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Where to go for Target Species when Birding in Costa Rica at Carara National Park- part uno

In the highly important block of habitat known as Carara National Park, the birding is always productive even though there are few trails that actually access the forests of the park. Even so, they are enough to provide access to just about every species that occurs there and can even turn up some amazing surprises. For example, one resident guide told me that he was pretty sure that he saw an Oilbird once and another very reputable person is certain that he saw a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. As bizarre as that sounds, he was 99% sure about the cuckoo, so was the person he was guiding, and although I won’t say who the guide was, believe me when I say that you can trust his observations. The only scenario we could think of was that this shy, low density species may have an undetected population that normally keeps to the higher parts of the park.

Unfortunately, since the national park service doesn’t show any indication of putting in trails that would access those areas, they will keep their avian secrets  and birders will have to “settle” for the River Trail and the forest trails near the HQ.  Although they barely scratch the surface of the park, they do provide access to most of the bird species that occur at Carara and are exciting no matter how many times you bird them. Recently, a reader of my blog was inquiring about target species along the trails at Carara. Is the River Trail better for certain species than the HQ trails? Is it passable during the wet season? Or maybe you were wondering how these trails differ?  Read on for some answers:

General Differences and Similarities between the two sets of trails:

Habitat:

  • The River Trail passes through a mosaic of semi-open, viny, riparian forest. It also accesses thick, second      growth, and towards the end of the trail, an oxbow lake and closed, primary rainforest.

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A scene along the River Trail.

  • The HQ trails access some second growth but mostly pass through beautiful, old-growth rainforest with immense trees. A couple of forest streams are also found along this trail.

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The forest along the Universal Access segment of the HQ Trails at Carara.

Climate: Pretty similar for both trails but it feels hotter on the River Trail due to its more open nature.

Difficulty: Both are mostly flat and easy for walking. The HQ trails also have a cement, “Universal Trail” that can be accessed by wheelchair.

Accessibility: Both are easily accessed along the coastal highway between Orotina and Jaco. The trailhead for the HQ trails is at the main entrance to the national park. The River Trail is 2-3 kilometers from the main entrance along the highway, heading back towards Orotina and San Jose. Drive slow, ignore the horns of impatient drivers, and watch for a strip of yellowish paper tied to a tree on the right (east) side of the road that marks the entrance to the trail. If that sounds easy to miss, you are right, it is! It’s kind of ridiculous but watch for that strip of paper and a steep turn-off that goes down to a small parking area. The River Trail does flood on an annual basis and is closed when this occurs. This of course depends on the rains but usually happens from September to December. Check at the HQ to see if it’s open.

Restrooms and drinking water: Best to bring your own water for both but the HQ trails do have restrooms at the HQ and on the Universal Trail. Such facilities are lacking at the River Trail. The water is potable from faucets at the HQ but who knows if it will always be like that.

Safety: Both trails are safe but vehicles should always be parked where someone can see them. For the HQ trails, this is in front of the office where tickets are purchased. For the River Trail, this is at the trail head but only park the car there if someone is present to watch it as vehicles left alone have been broken into on many occasions. That said, it goes without saying that you should never leave anything of value in the vehicle.

And now for the birds.. Keep in mind that many of these can also be seen elsewhere and some are easier to see in mangroves, etc.

Species that are only found on the River Trail:

  • Boat-billed Heron: A few are usually found roosting in trees at the edge of the oxbow lake.

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Boat-billed Heron or NAG- the “neotropical avian gargoyle”.

  • Other waterbirds: Widespread species such as Northern Jacana, Anhinga, Black-necked Stilt, and various herons and egrets are often seen at the oxbow lake.

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The oxbow lake at the River Trail- always some good stuff here.

  • Plumbeous Kite: Sometimes seen soaring high above the River Trail but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Crane Hawk: Occasionally encountered on this trail, but easier at Cerro Lodge and in mangroves.
  • Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers: Yep, at the oxbow lake.
  • Olivaceous Piculet: Rare but if you are lucky, this is where you will probably see one at Carara. Keep an eye out for it in mixed flocks and learn its high-pitched, quiet, trilling song.
  • Black-bellied Wren: Listen and look for this babblerish skulker in the heliconia thickets.
  • Cherrie’s Tanager: Rare at Carara but sometimes seen along this trail.

