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Why You Might Not be Seeing Nicaraguan Grackles

After the plane lands in Costa Rica, the Great-tailed Grackle tends to take the spot as the first bird of the trip. The initial bird could also be a Black Vulture or a Tropical Kingbird but the biggest species of grackle isn’t shy about spending time at the airport and its even less shy about being seen. What used to be a social species that scavenged beaches and wetlands has become a super abundant bird of modern day places that apparently approximate a similar niche; urban zones and pastures.

Could this be why so many people love to go to the beach? Because there is some approximation to the urban zones where so many of us Homo sapiens live? Probably not but it is interesting to note that Great-tailed Grackles are just as at home at the beach as they are on paved streets with houses and a small park or two. In such places, just as they do in wetlands and coastal habitats, the large iridescent birds with the long tails thrive on scraps of food, small animals, and whatever else they can eat.

They are loud, indisputably common, and since some females can be paler than others, they are also occasionally confused with the similar yet very different Nicaraguan Grackle. At a glance, both of these species look pretty similar. With a closer look, the differences show. When birds are new and one doesn’t know what to expect, what to recognize, the differences can seem evasive.

Its why Nicaraguan Grackles are reported now and then from sites on the Pacific Coast, from any other places away from their expected, known range. Yes, as is often mentioned, “well, birds have wings, they can fly”, but it should also be mentioned that many birds also have specific requirements that keep them in certain places and if they use their wings to fly from such places, they probably won’t survive very long.

Anything is possible but these are a few good reasons why you are probably NOT seeing Nicaraguan Grackles when you suspect that you are (and how you can recognize them):

Restricted to Wetlands Around Lake Nicaragua

As far as is known, Nicaraguan Grackles are pretty much restricted to wetland habitats around Lake Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, this would be the Los Chiles and Cano Negro area, the two best, most accessible spots being Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and the Medio Queso wetlands.

Medio Queso, a fantastic wetland site in northern Costa Rica and a good place to go when you wonder where to go birding in Costa Rica.

Although one might expect such a range restricted bird to be abundant and guaranteed in such areas, this is not the case. It seems that this small grackle requires freshwater marshes and depending on the time of year, can either be locally common or hard to find (even within Cano Negro). Look around wetlands with small bushes long enough and you will probably find them but don’t expect the birds to greet you upon arrival to the Cano Negro area. They don’t seem to readily frequent parking lots, urban areas, or other places away from wetlands, the suspect birds in those places will likely be Great-tailed Grackles.

Pretty Similar

Speaking of the big grackle, it and the Nicaraguan are pretty similar. To make things more challenging, Great-taileds also occur in the same wetlands as our special target bird. In general, if the grackle looks big, purplish, and with a hefty beak, its a Great-tailed.

If it looks smallish, with a shorter tail, a more delicate beak, and more of a dull black, that sounds more like a Nicaraguan Grackle. The songs of the two species also differ with that of the Nicaraguan being higher pitched.

Females are easier but since some female Great-taileds are paler than others, it pays to take a closer look. If the bird in question is smallish (sort of like a Common Grackle), and has a really pale, even whitish breast and eyebrow, its probably a Nicaraguan Grackle.

Recognition of the Unknown is a Guessing Game

When we haven’t seen a bird, when we aren’t familiar with it, it can be hard to know what to really look for. We wonder if that female grackle that looks a bit different could be the bird, we wonder if the differences are too subtle to recognize because we don’t “know” the bird, we aren’t sure if we will “recognize it”. Its all too easy to take this approach because, by nature, we try to recognize features, the only problem is that we have that instinct so we can recognize other people. To identify a new bird, we need to take step back and keep the focus on the field marks.

Something that does help is seeing many individuals of the similar species. In this case, given the abundance of Great-tailed Grackles, you can at least get to know that bird quickly and well enough to more easily identify a Nicaraguan Grackle when you see one.

What About Small Grackles Away from the Los Chiles and Cano Negro Area?

In this regard, its worth it to recall that the perceived size of the bird can be deceptive. Birds can seem smaller at close range and much larger when perched on a distant branch. If the bird truly does seem small, look at the other features, check to see if it has a pale eyebrow, a more delicate bill, and if it really is much smaller than Great-tailed Grackles near it.

If so, take as many pictures as you can because you never know, maybe it is a vagrant, adventurous Nicaraguan Grackle. Although that isn’t so likely, its worth mentioning another possibility, especially on the Caribbean Coast. That other option is a Carib Grackle, a species around the same size as and very similar to the Nicaraguan Grackle. No, it hasn’t been recorded yet in Costa Rica but it has shown up in Panama and since that species is much more general in its choice of habitats (like the Great-tailed, the Carib Grackle uses beach habitats and open areas), one showing up in Costa Rica is a real (if very rare) possibility.

