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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Finding Birds in Costa Rica- It’s More than Knowing Where to Go

Like most birders, I have always been interested in knowing where I need to go to see the birds I want to see. At least I assume most birders are like that. I know that when my eyes were first opened to all thing avian, I quickly realized that no, you can’t just walk outside and see Baltimore Orioles, beautiful wood-warblers, and owls sitting up there in the Japanese Maples and Hackberries in my neighbor’s yards.

Every bird I looked at seemed to be a House Sparrow, Starling, or Rock Pigeon along with a few genuine natives. The appearance of my first Song Sparrow in our urban backyard was a big deal for a city-bound 8 year old birder, and the “Sparrow Hawks” in the nearby field (aka abandoned railway line) were nothing short of amazing. According to books at the Earl Bridges Library, those species were mapped for Niagara Falls, New York but what about Tree Swallow, Yellow Warbler, Brown Thrasher, and so many other species that were supposed to be there too? I didn’t know then that the maps showed what would live where our house stood if the streets, homes, and sidewalks had never been built. I found out that those and so many other species needed woodlands, grassland, and thickets that grew outside of town, and that you had to travel much further afield to find species that required larger areas of forest.

Although the maps in the field guides showed these solid purple, red, or blue areas where birds occurred, they were actually a general representation of a much more static situation. Bird species could live in the colored areas of the maps but they only occurred in the places that were suited to them, and even then, many weren’t exactly obvious. You couldn’t just go birding and see everything you wanted. You had to really look for birds, and sometimes spend more time looking than you had hoped.  Not to mention, owls were basically a myth. Nevertheless, it was still way easier to find birds in the temperate zone than in tropical forests. For a lot of places in North America, bird-finding guides gave vary specific directions for target birds that worked like a charm. Go there, watch this corner of a field at seven a.m., and enjoy your lifer!

So why doesn’t that work in Costa Rica?

Well, it does if you want to see common, second growth species but that’s where similarities between bird finding up north and 9 degrees from the equator tend to cease. Like the temperate zone, edge species are common because there is a heck of a lot of second growth, they have evolved to quickly take advantage of temporary habitats in a forested landscape, and aren’t too picky when it comes to food.  Not to mention, there are more individuals of a few species rather than very few individuals of many species. These factors make it much easier to see species like Black-striped Sparrow, Passerini’s Tanager, and Variable Seedeater compared to forest birds like Ocellated Antbird, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Green Shrike-Vireo.

Black-striped Woodcreeper

As far as rainforest species go, yes, you do have to know which sites harbor the birds you are looking for but seeing them is still another story. Unlike temperate zone forests in the early summer, rainforest birds aren’t in a hurry to defend territories, mate, and take advantage of the summer arthropod abundance. They seem to take their time to avoid predators, find enough food in a highly competitive landscape, and just stay alive. Camouflaged in appearance and behavior, and occurring at naturally low numbers, typical rainforest species can be so tough to find that you can’t help but wonder “where are all of those birds?” when walking in a seemingly bird-empty forest.

If you go to a large enough area of protected rainforest, the birds on that huge enticing list do occur but this is why you don’t see them right away:

  • Some live in the canopy: Actually a lot live way up there, 100 feet above the ground. It’s hard enough to see birds in the canopy if they are sitting in bare trees. Add vegetation growing on everything and you learn why canopy towers are built.

    A canopy view of a Purple-throated Fruitcrow.
  • Microhabitats: Tropical rainforests are about as uniform and predictable as a broken kaleidoscope. But, we need to celebrate that chaos of life because it’s partly why there are so many possibilities. Learn about microhabitats and pay attention to them to find that Royal Flycatcher, White-crested Coquette, and Dull-mantled Antbird.
  • Army ants and other avian gourmets: Some birds refuse to eat unless Army Ants are present. Others only like certain types of fruit or muddy places where they can find choice worms. Know the places where certain birds like to eat and you just might find them. What? Even that doesn’t guarantee seeing them?- check out the next point.
  • Time spent in quality habitat = More Rare Birds: Even if you do find the right habitat and food, that cotinga, ground-cuckoo, or other tough species might be absent. Wait around long enough and keep checking, though, and they will eventually appear. Some birds are just inconspicuous and naturally rare, or have become even more rare than normal because they have to migrate to lowland areas that have been mostly deforested (poor umbrellabirds…). The upside to this is that statistically, the more time you spend patiently birding in the right habitat, the higher the probability of seeing rare species. This is why it’s worth it to visit quality forest day after day and spend many a quiet hour there. Eventually, the tough birds show up and in the meantime, there’s always cool stuff to see in tropical rainforest anyways.

A site guide can point out places to bird but knowing how to look for target species is a huge help in finding them. There’s no replacement for an experienced birding guide, but “How to See,Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” can help you get ready for your trip, and show you where to look for birds, as well as finding and identifying them.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations

What’s a Streak-breasted Treehunter?

