While birders up north are watching and listening to the myriads of warblers, vireos, thrushes, grosbeaks, and flycatchers that make their way to the hardwood and coniferous forests of their breeding grounds, it’s getting pretty rainy down here for birding in Costa Rica. Since the rains are often restricted to the afternoon, though, all of that falling water doesn’t hinder birding very much. The effects of the rain on the roads, however, makes it much more difficult to get around.
The road to Guapiles and Limon (route 32) has always been subject to landslides during heavy rains and is closed on and off every year, but that usually happens during the constant rainfall of October and November. I swear, when I was birding Costa Rica in November of 1999, it rained so much on the Caribbean slope that I thought I was going to go crazy. It rained non-stop for literally weeks on end and I only recall three days when it stopped raining during the whole month! It felt like fish were going to just start swimming right through the humid air at any time.
May usually isn’t too bad, though, and the amount of rain that has fallen has seemed to be pretty much par for the course. However, so much water has been dumped on the mountains of Braulio Carrillo that the highway has suffered several big landslides. It ended up being closed for at least a week nearly a month ago and still hasn’t been fixed!
Well, the highway is open, but the road experts say that too much of the slopes along this important road are still unstable and therefore they close it for the night. This unfortunately makes it difficult and risky to get to Quebrada Gonzalez from San Jose until the road is deemed to be stabilized. On the other hand, if you have a car and are coming from Guapiles (which is closer to Quebrada Gonzalez), you can visit Quebrada Gonzalez no matter what landslides might occur because they happen further up the road near the tunnel. In fact, if a landslide does close the road and you are in the Caribbean lowlands, by all means, you should rush on over to the highway to take advantage of birding right from the road because there won’t be any traffic!
Because there are few places to park and there is a potential for thieves along the highway away from the ranger station, the fantastic forests of Braulio Carrillo are off limits when the road is open. Close the road, though, and you will probably have some of the best Csta Rica birding in your life. If the sun comes out, Black and white Hawk-Eagle and Solitary Eagle are real possibilities, the mixed flocks will be amazing and might hold Sharpbill, you could see Bare-necked Umbrellabird with a flock of aracaris and toucans, and might even get lucky with a flyover of Red-fronted Parrotlets. All of these are also possible at Quebrada Gonzalez but you would be able to cover more territory and have a better chance at seeing soaring raptors from the road. I haven’t been lucky enough to have this chance yet but I hope I do some day!
While the highway is closed, traffic in San Jose gets even worse because most traffic headed to the Caribbean (including big trucks) pass through San Jose on their way to the alternate route to Limon that passes through Turrialba.
As for other problems with natural forces that could hinder your birding trip to Costa Rica this May, 2010, I just saw on the news today that the new highway to Caldera had some problems with huge rocks falling onto the roadway. Some representative for the company that built the road said that this was expected but wasn’t a problem.
Rocks the size of a house potentially squashing a car along with the people inside not a problem? Well, I guess it isn’t a problem if it doesn’t happen to you but since they said this was expected, I will be taking the old road to the Pacific lowlands during prolonged, heavy rain.
Another potential hazard that was announced today was fairly large lava flows at Arenal. They were big enough to close the park although I doubt that anyone was close enough to them to even feel the slightest bit more warm. Tourists in the area are probably thrilled to have the chance at viewing the eruptions. The Arenal area, by the way, is a great area for birding Costa Rica with rarities such as Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Keel-billed Motmot all possible and I would go there whether Arenal was spitting out lava or not because a lot of the good birding isn’t very close to the volcano anyways.
Rain or not, I am eager to get out and do some Costa Rica birding even if I have to crawl over a landslide (which I actually once did in the Ecuadorian Andes). The migrants will be gone like this Tennessee Warbler,
but local birds such as the angry-looking Common Tody-Flycatcher will be around and are always fun to watch.
This past weekend, I did some guiding and birding down at the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica near the Osa Peninsula. It was the first time I got the chance to go birding in the area and I would go back in a second. I wouldn’t go back there because the birding was spectacular (it was good but not good enough to make me want to call it amazing). No, but I would love to visit Esquinas Lodge again because it might be the only place with easy access to Piedras Blancas National Park.
