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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

A Day of Productive Birding in Costa Rica

One could argue that any day of birding that includes birds is productive but personal birding success also depends on personal birding goals. Last weekend, in keeping with a Zen mindset (to ward off disappointment), I placed the goal bar on a low, bobwhite level rung. In keeping with secret hidden hope, I ventured into places that upped the odds for uncommon birds.

Our first site was the Ceiba Road near Orotina, a place with odd, open ag. habitats that have become a veritable Patagonia level hotspot for rare birds. Merlin, Northern Harrier, sparrows, even an uber rare for Costa Rica Burrowing Owl (!) have been found at Ceiba. As with other sites that attract odd birds, you bird there with extra careful eyes and ears, you bird with the awareness of rare possibilities. Really, one should bird like that everywhere but in the places where multiple rare birds have occurred, it’s easier to keep an open, focused mind.

Our first stop on the Ceiba road was in a riparian zone and as if on cue, we were greeted by the voice of the northern prairie, the calls of Western Kingbirds. An uncommon bird for Costa Rica, this winter seems to be an especially good one for them. Either that or climate change is pushing them into new areas. Either way, hearing and seeing those quintessential birds was a fine, productive start to the day and one that reminded me of road stops in western Kansas, of walking the wide-open, sun-baked Comanche lands in eastern Colorado.

A WEKI from 2018 in Guanacaste.

Further down the road, careful birding in the open areas turned up some usual suspects and target birds. There goes the hoped for Pearl Kite perched in a high tree! There goes Mourning Doves moving along a distant treeline! That small falcon in the distant haze was an American Kestrel, another one was harassing a pair of Harris’s Hawks.

It was also instructive to study Bronzed and Shiny Cowbirds at close range. Educational yet worrisome to see so many.

Checking the many White-winged Doves failed to reveal any Eurasian Collared-Doves but it’s always nice to be watching birds.

There were several small birds around too, birds like Scrub Euphonia, Blue Grosbeak, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat and chipping Yellow Warblers but nothing rare, no lost wood-warblers who should have been gleaning in the breezy palms of the Caribbean.

A birding check of a side road further on turned out to be a good choice when Mary found a Grasshopper Sparrow! We had stopped next to a scrubby field and I was scanning swallows when she mentioned a bird perched on a wire. In Costa Rica, we probably get hundreds of Grasshoppers in the winter but see if you can find them. You will here and there but they aren’t exactly abundant, probably spread out over thousands of acres of pasture and grassy fields.

We had two of them and fantastic looks! The first bird perched so close, we should have had amazing photos; it sat still and refused to move. It would have stayed long enough for a shot too but before we could get the camera ready, it was flushed by the only passerby for miles, an older woman dressed in a green and red outfit that came straight out of the realm of Strawberry Shortcake. She just happened to walk up just at the very moment when we could have taken the picture, right at the exact moment!

Every experience is new and unique, there are no repeats on this shared timeline but how many can say that they missed taking a picture of a Grasshopper Sparrow because it was flushed at just the right moment by someone sort of dressed like a strawberry? And in the middle of nowhere in Costa Rica? Like, what are the odds? I’m not complaining, just contemplating the unexpected and reaffirming that life is full of surprises.

We did enjoy wonderful close looks and could see how those pale brown whispers of a bird can so easily vanish into the equally whispering habitat of dry brown grass. The Grasshoper Sparrows were a very productive part of that morning and it wasn’t over yet!

Next stop on the birding train was the point at Puntarenas, a place that always offers a chance at interesting seabirds. Despite a stiff wind that hinted at storm-petrels, scanning from the lighthouse didn’t reveal much more than choppy waters. The birds were out there, though, most just a bit too far for identification.

The intriguing view from the point.

Nevertheless, while scanning the terns, one bird stood out. It was a dark brown bird and flying straight and fast, I thought, “now that has to be a jaeger”. When it veered after a tern and followed its every move, its sea-falcon identification was confirmed and then there was another! The second jaeger had more white on the belly but was the same size and shape. By their tern-pursuing antics, size, shape, and amount of white in the wing, I saw them as Parasitics (aka Arctic Skuas). They perched way out there in the Gulf as people walked past on the sand, oblivious to the drama and scandal stirred up by those high-Arctic visitors.

I was reminded of another productive day some years ago during a BOS trip to the shore of Lake Erie when I saw my first ever jaeger, a Parasitic that burst through our field of view too fast to appreciate. On that day, there were also a few people walking on the sand, oblivious to the drama of migration, of the Sharpies flapping by, of the warblers and Least Flycatchers feeding to keep making their way to Mexico. It’s alright, what is productive for some is of no consequence to others, we all walk our own timelines but if you aren’t watching birds, you don’t know what you are missing!

