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Birding Costa Rica

Post Hurricane Birding News for Costa Rica

Hurricane Otto stormed its way through northern Costa Rica last Friday. The good news is that despite the worries and concerns, most parts of the country were spared the heavy rains and winds that make up the destructive bread and butter of a hurricane-strength storm. In the Central Valley, the weather was weird, foggy, and punctuated with occasional drizzles but the main body of the storm clearly missed us. The same can be said about most other parts of the country, even in many of the emergency, red-zone areas such as Monteverde and San Carlos.

hurricane

Hurricane day from my window.

But now for the bad news. The northern border zone did indeed experience the heavy rains and high winds of a hurricane, especially in the Upala and Los Chiles areas. Liberia also saw some of the heaviest rains it has ever experienced, and electricity was out along most of the storm’s path. It sounds like Upala saw the worst of it because the river overflowed its banks, flooded the town, and destroyed many homes and businesses. A few people also perished from the flooding there and in the town of Bagaces. The bright note is that thousands of folks immediately pitched in from around the country to help and support the people of Upala and other affected areas. Hopefully, their homes and businesses can be rebuilt as soon as possible.

As far as access goes, roads and bridges are probably out or affected in areas near Upala and probably other places up north. If you plan on staying anywhere near Upala, Bijagua, or other sites near the northern border during December, it would definitely be wise to contact those places first to see if they are up and running and if they can be reached by road. Most probably can but it would be worth it to check first. In the rest of the country, it sounds like most roads are open, and far fewer were affected by landslides than was expected. The exception to that is the area around Ciudad Neily near the border with Panama. There has been a lot of flooding down that way and I doubt that the Coto wetland area is accessible.

On the birding front, so far, nothing crazy has turned up and I doubt that much will be found. The hurricane didn’t really pass through an avian rich zone, nor any major islands before reaching Costa Rica, and I assume that species like Gray Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon, and the very local San Andres Vireo are adapted to hurricanes and thus less likely to leave cover when the storm comes through. Factor in lots of places for birds to hide along with little birding coverage and coming across any of those few rare vagrants will be like finding a microscopic needle in a haystack. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if any unexpected species are found during this weekend’s bird count at Arenal.

On the waterbird front, it’s more likely that some of those were blown off course and maybe even right over to the Pacific. A pretty good sign that this has happened are reports of a few Sandwich and Elegant Terns from an inland reservoir. Once again, with several people actively birding the Arenal area, maybe a few interesting water birds will be found on Arenal Lake? Although I wasn’t able to head down and check the lake on Sunday, I did check the Tarcoles Estuary, Punta Morales, and Puntarenas. I would have also checked Chomes but the road to the ponds was too muddy for my little car. So, there might have been something really good in there, but even a Sooty Tern wouldn’t have been worth getting my car stuck in the salt pond oven known as Chomes. At least the road in to the village was in excellent condition. It was being graded and gave up views of 20 thick-knees, a usual, distant Harris’s Hawk, an equally distant wintering kestrel (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), and a few other birds including my year Spot-breasted Oriole.

shorebirds-punta-morales

Punta Morales.

Over at Punta Morales, shorebirds were in good numbers but nothing unusual and rather low diversity. It was a similar scene over in Tarcoles, and the waters off of Puntarenas were fairly bird-less. I was hoping for a flyby storm-petrel (or flyby anything for that matter) but no luck there. Although I didn’t come across any crazy rarity, I’m still glad that I was out there looking for them, and a morning of bird song on the Bijagual road is always a good one in any case!

rufous-tailed-jacamar

This Rufous-tailed Jacamar was one of several species seen and heard during dawn on the Bijagual Road. My eBird list.

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Birding Costa Rica

Waiting for the Hurricane

I’m often asked if there are hurricanes in Costa Rica. I asked the same question some years ago because after all, there is a coast on the storm-prone Caribbean Sea, and it’s all too easy to have hurricanes come to mind when talking about earthquakes and other natural disasters. While Costa Rica is a young, seismic land punctuated with volcanoes, it sits in a quiet corner of the Caribbean where hurricanes refuse to venture. They just can’t seem to get their act together around here. Tropical storms, yes. Hurricanes, no, at least not until now. And I mean right now as I write this.

