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The first time I visited Carara National Park was in 1992. I went by bus with a few friends, one of whom was also a birder. We stayed in the hot coastal village of Tarcoles and made the long, even hotter walk to the national park. There was good birding on the way and on the short trails that left from the HQ; a small building at the southern edge of the park. There were lots of birds; trogons, various flycatchers, antbirds, manakins and many other classic species of lowland rainforest. Fast forward to the present and there are more places to stay, better knowledge of where to find birds around this hotspot, and although populations of humid forest species have declined in response to a drier climate, the birding continues to be exciting and excellent.

One of the new trails at Carara- expect great birding here!

I was reminded of the world-class birding during a recent day of guiding in and around Carara. This is a bit of how that long good day of birding went:

Dry forest habitats along the Guacalillo Road

A good road rather near Carara, it’s probably the closest spot to connect with all possible species of dry forest habitats. Since the national park didn’t open until eight, we began the birding on this route. The birding is typically sweet along this road and Saturday was no exception. We were entertained and kept buy by:

Multiple Turquoise-browed Motmots perched on wires, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows chattering from the roadside, and seeing numerous other common edge species.

Turquoise-browed Motmot- always impressive.

-Of note was the calling activity of Crested Bobwhites. We always had at least one within earshot and had excellent looks at the first one encountered.

-Although Lesser Ground-Cuckoo was quiet, we eventually got looks at one.

-Nice looks at Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots.

This beautiful bird is the most numerous parrot species in dry Pacific coast habitats.

White-throated Magpie Jay, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and other dry forest species.

Carara National Park

After nearly two hours of constant great birding, it was time to extend the awesomeness to another completely different habitat, the lowland rainforests of Carara National Park. Although the mosquitoes were pretty bad, highlights there included:

-A close, singing male Ruddy Quail-Dove, views of Streak-chested Antpitta, and even closer prolonged looks at Marbled Wood-Quail.

-Army Ant swarm with several Gray-headed Tanagers, Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed and Bicolored Antbird, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner.

Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner was split from Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner.

Royal Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Blue-crowned Manakin, views of Slaty-tailed and Baird’s Trogons, and other nice rainforest species. Oh, and a soaring adult King Vulture right from the parking area.

The Tarcoles area

A post-lunch stop, the edge habitats and seasonal wetlands around Tarcoles turned up a few nice bird species, the best being a sweet roosting Black-and-white Owl (thanks to gen from a local farmer!), Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Lineated Woodpecker, and Black-headed and Gartered Trogons.

Black-headed Trogon is one of the easiest trogons to see in Costa Rica.

Cerro Lodge Road

Leaving this birdy site for last, we had some of the same species as the morning but also saw our target Crane Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and some other new birds before the rains convinced us to call it a day.

Crane Hawk- an uncommon raptor.

After tallying the results, including birds that were heard only, we had a list of more than 140 species. Incredibly, around Carara, that’s pretty much par for the course (!). However, considering that the birding takes place in three or four distinct biodiverse tropical habitats, a consistent high total is also perhaps unsurprising. As always, I wonder what I will find the next time I visit the Carara area? Birding there is best done over the course of two or three days but if you can only manage one, that single exciting day of birding is still worth the trip.

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If you only had four days to go birding in Costa Rica, where would you go? What would you do? For most visiting birders, such circumstances are a non-issue, most people visit Costa Rica for a week or more. However, for those of us with such limitations as jobs, family, and other responsibilities, trips of four or five days might be the only means of checking out the avian scene. Is a four or five day trip worth the flight? I dare say that it was for two serious birders from Ohio during recent guiding.

The tour was focused on maximizing time in the field and seeing as many species as possible along with looking for a few choice targets. Since we only had a few days to work with, we couldn’t really bird in more than one or two regions. Therefore, we concentrated on the area with the most chances at lifers and a nice, fat speciose list; the Caribbean slope.

White-fronted Nunbird- one of the birds we were looking for.

Since we also had to drive through the highlands and stay one morning in the Central Valley, this also gave a chance for a different suite of species on Poas, and a bonus morning of birding at Villa San Ignacio. Given the significant number of bird species that these sites added to the overall experience, birding on Poas and at Villa was a good choice.

The following gives an idea of how things went while birding in Costa Rica from June 14 to June 18:

Poas and Cinchona

After meeting at the airport and picking up the Suzuki Vitara from Vamos Rent-a-Car, we drove to the high elevations of Poas. The birding was rather brief and quetzals refused to play but we did see flyby Barred Parakeets, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, both silky-flycatchers, nightingale-thrushes, Sooty Thrush, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and several other highland endemics.

Black Guan and a couple dozen other cool highland species in an hour is a fine way to start any birding trip to Costa Rica!

For whatever reason, Cinchona was not nearly as productive. Most of the hummingbirds were there and the cafe provided much appreciated, delicious, home-cooked cuisine but the barbets and toucanets had taken an afternoon break from the fruit feeders. On the rest of the drive to the lowlands, we also saw Bat Falcon and White Hawk among a few other nice birds and were greeted by a flyover Green Ibis at our hotel in the Caribbean lowlands.

We still had nice looks at Violet Sabrewing and several other hummingbird species. We ended with 25 hummingbird species by the end of the trip!

The Sarapiqui Lowlands

Quinta de Sarapiqui was our base for the next three nights, a good choice for birding the lowlands and doing a morning trip to mid-elevation sites at Virgen del Socorro. The hotel accommodated with early morning coffee and if we had wanted, would have also arranged early breakfasts. Given their feeder photo action, it’s a shame we couldn’t spend more time at the hotel but we had too many other birds to see further afield.

During one full day and an afternoon in the Sarapiqui area, we did well with 150 or more species. The first morning at the edges of the La Selva reserve gave us several key species including fantastic Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-fronted Nunbirds, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Pale-billed, and Rufous–winged Woodpeckers, woodcreepers, antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-necked, Pied, and White-whisked Puffbirds, and more!

We stopped for a tasty lunch at the riverside restaurant, Rancho Magallanes and birded onward, taking a road near Quinta that accesses a wetland and lowland rainforest.

