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big year

Final Birds of the Year

This is it. December is here, with its snow and gulls and other birds from the north and the year is coming to a close. Except that in Costa Rica, we don’t have any dark cold days, nor do we offer much for the Larophile. We do have some birds from the north but they come in the form of Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers, and other birds that come here to escape that northern annual freeze. Thanks to jet propulsion engines and planes, you can also migrate away from the cold. Come to Costa Rica and a birder can also add a few several dozen final year birds.

Did someone say Snowcap?

In my near future, I don’t foresee any serious chasing of the feathered kind but Mary and I are scheduled to participate in one more count. Maybe we will add a few more year birds, maybe even some after the count. Although we both have more than 600 species for 2019, incredibly, even more species can still find room on our lists, I wonder what they might be?

My latest year bird (numero 680) was a Rufous-winged Tanager seen while guiding near the Mistico Hanging Bridges area. During those days of guiding, I also saw birds like Great Curassow, Ocellated Antbird, Keel-billed Motmot, and Lattice-tailed Trogon but as nice as those species are, it wasn’t the first time I had seen them in 2019.

The Keel-billed Motmot.

In the next few days, with luck, we might even connect with Bare-necked Umbrellabird. I hope so, even if I already did see one this year, I rarely see this endangered species and it would be an excellent final bird of the year for Mary. Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo might be even better but even being in the right place doesn’t mean that you can hit the birding lottery with this mega. If we find an antswarm, though, we could be in luck, I will certainly be listening for this very challenging species.

Other, more likely final year birds may come in the form of species we have looked for and should have already seen. Although we have done well on owls, the Striped Owl has evaded our efforts thus far! There’s still a chance although I think it depends on whether or not we visit the Jaco area at night.

Another big empty spot on our year lists is next to the name of the American Kestrel. Although the “Sparrow Hawk” isn’t common in Costa Rica, we have looked for it in the right places. I really don’t know why we haven’t seen this beautiful little falcon yet but it’s about time we connected, maybe one will still show near the airport or some other open field.

We could also pick up a nice set of final birds for the year in the Ciudad Neily area but since that is kind of far to go, it’s not going to happen in 2019. Maybe in 2020, but not this year. Instead, though, if we head to the coast, we still may pick up Common Tern and other coastal species. At least no matter where we go birding in Costa Rica, some new year bird could appear. That’s how the birding goes in a place with a list of more than 920 species.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday season and Merry Christmas! Thank you for reading this blog in 2019, I am grateful.

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big year Birding Costa Rica

Twitching the Ruff

That title would be a good one for new rap song or a dance practiced by the youth but those in the birding know understand what it really means. If you are new to birding or ended up at this site because you thought “Twitching the Ruff” was a a new dance, these definitions should provide illumination:

Twitching– The act of going to see a bird (usually rare and/or unusual) that often involves some sort of extra bit of travel and effort. The “twitch” probably stems from the nervous actions or attitudes expressed and felt by birders suddenly presented with an opportunity to see a very rare bird species near enough to home. For example, a birder in New York can’t travel to Costa Rica to twitch a Large-footed Finch. That would actually be traveling to look for a bird where it normally occurs. But, if a New Yorker heard about a Corn Crake in Queens in the evening and then called in sick the following morning to rush to where it was and anxiously see it, that there would be a classic twitch.

After a successful “twitch”, a birder might exclaim, “I twitched the Corn Crake!” If the crake was caught and killed by a domestic cat, instead, you might hear, “I tried to twitch the crake but dipped on account of a cat”. In the real world, either situation would likely include language too foul for this site, one in jubilation, the other in rancid fury.

Ruff- A small wading bird that nests in northern Eurasia and mostly migrates to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter. It is likely named for the resemblance of the male’s extravagant puffy neck plumage on breeding grounds to the similarly extravagant collar seen as high fashion during the Middle Ages.

A winter plumaged Ruff from Israel.

The most important thing to know about twitching is that just because you try and twitch a bird does NOT mean that you will see it. Since birds are mobile and nature is a savage affair for survival, the sooner you twitch, the more likely you will admire that special bird through binoculars. This is why birders get anxious, why they race to the site, why they keep up on sightings before making the trip. They have seen hawks catch a squirrel or dove or sparrow, have witnessed what quickly happens to the weak and vulnerable, especially migrants far from familiar habitats and haunts.

This is why Mary and I went on a Ruff twitch this past weekend. The bird, yes, a Ruff supposedly straight from northern Asia (!) was found in Costa Rica during the previous week and better yet, it was seen every day for a few days after the initial sighting. The habitat was the same so the chances looked good for it to still be there, other cool birds were also present, and damn was I anxious to go!

Oh and Ruff is also a mega for Costa Rica. There are only a few documented sightings so it was now or never for our country (and lifer for Mary) Ruff! But, to get there, we couldn’t take the direct route. No, we were in for a circuitous twitch but it was the only nice way to make it happen. This first involved driving in the opposite direction of the Ruff to drop Mary’s daughter at her grandmother’s place (something that worked out well in the overall scheme of things). After that, we were off to the north and then west, crossing the continental divide at Volcan Tenorio near Bijagua. Although I had hoped for some side twitching of rare birds on that route, the weather was not in our favor.

We then made our way to the town of Canas in late afternoon rains, spending the night at the Cabinas Arena y Mar (recommended as a cheap, easy place to stay, it is located just around the corner from Cabinas Liwi)). This was so we could get to the Ruff site with more than enough time to connect with our target bird before driving back past Bijagua and on to San Carlos.

