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Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Random Observations on the Ferry While Birding in Costa Rica

Lately, eBird tells us that there have been some good sightings from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Ten or more Galapagos Shearwaters have been seen along with Bridled Tern and Brown Noddy. Given that I still needed the two tropical terns for the year, and that they would probably be departing from our waters at any time, I gave in to temptation yesterday and did some ferry birding. Feeling too lazy to awake at three a.m. (I know what kind of birder am I!), I opted for drifting down to the coast for the 9 o:clock boat. Although the earliest boat is always the most intriguing, the one at nine a.m. is still good for birds, and the eleven boat isn’t too bird shabby either. And, you can always scan from the point well before the hour of departure. I did just that yesterday and enjoyed views of a few dolphins and some nice flocks of distant feeding birds, one of which had my 2017 Bridled Tern.

The view from the point.

With one down and one or more to go, I headed out into the Gulf of Nicoya, scanning the sea with bins and scope in my hungry attempt for year birds. The bird activity was good, I got two more year birds (Brown Noddy and Red-billed Tropicbird) and also made some random observations that could come in handy when taking the ferry. They are as follows in the order in which I typed them on my phone:

Tropicbirds mindblast out of nowhere: Instead of taking notes on the bird’s plumage, yes, this is what came to mind. Since I saw every pertinent field mark in excellent light and at close range, I didn’t feel like making notes of that mental recording. What impressed me more was how the thing managed to escape my scanning efforts until it was right in front of the boat. Did it come from the left, the right, or maybe from above? I have no idea because it just popped into view, right in front, and when I put my bins on it, whammo, the possible Royal Tern was a tropicbird! On it flew off to the right, behind the boat, and off into nowhere. No time for a picture but you can bet that the experience is recorded into the cerebral database. I always wondered if and when I would see one from the ferry. The interesting thing about this birdy was that it was an adult. Since almost all records are of juveniles, it could mean that other birds from elsewhere are also currently taking advantage of the natural chum in the Gulf, and that brings up my next two observations.

Now is a damn good time for Galapagos Shearwater: We see this nice bird now and then from the ferry, especially during the wet season. That said, I have never seen around 30 in one day! They were in groups of five or more and could be seen floating on the water like tropical Alcids, fluttering and gliding out of the way of the ferry, and feeding with Black Terns. Pretty nice! With all of the run-off going into the Gulf, it seems plausible that the shearwaters and all sorts of life forms are taking advantage of the extra food.

Egrets on driftwood: As usual, I saw a few Snowy Egrets hunting on drift lines, pretty far from shore. They perch on driftwood or whatever and then surely catch small fish and other creatures that try to take shelter below the stuff.

Plastic is seriously messing up our fish tank: We keep hearing about this and it’s true. I mean how stupid are we as a species? Just let it keep happening until we ruin the oceans and everything that depends on them? This was all too easy to think about upon seeing bits of plastic stuff populating the drift lines.

Taking the ferry? Get ready to dance!: Yeah, seriously. Fortunately, you don’t have to dance and no one was yesterday but you might be tempted. Well, that or tempted to get devious and sort of disconnect the speakers by accident. Be forewarned that the mid-morning ferry from Paquera has a resident DJ and he may entertain with the sounds of rap, merengue, salsa, or a Michael Jackson mix. Yesterday, he started with some P. Diddy (aka Puff Daddy) before grooving into classic salsa. I didn’t mind the salsa. I wouldn’t have minded some Big Poppa raps either because after all, how many people can say that they have watched Galapagos Shearwaters while listening to lyrics like, “I love it when they call me Big Poppa! Put your hands in the air if you are a true player..”, or one of my favorites, “Birthdays was the worst days but now we drink champagne when we thirstay!” Next time, I’m gonna request that but only if a good bird shows up.

Imagine seeing these while hearing, “Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see
Sometimes your words just hypnotize me
And I just love your flashy ways
Guess that’s why they broke, and you’re so paid”. (RIP Notorious B.I.G.)

