Most days, my commute to work is more like an anti-commute. Instead of leaving the house to go elsewhere to factor my energy into time, I actually have to come back to the house to get things done. I know that sounds like a riddle but it basically means that I do most of my work at home. I still need to leave the house in the morning to drop my daughter off at her pre-school but come straight back to the starting point to hit the computer. It’s mostly writing that I do as a trade and so my commute typically goes from the house, out to the pre-school with the grazing horse in the shaded lot on the other side of the road (we usually greet it with a “horsey! horsey” but it rarely blinks at us), and then back the same way to home, commute over, work starting.
However, I also guide once in a while and those commutes vary from being birdy rides serenaded by breaking dawn songsters to avoiding trucks and horrible drivers as I head down to the hot lowlands (usually to Cerro Lodge). Occasionally, I see a Keel-billed Toucan or perched Bat Falcon on the drive to the coast but mostly, it’s bird free until I start the last part of the drive in to Cerro Lodge. At that point, a step outside the car usually results in the sounds of Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, Turquoise-browed Motmot, White-tipped and White-winged Doves, Striped-headed and Olive Sparrows, Rufous-naped Wren, Black-headed Trogon, and other dry forest denizens.
But I digress. The typical pre-school commute has its birds too. Not many, but it has some. These are the birds of a Central Valley town and they include the likes of Blue and white Swallows, Blue-gray Tanagers, Great-tailed Grackles, Rufous-collared Sparrows, Inca Doves, White-winged Doves, TKs, Great Kiskadees, and other common birds. I suppose my best birds on this commute have been Hook-billed Kite on a few occasions and a migrant Western Wood Pewee calling from a riparian zone.
If I have to go to Quebrada Gonzalez, the commute starts out with a drive that does its best to exit the urbanized Central Valley as soon as is safely possible. Few birds during the pre-dawn hours so I listen to the radio. I have listened with the window down on several occasions but either get nothing or a few Clay-colored Thrushes. No owls, no nothing of note. When I start driving up and over the mountain pass, this is when the commute becomes a lot more interesting. As long as the motor cannon air breaks of trucks aren’t blasting the much finer and quieter sounds that are made by living things, I hear quite a bit from the open window. I should because the drive passes through a wet green speciose party of life known as Braulio Carrillo National Park. It’s hard to miss the loud, happy warbling of Gray-breasted Wood Wrens, and the sputtering chips of true to their name Common Bush Tanagers. I also usually hear Slate-throated Redstarts, Mountain Thrushes, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, get an occasional Black Guan flying past, and catch the notes of various tanagers once we descend into the foothills. At the streams, I sometimes hear Buff-rumped Warblers and even Dull-mantled Antbird. Lots more possible too but the cacophony from too many trucks doesn’t make this a Sunday drive.
My best commute for birds is the trip from my place to the Poas area. Light traffic and little urbanization turns into a windows down drive with the sounds of birds coming out of the coffee plantations, more naturally vegetated riparian zones, brushy second growth, and remnants of cloud forest once I get up there above the valley. I usually see a Blue-crowned Motmot or two perched on roadside wires at dawn, hear and see Brown Jays, and hear lots of the common bird species of the Central Valley. Rufous-capped Warblers, Plain Wrens, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes also sing from the coffee bushes.
Once the air cools off with rise in elevation, Common Bush Tanagers call, I hear more Flame-colored Tanagers, and the bromeliad studded trees can yield calling Emerald Toucanet, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Mountain Thrush, and even Dark Pewee at one spot. I have even had Resplendent Quetzal a couple of times (a driveby quetzal is a shimmering, velvet green and red thing that can seems to flow through the air).
Of course the best part of the commute is when I can stop the car and put all of my attention on birds instead of noticing birds while driving.
Poas is the name of the volcano that I can see off to the northwest of my home. It’s an obvious stand-alone mountain that is usually topped by clouds. On sunny days, though, close scrutiny of its upper reaches reveals a distinct, flat appearance. That flat part is the edge of the crater and marks the place where most people go when they visit the volcano. As for myself, I rarely go up that high but instead focus on the road up to around the gate of the national park because high elevation birds are more exciting to watch than the crater (since I am a birder and not a crater watcher or vulcanologist- a much more dangerous pastime). Since I can get up to Poas and vicinity quicker than other areas with good habitat, I bird and guide around there with some regularity. I also do an annual breeding bird count and this is nice because it forces me to head up there by 5 in the morning.
Although the afternoon birding on Poas tends to be great, that early hour does give a good idea of what’s flying around those high elevation habitats. In this case, that would be pastures with scattered, epiphyte drenched oaks, temperate zone forest, moist subtropical forest fragments mixed with non-native Guatemalan Cypress, and nice remnant cloud forest in riparian zones that are connected to larger blocks of forest. I start the count at the Volcan Restaurant, end it up near the main gates to the park and hear lots of birds in between. I also see some here and there but as with the majority of bird counts, almost everything is found by sound.
One of the most common birds is the Mountain Elaenia. I think I got more of these birds than any other species at every point.
As you can see, this is a typically nondescript flycatcher. It will remind you of an Empid but looks even less distinctive than the resident Black-capped Flycatcher. I suppose White-throated Flycatcher could also show up around Poas but I haven’t seen it there yet.
The first few stops yielded several yodeling Prong-billed Barbets and hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders at the Volcan Restaurant. While guiding there yesterday, just after saying that I had never seen a Scintillant Hummingbird at the restaurant but that they could occur, up pops a rufous-flanked, excellent candidate. After closely inspecting the bird, I called it as a young male Scintillant on account of the mostly rufous tail with narrow subterminal band, rufous flanks sans green, lack of a thin rufous line that goes from the eye to the bill, and a couple of coppery orange feathers on the gorget (which is why I called it a young male although who knows, maybe it’s a female).
One hummingbird species missed during the count but seen while guiding was a Stripe-tailed. Since this is the least common of the 7 regularly occurring species at their feeders, I was quite pleased to see it.
