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Recent Birding at the Pocosol Station in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest

Costa Rica is a fantastic place for birding and not only because more than 900 species are on the official list. The observation of the avian side of life in Costa Rica also earns five stars because so much habitat is accessible. A birder doesn’t need to go far or walk for hours to see lots of birds; dozens of hummingbirds, tanagers, and even hawk-eagles are within two hour’s drive from the main airport.

Violet Sabrewing- one of those hummingbirds.

Of those places where birds thrive in Costa Rica, some sites are better than others simply because more mature forest is present. These are the sites where more species occur, where the rare ones live, and where the excellent birding acts as a window to times when the country was cloaked in a heavy, incredibly complex array of biodiversity.

These remaining heavily forested sites can also act as key nodes for ecosystem corridors required to adequately conserve biodiversity. One of those nodes is the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, an area of middle elevation and foothill rainforest that connects the Monteverde area to Arenal. Named after donations made by children to purchase much of the land in this protected area, as one might surmise, these forests offer up fantastic birding. A few sites provide access to the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, one of them being the Pocosol Station.

Situated at 700 meters deep within the forests of the protected area, Pocosol is one of the better places to connect with Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Purplish-Backed Quail-Dove, and many other uncommon species. The birding is typically excellent, these are some reflections from a recent trip:

The station has improved

The rooms are basic but still good with nice hot showers, and the service continues to be very accommodating. Tasty, local food, early coffee, good trails, and lots of birds.

Great birding from the balcony

Since the buildings are surrounded by forest, you don’t need to go far to see a lot! Birding from the balcony is good for many tanagers, mixed flocks, and views over the forest. We even had Ocellated Antbirds, Northern Schiffornis, and other forest species calling right next to the main building. The balcony birding is especially helpful during rain (which thankfully gave us a break last week).

You don’t need to go far to see a lot!

Birding around the edge of the small clearing and along the entrance road is excellent. We had a lot of activity with various species coming to fruiting trees. The best was the mixed flocks and and other birds just 100 yards from the station. While watching tanagers (including brief look at Blue-an-Gold), White-throated Thrush, and mixed flocks with Brown-billed Scythebill and other species, we also had point blank looks at a small group of Yellow-eared Toucanets!

Trails that also lead from the station get into excellent forest right away and can turn up pretty much anything.

Good for owls

As with any site that features quality habitat, owls are present. Mottled, Spectacled, and Black-and-White were all heard from our rooms. The Black-and-Whites were also seen in the small clearing, they apparently often use the clearing to hunt bats.

Miradores Trail? Be prepared

There are a few trails at Pocosol and they must be visited to see some of the more reclusive species. One of the best areas is back on the Miradores Trail heading to the waterfall. On past trips, we have heard Great Jacamar back there and others have had the monklet, umbrellabird, and other rare species. On our trip, I unfortunately made the mistake of taking the Laguna Trail to go to Miradores. Although the forest was beautiful, the combination of three small creek crossings and up and down trudging was a bit too much. If you go that route, just be prepared.

We didn’t see much but any part of that trail has a lot of potential, especially early in the morning. As for the other trails, they are all exciting. Some of our better species included Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet, heard only Black-headed Antthrush, Song Wren, antbirds, and mixed flocks with Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, and a brief look at Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner (!). We also saw Tawny-throated Leaftosser and heard Scaly-throated Leaftosser.

A dearth of raptors

One of the more surprising aspects of this trip was the lack of raptors. Although hawks and their taloned ilk are typically uncommon in Costa Rica, the places where they show more often are sites like Pocosol. Despite frequent scans of the sky and canopy, brief views of just one White Hawk along with a few vultures is worrisome.

Where were the oropendolas?

The other strange absence was that of the oropendolas. Whereas past trips have yielded a constant parade of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, neither were present on this one! There were also far fewer toucans. Where are the large frugivores? I am guessing that they had moved to areas with more food.

Take the road to Pocosol north of the Penas Blancas River

With road improvements, visiting the station has become much easier but it depends on which road is taken. Avoid the old road that goes from La Tigra because there is a very rough section that leads to an old, very much one lane bridge that looks ripe for collapse. Instead, take the road that leaves from near San Isidro on the north side of the Penas Blancas. This one still has a few rough parts but nothing compared to the other one and its precarious bridge.

Ye olde bridge to Pocosol.

As with other tropical forest sites with high degrees of biodiversity, a birder could visit Pocosol for a week and keep seeing new birds every day. That said, a day visit is still worth the trip. If going that route, I recommend staying at Finca Luna Nueva because the birding is also great there, this organic farm and eco-lodge also acts as a good base to bird other sites in the area, and staying there also supports regenerative agriculture. Need help in setting up your birding trip to Costa Rica? Contact me at information@birdingcraft.com .

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Recent Impressions from Birding Costa Rica at Rancho Naturalista

Birding has been happening in Costa Rica for decades but very few lodges have been dedicated to the endeavor. One of the very first of those places was Rancho Naturalista, a small, nearly remote site in the foothills east of Cartago. The birding has always been good at Rancho; chachalacas, oropendolas, tanagers, and a wealth of other species visible from the balcony, antwrens and shy birds inside the forest, hummingbirds taking a dip in a quiet stream. Many a guide got started at Rancho and thousands of guests have enjoyed and learned about birds in a welcoming atmosphere punctuated by excellent cuisine.

