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Birding Costa Rica

Two Months and 20 Species to hit 600 for the Year

Today is Halloween. The date conjures up images of jack-o-lanterns, trick or treaters, masquerades, and horror movie marathons. On the natural side of things, for those who reside in the temperate zone, the dark, cold winds of the early night and arrival of wintering waterfowl are reminders that freezing weather is right around the corner. It’s already here for millions of people from the northeastern states and winter’s imminent return is guaranteed for places that happened to escape the early snowstorm. I will happily miss that cold weather because the icy fingers of winter fall far short of Costa Rica. Nevertheless, I am still reminded that the year is quickly coming to an end. Just two more months and we are going to march right on into 2012 and the terminus of the Mayan calendar. In realizing that calendars are subjective, I’m not the least bit worried about that supposedly auspicious year. I am far more concerned about things like overpopulation, the health and well being of family and friends, and identifying 600 bird species within the boundaries of Costa Rica before the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, 2011.

I thought I was going to break that magic number in 2010 by merit of my one and only Costa Rican pelagic trip but I just didn’t have the time to track down my missing species. At the end of the year, I was 12 birds short of my goal and realized that I had to plan this out much better for 2011. Not that I did, but I have definitely put in more targeted effort to increase my chances of hitting the big 600. I have tried to get to places that yield new year birds and spent more time in the field during migration and it has paid off.  With just 20 species to go, I feel as confident as a Turkey Vulture riding a swift tail wind south on a sunny, thermal-filled day. However, this doesn’t mean that I can be complacent. Au contraire, I am well aware of the speedy calendar flipping effect that comes from the time devouring combination of family duties and work (I think that’s what happened last year when the end of December suddenly appeared in an unwelcome flash). I still need to carefully plan out my moves to increase my chances of getting those missing birds. At the end of the day, no matter how skilled you are, it comes down to probability and I am going to up the odds by putting myself in the right places.

For example, with luck, we will do another family trip to Guanacaste, maybe even next weekend (!). If it doesn’t rain too much (there’s always that monkey wrench), I have a good chance at picking up 6 or even 10 species. If I can get to some quality wetlands, I might add another 5 or so. The jackpot, though, is way down in the southern zone. This is what we like to call the area from Perez Zeledon and Dominical south to the Osa, San Vito, and the Panamanian border. If I make it down there, I have a very good chance at 10 species or more. Add short trips to pick up uncommon species I still need such as Snowy Cotinga, Yellow-eared Toucanet (huge miss!), Scaled Antpitta, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, Barred Parakeet, and Ochraceous Pewee, and I have a very good chance of breaking the 600 mark.

Twenty of this year’s highlights have been:

1. Agami Heron- New CR bird for me and a major tick for the year. Laguna del Lagarto is the place to be for this bird!

2. Northern Harrier– I know, how can that be a highlight? Well, it’s a lot more uncommon in Costa Rica than say an Ornate Hawk Eagle (several of those for the year).

3. Semiplumbeous Hawk– Also at Laguna del Lagarto and a good one for the year.

Birding Costa Rica

Mystery shot of a Semiplumbeous Hawk.

4. Uniform Crake– Like all of those rallids, they love to be secretive so it was great to hear a pair at Finca Luna Nueva.

5. Upland Sandpiper– Standing in the backyard at 4am was worth hearing two of these call as they flew over in September!

6. Red-fronted Parrotlet– I still haven’t adequately seen the darn thing but I definitely heard one as it flew through the misty air near Cinchona.

7. Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner– Very pleased to get this uncommon species on the San Rafael de Varablanca- Virgen del Socorro road.

birding Costa Rica

8. Ochre-breasted Antpitta– Possibly my best bird of the year because it was such a long awaited lifer.

9. Rough-legged Tyrannulet– Unseen but certainly heard near El Toucanet and Cinchona.

10. Tawny-chested Flycatcher– Good to get this one at El Copal. Soooo uncommon.

11. Black and white Becard– Also heard this uncommon species at El Toucanet and saw a female at Quebrada Gonzalez.

12. Silvery-throated Jay– Another major tick near El Toucanet.

13. Gray-cheeked Thrush– It pays to listen for nocturnal migrants!

14. Tropical Mockingbird– Nice surprise on the slopes of Irazu.

15. MacGillivray’s Warbler– They are around but never really common.

birding Costa Rica

16. Blue Seedeater– Excellent find in seeding bamboo on Volcan Barva.

17. Dickcissel– The invisible bird. I have heard maybe 10 as flyovers but none have stopped.

18. Bobolink– Super rare bird in Costa Rica, it was exactly where I expected it to be- in a rice field in the Caribbean lowlands.

