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Birding Costa Rica

Watching Birds through Windows in Costa Rica

I would much rather be outside. I know that echoes how most of us feel but it’s still worth mentioning. It would be nice to be up there in the mossy forests of the mountains visible through the back window. Up there, almost within reach, groups of chattering Sooty-capped Bush-tanagers mix it up with Flame-throated Warblers, Yellow-winged Vireos, and other birds that evolved to play avian roles in the unique montane habitats of southern Central America.

Right now, at the start of the breeding season, the woods up on Poas and Barva are haunted by the fairy songs of Black-faced Solitaires, the healing rhythms of Mountain Thrushes and the cheerful tune of gnomish Gray-breasted Wood-wrens. With luck and knowing where to look, you could certainly see a Resplendent Quetzal, have close views of Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatchers feasting on berries, might even find a reclusive, rare Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl.

Take my mind over that mountain and I fly over a lush canopy of cloud forest grading into lowland rainforest, accompanied all the way by a few hundred bird species. Flocks of glittering, chipping tanagers, woodcreepers whistling from the ravines, Toucans perched up high, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle giving a lethal warning as it whistles while soaring in the misty surroundings.

If we only lived closer to that mountain, we might see some of those birds from the window. But it’s not a complete loss, I can’t, I won’t complain about our window birding because it’s always good. At least we have a window to watch from, in complete gratitude I can say that we are healthy at this moment and there are birds. We hear a Crested Bobwhite call every morning. It sounds so close, we suspect it might even be hiding in the tall grass just across the street. I haven’t seen it yet, perhaps my scanning hasn’t been careful enough.

Grayish Saltators, Clay-colored Thrushes, and Yellow-green Vireos are always singing and many other avian possibilities keep me looking out the windows both back and front. Today, just before lunch, an Eastern Kingbird was perched on a high branch,waiting out the rain on its long journey north. Where will it go? Could be anywhere, could be a field in northeastern Pennsylvania where a much younger version of myself did some window watching from my aunt and uncle’s place. Fred and Chris, they lived in a small two story place, the back windows overlooked a wet meadow and small marsh that bordered woods that went up and over the surrounding hills. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and other eastern woodland birds would frequent trees just outside the window.

I used to watch the birds that came to the windows, scan the hillside, and become absorbed by the fantastic beauty of summer in the woods of Pennsylvania. “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac was the perfect auditory accompaniment. A lazy, drifting ride, it fit the timeless view.

Scanning a clearing on the hillside, I had always hoped to see a bear. I saw plenty of deer wagging their tales as they walked down through a clearing but never a bear even though they did live in those woods. But there were other birds too; flyby Great Blue Herons, Belted Kingfishers, and raptors. Other birds perched down below where I had seen my lifer Yellow-throated Vireo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and other species. That was in 1983.

In 2020 Costa Rica, I look out the window and during the winter months, we have those same species of vireo, hummingbird, and grosbeak. They left a few weeks ago but there are other backyard birds to look for; Yellow-green Vireos, kiskadees, and Masked Tityras to ponder over. Watching the Red-billed Pigeon power through the sky, the extra fast swifts cut through the air and the Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers calling from bare trees will act as practice for when we can walk trails in wilder habitats, go to the places where the umbrellabirds, ground-cuckoos, and large raptors live over on the other side of the mountain.

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Birding Costa Rica

Pondering Swifts and Swallows during Quarantine Birding in Costa Rica

Costa Rica isn’t actually under quarantine but it sort of is. Although we could legally drive a few hours up to the cold heights of Cerro de la Muerte to look for Volcano Juncos and Peg-billed Finches, we don’t because everyone is strongly encouraged to stay at home, to not go out unless you really need to. Although it’s easy to say that well, yeah, we need to go up there, we need to be in the woods (and I do feel like we need that…), we can also wait for another, better time.

Not to mention, on certain days, driving restrictions keep us off the streets and then back inside during the night. So, as with many other birders, we watch birds from and quite close to home. In my case, this means doing most birding from the small balcony out back. The habitat along the stream could be much better but it’s something and birds do use it. The skies also feature birds, many in fact and today, I found myself focusing on the swallows and swifts that harvest the insect bounty over the neighborhood.

Now that the rains have begun, cloudy weather and a better supply of bugs have brought more of these aerialists to our neck of the Central Valley. Today, these are the sky birds I saw and some of the questions that came to mind:

White-collared Swift

Big, bold swifts, several flew low and screamed over the houses. Up north, there’s nothing like them, in Europe, think of slightly bigger Alpine Swifts that have a white collar on dark underparts instead of a dark breast band. These big swifts leisurely cover ground in a matter of seconds, I wonder how far they go, where they come from? They have to roost behind waterfalls, the ones that visit here likely flew from somewhere around the cloud forests of Poas or Braulio Carillo but who knows, they could have come from many more miles away. Are they the same ones that visit each day? Is this particular valley part of their aerial territories? Do they even have those?