It would be unusual but it could happen. Since such vagrants are more likely to be recognized if you know about them, I have included the Carib Grackle and various additional possible new species for Costa Rica on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Hopefully, soon, we will also have the updated version of the app available for Android. In the meantime, I hope you see at least two species of grackles while birding in Costa Rica. Have a good trip!

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When to Watch Birds in Costa Rica

One of the most common questions about watching birds in Costa Rica is when to watch them. The short and most honest answer is “whenever you can”. Honestly, the birds are here, the resident ones all year long and most can be seen just as well during the winter months as during July and August. Most, but not all…

“When to watch birds in Costa Rica” depends on what you would like to see the most.

If you wouldn’t mind checking out the avian moves of summer birds from the north, bird from November to March and you will get your fill of Baltimore Orioles and Yellow Warblers. Want to add some exciting shorebird migration to the Costa Rica birding mix? Check out shorebird hotspots in April, May, and from September to November.

Who doesn’t love a shorebird hotspot?

Want to listen to Yellow-green Vireos, a few other summer migrants and resident species?

Take a birding trip to Costa Rica in May or June. If resident birds are your main cup of tea, then you really could visit any time of the year and do well. For much of the rainy season, high bird activity in cloudy weather tends to make up for birding time paused by precipitation. Bird in the winter months and it will be sunnier in many places but wind and sun can also put temporary dampers on bird activity.

Any and every time of year is great for birding in Costa Rica but what about some of the tougher targets?

What about the cotingas, the ground-cuckoos, the birds in the book and on the app that seem mythical, the dream birds. In general, it will always be good for those birds too, you just need to know where to look for them. Take the umbrellabird for example, it can be seen any time of year but is far more likely in lower elevation and foothill forests during the winter months, and more likely in middle elevation cloud forest from March to July.

The bellbird is especially seasonal and certainly easier in Monteverde and other breeding sites from March to July. At other times of the year, look for it in the Pacific lowlands although it can also show elsewhere (check eBird!). As for other cotingas, although the Lovely can migrate to lower elevations from August to February, they are possible in pretty much the same areas any time of year.

Regarding certain crakes and other birds that act like them (hello senor Masked Duck), once again, know the right places and you can find them.

BUT, water levels in summer and fall do make them much easier. I assume there are pockets of wetlands that host Masked Duck, Spotted Rail, and Paint-billed Crake during the dry season but who knows how much those species move around? I mean, once the rice fields are harvested, they have to go somewhere.

A Yellow-breasted Crake sneaks off into a patch of marsh grass.

I suspect they retreat to remnant wetlands but I bet some also head further afield. Given the natural born wanderlust of those birds, they could go anywhere. As for the global wandering nature of birders, whether you feel the need to explore some corner of Angola while listening to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, or would rather bird closer to home, I can say that anytime is a good time to be birding in Costa Rica. The birds are here, the birding is always great, and no matter when you visit, it’s much easier to bird in Costa Rica than you might think.

But quetzals, when is the best time to see quetzals in Costa Rica?

Although they breed in February and March, bird the right habitat and know where to go and you can see them any time of the year.

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Birding in Costa Rica is Exciting in Ciudad Neily

Ciudad Neily is a town situated in southern Costa Rica not all that far from the border with Panama. Named after a Lebanese immigrant who opened a store to accommodate the workers of nearby banana plantations, “Neily” has grown to become a small center of commerce for the southwestern corner of Costa Rica. In recent years, thanks to increased local birding coverage, it has also become a beacon for some exciting birding opportunities.

Although the rainforests that grew there a century ago must have been downright amazing, present day birders visit Neily to look for waterbirds in an extensive complex of seasonally flooded fields. Used for growing rice, it is there that a birder should spend time and not in the monotonous oil palms. The rows of palms can have owls and Common Potoos at night but it’s more exciting out there in the wetlands.

In common with so many other wetland areas, the rice fields of Coto-47 (also known as Las Pangas) tend to attract birds that move around in search of such habitats, some of which are lost because they should be in Panama or even South America.

One such vagrant bird recently seen at Las Pangas was the White-cheeked Pintail. Also known as the Bahama Pintail, this lost duck may have come from northern South America or maybe even the Galapagos. Either way, it’s a fantastic bird for Costa Rica and was joined by several other ducks that are common in northern climes but rare in Costa Rica. Those would be ducks like Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Cinnamon Teal, American Wigeon, and Green-winged Teal all mixed in with several thousand Blue-winged Teals and Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks.

On a recent trip, try as I did, we did not see the South American duck but we still had fun looking at most of the rare ducks from the north along with droves of herons, egrets, a scattering of Glossy Ibis and other birds.

Shorebirds were present too and with so many places to forage and hide, you have to wonder what might be out there in Las Pangas. Maybe a super mega Temminck’s Stint? Maybe a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Given the habitat, Las Pangas would certainly be a good place to hit the mega bird lottery. The other day, we got lucky enough with a Ruff!

