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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills middle elevations

A Day of Birding at Arenal, Costa Rica

Last week, while winter storms were wreaking havoc in northern climes, I had the great fortune to spend a day of guiding in much warmer, snow-less weather in and around Arenal Observatory Lodge, Costa Rica. Although lower temperatures than normal and saturating morning mist were a reminder that the frigid fingers of those northern blizzards can tendril their way south to Costa Rica, we still had a pretty productive day with over 130 bird species identified.

Starting out at the Miradas de Arenal Cabins, a number of common, edge species were identified as they came to fruiting trees, best birds probably being Black-cowled Oriole and Black-headed Saltator. Foggy weather didn’t let the birds show much color but at least boosted their activity. As the mist gradually lifted and visibility increased, we drove to our main birding destination, the entrance road for Arenal National Park and Arenal Observatory Lodge. The stony entrance road cuts through pasture, guava orchards, patches of old second growth forest, crosses rivers, and eventually reaches older forest to provide a variety of habitats that can turn up a large number of bird species. It’s the type of place where fruiting trees could potentially host cotingas, where crakes may lurk in marshy grass, and where uncommon raptors might fly past. One of our first birds of the day was in the latter category although instead of quickly winging its way through our field of view, it perched in a bare tree long enough to take  its picture (and some of my only shots for the day due to the inclement weather).

Bicolored Hawk!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

This medium sized Accipiter is widespread in the neotropics but always tough to see and nearly impossible to predict when and where it will show up. A most welcome addition to my year list!

Pigeons were also plentiful along the road with Band-tailed and Pale-vented being the most common. Both species occurred in flocks of 15 to 60 individuals and were feeding in fruiting trees or hanging out in tree tops.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

There are a few side roads that can also be productive. On one of these, while getting close looks at a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, a male Great Curassow flew down from the trees to strut along the shoulder of the road! This was a nice surprise and a probable sign that the general area sees very little hunting pressure.

No image of the curassow but at least the toucan sat long enough for a photo.

birding Costa Rica

Continuing on, we added species such as Long-tailed Tyrant, Bay Wren, and other expected birds but those were nothing compared to one of our best finds of the day, Fasciated Tiger-Heron! Always a tough bird to come across, ours was an adult that gave us perfect, close looks at the river just before the entrance to the Observatory Lodge. I regret not taking photos but it was getting a bit too rainy to risk short-circuiting my camera.

After studying the tiger-heron, we paid our $4 entrance fee to use the trails of the Observatory Lodge (open 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.) and ticked off a soggy Broad-billed Motmot perched in the rain as we drove up to the restaurant and viewing platform. The looming volcanic cone known as Volcan Arenal is what is supposed to be viewed from this point but even better for birders are the fruit feeders that attract oropendolas, orioles, and tanagers. On sunnier days,  this is a perfect spot for bird photography but because the soaking rain only made mental images possible, you will just have to believe me when I say that we had eye popping views of Montezuma Oropendolas, Buff-throated Saltators, Clay-colored Thrushes, Olive-backed Euphonias, and Blue-gray, Palm, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, and Crimson-collared Tanagers. Emerald Tanager also sometimes shows up at their feeders although they didn’t make an appearance while we watched.

Despite the windy and rainy weather, we were determined to make the most of our day at this birdy site and therefore walked a short loop trail near the cabins that can be good for Thicket Antpitta. There are also Porterweed bushes near there that can attract Black-crested Coquette, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and other hummingbird species of the Caribbean foothills. If our visit was any indication, though, none of these birds come out in the rain! While on other visits, I have heard and seen the antpitta fairly easily on this trail and have seen several coquettes buzzing around like insects in those same flowering bushes, we hardly saw or heard anything. As it was mid-morning, time of day may have also been a factor but I suspect that the weather was the main culprit.

Upon exiting the trail and getting looks at Hepatic Tanager (fairly common here), it was time for lunch and I am pleased to say that their restaurant has improved! It’s still over-priced but the service was good and the food drastically better than any of my past gastronomic experiences at the Arenal Observatory Lodge.

