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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Costa Rica is a great place to see Resplendent Quetzal

It may be revered in Guatemala and grace cloud forests from southern Mexico to Panama, but the easiest place to see Resplendent Quetzal has got to be Costa Rica. You can definitely watch them at highland sites in Chiapas, Mexico but there aren’t too many places that are readily accessible where the birds are common. The extensive highland forests of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua may hold the largest numbers of quetzals, but much of these forests are inaccessible, and only a few sites with little infrastructure can be visited. In western Panama, like Costa Rica, it’s not too difficult to see Resplendent Quetzal because of good tourist infrastructure (roads, trails, guides, information, accommodation) in excellent habitat. This is only in the westernmost part of Panama, though, whereas in Costa Rica, Resplendent Quetzals can be found in cloud forests nearly throughout the country.

Quetzals in Costa Rica even occur in the mountains that overlook the central valley although most birders see them in one of two places: 1. Monteverde, or 2. on Cerro de la Muerte.

Quetzals at Monteverde aren’t very common but there are always some around and guides for the Monteverde and Santa Elena Reserves usually know where some of the birds are.You might even see a quetzal or two along the road up to the Monteverde reserve but it’s always easier to see them with a guide. The reason for this is because quetzals are often found near their preferred food source of “wild avocados” and guides will know where and when these trees are in fruit, and may also know the whereabouts of a nest.

On Cerro de la Muerte, most people go to the Mirador de Quetzales or San Gerardo de Dota. The Mirador de Quetzales is located just off of the main road before reaching the turn-off to San Gerardo. Take the quetzal tour, and the owner (Eddie Serrano?) will bring you to fruiting wild avocados for typically fantastic views of one or several quetzals.

Further up the main road is the turn-off for San Gerardo de Dota, a small community in a deep valley not too far from the summit. It takes about two and a half hours to drive there from San Jose and vehicles descending into the valley may need four wheel drive to get back out during the rainy season. This may not be true but that’s the way it looked to me when I was there last month. If you stay in the valley, I’m sure your hotel will give you the best assessment of the driving situation.

Descending to San Gerardo de Dota.

This is the valley where hundreds of birders have seen their first Resplendent Quetzal while lodging at Savegre Lodge, Trogon Lodge, Dantica, or a few other hotels in the area. All of these hotels offer morning quetzal tours. You could also follow the signs for “observacion de quetzales” and pay to see quetzals, or, if you get up there early enough, you can drive along the road through the valley and just stop when you see a crowd of tourists staring at something in the trees. They will almost certainly be looking at a quetzal but you usually have to do this in the morning because if they aren’t looking at a nest, the quetzals may fly off to visit fruiting trees away from the road.

Looking at a Resplendent Quetzal.

To our extreme good fortune, on a short trip to the Dota Valley in search of quetzals a few weeks ago, there was a pair nesting very close to the road. We found the nest thanks to a couple of photographers who were lingering at one spot along the road. Upon arrival, of course the quetzal has “just left” but so what- we knew it had to come back to feed its hidden youngsters some wild avocados. I think we waited around 15 minutes when sure enough, a male quetzal gave its cackling vocalization (yes, the males cackle) and flew overhead, its long tail feathers streaming behind. About five minutes later, things got much, much better as it flew down closer to the nest and paused near the entrance before hopping inside.

Notice the green avocado in its bill. No, it doesn’t look like the avocados we are used to because its a wild one- a fruit of some Lauraceae species.

After hopping inside, its tail feathers were so long that they stuck out of the hole and waved in the breeze!

Eventually and luckily for us, the male had to have a look at us. He was apparently intrigued because he sat there for about 15 minutes and let us take a ridiculous number of  pictures. Here are a few of mine:


After leaving the hole, he then flew to a perch to show off his incredible, iridescent plumage….

and sallied close to the ground for raspberries! Here is a bad action shot as he takes off from his perch.

The female eventually showed up too but by then the battery for my camera had run out. At least I got pictures of the male though!

The places I mentioned are the easiest sites to see Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica because they are easy to get to, and there are usually some people around who know where to find these sacred birds. Keep in mind though, that they also occur in most areas of good, highland forest such as along the trails at La Georgina, other areas in the high Talamancas, up on the Irazu, Poas, and Barva volcanoes, and other sites. It might take a while to see them at those other sites though and could be tough without a guide but the birding will always be good in any case.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction

Morning birding near the Hotel Catalina, Costa Rica

The Hotels Catalina and Blanca Rosa are visible from my house. I don’t mean the hotel buildings; they are unobtrusive, one story structures in any case.  I mean the shade coffee plantations and a wooded hillside that provide a sanctuary for birds in a landscape where sun coffee, farm fields, and houses are the theme. This close birdy habitat (about a half mile away as the Cattle Egret flies) and its connection to a nearby riparian corridor allow me to see and hear things like Short-tailed Hawk, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and Blue-crowned Motmot just about every day. It also makes for a nice, bird-filled morning walk. Although I have to take a longer roundabout route to get there, at least it cuts through quiet coffee plantations and forces me to exercise (especially because it’s uphill).

