We are half way through the year and that means six months to go before making a final tally of bird species identified during 2016. Time is relative, calendars are subjective inventions, and some people who have binoculars banter back and forth about keeping lists. So what? At the end of the day, we should all be reminded that life is usually shorter than we would prefer, it is unpredictable, and we should therefore have as much fun as we can (in addition to learning and doing good, etc, but those aspects are for another blog). Part of that fun can be keeping a year list because it gives us something to work towards, something to look forward to, and, most of all, encourages you to get out there and look for more birds, do more birding.
If you go to the mall, play too many games of bingo, or watch some useless reality show instead of going outside, you ain’t never gonna see a Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher. Actually, if you don’t visit Costa Rica or Panama, you won’t see one either.
I haven’t spent so much time in the field lately and it’s not because I was doing any of the above. I guess it’s because it rains a fair deal now, it’s always hard for me to get out mid-week during the early good birding hours, and the low season translates to less guiding. It’s also bird breeding season and just as with birders up north, the lack of migrants sometimes makes us feel lazy about looking for birds. This is clearly a silly concept because rarities can still show up in June and there is always more to learn about towhees, brush-finches, toucans, or other birds no matter which ones we are looking at.
Always nice to look at one of these…
I might also be acting a bit lazy about birding because I already have a healthy year list. Each year, I hope to at least see or hear 600 bird species in Costa Rica, and thanks to some intense guiding during March and April, surpassed that mark a while ago. I’m now at 634 species, my latest addition being a surprise Slate-colored Seedeater that was singing at a bamboo seeding event near Cinchona this very morning. From now on, several additions are likely to happen like that seedeater, unexpected but based on statistics, nevertheless probable. What I am trying to say is that the more time we spend in the field with focused intent on birds, the more species we see, including the rare ones. Speaking of “rare ones”, there are a lot in Costa Rica. This is typical for neotropical birding, and even more so when most accessible forests are quite fragmented.
However, I still have a bunch of other candidate species for the year list that aren’t so rare. They just live in places and habitats where I have spent little time in 2016. One of those areas is San Vito and down there by the border with Panama. If I can make it down that way, I will have a fair chance at adding Crested Oropendola, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and several other species that lack the annual tick mark. Since a few would also be new for my country list, I should really make an effort to go and see them. I hope I can make that happen so I can finally check off Lance-tailed Manakin, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet for my Costa Rica list. Not to mention, there’s a lot of other cool birds down that way too.
Other gaps come in the form of seabirds but for a seasick prone person like myself, that’s always the case. With some judicious ferry trips, I should add some of those and will always have a chance at picking up something truly rare from the top deck of the boat. Hitting 650 or even 700 will also be more likely if I can connect with several migrants. Hopefully, if we go for another Big Day in fall, scouting will turn up some of those needed species along with various rarities. Whether I hit the 700 mark or not by 2017, trying for it will be all good because that will make me do a lot of birding anyways and that’s the best part of it. Are you keeping track of year birds? Whether in Costa Rica or elsewhere, tell everyone about it in the comments.
In Costa Rica, when referring to “high birding”, that doesn’t have anything to do with looking for birds under the influence of Cannabis (although that might give you some imaginary lifers). It just means heading uphill to the places where the vegetation rings with the songs of Collared Redstarts and jostles with the foraging of Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses. I know, please, say Chloro what? I mean can a bird please have a name that doesn’t sound like an obscure part of the anatomy? Not when it’s a former pseudo-tanager/finch thing. Well, I guess that’s what Chlorospingus means and it’s always better to build the personal lexicon than subtract from it so happy Chlorospingus to everybody.
The Sooty-capped Chlorospingus could also be known as the “Lighting-stripe headed Highland Chunkster”.
Last week, a morning of guiding on Irazu got me into some fine high birding and not just to the realm of the S-C Chlorospingus. It also brought us up above the treeline and into junco land. The junco in question here is an angry-looking bird with fierce yellow eyes, pinkish bill, and a home range that sits atop a few mountains. It shares that range with a handful of other bird species, one of which is the Timberline Wren. On our day of birding, we got both just outside the entrance to the national park. Happily, the Volcano Juncos just about followed us around as a pair of adults fed their striped, sparrow-looking youngsters. Really good to see that they had a successful nesting season (so far, although the young sure looked healthy as they hopped around and ate berries and bugs).
Young Volcano Junco.
A fierce adult Volcano Junco at Irazu.
I was very pleased that we saw them so well because they can be a pain to find when they refuse to leave the dense haunts of paramo vegetation. Speaking of skulking, that’s what the wren chose to do until, at the last moment, a pair sang close enough for us to see them.
Timberline Wren from another day at Irazu.
