They might not be there yet, but will be as soon as the official bird list for Costa Rica is updated with the recent changes made to the AOU North America list. Every supplement to the AOU list comes with some changes but they usually pertain to Latin names or placement of species and genera on the overall list. This time, though, there are several changes for Costa Rica, including new names and armchair ticks (!). It means that The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide will need to be eventually updated, and that I will have to see when we can add the new changes to the Panama and Costa Rica Birds Field Guide apps.
None of the birds are new to the country but the way we view them in a species context is. These are the changes in species and names and where to see them:
Gray-necked Wood-Rail: This common, raucous species has been neatly split into three species, with two of them in Costa Rica. Although we still have to figure out exactly where they replace each other, or occur together, there seems to be one on the north Caribbean slope, and another everywhere else. Those two new birds are the Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. They mostly differ by the amount of rufous on the nape and by vocalizations. In the meantime, though, if you see a wood-rail at say La Selva or other sites on the north Caribbean slope, it is probably a Russet-naped. If seen anywhere else, it is a Gray-cowled. So, if you have seen Gray-necked Wood-Rail on both slopes, give yourself one armchair tick.
These Russet-naped Wood-Rails were seen at Lands in Love. They often hang out by the duck pond.
Green Violetear: Not anymore. Now, these common green, highland hummingbirds are known as Lesser Violetear! These are the same species as the former Green Violetears in South America, and were split from birds that range from Nicaragua north to Mexico. Those ones are now known as “Mexican Violetear” and it is this species that has shown up in the USA (as far as I know). If you have seen Green Violetears in Mexico and Costa Rica, give yourself another armchair tick.
Lesser Violetears are easy to see at many highland sites in Costa Rica including Monteverde, Poas, and the Talamancas. They visit feeders and flowering plants, and call with such broken record regularity, you may feel compelled to plug your ears or chase the hummingbird away (that won’t work, it just comes back and calls again, and again, and again, and…)
Lesson’s Motmot: The former Blue-crowned Motmot has a snazzy new name. These birds are the ones we see in Costa Rica and are quite common in middle elevations and on the Pacific slope. Watch for it in hotel gardens in the Central Valley, in riparian zones in the Pacific lowlands, and in the Monteverde area. If you have seen this motmot in Costa Rica and Mexico, once again, enjoy another tick!
Plain Wren: Finally, we have the Canebrake Wren being officially recognized as a full species. Watch for it in lowland second growth anywhere in the Caribbean lowlands. You might have to watch for a while until it reveals itself because it’s a skulking pain, though. Less expected was a split of the Plain Wrens on the Pacific slope. Although we probably still need to figure out where they replace each other, it looks like birds from Quepos to Panama are now known as Isthmian Wren, and those north of there are Cabanis’s Wren. They look pretty much the same and have similar yet different vocalizations, so your best bet is to make sure that you actually see Plain Wren anywhere north of Quepos and anywhere south of Quepos. Both are common in coffee farms and second growth. If you have seen Plain Wrens in the Caribbean lowlands, in the Central Valley or Monteverde, and around La Gamba, pat yourself on the birding back with two armchair ticks!
This is a Cabanis’s Wren, the Isthmian looks pretty much the same.
Costa Rica Warbler: This was part of a three-way split from the Three-striped Warbler. The original Three-stripeds live in the Andes, while the Costa Rican is yet another highland endemic of Costa Rica and western Panama. The third member of the Three-striped taxo club is the Tacarcuna Warbler, a species only found in highland sites in eastern Panama. Look for the Costa Rican Warbler at any cloud forest site including the La Paz gardens, Monteverde, and many other sites. It’s fairly common and if you have seen this bird in Costa Rica and South America, help yourself to one more armchair tick.
Thanks to the AOU, it looks like I just added 6 species to my lifelist! I hope you did too.
We are wrapping up the breeding bird count season in Costa Rica. If I could do a few counts a week, I would but I only do three because I haven’t had time to do more. Hopefully, that will change by next year and I can participate in counts on the Osa (where a cool count workshop took place this year), on the Manuel Brenes Road, and other birdy spots. In the meantime, I enjoy my three counts; one near the house, another on Poas, and the third one at Quebrada Gonzalez, the first place that acted as my inaugural birding experience in rainforest.