The lunch.
The rainforest.

The wetland was rather quiet as was the birding in sunny conditions for the rest of the afternoon BUT fantastic close looks at Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle made up for the low activity! One of the rarer raptors in Costa Rica, this hawk-eagle is very difficult to find, we had one soaring with vultures and watched it for as much as we wanted. We also picked up a few other lowland species and had brief looks at Scarlet Macaws but came up short with target Great Green Macaw and Snowy Cotinga.

Since that area can also be good for night birds, we stayed until dark. As dusk grew, a Great Potoo called and we saw Short-tailed Nighthawk fly overhead. I then found the potoo and we watched as it sallied from a high snag before flying overhead on long, silent, owlish wings. Next on the list was a Vermiculated Screech-Owl that showed well followed by a Mottled Owl that came in and also gave great looks! Four nocturnal species in less than 40 minutes. This was outstanding and can’t be expected on every visit but does show how good this site can be for night birds. No luck with Black-and-White Owl on the drive back to the hotel but I bet we could have found one if we would have stayed out for another hour or two (not what we wanted after birding from dawn to dusk).

Virgen del Socorro

Realizing that we could see a lot more species by visiting Socorro, we spent a morning up that way. Highlights included views of Dull-mantled and Zeledon’s Antbirds, Nightingale Wren, Central American Pygmy-Owl, Emerald Tanager, White-vented Euphonia, and some 120 other species.

Senor Zeledon.

I had hoped for lunch at Mi Cafecito but since this site was busy with some folkloric activity that included loud music, we drove back into the lowlands. At a new restaurant in La Virgen that also mentioned trails and views of the river, we checked out birdy gardens and the river. It looked ideal for birds like Fasciated Tiger-Heron, Snowy Cotinga, and the macaws but a birder doesn’t see much during the sunny 2 p.m. doldrums, at least we didn’t.

El Tapir

Our last full day in the Caribbean lowlands began at the hummingbird hotspot of El Tapir. The main target, Snowcap, did indeed make an appearance and showed very well as did a few other hummingbird species. No luck with the coquette but the birds we saw in the forest may have made up for not seeing that exquisite little hummingbird. On the first trail, some foliage in movement revealed a serious mega, Bare-necked Umbrellabird! It wasn’t that close to the trail but it was big enough to get some clear looks at the oddly shaped head and red skin on the neck. It appeared to be a young male. Over on the other trail, Ocellated Antbirds took center stage as we checked out an antswarm! For a moment, I thought, “If a ground-cuckoo shows up, this could be the best visit I have ever had to El Tapir, ever”, but the ants weren’t that active and we didn’t see much else.

Ocellated Antbird.

The Cope Experience

After a couple of hours at El Tapir, our fortune continued when we made the short drive to Cope’s place and were immediately greeted by another choice species, White-tipped Sicklebill! We had arrived at just the right time because the bird flew in, fed for about one minute, and then left for good. The feeders weren’t all that active but as usual, the birding was replete with close, satisfying looks at Black-cheeked Woodpecker, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and various other species.

Over in the woods, the fine birding continued with scope views of Spectacled Owl and nice looks at Honduran White Bats roosting under a Heliconia leaf. We searched the forest for Crested Owl to no avail but did have excellent views of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle! Semiplumbeous Hawk also vocalized but wouldn’t come close, probably to avoid the hawk-eagle.

Before moving on, Cope said, “Let’s go check the old spot for Crested owl. I haven’t seen it there for some time but it’s worth a look.” We waited in the air-conditioned vehicle as Cope looked for the owl. After a few minutes, he returned and motioned us to follow him- a good sign! Sure enough, there they were, and not just one Crested Owl, but a pair with a juvenile!

To finish off the experience, we swung by a Great Potoo nest to digiscope a juvenile.

Although we could have seen more, by 2 p.m., it was time to drive back to the Central valley. As luck would have it, I noticed something perched on a snag as we drove the main road through the rainforests of Braulio Carrillo National Park. No, it couldn’t be..but it was! An adult Ornate hawk-Eagle! Our third and final hawk-eagle in Costa Rica and in just three full days of birding.

Villa San Ignacio

On the last morning of the tour,we birded the grounds of Villa San Ignacio. The habitat at the hotel lived up to expectations with more than 50 species recorded from 6 until 8. Although endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow was a no show, we did see White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Lesson’s Motmot, Plain-capped Starthroat, White-fronted Parrots, Rufous-breasted and Rufous-and-white Wrens, Fiery-billed Aracari, and various other additions for the trip.

After that final sweet morning of birding, we dropped off the car and said our goodbyes. The final count was nearly 300 bird species identified. Although some of those were inevitably heard only, three hawk-eagles, antbirds, and an umbrellabird sort of made up for it!

Good birds make for happy birders!

The birding was focused and we didn’t stop for any siestas but even if you wanted a more relaxed trip, three days in Costa Rica could still turn up a heck of a lot of species. Interested in a quick trip to Costa Rica? Want to see quetzals and more? Stay at hotels ideal for birding? I can help, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com .

On your way to Costa Rica? As the plane descends below the clouds and makes its approach to the Juan SantaMaria airport, look out the window to the north. You might notice that one of those green-topped mountains is punctuated with a big, rocky crater. That particular mountain would be Poas, one of the main volcanoes that overlooks the Central Valley. You can actually visit that crater, walk right up to the edge, and look in to see the steam rising from an uninviting, acidic pool of water. The experience requires an online reservation and the stay is limited to 30 minutes, but that is one way to visit Poas.

Another way is not actually going to the crater of this popular national park but visiting the upper slopes of the volcano from the road. With the trails being closed near the crater, this is currently the most productive way for a birder to visit Poas, and is also the easiest means of seeing a great selection of cloud forest species just 45 minutes from the airport. Yes, it really is that close and there really are Resplendent Quetzals, Wrenthrushes, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and many other highland endemics up there in the forests of that green mountain.

