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Introduction middle elevations

Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project, Costa Rica

For the past two years, every time I have seen Sara Clark on a Birding Club of Costa Rica field trip, she has asked me when I was going to come up and visit her farm/reforestation project in the mountains above Grecia. Last week, I finally got the chance to accept her invite, walk the hilly trails of her land, and survey the local avifauna. Because Sara was so wonderfully kind to give us a ride up to her place, I was also able to bring  my wife and daughter.

The trip up to Finca Dos Lados was a typical one for rural areas of the Central Valley. On paved roads that formerly felt the heavy wheels of painted, wooden ox-carts, we twisted and turned our way up and down hills and over small bridges on our way to our destination. The scenery was typical for the western central valley; fields of sugar cane, rows of coffee bushes (some shaded by a few trees, others blazed by the tropical sun), lush, wooded ravines, small towns, and “development”.

Just about the only forest left in the central valley are riparian remnants because of the tremendous pressures that a growing population has placed on the land and past government incentives to “improve” the land by actively deforesting it. The fruits of this sad “improvement” were all too apparent as we ascended a ridge to Sara’s place from Sarchi and passed near eroded cattle pastures with few cows and even fewer trees. Forests used to cover those slopes. Moist tropical forests with Three-wattled Bellbirds, trogons, Long-tailed Manakins, monkeys, and more. Now the barren slopes hosted non-native, domesticated ungulates, their parasites, and not much else because landowners in the area didn’t know of any other way to use the land.

On a bright note, the days of encouragement to “tame” the land in Costa Rica by turning it into an unwholesome pseudo-savanna are a thing of the past. Nowadays, the incentives are for reforestation and maintaining the forest already growing on your land. The government doesn’t pay out a huge amount for doing this but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

Finca Dos Lados is in this program and has planted hundreds (maybe thousands?) of trees including several wild avocados (the preferred food of Resplendent Quetzals). Because Sara’s land is mostly growing back from bare pasture, there isn’t a huge number of bird species present. There are more than when non-native grass was one of the only plants around though, and there will be a lot more in the future since her land acts as one of the biological corridors between the forests of Volcan Poas and Juan Castro Blanco National Park.

Note the difference between Finca Dos Lados on the right(where reforestation is occurring), and neighboring land on the left (overgrazed by cows).

Here we are arriving at the entrance to Finca Dos Lados.

On the way in, we stopped at this shrine surrounded by vegetation that has grown up in just seven years. This was a birdy spot with Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens, Slate-throated Redstarts, Acorn Woodpeckers, and of course the true to its name, Common Bush Tanager.

One of the many Common Bush Tanagers at Finca Dos Lados.

I don’t think the tanagers were the most common bird species though. That distinction, goes to the Mountain Elaenia.

Mountain Elaenias rule at Finca Dos Lados, Costa Rica. These small Empid-looking flycatchers were truly living large in the young second growth. I would say that around 70% of the birds I saw or heard were this species.

Other common birds were Red-billed and Band-tailed Pigeons.

Always nice to see a tree of Band-tailed Pigeons. As a kid, for me, this was one of those “western” birds that lived too far away in the coniferous forests of the west to even dream of seeing.

A closer look.

Near the pigeons, I was lucky to have this stunning Black-thighed Grosbeak pose for pictures.

Finca Dos Lados is set up nicely for researchers and volunteers who would like to help out, or carry out studies related to cloud forest regeneration or migration between the Pacific and Atlantic slopes. There are several bunk beds, a big kitchen, and several trails that access the continental divide and cloud forest on the Caribbean Slope. There are areas of primary forest although it takes a few hours of hiking to access it. I hope to survey those forests some day.

Standing on the continental divide.

Looking onto the Caribbean slope from the divide. I could hear either a Collared or Orange-bellied Trogon calling from the forest below. We also got glimpses of Zeledonia in this area.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers (such as the one above) were common here along with Fiery-throated Hummingbird, Flame-colored Tanager, Black-billed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrushes, Sooty Robin, Yellow-thighed finch, Black and Yellow Silky, and Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Despite intently looking and listening, and being entertained by the duetting of Prong-billed Barbets that echoed throughout the valley during my stay, there weren’t any signs of bellbirds. With the number of fruiting trees that have been planted, though, future visitors to Finca dos Lados will probably get the chance to hear their loud, clanging calls.

