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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills Introduction

Need Sunbittern? Visit La Marta Reserve

We all have target birds whether we admit or not. You can be the most altruistic of Zen birders who insists that every bird is the same but when you open a field guide for the birds of Costa Rica, you have to admit a hidden, deep down desire to see certain species more than others. I mean, lets face it, someone who puts a House Wren into the same category as a Violet Sabrewing is probably a non-birding imposter.

House Wren- nice voice and friendly but....
just not the same as a big purple hummingbird.

Or, how about giving a super common Tropical Kingbird the same degree of importance as an Orange-collared Manakin?

The TK is alright but you will see a couple hundred.
You probably won't see as many of these!

Yeah right. Exactly. Some birdies just ain’t the same and that’s why we make statements about the bird of the day, trip, and year. It’s also why we have lists of target species. The Zen birder might say this with a steady calm voice that he or she doesn’t care which bird species they see on a birding trip to Costa Rica but they don’t tell you about that big, bold, booming inner voice that bellows, “I WANT TO SEE SOME COTINGAS DAMMIT. SUNBITTERN! UMBRELLABIRD, HOLY CRAP!”

The Sunbittern in particular is a much wanted species for anyone who hasn’t seen one. This is because the bird is unique, odd, and defies placement. It’s a genuine weirdo and that’s why we love it. Everything about it is different from everything you have ever seen, even if you are one of the lucky few to have watched its ancient closest cousin, the equally weird and awesome Kagu.

Despite its name, it’s not a bittern and doesn’t even come close to looking like one of those hefty, fat-necked, frog eating terrors of the marsh. The neck is sort of like a snake, the head is like a cross between a heron and a rail, the body is horizontal and sort of duck-like, and the legs are bright orange and like those of a heron. It also has a crazy sunburst pattern on each wing. Unlike the Kagu, the Sunbittern has a really big range (Central America to southern Amazonia), and loves to hang out along forested streams, rivers, and other wetlands. In Costa Rica, there are several places where they occur but they can still be tough to find because they blend in surprisingly well with their surroundings. If you can only check one section of a river, that also limits your chances of seeing one because it could be hanging out just around the next inaccessible bend.

Check out the snakey neck.

Last weekend, I visited La Marta Reserve with a friend of mine. I had heard that Sunbittern was pretty easy there but didn’t expect it to be foraging in the grass next to one of their camping areas!

A classic Sunbittern.

This Sunbittern was just doing its weird quick step walk around the grass as it foraged for grasshoppers and other choice insects. One of the guys who works there also told me that the bird is there just about every day so if you desperately need Sunbittern, make the trip to La Marta, and walk down to the camping spot that is closest to the river and next to a tiny pond with water hyacinth. A Sunbittern should show up sooner or later and then you can give the list a big fat target species check.

Sunbittern.
A frontal view.

Speaking of La Marta, this place also has a lot of potential for other species. During our short visit, we saw several tanagers (Tawny-crested is absurdly common), Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a bunch of other foothill birds (elevation 800 meters).

A male Tawny-crested Tanager hides behind a leaf.

The main trails seemed to access old second growth but there could be quite a few species present because three sides of the reserve are adjacent to a huge area of beautiful primary forest.

Habitat at La Marta.
Checking out forest from an overlook.

The entrance fee was just $3, the trails were signed better than anywhere in Costa Rica, and basic, cheap lodging is also available. It looks like a place with a lot of potential and of course any day with a Sunbittern is a good one!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

A Few Highlights from May Birding in Costa Rica

May isn’t the biggest month for birding in Costa Rica. In fact, it’s usually one of the months that sees the fewest visiting birders. Most people plan their trip for the classic birding months of January, February, and March to take advantage of dry weather, migrants, and more dry weather. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to do a fair bit of guiding in May, 2014. Trips to Braulio Carrillo, Las Bromelias in the north, and Carara sort of made up for missing spring migration action in the northeast (as in the northeastern US as well as southern Canada).

I already blogged about Bromelias but such a wonderful area for birding always deserves another mention. It’s one of those far flung places in Costa Rica I would love to get back to because there is so much to see, and so many areas to explore.

This was what our Keel-billed Motmot at Bromelias looked like.

