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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica high elevations middle elevations

How to see 11 Raptors and 16 Hummingbird species when Birding Costa Rica

I had been looking forward to guiding this past Saturday. My client wanted to see as many birds as possible and a combined trip to Virgen del Socorro and Poas Volcano seemed like the perfect choice for a birdy day. I figured we would see quite a few birds and some good ones at that but I didn’t expect to identify as many species as a Christmas Bird count at Carara or La Selva!

Warning- this is a bird-filled post that reads a bit like a trip report.

From 5:30 am to 5:30 pm, good birding weather (cloudy skies) and a high degree of bird activity rolled the dice in our favor to give us 122 species seen and 29 that were heard only. What makes that even more impressive is that only four of those were waterbirds. The rest were forest species and we would have actually added 10 or more species to the list if we had run into better mixed flocks.

Starting out from the Xandari Hotel in Alajuela, common species like White-winged Dove, Clay-colored Robin, and Great-tailed Grackle were ticked as we drove up to the mountain pass of Varablanca. At that first stop, we tried in vain to see a singing Flame-colored Tanager in a distant tree while putting the scope on perched Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers. Mountain Elanias called and flitted in the nearby vegetation but the tanager never did reveal itself.

As we headed down through the middle elevations of the Caribbean slope, Red-billed Pigeons flew around and perched on treetops. We made stops for Yellow-bellied Elaenia, got great looks at a pair of Olive-crowned Yellowthroats, were tantalized by a calling White-throated Crake, and watched the antics of Great Kiskadees, Yellow-winged Vireo, Brown-capped Vireo, Piratic, Social, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers near the Peace Lodge. Rufous-browed Peppershrike and Dark Pewee also showed well but calling Golden-bellied Flycatchers kept out of sight.


Red-billed Pigeons are common, handsome birds in Costa Rica.

Our first raptor species also made appearances somewhere near Cinchona. These were the two everpresent vultures Black Vulture (1) and Turkey Vulture (2), Black-shouldered Kite (3) (which I have never seen on that road), a migrant Red-tailed Hawk (4), and Broad-winged Hawks (5). Further down at our main point of avian focus for the morning, Swallow-tailed Kites (6) entertained as they soared through the canyon at Virgen del Socorro, and a pair of White Hawks (7) took to the air for some courtship action.

As the lightly-plumaged raptors looked beautiful against the greenery of the middle-elevation forests, smaller birds also sang from the woods. Slate-throated Redstarts, Tropical Parulas, and migrant warblers flitted through mossy trees and were joined by Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Lesser Greenlet, and Red-faced Spinetail. Down by the bridge, Tufted Flycatcher called and Torrent Tyrannulet was seen but things like Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and another pair of Golden-bellied Flycatchers opted for hiding in the dense vegetation. Down at the river itself, no amount of searching would turn up a much hoped for Sunbittern or Fasciated Tiger-Heron but at least a pair of Smoky-brown Woodpeckers made an appearance.

A glimpse of the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro, Costa Rica.

As we worked our way up the opposite, better forested side of the gorge, Barred Hawks (8) called from high above, a pale phase Short-tailed Hawk (9) was seen and a massive group of Swainson’s (10) and Broad-winged Hawks headed due north high overhead. Around the same time, a small mixed flock eventually showed well and gave us great looks at Plain Xenops, several Russet Antshrikes, Silver-throated Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Tufted Flycatcher, and Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner. It was nice but it still wasn’t the type of big, active mixed flock that can turn up at Virgen del Socorro.

Moving higher up the road, patience paid off in the form of good looks at the miniscule Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and brief looks at Rufous-browed Tyrannulet. Bay-headed Tanagers and Common Tody-Flycatcher also turned up but Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant refused to come out and play. However, with flowering trees in that area filled with hummingbirds, we weren’t complaining! Several Brown Violetears called from their perches and chased the numerous Violet-crowned Woodnymphs. A few Green Thorntails were also seen and Violet-headed Hummingbird was heard but the coquette was a no-show.

We waited around for the 11 am bird wave but it never turned up so we birded our way back through the canyon and got good looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher, more Red-faced Spinetails, and Spotted Woodcreeper. Two other, really good species that vocalized but did not show themselves were Azure-hooded Jay and Brown-billed Sycthebill. By then, lunchtime had arrive so we headed on up to the Cinchona “Cafe de Colibries” for delicious, home-cooked meals. The feeders were unfortunately slow but we still managed to pick up Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, and White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and got point blank looks at a male Green Thorntail.

