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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Big Misses from Birding Costa Rica in 2012

I wish I could recount some exciting Costa Rican birding experience that involved dancing my way across a column of army ants while expertly digiscoping a face-off between Black-crowned Antpittas and R.V. Ground-cuckoos as Ocellated Antbirds watched from the Heliconia sidelines. Such Jedi-style adventures will have to wait until 2013, though, because I am currently in the land of gulls.

Niagara Falls is also known as the Honeymoon Capital of the world but the real attraction in my home town are the gulls. Blizzards of them rise and fall above the rapids that rush to the edge of the cataracts. Below the falls, a few thousand other Larids grace the lower river with pale elegant flight, and stirring cries.

It’s downright magical and although I have been here for a week, I still need to get in some quality gull-watching time. I’m not so eager to expose myself to the bone-jarring cold of a Niagara winter but doesn’t magic always come with a price? I also need to study the rafts of scaup on the river to brush up on Greaters just in case I come across one in Costa Rica (which would be a major rarity since there is just one fully documented record for the country).

birding Costa Rica

Glittering hummingbirds are more common than ducks when birding in Costa Rica.

Until then, I hope not to bore readers of this blog by recounting some of my big misses from my birdiest year yet in Costa Rica. I got 17 species more than my year goal of 600 and a few of those happened to be choice lifers. However, I also missed some birds and the following are the ones that stand out:

  • Slaty-breasted Tinamou: It seems like I should have at least heard the low-pitched tune of that wily, reddish-legged dumpling of a bird while birdwatching in Sarapiqui and Laguna del Lagarto.
  • Fasciated Tiger-Heron: I usually get this one during the course of the year but despite much checking of rocky rivers and streams in places where I have seen them in the past, no dice on the thick-billed Tigrisoma!

birding Costa Rica

A Fasciated Tiger-Heron at Chilamate, Costa Ricam from 2011.

  • Sunbittern: While we are talking about rocky rivers, I might as well mention that I also missed Sunbittern! I probably would have seen one if I had waited by a suitable spot for a few hours but I didn’t feel like doing that in 2012. I might in 2013 though because I’m thinking of doing a sort of more serious Big Year.
  • Wattled Jacana: This species is a rare vagrant in Costa Rica but I mention it because I am pretty sure I glimpsed one at a marsh near Cerro Lodge. It was just a moment and at a fair distance but I am 99% sure that I saw red on the bill and that the bird looked blackish. However, it didn’t come back out of that distant marsh so I don’t feel right about counting it.
  • Buff-breasted Sandpiper: They were at the airport again and I looked for them on several occasions. Hopefully next year.

birding Costa Rica

It’s much easier to see Collared Plovers than Buff-breasteds.

  • Franklin’s Gull: I’ll put this one on the list because it’s a common migrant in the right places. I just didn’t go to those right places at the right time of year.
  • Hooded Merganser: This lost little duckie showed up at Pocosol but I could never find time to go and see it! Will it show up again? Well, I could also win the lottery but I don’t count on it.
  • Great Potoo: I figured that I would have at least heard a “BAAWK!!” from one of these huge nocturnal creatures.

birding Costa Rica

Yes, Great Potoos usually resemble a big, bunch of feathers when espied during the day.

  • Magenta-throated Woodstar and Scintillant Hummingbird: I just didn’t look long enough at the right elevations for these two tiny species. Will probably get both of them on a trip to El Toucant in January, 2013.
  • Lanceolated Monklet: No surprise there but I still missed it for the year. I know a spot near La Fortuna though and plan on hitting it in 2013…
  • Black-headed Antthrush: Since I usually at least hear this rain loving antbird in foothill forests near San Ramon, I kind of wonder if I did identify one but forgot to mark it down.
  • Tawny-chested Flycatcher: It’s a rare one alright! Now if you shell out the bucks for Rancho Naturalista, you are almost certain to see it. I did little birding out that way in 2012, though, so no oddly rare flycatcher for me.
  • Sharpbill: I usually get this weirdo at Quebrada Gonzalez. I guess it just wasn’t giving its high-pitched crazy descending call while I was birding those foothill forests.
  • Ashy-throated Bush Tanager: Another bird that I usually get at Quebrada…I wonder if I saw it and forgot to make a mental note. It’s not exactly a flashy bird so that could be the case.

