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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica migration

Costa Rica Birding News Flash- Early September, 2021

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

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

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

First Passerine Migrant Push

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

Upland Sandpiper (!)

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

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

Tahiti Petrel and Other Pelagic Species

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

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

Yellow-green Vireos in Costa Rica- Still Singing

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

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

Bare-necked Umbrellabirds at La Selva

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

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

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

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

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

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Tinamous in Costa Rica: How Common are They?

Tinamous are one of several types of birds guaranteed to be completely unfamiliar to birders from North America and northern Eurasia. Birders from other places may also feel perplexed but may also find their appearance slightly more normal. Africans may be reminded of Guineafowl and Francolins, and folks from Asian and Australia might have visions of Megapodes.

An ancient lineage of terrestrial birds restricted to the neotropical region, tinamous haunt the undergrowth of tropical forest, second growth and, in the Andes and southern South America, grassland habitats. As with other ground birds, tinamous can be tough to see. We can’t blame them, over the course of several million years, it was always in their best interest to stay unseen in home ranges stalked by a fantastic host of deadly predators.

Being highly evolved to stay alive is why they tip their way through the leaves so quietly and carefully, why they would rather sing from the shadows than run into the open, and why tinamous are heard way more often than seen. Those carefully honed attributes work well because in many places, as long as the habitat is present and hunting is controlled, most species are common.

Not that one can expect to see tinamous all the time but in protected areas, these odd, football-shaped birds aren’t that rare, especially in Costa Rica.

Go birding in any sizeable area of lowland rainforest and you will probably hear the calls of a Great Tinamou. This species can also range into the foothills but seems more common in lowland forest. Listen for its tremulous whistles and watch for it in places like Carara, Tirimbina, and La Selva. In these and other sites where it has become accustomed to people, the Great Tinamou can be downright tame.

Slaty-breasted Tinamous aren’t seen as often as Great Tinamous but they are still pretty common. La Selva is probably the easiest place to see them, with patience, you can even connect on the entrance road. In other places, I have heard a surprising number of Slaty-breasteds give their low pitched calls from lowland rainforest, perhaps especially in sites with treefall gaps or other spots with some thick, protective understory.

Like the Great, the Slaty-breasted also occurs in lowland and foothill forest, although only on the Caribbean slope.

Go birding in Costa Rica in lowland and foothill sites with second growth and you will probably hear the loud whistles of the Little Tinamou. Listen for a bird that sounds like a horse that inhaled a hefty dose of helium. Seeing it is another matter; this small quail-like bird jst loves dense second growth habitat. The Little Tinamou might even be one of the most heard, unseen species in Costa Rica. As with other tinamous, with patience, it can eventually be seen. It might just take a while.

Go birding in tropical dry forest and the low whistles of the Slaty-breasted Tinamou are exchanged for the single whistle of the Thicket Tinamou. As with other tinamou species in Costa Rica, this one is much more common than expected. However, in many places, it seems to be shyer than other tinamous and thus more difficult to see. This is probably because it gets hunted more than the other species.

Thicket Tinamous can be viewed in dry and moist forest from near the Ensenada area north to Nicaragua. As with laying eyes on other tinamous, patience is a big virtue, your best chances are in places where they aren’t as shy, places like Palo Verde and Santa Rosa National Parks.

Lastly, we have the least common feathered American football in Costa Rica, the much coveted Highland Tinamou. Among international birders, this species tends to be more of a target than other tinamous because even though it ranges from Costa Rica to parts of northern South America, reliable sites for this bird are few.

It’s not as common as the lowland tinamous but it’s not all that rare either. I have heard them in many places, including a few calling from the cloud forests on the road to Poas, and they occur in fair numbers in most cloud forest sites (up to 2,000 or so meters). With that in mind, the best place in the world to see a Highland Tinamou is probably the Monteverde area. Stalk trails through cloud forest and you might lay eyes on this prize.