Hopefully, Miranda will be one of them.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica identification issues

Costa Rica Birding: Trogons

Trogons. The name given to these fancy, emblematic birds with glittering plumage seems to fit them. A unique word for a unique family of birds. So what does the name of this family mean? “Iridescent wonders”? “Extremely cool birds”? No, “trogon” is derived from the Greek word for “gnawing” or “nibbling”. Yes, that’s right, if you saw an Elegant Trogon in Ramsey Canyon, Arizona, you were apparently looking at an Elegant Gnawer. All I can say is thank goodness that the trogon species known as quetzals are called “quetzals” (which is a Nahuatl word meaning “tail feather”).

In typical ornithological fashion, the trogons were not named after their obvious stunning beauty, but got their name from their manner of making a nest. Nest-building is more like nest-excavating for the Trogonidae in Costa Rica and elsewhere. Despite their lack of a strong bill, for millions of years, the trogons have managed to raise viable young in cavities that they nibbled or gnawed out of rotten wood and termite nests. Although many nesting holes were probably started by woodpeckers, excavating a nesting cavity still seems like quite an accomplishment with those rather blunt bills.

Close up of a trogon’s “gnawing bill”.

In any case, the strategy of gnawing or nibbling out a nesting cavity has worked for the trogons and hooray for that (!) because these are ALWAYS wonderful birds to watch. I mean who wouldn’t get a kick out of seeing a trogon? They have this comical manner of moving their heads around to look in all sorts of directions while perched in an upright position, look like nothing else on Earth, and usually have glittering, colorful plumage. AND when birding in Costa Rica, the ten different species that occur are fairly easy to see, especially when vocalizing (which seems to be most often from February to July).

The ten species of trogons to see when birding in Costa Rica are (from easiest to least easiest):

Gartered Trogon: One of the smaller trogons in Costa Rica, these guys are pretty darn common. This edge species mostly occurs in humid lowland areas but also ranges up into the dry northwest and the western part of the Central Valley. Listen for its call:

violaceous trogon1

and watch for it at the edge of forested areas, semi-open areas, and in second growth.

Male Gartered Trogon from Manzanillo, Costa Rica.

Female Gartered Trogon from Rancho Oropendola, Costa Rica.

Black-headed Trogon: Slighter bigger than the Gartered, the Black-headed Trogon reaches the southern limit of its range at Carara National Park. It is mostly found in the Pacific northwest and is also pretty easy to see because of the open nature of its habitat (dry forest edge). Although it resembles the Violaceous Trogon, it has a much more staccato call (and sounds more like (and is more closely related to) Baird’s and White-tailed Trogons), has an unbroken, bluish eye ring, and lacks barring on the tail. Watch for it in any wooded area on the Pacific slope north of Carara (you can also see it along the Meandrico Trail at Carara along with four other trogon species (!)).

Male Black-headed Trogon from Carara National Park, Costa Rica.

Slaty-tailed Trogon: This big, hulking trogon is almost the size of a quetzal. Because of its size, colorful plumage, and conspicuous red-orange bill, it just looks unreal. Incredibly, it’s also pretty common and easy to see in lowland rainforest such as at La Selva or Carara.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon from OTS La Selva, Costa Rica.

Orange-bellied Trogon: A bit smaller than the Slaty-tailed, the Orange-bellied Trogon is most common in the cloud forests of northern Costa Rica (such as around Monteverde). It also occurs further south (including western Panama) but is mostly replaced there by the closely related Collared Trogon.

Male Orange-bellied Trogon from El Silencio Lodge, Bajos del Toro Amarillo, Costa Rica.

Female Orange-bellied Trogon from Lost and Found Eco-lodge, Panama.

