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The 2016 Resident Bird Count at Quebrada Gonzalez

We are wrapping up the breeding bird count season in Costa Rica. If I could do a few counts a week, I would but I only do three because I haven’t had time to do more. Hopefully, that will change by next year and I can participate in counts on the Osa (where a cool count workshop took place this year), on the Manuel Brenes Road, and other birdy spots. In the meantime, I enjoy my three counts; one near the house, another on Poas, and the third one at Quebrada Gonzalez, the first place that acted as my inaugural birding experience in rainforest.

Since that day in late 1992, some of the bird populations at the site have changed somewhat and not for the better. The habitat is there but the amount of rainfall that resulted in massive mixed flocks, hawk-eagles, tons of wrens, and various foothill specialties has diminished. Most species still seem present but several have declined bit by bit in conjunction with less rainfall, and a few species might be gone from the site. They might still show up from time to time but have most likely taken a hike to higher, wetter, and cooler elevations.

But this post is about the most recent count, not laments over human-caused climate change that is pushing so much life towards extinction, so I will get on with the report. Fortunately, Susan was able to join me for the count, and we started at 6 am as usual. The gate is usually closed until 8 but, thankfully, I was able to speak with the rangers and arrange an earlier visit. Our first point was busy straight away and ended up being the best of the day because we connected with a mixed flock that held White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several Carmiol’s and Dusky-faced Tanagers, and other birds.

The excitement almost stopped there because most of the following counts were pretty slow. We had just a couple Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, one or two Dull-mantled Antbirds, one White-ruffed Manakin, and low numbers overall. The Lattice-tailed Trogons weren’t calling, nor were the Chestnut-backed Antbirds, but we did have several wood-wrens and Stripe-breasted Wrens, one Band-backed Wren, and a fair number of other species.

Although it was a bit slow, that can always happen at that site with one or a few rare birds thrown in for good measure. This happened during the count as we got our best bird up on the ridge at one of our points. As Susan looked up, she noticed a bit of movement and said, “There’s a raptor” followed by, “wait, is that a raptor”? I got on the bird and yes, it sure was and a good one. For a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure about it being a raptor because it was so small. That could only mean one thing, Tiny Hawk!

We watched it for several minutes in the subcanopy as it plucked the feathers from and ate some small green bird. This was a fantastic sighting because although I have always known that the species was present (perfect habitat and other reports), this was the first time I had actually seen it at the site. This mini hawk escapes detection because it is probably naturally rare, is the size of a thrush, happens to be a sneaky ambush predator that hides in the dense vegetation of the canopy, and doesn’t vocalize that often. In other words, good luck seeing it!

After the Tiny Hawk, we also flushed a juvenile Olive-backed Quail-Dove. This species seems to be getting more common at Quebrada and might be out-competing the formerly common Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

On the other side of the road, things were pretty quiet with almost no birds visible from the overlook. It wasn’t really until after the count that we started getting more species. A Chestnut-backed Antbird finally sang, we heard a Dot-winged Antwren, two Streak-chested Antpittas, and had a juvenile Great Black Hawk fly right into our field of view.

Kind of a quiet morning, but at least one flock during a point count, a bigger one between points, and a few other forest species that are tough to see. Not bad for a morning of birding and pretty much par for the course at Quebrada. Stay longer, just hang out in the forest, and you might be surprised at what shows up.

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Birding Costa Rica

634 Species, Six Months to Go

We are half way through the year and that means six months to go before making a final tally of bird species identified during 2016. Time is relative, calendars are subjective inventions, and some people who have binoculars banter back and forth about keeping lists. So what? At the end of the day, we should all be reminded that life is usually shorter than we would prefer, it is unpredictable, and we should therefore have as much fun as we can (in addition to learning and doing good, etc, but those aspects are for another blog). Part of that fun can be keeping a year list because it gives us something to work towards, something to look forward to, and, most of all, encourages you to get out there and look for more birds, do more birding.

If you go to the mall, play too many games of bingo, or watch some useless reality show instead of going outside, you ain’t never gonna see a  Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatcher. Actually, if you don’t visit Costa Rica or Panama, you won’t see one either.

I  haven’t spent so much time in the field lately and it’s not because I was doing any of the above. I guess it’s because it rains a fair deal now, it’s always hard for me to get out mid-week during the early good birding hours, and the low season translates to less guiding. It’s also bird breeding season and just as with birders up north, the lack of migrants sometimes makes us feel lazy about looking for birds. This is clearly a silly concept because rarities can still show up in June and there is always more to learn about towhees, brush-finches, toucans, or other birds no matter which ones we are looking at.

