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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Two Weeks of Costa Rica Birding Highlights

Regarding birding endeavors, the past two weeks have been good ones . I have added some really good year birds, visited the birding oasis known as Rancho Naturalista, and have shared birds with clients and friends while guiding at every elevation on the Caribbean slope. I also managed to add a surprise year bird to my 2017 list while checking the Pacific coast for storm driven vagrants. The following is a summary of those highlights:

Birding the Pacific coast yields a major surprise: There have been some major storms may out there in the Pacific. Although they didn’t roar on in to Costa Rica, the outlying waves from those storms did make it to our shores and they have surely brought some good birds with them. With that in mind, I decided to check a few coastal sites with friends on August 13th. It took a while but we did eventually find a mega Sooty Shearwater! Hours of scanning rough seas from Tarcoles, Caldera, and Puntarenas had yielded little more than a few Black Terns, a few Sulids, and brief looks at Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel when Johan suddenly exclaimed, “What’s this bird here?!” A dark bird floating on the surface moves right in front of us, all the while looking like some odd, lost duck. Except that the dark bird just offshore from the tip of Puntarenas isn’t a duck but a brown species of shearwater. We run to the end of the overlook near the Puntarenas lighthouse and manage some looks at a Sooty Shearwater before it floats too far into the gulf for easy looks. Although this species used to be seasonally common in pelagic waters off of Costa Rica, you would need some powerball luck to see even one during ten pelagic trips. With that in mind (and the fact that a Swallow-tailed Gull was seen in Seattle), I can’t help but wonder what other serious megas are lurking out there in Costa Rican waters.

Sooty Shearwater for the year list!

Guiding around Tirimbina: The birding is always going to be good in the Sarapiqui region. During a day of guiding at Tirimbina and nearby, our best birds were Snowy Cotinga, White-fronted Nunbird, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, and perched Great Green Macaw just before the rain poured down.

Tirimbina is one of the last sites in Sarapiqui where the nunbird is reliable.

Hummingbirds at Cinchona and the Volcan Restaurant: Both of these sites have feeders that attract a bevy of sugar-pumped beauties. Since both are also just 35 minutes to an hour from the airport, you might want to consider a stop at these avian oases to treat yourself to good photo opps of several hummingbirds and supporting local businesses that have always supported birds and birders.

The local White-bellied Mountain-Gem was showing well at Cinchona.

The former Magnificent (now Talamancan) Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem also showed well at the Volcan Restaurant. This is on the main road to Poas. Watch for it on the left about 300 meters after the police station.

Rancho Naturalista: It’s hard to emphasize how nice it is to stay at Costa Rica’s first birding lodge. The birding is non-stop and includes relaxed birding from the balcony, checking the forest trails for manakins and so on, watching shy forest species come in to the moth light, visiting the hummingbird pools, and having several options for birding further afield. Throw in friendly, wonderful accommodating service, excellent on-site guides, and delicious cuisine and this place is hard to beat.

Bicolored Hawk is one of several shy species regular at Rancho.

Ask to visit Rancho Bajo to see coquettes. We had looks at male and female Black-crested and the much less expected White-crested Coquette!

Cope and El Tapir: “Cope” is the nick-name of a local artist who also loves to show people roosting owls and other birds, and he does this very well. Along with some other birds, we saw both Crested and Spectacled Owls after a couple hours at El Tapir that had turned up point blank views at Snowcap and a distant Tiny Hawk. Yeah, that was a morning with some serious quality birds!

Crested Owl.

San Luis Canopy: Most people pay a visit to San Luis to zip-line their way through the forest canopy. However, with glittering tanagers rummaging in fruiting trees and hopping around a fruit feeder, yeah, I’ll pass on the zip line for excitement! Yesterday, we enjoyed close looks at Black and Yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers along with a perched White Hawk and a few euphonia species. Although we dipped on the Speckled Tanager (usually easy at this site), we did connect with Dusky Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens at the start of the Manuel Brenes road.

The lovely Emerald Tanager.

The skulky antbirdish/babblerish Black-throated Wren even posed for shots!

I hope the information above can help you with  your own birding endeavors in Costa Rica. Come on down, this birding paradise is closer than you think. Get ready for your trip with my 700 page e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

 

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Cerulean Warbler Count and Other Suggestions for Birding Costa Rica

Summer is still happening up north but not for long. The cooler nights of autumn are just around the corner, and for most birds, the big seasonal insect boom is over. For species like Cerulean Warbler, Hooded Warbler, and Louisiana Waterthrush, the chicks have been fledged and the time has come to once again take the long trip south. In Costa Rica, we are already seeing this trio of wood-warblers and we hope to see many more in a month or two. Yes, the exquisite Cerulean Warbler passes through Costa Rica in as good numbers as its threatened population allows and right now is the time to see them. They mostly occur on the Caribbean slope, especially so in foothill and middle elevation forests and can be encountered for much of September in small numbers although the best place in Costa Rica to see this choice warbler of the deciduous canopy seems to be at the Las Brisas Reserve.

