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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Roadside Birding in Costa Rica- Many Possibilities, Always Fantastic

We bird in all places. At least those of us who have the birding switch set to “on”, all the time. It’s hard to turn off when it’s an automatic response. It doesn’t matter if the goal is birding or not, if you are really into birds, know what’s out there and yearn to see, to identify the feathered biodiversity that surrounds us, you can’t help but wonder about the calls of Screaming Pihas in films set anywhere, the hawk flying overhead as you rush to work, the sharp calls of woodpeckers and the steady lazy trills of Chipping Sparrows in a cemetery.

A high percentage of incidental birding occurs while we drive, or ride, in cars, buses, on trains. The views are quick and identification of many a small bird impossible but even buses and trains can connect an observant birder with lifers. A train to Arizona gave me my first Lewis’s Woodpecker, a train to Washington my only Sharp-tailed Grouse (!). In Costa Rica, roadside birding is likewise replete with possible lifers, if you stop in the right places, the possibilities are many, and the birding is typically fantastic.

On Sunday, we were treated to incidental and easy-going birding during a trip up and over the mountains in the central part of the country. There are a few routes one can take and each of those has its birding benefits, but on Sunday we opted for the road we usually take. Closer to home, easy to drive, and always easy to bird, you can’t go wrong on Route 126. With literally hundreds of possibilities, a birder knows that any stop can be productive, that the Via Endemica can result in views of pom-pomed Yellow-thighed Brushfinches, of tiny Scintillant Hummingbirds, maybe even a soaring Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

On Sunday, we only made a few stops but each was crowned with birds not possible in the backyard. Our first stop after ascending the mountains and crossing the continental saddle that links Poas and Barva was at a place I often visit, the “Esquina de Sabor”. A perfect place for a restroom stop, and to purchase coffee, organic chocolate, and other goodies, habitat out back and across the street always has birds. On Sunday, after stepping out of the car, I was greeted by the jumbling song of a Yellow-bellied Siskin. A scan of the trees and there it was, a beautiful yellow and black male.

Although not uncommon in that area, Sunday’s siskin was a welcome year bird. We didn’t stick around but if we had, we may have eventually listened to the lazy notes of Yellow-winged Vireo, enjoyed the cheerful antics of Collared Redstarts and seen a Purple-throated Mountain-gem flashing its colors at highland flowers.

Heading downhill, towards the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but detour on to the San Rafael road, a byway that accesses cloud forest and the intriguing edge of wilderness in Braulio Carrillo National Park. Our visit was brief but as is typical when birding in good habitat, one sees some birds.

Chips and high-pitched notes vaguely reminiscent of some thrush calls revealed the presence of Spangle-cheeked Tanagers. A couple dozen of these glittering orange-bellied beauties were partying in groves of fruiting trees. They were joined by Mountain Thrushes, Common Chlorospingus, colorful Silver-throated Tanagers, and the faint calls of chlorophonias.

A few other birds joined them in a sort of pseudo mixed flock centered around the fruiting trees. As we breathed in the fresh, scented aromas of cloud forest, a female Barred Becard called and briefly showed herself in the foliage. As always, this species is smaller than you expect. A couple of rufous birds creeping up mossy trunks were Ruddy Treerunners, a few with rufous tails and faces, Red-faced Spinetails.

Yellow-thighed Finches also showed their pom-poms, and we were treated to perfectly-lit views of both resident and migrant Red-tailed Hawks.

With roadside cloud forest beckoning to be explored, to wait and see if a Barred Forest-Falcon moves into view, if an antpitta makes a rare decision to reveal itself, we could have stayed and birded for hours. But we had places to be, many miles to cover and so we continued on to our next stop, the Cinchona Hummingbird Cafe.

A classic birding stop, it’s a challenge to drive past this local gem of a site, a test to not stop and see what’s coming to the feeders while enjoying a coffee or a delicious, home-cooked lunch. On Sunday, we had the time to pay a short visit and even during our few minutes of watching still saw several hummingbirds; endemic Coppery-headed Emeralds zipping back and forth, singing hurried songs from adjacent trees. A sprite of a female Green Thorntail carefully feeding. A big flash of purple and white as a Violet Sabrewing fluttered into magnificent view.

