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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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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica birding lodges planning birding trip Costa Rica

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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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

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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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope

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.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

Tourism isn’t exactly the biggest thing happening during the pandemic. In Costa Rica and elsewhere, this important slice of the economic pie has been reduced to crumbs. Actually, even crumbs would be nice. I know birding guides who have been trying to eke out a living by detailing vehicles and picking coffee, and at least one airline pilot, and more than one driver have been hawking food items.

I haven’t been exempt from the near complete shutdown of tourism but at least the lack of visiting birders has been inspiration to work on a variety of writing-related projects. Within the next two months, there will be a major, free update to the apps I work on, I aim to help more businesses with marketing (I am available for your content needs), and if all goes well, there will be books.

In the meantime, all of us in Costa Rica are hoping that tourism can get back into gear sooner rather than later. The country is opening its borders to all states and nations on November 1st and although we can’t expect a torrent of visitors, we can at least have hope that tourism may pick up a bit. There still won’t be any getting back to a normal for a while but Costa Rica will be open and the birds will be waiting.

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

But will it be worth visiting Costa Rica during the following months? Here’s my take on some of the main concerns:

The Perils of Plane Travel

For many, one of the biggest barriers to travel is the fact that most of us can’t travel alone, at least not when heading to distant destinations such as Costa Rica. These days, sharing space with a bunch of other people is one of the last things that any of us want to do. Airports? No thanks! Plane rides? Are you nuts?! But how perilous are those situations? Is air travel dangerous during the pandemic?

According to recent studies, maybe not as much as we feared. Although it may be too early to fully assess the risk of contracting a novel virus during air travel, it does seem that the chances of catching it during flights are minimal as long as you and other passengers are wearing masks. Not to mention, modern jet planes have excellent air filtration systems that have a high percentage of removing the virus from the air.

As for airports, the enclosed spaces and lack of similar air filtration systems probably make those parts of the journey more risky than the plane itself. However, once again, even there, as long as one is careful about wearing a mask, washing hands, not touching your face, and social distancing, the chance of catching the virus should be pretty low.

Entering the Country

As of November 1st, Costa Rica will no longer be closed to passengers from certain countries or states because of COVID-19. BUT they do have to provide proof of health insurance approved by Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health, and need to fill out an official health form.

Proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test is no longer required!

The web site for the Embassy of Costa Rica in Washington D.C. has this to say about the health insurance policy:

“For international insurance policies, tourists must request a certification from their insurance company, issued in English or Spanish, verifying at least the following three conditions:

  • Effectiveness of the policy during the visit to Costa Rica
  • Guaranteed coverage of medical expenses in the event of becoming ill with the pandemic COVID-19 virus while in Costa Rica, for at least USD $50,000 (fifty thousand United States Dollars)
  • Includes minimum coverage of USD $2,000 for lodging expenses issued as a result of the pandemic.”

Once inside Costa Rica, a birder can go wherever they please. At the moment, rental vehicles seem to be exempt from driving restrictions. I’m not entirely sure if that also goes for driving between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. (probably still exempt) but it’s not so fun to drive at that time in any case.

What’s Open?

Just about everything is open including most national parks, hotels, and restaurants. Since all of these follow strict health protocols, expect to do a lot of hand washing or using sanitizer before entering places, being socially distanced while dining, and needing to wear a mask in enclosed public places.

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

That brings us up to the next concern; what exactly is the COVID-19 situation in Costa Rica? Although the virus was pretty much under control for a few months, this is no longer the case. Even so, I think that exposure is still minimized to tourists because hotels, restaurants, car rental agencies, and other points of contact are following protocols that include temperature checks, wearing masks, hand washing, etc. of both clients and employees.

Restrictions?

Some beaches might only be open during certain times of the day but other than that, a birder can visit and bird just about anywhere in Costa Rica., and see birds like this Northern Emerald Toucanet.

The Birding

As for the birding, it’s just as fantastic as it was before the pandemic. An array of glittering hummingbirds,

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

quetzals and other trogons, motmots, toucans, macaws, and all those other spectacular Neotropical delights!

