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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

An Average Morning of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

While birders in the northeastern USA were watching some exciting species thanks to Hurricane Irene, I had an average morning of birding in the agricultural landscape near my house in Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. I so wanted to join other birders looking for migrant Cerulean Warblers on the Caribbean slope but in being temporarily car-less (hopefully it will be repaired soon), my birding was limited to where my feet could take me. When this happens, about the only option available is an uphill walk to semi-shaded coffee plantations, grassy areas, and patchy woods. The habitat could be better but at least it’s green space!

Before leaving the house around 5:30am, I listened to the gentle dawn sky with cupped ears. I keep doing this with the hopes of picking up migrants I still need for 2011 like Upland Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-billed Cuckoo, Bobolink, and Dickcissel. Unlike those “seeping” “chipping” warblers, the flight calls of these and the thrushes make them readily identifiable. On August 28th, however, nothing was heard other than a Tropical Screech-Owl, Common Pauraque, and the usual barking dogs. I wasn’t all that surprised because it’s still early for migrants. If I listen for the faint sounds of nocturnal migrants every night and dawn until November, I should pick up a few new birds for 2011. What’s also nice is that I can stare at the night sky with hands cupping my ears from the privacy of my backyard and thus avoid being labeled as an alien or freakazoid by my neighbors.

On my way uphill (in much of Costa Rica, level areas are far and few between), I walked past fields on my left, and semi-shaded coffee on my right until reaching the stinky chicken farm at the top of the hill. At that point, I left the occasional traffic of the main road behind and was able to do more focused birding along a dirt road that passes through more semi-shaded coffee. This part of my morning birding circuit also tends to be the most productive thanks to a big fat fig tree, and a few other large trees with nice, snaggy branches. My “more focused birding” took the form of alternating a maelstrom of  spishing with pygmy-owl calls, and constant careful  investigation of the surrounding vegetation, distant tree tops, and a field of posts used for growing tomatoes. The results were funny looks from a guy guarding the tomato plants, occasional barking dogs, one or two Black and White Warblers, and a pewee species. Hence, as of Sunday, there wasn’t a whole lot of migrants making their way through the Central Valley of Costa Rica. It’s still early for migrants and I was entertained by other birds in any case, so I wasn’t all that disappointed.

To give an idea of what to expect when birding agricultural landscapes in the Central Valley, here is a list and numbers of the other species I identified during three hours of morning birding:

1. Crested Bobwhite (aka Spot-bellied Bobwhite)- One of two heard calling in the distance. Uncommon but they are around.

2. Turkey Vulture- A few perched on lamp posts.

3. Red-billed Pigeon- At least 8 of this common species. One was singing, others were flying around and sitting in various trees.

4. White-winged Dove- Probably 15 of this one. White-winged Doves in Costa Rica are kind of like Mourning Doves in North America, Spotted Doves in southeast Asia, and Collared Doves in Europe- common and adapted to human landscapes.

5. White-tipped Dove- One flyby and one heard. A common species of edge habitats in much of Costa Rica.

6. Crimson-fronted Parakeet- Just a few heard calling in the distance. I usually detect more of this common urban/suburban parakeet. They may be hanging out in the lowlands at this time of the year.

7. White-crowned Parrot- Just a few of these heard as well. Sometimes I see a flock of a dozen or so flying over the neighborhood, others days none.

8. Vaux’s Swift- Had one or two of these resident swifts flying around. There aren’t very common but you usually see one or two here and there.

9. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- At least 6 of this most common himmingbird.

10. Blue-crowned Motmot (yes, it’s still called “Blue-crowned” according to the AOU)- Dawn is a good time to see this shade loving bird. I had at least 3 on Sunday.

11. Hoffmann’s Woodpecker- 4 of this Central Valley woodpecker.

12. Mountain Elaenia- I was hoping to record the vocalizations of Yellow-bellied Elaenia but didn’t hear or see that common species. Instead, I saw one Mountain Elaenia feeding on figs. These are much more common at higher elevations.

13. Boat-billed Flycatcher- One calling bird at dawn and one lingering at the edge of a gang of Great Kiskadees.

14. Great Kiskadee- at least 6, most of them in a gang of loudly calling birds that were feeding on fruits in a low bush.

15. Social Flycatcher- Just two of this common, dainty kiskadee-like species.

16. Sulphur-bellied Flyatcher- One heard in the morning. These will be leaving town any day now (yes, the ones that live in Costa Rica are also migrants).

17. Tropical Kingbird- At least 10 of this super common species.

18. Yellow-green Vireo- I kept trying to turn two of these residents into migrant warblers. Like the S.F. Fly., these birds are also going to inexplicably fly south pretty soon.

