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Birding Costa Rica at Rincon de la Vieja- What to Expect in 2016

Unfortunately, not as much as we used to. Last week, I had the chance to spend some quality time around Rincon de la Vieja while guiding a trip for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. We stayed at Rinconcito Lodge, birded around there, and spent one morning at the Las Pailas sector of the park. Rain and other factors, some natural, at least one not, tied our birding hands more than we expected. Based on last weekend’s trip, this is what birders might expect from the Rincon de la Vieja area in 2016:

  • Not as many birds: I hope I’m wrong but if the observations from last weekend were any indication, I’m afraid that the birding outlook doesn’t look promising. I hope things are different in the primary forest and more humid areas of the national park because something really doesn’t seem right in old second growth and other sites on the way to Rincon de la Vieja. Although time of year could be a factor, three days of dawn chorus were more like whispers in the dark. No woodcreepers, no becards, very few wrens, few wintering warblers, and few tyrant-flycatchers. In other words, something is going on with the insectivores and it’s not exactly rosy. That’s my impression and I hope I’m wrong but based on years of experience with bird surveys and the Costa Rican avifauna, I do believe that I should have recorded more birds. Who knows but I suspect that the lack of birds in second growth and dry forest areas is related to much less rain than normal over the past few years.
  • Keel-billed Toucans, oropendolas, and jays: You might see lots of these. I know we did. The number of Keel-billeds was pretty impressive and we saw dozens of Montezuma Oropendolas, and Brown and White-throated Magpie-Jays. We wondered how small birds could survive with such a large number of nest predators in the neighborhood. Fair numbers of Red-billed and Band-tailed Pigeons were also around along with lots of Orange-fronted Parakeets.

    A tree full of toucans.
  • Sunbittern!: I wasn’t aware of this but Sunbittern is fairly common on forested streams and rivers in and near the park. The Ficus Trail at the Rinconcito Lodge appears to be quite reliable for it.
  • Tody Motmot!: This target species is still regular in the area. We had one on the Ficus trail at Rinconcito and it should still be regular in the national park. It might prefer areas of old second growth or spots with vine tangles.

    Grainy Tody Motmot, near dark conditions.
  • Great Curassow: Rincon de la Vieja is yet another good site for this species. If you don’t see one in the national park, you can see some at very close range at Rinconcito Lodge.

    One of three Great Curassows that roamed the grounds.
  • Hard work for the sparrows: Since Botteri’s, Grasshopper, and Rusty Sparrows are much easier to see elsewhere, this might only be of interest to local birders. We did quite a bit of looking in suitable areas near the park, including a good site on Miravalles, with nary a peep. I am sure they are around but they sure aren’t common.

    Sparrow habitat.
  • Closed trails: Back to bad news. The main trail to the crater is closed and probably won’t open any time soon. Disappointing to be sure but the reason is a good one. It seems that although the activity at Arenal has slowed down, Rincon de la Vieja has picked up the pace and has even spit out a boulder or two.
  • The Las Pailas travesty: This certainly deserves an article of its own but I might as well sum it up here. Although the trail is open for business, it’s also open for construction, literally. We weren’t sure what they were exactly doing but the tractor-like equipment and power saws weren’t about to attract any ground-cuckoos or other good birds. The place was more or less a mess, and the loop trail was closed off at one point. This closing off required us to an about face and walk back through the same stretch of rainy, birdless mud. In retrospect, it would have been nice if the person at the park information desk would have mentioned the construction and the partial trail closure. Since the work is supposed to fall under the category of trail improvements, it’s logical to assume that it will be done at some point, perhaps before your trip. BUT, sadly, that might not be the only construction going on. Geothermal wells have also been built near the trail, forest was cleared in the process, and muddy access trails seemed to lead to those wells. Luckily, there are other trails in the park.