Since that day in late 1992, some of the bird populations at the site have changed somewhat and not for the better. The habitat is there but the amount of rainfall that resulted in massive mixed flocks, hawk-eagles, tons of wrens, and various foothill specialties has diminished. Most species still seem present but several have declined bit by bit in conjunction with less rainfall, and a few species might be gone from the site. They might still show up from time to time but have most likely taken a hike to higher, wetter, and cooler elevations.
But this post is about the most recent count, not laments over human-caused climate change that is pushing so much life towards extinction, so I will get on with the report. Fortunately, Susan was able to join me for the count, and we started at 6 am as usual. The gate is usually closed until 8 but, thankfully, I was able to speak with the rangers and arrange an earlier visit. Our first point was busy straight away and ended up being the best of the day because we connected with a mixed flock that held White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several Carmiol’s and Dusky-faced Tanagers, and other birds.
The excitement almost stopped there because most of the following counts were pretty slow. We had just a couple Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, one or two Dull-mantled Antbirds, one White-ruffed Manakin, and low numbers overall. The Lattice-tailed Trogons weren’t calling, nor were the Chestnut-backed Antbirds, but we did have several wood-wrens and Stripe-breasted Wrens, one Band-backed Wren, and a fair number of other species.
Although it was a bit slow, that can always happen at that site with one or a few rare birds thrown in for good measure. This happened during the count as we got our best bird up on the ridge at one of our points. As Susan looked up, she noticed a bit of movement and said, “There’s a raptor” followed by, “wait, is that a raptor”? I got on the bird and yes, it sure was and a good one. For a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure about it being a raptor because it was so small. That could only mean one thing, Tiny Hawk!
We watched it for several minutes in the subcanopy as it plucked the feathers from and ate some small green bird. This was a fantastic sighting because although I have always known that the species was present (perfect habitat and other reports), this was the first time I had actually seen it at the site. This mini hawk escapes detection because it is probably naturally rare, is the size of a thrush, happens to be a sneaky ambush predator that hides in the dense vegetation of the canopy, and doesn’t vocalize that often. In other words, good luck seeing it!
After the Tiny Hawk, we also flushed a juvenile Olive-backed Quail-Dove. This species seems to be getting more common at Quebrada and might be out-competing the formerly common Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.
On the other side of the road, things were pretty quiet with almost no birds visible from the overlook. It wasn’t really until after the count that we started getting more species. A Chestnut-backed Antbird finally sang, we heard a Dot-winged Antwren, two Streak-chested Antpittas, and had a juvenile Great Black Hawk fly right into our field of view.
Kind of a quiet morning, but at least one flock during a point count, a bigger one between points, and a few other forest species that are tough to see. Not bad for a morning of birding and pretty much par for the course at Quebrada. Stay longer, just hang out in the forest, and you might be surprised at what shows up.
We are half way through the year and that means six months to go before making a final tally of bird species identified during 2016. Time is relative, calendars are subjective inventions, and some people who have binoculars banter back and forth about keeping lists. So what? At the end of the day, we should all be reminded that life is usually shorter than we would prefer, it is unpredictable, and we should therefore have as much fun as we can (in addition to learning and doing good, etc, but those aspects are for another blog). Part of that fun can be keeping a year list because it gives us something to work towards, something to look forward to, and, most of all, encourages you to get out there and look for more birds, do more birding.
If you go to the mall, play too many games of bingo, or watch some useless reality show instead of going outside, you ain’t never gonna see a Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher. Actually, if you don’t visit Costa Rica or Panama, you won’t see one either.
I haven’t spent so much time in the field lately and it’s not because I was doing any of the above. I guess it’s because it rains a fair deal now, it’s always hard for me to get out mid-week during the early good birding hours, and the low season translates to less guiding. It’s also bird breeding season and just as with birders up north, the lack of migrants sometimes makes us feel lazy about looking for birds. This is clearly a silly concept because rarities can still show up in June and there is always more to learn about towhees, brush-finches, toucans, or other birds no matter which ones we are looking at.