Since the Costa Rica list is around 900 species, I also technically missed well over 250 birds. With that in mind, I better go birding as soon as I get back to Costa Rica! In the meantime, I’ll watch some gulls and hope for crossbills in Western New York.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

My Best Bird from a Year of Birding in Costa Rica during 2012

According to the calendar followed by myself and many folks in the world, the end of yet another year is nigh. Those December days can be exciting ones for a birder. Christmas counts abound, the tension to squeeze a few more species out of the remaining days of 2012 becomes paramount for people doing a Big Year, and we can look back and revel in the personal birding high points that took place since January first.
birding Costa Rica

Snowy Cotinga was one of the first great birds I saw in 2012.

For me, those high points included a bamboo seeding event on Poas and Barva volcanoes that attracted a host of species that specialize on the seeds of said grass. Peg-billed Finches were finally common. Rare, juncoish Slaty Finches made an appearance, and Barred Parakeets were often glimpsed as they zipped overhead. I missed the ground-dove with the burgundy-stained chest but I bet there were hidden away in some inaccessible, bamboo choked ravine.

birding Costa Rica

Quetzals are the greenest of greens.

Poas in 2012 was also good for the ever spectacular Resplendent Quetzal and I saw many a Black Guan but one of the most amazing, dream-like birding experiences I have ever bore witness to happened much further downslope in the town of Santa Barbara de Heredia in late June. I awoke to a bird making an odd chattering sound near my backyard just after dawn and since it was a parrot that I didn’t recognize, you could say that I was rather intrigued. As I rushed to get my binos, a neighbor’s pet seemed to be the most logical explanation because the other possibility just seemed…well…unbelievable.

Much to my pleasant surprise, I saw that the mystery psittacine was not behind bars but was perched on a cable and its shape fit that second very unlikely hypothesis! Amazingly, yes, it looked like it was probably a Red-fronted Parrotlet but the look was 100% silhouette so I ran for my scope. After racing to get the scope out of a Pelican case and praying that the bird was still there, I rushed into my bedroom, wedged the tripod-less scope against the window and zoomed in on the bird. Sure enough, there was the red crown, short tail, light colored bill, and red on the face that assured me that yes, this was most certainly the toughest parrot species to see in Costa Rica!

birding Costa Rica

Where I saw the parrotlet- a bird that wanders across a range of elevations, but usually in much more forested habitats.

Certainly one of the best sightings I have ever had given the rarity of the species, the fact that it was a definite lifer, and the unusual circumstances, but it got beat out for bird of the year by another even more mystical species. That was none other that the almost legendary Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. Like its Northern cousin, it’s about as close as one can get to having a live, flesh and blood, toy stuffed animal. Unlike the other saw-whet, though, you can’t expect to see it just about ever. I mean you can brave its cold, high elevation habitats in the dark of the night and try for it again and again and again, but you would still be lucky to see it. I don’t make that statement lightly either but base it on the fact that very few people have laid eyes on this cutest of owls in Costa Rica, and I have tried for it on several occasions.

Ernesto Carman also tried for it on many an occasion and it took him about five years to finally find the bird. That fifth year was 2012 and this excellent birding guide was gracious enough to show myself and a few other friends one of the birds during the month of October. We got it in park-like habitats at about 2,300 meters on Volcan Turrialba on a clear, star-filled night. We heard it give its pygmy-owl like calls, saw it flutter out to snatch an unlucky arthropod, and watched it for about 15 minutes as it sat in the high branches of a tree in a cold, wet pasture. Basically, the experience was as soul satisfying as we could imagine.

