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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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If you have tried to contact me during the past several days, I apologize. I wasn’t home. Nor did I have a chance to check emails because I was helping someone find target species like Ochre-breasted Antpitta, owls, Dusky Nightjar, and so on. We didn’t get all the targets but with less than five full days to work with, we knew that was always going to be the case. So, we dipped on some of the species that typically require more time, ones like Silvery-throated Jay, the pewee (that would be the Ochraceous one), Scaled Antpitta, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove among a few other not so easy birds. It wasn’t for lack of trying though and given the rain, I think we did pretty well in compiling a list with checks next to these choice species:

Buff-crowned Wood-Partridge

Spotted Wood-Quail

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Black and white Owl

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl

Vermiculated Screech-Owl

Spectacled Owl

Snowcap

Lattice-tailed Trogon

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Tawny-throated Leaftosser

Peg-billed Finch

During the course of birding, I was also reminded of the following:

The Unspotted Saw-whet Owl responds to vocalizations of Stygian Owl: Whether because it has experience with that potential predator, or just doesn’t like how it sounds, we had one saw-whet respond in an agitated manner to the high-pitched call made by the Stygian. In fact, since the saw-whet responded with a similar squeaking high-pitched noise, I thought it might actually be a Stygian. However, much to my frustration, almost as soon as I caught the saw-whet in the light of the torch, off it went and my client didn’t see it. We did manage to relocate a calling bird but that one was inside a veritable shield of dead vines and we couldn’t see it before it flew off to call a few more times just as the dawn was breaking on Irazu.

Hotel Grandpa’s yes, Kiri Lodge maybe not: Hotel Grandpa’s acts as a good base (with a funny name) for exploring Irazu. Good service, comfortable rooms, and a nice restaurant (which we didn’t use because we had birds to see). The only down-side was sleeping near a cabin where the guests were having their own karaoke party in the middle of the night. Once again, a shame I didn’t have some firecrackers to light right at their front door before we disembarked on the saw-whet search at 2:00 a.m.

As for Kiri Lodge, I hate to say this because the owners are nice but the room was so small and basic, and the choices in the restaurant so limited (unless you like trout or fried chicken), I don’t see myself staying there again. I know they have wanted to sell the place, I wish I had the money to buy it so it could be converted into a wonderful birding lodge. We would have wood-quail parties, engagements with antpittas, constant hummingbird action, roosting owls, etc.

The Crimson-collared Tanager can be much less friendly than you think: When a bird that has been typically easy to see decides to hide and skulk and fly off as soon as you might see it, sorry but it’s not being very friendly. Well, at least not birder friendly. If there was such a thing as “Bird Advisor”, I would have given it one star.

Tapanti is great as always and birder friendly: Tapanti National Park, thank you very much! The day before we were scheduled to bird the park, I asked the guard if we could enter early. He said, “Sure, what time?” I hesitantly responded, “Er, 5:30?” “Sure, no problem.”

We got there at the scheduled time and yes, out he came to open the gate. After thanking him from the bottom of my heart, in we went and onto the Oropendola Trail. Despite our early arrival and careful scanning, no antpittas hopped into view. But, we did make up for it with an Ochre-breasted on the Arboles Caidos trail (!), a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles that almost flew too close for binoculars, and views of such targets as solitaires, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and the two hummingbirds among several other non-target species. Mixed flocks were good and by 11:30, we had a healthy list.

Our Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

The guard at La Selva, not so much: If you bird the entrance road, God forbid that you scan with binoculars near the guard shack. Such common birding behavior caused the guard to abandon his post and tell us that we could bird along the road but not right there because that costed money to do so. Seriously. Scanning for a few seconds, looking in the direction of the reserve. He was clearly perturbed and then even more so when we left the road near there to see a Black-throated Wren even though we were clearly in sight, and obviously watching a bird for a very short time. I said, “I’m sorry, there was a bird there we really wanted to see, please don’t worry, we aren’t going to try and sneak into the grounds of La Selva.” He said something like, “There are houses here, you can’t leave the road.” I saw the houses, we weren’t near them. At all. Whether he was worried that administration would perhaps berate him or was just taking his job to new heights of security, when it comes down to it, this is yet another sign that La Selva could use some consulting regarding birders. If the OTS La Selva Biological Station would like to capitalize on birding and thus raise more funds for the station, for a fee, I would be more than happy to advise them on how that could be accomplished and of course in ways that would not affect the main objectives of the station. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Now before we make excuses like “it’s a research station”, or that “the guard was just doing his job”, we would also need to ask ourselves if La Selva would actually like to earn more money from visiting birders, and if part of the guard’s job should involve efforts to try and stop people from watching birds in the vicinity of the guard shack (and thus convince them to perhaps not stay at a place that does not welcome birders and recommend other birders to do likewise).

