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Five Tips for Better Birding in Costa Rica, December, 2017

Another end of the year is nigh. Although the keeping of time is a subjective endeavor, putting a name to the end of another solar cycle is still a good excuse to get in more birding. I know, like any of us birders require a reason to put the focus on birds. We do it anyways, most of the time, so why try and get more busy with digging nature now? Although we don’t really need to watch more birds now than say June, with Christmas counts on the near horizon and year lists coming to an end, I guess we just better get out there and put the binos to an end of year, smash bang kung-fu birding test!

Test them on a Double-toothed Kite.

If you happen to be in Costa Rica these days, there are few better excuses to carry on with some non-stop birding. Literally hundreds of species await including more than a few with some seriously fancy looks. Here are five tips to see more of those cool birds in Costa Rica right now:

The Arenal Christmas Count– Ok, so you need to see this blog tonight or tomorrow to make it happen but if you are in Costa Rica on November 30th and want to participate in an awesome count in a super birdy area this weekend, contact the count organizers now at conteoavesarenal@gmail.com I’m going and I can’t wait to see what we find. Hopefully a rare migrant warbler or two (although I guess I would trade them for a Crested Eagle).

Visit Cope– Some time with Cope is especially well spent if you are into photography. If not, roosting owls, fine feeder displays, and a chance to purchase excellent bird art might also float your boat. Since he is in the lowlands, and the lowlands have lots of trees in fruit right now, there’s always the chance that Cope also has some good frugivores staked out.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique at Cope’s.

Hire a guide for a day trip– If you don’t have a guide for the entire time, consider hiring one for a day or two. If he or she is experienced, you will see more birds than on your own and a better chance at more of your target species.

Don’t shy away from “new” sites– There are a lot of good birding sites in Costa Rica, “hotspots” if you will, and some are on par with or even better than more established birding locales. Keep in mind that although eBird gives an indication of what can be found at a site, places that have been eBirded much more also tend to have more species on their lists. This doesn’t mean that those sites shouldn’t be visited or anything like that, but just to keep in mind that some of those species might have been more common in the past. The more birding that takes place in an area, the more species also eventually make it onto the list. I guess the only thing I’m really trying to say with this ramble is to not be afraid to check out spots off the regular birding circuit. If the habitat is there (lots of primary forest), that’s where the best birding is. Some sites that come to mind are Albergue del Socorro, the Finca Luna Nueva area, Volcan Tenorio, and Laguna del Lagarto.

Hit different elevations– When birding in Costa Rica, it’s well worth it to include sites or visits to the lowlands, foothills, middle elevations, and high elevations. Each elevational section has different habitats and forests with different birds. Leave one of those elevations out of the birding picture and you eliminate chances of seeing whole suites of bird species.

Purple-throated Mountain-gem awaits in middle elevations.

I hope those five tips help your birding trip to Costa Rica, especially if you can go to the count on Saturday! If I don’t see you there, I hope to see you somewhere else in the field. To learn more about birding sites throughout Costa Rica as well as how to see more birds, see my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Three Days of Birding in Costa Rica

Go birding in Costa Rica and there will be birding highlights. With so many possibilities, it’s a given no matter how many times a birder has been here. A first trip will, by nature, be nothing but high points from start to finish whereas folks with challenging targets can enjoy trip highlights by going to the right places and hiring a knowledgeable guide. For someone who has been birding in this country for several years, the highlights can come in the form of rare migrants, personal bogey species, antswarm action, or whatever happens to float your birding boat.

For me, most of all, highlights take the form of helping people see their targets. I also enjoy watching, listening to, and experiencing pretty much every bird I come across but the excitement is at its best when people I am with see their first quetzal, when a Yellow-breasted Crake creeps into the open, or when a seasoned guide adds one more key species to their life list. My lifers in Costa Rica may be hard to come by but the highlights still happen every time I go birding, especially when I am guiding. These are some of my highlights from three recent days of guiding in Costa Rica:

During a visit to Cope’s place, close looks at a bunch of birds are always nice, especially when some of those are usually living 100 feet above the ground.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique at eye level was really nice. 

Several other birds also showed including American Pygmy Kingfisher and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer but the best highlights might have been the views of roosting Crested and Spectacled Owls.

