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The Birding Tower at Cerro Lodge

The Carara National Park area is one of the top sites for birding in Central America. The reason I say “area” rather than just talking about the national park itself is because there is so much more to birding Carara than just sticking to the protected zone. Don’t get me wrong, the forests of the national park are the main, well deserved attraction but you would be letting yourself down if you limited birding to the trails at Carara.

It seems odd to say that about a place where one can watch Streak-chested Antpitta, Baird’s Trogon, and many other species but yes, there is still more to see!

Nearby roads also provide access to slightly different habitats above the park, to mangroves, seasonal wetlands and coastal habitats around Tarcoles, and dry forests on the other side of the river. The end result is a mega tropical ecotone that has played host to literally hundreds of bird species. As one might guess, this means that you just can’t ever go wrong when birding the Carara area.

Given the fantastic birding in and around Carara, it seems odd that so few accommodations for birders area available. There are a couple of hotels and many more options around Jaco but fewer than expected so close to the national park. One of the best of those few places for birders is Cerro Lodge. A cozy place around ten minutes drive from the entrance to the national park, this excellent site is situated within a mosaic of tropical dry transition forest, open fields, and second growth just above the floodplain of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles. This combination of habitats give the place a healthy selection of birds, several of which are not found in the limits of the national park.

Such as White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Fruiting trees bring in Scarlet Macaws, Yellow-naped Parrots, Black-headed and Gartered Trogons and several other species, many of which can be seen right from the deck of the outdoor restaurant. Part of the reason some of these and other birds are present is a result of reforestation undertaken by Cerro Lodge, and, over the years, the owner has also made additional improvements to provide guests with a more comfortable, better birding experience. The most recent addition is one that I wish every birding site had, an observation tower!

The view from the tower.

It’s not a big one but then again, thanks to it being placed on a hill, it doesn’t have to be. The new tower at Cerro provides an excellent view of distant mangroves and adjacent forest. I have only been there once but these were some of my impressions and expectations:

Crane Hawk

The Cerro Lodge area has always been good for this uncommon, odd, long legged raptor but the tower really ups the ante for seeing it. Basically, it just provides more area to search for it and since a couple pairs live in around Cerro, there’ s a really good chance you will see it. It might be far off or it might be close but keep looking and you have a really good chance of finding it (yes, we did see one).

Other raptors

The tower also seems ideal for finding other raptor species because it has everything a raptor counter likes; a wide open view over good habitat for better observation of perched raptors and birds in flight. In addition to the Crane Hawk, we also had both caracaras, Bat Falcon, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and vultures. It should also be good for Plumbeous Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Common Black-Hawk, Hook-billed Kite, Gray-headed Kite, and perhaps a surprise or two.

Flyby parrots and other species

The tower is pretty much superb for flybys of macaws and parrots. We had close views of Scarlet Macaw and Yellow-naped Parrot among five other species. Yes, that does make for good photo opps!

Given Cerro’s location near a river and mangroves, many other birds also fly past, some flying to and from wetlands, others flying out of their roosts in the mangroves. This area can also be good for swifts. I can’t wait to check out the tower in the winter months and during migration!

White-necked Puffbird and other perched birds

As with any tower near good habitat, the one at Cerro makes it easier to see White-necked Puffbird, trogons, and other species of the canopy. Just keep scanning to see what you can find. We had wonderful constant, comfortable views of the puffbird, Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Streak-backed Oriole, and other species.

Yellow-billed Cotinga

On account of it being endangered and looking so different, this star bird deserves its own bit of information. The tower at Cerro will be the ideal place to look for this bird. That’s great but it’s also bittersweet because I honestly wonder how long we will be able to see this rare species in the Carara area.

Its small population has been slowly but surely declining for several years and in all likelihood, it will unfortunately go locally extinct around Carara. I sure hope not but to be honest, that is what will likely happen because the bird has a very small population, there have been no signs of an increase or it even holding steady, and habitat at Carara is getting drier and thus not as good as it used to be for a species that likely requires a variety of fruiting trees in rainforest all year long.