19. Yellow-bellied Siskin– Not unexpected in the Talamancas but a nice highlight anyways.

birding Costa Rica

20. Black-crowned Antpitta– The “northern gnatpitta” is always a highlight albeit expected over the course of several visits to Quebrada Gonzalez.

Another bonus of re-checking my year list was the realization that I broke 700 species for my Costa Rican list! Unfortunately, I missed celebrating the occasion because I had somehow overlooked ticking off heard birds like Paint-billed Crake and Spotted Rail, and things I had seen in the past such as Pied-billed Grebe and Marbled Godwit. However, I am happy to say that I was able to count back and uncover the identity of my 700th bird for Costa Rica. It happens to be none other than my lifer Ochre-breasted Antpitta seen at Tapanti National Park. Thank goodness it wasn’t a Wilson’s Snipe (I think that was #698)

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Birding Costa Rica

How to See 20 Raptor Species in One Weekend of Birding in Costa Rica

One of the major laments of birders who visit Costa Rica is the apparent lack of raptors. Accustomed to the wealth of fierce, sharp-taloned birds that soar above and dominate telephone posts along country roads in Europe or North America, they expect to have the same easy experiences with raptors in Costa Rica. Since the high number of raptor species depicted in field guides for Costa Rica tends to strengthen such expectations, some birders feel let down after seeing so few birds of prey. Vultures excluded, raptors seem to be far and few between and this typically becomes a reality that is difficult to accept.

Birders used to the raptor crazy plains of Africa are especially perplexed at the apparent dearth of hawks, eagles, and falcons and often say things like, “If this were Africa, we would see raptors in that open area over there. Why not in Costa Rica?” I dealt with such perceptions in a previous post but if you don’t feel like clicking on that link, in short, you don’t see raptors as much as you do on the plains of Africa because like most bird species in Costa Rica, the birds of prey in Tiquicia are mostly adapted to forest. Most have yet to become adapted to living in open areas so we don’t see so many in open habitats. The other factor in this equation is related to high alpha diversity whereby there may be a couple dozen raptor species in a given area but there are fewer numbers of each species. So, you can’t expect to see very many raptors when birding Costa Rica. That doesn’t mean you won’t see them though. Spend two weeks birding Costa Rica in various habitats with a knowledgeable guide and you could see 20 species. In fact, over the past weekend, I discovered that you can see 20 species of raptors (or more!) in just a few days if you bird the right places at the right time of the year!

To rack up a healthy assortment of hawks, falcons, eagles, and other avian raptorial creatures, drive through different habitats on your way to some nice lowland forest and do it during the peak of raptor migration. This is what myself and three other birders did during a recent birding club trip to Tortuguero National Park and could hardly believe it when we recorded 16 species of raptors in just one day without even trying. If we had actually tried for specific species, we probably would have seen a few more!

The first leg of our trip took us through Braulio Carrillo National Park but constant rain kept us from seeing any birds whatsoever. Otherwise, we might have gotten White Hawk or something else along the way. Nevertheless, once the rain stopped and we were on our merry way to the jumping off point for Tortuguero in the northern Caribbean lowlands, we started seeing raptors bit by bit. Our first were common, open country species such as White-tailed Kite, Gray Hawk, Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, and Crested Caracara. Somewhere in there we also saw Broad-winged Hawk,  the most common wintering raptor in Costa Rica. These were pretty much par for the course so we didn’t think much of it.

Birds that did get our attention were less common (but not unexpected) Bat and Laughing Falcons. We got these as we made our way through partly deforested areas north of Cariari but still didn’t start counting the numbers of raptor species we had seen. That changed once we got a perched King Vulture soon after the boat left the dock on the Rio Suerte at La Pavona. Somehow, that big, fancy scavenger woke us up to the fact that we had already seen a bunch of raptors without even trying and it wasn’t even noon.

As the boat sped downriver towards Tortuguero and approached the coast, we began to notice more and more birds headed in the same direction. Most were Chimney Swifts and swallows that sped south on determined, speedy wings. They were cool to watch for sure but they became steadily overshadowed by a growing stream of Turkey Vultures, Mississippi Kites, and swarming kettles of Broad-winged Hawks. Upon arrival at the Casa Marbella, we set up the scope on the dock and leisurely watched some of the best raptor migration I have ever seen in Costa Rica. There were thousands of birds moving south in a continuous line and forming massive kettles. A look through the scope revealed occasional Swainson’s Hawks and our one and only Red-tailed Hawk of the trip. Several Peregrine Falcons zipped on past, we had at least three Merlins, and Ospreys patrolled the waterways. After an hour or two of constant raptor action, we worked the buggy vegetation on the coast for smaller migrants. While getting my year Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Gray Catbird, and a few other species, we managed Common Black Hawk for our final and 16th species for the day.

