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The golden birding month of May is just about here and I know of more than a few birders up north who must be giving a collective sigh of anticipated relief. April wanes and yet the snow keeps coming back, and as much as folks in upstate New York are accustomed to the cold white stuff, eventually, enough is enough. It might even snow up there in early May but birders know that by the 10th, the birds should be migrating through local patches throughout the eastern USA and southern Canada, accentuating the fresh green of new foliage with equally bright feathers and eager song.

In Costa Rica, we are also looking forward to May but not for migration. Some birds like Red-eyed Vireo and Eastern Kingbird will still be on the move but most will have already passed through the country by then. No, we are looking forward to one day in particular, that of May 5th, the official date when thousands of birders across the globe will be celebrating Global Big Day by counting birds and putting those data into eBird.

I have been pleased to see that a lot of birders in Costa Rica are eager and ready to bird in most parts of the country. Many posted their routes more than a month ago and organizers are still working to get more birders on board to see if we can record every possible species, and hopefully a few more! Although I haven’t worked out an exact route, I do plan on participating and will once again see if I can break 300 for the day. While working out the logistics, I thought of a few suggestions and tips for Global Big Day in Costa Rica. These might also be applicable to GBD everywhere or when birding in Costa Rica any time of the year:

Don’t feel obligated to bird for 24 hours

You can if you want but you don’t have to because there won’t be any secret birding police knocking on your door if you don’t begin the count at the stroke of midnight. Just bird as much or as little as you want but please put the data into eBird. However, if you do want to go nuts and lose yourself with birds beyond normal hours, there are one or two tips below that might help.

Scout if you can!

If you have time to scout your route, do so and as often as possible. Although those Golden-bellied Flycatchers that were always present for the past year can certainly take a silent vacation on count day, you will see more key birds if you scout for them. It’s also best to scout as close to count day as possible to know where fruiting and flowering trees are attracting hummingbirds, tanagers, and other count day delights. Not to mention, there might be some hidden wetland, roosting owl, or other chance at more birds that would otherwise be overlooked.

I want to get a Great Potoo for the day.

Make a plan and stick to it

If you plan on doing a serious Big Day or to shoot for a certain number of species, you really do need to carefully plan out the mad endeavor in advance. Take things like traffic, different habitats, and expected species into account, but most of all, be careful with the timing at each site and for driving between stops, and stick to those times on count day. If you stay longer for even ten minutes at a few sites, you won’t get those thirty or more minutes back. Allocate the appropriate amount of time for each stop as a function of the likelihood of identifying numbers of new species for the day and keep to the schedule whether the birds show or not!

Don’t fret the monklet

The Lanceolated Monklet is not exactly reliable. Even if you see one the day before the count, don’t expect the anti-social featherball hermit to come out and play when you need it. Just stick to a well planned schedule, don’t worry, enough birds will show. Other birds not to fret because they are either few in number and/or are seriously unfriendly include various raptors, antpittas, Yellow-eared Toucanet, owls, and Great Jacamar. Give the unseen birds the one finger salute if it makes you feel better but don’t waiver from the schedule.

Will anyone identify a monklet in Costa Rica this May 5th, 2018?

Practice Tai Chi birding

This doesn’t mean that you need to practice the Chen Canon Fist form or get meditative with Yang 108  while also watching birds. Although that would make for quite the interesting video, and I would be seriously impressed to see someone carry out the “Teal Dragon Emerges from Water” movement while also calling out a vocalizing Scarlet Tanager, “Tai Chi birding” just means putting the focus on listening and watching for birds in as relaxed a manner as possible. Maintaining a high degree of concentration in a relaxed state during an exciting, bird filled day could indeed be a challenge but I guarantee that the birders who manage to do this will notice that hidden potoo, pick out the Barred Hawk conspiring to be a standard Black Vulture, and get more birds. If it makes you feel better, or cooler (as in Fonzi cool), you can also refer to this as “Jedi birding”.

Coffee, chocolate, and champagne

Yeah, pretty much in that order. Make enough coffee for the day and some. Coca-Cola can also work but I prefer the java because it can be made as strong as one likes, and, based on all those Coca-Cola dissolving videos, must be better for you. Also, use quality coffee because this is a special occasion! Speaking of very special times, this is also why we want to celebrate throughout the GBD with serious chocolate. This means spending some extra Colones for extra dark chocolate bars that put the percentage of cocoa right on the front of the package, and staying away from the cheap, sugary perversions of the holy Mayan bean. Get the good stuff! It might help you see a monklet! Oh, and of course, once the counting is done, get out the bubbly stuff! That or some fine craft beers or whatever floats your boat as a celebratory drink, snack, or dance.

Enjoy it!

Most of all, enjoy GBD. Do it however you want and whatever way makes you most happy. The part I like the most is knowing that I am sharing the collective experience with thousands of other birders. I fricking love that.

 

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Just as with every place on the planet, this Mother Earth, Costa Rica has its own list of bird species endangered with extinction. On that list, we find such birds as the Yellow-naped Parrot (threatened by a nasty combination of habitat loss and capture for the pet bird trade), Yellow-billed Cotinga (habitat loss for that surreal beauty), and the Bare-necked Umbrellabird (yep, the big black bird with the pompadour also needs more habitat). Much of that list coincides with assessments made by BirdLife International however, there is one “new” bird that needs a new assessment by the world leader in bird conservation, and it needs it now.

