Mountains are one of the main reasons why so many bird species live in Costa Rica. They act as barriers that promote speciation, catch moisture that creates cloud forest and other tropical forest habitats, and make it possible for distinct ecosystems to evolve at different elevations. But, on the downside, the steep slopes, ravines, and other forms of broken terrain don’t exactly facilitate access. Considering that there are people who would rather cut down the forest to make room for cows, that’s a good thing. But, not so good for birders who wouldn’t mind some easy-going searching for middle elevation species.
But, thanks to a certain few roads, we don’t need to torture ourselves by slip sliding up and down muddy slopes to catch a glimpse of a spinetail or two. In Costa Rica, we can head on over to Virgen del Socorro to hang out with Tufted Flycatchers and be entertained by the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets (if we really feel like calling that entertainment). Despite losing some forest during the 2009 earthquake, Virgen del Socorro is up and running for birding. Here are some tips for visiting this classic site:
Check out the “new” road!: This would be the road that accesses the canyon and although it’s not really new, the conditions are so much better, it’s pretty much as good as new. Or, it’s at least the best it will probably ever be. Instead of bouncing along roads and ruts, thanks to some recent grading, it’s a smooth ride down to the bridge and up to the entrance to the hydro plant on the other side of the river. Who knows how long it will last but you can probably enjoy this two wheel drive trip for the next few months.
Sunny days aren’t the best of days but they are good for raptors: Pretty much that. If you can get there before 8, it’s all good. After then, expect some really slow birding interspersed with raptor thermals. Commonly seen raptors at this site are Bat Falcon, White Hawk (maybe the most reliable, easily accessible spot in the country), Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Keep watching and you might also get lucky with Ornate Hawk-Eagle. In the past, Great Black Hawk, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, and even Solitary Eagle were regular at this site, maybe they could show up again?
One of the White Hawks from this site.
Time is better spent at the bridge and the other side: The habitat is better down by the river, and across the bridge. Birds can also be seen on the way to the bridge but where there is more forest, there tend to be more birds and more species. Watching from the bridge might also turn up an American Dipper and other river species (although Sunbittern seems to be oddly absent).
Don’t worry, no one uses the old bridge any more.
Keep watching for mixed flocks: As if we wouldn’t be doing this anyways? What I mean by this is to keep looking and waiting for multi-species action, and then trying to stay with those birds as long as you can. This is where most of the birds will be including chances at various foothill and middle elevation species, and uncommon and rare stuff like Brown-billed Scythebill, tyrannulets, Blue and gold Tanager, vagrant wood-warblers for us local birders, and who knows what else?
Red-headed Barbet can show up. You can also watch for it at the Colibri Cafe.
Hummingbirds: It depends on what’s in flower but know that this is a good site for “le Black-crested Coquette”, Brown Violetear, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Mountain-gem, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy among others.
Female White-bellied Mountain-Gem
When to visit: Any time of the year is good. This is a great place to bird as a day trip when staying in the Sarapiqui area (takes about 40 minutes to drive there). It also works well when staying in the Varablanca/Poas area, and can be done as a day trip from the San Jose area but it will take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to get there. If taking the bus, the San Jose-Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui-Varablanca bus route can drop you at the entrance road.
It’s also a good site for Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Do the San Miguel loop: This means taking the road towards San Miguel on the way back. This is also good for birding and can yield more foothill species.
How to get there: The entrance road into the canyon is not signed. It is located off of route 126 (the road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens) on the east side of the road, just south of the largest river on this road, and doesn’t look like much. There is a also white roadside cross just above the entrance road. This is also between San Miguel and Cinchona. Another way to find it is by checking out the map for the Virgen del Socorro hotspot in eBird- in general, this is an excellent way to find various birding sites in Costa Rica and most countries.
Hope you see some good stuff!
According to the way we keep track of time in “Western” culture, a new year has begun. This gives us a chance to make promises to ourselves and is a great excuse for a fresh, brand new start for anything we want. In the realm of birding, we can start counting birds again for the next 365 days, make target lists for the year, and plan trips for lifers. I don’t have a burgeoning number of expectations for 2017 but this blog post does give me a chance to list some ideas to shoot for from now until next December. Here goes…
Surveys in remote areas of Costa Rica: This is what I want to do the most. I want to see what’s out there in those little birded places with intact habitat like the swamp surrounded forest block in Cano Negro, primary forest in the Fila Carbon near Casa Calateas, remote lowland forest sites up near the border with Nicaragua, the La Tarde lodge in the Osa, The Soltis Center, grassland sites in the north, and the Las Alturas area. I’m sure there are more spots but these are the ones that come most readily to mind.
