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biodiversity Introduction

Walking the length of the Amazon

No, I’m not doing it. I have spent a fair amount of time in the Amazon in Ecuador and Peru but hardly ever left the trail. I ventured off the track once in Tambopata, Peru to get excellent looks at a dark morph Crested Eagle being harassed by Casqued Oropendolas (they are apparently fearless because of their natural head protection) and although we only walked 50 meters off the track, we had somewhat of a hard time refinding the trail!

Therefore, I was pretty impressed to read that a guy from Leicester, England and a Peruvian have been making their own trail through the heart of the Amazon for the past two years. I saw this inspirational and adventurous news item about these guys walking the entire length of the Amazon River at the CNN website.

It takes more than two years because we are talking about a 4,000 mile hike! Unlike Forest Gump, Ed Stafford (and his Peruvian hiking partner, “Cho”), didn’t have the luxury of easy-walking roads. No, they had to climb down the rugged eastern slope of the Andes while following the source of the Amazon River, bushwack their way through dense tropical forests, wade through countless swamps, and get sliced by razor grass.

It’s an amazing trip they have undertaken but it’s such a shame that neither of them are birders. I mean these guys have covered, on foot, some of the most birdy, biodiverse terrestrial habitats on the planet. Costa Rica has fantastic birding but diversity is even higher in most of the areas they traversed. If they had done a running survey of all the birds identified along the way, I am sure they would have more than a 1,000 species under their belts. As they tromped through the grassy paramo at high elevations, they probably flushed sierra-finches, seedeaters, canasteros, and cinclodes, would have seen Mountain Caracaras and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles flying around, would have noticed Red-crested Cotingas and colorful mountain-tanagers.

As they slipped their way down through the wet, mossy cloud forests of the eastern Andes, the voices of tapaculos certainly “yelled” at them from the bamboo-choked undergrowth, they were serenaded by the whistles of antpittas, and would have seen fruiting trees and shrubs festooned with glittering tanagers and plump fruiteaters (a type of cotinga).

Further down in the foothills, as the nearby river grew in volume and the air became warmer, they were surely serenaded by the rattles of antbirds, trills and calls of little known flycatchers, ringing songs of wrens, and haunting melodies of tinamous that issued from the shadows of the tall forests.

As they reached the lowland forests, they probably ran into more stinging and biting insects, became even more drenched in sweat, were accompanied by the lazy drone of cicadas, and could hear the ringing notes of toucans that yelped and croaked from the impossibly high canopy. The dawn chorus would have been fantastic (my high count for Tambopata was  130-140 species of birds heard during 2-3 hours in the morning) with trumpeters and forest-falcons starting things off while it was still dark, various woodcreepers chiming in soon after, and then a whole auditory shebang of leaftossers, antbirds, atillas, understory and canopy flycatchers, feathered etc..

If they kept their eyes open to the birds around them, with the wilderness areas they crossed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they they have seen more than one Harpy Eagle; an immense flying thing with banded tail in the canopy (what my first looked like), a massive, winged predator with a freshly killed brocket deer on the ground, or a huge, fearless eagle gripping a branch with scary looking talons.

They probably saw most of the river island specialists, and even though they are non-birders, probably do recall hearing and seeing hundreds of parrots and macaws that make their home in that fantastic sea of rainforest we call Amazonia.

At the CNN site, I was kind of surprised to read comments that criticized them for doing “such a foolhardy thing”. The only people they put in danger were themselves and since they are about to finish their looooong walk through the jungle, it looks like they were prepared in any case. I applaud Ed and Cho for doing this although it’s too bad they aren’t birders!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).

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central valley common birds Introduction

Subtle birding in Costa Rica

I haven’t had the chance to go birding for the past two or three weeks. As of late, work, family duties, and lack of transportation (a common anti-birding trifecta) have combined their forces to stop any serious birding in its tracks before I even think of retrieving my binoculars. That’s alright though because I will be guiding a great group of people up at the Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua this upcoming weekend and I am always birding anyways in a subtle manner.

What I mean by this is that no matter where I go or what I am doing, I am always listening and looking for birds. I am sure that many birders can relate; especially those who have carried out field surveys that train one to listen for, quickly identify, and gauge the distance to every peep, squawk, and whistle that come a knocking on the ear drums.

Here is a run down of a typical day of subtle birding for me in Costa Rica:

5:00 – 8:00 a.m.: I awake to the dawn songs of Tropical Kingbirds and Social Flycatchers (and sometimes Gray-necked Wood-Rails). Rufous-collared Sparrows also sing their cheery songs from the walls that separate the houses and from the telephone wires and television cables.

