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Birding Costa Rica Introduction

The Carara Christmas Count, Costa Rica

Like most bird counts, Christmas counts included, Dieter Holdt and I started the day so darn early that it was the middle of the night. This strange behavior is fairly typical of birders on count days. Be it a Big Day, Bird Race or Christmas Count, the more gung-ho (read psycho) birders take advantage of the midnight start time to listen for Nightjars, Owls, Rails and maybe disturb some poor sleeping bird with a bright light and excited whispers. In our case, we weren’t even looking for birds; we had to meet other Carara Christmas Counters at 4:30 A.M. Since we both live in the Central Valley, this meant a 2 hour drive down to the Pacific coast. At least night driving in Costa Rica is maybe 1,000 times better than during the day. Although drunk drivers might be a significant factor (and we saw one), traffic is more or less non-existent. This is in extreme contrast to day driving when the roads are clogged with honking cars, motorcycles zipping by and slow, behemoth trucks that reduce your average speed to about 20 miles per hour.

On the night of the count, driving was particularly nice with a full moon lighting up the roadways and painting the jade vegetation silver as we twisted and turned past the towns of Atenas and San Mateo. At one point we actually did look for a bird. This was in Orotina where a resident pair of Black and White Owls amazingly resides in the central plaza. During our plaza drive-by, though, Owls were replaced by a few drunken night people. Continuing on, before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination an hour before the meeting time- on a side note, if you drive at night in Costa Rica, you can probably cut off at least a third of your driving time.

We rested in the car for close to an hour until fellow counters arrived. After meeting up with the two other members of our group and getting our boxed (plastic bagged) lunches, we drove to our morning territory; the river or Vigilancia Trail. This trail/road/rainy-season mud-bath, accesses gallery forest, second growth, an oxbow lake before eventually reaching upland, primary rain forest. The variety of habitats combined with accessibility and ease of walking make it one of the best birding spots in Central America. It is one of those places where the birding seems to always be good and our day was no exception.

Our first species were typical of the pre-dawn lowland rain forest chorus; Pauraque from a nearby clearing, a mournful Collared Forest Forest-Falcon and Woodcreepers trilling and whistling into the dusky air. As we slowly made our way to our first and principal stop on the trail, other species were added to the list one after another, all by their vocalizations; Great and Little Tinamous, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Pale-billed Woodpeckers double-knocking, Mealy Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets overhead, Spectacled Antpitta, Black-faced Anthrush, Chestnut-backed and Dusky Antbirds, Dot-winged Antwren, Black-hooded and Barred Antshrikes, several Flycatchers, Grey-headed Tanagers and so on.

Dieter, Maria and Nestor looking for birds.

Our main stop was the best Christmas tree a birder could ask for;  an immense fig tree in fruit.  Adorned with palatable ornaments of its own device, it was busy with over 20 species of birds.  The umbrella-like crown of the tree was so high up that we found birds by scanning with our binoculars. You could look with bins at almost any part of the tree and pick out at least one bird perched or feeding. Watching this incredible tree was surreal; three Trogon species looked as if they were in a feeding frenzy as they flew back and forth beneath the umbrella-like canopy, Kiskadees called and sallied for figs, even a few Long-tailed Manakins appeared now and then to snatch a fig. The strangest bird of all was a Band-tailed Pigeon, a species typically found at much higher elevations. Although we did not see the Turquoise and Yellow-billed Cotingas we had hoped for, I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two had shown up and we just missed them because the tree was so big.

Looking up into the amazing fig; I am the one styling with boots with shorts.

After a couple of hours at the fig we noticed fewer fruits and fewer birds and so continued on down the trail trying to keep track of the birds we were constantly hearing and seeing. We picked up Ruddy Quail Dove (always a good spot for this terrestrial species), Gray-fronted Dove, flyby Wood Storks and a Great Blue Heron, Blue-throated Goldentail, Purple-crowned Fairy, Tawny-winged Woodcreeper, and so on. Some of the more common species were Plain Xenops, Buff-throated Woodcreeper, Dusky Antbird, Black-hooded Antshrike, Northern Bentbill, Orange-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, and several Wren species. Carara is a great example of Wren diversity by the way. We saw 7 species along that trail, most common being Black-bellied, Rufous and White and Riverside.

Eventually we reached the oxbow lake. This was the perfect spot for a mid-morning rest.

We watched  a few crocodiles

and counted various widespread waterbirds including 4 Black-necked Stilts and several Boat-billed Herons that roosted in nearby trees. We also picked up Prothonotary Warbler and Ringed and Green Kingfishers. A bit further on was beautiful upland primary forest. We heard a few Rufous Pihas there and saw more of the same. Being midday, it was pretty quiet in the upland forest. If you are there at dawn, I am sure it is a whole other matter.

At that time, we made our way back up the trail, hanging out at the fig tree to get better looks at Long-tailed Manakin and hope for Cotingas. Although no Cotingas showed, we picked up one of our target birds along the way; Royal Flycatcher. This trail is a very reliable spot for this species.

We munched our bagged lunches of bread, cheese, fruit and crackers and wished we had slept longer the night before even though that would have broken the big day and Christmas count traditions of feeling exhausted most of the time. Since one of our count group forgot his bagged lunch, we drove to the nearby Guacimo soda so he could refuel. This was about 5 minutes from the Tarcol bridge, on the right side of the highway heading towards San Jose. The change in habitats is amazing; as soon as you cross the bridge, you enter into drier habitat which holds many species not found in the humid forests of Carara. The Guacimo had a nice overlook and we picked up a few new birds here.

Guacimo overlook.

