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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

A Day of Productive Birding in Costa Rica

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

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

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

A WEKI from 2018 in Guanacaste.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The intriguing view from the point.

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

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

I wonder what the coming days will bring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gadwall

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

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

Spot-tailed Nightjar

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

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

Guanacaste Hummingbird

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

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Photo provded by Alan Schmierer.

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

Pacific Parakeet

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

Cassin’s Kingbird

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

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

Altamira Oriole

Photo provided by John C. Sterling.

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

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

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

10 Best Birds from Birding in Costa Rica, 2020

According to the unwritten universal rules of birding, the best birds of the year are always the birds we see. That’s the default and it promotes positive living by placing the focus on appreciation but let’s be honest, yesterday’s House Sparrows just can’t compare with the Evening Grosbeaks of today, or three years ago, or even twenty years back.

Whether by appearance, frequency of occurrence, or personal choice, some birds can’t help but be more exciting than others.

In Costa Rica, thanks to a list of 900 plus species, there’s birds like the White-crested Coquette and lots of other excitement things to choose from.

Each year ends with a fine number of impressive sightings and in 2020, despite driving restrictions and closures, local birders still managed to connect with a healthy assortment of stand-out species. This is no doubt related to higher numbers of local, dedicated birders with cameras who spend more time in the field and thank goodness for that because if not, we would have missed the following best Costa Rica birds of 2020:

Waterfowl- Duck, Duck, Goose!

Sometime in spring, back when the closures were about to happen, Carlos Solano found a country first Red-breasted Merganser in a Caribbean coastal lagoon at the edge of Limon! I did not get a chance to see this major country tick but thankfully, lots of other birders did.

Around the same time, a female, second country record of Hooded Merganser turned up at Lake Arenal! Found by Ever Villegas, the first record in 2010 was a surprise, this second one even more so. With more eyes in the field, hopefully we will be in for more sightings of vagrant piscivorous ducks.

Speaking of other ducks, Diego Quesada of Birding Experiences and CaraCara found a mega rare White-cheeked Pintail this year in the Las Pangas area of southern Costa Rica.

As for the goose, that happened with the recent crazy sighting of an Orinoco Goose on the Tarcoles River. Found by Lori Haskell on a Jose’s Crocodile River Tour boat trip, luckily, the bird has stayed around and been seen by many other birders. I suspect that it’s a local escape but who knows? I hope it sticks around long enough for me to see it too.

Masked Duck

They live in Costa Rica and are seen every year but since I finally connected with this nemesis species in 2020, I have to mention it for personal reasons.

Tahiti Petrels

These cool tropical pelagic species are also regular in Costa Rican waters but I never heard of anyone seeing a flock of them! On a trip to Cocos Island, Serge Arias, Tom Shultz, Shelley Reeves, and others documented several of these petrels along with many other exciting species in a trip organized by Serge. He is organizing more birding trips to Cocos, there might be room!

Ruff (Again)

A Ruff was once again found and seen by several local birders at Las Pangas in southern Costa Rica, and in marshes of the Tempique basin in northern Costa Rica. Could there be more than one individual?

A Ruff from Israel.

Hudsonian Godwit

No, we don’t get this one often! According to information about birds fitted with transmitters, during Hudsonian Godwit migration, most “Hudwits” fly from the rich deltas of western Colombia all the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. These power flyers mostly skip over Costa Rica but once in a while, maybe even every year, a few birds make a stop on the Pacific coast of this birdy nation. Birders have to be in the right place at the right time, this year, in May, one was found in mudflats near Paquera.

Gray-hooded Gull

We have very few records for the country but maybe it shows up more often than we realize? In 2020, a Gray-hooded Gull was found by McKoy Umana at Punta Morales. As luck would have it, Mary and I arrived shortly thereafter and had excellent looks at this country mega.

White-crowned Pigeon

With a Caribbean coast, you might expect this species in Costa Rica. But, we since we don’t have any islands on the Caribbean coast, this island-loving pigeon species is a rare find indeed. I suspect it occurs here and there along the coast more often but with so many inaccessible areas to search, the few birds that may be present go unseen. Last year was good for this rarity in Tortuguero as was 2020.

Burrowing Owl!

Not new for the country list but given its century plus absence, without a doubt, bird of the year. Found by Beto Guido and some other, lucky, local birders at an open habitat hotspot near Orotina in early December, it unfortunately was not seen the following day despite 60 or so birders intently searching for it.