Tinamous are more common than you think; learn their calls and practice patience and you might see a few. Wondering where or how to see tinamous and other unfamiliar species in Costa Rica? Find some answers in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

In the meantime, happy birding!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration

The First Fall Migrant Out Back, Costa Rica, 2021

I should have gotten up earlier this morning. As a birder knows, the early hours are when the action really takes place. Watch a suitable spot in that first main hour of another glorious day and you might be surprised by the birds that fly through your field of view. However, start watching two hours later and you might want to curb the expectations. By then, the height of the avian rush hour has passed, you will have missed out on most of the action. At least, that’s how it is in Costa Rica and is why I wasn’t expecting anything when I started this morning’s casual back balcony bird watch.

Not having planned on birding this morning, the watch out back began well after dawn. It was more of a casual listen and look just to see if anything was out there. No focused, dedicated birding, I didn’t even bring the binoculars. I wasn’t surprised to see more of trees and other types of vegetation than birds but there were still a few things of avian origin, there always is.

Red-billed Pigeons were on their usual perch.

Cabanis’s Wrens called from a leafy wall of second growth, Blue Grosbeaks sang, and a Yellow-bellied Elaenia “screamed”. Fresh coffee is good but it’s always better with bird song! My casual coffee and birding changed when I noticed a small, “dull” bird perched on the tip of a thin, broken snag. I hustled back inside to get the binocs but sure enough, even though it was a two second interval, the bird had gone.

You can’t expect a bird to wait, it’s got survival to be concerned with. I kept my eyes on that snag, though, because I had a fair notion about the bird I had glimpsed. I figured it might come back and sure enough, a few seconds later, it zipped back to materialize on its perch. By instinct, I got my binoculars on the bird and a quick check confirmed my suspicion.

Western Wood-Pewee (from another day but on the same perch)

For birders from western North America, a WEWP might not seem like much, especially if you are visiting Costa Rica. For me, though, it won the prize as my first fall, 2021 passerine migrant seen out back. It was expected and the perch it chose was where I often see them but I was still impressed.

Impressed because the small flycatcher with the long wings could have spent the summer in Alaska. It could have flown from the conifers of Colorado, shared space with Lazuli Buntings and watched Cougars prowl. It could have come from Yellowstone, been seen by birders there or so many other places. Before it came to Costa Rica, it had to watch out for and avoid the Sharp-shinneds and Merlins that would be ever eager to end its life (they gotta eat too). Around here, it has to avoid Bat Falcons, snakes, and other hungry predators.

This past summer, “my” WEWP may have fled from horrendous fires, may have seen the clouds of smoke and high-tailed it south earlier than expected. No matter where it came from, it probably stopped off in Mexican mountains on the way, maybe even in places where I watched Red Warblers decorate dark conifers long ago.

All I can say for sure is that it came from some far off place to fly through long nights, always flying south, and when it got to Costa Rica, it chose a perfect perch out back. I hope it caught its fill of bugs. I hope it stays well on its way to wintering grounds on Andean slopes. When Western Wood-Pewee migration happens in spring, as it makes the journey back to the mountains of the north, I hope it stops here again. Most of all, I hope we can make the changes needed to ensure habitat for the bird, for us humans, and for future people to see a WEWP and feel amazed.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

What are These “New” Birds for Costa Rica?

Costa Rica just got some birds added to the country list! Well, at least some common name changes in eBird. Since the recent, latest taxonomic changes made to the super popular birding platform, if you happen to spot a Tawny-throated Leaftosser doing its reclusive ground bird thing while birding in Costa Rica, you won’t find it listed with that name. As of the latest taxonomic change, it has been officially renamed “Middle American Leaftosser”.

Why the new name? An official change in nomenclature for a bird can happen for a few different reasons, one of the most common being that the bird in question was split into more than one species. Since we have yet to be converted into robots, instead of calling the newly recognized evolutionary groupings something like Tawny-throated Leaftosser Number One, Tawny-throated Leaftosser Two, and so on, they are usually given names that reflect certain distinctive aspects of their plumages. But wait, don’t leaftossers look sort of you know, the damn same? Yes, many do but there’s an easy, fitting fix resolved by distribution. When the separate species look pretty darn similar, they can just be named after where they occur.

