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A Short Trip to El Tapir

Last week, I paid a visit to El Tapir for a morning of birding with my friend Susan. The weather looked good (no forecast of constant rain), and the foothill rainforest is always worth a visit, and not just for the hummingbirds. Other species live in that mossy forest too, including rare ones like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Gray -headed Piprites. It was one last hoorah of birding to see if I could add a few more species to my year list. I did add one, an Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, not a very rare species but one more for the year nonetheless. Upon arrival, we had our rarest species of the day, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle that flew out of the forest and directly overhead. I had already seen it for the year but any sighting of this rare raptor is always welcome!

The view at El Tapir.

The flowering bushes were kind of slow for hummingbirds (and we did not see Snowcap), but we still had fine views of a male Black-crested Coquette, Green Thorntails, and a few other species.

Black-crested Coquette

Green Thorntail and a coquette share a branch.

Inside the forest, we walked both trails, one that leads to an overlook, and another that leads to a beautiful stream.

We scoped the overlook for a fair bit but only turned up a few toucans.

The beautiful stream.

The forest was kind of quiet but we still managed some good ones, including White-crowned Manakin, Black and yellow Tanager, Spotted Antbird, and

Lattice-tailed Trogon.

No Sunbitterns on the stream but it was nice to hang out and see if the small fish eat bits of crackers (they did). Back in the forest, although we failed to find our cotingas or antswwarm, we still had a few flocks with Checker-throated Antwren, White-flanked Antwren (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica, at least in the places that most birders frequent).

Inside the forest.

So, nothing major but still picked up one year bird and always a special place to visit. To reach El Tapir, head down route 32 from San Jose towards Limon, pass through Braulio Carrillo national Park, and watch for the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station on the right. From there, El Tapir is around one kilometer further down the road, on the right. Although you probably won’t see a sign, it’s the first place on the right just after the ranger station. Open the gate, go on in, and pay the caretaker $12 when he comes out.

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Highlights From Three Days of 200 Plus Species

It’s not high season for birding in Costa Rica but that doesn’t stop birders from visiting. These are vacation days for several birders and although you won’t run into any wintering birds, most birders from the USA and Canada don’t worry about seeing migrants anyways. They hope to see Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, tanagers, hummingbirds, and hundreds of other species that never leave the tropics. Between Friday and Monday, I guided some birders who opted for vacation in Costa Rica. All had been here before but they still had plenty left to see. Here are some of the highlights from a rainy day at Cinchona and the Nature Pavilion, a cloudy, misty one at Lands in Love, and a breezy one around Puntarenas:

  • Close looks at birds in the rain: This is alright as long as the birds are active and you can stay dry. We did at the Cafe Colibri in Cinchona and had close looks at Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, Silver-throated Tanager, hummingbirds, and other species. We also scoped a distant Barred Hawk moving through the other side of the canyon and stopped for a surprise, perched Ornate Hawk-Eagle just down the road.
    Soaking wet Emerald Toucanet.
    Juvenile Prong-billed Barbet.

    We also saw our first Crimson-collared Tanager for the day. Another, even closer one was at the nature Pavilion.
  • White-necked Jacobins bathing in the rain and other beautiful birds at the Nature Pavilion: Time spent at this sanctuary of life is always a treat. Red-legged Honeycreepers, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, tanagers, and other birds made close visits to the feeders, we saw two King Vultures soar into view, and were treated to close looks at Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer and other hummingbird species. The guys at the Nature Pavilion also said that, as of late, a Rufous Motmot has been visiting the feeders, and Great Green Macaws have swooped down to check out a Beach Almond tree they had planted a couple of years ago. This last bit of news is especially exciting because once those Beach Amonds start producing seeds, it looks like the Nature Pavilion could become a reliable place to see and photograph Great Green Macaws!
    It's always nice to see Black-cheeked Woodpecker at arms length.
    Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

    This Bay Wren soaked up the sun for a minute.
  • More hummingbirds in the rain:  After enjoying the Nature Pavilion and lunch nearby, we checked out the action and fresh coffee at the Volcan Restaurant en route to Poas. The rain poured down with earnest but we still managed several hummingbirds including a single Stripe-tailed, Green Violetears, Magnificents, and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem. That finished off a day with more than 60 species seen and several heard despite nearly constant rain.

    Purple-throated Mountain-Gem.
  • Dry weather!: The lack of rain was a big bonus because the forecast had called for rain and storms. Not a good harbinger for birding but we decided to try our luck anyways. Well, we lucked out big time because we were treated to cloudy, birdy conditions on the San Ramon route to Lands in Love. Easy-going birding along the road produced several targets including prolonged looks at Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black and yellow Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Slaty Spinetail, and Stripe-breasted and Black-throated Wrens.
  • Lands in Love:  Although we started birding at Lands around 9, we still did quite good on uncommon species. Sepia-capped Flycatcher called but failed to show but we got close looks at Keel-billed Motmot, Spotted Antbird, and Bicolored Antbird in quick succession. On another trail, Song Wren appeared along with Golden-crowned Spadebill and Streak-crowned Antvireo. Then, it was off to lunch at the Loveats Cafe where we saw Double-toothed and Swallow-tailed Kites, Short-tailed Hawk, and a distant hawk-eagle too far away to identify.
    Keel-billed Motmot
    Juvenile male Spotted Antbird with adult male on the left.

