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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges central valley common birds

The Zamora Estate Hotel-an Oasis for Birds in the Central Valley of Costa Rica

The Central Valley of Costa Rica has this wonderful weather, nice mountain scenery, and rich volcanic soils. These factors have made such a good impression on so many for so long that 2 million people now call the Valle Central home. Unfortunately, this hasn’t left much space for the wetlands and moist forests that used to be found in this inter-volcanic depression (I doubt that’s a real term but it sounds about right). Sadly, the conversion to concrete of the few remaining patches of green space is still happening as the people population continues to slowly grow.

A lot of common birds have become decidedly uncommon in the greater San Jose area as even the Poro, Mango, and Avocado trees growing in backyards are cut down to make room for yet more apartments. While Crimson-fronted Parakeets have become adapted to nesting on buildings, most other birds of the Central Valley haven’t been so lucky. The lack of habitat for birds means that most people on birding trips to Costa Rica leave the over-urbanized Central Valley for other, more birdy places as soon as possible. After 6 or more hours in a plane, however, who wants to spend another two or three hours on winding mountain roads in a car, van, or bus? You need to take a break but how many places in the Central Valley are actually good for birding?

There are some choices for fairly birdy accommodation as you leave the San Jose area and ascend the slopes of the mountains on either side of the valley, but the best oasis that I have found for birding is at the Zamora Estate Hotel. I want you to note that I did not say the “Hotel Bougainvillea”. The Bougainvillea is frequently used by tours and because of this, many birders traveling on their own also opt to stay there. They hear about the nice gardens and it sounds like a reliable, quality choice for accommodation so they stay there instead of looking into other possibilities. While it is true that the Bougainvillea has gorgeous gardens, excellent service, and nice rooms, it’s not really that close to the airport and the birding is just as good in most Central Valley hotels graced with a garden. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t stay there, just that if you want to stay at a similarly priced place that is far better for birds and closer to the airport, the Zamora Estate Hotel is a better choice.

The Zamora Estate is so good for birding because it is located on a sizable farm that has protected wetlands, woodlands, and fields for several generations. Located right in the heart of Santa Ana, it truly is a green oasis for everything from herons and egrets to Red-billed Pigeons and raptors. Accommodation comes in the form of private bungalows and excellent service provided by the Zamora family. Birding comes in the form of a few trails that pass through forest, a vineyard, and wetlands. Over 130 species have been recorded on their property including such goodies as Crested Bobwhite, Spectacled, Pacific Screech, and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls, Boat-billed Heron, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Crimson-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, Gartered (Violaceous) Trogon, Blue-diademed (crowned) Motmot, and Blue Grosbeak.

You can also eat breakfast on a balcony that overlooks one of their ponds and see such birds as

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Least Grebe- kind of local in Costa Rica.

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Ringed Kingfisher.

Boat-billed Herons- the Zamora Estate has to be one of the easiest places in the country to see this odd species.

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Social Flycatchers- a common edge species in much of Costa Rica.

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Hoffmann’s Woodpecker- the common woodpecker of the Central valley.

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Northern Jacana- always fun to watch this one!

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and Gray-necked Wood-Rails- on a recent birding club meeting, we were entertained by a pair of these scurrying back and forth.

The balcony was so good for photography that I could have stayed there all day taking pictures of birds and whatever else showed up like this caiman:

Costa Rica birding

The Zamora Estate isn’t a cheap place to stay but is more than adequately priced for what is offered. The owners should also be highly lauded for preserving some of the last wetlands in the Central Valley. I wouldn’t be surprised if more bird species are added to their list as more birders discover this place.

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills caribbean slope lowlands

Good Costa Rica Birding at the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

What makes a hotel truly worthy of the “eco-lodge” title? How about one that is also an organic farm, protects primary rainforest, provides employment to locals, prefers guests who dig the natural world, and strives to be sustainable. In all of the above respects, the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge fits the bill perfectly. I was fortunate to be able to visit this gem of a spot with my wife and daughter over the past weekend and look forward to doing a lot more birding at this site in the future.

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They also have a nice ozonated pool.

I heard about and was invited to the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge by fellow guide and birding friend of mine, Juan Diego Vargas. Juan Diego spends much of his time looking for birds in Liberia but also guides in many areas of the country and helps out with a number of ornithological projects. One of these has been inventories of the birds at Luna Nueva (check out this link for the details). A few of the more interesting finds were White-fronted Nunbird, Green Thorntail, Black-crested Coquette, and even Great Green Macaw. The nunbirds appear to have a healthy resident population and are readily seen along a trail that accesses primary forest. The hummingbirds are probably seasonal but we had one female Black-crested Coquette over the weekend. The macaw is a very rare, seasonal visitor during October but the fact that it does show up reflects the healthy bird habitat on the farm.

Yes, the fact that the place is a working farm makes it all the more interesting and acts as a ray of sustainable hope in a world whose ecosystems are stressed by the needs of several billion people. Farm workers arrive in the morning and you will probably see a few while birding, but unlike farms that raise monocultures, you will also see lots of birds. At least I did while walking past a mix of cacao, ginger, medicinal herbs, chile peppers, scattered trees, and areas that were allowed to naturally recover. White-crowned Parrots were very common and filled the air with their screeching calls. Bright-rumped Attilas, three species of toucans, Black-throated Wrens, Barred Antshrikes, and other species of the humid Caribbean slope flitted through bushes and treetops while a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails ran along paths through the organic crops. The birding was definitely good in the farmed area of the lodge but I think the food was even better.

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I finally got a good shot of an atilla!

The Luna Nueva is a proponent of what they call, “slow food”. The apparent antithesis of hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and other quickly made, over-sugared, and fatty foods, slow food is all about the good taste that comes from using carefully groomed, high quality products. At least this was the impression I got after having eaten slow food at Luna Nueva over the course of the weekend. Everything they served was not only damn good, but it also left me feeling super healthy. Really, if you want to eat some of the healthiest, tastiest food in the country, eat at Luna Nueva.

Now back to the birds! Mornings started off with a fine dawn chorus of humid lowland edge and forest species. This means a medley of sound that included Laughing Falcons, Gray Hawk, toucans, the bouncing ball song of Black-striped Sparrow, Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, Barred Antshrikes, Cinnamon and White-winged Becard, Long-tailed Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, and others.

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We also enjoyed a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers that worked a snag in front of our family bungalow.

A few flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets sped overhead and Red-billed Pigeons flapped their way around scattered trees. As morning progressed, hummingbirds became more obvious as they zipped and chipped between patches of heliconias and Porterweed planted to attract them. Speaking of hummingbirds, Luna Nueva is an especially good site for those glittering avian delights. I had at least 8 species during my stay and I’m sure you could see more.

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A male Violet-headed Hummingbird was one of the eight species.

In the primary forest, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, Golden-crowned Spadebills, Great Tinamou, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds called from the understory while Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and a few Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers vocalized from the canopy. That latter species is not all that common in Costa Rica so it was good to record it (my first for 2011). Although some of the deep forest species are unfortunately lacking or rare because of poor connectivity with other, more extensive forest, you could use the lodge as a base to bird more intact forests around Arenal or the Manuel Brenes Reserve (both 20 minute drives).

I didn’t do any nocturnal birding but was awakened by the calls of  a Black and White Owl on my first night. The habitat is perfect for this species so you should probably see it without too much effort around the lodge buildings.

This was what the habitat looked like around the lodge buildings,

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this was what the primary rainforest looked like,

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and this was a view from the canopy tower.

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Oops, did I say canopy tower? It turns out that the Luna Nueva has had a canopy tower for years but the birding community didn’t know anything about it! The lodge has gone unnoticed and rather undiscovered because it was marketed to student groups and botanically slanted tours for most of its history. Birders, herpitologists, and other aficionados of our natural world should start showing up on a more regular basis once the word gets out about this place.

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Hognose Viper- one of the many reasons why herpitologists will like this place. Others are frog ponds that attract Red-eyed Tree Frogs and Cat-eyed Snakes, and a healthy herp population inside the forest.

From the tower, I mostly had common edge species but the looks were sweet as candied mangos and it should turn up some uncommon raptors, good views of parrots, and maybe even a cotinga or two at the right time of the year.

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A Blue-Gray Tanager from the tower.

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A Squirrel Cuckoo from the tower.

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A Yellow-crowned Euphonia in a fruiting Melastome at the base of the tower.

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A Common Tody-Flycatcher on the side of the road (they were pretty common and confiding- my kind of bird!).

