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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

Birding in Costa Rica South of Limon at Casa Calateas

Once a month, I usually guide a weekend trip for the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. We get around to most corners of the country and in October the destination tends to be on the Caribbean. The 10th month is the best time of the year to visit sites near Limon because it’s high time for migration in the best part of the country for migration, and, as a bonus, it doesn’t usually rain as much in this part of the country. In the past, we have done trips to Manzanillo and Tortuguero on more than one occasion and have been treated to flocks of Eastern Kingbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers along with other migrants while Gray-cowled Wood-rails prowled the ditches and lots of other rainforest species foraged in the trees.

scarlet-tanager

A molting male Scarlet Tanager- a common sight on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica in October.

This year, I had hoped to try a different site, and one that was before rather than after Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. This way, we could avoid the crowded streets seen in the small tourist town at this time of year, and maybe have a better chance at the uncommon Black-chested Jay. I was also hoping to find a place where I might have a chance at getting pictures of Sulphur-rumped Tanager, an uncommon, rarely photographed species that I still need an image of for the birding apps I work on. The place I settled on was Casa Calateas, a small, rural tourism initiative situated in the forested hills near Cahuita. It turned out to be a good choice, and here’s why:

Easy to get to: It was easier than I expected. Good paved roads get you to Cahuita and the turn off for Casa Calateas, then you drive up a gravel road to the lodge. Most of it was good enough for two wheel drive although to be sure, it’s probably best to visit with a vehicle that has four wheel drive. Birding on that entrance road is also good for a variety of edge and forest species.

Low cost: I forget what we paid but it was pretty cheap. To learn more, message Luis at the Casa Calateas Facebook site. Whatever we paid, I know that it was a good deal that included very basic yet clean rooms with mosquito nets, great local food and friendly service, and fine birding. If you need a place with more comforts, a pool, and air conditioning, this isn’t the place for you. But, if you don’t mind staying in a rustic place with good birding that directly helps local families, you might want to give Casa Calateas a try.

Lowland Forest Species: Much to my happiness, the place is surrounded by forest. Although much of it is old second growth, there is some mature forest, and old-growth forest can be visited with a really long hike. I would love to go back and check out that older forest in this under-birded area but we still had plenty of good forest birds around the lodge itself. There are a few trails that access the forest but you can probably see just as much by birding the entrance road. We did quite well with several sightings of Red-capped Manakin, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, White-flanked, Dot-winged, and Checker-throated Antwrens, both motmots, Black-crowned Antshrike, and several other expected species. Although we didn’t see it, Luis mentioned that he often spots Sunbittern foraging on the lodge entrance road.

red-capped-manakin

Red-capped Manakins were pretty common and the males were doing their dancing thing.

red-capped-manakin-dance

“You should be dancing…”

black-crowned-antshrike

The calls of Black-crowned Antshrike were a constant sound in the background.

Night birds were also good with at least two Great Potoos that called all night long, Crested Owl close to the lodge, and Mottled Owl.

great-potoo

I was very happy to get recordings of Crested Owl, and very close looks at one of the Great Potoos was also nice!

Other indicators of nice forest habitat were Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, and Slate-colored Grosbeak.

slate-colored-grosbeak

The grosbeak is actually a canopy saltator. I find it interesting that this orange-billed bird has a call that sounds like the sharp, chip note of another orange-billed bird, the Northern Cardinal, while the other saltator species in Costa Rica don’t.  

Semiplumbeous Hawk: This uncommon raptor is always a good bird. We had sightings of two or three from the canopy platform and inside the forest.

semiplumbeous-hawk

Not all plumbeous, just semi.

Raptor watching overlooks: Not just for raptors and I was psyched to check this out. It was indeed a bit like a canopy tower although most of the trees were pretty far off. Although we didn’t see any cotingas, we did scope White-necked Puffbird, parrots, toucans, Laughing Falcon, and some other species. We also enjoyed views of migrating raptors although those could also be seen right from the lodge and from another viewing spot. Because of the angle of the sun, the platform is best during the morning. Keep watching, you might see a hawk-eagle and lots of other possibilities. If you happen to get super lucky and spot a cotinga species that is not a Snowy, take pictures, you just might find Costa Rica’s first Blue Cotinga.

platform-view

View from the platform.

River of raptors: It goes right overhead during migration and as the name implies, yes, it is spectacular. We had flock after elegant flock of Mississippi Kites, and had plenty of practice separating those from the more bellicose Peregrine Falcons that often zipped overhead.

river-of-raptors

The river flies overhead.

kettle

Kettles like this are commonplace.

We also had thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and Swainson’s Hawks along with a few Ospreys. Since other species can also fly over, Casa Calateas is a pretty good spot to just hang out and watch the skies.

Other migrants: Not as many as I had hoped and I was surprised to see nary a single Eastern Kingbird. But, we still glassed many a Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, lots of pewees, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We also had several Bay-breasted Warblers, and saw some other migrant warblers as well including an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. As with any site used by waves of migrants, every day can bring new things, I wonder what showed up after we left? The best find was probably my much appreciated year Chuck-will’s-Widow.

Since I know there’s good stuff down there around Casa Calateas, I wish I could head right back, right now. If you go, enjoy the rainforest birds, the sounds of frogs and monkeys, and please leave a link to your eBird list in the comments.

My eBird lists from this site:

At night.

October 15th.

The 16th.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Humid Forest Birding in Carara National Park

For those who follow my blog on a regular basis, I apologize for not posting recently. It seems that lighting strikes have finally taken out the cables we use for Internet access at my house. I hope we can replace them ASAP. If you haven’t received any replies from emails sent to me, this is the reason why, I hope to respond some time this week.