Early Sunday morning, we made our way to the site, a series of flooded rice fields along country roads far from everything. Despite being led astray on multiple occasions by Google Maps, we did find the place and started scanning the birds straight away. We were the first birders to arrive but far from the last. Where was it? The lost shorebird wasn’t at the first place we checked so we started watching from another spot when some friends appeared and told us where it had been seen on the previous day. Figuring that people looking in more than one place would find the bird more quickly, they donned rubber boots and ventured into the muddy fields while we picked another spot to watch.

The habitat was great and there were good numbers of Blue-winged Teals and more yellowlegs than I had ever seen in Costa Rica at one time. We had great looks at a sauntering Jabiru, some Stilt Sandpipers sewing machined in the shallow water, flocks of Least Sands flew around, and Wilson’s Phalaropes acted like tiny ducks but where was the Ruff?

A Jabiru in flight.

After thoroughly checking this one spot where a bunch of birds were obscured by tufts of grass, I noticed that many were sort of moving out of that site and slowly spreading to other parts of the muddy flooded fields. Going back to our first spot, I started scanning there once again and within seconds, there it was. A pseudo yellowlegs with more brightly colored legs and pale edging to feathers on the back. That was it! I got Mary on the bird and while she ticked a mega, I called Anthony to tell him the news. He showed up shortly after with the other guys who had been working the muddy fields and we all enjoyed Costa Rica’s most accessible Ruff. Not long after, some other birders arrived, one of whom ticked a Ruff and several other lifers on his birthday no less (which was fantastic because what better way is there to celebrate a birding birthday?).

Two other Ruffs from Israel.

After much admiration of the Ruff, teasing out a few decidedly uncommon year Long-billed Dowitchers in the back, and looking for other birds, Mary and I had to leave for the drive back over to the other side of the mountains. We didn’t see too much of note along the way but we couldn’t complain, the twitch was a successful one that resulted in a major country and year tick. What’s next? The Aplomado Falcon that has been hanging out in Guanacaste? I could go for that…

Many thanks to local birder Juan Astorga for being adventurous enough to wander the back roads of Taboga, find this mega and share the sighting with everyone. Gracias!

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big year Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope

Birding Forest Fragments of the Caribbean Lowlands

In the not very distant past of Costa Rica, all of the other side of the mountains was cloaked in dense forest. The cloud forests of the highlands merged into eternally wet and mossy foothill forest and then became majestic lowland rainforest that swept across the rolling ground all the way to the coast. The lowlands might be flatter than the naturally broken highlands but it was never parking lot flat. The waterways still managed to break the ground and produce a mosaic of hills and low lying areas where rivers still run, streams flow, and swamps do their aquatic ruminating thing. These factors in turn produce a greater array of microhabitats where Northern Bentbills buzz from the vine-tangled gaps, where motmots make their burrow nests on steep slopes above the creeks, and where Agami Herons creep around the low, wet places.

Now, it’s very different. Well, at least what grows on the land is vastly different from what was there for thousands of years. The form of the land is still pretty much the same but many of the trees (especially the big old ones) have been cut down and the flattest places now host sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, or cattle. The biodiversity is drastically less, who knows which plants and insects have gone extinct or are close to becoming effectively doomed because remnant trees can’t be pollinated or produce seedlings that grow enough to produce their own offspring. That said, the northern lowlands of Costa Rica aren’t entirely shorn of trees. There are still quite a few growing in pastures and along riparian zones, and there are a few patches of forest here and there. Things grow with a quickness in the wet tropics, there’s still hope for reforestation, to reconnect and grow at least some patches of forest.

I was birding in one of those remnant forested spots this past weekend during a visit to the San Carlos area of Costa Rica. At a small comunal reserve known as “Juanilama”, Marilen and I had a taste of what can still occur in forest fragments in Costa Rica. Some observations:

A good number of birds

During a brief two hour visit, we had more than 80 species including standouts like a pair of Great Green Macaws, Pied Puffbird, and Royal Flycatcher.

But not like the complex array of life that is a larger area of mature forest

Juanilama did have some nice big trees here and there but just not enough habitat to support more specialized frugivores like Snowy Cotinga and Purple-throated Fruitcrow. Nor was there enough habitat for most of the understory insectivores or raptors. Basically, this is because those birds are more adapted to larger areas of mature forest, they are acting players, working parts in the mature forest ecosystem. They just aren’t a part of, can’t play a role in other forest community games.

Some migrants

The main reason we birded Juanilama was twofold; the place is close to where Mary’s family lives, and it being migration season, I figured we had a chance at Veery and some other nice year birds. Although that wasn’t the case on Sunday morning, we still managed to see a couple warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, and Scarlet Tanager.

More birding outside the reserve

I found the surrounding countryside especially interesting in that more trees were present than I had expected. We didn’t see too much but still had a fair number of species including White-winged Becard, Laughing Falcon, and toucans. Although these were the expected species that can survive in some edge situations, we still had birds we could watch.

Some questions

While birding that morning, I wondered about a thing or two, things that could act as research projects. Like, how important is a forest patch like Juanilama for migrants? Are there more than in riparian zones and other nearby edge habitats? Is there more or less competition with resident species in edge habitats? Does Middle American Screech-owl occur? How about other owls and do those owls limit the occurrence of the screech-owl? Did Harpy Eagles prefer to nest on some of the hill tops near there? How about Orange-breasted Falcon (along with the eternal question of why populations of this Neotropic raptor are so limited and localized)? These are the sort of things that can run through your head when the bird activity drops and is replaced by the snoring of cicadas and buzzing of mosquitoes.

