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Fine Birding on the Slopes of Poas

In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.

Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.

On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:

Resplendent Quetzal

The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.

Hummingbirds

 

Brown Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Coppery-headed Emerald

From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.

Northern Emerald Toucanet

Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.

Nightingale-thrushes

Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

A few were singing and showed nicely.

These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.

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Suggestions for Birding in Costa Rica, September, 2018

It’s almost September. Birders know it by the sudden absence of earlier migrants at the local patch and the appearance of other species moving through woodlands, wetlands, and gardens. They are racing south ahead of the change in the weather and birders can’t lose by doing the same. Not only will they meet up with many of those summer migrant species from back home, they will also see hundreds of resident species, a bonanza of lifers if you will.

The following are some suggestions for birders coming to Costa Rica in September:

Bird the Foothills

That would be sites like Quebrada Gonzalez, Arenal Observatory Lodge, and near El Cafecito. Although birding time in the foothill zone is well spent on any trip to Costa Rica, these days might be even better. Thanks to altitudinal migration, choice species like Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and Lovely Cotinga venture down to the foothill habitats at this time of year. Many tanagers and other frugivores join them to feast on the bounty of fruiting trees and with this year having a very wet rainy season, it looks like a lot of food could be available.

The beautiful Bay-headed Tanager is a common foothill species.

Enjoy the Migration

Migration doesn’t need to be relegated to birding back home. It also happens in Costa Rica and it can be fantastic, especially on the Caribbean coast. Birders visiting Tortuguero or sites south of Limon will be smack in the path of thousands of migrating swallows, Purple Martins, Chimney Swifts, wood-warblers, Eastern Kingbirds, and other species. The River of Raptors will also be happening on the coast as well as inland.

River of raptor action.

Do Some Shorebirding and eBird It

While visiting birders might not want to spend any extra time looking at sandpipers that can also be seen back home, we could always use more data on birds that migrate through and winter in Costa Rica. Not to mention, since shorebirding in Costa Rica can be easily combined with looking for Mangrove Rail and lots of dry forest birds, please consider shorebirding during the trip and eBirding the results.

Cerulean Warblers

Speaking of migrants, this choice wood-warbler moves through Costa Rica during August and September, and birders wielding binoculars in the Caribbean foothills have a fair chance of finding one. I actually had two the other day around the Socorro area. Watch for these rare beauties and please eBird where and when they are seen.

Ciudad Neily/Coto Wetlands

Lately, the wetlands located south of Ciudad Neily have been making the local birding news, I wish I had time to go there today! Photos are being posted of Wattled Jacana, hundreds of egrets and other waterbirds, my nemesis the Masked Duck, and even stellar shots of Paint-billed Crake! Lots of other local good birds are also present and it will be a prime spot to find rare migrants like Buff-breasted and Upland Sandpipers, and maybe a super rare vagrant or two.

I was pleased to have had the chance to bird that exciting area last year.

Make a Stop at the Colibri Cafe

If the Cafe was rocking like it was the other day, visiting birders will be in for some serious hummingbird action. A stop at this roadside local cafe in Cinchona is always sublime but two days ago, there were so many hummingbirds, it was tough to focus on the delicious, home-cooked food. Coppery-headed Emeralds were in abundance, and there were more Brown Violetears than I had seen on any previous visit. At least seven other hummingbird species also made an appearance while barbets and toucanets visited the fruit feeders.

I hope to show you birds in Costa Rica this September. To support this blog and learn more about where and how to see birds in this beautiful country, see my e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.

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Bird Species that have Increased in Costa Rica

People, us, our species, have made huge impacts to the biosphere. Get enough of us and give us a chance and we don’t just alter things a little bit, we can up-end, dishevel, and pretty much destroy ecosystems, AND, we can make such travesties come true without even realizing it! Fortunately for life on Earth, Us included, we also have the capacity to understand how we are affecting this Home. To be frank, given present day knowledge, Wikipedia, and technology, the days of blaming ignorance for messing up the biggest neighborhood are over. That never negates the need for scientific studies to predict, assess, and solve our impacts but given accumulated knowledge, nowadays, we should really know better.

As luck would have it, at some point during the past forty years, there were enough people in Costa Rica who had the mindset to be aware, listen, and act to preserve biodiversity that managed to survive the massive onslaught of chainsaws and tractors that had shaved so much of this country clean. A fair percentage of Costa Rica ended up being protected and laws were made to try and protect the country’s ecosystems but by that time, a lot of the previously forested landscape, especially in the lowlands, was no more. It doesn’t take more than a glimpse at Google Earth to surmise why most highland species are still easy to find while eBird records of Crested Eagle, White-fronted Nunbird, and Great Jacamar are absent from large areas of their expected former ranges.

