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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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admin on August 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

Where the rails were seen.

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

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

The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.

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

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

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

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

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admin on July 27th, 2017

Here comes August, that late summer month with its hazy dog days, stores full of school supplies, and time to rush and complete whatever summer tasks you had planned on doing. For us birders, it’s also time to check the sewage treatment ponds, wildlife refuges, and any other would be wetlands that play host to migrating shorebirds. At least that’s what’s going on up north. Down here in permanent summer land, August is just another month when the rains fall and give local rivers a big wet boost. Amazingly, a few shorebirds have already flown here but most won’t arrive for another month. Most importantly, though, the local resident birding is as good as ever. If you are headed to Costa Rica for birding during the following weeks, I hope these tips help:

Be ready for rain, be ready for a lot of birds

Yeah, rain is in the house but so are the birds including lots of juveniles. While the rains do limit birding, on and off rain is always better than a prolonged sunny day. Bird activity is high between the bouts of precipitation and the falling water is also nice because it can cool things off.

It was coming down the other day but barbets and toucanets were still coming to the Colibri Cafe at Cinchona.

Fruiting trees in the foothills

Thanks to heavy rain, stuff is fruiting in the foothills and the birds will be there for the natural buffet. Keep an eye out for any fruiting trees, especially ones that have small, oval, green fruits, usually with a red base. These ones are delicacies for guans, toucans, and cotingas so keep watching and waiting if you see such a tree! Berries and other small fruits are better for trees full of tanagers, manakins, thrushes, and other cool birds.

Hello Bay-headed Tanager.

Road closure

I know of one main road that is closed for much of the day. If you plan on using the Varablanca-Cinchona-San Miguel road to travel to and from Sarapiqui, know that this road is closed in the San Miguel area in the morning between 7:30 and 12:00, and then again from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The upside to this is that if you are coming from San Jose, this doesn’t affect visits to the Waterfall Gardens, Cinchona, or Virgen del Socorro because the closure is between Socorro and San Miguel. Another upside could be better roadside birding during times of closure because there should be much less traffic. Yet another bonus comes in the form of being able to skirt the closure all together by detouring through Virgen del Socorro, thus forcing you to move through this birdy site. I’m not sure how long these closures will last but I hope it ends before October just in case I do another Big Day at that time!

Keep an eye out for “odd” hummingbirds

Last year, a Rufous-crested Coquette made s star appearance at Rancho Naturalista in August. Maybe they wander into Costa Rica at this time of year? Maybe there are more out there, especially down around Limon? This is a reminder that hummingbirds wander, and they might do more now so take pictures of any that look “off”. If you find an “off” one, please post it on your eBird list and/or share it to Facebook.

Feeder madness

Unfortunately, not in a good way. Thanks to a misinterpretation of a hunting law that outlaws the baiting of animals, some misinformed folks in Costa Rica have urged people to take down hummingbird feeders stating that the feeders keep hummingbirds from pollinating plants. Yes, that’s right, and some municipalities have pressured a restaurant or two to remove their feeders despite a lack of data showing that feeders are harmful. Meanwhile, in keeping with the typical sort of tragic irony that often happens when misinformed people make decisions, unfortunately, just when feeders are taken down, thanks to climate change, hummingbirds seem to have taken a hit in Costa Rica and could really use that extra food. I’m not sure how the whole feeder thing will play out but, hopefully, the local birding community can join forces with the tourism industry to make authorities and local people realize that efforts would be much better spent on limiting pesticides and deforestation than removing bird feeders. I wish I was making that up but I assure you I am not. I will be writing more about this.

Compared to what I used to see, I have been seeing far fewer hummingbirds this year just about everywhere I go. This Black-bellied was enjoying the feeders at Catarata del Toro.

Enjoy the elbow room

Not as if there are crowds of birders anyways but there are certainly less around during August! You will see just as many resident birds and maybe even more because of more bird activity. It will be just you and the birds!

Please enter eBird data, especially for migrants

As with everywhere, the more data the better! Participate in science and share your trip.

That’s about it for now, I hope to see you at some cool birding locale in Costa Rica!

