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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Two Megas in 30 Minutes at La Fortuna

Any day that involves binoculars and birds is a good one. Even if the only birds you see are common, familiar species, hey, at least you are out there watching them! Even so, it’s extra nice when the day is exceptional, when the birding day treats you to rare, unexpected sights with little effort. That’s how January 23 was for Mary and I and unless we chance upon an extra large eagle in the next 12 months, the bird luck from this particular day will be hard to beat.

Since we had already planned on getting in some birding while stopping at Freddo Fresas and Cinchona, the drive over the mountains would have always been good. When Mary told me that an Aplomado Falcon had been seen in the middle of La Fortuna on January 23rd, though, we suddenly had expectations for a much more exciting trip! This species wanders to Costa Rica pretty much every year but they are few in number and tend to be sporadic. Last year, fortunately, many local birders got onto a young bird that took up residence in San Isidro del General and for all I know, it may still be there. However, since heading over the tall Talamanca Mountains is quite a drive for us, we never made the trip. Therefore, hearing about an Aplomado at La Fortuna and on a day when we were already scheduled to be in that area was welcome news indeed!

I figured we could still drive past Poas and Cinchona and just go to La Fortuna before continuing on to San Carlos. Hopefully the falcon would stick around for at least the morning and en route, we should be able to get an update about the whereabouts of the bird.

Off we went on the morning of the 23rd, our hopes lifted by reports and photos of the falcon taken the same time we left the house. The stop at Freddo Fresas was more to talk to the owners about promoting birding, something they are very much interested in doing, that watching birds. We saw little in the garden but I will give it a thorough morning check within a week and will likely write about finding a roosting screech-owl. Wishful thinking but if the luck from the 23rd continues, I should find an owl, Dusky Nightjar, and a rare warbler in a couple of hours.

As for Cinchona, we actually didn’t even stop. With barbets, hummingbirds, and a stealthy quail-dove possible, not stopping for at least a few minutes would seem to be an odd decision for a birder to make. However, some species take precedence over others and it was the message Mary received somewhere between Freddo Fresas and Varablanca that gave us serious reason to make haste for La Fortuna.

Believe it or not, we passed on seeing this bird…

Not only was the falcon still present but so was another mega for Costa Rica, a Palm Warbler! I know, most birders from eastern North America would wonder how “mega” and “Palm Warbler” could be linked in any way or form but one place’s common bird is another’s mega and in Costa Rica, the Palm Warbler is a serious mega. Like the falcon, it also shows just about every year or two but there seem to be very few that can be chased. In classic Patagonia Rest Stop effect fashion, this Palm was discovered by two local birders while they were watching the Aplomado. They also took photos. I know because when I glanced at the image of a Palm Warbler on Mary’s phone while driving on the mountain pass between Poas and Barva Volcanoes, I nearly slammed on the brakes in surprise.

From that moment, our trip suddenly became a drive with just one main destination, the aptly named town of La Fortuna. We could only hope that the place would live up to its name because birds do fly, disappear, and get eaten even on the same day you race to see them. The only way to increase your chances is getting there sooner rather than later so with that in mind, we sped right past Cinchona and kept moving, only making one brief stop to check out some Red-breasted Meadowlarks on the way.

As we drove into La Fortuna, we went into search mode, scanning the tops of buildings and watching the sky for the telltale shape of a large lanky falcon. I wondered if it might be in the tallest spot in town and sure enough, as we approached the town plaza, there was indeed a suspicious lump of a bird perched on the very top of the main church. A quick look through optics confirmed that yes, the Aplomado was still present! Like most reports from Costa Rica, it was a young bird and one that made us think of a cross between a Peregrine and Bat Falcon with a dash of Merlin.

You can’t see it but there’s an Aplomado Falcon in this picture. Similarly, there’s probably a Barn Owl in there too, just inside the steeple.

After a few more looks, we had a tense, straightforward drive to the Palm Warbler spot; a small baseball field bordered by trees, a chain link fence, and a small bull ring. Yes, you read that right, perfect Palm Warbler habitat. Luckily, there was a place to park the car and we started pishing in earnest. A Yellow Warbler responded and we scanned the grass. We walked to the corner of the field and glassed a promising brush pile. House Sparrows chipped, a Ruddy Ground-Dove flew into view but not our target bird! I pished some more and wondered if the bird had somehow given us the slip. But during one of those silly bouts of pishing, I was pretty sure that I had heard a dry chip note, one that was not a Yellow nor Chestnut-sided but the likely voice of Mega numero dos. Mary suggested checking the trees again where it had been seen and sure enough, as we approached, I glimpsed a warbler flying up from the ground. After a few seconds of scanning the foliage, yes, there it was in all of its tail wagging distinctive glory, a lovely Palm Warbler and my 807 bird for Costa Rica!

