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!