From the soda, we continued up the highway towards San Jose taking a right at the next intersection for our afternoon territory. This area is called Sandillal and accesses much drier, grassy fields, and good moist forest before reaching the Tarcol river. We continued to get new species along this road. Best were Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendolas (both uncommon birds around Carara) and Gray-headed Kite. We also had excellent Hummingbird activity at flowering Ingas. Dozens of Hummingbirds of 8 species were buzzing around these trees. The most common Hummingbird species on the dry side of the bridge were Steely-vented, Green-breasted Mango, Ruby-throated and Rufous-tailed. Our best Hummingbird species were White-necked Jacobin and Plain-capped Starthroat.

Down at the river we picked up a Snowy Egret and Gray Hawk but not much else so we sped over to the Tarcol river bridge hoping for flyovers of something new.

The Tarcol bridge.

We saw a few Macaws in the distance but very little flying over the bridge itself. Nevertheless, we managed to scope a distant Common Black Hawk, get our Spotted Sandpiper, and our only Cherries Tanagers and Grayish Saltators. By this time, it was 5 PM and we were more than exhausted enough to call it a day. We headed back to our lodging (dormitories in the park) and rested up before driving over to dinner provided by the Crocodile tour. This is another nice thing about some of these Costa Rican Christmas counts; the organizers do an excellent job of not only planning out routes but also getting local businesses involved to the point of providing food and a tee-shirt.

At dinner we caught up with other counters and found out that our team probably got the highest species total with 151 species. This is also the most I have recorded in one day in Costa Rica; a total I hope to soundly top with a Big Day possibly in 2009. Although our Yellow-billed Cotinga never showed at the amazing fruiting fig, another team got one female in the mangroves. The mangrove team also got the best bird; Nashville Warbler! A common species further north, this is a very rare vagrant in Costa Rica. Although the photos weren’t the best, they looked pretty convincing as were their descriptions. I think its no wonder this bird showed up in mangroves since a migrant at the periphery of its range is likely to be a juvenile that ends up using substandard habitat; mangroves being substandard for many Warbler species. I am still waiting for the final total for all teams but expect it to get close to or top 300 species as several shorebirds were recorded and a variety of cloud forest species from higher elevations that fell into the count circle.

After a night of much needed rest, Dieter and I birded the primary forest of Carara. This forest is just fantastic; giant trees that soar above a thin understory making it easy to see understory birds, clear streams, and of course lots of good birding. Over the course of an hour on the trails, some of the better species we saw (and typical of Carara)  were: a few Crested Guans, Scarlet Macaws, White-necked Puffbird, Spectacled Antpitta (possibly the easiest spot to see this species), Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a likely lump with Spot-throated Woodcreeper), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Rufous Piha.

After excellent forest birding, we drove to Tarcoles in search of wetlands and associated bird species. Along the road into Tarcoles, we had close looks at a pair of Yellow-naped Parrots and eventually found our waterbirds somewhere between Tarcol village and the Crocodile tour. The birds were in the flooded portion of someone’s backyard and this temporary pond must have been filled with aquatic goodies because there were..

at least a dozen White Ibis,

Wood Storks,

Great Egrets,

and Bare-throated Tiger Herons.

Further on, we took a left near the crocodile tour to head towards the beach. This section of road passes through more wetlands and mangroves before reaching the beach. We saw little in the wetlands and mangroves but had several new species on the beach such as hunting Ospreys, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, and many Frigatebirds and Pelicans. There were also a good number of birds perched on sandbars at the mouth of the Tarcol river. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check them out because it was time for us to head back to San Jose and we still wanted to stop in Orotina.

The beach near Tarcoles.

At Orotina, we walked through the plaza checking the trees for the local Black and White Owls. As per usual, the plaza was busy with all sorts of people and as on other occasions, I could not find the Owls until the local ice cream vendor pointed them out. On this day, we only saw one of the Owls and it was roosting in a fairly open tree at the edge of the park. If the ice-cream guy isn’t there, check for white-wash as there was plenty under the owl’s perch on that day.

With Black and White Owl under our belts and 168 other species in just a bit more than  one day of birding, we felt more than satisfied as we drove back up to the White-winged Doves and Tropical Kingbirds of the central valley. As always, I can’t wait to get back to Carara.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica raptors

Incredible new species for the Costa Rica list; Gray-bellied Goshawk!

While checking the Pajareros bird forum, where rare bird sightings in Costa Rica get posted, I was blown away by the latest post (December 16, 2008). In that post are digiscoped images of Gray-bellied Goshawk (Accipiter poliogaster) from La Selva. Although Costa Rica could still get some new species for the country list, this was one I never expected! This is a little-known South American species rarely seen even in its known range. Amongst neotropical ornithophiles and raptor lovers, it is most well known for exhibiting juvenile plumage that mimics adult Ornate Hawk Eagle. Check out the Pajareros post to see how incredibally similar it resembles Ornate Hawk Eagle. The main differences to separate it from the Hawk Eagle aside from size (the Hawk is smaller) are:

1. Structure- lack of pointed crest,

2. Black malar goes up to black crown behind the eye instead of going through the eye. I realize this sounds confusing- post mentions this and is apparent when comparing images of both species.

3. More spotted affect below rather than barred.

4. White edging to feathers on upperparts.

5. Bare thighs- often hard to see.

6. Juveniles often give a high-pitched call over and over.

Most of these marks are shown by the bird in the image which also resembles the only Gray-bellied Goshawk I have seen. That was a juvie. in Tambopata, Peru (Posada Amazonas) around the same time of year, 2004. This was a new species for that area as well. I especially recall the more spotted appearance of the underparts, white edging on the upperparts, black stripe on the face behind the eye and (like other juv. raptors) very easy to see. It sat all day at the top of the same tree ( conveniently near a canopy tower) and called over and over a short high-pitched descending call.