    Construction at the entrance to Las Pailas.
  • The other trails: For birding sake, skip Las Pailas and take the Catarata Escondida trail. I wish we would have! I don’t think there is construction on that one and it’s quite long, either leading to a waterfall, or heading up to a grassy area where Rock Wren, and Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows have been seen. We didn’t make it up there but it was raining anyways. That trail probably provides the same chances at quail-doves, ground-cuckoos, and other goodies as Las Pailas used to and the closed Crater Trail still does.
  • Santa Maria Sector: Our original plan was to bird this part of the park in lieu of Las Pailas anyways. But, scouting showed that even the best of high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles would have trouble on the last 500 meters of the road. So, with great disappointment, we didn’t make it to that part of the park. The situation will probably improve with drier weather and the birding is pretty good.
  • Entrance fees and hours: The Hacienda Guachipelin charges 700 colones per person at one part of the road (they have done this for many years), and the main fee for non-residents is $15 per day. Hours are a non-birder friendly 8 to 3.

To learn more about birding sites in Costa Rica, get “How To See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”, the most complete bird finding companion for this birdy country. Now also available for Kindle.

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Seeing the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge in Costa Rica

Some birds have short names, some names are kind of long. The name for the wild chicken of the Costa Rican highlands falls into the latter category. To be accurate, it’s not really the chicken of the Costa Rican highlands because it doesn’t scratch the forest floor in as many highland spots as say the Spotted Wood-Quail (another wild chicken-bird). In Costa Rica, it has a pretty small range that encompasses the upper slopes of the Central Valley, and some areas of the Dota range in the Talamancas. I have also had it in the highest spots of Irazu volcano but it doesn’t seem to occur in the treeline habitats on Cerro de la Muerte. Since it doesn’t occur in Monteverde either, this is one restricted chicken.

I am of course talking about the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge.

Despite the very small range, fortunately, the wood-partridge seems to be adapted to living in disturbed habitats. In fact, this is no bird of the primary forest but a species that seems to rely on thick second growth and hedgerows. You can also see it in moist forest but it really does seem to be most common in a mix of second growth, forest edge, and agriculture. This is what the scene is like on the drive up to Irazu and that’s probably also the best area to encounter it in Costa Rica.

Habitat on Irazu for the wood-partridge.

Given the shy nature of this and other wild chickens, don’t expect to see the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge prancing around the potato fields, especially in the middle of the day. These plump birds exist because they are expert skulkers and feed on a bunch of different morsels. To counter its skulking ways, head up to the Irazu area just after the cold dawn and drive back roads, keeping an eye and ear out for the wood-partridge. Or, you could park near areas with thick second growth and listen for calling birds. Once they are located, keep scanning the edge of the hedge or vegetation from where they are calling until they show themselves.

Pre-coffee, they might look like this.
Post-coffee views.

Lately, some people have also been seeing this toughie at Myriam’s Cabins in the San Gerardo de Dota Valley. Like literally, right at her cabins! That has never happened to me but I guess it has for some other lucky birders. If you stay there, watch the semi-open area near the lower cabins and the farming area below the restaurant (another semi-open spot that looks good for this cool bird).

Yet another means of seeing this species is by looking for them in the upper reaches of the Central Valley. Some of the best spots seem to be situated above Grecia, watch and listen for them along the roads to the Bosque del Nino. It won’t be easy but perseverance could pay off.

The results of perseverance.
The much needed chicken might even hop up on a stump and pose for the camera.

If the birds don’t show, at least the views are still nice from the slopes above Grecia (where the birds above live).

Nice views.

On another exciting note, birders in Costa Rica during December might like to participate in the Osa Christmas count. The Osa is a fantastic, birdy area, and a lot of species are always seen on the counts. Check out Osa Birds to learn about this conservation work and to contact them for the count!

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Birding Costa Rica Christmas Counts

Some Tips for Christmas Count Birding in Costa Rica

I can’t believe that it’s November. It was easier to accept that part of the calendar while living in Niagara Falls, New York. After Halloween, the surroundings abruptly changed from a russet Autumn brown with golden highlights, to a gray, half-lit world with cold lead waiting in the atmosphere. Taking an hour of the afternoon daylight out of the picture was a contributing factor to that gray scene but really, everything seemed to be dipped in some brand of liquid gray. The oaks and other deciduous trees had gone to their annual sleep, and the bird scene was dominated by large numbers of ducks and gulls fleeing from the winter that had already grasped the north.