El Gavilan can be a pretty good base for Sarapiqui birding: El Gavilan, one of the oldest choices for accommodation in the Sarapiqui area, continues to be a welcome, relaxing places to sit back and see which birds come on by. Although the habitat consists of various stages of second growth along with mature riparian forest, it is pretty darn birdy (check out the eBird list from late morning). After seriously searching for Snowy Cotinga at the edges of La Selva and other areas in the vicinity, we managed to see a female fly over the clearing at Gavilan. Sadly, she did not perch for scope views but the pale gray bird was still the only one we saw. Other species were Gray-chested and White-tipped Doves, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, flocks of migrating Miss. Kites and streams of swallows, Alder Flycatcher by the river, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, Black-cheeked, and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, and various other species of the Caribbean lowland edge and canopy. No deep forest birds but that can be resolved with walks at Tirimbina, El Tapir, or Quebrada Gonzalez. Not to mention, one of the friendly managers brought us to a roosting family of Spectacled Owls.

The baby.

I’m sure there is more to say about these days but given our fast-paced, focused birding, at the moment, it’s all sort of blurring together. Suffice to say that, as always, when you put in the time and effort, Costa Rica provides the birds.

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admin on September 13th, 2017

In Costa Rica, thankfully, we have been spared the hurricanes that have wrecked their way through other parts of the world. Irma and Jose may have sent a few wayward birds our way but if not, no problem, we still have thousands of other more expected birds to watch. Fall migration has begun and in Costa Rica, it starts with swirling clouds of Plumbeous, Swallow-tailed, and then Mississippi Kites, handfuls of Cerulean Warblers, and thousands upon thousands of shorebirds. Each day that goes by sees flock after flock of waders moving through the country, especially on the Pacific slope. While more than a few no doubt zip right on over Costa Rica, many more take a break in the Gulf of Nicoya.

The large areas of nutrient rich mud flats are a perfect place to feed and take a much needed rest, and quite a few of those birds stay around for the winter. However, with so many birds on the move now, this is when the shorebird scene is at its most exciting. Who knows how many lost individuals from Asia pass through? Surely not many but I bet there are more than we realize. When you take into account the small number of accessible sites, the very few people who are watching, and the difficulty in picking that one winter plumaged Red-necked Stint out of distant Semipalmated Sandpipers, the struggle is real. However, those factors do leave the door open to the equally real possibility of stints from Siberia and other birds taking accidental vacations in and and through Costa Rica. Good luck finding them but since looking for such super rare birds is like going through a never ending box of avian chocolates, it’s all good!

That box of chocolates is why I have been itching to check out shorebird sites in the Gulf. Every day brings more birds, I wish I could be there to count them all but since I have other super important stuff to do (like making my daughter breakfast and then playing “eye spy” in the car while bringing her to school), I just gotta get down there when I can.

Thankfully, I had that golden chance this past Sunday. Although the mud holes at Chomes kept me from investigating the site with my small car, the bird rich lagoons at Cocorocas, Punta Morales were accessible and always act as an excellent second option.

Sometimes, there are more birds there than Chomes, I’m not sure if that was the case on Sunday but there were certainly a lot.

Both areas of salt ponds or lagoons were populated with hundreds of waders especially Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers. Other birds included dozens of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, many Western Sandpipers, and a scattering of other species, my best being a small group of Surfbirds. Along with that year bird, I also added Common Tern for my Costa Rica year list, and had fun scanning through the skimmers and other birds at the site. Nothing rare and the variety was lower than I had hoped for but I can’t really complain about watching hundreds of shorebirds.

