I wish I could say that birding is always free. It would be if we still lived in a world with abundant habitat and biodiversity because there would be easier access to more birds. But, the modern realities of overpopulation and big money interests that view conservation as a hindrance to short term gain continue to result in fewer birds and even fewer places to see them. This varies by region and nation, but is why we have to pay entrance fees and guides to see birds like Philippine Eagle, wood-quails, and countless other species. Sure, we could try and see them on our own, but with more birds restricted to national parks and protected areas, paying to have better chances at more species has become a common necessity.
In Costa Rica, although there are public places that lack gates and require no entrance fee, the best and most accessible places for birding are in private and public reserves. I was at one such site last weekend and given the number of uncommon species we encountered, level of avian activity, and trail mileage, it was an excellent bargain. This place is “La Marta Refuge” and if you feel like seeing lots of birds for a bargain, I recommend it, absolutely. What to expect:
Tawny-crested Tanagers: Yes, they can be seen elsewhere but the high numbers at La Marta put them first in terms of expectations. This is probably the most common species at the site.
Always a fun bird to watch.
Other tanagers: Fruiting trees are also visited by Emerald, Speckled, Black and Yellow, Bay-headed, and other tanagers including the uncommon chlorospingus formerly known as the Ash-throated Bush-Tanager. Enjoy the show!
I was very pleased to finally get a shot of this uncommon probable endemic split.
Pretty easy access: La Marta is accessed by a road from the town of Pejibaye. Although there are time when the entrance road might require four wheel drive, for the most part, it is easy enough with a regular car. Contact them for updated road conditions.
Basic lodging and camping: If you want to stay there, the accommodation is cheap but very basic. Rooms are shared, mattresses are thin, there aren’t any mosquito nets, and the water is cold but it doesn’t cost much! Meals can also be arranged for a good deal, and camping is possible.
Lots of trails in good habitat: This is one of the few places I have seen in Costa Rica that have kilometers of trails. All of the trails go through forest, a fair bit of which is habitat that has grown back over a hundred years and includes many non-native Poro trees. I suspect this affects the avifauna somewhat but maybe not too much because it’s connected to large areas of mature, native forest, and the back trails access more of that habitat. Limited time kept us on trails much closer to the HQ, and those were good enough but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones way back in the reserve hosted rarities like Black-banded Woodcreeper, Sharpbill, and many other uncommon species.
Uncommon species: Speaking of rare birds, these are some of the “good” ones we saw or heard among species already mentioned:
Dull-mantled and Ocellated Antbirds
Tawny-chested Flycatcher- fairly common on the road near the buildings!
Although we did not see Sunbittern, nor Tiny Hawk, both of these are regular at La Marta.
Lanceolated Monklet: Saving the best for last, um, yes, based on this past weekend, La Marta might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. It’s a pain to see no matter where you go but since we had two different birds in one day, and the trails access lots of suitable habitat, seeing the monklet at La Marta is a fair bet than many other sites.
I would love to go back, although next time, I hope I can survey the more remote parts of the reserve to look for ground-cuckoo, Gray-headed Piprites, and various other rare species.
I have written about Carara National Park on more than one occasion. One of the better birding sites in an already very birdy country, this important protected area merits more coverage because it always delivers. Although I have mentioned tips for better birding at this site in other posts, it doesn’t hurt to provide updates and more suggestions for making the most out of Carara. Try these tips to see more in and around Carara National Park:
Do both trails: There are two main trails at Carara. The “Laguna Meandrica” is the famous “River Trail” and leaves from a small, hidden parking area nearly a kilometer from the HQ heading towards San Jose. Carefully watch for the entrance to this trail on the right. The other trail leaves from the HQ and has a few loops. Both can overlap quite a bit in terms of species but also have their differences. In general, expect more edge and second growth species on the Laguna trail and more deep forest birds on the HQ trails although both are always good. On the Laguna trail, the oxbow lake is much smaller than it used to be and not nearly as productive. Given the high temperatures on Laguna, if you want to do both in a day, do that one in the morning and the forest trail after lunch.
Rufous-tailed Jacamar can be seen on both trails.
Check the large rocks: On the HQ trail, pay close attention to any large rocks on the forest floor. One or more might be a Great Tinamou!
Do the back loop of the Quebrada Bonita trail: It seems like more of the deep forest species are more regular on the back loop of this trail. These are birds like Baird’s Trogon, Marbled Wood-Quail (pretty rare), mixed flocks with Russet Antshrike, Rufous-winged Woodpecker and other species, Northern Schiffornis, Streak-chested Antpitta, Rufous Piha, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and Black-striped, Long-tailed, and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers. These can also turn up on other trails but seem most common on the back loop. This is the part of the trail on the other side of the bridge over the creek.