 

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I hope you are reading this today because by “now”, I mean July 20th, 2017 or shortly thereafter. If you are seeing this post some other month or some other year, the Quebrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park will still be worth a visit because, after all, the dense foothill/lowland rainforest at this site always offers chances at connecting with a variety of uncommon and rare species. If you happen to be headed there over the next few days, though, the odds are in your favor for finding some mega birds.

Based on guiding there yesterday and recent eBird sightings, these are some reasons why now would be a great time to visit:

Fruiting trees

Quebrada has been getting a lot of rain. I say that with a sincere sense of relief and hope because much to the detriment of a forest in need of near constant moisture, the site has suffered from warmer and drier than normal weather over the past five or so years. Since most bird species at the site seem to have declined, hopefully, this year’s precipitation will result in a healthier forest ecosystem along with subsequent improved nesting success and more food for altitudinal migrants. Based on the number of fruiting trees seen yesterday, it looks like the forest is reacting well to the much needed precipitation and humidity. Several Melastomes were fruiting as were some understory Lauraceous species (think small avocado type fruits), and other trees.

Mixed flocks!

The wet foothill and middle elevation rainforests of Costa Rica are sort of infamous for their mixed flocks. After periods of quiet birding, large groups of birds suddenly rush through the forest to tantalize, frustrate, amaze, and entertain the unwary birder, and Quebrada is no exception. It’s an excellent site to connect with fantastic mixed flock activity but, you can also visit and run into very few or no flocks. I’m happy to say that yesterday, the mixed flock activity was reminiscent of better birding days. We ran into several groups of birds, and although some were pretty hard to watch as they silhouetted their way through the canopy, we still had plenty to look at and fewer slow periods than any visit this year. Flocks had most of the expected tanagers, we had one Sharpbill, Red-headed Barbet, more than one shrike-tanager, Striped Woodhaunter, and I am sure there were other species missed because of less than ideal viewing conditions.

Emerald Tanager is one of the expected species here, we had several.

Better chances at choice large frugivores

More fruit also means better chances at running into fine targets like Yellow-eared Toucanet and Bare-necked Umbrellabird. These were both recently reported from the site on eBird and although we didn’t find them, now might be the best time to look. Since those species are around, the same can also probably be said of another choice frugivore, its royal blue and purpleness, the Lovely Cotinga. More fruit on the forest floor also means better chances at seeing quail-doves; we actually had great looks at four Olive-backed Quail-Doves over a full day of birding.

Cloudy weather

Although it also makes for a chance of rain and silhouette canopy views, the overcast skies sort of make up for it with more bird activity. Since that coincides with higher chances of seeing more birds, yes, you want to be there on a cloudy day. Ideally, some sun will also happen as it did yesterday with subsequent views of King Vulture and Great Black Hawk from the overlook on the Ceiba Trail.

The view from the overlook.

Lots of juvenile birds

They might look dull and confusing but the more juveniles the better and not only because they represent new generations of tanagers. Although that is part of the happy equation, more juvenile birds around also means that more predators like Tiny Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon are active. Who knows, maybe Black and white Hawk-Eagle or other rare choice raptors could also be around?

Antswarm

Saving the best for last, this is the main reason why you should go birding at Quebrada now. Yesterday, there was a diffuse antswarm working its way through the northern side of the Las Palmas trail. It looked like it was spread through a fair sized area of forest and this could mean that it will be working that area for a few days. Maybe, maybe not, but it looked a lot like the one I saw some years ago that brought in a R.V. G. Cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpitta almost in the same area. On that occasion, the same swarm worked over the same area for at least four days. Although we didn’t see either of those megas yesterday, it looked like ideal conditions for them to make an appearance. Since most of yesterday’s swarm was back in the woods, away from the trail, they might have actually been nearby and just not foraging where we could see them.

One or two Ocellated Antbirds were at yesterday’s swarm but they wouldn’t come in for a close, prolonged view like this one from Tirimbina. 

I’m not sure if I can get back this weekend but I might give it a try. If you go, leave a comment about your sightings!