On Saturday, rare, sunny weather at Tortuguero probably kept us from seeing many of the local specialties but at least the raptor migration was spectacular! We didn’t add any new raptors but saw or heard 11 species that we had already seen on Friday. On Sunday, scoped views of more migrating kettles revealed one Northern Harrier (excellent year bird!) and we got onto a Roadside Hawk on the drive back through Cariari. With a total of 18 species since Friday, hitting 20 was looking very feasible. We could still get Short-tailed Hawk, White Hawk or even something much more rare on our drive through middle elevation forests near Cinchona. The rare bird and number 19 came in the form of an Ornate Hawk-Eagle seen a few kilometers south of Chilamate. This was at a restaurant called, “Rancho Magallanes”. Even if we hadn’t seen the hawk-eagle, I would still highly recommend this place. The food was great, service excellent, and the prices reasonable. The menu translations are kind of funny and strange but don’t worry, the place is great. Although we didn’t see Sunbittern or Fasciated Tiger-Heron, those probably show up on the rocky river behind the restaurant and some good birds probably also turn up in nearby patches of forest.

The way we saw the hawk-eagle was about as uncanny as you can get. While looking for birds in the parking lot with Robert Dean (the guy who illustrated the field guide and a friend of mine), he was telling me about the time when he and another friend of ours, Eduardo Amengual, saw an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle perched in a tree just on the side of the road at this same spot. While marveling at their luck and expecting that to have been a freak occurrence, Robert says, “Look! There’s something big in a tree by the river! I think it might be an Ornate Hawk-Eagle!”

We put the scope on it and sure enough, it was an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle! Freak occurrence in the same spot twice? I doubt it. A more likely scenario is that a pair has a territory in that area. Although you would have to be lucky to see them, I know I will be checking any time I pass through that area.

With that Ornate Hawk-Eagle bolstering our hopes, we were surely going to get our 20th species. After all, the road between San Miguel and Varablanca is quite reliable for White Hawk and could also turn up other species. As we made our way uphill, though, the clouds opened up and the rain poured on down. Despite a valiant attempt on my part to turn a very light-colored Cecropia leaf into a White Hawk, we didn’t get our 20th species. However, I’m pretty sure we would have if it hadn’t been raining because other people in the car glimpsed a perched raptor that could have been a Great Black Hawk or even a Solitary Eagle. The fact that we didn’t turn around and go back for it should give an indication of how intense the rain was and how difficult it can be to turn around on mountain roads in Costa Rica.

The experience of the past weekend gives me incentive to try for a 20 plus raptor day in Costa Rica. As long as it isn’t raining, this would be my route and my targets:

1. Drive through Braulio Carrillo and spend the morning at Quebrada Gonzalez and El Tapir to try for:

White-tailed Kite in the Central Valley, 3 vultures, a hawk eagle or two, hopefully Double-toothed Kite, Barred Hawk, and Bat Falcon.

2. Take a left towards Sarapiqui and pick up migrating raptors- Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Mississippi Kite, Osprey, maybe a Harrier, Hook-billed Kite, Sharpie, or Coop. Also a chance for Crested Caracara, Gray Hawk, Roadside Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, Laughing Falcon, and other rainforest raptors. Might also get Short-tailed Hawk.

3. Eat lunch at the Rancho Magallanes to keep looking for raptors.

4. Head uphill through Cinchona and Varablanca for White Hawk, another chance at Barred Hawk, maybe Great Black Hawk or even Solitary Eagle, and Red-tailed Hawk at the top of the hill.

Migration will be key though so I won’t be trying any big raptor days until Spring.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Tips for Driving when Birding in Costa Rica

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to drive in Costa Rica? What it looks like to drive along mountain roads on your way to seriously exciting birding sites like Cerro de la Muerte, Irazu Volcano, and Braulio Carrillo National Park? Well, if you live and drive in North America or Europe, it’s not going to be like home. It’s different but if you know how to drive defensively or in heavy, urban traffic it’s not so different that you can’t do it.

Renting a vehicle in Costa Rica has its ups and downs. The obvious benefit is that you can go birding in a lot more places at optimal times. Want to leave San Jose at 3 am to look for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl on Irazu? Want to survey the high elevations of the entire Providencia Road? How about exploring unbirded foothill forests near Dominical or checking out Palo Verde? You can do all of this and more with a rental car. It brings you a certain degree of freedom and comfort that public transportation will never provide.