I wonder what the coming days will bring?

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Introduction

3 Fantastic, Easy Costa Rica Birding Day Trips

Long overnight trips aren’t absolutely necessary for great birding in Costa Rica. Oh, they can help (!) and, for some places and birds, are necessary and awesome but they aren’t the only options. “Good birding” is where the habitat it, it’s what you want to see and how you feel like doing your birding.

I see or hear a Lineated Woodpecker every day and it’s always good.

I get a kick out of all sorts of birding but if I had to pick a favorite, it might be listening to the dawn chorus in any high quality habitat. A new day gives rebirth to new birds, listen close and you pick up the sounds of hidden things, of birds whispering, some shouting, daring you to find them when as the day matures.

It’s an exciting celebration of life and the best you can do is just listen and take it all in. Some of my best dawn chorus days were in the Amazonian forests of Tambopata, Peru. Thanks to Rainforest Expeditions, I could venture into the early morning forest, sit and listen, and hear well over 100 species in less than an hour. Even if you stayed in bed and just listened, you might count the sounds of 60 species including occasional Blue-headed Macaws, Black-throated Antbirds, and Lemon-throated Barbets.

Once in a while, my roommate and friend Rudy Gelis would do that, calling out bird names from each of our respective mosquito-net dens. “Orange-cheeked Parrot”, “Gilded Barbet”, “Spotted Puffbird”!

Their names sound like candy, to the birding eye and searching mind, they were indeed blueberry delight, chocolate-covered licorice, and heavenly citrus sorbet. In Costa Rica, we also have our dessert birds and many of them can be seen on easy birding day trips from the San Jose area. For the following three suggestions, you don’t even have to be there at the break of dawn. That’s always nice but arrive later and there will still be birds:

Poas and Varablanca

From the San Jose area, especially near the airport, the highland habitats of Poas are a quick 45 minute drive. Make your way up the mountain and a healthy variety of highland species are suddenly in reach. The best habitat is on the upper parts of the road to Poas, a few spots between Varablanca and Los Cartagos, and on the San Rafael de Varablanca road.

Roadside birding can turn up anything from Mountain Elaenias to Resplendent Quetzal and Barred Parakeets. Seeing the quetzals usually depends on finding their food source but the fun part of that is seeing other birds during the search. Mixed flock action often hosts one or two species of chlorospingus, Slaty Flowerpiercers, Ruddy Treerunner, Flame-throated Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, and others of the cool mountain bio-realms.

Roadside birding can even include such crazies as Black Guan, Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, and Buffy Tuftedcheek. Get up there and bird but don’t go on a Sunday afternoon. That’s when local motorcycle and car enthusiasts tend to flock to the scene and “call” in a most non-melodic fashion.

Cinchona and Virgen del Socorro

Also in the Poas area, these middle elevation sites could be mixed with higher elevation birding. If you have just one day to go birding from the San Jose area, I recommend a full day that includes Cinchona and Poas. If you have more than one day to work with, it’s worth allocating a day each to high elevations and middle/foothill elevations of Cinchona and Socorro.

Cinchona is a classic site with fantastic close looks at hummingbirds, barbets, and toucanets. For many birders, it feels like a dream come true and I guess it sort of is. I’ve been there dozens of times and still look forward to every visit.

Virgen del Socorro is a bit further down the hill and is slightly rough enough to require a four wheel drive vehicle. At 800 meters, you start to get into foothill tanager territory shared with Slaty-capped Flycatchers, White Hawk, and many additional species. Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga are both very rare but always possible. I wish I could say the same for Solitary Eagle; although there are reliable sightings of this species from this site 30 years ago, I haven’t heard of any since. Even so, the connection of forests in this area to more forest in Braulio Carrillo National Park makes for wishful thinking. Keep an eye on the skies and take pictures of big raptors (as if a birder wouldn’t…)!

Nectar and Pollen and Quebrada Gonzalez

Nectar and Pollen might sound like a boutique for bees but for hummingbirds and the birders who like them, this is the real deal. A new site just outside of Braulio Carrillo, the extensive flowering Porterweed with Snowcaps and coquettes makes Nectar and Pollen a nice substitute for the presently inaccessible site known as El Tapir.

The friendly owner charges a very reasonable entrance fee and requires a reservation to open. Contact him at the Nectar and Pollen Reserve Facebook site. If you have any difficulties communicating, let me know, I would be happy to help.

The foothill rainforests of Quebrada Gonzalez are just uphill from Nectar and Pollen and are the perfect accompaniment to edge birding. The forest trails can turn up excellent mixed flocks of tanagers and many forest species including shade-loving shy birds like Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, ant-following birds, and many other species. The very fortunate birder could also find less common species including anything from Olive-backed Quail-Dove to Yellow-eared Toucanet, the Caribbean slope subspecies (and possible split) Streak-chested Antpitta, and maybe even Black-crowned Antpitta.