The straightforward access to habitats on Poas make for quick and easy cloud forest birding. Although most birders get their highland species fix in the Dota Region and/or Monteverde, a birder with an extra morning, day, or afternoon can’t go wrong with a visit to Poas. These are a few easy ideas and some of the birds that can be seen and photographed:

Birds in the Central Valley

Before driving to Poas, you may want to check for other species at or near your hotel. A fair number of bird species occur in hotel gardens, remnant forest in riparian zones, and on coffee farms. Although the majority are common species of edge habitats that can also be seen elsewhere, some are more easily seen in the Central Valley. These include such species as Lesson’s Motmot, Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow, Rufous-and-white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and Chestnut-collared Swift among others.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Take Route 146

This is the most direct and quickest route to the Poas area. Although there is very little room to pull over and bird on the way up, some of the side roads can have both ground-sparrows, Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, and other more common species.

Birding at Freddo Fresas, Sazones, and other sites in Poasito

Poasito is the main settlement on the upper part of Route 146. Because the area receives a number of local visitors, especially on weekends, there are a number of cafes, restaurants, and other small tourist attractions. A few of these places have gardens and/or access to a riparian zone that can host Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, Red-faced Spinetail and other species of middle elevation habitats. At times, fruiting trees can also attract Black Guan, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, and even Resplendent Quetzal! The garden at Freddo Fresas is the best spot for hummingbirds and can also be good for other species. Sazones has one of the nicest views of the riparian zone although fruiting trees can also be seen right from the main road.

Red-faced Spinetail

The Volcan Restaurant

After taking the turn towards Poas instead of Varablanca, the vehicle quickly descends to a forested riparian zone. The Volcan Restaurant is on the left, next to a stream, and is a good place to stop for lunch. Hummingbird feeders in the back attract several species including Purple-throated Mountain-gem, Violet Sabrewing, and Lesser Violetear. Wait long enough and you might also see Magenta-throated Woodstar and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird. Volcano Hummingbirds are regular, Scintillant only very rarely so, be careful about separating the females of these two similar species. In the forest, various cloud forest species can occur including quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet and Spangle-cheeked Tanager but quite often, this site is pretty quiet.

Prong-billed Barbet
Volcano Hummingbird (Poas form)

The high elevations

The best habitat along the road is after Poas Lodge. There are few places to pull the vehicle off the road and one has to be careful of traffic to and from the national park. The birding can be good anywhere along this stretch, the best activity occurring at fruiting trees and where mixed flocks are roaming. A good number of high elevation species are also possible including Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty Thrush, Black-capped Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Ruddy Treerunner, and various other birds. This upper part is also where a birder needs to go to see Fiery-throated Hummingbird. Wrenthrush, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, and even Highland Tinamou are present but are more often heard than seen.

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

Varablanca

Just 7 minutes from Poasito to the east, the crossroads at Varablanca make for a nice stop. There are a few cafes here, the one I recommend the most is the place just across the street from the gas station. They have an espresso machine, various snacks, empanadas, and so on. Although the habitat at this spot has decreased, it can still be good for Yellow-winged Vireo, Collared Redstart, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and other species.

Streak-breasted Treehunter
Sooty-capped Chlorospingus

Whether fitting in a morning of birding or a full day of high and middle elevation species, the Poas area is ideal for quick and easy birding from the San Jose area. Email me at information@birdingcraft.com to learn more about tour options for the Poas area and the best places to stay for birding in Costa Rica. The birding is always exciting, I hope to see you soon!

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As is common with subcultural behavior, us birders have also come up with our own set of phrases and terminology, many of those words coming from that bastion of serious birding, The United Kingdom. Thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of British birders, we say things like, “I tried to twitch the Pittasoma but dipped. I suspect that I was the victim of stringing.”

Most readers of this blog probably know what that means but if not, it translates to, “I tried to go and see that Black-crowned Antpitta but failed. I suspect that someone lied about the bird being present at that site.”

Other birding terminology includes such words as “bins”, “pishing”, “lifer”, and “mega”, these last two ranking among the most important and exciting. They are also, by nature, often intertwined. When a bird is a lifer, it’s a species that a birder has never seen before. It’s a lifer because it makes it onto your “life list” but it’s also a lifer because seeing it is a new life event. Pictures of it were probably seen in the field guide, maybe viewed online, but you have yet to see it in life, in person (in bird?). It’s one more goal attained, one more connection made with the incredible proliferation of life on Earth and when the bird also happens to be a mega, the lifer experience takes on even highest levels of birding importance.

A mega is a bird that is exceptionally rare or at least very difficult to encounter. These are the birds that are encountered so infrequently, it seems that they must be ghosts, just don’t seem to exist, because we bird so often in places where they occur and just never, ever see them. Some have referred to such species as “avian unicorns” but birds like the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, the Speckled Mourner, and the Harpy Eagle are indeed real. They are out there, you just have to know the right places to see them, how to see them, and have the time and determination to find them.

My best picture of the ground-dove, some other pictures show a tangle of vegetation which is also realistic when seeing this mega.

One of the mega birds in Costa Rica (and elsewhere really), is the Tawny-faced Quail. Despite the disdain some birders have for grouse and other birds reminiscent of the good old chicken, many pheasant species, ground-loving quails and grouse-like birds are megas because they are just so hard to see, this species included. The grouse are worth the patience, though, and not just because every bird counts but also because most of them have beautiful, intricately patterned plumages. With its combination of rufous, gray, and buff hues, the Tawny-faced Quail is no exception, a shame it’s not easier to find!

The Tawny-faced Quail is a unicorn birding challenge for reasons shared with other members of the mega club:

Shy and unobtrusive– By all accounts, this bird doesn’t exactly enjoy the “Limelight”. Unlike some other ground birds, this little quail is almost never, ever seen as it forages on the forest floor. A birder could do a Zen staring contest on and to the sides of trails in beautiful forest for hours and still come up empty because this quail does not like to play. Although the dapple of leaves, shades of green and network of rainforest vegetation are pleasant to contemplate, this bird is unobtrusive to an extreme and doesn’t even like to vocalize. It does so occasionally but may call for less then a minute and then briefly calls again several minutes later.