Always nice to look at one of these…
I might also be acting a bit lazy about birding because I already have a healthy year list. Each year, I hope to at least see or hear 600 bird species in Costa Rica, and thanks to some intense guiding during March and April, surpassed that mark a while ago. I’m now at 634 species, my latest addition being a surprise Slate-colored Seedeater that was singing at a bamboo seeding event near Cinchona this very morning. From now on, several additions are likely to happen like that seedeater, unexpected but based on statistics, nevertheless probable. What I am trying to say is that the more time we spend in the field with focused intent on birds, the more species we see, including the rare ones. Speaking of “rare ones”, there are a lot in Costa Rica. This is typical for neotropical birding, and even more so when most accessible forests are quite fragmented.
However, I still have a bunch of other candidate species for the year list that aren’t so rare. They just live in places and habitats where I have spent little time in 2016. One of those areas is San Vito and down there by the border with Panama. If I can make it down that way, I will have a fair chance at adding Crested Oropendola, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and several other species that lack the annual tick mark. Since a few would also be new for my country list, I should really make an effort to go and see them. I hope I can make that happen so I can finally check off Lance-tailed Manakin, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet for my Costa Rica list. Not to mention, there’s a lot of other cool birds down that way too.
Other gaps come in the form of seabirds but for a seasick prone person like myself, that’s always the case. With some judicious ferry trips, I should add some of those and will always have a chance at picking up something truly rare from the top deck of the boat. Hitting 650 or even 700 will also be more likely if I can connect with several migrants. Hopefully, if we go for another Big Day in fall, scouting will turn up some of those needed species along with various rarities. Whether I hit the 700 mark or not by 2017, trying for it will be all good because that will make me do a lot of birding anyways and that’s the best part of it. Are you keeping track of year birds? Whether in Costa Rica or elsewhere, tell everyone about it in the comments.
In Costa Rica, when referring to “high birding”, that doesn’t have anything to do with looking for birds under the influence of Cannabis (although that might give you some imaginary lifers). It just means heading uphill to the places where the vegetation rings with the songs of Collared Redstarts and jostles with the foraging of Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses. I know, please, say Chloro what? I mean can a bird please have a name that doesn’t sound like an obscure part of the anatomy? Not when it’s a former pseudo-tanager/finch thing. Well, I guess that’s what Chlorospingus means and it’s always better to build the personal lexicon than subtract from it so happy Chlorospingus to everybody.
The Sooty-capped Chlorospingus could also be known as the “Lighting-stripe headed Highland Chunkster”.
Last week, a morning of guiding on Irazu got me into some fine high birding and not just to the realm of the S-C Chlorospingus. It also brought us up above the treeline and into junco land. The junco in question here is an angry-looking bird with fierce yellow eyes, pinkish bill, and a home range that sits atop a few mountains. It shares that range with a handful of other bird species, one of which is the Timberline Wren. On our day of birding, we got both just outside the entrance to the national park. Happily, the Volcano Juncos just about followed us around as a pair of adults fed their striped, sparrow-looking youngsters. Really good to see that they had a successful nesting season (so far, although the young sure looked healthy as they hopped around and ate berries and bugs).
Young Volcano Junco.
A fierce adult Volcano Junco at Irazu.
I was very pleased that we saw them so well because they can be a pain to find when they refuse to leave the dense haunts of paramo vegetation. Speaking of skulking, that’s what the wren chose to do until, at the last moment, a pair sang close enough for us to see them.
Timberline Wren from another day at Irazu.
We had a pretty good morning overall seeing most possible species including flight (but good) views of male and female Resplendent Quetzals, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, brief looks at Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Flame-throated Warbler, both silky-flycatchers, and so on.
The Flame-throated Warbler lives up to its evocative name. Flame on feathered dude!
The following morning, it was down to dry guiding and birding for the annual meeting of the Birding Club of Costa Rica near Universidad de la Paz at the Finca Caballo Loco. It was nice to see several people I hadn’t seen in a while, especially Henry, a guy who has been passionate about living in harmony with other living things for many years. The birding turned up various expected species in edge habitats and dry topical forest (nice and green at this time of year). Olive Sparrows and Yellow-green Vireos were singing nearly non-stop, and we had nice looks at several bird species including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Keel-billed Toucans, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.