Species that are only found on the HQ Trails:

  • Blue-crowned Manakin: I suppose one could also turn up on the River Trail but I have never seen it there.

Both trails actually harbor many of the same species but it’s worth it to allocate quality birding time to each because some species are easier along one compared to the other. If you don’t see something mentioned (Rufous-tailed Jacamar for example), it’s because I have encountered it along both sets of trails with the same degree of frequency.

Species that are easier to see on the River Trail:

  • Collared Forest Falcon: More regular along this trail.

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A rather bad picture of this large raptor from the River Trail.

  • Swifts: The more open nature of this trail facilitates watching (and being subsequently confounded by) swifts.
  • American Pygmy-Kingfisher: Much easier near at the oxbow lake.

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The American Pygmy-Kingfisher is one gem of a bird.

  • Barred Antshrike
  • Royal Flycatcher: If you can’t do the River Trail, look for it near the stream on the HQ Trail and along the Universal Trail.
  • Orange-collared Manakin: Although I have seen it almost as often along the HQ Trail, especially along the beginning of the trail and the Universal Trail.
  • Yellow-billed Cotinga: Rare but easier to see at fruiting trees along the River Trail.
  • Turquoise Cotinga: Ditto.
  • Rufous-breasted Wren: It’s common along the HQ Trails too but easier to see along the River Trail.

Species that are easier to see on the HQ Trails:

  • Great Tinamou
  • Muscoy Duck: Oddly enough, yes, along the creek!
  • Blue-crowned Motmot: Although still easier in hotel gardens of the Central Valley.
  • Long-tailed Woodcreeper: I see it much more often in mixed flocks along the forest trails than the River Trail although I have also encountered it there.
  • Black-striped Woodcreeper
  • Black-faced Antthrush
  • Streak-chested Antpitta

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Carara National Park is one of the more reliable places to see Streak-chested Antpitta.

  • Golden-crowned Spadebill
  • Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
  • Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
  • Eye-ringed Flatbill
  • Red-capped Manakin
  • Thrushlike Schiffornis
  • Rufous Piha
  • Scaly-breasted Wren
  • Tropical Parula: More common and much easier to see at middle elevation sites.
  • Spot-crowned Euphonia

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The S-P Euphonia is a nice little near-endemic.

If you can’t bird the River Trail, don’t fret too much about missing Royal Flycatcher or Orange-collared Manakin because you still have a pretty good chance for them along the Universal Trail, especially if you hire a guide who is familiar with birding the park. For the Black-bellied Wren, though, I am afraid that you will have to bird some Heliconia thickets a bit further south.

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O-C Manakin males are fancy little birds!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Benefits of Birding Carara National Park at the Start of the Wet Season

The rains have made their annual return to Costa Rica and the landscape has shown its thanks with a green blush on the Pacific Slope.  Areas that were a dessicated gray-brown just a month and half ago would go unrecognized in their present tropical green attire. Tall, fresh grass adorns fields and road verges, insects are hatching all over the place, and the woods ring with birdsong. If that’s reminiscent of Spring in more temperate climes, there is at least one other similarity. Just as American Robins and Blackbirds are nesting way up north, Clay-colored Thrushes are feeding young down here in Costa Rica. The same can be said for lots of the birds in Tiquicia at this time of the year and that’s just one reason why the start of the wet season is a fantastic time for birding in Costa Rica.

Birding is great right now throughout the country but one of the best places to visit in May and June has to be Carara National Park. One of those classic Costa Rica birding sites, Carara is a must on any birding itinerary to Costa Rica no matter what the time of the year. Its accessibility, flat trails, excellent forest, and combination of wet and dry species makes it just too good to pass up. I was reminded of that on a short visit to Carara this past Thursday.  The new highway has made Carara a rather quick hour and a half drive from San Jose but I still wouldn’t be able to leave until 7:30 in the morning (and thus wouldn’t be arriving until 9 AM). Nevertheless, I figured I would just go hang out in the woods to try and digiscope a few choice species anyways. As it turned out, I ended up being pretty busy with birds until around noon and could have easily spent the rest of the day inside the forest and seen more birds.