Tropical Kingbird Costa Rica birding

Tropical Kingbirds may be the quintessential neotropical trash bird but at least they are nice looking trash.

Through the back door, I watch the neighborhood Blue and White Swallows zipping by and upon opening the front door,  I hear a Plain Wren giving a simple song from a nearby hedgerow. About this time, some poor, captive White-fronted Parrot begins to scream and squawk from its cage in a neighboring house. I haven’t seen it but am pretty sure that it’s imprisoned because the calls only come from one location.

Around this time, wild and free Crimson-fronted Parakeets and White-crowned Parrots come flying overhead. As with most members of their family, I hear them long before seeing them.

Just after Miranda and I walk out the door, a pair of Blue-gray Tanagers give their squeeky calls as they fly overhead and White-winged Doves sing and display from the wires. Another Blue-gray Tanager and Tropical Kingbird perch in the bare tree near the entrance to our neighborhood and a Great-tailed Grackle or two flies by.

Blue Gray Tanager birding Costa Rica

Blue-gray Tanagers are a common sight when birding Costa Rica.

Upon leaving our neighborhood, some Coturnix quail species calls from the house that also keeps canaries, budgies, and Yellow-faced Grassquits (all heard only). Near that house there is also a large garden and this green space provides habitat for Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Rufous-naped Wren, and other birds that I see or hear every time I walk by. More Tropical Kingbirds sally from overhead wires and a Boat-billed Flycatcher gives its complaining sounding call from somewhere in the neighborhood.

Students on their way to school walk by, we smile and wave at the old, smiling, mentally retarded guy who sits outside and listens to his radio all day. I always salute him with a tip of my hat to which he responds in like manner. As we pass through residential areas, we see more of the same birds and I sometimes hear a captive Black-faced Solitaire singing its ethereal song from inside a house. Miranda looks for cats and says, “meow” and sometimes points at birds and says, “peee”! (“bird” in Miranda O’Donnell Paniagua lingo).

Upon reaching the bus stop, Great-tailed Grackles become very evident as they loudly call from four tall palms. Miranda never fails to point up and say, “peeee”! and I likewise never fail to encourage her to call them, “birds”! or “grackles”!

I also look up at the palms and the nearby church with the outside hope of finding a Barn Owl. I suppose that the church bells are too loud to harbor one but judging by the frequency with which I see rats in Santa Barbara, there has got to be a pair living somewhere around here.

From the bus, background birding is poor with a few sightings of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, Clay-colored Robin, and an occasional Blue-crowned Motmot hanging out in the shady riparian growth of a ravine.
Blue-crowned Motmot birding Costa Rica
It’s nice to have Blue-crowned Motmots as a common backyard bird in Costa Rica.

9:00-11:00 a.m.

After dropping Miranda off at the babysitter’s place in Tibas, I walk back to the bus stop to head back to Santa Barbara. Although Tibas is more urbanized, I often hear and see Grayish Saltators, Inca Doves, and get flyovers of Red-billed Pigeons.

By the time I get back to Santa Barbara, bird activity has slowed down and a dozen or so vultures soar around on the thermals rising out of a nearby ravine. Sometimes a Short-tailed Hawk is with them.

11:00-5:00

For the rest of the day, I just hear or see a few of the same birds as I write. Once in a while, a flyover Ringed Kingfisher announces its presence with its “check!” flight call.

Subtle birding is a good way to challenge oneself to find birds in urban environments when birding isn’t really the focus but I’m ready and looking forward to this weekend to get back out in the field for some concentrated Costa Rica birding replete with scope, camera, recording equipment, and a pair of good binoculars.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Striped Cuckoos are common in Costa Rica but where’s the Pheasant?

During much of the year in Costa Rica, the song of the Striped Cuckoo is a common part of the auditory scenery. I hear them near my house singing from scrubby fields around the coffee plantations. I hear them call from the tangled second growth of deforested areas in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific Slopes. It seems like any humid place in Costa Rica below 1,400 meters with enough edge habitat supports a population of  Striped Cuckoos.