Roosting owls are sort of like seeing ten lifers at once. 

At El Tapir, Snowcap is always a treasure but the golden highlights of a female Black-crested Coquette were especially cool. I think they even trumped the brief views of a Tiny Hawk from that same morning. King Vulture and high flying Ornate Hawk-Eagles were also awesome.

This is an Ornate Hawk-Eagle hiding in plain sight.

Tanagers at the San Luis Canopy were fantastic. Constant close views were the best live show and included super close looks at Emerald, Bay-headed, Speckled, and other species.

One of several Emerald Tanagers.

Coppery-headed Emerald at Cocora Hummingbird Garden is expected but the glowing plumage of the male is always a treat. So were several other hummingbird species there.

On Cerro Lodge Road, good looks at a Collared Forest-Falcon were a fine way to start the birding day. This was followed up by patches of dry forest ringing with the calls of various species including the barking notes of Gray-headed Kite, the train whistle calls of Turquoise-browed Motmot, and the tooting of Ferruginous Pygmy-Owls. We saw a couple of those species along with several others.

In Carara National Park, a close Great Tinamou was memorable and many other birds showed including small flocks of White-shouldered Tanagers, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, manakins, and other species. However, the best highlight may have been the final one, an antswarm accompanied by Gray-headed Tanagers, Bicolored Antbirds, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, and a couple of Tawny-winged Woodcreepers– for myself, year bird #704.

Too many highlights to mention during three days of wonderful birding in Costa Rica. Imagine how many happen during two weeks of birding in Costa Rica?

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes and Ensenada

Costa Rica is so replete with birding hotspots, it can be a challenge to pick sites for a birding trip. If you have only a week or two to work with, you might be better off making a top ten target list and going from there. My Costa Rica bird finding e-book provides all the necessary information to plan and carry out a successful birding trip to Costa Rica, I often visit the sites mentioned in that 700 page publication, including last weekend while guiding a trip to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge.

Situated on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Nicoya north of Puntarenas, these sites and the general vicinity make for excellent birding grounds. The roads that lead to Chomes, Punta Morales, Abangares, and other settlements access a mix of riparian groves punctuated with massive old growth trees, open fields, second growth, patches of forest, and coastal habitats. As one might surmise, this translates to a healthy supply of dry forest species, shorebirds, and some aquatic birds. The size of the area and lack of birding coverage also adds excitement to every visit. Bird around there and who knows, you might come across an Aplomado Falcon (someone had one last month), find a roosting owl or two, wintering painted buntings, mangrove specialties, maybe even a Jabiru (one has been recently visiting a wetland just down the road from Ensenada).

It’ always a worthwhile area for exploration, but if you only have a couple days to work with, a birder can’t go wrong by sticking to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge. The road in to Chomes often has Harriss’s Hawk, Double-striped Thick-knee, and other dry forest species, whereas Ensenada offers up a nice mix of species associated with dry forest, mud flats, and open country. These are some of the highlights from this past weekend:

Cave Swallow!: November seems to be a good month to connect with this rare but regular migrant. We had one mixed in with several Barn Swallows perched on a wire just before the village of Chomes, and two days later, I also caught a glimpse of a probable Cave Swallow at Ensenada. It will be interesting to see if more show up a month from now in those same areas. On a side note, I was surprised to see how well the Cave Swallow blended in with the Barns. In substandard light and from the front, its orange-buff throat made it look much more like a Barn than I expected.

An excellent year bird!

Raptors: The 21 species of hawks, kites, falcons, and owls that we saw or heard show that the general area (especially Ensenada) is prime raptor habitat. Our best species were Crane Hawk (seen both days at Ensenada), Hook-billed Kite (a juvenile at Chomes and Ensenada), and Northern Harrier– a high flying rare migrant. Oddly, we did not have one of the more common raptors in that area- Roadside Hawk! That, or I can’t recall if we saw one because it’s a common, expected bird. In addition to Black Vulture, this is our list-

Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Hook-billed Kite
Northern Harrier
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Gray Hawk
Crane Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Common Black-Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon (heard only)
Laughing Falcon (also heard only)
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
Barn Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Pacific Screech-Owl
Mottled Owl (heard only)

One of the Hook-billed Kites we saw.