Naturally rare– Rarity can be a hard call to make when a species is already naturally tough to find but based on years of looking and what others have said, I feel confident in saying that this species is rare. This doesn’t mean that it’s about to go extinct, just that it probably has low populations even in appropriate habitat. Although this is normal for many rainforest species, it doesn’t facilitate seeing them.

Access to habitat– As with any bird, you can’t have any chance of seeing it unless you can bird where it lives. As for the Tawny-faced Quails of Costa Rica, they have this curious distribution centered on the northern part of the country. This species also only lives in mature rainforest, perhaps more so in hilly areas, from the border of Nicaragua to the slopes of the northern mountain ranges. Oddly it doesn’t seem to live in the Sarapiqui area, nor south of there.

With those factors in mind, a satellite map of forest cover in Costa Rica shows why we have so few chances of finding Tawny-faced Quail in the country. Most of its habitat is gone and the few places where it may still occur are mostly out of reach. Even if you birded the borders of those forests, that’s probably not going to do the trick for this shy bird. You have to venture into the forest and even then, probably won’t see it.

BUT, many many thanks to Juan Diego Vargas, the mega Tawny-faced Quail has become far easier (or less difficult) to actually see. A local expert birding guide who also re-found Ocellated Poorwill, while birding at Laguna del Lagarto on Global Big Day, 2019, Juan Diego heard a Tawny-faced Quail vocalize at dusk and close to the lodge. Despite searching for it at night with Laguna guide Didier, they did not find it. Showing that determination is often needed to connect with a mega, Juan Diego returned to Laguna another evening and after doing another night search for a bird that sang a few times around 6 p.m., they found it!

As an example of how tough this species can be, Juan Diego had looked for this bird at this same site on various occasions over the years. It has been seen there by others on the trails but on very few occasions. Perhaps it only calls during a certain season or in certain conditions? Maybe he was listening at the wrong time of day? In any case, we now know that one or more of this species could be regular right near the lodge. How do we know that? Not only because Juan Diego found it, but also because our group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica heard and saw one this past weekend.

While guiding in the same area where Juan Diego had the bird and at the right time of 6 p.m., I had hoped I might hear one vocalize. Sure enough, the quail called, only for around 15 seconds, but there it was and with that it made it onto my country list. We went back for dinner and I told Didier we had heard it. He went immediately out to look for the bird and despite knowing where it had called, it took him around an hour to find it. But, find it he did and thanks to that, we were able to lays eyes on this mega lifer on its night roost.

Many thanks to Birding Club of Costa Rica member and world birder Pirjo Laakso for sharing this image of my lifer Tawny-faced Quail.

Seeing such a rare species just sitting there on a vine at night was nothing short of surreal. We counted it and it’s no different that seeing a wild bird foraging in the forest or scuttling across a path but it’s hard not to feel that it was almost too easy. Since it took serious effort to find the quail, that’s actually not the case but it was still a surreal way to get a mega lifer.

It remains to be seen if the Tawny-faced Quail will continue to so readily show itself to birders at Laguna del Lagarto, especially if/when a parade of photographers arrive. Hopefully, photographing the bird can be managed correctly and every birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto can lays eyes on this mega for years to come. In the meantime, the birding is always exciting at Laguna, we had Pied Puffbirds, Ocellated Antbirds, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrants and more. Contact me to learn about trips to this excellent site.

Want to learn about the best places and ways to find all the mega species in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on May 28th, 2019

What is it about a place that makes it a birding hotspot? Flocks of parakeets and constant birding action? Mixed flock action that leaves you with a bewildered, automatic multi-lifer smile? A place that doesn’t have many species but is reliable for choice, rare birds? Or just a place that has consistently good birding, a place where one can visit and just lose his or herself with birds in a beautiful natural setting?

Or, as with the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Initiative, a multitude of sites that collectively provide access to most bird species on the Costa Rica list?
No matter how one defines it, a birding hotspot is always worth a visit because a birder will always see something, and sometimes, many species that are tough to encounter elsewhere.

Bay-headed Tanager- in Costa Rica, easy but always nice to see.

That’s how it is at Medio Queso, Costa Rica. When I think of a birding hotspot, man does this site fit the bill. This northern wetland made it onto the national birding RADAR nearly ten years ago when local birder and biologist Daniel Martinez found Pinnated Bitterns and an uber rare for Costa Rica, American Bittern during bird surveys at the site.

Since then, subsequent visits have resulted in sightings of one challenging species after another. Some years ago, during my first visit to Medio Queso, while watching a Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Pinnated Bittern, Robert Dean and I wondered how good the birding might be on that river that passes through the middle of the marsh.


Robert eventually arranged a boat trip at Medio Queso and I will never forget his reaction. In brief, it went something like, “Was it good? It was bloody fantastic! Least Bittern, Sungrebe, Jabiru, Pinnated Bitterns, and then we had an Aplomado Falcon fly overhead.”

He actually saw more than that, and there have been several excellent boat trips since then that have produced views of Spotted Rail, Yellow-breasted Crake, and other crakes all on the same trip. Although the boat ride is best, quite a lot can also be seen from the dike. Not having enough time for a boat trip, that’s what Marilen and I did a few days ago and as hoped, Medio Queso showed why this wetland is such a reliable birding hotspot.

After spending Friday night in Los Chiles, we opted for a pre-dawn visit to Medio Queso to see if we could get lucky with Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and who knows, maybe Ocellated Poorwill? We could have left in the middle of the night to invest in more nocturnal birding time but since that eliminates sleep from the equation and most nocturnal birds are active during the hour before dawn, we didn’t leave Cabinas Felicia until 4 a.m.

Medio Queso being a short drive from Los Chiles, mere minutes later, we were looking for eye shine and listening for night birds. As is typical with night birding in Costa Rica and many parts of the Neotropical region, Common Pauraques flushed from the gravel road. Striped Owl ended up giving us the slip but we should catch up with that at some point, hopefully at or near the homestead. No luck with the poorwill (that bird might not even be present at that site), but we did connect with our year Common Potoo! We got our Costa Rica potoo sweep in the form of at least two calling birds, one from a dense tree plantation next to the road. As a bonus, we also heard Pacific Screech-Owl and a Collared Forest-Falcon.