This national park was originally a sector of Corcovado National Park but was named a separate national park for management purposes. Piedras Blancas protects a large area of lowland rainforest that marches up and down rugged, steeply sloped hills. The rough terrain has kept the forests of this little known park intact but also make it very difficult to visit.
The trails at Esquinas are probably the easiest (and only) ones in the park and are still fairly rough. During the short time we spent on them, we sweat buckets as we climbed up steep steps and sweat some more as we tried not to slip down the hill while descending. One of us also got stung by a stinging caterpillar after barely brushing up against a tree, and we had to climb over at least three fallen trees that were blocking the trail.
No, Piedras Blancas is not for the faint of heart but I would love to get back to those wild, unexplored forests to get a better idea of what lives in them.
The lodge is nice and appeared to be under good management. It’s also surrounded by good forest and very birdy gardens. Species such as Riverside Wren, Orange-billed and Black-striped Sparrows, Buff-rumped Warbler, Orange-collared Manakin, and many more are easily seen around the cabins. From the dining area, we also saw Gray-chested Doves and got amazing looks at a Black-faced Antthrush as it foraged along the edge of the forest.
The lodge and surroundings were especially good for hummingbirds. All four species of hermits were seen visiting the numerous heliconias planted in the gardens and although we didn’t see White-tipped Sicklebill, I would be surprised if this fancy hummingbird species was not present. Other hummingbird species encountered around the lodge (and several were seen as we dined) were: Charming and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin, Purple-crowned Fairy, Garden Emerald, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.
As luck would have it, we did not see our target species; Veraguan Mango and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. We hoped for these recent invaders from Panama along the road to Esquinas Lodge (the La Gamba road) but saw very few plants that were flowering, so May could be the wrong time of year to look for these rare hummingbirds in Costa Rica.
Another target bird we missed along the La Gamba road was Brown-throated Parakeet. Another recent invader from Panama that has moved into Costa Rica following the deforestation that has occurred near the border, this parakeet has been seen with regularity near the town of La Gamba. I seriously doubt it was present during our stay though, because we spent a fair amount of time intently looking and listening for it. Although we saw many Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots as they flew to their evening roosts, there was no sign of Brown-throated Parakeet. Once again, May could be the wrong time of year for this species at la Gamba.
It’s the right time for a few other good things however. Our best birds were:
Crested Oropendola– a new one for Costa Rica for the both of us! We had at least three along the highway between La Gamba and Rio Claro.
Slate-colored Seedeater– I heard at least 5 or 6 near the rice fields between the town and the lodge.
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater– just one, nice looking male.
Fork-tailed Flycatcher– what an elegant, beautiful bird!
Eastern Kingbird– seems to be getting a bit late for these guys. We saw 6.
Southern Lapwing- it’s getting more common in Costa Rica but is always nice to see.
Red-breasted Blackbird– nice looking bird way out in the rice fields.
Unidentified rail– some unknown rail or rails responded with atypical vocalizations from wet rice fields after playback of both Spotted Rail and Paint-billed Crake. I suspect that at least one was a Spotted Rail because it gave a Rallus-sounding call.
Here’s the full list of bird species we saw or heardalong the La Gamba road and near Rio Claro:
Little Blue Heron
possible Spotted and/or Paint-billed Crakes- responded to tape of both species.
Costa Rican Swift
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Back at the lodge and on the trails, our highlights were:
Collared Forest-Falcon– we got alright looks at one hunting along the forest edge.
White Hawk– this beautiful raptor was perched near the lodge.
Laughing Falcon– we also saw this smart looking bird perched near the lodge.
Baird’s Trogon– this regional endemic appears to be fairly common at Esquinas.
Rufous-winged Woodpecker– we got very close looks at this beautiful woodpecker.
Black-striped Woodcreeper– this handsome woodcreeper was especially common at Esquinas.
Bicolored Antbird– we got brief looks at a few that were foraging at a rather inactive antswarm.
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet– heard once and the briefest of looks at this small, rare flycatcher.
Rufous Piha– fairly common in the forest.
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager– Esquinas is a great place for this Costa Rican endemic. They were easy to see right at the lodge and in the forest.
