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admin on February 19th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the feather ball field mark.

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

Nice of him to sit in good light! 

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

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admin on February 13th, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senor and Senora surreal.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t get too close to this one!

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

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

Barred Hawks sort of look like Black Vultures.

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admin on January 31st, 2018

Wind may shake the branches and rain may soak the ground but it won’t keep me from doing that birding stuff all day long. These days, in Costa Rica, that’s a fair motto to follow. Well, it’s not all that bad actually, just seems that way when you have this vacillation between heavy and light rain for several days. Stick with it, adapt to it, make use of plastic. The birds are still there, they still have to feed, and you will still see a lot.

Speaking of that, here is a brief summary of the latest trends and news in Costa Rica birding:

Sparrows So, the small brown birds with conical bills might not find themselves at the upper echelons of birding excitement up north, but here in Costa Rica, yeah, we get psyched about most sparrows. No, not the Rufous-collared, but other, much more difficult ones to add to our local lists. You know those common ones up in the temperate zone? You know, as in that trilling bird of open pine stands in state parks, or that other triller of the marshlands, or various other sparrows? Or, that one that breeds in boreal and highland bogs and is commonly seen in migration? Yeah, in Costa Rica, all are megas, this year, several folks have seen the latter bog bird at a site in Guanacaste. Much to my chagrin, it happens to be the same exact site where I was hoping to pish up a sparrow or two after finally making the lifer connection with the good old Spotted Rail in December. Either the Lincon’s Sparrows hadn’t arrived yet or they didn’t dig my pishing. No matter, they are there right now. Not that any visiting birder would want to see them but, in Costa Rica, a Lincoln’s Sparrow always makes birding news.

Not a sparrow, not even close, but I haven’t seen them so I’m posting a picture of a totally unrelated White-flanked Antwren instead.

Before I get off the sparrow topic, I should also mention that another lost little brown bird has also made it to our shores. In this case, a country first White-crowned Sparrow wintering in the Osa Peninsula. How a bird that breeds in the treeline tundra manages to survive in one of the more humid parts of Central America is both a mystery and serious testament to adaptability. So far so good, I hope it makes it back to northern Manitoba because it will have one hell of a story to tell! This Indiana Jones of sparrows would likely relate tales of surviving on bananas, seriously hot weather, the danger posed by various snakes, and that the number of mosquitoes was of course nothing compared to a high northern June.

Other odd winter birds– Speaking of lost sparrows, another bird that maybe went too far south also comes to mind. In fact, they might have even hailed from the same wolf and wind howling tundra as the sparrow, might have taken that same lost train way south. American Pipits, as common as they are in winter much to the north, are rare as heck in Costa Rica. One was seen earlier in the year on Cerro de la Muerte, now at least two have appeared in Guanacaste. So, it makes me wonder, are such birds of cold climes here because of the deep freezes that hit the north? Are they here every year? I suspect it’s a bit of both- birds like American Pipit and sparrows come to Costa Rica every year but we don’t find them because they are so few in number (and because most folks in their right mind don’t want to scour brushy, chigger crazy fields). Probability dictates that there are probably more out there. Please keep your eyes and mind open to sparrows and other birds that seem out of place, and report them ASAP to eBird so we can chase them.

Crested Guan- In Costa Rica, not in the last bit odd, even if it feeds in a palm, out in the open.

Cotingas at Arenal– Since you always have a chance of seeing esteemed members of this family at Arenal, it’s almost silly to mention this BUT since we all have a soft spot in our birding hearts for cotingas (that really means we need to very desperately see them), I also can’t help but mention that the umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga have been recently seen on the grounds of the Observatory Lodge. It’s not every day that this happens but it is a somewhat regular occurrence and always good to know. By the way, just to mention, did you know that the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is Endangered? Like not, you know, just hard to see but officially, seriously under mofo threat of going extinct? Yeah, just a filthy reminder about what “Endangered” means. According to Birdlife International, it’s even more likely to go extinct than the Vulnerable and crazier looking Long-wattled Umbrellabird. If we can reforest enough of the lowland areas that meet the foothills, we might be able to do our collective home a favor and remove the “Endangered” status from descriptions of this special bird.

