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admin on September 19th, 2014

Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s major tourism hotspots. An active volcano and hot springs are a double set of magnets that bring in locals and just about every visitor to Costa Rica. The area also attracts those of us who put the focus on birds and biodiversity. Easy access to quality habitat, a fine collection of uncommon birds, and near overload of tourism infrastructure make Arenal and surroundings a fantastic destination for birders. Whether you bird the place on a budget, watch birds in luxury, or somewhere in between, you are going to see a lot.

Since there’s really too much to say about Arenal birding in one little post, I decided to just talk about three, easy sites that, together, could turn up well over 200 species. A guide and several days of concentrated birding would be needed to make that happen but heck, if it was done in winter, I don’t even think that 300 species is out of the question. Here is some information about those three places:

The Roca Dura Reserve (aka Geovani’s Reserve or Fortuna Trails): This is where local birders go when they feel like looking for migrants around La Fortuna, getting in some easy-going birding, or ticking Uniform Crake. The reserve is the result of years of work carried out by guide Geovani Bogarin to reforest a spot just outside of the town of La Fortuna. It’s also an example of the bird life and animals that can come back when the grazing is put to a stop in deforested pasturelands. The habitat might not be ideal but you can still see a very good variety of second growth species and quite a few forest birds. Not to mention, there’s also the star of Geovani’s show, the Uniform Crake.

Uniform Crake

In fact, I dare say that this little reserve is a good candidate for being the easiest, most reliable place to see Uniform Crake anywhere in the world. According to Geovani, during certain times of the year, more than one can be seen hanging out right on the edge of the path. During two, mid-morning hours on the trail, we heard at least 4 crakes and saw one very well with the help of Geovani (he snuck through the low vegetation to “push” it towards us). In addition to the U Crake, we aso got wonderful looks at White-throated Crake and :

Golden-olive Woodpecker,

Laughing Falcon,

Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

Olive-throated Parakeets, and Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-throated Wren, and a bunch of other second growth species. A Tropical Mockingbird at the entrance to the reserve was another bonus.

To visit this special place, head out of La Fortuna on the main road to Arenal and take a right just after the Backpackers Hostel. Geovani might be in the little shack at the entrance. If not, call him at 8626 9348 or email him at info@geovanitours.com. He can take you into the reserve. Please be generous with the donations, this reserve doesn’t receive any other sort of funding.

The la Fortuna Waterfall: This community owned site is a major, local attraction. It sees a stream of tourists on a daily basis but guess what? The birding is still excellent! As sandal-clad people march up and down the stairs of the well-maintained trail, you might see big mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager, antbirds, and even Lanceolated Monklet! It costs $10 to access the trail but if you just felt like birding the road, that works out too. Bird around the parking lot and on the road to and just above the waterfall and you might see everything from Crested Guan and Mealy Parrots to Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga. The latter two targets are rare indeed but they do show from time. We didn’t get them on a recent trip but did see Cinnamon, Pale-billed, Rufous-winged, and 3 other species of woodpeckers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, three toucan species, and other birds right from the parking lot.

Pale-billed Woodpecker

The Peninsula Road: This is the stretch of gravel road between the main road to Arenal Observatory Lodge and the dam. To give an idea of potential, this site has turned up 140 plus species during a full day of birding. The high diversity stems from a combination of Guava orchards, varying stages of second growth, and foothill rainforest. It’s always a birdy area and is regular for such uncommon, quality species as Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Plumbeous Kite, Semiplumbeous Hawk, parrots and parakeets, occasional Great Potoo, Black-crested Coquette, trogons, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots, White-fronted Nunbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Olivaceous Piculet, Great Antshrike, Bare-crowned Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, and Rufous-winged and other tanagers.

A poor image of Sepia-capped Flycatcher- just not enough light for the camera!

Keel-billed Motmot

These are three of the easiest places to see lots of birds around Arenal. To add more forest species to the list, visit the trails at the Observatory Lodge, the Hanging Bridges, and Skytrek, and hike up to Cerro Chato. I can’t wait to get back to the Arenal area, especially for this year’s Christmas Count.