Bucking all historical trends, an adventurous storm named “Otto” is making its way towards the coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The eye has yet to stare down at us but the first bands of wind and rain are brushing the coast. It’s not a huge one but a category one or two is still big enough to cause flooding and landslides, especially when the rivers and steep slopes of eastern Costa Rica are already saturated with water. Thousands of people have been evacuated and, now, there is talk of expected power losses and road closures. I guess that means I should take an extra trip to the store this afternoon, and might not be sending out any emails for a few days.

Sadly, it also means potential loss of homes and damage to crops. Hopefully enough people will have been evacuated to keep them safe. I’m also hoping that the winds don’t get strong enough to affect our home because Otto is scheduled to go stomping right across the country on his hike to the Pacific.

On the birding front, Rancho Naturalista has urged people to check their flights and stay safe. They should be alright because they aren’t in the direct path of the storm. Paraiso de Quetzales just stated that they would be closed for the weekend, a good call given that the highway to the lodge will probably see fallen limbs and maybe a landslide or two. Hopefully not, but better safe than stranded on Cerro de la Muerte or worse (although there might not be much worse than being stuck at night on the Mountain of the Dead). Personally, I would see it as an excuse to look for Unspotted Saw-whets. Cold, shmold, I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY!. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve also just said that it will be closed and that probably goes for most montane birding sites as well.

But, as with most things, there is a potential bright side, especially for birders. As with any hurricane, there’s always that chance that the storm will bring unusual birds our way. Since the storm is coming right off the ocean and migration is pretty much a done deal, there’s not a whole lot of crazy avian options but the ones that could occur would still be smart additions to my country list (and maybe even a lifer?).

Having missed out on amazing hurricane bird experiences in western New York (like storm-petrels on the Niagara River), I’m keen to have one of those crazy birding times in Costa Rica. That said, I do realize that I would still need a fair modicum of fortune to find lost Audubon’s and Black-capped Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, tropicbirds, and White-crowned Pigeons, especially because the roads might not be so vehicle worthy. Of course, if we have problems with the house, birding will be the very least of my worries. But, let’s say that it won’t get that bad and I can still look around with the good old binos.

As the storm passes through, I might be looking out of the window, but the best chance at finding stuff will be right after the storm has passed, and the best place may be the reservoir at Arenal. I doubt I would be able to drive there but I hope local birders will look for lost seabirds. Maybe one or two would even stick around for next week’s Christmas Count?

There aren’t too many other large reservoirs around here but perhaps a lost bird or two could show up at the one near Turrucares? There’s also the Pacific coast to check, Caldera and Puntarenas being good spots to take a look around. As for land birds, they could be anywhere on the Caribbean but once again, access will probably be an issue. If you are already at La Selva, watch for White-crowned Pigeon and odd warblers, I’ll probably be looking for odd birds on foot around Santa Barbara.

cuckoo

I was surprised by my year Yellow-billed Cuckoo last week, right in my tiny backyard- you never know what might show up!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Pacific slope

Fun, Easy Birding at Talari Lodge

Last weekend, I had some fun, easy-going birding on the other side of the mountains. For me, that usually means going over to the Caribbean slope but on this occasion, it refers to the mountains on the other side of the valley. Those would be the uplifted lands that lead to the humid forests of the Pacific slope, including the General Valley. This is where you go if you drive up and over Cerro de la Muerte. After looking for Volcano Juncos and Peg-billed Finches in the paramo, if you continue on, you eventually descend to San Isidro, a small important city in southern Costa Rica. Also known as Perez Zeledon (or just “Perez”), the area is also pretty nice for birding.

Although the rainforest that remains mostly occurs as small, scattered patches, those bits of forest can be pretty birdy, even right around town. There are also a few good sites just outside of the city including the one I visited last weekend while co-guiding a trip for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Our destination was Talari Lodge, and, as usual for this spot, the birding was fun, easy, and fulfilling. Talari has been around for several years and protects a small area of old second growth along with some taller trees and access to a rushing river. The growing forest is filled with fruiting trees and bushes which, in turn, attracts lots of birdies.

It’s not a place for seeing big raptors, guans, and other deep forest species but the good service, food, and easy looks at a nice sampling of other species makes up for it. During our time at the lodge, we were treated to near constant activity in the fruiting trees around the lodge as well as at a fruit feeder that attracted Cherrie’s and Speckled Tanagers, Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators, Gray-headed Tanager, honeycreepers, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, White-ruffed Manakin, and other species.

red-legged-honeycreeper

speckled-tanager

fiery-billed-aracari

Scoping distant tree-tops failed to turn up Turquoise Cotinga on this visit (often seen here), but did give us looks at Scaled Pigeon, tityras, toucans, and other stuff, while the undergrowth hosted Rufous-breasted and Riverside Wrens, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes.