After gazing at Keel-billed and Tody Motmots near Bromelias, I did a bit of guiding around Cinchona, Poas, and the high elevation forests of the Dota. The day around Poas was marked by a male quetzal that fluttered around the Volcan Restaurant. We also got nice looks at Black-headed Tody Flycatcher at Virgen del Socorro, hummingbirds and Prong-billed Barbet at the Cafe Colibri, and a bunch of other middle and high elevation species. At the Dota, we actually dipped on the quetzal (a heard only no show) but enjoyed looks at common highland species like Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Flame-colored Tanager. No Ochraceous Pewee though, so I still need to head back up there again and dedicate a day to actually seeing the pewee, and getting shots of the jay and a few other fine birds.

A Prong-billed Barbet from the feeders.
We had good looks at the local White-bellied Mountain Gem.
A male quetzal is always the star of the avian show.
We also enjoyed prolonged looks at a bathing Bay-headed Tanager.

Next on the guiding list was a day at El Tapir and Braulio Carrillo. Surprisingly, we didn’t see so many hummingbirds at El Tapir. A male Snowcap eventually showed but there wasn’t a whole lot of hummingbird action, perhaps because they were visiting trees in flower instead. Some of the nice birds we connected with at the El Tapir clearing were Mealy Parrots, White Hawk, Emerald Tanager, Bay Wren, and so on.

Over at Quebrada Gonzalez, we dipped on big mixed flocks but still managged to find White-throated Shrike Tanager, and Carmiol’s, Tawny-crested, Speckled, and Blue and gold Tanagers along with some other nice forest birds like Spotted Antbird, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and excellent, close looks at Lattice-tailed Trogon.

Broad-billed Motmot.
This Helmeted Iguana was a bonus.
Ans this was my second Eyelash Viper in May.

After Braulio, I guided for a few days at Cerro Lodge and Carara. The weather was sort of brutal hot at times (par for the course around there) but the birding was great. Too many species to mention but I average about 140 species identified during a day of birding at Cerro and Carara and these days were no exception. More birds are singing at this time of the year, there are more bugs in the forest, and it’s also a great time of the year for herps.

A bad shot of aShort-nosed Vine Snake.

The other day, in addition to fantastic close looks at a Short-nosed Vine Snake, we also had several Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs, lots of lizards, and a multitude of leaf litter arthropods that were running for their lives from an Army Ant swarm. Although there weren’t a whole lot of birds at the swarm, we still got nice looks at Bicolored Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. On that morning in the primary forest, we also saw Golden-crowned and Stub-tailed Spadebills, saw two and heard at least eight Royal Flycatchers, and had close looks at a Black-faced Antthrush along with dozens of other species.

One of several Royal Flycatchers from recent guiding at Carara.

A week before then, birding along the Laguna Meandrica Trail turned up good looks at four species of wrens (along with Plain Wren near Cerro Lodge in the morning), Dusky Antbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Orange-collared Manakins, and so on. That particular day also started off very well with Black and Chestnut-collared Swifts flying right around Cerro Lodge along with looks at expected species like Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Rose-throated Becard, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows, and the sort of unbelievable Turquoise-browed Motmot. Oh, and Scarlet Macaws of course. We also picked up Southern Lapwing in the fields on the roads below Cerro Lodge, and a pair of thick-knees at the Crocodile Bridge. That night, the Black and white Owls showed at Cerro and the following day, we picked up more species on the road to Bijagual, including scope views of Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet.

One of those days was kicked off with fantastic, close looks at a Collared Forest Falcon near the Cerro Lodge cabins!
Orange-collared Manakins posed well for pictures.
At Cerro Lodge, the resident Turquoise-browed Motmots showed very well!

Next week, I head back to Cerro Lodge and Carara for two days of guiding and I hope to get out this Sunday. The amazing thing is that even though I am up to 572 species for the year, I may still pick up a few more by the end of May!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction

Exciting Birding on the Caribbean Slope of Rincon de la Vieja

Rincon de la Vieja is this large volcano that looms into the sky near Liberia in northern Costa Rica. Not sure where it is? Just look east and north of the highway anywhere around Liberia. You will see a mountain that stands out from the Guanacaste flatlands like a humongous sore thumb. It’s almost always topped with clouds and thus makes for a common, fine photography subject. As befits its stand-out character, Rincon de la Vieja also beckons to birders with a heck of a fine assemplage of birds.

A Guanacaste view with Rincon de la Vieja in the background.

The Pacific slope parts of the volcano are good for just about every dry forest species and host quite a few Caribbean slope birds as you move into the evergreen forests at higher elevations but what about the northern side of the volcano? What are the forests like there? Well, I paid a weekend visit a couple of weeks ago with the Birding Club of Costa Rica and the forests are pretty darn good.

