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caribbean foothills

Some Birds to Expect at El Tapir

One of the most interesting things about birding in tropical habitats is the unpredictable nature of the endeavor. It seems like the more biodiverse a place is, the less predictable the bird species encountered. When venturing into rainforest with binoculars at the ready, the end result of this bio-trick is eventually ticking off species after species with careful, patient birding. After wondering where the other bird species were, you go back out that same afternoon and find some, and then a bunch more the following day. Keep visiting and you keep seeing more wondering where the heck those birds were the first time around.

As with most rainforest sites, this is the status quo at El Tapir. You never know what will show at the edge of the forest, and never know what will pop into view beneath the trees, but you do know that just about anything seems possible. “Just about anything” is code for a bunch of rare bonus species like umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the ground-cuckoo, maybe a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, maybe even Black-eared Wood-Quail. Since those birds are rare, no, they hardly ever show at the site but they always can, and on any visit.

During two recent visits, I had hoped that the cards would fall into place and give us an umbrellabird. After all, the big endangered cotinga has been seen near there recently, it occurs at that elevation at this time of year, and I still need it as a year bird. Although those cards didn’t play out, we were still dealt a deck with various other nice species. With the caveat that nothing there is guaranteed on a one day trip, these are a few things to sort of expect when birding this foothill site:

Lattice-tailed Trogon: El Tapir is a good site for this uncommon, localized foothill trogon. I do see it on most visits and that makes El Tapir one of the best places for it anywhere in its small range. Bird any of the trails the whole day and there’s a fair chance it will show. You still need to know what it sounds like though, because the big trogon hides exceptionally well in its extra-vegetated habitat.

lattice-tailed-trogon

Snowcap: Sounds like candy. Looks like candy. This is avian eye candy! The Porterweed bushes usually harbor several of these wonderful little hummingbirds. If you don’t see it here, or want to see it in more comfy settings where fantastic meals are served, give it a shot at Rancho Naturalista.

snowcap

Black-crested Coquette: These guys come and go but one often shows up. Last week, two eventually turned up, the male at one point sharing perching space on a  bare sapling with a Green Thorntail and a Snowcap.

black-crested-coquette

Mealy Parrots and toucans: They can also be seen in many other places but these usually show quite well at El Tapir.

toucans

King Vulture and other raptors: The site is still pretty good for this condor of the jungle. If it’s sunny, watch the skies from the parking area between 9 and 12. Other raptors often show too, including Ornate Hawk Eagle this past Sunday.

Antwrens and antvireos: The heavy forests at El Tapir are usually reliable for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. These uncommon little birdies are tough to see at many sites because they need lots of mature forest but are regular at El Tapir to the point of seeing them on most visits. You have to bird on the forest trails but they usually, eventually show up, and often have other small birds with them.

Tanagers: As with other quality foothill sites, this is a good one for tanagers. Numbers vary and a lot can be around if there are fruiting trees. Most possible tanagers can also be seen if you connect with a big mixed flock “led” by White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

emerald-tanager

Keep looking and don’t be shy about birding El Tapir for more than one day!

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Short Report from a Recent Day of Birding at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez

The easiest place to experience quality rainforest birding when staying in the San Jose area is El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez. Or, maybe I should say the quickest, most accessible place because the birding there is never actually easy. Instead, it’s a mysterious challenge that always comes with a temptation of birding gold. But, even if you are just getting started with birds, it’s still worth a visit, especially if you have a free day around San Jose.

A lot of people ask me about the birding in San Jose and my reply is always the same. I tell them that birding in the city isn’t really worth the effort, especially when you can do an easy day trip for foothill species at El Tapir and Quebrada Gonzalez, or highland birds up in the Poas area. Both areas are a close hour’s drive, and always offer quality birding. Compare that to looking for common species in public parks or gardens while worrying about someone trying to steal your binoculars and there’s really no comparison. Maybe if you want to safely look for the endemic ground-sparrow and hang with common birds while staying at places like the Bougainvillea, Xandari, or Zamora Estates, but, in general, if you want to see more, then you need to head over to the mountains. In the case of the foothill sites, that would actually be up and over the mountains.

