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admin on July 2nd, 2015

It’s not high season for birding in Costa Rica but that doesn’t stop birders from visiting. These are vacation days for several birders and although you won’t run into any wintering birds, most birders from the USA and Canada don’t worry about seeing migrants anyways. They hope to see Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, tanagers, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species that never leave the tropics. Between Friday and Monday, I guided some birders who opted for vacation in Costa Rica. All had been here before but they still had plenty left to see. Here are some of the highlights from a rainy day at Cinchona and the Nature Pavilion, a cloudy, misty one at Lands in Love, and a breezy one around Puntarenas:

  • Close looks at birds in the rain: This is alright as long as the birds are active and you can stay dry. We did at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and had close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, hummingbirds, and other species. We also scoped a distant Barred Hawk moving through the other side of the canyon and stopped for a surprise, perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle just down the road.

    Soaking wet Emerald Toucanet.

    Juvenile Prong-billed Barbet.

    We also saw our first Crimson-collared Tanager for the day. Another, even closer one was at the nature Pavilion.

  • White-necked Jacobins bathing in the rain and other beautiful birds at the Nature Pavilion: Time spent at this sanctuary of life is always a treat. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, tanagers, and other birds made close visits to the feeders, we saw two King Vultures soar into view, and were treated to close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and other hummingbird species. The guys at the Nature Pavilion also said that, as of late, a Rufous Motmot has been visiting the feeders, and Great Green Macaws have swooped down to check out a Beach Almond tree they had planted a couple of years ago. This last bit of news is especially exciting because once those Beach Amonds start producing seeds, it looks like the Nature Pavilion could become a reliable place to see and photograph Great Green Macaws!

    It's always nice to see Black-cheeked Woodpecker at arms length.

    Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

    This Bay Wren soaked up the sun for a minute.

  • More hummingbirds in the rain:  After enjoying the Nature Pavilion and lunch nearby, we checked out the action and fresh coffee at the Volcan Restaurant en route to Poas. The rain poured down with earnest but we still managed several hummingbirds including a single Stripe-tailed, Green Violetears, Magnificents, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. That finished off a day with more than 60 species seen and several heard despite nearly constant rain.

    Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.

  • Dry weather!: The lack of rain was a big bonus because the forecast had called for rain and storms. Not a good harbinger for birding but we decided to try our luck anyways. Well, we lucked out big time because we were treated to cloudy, birdy conditions on the San Ramon route to Lands in Love. Easy-going birding along the road produced several targets including prolonged looks at Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black and yellow Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, and Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens.
  • Lands in Love:  Although we started birding at Lands around 9, we still did quite good on uncommon species. Sepia-capped Flycatcher called but failed to show but we got close looks at Keel-billed Motmot, Spotted Antbird, and Bicolored Antbird in quick succession. On another trail, Song Wren appeared along with Golden-crowned Spadebill and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Then, it was off to lunch at the Loveats Cafe where we saw Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk-eagle too far away to identify.

    Keel-billed Motmot

    Juvenile male Spotted Antbird with adult male on the left.

    How can you not love a place with a giant cookie sign?

  • Cocora Hummingbird Garden: Although the hummingbirds showed, including close looks at White-bellied Mountain-Gem, other birds were pretty much a bust. Just not calling or active. However, after speaking with the receptionist, I feel even better about recommending this little known hotspot. After asking about bellbirds, she replied that she had heard them the other day but they were only calling very far off when we were there. However, umbrellabird was present the other day and is apparently regular at this site (!) from March to June. She actually said, “It’s common but doesn’t always show up”. To me, that says that if you spend most of a day or morning at Cocora from March to June, you have a fair chance of seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird, an endangered species that is becoming even more difficult to find. Lots of other birds are also possible in the cloud forest at Cocora.

    White-bellied Mountain-Gem

  • Long-tailed Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other dry forest species: The following day, we tried some dry forest birding near Esparza with highlights being a tree full of Long-tailed Manakins near a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the ant-tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and other dry forest birds.
  • Puntarenas: Then, we tried some sea birding from the tip of the Puntarenas peninsula. Brown Boobies and Black Terns fished very close to shore while clouds of Black Terns dotted the horizon. Storm-petrels were seen (too far off to ID, probably Wedge-rumped), one very distant Galapagos Shearwater was spotted, and we managed a Brown Noddy feeding with Black Terns.

    Brown Booby

  • Lesser Ground-Cuckoo: After a delicious lunch in Puntarenas, we checked out Caldera to search for Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and dry forest species. We saw Gray-necked Wood-Rail and Green Kingfisher instead of our targets but did alright with a few dry forest birds. Banded Wren gave good looks, we saw a nice group of magpie-jays, and had looks at a few other dry forest species including an amazing ground-cuckoo fight. What appeared to be two pairs of ground-cuckoos came towards us and right out into the open for a strange, bill-snapping face off. It was pretty much beyond ridiculous.

    Lesser Ground-Cuckoo poses form the camera.

    Lesser Ground Cuckoo creeping away.

What can I say, there’s always more than enough to see in Costa Rica no matter when you go birding.