Those cold winds, and rafts of Canvasbacks on the river also signaled another point on the calendar, that of the Christmas Count season. Do you think we birders really look forward to hearing Bing Crosby at every corner and discussions over unlabeled coffee cups? At least I don’t. While I do look forward to seeing family and friends, savoring home-baked Christmas cookies, and watching my daughter get really excited about Christmas, I also anticipate the annual counts. I’m not sure why we get so crazy about them in the north.I mean, you can see a lot more birds in much more pleasant green surroundings at other times of the year. But, even if we only saw ten birds up north, it would still be a key birding day of the year. Do we want to see if we can best last year’s count? Do we want to test ourselves? Enjoy a special bird-holiday with good birder friends? End it with egg-nog or maybe a fine, micro-brewed beer? Yes to all of the above and in Costa Rica, it’s even better because this is when we can actually see more birds!

Summer Tanager is one of many wintering birds we can see.

Christmas Counts in Costa Rica are a celebration, sponsored events, and of course we look forward to them with gusto. We get a chance to see friends that we never run into the rest of the year, to see how many hundreds of birds can be recorded in the count circle, and to push the “limits of machine and man” (maybe not but that partial quote from “Red Barchetta” by Rush is nevertheless inspirational). Well, if you would like to participate in any counts in Costa Rica this year, here are a few tips:

  • Sign up now: Like a concert, the counts are very popular, and some might have limited number of participants. Sign up today and say that you would love to help out. The AOCR publishes a list of the counts, and count contacts every year.
  • Don’t try to do all of them: Since some are on the same date, this will be impossible anyways. Or, try to do as many as you want but keep in mind that each one is almost like an adventurous Big Day. Just tell yourself to keep going and break out the chocolate.
  • Be ready for rain: But isn’t this the dry season? On the pacific slope, yes. On the Caribbean slope, welcome to the wet. Instead of snow, we get generous amounts of rain. Like a Christmas present for the forest ecosystems, the precipitation soaks the mountains and Caribbean slope (La Selva, the Aerial Tram, and several other places). Just be prepared and go with the flow, 300 plus bird species are usually recorded anyways, and you can go after rarities found during the count on the following day.

    Sometimes, you see even more birds during rainy weather. This Cinnamon Woodpecker was seen on a rainy day during the Arenal 2014 count.
  • Consider not staying in national park barracks: Some counts offer the possibility of lodging . If you don’t mind sleeping in an open, noisy dormitory warmed by tropical heat, then you might like it. But, if you would rather go for a good night’s sleep, look for other accommodation.
  • Cliff bars and Gatorade: Many counts provide participants with a lunch. But, just in case you don’t like it, Cliff bars can help save the day. Since the counts also take place during the good olde  Yule tide, rewarding oneself with chocolate and/or brownies is also in order (this is a celebration after all). Gatorade also helps during a long, hot, humid day of non-stop birding.
  • Get the shirt!: Because who doesn’t like a birding event shirt? It helps us recognize fellow members of the tribe when we aren’t carrying binos (like at a coffee shop, the DMV, funeral, etc), and makes for a nice souvenir. Most counts give you a cool shirt, get one!
  • Buy “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”: It will help you get ready for any degree or level of birding in Costa Rica, and it’s now available on Kindle!

This year, sadly, my counting in Costa Rica might be restricted to just one event. So it goes with odd timing, travel, and obligations. If you do any counts, have fun, I hope to see you at the one I do!

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Tips for Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes and Puerto Morales

Last weekend, I had a memorable day of birding near the Pacific port town of Puntarenas. The high point was a much awaited lifer in the form of Arctic Tern (a pretty rare bird in Costa Rica, this year some have shown up on the Pacific coast). If there was a low point, I suppose it was the heat but even that wasn’t so bad. Although many of the birds we look for in that area are migrant terns, shorebirds, and other species seen in the USA, the dry habitats, open fields, and mangroves always turn up a bunch of other resident species.

Roadside Hawk is one of the nice resident species.

Throw in some scanning at Puntarenas and you also have a chance at a storm-petrel or some other super cool pelagic. If you feel like fitting in Chomes, Morales, and other places near Puntarenas into a birding trip to Costa Rica, these are some tips:

  • High tide is a must: During low tide, a couple thousand shorebirds, terns, and other waterbirds forage far and wide on giant mud flats in the Gulf of Nicoya. This translates to most of the birds being distant silhouettes or in some inaccessible corner of the gulf. When that open muddy land disappears, they move into the shrimp ponds and salt ponds at Chomes, and other sites adjacent to the coast.