The nunbird.

Nevertheless, on a bright note, forest in Costa Rica is growing back in various sites, and there is far more consciousness about the importance of protecting biodiversity than in the past. There are stories of hope; at Selva Bananito where the owners opted to protect their remaining forests instead of logging them, and at Yatama Ecolodge where reforestation has turned this gem of a site into a haven for uncommon Herps and many birds.

This Semiplumbeous Hawk entertained at this year’s Yatama count.   

There are also smaller areas of reforested lands like the Fortuna Nature Trail where, thanks to years of concerted effort by Giovanni Bogarin, we have a bit more habitat for everything from Uniform Crakes and Rufous-tailed Jacamars to Golden-winged, Hooded, and Worm-eating Warblers. Although the long road to comfortable levels of sustainability requires a lot more hiking and will always bring challenges, these and other sites that restore habitat are working to increase bird populations and diversity. Instead of a few seedeaters singing from the cow pastures, reforested sites give us more motmots, antbirds, jacamars, and so many other species that require more complex, biodiverse ecosystems.

Red-eyed Tree Frogs have also benefited from vegetation growing back at the Fortuna Nature Trail. 

As forests have waned and grown back, and wetlands have been drained, some birds have increased, others have declined. Here are some of the bird species for which populations in Costa Rica have grown:

Green Ibis: For some not very obvious reason, this species has become a lot more common in Costa Rica. I really have no idea why but nowadays, its yodeling calls are an expected aspect of the evening bird chorus, and perched “vultures” need to be checked to see if the bird is actually an ibis. The ancient looking creature has also been showing up at sites outside of its historic range such as on the Pacific slope (like at Macaw Lodge), in the Central Valley (where I had one in a coffee farm), and even on the high slopes of Irazu Volcano!

Green Ibis on vacation in a coffee farm.

Ornate Hawk-Eagle: Yes!  Compared to the 90s, there are more of this ultra cool eagle in Costa Rica, regular sightings taking place at Monteverde, Savegre, Tapanti, and most other humid forested sites at lower elevations. At the same time, since there are fewer Black Hawk-Eagles, one can’t help but assume that they are being displaced by the Ornate, perhaps due to an increase in forest cover.

Scarlet Macaw: Everyone loves a success story, visit Costa Rica and you will experience the fruits of one where Scarlet Macaws are the winners. After years of effective protection, it seems that the stronghold populations of the Pacific lowlands have increased to the point of re-populating various other parts of the country, especially the Caribbean lowlands. These are likely also augmented by released birds. Recently, I have seen small groups of this spectacular species in the Sarapiqui region and even near Muelle. Don’t be surprised if some fly their way to Arenal.

Cowbirds: Not all is good in the land of birds. Honestly, I don’t know if Bronzed Cowbirds have increased as of late, but I can say that Shiny Cowbird has become a regular species in various parts of the country. Since they act like cuckoos and therefore have to be affecting the nesting success of various resident species, I think we could do with a lot less cowbirds. Regarding the Bronzed, although they have been established for some time, I don’t see how they would have been a common historical bird, or were even present when Costa Rica was cloaked in cow-free forest.

Great-tailed Grackles: Another one that increased some time ago, populations of this native beach bum went to town when they became adapted to living off the refuse of people. Like cowbirds, they also seem to do better when cattle are present.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow: Given the description in Stiles and Skutch, it seems like this fancy little towhee has greatly increased. Unlike what is said about it in the first field guide for Costa Rica, it is actually common and easy to see on many coffee farms and other habitats of the Central Valley, perhaps because it has been outcompeting the endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow.

Not as many of this one, it is likely affected by cowbirds.

Edge Species: Par for the course in the era of deforestation but a few still merit a mention. Southern Lapwing naturally invaded from the south and some time ago. Presently, it can be seen in wet pastures and along rivers in many parts of Costa Rica. Keep an eye out for it as the plane taxis to the gate, you might get it as one of your first birds of the trip. Striped Owl also increased because of deforestation and even lives in the Central Valley. Tropical Mockingbird has likewise increased and these days, I hear the loud, jerky vocalizations of Black-headed Saltators in various parts of the Central Valley, a region it has recently invaded.

