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admin on April 23rd, 2015

Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to spend a weekend guiding at Rincon de Osa. The last time I spent more than a day there was in 1999. Back then, there were fewer houses, and I recorded more birds but it’s still pretty much the same place. Rainforest still grows on the hills that form a backdrop to the road, and mangrove forests flank the gulf. We identified around 150 species and it was a good trip. Some other thoughts:

  • More places to stay: The last time I stayed in Rincon, I stayed in what appeared to be the only place that offerred accommodation. I can’t recall the name of the place but it was listed in the Lonely Planet and was, basically, someone’s home. Nowadays, there are a few places to choose from, including Cabinas Chontal. This is where we stayed and I highly recommend it. Lodging is in very clean, wooden cabins outfitted with comfortable beds, a fan, and rather spacious bathroom. Meals were included and were very good! Meals were also tasty, imaginative, and more than enough food. I’m not sure how much it costs per night or per person but it was very reasonable. Contact the owners for information.

    Mangroves behind the Cabinas Chontal.

    Cocoa Woodcreeper was one of several species in the garden at the cabins. We also had Olivaceous Piculet and Band-tailed Barbthroat.

  • Boat trips: If you like, Cabinas Chontal offers boat trips across the gulf. As with other boat trips, this turned out to be not as birdy as hoped but we still got some good stuff and it has potential. Not to mention, the boat driver was also helpful and determined to help us see birds, including a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that we saw displaying in the mangroves. We also saw a White Hawk and a few other species but the boat isn’t the best option for scanning the canopy of the rainforest.

    Taking the boat up the Esquinas River.

  • Good forest, but tough to access: Rainforest occurs along the road but there aren’t any trails that access it. Well, there is a very steep trail but climbing uphill in hot, humid weather makes for tough birding indeed. If there was better access to the forest interior, this would be a good area for Marbled Wood-Quail (we heard them), maybe Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager (I had them in the past), and other species of the forest interior. However, the canopy is visible and could turn up raptors, cotingas, toucans, and other species of the tall trees. While scanning the canopy, although we didn’t connect with cotingas, we saw Double-toothed Kite, toucans, aracaris, Blue Dacnis, Golden-naped Woodpecker, and others.
  • Raptors: The place has good potential for raptors because it combines a good area of primary forest with good views of the canopy, and a ridge where raptors soar. Including the White Hawk seen from the boat, we had at least 9 species of raptors right from the Cabinas Chontal. These were Osprey, King Vulture, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Yellow-headed Caracara, Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Common Black Hawk, Roadside Hawk, and Short-tailed Hawk. I also had one distant soaring bird that was a very likely Black and white Hawk-Eagle but it was only for an instant, soared behind a ridge, and didn’t come back! Near Rincon, we also had Crested Caracara, White-tailed Kite, and Zone-tailed Hawk with a bonus flyby Ornate Hawk-Eagle on the drive back to the Pan-American highway. Oh, not to mention, Abraham from the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge saw a Harpy Eagle at Rincon in 2004!

    The Common Black Hawk is one of the easier raptors to photograph.

  • Cotingas: Well, they are still present but they aren’t as common as they used to be. To give an idea of the difference between then and now, in 1999, I saw Yellow-billed and Turquoise Cotingas literally right after getting off the bus. Granted, there was a fruiting fig they were coming to but I also saw more than one of each while scanning the canopy. On this trip, despite a lot of canopy watching, we saw one male Yellow-billed in the mangroves, one at the edge of the mangroves, and one at the bridge. Oh, and no Turquoise. The lack of cotingas was probably related to lack of fruiting trees but I can’t help but wonder if their populations are being affected by consistent, drier conditions. They likely are and this doesn’t bode well for endangered species, especially in THE stronghold for Yellow-billed Cotinga.
  • The bridge: This is what most birders know about Rincaon because it’s where they look for Yellow-billed Cotinga. It’s a nice spot to wait because you also see some waterbirds on the river, and a good assortment of rainforest species near the bridge. While birding at the bridge and along the road towards Drake Bay, our highlights were a very cooperative White-necked Puffbird, a pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers, Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon (and the other three species that occur), Plain Xenops, and Black-hooded Antshrike.
  • Birding along the road at Rincon: Fortunately, there was enough room on the side of the road to avoid occasional traffic and see a good variety of birds. The combination of forest edge, second growth, and a few scrubby, wet areas resulted in great looks at Pale-breasted Spinetail, Riverside Wren, a couple of migrant Eastern Kingbirds, tons of migrant Swainson’s Thrushes, and other species. Overall, it was nice, easy birding.

    The road at Rincon.

  • Hummingbirds: No luck with the coquette although I have seen it there in the past. We still did alright, though, with 11 or 12  species including good looks at Bonzy Hermit, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Long-billed Starthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, White-necked Jacobin, and lots of Charming Hummingbirds (more common than Rufous-tailed!). We also saw a couple of Mangrove Hummingbirds in the mangroves right behind the cabins. This endangered endemic was a bit hard to find but we eventually got good looks at a male and female.

    Male Mangrove Hummingbird.

