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bird finding in Costa Rica bird photography Birding Costa Rica

When to Start Planning a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

We are in the midst of a pandemic and in some countries, the number of cases are growing apace. The threats posed by this novel illness make for worrisome times indeed but does it also mean that we can’t make plans for the future? Does it mean that we have to put birding and everything else on permanent hold? First and foremost, we should of course all be very careful and take precautions to avoid being infected with this virus, and do what it takes to avoid infecting others. However, being careful and concerned doesn’t mean that we should forget about taking birding trips.

A birder should look forward to laying eyes on the Northern Emerald Toucanet.

It might seem like this pandemic will never end but it eventually will and even before then, international travel will happen. Protocols to accept visitors are already being formulated in some places including Costa Rica and the government has even stated that the airports will open on August 1st. Yes, this means that the country will re-open (!) but before cracking open that champagne, keep in mind that it’s not a grand opening with a welcome sign visible from the peak of Chirripo Mountain. This is a limited opening for countries that have shown signs of containing the virus. For the moment, this means VIP status for such nations as New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland. By August, though, more countries might get that golden ticket for reentry and there’s a fair chance that more will make it onto the list by October and the end of the year.

As far as planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, this also means that birders should definitely start looking into a trip and if you happen to be from any of the three countries mentioned above, you could probably look into a trip for August. Birders from other countries can think about Costa Rica later in the year and especially for 2021. Since the best birding trips are planned far in advance, I would suggest starting to plan that trip now.

Plan on seeing Emerald Tanager among hundreds of other eye-catching species.

Start looking into where you would like to go, start thinking about the type of trip you would like to do, what you would like to see and when you would like to go. Keep in mind that there are many birds to see at any time of the year and Costa Rica will be ready and waiting. I would also love to help you plan your trip, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Why Get a Field Guide for Costa Rica Now?

With the world on hold, now might not seem to be the ideal time to plan a birding trip. It might not appear to be the best moment to buy a field guide, look into tours, and figure out which birds a birder wants to see the most.

The Ornate Hawk-Eagle is high on the target list of many a birder.

Although it’s arguably silly to plan a tour for a given date without knowing when the destination will be open, now is actually perfect to think about traveling for birding, buying field guides, and dreaming of target species. Here’s why:

Destinations Will Eventually Open

Any type of limbo can present serious challenges to seeing the end of the tunnel because in the absence of a definite time frame, it’s that much harder to envision when something will happen. We think of the future and it seems to be blocked by black velvet paintings of uncertainty, by what ifs and unforeseen problems. When that happens, we need to sit back, have a tequila or eat a donut or whatever you need to do to ground yourself and push the mental curtains of uncertainty aside to be able to look at things through realistic, hopeful eyes. In the case of world travel, it’s more than likely that countries will eventually open back up and when they do, they will be more than eager for visitors. It will be a fantastic time to travel and it will eventually happen. Nothing better to do that be ready for it!

It Pays to be Prepared for a Birding Trip

Speaking of being ready for a trip, birding trips require a special degree of preparation. Yeah, you could jump on a plane to Australia or Fiji at a moment’s notice but you wouldn’t be any bit of ready for the birding. You would have no idea what to look for, what to identify, where to go, nor where to stay. It would sort of be like some happy go lucky nightmare situation. Whether visiting Polynesia, France, or Costa Rica, it’s far better to be over prepared than wondering what you are looking at and lamenting about birds and cool places missed during and after the trip. The more time you have to study, the less stressful and more fulfilling the trip will be. With that in mind, start studying for Costa Rica now to have the best and most satisfying trip possible.

You don’t want to miss seeing an Emerald Tanager.

Get a field guide in advance and you can take as much time as you want to learn about the lifers you will eventually see. Learn about different families of birds, learn how to identify everything from woodcreepers to hummingbirds, pick the birds you want to see the most. In the case of a digital field guide, you can mark target species, study birds by region, by family, make notes, and listen to their songs while looking at images of the birds you hope to see.