The male Green Thorntail looks like a spiky-tailed bug.


Cinchona is usually reliable for the local White-bellied Mountain-Gem.

After lunch, it was off to higher elevations and a new set of birds. At the Restaurante Volcan, the seeding bamboo on the other side of the road finally turned up great looks at a rare Slaty Finch. Two were singing and one showed us its dull yet rarely seen self. Yellowish Flycatchers also played around the stream, Long-tailed Silky Flycatchers called from overhead, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were seen, and a funky pair of Prong-billed Barbets yodeled from the top of a nearby tree. The yodel.

The feeders and nearby habitat always make this a great spot for hummingbirds and Saturday was no exception with sightings of Violet Sabrewing, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Volcano Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Magnificent Hummingbird, and Green-crowned Brilliant. Yellow-thighed Finches were also spotted just before heading further up the volcano.

We drove right up to the gate for the national park and started hearing birds as soon as we exited the car. Black-billed Nightingale-Thrushes and Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens sang but the only birds we saw were two Fiery-throated Hummingbirds (always nice to see that one though!). We slowly made our way back down to where the bamboo was seeding and picked up Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher in the process. At the bamboo, Peg-filled Finches were singing and one was found, admired, and given “junco status” on account of its appearance. Yellow-thighed Finches, Large-footed Finch, and a beautiful Black-thighed Grosbeak were seen. As two Resplendent Quetzals sang, we also got killer looks at a Black Guan and picked up the much wanted Sooty Robin. If you aren’t familiar with the Sooty Robin, it’s basically a Eurasian Blackbird that got teleported to the high mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama at some distant, ancient time (well, how else could it look so similar? Why settle on convergence when the teleportation theory is so much more exciting!).

The junco-like Peg-billed Finch.

Barred Parakeets also made an appearance but by then, the mist had become so thick that we could barely see the rufous on a Rufous-collared Sparrow so they flew through the fog heard but unseen. Back down below the foggy weather, another quick stop didn’t turn up anything of note so we continued to the lower elevations at Xandari. But wait! The birding wasn’t over yet! On the way down,  a road closure (some truck took out a power line post) detoured us through birdy coffee plantations that held our last raptor and hummingbird for the day: Gray Hawk (11) and Steely-vented Hummingbird. It also led us to an artificial pond that held 4 Least Grebes, 2 Blue-winged Teal, and 1 female Ring-necked Duck (a good bird in Costa Rica!).

We got back down to Xandari by dusk and after I got home, I was pleasantly shocked to discover that we had amassed the following total:

Species seen Species heard only
Black Guan White-throated Crake
Cattle Egret Short-billed Pigeon
Black Vulture Barred Parakeet
Turkey Vulture Squirrel Cuckoo
Black-shouldered Kite Green Hermit
Swallow-tailed Kite Violet-headed Hummingbird
Red-tailed Hawk Resplendent Quetzal
Short-tailed Hawk Keel-billed Toucan
Broad-winged Hawk Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Swainson’s Hawk Spotted Barbtail
Barred Hawk Brown-billed Scythebill
White Hawk Immaculate Antbird
Gray Hawk Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Blue-winged Teal Golden-bellied Flycatcher
Ring-necked Duck Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant
Least Grebe Bright-rumped Attila
Spotted Sandpiper Lesser Greenlet
Red-billed Pigeon Gray-breasted Wood Wren
Band-tailed Pigeon Ochraceous Wren
White-winged Dove Bay Wren
White-crowned Parrot Nightingale Wren
Crimson-fronted Parakeet Black-faced Solitaire
Vaux’s Swift Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
White-collared Swift Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush
Spot-fronted Swift- nice one! Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Violet Sabrewing

