A couple of weeks ago, Susan Blank, Robert Dean, and I ventured out into the Costa Rican wilds to identify as many birds as we could. Although the birding Big Day to end all Big days didn’t officially start until we put on our birding ninja head bands (I wish I had one but they were only figurative), the Big Day really began in January, 2014. That was when we began to think about and discuss our strategy. With the help of personal experience and eBird, we defined and refined the route. Times were taken between key sites to see if we could manage that extra two or five minutes. The road status site for Costa Rica was checked and rechecked. Targets were planned, energy bars were purchased, we had enough yuca chips to keep us going for days, and we were ready to break all records!
Here are some of the factors we took into account to increase our chances of hearing and seeing more species in less time (because that is the basic goal of a Big Day of course):
- Dawn starting Point: Since dawn chorus is key to picking up dozens of forest species, the point for starting the day is of essential importance. Instead of starting out on the Caribbean slope as we had done on past Big Days, we opted for getting into the dawn chorus on the Pacific slope at the Bijagual Road. We opted for that birdy spot because this eliminated the chance of getting rained out in the morning on the Caribbean slope, and the Bijagual Road would give us a chance at hearing many rainforest species in Carara National Park, catch birds as they flew to and from morning roosts, and pick out birds perched in the canopy of the forest.
- Enough time to check out the Tarcoles estuary: On past attempts, time ran out before we could look for waterbirds at the Tarcoles estuary. This year, we would have time to get our only shorebirds at this one key coastal spot. We would have also liked to include Mata de Limon and Guacalillo but there just wouldn’t be enough time to include those important sites.
- The need to get as many species as possible during the night: Those dark hours can be vital not just for owls, but also for rails, herons, and whatever else might call before dawn than during the light of the day.
- Being acutely aware of the time: We knew that we couldn’t allow ourselves to allocate more time to areas that wouldn’t yield as many species. This was why we only gave ten or so minutes for dry forest species.
These were some of the main factors we took into account, now this is how we spent February 22, 2014:
12:00 am: The day starts but we watch birds in our dreams because we didn’t see how two extra hours would give us any extra birds. I know, what were we thinking (!) but honestly, we would have just roamed the back roads of the windy Central Valley like bino-toting zombies.
2:00 am-3:30 am: Now, we could officially start! I drove over to Susan’s, read the ABA Big Day rules, loaded the car with various food and drink, and off we went! There was a big moon in a beautiful night sky as we drove over to the nearby golf course but nary a Tropical Screech or other owl species called. That’s alright, because we had a back up plan! This involved driving over to the nearby Zamora Estate where we hoped to get owls, a heron or two, and who knows what other night birds. That worked out with a Mottled Owl upon arrival, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and both Boat-billed and Black-crowned Night Herons calling from the ponds. The uncommon Black-crowned was a bonus. We also tried for Barn and Striped Owl sans success. After thanking one of the owners for letting us enter the place in the middle of the night and bidding adieu, it was back off to the highway for a quick night drive to the Cerro Lodge road.
4:15 am-4:45 am: We opted for skipping Orotina for the Black and white Owl because we had just as good a chance for it at Cerro Lodge. This eventually proved to be true as we heard that species, Pacific Screech Owl, another Mottled Owl, and Ferruginous Pygmy owl, along with Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, and Southern Lapwing. No Barn or Striped Owls nor the hoped for thick knee but with ten species under the belt, we were off to a good start!
5:00 am: A quick stop at the croc bridge for the thick knee was aborted after a minute because the traffic was too noisy and no thick knees called anyways.
5:15 am-8:30 am: This was it! We were on the Bijagual Road and as hoped, a Spectacled Owl made it onto the list near Villa Lapas. I’m not sure if we got anything else between then and the “death cicadas” but fortunately, those incredibly loud arthropods stopped their unhealthy din after about 20 minutes. As we could barely hear anything else, we probably missed birds but we did alright (ohh, how I hope those cicadas became meals for other animals in the forest). I’m not sure how many species we got but highlights were much needed target forest birds like Crested Guan, Great Curassow, Ruddy Quail Dove, Gray-chested Dove, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Chesnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, both tinamous, Scarlet Macaw and 5 species of parrots and parakeets, Blue-crowned Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed, Golden-naped, and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, two trogons, Black-mandibled Toucan, Fiery-billed Aracari, Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, 3 manakins, Orange-billed Sparrow, 6 wrens, Painted Bunting, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Gray-headed Tanager, and so on.