Collared Trogon: Except for a red, instead of orange belly, this trogon resembles, acts, and sounds a lot like the Orange-bellied Trogon. It is pretty easy to see in Tapanti National Park and other cloud forests of the Talamancas. This species has a very wide range from southern Mexico to Amazonia. Although it looks similar throughout its range, Amazonian birds sound noticeably different from Central American birds (it would be interesting to see a molecular phylogeny of this species with sampling throughout its range).

Sorry, no photo of Collared Trogon! Imagine an Orange-bellied Trogon with a red belly.

Resplendent Quetzal: Yes, this crazy looking bird is a species of trogon. Because there are so many tours you can take to reliably see a quetzal, it almost made the top of the list as the easiest trogon to see when birding Costa Rica. Although they aren’t as guaranteed as when taking a quetzal tour, you have a pretty good chance of running into one in any area of extensive highland forest in Costa Rica. For more information see my post about this spectacular bird.

Black-throated Trogon: The same size as a Gartered Trogon, this bird is pretty common but it’s not as easy to see as the other trogons because it sticks to the interior subcanopy and upper understory of lowland rainforest. Listening for their rather inconspicuous vocalization of three, short, low-toned, descending whistles is a good way to find them in any of the lowland rainforest sites.

Male Black-throated Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Baird’s Trogon: The male is one heck of a beautiful bird! A southern Pacific slope endemic, the Baird’s Trogon is only found from Carara National Park to the Panamanian border. Although it isn’t very rare in lowland, primary rainforest, since so much of this habitat has been replaced with non-trogon friendly pastures and oil palms plantations, it is considered to be a near-threatened species. It’s kind of uncommon in Carara (I think it used to be more common in the past), but is more frequent in wetter forests of the hills above Carara (especially at the little visited Cangreja National Park), and further south.

Male Baird’s Trogon from La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica.

Lattice-tailed Trogon: This large trogon replaces the Slaty-tailed in the wet, mossy, foothill forests of the Caribbean slope. It’s not all that rare in this habitat, but because those forests are so dense, and because there are so few accessible sites to see this species, it isn’t sighted as often as the other trogons. If you do go birding in Costa Rica, however, you should make an effort to see the Lattice-tailed Trogon because it only occurs there and in western Panama. The best spots to see it are at Quebrada Gonzalez, Braulio Carrillo National Park, and at Rara Avis.

Lattice-tailed Trogon from Rara Avis, Costa Rica.

Elegant Trogon: Although you have a fair chance of seeing this species if you bird gallery forest in Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, it’s more common in many other parts of its large range (northwestern Costa Rica north through Central America and Mexico to southern Arizona). Hence no picture for this one either!

White-tailed Trogon. Wait, that’s not in the book! It might be someday though. I have heard of a few reports from Manzanillo that could end up being this species, so if you bird down that way, send me whatever notes you take and pictures you get of any trogon that you think is a Black-headed.

Male White-tailed (Western) Trogon from Achiote, Panama.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction middle elevations

Cloud forest birding in Costa Rica: birds in the mist

In the wet lowlands, it’s always humid and the rain can arrive as a steady misting sprinkle or as (most often) as a sudden downpour with billions of huge drops that pound the zinc roofs with sodden fury. It’s so wet that if you don’t make an effort to dry out the clothes in your closet, your wardrobe will be supporting its very own ecosystem of molds and fungi (I once had mushrooms growing on my backpack in Amazonian Ecuador). If you visit the rainy, lower elevations of Costa Rica, especially on the Caribbean Slope where 6 meters per year can fall (that’s about 18 feet for us metric illiterate Americans), you can expect to get wet even with an umbrella or poncho but you probably won’t have to worry about fog.

For that, you have to head upslope into the cloud forest. Just as humid as the rainforests of the lowlands but with cooler temperatures, this is where the clouds that water the lowlands  like to hang out. With a blanket of thick moisture blocking the sun and providing a constant aerial mist that waters an amazing abundance of plants, living is this life zone is probably like residing in a rather cool, shaded greenhouse. It would be challenging to deal with the constant moisture but you could cultivate orchids instead of roses would also have a heck of an interesting yard list. At least this is how my birding friend Janet Peterson and I felt while birding the Varablanca area last week.