The White-shouldered Tanager is commonly seen on both trails as well.
Bird the Bijagual Road: This is an easy area to bird when looking for raptors and when you have an hour or two before the park opens (seven until April, eight at most times of the year). Great birding on the Cerro Lodge road can also make good use of that time but the Bijagual Road is also worth it. The other day, we did especially good in front of the Pura Vida gardens with looks at Fiery-billed Aracari, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Western Tanager, and several other species. There is overlap with the national park but since some species are more regular on this road, it’s a good area to include in your birding mix.
The view from the Bijagual Road during the wet season.
Check the crocodile bridge: As with just about all birding, this area is best at dawn and late afternoon, especially for flybys of various species coming to and from roosting sites. But, if you have to check it in the middle of the day, that could still be worth it because you never know when a quick walk to the middle of the bridge might turn up a Pearl Kite, Harriss’s Hawk, waterbirds, Yellow-billed Cotinga, or other additions.
Although drier conditions mean that there aren’t as many birds as there used to be, you can still see a lot, especially with a lot of time and patience. As with any tropical forest, it pays to be patient and walking with an experienced guide is the best way to see more birds.
The second month of the year has begun and anyone working on their year list should be well underway with that endeavor. Time is a wasting, go get them birds! Since the start of the year, I have followed that policy as well as I can and it’s paid off with a good selection of key species from few trips afield. But that’s not really why I am writing this post. This one is going to deal with the latest in birding-related news for Costa Rica, I hope it’s of help!
This Tawny-throated Leaftosser at Virgen del Socorro was a welcome find, and even more so because it perched for photos! Looking forward to finally putting images of this tough species on field guide apps for Costa Rica and Panama.
The current dry season and cold fronts: It’s dry and windy in the Central Valley and the Pacific northwest. That’s normal for this time of year although the cold fronts hitting the Caribbean are reminiscent of weather in December. That translates to lots of cloud cover and rain, and that’s a good thing for those wet forests.
Lots of trees have fruit: At least, that’s the way it looked a few days ago around Virgen del Socorro. Most trees were covered in fruit and we had a good number of tanagers. I suspect the same thing is going on in much of the Caribbean foothills and lowlands. Check it out, that’s where a lot of birds are going to be, especially elevational migrants like Black-thighed Grosbeak, Black-faced Solitaire, cotingas, and who knows what else?
An order for a plan to protect Corcovado National Park: Excellent news! Hopefully, this will come to pass because for the past five years or so, the park has been pretty much besieged by illegal gold miners who also hunt within the park. I just hope and pray that they haven’t managed to kill any of the last remaining Harpy Eagles that may occur in the Osa, nor that such a travesty happens before effective protection takes place. Since challenging logistics and regulations keep most birders out of the park boundaries, most don’t actually visit the park itself. But, quite a few do bird in lodges just outside of the national park and effective protection will result in healthier bird populations for those areas as well. It goes without saying that most of us birders are all about protection of special places with lots of birds whether we visit them or not.
Lots of good birding in the usual places: From eBird reports, it looks like most of the expected species are being seen in commonly visited sites. In other words, the birding is good, expect to see a lot!
Cinchona Colibri Cafe charges for photo sessions: If you visit the Cafe Colibri with a DSLR, expect to pay $10, and they may eventually charge an hourly fee. Since they have a new feeder set-up down below, both barbets are regular, and Buff-fronted Quail-Dove has been showing up, the fee is a pretty good value.
A Red-headed Barbet from the Cafe Colibri.
San Luis Canopy Tanagers?: I heard a rumor that they are no longer feeding tanagers at this site between La Fortuna and San Ramon. Whether this is true or not, the site still merits a visit because fruiting trees attract the same set of tanager species and other birds.
Cano Negro is jamming: The recent (and perhaps on-going) wet weather have flooded fields on the road in to Cano Negro. Those have been good for Jabiru and lots of other target wetland species. I wish I were there!
The Chomes situation: I haven’t been there recently but what little I have heard doesn’t sound so good. Another rumor but given the appearance of the place and settlers moving in to the pond area, it might be true that the site is no longer being managed for shrimp and salt production. If this is true, the ponds at this classic site probably won’t be as suitable for shorebirds as in the past. If so, hopefully those same birds can find enough refuge in the gulf itself. As for us birders, it might be harder to find Mangrove Rail, and shorebirding will be even more limited, the best spot being the Punta Morales ponds at Cocorocas.
A scene from Cocorocas.
I hope this news helps, and hope to see you enjoying the birds and nature of Costa Rica!