This private protected area in the foothills above the town of Siquirres seems to be especially good for migrants as well as nice resident species like Royal Flycatcher, White-tipped Sicklebill, and other birds. Since it’s an excellent place to count Ceruleans while looking for other migrants, local birding guide and ornithologist Ernesto Carman has organized an annual Cerulean Warbler count at this site for the past several years. Past counts have turned up several Ceruleans along with flocks of migrating kites and many other birds shared in good company. This year’s count promises to be just as good and also includes a bird walk at the EARTH University, an excellent site for species of the lowland rainforest. To participate in the count on September 2-3, contact Ernesto at getyourbirds@gmail.com

Le Royal Flycatcher

When not counting Cerulean Warblers, here are some suggestions for birding in Costa Rica during the final week of August and the first week of September:

Visit Albergue del Socorro– Off the beaten track, but not too far off for an easy visit, this small lodge is run by a friendly local family who care deeply for the excellent middle elevation forests and biodiversity in their neighborhood. Needless to say, the birding is excellent and I can’t wait to go back. This is a site to look for Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird among many other species.

Check out wetlands in Guanacaste– The waterbirds are more spread out but with more wetlands to access, it seems like it’s easier to find major targets like Jabiru and Spotted Rail. Don’t overlook the rice fields, especially if they are being harvested. Sit back and see if you can identify the rails that are flushed by the tractor!

The Jabiru is more or less king of the Western Hemisphere wading birds.

Look for the Aplomado Falcon in Coris– There has been a juvenile Aplomado in Coris, Cartago terrorizing the local blackbirds and doves for more than a month now. Park across the road from the entrance to the Kimberly-Clark factory and watch for the Falco fun from there!

Expect flooded conditions near Golfito– It’s been raining Jaguars and Maned Wolves in southern Costa Rica. As has often happened when massive amounts of water come to that part of the country, fields and other areas have become flooded. Be careful when driving any side roads from the La Gamba area to the border.

Keep an eye and ear out for Saw-whets and Oilbirds in the highlands– This is a good time of year to at least hear the little known Unspotted Saw-whet Owl up on Irazu and Cerro de la Muerte. It’s also a good time to look for Oilbirds. Although there have only been a few sightings this year, there are probably more of those weird nocturnal birds up in the mountains.

Enjoy the great birding in Costa Rica, as always, I hope to see you in the field!

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Birding Costa Rica

Ferry, Lifer, and Tropical Dry Forest = A Fine Morning of Birding in Costa Rica

A fine morning of birding doesn’t have to include a lifer but when it does, it becomes a fine morning indeed. Like one that includes a high cup of smooth, award winning coffee accompanied by pan du chocolate and the chocolate just happens to have a 75% or higher cocoa component. When the lifer is unexpected, it’s like enjoying that same luxurious little repast accompanied by a winning lottery ticket. Last week, I hit that birding jackpot accompanied by chocolate headed Blue-footed Boobies, deep, dark, coffee-colored storm-petrels, and a sweet set of dry forest birds.

The day started in the middle of the night when we departed the Central Valley at 2:30 am. We needed to reach Puntarenas by 4:30 and since we arrived by 4:00, next time, I’ll be leaving at the almost just as crazily late/early hour of 3:00 am. And given the consistently nice birding surprises from the ferry, I hope to make that next trip within the next two months. Hopefully by then, the ferry dock will be fixed (it suffered some damage yesterday, thankfully after we did our trip), and I will see Sabine’s Gull, phalaropes, and other targets. But, back to the other day when we got that personal birding lottery ticket.

After parking at Frank’s Cabins (which the owners graciously opened at 4:00 am as soon as we called), Susan and I got our 800 colon tickets (that’s less than two bucks), boarded the boat, and walked up to the top deck, right in front. Aside from a flyby Back-crowned Night-Heron, we didn’t see anything else in the pre-dawn darkness but we knew that would change as the day broke over the calm estuarine waters of the Gulf of Nicoya.

