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Spring Birding in Costa Rica

Spring is happening in Costa Rica. Up north, the first major change in the seasonal tapestry is marked by melting snow, sunny, warmer days, bird song, and fresh, green bits shooting out of the dormant, muddy ground. Rightly named Spring Peepers awake, and flickers call from the old oaks and maples in the parks. The change is so dramatic and anticipated, for milenia, people in the temperate north have celebrated with holidays related to rebirth and renewal. There are dances, religious celebrations, general making merry, feasts that include ham and jelly beans, and perhaps best of all, serious chocolate.

Go outside and the birds are also getting crazy happy. Huge flocks of blackbirds undulate over the muddy ground and share the thaw with a soundscape that includes honking geese, the whirring wings of ducks taking to the air, and the welcome singing of American Robins. Those who live a fair degree north know that much of that winter isn’t truly over until the latter part of April or even the beginning of May but warmer, sunny days are always happier than the cold dead grip of winter.

Although waterfowl don’t seem to mind a Niagara winter.

In Costa Rica, it might not always be sunny, but it’s always warm and although that makes it seem like summer has taken up permanent residence, actually, we do experience spring, just not in the same way as the frozen realms of the north. Ten degrees north of the equator, this ancient episode of natural renaissance shows itself in different, more subtle ways. I was reminded of the quiet change this morning as I walked along a road through farms planted with coffee. Shortly after leaving the house, Piratic Flycatchers pierced the air with near constant vocalizations while the more gentle notes of Yellow-green Vireos filtered out of shade trees. Around here, both of these species are true spring birds. Like flycatchers and vireos that live in the woodlands of upstate New York, these tropical representatives also migrate south. However, instead of departing to escape cold weather, they come here only to take advantage of the insect abundance provided by the rains. Only here for breeding, these and a few other species show up in numbers by February or March and head back to Amazonian haunts by August and September.

The Piratic Flycatcher might look wimpy but it’s actually fairly psycho. This bird waits for other species to build a nest and then steals it.

Resident bird species also tune up the vocal chords at this time of year. Clay-colored Thrushes (aka National Bird) just started with the singing the other day and as anyone who lives in Costa Rica knows,  a heck of a lot of singing it does! As with other years, we can expect to hear the surrounding gardens and farmlands fill with the pleasant songs of this common Turdus thrush starting pre-dawn and pumping up the volume as the morning progresses.

National Bird makes up for its somber plumage with a cheerful song.

Away from the dry, sun-drenched lands of the Central Valley, other harbingers of Spring include the elegance of Swallow-tailed Kites, the squeaking calls of Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and rivers of migrating raptors. Most of the Louisiana Waterthrushes and Prothonotary Warblers have already left for the north, and a few of the wintering warblers are getting into breeding plumage. Black-throated Greens and one or two others will probably get in some practice singing in a month or so although they save most of that music for the boardwalks at Magee Marsh, Pelee, and lesser known yet just as happy local spring patches.

Spring being the height of the dry season in the Central Valley, I walked this morning past dry, brown grass and gnarled trees in flower. As the vireos sang and Brown Jays called, I was nevertheless reminded of other places from other times by way of scents that drifted out of the ravine and from the resting vegetation. Much to my surprise, the pleasant perfumed scents clicked memory banks that showed me times spent in the dry habitats of Colorado, places where crickets and Western Meadowlarks punctuated the audible scene. I recalled watching Lark Sparrows feeding in dry grasses of eastern Washington and hearing the calls of Western Wood-Pewees. As I walked on, Tennessee and Yellow Warblers chipped from the bushes and I was back on Goat Island, scanning the riverside willows for warblers while Warbling Vireos duetted with the rushing sounds of rapids. I won’t be in those places this change of seasons, but it’s still pretty nice around here.

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Where to Start a Birding Trip to Costa Rica

The starting place for any international birding trip is usually the capital city. That’s where the plane lands so despite the over-urbanization, that is where most of us invariably begin that birding adventure. Costa Rica is no exception to the rule because unless you happen to be one of the few birders who are traveling overland from Nicaragua or Panama, you are going to fly in to San Jose. You could also fly in to Liberia and that is a better option for starting a trip but most visitors to the country are scheduled to land at Juan SantaMaria airport up there in the Central Valley.