I did that for a recent day of guiding, and I hope this short report gives an idea of what you might run into over that way. As might these eBird checklists:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965280

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965322

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965263

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S30965222

If you haven’t previously talked with the guards at Quebrada Gonzalez about leaving the gate open before eight (the usual opening time), go past the ranger station for a couple kilometers and watch for the entrance to El Tapir on the right. Don’t expect a sign but know that it’s the first entrance for a car on the right. If the gate is closed, open it and head on in. Hopefully, the Snowcaps will be active along with lots of other hummingbirds. They were when we were there, including 5 or 6 Snowcaps of all ages and genders, and several other species including Brown Violetear.

brown violetear

Brown Violetear.

Not a whole lot else was going on and the surrounding tree tops were nearly absent of birds, but that can change from one day to the next with various species of raptors showing up, toucans and parrots perching in view, and even Great Green Macaw making an appearance. That large, endangered parrot did indeed show for us even if it was a quick flyby. That happened while we were trying to get good looks at Russet Antshrike, Spotted Antbird, and Slate-colored Grosbeak, all of which were singing (and hiding) at the same time. The antbird didn’t play ball very well, but the other two eventually showed. We also got onto some of our first tanagers as they moved through in a quick flock with several Black-faced grosbeaks.

Deeper into the forest, my hopes and excitement kicked up a notch upon hearing Ocellated and Bicolored Antbirds but eventually went back down to birding standby as those ant followers moved off. They never showed and just kept going so I assume they were wandering in search of Army Ants. I played calls of mega R.V. G. Cuckoo and the gnatpitta anyways but got nothing in response. On we went and saw that recent heavy rains had dropped too many branches to go much further. Unfortunately, it was the same situation on the trail down to the river, so we couldn’t explore much of that part of the forest, an area where I suspected that we had more of a chance at Lattice-tailed Trogon or even umbrellabird. However, we still saw found one understory insectivore flock with hoped for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we looked some more before heading over to Quebrada Gonzalez for the rest of the day. Sunny weather kept things pretty quiet but we still managed a few mixed flocks with target White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several other tanagers, a few more Streak-crowned Antvireos, Pale-vented Thrush, and some other birds. No ground birds seen, nor even singing Nightingale Wrens nor Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush (usually a given on those trails). But, we did see a King Vulture in flight, heard the Caribbean slope subspecies of Streak-chested Antpitta, saw Striped Woodhaunter, and eventual nice looks at Speckled and Emerald Tanagers.

emerald tanager

A good site for the easy on the eyes Emerald Tanager,

speckled tanager

and the Speckled Tanager.

The only break we took was for lunch just down the road at Chicharronera Patona. It’s small and there’s not a lot on the menu but the food is home-cooked, plentiful, fair-priced, and the owners like birds. It also offers a look into some tall trees and a hillside of forest. You never know what might show at that site. When we were there, we had close looks at Black-cheeked and Rufous-winged Woodpeckers, Band-backed Wren, and some other species. The spot also features some awful road noise but since the owner once saw either Crested or Harpy Eagle perched on that hillside, yeah, it’s worth a stop!

At the end of the day, we had a fairly modest list but we still got a fair percentage of the targets, including several species tough to see elsewhere. For someone with a free day or morning, it’s always a good bet.

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caribbean foothills

The 2016 Resident Bird Count at Quebrada Gonzalez

We are wrapping up the breeding bird count season in Costa Rica. If I could do a few counts a week, I would but I only do three because I haven’t had time to do more. Hopefully, that will change by next year and I can participate in counts on the Osa (where a cool count workshop took place this year), on the Manuel Brenes Road, and other birdy spots. In the meantime, I enjoy my three counts; one near the house, another on Poas, and the third one at Quebrada Gonzalez, the first place that acted as my inaugural birding experience in rainforest.