After two hours at Morales, birds began to fly back out to the Gulf as mud flats were exposed by the retreating tide. I took that cue to likewise move on to better birding grounds, and based on its proximity to Morales, took the turn off on the highway to Ensenada.

 

Ensenada is a private refuge that also has salt pans that can be great for shorebirds. Unfortunately, I never found out what was using them on Sunday because the gate was closed and locked. At least the road in was a nice, birdy drive. Despite a few pot holes here and there, the gravel way was good, nearly free of other vehicles, and passed through a matrix of fields, second growth, Teak farms, and older tropical dry forest in riparian zones. A few stops here and there turned up expected species like Long-tailed Manakin, different flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Banded Wrens, Blue Grosbeak, and other common birds of the dry northwest.

A pair of requisite Double-striped Thick-Knees was also a treat.

Fly-over Hook-billed Kite was also cool.

 

I would love to bird that road at dawn to see what else is out there and check it at night to see if I can finally add Northern Potoo to my country list. That one is seriously overdue.

Since Ensenada was inaccessible, I eased on down the road towards yet another set of salt pans at a placed called, “Colorado”. That drive wasn’t as nice as the one in to Ensenada and the last bit in to Colorado was also made inaccessible by virtue of muddy conditions but from what I could see, there didn’t appear to be many birds there anyways. I did luck out though, with another hoped for year bird, the uncommon Spot-breasted Oriole. I had stopped in a place with several big trees and right on cue, a pair of the orioles were singing. They eventually came through the canopy overhead but ignored me and just kept on going, perhaps in search of flowering trees.

Although the orioles didn’t pause long enough for a good picture, this Yellow-naped Parrot was a good sport.

After the oriole incident, I had to choose between checking the estuary at Tarcoles or getting in a bit of sea watching at Puntarenas. A tough call but eventually I settled on the port. Although the sea was choppy and it looked good for finding some wayward sweet addition to the year list, I didn’t see much more than an Elegant Tern or two. That was alright because you never know what’s there unless you try and it was still a gift to see a few terns and catch glimpses of dolphins out in the Gulf as a cool breeze came off the water.

I wouldhave made one more stop but by that time, the rains had started up again, so I drove on home to enjoy a fresh cup of afternoon coffee while the cloud’s release soaked the backyard.

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admin on September 6th, 2017

The world of birding is s small one, especially in these days of constant digital connection. Make the right “friends” on Facebook and you can receive updates from birding tours in Thailand, the latest avian temptations from Saint Paul, Alaska, and learn who was successful with the Swallow-tailed Gull twitch in Washington state, all in a matter of seconds. In state-sized Costa Rica, the birding world is even smaller. Go birding and you run into many of the same local players, we read about other’s reports, and we sign up for the same Christmas counts- always taken to a new level in birdy Costa Rica!

One of the local birders whom I had often heard about but just never personally met is Jose Alberto Perez. An artist also known as “Cope”, he lives right where the Caribbean lowlands meet the foothills and, for the past few years, has been showing birders why this part of the country is always worth a visit. After hearing about roosting potoos, owls, and a tame Thicket Antpitta, last week, I was pleased to finally have the chance to meet Cope while guiding someone focused on bird photography. Whether you prefer to point a camera at birds or use the binos, I can say for sure that any amount of time with Cope is time well spent.

The Cope birding garden set up.

We started by watching the birds that came to his small but very productive pond and feeder set up. Although it was rather quiet during our visit, he can get a lot of birds in December (similar to high activity at that time of year at other feeders) including various tanagers, toucans, and so on. Nevertheless, it was still nice to have close looks at Pale-vented Pigeon, hermits, a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer that dominated the feeders, and a few other hummingbirds while we sat in the shade and enjoyed the green surroundings. The vocalizations of Slate-colored Grosbeak and Striped Cuckoo from somewhere in the neighborhood reminded us of the high avian potential in the area as did Cope’s tales of American Pygmy Kingfisher, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and the other birds that had visited his small garden. He also told us about our chances at seeing some roosting owls a short drive from his home. Since those chances sounded pretty good, off we went to see if we could connect with a Crested Owl.