    How can you not love a place with a giant cookie sign?
  • Cocora Hummingbird Garden: Although the hummingbirds showed, including close looks at White-bellied Mountain-Gem, other birds were pretty much a bust. Just not calling or active. However, after speaking with the receptionist, I feel even better about recommending this little known hotspot. After asking about bellbirds, she replied that she had heard them the other day but they were only calling very far off when we were there. However, umbrellabird was present the other day and is apparently regular at this site (!) from March to June. She actually said, “It’s common but doesn’t always show up”. To me, that says that if you spend most of a day or morning at Cocora from March to June, you have a fair chance of seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird, an endangered species that is becoming even more difficult to find. Lots of other birds are also possible in the cloud forest at Cocora.

    White-bellied Mountain-Gem
  • Long-tailed Manakins, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other dry forest species: The following day, we tried some dry forest birding near Esparza with highlights being a tree full of Long-tailed Manakins near a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, the ant-tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Turquoise-browed Motmot, and other dry forest birds.
  • Puntarenas: Then, we tried some sea birding from the tip of the Puntarenas peninsula. Brown Boobies and Black Terns fished very close to shore while clouds of Black Terns dotted the horizon. Storm-petrels were seen (too far off to ID, probably Wedge-rumped), one very distant Galapagos Shearwater was spotted, and we managed a Brown Noddy feeding with Black Terns.

    Brown Booby
  • Lesser Ground-Cuckoo: After a delicious lunch in Puntarenas, we checked out Caldera to search for Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and dry forest species. We saw Gray-necked Wood-Rail and Green Kingfisher instead of our targets but did alright with a few dry forest birds. Banded Wren gave good looks, we saw a nice group of magpie-jays, and had looks at a few other dry forest species including an amazing ground-cuckoo fight. What appeared to be two pairs of ground-cuckoos came towards us and right out into the open for a strange, bill-snapping face off. It was pretty much beyond ridiculous.
    Lesser Ground-Cuckoo poses form the camera.

    Lesser Ground Cuckoo creeping away.

What can I say, there’s always more than enough to see in Costa Rica no matter when you go birding.

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Some Good Reasons for Visiting the Catarata del Toro

The Catarata del Toro is a massive, scenic waterfall at the edge of Juan Castro Blanco National Park. if you are wondering where that is, think central Costa Rica, the mountains between Poas and La Fortuna. If it helps, it’s also near Bosque de Paz. If you aren’t headed to Bosque de Paz, it’s a bit of a detour off the route between Arenal and Sarapiqui but here are some reasons why the detour is worth it:

  • A couple of loop trails through good cloud forest: Although I have only birded on them twice, I think there is a lot of birding potential. The elevation is around 1,200 meters, the forest has a lot of big trees (indicators of quality habitat), and the forest is connected to the national park. On my limited time on those trails, I have had Highland Tinamou, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, Pale-vented Thrush, and various common middle elevation species. I bet a lot more could occur.
  • Hummingbird feeders:  This is the main reason for paying a visit. Sometimes, they can be slow but during rainy weather and, when hummingbirds are hungry, the Colibridae action is out of sight.
Some of that sweet hummingbird action.
The feeders are also scenic.
Lots of fantastic Violet Sabrewings to look at.

  • Crazy, close shots of hummingbirds:
Juvenile Green-crowned Brilliant.
Adult Green-crowned Brilliant.
Adult male Green-crowned Brilliant with photo-bombing White-bellied Mountain-Gem.
White-bellied Mounatin-Gem
Green Hermit
  • Black-bellied Hummingbird: Not a whole lot of accessible sites for this one.
Black-bellied Hummingbird
Black-bellied Hummingbird showing its flat crown.
  • Coppery-headed Emerald: Common, near endemic (one population was found in Nicaragua).
    Coppery-headed Emerald shaking off the rain.

    Coppery-headed Emerald showing its colors.
  • Black-breasted Wood-Quail: They used to come into the garden but one of the owners told me that she thought their recent absence might be related to Coatis showing up now and then. She is probably right but the wood-quail should still be in the forest. I wonder if Ochre-breasted and Scaled Antpittas are also around.

Not to mention, the owners also provide good service, can provide meals, and also offer 3 simple rooms. Sounds like a good place for a lone birder or small group to stay and check out. If you do, please send me a report to publish on the blog.

There's also that waterfall to look at. Probably harbors some good swifts.
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Pale-billed Woodpecker Action in Costa Rica

Everyone likes woodpeckers. How can you not like a bird that entertains with head-banging antics and maniacal laughter? Costa Rica has her fair share of these star birds. The zebra-backed Hoffmann’s visits gardens in San Jose, the Lineated laughs its way through edge habitats from the lowlands to middle elevations, and woodpeckers that visit fruit feeders remind us that we are certainly situated in the tropics.

Hoffmann's Woodpecker.
A Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Troppenstation, la Gamba, Costa Rica.

If you bird in the northern Caribbean lowlands, it’s possible to see 7 species in a day, including the biggest of the bunch; the Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Since it’s a Campephilus, and does indeed give that infamous double knock, it’s the closest thing we have to an Ivorybill. Although its dimensions fall far short of the Lord God Bird, its pale bill and longish neck are reminiscent of the true Ivorybills.