This was my best bird of the year and although I couldn’t commemorate the event with photos, I cherish memories of that special night made vivid by the importance of both the bird and the people who shared the occasion: Robert Dean, Susan Blank, Johan Kuilder, Ineke van Leeuwen, and Ernesto and his wife.

birding Costa Rica

The owl even beat out my long anticipated and awaited meeting with a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

What will 2013 bring for birding in Costa Rica? The only way to find out is to get out and do a bunch of birding. Luckily, I plan on doing just that.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope

Exciting Results from Veragua Christmas Count 2012

Christmas counts are happening in Costa Rica but scheduling conflicts and a trip to Niagara Falls are keeping me out of the count loop this year. I might make it to the Aerial Tram count but am sadly missing everything else. One count I would have loved to have participated in is the ever exciting Veragua Christmas Count. I did it the previous year and despite missing Sulphur-rumped Tanager by a birding inch, it was still a fantastic experience replete with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Gray-headed Kite, White-fronted Nunbird, and lots of other sweet rainforest birds.

birding Costa Rica

Gray-headed Kite from last year’s count.

Although I missed out on the Veragua birding fun this year, I was happy to learn that tons of great birds were seen by the 67 participate. Count organizer Daniel Torres was nice enough to send me the count results and here are some highlights and interesting observations:

  • 417 species: This was the grand total and hints at the fantastic diversity in southeastern Costa Rica. Of those 417 species, 18 were new for the count!
  • Rarities: Some of the rarest species found were Paint-billed Crake, Solitary Eagle, Black-banded and Strong-billed Woodcreepers, Speckled Mourner, and Lovely Cotinga. The crake is probably more common than is realized but it’s still a great bird to see in Costa Rica. The eagle is very rare in the country, on the Costa Rican endangered list, and very few are positively identified. The woodcreepers mentioned are pretty rare in the country and also very infrequently seen, same goes for Lovely Cotinga. The Speckled Mourner is also one of the rarer of Costa Rica’s avifauna. Despite that extensive range shown in the field guide, it is almost never seen anywhere and even guides who spend most of their time in the field have either never seen it or have seen just one Speckled Mourner ever in Costa Rica (I fall into that latter category-just one bird in a mixed flock at El Tapir more than 10 years ago).
  • Good numbers of Caribbean slope forest-based species: The numbers of forest-based species found that have become rare at any other sites show that Veragua and surroundings harbor some great forested habitats. Such species that made it onto the list were 7 Black-eared Wood-Quail, 5 Semiplumbeous Hawks, 6 Slaty-backed Forest-Falcons, 7 Olive-backed Quail-Doves,  7 Central American Pygmy-Owls, 4 White-tipped Sicklebills, 7 Lattice-tailed Trogons, 19 White-fronted Nunbirds, 12 Spot-crowned Antvireos, 37 Ocellated Antbirds, 89 Purple-throated Fruitcrows, 30 Sulphur-rumped Tanagers, and 56 White-vented Euphonias!

birding Costa Rica

This pygmy-owl was from last year’s count.

birding Costa Rica

Nice to bird in a place where massively orange-billed nunbirds are still fairly common.

  • Low numbers of certain species: I was surprised to see that just 8 Stripe-breasted Wrens were found since that species is typically very common in forested habitats of the Caribbean slope. The low count could stem from a lower occurrence of song at this time of the year. More alarming was that just one Golden-winged Warbler and one Bare-necked Umbrellabird made it onto the count list. While Golden-wings have become less common in Costa Rica, I would have still expected more than one bird during the count. As for the umbrellabird, they should be frequenting the low elevations covered in the count circle at this time of the year and the fact that just one was found despite so much coverage in good habitat hints at how rare this species is. It seems that large areas of high quality forest from the lowlands up to about 1,400 meters are required to host a healthy population of Bare-necked Umbrellabirds. To prevent this species from declining further and becoming endangered with extinction (it’s already listed as vulnerable), we probably need to expand corridors and maybe reforest more lowland sites with key fruiting trees in various parts of Costa Rica.

birding Costa Rica

A Bare-necked Umbrellabird from Tirimbina Reserve, another good site for this spectacular, wacky cotinga.