This and a second Zone-tailed Hawk entertained us at the salinas.

Common Black-Hawks are expected in coastal habitats.

Pacific Screech-Owl: This one deserves a second mention because it’s so common around Ensenada. I think I heard five from the lodge at night, and we saw two roosting birds right next to the restaurant during the day.

Hello owl!

Shorebirds: The shrimp and salt ponds in the area are important, excellent habitat for a variety of shorebirds. Although we didn’t see any Facebook breaking rarities, watching hundreds of Westerns, Semi Sands, Semi Plovers, Black-bellys, Wilson’s, Greater Legs, dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, and a handful of knots at Chomes is perpetually priceless. Seeing flocks take to the air at the sign of a juvenile Peregrine is even better! At Ensenada, we added Surfbird, Ruddy Turnstone, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Yay shorebirds! 

Spot-breasted Orioles: Ensenada is indeed an excellent site for this uncommon species. Their cheery songs filled the air at dawn and we saw several right next to the lodge. In fact, the vicinity of the lodge seemed to be the best area for them.

One of the several Spot-breasteds we saw.

Ensenada Lodge: The lodge itself merits a mention. I truly enjoyed staying there; the cabins were clean, comfortable, and the fans worked to keep things cool. The food was delicious, the surroundings birdy, and a cute little porcupine waddles right through the restaurant every evening!

Can’t complain about the view either.

Breaking 700 for the year: As a personal highlight, this weekend helped me surpass 700 species for 2017. That came in the form of a single American Oystercatcher flying over the waters of the Gulf. 701 was the harrier that flew overhead. I really wanted to hit 700 in 2017, now that I have, I don’t have to worry about chasing a Blackpoll Warbler that was recently seen in San Jose.

If you visit Ensenada, please mention your best bird in the comments. This was our list from Saturday.

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Birding Costa Rica lowlands

Wonderful Birding in Costa Rica at Hotel de Campo, Cano Negro

Last weekend, I helped count birds at Cano Negro, a wildlife refuge in northern Costa Rica just south of Lake Nicaragua. It was a wonderful, birdy time that included sightings of more than 20 species of raptors, Nicaraguan Grackle, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, and Yellow-breasted Crake among other highlights. Since the wetlands and forested areas of Cano Negro always make for excellent birding, constant encounters of the avian kind were pretty much expected but what we didn’t count on was sleeping in comfort during the weekend of the count. On many an occasion, bird counts in Costa Rica include a couple nights on a mattress or cot in a room shared with a bunch of other excited birders. That’s alright, especially if you are young and full of energy, but a bit later in life, a comfortable bed in quiet surroundings is pure gold. This is why Robert, Susan, and I were pleased indeed to be staying at the Hotel de Campo .

The entrance to the wildlife refuge is at the Cano Negro village, a small place with a few streets, some houses, one bar, two small supermarkets (where you can thankfully find ice!), and not much else. That “not much else” is a good thing because it’s partly why the area has so many birds but it also means that there are very few places in the village where you can get a bite to eat and stay for the night. The Hotel de Campo provides both and when you stay there, you also support reforestation while treating yourself to nice photo and birding opportunities along with some fine Italian food.

The owner, Mauro, told me that while they were building the hotel, they also planted several trees and basically reforested areas around the hotel. These same spots now provide homes for Cinnamon and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers along with other lowland forest species like this Slaty-tailed Trogon and even Uniform Crake (try their botanical garden across the street from the hotel)!

Thanks to multiple fruiting trees in the hotel gardens, dozens of birds are usually present including the likes of Gray-headed Chachalaca, trogons, Brown-hooded Parrot and other parrots and parakeets. The close looks make for great photos and the two regional specialties, Gray-headed Dove and Spot-breasted Wren are also present and easy to see.

One of the Gray-headed Doves at Hotel de Campo. This species is much, much easier to see in Cano Negro than other parts of the country.

When you tire of admiring beautiful Red-legged Honeycreepers and various other species on the hotel grounds, you can also walk down to the lagoon and see if any Jabirus are around. Those mega storks visit on occasion (mostly in the dry season) whereas species like Green Ibis, herons, Bat Falcon and many other birds are more regular. Not to mention, there is the nearby refuge itself that provides chances at Sungrebe, kingfishers, crakes, Snowy Cotinga, and an overall fine selection of birds to be seen from a small boat and from a new, tall, sturdy observation tower.