Pale bill- check. Longish Giraffey neck- check.

Unlike the massive pair of woodpeckers of lost primeval forests, the Pale-billed is fairly common and regularly found in rainforest, tropical dry forest, and semi-open woodlands in Costa Rica. As long as enough woods and big trees are around, Pale-billeds occur and they are of course always fun to watch. Recently, I was entertained by one that spent an hour foraging for grubs on a big, dead tree.

Looking for grubs.

Although these woodpeckers can be seen at any height in the forest, this one was foraging two meters above the ground. It carefully pecked away dead bark to eat some sort of grub and worked a small area on the tree for about an hour.

Finding a grub.

It never gave a double knock nor called while foraging and didn’t seem bothered by my presence. Who needs reality shows when you can watch a Pale-billed Woodpecker in action?

Pale-billed Woodpecker.
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Where to Start a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

The starting place for any international birding trip is usually the capital city. That’s where the plane lands so despite the over-urbanization, that is where most of us invariably begin that birding adventure. Costa Rica is no exception to the rule because unless you happen to be one of the few birders who are traveling overland from Nicaragua or Panama, you are going to fly in to San Jose. You could also fly in to Liberia and that is a better option for starting a trip but most visitors to the country are scheduled to land at Juan SantaMaria airport up there in the Central Valley.

It’s also commonly referred to as the San Jose airport but that’s not really true because the airport is located next to the city of Alajuela. That tidbit of trivia is important because it can help you choose the first place to stay for the night and that locale will therefore be where you officially start the trip. As one would expect, there are plenty of hotels to choose from but there are just a few that are truly birdy. Logistics are also important to consider as are the conservation efforts of the hotel in question. Oh yeah, and then there is the budget thing to consider. Backpackers and folks with very limited budgets probably aren’t going to end up at a very birdy hotel but they can always plan their trip accordingly and get out of that hostel or small room first thing in the morning.

Stay where you can see Gray-necked Wood Rail.

However, if you want to hang around and look for things like Tropical Screech Owl, Mottled Owl, Spot-bellied Bobwhite, Gray-necked Wood Rail, and several other species, then the best place to begin that trip is the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana. The cost is a bit more than other places but given the variety of species, photo opps (some of the images for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app were taken there) , wetlands, woodlands, brushy fields, excellent service, gourmet cuisine, and bird friendly owners who protect some of the last remaining wetlands and green space in the western Central Valley, the value is more than worth it.

Zamora is the best place for bird photography in the Central Valley.
A Great Egret poses at Zamora Estate.

If you arrive after dark, watch for night birds like Mottled and Spectacled Owls, and Pacific Screech Owl. Barn and Striped Owls can also show up and you should hear Boat-billed Herons calling from the lagoons. Don’t worry about seeing them at night because they will be there during the day and the owners don’t want anyone going to the lagoons at night in any case to avoid disturbing the many herons, egrets, and other aquatic species that roost there.

One of the Boat-billed Herons from Zamora Estate.

In the morning, you can enjoy breakfast while watching a variety of birds in the lagoons and visiting the bunches of bananas.

A gourmet breakfast with Blue-gray Tanagers is a fantastic way to start the trip.
Hoffmann's Woodpeckers also visit the feeders.

A few short trails pass through woodlands, head past the lagoons, and head through brushy fields and vineyards. These can turn up most of the Central Valley birds and some, including that bobwhite, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-capped Warbler, and others. In other words, it’s a great place to start any birding tour to Costa Rica. Oh yeah, and the rooms are pretty nice too!

Keep an eye out for Rufous-naped Wrens around the rooms.

If there is a downside to staying at Zamora Estate, it’s the traffic that you may face when heading to the hotel during rush hour. However, since that downside also applies to every hotel in the Central Valley, in my opinion, Zamora still comes out on top as the best place to start (and finish) a birding trip to Costa Rica.

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A Prothonotary Warbler eats a Banana in Costa Rica and the Nature Pavilion Delivers as Always

I’m not making this up. Although it might not be news to most people (or even most birders), I thought it was cool enough to share with everyone who uses the Internet. While guiding yesterday on the Cinchona-Poas-Nature Pavilion route, I was very surprised to see a Prothonotary Warbler coming to the bananas at Cinchona!

A Prothonotary Warbler and a banana at Cinchona, Costa Rica.

Why surprised you may wonder? Well, while we do see lots of Prothonotaries in mangroves and other lowland wetlands in Costa Rica, I have never seen or heard of one visiting a feeder. I haven’t seen this species at Cinchona either even away from the feeders. They do move through the country though, and can sometimes be seen in large numbers as they migrate along the Caribbean coast. The bird we saw was a reminder that the Golden Swamp Warbler is on the move. It also shows how famished those migrants must be because this little birdy wasn’t going after any insects on the bananas. It was most definitely feasting on the fruit between bouts of being scared away by Clay-colored Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanagers, and other larger birds

There it goes eating that banana.
Sharing a banana with a Silver-throated Tanager.

No other warblers were seen at the feeders (Tennessees are regular) but I will be hoping and checking during our 2014 Big Day attempt!

On another note, visitors to the Nature Pavilion were regular and awesome as always.

