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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Changes to the Costa Rica Bird List – Plus One, Minus Two

Recently, the North American birding community had some exciting news. No, not the appearance of an Ivory Gull or super rare owl in someone’s backyard that then posed for a suite of photos taken by each and every birder that showed up. No, because that sort of thing is typically relegated to the realm of the birding dream. Oddly enough, the news in question doesn’t have anything to do with bird sightings yet it still acts as on of the more important and anticipated pieces of information of the birding year. This coveted publication becomes available to birders on an annual basis, and oh how the serious (aka obsessed) among us look forward to the news. Those of us who keep lists and are extra concerned about bird identification can’t wait to see the publication, the big news of the year, because it tells us whether or not we will be upping the life list with armchair ticks or subtracting from it by ways of the dreaded lump.

The Northern Emerald Toucanet was one of those sweet armchair ticks from a previous supplement.

As any birder in the know must have surmised, I’m talking about the AOU supplement to the checklist for the birds of North America. Although the checklist is already established, thanks to occasional species additions to the list (by way of adventurous or mal-adapted birds that fly in from Asia, Europe, or South America), and studies that assess and elucidate the evolutionary histories of everything from tyrant-flycatchers to foliage-gleaners and Yellow-rumped Warblers, changes to the list are inevitable and happen each and every year.

In Costa Rica, since our local national list almost always tracks changes made to the AOU list, we likewise need to keep up on the proposals for name changes, splits, and lumps that have been accepted. In 2018, thanks to a double lump and one split, many of us are going to be subtracting one bird from our Costa Rica lists. Ouch. This will affect Big Days totals! And lead to revisions of all field guides! But, on the plus side, we have one more species on the list, that of a regional endemic and one that I have been stressing the importance of seeing for some time because I was fairly certain that it was a separate species.

That brand newly recognized bird species is the Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner, the former excertus subspecies of the Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner restricted to humid forest habitats in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. As with many other taxa that turn out to better known as species, this one was recognized as perhaps being one by the people who first described it based on morphological differences. While we can’t see many differences in the field, detailed studies of the bird in the hand is another story and who knows what else the birds perceive? However, we do know that they don’t recognize the songs of Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners on the other side of the mountains and vice versa. That lack of song recognition coupled with large differences in DNA (6%) were enough to convince the checklist board to recognize the split. The next thing that comes to mind is whether or not the new species is threatened. Although it does need humid forests, since it can also occur in second growth and seems to be fairly common from the lowlands to lower middle elevations, the “C. Gleaner” doesn’t seem to be in trouble.

A Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner from Luna Lodge.

Now for those sad, hard knocks results for the lister, the lumps (and as with any lump, they tend to be painful).

After years of wondering which tanager with the red rump was a Passerini’s and which was a Cherrie’s while also wondering why the name just had to be changed from the perfectly descriptive Scarlet-rumped Tanager, lo and behold, these two are back to being the same species! The Scarlet-rumped Tanager is back in business in Costa Rica because of little genetic differences and equal recognition of each other’s songs. Nope, not enough time for enough divergence, no more need for Big Day worries about finding those Cherrie’s Tanagers in Carara.

The good old Scarlet-rumped Tanager.

The second lump concerns a wood-warbler and one that lives in a very limited area. Some years ago, DNA studies revealed the Masked Yellowthroat subspecies around San Vito to actually not be a Masked Yellowthroat after all. But, it stayed that way on the list because of the lack of additional studies to show what it really was. Now, after combining DNA studies and playback experiments, the special yellowthroat with the super small range in southern Costa Rica and adjacent Panama is listed as a subspecies of the Olive-crowned Yellowthroat. Since they sound and look quite similar and have very little genetic differences, even the most reluctant and die-hard of listers would have to admit that the birds are really the same biological species.

There was also one common name change. White-collared Seedeater is no more! Thanks to the elevation of West-Mexican birds to species rank (and with the cool name of Cinnamon-rumped Seedeater), the ones in Costa Rica are now known as Morelet’s Seedeater (Sporophila morelleti). If you have seen this bird north of Oaxaca, at least you can enjoy an armchair tick that sort of equalizes the removal of one of those lumped tanagers.

There were some other changes to scientific names and the splitting of the storm-petrels into two different families but I won’t talk more about that here. For more details, check out a summary of the supplement at the ABA blog, and the proposals for splitting and lumping the birds mentioned above. Now to get to work on updating birding apps for Costa Rica, Panama, and Belize.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Where to Go Birding in Costa Rica Upon Arrival?