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admin on July 6th, 2017

Most folks don’t consider any degree of pelagic birding when visiting Costa Rica but if you have an extra day or two, and enjoy birding from a boat, it will be worth your while. Get into the pelagic zone and at least three species of storm-petrel, two shearwaters, and a few other birds are likely along with a real chance at rarities like Tahiti Petrel, Parkinson’s Petrel, Galapagos Petrel, Christmas Shearwater, and so on. We still need to get a better handle on which species show up when and where but as long as you head into the pelagic zone, you will be in for some exciting birds. The main problem with that has been finding boats to take folks to the places where the shore is out of sight but, hopefully, it will be easier to arrange such trips soon.6

In the meantime, if you want an easy, quick “pelagic”, you can always take the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Although you can never expect too much in terms of blue water birds, there’s always a chance at storm-petrels, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and who knows what else? Uncommon species and Costa Rican rarities of every spectrum have been seen including Sabine’s Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Peruvian Booby. At the same time, you can also take the ferry and have your most exciting birding be limited to Black, Royal, and Sandwich Terns but since the trip is so easy to do, and something different usually shows up anyways, I believe that doing a bit of ferry birding is always worth the effort. If you are up for it, here’s some stuff to keep in mind when ferry birding in Costa Rica:

The ferry won’t stop for birds– Yes, that is a “Captain Obvious” statement but just a reminder that ferry birding won’t be as birder friendly as a true chumming, bird chasing, pelagic trip. You won’t see as many birds but I still think that the ferry kind of makes up for it with the low cost, easy logistics, and birding opportunities especially when you can’t arrange a true birding trip to the pelagic zone.

Get in line early to find space on the upper deck– You want to get a coveted spot on the upper deck because you will see more birds. The ferry is usually stable enough to use a scope, and it’s also short enough (about an hour and a half) to make sea sickness an extremely rare event. Getting there about an hour before departure time should work. If you arrive in Puntarenas before then, park near the lighthouse and scope from there. I have seen pelagic species from this spot on more than one occasion (by that I mean three species of storm-petrels, Brown Noddy, and Galapagos Shearwater).

 

Day trip? Much cheaper to park the car in Puntarenas– When I do the ferry (as I did with friends yesterday), I park at Frank’s Cabinas for the day and pay around $1.50 for a ferry passenger ticket (yep, that adds up to around $3 round trip). Frank’s Cabinas is half a block north of the ferry dock and has a prominent sign. It tends to fill up on the weekend and he charges around $10 to park there for a day. If you do take a vehicle across, it is around $45 each way.

Consider the 5 a.m. ferry– Since the next ferry doesn’t leave until 9, you will probably see more birds by taking that first ferry at dawn. Although I have seen quite a few birds at other times of the day, I plan on embarking on the five a.m. ferry on my next trip. I would have already done so but have always felt pretty reluctant to leave the house by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. Although this means that you could mix owling and potooing with an early ferry ride, you can also just stay at Frank’s Cabinas the night before. He charges around $50 for a room that includes the most important factor for steamy Puntarenas; air conditioning.

Bring the car and make a day or more of it– Likewise, you can also take the ferry across with a vehicle like so many other non-birders on the boat. This is worth it if you will be spending one or more nights in the southern Nicoya Peninsula or if you just feel like combining birding on the ferry with a day of birding near Paquera and in the southern Nicoya. Do that and you might end up with a day list that includes Galapagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

Be ready for anything– Most of all, when birding from the ferry, just be ready for anything. When we take into account that the ferry crosses part of a nutrient rich gulf that has seen rather little birding coverage, you have to be open to the possibility of rare and unexpected species showing up. By definition, this means that species like Inca Tern and Nazca Booby are far from regular, but they just might show up when you take that boat. The highly pelagic White Tern has been seen in the gulf, who knows what else might fly into view? I know that every time I have taken the ferry, one or more interesting species have occurred. On the trip yesterday, although I had hoped and sort of expected to see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and at least one storm-petrel species, instead, we were surprised with a Parasitic Jaeger, and then a Pomarine Jaeger not long before the boat reached Puntarenas on the trip back! Both of these were excellent year birds and tough birds to see in Costa Rica even when they are expected. With that in mind, I should mention that Parasitic Jaeger has been seen during the summer months in Puntarenas in the past.

The dark juvenile Pomarine Jaeger that sadly flew away as soon as we saw it. 

Yesterday, I picked up three year birds and although there wasn’t as much avian activity as on other occasions, I can’t help but wonder what showed up earlier on or later in the afternoon. Which species flew across the path of the ferry today? You never know unless you go and since it’s an easy trip to do, keep it in mind when birding in Costa Rica. Ideally, I hope I can bird from the ferry at least twice more this year. To learn more about where and how to bird in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you on the ferry or elsewhere in the field!

