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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica ranked as the best holiday travel destination by three travel agencies

Three American travel agencies recently decided that Costa Rica was the best destination for vacationing during the Christmas/New Year holidays.  When asked by CNN to give their top choice for end of the year travel, StudentUniverse, Smarter Travel, and Student Travel Agency all named Costa Rica as their number one spot for travel during the waning days of 2010 and early 2011. By the names of the agencies, they appear to cater to a younger or more adventurous crowd. With the heavy emphasis placed on adventure tourism by the Costa Rican Toursim Industry, it comes as no surprise that these agencies would choose Costa Rica. The stable government, good infrastructure, and combination of volcanoes, mountains, and beaches in a small area along with abundant opportunities to zip-line through the canopy of tropical forests, rappel down tropical waterfalls, go surfing, horseback-riding, or on guided hikes through rain forests makes Costa Rica a tempting destination for active, adventurous travelers.

The Costa Rican Institute for Travel sometimes seems to be so focused on such “pseudo-adventure travel activities” that one might wonder what role ecotourism, the foundation of the Costa Rican travel and tourism industry, still plays in Costa Rica. Despite the fact that the word “canopy” in Costa Rica has become more associated with “zip-lining” through the upper reaches of the forest than the forest frontier with the highest degree of biodiversity, ecotourism is live and well in this small country so jam-packed with life. There are still a large number of reserves and protected areas, knowledgeable guides for birding (ahem) and otherwise, and conservation efforts to preserve and restore biodiversity.

As far as birding in Costa Rica goes, I don’t think there has ever been a time when there was so much information available to adequately plan a successfull birding trip to Costa Rica. Lawson did a great job with the most recent and up to date bird-finding guide for the country, the Garrigues and Dean field guide is an excellent update to (the still useful) Stiles and Skutch, and there are innumerable trip reports available online. Also, don’t forget to keep watching this blog for continued updates and information about birding in Costa Rica and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you need help in planning a trip or would like quality guiding to enhance your trip. Furthermore, don’t be surprised to see one or two exciting new birding products on this blog during 2011 that will enhance your Costa Rican birding experience.

This post doesn’t describe any recent birding in Costa Rica because I am spending Turkey Day with family in Niagara Falls, NY. There are a lot of gulls here (saw an adult Lesser Black-backed the other day) and that has been nice but I am eager to return to the land of quetzals, wrens, and zeledonias, am more than ready to test my new recording equipment on the dawn chorus at Carara, search out Lanceolated Monklets, Unspotted Saw-Whet Owls, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, and other mysterious, little known species, and just hang out with Blue-gray Tanagers. The dry season will be kicking into gear, birdsong will pick up shortly thereafter, Christmas Counts are coming, and the birding will be as exciting as it always is in the neotropical wonderland known as Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica non avian organisms

Pelagic day Trip off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica

“I love pelagic birding but it doesn’t like me”. I wish I had a tee-shirt with this slogan. I would wear it with pride when birding from docks, piers, and rocky promontories. Other birders leaving the shore behind in pursuit of petrels, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and other drab yet very exciting birds would see the shirt and immediately understand why I stayed back on solid, dry ground to happily (if fruitlessly) scan the open ocean.

As they chugged their way out beyond the drift lines and the wave action carried out its unrelenting, uncompromising barrage upon their land-tuned senses, those who unwittingly added their own, personal brand of chum to the vast ocean might wonder if they should have joined me in surrendering all opportunities at getting very cool, tube-nosed lifers.

As those poor, suffering birders left last night’s dinner and this morning’s breakfast on the surface of the water, a mental image of me and my shirt would appear and what was previously cast off as fodder for the brain would suddenly take on profound, personal importance.

“Ahhhh, so that’s why he wore the shirt and stayed behind! Oh why or why did I scoff? Why did I not join him back on the wonderful, stable ground?”

Those rare few who are contemplative in times of duress might feel an odd “Eureka!” sensation upon realization that the seabirds who were partaking of their stomachal stew had been fed as a nestling in a very similar manner. The idea that they were bonding with and becoming momentary foster parents for Wedge-tailed Shearwaters would at the least spark an inner smile and perhaps such birders would feel more justified for sacrificing their stomach to the waves.