This all comes at a cost though and it’s not just money that I’m referring to. Much of the driving isn’t quite so relaxing as cruising around Main Street back at home or calmly speeding down a well-lit four lane highway with wide shoulders. To give you an idea of what to expect when driving in Costa Rica, read and heed the following tips and advice:

  • Central Valley traffic: You may have noticed that I often refer to this part of Costa Rica as being “over-urbanized”. I say this so frequently to give visitors a heads up about the greater San Jose area. Costa Rica’s small size and mountainous topography don’t allow for much elbow room in the Central Valley. This is where at least half of everyone in Costa Rica resides and the result is a veritable labyrinth of asphalt and concrete. If you need to drive through the San Jose area, Heredia, or Alajuela, do so before 5 am or get ready to spend a lot of your precious birding time in traffic. You might see some flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets fly over or perched on the buildings but won’t see much more than common, widespread species.
  • Navigation: Forget about a map, rent that GPS. You can eventually find your way with a street map but since signs are commonly absent or misleading, it’s easiest to just follow what the GPS device says. Outside of urban areas, it’s pretty easy to get to your destination but if you need to drive through any cities in the Central Valley, a GPS is invaluable.
  • Signs (or the absence of): Don’t expect to see big signs like home. There are some, but it’s pretty common to see one sign with an arrow pointing to your destination and then nothing further at forks in the road. There are also signs that are downright misleading (like some entrance and exit signs for highways) so once again, rent that GPS and do what it says. On a side note, the brown signs that point to national parks are pretty accurate.
  • Potholes: Costa Rica has seen dramatic improvements in terms of pothole frequency but the heavy rains always give birth to more. They can turn up just about anywhere so your best bet is to always watch out for them. This is what us locals do and we just swerve to avoid them or slow down to carefully cross any craters we are confronted with.
  • Pedestrians: Sidewalks are an anomaly in much of Costa Rica but this doesn’t keep people at home. No, they just walk on the roadway. This leaves little room for cars and people so don’t be surprised to see everyone from kids to the elderly just walking along the road as if cars didn’t exist.
  • Night driving: If you thought you had to be alert during the day, driving at night is a whole other story! People still walk along the side of the road (even on some highways) and they won’t be wearing anything reflective so watch out for them! Many of the roads also lack lighting so get ready to use your brights and be very, very alert.
  • Shoulders: Almost none on most roads means that you can hardly pull off to the side. This seriously limits roadside birding but the birding is usually better in protected areas in any case. On the rare roads that see very few vehicles, you could get away with birding from the car.
  • Ditches and drainage: It rains a lot in Costa Rica and we get rid of that excess water by channeling it away with ditches and drainage canals on both sides of the road. Some of these are covered but most aren’t so be careful that you don’t drive into them.
  • Road width: 4-lane highways are extremely rare. In most places, roads have the same dimensions as alleyways back at home. This results in some tight squeezes in urban areas but we manage.
  • Speed bumps: Common in urban areas and near schools. Sometimes there are signs that provide a warning but for the most part, you need to watch out for them just as you look out for potholes (and some look just like the road!).
  • Speed cameras: Costa Rica now has cameras that take pictures of cars going 20 ks over the speed limit. Although there are just a few in the country, they have generated so much income for the government that you can expect to see a lot more. Don’t speed because the fines are outrageous ($600 if going 20ks over the limit)!
  • Speed limits: There are signs for these but they aren’t obvious. In many cases, the speed limit is painted on the road so watch for that. In general, it’s 40kph in towns and some intersections, and 80kph on some sections of highways. 60kph is probably the most common speed limit and happens along highways when passing under bridges, on some curves, and in other circumstances. Heed those 60kph zones because this is where traffic cops love to catch you going over the limit.
  • Other drivers: Drive defensively because a lot of people are just bad drivers. Many drivers are quite considerate but don’t be surprised to see some people passing 2 or 3 cars where they shouldn’t, or honking at you because you won’t drive through a red light or speed out into traffic and crash. Be very careful and slow down at curves on highways in case another car is using your lane for passing or if a truck just happens to be using both lanes. If you have the right of way and the other car is stopped and flashes their lights, they want you to go ahead. As with other places, other drivers also warn you of speed traps by flashing their lights.
  • Bridges: Many bridges are one-lane affairs. If you see a red yield sign, that means that the cars coming from the other direction have the right of way. If you don’t see the yield sign, you have the right of way.
  • 4 wheel drive or not?: A lot of people wonder if they need 4 wheel drive and the answer is yes and no. Nowadays, you can get to almost anywhere with a 2-wheel drive so unless you plan on driving up to Volcan Barva, Pocosol, or El Copal, you don’t need a 4-wheel drive.

