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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope common birds Introduction

Tales of Birding Costa Rica: My first Grey-necked Wood-Rail

For birders from the north, the Grey-necked Wood-Rail is an anomaly. It doesn’t skulk all day in marshes, nor does it demand that you stumble around in the dark of the night to see it. None of that wandering around and playing tapes, making clumsy imitations, or donating blood to the local mosquito population in quantities that would have earned you a plaque of distinction from the local Red Cross.

No dragging a chain through marsh grass, waltzing and swearing your way through cold, Spring sedge marshes, or engaging in other extreme birding behavior.

No, you don’t need to do any of this to see a Grey-necked Wood-Rail. They don’t even live in marshes. It seems that as long as there is a stream, pond, ditch, or wet area with woody vegetation, there is a wood-rail somewhere nearby. I will even go so far as to say that they are downright common from the lowlands up to just below cloud forest. Not only that, but THESE RAILS ARE AS BIG AS CHICKENS and are kind of fancy looking. You can be assured of the chicken-size comparison because a few weeks ago, a client and I actually saw one feeding WITH chickens around some garbage in the village of Tarcoles (which is probably a clue to why they are so common).

Although they stick to the rail motto of being furtive, I still see them just about every time I go birding. A typical sighting is of a chicken-sized bird with long, red legs running away through the undergrowth.

They are also very vocal– I hear a pair calling at dawn from a forested ravine not too far from the house. Garrigues and Dean in their excellent “Birds of Costa Rica” describe the song as “bringing to mind a group of drunken chickens”. Although I have never listened to any inebriated chickens or wild junglefowl (oh yeah, I am proud to have seen wild chickens in Thailand) that I am aware of, I am pretty sure that this is a perfect description. This song gave rise to one of the local names for this bird, “Ponay, Ponay” (pronounced like Monet or a horribly exaggerated, aristocratic version of “poney”).

I learned about the local name when I saw my first Grey-necked Wood-Rail. It was 1994 and my second trip to Costa Rica. After my first visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the birding in Costa Rica. It was exciting, it was fantastic, and it was frustrating. There were all of these birds that I didn’t see that were supposedly common; like antbirds, antpittas, and the Grey-necked Wood-Rail. I was in their habitat (or so I thought), so where were the birds? Oh, there were birds and plenty of great ones like White Hawk, White-necked Jacobin, and Great Tinamou, but I wondered why I had missed other species. I was absolutely intrigued by the wonders and complexities of neotropical birding and so as soon as the Spring semester was over, I went back to Costa Rica for a month. I paid more attention to the behaviors of birds on that second trip, tried to figure out how to find them, and learned how to see more birds in tropical forest (Several years later, I am still learn something new every time I go birding). I learned a lot on my own but there were people who helped. One of those people on that second trip was a park ranger in Braulio Carrillo named, “Santos Ezeta”.

I heard about Santos after asking the rangers at Quebrada Gonzalez about things like umbrellabirds and hawk-eagles. They told me that Santos was the guy to speak with, that he was really into birding. They also told me that I should go visit him at the “El Ceibo” ranger station on the other side of the park, that I could probably stay there, and that it was the best place to see Great Green Macaws. It was a similar elevation to Quebrada Gonzalez and so probably had similar birds, but it sounded promising, so with the hand-drawn map they had given me, I off to El Ceibo.

It would have been complicated to get there even if I would have had a four-wheel drive vehicle. Without a car, it was one of those adventurous treks that test the body and mind. The distance was maybe ten kilometers (?) from where the bus made its final stop near La Virgen de Sarapiqui. What really made it a trying experience, though, was carrying a back pack beneath the tropical sun along stony roads that crawled through shadeless cattle pastures. As I trudged along, my eyes stung with sweat while cows “mood” at me and meadowlarks sang from so much land that used to be covered in fantastic rainforest.

The area was and still is little birded. Despite the ridiculous amount of sweating I was doing and depressing deforestation, the prospect of unexplored territory made the walk an exciting one. I picked up my lifer Grey-headed Chachalaca, was serenaded by toucans that called from huge, isolated trees standing forlorn in the pastures, and saw at least a dozen Great Green Macaws. They were flying around, feeding, and (as macaws love to do) screaming their heads off.