Here is a full list of birds that we recorded around Esquinas Lodge and in the nearby forests of Piedras Blancas National Park:
It has often been said that time flies when you are having fun (such as when birding Costa Rica).
I, however, have discovered that it zips along like a hungry Merlin chasing a Chimney Swift when you are:
1. Running a business.
2. Have a not quite two year old, active, inquisitive daughter, and
3. Are a birder who lives in Costa Rica.
2010 is approaching the half way point (!) but I am coming along well with my annual Costa Rica bird list. Sure, I’m low on shorebirds and will end up with very few (if any) pelagics, but I still have a chance at boosting numbers during fall migration. I’ve got 484 species so far and that’s with very little time spent on the Caribbean Slope.
Unfortunately, I have only been to my patch once so far this year (!) which explains the absence of birds such as Checker-throated Antwren, Pale-vented Thrush, and Ornate Hawk-Eagle.
Most of my birding in Costa Rica for 2010 has been on the Pacific Slope around Carara National Park. It’s soooo hot there but routinely getting over 100 species in a day kind of makes up for all of that sweating. This upcoming weekend I will be guiding once again on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica but at a site much further south (but just as hot).
We will be headed to the Esquinas Lodge in Piedras Blancas National Park. I have never been there but it should be exciting as the lodge is surrounded by lots of lowland rainforest and is near edge habitats that have turned up several “Panamanian” species such as Brown-throated Parakeet, Crested Orpendola, Wattled Jacana, and others.
I have a feeling that this upcoming trip will push my 2010 Costa Rica birding list over the 500 species mark and I may even get lucky with a lifer or two (I would have to be pretty darn lucky). No matter what happens, I will be sure to post about the trip.
Although I haven’t seen much in 2010 that I would call super rare, some of my best birds have been:
Herring Gull- yes, one of the thousands that use the river corridor at my hometown of Niagara Falls, NY made its way down to Tortuguero National Park in March of this year. As boring as it is, this is a pretty rare bird in Costa Rica and was new for my Costa Rican list.
Blue-footed Booby- this is a good one to get for the year. Saw at least one in flight way out over the waves off of Tarcoles in February.
Gray-headed Kite- it’s widespread but like many Costa Rican raptors is pretty uncommon. Had my only one of the year so far at Cerro Lodge.
Hook-billed Kite- another uncommon bird in Costa Rica. I had brief but good looks at a juvenile in Tortuguero. This was the first time I have seen this species on the Caribbean slope. You have a better chance at this species in Mexico but if you want to see it in Costa Rica, it seems to be more frequent in remnant forests of the central valley and moist forests of the Pacific slope (such as around Santa Elena or Rincon de la Vieja).
Black-collared Hawk- another one that is easier in Mexico than Costa Rica. The best place for it when birding Costa Rica is in Cano Negro. We saw one near Pavona on the way into Tortuguero.
Collared Forest-falcon- ok, so this species isn’t rare but it is more often heard than seen. I have been pretty lucky with it so far this year along the river trail in Carara and at Rancho Oropendola.
Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge- these are easy to hear around Orosi and in the upper reaches of the central valley but they are a serious pain to see. I watched a few take flight from the road up to Finca Dos Lados.
Sungrebe- not the easiest bird to see in Costa Rica but when I went to Tortuguero in March, I was in the right place for this secretive, odd waterbird.
Looking through the pigeons and doves, I realized that I am quail-dove less for 2010! Hopefully, I will get over to my patch and bird some nice highland forests to remedy this hole in my 2010 list.
Yellow-billed and Mangrove Cuckoos- always good to get these uncommon birds. I saw one Mangrove in mangroves near Tarcoles and another at Tortuguero. Also got Yellow-billed at Tortuguero.
Resplendent Quetzal- it’s just about guaranteed on any birding trip to Costa Rica but it’s such a spectacular bird that I have to mention it. Have had them in the Dota valley and around Varablanca.
Turquoise, Yellow-billed, and Snowy cotingas- cotingas are always special birds. Had Turquoise at Talari Mountain Lodge and at Carara, Yellow-billed at Carara and Cerro Lodge, and Snowy near Tortuguero.
