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Costa Rica Birding Update, January, 2018

Wind may shake the branches and rain may soak the ground but it won’t keep me from doing that birding stuff all day long. These days, in Costa Rica, that’s a fair motto to follow. Well, it’s not all that bad actually, just seems that way when you have this vacillation between heavy and light rain for several days. Stick with it, adapt to it, make use of plastic. The birds are still there, they still have to feed, and you will still see a lot.

Speaking of that, here is a brief summary of the latest trends and news in Costa Rica birding:

Sparrows So, the small brown birds with conical bills might not find themselves at the upper echelons of birding excitement up north, but here in Costa Rica, yeah, we get psyched about most sparrows. No, not the Rufous-collared, but other, much more difficult ones to add to our local lists. You know those common ones up in the temperate zone? You know, as in that trilling bird of open pine stands in state parks, or that other triller of the marshlands, or various other sparrows? Or, that one that breeds in boreal and highland bogs and is commonly seen in migration? Yeah, in Costa Rica, all are megas, this year, several folks have seen the latter bog bird at a site in Guanacaste. Much to my chagrin, it happens to be the same exact site where I was hoping to pish up a sparrow or two after finally making the lifer connection with the good old Spotted Rail in December. Either the Lincon’s Sparrows hadn’t arrived yet or they didn’t dig my pishing. No matter, they are there right now. Not that any visiting birder would want to see them but, in Costa Rica, a Lincoln’s Sparrow always makes birding news.

Not a sparrow, not even close, but I haven’t seen them so I’m posting a picture of a totally unrelated White-flanked Antwren instead.

Before I get off the sparrow topic, I should also mention that another lost little brown bird has also made it to our shores. In this case, a country first White-crowned Sparrow wintering in the Osa Peninsula. How a bird that breeds in the treeline tundra manages to survive in one of the more humid parts of Central America is both a mystery and serious testament to adaptability. So far so good, I hope it makes it back to northern Manitoba because it will have one hell of a story to tell! This Indiana Jones of sparrows would likely relate tales of surviving on bananas, seriously hot weather, the danger posed by various snakes, and that the number of mosquitoes was of course nothing compared to a high northern June.

Other odd winter birds– Speaking of lost sparrows, another bird that maybe went too far south also comes to mind. In fact, they might have even hailed from the same wolf and wind howling tundra as the sparrow, might have taken that same lost train way south. American Pipits, as common as they are in winter much to the north, are rare as heck in Costa Rica. One was seen earlier in the year on Cerro de la Muerte, now at least two have appeared in Guanacaste. So, it makes me wonder, are such birds of cold climes here because of the deep freezes that hit the north? Are they here every year? I suspect it’s a bit of both- birds like American Pipit and sparrows come to Costa Rica every year but we don’t find them because they are so few in number (and because most folks in their right mind don’t want to scour brushy, chigger crazy fields). Probability dictates that there are probably more out there. Please keep your eyes and mind open to sparrows and other birds that seem out of place, and report them ASAP to eBird so we can chase them.

Crested Guan- In Costa Rica, not in the last bit odd, even if it feeds in a palm, out in the open.

Cotingas at Arenal– Since you always have a chance of seeing esteemed members of this family at Arenal, it’s almost silly to mention this BUT since we all have a soft spot in our birding hearts for cotingas (that really means we need to very desperately see them), I also can’t help but mention that the umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga have been recently seen on the grounds of the Observatory Lodge. It’s not every day that this happens but it is a somewhat regular occurrence and always good to know. By the way, just to mention, did you know that the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is Endangered? Like not, you know, just hard to see but officially, seriously under mofo threat of going extinct? Yeah, just a filthy reminder about what “Endangered” means. According to Birdlife International, it’s even more likely to go extinct than the Vulnerable and crazier looking Long-wattled Umbrellabird. If we can reforest enough of the lowland areas that meet the foothills, we might be able to do our collective home a favor and remove the “Endangered” status from descriptions of this special bird.