Upon arrival at the station, I met Santos and his family. He was like many Ticos one meets in the country; lean, mustached, and friendly. He lived there with his young wife and four-year old son, had few visitors, and didn’t get the chance to speak much about birds with anyone. This was evident because when I showed up he sure had plenty to say.

We talked birds for hours and I learned about Bat Falcons sometimes seen in the trees in the pastures, about the Great Green Macaws seen during the wet season (they flew right over the station- it was incredible), about the White Hawk that hunted for Marine Toads at the forest edge, about fantastic mixed flocks that could be seen from the porch of the station, and about a strange bird he called the “Ponay Ponay”.  He said it was a ground bird with red legs, a strange call, and something he rarely saw. Until he showed me a picture of a wood-rail in the book, I had no idea what it might be. Not knowing that wood-rails can often be seen when walking near streams in the early morning or evening, and thinking that like other rails I knew, I would have to play a tape, we walked near the forest edge to call in the Ponay Ponay with my cassette player (nope, no Ipods. Heck, there wasn’t even the internet in 94).

I played the tape of its rollicking call and the results were nearly immediate. Suddenly appearing out of the dim forest understory was a nervous chicken-like bird with bright red legs. It twitched its tuft of a tail, stretched its neck and seemed to stand on its long toes as it called back at us. Although he had seen them before, Santos was just as excited as I was to see this bizarre-looking forest bird with the red legs. It was my lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail and like all of my life birds I can still see it standing at the edge of the rainforest as it looks back and forth a few times before hunching down and running back into the gloom. That mental snapshot also includes Santos. He is smiling and laughing and his eyes are shining with that shared birding moment.

I picked up other lifers those few days at El Ceibo and the birding was fantastic. We watched huge mixed flocks of tanagers and other birds troop along the forest edge near the station. We watched raptors soar over the canopy of the forest. Macaws entertained us every morning and evening. We also crossed the river on a small, cable-car contraption to explore the forest on the other side and found that a Puma was using one of the shelters along the transect trail. We didn’t see the cat but found its tracks and the remains of several Great Tinamous. I picked up several other lifers including my first Yellow-eared Toucanet (a male picking berries off some Melastome near the station) and Barred Forest-Falcon (a juvenile perched above the trail).

El Ceibo was great for birding on its own but sharing its birds with Santos made it one of he more memorable places I have birded in Costa Rica. If I ever get a four-wheel drive vehicle, I hope to get back there sometime although I know it won’t be the same. When I came back to Costa Rica a year and a half later, like always, I visited Quebrada Gonzalez on my first morning. After getting reacquainted with those beautiful woods, I asked one of the rangers about Santos, if he still worked a El Ceibo.

Sometimes when someone tells you something unexpected in a language that you are still learning, you doubt what you heard because you wonder if you misunderstood (it was like that on 9/11 when I was in Peru and we heard about the attacks over a not too clear radio deep in the jungle). Speaking with the ranger at Quebrada Gonzalez was one of those times. I apologized and had to ask him a couple of times to repeat what he had said to make sure I heard correctly because I didn’t want to believe it. Santos and his son were on their way to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui on his motorcycle. Maybe the road was wet or he was going fast. Whatever the reason, they had an accident and both died at the scene. I could only imagine how his young wife who had seemed so content and happy must have felt.

I was stunned and 16 years later still feel a bit stunned I think in part because Santos probably would have been great for local conservation efforts. He was from the Sarapiqui area, was engaging, and had a passion for birding. I am glad to have known him however briefly and can’t help but think of him during those times when I help someone get their lifer Gray-necked Wood-Rail as it nervously calls from the edge of a forest stream.

The Grey-necked Wood-Rail below was seen near Arenal but looks a lot like the scene that Santos and I witnessed.

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Birding Costa Rica

Birding Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica

Lodging near Carara has always been limited, appropriate accommodation for most birders particularly so. Birding tours to Costa Rica and independent birders birding in Costa Rica have often stayed at Villa Lapas or Punta Leona; two fairly expensive choices for lodging with good birding on the grounds. The Hotel Carara in the heart of seaside Tarcoles is moderately priced (and is close to good birding), but you can’t see a great deal of birds at the hotel itself. A moderately-priced hotel near Carara National Park that also had good birding on its grounds was non-existent until Cerro Lodge opened a few years ago. The combination of lower pricing (around $70 for a double) and strategic, dry forest location near the bridge over the Rio Tarcoles (the one with all the people checking out the crocodiles) have been making it a top choice for lodging among birders and tour companies who visit Carara National Park in Costa Rica.