Gray-bellied Goshawk species is known to be a partial austral migrant; this juv. must have gotten lost somewhere between here and Argentina. Hard to say where it came from exactly; especially because this species is probably wider ranging than thought since neotropical forest Accipiters are very infrequently seen. It is interesting to note that the poster at the forum mentions that he saw one in the Darien, Panama. Who knows- it might even occur there or in the Choco (western Columbia and NW Ecuador) on a regular basis.

Hopefully this bird will stick around for the La Selva Christmas Count on Saturday!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction mangroves

Birding Tambor Beach(not Barcelo) and the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry

During our recent first family trip to Tambor (see previous post for all logistics) I also got in a good amount of birding. To be accurate, it was “digiscoping”, not birding. Although the two endeavors are similar, they are not the same.

When “birding”, I concentrate on looking for, identifying and studying all birds in a given area.

When “digiscoping”, I also concentrate on looking for and identifying birds, but focus on certain species and lighting situations likely to result in better photos.

On this trip, I decided to focus entirely on digiscoping, even leaving my binos at home. Although the binos would have been far better for the ferry (where digiscoping was impossible but the birding good), I still did OK looking for birds with my scope.

On the 5 AM ferry to Paquera, we saw very few birds as it was too early. Even at the Guayaba island sea stack, there were few birds flying around while in the day they are quite active with Mag. Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies for the most part. It’s probably worth scoping this sea stack for rarities.

The ferry on the way back was when I missed my binos! Birds were fairly active under overcast skies that eventually spat down rain halfway through the trip. A scattering of Royal Terns and Brown Pelicans were present as we left the Paquera dock. The further out we went, I started seeing more and more Black Terns. Groups of  6 or so flew by the boat again and again until they turned into feeding flocks of dozens and dozens. It was at this point when I began to see a few other species too. A few Common terns were with them while an occasional Brown Booby flapped by. I managed to scope a Sooty Shearwater sharing a  driftwood perch with a smaller Black Tern. My best bird was my only lifer of the trip and one I had hoped for; While scoping through the flocks of Black Terns, I got onto an all dark bird flying low over the water. I immediately knew that I had a Storm Petrel! The two most likely species in the Nicoya gulf are Black and Least. Although I couldn’t see the shape of the tail, this bird was smaller than the nearby Black Terns and flew with quick, snappy wing beats. Since Black SP is about about the same size as the Terns, I got my lifer LEAST STORM PETREL! -On a side note, lifers will from now on be given capital letter status.

A brief 5 second look of a small, all dark bird zipping by and no one on that ferry had any idea of what I had just personally accomplished- lifer number 2527 caught on the fly because I kept scoping the waves despite spitting rain and pitching boat. The bird had accomplished quite a feat too; migrating from a cluster of rocks off of southern California to Costa Rica, avoiding 1000s of voracious Gulls, Jaegers and who knows what else along the way. The Skutch and Stiles guide says that Least Storm Petrel is common in the Nicoya gulf. Well, maybe they are further out, but that is the only one I have ever seen after several ferry crossings.

At Tambor itself, (the village, not the big Barcelo resort), we stayed at Cabinas Bosque. Birding around the Cabinas was fair with good looks at Green-breasted Mangos. The Nicoya Peninsula is probably the best area for this species in CR. Most were staying high up, hawking for insects. Luckily, my wife spotted this juvenile which favored a low perch.

immature Green-breasted Mango

A Common Black Hawk hung out in the backyard.

As did the most common Woodpecker in CR; Hoffman’s. Yes, looks and sounds a lot like a Golden-fronted.

Spishing often brings in wintering Warblers. Northern Waterthrush is very common in wet lowland thickets and mangroves. Prothonotary Warblers are also very common in mangroves but I only got shots of this Waterthrush.

A good birding road and path is at the first right after the Cabinas Bosque, heading towards Paquera.  Staying straight on the road will take you to a path that leads through mangroves and to the beach. I spent most of my time along this road with good results.

Beautiful Orange-fronted Parakeets were pretty common.

So were White-fronted Parrots like the one below although I couldn’t get a shot of one in good light. I also had Orange-chinned Parakeets, Red-lored Parrots and even heard Scarlet Macaw near the mangroves!

Dove diversity was especially high with 7 species recorded. Here is a pair of Common Ground Doves.

This was a good area to see common, second growth species such as Barred Antshrike.

Rufous-naped Wren,

White-tipped Dove quick stepping it across a road,

And witch-like Groove-billed Anis showing off.

Near the mangroves, I was surprised to get excellent looks at Mangrove Cuckoo!

and Northern Scrub Flycatcher- note the stubby bill.

Got nice looks at Green Kingfisher too.

At the lagoon near the beach, there were a few Herons such as this Little Blue.

Always nice to see Whimbrel; a common wintering shorebird in CR.

Other species recorded around Tambor were: Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green-backed Heron, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Black and Turkey Vultures, Crested Caracara, Osprey, Roadside Hawk, Grey-necked Wood Rail, Wilson’s Plover, Willet, Spotted Sandpiper, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged, Ruddy-ground and Mourning Doves, Pauraque, Cinnamon and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Black-headed Trogon, Ringed Kingfisher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Paltry Tyrannulet, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Yellow-Olive Fly., Common Tody Fly., Wood Peewee sp., Scissor-tailed Fly., Great-crested and Dusky-capped Flys., Great Kiskadee, Boat-billed and Social Flys., Rose-throated Becard, Mangrove Vireo, Lesser Greenlet, White-throated Magpie and Brown Jays, Barn Swallow, Grey-breasted Martin, Banded and House Wrens, Clay-colored Robin (not so common here!), Tenn., Yellow and Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstart, Grey-crowned Yellowthroat, Blue-grey, Palm and Summer Tanagers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, White-collared Seedeater, Stripe-headed Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and Yellow-throated Euphonia.