Stripe-throated Hermit

Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Brown Violetear Azure-hooded Jay
Green Violetear Flame-colored Tanager
Green Thorntail Chestnut-capped Brush Finch
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Steely-vented Hummingbird
Magnificent Hummingbird
Green-crowned Brilliant
Purple-crowned Fairy
Coppery-headed Emerald
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
White-bellied Mountain-Gem
Purple-throated Mountain-Gem
Volcano Hummingbird
Collared Trogon
Prong-billed Barbet
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
Smoky-brown Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Spotted Woodcreeper
Russet Antshrike
Paltry Tyrannulet
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Yellowish Flycatcher
Mountain Elaenia
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Dark Pewee
Wood Pewee species
Social Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Tufted Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Torrent Tyrannulet
Slaty-capped Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
Brown-capped Vireo
Yellow-winged Vireo
Rufous-browed Peppershrike
Brown Jay
Blue and white Swallow
Roughwing Swallow species
House Wren
Stripe-breasted Wren
Sooty Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Mountain Robin
Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher
Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher
Golden-winged Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Tropical Parula
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Golden-crowned Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat
Bananaquit
Common Bush Tanager
Palm Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Passerini’s Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Spangle-cheeked Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Summer Tanager
Tawny-capped Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Yellow-faced Grassquit
Variable Seedeater
Slaty Finch
Peg-billed Finch
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Black-thighed Grosbeak
Eastern Meadowlark
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird
Baltimore Oriole
Montezuma Oropendola

Needless to say, you can see a heck of a lot of birds in one day in Costa Rica! As nice as Saturday’s total was, though, just wait and see how many birds are produced by the Big Day I will probably do next weekend or shortly thereafter!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

New Birding site in Costa Rica with a Lot of Potential

The Sarapiqui region has long been known as one of the main stops on every birding trip to Costa Rica. Home of the La Selva research station, the fame of this rainforest reserve helped spur the development of ecotourism in Sarapiqui during the late 80s and early 90s. Several hotels that cater to birders were built in the area and thousands of aficionados of all things avian have enjoyed their first looks at stellar species like the Great Green Macaw, Sunbittern, Semiplumbeous Hawk, toucans, and Snowy Cotinga in the Sarapiqui region.

La Selva continues to be a star attraction of the area but it’s by no means the only place to watch birds in Sarapiqui. This is a good thing since the station can only be visited by prior reservation and charges an arm and a leg for rather basic accommodation. The birding is great at La Selva but when I visit Sarapiqui, I prefer the easy access to habitats around Chilamate. This village is the home of Selva Verde along with roads that pass through a variety of lowland habitats that can yield everything from a roosting Great Potoo to macaws, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Black-striped Woodcreepers. Adding to the great birding around Chilamate is a new ecotourism venture that seems destined to be one of Sarapiqui’s star birding attractions.

A few months ago, the Sarapiqui Eco-Observatory opened its “doors” to the public and boy does this place have potential! Owned by Dave Lando, an American who has worked on and off in Costa Rica since the 70s and married a local Sarapiqui girl, he and his son have reforested the property and set it up for birding. That’s right, this place is focused on birds (although they also appreciate and showcase other rainforest wildlife). You won’t find any zip-lines here and that’s how the people at the Eco-Observatory like their place.

Visitors are greeted by open gardens upon arrival. As you make your way back to the photography area, White-necked Jacobins, Green-breasted Mangos, and Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds call from short trees and visit feeders near a house. White-lined Tanagers, Cocoa Woodcreepers, and other edge species of the humid lowlands sing from the garden. It’s easy to tell where the photography area is by the presence of people taking pictures of Blue-gray Tanagers, Green Honeycreepers, Golden-hooded Tanagers, and other species that come to a fruit feeding station.

White-necked Jacobin zipping in to one of the feeders.

Near the photography area, a covered deck looks into the tops of nearby trees and rainforest canopy on the other side of the Sarapiqui River. This area in particular is the place I think of when talking about birding potential. I brought a client there for a morning of guiding last week and we had gorgeous, eye-level, scoped views of Brown-hooded Parrots shortly after arrival. Olive-throated Parakeets also flew overhead and perched in distant trees and there were occasional flybys of toucans. A Black-headed Tody Flyatcher called from one of the trees but remained unseen and we eventually scoped a male Snowy Cotinga that perched in the canopy on the other side of the river. Other notables were glimpses of a Double-toothed Kite and a very distant King Vulture. If we had arrived earlier than 8:30, I’m sure we would have seen lots more.