Most birders, however, have no such Zen-like thoughts as they hang over the railing or urgently, silently fight to calm their inner ears. No, they simply begin to wonder, “Was this trip worth it”?

As you may have surmised, I have problems with sea sickness. Although I liked roller coasters in my younger years, I have never been extremely thrilled about the Tilt-a Whirl, Spinning Teacups, Pirate Ship, or other amusement park rides. I think if I rode one of those now, after all of the spinning, vertigo, and brain-scrambling madness had come to a stop, if I were even capable of lifting the safety bar, I would probably be about as coherent as melted butter.

It was with extreme and sophomoric bravery then that I ventured out onto the open ocean for my first Costa Rican pelagic birding trip this past Sunday, November 14th. I was coaxed into accepting an invitation to bird the offshore waters of the Costa Rican Pacific Coast by the certainty of multiple lifers, new birds for my Costa Rican list and the year, and that on past pelagic trips with the same boat, the seas had never been “rough”.

I had such trepidations about doing a pelagic trip here or anywhere else due to the strong impressions left by my first and only pelagic birding experience off the coast of Oregon in 1996. What a memorable trip that was! Hundreds of phalaropes, flocks of Sabines Gulls, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, all three jaegers, dozens of Black-footed Albatross and two Laysan Albatross! The birds were fantastic but the way in which I saw them should have been included as a footnote in Dante’s “Inferno”.

Despite having taken Dramamine, I greeted nearly every bird species that approached the boat with unbridled vomit. You would have thought that they would have flown back up to the Bering Strait after such a horrible reception but fortunately, seabirds are such hardy, salty souls that they didn’t even blink an eye. For example, my lifer Laysan Albatross flew so close to the boat that I nearly stained its immaculate white plumage. Despite unwittingly chumming the water mere inches from this majestic bird, it just drifted on past on massive wings, completely unfazed.

I got a bunch of lifers and the experience was incredible but I assure you, I paid such a strong price for it that I had pretty much written off seeing all pelagic species anywhere unless they were blown to shore or inland by massive hurricanes.

Last week, though, local birder and friend Paul Murgatroyd sent me an invitation to join him and six other stalwart birders for a day trip out onto the Pacific in search of avian treasure. While I was pondering whether or not I should accept this gracious invitation, Paul called and with tales of smooth waters, hardly anyone feeling ill over the course of six trips, and the chance at several lifers, how could I say no?

Doing the trip without getting sick actually sounded feasible and was guaranteed to be an incredible experience. I would bring something other than Dramamine to fool the inner ear, nibble on salty snacks, watch the horizon, and see some new birds!

Early Sunday morning, eight of us departed the Los Sueños Marina on “The Floating Bear”, a fifty foot Beneteau sailboat that had brought Paul and other birders to Costa Rica’s first Tahiti Petrel, Christmas Island Shearwater, and other birds you just can’t see from the mainland. We knew we would have to be very lucky to get these and other deep water species because we wouldn’t be heading past the continental shelf but in such uncharted waters for birding, you almost can’t even guess at what might or might not show up!

Birding Costa Rica

Chugging straight out to sea, our first memorable sighting was of a mother Humpbacked Whale with her baby! They were kind of far away but still impressive enough to elicit excited exclamations from all on board as we watched mother then baby leaping out of the water to breach off of Playa Herradura. A few Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls could be seen but for the most part, inshore, the sea was devoid of bird life.

Birding Costa Rica

Water everywhere but not a drop to drink…

After a short detour, our trusty skipper “Greivin” pointed the bow towards Tahiti and we slowly but surely made our way into the realm of tube-nosed birds. As we left the shore behind, the water became ruled by an endless series of waves and thus began the battle with my inner ear for supremacy of my stomach. The fiercest fighting took place during the first two or so hours of the trip because this is when the inner ear makes its most vehement protest and attempts to coerce the gut into becoming its ally. I would never have won the fight on my own but that’s why I enlisted help in the form of a Dramamine like medication by the name of, “Gravor” (oddly enough sounding much like the name of the skipper) as well as an ample supply of salty plantain chips and crackers, and the determination to watch the horizon for hours on end. That little pill sometimes made it tough to think and would be a serious hindrance to giving an eloquent speech but it definitely helped me keep control of the stomach and calm down the inner ear when looking for pelagics off the Costa Rican coast this past Sunday. Nibbling crackers, sipping water, and watching the horizon also played their part but I think it was the Gravor that did the job.