Bold Sunbittern at Lands in Love– Last but far from least, recently, there was an especially bold Sunbittern at the Lands in Love hotel. That or it was seriously wishing that it could have been an egret. No skulking at the shady water’s edge for this one. Nope, it was standing out there in a large, muddy puddle catching tadpoles. Eventually, it did the right Sunbittern thing and moved to the edge. Then, it hung out there for an eternity, absolutely refusing to show its sunburst patterned wings no matter how close it was approached, nor how many photos were taken.

I wasn’t making this up.

Cope’s Place– The bird haven of artist/naturalist Jose Perez just keeps getting better. In addition to the usual roosting Spectacled and Crested Owls, a damn Rufous-winged Tanager was coming to the feeder a few weeks ago, someone took a fricking amazing picture of a perched Black Hawk-Eagle, and he also knows (once again), a spot for a roosting Great Potoo.

Many other things could be said about birds in Costa Rica but it’s mostly what you might expect- lots of great birding just about everywhere you go, awesome feeder action, dozens of hummingbirds, quetzals, you probably get the picture. If not, come on down and get the experience.

 

 

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What Happens with Birding in Costa Rica When the Rain Stops

Right now, in Costa Rica, the classic dry season has been evasive. As the sky clouds over just as it did during June, and the rains begin to fall, it almost feels like the whole usual dry season thing has been waived. Cold fronts continue to arrive and subsequently douse the country with Atlantic showers while a “Nina” effect over in the Pacific has only added to the wet situation. Despite the umbrella test, there are good things associated with this. High biodiversity is correlated with high rainfall and that makes for more birds. It’s one of the main reasons why so many species occur in Costa Rica.

It can be a challenge to find them under varying degrees of precipitation but what’s a birder gonna do? It’s part of the local birding scene and when the clouds take a lunch break, the birds suddenly come out to play. Get enough of those breaks and you can get into some stellar birding, especially when high rainfall earlier in the year encouraged the trees and bushes to grow lots of bird friendly fruit. Seriously, it’s a smorgasbord out there right now, the tanagers, manakins, thrushes, trogons, and toucans are going to feed whether it rains or not.

Need fruit.

When the sun eventually does come out, there seem to be certain birds that take advantage of the sudden bloom of warmth and UV rays. Yesterday morning at El Tapir, a client and myself bore witness to what can happen when the rain finally comes to a stop and the sun, unhindered by clouds, punctuates the sky. At first, there was little activity, as if the birds were still numbed by the constant falling of water, still in denial that the rain had stopped. A few wrens and some other birds vocalized, a pair of Mealy Parrots fluttered overhead but pretty quiet otherwise. However, while the birds of the forest slowly came back to life, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were racing around the garden. Judging by their frantic behavior (even for hummingbirds), it seemed like they hadn’t eaten quite enough in days. Or maybe they just didn’t get their fill of nectar? Whatever the case, they were drinking from the Verbena flowers as if they were participants in some avian Bacchus festivities. Unfortunately, they didn’t invite any other hummingbirds to the party and took great efforts to bounce any potentially crashing woodnymph, Snowcap, or Violet-headed.

Dressed for the party, still denied entrance. Name’s not down, not coming in.

It took a while but the Rufous-taileds seemed to eventually get their fill (or became too inebriated) and as the sun took over the garden space, a couple other hummingbird species braved the post party scene. One of the most cooperative was a male Black-crested Coquette.

Gasp!

As is typical with coquettes, the male chose to perch on a bare twig for extended periods of time before carefully flying down to drink from the Verbena. Much to our satisfaction, this particular exquisite beauty preferred to feed on a bush right in front of us.

It was interesting to note that as the coquette fed, the Rufous-taileds seemed to be more concerned with chasing a female woodnymph and a Violet-headed Hummingbird. It was as if they didn’t notice the coquette as the smaller hummingbird slowly moved in and out of the flowering bushes, pumping its tail up and down the entire time.

