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One of the best and most accessible sites for middle elevation birding in Costa Rica is just 30 minutes from Cartago. It’s the place where most birders in Costa Rica see their first Streaked Xenops, Rufous-breasted Antthrush, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, and other decidedly uncommon, middle elevation species that are much easier to see in the Andes. Although these can still be easily missed at Tapanti, it is the most reliable site in Costa Rica for the birds mentioned above (except the antthrush- easier at the San Gerardo field station). Lots of other quality birds also show up in the quality, mossy forests at Tapanti, including Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Red-fronted Parrotlet, Sharpbill, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and so on. So, why is it then, that I rarely bird there? After all, it’s pretty close to the Central Valley.

Some fine forest at Tapanti.

Ironically, the vicinity to the Valley is also what keeps me from going there. You see, it’s near the eastern side of the Valley while I live on the western side. Lack of a good ring road means a trip through the traffic of San Jose and then Cartago to get there, and then again to come back. Hit the rush hour traffic and we are talking two to three hours of slow going vehicles with more than a few people who appear to not know how to operate them. And that’s just one way. So, that’s what keeps me from Tapanti and I wish it didn’t because the birding is always good and the forests are fantastic.

Last weekend, since we hadn’t been there in more than a year, Susan and I decided to visit Tapanti on Saturday. A weekend always means more people in the park but I doubt that it affects birding that much. There was some light rain, but for the most part, we lucked out with cloudy weather and had around 70 species.

One of the first was a Streaked Xenops seen just outside the park!

We also saw a flock of Barred Parakeets in flight.

I was very pleased with the xenops because in Costa Rica, Tapanti seems to be the only accessible, reliable place for it. A year bird and also one that I needed for the Birding Field Guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama. It was hanging out with a small mixed flock that also had Slaty-capped Flycatcher, some tanagers, and a few other species.

Slaty-capped Flycatchers are common in Costa Rica.

After hanging with the xenops, we headed towards the entrance. It was still too early for the eight o’clock opening time but you can still run into quite a few good birds in that stretch of forest before the gate. We checked the streams for lancebills without any luck, but saw another mixed flock with several expected, small bird species. No rarities but still nice to watch Tawny-capped Euphonias, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Spangle-cheeked Tanager,  and so on.

Spangle-cheeked Tanagers are common at Tapanti.

Once the park opened, we went in, paid our entrance fees, and birding along the main road to the Pavas Trail. The cloudy weather resulted in lots of activity including Rufous Mourner, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds. Still none of my other targets (which are pretty rare anyways), but still fun birding in beautiful surroundings.

We saw a few Ruddy Treerunners.

And more than one Spotted Barbtail.

I figured we would check out the Waterfall/Pavas Trail to look for forest birds. It’s not as steep as the Arboles Caidos, and based on habitat, looks ideal for everything from antpittas to Sharpbill and maybe even Lanceolated Monklet. Although we didn’t find any of those, I bet you could. The thing about tropical birding is that birds can be present but go unseen one day and then be hopping on the trail the next. It also means that it’s worth it to spend several hours of several days in quality forest. You will see new birds every day and probably eventually run into most of the rare species. I bet that would happen on the Waterfall/Pavas Trail, I sure wish I had the time and resources to test that hypothesis with four or five days of surveying that site!

On the Waterfall Trail.

We had more of the same that we had already seen along with heard only Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner and Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and a Silvery-fronted Tapaculo that showed well but just wouldn’t stop long enough for photos. Even if it had stopped for more than three seconds, the understory was probably too dark anyways. By then, it was around 11, and the rain was starting up so we walked out of the trail and checked along the road a bit higher up. Things were pretty quiet but we had nice looks at a female Black-bellied Hummingbird.

Female Black-bellied Hummingbird.

This Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush was having a picnic.

Birding on the way out was likewise quiet so we decided to check out a soda (small diner) just outside the park entrance. The place is called “Los Maestros” and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s such a shame that I didn’t know about the place before I finished my bird finding/Costa Rica birding companion e-book but at least I can mention this special spot now. Los Maestros is up the first small road outside of the entrance to the park with a sign that says “Tapanti Ecoturs”. Go up that road (and watch birds on the way, this is where we had the xenops), and walk up to the small soda on the left. It seems connected to a house but don’t worry about that. The food was surprisingly good and is inexpensive, the view looks suitable for raptors and seeing other birds in the treetops (we didn’t see much because of the rain), the owner has her heart in the right place (she talked about our need to improve the environment, has worked with local kids along those lines, and has a grandson who is a birder), and Black-billed Hummingbirds fed in the Porterweed. A fruit feeder and food scraps on the ground for other birds could bring in everything from tanagers and barbets to Scaled Antpitta. I hope I can somehow convince her to do that…

The sign for the soda.

After lunch, the rain lessened so we gave the entrance to the park one more check. Once again, we ran into another nice mixed flock with several expected species. Nope, nothing rare but you gotta keep trying!