    We also had good looks at Southern Beardless Tyrannulet near the hummingbirds.

  • Good base for exploring the road to Drake Bay: You need four wheel drive, and various parts of the road are deforested or planted with the damn modern day agricultural scourge known as the African Oil Palm but this road has some serious potential. During brief exploration of this road (we might have also gone on some side road, I’m not sure), although we passed through too many areas of pasture, there were many, good views of forested hillsides, and we eventually passed through excellent forest at what seemed to be the top of the road. That area in particular looked good for White-tipped Sicklebill, and seemed like a good area to check for Red-throated Caracara, and other rare raptors. I would love to be there at dawn and spend the whole day in that area, scanning the hillsides for canopy species. This area of the road was about 30 minutes or so by car from Rincon.

    The road to Drake Bay.

  • Rice fields: If you feel like seeing Red-breasted Blackbird and other, open country species, follow the road towards Drake Bay and take the first left. This crosses a small bridge and eventually loops back around to the highway to Puerto Jimenez (follow the orange arrows painted on trees). You eventually reach a rice field with the blackbirds. Hopefully, this field will continue to be planted with rice and not be drained and monocultured with oil palms as has recently happened to other rice fields in that area.
  • Mirador de Rincon: While walking the road at Rincon, we noticed a sign and side road to this place. Although we didn’t walk all the way to the overlook, we did find some alright birding in old second growth on the side road. I bet it’s pretty birdy in the morning.

    Scarlet-rumped Caciques were common and collecting nesting material.

If you feel like spending more time in Rincon than a cotinga vigil at the bridge, the area does have potential. The birding is good, Cabinas Chontal is nice and worth it (if rather basic), and that road to Drake Bay beckons.

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When we take birding trips, there are two main books that us birders buy. We all know that those two essentials are (1) a field guide, and (2) a bird-finding book. While some of us forego the bird finding books because we are on a tour or want to save on packing space, most of us usually buy one before the trip. A good bird-finding guide helps with planning, lets us know what to expect, where to go, and ups the excitement level for the trip.

Costa Rica has had its fair share of bird finding guides, including a good one that came out less than ten years ago. However, most bird-finding guides are limited to a certain amount of space because it just isn’t cost-effective to publish a bird-finding tome rather than a heavily edited book with fewer pages. This leaves out many a lesser known yet valuable site as well as a cornucopia of other useful information for planning a birding trip. One solution to the extra pages/publishing conundrum is the E-book; the platform I chose for  ”How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

More a Costa Rican birding companion than a site guide, this book has been many years in the making. I toyed with the idea of writing something that would present information on finding as well as identifying birds in Costa Rica ever since my second trip there in 1994. As I birded my way around several parts of Costa Rica, such questions came to mind as: If antbirds were supposed to be common, where were they? How do you find motmots, puffbirds, tinamous, and other neotropical birds? Where were all of the raptors? And what about identification of woodcreepers?

This book aims to answers these and many other questions about birding in Costa Rica to help birders of all levels prepare for trips to this country as well as other areas in the neotropical region. It’s also a site guide and although I haven’t included every site in the country, this book is, by far, the most comprehensive birding site guide for Costa Rica. I had hoped to make it available by the end of 2014 but, as it turns out, it just took much longer than expected. However, I am happy to say that this first edition is finally done and available for use on PCs, tablets, and smartphones (once an Adobe Reader app. is downloaded onto the device). Buy this e-book for $24.99 if you would like to see and identify more birds in Costa Rica, and if you would like to support this blog.

A few screen shots from the book:

Information from the second section of the book:

Tips for Identification:

An excerpt from the site guide section:

To order this e-book,

please contact Pat O’Donnell at information@birdingcraft.com.


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admin on April 8th, 2015

There are more places to bird in Costa Rica than Carara, Savegre, Monteverde, Rancho Naturalista, and La Selva. All of those sites are classic, great, and worth visiting but there are plenty of other places that await exploration. One of those little visited places is Mirador Prendas. Located at 200 meters elevation on the Caribbean slope near Horquetas, this site is a local tourism destination that features a tower-like structure, restaurant, some sort of accommodation, zip-lining, and other adventurous activities.

I first learned about the place when David Segura of the Tico Birder blog wrote about it. Since he saw White-fronted Nunbird, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and other nice birds, I have wanted to check the place out for some time. This past weekend, while perusing the Sarapiqui area for migrants, Susan Blank and I decided to do a detour to the Mirador Prendas area. We didn’t get there until post-dawn chorus so it wasn’t the most accurate of scouting bird surveys, BUT, we did get a taste of the area. Here is some delicious information along with some known and expected bird highlights:

  • Access is a bit of a challenge: If you go by vehicle, you will need one with four wheel drive; high clearance would also be good. Most of the road is alright but there are a few places where a small car would be stopped. Hiking or mountain biking would also work. During wet weather, the road past the place is probably inaccessible because of slippery clay that sticks to tires and tries to glide you right off the road.
  • Habitat: There is birdy second growth on parts of the road along with pastures and two rivers at the start of the road. Those rivers can be good for Fasciated Tiger-Heron and Sunbittern (we saw the heron). Closer to Prendas, there is nice rainforest near the road. The best habitat may be past Prendas, and since it’s connected to the forests of Braulio Carrillo, the area has a lot of potential.

