If you pay attention to this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know about my Big Days in Costa Rica. If not, then allow me to explain. Each year, I spend way too much planning and analyzing a route that can result in 300 plus species of birds. With more than 900 species on the country list, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that I’m not talking about one or two weeks. No, the craziness comes in the form of a one day event of all out birding, hunter concentration smack in the face of no sleep, and eating chocolate to see more birds. Actually, eating chocolate for birds isn’t crazy at all (in fact, I absolutely recommend it) and it really does help at 2 pm when you have been awake for 12 hours and still need to see a caracara, kingfishers, and hundreds of other species.
This year, the Big Day was originally planned for March. Susan, Robert, and I were going to blast through the country with blazing binoculars from Cano Negro all the way over to the Pacific coast at Chomes with rainforest and cloud forest in between. We were going to do that but then each of us got sick right before the day of reckoning, so, with a heavy heart, it was postponed until April 24. Most of the wintering birds would be gone and that does leave a hole in the final tally, but there would also be migrants coming through and maybe more birds singing as well. At least, that was the gamble and we didn’t have a choice anyways if we wanted to do a Big Day in 2016.
Although Robert couldn’t make it, we still met up with him and Eduardo Amengual on the eve of the Big Day at Cano Negro. We saw a Short-tailed Nighthawk, enjoyed some fine conversation, shared laments over the passing of Prince, and, thanks to Eduardo, also shared a smooth and delicious Spanish Rioja. This was followed by an attempt an getting five hours of sleep. That almost worked except for when I had to get up and slaughter several mosquitoes. Luckily, they weren’t as quick as me and I smashed them in triumph. Triumph-this is what you feel after enduring that damn buzzing in the ear and getting bit in the middle of the night. A bit of sleep after killing mosquitoes was followed by the alarm going off at midnight and the official start of our Big Day!
In the yard at Kingfisher Lodge, we heard a Common Pauraque, and got a response from a Common Potoo- Yes! Two birds down, 298 to go! Looking for roosting birds turned out to be fruitless, but a walk to the dike and dock at Cano Negro gave us Boat-billed Heron, our only Black-bellied Whistling Duck of the day, and a few other species along with the mesmerizing ruby red eyeshine of a couple dozen caimans.
I was hoping we would find one of these guys roosting but no avian cigar for us…
After getting some extra exercise by way of walking in a circle in Cano Negro village, we eventually found the lodge (and the car), and headed out into the night in search of more birdies. Stops on the road out gave nothing new until we reached the bridge at San Emiliano. However, lucky for us, the hoped for Great Potoo was perched at eye level just below the light.
A friendly Great Potoo. These birds are really big!
Off in the fields, no Striped nor Barn Owl (and forget about the super rare Ocellated Poorwill) but it was still cool to hear another Common Potoo. Then, we were off for an easy night drive to our site for more owls and the dawn chorus. This was around Luna Nueva and Pocosol and almost two hours from Cano Negro. To make a long story short, we heard one Mottled Owl, nothing else, and had a disturbing absence of dawn chorus. As the first light of the day became visible on the way to the Pocosol station, we did pick up some birds here and there including Crested Guan, our only Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and various second growth species, but in the forests of the station itself, the trees were eerily bereft of bird song.
Seriously, this was not good and not just because it was a Big Day. I settled on the rainforests at Pocosol as a dawn starting point because these are some of the highest quality forests I have seen in Costa Rica. They host a huge array of common and decidedly uncommon species, and the hope was that being there at dawn would give a better chance at getting more species. Simple as that. On past trips at this time of the year, the dawn chorus at this site was so profuse, it was hard to distinguish which species were calling. Just amazing. On April 24th, though, the forest resounded with cicadas and almost nothing else. Trust me, this is not normal, nor were the dry leaves and wilted moss. If some of the most intact rainforests in Costa Rica are like this, I can’t help but wonder how many areas are approaching ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a drought, it’s prolonged hot, dry weather caused by global warming in places not adapted to those conditions, and the outlook is bad.
A view from the dining area at Pocosol.
We walked the forest trail in silence, hoping for some bird to call and got nothing. At least not until the cicadas slowed down well after dawn. Then, we did pick up birds here and there including some good, expected ones like Black-headed Anthrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Russet Antshrike, and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Motmots were also calling but it was way too quiet overall. Since we needed more species from that area that we expected during dawn chorus, we stayed longer than scheduled and did pick up more here and there, including White Hawk, King Vulture, and some species near Luna Nueva. I’m not sure what our total was at that time but probably somewhere around 140 species.
Next on the list was the drive up to sites on the way to San Ramon. En route, fortunately, we connected with species seen from the car like Black-cowled Oriole, Rock Pigeon (oh yeah, it counts!), Olive-throated Parakeet, and some others. A stop at the small marsh turned up Great Blue Heron and a few other species, and San Luis was good for tanagers. Our next main stop was the Cocora Hummingbird Garden. Although this cloud forest site had treated us well in the past, it was dead on April 24th. Whether because of dry weather or the loud music from an adjacent birthday party, we came up zilch in the forest but at least picked up some hummingbirds in the garden. The lack of birds prompted a brief stop in front of Nectandra which finally gave us givens like Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch but overall, the cloud forest was a bird silent bust.
One of the birds we picked up was Green-crowned Brilliant.