Since that day in late 1992, some of the bird populations at the site have changed somewhat and not for the better. The habitat is there but the amount of rainfall that resulted in massive mixed flocks, hawk-eagles, tons of wrens, and various foothill specialties has diminished. Most species still seem present but several have declined bit by bit in conjunction with less rainfall, and a few species might be gone from the site. They might still show up from time to time but have most likely taken a hike to higher, wetter, and cooler elevations.

But this post is about the most recent count, not laments over human-caused climate change that is pushing so much life towards extinction, so I will get on with the report. Fortunately, Susan was able to join me for the count, and we started at 6 am as usual. The gate is usually closed until 8 but, thankfully, I was able to speak with the rangers and arrange an earlier visit. Our first point was busy straight away and ended up being the best of the day because we connected with a mixed flock that held White-throated Shrike-Tanager, several Carmiol’s and Dusky-faced Tanagers, and other birds.

The excitement almost stopped there because most of the following counts were pretty slow. We had just a couple Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, one or two Dull-mantled Antbirds, one White-ruffed Manakin, and low numbers overall. The Lattice-tailed Trogons weren’t calling, nor were the Chestnut-backed Antbirds, but we did have several wood-wrens and Stripe-breasted Wrens, one Band-backed Wren, and a fair number of other species.

Although it was a bit slow, that can always happen at that site with one or a few rare birds thrown in for good measure. This happened during the count as we got our best bird up on the ridge at one of our points. As Susan looked up, she noticed a bit of movement and said, “There’s a raptor” followed by, “wait, is that a raptor”? I got on the bird and yes, it sure was and a good one. For a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure about it being a raptor because it was so small. That could only mean one thing, Tiny Hawk!

We watched it for several minutes in the subcanopy as it plucked the feathers from and ate some small green bird. This was a fantastic sighting because although I have always known that the species was present (perfect habitat and other reports), this was the first time I had actually seen it at the site. This mini hawk escapes detection because it is probably naturally rare, is the size of a thrush, happens to be a sneaky ambush predator that hides in the dense vegetation of the canopy, and doesn’t vocalize that often. In other words, good luck seeing it!

After the Tiny Hawk, we also flushed a juvenile Olive-backed Quail-Dove. This species seems to be getting more common at Quebrada and might be out-competing the formerly common Purplish-backed Quail-Dove.

On the other side of the road, things were pretty quiet with almost no birds visible from the overlook. It wasn’t really until after the count that we started getting more species. A Chestnut-backed Antbird finally sang, we heard a Dot-winged Antwren, two Streak-chested Antpittas, and had a juvenile Great Black Hawk fly right into our field of view.

Kind of a quiet morning, but at least one flock during a point count, a bigger one between points, and a few other forest species that are tough to see. Not bad for a morning of birding and pretty much par for the course at Quebrada. Stay longer, just hang out in the forest, and you might be surprised at what shows up.

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bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills

A Short Trip to El Tapir

Last week, I paid a visit to El Tapir for a morning of birding with my friend Susan. The weather looked good (no forecast of constant rain), and the foothill rainforest is always worth a visit, and not just for the hummingbirds. Other species live in that mossy forest too, including rare ones like Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, and Gray -headed Piprites. It was one last hoorah of birding to see if I could add a few more species to my year list. I did add one, an Ashy-throated Chlorospingus, not a very rare species but one more for the year nonetheless. Upon arrival, we had our rarest species of the day, a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle that flew out of the forest and directly overhead. I had already seen it for the year but any sighting of this rare raptor is always welcome!

The view at El Tapir.

The flowering bushes were kind of slow for hummingbirds (and we did not see Snowcap), but we still had fine views of a male Black-crested Coquette, Green Thorntails, and a few other species.

Black-crested Coquette

Green Thorntail and a coquette share a branch.