The rest of our drive was more focused on arriving than on birds but on the way back, another route gave us more birding opportunities. Taking a back road to the main way between Fortuna and San Ramon, we noticed several sites that merit dawn surveys, places with patches of rainforest that could have Bare-necked Umbrellabird and other rare possibilities.

When we stopped at the Loveat Cafe, warblers and tanagers called from tropical vegetation. As I always do, I scanned the forests of a distant hillside. Nope, no Solitary Eagle today (same as other days but you never know…). No White-Hawk either but closer thermals brought us another year bird, one I always hope to see as we travel the highland roads. Easy to see in the north but decidedly uncommon in Costa Rica, right on time, a Cooper’s Hawk soared into view with the Black Vultures. Another year bird during our day of driving!

With numbers of this raptor having increased, I wonder if we can expect more of them in Costa Rica? They seem to prefer highland sites and can also occur in open habitats in the lowlands.

Our next stop was the entrance to the Manuel Brenes Road. Brief looks turned up a small tight flock of Blue-winged Teal before we moved on, hoping to bird an interesting highland wetland known as El Silencio. However, before we could get there, November weather caught up with us and draped the highlands of San Ramon in fog. With such limited visibility and an hour’s drive ahead of us, we opted to focus on driving home. El Silencio could wait for another day, it really deserves a morning of focused birding in any case.

With Costa Rica having opened back up and news of a vaccine being likely available in 2021, this is a good time to plan a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn more about the birding on the Via Endemica, where to go birding in Costa Rica, and identification tips in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. Want to see how many endemics you can find in a day of easy, fantastic birding in Costa Rica? Contact me today at information@birdingcraft.com to hear about guided day trips from the San Jose area.

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

Birding at Tierra de Suenos

Each October, I organize a trip to the southern Caribbean zone for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Easy access to mature forest always makes for a worthwhile visit but we go during the month of Halloween because this is when we can also catch fall migration. A sky river of swallows, Chimney Swifts, and raptors is a special event but there’s more than enough to see at at any time of year.

Little coverage, lots of habitat, and proximity to Panama always lend excitement to birding in the southern Caribbean. What’s hiding in those mature forests in the hills? Black-crowned Antpittas? Great Jacamars? Some new addition to the country list? Yes. Discoveries are waiting, you just need the time, resources, and know-how to find them.

Last week, we found ourselves doing a bit of exploration in the Playa Chiquita area. Basing ourselves at the lovely Tierra de Suenos, our small group looked for birds at this site for yoga retreats, in the nearby hills, and at Manzanillo. A couple of days is never enough for this bird-rich area but we still had fun! How not when Purple-throated Fruitcrows are common? When there is a nice mix of migrants, Great Green Macaws, and other birds of the lowland rainforest?

A few highlights from the trip:

Birds at Tierra de Suenos

Tierra de Suenos has bungalows nestled in greenery and shaded by massive trees. As one might expect, this makes for a bunch of birds including species like Black-crowned Antshrike, Chestnut-backed Antbird, toucans, woodcreepers, and more. Many species are possible and some no doubt wander in from larger areas of forest in the hills behind the lodge. This was surely the case for the Great Jacamar that was heard earlier this year by birder and part owner Jason Westlake!

Breakfast at Tierra de Suenos

Nothing like sharing breakfast time with Bronze-tailed Plumeleteers and other rainforest birds. I enjoyed that a well as the tasty, healthy food. The blended ginger and passionfruit juice was simply fantastic, and although I enjoy “pinto” (Costa Rican rice and beans), delicious grilled sandwiches and burritos made for a pleasant change.

Birding the Paradise Road

Some of the best forests near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca occur in the low coastal range behind town. Although much of those rainforests are inaccessible, we can still do a fair bit of birding along a few roads that go up and over the forested hills, one of which has the official inviting name of “Paradise Road”. Located between Playa Chiquita and Cocles, this gravel road passes by the edge of promising mature forest. I have made short visits to this road during the past three trips to the southern Caribbean zone and each time, I drove back feeling like we only scratched the surface.

On this recent trip, we had several Purple-throated Fruitcrows, many red-eyed Vireos and Bay-breasted Warblers, White Hawk, and various other forest species. The best find was a pair of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers! An uncommon and challenging species in Costa Rica, their presence was given away by their distinctive call that sounds a bit like that of a Black-and-yellow Tanager. As is often the case with this bird, our views were limited by their canopy-loving ways but we did see them!

