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Birding Costa Rica

Some Tips for Birding Costa Rica in August

Here comes August, that late summer month with its hazy dog days, stores full of school supplies, and time to rush and complete whatever summer tasks you had planned on doing. For us birders, it’s also time to check the sewage treatment ponds, wildlife refuges, and any other would be wetlands that play host to migrating shorebirds. At least that’s what’s going on up north. Down here in permanent summer land, August is just another month when the rains fall and give local rivers a big wet boost. Amazingly, a few shorebirds have already flown here but most won’t arrive for another month. Most importantly, though, the local resident birding is as good as ever. If you are headed to Costa Rica for birding during the following weeks, I hope these tips help:

Be ready for rain, be ready for a lot of birds

Yeah, rain is in the house but so are the birds including lots of juveniles. While the rains do limit birding, on and off rain is always better than a prolonged sunny day. Bird activity is high between the bouts of precipitation and the falling water is also nice because it can cool things off.

It was coming down the other day but barbets and toucanets were still coming to the Colibri Cafe at Cinchona.

Fruiting trees in the foothills

Thanks to heavy rain, stuff is fruiting in the foothills and the birds will be there for the natural buffet. Keep an eye out for any fruiting trees, especially ones that have small, oval, green fruits, usually with a red base. These ones are delicacies for guans, toucans, and cotingas so keep watching and waiting if you see such a tree! Berries and other small fruits are better for trees full of tanagers, manakins, thrushes, and other cool birds.

Hello Bay-headed Tanager.

Road closure

I know of one main road that is closed for much of the day. If you plan on using the Varablanca-Cinchona-San Miguel road to travel to and from Sarapiqui, know that this road is closed in the San Miguel area in the morning between 7:30 and 12:00, and then again from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The upside to this is that if you are coming from San Jose, this doesn’t affect visits to the Waterfall Gardens, Cinchona, or Virgen del Socorro because the closure is between Socorro and San Miguel. Another upside could be better roadside birding during times of closure because there should be much less traffic. Yet another bonus comes in the form of being able to skirt the closure all together by detouring through Virgen del Socorro, thus forcing you to move through this birdy site. I’m not sure how long these closures will last but I hope it ends before October just in case I do another Big Day at that time!

Keep an eye out for “odd” hummingbirds

Last year, a Rufous-crested Coquette made s star appearance at Rancho Naturalista in August. Maybe they wander into Costa Rica at this time of year? Maybe there are more out there, especially down around Limon? This is a reminder that hummingbirds wander, and they might do more now so take pictures of any that look “off”. If you find an “off” one, please post it on your eBird list and/or share it to Facebook.

Feeder madness

Unfortunately, not in a good way. Thanks to a misinterpretation of a hunting law that outlaws the baiting of animals, some misinformed folks in Costa Rica have urged people to take down hummingbird feeders stating that the feeders keep hummingbirds from pollinating plants. Yes, that’s right, and some municipalities have pressured a restaurant or two to remove their feeders despite a lack of data showing that feeders are harmful. Meanwhile, in keeping with the typical sort of tragic irony that often happens when misinformed people make decisions, unfortunately, just when feeders are taken down, thanks to climate change, hummingbirds seem to have taken a hit in Costa Rica and could really use that extra food. I’m not sure how the whole feeder thing will play out but, hopefully, the local birding community can join forces with the tourism industry to make authorities and local people realize that efforts would be much better spent on limiting pesticides and deforestation than removing bird feeders. I wish I was making that up but I assure you I am not. I will be writing more about this.

Compared to what I used to see, I have been seeing far fewer hummingbirds this year just about everywhere I go. This Black-bellied was enjoying the feeders at Catarata del Toro.

Enjoy the elbow room

Not as if there are crowds of birders anyways but there are certainly less around during August! You will see just as many resident birds and maybe even more because of more bird activity. It will be just you and the birds!

Please enter eBird data, especially for migrants

As with everywhere, the more data the better! Participate in science and share your trip.

That’s about it for now, I hope to see you at some cool birding locale in Costa Rica!

 

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Birding Costa Rica

In Costa Rica for Birding? Now is a Good Time to Visit Quebrada Gonzalez

I hope you are reading this today because by “now”, I mean July 20th, 2017 or shortly thereafter. If you are seeing this post some other month or some other year, the Quebrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park will still be worth a visit because, after all, the dense foothill/lowland rainforest at this site always offers chances at connecting with a variety of uncommon and rare species. If you happen to be headed there over the next few days, though, the odds are in your favor for finding some mega birds.