If you feel like reviving for a day in rich foothill rainforest, Quebrada Gonzalez is the perfect place to do this. Since the park doesn’t open until 8 a.m., it’s worth visiting Nectar and Pollen from 6 to 8 before going to Quebrada Gonzalez.

These sites might sound familiar to folks who have followed this blog. I have indeed extolled the birding virtues of such places in more than one piece but it’s not without warrant. These are places with easily accessible, quality habitat, places that always come with an automatic chance of seeing something rare or unexpected. To learn more about these and other places to go birding in Costa Rica, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“.

If you would like a local guide who knows where the birds are, I would be happy to be of help, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

I hope to see you some day in Costa Rica, until then, may you have long days and pleasant nights, and happy birding!

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Birding Costa Rica central valley

Beginning 2021 with Backyard Birding in Costa Rica

It was sometime post midnight when I heard the call of a pauraque. Common in many places but only when the places have enough green space with a healthy supply of insects. The local matrix of cement, somewhat poisoned coffee farms and second growth make this bird decidedly uncommon up in this neighborhood.

Nevertheless, a few persist and that call in the night marked my first bird of 2021. Common Pauraque being first on the year list was in line with it typically being the first bird on Big Days. I’ll take it! Subsequent days have brought more birds including a hundred plus species during a day of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. In general though, my 2021 birds of Costa Rica have been “backyard” birds. “Backyard” because we really don’t have one but birding from the balcony looks onto a perfect scene for these parts; a bird oasis riparian zone.

That line of trees and bushes is a fine way to begin any day in Costa Rica, at least if you have to sling the bins in an urban zone. Lately, with windy, sunny weather keeping the local birds quiet and sheltering in the vegetation, you also have to get out there early. It’s worth it, a fine variety of species can show and they change from day to day.

Yesterday morning was one of the better days. For whatever reason, the birds were more active and showing in some bare branches out back. They paraded through one by one and even the skulking Barred Antshrikes and Carolinish Cabanis’s Wrens made brief appearances.

As I scanned the treeline out back, Brown Jays and a Gray Hawk called in the background, Red-billed Pigeons made display flights and a few White-winged Doves zipped through sky space (I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks).

A pair of Ringed Kingfishers gave their steady, grackle-like smacking call as they flew over the urban creek and as usual, I wondered how they manage to persist in this mostly urban area. Equally interesting was the group of 7 Giant Cowbirds that undulated out from a nearby cattle farm. Where do they go for the day? How far do they travel?

I scanned the swallows but so far, no rare Violet-greens (it’s a good year for them in Costa Rica), only the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows. A few Vaux’s Swifts joined them and a screaming flock of 70 plus Crimson-fronted Parakeets demanded attention.

I also saw a few distant White-fronted Parrots, yes, they range into the Central Valley along with similarly named but quite different White-crowned Parrots. Down in the bushes, I was pleased to see a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!

Where did they spend the summer? Could they have warbled from the forest patches of Niagara County? Called from the beautiful woods of Pennsylvania? The same could have been wondered about the 6 Baltimore Orioles that moved through, one bright adult male, the remaining birds females.

As if on cue, other migrants also appeared; a Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo that could have shared woods with the grosbeaks and orioles. More borealy-inclined Tennessee Warblers came through and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks perched in view. The Blue Grosbeaks aren’t migrants but the next bird was, a multicolored male Painted Bunting! That one is possible here in the winter but not as expected as in lower elevations.

Always a pleasure to check out the colors on that beautiful little bird, it reminded me of first learning about it from some sort of cards or maybe a cereal box as a kid. I still recall standing in the kitchen in the house on Augustus Place sometime 1977 and seeing a picture of that bunting. Knowing about that bird was incredible then and it’s still marvelous to look at one so many years later.

A bird from a year ago at Raptor Ridge.

Down in the bushes, the local Rufous-capped Warblers and White-eared Ground-Sparrows called and Grayish Saltators appeared. A Squirrel Cuckoo swooped into view, Common Tody-Flycatchers vocalized out back and as usual, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees tried to take the spotlight. Finish the morning activity off with a few Blue-gray Tanagers and nervous Clay-colored Thrushes and that was a typical wrap for a brief morning of birding in Costa Rica.

Many more birds are possible, I’m surely forgetting some from yesterday. It will be interesting to see what the coming days bring in 2021.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica birding app

Costa Rica Birds in Waiting, Guanacaste- 7 Species to Look for Not on the List

How many birds are on the Costa Rica list? Although some sources mention somewhere around 870 or so species, the official list of birds for Costa Rica has 923 species. Why the discrepancy? I’m not entirely sure but part of the difference is surely related to bird species having been steadily confirmed and added to the country list.