    Good forest just uphill from Prendas.

  • Lowland species, some foothill birds possible: The habitats probably support most lowland species, and there could be foothill birds a bit further up the road. We had a fair variety of species despite spending just one morning in the area and missing the dawn chorus.

    Brown-capped Tyrannulet was one of the nice lowland birds we saw.

  • Trails: I’m not entirely sure but I think that Prendas has trails into the forest. I hope so because they could be good for antbirds, Olive-backed Quail-Dove, and who knows what else.
  • Green Ibis: We heard one near the rivers.
  • Crested Guan: Always a good sign.
  • King Vulture: Another good sign.
  • Hawk-eagles: We didn’t have any but I would expect all three in the area.
  • Tiny Hawk: We didn’t have this one either but it looks like a good area for this little raptor.
  • Night birds: Nope, we weren’t there at night but others have had Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Spectacled owl, Black and white Owl, and Great Potoo. All of the other lowland night birds should also be present.
  • Black-throated Trogon: Not an uncommon bird but always nice to see this one. We also had Gartered, and Slaty-tailed should be there too.
  • Bat Falcon: Saw a pair of those.
  • Brown-hooded Parrot: Nice looks at this one. We also had good looks at Mealy Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, and White-crowned Parrot.

    A Brown-hooded Parrot hanging from a branch.

  • Antbirds: Despite a sunny, late morning, we heard Chestnut-backed and Spotted Antbirds, and saw Checker-throated Antwren, and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Other ant-following birds should also be around.

    Male Streak-crowned Antvireo.

  • Black-striped Woodcreeper: A nice lowland bird to see. We also had Northern Barred, Wedge-billed, Cocoa, and Streak-headed.
  • White-ringed Flycatcher: It was nice to see some of these lowland canopy specialists.
  • Red-capped Manakin: A sign of good forest.
  • Shining Honeycreeper and Blue Dacnis: Expected but always nice to see. Although we didn’t connect with any mixed flocks, I bet some good ones occur around there.

    This is how Blue Dacnis is usually seen.

    We were surprised to see this female down in the grass!

  • Cowbirds: Not really exciting but interesting to find several Bronze, three Giants, and ten or so Shiny Cowbirds at a cattle trough. How are they affecting resident species? Especially the invasive Shiny? Actually, Bronzed should also be looked at as an invasive since it wouldn’t have occured when there was heavy forest and no cows.

    One of the many Shiny Cowbirds we saw.

To sum things up, the rough roads make birding a bit adventurous but time and effort should yield several quality species, especially further up the road.

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Some birds are common, some are tough to see, and others are downright rare as mangos in the arctic. As if a tropical fruit next to a Gyrfalcon wasn’t improbable enough for you, we also have these bird species that are enigmas. These are situations like the 21st century Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Pink-headed Duck sightings, and in Costa Rica, the Alfaro’s Hummingbird. If you want to look for Alfaro’s Hummingbird, scour the high elevations of Miravalles Volcano but don’t get your hopes up. Only one specimen was ever collected, and subsequent searches came up zilch.

I don’t want to discourage searches for the Alfaro’s by any means because after all, who knows? Not to mention, you will probably see some cool birds anyways and have close encounters with other tropical biodiversity. However, if you really want to solve a bird enigma in Costa Rica, give a shot at finding the Wing-banded Antbird.

Wing-banded Antbird taken by Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann. Check out their adventures at https://birdsofpassage.wordpress.com/

We know that this bird does indeed exist and it’s not even endangered. BUT, what we don’t know is if or where it occurs in Costa Rica. In Stiles and Skutch, the Wing-banded was mentioned as a possibility based on one possible sighting in the forests of the Fila Carbon in southeastern Costa Rica. No sightings have been substantiated since then BUT…it…just…might..occur (if William Shatner was a birder, that’s how he would say it…).

Seriously though, I believe that this funny cross between an antthrush and an antwren probably does occur in Costa Rica. Or, at least it did, if it hasn’t recently been extirpated from the country. It couldn’t have been widespread because if that were the case, the antbird would have turned up in a mist net somewhere. So, it sure ain’t or never was common but why insist that it’s a possibility anyways?

I wish I could say that I have seen or heard one but nope, that wouldn’t be honest. However, I did speak with someone who insists that he did see one and not just once but twice. He was a guide who worked at Rara Avis for many years and therefore knew the birds in that area quite well. I found his story to be very credible because after all, he wasn’t exactly bragging about it. Basically, he said that when he saw the bird, he didn’t know what it was it because it didn’t look like any of the birds in the book nor like any he had seen around Rara Avis during literally years of birding. He said that the only bird it matched was the picture of the Wing-banded in Stiles and Skutch. Not only that, but his description of its behavior also matched that for our enigmatic target species. He also showed me exactly where he had seen it. Despite always looking for it, though, he never saw it again after a brief second sighting.