We also saw the most Western Tanagers and Philadelphia Vireos we had ever seen in one place in Costa Rica, ever. Those two species must have been migrating because the Western was one of the most common species there (this does not happen in Costa Rica), and Phillies were all over the place. Among those Phillies was also at least one Warbling Vireo, a nice, rare surprise! Despite getting well over 100 species, we were actually missing several key birds. We got Gray and White Hawks but other raptors failed to show or be seen in the canopy (that idea was a bust), very few woodcreepers called (might have been drowned out by the death cicadas), and we saw few birds flying to and from roosts. However, one other bonus on the road was scoping a very distant mud flat that gave us several herons, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill.
8:30 am-11:00 am: This time was dedicated to edge and dry forest species, and coastal birds around Tarcoles and near Cerro Lodge. This worked out for the most part with many targets being found including Yellow-naped Parrot, both caracaras, Osprey, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Little Blue Heron, Green Kingfisher, bonus Olivaceous Piculet, some mangrove species, and so on. The estuary also turned up some key birds but not a single gull or tern! Just a couple days before then, I had several terns and gulls there but they flew the coupe on the 22nd. We also picked up a few dry forest species on the Cerro Lodge road but not much in the sunny, hot weather.
11:00 am-12:30 pm: It’s a bit hazy now but I think this was when we drove back up the highway (seeing nothing new) to visit the Turrucares reservoir. It took a bit more time than hoped but resulted well with hoped for Least Grebe, 2 ducks, and bonus Keel-billed Toucan. We also got a high flying Short-tailed Hawk while stopping at an intersection.
12:30 pm-2:00 pm: On we went up slope to the Poas area with a quick stop en route for a friendly Orange-billed Nightingale Thrush in an otherwise silent, warblerless forest. Sunny weather was not a good sign and this marked the point where the Big Day began to seriously slow down. We got the hoped for hummingbirds at the Volcan Restaurant but had to work too much for other birds there and further up slope. Several species did show up including Sooty and Mountain Thrush, both silky flycatchers, Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers, and some other birds but it was pretty quiet and we just didn’t have to time to wait for the birds to show. Our best bird was a surprise Merlin.
2:00 pm-3:00 pm: Part of this time was still spent somewhere around Poas looking for cloud forest species (we got our Prong-billed Barbet) but the luck ran out with road work just before Cinchona. Ouch, there went 20 precious minutes and try as we could to find birds while we waited, only a couple of species showed and called in the sunny weather.
3:30 pm-4:30 pm: A quick stop at Cinchona got us our Green Thorntail and White-bellied Mountain Gem but the fruit feeders were quiet as was the surrounding area. We also picked up Yellow-bellied Elaenia and maybe another bird or two across the street. By 4:30, we finally made it to the Nature Pavilion. This photography hotspot scored us a chachalaca and a few other birds but the area was strangely quiet. We quickly decided to rush over to more forested sites across the river in the hopes of picking up species during the final avian rush of the day.
4:30 pm-5:30 pm: This was the most unexpected hour of the day and the surprise was unwelcome. Basically, the quiet surroundings continued as we saw and heard very few birds for the rest of the day. Most of the hoped for, common species that one usually hears or sees failed to materialize in any way. No Bay Wren, no Black-throated Wren, and so on for many other species. It was very odd and because of this great missing of species, we decided to not bother looking for the handful of night birds we might have still picked up. Instead, we drove home, our final bird being a lone, flyby Green Ibis.
The final tally was 250 species, a total far short of any record but yes, it was another fun, memorable day, as well as being a learning experience. I had to admit that breaking any Big Day record in Costa Rica is unlikely because there are just too many variables. Although you do drive through areas with more than enough species to break every record, the chances of getting enough of those species are diminished by fewer individuals (many species are just not as common as in the past), bird activity slows to a near stop in sunny weather as well as rainy weather so you need something in between, you can miss 40 or more species if you don’t cross paths with mixed flocks, and the birds that frequent the estuary vary quite a bit.
In conclusion, this might be my last Big Day in Costa Rica but it sure would be fun to organize a Costa Rican Birding Rally!
