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

It’s Always Nice to Bird Virgen del Socorro

Whether putting the focus on birds or just checking out nature’s details in the backyard, there’s always something to see. Keep that open mind and you still go birding during the post-breeding doldrums or when the rain pours down. But let’s face it, it’s always going to be easier to get more excited about birding in places that always offer a chance at something new, rare, or mysterious. That’s pretty much the score for tropical rainforests. The natural complications of those ecosystems make them unpredictable and always capable of delivering a rare experience. Frustrating? Maybe, but frustration can be easily pushed aside by the excitement of the unknown.

This was why I was excited to do a day of guiding/birding at Virgen del Socorro last week. Although I have been there dozens of times over the years, I still never know what I am going to run into, and I know that there is always that chance of seeing a Lovely Cotinga, finding a fruiting tree with Red-fronted Parrotlets, or even espying a Solitary Eagle. Any of that trio is unexpected and would indeed make for a rare, red letter day but it’s always possible! Our group wasn’t so lucky on our recent trip but still managed some quality birds.

The unlucky factor was the ironic sunny day. Ironic, because it’s beautiful weather yet dismal bird activity. A good day for scenery but not many birds. I always wonder where they are because the difference between avian activity on a cloudy day and during tropical, sunny weather is uncanny. So, we had a hot, sunny, fairly birdless day in the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we still got onto some nice birds.

A first stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up an American Dipper.

We didn’t spend much time at Cinchona because we were going to stop there in the later afternoon anyways but still got in your face looks at a Green Thorntail.

Down in Virgen del Socorro, our first stop turned up Collared Trogon and a fruiting tree with Black-mandibled Toucans and Emerald Toucanet. The realization that it was a Lauraceae raised hopes for a cotinga or other uncommon frugivore but despite a lot of careful checking, the tree was cotingaless. I would have loved to have left a camera there to record the birds that came and went for the rest of the day because it was ideal for a Lovely Cotinga.

In that same area, we also saw a few tanagers and got excellent looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher.

After that, the sun took over and birds quieted down. Black Phoebe was the only bird at the bridge but at least the sunny weather brought out the raptors including hoped for White and Barred Hawks, Short-tailed Hawk, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.

The corner by the bridge is a good area for Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Saturday was no exception. We got really good looks at that tiny thing while Crimson-collared Tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpeckers, and Sooty-faced Finch called from the understory.

The mixed flock failed to appear over in the better forest on the other side of the river but we got nice looks at flocks of Vaux’s Swifts and listened to Striped-breasted, Bay, and Nightingale Wrens. Further on, we went up and out of the canyon and head to the good forest just past Albergue del Socorro. Although it was naturally quiet at 2 p.m., fruiting Melastomes produced Black and Yellow Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, and Hepatic Tanager.

To leave the area, we took the road to San Miguel instead of backtracking through Virgen del Socorro. This gave us Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck at a small reservoir, and a glimpse at a very promising birding area with an overlook of extensive forest, and access to foothill forest. I’m looking forward to checking that site on some fine morning to survey it!

We finished the day at Cinchona accompanied by Emerald Toucanets, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, and a few other birds.

If you want to look for Lanceolated Monklet, tanagers, and other middle elevation species at Virgen del Socorro and are coming from the Sarapiqui area, take the road to San Miguel and go left at the police checkpoint. After crossing the first big bridge, take the first road on the left and down into the canyon. If coming from Cinchona, head downhill and watch for the short sticks with red and yellow markings on the right that mark the entrance to the road into the canyon. This is just before the road makes a sharp left to head down to a big bridge

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

A Mission for an Avocet

“This is your mission. If you choose to accept it, we will deny any and all knowledge of its existence”. Yeah, or something along those lines. Since Robert, Susan, and I were successful with our ground-dove mission last month, we figured that we could be just as successful with a mission for an avocet. If the mission failed, we knew that we would still have fun anyways so off we went in search of senor skinny sandpiper!

No, the American Avocet is not endangered and doesn’t even come close to the mystery of the M.C. Ground-Dove BUT, in Costa Rica, it’s certainly chase-worthy. A chase-worthy bird is, of course, a species for which the frequency of occurrence is so darn low that you jump up and chase it when you get the news. The avocet shows up just about every year in Costa Rica but may or may not stay for long. What can I say, it’s a fickle bird! Must be that weird up-turned bill. I mean how do you eat with that? In any case, if you want to check it off the good old Costa Rican list, you have to head down to some salt pond and hope that it hasn’t flown ASAP after the news.

Salt ponds.

The way things worked out, we had a chance at chasing the avocet or a possible Yellow-winged Blackbird with a Savannah Hawk thrown in for good measure. Since that second option involved a longer drive, we opted for the first, our sub-mission being that of the Spotted Rail.