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Arenal Observatory Lodge

This past weekend I co-guided the Bird Club of Costa Rica (BCCR) once again; this time at a lodge that sits at the foot of the most active volcano in Costa Rica- Volcan Arenal. Smoking and grumbling in the Caribbean slope foothills, Arenal is about 2 hours from Monteverde, nearly four hours drive from San Jose. On Saturday morning I did the drive with fellow BCCR members Johan and Ineke. It was one of those beautiful Saturday mornings when the beauty of the green mountains framed by blue skies makes you wish more than ever that you could fly just so you could get up there as quick as possible. Flying would leave out the narrow curvy roads too but since we never evolved wings, up we went twisting and turning through coffee plantations in a small burnt-orange Chevrolet. Traffic was light and the air scented by cloud forest remnants- a pleasant drive up and over the ridge of the Cordillera Central to descend once again past the La Paz waterfall and Virgen del Socorro.

This is a truly beautiful route and one that should be birded more (one of these days, I’m going to bird the forest remnants and tangled bamboo near Varablanca and post about it). We passed fruit stalls with golden pineapples and football-sized papayas, gardens glowing with purple bougainvilla and shining red Heliconias. When we turned left at San Miguel, the Caribbean lowland plain streched out below; all the way to forested hills on the Nicaraguan border. We drove through far too many cow pastures; lands at one time shaded by immense rain forest trees with 400 species of birds. Now, the pasture grasses and thick spiny growth support a handfull of species; Anis, Seedeaters and Red-winged Blackbirds in place of Antbirds, Forest Falcons and Umbrellabirds. On the way to Ciudad Quesada, I was gladdened to see some intact forest in hilly areas-probably a watershed. Hopefully I will continue to see it, maybe even bird it some day.

In Ciudad Quesada we stopped for a coffee at a small bakery called Pan de Leon. The true pizza aficionado I am, I tried their pizza- like most pizza here, it was strange but ok and nothing close to New York pizza (yes, I miss it!). We made it to La Fortuna not long after, softly cruising along smooth roads. This incredible lack of potholes was a pleasant and welcome surprise; potholes and broken pavement are standard aspects of central valley roads- some are so lunar that locals stick tires or trees in the deeper “calle” chasms. Eager to get to our destination, we buzzed through touristy La Fortuna. This place is over done with hotels and “cabinas”, most of which also over charge. We pondered over how strong the recession will hit local businesses, how many will have to close their doors and put up a closed indefinitely sign instead of one that reads no vacancy.

Not long after the Tabacon hot springs we saw the turn off for our lodge and traded the asphalt of the highway for the rocky, dusty road that led straight towards the volcano. Luckily we had good, dry weather because during heavy rains that road is probably a slick, muddy mess. It first passed through old orchards, then just after the entrance to the national park was flanked by old second growth. We stopped  a few times and had several wintering warblers (Blue-winged being the best) along with different Wrens, Lesser Greenlet, Dusky Antbird, Great Antshrike and others- not bad for sunny midday weather. This road is probably very good in the early morning and late afternoon as the old second growth is connected to large areas of intact forest. Its probably good for night-birding too.

We stopped at a bridge with volcano in view and got nice looks at several species here such as Olive-crowned Yellowthroat and Thick billed Seed Finch (female below).

We were also entertained by Southern Rough-wing Swallows.

Further on we saw the “famous” Tucanes trail that we had never heard of. Apparently its good for seeing “the red hot lava”.

Opting for birds intead of glowing lava, we passed through the lodge checkpoint and headed up the hill to our destination.

The Arenal Observatory Lodge is not only aptly named with its perfect views of the volcano, but is also an excellent spot for birding.  This was the view from our window. Although the top of the volcano is typically shrouded in clouds, some glowing red hot areas are usually visible at night and rocks are frequently heard tumbling down the mountainside.  We saw lots of good birds from the balcony; Robert Dean, the illustrator for the latest Costa Rica field guide, saw Black Hawk Eagle from here before we arrived.

One of the best birds was Black-crested Coquette. This is the easiest site to see this species possibly anywhere- several females and occasional males were always in view feeding in the Verbena or Porterweed.

We also had nice looks at Violet-headed Hummingbird and this infrequent hummingbird species; a female Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer.

One of the friendliest birds was this Broad-winged Hawk-Costa Rica’s most common winter raptor.

We got good looks at other common species such as Melodious Blackbird.

and uncommon species such as Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- here a female.

The deck by the restaurant was ok but could have been better if they had put out more fruit for the birds. Nevertheless, it still attracted a few species and had awesome views of the volcano.

Speaking of restaurants, I can’t say I recommend that of the Arenal Observatory Lodge. The buffet breakfast was good but the rest was over-priced, boring dishes. Really, you are better off dining somewhere near Fortuna. That way, you can also bird the entrance road in the afternoon and look for night birds on the way back.