As dawn broke at the marsh, Green Ibises gave their guttural, rollicking calls. Two eventually flew nearby, as usual, looking a lot like long-billed Black Vultures in the process. We also saw a couple of Pinnated Bitterns, Tricolored Heron, and a few other expected species. The bitterns were easy to find in areas of the marsh with short grass; odd pale spots that morphed into straw-colored, stripey herons when viewed with binoculars.

We also had Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Purple Gallinules, Green-breasted Mangos, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and other nice species. It was fun seeing them but these weren’t our main targets, we had already enjoyed them on our January visit to Medio Queso. We were at this hotspot in May because a very rare for Costa Rica Striated Heron had been repeatedly seen there for at least a month. Would it be there for us? Would we also see Black-collared Hawk? The only way to find out is by going birding, thankfully, we had our chance and whether we found those birds or not, a morning of birds in a beautiful natural setting is never a waste of time.

By the river, we found our hawk! Looking a bit like a Brahminy Kite, the Black-collared Hawk is like a sluggish tropical Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, it almost only occurs in areas with extensive freshwater wetlands and slow-going, lowland rivers and lakes. In Costa Rica, it is very local, one of the better places for seeing it being the Cano Negro and Los Chiles area. Our year bird was a beautiful chestnut and black adult with a white head hanging out on the river near the dock.

We searched for the heron by scanning the river and marsh over and over but kept coming up with Green Herons and other regular species. Nevertheless, persistence paid off, we did eventually find the bird! It wasn’t until our way out just after 7 but there it was, perched above the marsh. The small pale gray heron with a black cap stood out from the fresh green marsh grass and reminded me of a miniature Great Blue or Gray Heron. While glassing this choice species, before we knew it, a Green Heron chased it from its perch and it flew further away. Even at a distance, the pale coloration still made it easy to see out there in the green of the marsh.

On the drive back to Los Chiles, hoping to spot a potoo, I scanned the trees for any suspicious chunks of wood and wished for a Mangrove or Yellow-billed Cuckoo to appear. We left without views of those species but we weren’t complaining. We had added several year birds to the 2019 Team Tyto list during a fine morning of birding, looking forward to more!

Hope to see this one at some point in 2019!

Although we didn’t have time to visit Cano Negro, most visiting birders include this with Medio Queso and with good reason. The birding only gets better and a lot can be seen right on the grounds of the best place to stay in Cano Negro, Hotel de Campo. This hotel has also helped with reforestation and conservation in Cano Negro and is developing packages for birders. Contact me to learn more.

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admin on May 20th, 2019

The peak of the northern spring migration is over, especially in Costa Rica. The many thousands of Scarlet Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, Purple Martins, raptors and other bird species that winter in South America and move through Costa Rica have come and gone. Although various wood-warblers and other May migrants are still entertaining birders way to the north, in Costa Rica, we won’t see any migrant Parulines until the late August return of Cerulean and Yellow Warblers.

That said, some birds are still migrating through Costa Rica. Even this late in the game, and so far south from their boreal breeding grounds, the remnants of spring migration can still be encountered. There aren’t a whole lot of migrant birds out there but based on the daily eBird reports, there are enough and I have been kicking myself for not venturing further afield to look for them. Although I do keep a close eye on the hedgerows visible from the homestead, locating most of these last minute migrants requires several hours of dedicated birding that covers more ground and reaches more habitats.

One of several Eastern Kingbirds that was using the hedgerow.

Fortunately, other birders have been spending more time in the field in more places. Some of the interesting stuff that has been seen:

White-rumped Sandpiper– Based on reports from Cano Negro, it sounds like now is a good time for this high Arctic migrant in Costa Rica. If we had more coverage at Palo Verde and various other small inland wetland sites, I wonder how many more reports we would have? I am sorely tempted to drive to a local reservoir to look for this bird, I still need it for my country list.

American Golden Plover– A few of this fine species have also been reported. With fewer birders in the field, I can’t help but wonder how many more are around. Still need this one for the year list although we will have a fair chance when they fly back south.

Broad-winged Hawk– This was a surprise! However, it turns out that a few are around or passing through during late May of most years. One of a few were reported this past weekend during a semi-Big Day carried out by Ernesto Carman, Paz Irola, and Juan Diego Vargas. The Broad-wing they had at the edge of Carara was one of more than 220 species they identified as part of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group bird-a-thon to raise funds for the Las Brisas Reserve. 220 species in a day is fantastic anywhere and they would have found more if they had not been rained out for the afternoon!

Nowadays, Short-tailed Hawks are more frequently seen.

Black-billed Cuckoo– I just saw the report and photos this morning! Always a rare migrant in Costa Rica, a good number likely pass through the country but since this species is so reluctant to take the birding stage, very few are seen. I think that most records are from fall migration, it was interesting to hear about this May bird. As with many records of this bird in Costa Rica, this one was also seen in the highlands. More are likely out there, I wonder how many? I’ll keep watching the hedgerow, maybe one is lurking nearby.

Flycatchers– Expected late migrants, we have still had a few reports of Yellow-bellied and Willow Flycatchers along with Eastern Wood-pewees. Last week, I had a flycatcher out front which sadly never called. I suspected it was an Alder but actually, it also looked a bit like a White-throated! So, I’m not sure what it was.

Whenever I read the daily rare eBird report, it reminds me that there is always more waiting to be discovered, waiting to be seen. I can’t wait to get in more birding to see what’s around, to see what’s nesting away from my place of residence. In terms of a good place to check, Villa San Ignacio comes to mind. I’m not sure if any migrants will still be around but I will see about doing a bird count there soon.

