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el nino weather

An El Nino year for Costa Rica

In July, meteorogists made the official announcement that El Nino is back for another visit to the Pacific Coast of Latin America. Termed “El Nino” (the child) because this weather phenomenon typically occurs around Christmas (in Latin America, this same term is often used in reference to the arrival of baby Jesus), this is one kid that farmers in Guanacaste, Costa Rica don’t want around. Although the warm waters associated with El Nino bring rains to some areas of South America, Costa Rica typically suffers from droughts in the Pacific Northwest and the Central Valley. Instead of the daily afternoon rains that people are used to and expect at this time of year, the hot, tropical sun beats down upon the zinc roofs day after day. While worried Ticos in the Central Valley have been talking about the dry season that never stopped, farmers in Guanacaste have become frantic as important crops such as rice and beans are lost due to the lack of deperately needed downpours. Farmers in the highlands, though, have benefited from the hot, dry weather. Their crops of potatoes and onions that typically suffer from fungis and molds that proliferate in wet conditions have done very well.

As far as the birds go, I suspect that although populations of most species in the Central Valley and Guanacaste probably won’t have a very successful breeding season, this won’t be very noticeable to the visiting birder as one bad breeding season won’t affect bird populations too much. Although they will unfortunately be stressed, birds might also be easier to watch in the Pacific Northwest as they concentrate around scarce, wet areas. Whereas birds in the dry forest would typically be benefitting from the annual “greening” of the vegetation, with the lack of rains, plants not found in riparian corridors or watered areas such as golf courses or hotel gardens may be too stressed to produce flowers and fruits. This will probably affect frugivores such as trogons, manakins, and bellbirds to the point that we may see some of these as vagrants to other parts of Costa Rica or could see more around hotels planted with fruiting trees.

As opposed to the Pacific Slope, the Caribbean side of Costa Rica has not been affected by El Nino and has actually experienced higher rain than normal. I personally hope that the rains on the other side of the mountains take a break this weekend when I head to Pocosol to co-guide a BCCR trip. Watch for a report about that place! Rarely visited, it has some of the wildest forests on the Caribbean Slope. Although I won’t be surprised if we end up birding from the shelter of the biological station during constant rain, we will still see some good stuff in any case. Lovely Cotinga? Keel-billed Motmot? Tawny-faced Quail? All of these occur there although now that I have mentioned them, I have assured that I won’t see them. Well, maybe someone else in the group will.

For birders who decided to risk a visit during normally rainy October and November, they are in luck because the El Nino of 2009 is expected to last until 2010 with lighter rain than normal during those normally extremely wet months.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope feeders Introduction middle elevations

Rara Avis, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites

This past weekend I visited Rara Avis, one of the classic birding sites for Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a fairly common bird at Rara Avis.

There were several Olive-sided Flycatchers in the area. Love these birds!

Founded in 1983 by conservationists, Rara Avis started out as an organization whose goal was to demonstrate that rain forest could be managed in both a profitable and wise manner. Or, in other words, that people will benefit far more from keeping the spectacular rain forests of Costa Rica intact as opposed to cutting them down. With this concept playing a central role in all things Rara Avis, it’s no wonder that they became pioneers of ecotourism in the rainforest. On my recent visit to Rara Avis, I discovered that more than 20 years later, they have stuck to this central theme, and in my opinion, the place still ranks among the top birding sites in Costa Rica.

Area around lodge.

Rara Avis at dawn.