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admin on September 11th, 2014

Barva Volcano is the top of Braulio Carrillo National Park and the nearest, quality highland habitat to my place of residence. I can see the ruffled jade top of the mountain from the window and the lighter green pastures that creep up the slopes. There is a narrow road that reaches 2,200 meters before turning into a horribly rough and rocky track. That roughness goes 3 kilometers more to the gate of the national park but I rarely use it because I don’t bird from the back of a four wheeler. Nor do I have a birding mule. Cardio workout aside, I feel don’t feel like hiking uphill from that point either. Instead, I stick to birding along the side of the road, especially in riparian zones near the highland settlements of Sacramento and Porrosati.

Scenery on the road to Barva. No migrants there.

Rufous-capped Warbler- not a migrant but always nice to see. A common species in coffee and habitats on much of the road.

The other day, I ended up doing a bit of birding along that road to Barva Volcano. I hoped to find migrants and maybe take a few pictures of whatever birds I found. While I did come across a few warblers and one Red-eyed Vireo, there were very few migrants around. Either they haven’t come through in numbers, or their numbers are lower than they should be. Given the long northern breeding season, I suspect it’s a case of late migration. At least that’s my hope. Of the migrants I saw, Black and White Warblers were the most common.

Black and white Warbler using whatever habitat it finds.

On an interesting note, I heard more than one Black and white give sort of weak versions of their squeeky wheel song. It makes me wonder. Do some of these birds sing to delineate territories on their wintering grounds?

At one birdy riparian zone, I had great looks at Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. It was nice to watch a pair of this common cloud forest singer forage in the open because they can be tough to see.

Face to face with a Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.

Gray-breasted Wood-Wren.

Spotted Barbtail also gave its sharp call note ( a bit like that of a leaftosser) but didn’t really cooperate for the camera.

This was the best I could do for the Spotted Barbtail.

A few Flame-throated Warblers were also in the house. Always nice to watch this smart-looking regional endemic.

Flame-throated Warbler.

As per usual, there were a few Mountain Elaenias around. Get to know this bird if you are coming to Costa Rica for birding because it’s really common in semi-open, highland habitats.

Mountain Elaenia- yep, one of those not so obvious flycatchers.

A pair of Brown-capped Vireos were also present. They sound a lot like a Warbling Vireo but look better.

Brown-capped Vireo

Of course, Common Bush Tanagers were also around. Oh, excuse me, “Common Chlorospinguses”.

Common Bush Tanager

Nary a Blue Seedeater replied to playback (I have had them there a couple of times in the past) but it was still nice to see some common highland species just 20 minutes by car from the house. This weekend, I hope to be in for some exciting birding in the Arenal area. To add to the excitement, the other day, a mega Crested Eagle was seen and photographed by the main birding guide at SkyTrek. I will be there for a day so hopefully, we will get lucky! If not, we will still have a chance at lots of other uncommon birds.

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admin on September 4th, 2014

Like pretty much everyone who has lived in western New York, autumn is a special time of the year. The muggy days of summer are replaced by perfect weather, changing foliage, good fishing, and bird migration. Go out to the front porch at night and put your ear to the sky, and you catch the faint tinks of migrating Bobolinks, occasional calls of a yellowlegs flying overhead, and warbler chip notes. Whether you want to go birding, watch football, or both, it’s an exciting time!

Fall migration is great at Niagara.

Living in Costa Rica, I certainly miss the fall weather of the north and the birds that come with it. Hailing from Niagara Falls, I also miss the Peach Festival, crisp apples, and seeing salmon jump in the river but you can always find a festival in Costa Rica, there are Spotted Eagle Rays that jump in the ocean (I was sort of mind-blasted by such an occurrence just offshore at Chomes), and there are birds. Sure, there are lots of super cool resident species but like any birder during migration days, I am psyched to get out into the field and see what might be passing through the rainforest. Heck, I’m just as psyched about seeing the birds in shade coffee near the house because during migration, anything is possible.

Black-mandibled Toucan is one of those super cool residents.