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Like most birders, I have always been interested in knowing where I need to go to see the birds I want to see. At least I assume most birders are like that. I know that when my eyes were first opened to all thing avian, I quickly realized that no, you can’t just walk outside and see Baltimore Orioles, beautiful wood-warblers, and owls sitting up there in the Japanese Maples and Hackberries in my neighbor’s yards.

Every bird I looked at seemed to be a House Sparrow, Starling, or Rock Pigeon along with a few genuine natives. The appearance of my first Song Sparrow in our urban backyard was a big deal for a city-bound 8 year old birder, and the “Sparrow Hawks” in the nearby field (aka abandoned railway line) were nothing short of amazing. According to books at the Earl Bridges Library, those species were mapped for Niagara Falls, New York but what about Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Brown Thrasher, and so many other species that were supposed to be there too? I didn’t know then that the maps showed what would live where our house stood if the streets, homes, and sidewalks had never been built. I found out that those and so many other species needed woodlands, grassland, and thickets that grew outside of town, and that you had to travel much further afield to find species that required larger areas of forest.

Although the maps in the field guides showed these solid purple, red, or blue areas where birds occurred, they were actually a general representation of a much more static situation. Bird species could live in the colored areas of the maps but they only occurred in the places that were suited to them, and even then, many weren’t exactly obvious. You couldn’t just go birding and see everything you wanted. You had to really look for birds, and sometimes spend more time looking than you had hoped.  Not to mention, owls were basically a myth. Nevertheless, it was still way easier to find birds in the temperate zone than in tropical forests. For a lot of places in North America, bird-finding guides gave vary specific directions for target birds that worked like a charm. Go there, watch this corner of a field at seven a.m., and enjoy your lifer!

So why doesn’t that work in Costa Rica?

Well, it does if you want to see common, second growth species but that’s where similarities between bird finding up north and 9 degrees from the equator tend to cease. Like the temperate zone, edge species are common because there is a heck of a lot of second growth, they have evolved to quickly take advantage of temporary habitats in a forested landscape, and aren’t too picky when it comes to food.  Not to mention, there are more individuals of a few species rather than very few individuals of many species. These factors make it much easier to see species like Black-striped Sparrow, Passerini’s Tanager, and Variable Seedeater compared to forest birds like Ocellated Antbird, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Green Shrike-Vireo.

Black-striped Woodcreeper

As far as rainforest species go, yes, you do have to know which sites harbor the birds you are looking for but seeing them is still another story. Unlike temperate zone forests in the early summer, rainforest birds aren’t in a hurry to defend territories, mate, and take advantage of the summer arthropod abundance. They seem to take their time to avoid predators, find enough food in a highly competitive landscape, and just stay alive. Camouflaged in appearance and behavior, and occurring at naturally low numbers, typical rainforest species can be so tough to find that you can’t help but wonder “where are all of those birds?” when walking in a seemingly bird-empty forest.

If you go to a large enough area of protected rainforest, the birds on that huge enticing list do occur but this is why you don’t see them right away:

  • Some live in the canopy: Actually a lot live way up there, 100 feet above the ground. It’s hard enough to see birds in the canopy if they are sitting in bare trees. Add vegetation growing on everything and you learn why canopy towers are built.

    A canopy view of a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.

  • Microhabitats: Tropical rainforests are about as uniform and predictable as a broken kaleidoscope. But, we need to celebrate that chaos of life because it’s partly why there are so many possibilities. Learn about microhabitats and pay attention to them to find that Royal Flycatcher, White-crested Coquette, and Dull-mantled Antbird.
  • Army ants and other avian gourmets: Some birds refuse to eat unless Army Ants are present. Others only like certain types of fruit or muddy places where they can find choice worms. Know the places where certain birds like to eat and you just might find them. What? Even that doesn’t guarantee seeing them?- check out the next point.
  • Time spent in quality habitat = More Rare Birds: Even if you do find the right habitat and food, that cotinga, ground-cuckoo, or other tough species might be absent. Wait around long enough and keep checking, though, and they will eventually appear. Some birds are just inconspicuous and naturally rare, or have become even more rare than normal because they have to migrate to lowland areas that have been mostly deforested (poor umbrellabirds…). The upside to this is that statistically, the more time you spend patiently birding in the right habitat, the higher the probability of seeing rare species. This is why it’s worth it to visit quality forest day after day and spend many a quiet hour there. Eventually, the tough birds show up and in the meantime, there’s always cool stuff to see in tropical rainforest anyways.

A site guide can point out places to bird but knowing how to look for target species is a huge help in finding them. There’s no replacement for an experienced birding guide, but “How to See,Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” can help you get ready for your trip, and show you where to look for birds, as well as finding and identifying them.

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admin on June 17th, 2015

For the non-birder, the title of this post surely sounds like some crude joke. For us birders, though, we know that it must refer to some kind of weird bird. At least we hope it does because how could you not want to see something called a “treehunter”? Because, really, how does one hunt trees? After all, they aren’t about to exactly sprint out of sight. To clarify the treehunter situation, here is some information about the one that lives in Costa Rica:

  • Streak-breasted Treehunter (Thripadectes rufobrunneus): The official name for the only Thripadectes species that occurs in Central America. The other hunters of trees live in South America where they chase and bash down various trees with their super power beaks. Ok, so they don’t but wouldn’t that be a frightful sight!

    Streak-breasted Treehunter hanging on a tree.