Dry forest species: Locally, some dry forest birds have increased from moving upslope and into the Central Valley. Not that the populous intermontane valley offers a lot of green space but what is present seems to be increasingly used by such Guanacaste standards as Rufous-naped Wren, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and White-fronted Parrot. Who knows what other dry forest birds might be living around Alajuela?

Watch for White-fronted Parrots in the Central Valley, especially near Alajuela.

Although many more birds have declined, the species above and some others have certainly increased either since historic, more forested times, or during the past ten years. Keep an eye out for any out of range birds, and please report them on eBird (but please also include a photo!).

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Looking for Cotingas in the Rain

The rains have calmed down the past week or so. That doesn’t mean that the roaring precipitation has stopped and by no means should the sky tap actually be turned off. Water means life and the more the better! Well, maybe not to the degree of causing floods and landslides but yes, a steady series of downpours will work out fine. I see that rain coming down to smack the leaves and as always, I can’t help but wonder, how do birds deal? What do they do when it rains for hours? Do they get out and forage or do the tanagers and Russet Antshrikes hunker down to conserve energy and wait for their window of respite?

The Russet Antshrike is a common member of mixed flocks at many humid forest sites in Costa Rica, If you see a foliage-gleaner looking bird checking dead leaves in the canopy, it’s probably this species. 

I’m not sure what they do and it must vary by species but in general, it seems that most birds of forest and field get active when the heavy rains turn to mist; they seem to take advantage of that window when the pounding rain won’t drive them to the ground. As for raptors, it seems like they also take advantage of the almost dry window to use an exposed perch. Indeed, in such situations, I see Bicolored Hawk more often. Other birds can also perch in the open, some of them even doing so under the curtain of heavy tropical rains. It’s a good time to look for cotingas and not necessarily because you will find them, but because when it rains, there’s not a whole lot of other birding you can do. If it does pour, at least you can scope and scan the canopy from under a roof.

Bicolored Hawk perched in the rain.

This is basically what it takes to see some of the more esteemed and wanted members of this fantastic bird family. Although I would have to put the endangered and amazing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the top of the awesome cotinga list for Costa Rica, the four classic cotingas are still very much desired and not just by those who travel to Costa Rica for birding. Those of us who live in Tiquicia want to see Snowy, Yellow-billed, Lovely, and Turquoise Cotingas just as badly and many a local birder has yet to lay eyes on any of these fab four. And even if you have admired the four classic canopy dwellers, they still get priority because you just can’t get enough of those cool birds. They look too weird and wonderful to not get excited about the prospect of seeing them, and, we just don’t see them that often.

Such a cotinga situation keeps me looking for them, keeps my eyes on the highest points of trees, keeps me looking for trees with cotinga food. And, especially when I’m birding with special people who have yet to see these local beauties. Recently, I have kept an eye out for cotingas on the Caribbean slope, rain or shine (I guess mostly rain). Whereas most birders in Costa Rica get a good visual taste of cotingas at the Rincon bridge, the duo on the Caribbean side of the country are much more evasive. Head south of Limon and the Snowy becomes much less of an issue but the Lovely is always rare, no matter where you bring the binos. Given its eye-catching appearance, I guess the shining blue and purple thing should be rare. Yes. Shiny and blue as Cheyenne turquoise, ornamented with amethyst. I have only seen it twice, I’d like to see it again! Most of all, I’d like to admire the bird with someone who likewise feels that cotingas are fantastic.

I have looked lately but not quite enough. Checking the treetops in the Sarapiqui area has so far failed to turn up any bright white birds. I drive through the rain and steal glances at the tops of every tree in range. I’ve seen a few other things; parrots, oropendolas, sloths, and caracaras, but no Snowy Cotinga. In the Socorro area, I have made a few concerted attempts to find a Lovely. The extensive canopy views are right and so is the elevation and timing but the birds are rare and I haven’t put in the many hours likely necessary to connect.

A good place to look for Lovely Cotingas.

But, there’s hope in cotingaland! Although the Snowy has certainly declined in Sarapiqui, it’s still around, if we keep looking, we will find it perched high in the rain, hopefully drying in the sun. As for the Lovely, I did notice fig trees beginning to fruit around Socorro including one massive tree that might even be hosting a living doveish jewel as I write this. I hope to check it tomorrow. I won’t be able to spend hours watching and waiting for the cotinga but the blue and purple bird has to be visiting that tree at some point, maybe even calling it its new temporary home. I’ll be there to check it, at least for a bit. If I see it, I’ll share the gen. on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter because everyone should have a chance to see a cotinga, especially one of the lovely kind.

Want to learn more about finding cotingas and the best places to see them in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing the 700 page plus e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.