Is there a Connecticut Warbler hanging out in some shady gulley? A Black-billed Cuckoo haunting some shade trees? There probably is, there’s just not enough people constantly out looking for them. If a Connecticut shows up for a day and no one is there to see it, then that’s that. Heck, even if a Connecticut is nearby for a day, you probably still won’t see it even if you are looking. In addition to hoping for a Connecticut, I also hope for such species as Yellow-breasted Chat, Hermit Warbler, and the Caribbean wintering warblers that are vagrants to Costa Rica (Yellow-throated, Palm, Prairie, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May). I haven’t seen any of those yet but they show up every year.

I have a better chance at Yellow-billed Cuckoo- still need that one for the year.

I also hope to find Black-throated Gray, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Thick-billed Kingbird. Long shots for those would be firsts for the country but I think they are possible, just need to get out there and keep looking.

As far as more common birds go, there’s a lot of migration going on. Watch the skies and you might see thousands of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows flying south. We don’t hear Bobolinks but listen at night and you might hear a few Dickcissels, lots of Swainson’s Thrushes, and maybe even an Upland Sandpiper (I have heard a couple during the pre-dawn hours). The river of raptors is flowing through the Caribbean lowlands, thousands of shorebirds are stopping off in the Gulf of Nicoya (and some are staying), flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and Scarlet Tanagers pass through, and we still get a fair number of warblers, including good chances at that migrant jewel, the Cerulean warbler.

Some of the raptor river in the spring.

Birds should be passing through now, I need to get outside.

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admin on August 28th, 2014

It’s the day after guiding and this time, it was a day trip to Lands in Love. We were going to look for birds in Braulio Carrillo but given the time, effort, and guts needed for the drive back through rush hour traffic (and  a chance at a landslide shutting the road), I deemed that a day trip to Lands in Love might be a better option. Many of the bird species are the same as Braulio and some. Yesterday, that “and some” resulted in the following goodies:

  • Great Curassow: We surprised a pair on the main trail to the waterfall.
  • Green Ibis: As we drove past the ponds in the afternoon, I thought I heard the call of a Green Ibis. After a quick check, yes, there they were! Two Green  Ibis!

    Green Ibis

  • Semiplumbeous Hawk: Seems like Lands is a fair site for this choice raptor.

    Semiplumbeous Hawk

  • Broad-billed Motmot: It’s always nice to see a motmot and 4 species have been found at Lands in Love.

    Broad-billed Motmot

  • White-flanked Antwren: We got great looks at more than one of this uncommon species. They were moving around with Streak-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, and other small birds.

    White-flanked Antwren

  • Spotted Antbird: We also heard a Bicolored Antbird but didn’t see any ants.

    Spotted Antbird

  • Thicket Antpitta: Seen once again instead of a heard only. I think Lands is one of two best sites in the world to see this bird, the other being Arenal Observatory Lodge.
  • Tawny-chested Flycatcher: Perfect looks at one on the main trail to the waterfall. I was sort of expecting Sepia-capped and not this one because I have never had this rarity at Lands in Love.

    Tawny-chested Flycatcher

  • Song and Nightingale Wrens: Usually, I see Black-throated and Bay Wrens. This time, those big wrens were heard only but instead, saw two of the most difficult birds.

These were just a few of the 100 plus species we identified during a day of birding at and near Lands in Love and we were still missing a bunch of commonly seen birds. Always great stuff to see there, can’t wait to go back!

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admin on August 20th, 2014

We all have our bogey birds, those troublesome species that play a permanent game of avian hide and seek. The only problem with the game is that bogey birds are on a winning streak that can last for years. Some of the most unrepentent players of this frustrating means of play are species like Masked Duck (my personal nemesis), Boreal Owl, and Conn. Warbler . Those birds just love to bend space and time to avoid you, and you know that you are dealing with a bogey when you experience too many dialogues like so:

“Hello?”

“Guess what I am looking at!”

“I don’t know, an Ivory Gull?”

“How did you know! YES! I’m, feeding it dog food, took 400 pictures, and it’s not going anywhere! I know you need it so come and tick it!”

“Ok, I’m on my way!”

Half an hour later, you step out of the car with high spirits and binoculars at the ready. However, as you approach your faithful birding friend, the victory spring in your steps turns to an uneasy, stuttering stroll when you see the apologetic look on his or her face. You know what that means because it’s not the first time this has happened to you. You don’t even need to ask if your long awaited mega tick Ivory lifer Gull is around because the face says it all.

