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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope south pacific slope

Updates and Highlights from a Morning of Birding at Carara National Park on May 29th

Carara National Park and surroundings is always a good bet for birding in Costa Rica. Whether it happens to be your first time in the neotropics or your 20th, the easy access to a variety of habitats and high quality forests in the national park turn the general area into a birding paradise. However, if I had to make a critique or two, they would be:

1. The place is damn hot (at least for me).

2. The park doesn’t open at 6 am, nor does it offer refreshments (like say an ice bath).

3. The pastures between the rainforests of the park and the Tarcoles mangroves may doom the local Yellow-billed Cotinga population. I don’t say this lightly. Since, the cotingas appear to have decreased over the years and the population is probably fewer than 10 individuals, who knows how long this endangered species will persist in the area.

Solutions to such complaints might be:

1. Do the usual fluid drinking thing (and drink the very refreshing, cold coconut water often sold by a guy at the crocodile bridge).

2. The park hours aren’t going to change anytime soon so just bird outside of the park at sites such as the Bijagual road, around Tarcoles, or near Cerro Lodge.

3. We need to plant more fruiting trees near the Tarcoles mangroves  and make better corridors between the mangroves and the national park.

Ok, so as far as updates and highlights for Carara go…

1. The Universal Trail is finally done. For the past 5 months, the Universal Trail was closed but now it’s finally done, and there is a new booth for park tickets right there at the the main parking lot. Oh, and the trail looks great too with several spots to sit and wait for Great Tinamous and Spectacled Antpittas to walk on by.

The new Universal Trail at Carara.

2. Outside of Carara, the vegetation around Cerro Lodge continues to grow and attract birds, and air conditioning is planned for at least some (maybe all?) rooms later this year!

The view over the cabins at Cerro Lodge.

3. Speaking of Cerro Lodge, Striped Cuckoo was showing well from the restaurant the other day, along with flyby Yellow-naped, White-crowned, and White-fronted Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons, Turquoise-browed Motmots (very easy there), and other species.

Striped Cuckoo.

4. Inside the park, bird song resounded among the immense trees and dim understory. Although it took a while to actually see some of those birds, the morning song ambiance was priceless. Some of the first birds we saw ended up being species like White-whiskered Puffbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Gray-headed Tanagers at an antswarm! We also got fantastic looks at a Black-faced Antthrush that was walking back and forth and a couple of Bicolored Antbirds.

5. Around the same time, we had amazing, close looks at a Great Tinamou that carefully walked on past and stood in the forest as we took photos.

I was able to digiscope this Great Tinamou in the dim understory because it stood so still for so long but was so close, I could only focus on its weird ratite noggin! I had to restrain myself from petting it.

6. Further up the trail, the next big highlight was finding a small group of Marbled Wood Quail while trying to watch a lek of Stripe-throated Hermits! This was a serious treat because these unobtrusive understory birds are rarely seen at Carara. I found them after hearing the quail scratching in the leaf litter. It was kind of ridiculous trying to digiscope birds in very low light conditions that look like leaf litter and are obscured by vegetation but try I did and some shots sort of came out..

Marbled Wood Quail!

After foraging for a bit, the wood quail got up onto a low branch and roosted together. We could actually watch them through the scope for several minutes.

Three Marbled Wood Quail roosting on a low branch.
A Marbled Wood Quail shows off its massive orange-red eyering.

Leaving the wood quail, we got close looks at a Rufous-tailed Jacamar, had very good looks at a rare Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet, and got onto some nice mixed flock activity before eating lunch at a seaside restaurant (where we also saw a dozen Surfbirds for a new year bird bonus!).

Carara is a pretty good site for Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

It seems like no matter how many times you bird Carara, you are always in for an exciting, birdy time.

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A Weekend Birding Trip to Pocosol Research Station

“Pocosol” can be translated to “little sun”.  While a place with such a foreboding name sounds more like somewhere to stay away from rather than visiting for birding, in the case of the Pocosol Research Station, just the opposite is the case. It will probably rain and visitors can expect cloudy weather, but they can also expect fantastic foothill forest birding with chances of seeing several rarities.

Pocosol is the part of the Monteverde forest complex situated on the lower end of the Caribbean slope and is officially gazetted within the Children’s Eternal Rainforest. Like the name says, these forests were bought with funds donated by kids around the globe. Each one of those children (who are now adults) should receive some sort of gilded thank you note or get a free pass for entering the area because they made a truly wonderful gift to the world. Although Pocosol is rarely visited by birders doing Costa Rica, it’s probably one of the best sites in the country for lower middle elevation birds. There’s a very simple reason why Pocosol is so good for birding: quality habitat.  Pocosol is located within a large block of well-protected primary forest and this is immediately demonstrated by the quality and quantity of the birds that are encountered.