No Mississippi Kite nor other year birds on Sunday but at least we did connect with our 2019 Baird’s Sandpiper the previous morning. There were a few in a nearby temporary mudflat. They were feeding a bit like dowitchers, we had great looks, it was and is cool to contemplate the Arctic-Costa Rica-South American connections made by this amazing migrant. Still hoping for cuckoos near the homestead or an Upland to call at night. I wonder what will be next for the year list of TeamTyto?

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big year bird finding in Costa Rica

Special Birds in Buenos Aires

“Buenos Aires” means something along the lines of “good airs” or “good winds”, maybe even ” a place with a pleasant atmosphere”. Although the big city in Argentina is best known as Buenos Aires, that megalopolis isn’t the only place of “good airs” in Latin America. In Costa Rica, we also have a few “Buenos Aires”, one of which is situated in the lower parts of the General Valley. A landscape of pineapple fields and natural savannas, habitats near our Buenos Aires are good for a bunch of birds tough to see elsewhere.

Although you won’t see any Tango in this much smaller Buenos Aires, you might lay eyes on a few birds hard to see in other parts of the country. These be birdies like Ocellated Crake, Wedge-tailed Grass-Finch, Rosy Thrush-Tanager, Rufous Nightjar, and White-tailed Nightjar.

In Costa Rica, all of these species are local residents and there is no better place in the country to see all of them than places near Buenos Aires. That’s why the Birding Club of Costa Rica did a trip there this past weekend. Thankfully, I was able to guide the trip and even better, Mary was also able to go. The end result was a successful weekend that involved each of the species mentioned above, at least a few lifers for all (including two for myself!), and a major boost for the Team Tyto year list.

Some thoughts about birding around Buenos Aires, Costa Rica:

Early morning and late afternoon birding– Expect hot and sunny. The birds mark that uncomfortable middle of the day with a siesta. Stick to early morning and late afternoon birding to see the specialties and most of everything else.

Special birds!– Most are in the natural grasslands in the hills above town. Listen to the crake (see below), scan for the very uncommon grass-finch, check dense viney vegetation for the thrush-tanager, and wait until dark for the nightjars. Local species easier at this site than other places also include Scaled Pigeon, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Bare-crowned Antbird, and Lesser Elaenia.

Lesser Elaenias were very common.

The crake- Easy to hear, nearly impossible to see. Yes, I know, most crakes are difficult and it’s tough to see that White-throated but senor Ocellated takes things to lower, more insidious levels of skulk. The Ocellated Crake is a rodent wannabe that will not leave the safety of its dense grass habitat. Once in a blue moon but in my experience, it is easier to see Black Rail than this one.

There was a crake somewhere in there.

More than grass birds– But there are more species than just grass birds! Rainforests down in the valleys and higher up also harbor antbirds, Streak-chested Antpitta, Marbled Wood-Quail, Fiery-billed Aracari, raptors, and much more. Even uncommon species like Turquoise Cotinga, Spot-fronted Swift, and White-crested Coquette have been seen in the area.

Seasonal– Some birds only show up when the conditions are right, namely seed eating species like Plain-breasted Ground-Dove and seedeaters. The best time for those birds might be from June to October.

Plain-breasted Ground-Dove.

Four Wheel Drive– The savannas on the road to Durika require four-wheel drive. If not, expect a long, hot (yet interesting) walk.

The Ujarras road– This road follows the course of river and passes near forest, second growth, and occasional houses. It was fairly birdy and really needs some annual breeding bird surveys. We went a ways down this road to successfully see Rosy Thrush-Tanager.

Bring your own breakfast– I doubt there is a place in town where one can have an early breakfast. Bring your own including coffee!

Support local birding, get in touch with Oscar Ortiz– Oscar is from the area and knows where many of the birds are located. He wants to promote birding and would be great to get more local folks interested and/or aware of birds around Buenos Aires. To help, contact him at his Facebook page.

If you are looking for some very interesting, quality birding off the beaten track, give the Buenos Aires area a try. Just make sure you have a four-wheel drive and are stocked with your own coffee and snacks. Good birding!

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big year Birding Costa Rica

A Few Nice Year Birds for Team Tyto

Year birding isn’t the same as every day birding. It can be but in general, if you want to maximize your year list, you have to think long term and use your time wisely. If a rarity appears, you might need to chase it. If you get a chance, a window of birding time to look for winter ducks, this might be your golden opportunity. Pass up the chances and you are less likely to reach your goal because that day scheduled for a bobwhite, booby, or Black-throated Blue Warbler might be too windy or rained out. You might suffer some accident between now and then or there might be a family emergency that pushes birding right out of the picture.

Bird any chance you get but work on the birds that are here now rather than later, go for the tough species and the other ones will fall into place. That’s sort of what Team Tyto (Mary and I) have been doing since January 1st. We go birding when we can and will hopefully, eventually, get to enough places to surpass 700 before the end of 2019. Recently, we added a few nice ones here and there during sojourns to Jaco, Poas, and in the Central Valley…

Northern Potoo

Picking the best one first, we were very pleased to get this species for the year! It’s not easy and would have required a trip to Guanacaste likely accompanied by frustrating times as we listened for it in vain. Luckily, our year tick (and lifer for Mary!) happened while looking for shorebirds at night around Punta Morales (don’t ask). After having pretty much given up on the potoo responding to playback, a chance drive down a dike road to look for Boat-billed Herons brought us straight to the nocturnal prize. It was perched up on a lone post, looking all the while like some sculpture of a weird bird. This year bird gift was right in front of us and gave us walk away views. No Boat-billed Heron on that night but we’ll take Northern Potoo for 2019!