A classic birding site at its best, Rancho Naturalista is always worth a visit, I was fortunate to bird there this past weekend. Thanks to the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I spent the past couple of day looking for Lanceolated Monklet, manakins, and many other birds at and near the lodge. These are some of the highlights and impressions from the past few days:

There’s still no quick way to get there– That’s one thing that hasn’t changed! It’s not Rancho’s fault and the drive isn’t that bad, the twists and turns of roads with traffic just make it seem longer than it actually takes. That said, at least half of the drive passes through some beautiful scenery and you could always stop for birds en route.

The birding starts upon arrival– The good thing about that drive to Rancho is that the birding begins as soon as you exit the vehicle. Park the car, check the Porterweed hedge and you might catch up with Snowcap right then and there. If not, wait a few minutes, it usually shows. Other hummingbirds will be there too and fruiting trees bring in tanagers, euphonias, and other birds to keep the binoculars busy.

The balcony is tough to leave– Feel like watching a troop of Gray-headed Chachalacas and other feeder birds come and go? How about being face to face with White-necked Jacobins, Green-breasted Mangos and other hummingbirds while enjoying some damn fine Costa Rican coffee? Oh yeah, sometimes, it feels like a dream come true, I hope every birder gets a chance to experience it.

The moth light still works– To avoid affecting the moth population, the moth light is only turned on once in a while. The number of birds attracted to it varies by season but it often results in close views of White-breasted Wood-Wren, Red-throated Ant-tanager, woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and other birds of the forest.

Tawny-chested Flycatcher– One of Rancho’s star birds is still present and fairly common both near the lodge and deep inside the forest. Although this decidedly local species can also be seen elsewhere, it’s definitely easiest at Rancho.

White-crowned Manakin– Another star bird of Rancho, you might need to hike to the upper trails but local guides will know where it hangs out. We had great looks of two males up there in beautiful middle elevation rainforest. That walk also turned up Brown-billed Scythebill, White-throated Spadebill, and some other nice birdies.

The Rio Tuis– Several sites can be visited outside of yet near the lodge to look for various species that don’t occur on the trails. Birders head to the Rio Tuis to look for Sunbittern, tanagers, Lanceolated Monklet, and other species. We seriously tried for that monklet but a few morning hours just didn’t do the trick for this extremely elusive puffbird species. The Sunbittern gave a brief showing though, and we saw some tanagers including Black-and-yellow Tanager, Emerald, and Speckled.

One of the spots where monklet has been seen on other days.

Hummingbirds– Between feeders, flowering bushes and hummingbird bathing pools, one might guess that Rancho is especially good for hummingbirds. It sure is, we had 15 species! Snowcap just might have stolen the show although the rest were likewise awesome.

Close views of the beautiful Crowned Woodnymph are always a treat.

A home away from home– As usual, the cherry on the peak of the birding cake was the welcoming atmosphere at Rancho. A visit feels like going to a home away from home where the birds are always waiting to be seen and everyone is happy to see you. It’s a special place, I hope you visit!

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Tips and Suggestions for Birding Lands in Love

This past Sunday, Mary and I had a chance to get in a morning of birding near Fortuna. Although we had the Observatory Lodge in mind, instead, we opted for another, lesser known site that we hadn’t visited for some time. Strategically located on a main route to the Central Valley from La Fortuna, Lands in Love makes for an easy stop with delicious vegan cuisine and great birding.

While birding the trails for a couple of hours, we identified 70 species, two of which were key year birds; Tawny-chested Flycatcher and Song Wren.

Lands in Love is a good site for these species as well as many others, the following are some tips and suggestions for birding this little known yet excellent site:

Bird from the Loveats Cafe

Lands in Love has a pleasant cafe on the main road. Drive the route between San Ramon and La Fortuna and occasional, interesting signs appear as the vehicle gets closer to great coffee, vegan Pad Thai and what is likely the best Shakshuka in Costa Rica. Even better, short fig trees next to the cafe attract honeycreepers and other small frugivorous species, and the vegetation out back is good for Black-throated Wren, wintering wood-warblers, and other birds. Sit at a table in the front, and the skies can host anything from Chestnut-collared Swifts to King Vulture and hawk-eagles. A birder might have to wait a while but the birds will eventually show. Cross the street and scan with a scope and White Hawk might be found along with other, much rarer species flying over or perched in the primary forest on a hill visible from the cafe.

Second Growth, then Primary Forest on the Trails

The trail system at Lands in Love includes several loops, most of which pass through primary rainforest that ranges between 600 and 400 meters elevation. Old second growth occurs at the beginning of most trails and offers up excellent birding including chances at actually seeing Thicket Antpitta, Black-crowned Antshrike, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, White-collared Manakin, and various other birds of the forest edge. It can be especially good for flycatchers including Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Northern Bentbill, Slate-headed Tody-Tyrant, and even the rare for Costa Rica, Sepia-capped Flycatcher. Pairs of the rare and near endemic Tawny-chested Flycatcher also occur here and there in areas of old second growth that have plenty of hanging vines.

Hummingbirds also feed on Heliconias including White-tipped Sicklebill, and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, and various forest species can also show.

In the primary forest, keep an eye out for mixed flocks with Tawny-crowned Greenlet, Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher, and Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens. Various other species are also possible including Golden-crowned Spadebill, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and Song Wren, Black-throated Trogon, and Rufous, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots among others.

