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bird finding in Costa Rica

Medio Queso, Costa Rica: Tough Birds Made Easy

What is it about a place that makes it a birding hotspot? Flocks of parakeets and constant birding action? Mixed flock action that leaves you with a bewildered, automatic multi-lifer smile? A place that doesn’t have many species but is reliable for choice, rare birds? Or just a place that has consistently good birding, a place where one can visit and just lose his or herself with birds in a beautiful natural setting?

Or, as with the Costa Rica Birding Hotspots Initiative, a multitude of sites that collectively provide access to most bird species on the Costa Rica list?
No matter how one defines it, a birding hotspot is always worth a visit because a birder will always see something, and sometimes, many species that are tough to encounter elsewhere.

Bay-headed Tanager- in Costa Rica, easy but always nice to see.

That’s how it is at Medio Queso, Costa Rica. When I think of a birding hotspot, man does this site fit the bill. This northern wetland made it onto the national birding RADAR nearly ten years ago when local birder and biologist Daniel Martinez found Pinnated Bitterns and an uber rare for Costa Rica, American Bittern during bird surveys at the site.

Since then, subsequent visits have resulted in sightings of one challenging species after another. Some years ago, during my first visit to Medio Queso, while watching a Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Pinnated Bittern, Robert Dean and I wondered how good the birding might be on that river that passes through the middle of the marsh.


Robert eventually arranged a boat trip at Medio Queso and I will never forget his reaction. In brief, it went something like, “Was it good? It was bloody fantastic! Least Bittern, Sungrebe, Jabiru, Pinnated Bitterns, and then we had an Aplomado Falcon fly overhead.”

He actually saw more than that, and there have been several excellent boat trips since then that have produced views of Spotted Rail, Yellow-breasted Crake, and other crakes all on the same trip. Although the boat ride is best, quite a lot can also be seen from the dike. Not having enough time for a boat trip, that’s what Marilen and I did a few days ago and as hoped, Medio Queso showed why this wetland is such a reliable birding hotspot.

After spending Friday night in Los Chiles, we opted for a pre-dawn visit to Medio Queso to see if we could get lucky with Common Potoo, Striped Owl, and who knows, maybe Ocellated Poorwill? We could have left in the middle of the night to invest in more nocturnal birding time but since that eliminates sleep from the equation and most nocturnal birds are active during the hour before dawn, we didn’t leave Cabinas Felicia until 4 a.m.

Medio Queso being a short drive from Los Chiles, mere minutes later, we were looking for eye shine and listening for night birds. As is typical with night birding in Costa Rica and many parts of the Neotropical region, Common Pauraques flushed from the gravel road. Striped Owl ended up giving us the slip but we should catch up with that at some point, hopefully at or near the homestead. No luck with the poorwill (that bird might not even be present at that site), but we did connect with our year Common Potoo! We got our Costa Rica potoo sweep in the form of at least two calling birds, one from a dense tree plantation next to the road. As a bonus, we also heard Pacific Screech-Owl and a Collared Forest-Falcon.

As dawn broke at the marsh, Green Ibises gave their guttural, rollicking calls. Two eventually flew nearby, as usual, looking a lot like long-billed Black Vultures in the process. We also saw a couple of Pinnated Bitterns, Tricolored Heron, and a few other expected species. The bitterns were easy to find in areas of the marsh with short grass; odd pale spots that morphed into straw-colored, stripey herons when viewed with binoculars.

We also had Nicaraguan Grackle, Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, Purple Gallinules, Green-breasted Mangos, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and other nice species. It was fun seeing them but these weren’t our main targets, we had already enjoyed them on our January visit to Medio Queso. We were at this hotspot in May because a very rare for Costa Rica Striated Heron had been repeatedly seen there for at least a month. Would it be there for us? Would we also see Black-collared Hawk? The only way to find out is by going birding, thankfully, we had our chance and whether we found those birds or not, a morning of birds in a beautiful natural setting is never a waste of time.