Resplendent Quetzal

What year in Costa Rica could ever be right without adding this star bird during the first few months? We got a pair up on Poas and hope to see more at other high elevation sites over the next several months.

Slate-colored Seedeater

It was good to likewise add this rare bird early in the game. I know a good site for it but who knows how long they will be there? Point blank looks at several of this local seedeater were some of the highlights during a long, fine day of birding. The Jaco area also yielded Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, Baird’s Trogon, and a bunch of other cool birds.

Owls

Although we only saw one of these nocturnal predators, we still heard and counted several Crested, Mottled, Black-and-White, Spectacled, Tropical Screech, and Pacific Screech-Owls during some pre-dawn owling near Jaco!

Ground-Sparrows

Closer to home, it was satisfying to get both ground-sparrows at the same time. Although we will likely see them again in 2019, the endemic and endangered Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow is always a treat. The White-eared doesn’t look too shabby either.

Some good year birds for Team Tyto! We hope to find a lot more, now I just need to convince Mary to brave the freezing cold on Irazu to get that Unspotted Saw-whet Owl…

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big year bird finding in Costa Rica caribbean slope

Cano Negro Birding in Costa Rica Delivers the Goods

Like most countries, Costa Rica has more than one type of major habitat, more than one bio-region. Habitats such as the tropical dry forests in the northwest and the cloud forests of the highlands are clearly different in appearance, location, and elevation. Others, like the rainforests of the southern Pacific and the Caribbean lowlands, look similar at a glance but reveal differences upon closer inspection.

These ecological differences are why never see Charming Hummingbirds and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds fighting over the same food source, why more species are seen on birding trips that visit both sides of the mountains and different elevations, and why Cano Negro is one of the major key birding sites in Costa Rica.

This wetland area associated with Lake Nicaragua is where a birder has to go to see Nicaraguan Grackle. It’s where Spot-breasted Wren and Gray-fronted Dove can be easily added to a trip list, and where several other species are more readily encountered than in other parts of Costa Rica.

You won’t see this grackle slumming it up in some urban zone.

Thanks to increased diligent birding by a few guides who live in the Cano Negro area, most of those specialties are now much easier to find than in the past. These include birds like Yellow-breasted Crake, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Bare-crowned Antbird, Agami Heron, and even Green and Rufous Kingfisher!

Yellow-breasted Crake- essentially an aquatic, big-toed sparrow.

Thanks to boat and birding guide Barnaby “Chambita” Romero, Team Tyto (that would be Mary and I), and several other fortunate birders enjoyed a quick yet very productive day and a half of birding in the wetlands of the north. Even more impressive was the fact that we actually spent just an afternoon and a morning of birding and still managed to see most of our targets.

Beginning in Medio Queso, a late afternoon boat ride was punctuated by good look at Pinnated Bittern.

It wasn’t very close but this first of three or four Pinnateds gave us excellent looks.

We also scored with fine views of the smallest and most local heron species in Costa Rica, the Least Bittern. Other targets included a couple of Nicaraguan Grackles, Yellow-breasted Crake seen very well, a Sora (a regular yet challenging migrant and fantastic year bird!), and a few other bird species while we were entertained by the acrobatics of Fork-tailed Flycatchers.

The following morning saw us on a boat shortly after 6 a.m. in the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge.

With certain targets in mind, Chambita skillfully traversed the fallen logs of the Rio Frio to get us in touch with such fine birds as Snowy Cotinga, a fantastic Green and Rufous Kingfisher, Limpkins, and from the tower, a mega distant yet identifiable Jabiru in flight!

It was quite the successful trip and impossible to choose a best bird from so many candidates but given the amount of time and effort some had undertaken to unsuccessfully see Sungrebe in the past, and the fantastic looks we had at two of this awesome feathered weirdo, I think the odd duckish thing with the clown socks takes the prize.

In terms of Team Tyto’s Big Year, it was also an excellent start, I wonder what we will see next?

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big year Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

A Bit of Costa Rica Birding News, August, 2014

Do you find yourself in Costa Rica these days? Do you wish you were in Costa Rica? Check out the following news items for insights, action, and intrigue about birds and birding in Costa Rica!:

  • Shorebirds are in town: Well, it’s their city of mudflats and shorelines and not bumpy roads where Rufous-collared Sparrows hop but if you are a birder, you get the picture. Sightings of shorebird species are coming in from Guacalillo and flooded fields in Guanacaste. Could someone please brave the heat waves of Chomes to see who happens to be probing the mud for worms and other invert delicacies?

    Least Sandpipers are coming to town.
  • Familiarize yourself with Peruvian Boobies and Inca Terns: No Peruvian Booby yet for Costa Rica but they really could be out there! According to Xenornis, several have now shown up at Amador, Panama and maybe there’s an Inca Tern to be found as well. If you see a booby with a white head, take a picture and send it to the AOCR.
  • Check out the 2014 Birding and Nature Festival in Costa Rica: It’s happening on September 19th to September 21st, includes guided walks at the EARTH campus and the Las Brisas Reserve, and cool bird talks. Very good chance of seeing Cerulean Warbler and other migrants in Costa Rica, and lots of cool residents, plus owls on the night walks.