Always nice to look at one of these…

I might also be acting a bit lazy about birding because I already have a healthy year list. Each year, I hope to at least see or hear 600 bird species in Costa Rica, and thanks to some intense guiding during March and April, surpassed that mark a while ago. I’m now at 634 species, my latest addition being a surprise Slate-colored Seedeater that was singing at a bamboo seeding event near Cinchona this very morning. From now on, several additions are likely to happen like that seedeater, unexpected but based on statistics, nevertheless probable. What I am trying to say is that the more time we spend in the field with focused intent on birds, the more species we see, including the rare ones. Speaking of “rare ones”, there are a lot in Costa Rica. This is typical for neotropical birding, and even more so when most accessible forests are quite fragmented.

However, I still have a bunch of other candidate species for the year list that aren’t so rare. They just live in places and habitats where I have spent little time in 2016. One of those areas is San Vito and down there by the border with Panama. If I can make it down that way, I will have a fair chance at adding Crested Oropendola, Bran-colored Flycatcher, and several other species that lack the annual tick mark. Since a few would also be new for my country list, I should really make an effort to go and see them. I hope I can make that happen so I can finally check off Lance-tailed Manakin, Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, and Mouse-colored Tyrannulet for my Costa Rica list. Not to mention, there’s a lot of other cool birds down that way too.

Other gaps come in the form of seabirds but for a seasick prone person like myself, that’s always the case. With some judicious ferry trips, I should add some of those and will always have a chance at picking up something truly rare from the top deck of the boat. Hitting 650 or even 700 will also be more likely if I can connect with several migrants. Hopefully, if we go for another Big Day in fall, scouting will turn up some of those needed species along with various rarities. Whether I hit the 700 mark or not by 2017, trying for it will be all good because that will make me do a lot of birding anyways and that’s the best part of it. Are you keeping track of year birds? Whether in Costa Rica or elsewhere, tell everyone about it in the comments.

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

A Weekend of High and Dry Birding in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, when referring to “high birding”, that doesn’t have anything to do with looking for birds under the influence of Cannabis (although that might give you some imaginary lifers). It just means heading uphill to the places where the vegetation rings with the songs of Collared Redstarts and jostles with the foraging of Sooty-capped Chlorospinguses. I know, please, say Chloro what? I mean can a bird please have a name that doesn’t sound like an obscure part of the anatomy? Not when it’s a former pseudo-tanager/finch thing. Well, I guess that’s what Chlorospingus means and it’s always better to build the personal lexicon than subtract from it so happy Chlorospingus to everybody.

The Sooty-capped Chlorospingus could also be known as the “Lighting-stripe headed Highland Chunkster”.

Last week, a morning of guiding on Irazu got me into some fine high birding and not just to the realm of the S-C Chlorospingus. It also brought us up above the treeline and into junco land. The junco in question here is an angry-looking bird with fierce yellow eyes, pinkish bill, and a home range that sits atop a few mountains. It shares that range with a handful of other bird species, one of which is the Timberline Wren. On our day of birding, we got both just outside the entrance to the national park. Happily, the Volcano Juncos just about followed us around as a pair of adults fed their striped, sparrow-looking youngsters. Really good to see that they had a successful nesting season (so far, although the young sure looked healthy as they hopped around and ate berries and bugs).

Young Volcano Junco.



A fierce adult Volcano Junco at Irazu.

I was very pleased that we saw them so well because they can be a pain to find when they refuse to leave the dense haunts of paramo vegetation. Speaking of skulking, that’s what the wren chose to do until, at the last moment, a pair sang close enough for us to see them.

Timberline Wren from another day at Irazu.

We had a pretty good morning overall seeing most possible species including flight (but good) views of male and female Resplendent Quetzals, Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, brief looks at Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge, Flame-throated Warbler, both silky-flycatchers, and so on.

The Flame-throated Warbler lives up to its evocative name. Flame on feathered dude!

The following morning, it was down to dry guiding and birding for the annual meeting of the Birding Club of Costa Rica near Universidad de la Paz at the Finca Caballo Loco. It was nice to see several people I hadn’t seen in a while, especially Henry, a guy who has been passionate about living in harmony with other living things for many years. The birding turned up various expected species in edge habitats and dry topical forest (nice and green at this time of year). Olive Sparrows and Yellow-green Vireos were singing nearly non-stop, and we had nice looks at several bird species including Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Keel-billed Toucans, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

Fiery-billed Aracari also showed very well.

The weekend made for an interesting mix of species typical of birding in Costa Rica in radically different habitats from one day to the next. I did not go out birding on Sunday but could have easily visited Caribbean slope foothill forests or cloud forests for yet another suite of species not seen on Friday or Saturday. The close combination of different ecosystems always makes for a bio-exciting experience and I suspect that few other places on the planet can offer such radically different birding is such a small area. Hope to see you here!

