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caribbean slope lowlands

Tips for Birding in Costa Rica at Selva Bananito

Last weekend, I finally made it to a place I have heard about for many years. Although I have birded most corners of Costa Rica on more than one occasion, I still need to get to a few places. The high quality forests of Las Alturas near San Vito are at the top of my Costa Rica bucket list along with Isla Chira in the Gulf of Nicoya, Pacuare Lodge, and a couple other choice sites. One such site recently removed from my bucket list as of this past weekend is Selva Bananito. Although this lodge can be literally translated as, “little banana jungle”, the only bananas are on part of the drive in, and the place is anything but small.

The small pond at Selva Bananito

Selva Bananito is a working farm and property that protects a huge area of forest, some of which includes the watershed that provides the city of Limon with potable water. Many thanks to the current owners, that primary forest still stands because they convinced their father to leave it instead of cutting it down. Since then, they have also reforested part of the property and strive to work in a sustainable manner. If that wasn’t enough reason to stay there for a few nights, these birding tips might do the trick:

Enjoy the Snowy Cotingas: Once you get south of the Siquirres area, Snowy Cotinga seems easier. Watch a forested hillside in the afternoon and you might find six of more of these snow-white birds perched in the canopy. At Selva Bananito, it’s actually hard not to see this dove-like wonder bird. We had sightings every day, right from the lodge and elsewhere, maybe eight in total.

A male cotinga hiding in a tree.

Check out the colors on the Great Jacamar: This beautiful bird is much easier in Amazonia but it never hurts to admire the iridescence in Costa Rica! When rainforest covered the Caribbean lowlands, this species was certainly more widespread. In the current times of disconnect and deforestation, in Costa Rica, the Great Jacamar is much more of a challenge. Although you can find it at a few sites here and there, the most reliable is Selva Bananito. It’s not common there either but it does seem to occur in larger numbers at Bananito than elsewhere. We had very good looks at one on our first morning.

The colors were kind of like a combination of a motmot and quetzal!

Keep an eye on the skies: In Costa Rica, lots of forest can equal a variety of raptors. Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle is regular (although we missed it), we heard a Black Hawk-Eagle, saw Short-tailed Hawks, King Vulture, heard a Semiplumbeous on the road in, and marveled over incredible kettles of migrating Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks.

Stay overnight deep in the forest: There are trails that go way back into the forest. To make it easier for guests to access those remote areas of the property, there are two platforms where you can spend the night. This sort of adventure thing that provides immersion in high quality bird habitat is right up my alley, I cannot wait to do this on my next visit to see if I can find Black-eared Wood-Quail, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, and other species of the deep forest. Who knows what else might be back there?

Do some night-birding: Before dawn on the first morning, I heard Mottled Owl, Crested Owl, Spectacled Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, and Great Potoo within an hour, right from my comfortable cabin. Common Potoo is also present, I would bet that Vermiculated Screech-Owl is common, and Black and White should also be around.

Bird the road to the lodge: On the drive out, I realized that we should have spent some time on that road. Part of the track passes through old cocoa cultivations with big trees and there are a few streams. In other words, it looks excellent for a wide variety of lowland species and could be easily birded with a group, including at night. I hope to do just that both while guiding groups, and during bird surveys.

Most of all, enjoy your time at Bananito. The owners were very accommodating and friendly, if you don’t want to hike the trails, you can see a lot of good birds from from the lodge, and the knowledgeable, friendly local guides can bring you to sites to look for the jacamar and maybe even Red-fronted Parrotlet. Check out my eBird list from Saturday.

If you get tired of looking at lowland forest birds, Jurgen, one of the owners, also offers rides high above the lodge in a  gyrocopter!

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Birding Costa Rica migration

It’s Migration Time in Costa Rica!

Migration! For the birder, few other words work better at sparking a sense of excitement than that one. Ross’s Gull should, along with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Wilson’s Bird-of-Paradise, and a text that says, “Golden-winged Warbler seen this morning in Wales” but those are either target species or one-time mega jackpot birds. Migration, on the other hand, is the expected change of the seasons that brings equally expected waves of birds. Further excitement is brought to the equation by not exactly knowing where the birds will settle down but also realizing that flocks of wood-warblers just might be foraging in a nearby park. Best of all, you know that a few choice lost species are out there, somewhere in a 100 mile radius. You have to put in the hours to increase the odds along with getting super lucky to connect with them, and chances are you won’t. But, while looking, you will see lots of other species that only pass through your neighborhood during the short, birdy time frame of migration.

Thousands of Swainson’s Thrushes move through Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the birds that Buffalonians saw in September and August have just arrived in numbers. Many will stay, many will keep on going south to the subtropical forests of the Andes or wintering sites further south. When they pass through here, as elsewhere, thrushes, warblers, vireos, and tanagers gather at fruiting trees and feast on whatever bugs and larvae they can find. Given the heavy life-inducing rains experienced in Costa Rica in 2017, I bet that the migrants are well fed as they pass through my surroundings. It looked that way the past couple of days while I checked green space near the house. One fig laden with fruits has been acting as a constant smorgasbord for everything from Tennessee Warblers to Swainson’s Thrushes and Scarlet Tanagers sharing tree space with many Clay-colored Thrushes, Great Kiskadees, and Blue-gray Tanagers among other birds. Up above, a few species of swallows zoomed around to catch bugs associated with the fruit and were joined by occasional swifts (Vaux’s and Chestnut-collared so far). No cuckoos yet but they are out there, others have seen a few.