Antswarms

A birder would be fortunate indeed to run across an antswarm inside the forest at Lands in Love because this is the best way to connect with the rare Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. This species occurs at Lands in Love along with more expected Ocellated, Bicolored, and Spotted Antbirds.

Fruiting Trees

The canopy is high but if you find a fruiting tree, stay with it for a while. In addition to the three expected species of toucans, Yellow-eared Toucanet can also show and even Bare-necked Umbrellabird is possible (perhaps only from June to January). Various tanagers can also occur and fallen fruits might attract quail-doves. Olive-backed is the most likely species although Purplish-backed and even Violaceous are possible.

Trails too Rough? Bird the Forest on the Loop Road

The only downside to the trails is that they haven’t been maintained that much. This means that one or more of the bridges over creeks need to be replaced and that the trails themselves aren’t really suited for folks who have trouble with balance or walking. The upside is that a good number of species can be seen right along the loop road through the property and as the forest adjacent to the road continues to grow, the birding will only get better. In addition to edge species, many forest birds can also occur including antbirds, Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, all three Cracids, and others. The loop road also has a few overlooks useful for checking the canopy and watching for raptors in flight. Not to mention, flowering bushes can also attract various hummingbirds, even Snowcap, Black-crested Coquette, Blue-chested Hummingbird, and Blue-throated Goldentail!

Part of the loop road.

Other Species to Watch For

Lands in Love has a lot of potential for birding, including chances at many rare and uncommon species. Some of the birds to look for:

Cracids– Frequent at many sites in Costa Rica, Great Curassow, Crested Guan, and Gray-headed Chachalaca are present and often seen at Lands.

Raptors– Most of the rainforest raptors have been seen at Lands, the most frequent being King Vulture, White Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, and Double-toothed Kite. Semiplumbeous Hawk is also regular and both Black and Ornate Hawk-Eagles also make regular appearances. I suspect that Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle could also show from time to time and I have also seen Gray-headed and Hook-billed Kites. Perhaps scanning with a scope from the Loveats Cafe will eventually yield sightings of a distant Crested Eagle or Solitary Eagle? Lots of luck needed for those megas BUT both have occurred in the forest complex visible from the cafe. I can’t help but wonder if Crested Eagle might also pay a visit to the mostly inaccessible primary forests below the lodge.

On the falcon front, Laughing and Bat are regular, Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon has been recorded in the forest and both Collared and Barred also occur.

Tawny-faced Quail– I don’t know if this rarity is present but I think there is a fair chance that it does live in the lower, mostly inaccessible forests. There may be a trail that reaches this most exciting part of the property.

Sunbittern and Green Ibis– Both of these choice birds can occur on the small bodies of water on the hotel grounds, the Sunbittern also along the river.

Owls and other Night Birds– Crested and Black-and-white have been seen near the restaurant and rooms, Mottled and Spectacled also probably occur somewhere on the property, and Middle American Screech-Owl likely occurs in the forest. As for other nocturnal species, Short-tailed Nighthawk can be seen at dusk and perhaps Great Potoo also occurs?

Motmots, puffbirds, and jacamars– This is an interesting site for motmots. Lesson’s has been recorded along the loop road, Broad-billed and Rufous are regular in the forest, and Keel-billed has also been seen perhaps more in the areas of second growth. The best puffbird on site is Lanceolated Monklet. Although it seems to not be as regular as in the past, it likely still occurs in and near the forested canyon. White-fronted Nunbird might also be present inside some parts of the primary forest, it would also be worth looking for the very rare Great Jacamar (Rufous-tailed is fairly common).

Black-crowned Antpitta– No sightings or sign of this mega that I know of (I have tried for it several times) but based on the elevation and habitat, it might be present perhaps in the lower more remote part of the forest.

Lovely Cotinga– Another one that could make an appearance, it will be most likely seen from the Loveats overlook. It seems that this rare species could also visit the forests around the hotel. If any cotingas are still present in the area, I would expect sightings from June to January when they are more likely to move to lower elevations.

Wrens– As with other foothill sites that have a blend of primary and secondary forest, Lands is a great place to see several species of wrens including White-breasted Wood-Wren, Bay, Black-throated, Stripe-breasted, Band-backed, Nightingale, and Song Wrens (along with House for the trip list).

Wood-Warblers and other migrants– Although migrant species can show up in all sorts of places, most really prefer quality forest habitats. This is probably the main reason why Lands seems to be such a good site for wintering wood-warblers including Kentucky, Hooded, Worm-eating, Golden-winged, and other species. I have also seen rare for Costa Rica Blue-headed Vireo there and it would be worth checking for Cerulean, thrushes, and other species during migration.

Stay the Night

If I had one final recommendation, it would be to stay the night at Lands in Love because the birding is good enough to merit more than just a morning. To learn more about stays and birding at Lands in Love, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com .

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Birding in Costa Rica at Mi Cafecito

I often drive Route 126, the winding road that connects the Central Valley to the highlands of Poas and the lowlands of Sarapiqui. From my place, it’s the quickest route over the mountains and as luck would have it, also acts as an easy portal to a host of birding opportunities. Having birded and guided along this road on many occasions, I’ve written about this birdy route before, this time I’m going to talk about one of the lesser known sites situated in the foothills.