It’s also commonly referred to as the San Jose airport but that’s not really true because the airport is located next to the city of Alajuela. That tidbit of trivia is important because it can help you choose the first place to stay for the night and that locale will therefore be where you officially start the trip. As one would expect, there are plenty of hotels to choose from but there are just a few that are truly birdy. Logistics are also important to consider as are the conservation efforts of the hotel in question. Oh yeah, and then there is the budget thing to consider. Backpackers and folks with very limited budgets probably aren’t going to end up at a very birdy hotel but they can always plan their trip accordingly and get out of that hostel or small room first thing in the morning.

Stay where you can see Gray-necked Wood Rail.

However, if you want to hang around and look for things like Tropical Screech Owl, Mottled Owl, Spot-bellied Bobwhite, Gray-necked Wood Rail, and several other species, then the best place to begin that trip is the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana. The cost is a bit more than other places but given the variety of species, photo opps (some of the images for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app were taken there) , wetlands, woodlands, brushy fields, excellent service, gourmet cuisine, and bird friendly owners who protect some of the last remaining wetlands and green space in the western Central Valley, the value is more than worth it.

Zamora is the best place for bird photography in the Central Valley.
A Great Egret poses at Zamora Estate.

If you arrive after dark, watch for night birds like Mottled and Spectacled Owls, and Pacific Screech Owl. Barn and Striped Owls can also show up and you should hear Boat-billed Herons calling from the lagoons. Don’t worry about seeing them at night because they will be there during the day and the owners don’t want anyone going to the lagoons at night in any case to avoid disturbing the many herons, egrets, and other aquatic species that roost there.

One of the Boat-billed Herons from Zamora Estate.

In the morning, you can enjoy breakfast while watching a variety of birds in the lagoons and visiting the bunches of bananas.

A gourmet breakfast with Blue-gray Tanagers is a fantastic way to start the trip.
Hoffmann's Woodpeckers also visit the feeders.

A few short trails pass through woodlands, head past the lagoons, and head through brushy fields and vineyards. These can turn up most of the Central Valley birds and some, including that bobwhite, Grayish Saltator, Rufous-capped Warbler, and others. In other words, it’s a great place to start any birding tour to Costa Rica. Oh yeah, and the rooms are pretty nice too!

Keep an eye out for Rufous-naped Wrens around the rooms.

If there is a downside to staying at Zamora Estate, it’s the traffic that you may face when heading to the hotel during rush hour. However, since that downside also applies to every hotel in the Central Valley, in my opinion, Zamora still comes out on top as the best place to start (and finish) a birding trip to Costa Rica.

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A few Highlights from Costa Rica Birding at Ujarras

Ujarras, Costa Rica is a small settlement situated near the Cachi Dam. This structure is in turn located in the Orosi Valley and is meant to hold back the water of the Reventazon River so it can be used to generate electricity. A side effect was the creation of a lake that produced Costa Rica’s first Canvasback in 2011. Sadly (and stupidly) I didn’t manage to make it over to Ujarras to look for that country first. I went there yesterday and the bird has of course not made it back to such a southerly location (yet) but there were a few other ducks around. In fact, there were a good number of ducks and although Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and American Wigeon won’t tickle the fancy of most visiting birders, I and my birding friend Susan were pleased to scope them because they are kind of uncommon in Costa Rica and reminded me of birding in western New York.

The lower temps than normal and windy weather also brought back oddly fond memories of much worse weather conditions while scanning for ducks on Lake Ontario. Fortunately, in Costa Rica, it never gets so cold that you feel as if the wind is going to waltz away with your very being so we had nothing to worry about. That was one of the day’s highlights for us and here were a few others:

1. Prevost’s Ground Sparrow: I think Ujarras and surroundings might actually be the most reliable site for this species. Forget about wandering the gardens of the Bougainvillea, not seeing it and wondering if you might connect on the next trip. Instead, Go to Ujarras and scan the dirt road behind the ruins. If that doesn’t work, walk up to where you can see into the Chayote cultivation (looks a bit like a vineyard) and watch there until one comes into view. We saw 4 to 5 birds without even trying and I came pretty close to getting a photo but they appear to be a camera shy species. We also saw a few more next to the coffee plantations at the Casona del Cafetal.