Other uncommon species that were recorded during the count were:
- Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl- Pretty rare in the area but occurs.
- Resplendent Quetzal- Had one female. They are around but tough to find unless you can locate some fruiting, wild avocados.
- Buff-fronted Quail-Dove- There were a few calling from the more intact forest on the higher part of the road.
- Elegant Euphonia- Nice surprise as it seems to be pretty rare around there.
- Yellow-bellied Siskin- As mundane as a goldfinch might seem to be, this was the rarest bird species from the count. Trapping this bird for cages has eliminated it from many parts of the mountains above the Central Valley.
Species found at nearly every stop included Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher (Poas is a great area for this sleek bird), Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Common Bush Tanager, Band-tailed Pigeon (because they seem to always be flying overhead), and Slate-throated Redstart. Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush is also very common in the Poas area. I saw lots as they came out to feed on the road at dawn.
Mountain Thrushes were also coming out onto the road and flying all over the place. No pics of them because they suffer from FNS (flighty nervous syndrome). Sooty Robins don’t though, and once I got up into the temperate zone, they were taking center stage all along the road.
After losing the staring contest with this Blackbirdish (the Palearctic one) looking thrush, I saw a bunch of other high elevation birds. Bright orange mistletoe was being visited by Green Violetears, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gems.
No bamboo birds this year and not as many quetzals are around but the birding is still always nice and easy around Poas.
Carara National Park and surroundings is always a good bet for birding in Costa Rica. Whether it happens to be your first time in the neotropics or your 20th, the easy access to a variety of habitats and high quality forests in the national park turn the general area into a birding paradise. However, if I had to make a critique or two, they would be:
1. The place is damn hot (at least for me).
2. The park doesn’t open at 6 am, nor does it offer refreshments (like say an ice bath).
3. The pastures between the rainforests of the park and the Tarcoles mangroves may doom the local Yellow-billed Cotinga population. I don’t say this lightly. Since, the cotingas appear to have decreased over the years and the population is probably fewer than 10 individuals, who knows how long this endangered species will persist in the area.
Solutions to such complaints might be:
1. Do the usual fluid drinking thing (and drink the very refreshing, cold coconut water often sold by a guy at the crocodile bridge).
2. The park hours aren’t going to change anytime soon so just bird outside of the park at sites such as the Bijagual road, around Tarcoles, or near Cerro Lodge.
3. We need to plant more fruiting trees near the Tarcoles mangroves and make better corridors between the mangroves and the national park.
Ok, so as far as updates and highlights for Carara go…
1. The Universal Trail is finally done. For the past 5 months, the Universal Trail was closed but now it’s finally done, and there is a new booth for park tickets right there at the the main parking lot. Oh, and the trail looks great too with several spots to sit and wait for Great Tinamous and Spectacled Antpittas to walk on by.
2. Outside of Carara, the vegetation around Cerro Lodge continues to grow and attract birds, and air conditioning is planned for at least some (maybe all?) rooms later this year!
3. Speaking of Cerro Lodge, Striped Cuckoo was showing well from the restaurant the other day, along with flyby Yellow-naped, White-crowned, and White-fronted Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons, Turquoise-browed Motmots (very easy there), and other species.
4. Inside the park, bird song resounded among the immense trees and dim understory. Although it took a while to actually see some of those birds, the morning song ambiance was priceless. Some of the first birds we saw ended up being species like White-whiskered Puffbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Gray-headed Tanagers at an antswarm! We also got fantastic looks at a Black-faced Antthrush that was walking back and forth and a couple of Bicolored Antbirds.
5. Around the same time, we had amazing, close looks at a Great Tinamou that carefully walked on past and stood in the forest as we took photos.
6. Further up the trail, the next big highlight was finding a small group of Marbled Wood Quail while trying to watch a lek of Stripe-throated Hermits! This was a serious treat because these unobtrusive understory birds are rarely seen at Carara. I found them after hearing the quail scratching in the leaf litter. It was kind of ridiculous trying to digiscope birds in very low light conditions that look like leaf litter and are obscured by vegetation but try I did and some shots sort of came out..
After foraging for a bit, the wood quail got up onto a low branch and roosted together. We could actually watch them through the scope for several minutes.
Leaving the wood quail, we got close looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, had very good looks at a rare Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and got onto some nice mixed flock activity before eating lunch at a seaside restaurant (where we also saw a dozen Surfbirds for a new year bird bonus!).
It seems like no matter how many times you bird Carara, you are always in for an exciting, birdy time.
“Pocosol” can be translated to “little sun”. While a place with such a foreboding name sounds more like somewhere to stay away from rather than visiting for birding, in the case of the Pocosol Research Station, just the opposite is the case. It will probably rain and visitors can expect cloudy weather, but they can also expect fantastic foothill forest birding with chances of seeing several rarities.
Pocosol is the part of the Monteverde forest complex situated on the lower end of the Caribbean slope and is officially gazetted within the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Like the name says, these forests were bought with funds donated by kids around the globe. Each one of those children (who are now adults) should receive some sort of gilded thank you note or get a free pass for entering the area because they made a truly wonderful gift to the world. Although Pocosol is rarely visited by birders doing Costa Rica, it’s probably one of the best sites in the country for lower middle elevation birds. There’s a very simple reason why Pocosol is so good for birding: quality habitat. Pocosol is located within a large block of well-protected primary forest and this is immediately demonstrated by the quality and quantity of the birds that are encountered.
On a recent weekend of guiding the local birding club at Pocosol, the bird activity was nearly non-stop from the time we arrived to the time we left the station. Cloudy weather, the breeding season, and fruiting trees gave us birds to watch nearly everywhere we looked. At the station itself, Montezuma Oropendolas had filled a tree with their long, hanging nests.
In another, nearby tree, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were also nesting.