19. Brown Jay- One seen and one heard. I sometimes get a flock of a dozen.

20. Blue and white Swallow- 8 of this most common swallow were flying around.

21. House Wren- 4 scolded from the undergrowth.

22. Plain Wren- At least a dozen of this common coffee plantation species sang and skulked in thick vegetation.

23. Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush- Just one of this coffee plantation bird was singing.

24. Clay-colored Thrush- 6 of Costa Rica’s national bird.

25. Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one sang from a grassy field.

26. Rufous-capped Warbler- Spishing brought in several of this common species. I probably had 10 in total.

27. Flame-colored Tanager- Two of this beautiful bird were seen.

28. Blue-gray Tanager- At least 8 of this common bird.

29. White-eared Ground-Sparrow- A pair were heard giving their cascading vocalization and one was seen.

30. Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow- This uncommon species was the star of the day. One was seen and two were heard giving their high pitched calls.

31. Rufous-collared Sparrow- Probably 20 of this super common bird.

32. Grayish Saltator- At least 8 were heard and seen.

33. Buff-throated Saltator- Just 2.

34. Melodious Blackbird- 6 of this common bird were heard and seen.

35. Eastern Meadowlark- One was heard singing a lot like birds from western New York.

36. Great-tailed Grackle- Just 5 of this common bird.

37. Elegant Euphonia- I was surprised to hear two of these pretty birds calling from a treetop.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Common Highland Species to Know When Birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a pretty mountainous place. When I glance out the window of our second story home, I can see the Cordillera Central off to my left, the hulking Irazu Volcano in front, and the ranges of the Talamancan and Escazu Mountains off to my right. Having grown up in non-mountainous Niagara Falls, New York, I always get a kick out of that windowpane scene but it’s much better to actually head up into those higher elevations. There’s birds up in them there hills (extinct and active volcanoes actually) and a lot of them are endemic to the highlands of Costa Rica and western Panama. There are also wide ranging neotropical species that inhabit those mountains but, by default, they usually play second string to endemics that don’t occur beyond a two hundred mile or so radius.

As far as highland birds to become familiar with before a birding trip to Costa Rica, here are a handful of some common, cool birds that you will probably see. Not all of them are endemics but as one of my high school pals used to say, “That’s the way the ball bounces”:

1. Common Bush Tanager– It’s not exactly exciting but you will surely see them when birding any middle elevation forests in Costa Rica so it’s a good bird to know. This is a widespread bird species but with so many subspecies, who knows, maybe they will all get split some day. Also, unless you are looking at a quetzal or antpitta, don’t just shrug Common Bush-Tanagers off because unlike most other Costa Rican birds, these chunky little dudes respond to spishing. They often come in to check out that odd shushing noise and can attract other birds if they really start to chatter in response. Things like wood-wrens, brush-finches, warblers, thrushes, and even treehunters can suddenly pop into view.

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The ever common Common Bush-Tanager.

2. Purple-throated Mountain-Gem– Unlike the bush-tanager, this one is an endemic to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It’s pretty easy to see in any cloud forest and is a smart looking little bird. Like most hummingbirds, they love feeders so you will see them there. You should also see them in most highland forest and edge habitats. Watch for that white line on the face kind of like a White-eared Hummingbird.

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A frontal view of a male Purple-throated Mountain Gem.

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A side view of a male showing that face stripe.

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The females are pretty smart looking too.

3. Ruddy Treerunner– These common, highland birds creep rather than run up trees. They usually go with mixed flocks and are pretty easy to identify with their rufous back and white eyebrow.

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Not what you would call a stellar photo of a Ruddy Treerunner but at least it realistically shows how they are often seen.

4. Spot-crowned Woodcreeper– This is the most common woodcreeper of highland forests above 2,000 meters and in many montane sites, is the only woodcreeper. You will see them both with and away from mixed flocks.

birding Costa Rica

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the default high elevation woodcreeper when birding Costa Rica.

5. Mountain Elaenia– This is a super common flycatcher anywhere in the mountains that loves edge habitats so be ready to see lots of them. If you spot a confusing, Empid-like flycatcher in the highlands, it’s probably this bird. Note the short bill, eye ring, and whitish edging to the tertials.

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A Mountain Elaenia doing its usual thing of pretending to be a flycatcher from another genus.