  • Poorly named: Now that we know its name, we also have to sigh and admit that the title is nothing but power down fluff. It sort of has buff streaks on the breast but would never hunt a tree. A more honest and descriptive name might be “Gray-crowned, cloud forest monsterette”.
  • Hefty brown bird: Like other Thripadectes, this one looks like it could kick some cloud forest butt. I bet the Red-faced Spinetails keep their distance.

    What you looking at spinetail?

  • Not that rare: Breathe a sigh of relief because this bird is fairly common in cloud forest from 1,200 to 2,600 meters. I have heard and seen them around Poas and they turn up at most cloud forest sites (but see the next bullet).
  • A Part time skulker: Stevie Wonder sang about a part time lover. This bird preaches part-time skulking. That is obviously much better than full-time skulking (ahem tapaculos).

    How this part time skulker is often seen.

  • A burrow nester: Like a wannabe motmot, this bird nests in burrows! How’s that for cool, troglodytish weirdness!
  • A loner: Although it might get curious about scolding bush-tanagers, don’t expect to see it in a mixed flock.

    "I forage alone..."

  • A Costa Rica-Panama endemic: This species is one that you want to see in Costa Rica or western Panama because the binos aren’t going to espy it anywhere else. Like several other species, it evolved into a genetically and phenotypically distinct organism in the highland forests of this corner of Central America.

Look for the Streak-breasted Treehunter at any cloud forest site above 1,200 meters elevation. Since it nests in burrows, this bird is often seen near embankments and forested streams. Listen for its loud “chack!” call and distinctive, weird nagging laugh vocalization, and then run for your lives because if it can hunt a tree, what do you suppose it might do to a human?


This tree is mine!

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At first glance, a ferry doesn’t sound like fun. First, you wait in line with a vehicle. Next, you drive said vehicle on to a flat, square thing that is supposed to be a boat. After stowing the car, you usually find some place to sit and wait out the trip. It’s boring, even in this ridiculous day and age of the mobile phone. In some places, it also becomes frightening because other ferrys on the same routes have sank with horrible consequences.

BUT, take the right ferry and it’s fun, easy birding. That pretty much describes the ferry between Puntarenas and Paquera, Costa Rica except that it’s also cheap, fun, easy birding! Yep, if you can find a parking spot at Frank’s Cabinas, you can leave the car for about $8 for the whole day instead of paying around $50 to take the car back and forth on the square boat. As for a passenger ticket, that’s a mere 800 colones, or around $1.75.

Even if you didn’t plan on watching birds, this particular ferry would still be fun. The crossing is about an hour, the weather and scenery is typically beautiful, you could have a cold beer on the boat (I have seen several passengers bring their own), and, best of all, you probably won’t get seasick! The swells are usually light, and since it’s only an hour, there’s hardly any chance of being afflicted by the nasty mal de mer.

The ferry.

As for birds, yes, there are those too and you never know what might show up. No, the ferry won’t chum or chase anything but the tall, flat deck is a good vantage point to scan and even scope stuff out in the gulf, and all sorts of stuff can show.

Scanning...

Although the birding won’t be as exciting as pounding the waves straight out to the continental shelf and beyond, it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable and still turns up pelagics.

I would rather take the ferry than this boat.

Since Inca Tern had been recently seen near the ferry, myself and a few friends decided to do a ferry birding trip on Sunday. We knew that the Inca would be a crap shoot but we also knew that we would probably see something good, and since the ferry is so easy to do, it was almost too easy to drive down to Puntarenas, park at Frank’s, and get on the boat.

But before we even got there, we picked up the first good bird while checking the cruise ship dock. After setting up the scope, I focus in on the dock and the first bird that comes into view is a jaeger! A subadult Parasitic is out there sitting on the dock during the month of June. Odd indeed and a very welcome year bird.

It was sharing the dock with Brown Boobies, a couple of Laughing Gulls, Sandwich Terns, and a few Royals. In other words, nothing crazy but that’s alright because we knew that we would get a few more good birds from the boat.

But before we boarded the ferry, birds were already visible from the point of Puntarenas and scanning them turned up a bunch of Black Terns, Brown Boobies, and, suddenly, a shearwater flies into view! It was pretty far out but still identifiable as a Galapagos Shearwater, one of our targets for the day and a lifer for all sans moi.

Welcome to the ferry.

When the boat got underway, we constantly scanned our surroundings and started seeing more Brown Boobies, and scattered groups of Black Terns foraging for small fish and perched on driftwood.

At one point, a Blue-footed Booby flew past.

Blue-footed Booby

Not long into the trip, a small squadron of Galapagos Shearwaters glided low over the water, and flew into the gulf.

Galapagos Shearwaters

Galapagos Shearwaters

More scanning kept revealing more Black Terns but we also enjoyed the super close views of Brown Boobies.

Brown Booby flying close.

A Black Tern on driftwood.

As the boat approached one small group of terns, I noticed a larger brown bird with them and immediately said, “Sooty Tern”! although I actually meant to say, “Brown Noddy!” That’s what happens when you see a lifer. Excitement blurs the neurosignals and you don’t say what you really mean. No matter, because we all got perfect looks at a Brown Noddy, right next to the boat. Since the noddy is only present in Costa Rica during the summer, I was hoping we would see it. Success!