Inspired by Skutch’s accounts of studying Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbirds in the same area, we searched for fruiting Lauraceae tree species that might attract these fancy, uncommon birds. Although we didn’t get lucky in finding a single fruiting Lauraceae, nor did we hear a single bellbird, it was still a beautiful day of birding in Costa Rica.

Deforestation since Skutch’s time equates to fewer bellbirds and cotingas but a lot more meadowlarks.

The views up there were stunning.

One of our best spots was at a site along the road between Poas and Varablanca not too far from the Poas Volcano Lodge. While the smells of home-cooked food and the usual sounds of rural Costa Rica (chickens clucking, roosters crowing, a dog or two barking, someone hammering, a bit of music) reached our ears from nearby houses, we watched a fair variety of cloud forest species in trees that grew out of a ravine next to the road. This meant that we could look straight into the canopy of these trees but because we were in the cloud forest life zone, we mostly watched birds through a shifting veil of mist.

Band-tailed Pigeons were common. We could hear them flapping their way around but they rarely landed within view. Maybe this one felt safe because it thought it was blending into its cloudy surroundings.

There were also a few Dark Pewees around.

Other birds were building nests nearby such as the Mountain Elaenia. This has to be one of the most common highland flycatchers. They thrive in edge habitats and sometimes seem to outnumber Rufous-collared Sparrows.

Our favorite sighting, though, was of a pair of Golden-browed Chlorophonias that were building a nest in a bromeliad on a nearby tree. You almost always hear this little gem before you see it and when birding in dense forest often don’t see it at all. They make a soft, short whistled call that is easy to imitate and often brings them in close. Due to their cloud forest habitat, their brilliant emerald, powder blue, and bright yellow plumage often looks as muted as their call until the mist lifts and they suddenly shine like some incredible forest jewel.

A female in the mist.

And a male in the mist.

The male Chlorophonia trying to blend in with a bromeliad.

And then as the mist lifted a bit, the male’s colors became more bright.

Other birds in the vicinity were Wilson’s Warbler (a common winter resident of the highlands),

Slate-throated Redstart,

and Flame-colored Tanager.

Mountain Robins provided a background soundtrack throughout the morning. To me, they sound more like some type of yellowthroat than a thrush. Click the following link to listen to one that singing at the ravine:  mountainrobin1

Past the ravine, we ventured down the Cinchona road a bit. The road is good up to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens but beyond that is officially closed because of the threat of landslides. Despite a large, obvious sign that warned of the danger, a number of cars and motorcycles just drove right on past on their way to the lowlands. I suspect that one could drive the road all the way to Sarapiqui, but why risk your life? Stick to birding the upper part like we did and you should see a good number of species in any case. Some of the other good birds we saw were:

Resplendent Quetzal- one heard and a female seen as it flew across the road near Carrizal,

Blue-throated (Emerald) Toucanet- several of these beautiful birds,

Prong-billed Barbet,

Green Violetear and Coppery-headed Emerald at flowering Inga species,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper,

Red-faced Spinetail,

Tufted Flycatcher,

and Spangle-cheeked Tanager,

Although we didn’t see any cotingas, I bet they are still up there somewhere. Hopefully I will figure out where the fruiting Lauraceae are on my next visit to the area.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges endangered birds lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Birding at Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica- a good site for Yellow-billed Cotinga

The Yellow-billed Cotinga is an endangered species that only occurs on the Pacific slope of  Costa Rica and western Panama. Although range maps in field guides show it occurring from the Rio Tarcoles (at and near Carara National Park) south to Panama, don’t expect to run into this cotinga at most sites along the coast because the actual distribution of this frugivore is much more spotty than is indicated. It’s localized distribution is due to it being restricted to areas where mangrove forest occurs near rain forest

Although records indicate that they wander in search of fruit, you are far more likely to encounter this species in the canopy of or close to mangroves. This is in contrast to its Caribbean slope cousin, the uncommon (but far from rare) Snowy Cotinga. Ranging from Honduras south to western Panama, the Snowy Cotinga isn’t too difficult to see in areas of lowland forest, forest edge, and riparian corridors. Although it has certainly declined because of deforestation, if one considers the paucity of Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings compared to encounters with Snowy Cotingas,  the Snowy appears to be weathering destruction of rainforests  much better than the Yellow-billed.