Sheepishly, your friend says, “Ahh, it left 5 minutes ago. Maybe it will come back”.

You know the score, though, so you sigh and say, “I’ll wait but what can you expect from a bogey bird”.

Of course, it fails to show after a couple of cold hours so you head back to home, work, or some other non-birding endeavor. Sure enough, it either shows up right after you depart, or the next day, or some other time when you can’t see it. Such is the curse of the bogey bird and it won’t be broken until some angelic individual Ivory Gull, Black Rail, or Northern Goshawk jumps into view and says, “Yes, my kind does exist! Lifer hereby granted!” With the curse broken, you then of course see flocks and multiple individuals of the much wanted species because they know that the game is over. They don’t want to play it any more with you so they settle their mischievous sights on the next needing birder.

I finally broke one of those curses this past Sunday on a trip to Chomes. We were actually looking for other birds (and that might be the key to ending the accursed game) but I was glad to FINALLY get Long-billed Curlew for Costa Rica. Yes, I have seen the tawny senor Pinocchio on wintering grounds in Mexico and watched its antics on the short grass prairies of Colorado but I still needed it for my Costa Rican country list. Others have espied it many a time in Costa Rica and one friend has seen the species on just about every visit he has made to Chomes. He was with us on Sunday so this is probably why the curse was broken but I’m not complaining, I will break that bogey bird curse any way I can!

This Long-billed Curlew was one of the first birds we saw.

Look at the outrageous bill!

The curlew wasn't the only bird there. We also had hundreds of dowitchers, plovers, Western sandpipers, and other species.

As for the Masked Duck, I’m done playing with that skulking, web-footed zorro of the marshy underworld. If it shows, I will look sans elation. If I don’t see it, it’s dead to me anyways! You hear that, you bunch of no fair playing, poor excuses for a relative of a Ruddy Duck? When I see you, I won’t even raise the voice! There won’t be any excitement or birding dance at your appearance. No, I’m going to be as casual with you as mentioning the presence of a Blue-gray Tanager. In fact, I might not even tick you off the list! Ha! Still want to play hide and seek?

(If anyone reading this seems to be a magnet for Masked Ducks, let me know! Just keep it on the down low…)

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admin on August 14th, 2014

Getting ready for a birding trip to Costa Rica? Hope to come to this birdy land at some happy, future time? If so, start learning about the Costa Rican avifauna now because we aren’t talking about 300 birds to look at but a country list of 900 plus birds. Some of those species are familiar, others are from your best birding dreams, and then there are the birds that supposedly belong to the same families as the ones at home, but look like the feathered variety of the X-Men.

The super White-throated Magpie-Jay.

Don’t believe me? Just raise your bins in Costa Rica and check out those big, bold wrens. While we also have the small and plain Troglodytes, I’m talking about the big, babbleresque birds thatd defy your definition of “wren”. Unlike their smaller cousins, these guys actually do have appearances that compete with their sonorous songs:

Rufous-naped Wren: Fun to watch, easy to see, and always singing. You can’t miss this one on a trip to Costa Rica.

Rufous-naped Wren

Band-backed Wren: Also arboreal but a bird of humid forest on the Caribbean slope. More common in the past, they can still be seen in lowland and foothill rainforest. It’s cool to watch these patterned wrens forage with a mixed flock.

Band-backed Wren.

Rufous-breasted Wren: Smart looking bird! It likes to skulk in vine tangles in Carara National Park.

The Rufous-breasted Wren is not as big as the others but too beautiful to leave off of the list.

Spot-breasted Wren: This one is much more a bird of Nicaragua north to Mexico but you can see also see them in Costa Rica around Cano Negro. Song of Spot-breasted Wren.

Stripe-breasted Wren: Learn one of the main songs given by this bird to know that you aren’t hearing a pygmy-owl. This one can be tough to see because it loves to hang out in the dense vegetation of wet rainforest. Listen to a Stripe-breasted Wren.

Riverside Wren: Yeah, they do like riparian zones but the name fails to hint at their exotic plumage. Watch for this one along forested creeks and streams from Carara on south. Riverside Wren song.