Collared Aracaris were one of the first species to show.
It's always nice to see Great Kiskadees at close range.
A juvenile Black-cowled Oriole made an appearance.
It was cool to watch a Green Honeycreeper hang upside down on a papaya ring.
This species is always crazy with the colors.

Hope to see you while birding! If you see me and two other people running after birds on Saturday, that would be myself, Robert Dean and Susan Blank doing our Big Day. I would have really loved to have invited a couple other friends along (especially Johan) but since they don’t do bird sounds, and 95% of species need to be identified by all team members (many by sound), that would have eliminated too many birds to break any records. We might not anyways but one can always hope!

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Why I Like to Patronize the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe

I like birding in Costa Rica just about every place I visit but I prefer to patronize some places over others. I like it when a place of business protects habitat, makes attempts to work in a manner that is sustainable with their surroundings, and of course offers the opportunity to see a variety of birds. It’s even better when you can get close looks and photos of uncommon species without having to pay a high admission fee. To me, such places are birder friendly because they make it easy for everyone to experience birds and not just the people who pay to take a tour or an entrance fee. One such place is the Cafe Colibri at Cinchona.

The Cafe Colibri is a fantastic, reliable place for getting good shots of Silver-throated Tanager.
A Green Hermit visiting one of the feeders.
This male Green Thorntail perched just off the balcony.

This gem of a site has been a classic hotspot for years and continues to act as a place where visiting birders can have a coffee and sample delicious country Tico fare while being entertained by the antics of Coppery-headed Emeralds, Violet Sabrewings, Emerald Toucanet, Prong-billed Barbet, and other choice species.

Emerald Toucanet striking a photogenic pose.
Common Bush Tanager and Prong-billed Barbets are regular visitors.
A Buff-throated Saltator at the feeder.Another look at the saltator.

What makes this place even more special is that the original cafe was destroyed in the 2009 Cinchona earthquake.

They have photos posted from Cinchona before and after the quake.

The family rebuilt on the same spot as the two story structure that used to play host to Crimson-collared Tanagers and Red-headed Barbets. Although the habitat isn’t as good as it used to be, the forest that was knocked down by the quake is growing back, is bringing in more birds, and should continue to improve with time. One of the owners told me that he has been seeing Red-headed Barbet more often and on recent visits, the feeders were buzzing with activity.

One of the feeders as seen from the balcony at the cafe.
One of the owners stocking the feeders. This guy loves to watch the birds that come in.
The main hummingbird feeders.

The cafe doesn’t charge for watching birds but do accept contributions. If you visit, please leave a hefty donation for the feeders and this bird loving family. It makes for a perfect lunch stop when driving the newly paved Varablanca- San Miguel road and plenty of other non-feeder birds can also show up. On recent visits, in addition to fine looking feeder birds, I also had Sooty-faced Finch, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Solitaire, Keel-billed Toucan, White-crowned Parrot and other species.

A White-crowned Parrot eating a guava in the rain.

Other spots just down the road can turn up some nice mixed flocks, raptors, and who knows what else. The next time I visit, I hope I can bring them some material to help promote birding at the cafe. If anyone in the family has a mobile device, I will also give them a copy of the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

I saw this Bicolored Hawk down the road from Cinchona.
Poro trees have been in bloom near Cinchona and have been attracting lots of birds!

To visit the Cafe Colibri, watch for it on the east side of the main road between Varablanca and San Miguel (the road that goes by the La Paz Waterfall gardens). It is situated between the waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

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A Synopsis of Birding around Sierpe, Costa Rica

Sierpe is one of those out of the ways places that few birders visit when doing Costa Rica. It’s off the beaten track, isn’t exactly surrounded by large areas of protected forest, and is easily bypassed for such better known southwestern Costa Rican sites as the Osa Peninsula, Esquinas Rainforest Lodge, and  Wilson Botanical Gardens near San Vito. However, if you have time to see Common Potoo, maybe get a roosting owl or two, watch Scarlet Macaws forage right in town, and see a few pelagics including more or less guaranteed Red-footed Booby, then make some time for Sierpe!

I just did four days of birding and guiding around Sierpe and we had all of the above and quite a bit more. Although the village itself isn’t exactly a bastion of high quality habitat, you can see a fair number of quality species in and near town, and it’s an excellent base for taking boat trips through a huge maze of mangroves, to Cano Island for a few pelagics, and to Corcovado National Park. On our recent trip, we did two of the boat tours mentioned above with pretty fine results.

The boat trip near town.

On the afternoon of our arrival to Sierpe, we started with a three hour boat tour through some mangroves and along a channel that passed through oil palm plantations flanked by bamboo. While the oil palms aren’t exactly appealing for birds, we headed up that way because our guide wanted to show us roosting Common Potoo, an owl or two, and American Pygmy Kingfisher. Although the barn Owl under the bridge was a no show, the Crested Owl was on its roost, and we got the other two including our first potoo of the trip. The guides also mentioned that they sometimes see Agami Heron in that area. No luck for us with the sneakiest of Costa Rican herons but it was certainly a worthwhile trip. We also had several parakeets and parrots flying around, Fiery-billed Aracari, Black-mandibled Toucan, White-vented Euphonia, and several other bird species.

American Pygmy Kingfisher.