6. Ochraceous Wren– These tiny Winter-Wrenish birds are super common in montane forests of Costa Rica (and a good thing too because you can only see them there and in western Panama). However, unless you know the vocalizations, they get overlooked due to their canopy skulking prowess. Ok, so maybe they aren’t canopy skulkers on purpose but their tendency to hang out in the mossy, epiphytic realm of highland treetops can make them pretty hard to see.

birding Costa Rica

As you can see from this insipid image, I still haven’t been able to get a good photo of an Ochraceous Wren.

7. Flame-colored Tanager– You may have added this pretty bird to your ABA list in Arizona, or seen lots in the highland conifers of Mexico. Come to Costa Rica and you will also run across them at just about any montane site in the Central and Talamancan Mountains.

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8. Spangle-cheeked Tanager– Another common tanager of montane forests, this one is a glittering regional endemic. They sometimes troop around in large flocks, occasional bits of iridescence shining in the misty forest.

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A Spangle-cheeked Tanager from Tapanti National Park.

9. Slaty Flowerpiercer– This is another super common small bird of the Costa Rican highlands. It’s hyperactive as a a Kindergarten class let loose in the Wonka factory but you will get looks at them by hanging around flowering bushes. I finally got an Ok shot of a singing male at Volcan Barva.

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Check out the crazy bill of this Slaty Flowerpiercer. It looks like a hefty bird in this image but trust me, these things are dainty.

10. Mountain Robin– It’s hard to get duller looking than this but they are really common in the Costa Rican highlands so they are good to know.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills Hummingbirds middle elevations

Birding El Copal Biological Reserve, Costa Rica in August

El Copal is this rather remote, community owned and run reserve situated between Tapanti National Park and Amistad International Park. Biogeographically speaking, it is located on the Caribbean slope of the Talamancan Mountains in the foothill/middle elevation zone. Birdingly speaking, this means that you are always in for one heck of an avian ride when visiting El Copal.

I guided a recent Birding Club of Costa Rica trip to El Copal this past weekend and although the ever elusive Lovely Cotinga failed to show, we still had some pretty awesome birding. Yes, our goal was actually Lovely Cotinga as mid-August is when a few have historically showed up at El Copal to feed on fruiting Melastomes in front of the lodge. I suspect that diligent birding could turn them up at other times of the year as well but despite scanning the forest canopy several times a day, we didn’t see any cotingas.  Since this species appears to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica (and should be considered locally endangered in my opinion) , that was no big surprise.

We were, however, intrigued by the shortage of hummingbird species. Quality was there in the form of ever present Snowcaps and Violet-headed Hummingbirds, but where were the other 10 species that buzzed the Porterweed in May, 2010? At that time, Green Thorntail was the most common hummingbird. On this trip, it didn’t even make the list.  The dearth of hummingbirds was testament to the fact that many hummingbird species in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) make lots of movements or short migrations in search of their favorite  flowers.

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Male Snowcap (now that’s some serious quality).

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Male Violet-headed Hummingbird (it gets a quality sticker too).

While the cotingas didn’t show up to feast on Melastome fruits, the tanagers sure did. Among the 18 species that highlighted the trees in front of the lodge with their glittering plumage were such highlights as Blue and Gold, Emerald, Black and Yellow, and Speckled Tanagers. Scarlet-thighed Dacnis were pretty common and I have never been any place in Costa Rica where it was so easy to see White-vented Euphonia. We must have had six of this uncommon species hanging out right at the lodge.

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A bad picture of two White-vented Euphonias. Find them if you can!

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A back view of a male Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Accompanying the tanagers were Scarlet-rumped Caciques, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Spotted Woodcreeper, several Tropical Parulas and Bananaquits, and Band-backed Wrens. The forest edge near the lodge was also good for Golden-olive Woodpecker, both oropendolas, Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari, and held a pair of Spectacled Owls at night. Beto, one of the gracious owners of the lodge, also told us about the Mottled Owls that make regular appearances at the lodge.

The birds mentioned above made for some fantastic, busy birding from the balcony. It was also a great place to watch the huge flocks of White-collared Swifts the flew over in the evening and to watch for raptors. Regarding hawks and other sharply clawed birds, we were surprised to see so few raptors when so many showed up on our previous trip to this site. The only raptors we had other than vultures were one Short-tailed Hawk, a few Swallow-tailed Kites, a couple of heard only Barred Forest-Falcons, Bat Falcon, and one distant, immature Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

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The balcony at El Copal.