The local guide scene is also better than ever with some of us knowing where to find everything from Lanceolated Monklets to Lovely Cotingas and more. These days, the folks at the wonderful Hotel Quelitales even have a nesting Scaled Antpitta! Whether you decide to go soon or later, now is also still the best time to start planning and preparing for your trip by learning about where to visit with a bird finding book for Costa Rica, and marking your target species with a digital field guide for Costa Rica.

I hope to see you soon!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

Most mornings, I am out of bed shortly after dawn. In Costa Rica, that translates to the calling time of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, and Rufous-naped Wrens; somewhere around five-thirty. I do the early thing because that’s when the birds are active, that’s when I can focus on birds from the back balcony and get mentally prepared for the day. This past Sunday, I had a good excuse to wake up later, valid excuses to sleep in and catch up on rest. It was the day after Global Bird (Big) Day (GBD), a day when I had done my part to bird as much as possible.

On GBD, a birder doesn’t need to be awake before dawn so they can listen to the night sky. You don’t have to be out there birding at the break of day, nor keep the birding going, keep on moving when you feel tired. There is no requirement for celebrating a day dedicated to birds and birding but if you roll like me, expect a long one, expect to stay focused on birds just about until you drop. If more birds are what you want, being awake pays off even during the night. Otherwise, I would have missed the calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, that one call of my year Gray-cheeked Thrush (!), the barks of a Mottled Owl.

This past October 17th, although Team Tyto didn’t pull any all nighters or even bird until exhaustion takes over, we still had a long, wonderful day of birding. I’ll probably talk about that some other time or maybe cover it in a post at 10,000 Birds. For now, though, I’ll just mention the Sunday Merlin surprise.

As I was saying, I had a good excuse to sleep in on Sunday but how so during the height of migration? That knowledge of possibilities got me out of bed and to the coffeemaker. It brought me to the back balcony with a cup of high quality Costa Rican brewed fuel in hand. I watched and listened, I didn’t see much, but this was still migration, anything could happen.

Maybe it was time to check the news, eat breakfast. Maybe the birds had taken a day off after starring in the best live reality in town? As I pondered whether to trade watching for practicing a Chen form or some other type of focused exercise, a sudden movement of the avian type brought me back to my birding senses.

Out of nowhere, with a flurry of feathers, a small raptor appeared directly in front of my field of view! Too close and quick for binoculars, much to my good fortune, it immediately landed in the dead tree just out back. Before I realized it, I was watching the bird through optics and could see that it was a young Merlin!

A regular but local migrant in Costa Rica, this was one of the birds I had hoped to chance upon during my mornings at the balcony. If I was going to see one, I figured it would take the form of a small, quick bird zipping overhead. That’s how I usually see this species and I’m sure more than one has flown through my skies while I sat inside, watching the computer screen, unaware of its lethal presence. I never expected a Merlin to land in that tree just out back and even better, it stayed more than long enough to study it at close range and see that it had caught a Blue-and-White Swallow.

One of or many neighborhood Blue-and-White Swallows.
Merlin with swallow.

Although I didn’t actually see it make the catch, I am pretty sure that my year Merlin had caught it right in front of me. It happened that quick. Like the unfortunate swallow, I didn’t see the small falcon make its approach, I had no idea where it came from, I only saw it when it was too late, when it had the swallow in its long sharp claws. I doubt the small bird had suffered, I think it was dead on impact. It had certainly expired when its grim reaper brought it to the tree out back.

As the falcon plucked and ate the swallow, I wondered what other birds it had caught on its voyage here? Which warblers, swallows or other small birds had kept it going, had fueled its trip to my shores, Costa Rica? I remembered the other times I have seen Merlins and before then when I had longed to see one. Since I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, to me, raptors were always the coolest of birds. It was simply amazing to see a kestrel in the field near our house in Niagara Falls. A pair sometimes flew out there and called, “killy, killy, killy!” Our beloved neighbor, Frank Paterniti (aka Grandpa Frank), called it a Sparrowhawk.