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Why It’s Important to Study Before a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

Study for birding? What? Didn’t we spend enough of our lives studying during high school and university? To pass our tests for a driver’s license? To compete on Jeopardy? Whether you dislike studying or not, it’s the right thing to do before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Make that any birding trip anywhere. This is why it’s especially important to study before testing your bino skills in Costa Rica:

Unfamiliar birds, unfamiliar bird families: Just like Dorothy, you can kiss Kansas goodbye! Not only are the birds unfamiliar, but so are many of the families. Have you ever seen a Blue-gray tanager at the home patch? That common bird is pretty easy but what about a Dull-mantled Antbird or dozens of other skulking species with poetic names? But at least House Wren is on the list right? Well, yes, it is and it pretty much looks like the ones back home but it’s not going to sound like them. But what about folks who have already birded in Costa Rica or other areas in the Neotropical region? See the next point to answer that question.

Ocellated Antbird

Almost too many birds: Almost because there can never be enough. But seriously, though, there are so many possible birds, it’s always worth studying before the trip no matter how many times you have birded Costa Rica. Study to brush up on field marks of foliage-gleaners, to know which species are possible in given areas (get the targets set), and to always be ready- see the next point.

Black-bellied Hummingbird is one of 50 plus hummingbird species that live in Costa Rica.

You only get one look: Maybe, maybe not, but serious biodiversity comes at a price- almost everything is is rare by nature. Not so much the second growth and edge species (most of which can also be seen from Mexico south to the bird continent), but most of the forest-based birds and raptors. Combine small populations with major skulking and hiding skills and we have a recipe for challenging birding that can afford very few sightings. The up-side is that you can go birding at the same quality forest site day after day and see more species every time. Since we might only get a few looks at various species during a one or two week trip, we need to be ready to focus on the field marks. A good birding guide will be a major help but it still pays to know what to look for.

What’s an antbird?: Back to unfamiliar families. Try and become more familiar with things like puffbirds, forest-falcons, motmots, and antbirds. These things don’t occur at home. They don’t act like most birds at home. This makes you want to see them more of course, so study them in the field guide and read about their behavior (this blog is a good place to start).

Keel-billed Motmot

Check out the vocalizations: Yeah, it’s a lot to study and not everyone’ s cup of tea but knowing at least a few of those sounds before the trip is going to be a huge help. To give an idea of how important knowledge of bird vocalizations is when birding in the Neotropics, when we do point counts, we hardly use our binoculars at all. The majority of birds at dawn and in the forest you can’t really seem at that hour anyways. But, you can hear them and you can hear a lot, like dozens, even one hundred species in some spots. With a list that tops 900 species, no one can be expected to know every single chip and song, but even knowing what certain bird families sound like can really help.

Study common birds, study the birds you want to see the most: If you don’t have the time and memory for hundreds of species, stick to the common ones along with your favorite targets. The more you study, the more you will see (even with a guide), and you will be seeing birds that are already sort of know instead of random, totally unfamiliar species.

Some stuff to study:

Field guides: First and foremost, this the first tool to get. Although the best way to learn any new bird or family is to see it in person, studying before a trip will help. Some people prefer illustrations and others prefer photos. Both will help but an advantage of photos is that they can capture subtleties and other aspects of birds that can be hard to show with an illustration. They also tend to show how the birds look in the field. We won’t know anything about the birds in Costa Rica if we don’t have a study guide and although there are a few others, these are the best ones to get:

-The Birds of Costa Rica a Field Guide by Carrigues and Dean: Compact, complete, good illustrations and maps, the book to get.

Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app by BirdingFieldGuides: On a mobile device, photos for 850 plus species, vocalizations for more than 600 species, and information and maps for all species on the list (over 900). Also, ability to take and email notes in eBird format, variety of search functions, similar species function,no Internet needed for app to work.

Reference books: The best book to get is Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch. It might be a bit out of date, kind of big for the field, and the illustrations are ok, but it has the best set of information about the ecology of birds in Costa Rica. This is an excellent book to study to learn about the behavior of the Costa Rican avifauna. Other good choices include:

– Any other books by Alexander Skutch.

– Birds of Tropical America by Steven Hilty is an excellent treatise on the behavior and ecology of neotropical birds.A fun, informative read before and after the trip.

-The Wildlife of Costa Rica: A Field Guide by Reid, Leenders, and Zook also works as a field guide and has information about other animals in addition to birds.

– Travellers Wildlife Guides Costa Rica by Les Beletsky is another field guide with lots of cool information about birds and other wildlife.

eBird: What modern day birder doesn’t use eBird as a study tool? If you don’t check it out but be aware that it can be a serious eater of time. Most of all, it’s good for knowing where birds have been seen. Pay it back by sending in your own lists.

Bird finding guides: There are a few old ones that still have some valid information but as with any country, bird finding information changes over time. the most recent bird finding guides are:

– A Bird Finding Guide to Costa Rica by Barrett Lawson has a lot of good bird finding information for various places, especially well known sites. Available in print.

How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica by Pat O’Donnell (yep, that’s me) is like two or three books in one with the most up to date bird finding information for most of the country, including several little known sites, as well as information about behavior, ecology, and identification of Costa Rican birds. Available in e-book format and for Kindle devices.