Although driving in Costa Rica may sound daunting from the information above, much of the challenge is related to driving in the Central Valley. Once you get away from the city, it’s actually quite easy going so if you know how to drive defensively, you should have no problem with driving in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Hummingbirds weather

What to Do When Birding in the Rain in Costa Rica

October is part of the official rainy season in Costa Rica. Each year, low pressure systems get together to stew up a massive dumping of water upon Costa Rica and other parts of Central America. The results often include landslides, flooding (albeit typically in floodplains), and lower temperatures. On a side note, I should add that much of the Caribbean slope is spared these 72 hour or more deluges from the sky. The sun still reigns during the morning hours over on the other side of the mountains and that’s where you should go when birding Costa Rica in October.

I was recently made aware of this wise piece of advice over the past weekend. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and test preparation fame came down for a short visit and I was happy to show him around. During the trip planning stage, I had mentioned that rain might be an issue but also that the near future was looking bright and so we didn’t expect too many weather-related problems. After all, the sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms of September and the first week of October were downright pleasant and predictable. It looked as if Mike could come on down, we could sweep up on regional endemics, and generally have a good, solid dose of non-stop, exciting birding. When you are optimistic, these sort of things run through your mind because you want them to come true. The only hitch is that they don’t necessarily reflect how things are going to turn out.

This past weekend, the rains were triumphant in the imaginary battle between optimism and weather conditions. The more I wished for sun, the harder it rained but in keeping with the determined, undaunted nature of the Zen-birding tradition (I don’t know what that really means but it sure sounds good), we failed to surrender arms! Ha! Even after Mike’s plane was delayed for more than 800 minutes (according to flightstatus.com), we surged on down to Carara shortly after his arrival. When we reached the second tool booth, we found out that the rains had thrown a landslide into our path to keep us from reaching Carara. No problem! We turned straight around and wove our way through the pot-holed maze of Central Valley streets to head up into the mountains. About 10 minutes past Alajuela, we were stopped by another road closure, this one related to the repair of downed power lines. No problem! The car was stopped and there was green space so we started birding. Spishing and pygmy-owl toots called a few species out of the woodwork and Mike got his second regional endemic in the form of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (Crimson-fronted Parakeet was the first).

birding Costa Rica

Not the Hoffmann’s we saw but I can assure that it looked just like this one.

No new birds popped up so we consulted the trusty GPS navigator and took another route towards Poas Volcano. It didn’t take long, though, for us to be confronted with a true, honest to goodness landslide.

birding Costa Rica

This is why motorbikes are popular in rural areas of Costa Rica.

Mist saturated the entire area (and hid a calling Flame-colored Tanager) so we took another route up the volcano. This time, we were successful in reaching a place where we could watch birds without getting soaked. Known as the “El Volcan” restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a tasty, home-cooked lunch accompanied by a nice selection of cloud forest hummingbirds. Despite the wet weather, we quickly tallied 7 species of hummingbirds.

birding Costa Rica

These included several Purple-throated Mountain-gems,

birding Costa Rica

a few Volcano Hummingbirds,

birding Costa Rica

and Violet Sabrewings.

Slaty Flowerpiercers also moved through the restaurant garden on one of their constant nectar filching missions, and forest on the other side of the street hosted Yellow-thighed Finches, Wilson’s Warblers, Red-faced Spinetail, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and other birds adapted to cool, misty, 2,000 meter climes. The restaurant was nice and dry but how could we stay when there were other birds to be seen higher up the road? We drove uphill and made occasional stops to search for birds. The constant, saturating mist and rain attempted to drown out my pygmy-owl imitation but I still managed to attract that hefty-billed beauty known as a Black-thighed Grosbeak. Golden-browed Chlorophonias also softly called from the canopy but refused to reveal themselves. As much as I attempted to ignore the rain while looking at Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Large-footed Finch, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, I couldn’t help but admit that the experience was akin to watching birds while taking a  cold shower. A quetzal might have given us enough internal birding power to stave off any and all discomfort but since none showed up, we headed back downhill and made our way to the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.

In conclusion, if you must go birding in Costa Rica during October, stick to the Caribbean slope because it’s drier there at this time of year. If circumstances or location make it impossible to avoid the rain, you can always go to the El Volcan Restaurant and watch the hummingbird action. Other highland species will also show up without being accompanied by a supposedly invigorating, warmth-sapping natural cold shower.  You could also immerse yourself into sudoku but that will keep you from seeing birds so leave those numeric puzzles at home or on the plane and just keep looking for birds!

