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Birding Costa Rica middle elevations

Suggestions for Birding in Costa Rica at San Vito

Last weekend I wasn’t watching any inauguration. I couldn’t have done so no matter who was being officially named the next president of the USA because I was too busy watching and showing people birds while guiding in the San Vito area. Whether you happen to be in Costa Rica during an inauguration, moon landing, or alien arrival, don’t worry about any news, you will see that stuff soon enough. What you won’t see at other times are the hundreds of birds that live in the vicinity of that nice little highland town in southern Costa Rica.

San Vito is so far off from the San Jose area, we kind of felt like we were in another country. Being so close to the border with Panama, we almost were and for us local birders, that makes for some exciting avian stuff. We don’t get as many chances at new species as Canadian and USA birders do in southern Texas or Arizona, but it’s exciting nonetheless. We need to go there to have a chance at the plain looking yet weird Ruddy Foliage-gleaner, the smart-looking yet shy Lance-tailed Manakin, and the incorrectly named Masked Yellowthroat (see why it needs another name below).

The beautiful Speckled Tanager is another, much more common species of the area.

Not to mention, there’s tons of other interesting birds in the area, the birding is easy like Sunday morning, there are a few other fantastic sites within reach, plenty of places to explore and maybe even find something new for the boundaries of Costa Rica, and you might even get a chance to go birding with the awesome San Vito Birding Club! I could go on and on about how wonderful those four days were but I’ll try to keep it brief with these suggestions:

Getting there- Which route to take?: There are two ways to go and I did both in the same trip. On the way there, Sara Clarke (of the Finca Dos Lados Reforestation Project) and I drove the coastal route to Ciudad Neily and then up the very curvy road to San Vito. This gave us a chance to look for birds en route at Tarcoles, Parrita, and a few other sites. The route is fairly quick and easy but that last curvy bit is indeed pretty curvy. To avoid the curviness, you can also take the coastal route to the turn off at Palmar and go from there.

On the way back, we took the other main route. This one is more direct but goes up and over Cerro de la Muerte and through San Isidro. Take this to look for high elevation species but be ready to sit behind slow moving trucks. You can also do this one to stop overnight in Buenos Aires and bird the Salitre savannas the next morning (to see the targets, you do need to do those early in the morning).

Join the San Vito Birding Club for a walk: We would have done this but with our logistics, it just didn’t work out. Nevertheless, we did meet up with them one evening and went birding with their president, Greg Homer. This was awesome, if you get the chance to go one of their bird walks, do it! Check their site for information about that.

Where to stay: While some birders lodge at Las Cruces, know that you don’t have to. It’s not that it’s a bad choice, just that there are other options in the area including two fantastic ones that treated us very well. These are the Casa Botania, and the Cascata del Bosco. Both have nice rooms, good views, great service, wonderful food (gourmet vegetarian at Botania!), and good birding right on the grounds. They are also within walking distance of Wilson Botanical Garden (aka Las Cruces). Both are seriously recommended.

The view from my window at Botania.

Cascata del Bosco

You might also get pictures of Green Honeycreeper.

Wilson Botanical Garden: Speaking of that place, it’s included on most birding tours to Costa Rica and with good reason. The facilities are impressive, the trails are maintained, there are lots of eBird reports, and the birding is nice and easy. Even better, you can also go in early most days and pay after peering on the trails for tinamous and wood-quail.

Check the San Joaquin marsh: This is a small yet important wetland near the airport. Yes, there is an airport although no planes fly there. At least I don’t think they do because the runway is used by cyclists, runners, and anyone else who feels like hanging out on a landing strip. As for the marsh, coming from San Vito, take the road towards Sabalito, go just past the airport, and watch for the sign on the left. Take a left at that point, drive in to the top of a short hill, and park. Ask at the house pictured below to use the trails, give the guy 500 colones or so and go on in. Since this guy basically lets people in to the marsh, he should get a birder friend award. He likes watching the birds too.