We had a pretty good morning overall seeing most possible species including flight (but good) views of male and female Resplendent Quetzals, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, brief looks at Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Flame-throated Warbler, both silky-flycatchers, and so on.
The Flame-throated Warbler lives up to its evocative name. Flame on feathered dude!
The following morning, it was down to dry guiding and birding for the annual meeting of the Birding Club of Costa Rica near Universidad de la Paz at the Finca Caballo Loco. It was nice to see several people I hadn’t seen in a while, especially Henry, a guy who has been passionate about living in harmony with other living things for many years. The birding turned up various expected species in edge habitats and dry topical forest (nice and green at this time of year). Olive Sparrows and Yellow-green Vireos were singing nearly non-stop, and we had nice looks at several bird species including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Keel-billed Toucans, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.
Fiery-billed Aracari also showed very well.
The weekend made for an interesting mix of species typical of birding in Costa Rica in radically different habitats from one day to the next. I did not go out birding on Sunday but could have easily visited Caribbean slope foothill forests or cloud forests for yet another suite of species not seen on Friday or Saturday. The close combination of different ecosystems always makes for a bio-exciting experience and I suspect that few other places on the planet can offer such radically different birding is such a small area. Hope to see you here!
Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:
Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.
Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.
Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.
You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.
What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).
Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.
Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.
Some stuff to study:
Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:
-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.
-Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.
Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:
- Any other books by Alexander Skutch.
- Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.
-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.
- Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.
eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.
Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:
- A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.
- How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.
Last weekend, I guided a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to the Los Campesinos Ecolodge. This site is one of several rural tourism initiatives in Costa Rica, and like most, provides somewhat basic yet good service and food in a setting surrounded by green space. The birding at these sites varies in terms of “quality” birds (“quality” being synonymous with large areas of mature forest) but it’s always nice (“nice” meaning that you will see a bunch of birds, and different ones every day).
Some information about birding at Campesinos:
Nice views: With the cabins situated on a ridge between streams, you have a fair view of a couple of forested hillsides. The distant trees are the perfect opportunity to make use of that scope that you almost didn’t bring to Costa Rica. We saw Golden-naped Woodpeckers, a few raptor species, tityras, and other expected birds. Other species are of course also possible, maybe even Turquoise Cotinga. It does live in the area after all. The ridge-top location also allows views into much closer crowns of trees. Our hoped for mixed flocks at eye level never showed but could certainly happen, and we did have nice looks at Olivaceous Piculet (common there), Eye-ringed Flatbill, Blue Dacnis, Long-billed Starthroat, and other species.
This Eye-ringed Flatbill was very cooperative.
Secondary forest:Although there is some older growth along the stream, it seemed like most forest around the ecolodge was secondary in nature. There are still plenty of birds but that type of forest doesn’t usually have as many raptors and many species as older rainforest. That said, we had some nice species indicative of older forest anyways including a Striped Woodhaunter that entertained us with its ringing calls all day long, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and Scaly-throated Leaftosser. These were all on the trails that went down to the streams.
The view from the cabins.
Mature forest on the road up: Although the birding is OK at the ecolodge, I suspect that it is much better on the drive up. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to bird along the road but the habitat looked really good with lots of huge trees, and streams. I really want to survey that road and would expect such species as White-tipped Sicklebill, Blue-crowned Manakin, various woodcreepers, trogons, and various other forest-based species (I did hear White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Rufous Piha from the car…).
Swifts: As in this seems to be a good place to watch them. In addition to White-collared and Costa Rican Swifts, we also had Lesser Swallow-tailed, Chestnut-collared, and at least one likely Spot-fronted. It was a tail view of a silent bird but it wasn’t a Chaetura and flew different from White-collared and Chestnut-collared.
Trails:There are a couple, one going up a hill and the other going down to the base of a beautiful waterfall. The one going up the hill passes through nice forest along a stream for a bit before making a steep ascent. We didn’t do that ascent but had some nice species near the stream (the ones mentioned above). The other trail goes through thick, viney forest for a short ways. The rest of the birding we did was on the entrance road to the lodge. That was fine with several second growth species and some canopy birds including Rufous-breasted and Black-bellied Wrens (Riverside is everywhere), Cocoa Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, and others.
There is also a long, bridge to the waterfall.
The road there: The road to Londres is pretty good but once you get past there, you really need four wheel drive. During really heavy rains, I could see that road being impassible. The challenging part of the drive up also coincides with the best habitat.
Accommodating:The ecolodge was very accommodating and were willing to make us coffee at dawn. Since we didn’t want them to have to come all the way up there at dawn just to make us coffee (we didn’t schedule breakfast until 8:30), we asked them to make coffee the evening before and leave it in a thermos along with cups. They did just that, always served good, home-cooked food, and were always attentive to our needs. Rooms were also clean and were equipped with fans.
One of the cabins.