The first birding app for Panama is a digital field guide with photos, sounds, text, and range maps for more than 500 bird species.
San Jose, Costa Rica – The Panama Birds-Field Guide app became available in the iTunes and Amazon stores in February, 2014. This is the first app and digital field guide for the birds of Panama.
Panama might be better known as a focal point for global banking, business, and retirement, but its impressive biodiversity has also placed the country on the bucket lists of thousands of birders and ecotourists. Birdwatchers make their way to Panama to see hundreds of colorful bird species including such exotic favorites as toucans, macaws, tanagers, dozens of hummingbirds, glittering tanagers, and the stunning Resplendent Quetzal.
The Panama Birds-Field Guide app includes images, information, range maps, and sounds for more than 500 of the commonly encountered bird species that occur in the tropical forests of Panama. The app is designed for ease of use and is suited for both veteran birders and folks just curious about the birds they see on vacation or in their garden. In addition to easy to use search parameters and a full checklist of the birds of Panama, the app also includes a “Which Bird is it?” function that allows app users to email photos and sounds of Panamanian birds for identification,
Michael Mullin, head of programming for Birding Field Guides, believes that this app will add a much needed dimension to birding and wildlife observation in Panama.
He said, “Despite the fact that Panama is a global birding hotspot, there weren’t any apps to help residents and tourists identify the many birds that they see in their gardens and natural areas. Our app was designed with this need in mind and we will continue to update it with more images, information, and vocalizations in the coming months.”
The app is currently available for version 4.3 or higher iPod Touch and iPhone devices, and 2.3.3 or higher Android devices.
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.
To learn more about this product, please contact
Patrick O’Donnell, Media Relations
The starting place for any international birding trip is usually the capital city. That’s where the plane lands so despite the over-urbanization, that is where most of us invariably begin that birding adventure. Costa Rica is no exception to the rule because unless you happen to be one of the few birders who are traveling overland from Nicaragua or Panama, you are going to fly in to San Jose. You could also fly in to Liberia and that is a better option for starting a trip but most visitors to the country are scheduled to land at Juan SantaMaria airport up there in the Central Valley.
It’s also commonly referred to as the San Jose airport but that’s not really true because the airport is located next to the city of Alajuela. That tidbit of trivia is important because it can help you choose the first place to stay for the night and that locale will therefore be where you officially start the trip. As one would expect, there are plenty of hotels to choose from but there are just a few that are truly birdy. Logistics are also important to consider as are the conservation efforts of the hotel in question. Oh yeah, and then there is the budget thing to consider. Backpackers and folks with very limited budgets probably aren’t going to end up at a very birdy hotel but they can always plan their trip accordingly and get out of that hostel or small room first thing in the morning.
However, if you want to hang around and look for things like Tropical Screech Owl, Mottled Owl, Spot-bellied Bobwhite, Gray-necked Wood Rail, and several other species, then the best place to begin that trip is the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana. The cost is a bit more than other places but given the variety of species, photo opps (some of the images for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app were taken there) , wetlands, woodlands, brushy fields, excellent service, gourmet cuisine, and bird friendly owners who protect some of the last remaining wetlands and green space in the western Central Valley, the value is more than worth it.
If you arrive after dark, watch for night birds like Mottled and Spectacled Owls, and Pacific Screech Owl. Barn and Striped Owls can also show up and you should hear Boat-billed Herons calling from the lagoons. Don’t worry about seeing them at night because they will be there during the day and the owners don’t want anyone going to the lagoons at night in any case to avoid disturbing the many herons, egrets, and other aquatic species that roost there.
In the morning, you can enjoy breakfast while watching a variety of birds in the lagoons and visiting the bunches of bananas.
A few short trails pass through woodlands, head past the lagoons, and head through brushy fields and vineyards. These can turn up most of the Central Valley birds and some, including that bobwhite, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-capped Warbler, and others. In other words, it’s a great place to start any birding tour to Costa Rica. Oh yeah, and the rooms are pretty nice too!
If there is a downside to staying at Zamora Estate, it’s the traffic that you may face when heading to the hotel during rush hour. However, since that downside also applies to every hotel in the Central Valley, in my opinion, Zamora still comes out on top as the best place to start (and finish) a birding trip to Costa Rica.
