If you don’t have a guide for the entire time, consider hiring one for a day or two. If he or she is experienced, you will see more birds than on your own and a better chance at more of your target species.

Don’t shy away from “new” sites– There are a lot of good birding sites in Costa Rica, “hotspots” if you will, and some are on par with or even better than more established birding locales. Keep in mind that although eBird gives an indication of what can be found at a site, places that have been eBirded much more also tend to have more species on their lists. This doesn’t mean that those sites shouldn’t be visited or anything like that, but just to keep in mind that some of those species might have been more common in the past. The more birding that takes place in an area, the more species also eventually make it onto the list. I guess the only thing I’m really trying to say with this ramble is to not be afraid to check out spots off the regular birding circuit. If the habitat is there (lots of primary forest), that’s where the best birding is. Some sites that come to mind are Albergue del Socorro, the Finca Luna Nueva area, Volcan Tenorio, and Laguna del Lagarto.

Hit different elevations– When birding in Costa Rica, it’s well worth it to include sites or visits to the lowlands, foothills, middle elevations, and high elevations. Each elevational section has different habitats and forests with different birds. Leave one of those elevations out of the birding picture and you eliminate chances of seeing whole suites of bird species.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem awaits in middle elevations.

I hope those five tips help your birding trip to Costa Rica, especially if you can go to the count on Saturday! If I don’t see you there, I hope to see you somewhere else in the field. To learn more about birding sites throughout Costa Rica as well as how to see more birds, see my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on November 22nd, 2017

Go birding in Costa Rica and there will be birding highlights. With so many possibilities, it’s a given no matter how many times a birder has been here. A first trip will, by nature, be nothing but high points from start to finish whereas folks with challenging targets can enjoy trip highlights by going to the right places and hiring a knowledgeable guide. For someone who has been birding in this country for several years, the highlights can come in the form of rare migrants, personal bogey species, antswarm action, or whatever happens to float your birding boat.

For me, most of all, highlights take the form of helping people see their targets. I also enjoy watching, listening to, and experiencing pretty much every bird I come across but the excitement is at its best when people I am with see their first quetzal, when a Yellow-breasted Crake creeps into the open, or when a seasoned guide adds one more key species to their life list. My lifers in Costa Rica may be hard to come by but the highlights still happen every time I go birding, especially when I am guiding. These are some of my highlights from three recent days of guiding in Costa Rica:

During a visit to Cope’s place, close looks at a bunch of birds are always nice, especially when some of those are usually living 100 feet above the ground.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique at eye level was really nice. 

Several other birds also showed including American Pygmy Kingfisher and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer but the best highlights might have been the views of roosting Crested and Spectacled Owls.

Roosting owls are sort of like seeing ten lifers at once. 

At El Tapir, Snowcap is always a treasure but the golden highlights of a female Black-crested Coquette were especially cool. I think they even trumped the brief views of a Tiny Hawk from that same morning. King Vulture and high flying Ornate Hawk-Eagles were also awesome.

This is an Ornate Hawk-Eagle hiding in plain sight.

Tanagers at the San Luis Canopy were fantastic. Constant close views were the best live show and included super close looks at Emerald, Bay-headed, Speckled, and other species.

One of several Emerald Tanagers.

Coppery-headed Emerald at Cocora Hummingbird Garden is expected but the glowing plumage of the male is always a treat. So were several other hummingbird species there.

On Cerro Lodge Road, good looks at a Collared Forest-Falcon were a fine way to start the birding day. This was followed up by patches of dry forest ringing with the calls of various species including the barking notes of Gray-headed Kite, the train whistle calls of Turquoise-browed Motmot, and the tooting of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. We saw a couple of those species along with several others.

In Carara National Park, a close Great Tinamou was memorable and many other birds showed including small flocks of White-shouldered Tanagers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, manakins, and other species. However, the best highlight may have been the final one, an antswarm accompanied by Gray-headed Tanagers, Bicolored Antbirds, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, and a couple of Tawny-winged Woodcreepers– for myself, year bird #704.

Too many highlights to mention during three days of wonderful birding in Costa Rica. Imagine how many happen during two weeks of birding in Costa Rica?

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Costa Rica is so replete with birding hotspots, it can be a challenge to pick sites for a birding trip. If you have only a week or two to work with, you might be better off making a top ten target list and going from there. My Costa Rica bird finding e-book provides all the necessary information to plan and carry out a successful birding trip to Costa Rica, I often visit the sites mentioned in that 700 page publication, including last weekend while guiding a trip to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge.

Situated on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Nicoya north of Puntarenas, these sites and the general vicinity make for excellent birding grounds. The roads that lead to Chomes, Punta Morales, Abangares, and other settlements access a mix of riparian groves punctuated with massive old growth trees, open fields, second growth, patches of forest, and coastal habitats. As one might surmise, this translates to a healthy supply of dry forest species, shorebirds, and some aquatic birds. The size of the area and lack of birding coverage also adds excitement to every visit. Bird around there and who knows, you might come across an Aplomado Falcon (someone had one last month), find a roosting owl or two, wintering painted buntings, mangrove specialties, maybe even a Jabiru (one has been recently visiting a wetland just down the road from Ensenada).

It’ always a worthwhile area for exploration, but if you only have a couple days to work with, a birder can’t go wrong by sticking to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge. The road in to Chomes often has Harriss’s Hawk, Double-striped Thick-knee, and other dry forest species, whereas Ensenada offers up a nice mix of species associated with dry forest, mud flats, and open country. These are some of the highlights from this past weekend:

Cave Swallow!: November seems to be a good month to connect with this rare but regular migrant. We had one mixed in with several Barn Swallows perched on a wire just before the village of Chomes, and two days later, I also caught a glimpse of a probable Cave Swallow at Ensenada. It will be interesting to see if more show up a month from now in those same areas. On a side note, I was surprised to see how well the Cave Swallow blended in with the Barns. In substandard light and from the front, its orange-buff throat made it look much more like a Barn than I expected.