Different major habitats are one of the main reasons why we have so many bird species in Costa Rica, especially the rainy places. More water translates to higher numbers and varieties of life forms, birds included. But, if you tire of humid, energy sucking and optic challenging conditions, you can always retreat to the hot, dry northwest. Although the Central Valley also sort of falls into the Pacific dry forest bio-region, the habitat is much better down in the lowlands.
The beautiful Blue Grosbeak is fairly common.
In Costa Rica, the dry forest region is on the Pacific slope and extends from around Tarcoles north to Nicaragua. Much of it has been converted to farms with open areas for cattle, and crops, rice and melons predominating in the flood plains. However, despite natural forest being limited to riparian zones and protected areas, there are still plenty of interesting birds to see in lots of places. If you find yourself birding anywhere in the dry zone, try these tips to see more stuff:
Early does it: Yeah, that pretty much goes for seeing more birds in most places but getting out bright and early is doctrine in places with tropical dry forest. The difference between activity in the early morning and a few hours later is like a disappearing magic act. The motmots, flycatchers, and everything else were all there and singing, and now they aren’t. Where did they go? What are they doing? Good questions but suffice to say, after 8:30, they don’t feel like being seen. Take a siesta or relax by the pool (or in it) when our feathered targets are probably doing the same.
Water: Speaking of pools, as with other xeric situations, water tends to be a magnet. Focus on the riparian zones and even small bits of shaded water to see more birds. The good thing about such green spots is they can concentrate the birds, especially during the dry season (also when most birders visit). Check for Crane Hawk, Collared Forest-Falcon, Royal Flycatcher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Painted Bunting, Banded Wren, and lots of other dry forest species.
Streaked Flycatcher will probably also show up.
Wetlands: Ironically, the dry forest zone also has some great wetland habitats. The best are in the flood plains of the Tempisque and Bebedero Rivers and include such sites as Palo Verde, Rancho Humo, and other places with marshy areas. Flooded rice fields can also work out, especially the ones on the road to Playa Hermosa and on the way in to Palo Verde. They don’t have as many birds as more natural and less chemically affected habitats but they are still always worth a look. Among the widespread aquatic species, you might also find wintering shorebirds, and, with luck, various rail species. These are also good places to look for seedeaters, Tricolored Munia, Snail Kite, and interesting wintering species.
Places like this are good ones to check.
What about the wind?: It’s often windy out there in the northwest. Just as the birds do, find sheltered spots for birding. Fortunately, this tends to coincide with riparian zones and that’s where more birds are anyways.
Tennessee Warblers: Expect to see a lot of these little boreal Phylloscop wannabes on survival vacation. Yesterday, I saw a bunch of birds fly up from a road in dry forest. I figured they would be Indigo Buntings but nope, they were a bunch of masquerading Tennessees! Pish to see how many come in but keep checking to see if you can tease out a rare vagrant like a Northern Parula, Nashville, or Orange-crowned Warbler. I know, not so exciting for birders from Ontario or Ohio but since these are megas down this way, please do report any you find (I know I want them for my year list)!
Check the swallows: Fast flying aerialists are easy to overlook when we got motmots and parrots in the neighborhood but keep checking and you might turn up rare species for Costa Rica like Violet-green, Tree, and Cave Swallows. All of these tend to occur more often in the dry northwest and are good finds for Costa Rica! For example, I was very pleased to see a Tree Swallow yesterday at Punta Morales. For a moment, I thought I was also going to tick Cave Swallow for the year but it turned out to be a Southern Rough-winged in bright lighting. Even if you don’t turn up a rarity, it’s always good practice to scan through hundreds of Barn Swallows.
Expect a lot of Barn Swallows.
Get into some good dry forest: Although a lot of birds can be seen outside of protected areas, if you also want to see Thicket Tinamou, Stub-tailed Spadebill, woodcreepers, and more birds overall, you need to spend some time in real dry forest and not pasture punctuated with trees. Some of the best dry forest sites are Santa Rosa, Palo Verde, and Guanacaste National Parks, Lomas Barbudal, and quite a few forested areas on the Nicoya Peninsula.
For a lot more information on finding birds in Costa Rica as well as how to look for and identify them, help out this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book.
After payment is made, I will transfer it to you.
Good birding, hope to see you in Costa Rica!
Last weekend I wasn’t watching any inauguration. I couldn’t have done so no matter who was being officially named the next president of the USA because I was too busy watching and showing people birds while guiding in the San Vito area. Whether you happen to be in Costa Rica during an inauguration, moon landing, or alien arrival, don’t worry about any news, you will see that stuff soon enough. What you won’t see at other times are the hundreds of birds that live in the vicinity of that nice little highland town in southern Costa Rica.