The following is my bird list from our stay (115 species):

Great Tinamou

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Gray Hawk

Gray-headed Kite

Laughing Falcon

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Red-billed Pigeon

Ruddy Ground-Dove

White-tipped Dove

Gray-chested Dove

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Olive-throated Parakeet

Orange-chinned Parakeet

White-crowned Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Squirrel Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Black and white Owl

White-collared Swift

Long-billed Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Green-breasted Mango

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Black-crested Coquette

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Collared Aracari

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Smoky-brown Woodpecker

Rufous-winged Woodpecker

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Lineated Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Northern barred Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Barred Antshrike

Western Slaty Antshrike

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Yellow Tyrannulet

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-bellied Ealenia

Piratic Flycatcher

Yellow-olive Flycatcher

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Bright-rumped Atilla

Long-tailed Tyrant

Tropical Pewee

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird

Cinnamon Becard

White-winged Becard

Masked Tityra

White-collared Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Brown Jay

Gray-breasted Martin

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Stripe-breasted Wren

Bay Wren

Black-throated Wren

House Wren

White-breasted Wood Wren

Clay-colored Robin

Buff-rumped Warbler

Bananaquit

Red-throated Ant-Tanager

Olive (Carmiol’s) Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Palm Tanager

Blue Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Thick-billed Seed-Finch

Variable Seedeater

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Blue-black Grassquit

Orange-billed Sparrow

Black-striped Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Black-faced Grosbeak

Blue-black Grosbeak

Melodious Blackbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Yellow-billed Cacique

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges feeders high elevations Hummingbirds middle elevations

Birding El Toucanet Lodge, Costa Rica

Two weekends ago, I finally got the chance to experience El Toucanet Lodge near Copey de Dota, Costa Rica. This highland birding site has popped up on the Costa Rican birding grapevine on a number of occasions so I was enthused about birding there while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. I have guided a number of birders who have enthralled me with tales of El Toucanet’s exciting hummingbird action, easy views of quetzals, great food, and quality hospitality. After staying there, I echo their sentiments and definitely recommend the place when birding the Talamancas.

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The majority of birders get their fill of high elevation birding in Costa Rica at Savegre Mountain Hotel in San Gerardo de Dota. Since the oak forests there are more accessible than at El Toucanet, you can’t go wrong with birding at Savegre Mountain Lodge, but it’s also more expensive. For a more moderately priced option, El Toucanet is $30 cheaper per night on average and is situated at a lower elevation with drier forest that turns up an interesting suite of species. In addition to good birding around the hotel, birders who come with a rental vehicle will find it to be a good site to use as a base for birding higher elevations.

At the lodge itself, two hummingbird feeders were enough to entertain us with views of the following species:

Violet Sabrewing

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Stripe-tailed Hummingbird

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Green Violetear

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Magenta-throated Woodstar

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Scintillant Hummingbird

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Purple-throated Mountain-Gem

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and the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

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There were also camera shy Green-crowned Brilliants, Magnificent Hummingbirds, and in flowering Ingas on the property, a few Steely-vented Hummingbirds. White-throated Mountain-Gems, and Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds seen at higher elevations gave us a respectable total of thirteen hummingbirds species seen during our stay.

On the non-hummingbird side of page, some of the highlights at the lodge and in nearby, similar habitats were Dark Pewee (common), Barred Becard (fairly common), Spotted Wood-Quail (heard only although they sometimes show up at the lodge), Collared Trogon, Black and white Becard (very uncommon species in Costa Rica), and Rough-legged Tyrannulet. Much to my chagrin, this last bird was also a heard only as it would have been a lifer! I tried calling it in but the bird just wouldn’t come close enough to see it- all the more reason to head back up there!

Flame-colored Tanagers were fairly common and came to the lodge feeders once in a while

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but the lodge namesake seemed to be pretty uncommon. We still saw a few Emerald Toucanets but not as many as I had expected; maybe they are more common at other times of the year or are down in numbers like the Resplendent Quetzal. As with other areas in Costa Rica, the wacky fruiting season seems to have had an impact upon quetzal numbers so it took us a few days to actually see one. This is in contrast to the norm at El Tocuanet whereby guests often view more than one of these fancy birds on the daily quetzal tour (free for guests).

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A Resplendent Quetzal near El Toucanet being resplendent.

One of our best birdies during our visit was Silver-throated Jay. This tough endemic needs primary highland oak forest and, at El Tocuanet, is only regularly found at higher elevations where the road to Providencia flattens out. It was nice to get this rarity for the year even if it was a pain to get clear views of it in the densely foliaged crowns of massive, moss-draped oaks. That same area also hosted three or four calling, unseen Buff-fronted Quail-Doves, the aforementioned high elevation hummingbirds, and a mixed flock highlighted by Buffy Tuftedcheeks. We also had our weirdest bird of the trip in that area- a Magnificent Frigatebird! If it wanted to masquerade as an American Swallow-tailed Kite, those raptors weren’t buying it and demonstrated their discontent by dive-bombing the modern day Pterodactyl.

We also had calling quetzals around there, and at night, heard Dusky Nightjar, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl. During our after dark excursion, we tried for the near mythical Unspotted Saw-whet but didn’t get any response. Maybe it occurs at higher elevations? Maybe it just doesn’t like birders? No matter because I am going to get that feathered gnome before 2011 comes to an end!

Our final morning was when we got the quetzal (thanks to the owners son Kenny who whistled it in) in addition to being our best morning of birding. Streak-breasted Treehunter hung out at a nesting hole (burrow) in a quarry. Barred Becard and bathing Long-tailed Silky-Flycatchers entertained in the same area. Tufted Flycatchers, migrant Olive-sided Flycatcher, and Dark Pewee were sallying off perches like jumping jack flash, and Yellow-bellied Siskins did what all birds should do-

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sing from exposed, eye level perches for long periods of time at close distances. Challenges are OK but relaxed, easy birding is always better!

One drawback to birding near El Toucanet is that hunting still occurs in the area. We didn’t see any guys with guns or floppy eared, baying dogs, but we were told that locals do hunt in the Los Santos Forest Reserve (illegally). I suspected as much because of the flighty behavior of birds in the area (except at El Toucanet where they know they are safe). Even so, aside from making it a bit more challenging to watch birds close up, I doubt that it affects the birding all that much. Black Guans are probably more difficult to see but you may still have a good chance for them when birding the long road through Providencia and the highway. Much of this underbirded road cuts through beautiful forest. If you have the time and vehicle, please bird it and let us know what you see! I plan on surveying the road sometime this year and will blog about it.

In the meantime, check out El Toucanet! I bet the area around the lodge holds more surprises, the fireplace is certifiably cozy, the food very good, and the owners as nice as can be.

Here was a very cool surprise that I ran into just next to the lodge- my lifer Godson’s Montane Pit-Viper!

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope Introduction lowlands

Exciting Birding in Northern Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to finally get the chance to bird Laguna del Lagarto during three days of guiding. I emphasize “finally” because I had wondered how the birding was up there near the Nicaraguan border ever since my first trip to Costa Rica in the early 90s. It was so far off the beaten track, though, that I just never made it up that way despite always hearing promising accolades about the place.

So, when we were at long last on our way to Laguna del Lagarto, we drove up and over the mountains through the town of Zarcero with uplifted and excited hearts. Our hopes were boosted by their checklist and the fact that so much of the surrounding area was still heavily forested. Much more so in fact than Sarapiqui or any other part of the Caribbean lowlands. This certainly explains why Laguna has recorded such tough to see bird species in Costa Rica as Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Tawny-faced Quail. None of these were guaranteed by any means but we knew that just being in the area would improve our chances. Heck, we even had a remote chance at Crested and Harpy Eagles. Given the amount of unbirded habitat near Laguna del Lagarto and the fact that a friend of mine had seen Harpy Eagle up that way in 1998, it isn’t entirely out of the question to hit the jackpot with those mega-raptors on a visit to Laguna del Lagarto and surrounding areas.

Heading into the Caribbean foothill town of Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos), constant rain and heavy skies threatened to put a damper on our excitement. It didn’t faze us too much, though, because we were familiar with the long term downpours of the Caribbean Slope. I sure hoped that it would give us a break, however, and much to our delight, the falling water diminished to occasional, inconsequential drips just as we headed north from Pital.

Pital is the last bastion of asphalt as you make your way to the lodge but the gravel is actually pretty nice all the way to the village near Laguna known as Boca Tapada. It’s not as smooth going as a tarred road but it also had fewer potholes than the heavily traveled byway that leads to Arenal National Park. If one drove straight to the lodge from San Jose, I estimate a trip of just 4 hours or less. Birders, though, are going to take much longer because once you get 15 or so kilometers past Pital,the birding is pretty good!