Bay Wren: This one is a real beauty and looks more like some babbler from the Sundaic bioregion. You will be happy to know that it’s also a common resident of second growth on the Caribbean slope.

Bay Wren

Rufous and white Wren: The name says it all when it comes to its appearance but the song is magic. Listen and watch for this wren in riparian zones and moist forest on the Pacific slope. Rufous and white Wren song.

Rufous and white Wren

Banded Wren: This common, dry forest species is another one to listen to. Banded Wren song.

Banded Wren

Plain Wren: Definitely the plainest of the bunch and a lot like a Carolina, you will hear it sing and call from coffee farms and second growth. Plain Wren song.

Plain Wren

Black-throated Wren: This wren likes to pretend that it’s an antbird but is all wren when it sings. Black-throated Wren song.

Black-throated Wren

Black-bellied Wren: Possibly the finest of the bunch, it’s nevertheless a pain to see. Learn the beautiful song to know what’s hiding in that dense second growth. With enough patience, you might see one at places like Rancho Mastatal, the Golfo Dulce lowlands, and other humid forest sites on the southern Pacific slope.

Black-bellied Wren

Black-bellied Wren song.

These aren’t the only wrens in Costa Rica but they are the bold and beautiful. If I can ever manage photos of Nightingale and Scaly-breasted Wrens, I will write about those gnomish wrens with amazing songs.

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admin on August 7th, 2014

Do you find yourself in Costa Rica these days? Do you wish you were in Costa Rica? Check out the following news items for insights, action, and intrigue about birds and birding in Costa Rica!:

  • Shorebirds are in town: Well, it’s their city of mudflats and shorelines and not bumpy roads where Rufous-collared Sparrows hop but if you are a birder, you get the picture. Sightings of shorebird species are coming in from Guacalillo and flooded fields in Guanacaste. Could someone please brave the heat waves of Chomes to see who happens to be probing the mud for worms and other invert delicacies?

    Least Sandpipers are coming to town.

  • Familiarize yourself with Peruvian Boobies and Inca Terns: No Peruvian Booby yet for Costa Rica but they really could be out there! According to Xenornis, several have now shown up at Amador, Panama and maybe there’s an Inca Tern to be found as well. If you see a booby with a white head, take a picture and send it to the AOCR.
  • Check out the 2014 Birding and Nature Festival in Costa Rica: It’s happening on September 19th to September 21st, includes guided walks at the EARTH campus and the Las Brisas Reserve, and cool bird talks. Very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler and other migrants in Costa Rica, and lots of cool residents, plus owls on the night walks.

    You might see a Sunbittern.

  • National Park Fee Hike: $10 per day apparently wasn’t quite enough to help fund the government (no, it doesn’t seem that those funds go back into the parks), so the fee for tourists has been raised to $12. Keeping with bureaucratic traditon, the birding unfriendly opening hours of 8 to 4 have not changed. Where to complain? I’m not sure but if I find out, will publish that on this blog.
  • Very cool video by someone else: Speaking of videos, I didn’t do this one but recommend watching it. Done by a young Canadian birder about his time in Costa Rica with his dad. Lots of nice shots, and enthusiastic commentary.
  • Almost at 600 species for the year: No, not major news really, but good news for me! I am just a few species shy of 600 for the year. Does that mean I will stop at 600? Of course not, the constant pseudo Big Year will march on like penguins in search of destiny, adventure, and fish!
  • Writing for 10,000 Birds: I will finish off with another tidbit of news about myself. I just became one of the beat writers for 10,000 Birds (a super cool birding blog).  Look for my posts every other Saturday, first one on the 9th.

Have any Costa Rican bird news you want to share? Send me a comment and it will probably make it onto this blog.

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admin on July 31st, 2014

I have had the chance to visit a lot of places in Costa Rica to look for birds and for that, I am grateful. Birding trips, guiding, and living in the seismic land of the Mangrove Hummingbird has brought me to well known classic birding sites, lesser known spots, and birding locales waaaay off the beaten track. Nevertheless, I still have a bunch of sites I have never been to and there’s always more to learn and experience at places I have birded for years (such is the complex beauty of tropical ecosystems). One of the main places on my list of sites to hit was Laguna de Hule.

Sign to Hule.