That works out just fine for Middle American Leaftosser. It fits and since vocalization differences and high molecular differences have been known for this taxon for some time, the split was also very much anticipated (welcome to the world of birding Middle American Leaftosser!). But why did the split take so long to happen? The reason why this particular renaming and other new names for birds in Costa Rica happened now is because studies were finally published that demonstrated evidence to propose splitting those birds. Proposals were then made to taxonomic committees (oh yes, they do exist!), and once accepted and included in the Clements List, eBird then also accepted those changes. And voila, here we are.

Since the official Costa Rica bird list also follows the Clements list, we can probably expect those new names in the next edition of the Birds of Costa Rica Field Guide by Garrigues and Dean, and in update for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

These are the other “new birds” for Costa Rica, the ones to look for when making those eBird lists:

White-browed Gnatcatcher– This is a split from the Tropical Gnatcatcher and is the name given to birds that occur in Central America and in some dry habitats west of the Andes. Although descriptive, now, in addition to worrying about separating this bird from the similarly plumaged White-lored Gnatcatcher, we can also worry about confusing their names (and they do occur together in many places too).

Grass Wren– See a Sedge Wren in Costa Rica? Not any more! The Sedge Wrens in Ohio and other places in the north have been separated from the non-migratory Grass Wrens of Mexico and lands to the south. Keep an eye on the birds in Costa Rica, you never know if or when the populations of “Grass Wren” there and Panama might be given species recognition. They are also very local and probably locally endangered.

Chestnut-capped Warbler– The many years in waiting and anticipated split of the Rufous-capped Warbler has finally taken place! This is a change that will certainly please listers, splitters, systematists, and wood-warblerists (if you like wood-warblers, this means you) and should be appropriately celebrated with your choice of libation. If you saw one of those white-bellied birds in Arizona, it was a Rufous-capped. See one in Costa Rica? Chestnut-capped!

Cinnamon-bellied Saltator– Now that name has a ring to it! Goodbye Grayish Saltator, hello three way split with birds from Middle and Central America now being known as le Cinnamon-bellied Saltator. A nice name for a common garden bird with an easy-going, whistled song.

But that’s not all! There are also birds that were split but continue to have the same name in Costa Rica. Speaking of splits, it would also be negligent to not mention a few good candidates for future splits in Costa Rica (although I have done it before, it’s still worth doing again). Keep an eye on these birds and celebrate the eBird armchair ticks!:

Gray-rumped Swift– Birds in Central America are at least separate from some other taxa in South America.

White Hawk– Not the same as the White Hawks from the Amazon.

Great Black-Hawk– A good one to look into as plumage and perhaps behavior differ from birds in the Amazon (which act more like Common Black-Hawk there).

Choco Screech-Owl– Make sure to see those birds in southern Costa Rica because they are probably something new.

Black-faced Antthrush– If you have seen “this bird” in Mexico or northern Central America (except eastern Honduras), open a beer for the Mayan Antthrush! If you have also seen it in South America, keep tabs on where because although it hasn’t been split yet, based on vocal differences, there could be anywhere from 1 to 3 more species waiting in the evolutionary wings.

Black-headed Antthrush– The birds that occur in Costa Rica and western Panama could have enough differences in their songs to separate them from the ones in western South America (and maybe the Darien).

Streak-chested Antpitta– This is a split I would probably bet on as the differences in song and plumage as as much as ones shown by similar, accepted splits of taxa from the Amazon. Try to see birds from the Caribbean slope and from the Pacific slope (easier said than done unfortunately).

Long-tailed Woodcreeper– An eventual split, at least from Amazonian birds.

Olivaceous Woodcreeper– Several distinct groups have been known for many years, one of them occurs in Central America including Costa Rica. The others occur in various places in South America which means that you have to try and see as many as you can!

Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner– The Chiriqui ws already split, hopefully, studies can elucidate how many other species are involved.

Sharpbill– There’s a good chance that each main group is a distinct species. Maybe, maybe not but always cool to see in any case (and not exactly easy in Costa Rica).

Scrub Euphonia- Crack open another cold one for the newly recognized Godman’s Euphonia of western Mexico!