I wish I had a superscope: The “superscope” would make it possible to watch birds at incredible distances. It would show excellent resolution at like 1,000 times magnification and account for everything from heat waves to sound waves, movement of wind, boats, and whatever else, as well as the very curvature of the planet. It would also have night vision and thermal features, be made of lightweight yet impossibly strong nanoparticles, would always float, and would come with an option for a mini French press. That way, I could just scan from shore and tick off albatrosses and Pterodromas while sipping fresh Costa Rican coffee. There’s an idea for you MIT, RIT, and whatever birding engineers are out there.

Good luck with ferry birding, I hope I see you on the boat and that we get that Black-vented Shearwater. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did this weekend.

 

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope

Things I was Reminded Of and Learned During Several Days of Intense Guiding in Costa Rica

If you have tried to contact me during the past several days, I apologize. I wasn’t home. Nor did I have a chance to check emails because I was helping someone find target species like Ochre-breasted Antpitta, owls, Dusky Nightjar, and so on. We didn’t get all the targets but with less than five full days to work with, we knew that was always going to be the case. So, we dipped on some of the species that typically require more time, ones like Silvery-throated Jay, the pewee (that would be the Ochraceous one), Scaled Antpitta, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove among a few other not so easy birds. It wasn’t for lack of trying though and given the rain, I think we did pretty well in compiling a list with checks next to these choice species:

Buff-crowned Wood-Partridge

Spotted Wood-Quail

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Black and white Owl

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl

Vermiculated Screech-Owl

Spectacled Owl

Snowcap

Lattice-tailed Trogon

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Tawny-throated Leaftosser

Peg-billed Finch

During the course of birding, I was also reminded of the following:

The Unspotted Saw-whet Owl responds to vocalizations of Stygian Owl: Whether because it has experience with that potential predator, or just doesn’t like how it sounds, we had one saw-whet respond in an agitated manner to the high-pitched call made by the Stygian. In fact, since the saw-whet responded with a similar squeaking high-pitched noise, I thought it might actually be a Stygian. However, much to my frustration, almost as soon as I caught the saw-whet in the light of the torch, off it went and my client didn’t see it. We did manage to relocate a calling bird but that one was inside a veritable shield of dead vines and we couldn’t see it before it flew off to call a few more times just as the dawn was breaking on Irazu.

Hotel Grandpa’s yes, Kiri Lodge maybe not: Hotel Grandpa’s acts as a good base (with a funny name) for exploring Irazu. Good service, comfortable rooms, and a nice restaurant (which we didn’t use because we had birds to see). The only down-side was sleeping near a cabin where the guests were having their own karaoke party in the middle of the night. Once again, a shame I didn’t have some firecrackers to light right at their front door before we disembarked on the saw-whet search at 2:00 a.m.

As for Kiri Lodge, I hate to say this because the owners are nice but the room was so small and basic, and the choices in the restaurant so limited (unless you like trout or fried chicken), I don’t see myself staying there again. I know they have wanted to sell the place, I wish I had the money to buy it so it could be converted into a wonderful birding lodge. We would have wood-quail parties, engagements with antpittas, constant hummingbird action, roosting owls, etc.

The Crimson-collared Tanager can be much less friendly than you think: When a bird that has been typically easy to see decides to hide and skulk and fly off as soon as you might see it, sorry but it’s not being very friendly. Well, at least not birder friendly. If there was such a thing as “Bird Advisor”, I would have given it one star.

Tapanti is great as always and birder friendly: Tapanti National Park, thank you very much! The day before we were scheduled to bird the park, I asked the guard if we could enter early. He said, “Sure, what time?” I hesitantly responded, “Er, 5:30?” “Sure, no problem.”

We got there at the scheduled time and yes, out he came to open the gate. After thanking him from the bottom of my heart, in we went and onto the Oropendola Trail. Despite our early arrival and careful scanning, no antpittas hopped into view. But, we did make up for it with an Ochre-breasted on the Arboles Caidos trail (!), a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles that almost flew too close for binoculars, and views of such targets as solitaires, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Sooty-faced Finch, and the two hummingbirds among several other non-target species. Mixed flocks were good and by 11:30, we had a healthy list.