I’m not making this up. Although it might not be news to most people (or even most birders), I thought it was cool enough to share with everyone who uses the Internet. While guiding yesterday on the Cinchona-Poas-Nature Pavilion route, I was very surprised to see a Prothonotary Warbler coming to the bananas at Cinchona!
Why surprised you may wonder? Well, while we do see lots of Prothonotaries in mangroves and other lowland wetlands in Costa Rica, I have never seen or heard of one visiting a feeder. I haven’t seen this species at Cinchona either even away from the feeders. They do move through the country though, and can sometimes be seen in large numbers as they migrate along the Caribbean coast. The bird we saw was a reminder that the Golden Swamp Warbler is on the move. It also shows how famished those migrants must be because this little birdy wasn’t going after any insects on the bananas. It was most definitely feasting on the fruit between bouts of being scared away by Clay-colored Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanagers, and other larger birds
No other warblers were seen at the feeders (Tennessees are regular) but I will be hoping and checking during our 2014 Big Day attempt!
On another note, visitors to the Nature Pavilion were regular and awesome as always.
Hope to see you while birding! If you see me and two other people running after birds on Saturday, that would be myself, Robert Dean and Susan Blank doing our Big Day. I would have really loved to have invited a couple other friends along (especially Johan) but since they don’t do bird sounds, and 95% of species need to be identified by all team members (many by sound), that would have eliminated too many birds to break any records. We might not anyways but one can always hope!
One of the most common observations (aka complaints) that birders new to Costa Rica make is related to the sad paucity of raptors. I am definitely sad to admit that this is a valid view because unlike the weedy fields and woodlots far to the north, we don’t see very many raptors on a regular basis. The lower number of raptors is related to higher diversity (and thus lower populations per species due to a higher degree of interspecific competition), and too much substandard forest habitat (edge effects not being conducive to the ecosystems needed to sustain large, healthy populations of forest-based raptors). You see, in Costa Rica, at least half or more of the raptors in the country are very much adapted to intact forest. They don’t do as well in places where there is just as much cow pasture and ag. Fields as rainforest because those habitats just don’t provide enough of the type of food needed for birds like Great Black Hawk, hawk-eagles, Semiplumbeous Hawk, White Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and so on.
This is probably why birds of prey and a higher diversity of raptors are seen when birding in places with large areas of healthy forest (such as the Osa Peninsula, Braulio Carrillo, Rincon de la Vieja, and so on).
However, even if you happen to be hanging out with your binos in fantastic forest, not nearly as many raptors will appear if it rains. While that wet weather can result in views of hawks and falcons perched on an emergent tree, it doesn’t compare to the birds that take to the skies in sunny weather. In general, that aspect of raptor watching in Costa Rica is kind of similar to Europe and North America because this is when all sorts of species can take to the skies.
Last weekend, I got the chance to compare birding during dry and rainy weather at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. It was sunny on Friday and rained for nearly all of Saturday and guess which day was better for raptors? Yes, Friday at Quebrada Gonzalez was good for birds of prey as well as for several other non-raptorial species including killer looks at Black-crowned Antpitta, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Red-headed Barbet, antvireos, antwrens, Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-crowned Manakin, and several tanagers including more Blue and Golds than I have ever seen there in one day.
But, back to the raptors- on Friday, we started off the day with a Barred Hawk,
saw one or two King Vultures through the trees, and got great looks at an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle in flight. We also saw a couple of Broad-winged Hawks but they are pretty much par for the course during the winter months in Costa Rica. In the afternoon, we also lucked out with totally satisfying views of a Semiplumbeous Hawk on the Ceiba trail. It was nice to finally connect with this uncommon species at Quebrada because I had heard of reports from the Ceiba and Botarrama trails. As with some other, more lowland inclined species, the Semiplumbeous doesn’t seem to be regular on the Las Palmas trail. So, that was sunny Friday and we weren’t even focused on looking for raptors.
On rainy Saturday, although we connected with several busy tanager flocks at El Tapir, and saw a fine Ocellated Antbird, we didn’t see anything flying in the rain. However, we still managed nice perched looks at King Vulture and Double-toothed Kite.
The raptor happy sunny weather on Friday also reminded me of guiding a week before then at Cinchona and Poas. That was also a very sunny day that resulted in very close looks at Barred Hawks right from the Café Colibri (the name for the Cinchona hummingbird spot), White Hawk, Bat Falcon, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk eagle (probably Ornate but too far away to say).