They get overlooked though, because they tend to skulk. Like Anis, Roadrunners, and most of those Old World Coucals, the Striped Cuckoo is a terrestrial cuckoo species. It will ascend into the subcanopy of some edge trees or get up on top of some bush when it sings (and thank goodness because otherwise we would hardly EVER see them) but usually, it creeps around in dense, tropical undergrowth where it does who knows what. Sometimes, you can get lucky and see one take a dust bath on some blazing hot, lowland tropical track, or see one spread its wings and flash its black alulas. Is this a mechanism to catch more grasshoppers? To attract a mate? Evidence of madness? Who knows!

What I do know is that at least their song is pretty easy to imitate and often gets them to show themselves.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

A Striped Cuckoo coaxed out into the open at El Gavilan in the Sarapiqui lowlands.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Striped Cuckoos love to raise their crest….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and lower it….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and raise it, over and over. It’s pretty cool to watch so I apologize for not having a video of it.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Here’s a frontal view of the same Striped Cuckoo.

When birding Costa Rica, listen for their clear, two noted whistle that might remind you of a Bobwhite, the first note lower than the second. They also have a longer song with a few lower notes that follow the second note.

This longer song sounds more like the much rarer Pheasant Cuckoo. By the way, if you ever see a Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica, PLEASE let me know right away because there are very few sites known for this species in the country. The only regular site seems to be savannas near Buenos Aires although they have also been recorded from Carara in scrubby habitat near the crocodile bridge, around Esparza, and close to the Panamanian border near San Vito.

Why they are so rare in Costa Rica is another of those neotropical, bird distribution enigmas. I mean they aren’t too difficult in cloud forest near Valle Nacional, Oaxaca, are regular in Metropolitan Park, Panama, and are found in the Amazon of southeastern Peru (where I used to hear them just about every darn morning but never saw them!). Based on where they have been found, I suspect that their rarity in Costa Rica has something to do with them not liking the high amount of precipitation that falls here.

So, Pheasant Cuckoos are tough to see but they should at least vocalize if around so seem to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica as opposed to just being ridiculously shy and mute.

No picture of the Pheasant Cuckoo yet! One day though, I’m going to do surveys and run around the country whistling like a Pheasant Cuckoo until I figure out where they occur.

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Birding Costa Rica weather

Advantages to birding Costa Rica in the wet season (it’s not 100 degrees)

It’s the wet or rainy season now and as I write, the cloudy sky is dumping its daily downpour that soaks the rich volcanic soils of central Costa Rica and turns the rivers into raging muddy torrents. Believe it or not, despite the dire weather description, this is a great time of the year to bird Costa Rica! Rain usually falls in the afternoon when bird activity is low anyways and mornings are often sunny.

The following are several reasons why you may enjoy birding Costa Rica in June, July, and August rather than during the dry season (January to early April):

  • No Boreal migrants. Although this isn’t a birding boon for non-North Americans, those birders from Canada and the USA won’t have to be concerned that the tiny bird they are straining to see in the canopy is just a Chestnut-sided Warbler, that the little yellow thing in highland brush is actually a Wilson’s Warbler, or that most raptors turn out to be Broad-winged Hawks. At this time of the year, just about every bird is a resident species not likely to occur in North America.
  • Cooler weather than the dry season. It’s still warm and humid in a lot of areas but the frequent cloud cover keeps things comfortably cool. This is especially the case for the Pacific slope where birding during the dry season can be a test of heat endurance. I usually fail this test during the blazing hot dry season but pass it with flying colors during the wet season.
  • Cooler weather than home. Going to the tropics to cool off? Sure, why not! I guarantee that even the hottest areas of Costa Rica won’t be as hot as the heat wave that is presently melting the northeastern USA. Costa Rica doesn’t even get as hot as average American summers and the mountains always have a crisp, cool climate.
  • Cloudy weather=awesome birding. Although cloud cover isn’t the greatest element for bird photography, it’s definitely the best weather for bird activity. The dimmer light conditions and cooler temperatures make birds forget that morning is over and they are active all day long! Really, birding on days like this are the most exciting. Due to overcast weather, on a recent day of guiding near San Ramon, we recorded 127 species!
  • It’s less crowded. There are still a number of tourists around but aside from Manual Antonio National Park, there are fewer people on the trails.
  • Green season rates. Fewer tourists means lower rates for lodging.
  • The July mini dry season. Yes, it is the wet season, but things get slightly drier on the Caribbean slope during July.

In conclusion, don’t be afraid to visit Costa Rica during most of the wet season. The exception is October and November when it can rain non-stop for days. It doesn’t always do that though, and last year was pretty dry so don’t become overconcerned about weather conditions for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter what time of year you visit.