The stops from then on were better, including Tropical Mockingbird, Purple Gallinule, and several other targets at the Silencio marsh, a quick Vaux’s Swift while filling up in San Ramon, and driveby Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (I love driveby birds on a Big Day). No luck with any driveby birds on the descent to the coast but we lucked out in terms of traffic. Our next main stop, Punta Morales, also provided with a sweet combination of mangrove species and waterbirds. Scanning produced several shorebird species, two gulls species, and five tern species, along with some dry forest stuff. We picked up more dry forest birds on the drive to Chomes, and then got up a few more shorebirds at Chomes itself, best being American Golden-Plover. Although shorebird numbers there were surprisingly low, we also had nice looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and other waterbird targets, and a surprise bunch of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying to roost. As dusk approached, I figured that checking the fields on the way out might be interesting. This turned out to be a good choice as we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knees, and the best bird of the day, Upland Sandpiper! Two called a few times just as it got dark, and they were probably flying into the night sky to migrate north. It was magic. Last but not least, we also managed a Barn Owl that flew in front of the car on the drive out. That was a serendipitous relief.
We quit after the Barn Owl at 6:30. This was early by Big Day standards but we were pleased and pretty much too tired to keep listening for non-calling owls. The final tally was 260 species, and I figured that we could have added at least 80 common species if more birds had been singing (such as tinamous for example), but we weren’t complaining because it was, after all, a memorable, fine day of birding.
Our list for the day: Big Day list 2016
Costa Rica is like a mini continent. Seriously, head to the northwest and magpie-jays call from dry, dusty lanes. Drive a couple hours to the south and you hit humid forest right after the Tarcoles River and where Scarlet Macaws start to screech and thickets echo with the loud voices of endemic Riverside Wrens. Take a turn into the mountains and the weather cools down while the endemic factor heats up. Bird those cloud forests and you might see quetzals, Flame-throated Warblers, and lots of other local goodies. Keep going over that central geological spine and we descend onto the wet Caribbean slope, first through more cloud forest, then through mossy foothill rainforest, and finally into the Caribbean lowlands. That last lowland area harbors the highest diversity in the country. Fewer endemics, but the forests and wetlands make up for it with 400 something species including Great Green Macaw, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Ocellated Nunbird, and several other classic neotropical birds.
The birding is always good but it’s always better when you can work the binos in quality forest. Sadly, since it’s all too easy to fell trees in flat, lowland areas, large areas of mature lowland rainforest can be hard to come by. Most visitors to Costa Rica get their fill at or near La Selva and the birding around there is wonderful, and perhaps it’s not right to compare it with other sites, but my favorite area for lowland birding lies much further south. Once you pass Siquirres, there’s more lowland forest in the house. Most of it is in hilly areas with little access, but a lot of it can be birded right from a hotel and roads south of Limon. Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common, there are lots of toucans and parrots, Snowy Cotinga isn’t too hard to come by, and protected areas have Great Curassow, and so on, and so on.
The curassow gets downright tame in many protected areas of Costa Rica.
Even so, the best areas are still the ones with the least accessible rainforest because there tends to be less impact and more connection to the major forests of the Amistad International Park. One of those “best areas” is the Hitoy Cerere Reserve. Located on the other side of the Valle de la Estrella, Hitoy backs up to the Amistad Park and is therefore connected to rainforests that stretch into Panama to the south and reach Pacuare in the north. There’s more than enough forest for all sorts of species that have become uncommon elsewhere and there’s a fair chance that Harpy Eagles still hunt in the remote corners. Although there weren’t any large eagles for us during a recent two day trip, quality birding was still the rule of birding law.
Hoping to see a cotinga or other canopy species, our inaugural stop was at a forested hillside a kilometer or two before the reserve. This ersthwile canopy tower was a nice place to start the morning and the birds came fast and furious. Blue Ground-Doves were especially common and called while various tanagers and flycatchers moved through the trees, and wrens and antbirds sang from the undergrowth. No cotingas, nor anything rare but we probably identified 60 species or more in half an hour.
At the reserve, the staff were friendly, let us in before the official opening time of of 8 am, and showed us the trails. Although I hadn’t been to Hitoy since 2001, the trails were pretty much the same; one loop through second growth and mature forest, and another, less maintained trail that penetrated wilder parts of the forest. We did both and the birding was pretty darn good.
After walking up the main trail and reaching good forest, it wasn’t long before we were stopped in our tracks by a wall of good birds. While listening for Black-crowned Antpitta, a Great Jacamar suddenly called right next to us. Almost before we could register the importance of the call, a flash of rufous and green materialized into one perched right in front of us!
Great Jacamar is pretty rare in Costa Rica because it needs lot of mature, lowland rainforest.
It called again and again and refused to leave until we walked away from it!
A major year bird and country tick for the others in our group. While the jacamar called like a raptor and a cat (seriously, this is what it does), a Scaly-breasted Wren sang very close and let us watch it. This was another quick tick for one in our group, and a species that is usually tough to see. While this was going on, Purple-throated Fruitcrows called from the canopy and oropendolas rushed through the trees. Somewhere in there, we were also watching a small flock of antwrens including the uncommon for Costa Rica, White-flanked.
When we finally decided to move forward, the call of a dove caught my attention. Another careful listen and yep, I was sure it was a Violaceous Quail-Dove! We crept up to the bird and searched the thick vegetation but much to our frustration, the bird was out of sight and never came closer. I guess you can’t see them all but it would have been nice to lay eyes on this widespread yet perpetually rare dove. I would have especially loved a picture of it since it is one of the last species missing from the field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama that I work on.
Although we missed laying eyes on the dove, the next encounter made up for it in the form of a Black-crowned Antpitta. The gnatpitta chuckled from the undergrowth and finally gave great looks for all- major lifer for everyone but me but I was still more than happy to watch that tough species!
A blurry yet identifiable gnatpitta.