For the non-birder, the title of this post surely sounds like some crude joke. For us birders, though, we know that it must refer to some kind of weird bird. At least we hope it does because how could you not want to see something called a “treehunter”? Because, really, how does one hunt trees? After all, they aren’t about to exactly sprint out of sight. To clarify the treehunter situation, here is some information about the one that lives in Costa Rica:

  • Streak-breasted Treehunter (Thripadectes rufobrunneus): The official name for the only Thripadectes species that occurs in Central America. The other hunters of trees live in South America where they chase and bash down various trees with their super power beaks. Ok, so they don’t but wouldn’t that be a frightful sight!

    Streak-breasted Treehunter hanging on a tree.
  • Poorly named: Now that we know its name, we also have to sigh and admit that the title is nothing but power down fluff. It sort of has buff streaks on the breast but would never hunt a tree. A more honest and descriptive name might be “Gray-crowned, cloud forest monsterette”.
  • Hefty brown bird: Like other Thripadectes, this one looks like it could kick some cloud forest butt. I bet the Red-faced Spinetails keep their distance.

    What you looking at spinetail?
  • Not that rare: Breathe a sigh of relief because this bird is fairly common in cloud forest from 1,200 to 2,600 meters. I have heard and seen them around Poas and they turn up at most cloud forest sites (but see the next bullet).
  • A Part time skulker: Stevie Wonder sang about a part time lover. This bird preaches part-time skulking. That is obviously much better than full-time skulking (ahem tapaculos).

    How this part time skulker is often seen.
  • A burrow nester: Like a wannabe motmot, this bird nests in burrows! How’s that for cool, troglodytish weirdness!
  • A loner: Although it might get curious about scolding bush-tanagers, don’t expect to see it in a mixed flock.

    "I forage alone..."
  • A Costa Rica-Panama endemic: This species is one that you want to see in Costa Rica or western Panama because the binos aren’t going to espy it anywhere else. Like several other species, it evolved into a genetically and phenotypically distinct organism in the highland forests of this corner of Central America.

Look for the Streak-breasted Treehunter at any cloud forest site above 1,200 meters elevation. Since it nests in burrows, this bird is often seen near embankments and forested streams. Listen for its loud “chack!” call and distinctive, weird nagging laugh vocalization, and then run for your lives because if it can hunt a tree, what do you suppose it might do to a human?


This tree is mine!
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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Fun, Easy, and Exciting Ferry Birding in Costa Rica

At first glance, a ferry doesn’t sound like fun. First, you wait in line with a vehicle. Next, you drive said vehicle on to a flat, square thing that is supposed to be a boat. After stowing the car, you usually find some place to sit and wait out the trip. It’s boring, even in this ridiculous day and age of the mobile phone. In some places, it also becomes frightening because other ferrys on the same routes have sank with horrible consequences.

BUT, take the right ferry and it’s fun, easy birding. That pretty much describes the ferry between Puntarenas and Paquera, Costa Rica except that it’s also cheap, fun, easy birding! Yep, if you can find a parking spot at Frank’s Cabinas, you can leave the car for about $8 for the whole day instead of paying around $50 to take the car back and forth on the square boat. As for a passenger ticket, that’s a mere 800 colones, or around $1.75.

Even if you didn’t plan on watching birds, this particular ferry would still be fun. The crossing is about an hour, the weather and scenery is typically beautiful, you could have a cold beer on the boat (I have seen several passengers bring their own), and, best of all, you probably won’t get seasick! The swells are usually light, and since it’s only an hour, there’s hardly any chance of being afflicted by the nasty mal de mer.

The ferry.

As for birds, yes, there are those too and you never know what might show up. No, the ferry won’t chum or chase anything but the tall, flat deck is a good vantage point to scan and even scope stuff out in the gulf, and all sorts of stuff can show.

Scanning...

Although the birding won’t be as exciting as pounding the waves straight out to the continental shelf and beyond, it’s a heck of a lot more comfortable and still turns up pelagics.

I would rather take the ferry than this boat.

Since Inca Tern had been recently seen near the ferry, myself and a few friends decided to do a ferry birding trip on Sunday. We knew that the Inca would be a crap shoot but we also knew that we would probably see something good, and since the ferry is so easy to do, it was almost too easy to drive down to Puntarenas, park at Frank’s, and get on the boat.

But before we even got there, we picked up the first good bird while checking the cruise ship dock. After setting up the scope, I focus in on the dock and the first bird that comes into view is a jaeger! A subadult Parasitic is out there sitting on the dock during the month of June. Odd indeed and a very welcome year bird.

It was sharing the dock with Brown Boobies, a couple of Laughing Gulls, Sandwich Terns, and a few Royals. In other words, nothing crazy but that’s alright because we knew that we would get a few more good birds from the boat.

But before we boarded the ferry, birds were already visible from the point of Puntarenas and scanning them turned up a bunch of Black Terns, Brown Boobies, and, suddenly, a shearwater flies into view! It was pretty far out but still identifiable as a Galapagos Shearwater, one of our targets for the day and a lifer for all sans moi.

Welcome to the ferry.

When the boat got underway, we constantly scanned our surroundings and started seeing more Brown Boobies, and scattered groups of Black Terns foraging for small fish and perched on driftwood.

At one point, a Blue-footed Booby flew past.