Inside the forest, we walked both trails, one that leads to an overlook, and another that leads to a beautiful stream.

We scoped the overlook for a fair bit but only turned up a few toucans.

The beautiful stream.

The forest was kind of quiet but we still managed some good ones, including White-crowned Manakin, Black and yellow Tanager, Spotted Antbird, and

Lattice-tailed Trogon.

No Sunbitterns on the stream but it was nice to hang out and see if the small fish eat bits of crackers (they did). Back in the forest, although we failed to find our cotingas or antswwarm, we still had a few flocks with Checker-throated Antwren, White-flanked Antwren (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica, at least in the places that most birders frequent).

Inside the forest.

So, nothing major but still picked up one year bird and always a special place to visit. To reach El Tapir, head down route 32 from San Jose towards Limon, pass through Braulio Carrillo national Park, and watch for the Quebrada Gonzalez ranger station on the right. From there, El Tapir is around one kilometer further down the road, on the right. Although you probably won’t see a sign, it’s the first place on the right just after the ranger station. Open the gate, go on in, and pay the caretaker $12 when he comes out.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills preparing for your trip

Preparations for the 2015 Arenal Christmas Count

December has kicked off with am imaginary “bang!” and Christmas count season is nigh in Costa Rica. Most counts take place two weeks from now, but one key, counting bonanza happens in a few days and I will indeed partake in the challenge. Since the count season overlaps with the family events season, this will probably be the only count I can do. Having been stuck indoors for too many days, I am more than ready to merge back into the tropical forest and focus on the bio-surroundings. I’m still not entirely sure where I will stay for the count (counts in Costa Rica are usually a multi-day event), but one of the coordinators is doing his best to help me and a couple friends figure that out. In the meantime, these are some suggested preparations for keeping things on the ball during count day:

  • Meditate: Meditation results in more birds. It does! Work to clear the mind and there is less mental clutter to keeps one from noticing birds. You see, a lot of these tropical birds are highly evolved to escape detection. The more concentrated on seeing and hearing birds one is, the more you find. Oh, and meditation doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on the floor with your eyes closed. It can also take the form of Tai Chi, Yoga, watching birds on your own, trying to focus on and discern distant flying specks, tight-rope walking or other endeavors that help to calm the mind. If you deal feel like repeating one or a few words over and over, I suggest, “Rufous…vented….Ground….Cuckoo…”.
  • Learning to use hand signals to shush people in silence: After visualizing ground-cuckoos, this idea came to mind. Serious business requires serious silence. I wish we had those throat microphones used by special forces soldiers in movies (a night scope would also be nice) but we don’t, so hand signals will have to suffice. We will have to establish talking rules before the count, as well as which hand signals mean “Bird ahead”, “Did you hear that?”, or “Ground-cuckoo ahead!”. That latter signal could also be substituted for “Shut the ….. up!!” Heck, if we develop those gesticulations further, we’ll be just like a gender neutral Bene Gesserit of birding!
    Birds like to hide in this stuff..

    ...birds like Keel-billed Motmot.
  • Gearing up: A gear check is needed before any major birding endeavor because we can’t afford to have something go wrong, especially when we have to note every bird that chirps, flies, or scampers into our collective field of view. Not to mention, it’s cool to check out optics, mobile devices with bird calls, and an espresso machine any time of day. Ok, so, we aren’t bringing the espresso machine, but only because it’s too much of a pain to carry through the jungle.
  • Rain: There is only one day for the count and that day is not weather dependent. If it rains,(and it often does), the count goes on! As many past bird counts in Costa Rica have demonstrated, you still find a surprising number of birds. This is because it doesn’t usually rain the whole time,, and wherever you have a bunch of birders counting, them birds are found. So, we get ready for the rain by bringing a functioning umbrella, other rain gear, like 2o Ziplock bags, and a mindset that expects precipitation.
  • Snacks, coffee, and the like: We will probably get a bag lunch (most counts in Costa Rica do this) but a count is always better when you can reward yourself with quality chocolate, brownies, and/or other goodies. This also helps us celebrate the count. The coffee is of course necessary (or tea, or some other caffeinated stuff).