While most are vagrants, given changes in habitat, distribution, and populations of various species, it’s not out of the question that there could be more of certain vagrants, and that some “new” species could establish breeding populations.

The official list has grown but believe it or not, there’s room for more! In fact, much more than I had expected. After having looked into the most likely additions for Costa Rica, quite a few more species came to mind than I had imagined (and I never even thought about Orinoco Goose but that’s another story). This post is the first in a series discussing birds that may eventually find themselves on the list and is in conjunction with a separate post written by fellow local birder, Diego Ramirez (aka “Mr. Birder”). He wrote a good post about this theme in Spanish, check out, Las Potenciales Nuevas Especies de Aves para Costa Rica.

Although the occurrence of any of these species would be an occasion of extreme rarity, for various reasons discussed below, all of them are possible. While none of these can be really expected when birding Costa Rica, I feel like it’s better to know about what might occur, to have that information available, than potentially overlooking a country first because a Long-toed Stint was assumed to just be a funny looking Least Sandpiper, or that the Black-headed Gull was a weird Bonaparte’s with a red bill.

This is also why the latest free update for the Costa Rica Birds field guide app includes 68 species that aren’t on the list but could occur (photos used in this post are screenshots from this latest update to the app). Despite such a high number of potential species, much to my chagrin, I realized that I had left out at least 3additional species. Expect those on the next update! Without further ado, the following are some birds to keep an eye out for when birding in Guanacaste (expect shorebirds in a future post!):

Gadwall

Photo by Tony Leukering.
If you think you see a female Mallard in Costa Rica, take a closer look. Photo by Stanley Jones.

Yep, the good old Gadwall. A familiar, svelte species for many birders of North America and the Palearctic, it has yet to fly south to Costa Rica. Given its large population and strong possibility of migrating with other ducks, I believe this species is one of the strongest contenders for being the next addition to the list. The marshes of Palo Verde and nearby sites, the Sandillal Reservoir, and the catfish ponds of Sardinal would all be good places to check.

Spot-tailed Nightjar

Spot-tailed Nightjar by Hector Bottai is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What? Yes and Eduardo Amengual and Robert Dean one may have actually seen one in 2003. The Spot-tailed Nightjar is a small nightjar of savannas and other open habitats that has migratory populations in southern Mexico and northern Central America. Where do they go for the winter? No one really knows and it would be very easy for s small, nocturnal bird to go unnoticed during migration, especially if it is silent. Heck, if a few of these inconspicuous nightbirds wintered in Guanacaste, they could also easily go unnoticed.

Guanacaste Hummingbird

No, I’m not making this up, this is one of the names given to a mystery hummingbird known from one old specimen and referred to as, “Amazilia alfaroensis“. Searches have been carried out yet have failed to refind it. Nevertheless, maybe it’s still out there? If you are birding around the Miravalles Volcano or other sites in northern Guanacaste, keep an eye out for any odd-looking Blue-vented Hummingbirds, especially ones that have blue on the crown. Take pictures, if you find one, you will have refound a critically endangered “lost species”.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

This small woodpecker of open habitats could certainly occur at some point in the Upala area. There are sightings of this species from sites near there, just across the border in Nicaragua. If you think you ehar a Downy Woodpecker in that area, it’s very likely a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.

Pacific Parakeet

Given the propensity for parakeets to wander, group up with other parakeets, and possible sightings in Nicaragua close to the northwestern border with Costa Rica, this species should be looked for. If I get the chance to bird up that way, I would look for flocks of Crimson-fronted Parakeets and carefully check them for birds with green fronts. Flowering trees might be a good food source, and in the southern esge of its range, the Pacific Parakeet might be partial to mangroves.

Cassin’s Kingbird

Cassin’s Kingbird by GregTheBusker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This one is a long shot but since one was found in Panama, it could certainly occur in Cost Rica as a very rare migrant vagrant. In other parts of its range, this typical kingbird uses a variety of open habitats, often in grasslands with tall trees. With that in mind, a vagrant Cassin’s Kingbird could show up anywhere in Guanacaste and be easily overlooked as a Tropical Kingbird. I would not be at all surprised if a few have made it to Costa Rica now and then.

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

This beautiful bird is just waiting to be found. It occurs in Nicaragua fairly close to the border with Costa Rica and lives in a variety of scrubby and dry forest habitats. It could also be very easily overlooked as a Streak-backed or Spot-breasted Oriole. Watch for it at flowering trees near the border, look for orioles that have a small patch of gray on the base of a stout bill and no spots on the breast.

Other possible additions could occur in Guanacaste such as Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, and Virginia’s Warbler. It’s a reminder to take a close look and listen at every bird, you really never know what you might find.