Overall, the birding from the treetop deck reminded me of visits to canopy towers in other parts of the world. The forest canopy may appear to be absent of birds at first but frequent scans with binoculars turn up species that seem to appear out of nowhere. As with other canopy viewing sites, a scope is also a handy tool and without it, our Snowy Cotinga would have been nothing more than a distant, snow-white dot. I suspect that early morning birding from the treetop deck could be fast and furious, especially since it’s located on a river corridor. I should also mention a main difference between the treetop deck at the Eco-Observatory and canopy towers: no steps! Since the deck is situated on top of a bluff that overlooks a riparian zone, you don’t need to climb any amount of steps to use it.

The canopy view from the treetop deck.

The only steps are those on the trail that heads down to the river. This trail provides a glimpse into the understory of remnant riparian forest and old second growth. After a short walk, it reaches a stony stream and then the Sarapiqui River. Although we didn’t turn up Sunbittern, they are regular in the area so the river is certainly worth checking. During our visit, it was also good for viewing oropendolas and toucans that fed on fruiting trees at the edge of the river and for seeing Green and Amazon Kingfishers. On the trail itself, nesting Broad-billed Motmots were nice and we also heard a Rufous Motmot. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers, Bay Wrens, White-collared Manakins, and other second growth species were also present.

The view at the river.

Broad-billed Motmots are pretty and fairly common in Costa Rica.

I suspect that the trail could turn up several, much less common species and wouldn’t be surprised if Bare-crowned Antbird or even Violaceous Quail Dove showed up. Both are a pretty rare sight when birding Costa Rica but the old second growth habitat was looking suitable for both of these species. Back up at the treetop deck, we got great looks at Rufous-tailed Jacamars before driving back up to the Central Valley.

Although this site doesn’t harbor any old-growth forest, the gardens and trails are very birdy and the treetop deck looks over at the canopy of old forest in the Tirimbina Reserve. In being connected to the forests of Tirimbina, I’m sure that the Eco-Observsatory could turn up a wide variety of lowland rainforest bird species. The treetop deck in particular seems like the perfect spot to watch for raptors that perch in and fly above nearby forest. Anything from hawk-eagles to Gray-headed Kite and Tiny Hawk is possible and on sunny days, I would be surprised to not see several raptors from that spot.

As March, 2012, the Sarapiqui Eco-Observatory charges $15 for self guided use of the trails, $20 for a guided walk on the trails, and other pricing to take pictures in the photography area. Regarding entrance fees, from what I understood, a good percentage of these fees will be used for conservation projects in the area. I will clarify that the next time I visit. And I do plan on visiting again soon to do a morning bird survey and watch for raptors!

This site is found on the main road between San Miguel and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. They have a large, roadside sign.

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations Introduction

Check out the Good Birds on Poas when Birding Costa Rica

Poas Volcano is somewhat overlooked as a birding destination. Birders in search of highland specialties head off to the more extensive forests on Cerro de la Muerte and have a grand old time with the R. Quetzal, Collared Redstarts, Zeledonias, and other birds that got an evolutionary foothold in the rising Talamancas. Nevertheless, you can still see a bunch of darn good birds at places like the volcanoes of Barva, Poas, and Irazu. In fact, I see great birds there all the time. The habitat looks nicer in the Talamancas and you can access more of the temperate zone forests but Poas and Irazu are more easily done as day trips from San Jose. Poas also makes for a nice place to spend the night when staying in the valley and Irazu looks like the perfect spot to look for Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl. Poas is only a forty-five minute ride from the airport, there are more than a few hotels to choose from, and if you like strawberries, locals hawk bags of your favorite red berry on the side of the road.

So, don’t discount Poas as a birding destination but especially because it can turn up some great birds. For the time being, you also might want to fit a trip to Poas into the itinerary because the bamboo has seeded and some good birds have arrived! I almost discounted bamboo birds for the area because I kept checking the place and coming up with nothing save Mountain Elaenias and bush-tanagers. Well, to be completely honest, there were other birds too but none of the species that have a natural obsession with seeding bamboo. Maybe their absence stemmed from a lack of seeds? Maybe the crop just wasn’t ripe enough to please their avian palates? Whatever the reason for their no-show in the past,  some bamboo birds are certainly in the house on Poas in the present.