In a couple days, I am headed to Palo Verde- a totally different, more open habitat that might give me some nice looks at open country raptors like Harris’ Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Snail Kite, and hopefully a lifer rail and duck. Wish me luck!
Since moving to Costa Rica, I have had to think more about where to go birding in Costa Rica than what to pack for visiting the land of hummingbirds, quetzals, and amazing numbers of Clay-colored Thrush. However, I used to do quite a bit of birding travel and exploration and will now combine those experiences with living here to suggest some things to bring. In addition to the obvious quality waterproof binos, toothbrush, and other usual travel items, here is what I would stick into the baggage:
- A hat: Ok, so I would wear this up there on top and not actually pack it but whatever. Ss with birding trips just about everywhere, a hat is part of the uniform. Unless you stick to night birding, a hat makes it easier to search the skies for specks that could be birds (although see the next suggestion), offers some protection from the monster tropical sun, and can be used to swat that rare biting fly or mosquito. Most of all, it makes you look like an official birder, especially if you wear a wide-brimmed hat (I need to get one of those). Dude, you gotta promote birding, so don’t be shy about showing your birding colors!
- Blue blocking, UV blocking sun glasses: Steve Pike, a birding, fantastic bird photographer friend of mine who has traveled to some major far off places opened my eyes to the importance of sunglasses. They can’t be any old shades but ones that block off some of those rays and make it much easier to look up into a bright sky or out over oceanic waters.
- Quick dry, lightweight clothes: Get some of those futuristic lightweight, quick dry shirts and trousers to spend more time outdoors in comfort.
- A notebook: No, not the electronic kind but a good, old fashioned field book if you will. Get a waterproof one if possible in case you need to sketch a bird in the rain or feel like getting poetic about your experience in the rainforest.
- Protection for devices: As we move forward on our frightening journey to official robothood, we love to bring more electronic devices while traveling far from home. They do come in handy but remember that Costa Rica is a place splashed with a bit of rain (as in several feet a year of splash in some places) so be prepared and come to town with lots of drying packets in ziplock bags, put the cameras in a Pelican case, and don’t be shy about bringing a dry bag.
- The field guide: There were two (and the Garrigues and Dean is a true field guide in terms of size and use), and now that the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is available on Apple and Android platforms, there is another!
- The knowledge that road signs are a rarity: Whether driving or not, don’t expect to know where you actually happen to be. Costa Rica is a small country anyways, so just go with the flow, be guided by your birding sense, and use a GPS navigator thing.
- Bug repellent: Biting insects aren’t too much of a problem in Costa Rica but it’s always good to be prepared.
- Sunblock: Bring the powerful stuff to avoid melting under the rays of the tropical ball of fire up there in the heavens.
- A high tech head lamp: Take advantage of modern technology and bring a powerful, lightweight headlamp to find the night birds and see weird nocturnal bugs and whatnot.
And as a caveat…. What not to bring:
- Rubber boots: You can if you want and I know they are classic jungle fashion but most eco-lodges will lend you a pair where needed.
- A bad attitude: Never good for any situation…
- Too many expectations: This means expecting to see every species. It just doesn’t work that way in the tropics but don’t worry, you will see a lot of cool stuff and will see more species, the more time you spend in quality habitat. It also helps to hire the services of a local birding guide.
- Small, travel binoculars: Avoid these to avoid major frustration, especially when other birders are using their solid optics to marvel over the colors of that Red-legged Honeycreeper or appreciating the glittering plumages of crazy, pugnacious hummingbirds.
- A machete: It’s cool, rural locals have them, and somewhat resembles a Chinese short sword (which is why I want to carry one around) but you don’t really need it. Leave it home if you bought one on that latest trip to Oaxaca or Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
I hope this list helps you have a fantastic trip and hope to see you while birding in Costa Rica!
The first month of 2014 has come to an end so I decided to do a “round up” of blog posts and other birding news in Costa Rica.It’s not complete by any means but with hope, it will be entertaining, and give a heads up on what to expect while birding during the next few weeks. So, since the winter has been going crazy up north we might as well start with weather:
Weather in Costa Rica: Almost the same as always. This means that it’s warm and tropical but we could still use more rain. It looks like this dry season is set to be especially dry and that doesn’t bode too well for birds, plants, and other life forms adapted to a much wetter climate. Many seasonal wetlands have already dried out in the Pacific lowlands so it could be hard to find some waterbirds. At the same time, this also means that if you do find a lagoon or two, it could be filled with storks, spoonbills, ibis, and other aquatic species. This may also explain why I saw a Glossy Ibis fly past the Tarcoles bridge on January 14th, as well as sightings of Green Ibis in Cartago and maybe even near La Gamba.