It was in a group of Black Terns like this.

In Paquera, we got off the boat , bought return tickets, and then got right back on. This time, we took front seats, and once again, scanned the water from left to right and kept checking the skies for a tropicbird (Red-billed is seen now and then).

This Brown Booby accompanied us.

The noon-time ride back was sunny and slow, and still lacked storm-petrels, but we got more looks at Black Terns, saw a Snowy Egret perched on driftwood in the middle of the gulf, had more looks at Brown Booby, and even spotted a couple of guys in a raft that needed a rescue!

Help!

After docking, we called it an early day and drove back up to the San Jose area. Next time, I would love to take the 5 a.m. ferry and come back on the 9 a.m. ferry. This being an El Nino year, and the Gulf of Nicoya being an important, nutrient-rich body of water, you never know what might show up.

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admin on June 4th, 2015

June has special meaning for those of us from the temperate north. It’s when summer truly kicks into gear with baseball, the hum of lawnmowers, beautiful sunny days, the rattle and song of meadowlarks calling from the fields, and another school year finally over. Celebration all around and the woods are filled with bird song. In Costa Rica, though, June is barely noticed because summer is a year-round event only marked by absence or major presence of rain.

Cloud forests like this need a lot of rain.

Right now, there’s a whole lot of rain going on and it’s a relief because this is how it’s supposed to be. April and May were pretty dry and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. In many parts of the country, birds nest in April and May to take advantage of the rains. If the rains aren’t there, the birds are probably going to lose the gamble for offspring. This year, I hope enough birds in the Central Valley and the Pacific lowlands postponed nesting for a month because right now is when the food is abundant. Well, at least for the valley because Guanacaste is still going through a drought. As climate continues to warm, unfortunately, the tropical dry forest in that part of the country will probably phase into an even more xeric ecosystem.

The rain story follows another path in the mountains and Caribbean. There has been more rain than usual and although it hinders birding, those wet ecosystems do need the water. The rain can be rough to contend with but it does spur bird activity. Like a northern summer, more birds sing, and it’s easier to see more species than drier, winter months. If you are from the north, go birding in Costa Rica now and every bird seen will be a tropical resident. It’s a good time of the year to become acquainted with antbirds, watch trogons in action, and get crazy with mixed flocks.

You might also see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- singing a lot now.

The low clouds also make June an excellent time of the year to watch swifts. Most days, as the storms approach, I see White-collareds, Chestnut-collareds, and Vaux’s right from the house. If I look long enough, I also hear or see Black and/or Spot-fronted. The other day, I picked up a Spot-fronted when it called as soon as I walked into the backyard. I couldn’t find it way up there in the monotone gray but was happy to at least hear its distinctive vocalization.

It sounds like this:

The need to breed also reveals species that can be very hard to find. After Jim Zook reported a pair of Blue Seedeaters near Naranjo, Susan and I went looking for them a few days later. There was no sight or sound of that rare and little known species but it will still nice to hear the sounds of June in moist woodlands and coffee farms of the Central Valley. Those sounds and sightings come in the form of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Rufous-breasted and Plain Wrens, Barred Antshrike, Red-billed Pigeon, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and lots of Yellow-green Vireos among other species.

A lot of Yellow-green Vireos are here now.

After dipping on the seedeater, we continued on to the loop that goes past Bosque la Paz, goes up through Alto Paloma, and comes back through Sarchi. We met back up with the rain near Bosque de Paz but still saw a fair number of birds before the mist turned into a downpour. From the cloud forest, we heard Prong-billed Barbets, Slaty-backed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Black-faced Solitaire, and other expected species. We also saw most of them including Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Golden-crowned and Three-striped Warblers, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Yellowish Flycatcher, and others.

This Collared Trogon caught a pretty big caterpillar.

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Higher up, tapaculos called but failed to show (no surprise there), and there was no sign of Costa Rican Pygmy-owl, but we did see and hear Golden-bellied Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Collared Redstart, Ruddy and Band-tailed Pigeons, and several Black-thighed Grosbeaks to top off a birdy June morning with 60 or so species.

Alto Paloma- good high elevation birding near San Jose.

Want to learn more about birding at Alto Paloma, other sites mentioned on this blog, and how to identify swifts? Get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on May 28th, 2015

Although it’s a small country, Costa Rica is jam-packed with birding opps. It’s fully stocked with avian delights, and that’s why it’s hard to figure out where to go. If you happen to stay in Costa Rica for a year, there won’t be any problem figuring out where to go because that just might be enough time to visit every place in the country (if you go birding every day and have unlimited funds, time, and energy). But, since most of us have but a few weeks to spare for a birding trip to Costa Rica, we have to settle on the sites that will give us our target species and the best birding bang for our bucks.