Want to know how to identify and where to find these and other birds in Costa Rica? See “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. Until then, I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica

Saltators- The Pseudo Cardinals of Costa Rica

Northern Cardinals don’t live in Costa Rica and maybe it’s better that way. I admit that I am biased by memories and early birding impressions of snowy backyards where the fancy, crested bird was accompanied by chirping House Sparrows. It was a bird of cold places with steel gray skies that thawed into floral scented Springs and warm temperate woodland Junes.

“Northern cardinal” by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Midwest Region is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In my mind, the Northern Cardinal belongs in brushy woodlands and places where Red-winged Blackbirds sing from reedy ditches and skeins of geese fly their way north. While the crested “Redbird” does play a role in many such situations, as strong as my first cardinal impressions may be, they only tell a small, subjective part of its story. Cardinals don’t just live in the annual frozen landscapes of the north. In southern Mexico, they also share ecological space with many tropical birds. Visit pyramids in the Yucatan and you might find yourself listening to a soundscape where a cardinal’s cheerful whistles are accompanied by the haunting calls of a Collared Forest-Falcon and the screeching of Brown Jays.

With that in mind, if a cardinal sang in some parts of Costa Rica, maybe it wouldn’t be all that out of place. It might even feel more at home upon hearing the warbled songs of Blue Grosbeaks; a common species in many parts of the Central Valley and northwestern Costa Rica. Most mornings, I hear one of those over-sized beautiful buntings warble its way into the start of a new day. Shortly after, other birds make themselves auditorily known and although there aren’t any “what-cheering” cardinals around, I do hear a bird that sort of takes its place. That species is the Grayish Saltator, a bird that, along with the other saltators of Costa Rica, is sort of like a pseudo-cardinal.

Saltators aren’t red and they don’t have crests but were nevertheless previously suspected to be cardinal relatives. Those suspicions were firmly put to rest when molecular studies revealed that they shared a more recent common ancestor with tanagers (and not the Cardinalid ones). Even so, they still remind me of cardinals because saltators are similar in size and shape, share some behaviors, and have a few vocalizations reminiscent of the whistled sounds that cardinals make. Several saltators occur in South America, these are the five saltator species that live in Costa Rica:

Grayish Saltator

A common bird of edge habitats in the Central Valley and elsewhere, around my place, this is the pseudo-cardinal. It has a variable, whistled rising song and frequents brushy habitats with the type of structure cardinals might. Watch for this bird in hotel gardens, especially in the Central Valley.

Buff-throated Saltator

Given the huge range of this species, its a contender for being one of the most successful of all Neotropical birds. In Costa Rica, since its more a bird of humid tropical habitats and forest edge, I rarely see one near my place. Once in a while, one or two show up in the riparian zone out back, maybe just moving through. Go birding in the humid foothills and lowlands and you will probably hear their somewhat thrush-like warbling song and see several.

Black-headed Saltator

Closer to a jay in size, this hefty bird would be a monster of a cardinal. Despite the large proportions, this is a rather shy species that somehow manages to skulk in dense second growth. Historically restricted to the Caribbean slope, likely because of deforestation and climate change, Black-headed Saltators now also occur in many parts of the Central Valley. They have a harsh, loud and choppy song.

Streaked Saltator

This primarily South American species reaches its northern distribution on the southern Pacific slope of Costa Rica. Like the Grayish Saltator, it mostly occurs in gardens and edge habitats and more or less replaces the Grayish. It’s especially common in the Valle del General. Listen for its distinctive slow whistled song and don’t be surprised if you also run into one or two in the Central Valley; a few occur here and there.

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Despite the name, this is actually a fancy saltator and cool canopy bird of lowland and foothill rainforest. In Costa Rica, it lives in such forests on the Caribbean slope (although one or two sometimes wander all the way across the mountains to Carara!). Unlike the other saltators, this bird sings over and over from up in the canopy and has an orange bill a lot like that of a cardinal. It also has a chip call that sounds more like a cardinal than anything but even so, it’s still a saltator. Listen for its frequently given song and watch for it at fruiting trees and with mixed flocks.