Bold Sunbittern at Lands in Love– Last but far from least, recently, there was an especially bold Sunbittern at the Lands in Love hotel. That or it was seriously wishing that it could have been an egret. No skulking at the shady water’s edge for this one. Nope, it was standing out there in a large, muddy puddle catching tadpoles. Eventually, it did the right Sunbittern thing and moved to the edge. Then, it hung out there for an eternity, absolutely refusing to show its sunburst patterned wings no matter how close it was approached, nor how many photos were taken.

I wasn’t making this up.

Cope’s Place– The bird haven of artist/naturalist Jose Perez just keeps getting better. In addition to the usual roosting Spectacled and Crested Owls, a damn Rufous-winged Tanager was coming to the feeder a few weeks ago, someone took a fricking amazing picture of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle, and he also knows (once again), a spot for a roosting Great Potoo.

Many other things could be said about birds in Costa Rica but it’s mostly what you might expect- lots of great birding just about everywhere you go, awesome feeder action, dozens of hummingbirds, quetzals, you probably get the picture. If not, come on down and get the experience.

 

 

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Right now, in Costa Rica, the classic dry season has been evasive. As the sky clouds over just as it did during June, and the rains begin to fall, it almost feels like the whole usual dry season thing has been waived. Cold fronts continue to arrive and subsequently douse the country with Atlantic showers while a “Nina” effect over in the Pacific has only added to the wet situation. Despite the umbrella test, there are good things associated with this. High biodiversity is correlated with high rainfall and that makes for more birds. It’s one of the main reasons why so many species occur in Costa Rica.

It can be a challenge to find them under varying degrees of precipitation but what’s a birder gonna do? It’s part of the local birding scene and when the clouds take a lunch break, the birds suddenly come out to play. Get enough of those breaks and you can get into some stellar birding, especially when high rainfall earlier in the year encouraged the trees and bushes to grow lots of bird friendly fruit. Seriously, it’s a smorgasbord out there right now, the tanagers, manakins, thrushes, trogons, and toucans are going to feed whether it rains or not.

Need fruit.

When the sun eventually does come out, there seem to be certain birds that take advantage of the sudden bloom of warmth and UV rays. Yesterday morning at El Tapir, a client and myself bore witness to what can happen when the rain finally comes to a stop and the sun, unhindered by clouds, punctuates the sky. At first, there was little activity, as if the birds were still numbed by the constant falling of water, still in denial that the rain had stopped. A few wrens and some other birds vocalized, a pair of Mealy Parrots fluttered overhead but pretty quiet otherwise. However, while the birds of the forest slowly came back to life, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were racing around the garden. Judging by their frantic behavior (even for hummingbirds), it seemed like they hadn’t eaten quite enough in days. Or maybe they just didn’t get their fill of nectar? Whatever the case, they were drinking from the Verbena flowers as if they were participants in some avian Bacchus festivities. Unfortunately, they didn’t invite any other hummingbirds to the party and took great efforts to bounce any potentially crashing woodnymph, Snowcap, or Violet-headed.

Dressed for the party, still denied entrance. Name’s not down, not coming in.

It took a while but the Rufous-taileds seemed to eventually get their fill (or became too inebriated) and as the sun took over the garden space, a couple other hummingbird species braved the post party scene. One of the most cooperative was a male Black-crested Coquette.

Gasp!

As is typical with coquettes, the male chose to perch on a bare twig for extended periods of time before carefully flying down to drink from the Verbena. Much to our satisfaction, this particular exquisite beauty preferred to feed on a bush right in front of us.

It was interesting to note that as the coquette fed, the Rufous-taileds seemed to be more concerned with chasing a female woodnymph and a Violet-headed Hummingbird. It was as if they didn’t notice the coquette as the smaller hummingbird slowly moved in and out of the flowering bushes, pumping its tail up and down the entire time.

As we enjoyed the coquette show, a few raptors eventually took advantage of thermals created by the sun to fly high over the garden.

The venue.

As it turned out, the Black-crested Coquette was just the headliner for the main act.

