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Birding Costa Rica

A Few Final Birds for 2016

The end of the year is nigh but there are more birds to see. What’s a birder with a year list to do but check eBird, keep an eye on the local rare bird alerts, and get out there before the end of the 31st? For a disciplined birder faithful to the year list, the logical solution is racing around and getting in those last, final birds. But, disciplined or not, if the holidays get in the way, or family responsibilities come into play, we might have to settle on a year list total some days before the 31st. Such is my case but I won’t complain. I’ve had a wonderful year of birding, walked past my initial goal of 600 species in Costa Rica way back in spring, and hit 650 some time ago. Recently, I also hit 675, and if I had time to head to Guanacaste, Tapanti, and a couple other sites, I’m satisfied knowing that I would break 680.

Therein lies one of the big benefits of looking for birds in a mega biodiverse country and an easy mantra for birding Costa Rica- do more birding, identify more species. With over 800 possibilities, it kind of never ends as long as you keep hitting different habitats and bioregions, and by the end of the year, there are always some species still missing from the list. Unless I see them outside my window or happen to get in a final day or two of birding in the right places, a dozen of my biggest misses will include the following:

Hook-billed Kite– It’s not common but it’s not rare so this one is probably my biggest miss of the year. It can turn up in all sorts of places, some of the most likely being the Orosi area, and wetland/riparian zones in Guanacaste. I still have a slim hope that one might be soaring up there near the house while I look out the window but some serious lady birding luck would have to be in the cards for that to happen. I’ll keep looking though, because “she” has paid unexpected visits right out the window on more than one occasion. As for other raptors, I did pretty good, getting the hawk-eagle trifecta, Tiny Hawk, Bicolored, Hawk, Crane Hawk, and 27 other diurnal species. To give an idea of raptor diversity in Costa Rica, that nice total still leaves out Cooper’s, Sharpie, Snail Kite, Black-collared Hawk, the three mega rare eagles (that would be Harpy, Crested, and Solitary), and three other species on the country list.

hook-billed-kite

A Hook-billed Kite from another year.

Blue-footed Booby– It’s irregular but I usually see it at some point, and since I had seen several the previous year, I figured this one was in the bag. Another ride on the ferry or more scope time from shore would probably work.

blue-footed-booby

One of several from the ferry in 2015.

Sunbittern– I was going to say Agami Heron but since that species is pretty uncommon and tough, I can’t really say that it falls into the “Big Miss” category. I had one main chance to get it while visiting Laguna del Lagarto almost a year ago but, for whatever reason, the fancy heron wasn’t showing up where it usually does. As for the Sunbittern, Yeah, I should have seen that oen at some point! I sure looked at enough suitable rivers for it. If you need it, the most reliable spot is probably the rivers near Rancho Naturalista.

Sungrebe– Yep, I also missed the other “sun” bird! Since I didn’t do any boat trips in Cano Negro or Tortuguero, no surprise there. I still hoped to chance upon one while checking lagoons in other places but oh well, no Sungrebe for me in 2016.

sungrebe

One from another time at Tortuguero.

Gray-headed Dove– I had hoped to at least hear one during an afternoon at Cano Negro village but didn’t so there went my main chance for this uncommon species. I made up for it though with hearing the rarer Violaceous Quail-Dove at Hitoy Cerere!

Common Nighthawk– Some birds have “common” in their name but aren’t so common. In Costa Rica, this one should be known as the “Locally and Seasonally Common Nighthawk”. It’s a passage migrant in large numbers on the Caribbean coast and is a resident in a few other places. Because of this, I figured it was a given during spring and fall visits near Cahuita but nope, no Common Nighthawks!

Green-fronted Lancebill– This stream loving hummingbird is easy to miss (I might still get it) but if you spend enough time at Tapanti, Monteverde, and streams with waterfalls in cloud forest, you have a fair chance. I did really good for hummingbirds in general however seeing all other regular species and lifering the Rufous-crested Coquette at Rancho Naturalista!

lancebill

If I head to the mountains, might still get one of these.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker– I know, not so exciting for birders from up north but I usually see one or two of this uncommon migrant during the year. Still might get it but the time is ticking down for this one.

