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Where to Start a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

The starting place for any international birding trip is usually the capital city. That’s where the plane lands so despite the over-urbanization, that is where most of us invariably begin that birding adventure. Costa Rica is no exception to the rule because unless you happen to be one of the few birders who are traveling overland from Nicaragua or Panama, you are going to fly in to San Jose. You could also fly in to Liberia and that is a better option for starting a trip but most visitors to the country are scheduled to land at Juan SantaMaria airport up there in the Central Valley.

It’s also commonly referred to as the San Jose airport but that’s not really true because the airport is located next to the city of Alajuela. That tidbit of trivia is important because it can help you choose the first place to stay for the night and that locale will therefore be where you officially start the trip. As one would expect, there are plenty of hotels to choose from but there are just a few that are truly birdy. Logistics are also important to consider as are the conservation efforts of the hotel in question. Oh yeah, and then there is the budget thing to consider. Backpackers and folks with very limited budgets probably aren’t going to end up at a very birdy hotel but they can always plan their trip accordingly and get out of that hostel or small room first thing in the morning.

Stay where you can see Gray-necked Wood Rail.

However, if you want to hang around and look for things like Tropical Screech Owl, Mottled Owl, Spot-bellied Bobwhite, Gray-necked Wood Rail, and several other species, then the best place to begin that trip is the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana. The cost is a bit more than other places but given the variety of species, photo opps (some of the images for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app were taken there) , wetlands, woodlands, brushy fields, excellent service, gourmet cuisine, and bird friendly owners who protect some of the last remaining wetlands and green space in the western Central Valley, the value is more than worth it.

Zamora is the best place for bird photography in the Central Valley.
A Great Egret poses at Zamora Estate.

If you arrive after dark, watch for night birds like Mottled and Spectacled Owls, and Pacific Screech Owl. Barn and Striped Owls can also show up and you should hear Boat-billed Herons calling from the lagoons. Don’t worry about seeing them at night because they will be there during the day and the owners don’t want anyone going to the lagoons at night in any case to avoid disturbing the many herons, egrets, and other aquatic species that roost there.

One of the Boat-billed Herons from Zamora Estate.

In the morning, you can enjoy breakfast while watching a variety of birds in the lagoons and visiting the bunches of bananas.

A gourmet breakfast with Blue-gray Tanagers is a fantastic way to start the trip.
Hoffmann's Woodpeckers also visit the feeders.

A few short trails pass through woodlands, head past the lagoons, and head through brushy fields and vineyards. These can turn up most of the Central Valley birds and some, including that bobwhite, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-capped Warbler, and others. In other words, it’s a great place to start any birding tour to Costa Rica. Oh yeah, and the rooms are pretty nice too!

Keep an eye out for Rufous-naped Wrens around the rooms.

If there is a downside to staying at Zamora Estate, it’s the traffic that you may face when heading to the hotel during rush hour. However, since that downside also applies to every hotel in the Central Valley, in my opinion, Zamora still comes out on top as the best place to start (and finish) a birding trip to Costa Rica.

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A Prothonotary Warbler eats a Banana in Costa Rica and the Nature Pavilion Delivers as Always

I’m not making this up. Although it might not be news to most people (or even most birders), I thought it was cool enough to share with everyone who uses the Internet. While guiding yesterday on the Cinchona-Poas-Nature Pavilion route, I was very surprised to see a Prothonotary Warbler coming to the bananas at Cinchona!

A Prothonotary Warbler and a banana at Cinchona, Costa Rica.

Why surprised you may wonder? Well, while we do see lots of Prothonotaries in mangroves and other lowland wetlands in Costa Rica, I have never seen or heard of one visiting a feeder. I haven’t seen this species at Cinchona either even away from the feeders. They do move through the country though, and can sometimes be seen in large numbers as they migrate along the Caribbean coast. The bird we saw was a reminder that the Golden Swamp Warbler is on the move. It also shows how famished those migrants must be because this little birdy wasn’t going after any insects on the bananas. It was most definitely feasting on the fruit between bouts of being scared away by Clay-colored Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanagers, and other larger birds

There it goes eating that banana.
Sharing a banana with a Silver-throated Tanager.

No other warblers were seen at the feeders (Tennessees are regular) but I will be hoping and checking during our 2014 Big Day attempt!

On another note, visitors to the Nature Pavilion were regular and awesome as always.