Fiery-billed Aracari also showed very well.
The weekend made for an interesting mix of species typical of birding in Costa Rica in radically different habitats from one day to the next. I did not go out birding on Sunday but could have easily visited Caribbean slope foothill forests or cloud forests for yet another suite of species not seen on Friday or Saturday. The close combination of different ecosystems always makes for a bio-exciting experience and I suspect that few other places on the planet can offer such radically different birding is such a small area. Hope to see you here!
Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:
Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.
Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.
Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.
You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.
What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).
Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.
Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.
Some stuff to study:
Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:
-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.
-Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.
Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:
- Any other books by Alexander Skutch.
- Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.
-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.
- Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.
eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.
Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:
- A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.
- How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.
Last weekend, I guided a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to the Los Campesinos Ecolodge. This site is one of several rural tourism initiatives in Costa Rica, and like most, provides somewhat basic yet good service and food in a setting surrounded by green space. The birding at these sites varies in terms of “quality” birds (“quality” being synonymous with large areas of mature forest) but it’s always nice (“nice” meaning that you will see a bunch of birds, and different ones every day).
Some information about birding at Campesinos:
Nice views: With the cabins situated on a ridge between streams, you have a fair view of a couple of forested hillsides. The distant trees are the perfect opportunity to make use of that scope that you almost didn’t bring to Costa Rica. We saw Golden-naped Woodpeckers, a few raptor species, tityras, and other expected birds. Other species are of course also possible, maybe even Turquoise Cotinga. It does live in the area after all. The ridge-top location also allows views into much closer crowns of trees. Our hoped for mixed flocks at eye level never showed but could certainly happen, and we did have nice looks at Olivaceous Piculet (common there), Eye-ringed Flatbill, Blue Dacnis, Long-billed Starthroat, and other species.
This Eye-ringed Flatbill was very cooperative.
Secondary forest:Although there is some older growth along the stream, it seemed like most forest around the ecolodge was secondary in nature. There are still plenty of birds but that type of forest doesn’t usually have as many raptors and many species as older rainforest. That said, we had some nice species indicative of older forest anyways including a Striped Woodhaunter that entertained us with its ringing calls all day long, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Red-capped Manakin, Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and Scaly-throated Leaftosser. These were all on the trails that went down to the streams.
The view from the cabins.
Mature forest on the road up: Although the birding is OK at the ecolodge, I suspect that it is much better on the drive up. Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to bird along the road but the habitat looked really good with lots of huge trees, and streams. I really want to survey that road and would expect such species as White-tipped Sicklebill, Blue-crowned Manakin, various woodcreepers, trogons, and various other forest-based species (I did hear White-throated Shrike-Tanager and Rufous Piha from the car…).
Swifts: As in this seems to be a good place to watch them. In addition to White-collared and Costa Rican Swifts, we also had Lesser Swallow-tailed, Chestnut-collared, and at least one likely Spot-fronted. It was a tail view of a silent bird but it wasn’t a Chaetura and flew different from White-collared and Chestnut-collared.
Trails:There are a couple, one going up a hill and the other going down to the base of a beautiful waterfall. The one going up the hill passes through nice forest along a stream for a bit before making a steep ascent. We didn’t do that ascent but had some nice species near the stream (the ones mentioned above). The other trail goes through thick, viney forest for a short ways. The rest of the birding we did was on the entrance road to the lodge. That was fine with several second growth species and some canopy birds including Rufous-breasted and Black-bellied Wrens (Riverside is everywhere), Cocoa Woodcreeper, Olivaceous Piculet, and others.
There is also a long, bridge to the waterfall.
The road there: The road to Londres is pretty good but once you get past there, you really need four wheel drive. During really heavy rains, I could see that road being impassible. The challenging part of the drive up also coincides with the best habitat.
Accommodating:The ecolodge was very accommodating and were willing to make us coffee at dawn. Since we didn’t want them to have to come all the way up there at dawn just to make us coffee (we didn’t schedule breakfast until 8:30), we asked them to make coffee the evening before and leave it in a thermos along with cups. They did just that, always served good, home-cooked food, and were always attentive to our needs. Rooms were also clean and were equipped with fans.