One of those places in Cano Negro. Look on a map and it might seem to be way out there but it’s really not. The exact biogeographical definition for the area might also seem elusive (and it is) but that doesn’t matter either. Go and you will see a healthy variety of birds, including a bunch of rare and uncommon ones for Costa Rica. I was up that way last weekend and although the rare crakes did not come out to play, it was still a dang fine trip anyways. These are some of the good reasons for scheduling in a visit to Cano Negro garnered from that most recent trip:

  • Medio Queso: Yes, it literally translates to “half cheese” but when it comes to birds, it’s more like a rare gourmet gorgonzola. Need Pinnated Bittern, rails, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and chances as Jabiru, Black-collared Hawk, and maybe even an Aplomado Falcon? Take the boat trip on the Medio Queso river. The road is just south of the airport in Los Chiles, the boat driver is at the end of the road, and his name is Rafael Palacios. He knows where to find the birds and if you do one boat trip in Costa Rica, do this one! Although high water made us a bit too late for the rails, people were getting close focus views of Spotted Rail, and Yellow-breasted and White-throated Crakes during late March and April when water levels were low. And, no, they didn’t even use playback. We didn’t see the falcon either, nor Jabiru (probably also because of high water) but we did see lots of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, tons of Nicaraguan Grackles (almost no Great-taileds), and most other targets on our list including easy Pinnated Bittern and several Least Bitterns.

    Least Bittern trying to sort of hide.

  • Scaled Pigeon, Yellow-winged Tanager, and other uncommon birds around Los Chiles: We were happy to see Scaled Pigeons calling from trees right in the town of Los Chiles and although we missed the tanager, it can turn up in town, and is most likely at feeders with papaya. Or, if you really want to see that tanager, just go birding in most places north of Costa Rica up to eastern Mexico.

    One of our many Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters at Medio Queso- just outside of Los Chiles.

  • Waterbirds: As in Green Ibis, Sungrebe, kingfishers, Agami Heron, Jabiru, and so on. You might see them all or you might miss some of the rare ones but either way, you will see a lot!

    One of our many Nicaraguan Grackles at Medio Queso. They can also been seen at Cano Negro but aren't as common.

  • Raptors: A trip to Cano Negro typically reveals a nice selection of raptors. Although rainy weather was not ideal for raptors last weekend, we still saw Black-collared Hawk (best site in Costa Rica for this one), Snail Kite, Plumbeous Kite, White-tailed Kite, Roadside Hawk, Bat Falcon, and three vulture species. Several other raptors species can also show.
  • Woodpeckers: With ten species possible, it looks like Cano Negro is the woodpecker capital of Costa Rica. The only one I missed over the weekend was Pale-billed. I saw or heard: Lineated, Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Rufous-winged, Golden-olive, Smoky-brown, and Olivaceous Piculet!

    Rufous-winged Woodpecker

  • Kingfisher Lodge: We stayed at this well-priced place and were treated very well. Rooms are basic but fine and clean, and have fans or air conditioning. The grounds were very birdy and had a great mix of Caribbean slope forest and edge species as well as Gray-headed Dove, Spot-breasted Wren, Pied Puffbird, Bare-crowned Antbird (heard only but at least we know it is there), Gray-headed Tanager, Royal Flycatcher, Greenish Elaenia, parrots and parakeets, Green Ibis, woodpeckers, and so on. I would go back in a second. If you want fancier digs, there is also the birdy Hotel del Campo and Cano Negro Natural Lodge.
  • Night birding: This endeavor can be exciting in the Cano Negro area. Although we dipped on Ocellated Poorwill, that’s no big surprise given that others have spent many hours and more than one night looking for it. However, we did see Pacific Screech Owl around the main plaza, heard Mottled Owl, and had Common Potoo right at Kingfisher Lodge during about 30 minutes of night birding. Oddly, we did not see the usually reliable Great Potoo at the San Emiliano bridge.
  • It’s also easy to get to: Well, actually, Los Chiles is easy to get to and is about 4 hours from San Jose. The road to Cano Negro is rocky and slow going but can still be done with a small car.

It might seem out of the way, but Cano Negro is a fun place to bird, and easy to combine with Arenal. March to early May are best but it’s always worth a visit!

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admin on May 20th, 2015

We birders like to describe the way we go about watching birds. If we just look at the birds in the backyard and flip through the field guide once in a while, we might say that we are pretty darn casual about birding. If we go on field trips with a local birding group and try to see and identify certain target birds, we are a bit more serious about it. Those of us who look forward to birding at every opportunity, spend way too many hours studying bird songs on Xeno-Canto, and travel to other countries to see new birds instead of relaxing on the beach are probably a bit more than serious about the passion of birding. So those distinctions are great and known among the birding community but what do they have to do with seeing “wild chickens”?

First of all, no matter how you define yourself as a birder, we have to get something straight- the only real, wild chicken is the Red Junglefowl. It does indeed look like a reddish chicken but huskies also look kind of like wolves, and when it comes down to it, the chicken is a domesticated junglefowl. Well, no matter how you want to define a chicken, keep in mind that we don’t refer to wolves as “dogs” and if Aurochs were still around, we wouldn’t be calling those massive hooved beasts “Bessie”.  So, I wonder why, if we don’t keep grouse, tragopans, or bobwhites as pets, do some birders still write them off as “chickens”? This is really just an excuse to ignore those shy ground birds because they can be a royal pain to actually see. However, they still quality as birds and since every bird counts, here is some info on seeing Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite in Costa Rica:

  • Don’t look in the forest: Forested habitats in Costa Rica are inhabited by chicken-like birds but they aren’t bobwhites. Those are the wood-quails and in keeping with grouse, can be a real pain. If you want to see wood-quails, look for them in places like the cloud forests in the Monteverde areas, forests in the Talamancas (like San Gerardo de Dota), and the Osa Peninsula. The bobwhites live in weedy, brushy fields.
  • Coffee fields in the Central Valley: Go birding at the edge of a coffee cultivation and you might see some bobwhites. Pick an area of coffee with few people and no dogs, scan the edge of the trail or road as far ahead as you can see, and they might appear in your field of view. They probably occur up to around 1,400 meters.