By the end of our meal, amazingly, it had stopped raining and we could even see the top of the volcano! After a quick check of the flowering bushes and only espying Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and one or two Violet-crowned Woodnymphs, it was off to the Waterfall Trail for middle elevation forest birding. Perhaps because the rain had just ended, bird activity was pretty good and constant with several mixed flocks making their way through the forest. Golden-crowned Warblers and Slaty-capped Flycatchers seemed to lead the way while Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, Olive Tanagers, and the occasional Spotted Barbtail followed. In the canopy, Russet Antshrikes, and Black and Yellow and other tanager species rustled the vegetation while Montezuma Oropendolas displayed. A quick walk down to the waterfall didn’t turn up hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet or Green-fronted Lancebill but both should be possible there (as well as Sunbittern).

We didn’t hit any antswarms inside the forest but got lucky anyways in seeing a lone Spotted Antbird. Outside the forest, before leaving the grounds of the Observatory Lodge, we made one last stop at the “Casona” to check fruiting trees and were rewarded with close looks at Short-billed Pigeons, White-crowned Parrots, Emerald Tanager (!), and Yellow-throated Euphonia. No luck with cotingas but I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned up in that area (Lovely Cotinga is occasionally seen around Arenal Observatory Lodge).

After our visit to the lodge and getting another look at the tiger-heron, we birded along the road that leads to the Arenal Sky Tram and Neopenthes. A few spots along this road pass near marshes that probably hold some rare, skulking waterbirds. We didn’t see these of course (because they were skulking) but did get good looks at Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Near there, along the roadside, we also got our only antswarm of the day. As luck would have it, the ants were moving through an open area and therefore no antbirds were present but we still got to see a bunch of thrushes that were taking advantage of the easy pickings. Clay-coloreds were the most common but there were also one or two Swainson’s, and several White-throated.

By this time, the day was coming to an end and birds were heading to their roosts for the night. As Red-lored Parrots flew past, we were treated to a beautiful view of the volcano lit up by the red rays of the setting sun; a memorable way to finish a great day of birding around Arenal.

Here is a list of all birds seen or heard from our day:

Great Curassow
Anhinga
Pied-billed Grebe
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Fasciated Tiger-Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Bicolored Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
Laughing Falcon heard
White-throated Crake heard
Spotted Sandpiper
Pale-vented Pigeon
Band-tailed Pigeon
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
Red-lored Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Green Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
Violet-headed Hummingbird
Purple-crowned Fairy
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Orange-bellied Trogon
Broad-billed Motmot
Ringed Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
Rufoustailed Jacamar heard
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Hoffmanns Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Smoky-brown Woodpecker
Spotted Barbtail
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Spotted Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Great Antshrike heard
Barred Antshrike
Russet Antshrike
Spotted Antbird
Thicket Antpitta
Yellow Tyrannulet heard
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Slaty-capped Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Long-tailed Tyrant
Bright-rumped Attila heard
Dusky-capped Flycatcher heard
Great-crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Tropical Pewee
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
Yellow-throated Vireo
Lesser Greenlet
White-throated Magpie-Jay
Brown Jay
Northern Roughwinged Swallow
Southern Roughwinged Swallow
Band-backed Wren heard
Stripe-breasted Wren
Bay Wren
Black-throated Wren heard
White-breasted Wood-Wren heard
House Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren heard
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush
Clay-colored Thrush
White-throated Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Wood Thrush heard
Tennessee Warbler
Tropical Parula
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat heard
Wilson’s Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
Bananaquit
Common Bush-Tanager
Black-and-yellow Tanager
Olive Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Summer Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Olive-backed Euphonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia heard
Emerald Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
White-collared Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Black-headed Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue-black Grosbeak heard
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Black-cowled Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Montezuma Oropendola
Categories
birding lodges Christmas Counts Osa Peninsula Pacific slope

The 2010 Osa Christmas Count at the Bosque del Rio Tigre

I took a second class bus from the bowels of San Jose up and over Cerro de la Muerte (” mountain of death”) to the frontier-like southwestern lowlands of Costa Rica to get to my destination. It was ten hours on the bus, two of which involved slamming our way over a section of remote road that was seriously afflicted with potholes, but I finally reached my rendezvous with birding friend Dorothy MacKinnon just before nightfall. It was slightly too late to watch birds except for the Common Pauraques that flew off the road at our approach but still early enough to comfortably ford the river that runs just in front of our final waypoint, the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge.

Inside the lodge.

birding Costa Rica

We were there to participate in the Bosque del Rio Tigre sector of the Osa CBC organized by Karen Leavelle of the Friends of the Osa. Our gracious hosts were Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo, owners of one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica, the Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge. They were as welcoming as always and eager to discuss count logistics. With just 11 participants, it was going to be impossible to cover the count circle to the extent of other Costa Rican counts such as La Selva or Carara but we would do our best with two small teams covering major habitats as well as one person staying back at the house to maintain the yard and feeder count.