My Sunday sea sickness challenge was toughest about one or two hours into the trip and it was also around this time that the specialty birds showed. We didn’t see huge numbers, didn’t chum the waters, and good looks were made difficult (at least for me) by the rocking movement of the boat but in addition to Magnificent Frigatebirds, Royal Terns, and Laughing Gulls near shore, we managed to see:

Brown Boobies flapping past the boat and looking smart in perfect light, we had these for much of the day and saw flocks winging their back to the islands they use for roosting after foraging on the open ocean.

Small groups Sabines Gulls (!) with crisp contrasting markings on their wings, I hadn’t seen this beautiful gull for many years.

A few flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes riding the waves like gray and brown bathtub toys, most of their kind had probably already passed through the area.

Wedge-tailed Shearwaters coming in three different phases, we saw dozens of this life bird throughout the day.

Birding Costa Rica

The two dark specs are Wedge-tailed Shearwaters.

A single Pink-footed Shearwater was a good record for the area.

A few Audubons’ Shearwaters were seen. This lifer was my favorite bird of the trip because two individuals flew too close to the boat for binoculars. I snapped away with a hand-held camera and look what happened!

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

Black Storm-Petrels zipping low over the waves like shadowy nighthawks, this life bird was the most common storm-petrel.

Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel was another much wanted life bird for me. We had very few white-rumped storm-petrels on Sunday. I got a good look at the first group of birds and saw features for Wedge-rumped but may have missed a Band-rumped (gasp!) because Kevin Easley mentioned seeing a bird that may have been this species. In the second group of white-rumped storm petrels, I have a mental snapshot of one bird that lacked the white wedge of the Wedge-rumpeds as well as white on the undertail. I suspect it was a Leaches or Band-rumped and hope that photos taken by Kevin or Juan Diego will reveal its identity.

We had surprisingly few Least Storm-Petrels. The only storm-petrel I had seen in Costa Rica before this trip, they were pretty easy to recognize by their bat-like flight.

Several Pomarine Jaegers, adults and juveniles. How can one not be enthralled by a chunky, falcon-like seabird? Two big juveniles following a fishing boat were masquerading as skuas.

Parasitic Jaeger– at least one dark phase adult flew low over the water and was one of our first birds of the day.

We had scattered sightings of Black Terns until a flock of a 100 or so flew past around 4 pm.

At least one Common Tern was a year bird for me.

On the non-avian front, we had twenty or so Olive Ridley Sea Turtles, one billfish species that may have been a Swordfish, a few Manta Rays jumping clear out of the water, and two species of dolphins, Striped and Spotted. These were a highlight of the trip as they purposely swam close to the boat and proceeded to porpoise alongside us.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Striped Dolphins.

Birding Costa Rica

One of the Spotted Dolphins.

Our trip back towards shore was more easy-going than the way out because we rode swell after shore-going swell the whole time. Night fell at least an hour before we pulled into the marina. As everyone else descended below decks, I opted for staying up top to feel the wind and watch the dark waters go by. It was an experience made limbo-like by the sounds of constant wind and waves and onshore lights that never appeared to get any closer. As we approached shore, I could smell land- a mixture of smoke, earth, and dank, tropical vegetation. The dark forms of two Magnificent Frigatebirds hovering above the mast of the Floating Bear also reminded us that we were no longer coursing over the open sea. We had made it back from the watery pelagic lands after the briefest of jaunts into uncharted birding territory and I had done so without getting sick! I’m not sure when I will find myself in the company of pelagic birds again but until then, I will always be wondering just what else is out there beyond the horizon.

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Three coquettes seen on the Caribbean Slope of Costa Rica?

Coquettes are these tiny, insect-like hummingbirds that are strong contenders for being the most exquisite group of birds on Earth. The males in particular, with their incredibly ornate tufts and crests, remind me of glass figurines of hummingbirds crafted by someone with a fearless imagination and tendency towards extravagance, or perhaps jeweled pendants fabricated by an artist who has a thing for wispy plumes.