Even worse, there has been no reforestation of the large cattle farms between the mangroves and the forests of Carara. This barrier can’t do any good for the cotinga and is probably the main factor contributing to its long term demise at this site. Once the bird is gone from the mangroves near Cerro, it won’t be back because the nearest population is too far away. So, in the meantime, we may see a few birds from the tower but I wonder for how long.

Access, comfort, and use

The tower is open to guests of Cerro Lodge but you do have to walk down from the hotel and then up to the tower. It’s not far and they do seem to maintain the trail though so most people should be fine. The tower itself is also only one and a half stories high so there shouldn’t be too much trouble there either. As for the tower itself, it can hold around 8 people or so and has a roof for much needed protection from sun and rain. There are also a couple of places to sit down.

Overall, it looks like a great place to bring a cold drink and some snacks and just relax with the birds. Bring a scope to scan all the way to the mangroves and just keep looking! On a final note, I bet the tower is also good for night birding, I hope to try that out on October Global Big Day, 2019.

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bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills

Recent Impressions from Birding Costa Rica at Rancho Naturalista

Birding has been happening in Costa Rica for decades but very few lodges have been dedicated to the endeavor. One of the very first of those places was Rancho Naturalista, a small, nearly remote site in the foothills east of Cartago. The birding has always been good at Rancho; chachalacas, oropendolas, tanagers, and a wealth of other species visible from the balcony, antwrens and shy birds inside the forest, hummingbirds taking a dip in a quiet stream. Many a guide got started at Rancho and thousands of guests have enjoyed and learned about birds in a welcoming atmosphere punctuated by excellent cuisine.

A classic birding site at its best, Rancho Naturalista is always worth a visit, I was fortunate to bird there this past weekend. Thanks to the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I spent the past couple of day looking for Lanceolated Monklet, manakins, and many other birds at and near the lodge. These are some of the highlights and impressions from the past few days:

There’s still no quick way to get there– That’s one thing that hasn’t changed! It’s not Rancho’s fault and the drive isn’t that bad, the twists and turns of roads with traffic just make it seem longer than it actually takes. That said, at least half of the drive passes through some beautiful scenery and you could always stop for birds en route.

The birding starts upon arrival– The good thing about that drive to Rancho is that the birding begins as soon as you exit the vehicle. Park the car, check the Porterweed hedge and you might catch up with Snowcap right then and there. If not, wait a few minutes, it usually shows. Other hummingbirds will be there too and fruiting trees bring in tanagers, euphonias, and other birds to keep the binoculars busy.

The balcony is tough to leave– Feel like watching a troop of Gray-headed Chachalacas and other feeder birds come and go? How about being face to face with White-necked Jacobins, Green-breasted Mangos and other hummingbirds while enjoying some damn fine Costa Rican coffee? Oh yeah, sometimes, it feels like a dream come true, I hope every birder gets a chance to experience it.

The moth light still works– To avoid affecting the moth population, the moth light is only turned on once in a while. The number of birds attracted to it varies by season but it often results in close views of White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-throated Ant-tanager, woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds of the forest.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher– One of Rancho’s star birds is still present and fairly common both near the lodge and deep inside the forest. Although this decidedly local species can also be seen elsewhere, it’s definitely easiest at Rancho.

White-crowned Manakin– Another star bird of Rancho, you might need to hike to the upper trails but local guides will know where it hangs out. We had great looks of two males up there in beautiful middle elevation rainforest. That walk also turned up Brown-billed Scythebill, White-throated Spadebill, and some other nice birdies.

The Rio Tuis– Several sites can be visited outside of yet near the lodge to look for various species that don’t occur on the trails. Birders head to the Rio Tuis to look for Sunbittern, tanagers, Lanceolated Monklet, and other species. We seriously tried for that monklet but a few morning hours just didn’t do the trick for this extremely elusive puffbird species. The Sunbittern gave a brief showing though, and we saw some tanagers including Black-and-yellow Tanager, Emerald, and Speckled.

One of the spots where monklet has been seen on other days.

Hummingbirds– Between feeders, flowering bushes and hummingbird bathing pools, one might guess that Rancho is especially good for hummingbirds. It sure is, we had 15 species! Snowcap just might have stolen the show although the rest were likewise awesome.