I don’t know if he would have referred to a Merlin as a Pigeon Hawk, I’m not sure if he knew that bird. I didn’t see one until years later in some other place but on occasion, they were surely nearby. A Merlin from the north was occasionally zipping overhead during migration and in the winter, menacing smaller birds and chasing crows off roofs. Once in an industrial area of Buffalo, I did see one doing just that, it had no need to do so but it didn’t stop until each one of a dozen American Crows had taken flight!

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

Seeing the small falcon out back reminded me of the Merlins I eventually saw in boreal places, waiting at the edges of large lakes to catch a siskin or any small bird whose luck had ran out. There was that Merlin that harried a big flock of chickadees at Whitefish Point, it kept at them until it finally did catch one that had ventured a bit too far. I once found a Merlin in summer in the Colorado Rockies, the habitat was like the boreal zone only with big mountains, that bird had surely taken up residence.

The ones I see in Costa Rica mostly fly along the Caribbean Coast, that’s where a birder can espy a dozen or more in a day, where their presence over rainforest decorated with calling toucans is a reminder of the connections between the boreal and the tropical. Our young post GBD Merlin eventually flew off, I wonder where it will spend the winter?

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biodiversity

Gray-rumped Swift – Another Endemic for Central America?

Bird migration is happening, it’s probably good that I don’t live on the Caribbean coast. Not only would it be a challenge for my northern, cold-bred self to become accustomed to constant high levels of humidity, but with so many birds migrating through, it would be even more of a challenge to get anything accomplished. How not to run outside and see a river of raptors? How not to stop looking at the thrushes, warblers, and mesmerizing flocks of Eastern Kingbirds. Which flock might host a rare Gray Kingbird? An even rarer Couch’s or Cassin’s? And the thousands of Hirundines? Forget about it!

Somewhere up there with the massive Purple Martin movements is a Sinaloa Martin. The stream of swallows might host a few lost and adventurous Violet-greens, maybe even an insanely vagrant Asian swift. Unlikely, but not entirely out of the question because with so many thousands of birds being funneled through Costa Rica, lost Asian birds following their instincts south would probably also pass this way.

Identifying some mid blowing mega like that would require an extreme degree of luck but with constant monitoring of migrating Hirundines, there would be a slim chance. Although we lack such focused counting of migrating swallows and swifts at the moment, at least there are a fair number of birders in the field. Always out there, always watching, and unlike pre-digital days, most have cameras!

It turns out that Cave Swallows are an uncommon but regular migrant in Costa Rica.

I hope we will eventually have more extensive counting of migrating birds in Costa Rica but in the meantime, there are plenty of other birds to focus on. Today, we take a closer look at the Gray-rumped Swift (Chaetura cinereiventris).

No, doesn’t look like much but at least this image is honest with how swifts are often seen. This is a Gray-rumped Swift from Costa Rica.

The common Chaetura (small, stubby tailed swifts) of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills, the Gray-rumped Swift is easily seen at any number of sites. These are the small groups of swifts that fly over the canopy at the La Selva biological station, the small dark swifts with pale rumps that zip overhead, are then marked down, and then subsequently ignored.

I can’t blame fellow birders for paying less attention to swifts; I am likewise guilty of taking the bins down from looking at many of these birds. When the swifts are way up there (which they often are) and in poor light (ditto), and are not vocalizing (not nearly enough), you would be fooling yourself if you didn’t call many of them Cypseloides sp. or even Chaetura sp. (because Vaux’s can range into the lowlands and look way more like Chimneys than we might admit).

The good thing about Gray-rumpeds is that they fly low enough to see that they are darkish, nearly blackish swifts with delineated or well-marked pale rumps. I might be fooling myself (and with swifts that’s almost a given) but I also have this impression that their wings are shorter than Vaux’s. Yeah, probably fooling myself but they definitely have shorter wings than the Chimney Swifts that share their sky space.

The other cool thing about Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America is that they very likely represent a separate, distinct species. Yes, one more endemic for the land bridge between North and South America! Maybe not but molecular studies published in 2018 revealed a whopping 6.2% difference between the subspecies that occurs in Central America and at least three subspecies of Gray-rumped Swifts found in South America. See this link for figures of phylogenetic trees.