Merlin– Pretty much the same story as the sapsucker. I actually probably did see one while driving through Cartago but the looks were just too brief to call it for the year list.

Tawny-throated Leaftosser– If I can head out tomorrow, might still get it! Really surprised, though, to not at least hear it while birding at more than one good site for it during the year.

White-throated Flycatcher– Somehow missed this uncommon one too. I looked for it a few times in the right places but should have looked more.

I hope 2016 treated you well in terms of birds, birding, dark organic chocolate, and all other things good in life!

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Expectations and Changes at the Cinchona Colibri Cafe

Last week, as usual, I made a stop at the Colibri Cafe during a day of guiding. I usually spend an hour or so at the Cafe after a few early morning stops on the route between there and Alajuela. There have been a few recent changes at the Cafe but the birding expectations are just as good, if not better. If you plan on checking out the Cafe while traveling to or from Sarapiqui, or as a day trip from Sarapiqui or the San Jose area, here are some suggestions and expectations:

More Feeders, More Birds: The owners have steadily updated and improved the cafe ever since the original was destroyed by the 2009 earthquake. Now, instead of watching one set of feeders, there is another set of feeders lower down and accessible by concrete steps. Recently, they also put up a large bunch of bananas at eye level that might eventually pay off with large toucan species and parrots. Maybe, but at least that’s what goes on with a similar set up at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge. If you can do the stairs (there aren’t that many), make sure to check the feeders below because these are closer to forest vegetation and might end up attracting different species.

emerald-toucanet-1

This site continues to be an easy spot for Emerald (Blue-throated) Toucanet.

Both Barbets: The Prong-billed has always been regular but the Red-headed has been scarce ever since the earthquake. It has been showing up a bit more from time to time, though, and with luck, will become a regular visitor again especially with the vegetation growing back.

prong-billed-barbet

Prong-billed Barbet- we actually did not see this one at the Cafe on Saturday but did catch up with it up on Poas.

White-bellied Mountain-Gem and other hummingbirds: Expect a good hummingbird show with six to eight species. This varies depending on time of year and what’s flowering out there in the woods but is always worth a look. The bird to look for is White-bellied Mountain-Gem, a local species seen at very few sites. Other regulars include Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail, Green Hermit, and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

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The other day was good for the mountain-gems.

More birds in the morning and on cloudy days: As is typical of bird activity just about everywhere, expect to see more at the Cafe between 6 and 7, and on cloudy days.

Cool souvenirs: The Cafe also sells a fair variety of quality souvenirs. Check it out and know that anything purchased there supports this bird and birder friendly locale.

Good, local food: Want to sample some delicious, Tico country cuisine? This is the perfect place to do just that, the prices are fair, and once again, you will be supporting a business that has helped thousands of people see Violet Sabrewings,  barbets, and other species at close range. In essence, the owners have acted as unofficial bird and birding ambassadors.

Photography Fee: On my last visit, one of the owners explained to me that they are now charging a fee of $10 for people with professional looking cameras. This pretty much means anything beyond a simple point and shoot. They hadn’t put a sign up about that yet but hopefully will. I was actually going to suggest something like this because setting up the feeders and keeping them stocked has been and continues to be a substantial investment. Although they have a contribution box, that clearly isn’t working, and according to the owner, they haven’t been very pleased with the behavior of some photographers, saying that more than one had set up shop for a few hours without leaving a donation. Given the photo chances, especially now, $10 is a pretty good deal and they aren’t even charging by the hour. Who knows if that might change, though, so just be clear about the cost of using a DSLR at the Cafe Colibri upon arrival at the Cafe.

emerald-toucanet-2

Some shots will be worth it.

Raptors: The good view of a forested canyon has also always made this site a good one for raptors. It varies but species to look for include White Hawk, Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk, along with such possibilities as Red-tailed Hawk, Great Black-Hawk, Bat Falcon, and even Ornate Hawk-Eagle. Keep in mind that Solitary Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, and Black and white Hawk-Eagle have also been seen near there in the past. Maybe they could turn up again, especially by scanning the other side of the canyon with a scope.

white-hawk-blob

This white blob is an over-exposed White Hawk that was soaring around a few days ago.

