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Introduction

A Good Year for Violet-Green Swallows in Costa Rica

Swallows are perhaps the most beautiful of overlooked birds. Naturally painted in metallic hues of blue, jade, and purples, highlighted with orange and adornments of red. If a child used their favorite markers on thick aluminum and then held that metal creation up to be touched by the magical shades of sunset, Barn Swallows take flight.

The Tree Swallow is one of the first birds I remember. Not from seeing one, no, that didn’t happen until I could go to where they actually lived. I recall it from the Niagara Falls public library, kneeling on the pumpkin orange carpet to look at illustrations in some unknown, important bird book for kids. The beautiful blue colors highlighted with green iridescence caught my 7 year old eye. It’s a while ago, I can’t say what I was exactly thinking but it was probably a combination of, “How could that bird exist? Did it really look like that? Where can I see it?”

As common and beautiful as Barn Swallows are, we may appreciate them but when they swoop low over the cut summer grass, when flocks of swallows do their aerial acrobatics high overhead, how many of us stick with them? As frequent as Tree Swallows are at the ponds and wetlands of the north, it’s not easy to stay focused on high-flying silhouettes. When tanagers are calling, when a Hook-billed Kite is soaring into view, it’s easier to take bins off of birds that are too quick to follow.

These birding factors aren’t limited to North America, they are universal simply because it’s always easier to watch birds that are easier to see. As eye-catching as the plumages of many swallow species are, it takes drive, patience and determination to truly watch them, stay with them, lose yourself in the meditation of Hirundines.

Using that official name for the family brings up a recollection of birding in Costa Rica during the 90s. A friend of mine and I were birding around Carara when we ran into a lone British birder, Steve. During our chance meeting on the famous “River Trail” in Carara National Park, the usual birding exchange took place as we attempted to wipe off the sweat that comes easy and constant at that site.

Steve worked at keeping his glasses clear with a handkerchief. “I’m sure I saw a Collared Plover, Royal Flycatcher. It was good to catch up with the Hirundines.”

“What? Hurundeines?”

“Hirundines, you know swallows.”

Finally catching up with his British pronunciation. “Ahh, of course Hirundines!”

Hirundines, because the family is more than swallows and even that name doesn’t do them justice. They are also martins and they are more aerialists than anything. Perching on wires and branches, as if eagerly waiting to once again get back up into the sky and into action, back into the performance of their lives, they chatter with anticipation.

It’a all about survival but when watching aerialists do their thing, one can’t help but wonder if they love it, if they take joy in zipping through the skies and that’s what can help with the mental focus. Contemplate the thrill, the fantastic happiness of birds in flight and it becomes easier to stick with swallows flitting around way up there near the clouds.

One of the unsung good things about swallows is that they don’t hide in the vegetation, they are up there in plain view begging to be watched. If you keep watching them, you may also see something rare, pick out the odd bird that flew a bit too far, flew out of its usual range.

A Cave Swallow from Costa Rica.

Today, that reminds me of other memories of meditative birding, finding rare birds while looking at gulls in the Niagara River. When we watch gulls from the top of the Niagara Gorge, it’s like looking at swallows except that the birds are far down below. They don’t have the jewel colors of the swallows, attributes for identification and appreciation are more subtle in nature. There are shades of pale and gray, patterns and shapes of dark in the primaries, the color of an eye. As with Hirundines, you have to study them for a time, keep watching and lose yourself in gulls. It’ usually cold, better be dressed for it!

It’s also meditative birding and today I can’t help but think of Ned. I can still see him there, bent over to prop himself on a railing at Sir Adam Beck to better study the birds down below.

“Do you see the California Gull?”

“Yes, I think I got it, slightly darker back…the black in the primaries make a trapezoid-like shape..cool, California Gull on the Niagara River!”

On that or another cold day Ned Brinkley, Alec and I drove further north to look for a supposed Curlew Sandpiper. As we expected, it turned out to be one of the hardy sandpipers, a Dunlin. But there were other birds to look at, several of which were of another family beautiful yet commonly under-appreciated; the ducks.