Roadside marshes should be checked for rails, Pinnated Bittern, and other aquatic species, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch could show up (we didn’t see it but it certainly occurs), forest patches somewhat near the road should be scanned and scoped for toucans, parrots, and (most of all) raptors, and areas with old second growth should be checked out for a wide variety of species.

With brief stops in such habitats, we probably recorded 60-70 species, highlights being Gray-headed Kite, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Pied Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and White-lined Tanager. Mind you, this was mid-morning and although the overcast conditions were ideal for bird activity, I would love to see how many species I could record along that road during more productive early morning hours. It’s not ideal habitat but there is enough extensive forest within scoping distance to make it pretty exciting.

The birdiest stretch of the road is arguably the area between Boca Tapada and the lodge. At this point, productive second growth and primary forest are found on both sides and a large number of species are possible, the nunbird included. It’s worth birding even though it’s just two kilometers more to the lodge. Laguna del Lagarto has a sign but even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t miss the “v-shaped” lagoon at the entrance. No matter when you walk or drive by that lagoon, it should always be checked for Agami Heron. Although this splendiferous wader is often seen by visitors to Laguna who take a canoe out onto the muddy waters, we got ours on our last day by scanning the shaded shore right from the entrance gate to the lodge. I suspected that I had the bird because I saw a suspicious-looking gray shape in the shadows of some overhanging vegetation but it wasn’t until the heron thrust its rapier of a bill into the water that I knew for a fact that I was looking at an Agami Heron. It’s incredible how stealthy and still this species can be so it pays to very carefully scan the shores of their preferred haunts- streams, pools, and muddy lagoons in lowland forest.

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There is an Agami Heron somewhere in this image at the most reliable lodge to see it in Costa Rica- Laguna del Lagarto.

You could probably get the Agami from the lodge itself if you keep scanning for it as several of the rooms overlook the lagoon where we saw it. Speaking of the lodge, I was especially impressed with the excellent service and management provided by the manager, Alfaro. He took time out of his day to assure that each guest was getting the most out of his or her stay and kept us updated on where the Agami Heron had been sighted as well as other signature species such as Great Green Macaw. He also invited us to his “bird garden”- his very bird friendly backyard. We didn’t get the chance to visit it but from the photos of honeycreepers and tanagers that were taken at his garden, it should be a must see for any birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto with a camera.

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Rooms were comfortable and clean, the food average to good, and the feeders spectacular!

The feeders a Laguna del Lagarto consisted of a large bunch of bananas or plantains that are somehow placed on a platform twenty feet above the ground. BUT, since the dining area of the lodge is built on top of a hill, the birds that come to the feeder are seen at eye level! You almost feel as if you are sharing lunch with the toucans, parrots, oropendolas, and tanagers that visit the feeder because you can easily watch them sans binoculars while you eat.

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A head-on view of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

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Keel-billed Toucans are incredibly colorful when seen at close range.

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Collared Aracaris also partook in the feeder food but weren’t as common as their bigger bethren.

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Montezuma Oropendolas also came close enough to allow detailed studies of their clown-like faces.

The best of the larger birds, however, were Brown-hooded Parrots. There aren’t many places where you can see these guys at a feeder!

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birding Costa Rica

Smaller species showed up once the larger birds left. Passerini’s Tanagers were of course very common.

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Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were also present

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as were Buff-throated Saltators among a few other common species.

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It was also worth it to scan forest canopy visible from the restaurant and some of the rooms. We had looks at Great Green Macaw and more than one perched King Vulture in this way.

Kind of distant for a photo but there’s no mistaking a white vulture with black flight feathers  for anything other than a King.

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Laguna del Lagarto lodge also has trails through beautiful lowland rainforest. This type of habitat has become pretty hard to access on the Carbbean Slope so we were looking forward to spending quality birding time beneath the tall canopy. Most people experience it at La Selva but edge effects (and an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) have eliminated a number of understory bird species at that classic birding site. It was a shock, therefore, to see that a fair portion of Laguna’s forest looked as if it had been selectively logged! Apparently in 2010, a rare tornado had torn through parts of their forest and knocked over several, massive, old growth trees. It was a sad sight as we walked along muddy trails through open forest and I wondered why that tornado had to touch down at such a rare, complex, sensitive habitat instead of twirling around in some dusty, overgrazed pasture. There are still trails through intact forest at Laguna del Lagarto but I wonder if or to what extent the tornado affected bird populations. A local guide told us that canopy birds were easier to see but it looked as if understory species were less common and monkeys had certainly declined. Fortunately, the forest grows up pretty quick in the humid, rain-soaked lowlands so it will come back eventually.

During our three days at Laguna, our experiences in the forest echoed the sentiments of the guide. Canopy flocks were of regular occurrence but there were very few understory flocks and I heard very few understory species during our time there (even if you don’t run into mixed flocks of understory insectivores, you still usually detect them by sound), I have to believe that they are still around because the forest at Laguna is connected to a much larger forest block.  I suspect, though, that they aren’t as common as they were in the past. Perhaps birds such as antwrens, spadebills, antvireos, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet will increase in abundance as the forest grows up. I certainly hope so but in the meantime, to see them at Laguna del Lagarto, you may need to focus on trails through more intact parts of the forest.

Some of the highlights of our stay at Laguna del Lagarto were:

Helping out with the annual Christmas Count (run by the Rainforest Biodiversity Group– the organization that created and promotes the Costa Rican Bird Route) while birding with David and Alfredo Segura. David is a young Tico birder, Alfredo his non-birding father. They make a great team and sharing much of Laguna’s birdlife with them was a memorable experience. Maybe I will interview them some day for the blog.

Agami Heron- Laguna is certainly the most reliable and accesible site for this species in Costa Rica.

Semiplumbeous Hawk– A scoped, calling individual deep inside the forest was a major highlight of the trip.

Great Green Macaw– This lodge and surroundings have long been known as a regular site for this endangered species. We saw maybe 7 individuals and had them on each of three days.

Brown-hooded Parrots at the feeders.

Mottled Owl seen at dawn on the road in front of the lodge. Black and white was also seen around the cabins by others and we heard but did not see Central American Pygmy-Owl.

Common Potoo– We didn’t see it but we did hear it and that earns it a position on my year list!

Pied Puffbird– We saw several of this cool, little bird.

White-fronted Nunbird– One of main targets fell on our last day at the forest edge in the back part of the garden and even allowed me to take its picture.

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Thrushlike Schiffornis– We heard one of this deep forest species.

Brown-capped Tyrannulet– We had a few of these tiny, canopy flycatchers but they were always tough to see because of their size (or lack of).

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant– A common bird at Laguna del Lagarto and not to difficult to see with patience.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher– We had a few inside the forest with canopy flocks but they were very difficult to see well.

Slate-colored Grosbeak– Three birds seen together and one heard.

After leaving the lodge, we drove further up the road that follows the San Carlos River and although we saw little on a sunny afternoon, the whole area looks very promising. The road signed to the San Juan Biological Reserve in particular looked fantastic as it passed through intact, primary lowland rainforest but I am honestly concerned about the safety of birding it because you are in the middle of nowhere and close to the river that marks the border with Nicaragua (which may or may not be used by drug traffickers). That might sound paranoid but since a large amount of drugs are believed to pass through Costa Rica and the tendency for rural areas in the country to be quite lawless, it’s probably best to avoid birding along that road for the time being.

birding Costa Rica

Fantastic road for birding but I don’t know how safe it is. I am sure it’s safe most of the time but it would be best to ask locals about it before birding there.

I would head back to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge or other lodges in the area in a second however, as they are safe, harbor some of the best lowland forests on the Caribbean Slope, and they probably hold some nice, feathered surprises too.