We watched Mega Dos for a few minutes, wondering out loud how we could be so lucky and then went back to the falcon to admire it in that relaxed, post successful twitch mode. The falcon was still on top of the church but it looked restless. It was looking back and forth and having doubtlessly scared all the other birds away, didn’t really have any prey in sight. We watched as it stretched its wings and took to the air, big and lanky, flying higher and higher up towards the circling vultures. The last I saw it, it was way up there, a silhouette kind of like a Mississippi Kite. I hope it comes back, I hope it finds enough pigeons to eat in one trusty spot so more birders can see it. As with any twitch, we would have never known about this nor the warbler if other birders hadn’t found and reported them. Many thanks to Erick Castro and Gerald Pereira for doing just that!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

The Carara Ecotone, Two and Half Days, 210 species

Ecotones always make for exciting birding. Where else can a birder get optics on one suite of species in the morning and a totally different bunch of birds in the afternoon? In Costa Rica, points where biodiversity converge and mingle are the norm. Drive a couple hours in one direction and we see the spectacular reds of Scarlet Macaws in flight above and the precious blues of Turquoise-browed Motmots closer to the ground. Drive two hours in the other direction and comical toucans yelp from the canopy while Chestnut-backed Antbirds and tinamous whistle from the humid undergrowth.

Another direction takes us to cooler elevations where quetzals, Black Guans, and several other endemics occur, yet another direction leads to a different group of endemic birds including the stunning Baird’s Trogon.

In a country where ecotones are the norm, it’s tough to pick a winner but in terms of biodiversity, the Carara area is probably the top ecotone in Costa Rica. Thanks to a crossroads of mangroves, dry forest, humid forest, and wetland habitats, the Carara ecotone is one heck of a birdy place. Keep looking and you will keep seeing more, while guiding there during the past few days, I recorded 210 species. These are some of the highlights and other things noted from that visit:

Tinamous and other tame birds

On account of the national park receiving so many visitors, many of the animals have become quite accustomed to people, birds included. Watch carefully for tinamous in the undergrowth and you might spy one or two right next to the trail. I did on both visits along with Streak-chested Atpitta, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Ruddy Quail-Doves, Orange-collared Manakins, and other birds.

Get in there at 7, be out by 4

During the high season (that would be now on through April), thankfully, the national park opens at 7. Six would be best but 7 is still better than 8! Get in there as soon as the park opens to be first on the trails and to catch more of the avian action. Unfortunately, you gotta be out by 4. Lately, the park has been strict about this rule, even evicting people on the trails at four. At the Meandrica Trail, the parking lot guard won’t even stay past 4 and you shouldn’t either because vehicle break-ins at that particular spot are a regular affair (when no one is there to watch the car).

Water, hydration, and heat

It’s hot and sunny at the Carara ecotone. Stay hydrated when out on the trails and take it easy! The good thing about being on the trails is that you at least have shade.

A busy bridge, some traffic jams

The crocodile bridge is being worked on, we can only hope that the work will be finished in a few weeks or a month. In the meantime, there are occasional traffic jams and always more vehicles than you expect. I was surprised to see so many on Monday morning at 6 a.m. where truck after car after bus rushed on past. We were scanning the brush for Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, it called a couple times but failed to come closer, maybe it was smarter than us for refusing to approach the busy road.

Mixed flocks

The forest was good for mixed flocks, it was nice to get repeated looks at several woodcreepers, Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner, Dot-winged and Slaty Antwrens, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, White-shouldered Tanager, and Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers.

Try the Jaco Teleferico road

The road leading back to the Teleferico area and beyond can yield an excellent mix of species. Some of the special birds we saw included Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Slate-colored Seedeater among others.

In the Carara ecotone, the birding is hot but it yields one species after another. Stay hydrated, stay in the shade, and be prepared to put your binoculars to the test!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Pacific slope

More Birds in Guanacaste

Mary and I began the birding year in the dry and moist forests of the southern Nicoya Peninsula, many of the birds coming from the Tambor bird count and beautiful Raptor Ridge. That hot, dry birding was so nice, we followed it up with a quick two day birding jaunt to the Pacific coast. Since we didn’t have much time to bird the Cerro Lodge and Jaco area, (we were visiting for other reasons, I know, incredible but true), it was more like one day of birding but the trip was still worth the drive to those sun-smashed windy lowlands. That said, thanks to Jose’s Crocodile Tours, we were still able to see some birds on the Tarcoles River during a fun, two hour tour.

The winter months are the best time of the year to visit sites from Tarcoles to Nicaragua, especially for local birders because this is when we might find rare migrants from the north like American Wigeon and other ducks, Violet-green Swallow, various wood-warblers, sparrows, and who knows what else. Being rare, they are naturally difficult to find but because every bit of birding counts, we took advantage of the chance to drive north and see what we could find.