    A Baird's Sandpiper turned out to be the first bird we scoped! It was hanging out with dozens of Western sandpipers, a few Semi Sands, Leasts, some Short-billed Dowitchers, a few Willets, Semi Plovers and Wilson's Plovers, and so on. Can you find it?
  • Watch the birds fly into the gulf: Since high tide was pretty early (and we birded en route), we were witness to the low tide exodus of birds from Chomes and Morales. Although we couldn’t get good looks at most because they flew by in fast motion flocks, often zipping overhead, the experience was nevertheless spectacular. This happened while we were checking out the beach as flocks of hundreds of shorebirds suddenly appeared without warning. Most that we could identify seemed to be Semipalmated Plovers, Western and other small sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and several Willets, Whimbrels, and Marbled Godwits. The most interesting species were American Oystercatchers, and three Long-billed Curlews.
    We also counted 50 Black Skimmers,

    and saw the usual Collared Plovers on the beach.
  • Check the short mangroves for Mangrove Rail: This former Clapper Rail lurks in thick, scrubby Black Mangroves. Get there early, scan the edges of this habitat, and you might see one.

    We also saw a few Painted Buntings in these scrubby mangroves.
  • Check the grass for Tricolored Munias: Do this if you feel like ticking this Asian species for Costa Rica. You might also see Dickcissel, White-collared Seedeater, and other grass birds.
  • Check the tall mangroves for the specialties: Try a pygmy-owl whistle to bring up Panama Flycatcher, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, and maybe even Mangrove Hummingbird. Mangrove Vireo, Mangrove Cuckoo, and Rufous-necked Wood-Rail also occur.
  • Scan the fields on the way in to Chomes: The huge, bare fields often have Double-striped Thick-Knee, and can turn up Harris’s Hawk and other raptors (like vagrant Aplomado Falcon).
  • Try the Lagarto Road: This birdy road connects Chomes with the road to Puerto Morales. It has pot holes and you eventually have to ford a river but for most of the year, the river is pretty low. It also passes by a few salt ponds, and runs through a constant grove of tall shade trees that host family after family of Howler Monkeys. Those trees are also home to various dry forest species including Banded Wren, orioles, and White-lored Gnatcatcher. To reach this road, go to the northern corner of Chomes village, and follow the road north that goes past the cemetery.

    Note the nice shade trees.
  • Turn left at the sign that says “camarones frescos”: On the way in to Puerto Morales, watch for a small sign on the right for “camarones frescos”. Turn left to go in and check out some salt ponds.

    Although we didn't find the avocet that everyone else has been seeing, we did see this bunch of Elegant Terns and a few other species.
  • Take the road at the bus stop: After checking those salt ponds, go back to the main road, and head back north for a short ways until you see a blue bus stop on the right. Take a right and drive on in to other salt ponds. Hit these at high tide and they can be filled with birds. The mangroves and scrubby habitats also host resident dry forest species.

    At low tide, most of the birds were gone, but we still got this and 24 other Stilt Sandpipers, and a few Wilson's Phalaropes.
  • Seabirding at the lighthouse in Puntarenas: If you feel like scoping for seabirds, this is the place to do it. Drive all the long way in to the end of Puntarenas and park near the lighthouse. Go to one of the overlooks and scope the water. Morning and late afternoon are best but I have even seen storm-petrels during the middle of the day. Birds tend to come closer to shore at this bottleneck between the outer and inner Gulf of Nicoya. On Sunday, things were pretty quiet but I still managed one Black Storm-Petrel, a few Franklin’s Gulls, and a probable Sabine’s. Unfortunately, that probable sat on the water a half mile away and refused to fly. Just before it went down to the water, I was pretty sure that I saw the distinctive white pattern on its wings BUT it was just too far off to identify the bird from a glimpse.
  • Check the beach at Caldera: Especially these days! The mouth of the small river is where Arctic Tern has been seen and thank goodness, it was still there on Sunday! In fact, we saw two along with Common Terns, and Black Terns. We were favored with excellent close looks and direct comparisons with the Commons. Now that’s how you want to see a lifer!
    Tern comparison.

    Arctic Tern lifer!

I guess you should also bring plenty of water, stay cool, and deal with the mosquitoes in whichever way works best (excepting the use of a flamethrower).