The past few years, Ruff has been found each winter. I doubt it’s the same bird but more a result of having increased numbers of dedicated, careful birders in the field. Even so, any day with a Ruff in Costa Rica is a fantastic day of birding. This Ruff, the only one I have self-found, was hanging with a handful of Pectoral Sandpipers. Comparing and ticking both dowitchers for the year in the same spot was a bonus.

Another bonus of birding in Las Pangas and other sites near Neily is seeing local species like Red-rumped Woodpecker, Rusty-margined Flycatcher, Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Crested Oropendola, Blue-headed Parrot, Streaked Saltator, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and other species. Although the dry season doesn’t seem to be the best time for crakes, visit during the rains and Paint-billed Crake is also fairly easy (!).

Although we dipped on the woodpecker, we saw all the other birds mentioned above along with a Ruff, killer looks at Mangrove Cuckoo, and another cuckoo that is likely a Yellow-billed but just might honestly be a Pearly-breasted Cuckoo. Yes, and that would be new for Cota Rica and I’m not kidding. I’m not sure yet, I’m not sure if Yellow-billed can be entirely discounted but we got good looks, we did not see any rufous in the wings, and I am presently studying the photos.

So, yes, Ciudad Neily is a pretty exciting area for birding in Costa Rica. Add nearby forest to the mix and it only gets better.

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The Situation with Yellow-Green Vireos and Related Species in Costa Rica

Vireos are, more or less, these small warblerish, deliberate birds with miniature shrike-like bills. The Vireonidae family also includes the tiny, active greenlets of Central and South America, the small chattering vireos of scrubby habitats (such as the White-eyed and Bell’s Vireos), and the big and hefty shrike-vireos with equally impressive hooked beaks. Lest we leave them out of the Vireo picture, this family also has some colorful representatives in montane zones of southern Asia; the aptly named “shrike-babblers“.

However, the vireos that seem to capture the heart and soul of this avian family are the ones that take it easy, that take their sweet time to forage in the foliage of trees and bushes, constantly singing as they do so. On account of that repeated carefree song, these are the vireos that tend to engender familiarity among birders of all stripes, the leader of the bunch probably being the Red-eyed Vireo.

When spring gets truly warm up north, go birding, take a walk, or just listen in a park in almost any wooded area from eastern Texas and Florida north to the Great Slave Lake and you will probably hear Red-eyed Vireos. Be as patient as the bird you are looking for, watch for the slightest movement in the leafy scene above and you will eventually espy one, a bird with white underparts, olive above, and a white eyebrow separated from a svelte gray crown by a fine line of black. That’s the Red-eyed Vireo, a plain yet clean-cut bird with a sweet June song. Always one of the first migrants I would come across as I rode my bike to experience May migration on Goat Island, I would hear them throughout the day for for the next two months.

In Costa Rica, although thousands, more likely millions, of Red-eyed Vireos that migrate through this part of Central America on a biannual basis, “our” most familiar of the Red-eyed bunch is actually the Yellow-green Vireo. The Red-eyeds don’t sing around here, they barely even act like the summer birds of the north. In Costa Rica, they don’t have any time for that happy, lazy attitude because they have a vital appointment arranged by the imperative of instinct. The destination isn’t exactly just around the corner. To reach the leafy woods of western New York, the forests of Ontario, at just the right time, these small birds have to fuel up fast and in Costa Rica, this is why we see flocks of them busily picking bugs and larvae from the leaves, eating small berries to bulk up so they can take that personal bird express to the north.

They are only here for the eating business, just passing on through until they can get back to regular vireo business, that of casually foraging while singing all day long. In Costa Rica, that vireo job, living “la dolce vireo vita” is held by the Yellow-greens.

Although they also migrate through, large numbers fly in from habitats in the Amazon to stay and breed. As with their Red-eyed cousins of the north, Yellow-green Vireos likewise come to breeding grounds to take advantage of a sudden wealth of invertebrates, in their case, brought on by the onset of the wet season. Like the Red-eyeds, their constant singing is an essential part of the summer birding scene in the Central Valley and the dry forests of the Pacific slope. Unlike the Red-eyeds, they share their breeding surroundings with the likes of Masked Tityras and Clay-colored Thrushes and have to avoid the nest depredation antics of toucans.

They act and look quite similar but with a good view, these two vireo species are pretty easy to identify. Some of the ways in which they differ:

Red-eyed Vireo

-Daintier grayer bill.

-Mostly white underparts.

-Hint of pale brown on face.

Yellow-green Vireo

-Can have somewhat diffuse face pattern.

-Largish, mostly pale bill.

-Lots of yellow below, mostly on vent and flanks.