    On the way to Arenal, we will probably stop at the Loveats cafe for Cookies.
  • Flexibility to chase birds: So, this could mean literal flexibility if we have to climb a muddy slope and leap across some chasm to see the Great Jacamar or ground-cuckoo calling on the other side of the mountain, or being flexible with time the following day to chase the rare birds found and reported by others during the count.

I may or may not be following my own suggestions but I know that if I do, I will see more birds. Happy counting!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills

Expect the Unexpected when Birding in Costa Rica at Quebrada Gonzalez

Expecting the unexpected is par for the binocular course when birding in tropical rainforest. The surprise effect can be a challenge for target-based birding but makes every trip into the forest like that box of chocolate quote from Forrest Gump. Basically, while you can have an idea of what you might see, you never really never know what you are going to get.

Quebrada Gonzalez is like that and is probably why it’s one of my favorite places to bird. It doesn’t matter how many times I have walked past those old, mossy trees on the trail, I really never know what is going to happen. However, every time I step into that dense forest, I am fully aware of rare possibilities at every turn of the trail.

This Chuck-will's-Widow was a nice, recent surprise.

On saturday, I birded the area with friends Susan Blank and Dani Lopez-Velasco, and as expected, we heard more than we saw and had some quiet times in beautiful forest, but also had a couple of mixed flocks, and a few really good birds. We went there because it’s the most accessible site as a day trip for a chance at Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Black-eared Wood-Quail, Sharpbill, Gray-headed Piprites, and other Megas in Costa Rica. Although I hardly ever see those at the site, the more you go, the better chance you have at finally connecting with them so there’s never anything wrong with a day of birding at Quebrada.

We heard Lattice-tailed Trogon although I did have fantastic views the previous week.

As we quietly walked through the rainforest, the calls of Carmiol’s and Tawny-crested Tanagers were a near constant companion. Some other birds were with them now and then but nothing incredible. No matter, they were still fun to watch as was White-ruffed Manakin, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Rufous Mourner. One of our best of the day was Black-crowned Antpitta. Always a Mega, Quebrada Gonzalez is one of the very few easily accessible sites for this species in Costa Rica (and in the world for that subspecies- maybe a future split?). Unfortunately, it’s not as regular at Quebrada as it used to be but still haunts the forest, especially near streams and gullies.

This female White-ruffed Manakin stayed in place much longer than the antpitta.

Like the previous week, we heard the bird sing quietly now and then and after a prolonged wait, the male antpitta (gnatpitta) finally hopped out onto the trail for nearly a minute. It was long enough for great looks but still not long enough to get a picture of it in the dim understory. We also had a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles near there.

Despite plenty of staring and listening in the understory, and hearing Dull-mantled, Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, we didn’t hit any ground-cuckoo lotteries but we still had a chance on the Ceiba trail. At first, it was dreadfully quiet but some birds eventually started to show on the Botarrama Trail while we searched for Lanceolated Monklet. These were birds like Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Stripe-breasted Wren.

This Dull-mantled Antbird showed well the previous week.

After giving up on the monklet, we made our back up the trail and ran into a good mixed flock. As tanagers slowly made they way across the trail and other birds showed, movement in a tree off to the right materialized into one of our best for the day; Yellow-eared Toucanet! A male was feeding in a fruiting tree and then called high above before retreating back into the forest. Pale-vented thrushes and Black-mandibled Toucans were also feeding at the tree but we couldn’t wait around long enough to see if a Lovely Cotinga would make an appearance.

Striped Woodhaunter posed for a few shots.

The male was a year bird for me and Susan and a major target for Dani because it was one of the only lifers that he could get in Costa Rica. Hopefully, he will pick up the ground-cuckoo for himself and his clients during his Birdquest tour (last year, they got an astounding 590 plus species!).