As we enjoyed the coquette show, a few raptors eventually took advantage of thermals created by the sun to fly high over the garden.

The venue.

As it turned out, the Black-crested Coquette was just the headliner for the main act.

The first on stage was an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle. It called so loudly, I expected to see it floating just over the canopy but no, it was already high above the forest, fooling the eyes into thinking they were seeing something as small as an Accipiter or a dainty kite. The eagle called over and over, it was as if it couldn’t help itself, singing because it could finally soar up and reach those heights again after a repressive bout of cool weather and constant rain. Alive again! Like there was nothing else in its world, it yelled into the skies above the forest, fluttered its wings and made shallow dives, displaying over a busy road for all who felt like peering into the high blue sky. Once, I swear it did a barrel roll, vocalizing the entire time.

As the eagle continued with its expression of exuberant defiance, next on the list were a pair of Barred Hawks. These broad-winged, short-tailed raptors gave their gull-like vocalizations as they soared into view. They continued to make circles up above the forest until they reached a point where they also began to display by soaring in tandem, calling the entire time.

One of the Barred Hawks, looks like it found some food that morning.

While this raptor fest was going on, a pair of King Vultures also soared into view, not as close as the hawks but still within eyeshot to appreciate their bold, black and white pattern. They seemed to be displaying as well, one bird almost flying into the other one and then close tandem flight, like the other raptors, taking advantage of a beautiful, new day.

It might rain a lot but it eventually stops. When it does, the sun’s coming out something good is going to happen, the time comes for action. Whether you be a Spizaetus or a birder, be ready to make your move and catch the lightbridge found in that window of respite.

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Cold Front Birding in Costa Rica at Arenal Observatory Lodge

Polar vortices don’t reach as far south as Costa Rica but that doesn’t negate their effect. The icy fingers of the latest freeze up north have touched enough air masses to push some of the cold stuff down this way. It’s way too far south for any substantial amount of snow or ice but we do get cool temperatures and, most of all, sort of ridiculous amounts of rain. These aren’t the typical reliable tropical thunderstorms where one can bird all morning and take a nap accompanied by the soothing sound of falling rains in the afternoon. Nope, more like a near constant barrage of falling water that goes from light to heavy to mist in wave after trying wave.

Yeah, like how do you watch birds with conditions like that? What happened to the dry season? Patience and perseverance are key to birding success in such wet times as these, as for the dry season, in January that has always been more of a Pacific slope thing anyways. The funny thing about the dry season in Costa Rica is that it’s not really the dry season for the entire country. While the rains don’t happen on part of the Pacific slope, it has always been another story for the Caribbean and during cold fronts, the rains soak the waterways of the mountains and lowlands that flow to the Atlantic basin.

The water that falls on Arenal Volcano heads to the Caribbean and during a cold front, its slopes catch a lot of that moisture. Recently, while guiding four fellow birders from New York state, I was witness to the effects of a cold front. Despite the frightening prospect of near constant rain, we actually had more good birding news than bad. It did not end up raining the entire time and we still connected with several nice targets during birding at the Observatory Lodge and the Peninsula Road. Some hits, misses, and observations:

Take advantage of the buffet breakfast– Yes, seriously, and this worked in our favor because we could start birding at dawn, take a break at 8:20 to stock up on gallo pinto, cheese rolls, and other food, and then continue right on through lunch.

Antbirds played well– Continuing the birding on through lunch is especially important when it might rain for the rest of the afternoon, and many of the target species require an investment of birding time. We would not have seen our target antbirds if we had not stayed out there on the Hormiga and Saino Trails post breakfast. We got looks at Dull-mantled, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated at an antswarm. It started raining shortly thereafter just as we were about to see a Thicket Antpitta. Over on the Peninsula Road the following morning, we heard several Bare-crowned and had brief looks at one or two.