On a sobering note, large areas of semi-shade coffee have been cut down on the way to the national park. These areas were very birdy, acted as habitat for Golden-winged Warbler, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and many other species, and will now be rather birdless. Will the Golden-wings that wintered there survive? Who knows but most probably won’t. Some of the shade coffee is still around but who knows for how long? I suspect that the coffee bushes stopped producing due to drier, hotter weather, so the landowners cut everything down and planted tomatoes and other crops instead. It was a sad reminder of the link between a suddenly warmer world, shifting agriculture, and the subsequent, detrimental effects on biodiversity.


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admin on July 24th, 2015

Birding trips to Costa Rica can be scheduled during the dry season but, if you want to see a quetzal and hundreds of other species that live in the highlands and haunt the wet, lowland rainforests, expect precipitation. It might come in the form of a light mist, pouring rain, or birding in the middle of a cloud. Just be prepared for it and everything will be alright. Doubt may grow when the sky neglects to turn off the faucet for a few days but what are you gonna do? Get back on the plane? Hell no! This is Costa Rica! You go birding dammit! You might go crazy but hey, you still gave it the good old college try. You can also follow these tips if you find yourself birding in the clouds or dealing with near constant rain:

  • Be Prepared: Don’t let hopes and positive thoughts lull you into complacence about the rain. Dry season or not, when four meters of rain per year is a normal occurrence,  no amount of positive thinking will dissipate those clouds. It’s going to happen at some point so be ready for it with an umbrella for the hot lowlands, and a poncho for birding in the highlands. Get enough dry bags for your equipment, and listen to The Who’s “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” while packing your stuff.
  • Bring waterproof binoculars: Most quality binos these days are waterproof and fogproof. If your’s aren’t, seriously consider an upgrade before the trip because this is a must when birding in wet Costa Rica.
  • Practice birding with an umbrella: On many occasions, birds are active in light rain and misty weather. Don’t miss birds by venturing back into the hotel during such typical cloud forest weather. Learn how to hold an umbrella and binos at the same time, and see more birds.

    Birding with an umbrella in cloud forest.

  • Bird in the pouring rain:  When birding in the clouds, don’t be surprised if the water all around you coalesces into soaking, pouring rain. If that does happen, wait under an umbrella for ten minutes or so to see if it lightens up. It’s worth the wait because if the rain does stop or turn back into mist, this is often followed by a sudden burst of bird activity. If the pouring rain keeps coming down, head back to shelter, get a wonderful cup of coffee (always fantastic in Costa Rica), listen to bird sounds on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watch from there. There won’t be so many birds but a few things might come into view.

    You might end up seeing a Juvenile Blue and Gold Tanager.

  • Watch hummingbird feeders: At least the hummingbirds tend to remain active. Enjoy the feeder action from a sheltered spot.

    This Coppery-headed Emerald was enjoying the cloud forest mist.

  • Head to Guanacaste: If you just can’t take the constant mist and rain any longer, you can always go to the dry habitats of Guanacaste!

Expect rain and birding in the clouds no matter when you go to Costa Rica. Be prepared and you can also still expect a lot of cool birds.

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admin on July 15th, 2015

Costa Rica is a fantastic place for close looks at hummingbirds. Feeders and gardens planted with the hummingbird delicacy known as Porterweed bring in most species for soul satisfying views, and hundreds of digital captures.

Coppery-headed Emerald is one of several species commonly seen at feeders.

However, although most birders end up with 30 plus species during a two or three week trip to Costa Rica, most also end up with the same set of missing species. Those blanks usually include White-crested Coquette, White-tipped Sicklebill, Garden Emerald, and a few other species. One of those usually missing birds is the Green-fronted Lancebill, a rather dull hummingbird with a long, needle-like, oh so slightly upturned bill.

A typical look at a Green-fronted Lancebill.

This one can be a pain because it happens to be genuinely uncommon, ignores feeders, and doesn’t even visit Porterweed. Look in those places and you will see lots of hummingbird action but won’t see any lancebills. The lancebill prefers more refined food and places, look there and you might find them. Here are a few tips on finding and seeing this choice Costa Rican hummingbird:

  • Cloud forest: Although it can show up in foothill forests, the lancebill is most at home in the cloud forest zone. These are the forests shrouded in mist and draped with moss and epiphytes, and the lancebill lives in them from the Monteverde area south to Panama, and on both slopes between 800 and 2,300 meters.

    Cloud forest.

  • Hanging flowers: This odd hummingbird doesn’t have that long bill for nothing. Its bill seems to be adapted to clumps of tubular, hanging red or pink flowers because this is where it often feeds. Like a miniature Sword-billed Hummingbird (a South American, surreal specialty), lancebills sneak underneath those hanging flowers and feed from each tube with delicate precision. If you see a bunch of these flowers in cloud forest, a lancebill will probably show up sooner or later.
  • Streams and waterfalls: This is the best tip for finding a lancebill because whether you run into those special flowers or not, these birds are almost always found along streams. Like a wannabe dipper or Black Phoebe, they will even perch on a rock in the middle of the rushing waterway. They seem to like small waterfalls even more and will perch near the base or plunge basin to fly and out and catch unseen bugs.