In between all of this giant, ornate oriole action, a fruiting Lauraceous tree was bringing in common birds like Clay-colored Thrushes and Bay-headed Tanagers, fancy species like Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, and colorful birds typically seen in flight like Brown-hooded Parrots.
While some of the habitat in front of the station is thick second growth, this provided a stage for many singing Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, and Thicket Antpittas (which some of us saw). Many birds also trooped through Cecropias and the crowns of nearby trees that were visible at eye level from the balcony of our lodging.
The station also has several trails with exciting birding. Although a couple days wasn’t enough time to properly bird all of them, they gave us a glimpse into the excellent birding in store for anyone who walks them. The trail down to and near the lagoon goes through forest and an old Guava plantation and while the plantation area isn’t as good as the forest, it can still turn up quail-doves and who knows what else. On other parts of this trail, we had Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Tawny-throated Leaftosser and
Continuing past the lagoon, you can either veer off to the Miradores Trail or go straight on towards the Los Eladios station. Either way, you will be in for some great birding as you venture through excellent primary forest. If it sounds like I was impressed, yes I certainly was. I think the area has some of the highest quality forest in the country and I would love to go back and just spend an entire day deep in the woods back where the Miradores Trail reaches a stream.
Although the birding is tough in such places, it’s where you have a chance at seeing things like forest-falcons, antpittas, and maybe even a surprise or two like Crested Eagle and Great Jacamar. No, we didn’t see those but student groups have seen them at and near Pocosol during the past two years! While waiting for bird action back in the primary forest on our last morning, we may have even heard a distant Great Jacamar. Although it was far off, and the call sounded a bit lower in pitch than Great Jacamar vocalizations I am used to, the quality was pretty much the same and matched a recording of a slightly lower pitched call of this species. Unfortunately, it didn’t come in to playback and only called three times so I can’t say for sure what it was but since it sounded like nothing else, and I am very familiar with bird vocalizations from the avifauna at Pocosol, I suspect that it probably was a Great Jacamar- all the better reason for going back there!
But now back to birds we did see. While hanging out in that same area, we got looks at Song Wren, heard Nightingale Wren (one of many heard during our stay), and got onto a canopy mixed flock with expected birds like Russet Antshrike, various tanagers, and Rufous Mourner. We also found a roosting Spectacled Owl back along the Miradores Trail.
The other main trail we checked out was the Fumaroles or ridge trail behind the station. This also accesses beautiful primary forest with a different aspect than the woods on the other trails. While we did not see species that can show up there like Sharpbill, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Ochre-breasted Antpitta, we did see Plain Antvireo, Brown-billed Scythebill (fairly common at Pocosol), White-throated Shrike Tanager, Thrushlike Schiffornis, and other birds, including a pair of Spectacled Owls (our second roosting Spectacled for the trip!).
Speaking of owls, we also heard Mottled and Crested near the station but couldn’t coax them into view. Nor did we find an antswarm but did hear at least two Ocellated Antbirds, a couple Bicoloreds, and one Spotted. Oh, not to mention, the trip yielded a lifer for myself, Robert Dean, and several other people. This special bird was White-chinned Swift, a species quickly identified by its scratchy vocalization, and distinct bat-like flight. We only saw 3 or 4 birds for about ten seconds compared to near constant sightings of many Vaux’s and White-collared Swifts.
As far as the station itself goes, setting up the trip was an easy affair that involved contacting them at their website and making a deposit into their account. I’m not sure how easy that would be for people outside of Costa Rica but I bet they have a way of doing that as it is run by the Monteverde Conservation Association. Lodging was in comfortable bunkbeds and service was very good with breakfast at the requested time. Downsides are cold water in the showers and a rough road in that is best done with four wheel drive.
As with other high quality sites, I wonder when I will get the chance to go back and hang out beneath those old, tall trees. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!
Cameras have come a long way from the days when we worried about our film being affected by x-rays at the airport. Nowadays, while we still call them cameras, the digital photographic devices of the 21st century are on such a different level that perhaps it would be better to refer to them as Digital Image Devices or DIDs if you will. Then you could say, “Yes, I did take those 300 images with my DID”, and “Don’t forget to charge your DID before capturing crushing images of that Crested Guan in Costa Rica”.
No matter what we call our digital cameras, they sure are a wonderful leap in technology, especially when you take pictures of birds. You see, getting really good shots of birds requires dozens and even hundreds of shots of every subject because many of our feathered friends are rather hyperactive by nature and have this fondness for hanging out in places with twigs, branches, leaves, and other shutter clutter. Nor do they like to come very close to people (a trait for which we cannot blame them given our overall treatment of our natural surroundings). In ye olde days of Kodak film, you had to be extra careful of every shot you took because you couldn’t afford to waste film and zooming in was the luxury of those who could afford to pay thousands of dollars for a super-sized lens. However, in 2013, as we are all well aware, those factors have sort of become null and void. With digital photography, you can press that shutter release button just to exercise your finger if you fancy and distance keeps getting closer with higher resolutions and better zoom capabilities.
Nevertheless, you still have to go to the right place to get lots of great photos of birds and the Nature Pavilion has become one of the top places, if not the number one site in Costa Rica for bird photography. David and Dave Lando, the father and son owners of the Nature Pavilion, have made bird photography a main focus (others being environmental education, reforestation, and conservation) of their place and yes, it’s a damn fine place for bird photography!
I was very pleased to bring a client there this past Sunday because I knew he would get plenty of great shots of a variety of Costa Rican birds, and I love to scan the rainforest canopy from their deck. During a three hour visit, a quick scoping of the treetops revealed such showy species as both large toucans, Red-lored Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, Montezuma Oropendola, and Pale-billed Woodpecker. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher also called from a nearby perch and we could hear Rufous Motmot hooting from down in the woods.
As you can see, those birds were too far away for good pictures but the close ones more than made up for it. Despite May not being as ideal of a time for birds coming to fruit feeders as the months of December, January, February, and March, I would have to say that we did quite well in terms of bird photography.
White-necked Jacobin is the most abundant hummingbird.
