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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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Irazu is a volcano that dominates the eastern skyline of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. If you didn’t already know that a big old crater was hidden up there on top, it would be hard to imagine that the mountain out there to the east is actually a link to the molten underworld. From my back window, all I can see is a rocky massif topped with antennas and it looks so close I wish I could fly to it right from my back window. On hot days, I would swoop high over the winding mountain roads, small farms, and houses to cool off at those breezy 3,000 plus meter elevations. It would be especially nice to glide over there in the dark of the night to hang out with the saw-whets sans spots and investigate the whereabouts of Great Horned Owl and maybe even Stygian Owl. The Great Horned is mysterious and very rare in Costa Rica but has been heard up there on Irazu. As for the Stygian, that would be a major new mega country record and extension of its known range but who knows, there are a few tantalizing reports from Irazu.

The first wonderful thing about Irazu is that the volcano is in sleep mode. The second wonderful thing is that you don’t need wings to pay a visit. There is a very good road that leads right up to those antennas and an official national park. Head up there and you can see for yourself that there is indeed a deep crater up on top. Bring binoculars and you will also find that the birding is replete with a bunch of high elevation endemics including two key ones in the paramo; the Timberline Wren and the Volcano Junco.

The junco always looks as angry as an active volcano.

Although you can’t find either of those species anywhere other than in the paramo habitats of Costa Rica and western Panama, they still aren’t exactly abundant. They eventually show but it might take a bit to find them, recently, I did that with a few friends and ornithologists visiting Costa Rica for a Partners in Flight Conference. The junco played well by sitting on a leaf right behind our cars but as usual, it took a little while to find the wren. However, we eventually did and all got nice looks at the highland endemic.

But that wasn’t all we saw on Irazu.

Lower down, in bits of forest near the Noche Buena restaurant, we got great looks at the rufous morph Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that has been showing well since September, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, and some other highland species. Although several of the more common birds refused to show (and activity was rather quiet overall), we also got looks at one of the rarest species on the mountain (and in many parts of its range). That special bird was a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, a female that called from a perch in a riparian zone. A small population of doves are always up there, and as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours demonstrated earlier this year, you don’t need bamboo to see them. However, you do need that trio of factors typically required for many a shy bird-  time, patience, and luck.

The other great bird for me was the other year bird I got, a beautiful little Townsend’s Warbler. As for other birding news, over at Lago Angostura and Casa Tuirire, a Wattled Jacana has been entertaining local twitchers. I’m dying to twitch it for the country myself, I just hope it stays long enough so I can do that! While looking at the jacana, other good birds have also turned up, notably Pinnated and Least Bitterns along with the expected Snail Kite and a few other nice species.

On the Pacific side, the nefarious Masked Duck has been showing somewhere in the Coto area near Ciudad Neily. With luck, I might finally see this major nemesis bird of mine this weekend during a bird count at Cano Negro. If I do, should I give it the finger as some other birders do? I doubt I will do that. Instead, I might just give it the cold shoulder and pretend to ignore it.

And the last bit of birding news is the big Bay-breasted Warbler wave that has been inundating Costa Rica. We knew we were seeing a lot at Selva Bananito two weeks ago but we didn’t know that everyone else was also seeing a lot on that weekend and since then even in San Jose! A few days ago, Bay-breasted were even seen foraging on the paths of the university campus like sparrow wannabees.

If you are headed to Costa Rica in the coming days, enjoy the birding, it’s going to be good, especially with the cool temps we have been experiencing. Learn how to see, find, and identify the birds of Costa Rica with my e-book-How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on October 25th, 2017

Last weekend, I finally made it to a place I have heard about for many years. Although I have birded most corners of Costa Rica on more than one occasion, I still need to get to a few places. The high quality forests of Las Alturas near San Vito are at the top of my Costa Rica bucket list along with Isla Chira in the Gulf of Nicoya, Pacuare Lodge, and a couple other choice sites. One such site recently removed from my bucket list as of this past weekend is Selva Bananito. Although this lodge can be literally translated as, “little banana jungle”, the only bananas are on part of the drive in, and the place is anything but small.

The small pond at Selva Bananito

Selva Bananito is a working farm and property that protects a huge area of forest, some of which includes the watershed that provides the city of Limon with potable water. Many thanks to the current owners, that primary forest still stands because they convinced their father to leave it instead of cutting it down. Since then, they have also reforested part of the property and strive to work in a sustainable manner. If that wasn’t enough reason to stay there for a few nights, these birding tips might do the trick:

Enjoy the Snowy Cotingas: Once you get south of the Siquirres area, Snowy Cotinga seems easier. Watch a forested hillside in the afternoon and you might find six of more of these snow-white birds perched in the canopy. At Selva Bananito, it’s actually hard not to see this dove-like wonder bird. We had sightings every day, right from the lodge and elsewhere, maybe eight in total.