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admin on May 13th, 2019

Every once in a while, I pay a visit to Cope’s place. When passing through his lowland rainforest neighborhood, I stop in to say hello, exchange stories, and see what’s around. I also visit when guiding clients, usually starting the day at El Tapir. That way, we can begin with Snowcap and end the morning with a potoo or roosting owl (par for the birding course with the Cope experience).

One of those roosting owls.

This past Saturday, while guiding some friends from the Birding Club of Costa Rica, the El Tapir/Cope experience combination paid off with some quality birds. These are the species that a birder either doesn’t see that often or are only at specific sites. Although the universal rules of birding state somewhere up in the clouds that every bird is worth just as much as the next, the unwritten rules on the other side of the sky state that some species are worth ten or more Blue-gray Tanagers, or like twenty or more Rock Pigeons. Not on a Big Day mind you but during a regular, average day of birding, maybe yes.

Snowcap is one of those quality birds. It’s not your average, everyday hummingbird and not just because the male looks like some exotic piece of flying candy. Not only is this hummingbird accessible at few sites, this fantastic creature also looks like it belongs in the Harry Potter universe. Exaggeration? Wait until you see one flying around! We had a male and one or two females at El Tapir. As a bonus, Tapir was also rocking with several other hummingbirds including such standouts as Brown Violetear and Blue-throated Goldentail.

Over at Cope’s, the feeders were predictably quiet. Cope explained that it’s usually quiet at this time of year because birds are out nesting and taking care of their young, they don’t have time to feast on fruit. Nevertheless, we still had the pleasure of being investigated at close range by several White-necked Jacobins and had good, close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Crimson-collared Tanager.

After some feeder action, we paid a visit to another quality bird, a Great Potoo. And, it was with a baby!! A baby potoo is about as precious as precious gets. Forget your puppies, never mind that big (bug?)-eyed Pug, a baby Great Potoo looks like something from the planet of weird, ultra cute fuzzballs. Come to think of it, the adults sort of look like that too but the baby really is something else.

It can sort of be seen in this phonescope image.

After our fill of potoo cuteness, off we went to the nearby rainforest where Cope often has owls and other species staked out. It was actually pretty quiet but we still had scoped views of Spectacled Owl.

The views of the Honduran White Bats were also priceless. These little living plushies are so amazing they should be allowed on bird lists.

However, despite the quite nature of the forest, chance was in our favor because we saw an Agami Heron! One of the prize species of the Neotropical region, the Agami is widespread yet typically difficult to see. Unlike so many other waders, this exquisite heron species skulks along forested streams. On Saturday, we lucked out big time when one in beautiful breeding plumage flushed from the side of the trail and perched where it could be admired for several minutes! It was only the fourth time Cope had ever seen it at that site. A fantastic year bird for Mary and I, lifer for others, and much appreciated by all.

We finished the day at Guarumo, a nearby bird photography and lunch site owned by a local birder. Things were quiet although we still managed to add our 12th hummingbird species for the day when a Blue-chested Hummingbird came to the Porterweed.

Guarumo also had cool birding and nature tee-shirts– check these out…

Snowcap, Great Potoo, Spectacled Owl, and Agami Heron in one morning of easy-going birding. We might not have been at the Biggest Week in Birding, but we still enjoyed some quality birds!

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It’s the Monday after Global Big Day. I write this as the Grayish Saltators call and a breeze threatens to bring rains and almost find it hard to believe that we birded from midnight until dawn and on through to the next night, from one side of the mountains to the other. From the hot low coastal region up to more than a cool 2,000 meters. A non-stop birdathon, a day dedicated to celebrating birds collectively shared with thousands of birders across the globe and to think that we almost didn’t partake in Global Big Day, 2019. We wanted to, I had a route planned, but Mary’s daughter had exams, she had to study, needed help studying and we also needed someone to watch her.

Nevertheless, thanks to being able to study during the week and family members who were happy to watch her, it all worked out. With enough refreshments, snacks, sandwiches and caffeine drinks on hand to last us through a night and day, Mary and I (aka Team Tyto) were ready to dedicate ourselves to finding as many birds as we could in Costa Rica, on May 4th. Luckily, I even had a chance to sleep during the day before the clock struck midnight. That happened for us somewhere on the road to the Pacific Coast and there was no quick first bird. Only highway and occasional street lights, no luck with roosting birds, nor a serendipitous flyby Barn Owl.

A Striped Owl from another day.

The first of many happened at our first stop, a dusty road in the Pacific lowlands. Common Pauraques took that distinguished title as they called and leaped from the road. No Pacific Screech-Owl though, no other night birds, no faint calls of migrants up there in the dark sky. There was a light rain and that probably kept things extra quiet but we pushed on, eventually picking up shorebirds that roost at salt ponds. As we arrived, the “terlee!” of Black-bellied Plovers echoed over the dark still waters and Black-necked Stilt gave their sharp barking calls. Eventually, by way of brief looks and vocalizations, we picked up several other shorebird species and even Wood Stork before flying through the night to the next stop, the mangroves at Caldera.

A brief stop there was just as quiet but spotlighting paid off with close, perfect looks at a target Northern Potoo! With that excellent addition to our GBD, we continued on towards more humid lands south of Carara National Park, spotlighting roadside wires en route. Despite our efforts, Striped Owl failed to show and Barn Owl never called but we did pick up the faint notes of a Pacific Screech-Owl just before needing to move on to our main birding venue for the day, the Jaco area.

Pacific Screech-Owl is one of the more common owl species in Costa Rica.

Although it was tempting to start the morning at Cerro Lodge (and that plan might be just as good or better), the combination of forest, edge, and open country birds near Jaco seemed to promise bigger returns. Not mention, our starting point is also very good for owls. At least it was in February and much to our pleasure, it was just as good on May 4th! Tropical Screech-Owls called from the second growth, thick-knees vocalized, and then we heard Mottled, Black-and-white, and Crested Owls calling from the hills. At one point, a flying shape materialized right over our heads and quick work with the flashlight got onto our only Barn Owl of the day!