Yellow-naped Parrot

The bird in question is the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. Formerly known as the Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, this small brown bird with a fun, fancy face shares a common ancestor with the familiar Canyon and California Towhees of the western USA. In other words, it’s basically a tropical towhee. Given its evolutionary history and occurrence on coffee farms, I personally like the sound of “Coffee Towhee” for this striking sparrow. Not only does that place the bird where one often sees it, but it also invokes delicious thoughts of high quality volcanic brews, not to mention, the two words also just sound good together. Coffee Towhee also gives it more marketing potential, something that this bird really, truly needs. Perhaps that could be used in conjunction with “Comemaiz Rey” (King Sparrow), the local name for this species and one that also works to get people’s attention. Over at Birdlife, more good news in terms of marketing suitable names comes in the form of Costa Rican Ground-Sparrow, a moniker that might work best to help acquire funding to study and protect this endemic species.

Coffee Towhee

Yes, thanks to being split from the White-faced Ground-Sparrow of northern Central America, the towhee of the cafetales is our “newest” endemic, and although it doesn’t require mature forest, it nevertheless has a serious problem. Despite being a bird of scrubby vegetation, the ground-sparrow just happens to live exactly where most people in Costa Rica also reside. Always a bird of the Central Valley, it likely thrived in the combination of low woodlands and marshy, scrubby vegetation that covered much of the valley way back before the latter era of the Anthropocene. It showed its resilience as woodlands were replaced with rows of coffee plants, and continues to hang on in riparian zones, even in places where the sounds of traffic and presence of parking lots have become part of the natural scene. But, it hangs on in such places likely because it has nowhere else to go, and the bird isn’t exactly abundant there either. In fact, on another worrisome note, they are far from abundant anywhere.

As anyone who has birded any amount of time in Costa Rica can attest, this species is typically tricky to find, even in what seems to be appropriate habitat. Even taking skulking behaviors into account, based on years of experience, it appears to be honestly, truly uncommon and local in most of its very small range and has likely been declining for some time, especially with the steady conversion of its habitat into landscapes dominated by concrete and asphalt. Although the present assessment at Birdlife gives it a status of Least Concern, and that the bird is likely increasing, this just doesn’t jive with reality. In fact, the reasons given for the bird to not be included in the Red List don’t reflect what we see on the ground.

According to Birdlife,
“This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation).”

Actually, it has a very small range (just 1,800 square km), its habitat is certainly declining in extent and quality, it has likely declined, and there seems to be severe fragmentation in various parts of an already small range).

“The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations).”

I really don’t think there are any data to support this, and, based on personal experience and in speaking with others, field observations seem to always run contrary to this assessment.

“The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure).”

Given the tiny range and paucity of observations in the best of habitats, it seems highly unlikely that the population is very large and more than 10,000 individuals. For example, when I survey an area of coffee fields that have this species, the most I have encountered are 5 individuals on the best of days as opposed to 20 Rufous-collared Sparrows in the same area. Granted, I could only survey along the edge of those fields but even with extrapolation to account for birds in the entire field, it doesn’t seem likely that the area could support more than 30 individuals. Sadly, on a note that further demonstrates the precarious nature of this bird, this population was likely impacted since a fair part of that site was recently burned and might be cleared for other use.

These factors point to the need for a more accurate assessment of this endemic species, and why it is probably Vulnerable or even Endangered:

A very small range heavily impacted by urbanization.

Continued loss of habitat.

Impact by cowbirds, mostly Bronzed but maybe also by increasing numbers of Shiny (according to a study carried out by Stiles, this taxon was a preferred host for the cowbird).

-On the losing side of competition with White-eared Ground-Sparrow. A possible factor since Stiles and Skutch mention the White-eared being uncommon in forested ravines, the endemic ground-sparrow being common in coffee fields. For the past 15 years, White-eareds seem to be much more common in many coffee farms.

Predation by feral cats. Although assessment is needed, given the abundance of cats in areas frequented by this species, this is likely yet another contributing factor that limits population size.

Effects of pesticides. How does heavy pesticide use on coffee farms and other agricultural landscapes affect this species? An unknown but fewer prey items and unhealthy chemicals won’t do them any favors.

Fortunately, there are several people in Costa Rica who know how important it is to assess the status of this bird, including Ernesto Carman and Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! They actually have a Cabanisi project to help this endemic species that includes surveys for it and working with local farmers to educate and protect habitat. Soon, they will also be doing a Big Day to raise funds to help this bird species while also trying to break their own incredible Big Day record of 350 plus species! Click on the link to see how you can help protect Costa Rica’s newest endemic species, a bird that might actually be sliding closer to extinction.

This post is dedicated to Jenny Luffman, someone with whom I grew up with at Sacred Heart grade school in Niagara Falls, NY, and who died in an accident in 1998. She would have celebrated a birthday on April 8. She loved birds, if she had lived longer than her 20s, I dare say she would have become a birder, I think she always was and never knew it. She would have loved to have seen this ground-sparrow and many more. I hope that Jenny has been watching and laughing with the most beautiful of birds since the day of her passing.

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admin on April 6th, 2018

Arenal is the name of a volcano in northern Costa Rica that exploded some decades ago. After that initial fiery, geological shout-out, the inner furnaces of the mountain kept right on burning, and, in doing so, the resultant natural incandescence has acted as a beacon for tourism ever since. Add numerous hot springs, waterfalls, and other natural beauty to the local mix and La Fortuna has become quite the bustling place where people from various countries show off the latest in khaki shorts and sandals as they waltz down the limited thoroughfares of the town. A wide variety of accommodation is available there and nearby, and many have names that pay homage to the conical mountain that punctuates the view.