On past trips, I have also had Pied and White-necked Puffbirds and various expected species. The next time I go to this area, I hope to do some serious surveys on this road that include pre-dawn starts.

Roadside Birding

With tall, old growth trees right on the side of the main road, it’s no surprise that roadside birding between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo can be pretty darn good. Roadside birding on past trips have revealed sightings of many toucans, woodcreepers, and both Rufous-winged and Sulphur-rumped Tanagers. On this trip, we enjoyed Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Great Green Macaws, and several other birds during a memorable early morning stop.

Roadside afternoon birding in Manzanillo was pretty quiet but along the Recope Road, we had some nice looks at Cinnamon Woodpecker, Semiplumbeous Hawk, fruitcrows, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other birds.

Recommendations for Future Trips

Tierra de Suenos is definitely suitable for birders and even better if you enjoy a blend of yoga and birding! If you stay there, ask Jason what he has been seeing, and enjoy the meals! As always, I also suggest making stops at the Italian bakery, Gustibus. Authentic focacia, pizza rossa, and other Italian baked goods, man, this place is good! It’s also an excellent lunch stop for sandwiches and other truly serious treats.

If you do bird down the way of Tierra de Suenos and Manzanillo, keep an eye out for any birds that look odd or out of place. Take pictures, you might end up documenting something new for Costa Rica.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pandemic

Costa Rica Opens to All Countries on November 1st

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

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

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

Birds like this Violet Sabrewing.

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

The Perils of Plane Travel

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

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

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

Entering the Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Open?

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

The COVID-19 Situation in Costa Rica

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

Restrictions?

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

The Birding

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

mixed flocks decorated with tanagers,

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

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

I hope to see you soon!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica migration raptors

Sunday Merlin Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merlin ponders over which birds to beat up on next…

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

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

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Birding Costa Rica migration

Morning Orioles in Costa Rica

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

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

Scarlet Tanagers make that same trip.

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

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

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

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

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

A cuckoo from another day.

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

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

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

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

A Couple of Hours at Mistico

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

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

Forest like this…

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

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

Safety protocols

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

An Excellent Maintained Trail

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

Bridges

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

View from a high bridge.

Habitat and Birds

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

Rufous Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot

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

Cost and Reason to Visit

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

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

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biodiversity bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica

Birding News, Costa Rica, September, 2020

It’s September. All of a sudden, here we are starting one of most beautiful months to visit Niagara Falls, the month when the weather is perfect, the salmon are running, and millions of birds are on the move. It seems like we got here so quickly, it also seems like it took forever. So goes the passage of time during the limbo dance of the 20202 pandemic. As always, time doesn’t stop even if our perceptions of it are affected and changed by our circumstances.

Each month has its advantages but for the birding people, September is one of those extra special times. In Costa Rica, it’s a major month of shorebirds and we mark it with annual counts and scoping through congregations of waders at such key sites as Chomes, Punta Morales, and Las Pangas. The first of the migrant passerines are also arriving (including Cerulean Warblers!) but the majority postpone the trip until October. Few if any birders will be visiting Costa Rica this September but you never know, the country is starting to reopen. I hope the following information can be of help:

Storm-Petrels from Puntarenas

Yesterday, September 1st, Marilen and I kicked off the month with a visit to the Pacific Coast. Seeing two Humpback Whales from an overlook just outside of Jaco was fantastic but even more newsworthy was the presence of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels seen from shore at Puntarenas. A small but vital port city, Puntarenas is situated on a spit of land that pokes into the Gulf of Nicoya right where the inner and outer parts of the gulf meet. As a birder might expect, that position and convergence of aquatic systems can attract some interesting things. It’s the type of place that always merits a scan at any time of day and perhaps most of all during the rainy season when an abundance of nutrients are washed into the gulf.

There are storm-petrels out there...

Yesterday’s visit paid off with immediate, close views of several Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels. At first, I figured the small birds flying around the water would be Black Terns but no, every single one was a storm-petrel! The presence of this species in the Gulf of Nicoya is regular but I have rarely seen them from shore and never in such numbers. Typically, with a few ferry rides and maybe 10 visits to Puntarenas over the course of a year, I see one to three Wedge-rumpeds. Yesterday, I counted 28 and I suspect more were present further out. It makes me wonder what else was out there (we did notice some large, tantalizing groups of birds too far away to identify)? Why were so many present? As with some of my other sightings of Black and Least storm-petrels from the point at Puntarenas, many of the birds were foraging where the waters of the inner gulf may converge with those of the outer. Once again, I am reminded of the importance of having some form of bird monitoring and studies for the Gulf of Nicoya to better assess numbers and species that visit the waters of the gulf at which time of year.