Close views of the beautiful Crowned Woodnymph are always a treat.

A home away from home– As usual, the cherry on the peak of the birding cake was the welcoming atmosphere at Rancho. A visit feels like going to a home away from home where the birds are always waiting to be seen and everyone is happy to see you. It’s a special place, I hope you visit!

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bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges

Great Urban Birding at Villa San Ignacio, Costa Rica

Good birding in Costa Rica doesn’t require hours of bumpy rides and long, hot, triathalon training hikes. While the adventurous birder is welcome to burn calories and sweat buckets, excellent birding in Costa Rica can still be had with much less investment of time and effort. I am reminded of this benefit just about every time I go birding because although I do enjoy exploration that requires long hikes through tropical forest, most of my guiding and birding take place while driving and along very manageable trails. Part of that is because this makes for more feasible, easy guiding but honestly, if you know where and how to look for birds in Costa Rica, you can see a heck of a lot, even quite close to urban areas.

I hear this species from time to time right from the house.

As with birding anywhere, habitat is crucial and that’s why I bring birders to Villa San Ignacio. Most of the grounds feature large old trees (including bird-magnet fruiting figs) and regenerating moist forest that attract a good number of species found in dry and moist tropical forest. It’s a key place to see what much of the Central Valley used to look like and how some areas could eventually look if we just let it grow back.

Situated only 20 minutes from the airport, this hotel also works very well as a place to start and end a birding trip. Since the hotel is also at the edge of urbanization in the Central Valley, good birding can also be had on nearby roads. I was reminded of this during the past couple days of guiding at and near Villa San Ignacio. Some of what I saw and learned:

Productive birding at Villa San Ignacio

As is usually the case when birding in good habitat, the avian activity kept us busy. Red-crowned Ant-tanagers moved through dense second growth accompanied by a pair of Barred Antshrikes, Rufous-capped Warblers, Rufous-breasted Wren and other species. Cocoa Woodcreeper was a surprise and a reminder that Villa is a bit lower than San Jose and thus more biodiverse. Brown Jays screeched from the trees and revealed the presence of a juvenile Gray Hawk which then also began to scream. Back in the dense second growth, we had nice looks at Lesser Greenlet, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet and Streaked Flycatcher but the best was a female Long-tailed Manakin perched on a vine at close range.

I have seen males there on other days.

Plain-capped Starthroat and ground-sparrows

At the edge of the forest, we had excellent views of Plain-capped Starthroat and Blue-vented Hummingbird. On other visits, I have also had Cinnamon Hummingbird and Green-breasted Mango. We also had both ground-sparrows albeit with the briefest of views. The White-eared showed slightly better but the key endemic Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow only revealed its presence with a few call notes followed by a quick flutter to skulk in thick grass.

Good birding on nearby roads

On roads near Villa, good birding is also possible, the main challenge is finding a place to pull off the road. Although that was generally impossible, we were able to stop on a quiet road that passed through a coffee farm with a scattering of trees. The birding was pretty good and I bet it can result in a lot more than we saw during our 30 minute stop. The quaint calls of Blue-vented Hummingbirds greeted us as we stepped out of the car. Shortly after, a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew into a nearby tree and I was surprised to hear the croaking notes of a Keel-billed Toucan. After a bit of maneuvering, there it was, a beautiful bird with a fancy multi-colored beak and within site of the urbanized valley. Not long after I was even more surprised to hear Fiery-billed Aracaris.

Although this regional endemic is more typical of the rainforests on the southern Pacific slope, small numbers also occur in the southern and western parts of the Central Valley (including Villas San Ignacio). After a bit of waiting, two of this exotic beauty fly into the bare tree that already featured the parrots. Our brief stop was rounded out by hearing the ticking call of another Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow and watching three Ferruginous-Pygmy-Owls at close range.

Turf farms

Unexciting to all but grass enthusiasts and birders hell bent on seeing grasspipers, the latter bit is why I was excited to learn about the presence of these farms. I need to be checking them soon, hopefully with my partner because Upland and Buff-breasteds will be flying back this way, some likely already are. There weren’t any sandpipers visible the other day but it was still good to know where we can look for them.