Part of the Fun is Getting Ready for the Trip

Not to mention, a big part of going somewhere isn’t just being there for the experience. It’s also getting ready for the trip, looking into places, trying to get an idea, a picture of what to expect. It doesn’t just make for better preparation, thinking about that trip also gives you something to look forward to, life goals to meet, and most of all, birds waiting to be seen. Check out field guides, decide which ones to get and buy them. Once you have that book in hand, that digital field guide on your phone, you are already on your way to Costa Rica.

Time On Our Hands

If anything, during a pandemic, many a birder has more time on his or her hands. It’s a perfect time to look into and study for future trips. Use these days, these months, to get ready for birding far afield.

Supporting Tours is Support for Conservation

I should also mention that looking into tours now and maybe even signing up for one translates to support for conservation. Most birding tours actively support local conservation efforts either directly and/or indirectly. The sooner you can safely reserve or sign up for lodging or a birding tour, the sooner you will be making a difference for people who often act as the front line of protection for tropical forests.

Conservation for endangered species like the Great Green Macaw.

Think Positive!

Most days, the news isn’t exactly on the bright side of the spectrum but that doesn’t change the fact that many vaccines are being worked on, many people are doing their best to make it through this pandemic and safely open as soon as possible, and that this will eventually pass. Stay safe, support conservation and start planning for that trip, the birds will be waiting.

Want to think about birding in Costa Rica? You can’t go wrong with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book with information on where to go birding, what the birding is like in Costa Rica, and how to identify many of the species waiting to be seen.

Fancy birds like the Violet-headed Hummingbird.

As far as field guides go, the book I recommend is the handy and excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean. The size of the book is right as are the excellent illustrations, information and range maps.

Since no modern birding trip would be complete without a digital field guide, I also recommend the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Yes, I do work on it and because we want birders to have a trip of a lifetime, we have made a steady set of improvements since its inception. A birder can now customize their app with target lists, notes on birds, good range maps, and much more. Since the latest update includes information and range maps for every bird on the Costa Rica list, multiple images for 919 species, and sounds for 829 of them, this birding app is just as excellent for reference and planning for a trip as it is in the field (even I use it pretty much every day!).

Start planning a trip to Costa Rica today, birds like this Fiery-throated Hummingbird will be waiting.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Common Birds of the Cafetal

Coffee farms or “cafetales” aren’t one of the original natural habitats of Costa Rica but since they have been here for more than 100 years, a lot of birds have become adapted to this “modern” green space. Although biodiversity on coffee farms depends on how many trees are present and degree of pesticide use, they can harbor a good number of birds and other wildlife.

The types of plants and animals housed among rows of dark green bushes with occasional trees can’t compare to the ecological latticework of moist forests and wetlands that would naturally occur in the Central Valley. That said, any vegetation is better than no vegetation and in an increasingly urban environment, cafetales act as important verdant patches in a landscape dominated by concrete, glass, and asphalt.

Do you find yourself joining the family on a coffee tour when you would rather be watching Fiery-throated Hummingbirds and quetzals on Poas? Not to fret, bring those binos because there are birds in the coffee! Some cool birds live in those wonderful, special bean producing bushes. These are ten of them:

Crested Bobwhite

If you are familar with bobwhites and hear one calling in Costa Rica, look around because it’s more than likely not a birding flashback. The Crested (Spot-bellied) Bobwhite sounds pretty much like the ones up north. They prefer grassy, weedy fields but also occur in cafetales especially when they have a grassy understory and are adjacent to weedy fields.

Short-tailed Hawk

This small raptor is a common hawk in many parts of Costa Rica. It seems to do well in the mosaic of riparian zones, patches of forest, and agricultural lands of the Central Valley. Watch for both morphs soaring high overhead.

Blue-vented Hummingbird

This hummingbird can feed from the flowers on coffee bushes and trees that grow at the edges of and in coffee farms. It’s pretty common, listen for its distinctive double-noted, short whistled call. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is the other most common hummingbird in coffee farms.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia

One of various flycatchers that occur on coffee farms, this species often reveals itself with a vocalization that sounds kind of like a scream. Watch for it feeding on berries and other small fruits.