The view from Casa Calateas.
Visit a bunch of hotspots: By doing this in conjunction with the remote sites, I hope to fill in the gaps and connect with a heck of a lot of birds. These sites would be well known places like the La Selva entrance road, Carara National Park, the La Gamba area, Cerro de la Muerte (think Paraiso de Quetzales), Palo Verde, Medio Queso, and other places that make it onto many a Costa Rica birding itinerary.
The birding is awesome around La Gamba. This is a Charming Hummingbird.
See a Tawny-faced Quail: As soon as I wrote that, I was tempted to backtrack and just press the delete/back space key. I mean, I always want to see this bird but it’s such a pain, where’s the hope? I would need to get to out of the way spots in the north and look and look and maybe not see it anyways. But, if you don’t look, you won’t even see a catbird so as long as I can spend time where it lives, I will still have a slim chance. If I can make my first hopes come true, my chances at finally laying eyes on this little ground bird will climb the ladder of probability.
eBird everything: Yeah, a lot of birders do this and I try my best but I always end up leaving some lists out of the equation. This year, I want all my observations to be documented up there in the digital cloud.
Identify 700 species in Costa Rica: Bird enough in the right places and it can be done. Heck, do a proper Big Year and I bet you could get 750 or even 770 but since I can’t afford to allocate time and resources to nothing but bird chases, that ain’t gonna happen for moi. No matter because I will be very pleased to do enough birding to break 700. In 2016, two guys I know did just that in Costa Rica!
I already saw this one for the year list.
Hope I can get this one again…
Meet more birders: I always like meeting more birders. Birding is what I do, what I have always done and these are the people of my erstwhile tribe (although I also appreciate meeting any sort of biophile along with people who like to hang out in old growth forests). Hope to see some birds with you in Costa Rica soon!
On a final note, I also hope to become more involved in local conservation efforts. Despite the obvious fact that living on Earth means that we also coexist with other life forms, the current extinction event and widespread, self-detrimental ecosystem destruction indicates that too many humans have ignored the obvious for far too long. Planting trees, environmental education, or just helping people to reconnect with nature, I hope I can do something along those lines.
In Costa Rica, the beginning of a new year also marks the start of another high season. Although visits begin to pick up as we move through December, the real jump happens after the ball drops. As if on cue, the rains of the wet season are replaced by fresh new winds flying through sunny skies around San Jose and the Pacific slope. The dry season may or may not extend to the Caribbean slope but overall, there’s a lot less rain and for us birders, that translates to more birding time. Ironically, it also means less bird activity but as long as you can get up at the crack of dawn (and you should if you want to have a better chance at antpittas and more birdies in general), the birding is going to be “fabtastic”.
You might see a White Hawk or two.
With more birders on their way to Costa Rica these days, I also get more questions and inquiries. With the aim of answering most such questions in one fell swoop, I have put together some FAQs pertinent to birding in Costa Rica now and in the coming months:
What time do national parks open?: The parks in Costa Rica pretty much run on office hours. Unfortunately, as those of us with favorite binos know, birds don’t follow the same schedule. They do get up early and that’s when we need to look for them. This doesn’t jive too well with protected areas being open from 8 to 4 but sometimes, there are ways around that schedule. If you can, visit the national park the day before and ask if you can go in around 6 a.m. on the following day. This usually works for Tapanti, Braulio Carrillo, and various other sites. It won’t work for crowded Manuel Antonio. If you can’t get in before 8, just bird adjacent habitat until then.
Even if you go in after 8, you might still see an Ochre-breasted Antpitta.
How can I see toucans, owls, and tanagers?: Toucans and tanagers are pretty easy as long as you visit the right habitat and sites (this translates to quality forest within the respective ranges of various species). As for owls, that takes a bit more effort, usually at night. There aren’t as many known owl roosts but it’s always worth it to ask at any lodge. As far as where and how to look for and find these and other birds in Costa Rica, you will find over 700 pages of this information in my Costa Rica bird finding e-book (or just buy it to help support this blog!).
Is Cerro Lodge close to San Jose? How about Carara National Park?: Cerro (a much recommended lodge for birding the Carara area) is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from the airport, and a ten minute drive to the park entrance. When staying there, make sure you also bird the grounds and road in front of the lodge.
Safety issues in Costa Rica?: It’s pretty much like most places- just use common sense and you will be alright. Don’t leave the vehicle where you can’t see it, especially if you have stuff inside, and don’t walk around with binos and cameras in urban areas.