The view from the tower.

Hotel de Campo can arrange boat trips and fishing in the refuge and other activities. Enjoy a cold drink in their nice bar at the end of the day along with the air conditioned room (a welcome treat in hot humid Cano Negro) but don’t forget to head back out at night to see Pacific Screech Owl that lives in the garden and to look for Great Potoo, Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and Black-and-White Owl on roads near the village. All of these are possible and regular in the area!

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations Where to see birds in Costa Rica

A Fine Morning on Irazu and Other Birding News for Costa Rica

Irazu is a volcano that dominates the eastern skyline of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. If you didn’t already know that a big old crater was hidden up there on top, it would be hard to imagine that the mountain out there to the east is actually a link to the molten underworld. From my back window, all I can see is a rocky massif topped with antennas and it looks so close I wish I could fly to it right from my back window. On hot days, I would swoop high over the winding mountain roads, small farms, and houses to cool off at those breezy 3,000 plus meter elevations. It would be especially nice to glide over there in the dark of the night to hang out with the saw-whets sans spots and investigate the whereabouts of Great Horned Owl and maybe even Stygian Owl. The Great Horned is mysterious and very rare in Costa Rica but has been heard up there on Irazu. As for the Stygian, that would be a major new mega country record and extension of its known range but who knows, there are a few tantalizing reports from Irazu.

The first wonderful thing about Irazu is that the volcano is in sleep mode. The second wonderful thing is that you don’t need wings to pay a visit. There is a very good road that leads right up to those antennas and an official national park. Head up there and you can see for yourself that there is indeed a deep crater up on top. Bring binoculars and you will also find that the birding is replete with a bunch of high elevation endemics including two key ones in the paramo; the Timberline Wren and the Volcano Junco.

The junco always looks as angry as an active volcano.

Although you can’t find either of those species anywhere other than in the paramo habitats of Costa Rica and western Panama, they still aren’t exactly abundant. They eventually show but it might take a bit to find them, recently, I did that with a few friends and ornithologists visiting Costa Rica for a Partners in Flight Conference. The junco played well by sitting on a leaf right behind our cars but as usual, it took a little while to find the wren. However, we eventually did and all got nice looks at the highland endemic.

But that wasn’t all we saw on Irazu.

Lower down, in bits of forest near the Noche Buena restaurant, we got great looks at the rufous morph Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that has been showing well since September, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, and some other highland species. Although several of the more common birds refused to show (and activity was rather quiet overall), we also got looks at one of the rarest species on the mountain (and in many parts of its range). That special bird was a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, a female that called from a perch in a riparian zone. A small population of doves are always up there, and as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours demonstrated earlier this year, you don’t need bamboo to see them. However, you do need that trio of factors typically required for many a shy bird-  time, patience, and luck.

The other great bird for me was the other year bird I got, a beautiful little Townsend’s Warbler. As for other birding news, over at Lago Angostura and Casa Tuirire, a Wattled Jacana has been entertaining local twitchers. I’m dying to twitch it for the country myself, I just hope it stays long enough so I can do that! While looking at the jacana, other good birds have also turned up, notably Pinnated and Least Bitterns along with the expected Snail Kite and a few other nice species.

On the Pacific side, the nefarious Masked Duck has been showing somewhere in the Coto area near Ciudad Neily. With luck, I might finally see this major nemesis bird of mine this weekend during a bird count at Cano Negro. If I do, should I give it the finger as some other birders do? I doubt I will do that. Instead, I might just give it the cold shoulder and pretend to ignore it.

And the last bit of birding news is the big Bay-breasted Warbler wave that has been inundating Costa Rica. We knew we were seeing a lot at Selva Bananito two weeks ago but we didn’t know that everyone else was also seeing a lot on that weekend and since then even in San Jose! A few days ago, Bay-breasted were even seen foraging on the paths of the university campus like sparrow wannabees.

If you are headed to Costa Rica in the coming days, enjoy the birding, it’s going to be good, especially with the cool temps we have been experiencing. Learn how to see, find, and identify the birds of Costa Rica with my e-book-How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.