Our Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

The guard at La Selva, not so much: If you bird the entrance road, God forbid that you scan with binoculars near the guard shack. Such common birding behavior caused the guard to abandon his post and tell us that we could bird along the road but not right there because that costed money to do so. Seriously. Scanning for a few seconds, looking in the direction of the reserve. He was clearly perturbed and then even more so when we left the road near there to see a Black-throated Wren even though we were clearly in sight, and obviously watching a bird for a very short time. I said, “I’m sorry, there was a bird there we really wanted to see, please don’t worry, we aren’t going to try and sneak into the grounds of La Selva.” He said something like, “There are houses here, you can’t leave the road.” I saw the houses, we weren’t near them. At all. Whether he was worried that administration would perhaps berate him or was just taking his job to new heights of security, when it comes down to it, this is yet another sign that La Selva could use some consulting regarding birders. If the OTS La Selva Biological Station would like to capitalize on birding and thus raise more funds for the station, for a fee, I would be more than happy to advise them on how that could be accomplished and of course in ways that would not affect the main objectives of the station. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Now before we make excuses like “it’s a research station”, or that “the guard was just doing his job”, we would also need to ask ourselves if La Selva would actually like to earn more money from visiting birders, and if part of the guard’s job should involve efforts to try and stop people from watching birds in the vicinity of the guard shack (and thus convince them to perhaps not stay at a place that does not welcome birders and recommend other birders to do likewise).

El Gavilan can be a pretty good base for Sarapiqui birding: El Gavilan, one of the oldest choices for accommodation in the Sarapiqui area, continues to be a welcome, relaxing places to sit back and see which birds come on by. Although the habitat consists of various stages of second growth along with mature riparian forest, it is pretty darn birdy (check out the eBird list from late morning). After seriously searching for Snowy Cotinga at the edges of La Selva and other areas in the vicinity, we managed to see a female fly over the clearing at Gavilan. Sadly, she did not perch for scope views but the pale gray bird was still the only one we saw. Other species were Gray-chested and White-tipped Doves, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, flocks of migrating Miss. Kites and streams of swallows, Alder Flycatcher by the river, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, Black-cheeked, and Cinnamon Woodpeckers, and various other species of the Caribbean lowland edge and canopy. No deep forest birds but that can be resolved with walks at Tirimbina, El Tapir, or Quebrada Gonzalez. Not to mention, one of the friendly managers brought us to a roosting family of Spectacled Owls.

The baby.

I’m sure there is more to say about these days but given our fast-paced, focused birding, at the moment, it’s all sort of blurring together. Suffice to say that, as always, when you put in the time and effort, Costa Rica provides the birds.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Morning of Shorebirds, Waders, and More in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, thankfully, we have been spared the hurricanes that have wrecked their way through other parts of the world. Irma and Jose may have sent a few wayward birds our way but if not, no problem, we still have thousands of other more expected birds to watch. Fall migration has begun and in Costa Rica, it starts with swirling clouds of Plumbeous, Swallow-tailed, and then Mississippi Kites, handfuls of Cerulean Warblers, and thousands upon thousands of shorebirds. Each day that goes by sees flock after flock of waders moving through the country, especially on the Pacific slope. While more than a few no doubt zip right on over Costa Rica, many more take a break in the Gulf of Nicoya.

The large areas of nutrient rich mud flats are a perfect place to feed and take a much needed rest, and quite a few of those birds stay around for the winter. However, with so many birds on the move now, this is when the shorebird scene is at its most exciting. Who knows how many lost individuals from Asia pass through? Surely not many but I bet there are more than we realize. When you take into account the small number of accessible sites, the very few people who are watching, and the difficulty in picking that one winter plumaged Red-necked Stint out of distant Semipalmated Sandpipers, the struggle is real. However, those factors do leave the door open to the equally real possibility of stints from Siberia and other birds taking accidental vacations in and and through Costa Rica. Good luck finding them but since looking for such super rare birds is like going through a never ending box of avian chocolates, it’s all good!