Planning a birding trip requires a suite of considerations. They take the form of questions like, ” Where do I spend most of my precious birding time? Where do I stay? Who do I go birding with? Do I bring the non-birding family? The non-birding partner, and if so, how can I get in those essential moments of birding AND make them count (!) and will I secretly hate myself or resent my partner because we didn’t bring the car to a screeching halt when that probable lifer Ferruginous Hawk flew over the highway in Colorado, when I didn’t spend more time peering into that bush to see what was making that unfamiliar song in the garrigue of southern France, when I neglected to scream “Stop the car!” when we cruised right on past a flock of lifer Marbled Godwits in Florida?” Obviously, to avoid such mental strain, you just need to take birding vacations with your own fine self or at least with other birders.

I have followed that birding rubric on most occasions and as so, have largely avoided the painful stress of missing birds that could be easily glassed far from home (except the godwits, that actually did happen, I was eighteen, I still remember it, and even though I have seen hundreds since then, it continues to be an uncomfortable memory. One of those semi-painful little regrets because it was damn important to stop for godwits and spoonbills and who knows what else was with them! Ouchness).

I see you now but it doesn’t change the fact that I wanted to see you back then near Fort Meyers, Florida. Will you ever forgive me, oh long-billed shorebird of the northern prairies? Can I forgive myself?

That said, other common concerns may include things like “Do I hire a guide? Do I bring the scope? Do I purchase a full-fledged birding app for Costa Rica or give it a go with Merlin? Will the lodges have coffee in the morning and if not, how do I get some? Maybe I should bring emergency dark chocolate…maybe caffeine bars..”

Extra cacao please, I do believe this helps with the birding…

Of the concerns, one of the most important is where to stay for the first night because this determines where you have that incipient, fantastic, eye-opening lifer introduction. For example, in Costa Rica, you might not want to stay in the middle of San Jose because if you do that, you will subject yourself to unnecessary bird deprivation. The flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets will be nice and the Clay-coloreds will be sort of exciting at first but why go that route when you can stay closer to the airport and put the bins on technicolor, crazy Lesson’s Motmot for goodness sake! Or a Steely-vented Hummingbird, or a Rufous-breasted Wren, even a Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and a real chance at that smart new endemic ground-sparrow thing?

Crazy beautiful bird and it lives in gardens in the Central Valley. My lifer was years ago perched on a picnic table. That was sort of mind-blowing and kind of Alice in Wonderlandish. Like, is that exotic blue and green bird with the red eye and long pendulum tail actually sitting on a picnic table? Pinch pinch, yes it is!

But where does such an intriguing place with motmots and the rest occur? Well guess what? Just outside of Alajuela and that means super close to the aiport! Check out Villa San Ignacio. Formerly known as the Hotel Orquideas, the new Villa offers up the same benefits of proximity to the airport, good service, and birdy habitat along with the additional advantages of new spacious rooms, refurbished grounds, and a downright delicious menu. I was there last weekend for our annual Birding Club of Costa Rica meeting and man was I impressed! The place was so green, replete with big trees, and inviting, I just felt like mindlessly wandering around the gardens for a couple of hours while listening to the ringing songs of Rufous-breasted Wrens, rattles of Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers, and the hoots of motmots. How could you not want that experience?

The Hoffamann’s is one of those snazzy zebra-backed Melanerpes. 

Some Villa gardens.

All of those singing birds were there and some. Since the place backs up to a forested riparian zone and patchwork of fields and woodlots, I dare say many other birds are also possible, at least for the Central Valley. AND, since this site is a bit lower in elevation, you can also see dry forest species like the Olive Sparrow, Streaked Flycatcher, and one of those flycatchers with an uncomfortably long name, the Northern Beardless Tyrannulet.  Speaking of said incognito, does it shave or is it just permanently baby-faced? Might as well change its name to Northern Baby-faced Tyrannulet, or Baby-faced Tyrannulet of the North, or, “Nibit” as that would encapsulate both small size and seemingly insignificant nature of the flycatcher that pretends to be a vireo that got Frankensteined with an Owl World Warbler.

Frankensteins come in many forms.

Whether you feel like pondering over the dull appearance of the Nibit or not, Villa San Ignacio is a very good contender for being the ideal place to start and stop a birding trip to Costa Rica. I plan on using it for tours and yes, it does indeed have the endemic ground-sparrow thingy! Want to stay there? Send me an email at information@birdingcraft.com  Want some guiding from there to explore highland birding a short drive up the mountain?- information@birdingcraft.com

The ground-sparrow thingy- reminiscent of a clown except not scary.