After the antpitta, we continued on the trail until I decided that the snake-hiding undergrowth just wasn’t worth the risk. Back on the small loop trail, it was mid-morning and quiet as expected but we still had fun with Spotted Antbird, and two woodcreeper species at a rather lackluster antswarm, calling Red-capped Manakin, and a few other understory birds. Back out in front of the station, we were amazed to hear another Great Jacamar and happy to see that the participants of a biology course taught by Oscar Ramirez were watching it.
This was followed by siesta time for us and the birds. Once we became reactivated, we enjoyed a few big kettles of Swainson’s Hawks and a quick flyover of a target male Snowy Cotinga.
Really happy to get this, one of us needed it as a lifer. The dove-live bird even stayed for scope views.
After the cotinga, we continued down the entrance road with the hopes of finding Sulphur-rumped Tanager. On the way, one stop produced an immediate response from and excellent looks at Central American Pygmy-Owl while small birds mobbed it.
This cool bird was right in our faces.
With the owl in the bag, I decided to stop at a promising looking patch of forest where Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant was calling. My idea was that if that species was present, maybe other forest birds were likewise possible. This proved to be correct when I heard the call of Sulphur-rumped Tanager! We glimpsed the bird as it flew just over the canopy and walked down the road, fingers crossed that it had stopped within view. Luck was still with us that day because it had stopped in a tree top just down the road and stayed long enough for scope views to be had by all. It’s not the brightest of tanagers but through the scope, we could see the white tuft at the shoulder, the black bill, and the distinctive shape. Eventually, it also flipped around enough for us to glimpse the pale yellow rump (not as obvious a field mark as you might think). I was also pleased that its call was recognizable because recordings of chip notes often sound different to me than the real thing. The recording I had listened to reminded me of a Black and Yellow Tanager, and sure enough, that is what I heard in the field.
That last main target rounded out an excellent day of birding. We probably had 130 or so species total, and none of those were waterbirds. The following morning, we came back with hopes for the quail-dove but no luck there, nor did we have the jacamar again. We did hear the antpitta though, and saw a few other birds before moving on.
Getting to Hitoy Cerere: In common with many sites nowadays, this turned out to be much easier than what I remembered. The lack of signs at key spots means that you still need to know where to turn but the road wasn’t that bad. Overall, it was similar to conditions on the road to the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and could be done with a two wheel drive. Keep in mind, that this could easily change with heavy rains but it should still be easy with four wheel drive.
So, if coming from Limon or Cahuita, follow the road to Pandora (this is at a prominent turn with a gas station on the corner).
At one point, you can go straight or take a right and cross a bridge over a small river. Just go straight.
Eventually, go through bananas, and watch for a sign to Hitoy. Take a left at the sign (it has an arrow pointing that way).
G to a T and take a right (another sign to Hitoy there).
Drive 4.8 kilometers to a fork and bear left (no sign there).
Drive 1.6 kilometers and take a left at the fork (still no sign).
Drive 3.6 kilometers on to the reserve (signs and buildings!).
The drive takes about one hour from Cahuita without birding en route and is around 36 kilometers (from the Cahuita area). There is a $8 entrance fee.
Costa Rica is famous for keeping a high percentage of territory under protection as national parks and reserves. This is wonderful and absolutely laudible but what is often overlooked is the reason why Costa Rica put so much land under protection. Look at satellite imagery of Costa Rica on Google Earth and two things are immediately obvious: (1) a high percentage of the country is deforested, and (2) most of the remaining forest is in mountainous areas. As has so often been the case with protected land in many parts of the world, there wasn’t any push for preservation until alarming areas of the country were bereft of forest. Fortunately, enough people in power realized that the time for protecting biodiversity and watersheds were long overdue, and the national park system kicked into gear.
Fortunately, Costa Rica is also a very mountainous country because steep topography in areas with high precipitation often acts as a natural buffer to logging operations. This is why we still have lots of forest in the mountains, but also why rainforest is a rare commodity in flat, lowland areas. Sadly, such places usually harbor the biggest trees, and the combination of major lumber and ease of access makes them extremely susceptible to logging. This is probably also why Speckled Mourner is so very rare in Costa Rica, why Streak-chested Antpitta is very local, and why Great Potoo is decidely uncommon in the Golfo Dulce lowlands. It seems like all of these species require or prefer flat areas with tall forest, especially the mourner. This is also why it can be tough to gain access to quality, lowland rainforest on the Caribbean slope. Much of that remaining habitat occurs near the border with Nicaragua and at sites in the southeast with other areas of lowland rainforest situated in the Sarapiqui region. Although the best known lowland forests in Sarapiqui are at La Selva, there are other sites that also offer excellent bird and seem to be better for certain species. One of those places is the Tirimbina Biological Reserve, an excellent place to bird whether visiting La Selva or not.
Tirimbina is, in part, an old cacao plantation with a good degree of primary lowland rainforest. Most of the expected species are present except for the two very large eagles (Crested Eagle might still show up but the Harpy is almost certainly gone from Sarapiqui) and a few other species that seem to be susceptible to edge effects and thus require large areas of intact forest (Red-throated Caracara, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo). That said, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a wandering caracara showed up on occasion, and perhaps the wood-quail and ground-cuckoo might still be present in very small numbers (or might even come back if we can establish a better corridor with Braulio Carrillo National Park).
Birding at Tirimbina begins right in the parking lot where toucans, chachalacas, Plain-colored Tanager, and other species visit fruiting trees. Those same species along with Rufous Motmot and edge birds can also be seen around the buildings, but the best birding is on the other side of the river. This is where the forest is located and this is the place to see tinamous, antbirds, Red-capped Manakin, and species of the tall forest. Getting there requires a walk across the river bridge (open from 7 to 5, even guests have to check in with reception), and if you are visiting for a day, stopping by the reception to purchase a day pass ($17). The lack of nocturnal access to the best forest is disappointing but that’s the way the birding ball bounces.