Below is a list of bird species we recorded from Pital to Laguna del Lagarto for the dates of January 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Great Tinamou- a few heard and two seen
Little Tinamou- one heard
Neotropic Cormorant- one on San carlos River
Great Blue Heron- one at laguna
Great Egret- one along road
Snowy Egret- one on river
Little Blue Heron- one along road
Cattle Egret- several along road
Agami Heron- one seen along edge of lagoon, athers also saw from canoe
Green Ibis
Black Vulture- several
Turkey Vulture-several
King Vulture- 3-4 each day from lodge
Muscovy Duck- 2 along road
Osprey- one along road
Roadside Hawk- one along road
Broadwinged Hawk- one along road
Gray-headed Kite- one along road
Laughing Falcon- several along road and near lodge
Collared Forest-Falcon- 2 heard near lodge
Crested Caracara- a one along road
Semiplumbeous Hawk- 2 in forest
Gray Hawk- one along road
Crested Guan- a few in forest
Great Currasow- 1 heard, others saw a few at lodge
White-throated Crake- several heard along road
Gray-breasted Crake- one heard along road
Gray-necked Wood-Rail- one seen compost
Purple Gallinule- a few seen along road
Red-billed Pigeon- several along road
Short-billed Pigeon- several at lodge
Gray-chested Dove- a few at lodge
White-tiped Dove- one along road
Ruddy Ground-Dove- several along road
Olive-throated Parakeet- several
Orange-chinned Parakeet- just a few
Great Green Macaw- 6-7 at lodge
White-crowned Parrot- several
Brown-hooded Parrot-several at lodge and feeders
Red-lored Parrot-a few near lodge
Mealy Parrot- several at lodge
Groove-billed Ani- several along road
Mottled Owl- one seen
Central American Pygmy-Owl- a few heard at lodge
Common Pauraque- one along road
Common Potoo- one heard near lodge
Gray-rumped Swift- many
Long-billed Hermit- a few at lodge
Stripe-throated Hermit- a few at lodge
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird- a few along road
Purple-crowned Fairy- one in forest
Violet-headed Hummingbird- one in garden
Violet-crowned Woodnymph- a few in forest
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- several
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- a few
Slaty-tailed Trogon- several heard in forest
Black-throated Trogon- one seen in forest
Broad-billed Motmot- a few heard
Ringed Kingfisher- a few near lodge
Green Kingfisher- a few on lagoons
Pied Puffbird- several in area
White-fronted Nunbird- 2 in back of garden
Collared Aracari- several in area
Keel-billed Toucan- several in area
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- several in area
Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several
Smoky-brown Woodpecker- one along road
Lineated Woodpecker- a few along road
Pale-billed Woodpecker- a few in forest
Cinnamon Woodpecker- 2 heard near lodge
Slaty Spinetail- several heard along road
Plain-brown Woodcreeper- one heard
Cocoa Woodcreeper- a few heard
Streak-headed Woodcreeper- several
Black-striped Woodcreeper- several
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- several
Northern Barred Woodcreeper- a few heard
Barred Antshrike- one heard along road
Western Slaty Antshrike- a few in forest
Dot-winged Antwren- a few near lodge
Chestnut-backd Antbird- a few in forest
Black-faced Anttthrush- several heard
Thicket Antpitta- one heard along road
Brown-capped Tyrannulet- several heard and a few seen at lodge
Yellow Tyrannulet- a few along road
Paltry Tyrannulet- several
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- several
Common Tody-Flycatcher- a few heard
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- one heard at lodge
Yellow-margined Flycatcher- a few heard and seen in forest
Tropical Pewee- one heard along road
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- several
Long-tailed Tyrant- a few along road
Rufous Mourner- one seen near lodge
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- a few heard
Great-crested Flycatcher- a few
Great Kiskadee- a few along road and at lodge
Boat-billed Flycatcher- two at lodge
Social Flycatcher- a few along road
White-ringed Flycatcher- one heard near lodge
TK- several
Thrushlike Schiffornis- one heard in forest
Red-capped Manakin- a few in forest
White-collared Manakin- a few along road
Black-crowned Tityra- one near lodge
Cinnamon Becard- several
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- a few heard in forest
Lesser Greenlet- many
Bay Wren- several heard
House Wren- several on road
White-breasted Wood-Wren- several in forest
Tropical Gnatcatcher- a few
Wood Thrush- several in forest
Clay-colored Robin- a few
Yellow Warbler- a few
Chestnut-sided Warbler- many
Hooded Warbler- one in forest
Northern Waterthrush- one at lagoon
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- one near Boca Tapada
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one heard at river
Bananaquit- several
White-shouldered Tanager- several in forest
Tawny-crested Tanager- a few in forest
White-lined Tanager- one along road
Summer Tanager- several
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- one heard at lodge
Passerini’s Tanager- several
Blue-gray Tanager-several
Palm Tanager- several
Golden-hooded Tanager- several
Olive-backed Euphonia- several
Green Honeycreeper- a few
Shining Honeycreeper- several
Red-legged Honeycreeper- a few at lodge
Blue Dacnis- a few in forest
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- one along road
Blue-black Grasquite- many
Variable Seedeeater- many along road
White-collared Seedeater- several along road
Thick-billed Seed-Finch- a few along road
Yelow-faced Grasquit- a few along road
Buff-throated Saltator- several
Black-headed Saltator- two along road
Slate-colored Grosbeak- three near lodge and one heard in forest
Orange-billed Sparrow- a few heard in forest
Black-faced Grosbeak- a few along road
Blue-black Grosbeak- several
Melodious Blackbird- a few along road
Red-winged Blackbird- a few along road
Bronzed Cowbird- a few along road
Baltimore Oriole- several
Scarlet-rumped Cacique- several in forest
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- a few in forest
Montezuma Oropendola- many
Categories
birding lodges Christmas Counts Osa Peninsula Pacific slope

The 2010 Osa Christmas Count at the Bosque del Rio Tigre

I took a second class bus from the bowels of San Jose up and over Cerro de la Muerte (” mountain of death”) to the frontier-like southwestern lowlands of Costa Rica to get to my destination. It was ten hours on the bus, two of which involved slamming our way over a section of remote road that was seriously afflicted with potholes, but I finally reached my rendezvous with birding friend Dorothy MacKinnon just before nightfall. It was slightly too late to watch birds except for the Common Pauraques that flew off the road at our approach but still early enough to comfortably ford the river that runs just in front of our final waypoint, the Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge.

Inside the lodge.

birding Costa Rica

We were there to participate in the Bosque del Rio Tigre sector of the Osa CBC organized by Karen Leavelle of the Friends of the Osa. Our gracious hosts were Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo, owners of one of the best birding lodges in Costa Rica, the Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge. They were as welcoming as always and eager to discuss count logistics. With just 11 participants, it was going to be impossible to cover the count circle to the extent of other Costa Rican counts such as La Selva or Carara but we would do our best with two small teams covering major habitats as well as one person staying back at the house to maintain the yard and feeder count.

I had heard a lot about the excellent cuisine of Bosque del Rio Tigre and the tuna steaks and garlic potatoes for dinner on the evening before the count certainly surpassed my expectations. As I savored that perfect meal, I thought that if the birds didn’t cooperate, at least dinner was probably worth the long bus ride!

As with all nights before a CBC in the tropics, I went to bed before nine to essentially get up in the night. Sure, 4:30 a.m. is only thirty minutes or so before the light of dawn begins to faintly illuminate the surroundings but it’s still nighttime in my book. Because it is pitch black outside, I always have this strong notion that I should be sleeping as opposed to feeling disoriented as I fumble around with my flashlight. 

Fortunately, I am able to make it to the washroom without knocking anything over or walking into a wall and fully wake myself up with cold water splashed on the face. Since I wisely prepared my gear the night before, I am ready to rock and roll in five minutes and head downstairs for coffee and banana bread.  As others come to the table, Liz apologizes for the fact that we aren’t having a proper breakfast and points out a variety of healthy snacks to keep us going until an early lunch. As we finish coffee and get ready to head off to our respective territories, the first birds of the day start to call. Someone heard Black and white Owl the night before so that is technically bird numero uno but the first for me is a Collared Forest-Falcon vocalizing from somewhere on the other side of the river. Getting a forest falcon at that crepuscular hour is pretty typical as is hearing woodcreepers and shortly thereafter sure enough, our next birds are a couple of dawn yodeling Cocoa and Northern Barred Woodcreepers. Another of our first calling birds is regular at the lodge but a new year bird for me- the tiny Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet.

Starting the count. Check out our slick, green 2010 Osa CBC tee-shirts.

birding Costa Rica

Just as everything seems to be starting to wake up and the light of day steadily grows, Liz, Dorothy, and I head up into the primary forest on the hillside behind the lodge on our way to an open area that overlooks a mix of pasture and forest. We quickly tick off forest species such as Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Scaly-throated Leaftosser (regular at the lodge), Golden-crowned Spadebill, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager. Dot-winged Antwren, Red-capped Manakin and Blue-black Grosbeak also get counted and just as we reach the horse trail that will take us to the open area, Gray-headed Kite calls from the canopy. In addition to its typical vocalization of steady, repeated notes, it also gives a strange rising call that momentarily tricks us because of its similarity to the calls of a young Spectacled Owl.