One such place is also one of the first to have offered rooms to folks looking for volcanic fun. A former Macadamia farm, the Arenal Lodge offers a perfect view of the volcano, nice rooms, and a cozy reception and dining area with beautiful wooden floors. But…birds? No, I have not forgotten that this is a birding blog, there are birds too! In fact, more than enough for this welcoming hotel to act as an excellent base to work from, or just stay at, while birding in Costa Rica around Arenal.

I had heard about some of the birds at the Arenal Lodge from friends who had done Christmas Counts there. The most interesting one was a possible Great Jacamar, in Costa Rica, a very rare bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. Since this iridescent beast of a bird also requires plenty of high quality habitat, its presence is a sign that lots of other feathered ones are also there (an umbrella species if you will). Although I didn’t hear or see one during a recent morning of guiding at the Arenal Lodge, we still had fun birding and I left the area feeling that it certainly has birding potential. That means that it’s worth visiting to look for the jacamar as well as lots of other uncommon and rare species. Many are likely present, these are some of my highlights and impressions:

Fine roadside birding– Upon entering the lodge grounds, guests then make their way up a lengthy road until they finally reach the rooms and reception. That road goes through old second growth, forested riparian zones, and open areas, all of which have lots of birds. We had more than 100 species during the morning, just along the road.

It was nice to see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat.

The road to Arenal Lodge.

Mixed flocks– As with many a site in Costa Rica, this one has some nice mixed flocks. Although I bet larger assemblages of birds occur on a regular basis, we were still pleased with bird groups that showed the likes of Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, honeycreepers, and tanagers, the best being the uncommon Rufous-winged Tanager.

Quality birdies– That is, birds that maybe aren’t seen as often or just look cool. Some of these were Zone-tailed Hawk, a heard Great Curassow, Crested Guans, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Black-crested Coquette, Spotted Antbird, Song Wren (and other members of the wren family), Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, toucans, and so on.

A good base for birding the Arenal area– If you feel like birding away from the lodge, the Peninsula Road and its Bare-crowned Antbirds and nunbirds are nearby, Fortuna is a short 15-20 minute drive, and other sites are within easy striking distance.

Although the Bare-crowned was too skulky for a shot, Great Antshrikes performed for the camera at a Peninsula Road antswarm.

Given the good birding, scenery, and beauty for a fair price, I would stay there while visiting Arenal. I hope to bird there again some time soon, hopefully to do some bird counts on the grounds and see if we can locate that Great Jacamar.

Support this blog and learn about the best sites are for watching birds in Costa Rica by purchasing the 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

 

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When visiting another country, most of us stick to the same itineraries followed by tour companies and birders doing it on their own. Why not? That way, we already know the logistics, and more or less what to expect. It is the easiest route to take so why not stick to the road well traveled?

While there is nothing wrong with birding in the same places as thousands of other folks with binoculars have done, there are a few good reasons to leave the trodden path for birding in Costa Rica. Some excellent sites are actually not visited by tours and not because they don’t come with suitable accommodation. Such sites are usually left off the itinerary because the distances and travel times just don’t work with the rest of the tour, or the agency doesn’t even know about those places where you can watch birds in primary rainforest, enjoy excellent organic meals, and where the non-birding spouse can do some fish watching while snorkeling.

I visited just such a place last weekend when I guided our local birding club at Saladero Lodge. Situated on the forested shores of the Golfo Dulce, Saladero is run by an American-British couple who always make guests feel at home and strive to give them an unforgettable trip. At least that’s how I felt after two nights at Saladero. The food was excellent as was the service, and the scenery wasn’t so bad either…

But what about the birding? Well, that was pretty nice too…

The best species was Yellow-billed Cotinga, a highly endangered bird that requires lowland rainforest near tall mangroves. That uncommon combination combined with a small range of just southern Costa Rica and Panama makes it a rare bird indeed. But, since Saladero meets those requirements, the cotinga can be seen most mornings as it moves through the area. Thanks to local guide Stacey Hollis, we saw four. Check out Stacie’s well written blog!

Other benefits of birding right from the area around the cabinas were sightings of various tanagers, Baird’s Trogon, Golden-naped Woodpecker, woodcreepers, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, White Hawk, and other rainforest species. A tame Great Tinamou was a good sign of a protected forest sans hunting pressure as were the presence of calling Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quail in the nearby forest.

Band-tailed Barbthroat was also common near the lodge.

Speaking of the forest, it looked fantastic; immense, old trees were the norm. I would have liked to have birded more inside that beautiful part of Piedras Blancas National Park but will hopefully do so on my next trip there. The little interior forest birding that was done yielded Golden-crowned Spadebill, Black-faced Anthrush, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, trogons, and some other birds. I’m sure there is also a lot more to be had, especially considering that a Crested Eagle was photographed in this area just two years ago!

Add in the good birding in open and edge habitats en route to Golfito and a trip to Saladero can result in a large number of species including an excellent selection of quality species (including birds like Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, both of which were seen en route).

Last but not least, I should also mention that the night birding is pretty good. Crested Owls were heard each night and appear to be fairly common there, Mottled was also heard and Black and white is sometimes also present. Tropical Screech-Owl can also be found, and we heard the local variety of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. If we would have done some night birding inside the forest, I dare say we would have probably seen that and more.

The South Pacific form of Vermiculated Screech-Owl, a likely split. This one was from Esquinas Lodge.