    Lancebill habitat.

  • A few good sites: Any forested stream with small rapids and waterfalls in cloud forest is a good place to watch and wait for Green-fronted Lancebill but some of the more reliable spots are streams in Tapanti National Park (especially the one at the entrance), Monteverde (try the waterfall trail), The San Luis Canopy and nearby, and the La Paz Waterfall Gardens (take the forest trail and watch around the base of any small waterfall).

Since this hummingbird probably has linear territories along streams, you usually have to wait for it to show up. Like other birds, it’s easiest in the early morning when it calls, is more active, and sometimes gets in chasing fights with other lancebills. No matter what time of day you look, once you find a suitable spot, be patient and keep scanning the rocks, twigs, and flowers until one shows up. You will probably see a few other good birds in the meantime.

If you see one, don't expect bright colors!

Do you enjoy this blog? Help support it by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” and give yourself the most complete set of bird finding information for the country.

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Carara National Park and vicinity isn’t that far from the Central Valley, especially with the highway that cuts 30 to 40 minutes from the former route. The cut in driving time has made day trips to Carara from the San Jose area quite feasible, and the high number of bird species makes this Central American hotspot a worthy place to sling the binos on any birding trip to Costa Rica. Every time I go, I am reminded and convinced of Carara’s hotspot status. BUT, I don’t hightail it down to Carara every chance I get because I am also always reminded of the omnipresent heat and humidity.

Some days around Carara are hotter than others but you are always going to sweat. Or, at least I do, I think because I carry a bunch of stuff and wear clothes. When I walk through the forest I can’t help but wonder how indigenous people must have lived around there. Visions of Amazonian people typically come to mind,, people who wear little clothing, go swimming a lot, and take it easy during the heat of the day. I dare say that it must have been the same around Carara although locals also had the big side benefit known as the ocean.

Last weekend, I figured that the time had come to do a non-guiding trip to Carara. You see, I mostly visit the park and surroundings when guiding, and those are always exciting, bird-filled days, but it’s also nice to to go there in search of recordings, some tough target species, and just to see what happens in the forest. So, with a big frozen bottle of water, Gatorade, and a bunch of snacks (including two chocolates truffles that of course melted but didn’t fail to satisfy), birding friend Susan and I did a day trip to Carara on Saturday.

I wanted to check for Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-tailed Flycatcher around the mangroves, and hope for pictures of Marbled Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet in the forest. I have never had the two targets in the mangroves, nor have heard of anyone else getting them there but based on habitat, they might be very rare residents. Two of the forest birds are uncommon and the other two are always recorded but happen to be an incredible pain to photograph. I knew that I might not find anything I was looking for but I also knew that we would see more than our fair share of birds.

Our first stop was Bajamar to check the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya. The seas were nice and wavy but the avian result was zilch except for one distant Royal Tern. Although it looks good for seawatching, the marine birds are much better from the ferry and watching from the tip of Puntarenas.

To check the mangroves, from Bajamar, we drove south along the coast right the end of the road and the mouth of the Tarcoles River. There isn’t a whole lot of mangrove access but you get pretty close and there’s a fair number of birds. Although the woodpecker and flycatcher were predictably absent, we weren’t complaining about the fun combination of wading birds, edge species, and others including Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-naped and White-fronted Parrots, and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon.

One of the Plumbeous Kites we saw.

When it was time to catch the 8 a.m (not ideal for birding) opening time for the national park, we left Guacalillo, drove back out to the main road, crossed the crocodile bridge, and went to the HQ. Entrance tickets were quickly purchased, restrooms visited, and into the forest we went. It became quickly apparent that the birds were nice and vocal on Saturday, and they stayed like that for most of our time in the forest.

All of these people are looking at American Crocodiles below the bridge.

Since my targets were far more likely back in the primary forest away from the road, we spent very little time in the old second growth, and bee-lined it back to the trails on the other side of the bridge. There are really too many birds to mention although expected and  interesting ones included Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill (heard only and would not let us see them!), Riverside Wren, Black-hooded Antshrike, lots of Dot-winged Antwrens, Orange-billed Sparrow, calling Great Tinamous, and so on.

On the other side of the bridge, more deep forest species became apparent as we heard Baird’s Trogon (one of five trogon species for the day), Scaly-breasted Wren, Red-capped Manakins, Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Streak-chested Antpitta. As luck would have it, we also got lucky with one of my targets!

Scaly-throated Leaftosser

Leaftossers are always a pain but this one perched more than long enough for me to get shots of it.

Not long after, we had a male Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting away from us. It eventually crossed the trail for excellent views.

Around there, we also had Lesser Greenlets and Red-capped Manakin nagging at something off in the woods but it was just too far to see if it was s snake or owl. One of my other targets also sort of cooperated although it stayed too high and in bad light for the best of shots.

Although we didn’t encounter as many mixed flocks as I had hoped, we did find one with Russet Antshrike, a couple woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, tanagers, antwrens, and a few other birds.

We had excellent looks at Black-striped Woodcreeper.