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bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

The Easiest, Quickest Endemic Bird Route in Costa Rica

Many a road in Costa Rica leads to great destinations for birding. Given this country’s small size and abundance and variety of avian life, that’s pretty much inevitable. Nevertheless, if you don’t have a whole lot of time to work with, or, most likely, just don’t feel like messing around with seeing museums, golfing, or lounging around the hotel when there are multiple lifers to be had, a birder can’t help but want to see those birds and like, well, now!

Much to the fortune of every type of birder, there is one easy and relatively quick route that can be taken straight to the heart of local endemism in Costa Rica. Of the two principle avian endemic regions in this nation of birds and smiles, the highlands are within sight and easy reach from the Central Valley. That valley would be the one with all the houses, buildings, and vehicles, the one that you fly in to, and the one that every birder would rather exit as soon after arrival as possible. Although you could zip on down to the coast and see Scarlet Macaws and several regional endemics among myriads of other birds, I’ll be writing about that other endemic bird area in another post. For now, likely inspired by a fine day of guiding in the nearby highlands yesterday, I’ll be talking about the route that goes from the populated Central Valley to the highlands of Poas and on over to the wetter forests of the Caribbean slope.

The road in question is route 126, a name that will actually make no sense whatsoever due to the general lack of road signs in Costa Rica but that is the official name. If I were going to give it a name, I guess I might call it, “Endemic Bird Way Numero Uno”, or maybe, “Via Endemica”. Yeah, I like the sound of that latter one. “Via Endemica” it shall be as that gives a fair description of what can be found along the curves and dips of this birdy way. There are a few main means to access it, but as long as you eventually find yourself in Varablanca, you will be on the right birding track. Personally, I prefer the route that passes through Los Cartagos because this is closer to my house but if I were coming from the airport, I would take the route through Fraijanes. However, before letting Waze guide you up the flanks of the volcano, I suggest making another, very important stop first, one to look for Costa Rica’s latest endemic bird.

Although it’s been here much longer than Homo sapiens, we didn’t recognize the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow for being the full species that it is until Tico ornithologist Luis Sandoval did the work to show that this distant relative of the Canyon Towhee does indeed only belong to Costa Rica. This means that you really don’t want to go home without seeing one, especially because it’s a fancy little bird!

I’m so fancy!

Like a sparrow that decided to go clown, it shows its colors in the coffee fields and whatever remaining habitats it can find in the Central Valley. Since it’s probably endangered, yeah, you might want to see it even more. Look for it in coffee fields at various sites, or just hire me to show this and a hundred other birds during a day on the Via Endemica.

Like Prong-billed Barbet…

After hopefully laying eyes on this beautiful little skulker, ascending the Via Endemica leads to an increasingly higher percentage of near endemics (“near” because the only other place where they occur is western Panama). Since they actually live in an area smaller than New Jersey, I think I’ll just refer to these special birds as “endemic”. Although you could run into Scintillant Hummingbird and a couple other endemics on the drive up, most are birds of the cloud forests. Bird any forest in the Poas area and you have a chance at seeing everything from the lovely little Flame-throated Warbler to the one and only blue-faced bird with the ruby eyes, the Black Guan. Throw the mega Resplendent Quetzal into the mix and we are talking about some seriously satisfying birding.

Heading over to Varablanca, you might catch more highland endemics while buying a coffee or snacks in one of the stores at the crossroads to the lowlands. That would be the spot where the gas (petrol) station is situated. Seriously, keep an eye out, I have seen a lot of nice birds right there including Yellow-bellied Siskin, silky-flycatchers, and Golden-browed Chlorophonia among others. There might not be as many now that some of the habitat has been cleared (destroyed) but incidental singing Collared Redstart and Flame-colored Tanager from the parking lot last week was a reminder that some are still around.

The redstart is one pretty little bird.

As we descend to lower elevations, we reach more territories of Dark Pewee, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, and other endemics including Sooty-faced Finch at the waterfall. Keep going and we eventually reach the middle elevations and foothill zone of Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro. Although the percentage of endemic birds decreases by this point, the birding can still produce a fine mix of subtropical species along with major endemic goodies like Blue-and-gold Tanager, Lattice-tailed Trogon, and maybe even Black-breasted Wood-Quail or Red-fronted Parrotlet.

And if you just want to hang with some hummingbird action, this is also found on the Via Endemica at the La Paz Waterfall Gardens, the Cafe Colibri (now known as the Mirador Catarata San Fernando), and maybe one or two other sites. Yesterday, the endemic Coppery-headed Emerald was the most frequent hummingbird at feeders also frequented by the tiny Green Thorntail, the hulking amethyst and white Violet Sabrewing, and the Easter candy colored White-bellied Mountain-gem.