By the river, we found our hawk! Looking a bit like a Brahminy Kite, the Black-collared Hawk is like a sluggish tropical Osprey. Unlike the Osprey, it almost only occurs in areas with extensive freshwater wetlands and slow-going, lowland rivers and lakes. In Costa Rica, it is very local, one of the better places for seeing it being the Cano Negro and Los Chiles area. Our year bird was a beautiful chestnut and black adult with a white head hanging out on the river near the dock.

We searched for the heron by scanning the river and marsh over and over but kept coming up with Green Herons and other regular species. Nevertheless, persistence paid off, we did eventually find the bird! It wasn’t until our way out just after 7 but there it was, perched above the marsh. The small pale gray heron with a black cap stood out from the fresh green marsh grass and reminded me of a miniature Great Blue or Gray Heron. While glassing this choice species, before we knew it, a Green Heron chased it from its perch and it flew further away. Even at a distance, the pale coloration still made it easy to see out there in the green of the marsh.

On the drive back to Los Chiles, hoping to spot a potoo, I scanned the trees for any suspicious chunks of wood and wished for a Mangrove or Yellow-billed Cuckoo to appear. We left without views of those species but we weren’t complaining. We had added several year birds to the 2019 Team Tyto list during a fine morning of birding, looking forward to more!

Hope to see this one at some point in 2019!

Although we didn’t have time to visit Cano Negro, most visiting birders include this with Medio Queso and with good reason. The birding only gets better and a lot can be seen right on the grounds of the best place to stay in Cano Negro, Hotel de Campo. This hotel has also helped with reforestation and conservation in Cano Negro and is developing packages for birders. Contact me to learn more.

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biodiversity

“Late” Migrant Birds in Costa Rica

The peak of the northern spring migration is over, especially in Costa Rica. The many thousands of Scarlet Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, Purple Martins, raptors and other bird species that winter in South America and move through Costa Rica have come and gone. Although various wood-warblers and other May migrants are still entertaining birders way to the north, in Costa Rica, we won’t see any migrant Parulines until the late August return of Cerulean and Yellow Warblers.

That said, some birds are still migrating through Costa Rica. Even this late in the game, and so far south from their boreal breeding grounds, the remnants of spring migration can still be encountered. There aren’t a whole lot of migrant birds out there but based on the daily eBird reports, there are enough and I have been kicking myself for not venturing further afield to look for them. Although I do keep a close eye on the hedgerows visible from the homestead, locating most of these last minute migrants requires several hours of dedicated birding that covers more ground and reaches more habitats.

One of several Eastern Kingbirds that was using the hedgerow.

Fortunately, other birders have been spending more time in the field in more places. Some of the interesting stuff that has been seen:

White-rumped Sandpiper– Based on reports from Cano Negro, it sounds like now is a good time for this high Arctic migrant in Costa Rica. If we had more coverage at Palo Verde and various other small inland wetland sites, I wonder how many more reports we would have? I am sorely tempted to drive to a local reservoir to look for this bird, I still need it for my country list.

American Golden Plover– A few of this fine species have also been reported. With fewer birders in the field, I can’t help but wonder how many more are around. Still need this one for the year list although we will have a fair chance when they fly back south.

Broad-winged Hawk– This was a surprise! However, it turns out that a few are around or passing through during late May of most years. One of a few were reported this past weekend during a semi-Big Day carried out by Ernesto Carman, Paz Irola, and Juan Diego Vargas. The Broad-wing they had at the edge of Carara was one of more than 220 species they identified as part of the Rainforest Biodiversity Group bird-a-thon to raise funds for the Las Brisas Reserve. 220 species in a day is fantastic anywhere and they would have found more if they had not been rained out for the afternoon!

Nowadays, Short-tailed Hawks are more frequently seen.