Clay-colored Thrush

No coffee farm in Costa Rica is complete without a healthy selection of Clay-colored Thrushes. One of the most common species in the country, expect to see lots of Costa Rica’s national bird when birding coffee farm habitats.

Blue-gray Tanager

A common, beautiful bird, watching this species in coffee farms is a peaceful pleasure.

Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow

Endemic and likely made rare by a combination of reduced habitat, feral cats, pesticides, and cowbird parasitism, this colorful little towheee persists on and near coffee farms. It is a skulker though, watch for it in the early morning.

Grayish Saltator

One of the most common species of the Central Valley, this seemingly cardinal relative does very well in garden and edge habitats. Its cheerful song is a core component of the Central Valley’s auditory soundscape.

Yellow-green Vireo

Another common species of the valley but only during the wet season. Like the Red-eyed Vireo, it sings a real lot. It also occurs in just about any set of trees including ones in and near coffee.

Rufous-capped Warbler

A snappy, chat-like bird, the Rufous-capped Warbler lives in the understory of dry and moist forest, in second growth, and in coffee fields. This is one of the more common, typical species of coffee farms.

These are some of the species to watch for and expect when birding any green space in the Central Valley. Want to learn much more about about where to find birds in Costa Rica and support this blog at the same time? Purchase my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Plan for out trip with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, customize it and use it identify everything from motmots to flycatchers while birding in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here!

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bird finding in Costa Rica raptors

Braking for Bat Falcons at the Socorro Canyon

Several species of falcons are resident in Costa Rica but only one of them is a classic, fast-diving, Falco. This winged bullet is the Bat Falcon and like other members of that lethal genus, this bird was born to kill.

Plumaged sort of like a Eurasian Hobby (even more so like the Oriental Hobby), this smart-dressed mini predator is equipped with big feet to snatch from the air, swifts, parakeets, and any other small birds. Like the Merlin and other Falco species, the Bat Falcon may prefer to hunt next to rivers or other open areas where it can more easily catch potential prey that flies within range. We have seen them at any number of spots and even near San Jose but according to the account for this species at the Handbook of the Birds of the World site, the healthiest populations occur in areas of extensive tropical forest. It usually occurs in pairs and although I have seen this species hunting during the day, it hunts more often at dawn and dusk (when it also preys on bats). At the Cafe Colibri, some birders have even seen Bat Falcons catch hummingbirds (!).

Even hummingbirds like the Violet Sabrewing.

It seems that the falcons learned to perch somewhere in the canyon below the cafe and then fly up to catch unwary hummingbirds that venture too far from the safety of vegetation. These small aerial predators can hunt from a perch or fly high overhead to stoop down on their prey in flight. It no doubt uses its natural falcon radar to zero in on that swift or swallow that flies a bit slower than the rest of the flock and goes after it with typical Falco zeal.

Bat Falcon habitat.

Speaking of the Cinchona area, I often brake for a pair of Bat Falcons that hunt the canyon of the Sarapiqui River from around there to Virgen del Socorro. There might even be two pairs using that stretch of the forested canyon but whether one or two, a pair can often be found perched on any number of snags near the road. Yesterday, we had a couple of these beauties perched so nice and close, we just had to stop and admire them.

The larger female was the more obvious of the two and sat on the tip top of a snag.

Another individual was calling on occasion and with some inspection, we located it. It was a small male and might have been a young bird. It called over and over as if begging for food until eventually flying to a closer perch where it fed on the remains of an unidentified bird.

While enjoying the falcons, we also heard a pair of Laughing Falcons calling, scoped a distant White Hawk, and watched Swallow-tailed Kites wheel over distant forest. With roadside birding like that, not stopping pretty much amounts to birder blasphemy. We were happy to pay our respects, I look forward to going back to that area to do some raptor counts!