Although much of the vegetation at the lodge is non-native Eucalyptus and Caribbean pine, their trails mostly access native vegetation. The concrete trail behind our balconies looked promising; Robert has seen Thicket Antpitta here. The best trail might be the waterfall trail though. This trail accesses some beautiful middle elevation forest and has a bridge offering some canopy birding. After crossing the bridge, one reaches an open area with views of forested hills; the perfect situation to scan for Lovely Cotinga in the morning (which we didn’t see but does occur). Although we had a fairly quiet time along this trail, its probably worth a whole day as it likely holds middle elevation rarities such as Sharpbill, Black-headed Anthrush and much more. Some of the notable species we had were Crested Guan, Song Wren, Spotted Antbird and Olive-striped Flycatcher. At the entrance to the trail we had a brief flyby of a Yellow-eared Toucanet that was hanging out with a large group of Aracaris which was followed up by an even briefer flyby of what was almost certainly two Red-Shouldered Parrotlets!!

One of the coolest sightings was not a bird. See if you can find the Tigrillo or Oncilla that had been hanging around the waterfall trail. Raised by people and released here, it is far from afraid. In fact, you have to be careful it doesn’t jump on you! It was amazing to see one of these running around; very few people have seen this secretive species in the wild. Editor’s note- turns out that this cat was a Margay.

I would certainly recommend staying at the Arenal Observatory Lodge whether you bird or not. For birders, the cabins sans volcano view are just as good, if not better (at least for birding) because they are closer to good habitat with a beautiful overlook that should be good for raptors and scanning the canopy for Cotingas, etc. Although the restaurant offerings need serious help, the trails are also good birding as is the entrance road (check the rivers for Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger Heron); birding both areas should turn up a good variety of lowland and middle elevation species. This is a great place to bring non-birding family and friends too but make reservations at this justly popular spot. If you aren’t staying here, you can still bird the entrance road for free and can pay $4 to bird the trails at the lodge, which in my opinion is very much worth it.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction middle elevations

Birding Day trip to Virgen del Socorro

This classic Costa Rican birding site became inaccessible after the earthquake on January 8, 2009. It is very likely that much of the habitat near the river was destroyed. Don’t make any plans to bird at Virgen del Socorro until further notice.

Last Saturday, I guided the BCCR trip to the classic middle elevation birding site of Virgen del Socorro. Even if we hadn’t gone birding, it would have been worth the curvy drive up the cordillera to escape the fumes and pot-holed asphalt of the central valley.

Our meeting place and time being the La Paz waterfall at 7 AM, we left at quarter to five from San Pablo de Heredia escaping the busy morning traffic just after the town of Barva de Heredia.  The fresh, humid air of cloud forest remnants was a welcome change from the car exhaust of the valley. I hope to survey this underbirded road sometime as there are some nice forest remnants along streams with stands of Alder and bamboo. We had a date with middle elevation birds of the Caribbean slope though and so couldn’t stop.

After cresting the ridge of the cordillera at Varablanca near Poas volcano, we began our descent of the Caribbean slope. Although much of the roadside had been cleared, there were extensive areas of cloud forest nearby; some of which reached the road itself. After a steep, curvy section we made it to our meeting place; the bridge at the La Paz waterfall.

White-collared Swifts that roost behind the falls were zipping out of the spray in pairs while a Torrent Tyrannulet foraged on river boulders. Although we didn’t see any, this might be a good spot as well for White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts. About 5-10 minutes after the waterfall, we passed by Cinchona then drove at least a few more kilometers to the  turn-off for Virgen del Socorro. Watch for the sign for this inconspicuous road that requires a 180 degree turn to the right to enter it.

The road descends to a river that cuts through a forested canyon. We slowly walked down the road while non-birding Fred graciously took both cars to the bridge at the bottom of the road and waited for us. Although it was fairly quiet (maybe time of year) we heard both species of large Toucan as well as the constant singing of one of the most common species here; Tropical Parula. Despite constantly whistling like Immaculate Antbird (another common species here) not a one answered. Collared Trogons were pretty common, feeding on roadside fig trees.

And Tufted Flycatchers were pretty common too- I at least got a good pic. of this friendly bird.

Some other birds we saw and heard on the way down to the bridge were: Smoky-Brown Woodpecker rattling away like a rusty machine gun, a Broad-winged Hawk (the most common hawk species in winter) hunting along the roadside, a few flybys of Brown-hooded Parrots, Red-headed Barbet, and a couple small mixed flocks with Slaty-capped Flycather (calling different from South-American Slaty-caps), Lesser Greenlet, Band-backed Wren, several Chestnut-sided Warblers, Wilsons Warbler, Golden-crowned Warbler and Common Bush and Silver-throated Tans.

At the bridge, we enjoyed the peaceful rushing water and

watched Black Phoebes- a bird more tied to bridges than any troll.

We also had American Dipper here; an indicator of a healthy stream. Sunbittern and Fasciated Tiger-Heron no doubt occur here as well although we didn’t see any this day. Venturing onto the trail into the forest just before the bridge on the right, I changed my tune from Immaculate Antbird to Lanceolated Monklet. This is a regular site for this rare species in Costa Rica that prefers stream banks in mossy foothill forest and is much easier to see in Ecuador and Peru. Like the hidden Immaculate Antbirds along the roadside, it also refused to repond. We did get lucky with a close view of Sooty-faced FInch, however; finally seeing one instead of hearing them call from dense undergrowth all morning. Shortly thereafter, we saw our bird of the day, a Nightjar!!

Roosting NIghtjars are tough. Books tend to show their best field marks in ideal conditions; just the type of situations in which one does not typically see them. We figured this was a female Chuck-wills-widow; probably a fairly common but little seen wintering species in Costa Rica. The head seems too big for Whip-poor-will, the tail too reddish, and most of all, the primaries too long. We couldn’t see the front or underside of the bird unfortunately and would like to hear from others about the ID of this bird. I hope it is a Chuck- I certainly put in my time for this species with all that whistling I did into the dark of southern summer nights in Illinois and Louisiana.