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer also showed up at the edge of the forest and there were a few Rufous-taileds and at least one Scaly-breasted around.
The fruit feeders were fairly quiet at first but eventually brought in everything from honeycreepers to Collared Aracari.
It was especially nice to get pictures of a Red-throated Ant-Tanager because these guys rarely come out into the open.
Given that all of these pictures were digiscoped, you can only imagine the pictures you get with a DSLR! It’s no wonder that lots of pro photographers are coming to the Nature Pavilion and as more of the habitat grows up, it’s only going to get better. ALSO, the Nature Pavilion rents out the spacious, beautiful house with the canopy deck for a price that rivals several of the local eco-lodges. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
North American birders who are in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks won’t be going to the Chomes shrimp ponds. The reasoning is straightforward: Why watch shorebirds that you can see at home when you have tropical forests replete with flocks of glittering tanagers, sneaky antbirds, woodcreepers, and dozens of interesting flycatchers at your disposal? However, birders who reside outside of the western hemisphere would be well advised to make a trip to Chomes. It’s the best shorebird hotspot in Costa Rica, access is free and rather easy (a boon in a country where national parks and reserves seem not to want to cater so much to birders-strange but true) and the drive in is great for dry forest species.
Although I’m originally from North America, I love going to Chomes because I don’t get too many other chances to see shorebirds, terns, and the like. In Costa Rica, sites for seeing big concentrations of waterbirds are rather few in number and/or hard to access, especially around the Gulf of Nicoya. A sea kayak would be the best way to survey those waders and web-footed birds that frequent the estuary of the Tempisque River but at least we have Chomes to watch them from solid ground.
Two or so weeks ago, Susan Blank and I went to Chomes to see if any shorebirds were around and the trip did not disappoint. Despite not arriving at optimal high tide time, we still managed views of several shorebirds, saw some terns, and also connected with a few mangrove specialties. As usual, it was tough not to stop on the way in to hear and see the healthy variety of dry forest species that occur.
Shorebirds were our goal but they were trumped by four, hefty Yellow-naped Parrots.
As usual, these smart birds watched us with curious, wary eyes while giving their distinctive calls.
Giving a pygmy-owl whistle also turned up White-lored Gnatcatcher,
and Brown-crested Flycatcher. We also heard at least one Nutting’s but Brown-cresteds were much more common and seem to outnumber Nutting’s in more open areas.
Moving on, we reached the village of Chomes in 10-15 minutes and drove on in to the shrimp pond area using the public access road at the southeast corner of the village. You can also go in through the front gate to the ponds if it is open but it’s easier to just use that access road. It doesn’t look like much but to take it, just head to the very southeast corner of the village and follow the dirt road towards the coast.
As soon as we reached the first pond, we were greeted by the songs of Red-winged Blackbird, and the sights and sounds of Black-bellied Plovers. Many of the plovers were in breeding plumage and were the most common shorebird seen on that day (we might have seen 150 or so)
Continuing on through the complex of shallow ponds, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and other expected wading birds while being entertained by the constant songs of White-collared Seedeaters, and the chattering of White-fronted Parrots.
At the larger, back ponds, a fair number of shorebirds were present, including two of our better birds for the day; Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover. Pecs are expected in Costa Rica if you visit the right habitat at the right time of the year but since you have to catch them during migration, they were a nice find. The plover passes through the country but is by no means a common, expected sight. In fact, these were my first for Costa Rica so it was pretty exciting to see them!
Other shorebirds included Willet, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Plover (just one), and Wilson’s Plover. Many of these were already foraging on the extensive mudflats as the tide went out so I am sure that we missed some good birds. Scanning the flats revealed many a distant wader and an enticing group of terns and gulls whose identity was kept a secret by heat waves that roasted the area.
Locals searched for clams and we searched for shorebirds before cooling off in the air-conditioned car and driving down a mangrove lined track to see what else we could turn up. At one stop, we got more great looks at Brown-crested Flycatchers, saw a Streaked Flycatcher, and got wonderful, close looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Warblers, and Mangrove Vireo.
Since we seemed close enough to the Colorado salt ponds and the Amistad bridge, we decided to give those sites a shot. As it turned out, although those places would be a quick ten minute flight for a Least Sandpiper, they end up being an hour’s drive if you attempt to go the shortest route. Despite the scenery along the way, you will save a lot of time by heading back out to the highway and making a turn-off to reach Colorado rather than taking rough roads that pass through a few villages. Once you get to Colorado, don’t expect signs for anything. Just take the main road west through the village and watch for the school on the left. Immediately after that school, follow the main road and take a left (south), a right, and then another left to head in to the salt pond area (sounds obscure but once you are there, it will hopefully make sense).
As with other visits to this shorebird site, I didn’t see very many birds but did pick up a couple of good ones. Birds also come and go so it pays to keep scanning the ponds. This was reflected by our latest experience because after driving back in and seeing very little, we ran into a nice flock of shorebirds on the way out that consisted of more than a dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, two Pectoral Sandpipers, and one beautiful, breeding plumaged female Wilson’s Phalarope. Since that needle-billed bird was a second new addition to my Costa Rican list, our birding day was turning out to be a productive, memorable day indeed. Our luck stopped there, however, because there were almost no birds at mud flats below the Amistad Bridge, and we couldn’t find a way to access the mangroves in search of Clapper Rail.
As always, I wish I could bird Chomes more often because you can bet that rare birds show up there on a regular basis, there’s just not enough people checking the place to find them.
Antbirds just might win the prize for being the most popular family of birds with the least amount of colors. It seems like just about anyone who birds in the neotropics ends up feeling a certain degree of fondness for antbirds. Even before I came to Costa Rica for the first time, I was fascinated by these odd-looking little birds, especially the ones with blue skin around their eyes. I wanted to see an Immaculate Antbird because I had never seen anything even close to it in the temperate-zoned north and ditto magnified a 100 times for wacky looking things like the Black-crowned Antpitta.
