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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Looking for Year Birds on the Pacific Slope

It being September and still hoping to reach 700 species, we are getting into crunch time for a birding year. Yeah, we still have a few months to go before the cavalcade of fireworks announce the end of 2019 but now is when Cerulean Warblers move through the country. Now is when we have a chance at Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and some other choice species making their way to wintering grounds further south.

Mississippi Kite is one of those birds moving through Costa Rica right now.

With those avian options in mind and a day or two to work with in Costa Rica, it’s hard to pick where to go. The cloud forests at Tapanti and other sites hide several uncommon and rare species , most of which would be new for the year. There might be interesting migrants down there near sea level on the other side of the mountains, especially on the Caribbean. Then there are the shorebird sites on the Pacific. Throw in a chance at Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl and other high elevation birds on Irazu and the best spot for a bit of year birding in Costa Rica become less than obvious.

Scenery on Irazu.

Taking various factors into account, not the least of which was seeing how we could blend birding with some pool action for a non-birding 9 year old, we settled on the Pacific Coast. The warm lowlands are literally just down the “hill”, are relatively close and easier to do than say the cold mountains, and we could stay somewhere with a pool. Not to mention, sites like Punta Morales, Chomes, and other places on the Gulf of Nicoya always offer chances at the rare and unusual in addition to expected species.

We ended up staying at the Brisas del Mar Cabinas in Punta Morales. A small family run hotel with rooms that had air-conditioning, cable TV, and a fridge, although they didn’t have hot water, there was a nice little pool outside and shorebird-rich salt pans a brief jaunt down the road. The birds at the hotel were pretty standard dry forest species, our best being Spot-breasted Oriole singing from a tall tree in the garden. Just outside the hotel, a birder also finds a bird-rich blend of open fields, woodlands, and wetlands ripe for exploration.

With limited time, our exploration was likewise limited so we focused most of our birding time at the salt pans. After an early morning of occasional Dickcissel flocks flying high over the hotel, the afore-mentioned Spot-breasted Oriole, and a fantastic, rare Cave Swallow moving with Bank, Barn, and Cliff Swallows, we drove to our meeting with the wading birds from the Arctic.

As usual for Cocorocas at Punta Morales during high tide, the salt pans were dotted with at least a few hundred shorebirds, many of them calling and chattering from the shallow mud. Knowing that the birds can get up and leave at any moment, we got to scoping and scanning straight away. The most abundant species were Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet with lesser yet still impressive numbers of Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Sandpiper, and a few others.

Among those others were several chunky-cool Surfbirds, a few choice year Red Knots, one lone long overdue year Collared Plover, a single lesser Yellowlegs, and some terns. The long-winged swallows of the sea were mostly Royal and Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns along with one Gull-billed and our third year bird for the site, a single Caspian Tern. It was sweet to take in the deep red bill of that the big Caspian, finally marking that gullish tern down for the year.

We didn’t luck out with finding an American Golden Plover or other not so common shorebirds, nor did we find fortune with Mangrove Cuckoo or Mangrove Rail or the wood-rail but the birding was still satisfying (if mosquitoey). Nor did we find any of the few Upland Sandpipers that were moving through the country but just the day before a few had been seen at a site that we could fit in on the drive back so we still had a chance, and a good one. So, we did just that, exiting the busy highway to take the much quieter road from Ceiba to Orotina.

This is a really cool road because it passes through some interesting wide open wet pastures that tend to attract interesting birds. The only shame was not being able to take a lot more time to check out the area. Our birding was thus essentially a quick drive-by experience with occasional brief stops to scan the grass, and during light rain. Despite giving it a good try, no Uplands were to be had by us that day, nor any Buff-breasteds for that matter. As consolation, at least we know that other local birders who checked the site shortly after we did likewise dipped on the grasspipers.

However, we didn’t leave empty-handed. One female Purple Martin made an appearance to up the year list, and driving that road was a good reminder to dedicate more birding time on another day, preferably for a few hours in the morning. Grasshopper Sparrows have been seen there and I bet other surprises await on the Ceiba Road.

I’m not sure if we will get in any birding next weekend, but if so, no matter where we go, I know the birding will be satisfying. It always is in mega birdy Costa Rica.

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bird finding in Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Recent Birding at the Pocosol Station in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest

Costa Rica is a fantastic place for birding and not only because more than 900 species are on the official list. The observation of the avian side of life in Costa Rica also earns five stars because so much habitat is accessible. A birder doesn’t need to go far or walk for hours to see lots of birds; dozens of hummingbirds, tanagers, and even hawk-eagles are within two hour’s drive from the main airport.

Violet Sabrewing- one of those hummingbirds.

Of those places where birds thrive in Costa Rica, some sites are better than others simply because more mature forest is present. These are the sites where more species occur, where the rare ones live, and where the excellent birding acts as a window to times when the country was cloaked in a heavy, incredibly complex array of biodiversity.

These remaining heavily forested sites can also act as key nodes for ecosystem corridors required to adequately conserve biodiversity. One of those nodes is the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, an area of middle elevation and foothill rainforest that connects the Monteverde area to Arenal. Named after donations made by children to purchase much of the land in this protected area, as one might surmise, these forests offer up fantastic birding. A few sites provide access to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, one of them being the Pocosol Station.