I had heard a lot about the excellent cuisine of Bosque del Rio Tigre and the tuna steaks and garlic potatoes for dinner on the evening before the count certainly surpassed my expectations. As I savored that perfect meal, I thought that if the birds didn’t cooperate, at least dinner was probably worth the long bus ride!

As with all nights before a CBC in the tropics, I went to bed before nine to essentially get up in the night. Sure, 4:30 a.m. is only thirty minutes or so before the light of dawn begins to faintly illuminate the surroundings but it’s still nighttime in my book. Because it is pitch black outside, I always have this strong notion that I should be sleeping as opposed to feeling disoriented as I fumble around with my flashlight. 

Fortunately, I am able to make it to the washroom without knocking anything over or walking into a wall and fully wake myself up with cold water splashed on the face. Since I wisely prepared my gear the night before, I am ready to rock and roll in five minutes and head downstairs for coffee and banana bread.  As others come to the table, Liz apologizes for the fact that we aren’t having a proper breakfast and points out a variety of healthy snacks to keep us going until an early lunch. As we finish coffee and get ready to head off to our respective territories, the first birds of the day start to call. Someone heard Black and white Owl the night before so that is technically bird numero uno but the first for me is a Collared Forest-Falcon vocalizing from somewhere on the other side of the river. Getting a forest falcon at that crepuscular hour is pretty typical as is hearing woodcreepers and shortly thereafter sure enough, our next birds are a couple of dawn yodeling Cocoa and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. Another of our first calling birds is regular at the lodge but a new year bird for me- the tiny Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet.

Starting the count. Check out our slick, green 2010 Osa CBC tee-shirts.

birding Costa Rica

Just as everything seems to be starting to wake up and the light of day steadily grows, Liz, Dorothy, and I head up into the primary forest on the hillside behind the lodge on our way to an open area that overlooks a mix of pasture and forest. We quickly tick off forest species such as Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Scaly-throated Leaftosser (regular at the lodge), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager. Dot-winged Antwren, Red-capped Manakin and Blue-black Grosbeak also get counted and just as we reach the horse trail that will take us to the open area, Gray-headed Kite calls from the canopy. In addition to its typical vocalization of steady, repeated notes, it also gives a strange rising call that momentarily tricks us because of its similarity to the calls of a young Spectacled Owl.

On up into the open area, we keep hearing new birds and actually see a few too now that it’s light out. The day is thankfully overcast but not so much to pour down rain and so we thankfully avoid getting roasted under the blazing, lowland sun. As we scan the treetops, Liz remarks how heavier rains than usual appear to have resulted in less fruit being available in the forest and so a number of frugivorous birds seem to have moved to lower lying areas in search of arboreal vittles. She says that because of this it’s kind of slow even though we have recorded 70 species by this time.

birding Costa Rica

While scanning the forest canopy, I find one of our best birds of the day perched in a tall, bare emergent. It’s not very close but the light colored underparts and dark head tells me this is something good and when it turns its head to reveal a raptor profile, yep(!) it’s a Tiny Hawk! My first for 2010 and always a good bird, the thrush-sized little forest raptor lets us watch it for a few minutes before flying across of field of view. In flight it looks a lot like a small Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We leave the open area after that and count more forest birds as we make our way down to the Crake Trail and eventually to edge habitats near the river. The Crake Trails gets its name from the Uniform Crakes that are regular there. We look for them but despite neither seeing nor hearing any, keep moving because we just can’t dedicate the whole day to seeing that elusive denizen of wet thickets. It’s around this time that we also hear a strange bird calling. I know it’s a parakeet species but nothing I am familiar with and so guess that it could be a Brown-throated Parakeet. I can barely believe my eyes when I then briefly spot a long-tailed parakeet hanging out with a much shorter-tailed and expected Orange-chinned Parakeet perched at the top of a riverside tree. The only other long-tailed parakeet species in the area is Crimson-fronted Parakeet but this bird was most definitely NOT one of those! They fly off before I can get more than a one second look and it’s not enough to clinch an ID but amazingly, we hear it calling again and are thrilled to see it fly right into perfect light and perch in full view for 5 or so seconds. The pale eye ring accompanied by brown cheeks and throat show that yes it is most certainly a Brown-throated Parakeet and we can hardly believe our luck at getting this new species for the lodge on the same day as the CBC.