This site was way overdue as a place I have never birded because:

  • I see signs for it every time I go past Cinchona.
  • It didn’t seem to be that far from home.
  • On Google Earth, it looks like it supports a fair-sized area of forest.
  • I have heard of a few good birds from there including possible Gray-headed Piprites and Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

I needed and have wanted to go to Laguna de Hule and this past Sunday, I finally got the chance to bird the place with my faithful birding friend, Susan. We drove up to misty Varablanca right at dawn and made our way past the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Cinchona shortly thereafter. Given the better chances at birds in the early morning, we couldn’t help but make a couple of stops, one above the waterfall gardens, and one down past Cinchona. Some birds were calling and it was nice to hear Dark Pewee, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and Prong-billed Barbet among other cloud forest species. It was quieter near Cinchona but we still picked up Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Elegant Euphonia, and a few tanagers.

Those colors are en Elegant Euphonia hiding in a Mistletoe plant.

After following the signs to Laguna Hule, we left the main road and began our rocky drive to the Laguna. It took longer than expected (which wasn’t a surprise since we didn’t know how far or how bad the road would be) but there was some birding on the way. We ignored the pastures but made brief stops in second growth and forested riparian zones to hear and see expected species like Slaty Spinetail, Dusky Antbird, wrens, saltators, and other edge species.

Habitat on the way there.

As we approached the Laguna, we saw a few overlooks for it and that’s when I realized that it was much bigger and much further away than expected. Actually, it wasn’t far but just deeper than expected.

A look at the lagoon.

Following the road past the overlooks brought us to more forested spots, and a muddy hole that we couldn’t pass, even with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

We saw this Crested Guan there.

We left the car and started hiking down the road. It passed through some nice foothill forest, second growth, and overlooks that took in the canopy of forest around the inside of the lagoon. We also saw a lot of clouds and mist but somehow neglected to bring umbrellas, ponchos, or even a plastic bag. That neglect was made even more foolish by both of us having first hand knowledge of the common, heavy rains that happen in Costa Rica along with lots of recent heavy rain on the Caribbean slope (where we were).

There was also a good overlook of forest canopy.

We saw a few birds, including these Short-billed Pigeons.

As we walked down the road, we saw and heard some foothill species here and there but it became increasingly difficult to look at them or take pictures because of the equally increasing mist. Just as we reached a stream, the mist coalesced into light rain that turned into a major downpour a few seconds later. This was the point when I wondered how I had possibly managed to not bring the umbrella I had left in the car, or why I hadn’t brought any ziplock bags in my pack like I usually do to keep the camera and recording equipment dry if it rains.

Misty forest at Laguna de Hule.

Without a word, we started walking back uphill as I frantically looked for some large leaf to use as an umbrella. Nope, there weren’t any of those “poor man’s umbrella” plants around but there were some promising Heliconias leaves. I grabbed one but couldn’t break the stem! By this time, I was pretty soaked and made a note to get a machete that would have sliced through that stem like the proverbial hot butter (or a stick of Numar- might not get that unless you live in Tiquica). As Susan walked ahead, I trudged uphill hoping for a big leaf as water streamed down my face.

Luckily, my birding prayers were answered as I saw a suitable, stemless leaf on the ground shortly thereafter! A ha! It was big enough to cover the top of my daypack and so on I went, clasping that leaf tight over the top of the pack and thinking about the dry interior of the car. Fortunately, the car wasn’t that far away although we were so soaked through that it probably didn’t matter if it was a mile or 100 feet. Even better, my lucky leaf had helped keep my stuff sufficiently dry to save it from total watery destruction.

We left Laguna de Hule with the briefest of birding gen but saw enough to see that the place definitely warrants a longer (hopefully drier) visit. We also stopped at the Cinchona Cafe to enjoy busy feeders and super close Prong-billed Barbets.

Super close Prong-billed Barbet.

Barbet at arm's length.

During the brief birding at and near Hule, some of the more interesting species were Crested Guan, Laughing Falcon, Brown-hooded Parrot, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Spotted Woodcreeper, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Dusky Antbird, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, White-ruffed Manakin, Bay, Black-throated, White-breasted Wood, and Nightingale Wrens, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Carmiol’s Tanager.