Other benefits of staying at Saladero include supporting a sustainable venture that is closely involved with local conservation efforts, watching sea turtles and other occasional aquatic wildlife of the gulf, fishing in pristine waters for your own dinner (we dined on a fantastic Snook!), snorkeling in clear tropical waters with lots of fish, and staying at one of the more remote and wild spots in Costa Rica. If that sounds interesting, let me know, we can plan a trip!

Until next time!

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admin on March 20th, 2018

Where to go birding? It’s a perennial question for those of us who want to lay eyes on some avian life forms. Do we just keep it simple and stare out the back window? Do we bundle up and head to the nearest reservoir, or a favorite park? Maybe a wildlife refuge or nature preserve? Or, do we make that bleary eyed trip to a place where we stand in various lines and pay for overpriced snacks so we can cover large distances in a matter of hours? All that waiting and annoyance so we can see a big new suite of birds?

Plate-billed Mountain-Toucan. Resplendent Quetzal. Blue-and-gold Tanager. Just a few birds with justifiable fancy names and unless you live in Ecuador, Colombia, or Central America, plane travel is more or less required to meet them in their feathered persons. In my opinion, oh it is definitely worth the long ride (!) but even after exiting the airport in a brand new birdy country, we still need to know where we need to go to see those and other species.

Even the female R. Quetzal looks snazzy.

Back in the days of fewer people and more habitat, finding birds was probably as easy as pie. Can you imagine going birding in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States or Canada or Britain oh say 300 years ago? As long as the local people allowed birding on their land, you wouldn’t need any information on where to find birds because they would have been everywhere. An abundance of shorebirds in the wetlands, multitudes of wood-warblers, vireos, and other songbirds doing their vocal thing from the woodland mosaic. Prairies and other naturally open habitats bubbling with longspurs, meadowlarks, and other species of the grass. By historical accounts and the much greater degree of intact habitat, we know there used to be a lot more birds, like millions and millions more.

The situation in Costa Rica would have been just as or even more birdy. A constant flow of avian activity ebbing through mature tropical forests from the hot and humid lowlands up into the cool, high mountains. The logistics would have been tougher than a triathalon but the birds would have been everywhere because there was intact habitat everywhere and therein lies the key to finding birds no matter where you bring the bins. Roads made things easier for birding but they also came with a hefty price.

Nice view but there should be dense cloud forest there.

The big Catch-22 of roads and other infrastructure is the nefarious trade that is typically made. Cut a road through forest and it becomes an avenue of invitation for logging, hunting, and turning bastions of biodiversity into hot cow pasture. Although protecting the lands along roads can prevent such destruction, roadside preserves are much more the objection to the common rule. As with most places on the planet, in Costa Rica, roads followed that typical plan of deforestation leading to pasture or ag. lands long before anyone gave a hoot about cutting down trees. Fortunately, before the entire place was shorn of centenarian trees, protections were put into place to preserve watersheds and biodiversity and this is why, in Costa Rica, we can still drive through cloud forest, take a road to mature lowland rainforest, and drive around and visit several distinct habitats with some fantastic roadside birding.

If you happen to be birding in Costa Rica this March and April, you will surely be benefiting from the protections afforded to roadside forest, and likely birding at several such sites. Regarding these spring months, there actually might not be as many stand out sites to bird as other months of the year but that’s only because the same sites hold pretty similar numbers and varieties of birds all year long. So, finding the best places to bird just depends on what you hope to see and where the highest quality habitats are located.

There’s an easy place for point blank looks at Prong-billed Barbet.

To see where such birding hotspots are located, it shouldn’t take more than a satellite view of Costa Rica to find them; the areas on the map with the largest, darkest green patches. Those bits of jade are where the forest is and that’s also where most of the birds live. Nevertheless, since most folks would prefer some sort of comfort after or during a long day of birding, the next step for finding birds involves locating suitable lodging in the bioregions you want to visit. For additional birding comfort, we can also ask some questions. Is the lodge close enough to those green patches? Maybe located right inside the forest? Do they have in house guides? A bird list? Or, would staying at one take you well away from the route you plan on covering? We also need to see where national parks and private trails are located and the logistics involved with visiting those places (that would mostly be opening and closing times and entrance fees).

Since there are so many good places to go birding, it really is hard to think of the must-visit sites, the places that host the most. However, if I had to settle on three of the best sites for each habitat and biogeographic region, this is what comes to mind:

Cloud forest
Monteverde area
Tapanti National Park
Cataratas del Toro

High elevation forest
Various sites on Cerro de la Muerte
Irazu
Poas

Foothill forest
Arenal area
Tenorio area
Braulio Carrillo area

Caribbean lowland rainforest
Sarapiqui
Laguna del Lagarto
Various sites near and south of Limon

South Pacific lowland rainforest
La Gamba
Osa
Dominical area
Carara National Park- not as good for the south endemics as the other areas mentioned but an overall excellent mix of birds.

Dry forest
Santa Rosa National Park
Palo Verde National Park

Wetlands
Palo Verde National Park
Cano Negro area

These aren’t the only places to go birding but they do tend to hit on the best and most accessible placed with good habitat. It’s no surprise that birding tours tend to focus on these areas along with a few other sites. Whether you have a few days to work with or as much time as you like, a birder can’t go wrong by paying a visit to any of the aforementioned sites. I hope to see you there!

Support this blog and learn more about the birding at these and many other sites in Costa Rica by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. 