We didn’t see much of anything else on this trail but it looked promising for other rare species such as Scaled Antpitta, Green-fronted Lancebill and Bare-necked Umbrellabird (I have heard them here in the past). When I bird this trail at dawn some lucky day, I will post about it.

After the trail, we walked up the road a bit on the other side of the bridge and ran into a few more birds. Although we didn’t hook up with a huge mixed flock that this road is noted for, we did alright with Red-faced Spinetail, Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, Yellow-olive Fly, Golden-bellied Fly, nice looks at Bay Wren, Slate-throated Redstart, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Speckled, Black and Yellow, and Crimson-collared Tanagers, Green Honeycreeper, and excellent looks at Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Although this area is usually good for raptor species including Solitary Eagle, we only saw Vultures up in the sky! The closest we got to a White Hawk (fairly common here) only turned out to be the distant glare of a palm frond!

After birding VIrgen del Socorro, we stopped at Cinchona for coffee and as per usual were rewarded with amazing, close looks at a variety of Hummingbirds and other species coming to the feeders. We even had a mixed flock pass near the balcony, best bird being Barred Becard.

This is one of the easiest places in CR to see Red-headed Barbet. Here is a female.

And this is the male.

Its also a good place to see Prong-billed Barbets at arms length.

Silver-throated Tanagers are always present.

and Baltimore Oioles are back.

See my posting on Cinchona for more photos, especially of Hummingbirds.

Luckily, the rain held off until we headed back up the mountain to Varablanca for lunch at Colberts- a French restaurant with excellent food (including home-baked goods!) that overlooks the Caribbean lowlands (where it is usually raining, so actually the view is mostly of clouds and mist). He has Hummingbird feeders as well with

Purple-throated Mountain Gem

and Volcano Hummingbird being the common species.

Overall, a good day, best done with one’s own vehicle although buses are available from both San Jose and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Costa Rica common birds #1: city birds

Costa Rica really is a birding paradise. At least five distinct bioregions and/or major habitat types are found within 2-3 hours drive of San Jose; all with fairly different sets of birds. It’s a good thing they are close to San Jose too because unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of species around here! Around here means where I live; Tibas. Tibas is like much of the central valley- urbanized, asphalted and missing the exuberant vegetation that used to be here. Lack of green space in the central valley is a topic I hope to cover on another day though because this post is the first of several about the common birds of Costa Rica.

The bird species in Tibas represent many of the first birds I saw in Costa Rica back in 1992 and will probably be some of the first species you see as well. Essentially garden and backyard birds of the central valley, they have adapted to living within a human dominated landscape. Although surely a far cry from the variety and types of species that inhabited the marshes and moist forest of pre-settlement times, there’s still some nice birds around. The common sparrow here is Rufous-collared Sparrow.

My first bird book was the Audubon guide to birds; Eastern Region. The fact that photos were used made amazing things such as Cerulean Warbler, Cedar Waxwing and Rails more credible. I first learned about Blue-Grey Tanagers on the glossy plates of that book; learned that in the U.S. they only occurred as an exotic escape in Florida. Here in Costa Rica, these natives are one of the most common bird species.

Possibly occupying a niche similar to that of Northern Cardinals, Greyish Saltators sing every morning from backyards throughout San Jose.

Doves are especially common. Although Rock Pigeons occur, White-winged and Inca Doves are the most common species.

Red-billed Pigeons can also be seen.

One of the coolest common species is Crimson-fronted Parakeet. Noisy flocks roost in the palms near our place and are often seen in flight within the city.

One of the most abundant birds is Great-tailed Grackle. They make a tremendous amount of noise in town plazas where they go to roost.

Conspicuous Flycatchers are always around such as

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

and Tropical Kingbird. If there is a neotropical trash bird, the TK is it.

Clay-colored Robin (the national bird of Costa Rica) is very common.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird is pretty much the de-facto Hummingbird of urban areas.

Some of the other bird species common in urban areas of the central valley for which I still lack images are: Black and Turkey Vultures- always up there soaring around.

Tropical Screech Owl- hope to get shots of the pair that roosts at the nearby Bougainvilla Hotel.

White-colloared and Vaux’s Swifts

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- very common

Yellow-belied Elaenia

Blue and white Swallow- one of the most birds in San Jose

Brown Jay- seems to have declined with urbanized growth.

House Wren

Wintering birds such as Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole and Tennessee Warbler

and Bronzed Cowbird.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living Introduction

A day of birding Costa Rica at Irazu volcano

With Costa Rica being such a great place for birding and retirement, it’s no wonder that there is an English speaking birding club. The appropriately named “Birding club of Costa Rica” gets together every month for a field trip; some of which I get to guide! We have very few meetings because when you can get together for awesome tropical birding, the need for metings in a boring hall somewhere is pretty much naught. The club has been all over the country and has also done international trips. A few weeks ago, we stayed domestic though and visited Irazu volcano. We had a beautiful day high above the central valley, I actually picked up a lifer and the September rains waited until we were done birding.


We started at a bridge overlooking a forested ravine. The jade foliage below glinted in the morning sun that also lit up nearby hedgerows and onion fields The sweet scent of hay and crisp mountain air reminded me of June mornings in Pennsylvania where I saw so many of my first bird species; Eastern Bluebirds, Orchard Oriole, Yellow-throated Vireo, stately Great Blue Herons, etc. Some of the birds on Irazu reminded me of Pennsylvania too; Red-tailed Hawks soaring overhead, Hairy Woodpeckers calling from the trees, an Eastern Meadowlark singing the same lazy song from a nearby field. Most of the birds though, ensured us that we were in the high mountains of Costa Rica; mountains with forests of immense oaks draped in bromeliads and moss, dark forests hiding Quetzals, Flame-colored Tanagers, Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Collared Redstarts and much more. Hummingbirds are especially common up there; at the bridge we got our first looks at the smallest species; Volcano Hummingbird.