One of the cabins.
This site would be a good day visit from the Manuel Antonio area, especially the mature forest on the road up. I suspect that the views over forest are better in the Esquipulas area but it would be interesting to see what could be found on the road to Campesinos. Whether visiting either site, Johan Chaves would be one of the guides to go with from the Manuel Antonio area. See my eBird list from Saturday at Campesinos.
Not many people come to Costa Rica for birding in May and June, and I can’t blame them. They are enjoying the colors and songs of breeding birds back home, the weather is nice and warm, and the trees are flush with fresh vegetation. It’s summertime and the living is nice and easy so why leave home? However, if you do happen to be someone who would rather look at hundreds of species of birds than hang out with the usual ones near the house, I hope the following tidbits help:
Bamboo is seeding near the La Paz Waterfall Gardens: I don’t know if that elusive ground-dove or Peg-billed Finches are breeding but any bamboo with seeds is certainly worth checking. During the Global Big Day on May 14th, I gave the bamboo a brief look and didn’t hear or see anything but will be back for a more thorough examination. This bamboo is on the main road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens and is just downhill from the parking area, on the other side of the road (the eastern side). There are very few places to pull a vehicle off the road and it might be easier to park in the Waterfall Gardens lot and walk downhill. If perched Barred Parakeets are there, the trudge back uphill will be worth the effort.
Look for Bridled Terns and Brown Noddies: Both should be back by now from their mysterious non-breeding haunts. The most reliable place to see the Bridleds is in Manuel Antonio National Park. Take the trail to where you can see offshore rocks and watch for them. The noddy can also turn up there but if you want it for your Costa Rica country list, the easiest place for that one is from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. With the rainy season kicking into gear, I suspect that this brings more nutrients into the gulf and that brings in the birds. You never know what else might show so keep scanning the horizon!
Enjoy the bird song: More birds are singing now, especially because the rains came a bit late. That includes everything from trogons to owls. We all know that not only does this make for a more pleasant walk in the rainforest, it also makes it easier to find those birdies. Become familiar with bird vocalizations in Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app (songs of around 610 species, images of more than 850).
Umbrellabirds are tough: Sadly, this stellar mega has become more rare in recent years. Since it was already rare in past years, this is pretty bad news. Since they sit at the top of a big bug, lizard, and fruit eating food chain, I fear that they have been hard hit by the erosion of such food items from their forest ecosystems. How? Because global warming has made it hotter and drier, and seems to be killing several humid forest ecosystems in Costa Rica right from the base of the food pyramid. With that in mind, I’m not sure where you can go to see this species right now but the easiest places to check are the reserves in the Monteverde area, and the San Luis Adventure Park. The Tenorio area might also be a good place to check although in all likelihood, the birds are higher up in less accessible spots.
Even if you don’t see umbrellabirds at San Luis, you will probably get close looks at tanagers like this Emerald.
Expect a lot of birds and avian activity: With cloudier weather, more birds singing, and parents busy finding food for the kids, there seems to be more bird activity now than other times of the year. If it rains, just bird from shelter and get ready for the burst in activity when the rain stops.
This is also when we do our breeding bird surveys. I wish I had time to do bird counts all over the country but know that I will at least be doing counts on Poas, Quebrada Gonzalez, and near home. Happy birding in Costa Rica!
Coinciding with the start of the rains, the green season has arrived, quite literally. Brown, windswept dry season vegetation has come back to life, the birds are singing, building nests, and there is a Clay-colored Thrush going after its reflection in the window that faces the backyard. It doesn’t matter how many times I open the curtain to scare it off, the relentless urge of testosterone keeps it coming back for more of the same window pecking nonsense. You think it would eventually realize that something was amiss but that hasn’t happened yet.
This juvenile is already eager to attack something, on this occasion a banana.