From the bridge, scan the river for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern. Agami Heron is also seen now and then as it stalk smaller side channels. The bridge is also a good place to scan the canopy for perched raptors and Snowy Cotinga (not uncommon).
Once inside the forest, careful birding along any of the trails can result in Great Tinamou, and literally hundreds of possibilities.
We had three Great Tinamous at an antswarm. They were very tame!
Speaking of antswarms, we ran into one last month and had perfect looks at Ocellated Antbirds along with Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. Although we didn’t see anything else with the swarm, it could certainly attract many other species including motmots, forest-falcons, and who knows what else.
One of the Ocellated Antbirds.
The understory is also good for mixed flocks of insectivores. These birds tend to be quiet and unobtrusive. Listen for the sharp call of Checker-throated Antwren, and watch for White-flanked Antwren (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), Streak-crowned Antvireo, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and other species.
Female White-flanked Antwren.
You also need to watch for canopy flocks. These can host some exciting species, the star of the Tirimbina show being White-fronted Nunbird. This formerly common species has become rare in much of the Caribbean slope because so much of its required lowland primary rainforest habitat has been cut down. The canopy flock might also have Black-striped and Cocoa Woodcreepers, Green Shrike-Vireo, White-shouldered Tanagers, oropendolas, and maybe even Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots. From August to February, such flocks can also have Bare-necked Umbrellabird (!).
The canopy also hosts some lowland specialty flycatchers best seen from a hanging bridge that acts as an erstwhile canopy tower. Those target flycatchers are Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and Brown-capped Tyrannulet. Continuing on, keep an eye out for fruiting trees that could attract other birds, and in creek beds and seeps with a thick understory, listen for the low, two-noted whistle of Slaty-breasted Tinamou. This tough species is much less common than the Great, and Tirimbina is one of a few reliable sites for it.
As with any lowland rainforest site with good forest, of course many other species are also possible. Just keep checking the same trails because the more you look, the more you see. This site also works well in combination with an early morning birding tour at La Selva. Do that, and bird Tirimbina for four days to a week and you have a fair chance of getting most targets, and hitting 300 species (especially if you hire an experienced guide). Who knows, maybe you will even find that Speckled Mourner? I know two people who found one at Tirimbina a few years ago.
If you have emailed me lately and had to wait for a reply, I apologize. For the past two weeks, I have been spending a lot less time with the computer and a lot more time with the birds. On March 3rd, a friend of mine came on down for two weeks of the best kind of birding- nearly non-stop. During this two week marathon of birdiness, we visited the Arenal area, Medio Queso, Carara and Cerro Lodge, took the ferry, La Gamba, Talari, Cerro de Muerte, Catarata del Toro, Tirimbina, and Braulio Carrillo (El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez). The end result was more than 500 species identified, several 100 plus species days, and pretty much fantastic birding every day.
This trip was also a birding blast because Alec and I had already birded Costa Rica 20 years ago, using buses and seeing some great stuff in the process but also missing out on the Osa and some other out of the way sites. We made up for that this trip with point blank looks at the likes of Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, Mangrove Hummingbird, White-crested Coquette, etc, and so on. Alec also hardly recognized Costa Rica compared to his last visit but the birds still came fast and furious.
Some highlights and remarks:
39 species of Hummingbirds: We actually could have gotten a few more but spent very little time in the dry northwest (and thus missed out on Canivet’s Emerald and Plain-capped Starthroat), saw very little of hanging Heliconias for chance at sicklebill, didn’t have much flowering around La Gamba that might have given us Veraguan Mango and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, and just plain out dipped on the lancebill and Blue-chested. However, with 39 other species, we weren’t complaining! White-crested Coquette showed nicely at Talari after a quick female at La Gamba.
Male White-crested Coquette.
Bosque de Tolomuco gave close looks at White-tailed Emerald, Scintillant Hummingbird, and Long-billed Starthroat among other species.
We also saw our first White-throated Mountain-gems.
Catarata del Toro also produced as expected with our only Black-bellied, and the final day of birding gave us 3 male Snowcaps at El Tapir and then one male Black-crested Coquette at close range.
Male Black-crested Coquette.
Puffbird sweep: We were really happy about this (how could you not be?)! The puffbird fest began with the rarest of the bunch, the good old Lanceolated Monklet. Looking like a stuffed animal, one showed at a reliable spot on the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. A major bonus right at the start of the trip.
The puffbird party continued with a White-necked at Cerro Lodge of all places. First time I have seen the species there and perhaps moving in as the reforestation process has moved forward.
White-necked Puffbird- we had fantastic looks at two right in the garden.
Next on the list was White-whiskered at Carara (we also had it on the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Expected but never guaranteed, we had great looks at two or three on the HQ trail.
White-whiskered Puffbird in Carara.
The nunbird was next and since we missed it at Arenal, we had to wait until our final days at Tirimbina to see if we could connect. We did and enjoyed their rocking display on the Ceiba Trail. Try as we did for the last puffbird, we couldn’t find it around Tirimbina nor La Selva. On a whim inspired by hopes for a puffbird sweep, on our last morning, we paid a quick visit to a spot en route to El Tapir. The stop paid off when a Pied Puffbird showed at the top of a tall, bare tree!
30 raptors (including vultures, falcons, and the Osprey): We actually missed out on a few but given the scarce raptor rule in Costa Rica and two weeks to work with, our total was nevertheless respectable. Highlights were great looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle on the Arenal Peninsula Road, hearing it at least two more times elsewhere, close flyby looks at Barred Hawk at the Fortuna Waterfall, Great Black-Hawk at two sites, Pearl Kite, and more.