As the sun comes out, we get several more raptors- King Vulture, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Black Hawk Eagle. With 14 raptor species recorded for the day, I am pretty sure it’s my best day for raptors in Costa Rica! After sightings of Great Antshrike, two becard species, and picking up more key birds of the low, thick stuff such as our only Black-bellied Wren of the day and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, we swing by a lagoon to get Neotropical Cormorant, Green Kingfisher, and Boat-billed and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and get killer close looks at beautiful Marbled Wood-Quail before finally making it back to the lodge for lunch. After trudging around all morning in the uncomfortable yet requisite rubber boots, it’s a fantastic feeling to take that trying footwear off and sit down to yet another excellent meal. 

Me looking serious (probably dazed by the humidity) and Dorothy enjoying an apple.

birding Costa Rica

During lunch and some post lunch relaxation, the parakeet shows up again, this time with a brown-throated friend, and they amazingly perch in full view on a distant tree. As we watch those, it’s hard to decide where to look as a much prettier Turquoise Cotinga makes an appearance in the same tree and Little Tinamou and Blue Ground-Doves show up near the kitchen to eat rice thrown to the ground. Fruit feeders also attract quality bird species such as…

 the Costa Rican endemic, Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager,

birding Costa Rica

the mostly Costa Rican endemic Fiery-billed Aracari (they barely reach Panama),

birding Costa Rica

and two other mostly Costa Rican endemics, the Spot-crowned Euphonia, and

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker!

Although I kind of feel like just birding from a hammock for the rest of the day, as it would be blasphemous to shirk responsibilities on a CBC, I join the group in fording the river to walk through the village and hike up the Pizote River to make sure we don’t miss White-tipped Sicklebill. Birding is good (surprise, surprise) along the way and we record a bunch of usual edge and second growth suspects as well as Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and White-throated Crake in roadside marshy spots.

The river walk is made challenging because we can’t see wear to put our feet in water made murky by the activities of gold miners (illegal) upriver. The sound of the rushing stream cancels out any and all bird calls which makes this segment of the CBC the least productive. There was gold at the end of the muddy rainbow however, as Abraham led us to roosting White-tipped Sicklebills! Another new one for the year, I hadn’t seen one of these crazy looking hummingbirds since I don’t know when so I guess the fear of slipping and drowning my camera in the brown stream was worth it!

birding Costa Rica

White-tipped Sicklebill thanks to Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge.

A fitting way to end a fantastic day of birding, we counted up results before yet another perfect dinner and came up with 205 bird species! Our team alone wracked up 144 for the day and still saw a dozen or more species the following morning. It will be interesting to see how many I get on the Carara count two weeks from now.

We couldn’t count wooden birds but we got the real ones anyways (Turquoise Cotinga, Barird’s Trogon, and Orange-collared Manakin).

birding Costa Rica

Our team list for the day:

Little Tinamou
Neotropical Cormorant
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Boat-billed Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
White Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Collared Forest-Falcon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Gray -headed Kite
Tiny Hawk
Black Hawk-Eagle
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
American Swallow-tailed Kite
Marbled Wood-Quail
White-throated Crake
Purple Gallinule
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
Northern Jacana
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Blue Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Brown-throated Parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Brown-hooded Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Mealy Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Scarlet Macaw
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Costa-Rican Swift
Bronzy Hermit
Long-billed Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
White-tipped Sicklebill
White-necked Jacobin
Blue-throated Goldentail
Charming Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Baird’s Trogon
Violaceous Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Blue-crowned Motmot
Green Kingfisher
White-necked Puffbird
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Slaty Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Black-hooded Antshrike
Great Antshrike
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Dot-winged Antwren
Black-faced Antthrush
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet
Southern Beardless Tyrannulet
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Wood pewee sp.
Tropical Pewee
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Bright-rumped Attila
Rufous Piha
Rose-throated Becard
White-winged Becard
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Orange-collared Manakin
Red-capped Mankin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Lesser Greenlet
Gray-breasted Martin
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Mangrove Swallow
Black-bellied Wren
Riverside Wren
House Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Clay-colored Robin
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Bananaquit
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cherries´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Blue Dacnis
Blue-black Grasquit
Variable Seedeater
Thick-billed Seed-Finch
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Yellow-billed Cacique
Categories
Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Testing a new camera

Some readers may have noticed a general paucity and possible recycling of bird photos on this blog. The reason that posts may have been a bit more wordy than “imagey” for the past two months is because my other digiscoping cameras weren’t cooperating very much for bird photos. Well, most birds didn’t either but although my old Nikon Coolpix was trying its best, its  four megapixels just weren’t giving me the type of resolution I wanted. My formerly trusty Sony Cybershot would probably still be dishing out beautiful images just as it did during its glory days but ever since I subjected it to digital camera surgery, it sucks up battery juice faster than a vampire robot. I kid you not. The little AA battery image is bright with energy when you turn it on and then just five minutes later is anxiously blinking on and off to warn you that the camera is going to shut down for lack of power.