The first on stage was an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle. It called so loudly, I expected to see it floating just over the canopy but no, it was already high above the forest, fooling the eyes into thinking they were seeing something as small as an Accipiter or a dainty kite. The eagle called over and over, it was as if it couldn’t help itself, singing because it could finally soar up and reach those heights again after a repressive bout of cool weather and constant rain. Alive again! Like there was nothing else in its world, it yelled into the skies above the forest, fluttered its wings and made shallow dives, displaying over a busy road for all who felt like peering into the high blue sky. Once, I swear it did a barrel roll, vocalizing the entire time.

As the eagle continued with its expression of exuberant defiance, next on the list were a pair of Barred Hawks. These broad-winged, short-tailed raptors gave their gull-like vocalizations as they soared into view. They continued to make circles up above the forest until they reached a point where they also began to display by soaring in tandem, calling the entire time.

One of the Barred Hawks, looks like it found some food that morning.

While this raptor fest was going on, a pair of King Vultures also soared into view, not as close as the hawks but still within eyeshot to appreciate their bold, black and white pattern. They seemed to be displaying as well, one bird almost flying into the other one and then close tandem flight, like the other raptors, taking advantage of a beautiful, new day.

It might rain a lot but it eventually stops. When it does, the sun’s coming out something good is going to happen, the time comes for action. Whether you be a Spizaetus or a birder, be ready to make your move and catch the lightbridge found in that window of respite.

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Polar vortices don’t reach as far south as Costa Rica but that doesn’t negate their effect. The icy fingers of the latest freeze up north have touched enough air masses to push some of the cold stuff down this way. It’s way too far south for any substantial amount of snow or ice but we do get cool temperatures and, most of all, sort of ridiculous amounts of rain. These aren’t the typical reliable tropical thunderstorms where one can bird all morning and take a nap accompanied by the soothing sound of falling rains in the afternoon. Nope, more like a near constant barrage of falling water that goes from light to heavy to mist in wave after trying wave.

Yeah, like how do you watch birds with conditions like that? What happened to the dry season? Patience and perseverance are key to birding success in such wet times as these, as for the dry season, in January that has always been more of a Pacific slope thing anyways. The funny thing about the dry season in Costa Rica is that it’s not really the dry season for the entire country. While the rains don’t happen on part of the Pacific slope, it has always been another story for the Caribbean and during cold fronts, the rains soak the waterways of the mountains and lowlands that flow to the Atlantic basin.

The water that falls on Arenal Volcano heads to the Caribbean and during a cold front, its slopes catch a lot of that moisture. Recently, while guiding four fellow birders from New York state, I was witness to the effects of a cold front. Despite the frightening prospect of near constant rain, we actually had more good birding news than bad. It did not end up raining the entire time and we still connected with several nice targets during birding at the Observatory Lodge and the Peninsula Road. Some hits, misses, and observations:

Take advantage of the buffet breakfast– Yes, seriously, and this worked in our favor because we could start birding at dawn, take a break at 8:20 to stock up on gallo pinto, cheese rolls, and other food, and then continue right on through lunch.

Antbirds played well– Continuing the birding on through lunch is especially important when it might rain for the rest of the afternoon, and many of the target species require an investment of birding time. We would not have seen our target antbirds if we had not stayed out there on the Hormiga and Saino Trails post breakfast. We got looks at Dull-mantled, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated at an antswarm. It started raining shortly thereafter just as we were about to see a Thicket Antpitta. Over on the Peninsula Road the following morning, we heard several Bare-crowned and had brief looks at one or two.

A Spotted Antbird from another trip to the Arenal area.

The White Hawk Villa really does have White Hawks– If you want lots of space, stay at the villa! Although we didn’t take advantage of all that extra floor space to throw a White Hawk dance party, we did have excellent looks at the signature raptor species.

Cotinga dip– No, we did not make finger foods out of shiny birds. Birders will know that we barely missed seeing a cotinga in the morning, missed again that afternoon, and then did not see it the following morning. Ouch. Serious ouch to see pictures of the male Lovely Cotinga from the day before and then the day after we left. No senor Cotinga, you were not supposed to take a day off from that fruiting fig.