Although these are two of the most common Vireo genus species in Costa Rica, they aren’t the only similar Red-eyed type vireos to keep in mind. Granted, the following two are very rare and one has yet to be documented for Costa Rica but they are possible. The Black-whiskered occurs as a rare vagrant and is likely overlooked among the large numbers of very similar Red-eyed and Yellow-green Vireos. Although a birder still needs a close, definitive look at the head, a Black-whiskered can also reveal its true identify when it sings its distinctive, double-noted phrases. These can be reminiscent of a House Sparrow, the only problem is that it probably keeps quiet in Costa Rica.

While watching for vireos with a black line on the lower part of the face, we can also challenge ourselves (or drive ourselves crazy) by looking for the Chivi Vireo. Although its name might make you wonder if I’m joking, save the laughs for when you see how ridiculous it would be to find one of these pseudo Red-eyed Vireos, a species that would also be a first for Costa Rica. The Chivi Vireo breeds in South America and because it looks so similar to the Red-eyed, was formerly considered to be that species. Some are resident in northern South America, others migrate from places like Brazil and Argentina to the Amazon and ever since genetic studies showed that they are more closely related to Black-whiskered Vireo than the Red-eyed, Chivi Vireos have been recognized as a distinct species.

BUT, since they look just like Red-eyed Vireos, how on Earth would we even recognize one that just happened to overfly its usual destination? In all likelihood, we wouldn’t, but given the right circumstances, finding one in Costa Rica is possible, this is what we would need:

Look for a Red-eyed Vireo from June to August, this is when a Chivi would mostly likely occur.

Take a close look at the undertail coverts. If it looks like too much yellow for a Red-eyed Vireo, the bird might be a Chivi.

Take a close look at the color of the eye– if it looks pretty dark and without the slightest hint of red, it might be a Chivi.

If it sings, record that song! Both main groups of Chivi Vireos sound different from the Red-eyed Vireo. To my ears, the migrant ones we are most likely to get have a sort of warbled or trilled note.

To sum things up, if you see a bird in Costa Rica between June and August that sort of looks like a hybrid between a Red-eyed Vireo and a Yellow-green Vireo and happens to be a singing a song with a trilled phrase, there’s a fair chance it’s a seriously lost bird new for the Costa Rica list. In the meantime, if birding up north, enjoy the cheerful summer phrasing of the Red-eyed Vireos. Birding in Costa Rica? Be happy with the rainy season songs of Yellow-green Vireos but keep listening and watching for something different, you never know what you might find even when birding from home.

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The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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Target Birding in Costa Rica? Expect Fantastic Birding

Birding can be practiced in more ways than one might think. A lot of people just watch the birds that come to the backyard feeder and take a casual interest with identification. They are happy with the relaxed avian scene at home and leave it at that. Others try to identify whatever they come across but aren’t over concerned with finding new birds, lifers if you will. We also have people in the birding tribe who have goals of seeing many certain species and even take very necessary trips to outlying places like New Caledonia because crazy cool birds like Cloven-feathered Doves and the one and only Kagu don’t live anywhere else.

In Costa Rica, we see the closest relative of the Kagu on a regular basis.

Birders who visit Costa Rica fall into every category of birding. I have guided folks who just enjoy seeing whatever crosses their path be it a common Blue-gray Tanager or a less common Red-headed Barbet.

Both are nice to look at.

There have been people who would rather get stunner photos of Squirrel Cuckoos and Groove-billed Anis than feed the mosquitoes while waiting for an Agami Heron no show. I have also guided people with specific target lists, folks who have seen thousands of bird species. However, no matter how someone wants to watch birds, most of all, the majority of birders want to see lots of birds. I think most folks realize that there is little control over what occurs, what one can see during a day or two of birding, especially when many of the species are naturally rare or may seem to be part of the anti-birder conspiracy (such as Barred Hawk was and still seems to be with my partner).

This raptor is more nefarious than one might think.

Fortunately, no matter how adept a bird may be at avoiding birders, we always see a lot and this is because Costa Rica is fantastic for birding. Biased? Maybe but I would say the same about many other countries. Honestly, there are literally hundreds of bird species within easy striking distance and the logistics available to reach just about all of them. It’s easy to see a lot of birds here and even if I do focus on target species, mega specialties like Black-crowned Antpitta just don’t get in the way of seeing lots of other birds. This is because most target birds require quality habitats that also support many other species. For this reason, when I was guiding in the Arenal area a few days ago, while we did see target White-fronted Nunbird and Bare-crowned Antbird, we also had the joy of watching a pair of bullish Great Antshrikes at close range,

admired the shining beauty of a male Gartered Trogon,

the odd exotic appearance of Rufous-tailed Jacamar,

beautiful Black-cheeked, Hoffmann’s, Golden-olive, and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers,

and the babblerish behavior of Black-throated Wrens.