The forest at Pocosol.

On a recent weekend of guiding the local birding club at Pocosol, the bird activity was nearly non-stop from the time we arrived to the time we left the station. Cloudy weather, the breeding season, and fruiting trees gave us birds to watch nearly everywhere we looked. At the station itself, Montezuma Oropendolas had filled a tree with their long, hanging nests.

Montezuma Oropendola having a stretch.

In another, nearby tree, Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were also nesting.

Chestnut-headed Oropendolas have such strange faces.

In between all of this giant, ornate oriole action, a fruiting Lauraceous tree was bringing in common birds like Clay-colored Thrushes and Bay-headed Tanagers, fancy species like Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans, and colorful birds typically seen in flight like Brown-hooded Parrots.

While some of the habitat in front of the station is thick  second growth, this provided a stage for many singing Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, and Thicket Antpittas (which some of us saw). Many birds also trooped through Cecropias and the crowns of nearby trees that were visible at eye level from the balcony of our lodging.

Cinnamon Becards were frequently seen around the station.
Black-cowled Orioles were a common sight.
As were Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers.

The station also has several trails with exciting birding. Although a couple days wasn’t enough time to properly bird all of them, they gave us a glimpse into the excellent birding in store for anyone who walks them. The trail down to and near the lagoon goes through forest and an old Guava plantation and while the plantation area isn’t as good as the forest, it can still turn up quail-doves and who knows what else. On other parts of this trail, we had Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Tawny-throated Leaftosser and

Purplish-backed Quail Dove foraging on the trail.
Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (good site for this warblerish flycatcher).
Black and yellow Tanagers (if only it would have turned its head!).
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, and other goodies.

Continuing past the lagoon, you can either veer off to the Miradores Trail or go straight on towards the Los Eladios station. Either way, you will be in for some great birding as you venture through excellent primary forest. If it sounds like I was impressed, yes I certainly was. I think the area has some of the highest quality forest in the country and I would love to go back and just spend an entire day deep in the woods back where the Miradores Trail reaches a stream.

Although the birding is tough in such places, it’s where you have a chance at seeing things like forest-falcons, antpittas, and maybe even a surprise or two like Crested Eagle and Great Jacamar. No, we didn’t see those but student groups have seen them at and near Pocosol during the past two years! While waiting for bird action back in the primary forest on our last morning, we may have even heard a distant Great Jacamar. Although it was far off, and the call sounded a bit lower in pitch than Great Jacamar vocalizations I am used to, the quality was pretty much the same and matched a recording of a slightly lower pitched call of this species. Unfortunately, it didn’t come in to playback and only called three times so I can’t say for sure what it was but since it sounded like nothing else, and I am very familiar with bird vocalizations from the avifauna at Pocosol, I suspect that it probably was a Great Jacamar- all the better reason for going back there!

Deep in the rainforest at Pocosol.

But now back to birds we did see. While hanging out in that same area, we got looks at Song Wren, heard Nightingale Wren (one of many heard during our stay), and got onto a canopy mixed flock with expected birds like Russet Antshrike, various tanagers, and Rufous Mourner. We also found a roosting Spectacled Owl back along the Miradores Trail.

The other main trail we checked out was the Fumaroles or ridge trail behind the station. This also accesses beautiful primary forest with a different aspect than the woods on the other trails. While we did not see species that can show up there like Sharpbill, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Ochre-breasted Antpitta, we did see Plain Antvireo, Brown-billed Scythebill (fairly common at Pocosol), White-throated Shrike Tanager, Thrushlike Schiffornis, and other birds, including a pair of Spectacled Owls (our second roosting Spectacled for the trip!).

Spectacled Owls at Pocosol.

Speaking of owls, we also heard Mottled and Crested near the station but couldn’t coax them into view. Nor did we find an antswarm but did hear at least two Ocellated Antbirds, a couple Bicoloreds, and one Spotted. Oh, not to mention, the trip yielded a lifer for myself, Robert Dean, and several other people. This special bird was White-chinned Swift, a species quickly identified by its scratchy vocalization, and distinct bat-like flight. We only saw 3 or 4 birds for about ten seconds compared to near constant sightings of many Vaux’s and White-collared Swifts.