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admin on March 14th, 2018

Spring is happening in Costa Rica. Up north, the first major change in the seasonal tapestry is marked by melting snow, sunny, warmer days, bird song, and fresh, green bits shooting out of the dormant, muddy ground. Rightly named Spring Peepers awake, and flickers call from the old oaks and maples in the parks. The change is so dramatic and anticipated, for milenia, people in the temperate north have celebrated with holidays related to rebirth and renewal. There are dances, religious celebrations, general making merry, feasts that include ham and jelly beans, and perhaps best of all, serious chocolate.

Go outside and the birds are also getting crazy happy. Huge flocks of blackbirds undulate over the muddy ground and share the thaw with a soundscape that includes honking geese, the whirring wings of ducks taking to the air, and the welcome singing of American Robins. Those who live a fair degree north know that much of that winter isn’t truly over until the latter part of April or even the beginning of May but warmer, sunny days are always happier than the cold dead grip of winter.

Although waterfowl don’t seem to mind a Niagara winter.

In Costa Rica, it might not always be sunny, but it’s always warm and although that makes it seem like summer has taken up permanent residence, actually, we do experience spring, just not in the same way as the frozen realms of the north. Ten degrees north of the equator, this ancient episode of natural renaissance shows itself in different, more subtle ways. I was reminded of the quiet change this morning as I walked along a road through farms planted with coffee. Shortly after leaving the house, Piratic Flycatchers pierced the air with near constant vocalizations while the more gentle notes of Yellow-green Vireos filtered out of shade trees. Around here, both of these species are true spring birds. Like flycatchers and vireos that live in the woodlands of upstate New York, these tropical representatives also migrate south. However, instead of departing to escape cold weather, they come here only to take advantage of the insect abundance provided by the rains. Only here for breeding, these and a few other species show up in numbers by February or March and head back to Amazonian haunts by August and September.

The Piratic Flycatcher might look wimpy but it’s actually fairly psycho. This bird waits for other species to build a nest and then steals it.

Resident bird species also tune up the vocal chords at this time of year. Clay-colored Thrushes (aka National Bird) just started with the singing the other day and as anyone who lives in Costa Rica knows,  a heck of a lot of singing it does! As with other years, we can expect to hear the surrounding gardens and farmlands fill with the pleasant songs of this common Turdus thrush starting pre-dawn and pumping up the volume as the morning progresses.

National Bird makes up for its somber plumage with a cheerful song.

Away from the dry, sun-drenched lands of the Central Valley, other harbingers of Spring include the elegance of Swallow-tailed Kites, the squeaking calls of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and rivers of migrating raptors. Most of the Louisiana Waterthrushes and Prothonotary Warblers have already left for the north, and a few of the wintering warblers are getting into breeding plumage. Black-throated Greens and one or two others will probably get in some practice singing in a month or so although they save most of that music for the boardwalks at Magee Marsh, Pelee, and lesser known yet just as happy local spring patches.

Spring being the height of the dry season in the Central Valley, I walked this morning past dry, brown grass and gnarled trees in flower. As the vireos sang and Brown Jays called, I was nevertheless reminded of other places from other times by way of scents that drifted out of the ravine and from the resting vegetation. Much to my surprise, the pleasant perfumed scents clicked memory banks that showed me times spent in the dry habitats of Colorado, places where crickets and Western Meadowlarks punctuated the audible scene. I recalled watching Lark Sparrows feeding in dry grasses of eastern Washington and hearing the calls of Western Wood-Pewees. As I walked on, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers chipped from the bushes and I was back on Goat Island, scanning the riverside willows for warblers while Warbling Vireos duetted with the rushing sounds of rapids. I won’t be in those places this change of seasons, but it’s still pretty nice around here.

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admin on March 8th, 2018

Assigning “value” to something is, in part, always subjective. Whether looking at an object or experiencing an event, although measurable factors such as “rarity” come into play, the degree to which value is assessed eventually comes down to how we feel. For example, in terms of gem stones, vibrant colors are an important part of the value equation. In fact, if objects like garnet, sapphire, or aquamarine didn’t display hues that please the eye, such dun-colored, regular stones would be tossed aside and forgotten by all except actual geologists and kids with cool rock collections. Not to disparage semi-precious stones but even the value placed on those beautiful bits of matter is eclipsed by the true precious gems. Even though the fantastic sky blue of turquoise can be a wonder to behold, and many do love it (I love how it reminds me of Arizona skies), the value of that semi-precious gem still doesn’t come close to the cost of that green star of stones, the emerald.

They are indeed rare but if it weren’t for the mesmerizing, deep green hues, people wouldn’t pay large sums of money, work in dangerous conditions, and risk life-threatening ambushes just to buy or sell a beryl mineral with traces of chromium or vanadium. A similar thing happens with birds. Sure, we say that every bird is the same and not to discriminate but how many place a quetzal in the same category as a Plain-colored Tanager? That’s not to say that one bird is better or more worthy of life than the other, all are of equal merit and play their respective ecological roles but you won’t find many tours that vote for the tanager as bird of the trip over a quetzal, even when the small gray bird is a lifer.

Not a quetzal.

Whether because the emerald wavelength is of uncommon occurrence among birds or because we just love how it looks, our appreciation of shining green colors extends to birding. At least it does to me, equally as it did when I was into rocks, gems, and minerals. That interest happened right before my birding days at the ripe old age of 5, maybe 6. Around that time, I used to ask my parents to bring me into jewelry stores so I could look at the faceted rocks. I was fascinated by them, I can’t remember exactly why or what was going on in my young developing brain but suspect it had something to do with their colors and shapes. Along those lines, when we got the Sunday paper, I used to take out the inserts for Sears and other stores that sold jewelry so I could marvel over the beautiful royal blue of sapphires, the deep luscious reds of rubies, and the huge price difference between a necklace with amazing emeralds and rings merely set with onyx or topaz. At some point, not long after, in the same library where I perused books about gems, I had my eureka moment with birds and the living, colorful, feathered things took precedence. However, I never lost my interest in stones, minerals, and geology, perhaps that’s why I can’t get enough of birds that shine like emeralds.