Although there’s not much access to view it, the marsh is still the best place to connect with the local variety of Masked Yellowthroat, and you will probably see some other stuff. Regarding the yellowthroat, you do want to see it because it isn’t really a Masked Yellowthroat. At least, that’s what DNA studies have shown. Those indicated that it is more closely related to Olive-crowned Yellowthroat than Masked which almost certainly makes it it’s own, valid species with a tiny range. I believe that the IOC already calls it Chiriqui Yellowthroat.

The house at the marsh.

Rio Negro: I didn’t see no river, but I did see a bunch of birds! Tee-shirts with this statement should be sold, the profits going to conservation efforts around San Vito. We went there to look for the Lance-tailed Manakin. We heard it, couldn’t frustratingly see it, but did run into some nice mixed flocks as well as montane migrant Black-thighed Grosbeaks. A really cool site with a wide, easy trail, I would love to bird there a lot more. Getting there isn’t so straightforward but is possible.

-From San Vito, go to Sabalito, take a left at the gas station.

-Follow this road to Union, and from the main fork, go about 4.5 kilometers.

-At a ranch-type house, take an immediate right just after this, also immediately driving past some small wooden houses.

-Follow this main, fairly rough road back until you reach the forest. Park there, don’t block in any farming equipment, you will see the trail at that point.

Crested Oropendola: They are around and can show up at the marsh or just driving along but the surefire way to check this common Panama and South American bird for your Costa Rica list is by visiting their nesting/roosting tree. This is on the first road on the right after the Las Cruces station, maybe 200 meters from the main road. Visit in the early morning or late afternoon to ensure success.

I guess that’s it for now. It’s a great, easy area for birding, have fun!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Tips for Birding in Costa Rica at Virgen del Socorro

Mountains are one of the main reasons why so many bird species live in Costa Rica. They act as barriers that promote speciation, catch moisture that creates cloud forest and other tropical forest habitats, and make it possible for distinct ecosystems to evolve at different elevations. But, on the downside, the steep slopes, ravines, and other forms of broken terrain don’t exactly facilitate access. Considering that there are people who would rather cut down the forest to make room for cows, that’s a good thing. But, not so good for birders who wouldn’t mind some easy-going searching for middle elevation species.

But, thanks to a certain few roads, we don’t need to torture ourselves by slip sliding up and down muddy slopes to catch a glimpse of a spinetail or two. In Costa Rica, we can head on over to Virgen del Socorro to hang out with Tufted Flycatchers and be entertained by the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets (if we really feel like calling that entertainment). Despite losing some forest during the 2009 earthquake, Virgen del Socorro is up and running for birding. Here are some tips for visiting this classic site:

Check out the “new” road!: This would be the road that accesses the canyon and although it’s not really new, the conditions are so much better, it’s pretty much as good as new. Or, it’s at least the best it will probably ever be. Instead of bouncing along roads and ruts, thanks to some recent grading, it’s a smooth ride down to the bridge and up to the entrance to the hydro plant on the other side of the river. Who knows how long it will last but you can probably enjoy this two wheel drive trip for the next few months.

Sunny days aren’t the best of days but they are good for raptors: Pretty much that. If you can get there before 8, it’s all good. After then, expect some really slow birding interspersed with raptor thermals. Commonly seen raptors at this site are Bat FalconWhite Hawk (maybe the most reliable, easily accessible spot in the country), Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Keep watching and you might also get lucky with Ornate Hawk-Eagle. In the past, Great Black Hawk, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, and even Solitary Eagle were regular at this site, maybe they could show up again?

One of the White Hawks from this site.

Time is better spent at the bridge and the other side: The habitat is better down by the river, and across the bridge. Birds can also be seen on the way to the bridge but where there is more forest, there tend to be more birds and more species. Watching from the bridge might also turn up an American Dipper and other river species (although Sunbittern seems to be oddly absent).

Don’t worry, no one uses the old bridge any more.

Keep watching for mixed flocks: As if we wouldn’t be doing this anyways? What I mean by this is to keep looking and waiting for multi-species action, and then trying to stay with those birds as long as you can. This is where most of the birds will be including chances at various foothill and middle elevation species, and uncommon and rare stuff like Brown-billed Scythebill, tyrannulets, Blue and gold Tanager, vagrant wood-warblers for us local birders, and who knows what else?