Past Cinchona and Socorro, the warmer, more humid air and calls of Black-headed Saltators and other birds indicate a change in elevation. Eventually, the car passes an obvious sign for a coffee tour on the right. This is “Mi Cafecito” and whether a birder feels like just having a coffee and bite to eat or also searching for foothill species, it’s always worth a stop.

While most folks visit for the coffee tour, free trails are also available that lead to overlooks and access a bit of foothill forest. Although they aren’t all that long and don’t get down into the forested canyon, I suspect that they have good potential for birding. Well, actually, after my first guiding visits, I know they do! Although both occasions were just a couple of hours, I still had good birding both times with several nice species.

Some observations about birding at Mi Cafecito:

Opens at 7: Six would be better but seven is still good especially for a place that was designed more for coffee tours than birding.

Free access: The folks at Cafecito welcome visitors to use the trails. Please support them by buying something at their souvenir shop and dining in their restaurant. Good, country Costa Rican fare is served.

Cement trails but slippery: Unfortunately, some parts of the trails can be slippery. But the birding is still worth it especially because one can walk on the side of the trail.

Overlooks: Two of the trails lead to excellent overlooks that provide views of the canyon. White Hawk is regular and several other species are also possible including hawk-eagles, King Vulture, and Barred Hawk. Great Green Macaws are also present at times. Who knows, maybe Lovely Cotinga might also show at some point? Although very rare, the species does occur around there.

Waterfall: Not so much for seeing the cascade but for seeing Lanceolated Monklet. Although I haven’t heard or seen one there yet, the elusive mini puffbird does live close by and likely occurs in the canyon. I would not be surprised in the least if it shows at Mi Cafecito.

One of the views from the Waterfall Trail.

Tanagers: Both times, I had pretty good flocks of tanagers, on the trails and at the overlook. We had good looks at Emerald, Speckled, Black-and-Yellow, Golden-hooded, Hepatic (Tooth-billed), Silver-throated, and Carmiol’s Tanagers along with the uncommon White-vented Euphonia, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, Black-faced Grosbeak, and some other birds moving together.

This funky looking little bird is a juvenile male White-vented Euphonia.

Signs of good forest: Large groups of Carmiol’s Tanagers seem to be an indicator of healthy mature forest, I also had White-ruffed Manakin, Pale-vented Thrush, Crested Guan, Nightingale Wren, and Ocellated Antbirds at an antswarm. I really wonder what else can show on the trails…

Sunbittern!: Seeing one of these odd, special birds forage at the edge of a pond was a nice surprise! Although the streams at Virgen del Socorro look good for it, the bird doesn’t seem to be present. Or, if it is, it must occur in very small numbers or maybe just doesn’t use the areas visible from the bridge and road (?). But, no matter because you can see it at Cafecito! At least we did, one was showing very well and since the ponds are permanent, it looks like the site might also be a reliable bet for Sunbittern.

Porterweed hedgerows: Plenty of this popular hummingbird bush is present. We didn’t see too much but it could attract Black-crested Coquette and maybe even Snowcap.

Want to look for the monklet and Sunbittern? Let me know, I plan on setting up a tour that visits the site that can be done from the San Jose area as well as the Sarapiqui lowlands. I hope to bird there with you.

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Fun Birding in Costa Rica at Arenal Lodge

Arenal is the name of a volcano in northern Costa Rica that exploded some decades ago. After that initial fiery, geological shout-out, the inner furnaces of the mountain kept right on burning, and, in doing so, the resultant natural incandescence has acted as a beacon for tourism ever since. Add numerous hot springs, waterfalls, and other natural beauty to the local mix and La Fortuna has become quite the bustling place where people from various countries show off the latest in khaki shorts and sandals as they waltz down the limited thoroughfares of the town. A wide variety of accommodation is available there and nearby, and many have names that pay homage to the conical mountain that punctuates the view.

One such place is also one of the first to have offered rooms to folks looking for volcanic fun. A former Macadamia farm, the Arenal Lodge offers a perfect view of the volcano, nice rooms, and a cozy reception and dining area with beautiful wooden floors. But…birds? No, I have not forgotten that this is a birding blog, there are birds too! In fact, more than enough for this welcoming hotel to act as an excellent base to work from, or just stay at, while birding in Costa Rica around Arenal.

I had heard about some of the birds at the Arenal Lodge from friends who had done Christmas Counts there. The most interesting one was a possible Great Jacamar, in Costa Rica, a very rare bird of the Caribbean lowlands and foothills. Since this iridescent beast of a bird also requires plenty of high quality habitat, its presence is a sign that lots of other feathered ones are also there (an umbrella species if you will). Although I didn’t hear or see one during a recent morning of guiding at the Arenal Lodge, we still had fun birding and I left the area feeling that it certainly has birding potential. That means that it’s worth visiting to look for the jacamar as well as lots of other uncommon and rare species. Many are likely present, these are some of my highlights and impressions:

Fine roadside birding– Upon entering the lodge grounds, guests then make their way up a lengthy road until they finally reach the rooms and reception. That road goes through old second growth, forested riparian zones, and open areas, all of which have lots of birds. We had more than 100 species during the morning, just along the road.

It was nice to see Olive-crowned Yellowthroat.

The road to Arenal Lodge.