That box of chocolates is why I have been itching to check out shorebird sites in the Gulf. Every day brings more birds, I wish I could be there to count them all but since I have other super important stuff to do (like making my daughter breakfast and then playing “eye spy” in the car while bringing her to school), I just gotta get down there when I can.

Thankfully, I had that golden chance this past Sunday. Although the mud holes at Chomes kept me from investigating the site with my small car, the bird rich lagoons at Cocorocas, Punta Morales were accessible and always act as an excellent second option.

Sometimes, there are more birds there than Chomes, I’m not sure if that was the case on Sunday but there were certainly a lot.

Both areas of salt ponds or lagoons were populated with hundreds of waders especially Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers. Other birds included dozens of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, many Western Sandpipers, and a scattering of other species, my best being a small group of Surfbirds. Along with that year bird, I also added Common Tern for my Costa Rica year list, and had fun scanning through the skimmers and other birds at the site. Nothing rare and the variety was lower than I had hoped for but I can’t really complain about watching hundreds of shorebirds.

After two hours at Morales, birds began to fly back out to the Gulf as mud flats were exposed by the retreating tide. I took that cue to likewise move on to better birding grounds, and based on its proximity to Morales, took the turn off on the highway to Ensenada.

 

Ensenada is a private refuge that also has salt pans that can be great for shorebirds. Unfortunately, I never found out what was using them on Sunday because the gate was closed and locked. At least the road in was a nice, birdy drive. Despite a few pot holes here and there, the gravel way was good, nearly free of other vehicles, and passed through a matrix of fields, second growth, Teak farms, and older tropical dry forest in riparian zones. A few stops here and there turned up expected species like Long-tailed Manakin, different flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Banded Wrens, Blue Grosbeak, and other common birds of the dry northwest.

A pair of requisite Double-striped Thick-Knees was also a treat.

Fly-over Hook-billed Kite was also cool.

 

I would love to bird that road at dawn to see what else is out there and check it at night to see if I can finally add Northern Potoo to my country list. That one is seriously overdue.

Since Ensenada was inaccessible, I eased on down the road towards yet another set of salt pans at a placed called, “Colorado”. That drive wasn’t as nice as the one in to Ensenada and the last bit in to Colorado was also made inaccessible by virtue of muddy conditions but from what I could see, there didn’t appear to be many birds there anyways. I did luck out though, with another hoped for year bird, the uncommon Spot-breasted Oriole. I had stopped in a place with several big trees and right on cue, a pair of the orioles were singing. They eventually came through the canopy overhead but ignored me and just kept on going, perhaps in search of flowering trees.

Although the orioles didn’t pause long enough for a good picture, this Yellow-naped Parrot was a good sport.

After the oriole incident, I had to choose between checking the estuary at Tarcoles or getting in a bit of sea watching at Puntarenas. A tough call but eventually I settled on the port. Although the sea was choppy and it looked good for finding some wayward sweet addition to the year list, I didn’t see much more than an Elegant Tern or two. That was alright because you never know what’s there unless you try and it was still a gift to see a few terns and catch glimpses of dolphins out in the Gulf as a cool breeze came off the water.

I wouldhave made one more stop but by that time, the rains had started up again, so I drove on home to enjoy a fresh cup of afternoon coffee while the cloud’s release soaked the backyard.

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Birding Costa Rica

Birding in Costa Rica with “Cope”

The world of birding is s small one, especially in these days of constant digital connection. Make the right “friends” on Facebook and you can receive updates from birding tours in Thailand, the latest avian temptations from Saint Paul, Alaska, and learn who was successful with the Swallow-tailed Gull twitch in Washington state, all in a matter of seconds. In state-sized Costa Rica, the birding world is even smaller. Go birding and you run into many of the same local players, we read about other’s reports, and we sign up for the same Christmas counts- always taken to a new level in birdy Costa Rica!