Which field guide should I use?: As far as a paper guide with illustrations goes, nothing beats the latest version of “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” by Garrigues and Dean. Compact, great illustrations, maps, it’s an essential. If you like images of birds, looking at them while listening to their sounds, making target lists, and doing so on a smart phone or tablet, the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is another essential.
Should I rent a car, and if so, from where?: It’s of course much easier to get around with your own vehicle but what about the driving? How easy is it to rent a car? If you are familiar with city driving, you are ready for driving in Costa Rica. Just drive defensively, be ready for other drivers to not follow all the rules, and expect very few signs. Use a GPS navigator, avoid rush hour traffic in the Central Valley whenever possible, and only get a four wheel drive vehicle if you plan on visiting sites that require one. As far as where to rent the vehicle, I can’t help there, I’m not sure which place is best.
There goes most of the most common questions and concerns that get run by me, I hope my answers can help. If I could offer a last bit of advice, I would suggest not expecting species on a checklist for any given site to be immediately apparent and present during a quick visit. Yeah, most seasoned birders know that’s par for the course no matter where we go but it’s always worth mentioning because these tropical ecosystems are complex, and about the only thing predictable is their unpredictable nature. The best way to see more birds in a given amount of time anywhere in Costa Rica is by being patient and spending more time in high quality, rich habitats. Hope to see you birding in 2017!
The end of the year is nigh but there are more birds to see. What’s a birder with a year list to do but check eBird, keep an eye on the local rare bird alerts, and get out there before the end of the 31st? For a disciplined birder faithful to the year list, the logical solution is racing around and getting in those last, final birds. But, disciplined or not, if the holidays get in the way, or family responsibilities come into play, we might have to settle on a year list total some days before the 31st. Such is my case but I won’t complain. I’ve had a wonderful year of birding, walked past my initial goal of 600 species in Costa Rica way back in spring, and hit 650 some time ago. Recently, I also hit 675, and if I had time to head to Guanacaste, Tapanti, and a couple other sites, I’m satisfied knowing that I would break 680.
Therein lies one of the big benefits of looking for birds in a mega biodiverse country and an easy mantra for birding Costa Rica- do more birding, identify more species. With over 800 possibilities, it kind of never ends as long as you keep hitting different habitats and bioregions, and by the end of the year, there are always some species still missing from the list. Unless I see them outside my window or happen to get in a final day or two of birding in the right places, a dozen of my biggest misses will include the following:
Hook-billed Kite– It’s not common but it’s not rare so this one is probably my biggest miss of the year. It can turn up in all sorts of places, some of the most likely being the Orosi area, and wetland/riparian zones in Guanacaste. I still have a slim hope that one might be soaring up there near the house while I look out the window but some serious lady birding luck would have to be in the cards for that to happen. I’ll keep looking though, because “she” has paid unexpected visits right out the window on more than one occasion. As for other raptors, I did pretty good, getting the hawk-eagle trifecta, Tiny Hawk, Bicolored, Hawk, Crane Hawk, and 27 other diurnal species. To give an idea of raptor diversity in Costa Rica, that nice total still leaves out Cooper’s, Sharpie, Snail Kite, Black-collared Hawk, the three mega rare eagles (that would be Harpy, Crested, and Solitary), and three other species on the country list.
A Hook-billed Kite from another year.
Blue-footed Booby– It’s irregular but I usually see it at some point, and since I had seen several the previous year, I figured this one was in the bag. Another ride on the ferry or more scope time from shore would probably work.
One of several from the ferry in 2015.
Sunbittern– I was going to say Agami Heron but since that species is pretty uncommon and tough, I can’t really say that it falls into the “Big Miss” category. I had one main chance to get it while visiting Laguna del Lagarto almost a year ago but, for whatever reason, the fancy heron wasn’t showing up where it usually does. As for the Sunbittern, Yeah, I should have seen that oen at some point! I sure looked at enough suitable rivers for it. If you need it, the most reliable spot is probably the rivers near Rancho Naturalista.
Sungrebe– Yep, I also missed the other “sun” bird! Since I didn’t do any boat trips in Cano Negro or Tortuguero, no surprise there. I still hoped to chance upon one while checking lagoons in other places but oh well, no Sungrebe for me in 2016.
One from another time at Tortuguero.
Gray-headed Dove– I had hoped to at least hear one during an afternoon at Cano Negro village but didn’t so there went my main chance for this uncommon species. I made up for it though with hearing the rarer Violaceous Quail-Dove at Hitoy Cerere!