Although they look rather similar, such high molecular differences are seriously telling and regarding phenotypical differences, Chaeturas don’t exactly stand out from each other anyways. As for vocalizations, although similar, to my ears, there appear to be differences in structure and maybe pitch from South American birds.

I am guessing that more data are needed to make an adequate proposal to separate the phaeopygos subspecies of Gray-rumped Swift, especially because birds in South America might also represent additional species (?) but given that large difference in mDNA, it sure looks like Gray-rumped Swifts in Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and western Panama represent a cryptic species. Even if they were still retained as a subspecies, this bird would still act as one more example of Central America acting as an evolutionary hotspot. Watch those swifts!

On October 13th, Josh Beck mentioned that the occidentalis subspecies of western Colombia and western Ecuador was not included in the phylogeny. Since occidentalis includes two disjunct populations, phylogenies including both of these would be needed to further elucidate any conclusions about the Gray-rumped Swifts in Central America.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica migration

Morning Orioles in Costa Rica

I love seeing posts from the Morning Flight Working Group Facebook page, the virtual space where birders, field ornithologists, post reports and images of diurnal bird migration. Although most small birds migrate at night, many keep on moving in the early morning either to get in a few more miles or to find appropriate habitats. Reports that document such avian movements offer exciting glimpses into bird migration from a number of places including Cape May, New Jersey, southern Arizona, and the shores of England. They help me learn, check out cool pictures of birds in flight, and live vicariously; some mornings are simply incredible.

Hundreds of American Redstarts, hundreds, even thousands of other warblers mixed in with dozens of individuals of other species. All flying south, striving to make it to the right place for winter. Make a mind picture of the boreal forests where a Bay-breasted Warbler spent the summer and the Amazonian rainforests where it will spend the winter and expect to be mind-blown. Yes, that far. Yes, places that are radically different and they make the odyssey twice per year (!).

Scarlet Tanagers make that same trip.

It’s kind of nuts but that perception is only because we can’t fly (at least with our own wings) and we can’t migrate so incredibly far in such a short amount of time (at least by using our own body fat as fuel). For a migratory bird, it’s how things have always been, how they must be.

In Costa Rica, morning flights also occur. The Caribbean coast is the best place to see some several hundred flocks of kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and other species on the sky train to South America but we also get birds moving through the Central Valley, and that means my “backyard”.

Not many, but enough to always make it interesting. I catch the morning flight action from the back balcony and accompany it with a cup of fresh locally grown coffee (since this is Costa Rica, you can bet that it’s some damn fine coffee).

Looking out back, I usually hear a pair of Barred Antshrikes, three to four species of wrens and other locals but I’m really keeping an eye out for the tell-tale movement of the passage migrants. The quick pale flash of a Red-eyed Vireo dropping from one branch to the next. The movements of birds in flight as they alight in the top of a bamboo clump or in the grove of trees way on the other side of the ravine.

Those are where the Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers perch, where Boat-billed Flycatchers give their complaining calls, and where warblers can suddenly appear, where I hope to espy a sneaky cuckoo any day now. I scope those trees, looking for shapes that don’t belong, pieces of sticks and leaves that become birds otherwise hiding in plain sight.

A cuckoo from another day.

This morning, as with the past few, Baltimore Orioles have been taking part in the morning flight. Not very many but even one male Baltimore glowing in the morning sun is a sight for center stage. They can also hide in the profuse vegetation, the other day, with nary a sound, 8 suddenly burst out of the tree next door in a retinal ambush of orange, black, and yellow. I saw my first by chance when I was 8. It was in a patch of second growth next to a hardware store on a busy road. Since then, I have seen hundreds, even thousands of Baltimore Orioles in many places but every sighting is impressive, every one is a gift.

This morning, three gorgeous males flew through my field of view and a young male sang from a tree just out back. He sang over and over, I couldn’t help but feel that he was rejoicing to be alive, to have flown all the way from woodlots in Missouri or forests of Pennsylvania, or even some old second growth from a farm in southern Ontario.