Collared Aracaris were one of the first species to show.
It's always nice to see Great Kiskadees at close range.
A juvenile Black-cowled Oriole made an appearance.
It was cool to watch a Green Honeycreeper hang upside down on a papaya ring.
This species is always crazy with the colors.

Hope to see you while birding! If you see me and two other people running after birds on Saturday, that would be myself, Robert Dean and Susan Blank doing our Big Day. I would have really loved to have invited a couple other friends along (especially Johan) but since they don’t do bird sounds, and 95% of species need to be identified by all team members (many by sound), that would have eliminated too many birds to break any records. We might not anyways but one can always hope!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction raptors

A Couple of Cool Hawks and Other Raptors During Recent Birding in Costa Rica

One of the most common observations (aka complaints) that birders new to Costa Rica make is related to the sad paucity of raptors. I am definitely sad to admit that this is a valid view because unlike the weedy fields and woodlots far to the north, we don’t see very many raptors on a regular basis. The lower number of raptors is related to higher diversity (and thus lower populations per species due to a higher degree of interspecific competition), and too much substandard forest habitat (edge effects not being conducive to the ecosystems needed to sustain large, healthy populations of forest-based raptors). You see, in Costa Rica, at least half or more of the raptors in the country are very much adapted to intact forest. They don’t do as well in places where there is just as much cow pasture and ag. Fields as rainforest because those habitats just don’t provide enough of the type of food needed for birds like Great Black Hawk, hawk-eagles, Semiplumbeous Hawk, White Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and so on.

The Great Black Hawk has declined in Costa Rica.

This is probably why birds of prey and a higher diversity of raptors are seen when birding in places with large areas of healthy forest (such as the Osa Peninsula, Braulio Carrillo, Rincon de la Vieja, and so on).

Good forest for raptors at El Tapir and Braulio Carrillo National Park.

However, even if you happen to be hanging out with your binos in fantastic forest, not nearly as many raptors will appear if it rains. While that wet weather can result in views of hawks and falcons perched on an emergent tree, it doesn’t compare to the birds that take to the skies in sunny weather. In general, that aspect of raptor watching in Costa Rica is kind of similar to Europe and North America because this is when all sorts of species can take to the skies.

Last weekend, I got the chance to compare birding during dry and rainy weather at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. It was sunny on Friday and rained for nearly all of Saturday and guess which day was better for raptors? Yes, Friday at Quebrada Gonzalez was good for birds of prey as well as for several other non-raptorial species including killer looks at Black-crowned Antpitta, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Red-headed Barbet, antvireos, antwrens, Lattice-tailed Trogon, White-crowned Manakin, and several tanagers including more Blue and Golds than I have ever seen there in one day.

But, back to the raptors- on Friday, we started off the day with a Barred Hawk,

A rare, close look at a Barred Hawk from Cinchona.

saw one or two King Vultures through the trees, and got great looks at an adult Ornate Hawk Eagle in flight. We also saw a couple of Broad-winged Hawks but they are pretty much par for the course during the winter months in Costa Rica. In the afternoon, we also lucked out with totally satisfying views of a Semiplumbeous Hawk on the Ceiba trail. It was nice to finally connect with this uncommon species at Quebrada because I had heard of reports from the Ceiba and Botarrama trails. As with some other, more lowland inclined species, the Semiplumbeous doesn’t seem to be regular on the Las Palmas trail. So, that was sunny Friday and we weren’t even focused on looking for raptors.

A Semiplumbeous Hawk from the Ceibo trail in Braulio Carrillo.
Another look at that Semiplumbeous Hawk.

On rainy Saturday, although we connected with several busy tanager flocks at El Tapir, and saw a fine Ocellated Antbird, we didn’t see anything flying in the rain. However, we still managed nice perched looks at King Vulture and Double-toothed Kite.

A King Vulture in the morning rain.

The raptor happy sunny weather on Friday also reminded me of guiding a week before then at Cinchona and Poas. That was also a very sunny day that resulted in very close looks at Barred Hawks right from the Café Colibri (the name for the Cinchona hummingbird spot), White Hawk, Bat Falcon, Broad-winged Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk eagle (probably Ornate but too far away to say).

One more look at the Barred Hawk from Cinchona.