Common Nighthawk– Some birds have “common” in their name but aren’t so common. In Costa Rica, this one should be known as the “Locally and Seasonally Common Nighthawk”. It’s a passage migrant in large numbers on the Caribbean coast and is a resident in a few other places. Because of this, I figured it was a given during spring and fall visits near Cahuita but nope, no Common Nighthawks!
Green-fronted Lancebill– This stream loving hummingbird is easy to miss (I might still get it) but if you spend enough time at Tapanti, Monteverde, and streams with waterfalls in cloud forest, you have a fair chance. I did really good for hummingbirds in general however seeing all other regular species and lifering the Rufous-crested Coquette at Rancho Naturalista!
If I head to the mountains, might still get one of these.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker– I know, not so exciting for birders from up north but I usually see one or two of this uncommon migrant during the year. Still might get it but the time is ticking down for this one.
Merlin– Pretty much the same story as the sapsucker. I actually probably did see one while driving through Cartago but the looks were just too brief to call it for the year list.
Tawny-throated Leaftosser– If I can head out tomorrow, might still get it! Really surprised, though, to not at least hear it while birding at more than one good site for it during the year.
White-throated Flycatcher– Somehow missed this uncommon one too. I looked for it a few times in the right places but should have looked more.
I hope 2016 treated you well in terms of birds, birding, dark organic chocolate, and all other things good in life!
Last week, as usual, I made a stop at the Colibri Cafe during a day of guiding. I usually spend an hour or so at the Cafe after a few early morning stops on the route between there and Alajuela. There have been a few recent changes at the Cafe but the birding expectations are just as good, if not better. If you plan on checking out the Cafe while traveling to or from Sarapiqui, or as a day trip from Sarapiqui or the San Jose area, here are some suggestions and expectations:
More Feeders, More Birds: The owners have steadily updated and improved the cafe ever since the original was destroyed by the 2009 earthquake. Now, instead of watching one set of feeders, there is another set of feeders lower down and accessible by concrete steps. Recently, they also put up a large bunch of bananas at eye level that might eventually pay off with large toucan species and parrots. Maybe, but at least that’s what goes on with a similar set up at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. If you can do the stairs (there aren’t that many), make sure to check the feeders below because these are closer to forest vegetation and might end up attracting different species.
This site continues to be an easy spot for Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet.
Both Barbets: The Prong-billed has always been regular but the Red-headed has been scarce ever since the earthquake. It has been showing up a bit more from time to time, though, and with luck, will become a regular visitor again especially with the vegetation growing back.
Prong-billed Barbet- we actually did not see this one at the Cafe on Saturday but did catch up with it up on Poas.
White-bellied Mountain-Gem and other hummingbirds: Expect a good hummingbird show with six to eight species. This varies depending on time of year and what’s flowering out there in the woods but is always worth a look. The bird to look for is White-bellied Mountain-Gem, a local species seen at very few sites. Other regulars include Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
The other day was good for the mountain-gems.
More birds in the morning and on cloudy days: As is typical of bird activity just about everywhere, expect to see more at the Cafe between 6 and 7, and on cloudy days.
Cool souvenirs: The Cafe also sells a fair variety of quality souvenirs. Check it out and know that anything purchased there supports this bird and birder friendly locale.
Good, local food: Want to sample some delicious, Tico country cuisine? This is the perfect place to do just that, the prices are fair, and once again, you will be supporting a business that has helped thousands of people see Violet Sabrewings, barbets, and other species at close range. In essence, the owners have acted as unofficial bird and birding ambassadors.
Photography Fee: On my last visit, one of the owners explained to me that they are now charging a fee of $10 for people with professional looking cameras. This pretty much means anything beyond a simple point and shoot. They hadn’t put a sign up about that yet but hopefully will. I was actually going to suggest something like this because setting up the feeders and keeping them stocked has been and continues to be a substantial investment. Although they have a contribution box, that clearly isn’t working, and according to the owner, they haven’t been very pleased with the behavior of some photographers, saying that more than one had set up shop for a few hours without leaving a donation. Given the photo chances, especially now, $10 is a pretty good deal and they aren’t even charging by the hour. Who knows if that might change, though, so just be clear about the cost of using a DSLR at the Cafe Colibri upon arrival at the Cafe.
Some shots will be worth it.
Raptors: The good view of a forested canyon has also always made this site a good one for raptors. It varies but species to look for include White Hawk, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk, along with such possibilities as Red-tailed Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Bat Falcon, and even Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Keep in mind that Solitary Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, and Black and white Hawk-Eagle have also been seen near there in the past. Maybe they could turn up again, especially by scanning the other side of the canyon with a scope.