San Vito is so far off from the San Jose area, we kind of felt like we were in another country. Being so close to the border with Panama, we almost were and for us local birders, that makes for some exciting avian stuff. We don’t get as many chances at new species as Canadian and USA birders do in southern Texas or Arizona, but it’s exciting nonetheless. We need to go there to have a chance at the plain looking yet weird Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, the smart-looking yet shy Lance-tailed Manakin, and the incorrectly named Masked Yellowthroat (see why it needs another name below).
The beautiful Speckled Tanager is another, much more common species of the area.
Not to mention, there’s tons of other interesting birds in the area, the birding is easy like Sunday morning, there are a few other fantastic sites within reach, plenty of places to explore and maybe even find something new for the boundaries of Costa Rica, and you might even get a chance to go birding with the awesome San Vito Birding Club! I could go on and on about how wonderful those four days were but I’ll try to keep it brief with these suggestions:
Getting there- Which route to take?: There are two ways to go and I did both in the same trip. On the way there, Sara Clarke (of the Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project) and I drove the coastal route to Ciudad Neily and then up the very curvy road to San Vito. This gave us a chance to look for birds en route at Tarcoles, Parrita, and a few other sites. The route is fairly quick and easy but that last curvy bit is indeed pretty curvy. To avoid the curviness, you can also take the coastal route to the turn off at Palmar and go from there.
On the way back, we took the other main route. This one is more direct but goes up and over Cerro de la Muerte and through San Isidro. Take this to look for high elevation species but be ready to sit behind slow moving trucks. You can also do this one to stop overnight in Buenos Aires and bird the Salitre savannas the next morning (to see the targets, you do need to do those early in the morning).
Join the San Vito Birding Club for a walk: We would have done this but with our logistics, it just didn’t work out. Nevertheless, we did meet up with them one evening and went birding with their president, Greg Homer. This was awesome, if you get the chance to go one of their bird walks, do it! Check their site for information about that.
Where to stay: While some birders lodge at Las Cruces, know that you don’t have to. It’s not that it’s a bad choice, just that there are other options in the area including two fantastic ones that treated us very well. These are the Casa Botania, and the Cascata del Bosco. Both have nice rooms, good views, great service, wonderful food (gourmet vegetarian at Botania!), and good birding right on the grounds. They are also within walking distance of Wilson Botanical Garden (aka Las Cruces). Both are seriously recommended.
The view from my window at Botania.
Cascata del Bosco
You might also get pictures of Green Honeycreeper.
Wilson Botanical Garden: Speaking of that place, it’s included on most birding tours to Costa Rica and with good reason. The facilities are impressive, the trails are maintained, there are lots of eBird reports, and the birding is nice and easy. Even better, you can also go in early most days and pay after peering on the trails for tinamous and wood-quail.
Check the San Joaquin marsh: This is a small yet important wetland near the airport. Yes, there is an airport although no planes fly there. At least I don’t think they do because the runway is used by cyclists, runners, and anyone else who feels like hanging out on a landing strip. As for the marsh, coming from San Vito, take the road towards Sabalito, go just past the airport, and watch for the sign on the left. Take a left at that point, drive in to the top of a short hill, and park. Ask at the house pictured below to use the trails, give the guy 500 colones or so and go on in. Since this guy basically lets people in to the marsh, he should get a birder friend award. He likes watching the birds too.
Although there’s not much access to view it, the marsh is still the best place to connect with the local variety of Masked Yellowthroat, and you will probably see some other stuff. Regarding the yellowthroat, you do want to see it because it isn’t really a Masked Yellowthroat. At least, that’s what DNA studies have shown. Those indicated that it is more closely related to Olive-crowned Yellowthroat than Masked which almost certainly makes it it’s own, valid species with a tiny range. I believe that the IOC already calls it Chiriqui Yellowthroat.
The house at the marsh.
Rio Negro: I didn’t see no river, but I did see a bunch of birds! Tee-shirts with this statement should be sold, the profits going to conservation efforts around San Vito. We went there to look for the Lance-tailed Manakin. We heard it, couldn’t frustratingly see it, but did run into some nice mixed flocks as well as montane migrant Black-thighed Grosbeaks. A really cool site with a wide, easy trail, I would love to bird there a lot more. Getting there isn’t so straightforward but is possible.
-From San Vito, go to Sabalito, take a left at the gas station.
-Follow this road to Union, and from the main fork, go about 4.5 kilometers.
-At a ranch-type house, take an immediate right just after this, also immediately driving past some small wooden houses.
-Follow this main, fairly rough road back until you reach the forest. Park there, don’t block in any farming equipment, you will see the trail at that point.