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Blue Grosbeaks and Birding News from Costa Rica, June, 2020

It was hard to think of anything to write today. At least, to write anything about birds in Costa Rica because that’s not what’s on the forefront of my mind but I’m going to try anyways. I wish that I could talk about waking up to the piercing, shameless calls of Southern Lapwings, the whistles of a Spot-bellied Bobwhite, the gurgling song of a Blue Grosbeak.

I wake up to those and am grateful, especially that grosbeak. Every time I hear or see one of those deep blue birds, I am grateful because while I was growing up birding in Niagara Falls, NY, it was one of those more southern birds that were just out of reach.

The range map in the Peterson guide edged up towards us but fell short somewhere in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I eventually got my lifer during a fall visit to Cape May, a female that looked more like a female Indigo Bunting but still a much appreciated lifer! Since then, I have seen lots; deep blue birds giving warbling gurgling songs in the green riparian zone of a canyon in southeastern Colorado, Blue Grosbeaks in weedy fields while surveying birds in southern Illinois, other places and finally here in Costa Rica where I see and hear them in many sites with brushy fields.

A pair have been recently making appearances in weedy lots across the street adjacent to heavy machinery building another residential area. A common, resident species in Costa Rica but every sighting still accompanied by that tinge of excitement from wanting, hoping to see one while looking at bird books in urban Niagara Falls, New York.

That’s where I grew up and that’s where, so far, protests have been peaceful. I am so proud and relieved that people from my hometown held a peaceful protest and I think they in part did so because the police from Niagara Falls, New York took a knee with them. Officials spoke with protesters and listened to them, and before the protest was over, they shook hands with police. Maybe being a small place had something to do with it, or maybe the local police department has made efforts to make better connections with the public and say, not use illegal holds that end up killing people. I am sure that listening and communicating with people and not taking an authoritarian response that involved spraying random people in their faces and shooting others with rubber bullets (like a journalist who lost one of her eyes) and unconstitutionally suppressing free speech by arresting journalists had something to do with it too.

But instead of talking about leaders and one in particular who encourages suppression of the media and free press, someone who would rather take violent, authoritarian approaches to situations that may have been reduced or prevented by (1) recognizing a very serious problem in the first place and (2) making any bit of effort to provide solutions to said problem, I will mention two other vastly more positive things:

BlackBirdersWeek– This is an initiative created by Black birders aimed at changing the narrative regarding Black people and their connections and experiences with the outdoors. The Audubon Society sums up this virtual initiative quite nicely. I love this because the outdoors and communication with nature is a basic cherished right for every person, no one should ever have to worry about feeling threatened or deterred from partaking in nature. The more people we support in learning about and communing with our natural world and science, the better this world will be. Those who have been denied the chance to connect with nature because they felt threatened, lacked role models, or didn’t have the means of reaching wild places are the people who merit the utmost in support and acknowledgement.

I will just also mention that the support of people who would like to appreciate nature is of serious importance, particular in these overpopulated, nature-deficit times because without increased connection with and understanding how to live in balance with nature and putting that knowledge to active use by society as a whole, civilization will eventually, certainly collapse.

A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean– Not exactly a field guide but a celebration of birds from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean by way of a ten track album. The songs feature vocalizations of birds and any purchase will help with bird conservation in the Caribbean.

Costa Rica setting protocols for tourism– The borders might still be closed but local tourism ventures are opening with strict health restrictions in place. Paraiso de Quetzales is one of those special places, recently, friends of mine had a great visit and reported on the protocols and experience in the Howler Magazine. I hope this and other local lodges and businesses can get enough visitors to keep going until borders reopen because at the moment, tourism in Costa Rica is near zero and as with so many other places, a heck of a lot of people have become recently unemployed.

Despite these challenging sad times, I will end by saying that it’s not too early to start planning for a trip to Costa Rica. Right now might be the best time to look into itineraries, tours, and other ideas for an eventual escape to a place that beckons with the promise of beauty and fantastic birding in a safe and welcome setting for all. You can start planning your trip of a lifetime and support this blog by getting my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Red-legged Honeycreepers will be waiting! This picture was taken by Eugene L. Pierce, a photographer from Buffalo, New York.