I suppose that it’s lack of experience with anything close to antbirds that makes us want to see them, see what they are all about. I mean, just what the heck are those things? It’s kind of an odd fascination when you consider that they only come in shades of black, brown, and gray but that’s the way we birders roll and we make no excuses (at least I don’t). So, after having studied the illustrations of Costa Rican antbirds on hundreds of occasions, I was more than ready and sure that I was going to see a good number of weird and wild antbirds on that first sojourn to Costa Rica.
Needless to say, and to make a long story short, I came home from Costa Rica in early 1993 with less than a handful of antbirds on my list and wondering why I hadn’t see those intriguing birds despite birding where they were supposed to occur. On consecutive trips, I realized that the birds were there, it’s just that most of them are veteran skulkers, and many seemed to be naturally rare or uncommon. They require specific habitats, most of those being forested in some way or another. It helps to know their songs and calls and you will see more if you stalk them with sharp eyes and ears buoyed up by a solid foundation of eternal patience.
In other words, they are kind of a royal pain to see.
That said, some places are better than others for antbirds and in Costa Rica, one of the better places to see members of this auspiciously dull-colored family is Carara National Park. On a recent day of guiding on the main loop trail, I was reminded that the quality, primary rainforest at Carara is ideal habitat for antbird species. We had many looks at such birds as Dot-winged Antwren and Black-hooded Antshrike, and indeed these are two of the more commonly seen species in the park.
Like a typical small insectivore, the antwren is hyperactive, and always searching the foliage for some tasty arthropod.
The antshrike sort of does the same but isn’t nearly as active and this makes it easier to watch at length.
On the forest floor, Black-faced Antthrushes are often seen as they waltz through the leaf litter like an out of place crake and many a lucky birder has gotten their lifer Streak-chested Antpitta at Carara. They also occur elsewhere but seem to be easier to see at Carara because the understory is more open than many other sites. We had amazing looks at two of those plump antpittas as they foraged at the edge of an antswarm!
They opened and closed their wings and one even briefly jumped on the back of the other.
Bicolored Antbirds were also at the swarm and we had great looks at Chestnut-backed Antbird too (commonly seen at Carara).
Other antbird species seen that day included Slaty Antwren and Dusky Antbird in second growth at the edge of the park on Bijagual Road. Although we dipped on Barred Antshrike, I usually see it on Bijagual Road, the Meandrica Trail, or any other number of edge and second growth sites. Great Antshrike skulks in second growth but isn’t nearly as common as at other more humid sites. The same goes for Russet Antshrike and Plain Antvireo although they occur inside the forest.
It’s kind of interesting that the forests at Carara and the southwestern Pacific slope are similar to the rainforests of the Amazon in several ways, one of these being the prominent role that antbirds play in avian communities. Although Carara still can’t compare with Amazonian sites that host the 30 and 40 antbird species, the birding is always good when you can watch Streak-chested Antpittas hop around and Black-hooded Antshrikes beat their tails in time to the notes of their song.
The dry season on the Pacific slope is quickly coming to an end and that’s very welcome news because we could use the rain! This year’s dry season seemed to be especially bereft of agua as the sun hammered the fields into a brown landscape with relentless UV rays. Nevertheless, since the birds that live there are adapted to dealing with a pronounced dry season, I doubt they will be very much affected by it.
With the end of the dry season comes the start of the low season for tourism. Most birding tours come here between January and April because this is the ideal time to visit if you want to see more migrants and experience less rain on the Pacific slope. However, if you don’t mind missing out on bunches of Chestnut-sided Warblers and seeing Summer Tanagers, the birding still happens to be great from now until the second half of October (from then until December the rain can be a problem). The cloudy weather makes for higher levels of bird activity and cooler weather, so if you headed to Costa Rica for birding in the near future, consider yourself lucky because you could end up seeing more resident species than during the dry season.
In addition to that little tidbit, here are a few other updates and perspectives about birding in Costa Rica in 2013:
Bamboo on Poas: Last year was a bonanza for bamboo on the flanks of Poas. Trips to that area and Varablanca turned up multiple Peg-billed Finches, Barred Parakeets, and even several Slaty Finches (!). On recent trips to Poas, I noticed that the bamboo is starting to seed again (!), this time in the bamboo just above the area that had seeded last year. Since it seems that most of the forest understory from the entrance gate to the payment booths will be filled with seeding bamboo, this should be a good area to check for Maroon-chested Ground Dove (I will be watching for it!).
Head to the Nature Pavilion for bird photography: The Nature Pavilion is fast becoming a must stop for anyone interested in taking pictures of birds. Ok, so you don’t absolutely need to go there for birding but if you do, you have a much better chance of getting many pictures of tanagers, honeycreepers, toucans, and a litany of other colorful birds that come to their feeders. The owners are always working to improve the already quality experience and the deck is also good for watching canopy species (and the river a good place to check for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron).
Don’t expect to enter Quebrada Gonzalez and pay later: Since the national park officially opens at 8, unfortunately, birders aren’t supposed to enter before then (which happens to be during ideal birding times). Friends of mine were sort of berated recently for doing this by the park guard manager. He mentioned, though, that people can enter early but need to contact him in advance. Unfortunately, there isn’t any easy way of contacting him! However, blame him less than the general bureaucracy that plagues so much of Costa Rica. One of my dreams is to convince or help the people in the Costa Rican national park system to better manage the parks for tourism. Not managed for tourists? What? Yes, that is exactly the case. A couple of parks are better managed for visitors but the majority really aren’t. Solutions could include marketing of the parks for visitors and investing in them for this purpose. For example, in Braulio Carillo, convert part of the ranger station into a souvenir shop and small cafe with proceeds going towards the budget for the station. Put in a small canopy tower somewhere in the park and charge $5 or $10 extra to use it. Make the loop trail longer. Hold scheduled night walks and other educational walks for the public. Most of all, open the park at 6 and close it at 5 instead of 8 to 4. The same goes for every other national park in the country. More money would be generated for the parks, tourists would have a more satisfying experience, and more people would visit the parks thus generating more funding, etc.