Crested Oropendola: They are around and can show up at the marsh or just driving along but the surefire way to check this common Panama and South American bird for your Costa Rica list is by visiting their nesting/roosting tree. This is on the first road on the right after the Las Cruces station, maybe 200 meters from the main road. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon to ensure success.
I guess that’s it for now. It’s a great, easy area for birding, have fun!
Mountains are one of the main reasons why so many bird species live in Costa Rica. They act as barriers that promote speciation, catch moisture that creates cloud forest and other tropical forest habitats, and make it possible for distinct ecosystems to evolve at different elevations. But, on the downside, the steep slopes, ravines, and other forms of broken terrain don’t exactly facilitate access. Considering that there are people who would rather cut down the forest to make room for cows, that’s a good thing. But, not so good for birders who wouldn’t mind some easy-going searching for middle elevation species.
But, thanks to a certain few roads, we don’t need to torture ourselves by slip sliding up and down muddy slopes to catch a glimpse of a spinetail or two. In Costa Rica, we can head on over to Virgen del Socorro to hang out with Tufted Flycatchers and be entertained by the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets (if we really feel like calling that entertainment). Despite losing some forest during the 2009 earthquake, Virgen del Socorro is up and running for birding. Here are some tips for visiting this classic site:
Check out the “new” road!: This would be the road that accesses the canyon and although it’s not really new, the conditions are so much better, it’s pretty much as good as new. Or, it’s at least the best it will probably ever be. Instead of bouncing along roads and ruts, thanks to some recent grading, it’s a smooth ride down to the bridge and up to the entrance to the hydro plant on the other side of the river. Who knows how long it will last but you can probably enjoy this two wheel drive trip for the next few months.
Sunny days aren’t the best of days but they are good for raptors: Pretty much that. If you can get there before 8, it’s all good. After then, expect some really slow birding interspersed with raptor thermals. Commonly seen raptors at this site are Bat Falcon, White Hawk (maybe the most reliable, easily accessible spot in the country), Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Keep watching and you might also get lucky with Ornate Hawk-Eagle. In the past, Great Black Hawk, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, and even Solitary Eagle were regular at this site, maybe they could show up again?
One of the White Hawks from this site.
Time is better spent at the bridge and the other side: The habitat is better down by the river, and across the bridge. Birds can also be seen on the way to the bridge but where there is more forest, there tend to be more birds and more species. Watching from the bridge might also turn up an American Dipper and other river species (although Sunbittern seems to be oddly absent).
Don’t worry, no one uses the old bridge any more.
Keep watching for mixed flocks: As if we wouldn’t be doing this anyways? What I mean by this is to keep looking and waiting for multi-species action, and then trying to stay with those birds as long as you can. This is where most of the birds will be including chances at various foothill and middle elevation species, and uncommon and rare stuff like Brown-billed Scythebill, tyrannulets, Blue and gold Tanager, vagrant wood-warblers for us local birders, and who knows what else?
Red-headed Barbet can show up. You can also watch for it at the Colibri Cafe.
Hummingbirds: It depends on what’s in flower but know that this is a good site for “le Black-crested Coquette”, Brown Violetear, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Mountain-gem, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy among others.
Female White-bellied Mountain-Gem
When to visit: Any time of the year is good. This is a great place to bird as a day trip when staying in the Sarapiqui area (takes about 40 minutes to drive there). It also works well when staying in the Varablanca/Poas area, and can be done as a day trip from the San Jose area but it will take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to get there. If taking the bus, the San Jose-Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui-Varablanca bus route can drop you at the entrance road.
It’s also a good site for Slate-colored Grosbeak.
Do the San Miguel loop: This means taking the road towards San Miguel on the way back. This is also good for birding and can yield more foothill species.
How to get there: The entrance road into the canyon is not signed. It is located off of route 126 (the road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens) on the east side of the road, just south of the largest river on this road, and doesn’t look like much. There is a also white roadside cross just above the entrance road. This is also between San Miguel and Cinchona. Another way to find it is by checking out the map for the Virgen del Socorro hotspot in eBird- in general, this is an excellent way to find various birding sites in Costa Rica and most countries.
Hope you see some good stuff!
According to the way we keep track of time in “Western” culture, a new year has begun. This gives us a chance to make promises to ourselves and is a great excuse for a fresh, brand new start for anything we want. In the realm of birding, we can start counting birds again for the next 365 days, make target lists for the year, and plan trips for lifers. I don’t have a burgeoning number of expectations for 2017 but this blog post does give me a chance to list some ideas to shoot for from now until next December. Here goes…
Surveys in remote areas of Costa Rica: This is what I want to do the most. I want to see what’s out there in those little birded places with intact habitat like the swamp surrounded forest block in Cano Negro, primary forest in the Fila Carbon near Casa Calateas, remote lowland forest sites up near the border with Nicaragua, the La Tarde lodge in the Osa, The Soltis Center, grassland sites in the north, and the Las Alturas area. I’m sure there are more spots but these are the ones that come most readily to mind.