Taking pictures with it had not only become nearly impossible but the endeavor was also as frustrating as bites from a ravenous band of chiggers so I made the decision to buy a new camera. Since my camera requirements are not what those hand-held image gathering devices were engineered for, it took some research and gambling to get the right one. I don’t have the bucks for any serious digital SLRs so I opt for point and shoots that will work with my scope.

This basically means that in addition to taking beautiful pictures, the camera in question has to have a bunch of pixels so that when I crop it to rid the image of vignetting and make the bird look bigger, there were still be enough resolution to show some sweet details. My other main requirement is a camera that will work well in the low light conditions so prevalent in Costa Rica. This second requirement is especially difficult to meet with point and shoots but a very few models at least make attempts at generating low-grain images. By “low grain” I mean pictures that don’t resemble some pointillist revival movement. No, I don’t want to be artsy, I just want detailed shots of birds that will make me say, “Ahhh, now that’ s what I’m talking about”!

Oh, I should also add that my digiscoping kit is about as survivalist as you can get. Instead of some precision machined adapter that neatly attaches to my scope, I use a small tube that was cut out of a plastic bottle with an average pair of scissors. It fits onto the viewing part of the scope and keeps the camera at just the right distance to coordinate picture taking between lenses of both camera and scope. It’s tricky to use and when the lenses refuse to cooperate or have problems with communication, shots can look pretty weird and worthy of sending to some ghosthunting outfit but with practice it works surprisingly well.

With these requirements in mind and the knowledge that reviewer’s raves about face recognition and taking action shots of sand castle contests on the beach were going to mean nothing to me, there still seemed to be enough of the stuff that I needed to take a chance on buying the “Sony Cybershot G”. Like a small metal book, its compact, solid nature makes you feel as if you have acquired a piece of alien technology or at least have a tough little camera durable enough for taking pictures in rough and tumble situations like construction sites, rainforest hikes, and high school lunch lines. In reality, like any piece of digital equipment, its tough exterior and demeanor belies a delicate interior that doesn’t take well to shaking as well as a serious, justifiable phobia of water.

So, although it feels durable, I am going to treat it like a delicate salt sculpture and keep it shock proof and dry at all costs. This will be a challenge in humid Costa Rica but nothing that a small camera bag and silica gel packs can’t handle.

As for pictures, it hasn’t been one hundred percent stunning but considering that I am still learning how to best use it with my crude, home made digiscoping device, I am pleased with the results. So without further ado,  here are a few pictures taken with my new camera at dry forest sites on my way to guiding in the Monteverde area this past weekend:

Here is a Turquoise-browed Motmot taken with the image stabilization setting for low light conditions. It’s still a bit grainy but this wouldn’t have even been possible with my other cameras.

costa rica birding

and here is the same motmot in slightly better lighting.

costa rica birding

I wish I would have gotten more shots of Nutting’s Flycatcher or at least images of one that was perching on something more natural than a telephone wire but I was happy with this shot.

costa rica birding

Here is a female Blue-black Grosbeak doing a bad job of hiding behind some twigs.

costa rica birding

Of course birds perched in good lighting conditions like this Laughing Falcon tend to come out nice no matter what the camera is.

costa rica birding

This Orange-fronted Parakeet was so compliant that it almost went to sleep as I took its picture.

costa rica birding

Languid Howler Monkeys are wonderful to photograph. This one was in a group of Howlers along the gravelly road between the highway and Guacimal. It was great for dry forest birding as most traffic on its way up to Monteverde wisely takes the more paved route through Sardinal.

costa rica birding

American Pygmy Kingfisher was a great find. I heard it ticking away from the vicinity of a small, shady stream.

costa rica birding

It was nice to finally get decent shots of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, the migrant Empid most commonly seen in Costa Rica.

costa rica birding

Finding a cooperative White-fronted Parrot lit up by afternoon sun was also a boon.

costa rica birding

In a few days I will be off to the Osa Peninsula for the Bosque del Rio Tigre CBC! Whether I get in more camera testing fun or not, I will post about the experience.