Ironically, it doesn’t attract very many birders. Only a fortunate few include Rara Avis on trips that visit other “must see” sites such as Monteverde, Carara, la Selva, and the Dota region. Those few birders that make it to Rara Avis, though, are indeed fortunate because they end up seeing a variety of species difficult to find elsewhere in the country. The 360 plus species list at Rara Avis includes such birds as Great, Slaty-breasted, and Little Tinamous, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Wood-Quails, Sunbittern, Barred Hawk, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Great Green Macaw, Vermiculated Screech-Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, White-chinned Swift, Green-fronted Lancebill, Violet-headed Hummingbird, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Lanceolated Monklet, Barbets, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Immaculate Antbird, Spectacled, Thicket, and Black-crowned Antpittas, Black-headed Antthrush, Thrushlike Schiffornis, Speckled Mourner, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Nightingale Wren, Pale-vented Thrush, many tanagers including Blue and Gold, Black and Yellow, and Ashy-throated Bush, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

All of these are regularly heard or seen at Rara Avis. Indeed this may be the most reliable spot in Costa Rica for Blue and Gold and Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers. One of the guides who became a birder at Rara Avis told me that he had been pretty surprised when he found out that Blue and Gold Tanager was NOT one of the most common species in Costa Rica because at Rara Avis he was seeing several every single day.

Incredible as that sounds, it should actually be expected to see a few “rare” bird species at Rara Avis. The reason for this is because most of these “rare” birds require the type of extensive, primary rainforest at Rara Avis that has become very difficult to gain access to on the Caribbean slope. In addition to the above mentioned species, there are a few other indicators that Rara Avis harbors some very special habitat. It was one of the last places where Red-throated Caracaras have been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites are on the Osa Peninsula), is one of the few sites where Crested Eagle has been seen in Costa Rica (the other sites being the Osa Peninsula, Pocosol, and Tortuguero), and is one of the only sites where Wing-banded Antbird has been possibly seen in Costa Rica. The antbird in particular is a most intriguing and enigmatic record. A ground loving antbird that occurs in lowland rain forest in Nicaragua, Panama, and northern South America, this peculiar species is considered hypothetical for Costa Rica. Nevertheless, in speaking with Wilbur, the resident bird guide at Rara Avis, it’s hard to believe that he saw anything but Wing-banded Antbird. He got very good looks at the bird on three occasions during 2001, but hasn’t seen it since. He even showed me the exact spot along the “Plastico” trail where he saw the bird, an area that at that time was mostly closed canopy primary forest of about 650 meters elevation.

The hummingbird feeders attract…

Green-crowned Brilliants,

lots of Violet-crowned Woodnymphs,

and lots of Orangish Nectar feeding bats at night!

Considering that Rara Avis has so much to offer for birders, their relative absence is almost as enigmatic as Wilbur’s sighting of Wing-banded Antbird. Although the accommodation at Rara Avis is more basic than that of other lodges, it is clean and several rooms have balconies that provide views into the canopy. A stay at the lodge that includes meals, guided walks, and transportation from Las Horquetas is also priced accordingly (about $80-$90 per person). The only real issue and barrier for most people is the road that leads to Rara Avis. It can’t be driven and although it qualifies as a road for maybe one third of its length, better terminology for the rest of the way might be “rough track”, “extremely rough passage”, or “blasted, lurching, boulder-strewn mudway”. I think this last description best portrays the access road to Rara Avis. The 15 kilometer trip takes around 3 hours and involves an Ok ride on a durable truck and a pretty awful ride on some sort of cart pulled by a tractor. The cart thing on its own is actually comfortable with well-padded seats. It’s the huge rocks and ruts found along the way that are the problem. They make the cart jump and jerk like a rusty, maniacal ride operated by a bipolar carnie who neglected to take his meds. Actually, lots of people endure the ride up and kids would probably enjoy it. For people who aren’t as pliable or resistant though, that ride up and down is another matter entirely. For birders visiting Costa Rica who can handle the “road”, 3-4 nights at Rara Avis will probably turn up some of the best birding of their trip. On a bright note for birders who can’t handle the rough ride (I barely can), there has been talk of actually fixing it. Although some worry that this might take away from the experience, about the only thing that it will change at Rara Avis is putting this excellent site back on the itinerary of every birder visiting Costa Rica.

The Unimog truck.

The tractor cart thing.

The infamous “road”.