A Spotted Antbird from another trip to the Arenal area.

The White Hawk Villa really does have White Hawks– If you want lots of space, stay at the villa! Although we didn’t take advantage of all that extra floor space to throw a White Hawk dance party, we did have excellent looks at the signature raptor species.

Cotinga dip– No, we did not make finger foods out of shiny birds. Birders will know that we barely missed seeing a cotinga in the morning, missed again that afternoon, and then did not see it the following morning. Ouch. Serious ouch to see pictures of the male Lovely Cotinga from the day before and then the day after we left. No senor Cotinga, you were not supposed to take a day off from that fruiting fig.

Cracids, tanagers, and toucanets still come out in the rain– Or, at least in cloudy conditions. Great Curassows walked the grounds, Crested Guans posed and made weird honking noises (the local version of a goose?), chachalacas appeared, several tanagers showed including Emerald, and we couldn’t help but see another Yellow-eared Toucanet!

Female Yellow-eared Toucanet at the Casona. The fourth for the trip, you would think these were reliable!

The Black and White Owl is still there– One of these beauties frequently feeds at a light at the entrance to the Casona at the Observatory Lodge. Much to our delight, it was there during our visit as well.

A few other dips but a few other good birds too– We couldn’t escape the rain entirely and it likely resulted in us missing seeing that antpitta, and finding Song Wren, Nightingale Wren, and a few other birds. But, we did see a distant soaring Great Black Hawk, saw a roosting Great Potoo, got our Keel-billed Motmot, and at the last second of guiding, White-fronted Nunbird!

I went back there later that day with a friend and the nunbirds were still there, this time doing imitations of kingbirds.

We also had more views of the star motmot.

Unfortunately, more cold fronts in Costa Rica are expected due to a cold water Nina effect in the Pacific. Be ready for rain but if you are also ready to persevere, you can still see a lot.

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Now is a Good Time to See Yellow-eared Toucanet in Costa Rica

At times, the number of birds on the Costa Rica list seems endless. Although some websites mention a robust 850 plus species, actually, the total has grown a fair bit since the list was pegged at that number. Some new birds were expected, some weren’t, but in any case, at the moment, the official list stands at more than 920 species, one of which was added just the other day (Great Black-backed Gull in Tortuguero!).

With such a large number of birds, we can also expect a fair number to be rare or hard to find. As anyone who has tried to see Tawny-faced Quail, Gray-headed Piprites, or Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica can tell you, this is indeed true. Those three and several other species can be pretty tough whereas quite a few others are just plain uncommon. The uncommon ones are the birds that frequently escape detection on brief trips or even when you only have one day to bird a site. Check that same area over three days and you have a much better chance at connecting with the uncommon and secretive ones but who has the time for that when you have other sites to get to and just ten days to work with?

At the end of the day, this means that whether a birder resides in Costa Rica or visits once a year, he or she always has the chance to see new birds, at least for their country list. One species that frequently escapes detection during an average tour is the toucan species that most folks still need after two or even three trips to Costa Rica. The lack of a check (or tick in Brit-birder lingo) next to its name derives from its decidedly reclusive behavior, likely low density population, and often inaccessible foothill forest home.

Unlike bold toucan species that yelp and rattle from exposed perches, the toucanet with the yellow ears clacks from the shady depths of tall rainforest trees. It rarely if ever ventures into the open and would rather stay quiet than demonstrate any degree of vocal capability. In other words, a real stickler to see but there’s good news! When certain types of trees are fruiting, this species can’t help its hunger and lingers for as long as the tree provides the banquet. Lately, in foothill forests, those very trees have been laden with purple, round fruits, and the toucanets have come out to dine.

This male was with a female on the Ceiba trail at Quebrada Gonzalez.