Blue-footed Booby

Not long into the trip, a small squadron of Galapagos Shearwaters glided low over the water, and flew into the gulf.

Galapagos Shearwaters
Galapagos Shearwaters

More scanning kept revealing more Black Terns but we also enjoyed the super close views of Brown Boobies.

Brown Booby flying close.
A Black Tern on driftwood.

As the boat approached one small group of terns, I noticed a larger brown bird with them and immediately said, “Sooty Tern”! although I actually meant to say, “Brown Noddy!” That’s what happens when you see a lifer. Excitement blurs the neurosignals and you don’t say what you really mean. No matter, because we all got perfect looks at a Brown Noddy, right next to the boat. Since the noddy is only present in Costa Rica during the summer, I was hoping we would see it. Success!

It was in a group of Black Terns like this.

In Paquera, we got off the boat , bought return tickets, and then got right back on. This time, we took front seats, and once again, scanned the water from left to right and kept checking the skies for a tropicbird (Red-billed is seen now and then).

This Brown Booby accompanied us.

The noon-time ride back was sunny and slow, and still lacked storm-petrels, but we got more looks at Black Terns, saw a Snowy Egret perched on driftwood in the middle of the gulf, had more looks at Brown Booby, and even spotted a couple of guys in a raft that needed a rescue!

Help!

After docking, we called it an early day and drove back up to the San Jose area. Next time, I would love to take the 5 a.m. ferry and come back on the 9 a.m. ferry. This being an El Nino year, and the Gulf of Nicoya being an important, nutrient-rich body of water, you never know what might show up.

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Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

June Birding in Costa Rica

June has special meaning for those of us from the temperate north. It’s when summer truly kicks into gear with baseball, the hum of lawnmowers, beautiful sunny days, the rattle and song of meadowlarks calling from the fields, and another school year finally over. Celebration all around and the woods are filled with bird song. In Costa Rica, though, June is barely noticed because summer is a year-round event only marked by absence or major presence of rain.

Cloud forests like this need a lot of rain.

Right now, there’s a whole lot of rain going on and it’s a relief because this is how it’s supposed to be. April and May were pretty dry and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. In many parts of the country, birds nest in April and May to take advantage of the rains. If the rains aren’t there, the birds are probably going to lose the gamble for offspring. This year, I hope enough birds in the Central Valley and the Pacific lowlands postponed nesting for a month because right now is when the food is abundant. Well, at least for the valley because Guanacaste is still going through a drought. As climate continues to warm, unfortunately, the tropical dry forest in that part of the country will probably phase into an even more xeric ecosystem.

The rain story follows another path in the mountains and Caribbean. There has been more rain than usual and although it hinders birding, those wet ecosystems do need the water. The rain can be rough to contend with but it does spur bird activity. Like a northern summer, more birds sing, and it’s easier to see more species than drier, winter months. If you are from the north, go birding in Costa Rica now and every bird seen will be a tropical resident. It’s a good time of the year to become acquainted with antbirds, watch trogons in action, and get crazy with mixed flocks.

You might also see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- singing a lot now.

The low clouds also make June an excellent time of the year to watch swifts. Most days, as the storms approach, I see White-collareds, Chestnut-collareds, and Vaux’s right from the house. If I look long enough, I also hear or see Black and/or Spot-fronted. The other day, I picked up a Spot-fronted when it called as soon as I walked into the backyard. I couldn’t find it way up there in the monotone gray but was happy to at least hear its distinctive vocalization.

It sounds like this:

The need to breed also reveals species that can be very hard to find. After Jim Zook reported a pair of Blue Seedeaters near Naranjo, Susan and I went looking for them a few days later. There was no sight or sound of that rare and little known species but it will still nice to hear the sounds of June in moist woodlands and coffee farms of the Central Valley. Those sounds and sightings come in the form of Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Rufous-breasted and Plain Wrens, Barred Antshrike, Red-billed Pigeon, Masked Tityra, Yellow-throated Euphonia, and lots of Yellow-green Vireos among other species.

A lot of Yellow-green Vireos are here now.

After dipping on the seedeater, we continued on to the loop that goes past Bosque la Paz, goes up through Alto Paloma, and comes back through Sarchi. We met back up with the rain near Bosque de Paz but still saw a fair number of birds before the mist turned into a downpour. From the cloud forest, we heard Prong-billed Barbets, Slaty-backed and Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes, Black-faced Solitaire, and other expected species. We also saw most of them including Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Golden-crowned and Three-striped Warblers, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Yellowish Flycatcher, and others.

This Collared Trogon caught a pretty big caterpillar.
Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Higher up, tapaculos called but failed to show (no surprise there), and there was no sign of Costa Rican Pygmy-owl, but we did see and hear Golden-bellied Flycatcher, both silky-flycatchers, Collared Redstart, Ruddy and Band-tailed Pigeons, and several Black-thighed Grosbeaks to top off a birdy June morning with 60 or so species.

Alto Paloma- good high elevation birding near San Jose.

Want to learn more about birding at Alto Paloma, other sites mentioned on this blog, and how to identify swifts? Get How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.