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June is already here! The older you get, the quicker time flies. Untested and unproven but nevertheless true. Just ask anyone who has surpassed 40 years on this planet. Suddenly, before you know it, the 50 year milestone stops creeping way off in the distance and gets up to begin a steady and unsettling trot, just waiting for that birthday moment when it can leap onto your neck and weigh you down with definite, clinging old age. But, you gotta accept it because the alternative is ceasing to age and since we haven’t figured out how to put a stop to that without also turning off the good old “cuore”, cessation is not the desired outcome (at least it shouldn’t be). In the meantime, give those creeping years the finger by getting out and watching more birds, being active, and keeping the inner flame going to make the world a better place (or at least to do whatever the hell you want as long as doing that doesn’t involve hurting other beings). That’s pretty much what my old neighbor Tony Palumbo from Augustus Place meant when he used to say, between puffs on some smelly cigar, “Pat, get educated and do what you want to do. Then you can tell those bastards to go to hell!” He never elucidated on who was exactly supposed to be sent off to the eternal oven but I am pretty sure it was anyone who would take try and take advantage of me or get me into an unwelcome bind.

So, in keeping with Tony’s advice, I try to see a certain number of bird species each year, always shooting for at least 600 species. In birdy Costa Rica, this is a very doable task. As long as you visit each major habitat in the country at various times of the year, you should find 600 species, and if you really work at it, you can hit 650 without too many problems. Reaching 700 requires a bit more work but the right planning and enough time can surely make that happen. That’s what I am trying for this year, and as the reader may have guessed from the title of this post, I just need 84 more species to reach this year’s birding goal.

I still need this one for the year.

With six months to work with, I can certainly do it but since most of the remaining species are somewhat of a challenge and or rare, I can’t just go out birding and find them. I now need to specifically go to the places where they occur and stick to looking for those special birds. No complaints there because the good thing about doing that is you always see other birds in the process. Even better, when I go looking for them, I will also have a solid chance at reaching 800 species for my country list. I hadn’t realized that I was so close but in looking at my Costa Rica list, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I only needed nine more birds to hit 800! Based on my duo goals for 2017, these are the places that warrant more of my time from now until the nights grow longer:

The Ocean– If I went out to sea, I could easily pick up six or more year birds and maybe get a few country and life birds out of the salty mix (and even more if I went to Cocos Island). But, since I would also probably have a miserable sea-sick time, a pelagic isn’t one of my priorities. That could change if I could get a hold of the right medicine and boat but at the moment, I’m pleased with sticking to ferry birding (which can actually be an easy way to get several pelagic species without turning an unwelcome shade of green). I’m actually itching to take a ferry ride these days to see if the rain-swollen rivers flowing into the Gulf of Nicoya are bringing in the nutrients that attract storm-petrels, shearwaters, Bridled Tern, Brown Noddy, and maybe some mega or two. Also, based on the species missing from my year list, a few ferry trips will likely be needed to hit the 700 mark.

Birding from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is easy and often exciting.

The Highlands– I suspected that this region would host the majority of my missing birds but although it does harbor the easiest missing birds to get, the numbers of likely birds I could get with some effort are similar to the South Pacific, around 28 species. Several are expected and a few are always tough but since I have yet to visit the high Talamancas or Irazu, I feel good about finding most of my targets, even some of the tough ones. It will also be interesting to see if I can find some of the uncommon and rare cloud forest species on the San Rafael Varablanca road, a site not that far from my home.

The South Pacific-Since I sort of did a trip to that area when I went to San Vito in January, this was a bit of a surprise as well as a reminder of the excellent birding and high diversity way down there in the Osa, Golfo Dulce, and nearby. Preferably, I will do one or more trips to the Esquinas area or the Osa (I would love to get in a bit of expedition birding in the La Tarde area) to get the endemic ant-tanager and have a chance at Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Turquoise Cotinga, and maybe even one of the mega large eagles. I need to go to sites near Ciudad Neily to pick up localized targets like Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Gray-lined Hawk, Savannah Hawk, and a fair chance at Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers along with other good birds, and at least one morning and evening near Buenos Aires for the O. Crake, rare nightjars, and a few other species.