The following are a few reasons why Carara is so good at this time of the year:

  • Temperature: Although it’s still damn hot, the cloud cover makes it that much more tolerable than the deadly heat of the dry season. When the vertical rays of the dry season noontime sun beat down and mix with those high levels of humidity, you yearn to trade those sightings of Riverside Wrens and Chestnut-backed Antbirds for a massive block of ice that you could just sit right on top of your overheated head. I sweated like a runner in the desert on Thursday but it was still more comfortable than birding during the dry season!

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Chestnut-backed Antbirds are pretty  easy to see in Carara.

  • Black-faced Antthrushes: If Thursday was any indication, May is a fantastic time of the year for this rail-looking forest bird. Without even trying, I must have seen 8 of them while walking the HQ trails! I realize luck was also a factor but they were especially vocal and evident as they waltzed through the undergrowth. I also saw two different Great Tinamous.

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One of the Great Tinamous from Thursday.

  • Cloud cover: Although I already mentioned this under the temperature subtopic, it just might be the most important factor for good birding at Carara so it gets mentioned again. The birding is always better at Carara when there is some cloud cover and at this time of the year, it’s a rare day when you bird beneath brightly lit, blue skies. For some reason, that cloud cover makes undergrowth species like tinamous, antthrushes, and antbirds come out and play. As I experienced on Thursday, it even keeps them active during the normally languid mid-morning hours.
  • Bird song: When birds sing they are easier to find and there was no quiet time in the woods on Thursday. Although I also saw quite a few species (54), I heard at least 30 more. Green Shrike Vireos were singing from the canopy throughout the morning as were four species of trogons, four species of wrens, Streak-chested Antpitta, and lots of other stuff. It was especially good for woodcreepers with 6 species identified. The best of those tree-creeping rufousy birds was a Long-tailed Woodcreeper that was also singing! I was especially pleased to get recordings of most of its song as its vocalizations will play a key role in figuring out species limits of this taxon.  I hope to post its song on Xeno-Canto today.
  • Good activity in general: I am guessing that cloud cover played an important role but in general, the bird activity on Thursday was better than those hot, dry season days. I rain into several mixed flocks, one of which had the afore-mentioned woodcreeper, Russet Antshrike, Sulfur-rumped Flycatcher, Bay-headed Tanagers, and Slaty Antwren.

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Plain Xenops are standard birds of Carara. This one showed off its acrobatic skills at close range.

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Bay-headed Tanagers are always beautiful.

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Dot-winged Antwrens are very common in Carara.

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It’s also a good site for that feathered dancing fool known as the Red-capped Manakin.

  • Hermit leks: These just might be active all year long but get mentioned because they were especially good  on Thursday.

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Stripe-throated Hermits lek near the forest floor. They seem to be more shy when lekking than their bigger, long-billed cousins.

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This and other Long-billed Hermits let me stare at them to my heart’s content without showing any signs of fright. They perched about 2 meters above the ground.

  • The green season is cheaper: May and June are green season months and hotel prices are substantially cheaper just about everywhere you go.

It’s a good time to be birding Carara. Later on, the rains make the HQ trails a lot more muddy, flood the river trail entirely, and bring on an abundance of mosquitoes. It’s not like that now though and it doesn’t usually rain until the afternoon so don’t shy away from birding Costa Rica in May and June!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Pacific slope

Some Thoughts on Birding Costa Rica at Punta Leona

Carara National Park is one of the premier birding locations in Costa Rica. In addition to the easily accessible rainforests of the park, the area also boasts tropical dry forest, mangroves, and estuarine habitats and other wetlands. It’s a must on every birding trip to Costa Rica but ironically, there are few places to stay near the park. The top option for me has been Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations) since the place opened 6 or so years ago. Situated in forests that transition between wet and dry, this small eco-lodge also strives to be sustainable, has an open air restaurant with views of flyby parrots, parakeets, and Scarlet Macaws, and  frequented by Black and White Owls at night. It’s fairly close to Carara (maybe 6 kilometers) and the price is also lower than other options but you trade air conditioning for a ceiling fan (albeit a fast one!).

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The View from the Cerro Lodge restaurant.