In a couple days, I am headed to Palo Verde- a totally different, more open habitat that might give me some nice looks at open country raptors like Harris’ Hawk,  Swainson’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, and Snail Kite, and hopefully a lifer rail and duck. Wish me luck!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

Some Tips on what To Pack for Birding in Costa Rica

Since moving to Costa Rica, I have had to think more about where to go birding in Costa Rica than what to pack for visiting the land of hummingbirds, quetzals, and amazing numbers of Clay-colored Thrush. However, I used to do quite a bit of birding travel and exploration and will now combine those experiences with living here to suggest some things to bring. In addition to the obvious quality waterproof binos, toothbrush, and other usual travel items, here is what I would stick into the baggage:

  • A hat: Ok, so I would wear this up there on top and not actually pack it but whatever. Ss with birding trips just about everywhere, a hat is part of the uniform. Unless you stick to night birding, a hat makes it easier to search the skies for specks that could be birds (although see the next suggestion), offers some protection from the monster tropical sun, and can be used to swat that rare biting fly or mosquito. Most of all, it makes you look like an official birder, especially if you wear a wide-brimmed hat (I need to get one of those). Dude, you gotta promote birding, so don’t be shy about showing your birding colors!
    This is a picture of a friend of mine who has successfully transformed a golfing hat into a birding hat
  • Blue blocking, UV blocking sun glasses: Steve Pike, a birding, fantastic bird photographer friend of mine who has traveled to some major far off places opened my eyes to the importance of sunglasses. They can’t be any old shades but ones that block off some of those rays and make it much easier to look up into a bright sky or out over oceanic waters.

    I think my sunglasses helped me look for this King Vulture.
  • Quick dry, lightweight clothes: Get some of those futuristic lightweight, quick dry shirts and trousers to spend more time outdoors in comfort.
  • A notebook: No, not the electronic kind but a good, old fashioned field book if you will. Get a waterproof one if possible in case you need to sketch a bird in the rain or feel like getting poetic about your experience in the rainforest.
  • Protection for devices: As we move forward on our frightening journey to official robothood, we love to bring more electronic devices while traveling far from home. They do come in handy but remember that Costa Rica is a place splashed with a bit of rain (as in several feet a year of splash in some places) so be prepared and come to town with lots of drying packets in ziplock bags, put the cameras in a Pelican case, and don’t be shy about bringing a dry bag.

    This is a White-crowned Parrot is shaking off the rain.
  • The field guide: There were two (and the Garrigues and Dean is a true field guide in terms of size and use), and now that the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is available on Apple and Android platforms, there is another!

    The Spot-crowned Euphonia is one of the 575 plus species on this birding app for Costa Rica.
  • The knowledge that road signs are a rarity: Whether driving or not, don’t expect to know where you actually happen to be. Costa Rica is a small country anyways, so just go with the flow, be guided by your birding sense, and use a GPS navigator thing.
  • Bug repellent: Biting insects aren’t too much of a problem in Costa Rica but it’s always good to be prepared.
  • Sunblock: Bring the powerful stuff to avoid melting under the rays of the tropical ball of fire up there in the heavens.
  • A high tech head lamp: Take advantage of modern technology and bring a powerful, lightweight headlamp to find the night birds and see weird nocturnal bugs and whatnot.

    The Oilbird is some weird, nocturnal, mega whatnot.

And as a caveat…. What not to bring:

  • Rubber boots: You can if you want and I know they are classic jungle fashion but most eco-lodges will lend you a pair where needed.
  • A bad attitude: Never good for any situation…

    Hummingbirds have bad attitudes by default. This Green crowned Brilliant is looking for trouble (as always).
  • Too many expectations: This means expecting to see every species. It just doesn’t work that way in the tropics but don’t worry, you will see a lot of cool stuff and will see more species, the more time you spend in quality habitat. It also helps to hire the services of a local birding guide.
  • Small, travel binoculars: Avoid these to avoid major frustration, especially when other birders are using their solid optics to marvel over the colors of that Red-legged Honeycreeper or appreciating the glittering plumages of crazy, pugnacious hummingbirds.

    Quality optics helped me appreciate the colors of this goldentail.
  • A machete: It’s cool, rural locals have them, and somewhat resembles a Chinese short sword (which is why I want to carry one around) but you don’t really need it. Leave it home if you bought one on that latest trip to Oaxaca or Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

I hope this list helps you have a fantastic trip and hope to see you while birding in Costa Rica!

My daughter modeling the sunglasses we should be wearing and another must- the faithful stuffed animal.