On recent guiding trips to Cerro Lodge, several birders on guided tours were enjoying the morning birding from the restaurant that overlooks a ravine and distant mangroves. Although there is a rough trail that accesses interesting forest  near the lodge (I would love to survey it), most people opt for birding around the cabins and restaurant, and along the main road in front of the lodge.

Because of the view from the restaurant, this is a great place to watch a number of birds in flight. Dawn started with flybys of several Tropical Kingbirds likely coming from their roosts in the mangroves. Other, more exciting birds that spend the night in the mangroves also flew overhead and in front of us while we drank our morning coffee and filled up on gallo pinto, eggs, and tropical fruit. Some of these were:

Red-billed Pigeon,

Scarlet Macaw,

and parrots such as Red-lored, White-crowned, White-fronted, and

Yellow-naped,

and parakeets such as Orange-chinned, Crimson-fronted, and

Orange-fronted.

Waterbirds such as Muscovy Ducks, Anhingas, White Ibis, and various egrets also flew over as they traveled between wetlands, while a few Montezuma Oropendolas also did flybys.

Several raptors were also be seen flying over the cabins or seen in the distance. The most commonly seen are Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras, Grey, Broad-winged, and Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, and

Crane Hawk- seen almost daily at the lodge or along the entrance road.

The vicinity of Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica is also pretty birdy and is often frequented by edge and dry forest species such as White-tipped Dove, Cinnamon, Rufous-tailed, Steely-vented, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Violaceous Trogon, Groove-billed Ani, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Rose-throated Becard, Rufous-naped Wren, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Stripe-headed Sparrow,

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl,

and Turquoise-browed Motmot.

The road in front of Cerro Lodge hosts these species and much more including

Black-headed Trogon,

Rufous-capped Warbler,

Greenish Elaenia,

Barred Antshrike, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

The section of the road from the lodge to the where it dead ends in the river flood plain requires four-wheel drive and probably harbors a number of good species and should be checked for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Pearl Kite, rails, White-tailed Nightjar, and other owl species. Speaking of owls, the section toward the highway has Striped Owl while Black and White and Pacific Screech occur right around the cabins.

And saving the best for last, birding guide Jason Horn told me about a male Yellow-billed Cotinga that is often seen from the restaurant in the morning. The only problem is that it perches so far away, you may not even pick it up with binoculars. Scoping the distant mangroves though, might result in sighting this endangered species (expect a snow-white speck in the distance).

If interested in being guided at Cerro Lodge as well as lodging there, contact me (Pat O’Donnell) at information@birdingcraft.com

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Seeing Curassows, Guans, and Chachalacas when birding Costa Rica

Before coming to Costa Rica for a birding trip, birders usually wonder what their chances are for seeing certain birds that are particularly rare, colorful, or just look extremely cool. Something particularly rare might be a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, male manakins and Bay-headed Tanagers fit nicely into the colorful category, and Ocellated Antbird comes to mind for looking (and being) extremely cool (although the umbrellabird could also fall into this genre). “Extremely unlikely to see” is reserved for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet Owl (although it gets its name from the lack of spots, it is remains un-spotted by just about every birder), while things like Great-tailed Grackle and Tropical Kingbird fit snugly into the “ok, I’m tired of seeing those” category.

The Costa Rican members of the Cracidae family can be placed into the category of “Ooh, I really want to see those birds because although they look kind of like turkeys or colorless turacos, I’m not sure what they are”!

In birding terms, the Cracids are the currasows, guans, and chachalacas. Large, long-tailed birds with dewlaps, they tend to become rare because of another trait shared with turkeys- they taste good. For this reason, they are usually most common in protected areas. Fortunately, Costa Rica has lots of protected forests which makes it pretty easy to see all five Cracids if you know where and how to look for them.