Red-rumped Woodpecker is one of my targets.

The Caribbean and migrants– Thanks to the Global Big Day and other trips, I’m doing pretty good with this bunch of birds. But, since there are so many to choose from, I could still pick up 20 more resident species. Most of those are rare but I do have six months to work with. I also mention migrants for this area because the coast could still give me around a dozen species along with a chance at several rare vagrants.

The Northern volcanoes– That would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, Orosi, and Tenorio volcanoes. The high quality forests on those low mountains is excellent for a variety of high quality birds and would give me a good chance at Tody and Keel-billed Motmots, Bare-crowned Antbird, Lovely Cotinga, along with umbrellabird, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and the list goes on. Recent mega sightings of Solitary Eagle and Harpy Eagle are additional reminders of why this is always a good area to bird! I also want to finally add the trio of uncommon Guanacaste resident sparrows to my country list- Grasshopper, Botteri’s, and Rusty. I have seen them elsewhere but never in Costa Rica and they are seriously overdue.

A glimpse at the uncommon Keel-billed Motmot.

I hope this basic outline of a birding plan might also give the reader some tips on seeing more of the species they want to find in Costa Rica. For lots more information, and to support this blog, purchase my 700 plus page e-book for finding birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in the field while working on this year’s goal!

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admin on June 15th, 2017

Tyrant-flycatchers are a seriously successful family. In terms of life on Earth, that means there are a lot of species in a lot of place and for this family, “a lot” means hundreds of Tyrannidae evolved to occupy habitats from the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia on through the steamy lowland rainforests in the heart of South America north through familiar places in Virginia, and the way up north in the conifers of Alaska. Anyone who has been birding for any amount of time also knows that this family has been good at generating species that are a pain to identify. For whatever reason, apparently, that pattern of dull olive and grayish plumage, two wings bars, and not much else is perfect for survival because we can’t seem to get away from it. Lots of birds from different families wear that uniform but in the western hemisphere, flycatchers just might love it the most.

We are taking over AND MANY OF US wear the same uniform!- anonymous Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Costa Rica.

Numbers of Tyrannid species go up the closer you get to the equator and since Costa Rica is just 9 degrees north of that invisible line, yeah, we have a lot! But, before any possible seeds of anxiety are planted at the thought of identifying dozens of extremely similar flycatchers, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Identifying them in the field is pretty straightforward and easier than sorting through Empids back home, the confusion might be more of a product of trying to remember all of those names; flatbill, spadebill, flycatcher, tody-flycatcher, pygmy-tyrant, and so on! If you can learn them by genus, I actually find that to be an easier way to mentally categorize and remember them (if you feel like memorizing bird names instead of using Sudoku to devour time).  That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some challenges thrown your way (especially when trying to separate Brown-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers), but, as long as you get a good look at the head and bill, it will be easier than many flycatchers back home (or “warblers” if you hail from the Palearctic).

One of those flycatchers that looks as if it might be a problem but really isn’t that difficult is the Northern Scrub Flycatcher. While this little guy does share that wonderfully adapted pattern of grayish head, pale yellow belly, pale wing bars , and some pattern on the head, take a closer look and you will be forced to admit that you have seen a Northern Scrub Flycatcher. You may wonder why on Earth it has to have such a darn long name, especially when you are seeing it in mangroves instead of scrub but just be thankful it doesn’t have as cumbersome a name as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Oleaginous Hemispingus, or White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant.

Like most tyrant-flycatchers in Costa Rica (and the majority of bird species), for the Northern Scrub, you need to focus in on the head, especially the bill. This bird has such a tiny bill, it may also occur to you that the species is hiding out in the mangroves because it feels woefully inadequate, even incomplete, when sharing a branch with the Great Kiskadee or pretty much any other tyrant-flycatcher in the country.

Yep, that’s it’s claim to fame, a small, dark bill.

Take a look at the wings and you might also notice that this flycatcher sort of has three wing bars. Maybe not all of the time but don’t be surprised if it looks that way.