As Costa Rica’s national bird attacks itself in the window, and the Yellow-green Vireos sing, I am reminded of the irony of the green season. You see, the countryside has gone from looking like the dry, dusty surroundings of a semi-desert to a summer-time place of lush foliage and scented air. Life abounds in more places than the dry season and no, it doesn’t rain too much either. Yet, this is when fewer people come to Costa Rica. There’s a rumor that it rains too much and that the best time to bird is in March. Um, what can I say but no, you don’t have to visit in March and will see just as many resident species during the green season. In fact, it might be easier to see several of those resident species. If you are planning on or thinking about visiting during the green season, try these tips:
Enjoy the savings: The discounts aren’t astronomical but they are there. Expect to pay less for most rooms and don’t be afraid to bargain. Most places take dollars but they might give 500 colones rather than the official 535 colones. To get that rate, exchange cash at banks or at the “Servi Mas” counter at Wal Mart. Don’t change money at the airport unless you really absolutely need to because they give the worst rate of all.
More room to play: Fewer tourists means more room for you. This works especially well at popular national parks like Manuel Antonio and Rincon de la Vieja. It never gets that crowded for birding in Costa Rica but it’s always nice to have a bit more elbow room.
Visit some out of the way places: Sure, you can stick to the regular circuit but remember that there are other places that have just as many or more birds. The accommodations might not be as deluxe but the birding can be stellar. The San Luis Adventure Park and Cocora Hummingbird Garden are easy trips from the San Jose area and could turn up umbrellabird in addition to close looks at tanagers and several cloud forest species. For Caribbean lowland species, consider a trip south of Limon- lots of tourist infrastructure and lots of great rainforest birding including chances at Sulphur-rumped Tanager, several uncommon species at Hitoy Cerere, and a real chance at a mega surprise or two. The same goes for pelagic birding in the Gulf of Nicoya. With rains raising river levels that bring more nutrients into the gulf, we might see more storm-petrels and lost seabirds. Learn about those out of the way places in my Costa Rica bird finding book.
Laguna del Lagarto is another, excellent, out of the way place to visit.
Bring an umbrella: Yes, expect some rain but the same goes for the dry season. I would actually hope for more rain since the forests need it and it kicks-starts bird activity.
Resident bird activity: As in more. The rains result in more breeding and more activity overall. Not to mention, every bird you look at will be a resident species and not another Chestnut-sided Warbler. Mixed flocks can be really good.
Blue-throated Toucanets will be around.
Learn about Yellow-green Vireos: Bird around the Central Valley and the Pacific slope and you will have plenty of chances to study them, their constant singing, and their alarm calls. I always enjoy seeing these fun, local versions of the Red-eyed Vireo.
The aptly named Yellow-green Vireo.
Don’t forget to get the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app to study before the trip and use in the field. The latest update shows images of more than 850 species and vocalizations for more than 610 along with information and range maps for every species on the list.
Last Sunday, I got in a morning of birding at two sites in the Central Valley. To be honest, one site was actually a pseudo-chase, the bird in question a Grasshopper Sparrow that had been reported on eBird in March. Whether the birds were wintering there or just determined to skulk, I believe we found the spot but know that we did not find the birds. No insect-like song, no hint of a little brown thing with a quizzical look on its face, no nothing from the promising swales. Luckily, the other site, Bosque del Nino, was close enough to check and also not find the other bird we were hoping for, Blue Seedeater.
No matter, though, because birding can always be more than the chase, especially when there’s so much else to discover in tropical habitats. I knew the seedeater would be a gamble anyways because they seem to be a natural stringer. The modus operandi is found one day and gone the next, so you just have to get lucky. It fits their nomadic behavior, and along with the Slaty Finch, ground-dove, and some other picky species, those seedeaters are basically bamboo seeding gypsies. How they find the seeding bamboo and what they do at other times is a big fat mystery but there’s always other cool birds to see anyways.
On Sunday, during our drive up to the Bosque del Nino, we stopped en route and were treated to a fine morning chorus of Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, swooping swallows, and other birds, including a couple of choice flycatchers. A burned area held several Lesser Elaenias, and at least two Alder Flycatchers- year birds and always nice to study. Both are kind of local in Costa Rica, the Alder only passing through and perhaps mostly in the highlands, and the elaenia just locally distributed.
As if in defiance of its low key plumage, the elaenia was super confident and brash.
The Alder below was not so bold but still good about letting us study it.