Migrants: It appears to be a good year for migrants from the north. On just a few trips to the Poas area this winter, I have already had sightings of two different Townsend’s Warblers, Daniel Martinez reported on seeing a Cape May Warbler in Cartago in the forums of the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica site, and others have seen Cedar Waxwings! Not to mention, Robert Dean just told me today that he has seen a Golden-cheeked warbler in his neck of the woods (the Monteverde area) and may have glimpsed a female Black-throated Blue! Sure, I understand that these birds might be non-issues for North American birders but they are exciting for birders from other parts of the globe, Costa Rica included. I, for one, could go for adding the waxwing and those warblers to my Costa Rican list.
The Black and white Owl at Cerro Lodge: It doesn’t seem as reliable in the past so have a back up plan and check the Orotina plaza. If that doesn’t work, try watching for them at any “street lamps” next to humid forest in the lowlands and foothills of both slopes. This owl species is more common than most people think but might not come out and play until after 8 at night.
David Segura has been posting some fun birding quizzes. This young Tico birder hasn’t written much else because he has been out birding.
Seagull Steve over at Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds has some typically entertaining posts about lots of cool birding stuff and some of his fav. sightings from Costa Rica.
Manuel Antonio guide Roy Orozco wrote an informative post about birding at El Copal- great place although I was sorry to hear that they missed the cotinga (I have missed it on my two trips there as well).
January posts from my blog:
I have been doing more birding than writing so have had let time to translate thoughts into the written form but I did manage four posts for the month
I started off with a post of my 2014 hopes and birding expectations,
posted about some recent perspectives of birding at Carara National Park,
talked about why I like to patronize the Cinchona hummingbird cafe, and
finally posted about an exciting weekend of birding in the La Gamba area.
Costa Rica Birding app
It has more than 570 species and I hope we can have 600 in the next update.
Our trusty developer has also optimized it for iOS7 devices, the iPad, and it’s now also available for Android devices in the Amazon store!
Learn more about this birding app here.
Hope to see you in the field while birding in Costa Rica!
It’s no secret that Costa Rica has a healthy abundance of great birding just about everywhere one goes but but some places stand out for the avian attractions they offer. One such place is the general vicinity of La Gamba, a small village in southwestern Costa Rica. I have had some nice birding there on previous trips but after the most recent journey to La Gamba, I left the area convinced that it’s one of the best birding sites in the country. I don’t really think that there’s one best of the best when it comes to birding in Costa Rica but I would say with conviction that La Gamba ranks up there in the top five sites for Costa Rica. Here are the reasons why:
- Serious biodiversity: Yeah, lots of places in Costa Rica are packed with a fine array of creatures but La Gamba still stands out. The rainforests in the area support a huge number of tree species and that high biodiversity is also shown by the birds. For example, after doing an eBird tally of species from one long day in the area that didn’t even include any degree of forest interior birding, my eyes briefly bugged out when I noticed a species total of 152! Yes, the biodiversity is serious and that means that you keep seeing new birds the longer you stay.
- Good array of habitats: More habitats means more birds and in the La Gamba area we have some fine old rainforest in Piedras Blancas National Park, birdy gardens at Esquinas and the Tropenstation, open fields and seasonal wetlands with their respective bunch of birds, flowering trees and bushes that bring in the hummingbirds, and one heck of a birdy riparian zone.
- Endemics: Since La Gamba is located in the southwestern Pacific endemic bird area, it provides a home for species like Charming Hummingbird, Spot-crowned Euphonia, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and the others. All seem to be more common there than at many other sites too. Not to mention, it’s also a good place for Black-cheeked Ant Tanager, one of Costa Rica’s only true endemics. I heard several singing their dawn song on this recent trip and am sure we would have seen them if we had done more forest birding.