The Green-crowned Brilliant has some emerald colors going on.

Although many people are more accustomed to the dull browns and grays of sparrows and pigeons, there indeed are birds that are on par with the most stunning of emerald treasures.

Think not? Just look up images of Cloven-feathered Dove, the Emerald Cuckoos, and Green Broadbill. However, before going that route, just be warned that you could be in for a visual knock-out. That and the strong desire to book a flight to New Caledonia, Borneo, or South Africa. Those places are wonderful for birds but before buying that ticket, you might want to also consider Costa Rica. We have some emerald birds here too and oh yes, everybody wants them!

Emerald Tanager

This sparrow-sized gem combines the colors of wet rainforest green with dappled yellow. Jet highlights on the face, back, and wings round out the striking beauty of a little bird that ranges from Costa Rica to western Ecuador.

Watch for it in mossy foothill and middle elevations rainforests. In Costa Rica, Arenal Observatory Lodge is especially good for seeing this beauty although it can also be espied at several other locales. For extra close looks, make a stop at the San Luis Canopy.

 

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

A bird with a name as fancy as that has to look good. It does indeed. While the female is dressed in gentle greens, the brilliant emerald and yellow plumage of the male always keep it dressed for cloud forest festivities. Despite its fantastic appearance, happily, the endemic chlorophonia is common in forests from middle elevations way up into the mossy oaks of the cold, high mountains. Like other euphonias, this beauty is usually seen at fruiting trees and mistletoes.

 

Green Honeycreeper

 

Although this beautiful bird seems to act more as an avian aquamarine or regular old beryl than an actual honest to goodness eye-blazing emerald, its appearance can still generate a mind-blowing, retina searing effect. As with the chlorophonia, the male is the one who sports the colors in this house. Watch for this common species at any site with humid forest from the lowlands up to cloud forest.

 

Resplendent Quetzal

Saving the most important avian gem for last, this bird has so much going for it, it almost ceases to be one. Mayan peoples sort of felt that way, preferring to view the quetzal as a divine messenger. Truly one of the top birds of the world, the R. Quetzal really does border on the verge of ridiculous. See one for the first time and you might be tempted to pinch yourself to make sure you aren’t having some fantastic siesta because its bizarre and spectacular appearance make it look more like a dream bird than an actual, live, large trogon. As one might expect from a divine messenger, photos hint at but can’t truly convey the shimmering emerald green, gold, and blues nor the full crazy combination of plush ruby red underparts, white undertail, extra long tail coverts, and a funky crest.

Male quetzal feeling funky on Pas Volcano.

Come to Costa Rica to watch these living emeralds and other precious birds in action. I hope to see you there!

 

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admin on February 27th, 2018

It’s hard to keep up with the bird news in Costa Rica. Just too much going on, all the time. Regarding tidbits of note, off hand, I can say that there has been a Yellow-billed Cotinga visiting a fruiting vine thingy plant near the entrance to Cerro Lodge, water levels have become low enough in Cano Negro to facilitate the finding of such coveted species as Agami Heron, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, and Sungrebe, and quetzals have been more active and thus easier to see at any number of highland sites.

As for myself, since I may also have too much to say, I’ll limit it to a few things of birding interest:

Macaws at Dave and Dave’s– Formerly known as The Nature Pavilion, the excellent birding/photography/reforestation place known as Dave and Dave’s has been playing host to increasing visits from macaws. Thanks to those reforestation efforts, both species of huge, screaming, long-tailed parrots that occur in Costa Rica have been showing up to feed. Great Greens fly in once in a while to feed on Beach Almonds that have been planted, and Scarlets have been coming in to feed on another tree or two. These aren’t big old trees either but young, short ones. That means easy photo opps. for a pair of mega birds.

 

Toucans and other birds have been showing at the fruit feeders. The other day, a Rufous Motmot surprised us by flying in to sample a bit of plantain.

Barbets at Cinchona– Although the occurrence of two barbet species at the Colibri Cafe isn’t exactly novel, it’s always worth a mention. Seeing funny looking chunky birds, (one of which is a regional endemic) at close range just never gets old, especially when you can just about feed them by hand. The anti-feeder crowd will no doubt give a big old frown upon hearing that. If you find yourself frowning, I suggest channeling that energy into much more important endeavors like planting trees, trying to figure out how to grow organic pineapples, or working on converting gas-driven engines to electric driven ones.

The Sooty-faced Finch with issues– It has recently come to my attention that increasing numbers of birds have identity issues. Who knows why but this year, I have seen a Sunbittern that acted like a Little Blue Heron, both nunbirds and Resplendent Quetzals trying to be Tropical Kingbirds, and Barred Hawks that have just been plain unfriendly. Well, I can say that the trend continues at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, on this occasion with a Sooty-faced Finch. Go there, eat in the restaurant, and you will probably share space with one of these regional endemics.