Based on guiding there yesterday and recent eBird sightings, these are some reasons why now would be a great time to visit:

Fruiting trees

Quebrada has been getting a lot of rain. I say that with a sincere sense of relief and hope because much to the detriment of a forest in need of near constant moisture, the site has suffered from warmer and drier than normal weather over the past five or so years. Since most bird species at the site seem to have declined, hopefully, this year’s precipitation will result in a healthier forest ecosystem along with subsequent improved nesting success and more food for altitudinal migrants. Based on the number of fruiting trees seen yesterday, it looks like the forest is reacting well to the much needed precipitation and humidity. Several Melastomes were fruiting as were some understory Lauraceous species (think small avocado type fruits), and other trees.

Mixed flocks!

The wet foothill and middle elevation rainforests of Costa Rica are sort of infamous for their mixed flocks. After periods of quiet birding, large groups of birds suddenly rush through the forest to tantalize, frustrate, amaze, and entertain the unwary birder, and Quebrada is no exception. It’s an excellent site to connect with fantastic mixed flock activity but, you can also visit and run into very few or no flocks. I’m happy to say that yesterday, the mixed flock activity was reminiscent of better birding days. We ran into several groups of birds, and although some were pretty hard to watch as they silhouetted their way through the canopy, we still had plenty to look at and fewer slow periods than any visit this year. Flocks had most of the expected tanagers, we had one Sharpbill, Red-headed Barbet, more than one shrike-tanager, Striped Woodhaunter, and I am sure there were other species missed because of less than ideal viewing conditions.

Emerald Tanager is one of the expected species here, we had several.

Better chances at choice large frugivores

More fruit also means better chances at running into fine targets like Yellow-eared Toucanet and Bare-necked Umbrellabird. These were both recently reported from the site on eBird and although we didn’t find them, now might be the best time to look. Since those species are around, the same can also probably be said of another choice frugivore, its royal blue and purpleness, the Lovely Cotinga. More fruit on the forest floor also means better chances at seeing quail-doves; we actually had great looks at four Olive-backed Quail-Doves over a full day of birding.

Cloudy weather

Although it also makes for a chance of rain and silhouette canopy views, the overcast skies sort of make up for it with more bird activity. Since that coincides with higher chances of seeing more birds, yes, you want to be there on a cloudy day. Ideally, some sun will also happen as it did yesterday with subsequent views of King Vulture and Great Black Hawk from the overlook on the Ceiba Trail.

The view from the overlook.

Lots of juvenile birds

They might look dull and confusing but the more juveniles the better and not only because they represent new generations of tanagers. Although that is part of the happy equation, more juvenile birds around also means that more predators like Tiny Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon are active. Who knows, maybe Black and white Hawk-Eagle or other rare choice raptors could also be around?

Antswarm

Saving the best for last, this is the main reason why you should go birding at Quebrada now. Yesterday, there was a diffuse antswarm working its way through the northern side of the Las Palmas trail. It looked like it was spread through a fair sized area of forest and this could mean that it will be working that area for a few days. Maybe, maybe not, but it looked a lot like the one I saw some years ago that brought in a R.V. G. Cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpitta almost in the same area. On that occasion, the same swarm worked over the same area for at least four days. Although we didn’t see either of those megas yesterday, it looked like ideal conditions for them to make an appearance. Since most of yesterday’s swarm was back in the woods, away from the trail, they might have actually been nearby and just not foraging where we could see them.

One or two Ocellated Antbirds were at yesterday’s swarm but they wouldn’t come in for a close, prolonged view like this one from Tirimbina. 

I’m not sure if I can get back this weekend but I might give it a try. If you go, leave a comment about your sightings!