The group as a whole (along with their relatives, the Thorntails) just look unbelievable and so of course they are among the most wanted of hummingbird species. As is common with many bird species that elicit gasps when viewing their illustrations in a field guide, however, coquettes are (sigh) also among the least guaranteed of hummingbird species. I think one or two species in Peru and Brazil grace feeders with their presence but none of the three species that have been identified in Costa Rica have developed a taste for sugar water.

In addition to their disenchantment with “feeder juice”, there are three other reasons I can think of to explain the difficulty in seeing coquettes:

1. They are inconspicuous and bug-like by nature. Seriously, when they fly around, they resemble a slow and steady bumblebee or other fat, largish insect. This is probably no coincidence because such a strategy likely allows them to sneak into flower patches that are viciously guarded by larger hummingbirds. Thus it pays to check out chunky bugs seen flying around when birding Costa Rica. They might turn into coquettes when viewed through binoculars and if not, well there’s a lot of super cool looking insects in Costa Rica in any case.

2. Coquettes feed on smaller flowers, many of which occur way up in the tops of trees. Even if you do see a coquette as it feeds in the canopy, you will probably pass it off as a bug because it will look like one 100 feet above where you are standing. On a more positive note, coquettes also feed on Stachytarpheta bushes at eye level. Not always, but watch some Porterweed long enough in the right place and you have a fair chance of seeing one.

3. Coquettes move around in search of their favorite flowering trees. How could we not expect persnickety behavior from such flamboyant creatures? The three coquette species of Costa Rica move up and down slope and who knows where else to get their fill of select, vintage nectars. It is perhaps this fact that presents the biggest challenge to seeing them. Little is known about their movements in Costa Rica except that they might be present for a time at one site and then who knows where the following week.

So, they are tough to find but how about some information about each species? The three coquettes that have occurred in Costa Rica are the Black-crested Coquette, White-crested Coquette, and the Rufous-crested Coquette.

The one that is most regularly seen when birding Costa Rica is the Black-crested Coquette. Buzzing around the humid forests of the Caribbean Slope from southeastern Mexico to Central Costa Rica, this creature can show up at a number of sites but appears to be most regularly seen in Costa Rica at foothill and middle elevations south to about Rancho Naturalista (a good site for them). The other, easiest site for this bird when birding Costa Rica is the Arenal area. They could be seasonal there but birders have an excellent chance of connecting with this species by watching the flowering bushes around the Arenal Observatory Lodge or entrance to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. El Tapir just outside of Braulio Carrillo Park has also been a regular site for the Black-crested Coquette as was Virgen del Socorro.

The White-crested Coquette looks particularly stunning but it’s not easy despite only being found from Carara south to western Panama. It didn’t seem like they were very tough to find when I was birding the Golfo Dulce and Osa Peninsula some years ago but that may have been a fluke. I recall seeing them pretty easily around patches of flowering Inga. species trees and have even had them at flowering balsas. I suspect that southwestern Costa Rica is still the most reliable area for this species when birding Costa Rica (the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre often know where to find them) although it occurs as far north as the Carara area (where it’s super rare) and even moves into the Central Valley at certain times of the year (maybe October and November?).

The Rufous-crested Coquette is a vagrant to Costa Rica that hasn’t been positively identified for a number of years. I bet at least a few show up in country and get overlooked though, especially if they search for flowers in the underbirded southeastern sector of the country. Since this bird has been recorded just across the border in Bocas del Toro, Panama, the southeast is also the most likely area for it to turn up. These little, rufous-crested sprites were historically recorded from San Jose though so it’s not entirely out of the question to have one turn up in the Central Valley or perhaps even in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

In fact, one may have showed up at El Tapir just last week. Not only that, but rumor has it that it was also sharing space with the other two coquette species in a roadside garden somewhere near the arial tram! If true, this would be like hitting the once in a lifetime Costa Rican birding jackpot. So far, it’s still just a rumor and hasn’t been authenticated but given the coquette’s propensity for wandering combined with freaky weather that could affect flowering patterns, it’s not entirely out of the question. If I check the situation out and hit the jackpot, I will make up for the lack of coquette photos in this post by showing all three in my next.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations sites for day trips weather

Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

Birding Costa Rica

Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

Birding Costa Rica

A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

I love the dark green nape!