Dot-winged Antwren was one of the most common species in the forest.

The morning wore on but the birds never really stopped calling. Even though we didn’t come across any other targets (the greenlet was heard several times but never close enough to photograph), we still had a good, birdy time in the forest. That’s typical for Carara. By the time we exited the trees, it was two p.m. and stifling hot. That’s also typical for Carara. Thank goodness for vehicles with air conditioning!

I think this Mealy Parrot was also looking for cooler temperatures.

Even though we were sort of casually birding and stopped at 2, when I counted up all of the species we saw or heard from the time we left San Jose to the time we returned, we ended up being just shy of 160 species.

Yes, that many! That’s what happens, though, when the birds are singing in a major tropical ecotone with quality forest. Just be ready for the heat.

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admin on July 2nd, 2015

It’s not high season for birding in Costa Rica but that doesn’t stop birders from visiting. These are vacation days for several birders and although you won’t run into any wintering birds, most birders from the USA and Canada don’t worry about seeing migrants anyways. They hope to see Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, tanagers, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species that never leave the tropics. Between Friday and Monday, I guided some birders who opted for vacation in Costa Rica. All had been here before but they still had plenty left to see. Here are some of the highlights from a rainy day at Cinchona and the Nature Pavilion, a cloudy, misty one at Lands in Love, and a breezy one around Puntarenas:

  • Close looks at birds in the rain: This is alright as long as the birds are active and you can stay dry. We did at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and had close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, hummingbirds, and other species. We also scoped a distant Barred Hawk moving through the other side of the canyon and stopped for a surprise, perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle just down the road.

    Soaking wet Emerald Toucanet.

    Juvenile Prong-billed Barbet.

    We also saw our first Crimson-collared Tanager for the day. Another, even closer one was at the nature Pavilion.

  • White-necked Jacobins bathing in the rain and other beautiful birds at the Nature Pavilion: Time spent at this sanctuary of life is always a treat. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, tanagers, and other birds made close visits to the feeders, we saw two King Vultures soar into view, and were treated to close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and other hummingbird species. The guys at the Nature Pavilion also said that, as of late, a Rufous Motmot has been visiting the feeders, and Great Green Macaws have swooped down to check out a Beach Almond tree they had planted a couple of years ago. This last bit of news is especially exciting because once those Beach Amonds start producing seeds, it looks like the Nature Pavilion could become a reliable place to see and photograph Great Green Macaws!

    It's always nice to see Black-cheeked Woodpecker at arms length.

    Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

    This Bay Wren soaked up the sun for a minute.

  • More hummingbirds in the rain:  After enjoying the Nature Pavilion and lunch nearby, we checked out the action and fresh coffee at the Volcan Restaurant en route to Poas. The rain poured down with earnest but we still managed several hummingbirds including a single Stripe-tailed, Green Violetears, Magnificents, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. That finished off a day with more than 60 species seen and several heard despite nearly constant rain.

    Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.

  • Dry weather!: The lack of rain was a big bonus because the forecast had called for rain and storms. Not a good harbinger for birding but we decided to try our luck anyways. Well, we lucked out big time because we were treated to cloudy, birdy conditions on the San Ramon route to Lands in Love. Easy-going birding along the road produced several targets including prolonged looks at Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black and yellow Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, and Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens.
  • Lands in Love:  Although we started birding at Lands around 9, we still did quite good on uncommon species. Sepia-capped Flycatcher called but failed to show but we got close looks at Keel-billed Motmot, Spotted Antbird, and Bicolored Antbird in quick succession. On another trail, Song Wren appeared along with Golden-crowned Spadebill and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Then, it was off to lunch at the Loveats Cafe where we saw Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk-eagle too far away to identify.

    Keel-billed Motmot

    Juvenile male Spotted Antbird with adult male on the left.

    How can you not love a place with a giant cookie sign?

  • Cocora Hummingbird Garden: Although the hummingbirds showed, including close looks at White-bellied Mountain-Gem, other birds were pretty much a bust. Just not calling or active. However, after speaking with the receptionist, I feel even better about recommending this little known hotspot. After asking about bellbirds, she replied that she had heard them the other day but they were only calling very far off when we were there. However, umbrellabird was present the other day and is apparently regular at this site (!) from March to June. She actually said, “It’s common but doesn’t always show up”. To me, that says that if you spend most of a day or morning at Cocora from March to June, you have a fair chance of seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird, an endangered species that is becoming even more difficult to find. Lots of other birds are also possible in the cloud forest at Cocora.

    White-bellied Mountain-Gem

  • Long-tailed Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other dry forest species: The following day, we tried some dry forest birding near Esparza with highlights being a tree full of Long-tailed Manakins near a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the ant-tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and other dry forest birds.
  • Puntarenas: Then, we tried some sea birding from the tip of the Puntarenas peninsula. Brown Boobies and Black Terns fished very close to shore while clouds of Black Terns dotted the horizon. Storm-petrels were seen (too far off to ID, probably Wedge-rumped), one very distant Galapagos Shearwater was spotted, and we managed a Brown Noddy feeding with Black Terns.