Thanks to Steve and Liz for mentioning that they has seen LOTS of Peg-billed Finches on the road to Las Lagunillas, I decided to scout the area on Sunday with a friend of mine. Although we spent most of the morning on the San Rafael de Varablanca road and saw cool stuff like Bicolored Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and Golden-bellied Flycatcher (until reaching a washed out part of the road), a brief trip to the Lagunillas Road in the afternoon was the prize as it yielded several Peg-billed Finches and flyover Barred Parakeets!

Golden-bellied Flycatcher- a cool, middle elevation near endemic.


Unfortunately, my camera has something against Peg-billed Finches. This was the best image of a bunch.

While guiding in the area on Monday, we didn’t even bother with the Lagunillas Road as we had several Peg-billed Finches along the main road to Poas as well as in front of the Restaurant Volcan. Many of the wild avocado trees were also in fruit and as luck and patience would have it, a male Resplendent Quetzal briefly glided past us as we waited for mixed flock activity. Although the flock never showed up, we were still rewarded with several Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers, many Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers, and one Green-fronted Lancebill!  Saving the best bird for last, we heard at least one Slaty Finch. This serious rarity sang a few times from the dead bamboo at the stream across the street from the Restaurant Volcan and although we didn’t manage to see it, the high-pitched buzzy trill that rises and briefly falls couldn’t have been anything else.


The Restaurant Volcan seems to be reliable for Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher.


You will also be entertained by Yellowish Flycatchers.

Even if we hadn’t seen any bamboo birds, the hummingbird show at places like the Restaurant Volcan and Poas Lodge would have been reason enough to visit:

Magnificent Hummingbird


Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

Violet Sabrewing

I don’t know how long those bamboo birds will be present on Poas but I will be visiting again soon! It’s probably my best chance at getting that Costa Rican Holy Grail of Columbids, the Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. I was very fortunate to see it once before but since that happened in 1994, I would love to have another look.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica

New Citizen Science Project in Costa Rica to Help Monitor Bird Populations

In North America and Europe, breeding bird surveys have played a huge role in estimating the population sizes and distributions of local avifauna. In providing a fairly accurate picture of the numbers and types of birds that occur in a given area, these surveys have been of tremendous importance for conservation and protection of bird species. Over time, they also show where, and the extent to which, bird populations change. That said, I realize that this is old news for most birders in North America and Europe. In fact, there’s a good chance that many people reading this have helped to generate data as a part of breeding bird surveys because most of these bird counts are carried out by citizen scientists.

Trained biologists and ornithologists also carry out many of these counts but birdwatchers from other walks of life form the backbone of breeding bird surveys. I had often wondered if the same sort of annual counting happened in Costa Rica but I haven’t found any information to indicate that was the case. Although bird counts at certain sites and for certain groups of birds (such as waterfowl and waders) are undertaken by both the Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica and the Union de Ornitologos de Costa Rica, there didn’t appear to be anything akin to the large scale citizen science breeding bird surveys that happen in other parts of the world. Christmas counts are done at many sites and are certainly important but the country was lacking surveys done on a much broader scale. From what I have seen, the closest thing to date that has generated data about bird populations in Costa Rica has been eBird. This most wonderful of interactive websites already provides valuable information on bird sightings in Costa Rica but has yet to be fully adopted by the local birding community. Since much of the data in eBird is added by people who visit the country for a birding tour, the sites that receive the most attention are those that already happen to be  heavily visited and well known.

Hopefully, more local birders will use eBird but in the meantime, the Asociacion Ornitologia de Costa Rica (AOCR) has started up a citizen science project aimed at counting and assessing populations of resident species. In other words, Costa Rica finally has a breeding bird survey project! Although several species of birds in Costa Rica nest at various times of the year, a large percentage breed at the start of the wet season. For this reason, the counting period runs from May 15th to June 30th and follows protocols similar to other breeding bird surveys. Spearheaded by bird list coordinator Gerardo Obando, this projec encourages birdwatchers who reside in Costa Rica to get out there and do point counts in their gardens as well as along any number of routes. Participants set up their counting areas with GPS coordinates and once established, each of these is shown on a Google map to avoid overlap with other counts.

Hopefully, enough people will get involved to aid in providing a more accurate assessment of the Costa Rican avifauna. I already have a few routes in mind and will be blogging about my count experiences in June.

It will be interesting to see how many Black-capped Flycatchers turn up at high elevation sites,

if anyone does counts where Volcano Juncos live,

and how many thousands of Barred Antshrikes get reported!