The other day, despite near constant rain, we had three different Yellow-eared Toucanets at such fruiting trees in Quebrada Gonzalez, and we weren’t the only ones to have soul satisfying looks at this local mega. Other birders have also been reporting and posting fantastic pictures of the toucanet from the Arenal area. Since I am headed there soon, it will interesting to see if we find more of this fine bird species. Whether we see more toucanets or not, it will still be worth it to watch those clumps of purple fruits because they look just as delectable for umbrellabirds and other birds, maybe even a lovely bright blue and purple one.

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Recent Birding at El Tapir Costa Rica

According to the calendars on my computer, iPad and around the house, another year has started. On December 31st, I was also made aware of this fact by way of a flurry of small, controlled explosions that went off just around midnight. I wasn’t up on purpose, I was attempting to sleep or at least get enough rest to guide the following morning. The good thing is that whether because I had gotten enough rest or because of exhilaration at starting a new year list, fortunately, I did not feel exhausted on January first, 2018. I birded/guided all day long and lists at the end of the day included a bunch of quality species.

We started at El Tapir, right at dawn. No bat-like silhouettes of Short-tailed Nighthawks appeared but we made up for that with these and other highlights:

First birds were small hummingbirds: But wait, aren’t all hummingbirds on the smaller end of things? Well, yes, but if we were the same size as a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Violet Sabrewings might look as big as a Clydesdale, whereas Snowcaps would be sort of like Hobbits. I know, given the unkempt, hairy feet, and hole-dwelling behaviors, probably not the fairest of comparisons. But, when you consider the need for a second or third breakfast, maybe not so far from the mark…

Black-crested Coquette was one of the very first species we saw.

This was quickly followed up by views of Green Thorntail and Snowcap.

Ant swarm in the garden: Bicolored Antbirds called from the edge of the forest and the open areas played host to a few Wood Thrushes, Buff-rumped Warblers, and even Passerini’s Tanagers intently peering at the ground. A closer look revealed a partially hidden carpet of ravenous ants. Yes! Most people  might balk or reach for the Raid when hearing “ants” “swarm” and “garden” in the same sentence. Not us birders and especially not in Costa Rica because an antswarm in the garden means serious bird activity and photo opps. Although the true antbirds stayed in the shade of forest or a hedgerow, we did get looks at Bicolored and one stellar Ocellated Antbird.

Always stunning!

The small toucan with yellow ears: The other toucans in Costa Rica have normal ears. This one’s are yellow and it’s the one that we all want to see. Unlike its boisterous relatives, the Yellow-eared Toucanet is a much more stealthy creature. Usually seen in pairs, it creeps through the canopy of foothill and middle elevation rainforest as it searches for fruiting trees and small animals. Sort of like a ninja. Come to think of it, its mostly black plumage also makes it look a bit like an avian ninja. Well, then again, maybe not it’s still a champ at avoiding detection. That’s why watching one at El Tapir on the first day of the year was a major win in the realm of autonomous challenges.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager: Is it a shrike? How about a tanager? It’s actually sort of both- a tanager that has a shrike-like bill but also acts like a flycatcher. I know, like what on Earth is going on here? To top off the weirdness, shrike-tanagers also make lots of noise. Like the toucanet, this bird is another mature forest snob. You gotta venture into the old woods to see the White-throated Shrike-Tanager. It was very nice to encounter three or four at El Tapir.

Other tanagers: In Costa Rica, foothill rainforests are also where the other tanagers roam. Hard to think of a better way to start the year than watching a colorful display that included Emerald, Speckled, Black and yellow, Tawny-crested, and Silver-throated tanagers among other species.

If you see an Emerald Tanager in good light, please feel free to gasp.

It was a great first day of the year, especially when we ended it with an afternoon of Great Green Macaws, Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, trogons, and Broad-billed Motmot in the Sarapiqui area. Are you birding in Costa Rica? Wishing you a Snowy Cotinga and lots of other birds in 2018!