A male cotinga hiding in a tree.

Check out the colors on the Great Jacamar: This beautiful bird is much easier in Amazonia but it never hurts to admire the iridescence in Costa Rica! When rainforest covered the Caribbean lowlands, this species was certainly more widespread. In the current times of disconnect and deforestation, in Costa Rica, the Great Jacamar is much more of a challenge. Although you can find it at a few sites here and there, the most reliable is Selva Bananito. It’s not common there either but it does seem to occur in larger numbers at Bananito than elsewhere. We had very good looks at one on our first morning.

The colors were kind of like a combination of a motmot and quetzal!

Keep an eye on the skies: In Costa Rica, lots of forest can equal a variety of raptors. Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle is regular (although we missed it), we heard a Black Hawk-Eagle, saw Short-tailed Hawks, King Vulture, heard a Semiplumbeous on the road in, and marveled over incredible kettles of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks.

Stay overnight deep in the forest: There are trails that go way back into the forest. To make it easier for guests to access those remote areas of the property, there are two platforms where you can spend the night. This sort of adventure thing that provides immersion in high quality bird habitat is right up my alley, I cannot wait to do this on my next visit to see if I can find Black-eared Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and other species of the deep forest. Who knows what else might be back there?

Do some night-birding: Before dawn on the first morning, I heard Mottled Owl, Crested Owl, Spectacled Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, and Great Potoo within an hour, right from my comfortable cabin. Common Potoo is also present, I would bet that Vermiculated Screech-Owl is common, and Black and White should also be around.

Bird the road to the lodge: On the drive out, I realized that we should have spent some time on that road. Part of the track passes through old cocoa cultivations with big trees and there are a few streams. In other words, it looks excellent for a wide variety of lowland species and could be easily birded with a group, including at night. I hope to do just that both while guiding groups, and during bird surveys.

Most of all, enjoy your time at Bananito. The owners were very accommodating and friendly, if you don’t want to hike the trails, you can see a lot of good birds from from the lodge, and the knowledgeable, friendly local guides can bring you to sites to look for the jacamar and maybe even Red-fronted Parrotlet. Check out my eBird list from Saturday.

If you get tired of looking at lowland forest birds, Jurgen, one of the owners, also offers rides high above the lodge in a  gyrocopter!

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admin on October 18th, 2017

Migration! For the birder, few other words work better at sparking a sense of excitement than that one. Ross’s Gull should, along with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, and a text that says, “Golden-winged Warbler seen this morning in Wales” but those are either target species or one-time mega jackpot birds. Migration, on the other hand, is the expected change of the seasons that brings equally expected waves of birds. Further excitement is brought to the equation by not exactly knowing where the birds will settle down but also realizing that flocks of wood-warblers just might be foraging in a nearby park. Best of all, you know that a few choice lost species are out there, somewhere in a 100 mile radius. You have to put in the hours to increase the odds along with getting super lucky to connect with them, and chances are you won’t. But, while looking, you will see lots of other species that only pass through your neighborhood during the short, birdy time frame of migration.

Thousands of Swainson’s Thrushes move through Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the birds that Buffalonians saw in September and August have just arrived in numbers. Many will stay, many will keep on going south to the subtropical forests of the Andes or wintering sites further south. When they pass through here, as elsewhere, thrushes, warblers, vireos, and tanagers gather at fruiting trees and feast on whatever bugs and larvae they can find. Given the heavy life-inducing rains experienced in Costa Rica in 2017, I bet that the migrants are well fed as they pass through my surroundings. It looked that way the past couple of days while I checked green space near the house. One fig laden with fruits has been acting as a constant smorgasbord for everything from Tennessee Warblers to Swainson’s Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers sharing tree space with many Clay-colored Thrushes, Great Kiskadees, and Blue-gray Tanagers among other birds. Up above, a few species of swallows zoomed around to catch bugs associated with the fruit and were joined by occasional swifts (Vaux’s and Chestnut-collared so far). No cuckoos yet but they are out there, others have seen a few.

At night, I also listen to the sky, hoping to hear a Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Upland Sandpiper, and cuckoos (because I count heard birds on my year list). So far, it’s only been the Spring Peeper notes of many a Swainson’s but I will keep my ear to the sky. I doubt the cuckoos will call (I kind of doubt they call much during migration) but that doesn’t keep me from having their rattling, bubbling vocalizations in mind.