This site would be a good day visit from the Manuel Antonio area, especially the mature forest on the road up. I suspect that the views over forest are better in the Esquipulas area but it would be interesting to see what could be found on the road to Campesinos. Whether visiting either site, Johan Chaves would be one of the guides to go with from the Manuel Antonio area. See my eBird list from Saturday at Campesinos.
Not many people come to Costa Rica for birding in May and June, and I can’t blame them. They are enjoying the colors and songs of breeding birds back home, the weather is nice and warm, and the trees are flush with fresh vegetation. It’s summertime and the living is nice and easy so why leave home? However, if you do happen to be someone who would rather look at hundreds of species of birds than hang out with the usual ones near the house, I hope the following tidbits help:
Bamboo is seeding near the La Paz Waterfall Gardens: I don’t know if that elusive ground-dove or Peg-billed Finches are breeding but any bamboo with seeds is certainly worth checking. During the Global Big Day on May 14th, I gave the bamboo a brief look and didn’t hear or see anything but will be back for a more thorough examination. This bamboo is on the main road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens and is just downhill from the parking area, on the other side of the road (the eastern side). There are very few places to pull a vehicle off the road and it might be easier to park in the Waterfall Gardens lot and walk downhill. If perched Barred Parakeets are there, the trudge back uphill will be worth the effort.
Look for Bridled Terns and Brown Noddies: Both should be back by now from their mysterious non-breeding haunts. The most reliable place to see the Bridleds is in Manuel Antonio National Park. Take the trail to where you can see offshore rocks and watch for them. The noddy can also turn up there but if you want it for your Costa Rica country list, the easiest place for that one is from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. With the rainy season kicking into gear, I suspect that this brings more nutrients into the gulf and that brings in the birds. You never know what else might show so keep scanning the horizon!
Enjoy the bird song: More birds are singing now, especially because the rains came a bit late. That includes everything from trogons to owls. We all know that not only does this make for a more pleasant walk in the rainforest, it also makes it easier to find those birdies. Become familiar with bird vocalizations in Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app (songs of around 610 species, images of more than 850).
Umbrellabirds are tough: Sadly, this stellar mega has become more rare in recent years. Since it was already rare in past years, this is pretty bad news. Since they sit at the top of a big bug, lizard, and fruit eating food chain, I fear that they have been hard hit by the erosion of such food items from their forest ecosystems. How? Because global warming has made it hotter and drier, and seems to be killing several humid forest ecosystems in Costa Rica right from the base of the food pyramid. With that in mind, I’m not sure where you can go to see this species right now but the easiest places to check are the reserves in the Monteverde area, and the San Luis Adventure Park. The Tenorio area might also be a good place to check although in all likelihood, the birds are higher up in less accessible spots.
Even if you don’t see umbrellabirds at San Luis, you will probably get close looks at tanagers like this Emerald.
Expect a lot of birds and avian activity: With cloudier weather, more birds singing, and parents busy finding food for the kids, there seems to be more bird activity now than other times of the year. If it rains, just bird from shelter and get ready for the burst in activity when the rain stops.
This is also when we do our breeding bird surveys. I wish I had time to do bird counts all over the country but know that I will at least be doing counts on Poas, Quebrada Gonzalez, and near home. Happy birding in Costa Rica!
Coinciding with the start of the rains, the green season has arrived, quite literally. Brown, windswept dry season vegetation has come back to life, the birds are singing, building nests, and there is a Clay-colored Thrush going after its reflection in the window that faces the backyard. It doesn’t matter how many times I open the curtain to scare it off, the relentless urge of testosterone keeps it coming back for more of the same window pecking nonsense. You think it would eventually realize that something was amiss but that hasn’t happened yet.
This juvenile is already eager to attack something, on this occasion a banana.
As Costa Rica’s national bird attacks itself in the window, and the Yellow-green Vireos sing, I am reminded of the irony of the green season. You see, the countryside has gone from looking like the dry, dusty surroundings of a semi-desert to a summer-time place of lush foliage and scented air. Life abounds in more places than the dry season and no, it doesn’t rain too much either. Yet, this is when fewer people come to Costa Rica. There’s a rumor that it rains too much and that the best time to bird is in March. Um, what can I say but no, you don’t have to visit in March and will see just as many resident species during the green season. In fact, it might be easier to see several of those resident species. If you are planning on or thinking about visiting during the green season, try these tips:
Enjoy the savings: The discounts aren’t astronomical but they are there. Expect to pay less for most rooms and don’t be afraid to bargain. Most places take dollars but they might give 500 colones rather than the official 535 colones. To get that rate, exchange cash at banks or at the “Servi Mas” counter at Wal Mart. Don’t change money at the airport unless you really absolutely need to because they give the worst rate of all.