Black-billed Cuckoo– I just saw the report and photos this morning! Always a rare migrant in Costa Rica, a good number likely pass through the country but since this species is so reluctant to take the birding stage, very few are seen. I think that most records are from fall migration, it was interesting to hear about this May bird. As with many records of this bird in Costa Rica, this one was also seen in the highlands. More are likely out there, I wonder how many? I’ll keep watching the hedgerow, maybe one is lurking nearby.

Flycatchers– Expected late migrants, we have still had a few reports of Yellow-bellied and Willow Flycatchers along with Eastern Wood-pewees. Last week, I had a flycatcher out front which sadly never called. I suspected it was an Alder but actually, it also looked a bit like a White-throated! So, I’m not sure what it was.

Whenever I read the daily rare eBird report, it reminds me that there is always more waiting to be discovered, waiting to be seen. I can’t wait to get in more birding to see what’s around, to see what’s nesting away from my place of residence. In terms of a good place to check, Villa San Ignacio comes to mind. I’m not sure if any migrants will still be around but I will see about doing a bird count there soon.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography

Quality Birds at Cope’s

Every once in a while, I pay a visit to Cope’s place. When passing through his lowland rainforest neighborhood, I stop in to say hello, exchange stories, and see what’s around. I also visit when guiding clients, usually starting the day at El Tapir. That way, we can begin with Snowcap and end the morning with a potoo or roosting owl (par for the birding course with the Cope experience).

One of those roosting owls.

This past Saturday, while guiding some friends from the Birding Club of Costa Rica, the El Tapir/Cope experience combination paid off with some quality birds. These are the species that a birder either doesn’t see that often or are only at specific sites. Although the universal rules of birding state somewhere up in the clouds that every bird is worth just as much as the next, the unwritten rules on the other side of the sky state that some species are worth ten or more Blue-gray Tanagers, or like twenty or more Rock Pigeons. Not on a Big Day mind you but during a regular, average day of birding, maybe yes.

Snowcap is one of those quality birds. It’s not your average, everyday hummingbird and not just because the male looks like some exotic piece of flying candy. Not only is this hummingbird accessible at few sites, this fantastic creature also looks like it belongs in the Harry Potter universe. Exaggeration? Wait until you see one flying around! We had a male and one or two females at El Tapir. As a bonus, Tapir was also rocking with several other hummingbirds including such standouts as Brown Violetear and Blue-throated Goldentail.

Over at Cope’s, the feeders were predictably quiet. Cope explained that it’s usually quiet at this time of year because birds are out nesting and taking care of their young, they don’t have time to feast on fruit. Nevertheless, we still had the pleasure of being investigated at close range by several White-necked Jacobins and had good, close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Orange-chinned Parakeet, and Crimson-collared Tanager.

After some feeder action, we paid a visit to another quality bird, a Great Potoo. And, it was with a baby!! A baby potoo is about as precious as precious gets. Forget your puppies, never mind that big (bug?)-eyed Pug, a baby Great Potoo looks like something from the planet of weird, ultra cute fuzzballs. Come to think of it, the adults sort of look like that too but the baby really is something else.

It can sort of be seen in this phonescope image.

After our fill of potoo cuteness, off we went to the nearby rainforest where Cope often has owls and other species staked out. It was actually pretty quiet but we still had scoped views of Spectacled Owl.

The views of the Honduran White Bats were also priceless. These little living plushies are so amazing they should be allowed on bird lists.

However, despite the quite nature of the forest, chance was in our favor because we saw an Agami Heron! One of the prize species of the Neotropical region, the Agami is widespread yet typically difficult to see. Unlike so many other waders, this exquisite heron species skulks along forested streams. On Saturday, we lucked out big time when one in beautiful breeding plumage flushed from the side of the trail and perched where it could be admired for several minutes! It was only the fourth time Cope had ever seen it at that site. A fantastic year bird for Mary and I, lifer for others, and much appreciated by all.