- Uncommon, local birds: The habitats at La Gamba are particularly good for a variety of uncommon species. So many “good” birds can be seen there that this could be the deciding factor for it being one of my major faves. For example, here’s a short list of uncommon species that are regular around La Gamba-
Great Curassow: They walk around the gardens of the two main lodges like happy turkeys. Wild, tame, and super easy to watch and that’s how we like them!
Uniform Crake: Seen regularly on the lagoon trail.
Blue-headed Parrot: We had several good looks at these.
Band-tailed Barbthroat: This uncommon hummingbird was fairly common in the gardens of the Tropenstation and along the road.
Veraguan Mango: Look for this fine target when the Erythrinas are in bloom. I had at least two of this lifer on the recent trip!
Red-rumped Woodpecker: Uncommon but regular and we had it right at the main bridge over the stream!
Olivaceous Piculet: Had nice looks at this one.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher: We had at least 4 of these sveldt birdies.
Slate-colored Seedeater: Regular in lodge gardens and along streams.
Red-breasted Blackbird: Not uncommon in rice fields in several parts of Costa Rica but always a favorite.
There are lots of other good birds to see as well!
- Hummingbirds: When the plants are in bloom, this area can be really good for hummingbirds. Heliconias in the gardens attract 4 species of hermits, Charmning Hummingbird is common, and a nice variety of species come to the flowering Erythinas. We had at least 13 species during our stay, including 2 to 3 White-crested Coquettes!
- Vagrants: This is a good areas for vagrant species from Panama. Although we didn’t see them, other trips in the past have turned up things like Wattled Jacana and other species could also show up (like maybe that first Yellowish Pipit for the country). On our trip, a couple of the participants had a Mangrove Cuckoo and are pretty sure they saw a vagrant Green Ibis!
- Access: To be honest, the best birding is usually up there in forests that we can’t get to so it’s a major bonus when you can drive to a site with a small car. La Gamba is very easy to get to- just take the turn to Esquinas Lodge and Golfito from the highway and drive on in to the Troppenstation or Esquinas.
- Lodging: Speaking of those two places, Esquinas Lodge is pricey but has great service, excellent food, and nice lodging. The Tropenstation research station is cheaper ($66 per person, includes 3 meals) and rooms have two bunk beds each but it’s clean, comfortable, and has good food. I would also go back for the feeder action! Esquinas is closer to better forest but trails into the rainforests of the national park can also be easily accessed from the Tropenstation.
- Proximity to other good birding sites: Didn’t see Yellow-billed or Turquoise Cotingas at La Gamba? No problem, there’s a good chance for both at Rincon de Osa or even along the road to Golfito. You could also drive an hour or so to the rice fields near Ciudad Neily to try for Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, crakes, and other good birds. Or, if you feel like going further afield, the middle elevation habitats around San Vito are also within striking distance.
So, to sum things up, La Gamba is easy to get to, it’s extremely birdy, easy to bird, and offers a chance at tons of good species! I can’t wait to get back to that area.
I like birding in Costa Rica just about every place I visit but I prefer to patronize some places over others. I like it when a place of business protects habitat, makes attempts to work in a manner that is sustainable with their surroundings, and of course offers the opportunity to see a variety of birds. It’s even better when you can get close looks and photos of uncommon species without having to pay a high admission fee. To me, such places are birder friendly because they make it easy for everyone to experience birds and not just the people who pay to take a tour or an entrance fee. One such place is the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.
This gem of a site has been a classic hotspot for years and continues to act as a place where visiting birders can have a coffee and sample delicious country Tico fare while being entertained by the antics of Coppery-headed Emeralds, Violet Sabrewings, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and other choice species.
What makes this place even more special is that the original cafe was destroyed in the 2009 Cinchona earthquake.
The family rebuilt on the same spot as the two story structure that used to play host to Crimson-collared Tanagers and Red-headed Barbets. Although the habitat isn’t as good as it used to be, the forest that was knocked down by the quake is growing back, is bringing in more birds, and should continue to improve with time. One of the owners told me that he has been seeing Red-headed Barbet more often and on recent visits, the feeders were buzzing with activity.
The cafe doesn’t charge for watching birds but do accept contributions. If you visit, please leave a hefty donation for the feeders and this bird loving family. It makes for a perfect lunch stop when driving the newly paved Varablanca- San Miguel road and plenty of other non-feeder birds can also show up. On recent visits, in addition to fine looking feeder birds, I also had Sooty-faced Finch, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot and other species.