Shorebirds

This is high time for shorebird migration in Costa Rica and it’s only going to improve over the next two or three weeks. The most exciting sighting was that of a Ruff (!) seen during the final days of August by Daniel Hernandez in the Las Pangas wetlands near Ciudad Neily. It’s fantastic to have this vagrant once again show in Costa Rica, I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same individual and hope it will stay for the winter.

At Las Pangas, Baird’s Sandpiper has also been seen, more of this species should be present at suitable sites during the next two months. We will be checking a Central Valley site where we had it last year.

Shorebird hotspot Punta Morales has also been good, yesterday, we had large numbers of Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willet, and Wilson’s Plovers among 11 other species including Surfbird, Marbled Godwit, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a single Long-billed Curlew.

Cocos Island

Currently, Serge Arias of Costa Rica Birding and some other local birders are on a trip to Cocos Island. I can’t wait to see what they come back with! Will checking the photos turn up some new record for Costa Rica? That always is a possibility.

Nemesis seen

As with any nemesis, it took some time, but I eventually did catch up with the nefarious Masked Duck. We had close views, we saw both sexes, birds vocalized, we saw them doing their skulking thing, and the experience was shared in good company. I am grateful and couldn’t have asked for more! Hopefully, Mary and I will get the chance to visit that area soon and see those birds again.

Updates to Rules for Visiting Costa Rica

The same rules for visiting during the pandemic are still in place but now, folks from certain states in the USA can also visit and more are scheduled to be allowed entrance after September 15th. For more information, see the Costa Rica Tourism Board. One main issue for visiting is getting a pcr COVID-19 test done within 72 hours before travel. Hopefully, this issue will improve, at the moment, I have heard of at least one place in NYC that may do that. Maybe various other places for quick test results are also available?

‘NOTE that if you do get a COVID-19 test, it absolutely has to be a pcr test and not the serological test that checks for antibodies. Recently, two Spanish citizens were denied entrance to Costa Rica because they arrived with results the serological test.

There’s probably more to say about birding in Costa Rica in September but that’s all I can think of for now. Wishing readers the best of birding days, hope to see you sometime soon!

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Species to See While Birding in Costa Rica: Golden-naped Woodpecker

There are many ways to watch birds. Do we just watch the birds seen through the back window? Maybe not even worry about how they have been named or classified? Do we make plans to learn where certain wood-warblers have been seen and then carry out miniature private expeditions to find them? Maybe some of us venture into the pre-dawn of the marsh to meet the rising of a sun flecked with the silhouettes and calls of whistling-ducks. Some of us might even go much further afield, taking boat trips straight into the open ocean to reach the deep waters, the places where pelagic birds might wander into view. We may also travel to other continents to see birds, take multi-day trips to witness as much of what the avian world can offer.

Birding is birding is birdwatching no matter how you do it but it’s OK to prioritize some species. To be honest, when traveling, it would be a shame not to make efforts to see birds not possible in other places. These are the endemics, the very near endemics, and the species that are just easier to see at one place than another. In Costa Rica, we have several such birds, one of them is a woodpecker.

The Golden-naped Woodpecker is as smartly dressed as its name sounds.

Although this species also lives in western Panama, it is quite nearly restricted to the humid forests of southern Costa Rica. Ranging from Carara National Park to the border, seeing it in Panama seems to typically require a rather difficult trip to the last sizeable patch of lowland rainforest in western Chiriqui.

In Costa Rica, although it is readily seen in many places, it also seems to be more or less restricted to areas of mature rainforest. It can range into second growth but in my experience, for the most part, the Red-crowned Woodpecker takes its place in such edge and open habitats.

Red-crowned Woodpecker,

As with many of the southern Pacific endemics, the Golden-naped Woodpecker seems to be most common in the forests of the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce. It can be seen elsewhere but is certainly most frequent in places with the highest amounts of rainfall and is likely declining because of hotter, drier weather.