As always, I can’t wait to get back to Quebrada to hang out in the forest and see what happens. Maybe I will get a picture of a Sharpbill, have Black-eared Wood-Quail quietly creep through the forest, or find a Black and white Hawk-Eagle. All are possible, but you won’t see them if you don’t put in the time and effort.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope

Birding in Costa Rica at the Other Virgen del Socorro

Birding in Costa Rica hasn’t been going on as long as watching for wood-warblers in Central Park,  counting hawks at Cape May, or taking pictures of birds at Ding darling Wildlife Refuge. Nevertheless, we do have our own little set of classic sites and Virgen del Socorro is one of them. It earns “classic” status mostly because the rocky road into the forested canyon has felt the hiking shoes of hundreds of birders since the 1980s. I daresay that people have also birded the spot in the pre-history of Costa Rican birding (this would be pre-1989, the publication date for The Birds of Costa Rica by Stiles and Skutch).

Birders have visited Virgen del Socorro for years because it has offered easy access to some fine middle elevation birding. Although the 2009 Cinchona earthquake put a hiatus on visits and diminished the habitat, it is currently accessible and can still be great for a nice mix of foothill and cloud forest species.

Nevertheless, there is “another” Virgen del Socorro that deserves our attention. This “other” is really just the part of the road that goes from the northern side of the settlement and loops over to the main road to Sarapiqui just north of San Miguel. Since classic Virgen del Socorro birding is typically limited to birding in the canyon, most birders haven’t made it to this other nearby site. In fact, I wasn’t aware of it until a few months ago although I have wished that I could fly over to those forest from San Miguel every time I see them from afar.

Last weekend, I was finally able to check out the site for a morning of birding with faithful birding friend Susan. Here is a brief report and synopsis:

After crossing the mountains at Varablanca, we drifted downslope to pass the waterfall and Cinchona Cafe, eventually reaching the foothills and San Miguel around 6:30 am. We hadn’t made any real stops except at a service station where a Mourning Warbler popped out of a nearby bush. White-winged Doves were also present and a reminder that they are almost everywhere in Costa Rica. The entrance to the lower Virgen del S. loop is just after San Miguel and can be recognized by the semi-creepy presence of a cemetery.

Fortunately and amazingly, there are also a couple of signs.

The road is paved and takes a few curves down through farmland with scattered trees, lots of Social Flycatchers, and other common, edge species before reaching the first river.

One of the rivers.

As is required of anyone with binoculars, we searched the river rocks and boulders for a lurking tiger-heron or Sunbittern but despite seemingly ideal habitat, came up with zilch. The same thing happened at the next one or two rivers, one of which was the Sarapiqui. Although we failed on those river birds, they should show up. The rivers were also good places for watching the forest in the riparian zone although we didn’t see much at the big river.

At the most forested river ( a smaller one, I think it is the Rio Volcan), we had some birds. Actually, we had a lot and thanks to a major fruiting fig, only needed to stand in place and swivel back and forth to see dozens of species. This was a major rather than minor fruiting fig because it was big, filled with fruits, and jumping with birds. Yes, it was a veritable avian disco fruit fest with several Black-mandibled Toucans doing their best John Travolta. Their dance consisted of reaching with the beak to pick off a fig and gliding between branches as thrushes, tanagers (mostly common ones), and flycatchers rustled the dark green foliage. After 30 minutes of action, the birds were upstaged (and scared off) by eight hungry Spider Monkeys! This was a treat because this primate has become decidedly uncommon in many parts of Costa Rica.

A Spider Monkey in action.

When this happened, many of the birds rushed over to decorate the branches of a nearby bare tree. Most were Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers but we also had several Golden-hoodeds, honeycreepers, and our only Plain-colored Tanager of the day. We also had our first of three White Hawks during the morning.