An excellent year bird!

Raptors: The 21 species of hawks, kites, falcons, and owls that we saw or heard show that the general area (especially Ensenada) is prime raptor habitat. Our best species were Crane Hawk (seen both days at Ensenada), Hook-billed Kite (a juvenile at Chomes and Ensenada), and Northern Harrier– a high flying rare migrant. Oddly, we did not have one of the more common raptors in that area- Roadside Hawk! That, or I can’t recall if we saw one because it’s a common, expected bird. In addition to Black Vulture, this is our list-

Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Hook-billed Kite
Northern Harrier
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Gray Hawk
Crane Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Common Black-Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon (heard only)
Laughing Falcon (also heard only)
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
Barn Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Pacific Screech-Owl
Mottled Owl (heard only)

One of the Hook-billed Kites we saw.

This and a second Zone-tailed Hawk entertained us at the salinas.

Common Black-Hawks are expected in coastal habitats.

Pacific Screech-Owl: This one deserves a second mention because it’s so common around Ensenada. I think I heard five from the lodge at night, and we saw two roosting birds right next to the restaurant during the day.

Hello owl!

Shorebirds: The shrimp and salt ponds in the area are important, excellent habitat for a variety of shorebirds. Although we didn’t see any Facebook breaking rarities, watching hundreds of Westerns, Semi Sands, Semi Plovers, Black-bellys, Wilson’s, Greater Legs, dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, and a handful of knots at Chomes is perpetually priceless. Seeing flocks take to the air at the sign of a juvenile Peregrine is even better! At Ensenada, we added Surfbird, Ruddy Turnstone, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Yay shorebirds! 

Spot-breasted Orioles: Ensenada is indeed an excellent site for this uncommon species. Their cheery songs filled the air at dawn and we saw several right next to the lodge. In fact, the vicinity of the lodge seemed to be the best area for them.

One of the several Spot-breasteds we saw.

Ensenada Lodge: The lodge itself merits a mention. I truly enjoyed staying there; the cabins were clean, comfortable, and the fans worked to keep things cool. The food was delicious, the surroundings birdy, and a cute little porcupine waddles right through the restaurant every evening!

Can’t complain about the view either.

Breaking 700 for the year: As a personal highlight, this weekend helped me surpass 700 species for 2017. That came in the form of a single American Oystercatcher flying over the waters of the Gulf. 701 was the harrier that flew overhead. I really wanted to hit 700 in 2017, now that I have, I don’t have to worry about chasing a Blackpoll Warbler that was recently seen in San Jose.

If you visit Ensenada, please mention your best bird in the comments. This was our list from Saturday.

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Last weekend, I helped count birds at Cano Negro, a wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica just south of Lake Nicaragua. It was a wonderful, birdy time that included sightings of more than 20 species of raptors, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and Yellow-breasted Crake among other highlights. Since the wetlands and forested areas of Cano Negro always make for excellent birding, constant encounters of the avian kind were pretty much expected but what we didn’t count on was sleeping in comfort during the weekend of the count. On many an occasion, bird counts in Costa Rica include a couple nights on a mattress or cot in a room shared with a bunch of other excited birders. That’s alright, especially if you are young and full of energy, but a bit later in life, a comfortable bed in quiet surroundings is pure gold. This is why Robert, Susan, and I were pleased indeed to be staying at the Hotel de Campo .

The entrance to the wildlife refuge is at the Cano Negro village, a small place with a few streets, some houses, one bar, two small supermarkets (where you can thankfully find ice!), and not much else. That “not much else” is a good thing because it’s partly why the area has so many birds but it also means that there are very few places in the village where you can get a bite to eat and stay for the night. The Hotel de Campo provides both and when you stay there, you also support reforestation while treating yourself to nice photo and birding opportunities along with some fine Italian food.

The owner, Mauro, told me that while they were building the hotel, they also planted several trees and basically reforested areas around the hotel. These same spots now provide homes for Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers along with other lowland forest species like this Slaty-tailed Trogon and even Uniform Crake (try their botanical garden across the street from the hotel)!

Thanks to multiple fruiting trees in the hotel gardens, dozens of birds are usually present including the likes of Gray-headed Chachalaca, trogons, Brown-hooded Parrot and other parrots and parakeets. The close looks make for great photos and the two regional specialties, Gray-headed Dove and Spot-breasted Wren are also present and easy to see.

One of the Gray-headed Doves at Hotel de Campo. This species is much, much easier to see in Cano Negro than other parts of the country.

When you tire of admiring beautiful Red-legged Honeycreepers and various other species on the hotel grounds, you can also walk down to the lagoon and see if any Jabirus are around. Those mega storks visit on occasion (mostly in the dry season) whereas species like Green Ibis, herons, Bat Falcon and many other birds are more regular. Not to mention, there is the nearby refuge itself that provides chances at Sungrebe, kingfishers, crakes, Snowy Cotinga, and an overall fine selection of birds to be seen from a small boat and from a new, tall, sturdy observation tower.

The view from the tower.

Hotel de Campo can arrange boat trips and fishing in the refuge and other activities. Enjoy a cold drink in their nice bar at the end of the day along with the air conditioned room (a welcome treat in hot humid Cano Negro) but don’t forget to head back out at night to see Pacific Screech Owl that lives in the garden and to look for Great Potoo, Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and Black-and-White Owl on roads near the village. All of these are possible and regular in the area!

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