Will you see saltators when visiting Costa Rica? I would think so. All of them are fairly common, most visit fruit feeders, and they aren’t as shy and skulky as antbirds. As with so many other birds, one of the best ways to find them is by knowing their songs. Try learning the songs of saltators with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. When I study bird vocalizations, it’s a big help for me to listen to a bird while looking at its picture. Since this birding app for Costa Rica has images for 927 species and vocalizations for 863 species on the Costa Rica bird list, plus 68 additional birds that could eventually occur, there’s more than enough to listen to and look at!

While studying songs of Costa Rica birds, you might also want to mark your target birds. Start studying now because cool pseudo-cardinal saltators and hundreds of other birds are waiting to be seen in Costa Rica. I hope to see you here.

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica raptors

Costa Rica Birds to Know- The 10 Most Common Raptors

“What is that, an eagle? It’s huge!” This or a similar version in any number of languages is a common phrase heard by birders from Tennessee to Thailand. It makes sense, our primate instincts just won’t allow us to forget about the honest threat that big raptors posed to our little ones way back before the height of the Anthropocene. Not to mention, big raptors are easy to notice, especially when they take flight and tend to look bigger than their actual size.

That thing about perspective tricking us into concluding that big birds are a lot bigger than they really are is one of the first things a birder learns, especially when binoculars reveal that that the massive “eagle” was actually a Turkey Vulture or a healthy Red-tailed Hawk. Until you learn and accept that perception of size is deceptive, you can bet that you are fooling yourself.

Rest assured, Tommy Shaw wasn’t talking about birding when he wrote this song but whether you listen to Styx while birding or not, being aware of the size/perception illusion is partly why we as birders know that condors and giant eagles aren’t really roaming the countryside (although we sure wish they were, we know it’s just some Grand Illusion). Depending on the part of the northern hemisphere where one wields the bins, Red-taileds, Common Buzzards, and Black Kites also remind us of how frequent big birds of prey can be.

In many places, it doesn’t take more than a drive down any country road to start seeing raptors perched here and there on posts, or to notice the silhouette of a raptor flying high overhead. In Costa Rica, that flying raptor is usually one or both common vulture species (Turkey and Black). Since these scavengers are such a regular part of the avian landscape and probably the first birds seen upon exiting the plane, I’m going to leave them off the following list. The birds I will mention are the 10 additional raptor species (non-owls) most commonly seen in Costa Rica. Go birding in Costa Rica and you will find that they aren’t as frequent as roadside raptors in some other parts of the world but you can probably still bet on seeing them.

White-tailed Kite

Locally known as the “bailarin” (dancer), this rodent catcher often hovers in place above grassy fields. Like most raptors in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly abundant but because there is plenty of habitat for it and because it isn’t shy about hovering in plain sight, get ready to see it.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Another bird easily seen because of aerial behaviors that make it wonderfully obvious. It occurs year round in parts of southern Costa Rica and is a wet season visitor in other parts of the country. Enjoy the elegance in hilly and mountainous areas with humid forest.

Gray Hawk

In many parts of Costa Rica, including the Central Valley, this is our buzzard, our Red-tail, our common kite species. Based on how often one hears and sees this “Mexican Goshawk”, this edge bird does quite well in the patchwork of habitats created by human endeavors.

Roadside Hawk

True to its name, this smallish hawk is a regular feature of roadside cables, telephone posts, and trees. In hot lowland areas, it can be more common than the Gray Hawk. Like the Gray Hawk, it also frequently calls and soars.

Short-tailed Hawk

Another of the most common hawks in Costa Rica, keep an eye on the skies and you might see this species every day of your birding trip. It often takes to the air with groups of Black Vultures, possibly flying with them to reach its aerial hunting grounds as unobtrusive as it can manage. Once up there, it soars and hovers in plain sight until it can fall like a rock onto some unsuspecting bird or lizard. Even better, it also comes in two cool color phases!

Common Black-Hawk

This cool and chunky raptor lives up to the “common” in its name but only on the coast. Watch for it soaring or perched near any coastal habitat but especially areas with coastal forest, including mangroves. This expert crab catcher can also hang out right on the beach.