Including this Barred Forest-Falcon on the last day.
Hanging out with tinamous: Weird, wonderful football-shaped birds with beautiful voices. How can you not like hanging out with tinamous? The problem is that most don’t feel like hanging with humans. That seemed to change at Tirimbina when a few Great Tinamous spent time with us at an antswarm. These birds were so tame, they refused to leave even when German tourists stopped and discussed the trail map on several occasions. One guy also pointed at the tinamou and loudly proclaimed his sighting of a chicken.The tinamou was unfazed and went after a piece of apple that I tossed to it (yes, it actually did eat a piece of apple and yes, that German guy really did yell “chicken” in German while pointing at the tinamou).
At Tirimbina, we also got crazy lucky with a close Slaty-breasted Tinamou (if Ron, Dollyann, and Dev read this, yes, we will be checking at that spot!).
Close and crazy Slaty-breasted Tinamou.
Great Curassows also played, especially at La Gamba. No, not a feathered football but still kind of crazy.
This male called from a roadside tree.
Owls: Six species seen and one more heard was a fine total. La Gamba treated us the best with great looks at Striped and Tropical Screech one night, and Spectacled and Vermiculated Screech the next night.
This “Vermiculated Screech” was giving a short call over and over.
A thick-knee and a few crakes: Several thick-knees showed far and then super close on the lower part of the Cerro Lodge road. We didn’t do amazing with crakes but still managed looks at Uniform at the famous Bogarin trail, White-throated seen in the Arenal area, and Sora seen (finally got that one for Costa Rica!) at Medio Queso. Of course we also had plenty of looks at Gray-necked Wood-Rail.
Senor thick-knee (or fat-ankles if you wish).
Trogons, motmots, and almost all of the woodpeckers: We saw trogons quite often including several Baird’s. Dipped on lattice-tailed and were never in range for Elegant but saw all of the rest including singing quetzal and other birds super close. Motmots treated us well too with Keel-billed at Arenal and all others except for Tody. We got all of the woodpeckers and good looks at them too except for the sapsucker and somehow never even heard a Pale-billed! That Pale-billed miss was the biggest bird surprise of the entire two weeks.
We also had several Olivaceous Piculets.
Antbird happiness: Our first day at Arenal was one of our best, especially because we got onto a roadside antswarm early in the morning. Close looks at Spotted, Bicolored, and even Bare-crowned Antbirds is always a damn good way to start a day of birding.
Bare-crowned Antbird! (aka “Ye Olde Skeletor”)
We also had Ocellated there, later that day, and then amazingly close birds at Tirimbina.
This Ocellated was as friendly as the tinamou.
Streak-chested Antpitta: Nope, not at Carara but at Quebrada Gonzalez and it was a super friendly one!
A super friendly Streak-chested Antpitta.
A whole mess of oscine passerines: While they are indeed the most speciose bunch of birds, we still saw more then expected. Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Nicaraguan Grackle, the junco, Timberline Wren, lots of Golden-winged Warblers, Townsend’s Warblers, and other were all highlights as were the close looks at various tanagers at the San Luis Adventure Park.
Blue and gold was nice.
The close looks at Emeralds were priceless.
It was a whole mess of birds in just two weeks and my year list is now up to a healthy 581 species for Costa Rica. Our totals also hint at the incredible biodiversity found in Costa Rica. Come on down, bird a lot with a good guide, and you will see a lot!
If you are a birder in Costa Rica, of course you want to see a tinamou or two or three! Tinamous are the weird Neotropical equivalent of a cross between a grouse, quail, and football. Most have whistled vocalizations that tend to be a blend of haunting and beautiful. However, those sounds can also be a musical font of frustration because we hear tinamous so much more often than seeing them. Although Amazonia is pretty much tinamou central, we do have our fair share in Costa Rica. Five species occur in the country, and access to protected forests makes it easier to see these weird birds here than many other places.
Here are a few tips on the best places to see each tinamou species in Costa Rica:
Great Tinamou: This one is fairly common but very shy where there is even a hint of hunting. Yeah, licensed hunting is illegal in Costa Rica but as far as I can tell, hunting for food in non-protected areas is not so you can forget about seeing tinamous and curassows in most non-protected areas. Fortunately, there is enough easy access to forests with Great Tinamou to give good chances at actually laying eyes on this bird. Carara National Park is probably the best place because the birds are tame and always somewhere out on the Quebrada Bonita trail. La Selva comes in at a close second for the same reasons. Other forests in Sarapiqui are also suitable (Selva Verde and Tirimbina), as are any well protected sites in other parts of its range.
Needless to say, Carara is a good place to get pictures of this normally shy species.
Highland Tinamou: Costa Rica is very likely the easiest place to see this cloud forest tinamou anywhere in its range. Although it can turn up at Tapanti, and I have heard it on Poas, the most reliable sites are the Santa Elena and Monteverde reserves. Quietly walk the trails and you might see a Highland Tinamou.
A Highland Tinamou scurries away. This rare image was taken by Birdquest guide Dani Lopez and is on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
Thicket Tinamou: This dry forest species can be heard at several sites but the most reliable sites that come to mind are these national parks: Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, and Palo Verde. The last one on this list is especially good for this species.
Slaty-breasted Tinamou: This species seems to be decidedly more rare in Costa Rica than sites further north. However, if you want to see it, your best bet is the Sarapiqui area. Carefully bird Tirimbina, Selva Verde, or La Selva and you have a fair chance at this one. I have also had it at Quebrada Gonzalez, El Tapir, El Zota, and a few other sites but it seems more rare at these places than Sarapiqui.