Rara Avis is also very good for herps and has the highest recorded herp diversity for Costa Rica. This Eyelash Viper was poised to strike at this heliconia. While I took a pics, a Long-billed Hermit was feeding nearby. It fed on all the heliconias in that area except for this one!

On my short visit (one night and morning of birding), here is a list of all things identified from the cattle pastures of Las Horquetas up to the beautiful forests of Rara Avis. Birding was more or less limited to the clearing at the Waterfall Lodge, and along the El Plastico trail. A huge number of trees along most of the El Plastico trail were unfortunately felled by an odd, violent windstorm a few years ago. Although this has affected the quality of the habitat along this trail, other trails at Rara Avis still provide access to beautiful primary forest. During my stay, the hot and sunny weather quieted things down quite a bit. Nevertheless, I identified 111 species in just one brief evening and morning of birding and am sure I would have gotten several more if I had stayed for two more nights. My best birds were Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Cerulean Warbler!

Black-breasted Wood-Quail- h

King Vulture- a few seen

Barred Hawk- 2 heard

Black Vulture- a few seen

Turkey Vulture- a few seen

Gray Hawk- few seen along road.

Bat Falcon- seen and heard

Barred Forest Falcon- 1 heard

White-throated Crake- heard El Plastico clearing.

Gray-breasted Crake- one called from marshy pasture along road when tractor stopped for 3 minutes.

Gray-necked Wood-Rail- pair foraging in garden.

Purple Gallinule- marshy pasture.

Northern Jacana- marshy pasture.

Red-billed Pigeon- 2 along road.

Pale-vented Pigeon- near Las Horquetas along road.

Short-billed Pigeon- a few heard.

Ruddy Ground Dove- a few along road.

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove- one singing in morning from perch 3 meters high inside forest near kitchen.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet- a few along road.

Olive-throated Parakeet- one pair along road.

Orange-chinned Parakeet- a few along road.

Red-lored Parrot- a few along road.

White-crowned Parrot- a few along road.

Groove-billed Ani- a few along road.

Mottled Owl- 1 heard at night.

Central American Pygmy Owl- 1 heard 6:00 P.M.

White-collared Swift- a few flocks.

Green Hermit- a few in forest.

Stripe-throated (Little) Hermit- several.

Long-billed Hermit- a few in forest.

Violet Sabrewing- 2 in forest.

Green-crowned Brilliant- a few at feeders.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph- most common hummingbird. Several at feeders and many in forest.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- 1 second growth.

Violet-headed Hummingbird- several at Verbania around lodge.

Black-throated Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Lattice-tailed Trogon- a few heard, 1 seen forest.

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- few heard and seen.

Keel-billed Toucan- 1 seen El Plastico.

Collared Aracari- a few seen El Plastico.

Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several heard and seen.

Smoky-brown Woodpecker- 1 seen.

Spotted Barbtail- 1 heard.

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner- 1 heard, 1 seen.

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Spotted Woodcreeper- a few heard and seen.

Fasciated Antshrike- 1 heard.

Russet Antshrike- a few El Plastico.

Immaculate Antbird- 1 heard around lodge.

Thicket Antpitta- a few heard along El Plastico trail. Their population should be booming with all the gaps created by the storm.

Black-faced Antthrush- a few heard and seen.

Paltry Tyrannulet- very few heard and seen.

Common Tody Flycatcher- heard and seen Las Horquetas.

Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant- several heard and seen.

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher- a few seen.

Olive-sided Flycatcher- at least 7 different birds seen! Must be coming through in numbers.

Eastern Wood-Peewee- 1 heard.

Tropical Peewee-  1 El Plastico.

Black Phoebe- along road.

Dusky-capped Flycatcher- El Plastico.

Boat-billed Flycatcher- 1 heard.

Social Flycatcher- along road.

TK- along road.

Eastern Kingbird- small flock along road.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird- pair seen near El Plastico. Female sallied out to snatch a large katydid- incredible!

White-collared Manakin- 1 lodge clearing.

Red-eyed Vireo- a few seen.

Lesser Greenlet- a few seen and heard.