Cracids, tanagers, and toucanets still come out in the rain– Or, at least in cloudy conditions. Great Curassows walked the grounds, Crested Guans posed and made weird honking noises (the local version of a goose?), chachalacas appeared, several tanagers showed including Emerald, and we couldn’t help but see another Yellow-eared Toucanet!

Female Yellow-eared Toucanet at the Casona. The fourth for the trip, you would think these were reliable!

The Black and White Owl is still there– One of these beauties frequently feeds at a light at the entrance to the Casona at the Observatory Lodge. Much to our delight, it was there during our visit as well.

A few other dips but a few other good birds too– We couldn’t escape the rain entirely and it likely resulted in us missing seeing that antpitta, and finding Song Wren, Nightingale Wren, and a few other birds. But, we did see a distant soaring Great Black Hawk, saw a roosting Great Potoo, got our Keel-billed Motmot, and at the last second of guiding, White-fronted Nunbird!

I went back there later that day with a friend and the nunbirds were still there, this time doing imitations of kingbirds.

We also had more views of the star motmot.

Unfortunately, more cold fronts in Costa Rica are expected due to a cold water Nina effect in the Pacific. Be ready for rain but if you are also ready to persevere, you can still see a lot.

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At times, the number of birds on the Costa Rica list seems endless. Although some websites mention a robust 850 plus species, actually, the total has grown a fair bit since the list was pegged at that number. Some new birds were expected, some weren’t, but in any case, at the moment, the official list stands at more than 920 species, one of which was added just the other day (Great Black-backed Gull in Tortuguero!).

With such a large number of birds, we can also expect a fair number to be rare or hard to find. As anyone who has tried to see Tawny-faced Quail, Gray-headed Piprites, or Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica can tell you, this is indeed true. Those three and several other species can be pretty tough whereas quite a few others are just plain uncommon. The uncommon ones are the birds that frequently escape detection on brief trips or even when you only have one day to bird a site. Check that same area over three days and you have a much better chance at connecting with the uncommon and secretive ones but who has the time for that when you have other sites to get to and just ten days to work with?

At the end of the day, this means that whether a birder resides in Costa Rica or visits once a year, he or she always has the chance to see new birds, at least for their country list. One species that frequently escapes detection during an average tour is the toucan species that most folks still need after two or even three trips to Costa Rica. The lack of a check (or tick in Brit-birder lingo) next to its name derives from its decidedly reclusive behavior, likely low density population, and often inaccessible foothill forest home.

Unlike bold toucan species that yelp and rattle from exposed perches, the toucanet with the yellow ears clacks from the shady depths of tall rainforest trees. It rarely if ever ventures into the open and would rather stay quiet than demonstrate any degree of vocal capability. In other words, a real stickler to see but there’s good news! When certain types of trees are fruiting, this species can’t help its hunger and lingers for as long as the tree provides the banquet. Lately, in foothill forests, those very trees have been laden with purple, round fruits, and the toucanets have come out to dine.

This male was with a female on the Ceiba trail at Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other day, despite near constant rain, we had three different Yellow-eared Toucanets at such fruiting trees in Quebrada Gonzalez, and we weren’t the only ones to have soul satisfying looks at this local mega. Other birders have also been reporting and posting fantastic pictures of the toucanet from the Arenal area. Since I am headed there soon, it will interesting to see if we find more of this fine bird species. Whether we see more toucanets or not, it will still be worth it to watch those clumps of purple fruits because they look just as delectable for umbrellabirds and other birds, maybe even a lovely bright blue and purple one.

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admin on January 3rd, 2018

According to the calendars on my computer, iPad and around the house, another year has started. On December 31st, I was also made aware of this fact by way of a flurry of small, controlled explosions that went off just around midnight. I wasn’t up on purpose, I was attempting to sleep or at least get enough rest to guide the following morning. The good thing is that whether because I had gotten enough rest or because of exhilaration at starting a new year list, fortunately, I did not feel exhausted on January first, 2018. I birded/guided all day long and lists at the end of the day included a bunch of quality species.