Enjoy the birds, good food, and view at this special place!

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Costa Rica Birding Expectations- Excellent Birding at Finca Luna Nueva

When planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, Alaska, or anywhere else, we look at trip reports, talk to friends who have been there, study itineraries on birding tour websites, and gaze at field guides with anticipation. What are we going to see? Which birds are common, which are rare, are there any roosting owls that we can get pictures of? What awaits us on that exciting first day in country?

As much as we investigate, dream, and anticipate, the real answers to those birding hopes only come in the form of the actual experience. That said, I can tell you that if you go birding in Costa Rica, yeah, you are going to have plenty of new birds to look at, and if you bring the binos to the places with the best habitat, you will probably see a lot more birds than expected. Keep in mind that those special places may or may not be hotspots listed in eBird or elsewhere, and that the best spots are probably the toughest ones to access. Fortunately, though, we don’t need to restrict the birding experience to munching on energy bars in areas with remote, muddy trails. There are other, more accessible and comfortable places with excellent birding right on site. Even better, some of those places also have good service and excellent food.

You probably won’t see one of the best of those places on tour itineraries but that doesn’t mean that we should exclude it from planning. After seeing the following information, you might want to make room for the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge on your next birding trip to Costa Rica:

luna-nueva-sign

Lots of birds: The first time bird guide Juan Diego Vargas told me about Luna Nueva in 2009, he mentioned that the place was really birdy, more birdy than most other sites. I was quick to agree shortly after my first morning of birding because the avian chorus and number of birds were notably greater than many other sites. It seems that the mix of organic orchards, regenerating habitats, and primary rainforest provide food and shelter for a large number of birds, and probably more than you would expect. To give an idea of the congruence of biomass and diversity encountered at Luna Nueva, on this year’s Christmas Count, we had more than 120 species before lunch and that doesn’t even include waterbirds.

birdy-orchards

Birdy orchards

Highlights included a morning din of flocking parrots and parakeets that was incredible, trees alive with the foraging of honeycreepers, thrushes, and other species, several hummingbirds, and more just around the lodging and orchard area. Inside the rainforest, you get a different set of birds and might even see Great Curassow and other forest species. Migrants were also common and included good numbers of expected species like Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and less common migrants like Ovenbird, and Kentucky and Hooded Warblers. We also had several Gray Catbirds, a decidedly uncommon wintering species in much of Costa Rica.

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A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher from Luna Nueva

Uncommon birds too: Along with dozens of common, expected species like Crested Guan, toucans, aracaris, Red-lored Parrots, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Luna Nueva is also a good site for uncommon birds like Black-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bicolored Hawk, Cinnamon Woodpecker, White-fronted Nunbird, antwrens, and even Uniform Crake. Ornate Hawk-Eagle is also regular and I expect that Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird visit on rare occasions (or perhaps more than we realize) from August to February.

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A Cinnamon Woodpecker from Luna Nueva.

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A Puma track from the forest at Luna Nueva.

Easy access: Good, paved roads bring you to the entrance road around two hours from the airport.

Close to other sites: Although Luna Nueva is off the main birding route, it’s still close enough to other places to use it as a suitable base. La Fortuna and the Arenal area are about thirty to forty minutes away, a drive up to the wetlands of Cano Negro would take around two hours, and there are good cloud forest sites about an hour, or an hour and a half up the road.

Delicious, healthy, organic food: As if constant, good birding wasn’t enough of a reason to visit Luna Nueva, the food is simply fantastic! Ingredients are organic and include many items from the farm, there are interesting dressings on the tables, and tasty recipes are served.

Support a plan for a sustainable future: It’s hard to believe that so many birds can be found on a working tropical farm but that’s because we are too accustomed to tropical farms being monocultures, doused with poisons, and places where cattle graze pastures that used to be shaded by massive trees were macaws nested. Luna Nueva demonstrates how tropical lands can be used to raise food and host a business without destroying most of the forest, the life found therein, and highly important organic soils that can help fight climate change. It’s a good plan for a sustainable, viable future.

sacred-seeds

Enjoy the birding at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, I know you will! Please leave a link to your eBird list in the comments.