One of the local birders whom I had often heard about but just never personally met is Jose Alberto Perez. An artist also known as “Cope”, he lives right where the Caribbean lowlands meet the foothills and, for the past few years, has been showing birders why this part of the country is always worth a visit. After hearing about roosting potoos, owls, and a tame Thicket Antpitta, last week, I was pleased to finally have the chance to meet Cope while guiding someone focused on bird photography. Whether you prefer to point a camera at birds or use the binos, I can say for sure that any amount of time with Cope is time well spent.

The Cope birding garden set up.

We started by watching the birds that came to his small but very productive pond and feeder set up. Although it was rather quiet during our visit, he can get a lot of birds in December (similar to high activity at that time of year at other feeders) including various tanagers, toucans, and so on. Nevertheless, it was still nice to have close looks at Pale-vented Pigeon, hermits, a Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer that dominated the feeders, and a few other hummingbirds while we sat in the shade and enjoyed the green surroundings. The vocalizations of Slate-colored Grosbeak and Striped Cuckoo from somewhere in the neighborhood reminded us of the high avian potential in the area as did Cope’s tales of American Pygmy Kingfisher, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, and the other birds that had visited his small garden. He also told us about our chances at seeing some roosting owls a short drive from his home. Since those chances sounded pretty good, off we went to see if we could connect with a Crested Owl.

He took us to a nearby road that had a surprising amount of good habitat. While most of the surrounding lowlands are deforested, rivulets of primary forest apparently persist along rivers and streams and there are also areas of birdy second growth. The trees were very tall in the place we visited and they did indeed harbor many birds. While Cope checked a couple of spots for Crested Owls, I heard White-ringed Flycatcher and a few other lowland forest species, and we had flyby Brown-hooded Parrots. Since he has had all three hawk-eagle species in that area as well as Agami Heron, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and Purple-throated Fruitcrows further down the road, I can’t help but wonder what else might live around there. Hope I can do a dawn survey some day.

What also became apparent was Cope’s keen understanding of the avifauna in his patch. He explained where two pairs of Crested Owls often roosted and where he usually finds Spectacled Owls. Uniform Crake was further back in the woods, a bit too far for us, and the friendly Thicket Antpitta hadn’t been singing for a while, but he did have a nest of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and there was one more Crested Owl roost to check. After he checked the nest, he also came back and told us that yes, the Crested Owl was on its roost. After a short walk into the forest, there indeed was the nest of the tyrant, and the Crested Owl!

As is typical for this species, it was roosting fairly low in a spot with hanging dead leaves.

After plenty of satisfying views of this striking owl species, we went back to the tyrant nest and listened to its insect-like call while waiting for it to descend. The call was fitting for a bird the size of a large beetle and because of those miniscule proportions, our only chance at a photo was waiting for it come on down out of the canopy. The only problem with that strategy was Cope’s ability to find roosting birds. Before the tyrant flew down, he waved us over saying that he had found a roosting Spectacled Owl. Since owls tend to trump every other bird, especially ones as small as an insect, we followed him to the viewing spot, and there indeed was our second species of owl in 30 minutes!

Spectacled Owls are fairly common but still never as easy as Great Horneds up north.

Sure enough when we came back to the tyrant stake out, the tiny thing had already come and gone but an owl is always a good excuse and with limited time, you can’t see everything (although that never stops me from trying or wishing that we could!).

At other times, Cope can have roosting Great Potoo, White-tipped Sicklebill in the garden, and might even know of an area for Red-fronted Parrotlet. He can also usually show you Honduran White Bats, is very much connected with his patch, and will do what it takes to help you see birds, frogs, and whatever else he might have up his sleeve. In these times of disconnection from nature, it’s always nice to spend time with other people who still have that connection. Cope is one of those people, I look forward to my next visit.

Cope can be contacted for guided visits via his website, and Facebook page.