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A Good Day of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

What’s a good day of birding in Costa Rica? For that matter, what’s a good day of birding anywhere? A common answer is “a good day of birding is any day when you go birding”. I can’t deny a certain degree of veracity to those words but let’s face it, no day of birding is the same, sometimes you get better views, others are highlighted with rare species, and the best of days exceed all expectations.

In trying to keep with the Zen birding way, before I look for birds, I try to erase the expectations. I am aware of the possibilities, that’s always important, but don’t actually expect anything. This way, the birding experience is more realistic because after all, the appearance and occurrence of birds are beyond our control. All we can do is up the odds in our favor by planting trees or taking other actions to protect bird habitat, learn how to look for and identify birds, and then carefully look for them in the right places.

Today being in the heart of fall migration, I can’t honestly say I didn’t have expectations but I still went birding without expecting to see certain species. I knew various species were out there, suspected that rare ones were present too but also walked out the door knowing that I can’t know if or when we would cross paths with them. All one can do is the things one can control; put in the birding time, observe, and be quick with the binos.

With or without expectations, today, September 26, 2021 was a good day of birding in the Central Valley of Costa Rica (perhaps my best). These are some of the reason why:

Major Migration

Each morning, lately, I have started the day looking out back, checking to see which birds have arrived from the north. Most mornings, a few birds are there, some days more than others. There have been a few good mornings but nothing like today, a day that featured an observable morning flight. Multiple warblers and vireos shot out of the vegetation, as per usual, flying upstream. A few stopped but most kept going and I couldn’t try and follow, there were other birds to look at. At times, a few too many.

A bird flying into a Cecropia turned into a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Eastern Kingbirds materialized in a treetop to my right. Something else zipped in and landed…this fall’s first Summer Tanager! Scanning the background revealed a small flock of Bronzed cowbirds, a larger flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeet and a constant movement of Bank Swallows. I had 50 species in maybe 30 minutes and we were about to head out the door to look for more.

A Summer Tanager in Costa Rica from another day- many of this species winter in Costa Rica.

Nonstop Birding

Hundreds of arrivals from the north and cloudy conditions made for excellent bird activity. At our first main stop, a small area of shade coffee, Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers flitted in the trees, four Orchard Orioles chattered from an empty lot thick with grass, and swallows kept streaming overhead. More Bank Swallows moved through along with dark-throated Cliffs, elegant Banks, and a random massive Purple Martin. Before we left that spot, we also heard our first fall migration Swainson’s Thrush and had close looks at the following key species.

Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow

While searching for hidden cuckoos, I heard the tick ticking calls of one of Costa Rica’s major target birds, the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I see this species at this site from time to time but it’s never guaranteed. Like other skulking ones, this southernmost towhee is a fickle bird that inherently calls its own shots. This morning, three of them gave us a break and allowed us to appreciate their clownish face pattern.

Upland Sandpiper

Next on the list of sites to visit was a place with large expanses of short grass, a busy place that breeds noise but our only close option for grasspipers. Our main target was Buff-breasted Sandpiper and although scanning the runways did not turn up that Arctic visitor, we couldn’t find fault with an Upland Sandpiper. Our second of the year, this special grassland bird was busy foraging near Eastern Meadowlarks and a Killdeer. Perhaps it was reminded of its summer home.

Sunbittern

After the airport, we checked the San Miguel reservoir. This small body of water can be a magnet for waterbirds, when dry, it can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper. Today, no mud flats meant no Baird’s and with the place being covered with Water Hyacinth, we only saw Northern Jacanas, Muscovy Ducks, herons, Purple Gallinules, and a few other birds. With so much vegetation present, thoughts of Masked Duck came to mind (it could easily be there) and we scanned for it but didn’t see one today.

Instead, we saw a Sunbittern! Not on the reservoir itself but just downhill, along the main road where a bridge crosses a forested creek. I had stopped there hoping to find migrants in the woods when I heard the whistle of the Sunbittern. Thank goodness it was vocalizing. If not, I doubt I would have noticed it. We saw one of these Gondwana birds from the bridge and heard another. A fine random sighting for the Central Valley and a reminder of how prevalent this shy species is in Costa Rica.

A Snippet of a Cuckoo

Our final sweet sighting for the day was as brief as a gust of wind but it’ll still do. While watching Alder Flycatcher share space with Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo fast-trained it out of nowhere and flew deep into a fruiting fig. We looked, I tried to remind it of other places by whistling like an Eastern Screech-Owl but it must have been in a vacation state of mind, we never saw it again.