There appear to be very few sites where Yellow-billed Cotingas occur on a regular basis. Even in some areas with mangroves and rain forest (such as at Baru) they are either absent or extremely rare. Due to our near complete lack of information about the natural history of Carpodectes antoniae, no one really knows what this bird needs although its absence at sites such as Baru could possibly be explained by mangroves there not being old enough or the mangrove forests simply not being extensive enough to support a population of Yellow-billed Cotingas.

It should come as no surprise then, that their stronghold is in the extensive, old growth mangroves of the Sierpe River and Golfo Dulce areas of the Osa Peninsula. The mangrove forests in these areas are beautiful, old growth forests that echo with the songs of “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers, the screeches and squawks of parrots and macaws, and the piping calls of Common Black Hawks. The area around Rincon is where I saw my first Yellow-billed Cotingas in 1999. Foraging with Turquoise Cotingas in fruiting figs, their white plumage stood out against the evergreen rain forest on the nearby hills. On a side note, the birding at Rincon was fantastic with Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quails calling from the hillside, White-crested Coquettes foraging in flowering Inga sp., and well over 100 species recorded in a day.

Until recently I saw them on very few occasions elsewhere; a bird or two working its way up rivers in the Osa Peninsula, or very infrequent sightings in Carara National Park. Lately though, I have been seeing Yellow-billed Cotinga on just about every visit to Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations). The birds are from a population that nests in the mangroves near the Tarcol River. Although this population hasn’t been surveyed (admittedly a difficult task to undertake because they love the canopy and don’t sing), it’s probably very small and might only be composed of ten birds. This is pure speculation on my part but there are very few sightings of Yellow-billed Cotinga from Carara and vicinity (and most are of individual birds) despite there being a high number of birders and guides that work in the area.

At Cerro Lodge, I and others, have seen one male perched in a distant snag at the edge of the mangroves. It (or a different male) also sometimes comes closer to the lodge. The bird is usually so far away that it is difficult to see without a scope but is easy to pick out because of its brilliant white plumage.

The view from the restaurant where the male Yellow-billed Cotinga has been regularly seen. If you visit Cerro Lodge, you might see it by scanning all of the treetops from here.

I have also seen a female perched in a tree near the parking lot for Cerro Lodge, and a male was recently seen just down the road as it descends to the flood plain of the river. As Cerro Lodge is located somewhat near the Tarcol River, and based on other observations of this species, I suspect that the birds are foraging in the riparian growth along the river, or are using the river as a corridor to forage in the forests of Carara.

Luckily, the female was very cooperative and let me take a bunch of pictures.

For the past few years, the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre have been doing surveys for Yellow-billed Cotingas and are also involved with other studies of this highly endangered species. To help with its conservation, what is needed now are more studies that can help elucidate its natural history, as well as better protection of mangrove forests and rain forests in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. To help with conservation of Yellow-billed Cotinga, follow the link to Bosque del Rio Tigre and contact them. Also, if you see this species, please email me your notes on where you saw it, the time of year, the habitat it was using, and its behavior (especially foraging). Who knows-maybe there are certain fruiting trees that can be planted that would help this species.

Although Yellow-billed Cotingas has been regular at Cerro Lodge, these may be sightings of just 1-3 individuals. I suspect that there are so few of this species in the Carara area because there is so little habitat between the mangroves and the national park. In contrast to when rainforest adjacent to the mangroves likely provided food and cover for a number of Yellow-billed Cotingas (as at Rincon de Osa where several have been seen together), once that forest was converted into stark pasture, the few fruiting trees left near the mangroves supported far fewer (if any) cotingas, and birds were required to move around more in search of food (with a subsequent higher degree of nest failure and mortality as a result).

Although land owners in the area can’t be expected to reforest their pastures, hopefully, they will be willing to accept the planting of various fruiting trees used by this rare species.