Little Tinamou: Pretty common but a real pain! This small, shy tinamou prefers thick second growth and rarely comes into the open. It occurs in lots of places, the best way to see one is by tracking down a calling bird, finding a spot where you can see into the understory, and waiting for it to walk into view. Or, you could also visit Bosque del Rio Tigre and watch one visit the garden!
Good luck with the tinamous in Costa Rica. A side benefit of watching and waiting for them to show is seeing other shy birds that also make an appearance.
Since this the big birding month is about to happen in Costa Rica, I figured that this would also be an appropriate time to write some birding news. That, and the fact that I did not get out into the Costa Rican wilds this past weekend. A Big Day was planned but sickness kept my fellow Big-Dayers from getting out of bed so we had to postpone. Frustrating indeed but since the weather was pretty iffy, better to cancel now and have another shot at it in April. I had to do a bunch of chores around the house anyways so it all worked out. As for the lack of birding, I will be making up for it pretty soon when a friend of mine comes down next week! In the past, we have traveled through Mexico, birded Ecuador, Peru, and also here once before so it will be fun to try and clean up on rare stuff he is missing, especially now that I know where to find birds in Costa Rica.
Keel-billed Motmot is one of those targets.
Stuff to expect-Quetzals
Not much of anything different comes to mind. Quetzals have been showing well in the Dota Valley and the other usual places. On some days, there have been veritable crowds of tourists waiting for quetzals on the main road in the Dota. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hand out information about quetzals and conservation. It would also be a good opportunity to get donations for tree planting campaigns.
I have also seen a couple of quetzals on the road to Poas but it’s tough to discern if the population is smaller or the same. I haven’t seen any fruiting avocados yet.
Collared Trogon has also been calling up there lately.
Tanagers- Lots of tanagers in the usual spots but one of the best new sites for close looks at Emerald, Speckled, and more is the San Luis Canopy (aka San Luis Adventure Park). It’s not on the regular birding route but should be! Ahem, they also get umbrellabird on their trails.
Umbrellabird- Speaking of this megatinga, it keeps on getting harder to find. With the drier weather in the wet forests it requires, it had probably declined, hopefully not too much because it’s already endangered. I haven’t heard of many being seen in the Sarapiqui lowlands, and very few sightings overall. It makes me wonder if the most accessible site is the San Luis Canopy and the nearby Cocora Hummingbird Garden?
Ornate-Hawk-Eagle- Good news for this one, it just seems to be more and more common. I can’t help but wonder if that is at the detriment of Black Hawk-Eagle. Watch for the Ornate at all sorts of sites from the lowlands to pretty high up.
White-fronted Nunbird- This one might be doing better in some of the accessible spots. That, or just more coverage because it has been seen quite often at sites around Arenal.
Nunbirds at Finca Luna Nueva.
Great Curassow- Good news for this one too- keeps getting more common and tame at several sites.
Woodcreepers- Back to bad news. Most species seem much less common than they used to be. They can still be seen at various sites, but species like Spotted, Cocoa, Black-striped, etc. just don’t seem to be as common.
Lanceolated Monklet- Brave the traffic on the ever popular Fortuna waterfall trail for this one. It’s as unobtrusive as always but just keep looking, it’s there! Please do not use playback and scare this reliable bird away!
Scaled Antpitta- Always tough but if you are staying at Bosque de Paz, you are in luck! One has been showing at the outflow near or behind (?) the gatekeepers place early in the morning. It doesn’t show for long so get up early, keep quiet, and keep watching. If you aren’t staying there you are out of luck because , sadly, non-guests have no access to the site.
How dry I am…- Sure, I could always go for a cold, finely brewed beer but in this case, the entire Pacific slope is in need of liquid nourishment from the skies. It’s normal to be dry right now but the new dry is way more dry than the old one. If there is an up-side, it comes in the form of concentrating birds at a few sites.
Tropical dry forest and the Gulf of Nicoya.
Another update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide apps: A new update with more images and sounds should be available any day now. There is written information and range maps for all species on the Costa Rica list (over 900), images for over 800 of them, and sounds for more than 600. A basic version is also available that features 350 plus species.
That’s the birding news that comes to mind at the moment, I hope it helps your trip!
Look at a map of Costa Rica and you might notice this big peninsula up in the northwest. That protruding piece of land is the Nicoya Peninsula, and despite its prominence, does NOT usually make it onto the itineraries of visiting birders. It’s just a bit too far off track from itineraries with limited time, and doesn’t offer as many new species as one might hope. Not to mention, getting there requires some big detour, right?
Well, some of the above is true and some not so true. While the peninsula is off of the regular birding track for most tours, it’s not really that far from the regular routes, at least if you take the ferry. Head to Puntarenas and get on the ferry and you also have a chance at a few pelagics. As I have mentioned in other posts, you never know what might show up and you can’t chase birds, but you usually see something different. During a ferry trip last week, although we didn’t see too much out of the ordinary, we still managed looks at several Least Storm-Petrels, some nice feeding flocks of Black Terns, and some juvenile Peregrine hunting action as it dove on a hapless Black Tern.
After an hour and a half of looking for birds from the boat, you can start birding the Nicoya Peninsula as soon as you you arrive. There’s a fair amount of dry forest habitat right near Paquera and further afield, much of which can be birded from the road. The only catch is the dust during the dry season (most of the time), and the very diminished activity between 9 and 3:30. At least the morning and late afternoon can be good, especially the morning. Some species are also more common in the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula than elsewhere including these:
Great Black-Hawk: I have to admit that I did not expect this one. We had an adult in mangroves in the Rio Gigantes area, and hopefully, it occurs in other parts of the southern Nicoya Peninsula because this species has become pretty rare in most parts of the country.