As far as the station itself goes, setting up the trip was an easy affair that involved contacting them at their website and making a deposit into their account. I’m not sure how easy that would be for people outside of Costa Rica but I bet they have a way of doing that as it is run by the Monteverde Conservation Association. Lodging was in comfortable bunkbeds and service was very good with breakfast at the requested time. Downsides are cold water in the showers and a rough road in that is best done with four wheel drive.

As with other high quality sites, I wonder when I will get the chance to go back and hang out beneath those old, tall trees. If you go, please leave a comment about your trip!

It will be nice to bird from that balcony again.
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Want to Take Pictures of Birds in Costa Rica? Visit the Nature Pavilion!

Cameras have come a long way from the days when we worried about our film being affected by x-rays at the airport. Nowadays, while we still call them cameras, the digital photographic devices of the 21st century are on such a different level that perhaps it would be better to refer to them as Digital Image Devices or DIDs if you will. Then you could say, “Yes, I did take those 300 images with my DID”, and “Don’t forget to charge your DID before capturing crushing images of that Crested Guan in Costa Rica”.

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A crushed Crested Guan in Costa Rica.

No matter what we call our digital cameras, they sure are a wonderful leap in technology, especially when you take pictures of birds. You see, getting really good shots of birds requires dozens and even hundreds of shots of every subject because many of our feathered friends are rather hyperactive by nature and have this fondness for hanging out in places with twigs, branches, leaves, and other shutter clutter. Nor do they like to come very close to people (a trait for which we cannot blame them given our overall treatment of our natural surroundings). In ye olde days of Kodak film, you had to be extra careful of every shot you took because you couldn’t afford to waste film and zooming in was the luxury of those who could afford to pay thousands of dollars for a super-sized lens. However, in 2013,  as we are all well aware, those factors have sort of become null and void. With digital photography, you can press that shutter release button just to exercise your finger if you fancy and distance keeps getting closer with higher resolutions and better zoom capabilities.

Nevertheless, you still have to go to the right place to get lots of great photos of birds and the Nature Pavilion has become one of the top places, if not the number one site in Costa Rica for bird photography. David and Dave Lando, the father and son owners of the Nature Pavilion, have made bird photography a main focus (others being environmental education, reforestation, and conservation) of their place and yes, it’s a damn fine place for bird photography!

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The view from the deck of the Nature Pavilion.

I was very pleased to bring a client there this past Sunday because I knew he would get plenty of great shots of a variety of Costa Rican birds, and I love to scan the rainforest canopy from their deck. During a three hour visit, a quick scoping of the treetops revealed such showy species as both large toucans, Red-lored Parrot, Olive-throated Parakeet, Montezuma Oropendola, and Pale-billed Woodpecker. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher also called from a nearby perch and we could hear Rufous Motmot hooting from down in the woods.

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Distant tree with oropendolas and a toucan at the top.

As you can see, those birds were too far away for good pictures but the close ones more than made up for it. Despite May not being as ideal of a time for birds coming to fruit feeders as the months of December, January, February, and March, I would have to say that we did quite well in terms of bird photography.

White-necked Jacobin is the most abundant hummingbird.

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Male White-necked Jacobin.
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This one was in better light.

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer also showed up at the edge of the forest and there were a few Rufous-taileds and at least one Scaly-breasted around.

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Check out the pink feet on this rainforest hummingbird.

The fruit feeders were fairly quiet at first but eventually brought in everything from honeycreepers to Collared Aracari.

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Male Red-legged Honeycreepers were common visitors.
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They are kind of unbelievably beautiful birds.
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Female Red-legged Honeycreepers show up too.
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As do Golden-hooded Tanagers.

It was especially nice to get pictures of a Red-throated Ant-Tanager because these guys rarely come out into the open.

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Male Red-throated Ant-Tanager

Given that all of these pictures were digiscoped, you can only imagine the pictures you get with a DSLR! It’s no wonder that lots of pro photographers are coming to the Nature Pavilion and as more of the habitat grows up, it’s only going to get better. ALSO, the Nature Pavilion rents out the spacious, beautiful house with the canopy deck for a price that rivals several of the local eco-lodges. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com for details.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Fine Spring Day of Birding Costa Rica at Chomes

North American birders who are in Costa Rica for a couple of weeks won’t be going to the Chomes shrimp ponds. The reasoning is straightforward: Why watch shorebirds that you can see at home when you have tropical forests replete with flocks of glittering tanagers, sneaky antbirds, woodcreepers, and dozens of interesting flycatchers at your disposal? However, birders who reside outside of the western hemisphere would be well advised to make a trip to Chomes. It’s the best shorebird hotspot in Costa Rica, access is free and rather easy (a boon in a country where national parks and reserves seem not to want to cater so much to birders-strange but true) and the drive in is great for dry forest species.