Luckily, the drive coincided with a high tide visit to shorebird hotspot Punta Morales. There could have been more terns and other birds but we still did well with seeing the Long-billed Curlew that has been using that site along with various other expected shorebird species. No ducks but we still had more chances further up the road.

Not knowing where to stay in Liberia, we opted for spending the night at a budget priced hotel in Canas and then making the early hour drive in the morning to our main destination, the Lakeside Catfish Farms. These farms might now be used more for cattle but in any case, they still have ponds that act as a hotspot for waterbirds and other species. Since this is a private farm, you should call this number to make arrangements to enter- 2667 0022. Keep in mind that the person you will talk with probably won’t speak English and they charge $6 entrance fee that can be paid to them if/when they arrive to open the gate. This would be the first yellow gate on the way to Playas del Coco.

We arrived around 7 in the morning and started seeing birds right away. Orchard Orioles, Morelet’s Seedeaters, and other bird species were flying from roosting sites in the reeds, small groups of Dickcissels were calling and flitting from bush to bush, a Blue Grosbeak perched on a bush next to an Indigo Bunting for a perfect comparison, and other species of the dry forest called from the surrounding trees.

A tree with Dickcissels.

We had to search a bit to find the ducks, all of which were flighty and a reminder that they are hunted at various spots during migration and probably right at the Catfish Farms from time to time. We had to move around a bit to find the best vantage point but eventually had good looks at at a few hundred Blue-winged Teals, some American Coots, and one Northern Shoveler. No wigeon nor Masked Duck for us, we just didn’t have enough time to continue looking for those or other birds. Nor did Spotted Rail respond to playback, I wish we could have had more time and access for a thorough survey of that site because various choice birds are indeed hiding out there in the reeds and other scrubby vegetation around the ponds. Hopefully on another day!

Next on the list was a stop at Playa Panama, a scenic beach with calm waters where a Brown Booby fished close to shore. One Short-tailed Hawk and a Common Black-Hawk also flew over at some point but we didn’t see too much else. After that, we passed through Las Trancas but because the fields were so dry, we just kept going. Instead, we stopped for lunch at the small Italian bakery of Amadulce in the Papagayo Plaza. Good pizza, pastries, macaroons- recommended!

After enjoying quality pizza, we made our way back to Canas to check the Sandillal Reservoir.

This spot is one of Costa Rica’s best duck hotspots. During the winter months, it acts as a very important site for Blue-winged Teal and other species in search of water as the surrounding countryside dries up. During our visit, there were at least 3,000 teal, probably more like 4,000. We also found several Lesser Scaup but despite as much scanning as possible, just couldn’t find anything else. I still can’t help but feel that a few rarities were out there somewhere hiding among the hordes of teal. It was also a challenge to see most of them well so I left the site wondering what else may have been present. It will be interesting if someone else finds a rarity or two at Sandillal during the next few weeks.

With a long drive ahead of us on roads shared with slow going trucks, that ended up being our final stop for the trip. Although I always want to do more birding, you just gotta make do with what you can. The trip was still a good one in any case and with several nice year birds. I wonder which birds I will see next?

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica dry forest

The Tambor Christmas Bird Count, 2020

Several CBCs take place in Costa Rica and I have participated in most of them at one time or another. However, a few have been missing from my personal count repertoire, one of those being the Tambor Bird Count, an event that has taken place since 2012. Organized by Juan Carlos Cruz of the Tambor Tropical resort, and Ruth Rodriguez of Rainforest Publications and Raptor Ridge, this count has provided valuable data about bird populations and has helped promote birding in one of the least birded parts of the country.

The Nicoya Penisula doesn’t often find itself on the itineraries of birders visiting Costa Rica because not only does getting there involve a bit of a detour from the usual birding circuit, but also because few people know about the quality birding in that area. On January 4th, accompanied by Mary and her daughter Samantha, I finally got the chance to help count birds near Tambor in the southern Nicoya Peninsula and in doing so, get a good taste of what sort of birding this part of the country can offer. Since I was always impressed with the habitat on the few occasions when I had birded the area in the past, it was exciting to head back and take part in an official count. These were some of the highlights and happenings:

The ferry ride

Knowing what might show at any time in the Gulf of Nicoya, for me, the boat ride between Puntarenas and Paquera is always a highlight. On January 3rd, although the boat was full of folks heading to the peninsula for vacation and didn’t leave until 9 a.m., we still managed to see a few birds looking between and through the other passengers. The best happened while waiting to put the car on the ferry. While casually scanning the water from shore, I could hardly believe it when a Black Storm-Petrel materialized in my field of view! I have seen this and two other species of storm-petrel a few other times from the point at Puntarenas, always where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf but finding one of these special marine birds is always an unexpected treat. From the point and looking past the many people on the boat itself, we also had looks at Sandwich, Black, and Elegant Terns, two Common Terns, and one Least Storm-Petrel that was working a drift line.