During the day, although my search for migrants has mostly been limited to the Central Valley, that will change soon during a weekend of guiding near the Caribbean coast. Down that way, while reveling in frequent views of common migrants like Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Kingbird, pewees, and so on, I hope I can also connect with Bay-breasted Warbler, and less common migrants still needed for the year. There’s always a chance of finally espying a very rare for Costa Rica tail-wagging Palm Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue-Warbler, or some other lost bird, and I will be hoping to add Semiplumbeous Hawk and some other choice species to my year list. After the sojourn to the Caribbean, hopefully, during the following week, I can take a trip to the ocean on the other side of the country to see what’s happening with the shorebirds, terns, and other species that use the Gulf of Nicoya. If all goes as planned, these migration times will bring me very close to or put me over my year goal of 700 species. In the mean time, even if I don’t find a lost bird or two, it’s all good in the birding hood because I will still be seeing a heck of a lot- that’s just what happens when you are birding in Costa Rica.

Waders are a pleasant break from forest birding.

If you happen to be visiting Costa Rica during these migration times, please take the time to count the Tennessees and other not so exciting species (because you see them up north). It’s all valuable data and the more we know, the better we can give migrants what they need during their crazy biannual journeys.

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admin on October 4th, 2017

Costa Rica might be a small country but that doesn’t stop it from hosting a variety of distinct habitats and areas inhabited by localized species. One such part of the country is the lowland area near the border with Panama. Historically, this low-lying area supported an avian cast similar to that of the nearby Golfo Dulce but as with many other flat areas on the planet, the lands near Ciudad Neily were largely deforested long before any talk of preservation. Patches of forest persist in riparian zones and at the base of the coastal mountain range but most of the region presently features oil palms, rice, or pastures for the cows.

Oil palms have some birds including occasional owls and potoos at night.

Although mature lowland rainforest would be more conducive to high biodiversity, the open country and wetlands near Ciudad Neily have provided habitat for some species more readily found in Panama. It makes for a bunch of additions to your Costa Rica list and is why many a tour pays a visit to sites near Neily. Given the five hour drive, I rarely make it down that way but thanks to recent guiding during a Birding Club trip, this year, I had the chance to get in some Neily birding and add several species to my 2017 list.

There are several options for accommodation but we stayed at FortunaVerde, a small, very affordable hotel with great service and a patch of forest with rare Central American Squirrel Monkeys. Although rain and lack of time kept us from properly exploring those woods, I bet they host a fair selection of lowland forest species. Two of the local targets, Crested Oropendola and Brown-throated Parakeet also flew by or frequented nearby trees every day along with Blue-headed Parrots, and Costa Rican Swift. I didn’t notice any other swifts but would be surprised if Spot-fronted and maybe even White-chinned didn’t also occur on occasion.

Tropical Mockingbirds were a constant at FortunaVerde.

For targeted birding, we checked a few different sites in the vicinity including the La Gamba-Esquinas area. Although it takes 35 minutes to drive there from Neily and you have to pass through a border checkpoint, the excellent birding there is worth the ride. Rain checked most of our birding but we still managed the target Rusty-margined Flycatcher at our first stop, heard a Uniform Crake, and got onto one brief endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. With better weather, 80 species in that one afternoon wouldn’t have been out of the question.

On the following day, we birded the Coto wetlands and rice fields near Ciudad Neily. As is usual for these sites, the birding was excellent and gave us nice views of local target species like Gray-lined Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, several Brown-throated Parakeets, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and other birds. No luck with any rare shorebirds but Upland, Buff-breasted, and others can occur and were probably hiding somewhere out there in the grass during our visit.

No Wattled Jacana this time but it was still fun to scan through dozens of whistling-ducks, herons, Glossy Ibis, and other wetland species while looking for them.

A roadside Fork-tailed Flycatcher was also a treat.

In the afternoon, we raced against rain in the area south of the hospital to see some birds. We got onto a few before heavy rain but eventually, the precipitation slowed and thanks to some local help, were able to scope a nesting Savannah Hawk.

Distant but identifiable!

We also got onto our first Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, a species that has become much more common at this site over the past few years.

It was also larger than I expected.

Given our afternoon birding in the rain, we hoped for better weather at the same site the following morning. The clouds were still there but the birds were very active and treated us to constant bino usage as we watched Pale-breasted Spinetails, the same Savannah Hawk, more Fork-tailed Flycatchers, many a Giant Cowbird, flocks of Red-breasted Blackbirds, Dickcissels, Tricolored Munias, more Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, and other species. No dice with Red-rumped Woodpecker but we sort of made up for it with a responding Paint-billed Crake (!). Like most of its kin, it almost came in close enough for good views but a few of us did catch fleeting glimpses of this rare, sweet target bird.

After listening and staring for the crake, we headed back for breakfast and the bird list but not before some final, close looks at a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

On my next visit, I hope to stay at the FortunaVerde Hotel again and check their forest while exploring the nearby wetlands. I was also happy to see that the roads we birded could also be done with a regular, small car. Please share your sightings from that area on eBird but don’t find Costa Rica’s first Crimson-backed Tanager before I do!