More room to play: Fewer tourists means more room for you. This works especially well at popular national parks like Manuel Antonio and Rincon de la Vieja. It never gets that crowded for birding in Costa Rica but it’s always nice to have a bit more elbow room.
Visit some out of the way places: Sure, you can stick to the regular circuit but remember that there are other places that have just as many or more birds. The accommodations might not be as deluxe but the birding can be stellar. The San Luis Adventure Park and Cocora Hummingbird Garden are easy trips from the San Jose area and could turn up umbrellabird in addition to close looks at tanagers and several cloud forest species. For Caribbean lowland species, consider a trip south of Limon- lots of tourist infrastructure and lots of great rainforest birding including chances at Sulphur-rumped Tanager, several uncommon species at Hitoy Cerere, and a real chance at a mega surprise or two. The same goes for pelagic birding in the Gulf of Nicoya. With rains raising river levels that bring more nutrients into the gulf, we might see more storm-petrels and lost seabirds. Learn about those out of the way places in my Costa Rica bird finding book.
Laguna del Lagarto is another, excellent, out of the way place to visit.
Bring an umbrella: Yes, expect some rain but the same goes for the dry season. I would actually hope for more rain since the forests need it and it kicks-starts bird activity.
Resident bird activity: As in more. The rains result in more breeding and more activity overall. Not to mention, every bird you look at will be a resident species and not another Chestnut-sided Warbler. Mixed flocks can be really good.
Blue-throated Toucanets will be around.
Learn about Yellow-green Vireos: Bird around the Central Valley and the Pacific slope and you will have plenty of chances to study them, their constant singing, and their alarm calls. I always enjoy seeing these fun, local versions of the Red-eyed Vireo.
The aptly named Yellow-green Vireo.
Don’t forget to get the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app to study before the trip and use in the field. The latest update shows images of more than 850 species and vocalizations for more than 610 along with information and range maps for every species on the list.
Last Sunday, I got in a morning of birding at two sites in the Central Valley. To be honest, one site was actually a pseudo-chase, the bird in question a Grasshopper Sparrow that had been reported on eBird in March. Whether the birds were wintering there or just determined to skulk, I believe we found the spot but know that we did not find the birds. No insect-like song, no hint of a little brown thing with a quizzical look on its face, no nothing from the promising swales. Luckily, the other site, Bosque del Nino, was close enough to check and also not find the other bird we were hoping for, Blue Seedeater.
No matter, though, because birding can always be more than the chase, especially when there’s so much else to discover in tropical habitats. I knew the seedeater would be a gamble anyways because they seem to be a natural stringer. The modus operandi is found one day and gone the next, so you just have to get lucky. It fits their nomadic behavior, and along with the Slaty Finch, ground-dove, and some other picky species, those seedeaters are basically bamboo seeding gypsies. How they find the seeding bamboo and what they do at other times is a big fat mystery but there’s always other cool birds to see anyways.
On Sunday, during our drive up to the Bosque del Nino, we stopped en route and were treated to a fine morning chorus of Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, swooping swallows, and other birds, including a couple of choice flycatchers. A burned area held several Lesser Elaenias, and at least two Alder Flycatchers- year birds and always nice to study. Both are kind of local in Costa Rica, the Alder only passing through and perhaps mostly in the highlands, and the elaenia just locally distributed.
As if in defiance of its low key plumage, the elaenia was super confident and brash.
The Alder below was not so bold but still good about letting us study it.
Up on the trails at Bosque del Nino, we climbed up and up towards Poas and passed through pretty second growth forest steadily approaching maturity. Bamboo was much in evidence but none was seeding and no seedeater ever responded to its song. The woods,though, were still filled with a spring chorus and the middle elevation temperatures reminded us of June in Pennsylvania. The bird songs were of course more suited to Central America. While walking, we were constantly treated to the songs of Flame-colored Tanager, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Brown-capped Vireo. Orange-bellied Trogon also joined in at one spot and we could hear the low notes of Band-tailed Pigeon and Ruddy Pigeon from time to time. It was a good hike and this little birded spot might also be good for Chiriqui Quail-Dove. We didn’t find any but the habitat looked right and probably improves higher up the trail. If you go, just remember that the area sees a lot of local visitors on weekends, and those trails are mostly uphill!
A fine old tree.
White-eared Ground-Sparrow was common as well.
Bosque del Nino makes for an easy day trip with one’s own, four wheel drive vehicle but it’s kind of hard to describe how to get there. That said, check the map from this eBird checklist, follow the few signs, use a navigator and you will get there.