    You might see a Sunbittern.
  • National Park Fee Hike: $10 per day apparently wasn’t quite enough to help fund the government (no, it doesn’t seem that those funds go back into the parks), so the fee for tourists has been raised to $12. Keeping with bureaucratic traditon, the birding unfriendly opening hours of 8 to 4 have not changed. Where to complain? I’m not sure but if I find out, will publish that on this blog.
  • Very cool video by someone else: Speaking of videos, I didn’t do this one but recommend watching it. Done by a young Canadian birder about his time in Costa Rica with his dad. Lots of nice shots, and enthusiastic commentary.
  • Almost at 600 species for the year: No, not major news really, but good news for me! I am just a few species shy of 600 for the year. Does that mean I will stop at 600? Of course not, the constant pseudo Big Year will march on like penguins in search of destiny, adventure, and fish!
  • Writing for 10,000 Birds: I will finish off with another tidbit of news about myself. I just became one of the beat writers for 10,000 Birds (a super cool birding blog).  Look for my posts every other Saturday, first one on the 9th.

Have any Costa Rican bird news you want to share? Send me a comment and it will probably make it onto this blog.

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big year biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction

My Best Bird from Birding Costa Rica in 2013

According to the “western calendar”, the end of the year is nigh. It’s time for us listers to count  up the birds we have identified over the course of 12 months, time to run out and see a few more for those doing a Big Year, and time to get ready to party if you want to celebrate the annual calendar change. Although I may have to attend just such a party, I would just as rather look for owls or stay home and sleep because the New Year doesn’t really mean anything to me. As for a Big Year, although I have been doing a sort of Big Year, it’s a relaxed one so by definition, I can’t really run out to get bird 660 today or tomorrow. However, I have counted up the bird species I have identified since January 1st of 2013 (659, my best year in CR yet) and will pick out a “best bird” from that list.

Yellow-naped Parrots are awesome but didn't make it onto this particular list because I see them quite often.

Since few birds really stand out as being the “best of the best”, I think I will talk about some highlights and then settle on a winner from that list. Before I start, I will say that this was a really good birding year for me in Costa Rica with several key lifers, lots of great birding, and many memorable days of guiding. I hope that this list of ten best birds encourages more people to come to Costa Rica for birding and get you psyched for your trip if you already have one planned for the near future! So, without further ado, here goes and in taxonomic order:

1. Red-billed Tropicbird: Not a lifer but a first for my CR list and a good bird to get for the country. Saw a juvenile on a Sierpe-Cano Island boat trip. Yee-haw!

2. Red-footed Booby: This is one of those bird species that had been busy burning a hole in my unchecked bird list for quite some time. I had hoped to glimpse one on the Sierpe-Cano Island boat trip and managed close looks at several! Black and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels from that trip get an honorable mention.

Where the Red-footeds hang out.

3. Pinnated Bittern: It’s hard to believe that it was nearly a year ago when I got my lifer big neotropical bittern at Cano Negro! Another list burner.

A Pinnated Bittern from a wetland near Cano Negro.

4. Crakes: I got 3 lifer crakes this year and if you have ever looked for those darn things, you know that a trio of them in a year is quite the achievement. They were a Yellow-breasted Crake from Cano Negro, an Ocellated Crake from the Buenos Aires, Costa Rica savannahs, and a Paint-billed Crake from a rice field near Rio Claro. If you cared to know, the Yellow-breasted was a typical small shy marsh bird, the Ocellated a fricking spotted mouse, and the Paint-billed a miniature gallinule.

5. Bridled Tern: A lifer always makes it onto a best bird of the year list!

6. Rufous-vented Ground Cuckoo: Yes, it was a heard only on the Manuel Brenes road but even a heard one of these is pretty awesome.

7. Oilbird: Major, major target at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge and although I have yet to finish the list, I  expect that this weirdo will come out on top.

My lifer Oilbird.

8. Lanceolated Monklet: I may have spoke too soon because this miniscule puffbird is another fantastic find for Costa Rica. I saw one and heard another at Lands in Love. I hope to go back and get some photos of this great little bird.

9. Bare-necked Umbrellabird: This endangered, amazing creature will always make it onto my best bird of the year list if I happen to see one. My only one for 2013 was a male near San Luis Canopy while guiding a lucky client in that area.

10. Blackpoll Warbler: I kind of hate to say it but this was one of the best because it’s a rare vagrant to Costa Rica. However, the bird seen on during the Bosque del Rio Tigre Christmas count really shouldn’t trump things like Yellow-billed, Snowy, and Turquoise Cotingas, Three-wattled Bellbird, Mangrove Hummingbird, Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Blue and Gold Tanager (and most tanagers), most quail doves, both macaws, and all owls save the Unspotted Saw-whet so I mention those because they all made it onto the year list too. In fact, I forgot about my lifer Sulphur-rumped Tanager from the Manzanillo area so that one at least ties with the Blackpoll.

A male Turquoise Cotinga from Rincona de Osa.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincona de Osa.

Ok, so, after a moment of deliberation, I hereby crown my bestest bird of 2013……the Oilbird!

The Oilbird gets the prize because it meets so many categories of awesomeness:

  • It’s a rare vagrant to Costa Rica- It probably shows up each year but just doesn’t get found in the dark of a steep cloud forest night and we have no idea where they breed.
  • It’s nocturnal-The Oilbird is also a Gothic bird because it lives in caves, makes guttural sounds, and look sort of like a feathered gargoyle. Maybe it will come in to playback of songs composed by Peter Murphy?
  • Rather like an avian nocturnal antithesis of the R. Quetzal, it roams through the tropical forest night in search of oily fruits.
  • A trio bird- Lifer, new for my CR list, and new for the year.

