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

Expect the Unexpected when Birding in Costa Rica at Quebrada Gonzalez

Expecting the unexpected is par for the binocular course when birding in tropical rainforest. The surprise effect can be a challenge for target-based birding but makes every trip into the forest like that box of chocolate quote from Forrest Gump. Basically, while you can have an idea of what you might see, you never really never know what you are going to get.

Quebrada Gonzalez is like that and is probably why it’s one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked past those old, mossy trees on the trail, I really never know what is going to happen. However, every time I step into that dense forest, I am fully aware of rare possibilities at every turn of the trail.

This Chuck-will's-Widow was a nice, recent surprise.

On saturday, I birded the area with friends Susan Blank and Dani Lopez-Velasco, and as expected, we heard more than we saw and had some quiet times in beautiful forest, but also had a couple of mixed flocks, and a few really good birds. We went there because it’s the most accessible site as a day trip for a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Sharpbill, Gray-headed Piprites, and other Megas in Costa Rica. Although I hardly ever see those at the site, the more you go, the better chance you have at finally connecting with them so there’s never anything wrong with a day of birding at Quebrada.

We heard Lattice-tailed Trogon although I did have fantastic views the previous week.

As we quietly walked through the rainforest, the calls of Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers were a near constant companion. Some other birds were with them now and then but nothing incredible. No matter, they were still fun to watch as was White-ruffed Manakin, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Rufous Mourner. One of our best of the day was Black-crowned Antpitta. Always a Mega, Quebrada Gonzalez is one of the very few easily accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica (and in the world for that subspecies- maybe a future split?). Unfortunately, it’s not as regular at Quebrada as it used to be but still haunts the forest, especially near streams and gullies.

This female White-ruffed Manakin stayed in place much longer than the antpitta.

Like the previous week, we heard the bird sing quietly now and then and after a prolonged wait, the male antpitta (gnatpitta) finally hopped out onto the trail for nearly a minute. It was long enough for great looks but still not long enough to get a picture of it in the dim understory. We also had a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles near there.

Despite plenty of staring and listening in the understory, and hearing Dull-mantled, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, we didn’t hit any ground-cuckoo lotteries but we still had a chance on the Ceiba trail. At first, it was dreadfully quiet but some birds eventually started to show on the Botarrama Trail while we searched for Lanceolated Monklet. These were birds like Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Stripe-breasted Wren.

This Dull-mantled Antbird showed well the previous week.

After giving up on the monklet, we made our back up the trail and ran into a good mixed flock. As tanagers slowly made they way across the trail and other birds showed, movement in a tree off to the right materialized into one of our best for the day; Yellow-eared Toucanet! A male was feeding in a fruiting tree and then called high above before retreating back into the forest. Pale-vented thrushes and Black-mandibled Toucans were also feeding at the tree but we couldn’t wait around long enough to see if a Lovely Cotinga would make an appearance.

Striped Woodhaunter posed for a few shots.

The male was a year bird for me and Susan and a major target for Dani because it was one of the only lifers that he could get in Costa Rica. Hopefully, he will pick up the ground-cuckoo for himself and his clients during his Birdquest tour (last year, they got an astounding 590 plus species!).

As always, I can’t wait to get back to Quebrada to hang out in the forest and see what happens. Maybe I will get a picture of a Sharpbill, have Black-eared Wood-Quail quietly creep through the forest, or find a Black and white Hawk-Eagle. All are possible, but you won’t see them if you don’t put in the time and effort.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

Big Day Drowned by Rain but Rare Birds Anyways

A lot of factors come into play for a Big Day and one of the biggest is precipitation. If it’s a little bit of rain, that’s probably alright and might work in your favor in keeping the birds calling all day long. The same goes for showers. What you don’t want is a fat morning thunderstorm or constant, cold front rain because that really knocks out too many bird species to bother with a Big Day attempt.

Last Sunday, we had our Big Day attempt…and a cold front moved in to shut us down before dawn (ouch). As the clock hit seven, we still maintained hope that the rain would break long enough for enough birds to sing, or that it would be raining less in another morning birding spot, but neither of those plans worked out. So, instead of sticking to the schedule, we realized that it would be more fun to just hit a few spots for the rest of the day and not race down to Chomes to snatch looks at shorebirds in the mosquito loving dusk.

Robert, Susan, and I still saw some nice birds including a few rare ones. The following are some of the highs and lows of scouting on Saturday and birding on Sunday:

  • Green-winged Teal: A male had been reported from a site near our route. Saturday scouting showed that it was definitely close enough to fit in and also gave us chances at Killdeer (uncommon), Blue-winged Teal, and another wetland bird or two. It was nice to see the teal because this is a very rare species for Costa Rica and was new for my country list. We made this our final stop on Sunday and saw the teal straight away along with the Blue-wings, Southern Lapwing, Tropical Mockingbird, and a few other species.
    Green-winged Teal!