No picture, so no inclusion in the guide but if one considers that his sighting came from a nearly inaccessible area of dense foothill forest around 600 meters elevation, that could partly explain why it hasn’t been found again or at other sites. Interestingly enough, that elevation is somewhat similar to the elevation where Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann found Wing-banded Antbird at Cerro Musun, Nicaragua. What? It lives in Nicaragua and Panama but not Costa Rica? Yes, but as strange as that may seem at first glance, “leap-frog” distribution patterns occur for a number of taxa in tropical forests (probably explained by evolutionary history and tropical forest ecosystems being more heterogenous than we think). BUT, maybe it does (or did) live in Costa Rica albeit in the following situations:

  • Low density populations: This is the case for most tropical forest species and maybe even more so for the Wing-banded Antbird. After all, it doesn’t appear to be common in most parts of its range.

    Speckled Mourner- another very low density species seen by very few people in Costa Rica. This image was taken by Cindy Beckman on one of her Cheepers! Birding on a Budget tours. http://www.cheepersbirding.com/

  • Large areas of lowland and foothill rainforest: No, it was never recorded at La Selva but maybe it never lived there either. Maybe it lived in the hilly rainforests of the San Carlos lowlands, now mostly deforested and never adequately surveyed before the trees were cut down. But what about foothill sites like the Arenal area and Braulio Carrillo? Maybe it never occured there either or perhaps it just lived in spots with the right microhabitat.
  • Microhabitat: Speaking of microhabitats, Josh and Kathi noted something else about their sighting- the bird was found in an area of old growth forest with an open understory. I have heard others say the same thing about sightings of this species in Panama and the Guianas so maybe that is the key to finding them. If you don’t find this particular microhabitat within a large area of primary forest, then maybe you are looking in the wrong place.

But back to why it might live in Costa Rica. The possible sightings from Rara Avis/El Plastico aside, there are definite records for this species from Refugio Bartola, Niacaragua. This amazing gem of a site is literally across the river from Costa Rica. Sure, rivers can act as barriers for species like the Wing-banded Antbird BUT when one takes into account that very few surveys have taken place in Costa Rica just across the San Juan river, and that this area (Crucitas) and nearby is rarely if ever visited by birders, it sounds like a worthwhile place to search.

So, based on the information here is where to look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica:

  • Hilly forests in the Las Crucitas area: This includes the forests just east of Las Crucitas and indeed, I think that area is the place where the bird occurs because based on Google Earth, there seem to be intact rainforests at elevations up to 200 and 300 meters in elevation. I’m not sure if hilly areas play a factor but they might if such topography results in well-drained forest.
  • Forests in the Maquenque and Laguna del Lagarto area: If the hilly forest west of Maquenque can be accessed, this seems like a good place to look. The same goes for rainforests near Laguna del Lagarto. It wouldn’t hurt to look near those lodges as well but since they have been well birded, the presence of the species at those sites doesn’t seem likely.
  • El Plastico and Ecolodge Yatama: El Plastico is on the way to Rara Avis and one of the spots where a possible sighting occured. Ecolodge Yatama is near there and situated in a large area of good forest. Elevations are around 400 to 600 meters.
  • Fila Carbon and the base of the Talamancas: Since a possible sighting occured there, why not check again? Also, given the amount of habitat and few surveys carried out in forests along the base of the Talamancas, it’s worth checking there as well. Sites to check would be Yorkin, Hitoy Cerere, and Barbilla National Park. Since there are no sightings from adjacent Panama, this might not be the best region to look but since we are talking about a very secretive, very difficult species no matter where it lives, you never know!
  • Well drained, primary forest with a fairly open understory: Since this situation matches places where it is seen most often, this could be the microhabitat that this species needs.

Why look for Wing-banded Antbird in Costa Rica when you can see it in Panama and northern South America? Well, not only would you possibly document this species for the country, you would also certainly see a lot of other rare species in the process. Bird those remote rainforests near Maquenque and Crucitas and I think you have a chance at both huge eagles, Red-throated Caracara, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and everything else. The main challenge is accessing the sites mentioned and carrying out intensive surveys for at least a week. If you can manage that in the forests east of Crucitas, I bet you will find it.

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Expecting the unexpected is par for the binocular course when birding in tropical rainforest. The surprise effect can be a challenge for target-based birding but makes every trip into the forest like that box of chocolate quote from Forrest Gump. Basically, while you can have an idea of what you might see, you never really never know what you are going to get.

Quebrada Gonzalez is like that and is probably why it’s one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked past those old, mossy trees on the trail, I really never know what is going to happen. However, every time I step into that dense forest, I am fully aware of rare possibilities at every turn of the trail.

This Chuck-will's-Widow was a nice, recent surprise.

On saturday, I birded the area with friends Susan Blank and Dani Lopez-Velasco, and as expected, we heard more than we saw and had some quiet times in beautiful forest, but also had a couple of mixed flocks, and a few really good birds. We went there because it’s the most accessible site as a day trip for a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Sharpbill, Gray-headed Piprites, and other Megas in Costa Rica. Although I hardly ever see those at the site, the more you go, the better chance you have at finally connecting with them so there’s never anything wrong with a day of birding at Quebrada.