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A Few Tips for Birding Costa Rica around La Fortuna and Arenal

Arenal is the name of a young volcano in northern Costa Rica. When Arenal experienced its explosive rebirth in the 1960s, a plethora of tourism activities based around the volcano were also spawned including soaks in hot springs, hikes to jungle waterfalls, the usual horse back rides, and so on. If you find yourself headed to Arenal because the rest of the family wants to partake in those and other activities, count yourself lucky because the Arenal area is also fantastic for birding. Quality foothill rainforests are accessible at several sites, there are birdy trails very close to town, and the area also hosts a mosaic of habitats to please birders of all ilks. Try these tips to make the most of your birding time around La Fortuna and Arenal:

Visit the Fortuna Nature Trail: Also known as the “Sendero Bogarin” or just “Bogarin”, this oasis is an absolute must visit for ANY birder wearing binos around La Fortuna. Thanks to the dedication, perseverance, and hard work of local guide and naturalist Geovanni Bogarin, you can walk a good, easy trail through second growth and wet areas that host the most reliable Uniform Crakes on the planet, and dozens of other bird species. The presence of everything from Rufous-tailed Jacamars to Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-crested Coquette, and other species is testament to what can happen when you just let the vegetation grow. The fact that most of the trail used to be pasture that now hosts wintering Golden-winged, Hooded, Chestnut-sided, and Mourning Warblers also provides hope for restoration of winter habitat for migrant species. Check out my eBird list from a recent, short visit. Oh yeah, and if you like to take pictures, the feeders can be sort of unbelievable.

wood-rail

This was at the feeder last weekend.

green-honeycreeper

So were these.

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And White-throated Crake along with around 20 other species.

This trail is just outside of La Fortuna, on the gravel road that runs next to the Backpackers Hostel. I’m not sure what Geovanni charges but please be generous with  donations, he is doing this on his own and for the love of nature.

Visit the Waterfall: Another trail just outside of town, despite the constant stream of tourists both local and foreign, the site will probably surprise you with its excellent birding. The road in passes through birdy fields, second growth, and riparian zones, and the parking lot for the trail can be good for toucans (even Yellow-eared was showing well a few months ago), woodpeckers, and lots of other possibilities. Check the lights near the forest in the early morning for White-whiskered Puffbirds and other birds in search of easy insect prey. On the trail itself (which might not open until 8 a.m.) check for raptors and perched canopy species from the overlook, and watch for antbirds, great mixed flocks, and even Lanceolated Monklet on the steps down towards the waterfall. You might even see umbrellabird, two were recently seen there during this year’s Christmas Count!

This trail costs $10 to enter, and although it consists of steps, you will be walking on metal and concrete ones instead of dealing with treacherous, slippery mud.

view

The view from the overlook.

Bird the hotel grounds: Bird are where the habitat is. Whether the hotel has a garden or some forest, check it out, you might be surprised at what you find.

Bird the road to the Observatory Lodge: This is also the bumpy road that leads to the national park. Although the national park is alright, the road to the lodge and then to El Castillo tends to be excellent and reliable for Bare-crowned Antbird, other antbird species, raptors, and so on and so on. Check the rivers for Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and maybe Sunbittern, and just keep watching. Don’t be surprised if you see a rare Lovely Cotinga at a busy fruiting tree, Bicolored and Semiplumbeous Hawks, and Rufous-winged Tanager.

Access excellent forest at Skytrek, the Observatory Lodge, and Mistico: There are other trails in the area but these have some of the best forest. Mistico has Hanging Bridges and a hummingbird garden with Snowcap. The Observatory Lodge has good trails in good forest with great mixed flocks and chances at many forest birds. Skytrek is pricey but also has good trails through some of the best forest, a couple hanging bridges, and a fair chance at Black-headed Antthrush, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and many other species including rarities like Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and other goodies.

ornate-hawk-eagle

There are healthy populations of Orante Hawk-Eagle around Arenal. Geovanni has even seen it catch a squirrel on his trail!

Enjoy your birding time around Arenal! To see more information about sites throughout the country as well as information to find and identify bird species in Costa Rica, check out my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.