We started at El Tapir, right at dawn. No bat-like silhouettes of Short-tailed Nighthawks appeared but we made up for that with these and other highlights:

First birds were small hummingbirds: But wait, aren’t all hummingbirds on the smaller end of things? Well, yes, but if we were the same size as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewings might look as big as a Clydesdale, whereas Snowcaps would be sort of like Hobbits. I know, given the unkempt, hairy feet, and hole-dwelling behaviors, probably not the fairest of comparisons. But, when you consider the need for a second or third breakfast, maybe not so far from the mark…

Black-crested Coquette was one of the very first species we saw.

This was quickly followed up by views of Green Thorntail and Snowcap.

Ant swarm in the garden: Bicolored Antbirds called from the edge of the forest and the open areas played host to a few Wood Thrushes, Buff-rumped Warblers, and even Passerini’s Tanagers intently peering at the ground. A closer look revealed a partially hidden carpet of ravenous ants. Yes! Most people  might balk or reach for the Raid when hearing “ants” “swarm” and “garden” in the same sentence. Not us birders and especially not in Costa Rica because an antswarm in the garden means serious bird activity and photo opps. Although the true antbirds stayed in the shade of forest or a hedgerow, we did get looks at Bicolored and one stellar Ocellated Antbird.

Always stunning!

The small toucan with yellow ears: The other toucans in Costa Rica have normal ears. This one’s are yellow and it’s the one that we all want to see. Unlike its boisterous relatives, the Yellow-eared Toucanet is a much more stealthy creature. Usually seen in pairs, it creeps through the canopy of foothill and middle elevation rainforest as it searches for fruiting trees and small animals. Sort of like a ninja. Come to think of it, its mostly black plumage also makes it look a bit like an avian ninja. Well, then again, maybe not it’s still a champ at avoiding detection. That’s why watching one at El Tapir on the first day of the year was a major win in the realm of autonomous challenges.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager: Is it a shrike? How about a tanager? It’s actually sort of both- a tanager that has a shrike-like bill but also acts like a flycatcher. I know, like what on Earth is going on here? To top off the weirdness, shrike-tanagers also make lots of noise. Like the toucanet, this bird is another mature forest snob. You gotta venture into the old woods to see the White-throated Shrike-Tanager. It was very nice to encounter three or four at El Tapir.

Other tanagers: In Costa Rica, foothill rainforests are also where the other tanagers roam. Hard to think of a better way to start the year than watching a colorful display that included Emerald, Speckled, Black and yellow, Tawny-crested, and Silver-throated tanagers among other species.

If you see an Emerald Tanager in good light, please feel free to gasp.

It was a great first day of the year, especially when we ended it with an afternoon of Great Green Macaws, Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, trogons, and Broad-billed Motmot in the Sarapiqui area. Are you birding in Costa Rica? Wishing you a Snowy Cotinga and lots of other birds in 2018!

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admin on December 28th, 2017

At this time of year, I tend to be bathing in the warmth of my parent’s home in Niagara Falls, NY accompanied by family and a plate of good old fashioned gnocchi from the Como Restaurant.

Yum.

My daughter also lives up to her yearly promise of hitting me with a snowball as I enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of red cardinals, chickadees, and juncos. This, year, though, we didn’t make the trip and given the reports of soul-biting temperatures and abundant white stuff, I kind of don’t mind that we stayed in Costa Rica, that I missed out on Como gnocchi in late December. It’s not so bad, I mean I got the chance to do some awesome Christmas Bird Counts, pushed up the year list total a little bit more and finally even saw a Spotted Rail!

While staying here for the changing of the years, I was also reminded of some things to keep in mind when birding in Costa Rica. These are five of them:

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are the de-facto Empid: Never mind the Leasts, here’s the Yellow-bellieds! No matter how uncommonly seen it may be up north, most winter Empids in Costa Rica are this one. Pish and it will probably call back, take advantage of studying them but do keep an eye out for Acadians. The southern Empid is here as well, just not as common as the little flycatcher on vacay from the boreal zone. An occasional Least is also seen but know that the small Empid with the gray head is quite the rare find this far south.

The Yellowish Flycatcher is also common in middle elevation forest but its much more obviously yellow than migrant Empids.