So, yes, the Oilbird is my personal Baby New Year. if you want to see it in Costa Rica, go on the night walk tour at the Monteverde Wildlife Refuge from July to September. Might not be there but this is when they have showed up and their night walk is fantastic in any case. Other highlights included a wonderful 140 plus species day around Carara while guiding some birders from Finland, enjoying the birds of the Manzanillo area with other clients and friends, releasing the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and watching birds with Susan, Robert, Paul, Johan and Ineke, and other folks from the Birding Club of Costa Rica.  Hope to see you birding in Costa Rica in 2014!

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big year biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

Birding Costa Rica around Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires and Costa Rica in the same sentence? What is this, some kind of weird geographical joke? Nope, Buenos Aires, Costa Rica is as real as pouring rain in the Osa Peninsula. However, other than the name and the lingua franca, Buenos Aires, CR shares nothing with Buenos Aires, Argentina. I don’t even think it shares the same birds other than maybe Blue and white Swallow. Buenos, Aires in Costa Rica is barely visited by any birders but those in search of exploration, rural birding, and uncommon species might want to schedule a trip. There are several sites for a rich variety of species, including several that can be tough to see elsewhere in the country, and based on the amount of habitat in the area (grasslands and forest), I suspect that it had much more to offer than expected.

After hoping for years to get over there to look for some key lifers and additions to my Costa Rican list, I can finally say that this happened! The past weekend was a whirlwind of birding shared with a couple of friends who also enjoy looking for birds from pretty much dawn to dusk. That sort of sums up the trip (although we got in some night birding too). Yes, it was hardcore and yes it was satisfying as sitting back and eating a bunch of brownies after living on cheese , crackers, and water for 30 odd days (not that I have tried such a stunt).

We didn’t do any birding until we reached Buenos Aires. We drove on past wonderful sites like Carara and the Dominical area to not waste any time en route and reached the Terraba Valley in about 4 to 5 hours. As it was lightly raining, we just settled in to our accommodation for the next two nights and watched for birds right outside the lodge.

The view outside of our bungalow.

The place where we stayed is in the village of Salitre and is known as Bribripa Kaneblo. It’s an ecotourism initiative run by 14 Bribri families who live in and around Salitre and is connected to the Bribripa Cultural Center. Signs were posted in both Spanish and Bribri and we were told that some of the older people who lived way up the road in the mountains spoke very little Spanish. Guillermo was our host, was very accommodating, and enjoyed telling us about the project and the Bribri culture. Despite not being a birder, he walked a short trail with us to check for owls and told us that they see Black and White and maybe Mottled and Spectacled Owls there on a regular basis. No such luck for us but good to know in any case. He and other people we spoke with seemed to be very conscious of the environment, its importance, and their connection to it- just my type of people!

That first evening, we spent a bit of time looking and listening for White-tailed Nightjar but ended up dipping on that target. Since even the pauraques were silent, we suspected that it was the wrong time of the year to look for this savannah species. High above our lodging, I was surprised to hear the familiar call of a Common Nighthawk. I had forgotten that they breed in the savannahs of the Terraba Valley. Other night birds included a calling Mottled Owl and the whistles of a Uniform Crake pretty close to the bungalow. Speaking of the lodging, it was fine but you won’t like it unless you don’t mind staying somewhere quite basic. No mosquitoes but a number of other more interesting bugs showed up inside. Cost was $65 a night split between the three of us. Beds were clean and comfortable with mosquito netting. No hot showers but it wasn’t too bad.

The bungalow.

The following morning, we were greeted by wonderful, clear weather! This was a happy sight because rain does not combine very well with some of the roads in the area. In fact, it turns some of them into slippery stretches of wet, red clay, a substance that can slide a four wheel drive vehicle straight into a ravine. Luckily, the fine weather quickly dried out the roads while we listened and looked for birds in the second growth and riparian growth around our lodging.

Gray-headed Chachalacas, Streaked Saltators, and Cherrie’s Tanagers were pretty common and we saw several other edge species. We also saw our first of many Yellow-bellied Seedeaters and Lesser Goldfinches. Although you can see these two small finches in other parts of Costa Rica, they were pretty common in the savannahs near Buenos Aires.

Yellow-bellied Seedeater was the de-facto seedeater in the area.

After a quick breakfast, it was off to the grasslands up on the ridge above Salitre. On the way, we made a stop just outside of the village and quickly saw dozens of seedeaters (mostly Yellow-bellied), a perched Double-toothed Kite, and our first of many Plain-breasted Ground Doves and Pale-breasted Spinetails. No Ocellated Crakes or Wedge-tailed Grass Finches though. These were our main targets and they required a bit more searching in a distinct type of habitat.

A Pale-breasted Spinetail giving me the evil eye!

Pale-breasted Spinetail singing its Willow Flycatcher like song.

Thanks to eBird reports, we knew that habitat was found on the road to Durika and after a fairly rough ride uphill for about 5 kilometers, we reached it.

Savannahs of the Terraba valley.

The savannah was very distinctive and had few bird species but the ones that occurred were a welcome sight since they can be tough in other parts of the country. Lots of Yellow-bellied Seedeaters, a good number of Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters, a Lesser Elaenia here and there, several Plain-breasted Ground Doves, Scaled Pigeons, Bat Falcon, Laughing Falcon (the general area was really good for this species), Roadside Hawk, Gray-headed Kite, and others.

Find the Lesser Elaenia!

I think every pigeon we saw was a Scaled!