Off we went at dawn on Saturday morning to head to the coast and meet Robert at the turn-off to Monteverde.

Always a nice view at Caldera.

A quick check of Caldera didn’t reveal anything of note. There were some birds out there but nothing crazy.

Although the avocet was reported from salt ponds near Punta Morales, our first stop was the shorebird bastion of Chomes. Anything can show up at Chomes so it’s always worth a stop, especially during high tide (not to mention being the neighbor of Punta Morales). You might also see some dry forest birds on the way in. We didn’t stop for any although we did see like 50 Double-striped Thick-knees lounging about in a dry field.

Once we got to the shrimp ponds, as has been usual for the past few years, we found most of the birds inthe last ponds on the left. There was a fine, healthy bunch of shorebirds.

Note that one of then is a Long-billed Curlew.
Lots of shorebirds!

After feeling pretty sure that there weren’t any crazy rarities around, we headed back out to the highway and got back on to our main mission for the avocet. First stop was the salt or shrimp ponds at the end of the road from the turn-off just after the El Huevo restaurant.

The dikes were covered in birds.

Holy shorebirds, that place was jammed with high arctic migrants!

Lots of Western Sandpipers were around.

I had never seen so many shorebirds at the site, including my first Red Knots for Costa Rica, Stilt Sands, and Surfbirds among other more common species. We also got another Long-billed Curlew and were entertained by a calling Lesser ground-Cuckoo while doing so but check as we did, the avocet was a no show.

Fortunately, it was present at the next set of human-made shorebird habitats!

Mission accomplished.

This was at the end of the road at the turn off just across the road from a sign for “camarones frescos”.

With the avocet in the bag, and the pressure off (at least for shorebirds), we checked Ensenada and the Colorado salt pans at a more leisurely pace. The birds were being a bit too leisurely though because we didn’t see anything of note.

Nice looks at Lesser Yellowlegs though.
And Roseate Spoonbill.

By this time, it was two in the afternoon and we had to decide if we could make it to rail produucing rice fields before the sun set. The reservoir at Canas seemed too far, same for the catfish ponds. So, we opted for rice fields on the way in to Palo Verde. That seemed within reach and it was despite the wacky, very possibly dangerous aspect of the road construction of the Pan-American highway. Seriously, be very careful, it’s hard to see where a section of road might abruptly end, there are surprise sharp turns, and some people driving in the wrong lane (as in approaching head on traffic wrong).

On the road to Palo Verde, after a brief stop for a couple of scampering bobwhites, we sort of rushed back to rice fields, found a suitable spot and played Spotted Rail vocalizations. Red-winged Blackbirds flew around and we checked them for yellow-headeds sans success.

A Limpkin showed off its ibis-like head while perched in a bush.
We even saw a few Wilson's Snipe and Jabirus!

No Spotted Rail though. Come to think of it, we didn’t even see a gallinule. No rails amand when the sun set, no White-tailed Nightjar either (as pretty much per usual), so we headed to Liberia for the night. A good night and good deal at the El Sitio Best Western- very much recommedned on account of the extensive birdy grounds (including a small lagoon in the back), big included breakfast, and comfort. However, be careful about staying on the weekend because a bar across the street plays loud music literally all night long.

We had nice looks at Spot-breasted Oriole.

The next morning, the rail quest continued over at the rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa, and at the catfish ponds (aka Sardinal lagunas, no more catfish). Once again, no response form any rallid although we did connect with Tricolored Munia, Painted Bunting and other dry forest birds, and a few hundred ducks. Among the ducks were Blue-winged Teal, a couple of shovelers, Ring-necked, and Lesser Scaup but no Masked.

A Banded wren from the ponds.

In keeping with ducks, our next site was the reservoir at Canas. Although there weren’t as many ducks compared to last winter (yet…), we nevertheless had fun looking through hundreds of Lesser Scaup and in the process, got a Ring-necked Duck, and a Redhead! The Redhead was a major bonus as it was first recorded in Costa Rica just a few years ago and I had missed the one at Canas last winter.

Find the Redhead!

Mission success on the avocet, not so for the Spotted Rail, time to go back to the drawing board for that one…

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Introduction

Fun, Birds, and Food at Rancho Naturalista

If Costa Rica has a pioneer birding lodge, it would have to be Rancho Naturalista. I am pretty sure that this gem of a destination was the first place in Costa Rica to put most of the focus on birders and continues to please birdwatchers to this day. Rancho’s legacy includes several in-house guides who have gone on to guide tours around the globe, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of happy photographers, and legendary food. In trip reports, that culinary aspect of Rancho is at times overshadowed by the birds but oh how it does deserve a mention!