On up into the open area, we keep hearing new birds and actually see a few too now that it’s light out. The day is thankfully overcast but not so much to pour down rain and so we thankfully avoid getting roasted under the blazing, lowland sun. As we scan the treetops, Liz remarks how heavier rains than usual appear to have resulted in less fruit being available in the forest and so a number of frugivorous birds seem to have moved to lower lying areas in search of arboreal vittles. She says that because of this it’s kind of slow even though we have recorded 70 species by this time.

birding Costa Rica

While scanning the forest canopy, I find one of our best birds of the day perched in a tall, bare emergent. It’s not very close but the light colored underparts and dark head tells me this is something good and when it turns its head to reveal a raptor profile, yep(!) it’s a Tiny Hawk! My first for 2010 and always a good bird, the thrush-sized little forest raptor lets us watch it for a few minutes before flying across of field of view. In flight it looks a lot like a small Sharp-shinned Hawk.

We leave the open area after that and count more forest birds as we make our way down to the Crake Trail and eventually to edge habitats near the river. The Crake Trails gets its name from the Uniform Crakes that are regular there. We look for them but despite neither seeing nor hearing any, keep moving because we just can’t dedicate the whole day to seeing that elusive denizen of wet thickets. It’s around this time that we also hear a strange bird calling. I know it’s a parakeet species but nothing I am familiar with and so guess that it could be a Brown-throated Parakeet. I can barely believe my eyes when I then briefly spot a long-tailed parakeet hanging out with a much shorter-tailed and expected Orange-chinned Parakeet perched at the top of a riverside tree. The only other long-tailed parakeet species in the area is Crimson-fronted Parakeet but this bird was most definitely NOT one of those! They fly off before I can get more than a one second look and it’s not enough to clinch an ID but amazingly, we hear it calling again and are thrilled to see it fly right into perfect light and perch in full view for 5 or so seconds. The pale eye ring accompanied by brown cheeks and throat show that yes it is most certainly a Brown-throated Parakeet and we can hardly believe our luck at getting this new species for the lodge on the same day as the CBC.

As the sun comes out, we get several more raptors- King Vulture, White Hawk, Gray Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, American Swallow-tailed Kite, and Black Hawk Eagle. With 14 raptor species recorded for the day, I am pretty sure it’s my best day for raptors in Costa Rica! After sightings of Great Antshrike, two becard species, and picking up more key birds of the low, thick stuff such as our only Black-bellied Wren of the day and Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher, we swing by a lagoon to get Neotropical Cormorant, Green Kingfisher, and Boat-billed and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons and get killer close looks at beautiful Marbled Wood-Quail before finally making it back to the lodge for lunch. After trudging around all morning in the uncomfortable yet requisite rubber boots, it’s a fantastic feeling to take that trying footwear off and sit down to yet another excellent meal. 

Me looking serious (probably dazed by the humidity) and Dorothy enjoying an apple.

birding Costa Rica

During lunch and some post lunch relaxation, the parakeet shows up again, this time with a brown-throated friend, and they amazingly perch in full view on a distant tree. As we watch those, it’s hard to decide where to look as a much prettier Turquoise Cotinga makes an appearance in the same tree and Little Tinamou and Blue Ground-Doves show up near the kitchen to eat rice thrown to the ground. Fruit feeders also attract quality bird species such as…

 the Costa Rican endemic, Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager,

birding Costa Rica

the mostly Costa Rican endemic Fiery-billed Aracari (they barely reach Panama),

birding Costa Rica

and two other mostly Costa Rican endemics, the Spot-crowned Euphonia, and

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Golden-naped Woodpecker!

Although I kind of feel like just birding from a hammock for the rest of the day, as it would be blasphemous to shirk responsibilities on a CBC, I join the group in fording the river to walk through the village and hike up the Pizote River to make sure we don’t miss White-tipped Sicklebill. Birding is good (surprise, surprise) along the way and we record a bunch of usual edge and second growth suspects as well as Green Heron, Northern Jacana, Purple Gallinule, and White-throated Crake in roadside marshy spots.

The river walk is made challenging because we can’t see wear to put our feet in water made murky by the activities of gold miners (illegal) upriver. The sound of the rushing stream cancels out any and all bird calls which makes this segment of the CBC the least productive. There was gold at the end of the muddy rainbow however, as Abraham led us to roosting White-tipped Sicklebills! Another new one for the year, I hadn’t seen one of these crazy looking hummingbirds since I don’t know when so I guess the fear of slipping and drowning my camera in the brown stream was worth it!

birding Costa Rica

White-tipped Sicklebill thanks to Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre lodge.

A fitting way to end a fantastic day of birding, we counted up results before yet another perfect dinner and came up with 205 bird species! Our team alone wracked up 144 for the day and still saw a dozen or more species the following morning. It will be interesting to see how many I get on the Carara count two weeks from now.

We couldn’t count wooden birds but we got the real ones anyways (Turquoise Cotinga, Barird’s Trogon, and Orange-collared Manakin).

birding Costa Rica

Our team list for the day:

Little Tinamou
Neotropical Cormorant
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Boat-billed Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
White Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Collared Forest-Falcon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Gray -headed Kite
Tiny Hawk
Black Hawk-Eagle
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Double-toothed Kite
American Swallow-tailed Kite
Marbled Wood-Quail
White-throated Crake
Purple Gallinule
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
Northern Jacana
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Blue Ground Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Brown-throated Parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Brown-hooded Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Mealy Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Scarlet Macaw
Squirrel Cuckoo
White-collared Swift
Costa-Rican Swift
Bronzy Hermit
Long-billed Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
White-tipped Sicklebill
White-necked Jacobin
Blue-throated Goldentail
Charming Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Baird’s Trogon
Violaceous Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Blue-crowned Motmot
Green Kingfisher
White-necked Puffbird
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Slaty Spinetail
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
Plain Xenops
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Long-tailed Woodcreeper
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Black-hooded Antshrike
Great Antshrike
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Dot-winged Antwren
Black-faced Antthrush
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet
Southern Beardless Tyrannulet
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Wood pewee sp.
Tropical Pewee
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Bright-rumped Attila
Rufous Piha
Rose-throated Becard
White-winged Becard
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Orange-collared Manakin
Red-capped Mankin
Turquoise Cotinga
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Lesser Greenlet
Gray-breasted Martin
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Mangrove Swallow
Black-bellied Wren
Riverside Wren
House Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Clay-colored Robin
Tennessee Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Mourning Warbler
Bananaquit
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cherries´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
White-throated Shrike-Tanager
Blue Dacnis
Blue-black Grasquit
Variable Seedeater
Thick-billed Seed-Finch
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Baltimore Oriole
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Yellow-billed Cacique
Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Christmas Count

The Bosque del Rio Tigre Lodge has become known for being one of the better birding lodges in Costa Rica (and many say it is the best). It has received such accolades from guests who are on birding trips to Costa Rica for a number of reasons, among them such factoids as:

  • Bosque del Rio Tigre is located in one of the wildest, most biologically intense areas of the country- the forests of the Osa Peninsula. The forests of the Osa are thought to be older than other rainforests in southern Costa Rica because higher numbers of plant and animal species occur there compared to other forests on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Slope. A higher degree of endemism and rainfall in the Osa also supports the idea that this biological wonderland acted as a sanctuary or natural refuge for organisms adapted to wetter habitats when the overall climate of the region was drier. What this means for the visiting birder is days with 100 or more bird species, large mixed flocks, and lots of animals of the non-bird variety.
  • The lowland rain forests of Costa Rica’s “big toe” are the heart of a small endemic bird area that reaches its northern limits at Carara National Park and its southern limits near David in westernmost Panama. Birding in the soul of this endemic bird area at places like Bosque del Rio Tigre means views of one of Costa Rica’s few endemic bird species, the Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, and a better chance than many other places for seeing target birds like the White-crested Coquette, endangered species such as Yellow-billed Cotinga and Mangrove Hummingbird, Baird’s Trogon, Turquoise Cotinga, Black-hooded Antshrike, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Beryl-crowned Hummingbird, and Fiery-billed Aracari.
  • Forests at Bosque del Rio Tigre are connected to that crown jewel of Costa Rican national parks known as Corcovado. Scarlet Macaws, large raptors, Great Currasows, and everything else associated with an intact lowland rainforest ecosystem are possible. Although you can’t expect to see a Harpy Eagle, the Osa is one the only places in Costa Rica where you still have a chance at glimpsing one.
  • The owners (Liz and Abraham Gallo) know where the birds are. They take guests to stake-outs of sexy species like White-tipped Sicklebill, Uniform Crake (who doesn’t want to see a crake in a uniform?), Yellow-billed Cotinga, and White-crested Coquette. The normally invisible Little Tinamou is also frequently seen as they come to the back of the kitchen area.
  • Speaking of the kitchen, the food is truly wonderful and has gotten just as much applause as the birding.