He took us to a nearby road that had a surprising amount of good habitat. While most of the surrounding lowlands are deforested, rivulets of primary forest apparently persist along rivers and streams and there are also areas of birdy second growth. The trees were very tall in the place we visited and they did indeed harbor many birds. While Cope checked a couple of spots for Crested Owls, I heard White-ringed Flycatcher and a few other lowland forest species, and we had flyby Brown-hooded Parrots. Since he has had all three hawk-eagle species in that area as well as Agami Heron, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and Purple-throated Fruitcrows further down the road, I can’t help but wonder what else might live around there. Hope I can do a dawn survey some day.

What also became apparent was Cope’s keen understanding of the avifauna in his patch. He explained where two pairs of Crested Owls often roosted and where he usually finds Spectacled Owls. Uniform Crake was further back in the woods, a bit too far for us, and the friendly Thicket Antpitta hadn’t been singing for a while, but he did have a nest of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and there was one more Crested Owl roost to check. After he checked the nest, he also came back and told us that yes, the Crested Owl was on its roost. After a short walk into the forest, there indeed was the nest of the tyrant, and the Crested Owl!

As is typical for this species, it was roosting fairly low in a spot with hanging dead leaves.

After plenty of satisfying views of this striking owl species, we went back to the tyrant nest and listened to its insect-like call while waiting for it to descend. The call was fitting for a bird the size of a large beetle and because of those miniscule proportions, our only chance at a photo was waiting for it come on down out of the canopy. The only problem with that strategy was Cope’s ability to find roosting birds. Before the tyrant flew down, he waved us over saying that he had found a roosting Spectacled Owl. Since owls tend to trump every other bird, especially ones as small as an insect, we followed him to the viewing spot, and there indeed was our second species of owl in 30 minutes!

Spectacled Owls are fairly common but still never as easy as Great Horneds up north.

Sure enough when we came back to the tyrant stake out, the tiny thing had already come and gone but an owl is always a good excuse and with limited time, you can’t see everything (although that never stops me from trying or wishing that we could!).

At other times, Cope can have roosting Great Potoo, White-tipped Sicklebill in the garden, and might even know of an area for Red-fronted Parrotlet. He can also usually show you Honduran White Bats, is very much connected with his patch, and will do what it takes to help you see birds, frogs, and whatever else he might have up his sleeve. In these times of disconnection from nature, it’s always nice to spend time with other people who still have that connection. Cope is one of those people, I look forward to my next visit.

Cope can be contacted for guided visits via his website, and Facebook page.

 

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admin on August 31st, 2017

Regarding birding endeavors, the past two weeks have been good ones . I have added some really good year birds, visited the birding oasis known as Rancho Naturalista, and have shared birds with clients and friends while guiding at every elevation on the Caribbean slope. I also managed to add a surprise year bird to my 2017 list while checking the Pacific coast for storm driven vagrants. The following is a summary of those highlights:

Birding the Pacific coast yields a major surprise: There have been some major storms may out there in the Pacific. Although they didn’t roar on in to Costa Rica, the outlying waves from those storms did make it to our shores and they have surely brought some good birds with them. With that in mind, I decided to check a few coastal sites with friends on August 13th. It took a while but we did eventually find a mega Sooty Shearwater! Hours of scanning rough seas from Tarcoles, Caldera, and Puntarenas had yielded little more than a few Black Terns, a few Sulids, and brief looks at Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel when Johan suddenly exclaimed, “What’s this bird here?!” A dark bird floating on the surface moves right in front of us, all the while looking like some odd, lost duck. Except that the dark bird just offshore from the tip of Puntarenas isn’t a duck but a brown species of shearwater. We run to the end of the overlook near the Puntarenas lighthouse and manage some looks at a Sooty Shearwater before it floats too far into the gulf for easy looks. Although this species used to be seasonally common in pelagic waters off of Costa Rica, you would need some powerball luck to see even one during ten pelagic trips. With that in mind (and the fact that a Swallow-tailed Gull was seen in Seattle), I can’t help but wonder what other serious megas are lurking out there in Costa Rican waters.