That night, a bit of nocturnal birding failed to turn up more owls but we did have Southern Lapwings on the football pitch (aka soccer field), and we found an either Rufous Nightjar or a Chuck wills Widow. The hefty nightjar was perched on a fence post near the tech school and let us watch it for a bit but failed to call. Nor could we see its rictal bristles or undertail pattern to get a solid identification but there was always another night to get a better view.

Our second day in town was our biggest and most memorable. From 8:30 in the morning to around 5 in the evening, we boated through a huge area of mangroves before making our way to Cano Island. This was followed by the boat swinging by islets with a bunch of birds, lunch at a secluded tropical beach at Isla Violenes and another ride back through the mangroves. On the way out, we didn’t see too many birds and surprisingly to me, dipped on Yellow-billed Cotinga (as that area is the stronghold for this endangered species), but managed a small group of Semipalmated Plovers among common heron species and a few others.

After hearing some pretty frightening stories about weaving through the waves at the river mouth, we were rightly concerned. Luckily, the trip out past the mouth wasn’t too bad but we had a choppy ride the rest of the way to the island (maybe 45 minutes?). I successfully countered the effects of  those waves on my land lubber physiology with a rock solid stare at the horizon and a constant supply of crackers accompanied by sips of water. Sadly, we only saw two birds on the way to the island- a Brown Booby and a Magnificent Frigatebird along with very close looks at Spotted Dolphins. As usual, the wave action and lack of birds made me question why I was once again on an ocean going boat but those uneasy concerns were assuaged a bit once we reached the island and its beautiful tourmaline waters.

Heading towards the mouth of the river and Isla del Cano.

The island looked lush and my original hope was to hang out on the beach and scope the ocean but that plan was derailed by a recent decision to forbid any landings by tourists until a proper sanitation system is put into place.  Although that was annoying, they are right to do so because we of course don’t want to ruin the island. The unfortunate part of this situation is that if it’s anything like most situations in Costa Rica, the solution will require so much needless bureaucracy that it may take years to put in even a port a potty.

Well, as it turned out, we saw almost no birds near the island in any case so it was better to leave it, and especially because the ride back was a complete contrast to the trip to the island. Instead of cloudy weather and choppy water, the sun was shining and we rode the swells like swimming on cloud nine. Oh, and we saw some birds too! Pelagic ones! Even a glimpse of a storm petrel from a bouncing boat is worth ten birds on land because you just can’t see them from land! A fine Wedge-rumped Storm Petrel was our first true seabird of the trip and as it bounded away, we got close looks at a duo of Red-necked Phalaropes! Shortly after that, we were treated to a few nighthawkish Black Storm Petrels and then we got our best pelagic of the trip- an immature Red-billed Tropicbird! The tropicbird was right in our path and as it raised up off of the water, it shook its entire body a couple of times before flying off and out of sight. Since all of these birds were seen in a time frame of around 35 minutes and were only seen because they were in the path of our boat, I bet you could see a bunch of nice birds by doing a proper pelagic in that area.

Looking for pelagic birds.

Once we got near shore, the Islitas Violines beckoned. Also known as the “booby rocks”, we indeed saw several Sulids along with some other niceties. Brown Boobies and Red-footed Boobies were equal in abundance and both were nesting! The Red-footed was a much awaited lifer for myself and was also new for several people on the trip. While taking in the form of dark morph Red-footed Boobies, we also picked up two Wandering Tattlers along with Brown Pelicans and frigatebirds. Good stuff!

The islets where we had Red-footed Booby.

After that nice bunch of birds, we boated in to the beach at Isla Violines for a good picnic lunch. We also looked a bit for birds there but as it was the quiet time of the day, didn’t see much. It did look like a good area to see cotingas and lots of other birds though because the island is covered in forest. Before you go wandering around, though, keep in mind that the island also has a sort of abundant population of Fer-de Lance! That kept us from walking around much.

Least Sandpipers.
Isla Violines
Violines Beach.

The ride back in to the river was easy going and the birding on the way back turned up Scaled Pigeon, flyby parrots, lots of Pale-vented Pigeons going to roost, a Peregrine, and another Common Potoo among some other bird species.

Mangroves near Sierpe.
This is also a great area to see Tree Boas. the local guides showed us 3 of these cool snakes!

On the next day, half the group drove an hour or so to the la Gamba road in search of seedeaters aand other species of weedy fields and forest edge. Although we didn’t visit Esquinas Lodge, that birding hotspot is also a possibility. They charge some sort of entrance fee to use trails that access great forest that has Black-cheeked Ant Tanager and the general area around the lodge is also very good for many rainforest species. We also birded rice fields near Ciudad Neily a bit but there wasn’t too much around. It probably would have been better later in the afternoon.

That night, we tried for the nightjar again after looking for owls. No show on the owls but lots of pauraques, we heard a Barn Owl, had Southern Lapwings, and at 8:30, the nightjar made its appearance on the same fence post. Fortunately, I got a good look at the undertail as it flew. Buff on almost the entire length of the undertail feathers showed its identity to be a Chuck wills Widow and not a hoped for Rufous Nightjar but a Chuck is still a great bird to get in Costa Rica!

Our final morning was nothing more than a walk just outside of town but it still turned up several species, the best of which were Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet, and Mourning Warbler among Red-crowned Woodpecker, Red-lored Parrots, Orange-chinned Parakeets, and lots of common flycatchers, seedeaters, etc.