Bosque del Rio Tigre is certainly a top notch area for birding in Costa Rica but the real purpose of this post is to spread the word about their upcoming Christmas Count. A few have been held around the lodge in the past but Liz and Abraham are trying to make this an annual event to help promote conservation in and collect bird data for the Osa. This should come as no surprise as they have been involved with local conservation efforts since they opened and have become working hard at gathering data about and spurring efforts to study and conserve the Yellow-billed Cotinga.

And here is why I am announcing this on my blog: Participants are needed for the count!

It will take place on the 17th of December and counters can spend two nights at Costa Rica’s best birding lodge for discount prices. I’m not sure of the exact price but to find out and also learn more about the count, email the owners of Bosque del Rio Tigre. Family duties make it tough for me to get down to the Osa, but I sure hope to be on one of the 2010 counting teams!

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction middle elevations

Heliconias Lodge: some of the best birding in Costa Rica

With so much excellent birding to be had in Costa Rica, it’s always tempting to make statements such as “that site has some of the best birding in Costa Rica”, or “you have got to visit such and such site”! I am careful about giving out those accolades but I can tell you that I truly mean it when talking about the birding at Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua, Costa Rica

I first visited this community owned establishment situated on the flanks of Volcan Tenorio in 1999 after reading about it in my Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a brief mention of a place that was community owned, had low rates, and was located in a region that I had not previously birded. There wasn’t any talk of fantastic birding or anything that would have revealed the potential of this place. Nor do I recall the book hinting at the rough weather that is a common feature of Heliconias.

Volcan Tenorio- an excellent site for birding in Costa Rica.

Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica is somewhere up there.

On that first trip, there were few trails and the weather was typically bad with wind and misty rain that seemed to have a serious soaking agenda because it tended to “fall” in a sideways fashion for maximum drenching effect. Despite these wet, challenging conditions, I managed to see Ornate Hawk Eagle, Song Wrens, Spotted Antbirds, and other interesting species such as Long-tailed Manakin. I also became acquainted with Nicaraguan television broadcasts (one can see Lake Nicaragua from the lodge) while watching the TV in the lodge restaurant in an attempt to stay dry but that merits it’s own story.

View of Volcan Miravalles from Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica

The view from Heliconias Lodge.

I also came away with the impression that the habitat at Heliconias Lodge was pretty high quality and merited further investigation. I made a second trip with Robert Dean a couple years later and although we had to deal with similar bad weather, a few days of intensive birding yielded a number of bird species that are generally difficult to see in Costa Rica. These were things like Yellow-eared Toucanet, Lovely Cotinga (my one and only- a dove-like female), Sharpbill, and the prize of Heliconias- the Tody Motmot.

Six years after that second trip, I visited Heliconias for the third time and although the weather was the same windy, drizzly stuff, the lodge had improved their trails and put in a few canopy bridges! They also had trained, local guides who knew the birds, had owl species staked out, and were getting a fair amount of business. On that third trip, we saw Tody Motmot again, watched White-fronted Nunbird feed from the second canopy bridge, and had very good birding overall.

Crested Owl, birding Costa Rica

I also took very fuzzy pics of Crested Owl like this one (the lighting conditions in the forest had passed from being dim to downright dark).

White-fronted Nunbird, birding Costa Rica

White-fronted Nunbird hanging out on the bridge. With deforestation, White-fronted Nunbirds have become uncommon in Costa Rica.

Canopy bridge at Heliconias, Costa Rica- great for birding Costa Rica

My friend Ed Mockford posing on the second canopy bridge.

This past weekend, I finally got back to Heliconias to co-guide a trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica. The fourth time must be a charm for Heliconias Lodge because I got a break with the weather. Instead of being cool and damp, Heliconias Lodge was experiencing unseasonably hot and sunny weather that converted some of our rooms into temporary saunas. This also put a warm damper on bird activity but not enough to prevent us from seeing several, high quality species on trails that accessed excellent, foothill, primary forest.

Of the 121 bird species identified, some of our highlights were:

Great Curassow– Two males were “mooing” like mad cows near the entrance to the canopy bridge trails. At least one gave us views of its curly-crested head as it peered at us from within the dense understory.

Crested Guan– Nice, close views from the canopy bridges.

American Swallow-tailed Kites swooping around the lodge, one with a lizard in its claws.

Long-billed Starthroat– the most commonly seen hummingbird species around the lodge.

Black-crested Coquette– we had a female upon arrival and I fully expected to get pictures of it at some point during our stay but it just never reappeared!

Tody Motmot– Heliconias is the most accessible site for this miniature motmot in Costa Rica although they are still tough to see. I heard at least 7 pairs but saw just two of these toy-like birds.

Yellow-eared Toucanet– One lucky club member got good looks before it disappeared into the dense foothill forest.

Spotted Antbird– We saw several of these with and away from antswarms. They seem to be more common at Heliconias than other sites.

Ocellated Antbird– Nice looks at a couple of these fancy antbirds at a good antswarm on our final day.

Streak-crowned Antvireo– Several good looks at this rather uncommon forest species.

Sharpbill– Our second guide heard one of these strange birds singing from the canopy.

Song Wren– We had a pair of this reclusive forest interior species.

Nightingale Wren seems to be fairly common at Heliconias. They are still tough to see but a lucky club member watched one of these little brown birds from the balcony of her cabana.

I think we would have seen much more too with a one or two more days because we didn’t run into any tanager flocks (Blue and gold and others are sometimes seen just in back of the cabins), and saw very little from the canopy bridges (I had fantastic birding from them on my previous trip to Heliconias). We also didn’t go owling which could have resulted in several species more.

Rainforest canopy, Heliconias, Costa Rica

The view into the rainforest canopy from the second bridge at Heliconias Lodge, Costa Rica.

Speaking of owling, Heliconias and Bijagua are probably the most diverse site for owls in Costa Rica. According to Local guide Jorge Luis Soto ten species of owls have been recorded in the area! Although we didn’t get lucky with any roosting owls, they often have Mottled, Crested, and Black and White Owls staked out (Black and White Owl also hunts at the streetlamp near the lodge entrance), Spectacled Owl, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Central American Pygmy-Owl are uncommon residents of the primary forest, Pacific Screech Owl Occurs in the pastures below the lodge, and Tropical Screech Owl replaces it in the town. The owl tally is rounded out with the two widespread species of open country- Barn and Striped Owls. This is already more species of owl than any other area in Costa Rica and two more are also possible- Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl might be found within a half hour drive towards the Pacific coast, and Bare-shanked Screech Owl may lurk in the cloud forests higher up on Volcan Tenorio.

If such a high number of owl species wasn’t enough, other reasons why I call Heliconias one of the best birding sites in Costa Rica are:

  • It’s the most regular site for Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. This extremely shy, distant cousin of the roadrunners has been seen on many occasions as it forages with army ants. I think we actually came pretty close to seeing one with the antswarm that we ran into on the day we left Heliconias but just couldn’t stay with the marauding ants long enough for the cuckoo to show up (it was time for us to drive back to San Jose).
  • The ecotonic location of Heliconias means that one gets foothill and middle elevation species around the lodge, lowland species below the lodge and in the town, and dry forest birds within a half hour’s drive. Dry forest species sometimes also show up at the lodge itself such as Cinnamon Hummingbird did during our visit, and Thicket Tinamou has done in the past (three other species occur and if Highland Tinamou lives in the cloud forests at the top of Tenorio, that would also make this bird-rich site Costa Rica’s tinamou species hostpot).
  • The quality of the habitat. This is really the main reason why the birding is so good at Heliconias. Maintained trails pass through beautiful, high quality, primary forests. The height of the trees and complexity of the vegetation somewhat reminded me of the Amazon (or maybe the Amazonian foothills) and because of this, Heliconias is one of the few sites in Costa Rica where I would love to spend an entire week (or more) just exploring the forest.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Heliconias, Costa Rica

Snakes are also a good sign of high quality habitat. I have seen at least one snake on every visit, and saw three on  this most recent trip: an Oriole Snake slithering through the canopy, an unidentified plain-looking non-venemous species that raced away from the trail, and this yellow phase Eyelash Viper tucked into a nook on a trailside tree.

  • Management and guides. Although we ran into some minor communication issues during our stay, overall, the trip had few kinks, service and food were good, and local birding guide Jorge knows where to find birds both at the lodge and at nearby locations.

