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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

Key Accommodation for Birding Costa Rica-Cerro Lodge

Costa Rica might be small in size but it’s big on biodiversity. Like jam-packed with life, actually. Leave the perimeter of the airport in the Central Valley and it doesn’t take more than an hour’s drive to reach cloud forest, or rainforest, or dry forest, or a combination of habitats with literally hundreds of bird species therein. The best junction of life-zones in this birdy country is directly south of San Jose, on the other side of the mountains, and offers everything from Great Tinamou to Roseate Spoonbill, five species of trogons, and more. Situated where rainforest meets dry forests that are divided by a river and adjacent seasonal wetlands, Carara National Park and vicinity is a goldmine for birds. Honestly one of the best sites for birding in Central America, this hotspot is a must for any birding or natural history visit to Costa Rica, a first time visitor will be in for some seriously mind-blowing birding (unless you don’t really care for a hundred of more lifers in a day), and there is no better place to base oneself than Cerro Lodge.

Scarlet Macaws frequently perch in trees at Cerro Lodge.

Located just west of the Tarcoles River and around seven kilometers from the national park entrance, Cerro is close enough to the park for quick access yet far enough to also offer a different suite of birds. Whereas much of the national park protects humid rainforest that provides a home for such key species as Black-hooded Antshrike, Baird’s Trogon, Red-capped Manakin, Riverside Wren, Scarlet Macaws, and much more, the lands around Cerro Lodge are a mix of tropical dry forest, pastures, second growth, and seasonal wetlands. Combine these two sites and the bird list grows to more than 400 species.

The view along the entrance road of the Tarcoles River and the rainforests of Carara National Park in the background. This is a good spot to see Scarlet Macaws and parrots in flight.

To give an idea of the major sort of birding involved around Cerro Lodge and Carara, during a typical day of guiding that starts at Cerro, follows with a a visit to the national park, and takes in a few other nearby sites, we often finish with 140 to 150 species. Sometimes more, and that includes a leisurely stop for lunch where we scan for a few seabirds!

Starting the birding at Cerro is a good way to enjoy breakfast while enjoying flybys of various parrots, parakeets, and Scarlet Macaws, occasional raptors that may include Crane Hawk and Gray-headed Kite, distant (sometimes closer) looks at the mega Yellow-billed Cotinga, Striped Cuckoo, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, and many other birds. Bird your way up the entrance road and a good variety of edge and dry forest species make it onto the list. Once you reach the national park, dozens of humid forest species are in store for the rest of the morning, and the more you bird the patches of forest, second growth, mangroves, and wetlands around Tarcoles and nearby, the more birds make it into your field of view. Although there are too many to mention, some of the choice species can include Olivaceous Piculet, mangrove birds, King Vulture, White Hawk, Yellow-naped Parrot, Fiery-billed Aracari, and Charming Hummingbird. It’s one of those areas where the more you bird, the more you really see because such a large number of species are possible.

Gartered Trogon

Even better, with reforestation efforts, the birding is also good enough right at Cerro Lodge to see a very good variety of species on the grounds and on the road in front of the lodge. Spend a day there and don’t be surprised to see Collared Forest-Falcon, White-necked Puffbird, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and Blue-throated Goldentail just outside your room.

Turquoise-browed Motmot

White-throated Magpie-Jay at the feeder. Feeder action varies throughout the year but sometimes sees visits by this species and Fiery-billed Aracari.

In addition to fine birding and photo opportunities at the lodge, other benefits of staying at this excellent birding lodge include:

  • Great service– Staff listens to guests and strives to meet their needs. Need breakfast early? Want to know when the owls are showing? ASk the staff.
  • Great meals– More than plenty of good food.
  • Air-conditioned rooms– Needed as Cerro Lodge is situated in one of the hotter parts of Costa Rica. 
  • Tour arrangements– The desk can arrange boat tours and other activities.
  • Pool– Nice to have when visiting with non-birding family or partners. This also shows the birding view from the restaurant.
  • Owls on site– Sometimes, Black-and-white Owls forage around the restaurant and near the cabins. They typically come out after eight p.m. Pacific Screech-Owl is also resident and Spectacled, Mottled, and Striped Owls also live nearby.

Having seen what Cerro has become since it opened, as with many a successful tourism venture, I can honestly say that the owner has taken the time to listen to the wants and needs of guests and has made substantial investments in changes accordingly. So far, the result has been a win for both the comfort of guests and the health of the ecosystem at the lodge.

Want to go birding at Cerro Lodge? Have any questions about target species and photo opportunities? Send me an email at information@birdingcraft.com, or leave a comment. I can answer your questions and set up your trip.

