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Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica Birding Update for June- Tapanti Birding, Yellow-bellied Seedeater in Central Valley, better access to Volcan Tenorio

Here is a hodgepodge of news items and updates related to birding in Costa Rica from this past month. They include things I have heard through the local birding grapevine, what I have noticed in local newspapers, and my own experiences:

Tapanti National Park birding on Monday– The Orosi Valley and Tapanti National Park were typically good for birding. I always like going to a place where I can get three saltator species in the same tree (what birder doesn’t?), hear the double toot call of Rufous-breasted Antthrush emanating from forested hillsides, and maybe even get a lifer or new addition to my Costa Rica list. You never know what will show up in the biodiverse forests of Tapanti but you always know that you are in for something good. Although I didn’t get my lifer White-fronted/ Zeledon’s/Rough-legged Tyrannulet nor add Lanceolated Monklet to my CR list, while guiding there yesterday, we got nice looks at a male White-winged Tanager, saw more than one Golden-bellied Flycatcher, enjoyed the antics of Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrants, and admired several Elegant Euphonias. The person I was guiding also caught a glimpse of a male Yellow-eared Toucanet on the Oropendola Trail (I have never seen this uncommon species at Tapanti!).

Costa Rica birding

We also saw a pair of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers coming to the ground to feed a hidden fledgling.

Since Tapanti doesn’t open until 8am (I know- what’s up with that?!?!), we started out around Cachi and made a few stops on the way to pick up brush-finches, saltators, White-lined Tanager, and other coffee plantation birds. Once we got to the park, sunny weather kept things a bit on the down low but we still did alright, and once it clouded over, the mixed flock activity picked up. Notable was the dearth of flowering plants which resulted in no hummingbirds! Well, there were a few, but except for Green Hermit, they were just unidentified flybys. A nice day overall in any case and we still managed 86 species.

On a side note, the marshy habitat around Cachi Lake looks promising. I’m not sure about access but will be investigating it to hopefully get Masked Duck- my neotropical nemesis bird!

Yellow-bellied Seedeater in the Central Valley– Someone found a pair of this south Pacific slope species near a town about 6 miles north of the airport. This might be the first record for the Central Valley and is actually not too far from my house so I might go look for it. Not sure how they ended up there but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were cagebirds that had escaped from their dismal prisons. You never know, they could still be wild birds, but since few to no other Yellow-bellied Seedeaters have been reported between there and areas near the Osa, I am inclined towards the escapee hypothesis. Oh yes there are caged birds in Costa Rica- I routinely hear several seedeaters, grassquits, and even Golden-browed Chlorophonia calling from a house not too far from mine. Every single one was taken from the wild-how I would love to free them.  Especially discouraging was recently seeing White-collared Seedeater and two Yellow-bellied Siskins in cages at a house near Cachi on Monday. Here we have a place where there are plenty of wild birds found right around the house and yet they had two species that have disappeared from many areas in Costa Rica due to the cagebird trade.

Better access road to Volcan Tenorio National Park- In today’s “La Nacion”, one of Costa Rica’s national newspapers, there was a brief news item that talked about the inauguration of a new access road to Volcan Tenorio. The road is called “Las Aguellas” and connects Bijagua to the national park. Bijagua already has a couple roads that head up that way so I don’t know if this is an existing road that has been improved, or a brand new one. Whatever it is, this is exciting news because Volcan Tenorio has some of the best birding in Costa Rica (think Heliconias Lodge). I know, you hear that now and then (and I am guilty of making that statement), but I can’t emphasize enough how good the birding is in that area. The recipe of dry, wet, lowland, and middle elevation along with a healthy dash of high quality forest makes Volcan Tenorio and Bijagua one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. Within a half hour drive of Bijagua,  you can get all 6 species of motmots, all 5 species of tinamous, at least 10 species of owls (maybe more), and tough birds such as hawk-eagles, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Sharpbill, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Scaled Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, and more. Yep, a good place to base yourself when birding Costa Rica. Needless to say, I am eager to check out the new road.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges central valley common birds

The Zamora Estate Hotel-an Oasis for Birds in the Central Valley of Costa Rica

The Central Valley of Costa Rica has this wonderful weather, nice mountain scenery, and rich volcanic soils. These factors have made such a good impression on so many for so long that 2 million people now call the Valle Central home. Unfortunately, this hasn’t left much space for the wetlands and moist forests that used to be found in this inter-volcanic depression (I doubt that’s a real term but it sounds about right). Sadly, the conversion to concrete of the few remaining patches of green space is still happening as the people population continues to slowly grow.