Carara National Park is a special place and not just because it’s one of the top spots for birding in Central America. It also scores points on account of the park being the northern boundary for many rainforest species on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, including several endemics that barely cross the border into Panama. Not to mention, contrary to what everyone else was doing in that part of Costa Rica during the 20th century, the owner decided to let the forest stand rather than trade biodiversity for hot, chiggery cow pasture. It was eventually turned into an official protected area and national park, in large part because it acted as a refuge for a remnant population of Scarlet Macaws, a species that once roamed tropical forests from eastern Mexico to Panama. Since macaws don’t usually do well around people who are intent on subjugating their natural surroundings by means of deforestation and have a constant open hunting season on whatever they feel like killing and/or eating, the macaws quickly disappeared from most parts of their Central American range by the 1960s and 70s. They held on in the hilly rainforests of Carara, and at present, their story is far better than so many other birds, animals, and plants that have the misfortune to live during the anthropomorphic extinction event currently taking place. Visit Carara and many areas of Costa Rica’s Pacific slope nowadays and views of spectacular Scarlet Macaws are a given. A lot of other birds are also expected although for many species, you have to bird the humid forest.

scarlet-maacws

A pair of Scarlet Macaws just outside the national park.

Most of that area does have a high humidity index with damn hot results, but rainforest species need more than water saturated air. Most species also require intact ecosystems with lots of big, mature trees, vines, palms, understory plants, forested streams, and other microhabitats that provide the right combination of humidity, rain, shade, and a myriad of other factors for such a high degree of biodiversity to coexist. In Carara, this is why you also need to bird inside the forest to have a chance at a the full complement of species that occur in and around the national park. Yes, birders should also check out dry forest on the other side of the river, pay a visit to mangroves, and check the estuary, open fields, second growth, the riparian forests on the floodplain trail (aka Laguna Miandrica Trail), and overlooks on the Bijagual Road, but make sure to also bird the trails that leave from the park headquarters.
Although several of these species can also be seen on the laguna trail, the following tend to be more common and easier on the HQ forest trails, and if you visit during the wet season, the floodplain trail might be flooded and closed anyways:

Great Tinamou
Marbled Wood-Quail (still pretty tough to see there)
Great Curassow (pretty rare but more likely here than on the other trail)
Ruddy Quail-Dove
Charming Hummingbird (also on the other trail but seems easier in the forest)
Baird’s Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
White-whiskered Puffbird
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Russet Antshrike
Slaty Antwren
Streak-chested Antpitta
Black-faced Antthrush
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Blue-crowned Manakin
Red-capped Manakin
Northern Schiffornis
Scaly-breasted Wren
Spot-crowned Euphonia

Of course, there’s a 100 or so other species you could run into on the HQ forest trails but since they can also be seen on the floodplain laguna trail just as easily (and some more easily), they didn’t make it onto the list above.

Tips for birding inside the rainforests of Carara:

Keep on looking: Unlike the laguna trail, the forest is more dense and it can be more difficult to see the birds. BUT, you will still see a lot, especially if you take it slow and keep on looking all around. That means always checking the forest floor, then the understory, and then the canopy for any movement or perched birds. The birds are there, and since they are used to people, they might just let you walk on past rather than take alarm.

Try to get back as far as you can: The humid forest species seem to be most common on the other side of the stream. Spend as much time as you can on that back loop and you will have a better chance at Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, and most of the birds on the list.

bairds-trogon-female

Baird’s Trogon is more likely near the stream and on the back loop. As with several humid forest endemics, it doesn’t seem to be as common on the Carara trails as it used to be, probably because of consistent, drier weather affecting the forest. It, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Fiery-billed Aracari, and some other species are probably more common in higher, inaccessible areas of Carara.

Have a driver? Tell the chauffeur to meet you at the south entrance: This is really the best strategy for birding the forest trails because you can enter at the HQ and not have to backtrack it to the parking lot. Also, you won’t have to hurry back to make it out of the park by 4 when they close and lock the gate. This also makes it easier to bird the trails near the south entrance. This “entrance” isn’t really an official one but you can at least exit the forest there. When driving past the HQ entrance towards Jaco, it’s the spot where there is a metal gate with pictures of animals.
Hang out at the bridge: This is always a good spot to just hang out and see what shows up. Sadly, the massive fig tree there has died and will thus no longer attract tons of great birds when fruiting. The plus side is that seeing those birds was always a neck-breaking activity for distant anyways. The plus side is that, now, there is a better view of the sky in case a King Vulture or other cool raptor makes a pas overhead. Other stuff can show up along the stream and if you hear a mixed flock moving through the forest, you can always get off the bridge to chase it.
Mixed flocks: Keep looking for bird activity (as if you wouldn’t be doing thatanyways) to find mixed flocks with woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, and lots of other species. This is your best chance at finding a rare Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a definite future split from Amazonian Long-taileds).
Patience: This is always a virtue for birding and especially so inside any rainforest. The birds are there, just keep carefully listening and looking and you will see more. An experienced guide helps too of course.

blue-dacnis

With patience, you might find a low fruiting vine attended by Blue Dacnis and other tanager species.

Watch your step, don’t leave the trail: Just a final reminder to always watch where you step because Fer-de-Lances are out there and this venomous species isn’t all that rare. Although one might be on the trail, thay would be pretty unusual because the high degree of foot traffic probably keeps them off the path. This is also why you should stay on the path and not walk into the forest. Off the trail, it’s harder to see where you step, easier for a snake to hide, and you aren’t supposed to leave the trail anyways.

Hope to see you in the forest!