 

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Birding Costa Rica

Tips to Prepare for Global Big Day in Costa Rica, 2018

The golden birding month of May is just about here and I know of more than a few birders up north who must be giving a collective sigh of anticipated relief. April wanes and yet the snow keeps coming back, and as much as folks in upstate New York are accustomed to the cold white stuff, eventually, enough is enough. It might even snow up there in early May but birders know that by the 10th, the birds should be migrating through local patches throughout the eastern USA and southern Canada, accentuating the fresh green of new foliage with equally bright feathers and eager song.

In Costa Rica, we are also looking forward to May but not for migration. Some birds like Red-eyed Vireo and Eastern Kingbird will still be on the move but most will have already passed through the country by then. No, we are looking forward to one day in particular, that of May 5th, the official date when thousands of birders across the globe will be celebrating Global Big Day by counting birds and putting those data into eBird.

I have been pleased to see that a lot of birders in Costa Rica are eager and ready to bird in most parts of the country. Many posted their routes more than a month ago and organizers are still working to get more birders on board to see if we can record every possible species, and hopefully a few more! Although I haven’t worked out an exact route, I do plan on participating and will once again see if I can break 300 for the day. While working out the logistics, I thought of a few suggestions and tips for Global Big Day in Costa Rica. These might also be applicable to GBD everywhere or when birding in Costa Rica any time of the year:

Don’t feel obligated to bird for 24 hours

You can if you want but you don’t have to because there won’t be any secret birding police knocking on your door if you don’t begin the count at the stroke of midnight. Just bird as much or as little as you want but please put the data into eBird. However, if you do want to go nuts and lose yourself with birds beyond normal hours, there are one or two tips below that might help.

Scout if you can!

If you have time to scout your route, do so and as often as possible. Although those Golden-bellied Flycatchers that were always present for the past year can certainly take a silent vacation on count day, you will see more key birds if you scout for them. It’s also best to scout as close to count day as possible to know where fruiting and flowering trees are attracting hummingbirds, tanagers, and other count day delights. Not to mention, there might be some hidden wetland, roosting owl, or other chance at more birds that would otherwise be overlooked.

I want to get a Great Potoo for the day.

Make a plan and stick to it

If you plan on doing a serious Big Day or to shoot for a certain number of species, you really do need to carefully plan out the mad endeavor in advance. Take things like traffic, different habitats, and expected species into account, but most of all, be careful with the timing at each site and for driving between stops, and stick to those times on count day. If you stay longer for even ten minutes at a few sites, you won’t get those thirty or more minutes back. Allocate the appropriate amount of time for each stop as a function of the likelihood of identifying numbers of new species for the day and keep to the schedule whether the birds show or not!

Don’t fret the monklet

The Lanceolated Monklet is not exactly reliable. Even if you see one the day before the count, don’t expect the anti-social featherball hermit to come out and play when you need it. Just stick to a well planned schedule, don’t worry, enough birds will show. Other birds not to fret because they are either few in number and/or are seriously unfriendly include various raptors, antpittas, Yellow-eared Toucanet, owls, and Great Jacamar. Give the unseen birds the one finger salute if it makes you feel better but don’t waiver from the schedule.

Will anyone identify a monklet in Costa Rica this May 5th, 2018?

Practice Tai Chi birding

This doesn’t mean that you need to practice the Chen Canon Fist form or get meditative with Yang 108  while also watching birds. Although that would make for quite the interesting video, and I would be seriously impressed to see someone carry out the “Teal Dragon Emerges from Water” movement while also calling out a vocalizing Scarlet Tanager, “Tai Chi birding” just means putting the focus on listening and watching for birds in as relaxed a manner as possible. Maintaining a high degree of concentration in a relaxed state during an exciting, bird filled day could indeed be a challenge but I guarantee that the birders who manage to do this will notice that hidden potoo, pick out the Barred Hawk conspiring to be a standard Black Vulture, and get more birds. If it makes you feel better, or cooler (as in Fonzi cool), you can also refer to this as “Jedi birding”.

Coffee, chocolate, and champagne

Yeah, pretty much in that order. Make enough coffee for the day and some. Coca-Cola can also work but I prefer the java because it can be made as strong as one likes, and, based on all those Coca-Cola dissolving videos, must be better for you. Also, use quality coffee because this is a special occasion! Speaking of very special times, this is also why we want to celebrate throughout the GBD with serious chocolate. This means spending some extra Colones for extra dark chocolate bars that put the percentage of cocoa right on the front of the package, and staying away from the cheap, sugary perversions of the holy Mayan bean. Get the good stuff! It might help you see a monklet! Oh, and of course, once the counting is done, get out the bubbly stuff! That or some fine craft beers or whatever floats your boat as a celebratory drink, snack, or dance.