Sooty Shearwater for the year list!

Guiding around Tirimbina: The birding is always going to be good in the Sarapiqui region. During a day of guiding at Tirimbina and nearby, our best birds were Snowy Cotinga, White-fronted Nunbird, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, and perched Great Green Macaw just before the rain poured down.

Tirimbina is one of the last sites in Sarapiqui where the nunbird is reliable.

Hummingbirds at Cinchona and the Volcan Restaurant: Both of these sites have feeders that attract a bevy of sugar-pumped beauties. Since both are also just 35 minutes to an hour from the airport, you might want to consider a stop at these avian oases to treat yourself to good photo opps of several hummingbirds and supporting local businesses that have always supported birds and birders.

The local White-bellied Mountain-Gem was showing well at Cinchona.

The former Magnificent (now Talamancan) Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem also showed well at the Volcan Restaurant. This is on the main road to Poas. Watch for it on the left about 300 meters after the police station.

Rancho Naturalista: It’s hard to emphasize how nice it is to stay at Costa Rica’s first birding lodge. The birding is non-stop and includes relaxed birding from the balcony, checking the forest trails for manakins and so on, watching shy forest species come in to the moth light, visiting the hummingbird pools, and having several options for birding further afield. Throw in friendly, wonderful accommodating service, excellent on-site guides, and delicious cuisine and this place is hard to beat.

Bicolored Hawk is one of several shy species regular at Rancho.

Ask to visit Rancho Bajo to see coquettes. We had looks at male and female Black-crested and the much less expected White-crested Coquette!

Cope and El Tapir: “Cope” is the nick-name of a local artist who also loves to show people roosting owls and other birds, and he does this very well. Along with some other birds, we saw both Crested and Spectacled Owls after a couple hours at El Tapir that had turned up point blank views at Snowcap and a distant Tiny Hawk. Yeah, that was a morning with some serious quality birds!

Crested Owl.

San Luis Canopy: Most people pay a visit to San Luis to zip-line their way through the forest canopy. However, with glittering tanagers rummaging in fruiting trees and hopping around a fruit feeder, yeah, I’ll pass on the zip line for excitement! Yesterday, we enjoyed close looks at Black and Yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers along with a perched White Hawk and a few euphonia species. Although we dipped on the Speckled Tanager (usually easy at this site), we did connect with Dusky Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens at the start of the Manuel Brenes road.

The lovely Emerald Tanager.

The skulky antbirdish/babblerish Black-throated Wren even posed for shots!

I hope the information above can help you with  your own birding endeavors in Costa Rica. Come on down, this birding paradise is closer than you think. Get ready for your trip with my 700 page e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

 

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Summer is still happening up north but not for long. The cooler nights of autumn are just around the corner, and for most birds, the big seasonal insect boom is over. For species like Cerulean Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush, the chicks have been fledged and the time has come to once again take the long trip south. In Costa Rica, we are already seeing this trio of wood-warblers and we hope to see many more in a month or two. Yes, the exquisite Cerulean Warbler passes through Costa Rica in as good numbers as its threatened population allows and right now is the time to see them. They mostly occur on the Caribbean slope, especially so in foothill and middle elevation forests and can be encountered for much of September in small numbers although the best place in Costa Rica to see this choice warbler of the deciduous canopy seems to be at the Las Brisas Reserve.

This private protected area in the foothills above the town of Siquirres seems to be especially good for migrants as well as nice resident species like Royal Flycatcher, White-tipped Sicklebill, and other birds. Since it’s an excellent place to count Ceruleans while looking for other migrants, local birding guide and ornithologist Ernesto Carman has organized an annual Cerulean Warbler count at this site for the past several years. Past counts have turned up several Ceruleans along with flocks of migrating kites and many other birds shared in good company. This year’s count promises to be just as good and also includes a bird walk at the EARTH University, an excellent site for species of the lowland rainforest. To participate in the count on September 2-3, contact Ernesto at getyourbirds@gmail.com

Le Royal Flycatcher

When not counting Cerulean Warblers, here are some suggestions for birding in Costa Rica during the final week of August and the first week of September:

Visit Albergue del Socorro– Off the beaten track, but not too far off for an easy visit, this small lodge is run by a friendly local family who care deeply for the excellent middle elevation forests and biodiversity in their neighborhood. Needless to say, the birding is excellent and I can’t wait to go back. This is a site to look for Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird among many other species.