There were no Keel-billed Motmots on that day (we could always blame it on the overly wet conditions), but we did watch several Broad-billed Motmots and finished a century species morning with Yellow-throated Toucans perched in the fine light of the post rain.

It does help to know where and how to find every target species but in Costa Rica, even if the rare birds don’t show, you can always expect a lot of many other things. Hope to see you here!

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Some Costa Rica Birding News for March, 2019

March marks the final month of the high season for birding in Costa Rica. Although any time is a good time for birdwatching in this mega diverse country, most tours and birders pay a visit between January and April. Based on the number of birders I have recently seen at Carara, the Dota Valley, and other hotspots, a lot have opted for trips in February, 2019. We can expect a lot more birders in the next four weeks, if you are one of those lucky people, the following information might be of help:

Cope, Excellent as Always! But Make a Reservation…

A recent trip to Cope’s place turned up the usual assortment of quality bird species. Upon arrival, we were immediately greeted by some of the folks from Rancho Naturalista (Lisa, Harry, and two guests) who got us on to perched White-tipped Sicklebill and American Pygmy Kingfisher. Chestnut-headed Oropendola and a few other nice feeder birds quickly followed.

A bit further afield, he brought us to a roosting Spectacled Owl and a Great Potoo. Nothing like quality birds one after another in one or two short hours! I really wished we could have stayed longer, I would have loved to but we had to move on for more birding and our lodging for the night. The Cope experience is a must but before you decide to go, make a reservation. Otherwise, he might not be able to accommodate you and you could be turned away. To make a reservation, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Early Spring Migrants are Late

March migrants elsewhere might take the form of geese, huge flocks of blackbirds, or groups of thrushes moving from tree to fruiting tree. In Costa Rica, our early birds are Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, and Yellow-green Vireo. Since this country tends to have such a wet and productive rainy season, these tropical species come to Costa Rica to take advantage of it. Some usually arrive in January and most are gone by August or September. This year, they are definitely coming back later rather than earlier. While Harry Barnard, one of Rancho Naturalista’s excellent guides, was telling me that he has seen very few of these migrants so far this year, I realized that I hadn’t even had a Sulphur-bellied in 2019 and only one or two Yellow-green Vireos. At some point, they should arrive in force but at the moment, seem to be rather thin on the ground. Well, except for Piratic Flycatchers. More seem to be calling day by day.

Another Site for Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow Bites the Dust

Or maybe I should say, “goes up in flames”?

Historically, Costa Rica’s newest endemic lived in a mosaic of brushy, semi-wooded habitats in the Central Valley. When coffee farms replaced much of those original habitats, it had to adapt to the new neighborhood. However, the species couldn’t help but draw a line with the latest changes to its already limited world. The nouveau habitat of asphalt, concrete, and housing might work for grackles and Rufous-collared Sparrows, but it just doesn’t do it for the local, endemic “towhee”. While this handsome sparrow does seem to persist in remnant bits of green space and riparian zones, it never seems to be common and is likely Near Threatened or even one step closer to being officially Endangered.

With that in mind, every bit of green space counts, especially when it’s a fairly large area of brushy habitat. Unfortunately, half of one such area is no more, a site where I have regularly seen and showed this species to people. Half of it was recently burned and on Monday, the blackened bits of field and vegetation were being eliminated with a tractor. This vegetation was also used by several migrants from the north. The other half of the site still retains a mix of coffee and brush but who knows for how long? To support conservation of this endemic species, please contact the folks at the Cabanis’s Project.

Great Green Macaws Feeding on the La Selva Entrance Road

It must be that time of year. Fruiting palms on the entrance road into La Selva are attracting macaws for fantastic close looks! They aren’t there all day but hang by those palms in the morning and you might get close looks of this spectacular mega.

Jabiru Show at Cano Negro

Low water levels have been concentrating the birds at Cano Negro. I’m not sure how long it will last but if your boat driver can bring you to one of those last remaining pools, you will likely be treated to several Jabirus among a few hundred other wading birds. When you take your eyes off the huge storks, take a careful look at the other birds, there might be something even rarer in there.

In addition to the species mentioned above, visiting birders can expect calling quetzals, birds building nests, fairly dry conditions, and the usual exciting birding found in Costa Rica. Have a great trip!

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Fine Birding on the Slopes of Poas

In Costa Rica, Poas looms to the north of the airport. A big mound of a mountain, the roomy crater hidden in the clouds. It can be seen from the window of a plane, the turquoise, unwelcome water in the big hole briefly glistening in the sun. The rocky crater is framed in textured green, for folks on the plane, a distant, unreal broccoli carpet. There’s no indication of the true nature of that forest way down below, nor the other rivulets and waves of tropical forest that reach down the northern slopes of the volcano. The riot of life going on down there, Pumas and Ocelots doing their stealth dance beneath the wet canopy. Bright and sunny Collared Redstarts singing from the bamboo understory, bush-tanagers and Yellow-thighed Finches rummaging through the bushes and trees.