As I write, the day’s not over yet. I just counted 90 species from four hours of birding in the morning and 30 minutes more during the afternoon. With a more concerted effort, we could have easily found more than ten additional species but today was already a fantastic day of birding, I hope yours’ was too.

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Birding Costa Rica: Classic Sites or Off the Beaten Path?

The routes that birding tours in Costa Rica follow are like those of most nations; you go where the birds are BUT in accessible places near enough to other sites to make the route feasible during a week or two of birding. They also need to offer the right blend of comfort, service, food, and security.

A Black-crested Coquette from Rancho Naturalista, one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites.

No matter where you bring the binos, this winning tour combination is basically why so many birding tours tend to follow similar routes. Not always, but for logistical reasons, many tours follow a similar circuit and why not? If a birding tour route keeps clients happy and can lessen the chances of running into snags, its a good one. Why not always use the same or similar routes? Those routes can also help with planning a birding trip. Using a blend of trip reports and tour company itineraries as a template for your own trip has long been an easy way to know where to go. After all, you can’t go wrong by visiting the same places as the group tours, right?

Maybe…trip success depends on what birds you want to see and how you want to go birding. See a good number of birds while staying in comfortable rooms? Yeah, those tour itineraries will work but if Black-crowned Antpitta and other uncommon target species are reasons for the trip, the well traveled birding byways won’t be your best option.

The same goes for adventurous birders who would rather explore on their own, visit less birded sites, or pay less. Solo birding, or with a private group? The classic sites will still work to produce a wonderful birding trip to Costa Rica but if you want something a little bit different, perhaps see if you can document a Solitary Eagle, don’t overlook the luxury of having the liberty to bird wherever and whenever you want.

Birding on your own, in a small group or on a custom tour and you have a lot more leeway but there’s that one big catch; how do you know where to go? Check out Google Maps and there’s promising looking patches and extensions of ruffled green. But what’s it like on the ground? Some places seem to have roads, some don’t, and some of the better looking spots only have one eBird list.

With that in mind, it’s all too easy to stick to the spots that have been eBirded to the max because after all, at least you know what’s there. With so much coverage, you have a fair idea of which birds roam the woods of places like Rancho Naturalista and La Selva Biological Station (even with an error or two) but what if you want to bird other, lesser known spots?

Isn’t it just as worthwhile to bird places with large areas of forest even if they lack or have smaller eBird lists? You bet it is. The birds aren’t where people have uploaded lists, they occur where the habitat exists and the places with the most species will always be sites with the largest areas of mature, intact forest. It’s pretty simple, if you want to connect with rarities, see more raptors, and see the highest number of species, spend more time in mature forest.

Don’t worry too much about the second growth, you will still see plenty of edge species at and near the forest. If you are up for exploration, try these routes and regions:

Large areas of forest in the north

Check out forest along roads north and west of Rincon de la Vieja, and north and east of Laguna del Lagarto. Not that one could expect to be so lucky but it’s still worth mentioning that Costa Rica’s most recent documented Harpy Eagle sighting happened north of Rincon de la Vieja. I know I wouldn’t mind spending a lot more time up that way. The same goes for sites near Laguna del Lagarto, Maquenque, and east of there.

The area south of Limon

There’s a lot of excellent forest habitat near and south of Limon. It’s underbirded, it probably hosts some sweet surprises, and the region seems to be the best part of the country for Black-crowned Antpitta and Great Jacamar. What else might live out there? Various roads that penetrate forest will work for some birding excitement including ones near Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Gandoca, and Hitoy Cerere.

Great Jacamar

The Osa Peninsula

Want to look for Crested Eagle while watching Baird’s Trogons and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanagers, try the La Tarde area and birding on the road to Rancho Quemado and Drake Bay. Seeing one of the prize eagles would be a maybe lottery ticket but it’s always fun to look for it.

Black cheeked Ant Tanager

Other Spots With Promising Habitat

Any other spot with habitat will be good birding, a few to try include the road from Varablanca to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, roads east of Tirimbina, sites south of Guapiles and Siquirres, roads near Dominical, and the Las Tables area north of San Vito.

Still not sure where to go birding in Costa Rica? Don’t sweat it too much, find some habitat and the birding will deliver. Find out more about birding sites in Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica , a site guide and birding companion to Costa Rica. If you do find a Solitary Eagle, please get a picture and let me know, I know a lot of local birders who would love to see one. Until then, happy birding wherever you might be raising the binos.