Birding Costa Rica

This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

Birding Costa Rica

a Resplendent Quetzal!

First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

Birding Costa Rica

It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

Birding Costa Rica

Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

Birding Costa Rica

Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

Birding Costa Rica

A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

Birding Costa Rica

The one sunny spot on Irazu.

Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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Birding Costa Rica el nino weather

Heavy rains and landslides in Costa Rica

Despite the grim forecasts back in early October that a ridiculous amount of rainfall was going to drown Costa Rica for the rest of 2010, most of October was downright beautiful! Clear, sunny mornings with acceptable rain in the afternoons seemed to have trumped the weather people. This past Tuesday, however, the rains came back with a  vengeance and the results were tragic as Hurricane Thomas in the Caribbean and a low pressure system in the Pacific combined forces to dump all of October’s expected precipitation in just 48 hours.

It started on Tuesday, didn’t stop until Thursday, rained again for all of Thursday night and appears to have finally let up as I write this on Friday morning. As I was scheduled to guide in the Carara area on Wednesday and Thursday, I witnessed some of this deluge in my attempt to reach the coast on early Wednesday morning. As it had rained for the entire night and was still pouring down at 5 a.m., I left the house wondering if I should just stay home because such heavy rains typically result in landslides.

I figured I would at least drive past Atenas to where I could see into the Pacific Lowlands from an overlook. It was raining hard in the Central Valley but I thought, “Who knows? Maybe the sun would be shining on the coast”. My anxiety grew, however, as I drove on the highway and noticed massive puddles forming on the sides of the road and drainage ditches overflowing with torrents of rushing, clay colored water. At times, I could barely see out the windshield but decided to continue on to Atenas because the rain was a bit lighter once I took the exit to that quaint town at the edge of Central Valley.

As I approached Atenas, I saw a line of stopped cars straight ahead and as I had feared, yes, there was a small landslide blocking the road in both directions. To avoid possibly being stranded somewhere just shy of Atenas, I quickly turned around and drove back through the driving rain to home in Santa Barbara de Heredia. And a good thing too because as it turned out, there were bigger landslides further down the road that I was taking to get to the lowlands. There were also landslides that closed other roads, bridges were washed out, roads near Manuel Antonio were literally destroyed, and worst of all, twenty people were killed and more had their homes destroyed by a mudslide in San Antonio de Escazu.

Although few areas on the Caribbean Slope have been affected, the landslides have left the country in a state of emergency and mourning. Dozens of Ticos have lost their homes in Parrita, Escazu, and Aserri and thousands are without water, electricity, or cell phone use. Visitors to the country over the next two or three weeks could run into problems if traveling to such areas as:

  • Manuel Antonio- Damage to roads and flooding in Parrita.
  • Dominical- No access at the moment.
  • Cerro de la Muerte and the Dota Valley- Landslides have shut down the highway over the mountain.
  • Braulio Carrillo- Landslides have closed the highway.
  • Southwestern Costa Rica including San Vito and the Osa Peninsula- At the moment, only accessible by air.
  • Driving from the Pacific Coast to San Jose or vice versa- Landslides and road damage on all routes.

I suspect that most problems will be fixed by December (as long as we aren’t bombarded with similar amounts of rain in a short span of time), so I doubt that visitors to Costa Rica during the high and dry season will run into too many problems. On a side note, I am scheduled to guide at Irazu tomorrow. No issues have been reported from that area and the rain should stop by today so hopefully it will be sunshine and quetzals for tomorrow morning!

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Tips on parrot identification when birding Costa Rica

I never tire of watching wild parrots. Since I don’t exactly get tired of observing any birds, perhaps what I really mean to say is that an inescapable twinge of excitement accompanies every screech and sighting that can be attributed to any of Costa Ricas 17 Psittacid species.

Whether it’s the daily flyovers of Crimson-fronted Parakeets that screech from the skies above my house in the Central Valley, Scarlet Macaws that grumble from the canopy of the tall forests in Carara, or elusive Barred Parakeets that remind me of crossbills as they chirp and zip over the ridges of the high Talamancas, there’s always something special about seeing a wild Psittacid. I think “wild” might be the key word here because the parrots or macaws we saw in Niagara Falls, New York were either in the pet store or featured in television commercials. They just couldn’t be real, wild birds no matter what those bird books said because that would be just too cool to be fact. Therefore, every time I see a parrot, parakeet, or macaw in Costa Rica, I feel a flurry of excitement and recurring revelation that vanquishes my childhood doubts about the existence of such amazing birds.