Crested Caracara

A big bird that flaps around here and there as it searches for carrion and small and easy prey. Deforested lands and drier weather have made this large falcon a common sight even in the Central Valley. Its shape and foraging behavior sort of remind me of the Common Raven.

Yellow-headed Caracara

Another flappy, screechy falcon that thrives on carrion and small, easy prey. This bird is especially common in the Pacific lowlands where it sometimes perches on cattle so it can pick off their ticks or just be up to its own odd caracara devices.

Red-tailed Hawk

Although this bulky Buteo is not as abundant as birds up north and is restricted to the highlands, it soars a lot and is common enough to make it onto this list. As a bonus, resident birds look quite different from the birds of the north.

Broad-winged Hawk

Only in the winter and on migration but worth a mention because during those seasons, this small hawk is one of the most commonly seen raptors in Costa Rica. It makes Costa Rica a great place to study the subtleties and traits of Broad-winged Hawks.

These species are the most commonly seen raptors of Costa Rica but I would be amiss if I didn’t mention a few more. On account of them being regularly seen in appropriate habitats, honorable mentions must go to Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Bat Falcon, Swainson’s Hawk (since literally thousands migrate through Costa Rica), Gray-lined Hawk (replaces the Gray Hawk south of Dominical), Peregrine Falcon, and Osprey.

And that’s not all! Quite a few other sharp taloned birds also live in Costa Rica including hawk-eagles, the wily Crane Hawk, the striking White Hawk, and others. To learn more about identifying raptors and sites to see them in Costa Rica, check out this Costa Rica bird finding book. Use the Costa Rica Birds app to study vocalizations and images, and make target lists, and get ready for some truly fantastic birding. As always, I hope to see you here.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica

Twitching Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwings in Costa Rica

“One birder’s twitch is another birder’s trash.” At least that’s what some members of the birding realm say. In non birding vernacular, that would mean that the bird species yearned for by some are so common as to be ignored by others. Examples include local birders in Ohio rushing outside and letting that screen door bang shut as they race to see a Ruff. Birders from Kansas driving 6 long desperate hours to meet with a seriously lost Spotted Redshank before it keeps on moving. Birders from Toronto skipping on over to Toronto Island to lay eyes on a Variegated Flycatcher (I was one of those lucky birders). All prioritize and move into birding action because those lost birds were brought into twitching range by the same evolutionary dead end wanderlust that could, just as quickly, urge the birds to destinations unknown.

When chasing birds that are common in other places, one of the rather obvious questions that might be asked is, “why not travel to the places where those birds are common?” These days, the answer to just about any question pertaining to travel is obvious (it starts with a C and ends with 9) but during other, easier times, well, it’s always a heck of a lot easier to see a bird near home or in one’s own country than flying to another part of the world. Yes, there are more new birds waaaay over there but…easier said than done. Not to mention, there’s also that country or county or province list thing going on, the urge to collect stuff for a certain area, to maintain and add to a list for some sense of achievement.

Twitches of course don’t just happen in North America, major twitching goes on in Europe especially in the British Isles as well as most other parts of the globe. From the other side of the Atlantic, a twitch might include calling in sick to pilgrimage your way to a Lesser Yellowlegs, or dropping everything for a once in a lifetime meeting with a Gray Catbird (Eurasian soil at least). In Costa Rica, as with every place, we have our own set of “twitch birds” and although rare and local birds are on that list (note the major RVG Cuckoo twitch), most of the wanted species are migrants. In other parts of their range, most are also a dime a dozen.

But it doesn’t matter how common a bird is elsewhere, it only matters how rare that bird is where one happens to be birding. This is why I recently spent precious time driving up a muddy track and walking through tropical pastures to look for…Cedar Waxwings. It’s why we followed that morning jaunt with a drive to a hotel where a Blackpoll Warbler had been seen.