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A Few Changes at San Luis Canopy and the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

Birding sites come and go. Some get better, others become off limits or, in too many worse case scenarios, are converted to housing or sterile pineapple fields. As Joni Mitchell reminded us, new parking lots can also happen and while those frozen patches of tar might make a Ring-billed Gull cackle with glee, other birds would opt for trees.

Thanks to recent guiding, I visited two classic birding sites in Costa Rica and noted a few changes that have happened at both of them. Not to worry (!), the changes are neutral or for the better at the Colibri Cafe in Cinchona and the San Luis Adventure Park. Here’s what to expect:

The Cafe Colibri (aka Mirador de San Fernando, aka Cinchona, aka Cinchona Cafe, aka awesome spot to get mind blown by tropical birds)

Although a parking lot did happen at the cafe, fortunately, it did NOT pave over any bit of paradise. Having nudged my vehicle into undefined parking spaces at the Colibri Cafe for years, I can attest to the new parking area being an improvement. Even better, for kids and domestic animal lovers of all ages, the parking area is now accentuated by a pair of braying donkeys.

As birders are entertained by the occasional loud, toothed voices of corralled mules across the road, they now also have more seating room on the birding deck.

The deck removed a very small part of the garden but it shouldn’t really affect the birds and more space was needed anyways. The new set up also makes it easier to watch the main feeder, a star fruit buffet featuring such beautiful attendees as the Northern Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Silver-throated Tanager, and eye-pleasing species.

The hummingbird scene hasn’t changed, it still provides the chance to witness Brown Violetears extending their “ears”, Coppery-headed Emeralds sputtering and flashing the white in the tails, Green Thorntails doing their best wasp imitation, Violet Sabrewings acting large, purple, and in charge, and more.

violet-sabrewing

I should also mention that the menu is still the same albeit with the addition of flavored coffees available from a flavored coffee machine (which, if my mochaccino was any indication, could be better).

From the very mouth of the owner, the current fees for bird photography are 1500 colones for a bit of time and 2500 for a few hours. Since this is still a pittance, if you visit, please be generous and donate accordingly to this classic, birder friendly spot. My eBird list from September 13, 2021.

The San Luis Adventure Park (aka San Luis, aka San Luis Canopy, aka dream close looks at tanagers)

Over the years, this neat little place nestled in cloud forest on the road between San Ramon and La Fortuna has grown. Although the owners haven’t paved over anything, a bit of habitat has been removed. It’s nothing substantial and won’t affect the birds too much but it does affect the birding, at least a little bit.

As San Luis has expanded ever so slightly, various fruiting trees that were located just behind and next to the buildings have been removed. It’s a shame because those very trees made it easy to watch a wealth of tanagers from the parking area, Blue-and gold included. Not all of the trees were cut down, several are still there, just not as many visible from the parking area. Even so, I can’t honestly blame the owners for removing a few trees.

A few had to be taken out because they interfered with their zipline operations. Others were cut so they could expand a deck and the restaurant. I wish there could have been a better solution but it’s hard to think of one. Since they still protect a sizeable area of cloud forest, I can think of a lot more enterprises much more worthy of criticism for actual unsustainable and destructive practices.

Not to mention, the deck that was built also happens to be where birders can view tanagers at close range, so there is that. Speaking of the tanager deck, while it used to be freely open to birders, a locked door has been installed and access is now only possible by paying $20 in the reception. If $20 seems too much to view Emerald Tanager at close range, not to worry, you get more for that price! This same fee also provides unlimited access to the San Luis Canopy trail; a maintained series of steps that descends a river and has several hanging bridges.

If you can handle a bunch of steps, hanging bridges, and great birding, this might be the trail for you! It accesses mature cloud forest that can feature close looks at various tanagers, excellent mixed flocks, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, a chance at umbrellabird, and many other species. Since the fee also includes access to a hummingbird garden and close looks at Emerald, Speckled, Bay-headed Tanagers and other birds, I would say that’s money well spent.

San Luis is currently open seven days a week, from 8 until 4. The restaurant is good enough and currently features a typical Costa Rican menu (used to be buffet only). My eBird list from September 12, 2021.

As with every good birding site, I look forward to going back, I hope you make it there too. In the meantime, to learn more about identification tips and birding sites in Costa Rica, get ready for an amazing birding trip to Costa Rica with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Happy fall migration!