Heliconias is pretty easy to get to and is a quick four hour drive from San Jose on good road until the turn off from Bijagua. At that point, a four-wheel drive works best but even low cars could make it up the stony road if they take it slow and easy (conducive to birding in any case).

I hope the interval between this and my next visit to Heliconias will be measured in months rather than years because I still need to explore the forest around the laguna (which harbors Keel-billed Motmot and who knows what else).

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
"Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations

Bang for your buck birding in Costa Rica: the El Copal Biological Reserve

In my search for sites suitable for Birding Club of Costa Rica field trips, I had sometimes come across this place that was rumored to possibly be the best birding spot in Costa Rica. This is quite a statement for a country that boasts over 800 bird species that soar over, haunt, enliven, troop through, and skulk in the undergrowth of habitats as varied as mangrove forests that sprout out of muddy, brackish waters, cloud forests with mossy branches that hide quetzals and chlorophonias, rain forests that tower into the sky like living cathedrals, and tropical dry forests with Thicket Tinamous whistling from the undergrowth and Black-headed Trogons calling from the canopy.

El Copal is the name of this community run project located off the beaten path somewhere between Turrialba and Tapanti on the Caribbean slope flanks of the Talamanca mountains.

That's me. I was there.

Serious kudos and a giant heap of fantastic karma goes out to the community who own El Copal for their decision to manage the property as a biological reserve and ecotourism venture instead of what they had originally planned for the site: exchanging the irreplaceable biodiversity of El Copal’s rain forests with croplands.

This decision was in part influenced by the fact that most of the land was declared unsuitable for agriculture but this doesn’t take away from the brave choice they made to simply not clear the forests. Their neighbors and peers laughed at them and called them “vagos” or “bums” because they weren’t “putting the land to work” and it took a few years before they began to see benefits from the El Copal project, but thankfully, this excellent birding option has managed to survive (and appears to be doing well).

Although I wouldn’t call it the best birding site in Costa Rica (and I don’t think there is one best site), I will say that it is one of the better sites for birding Costa Rica and a good budget alternative to Rancho Naturalista. The habitat and birds are somewhat similar to those of Rancho but there is more forest at El Copal and it’s a lot cheaper (but also has accommodations that are a great deal more basic). Myself and others came to this conclusion after a recent, overnight trip to El Copal with the Birding Club of Costa Rica.

The drive there became lovely as soon as we left the Central Valley maze of concrete behind at Paraiso. The road winded down through coffee plantations and scattered trees festooned with Spanish Moss (I don’t know about the other mosses, but Moss al Espanol is very prone to festooning) and gave us constant panoramas of dawn greeting the Talamancan Mountains.

The birdlife of the surrounding countryside also came to life and with the windows down, we listened to the songs of those birds that have come to call coffee plantations home: Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadees, Social Flycatchers, Blue-crowned Motmots, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Rufous-capped Warblers, Brown Jays, Red-billed Pigeons and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds.

We didn’t encounter anything rare so we didn’t bother to stop. Who could blame us? We were headed to a place declared by others to be the best birding site in Costa Rica. The directions to El Copal are Ok but they aren’t complete by any means. Without asking locals along the way where the next town was, we could have gotten lost on more than one occasion. It’s not too difficult to find (and there are a few signs to the string of towns along the way- Tucurrique, Pejibaye, and El Humo), but don’t expect to get there without asking a local or feeling a bit lost.

On our way to El Copal- a great place for birding in Costa Rica.

Two hours after leaving San Jose, we arrived at El Copal around seven a.m. and the birding commenced in earnest. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a flurry of hummingbirds that buzzed in and out of the Verbena bushes in front of the buildings

Hummingbirds filled the Verbena hedgerows at El Copal

When birding most low or middle elevation sites in Costa Rica, the de-facto hummingbird species is usually the good, old Rufous-tailed. If you get tired of seeing this common species zip around, however, make your way to El Copal and watch Green Thorntails buzz around instead! Yes, the exquisite Green Thorntail was the most common hummingbird at El Copal!

A male Green Thorntail doing some sort of hummingbird disco move.
A female Green Thorntail looking chic.

I never saw so many of this species in my life. During our stay at El Copal, We only saw one measly Rufous-tailed among the many species encountered in the flowering bushes and heliconias right around the buildings! No need for hummingbird feeders here! The other living jewels we had were Green Hermit, Bronzy Hermit, Green-crowned Brilliant, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem,

A male Purple-throated Mountain Gem shining in the sun at El Copal.

White-throated Mountain-Gem (at 900 meters, far below its preferred elevations),

What am I doing at this low elevation?

White-bellied Mountain-Gem, Green Violetear, and Snowcap!

Male Snowcaps are such incredible looking birds!

We also saw Purple-crowned Fairy away from the bushes for a grand total of 14 hummingbird species seen close to the lodge! And this wasn’t all of the species on their list either. I suspect that at other times of the year, Black-crested Coquette and Violet-headed Hummingbird may also be around. Although the bushes looked perfect for the Coquette, none of the Inga trees that this species prefers were in bloom so, like many hummingbirds, they could migrate up or downslope to where such trees are sporting the small flowers they prefer.

Also of note was the paucity of White-bellied Mountain-Gems. I saw one when we arrived and that was it despite this species being fairly common just on the other side of the hills at Tapanti National Park! There were also other species of birds that were present at El Copal during our stay but absent or uncommon at Tapanti. Although El Copal partly connects Tapanti with Amistad International Park, its slightly lower elevation of 900 meters probably explains the avifaunal differences.

Of the 133 species that were identified in two days, some of the highlights from our trip were:

Raptors. The view of a nearby forested ridge from the lodge combined with sunny weather made for good raptor activity.

The forested ridge in front of the lodge.

We were half expecting to see a Solitary Eagle at any time because we were in the perfect place for this rare bird of prey but instead we saw:

Double-toothed Kite- one of these small, common raptors briefly joined the Barred Hawks to soar on thermals above the ridge.

American Swallow-tailed Kite- a few of these definitions of elegance were in sight throughout most of our stay and even soared right over the buildings.

Barred Hawk- a pair gave us great views as they soared around in front of us.

White Hawk- one flew right over the buildings.

Short-tailed Hawk- a dark phase bird often kited overhead.

Black Hawk-Eagle- one molting adult soared high overhead on our first day.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher: El Copal might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. Really, someone needs to do a thesis on the ecology of this rare, little known species at El Copal. I heard at least 5 different birds vocalizing at El Copal, including one right in front of the buildings. They were pretty tough to see and were found in what appeared to be old second growth. This was a great addition to my year list!

Gray-headed Piprites: Another little known, rare species. I heard one along the Mariposa trail. It may have been foraging with a mixed flock that was present when it vocalized but I only heard it once and didn’t see it. Another awesome addition to the year list (I count heard birds for my year list). There are very few reliable sites for this species in Costa Rica but El Copal might be one of them.

Black-headed Antthrush: One or two were heard singing from the dense, foothill rainforests. I think this species occurs at Tapanti too but whenever I am there, I only hear the double tooting song of Rufous-breasted Antthrush- the species that replaces the Black-headed at higher elevations.

Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner- like the Black-headed Antthrush, this is one of those species that is much more common in northwestern Ecuador. It was nice to see one doing acrobatics with a mixed flock just before we left the place on Sunday.

Brown-billed Scythebill- one was heard giving a brief snatch of its song as a mixed flock tantalized us in the vegetation on the other side of a ravine.

Immaculate Antbird- a few were heard calling but they didn’t want to come out and play.

Dull-mantled Antbird- these were pretty responsive though and showed well along the Mariposa trail.

Thicket Antpitta- a few of this expert skulker stayed out of sight but it was nothing like the numbers of this bird that occur at Pocosol.

Rufous-browed Tyrannulet- El Copal seems like a good spot for this flycatcher masquerading as a warbler.

Alder/Willow Flycatcher- I surmise that the silent bird we saw was a female being quiet about her trip back to the north.

Thrushlike Schiffornis- One of this uncommon species was heard in the woods but it wouldn’t show itself.

Lovely Cotinga-well, ok, we didn’t see this species but we dined in the kitchen named after it! According to the birder from the community named Beto, this most wanted bird shows up for a short time in August to feast on fruiting Melastomes that grow right in front of the lodge (guess when I’m headed to El Copal for my next visit).

Tanagers (including honeycreepers and dacnis)- although these colorful, small birds were pretty tough to see because they were in love with hanging out in the canopy, the 17 species we identified are probably much easier to watch when they come to feed with the cotinga on Melastome fruits in August. Best species were Ashy-throated Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Tanager, Rufous-winged Tanager, and White-winged Tanager.