Check out wetlands in Guanacaste– The waterbirds are more spread out but with more wetlands to access, it seems like it’s easier to find major targets like Jabiru and Spotted Rail. Don’t overlook the rice fields, especially if they are being harvested. Sit back and see if you can identify the rails that are flushed by the tractor!

The Jabiru is more or less king of the Western Hemisphere wading birds.

Look for the Aplomado Falcon in Coris– There has been a juvenile Aplomado in Coris, Cartago terrorizing the local blackbirds and doves for more than a month now. Park across the road from the entrance to the Kimberly-Clark factory and watch for the Falco fun from there!

Expect flooded conditions near Golfito– It’s been raining Jaguars and Maned Wolves in southern Costa Rica. As has often happened when massive amounts of water come to that part of the country, fields and other areas have become flooded. Be careful when driving any side roads from the La Gamba area to the border.

Keep an eye and ear out for Saw-whets and Oilbirds in the highlands– This is a good time of year to at least hear the little known Unspotted Saw-whet Owl up on Irazu and Cerro de la Muerte. It’s also a good time to look for Oilbirds. Although there have only been a few sightings this year, there are probably more of those weird nocturnal birds up in the mountains.

Enjoy the great birding in Costa Rica, as always, I hope to see you in the field!

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A fine morning of birding doesn’t have to include a lifer but when it does, it becomes a fine morning indeed. Like one that includes a high cup of smooth, award winning coffee accompanied by pan du chocolate and the chocolate just happens to have a 75% or higher cocoa component. When the lifer is unexpected, it’s like enjoying that same luxurious little repast accompanied by a winning lottery ticket. Last week, I hit that birding jackpot accompanied by chocolate headed Blue-footed Boobies, deep, dark, coffee-colored storm-petrels, and a sweet set of dry forest birds.

The day started in the middle of the night when we departed the Central Valley at 2:30 am. We needed to reach Puntarenas by 4:30 and since we arrived by 4:00, next time, I’ll be leaving at the almost just as crazily late/early hour of 3:00 am. And given the consistently nice birding surprises from the ferry, I hope to make that next trip within the next two months. Hopefully by then, the ferry dock will be fixed (it suffered some damage yesterday, thankfully after we did our trip), and I will see Sabine’s Gull, phalaropes, and other targets. But, back to the other day when we got that personal birding lottery ticket.

After parking at Frank’s Cabins (which the owners graciously opened at 4:00 am as soon as we called), Susan and I got our 800 colon tickets (that’s less than two bucks), boarded the boat, and walked up to the top deck, right in front. Aside from a flyby Back-crowned Night-Heron, we didn’t see anything else in the pre-dawn darkness but we knew that would change as the day broke over the calm estuarine waters of the Gulf of Nicoya.

The first birds were expected species like Brown Pelicans, flocks of White Ibis moving from roosting sites to mud flats near Puntarenas, frigatebirds, and a smattering of Royal, Sandwich, and Black Terns. When we reached one of the first drift lines, we got onto our first target or “good” bird. As with other occasions when I have seen Galapagos Shearwater, the fluttering, pot-bellied look of this one was revealed after constant scanning of the horizon. A check through the scope assured that it was indeed a Galapagos and not the much more rare Black-vented. We also saw a second bird ten minutes after the first.

An excellent year bird, especially when it can be seen from a quick and easy ferry ride!

As we moved forward on our hour and a half boat trip, we continued to scan the horizon as much as the few swells allowed. No storm-petrels yet nor many other birds but we did see several Blue-footed Boobies, all of which were juveniles.

The summer months are probably the best time to see Blue-footed Boobies in Costa Rica. I wonder where they come from? Cocos Island? Maybe even the Galapagos?