Since the owl happened to be found in a spot heavily checked by birders that also looks like many other spots, I figured more are probably around. It could be one or two or even five more birds but since they have huge areas of suitable habitat to choose from, who is going to find them? As luck would have it, an experienced guide did find the same or a different individual at Palo Verde National Park! I bet a few more are out there, I hope we get a chance to look for them.

Gray-headed Piprites

Yes, a resident species but yes, also one of the most difficult and little known birds in Central America. Sites near Rancho Naturalista can be good for it and once in a while, a piprites occurs on the trails of this classic birding eco-lodge. In 2020, a Gray-headed Piprites showed up at Rancho and has been reliable for several months. Several local birders finally connected with this rare species, we sure hope it sticks around!

Savanna Sparrow

A slight, streaked little brown bird might not seem exciting but it’s a rare one for Costa Rica! It look like at least a couple of Savannas were seen at La Ceiba, the same spot as the Burrowing Owl. Once again, thanks to dedicated local birders, especially Beto Guido, this rare bird for Costa Rica was seen by many people.

As with every year (and the unwritten rules of birding), there are lots of honorable mentions. These include the Western Gull at Puntarenas, the Aplomado Falcon from Fortuna, the Palm Warbler seen that same day, the Prairie Warbler and Black-throated Blue Warbler seen in highland sites of the Central Valley, along with the usual Paint-billed Crakes, Bare-necked Umbrellabirds, cotingas, hawk-eagles, and so much more. I hope you make it to Costa Rica in 2021, let’s look forward to more birds in a more positive year!

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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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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?

Categories
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
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
biodiversity climate change migration

Blackburnian Warblers in Costa Rica- Will They Always be Here?

Fall passerine migration has reached Costa Rica. Unlike the woods and fields of Niagara, it doesn’t happen in waves of birds that shake the pollen from the Goldenrod. The subtle movements and gentle colors of warblers, vireos, and Least Flycatchers in early autumn foliage aren’t a part of our fall landscape but that’s alright; every place has its avian charm. In Costa Rica, our fall migration charms start with flocks of Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites, group after group of Eastern Kingbird, an abundance of Red-eyed Vireos and wood-pewees. As in the north, the ancient annual movement of birds also happens in Costa Rica, it just takes on different flavors and shades of bird.

An Eastern Kingbird migrating through Costa Rica.

Other birds that paint a Central American autumn are thousands (likely millions) of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows, Purple Martins, and many Scarlet Tanagers. Although we don’t see the full array of classic, confusing fall warblers, a fair number still move into and through Costa Rica. You see, our fall migration is a combination of birds coming back to their winter homes and others heading further south, straight to the bird continent that begins with Colombia. The Blackburnian Warbler is one of those passage migrants and these days, it can be the most common warbler in town.

The other day, we had our first fall taste of Blackburnians while visiting some friends for some morning birding in higher habitats. Although our birding destination was still heavily influenced by an urban component, there were enough gardens and green space to connect us with a healthy number of birds. For folks from North America, this will surely sound odd but the best bird on our morning list was actually a Tree Swallow. A species that doesn’t need to travel this far south, we don’t get too many in Costa Rica and most sightings take place in later months. Nevertheless, we were surprised and pleased to be looking at a juvenile Tree Swallow flying around with a feeding swarm of resident Blue-and-white Swallows.

Blue-and-white Swallow

The rest of the morning gave us more typical migrant species; a Western Wood-Pewee that sallied from a garden post, a couple of Wilson’s Warblers at higher elevations, and our first Black-and-white Warbler of the fall. More groups of swallows also moved through, mostly in the form of Cliff and I do enjoy watching those but our main quarry, our most hoped for birds were wood-warblers. This being the height of Cerulean Warbler migration in Costa Rica, I have to admit that this special beauty was the number one bird on my mind. We weren’t looking in the best of places but at this time of transience, it can happen anywhere, even in the riparian zone out back.

We might not have seen a Cerulean on that day but checking each and any warbler still rewarded us with numerous looks at another favorite beauty, the Blackburnian.