Although I’m originally from North America, I love going to Chomes because I don’t get too many other chances to see shorebirds, terns, and the like. In Costa Rica, sites for seeing big concentrations of waterbirds are rather few in number and/or hard to access, especially around the Gulf of Nicoya. A sea kayak would be the best way to survey those waders and web-footed birds that frequent the estuary of the Tempisque River but at least we have Chomes to watch them from solid ground.

Two or so weeks ago, Susan Blank and I went to Chomes to see if any shorebirds were around and the trip did not disappoint. Despite not arriving at optimal high tide time, we still managed views of several shorebirds, saw some terns, and also connected with a few mangrove specialties. As usual, it was tough not to stop on the way in to hear and see the healthy variety of dry forest species that occur.

Shorebirds were our goal but they were trumped by four, hefty Yellow-naped Parrots.

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Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon, awesome parrots of the dry forest.

As usual, these smart birds watched us with curious, wary eyes while giving their distinctive calls.

Giving a pygmy-owl whistle also turned up White-lored Gnatcatcher,

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White-lored Gnatcatcher have dark lores at this time of the year while Tropicals have white lores (yes, it is confusing).

and Brown-crested Flycatcher. We also heard at least one Nutting’s but Brown-cresteds were much more common and seem to outnumber Nutting’s in more open areas.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher was fearless.

Moving on, we reached the village of Chomes in 10-15 minutes and drove on in to the shrimp pond area using the public access road at the southeast corner of the village. You can also go in through the front gate to the ponds if it is open but it’s easier to just use that access road. It doesn’t look like much but to take it, just head to the very southeast corner of the village and follow the dirt road towards the coast.

As soon as we reached the first pond, we were greeted by the songs of Red-winged Blackbird, and the sights and sounds of Black-bellied Plovers. Many of the plovers were in breeding plumage and were the most common shorebird seen on that day (we might have seen 150 or so)

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Chomes habitat.
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We also saw our first of many Wilson's Plovers.

Continuing on through the complex of shallow ponds, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, and other expected wading birds while being entertained by the constant songs of White-collared Seedeaters, and the chattering of White-fronted Parrots.

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Quite a few White Ibis were around.
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Along with many Black-necked Stilts.

At the larger, back ponds, a fair number of shorebirds were present, including two of our better birds for the day; Pectoral Sandpiper and American Golden-Plover. Pecs are expected in Costa Rica if you visit the right habitat at the right time of the year but since you have to catch them during migration, they were a nice find.  The plover passes through the country but is by no means a common, expected sight. In fact, these were my first for Costa Rica so it was pretty exciting to see them!

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Pectoral Sandpipers look kind of like a Bigfoot Least Sandpiper.
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American Golden Plover

Other shorebirds included Willet, Whimbrel, Least Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Plover (just one), and Wilson’s Plover. Many of these were already foraging on the extensive mudflats as the tide went out so I am sure that we missed some good birds. Scanning the flats revealed many a distant wader and an enticing group of terns and gulls whose identity was kept a secret by heat waves that roasted the area.

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Distant mud flats at Chomes.
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A much closer Black-bellied Plover.

Locals searched for clams and we searched for shorebirds before cooling off in the air-conditioned car and driving down a mangrove lined track to see what else we could turn up. At one stop, we got more great looks at Brown-crested Flycatchers, saw a Streaked Flycatcher, and got wonderful, close looks at Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Warblers, and Mangrove Vireo.

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A Mangrove Yellow Warbler trying to crouch behind mangrove foliage.
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Mangroves vireos really blend in to the light gray branches of their mangrove habitat.

Since we seemed close enough to the Colorado salt ponds and the Amistad bridge, we decided to give those sites a shot. As it turned out, although those places would be a quick ten minute flight for a Least Sandpiper, they end up being an hour’s drive if you attempt to go the shortest route. Despite the scenery along the way, you will save a lot of time by heading back out to the highway and making a turn-off to reach Colorado rather than taking rough roads that pass through a few villages.  Once you get to Colorado, don’t expect signs for anything. Just take the main road west through the village and watch for the school on the left. Immediately after that school, follow the main road and take a left (south), a right, and then another left to head in to the salt pond area (sounds obscure but once you are there, it will hopefully make sense).

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What the salt ponds sort of look like.