A close-up of Melastome trees near the lodge.

Scarlet-rumped Cacique and Chestnut-headed Oropendola- these rainforest canopy species were easy to watch as they called from and frequented the treetops visible from the lodge.

This Chestnut-headed Oropendola hung out in a cecropia near the kichen.

I am sure that El Copal has more to offer and it’s a great birding spot but it’s a bit too far to do as a day trip from San Jose and the accommodations are pretty rustic. However, if you don’t mind bunkbeds with thin mattresses, cold showers, and possible encounters with nocturnal rodents, then you should definitely visit! I think it would be an especially good place to carry out research because there is lots of good habitat and costs are fairly low. Reservations are required for visiting El Copal and can be arranged through the ACTUAR organization.

Inside the lodge.
The type of bed you sleep in at El Copal.
Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges south pacific slope

Costa Rica Birding at Esquinas Rainforest Lodge

This past weekend, I did some guiding and birding down at the Esquinas Rainforest Lodge in Costa Rica near the Osa Peninsula. It was the first time I got the chance to go birding in the area and I would go back in a second. I wouldn’t go back there because the birding was spectacular (it was good but not good enough to make me want to call it amazing). No, but I would love to visit Esquinas Lodge again because it might be the only place with easy access to Piedras Blancas National Park.

This national park was originally a sector of Corcovado National Park but was named a separate national park for management purposes. Piedras Blancas protects a large area of lowland rainforest that marches up and down rugged, steeply sloped hills. The rough terrain has kept the  forests of this little known park intact but also make it very difficult to visit.

The trails at Esquinas are probably the easiest (and only) ones in the park and are still fairly rough. During the short time we spent on them, we sweat buckets as we climbed up steep steps and sweat some more as we tried not to slip down the hill while descending. One of us also got stung by a stinging caterpillar after barely brushing up against a tree, and we had to climb over at least three fallen trees that were blocking the trail.

No, Piedras Blancas is not for the faint of heart but I would love to get back to those wild, unexplored forests to get a better idea of what lives in them.

The lodge is nice and appeared to be under good management. It’s also surrounded by good forest and very birdy gardens. Species such as Riverside Wren, Orange-billed and Black-striped Sparrows, Buff-rumped Warbler, Orange-collared Manakin, and many more are easily seen around the cabins. From the dining area, we also saw Gray-chested Doves and got amazing looks at a Black-faced Antthrush as it foraged along the edge of the forest.

The lodge and surroundings were especially good for hummingbirds. All four species of hermits were seen visiting the numerous heliconias planted in the gardens and although we didn’t see White-tipped Sicklebill, I would be surprised if this fancy hummingbird species was not present. Other hummingbird species encountered around the lodge (and several were seen as we dined) were: Charming and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds, White-necked Jacobin, Purple-crowned Fairy, Garden Emerald, Violet-crowned Woodnymph, and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds are seen quite often when birding Costa Rica on the Pacific Slope.

As luck would have it, we did not see our target species; Veraguan Mango and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. We hoped for these recent invaders from Panama along the road to Esquinas Lodge (the La Gamba road) but saw very few plants that were flowering, so May could be the wrong time of year to look for these rare hummingbirds in Costa Rica.

Another target bird we missed along the La Gamba road was Brown-throated Parakeet. Another recent invader from Panama that has moved into Costa Rica following the deforestation that has occurred near the border, this parakeet has been seen with regularity near the town of La Gamba. I seriously doubt it was present during our stay though, because we spent a fair amount of time intently looking and listening for it. Although we saw many Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots as they flew to their evening roosts, there was no sign of Brown-throated Parakeet. Once again, May could be the wrong time of year for this species at la Gamba.

It’s the right time for a few other good things however. Our best birds were:

Crested Oropendola– a new one for Costa Rica for the both of us! We had at least three along the highway between La Gamba and Rio Claro.

Slate-colored Seedeater– I heard at least 5 or 6 near the rice fields between the town and the lodge.

Ruddy-breasted Seedeater– just one, nice looking male.

Fork-tailed Flycatcher– what an elegant, beautiful bird!

Eastern Kingbird– seems to be getting a bit late for these guys. We saw 6.

Southern Lapwing- it’s getting more common in Costa Rica but is always nice to see.

Red-breasted Blackbird– nice looking bird way out in the rice fields.

Unidentified rail– some unknown rail or rails responded with atypical vocalizations from wet rice fields after playback of both Spotted Rail and Paint-billed Crake. I suspect that at least one was a Spotted Rail because it gave a Rallus-sounding call.

Here’s the full list of bird species we saw or heard along the La Gamba road and near Rio Claro:

Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Cattle Egret
Little Blue Heron
Green-backed Heron
White Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Muscovy Duck
White-tailed Kite
Roadside Hawk
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
White-throated Crake
possible Spotted and/or Paint-billed Crakes- responded to tape of both species.
Southern Lapwing
Lesser Yellowlegs
Northern Jacana
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Blue Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Blue-headed Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Striped Cuckoo
Squirrel Cuckoo
Smooth-billed Ani
Common Pauraque
Costa Rican Swift
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
Green Kingfisher
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Pale-breasted Spinetail
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Yellow Tyranulet
Paltry Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Common Tody-flycatcher
Slate-headed Tody-flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Masked Tityra
Lesser Greenlet
Scrub Greenlet
Gray-breasted Martin
Barn Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Plain Wren
House Wren
Clay-colored Robin
Palm Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Thick-billed Euphonia
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Blue-black Grasquit
Variable Seedeater
Ruddy-breasted Seedeater
Slate-colored Seedeater
White-collared Seedeater
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Red-winged Blackbird
Red-breasted Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Bronzed Cowbird
Giant Cowbird
Crested Oropendola

Back at the lodge and on the trails, our highlights were:

Collared Forest-Falcon– we got alright looks at one hunting along the forest edge.

White Hawk– this beautiful raptor was perched near the lodge.

Laughing Falcon– we also saw this smart looking bird perched near the lodge.

Laughing Falcons are fairly common when birding Costa Rica.

Baird’s Trogon– this regional endemic appears to be fairly common at Esquinas.

Rufous-winged Woodpecker– we got very close looks at this beautiful woodpecker.

Black-striped Woodcreeper– this handsome woodcreeper was especially common at Esquinas.

Bicolored Antbird– we got brief looks at a few that were foraging at a rather inactive antswarm.

Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet– heard once and the briefest of looks at this small, rare flycatcher.

Rufous Piha– fairly common in the forest.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager– Esquinas is a great place for this Costa Rican endemic. They were easy to see right at the lodge and in the forest.

Here is a full list of birds that we recorded around Esquinas Lodge and in the nearby forests of Piedras Blancas National Park:

Great Tinamou
Little Tinamou
Magnificent Frigatebird
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
White Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Laughing Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon
Yellow-headed Caracara
Crested Guan
Gray-necked Wood-Rail
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Ruddy Ground-Dove
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Red-lored Parrot
Blue-headed Parrot
Squirrel Cuckoo
Common Pauraque
Costa Rican Swift
Bronzy Hermit
Band-tailed Barbthroat
Stripe-throated Hermit
Long-billed Hermit
Garden Emerald
Violet-crowned Woodnymph
White-necked Jacobin
Purple-crowned Fairy
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
Charming Hummingbird
Violaceous Trogon
Black-throated Trogon
Baird’s Trogon
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Blue-crowned Motmot
Green Kingfisher
Fiery-billed Aracari
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Olivaceous Piculet
Red-crowned Woodpecker
Golden-naped Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Striped Woodhaunter
Plain Xenops
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Northern Barred Woodcreeper
Tawny-winged Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Black-hooded Antshrike
Russet Antshrike
Dusky Antbird
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Bicolored Antbird
Black-faced Antthrush
Dot-winged Antwren
Yellow-bellied Tyrannulet
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Paltry Tyrannulet
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Commn Tody-Flycatcher
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Bright-rumped Attila
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Fork-tailed Flycatcher
Rufous Piha
White-winged Becard
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Orange-collared Manakin
Blue-crowned Manakin
Red-capped Manakin
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
Lesser Greenlet
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-bellied Wren
Riverside Wren
Plain Wren
House Wren
Scaly-breasted Wren
Tropical Gnatcather
Clay-colored Robin
Buff-rumped Warbler
Bananaquit
Gray-headed Tanager
White-shouldered Tanager
Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager
Cherries´s Tanager
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Thick-billed Euphonia
Spot-crowned Euphonia
Bay-headed Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Green Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Slate-colored Seedeater
Variable Seedeater
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Buff-throated Saltator
Scarlet-rumped Cacique