Oh, and yes, there were Ocellated Crakes too! We heard one at one of our first stops just two minutes after exiting the car and heard at least a dozen more that day and the following morning. The only problem was seeing them. Apparently, the Ocellated Crake is one of those rails that pretends to be a mouse. In Costa Rica, I can attest that it lives in dense grassy areas where it probably uses tunnels that network through the undergrowth. That’s just a guess but based on our experience, it sure seems to be the case. For example, even when we pushed some grass aside to make a spot where we could see the ground, the crakes absolutely refused to walk across even the smallest of semi-open areas (and I mean less than a foot in area). They would come right to the edge of our miniscule clearings and call within a meter or two of us before moving on. We did manage to see two birds but those looks were a millisecond glimpse at a tiny rail head that popped up into the grass and a bird that scurried across the tiniest of open areas. Mind you, this thing didn’t creep on by for nice looks of a second or two. No, it ran as fast as a mouse and pretty much looked like a rodent except for the white spots on its back. I caught that field mark and although the view wasn’t exactly soul satisfying in nature, I sure as heck claimed it as a lifer. Touchee rodent rail, touchee…

Ocellated Crake habitat with a Vortex scope.

Further on up the road, the grass gets taller and more patches of low forest appear until you reach slightly taller forest at the turn off to Durika. This spot is signed and is known for being a good site for Rosy Thrush Tanager and one of the only regular sites in the country for one of our other major targets, the dreaded Pheasant Cuckoo.

Hoping for Pheasant Cuckoo

This was a pretty good spot in general and had a nice mixed flock of tanagers, Russet Antshrike, wrens, woodcreepers, Slaty Antwren, and other species. We got very brief looks at Rosy Thrush Tanager ( a new country bird for me!), but no amount of whistling could turn up a Pheasant Cuckoo. Other good birds were Black-faced Antthrush, and very brief looks at my long awaited lifer Costa Rican Brush Finch!

Back down the road we went for lunch in hot Buenos Aires, looking for grass finches on the way and guessing that they might not be around since Robert saw them with ease in the same area some years ago. For lunch, we ate at the Soda Cuchara. It’s on the east side of the main road much closer to Salitre than the highway and is well worth a visit. No birds but the food was pretty good and cheap, and the service was nice. We also ate dinner there but not before checking out a small marsh in town (nothing special) and heading back up the road to the savannahs. We saw another thrush tanager, more of the same, and Robert got onto a Mouse-colored Tyrannulet! Our plan was to wait until nightfall to try for the nightjar. Although it didn’t show, we were treated to beautiful scenery, nighthawks in flight, and the calls of distant Marbled Wood Quails as dusk took over. On the drive back down, we spotlighted an owl (maybe a Tropical Screech) but it didn’t let us get close enough to identify it. Attempts at the nightjar at a field in Buenos Aires was a bust so it was off to dinner followed by an exhausted collapse in a bed after a long, great day of birding.

A tasty dish at La Cuchara.

The following morning (Saturday), we made our own coffee and headed back up to the savannahs a but earlier. We had more of the same and tried again for the crake without seeing one but finally got onto several grass finches! Oddly enough, we saw around 6 in the same areas we had checked the day before. It was a big relief to get this lifer because I had just about accepted that I wasn’t going to see it.

Wedge-tailed Grass Finch- oh yeah!

Then, it was back down to the lodge to pack up, say our goodbyes, and head on to our next destination, San Vito and Ciudad Neily.

To be continued…

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big year Birding Costa Rica

Highlights from Birding Costa Rica in 2011

Just two days left until 2011 comes to an end and 2012 is ushered in with fireworks, rivers of spirited drink, and grapes. Well, at least in Latin America there are grapes. You are supposed to eat 12 and then you get good luck for the coming year. I can’t recall if I took part in the grape-eating tradition at the end of 2010 but I must have done something right because I had a good year for birding in Costa Rica. Although spates of rain in January and October caused landslides and hindered birding for a couple of weeks, overall, the weather was pretty nice. Even though we don’t get snow down here in these tropical latitudes, we can definitely get enough rainfall for it to cause some unwelcome issues. Basically, we don’t see as many birds through the sheets of falling water and sometimes can’t even get to them due to landslides and flooding. There was a bit of that in 2011, but it wasn’t as bad as other years so I am of the opinion that we had good luck with the weather.

A landslide encountered while birding with Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds.

Numbers of Quetzals and some other highland frugivores seemed to be down but most birders still connected with them. On another unfortunate note, La Selva has finally put a guardhouse at the entrance road so this might not be birdable unless you stay there or take one of their tours. I asked the guard a month ago but he had no idea- not a good sign. But enough of those low points because they were far outnumbered by positive happenings, sightings, and good birding vibes! In no necessary order, here are my personal top 12 highlights from birding Costa Rica in 2011:

1. Cinchona: The Cafe de Colibri is up and running again. It’s not the two story structure filled with birds like it used to be but the feeders are steadily approaching their former glory. On a recent visit, Prong-billed Barbets and Emerald Toucanets casually fed on papayas and other tropical fruits as we ate breakfast. The hummingbird feeders also produced with Coppery-headed Emerald, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Thorntail, and 5 other species.


Avian scenery from the Cafe de Colibries at Cinchona.

2. Virgen del Socorro and the road to San Rafael de Varablanca: The road is most definitely open and the birding is good! Nightingale Wren and Rufous-browed Tyrannulet were highlights from a recent trip there. The road also now continues on to San Rafael de Varablanca and passes through quite a bit of high quality middle elevation forest. I hope to survey that and will be posting about it.

Virgen del Socorro is a good site for Torrent Tyrannulet.

3. Veragua Christmas Count: I heard a lot about the place and went with high expectations. Oh how they were met! Make efforts to go there because it’s one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica. If you can do the place over a few days with a good birding guide, you might pick up most of the Caribbean lowland and foothill specialties. Accommodation is basic but maybe it can be done as a day trip from more comfortable lodging in southeastern Costa Rica?

