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Birding Costa Rica Around Carara- Always Hot, Always Birdy

Carara National Park and vicinity isn’t that far from the Central Valley, especially with the highway that cuts 30 to 40 minutes from the former route. The cut in driving time has made day trips to Carara from the San Jose area quite feasible, and the high number of bird species makes this Central American hotspot a worthy place to sling the binos on any birding trip to Costa Rica. Every time I go, I am reminded and convinced of Carara’s hotspot status. BUT, I don’t hightail it down to Carara every chance I get because I am also always reminded of the omnipresent heat and humidity.

Some days around Carara are hotter than others but you are always going to sweat. Or, at least I do, I think because I carry a bunch of stuff and wear clothes. When I walk through the forest I can’t help but wonder how indigenous people must have lived around there. Visions of Amazonian people typically come to mind,, people who wear little clothing, go swimming a lot, and take it easy during the heat of the day. I dare say that it must have been the same around Carara although locals also had the big side benefit known as the ocean.

Last weekend, I figured that the time had come to do a non-guiding trip to Carara. You see, I mostly visit the park and surroundings when guiding, and those are always exciting, bird-filled days, but it’s also nice to to go there in search of recordings, some tough target species, and just to see what happens in the forest. So, with a big frozen bottle of water, Gatorade, and a bunch of snacks (including two chocolates truffles that of course melted but didn’t fail to satisfy), birding friend Susan and I did a day trip to Carara on Saturday.

I wanted to check for Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-tailed Flycatcher around the mangroves, and hope for pictures of Marbled Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Long-billed Gnatwren, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet in the forest. I have never had the two targets in the mangroves, nor have heard of anyone else getting them there but based on habitat, they might be very rare residents. Two of the forest birds are uncommon and the other two are always recorded but happen to be an incredible pain to photograph. I knew that I might not find anything I was looking for but I also knew that we would see more than our fair share of birds.

Our first stop was Bajamar to check the waters of the Gulf of Nicoya. The seas were nice and wavy but the avian result was zilch except for one distant Royal Tern. Although it looks good for seawatching, the marine birds are much better from the ferry and watching from the tip of Puntarenas.

To check the mangroves, from Bajamar, we drove south along the coast right the end of the road and the mouth of the Tarcoles River. There isn’t a whole lot of mangrove access but you get pretty close and there’s a fair number of birds. Although the woodpecker and flycatcher were predictably absent, we weren’t complaining about the fun combination of wading birds, edge species, and others including Common Black Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Yellow-naped and White-fronted Parrots, and a calling Collared Forest-Falcon.

One of the Plumbeous Kites we saw.

When it was time to catch the 8 a.m (not ideal for birding) opening time for the national park, we left Guacalillo, drove back out to the main road, crossed the crocodile bridge, and went to the HQ. Entrance tickets were quickly purchased, restrooms visited, and into the forest we went. It became quickly apparent that the birds were nice and vocal on Saturday, and they stayed like that for most of our time in the forest.

All of these people are looking at American Crocodiles below the bridge.

Since my targets were far more likely back in the primary forest away from the road, we spent very little time in the old second growth, and bee-lined it back to the trails on the other side of the bridge. There are really too many birds to mention although expected and  interesting ones included Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Golden-crowned Spadebill (heard only and would not let us see them!), Riverside Wren, Black-hooded Antshrike, lots of Dot-winged Antwrens, Orange-billed Sparrow, calling Great Tinamous, and so on.

On the other side of the bridge, more deep forest species became apparent as we heard Baird’s Trogon (one of five trogon species for the day), Scaly-breasted Wren, Red-capped Manakins, Blue-crowned Manakin, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and Streak-chested Antpitta. As luck would have it, we also got lucky with one of my targets!

Scaly-throated Leaftosser

Leaftossers are always a pain but this one perched more than long enough for me to get shots of it.

Not long after, we had a male Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting away from us. It eventually crossed the trail for excellent views.

Around there, we also had Lesser Greenlets and Red-capped Manakin nagging at something off in the woods but it was just too far to see if it was s snake or owl. One of my other targets also sort of cooperated although it stayed too high and in bad light for the best of shots.

Although we didn’t encounter as many mixed flocks as I had hoped, we did find one with Russet Antshrike, a couple woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, tanagers, antwrens, and a few other birds.

We had excellent looks at Black-striped Woodcreeper.
Dot-winged Antwren was one of the most common species in the forest.

The morning wore on but the birds never really stopped calling. Even though we didn’t come across any other targets (the greenlet was heard several times but never close enough to photograph), we still had a good, birdy time in the forest. That’s typical for Carara. By the time we exited the trees, it was two p.m. and stifling hot. That’s also typical for Carara. Thank goodness for vehicles with air conditioning!

I think this Mealy Parrot was also looking for cooler temperatures.

Even though we were sort of casually birding and stopped at 2, when I counted up all of the species we saw or heard from the time we left San Jose to the time we returned, we ended up being just shy of 160 species.

Yes, that many! That’s what happens, though, when the birds are singing in a major tropical ecotone with quality forest. Just be ready for the heat.

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