As usual, Green-crowned Brilliants were also present. This one flashed its headlights at just the right moment.

It reminds me of Easter, maybe it’s the jelly beans.

Although the Via Endemica offers all of these species and more, a birder still has to know where and how to look for them. Need some help in birding the Via Endemica? Send me an email at information@birdingcraft.com.

List of 52 endemic and near endemic birds possible on this route (including the road to Poas and side roads from Route 126), I see the ones with an “x” on a regular basis, the ones with an “r” are rare and/or tricky to see but I have had all of these species at one time or another on the Via Endemica:

Black Guan x

Black-breasted Wood-Quail r

Chiriqui Quail-Dove r

Buff-fronted Quail-Dove r

Purplish-backed Quail-Dove r

Bare-shanked Screech-Owl x

Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl r

Dusky Nightjar r

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

White-bellied Mountain-gem

Fiery-throated Hummingbird

Talamanca Hummingbird

Coppery-headed Emerald

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Magenta-throated Woodstar

Scintillant Hummingbird

Volcano Hummingbird

Lattice-tailed Trogon r

Prong-billed Barbet

Northern Emerald Toucanet (Blue-throated subspecies often considered a separate species)

Red-fronted Parrotlet r

Ruddy Treerunner

Streak-breasted Treehunter

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Silvery-fronted Tapaculo

Black-capped Flycatcher

Golden-bellied Flycatcher

Dark Pewee

Yellow-winged Vireo

Ochraceous Wren

Black-faced Solitaire

Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush

Sooty Thrush

Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher

Long-tailed Silky-Flycatcher

Golden-browed Chlorophonia

Tawny-capped Euphonia

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow r

Large-footed Finch

Yellow-thighed Finch

Sooty-capped Chlorospingus

Sooty-faced Finch

Wrenthrush

Collared Redstart

Black-cheeked Warbler

Flame-throated Warbler

Costa Rican Warbler

Olive-crowned Yellowthroat

Black-thighed Grosbeak

Black-and-yellow Tanager

Blue-and-gold Tanager

Slaty Flowerpiercer

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Birding Costa Rica

Clearing Up Misconceptions about Birding in Costa Rica

Travel to any new place is a step into the unknown. No matter how many images, videos, or blog posts we read, we really don’t know what the full experience will entail until we arrive and even then, not until we exit the airport because the waiting places for plane travel are pretty much in their own, separate universe; one replete with lines, over-priced meals, and fair deals on booze. Walk through those exit doors, though, and you begin to get the real country deal. I still recall the first time I walked onto Costa Rican soil, my first “real deal” of Tiquica. It was the early 90s, and tourism was just getting started. The airport was older, hotter, and felt like a trip back into the 70s, back in the days when rough carpets ruled. When we walked to the exit doors, the dozens of waiting relatives with faces against the glass made us feel uncomfortably famous, a sudden unwanted fame that was quickly ratcheted up a notch when we were met by a milling and stewing of porters and taxi drivers, all chattering at us in Spanish, all at once.

“This is different” I thought, while then also realizing that the air was much more humid and smelled different than home. Not bad, just different scents, tropical ones that hinted at a greater abundance of life. Upon leaving the airport in one of those taxis, the new sights and sounds continued by way of what seemed to be madhouse driving, yellowish street lamps, semi-suicidal motorcycles, and a great desire to get off the road and to our destination ASAP! Since it was night, the birds would have to wait but only until the following morning, and when that sun came up, it was indeed glorious! Common backyard birds were all lifers and included Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, screeching flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, Great Kiskadees, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and more!

Crimson-fronted Parakeets are urban birds in many parts of Costa Rica.

It was all new. It was fantastic. Although I had studied that Stiles and Skutch book like one of life’s required manuals, the real experience was of course much broader and overwhelming. Until we work with custom generated, virtual reality hallucinations, it always will be, and even then, I bet it would take a while before the simulation matched the real thing (Will we experience holodeck birding someday? Do we even want to?). Even if or when holodeck travel is available, those of us in the travel and tourism thing will surely continue to write about and share media associated with our favorite destinations. We want others to know what it’s like because we loved the experience, we want our friends and like-minded people to have those same feelings of excitement, happiness, and fulfillment. Nor do we want people to get into any unexpected, awful situations. Travel writers hope that visitors to Costa Rica, Bali, or the modern version of Nikaia will weed out the misconceptions and that’s pretty much why I am writing this particular blog. These are some of the misconceptions about Costa Rica applicable to a birding trip:

You can’t bird during the low season

Ha! As every enlightened birder knows, we can damn well bird wherever and whenever we please! Although I imagine a barbarian birder from ancient Gaul saying something along those lines, it’s something that every modern day birder should also take to heart. Walking through a big city? As the Urban Birder says, “Look up!” Watching a baseball game? Yes, you indeed can watch those gulls fly overhead. Inauguration? Wedding? Funeral? Who says you can’t mentally note the mechanical trill of a Chipping Sparrow or imagine flying up there with the nighthawks?