Other spots just down the road can turn up some nice mixed flocks, raptors, and who knows what else. The next time I visit, I hope I can bring them some material to help promote birding at the cafe. If anyone in the family has a mobile device, I will also give them a copy of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
To visit the Cafe Colibri, watch for it on the east side of the main road between Varablanca and San Miguel (the road that goes by the La Paz Waterfall gardens). It is situated between the waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.
Carara is usually on the list of birders visiting Costa Rica so in thinking of a topic for this week’s blog post, I decided to write a bit about the area, especially because I did some guiding there over the past three weeks. Since all of my birding/guiding around Carara has taken place on the Laguna Meandrica trail (the river trail), around Tarcoles, and on the Guacimo Road, I will focus about those places.
The River Trail: So, it’s actually the Laguna Meandrica Trail but everyone calls it the “River Trail” in English. However, it’s good to know the real name for the trail because there’s a new and improved sign at the entrance. Look for the sign and entrance 2 or 3 kilometers north on the highway from the main Carara HQ. The entrance is tough to see because it’s a short, steep drive down to the parking area. Someone is usually there to watch the vehicles, make sure to pay him at least 2,000 colones because he doesn’t receive any salary (don’t leave the car unless someone is there to watch it!).
Although this trail is famous for its good birding, to be honest, it hasn’t been as outstanding as during the days of yore. It’s still good but as with some others parts of the country, there seem to be fewer overall birds. That subtle change seems to have coincided with drier weather. So, this means that it might just take longer to find the birds while birding the River Trail. However, species missed there can also be found on the HQ trails, so combining the two should work out. That said, we still had some good birds like King Vulture, an antswarm with Bicolored Antbirds, Black-faced Antthrush, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Gray-headed Tanagers. I heard a few Royal Flycatchers on two visits, Rufous-tailed Jacamars were showing well, and more than one fig was fruiting. Keep an eye on those figs for cotingas and who knows what else! Although we didn’t see any cotingas at the fruiting trees, on one day, we did glimpse two stunning male Yellow-billed Cotingas around 9 AM!
As far as the oxbow lake goes, the water is much lower and there were few birds present but Boat-billed Herons were still there, and who knows, maybe the more extensive marsh vegetation will result in some unexpected species.
Carara HQ: I haven’t been on the HQ loop trails yet this year but they should be good for Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, and the usual set of rainforest species. As for the HQ itself, there are new bathrooms (small but they function), and the booth for buying tickets is obvious. The park is open from 7 to 4 for the high season. Guides can also be hired there but not all of them are great for birds.
The Bijagual Road: This is the dirt road that goes by Villa Lapas and accesses forested hills at the edge of the national park. Road work is still going on and results in some waits but it doesn’t seem to affect the birding that much. This road always holds promise for birding although it can be pretty quiet during the hot and sunny hours. The up side of birding the road then, though, is having a good chance at King Vulture and raptors like White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Rarer species can also show up and flowering trees might turn up White-crested Coquette (I had one there in late December).
Cerro Lodge: This birding hotspot has been pretty good although I haven’t seen as many parrots or parakeets doing morning flybys (although plenty of macaws). A male Yellow-billed Cotinga is still showing in the morning in distant mangroves (use a scope and look for a bright white dot), Black and white Owls show up but haven’t been as regular, and Crane Hawk is still showing up once in a while. Lots of vegetation is growing up, and there is plenty of Porterweed attracting hummingbirds. Also, the rooms now have air conditioning!
The road to and from Cerro Lodge is still good for birding and continues to be reliable for a wide variety of species including Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-naped Parrot.
The Guacimo Road: Although I haven’t spent much time there yet this year, the dry forest birding seems to be similar to past visits with lots of birds in the riparian zone (including Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and others), and White-throated Magpie Jays, Double-striped Thick Knee, and others species on other parts of the road.
I haven’t been on the mangrove boat tour yet so can’t say much about that but people who have taken it recently have seen thick-knee, Southern Lapwing, and American Pygmy Kingfisher among other bird species.
That’s about it for recent birding around Carara, the only thing else I can say is bird around there for a few days and you will see a lot!
Hope to see you in Costa Rica in 2014! Get ready for your trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app available in the iTunes store and the Amazon app store for Android phones.