I may have a yellow belly but I still rule the winter Empid scene in Costa Rica.

It’s cooler now: Just like up north, temperatures go down but instead of sinking to bitter freezing cold, they only skip-drop a few degrees. This makes for slightly more welcome temperatures in Carara and other sun-baked areas of the Pacific lowlands, as well as a nippy climate when owling for the Unspotted Saw-whet.

Beware of festivals: Not that there’s anything bad about streets being taken over by prancing horses, random fireworks, and loud music. It’s just that when you need to get somewhere to see birds, such activities can become rather problematic. At least festivities tend to be held in urban areas and not on major highways, and Waze should let you know when you need to make that detour (unless you do feel like partaking in beers, horses, and experiencing the local version of “yee-haw!”).

Dry and windy in the west, rain in the east: Or, is that north and then south? Yes, you could say that too, I suppose it’s easiest to remember that it’s dry on one side of the mountains and wet on the other. A generalization for sure but more or less true at this time of year. It probably won’t infringe upon the birding too much, stick with it and you will still see a lot!

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

Birds take vacations too: Many in Costa Rica move to lower elevations and odd places in quests for food and more pleasant climes. Watch for fruiting trees and bushes in lowland and foothill rainforests on both slopes. That’s where a lot of the birds are!

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

I hope these reminders are of help for any bird-related trip to Costa Rica. As always, I also hope to see you in the field, especially if we happen to be watching a Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, or a Loggerhead Shrike (nope, not on the list yet and not likely, but I did have a vivid dream about seeing one in Costa Rica).

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admin on December 22nd, 2017

I haven’t posted in a couple weeks but I have a good excuse. At least I think I do, it involves being busy with birding, Christmas Bird Counts, and general family vacation stuff. I’m still doing some of that from now until the final day of 2017 but tonight, I managed to find time to write a post. In terms of birds and Costa Rica, although there’s a lot I could talk about, I’ll limit this one to Rincon de la Vieja National Park.

Rincon de la Vieja is the most prominent mountain visible from Liberia. Just look to the north and there it is, a big blocky uprising of land topped in green, and, quite often, with clouds. Like most mountains in Costa Rica, it’s actually a volcano, and hosts wonderful tropical forests where lots of nice birds live. Last weekend, the very first CBC was held for the park, and thanks to the count organizers, not only was it a success, I also got a cool tee-shirt emblazoned with a Northern Potoo.

The official count bird and emblem wasn’t some birding pipe dream either. Much to our collective happiness, there actually was a Northern Potoo waiting for us at Rincon de la Vieja! One has apparently been hanging out on a typical potoo perch for the past couple of months and did us a huge favor by showing up on that same spot for the morning of the count.

Yes, potoos are seriously weird. An excellent and much wanted year and country bird.

If you are interested in seeing that potoo, ask the park guards at the new information center, they will probably know if it is on the perch. Information Center? Oh yes! The park has a nice new building with restrooms, potable water, where you can learn about the trails, and so on.

If the potoo is on the same perch, you won’t have to walk far either because it’s only about 100 meters past the entrance to the Las Pailas trail. Whether you look for the bird or not, it’s going to be an easy walk because the trail has been recently paved with cement. It’s easy-going, is handicap accessible, and still has lots of good birds.

Speaking of birds, Rincon always has a lot to offer, some of the typical species being Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-tanager, Golden-crowned Warbler, Long-tailed Manakin, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Ivory-billed, Olivaceous, Ruddy, and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. All of these are fairly common along with a good variety of other species. Choice birds like Tody Motmot and uncommon sparrows for Costa Rica are also present and there’s always a chance at rarities like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo and Violaceous Quail-Dove. As an aside, Army Ants also seem to be more common at Rincon de la Vieja.

Given its position on both sides of the continental divide and rain trapping capabilities, if you visit the Santa Maria sector, you might see more species of humid forest. The Pailas sector accesses moist and dry habitats but don’t expect to be able to hike up to the crater any time soon, volcanic activity has kept that trail closed. Both the Pailas and Cangreja trails have good birding, Pailas being better for folks with limited mobility. Since Cangreja covers more ground and passes through quite a bit of mature forest, this trail probably offers better chances at connecting with rare species. Nevertheless, rocky parts of the trail combined with ascents and descents only make it suitable for folks who can handle such situations.