Nice organization

The count was wonderfully organized and had eager groups of birders counting on several different routes. During the count meeting at Tambor Tropical, after enjoying a delicious welcome drink in the form of a coconut flavored cocktail, Juan Carlos and Ruth told us about the history of the count and how they have been promoting birding and the conservation of Scarlet Macaws in the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula. And yes, Scarlet Macaws are doing very well in that area, we saw them every day!

Curu Wildlife Refuge

Our count route included the Curu Wildlife Refuge, a large hacienda that protects tropical dry forest, mangroves, and other habitats along with a beautiful beach. It was the beach that drew the many day visitors we saw but Curu is also an excellent site for birding. While walking the main road and a few trails, we had more than 80 species including such birds as Collared Aracari, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, White-necked Puffbird, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and others. Although we did not get lucky with the elusive and rare Pheasant Cuckoo, nor any quail-doves, these birds have been found at Curu in the past.

Nice, easy birding

Overall, the Tambor area was nice, easy birding. There were plenty of forest, edge, and coastal habitats easily accessed on any number of roads, and many species are possible including Elegant Trogon, occasional Plain Chachalaca, and Scarlet Macaws among many other common dry forest species.

Limited choices for food

If you do visit the area, be prepared for fairly limited dining options. There are a few good options at Tambor and many more in Montezuma but don’t expect much between Tambor and Paquera!

Raptor Ridge

A visit to this exciting site was a fantastic way to begin the year because I heard about Raptor Ridge for some time and seen photos of various birds from there. So, with anticipation, we accepted an invitation from Larry Langstrom, Ruth Rodriguez, and their daughter to stay the night at this special place and found ourselves heading up a track into the hills above the Tambor area.

The stunning view from Raptor Ridge.

Although we didn’t have time to bird the road in, it goes through nice habitat where others have seen quite a few species. At Raptor Ridge itself, we were treated to near constant views of Painted Buntings and other birds visiting a small water feature at the edge of the forest. Since some of those other birds included Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Yellow-billed Cacique, and Worm-eating Warbler, a birder can’t go wrong in sitting back and watching what comes in!

One of the many Painted Buntings, the most common species at the water feature.

At the same time, fruiting trees planted by Larry and Ruth also brought in Western Tanagers, Philadelphia Vireos, and other species while in keeping with the name of the place, King Vultures were seen at close range and we also recorded such other raptors as Collared Forest Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and White Hawk. The nocturnal raptor scene was replete with Mottled Owl, a distant heard only Black-and-white Owl, and a fantastic close look at a Middle American Screech-Owl!

One of those King Vultures!

As for the count, our total of 80 plus species was part of a grand total of more than 230 including several pelagic species seen from a boat taken out by Wilfredo “Pollo” Villalobos of Cabuya Birdwatching, and such species as Plain Chachalaca, Northern Potoo, Elegant Trogon, and other birds seen by the many other participants. It goes without saying that much of the success of the count happened thanks to organization along with local birders like Ruth, Juan Carlos, Pollo, and Ariel Rojas Cruz who knew just where to find Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. I look forward to visiting this beautiful area again and hope to see it added to the official ICT Costa Rica bird route.

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Introduction

First Birds of 2020- Common Species of the Central Valley

Today, the main subject of birder talk revolves around the first species of the year. Whether checking off the first bird of a Big Year or just casually perusing the sticks in the backyard through a personal vapor trail of bird-friendly coffee, we can’t help but mention the first bird identified. Birders who count birds by ear will likely hear the call of a chickadee, House Sparrow or other backyard denizen, those who only like to watch might see a crow or Mourning Dove or White-winged Dove if you happen to be in Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the inaugural bird species of 2020 also depends on where one happens to start the birding year. For many of us local birders, we won’t begin the year in rainforest, instead we will hear the weird whistles of Great-tailed Grackles and other urban garden species of the Central Valley. However, it’s not all grackles and Great Kiskadees in the urban zone. If a birder lives near enough green space, quite a few other species are also possible. I began this morning with the calls of Rufous-naped Wrens heard outside the bedroom window followed by several other species from the front of the homestead.

The birds I saw and heard were expected and quite a few more have yet to make themselves known. I also keep looking because many other species are possible especially during the winter months. Will some uncommon wintering wood-warbler fly into view? Will a rare for Costa Rica Cooper’s Hawk stalk the riparian zone down the street? You have to keep looking, as the Urban Birder says, “Look up!”

Coming to Costa Rica? I hope so, my inaugural 2020 bird list may give an idea of what to expect when you get here:

Red-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
White-fronted Parrot
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Rufous-naped Wren
Cabanis’s Wren
Clay-colored Thrush
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Montezuma Oropendola
Baltimore Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Summer Tanager
Grayish Saltator