During approximately two full days of birding while staying at the Las Bromelias cabinas (cheap!), we identified somewhere around 170 species and would have got more with further exploration. While there is the usual disheartening deforestation for cattle pastures at various places en route, the road to the place also passes near and through nice moist forests and foothill rainforests that act as a corridor to extensive areas of rainforest on Volcan Cacao. We didn’t have the time to stop and bird in those corridor areas but I bet they are good for a wide variety of Caribbean slope rainforest species.

Bromelias

As one gets close to Las Bromelias, edge habitats and second growth are quite birdy and host expected species along with goodies possible like Black-crested Coquette (we had one in a flowering tree), and Bare-crowned Antbird (not too rare!). At the cabins, there is a nice and birdy riparian grove, second growth, and a good area of forest along one of their trails. We had toucans and various expected edge species at the cabins and some nice forest birds on the trails.

The area in front of Bromelias.
Red-eyed Vireo was one of the few tail end migrants still around.

By nice forest birds, I mean things like Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Ant tanager, Northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Bare-crowned Antbird, Dusky Antbird, an army of White-collared Manakins, Song Wren, and one of the stars of the show, Keel-billed Motmot. We got excellent scope looks at a pair in the back of the quarry and I was very pleased to record it to see if I can parse some sort of difference between its call and that of Broad-billed Motmot. The two species sound so similar that they respond to each other’s calls so I don’t know if I will discern a difference but at least I now have a recording of a definite Keel-billed Motmot.

There is nice forest at the back of the quarry. That is where we had the motmot.

We didn’t get a chance to do much birding back in the nice forested area but I would love to do some surveys there to see if Tawny-faced Quail and White-fronted Nunbird occur. The R V G Cuckoo might be there too but you can’t really survey for that mega avian wizard of the understory anyways.

The other main area for birding was the road up to good forest and hot springs. We didn’t make it to the volcanic waters but who cares, this was a birding trip by golly! We also had some definite by golly birds. At the edge of the forest, one of our best was a pair of Tawny-chested Flycatchers. It’s always nice to see this colorful Empid.-like bird because they are rare, very localized, and easy to identify. There are only a few reliable sites for them anywhere but based on the places I have seen them, it looks like one of their preferred habitats may be slopes with fairly old second growth (60 year old trees) and various vine tangles near the edge of rainforest.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher habitat.

Further on, we had an antswarm in the forest and had excellent looks at Ocellated, Spotted, and Bicolored Antbirds. No ground cuckoo and few birds overall but we weren’t complaining!

While we watched the swarm, we were entertained by the calls of a couple of Tody Motmots and one eventually showed very well for scope views! In my opinion, this seemed to be even better for Tody Motmot than the Heliconias area at Bijagua because we saw more than one and heard several. We also got Broad-billed Motmot along the road for a nice motmot trip trio.

The road ends at an upscale place known as “Sensoria”. Cars can be parked there and one can continue on foot through nice forest. That spot was especially birdy and gave several hummingbirds coming to flowering Ingas including brief looks at another Black-crested Coquette, Steely-vented Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Goldentail, Violet Sabrewing, and others (we had at least 17 species for the trip). A few tanagers also moved through the trees, the best being Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Rufous-winged Tanager (!).

We also had Double-toothed Kite.

We picked up Stripe-breasted Wren there and also had excellent looks at Nightingale Wren. While walking in the forest, we were entertained by the songs of Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes and White-throated Thrushes. We also flushed a quail dove that could have been Ruddy or Chiriqui, and although we didn’t make it to an area where umbrellabirds have been seen, we also had White-ruffed and Long-tailed Manakins, and an Eyelash Viper!

Eyelash Viper.

The trip ended all too soon but next time, I hope to survey the road from Buenos Aires to the Santa Maria sector because it passes through a good-sized area of intact habitat. Probably some nice surprises along that stretch of road!

As a final bonus, the site had the best swift watching I have ever seen in Costa Rica. I’m not sure if it was due to the cloudy weather, or proximity to waterfalls in good forest, but we had fairly low, good looks at such uncommon species as White-chinned and Black Swifts among more common species like White-collared, Lesser Swallow-tailed, and Vaux’s Swifts.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app Introduction

A Tropical Screech Owl Visits the Neighborhood

I have this Polish friend by the name of Eva who loves owls. She is also into Hoopoes but owls are what she likes the most. It’s easy to see why Eva and lots of other non-birders would take the time to see an owl but not even give a second glance at say a Connecticut Warbler (not that this one allows looks anyways) or a Black-capped Vireo. With their fluffy plumage, big, staring eyes, and horn-like tufts, they hardly look like birds. We know that they are indeed avian but they seem to be in a special, cool class of their own.