Just past the park to the south is another of the main options for lodging when birding at Carara National Park. Villa Lapas (means Macaw Villas) is a bit more upscale than Cerro Lodge, the rooms have air conditioning, and the price is higher. Birding is good but you see the same species in the national park. One cheaper option I know of is the Hotel Carara in Tarcoles. A moderately priced place situated right in the middle of Tarcoles, it’s also close to the park and mangroves that are the home of Panama Flycatchers, the rare Mangrove Hummingbird, Mangrove Vireo, and other choice birds. Although it’s just off the beach, that doesn’t count much for swimming because the water on that particular strand is the most polluted in the country (hosts effluent straight from the over-populated Central Valley).

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Villa Lapas.

Heading further south, we come to some nice roadside restaurants (try the Marisqueria Ranchoticos!) and eventually reach the next major option for lodging near Carara: Punta Leona. I stayed there while guiding this past weekend and here’s my two colones about the place as an option for accommodation while birding Costa Rica near Carara:

Upsides:

  • Comfort: I didn’t see all of the rooms but the one we stayed in was certainly comfortable enough. Two queen-sized (I think) beds, cable TV, hot water in the bathroom, clean, mini fridge, and a master blaster of an air conditioning unit! That last factor was pretty important because that general area is a natural greenhouse with the heat turned on.
  • Birding around the lodging: There was fair habitat right around our lodging and this was demonstrated by a good number of common species as well as Slaty-tailed, Gartered, and Baird’s Trogons (!), Scarlet Macaws, and Gray-headed Tanagers. One afternoon, we even had an antswarm near the restaurant and got great looks at the aforementioned tanagers and Tawny-winged Woodcreepers.

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Habitat near the rooms.

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Gray-headed Tanager.

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Rufous-breasted Wren- common but can be tough to see and much more difficult to photograph!

  • Forest Reserve: On the way in, you drive through some beautiful, old growth rainforest. The trees are massive, the birds are calling, and there are a couple of good trails that access it. “Good birds” that seemed to  be fairly common were Great Tinamou, Baird’s Trogon, Black-hooded Antshrike, White-whiskered Puffbird, Rufous Piha, Dot-winged Antwren, Riverside, Rufous and white, Rufous-breasted, and Scaly-breasted Wrens, and some other nice birds.

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The forest reserve is beautiful.

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Rufous Pihas were pretty common.

  • Good for the family: If you are traveling with a non-birding spouse or offspring, Punta Leona is a nice option. Although they should obviously be experiencing the endemic biodiversity of rainforests at Punta Leona, there are also swimming pools on hand, a zipline tour they can take, other activities, and two beautiful beaches.
  • Breakfast with monkeys: Eat breakfast at the Carabelas restaurant and you get to see White-faced Capuchins and Coatis up close! This can also be a downside though is they steal the food off your plate. Although that didn’t happen to us, the animals at breakfast seemed bold enough to be capable of doing it.

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I had to chase this White-faced Capuchin off so she wouldn’t jump up on our table!

  • Security: The controlled access to the place makes it quite secure (or at least that’s the way it appeared). Honestly, though, I think it’s a pretty darn safe place.