Enjoy it!

Most of all, enjoy GBD. Do it however you want and whatever way makes you most happy. The part I like the most is knowing that I am sharing the collective experience with thousands of other birders. I fricking love that.

 

Categories
biodiversity

The Most Endangered “Least Concern” Bird Species in Costa Rica

Just as with every place on the planet, this Mother Earth, Costa Rica has its own list of bird species endangered with extinction. On that list, we find such birds as the Yellow-naped Parrot (threatened by a nasty combination of habitat loss and capture for the pet bird trade), Yellow-billed Cotinga (habitat loss for that surreal beauty), and the Bare-necked Umbrellabird (yep, the big black bird with the pompadour also needs more habitat). Much of that list coincides with assessments made by BirdLife International however, there is one “new” bird that needs a new assessment by the world leader in bird conservation, and it needs it now.

Yellow-naped Parrot

The bird in question is the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. Formerly known as the Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow, this small brown bird with a fun, fancy face shares a common ancestor with the familiar Canyon and California Towhees of the western USA. In other words, it’s basically a tropical towhee. Given its evolutionary history and occurrence on coffee farms, I personally like the sound of “Coffee Towhee” for this striking sparrow. Not only does that place the bird where one often sees it, but it also invokes delicious thoughts of high quality volcanic brews, not to mention, the two words also just sound good together. Coffee Towhee also gives it more marketing potential, something that this bird really, truly needs. Perhaps that could be used in conjunction with “Comemaiz Rey” (King Sparrow), the local name for this species and one that also works to get people’s attention. Over at Birdlife, more good news in terms of marketing suitable names comes in the form of Costa Rican Ground-Sparrow, a moniker that might work best to help acquire funding to study and protect this endemic species.

Coffee Towhee

Yes, thanks to being split from the White-faced Ground-Sparrow of northern Central America, the towhee of the cafetales is our “newest” endemic, and although it doesn’t require mature forest, it nevertheless has a serious problem. Despite being a bird of scrubby vegetation, the ground-sparrow just happens to live exactly where most people in Costa Rica also reside. Always a bird of the Central Valley, it likely thrived in the combination of low woodlands and marshy, scrubby vegetation that covered much of the valley way back before the latter era of the Anthropocene. It showed its resilience as woodlands were replaced with rows of coffee plants, and continues to hang on in riparian zones, even in places where the sounds of traffic and presence of parking lots have become part of the natural scene. But, it hangs on in such places likely because it has nowhere else to go, and the bird isn’t exactly abundant there either. In fact, on another worrisome note, they are far from abundant anywhere.

As anyone who has birded any amount of time in Costa Rica can attest, this species is typically tricky to find, even in what seems to be appropriate habitat. Even taking skulking behaviors into account, based on years of experience, it appears to be honestly, truly uncommon and local in most of its very small range and has likely been declining for some time, especially with the steady conversion of its habitat into landscapes dominated by concrete and asphalt. Although the present assessment at Birdlife gives it a status of Least Concern, and that the bird is likely increasing, this just doesn’t jive with reality. In fact, the reasons given for the bird to not be included in the Red List don’t reflect what we see on the ground.

According to Birdlife,
“This species has a very large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation).”

Actually, it has a very small range (just 1,800 square km), its habitat is certainly declining in extent and quality, it has likely declined, and there seems to be severe fragmentation in various parts of an already small range).

“The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations).”

I really don’t think there are any data to support this, and, based on personal experience and in speaking with others, field observations seem to always run contrary to this assessment.

“The population size is very large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure).”

Given the tiny range and paucity of observations in the best of habitats, it seems highly unlikely that the population is very large and more than 10,000 individuals. For example, when I survey an area of coffee fields that have this species, the most I have encountered are 5 individuals on the best of days as opposed to 20 Rufous-collared Sparrows in the same area. Granted, I could only survey along the edge of those fields but even with extrapolation to account for birds in the entire field, it doesn’t seem likely that the area could support more than 30 individuals. Sadly, on a note that further demonstrates the precarious nature of this bird, this population was likely impacted since a fair part of that site was recently burned and might be cleared for other use.

These factors point to the need for a more accurate assessment of this endemic species, and why it is probably Vulnerable or even Endangered:

A very small range heavily impacted by urbanization.

Continued loss of habitat.

Impact by cowbirds, mostly Bronzed but maybe also by increasing numbers of Shiny (according to a study carried out by Stiles, this taxon was a preferred host for the cowbird).