For more information about this and birding sites throughout Costa Rica, try my 700 plus page ebook, How to See Find and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
If you pay attention to this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know about my Big Days in Costa Rica. If not, then allow me to explain. Each year, I spend way too much planning and analyzing a route that can result in 300 plus species of birds. With more than 900 species on the country list, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that I’m not talking about one or two weeks. No, the craziness comes in the form of a one day event of all out birding, hunter concentration smack in the face of no sleep, and eating chocolate to see more birds. Actually, eating chocolate for birds isn’t crazy at all (in fact, I absolutely recommend it) and it really does help at 2 pm when you have been awake for 12 hours and still need to see a caracara, kingfishers, and hundreds of other species.
This year, the Big Day was originally planned for March. Susan, Robert, and I were going to blast through the country with blazing binoculars from Cano Negro all the way over to the Pacific coast at Chomes with rainforest and cloud forest in between. We were going to do that but then each of us got sick right before the day of reckoning, so, with a heavy heart, it was postponed until April 24. Most of the wintering birds would be gone and that does leave a hole in the final tally, but there would also be migrants coming through and maybe more birds singing as well. At least, that was the gamble and we didn’t have a choice anyways if we wanted to do a Big Day in 2016.
Although Robert couldn’t make it, we still met up with him and Eduardo Amengual on the eve of the Big Day at Cano Negro. We saw a Short-tailed Nighthawk, enjoyed some fine conversation, shared laments over the passing of Prince, and, thanks to Eduardo, also shared a smooth and delicious Spanish Rioja. This was followed by an attempt an getting five hours of sleep. That almost worked except for when I had to get up and slaughter several mosquitoes. Luckily, they weren’t as quick as me and I smashed them in triumph. Triumph-this is what you feel after enduring that damn buzzing in the ear and getting bit in the middle of the night. A bit of sleep after killing mosquitoes was followed by the alarm going off at midnight and the official start of our Big Day!
In the yard at Kingfisher Lodge, we heard a Common Pauraque, and got a response from a Common Potoo- Yes! Two birds down, 298 to go! Looking for roosting birds turned out to be fruitless, but a walk to the dike and dock at Cano Negro gave us Boat-billed Heron, our only Black-bellied Whistling Duck of the day, and a few other species along with the mesmerizing ruby red eyeshine of a couple dozen caimans.
I was hoping we would find one of these guys roosting but no avian cigar for us…
After getting some extra exercise by way of walking in a circle in Cano Negro village, we eventually found the lodge (and the car), and headed out into the night in search of more birdies. Stops on the road out gave nothing new until we reached the bridge at San Emiliano. However, lucky for us, the hoped for Great Potoo was perched at eye level just below the light.
A friendly Great Potoo. These birds are really big!
Off in the fields, no Striped nor Barn Owl (and forget about the super rare Ocellated Poorwill) but it was still cool to hear another Common Potoo. Then, we were off for an easy night drive to our site for more owls and the dawn chorus. This was around Luna Nueva and Pocosol and almost two hours from Cano Negro. To make a long story short, we heard one Mottled Owl, nothing else, and had a disturbing absence of dawn chorus. As the first light of the day became visible on the way to the Pocosol station, we did pick up some birds here and there including Crested Guan, our only Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and various second growth species, but in the forests of the station itself, the trees were eerily bereft of bird song.
Seriously, this was not good and not just because it was a Big Day. I settled on the rainforests at Pocosol as a dawn starting point because these are some of the highest quality forests I have seen in Costa Rica. They host a huge array of common and decidedly uncommon species, and the hope was that being there at dawn would give a better chance at getting more species. Simple as that. On past trips at this time of the year, the dawn chorus at this site was so profuse, it was hard to distinguish which species were calling. Just amazing. On April 24th, though, the forest resounded with cicadas and almost nothing else. Trust me, this is not normal, nor were the dry leaves and wilted moss. If some of the most intact rainforests in Costa Rica are like this, I can’t help but wonder how many areas are approaching ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a drought, it’s prolonged hot, dry weather caused by global warming in places not adapted to those conditions, and the outlook is bad.
A view from the dining area at Pocosol.
We walked the forest trail in silence, hoping for some bird to call and got nothing. At least not until the cicadas slowed down well after dawn. Then, we did pick up birds here and there including some good, expected ones like Black-headed Anthrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Russet Antshrike, and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Motmots were also calling but it was way too quiet overall. Since we needed more species from that area that we expected during dawn chorus, we stayed longer than scheduled and did pick up more here and there, including White Hawk, King Vulture, and some species near Luna Nueva. I’m not sure what our total was at that time but probably somewhere around 140 species.
Next on the list was the drive up to sites on the way to San Ramon. En route, fortunately, we connected with species seen from the car like Black-cowled Oriole, Rock Pigeon (oh yeah, it counts!), Olive-throated Parakeet, and some others. A stop at the small marsh turned up Great Blue Heron and a few other species, and San Luis was good for tanagers. Our next main stop was the Cocora Hummingbird Garden. Although this cloud forest site had treated us well in the past, it was dead on April 24th. Whether because of dry weather or the loud music from an adjacent birthday party, we came up zilch in the forest but at least picked up some hummingbirds in the garden. The lack of birds prompted a brief stop in front of Nectandra which finally gave us givens like Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch but overall, the cloud forest was a bird silent bust.