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Birding potential around the Poas Volcano area of Costa Rica

Poas Volcano (or “Volcan Poas” as it is locally known) is one of those dark green mountains easily visible from everywhere in the Central valley except for Cartago where the larger Irazu Volcano blocks it from view. Because of its proximity to San Jose, ease of access, and the fact that you can walk right up to the sulphury edge of the crater and peer down at the highly acidic lake, Poas is commonly visited by tourists. It’s not such a popular destination among birders visiting Costa Rica, however, because most get their high elevation birding fix in places like Savegre or other sites on Cerro de la Muerte.

With a timeframe of just two or three weeks to try and see as many of 800 plus bird species as possible in a number of distinct habitats, I can’t blame anyone for neglecting to bird the Poas area. In fact, if there is anyone to blame for not birding Poas as much as it merits, “c’est moi” because not only do I live here, but the volcano is also literally uphill from my house. Since it takes 40 minutes to drive up there, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but Poas is honestly pretty close to the homestead so I should be birding it more often. In defense of having not birded Poas so much in the past is the fact that it’s not easy to adequately bird the volcano with public transportation. I think there is a daily bus that leaves from San Jose but it doesn’t get up to the entrance until at least mid-morning and heads back down the mountain only three hours later. I can’t even use that excuse anymore, however, because I recently acquired a vehicle that can take me up the volcano lickety split.

I admit that I also had this idea that there wasn’t much habitat up on Poas so it was almost by chance that I headed up there last week. My main goal was to test a new camera and digital recording device in the Varablanca area but because there was more traffic noise than expected along the unofficially opened Cinchona road coupled with the realization that good habitat was just a bit too far away for good bird photos, I decided to check out sites only a 15 minute drive higher up on Poas.

Wind and misty conditions trounced all attempts at bird photography and recording of bird sounds in the temperate zone but the silver lining of the trip was the realization that there was a lot more quality habitat than I had expected. There isn’t a whole lot of bird friendly vegetation between Varablanca and the village of Poasito (expect for maybe Eastern Meadowlarks and Cattle Egrets) but there are a few spots with remnant, riparian cloud forest that should be checked and much better habitat once you reach Poas Lodge. The road up to the volcano in particular is where the pasture paradise for cows thankfully changes into temperate cloud forest to becomes the common vegetation scheme and is also where I will be checking for a number of bird species that could conceivably occur in the area.

Remnant, riparian forest.

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Quality habitat near Poas Lodge on a bad day for bird photography.

birding costa rica

At least I could still get pictures of flowers.

birding costa rica

birding costa rica

Bamboo is always a good thing because strange birds such as the Zeledonia and Silvery-fronted Tapaculo really dig it. Rarities such as Maroon-chested Ground-Dove and Slaty Finch also love bamboo but usually don’t show unless it is seeding.

birding Costa Rica

I use the word “conceivably” when talking about the Poas avifauna because hardly anyone birds its high elevations on a regular basis so I don’t know for sure what might be up there. I’ve got a pretty good idea but because it’s consistently hard to guess what might show up in complex, tropical ecosystems coupled with the fact that the area is situated on the continental divide, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find a few species here and there that defy their distributions as shown in print. The other big reason why species lists for the area aren’t well known is simply because Poas is underbirded.

Sure, plenty of birders have paid the $30 entrance fee to experience the hummingbird madness of the Waterfall Gardens a bit lower down and some have birded the trails at Poas Volcano Lodge (which I also plan on checking out some day) but the high elevation forests on the way up to the entrance to the park and at the crater see very few birders and probably aren’t surveyed very often (if ever). I hope to change that by heading up the mountain that I see from town on a daily basis to do some early morning surveys as well as get up there when the sun goes down to search for a few choice nocturnal bird species.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

What to bring on a birding trip to Costa Rica

With the dry and high season for tourism and birding in Costa Rica rapidly approaching (or already here with the incredibly beautiful weather we are having these days), I figured that a post on “preparing for your trip” was in order. Another deciding factor for doing this post as opposed to uploading images of and writing about drool-provoking Costa Rican target birds is that I went out birding yesterday around Poas but very windy weather foiled any and all attempts at getting pictures (or watching birds in general for that matter!) .