After the ferry docked, we had around two hours to kill before returning on the 9 am boat. Let’s see, not much to do in tiny Paquera and two hours to kill. Yeah, I think I’ll go birding! Fortunately, there is plenty of dry forest habitat around Paquera, most of it in various stages of second growth but still quite a few big trees and on Thursday, August 10, the green, rainy season vegetation overflowed with bird song. As we walked up the road, we heard and saw a good selection of species, the most common of which was Banded Wren.

As with other sites in the southern Nicoya Peninsula, we noticed that White-necked Puffbird was easier to see than many other sites (we saw three over the course of an hour and a half).

We were also entertained by the bright colors of Black-headed Trogons and Turquoise-browed Motmots, and the antics of various other dry forest species. Although we didn’t luck out with any super rare and enigmatic Pheasant Cuckoos, nor any year birds, the activity still made for a refreshing bird-filled break between ferry rides.

Around 8:00, we headed back to the boat, got our tickets, and boarded with a good number of tourists on their way back to the mainland, including one local guide who showed us pictures of Ornate Hawk-Eagle from his garden in La Gamba. Back on the ferry, we scanned with the scope hoping to find groups of feeding birds. No luck there but as the boat got underway, we eventually found birds flying back and forth. Most of these were Black Terns and a few Blue-footed Boobies but eventually, once again, constant scanning turned up different species. This time, they came in the form of a few Least Storm-Petrels doing their bat-like flight in the same area as some foraging Black Terns. Once again, the scope also came in handy to make a positive ID. Not long after, more scanning revealed what I first took to be a Black Storm-Petrel flying in from the south. However, its flight didn’t seem quite right for that species, and sure enough, the scope revealed an extensive white rump. Yes, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, another excellent year bird, and along with the bat-like Least, year bird number three!

Further on, maybe 30 minutes away from Puntarenas, we got our final and best bird of the day. While scanning to the south, we both noticed a larger, darker tern that was foraging with a small group of Black Terns. I figured it would probably be a Brown Noddy but the shape didn’t seem right for that species. The head looked more angular, and while checking through the scope, my jaw dropped when I noticed a distinctive, definite forked tail. Nope, not a Brown Noddy! Off hand,the only other species that came to mind was a juvenile Sooty Tern, a potential lifer!

The bird moved in the same direction as the boat and eventually flew across the bow as it moved towards the inner part of the gulf. Although it was pretty far off, occasional looks through the scope revealed a white flash on the wing linings. Based on illustrations of juvenile Sooty Tern, I had expected more white on the belly but once I got back home and checked images online, I breathed a sigh of successful relief after seeing several images of juvenile Sooty Terns that showed very little white on the belly and matched our bird exactly. Lifer achieved and a not very expected one either! In Costa Rica, this species mostly (or perhaps entirely) breeds on Cocos Island and is very rarely seen as close to shore as we saw it. But, that’s kind of how the ferry is- you never know what you are going to encounter and even when you expect Brown Noddy and Bridled Tern, you might end up seeing a Sooty Tern instead! I’ll take that lifer and hope to get out there again in a month or two because who knows what else is out there? Maybe I will find that Peruvian Booby that was reported the day after we took the ferry!

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admin on August 2nd, 2017

I am sometimes asked about the number of bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or if I am still missing some. Although I have seen a good number of the birds on the Costa Rica list and am approaching 800 birds seen or heard in country, since the list includes more than 900 species, I could add a lot more including several lifers. Granted, most of the gaps on my checklist are very rare vagrants and pelagic species but a choice few are indeed residents like the White-tailed Nightjar and Rufous Nightjar, two species that I should really make more of an effort to see. Another bird that I really, really need to see even though it happens to already be ticked off my country list is a mottled black and white chicken-like marsh bird known as the Spotted Rail. It’s on my country list because I have heard it a few times but since “heard only” species don’t make the grade for my official life list, the elusive Spotted Rail is a major target.

Russet-naped Wood-Rail- Another chicken-like marsh bird that is much more common and much easier to see.

As one might imagine, like so many other chicken like marsh birds, this one is typically a pain. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, this bird is nothing like the secretive yet much more reliable Viginia Rail up north. Search for it and you don’t find it. Search again and you still don’t find it. Maybe you get a brief staccato one time response to playback. Or, maybe just a peaceful swishing of a breeze in the marsh grass that must be hiding a bevy of sulking, skulking rails. Whatever they are doing, they are oh so reluctant to come out and play. With various raptors and demented herons to deal with, I can’t blame them but I sure wish I could catch a break with this bird!