Inside the forest, the cloudy, partly rainy weather boosted the bird activity to new heights. Saturday had a good number of mixed flocks, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, and calling Tawny-chested Flycatcher, but Sunday was downright amazing. We took the upper trail and the bird activity was just about non-stop from 6 to 8am. Big mixed flocks accompanied us along the trail that were dominated by Carmiol’s Tanagers and held rarities such as Rufous-browed Tyrannulets, Black and White Becard, and even one Sharpbill (seen by just one person in the group). We also got onto a few Ashy-throated Bush-Tanagers, Slaty-capped and Olive-striped Flycatchers, Russet Antshrike, White-winged Tanager, and Plain Xenops in addition to most of the tanager species seen at the lodge. I suppose our other best forest birds were singing Black-headed Antthrush and one flushed Chiriqui Quail-Dove.

Not counting the Torrent Tyrannulet, Tawny-crested Tanagers, and Sunbittern and dozen or so open country species seen on the way to and from the lodge, we got 125 species in total. This was a pretty good total considering that most were forest birds. Making arrangements to stay at El Copal was a bit confusing at times, and the directions to the place posted at the ACTUAR site should be more specific but the rest of the trip went  as smooth as chocolate silk pie. Our hosts from the community were friendly, gracious, and very accommodating (5 am coffee). The lodge is still quite rustic with basic beds and cold showers (yikes!) but they may have solar water heaters for our next visit. The community is looking for and open to accepting funds to put in a solar water heater (all electricity there is solar in nature) and could also use other things like extra binoculars, field guides, and a green laser pointer (works wonders for pointing out birds in the forest). If interested in making a donation to El Copal, please contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to put you in touch with the owners.

Also, here are more specific directions to the place:

When you get to Paraiso, stay on the main road past the park and go straight rather than following signs to Turrialba. You will descend through coffee plantations down to Cachi dam. From there, follow signs to Tuccurrique and Pejibaye. In Pejibaye, go around the soccer field (football pitch) and head to the right. Stay on that road and watch for a sign to El Copal that tells you to make a sharp left over a bridge that crosses a small river. Follow that road and stay to the left where the road forks. Keep following it (fair birding along the way) and watch for a sign that shows the entrance to El Copal on the left.

Keep in mind that you can’t just show up to go birding because the place isn’t always open. Also, make reservations through Actuar to stay overnight because day trips seem to only be possible by taking a super expensive birding tour. Even if you don’t go to El Copal, though, you could still see a lot of good birds in forest patches along the road (rocky but doable even without four-wheel drive until just past El Copal).

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations

Digiscoping Birds When Birding Costa Rica- Always Challenging

All the bird pictures on this blog are digiscoped. What “rig” do I use you ask? Well, my scope is a 65mm Swarovski, I presently use a Sony Cybershot, and my adapter is about as “old skool” as you can get. Instead of some wonderfully designed device that steadfastly cradles and aligns the camera to the viewport of the telescope, my adapter is a plastic ring that was carefully cut from a small plastic Coke bottle and covered with duct tape. The plastic ring keeps my camera at just the right distance from the scope while the duct tape blocks out lateral light. All of my shots have vignetting but I just crop that surrounding darkness away with Window Photo Gallery.

It’s the cheap and easy solution to getting close shots of birds but that doesn’t mean that I get good shots all of the time. In fact, I hardly ever get good shots unless the bird poses for long periods in perfect lighting (and probably explains why I have so many nice images of Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees). Digiscoping in Costa Rica is downright challenging. I bet it’s not exactly a piece of cake in other places, but I suspect that it’s a lot more difficult in the land of low light, humid conditions, and dense vegetation. Not all of the sites nor habitats in Costa Rica are so difficult for photography but enough of the country is to make digiscoping seriously challenging.

Take yesterday for example. After pondering where to go for some Sunday birding, I settled on Volcan Barava due to its proximity to the house and the desire to digitally capture a variety of highland bird species. I kind of wanted to go to Cerro de la Muerte but didn’t feel like driving two and a half hours to get there so I settled on Volcan Barva. Despite this highland site being so close to the house (it’s maybe 12 ks), I don’t go up there that often because part of the road is in horrible shape. The habitat is mostly cut over until you get pretty close to the park but you can see a fair number of bird species in remnant riparian corridors. In the park itself (the highland section of Braulio Carrillo), there are trails through beautiful montane rainforest that hold the expected assortment of bird species.

My plan was to focus on getting recordings and photos of species that live in the higher elevation and not in the riparian corridors so I drove up to the park entrance first thing in the morning and waited for the birds. Most species have stopped singing at this time of year so I didn’t record all that much (a Slaty Flowerpiercer or two and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers), but bird activity was fair. Yellow-thighed Finches foraged in the thick undergrowth, Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens scolded from the dense understory, and Ochraceous Wrens called from the mossy canopy of old growth oaks. I seriously tried for pictures of these three species but was consistently foiled by a an impressive multitude of sticks, branches, and leaves. No matter what angle I tried, I just could not get a picture of those birds in the open. The only luck I had was with a single female flowerpiercer that hung out in some bare twigs long enough for me to snap off one shot and that was with a truly impressive, light-headed producing blast of spishing and Costa Rican Pgymy-Owl calls.