    Brown Booby

  • Lesser Ground-Cuckoo: After a delicious lunch in Puntarenas, we checked out Caldera to search for Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and dry forest species. We saw Gray-necked Wood-Rail and Green Kingfisher instead of our targets but did alright with a few dry forest birds. Banded Wren gave good looks, we saw a nice group of magpie-jays, and had looks at a few other dry forest species including an amazing ground-cuckoo fight. What appeared to be two pairs of ground-cuckoos came towards us and right out into the open for a strange, bill-snapping face off. It was pretty much beyond ridiculous.

    Lesser Ground-Cuckoo poses form the camera.

    Lesser Ground Cuckoo creeping away.

What can I say, there’s always more than enough to see in Costa Rica no matter when you go birding.

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Like most birders, I have always been interested in knowing where I need to go to see the birds I want to see. At least I assume most birders are like that. I know that when my eyes were first opened to all thing avian, I quickly realized that no, you can’t just walk outside and see Baltimore Orioles, beautiful wood-warblers, and owls sitting up there in the Japanese Maples and Hackberries in my neighbor’s yards.

Every bird I looked at seemed to be a House Sparrow, Starling, or Rock Pigeon along with a few genuine natives. The appearance of my first Song Sparrow in our urban backyard was a big deal for a city-bound 8 year old birder, and the “Sparrow Hawks” in the nearby field (aka abandoned railway line) were nothing short of amazing. According to books at the Earl Bridges Library, those species were mapped for Niagara Falls, New York but what about Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Brown Thrasher, and so many other species that were supposed to be there too? I didn’t know then that the maps showed what would live where our house stood if the streets, homes, and sidewalks had never been built. I found out that those and so many other species needed woodlands, grassland, and thickets that grew outside of town, and that you had to travel much further afield to find species that required larger areas of forest.

Although the maps in the field guides showed these solid purple, red, or blue areas where birds occurred, they were actually a general representation of a much more static situation. Bird species could live in the colored areas of the maps but they only occurred in the places that were suited to them, and even then, many weren’t exactly obvious. You couldn’t just go birding and see everything you wanted. You had to really look for birds, and sometimes spend more time looking than you had hoped.  Not to mention, owls were basically a myth. Nevertheless, it was still way easier to find birds in the temperate zone than in tropical forests. For a lot of places in North America, bird-finding guides gave vary specific directions for target birds that worked like a charm. Go there, watch this corner of a field at seven a.m., and enjoy your lifer!

So why doesn’t that work in Costa Rica?

Well, it does if you want to see common, second growth species but that’s where similarities between bird finding up north and 9 degrees from the equator tend to cease. Like the temperate zone, edge species are common because there is a heck of a lot of second growth, they have evolved to quickly take advantage of temporary habitats in a forested landscape, and aren’t too picky when it comes to food.  Not to mention, there are more individuals of a few species rather than very few individuals of many species. These factors make it much easier to see species like Black-striped Sparrow, Passerini’s Tanager, and Variable Seedeater compared to forest birds like Ocellated Antbird, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Green Shrike-Vireo.

Black-striped Woodcreeper

As far as rainforest species go, yes, you do have to know which sites harbor the birds you are looking for but seeing them is still another story. Unlike temperate zone forests in the early summer, rainforest birds aren’t in a hurry to defend territories, mate, and take advantage of the summer arthropod abundance. They seem to take their time to avoid predators, find enough food in a highly competitive landscape, and just stay alive. Camouflaged in appearance and behavior, and occurring at naturally low numbers, typical rainforest species can be so tough to find that you can’t help but wonder “where are all of those birds?” when walking in a seemingly bird-empty forest.

If you go to a large enough area of protected rainforest, the birds on that huge enticing list do occur but this is why you don’t see them right away:

  • Some live in the canopy: Actually a lot live way up there, 100 feet above the ground. It’s hard enough to see birds in the canopy if they are sitting in bare trees. Add vegetation growing on everything and you learn why canopy towers are built.

    A canopy view of a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.

  • Microhabitats: Tropical rainforests are about as uniform and predictable as a broken kaleidoscope. But, we need to celebrate that chaos of life because it’s partly why there are so many possibilities. Learn about microhabitats and pay attention to them to find that Royal Flycatcher, White-crested Coquette, and Dull-mantled Antbird.
  • Army ants and other avian gourmets: Some birds refuse to eat unless Army Ants are present. Others only like certain types of fruit or muddy places where they can find choice worms. Know the places where certain birds like to eat and you just might find them. What? Even that doesn’t guarantee seeing them?- check out the next point.
  • Time spent in quality habitat = More Rare Birds: Even if you do find the right habitat and food, that cotinga, ground-cuckoo, or other tough species might be absent. Wait around long enough and keep checking, though, and they will eventually appear. Some birds are just inconspicuous and naturally rare, or have become even more rare than normal because they have to migrate to lowland areas that have been mostly deforested (poor umbrellabirds…). The upside to this is that statistically, the more time you spend patiently birding in the right habitat, the higher the probability of seeing rare species. This is why it’s worth it to visit quality forest day after day and spend many a quiet hour there. Eventually, the tough birds show up and in the meantime, there’s always cool stuff to see in tropical rainforest anyways.