Mixed flocks– As with many a site in Costa Rica, this one has some nice mixed flocks. Although I bet larger assemblages of birds occur on a regular basis, we were still pleased with bird groups that showed the likes of Russet Antshrike, Spotted Woodcreeper, honeycreepers, and tanagers, the best being the uncommon Rufous-winged Tanager.

Quality birdies– That is, birds that maybe aren’t seen as often or just look cool. Some of these were Zone-tailed Hawk, a heard Great Curassow, Crested Guans, Gray-headed Chachalacas, Black-crested Coquette, Spotted Antbird, Song Wren (and other members of the wren family), Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, toucans, and so on.

A good base for birding the Arenal area– If you feel like birding away from the lodge, the Peninsula Road and its Bare-crowned Antbirds and nunbirds are nearby, Fortuna is a short 15-20 minute drive, and other sites are within easy striking distance.

Although the Bare-crowned was too skulky for a shot, Great Antshrikes performed for the camera at a Peninsula Road antswarm.

Given the good birding, scenery, and beauty for a fair price, I would stay there while visiting Arenal. I hope to bird there again some time soon, hopefully to do some bird counts on the grounds and see if we can locate that Great Jacamar.

Support this blog and learn about the best sites are for watching birds in Costa Rica by purchasing the 700 plus page e-book, How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

 

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What Happens with Birding in Costa Rica When the Rain Stops

Right now, in Costa Rica, the classic dry season has been evasive. As the sky clouds over just as it did during June, and the rains begin to fall, it almost feels like the whole usual dry season thing has been waived. Cold fronts continue to arrive and subsequently douse the country with Atlantic showers while a “Nina” effect over in the Pacific has only added to the wet situation. Despite the umbrella test, there are good things associated with this. High biodiversity is correlated with high rainfall and that makes for more birds. It’s one of the main reasons why so many species occur in Costa Rica.

It can be a challenge to find them under varying degrees of precipitation but what’s a birder gonna do? It’s part of the local birding scene and when the clouds take a lunch break, the birds suddenly come out to play. Get enough of those breaks and you can get into some stellar birding, especially when high rainfall earlier in the year encouraged the trees and bushes to grow lots of bird friendly fruit. Seriously, it’s a smorgasbord out there right now, the tanagers, manakins, thrushes, trogons, and toucans are going to feed whether it rains or not.

Need fruit.

When the sun eventually does come out, there seem to be certain birds that take advantage of the sudden bloom of warmth and UV rays. Yesterday morning at El Tapir, a client and myself bore witness to what can happen when the rain finally comes to a stop and the sun, unhindered by clouds, punctuates the sky. At first, there was little activity, as if the birds were still numbed by the constant falling of water, still in denial that the rain had stopped. A few wrens and some other birds vocalized, a pair of Mealy Parrots fluttered overhead but pretty quiet otherwise. However, while the birds of the forest slowly came back to life, the Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were racing around the garden. Judging by their frantic behavior (even for hummingbirds), it seemed like they hadn’t eaten quite enough in days. Or maybe they just didn’t get their fill of nectar? Whatever the case, they were drinking from the Verbena flowers as if they were participants in some avian Bacchus festivities. Unfortunately, they didn’t invite any other hummingbirds to the party and took great efforts to bounce any potentially crashing woodnymph, Snowcap, or Violet-headed.

Dressed for the party, still denied entrance. Name’s not down, not coming in.

It took a while but the Rufous-taileds seemed to eventually get their fill (or became too inebriated) and as the sun took over the garden space, a couple other hummingbird species braved the post party scene. One of the most cooperative was a male Black-crested Coquette.

Gasp!

As is typical with coquettes, the male chose to perch on a bare twig for extended periods of time before carefully flying down to drink from the Verbena. Much to our satisfaction, this particular exquisite beauty preferred to feed on a bush right in front of us.

It was interesting to note that as the coquette fed, the Rufous-taileds seemed to be more concerned with chasing a female woodnymph and a Violet-headed Hummingbird. It was as if they didn’t notice the coquette as the smaller hummingbird slowly moved in and out of the flowering bushes, pumping its tail up and down the entire time.

As we enjoyed the coquette show, a few raptors eventually took advantage of thermals created by the sun to fly high over the garden.

The venue.

As it turned out, the Black-crested Coquette was just the headliner for the main act.

The first on stage was an adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle. It called so loudly, I expected to see it floating just over the canopy but no, it was already high above the forest, fooling the eyes into thinking they were seeing something as small as an Accipiter or a dainty kite. The eagle called over and over, it was as if it couldn’t help itself, singing because it could finally soar up and reach those heights again after a repressive bout of cool weather and constant rain. Alive again! Like there was nothing else in its world, it yelled into the skies above the forest, fluttered its wings and made shallow dives, displaying over a busy road for all who felt like peering into the high blue sky. Once, I swear it did a barrel roll, vocalizing the entire time.

As the eagle continued with its expression of exuberant defiance, next on the list were a pair of Barred Hawks. These broad-winged, short-tailed raptors gave their gull-like vocalizations as they soared into view. They continued to make circles up above the forest until they reached a point where they also began to display by soaring in tandem, calling the entire time.

One of the Barred Hawks, looks like it found some food that morning.

While this raptor fest was going on, a pair of King Vultures also soared into view, not as close as the hawks but still within eyeshot to appreciate their bold, black and white pattern. They seemed to be displaying as well, one bird almost flying into the other one and then close tandem flight, like the other raptors, taking advantage of a beautiful, new day.