An now for the downsides…

  • Access: Getting into the place in strictly controlled so you can’t just drive on in. You have to make your reservations in advance and they check at the front gate. Will they let you in to bird if not staying there? I kind of doubt it but maybe they will if you eat at the restaurant? Before we left, we even had to get an exit pass from the reception! It was quite Hotel Californiesque and that doesn’t sit so well with me.
  • The plastic pink bracelet: You have to wear this plastic pink bracelet during your stay that marks you as a verifiable tourist in and outside of the place. If it attracted hummingbirds, that would be one thing but the hermits wizened up to those bracelets some time ago.
  • Price: A visit to Punta Leona doesn’t come cheap and the restaurants are ridiculously priced. By that statement, I mean $20 for lunch and similar prices.
  • Food: If the food didn’t cost so much, I probably wouldn’t throw Punta Leona vittles in with the other downsides. Lunch and dinner might be much better but if they are like breakfast, they aren’t worth $20 a person. Now, at first glance, I admit that I was impressed by the breakfast buffet. After all, there was a a table that offered sliced fruit, copious amounts of pinto (rice and beans), sweet plantain, pancakes, cereals, ham slices, rolls, a few pastries, and an omelette station. Nevertheless, my wife was non-plussed and reminded me that everything was actually pretty darn basic. After a second, closer glance, I realized she was right! The pinto had little flavor, some of the fruit was bland, her omelette wasn’t very good, and several of the pancakes were little traps that revealed, raw, liquid interiors upon cutting into them. The ham slices were cheap cold cuts but most of all, I couldn’t get my own coffee! You have to wait for a server to bring it to you and although they try, it might not arrive straight away (a huge disadvantage in the morning hours!). I should also mention that my wife, daughter, and I all had some stomach problems and we suspect that it came from the food at Punta Leona. I can’t prove it but that would be the most logical explanation.
  • Habitat destruction: This is the biggest reason why I won’t be going back to Punta Leona. While I laud them for their forest reserve, quite a few areas were cleared for housing and more hotel buildings, and other forested areas appeared to be slated for development (read destruction). This was noted in places where the undergrowth has been cleared. Someone told me that they do this to then support their claim that such areas aren’t actually forested and can thus be developed. I haven’t researched that possibility or anything but it seems plausible. At the same time, they say that they have made efforts to be sustainable but I just feel like the habitat destruction negates that.

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An example of the construction going on at Punta Leona.

  • People: Punta Leona is quite popular as a weekend destination for tourists from San Jose. While it wasn’t all that noisy, if you are looking for a place to watch birds and see few vehicles or other people, this isn’t one of them. I should stress that it didn’t feel crowded and this isn’t necessarily a downside, it also didn’t feel as if I was heading into some wild, remote place. I didn’t expect it to be that but I just mention it so birders know what to expect.

To sum things up, Punta Leona is fair site for birding, it’s a short drive to Carara, and is family friendly. However, it’s definitely not an eco-lodge (nor is it advertised as such), is fairly expensive, and has traded a bunch of habitat for buildings. As for myself, I will stick to staying at Cerro Lodge for birding near Carara.

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Birding in Costa Rica on the Providencia Road

Whether guiding or not, I try to get out birding at least once a week. It provides a much needed escape from the greater San Jose area of Costa Rica (an over-urbanized place with skinny, twisting streets frequented by a plethora of bad drivers). It also gets me up into natural habitats where I can marvel at tropical biodiversity and feel more “at home”. I also make recordings of bird vocalizations and attempt to get pictures of birds with my antiquated digiscoping set-up. It’s always a great time and I often share the morning with Susan, a fellow birding friend.

On Sunday, Susan came by at the usual time of 4:30 a.m. and we made tracks for Cerro de la Muerte. The near absence of traffic at this early hour makes driving a joy but it still took at least an hour and a half to reach our starting point. The plan was to bird what is known as the Providencia Road, a rural byway that traverses some of the best highland forest habitats in Costa Rica. This auspicious road starts just across the street from the second Chispiritos restaurant and is situated at a chilly 3,000 meters. You will also recognize it by the sign that points to Providencia and the entrance to the Los Quetzales National Park. The restaurant is a popular stop for buses, trucks, and anyone else traveling over the mountain of death (that’s what Cerro de la Muerte means) and could be used for breakfast, lunch, and dinner while you looked for things like Zeledonias and Silver-throated Jays along that route to Providencia.

After a brief bathroom and coffee break at the restaurant, we headed over to the entrance of Providencia Road. Sooty Robins were seen, Barred Parakeet was heard, and an Ochraceous Pewee called (!). As the pewee would have been a lifer, we watched and waited for it but it had called out of sight and stayed that way.  It was easier to see the many Timberline Wrens that were vocalizing in the area. The first kilometer or so of the road could be the easiest, most accessible site for this species as they were very common and readily seen. The little bamboo gnomes still didn’t allow me to get a photo but what are you gonna do?

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Zeledonia land.

Further down the road, lots of Zeledonias (or Crowned Wrenthrush if you happen to have an aversion to the language of the Roman Empire) called and we got good looks at a couple in the bamboo undergrowth. Another Ochraceous Pewee called but this did the same as the last and stayed far from the road and out of sight. While groups of Band-tailed Pigeons flew overhead, expected species showed up like Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager.