This white blob is an over-exposed White Hawk that was soaring around a few days ago.
Enjoy the birds, good food, and view at this special place!
When planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, Alaska, or anywhere else, we look at trip reports, talk to friends who have been there, study itineraries on birding tour websites, and gaze at field guides with anticipation. What are we going to see? Which birds are common, which are rare, are there any roosting owls that we can get pictures of? What awaits us on that exciting first day in country?
As much as we investigate, dream, and anticipate, the real answers to those birding hopes only come in the form of the actual experience. That said, I can tell you that if you go birding in Costa Rica, yeah, you are going to have plenty of new birds to look at, and if you bring the binos to the places with the best habitat, you will probably see a lot more birds than expected. Keep in mind that those special places may or may not be hotspots listed in eBird or elsewhere, and that the best spots are probably the toughest ones to access. Fortunately, though, we don’t need to restrict the birding experience to munching on energy bars in areas with remote, muddy trails. There are other, more accessible and comfortable places with excellent birding right on site. Even better, some of those places also have good service and excellent food.
You probably won’t see one of the best of those places on tour itineraries but that doesn’t mean that we should exclude it from planning. After seeing the following information, you might want to make room for the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge on your next birding trip to Costa Rica:
Lots of birds: The first time bird guide Juan Diego Vargas told me about Luna Nueva in 2009, he mentioned that the place was really birdy, more birdy than most other sites. I was quick to agree shortly after my first morning of birding because the avian chorus and number of birds were notably greater than many other sites. It seems that the mix of organic orchards, regenerating habitats, and primary rainforest provide food and shelter for a large number of birds, and probably more than you would expect. To give an idea of the congruence of biomass and diversity encountered at Luna Nueva, on this year’s Christmas Count, we had more than 120 species before lunch and that doesn’t even include waterbirds.
Highlights included a morning din of flocking parrots and parakeets that was incredible, trees alive with the foraging of honeycreepers, thrushes, and other species, several hummingbirds, and more just around the lodging and orchard area. Inside the rainforest, you get a different set of birds and might even see Great Curassow and other forest species. Migrants were also common and included good numbers of expected species like Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and less common migrants like Ovenbird, and Kentucky and Hooded Warblers. We also had several Gray Catbirds, a decidedly uncommon wintering species in much of Costa Rica.
A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher from Luna Nueva
Uncommon birds too: Along with dozens of common, expected species like Crested Guan, toucans, aracaris, Red-lored Parrots, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Luna Nueva is also a good site for uncommon birds like Black-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bicolored Hawk, Cinnamon Woodpecker, White-fronted Nunbird, antwrens, and even Uniform Crake. Ornate Hawk-Eagle is also regular and I expect that Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird visit on rare occasions (or perhaps more than we realize) from August to February.
A Cinnamon Woodpecker from Luna Nueva.
A Puma track from the forest at Luna Nueva.
Easy access: Good, paved roads bring you to the entrance road around two hours from the airport.
Close to other sites: Although Luna Nueva is off the main birding route, it’s still close enough to other places to use it as a suitable base. La Fortuna and the Arenal area are about thirty to forty minutes away, a drive up to the wetlands of Cano Negro would take around two hours, and there are good cloud forest sites about an hour, or an hour and a half up the road.
Delicious, healthy, organic food: As if constant, good birding wasn’t enough of a reason to visit Luna Nueva, the food is simply fantastic! Ingredients are organic and include many items from the farm, there are interesting dressings on the tables, and tasty recipes are served.
Support a plan for a sustainable future: It’s hard to believe that so many birds can be found on a working tropical farm but that’s because we are too accustomed to tropical farms being monocultures, doused with poisons, and places where cattle graze pastures that used to be shaded by massive trees were macaws nested. Luna Nueva demonstrates how tropical lands can be used to raise food and host a business without destroying most of the forest, the life found therein, and highly important organic soils that can help fight climate change. It’s a good plan for a sustainable, viable future.
Enjoy the birding at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, I know you will! Please leave a link to your eBird list in the comments.