The first birds were expected species like Brown Pelicans, flocks of White Ibis moving from roosting sites to mud flats near Puntarenas, frigatebirds, and a smattering of Royal, Sandwich, and Black Terns. When we reached one of the first drift lines, we got onto our first target or “good” bird. As with other occasions when I have seen Galapagos Shearwater, the fluttering, pot-bellied look of this one was revealed after constant scanning of the horizon. A check through the scope assured that it was indeed a Galapagos and not the much more rare Black-vented. We also saw a second bird ten minutes after the first.

An excellent year bird, especially when it can be seen from a quick and easy ferry ride!

As we moved forward on our hour and a half boat trip, we continued to scan the horizon as much as the few swells allowed. No storm-petrels yet nor many other birds but we did see several Blue-footed Boobies, all of which were juveniles.

The summer months are probably the best time to see Blue-footed Boobies in Costa Rica. I wonder where they come from? Cocos Island? Maybe even the Galapagos?

After the ferry docked, we had around two hours to kill before returning on the 9 am boat. Let’s see, not much to do in tiny Paquera and two hours to kill. Yeah, I think I’ll go birding! Fortunately, there is plenty of dry forest habitat around Paquera, most of it in various stages of second growth but still quite a few big trees and on Thursday, August 10, the green, rainy season vegetation overflowed with bird song. As we walked up the road, we heard and saw a good selection of species, the most common of which was Banded Wren.

As with other sites in the southern Nicoya Peninsula, we noticed that White-necked Puffbird was easier to see than many other sites (we saw three over the course of an hour and a half).

We were also entertained by the bright colors of Black-headed Trogons and Turquoise-browed Motmots, and the antics of various other dry forest species. Although we didn’t luck out with any super rare and enigmatic Pheasant Cuckoos, nor any year birds, the activity still made for a refreshing bird-filled break between ferry rides.

Around 8:00, we headed back to the boat, got our tickets, and boarded with a good number of tourists on their way back to the mainland, including one local guide who showed us pictures of Ornate Hawk-Eagle from his garden in La Gamba. Back on the ferry, we scanned with the scope hoping to find groups of feeding birds. No luck there but as the boat got underway, we eventually found birds flying back and forth. Most of these were Black Terns and a few Blue-footed Boobies but eventually, once again, constant scanning turned up different species. This time, they came in the form of a few Least Storm-Petrels doing their bat-like flight in the same area as some foraging Black Terns. Once again, the scope also came in handy to make a positive ID. Not long after, more scanning revealed what I first took to be a Black Storm-Petrel flying in from the south. However, its flight didn’t seem quite right for that species, and sure enough, the scope revealed an extensive white rump. Yes, Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel, another excellent year bird, and along with the bat-like Least, year bird number three!

Further on, maybe 30 minutes away from Puntarenas, we got our final and best bird of the day. While scanning to the south, we both noticed a larger, darker tern that was foraging with a small group of Black Terns. I figured it would probably be a Brown Noddy but the shape didn’t seem right for that species. The head looked more angular, and while checking through the scope, my jaw dropped when I noticed a distinctive, definite forked tail. Nope, not a Brown Noddy! Off hand,the only other species that came to mind was a juvenile Sooty Tern, a potential lifer!

The bird moved in the same direction as the boat and eventually flew across the bow as it moved towards the inner part of the gulf. Although it was pretty far off, occasional looks through the scope revealed a white flash on the wing linings. Based on illustrations of juvenile Sooty Tern, I had expected more white on the belly but once I got back home and checked images online, I breathed a sigh of successful relief after seeing several images of juvenile Sooty Terns that showed very little white on the belly and matched our bird exactly. Lifer achieved and a not very expected one either! In Costa Rica, this species mostly (or perhaps entirely) breeds on Cocos Island and is very rarely seen as close to shore as we saw it. But, that’s kind of how the ferry is- you never know what you are going to encounter and even when you expect Brown Noddy and Bridled Tern, you might end up seeing a Sooty Tern instead! I’ll take that lifer and hope to get out there again in a month or two because who knows what else is out there? Maybe I will find that Peruvian Booby that was reported the day after we took the ferry!

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Spotted Rail Fail

I am sometimes asked about the number of bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or if I am still missing some. Although I have seen a good number of the birds on the Costa Rica list and am approaching 800 birds seen or heard in country, since the list includes more than 900 species, I could add a lot more including several lifers. Granted, most of the gaps on my checklist are very rare vagrants and pelagic species but a choice few are indeed residents like the White-tailed Nightjar and Rufous Nightjar, two species that I should really make more of an effort to see. Another bird that I really, really need to see even though it happens to already be ticked off my country list is a mottled black and white chicken-like marsh bird known as the Spotted Rail. It’s on my country list because I have heard it a few times but since “heard only” species don’t make the grade for my official life list, the elusive Spotted Rail is a major target.