Hummingbirds weren’t as diverse as other visits but we still managed nice looks at Long-billed Starthroat, the ubiquitous Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and brief looks at a female White-crested Coquette.

scaly-breasted-hummingbird

The best field mark for the Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is the lack of bright colors. Instead, it sings all day long, mimicking other birds in the process.

Down by the river, we also got looks at Scrub Greenlet, distant Indigo Buntings, a couple kingfishers, and a distant fly-by Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Several other interesting species could also show in the young second growth by the river, it would be good to keep a close watch in that area for things like seedeaters, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and maybe a vagrant warbler or two.

When the sun came out, we finally got our expected Roadside Hawk and Pearl Kite (regular here), but the best bird of the trip was at a site near Talari. Thanks to co-guide Susana Garcia-Blanco and the local birding network in Perez, we got some sweet gen about Turquoise Cotingas frequenting a forested hillside at the university.

Since the university is on the road to Talari, but the viewing point is on the other side, it’s tricky to get there but, on our visit, it was well worth it because a big fruiting fig was attracting dozens of birds, the best being at least 4 Turquoise Cotingas! We soaked up prolonged views of male and female birds and envied the yard lists of homes overlooking the forest.

cotinga-and-others

One of the cotingas sharing branches with less colorful birds.

Talari makes for a good stop when traveling through this area. If you stay for more than one night, it could also be easily used as a base to bird middle-elevation habitats on the road to Chirripo (check riparian zones for Costa Rican Brush-Finch), areas of older forest at Los Cusingos and Las Quebradas Reserves, higher elevation sites up on Cerro de la Muerte, and even savanna habitats further afield around Buenos Aires.

Happy birding!

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caribbean foothills

Some Birds to Expect at El Tapir

One of the most interesting things about birding in tropical habitats is the unpredictable nature of the endeavor. It seems like the more biodiverse a place is, the less predictable the bird species encountered. When venturing into rainforest with binoculars at the ready, the end result of this bio-trick is eventually ticking off species after species with careful, patient birding. After wondering where the other bird species were, you go back out that same afternoon and find some, and then a bunch more the following day. Keep visiting and you keep seeing more wondering where the heck those birds were the first time around.

As with most rainforest sites, this is the status quo at El Tapir. You never know what will show at the edge of the forest, and never know what will pop into view beneath the trees, but you do know that just about anything seems possible. “Just about anything” is code for a bunch of rare bonus species like umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the ground-cuckoo, maybe a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, maybe even Black-eared Wood-Quail. Since those birds are rare, no, they hardly ever show at the site but they always can, and on any visit.

During two recent visits, I had hoped that the cards would fall into place and give us an umbrellabird. After all, the big endangered cotinga has been seen near there recently, it occurs at that elevation at this time of year, and I still need it as a year bird. Although those cards didn’t play out, we were still dealt a deck with various other nice species. With the caveat that nothing there is guaranteed on a one day trip, these are a few things to sort of expect when birding this foothill site:

Lattice-tailed Trogon: El Tapir is a good site for this uncommon, localized foothill trogon. I do see it on most visits and that makes El Tapir one of the best places for it anywhere in its small range. Bird any of the trails the whole day and there’s a fair chance it will show. You still need to know what it sounds like though, because the big trogon hides exceptionally well in its extra-vegetated habitat.

lattice-tailed-trogon

Snowcap: Sounds like candy. Looks like candy. This is avian eye candy! The Porterweed bushes usually harbor several of these wonderful little hummingbirds. If you don’t see it here, or want to see it in more comfy settings where fantastic meals are served, give it a shot at Rancho Naturalista.

snowcap

Black-crested Coquette: These guys come and go but one often shows up. Last week, two eventually turned up, the male at one point sharing perching space on a  bare sapling with a Green Thorntail and a Snowcap.

black-crested-coquette

Mealy Parrots and toucans: They can also be seen in many other places but these usually show quite well at El Tapir.

toucans

King Vulture and other raptors: The site is still pretty good for this condor of the jungle. If it’s sunny, watch the skies from the parking area between 9 and 12. Other raptors often show too, including Ornate Hawk Eagle this past Sunday.