Orange-chinned Parakeets were common in and around Sierpe.

No Rock Pigeons but lots of Pale-vented.

Upon doing the bird list, we found that we had identified around 150 species and that was without doing any serious rainforest birding! Add a morning trip to Esquinas and one might even get 200 species during 4 or 5 days in the area. Along with the birds, I also have to mention that the best part of the trip was staying at the Hotel Oleaje Sereno.

Oleaje Sereno Hotel

Forget about those old bad reviews on Trip Advisor because they pertain to another owner and different management. The new owner and management is nothing short of exemplary. Having visited many hotels in Costa Rica, they gave us some of the best service I have experienced anywhere. They were prompt, friendly, always available, and always went out of their way to help us. They also set up our tours and did an excellent job. Incredibly, the prices we paid for our stay at the Oleaje Sereno Hotel (basic but air conditioned and clean rooms), and Perla del Sur Tours were very low and might be the best value I have ever paid for accommodation and tours in Costa Rica. If you go to Sierpe and are on a budget, this place and their tours are a fantastic bargain. They also had nice birding from their dock (scope the trees on the other side of the river) and Scarlet Macaws foraging in short Beach Almonds next to the hotel.

Mangrove Swallow was always present at the dock.
One of those close Scarlet Macaws.

On my next visit to the area, I would stay at the same hotel and do the same boat trips but I would do more owling on the road between Sierpe and the highway, and do a day trip to Esquinas. With enough time, I would also check sites closer to the border to see if I could add Yellowish Pipit to the Costa Rican list!

While unsuccessfully trying for Spotted Rail in the area, we managed Slate-colored Seedeater.
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A Couple Hours of Birding on Poas is Always Good

Green space is where the birds are and that’s why I drive 45 minutes up to Poas Volcano. That’s one of the closest places with intact forest habitat and the birding is always good. Between the house and Poas, there are riparian zones that snake through coffee plantations but that habitat is rather inaccessible compared to the highland forests on Poas. This past Tuesday, after dropping off Miranda at pre-K, I decided to do the trip to Poas in search of migrants, photos of various species ,and maybe a recording or two. Most birds are vocalizing much less now compared to the months of February, March, and April but I still managed a recording a the resident Red-tailed Hawk subspecies and will be including that on the next update of our Costa Rica birding app (coming soon and with a bunch of new species and vocalizations).

On the way up to the volcano, I made a few stops at groves of Guatemalan Cypress. Although these introduced species don’t harbor as many birds as native vegetation I always check them in the hope of finding Hermit, Townsend’s, or even Golden-cheeked Warblers and other rare vagrants. Although the fact that these are rare birds indeed is reflected by never finding any of those species in those introduced evergreens, that doesn’t stop me from looking and I bet there are some uber rarities out there somewhere. Just gotta keep checking and pishing.

Speaking of pishing, the bird that invariably shows up in high elevation habitats of Costa Rica is the cheeky Wilson’s Warbler. This blocky headed wood warbler just might be the most common species in the highlands during the winter months. While pishing in one spot on Tuesday, I brought up a veritable parade of around 30 of them along with just one Black and white and one Blackburnian.

Wilsons Warbler- the most common highland bird in Costa Rica from October to March.
A closer look at a Wilson's Warbler.

In addition to looking for migrant warblers, I also saw a bunch of nice resident species including several flocks of Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.

Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers are common high elevation endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.
A Sooty-capped Bush Tanager feeding on fruit.

I also saw some Commons and they do seem to be creeping upward in elevation bit by bit. The bush-tanagers were super busy with feeding on small fruits and were occasionally joined  by Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers and a few other birds (although no Spangle-cheeks- a bird I was hoping for). One of those birds was Golden-browed Chlorophonia. I usually hear several of this gorgeous little thing while birding on Poas but they can be hard to see well. Fortunately, a couple of these technicolor goldfinches were busy feeding on berries in a short bush and stayed still long enough for proper digiscoping.

A male Golden-browed Chlorophonia from the side.
Golden-browed Chlorophonia from the front.
A closer look at the crown and bill of Golden-browed Chlorophonia.

Those same bushes were also flowering and filled with hummingbirds. A conservative estimate was 6 Fiery-throateds, 4 Magnificents, 6 Purple-throated Mountain-gems, and 4 Volcano Hummingbirds. Of course, several Slaty Flowerpiercers were also taking advantage of the nectar bonanza.

Female Slaty Flowerpiercer.

Up near the entrance to the park, a pair of Large-footed Finches hopped right out and foraged along the side of the road. I swear, you just never know when these over-sized ground sparrows are going to come out into the open. When guiding birders up that way, we usually get the Large-footed Finch but it can take a while and they rarely forage on the curb.

Large-footed Finch standing on the curb.
Large-footed Finch doing its foraging thing in the leaf litter.

The entrance to the park can also be good for mixed flocks and Tuesday delivered with a flock that held Buffy Tuftedcheek, Collared Redstart, bush tanagers, and other species.

The Yellow-thighed Finch looks a lot like a blackbird if you don't see the yellow thighs.
A poor shot of a Ruddy Treerunner from that flock.
Flame-throated Warblers were in the flock too.