Russet-naped Wood-Rail- Another chicken-like marsh bird that is much more common and much easier to see.

As one might imagine, like so many other chicken like marsh birds, this one is typically a pain. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, this bird is nothing like the secretive yet much more reliable Viginia Rail up north. Search for it and you don’t find it. Search again and you still don’t find it. Maybe you get a brief staccato one time response to playback. Or, maybe just a peaceful swishing of a breeze in the marsh grass that must be hiding a bevy of sulking, skulking rails. Whatever they are doing, they are oh so reluctant to come out and play. With various raptors and demented herons to deal with, I can’t blame them but I sure wish I could catch a break with this bird!

In June, several people did catch a break with Spotted Rails and right in one of the areas where I have briefly heard and tried to see them sans success. Pictures were posted, including images of sooty, fuzzy youngsters! The birds came out onto the sunny track, the observers made jubilant exclamations about hearing them call over and over! It was a veritable bonanza of Spotted Railness, but I wasn’t there to partake in the party. I was out of country at the time but did hope to give it a try after coming back to Costa Rica.

Where the rails were seen.

Try I did with a few friends, leaving the Central Valley at 3 am so we could hopefully reach the rice fields west of Liberia by 6:30 or 7. Although this is of course the dead of the night, believe me, it’s the best time to drive in Costa Rica! As long as you can avoid any racing or inebriated drivers, you can enjoy mostly vehicle-free roads and make excellent time to your destination. We were on track for doing just that but as dawn broke over the lush rainy-season fields of Guanacaste, a wrench (aka spanner) was thrown into the birding works. While talking about some bird related subject or another just south of Canas, the car suddenly coughed and subsequently died. We were able to partially pull off the road (not many shoulders in Costa Rica, even on the Pan-American highway) and quickly set up road triangles in the hopes of keeping speeding trucks from smashing us into oblivion.

During the ordeal, we still remembered to watch birds. Some dry forest species were flying around, especially good numbers of Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Stripe-headed Sparrows were singing as we called the two truck. Fortunately, while doing that, a friendly mechanic stopped and helped us out on Sunday morning, a time when most places are closed. Unfortunately, there was no way that car was starting again and eventually, we towed it to his shop around 6 kilometers up the highway. He figured it was probably the fuel pump and brought us to the bus stop. Luckily, a nearly empty bus came by, we got on, and Spotted Rail quest numero uno was converted into a sleepy bus ride back to the San Jose area.

The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.

Always nice to watch the common yet ever handsome Stripe-headed Sparrow.

Over coffee, we discussed how these sort of things happen and how we could maybe try again if the car could be repaired soon. A few days later, I found out that yes, the car was good! The internal fan belt had broke, it had been fixed, and the car sounded wonderful. When I was once again picked up at 3 am a week after our first attempt, it did indeed sound better than before. In fact, the orange Chevrolet sort of purred. We drove back down through the dark of the night to the Pacific lowlands and once again watched the heat lightning play in the distant sky as dawn broke over green fields punctuated by scattered, umbrella-shaped trees. We drove past Canas, feeling grateful for the mechanic who lived there and talked how we would recommend him to other birders. We zoomed along the lovely new, spacious highway to make up for lost time during road work and just as we approached Liberia, my heart dropped as I heard an odd coughing noise. As much as I wished it was the sound of a large truck two vehicles back, no, sadly, it was the sound of our very own, sick car. We pulled over in a gas station and turned the car off.

“Oh, look, there is some loose piece of plastic under the car, it must be that!”

But it wasn’t. The car wouldn’t start and we stood there in shock as we tried to comprehend how this had happened. As the same dry forest species as the week before called and flew over, and called our mechanic, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were living some Groundhog Day moment. The Spotted Rail was just out of reach, if only we could have broke down next to a marsh! At least much to our good fortune, once again, our mechanic came through and was able to reach a friend with a tow truck, all during the non-working time of Sunday morning. We rode the tow back several kilometers to Canas where Kendall the friendly mechanic was waiting. He was just as surprised as we were, especially when he opened the side of the motor to see that the new internal belt was loose. It should be fixed by now but after two failed attempts to even reach the home of the rail, and on precious birding days at that, I can’t help but feel really reluctant to do another birding trip in that same car. At least we now know a good, friendly, helpful mechanic who lives and works in Canas. I you need one in that area of Costa Rica, I recommend him- his name is Kendall and his number is 89772749. He only speaks Spanish, who knows, maybe he will become a birder- he heard enough about birds in Costa Rica from us!