Visit El Tapir instead: Although you can’t enter Quebrada at the earliest hour, there is an easy solution to this dawn chorus dilemma. It’s called El Tapir and it’s just down the road from Quebrada. El Tapir doesn’t have a sign so watch for the first place with a couple of small buildings on the right after passing Quebrada Gonzalez and continuing on towards Guapiles and Limon (maybe 2 ks past the station). Head in through the barbed wire gate as early as you want and pay the caretaker $5 (2,500 colones) when he shows up. The forest is excellent, has many of the same species as Quebrada, and they usually maintain two trails. This site has tons of potential so be ready for anything when birding back towards the stream (think Slaty-backed Forest Falcon, Ground Cuckoo, Sharpbill, and Gray-headed Pripites as possbilities). The main downside is the high number of ticks that occur on the trails so be prepared! There isn’t any restroom either but consolation is that you have a chance at seeing any number of rare foothill forest species. Of course the flowering Porterweed is also excellent for Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, and many other hummingbirds while hawk-eagles and other raptors can show up in the sky.
Want to support bird habitat? Don’t eat Costa Rican pineapple.: It’s as simple as that. Although some pineapple has been certified as sustainable, I really don’t see how that is possible given the high amount of pesticides that are used even on those supposedly green farms. I think the green label was earned because attempts are made to protect some forest corridors (which probably aren’t actually large enough to support species that are susceptible to edge effects). Vast monocultures of pineapple have become the number one problem for biodiversity in Costa Rica because huge areas are drained and cleared, planted with pineapple, and then drowned with chemicals. This is clearly not sustainable but it’s important for the economy in the short term so little has been done to improve the situation. On a personal note, I love pineapple and would be happy to eat it and support farms that grow it but only if it’s grown in a way that doesn’t eliminate biodiversity, pollute water, increase sedimentation of waterways, harm people with chemicals, and decrease the value of land and quality of life in a long term manner. Is that too much to ask?
Want to see more birds? Visit the most intact forests: A lot of birders visiting Costa Rica mention how they saw more in the gardens of their hotels or at the forest edge than in the rainforest itself. Veteran birders, though, make efforts to spend more time inside and near large areas of tropical forest because they know that this is the only way to see most of the uncommon and rare species in the field guide that they missed on previous trips. Those birds were probably missed by merit of their naturally rare status, and because more time was spent watching birds at the forest edge than in the shady depths of primary rainforest. The fact of the matter is that although you can see more individual birds in gardens and the edge of the forest, you will see more species if you combine that with birding inside extensive primary forest to see things like wood-quail, tinamous, antbirds, certain flycatchers and wrens, and dozens of other uncommon species. While birding in old growth forest is far from easy, it represents high quality habitat for the majority of bird species that occur in Costa Rica simply because it’s the type of habitat that they became adapted to using for the past million (or more) years.
It’s no surprise that the sites with the largest areas of high quality forest also offer your best chances at seeing uncommon species like forest raptors, cotingas, antbirds, Song Wren, leaftossers, etc. Some examples of such sites are Bosque del Rio Tigre and Luna Lodge in the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol Biological Station, Hitoy Cerere, El Copal, Rincon de la Vieja, and the Monteverde cloud forests.
Don’t expect to bird the La Selva entrance road unless you stay there or take a tour: The entrance road has definitely become off limits to anyone not staying at the station or taking a scheduled tour. It’s a shame but the station probably did it to make it more difficult for poachers and potential thieves from entering the La Selva property. Regarding staying at La Selva, pay the high price for mediochre lodging and food if you want to support research of tropical forests. If you would rather stay somewhere that is more comfortable and geared towards tourism, pick one of the many hotels in the area and visit La Selva on the early birding tour. Keep in mind that La Selva is first and foremost a biological station and ecotourism is not their highest priority. This is why you won’t be allowed to go up the canopy tower (yes, there is one or more but only for researchers), some trails may be off limits, and unless you stay there, access is only provided to people on one of their tours (which are usually interesting and educational). Also, many understory species at La Selva have become rare (probably due to overgrazing by an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) so don’t expect to see various antwrens, antbirds, White-fronted Nunbird, Carmiol’s Tanager, understory flycatchers, and many other formerly common species still on the list. Most of those can still show up and will hopefully some day recover but they are far more rare than they used to be. I don’t mention this to make La Selva look bad, and it’s still a great place for birding and bird photography, I write this so you know what to expect.
Changes at Heliconias Lodge and two other excellent, little known sites up that way: I have heard rumors that the community that owns (or owned) Heliconias Lodge has franchised it out. I haven’t been up there since then but I have been told that one of the excellent bird guides who used to work there is no longer there and there could be other changes in store. Their website is still the same though so hopefully it won’t be all that different and owls will still be staked out because this is one of the best birding sites in the country. I have also heard about two other small lodges on the Caribbean slope of the northern volcanoes. One is Cataratas Bijagua Lodge, and the other is Albergue Ecologico Las Bromelias. Cataratas Bijagua looks like a cozy, moderately-priced place that probably has some great birding right on the grounds and on the trails. Could also act as a good base for visiting other sites in the areas as well as Cano Negro. Las Bromelias is a bit harder to get to but friends who have been there tell me that it was very much worth the effort. It’s also moderately priced and is very good birding (they told tales of 17 species of hummingbirds, both Keel-billed and Tody Motmots, Bare-crowned Antbird, and an antswarm!).
Hope to see you in some Costa Rican rainforest during the low season!
Ok, so we come to the final segment of Pat and Susan’s Big Day, 2013 in Costa Rica. At the end of part dos, we finished up in the Caribbean lowlands and were about to move up in elevation for a different suite of birds.