We had all seen scaups and Canvasbacks on many occasions, but on that bright morning, the light was hitting them just right, the iridescent colors of their heads rivaled the metallic shades of swallows, the intricate patterns on their flanks was natural calligraphy. They were birds we had seen many times but on that beautiful morning in Hamilton, Ontario, we marveled over them. It was a while ago now, I can’t recall exactly what Ned said but know that he was for sure saying a lot, talking about the unsung beauty of those birds, maybe talking about languages, laughing, enjoying life to the fullest.

I hadn’t seen Ned in a while but we occasionally kept in touch, I had hoped to go birding with him again. In keeping with his generous and helpful nature, at one point, it’s no surprise that he was a major help in finding images for the birding apps I work on. Others, like Alvaro Jaramillo and George Armistead, have perfectly expressed how special of a person Ned was, what an incredible loss his passing is to the birding community and honestly, the world in general. So, I won’t go on about that here. But I will say that he will be dearly missed and that I will be thinking of him and the many other people whose lives were made better by knowing him as I meditate on swallows, hoping for a Violet-green. Ned would have been interested in knowing that it looks like it’s going to be a good year in Costa Rica for that beautiful bird.

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Where to Kick Off a Costa Rica Birding Trip- Insider Tips

The birding trip has to start somewhere. For many a birder, it begins in an airport, usually a waystop en route to the main show. Sandhill Cranes seen through windows in Orlando, distant crows at Narita airport, pipits flushed from runways in Milan. Such birds are welcome but to be honest, those are the incidentals, the few birds seen on the way to the prime destination.

It’s not until you are finally in-country, officially admitted with a stamp and leave the airport that the main trip truly begins. In Costa Rica, that usually means Black Vultures somewhere above, a Tropical Kingbird here and there, Great-tailed Grackles poking into gutters. Stick around the airport and other birds will appear but there’s no point in wasting time when more bird species are waiting in much more beautiful places.

Upon leaving the airport, we head to the first site, usually a hotel and this is where we can truly kick off a birding trip to Costa Rica. These are my insider tips on where to truly begin the birding:

Close to the Airport

For many, staying near the aiport is what works best. Flying in late after a long day of travel? Believe me, in such situations, it’s better to pick up the rental and head to the hotel than getting the car and driving through the night. I understand the excitement and desire to get into Big Day mode but it’s no fun driving at night in Costa Rica, especially if your personal equation includes such factors as exhaustion, poorly illuminated roads, rain, road conditions, and crazy traffic.

Stay near the airport BUT don’t just stay anywhere, pick a place where you can do some birding on your first morning in Costa Rica. No matter what your plans may be, you might end up doing more birding on that first morning than you had expected.

Further from the Airport?

Is it worth driving far from the airport? As in an hour or more drive? It might be if that works better for the itinerary but once again, it won’t be exactly fun to drive at night, in heavy traffic, or on winding mountain roads. For the first night, to avoid traffic, think twice about lodging towards Heredia, San Jose, and Cartago.

Some Place with Green Space

There are a few places just across the “street” from the Juan Santamaria Airport. They are indeed convenient but they lack green space. To maximize, optimize birding, stay at a place that has access to green space. I’m not talking about gardens either but actual remnants of forest. Gardens are fine but to maximize the birding, maybe catch an owl or two on that first night, your best, closest bet will be Villa San Ignacio or a couple other options a bit further afield.

Villa San Ignacio is ideal because it blends quality habitat with proximity to the airport as well as comfort, security, and excellent cuisine (the bar is pretty darn good too!). Begin the birding there and your first list for Costa Rica might include everything from Gray-headed Chachalacas to Fiery-billed Aracari, Long-tailed Manakin and Plain-capped Starthroat. Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow might also show…

Not Just a Place to Hang a Hat

A good place to begin a birding trip to Costa Rica is also one that offers more than just a room with a bed. Stay where you can take advantage of time away from home and enjoy delicious cuisine, a dip in the pool, beautiful gardens, and of course wonderful birding because a birding trip doesn’t have to be a constant Big Day. It can also be a relaxing adventure.

Start and End the Trip at the Same Place

If the lodging is close to the airport, has green space, and other amenities, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t also be the best place to end a trip. You might get in some final birding and can finish your time in Costa Rica as it deserves to end- with celebratory libations and delicious cuisine.