The view from Casa Calateas.
Visit a bunch of hotspots: By doing this in conjunction with the remote sites, I hope to fill in the gaps and connect with a heck of a lot of birds. These sites would be well known places like the La Selva entrance road, Carara National Park, the La Gamba area, Cerro de la Muerte (think Paraiso de Quetzales), Palo Verde, Medio Queso, and other places that make it onto many a Costa Rica birding itinerary.
The birding is awesome around La Gamba. This is a Charming Hummingbird.
See a Tawny-faced Quail: As soon as I wrote that, I was tempted to backtrack and just press the delete/back space key. I mean, I always want to see this bird but it’s such a pain, where’s the hope? I would need to get to out of the way spots in the north and look and look and maybe not see it anyways. But, if you don’t look, you won’t even see a catbird so as long as I can spend time where it lives, I will still have a slim chance. If I can make my first hopes come true, my chances at finally laying eyes on this little ground bird will climb the ladder of probability.
eBird everything: Yeah, a lot of birders do this and I try my best but I always end up leaving some lists out of the equation. This year, I want all my observations to be documented up there in the digital cloud.
Identify 700 species in Costa Rica: Bird enough in the right places and it can be done. Heck, do a proper Big Year and I bet you could get 750 or even 770 but since I can’t afford to allocate time and resources to nothing but bird chases, that ain’t gonna happen for moi. No matter because I will be very pleased to do enough birding to break 700. In 2016, two guys I know did just that in Costa Rica!
I already saw this one for the year list.
Hope I can get this one again…
Meet more birders: I always like meeting more birders. Birding is what I do, what I have always done and these are the people of my erstwhile tribe (although I also appreciate meeting any sort of biophile along with people who like to hang out in old growth forests). Hope to see some birds with you in Costa Rica soon!
On a final note, I also hope to become more involved in local conservation efforts. Despite the obvious fact that living on Earth means that we also coexist with other life forms, the current extinction event and widespread, self-detrimental ecosystem destruction indicates that too many humans have ignored the obvious for far too long. Planting trees, environmental education, or just helping people to reconnect with nature, I hope I can do something along those lines.
In Costa Rica, the beginning of a new year also marks the start of another high season. Although visits begin to pick up as we move through December, the real jump happens after the ball drops. As if on cue, the rains of the wet season are replaced by fresh new winds flying through sunny skies around San Jose and the Pacific slope. The dry season may or may not extend to the Caribbean slope but overall, there’s a lot less rain and for us birders, that translates to more birding time. Ironically, it also means less bird activity but as long as you can get up at the crack of dawn (and you should if you want to have a better chance at antpittas and more birdies in general), the birding is going to be “fabtastic”.
You might see a White Hawk or two.
With more birders on their way to Costa Rica these days, I also get more questions and inquiries. With the aim of answering most such questions in one fell swoop, I have put together some FAQs pertinent to birding in Costa Rica now and in the coming months:
What time do national parks open?: The parks in Costa Rica pretty much run on office hours. Unfortunately, as those of us with favorite binos know, birds don’t follow the same schedule. They do get up early and that’s when we need to look for them. This doesn’t jive too well with protected areas being open from 8 to 4 but sometimes, there are ways around that schedule. If you can, visit the national park the day before and ask if you can go in around 6 a.m. on the following day. This usually works for Tapanti, Braulio Carrillo, and various other sites. It won’t work for crowded Manuel Antonio. If you can’t get in before 8, just bird adjacent habitat until then.
Even if you go in after 8, you might still see an Ochre-breasted Antpitta.
How can I see toucans, owls, and tanagers?: Toucans and tanagers are pretty easy as long as you visit the right habitat and sites (this translates to quality forest within the respective ranges of various species). As for owls, that takes a bit more effort, usually at night. There aren’t as many known owl roosts but it’s always worth it to ask at any lodge. As far as where and how to look for and find these and other birds in Costa Rica, you will find over 700 pages of this information in my Costa Rica bird finding e-book (or just buy it to help support this blog!).
Is Cerro Lodge close to San Jose? How about Carara National Park?: Cerro (a much recommended lodge for birding the Carara area) is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from the airport, and a ten minute drive to the park entrance. When staying there, make sure you also bird the grounds and road in front of the lodge.
Safety issues in Costa Rica?: It’s pretty much like most places- just use common sense and you will be alright. Don’t leave the vehicle where you can’t see it, especially if you have stuff inside, and don’t walk around with binos and cameras in urban areas.