Despite the lack of avian eye candy, information in posts like this one are helpful in any case, especially if you have never travelled to or been birding in Costa Rica. So, off the top of my head, here are a few things I think you should know and/or bring if this is your first birding trip to Costa Rica (or reminders of what to bring for birders who have already made the voyage to the land of quetzals, Gallo Pinto, and Fiery-billed Aracaris):

1. Bring WATERPROOF binoculars. With the wonderful advent of a variety of quality, mid-priced binocs, most birders coming to Costa Rica have optics that are waterproof and therefore will not fog up in humid conditions. If you do not have a pair of binos like this, you should seriously consider buying a pair before your trip to Costa Rica to avoid the extreme frustration of watching silhouettes through an unfortunate haze of fog that commonly takes up residence in non-sealed binoculars in the humid habitats of Costa Rica.

2. Dont forget your field guide. Garrigues and Dean is perfectly sized for travel and is an excellent field guide for Costa Rica. The classic Stiles and Skutch tome is also a great guide and is chock full of information but its size is somewhat prohibitive for travel.

3. Zip lock bags. No, you will not be freezing any freshly prepared pesto sauce or chicken a la whatever but you will be keeping your stuff dry. Although your backpack might be stamped or labelled with something like “water repellent” or “rainguard!” this means nothing when caught in heavy tropical downpours or penetrating montane mist. Use those ziplock bags as an extra measure of security for the stuff we would rather keep dry such as cameras, ipods, digital recorders, batteries, medicine, socks, and other articles of clothing.

4. Hat. A fedora would be too hot but just about any other head gear with a brim is nearly essential. Baseball caps work as do the polemic wide-brimmed hats. Forget about any silly complaints you may have read regarding wide brimmed hats- they provide much needed shade under the blazing tropical sun, can be used to swat away mosquitoes along with undescribed hefty horseflies, and can be soaked with water and put right back on the noggin to cool you off when birding the hot and humid lowlands.

5. A small umbrella and or light poncho. You will see rain in Costa Rica, even during the dry season. I personally like to crry around a compact umbrella because I find ponchos to be hot and clumsy. Forget about heavy raincoats or waterproof clothing designed for hiking in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula or trudging through the wet gorse of Scottish glens. Only wear such heavy duty raingear in Costa Rica if you are really into sweat lodges or saunas because that is exactly how you will feel when looking for manakins, quail-doves, and antpittas.

6. Granola and/or energy bars. If you can fit them into the luggage, bring em. These emergency foods will keep you in the field longer and could be a welcome respite from rice and beans. I do not think they should be substituted for all of your meals but keep them on hand for lunchtime emergencies such as waiting for an umbrellabird, attempting to locate a calling bellbird, or hoping for better shots of Great Green Macaws. Energy bars are sold in some Costa Rican supermarkets but who wants to listen to Tico muzak while browsing the food aisles when dozens of lifers await personal discovery in nearby tropical forests.

7. Clothing for hot and cool temperatures. Most of Costa Rica is tropically hot (highest temperatures could reach mid 90s on the Pacific Coast) while the highlands are pleasantly cool. The coldest it will get would be 40-50 degrees at the highest points on Cerro de la Muerte ad Irazu. Those lightweight zip-off pants or trousers adored by so many travelers are perfect- keep the leg things on inside the forest and zip them off for lunch or when taking a break from birding. Most folks opt for long pants in the forest because although the bugs arent all that bad, there are enough to warrant protecting of the legs. Some even go for long sleeve shirts in the jungle but I think that short sleeved shirts combined with insect repellent are fine.

8. Proper footwear. By “proper footwear” I mean anything that is lightweight, comfortable, and does not have open toes. It might be tempting to wear flip-flops or Tevas when walking in tropical forests but they will not protect you from spiny vegetation nor from the bites and stings of ants, bugs, and other creatures that live in the leaf litter.

9. Sun block and insect repellent. Dont forget the sun block! You could spend most of the day protected by the shade of rainforest giants and still get fried after walking for only twenty minutes beneath the blazing tropical sun if you do not slather on some strong UV blocking suff. Biting insects arent all that bad BUT there are enough to warrant the application of repellent to keep the mosquitoes away (the more you get bit the more likely you will host botfly larvae), the black flies from biting (common and nasty at middle elevations), and the chiggers off of your body. Chiggers are a special case because their minute size makes them tough to see, they crawl onto you from the grass, and their bites are absolutely infuriating and can last for weeks! Not walking through grassy areas and applying sulfur powder to socks works best but I think that DEET sprayed onto socks and shoes will also work to keep these miniature monsters away. 