A site guide can point out places to bird but knowing how to look for target species is a huge help in finding them. There’s no replacement for an experienced birding guide, but “How to See,Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” can help you get ready for your trip, and show you where to look for birds, as well as finding and identifying them.

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admin on June 17th, 2015

For the non-birder, the title of this post surely sounds like some crude joke. For us birders, though, we know that it must refer to some kind of weird bird. At least we hope it does because how could you not want to see something called a “treehunter”? Because, really, how does one hunt trees? After all, they aren’t about to exactly sprint out of sight. To clarify the treehunter situation, here is some information about the one that lives in Costa Rica:

  • Streak-breasted Treehunter (Thripadectes rufobrunneus): The official name for the only Thripadectes species that occurs in Central America. The other hunters of trees live in South America where they chase and bash down various trees with their super power beaks. Ok, so they don’t but wouldn’t that be a frightful sight!

    Streak-breasted Treehunter hanging on a tree.

  • Poorly named: Now that we know its name, we also have to sigh and admit that the title is nothing but power down fluff. It sort of has buff streaks on the breast but would never hunt a tree. A more honest and descriptive name might be “Gray-crowned, cloud forest monsterette”.
  • Hefty brown bird: Like other Thripadectes, this one looks like it could kick some cloud forest butt. I bet the Red-faced Spinetails keep their distance.

    What you looking at spinetail?

  • Not that rare: Breathe a sigh of relief because this bird is fairly common in cloud forest from 1,200 to 2,600 meters. I have heard and seen them around Poas and they turn up at most cloud forest sites (but see the next bullet).
  • A Part time skulker: Stevie Wonder sang about a part time lover. This bird preaches part-time skulking. That is obviously much better than full-time skulking (ahem tapaculos).

    How this part time skulker is often seen.

  • A burrow nester: Like a wannabe motmot, this bird nests in burrows! How’s that for cool, troglodytish weirdness!
  • A loner: Although it might get curious about scolding bush-tanagers, don’t expect to see it in a mixed flock.

    "I forage alone..."

  • A Costa Rica-Panama endemic: This species is one that you want to see in Costa Rica or western Panama because the binos aren’t going to espy it anywhere else. Like several other species, it evolved into a genetically and phenotypically distinct organism in the highland forests of this corner of Central America.

Look for the Streak-breasted Treehunter at any cloud forest site above 1,200 meters elevation. Since it nests in burrows, this bird is often seen near embankments and forested streams. Listen for its loud “chack!” call and distinctive, weird nagging laugh vocalization, and then run for your lives because if it can hunt a tree, what do you suppose it might do to a human?

This tree is mine!

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At first glance, a ferry doesn’t sound like fun. First, you wait in line with a vehicle. Next, you drive said vehicle on to a flat, square thing that is supposed to be a boat. After stowing the car, you usually find some place to sit and wait out the trip. It’s boring, even in this ridiculous day and age of the mobile phone. In some places, it also becomes frightening because other ferrys on the same routes have sank with horrible consequences.

BUT, take the right ferry and it’s fun, easy birding. That pretty much describes the ferry between Puntarenas and Paquera, Costa Rica except that it’s also cheap, fun, easy birding! Yep, if you can find a parking spot at Frank’s Cabinas, you can leave the car for about $8 for the whole day instead of paying around $50 to take the car back and forth on the square boat. As for a passenger ticket, that’s a mere 800 colones, or around $1.75.

Even if you didn’t plan on watching birds, this particular ferry would still be fun. The crossing is about an hour, the weather and scenery is typically beautiful, you could have a cold beer on the boat (I have seen several passengers bring their own), and, best of all, you probably won’t get seasick! The swells are usually light, and since it’s only an hour, there’s hardly any chance of being afflicted by the nasty mal de mer.

The ferry.

As for birds, yes, there are those too and you never know what might show up. No, the ferry won’t chum or chase anything but the tall, flat deck is a good vantage point to scan and even scope stuff out in the gulf, and all sorts of stuff can show.


Although the birding won’t be as exciting as pounding the waves straight out to the continental shelf and beyond, it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable and still turns up pelagics.

I would rather take the ferry than this boat.

Since Inca Tern had been recently seen near the ferry, myself and a few friends decided to do a ferry birding trip on Sunday. We knew that the Inca would be a crap shoot but we also knew that we would probably see something good, and since the ferry is so easy to do, it was almost too easy to drive down to Puntarenas, park at Frank’s, and get on the boat.

But before we even got there, we picked up the first good bird while checking the cruise ship dock. After setting up the scope, I focus in on the dock and the first bird that comes into view is a jaeger! A subadult Parasitic is out there sitting on the dock during the month of June. Odd indeed and a very welcome year bird.

It was sharing the dock with Brown Boobies, a couple of Laughing Gulls, Sandwich Terns, and a few Royals. In other words, nothing crazy but that’s alright because we knew that we would get a few more good birds from the boat.