In June, several people did catch a break with Spotted Rails and right in one of the areas where I have briefly heard and tried to see them sans success. Pictures were posted, including images of sooty, fuzzy youngsters! The birds came out onto the sunny track, the observers made jubilant exclamations about hearing them call over and over! It was a veritable bonanza of Spotted Railness, but I wasn’t there to partake in the party. I was out of country at the time but did hope to give it a try after coming back to Costa Rica.

Where the rails were seen.

Try I did with a few friends, leaving the Central Valley at 3 am so we could hopefully reach the rice fields west of Liberia by 6:30 or 7. Although this is of course the dead of the night, believe me, it’s the best time to drive in Costa Rica! As long as you can avoid any racing or inebriated drivers, you can enjoy mostly vehicle-free roads and make excellent time to your destination. We were on track for doing just that but as dawn broke over the lush rainy-season fields of Guanacaste, a wrench (aka spanner) was thrown into the birding works. While talking about some bird related subject or another just south of Canas, the car suddenly coughed and subsequently died. We were able to partially pull off the road (not many shoulders in Costa Rica, even on the Pan-American highway) and quickly set up road triangles in the hopes of keeping speeding trucks from smashing us into oblivion.

During the ordeal, we still remembered to watch birds. Some dry forest species were flying around, especially good numbers of Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Stripe-headed Sparrows were singing as we called the two truck. Fortunately, while doing that, a friendly mechanic stopped and helped us out on Sunday morning, a time when most places are closed. Unfortunately, there was no way that car was starting again and eventually, we towed it to his shop around 6 kilometers up the highway. He figured it was probably the fuel pump and brought us to the bus stop. Luckily, a nearly empty bus came by, we got on, and Spotted Rail quest numero uno was converted into a sleepy bus ride back to the San Jose area.

The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.

Always nice to watch the common yet ever handsome Stripe-headed Sparrow.

Over coffee, we discussed how these sort of things happen and how we could maybe try again if the car could be repaired soon. A few days later, I found out that yes, the car was good! The internal fan belt had broke, it had been fixed, and the car sounded wonderful. When I was once again picked up at 3 am a week after our first attempt, it did indeed sound better than before. In fact, the orange Chevrolet sort of purred. We drove back down through the dark of the night to the Pacific lowlands and once again watched the heat lightning play in the distant sky as dawn broke over green fields punctuated by scattered, umbrella-shaped trees. We drove past Canas, feeling grateful for the mechanic who lived there and talked how we would recommend him to other birders. We zoomed along the lovely new, spacious highway to make up for lost time during road work and just as we approached Liberia, my heart dropped as I heard an odd coughing noise. As much as I wished it was the sound of a large truck two vehicles back, no, sadly, it was the sound of our very own, sick car. We pulled over in a gas station and turned the car off.

“Oh, look, there is some loose piece of plastic under the car, it must be that!”

But it wasn’t. The car wouldn’t start and we stood there in shock as we tried to comprehend how this had happened. As the same dry forest species as the week before called and flew over, and called our mechanic, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were living some Groundhog Day moment. The Spotted Rail was just out of reach, if only we could have broke down next to a marsh! At least much to our good fortune, once again, our mechanic came through and was able to reach a friend with a tow truck, all during the non-working time of Sunday morning. We rode the tow back several kilometers to Canas where Kendall the friendly mechanic was waiting. He was just as surprised as we were, especially when he opened the side of the motor to see that the new internal belt was loose. It should be fixed by now but after two failed attempts to even reach the home of the rail, and on precious birding days at that, I can’t help but feel really reluctant to do another birding trip in that same car. At least we now know a good, friendly, helpful mechanic who lives and works in Canas. I you need one in that area of Costa Rica, I recommend him- his name is Kendall and his number is 89772749. He only speaks Spanish, who knows, maybe he will become a birder- he heard enough about birds in Costa Rica from us!

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