We had 7 owl species under our belts and the first light of day was quickly approaching; just how you want a Big Day dawn to happen! It came with a cavalcade of bird songs that issued forth from a good combination of habitats. We must have had 50 species by sound alone before actually seeing anything and that included several key species like Great Currasow, Crested Guan, Marbled Wood-Quail, tinamous, woodcreepers, two motmots, Slate-colored Seedeater and others. As the light of day grew, we started picking up more species by sight including a surprise Shiny Cowbird, Giant Cowbird, both tityras and others. At the same time, more birds vocalized giving us five species of trogons among many others!

The Near Threatened Baird’s Trogon was one of our better dawn birds.

Whether because of the cloudy weather, time of year, Zen attitude birding or a combination of the above, The Big Day birding was good and it kept getting better.

Just before leaving the Jaco area, a last minute attempt brought in such key species as Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. No luck with Upland Sandpiper but well over a 100 species by 7 a.m. was nothing to complain about! Onward we went to Tarcoles before entering Carara National Park at 8 a.m. We added most key waterbirds at Tarcoles and then, just as last year at this time, the park treated us very well with vocalizations from a high percentage of possible species. Green Shrike-Vireo! Streak-chested Antpitta! Dot-winged Antwren and a few dozen others. Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting off the trail! We didn’t get everything and hummingbirds were disturbingly absent but at times, it almost seemed too easy! And that’s just how we want a Big Day because although I welcome challenges in birding, I absolutely treasure and am very grateful for a day when all the birds are calling and making themselves available.

After Carara (where we ran into other teams of GBDers, including the guys who got a mega Gray-hooded Gull!), we went back to Tarcoles, checked a roadside wetland, and made a stop in dry forest. Although the beach was more sand and water than birds, we still picked up a few expected species, got onto Solitary Sandpiper and a couple other shorebirds at the wetland, and connected with several dry forest birds before beginning the two hour drive to highland habitats on Poas.

Thankfully, the driving was also quick, and we even picked up Vaux’s Swift and a few other birds before birding the road to Poas. Thanks to lots of vocalizations and knowing the area quite well, we managed a high percentage of key species in a short amount of time, best of the bunch being Resplendent Quetzal, Wrenthrush, and Yellow-bellied Siskin. As both silky-flycatchers also showed along with several other birds, I mentioned to Mary how good that afternoon would have been for guiding. With more time, I think we would have found 90% of the species that live up there. But, we had run out of time, we had other places to be and so we drove down to Varablanca and Cinchona.

En route, we picked up several more species by call and got some birds at Cinchona. At a stop between Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, we also found our best bird of the day, a Yellow-winged Tanager! The only one for GBD in Costa Rica, we lucked upon it on the side of the road while also adding Black-throated Wren, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and some other species.

Prong-billed Barbet did us a favor at Cinchona.

On down the road we went, scoping and adding a Roadside Hawk, American Dipper and some other species before reaching our final main stop, the San Miguel-Socorro road. Thinking that we wouldn’t reach the lowlands in time and knowing that this area harbors a high number of bird species, we focused our final efforts at this site. Broad-billed Motmot, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Cinnamon Becard, Carmiol’s Tanager, and other birds of the Caribbean slope came out to play. Although I have had many more species on other days at this site, we still added a good number of birds especially when a Central American Pygmy-Owl (!) appeared.

A last ditch attempt to reach lower elevations was mostly futile except for a roadside Rufous Motmot ticked from the moving car. Nor did any more owls or other nightbirds call but by 7:45 p.m., I was ready to call it a day. In a small hotel in Puerto Viejo, I submitted our final lists and we tallied the results. We checked it once, we checked it twice, and we were pleased indeed to see that we had surpassed 300 species, 305 species to be exact! Although Mary almost talked me in to heading back out to see if we could find a Green Ibis or that missing Spectacled Owl, no amount of caffeine energy drink could have moved me back into birding action.

But we had more than 300 species (!) and although the guys who had found the gull got the highest bird list for Costa Rica (with 335 species!!), we still ended up with the fourth highest list in the world for Global Big Day, 2019! Although eBird shows us in 14th place, that’s because several of the lists with more species are actually group lists and should therefore be shown in another category.

It was satisfying indeed to finally break 300 species in a day in Costa Rica. Now if I look into that route a bit more, I wonder how much better we could do…

Team Tyto with a Post GBD coffee at Mi Cafecito, Costa Rica.

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In such famous birding locales as Central Park and Magee Marsh, May means warblers, grosbeaks, and other breeding birds dressed and singing to impress. The trees are in bloom, the weather is warm, after a long winter, it’s magic. In Costa Rica, we got a similar thing going on but with local, resident species. Although I wish I could fly north with those Chestnut-sideds and other birds of summer all the way to the cool woods of Western New York, there’s more than enough bird action in Costa Rica. Most habitats resound with birdsong, Yellow-green Vireos and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers are back in the neighborhood, and hundreds of other bird species are out there waiting to be seen.

Here is some of what’s been happening and to be expected in Costa Rica during the previous month and the next:

Eastern Kingbirds at the homestead – The past few days have been punctuated by a dozen Eastern Kingbirds feeding in a fruiting tree visible from the front of our place. Part of a hedgerow next to a farm, thanks to that green space, we can start every morning with the babbler-like songs of Rufous-naped Wrens, Red-billed Pigeon, Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers and other common species of the Central Valley. We also see Masked Tityras, Blue Grosbeak, an occasional Montezuma Oropendola and other birds. The kingbirds have been a treat because we don’t see them that often and because they remind me of beautiful Niagara and Pennylvania summers. While large numbers move through the Caribbean lowlands, Eastern Kingbirds are much less common around our place.

These long distance migrants have to watch out for raptors like this Short-tailed Hawk, another frequent visitor to our neighborhood.

Swallow-tailed Gull, Gray-hooded Gull, Shorebirds– Recently, an immature Swallow-tailed Gull was seen during a pelagic trip off the central Pacific coast (!). While this Galapagos endemic has been seen on trips to Cocos Island, it’s usually observed at night. A fantastic find by Rodolfo Dodero, he and passengers also saw Christmas Shearwater and other more regular species of the open ocean.