Arenal is the name of a young volcano in northern Costa Rica. When Arenal experienced its explosive rebirth in the 1960s, a plethora of tourism activities based around the volcano were also spawned including soaks in hot springs, hikes to jungle waterfalls, the usual horse back rides, and so on. If you find yourself headed to Arenal because the rest of the family wants to partake in those and other activities, count yourself lucky because the Arenal area is also fantastic for birding. Quality foothill rainforests are accessible at several sites, there are birdy trails very close to town, and the area also hosts a mosaic of habitats to please birders of all ilks. Try these tips to make the most of your birding time around La Fortuna and Arenal:
Visit the Fortuna Nature Trail: Also known as the “Sendero Bogarin” or just “Bogarin”, this oasis is an absolute must visit for ANY birder wearing binos around La Fortuna. Thanks to the dedication, perseverance, and hard work of local guide and naturalist Geovanni Bogarin, you can walk a good, easy trail through second growth and wet areas that host the most reliable Uniform Crakes on the planet, and dozens of other bird species. The presence of everything from Rufous-tailed Jacamars to Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-crested Coquette, and other species is testament to what can happen when you just let the vegetation grow. The fact that most of the trail used to be pasture that now hosts wintering Golden-winged, Hooded, Chestnut-sided, and Mourning Warblers also provides hope for restoration of winter habitat for migrant species. Check out my eBird list from a recent, short visit. Oh yeah, and if you like to take pictures, the feeders can be sort of unbelievable.
This was at the feeder last weekend.
So were these.
And White-throated Crake along with around 20 other species.
This trail is just outside of La Fortuna, on the gravel road that runs next to the Backpackers Hostel. I’m not sure what Geovanni charges but please be generous with donations, he is doing this on his own and for the love of nature.
Visit the Waterfall: Another trail just outside of town, despite the constant stream of tourists both local and foreign, the site will probably surprise you with its excellent birding. The road in passes through birdy fields, second growth, and riparian zones, and the parking lot for the trail can be good for toucans (even Yellow-eared was showing well a few months ago), woodpeckers, and lots of other possibilities. Check the lights near the forest in the early morning for White-whiskered Puffbirds and other birds in search of easy insect prey. On the trail itself (which might not open until 8 a.m.) check for raptors and perched canopy species from the overlook, and watch for antbirds, great mixed flocks, and even Lanceolated Monklet on the steps down towards the waterfall. You might even see umbrellabird, two were recently seen there during this year’s Christmas Count!
This trail costs $10 to enter, and although it consists of steps, you will be walking on metal and concrete ones instead of dealing with treacherous, slippery mud.
The view from the overlook.
Bird the hotel grounds: Bird are where the habitat is. Whether the hotel has a garden or some forest, check it out, you might be surprised at what you find.
Bird the road to the Observatory Lodge: This is also the bumpy road that leads to the national park. Although the national park is alright, the road to the lodge and then to El Castillo tends to be excellent and reliable for Bare-crowned Antbird, other antbird species, raptors, and so on and so on. Check the rivers for Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and maybe Sunbittern, and just keep watching. Don’t be surprised if you see a rare Lovely Cotinga at a busy fruiting tree, Bicolored and Semiplumbeous Hawks, and Rufous-winged Tanager.
Access excellent forest at Skytrek, the Observatory Lodge, and Mistico: There are other trails in the area but these have some of the best forest. Mistico has Hanging Bridges and a hummingbird garden with Snowcap. The Observatory Lodge has good trails in good forest with great mixed flocks and chances at many forest birds. Skytrek is pricey but also has good trails through some of the best forest, a couple hanging bridges, and a fair chance at Black-headed Antthrush, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and many other species including rarities like Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and other goodies.
There are healthy populations of Orante Hawk-Eagle around Arenal. Geovanni has even seen it catch a squirrel on his trail!
Enjoy your birding time around Arenal! To see more information about sites throughout the country as well as information to find and identify bird species in Costa Rica, check out my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Hurricane Otto stormed its way through northern Costa Rica last Friday. The good news is that despite the worries and concerns, most parts of the country were spared the heavy rains and winds that make up the destructive bread and butter of a hurricane-strength storm. In the Central Valley, the weather was weird, foggy, and punctuated with occasional drizzles but the main body of the storm clearly missed us. The same can be said about most other parts of the country, even in many of the emergency, red-zone areas such as Monteverde and San Carlos.
Hurricane day from my window.
But now for the bad news. The northern border zone did indeed experience the heavy rains and high winds of a hurricane, especially in the Upala and Los Chiles areas. Liberia also saw some of the heaviest rains it has ever experienced, and electricity was out along most of the storm’s path. It sounds like Upala saw the worst of it because the river overflowed its banks, flooded the town, and destroyed many homes and businesses. A few people also perished from the flooding there and in the town of Bagaces. The bright note is that thousands of folks immediately pitched in from around the country to help and support the people of Upala and other affected areas. Hopefully, their homes and businesses can be rebuilt as soon as possible.