Here on Irazu, they have a purplish gorget.

We also had our first of many Acorn Woodpeckers; here at the southern limit of their range in the high montain forests dominated by Oak species.

and Flame-colored Tanager. This is a female.

And lots of Long-tailed Silkies.

After the bridge, we headed further uphill accompanied by fantastic mountain scenery,

and lots of Sooty Robins. Once you see these, you know you have reached the temperate zone. They remind me of Eurasian Blackbirds.

Our next stop was the best and with good reason; it’s the only place along the roadside with fairly intact forest. I don’t know what the name of the stop here is but you can’t miss it; aside from the only spot with good forest, there are signs advertising a volcano museum and the Nochebuena restaurant. Although things were pretty quiet at the stream, on past trips I have seen birds like:

Black and Yellow Silky. Once they find a berry-filled bush, they sit there and fatten up!- a lot like their cousins the Waxwings.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrush is another common, tame species. The tail is usually longer than that of this young bird.

Since it was quiet at the stream, we walked back uphill near some good forest. We didn’t have to go far before we saw the best bird of the day. Upon checking out some angry hummingbirds, I saw a rufous colored lump on a tree and immediately knew we had an excellent bird and for myself a lifer I have waited 16 years to get; Costa Rican Pygmy Owl!! Although I have heard these guys a few times, I have never been lucky enough to see one until the BCCR trip up Irazu. Luckily, it was cooperative enough for everyone to get great looks through the scope at this beautiful little owl. The color of this creature was amazing; a mix of reddish clay so saturated with rufous that it had purplish hues.

Here it is being annoyed by a Fiery-throated Hummingbird.

And here it is looking at us.

And here are some BCCR members showing their best Costa Rican Pygmy Owl faces.

Amazingly, just after the owl, we actually had the avian star of the Costa Rican highlands; a male Resplendent Quetzal! A few of us caught of glimpse of this odd, shining bird in flight and sure enough there it was!- a Quetzal deep within the foliage of the tree whose fruit Quetzals prefer; the aquacatillo or wild avocado. It didn’t stay long enough though to get a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Actually, Quetzals aren’t that rare in Costa Rica. They aren’t exactly dripping off the trees, but if you bird the high mountain forests, you will probably see one.

After the Quetzal, we got more nice looks at Hummingbirds and close looks at another highland endemic and one of the easiest Empidonax Flycatchers to identify; Black-capped Flycatcher.

We eventually made our way up to the national park entrance, some of us deciding to venture in, others continuing with the birding along a road off to the right just before the entrance. This road passes through paramo, thick stunted forest and eventually reaches taller forest further downhill. Would love to explore it for a day as it looked very promising. We had a few Volcano Juncos here, Flame-throated Warblers, many Slaty Flowerpiercers and a few other species. Despite our attempts to coax a Timberline Wren out into the open, we had to settle for just hearing them sing from the dense undergrowth.

On a scouting trip, we opted to visit the crater.

Be very careful with valuables in the parking lot here. I have heard of people getting their car cleaned of all their stuff during a short 20 minute visit!

Coatis are up here too always looking for handouts. Their claws remind me of Bears up north.

We lunched back down at the Nochebuena restaurant. This is a cozy place with fireplace and something far more rare than a quetzal; real pecan pie! You can also sit outside and be entertained by the hummingbird feeders. Fiery-throateds were the most common species.

This was a good place to study the difference between those and Magnificent Hummingbirds. The Magnificent has a stronger, all dark bill, the female more markings on the face.

Here is a nice look at Volcano Hummingbird showing the dark central tail feathers; a main field mark in separating it from the very similar Scintillant Hummingbird.

After lunch, it was time to head back down hill to the urbanization and traffic of the central valley. Fortunately for us in Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to escape for a day to peaceful high mountain forests.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction

Birding the La Selva entrance road, Costa Rica

The OTS (Organization for Tropical Studies) station, “La Selva” is one of the most famous research centers for studying tropical ecosystems in the world. It is located near Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui in the north Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica and protects 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres)of primary and secondary lowland forest. With so much of the lowlands already deforested and La Selva a 2 hour drive from San Jose, its lowland rain forests are also some of the most accessible in Costa Rica.

Being that it is a research station first, ecotourism site second, they charge an entrance fee that unfortunately isn’t as low as its elevation. It costs over $30 for a guided walk (guide necessary), more for overnight stays. At least early birding walks are offered and the guides are top notch. Meals are pretty costly though especially for being quite basic ($12 for lunch!). Most unfortunately, the rates are the same for Costa Rican residents. Since the average wage in Costa Ricais far less than wages of most visitors, guess who has little incentive to visit La Selva and learn about the wonders of the rain forest? Guess who is more likely to continue with beliefs that rain forest, although pretty useless, is for some weird reason valuable to rich foreigners? I am guessing and hoping that OTS probably has a community outreach program with free guided visits for local school groups. If they don’t, they better start since it is the local people who ultimately decide how natural resources are preserved, used, or obliterated.