-On the losing side of competition with White-eared Ground-Sparrow. A possible factor since Stiles and Skutch mention the White-eared being uncommon in forested ravines, the endemic ground-sparrow being common in coffee fields. For the past 15 years, White-eareds seem to be much more common in many coffee farms.

Predation by feral cats. Although assessment is needed, given the abundance of cats in areas frequented by this species, this is likely yet another contributing factor that limits population size.

Effects of pesticides. How does heavy pesticide use on coffee farms and other agricultural landscapes affect this species? An unknown but fewer prey items and unhealthy chemicals won’t do them any favors.

Fortunately, there are several people in Costa Rica who know how important it is to assess the status of this bird, including Ernesto Carman and Paz Irola of Get Your Birds! They actually have a Cabanisi project to help this endemic species that includes surveys for it and working with local farmers to educate and protect habitat. Soon, they will also be doing a Big Day to raise funds to help this bird species while also trying to break their own incredible Big Day record of 350 plus species! Click on the link to see how you can help protect Costa Rica’s newest endemic species, a bird that might actually be sliding closer to extinction.

This post is dedicated to Jenny Luffman, someone with whom I grew up with at Sacred Heart grade school in Niagara Falls, NY, and who died in an accident in 1998. She would have celebrated a birthday on April 8. She loved birds, if she had lived longer than her 20s, I dare say she would have become a birder, I think she always was and never knew it. She would have loved to have seen this ground-sparrow and many more. I hope that Jenny has been watching and laughing with the most beautiful of birds since the day of her passing.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills

Fun Birding in Costa Rica at Arenal Lodge

Arenal is the name of a volcano in northern Costa Rica that exploded some decades ago. After that initial fiery, geological shout-out, the inner furnaces of the mountain kept right on burning, and, in doing so, the resultant natural incandescence has acted as a beacon for tourism ever since. Add numerous hot springs, waterfalls, and other natural beauty to the local mix and La Fortuna has become quite the bustling place where people from various countries show off the latest in khaki shorts and sandals as they waltz down the limited thoroughfares of the town. A wide variety of accommodation is available there and nearby, and many have names that pay homage to the conical mountain that punctuates the view.

One such place is also one of the first to have offered rooms to folks looking for volcanic fun. A former Macadamia farm, the Arenal Lodge offers a perfect view of the volcano, nice rooms, and a cozy reception and dining area with beautiful wooden floors. But…birds? No, I have not forgotten that this is a birding blog, there are birds too! In fact, more than enough for this welcoming hotel to act as an excellent base to work from, or just stay at, while birding in Costa Rica around Arenal.

I had heard about some of the birds at the Arenal Lodge from friends who had done Christmas Counts there. The most interesting one was a possible Great Jacamar, in Costa Rica, a very rare bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. Since this iridescent beast of a bird also requires plenty of high quality habitat, its presence is a sign that lots of other feathered ones are also there (an umbrella species if you will). Although I didn’t hear or see one during a recent morning of guiding at the Arenal Lodge, we still had fun birding and I left the area feeling that it certainly has birding potential. That means that it’s worth visiting to look for the jacamar as well as lots of other uncommon and rare species. Many are likely present, these are some of my highlights and impressions:

Fine roadside birding– Upon entering the lodge grounds, guests then make their way up a lengthy road until they finally reach the rooms and reception. That road goes through old second growth, forested riparian zones, and open areas, all of which have lots of birds. We had more than 100 species during the morning, just along the road.

It was nice to see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat.

The road to Arenal Lodge.

Mixed flocks– As with many a site in Costa Rica, this one has some nice mixed flocks. Although I bet larger assemblages of birds occur on a regular basis, we were still pleased with bird groups that showed the likes of Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, honeycreepers, and tanagers, the best being the uncommon Rufous-winged Tanager.

Quality birdies– That is, birds that maybe aren’t seen as often or just look cool. Some of these were Zone-tailed Hawk, a heard Great Curassow, Crested Guans, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Black-crested Coquette, Spotted Antbird, Song Wren (and other members of the wren family), Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, toucans, and so on.

A good base for birding the Arenal area– If you feel like birding away from the lodge, the Peninsula Road and its Bare-crowned Antbirds and nunbirds are nearby, Fortuna is a short 15-20 minute drive, and other sites are within easy striking distance.

Although the Bare-crowned was too skulky for a shot, Great Antshrikes performed for the camera at a Peninsula Road antswarm.

Given the good birding, scenery, and beauty for a fair price, I would stay there while visiting Arenal. I hope to bird there again some time soon, hopefully to do some bird counts on the grounds and see if we can locate that Great Jacamar.

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