As far as access goes, roads and bridges are probably out or affected in areas near Upala and probably other places up north. If you plan on staying anywhere near Upala, Bijagua, or other sites near the northern border during December, it would definitely be wise to contact those places first to see if they are up and running and if they can be reached by road. Most probably can but it would be worth it to check first. In the rest of the country, it sounds like most roads are open, and far fewer were affected by landslides than was expected. The exception to that is the area around Ciudad Neily near the border with Panama. There has been a lot of flooding down that way and I doubt that the Coto wetland area is accessible.
On the birding front, so far, nothing crazy has turned up and I doubt that much will be found. The hurricane didn’t really pass through an avian rich zone, nor any major islands before reaching Costa Rica, and I assume that species like Gray Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon, and the very local San Andres Vireo are adapted to hurricanes and thus less likely to leave cover when the storm comes through. Factor in lots of places for birds to hide along with little birding coverage and coming across any of those few rare vagrants will be like finding a microscopic needle in a haystack. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if any unexpected species are found during this weekend’s bird count at Arenal.
On the waterbird front, it’s more likely that some of those were blown off course and maybe even right over to the Pacific. A pretty good sign that this has happened are reports of a few Sandwich and Elegant Terns from an inland reservoir. Once again, with several people actively birding the Arenal area, maybe a few interesting water birds will be found on Arenal Lake? Although I wasn’t able to head down and check the lake on Sunday, I did check the Tarcoles Estuary, Punta Morales, and Puntarenas. I would have also checked Chomes but the road to the ponds was too muddy for my little car. So, there might have been something really good in there, but even a Sooty Tern wouldn’t have been worth getting my car stuck in the salt pond oven known as Chomes. At least the road in to the village was in excellent condition. It was being graded and gave up views of 20 thick-knees, a usual, distant Harris’s Hawk, an equally distant wintering kestrel (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), and a few other birds including my year Spot-breasted Oriole.
Over at Punta Morales, shorebirds were in good numbers but nothing unusual and rather low diversity. It was a similar scene over in Tarcoles, and the waters off of Puntarenas were fairly bird-less. I was hoping for a flyby storm-petrel (or flyby anything for that matter) but no luck there. Although I didn’t come across any crazy rarity, I’m still glad that I was out there looking for them, and a morning of bird song on the Bijagual road is always a good one in any case!
This Rufous-tailed Jacamar was one of several species seen and heard during dawn on the Bijagual Road. My eBird list.
I’m often asked if there are hurricanes in Costa Rica. I asked the same question some years ago because after all, there is a coast on the storm-prone Caribbean Sea, and it’s all too easy to have hurricanes come to mind when talking about earthquakes and other natural disasters. While Costa Rica is a young, seismic land punctuated with volcanoes, it sits in a quiet corner of the Caribbean where hurricanes refuse to venture. They just can’t seem to get their act together around here. Tropical storms, yes. Hurricanes, no, at least not until now. And I mean right now as I write this.
Bucking all historical trends, an adventurous storm named “Otto” is making its way towards the coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The eye has yet to stare down at us but the first bands of wind and rain are brushing the coast. It’s not a huge one but a category one or two is still big enough to cause flooding and landslides, especially when the rivers and steep slopes of eastern Costa Rica are already saturated with water. Thousands of people have been evacuated and, now, there is talk of expected power losses and road closures. I guess that means I should take an extra trip to the store this afternoon, and might not be sending out any emails for a few days.
Sadly, it also means potential loss of homes and damage to crops. Hopefully enough people will have been evacuated to keep them safe. I’m also hoping that the winds don’t get strong enough to affect our home because Otto is scheduled to go stomping right across the country on his hike to the Pacific.
On the birding front, Rancho Naturalista has urged people to check their flights and stay safe. They should be alright because they aren’t in the direct path of the storm. Paraiso de Quetzales just stated that they would be closed for the weekend, a good call given that the highway to the lodge will probably see fallen limbs and maybe a landslide or two. Hopefully not, but better safe than stranded on Cerro de la Muerte or worse (although there might not be much worse than being stuck at night on the Mountain of the Dead). Personally, I would see it as an excuse to look for Unspotted Saw-whets. Cold, shmold, I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY!. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve also just said that it will be closed and that probably goes for most montane birding sites as well.
But, as with most things, there is a potential bright side, especially for birders. As with any hurricane, there’s always that chance that the storm will bring unusual birds our way. Since the storm is coming right off the ocean and migration is pretty much a done deal, there’s not a whole lot of crazy avian options but the ones that could occur would still be smart additions to my country list (and maybe even a lifer?).