We heard Lattice-tailed Trogon although I did have fantastic views the previous week.

As we quietly walked through the rainforest, the calls of Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers were a near constant companion. Some other birds were with them now and then but nothing incredible. No matter, they were still fun to watch as was White-ruffed Manakin, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Rufous Mourner. One of our best of the day was Black-crowned Antpitta. Always a Mega, Quebrada Gonzalez is one of the very few easily accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica (and in the world for that subspecies- maybe a future split?). Unfortunately, it’s not as regular at Quebrada as it used to be but still haunts the forest, especially near streams and gullies.

This female White-ruffed Manakin stayed in place much longer than the antpitta.

Like the previous week, we heard the bird sing quietly now and then and after a prolonged wait, the male antpitta (gnatpitta) finally hopped out onto the trail for nearly a minute. It was long enough for great looks but still not long enough to get a picture of it in the dim understory. We also had a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles near there.

Despite plenty of staring and listening in the understory, and hearing Dull-mantled, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, we didn’t hit any ground-cuckoo lotteries but we still had a chance on the Ceiba trail. At first, it was dreadfully quiet but some birds eventually started to show on the Botarrama Trail while we searched for Lanceolated Monklet. These were birds like Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Stripe-breasted Wren.

This Dull-mantled Antbird showed well the previous week.

After giving up on the monklet, we made our back up the trail and ran into a good mixed flock. As tanagers slowly made they way across the trail and other birds showed, movement in a tree off to the right materialized into one of our best for the day; Yellow-eared Toucanet! A male was feeding in a fruiting tree and then called high above before retreating back into the forest. Pale-vented thrushes and Black-mandibled Toucans were also feeding at the tree but we couldn’t wait around long enough to see if a Lovely Cotinga would make an appearance.

Striped Woodhaunter posed for a few shots.

The male was a year bird for me and Susan and a major target for Dani because it was one of the only lifers that he could get in Costa Rica. Hopefully, he will pick up the ground-cuckoo for himself and his clients during his Birdquest tour (last year, they got an astounding 590 plus species!).

As always, I can’t wait to get back to Quebrada to hang out in the forest and see what happens. Maybe I will get a picture of a Sharpbill, have Black-eared Wood-Quail quietly creep through the forest, or find a Black and white Hawk-Eagle. All are possible, but you won’t see them if you don’t put in the time and effort.

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admin on March 12th, 2015

A lot of factors come into play for a Big Day and one of the biggest is precipitation. If it’s a little bit of rain, that’s probably alright and might work in your favor in keeping the birds calling all day long. The same goes for showers. What you don’t want is a fat morning thunderstorm or constant, cold front rain because that really knocks out too many bird species to bother with a Big Day attempt.

Last Sunday, we had our Big Day attempt…and a cold front moved in to shut us down before dawn (ouch). As the clock hit seven, we still maintained hope that the rain would break long enough for enough birds to sing, or that it would be raining less in another morning birding spot, but neither of those plans worked out. So, instead of sticking to the schedule, we realized that it would be more fun to just hit a few spots for the rest of the day and not race down to Chomes to snatch looks at shorebirds in the mosquito loving dusk.

Robert, Susan, and I still saw some nice birds including a few rare ones. The following are some of the highs and lows of scouting on Saturday and birding on Sunday:

  • Green-winged Teal: A male had been reported from a site near our route. Saturday scouting showed that it was definitely close enough to fit in and also gave us chances at Killdeer (uncommon), Blue-winged Teal, and another wetland bird or two. It was nice to see the teal because this is a very rare species for Costa Rica and was new for my country list. We made this our final stop on Sunday and saw the teal straight away along with the Blue-wings, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Mockingbird, and a few other species.

    Green-winged Teal!

  • Scouting around San Ramon: Brief but cool to find a couple of birding spots, one of which may have given us Rufous-breasted and Rufous and white Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and other dry forest species.
  • Least Bittern: Another new one for my country list! Although we didn’t see it, we heard one bird that called once at Medio Queso. That was in the middle of the night but despite good weather, not as many birds were calling as I had hoped. That said, we did pick up Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, and Boat-billed Heron.

    What Medio Queso looks like during the day.

  • Great Potoo: After looking and listening for a reliable one at the San Emiliano bridge near Cano Negro, we were just about to give up when I noticed the monster sitting on a low post under a street light. We couldn’t ask for better views and one of the highlights of the weekend! After that, as we tried for Ocellated Poorwill and Common Potoo, the rain turned on.

    Great Potoo

  • Cano Negro to Upala: This turned out to be a low during our supposed 24 hours of concentrated birding madness. It was raining in earnest, the rocky road loosened a bracket underneath the vehicle, there were no birds to be seen, and it was slow going in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty happy to see pavement even with all that falling water.

    We saw this sloth during scouting at Cano Negro. It's looking up because I called like a Harpy Eagle. I know not so nice but I wanted to see if it recognized the call by instinct- it did.

