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Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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5 Reasons Laguna del Lagarto is a Top Site for Birding in Costa Rica

What are the top sites for birding in Costa Rica? Which places will treat you to the best variety of Costa Rica birds? In all honesty, based on birding most corners of Costa Rica since 1992, I would still insist that it depends on what you want to see. Since each bioregion has its own avian offerings, naturally, birding in the cool, misty rainforests of the Talamancas i a world away from scanning humid skies for King Vultures and treetops for Snowy Cotingas in the rainforests of the lowlands.

King Vultures are common at Laguna del Lagarto.

That said, each bioregion has its best sites; the accessible places where there are plenty of birds to look at and where rare species are possible. Although even sites within the same region have their own strengths, in the Caribbean lowlands, one of the places that truly comes out on top is also one of the first authentic ecolodges in Costa Rica; Laguna del Lagarto.

These are 5 reasons why I believe this ecolodge in Costa Rica is one of the top birding sites in the nation:

Extensive, Quality Rainforest

No matter where you go, the birding is usually best in large areas of natural, old-growth habitats. At least that’s the case for rainforest. The incredible complexity of this archetypal tropical habitat provides niches and possibilities for a huge number of bird species (and other cool living things) BUT that same complexity only works in full in large areas of old growth forest.

This is why its pretty easy to see a large number of edge species in any number of places, but why birds such as large raptors, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, and White-flanked Antwren require visits to places with intact, mature rainforest. Laguna del Lagarto is one of the few, rare ecolodges in Costa Rica that protects and has access to such areas of mature lowland rainforest. They are still large enough to host populations of everything from nunbirds to antbirds, and rare raptors, and can be explored on several trails at Laguna as well as along nearby roads.

Rainforest Lagoons

Mature rainforest is necessary for fantastic birding in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica but its not the only type of habitat used by birds. Forested lagoons and other wetlands are also important for various key species like Agami Heron, Sungrebe, Green Ibis, kingfishers, and others. Laguna del Lagarto has several lagoons visible right from the lodge and that can also be explored by canoe.

The Rare Factor is Always High

When large areas of quality habitat are present, the chances for rare species go up. Since the forests at Laguna are contiguous with other areas of mature rainforest that connect with the huge and extremely important Indio Maiz Reserve in Nicaragua, this opens the door of possibilities to the rarest of the rare. Those would be birds like Red-throated Caracara and even Harpy and Crested Eagles. Seeing them at or near Laguna would be a rare and extremely fortunate event but its not out of the range of possibilities. Those species do live in forests connected to Laguna and could certainly show up (they have in the past).

More typical endangered, rare and uncommon species that occur regularly at Laguna include:

Great Curassow, Tawny-faced Quail, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Agami Heron, Gray-bellied Hawk, all three hawk-eagles, Central American Pygmy-Owl and 5 other species of owl, Short-tailed Nighthawk, 2 potoo species, American Pygmy and Green-and-Rufous Kingfishers, Pied Puffbird, White-fronted Nunbird, Great Jacamar, Great Green Macaw, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, Gray-headed Piprites, Song Wren, White-vented Euphonia, and Slate-colored Grosbeak. Check out the eBird list for Laguna del Lagarto.

Excellent Birding, Even Better Bird Photography

The combination of natural feeders, plantains available for the birds, and access to the lagoons make this pioneer ecolodge in Costa Rica a fantastic site for bird photography. Toucans, Brown-hooded Parrots, tanagers, and a wealth of other species can be photographed at close range. As a bonus, guides at Laguna occasionally know of roosting owls and where to find rare species like Agami Heron. Not to mention, there’s also a hide for King Vulture photography…

Accommodating Service

No birding lodge would be a top site without also providing good service. Laguna does this in several ways, including bringing visitors to roosting owls or other birds they want to see. The lodge also accommodates with early breakfasts and coffee, and have always been willing to please guests to the best of their ability. I know I have always been impressed!

This excellent ecolodge might be a bit off the beaten track but better roads have made it much easier to visit and feasible as a destination on a trip that also includes sites in the Arenal and Cano Negro regions. That said, the habitats at Laguna have such high potential, a tour could easily spend 5 nights there and still see new birds on a daily basis. Not to mention, that would also increase the chances of finding rare species, I can’t wait for my next visit!

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Target Birding in Costa Rica- Violet-green Swallow Surprise

As predicted for birding in Costa Rica, it has indeed been a good year for Violet-green Swallows. Since winter began back in November, there have been several sightings of this rare species for Costa Rica. Some sightings of these overshooting vagrants have come from the coast, others from further afield, all ahve inspired me to scan distant skies as part of my morning birding “ritual”. So far, that hasn’t panned out but as with all birding, the binocular viewing never leaves me empty handed. One day, I picked up a rare for Costa Rica Cooper’s Hawk, most days see a couple flyby Giant Cowbirds, and there are is the usual flock or two of screeching Crimson-fronted Parakeets.

I also hear White-eared Ground-Sparrows calling from down below.

I watch from the back balcony but since many of the more recent sightings were from upper parts of the Central Valley, I realized that I probably needed to expand my search horizon. After hearing about a group of 10 birds (!) being seen in those nearby hills, this past sunny Saturday afternoon, Marilen and I decided to roll the biding dice for a quick trip to the Bosque del Nino area.