This morning I headed up there for a couple of hours mostly to make bird recordings. Although I didn’t bird the grounds of the hotels, the surroundings are similar. With that in mind, the following account should give you an idea of what to expect if you stay at either of these hotels (which are nice options for common birds of the Central Valley).

As the 5:30 dawn began to lighten up the hilly flanks of Volcan Barva, I was out the front door as soon as I finished my morning coffee. Before I had even reached the curb, though, a Social Flycatcher singing its dawn song convinced me to head back into the house and go to the backyard to see if I could record it. I stepped into our small backyard, and Sennheiser microphone in hand, pointed it at the flycatcher that sang from a neighbor’s antenna. Just as I was about to press the record button, though, it flew off fast and furious to some distant, apparently safer perch. I think it didn’t like the idea of me pointing this dark, sinister-looking object at it. I can’t blame it. I mean I would probably run off too if some usually loud and dangerous being pointed a strange, dark object at me. After my unwittingly scaring the Social Flycatcher,  it was back once again out the door, this time no turning back, no stopping until I reached the Hotel Catalina area.

Why not stop along the way to bird from the roadside? Because the occasional fast cars, barking dogs (one of the banes of bird recordists), houses with crowing roosters, and whistling, singing, or talking pedestrians encountered on the road give bird recordings an ambiance that I would rather do without. I am often surprised as what the microphone picks up in the hills above Santa Barbara- coughs, laughter, music at 6 in the morning, and occasional birds that I didn’t notice. I get some of this around the Catalina but far less than along the road up to the place.

On the way up, some of the birds I passed were various Red-billed Pigeons singing (cooing) from the tops of trees and telephone wires, White-tipped Doves, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Crimson-fronted Parakeets screeching from the orange-flowered Poro trees (an Erythrina sp.), Flame-colored Tanagers singing here and there- burry phrases a lot like the congeneric Scarlet and Western Tanagers, and Blue-crowned Motmots hooting from hidden ravines.

Once I got to the entrance road to the hotel (and had distanced myself form yet another dog barking zone), I got out the microphone and waited for birds to express themselves in a vocal manner. Great Kiskadees complied immediately with a plethora of loud calls and a Lineated Woodpecker revealed itself by giving its call that sounds a bit like fairly slow, measured laughter. The Lineated was joined by its mate, Hoffman’s Woodpeckers, and a few Baltimore Orioles that chattered and sang snippets of their songs as they foraged in a grove of tall trees along the road. From the coffee plantations and wooded areas, Boat-billed Flycatchers complained from tall trees, Rufous-capped Warblers sang their sputtering songs (this species appears to have adapted well to coffee bushes), Blue-gray Tanagers squeeked, both Grayish and Buff-throated Saltators sang their short, whistled songs, Blue-black and Yellow-faced Grasquits tried to sound like insects in the grass, and Brown Jays “shouted” in the distance.

Other bird species that I heard and saw the whole time were Plain and House Wrens, Melodious Blackbirds (should have been called “ringing” blackbirds because of the frequent noises they make), Rufous-collared Sparrows, Tropical Kingbird, Clay-colored Robin, and Blue-and white Swallow.

A few of the more interesting species were Crested Bobwhite (several heard- a nice addition to my year list), Black-shouldered Kite, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher (just one calling from someone’s yard), Masked Tityra, Indigo Bunting (a few beautiful males reminding me of the Pennsylvania woods where I first saw them in 1981), Blue Grosbeak (always love to see this gorgeous bird), and White-eared Ground-Sparrow. I am pretty sure I got a glimpse of Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow too but didn’t bring my binoculars so am not positive about that. Yes, I left my binoculars at home. I was concentrating on getting a few recordings and I sometimes like to bird without binoculars for the challenge and the different perspective it gives.

Another nice bird was Montezuma Oropendola. Although common on the Caribbean slope, this crow-sized Icterid also occurs uncommonly in the Central Valley and in the foothills of the north Pacific slope (I have also seen them on the river trail at Carara).

Nothing super rare but overall just nice birding for the Central Valley and I am sure the area holds a few surprises.

If you have read this far and are wondering where the heck the photos are, I have literally hundreds of images on a different camera I have been using (there are some pretty good birds in there!) but haven’t been able to download them because I don’t have the correct cable! Thanks to my Dad, though, he found the right cable and sent it my mail- with luck I will pick it up tomorrow.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds identification issues Introduction lowlands

Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica

People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists.  Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.

And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are  native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!

Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,

male

female

the Yellow-faced Grasquit,

and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male

compared to a Caribbean slope male.

Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.

While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.

Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!

Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.

Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”

whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?

This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!

whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!

On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.

Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.

As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!

In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).