Birding in Costa Rica is best in places with the most complex, developed habitats (large areas of intact primary forest) but some urban areas can still host much more than you think. Villa San Ignacio is one of those places, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com to learn more about birding and staying at this gem of site.

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bird finding in Costa Rica

Rare Birds at Quebrada Gonzalez and Lands in Love

A few days ago, I was quietly walking on trails through mature rainforest, places where the trees are giants that reach way up there into the sky. They capture a good portion of tropical sunlight hurled from above, in doing so, shading most that grows below. That combination of height, shade, and abundant vegetation makes it challenging to bird such habitats but these are also places that harbor the uncommon and the rare. The chance at something rare, at an uncommon surprise makes the challenge more than worth it because after all, even if you don’t find a ground-cuckoo or Bushmaster, you will see tanagers, listen to antbirds, and breathe in clean, O-rich air that clears the lungs and mind alike.

While guiding at Quebrada Gonzalez and Lands in Love, these were some of the rare highlights:

Quail-doves at Quebrada– The Olive-backed Quail-Dove isn’t actually rare but because it lives in a dark, heavily vegetated understory, it might as well be. Typically, a birder has to be lucky and settle on a glimpse of one waltzing across the path and away into the dim. On Friday, we saw three scoot away in the usual quail-dove way but then got onto two more that bucked the trend and foraged at close range. Having the chance to notice the subtle iridescence on the backs and necks of those shy rainforest birds was a gift.

Parrotlets at Quebrada!- Most parrot species in Costa Rica are straightforward about being seen because they have loud calls and boldly fly into view. Most except for the Red-fronted Parrotlet. Like a shy, nomadic finch wannabe, this small parrot roams from middle elevation forests to the foothills and lowlands and even right over the highlands. It’s hard enough to see in flight much less perched in dense vegetation. If I hadn’t heard them call, they would have remained invisible and uncounted. Even though they did call, I guess they were still sort of invisible because we never actually saw them! But, there they were, likely two birds calling from near a fruiting Melastome I assume they had been feeding on. No wonder so little is known about this near ghost.

Nice mixed flocks at Quebrada– This wonderful site often features busy flocks of tanagers and other birds. Happily for us, we had two or three flocks that gave good looks at White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald and other tanager species, Striped Woodhaunter, and some other birds. I had a glimpse of one Blue-and-Gold, and we both had nice looks at the uncommon and probable future split Ashy-throated Chlorospingus.

The chlorospingus from another day.

White Hawk at both sites– It’s always nice to see a raptor, especially this bold white beauty with black highlights. The one at Quebrada was seen perched against green forest from the overlook on the lower trail. The one at Lands in Love glimpsed as it flew screaming through the canopy.

Quail-doves at Lands in Love– It was a good couple of days for quail-doves! Deep in the forest at Lands in Love, we heard and saw quite well at least two Ruddy Quail-Doves. Then, not much further down the trail, I heard what I am sure was a rare Violaceous Quail-Dove, maybe even two. Unfortunately, it snuck off before we could see it. On an interesting side note, I had the impression that the structure of the primary forest was similar to Rincon de la Vieja, another site where this species is regular.

Ruddy Quail-Dove from the Osa Peninsula.

Some usual good birds at Lands in Love– As per usual, we also had several other “good birds”. These included views of Thicket Antpitta, Tawny-chested Flycatcher, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, hearing several Golden-crowned Spadebill and Nightingale Wren (we had seen one at Quebrada the day before), a glimpse of Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds, Spotted Antbird seen well, Song Wren, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Tawny-faced Gnatwren.

Spotted Antbird

Scaly-throated Leaftosser at Lands in Love– This uncommon species was one of our best, we even got the chance to watch it in leaf tossing mode.

Although we did not connect with the formerly regular Pittsoma at Quebrada, nor more typically vocal Keel-billed Motmots at Lands in Love (and not, I can assure, for lack of trying!), we still connected with other uncommon and rare species; this, the typical birding experience associated with careful observation in mature rainforest.