Owls are pretty much eternally cool and it’s a shame that we can’t see a few every day of the week. The problem with owls is that they mostly come out at night, hide out during the day, and usually have low density populations. In Costa Rica, most species are fairly common and even live in unexpected places (like that pair of Spectacled Owls in the middle of San Jose) but they are still a pain to see. They just hide too well and one of the most accomplished of hiders is the Tropical Screech Owl.

A pair of Spectacled Owls from Pocosol. This awesome species lives in a lot of places.

It’s not rare, it can live in parks, and it doesn’t screech. Regarding screeching, are there any screech owls that actually screech? Barn Owls screech but screech owls give hooting calls and even horse whinnies but they sure don’t screech! I bet one did when it was “collected” but instead of realizing that even rabbits screech when faced with imminent death, the 18th century collector thought, “Well now, this fine specimen of an owl has thus given a screechy vocalization. I shall name it a Screech Owl!” Meanwhile, the Mahicans, Tuscarora, and other automatic birder native peoples silently chuckled because they knew that the small owls of the eastern woodlands whinnied, gave trebled calls, and hid in plain sight but weren’t really known for their screeches.

BUT, back to the Tropical Screech. This fine little bird is indeed fairly common in the Central Valley but you would never know it. Perhaps because it has to deal with larger owls, it doesn’t call so much, loathes the day, and does its best to stay out of sight. I hear one call now and then from nearby shade coffee farms but hardly ever see one (and I am always on the lookout for a roosting owl). To give an idea of how much of a birding pain this little bird can be, my friend Susan has heard them now and then near her house too but she hadn’t seen one until recently. On that fine day, she noticed that the neighborhood grackles were cackling up a storm and went to check out what they were up to.

How would you like to be harrassed by this crazy bird?

Instead of finding a cat torturing a baby bird, she saw a Tropical Screech Owl! She called me, I said that I couldn’t make it because of work but to please call back if the birds stayed. Thirty minutes later, I open an email with owl photos and a short message saying that the grackles had gone. That did it. Next thing I knew, I had packed my digiscoping stuff into the car and was on my way. Twenty minutes of frustrating driving behind a slow clueless car later (yes, he gets the clueless award because he passed a bus on a blind turn), I arrived at Susan’s. She showed me the birds and said, “But look what else is there!”.

A baby Tropical Screech Owl!
A bit of adjustment and we had better looks.

Yes! A pair of Tropical Screech and a fuzzy baby as a bonus!

The parents were also present.
Another look. Note the dark edge of the facial shield. Pacific Screech can also show up in the eastern Central Valley but has more pale brown uniform plumage and little dark edging to the facial shield.

Now where were these birds on our Big Day? We tried for them literally right in the same area. They probably should have been called “Hermit Owls” or “Pain Owls” instead of “Screech Owls”.

To see the Tropical Screech Owl in Costa Rica, look for roosting birds in the big bamboo bunches in the Bougainvillea Hotel gardens (if you stay there and look for ages in the bamboo), or you might try spotlighting for them at any hotel in the Central Valley with a big garden. Another good site for them is Talari Lodge (this is where I made the recording for this species that is on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), and other sites in the Valle del General.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Why it Would be Great to Have a Bird Monitoring Station at Chomes, Costa Rica

Sometimes you go birding and it’s nice but pretty much an average experience. Other times you head into the field and end up seeing an uncommon bird or two. Those days are always special and appreciated but they are overshadowed like an eclipse when you see a bunch of good birds and the first documentation for a country. I suppose a day like that could be called something like “Mega Day”, “Amazing Memorable Day”, or just “Holy Crap Day!”. Since I am obviously leading up to it, yes, we had a Holy Crap Day last week.

Even if we hadn’t seen such a nice bunch of birds, it would have still been a great day just because Susan and I were birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann, the bloggers behind the Birds of Passage as well as being birding adventurers extraordinaire.

Scoping something good.

Given the time of year, the fact that Josh and Kathi still needed that mangrove lurker known as the Rufous-necked Wood Rail, and my own personal desire to see a bunch of shorebirds, we started off the day by meeting at Mata de Limon. It was low tide and I hoped that the exposed mud flats would host terns, gulls, waders, and a rarity. As a reminder that birding is an endeavor replete with a high degree of unexpected happenings, the mud flats looked inviting but were totally lacking in birds.