    A road at the edge of a coffee cultivation- there are bobwhites in this picture.

  • Scan the edges of roads in the dry northwest: By “dry northwest”, I mean anywhere on the Pacific slope from just north of Cerro Lodge on up to Nicaragua and up to 1,200 meters or so. Keep checking as far ahead as you can see to surprise the bobwhites before they see you and run for cover.

    Use the car as cover and they might come close.

    Bobwhites creeping forward.

  • Early morning, late afternoon: As with almost every diurnal bird, this is the best time to see bobwhites. It’s when they call more often and scurry around in search of food.

    A female bobwhite walks close by.

    Followed by a male.

  • Calling birds: This works if the bird is calling from an exposed spot but if not, don’t expect it to show. They aren’t very responsive to playback of their whistled “bob-white” call either.
  • A few good sites: Spot-bellied Bobwhite can turn up just about anywhere in the Central Valley and in the Pacific northwest wherever weedy fields are present. That said, some of the better areas might be Ensenada, Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road to Palo Verde, and Santa Rosa National Park. In the Central Valley, check any roads that go through coffee cultivations and open, weedy fields.

    Like other wild chicken-like birds, they are adept at being sneaky. Take a careful look in the coffee fields.

To learn more about finding birds and the birding at these and nearly every site in Costa Rica, get How to See, Identify, and Find Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on May 14th, 2015

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is pretty good about coming up with ideas for research and bird conservation. Well, no, more like fantastic when it comes to many things avian and the latest endeavor was one heck of a successful ride. Known as the Global Big Day, it started out as an idea for a Big Day in Panama done by Team Sapsucker and one of the head guides from the Canopy Tower family, Carlos Bethancourt. But why do just one Big day when other birders can be encouraged to do the same and enter their results into eBird? Maybe enough birders around the world would participate to identify 4,000 species in one calendar day? Maybe the lab could also raise much needed funds for avian research and conservation?

All that birders had to do was go birding on May 9th and submit the results to eBird. They could just count the birds in the backyard, spend a morning at a favorite patch, or go for broke on a 24 hour birding marathon. As befits their modus operandi, Team Sapsucker of course went for the latter option and ended up with a whopping 320 species! Not only was this a new Big Day record for Panama, but it was also one of the highest Big Day totals ever, and the highest species count for the Global Big Day. But, they weren’t the only people out watching birds on May 9th, 2015. According to eBird, more than 13,000 people heeded the call to watch birds and submit their results, and instead of 4,000 species, nearly 6,000 species have been identified!

In Costa Rica, birders in most parts of the country participated, including a team of guides that identified 308 species on a route that went from Braulio Carrillo and La Selva up and over the mountains to Carara. Although I wish I could say that Susan Blank and I broke 300 species, that goal was made impossible by inclement weather. If it weren’t for a full night and morning of light wind and varying amounts of rain, I daresay that it is very likely that we would have surpassed 300 species by the end of the day because despite the very diminished dawn chorus, we still finished with 230 species.

This Keel-billed Toucan made it onto our list.

Although we briefly pondered the notion of leaving at eleven pm to try for nightbirds en route to Pocosol, it seemed more logical (and comfortable) to head to Pocosol the day before for a bit of scouting and good night’s sleep. After all, we planned on nightbirding at Pocosol anyways and it’s a good spot for Mottled, Crested, Spectacled, and Black and White Owl. During that bit of scouting, we discovered that a tiny wetland in San Ramon was even tinier and almost bereft of birds, found a carcass with a King Vulture right on our route, and saw that yes, indeed, the northern road to Pocosol passed through a promising mix of habitats that included second growth, patches of lower elevation forest, and offered views of forested hillsides. That birdy mix was just what I had hoped for because it would give us a chance at a wide variety of edge species and lowland birds that would be tough to encounter elsewhere on our route. The views of the hillsides also gave us a chance at raptors and other canopy species (as in..ahem..a cotinga or two).

Nice forest on the way in to Pocosol.

At Pocosol itself, the station was typically birdy with two species of oropendolas coming and going, and Thicket Antpittas calling from the understory. Since it was about 5 pm, we put down the binocs, went over the plan for the following day, ate dinner, and went to bed early. This is how May 9th went:

3 am: No worries about missing any birds that might have to called at midnight because nothing with feathers was calling at 3 am. There was a light wind, misty weather, and the owls were in quiet mode. Nevertheless, we got ready and hiked on a trail back to a section of beautiful primary forest. The wet weather made it a great night for frogs but if any cuckoos were migrating overhead, their calls were drowned out by the a windy, dripping canopy.