Situated at 700 meters deep within the forests of the protected area, Pocosol is one of the better places to connect with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Purplish-Backed Quail-Dove, and many other uncommon species. The birding is typically excellent, these are some reflections from a recent trip:

The station has improved

The rooms are basic but still good with nice hot showers, and the service continues to be very accommodating. Tasty, local food, early coffee, good trails, and lots of birds.

Great birding from the balcony

Since the buildings are surrounded by forest, you don’t need to go far to see a lot! Birding from the balcony is good for many tanagers, mixed flocks, and views over the forest. We even had Ocellated Antbirds, Northern Schiffornis, and other forest species calling right next to the main building. The balcony birding is especially helpful during rain (which thankfully gave us a break last week).

You don’t need to go far to see a lot!

Birding around the edge of the small clearing and along the entrance road is excellent. We had a lot of activity with various species coming to fruiting trees. The best was the mixed flocks and and other birds just 100 yards from the station. While watching tanagers (including brief look at Blue-an-Gold), White-throated Thrush, and mixed flocks with Brown-billed Scythebill and other species, we also had point blank looks at a small group of Yellow-eared Toucanets!

Trails that also lead from the station get into excellent forest right away and can turn up pretty much anything.

Good for owls

As with any site that features quality habitat, owls are present. Mottled, Spectacled, and Black-and-White were all heard from our rooms. The Black-and-Whites were also seen in the small clearing, they apparently often use the clearing to hunt bats.

Miradores Trail? Be prepared

There are a few trails at Pocosol and they must be visited to see some of the more reclusive species. One of the best areas is back on the Miradores Trail heading to the waterfall. On past trips, we have heard Great Jacamar back there and others have had the monklet, umbrellabird, and other rare species. On our trip, I unfortunately made the mistake of taking the Laguna Trail to go to Miradores. Although the forest was beautiful, the combination of three small creek crossings and up and down trudging was a bit too much. If you go that route, just be prepared.

We didn’t see much but any part of that trail has a lot of potential, especially early in the morning. As for the other trails, they are all exciting. Some of our better species included Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, heard only Black-headed Antthrush, Song Wren, antbirds, and mixed flocks with Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and a brief look at Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner (!). We also saw Tawny-throated Leaftosser and heard Scaly-throated Leaftosser.

A dearth of raptors

One of the more surprising aspects of this trip was the lack of raptors. Although hawks and their taloned ilk are typically uncommon in Costa Rica, the places where they show more often are sites like Pocosol. Despite frequent scans of the sky and canopy, brief views of just one White Hawk along with a few vultures is worrisome.

Where were the oropendolas?

The other strange absence was that of the oropendolas. Whereas past trips have yielded a constant parade of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, neither were present on this one! There were also far fewer toucans. Where are the large frugivores? I am guessing that they had moved to areas with more food.

Take the road to Pocosol north of the Penas Blancas River

With road improvements, visiting the station has become much easier but it depends on which road is taken. Avoid the old road that goes from La Tigra because there is a very rough section that leads to an old, very much one lane bridge that looks ripe for collapse. Instead, take the road that leaves from near San Isidro on the north side of the Penas Blancas. This one still has a few rough parts but nothing compared to the other one and its precarious bridge.

Ye olde bridge to Pocosol.

As with other tropical forest sites with high degrees of biodiversity, a birder could visit Pocosol for a week and keep seeing new birds every day. That said, a day visit is still worth the trip. If going that route, I recommend staying at Finca Luna Nueva because the birding is also great there, this organic farm and eco-lodge also acts as a good base to bird other sites in the area, and staying there also supports regenerative agriculture. Need help in setting up your birding trip to Costa Rica? Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com .

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bird finding in Costa Rica

News for Birding in Costa Rica, September, 2019

Not many birders visit Costa Rica in September. The 9th month of the year and October see minimal visits for birding. This is on account of the rain and because most birders coming to Costa Rica prefer to coincide their visit with home equaling freezing cold, ice rain or other challenging conditions. I can’t blame them, if I still lived in the northern temperate zone, I would probably do the same. But what about that rain? What about the birding during fall in Costa Rica? Is it really that wet?

Although it does rain more at this time of year, it doesn’t rain all of the time AND, on the Caribbean slope, it can actually be quite dry. Throw in some millions of migrating birds and now is as good a time as many to go birding in Costa Rica. The following is a bit of birding news for the next two months:

Aplomado Falcon Twitch

The juvenile Aplomado Falcon that has been living in the middle of San Isidro del General is the biggest twitch that Costa Rica has ever seen. Even though we have had very few twitches, this one would always take the cake. In Costa Rica, the Aplomado Falcon is a vagrant species that has typically occurred closer to Nicaragua and just for a day or two. This bird has been present much further south since July and a good percentage of local birders have made the trip to see and photograph it. As a bonus, the falcon has also acted as a bird ambassador of sorts with its human neighbors and will hopefully spur more interest in birds and birding in the General Valley. We have yet to go, I sure hope the bird stays long enough for us to feel like making that long drive over the mountains.