A lot of common birds have become decidedly uncommon in the greater San Jose area as even the Poro, Mango, and Avocado trees growing in backyards are cut down to make room for yet more apartments. While Crimson-fronted Parakeets have become adapted to nesting on buildings, most other birds of the Central Valley haven’t been so lucky. The lack of habitat for birds means that most people on birding trips to Costa Rica leave the over-urbanized Central Valley for other, more birdy places as soon as possible. After 6 or more hours in a plane, however, who wants to spend another two or three hours on winding mountain roads in a car, van, or bus? You need to take a break but how many places in the Central Valley are actually good for birding?

There are some choices for fairly birdy accommodation as you leave the San Jose area and ascend the slopes of the mountains on either side of the valley, but the best oasis that I have found for birding is at the Zamora Estate Hotel. I want you to note that I did not say the “Hotel Bougainvillea”. The Bougainvillea is frequently used by tours and because of this, many birders traveling on their own also opt to stay there. They hear about the nice gardens and it sounds like a reliable, quality choice for accommodation so they stay there instead of looking into other possibilities. While it is true that the Bougainvillea has gorgeous gardens, excellent service, and nice rooms, it’s not really that close to the airport and the birding is just as good in most Central Valley hotels graced with a garden. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stay there, just that if you want to stay at a similarly priced place that is far better for birds and closer to the airport, the Zamora Estate Hotel is a better choice.

The Zamora Estate is so good for birding because it is located on a sizable farm that has protected wetlands, woodlands, and fields for several generations. Located right in the heart of Santa Ana, it truly is a green oasis for everything from herons and egrets to Red-billed Pigeons and raptors. Accommodation comes in the form of private bungalows and excellent service provided by the Zamora family. Birding comes in the form of a few trails that pass through forest, a vineyard, and wetlands. Over 130 species have been recorded on their property including such goodies as Crested Bobwhite, Spectacled, Pacific Screech, and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls, Boat-billed Heron, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Crimson-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, Gartered (Violaceous) Trogon, Blue-diademed (crowned) Motmot, and Blue Grosbeak.

You can also eat breakfast on a balcony that overlooks one of their ponds and see such birds as

birding Costa Rica

Least Grebe- kind of local in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica birding

Ringed Kingfisher.

Boat-billed Herons- the Zamora Estate has to be one of the easiest places in the country to see this odd species.

Costa Rica birding

Social Flycatchers- a common edge species in much of Costa Rica.

Costa Rica birding

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker- the common woodpecker of the Central valley.

Costa Rica birding

Northern Jacana- always fun to watch this one!

Costa Rica birding

and Gray-necked Wood-Rails- on a recent birding club meeting, we were entertained by a pair of these scurrying back and forth.

The balcony was so good for photography that I could have stayed there all day taking pictures of birds and whatever else showed up like this caiman:

Costa Rica birding

The Zamora Estate isn’t a cheap place to stay but is more than adequately priced for what is offered. The owners should also be highly lauded for preserving some of the last wetlands in the Central Valley. I wouldn’t be surprised if more bird species are added to their list as more birders discover this place.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills caribbean slope lowlands

Good Costa Rica Birding at the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

What makes a hotel truly worthy of the “eco-lodge” title? How about one that is also an organic farm, protects primary rainforest, provides employment to locals, prefers guests who dig the natural world, and strives to be sustainable. In all of the above respects, the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge fits the bill perfectly. I was fortunate to be able to visit this gem of a spot with my wife and daughter over the past weekend and look forward to doing a lot more birding at this site in the future.

birding Costa Rica

They also have a nice ozonated pool.