One of the birds we picked up was Green-crowned Brilliant.
The stops from then on were better, including Tropical Mockingbird, Purple Gallinule, and several other targets at the Silencio marsh, a quick Vaux’s Swift while filling up in San Ramon, and driveby Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (I love driveby birds on a Big Day). No luck with any driveby birds on the descent to the coast but we lucked out in terms of traffic. Our next main stop, Punta Morales, also provided with a sweet combination of mangrove species and waterbirds. Scanning produced several shorebird species, two gulls species, and five tern species, along with some dry forest stuff. We picked up more dry forest birds on the drive to Chomes, and then got up a few more shorebirds at Chomes itself, best being American Golden-Plover. Although shorebird numbers there were surprisingly low, we also had nice looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and other waterbird targets, and a surprise bunch of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying to roost. As dusk approached, I figured that checking the fields on the way out might be interesting. This turned out to be a good choice as we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knees, and the best bird of the day, Upland Sandpiper! Two called a few times just as it got dark, and they were probably flying into the night sky to migrate north. It was magic. Last but not least, we also managed a Barn Owl that flew in front of the car on the drive out. That was a serendipitous relief.
We quit after the Barn Owl at 6:30. This was early by Big Day standards but we were pleased and pretty much too tired to keep listening for non-calling owls. The final tally was 260 species, and I figured that we could have added at least 80 common species if more birds had been singing (such as tinamous for example), but we weren’t complaining because it was, after all, a memorable, fine day of birding.
Our list for the day: Big Day list 2016
Costa Rica is like a mini continent. Seriously, head to the northwest and magpie-jays call from dry, dusty lanes. Drive a couple hours to the south and you hit humid forest right after the Tarcoles River and where Scarlet Macaws start to screech and thickets echo with the loud voices of endemic Riverside Wrens. Take a turn into the mountains and the weather cools down while the endemic factor heats up. Bird those cloud forests and you might see quetzals, Flame-throated Warblers, and lots of other local goodies. Keep going over that central geological spine and we descend onto the wet Caribbean slope, first through more cloud forest, then through mossy foothill rainforest, and finally into the Caribbean lowlands. That last lowland area harbors the highest diversity in the country. Fewer endemics, but the forests and wetlands make up for it with 400 something species including Great Green Macaw, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Ocellated Nunbird, and several other classic neotropical birds.
The birding is always good but it’s always better when you can work the binos in quality forest. Sadly, since it’s all too easy to fell trees in flat, lowland areas, large areas of mature lowland rainforest can be hard to come by. Most visitors to Costa Rica get their fill at or near La Selva and the birding around there is wonderful, and perhaps it’s not right to compare it with other sites, but my favorite area for lowland birding lies much further south. Once you pass Siquirres, there’s more lowland forest in the house. Most of it is in hilly areas with little access, but a lot of it can be birded right from a hotel and roads south of Limon. Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common, there are lots of toucans and parrots, Snowy Cotinga isn’t too hard to come by, and protected areas have Great Curassow, and so on, and so on.
The curassow gets downright tame in many protected areas of Costa Rica.
Even so, the best areas are still the ones with the least accessible rainforest because there tends to be less impact and more connection to the major forests of the Amistad International Park. One of those “best areas” is the Hitoy Cerere Reserve. Located on the other side of the Valle de la Estrella, Hitoy backs up to the Amistad Park and is therefore connected to rainforests that stretch into Panama to the south and reach Pacuare in the north. There’s more than enough forest for all sorts of species that have become uncommon elsewhere and there’s a fair chance that Harpy Eagles still hunt in the remote corners. Although there weren’t any large eagles for us during a recent two day trip, quality birding was still the rule of birding law.
Hoping to see a cotinga or other canopy species, our inaugural stop was at a forested hillside a kilometer or two before the reserve. This ersthwile canopy tower was a nice place to start the morning and the birds came fast and furious. Blue Ground-Doves were especially common and called while various tanagers and flycatchers moved through the trees, and wrens and antbirds sang from the undergrowth. No cotingas, nor anything rare but we probably identified 60 species or more in half an hour.
At the reserve, the staff were friendly, let us in before the official opening time of of 8 am, and showed us the trails. Although I hadn’t been to Hitoy since 2001, the trails were pretty much the same; one loop through second growth and mature forest, and another, less maintained trail that penetrated wilder parts of the forest. We did both and the birding was pretty darn good.