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You won’t miss this regional highland endemic if you bird the high mountains of Costa Rica.

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Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush- hard to miss this one too.

There were also loads of Flame-throated Warblers.

Here is one from the back

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and another from the front.

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Other expecteds were Large-footed and Yellow-thighed Finches, Collared Redstart, Paltry Tyrannulet, Red-tailed Hawk (the local, non-band-bellied subspecies), Black-capped Flycatcher, Volcano, Fiery-throated, and Magnificent Hummingbirds,  Slaty Flowerpiercer, Yellow-winged Vireo, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, and others. We didn’t see too many fruiting trees and this was reflected by the absence of Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher and Spangle-cheeked Tanager.

Some of the better species that we recorded by sound were Resplendent Quetzal (just one calling bird as far as I recall), Buff-fronted Quail-Dove (another sole, distant calling bird), Rough-legged Tyrannulet (another heard only). Good species we saw were Silver-throated Jay (always a good one!), Buffy Tuftedcheek, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Barred Becard, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and

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Black-cheeked Warbler– another smart-looking highland endemic.

The scenery along this road was also spectacular. We drove through kilometers of excellent high elevation forest and this road must surely be a good site to try for Unspotted Saw-whet Owl at night. A couple of trails also left the road although we didn’t check those.

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The Providencia Road.

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Great high elevation birding in Costa Rica along this route!

The first few kilometers didn’t require 4 wheel drive but that changed as we got closer to the village of Providencia. A settlement more or less situated in the middle of nowhere, you will know that you are getting close when you see deforested hillsides with a scattering of cows. The birds (and constant descent) told us that the elevation was also much lower than the high parts of the road. Clay-colored Robins replaced the Sootys, Blue-gray Tanagers were around and we picked up Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and Elegant Euphonia. The drive up and out of the valley eventually leads to the road that goes by El Toucanet Lodge. We took that and made due note of the need for 4-wheel drive along parts of it and that it took much longer than expected! As that part of the road gets back into the high elevations, it also passes through excellent forest before descending into drier habitats near El Toucanet. It then heads into the town of El Copey and can be taken to Santa Maria de Dota and back to the main highway.

http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress/2011/04/25/birding-el-toucanet-lodge-costa-rica/

Acorn Woodpeckers are fairly common around Providencia.

Although doing the entire road requires some stamina and a 4-wheel drive, some of the best birding is up near the top and traffic is minimal at best. You could even bird that area by bus. Just take any bus that passes over Cerro de la Muerte (to or from San Isidro del General) and get off at the Chispiritos restaurant near the entrance to the Los Quetzales National Park. From there, you can walk the road and head in on the trails. If you use the trails, keep in mind that you are probably supposed to pay a national parks entrance fee at the nearby offices (you will see them). The next time I go (and I plan on going again soon), I will stick to the first 4 kilometers of the road.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope

Easy, Great Caribbean Lowland Birding in Costa Rica at El Gavilan Hotel

A lot of birders automatically assume that they have to stay at La Selva when birding the Caribbean lowlands near San Jose. Although that was probably true 30 years ago, birders have had their pick of accommodations ranging from Bed and Breakfasts to full scale eco-lodges since the early 90s. Although you can still stay at La Selva, it’s not a requisite for getting in some great Caribbean lowland birding. In fact, I always tell birders that they are better off staying outside of the biological station and signing up for the early morning birding tour than staying at the station itself.

No doubt, some who are reading this may be thinking that, “What?! Not stay at La Selva? You must be joking!”

Yes, that’s right, no laughter, and no stay at La Selva. The reasons why I don’t feel that you absolutely need to stay at La Selva are:

1. Cost: Staying there is expensive and the cafeteria fare isn’t exactly a taste tingling experience either. You get better value for your bucks at true hotels and restaurants outside of the station.

2. Birding: Strange to say that but you can see the same birds and more by combining a visit to La Selva with other sites in the area. The birding at La Selva is still a great experience but it’s not the fantastic birding that it used to be. Nunbirds are now very rare at best (used to be common), many understory insectivores have become very rare or disappeared, and most terrestrial species have become much less common due to an overabundance of Collared Peccaries.