Up on the trails at Bosque del Nino, we climbed up and up towards Poas and passed through pretty second growth forest steadily approaching maturity. Bamboo was much in evidence but none was seeding and no seedeater ever responded to its song. The woods,though, were still filled with a spring chorus and the middle elevation temperatures reminded us of June in Pennsylvania. The bird songs were of course more suited to Central America. While walking, we were constantly treated to the songs of Flame-colored Tanager, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned Warbler, and Brown-capped Vireo. Orange-bellied Trogon also joined in at one spot and we could hear the low notes of Band-tailed Pigeon and Ruddy Pigeon from time to time. It was a good hike and this little birded spot might also be good for Chiriqui Quail-Dove. We didn’t find any but the habitat looked right and probably improves higher up the trail. If you go, just remember that the area sees a lot of local visitors on weekends, and those trails are mostly uphill!
A fine old tree.
White-eared Ground-Sparrow was common as well.
Bosque del Nino makes for an easy day trip with one’s own, four wheel drive vehicle but it’s kind of hard to describe how to get there. That said, check the map from this eBird checklist, follow the few signs, use a navigator and you will get there.
For more information about this and birding sites throughout Costa Rica, try my 700 plus page ebook, How to See Find and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.
If you pay attention to this blog, there’s a fair chance that you know about my Big Days in Costa Rica. If not, then allow me to explain. Each year, I spend way too much planning and analyzing a route that can result in 300 plus species of birds. With more than 900 species on the country list, that shouldn’t be a problem, except that I’m not talking about one or two weeks. No, the craziness comes in the form of a one day event of all out birding, hunter concentration smack in the face of no sleep, and eating chocolate to see more birds. Actually, eating chocolate for birds isn’t crazy at all (in fact, I absolutely recommend it) and it really does help at 2 pm when you have been awake for 12 hours and still need to see a caracara, kingfishers, and hundreds of other species.
This year, the Big Day was originally planned for March. Susan, Robert, and I were going to blast through the country with blazing binoculars from Cano Negro all the way over to the Pacific coast at Chomes with rainforest and cloud forest in between. We were going to do that but then each of us got sick right before the day of reckoning, so, with a heavy heart, it was postponed until April 24. Most of the wintering birds would be gone and that does leave a hole in the final tally, but there would also be migrants coming through and maybe more birds singing as well. At least, that was the gamble and we didn’t have a choice anyways if we wanted to do a Big Day in 2016.
Although Robert couldn’t make it, we still met up with him and Eduardo Amengual on the eve of the Big Day at Cano Negro. We saw a Short-tailed Nighthawk, enjoyed some fine conversation, shared laments over the passing of Prince, and, thanks to Eduardo, also shared a smooth and delicious Spanish Rioja. This was followed by an attempt an getting five hours of sleep. That almost worked except for when I had to get up and slaughter several mosquitoes. Luckily, they weren’t as quick as me and I smashed them in triumph. Triumph-this is what you feel after enduring that damn buzzing in the ear and getting bit in the middle of the night. A bit of sleep after killing mosquitoes was followed by the alarm going off at midnight and the official start of our Big Day!
In the yard at Kingfisher Lodge, we heard a Common Pauraque, and got a response from a Common Potoo- Yes! Two birds down, 298 to go! Looking for roosting birds turned out to be fruitless, but a walk to the dike and dock at Cano Negro gave us Boat-billed Heron, our only Black-bellied Whistling Duck of the day, and a few other species along with the mesmerizing ruby red eyeshine of a couple dozen caimans.
I was hoping we would find one of these guys roosting but no avian cigar for us…
After getting some extra exercise by way of walking in a circle in Cano Negro village, we eventually found the lodge (and the car), and headed out into the night in search of more birdies. Stops on the road out gave nothing new until we reached the bridge at San Emiliano. However, lucky for us, the hoped for Great Potoo was perched at eye level just below the light.
A friendly Great Potoo. These birds are really big!