Red-headed Barbet can show up. You can also watch for it at the Colibri Cafe.

Hummingbirds: It depends on what’s in flower but know that this is a good site for “le Black-crested Coquette”, Brown Violetear, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Mountain-gem, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy among others.

Female White-bellied Mountain-Gem

When to visit: Any time of the year is good. This is a great place to bird as a day trip when staying in the Sarapiqui area (takes about 40 minutes to drive there). It also works well when staying in the Varablanca/Poas area, and can be done as a day trip from the San Jose area but it will take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to get there. If taking the bus, the San Jose-Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui-Varablanca bus route can drop you at the entrance road.

It’s also a good site for Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Do the San Miguel loop: This means taking the road towards San Miguel on the way back. This is also good for birding and can yield more foothill species.

How to get there: The entrance road into the canyon is not signed. It is located off of route 126 (the road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens) on the east side of the road, just south of the largest river on this road, and doesn’t look like much. There is a also white roadside cross just above the entrance road. This is also between San Miguel and Cinchona. Another way to find it is by checking out the map for the Virgen del Socorro hotspot in eBird- in general, this is an excellent way to find various birding sites in Costa Rica and most countries.

Hope you see some good stuff!

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Birding Costa Rica

A Few Hopes and Goals for Birding Costa Rica in 2017

According to the way we keep track of time in “Western” culture, a new year has begun. This gives us a chance to make promises to ourselves and is a great excuse for a fresh, brand new start for anything we want. In the realm of birding, we can start counting birds again for the next 365 days, make target lists for the year, and plan trips for lifers. I don’t have a burgeoning number of expectations for 2017 but this blog post does give me a chance to list some ideas to shoot for from now until next December. Here goes…

Surveys in remote areas of Costa Rica: This is what I want to do the most. I want to see what’s out there in those little birded places with intact habitat like the swamp surrounded forest block in Cano Negro, primary forest in the Fila Carbon near Casa Calateas, remote lowland forest sites up near the border with Nicaragua, the La Tarde lodge in the Osa, The Soltis Center, grassland sites in the north, and the Las Alturas area. I’m sure there are more spots but these are the ones that come most readily to mind.

The view from Casa Calateas.

Visit a bunch of hotspots: By doing this in conjunction with the remote sites, I hope to fill in the gaps and connect with a heck of a lot of birds. These sites would be well known places like the La Selva entrance road, Carara National Park, the La Gamba area, Cerro de la Muerte (think Paraiso de Quetzales), Palo Verde, Medio Queso, and other places that make it onto many a Costa Rica birding itinerary.

The birding is awesome around La Gamba. This is a Charming Hummingbird.

See a Tawny-faced Quail: As soon as I wrote that, I was tempted to backtrack and just press the delete/back space key. I mean, I always want to see this bird but it’s such a pain, where’s the hope? I would need to get to out of the way spots in the north and look and look and maybe not see it anyways. But, if you don’t look, you won’t even see a catbird so as long as I can spend time where it lives, I will still have a slim chance. If I can make my first hopes come true, my chances at finally laying eyes on this little ground bird will climb the ladder of probability.

 eBird everything: Yeah, a lot of birders do this and I try my best but I always end up leaving some lists out of the equation. This year, I want all my observations to be documented up there in the digital cloud.

Identify 700 species in Costa Rica: Bird enough in the right places and it can be done. Heck, do a proper Big Year and I bet you could get 750 or even 770 but since I can’t afford to allocate time and resources to nothing but bird chases, that ain’t gonna happen for moi. No matter because I will be very pleased to do enough birding to break 700. In 2016, two guys I know did just that in Costa Rica!

I already saw this one for the year list.

Hope I can get this one again…

Meet more birders: I always like meeting more birders. Birding is what I do, what I have always done and these are the people of my erstwhile tribe (although I also appreciate meeting any sort of biophile along with people who like to hang out in old growth forests). Hope to see some birds with you in Costa Rica soon!

