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!
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.
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.
Plain Xenops are standard birds of Carara. This one showed off its acrobatic skills at close range.
Bay-headed Tanagers are always beautiful.
Dot-winged Antwrens are very common in Carara.
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.
Stripe-throated Hermits lek near the forest floor. They seem to be more shy when lekking than their bigger, long-billed cousins.
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!