  • Scouting around San Ramon: Brief but cool to find a couple of birding spots, one of which may have given us Rufous-breasted and Rufous and white Wrens, Long-tailed Manakin, and other dry forest species.
  • Least Bittern: Another new one for my country list! Although we didn’t see it, we heard one bird that called once at Medio Queso. That was in the middle of the night but despite good weather, not as many birds were calling as I had hoped. That said, we did pick up Mottled Owl, Common Pauraque, Purple Gallinule, Green Heron, and Boat-billed Heron.

    What Medio Queso looks like during the day.
  • Great Potoo: After looking and listening for a reliable one at the San Emiliano bridge near Cano Negro, we were just about to give up when I noticed the monster sitting on a low post under a street light. We couldn’t ask for better views and one of the highlights of the weekend! After that, as we tried for Ocellated Poorwill and Common Potoo, the rain turned on.

    Great Potoo
  • Cano Negro to Upala: This turned out to be a low during our supposed 24 hours of concentrated birding madness. It was raining in earnest, the rocky road loosened a bracket underneath the vehicle, there were no birds to be seen, and it was slow going in the middle of nowhere. We were pretty happy to see pavement even with all that falling water.

    We saw this sloth during scouting at Cano Negro. It's looking up because I called like a Harpy Eagle. I know not so nice but I wanted to see if it recognized the call by instinct- it did.
  • Eastern Whip-poor-Will: A nice surprise! This is a tough/rare bird in Costa Rica and another welcome first for my country list. We saw it between the turn off for Castillo and the entrance to the Observatory Lodge along with dozens of pauraques en route. When I saw it, I knew there was something different about it and sure enough, it wasn’t a pauraque. As we drove up, it seemed to have a shorter tail and lacked white in the wings. A look through rain and bins showed enough to make us realize what it was. It also makes me wonder how many Whip-poor-wills and Chucks are out there in the dark night and overlooked? They rarely vocalize in-country so you just wouldn’t know if they were around. Speaking of chucks, Juan Diego Vargas mentioned several on the peninsula road at Arenal. Speaking of Juan Diego, he gets a huge thanks for filling us in on lots of gen before the Big Day.
  • The Arenal feeders: It was raining and the dawn chorus was minimal but at least we saw some birds; nice ones like Great Curassow, Gray-headed Chachalaca, several hummingbirds, and Hepatic Tanager.
  • Yellow-breasted Chat!: Despite looking for and not seeing on Saturday, the chat that I had seen with the guys from 10,000 Birds in December, we managed to turn it up in a different, tiny corner of vegetation in the same area on Sunday! Yay, especially because this was a new country bird for Robert and Susan.
  • Some birds around Penas Blancas: We left Arenal in search of clear weather and did find some at the Penas Blancas river. Birds were active and we picked up a fair number of expected species including Long-tailed Tyrant. Not enough stuff to make up for the lost morning but it was worth a try.

    Southern Roung-winged Swallow was one of the common birds we saw.
  • LoveEats Cafe: Always a highlight and always good! We decided to stop there and enjoy capuccinos after accepting that the day was a literal wash. Unfortunately, weather there was way too windy and dry. We saw a Swallow-tailed Kite but little else. It was the same way too dry weather at the Manuel Brenes road. If these sites continue with such dry weather, I don’t see how there won’t be full ecosystem collapse in an area that typically hosts hundreds of bird species.
  • San Luis Canopy: The nice people at this excellent zip-lining site and restaurant let us check out their feeders and trail through cloud forest. It was a nice walk and we saw several expected middle elevation species despite the sunny weather. No Sunbittern on the river but it does occur. I hope to visit soon to survey the place with a resident birder/guide and will post about it.

    A bridge at the San Luis Canopy
  • Good company: As always, no matter where we go, birding with Robert and Susan’s is always a good day.

The obvious solution to being rained out on a Big Day is rescheduling but so far, we haven’t found a date to do it because we need free time and a late afternoon high tide to coincide. If that happens, we might still make it happen and I do think we would have a chance at a record. Of course, the weather would still have to cooperate too!

A Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture flies low over the marsh at Medio Queso.
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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

March, 2015 Birding News for Costa Rica

It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:

  • The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
  • Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
  • Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.
Royal Flycatchers are still reliable.
  • Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
  • Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
  • There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.
This Mangrove Hummingbird is actually from Mata de Limon.
  • Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.
This quetzal is from the Poas area.
  • Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
  • Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!