I heard about and was invited to the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge by fellow guide and birding friend of mine, Juan Diego Vargas. Juan Diego spends much of his time looking for birds in Liberia but also guides in many areas of the country and helps out with a number of ornithological projects. One of these has been inventories of the birds at Luna Nueva (check out this link for the details). A few of the more interesting finds were White-fronted Nunbird, Green Thorntail, Black-crested Coquette, and even Great Green Macaw. The nunbirds appear to have a healthy resident population and are readily seen along a trail that accesses primary forest. The hummingbirds are probably seasonal but we had one female Black-crested Coquette over the weekend. The macaw is a very rare, seasonal visitor during October but the fact that it does show up reflects the healthy bird habitat on the farm.

Yes, the fact that the place is a working farm makes it all the more interesting and acts as a ray of sustainable hope in a world whose ecosystems are stressed by the needs of several billion people. Farm workers arrive in the morning and you will probably see a few while birding, but unlike farms that raise monocultures, you will also see lots of birds. At least I did while walking past a mix of cacao, ginger, medicinal herbs, chile peppers, scattered trees, and areas that were allowed to naturally recover. White-crowned Parrots were very common and filled the air with their screeching calls. Bright-rumped Attilas, three species of toucans, Black-throated Wrens, Barred Antshrikes, and other species of the humid Caribbean slope flitted through bushes and treetops while a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails ran along paths through the organic crops. The birding was definitely good in the farmed area of the lodge but I think the food was even better.

birding Costa Rica

I finally got a good shot of an atilla!

The Luna Nueva is a proponent of what they call, “slow food”. The apparent antithesis of hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and other quickly made, over-sugared, and fatty foods, slow food is all about the good taste that comes from using carefully groomed, high quality products. At least this was the impression I got after having eaten slow food at Luna Nueva over the course of the weekend. Everything they served was not only damn good, but it also left me feeling super healthy. Really, if you want to eat some of the healthiest, tastiest food in the country, eat at Luna Nueva.

Now back to the birds! Mornings started off with a fine dawn chorus of humid lowland edge and forest species. This means a medley of sound that included Laughing Falcons, Gray Hawk, toucans, the bouncing ball song of Black-striped Sparrow, Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, Barred Antshrikes, Cinnamon and White-winged Becard, Long-tailed Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, and others.

birding Costa Rica

We also enjoyed a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers that worked a snag in front of our family bungalow.

A few flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets sped overhead and Red-billed Pigeons flapped their way around scattered trees. As morning progressed, hummingbirds became more obvious as they zipped and chipped between patches of heliconias and Porterweed planted to attract them. Speaking of hummingbirds, Luna Nueva is an especially good site for those glittering avian delights. I had at least 8 species during my stay and I’m sure you could see more.

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A male Violet-headed Hummingbird was one of the eight species.

In the primary forest, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, Golden-crowned Spadebills, Great Tinamou, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds called from the understory while Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and a few Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers vocalized from the canopy. That latter species is not all that common in Costa Rica so it was good to record it (my first for 2011). Although some of the deep forest species are unfortunately lacking or rare because of poor connectivity with other, more extensive forest, you could use the lodge as a base to bird more intact forests around Arenal or the Manuel Brenes Reserve (both 20 minute drives).

I didn’t do any nocturnal birding but was awakened by the calls of  a Black and White Owl on my first night. The habitat is perfect for this species so you should probably see it without too much effort around the lodge buildings.

This was what the habitat looked like around the lodge buildings,

birding Costa Rica

this was what the primary rainforest looked like,

birding Costa Rica

and this was a view from the canopy tower.

birding Costa Rica

Oops, did I say canopy tower? It turns out that the Luna Nueva has had a canopy tower for years but the birding community didn’t know anything about it! The lodge has gone unnoticed and rather undiscovered because it was marketed to student groups and botanically slanted tours for most of its history. Birders, herpitologists, and other aficionados of our natural world should start showing up on a more regular basis once the word gets out about this place.

birding Costa Rica

Hognose Viper- one of the many reasons why herpitologists will like this place. Others are frog ponds that attract Red-eyed Tree Frogs and Cat-eyed Snakes, and a healthy herp population inside the forest.