Having missed out on amazing hurricane bird experiences in western New York (like storm-petrels on the Niagara River), I’m keen to have one of those crazy birding times in Costa Rica. That said, I do realize that I would still need a fair modicum of fortune to find lost Audubon’s and Black-capped Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, tropicbirds, and White-crowned Pigeons, especially because the roads might not be so vehicle worthy. Of course, if we have problems with the house, birding will be the very least of my worries. But, let’s say that it won’t get that bad and I can still look around with the good old binos.
As the storm passes through, I might be looking out of the window, but the best chance at finding stuff will be right after the storm has passed, and the best place may be the reservoir at Arenal. I doubt I would be able to drive there but I hope local birders will look for lost seabirds. Maybe one or two would even stick around for next week’s Christmas Count?
There aren’t too many other large reservoirs around here but perhaps a lost bird or two could show up at the one near Turrucares? There’s also the Pacific coast to check, Caldera and Puntarenas being good spots to take a look around. As for land birds, they could be anywhere on the Caribbean but once again, access will probably be an issue. If you are already at La Selva, watch for White-crowned Pigeon and odd warblers, I’ll probably be looking for odd birds on foot around Santa Barbara.
I was surprised by my year Yellow-billed Cuckoo last week, right in my tiny backyard- you never know what might show up!
Last weekend, I had some fun, easy-going birding on the other side of the mountains. For me, that usually means going over to the Caribbean slope but on this occasion, it refers to the mountains on the other side of the valley. Those would be the uplifted lands that lead to the humid forests of the Pacific slope, including the General Valley. This is where you go if you drive up and over Cerro de la Muerte. After looking for Volcano Juncos and Peg-billed Finches in the paramo, if you continue on, you eventually descend to San Isidro, a small important city in southern Costa Rica. Also known as Perez Zeledon (or just “Perez”), the area is also pretty nice for birding.
Although the rainforest that remains mostly occurs as small, scattered patches, those bits of forest can be pretty birdy, even right around town. There are also a few good sites just outside of the city including the one I visited last weekend while co-guiding a trip for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Our destination was Talari Lodge, and, as usual for this spot, the birding was fun, easy, and fulfilling. Talari has been around for several years and protects a small area of old second growth along with some taller trees and access to a rushing river. The growing forest is filled with fruiting trees and bushes which, in turn, attracts lots of birdies.
It’s not a place for seeing big raptors, guans, and other deep forest species but the good service, food, and easy looks at a nice sampling of other species makes up for it. During our time at the lodge, we were treated to near constant activity in the fruiting trees around the lodge as well as at a fruit feeder that attracted Cherrie’s and Speckled Tanagers, Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators, Gray-headed Tanager, honeycreepers, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, White-ruffed Manakin, and other species.
Scoping distant tree-tops failed to turn up Turquoise Cotinga on this visit (often seen here), but did give us looks at Scaled Pigeon, tityras, toucans, and other stuff, while the undergrowth hosted Rufous-breasted and Riverside Wrens, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes.
Hummingbirds weren’t as diverse as other visits but we still managed nice looks at Long-billed Starthroat, the ubiquitous Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and brief looks at a female White-crested Coquette.
The best field mark for the Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is the lack of bright colors. Instead, it sings all day long, mimicking other birds in the process.
Down by the river, we also got looks at Scrub Greenlet, distant Indigo Buntings, a couple kingfishers, and a distant fly-by Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Several other interesting species could also show in the young second growth by the river, it would be good to keep a close watch in that area for things like seedeaters, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and maybe a vagrant warbler or two.
When the sun came out, we finally got our expected Roadside Hawk and Pearl Kite (regular here), but the best bird of the trip was at a site near Talari. Thanks to co-guide Susana Garcia-Blanco and the local birding network in Perez, we got some sweet gen about Turquoise Cotingas frequenting a forested hillside at the university.
Since the university is on the road to Talari, but the viewing point is on the other side, it’s tricky to get there but, on our visit, it was well worth it because a big fruiting fig was attracting dozens of birds, the best being at least 4 Turquoise Cotingas! We soaked up prolonged views of male and female birds and envied the yard lists of homes overlooking the forest.
One of the cotingas sharing branches with less colorful birds.
Talari makes for a good stop when traveling through this area. If you stay for more than one night, it could also be easily used as a base to bird middle-elevation habitats on the road to Chirripo (check riparian zones for Costa Rican Brush-Finch), areas of older forest at Los Cusingos and Las Quebradas Reserves, higher elevation sites up on Cerro de la Muerte, and even savanna habitats further afield around Buenos Aires.