Although it takes the place of the Black-cheeked Woodpecker in the rainforests of the Pacific slope, the Golden-naped might even be more closely related to the Yellow-tufted Woodpecker of the Amazon. Or, more likely, it and the closely related Beautiful Woodpecker of Colombia are sort of “bridge” species between the Yellow-tufted and Black-cheeked. No matter what its evolutionary provenance may be, like the Black-cheeked, the Golden-naped Woodpecker does the photographer a favor by visiting fruit feeders as well as foraging in low fruiting trees.

Golden-naped Woodpecker,
Another image of a female Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.

Check this bird out on your next visit to Costa Rica, it’s definitely one that you don’t want to miss!

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What’s an Olivaceous Piculet?

I haven’t gone birding lately. Vehicle restrictions a la pandemic have kept me in place and far from the shorebirds of the coast, heavy biodiversity of humid forests, and other sites of rural birdiness. But hey, there’s still birds around here; the Grayish Saltator singing out back, the duet of Barred Antshrikes from the thick vine tangles, other neighborhood birds heard and glimpsed through the windows. Evidence of their presence reminds me that at least a few Yellow-green Vireos are still around and that the first migrant swallows are moving south.

I had a typically handsome Cliff Swallow on Sunday.

While gazing out the back window and wishing for Yellow-billed Cuckoos, I find myself thinking about other birds. The other day, between calls of hidden Cabanis’s Wrens and exclamations of Great Kiskadees, one of the birds that came to mind was the Olivaceous Piculet. It doesn’t live around the Central Valley and I wouldn’t expect it but it’s an interesting bird to ponder, least not, because of its sing-song name.

As with boubous, ioras, foliage-gleaners, and others with unfamiliar, confusing names, unless we already know what a piculet is, we have no idea what an Olivaceous Piculet looks like and might even pass it off as some artsy kitchen utensil. Fortunately, we have the Internet and field guides for Costa Rica to give us answers to all sorts of bird-related questions. In the case of the piculet, a search quickly shows that this is a name for any number of tiny woodpeckers, most of which occur in South America.

In Costa Rica, as with so many birds, thanks to the isthmus joining the North and South of America, one of those piculets lives here and its olivaceous. In normal language, that means that we have a small woodpecker-like bird with some olive in its plumage. Here’s some more information about the one and only piculet of Central America:

Like a Chickadee x Downy Woodpecker

As with other piculet species, the Olivaceous is a funny, miniscule bird that likes to hang off of twigs so it can peck at stems from odd angles. This Cirque du Soleli stuff is par for the course for piculets. Although they can also nearly perch upright, miniature acrobatic manouvers are their real thing.

In Pairs and Mixed Flocks

Olivaceous Piculets can be found on their own or they can join a group of birds. Either way, it’s impressive how adept they are at avoiding detection.

Easy to Overlook

On account of their small dimensions, unobtrusive, focused behavior, and high-pitched vocalizations, piculets can be very easy to overlook. For a while, surely because I didn’t know how to look for it, the Olivaceous was one of my Costa Rica bogey birds, I didn’t see one until my third trip to this birdy nation. I recall how easy it was to overlook another similar bird from Tambopata, Peru; the Fine-barred Piculet. Despite spending several birdy mornings in its river island habitat in the Peruvian Amazon, I didn’t notice that tiny woodpecker until I investigated a series of seriously high-pitched sounds emanating now and then from the dense second growth. That afterthought of a song turned out to be a pair of Fine-barred Piculets, a lifer easily hiding in plain sight. Another piculet species in that area, the Bar-breasted, lived in the canopy of the forest. Suffice to say, despite having spent more than a year birding in Tambopata and seeing everything from Harpy Eagle to Amazonian Parrotlet, I never laid eyes on it.

More Common Than You Think and Spreading

Since the Olivaceous Piculet is naturally evasive, it’s more common than a birder realizes. In fact, I think it’s way more common than we realize. Any time I go birding in edge or garden habitats from the Carara area and the Valle del General on south to Panama, I can usually find one or more pairs of Olivaceous Piculets. If I go birding up north in the Cano Negro area, I also find this species and nowadays, the same thing goes for birding in the Arena area. I have also had piculets at and near Finca Luna Nueva and if they use the same type of edge habitat with scattered trees elsewhere, then there must be thousands of those tiny woodpeckers and in more places than we expect. The key to finding them, to know how many are around, is knowing and listening for their high-pitched song.