After walking up the main trail and reaching good forest, it wasn’t long before we were stopped in our tracks by a wall of good birds. While listening for Black-crowned Antpitta, a Great Jacamar suddenly called right next to us. Almost before we could register the importance of the call, a flash of rufous and green materialized into one perched right in front of us!
Great Jacamar is pretty rare in Costa Rica because it needs lot of mature, lowland rainforest.
It called again and again and refused to leave until we walked away from it!
A major year bird and country tick for the others in our group. While the jacamar called like a raptor and a cat (seriously, this is what it does), a Scaly-breasted Wren sang very close and let us watch it. This was another quick tick for one in our group, and a species that is usually tough to see. While this was going on, Purple-throated Fruitcrows called from the canopy and oropendolas rushed through the trees. Somewhere in there, we were also watching a small flock of antwrens including the uncommon for Costa Rica, White-flanked.
When we finally decided to move forward, the call of a dove caught my attention. Another careful listen and yep, I was sure it was a Violaceous Quail-Dove! We crept up to the bird and searched the thick vegetation but much to our frustration, the bird was out of sight and never came closer. I guess you can’t see them all but it would have been nice to lay eyes on this widespread yet perpetually rare dove. I would have especially loved a picture of it since it is one of the last species missing from the field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama that I work on.
Although we missed laying eyes on the dove, the next encounter made up for it in the form of a Black-crowned Antpitta. The gnatpitta chuckled from the undergrowth and finally gave great looks for all- major lifer for everyone but me but I was still more than happy to watch that tough species!
A blurry yet identifiable gnatpitta.
After the antpitta, we continued on the trail until I decided that the snake-hiding undergrowth just wasn’t worth the risk. Back on the small loop trail, it was mid-morning and quiet as expected but we still had fun with Spotted Antbird, and two woodcreeper species at a rather lackluster antswarm, calling Red-capped Manakin, and a few other understory birds. Back out in front of the station, we were amazed to hear another Great Jacamar and happy to see that the participants of a biology course taught by Oscar Ramirez were watching it.
This was followed by siesta time for us and the birds. Once we became reactivated, we enjoyed a few big kettles of Swainson’s Hawks and a quick flyover of a target male Snowy Cotinga.
Really happy to get this, one of us needed it as a lifer. The dove-live bird even stayed for scope views.
After the cotinga, we continued down the entrance road with the hopes of finding Sulphur-rumped Tanager. On the way, one stop produced an immediate response from and excellent looks at Central American Pygmy-Owl while small birds mobbed it.
This cool bird was right in our faces.
With the owl in the bag, I decided to stop at a promising looking patch of forest where Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant was calling. My idea was that if that species was present, maybe other forest birds were likewise possible. This proved to be correct when I heard the call of Sulphur-rumped Tanager! We glimpsed the bird as it flew just over the canopy and walked down the road, fingers crossed that it had stopped within view. Luck was still with us that day because it had stopped in a tree top just down the road and stayed long enough for scope views to be had by all. It’s not the brightest of tanagers but through the scope, we could see the white tuft at the shoulder, the black bill, and the distinctive shape. Eventually, it also flipped around enough for us to glimpse the pale yellow rump (not as obvious a field mark as you might think). I was also pleased that its call was recognizable because recordings of chip notes often sound different to me than the real thing. The recording I had listened to reminded me of a Black and Yellow Tanager, and sure enough, that is what I heard in the field.
That last main target rounded out an excellent day of birding. We probably had 130 or so species total, and none of those were waterbirds. The following morning, we came back with hopes for the quail-dove but no luck there, nor did we have the jacamar again. We did hear the antpitta though, and saw a few other birds before moving on.
Getting to Hitoy Cerere: In common with many sites nowadays, this turned out to be much easier than what I remembered. The lack of signs at key spots means that you still need to know where to turn but the road wasn’t that bad. Overall, it was similar to conditions on the road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and could be done with a two wheel drive. Keep in mind, that this could easily change with heavy rains but it should still be easy with four wheel drive.
So, if coming from Limon or Cahuita, follow the road to Pandora (this is at a prominent turn with a gas station on the corner).
At one point, you can go straight or take a right and cross a bridge over a small river. Just go straight.
Eventually, go through bananas, and watch for a sign to Hitoy. Take a left at the sign (it has an arrow pointing that way).
G to a T and take a right (another sign to Hitoy there).
Drive 4.8 kilometers to a fork and bear left (no sign there).
Drive 1.6 kilometers and take a left at the fork (still no sign).
Drive 3.6 kilometers on to the reserve (signs and buildings!).
The drive takes about one hour from Cahuita without birding en route and is around 36 kilometers (from the Cahuita area). There is a $8 entrance fee.