As for getting to Rincon de la Vieja, thanks to most of the road to the park now being paved, expect a quick 30 minute drive from Liberia. However, thanks to Rincon’s geographic situation, we can also expect it to be pretty windy up there from time to time, probably more so during the dry season. Unfortunately, that constant wind was with us during the count and it took a serious toll on hearing birds. Persevere though, and you will still see a lot, especially when the wind dies down, or, best of all, when it’s not windy at all.

To learn more about birding at this and dozens of other sites in Costa Rica, as well as more than 700 pages on how to find and identify birds in Costa Rica, see my e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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admin on December 6th, 2017

For many, December is a month of importance. Major holidays are celebrated, winter makes itself known by way of dim days, long nights, and blowing snow, juncos flit through the woods, and birds feast at the feeder. We laugh and make merry with the family, eat too much, and ponder the utility of spiced drinks.

While some of us have our annual viewing of “Die Hard”, others brave busy stores, crowded roads, and a constant barrage of holiday tunes as we strive to acquire the right gifts. After a few days of the annual madness, many of us understand the utility of fortified beverages all too well, but for us birders, whether we feel like enjoying a fine craft beer or not, we can’t help but smile because we have other very important things to look forward to. This being December, Christmas count season is upon us and oh what a jolly fun time it is!

There’s nothing like heading out into the freezing cold pre-dawn to listen for owls in a sky so damn cold it feels like the stars might just shatter. It’s even better when you wonder if your frozen nose is still sitting on your face as you issue forth owl imitations that begin to sound more like, “This sucks for you!” instead of the usual words. It all changes, though, when the voice of an honest to goodness Barred Owl echoes through the winter forest. The sudden communication and connection with nature fosters the warmth and satisfaction associated with birding success and keeps us going throughout the long, cold day. As the day moves forward, we are rejuvenated by each new bird, wonder what is being seen by other counters, and rejoice in just being out there in the woods, fields, shore, or other natural places.

We give ourselves over to birds, just for a day, and that eggnog tastes so much better for having done so because when you get up before dawn, walk miles through wild lands, and share it with like-minded people, you damn well know you are living! It’s always better when a lifer joins you for the personal counting party but if not, it’s still glorious to experience the beauty of the count.

It’s even better when you can do a Christmas Bird Count in Costa Rica and this is why:

It’s not cold– It might rain all day but you won’t have to worry about putting on that parka. This here is the tropics; all those Baltimore Orioles, wood-warblers, and other migrants don’t come here for nothing! No need for gloves or a cozy hat up in this house. Instead, we are concerned about wearing clothing that keeps us cool, carrying enough water to stay hydrated, and keeping up with the chattering of parakeets, chortles of wrens, and the sights and sounds of hundreds of other birds.

No snow in the rainforest at wonderful Finca Luna Nueva.

Constant birds– Unlike some counts up north, in Costa Rica, you will be hearing or seeing birds all day long, many of which will be different. The new birds keep coming in the rich tropical habitats of Costa Rica- be ready for the challenge!

Keep the tanagers coming- this is a Black and Yellow.

Rare stuff– Since many tropical species are naturally rare, you can expect to run across one or more of those birds that you just don’t see that often. You never know what you might find but you walk hand in hand with excitement because the rare ones can take the form of anything from a Yellow-eared Toucanet to a Sunbittern or even Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

It’s an event!– Christmas Bird Counts in Costa Rica are often all out events. A count meeting is usually held the evening before count day and can include a talk or two about a special bird in the count circle, recent bird studies, and/or overviews of the routes. Route leaders are named, counters assigned, and bag lunches are handed out. When the count is finally over, we gather together once more to tally up the 300 plus species, exchange stories, and share a dinner and drinks. Distributors of optics and arts and crafts might also be present and someone might even make a speech.

This year, I have done one count so far, the Arenal Christmas Count, I sure hope I can fit in one or two more so I can end this year with a fine birding blast. Here is a link to counts being held, sign up to experience one or two!

 

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