Blu and white Swallow- a few seen.

Barn Swallow- constantly migrating overhead.

Bank Swallow- several migrating overhead.

Purple Martin- group of dozen of both sexes along road.

Long-billed Gnatwren- a few heard.

Tawny-faced Gnatwren- 1 heard.

Stripe-breasted Wren- several heard, a few seen.

White-breasted Wood-Wren- a few heard.

Nightingale Wren- a few heard.

Pale-vented Thrush- several seen.

Clay-colored Robin- heard Las Horquetas.

Blackburnian Warbler- a few seen.

American Redstart- several seen.

Canada Warbler- 1 seen.

Cerulean Warbler- at least 2 seen very actively foraging high up with mixed flock near El Plastico.

Buff-rumped Warbler- 1 heard river at lodge.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- a few heard road.

Bananaquit- a few heard and seen.

Ashy-throated Bush-tanager- several in mixed flock near El Plastico.

Olive Tanager- a few heard and seen.

White-shouldered Tanager- pair seen.

Tawny-crested Tanager- a few heard.

Black and yellow Tanager- several seen and heard.

Passerini’s Tanager- several at El Plastico.

Speckled Tanager- a few near lodge.

Golden-hooded Tanager- along road.

Silver-throated Tanager- 1 seen.

Blue-gray Tanager- a few along road.

Palm Tanager- a few along road.

Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- a few around lodge.

Green Honeycreeper- a few.

Shining Honeycreeper- a few.

Variable Seedeater- several along road.

Orange-billed Sparrow- a few near lodge.

Buff-throated Saltator- a few in gaps.

Black-faced Grosbeak- several in forest.

Eastern Meadowlark- a few along road.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique- a few heard in forest.

Montezuma Oropendola- a few along road.

Olive-backed Euphonia- several heard and seen.

Tawny-capped Euphonia- several heard and seen.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding La Georgina, Costa Rica

Most birders visiting Costa Rica seem to get their fix of high elevation Talamancan endemics at Savegre Lodge or somewhere in the Dota Valley. I may have done the same when I did my first high elevation Talamancan birding in Costa Rica in 1994, but as is common with wandering, young birders (colloquially referred to as bird bums), I couldn’t afford to stay there. In fact, I couldn’t afford to stay almost anywhere. I rode the bus, hitched, camped out, and stayed in cheap hotels where the walls were so thin that guests would simply communicate with friends in other rooms by yelling back and forth. If conversations would have been interesting, perhaps I would have joined in. I just stuffed tissue papaer into my ears though because they usually went something like this:

“Hey Julio! What are you doing?”

“Nothing Raul!! What about you!!?”

“Nothing Julio! Lets go drink some beers!!!”

“Ok Raul!! Do you want to drink them here or in the park!?!”

“Hey Julio!! The shower doesn’t work!!”

“Ha! Maybe we can stand in the rain!!! If we are drunk we won’t feel it!!! Ha ha ha!”

The noise level of cheaper hotels in latin America is often the biggest problem (well, not counting the bed bugs that attacked a friend of mine and I during our stay at a $3 per night doozy in Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). On one particularly noise-ridden night in Buenaventura, Ecuador, I was so fed up with the audio intrusion that I was going to buy the loudest noisemaker I could find, like say a stick of dynamite, and set it off outside the door of my noisy neighbor at 5 A.M. My neighbor lucked out though, because the birding is so incredibaly good at the Buenaventura Reserve that I just didn’t get the chance to look for large caliber firecrackers.

In any case, my first experiences at night in the high Talamancas were wonderful in all respects because I spent them camping out in the fantastic forests along the trail up to Chirripo (camping along the trail isn’t actually allowed and I don’t think you could get away with it nowadays which is a shame because it was the best high elevation birding I have ever had in Costa Rica). I saw nearly every highland specialty including the only time I have ever seen Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. Since then, most of my visits to the high Talamancas have been to the easiest, most accessible, budget site for high elevation birding in Costa Rica; La Georgina.