The El Volcan restaurant is situated past Poasito, on the road up to Poas Volcano. Look for it on the left or west side of the road. It looks like this:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

Exciting New Birding Route near Varablanca, Costa Rica

Varablanca, Costa Rica is a village situated on a mountain pass between two volcanoes; Poas and Barva. Head up into the patchy high elevation forests of those mountains and you have a fair chance of connecting with most of Costa Rica’s signature highland species. Back down at the pass, though, much of the area has been converted into pasture. Meadowlarks and Rufous-collared Sparrows abound but they can’t compare to cloud forest species such as Lovely Cotingas, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and Black-breasted Wood-Quail.  The chlorophonia and wood quail still occur in the area but it’s hard to access their forest haunts. As for the cotinga, they have been recorded around Varablanca in the past but haven’t been seen in that area for several years (as far as I know). I suspect that those shiny turquoise and purple birds still occur in small numbers but once again, the difficulty in accessing contiguous forest presents a volcano-sized challenge in finding them.

From Varablanca, the main road descends to Cinchona of earthquake and hummingbird fame.  It eventually reaches the Caribbean lowlands and continues on to the Sarapiqui area. Even with a fair bit of deforestation, various protected sites make this general route a veritable bonanza for birds. Since the hefty Cinchona earthquake of 2009, though, accessing good middle elevation forest has been a challenge. A fair percentage of the forest in the nearby canyon was destroyed by landslides and there is little free, accessible habitat along the road. The trails at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens do provide access to forest but I just feel funny about paying $30 to simply walk around and watch birds.

Fortunately, there is another road that you can take and the birding looks to be very promising indeed. In fact, after a trip along said road on Saturday, I don’t exaggerate in naming it the best, unknown birding area in Costa Rica. I haven’t heard of anyone birding this road yet and would never have visited the place if Steve Semanchuk hadn’t mentioned it as an access road to Virgen del Socorro on Bird Forum. Thanks to Steve, Susan Blank and I did a recon trip on Saturday and it turned out to be much better than I had hoped. The route in question is the San Rafael de Varablanca road. It’s signed as such and is the only clearly visible route that leaves from the Varablanca- Cinchona- San Miguel road. The only downside to this road is that it requires 4-wheel drive. It’s actually not that bad, just that there are a couple parts where a 2-wheel drive vehicle could have a bit of trouble. On a side note, the near absence of traffic, beautiful scenery, and avian action make it perfect for mountain biking.

This “new” birding road starts maybe 2-3 ks (?) after Varablanca (where the road to Poas intersects with the road to Cinchona) and heads off to the east. It goes steeply down to a river and then up and over partly forested hills until going right along the western edge of Braulio Carillo National Park (!). It eventually heads down through a fair-sized area of quality middle elevation forest before reaching deforested lands once again near Virgen del Socorro. At that point, you could continue on through the old Virgen del Socorro birding site before meeting up again with the main road that connects San Miguel and Cinchona. On Saturday, we did just that and even spent a couple hours in the Caribbean lowlands.

birding Costa Rica

What some of this birding road looks like.

On the upper part of the road, we passed near patches and riparian zones with cloud forest that held Prong-billed Barbets, Ruddy Treerunners, Ochraceous Wrens, Yellow-thighed Finch, Collared Trogon, and many other species typical of this habitat and elevation (probably 1,200- 1,500 meters). Although we didn’t record any quetzals, there are definitely in the area along with lots of other uncommon species. Torrent Tyrannulets were common along the streams and we caught a glimpse of a Green-fronted Lancebill.

birding Costa Rica

Tufted Flycatcher was another very common species.

When the road goes along the edge of the national park, much of the vegetation appeared to be growing back but it was still good for birds. We had a nice mixed flock in that area with Yellow-thighed Finch, White-naped Brush-Finch, Golden-winged Warbler, and several other species. We also had Collared Trogon there along with Coppery-headed Emeralds and Dark Pewee.

Lower still, we got more excited when we began to drive through beautiful middle elevation forest. I suspect that the elevation was around 1,000 meters and even though it was mid-morning, the birding was almost non-stop. Red-headed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, and Slate-colored Grosbeak were heard while a variety of tanagers, White-ruffed Manakin, and White-crowned Manakin were seen. Other highlights were Rufous-browed Tyrannulet and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner (kind of rare in Costa Rica).

The vistas of the forested canyon looked ideal for finding some quality raptor such as a Solitary Eagle or Barred Hawk but we saw very few soaring birds of prey. Perched raptors were pretty good though with Broad-winged Hawk, White Hawk, and a very cooperative Bat Falcon.

birding Costa Rica

I love this bird because it didn’t fly away when we stopped the car.