As with other visits to this shorebird site, I didn’t see very many birds but did pick up a couple of good ones. Birds also come and go so it pays to keep scanning the ponds. This was reflected by our latest experience because after driving back in and seeing very little, we ran into a nice flock of shorebirds on the way out that consisted of more than a dozen Lesser Yellowlegs, two Pectoral Sandpipers, and one beautiful, breeding plumaged female Wilson’s Phalarope. Since that needle-billed bird was a second new addition to my Costa Rican list, our birding day was turning out to be a productive, memorable day indeed. Our luck stopped there, however, because there were almost no birds at mud flats below the Amistad Bridge, and we couldn’t find a way to access the mangroves in search of Clapper Rail.

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A bad yet identifiable picture of a Wilson's Phalarope.

As always, I wish I could bird Chomes more often because you can bet that rare birds show up there on a regular basis, there’s just not enough people checking the place to find them.

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Carara Can be Great for Antbirds

Antbirds just might win the prize for being the most popular family of birds with the least amount of colors. It seems like just about anyone who birds in the neotropics ends up feeling a certain degree of fondness for antbirds. Even before I came to Costa Rica for the first time, I was fascinated by these odd-looking little birds, especially the ones with blue skin around their eyes. I wanted to see an Immaculate Antbird because I had never seen anything even close to it in the temperate-zoned north and ditto magnified a 100 times for wacky looking things like the Black-crowned Antpitta.

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Black-crowned Antpittas don't occur at Carara but are found in dense foothill forests on the Caribbean slope.

I suppose that it’s lack of experience with anything close to antbirds that makes us want to see them, see what they are all about. I mean, just what the heck are those things? It’s kind of an odd fascination when you consider that they only come in shades of black, brown, and gray but that’s the way we birders roll and we make no excuses (at least I don’t). So, after having studied the illustrations of Costa Rican antbirds on hundreds of occasions, I was more than ready and sure that I was going to see a good number of weird and wild antbirds on that first sojourn to Costa Rica.

Needless to say, and to make a long story short, I came home from Costa Rica in early 1993 with less than a handful of antbirds on my list and wondering why I hadn’t see those intriguing birds despite birding where they were supposed to occur. On consecutive trips, I realized that the birds were there, it’s just that most of them are veteran skulkers, and many seemed to be naturally rare or uncommon. They require specific habitats, most of those being forested in some way or another. It helps to know their songs and calls and you will see more if you stalk them with sharp eyes and ears buoyed up by a solid foundation of eternal patience.

In other words, they are kind of a royal pain to see.

That said, some places are better than others for antbirds and in Costa Rica, one of the better places to see members of this auspiciously dull-colored family is Carara National Park. On a recent day of guiding on the main loop trail, I was reminded that the quality, primary rainforest at Carara is ideal habitat for antbird species. We had many looks at such birds as Dot-winged Antwren and Black-hooded Antshrike, and indeed these are two of the more commonly seen species in the park.

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A male Dot-winged Antwren at Carara National Park, Costa Rica

Like a typical small insectivore, the antwren is hyperactive, and always searching the foliage for some tasty arthropod.

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Male Black-hooded Antshrike

The antshrike sort of does the same but isn’t nearly as active and this makes it easier to watch at length.

On the forest floor, Black-faced Antthrushes are often seen as they waltz through the leaf litter like an out of place crake and many a lucky birder has gotten their lifer Streak-chested Antpitta at Carara. They also occur elsewhere but seem to be easier to see at Carara because the understory is more open than many other sites. We had amazing looks at two of those plump antpittas as they foraged at the edge of an antswarm!

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Streak-chested Antpitta.

They opened and closed their wings and one even briefly jumped on the back of the other.

Bicolored Antbirds were also at the swarm and we had great looks at Chestnut-backed Antbird too (commonly seen at Carara).

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Chestnut-backed Antbirds are one of the more common forest antbird species in Costa Rica.

Other antbird species seen that day included Slaty Antwren and Dusky Antbird in second growth at the edge of the park on Bijagual Road. Although we dipped on Barred Antshrike, I usually see it on Bijagual Road, the Meandrica Trail, or any other number of edge and second growth sites. Great Antshrike skulks in second growth but isn’t nearly as common as at other more humid sites. The same goes for Russet Antshrike and Plain Antvireo although they occur inside the forest.

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Dusky Antbird

It’s kind of interesting that the forests at Carara and the southwestern Pacific slope are similar to the rainforests of the Amazon in several ways, one of these being the prominent role that antbirds play in avian communities. Although Carara still can’t compare with Amazonian sites that host the 30 and 40 antbird species, the birding is always good when you can watch Streak-chested Antpittas hop around and Black-hooded Antshrikes beat their tails in time to the notes of their song.