I’m not sure what else is in there but the place definitely deserves more visits!

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It’s 2014 and it looks like the El Nino warm water deal is back in town. This is when the normally cold, nutrient rich water in the eastern (South American) Pacific becomes much warmer and less nutrient rich than normal. The small fish aren’t where they are usually found and the birds and larger fish that feed on them suffer. It’s actually a bit worse than suffering because they sadly perish if they lack the strength to find food elsewhere. Die-offs of boobies and other birds in Peru and Chile show that El Nino is having its sinister effect and yes, some birds are making it north of their usual haunts (Gray Gull and Peruvian Booby have shown up in Panama).

There is a fair chance that those two species and other vagrants are looking for food in Costa Rican waters right now (!). All it takes is someone to find those feathered needles in a watery haystack but given the size of the search area and need for a boat, chances of crossing paths with those El Nino birds are about as small as a lost barnacle. We knew that when myself and some friends took the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry the other day, but that didn’t stop us from watching, waiting, and hoping.

To jump to the end of the story, no, we did not find an Inca Tern, Gray Gull, or other rare visitor to our shores, but we did see some nice seabirds, including more Blue-footed Boobies than normal.

One of the Blue-footed Boobies we saw.

Even before we reached the ferry, scoping the morning waters of the gulf revealed distant flocks of Black Terns and a few unidentified storm-petrels!

Watching from shore.

At 9 AM, we left the dock along with a bunch of people headed to the beaches of Tambor, Montezuma, and other places on the Nicoya Peninsula. While they enjoyed the scenery and drank a few beers, we scanned the water, made odd exclamations like, “There’s a booby!”, and hoped for avian weirdness.

The ferry departs, we watch for birds, and some people watch us.

There weren’t huge numbers of birds on the the way to Paquera, but we still managed several Brown Booby, two Common Terns (hey, they aren’t that common in Costa Rica and it was a year bird), a few Wedge-rumped and Black Storm-Petrels, and our first Blue-footed Booby (a distant one on the island). Gulls and other terns, except for a few Royals, were notably absent.

Watching for birds from the boat.

After exiting the ferry in hot Paquera, we just got right back on, found a good spot at the front top deck, and started watching.

We saw these cool fish at Paquera.

Further out, we noticed schooling fish and a lot more Sulid activity than the way to Paquera. We saw quite a few Brown Booby and were happy to see almost the same number of Blue-footeds, some right near the boat!

Check out the schooling fish!

Brown Boobies near the boat.

A Blue-footed Booby takes to the air in front of the ferry.

A flight shot.

Showing the distinctive white spot on the back.

Even better, we got fairly close looks at several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, and a few Black Storm-Petrels zipping over the waves.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel

Since we didn’t have any large groups of birds, we decided not to have another ferry ride, and made a quick stop at the Caldera mangroves instead for Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and a glimpsed Mangrove Hummingbird.

While the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry isn’t going to chum or stop for any birds, it is a stable, cheap way to get in a bit of pelagic birding in Costa Rica. Save money by parking the car at Franks Cabins (just down the street from the ferry and 800 colones an hour or 4000 colones for more than 5 hours) instead of putting the vehicle on the ferry ($24 or so each way). I hope I get the chance to do some more ferry birding soon because there is probably a few super good birds out there in the Gulf of Nicoya!

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All of us birders love cotingas. Along with the manakins, those weird, beautiful birds are the neotropical convergence answer to the birds of paradise, and like those Papuan feathered crazies, a lot of cotingas are brightly colored, make weird noises, have weird shapes, and would be proud, card carrying members of the feathered fancy fab club if there was such a thing. The only problem with cotingas is that several are kind of hard to see, especially the shiny blue ones. This is no fault of their own because they evolved to live in large areas of primary rainforest and not patches of forest in a hot, chiggery sea of cattle and grass.

Cattle farming in the humid tropics is a tragic, unsustainable scourge.