It might rain a lot but it eventually stops. When it does, the sun’s coming out something good is going to happen, the time comes for action. Whether you be a Spizaetus or a birder, be ready to make your move and catch the lightbridge found in that window of respite.

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Cold Front Birding in Costa Rica at Arenal Observatory Lodge

Polar vortices don’t reach as far south as Costa Rica but that doesn’t negate their effect. The icy fingers of the latest freeze up north have touched enough air masses to push some of the cold stuff down this way. It’s way too far south for any substantial amount of snow or ice but we do get cool temperatures and, most of all, sort of ridiculous amounts of rain. These aren’t the typical reliable tropical thunderstorms where one can bird all morning and take a nap accompanied by the soothing sound of falling rains in the afternoon. Nope, more like a near constant barrage of falling water that goes from light to heavy to mist in wave after trying wave.

Yeah, like how do you watch birds with conditions like that? What happened to the dry season? Patience and perseverance are key to birding success in such wet times as these, as for the dry season, in January that has always been more of a Pacific slope thing anyways. The funny thing about the dry season in Costa Rica is that it’s not really the dry season for the entire country. While the rains don’t happen on part of the Pacific slope, it has always been another story for the Caribbean and during cold fronts, the rains soak the waterways of the mountains and lowlands that flow to the Atlantic basin.

The water that falls on Arenal Volcano heads to the Caribbean and during a cold front, its slopes catch a lot of that moisture. Recently, while guiding four fellow birders from New York state, I was witness to the effects of a cold front. Despite the frightening prospect of near constant rain, we actually had more good birding news than bad. It did not end up raining the entire time and we still connected with several nice targets during birding at the Observatory Lodge and the Peninsula Road. Some hits, misses, and observations:

Take advantage of the buffet breakfast– Yes, seriously, and this worked in our favor because we could start birding at dawn, take a break at 8:20 to stock up on gallo pinto, cheese rolls, and other food, and then continue right on through lunch.

Antbirds played well– Continuing the birding on through lunch is especially important when it might rain for the rest of the afternoon, and many of the target species require an investment of birding time. We would not have seen our target antbirds if we had not stayed out there on the Hormiga and Saino Trails post breakfast. We got looks at Dull-mantled, Dusky, Spotted, Bicolored, and Ocellated at an antswarm. It started raining shortly thereafter just as we were about to see a Thicket Antpitta. Over on the Peninsula Road the following morning, we heard several Bare-crowned and had brief looks at one or two.

A Spotted Antbird from another trip to the Arenal area.

The White Hawk Villa really does have White Hawks– If you want lots of space, stay at the villa! Although we didn’t take advantage of all that extra floor space to throw a White Hawk dance party, we did have excellent looks at the signature raptor species.

Cotinga dip– No, we did not make finger foods out of shiny birds. Birders will know that we barely missed seeing a cotinga in the morning, missed again that afternoon, and then did not see it the following morning. Ouch. Serious ouch to see pictures of the male Lovely Cotinga from the day before and then the day after we left. No senor Cotinga, you were not supposed to take a day off from that fruiting fig.

Cracids, tanagers, and toucanets still come out in the rain– Or, at least in cloudy conditions. Great Curassows walked the grounds, Crested Guans posed and made weird honking noises (the local version of a goose?), chachalacas appeared, several tanagers showed including Emerald, and we couldn’t help but see another Yellow-eared Toucanet!

Female Yellow-eared Toucanet at the Casona. The fourth for the trip, you would think these were reliable!

The Black and White Owl is still there– One of these beauties frequently feeds at a light at the entrance to the Casona at the Observatory Lodge. Much to our delight, it was there during our visit as well.

A few other dips but a few other good birds too– We couldn’t escape the rain entirely and it likely resulted in us missing seeing that antpitta, and finding Song Wren, Nightingale Wren, and a few other birds. But, we did see a distant soaring Great Black Hawk, saw a roosting Great Potoo, got our Keel-billed Motmot, and at the last second of guiding, White-fronted Nunbird!

I went back there later that day with a friend and the nunbirds were still there, this time doing imitations of kingbirds.

We also had more views of the star motmot.

Unfortunately, more cold fronts in Costa Rica are expected due to a cold water Nina effect in the Pacific. Be ready for rain but if you are also ready to persevere, you can still see a lot.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills middle elevations

Excellent Birding Off the Beaten Track at Albergue Socorro

Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. Whether staying in the San Jose area or the Sarapiqui lowlands, this forested canyon is an easy one to two hour trip with access to foothill and middle elevation habitats. It’ a good site for White Hawk, Collared Trogon, and several other species that frequent the transition between lowlands and highlands. One of the things birders also notice when visiting Virgen del Socorro are the forested hillsides, especially upstream from the main road through the canyon. If only we could get into those forests! Maybe we would find quail-doves, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and other rare species. The right situation for many high quality species is there, the only problem being that main recurring issue frequently faced by birders in tropical places- that of access.