  • Eastern Whip-poor-Will: A nice surprise! This is a tough/rare bird in Costa Rica and another welcome first for my country list. We saw it between the turn off for Castillo and the entrance to the Observatory Lodge along with dozens of pauraques en route. When I saw it, I knew there was something different about it and sure enough, it wasn’t a pauraque. As we drove up, it seemed to have a shorter tail and lacked white in the wings. A look through rain and bins showed enough to make us realize what it was. It also makes me wonder how many Whip-poor-wills and Chucks are out there in the dark night and overlooked? They rarely vocalize in-country so you just wouldn’t know if they were around. Speaking of chucks, Juan Diego Vargas mentioned several on the peninsula road at Arenal. Speaking of Juan Diego, he gets a huge thanks for filling us in on lots of gen before the Big Day.
  • The Arenal feeders: It was raining and the dawn chorus was minimal but at least we saw some birds; nice ones like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, several hummingbirds, and Hepatic Tanager.
  • Yellow-breasted Chat!: Despite looking for and not seeing on Saturday, the chat that I had seen with the guys from 10,000 Birds in December, we managed to turn it up in a different, tiny corner of vegetation in the same area on Sunday! Yay, especially because this was a new country bird for Robert and Susan.
  • Some birds around Penas Blancas: We left Arenal in search of clear weather and did find some at the Penas Blancas river. Birds were active and we picked up a fair number of expected species including Long-tailed Tyrant. Not enough stuff to make up for the lost morning but it was worth a try.

    Southern Roung-winged Swallow was one of the common birds we saw.

  • LoveEats Cafe: Always a highlight and always good! We decided to stop there and enjoy capuccinos after accepting that the day was a literal wash. Unfortunately, weather there was way too windy and dry. We saw a Swallow-tailed Kite but little else. It was the same way too dry weather at the Manuel Brenes road. If these sites continue with such dry weather, I don’t see how there won’t be full ecosystem collapse in an area that typically hosts hundreds of bird species.
  • San Luis Canopy: The nice people at this excellent zip-lining site and restaurant let us check out their feeders and trail through cloud forest. It was a nice walk and we saw several expected middle elevation species despite the sunny weather. No Sunbittern on the river but it does occur. I hope to visit soon to survey the place with a resident birder/guide and will post about it.

    A bridge at the San Luis Canopy

  • Good company: As always, no matter where we go, birding with Robert and Susan’s is always a good day.

The obvious solution to being rained out on a Big Day is rescheduling but so far, we haven’t found a date to do it because we need free time and a late afternoon high tide to coincide. If that happens, we might still make it happen and I do think we would have a chance at a record. Of course, the weather would still have to cooperate too!

A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture flies low over the marsh at Medio Queso.

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admin on March 5th, 2015

It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:

  • The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
  • Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
  • Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.

Royal Flycatchers are still reliable.

  • Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
  • Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
  • There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.

This Mangrove Hummingbird is actually from Mata de Limon.

  • Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.

This quetzal is from the Poas area.

  • Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
  • Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!

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If you have birded the Carara area during the past seven years, are birding it some time soon, or would love to raise the bins in that birdy place at some treasured future time, then you have probably heard about Cerro Lodge. Read any recent birding trip reports from Costa Rica and there’s a fair chance that Cerro Lodge gets a mention. This is because it’s one of the only ecolodges within close striking distance of the national park, Black and white Owls sometimes hang out with you during dinner (not as regular as the past but they still show up from time to time), and the birding is pretty dang good.

You might see a Red-lored Parrot feeding next to the lodge.

One of the most special of bird species possible at Cerro Lodge is the Yellow-billed Cotinga. This peace dove looking bird from avian dreams is an endangered species (and may be close to being critically so), and only lives from the delta of the Tarcoles River south to around David, Panama. If that range wasn’t small enough, the bird also lives in a very specific and limited ecotone, that of mangroves and rainforest. Nope the picky species just can’t have one or the other. It needs both and they need to be close to each other.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincon de Osa, the most reliable spot in the world for this species.

At Cerro Lodge, you can actually see a male just about every morning as it displays on a distant bare tree in the mangroves. Although us birders are accustomed to focusing our eyes and bins on distant objects, in this case, the “distance” is kind of extreme. I’m not sure how far away that tree is, but the bird looks like an honest to goodness speck. If it weren’t snow gleaming white, we wouldn’t be able to see it all but luckilly (I guess), that bright light plumage lets us tick it off our lists albeit with a big fat BVD next to the sighting (no, not as in underwear; “better view desired”). It helps when the bird swoops from one branch to the next because then we know that we are looking at a bird and not some lost snowflake or trick of the eye.

The spot to look for the cotinga is just to the left of this image.

So, the big question is, “Where does that bird go?” It doesn’t stay in the mangroves all day and probably moves to and from the park. At least that’s the theory since it has to go find food somewhere. Although it probably passes right through Cerro Lodge at some time or another, it seems that at least one male shows up around 200 meters down the road from the Cerro Lodge entrance from time to time.

This one showed up down the road from the lodge last week.

This species is quite the expert at putting a branch in between you and the camera.

and off it goes...