As the monkeys settled down, some birds came back but it looked like most weren’t going to be foolish enough to hang out with a bunch of hairy primates so we moved on up the road. On the side of the bridge, the road switchbacks up through some alright forest and I surmise that this part of the road in particular has a lot of potential. Although we didn’t get any results when  playing the sound of the monklet at likely spots, I wouldn’t be surprised if it occurs. Nor did we get any response from Black-crowned Antpitta but who knows? Maybe it could show up too if some ants came marching through. One indication of good habitat was a response from Ocellated Antbird, and we had a few other good birds further up the road.

A good spot just down the road from the fig tree.

Some of our best birding was on a straight road that dead ends at a small hydro project. Although there weren’t many places to pull off the road, it passes through nice forest, we had a lot of mixed flock activity, heard Black-headed Antthrushes kind of far off, and had killer looks at Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

The straight hydro road. I would love to bird there a lot more.

The eagle was calling down in a nearby canyon and since it was giving an atypical call, to make sure that it was an Ornate, and not a Black and White, I imitated the call to bring it into view. The bird complied and showed that it was indeed a beautiful adult Ornate Hawk-Eagle.

Ornate Hawk Eagle indeed!
A closer look at this powerful raptor- they can catch a curassow.

After that high point, we followed the road to a point where there are steps that lead to a small overlook above the hydro project. Red-throated Ant-Tanagers reminded us that we were approaching the lowlands. We also had Fasciated Antshrike, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, and other lowland species on another side road that eventually led to unbirdy farmland. Continuing on up the main road to Virgen del Socorro (more signs!), we passed next to more forest and saw things like Crimson-collared Tanager, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and Collared Aracari. This road eventually loses its pavement (and may require four wheel drive), then goes through flat, fairly deforested farmland before reaching the settlement of V. de Socorro but also passes by a small reservoir en route that had Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and one Ring-necked Duck.

We also saw a few Russet Antshrikes. These birds are really into dead leaves.

One can keep following this road on up to the good middle elevation forests around Albergue del Socorro, or can follow it to the right and down through the classic V del Socorro canyon. We did a but of both, highlights being one or two White Hawks, heard only Barred Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon, and saw other expected species including Rufous-browed Tyrannulet.

The lower loop looks like a good one to take if birding Virgen del Socorro because it accesses forest at 500 meters elevation, goes through some nice habitat, and allows more views of rivers (not to mention our killer looks at an Ornate Hawk-Eagle). Check out this eBird list to see which birds we saw and heard.

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biodiversity birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction

A Monklet Says Hello in Costa Rica

Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.

This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.

It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.

We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:

It even caught a bug!

The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills Hummingbirds Introduction

Yesterday’s Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at El Tapir

It’s the day after guiding at El Tapir and it’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was looking at White-ruffed Manakins and listening to the whistles of hidden wood-wrens. Such is the big old contrast between a computer desk and the humid, dim interior of rainforest. There weren’t any crazy highlights but we had some nice birds nonetheless. The antithesis of a highlight was the odd absence of the Snowcap. Odd, because I have never not seen that fantastic hummingbird at El Tapir. I hope they come back soon and have not returned to the dream dimension to which they obviously belong.

Yes, this bird is from a dream dimension.

No Snowcaps, but we did see some other nice birds, one of which is easy to hear but is a menace to try and see. That toughy was a Nightingale Wren and oh how nice it was to come in and hang out a few short meters from our feet.

What a Nightingale Wren usualy looks like.
Now you know why the Nightingale Wren prefers to stay out of sight- it looks kind of like a piece of dirt.
Another look at this ridiculously reclusive rainforest soprano.

If you hear someone whistling out of tune in foothill rainforest, you are listening to a Nightingale Wren and not a short, bearded fellow with a pointed red hat (although some claim to have seen those beings in the forest as well).

No elves but we did have a nice view from an overlook. It was not so easy to get to this spot.