Gray-hooded Gull, another mega, was found by local ornithologist Ariel Fonseca during shorebird counts at Punta Morales. Although Marilen and I missed that bird by a few days, it’s always good to know what shows up! This and other sightings are yet more reminders to check those coastal spots and take a close look at every bird. Speaking of that, as expected, shorebirds have also been passing through. The most interesting sightings have been of White-rumped Sandpipers at Cano Negro, and Upland Sandpipers in Guanacaste.

Fires!– On a low note, the extra dry weather has resulted in a higher than normal number of forest fires. Devastation at its worst, important wetlands in Cano Negro and Sierpe have been affected as have been regenerating dry forests on the Cerro Lodge road, near Orotina, and elsewhere. As the climate becomes increasingly hotter and drier, more fires will probably happen.

Oxbow Lake hotspot near Carara– There’s an oxbow lake along the highway just north of the bridge at Tarcoles and it has acted as important wetland habitat for a number of species this past dry season. Recently, someone reported three Jabirus from there, I can’t help but wonder what else might occur. Maybe Glossy Ibis? Maybe even a Masked Duck? Hopefully those species, shorebirds and more and that I can see them on Global Big Day!

This would be a nice one for May 4th!

Costa Rica Prepares for Global Big Day 2019– It’s happening on May 4th and once again, the birding community in Costa Rica has been getting ready to count birds. Although there doesn’t seem to be as much enthusiasm as last year, we do have teams in most parts of the country. I will be counting birds, if all goes well, Marilen and I will see how many we can identify. Watch the results for Team Tyto!

Would you like to know where to find birds in Costa Rica? How to look for and find them while supporting this blog? Purchase my 700 plus page e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Hope to see you in the field!

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admin on April 24th, 2019

Last Friday, my partner Marilen and I had a golden chance to go birding. Non-birding daughters were being taken care of, we had a free day! Did we watch the latest “Avengers” movie? Go for lunch or out to dinner? “Claro que no”. Naturally, we decided to look for year birds. But, where to go? The cool highlands for Buffy Tuftedcheek and other species needed by Team Tyto? The Caribbean side to search for Canada Warbler and other migrants?

Roadside birding on Poas Volcano.

The smartest move may have been trying for Black-crowned Antpitta at Braulio Carrillo. I have been hearing one there for the past couple weeks and it would be a mega tick for Mary. But, since late April is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica, and the best longshot at Hudsonian Godwit, with visions of dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and other year birds in mind, we took a gamble on the coast. Although we probably should have left in the early morn, since high tide wasn’t going to happen until two something in the afternoon, we made a leisurely 10 a.m. exit from the house.

Although Chomes was the main destination, we decided to check out Punta Morales first. The drive to the salt ponds at Morales was the usual rocky and dusty jaunt but as always, each minute was heavy with anticipation. This is one of those place a bet birding places; a site where any number of rare birds can show or where there might be nothing at all. You have to drive on in to see what’s there, you just might hit the jackpot where winnings include thousands of shorebirds, terns, and who knows what else. Come to think of it, a remote camera would be ideal at Punta Morales. It could tell us when most of the birds are there and when the nearest birders should race there to twitch a jaeger or some mega like a Gray-hooded Gull (a local ornithologist recently documented one from this site!). A cam. would have been especially helpful on Friday because as it turned out, we were greeted by very few birds; just a small group of Willets, Whimbrels, and one Marbled Godwit.

No problem, you never know unless you look! And, we still had Chomes to look forward to. The drive in to Chomes tends to be rockier and dustier but is also more exciting. It’s a longer drive and can give a birder Spot-breasted Oriole, thick-kness, rare swallow species, and even Upland Sandpiper. Although we had none of those, we did find a surprise Black Swift! An excellent find and key year bird (aren’t they all?), it foraged low over the trees for perfect looks. Not so for the swallows but most seemed to be Barns in any case.

Other interesting species on the drive in included Shiny Cowbird, Orange-fronted Parakeets, and sleek Scissor-tailed Flycatchers but the best stuff was waiting at the end of the road (or so we thought). It’s back there near the beach where the shorebirds tend to be, and, fortunately, the road was good enough to make the drive. Unfortunately, though, few birds were present.

Given the prime date for spring migration, I was honestly surprised. There were some birds and we did manage a year Wilsons’s Phalarope but not nearly as many as expected. No terns either. The tide and timing were right, I can only wonder if the Holy Friday beachgoers had something to do with the lack of birds. There were lots of people there on the beach making lots of noise and racing back and forth with boats. Yeah, I guess if I was migrating from South America up to the Arctic, I would also hope for a bit more peace and quiet.

But, we did pick up that phalarope and swift and it’s always fun to bird there. However, on a somewhat alarming note, the construction of shacks continues apace at Chomes, if it keeps growing, this very important site could lose habitat, birds might be hunted, and it could end up being inaccessible to birders.

Not wanting to wait and see if more birds would brave the Holy Friday chaos on the beach, we made our departure from Chomes and drove towards Ensenada.

An overlook at Ensenada.

A private wildlife refuge and lodge, Ensenada protects excellent shorebird habitat as well as mangroves and dry forest habitats. The grounds of the refuge are good birding and a lot can also be seen along roads outside the lodge. On the Arizona Road, we picked up our first Thicket Tinamous of the year while listening to the songs of Banded Wrens, Long-tailed Manakins, and other dry forest species.

Once we reached Ensenada, we made a bee-line for the salt ponds and were greeted by a good number of shorebirds. Quite a few Ruddy Turnstones were there along with Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, three species of peeps, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, and a few other species. The best for us was our year Stilt Sandpiper. While watching the shorebirds, we also heard a year Spot-breasted Oriole and saw a flyby Hook-billed Kite. A quick view of Plumbeous Kite rounded out Team Tyto’s birds of 2019 before dusk took over and saw us on the long road to home.

Hook-billed Kite from another day.

It was a good, long day, we had 17 species of shorebirds, now we have to figure out when we can add that Pittasoma and catch a few other key year birds at the same time…

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