I don’t know if it is trying to be a House Sparrow or is just into buffet cuisine (probably the latter), but this finch is a serious fan of the restaurant. In fact, it seems to have declared that the place belongs to it because when I mimicked its calls, the wacky finch leaped onto the nearest chair to call back right in my face. After calling, it then perched there for several minutes as folks walked right on past or sat nearby to eat their lunches. Although I suspect it wanted a French fry, I can’t discount the possibility of it also wanting to just be a House Sparrow or maybe even a person. When it wasn’t staring at us from the top of the chair, the finch was scooting all over the floor, even running under busy tables, calling the entire time. Crazy! Although Sooty-faced Finches have been acting that way at the Waterfall Gardens for some time, it’s always worth a mention.

As always, there’s much more to be said but instead of reading about it, you are always better off coming down to Costa Rica to experience all things bird for yourself.

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admin on February 19th, 2018

Look at a map of Central America and we see this small country (as far as modern day countries go) just about where the isthmus meets the Andes. That most mountainous part of southern Central America is Costa Rica and you would never know it from a geographical illustration but this place is a damn birding wonderland. There should really be a logo of some bird, any bird, placed on Costa Rica to indicate the birdiness of this nation.

I kid you not, sometimes, the bird situation in Costa Rica gets downright loco. A few recent personal examples of things that make Costa Rica a wonderland for birding:

150 plus species during a day around Carara: Spend a day birding the tropical ecotone of Carara and you are guaranteed to see a lot. How many is a lot? Last week, over the course of a normal day that started at six and ended around five, we saw over 150 species and heard more than 20 others. Nor did we have to kill ourselves to get that total. We stopped for lunch and enjoyed fresh seafood, birded one trail in the national park, the road in front of Cerro Lodge, and the road up to the Pura Vida gardens. This last stop was especially productive for adding species to the day list including Cherrie’s Tanager, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Long-billed Starthroat. Other highlights from the day were Great Tinamou, Crane Hawk, Rufous Piha, Baird’s Trogon and three other species of Trogonidae, Long-tailed Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, and the list goes on.

This Great Tinamou was doing its best impression of a friendly chicken.

Mega mixed flock in Braulio Carrillo: The trails at El Tapir or Quebrada Gonzalez can be notoriously slow. But when the birding is good, it can be fantastic. At El Tapir, this one big assemblage of birds kept us so busy, they just wouldn’t let us leave. Every time I decided that the flock had moved off, it kind of came back and pulled us right back in. Although we didn’t notice anything rare, bearing witness to the constant flurry of vocalizations and flitting of birds was almost sort of too much. Like some avian rainforest rock festival, a couple dozen Carmiol’s Tanagers competed for “the loudest” prize with another dozen Black-faced Grosbeaks. They were cheered on by a pair of Scarlet-rumped Caciques, Russet Antshrikes, various tanagers, Striped Woodhaunter, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, antwrens, antvireos, warblers, and more while a White-throated Shrike-Tanager sat back and judged the event. Oh yeah, as an aside, we also had Olive-backed Quail-Dove both there and at Quebrada Gonzalez the same day.

The monklet makes an appearance: This almost plush toy bird made recent rare another appearance at Quebrada Gonzalez. Pretty much the final bird of the day, it called and showed itself just where we could see it. This is especially important because if it doesn’t call or happens to perch just out of sight, the feather ball monklet is nearly impossible to find.

Note the feather ball field mark.

Quetzals on cables: Lastly, this morning, we saw something both odd and extraordinary. A first for me was seeing two Resplendent Quetzals perched on roadside cables. Shortly after seeing a female fly across the road up to Poas Volcano, I noticed another bird perched on a cable. Although it was hard to accept, the long streaming tail and peculiar shape indicated that yes, it was indeed a male quetzal sitting on a wire! Although the perch was next to a fruiting avocado, it was nevertheless bizarre to watch first the male and then the female doing erstwhile impressions of Tropical Kingbirds. When they did the expected quetzal thing and flew into a tree, the male then made small mewing sounds while looking at us. I know, sounds like a dream but I can assure you that this birding bizarro world segment was all too real.

Nice of him to sit in good light! 

These are just a few of the reasons why you can call Costa Rica a birding wonderland. There are many other reasons why the country easily lives up to this name, as always, I hope every birder can experience the awesomeness for themselves.

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admin on February 13th, 2018

Birding at it’s most basic is just watching birds, paying attention to the life forms that have feathers, most of them also capable of flight. Look out the window at the sparrows, doves, and dare I say grackles and whether you want to admit it or not, you are doing a bit of birding. Take planes to Malaysia to search the forests of Taman Negara for peacock-pheasants and other out of this world species and you are also birding. There’s more effort involved (along with leaches, mud, and profuse sweating) but it’s still birding. I like birding either way; casually keeping track of vocalizations as I take a morning walk sans optics, or while searching out target species with intense focus.

Either way, as long as I am birding, it’s all good in the birdy hood. This past week, I was sort of partaking in the latter type of birding, the one where the focus is on target species. It was good, I got the chance to spend some birding days with Carlos Sanchez of Miami birding fame and guide for Naturalist Journeys as we searched for some species of the Caribbean slope. The endeavor reminded me that even when you know where you have the best chances of finding certain birds, some will be found and others will keep to the realm of lost birds. It’s a question of probability where less available time limits your chances, especially when looking to connect with low density forest skulkers. That’s why we failed to hear or see Ocellated Antbird and weather more akin to a Scottish highland November kept us from connecting with the night birds on Irazu. Maybe they were temporarily frozen? I know I was feeling that slow, steady crystalline creep of hypothermia.

But enough of talk about misses because we connected with a fair percentage of the targets, most of which were also fairly challenging species. These are some of the birds that went into the “found” category:

Pinnated Bittern– Birding in late afternoon at Medio Queso gave us a couple of these. One of the more reliable spots for the Neotropical Botaurus, the best times to look are early morning and late afternoon. On the drive in we also got another target, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch.