3. The early morning birding tour: Although I know some people who have run into problems in taking this tour (certain guide promised and didn’t show up or they were put with people on a regular tour), I still think it’s worth it to do this one. Although staying there gives you access to the trails on your own, you still might not find the fruitcrows, the roosting potoo, the umbrellabird, or other goodies on your own. Guides on the early morning bird tour, however, will probably bring you to those and other specialties. Just make sure to sign up for this in advance.

The other main reason is due to places like El Gavilan.  I like bringing clients to this place simply because it’s so easy to see lots of birds. The lack of extensive primary forest means that many forest understory species are absent (things like tinamous, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-faced Antthrush, etc.) but the old second growth and old growth riparian forest along the Sarapiqui River kind of makes up for that. Throw in an active fruit feeder and good viewing of fruiting trees and you will be in for some  really easy, quality birding. I was reminded of this during a recent weekend of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. Using El Gavilan as a base, we birded the grounds and trails of that hotel, the edge of La Selva, Chilamate, and hit El Tapir on the way down from San Jose and Quebrada Gonzalez on the way up.

Since El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez deserve their own posts, I’ll just mention that we got Snowcap, saw a bunch if White-necked Jacobins, Brown Violetear, and other hummingbirds at El Tapir, and got Lattice-tailed Trogon, Emerald Tanager, Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, Spotted Antbird, White-whiskered Puffbird, and some other goodies at Quebrada Gonzalez.

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The White-whiskered Puffbird must have had a nest nearby.

Down at El Gavilan, large movements of Eastern Kingbirds, Red-Eyed Vireos and several kettles of raptors (TVs, Swainon’s Hawks, and one big flock of Mississippi Kites) kept the binocular action going throughout our stay. The kingbirds would fly in, descend en-masse into a fruiting tree and then zip off to continue their journey north. They shared the fruiting trees with Keel-billed, Black (Chestnut)-mandibled Toucans, Collared Aracaris, and various flycatchers and tanagers. Some of those tanagers came down to the fruit feeder now and then and included:

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Dusky-faced Tanager. This Icteridish species troops through the understory around the hotel and then comes out to the feeder for excellent, close studies.

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Shining Honeycreeper. It was very nice to get such close looks at this diminutive jewel without needing to strain our necks by staring up into the canopy.

birding Costa Rica

Black-cowled Oriole was another species that came to the feeder.

The feeder is in the middle of a courtyard that is also good for watching flyovers of Red-lored, Mealy, and White-crowned Parrots, and Olive-throated and Orange-chinned Parakeets. Great Green Macaw also shows up sometimes although we only saw a pair near La Selva and Chilamate over the course of the weekend. We had great views at plenty of toucans along with

birding Costa Rica

Short-billed Pigeons

birding Costa Rica

and Pale-vented Pigeon

birding Costa Rica

The view of the courtyard at El Gavilan.

The forest birding also turned out to be pretty good. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than one Plain-brown Woodcreeper along with the expected White-collared Manakins, Gray-chested Doves, Bay Wrens, Cinnamon Becards, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Fasciated Antshrike, and Bright-rumped Attila.

birding Costa Rica

Plain-brown Woodcreeper being shy about its pointy bill.

birding Costa Rica

a male Red-throated Ant-Tanager– believe me when I say this was a tough photo to get!

Despite checking the river and oxbow creeks several times, I couldn’t find Green Ibis or Sunbittern that are regularly seen there. Nor did we get good looks at species I have seen at El Gavilan in the past like Snowy Cotinga, Black-striped Woodcreeper, or Long-tailed Tyrant. Two of the more uncommon species we did get were Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Bronzy Hermit, and a glimpse of a male Black-crested Coquette. However, the prize for best bird probably goes to Spectacled Owl.

birding Costa Rica

A pair of Spectacled Owls uses the forest around El Gavilan and are frequently found at one of their roosts. Amazingly, we also flushed one on the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez!

There are several places to stay near La Selva that fit into most budgets. El Gavilan is moderately priced, especially if you get the meal package. If you didn’t want to eat there, you can also dine at restaurants in nearby Puerto Viejo or Chilamate but then you would miss out on meals accompanied by some wonderful feeder action.