Great Curassow: All curassows look great but this one got the title. Found in most areas of the neotropical region, the many species of curassows are all pretty uncommon outside of protected areas and a few (such as the Wattled, Red-billed, and Blue-billed) are highly endangered due to hunting and habitat loss. Unlike turkeys, the curassows have a very low reproductive rate which makes their populations susceptible to even low levels of hunting. The Great Curassow in Costa Rica has certainly declined for the same reasons as endangered curassow species but is still found in a number of wild and protected areas. Although it ranges in lowland and foothill forests from eastern Mexico to northwestern Ecuador, there are very few places where a birder is guaranteed to see one. Although you might chance across one in wilderness areas, possibly the only place where you are almost certain to see a Great Curassow is at the OTS La Selva station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica.

This is because they are well protected and have become so accustomed  to people that males and females stroll the grounds without a care in the world. They might look tame, but these are wild birds that just about pose for photos. This close encounter is a far cry from the brief looks one usually gets after spending hours in some hot, humid rainforest. In Costa Rica, Great Curassows can also be seen in other national parks such as Santa Rosa, Rincon de la Vieja, Corcovado, Tortuguero, and others but they are always most reliable at La Selva.

Great Curassows being “great” at La Selva.

Crested Guan: More arboreal than Great Curassows, the Crested Guan is also much easier to see. This brown, turkey like bird with the red dewlap and yapping calls is frequently seen on visits to most protected areas in Costa Rica. They usually aren’t too hard to find because they are so darn noisy. If you hear something calling from the canopy that sounds like a small, yipping dog, you have probably found a Crested Guan.

They are especially numerous in fruiting trees such as those near the administration buildings of La Selva. Unlike the curassow, though, you have a good chance of seeing Crested Guans when birding a wide variety of parks so usually don’t need to visit La Selva to get this bird. I see them on most visits to Braulio Carrillo, Carara, and in almost any areas with enough habitat. Also listen for their wing rattling displays at dawn and dusk.

A Crested Guan hanging out at La Selva.

Black Guan: This is one that you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica because it only occurs here and in western Panama. It’s not that rare in protected areas but is considered to be near threatened by Birdlife International because of threats from hunting and habitat loss in its small range. Although it probably has a fairly small population, since a large area of its montane forest habitat is protected, the Black Guan is doing much better than another regional endemic, the Yellow-billed Cotinga. Although this species often gets missed on birding trips to Costa Rica, I think this is due to its habit of quietly foraging in the vegetation.

Compared to the Crested Guan, the Black Guan hardly vocalizes at all and doesn’t get as alarmed when you walk underneath it. This behavior makes it less noticeable but easy to watch and very photo friendly if you happen to see it. Although I have watched them fly across the highway through Braulio Carrillo National Park, some of the best places for the Black Guan are the cloud forests of the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves, Tapanti National Park (I once saw a dozen in a day on the main road through the park), and forests on Cerro de la Muerte (the Dota area, La Georgina, etc.).

A Black Guan playing peek-a-boo.

Gray-headed Chachalaca: Although it acts and sounds kind of like the one you may have seen in Texas, this is different species. These are fairly common birds found more often outside of protected areas because they prefer second growth.

Because I stuck to birding in forested habitats on my first birding trip to Costa Rica, I missed this species. On my second trip, when I asked a ranger in Braulio Carrillo where to find the Gray-headed Chachalaca, he said, “There are lots in the crappy habitat”. I followed his advice, went to some dense, second growth area along a stream and with a background soundscape of cows mooing from acres of birdless pasture, saw my first Gray-headed Chachalacas!

As is usual with this and other species of Ortalis, I saw a group of a dozen or so that clambered and clucked their way through the low, dense vegetation. When birding in Costa Rica, you might run into this species at any number of humid lowland, second growth sites and is a good bird to watch for around lodges or while driving through this type of habitat. Note that this species is rare at Carara and is mostly found in the more humid forest of the hills above the national park (accessible along the road to Bijagual).

These chachalacas look slanted because I took these pictures from inside a car. We were driving near Arenal, pulled over upon seeing these, and as traffic sped by, managed a few digiscoped images.