Yes, Cedar Waxwings. They might have been a common bird of parks in western New York, a regular old lazy whispering bird of the northern summer, but in Costa Rica, the sleek crested berry eater is one of the most wanted species on the block. Think of it as our Pine Grosbeak, as an irruptive winter finch that rarely shows, and hardly ever in big numbers. It’s a bird that doesn’t favor Costa Rica, one that occasionally appears at fruiting figs and maybe it’s just me but just to make them a bit harder to find, it doesn’t seem like they call as much in Costa Rica either. But then again, I’ve only seen them here a few times.

They might be common up north but I completely get why local birders strive and drive to see waxwings. It was a while ago some time in the late 70s but I still remember my excitement at seeing my first Cedar Waxwings, can vaguely picture them in the willows by a creek in Pennsylvania. My aunt Chris recalls it too, last time I saw her, she told me she remembered me saying, “Cedar Waxwings!”, being excited about those waxwings by the creek. I sure was, there were a few hundred, they looked amazing, and they were incredible lifers. A golden day for an 8 year old birder.

With that same sense of excitement, Marylen, Samantha, and I went looking for a group of waxwings just a half hour drive from where we live. They had been seen for a few days before then, had been seen the day before but would they still be there? Since they had been feeding on huge figs full of fruit, I figured we had an excellent chance but as with any twitch, who knows? Waxwings are migrants, they could leave at any moment, get too much of an urge to head north, just vanish and leave a twitcher staring into empty trees.

However, as with any twitch, you never know unless you try and if you stay home and someone else sees that bird, you run a big chance of being hit with a big fat sour lemon pie of regret. Since the regret option sucks (and because our chances seemed good), we went for the waxwings. After going to the wrong spot first, thanks to friend and fellow birder Diego Quesada, we got back on track, made our way to the right spot and walked up a muddy track past the songs of White-eared Ground-Sparrows and Rufous-capped Warblers.

Migrants were also around and included the likes of Scarlet Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Olive-sided Flycatchers. An excellent area of green space, of coffee farms with huge figs, it didn’t take long before a flock of waxwings appeared! They flew into view, lisped a couple of times and quickly dropped out of sight. We couldn’t say we didn’t see them but better views would be a lot nicer. Trudging up and down pastured hills couldn’t refind them but fortunately, just as we were about to leave, we ran into Diego and fellow birding guide, Jheudy Carballo. They had the birds and even had them in the scope!

As you can see, they weren’t exactly perched in full easy view.

After getting our fill of scoped waxwings in Costa Rica, we triumphantly returned to the car (because how else do you return to a vehicle after a successful twitch?), made our way to the house and got right back in the vehicle for the drive to bird number dos- le Blackpoll Warbler.

This second twitch of the day was about as easy as you can get (and is just how we like it!). We entered the Buena Vista Hotel, the receptionist welcomed us and upon seeing our binocs, pointed us to the trails where the bird was being seen. Thanks to directions from Diego, we made our way to the spot, and thanks to a local birder who was watching it, saw the bird with seconds.

In typical warbler fashion, the male Blackpoll didn’t exactly sit still. Getting ready to migrate, it didn’t have any time to rest. It might have come from Alaska, might have lived in Quebec. Both places are pretty far, both require a lot of flying fuel. It was getting those resources for its personal, perilous flight from a fruiting fig, eating insects, maybe even even some fruit.

The good thing is that it was fueling up right in front of us, was favoring this one fig tree only a bit above eye level. Even better, it was an adult male in breeding plumage. Since we rarely get Blackpolls in Costa Rica, the views, the experience, was a rare treat. It’s one of those birds that probably winter here and there in Costa Rica, that pass through on occasion but in numbers small enough to seriously limit chances of finding them and so when one is found, you might just want to go see it.

A successful twitch is always a good day, success with a double twitch that includes good looks at the target birds is fantastic. I wonder what the next twitch in Costa Rica will be? A Gray Gull would be pretty nice…

As with every twitch, they wouldn’t happen without birders finding and sharing the gen. Many thanks go to local birder Alex Molinas Arias for the waxwings and Diego and Jheudy of Birding Experiences for helping us see them, and to the author of The Birds of Costa Rica, Richard Garrigues, for finding that Blackpoll!