Happy to be alive because he had to pass over false rivers and lakes of lights that tempted and beckoned from acres of deadly windows. He had to fly under the constant threat of Cooper’s Hawks and other predators, find enough food and manage to make it all the way here. Will he spend the winter? Is he singing so much because he’s a young bird with attitudes dangerously boosted by naivete? Whatever the reasons, I hope he learns to keep staying alive, I hope he figures out how survive, fly north and come back the following year. I hope that we do what it takes to ensure a world with orioles, Bay-breasted Warblers, and happy, healthy people for years to come.

Categories
biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica

Seeing Grasspipers in Costa Rica

In birding lingo, sandpipers, plovers, and similar birds are often collectively referred to as “shorebirds” or “waders”. This is because most are indeed found in coastal habitats and many also spend a good amount of their time wading into shallow water. But, since life has a tendency to evolve to utilize every possible niche, we also have shorebirds that aren’t always found near the shore, waders that don’t necessarily wade.

Since many sandpiper and plover species breed in high Arctic places where the vegetation is brief, it makes evolutionary sense that some members of those avian families also occur in grassland habitats. For species such as the Long-billed Curlew, their presence on prairies is limited to the summer months when they roam grasslands under wide open, western skies. Once they fly south, this big sandpiper uses its extra long beak to probe deep into the mud of tidal flats.

We get a few birds each winter, this one was at Chomes some years ago.

Other species leave the tundra to migrate to coastal habitats and other wetlands, but some sandpipers and plovers prefer the dry, open spots. The grass can’t be too high because then, they wouldn’t see a fox creeping up on them, might miss a spying a snake or other predator that could course just over the grass and catch them by surprise. This is likely partly why we see Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers in open areas with short grass, the fact that they are adapted to such habitats is also why these particular sandpipers are known as “grasspipers”.

As one might expect from a country where tropical forest is the historic and expected natural way of things, Costa Rica isn’t the best place to see grasspipers. But, that doesn’t keep such birds from migrating through these lands. This small birdy nation is still situated on their migration route and given the right circumstances, Buff-breasteds, Uplands, and the American Golden “Grassplover” will touch-down on Costa Rican soil.

Most individuals likely do so in the open cattle fields of Guanacaste and other similar areas and that’s probably partly why we rarely see these incredible long distance migrants. They’ve got too many places where they can stop, much of it is inaccessible, and we would need an army of birders to marginally check the spots that we could access. These factors are why most local birders check the airport and eBird to see if any grasspipers are around. At least that’s what I do. The airport check gets tiresome but you gotta do it; you just never know when the birds will show.

Other cool birds, like the White-tailed Kite, can also appear.

EBird is much easier to check and thanks to that modern day birding platform, myself and other local birders were able to connect with this years’s batch of grasspipers. First found on September 23, at least a dozen Buff-breasted Sandpipers and a few Upland Sandpipers have been frequenting the large, open meadows of the airport. It’s not the quietest place for birding, nor the most comfortable, but that’s where the grasspipers are, that’s the patch of welcome grass that they noticed while flying high over the Central Valley.

I imagine that to them, it would be an oasis in a landscape of human canyons, false asphalt rivers, and useless (to those birds) woodlands that follow the twists and turns of creeks and rivers. The masters of flight would start to descend for a closer look and then seeing that the green patch was indeed a place they could use, maybe find food, they would fly down to land.

It could have been the need for a break or maybe the need to feed that brought them to the fields of the Juan Santamaria airport but I can’t help but wonder if it was one of the typical afternoon storms that forced them to land. The previous day and night was replete with heavy rains, those birds could have been flying along and realized that it wasn’t such a good idea to keep on moving in such unstable, energy-draining flying conditions. There was that patch of grass green down below and it beckoned with the hope of temporary salvation.

Whatever the reason for the visit, myself and many other local birders were pleased that the grasspipers came down to land and feed where they did. They have been here for a few days now, I hope that they can get enough food to head back into the skies, get their bearings, and keep rocketing their way south.