This used to be known as Pink-billed Seed-Finch until someone must have pointed out that actually, the bill doesn’t really look all that pink…  

We were up in Medio Queso because we were staying in Los Chiles for the night at the low priced yet comfortable enough and very friendly Cabinas Felicia. Felicia is indeed the owner and is super nice. The only drawback was the lack of hot water coming out of the hot water shower. I bet she would have fixed it but we were just there for one night. Oh, and we were also up there in Los Chiles to do a boat trip the following morning in Cano Negro.

This turned out to be an excellent way to find several lost birds. Thanks to local knowledge from boat guide Chambito, we got all of our main targets. These included the tiny, straw colored bird with the big toes, the one and only Yellow-breasted Crake,

and the skulky antbird with the semi bald head known as the Bare-crowned Antbird. Briefest of looks at that one but we made up for it with better bino views at Arenal. As a compromise, we had perfect looks at the likewise skulky Canebrake Wren.

Further on, Chambito took us straight to the only spot at that moment for Nicaraguan Grackle. Instead of city streets, these picky birds prefer to hang with ungulates in marshes.

Snowy Cotinga was also one of our targets. In Sarapiqui, it had been frequenting that elusive place where lost birds fly but Cano Negro gave us one more chance and thanks to Chambito, yes, it joined the growing group of found birds! We saw three or four individuals including one female. As is typical for this surreal species, the males butterfly swooped between some tree tops and perched up high so we could marvel over their weird, fruit-dove like shape and brilliant white plumage. I have seen them on several occasions but some birds you never ever get tired of seeing. For some birds, each sighting is like that exciting first time. That’s how it is with Snowy Cotinga, see that amazing, pseudo dove of peace in flight and you cannot deny the ultimate wonder of it. It’s like everything else just stops, that or you feel mesmerized by this brilliant white short tailed bird flapping its way through a blue tropical sky.

Senor and Senora surreal.

Those were the main targets at Cano Negro but as a bonus, Chambito even hooked us up with a roosting Pacific Screech-Owl at the end of the tour!

Back in Sarapiqui and Virgen del Socorro, although the cotinga was lost, we did find some other targets including the super tiny Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. These flycatchers aren’t that rare, they just get lost because they masquerade as bugs. Speaking of pretending to be something that you aren’t, we also got the very warblerish Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

Not the best of photos but look close and you might see a rufous brow. Basically, if you see a possible warbler that really isn’t one at Virgen del Socorro, you will have probably found this local Phylloscartes.

Other found target birds included a seen Slaty-breasted Tinamou that whistled from thick underground in the heart of Tirimbina Reserve, Great Green Macaws and Blue-chested Hummingbird near La Selva, Plain-colored Tanager, Streak-chested Antvireo, and, right at the cafe Colibri feeders, Buff-fronted Quail-Dove! We also stayed in Sarapiqui to try for other lost birds at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez.

The best find was a prize Lattice-tailed Trogon at El Tapir although it was equally nice to be welcomed by Black-crested Coquette and Snowcap shortly after our arrival, and to get views of Emerald Tanager shortly after that. Quebrada was very quiet with no real mixed flocks but we did have one truly amazing sighting. Although it wasn’t a bird, seeing my first Bushmaster was a memorable moment indeed. We had both caught some movement ahead on the trail and after glassing it, realized that the thing we were seeing wasn’t a quail-dove or ground-cuckoo but a snake. I assumed it was going to be a Boa but nearly jumped out of my boots when I realized I was looking at one of the more elusive top predators of the Neotropical rainforests. The heavy, meter plus snake (small for a Bushmaster) gave us a show as it slowly, carefully left the trail. It seemed to be on the trail of something and didn’t take long to blend in with the forest litter.

Don’t get too close to this one!

In the Arenal area, at Bogarin, the Uniform Crake called but preferred its lost status. Not so for a beautiful Striped Owl that made an appearance on a roadside wire just north of town. The next morning, we focused our search at the Arenal Observatory Lodge and still failed to connect with the antbird that looks more like some laughingthrush from the Himalaya. But, we did see another Black-crested Coquette, had a nice mixed flock, close looks at Dull-mantled Antbird, and some other birdies, two of which were not targets but genuinely lost. Well, that, or they were just doing some adventurous scouting for the rest of their kind. Those two exciting species for Costa Rica were Cape May Warbler and Cedar Waxwing. Both were at the feeders and became choice additions to my Costa Rica year list. Interestingly enough, we saw another Cedar Waxwing at Lands in Love later that day.

Speaking of Lands in Love, we made a successful stop there for Tawny-chested Flycatcher before heading back to the Central Valley and our cold pre-dawn on Irazu. Shortly after that, a few other lost birds showed for a friend of mine, the best of which was a bird that seemed to be determined to not show itself to her. As if playing some part in an avian conspiracy, the Barred Hawks had apparently decided to give her a cold shoulder and shunned her or schemed with rain to stay out of sight. Eventually, perseverance paid off when one became diplomatic and broke with its conspiratorial ranks to soar right overhead, calling the entire time near the Fortuna Waterfall. No longer lost, the Barred Hawk will now surely display for her every time she birds where they occur because as we all know, that’s just what former bogey birds like to do. Speaking of bogey birds, perhaps this will be the year I make my peace with the Masked Duck. That said, I’m not sure if I can promise that I won’t give the lost duck the finger. We will see.

Barred Hawks sort of look like Black Vultures.

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