White Hawk

Much to our twitching frustration, the high quality forests visible from the canyon road don’t have any roads that go through them, they don’t have any trails. Well, they don’t if you stick to the road through the canyon. Stay at Albergue del Socorro, though, and access is granted. This small “lodge” is actually a small dairy farm that has opted in on ecotourism. The owners are serious about protecting the forests in and around their farm, offer a few shared cabins as accommodation, and serve excellent local country fare. Stay there and you will be supporting birder friendly people who are committed to protecting the forests of the Socorro area. Top that support off with excellent middle elevation birding, and a stay at Albergue del Socorro becomes an enticing addition to every birder’s Costa Rica itinerary. More information about this excellent site:

Trails through mature forest

The lodge has a few trails, one of which passes through excellent mature forest on its way to a waterfall. The other trails are shorter loops that pass through forest and a few open areas. No matter which trail you take, Jose, the owner, will be happy to accompany you. Although rain limited our time on the trails, based on what I saw, they should be good for quail-doves, mixed flocks, and could host several rare species.

Birding on the road is good too

If you feel like sticking to the road in front of the lodge, you will still be in luck because the birding is typically good and can result in White-crowned Manakin, many tanagers, euphonias, Spotted Barbtail, and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner among many other less common species. In the past, I often had Lattice-tailed Trogon on the section of road just above the lodge. It should still be present although maybe now more regular on the Albergue trails.

Serious birding potential

The combination of high quality forest, connection to Braulio Carrillo National Park, and an elevation of around 1,000 meters is ideal for coming across a wide number of rare and uncommon species. Quail-doves, Lovely Cotinga, and all three hawk-eagles have been identified at or near Albergue in recent years, and I would be very surprised if goodies like Lanceolated Monklet, the ground-cuckoo, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Sharpbill, and many other megas were not present. It should also be a good place for Solitary Eagle to make an appearance. That massive black-hawk has been recorded around there in the past, and since the area does link up to Braulio, it seems like a good spot for it to be seen again. Even during the rain, we watched several Crested Guans, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Swallow-tailed Kites, White Hawk, Bat Falcon, tanagers, and other species just outside the rooms.

Crested Guan

Ideal for small groups

Given the accommodation (limited but cozy and clean), this site is better for single travelers, couples, and small groups.

Three ways to get there

There are three different routes to take, all of which require four wheel drive just before reaching the lodge. You might make it to the lodge with a regular, small vehicle but then again, you might not! Keep in mind that since these three routes also have great birding, you might want to give yourself extra time for the trip. The most common route people take is the one that passes by the Waterfall Gardens, the Cinchona Cafe Colibri, and then goes through the Virgen del Socorro canyon. The one issue with this route is a bridge that looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing. To avoid that possibility, try one of the other two routes! If you feel like some adventurous birding on a somewhat rough road that passes next to some nice cloud forest, take the turn off for San Rafael de Varablanca and follow that main road all the way down to the lodge. This road also has lots of good birding potential. If you would rather do the easiest route, take the turn off at the San Miguel cemetery and follow that up to the lodge, enjoying good foothill birding on the way. If I had a four wheel drive vehicle, I would opt for driving one of those routes in and another on the way out. Do that with enough time for several hours birding each way and you could end up with a seriously good list.

I felt compelled to write this post after guiding a short trip to Albergue Socorro last weekend. Although we got rained out on Sunday morning, we still recorded more than 130 species while birding at and near the lodge. I look forward to going back, especially to do bird surveys on their trails just after dawn.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Great Birding for a Bargain at La Marta Refuge

I wish I could say that birding is always free. It would be if we still lived in a world with abundant habitat and biodiversity because there would be easier access to more birds. But, the modern realities of overpopulation and big money interests that view conservation as a hindrance to short term gain continue to result in fewer birds and even fewer places to see them. This varies by region and nation, but is why we have to pay entrance fees and guides to see birds like Philippine Eagle, wood-quails, and countless other species. Sure, we could try and see them on our own, but with more birds restricted to national parks and protected areas, paying to have better chances at more species has become a common necessity.

In Costa Rica, although there are public places that lack gates and require no entrance fee, the best and most accessible places for birding are in private and public reserves. I was at one such site last weekend and given the number of uncommon species we encountered, level of avian activity, and trail mileage, it was an excellent bargain. This place is “La Marta Refuge” and if you feel like seeing lots of birds for a bargain, I recommend it, absolutely. What to expect:

Tawny-crested Tanagers: Yes, they can be seen elsewhere but the high numbers at La Marta put them first in terms of expectations. This is probably the most common species at the site.

Always a fun bird to watch.

Other tanagers: Fruiting trees are also visited by Emerald, Speckled, Black and Yellow, Bay-headed, and other tanagers including the uncommon chlorospingus formerly known as the Ash-throated Bush-Tanager. Enjoy the show!

I was very pleased to finally get a shot of this uncommon probable endemic split.

Pretty easy access: La Marta is accessed by a road from the town of Pejibaye. Although there are time when the entrance road might require four wheel drive, for the most part, it is easy enough with a regular car. Contact them for updated road conditions.

Basic lodging and camping: If you want to stay there, the accommodation is cheap but very basic. Rooms are shared, mattresses are thin, there aren’t any mosquito nets, and the water is cold but it doesn’t cost much! Meals can also be arranged for a good deal, and camping is possible.

Lots of trails in good habitat: This is one of the few places I have seen in Costa Rica that have kilometers of trails. All of the trails go through forest, a fair bit of which is habitat that has grown back over a hundred years and includes many non-native Poro trees. I suspect this affects the avifauna somewhat but maybe not too much because it’s connected to large areas of mature, native forest, and the back trails access more of that habitat. Limited time kept us on trails much closer to the HQ, and those were good enough but I wouldn’t be surprised if the ones way back in the reserve hosted rarities like Black-banded Woodcreeper, Sharpbill, and many other uncommon species.