Antwrens and antvireos: The heavy forests at El Tapir are usually reliable for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. These uncommon little birdies are tough to see at many sites because they need lots of mature forest but are regular at El Tapir to the point of seeing them on most visits. You have to bird on the forest trails but they usually, eventually show up, and often have other small birds with them.

Tanagers: As with other quality foothill sites, this is a good one for tanagers. Numbers vary and a lot can be around if there are fruiting trees. Most possible tanagers can also be seen if you connect with a big mixed flock “led” by White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

emerald-tanager

Keep looking and don’t be shy about birding El Tapir for more than one day!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica

Some Birding News for Costa Rica in November

It’s November, and it’s not exactly the high season for birding in Costa Rica but since it’s always good birding around here, count yourself lucky to be in Costa Rica right now. Yeah, sure, it rains most afternoons but it hasn’t been that bad, and there are some nice birds to see!

The biggest news has been the cooperative Rufous-crested Coquette at Rancho Naturalista. No, we don’t normally see this species in Costa Rica, and the only records are a few specimens from more than a century ago. Needless to say, if Costa Rica ever had a mega twitch, this is it!

It showed just before Halloween and as far as I know, this major lifer and/or country tick is still being seen today. A few dozen local serious birders have visited Rancho so far (many thanks to Rancho for welcoming everyone to come and see it), and most have had soul satisfying looks at the lost hummingbird as it shares a flower hedge with Black-crested Coquette and Snowcap. I haven’t been able to go there yet but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it stays for a while. A risky move for any twitch but with other responsibilities taking precedence, what are you gonna do? I hope the birding ball bounces my way but if not, at least lots of other local birders were able to add this local mega to their lists.

black-crested-coquette

Not a mega Rufous-crested but a female Black-crested Coquette is still nice to see.

Since the bird showed at Rancho, a spot where people are carefully watching for birds every day, I can’t help but wonder how many others are around? By the laws of probability, there should be a few but since we are talking about a tiny bird that doesn’t sing and makes a living by being sneaky, we can’t really expect to find any (although we can keep looking!).

On another hummingbird front, I noticed that Snowcaps were also showing well at El Tapir this past weekend. They are usually there but not always. On Saturday, we had juveniles as well as adult males and females. In the woods, the birding was alright with some mixed flock activity hosting Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, various tanagers, and vocal Scarlet-rumped Caciques. No luck with umbrellabird but there are probably a few in those woods. Up in the sky, raptors just weren’t there although we did get pretty nice looks at King Vulture.

snowcap

Snowcap.

scarlet-rumped-cacique

The Scarlet-rumped Cacique is a rainforest blackbird species.

Over on the La Selva entrance road, the birding was good as always with Great Green Macaw, more than one calling Pied Puffbird (also seen), Plain-colored Tanager, and some other expected species. With the forest growing up there nicely, hopefully, we can expect an increasing number of more forest based species on that birdy little stretch.

At the Cinchona Colibri Cafe, the owners continue to add on to the place, this time including cement steps that lead down to a new feeding and birding area! Although we saw very few birds last week, it’s eventually going to be very good and is an improvement. I suspect that we saw no birds coming to the feeders (a first) because everything seems to be fruiting in the surrounding forests. Keep that in mind when birding on the Caribbean slope and just keep watching those fruiting trees for manakins, tanagers, euphonias, and rare species that may eventually show.

cinchona-new-setup

The new set up at the bottom of the steps. I should be checking it out again soon.

On the Pacific slope, the only recent birding I did was a day trip on the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry in search of year birds. To make a long story short, I managed one small flock of Red-necked Phalaropes (a sweet one for my Costa Rica year list, already had it in 2016 in Israel), but no other year birds and almost nothing else. There were a few Franklin’s Gulls and some Royal Terns but no storm-petrels, nor shearwaters, Sabine’s, nor even a Brown Booby! I eventually ran into Black Terns closer to Paquera and there were hundreds of them but I didn’t see anything else with them. It’s looking like I won’t get Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern nor a few other pelagics for the year but I’m still glad to have taken the ferry because the more data the better and you won’t see anything new if you don’t get out there and look.

black-trns

Flock of Black Terns while Birding from the ferry.

Last but far from least, some raptors are still flying through on their way to South America. It won’t be going on for much longer but a few days ago, we were treated to hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures flying over Rancho Magallanes near Chilamate. Over on the river, we got both Bare-throated and Fasciated Tiger-Heron but no luck with Sunbittern.

raptors

Happy birding!