The other main question is “How many live in the area?” Although the answer to that one is unknown, unfortunately, it’s probably “very few”. When Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre fame  carried out surveys for Yellow-billed Cotinga, they estimated that there might be a dozen or less in the Carara area and that the population was, likely, slowly declining. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that this doesn’t add up to a happy future for this species at Carara. Take into account the increasingly dry climate around Cerro Lodge and the national park, and the future for this species around Carara isn’t nearly as bright as the cotinga’s plumage.

Reforestation in the much needed corridor seems unlikely (not impossible but those cows do need their pasture after all…) but the species probably wouldn’t survive in a drier climate in any case. Nevertheless, since I don’t have the time to do it myself, I hope that others can somehow keep this species going in the area because when we stop seeing a male or two displaying from that distant tree, Yellow-billed Cotingas at Carara will always be lost in the haze.

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admin on February 16th, 2015

Birding in Costa Rica hasn’t been going on as long as watching for wood-warblers in Central Park,  counting hawks at Cape May, or taking pictures of birds at Ding darling Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, we do have our own little set of classic sites and Virgen del Socorro is one of them. It earns “classic” status mostly because the rocky road into the forested canyon has felt the hiking shoes of hundreds of birders since the 1980s. I daresay that people have also birded the spot in the pre-history of Costa Rican birding (this would be pre-1989, the publication date for The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch).

Birders have visited Virgen del Socorro for years because it has offered easy access to some fine middle elevation birding. Although the 2009 Cinchona earthquake put a hiatus on visits and diminished the habitat, it is currently accessible and can still be great for a nice mix of foothill and cloud forest species.

Nevertheless, there is “another” Virgen del Socorro that deserves our attention. This “other” is really just the part of the road that goes from the northern side of the settlement and loops over to the main road to Sarapiqui just north of San Miguel. Since classic Virgen del Socorro birding is typically limited to birding in the canyon, most birders haven’t made it to this other nearby site. In fact, I wasn’t aware of it until a few months ago although I have wished that I could fly over to those forest from San Miguel every time I see them from afar.

Last weekend, I was finally able to check out the site for a morning of birding with faithful birding friend Susan. Here is a brief report and synopsis:

After crossing the mountains at Varablanca, we drifted downslope to pass the waterfall and Cinchona Cafe, eventually reaching the foothills and San Miguel around 6:30 am. We hadn’t made any real stops except at a service station where a Mourning Warbler popped out of a nearby bush. White-winged Doves were also present and a reminder that they are almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The entrance to the lower Virgen del S. loop is just after San Miguel and can be recognized by the semi-creepy presence of a cemetery.

Fortunately and amazingly, there are also a couple of signs.

The road is paved and takes a few curves down through farmland with scattered trees, lots of Social Flycatchers, and other common, edge species before reaching the first river.

One of the rivers.

As is required of anyone with binoculars, we searched the river rocks and boulders for a lurking tiger-heron or Sunbittern but despite seemingly ideal habitat, came up with zilch. The same thing happened at the next one or two rivers, one of which was the Sarapiqui. Although we failed on those river birds, they should show up. The rivers were also good places for watching the forest in the riparian zone although we didn’t see much at the big river.

At the most forested river ( a smaller one, I think it is the Rio Volcan), we had some birds. Actually, we had a lot and thanks to a major fruiting fig, only needed to stand in place and swivel back and forth to see dozens of species. This was a major rather than minor fruiting fig because it was big, filled with fruits, and jumping with birds. Yes, it was a veritable avian disco fruit fest with several Black-mandibled Toucans doing their best John Travolta. Their dance consisted of reaching with the beak to pick off a fig and gliding between branches as thrushes, tanagers (mostly common ones), and flycatchers rustled the dark green foliage. After 30 minutes of action, the birds were upstaged (and scared off) by eight hungry Spider Monkeys! This was a treat because this primate has become decidedly uncommon in many parts of Costa Rica.

A Spider Monkey in action.

When this happened, many of the birds rushed over to decorate the branches of a nearby bare tree. Most were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers but we also had several Golden-hoodeds, honeycreepers, and our only Plain-colored Tanager of the day. We also had our first of three White Hawks during the morning.

As the monkeys settled down, some birds came back but it looked like most weren’t going to be foolish enough to hang out with a bunch of hairy primates so we moved on up the road. On the side of the bridge, the road switchbacks up through some alright forest and I surmise that this part of the road in particular has a lot of potential. Although we didn’t get any results when  playing the sound of the monklet at likely spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. Nor did we get any response from Black-crowned Antpitta but who knows? Maybe it could show up too if some ants came marching through. One indication of good habitat was a response from Ocellated Antbird, and we had a few other good birds further up the road.

A good spot just down the road from the fig tree.

Some of our best birding was on a straight road that dead ends at a small hydro project. Although there weren’t many places to pull off the road, it passes through nice forest, we had a lot of mixed flock activity, heard Black-headed Antthrushes kind of far off, and had killer looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

The straight hydro road. I would love to bird there a lot more.

The eagle was calling down in a nearby canyon and since it was giving an atypical call, to make sure that it was an Ornate, and not a Black and White, I imitated the call to bring it into view. The bird complied and showed that it was indeed a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Ornate Hawk Eagle indeed!