But before we boarded the ferry, birds were already visible from the point of Puntarenas and scanning them turned up a bunch of Black Terns, Brown Boobies, and, suddenly, a shearwater flies into view! It was pretty far out but still identifiable as a Galapagos Shearwater, one of our targets for the day and a lifer for all sans moi.

Welcome to the ferry.

When the boat got underway, we constantly scanned our surroundings and started seeing more Brown Boobies, and scattered groups of Black Terns foraging for small fish and perched on driftwood.

At one point, a Blue-footed Booby flew past.

Blue-footed Booby

Not long into the trip, a small squadron of Galapagos Shearwaters glided low over the water, and flew into the gulf.

Galapagos Shearwaters

Galapagos Shearwaters

More scanning kept revealing more Black Terns but we also enjoyed the super close views of Brown Boobies.

Brown Booby flying close.

A Black Tern on driftwood.

As the boat approached one small group of terns, I noticed a larger brown bird with them and immediately said, “Sooty Tern”! although I actually meant to say, “Brown Noddy!” That’s what happens when you see a lifer. Excitement blurs the neurosignals and you don’t say what you really mean. No matter, because we all got perfect looks at a Brown Noddy, right next to the boat. Since the noddy is only present in Costa Rica during the summer, I was hoping we would see it. Success!

It was in a group of Black Terns like this.

In Paquera, we got off the boat , bought return tickets, and then got right back on. This time, we took front seats, and once again, scanned the water from left to right and kept checking the skies for a tropicbird (Red-billed is seen now and then).

This Brown Booby accompanied us.

The noon-time ride back was sunny and slow, and still lacked storm-petrels, but we got more looks at Black Terns, saw a Snowy Egret perched on driftwood in the middle of the gulf, had more looks at Brown Booby, and even spotted a couple of guys in a raft that needed a rescue!


After docking, we called it an early day and drove back up to the San Jose area. Next time, I would love to take the 5 a.m. ferry and come back on the 9 a.m. ferry. This being an El Nino year, and the Gulf of Nicoya being an important, nutrient-rich body of water, you never know what might show up.

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admin on June 4th, 2015

June has special meaning for those of us from the temperate north. It’s when summer truly kicks into gear with baseball, the hum of lawnmowers, beautiful sunny days, the rattle and song of meadowlarks calling from the fields, and another school year finally over. Celebration all around and the woods are filled with bird song. In Costa Rica, though, June is barely noticed because summer is a year-round event only marked by absence or major presence of rain.

Cloud forests like this need a lot of rain.

Right now, there’s a whole lot of rain going on and it’s a relief because this is how it’s supposed to be. April and May were pretty dry and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. In many parts of the country, birds nest in April and May to take advantage of the rains. If the rains aren’t there, the birds are probably going to lose the gamble for offspring. This year, I hope enough birds in the Central Valley and the Pacific lowlands postponed nesting for a month because right now is when the food is abundant. Well, at least for the valley because Guanacaste is still going through a drought. As climate continues to warm, unfortunately, the tropical dry forest in that part of the country will probably phase into an even more xeric ecosystem.

The rain story follows another path in the mountains and Caribbean. There has been more rain than usual and although it hinders birding, those wet ecosystems do need the water. The rain can be rough to contend with but it does spur bird activity. Like a northern summer, more birds sing, and it’s easier to see more species than drier, winter months. If you are from the north, go birding in Costa Rica now and every bird seen will be a tropical resident. It’s a good time of the year to become acquainted with antbirds, watch trogons in action, and get crazy with mixed flocks.

You might also see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- singing a lot now.

The low clouds also make June an excellent time of the year to watch swifts. Most days, as the storms approach, I see White-collareds, Chestnut-collareds, and Vaux’s right from the house. If I look long enough, I also hear or see Black and/or Spot-fronted. The other day, I picked up a Spot-fronted when it called as soon as I walked into the backyard. I couldn’t find it way up there in the monotone gray but was happy to at least hear its distinctive vocalization.

It sounds like this:

The need to breed also reveals species that can be very hard to find. After Jim Zook reported a pair of Blue Seedeaters near Naranjo, Susan and I went looking for them a few days later. There was no sight or sound of that rare and little known species but it will still nice to hear the sounds of June in moist woodlands and coffee farms of the Central Valley. Those sounds and sightings come in the form of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Rufous-breasted and Plain Wrens, Barred Antshrike, Red-billed Pigeon, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and lots of Yellow-green Vireos among other species.

A lot of Yellow-green Vireos are here now.

After dipping on the seedeater, we continued on to the loop that goes past Bosque la Paz, goes up through Alto Paloma, and comes back through Sarchi. We met back up with the rain near Bosque de Paz but still saw a fair number of birds before the mist turned into a downpour. From the cloud forest, we heard Prong-billed Barbets, Slaty-backed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Black-faced Solitaire, and other expected species. We also saw most of them including Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Golden-crowned and Three-striped Warblers, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Yellowish Flycatcher, and others.