Mata de Limon mangroves.

No sweat, we wanted to check the mangroves anyways. The first mangrove stop at Mata de Limon was likewise non-birdy but further back, we connected with the major target of the day. While logging dry forest species like Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, and Banded Wren, Kathi suddenly said, “There it is”. “It” could only have been the wood rail and yes, there it was creeping along the edge of the mangroves. We got fantastic views of this choice bird and even watched it pick at a fallen mango!

Poor shot of a Rufous-necked Wood Rail.
The mango it was picking at.

After connecting with the famous photo bomber species, we checked the other side of the estuary and saw nothing special before continuing on to lagoons at Guacalillo. We took the Guacimo road to get there and despite not really stopping for birds, got nice looks at thick-knee, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, magpie jays, and other dry forest species. The main stop was a lagoon down at Bajamar but it ended up being pretty low on shorebirds. Nevertheless, we were still entertained by migrating swallows, a brief yet pretty much certain Black Swift (!) possibly migrating with the swallows, and distant soaring Hook-billed Kite.

Then it was off to the lagoons at Guacalillo. Not much at the seawatch but one of the lagoons was pretty darn good for shorebirds. We had 10 or so species with highlights being Stilt Sandpiper and great looks at a Baird’s (my first for the country!).

Baird's Sandpiper- yee haw!
We also saw a zombie Brown Booby.

After checking those birds out, we realized that it was time to leave when we started to melt under the 11 o’clock coastal sun. Next on the list was Chomes and we would get there right after high tide. Chomes is the best, accessible shorebird site in the country and on Saturday, oh how it delivered. As on other days, most of the birds were concentrated in a pool near the beach and on this day, we estimated around 2,000 shorebirds resting and foraging on the exposed mud flats.

With so many birds, it’s hard to know where to look first so we started with the ones that were close to us. These were:

Lots of Least Sandpipers.
Several Semipalmated Sandpipers, this one was a major bully.
Wilson's Plover.
Lots of Semipalmated Plovers.
and a few Collared Plovers. Thanks to Josh for picking this one out.

Further out, there were lots more Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, lots of Black-bellied Plovers, and at least five American Golden Plovers.

The birds got up and flew and then when they came back down, we found a fine Wilson’s Phalarope (good year bird!), and some Pectorals flew in.

We started checking through the distant group of shorebirds once again and I saw something that didn’t fit. It was far off and all I could see was that it was darker and had pale lores. I asked Susan if I could use her scope to check the bird out and upon doing that, knew that we had something good but the ID still wouldn’t come through the haze of my conscious mind because it was so far off my BIRDAR.

When it showed like this, I realized what we had.

As it slowly dawned that we were probably looking at a Hudsonian Godwit, I asked if anyone had a field guide showing it to make sure since I have only seen the species once several years ago in New Jersey. Nor is it pictured in the Costa Rica field guide because there is just one record from the 70s.

I recall it as being one of those very unlikely species that Robert Dean and I had talked about. One that we figured, well, how likely is it for someone to see it since studies have shown that it basically migrates over Costa Rica during the spring, doing a quick godwit skip from Colombia to lagoons in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. We knew that occasional birds or so had to stop in Costa Rica at some time or another but what are the chances of being at that spot during that day or even hour? Well, as it turns out, the chances fell into place on Saturday because we had a Hudwit!

Hudsonian Godwit in Costa Rica.
Posing with a Marbled Godwit.

We all got to watch the bird for more than an hour as it rested and walked around a little bit before eventually taking flight. Although we tried to get the message out as best we could, when it flew, we knew that no one else was going to see it. When the bird flew, it reminded me of an airplane leaving for a long trip. It first flew south and then quickly turned north as it gained altitude. It continued to gain altitude as it flew straight north and this was no slow flapping. It flew super fast with super ease and disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds!

That bird was headed to Mexico or further and it probably got there by the next day. One hopeful birder did check nearby Punta Morales on Sunday but of course it wasn’t there. After the godwit, we gave a couple attempts at Clapper (Mangrove) Rail sans success and checked Punta Morales. Very few birds there but after a day with a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Baird’s Sandpiper, Costa Rica’s first fully documented Hudsonian Godwit, and 21 other species of shorebirds, I couldn’t have cared if we only saw Great-tailed Grackles. We celebrated the Holy Crap Day at the Cuenca Restaurant (recommended) and made the long drive back home. Josh and Kathi went to Manuel Brenes and Pocosol (can’t wait to hear about that) and Las Bromelias is next on my plate- should be good!