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Costa Rica Birding News Flash- Early September, 2021

Fall is happening in Costa Rica. There won’t be any foliage color changes nor any cool, crisp weather but autumn still happens. Much to the enjoyment of birders, in tropical Costa Rica, the signs of September change take an avian form. It’s not exactly like temperate zone migration (don’t expect skeins of geese, nor massive movements of grackles and blackbirds) but then again, we don’t live in a place with annual freezing conditions.

In Costa Rica, the signs of fall are flocks of shorebirds, some of the them staying for the duration, others moving much further south. Fall in Costa Rica is flocks of Red-eyed Vireos hiding in the foliage; more intent on imitating leaves than testing their vocal chords. It’s thousands, millions of swallows and Chimney Swifts flowing south. Keep looking up and you also see the river of raptors; Mississippi Kites, Swainson’s Hawks, and Turkey Vultures.

These are some signs of our autumn, ones that arrives in force but on quiet wings. Some of the newsworthy birding items from Costa Rica for early September, 2021:

First Passerine Migrant Push

The first songbird migrants have arrived on the scene. Both wood-pewee species have started moving through the country along with good numbers of Willow/Alder Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, and the first wood-warblers. Those would be American Redstart, Yellow Warblers, and a few others including the cherry on the birding cake; the coveted Cerulean Warbler. A few of these special canopy birds have been spotted here and there, especially in expected middle elevation habitats on the Caribbean slope. I’m still waiting to get lucky with one out back any day now.

Upland Sandpiper (!)

Not many have been recorded but it’s likely that dozens of the classic grasspiper are passing through the night skies. Most probably don’t stop, others perhaps settle down in wide open, underbirded fields in Guanacaste. A few, though, pause in open habitats of the Central Valley, especially at sites around the airport. On September 3rd, thanks to a message from Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences, and the Garrigues brothers for finding and reporting the bird, Marilen and I saw our annual Upland Sandpiper.

While we watched it, I was reminded how well this prairie species can blend in with its surroundings, it was more or less impossible to see without binoculars.

Tahiti Petrel and Other Pelagic Species

Local birders on a recent pelagic trip off of Malpais were treated to wonderful looks at a Tahiti Petrel along with Sabine’s Gull and other sweet species of the deep marine zone. The numerous trips arranged by Wilfredo Villalobos have had a wonderful double impact on local birding; increased knowledge of pelagic birds in Costa Rican waters while helping local birders connect with cool lifers.

Thanks to these and other trips, we now know that Tahiti Petrel is quite regular in Costa Rica (although perhaps related to warmer waters caused by climate change?) and great pelagic birding is possible just 30 minutes from the coast.

Yellow-green Vireos in Costa Rica- Still Singing

In some ways, the Yellow-green Vireo is analogous to the Red-eyed Vireo of temperate North America. Like the Red-eyed, it migrates to breeding areas and then returns to South America for the winter. On the breeding grounds, it also sings for hours on end and looks a bit like the Red-eyed Vireo. Unlike the Red-eyed, though, it can occur in more fragmented habitat, has a larger bill, and more yellow in its plumage (among other field marks).

The past few days, it has been interesting to hear snatches of song from a Yellow-green Vireo. Maybe this common wet season resident of Costa Rica’s Central Valley couldn’t help itself but I wonder if the vocal behavior was associated with an especially rainy wet season. Did it think that maybe it should try for one more nesting attempt? Since the songs weren’t all that emphatic, its instincts to move south probably got the better of it.

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds at La Selva

La Selva guide Ademar Hurtado has been making local birders smile by way of Bare-necked Umbrellabirds. After breeding in cloud forests, this endangered mega migrates to lower elevations, including la Selva biological station; a classic post-breeding site for the species. Hopefully, those individuals and additional umbrellabirds will linger at La Selva until they move back upslope in February.

Birding Influencers and Guides in Costa Rica on Proimagen Futuropa Promotional Trip

This past week, several birding influences and guides from several nations have been visiting sites in Costa Rica on a promotional trip known as “Birdingbliss 2021”. Arranged by Proimagen and Futuropa and with help from I.C.T (the Costa Rica tourism institution), Costa Rica Birding, and various hotels, the participants have been getting a taste of Costa Rica birds at Tortuguero, the Dota Valley, the Sierpe Mangroves, Quepos, and other birdy places.

Hopefully, as they experience and showcase the avian side of Costa Rica, they will see plenty of target species and eventually return with guests of their own.

In Costa Rica, with the main part of fall migration just getting started, I better go outside and see what’s around. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!