Rufous-crested Coquette Twitch!

I suppose the discovery of an adult male Rufous-crested Coquette shows that one good twitch deserves another. This rare vagrant also showed in the southern zone, this time near San Vito. Various birders have gone to see it, even a few that had already done the Aplomado Falcon trip! Unlike the falcon, this special little bird probably won’t stay that long, likely leaving after the trees it has been feeding on have stopped flowering. Since we already did a long trip to San Vito earlier this year, I doubt we will be trying for this one. Hopefully, we could get extremely lucky and find our own coquette and falcon. I’m sure that a few more of both species are in Costa Rica, especially the coquette.

San Vito is also one of the few places to see Crested Oropendola in Costa Rica.

More megas on the way

With fall migration taking place, more rare and vagrant species for Costa Rica are surely in-country now or will be here soon. As always, the challenge is finding them. There could be several skulking Conn. Warblers near any number of regular sites but if no one birds there, they will never be found even if they decide to do a wood-warbler waltz in the middle of the road. Luckily, we do have more people in the field these days and that will increase the chances of locating choice megas.

The First South Caribbean Bird Count!

I am so pleased this is happening as I have always hoped for a bird count during fall migration on the southern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. The migration is excellent, the resident birding is also excellent, and this little birded area always has a lot to offer. Sadly, I don’t see how I can participate in the count but I am happy that many other local birders will be counting birds on the first weekend of October.

A typical site near Manzanillo.

Shorebirds

Major shorebird movements are happening in Costa Rica, mostly on the Pacific Coast but there are smaller numbers of birds that appear in estuaries and other bits of limited shorebird habitat on the shore of the Caribbean. The best shorebirding sites are the salt ponds at Punta Morales and Chomes but the birding can be likewise fantastic at Colorado, Ensenada, other sites in the Gulf of Nicoya, as well as near Parrita and any number of river mouths on the Pacific. Personally, I am hoping that we can get in at least one other trip to the Pacific Coast as well as a couple of trips to a couple of reservoirs to see if we can find Long-billed Dowitcher, Baird’s Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper.

Regarding places to visit, it’s hard to think of new sites that might stand out. The birding in Costa Rica is typically great and there are many many places to go birding. If I could make one suggestion, it would be to just get in as much birding time as you can in or near the largest areas of mature forest. These are the areas more likely to host populations of rare birds along with all of the common species along with lots of other wildlife. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page plus e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in the field!

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Birding Costa Rica migration

Fall Migration is On in Costa Rica

Autumn, it’s happening up north where the changes in Niagara bring salmon jumping in the river, leaves just beginning to turn gold and red, and wood-warblers chipping in the oaks. September birding for me in the north was flocks of infamous fall warblers calling and flitting in the trees of Goat Island. The migration back then could be intense, on one fall out morning I recall birds in every bush and tree. Vireos come with the wood-warblers and other migrants that fly far to the south, one bunch of species to the Caribbean, another bunch to Middle America and on into the Amazon.

In Costa Rica, we get that latter bunch of birds. This is why species like the deep beauty Black-throated Blue and the tail flicking Prairie Warbler are local megas. I would love to find one or two of those or a Palm Warbler would also be nice but us birders in Costa Rica can’t complain. How so with so much to see? Birds are everywhere but it’s a bonus to watch Golden-winged Warblers and even catch Ceruleans in migration. Both are regular in Costa Rica, the seriously uncommon Golden-winged even more so than the Cerulean.

Just as around Niagara, there are a lot of migrant Tennessee Warblers.

Ceruleans come through first and some are in country as I write. I hope we can see at least one before they fly further south, to do so will require birding time in the middle elevations and foothills on the other side of the mountains. I hope we get a chance to do that. With extreme luck we could even get one in front of the homestead, after all, some also pass through the Central Valley. So far, we have had other birds, the very first migrants showing in the hedge out front.

A female American Redstart has been foraging and chipping from a fig, it was nice to become reacquainted with the call and note that it is drier than the sweet chip of a Yellow. Speaking of that very common bird, we also had our first Yellow Warbler last week. A couple of quiet Red-eyed Vireos have been sharing the hedgerow with the redstart and other migrants have come in the form of a name saying Eastern Wood-Pewee and a chipping Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (our most common Empid.).

Many more wood-pewees will be moving through the Caribbean lowlands.

Even if the hedgerow birds hadn’t been present, we would still know it’s fall by the Cliff Swallows up above. The first groups have been foraging up there with the resident Blue-and-white Swallows and swifts , there are many more in the lowlands. Soon, there could well be hundreds of swallows passing overhead as the bulk of their population moves south.

A great many Barn Swallows will also be passing through.

I hope we can venture further afield to find more birds of the fall but there’s still plenty to see right out front. The more we watch, the more likely we will find a rare Black-billed Cuckoo or other choice year bird and the more we check the coast, the more shorebirds we will see (lots of those are passing through in full force right now!). At this time of the year, the birds are out there, maybe even next door (!), you just gotta keep watching no matter where you may find yourself.