We must have seen at least 8 of this popular species on that morning, maybe more, and on subsequent days, I saw some while walking near home. Unlike the male warblers of May, the birds that boast their presence with bright colors and song, these Blackburnians were in fall stealth migration mode. They didn’t chip, they didn’t respond to pishing or pygmy-owl or screech-owl calls. They were too busy feeding for any of that nonsense, too intent on bulking up to head back into the night skies and move to their Andean wintering grounds.

Given their quiet focused ways, the warblers almost went unnoticed, even as they steadily moved through the foliage, hopping here, picking something off a leaf there. Given that effective unobtrusive behavior, I wonder how many more were out there in Costa Rica? Hundreds? Probably thousands, all spread across green space, feeding to fill up and keep moving.

Blackburnian Warbler in stealth mode.

The tropical foliage where they forage and spend the winter is a far cry from their breeding grounds. It’s hard to imagine both types of forest in the same frame of thought but the connection is made with Blackburnian Warblers and other birds. They form a bridge between fantastic humid biodense forests of the Andes with fantastic mixed forests of the north. Those breeding grounds are forests of Maple, Oak, and Spruce, places where I have been serenaded to near sleep by the steady toots of Northern Saw-whet Owl, places where one awakes to the ethereal song of Wood Thrushes, places where I made my first birding steps.

Hemlock and pine and June in such places is an incredible show of birdsong. At least it should be. It still is in many places but given the massive decline in birds, I am sure it’s not as loud as it warrants. Nor are the trees as massive and tall as they should be even though much forest has grown back.

Naturally speaking, it’s extremely important to know how things should naturally be because how else can we know if an ecosystem is working as it should? How else can we know if the vegetation is growing as it should to provide people hundreds of years from now with carbon sequestration, food, and other essential benefits? How else can we know if there are enough Blackburnian and other warblers to act as natural pest killers? How else can we know if we are working with our natural surroundings and not breaking down the essential connections, wiping away a safety net that would keep us thriving for the long run?

The Blackburnians that are moving through Costa Rica didn’t have to deal with the conflagrations out west. The Olive-sided Flycatchers and Western Wood-Pewees I saw today are the lucky ones, they made it here in time. The other countless number of birds that died in those flames and that may have been erased by the subsequent smoke weren’t so lucky. Terribly, many people also lost their lives, countless more people survived but lost their homes along with everything inside.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Western Wood-Pewee

Having gone through the devastation of a home fire (and not even one where the house was destroyed), I can’t begin to tell you how terrible that is but if you can imagine one moment to the next being homeless and having nothing, and maybe also losing a loved one or family pet, that gives a fair idea. If there’s any way anyone can help, check out these possibilities, these people need it now.

On the bird side of things, the fires make me wonder if there will be fewer Wilson’s Warblers in Costa Rica this winter. The fires may have been partly responsible for the large number of bird deaths from New Mexico. For the Wilson’s that winter in Costa Rica, it all depends on where they are coming from but if we as a species can’t make major changes in time, eventually, it won’t much matter where that species, Blackburnians or many other birds live. Whether they survive drastic changes brought on by human-caused climate change or not will be one more sick gamble of the Anthropocene.

We can put the odds in their favor and keep seeing Blackburnian Warbler in Costa Rica, on the Texas Coast, and Magee Marsh but only if we make major changes now in our collective behavior. We CAN make changes to limit the fires and other major disasters that have the ability to eventually disrupt food production and other basic aspects of life to the point of causing suffering for huge numbers of people. Let’s make the change, the time to do it has already been now.

Categories
biodiversity migration

Wood-Pewee Connection

It’s early September and the first fall migrants are coming through Costa Rica. These are the species that passed through the lands near their northern breeding grounds during the dog days of August; the hot days of shorebird migration, the time of latent summer that tricks you into never believing in winter. In Niagara, those humid days made it hard to imagine the constant freezing winds of a lake watch, the nights ruled by nature’s lethal cold caress. While walking on the hazy beaches of Lake Erie, it was odd to imagine that, just a few months later, those same warm sandy places would be glazed with ice. But the presence of Ruddy Turnstones and Semipalmated Sandpipers wasn’t any hoax, those Arctic nesters weren’t flying way south for nothing.