Which field guide should I use?: As far as a paper guide with illustrations goes, nothing beats the latest version of “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” by Garrigues and Dean. Compact, great illustrations, maps, it’s an essential. If you like images of birds, looking at them while listening to their sounds, making target lists, and doing so on a smart phone or tablet, the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is another essential.
Should I rent a car, and if so, from where?: It’s of course much easier to get around with your own vehicle but what about the driving? How easy is it to rent a car? If you are familiar with city driving, you are ready for driving in Costa Rica. Just drive defensively, be ready for other drivers to not follow all the rules, and expect very few signs. Use a GPS navigator, avoid rush hour traffic in the Central Valley whenever possible, and only get a four wheel drive vehicle if you plan on visiting sites that require one. As far as where to rent the vehicle, I can’t help there, I’m not sure which place is best.
There goes most of the most common questions and concerns that get run by me, I hope my answers can help. If I could offer a last bit of advice, I would suggest not expecting species on a checklist for any given site to be immediately apparent and present during a quick visit. Yeah, most seasoned birders know that’s par for the course no matter where we go but it’s always worth mentioning because these tropical ecosystems are complex, and about the only thing predictable is their unpredictable nature. The best way to see more birds in a given amount of time anywhere in Costa Rica is by being patient and spending more time in high quality, rich habitats. Hope to see you birding in 2017!
The end of the year is nigh but there are more birds to see. What’s a birder with a year list to do but check eBird, keep an eye on the local rare bird alerts, and get out there before the end of the 31st? For a disciplined birder faithful to the year list, the logical solution is racing around and getting in those last, final birds. But, disciplined or not, if the holidays get in the way, or family responsibilities come into play, we might have to settle on a year list total some days before the 31st. Such is my case but I won’t complain. I’ve had a wonderful year of birding, walked past my initial goal of 600 species in Costa Rica way back in spring, and hit 650 some time ago. Recently, I also hit 675, and if I had time to head to Guanacaste, Tapanti, and a couple other sites, I’m satisfied knowing that I would break 680.
Therein lies one of the big benefits of looking for birds in a mega biodiverse country and an easy mantra for birding Costa Rica- do more birding, identify more species. With over 800 possibilities, it kind of never ends as long as you keep hitting different habitats and bioregions, and by the end of the year, there are always some species still missing from the list. Unless I see them outside my window or happen to get in a final day or two of birding in the right places, a dozen of my biggest misses will include the following:
Hook-billed Kite– It’s not common but it’s not rare so this one is probably my biggest miss of the year. It can turn up in all sorts of places, some of the most likely being the Orosi area, and wetland/riparian zones in Guanacaste. I still have a slim hope that one might be soaring up there near the house while I look out the window but some serious lady birding luck would have to be in the cards for that to happen. I’ll keep looking though, because “she” has paid unexpected visits right out the window on more than one occasion. As for other raptors, I did pretty good, getting the hawk-eagle trifecta, Tiny Hawk, Bicolored, Hawk, Crane Hawk, and 27 other diurnal species. To give an idea of raptor diversity in Costa Rica, that nice total still leaves out Cooper’s, Sharpie, Snail Kite, Black-collared Hawk, the three mega rare eagles (that would be Harpy, Crested, and Solitary), and three other species on the country list.
A Hook-billed Kite from another year.
Blue-footed Booby– It’s irregular but I usually see it at some point, and since I had seen several the previous year, I figured this one was in the bag. Another ride on the ferry or more scope time from shore would probably work.
One of several from the ferry in 2015.
Sunbittern– I was going to say Agami Heron but since that species is pretty uncommon and tough, I can’t really say that it falls into the “Big Miss” category. I had one main chance to get it while visiting Laguna del Lagarto almost a year ago but, for whatever reason, the fancy heron wasn’t showing up where it usually does. As for the Sunbittern, Yeah, I should have seen that oen at some point! I sure looked at enough suitable rivers for it. If you need it, the most reliable spot is probably the rivers near Rancho Naturalista.
Sungrebe– Yep, I also missed the other “sun” bird! Since I didn’t do any boat trips in Cano Negro or Tortuguero, no surprise there. I still hoped to chance upon one while checking lagoons in other places but oh well, no Sungrebe for me in 2016.
One from another time at Tortuguero.
Gray-headed Dove– I had hoped to at least hear one during an afternoon at Cano Negro village but didn’t so there went my main chance for this uncommon species. I made up for it though with hearing the rarer Violaceous Quail-Dove at Hitoy Cerere!