10. A “Zen birding” attitude. You will see more with a guide but you will never see everything during a short trip to Costa Rica. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that you will see more birds and other denizens of rainforest by birding with a relaxed and focused attitude accompanied by huge anounts of patience. When inside the forest, take your time- you may be surprised at what shows up when investigating quiet chip notes from the understory, looking for movement in the canopy, or carfull scanning a forested hillside.

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Birding Costa Rica

Christmas Bird Counts in Costa Rica for 2010-2011

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! Joyous Christmas Counts! It’s that most wonderful time of year again and if Santa is a birder (and I bet he is), we better hope that he has the will power and determination of a stalking bittern or lists will be misplaced and gifts left unwrapped if he gives in to the temptation and casts his gift giving expedition aside to participate in all 11 of the Costa Rican Christmas Bird Counts.

A few are held on the same dates which of course means that those of us who don’t have a stable of ultra-dimensional, time-traveling reindeer won’t be able to appear in more than one place at the same time. So, you can’t do them all but there are still a bunch to choose from and even if you can only manage one, it is guaranteed to be one heck of a jolly time. Instead of examining the pine groves for owls and hoping to hear a lisp or two of a Golden-crowned Kinglet, how does counting kiskadees and searching for antbirds sound? Instead of marching across frozen, crunchy ground and wondering if you are experiencing frostbite while looking for that elusive flock of longspurs, you will be relishing the warm tropical weather and rehydrating with your drink of choice as Crimson-fronted Parakeets screech overhead. A bunch of those summer breeding birds from the north will be also hear to greet you and you will see so many Baltimore Orioles that might be tempted to (gasp!) think of them as trash birds.

It won’t be a white Christmas in Costa Rica but we certainly have an abundance of mistletoe and with luck, it will be fruiting and decorated with foraging Euphonias, Chlorophonias, and sparkling-plumaged tanagers.

Birding Costa Rica

Decoration number one: Scrub Euphonia


Decoration number two: Golden-browed Cholorphonia

Birding Costa Rica

Decoration number three: Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Christmas counts in Costa Rica are especially fun not only because the birding is downright heavenly, but also because they tend to be well organized, there are lots of local participants, you usually get a cool, birding tee-shirt at the end of the day, and most of all, you get the chance to bird some areas that would have been tough to access otherwise.

Family duties will keep me from participating in most of the counts, but I plan on making my way down to the Osa for the Bosque del Rio Tigre count (if I do, expect a post!), will probably do the Carara count, might get lucky enough to do the Veragua count, and especially hope to make it to the Maquenque count.

As far as I know, anyone can participate in the counts but you have to contact the respective count organizer to inquire about signing up (the following information can also be found at the website for the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica):

December 5th: Valle de Orosi/Tapantí: Contact: Marco Torres mt.montenegro@hotmail.com Tel: 8347-6098

December 8th: Veragua. Contact: Daniel Torres danieltorrescr@yahoo.com

December 17th: CATIE. Contact: Alejandra Martínez amartinez@catie.ac.cr

December 17th-19th: La Selva. Contact: Rodolfo Alvarado rodolfo.alvarado@ots.ac.cr;

Orlando Vargas orlando.vargas@ots.ac.cr;

Joel Alvarado  joel.alvarado@ots.ac.cr

December 21st: Teleféricos Atlántico (Rainforest Aerial Tram) Contact: cbc.cr@rainforestadventure.com Tel: 2257 5961, Ext 214

December 28th: Teleféricos Pacifico (Ranforest Aerial Tram Pacific) Contact: cbc.cr@rainforestadventure.com Tel: 2257 5961, Ext 214

December 28th: Carara: Contact: Johan Fernández johanbirdingcr@gmail.com

December 28th: Parque Nacional Santa Rosa Contact Frank Joyce fjoyce@racsa.co.cr; María Marta Chavarría
mmchava@acguanacaste.ac.cr

30th: Volcán Cacao Contact: Frank Joyce fjoyce@racsa.co.cr; María Marta Chavarría mmchava@acguanacaste.ac.cr

January 8th: Maquenque. Contact: Dan Schneider birdmandaniel@gmail.com

Note: some of these counts are associated with the Audubon Society and some aren’t but all follow the same rules for counting and count circle dimensions. Hope to see you at one or two of these!