Parrots in Costa Rica are as essential to the local landscape as Cecropia trees, Blue-gray Tanagers, and volcanoes and thank goodness because they add a bit of excitement to each day lived in this snow-free, tropical country. Not all are easy to see and there are identification challenges but I hope that the following information will give you a fair idea about what to expect as far as Psittacids go when birding Costa Rica:

Macaws, genus Ara– two species, easy to identify.

Scarlet Macaw: Bold, brilliant, and loud, its pretty hard to miss this species. In Costa Rica, they used to range the length of both slopes but habitat destruction and persecution have nearly eliminated them from the Caribbean slope and reduced them on the Pacific slope to two, well-known populations, one at Carara and a larger number of birds on the Osa Peninsula. There is also a small population around the dry forests of Palo Verde and Curu, and they have been making a slow comeback on the Caribbean slope.

birding Costa Rica

Scarlet Macaws are always spectacular.

Great Green Macaw: This flagship species of Costa Rican conservation is kind of like the “sea turtle of the rain forest” in terms of its status and buzz about its plight. Like sea turtles, this bird is in serious trouble and needs as much help as it can to avoid going extinct in Costa Rica. The main threat to its future existence in Costa Rica is destruction of lowland rainforests and cutting of a tree that it very much depends upon, Dipteryx panamensis or “Almendro”.  Like Scarlet and Red and Green Macaws in southeastern Peru, the Great Green relies upen big, old growth Dipteryx species trees for nesting and as a food source. Unlike, macaws in Peru, however, Great Green Macaws in Costa Rica have not used nest boxes with very much success. This awesome bird can still be seen in the Sarapiqui area and is more common in Tortuguero and near the Nicaraguan border but I doubt that I will see it again at Quebrada Gonzalez (I used to see flocks there during the wet season).

Amazona genus parrots- four species, watch for their distinctive, shallow wing beats and learn the calls!

Mealy Parrot: This large parrot is commonly seen in forested sites of the humid lowlands (although I get the impression that its numbers have decreased since I first came to Costa Rica). When perched, they are easy enough to identify but hard to see as they quietly forage in the canopy. Like most parrots, you are more likely to see them in flight. They are easily confused with Red-lored Parrots throughout their range and with Yellow-naped Parrots on the Pacific slope in the Carara area. Watch for the green front and pay attention to their harsh calls.

birding Costa Rica

A Mealy Parrot attempting to hide behind a branch.

Red-lored Parrot: Another good sized parrot, this edge species is pretty common in the lowlands and is the only Amazona species parrot in Costa Rica with a red front. Its calls can sound similar to those of the Mealy Parrot but have a more ringing quality to them, like “clink clink” rather than the harsh squawking of the Mealy.

Yellow-naped Parrot: About the same size as the Red-lored, trapping and habitat destruction have reduced its population although it is still regularly seen in a number of areas including Cerro Lodge, Santa Rosa and Guanacaste National Parks, and Palo Verde. As the yellow nape can be hard to see in flight, pay attention to its distinctive calls that have a human-like or “laughing” quality to them.

White-fronted Parrot: The smallest of the Amazona genus parrots in Costa Rica, is still flies with shallow wing beats but is more frequently seen in flocks than the other Amazona species and is fairly common in dry forest. Its yellow bill, white front, and red patch on the forewing also separate it from Mealy, Red-lored, and Yellow-naped Parrots. Listen for its more rapid, staccato-like vocalizations.

birding Costa Rica

A not so great shot of a psycho-looking White-fronted Parrot.

Pionus genus parrots- two species, watch for their distinctive, deep wingbeats.

White-crowned Parrot: This edge species is one of the more common parrot species in Costa Rica and can be seen from the lowlands to middle elevations (including green spaces in the Central Valley). The white crown and bill can often be seen in flight. Also listen for their screeching, “trebled” call.

birding Costa Rica

A White-crowned Parrot hanging out in the canopy at El Gavilan lodge, Sarapiqui region.