Bright and beautiful, one of many highland species endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Quetzals are there too, whistling and cackling from the misty forests. But, as with any scene from a plane, it’s just a distant natural portrait, the only soundscape one of humming motors and occasional requests for coffee, the hiss of sugary carbonated drinks poured over ice in a plastic cup. We only truly experience the forest on Poas and anywhere else with boots on the ground, can only get lost in the quick variety of mixed flocks, fluttering of quetzals, and the air scything ability of swifts by walking with those trees.

On Poas, it’s easy to walk near the oaks and wild avocados. The road up there is a good, quick hour or 45 minute ride from the San Jose area and after the village of Poasito, the birding improves. The national park itself has also been good for birding but ever since eruptions put access on hiatus, I’m not sure if the same trails are accessible. It has just re-opened though, I hope to assess the birding situation at some point. In the meantime, I can attest to the quality of roadside birding on the road up to the national park as well as along Route 126 (the Via Endemica), a recent day of guiding was no exception. Some of the good stuff:

Resplendent Quetzal

The sacred bird is up there on Poas, according to locals, not as common as it used to be but it’s still there. I was surprised to see one after another flutter between trees until I had counted six including the male pictured above!

Fasciated Tiger-Heron

Not in the high parts of the mountain but present along a roadside stream much lower down. The heron of rocky Neotropical streams posed nicely for us as it blended into the dark gray river stones.

Hummingbirds

 

Brown Violetear

Talamanca Hummingbird

Purple-throated Mountain-gem

Coppery-headed Emerald

From Fiery-throated in the high parts to glittering Crowned Woodnymphs past Cinchona, hummingbirds are a welcome mainstay on Poas. Including a Steel-vented near Alajuela, we had fifteen species.

Northern Emerald Toucanet

Visit the Soda Mirador de Catarata (aka Cafe Colibri, aka the Hummingbird Cafe) to spend quality time with this exotic beauty.

Buffy Tuftedcheek

Not so common but this bromeliad bird us indeed present along the higher parts of the road. If you see a silhouette of one, this image shows what to expect.

Nightingale-thrushes

Not rare but skulky and always cool to see four or even five species in a day, most at different elevations. We had good looks at four and without too much trouble. This is a juvenile Slaty-backed N.-Thrush that was visiting the Cafe Colibri.

Black-thighed Grosbeak

A few were singing and showed nicely.

These were some of the one hundred plus species we saw on the slopes of Poas the other day, each stop adding more birds to the list. Many more were still possible and some calling birds remained unseen but any day spent birding is a good one. A day with more than a hundred species is even better especially when the birder can walk within reach of old, mossy trees frequented by quetzals, treerunners, and other cool birds with fantastic names.

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Looking for Cotingas in the Rain

The rains have calmed down the past week or so. That doesn’t mean that the roaring precipitation has stopped and by no means should the sky tap actually be turned off. Water means life and the more the better! Well, maybe not to the degree of causing floods and landslides but yes, a steady series of downpours will work out fine. I see that rain coming down to smack the leaves and as always, I can’t help but wonder, how do birds deal? What do they do when it rains for hours? Do they get out and forage or do the tanagers and Russet Antshrikes hunker down to conserve energy and wait for their window of respite?

The Russet Antshrike is a common member of mixed flocks at many humid forest sites in Costa Rica, If you see a foliage-gleaner looking bird checking dead leaves in the canopy, it’s probably this species. 

I’m not sure what they do and it must vary by species but in general, it seems that most birds of forest and field get active when the heavy rains turn to mist; they seem to take advantage of that window when the pounding rain won’t drive them to the ground. As for raptors, it seems like they also take advantage of the almost dry window to use an exposed perch. Indeed, in such situations, I see Bicolored Hawk more often. Other birds can also perch in the open, some of them even doing so under the curtain of heavy tropical rains. It’s a good time to look for cotingas and not necessarily because you will find them, but because when it rains, there’s not a whole lot of other birding you can do. If it does pour, at least you can scope and scan the canopy from under a roof.

Bicolored Hawk perched in the rain.

This is basically what it takes to see some of the more esteemed and wanted members of this fantastic bird family. Although I would have to put the endangered and amazing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at the top of the awesome cotinga list for Costa Rica, the four classic cotingas are still very much desired and not just by those who travel to Costa Rica for birding. Those of us who live in Tiquicia want to see Snowy, Yellow-billed, Lovely, and Turquoise Cotingas just as badly and many a local birder has yet to lay eyes on any of these fab four. And even if you have admired the four classic canopy dwellers, they still get priority because you just can’t get enough of those cool birds. They look too weird and wonderful to not get excited about the prospect of seeing them, and, we just don’t see them that often.