5 am to 8:30 am: The sky was getting slightly brighter and a few birds started to vocalize. The wind and rain made it tough to hear them but I don’t think a whole lot of birds were vocalizing anyways. We ticked Rufous Motmot, Crested Guan, Golden-crowned Warbler, Mealy Parrot, and a few others but not a single woodcreeper nor many other deep forest species I had hoped to get. I realized that if the weather didn’t improve, we would be better off leaving Pocosol early to try for many of the same birds on the road to Manuel Brenes. We would certainly miss several dawn chorus species but we didn’t have much of a choice. We hiked back to the station, picking up a few more birds en route, including Black-headed Antthrush and Dull-mantled Antbird, and then picked up Great Curassow and a couple other birds on the first part of the Ridge Trail. Then, we ate breakfast as quickly as we could and started driving back out to the main road.

Rainy weather at Pocosol.

8:30 am to 10:00 am: Sometime during breakfast, the light rain had turned into a soaking downpour in misty surroundings. Pretty awful for birding and it stayed that way almost out to the main road. We saw very few birds but did at least pick up Eastern Kingbird where we had hoped and got a White Hawk. The rain dimished as we drove up the road and quick stops picked up Olive-throated Parakeet, as well as a few other species (but minus the Tropical Mockingbird we had seen the day before!).

10:00 am to 11:00 am: I think this is when we birded Lands in Love and since it was right when the rain stopped, we got a bunch of birds. Since we stuck to the loop road, most were second growth species but we did alright given the bad start and weather.

11:00 am to 12:30 pm: We picked up a few targets at a small lake and marsh, but the King Vulture was absent and other targets refused to call. Back on the Manuel Brenes road, though, we did pretty good and a couple of mixed flocks came through with most of our target tanagers, Brown-billed Scythebill, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Purple-crowned Fairy, Northern Schiffornis, Nightingale Wren, and even got a surprise Snowcap! This is the first time I have seen this species on that road.

It was nice to have this small marsh on the route.

Our Snowcap.

12:30 pm to 3:30 pm: After the foothill forests of the Manuel Brenes road, we zipped uphill and stopped at the Cocora Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden. I had hoped that this spot would result in several cloud forest birds and it came through with flying colors. Although their primary forest is edged by cultivations on both sides, the back of the forest does connect to the cloud forests of Nectandra and the Monteverde forest complex. I hope to do a morning survey there sometime to better assess the avian potential. On Saturday, a brief 30 minute visit resulted in several targets including Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Red-faced Spinetail, White-throated Spadebill, and several other species. The hummingbird action wasn’t too impressive but we still picked up Violet Sabrewing and a couple other hummingbirds.

Crowned Woodnymph was in the garden.

After Cocora, we picked up some common roadside birds like Eastern Meadowlark and Rufous-collared Sparrow, and made a quick stop in moist forest to get Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Rufous-breasted Wren, and a couple others. While driving through San Ramon, we got our hoped for flyby Crimson-fronted Parakeets, then headed downhill towards Puntarenas and Chomes. Road construction stopped us for about 15 minutes and despite taking advantage of the stop and trying for Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin, and a few others, the unexpected break was birdless. By 3:30,  we made it to open and dry forest habitats on the road to Chomes.

3:30 pm to 4:30 pm: The road to Chomes was much drier than normal and there weren’t as many birds but we still managed several targets. A couple of stops in riparian zones were far too quiet and didn’t turn up the Black-headed Trogons, Olive Sparrow, and a few other species that we usually get, but we did pick up Turquoise-browed Motmot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Streak-backed Oriole, and several other species. A stop in the open fields also worked out for the thick-knee, a distant Harris’s Hawk, our only Cliff Swallow for the day, our only Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, and some other species.

4:30 pm to 6:00 pm: At Chomes, you never know what is going to show but there’s always something good. Shorebird numbers were  fairly impressive but diversity was fairly low compared to other days. Nevertheless, the 12 species of shorebirds were a welcome addition along with White Ibis, Wood Stork, herons, and a few other aquatic species, a highlight being a group of Black Terns that flew in from the ocean. Just before dusk, we also got lucky with a few mangrove species, and a group of Spot-bellied Bobwhites. In fact, we continued to pick up one new species after another right until dark while watching 200 plus White-fronted Parrots flying over the mangroves. It was a memorable way to end a memorable day and although we made a brief attempt for Pacific Screech-Owl and a few other night birds, nothing called back and we called it a day by 7 pm.

Although it was downright infuriating to be rained out for the dawn chorus and the most productive part of the day, the fact that we still identified 230 species with almost no night birding and very little scouting showed that this route could definitely break the world record when wintering species are around, with more scouting, and with an obligatory lack of rain at dawn. Looking forward to the next Global Big Day! In the meantime, it’s about time that we did a Costa Rican Bird Race…

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Each year, I look forward to an autonomously motivated event where myself and trusted birding companions try to see as many bird species as possible in one, 24 hour date. That is, we do a Big Day, and it is preceded by far too many hours of planning and sorting out probabilities, Such scheming is necessary because it all comes down to probability, each factor playing a distinct role in determing the final count. Regular readers of this blog will already be aware of our attempt this past March.