Oddly enough, although the bamboo in the understory of that area is totally seeding, I haven’t heard a single Peg-billed Finch or other bamboo bird there despite checking several times. Maybe I need to focus on the area a bit more to see if I can rustle up a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove (a rarity I have only seen once ever during a bamboo seeding event on Chirripo in 1994). Only species I did hear in the bamboo was a Wrenthrush. Hopefully, the next post about Poas will report Slaty Finch and other choice bamboo birds!

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More Great Birding in Costa Rica on the Poas-Varablanca-Cinchona Route

I really like guiding in the Poas area. Not only is it the best highland birding site within an hour’s drive of the Central Valley, but it also turns up a diverse set of species (including many uncommon and a few spectacular ones). Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of birding in Costa Rica, this past Friday. I didn’t know what we were were going to see while birding around Cinchona, Varablanca, and Poas, but I was pretty sure we would connect with a bunch of nice birds because that’s what typically happens. To leap to the end of the story, yes, we did see quite a few good birds, now here’s a summary of the days’ avian events:

After checking the flight status of my client for the day, and calculating that if the plane is scheduled to arrive at 5:50 AM, I should be there by 6, I was surprised and chagrined to see that Danny had already been waiting 20 minutes! I apologized and was happy to see that he didn’t mind waiting. Apparently, the plane arrived several minutes earlier than was indicated and he was literally the first person out of the airport (usually, you don’t exit the airport for at least 15 minutes after the flight). A lesson learned and thankfully, those extra 20 minutes didn’t affect the birding.

We quickly left and made our way through Alajuela to drive up to the Varablanca area. It was a beautiful, sunny morning but we didn’t see much more than a few White-winged Doves, Great-tailed Grackle, and Rufous-collared Sparrows while driving through the coffee cultivations. Up at the Continental Divide village of Varablanca, we finally made our first birding stop. Much to my surprise, a rare Yellow-bellied Siskin was heard but went unseen as did several other species that usually show. However, it only took a quick walk across the street to look into remnant cloud forest to just as quickly see Ruddy-capped Nightingale Thrush, and get excellent looks at both Gray-breasted Wood Wren and Ochraceous Wren. We also had our first brief looks at Violet Sabrewing.

The Ochraceous Wren- common but sort of skulks in the canopy of mossy high elevation forest.

Next on the agenda were several stops on the way to Cinchona. This stretch of the road features many places where you can pull off to the side and bird the edge of middle elevation forest. More bird species than realized can show up and we got good looks at such species as Prong-billed Barbet, Flame-throated Warbler, Slate-throated Redstart, Yellow-winged and Brown-capped Vireos, Silver-throated Tanager, Common Bush Tanager, Red-faced Spinetail, Golden-bellied Flycatcher (one of the most frequently seen birds that day!), and other species almost as soon as we exited the car. We also heard but did not see Barred Becard.

The warblerish Yellow-winged Vireo.
The Warblering Vireoish Brown-capped Vireo.

A stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up the hoped for Torrent Tyrannulet and we heard our first Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush but that shy bird kept to its timid ways and we were denied even one peek at it. Further downhill, we stopped at the Cinchona Cafe Colibri for coffee and birds. Although neither of us wanted breakfast, I usually stop here for a morning repast accompanied by birds. Hummingbirds were active and in a matter of minutes gave us Green Hermit, better looks at Violet Sabrewing, Green-crowned Brilliant, Brown Violetear, one female Purple-throated Mountain Gem, one female White-bellied Mountain Gem (the best of the bunch), Coppery-headed Emerald, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird (unusual there), and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

A cute White-bellied Mountain Gem.

About the only hummingbirds that didn’t make an appearance were Green Thorntail and Green Violetear. Few other species were in attendance although we scored with a Black-faced Solitaire along with Buff-throated Saltator and Golden-browed Chlorophonia in a fruiting tree. Pishing also brought in Common Bush Tanagers and several other fairly common birds along with a couple of Bay-headed Tanagers.

Past Cinchona, there are a few key spots along the road that are consistently good for birds. At two such stops, we hit mixed flocks right away and picked up stunners like Red-headed Barbet, Speckled Tanager, Crimson-collared Tanager, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Tropical Parula, a perched White Hawk, and a fair set of other bird species. Many were coming to fruiting trees and we were kept busy with picking out and identifying new birds for about 40 minutes. By that time, noon was fast approaching so we made our back up hill, into the rain, and over to the Volcan Restaurant.

Watching hummingbirds in the rain at the Volcan Restaurant.

Lunch was tasty as always and their hummingbird feeders turned up the species I had hoped for; Magnificent Hummingbird, Green Violetear, Volcano Hummingbird, and Stripe-tailed Hummingbird along with three species we had already seen (Purple-throated Mountain Gem, Green-crowned Brilliant, and Violet Sabrewing).

A male Green-crowned Brilliant at the Volcan Restaurant.

Unfortunately, heavy rains kept us from birding the forested riparian zone at the restaurant so we headed uphill to see if we could get above the rain and pick up species of the temperate zone. Luck was with us once again because we found ourselves above the rain for the most part and the cloudy, misty conditions kept the birds active at just about every place we stopped. We were treated to views of Mountain Thrush, Acorn Woodpecker, Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers before moving up the road and stopping whenever calls were heard. It didn’t take long before we stopped and found a mixed flock. Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher was quickly ticked along with Collared Redstart, Ruddy Treerunner, Slaty Flowerpiercer, and Yellow-thighed Finch. However, the fun didn’t stop there. An imitation of a pygmy-owl seemed to suddenly put the birds into a frenzy. Upon glassing a Collared Redstart, I realized that a real live Costa Rican Pygmy Owl was perched right next to it!