A closer look at this powerful raptor- they can catch a curassow.

After that high point, we followed the road to a point where there are steps that lead to a small overlook above the hydro project. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers reminded us that we were approaching the lowlands. We also had Fasciated Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and other lowland species on another side road that eventually led to unbirdy farmland. Continuing on up the main road to Virgen del Socorro (more signs!), we passed next to more forest and saw things like Crimson-collared Tanager, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Collared Aracari. This road eventually loses its pavement (and may require four wheel drive), then goes through flat, fairly deforested farmland before reaching the settlement of V. de Socorro but also passes by a small reservoir en route that had Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and one Ring-necked Duck.

We also saw a few Russet Antshrikes. These birds are really into dead leaves.

One can keep following this road on up to the good middle elevation forests around Albergue del Socorro, or can follow it to the right and down through the classic V del Socorro canyon. We did a but of both, highlights being one or two White Hawks, heard only Barred Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon, and saw other expected species including Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

The lower loop looks like a good one to take if birding Virgen del Socorro because it accesses forest at 500 meters elevation, goes through some nice habitat, and allows more views of rivers (not to mention our killer looks at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle). Check out this eBird list to see which birds we saw and heard.

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admin on February 12th, 2015

Last week, I started out a day of guiding at El Tapir. We arrived just after dawn, the sky was overcast, and the old butterfly garden was jumping with birds. A group of Black-faced Grosbeaks fed on fruits in a low tree, Silver-throated Tanagers were flying back and forth, and Black and Yellow Tanagers (our only looks for the day) came to the edge of the canopy. Several Black-mandibled Toucans moved through the trees along with flock after flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.

Down in the flowers, in contrast to a visit just a week before, we had several species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Plumeleteer. The Rufous-taileds were still there but may have come out later in the day, and although the coquette was elsewhere, we did get a few Snowcaps! I don’t know where they had gone on other days, but on Friday, they were back, hopefully for good.

This Green Thorntail was still around.

We ventured into the dark morning woods and heard a few birds but it was quieter than other days. Maybe they knew something we didn’t because not long after, it started to rain…and never stopped. We birded for a couple of hours from the shelter of the main building and did pick up a few other species during brief respites but the rain wasn’t going to stop. So, instead of hanging out in the same rain at Quebrada Gonzalez, we decided to head into the lowlands. My client still needed Keel-billed Toucan and maybe the weather would be better?

That turned out to be a lucky choice because, yes, we managed to escape the rain, got a couple of Keel-billeds at our first stop, and had serendipitous birding for the rest of the day. After seeing the toucans, we checked out the entrance road to La Selva around 10:30 am. It was extremely quiet but I had a hunch that would change. We eventually got some birds near the second entrance gate, the first being a Laughing Falcon perched over the road.

Not long after, we watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Long-tailed Tyrant and then bird activity exploded like a feather bomb. It wasn’t just the mixed flock I had hoped for but flyby parrots as well, the highlight being a pair of Great Green Macaws that perched in a nearby tree! We had been hearing the macaws as they slowly approached us and I hoped to see them fly past. Instead, they stopped and let us admire them as other species showed up in the surrounding trees.

I don't get to see these perched that often.

As with a typical mixed flock experience, almost everything shows at once. Luckily, the birds weren’t streaming through the canopy, so we got good looks at most of them. I forget which bird started off the madness but things went something like this:

“There’s the jacamar”.

“Oh, here’s a Bright-rumped Attila! Got it? Band-backed Wren? Got it?”

“What’s that on the wire?”

“Gartered Trogon!”

“Here’s a Fasciated Antshrike. White-collared Manakin. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Cocoa Woodcreeper calling. Yellow-billed Cacique in the open! Squirrel Cuckoo. Rufous-winged and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. Plain Xenops. Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Nice looks at Cinnamon Becard. Lesser Greenlet. Bay Wren in the open. Golden-winged Warbler. Never mind (the name we gave to Passerini’s Tanager). Buff-throated Saltator.”

We also managed to scope a few birds in the distance including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, before leaving for lunch. Regarding lunch, I thought that Rancho Magellanes would be a good choice. It’s a 10 minute drive from La Selva, not long after Selva Verde, and can turn up some good birds on the river. The forest canopy can also be scoped from the restaurant and they serve good food for good prices. Although we didn’t see any birds while eating, we were surprised by a Summer Tanager that flew down right next to us (one or two feet away). After it flew to a nearby perch, I put a french fry (chip) on the table and it immediately came down to snatch it.  That was a first for me.

That's a french fry.

After lunch, we heard but did not see an Olive-backed Euphonia. However, that miss was quickly made up for by a male Snowy Cotinga perched right where it should be- at the top of a huge bare tree!

Can you see the cotinga?

A good day so far and it wasn’t over yet. We went back to the entrance road and although the activity didn’t approximate that of the morning, we still saw quite a bit with several species coming to a fruiting fig (including euphonias we had missed), good looks at Gray-headed Kite and both tityras, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and heard all three tinamous. Yes, a good day indeed. I woud love to see how many species I could detect by birding along the entrance road and edge of La Selva at dawn.

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