This Collared Trogon caught a pretty big caterpillar.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Higher up, tapaculos called but failed to show (no surprise there), and there was no sign of Costa Rican Pygmy-owl, but we did see and hear Golden-bellied Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Collared Redstart, Ruddy and Band-tailed Pigeons, and several Black-thighed Grosbeaks to top off a birdy June morning with 60 or so species.

Alto Paloma- good high elevation birding near San Jose.

Want to learn more about birding at Alto Paloma, other sites mentioned on this blog, and how to identify swifts? Get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on May 28th, 2015

Although it’s a small country, Costa Rica is jam-packed with birding opps. It’s fully stocked with avian delights, and that’s why it’s hard to figure out where to go. If you happen to stay in Costa Rica for a year, there won’t be any problem figuring out where to go because that just might be enough time to visit every place in the country (if you go birding every day and have unlimited funds, time, and energy). But, since most of us have but a few weeks to spare for a birding trip to Costa Rica, we have to settle on the sites that will give us our target species and the best birding bang for our bucks.

One of those places in Cano Negro. Look on a map and it might seem to be way out there but it’s really not. The exact biogeographical definition for the area might also seem elusive (and it is) but that doesn’t matter either. Go and you will see a healthy variety of birds, including a bunch of rare and uncommon ones for Costa Rica. I was up that way last weekend and although the rare crakes did not come out to play, it was still a dang fine trip anyways. These are some of the good reasons for scheduling in a visit to Cano Negro garnered from that most recent trip:

  • Medio Queso: Yes, it literally translates to “half cheese” but when it comes to birds, it’s more like a rare gourmet gorgonzola. Need Pinnated Bittern, rails, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and chances as Jabiru, Black-collared Hawk, and maybe even an Aplomado Falcon? Take the boat trip on the Medio Queso river. The road is just south of the airport in Los Chiles, the boat driver is at the end of the road, and his name is Rafael Palacios. He knows where to find the birds and if you do one boat trip in Costa Rica, do this one! Although high water made us a bit too late for the rails, people were getting close focus views of Spotted Rail, and Yellow-breasted and White-throated Crakes during late March and April when water levels were low. And, no, they didn’t even use playback. We didn’t see the falcon either, nor Jabiru (probably also because of high water) but we did see lots of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, tons of Nicaraguan Grackles (almost no Great-taileds), and most other targets on our list including easy Pinnated Bittern and several Least Bitterns.

    Least Bittern trying to sort of hide.

  • Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-winged Tanager, and other uncommon birds around Los Chiles: We were happy to see Scaled Pigeons calling from trees right in the town of Los Chiles and although we missed the tanager, it can turn up in town, and is most likely at feeders with papaya. Or, if you really want to see that tanager, just go birding in most places north of Costa Rica up to eastern Mexico.

    One of our many Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters at Medio Queso- just outside of Los Chiles.

  • Waterbirds: As in Green Ibis, Sungrebe, kingfishers, Agami Heron, Jabiru, and so on. You might see them all or you might miss some of the rare ones but either way, you will see a lot!

    One of our many Nicaraguan Grackles at Medio Queso. They can also been seen at Cano Negro but aren't as common.

  • Raptors: A trip to Cano Negro typically reveals a nice selection of raptors. Although rainy weather was not ideal for raptors last weekend, we still saw Black-collared Hawk (best site in Costa Rica for this one), Snail Kite, Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Bat Falcon, and three vulture species. Several other raptors species can also show.
  • Woodpeckers: With ten species possible, it looks like Cano Negro is the woodpecker capital of Costa Rica. The only one I missed over the weekend was Pale-billed. I saw or heard: Lineated, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Rufous-winged, Golden-olive, Smoky-brown, and Olivaceous Piculet!

    Rufous-winged Woodpecker

  • Kingfisher Lodge: We stayed at this well-priced place and were treated very well. Rooms are basic but fine and clean, and have fans or air conditioning. The grounds were very birdy and had a great mix of Caribbean slope forest and edge species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, Pied Puffbird, Bare-crowned Antbird (heard only but at least we know it is there), Gray-headed Tanager, Royal Flycatcher, Greenish Elaenia, parrots and parakeets, Green Ibis, woodpeckers, and so on. I would go back in a second. If you want fancier digs, there is also the birdy Hotel del Campo and Cano Negro Natural Lodge.
  • Night birding: This endeavor can be exciting in the Cano Negro area. Although we dipped on Ocellated Poorwill, that’s no big surprise given that others have spent many hours and more than one night looking for it. However, we did see Pacific Screech Owl around the main plaza, heard Mottled Owl, and had Common Potoo right at Kingfisher Lodge during about 30 minutes of night birding. Oddly, we did not see the usually reliable Great Potoo at the San Emiliano bridge.
  • It’s also easy to get to: Well, actually, Los Chiles is easy to get to and is about 4 hours from San Jose. The road to Cano Negro is rocky and slow going but can still be done with a small car.

It might seem out of the way, but Cano Negro is a fun place to bird, and easy to combine with Arenal. March to early May are best but it’s always worth a visit!

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