Chestnut-collared Swift

A bit smaller than the White-collareds, a few of these dark, air-scything bids are present pretty much every morning. Today, they also flew low over the houses making it possible to clearly see the brown on their throats. They also seemed to be either partaking in courtship or were fighting over air space. The same questions come to mind as for their larger cousins.

Vaux’s Swift

Our local, everyday swift, these birds probably don’t come from that far away. These are neighborhood birds in every sense of the word and typically forage low over the houses, in doing so, keeping company with the ubiquitous Blue-and-white Swallows.

Blue-and-white Swallow

Our common swallow, they nest on houses and can line the roadside wires in the early morning. They can forage over just about any height but tend to zip and dive just over the houses and, especially, over tall trees where they undoubtedly feast on small, swarming insects. Like a Tree Swallow with a dark vent and flanks, and slightly longer forked tail.

Barn Swallow

Another common migrant and wintering species in Costa Rica, they don’t need barns around here. These beautiful, familiar birds often forage low over nearby fields but can also join the other swallows flying over the houses as they did today. Where will they go? To green fields in update New York? To the wide open vistas of Kansas and eastern Colorado? Anywhere is possible.

Cliff Swallow

A handsome bird, the dark throat is what stands out the most when it flies way up there in the blue. Although just one was around here today, during rain on the previous day, 20 to 30 were busy feasting amid the falling water. Millions migrate through Costa Rica although many fly high up there, way overhead. As with the Barns, I wonder where they will nest this summer.

Bank Swallow

I was pleased to see one of these small swallows this morning. A year bird (!) and hopefully the first of many that will fly through these skies. Millions of these also fly through Costa Rica and they can still zip through during May. Pale below and with a thin breast band, the slight appearance also helps it stand out from the Rough-wingeds. In a month, the Banks seen these days will be visiting holes in the sides of sandy river banks and other similar spots.

Eventually, the large swifts flew higher and higher until they hid in plain sight up there in the blue. The migrant swallows eventually disappeared, who knows where they will be spending the night. Could be anywhere from somewhere around here to habitat near Lake Nicaragua. I wonder what will be flying around here tomorrow?

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biodiversity birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

New Place in Costa Rica, New Yard List

We recently moved to a new place in Costa Rica. In birding terms, that translates to a new yard list! Fortunately, as with the old place, the birding will be boosted by us being situated right next to green space in a riparian corridor. As is typical for much of the urbanized Central Valley, such areas act as veins of life, trains of biodiversity that keep chugging along, patiently and stubbornly waiting for their chance to grow beyond the banks and borders of the urban frontier. Not that far from the old place, I expected the bird scene to be somewhat similar but given the more natural, untamed look of the green corridor out back, I hope for more.

After a few days, the bird list has been similar but with more observations the list should grow and include more migrants. At least that’s what I hope, my birding hopes and dreams already envision migrant cuckoos coming into view and the calls of Veery and Gray-cheeked Thrush filtering up through the dense vegetation. A few uncommon migrant wood-warblers would also be nice! Wishful thinking but there’s nothing wrong with that. Without the hope of looking, working to find birds, we wouldn’t see anything. You gotta put in the time to convert that which is possible into reality, if I keep looking out back every morning, one of these days, something unusual will come out of the woodwork. In the meantime, there’s lots of other more regular birds to see, some of which include these ones:

So far, we have noticed Tropical Mockingbirds in the area, a few sing from the roadside wires every morning.

Rufous-naped and Cabanis’s Wrens sing from the dense growth, yesterday, I also heard a Rufous-and-white Wren.

The birds that have surprised us have been Barred Antshrike, White-eared Ground-Sparrow, and Giant Cowbird. Although the presence of such species is far from shocking, we didn’t expect there to be enough habitat to support the antshrike and sparrow. As for the cowbird, there are apparently enough oropendolas around to bring them to the birding table as well as a small farm with cows that also attracts them.

The flyby scene has been perhaps the most interesting with such species as Short-tailed, Gray, and Broad-wingeds Hawks, cowbirds, migrant Cliff Swallows, and swifts (White-collared, Vaux’s, Chestnut-collared, and probable Spot-fronted).

Migrants such as Baltimore Oriole, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-throated Vireo were still here a few days ago but they may have already left. I wonder where they will go, where will they spend the summer? What will they see and experience on the long flight north?

There are also classic garden birds like Red-billed Pigeons, Rufous-tailed and Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Blue-gray Tanager, Great-tailed Grackle, Melodious Blackbird, and others.

Feel like following our yard list during these trying homebound times? Check out our garden eBird list Villa Flores Tyto. Watch our list to know common species are waiting in Costa Rica shortly after exiting the airport. No trips right now but eventually things will be back to normal and these and hundreds of other birds will be waiting!