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

4 Months Birding in Costa Rica, 540 Species

In the times of our pandemic, official and personal restrictions have placed a certain degree of boundaries on birding. The view through the window has become a prime channel for bird observation. Backyard birds have been watched far more than at other times, not necessarily because we don’t want to watch the neighborhood woodpeckers, finches or caroling thrushes but because they end up being the only birds we have access to.

It’s nice to have access to this bird.

At least that’s how it’s been for myself and I suspect much the same for many other birders.

In other times, we would have spent more time further afield, travelled to more places, perhaps birded much more with other people. Such a higher frequency of birding options generally results in a higher year list and indeed, in a non-pandemic 2021, I would have probably identified more bird species by this point. However, thanks to occasional guiding in strategic sites, and going birding in Costa Rica when I can, so far, I find my year list surprisingly higher than I had imagined.

After a couple of recent trips to Tortuguero, I am at the edge of 550 species for 2021, here are a few observations about my ongoing year list:

Some Rare and Challenging Species

A fair number of rare and tough species for Costa Rica have found their way onto the list including ducks like Northern Pintail and Cinnamon Teal, Sungrebe, Reddish Egret, Mangrove Cuckoo, White-chinned Swift, Ochraceous Pewee, Tody Motmot, Grasshopper Sparrow, and others. The rarest birds have probably been Ruff and Violet-green Swallow, favorite sightings are many and include from shore Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers and such migrants as Cooper’s Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher and Scarlet Tanager.

Still Missing Quite a Few Common Species

It’s interesting to note that I have yet to hear or see Long-tailed Tyrant, Rufous Motmot, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Royal Flycatcher, and various other bird species hard to miss during visits to Carara National Park and the Caribbean lowlands. With that in mind, I guess the absence of those species from my year list makes sense as I have yet to visit Carara in 2021 and haven’t done much birding in places where these birds are common.

Costa Rica is a True Hotspot for Birding and Biodiversity

A bird list of nearly 550 species from a very limited number of trips (and missing several common species) is a reminder of the incredible birding possible in this small country. In Costa Rica, you don’t need to go far to see a lot and many sites with quality habitat are easily accessible. Know where to go in birding in Costa Rica, stay focused, and you can see literally hundreds of species.

A Fair Chance at Breaking 700

Given the species on my year list and it not even being the end of April, if I can still go birding at the same rate, I should break 700 by the end of the year. Not if strict restrictions suddenly take place and keep me at home for 90% of the time but if I can at least manage key trips to the right places, 700 is in reach. If I can keep up the rate of new birds, I might not even need to visit Durika for Ocellated Crake.

No matter where I end up going birding, or what sort of restrictions take place, I will still be doing a lot more from home. That’s alright, there are birds to see out back but to be honest, after today, I do wonder how many will still be seen. This morning, on the other side of the wall, a crew of guys with saws were diligently cutting back vegetation from the wall. We suppose that’s what the purpose was, to cut back from the wall, perhaps to fulfill some regulation. The terrible part of it was cutting a couple of fairly large trees along with smaller trees that would have played important, precious roles in reforesting an area in desperate need of green space.

Those same trees would have also played some role in carbon sequestration at a time when we damn well need as many trees as possible, need to let trees grow big and old and magnificent. The larger trees were used by many migrant and resident species, the flowering vines on them were constantly visited by butterflies, Blue-vented Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, orioles, even wintering Painted Buntings. I even saw Cerulean Warblers on a few occasions, I saw Golden-winged Warblers there as well. It was where the Merlin perched on a few special mornings, it was where an Olive-sided Flycatcher sallied for insects just last week.

It wasn’t a huge amount of habitat but given the number of birds I saw there (every single morning) and the scant bit of reforestation taking place, I dare say that even that bit of habitat was important. I apologize for going somewhat off topic at the end of this post but when they cut those trees down, knowing what used them, what lived there, it was like losing a vital patch of locally woven life that interconnects the Amazon, Andes, and places to the north. It was seeing important and rare potential, decades, maybe a couple centuries of carbon sequestration being needlessly eliminated. And for what? Too close to the wall. Those trees, you know, they might cause trouble.

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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.