For the best in lowland Caribbean slope birding in Costa Rica, bird Veragua and other sites in the southeastern part of the country. There is a good amount of forest and who knows what you might see at those underbirded sites. To bird at Veragua, you may need to take a tour. If interested in visiting for birding, contact them and ask for Daniel Torres.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Some Tips for the Upcoming Season for Birding in Costa Rica

It’s birding season in Costa Rica! Ok, well it almost is and since you are going to see lots of birds any time of the year in this biodiverse place, an actual birding season is kind of debatable. But, hey, this is a blog and I since I am the sole editor, I can be as creative as I want. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the birding season thing.

You see, the majority of birders and organized tours come to Costa Rica from January to April. They think this is the best time to visit for birding because it’s drier, that’s when most people go, and more birds might be singing. In other words, vacations are sort of planned on hearsay. Well, hearsay is alright as long as it’s accurate and in the case of birding in Costa Rica, I would assess the accuracy of the dry season being the best time to visit at around 70%.

While it does tend to rain less during the first four months of the year, the lower degree of precipitation does not generally include the Caribbean slope. In fact, if I head over to the other side of the volcanic ranges visible from my window between January and March, I could easily be birding in fierce downpours for hours on end while everything gets the moisture sucked out of it by sun and wind back over on the Pacific slope. For this reason, I prefer to do my Caribbean slope birding in September and October because while those represent two of the wetter months on the Pacific, they are usually the driest on the Caribbean.

birding Costa Rica

I took this picture of a Slaty-tailed Trogon during a nice, less wet September on the Caribbean slope.

Speaking of rain, dry doesn’t necessarily mean good when it comes to birding. I get tired of the rain but as just about anyone whom I have guided knows, I long for a nice, cloudy day. Those cloudy days with intermittent rain are the best times to go birding in any habitat in the country because the most beautiful of sunny days are also the most birdless. Who knows why this is the case but it definitely is. Therefore, when birding this upcoming dry season, make sure you get up before dawn and focus on all things avian until about 8:30 AM when the hot sun shoots down with ultraviolet fury to put a damper on activity.

Some other tips with those small black circles we call “bullets” for quick reference:

  • Don’t expect high numbers of raptors: Vultures are excluded from this statement because you will see more than enough of those (except Yellow-headed and King- you can get those at the right places but not in huge numbers). High forest raptor diversity and too much edge habitat means fewer sightings of raptors. You should see singles of several species over a two week trip but don’t expect anything like the raptor experience of the African savannahs (or so I have heard).

birding Costa Rica

You might see a gorgeous White Hawk or two.

birding Costa Rica

And a dramatic Bat Falcon.

  • Good birds are found at more sites than places visited on tours: It’s fine to stick to the usual tour circuit but there are other excellent sites found in other places. Good forest habitat is key so if you have that, you will see lots of birds.
  • Check out some new sites like the Costa Rica Eco-Observatory: Located in Sarapiqui and easy to get to, this is the perfect place to visit for bird photography. The deck also offers looks into the canopy of lowland forest and can be good for scoped views of parrots, Snowy Cotinga, raptors, and who knows what else.

birding Costa Rica

View of the canopy- would love to do an all day count there!

  • Get a GPS unit for the rental car: Still not many signs and finding your way through and around the Central Valley can be a challenge (or a nightmare). Fewer traffic cops and narrow roads means that a fair number of people drive with little consideration and little brains. More people drive with compassion and intelligence but there are enough of the former to warrant a very careful attitude for driving when hitting Costa Rican roads.
  • Don’t forget the field guide, don’t forget your binocular: Just a reminder…
  • To see more birds, hire an experienced guide: No matter how well you get ready for the trip, an experience birding guide should know more vocalizations and where to find many of the rarities.

birding Costa Rica

You might even see a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo

birding Costa Rica

Lovely Cotinga, or Lattice-tailed Trogon like some of my luckier clients did this year

birding Costa Rica

although Snowcap is a lot more likely.

Hope to see you out in the field this upcoming birding season in Costa Rica!