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This is a cool looking bird but is the much more common White-eared Ground-Sparrow. They also occur around Ujarras and the Orosi valley.

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The Casona del Cafetal is worth a visit- nice restaurant, good food, and good birding (don’t worry, it isn’t tilted in reality).

2. Hummingbirds: When the Chayote is in bloom, this area offers up some of the best hummingbirding anywhere. I don’t just mean for Costa Rica either, I am talking really anywhere. “Not so!” you say? I beg to differ based on reports of literally several hundred hummingbirds of 17 or so species  seen in one day (including both coquettes!). Mind you, the chayote fields have to be in full bloom and they weren’t on November 25th, so our sightings of these glittering sprites numbered in the dozens instead of hundreds. Nevertheless, we still saw a fair number of Rufous-taileds, Ruby-throateds, Violet Sabrewings, Violet-headeds, and Green-breasted Mangos and would have probably found more if we had just focused on searching for hummingbirds.

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Violet-headed Hummingbirds were feeding on flowering Ingas.

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Green-breasted Mangos were buzzing the orange flowers of Poro trees.

3. Wintering warblers: Recent reports of rarities from Ernesto Carman (such as Cape May and Nashville Warblers) had us spishing until our lips ached. Although we didn’t come across any serious rarities, the warbler scene was still pretty good with fair numbers of resident Rufous-cappeds and Tropical Parulas, and 11 migrant species including Golden-winged, Worm-eating, and Bay-breasted Warblers.

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We also had several Mourning Warblers. It was interesting to note that their call sounds somewhat like that of the Plain Wren (or vice versa).

4. Other birds typically seen in the area: The Orosi Valley is always a birdy place so even if you don’t find something rare, you may be entertained by three saltator species, White-crowned Parrots, Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Least Grebe, Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, Passerini’s, Silver-throated, White-lined, and Bay-headed Tanagers, Slaty Spinetail, and on and on. Being close to good forest at Tapanti and other nearby sites also ups the birdiness of the Orosi Valley..

Good birding and wish me luck on my next venture to Ujarras and surroundings!

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Hook-billed Kite Makes Bird 533 for 2011!

August is already here and I am pretty sure I heard the call note of a Yellow Warbler this morning. Oh yes, bring on the migrants and have them fly over Santa Barbara, Costa Rica. We have some quality habitat right next door at the Finca Rosa Blanca Boutique Hotel and in remnant moist forest near the Hotel Catalina. After getting in some R and R in those places, they can head on over to Braulio Carrillo National Park and the rainforests of the Talamanca Mountains. I just hope that any rare migrants will let me see or hear them so they can make it onto my illustrious 2011 list. A bunch of migrants and concerted efforts to get “seeable” species missing from this year’s list should help me reach 600 species by December 31st.

I got one of those seeable, unpredictable species today in the form of a Hook-billed Kite. Bird number 533 happened to be soaring above the road as I was driving home from my daughter’s daycare (she calls it, “escuela de Miranda”). Noticing that the soaring bird wasn’t a vulture or Short-tailed Hawk (the expected soaring raptors around here), I kept an eye on it until it banked and confirmed my suspicions with its longish barred tail, smallish head, and broad, “paddle-shaped” wings. I really don’t know if that’s the best description of their wings but I guess it works. You might also say that their primaries look “rounded” or “hand-like”. Whatever. Suffice to say that the shape is so distinct that it can’t be confused with anything else in range.