Such a cotinga situation keeps me looking for them, keeps my eyes on the highest points of trees, keeps me looking for trees with cotinga food. And, especially when I’m birding with special people who have yet to see these local beauties. Recently, I have kept an eye out for cotingas on the Caribbean slope, rain or shine (I guess mostly rain). Whereas most birders in Costa Rica get a good visual taste of cotingas at the Rincon bridge, the duo on the Caribbean side of the country are much more evasive. Head south of Limon and the Snowy becomes much less of an issue but the Lovely is always rare, no matter where you bring the binos. Given its eye-catching appearance, I guess the shining blue and purple thing should be rare. Yes. Shiny and blue as Cheyenne turquoise, ornamented with amethyst. I have only seen it twice, I’d like to see it again! Most of all, I’d like to admire the bird with someone who likewise feels that cotingas are fantastic.

I have looked lately but not quite enough. Checking the treetops in the Sarapiqui area has so far failed to turn up any bright white birds. I drive through the rain and steal glances at the tops of every tree in range. I’ve seen a few other things; parrots, oropendolas, sloths, and caracaras, but no Snowy Cotinga. In the Socorro area, I have made a few concerted attempts to find a Lovely. The extensive canopy views are right and so is the elevation and timing but the birds are rare and I haven’t put in the many hours likely necessary to connect.

A good place to look for Lovely Cotingas.

But, there’s hope in cotingaland! Although the Snowy has certainly declined in Sarapiqui, it’s still around, if we keep looking, we will find it perched high in the rain, hopefully drying in the sun. As for the Lovely, I did notice fig trees beginning to fruit around Socorro including one massive tree that might even be hosting a living doveish jewel as I write this. I hope to check it tomorrow. I won’t be able to spend hours watching and waiting for the cotinga but the blue and purple bird has to be visiting that tree at some point, maybe even calling it its new temporary home. I’ll be there to check it, at least for a bit. If I see it, I’ll share the gen. on Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter because everyone should have a chance to see a cotinga, especially one of the lovely kind.

Want to learn more about finding cotingas and the best places to see them in Costa Rica? Support this blog by purchasing the 700 page plus e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Birding in Costa Rica? Some of the Coolest Resident Birds

Birding in Costa Rica now? If so, lucky you! It’s a good time to be raising the binos in the land of quetzals, hummingbirds, and friendly folks. Don’t worry about not birding during the birding ides of March because although there isn’t as much rain, the dry times come at the expense of braving a solar beat-down. In Costa Rica, since the third month is when Helios is at all of its tropical strength and splendor, I don’t recommend any degree of tanning, most birds don’t really dig the near equatorial UV rays either. Visit now and it might rain more often but the cloud cover does help to lower the temps and, even better, there’s more avian activity.

Steely-vented Hummingbirds might come out to play.

There are lots of birds to look for and watch, including many common ones. Some, are, in fact, cool. Although the “cool” label is subjective and transient for human stuff like movies, music, clothing, eateries, and places to be, it’s less ephemeral for birds. Not that we can compare organic chocolate or Arthur Fonzarelli or parachute pants or The Last Drago movie with real life feathered awesome things but since they are far more permanent than the trivialities of human culture, when a bird gets the “cool” label, it stays.

The Green-crowned Brilliant can be one cool character.

Speaking of cool labels, I look forward to the day when we have birding tech that shows our own personal read-outs for the birds we are looking at. The cool ones will have something like an embossed silver script that appears above them on our visor or our special scope glasses . It will say, “officially cool” or, customized versions of “cool” because since “cool” will still be subjective in the future, it will be up to birders to choose their own coolest birds because let’s face the truth, we can’t expect Larophiles to slap the cool label onto something as non gullish as a Brown Creeper or titmouse. And, how we say “cool” will also differ by region and age group. For example some Bostonians might feel more comfortable saying “wicked cool” for a Blackburnian in breeding plumage. Other folks might just say “awesome”, while yet others might prefer to refer to a bird as “MEGA”, “Triple F” (“fave feathered friend” or “fabulous feathered friend” ), or, in the case of future youngsters, “jelly” or “mantis” or “nova” because kids in the future will probably say those words instead of “cool”.

In any case, these are some of the birds in Costa Rica that would get the “cool” read out on my future birding visor, at least in my opinion:

Chachalaca…not! Sorry, this bird is not cool.

Sorry, although you do look more like one of your dinosaur ancestors than a Yellow Warbler, you just aren’t that cool. Ever since I saw a young chachalaca walk straight over the open flame of a candle in Peru and then ignore a Black Hawk-Eagle trying to snatch it on another day, I just feel too tempted to use the word “fool” instead of “cool” for members of the Ortalis clan.

Now for the real cool birds, the ones that would wear sunglasses and be kung-fu experts if they were human….