It can be hard to pick out from the blend of wren calls, flycatcher sounds, and insect noise but once you do, you might start to hear them all the time.

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A Day of Birding at Albergue Socorro

Usually I go birding in more places and more often than I have been doing. In the year of the pandemic, for a fair percentage of the global birding community, I am guessing that’s par for the course. Whereas I would normally be birding once a week and guiding trips here and there at least a few times a month, since March, my birding endeavors have been placed on hold. The big pause button was and is pressed down by an assemblage of closures, restrictions, and associated economical effects. The good news is that birds are everywhere, I can still connect with the avian side of nature by way of Blue-and-white Swallows perched just outside the window, and by waking up to the calls of bobwhites, the warbles of Blue Grosbeaks, and various songs of other neighborhood birds.

But there’s so much more out there to see (!), to personally discover. What biological madness is happening in those nearby cloud-covered mountains? Is there a weird and rare Sharpbill accentuating a mixed flock on the other, wetter side of the hills? Can Solitary Eagle still exist in Costa Rica? A good place to check would be the other side of those mountains out the back window, on the wild and Caribbean side of Braulio Carrillo National Park. Does the massive black-hawk persist over there or has it already succumbed to the effects of climate change (a victim of life cascades brought to deadly drought by warmer, drier weather)?

I haven’t had a chance to dedicate time to look for Solitary Eagle, Sharpbills, nor much of anything else but at least I can still make plans for the eventual search. Thanks to a local, resident world birder, recently, I did have a chance to look for some birds. We were after more than Sharpbills and Solitary Eagles and knew that our chances at finding our very rare targets were as slim as a Sharpie’s tarsi but you can’t have homemade-made cake unless you bake it, can’t reach the hidden peak unless you climb it.

With parrotlets, ground-cuckoos, and piprites on the mind, we spent a day and half searching for some bird cake at the Albergue Socorro. Encountering such rare and unreliable species in a short amount of time can’t be expected but the more you try the better your chances and given driving times to destination, the beautiful lower middle elevation rainforests of Socorro seemed like a good place to bring our bins.

In our brief window of birding, we did not find the super rare ones but I can’t say that it was for lack of trying. Following a strategy of covering as much ground as possible to increase chances of encountering an antswarm or hearing our targets, we walked on moist, bio-rich trails through beautiful forest, kept going on a road that bisects an excellent area of forest, and walked a bit more. Although the focus was on a search for rare birds, during those walks, we still saw and heard plenty of other things. Early morning on the Las Lomas trail saw us move beneath massive rainforest trees with crowns obscured by a an abundance of vegetation; the aerial “soil” of the canopy. We were accompanied by the upward, tripping songs of Tropical Parulas above and dry ticking of Golden-crowned Warblers below.

While keeping an eye on the trail for gnomish antpittas, we heard and saw a mouse-like Tawny-throated Leaftosser, had glimpses of candy-beaked Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, stood still and listened to the low frequency calls of a Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

The chips and calls of Silver-throated and other tanagers were a constant and we had close encounters with less brightly-colored Plain Antvireos. Despite having to navigate the clutching branches of two fallen trees, we walked that trail back out to the open rocky road and kept searching. There were Crested Guans honking like mutant geese, Swallow-tailed Kites riding the currents overhead, and Tufted Flycatchers calling and quivering their tails at the side of the road.

The bird with a way too long name (Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant) was also present in fair numbers, we saw a few of them.

Calling White-throated Spadebills managed to stay hidden but a tail-pumping Zeledon’s Antbird was cool (as always),

and it was nice to see the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner was one of the “better” (and expected) birds. A natural born acrobat, this smallish foliage-gleaner does above-ground skulkingas it forages in bromeliads and other aerial vegetation like a big chickadee (sort of).

Another good one was White-vented Euphonia, a bird that is sometimes very common in this area. Even in poor lighting, this little bird can reveal its identification by its tail wagging behavior.

On the raptor front, we enjoyed a view of a perched White Hawk against the green, Short-tailed Hawks above, and, maybe best of all, were treated to an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle in flight.

The target birds might not have shown but we can’t say that we didn’t try and in doing so, we still enjoyed some much appreciated avian cake during the trying days of a pandemic. We also enjoyed the hospitality of Albergue Socorro, one of many exciting birding spots in Costa Rica that are already open and ready to safely accept guests. I hope I can visit again soon.