We finished the day at Guarumo, a nearby bird photography and lunch site owned by a local birder. Things were quiet although we still managed to add our 12th hummingbird species for the day when a Blue-chested Hummingbird came to the Porterweed.

Guarumo also had cool birding and nature tee-shirts– check these out…

Snowcap, Great Potoo, Spectacled Owl, and Agami Heron in one morning of easy-going birding. We might not have been at the Biggest Week in Birding, but we still enjoyed some quality birds!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica

Team Tyto + Global Big Day (+ Caffeine) = 300 Plus Species

It’s the Monday after Global Big Day. I write this as the Grayish Saltators call and a breeze threatens to bring rains and almost find it hard to believe that we birded from midnight until dawn and on through to the next night, from one side of the mountains to the other. From the hot low coastal region up to more than a cool 2,000 meters. A non-stop birdathon, a day dedicated to celebrating birds collectively shared with thousands of birders across the globe and to think that we almost didn’t partake in Global Big Day, 2019. We wanted to, I had a route planned, but Mary’s daughter had exams, she had to study, needed help studying and we also needed someone to watch her.

Nevertheless, thanks to being able to study during the week and family members who were happy to watch her, it all worked out. With enough refreshments, snacks, sandwiches and caffeine drinks on hand to last us through a night and day, Mary and I (aka Team Tyto) were ready to dedicate ourselves to finding as many birds as we could in Costa Rica, on May 4th. Luckily, I even had a chance to sleep during the day before the clock struck midnight. That happened for us somewhere on the road to the Pacific Coast and there was no quick first bird. Only highway and occasional street lights, no luck with roosting birds, nor a serendipitous flyby Barn Owl.

A Striped Owl from another day.

The first of many happened at our first stop, a dusty road in the Pacific lowlands. Common Pauraques took that distinguished title as they called and leaped from the road. No Pacific Screech-Owl though, no other night birds, no faint calls of migrants up there in the dark sky. There was a light rain and that probably kept things extra quiet but we pushed on, eventually picking up shorebirds that roost at salt ponds. As we arrived, the “terlee!” of Black-bellied Plovers echoed over the dark still waters and Black-necked Stilt gave their sharp barking calls. Eventually, by way of brief looks and vocalizations, we picked up several other shorebird species and even Wood Stork before flying through the night to the next stop, the mangroves at Caldera.

A brief stop there was just as quiet but spotlighting paid off with close, perfect looks at a target Northern Potoo! With that excellent addition to our GBD, we continued on towards more humid lands south of Carara National Park, spotlighting roadside wires en route. Despite our efforts, Striped Owl failed to show and Barn Owl never called but we did pick up the faint notes of a Pacific Screech-Owl just before needing to move on to our main birding venue for the day, the Jaco area.

Pacific Screech-Owl is one of the more common owl species in Costa Rica.

Although it was tempting to start the morning at Cerro Lodge (and that plan might be just as good or better), the combination of forest, edge, and open country birds near Jaco seemed to promise bigger returns. Not mention, our starting point is also very good for owls. At least it was in February and much to our pleasure, it was just as good on May 4th! Tropical Screech-Owls called from the second growth, thick-knees vocalized, and then we heard Mottled, Black-and-white, and Crested Owls calling from the hills. At one point, a flying shape materialized right over our heads and quick work with the flashlight got onto our only Barn Owl of the day!

We had 7 owl species under our belts and the first light of day was quickly approaching; just how you want a Big Day dawn to happen! It came with a cavalcade of bird songs that issued forth from a good combination of habitats. We must have had 50 species by sound alone before actually seeing anything and that included several key species like Great Currasow, Crested Guan, Marbled Wood-Quail, tinamous, woodcreepers, two motmots, Slate-colored Seedeater and others. As the light of day grew, we started picking up more species by sight including a surprise Shiny Cowbird, Giant Cowbird, both tityras and others. At the same time, more birds vocalized giving us five species of trogons among many others!