Since they can’t live in pastures, some of these amazing birds have also declined and have even become endangered. In Costa Rica, the Yellow-billed is critically endangered, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is endangered (and maybe on its way to being cricitally so), and the Turquoise is Vulnerable. Since there are few reliable sites for the Turquoise Cotinga, especially possible as an easy day trip from San Jose, it was a happy surprise to see this beauty at and near Rancho Mastatal the past weekend. I wondered if the species might be present but didn’t have high hopes because it’s usually rare and hard to find just about everywhere in the country (the exception being Luna Lodge and other sites in the Osa Peninsula).

On our first morning of birding, my scope scanning of a forested ridge hit paydirt when the bright blue image of a male cotinga appeared, as per usual, right at the tip top of a tall tree. Luckily, it stayed long enough for everyone in our group to parse the distant blue bird out of the green background. We were pretty happy to see this tough species once so it was a surprise to get another one on the walk back to Rancho Mastatal! This other bird seemed far enough from the first to be a different individual and was seen perched high in the bare branches of a dead tree. We would have easily missed it if it hadn’t fluttered and revealed itself with one of the only sounds it makes, that of twittering, twinkling sounds made with the wings. After hearing that sound and catching some movement in the tree, it dawned on me that we had another cotinga! Even then, it wasn’t easy to find because most of the bird was obscured by a branch. Eventually, we positioned ourselves for more scoped views before it flew off into the forest.

A Turquoise Cotinga that was close enough to photograph at Rincon de Osa.

There were no more cotingas that day but on the following morning, while watching the canopy near the goats at Rancho Mastatal (yes, goats, it’s a working organic farm), a bird flies into the top of a Ceiba and becomes another male cotinga in the binocs! More scope views, this time closer, to appreciate the gem-like colors before it flew away. This could have been the same male as the one in the dead tree on the previous day but when it comes down to it, we had three sightings of Turquoise Cotinga with rather little effort. I don’t know how big or small the population is at that site but even if you don’t find a fruiting tree, Rancho Mastatal lends itself to seeing this and other canopy birds because there is more than one excellent spot to view the canopy of the forest and tall trees ( including figs that could be amazing when fruiting), both on the grounds of Rancho Mastatal and along roads next to Cangreja National Park.

We saw a cotinga at this site on a distant, forested ridge.

Another cotinga viewing spot.

Other benefits of birding this area are:

  • Not too far from the San Jose area: While it’s not a mere 40 minute drive, it probably takes around two hours or so along a curvy road that leaves from Ciudad Colon.
  • Birding en route is alright: The first part of the road is awfully deforested but eventually passes through patches of nice habitat along with one area that might be the best site in the country for Costa Rican Brush Finch (we had 4 or more in an hour on the side of the road). This is the patch of habitat just after Salitrales.

    Costa Rica Brush Finch habitat.

    We also saw Bay-headed Tanagers.

  • Birding at all hours: The national park sticks to the same 8 AM opening office hours as other parks but you can see most of the same species along a couple of quiet roads that pass by the edge of the park. We had the cotinga on one of those roads (main one between Mastatal and Salitrales).

    Good forest and birding on the road to Zapaton.

    We had good looks at Tawny-winged Woodcreeper in this area.

  • Several other humid forest birds: This area is more humid than accessible forests in Carara. Therefore, birds like Golden-naped Woodpecker, Baird’s Trogon, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, and Ruddy Quail Dove are fairly commn. As for Blue-crowned Manakin, that pretty bird is one of the most common species in the area!

    Golden-naped Woodpecker

    Black-bellied Wren

    Male Blue-crowned Manakin

    Blue-crowned Manakin at another angle.

  • Lots of herps: Frogs seem to be more common here than other sites. The park should really be checked for possible populations of Harlequin Toads and other rare species.

    A cool anole.

  • Rancho Mastatal: This very special place mostly focuses on giving hand-on courses to learn how to live more sustainably with our surroundings, especially in the tropics. They are actively doing this, work with the local community, and grow a huge variety of organic crops. I would describe the food as being “organic gourmet” and if you like all natural foods with creative recipes, you will love this place! Lodging is also offered and they have some nice trails.

If you need the cotinga and brush finch, and would like to bird an under-birded place with a lot of potential, take a trip to Rancho Mastatal and nearby. Even if you don’t stay at the Rancho, there is plenty of excellent birding at the edge of the national park, and can ask about using the Rancho Mastatal trails.

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