Costa Rica is famous for keeping a high percentage of territory under protection as national parks and reserves. This is wonderful and absolutely laudible but what is often overlooked is the reason why Costa Rica put so much land under protection. Look at satellite imagery of Costa Rica on Google Earth and two things are immediately obvious: (1) a high percentage of the country is deforested, and (2) most of the remaining forest is in mountainous areas. As has so often been the case with protected land in many parts of the world, there wasn’t any push for preservation until alarming areas of the country were bereft of forest. Fortunately, enough people in power realized that the time for protecting biodiversity and watersheds were long overdue, and the national park system kicked into gear.
Fortunately, Costa Rica is also a very mountainous country because steep topography in areas with high precipitation often acts as a natural buffer to logging operations. This is why we still have lots of forest in the mountains, but also why rainforest is a rare commodity in flat, lowland areas. Sadly, such places usually harbor the biggest trees, and the combination of major lumber and ease of access makes them extremely susceptible to logging. This is probably also why Speckled Mourner is so very rare in Costa Rica, why Streak-chested Antpitta is very local, and why Great Potoo is decidely uncommon in the Golfo Dulce lowlands. It seems like all of these species require or prefer flat areas with tall forest, especially the mourner. This is also why it can be tough to gain access to quality, lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope. Much of that remaining habitat occurs near the border with Nicaragua and at sites in the southeast with other areas of lowland rainforest situated in the Sarapiqui region. Although the best known lowland forests in Sarapiqui are at La Selva, there are other sites that also offer excellent bird and seem to be better for certain species. One of those places is the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an excellent place to bird whether visiting La Selva or not.
Tirimbina is, in part, an old cacao plantation with a good degree of primary lowland rainforest. Most of the expected species are present except for the two very large eagles (Crested Eagle might still show up but the Harpy is almost certainly gone from Sarapiqui) and a few other species that seem to be susceptible to edge effects and thus require large areas of intact forest (Red-throated Caracara, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo). That said, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a wandering caracara showed up on occasion, and perhaps the wood-quail and ground-cuckoo might still be present in very small numbers (or might even come back if we can establish a better corridor with Braulio Carrillo National Park).
Birding at Tirimbina begins right in the parking lot where toucans, chachalacas, Plain-colored Tanager, and other species visit fruiting trees. Those same species along with Rufous Motmot and edge birds can also be seen around the buildings, but the best birding is on the other side of the river. This is where the forest is located and this is the place to see tinamous, antbirds, Red-capped Manakin, and species of the tall forest. Getting there requires a walk across the river bridge (open from 7 to 5, even guests have to check in with reception), and if you are visiting for a day, stopping by the reception to purchase a day pass ($17). The lack of nocturnal access to the best forest is disappointing but that’s the way the birding ball bounces.
From the bridge, scan the river for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern. Agami Heron is also seen now and then as it stalk smaller side channels. The bridge is also a good place to scan the canopy for perched raptors and Snowy Cotinga (not uncommon).
Once inside the forest, careful birding along any of the trails can result in Great Tinamou, and literally hundreds of possibilities.
We had three Great Tinamous at an antswarm. They were very tame!
Speaking of antswarms, we ran into one last month and had perfect looks at Ocellated Antbirds along with Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. Although we didn’t see anything else with the swarm, it could certainly attract many other species including motmots, forest-falcons, and who knows what else.
One of the Ocellated Antbirds.
The understory is also good for mixed flocks of insectivores. These birds tend to be quiet and unobtrusive. Listen for the sharp call of Checker-throated Antwren, and watch for White-flanked Antwren (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), Streak-crowned Antvireo, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and other species.
Female White-flanked Antwren.
You also need to watch for canopy flocks. These can host some exciting species, the star of the Tirimbina show being White-fronted Nunbird. This formerly common species has become rare in much of the Caribbean slope because so much of its required lowland primary rainforest habitat has been cut down. The canopy flock might also have Black-striped and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Green Shrike-Vireo, White-shouldered Tanagers, oropendolas, and maybe even Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots. From August to February, such flocks can also have Bare-necked Umbrellabird (!).
The canopy also hosts some lowland specialty flycatchers best seen from a hanging bridge that acts as an erstwhile canopy tower. Those target flycatchers are Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. Continuing on, keep an eye out for fruiting trees that could attract other birds, and in creek beds and seeps with a thick understory, listen for the low, two-noted whistle of Slaty-breasted Tinamou. This tough species is much less common than the Great, and Tirimbina is one of a few reliable sites for it.
As with any lowland rainforest site with good forest, of course many other species are also possible. Just keep checking the same trails because the more you look, the more you see. This site also works well in combination with an early morning birding tour at La Selva. Do that, and bird Tirimbina for four days to a week and you have a fair chance of getting most targets, and hitting 300 species (especially if you hire an experienced guide). Who knows, maybe you will even find that Speckled Mourner? I know two people who found one at Tirimbina a few years ago.