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Ferry Birding in Costa Rica is Always Good

Most folks don’t consider any degree of pelagic birding when visiting Costa Rica but if you have an extra day or two, and enjoy birding from a boat, it will be worth your while. Get into the pelagic zone and at least three species of storm-petrel, two shearwaters, and a few other birds are likely along with a real chance at rarities like Tahiti Petrel, Parkinson’s Petrel, Galapagos Petrel, Christmas Shearwater, and so on. We still need to get a better handle on which species show up when and where but as long as you head into the pelagic zone, you will be in for some exciting birds. The main problem with that has been finding boats to take folks to the places where the shore is out of sight but, hopefully, it will be easier to arrange such trips soon.6

In the meantime, if you want an easy, quick “pelagic”, you can always take the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Although you can never expect too much in terms of blue water birds, there’s always a chance at storm-petrels, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and who knows what else? Uncommon species and Costa Rican rarities of every spectrum have been seen including Sabine’s Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Peruvian Booby. At the same time, you can also take the ferry and have your most exciting birding be limited to Black, Royal, and Sandwich Terns but since the trip is so easy to do, and something different usually shows up anyways, I believe that doing a bit of ferry birding is always worth the effort. If you are up for it, here’s some stuff to keep in mind when ferry birding in Costa Rica:

The ferry won’t stop for birds– Yes, that is a “Captain Obvious” statement but just a reminder that ferry birding won’t be as birder friendly as a true chumming, bird chasing, pelagic trip. You won’t see as many birds but I still think that the ferry kind of makes up for it with the low cost, easy logistics, and birding opportunities especially when you can’t arrange a true birding trip to the pelagic zone.

Get in line early to find space on the upper deck– You want to get a coveted spot on the upper deck because you will see more birds. The ferry is usually stable enough to use a scope, and it’s also short enough (about an hour and a half) to make sea sickness an extremely rare event. Getting there about an hour before departure time should work. If you arrive in Puntarenas before then, park near the lighthouse and scope from there. I have seen pelagic species from this spot on more than one occasion (by that I mean three species of storm-petrels, Brown Noddy, and Galapagos Shearwater).

 

Day trip? Much cheaper to park the car in Puntarenas– When I do the ferry (as I did with friends yesterday), I park at Frank’s Cabinas for the day and pay around $1.50 for a ferry passenger ticket (yep, that adds up to around $3 round trip). Frank’s Cabinas is half a block north of the ferry dock and has a prominent sign. It tends to fill up on the weekend and he charges around $10 to park there for a day. If you do take a vehicle across, it is around $45 each way.

Consider the 5 a.m. ferry– Since the next ferry doesn’t leave until 9, you will probably see more birds by taking that first ferry at dawn. Although I have seen quite a few birds at other times of the day, I plan on embarking on the five a.m. ferry on my next trip. I would have already done so but have always felt pretty reluctant to leave the house by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. Although this means that you could mix owling and potooing with an early ferry ride, you can also just stay at Frank’s Cabinas the night before. He charges around $50 for a room that includes the most important factor for steamy Puntarenas; air conditioning.

Bring the car and make a day or more of it– Likewise, you can also take the ferry across with a vehicle like so many other non-birders on the boat. This is worth it if you will be spending one or more nights in the southern Nicoya Peninsula or if you just feel like combining birding on the ferry with a day of birding near Paquera and in the southern Nicoya. Do that and you might end up with a day list that includes Galapagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

Be ready for anything– Most of all, when birding from the ferry, just be ready for anything. When we take into account that the ferry crosses part of a nutrient rich gulf that has seen rather little birding coverage, you have to be open to the possibility of rare and unexpected species showing up. By definition, this means that species like Inca Tern and Nazca Booby are far from regular, but they just might show up when you take that boat. The highly pelagic White Tern has been seen in the gulf, who knows what else might fly into view? I know that every time I have taken the ferry, one or more interesting species have occurred. On the trip yesterday, although I had hoped and sort of expected to see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and at least one storm-petrel species, instead, we were surprised with a Parasitic Jaeger, and then a Pomarine Jaeger not long before the boat reached Puntarenas on the trip back! Both of these were excellent year birds and tough birds to see in Costa Rica even when they are expected. With that in mind, I should mention that Parasitic Jaeger has been seen during the summer months in Puntarenas in the past.

The dark juvenile Pomarine Jaeger that sadly flew away as soon as we saw it. 

Yesterday, I picked up three year birds and although there wasn’t as much avian activity as on other occasions, I can’t help but wonder what showed up earlier on or later in the afternoon. Which species flew across the path of the ferry today? You never know unless you go and since it’s an easy trip to do, keep it in mind when birding in Costa Rica. Ideally, I hope I can bird from the ferry at least twice more this year. To learn more about where and how to bird in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you on the ferry or elsewhere in the field!