Once you see the extra wing bar and the tiny bill, you can then relax and check out some other subtle features and impressions. You might notice that the gray head has a short crest and a bit of a dark line through some sort of broken eye rings, and that the gray also comes down onto the breast. You might also feel like the bird looks kind of like a mini Myiarchus (at least it does to me, sort of), or maybe a cross between a tyrannulet and an elaenia (if that helps). As for vocalizations, although the brief whistled note is diagnostic, it’s all too easy to over look. Or, you might just decide to look at something more colorful or eye-catching that happens to be coming in to the pygmy-owl call, and no one would blame you if you did so.

The smart looking Mangrove Yellow Warbler will probably be there.

Or, there might be a Turquoise-browed Motmot begging for attention.

In Costa Rica, look for the Northern Scrub Flycatcher in mangroves in the Gulf of Nicoya and the Gulfo Dulce. If you see one elsewhere, take a closer look at the bill, it’s probably a Greenish Elaenia or some other bird wearing that flycatcher uniform.

Like a lot of flycatchers, the Greenish Elaenia is…greenish.

 

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Lately, in Costa Rica, there have been a few noteworthy happenings. Although the birding is always exciting, the following news items stand out and make an upcoming July trip even more enticing:

Harpy Eagle– Yep, that’s right, the major rare giant king of Neotropical raptors was most definitely, recently seen in Costa Rica. According to the eBird list graciously reported by John Garrett in late May, an adult or near adult was seen and photographed at a site in the Orosi-Rincon de la Vieja corridor. This was such a shock to the local birding community, despite the presence of definitive photos and an excellent description given by an experienced birder/biologist, amazingly, several people still expressed doubts. Since the proof provided seems far more likely to be a representation of the truth than an elaborate hoax, I am not one of those doubters. Some people mentioned that they just couldn’t believe the sighting because the bird wasn’t inside primary forest. Nevertheless, the special site where that big mega eagle recently perched in full view is within a matrix of fair-sized patches of lowland and foothill rainforest loosely connected to larger, primary forest blocks. Fortunately, the bird was last seen flying towards those forests, hopefully, it will thrive and be seen again! It seems likely that it wandered in from known populations in the Indio-Maiz forests of southeastern Nicaragua (or maybe even adjacent Costa Rica) in search of a place to rule and eat almost whatever forest inhabitants it wants. Thank goodness, a few people were there to document its presence in an area rarely visited by birders. If you want to maybe see it, about all you can do is spend time birding in remote areas of the Orosi Volcano in Guanacaste National Park, or maybe in Rincon de la Vieja, and wish upon a star.

Forests at Rincon de la Vieja.

The Birding is Always Good at Tenorio– The fact that a lot of great birds are usually seen in the excellent forests near Bijagua is reason enough to make the trip. A few more reasons from recent birding in the area include a probable Solitary Eagle reported on eBird, and excellent looks at the rare Black-eared Wood-Quail by several people at the Celeste Mountain Lodge and on the trails at Heliconias.

Uncommon Hummingbirds at El Tapir– On a recent trip to El Tapir, the hummingbirds were especially good. Yes, a few Snowcaps were present and we saw Green Thorntail and one Black-crested Coquette perched in the distance, but we also had close looks at a young White-crested Coquette, female Coppery-headed Emerald, and female Magenta-throated Woodstar. Suffice to say, I have never seen the latter three species at this site. The coquette from the Pacific slope has been spotted there on a couple of occasions and I bet the other two have also occurred but don’t expect any of them on a regular basis! Since hummingbirds and the flowers they feed on seem to be scarce in many areas of the country, I can’t help but wonder if the out of range birds showed up while searching for food. El Tapir and other sites with feeders and porterweed like Rancho Naturalista, Bosque Tolomuco, and El Copal should be carefully checked for unusual hummingbirds, especially ones with a bit of rufous on the face.

This is the one I’m talking about- it showed up last year after a century plus hiatus, maybe there’s a few in Costa Rica right now.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird at Curi-Cancha– It’s been there before but with this rare, endangered, spectacular species, it’s always worth mentioning where it has been seen. Although the bird with the Elvis feather cut is not common or expected anywhere, Curi-Cancha is as good as place as any to look for it (and see a bunch of other birds while doing so).

Unspotted Saw-whets on Irazu– They are always up there but recently, Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours actually saw one on a day perch! Although they probably won’t reveal exactly where (to prevent photographers from disturbing it), they might be able to show you one or two of this fantastic, much wanted owlet at night.