Sometimes, when you look up in Costa Rica, that “Black Vulture” turns into a Barred Hawk.

The same goes for birding in Costa Rica during the green season. Yeah, it’s more green and the birds love it, you will too! I am reminded of this daily when the Piratic Flycatchers and Yellow-green Vireos compete with each other over who can sing the most. When a Short-tailed Hawk calls high overhead as I walk into the backyard, when a mixed flock of tanagers, woodcreepers, and other birdies blast through the rainforest. You can indeed bird in Costa Rica during the low season and you will love it. I know I do.

It rains all the time

Um, no it does not. Despite now being the official rainy season, it didn’t today. It was cloudy and it rained in some places at different times but since that’s just the type of weather that brings out the birds, yeah, now might be when you want to be here!

There are too many bugs

Once again, nope! While there are some mosquitoes here and there and more in wetlands, it is not even close to the summer mosquito madness up north. Nothing like it, don’t worry, just use some repellent. There are more of other types of insects though and since they make it possible to see more birds and also look cool, that is a good thing.

The Helicopter Damselfly is one of those cool bugs.

Woodcreepers are impossible to identify

If they were, we would just have one of them and it would be called, “The Woodcreeper”. But, since we have a bunch that can all be readily identified, and we don’t live in Great Britain, we have several woodcreeper species, each with its own rightful name. And, yes you can identify them as long as you get a good look at the head and bill. In some parts of the Amazon, well, then you can pull your hair out, but in Costa Rica, with a bit of study and practice, or of course your own experienced birding guide, all of them can be identified.

Bird lists show which species will be seen

Well….yes and no. The problem with some bird lists is when they show species that used to occur, have mistakes, or don’t mention that the Crested Eagle on the list won’t be likely to make an appearance. Some lists are much more accurate but even then, you have to realize that some of those birds might be seasonal, they might be elsewhere at the moment, might only occur in one or two parts of the reserve, and that many are naturally rare species and thus easily missed during a few hours or even two days of intense birding. Yet another good reason for hiring an experienced local guide.

There is a good chance that you will see the beautiful Violet-headed Hummingbird.

You will see every bird

Experienced birders know that this is very rarely the case but no matter how long one has been peering at birds, it’s still a good thing to keep in mind. While Costa Rica does host a huge number of bird species, the price we pay for that biodiversity is lower numbers of individuals per species. In other words, a fair percentage of birds occur at naturally low densities and to make things that much more tricky, most are not uniformly distributed. Add lack of habitat resulting in even lower numbers of some species to the mix along with a dash of limited time and you have to take what you can get. But, that doesn’t mean you won’t see lots of new birds. Quite contrary! Focus on birding with a guide and you will see a lot, just probably not every single species.

You might see a Prong-billed Barbet.

eBird Hotspots

Always remember that there are no real criteria for naming eBird hotspots in Costa Rica. Since almost the whole country is sort of a birding hotspot, it kind of doesn’t matter but I have to mention it so you don’t think that you have to limit birding to so-called hotspots. Any site with quality habitat is going to be good, the more mature forest, the better.

Short Distances=Quick Travel

I have seen several people plan trips in Costa Rica that include far too much driving. The distances beguile. We look at an online map and think, “Hey, that’s pretty close, I can do that!” The only problem is that while crossing the mountains would be super close and fast if we could just soar right on over there in a straight line like a frigatebird, cars don’t have that capability. Instead, you will always be in for slow, curvy roads shared with even slower boxy trucks that can easily drive you mad and almost make you wish you had a disintegration ray. Oh yeah and then there are the Central Valley traffic jams during the dreaded hours of 6 to 9 and again from around 3 to 6. Keep that in mind when making plans for a birding trip in Costa Rica!

The whole country is a paradise for birds

Not exactly. There are a lot of fantastic birding sites within a small area but those open fields with ruminating cows, rows of bananas, and poisoned lands covered in pineapples….not so much. Find the forest, though, and that’s where most will be.

Are you coming to Costa Rica? I hope so, the birding really is wonderful, it’s easy to do even on your own, and the place is much closer and accessible to Canada and much of the USA than a lot of folks realize. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to help plan you trip. I hope to see you here!

Support this blog and give yourself a wealth of birding information for Costa Rica by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.