The Near Threatened Baird’s Trogon was one of our better dawn birds.

Whether because of the cloudy weather, time of year, Zen attitude birding or a combination of the above, The Big Day birding was good and it kept getting better.

Just before leaving the Jaco area, a last minute attempt brought in such key species as Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Red-breasted Meadowlark. No luck with Upland Sandpiper but well over a 100 species by 7 a.m. was nothing to complain about! Onward we went to Tarcoles before entering Carara National Park at 8 a.m. We added most key waterbirds at Tarcoles and then, just as last year at this time, the park treated us very well with vocalizations from a high percentage of possible species. Green Shrike-Vireo! Streak-chested Antpitta! Dot-winged Antwren and a few dozen others. Ruddy Quail-Dove scooting off the trail! We didn’t get everything and hummingbirds were disturbingly absent but at times, it almost seemed too easy! And that’s just how we want a Big Day because although I welcome challenges in birding, I absolutely treasure and am very grateful for a day when all the birds are calling and making themselves available.

After Carara (where we ran into other teams of GBDers, including the guys who got a mega Gray-hooded Gull!), we went back to Tarcoles, checked a roadside wetland, and made a stop in dry forest. Although the beach was more sand and water than birds, we still picked up a few expected species, got onto Solitary Sandpiper and a couple other shorebirds at the wetland, and connected with several dry forest birds before beginning the two hour drive to highland habitats on Poas.

Thankfully, the driving was also quick, and we even picked up Vaux’s Swift and a few other birds before birding the road to Poas. Thanks to lots of vocalizations and knowing the area quite well, we managed a high percentage of key species in a short amount of time, best of the bunch being Resplendent Quetzal, Wrenthrush, and Yellow-bellied Siskin. As both silky-flycatchers also showed along with several other birds, I mentioned to Mary how good that afternoon would have been for guiding. With more time, I think we would have found 90% of the species that live up there. But, we had run out of time, we had other places to be and so we drove down to Varablanca and Cinchona.

En route, we picked up several more species by call and got some birds at Cinchona. At a stop between Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro, we also found our best bird of the day, a Yellow-winged Tanager! The only one for GBD in Costa Rica, we lucked upon it on the side of the road while also adding Black-throated Wren, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and some other species.

Prong-billed Barbet did us a favor at Cinchona.

On down the road we went, scoping and adding a Roadside Hawk, American Dipper and some other species before reaching our final main stop, the San Miguel-Socorro road. Thinking that we wouldn’t reach the lowlands in time and knowing that this area harbors a high number of bird species, we focused our final efforts at this site. Broad-billed Motmot, Red-throated Ant-tanager, Cinnamon Becard, Carmiol’s Tanager, and other birds of the Caribbean slope came out to play. Although I have had many more species on other days at this site, we still added a good number of birds especially when a Central American Pygmy-Owl (!) appeared.

A last ditch attempt to reach lower elevations was mostly futile except for a roadside Rufous Motmot ticked from the moving car. Nor did any more owls or other nightbirds call but by 7:45 p.m., I was ready to call it a day. In a small hotel in Puerto Viejo, I submitted our final lists and we tallied the results. We checked it once, we checked it twice, and we were pleased indeed to see that we had surpassed 300 species, 305 species to be exact! Although Mary almost talked me in to heading back out to see if we could find a Green Ibis or that missing Spectacled Owl, no amount of caffeine energy drink could have moved me back into birding action.

But we had more than 300 species (!) and although the guys who had found the gull got the highest bird list for Costa Rica (with 335 species!!), we still ended up with the fourth highest list in the world for Global Big Day, 2019! Although eBird shows us in 14th place, that’s because several of the lists with more species are actually group lists and should therefore be shown in another category.

It was satisfying indeed to finally break 300 species in a day in Costa Rica. Now if I look into that route a bit more, I wonder how much better we could do…

Team Tyto with a Post GBD coffee at Mi Cafecito, Costa Rica.

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