On a final note, I also hope to become more involved in local conservation efforts. Despite the obvious fact that living on Earth means that we also coexist with other life forms, the current extinction event and widespread, self-detrimental ecosystem destruction indicates that too many humans have ignored the obvious for far too long. Planting trees, environmental education, or just helping people to reconnect with nature, I hope I can do something along those lines.

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Birding Costa Rica

FAQs About 2017 Birding in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, the beginning of a new year also marks the start of another high season. Although visits begin to pick up as we move through December, the real jump happens after the ball drops. As if on cue, the rains of the wet season are replaced by fresh new winds flying through sunny skies around San Jose and the Pacific slope. The dry season may or may not extend to the Caribbean slope but overall, there’s a lot less rain and for us birders, that translates to more birding time. Ironically, it also means less bird activity but as long as you can get up at the crack of dawn (and you should if you want to have a better chance at antpittas and more birdies in general), the birding is going to be “fabtastic”.

You might see a White Hawk or two.

With more birders on their way to Costa Rica these days, I also get more questions and inquiries. With the aim of answering most such questions in one fell swoop, I have put together some FAQs pertinent to birding in Costa Rica now and in the coming months:

What time do national parks open?: The parks in Costa Rica pretty much run on office hours. Unfortunately, as those of us with favorite binos know, birds don’t follow the same schedule. They do get up early and that’s when we need to look for them. This doesn’t jive too well with protected areas being open from 8 to 4 but sometimes, there are ways around that schedule. If you can, visit the national park the day before and ask if you can go in around 6 a.m. on the following day. This usually works for Tapanti, Braulio Carrillo, and various other sites. It won’t work for crowded Manuel Antonio. If you can’t get in before 8, just bird adjacent habitat until then.

Even if you go in after 8, you might still see an Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

How can I see toucans, owls, and tanagers?: Toucans and tanagers are pretty easy as long as you visit the right habitat and sites (this translates to quality forest within the respective ranges of various species). As for owls, that takes a bit more effort, usually at night. There aren’t as many known owl roosts but it’s always worth it to ask at any lodge. As far as where and how to look for and find these and other birds in Costa Rica, you will find over 700 pages of this information in my Costa Rica bird finding e-book (or just buy it to help support this blog!).

Speckled Tanager

Is Cerro Lodge close to San Jose? How about Carara National Park?: Cerro (a much recommended lodge for birding the Carara area) is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from the airport, and a ten minute drive to the park entrance. When staying there, make sure you also bird the grounds and road in front of the lodge.

Safety issues in Costa Rica?: It’s pretty much like most places- just use common sense and you will be alright. Don’t leave the vehicle where you can’t see it, especially if you have stuff inside, and don’t walk around with binos and cameras in urban areas.

Which field guide should I use?: As far as a paper guide with illustrations goes, nothing beats the latest version of “The Birds of Costa Rica, A Field Guide” by Garrigues and Dean. Compact, great illustrations, maps, it’s an essential. If you like images of birds, looking at them while listening to their sounds, making target lists, and doing so on a smart phone or tablet, the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app is another essential.

Should I rent a car, and if so, from where?: It’s of course much easier to get around with your own vehicle but what about the driving? How easy is it to rent a car? If you are familiar with city driving, you are ready for driving in Costa Rica. Just drive defensively, be ready for other drivers to not follow all the rules, and expect very few signs. Use a GPS navigator, avoid rush hour traffic in the Central Valley whenever possible, and only get a four wheel drive vehicle if you plan on visiting sites that require one. As far as where to rent the vehicle, I can’t help there, I’m not sure which place is best.

There goes most of the most common questions and concerns that get run by me, I hope my answers can help. If I could offer a last bit of advice, I would suggest not expecting species on a checklist for any given site to be immediately apparent and present during a quick visit. Yeah, most seasoned birders know that’s par for the course no matter where we go but it’s always worth mentioning because these tropical ecosystems are complex, and about the only thing predictable is their unpredictable nature. The best way to see more birds in a given amount of time anywhere in Costa Rica is by being patient and spending more time in high quality, rich habitats. Hope to see you birding in 2017!