It’s a good site for Bare-necked Umbrellabird from December until February and maybe at other times of the year too!

4. Dry days at Tortuguero: Our local birding club timed our visit to coincide with the drier weather seen on the Caribbean slope during October. This was a highlight because the place gets soooo much rain. The raptor migration was also nothing short of spectacular.

Raptor migration in Costa Rica.

5. El Copal: Although we missed Lovely Cotinga, the near non-stop birding almost made up for it. I ran into one of the biggest mixed flocks I have ever seen, saw several White-vented Euphonias, lots of tanagers, Immaculate and Dull-mantled Antbirds, Chiriqui Quail-Dove, Spectacled Owl, Sunbittern, Snowcaps, and lots more. Off the beaten track but darn good!

El Copal is a very good site for Snowcap.

6. Cerro Lodge: The birding just keeps getting better at this place. Really, if you need a place to stay when birding the Carara area, this is where you should go. Villa Lapas and Punta Leona are nice but you pretty much see the same birds there as you do in the park. In the dry/moist habitats at Cerro, you get a different suite of species, the restaurant overlooks the forest and is thus excellent for getting flybys of parrots, macaws, parakeets, and raptors (I had 8 species of Psitaccids there a few days ag0), and Black and white Owl is just about guaranteed (one even flew through the outdoor restaurant in pursuit of a katydid a few days ago). The feeders are also busy with birds such as Fiery-throated Aracari, White-throated Magpie Jay, and Hoffmann’s Woodpecker. Now that the Porterweed bushes have flourished, they have also become fantastic for hummingbirds. I had 7 species there the other day and there’s a very good chance that these natural feeders will attract rarities.

Fiery-billed Aracaris are beautiful toucans.


Steely-vented Hummingbirds are pretty common at Cerro Lodge for much of the year.

7. Catfish Ponds in Guanacaste: The northwestern part of Costa Rica isn’t just known for harboring bird species that relish dry forest. It also holds some of the best wetlands in the country. While birders will experience some of the best wetland action at Palo Verde National park, they might also see some good stuff at the catfish ponds near Liberia. Found on the road from Liberia to Sardinal and Playa del Coco, these ponds can be accessed by paying a $6 entrance fee at an international school and church on the northern side of the road. Reedy marshes grow in several of the ponds and should be good for rails, Masked Duck, and other wetland species. On a long day trip there to look for migrant ducks in October, we also got Limpkin and a handful of shorebirds.


There were also a few Southern Lapwings in there.

8. I finally saw an Ochre-breasted Antpitta in Costa Rica: “Long overdue” just about sums things up for this cute bird. I glimpsed one near Mindo, Ecuador some years ago but that was nothing compared to the wonderful, prolonged looks I got of my Costa Rican bird in Tapanti National Park. It’s good to see this one in Costa Rica because it might get split some day. Maybe not,  but since there is some evidence that their songs differ from South American birds, don’t be surprised if it turns into “Talamanca Antpitta”.

My Costa Rican Ochre-breasted Antpitta.

9. Laguna del Lagarto: I had heard great things about this place for many years but never made it there until 2011 because it was just off the beaten track. Well, I wish I had gone there sooner because the lodge is one of the best spots for bird photography in Costa Rica. Good birding overall, great service, accommodating prices, and the surrounding area has lots of potential. Most of the lowland rainforest species are still present, it’s a reliable site for Agami Heron, and the extensive forests in the area could even turn up a Harpy Eagle (a friend of mine actually had one there in 1998).

Did I mention that Laguna del Lagarto is good for bird photography?

10. Black-crowned Antpitta at Quebrada Gonzalez: OK, so this is kind of expected but the extreme coolness of this species always makes it a highlight. Antswarms earlier in the year were attended by this and other expected ant-following species.


The Black-crowned “Gnatpitta” occurs in these dense rainforests.

11. Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Agami Heron, Mississippi Kite, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Franklin’s Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Rough-legged Tyrannulet, Willow Flycatcher, Ochre-breasted Antpitta, Blue-headed Vireo, and Bobolink:  As mundane as most of these birds appear to be, they were all additions to my Costa Rica list and pushed it up to 710 species.

12. Getting more than 600 species for the year: I tried for the past two years and came close in 2010 but didn’t quite make it to 600 species for the year until 2011. As with any big year attempt, strategy played a key role in reaching my goal. Even though Costa Rica is small enough to make it very feasible to chase birds all over the country, work and family duties make such spontaneous pursuits an impossible endeavor. Nevertheless, with enough visits to the right spots at the right time of year, I figured I had a chance of getting the big six zero zero. Hitting Tortuguero during migration was imperative to reaching 600 for the year as was looking for shorebirds at Chomes, visiting the catfish ponds for ducks, listening for nocturnal migrants, birding several times in major habitats, and doing the Veragua Christmas count. That last factor in particular was vital because it edged my list past the 600 mark. I had figured that if I didn’t reach my goal there, I would hit it during the Bosque del Rio Tigre count. HOWEVER, car trouble at the last minute prevented me from participating in a count at that most wonderful of birding sites so it was a darn good thing that I went to Veragua! The year isn’t over yet and my list stands at 607 for 2011. I would be very surprised if I picked up anything else for 2011 but since I already made it past 600, I’m not too concerned. As an aside, my year list would probably boast at least ten more bird species if I birded San Isidro del General, the Osa, and sites around San Vito.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2012! I hope to share Costa Rican birds with you during the new year via this blog and in person!