Double-striped Thick-Knee: If you need this one, you can probably expect it here. It seems to be pretty common in open fields.
Mangrove Cuckoo: Might only occur during the winter months but seems regular in both mangrove and dry forest habitats.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Ok, so most birders don’t have to go far for this one but I mention it because it was very common in the southern Nicoya. By far the most common hummingbird species.
Elegant Trogon: If you saw that one in Arizona, you might want to see this one too because its a fair possibility for a split. It seemed to be fairly common, even from the road.Gartered and Black-headed Trogons were also fairly common.
White-necked Puffbird: Last weekend, since we had five in one morning followed by another at the end of the day, it seems that the southern Nicoya is pretty darn good for this kookaburra looking thing. We had it in the canopy of the forest and they were pretty easy to see.
Yellow-naped Parrot: We had good looks at more than one, especially in the Rio Gigantes area.
Barred Antshrike: Yes, widespread, but seemed to be very common in this area.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper: A big, uncommon woodcreeper in Costa Rica, it lives in more forested areas of the southern Nicoya.
Myiarchus flycatchers: These were especially common and we had four species, only missing Panama Flycatcher. Based on observations, the forests of the southern Nicoya seem to be important for Great-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers. Both were among the more common bird species in the area of Rio Gigantes.
Royal Flycatcher: This one shows up in riparian zones (as expected).
White-throated Magpie-Jay: Last but far from least, this big fancy Corvid is the most obvious bird in the area. Possibly more common in Nicoya than anywhere else in Costa Rica.
Although we did not see Plain Chachalaca, nor Gray-headed Dove and Violaceous Quail-Dove, wetter parts of the southern peninsula could be good for them. We did much of our birding in the Rio Gigantes and I am sure, saw more bird species because of the efforts by Luis Daniel Gonzalez and his wife Alejandra to protect and conserve their land with organic, sustainable practices. Learn more about their sustainable project and vision at the site for the Rio Gigante Community.
Cerro Lodge is the place to stay when bathing in the mega-birding in and around Carara National Park. Other options include the oft-used Villa Lapas, the sometimes crowded Punta Leona, the new Macaw Lodge back in the hills on the other side of the park, and at least one hotel right in the middle of tiny Tarcoles. However, none of them share the blend of proximity, and diverse array of birds not found in the park possible around Cerro Lodge.
One of those birds is White-throated Magpie-Jay- we had these and others near Cerro.
Part of Cerro’s appeal comes from the birdy entrance road. This unassuming dirt road passes through open areas with scattered trees, second growth, and part of a river floodplain that results in a host of good birds. Whether staying at Cerro or not, this road is worth some serious binocular time. A couple of hours on that road that week reminded me of its worth as a site unto itself, here’s some advice on birding it :
- Make time for this site: If you have plans to enter the national park, check out the road from 6 until 7 (opening time for the park during the dry season), or until 8 (opening hour at other times of the year). Or, if you have an extra day of birding, spend a full day on this road. Like every high diversity site, the more you bird it, the more you find, especially since the habitats also seem to act as a corridor between mangroves, other forest, and the park itself.
It’s also good for lots of common and edge species like this Lineated Woodpecker,
and Rose-throated (not) Becard.
- Quality birds: If someone ever tells you that all birds are “quality” or that every bird is the same, they are either masquerading as a birder, or don’t know the difference between “common” and “rare”. Quality birds are the ones we don’t see that often, can’t really be seen elsewhere, or happen to be major targets because they look so cool. In other words, endangered and rare species, endemics, and stuff like Double-striped Thick-Knee. In the case of the Cerro Lodge road, it hosts a bunch of those quality species including the cool and crazy thick-knee.
Its cool, its crazy, its got thick knees and hypnotic golden eyes.
- Double-striped Thick-knee: This target seems to be more frequent on the entrance road than in the past. Check for it in one of the first open pastures, and in the pastures in the floodplain. We saw 6 last week.
- Crane Hawk: The road is one of the better places in Costa Rica to see this odd raptor. Watch for it flopping its way through the trees in the canopy or near the ground anywhere along the road. It also soars on occasion. We had rather distant looks at two different Crane Hawks.
- Other raptors: Hang out on this road long enough and you have a chance at a pretty good variety of raptors. The long sight lines and birdy habitats offer chances at such other species as Gray-headed, Hook-billed, and Plumbeous Kites, occasional Harris’s Hawk and Pearl Kite (in the floodplain), Short-tailed, Broad-winged, Gray, Roadside, Zone-tailed, and Common Black Hawks, Laughing Falcon, Collared Forest-Falcon, and both caracaras. Even Tiny Hawk has nested on the road in the past!
Short-tailed Hawk is one of the most frequently seen raptor species in Costa Rica.
- Owls: Cerro is known as a site for Black and white Owl and this species can also show on the road along with Mottled, Striped, Barn, and Pacific Screech Owls. Not to mention, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl is common during the day.
- Swifts: Spot-fronted and Black Swifts are sometimes seen from the road in the morning along with more common White-collared and Chestnut-collared Swifts.
- Psittacids: This can be a great area for parrots, parakeets, and their kin as they visit fruiting trees and move to and from roosting and foraging sites. The numbers and species vary throughout the year but lucky birders might see every possible species in one morning, mostly as flyovers. If not, it’s still pretty normal to see Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots, and Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets.
- Good variety of dry forest species: Expect several dry forest species, including Black-headed Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s and Brown-crested Flycatchers, occasional Stub-tailed Spadebill, Banded and Plain Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jay, Stripe-headed and Olive Sparrows, Painted Bunting, and so on.
This is a good site for Nutting’s Flycatcher- it looks almost exactly like the local variety of the Brown-crested but check out the small bill.