For example, after a recent trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we finished off the first day with a dinner of Morrocan Chicken. Meat falling off the bone, scrumptious, honest to goodness Morrocan recipe chicken. Every meal was just as fantastic and it prepares you for the fun birding on and off the grounds of the hotel.

As far as birding goes, feeders and birdy habitats always ensure plenty to look at. Upon arrival, we were treated to the ongoing hummingbird party. This glittering festival never ends and includes such guests as

White-necked Jacobin,

Green-breasted Mango,

Crowned Woodnymph,

Brown Violetear,

and Black-crested Coquette visible in the Porterweed for most of our stay. We also had other hummingbird species along with more than a few close looks at birds coming to fruit and rice feeders. Among those were

Brown Jay and

Gray-headed Chachalaca along with other species.

On more than one occasion, we also saw one of the least common, widespread raptors in the neotropics-

Bicolored Hawk! Rancho just might be the most reliable place for this species anywhere in its range.

But these birds were just some of the ones around the buildings. Up on the trails, the birding wasn’t as easy but we still saw White-crowned Manakin, heard Zeledon’s Antbird and Carmiol’s Tanager, and saw a fair selection of other middle elevation species. If you spent the whole day on the upper trails, you would have a fair chance at Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Brown-billed Sythebill, tanagers, and lots of other species.

Female White-crowned Manakin.

Although we didn’t do much on the upper trails, we had fun with one of the coolest attractions at Rancho. This gem was the moth sheet. The insects that come to the sheet at night are in turn eaten by birds that show up early in the morning and most are shy, forest interior species. The most common bird was Red-throated Ant-Tanager although we also had close looks at Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and great looks at another reliable rarity at Rancho, the Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher.

Staying at Rancho isn’t cheap but you get more than what you pay for with excellent birding, fantastic food, excellent service, and the oportunity to hire very good guides. Take the La Mina excursion and you have a 95% chance of seeing Sunbittern.

We saw this pair!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

November Birding News for Costa Rica

While growing up near the thundering waters of Onguiaahra, I always associated November with dark, slate gray. The short days seemed cloaked in a steely sky, the trees had gone to sleep, and the first bit of snow was drifting down from the north. Things were frozen once more and the summer birds were long gone and replaced by the calls of chickadees, big flocks of ducks on the river and lakes, and clouds of gulls.

November in Costa Rica is a far cry from the month that lays out the ice-dead winter welcome mat of the north. Much closer to the equator, the hands of Jack Frost are held at bay by an eternal summer. Instead of “losing” birds, we gain them in the form of wood-warblers, Philadelphia Vireos, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Wood Thrushes, and other migrants. However, we aren’t exempt from the heavy changes happening up north. We might not get any snow but we do get the gray skies. They come loaded with heavy rain and sometimes, it falls for days.

Common Bush Tanagers like the rain.

If you have birded in Costa Rica in November, you probably know what I am talking about. But, you probably also saw lots of cool birds anyways. For us local birders, this is actually an exciting time of the year because this is when the vagrants can show up. It represents that first, brief window when lost birds appear. Since they are out of range and far from familiar surroundings, the odds aren’t in their favor so you have to find them pretty much as soon as they arrive. So far, the most noteworthy rarities have been a Yellow-headed Blackbird found in the Coto marshes near the southern border by Leo Garrigues and some other Tico birders.

You are far more likely to see Slaty Flowerpiercers than Yellow-headed Blackbirds in Costa Rica.

I was wondering when this one would show again and suspect that it turns up more often, just not enough people scouring rice fields and marshes (the clouds of mosquitoes are a likely deterrant). Another very experienced observer was pretty sure that he glimpsed an Aplomado Falcon up by Medio Queso. He only got a brief look but strongly suspected that he saw one. It wouldn’t be out of the question as this vagrant has been seen there before.

Yellow-backed Oriole was also found near Quepos! Whether a natural vagrant or escapee, it’s a first for Costa Rica!

There have also been reports of Pine Warbler (serious vagrant) at the Belmar Hotel in Monteverde, and Reddish Egret at Puntarenas. No reports of Spotted Rail yet but since this seems to be the best month for that tough species, I hope I see one!

In other bird-related news, the second edition of the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean is out! I think it becomes available on Amazon and elsewhere in December but some of us birders in Costa Rica have been very fortunate to get copies now. I have mine and yes, it is definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition. There are more illustrations of birds in flight, more species are shown, improved maps, nice habitat descriptions, and so on.

In semi bird-related news, Turrialba Volcano has been erupting. Not just letting off the steam either but big clouds of ash and flying boulders. The mouth of the volcano has also been growing, people have been evacuated from a few places, and the activity is expected to increase.

Reports about the birds mentioned can be seen at the AOCR Bird Alarm Facebook page.