Uncommon species: Speaking of rare birds, these are some of the “good” ones we saw or heard among species already mentioned:

Ornate Hawk-Eagle

Barred Hawk

Bicolored Hawk

Crested Owl

Short-tailed Nighthawk

Snowcap

Brown Violetear

Dull-mantled and Ocellated Antbirds

Tawny-chested Flycatcher- fairly common on the road near the buildings!

Although we did not see Sunbittern, nor Tiny Hawk, both of these are regular at La Marta.

Lanceolated Monklet: Saving the best for last, um, yes, based on this past weekend, La Marta might be the best site for this species in Costa Rica. It’s a pain to see no matter where you go but since we had two different birds in one day, and the trails access lots of suitable habitat, seeing the monklet at La Marta is a fair bet than many other sites.

I would love to go back, although next time, I hope I can survey the more remote parts of the reserve to look for ground-cuckoo, Gray-headed Piprites, and various other rare species.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Tips for Birding in Costa Rica at Virgen del Socorro

Mountains are one of the main reasons why so many bird species live in Costa Rica. They act as barriers that promote speciation, catch moisture that creates cloud forest and other tropical forest habitats, and make it possible for distinct ecosystems to evolve at different elevations. But, on the downside, the steep slopes, ravines, and other forms of broken terrain don’t exactly facilitate access. Considering that there are people who would rather cut down the forest to make room for cows, that’s a good thing. But, not so good for birders who wouldn’t mind some easy-going searching for middle elevation species.

But, thanks to a certain few roads, we don’t need to torture ourselves by slip sliding up and down muddy slopes to catch a glimpse of a spinetail or two. In Costa Rica, we can head on over to Virgen del Socorro to hang out with Tufted Flycatchers and be entertained by the warbler-like antics of Rufous-browed Tyrannulets (if we really feel like calling that entertainment). Despite losing some forest during the 2009 earthquake, Virgen del Socorro is up and running for birding. Here are some tips for visiting this classic site:

Check out the “new” road!: This would be the road that accesses the canyon and although it’s not really new, the conditions are so much better, it’s pretty much as good as new. Or, it’s at least the best it will probably ever be. Instead of bouncing along roads and ruts, thanks to some recent grading, it’s a smooth ride down to the bridge and up to the entrance to the hydro plant on the other side of the river. Who knows how long it will last but you can probably enjoy this two wheel drive trip for the next few months.

Sunny days aren’t the best of days but they are good for raptors: Pretty much that. If you can get there before 8, it’s all good. After then, expect some really slow birding interspersed with raptor thermals. Commonly seen raptors at this site are Bat FalconWhite Hawk (maybe the most reliable, easily accessible spot in the country), Barred Hawk, Short-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Keep watching and you might also get lucky with Ornate Hawk-Eagle. In the past, Great Black Hawk, Black and white Hawk-Eagle, and even Solitary Eagle were regular at this site, maybe they could show up again?

One of the White Hawks from this site.

Time is better spent at the bridge and the other side: The habitat is better down by the river, and across the bridge. Birds can also be seen on the way to the bridge but where there is more forest, there tend to be more birds and more species. Watching from the bridge might also turn up an American Dipper and other river species (although Sunbittern seems to be oddly absent).

Don’t worry, no one uses the old bridge any more.

Keep watching for mixed flocks: As if we wouldn’t be doing this anyways? What I mean by this is to keep looking and waiting for multi-species action, and then trying to stay with those birds as long as you can. This is where most of the birds will be including chances at various foothill and middle elevation species, and uncommon and rare stuff like Brown-billed Scythebill, tyrannulets, Blue and gold Tanager, vagrant wood-warblers for us local birders, and who knows what else?

Red-headed Barbet can show up. You can also watch for it at the Colibri Cafe.

Hummingbirds: It depends on what’s in flower but know that this is a good site for “le Black-crested Coquette”, Brown Violetear, Green Thorntail, Crowned Woodnymph, White-bellied Mountain-gem, Violet-headed Hummingbird, and Purple-crowned Fairy among others.

Female White-bellied Mountain-Gem

When to visit: Any time of the year is good. This is a great place to bird as a day trip when staying in the Sarapiqui area (takes about 40 minutes to drive there). It also works well when staying in the Varablanca/Poas area, and can be done as a day trip from the San Jose area but it will take an hour and a half or maybe even two hours to get there. If taking the bus, the San Jose-Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui-Varablanca bus route can drop you at the entrance road.

It’s also a good site for Slate-colored Grosbeak.

Do the San Miguel loop: This means taking the road towards San Miguel on the way back. This is also good for birding and can yield more foothill species.

How to get there: The entrance road into the canyon is not signed. It is located off of route 126 (the road that goes by the Waterfall Gardens) on the east side of the road, just south of the largest river on this road, and doesn’t look like much. There is a also white roadside cross just above the entrance road. This is also between San Miguel and Cinchona. Another way to find it is by checking out the map for the Virgen del Socorro hotspot in eBird- in general, this is an excellent way to find various birding sites in Costa Rica and most countries.

Hope you see some good stuff!