From the tower, I mostly had common edge species but the looks were sweet as candied mangos and it should turn up some uncommon raptors, good views of parrots, and maybe even a cotinga or two at the right time of the year.

birding Costa Rica

A Blue-Gray Tanager from the tower.

birding Costa Rica

A Squirrel Cuckoo from the tower.

birding Costa Rica

A Yellow-crowned Euphonia in a fruiting Melastome at the base of the tower.

birding Costa Rica

A Common Tody-Flycatcher on the side of the road (they were pretty common and confiding- my kind of bird!).

The following is my bird list from our stay (115 species):

Great Tinamou

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Gray Hawk

Gray-headed Kite

Laughing Falcon

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Red-billed Pigeon

Ruddy Ground-Dove

White-tipped Dove

Gray-chested Dove

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Olive-throated Parakeet

Orange-chinned Parakeet

White-crowned Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Squirrel Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Black and white Owl

White-collared Swift

Long-billed Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Green-breasted Mango

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Black-crested Coquette

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Collared Aracari

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Smoky-brown Woodpecker

Rufous-winged Woodpecker

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Lineated Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Northern barred Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Barred Antshrike

Western Slaty Antshrike

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Yellow Tyrannulet

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-bellied Ealenia

Piratic Flycatcher

Yellow-olive Flycatcher

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Bright-rumped Atilla

Long-tailed Tyrant

Tropical Pewee

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird

Cinnamon Becard

White-winged Becard

Masked Tityra

White-collared Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Brown Jay

Gray-breasted Martin

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Stripe-breasted Wren

Bay Wren

Black-throated Wren

House Wren

White-breasted Wood Wren

Clay-colored Robin

Buff-rumped Warbler

Bananaquit

Red-throated Ant-Tanager

Olive (Carmiol’s) Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Palm Tanager

Blue Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Thick-billed Seed-Finch

Variable Seedeater

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Blue-black Grassquit

Orange-billed Sparrow

Black-striped Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Black-faced Grosbeak

Blue-black Grosbeak

Melodious Blackbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Yellow-billed Cacique

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Antswarms at Carara National Park on

This past Saturday, I spent most of the morning in the rainforests of Carara National Park. I usually visit this birdy protected area for guiding, but on Saturday, I cruised down the new highway to the hot coastal plain not to help birders see Turquoise-browed Motmots, Great Tinamous, Slate-headed Tody-Flycatchers, and Spot-crowned Euphonias, but to make recordings of their voices and digitally capture them. Well, at least that was the plan. The recordings were fairly productive but good photos were as elusive as sightings of the Selva Cacique.

The cloudy, humid weather in the already dim understory of the rainforest just couldn’t provide enough light for my digiscoping set-up no matter how much I fiddled with the camera. For unknown disappointing reasons, my camera also demonstrated its propensity to focus on sticks instead of birds even when the bird was smack dab in the center of the screen. I realize that the Sony Cybershot wasn’t developed for getting shots of birds, but it surely wasn’t designed to amass a photographic catalogue of twigs either. Oh well, I’m sure there’s a way to take better bird pictures with it, I just need to figure out how to do it.

Since the park doesn’t open until 8 a.m. during the low, rainy season, I started my birding day along the road to Bijagual. This is the same dirt road that passes in front of Villa Lapas and is always productive for birds. Although you don’t see species of the forest interior such as Great Tinamou and Black-faced Antthrush, views of the forest edge and hillsides are good for mixed flocks and raptors. On Saturday morning, I picked a spot that lacked stream noise and recorded such targets as Rufous and white wren1 and Northern Bentbill. Cocoa Woodcreeper and other species called in the distance as did Marbled Wood-Quail (species 527 for the year). There was also enough light for me to adequately capture Scrub Euphonia and Northern Bentbill.

birding Costa Rica

Scrub Euphonia- these guys are actually related to goldfinches.


Northern Bentbill- Carara is an excellent site for this species.