I think it was a good plan, that beginning in Cano Negro, a jaunt through the humid forests in the Arenal area, and a hot, dry finish at Chomes, but morning rain prevented us from giving that route the full, power birding test. Getting rained out was disappointing to say the least. Instead of testing the Big Day route, it ended up being a Zen-test of my ability to accept changes that ruined my super important plans for that one day out of the year when we could maybe break the Big Day world record..(in the famous “words” of Charlie Brown, “Arggh!”). Well, since hoping for clear weather in rainforest on just one day is always a silly gamble, I couldn’t really be that surprised or upset.

BUT, much to my surprise, thanks to Cornell Lab’s Team Sapsucker and their Global Big Day idea, here I am, once again, about to do another Big Day! The Global Big Day is the perfect excuse to give this thing another shot. With most of the small migrants serenading birders in Ohio, I did not foresee May as being an ideal time of the year for this endeavor, and it really isn’t but, according to eBird, there are more migrants in Costa Rica right now than I expected. No, not a lot, and we would see more in February or March, but there are more chances at various bird species than I had hoped.

We will probably miss Summer Tanager- a given during the winter but will hopefully get some other migrants.

On a plus note, we have a better chance at shorebirds, and more birds will be singing. This will also be a slightly more comfortable Big Day because, no, we will not be listening for birds in dark places at the stroke of midnight. Nope, no exploration of Medio Queso in the middle of the night. Instead, we will start the night-birding at 3 am and be in one of the best forested sites in the country in the pre-dawn hours. My hope is that the dawn chorus will give us several rare forest birds that we would not have gotten otherwise. Since we will be staying at a biological station, we will also have the luxury of a Big Day, sit down breakfast! Well, in all honesty, we will probably be standing up and scanning the canopy while wolfing down the morning vittles but they will be fresh and hot!

We will have a fair chance of hearing Rufous-winged Woodpecker.

Then, it’s off and up the road to San Ramon with brief stops to scan the sky and canopy for raptors, swifts, swallows, and treetop birds, check a small marsh and other small wetlands, and make another stop in cloud forest. We hope that the birds in moist forest near San Ramon will jump up and sing, that the highway down to Chomes is open (along with a flyby Fiery-billed Aracari and singing Scaly-breasted Wren porfavor), and then it’s off to Chomes for a whole new set of birds. Will we break 300 species? Will we find a Great Jacamar? Will it be another test of Zen? Find out next week!

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admin on April 29th, 2015

In Costa Rica, the dry season is over and so is the high season. We still see quite a few people visiting Costa Rica for a vacation but not nearly as many as the winter months. The cold, stark reasons for choosing February over May or June for a trip to Costa Rica are as obvious as a Scarlet Macaw but there are still plenty of things to do on a Costa Rican trip during the coming months. Here are some of the birding ideas:

  • Watch swifts: No, not Taylor, I mean those fast-flying aerialists that challenge our reaction times. Their fast schemes also make them a royal pain for identification, especially when they fly at speck height. During the wet season, they forage at storm fronts and much closer to home. It’s the best time to get good looks at swifts and come to grips with those challenging birds. Just a few days ago, I had Black and Chestnut-collared along with more regular White-collared and Vaux’s zipping over the house.

    This was one of the Chestnut-collared Swifts.

    Want to take a stab at identifying this one? I wondered if it might be a Black but the wings seem a bit short. It might even be a White-chinned but I can't say for sure- no field notes, just snapped off shots at anything in the sky.

  • Test out the umbrella: Yes, it does rain at this time of year but without the water, we wouldn’t have such high levels of biodiversity. In general, it’s also sunny in the morning and raining in the afternoon and that’s not so bad for birding. Actually, cloudier weather results in more bird activity in any case.
  • Enjoy resident species: Unlike the winter months, you don’t have to worry about glassing yet another Chestnut-sided Warbler when you want to see an antwren. There’s nothing wrong with looking at Chestnut-sidedes but that’s not usually why a birder goes to Costa Rica.

    You can watch Yellow-naped Parrots in action.

  • Study bird vocalizations: More species tend to vocalize, at least during May and June. It’s always better to hear more bird song and that makes it easier to find more bird species.Pocosol dawn3
  • Pay less for accommodation: You probably won’t get a huge discount, but yes, most lodging costs less during the green season.
  • Enjoy places with fewer tourists: I have never felt like this was an issue but if you want to see less people in national parks, come on down from May to November.

    I love birding an empty road...

  • Explore less visited sites: Sure, this can be done any time of the year but it’s always a good excuse to collect eBird data for little known sites. If inclined, try birding around Barbilla National Park, Hitoy Cerere, Yorkin, Las Tablas, Crucitas, Rincon de la Vieja, Barra Colorado, and sea-watching from Cabo Blanco and south of Golfito.
  • Get lots of lifers: You still have pretty much the same chances at resident species as during the high, dry season, and it might even be easier to see several species.

    You should see a Gartered Trogon or two.

  • Participate in the Global Big Day on May 9th: The Cornell Lab- based Sapsucker Team is doing a Big Day in Panama and are encouraging birders of all nations to get out there and do the same, or at least watch birds and submit the results to eBird. I plan on doing a Big Day with some friends on May 9th as well. Most of the winter birds will be gone but we should still see a lot!

I hope to do all of the above (although I would have to travel outside of Costa Rica to get a lot of lifers). Are you coming to Costa Rica during the low season? Get ready for the trip with my Costa Rica bird finding guide/companion, and the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

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