As testament to the unpredictable nature and uncommon status of Hook-billed Kites in Costa Rica, this was my first in that area despite having driven along the road between San Joaquin and Santa Barbara dozens of times. However, it doesn’t surprise me that I hadn’t seen it before, nor do I find it all that surprising that one showed up where it did. I admit that sounds like some ditty from Alice in Wonderland but before you accuse me of drinking tea with Mad Hatters, allow me to explain:

  • Tropical habitats are so rife with species occurring at naturally low densities that predicting where and when they will show up becomes a rather unpredictable guessing game. When the habitat looks perfect for so and so species, there’s a good chance it’s somewhere out there but that doesn’t mean you are going to see it within an hour’s time or even that same day. It might be on the other side of its territory or just staying out of sight. Even if you know where and how to look for the bird, you might have to rely on probability eventually playing out in your favor by hanging out in one spot until it shows up. So, I’m not surprised that I hadn’t seen Hook-billed Kite where I did because I only spend a fraction of time there each day as I drive past.
  • The habitat looked good for Hook-billed Kite. I wasn’t overly surprised that one of these snail-eating raptors did show up because of where I saw it. In Costa Rica, Hook-billed Kites seem to be most common in middle elevation moist forests on the Pacific Slope (such as near Santa Elena of Monteverde fame, riparian areas in Guanacaste, and forests in the Central Valley), and bird number 533 for 2011 was soaring near a sizeable patch of such forest that also happens to be connected to a riparian corridor.

I wasn’t so sure about getting that one for the year so I’m pretty happy that it decided to take to the air on morning thermals. I wonder which species will be next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Least Grebe- kind of local in Costa Rica.

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Ringed Kingfisher.

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

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

Costa Rica birding

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

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Northern Jacana- always fun to watch this one!

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

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

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

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How and Where to See Buffy-Crowned Wood-Partridge When Birding Costa Rica

Domesticated jungle fowl have given a bad rap to other Gallinaceous birds. Tragopans and pheasants are made exempt by merit of their un-chickenlike shape, fantastic glittering plumages, and fancy feathering but there is a tendency to put less importance on seeing the more somberly attired wood-quails, grouse, and wood partridges. I admit that the difficulties in espying these shy birds makes it all that much easier to just focus on brightly colored tanagers, hummingbirds, and trogons. After all, they don’t seem to mind being watched whereas since those chicken-like birds don’t want to be seen, why waste precious birding time by peering into dense thickets and vainly looking for invisible calling birds? Difficulties in seeing them aside, I am convinced that they are somewhat discriminated against because of their vaguely chicken-like appearance.

We are so used to viewing chickens as familiar barnyard animals that we easily forget that they descend from wild Red Jungle Fowl that need to watch out for Leopard Cats and Burmese Pythons as they carefully forage in south Asian leaf litter. We forget their wild side and transfer this neglect over to similar looking creatures. It’s not that we don’t want to see wild, chicken-like birds, it’s just that they usually aren’t all that high on most birders’ target lists. One such chicken like bird in Costa Rica is the Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge. Birders coming to Costa Rica wouldn’t mind seeing one but most don’t really expect it or make much of an effort to tick it. With so many other very cool birds that are much easier to see in the country, I can’t say I blame them but that doesn’t mean that wood-partridges should entirely written off when birding Costa Rica. It is true that they like the thick stuff but they are also common enough to show themselves if you spend a modest amount of time searching in the right places.

Here is how to see a Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge in Costa Rica:

  • Look for them in the right places– The B.C.W.P. commonly occurs in coffee plantations and scrubby habitats in the upper part of the Central Valley. They don’t really like forest all that much so you need to stick to the “trashier” habitats. Some of the better sites for this species are the Orosi Valley, on the slopes of Irazu as well as in the paramo vegetation of the crater, and up above Grecia. They also occur in the Dota Valley but I don’t think they are as common there.
  • Go birding with a dog– Well, not seriously but that is how I saw my first one! While walking along the road near Kiri Lodge some years ago, a dog that was in the area began to investigate some thick, scrubby, streamside habitat. Next thing I knew, two or three Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridges burst out of the grass and one even perched long enough on top of the vegetation to allow me perfect looks. A nice surprise tick!
  • Check trails and little traveled country roads at dawn or late afternoon– Keep an eye out on the road ahead, use binoculars to scan that path through scrubby grass as far as you can, and watch the edges of coffee plantations.
  • Listen for their song– This of course let’s you know where they are. Use playback and they just might show themselves (with the caveat of not overdoing it of course).
  • Go to the Los Lagos restaurant in the Dota Valley– Ok, so you may or may not see a wild B.C.W.P. there but when I visited in February, the people next door had two in a cage!