In September, those and many other shorebirds have converged in Costa Rica. These are the days to watch them (!), to look for the odd one out, see if you can trick yourself into changing a funny looking distant Semipalmated Plover into a mega Common Ringed. Being far south of cold weather, smartly situated in vital wintering grounds for multitudes of Passerines, Costa Rica also bears witness to numbers of warblers, Baltimore Orioles and other migrant birds of the north. Although the bulk of those travelers won’t be in Costa Rica until October, some of the earlier migrants come through town just about now.

Among those “early” species are birds that winter in South America, birds like Red-eyed Vireos, Eastern Kingbirds, and Mississippi Kites. A kite in the Central Valley would be a bonus and it’s not out of the question but seeing one will likely require a visit to the Caribbean lowlands. That’s also where most of the vireos and kingbirds travel but some also find their way to our “backyard”.

This morning, while enjoying coffee and looking for avian action out back, I saw that two vireos had managed to do just that. They were so stealthy, I almost didn’t see them. Unlike the constantly singing bird of the breeding grounds, the fall vireos of Costa Rica have removed themselves from center stage. More concerned with eating, the only sign of their presence is a brief flutter in leafy vegetation, an afterthought of a bird that seems to vanish as soon as you raise the binos. There were just two or were there more? Taking their stealthy behavior into account, there could have easily been several in the area, more birds ghosting their way through the riparian zones out back.

As with every migrant bird, I always wonder where they came from? How far did they fly the night before? Where did those small olive, gray, and white birds spend the summer? Was it in the beautiful mixed forests of the Upper Peninsula where I once camped and listened to Saw-whets on a cold night? Had they been singing in the rolling forests of southern Illinois where I worked for a field season doing bird surveys and looking for bird nests? Could they have even come from the remnant old growth forests of the Niagara Gorge, a special place close to the heart where, like many other Western New Yorkers, I used to hike and fish for salmon?

I wondered the same about another migrant species I had seen out back a few days before. It looked so much like an extension of a snag, I wouldn’t have noticed the bird if it hadn’t moved. Luckily, it was actually moving a lot, sallying out again and again and that bit of brown flash during a light rain is what prompted me to get my binocs. Focusing in on the tip of the stick revealed a wood-pewee and although this migrant Contopus is at the duller end of the colorful bird spectrum, it shines with hues of behavior, challenge, and story.

This particular pewee was showcasing its classic pewee behavior with urgent fervor. It no doubt had better places to be and was buying its night train ticket with captures of airborne insects. Looking at it through the scope revealed a small brown bird constantly looking back and forth and up and down. No time for song, it sallied out again and again, even going after but missing a large white butterfly (oh yes, there are many seriously cool butterflies out back!). Keeping with a pewee tradition that pleases the birder, it came back to that same snag every single time and thus allowed me to study it as much as I wanted.

Those prolonged looks helped me pass the pewee challenge. Scope studies convinced me that the non-vocalizing bird was a Western Wood-Pewee, a species that migrates through the highlands of Costa Rica in large numbers. Although it always is best to hear a pewee before giving it a name, this bird was so gray, had such an overall dark bill, and a more prominent lower wing bar, I figured it had to be a Western.

As for the story of that pewee, I suppose the only thing I honestly know is that it spent a late afternoon in a riparian zone in the Central Valley of Costa Rica. I don’t even know if it found enough food to head back into the night skies and keep flying south but I didn’t see it the following day. As with those vireos and any of the migrant birds from the north, I can’t know where it came from but having heard them on many a bird survey in Colorado and Washington, I have a fair idea of places where it could have spent the summer. Places with Aspens and conifers in unbelievably spectacular scenery, places where I heard many a Flammulated Owl, admired those small owls with a flashlight. Places blanketed with forests of tall Doug Firs, ferns and Devil’s Club in the understory, Varied Thrushes singing from above, Pacific Wrens calling from below. Drier and sunnier habitats too with scattered oaks, junipers and brush frequented by Virginia’s Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees.

That small bird might seem insignificant but it hails from fantastic, beautiful places far to the north, flies through the night over vast areas of Mexico and on to Central America and the story doesn’t even stop there! It keeps going, flying further still to the lush cloud forests of South America, all the way to places with astounding bastions of biodiversity, all the way to the Andes where it shares an avian scene with chat-tyrants, ridiculously plumaged hummingbirds, and a fantastic array of tanagers.

I have also been fortunate to have visited those places where it winters. For now, I’m happy to greet it on its way south but one day, I still hope to fly into the night and meet it again on its wintering grounds.