Down at the old Virgen del Socorro site, things were pretty quiet (expected on a sunny 11 am). The forest still looked pretty good on the eastern side of the road but most of the forest at the former monklet site and along the western side of the road was secondary in nature (wiped out by the earthquake). Nevertheless, it probably still holds some surprises and it wouldn’t be out of the question for monklets to still live in the area. Although no diminutive puffbirds answered my monklet imitations (they have done so in Ecuador), we saw a young Barred Forest-Falcon and Immaculate Antbird at a roadside antswarm.

One of the best things about the road was the sheer quiet of the place. We saw a few people but maybe 2-3 other vehicles total (!). I hope to survey it during breeding season to see if Lovely Cotinga and umbrellabird occur as the area looks ideal for these birds and offers enough canopy vantage points to see them if they are around.

As long as you have a four wheel drive vehicle, this would be a great route to take to Sarapiqui. After seeing some choice middle elevation species in the morning, you could take a left at the Cinchona-San Miguel road and go back uphill for a few kilometers for lunch at the  Mirador de Colibries Hummingbird Cafe. This is located on the site of the original Cinchona cafes of birding fame and is still pretty good for hummingbirds and a fair number of species that visit their fruit feeders.

Here is our species list (104 total) from Varablanca to Virgen del Socorro for Saturday, October 8th:

Black-breasted Wood Quail-h
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
BV
TV
Broad-winged Hawk
Barred Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
White Hawk
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-crowned Parrot
Common Pauraque
Green Hermit
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Green-fronted Lancebill
Green Violetear
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet-h
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan-h
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Ruddy Treerunner
Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
Olivaceous Woodcreeper-h
Spotted Woodcreeper-h
Brown-billed Scythebill-h
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Immaculate Antbird
Paltry Tyrannulet
Mountain Elaenia
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet-h
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Olive-striped Flcycatcher
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Torrent Tyrannulet
Bright-rumped Attila
Dark Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
White-crowned Manakin
Red-eyed Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Bay Wren-h
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren-h
Nightingale Wren-h
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-headed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-faced Solitaire
Mountain Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Tropical Parula
Louisiana Waterthrush
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Bananaquit
Golden-crowned Warbler
Common Bush Tanager
Blue and gold Tanager
Black and yellow Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Slaty Flowerpiercer
White-naped Brush-Finch
Sooty-faced Finch-h
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Black-striped Sparrow-h
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Slate-colored Grosbeak-h
Eastern Meadowlark-h
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Black-breasted Wood Quail-h
Great Egret
Cattle Egret
BV
TV
Broad-winged Hawk
Barred Forest-Falcon
Bat Falcon
White Hawk
Red-billed Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-crowned Parrot
Common Pauraque
Green Hermit
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Green-fronted Lancebill
Green Violetear
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Red-headed Barbet-h
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan-h
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Ruddy Treerunner
Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner
Olivaceous Woodcreeper-h
Spotted Woodcreeper-h
Brown-billed Scythebill-h
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Immaculate Antbird
Paltry Tyrannulet
Mountain Elaenia
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet-h
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Olive-striped Flcycatcher
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Torrent Tyrannulet
Bright-rumped Attila
Dark Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
White-ruffed Manakin
White-crowned Manakin
Red-eyed Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Bay Wren-h
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren-h
Nightingale Wren-h
Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-headed Nightingale Thrush-h
Black-faced Solitaire
Mountain Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Tennessee Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Black and white Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Tropical Parula
Louisiana Waterthrush
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Bananaquit
Golden-crowned Warbler
Common Bush Tanager
Blue and gold Tanager
Black and yellow Tanager
Hepatic Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Variable Seedeater
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Slaty Flowerpiercer
White-naped Brush-Finch
Sooty-faced Finch-h
Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Black-striped Sparrow-h
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Slate-colored Grosbeak-h
Eastern Meadowlark-h
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Categories
Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Birding Carara National Park, Costa Rica on October 3rd

Most birders visit Carara National Park in Costa Rica during the dry months of January, February, and March.  Those sunny months represent Costa Rica’s high season for birding (and tourism) simply because much of the country is significantly drier at this time of the year. Coincidently, the birding also tends to be more productive so watching birds and the dry season make for a nice fit. In the latter part of the dry season, more birds are singing and responding to playback (oh yes, the majority of tours fire up those iPods), some migrants are passing through, and wintering birds boost the species list.

Those upsides outweigh the downsides such as blazing hot weather on the Pacific coast and groups of non-birding tourists that send shockwaves through the forest with garish clothing and loud voices. Many of these non-forest people also feel compelled to share their monkey and macaw sightings with you, and to make sure that you don’t miss out on this vital information, do so with booming voices.

“DID YOU SEE THE MONKEYS?!?

Whether I saw “the monkeys” or not, I tell them that, “Yes, I did” in the hope that they won’t proceed with telling me where they saw them. They usually do however and follow that up with information about the nesting macaws.