We departed the Caribbean lowlands and headed to the middle elevation forests of Virgen del Socorro, our next major stop. On the way, we picked up singing Black-headed Saltator, Grayish Saltator, hoped for House Sparrow at a gas station (hey, every bird counts), and a drive-by singing Nightingale Wren at the same spot where we got it last year!
Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. The habitat in some parts of the gorge isnt as good as it was before the 2009 earthquake and the road is kind of bad but the place can still turn up a great variety if birds. Last year, we did very good at Virgen del Socorro, scoring birds like White Hawk, Barred Hawk, Blue and gold Tanager, and a bunch more. Unfortunately, lady luck was somewhere else this year because we picked up rather few birds and got more or less chased away by rain. Of the measly 20 species we picked up, best were probably Swallow-tailed Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Brown Violetear, Crimson-collared Tanager, and Coppery-headed Emerald. Oddly enough, the emerald was absent at Cinchona so it was a good thing that one or two were singing at Virgen del Socorro!
Since we needed to get at least 50 new species at Virgen and since most that we did pick up could also be recorded near Cinchona (and were), at this point in the day, I realized that it would be nearly impossible to break any records. Nevertheless, we powered on and stayed with the plan to identify as much as we could on the rest of our route.
A couple stops near Cinchona gave us our only Emerald Toucanet at a fruiting tree, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and a few other species while the hummingbird feeders treated us well with all of our targets (White-bellied Mountain-Gem and Green Thorntail included). Another quick stop at the La Paz waterfall gave us our target Torrent Tyrannulet but there were few other species added as we headed up to higher elevation forests at Varablanca and Poas.
Ten minutes at the Volcan Restaurant gave us ten new species including several hummingbirds, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush.
A quick drive up to high elevation forests at 2,500 meters turned turned up ten more species that happily called or showed themselves in rapid succession. Among those ten were Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush (our fourth nightingale-thrush of the day), Acorn Woodpecker, Slaty Flowerpiercer, Silvery-throated Tapaculo, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia.
After the Chlorophonia called, a glance at the watch showed that it was 12:30 and time for us to roll down to the Pacific coast. We hoped to pick up a bird or two on the way and although the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes in the coffee plantations were strangely silent, we at least managed to hear the distinctive clinky chip note of a Rufous-capped Warbler, and saw Hoffmann’s Woodpecker and White-winged Doves. Other birds were absent but how could I blame them; sunny late noon weather is about the most inactive birding weather you will ever find.
As we headed to our highway entrance, it suddenly dawned upon us that our quick route to the coast might actually by closed! I had somehow overlooked the obvious possibility that the highway would only be opened to go uphill so as to accommodate the hordes of post-Easter traffic that were returning back to the Central Valley after a few days at the beach. We raced to the entrance anyways but yes, our fears were confirmed and we had to race straight on back to the old, slower route down to the coast! This was going to cut at least 30 more minutes off of our schedule but what choice did we have?
At least that alternative route passed by a small reservoir and it delivered with 4 new species! After ticking off Least Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Anhinga, and Vaux’s Swift, we continued onwards down to the hot, dry coastal plain. Odd detours through Orotina also slowed things down but we eventually made it onto the Guacimo Road and picked up White-throated Magpie-Jay shortly thereafter. A quick stop gave us Plain-breasted and Common Ground-Doves as other birds came in to a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl call, including the owl itself. Dry forest targets like Stripe-headed Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds quickly showed themselves.
At a good riparian spot, we got other targets like Turquoise-browed Motmot, Long-tailed Manakin, and Little Tinamou. Lesser Ground Cuckoo refused to announce itself but time was running out and we had other key sites to hit! One was the lagoon at Bajamar but as it turns out, the normally wide lagoon was almost bone dry! There was a bit of water but most of our hoped for waterbirds were foraging elsewhere because we only picked up a few Black-necked Stilts and Least Sandpiper.
Heading over to the coast, more pygmy-owl calling managed to add Streak-backed Oriole, Brown-crested Flycatcher, and Blue Grosbeak to the list while looking out to see turned up Royal Tern and Brown Pelican. Magnificent Frigatebirds also flew overhead but the fishing boats were just too far out to help us add gulls, Brown Booby, and maybe something else to the list.
No time to check the Guacalillo lagoons for shorebirds (which sometimes have them and at other times have nothing at all), becauseit was time to head over to Carara. While cruising through more dry forest, we picked up our three target parrots- Orange-fronted Parakeet, Yellow-naped Parrot, and White-fronted Parrot, saw a bunch of Turquoise-browed Motmots, heard our only Rose-throated Becard of the day (which is very odd but I suspect they have declined), and picked up four or five waterbirds as drivebys near and at the Crocodile Bridge!
With late afternoon rapidly approaching, we raced over to Bijagual Road, jumped out of the car and picked up most of our remaining species for the day. This is usually a good, birdy area and we got 16 new species in less than an hour, including our only Laughing Falcon of the day, Scarlet Macaw, Barred and Black-hooded Antshrikes, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous and white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Gray-headed Tanager, Northern Bentbill, and Black-hooded Antshrike.
Once the evening cicadas began to call, the birds quieted down and we could only hope that a Collared Forest Falcon might sound off or that the owls would comply once it got dark. No forest falcon was heard but higher up along the road, at least a Mottled Owl made it onto the list. No other owls were calling around Bijagual so we headed over to Playa Azul to give Pacific Screech Owl a shot. Sure enough, that faithful bird showed up in our spotlight and although we still had time to try for Double-striped Thick-Knee, and a few more owls, we decided to call it quits and went home with 246 species for the day. Given challenges like destroyed wetlands, dried out lagoons, closed roads, and rain, we were pretty satisfied with that number!
I still think the world Big Day record can be broken in Costa Rica but it’s still going to require a lot more luck with the weather and better sites for shorebirds. I think that we will do better by doing it earlier in the year (since we pick up almost no spring migrants anyways), and will definitely need to do a lot more scouting.