Cerulean Warbler- saw a few of these at Tortuguero during March migration madness!
Yellow-bellied Siskin and Lesser Goldfinch- widespread but pretty uncommon in the highlands of Costa Rica due to trapping (they sound nice- let’s put them in a cage!-so say the ignorant ones). Had both of these at San Gerardo de Rivas (the take off point for Chirripo).
If you are a birder from North America coming to Costa Rica for birding, you are probably familiar with at least one of the Melanerpes species. Don’t worry, this isn’t some fun, new disease, it’s the name of the woodpecker genus that includes species such as the Red-bellied, Red-headed, and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers.
Medium-sized woodpeckers with fairly long bills, members of the Melanerpes clan enliven neighborhoods with their drumming, rattling calls, and flopping flight (especially the Lewis’s Woodpecker) in much of southern Canada and the United States. They also occur further south, including on several Caribbean Islands, and of course in Costa Rica.
When birding Costa Rica, there are five Melanerpes species that occur, each more or less occupying a different region or habitat. If you are used to seeing Red-bellied or Golden-fronted Woodpeckers at your feeder or in your backyard, two of Costa Rica’s Melanerpes species are going to look and sound very familiar. These are the Hoffman’s and Red-crowned Woodpeckers.
Hoffman’s Woodpecker only occurs from Honduras to Costa Rica. Within its small range, this is generally the most common woodpecker species and the one you are most likely to see when birding Costa Rica around San Jose and in Guanacaste. Although it is a bird of the central valley and northern Pacific slope, don’t be surprised if you run into the Hoffman’s Woodpecker on the Caribbean slope. It’s still pretty uncommon there and outnumbered by the Black-cheeked Woodpecker, but deforestation has definitely left the door wide open for this edge species.
These are very common birds but it’s always fun to watch woodpeckers. This Hoffman’s was feeding down low at Tambor, on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Replacing the Hoffman’s Woodpeckers to the south is the Red-crowned Woodpecker. When birding Costa Rica, watch for it on the Pacific slope from around Dominical south to Panama. Also watch for orange-crowned hybrids from Carara to Quepos (If you see them, I suppose you could put a half-check next to Hoffmans’ and another half check next to Red-crowned on your list).
It acts a lot like the Hoffman’s and also sounds very similar. They are such common, backyard birds on the Pacific slope of Panama that they should have called it the Panamanian Woodpecker. I mean whoever thought of calling them “red-crowned” must not have noticed that most of the 225 or so woodpecker species have red on their crowns.
This Red-crowned Woodpecker was hanging out at Hacienda Baru,
and this one was roaming the shaded streets of David, Panama near the Purple House hostel (yes, everything there is purple).
If you venture into the forests of the south Pacific slope (and you obviously should when birding Costa Rica), you will hopefully run into the Golden-naped Woodpecker. It ranges from the river trail at Carara south to extreme western Panama (where it is very rare because they exchanged most of the forests there for cattle farms). This beautiful woodpecker is more difficult to see than its zebra-backed cousins because it stays within the forest but you could run into it at a number of places within its range.
This one was along the river trail at Carara National Park. With the white on its back and yellow on its head, it kind of reminds me of Northern Three-toed Woodpecker (a non-Melanerpes but just as cool).
Over on the Caribbean slope, the Black-cheeked Woodpecker replaces the Golden-naped. It’s more common and easier to see than the Golden-naped when birding Costa Rica because it shows less of an aversion to deforestation. You will almost certainly get your fill of this beautiful woodpecker in lowland and foothill forests as well as second growth and edge habitats anywhere on the Caribbean slope.
This Black-cheeked Woodpecker was being conspicuous near Ciudad Quesada.
Our fifth and final Costa Rican Melanerpes species hoards acorns from western North America all the way south to northern Colombia. In Costa Rica, it is a common resident of the high mountain forests and can be seen at a number of sites. These are the avian clowns of the high elevation rain forests (Prong- billed Barbet gets this distinction at middle elevations, and wood rails laugh it up in the lowlands).
This Acorn Woodpeckers was living large at San Gerardo de Dota.