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Lately, eBird tells us that there have been some good sightings from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Ten or more Galapagos Shearwaters have been seen along with Bridled Tern and Brown Noddy. Given that I still needed the two tropical terns for the year, and that they would probably be departing from our waters at any time, I gave in to temptation yesterday and did some ferry birding. Feeling too lazy to awake at three a.m. (I know what kind of birder am I!), I opted for drifting down to the coast for the 9 o:clock boat. Although the earliest boat is always the most intriguing, the one at nine a.m. is still good for birds, and the eleven boat isn’t too bird shabby either. And, you can always scan from the point well before the hour of departure. I did just that yesterday and enjoyed views of a few dolphins and some nice flocks of distant feeding birds, one of which had my 2017 Bridled Tern.

The view from the point.

With one down and one or more to go, I headed out into the Gulf of Nicoya, scanning the sea with bins and scope in my hungry attempt for year birds. The bird activity was good, I got two more year birds (Brown Noddy and Red-billed Tropicbird) and also made some random observations that could come in handy when taking the ferry. They are as follows in the order in which I typed them on my phone:

Tropicbirds mindblast out of nowhere: Instead of taking notes on the bird’s plumage, yes, this is what came to mind. Since I saw every pertinent field mark in excellent light and at close range, I didn’t feel like making notes of that mental recording. What impressed me more was how the thing managed to escape my scanning efforts until it was right in front of the boat. Did it come from the left, the right, or maybe from above? I have no idea because it just popped into view, right in front, and when I put my bins on it, whammo, the possible Royal Tern was a tropicbird! On it flew off to the right, behind the boat, and off into nowhere. No time for a picture but you can bet that the experience is recorded into the cerebral database. I always wondered if and when I would see one from the ferry. The interesting thing about this birdy was that it was an adult. Since almost all records are of juveniles, it could mean that other birds from elsewhere are also currently taking advantage of the natural chum in the Gulf, and that brings up my next two observations.

Now is a damn good time for Galapagos Shearwater: We see this nice bird now and then from the ferry, especially during the wet season. That said, I have never seen around 30 in one day! They were in groups of five or more and could be seen floating on the water like tropical Alcids, fluttering and gliding out of the way of the ferry, and feeding with Black Terns. Pretty nice! With all of the run-off going into the Gulf, it seems plausible that the shearwaters and all sorts of life forms are taking advantage of the extra food.

Egrets on driftwood: As usual, I saw a few Snowy Egrets hunting on drift lines, pretty far from shore. They perch on driftwood or whatever and then surely catch small fish and other creatures that try to take shelter below the stuff.

Plastic is seriously messing up our fish tank: We keep hearing about this and it’s true. I mean how stupid are we as a species? Just let it keep happening until we ruin the oceans and everything that depends on them? This was all too easy to think about upon seeing bits of plastic stuff populating the drift lines.

Taking the ferry? Get ready to dance!: Yeah, seriously. Fortunately, you don’t have to dance and no one was yesterday but you might be tempted. Well, that or tempted to get devious and sort of disconnect the speakers by accident. Be forewarned that the mid-morning ferry from Paquera has a resident DJ and he may entertain with the sounds of rap, merengue, salsa, or a Michael Jackson mix. Yesterday, he started with some P. Diddy (aka Puff Daddy) before grooving into classic salsa. I didn’t mind the salsa. I wouldn’t have minded some Big Poppa raps either because after all, how many people can say that they have watched Galapagos Shearwaters while listening to lyrics like, “I love it when they call me Big Poppa! Put your hands in the air if you are a true player..”, or one of my favorites, “Birthdays was the worst days but now we drink champagne when we thirstay!” Next time, I’m gonna request that but only if a good bird shows up.

Imagine seeing these while hearing, “Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see
Sometimes your words just hypnotize me
And I just love your flashy ways
Guess that’s why they broke, and you’re so paid”. (RIP Notorious B.I.G.)

I wish I had a superscope: The “superscope” would make it possible to watch birds at incredible distances. It would show excellent resolution at like 1,000 times magnification and account for everything from heat waves to sound waves, movement of wind, boats, and whatever else, as well as the very curvature of the planet. It would also have night vision and thermal features, be made of lightweight yet impossibly strong nanoparticles, would always float, and would come with an option for a mini French press. That way, I could just scan from shore and tick off albatrosses and Pterodromas while sipping fresh Costa Rican coffee. There’s an idea for you MIT, RIT, and whatever birding engineers are out there.

Good luck with ferry birding, I hope I see you on the boat and that we get that Black-vented Shearwater. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did this weekend.

 

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