With two vaccines moving towards eventual approval and distribution, now is a good time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Want to know where to stay? Where to go to see certain birds? I would be happy to help. Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

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Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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Birding at Tierra de Suenos

Each October, I organize a trip to the southern Caribbean zone for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Easy access to mature forest always makes for a worthwhile visit but we go during the month of Halloween because this is when we can also catch fall migration. A sky river of swallows, Chimney Swifts, and raptors is a special event but there’s more than enough to see at at any time of year.

Little coverage, lots of habitat, and proximity to Panama always lend excitement to birding in the southern Caribbean. What’s hiding in those mature forests in the hills? Black-crowned Antpittas? Great Jacamars? Some new addition to the country list? Yes. Discoveries are waiting, you just need the time, resources, and know-how to find them.

Last week, we found ourselves doing a bit of exploration in the Playa Chiquita area. Basing ourselves at the lovely Tierra de Suenos, our small group looked for birds at this site for yoga retreats, in the nearby hills, and at Manzanillo. A couple of days is never enough for this bird-rich area but we still had fun! How not when Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common? When there is a nice mix of migrants, Great Green Macaws, and other birds of the lowland rainforest?

A few highlights from the trip:

Birds at Tierra de Suenos

Tierra de Suenos has bungalows nestled in greenery and shaded by massive trees. As one might expect, this makes for a bunch of birds including species like Black-crowned Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, toucans, woodcreepers, and more. Many species are possible and some no doubt wander in from larger areas of forest in the hills behind the lodge. This was surely the case for the Great Jacamar that was heard earlier this year by birder and part owner Jason Westlake!

Breakfast at Tierra de Suenos

Nothing like sharing breakfast time with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers and other rainforest birds. I enjoyed that a well as the tasty, healthy food. The blended ginger and passionfruit juice was simply fantastic, and although I enjoy “pinto” (Costa Rican rice and beans), delicious grilled sandwiches and burritos made for a pleasant change.

Birding the Paradise Road

Some of the best forests near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca occur in the low coastal range behind town. Although much of those rainforests are inaccessible, we can still do a fair bit of birding along a few roads that go up and over the forested hills, one of which has the official inviting name of “Paradise Road”. Located between Playa Chiquita and Cocles, this gravel road passes by the edge of promising mature forest. I have made short visits to this road during the past three trips to the southern Caribbean zone and each time, I drove back feeling like we only scratched the surface.

On this recent trip, we had several Purple-throated Fruitcrows, many red-eyed Vireos and Bay-breasted Warblers, White Hawk, and various other forest species. The best find was a pair of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers! An uncommon and challenging species in Costa Rica, their presence was given away by their distinctive call that sounds a bit like that of a Black-and-yellow Tanager. As is often the case with this bird, our views were limited by their canopy-loving ways but we did see them!

On past trips, I have also had Pied and White-necked Puffbirds and various expected species. The next time I go to this area, I hope to do some serious surveys on this road that include pre-dawn starts.

Roadside Birding

With tall, old growth trees right on the side of the main road, it’s no surprise that roadside birding between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo can be pretty darn good. Roadside birding on past trips have revealed sightings of many toucans, woodcreepers, and both Rufous-winged and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers. On this trip, we enjoyed Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Great Green Macaws, and several other birds during a memorable early morning stop.

Roadside afternoon birding in Manzanillo was pretty quiet but along the Recope Road, we had some nice looks at Cinnamon Woodpecker, Semiplumbeous Hawk, fruitcrows, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other birds.

Recommendations for Future Trips

Tierra de Suenos is definitely suitable for birders and even better if you enjoy a blend of yoga and birding! If you stay there, ask Jason what he has been seeing, and enjoy the meals! As always, I also suggest making stops at the Italian bakery, Gustibus. Authentic focacia, pizza rossa, and other Italian baked goods, man, this place is good! It’s also an excellent lunch stop for sandwiches and other truly serious treats.

If you do bird down the way of Tierra de Suenos and Manzanillo, keep an eye out for any birds that look odd or out of place. Take pictures, you might end up documenting something new for Costa Rica.