Off in the fields, no Striped nor Barn Owl (and forget about the super rare Ocellated Poorwill) but it was still cool to hear another Common Potoo. Then, we were off for an easy night drive to our site for more owls and the dawn chorus. This was around Luna Nueva and Pocosol and almost two hours from Cano Negro. To make a long story short, we heard one Mottled Owl, nothing else, and had a disturbing absence of dawn chorus. As the first light of the day became visible on the way to the Pocosol station, we did pick up some birds here and there including Crested Guan, our only Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and various second growth species, but in the forests of the station itself, the trees were eerily bereft of bird song.
Seriously, this was not good and not just because it was a Big Day. I settled on the rainforests at Pocosol as a dawn starting point because these are some of the highest quality forests I have seen in Costa Rica. They host a huge array of common and decidedly uncommon species, and the hope was that being there at dawn would give a better chance at getting more species. Simple as that. On past trips at this time of the year, the dawn chorus at this site was so profuse, it was hard to distinguish which species were calling. Just amazing. On April 24th, though, the forest resounded with cicadas and almost nothing else. Trust me, this is not normal, nor were the dry leaves and wilted moss. If some of the most intact rainforests in Costa Rica are like this, I can’t help but wonder how many areas are approaching ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a drought, it’s prolonged hot, dry weather caused by global warming in places not adapted to those conditions, and the outlook is bad.
A view from the dining area at Pocosol.
We walked the forest trail in silence, hoping for some bird to call and got nothing. At least not until the cicadas slowed down well after dawn. Then, we did pick up birds here and there including some good, expected ones like Black-headed Anthrush, Dull-mantled Antbird, Russet Antshrike, and Purplish-backed Quail-Dove. Motmots were also calling but it was way too quiet overall. Since we needed more species from that area that we expected during dawn chorus, we stayed longer than scheduled and did pick up more here and there, including White Hawk, King Vulture, and some species near Luna Nueva. I’m not sure what our total was at that time but probably somewhere around 140 species.
Next on the list was the drive up to sites on the way to San Ramon. En route, fortunately, we connected with species seen from the car like Black-cowled Oriole, Rock Pigeon (oh yeah, it counts!), Olive-throated Parakeet, and some others. A stop at the small marsh turned up Great Blue Heron and a few other species, and San Luis was good for tanagers. Our next main stop was the Cocora Hummingbird Garden. Although this cloud forest site had treated us well in the past, it was dead on April 24th. Whether because of dry weather or the loud music from an adjacent birthday party, we came up zilch in the forest but at least picked up some hummingbirds in the garden. The lack of birds prompted a brief stop in front of Nectandra which finally gave us givens like Gray-breasted Wood-Wren and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch but overall, the cloud forest was a bird silent bust.
One of the birds we picked up was Green-crowned Brilliant.
The stops from then on were better, including Tropical Mockingbird, Purple Gallinule, and several other targets at the Silencio marsh, a quick Vaux’s Swift while filling up in San Ramon, and driveby Rufous-breasted Wren, Plain Wren, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (I love driveby birds on a Big Day). No luck with any driveby birds on the descent to the coast but we lucked out in terms of traffic. Our next main stop, Punta Morales, also provided with a sweet combination of mangrove species and waterbirds. Scanning produced several shorebird species, two gulls species, and five tern species, along with some dry forest stuff. We picked up more dry forest birds on the drive to Chomes, and then got up a few more shorebirds at Chomes itself, best being American Golden-Plover. Although shorebird numbers there were surprisingly low, we also had nice looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbill, and other waterbird targets, and a surprise bunch of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers flying to roost. As dusk approached, I figured that checking the fields on the way out might be interesting. This turned out to be a good choice as we heard Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Collared Forest-Falcon, Double-striped Thick-knees, and the best bird of the day, Upland Sandpiper! Two called a few times just as it got dark, and they were probably flying into the night sky to migrate north. It was magic. Last but not least, we also managed a Barn Owl that flew in front of the car on the drive out. That was a serendipitous relief.
We quit after the Barn Owl at 6:30. This was early by Big Day standards but we were pleased and pretty much too tired to keep listening for non-calling owls. The final tally was 260 species, and I figured that we could have added at least 80 common species if more birds had been singing (such as tinamous for example), but we weren’t complaining because it was, after all, a memorable, fine day of birding.
Our list for the day: Big Day list 2016