- Keep an eye out for the cotinga: Last but not least, Yellow-billed Cotinga moves through this area, maybe even once or twice a day. The size of this population is very small (and, sadly, will likely disappear from the Carara area within ten years) but the few remaining birds are seen now and then near Cerro Lodge and in trees near the floodplain.
- Bring a scope: It comes in handy when checking out distant crowns of trees and open areas.
- Check the small marsh at the edge of the floodplain: It’s been so dry, this small wetland might not even be around when you visit. But, if so, check it for Bare-throated Tiger-Heron and other expected wetland species, possible American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and rarities like Masked Duck and maybe even a rail or two.
How to get there: From the turn off to Jaco on the Caldera highway, drive five minutes and watch for the turn off to Guacalillo on the right. Go a bit further and watch for the Cabinas Vasija on the left. The road will start going down a hill and shortly after comes to the entrance road to Cerro Lodge (the next road on the right). Be careful, it’s easy to miss!
For more information about how and where to see birds in Costa Rica, buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most comprehensive bird-finding guide for the country.
If there’s one area in Costa Rica not on the regular birding route that should be, it’s the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna. If you are wondering why I don’t just give the name of the route, it’s because that rarely means anything in Costa Rica. Yes, the roads have numbers associated with them on a map but on the ground, you won’t see any signs showing a prominent number for the road. Instead, locals just say the road to so and so, or the one that goes by the beer factory, etc. Also, I can’t remember the route numbers except maybe for one or two roads. So, since there is just one road between San Ramon and La Fortuna, that will work.
This route gets left off most birding trips because it’s tough to fit into routes that visit Sarapiqui, Carara, Arenal, and Monteverde. BUT, if you plan on traveling between the Arenal area and the Central Valley, take this road, you will like it. There is much less traffic compared to the other routes over the mountains, more accessible habitat, a few nice cafes, and, now, there’s also a tanager fest.
The San Luis Canopy was always a good place to stop and check the fruiting trees for tanagers and other species but now that fruit is offered on sticks behind the restaurant, the situation is crazy good. The other day, I stopped there while guiding, noticed some non-birding people looking at something on the ground and taking pictures, and checked out what they were doing. Instead of an expected Coati, there were tanagers…some on the ground, hopping around like House Sparrows.
Yes, these are Bay-headed, Silver-throated, and Speckled Tanagers on the ground.
Yes, an Emerald Tanager and a Speckled Tanager! I have never, ever seen Emerald Tanager on the ground.
They also visited the fruits on sticks.
Even this Tawny-capped Euphonia joined the fun. Other species present included Passerini’s, Blue-gray, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Clay-colored Thrush, and Buff-throated Saltator.
I’m not sure how long this will be going on but if you feel like doing their hanging bridges trail ($35), that’s pretty good too with chances at various middle elevation species including Blue and Gold Tanager, Black and Yellow Tanager, more close looks at other tanagers, White and Barred Hawks, chance at hawk-eagles, and, the best of the bunch, Bare-necked Umbrellabird. This mega cotinga is not exactly common but it is seen from that trail on a regular basis pretty much all year long. If you don’t do the hanging bridges, at least frequent the restaurant to support this bird and birder accommodating place.
How to get there:
From San Ramon, take the main road north through town to a “T”.
Take a left, then a quick right, following signs to Arenal.
Keep following signs to Arenal and watch for the San Luis Canopy on the right about 20 minutes from San Ramon.
You might also see some good birds on the way (and there is the very good Cocora Hummingbird Garden as well), although there are few places where you can pull the vehicle off the road.
Finally, the cold front lifted its soggy head off of the mountains and the atmospheric coast looked clear enough to visit Catarata del Toro. I have wanted to look for a few good birds at this middle elevatiion site since October. But, every time I had a chance to go, the weather forecast predicted wind and rain,- far from ideal conditions for birding or taking pictures of wood-quail and the other scarce species I want to find. On Tuesday, fair weather and free time finally coincided for a trip to the Catarata.
The site is more or less just over the mountains in a diagonal straight. This translates to a two hour ride of twists and turns. Although I avoided the temptation of stopping at Cinchona to arrive by opening time, I ended up stopping for 30 minutes after hearing Gray-breasted Crakes calling at the main turn off to Catarata del Toro. I recorded a few and still failed to see this feathered mouse but at least I know where a bunch can be found.
Up at the Catarata, the place was still closed at 7:30. Hoping that it would eventually open, I birded along the road, playing the song of Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner to no avail. Before going with a Plan B that included birding at higher elevations, I checked the entrance one more time and lo and behold, the gate was open. First on the trails and hopefully, that would result in photos of Black-breasted Wood-Quail. To make a long story short, it didn’t but it was still nice to check the trails out with slow and silent birding. This involved much staring into the vegetation and the understory, and occasional playback of Tawny-throated Leaftosser. No response there nor my other targets (which are probably present from time to time) but I did see some other birds.
Despite the target no shows, a walk in cloud forest with massive, mossy trees is always a gift. By 10:30, the mist had coalesced and conditions became so challenging for photo opps, I tried out Plan B. This involved a short drive up the main road and over to the Bosque de Paz area. Luckily, this also resulted in going above the cloud and getting back into good birding weather. Roadside birding produced some expected birds like Brown-capped Vireo, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, and some other species. Near Bosque, intent peering into the understory failed to produce Scaled Antpitta but no surprise there, that’s not exactly an easy bird to see.
After the misty weather caught up to me, I figured it was time to drive back home. Here’s an eBird list from the morning at Catarata del Toro: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S27270604
Although I didn’t connect with my main targets, I still think the site has potential for a lot of birds. If it’s raining, at least the hummingbird show won’t disappoint.