More help for Golden-winged Warblers– We all know that Golden-winged Warblers are a species of conservation concern. If you have been to Costa Rica during the winter months, you may also know that they are easier to see in this country than many other areas. Costa Rica Bird Observatories is helping out Golden-winged Warblers through local education about the bird, payments to preserve habitat, and reforestation. Learn more about this awesome initiative at their site!

One of Costa Rica’s many wintering Golden-winged Warblers.

Heavy Rains– There has been a lot of precipitation lately and it’s a welcome sight. Yes, we are in the rainy season but for the past four or five years, thanks to human caused global warming, there just hasn’t been enough, especially on the Caribbean slope and in the highlands. Very likely because of that, a high percentage of bird species in the country seem to be in decline (I know that I detect noticeably fewer at most sites, especially in humid forests, and it has gotten worse year by year). As far as the birds go, we can only hope that the rain will be enough to boost productivity and result in a successful nesting season for many species.

A few of the things I would love to do– These days, I would love to get up to Tenorio (as always), hang out in the Rincon de la Vieja and Orosi area, do more surveys in the foothill zone so we can have more data on bird populations that appear to be in decline, get the final images needed for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and look for pelagic birds from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Hope I can do some of that, if so, I’ll be writing about it!

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Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. Whether staying in the San Jose area or the Sarapiqui lowlands, this forested canyon is an easy one to two hour trip with access to foothill and middle elevation habitats. It’ a good site for White Hawk, Collared Trogon, and several other species that frequent the transition between lowlands and highlands. One of the things birders also notice when visiting Virgen del Socorro are the forested hillsides, especially upstream from the main road through the canyon. If only we could get into those forests! Maybe we would find quail-doves, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and other rare species. The right situation for many high quality species is there, the only problem being that main recurring issue frequently faced by birders in tropical places- that of access.

White Hawk

Much to our twitching frustration, the high quality forests visible from the canyon road don’t have any roads that go through them, they don’t have any trails. Well, they don’t if you stick to the road through the canyon. Stay at Albergue del Socorro, though, and access is granted. This small “lodge” is actually a small dairy farm that has opted in on ecotourism. The owners are serious about protecting the forests in and around their farm, offer a few shared cabins as accommodation, and serve excellent local country fare. Stay there and you will be supporting birder friendly people who are committed to protecting the forests of the Socorro area. Top that support off with excellent middle elevation birding, and a stay at Albergue del Socorro becomes an enticing addition to every birder’s Costa Rica itinerary. More information about this excellent site:

Trails through mature forest

The lodge has a few trails, one of which passes through excellent mature forest on its way to a waterfall. The other trails are shorter loops that pass through forest and a few open areas. No matter which trail you take, Jose, the owner, will be happy to accompany you. Although rain limited our time on the trails, based on what I saw, they should be good for quail-doves, mixed flocks, and could host several rare species.

Birding on the road is good too

If you feel like sticking to the road in front of the lodge, you will still be in luck because the birding is typically good and can result in White-crowned Manakin, many tanagers, euphonias, Spotted Barbtail, and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner among many other less common species. In the past, I often had Lattice-tailed Trogon on the section of road just above the lodge. It should still be present although maybe now more regular on the Albergue trails.

Serious birding potential

The combination of high quality forest, connection to Braulio Carrillo National Park, and an elevation of around 1,000 meters is ideal for coming across a wide number of rare and uncommon species. Quail-doves, Lovely Cotinga, and all three hawk-eagles have been identified at or near Albergue in recent years, and I would be very surprised if goodies like Lanceolated Monklet, the ground-cuckoo, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Sharpbill, and many other megas were not present. It should also be a good place for Solitary Eagle to make an appearance. That massive black-hawk has been recorded around there in the past, and since the area does link up to Braulio, it seems like a good spot for it to be seen again. Even during the rain, we watched several Crested Guans, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Swallow-tailed Kites, White Hawk, Bat Falcon, tanagers, and other species just outside the rooms.

Crested Guan

Ideal for small groups

Given the accommodation (limited but cozy and clean), this site is better for single travelers, couples, and small groups.