The Collared Redstart is one of the more beautiful of the highland endemics in Costa Rica and western Panama.
A Costa Rican Pygmy Owl on Poas.

We enjoyed fantastic looks at this rarity while watching the bird action around it, including excellent looks at Flame-throated Warbler, flowerpiercers, more Black and yellow Silky Flycatchers, and other species we had already seen.

It was going to be hard to top that but we came close not long after with looks at our first of three or four Black Guans. At the entrance to the national park, a pair of Buffy Tuftedcheeks showed, and we got great looks at Zeledonia, but the Fiery-throated Hummingbirds would just not give us a break! They flew past us, zipped into the dark woods. and chased each other overhead but would not perch in the open. Since those fancy highland hummingbirds are pretty common on Poas, I figured we would get them eventually, so we drove back downhill for a few hundred meters and tried again. While hoping for a nice look at a Fiery-throated, Large-footed Finch and Black-billed Nightingale Thrush finally showed until a hummingbird calmed down enough to feed in view and perch long enough to appreciate its blackish-blue tail and needle-like bill.

The weird and wonderful Zeledonia, a strange wood warbler that likes to masquerade as an Asian Tesia species.

Although the rain was beginning to pick up, we still had time to bird so bird we did, hoping for a Black-thighed Grosbeak, Flame-colored Tanager, Sooty Thrush, or maybe even a quetzal. The Sooty Thrushes never showed (not sure where they went) nor did the tanager and grosbeak. The quetzal, however, came through with flying colors (no pun intended, it was mostly a silhouette). While waiting at a spot where I have seen quetzal now and then, the shape of a long tailed bird suddenly shot through the trees. Quetzal! It perched but all we could see was the long tail! As we re-positioned for a better view, the bird took off. Not giving in to frustration, we walked up the road with the hope that it might show itself in the direction it had been moving and sure enough, a female popped into view! While looking at the female in sort of bad light, I suddenly realized that she was perched a meter away from a male that was facing us. Success! The quetzals stayed just long enough to appreciate the shape of the head, velvet read underparts, spiky sort of flank feathers, and yellow bill before fluttering off into the mist (although by then it had turned into an indisputable rain).

Male Resplendent Quetzal.

The quetzals turned out to be our final and 100th seen bird species for the day- a fitting end to a single day of birding in Costa Rica. We would have seen a few more on the way down but it absolutely poured nearly all of the way to Alajuela. If you have one day for birding in the San Jose area, this day trip is a pretty solid bet for a good assortment of hummingbirds, middle elevation species, and highland endemics.

Here is the list for the day:

Seen heard only
Black Vulture White-throated Crake
Turkey Vulture Bare-shanked Screech Owl
White Hawk Immaculate Antbird
Black Guan Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
Rock Pigeon Paltry Tyrannulet
White-winged Dove Common Tody-Flycatcher
Crimson-fronted Parakeet Social Flycatcher
White-crowned Parrot Barred Becard
Costa Rican Pygmy Owl Plain Wren
Green Hermit Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush
Stripe-throated Hermit Rufous-capped Warbler
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird Yellow-faced Grassquit
Violet Sabrewing Sooty-faced Finch
Brown Violetear Black-cowled Oriole
Green Violetear Yellow-bellied Siskin
Green-crowned Brilliant
Magnificent Hummingbird
Fiery-throated Hummingbird
Stripe-tailed Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Purple-throated Mountain Gem
White-bellied Mountain Gem
Coppery-headed Emerald
Volcano Hummingbird
Resplendent Quetzal
Red-headed Barbet
Prong-billed Barbet
Golden-olive Woodpecker
Acorn Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Red-faced Spinetail
Spotted Barbtail
Ruddy Treerunner (bad look)
Buffy Tuftedcheek
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Mountain Elaenia
Torrent Tyrannulet
Tufted Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Yellowish Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Golden-bellied Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Masked Tityra
Yellow-winged Vireo
Brown-capped Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Brown Jay
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Gray-breasted Wood Wren
Black-faced Solitaire
Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush
Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush
Mountain Robin
Clay-colored Robin
Black-and-yellow Silky-Flycatcher
Flame-throated Warbler
Tropical Parula
Blackburnian Warbler
Wilsons Warbler
Louisiana Waterthrush
Black-and-white Warbler
Slate-throated Redstart
Collared Redstart
Golden-crowned Warbler
Black-cheeked Warbler
Common Bush-Tanager
Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Passerini´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Speckled Tanager
Bay-headed Tanager
Silver-throated Tanager
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Green Honeycreeper
Shining Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Slaty Flowerpiercer
Yellow-thighed Finch
Large-footed Finch
White-naped Brush-Finch
Rufous-collared Sparrow
Grayish Saltator
Buff-throated Saltator
Eastern Meadowlark
Great-tailed Grackle
House Sparrow
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Golden-browed Chlorophonia
Tawny-capped Euphonia