Plain Chachalaca: If you saw those chachalacas at feeders in Texas, this is the same species. In Costa Rica, it’s pretty local but regular around Montezuma and other hilly areas with patches of humid forest on the Nicoya Peninsula. In general, it’s easier to see in southern Texas and eastern Mexico than in Costa Rica and has the same habits as the Gray-headed Chachalaca. No pics of this one!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction south pacific slope

The new road to Caldera in Costa Rica is finally open

It was thirty years in the making, but the new road to the coast is finally open in Costa Rica! If the world ends in 2012 as the Mayans predicted, then at least we have two years to zoom back and forth between the crowded Central Valley and the open space of the hot central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This road has been talked about for so long in Costa Rica that it became legendary long before any of its asphalt was mixed.

People have been saying things like:

“It’s going to take thirty minutes to get to the coast from San Jose”!

“THE ROAD is going to have four lanes the entire way”!

“It will be like taking a thruway in the states”!

“It will be a straight route to the coast”!

“I can see a Royal Flycatcher half an hour after leaving San Jose”!

Ok, that last one was what I had been thinking but in any case, all of us in Costa Rica have been very excited about the opening of the road. In fact, we were so excited that Janet Peterson (a fellow birding friend) and I decided to check out the road last Sunday.

We weren’t the only ones.

Even though we left pretty early, a variety of cars joined us to check out the new road. There were old, slow cars born in the 70s that like mechanical family patrons, carried entire families to the promising coast. There were new SUVs that zoomed along like tanks (and like tanks threatened to drive over the older, slower, smaller vehicles). There were small buses filled with local tourists as well as what appeared to be school buses (because of their size and the fact that they were filled with students). Taking into account the number of break-downs, it was apparent that a lot of these cars hadn’t been out of the garage or front yard for some time. It was one last hurrah for them before heading to the junkyard I suppose.

Translated from the mechanical Spanish, “Please, just one last trip along the new road. I just want my tires to experience one last smooth, pot-hole-less ride before I blow a final gasket (cough, cough)”.

And translated from regular people Spanish, “Ok, let’s take the car for a spin. The road is open”!

“But dear, that car doesn’t even work”!

“Sure it will! I’ll just pour in some water here, a bit of oil there, fill the tires, toss some Salsa Lizano into the tank for good measure and off we go! And if it does break, let it happen on the NEW ROAD”!

And so it did happen. On January thirty-first, many a car let out it’s last gasp of exhaust along the road to Caldera in the form of a black cloud that said farewell and enjoy the tolls…

Yes, tolls, not road. Well, the road can be enjoyable but the tolls sure aren’t. That sort of torturous, constant stopping and going in the tropical heat is probably what did in the older vehicles. From San Jose to Orotina, for a distance of fifty kilometers at the most (that’s thirty miles for us anti-metric Americans) there are at least four different tolls that I recall that will leave you about 2,000 colones lighter. Although it’s a sneaky rip-off that most tourists won’t mind, locals who live near the new road aren’t very pleased (especially because there are few to no options in some areas).

To get to the coast fast for my Royal Flycatcher fix at Carara, I actually don’t mind shelling out those colones but I DO mind having to wait in line at the toll booths. Even though the traffic didn’t seem too bad on the way down to Carara, we were still twiddling our thumbs and wondering why they built so few lanes for the tolls. That wasn’t so bad but on our way back later that same day, the new road was a congested mess because of the toll booths and sections of the road that only had two lanes. The lines were too long for mere thumb twiddling. No, we felt as if we were aging while sitting there. If there would have been birds to look at, we would have been OK but that just wasn’t the case.

So, to sum things up about the new road and in answer to all of those expectations, despite thirty years of planning, it seems that the planners forgot to design the road for the amount of traffic it will get. If you go early in the morning, it will be a comfortable, quick trip that does more or less goes straight to the coast. BUT, it doesn’t have four lanes (it has two or three) so if you go later in the day, expect to have to wait at every toll booth and at some of the two-laned sections.

For birders who need to travel between the coast and San Jose, I suggest using the new road in the morning and the old, curvy, scenic road that goes through San Mateo in the afternoon. I took the old road the other day and it was a wonderful drive with hardly any traffic. Plus, you can stop along the old road at one of two cafes that have stunning overlooks and can be good for dry forest birds.

As for the Royal Flycatcher, we got more than a fix. Along the river trail in Carara, we were seeing them the entire time and one was even attempting to build a nest above the trail.

Other interesting sightings were Three-wattled Bellbird heard, Gray-headed Tanager, and the usual great variety of wrens, hummingbirds, and other flycatchers typically seen along this always birdy trail.