An area of highland forest adjacent to patches of woodlands and farms, this site is close enough for a fairly quick drive, seems to be better for migrants than other places, and was decidedly close to several recent reports of Violet-green Swallows. As is usual for Costa Rica on a Saturday afternoon, the drive there was slow and occasionally bumpy but blessed with beautiful scenery.

We made it to the access road to Bosque del Nino by 4:30, stepped out of the car and I kid you not, the first bird I saw was a dang Violet-green Swallow! It zipped over quick in typical swallow fashion but the light was in our favor and showed a small swallow with white underparts (including a white vent) that reached to the center of a short forked tail, too short to be a Tree Swallow.

With a quick look like that, you can’t see violet and you can’t see green but unlike this bird, the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows have black vents. Further viewing revealed a few more Violet-greens foraging over trees and an adjacent field; on these birds, it was easier to see their white faces and white on the sides of the rump. We watched them forage with the more common resident swallows and made our way further up the road.

Upon seeing a large group of swallows forage over an open field, we stopped to scan them and it didn’t take long to realize that umm, yes, this winter is especially good for Violet-green Swallows in Costa Rica. There might have been 70 swallows in the field, probably more, and it seemed like every other one I got one into focus, there was the white on the side of the rump, there were the field marks of birds much further south than they usually winter, smart looking swallows that hail from glades among Ponderosa Pines and other places shared with the wacky Lewis’s Woodpecker, with sublime Mountain Bluebirds.

At least 15 Violet-greens zipped among several more Blue-and-whites and a handful of Northern Rough-wings as a Keel-billed Toucan gave its croaking call, Brown Jays worked a hedgerow, and other birds called from the woods. The roll of the dice on that beautiful late afternoon couldn’t have been more in our favor, I wonder how long those Violet-greens will stay?

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Strategic Birding in Costa Rica at Rincon de La Vieja- Rinconcito Lodge

Rincon de la Vieja is one of the more interesting places to go birding in Costa Rica. An active volcano that also acts as a 34,000 acre (13759 hectares) national park with tropical forest transitioning between dry, wet, and middle elevations…how could it not be great birding?

Maintained trails in the park provide access to chances at an entertaining array of species associated with a fine ecotone of habitats including such uncommon and rare birds as Violaceous and Purplish-backed Quail-Doves, Black-eared Wood-Quail, King Vulture and other raptors, Tody Motmot, and even one of the grail birds of the Neotropical region, the one and only Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo.

By nature of their very being, the visiting birder can’t always expect to see the rare ones, but toucans, White-fronted Parrots, Gray-headed Tanagers, Thicket Tinamous, and plenty of other species will still keep you smiling, especially when you can access key habitats in and outside the park. Accessing those different habitats is essential for seeing a healthy selection of bird species and no focal point is better for doing that than Rinconcito Lodge.

White-fronted Parrot

A small, cozy hotel situated just outside of the national park, these are the reasons why Rinconcito is located in the best spot for birding several habitats:

Access To Two Different Park Entrances

The lodge is right on a good road that leads to two different park entrances; Las Pailas and Santa Maria. The Las Pailas area has trails that access moist forest with a wealth of species. Whether birding, hiking, or both, this part of Rincon de la Vieja delivers. Santa Maria also offers similar excellent birding and hiking with better chances at Caribbean slope species like the uncommon Yellow-eared Toucanet, antbirds, and other species.

A Road To the Wet and Wild Caribbean Slope

For additional exciting Caribbean slope birding including chances at everything from rare raptors to Lovely Cotinga, take the road to Colonia Blanca and then on to Colonia Libertad. Rough enough to require four wheel drive, birders who enjoy exploration will love the rainforests along this route! The area hasn’t seen much birding but has a lot of potential. Surveys in the 90s by Daniel S. Cooper found all 3 species of hawk-eagle, and the mega rare Gray-headed Piprites among other species.

Watch for the weird and wonderful Sunbittern on streams.

The birding is great along much of this road, just be prepared for rain, good mixed flocks, and overall excellent birding.

30 minutes to Oak Savannah Habitats

The western flanks of the volcano host interesting, wind-blown oak savannahs. Although they aren’t the easiest places to bird on account of frequent windy conditions, this unique habitat could have some interesting avian surprises. It would be best visited in the early morning to look for Rusty and Botteri’s Sparrows along with an outside chance of finding Rock Wren.

A Bit Further To Wetlands and Other Dry Forest Sites

Although there are plenty of dry forest species at and near the lodge, additional dry forest sites such as Santa Rosa National park and Horizontes are anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half drive from the lodge. The same goes for the open field and wetland hotspots of Las Trancas and the Sardinal Catfish Ponds.

Birding at Rinconcito

But what if you don’t feel like driving anywhere? If you would rather go for an easy-going blend of birding, pool time, and drinks, Rinconcito delivers for that too! Orange-fronted Parakeets, White-fronted Parrots, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, magpie-jays, and other birds are on and near the grounds of the hotel while trails can host Sunbittern and even Tody Motmot.

At Rincon de la Vieja, the windy weather of the continental divide can be a challenge but the birding is always good and there’s no spot more strategic than Rinconcito Lodge.