When the calendar reached Saturday morning, March 30th, it was time to saddle up, think about thousands of bird calls, and head on over the mountains to Tirimbina! That day being the day before Easter and one of Costa Rica’s major holiday weekends, we saw droves of vehicles at the Waterfall Gardens and a major gathering of humans at the Peace Waterfall.
As we drove down towards the lowlands, we wondered if this would dampen our chances at Torrent Tyrannulet, and even more importantly, cause time devouring traffic jams on our route! In a last attempt at scouting Varablanca and Cinchona, we road with the windows down and listened for birds. Since it was mid-afternoon and sunny, this was kind of pointless but no one can say that we didn’t give it an all-star, Shaolin try. Despite few birds being heard, we did notice that a few trees were fruiting near Cinchona and that was indeed an important find.
A good spot near Cinchona.
Down at Tirimbina, we checked in and after being told that we had to tell reception when we entered and left the forest, headed out onto our main scouting road. I suspect that the guy at reception thought it strange that we weren’t going into the forest but we had places to scout, a Big Day ahead of us and not time to explain. Since we couldn’t stay at the field station as hoped (only opens for large groups), the big question was where to be at the break of dawn. It was a toss-up between the forest proper and the road back by the field station but despite the road looking promising on Google Earth, we had yet to recon it.
We crossed the Pozo Azul bridge and started back on the road behind Tirimbina. It was a bumpy ride and the section up to the field station looked OK but not good enough for a forest dawn chorus. However, there was a fair deal more of forest back by the field station and further on so we continued forward. A brief stop by a lowland pond turned up a valuable species right away- Sungrebe!
A poor image of a Sungrebe but still identifiable.
As we pleaded with the Sungrebe to be there the next day, we scoured the wetland for Agami Heron and other goodies to no avail. Forest looked good there though so we would have to hit it in the morning. Further up the road, a tell-tale bump high on a tree turned out to be another much wanted species for the day- Great Potoo!
My camera refused to focus on the tell-tale bump but I can at least show what the site looked like.
Yippee! Hopefully the Potoo would stay, the Sungrebe would show, and every bird would sing because we decided to be near the Potoo at dawn. Continuing on, we also had good looks over forested hills, saw a perched King Vulture, were entertained by lots of Mealy and Red-lored Parrots flying to roosts, and saw a small marsh. Yep, this was the road to take for the morning.
Back on the highway, we enjoyed an early dinner at the Rancho Magallanes restaurant and headed back to Tirimbina to try and sleep by some crazy early hour like 7:30 or 8 PM.
When the clock struck midnight, the counting time began! Too bad nothing was calling… and I slept on until wake up call at 3.
Unfortunately, there was a light but steady rain and that erased any chances of hearing nocturnal migrants, owls, or nightjars. Nevertheless, we stuck to the plan and drove through the night to a rice field and wetlands located in banana fields well north of La Selva. As we arrived, something about the field looked strange and then it slowly dawned upon us that the rice was no longer there. Not only that, but the wetlands were no longer there either. One of the only large accessible wetland sites in that area and it had been drained. We were so shocked we could hardly talk. Back in December, we had briefly visited the place and found dozens of Purple Gallinules and great habitat for rails and other aquatic species. Although it was hard to determine in the dark of the night, we could see the drainage ditches and saw that palms had been planted- either Oil or Heart of Palm. Goodbye wetland. So long Purple Gallinules, Paint-billed Crakes, and who knows what else. Although much of it was farmland, some wasn’t so I suspect they broke some laws there.
With heavy hearts, we decided to try for Barn Owl and Striped Owl anyways but no luck there, just the forlorn calls of a few Common Pauraques to echo our sentiments and mark their eminent place as the first bird of the day.
With the rain coming down, we drove back to our scouting road and picked up our next two species at the bridge over the Sarapiqui- Bare-throated Tiger Heron and Boat-billed Heron doing some night fishing in the river! Good ones to get and somewhere around then, we heard givens like Clay-colored Thrush and Tropical Kingbird.
Boat-billed Heron- the neotropical gargoyle.
Checking the small marsh turned up White-throated Crake but no other rails so we continued on to the Great Potoo stakeout. Dawn was arriving and yes (!), the potoo was on its spot. We quickly picked up a bunch of species as they sounded off from nearby patches of forest and fields. These were birds like Cocoa, Black-striped, Northern Barred, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, White-whiskered Puffbird, Broad-billed and Rufous Motmots, Bright-rumped Attila, Rufous Mourner, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Buff-rumped Warbler, and much more. Luckily, the rain had given us a break at that time or we would have been sunk into the depths of a very low list for the day.
Susan scoping out our Potoo.
We slowly moved up the road, picking up several targets on the way, many of which were fairly common species like Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Shining Honeycreeper, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and various parrots and parakeets (but no Great Green Macaws!). At the Sungrebe spot, despite some very careful checking below overhanging vegetation, the weird little rail duck didn’t show. As consolation, we saw 4 Green Ibis though.
It was interesting to be reminded of how common Dusky-capped Flycatchers are. We heard them at just about every humid forest spot throughout the day.
The rain picked up again and as the road turned very slick in a bad way, we crawled along and dearly hoped to make it to the field station. Despite some very tense minutes, we made it to the rocky road at the station and got out of the car to stretch and hopefully pick up some deep forest birds. However, by this time, our luck was kind of running out as the rain picked up and drowned out most bird activity. We still managed Violet-headed Hummingbird, Great Tinamou, Wood Thrush, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and a few other species but results were dampened by the rain and much lower than hoped.
Yeah for the Violet-headed Hummingbird!
As time ran out and the light but steady rain continued, we moved on towards the highway, picking up Chestnut-headed Oropendola, Yellow Tyrannulet, and some other goodies. It was 8:30 and the time had come to head up to Virgen del Socorro despite still missing 20-30 hoped for species out of around 120 species so far. How would those higher elevations and the Pacific slope treat us? Stay tuned for part tres!