Three ways to get there

There are three different routes to take, all of which require four wheel drive just before reaching the lodge. You might make it to the lodge with a regular, small vehicle but then again, you might not! Keep in mind that since these three routes also have great birding, you might want to give yourself extra time for the trip. The most common route people take is the one that passes by the Waterfall Gardens, the Cinchona Cafe Colibri, and then goes through the Virgen del Socorro canyon. The one issue with this route is a bridge that looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing. To avoid that possibility, try one of the other two routes! If you feel like some adventurous birding on a somewhat rough road that passes next to some nice cloud forest, take the turn off for San Rafael de Varablanca and follow that main road all the way down to the lodge. This road also has lots of good birding potential. If you would rather do the easiest route, take the turn off at the San Miguel cemetery and follow that up to the lodge, enjoying good foothill birding on the way. If I had a four wheel drive vehicle, I would opt for driving one of those routes in and another on the way out. Do that with enough time for several hours birding each way and you could end up with a seriously good list.

I felt compelled to write this post after guiding a short trip to Albergue Socorro last weekend. Although we got rained out on Sunday morning, we still recorded more than 130 species while birding at and near the lodge. I look forward to going back, especially to do bird surveys on their trails just after dawn.

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More mature forest means more birds. The copious number of individual birds, a good number of species, and near constant avian action in second growth can trick us into viewing edge habitats as the best places to bird. While the thick, successional growth at the edge of rainforest does host a number of species, including several canopy birds, mature forest still hosts more. Yes, bird the edge, but don’t neglect those long quiet walks inside the forest because that’s where you need to go for the biggest mixed flocks, most of the uncommon, rare, and spectacular species, and a host of peculiar understory birds.

Many understory species are especially dependent on healthy, mature forest probably because they have become adapted to living in a dim, shaded environment that hosts a complex, structured matrix of vines, small palms, and other understory plants. Since they share that dark maze of bushes, heliconias, and shade plants with various snakes, frogs, bugs, and other life forms that compete with, flee from, and try to eat each other, most of the understory birds are also naturally rare. We could also just as well say that they live at natural, very low densities and this is why we can walk on a trail for some time and find very few birds. The other reasons why we find so few birds in the forest interior is because they need to keep their presence on a serious down-low to avoid being noticed by predators, and because several prefer to forage in mixed flocks (another, additional means of avoiding depredation). At least that means that if you find the mixed flock, you also find a bunch of those shy understory birds.

I was reminded of these factors during recent birding/guiding at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, and in the buffer zone at El Tapir. As is typical for these sites, we did find a few Checker-throated Antwrens and some other understory species that were foraging with them while walking on the trails. The antwrens give themselves away with a sharp alarm call or by giving their song; a short series of high-pitched, easy to ignore notes. While they forage in dead leaves, other birds also give quiet calls or reveal their presence by shaking a leaf or two. The whole thing is always a quiet, seriously inconspicuous endeavor and because of that, you can bet there are more birds out there, just staying out of sight. While watching the antwrens, we also heard Streak-crowned Antvireo, and saw Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers. In such flocks, other typical species include White-flanked Antwren, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers.

The hyper Tawny-faced Gntawren is usually also present, foraging near the ground, all the while looking very much like some out of place Asian tailorbird species.

Since other, rarer species are also possible, it’s worth it to stick with that flock as long as you can. But don’t leave the trail because there are other things lying in wait on the forest floor.

This nice sized Fer-de-Lance was a reminder of that possibility. Since it was next to the trail, it was easy to see and even easier to avoid. If this venomous snake sits in the leaf litter, you probably won’t see it. Although the chances of stepping on one after leaving the trail are slim, I would rather eliminate even that small chance by keeping to the trail.

Other cool understory species include antbirds, leaftossers, and grail birds of the understory like Black-crowned Antpitta and the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo. Although we did find a random Bicolored Antbird, try as we did, the gnatpitta and ground-cuckoo were both elusive along with the antswarms that act as the most likely situations to find such megas. However, before getting rained out in the afternoon, we did manage to connect with close views of a cool Northern Schiffornis.

After this odd brown bird came in, it opened and closed its mouth and sort of swayed back and forth.

Maybe the ground-cuckoo will show next time. You never know when it will happen and this is why a careful, quiet walk in mature forest is essential when birding in Costa Rica.

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