Once the clock “struck” 8, I headed over to the park entrance, paid my fee, and entered the forest. Shortly after, I realized that I had made a grave error in not bringing along some serious plastic melting DEET as I was assaulted by a healthy population of thirsty mosquitoes. Those little vampires are around during the dry season too but their numbers pale in comparison to what I experienced on Saturday. It’s still not as bad as any wet, summer woodland of the far north but be forewarned that you will need repellent in Carara during the wet season!

To avoid recording cars along with bird sounds, I walked straight back into the forest as far as the figure eight trail would go before setting up my LS10 recorder, Sennheiser microphone, and headphones. I walked through the forest with headphones on and it must have looked a bit strange, but if only those bemused non-birding tourists could hear what I did!  Black-faced Antthrushes were especially vocal, Plain Xenops bickered, Rufous Pihas occasionally called in the distance, and a Black-striped Woodcreeper sang from some canopy tree trunk. Long-tailed Woodcreeper also vocalized once in a while but I wasn’t able to capture its song (unfortunately as there are few recordings of this taxon that almost certainly deserves to be split from Amazonian Long-tailed Woodcreepers because it sounds radically different from them).

The back part of the trail also resulted in a neotropical prize- an army antswarm! I noticed the columns of ants crossing the trail but it wasn’t until I scanned the forest floor in the direction they were heading that I saw some birds. Two Black-faced Antthrushes were running back and forth in the front of the swarm and a handful of Bicolored Antbirds clung to vertical stems as they pumped their tails and quietly “churred” (new word describing the vocalizations that this and other related antbird species give). A pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds and Riverside Wrens were also taking advantage of the easy pickings but other birds such as woodcreepers, tinamous, Gray-headed Tanager, and Spectacled Antpitta were strangely absent.

So it is with antswarms. You will see some birds with the swarm but you often need to wait around and follow the front until other birds show up. Even if you don’t see much at first, it’s always worth it to follow the swarm if you can because in addition to the expected bunch of ant following birds, things like motmots, foliage-gleaners, and even forest-falcons will suddenly pop into view. Of course, you have to be in a position where you can follow the ants though, and on Saturday, as the nomadic predators marched off into thick second growth, I realized that this wasn’t one of those occasions.

Nevertheless, I still managed to get some grainy shots of:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Black-faced Antthrush,

birding Costa Rica

Bicolored Antbird,

birding Costa Rica

and Riverside Wren.

This was undoubtedly the highlight of the day but as usual when birding Carara, I still identified a bunch of other birds. The tally for the morning in the park and along Bijagual road was 94 species and included:

Great Tinamou

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Laughing Falcon

Gray Hawk

Marbled Wood-Quail

Short-billed Pigeon

Gray-chested Dove

White-tipped Dove

Inca Dove

Scarlet Macaw

Brown-hooded Parrot

Orange-chinned Parakeet

Squirrel Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Long-billed Hermit

Stripe-throated Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Charming Hummingbird

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Blue-throated Goldentail

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Blue-crowned Motmot

Turquoise-browed Motmot

White-whiskered Puffbird

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Golden-naped Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Long-tailed Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Black-hooded Antshrike

Barred Antshrike

Slaty Antwren

Dot-winged Antwren

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Bicolored Antbird

Black-faced Anthrush

Greenish Elaenia

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flyatcher

Yellow-Olive Flycatcher

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Royal Flycatcher

Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Piratic Flycatcher

Tropcial Kingbird

Rufous Piha

White-winged Becard

Rose-throated Becard

Long-tailed Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Tawny-crowned Greenlet

Gray-breasted Martin

Southern Rough-winged Swallow

Rufous-naped Wren

Riverside Wren

Rufous and white Wren

Rufous-breasted Wren

Scaly-breasted Wren

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Clay-colored Robin

Rufous-capped Warbler

Tropical Parula

Blue-gray Tanager

White-shouldered Tanager

Bay-headed Tanager

Red-crowned Ant-Tanager

Green Honeycreeper

Variable Seedeater

White-collared Seedeater

Blue-black Grassquit

Blue-Black Grosbeak

Orange-billed Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Bronzed Cowbird

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-throated Euphonia

Scrub Euphonia

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

Spot-crowned Euphonia