At night, I also listen to the sky, hoping to hear a Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Upland Sandpiper, and cuckoos (because I count heard birds on my year list). So far, it’s only been the Spring Peeper notes of many a Swainson’s but I will keep my ear to the sky. I doubt the cuckoos will call (I kind of doubt they call much during migration) but that doesn’t keep me from having their rattling, bubbling vocalizations in mind.

During the day, although my search for migrants has mostly been limited to the Central Valley, that will change soon during a weekend of guiding near the Caribbean coast. Down that way, while reveling in frequent views of common migrants like Red-eyed Vireo, Eastern Kingbird, pewees, and so on, I hope I can also connect with Bay-breasted Warbler, and less common migrants still needed for the year. There’s always a chance of finally espying a very rare for Costa Rica tail-wagging Palm Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Blue-Warbler, or some other lost bird, and I will be hoping to add Semiplumbeous Hawk and some other choice species to my year list. After the sojourn to the Caribbean, hopefully, during the following week, I can take a trip to the ocean on the other side of the country to see what’s happening with the shorebirds, terns, and other species that use the Gulf of Nicoya. If all goes as planned, these migration times will bring me very close to or put me over my year goal of 700 species. In the mean time, even if I don’t find a lost bird or two, it’s all good in the birding hood because I will still be seeing a heck of a lot- that’s just what happens when you are birding in Costa Rica.

Waders are a pleasant break from forest birding.

If you happen to be visiting Costa Rica during these migration times, please take the time to count the Tennessees and other not so exciting species (because you see them up north). It’s all valuable data and the more we know, the better we can give migrants what they need during their crazy biannual journeys.

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Birding Costa Rica south pacific slope Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Birding in Costa Rica around Ciudad Neily

Costa Rica might be a small country but that doesn’t stop it from hosting a variety of distinct habitats and areas inhabited by localized species. One such part of the country is the lowland area near the border with Panama. Historically, this low-lying area supported an avian cast similar to that of the nearby Golfo Dulce but as with many other flat areas on the planet, the lands near Ciudad Neily were largely deforested long before any talk of preservation. Patches of forest persist in riparian zones and at the base of the coastal mountain range but most of the region presently features oil palms, rice, or pastures for the cows.

Oil palms have some birds including occasional owls and potoos at night.

Although mature lowland rainforest would be more conducive to high biodiversity, the open country and wetlands near Ciudad Neily have provided habitat for some species more readily found in Panama. It makes for a bunch of additions to your Costa Rica list and is why many a tour pays a visit to sites near Neily. Given the five hour drive, I rarely make it down that way but thanks to recent guiding during a Birding Club trip, this year, I had the chance to get in some Neily birding and add several species to my 2017 list.

There are several options for accommodation but we stayed at FortunaVerde, a small, very affordable hotel with great service and a patch of forest with rare Central American Squirrel Monkeys. Although rain and lack of time kept us from properly exploring those woods, I bet they host a fair selection of lowland forest species. Two of the local targets, Crested Oropendola and Brown-throated Parakeet also flew by or frequented nearby trees every day along with Blue-headed Parrots, and Costa Rican Swift. I didn’t notice any other swifts but would be surprised if Spot-fronted and maybe even White-chinned didn’t also occur on occasion.

Tropical Mockingbirds were a constant at FortunaVerde.

For targeted birding, we checked a few different sites in the vicinity including the La Gamba-Esquinas area. Although it takes 35 minutes to drive there from Neily and you have to pass through a border checkpoint, the excellent birding there is worth the ride. Rain checked most of our birding but we still managed the target Rusty-margined Flycatcher at our first stop, heard a Uniform Crake, and got onto one brief endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. With better weather, 80 species in that one afternoon wouldn’t have been out of the question.

On the following day, we birded the Coto wetlands and rice fields near Ciudad Neily. As is usual for these sites, the birding was excellent and gave us nice views of local target species like Gray-lined Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, several Brown-throated Parakeets, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and other birds. No luck with any rare shorebirds but Upland, Buff-breasted, and others can occur and were probably hiding somewhere out there in the grass during our visit.

No Wattled Jacana this time but it was still fun to scan through dozens of whistling-ducks, herons, Glossy Ibis, and other wetland species while looking for them.

A roadside Fork-tailed Flycatcher was also a treat.

In the afternoon, we raced against rain in the area south of the hospital to see some birds. We got onto a few before heavy rain but eventually, the precipitation slowed and thanks to some local help, were able to scope a nesting Savannah Hawk.

Distant but identifiable!

We also got onto our first Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, a species that has become much more common at this site over the past few years.

It was also larger than I expected.

Given our afternoon birding in the rain, we hoped for better weather at the same site the following morning. The clouds were still there but the birds were very active and treated us to constant bino usage as we watched Pale-breasted Spinetails, the same Savannah Hawk, more Fork-tailed Flycatchers, many a Giant Cowbird, flocks of Red-breasted Blackbirds, Dickcissels, Tricolored Munias, more Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, and other species. No dice with Red-rumped Woodpecker but we sort of made up for it with a responding Paint-billed Crake (!). Like most of its kin, it almost came in close enough for good views but a few of us did catch fleeting glimpses of this rare, sweet target bird.

After listening and staring for the crake, we headed back for breakfast and the bird list but not before some final, close looks at a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

On my next visit, I hope to stay at the FortunaVerde Hotel again and check their forest while exploring the nearby wetlands. I was also happy to see that the roads we birded could also be done with a regular, small car. Please share your sightings from that area on eBird but don’t find Costa Rica’s first Crimson-backed Tanager before I do!