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The one, lucky female flowerpiercer.

I also managed to get two shots of Flame-throated Warbler but one of those was faceless and the other as grainy as cheap camera footage from the 1970s:

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A faceless Flame-throated Warbler.

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The seventies version.

Once the park opened, I walked along the main road with the hope that the better lighting at the edge of the forest would result in success. I did hit one or two mixed flocks and the light was suitable enough for my digiscoping set-up, but the dense vegetation and hyperactive nature of the birds still denied me photos of Ruddy Treerunners, Black-cheeked Warblers, Yellow-thighed Finches, Large-footed Finches, and even one singing Zeledonia. More spishing and pygmy-owl calling eventually resulted in the other two images of the day:

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Female Volcano Hummingbird and

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Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

Unlike warblers, treerunners, and other small insectivores, hummingbirds often sit still long enough for photos. Another reason why they are easier to photograph is because even if they rush away before you can snap off a sequence of shots, these glittering sprites usually come back to the same perch. Since most other birds in Costa Rica aren’t so friendly to the photographer, though, a combination of patience, playback, and a sweet SLR with its own 400mm lens instead of a spotting scope are what you really need for major bird photography. Oh what I could do with better equipment! Until that day arrives, I will just have to be stealthier, as patient as a sleeping volcano, and use more playback.

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big year Birding Costa Rica central valley

Hook-billed Kite Makes Bird 533 for 2011!

August is already here and I am pretty sure I heard the call note of a Yellow Warbler this morning. Oh yes, bring on the migrants and have them fly over Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. We have some quality habitat right next door at the Finca Rosa Blanca Boutique Hotel and in remnant moist forest near the Hotel Catalina. After getting in some R and R in those places, they can head on over to Braulio Carrillo National Park and the rainforests of the Talamanca Mountains. I just hope that any rare migrants will let me see or hear them so they can make it onto my illustrious 2011 list. A bunch of migrants and concerted efforts to get “seeable” species missing from this year’s list should help me reach 600 species by December 31st.

I got one of those seeable, unpredictable species today in the form of a Hook-billed Kite. Bird number 533 happened to be soaring above the road as I was driving home from my daughter’s daycare (she calls it, “escuela de Miranda”). Noticing that the soaring bird wasn’t a vulture or Short-tailed Hawk (the expected soaring raptors around here), I kept an eye on it until it banked and confirmed my suspicions with its longish barred tail, smallish head, and broad, “paddle-shaped” wings. I really don’t know if that’s the best description of their wings but I guess it works. You might also say that their primaries look “rounded” or “hand-like”. Whatever. Suffice to say that the shape is so distinct that it can’t be confused with anything else in range.

As testament to the unpredictable nature and uncommon status of Hook-billed Kites in Costa Rica, this was my first in that area despite having driven along the road between San Joaquin and Santa Barbara dozens of times. However, it doesn’t surprise me that I hadn’t seen it before, nor do I find it all that surprising that one showed up where it did. I admit that sounds like some ditty from Alice in Wonderland but before you accuse me of drinking tea with Mad Hatters, allow me to explain:

  • Tropical habitats are so rife with species occurring at naturally low densities that predicting where and when they will show up becomes a rather unpredictable guessing game. When the habitat looks perfect for so and so species, there’s a good chance it’s somewhere out there but that doesn’t mean you are going to see it within an hour’s time or even that same day. It might be on the other side of its territory or just staying out of sight. Even if you know where and how to look for the bird, you might have to rely on probability eventually playing out in your favor by hanging out in one spot until it shows up. So, I’m not surprised that I hadn’t seen Hook-billed Kite where I did because I only spend a fraction of time there each day as I drive past.
  • The habitat looked good for Hook-billed Kite. I wasn’t overly surprised that one of these snail-eating raptors did show up because of where I saw it. In Costa Rica, Hook-billed Kites seem to be most common in middle elevation moist forests on the Pacific Slope (such as near Santa Elena of Monteverde fame, riparian areas in Guanacaste, and forests in the Central Valley), and bird number 533 for 2011 was soaring near a sizeable patch of such forest that also happens to be connected to a riparian corridor.

I wasn’t so sure about getting that one for the year so I’m pretty happy that it decided to take to the air on morning thermals. I wonder which species will be next?