Other “good” birds we saw inside the rainforest were Spotted Antbird, Pale-vented Thrush, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, and a bunch of White-ruffed Manakins.

Male White-ruffed Manakin.

The manakins were feeding on fruiting Melastomes. Several other birds paid visits to those important trees too but no hoped for cotingas or random Sharpbill.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we were treated to one of the other top candidates for bird of the day, a male Black-crested Coquette. We got to watch that fine little bird as much as we wanted along with a couple of Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet-headed Hummingbirds among the over-abundant Rufous-taileds.

We often saw it through the flower stems.
Then it would fly into view.
Or put its head into the flowers.
Scoped views on a perch were also nice!

I will be at El Tapir again within a week for another Snowcap vigil. I hope they come back from their vacation from parts unknown.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Christmas Counts Introduction

The 2014 Arenal Christmas Count

The first thing that comes to mind when I reminisce about the recent Arenal Christmas Count is rain. At this time of the year, cold fronts often come on down to Costa Rica. Unlike other visitors from the north, cold fronts aren’t so welcome because they bring constant rain. While the forests on the Caribbean slope do need tons of falling water (they really do), if you don’t happen to be an amphibian, constant rain is kind of annoying. It’s pretty self explanatory but to give an idea of what it’s like, imagine light rain followed by heavier rain followed by light rain and repeat that process for several days and nights.

Getting ready for the count!
Note the umbrella on the ground- a break in the weather.

Such very wet weather is par for the course in the Arenal area in December so we couldn’t have expected less. However, despite the precipitation, we still managed quite a few bird species on our Finca Luna Nueva route, mostly during times of light rain and breaks in the weather. Such breaks lifted our hearts and gave birth to sighs of relief until the pressure dropped and the rain fell again (along with our drowned, soggy hopes). Ok, enough complaints, now for some highlights!:

  • Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds, Tomohide Cho, Ismael Torres, and Johan Weintz: Mike Bergin and Corey Finger a la 10,000 Birds were visiting Costa Rica and we did the Arenal count together. Lots of fun before, during, and after the count with these guys in our search for lifers and shelter from the rain. Tomohide takes lots of great pictures of birds, Ismael is the resident guide at Luna Nueva and Johan is a guide.birder from Cartago. This was our team and I am grateful for spending the day with them.

    Mike and Corey wading through yet another stream.
  • Cinnamon Woodpecker: First, we had one so close that it seemed like it wanted to help out with the count. Three or so more during the day showed that Luna Nueva is a good spot for this beautiful species.

    I want to count birds!
  • Great Curassow: Regular around Arenal and at Luna Nueva but always a highlight. Although we didn’t get the barred morph and honorary count bird at Luna Nueva, we did see one of those semi-psychadelic creatures at Arenal Observatory Lodge on the following day.
    This was the count mascot.

    This was the one we saw.
  • White-fronted Nunbird: Mike Bergin gets the prize for spotting this target! The quality forests around Arenal are good for this formerly common species but it’s still easy to miss.
  • Hooded Warbler: Uncommon in Costa Rica and a year bird so it was a highlight for me. We did not re-find the much rarer Nashville that Mike, Corey, and Ismael had seen the day before the count!
  • Keel-billed Motmot: We got one from the tower just before lunch! Great looks but too far for a good shot with my camera.

    View from the canopy tower.
  • Magnificent Frigatebird: Weird stuff goes on during cold fronts and this was one of them. Nope, not even near the coast and no other team happened to see this juvenile fly past during the count!
  • Song Wren: Another good one, we got looks up on the trails at the Texas A and M Soltis Center. We did super good for wrens before and after the count too, with 10 species seen and Plain Wren the only heard only (yes, great looks at the almost invisible Nightingale Wren at Arenal Observatory Lodge).

Big misses included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, owls, and other birds that probably didn’t call because they were sick of the rain. I forget how many species we got but I think it was around 130 and that’s not bad, not bad at all for a day of birding!