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

A Couple of Hours at Mistico

One of the many great things about birding in Costa Rica is the number of places where a birder can raise those bins. It may go without saying but I will still mention that although one can go birding anywhere, whether a birder wants to see House Sparrows and Rock Pigeons or 100 species in a day all depends on where you go, even in the same country.

In Costa Rica, our “sparrows and pigeons” are species like Tropical Kingbird and Great-tailed Grackle and we can see them just about anywhere including the heart of downtown San Jose. However, as with birders anywhere, variety tends to the coveted spice of life so when we venture afield for birds, we usually go to the places that have the birds we want to see. In common with such places elsewhere on this globe, those are the sites with good amounts of native habitat, the older and more pristine, the better.

Forest like this…

Fortunately for us locals and other birders visiting this bio-wonderful nation, protected areas and reforestation in Costa Rica have given us a fantastic selection of birding sites to choose from. Not all of them are eBird hotspots nor are many visited on the main birding circuit but that doesn’t take away from their value. The other day, Mary and I made a short trip to one of those quality spots and even though our birding was limited to a quiet afternoon hike, it was still invigorating to be walking in and connect with rainforest.

We visited Mistico, a site in the Arenal area that features a well-kept trail punctuated by several bridges that span creeks and forested ravines. Our visit was spurred on by a combination of a major two for one discount entrance fee while already needing to be in the area for something else. We couldn’t do anything about the time of our visit but it was still wonderful to be there. I hope that the following information will be of help for anyone thinking about hiking at Mistico.

Safety protocols

As with every tourism venture in Costa Rica, strict safety protocols were followed. These included a (1) temperature check while still in our vehicle (a check of which we almost failed because the device wasn’t working properly or was more likely registering a high temperature because of skin being warmed by the tropical sun), (2) only one person being able to go to reception to pay the entrance fee, (3) masks being required in the reception area, and (4) social distancing.

An Excellent Maintained Trail

The trail was in excellent condition and had concrete or pavers to keep you from getting muddy. This also made for easier walking although a few places seemed a bit slippery and there were some gentle inclines and descents. If you have trouble walking or maintaining balance, this trail might not be for you or you would at least need to take it really slow and easy.

Bridges

There are six hanging bridges, if you are afraid of heights, expect some moments of terror. But if not, expect fantastic views and the chance to peek into the canopy, sort of like the views available from a canopy tower! If your walk across a bridge coincides with the passage of a mixed flock, you will be in for a treat.

View from a high bridge.

Habitat and Birds

Having been to this spot before, I can attest to the quality of the birding. This site comprises a fair-sized area of foothill rainforest with such specialties as Dull-mantled Antbird, many tanagers (iincluding Rufous-winged Tanager), ant-following species, White-fronted Nunbird, and plenty of other species to keep you busy. Our brief afternoon visit was understandably slow (we were there from one to three) but we still had close views of Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, Spotted Antbird, and various other species at the edge of the forest.

Rufous Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot

Although our casual searches didn’t pan out, this site is often good for roosting Crested Owl and wintering Chuck-will’s-Widow and plenty of other species can also show.

Cost and Reason to Visit

Normally, a visit costs around $40 per person with an optional add-on for lunch. It’s a fairly hefty fee for a trail but the trail is very nice, does have cool hanging bridges, and is pretty good birding. Mistico receives a fair number of visitors but most of the birds are fairly accustomed to people. Off-hand, it seems like a good place to visit with non-birders or if you feel like birding from some canopy bridges. With the exception of the Rufous-winged Tanager (which is often in fruiting figs in the parking area), the species at Mistico can be just as well seen at other sites in the Arenal area. That said, it might have those roosting owls and nightjars so if you do decide to visit, you can’t go wrong.

As with every good birding spot, I would love to visit Mistico again. I’m not sure when that will happen but I have plenty of other good birding sites in Costa Rica to choose from. To learn more about where to go birding in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. More akin to a handbook for birding Costa Rica, it’s an excellent resource for planning and preparing for future trips to this birdy nation. I hope to see you here!