All eagles– Like obviously. I mean these birds could easily get away with wearing shades. They could almost lead biker gangs and get away with it. In Costa Rica, we got goshawkish terrors known as hawk-eagles, the rare giant black-hawk that goes by the cool name of “Solitary Eagle”, and of course, our pair of ultra rare monster favorites, the Crested Eagle and the ultimate in Neotropical cool, the legendary Harpy Eagle. A real rainforest A-Lister, much to our dismay, the Harpy would rather avoid the limelight that deal with the paparazzi. Same goes for the Crested, and as for the Solitary, well, it also just feels too cool to come out and have its picture taken. Not that we can blame the monster Buteogallus though because after all, it’s not called “Solitary” for nothing.

At least the super cool Ornate Hawk-Eagle is doing well in Costa Rica. We see this beautiful raptor at many sites.

Tiny Hawk– On the other end of the raptor spectrum, we have this ferocious, thrush-sized terror. Like a flying shrew, it snatches hummingbirds, honeycreepers, and even tanagers. Very cool!

Jabiru– It’s massive, it’s weird, it’s super cool, the one and only Jabiru. Biggest stork on this side of the planet, I gotta call it cool.

Great Green Macaw– To be honest, I’m not sure if this large in charge spectacular parrot is more “majestic” than “cool”. But, when it casually flies over and rends the humid air with prehistoric shrieks, it’s just too easy to imagine it with sunglasses.

Plus, when you see a pair of these fantastic bad boys, it’s all too easy to whisper, state, or exclaim, “cool”.

Bat Falcon– A cool looking hobby-like falcon that perches on exposed snags and even pylons, and then zips around to snatch swallows, parakeets, and bats. Based on those factors, this Neo Falco is a strong contender for being the coolest species in Costa Rica.

Laughing Falcon– Really, all falcons are cool but if I had to limit the choices to one or two birds, it’s hard to leave the “Guaco” off the list. I mean, this masked feathered bandit chokes down snakes! And, it has a loud maniacal laughing call often heard at dawn and dusk. It’s also fairly common, especially for being a raptor.

 

Great Potoo– Owl? Giant Nightjar? A creature of the night? Oh yeah, if any bird is, it’s the Great Potoo. This big, bug-eyed fluffy monster has one of the coolest calls of the deep tropical night.

White-tipped Sicklebill– All hummingbirds are cool for various reason, but with its bizarrely curved bill, this bird is one of the coolest.

Lesser Ground-Cuckoo– I give the cool label to this one because it has a heiroglyphic face and likes to creep around thick ground cover and give cool vocalizations.

Bare-crowned Antbird– Since all antbirds are automatically cool, it’s hard to pick just one. But, since this guy looks like a bird that might have flown out of a Tim Burton movie, this bald headed skulker ranks among the coolest.

Manakins– Most dance, some have super sonic wing snaps, and one even has moves like the late King of Pop. Very cool little birds, check out some Long-tailed Manakin action if you don’t believe me.

Yes, this bird moonwalks.

Royal Flycatcher– This big-headed, miniature Hammerkoppish flycatcher can spread the beautiful feathers of its crown and move its head back and forth like a snake. Although the display is a very rare sight, seeing one is always cool. I had a couple last week at Carara National Park and yes, seeing them was cool.

Three-wattled Bellbird– Bizarre, over the top, but cool. What isn’t cool about a bird the size of a pigeon that has wormy things hanging from its beak and makes super loud bonking sounds?

Wrenthrush– Nothing like birds that make you wonder what the heck they really are to be cool. That’s partly why birds like the Yellow-breasted Chat and the Wryneck are cool and why this one is especially cool. Not a wren. Not a thrush. Now, not even a wood-warbler. It’s all on its own and its the Wrenthrush, a sneaky bird that looks like a Tesia and is endemic to highland forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

White-throated Shrike-Tanager– Yet another one with a confusing yet intriguing name and appearance, it has a few different cool things about it. The bird is a tanager yet acts sort of like a flycatcher. It has a shrike-like beak. The male sort of has oriole-like colors. And, other birds think its cool! They follow it around because it gives alarm calls to warn them of predators. Little do they know that it also gives those same alarm calls to make them hide so it can snatch some choice insect prey.

Yellow-thighed Finch– It’s always cool to see this endemic, arboreal towhee-like bird. And, best of all, it sports these little yellow puff ball things on its thighs that look unreal. A cool bird to watch and one that’s also common in highland forests.

Lots more birds around here are also cool, come to Costa Rica to decide which ones should receive your “cool” label. Keep in mind that some birds are more cute or regal than cool and might be why they didn’t make this list. Or, it might also just be that I think most birds are pretty cool and I had to stop at some point. Get ready for your trip and identify all birds in Costa Rica with the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. You can also support this blog by purchasing “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica” – more than 700 pages of information to find and identify birds in Costa Rica. Hope to see you here!