Situated along on the east side of the highway that connects San Jose to San Isidro de el General, La Georgina is a diner/truck-stop/cheap place to stay with excellent birding about 10 minutes after the pass on Cerro de la Muerte. The pass can be recognized by it being the most extensive area above the treeline-if you don’t visit Irazu, then this is where you stop for Volcano Junco. At 10,000 feet (slightly over 3,000 meters), La Georgina is pretty high up there for Costa Rica and you will feel it both in terms of the lack of oxygen and darn cold nights. It also rains quite a bit up there at La Georgina, as it did the other day when I made a day trip to the place despite the clear forecast. Although the foggy, misty weather pretty much foiled most of my attempts at bird photography, it was still nice to check the place out and especially nice to see that La Georgina has improved as a birding site. Unlike so many other birding sites in Costa Rica, La Georgina does not charge to use their trails, and still charges reasonable rates for lodging. The very friendly, humble family that runs the place still serves good, local food and the birding is still very good if not better than in the past.

The dining area provides perfect views of Fiery-throated and Magnificent hummingbirds that visit their feeders.

Extensive gardens have been planted that host Volcano Hummingbird, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Large-footed Finch. This young Large-footed Finch was nice and camera friendly.

Two “cabinas” have been built that overlook the gardens and nearby forests. Lodging costs $30 per night. I believe this is per cabina and not per person although I am not 100% sure. It would be very interesting to stay the night here and try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Almost no one has seen or heard this bird in Costa Rica; a subject that Robert Dean and I were discussing recently. We wondered if it might be related to these owls only vocalizing during a particular season, or possibly that they occur higher than the Savegre Valley (where most birders spend the night). If our second hypothesis explains the dearth of sightings of this bird, perhaps birders who stay at the cabinas at La Georgina can test this. In addition to the cabinas, there are $10 rooms available at the diner. Although the walls are thin, I think the few guests that stay here are too cold to yell to each other.

About the only disadvantage of La Georgina is that one has to be fairly physically fit to walk their trails. Although the paths aren’t too steep, there is enough of a grade to make to make the going a bit rough, especially because of the lack of oxygen at 10,000 feet above sea level. Birders (and hikers) who are fit enough to do these trails, though, should definitely bird them. I have never seen a place where Zeledonias were so common. I must have heard and easily seen (sans binos mind you) at least 10 while walking the main trail.

The trails at La Georgina mostly cut through old growth, temperate zone rain forest. Bamboo is prevalent in the understory and the trails go near a few streams. A testament to the high quality of these forests were the tapir tracks found along the trail. Essentially, this area is an extension of the huge La Amistad Park as the roadless, peopleless forests of La Georgina are connected to those of the park. They don’t get birded much although probably harbor all the high elevation specialties.

Tapir tracks

As far as birds go, along the trails of La Georgina on that day, my best find was Costa-Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Like the one I had last year on Irazu, I found it by virtue of a pair of upset Fiery-throated Hummingbirds that were mobbing it. Just after the owl, I had a male Resplendent Quetzal. Unfortunately though, he was a lot more camera shy than the owl. Like other forested areas of the high Talamancas, Resplendent Quetzal is fairly common at La Georgina. Come to think of it, I have never missed this species when walking their trails.

A Fiery-throated Hummingbird that was happily relaxing in the gardens of La Georgina far away from any Pygmy Owls.

I also had Black Guan, Band-tailed Pigeon, many Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, a few Gray-tailed Mountain-Gems, Hairy and Acorn Woodpeckers, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Paltry Tyrannulet, Black-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-winged Vireo, Ochraceous, Gray-breasted Wood, and Timberline Wrens, Sooty Robin, Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher, Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher, Flame-throated Warbler, Black-cheeked Warbler, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Yellow-thighed Finch, Golden-browed Chlorophonia, and Rufous-collared Sparrow.

Hopefully I will get back to La Georgina sometime soon to spend the night and try for a mega lifer Unspotted Saw-whet Owl.