Blue-headed Parrot: An edge species that replaces the White-crowned further south, the Blue-headed Parrot is mostly seen in the Golfo Dulce and southeastern lowlands of Costa Rica although it can show up at least as far north as Sarapiqui. They fly with the same deep wingbeats as the White-crowned but have a darker head and bill and more abrupt vocalizations.

Pionopsitta genus parrots- one species, “a parrot that sounds like a parakeet” and has wingbeats in between those of an Amazona and Pionus.

Brown-hooded Parrot: A bird of rainforests, this species is most common in heavily forested, humid zones although it is also sometimes seen in flight over the central valley or other deforested areas (how I got it on my yard list). Watch for the red on the underwings, look for the brownish head, and listen for the rather musical, parakeet-like calls. That’s probably a bad description of their vocalizations, but is what comes to mind!

Pyrrhura genus- one species, a long-tailed parakeet of the Talamancas.

Sulphur-winged Parakeet: Like most members of this primarily South American genus, it has a small range and is the only parrot species restricted to the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama. It’s pretty common in the cloud forests of the Talamancas and is usually located by its high-pitched, reedy calls. It is the only long-tailed parakeet likely to be seen in its range although sometimes can overlap with Crimson-fronted Parakeets when they move to lower elevations.

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Sulphur-winged Parakeet from the Dota Valley.

Aratinga genus- four species, rather common, long-tailed parakeets.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet: One of the most common and easily seen Psittacids in Costa Rica, it has fortunately become adapted to nesting on buildings in the central valley. Long-tailed parakeets seen in the central valley are almost always this species. Watch for the red front and red underwings.

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Crimson-fronted Parakeets- I see this species on a daily basis.

Olive-throated Parakeet: A bird of the northern Caribbean lowlands, it needs more forested habitats than the Crimson-fronted. Plain-looking, long tailed parakeets seen in the Caribbean lowlands are this species. They lack red in the plumage and have wings with darker, contrasting flight feathers than the Crimson-fronted.

Orange-fronted Parakeet: This is the common, long-tailed parakeet species of dry forest. They overlap with the Crimson-fronted in the Carara area but can be told by their orange fronts and duller green plumage.

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Orange-fronted Parakeet from Tambor, Costa Rica.

Brown-throated Parakeet: A recent invader from Panama, watch for it in southwestern Costa Rica from the Panamanian border west to Piedras Blancas National Park. It overlaps with the more common Crimson-fronted Parakeet but lacks the red front and has an orangey-brown throat.

Brotogeris genus- one species, common, short-tailed parakeet of deforested lowlands.

Orange-chinned Parakeet: This common species vies with the Crimson-fronted for holding the title of the most frequently encountered Psittacid in Costa Rica. Any small parakeet with a short pointed tails seen in the lowlands is this species (it also occurs in the Central Valley).

birding Costa Rica

Orange-chinned Parakeet, a species hard to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Bolborhynchus genus- one species, an uncommon highland parakeet.

Barred Parakeet: If you are birding above 2,000 meters in the Central or Talamancan Cordilleras and see small, plain, short-tailed parakeets that remind you of crossbills or other “winter finches”, you have probably seen Barred Parakeets. They could overlap with Red-fronted Parrotlets at certain times of the year but those will show red and yellow in their plumage.

Touit genus- one species, a rare, little known bird of middle elevations.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: If you see this one when birding Costa Rica, you will have hit the Psittacid jackpot. Not much is known about this species, it is seen very infrequently, and yours truly still needs a better look before counting it as a lifer! It mostly occurs in middle elevation forests and appears to make elevational movements in search of fruiting or seeding trees. Who knows, maybe it was more common in the past before so much of the Central Valley was deforested. I wonder about this because friends of mine saw a small flock for a few days in June in their urban backyard near Heredia! The birds were probably moving around in search of fruiting trees after breeding somewhere up in the Central Cordillera. They have also been recorded high up in the Talamancas as well as in lowland areas. If you see a small, short-tailed parakeet with red and yellow in the wings and lots of red on the head, then you may have gotten the coveted Red-fronted Parrotlet. On a side note, if you do see this species, take as many notes about its behavior, location, etc. as you can so we can get a better handle on its natural history.