“WE ALSO SAW MACAWS. DID YOU SEE THOSE?” (as four of these spectacular birds flush from the canopy with intimidating screams).

Or, sometimes, it’s just one person who tells me where to see the macaws in a much quieter voice. Clad in snow-white tennis shoes, this person picks his or her way through the rainforest along with the rest of his or her repellent-doped, erstwhile companions . Many times, such a person also happens to be wearing sunglasses (which is strange because the understory of primary forest is already so dim that you might be better off wearing night vision goggles). The sunglasses seem to add to the intrigue as, unsmiling, he or she briefly stops to tell me out of the corner of the mouth, “There’s macaws by the bridge. Up in a big tree. Nest. Can’t miss em.” This purveyor of insider bird information then continues on with the rest of the group as if nothing happened. I am left enlightened, speechless, and wondering if I should leave the trail and hide along with the antthrushes, quail-doves, and other cool birds that already did so.

I would probably find my feathered friends huddling behind a log and there would be a couple of Black-faced Antthrushes, a White-whiskered Puffbird or two, Gray-chested and Ruddy Quail-Doves, and a Spectacled Antpitta. To be polite, I would ask them if they minded me joining their quietly concealed party. They would surely agree when noticing my binoculars, lack of shades, and subdued clothing and we would keep out of sight until the long line of tourists wearing spotless outfits had reached their respective habitat; the parking lot.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see thousands of tourists visit Carara National Park on a daily basis if that would help with conservation efforts. I know they are just trying to be helpful. I also, know, however, that finding birds in tropical forest requires constant vigilance and concentration so I do my best to avoid non-binocular wearing people. One easy way to avoid running into a bunch of non-birders when searching for antswarms and waiting for tinamous to appear at Carara National Park is by visiting in October. I did just that yesterday when guiding a client and although we ended up seeing a few non-birders here and there (and one guy who asked what we were looking at when trying to espy a Nothern Bentbill) the place was pretty quiet.

The wet season also boosted the biting bug population but not enough to chase us out of the forest. We couldn’t do the river trail because it was flooded (as it does every year during the wet season) but we still had interesting birding along the HQ trail despite a starting time of 9 am. We got lucky upon arrival with two King Vultures circling into the air on thermals above the parking lot. A dark phase Short-tailed Hawk was with them along with an accompaniment of Black Vultures. Cloudy weather kept things pretty active inside the forest and we had a pretty good number of mixed flocks for the next few hours.

Parties of Black-hooded Antshrikes, Dot-winged Antwrens, Plain Xenops, and Tawny-crowned and Lesser Greenlets moved through the tall rainforest and were joined by Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, Eye-ringed Flatbill, and the three most common woodcreepers- Streak-headed, Cocoa, and Wedge-billed. Greenish Elaenia, Northern Bentbill, Streaked, and Yellow-olive Flycatcher increased our list of Tyrannids and White-winged Becard was also seen well.

More colorful birds were represented by a stunning male Red-capped Manakin (sorry, too dark for a photo!), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and Bay-headed Tanager. We didn’t see any trogons in the forest but this came as no surprise because they are decidely more difficult to see at this time of the year (they vocalize less and could be molting). Parrots were also noticeably absent. Other than hearing a few macaws, our only other psittacine was Orange-chinned Parakeet. It was interesting to find a large number of this edge species feasting on figs inside the forest. Oddly enough, we didn’t see any other birds at the fig tree.

We also did poor on ground birds and the lack of flowers resulted in very few hummingbird sightings. A couple of Spectacled Antpittas were calling but none were close enough to see, and we got a glimpse of one very shy Black-faced Antthrush as it raced away from us. The only ground bird that we got decent looks at was Gray-chested Dove.

As with every visit to rainforest, however, we had an excellent, unexpected encounter. Just past the bridge over the Quebrada Bonita, the chipping call of some unknown bird caught my attention. Since I didn’t recognize the vocalization, I figured it was probably an alarm call of sorts. Although I didn’t see what was making the call, I did find the probable reason for the alarm when my binocular turned a ball of leaves into  a roosting Spectacled Owl! I also noticed its mate when that bird looked down at us with those fierce, yellow, owl eyes.

birding Costa Rica

I almost never see roosting owls so this was a prize! It will be interesting to see if I can refind them on future visits to Carara.

As is typical of visits to Carara and surroundings, we kept on adding birds in wetlands and dry habitats outside of the park until calling it quits around 4:30. We got about 115 species and would have gotten more if we had started at dawn so I suppose the point of this post is to expect a bunch of birds when birding Carara National Park no matter what month it is.