Oh yes, since this post is supposed to be about birding the entrance road, though, I better start writing about that! If you don’t want to bird the reserve proper, people in the past have often had good birding along the access road. I visited the road for a few hours last week and the birding is not just good; it has improved! I saw more forest based species than in the past; especially in the vicinity of the stream crossing. Activity was good all morning (I recorded nearly 80 species) and I hope to get back there soon- not just because I love a morning of good birding but also because workers were building what looked like a kiosk just past the entrance to the road. I won’t be surprised at all if this structure ends up being something to control access to the entrance road itself which will probably mean goodbye to the good birding there unless you want to pay an exhorbitant entrance fee. I will keep readers posted about that. Meanwhile, enjoy these pics of the fine morning I had along the La Selva entrance road:

The view of a road with great tropical birding

Grey-capped Flycatchers are a common sight in the humid lowlands.

One usually sees Plain-brown Woodcreepers at antswarms. Woodcreepers are actually not that toigh to ID if you get a good look at the head. Note the straight bill and near lack of markings on Plain-brown. Got lucky with this at the stream crossing along with…

Black-throated Trogon,

a beautiful Broad-billed Motmot,

and best of all, Rufous-winged Woodpecker!

The Woodpecker is a pretty uncommon sight. I also had flyover Double-toothed Kite, a small kettle of Broad-winged Hawks and several Ospreys steadily flapping their way southeast towards the same place I would go for winter; the Caribbean.

Other highlights and interesting sightings were Pied Puffbird calling across from the bus stop, flyover Brown-hooded Parrots, good looks at lots of Yellow Tyrannulets, both Yellow-Olive and Yellow-Margined Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

very close looks at Cinnamon Becard

and a big flock of both Oropendola species rummaging through and ravaging the bromeliads and foliage in their search for arthropodic delights.

Sightings weren’t just limited to birds; I also saw this Two-toed Sloth,

and Green Iguana as well as Howler Monkeys.

Like I said, I hope to get back there soon!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Costa Rica living weather

The Costa Rica Meteorological Institute

Its the rainy season and its not going to get any drier until December. In fact, the next two months are when it pours buckets of water sometimes night and day. The combination of lower light levels and a hydrophobic camera make bird photography very challenging. But, I have an excellent resource on my side to help me choose the best day to head out and practice patience with the birds. The trick up my sleeve, the ace in the hole, is the National Meteorological Institute of Costa Rica. They have been consistently accurate and also provide forescasts by region. Its especially helpful since the daily newspaper doesn’t bother with the weather. Maybe they figure its too predictable; hot in the lowlands, cooler in the mountains with rain most of the time! Ha!- this is a mere generalization; some days in rains more than others or its sunny only in the morning. These subtle factors are critical for me in deciding when I will head out for bird pics. Although the site is in Spanish, it should still be helpful to non-Spanish speakers and is a great resource for anyone on their way to Costa Rica.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction

My Favorite Rain Forest for birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica has made a name for itself with its National Parks and protected areas. Monteverde combines beautiful cloud forest with excellent tourist infrastructure. Carara offers exceptional birding at the junction of humid and dry ecosystems. The Pacific beaches of Manuel Antonio are set against a rain forest backdrop. Wild and rough Braulio Carrillo, though, is my favorite. I admit I could be biased because this was the first place I experienced rain forest. The first place a White-necked Jacobin appeared out of the jade green surroundings to hover in front of my face. The first time I saw a White Hawk and a King Vulture; breathtaking neotropical bird species.

In addition to exciting birding in fantastic primary rain forest on every visit, I might also be biased because I could get there so easily; less than an hour from San Jose on any morning bus to Guapiles. Like most rain forest birding, some days are slower than others, you can easily get rained out for the entire day, and seeing the birds can be a serious challenge. Although I sometimes feel that the birding was better in the past (I used to see more Tinamous and Quail Doves), its still my favorite spot as well as my birding patch here in Costa Rica.

The 500 meter elevation of this very wet, Caribbean slope forest ensures a good mix of lowland and foothill species. Some of the forest dependent species that have become rare at La Selva still regularly occur at Quebrada Gonzalez such as:

Ornate Hawk Eagle

King Vulture

White-whiskered Puffbird

Antwrens and Antvireos

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers

The place is especially good for large mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike Tanager.

While I took pics of this male, the surrounding vegetation resounded with the calls of various Tanager species, Woodcreepers, Russet Antshrike, Scarlet-rumped Caciques and others.

On my last visit, I got some lucky shots of this juvenile Ornate Hawk Eagle.

and here this formidable predator looks like it is about to attack! In the Amazon, these guys are one of the main predators of Squirrel Monkeys and Macaws. A friend of mine saw one catch a Curassow- same size as a Turkey.

Quebrada Gonzalez is probably one of the easiest places in Costa Rica (and elsewhere) to see this spectacular raptor. Ornates are often seen in flight from the parking lot on sunny days from 10 AM to 12 noon.

My patch is also one of the best sites to see Black-crowned Antpitta. Well, to be honest, they occur here but are very difficult to actually see. While this male sang, a Little (Stripe-throated) Hermit buzzed around in front of the Antpittas face. It acted as if the Antpitta was a threat!

Green Hermits are the most common hummingbirds here.

I often see White-faced Capuchins, Spider Monkeys and other animals such as this diabolical looking Collared Peccary.

One rainy day, this Northern Tamandua was hanging out next to the ranger station.

I always usually see some cool lizards.

There are two trails; a well maintained 1 k. loop trail behind the ranger station and two longer loop trails across the highway that lead down to the river. The one behind the station is easiest, the trails across the highway sometimes blocked by fallen trees. They are open from 8 AM until 4:30 PM and cost $8 for non-residents, $2 for residents.

Quebrada Gonzalez is found along the highway from San Jose to Guapiles about 4 ks after the bridge over the Rio Sucio. By bus, take any bus to Guapiles from the Caribeños bus station and tell the driver to let you off at Quebrada Gonzalez. To get back to San Jose, flag down any passing bus; some stop, most don’t.