Common Nighthawk– Some birds have “common” in their name but aren’t so common. In Costa Rica, this one should be known as the “Locally and Seasonally Common Nighthawk”. It’s a passage migrant in large numbers on the Caribbean coast and is a resident in a few other places. Because of this, I figured it was a given during spring and fall visits near Cahuita but nope, no Common Nighthawks!
Green-fronted Lancebill– This stream loving hummingbird is easy to miss (I might still get it) but if you spend enough time at Tapanti, Monteverde, and streams with waterfalls in cloud forest, you have a fair chance. I did really good for hummingbirds in general however seeing all other regular species and lifering the Rufous-crested Coquette at Rancho Naturalista!
If I head to the mountains, might still get one of these.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker– I know, not so exciting for birders from up north but I usually see one or two of this uncommon migrant during the year. Still might get it but the time is ticking down for this one.
Merlin– Pretty much the same story as the sapsucker. I actually probably did see one while driving through Cartago but the looks were just too brief to call it for the year list.
Tawny-throated Leaftosser– If I can head out tomorrow, might still get it! Really surprised, though, to not at least hear it while birding at more than one good site for it during the year.
White-throated Flycatcher– Somehow missed this uncommon one too. I looked for it a few times in the right places but should have looked more.
I hope 2016 treated you well in terms of birds, birding, dark organic chocolate, and all other things good in life!
Last week, as usual, I made a stop at the Colibri Cafe during a day of guiding. I usually spend an hour or so at the Cafe after a few early morning stops on the route between there and Alajuela. There have been a few recent changes at the Cafe but the birding expectations are just as good, if not better. If you plan on checking out the Cafe while traveling to or from Sarapiqui, or as a day trip from Sarapiqui or the San Jose area, here are some suggestions and expectations:
More Feeders, More Birds: The owners have steadily updated and improved the cafe ever since the original was destroyed by the 2009 earthquake. Now, instead of watching one set of feeders, there is another set of feeders lower down and accessible by concrete steps. Recently, they also put up a large bunch of bananas at eye level that might eventually pay off with large toucan species and parrots. Maybe, but at least that’s what goes on with a similar set up at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. If you can do the stairs (there aren’t that many), make sure to check the feeders below because these are closer to forest vegetation and might end up attracting different species.
This site continues to be an easy spot for Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet.
Both Barbets: The Prong-billed has always been regular but the Red-headed has been scarce ever since the earthquake. It has been showing up a bit more from time to time, though, and with luck, will become a regular visitor again especially with the vegetation growing back.
Prong-billed Barbet- we actually did not see this one at the Cafe on Saturday but did catch up with it up on Poas.
White-bellied Mountain-Gem and other hummingbirds: Expect a good hummingbird show with six to eight species. This varies depending on time of year and what’s flowering out there in the woods but is always worth a look. The bird to look for is White-bellied Mountain-Gem, a local species seen at very few sites. Other regulars include Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.
The other day was good for the mountain-gems.
More birds in the morning and on cloudy days: As is typical of bird activity just about everywhere, expect to see more at the Cafe between 6 and 7, and on cloudy days.
Cool souvenirs: The Cafe also sells a fair variety of quality souvenirs. Check it out and know that anything purchased there supports this bird and birder friendly locale.
Good, local food: Want to sample some delicious, Tico country cuisine? This is the perfect place to do just that, the prices are fair, and once again, you will be supporting a business that has helped thousands of people see Violet Sabrewings, barbets, and other species at close range. In essence, the owners have acted as unofficial bird and birding ambassadors.
Photography Fee: On my last visit, one of the owners explained to me that they are now charging a fee of $10 for people with professional looking cameras. This pretty much means anything beyond a simple point and shoot. They hadn’t put a sign up about that yet but hopefully will. I was actually going to suggest something like this because setting up the feeders and keeping them stocked has been and continues to be a substantial investment. Although they have a contribution box, that clearly isn’t working, and according to the owner, they haven’t been very pleased with the behavior of some photographers, saying that more than one had set up shop for a few hours without leaving a donation. Given the photo chances, especially now, $10 is a pretty good deal and they aren’t even charging by the hour. Who knows if that might change, though, so just be clear about the cost of using a DSLR at the Cafe Colibri upon arrival at the Cafe.
Some shots will be worth it.
Raptors: The good view of a forested canyon has also always made this site a good one for raptors. It varies but species to look for include White Hawk, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk, along with such possibilities as Red-tailed Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Bat Falcon, and even Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Keep in mind that Solitary Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, and Black and white Hawk-Eagle have also been seen near there in the past. Maybe they could turn up again, especially by scanning the other side of the canyon with a scope.
This white blob is an over-exposed White Hawk that was soaring around a few days ago.
Enjoy the birds, good food, and view at this special place!