Sad as it was to find them being held captive, at least you can see what they look like.

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and for a closer look…

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Of course I would much rather hear that you saw one of these beautiful birds in the wild.  Follow the tips given above and you have a fair chance of seeing Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge when birding Costa Rica.

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Tapanti National Park is always worth a visit when birding Costa Rica

With so many excellent possibilities to choose from when birding Costa Rica, it can be difficult to decide upon an itinerary. “Classic” sites like Sarapiqui, Monteverde, the Dota Valley, and Carara tempt with easy access, good infrastructure, and mouth watering trip reports. The biologically hyperactive Osa Peninsula, tall forests of Tortuguero, and monkey rich Santa Rosa National Park beckon to birders looking for a wilderness experience. Adventurous birders and naturephiles will be impressed with the fantastic birding and high diversity at sites located off the radar such as Heliconias Lodge, Hitoy Cerere, and Manzanillo.

No matter where you decide to focus birding time and energy when visiting Costa Rica, make room in the schedule for Tapanti National Park. At least a day but two or three would be even better. My reasons for getting excited about birding Tapanti and surroundings are probably why most birding tour companies include a visit to the lush forests of this middle elevation site:

  1. There are few other places in Costa Rica where you have a fair chance at seeing the likes of: White-bellied      Mountain-Gem, Green-fronted Lancebill, Black-bellied Hummingbird, Scaled Antpitta, Ochre-breasted Antpitta (good candidate for splitting from South American taxa), Black-banded Woodcreeper, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Buff-fronted Foliage-gleaner, Streaked Xenops, Immaculate Antbird, Rufous-rumped Antwren, Lesser Elaenia, White-fronted Tyrannulet, Dark Pewee, Sharpbill, and White-winged Tanager.
  2. You also have a fair chance of seeing target species such as: Black Guan, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Violet Sabrewing, Green Thorntail, Red-headed Barbet, Prong-billed Barbet, Brown-billed Scythebill, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Streak-breasted Treehunter, Red-faced Spinetail, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Golden-bellied Flycatcher, Brown-capped Vireo, Black-faced Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush, American Dipper, Azure-hooded Jay, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Silver-throated Tanager,  Ochraceous Wren, and Elegant Euphonia.
  3. The park is easily accessible and there are various options for lodging within a twenty minute drive.
  4. Most of the birds can be seen along a wide, easily walked road through the park or along an easy, loop trail.
  5. Situated 2 kilometers from the park entrance, Kiri Lodge is a good place for lunch and has excellent bird feeding tables.

On a day trip to the park last weekend, my birder friend Susan and I didn’t come close to getting all of the above but we still had a great day of birding in beautiful surroundings. Here is a quick run-down of our day:

Susan picks me up in Santa Barbara de Heredia at 5 a.m. and off we go through the streets of the Central Valley on our way to Tapanti! Light traffic at dawn is a serious boon but twisting, winding roads and occasional lights and signs that tell us to stop make it an hour and a half drive. We both agree that we should have left at 4.

Scenery doesn’t become truly beckoning or beautiful until we decend into the Orosi Valley, take in huge draughts of fresh, country air, and listen to the Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Clay-colored Robins, Black Phoebes, Brown Jays, Plain Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Yellow-faced Grasquits, and other birds that chip, sing, and call from surrounding coffee plantations.

Nearing the park, we stop at an inviting spot along the road with a brushy field on one side and a lush forest on the other.

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Hoping for migrants, I start up with the spishing as soon as I step out of the car and a few birds show up- three Chestnut-sided Warblers, two Wilsons Warblers, a couple of Tennessees, and one smart looking male Golden-winged Warbler. They are just as likely to have have arrived for the winter as they are migrants stopping for a “coffee break” on their way to more southerly haunts.

I was hoping that the brushy field would turn up a Lesser Elaenia or White-throated Flycatcher but Black Phoebe, Yellow-faced Grasquit, Golden-hooded Tanager, and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat were the only birds that made an appearance. Nevertheless, it was a perfect place to just stand still, watch the sun begin to chase away the shadows, and listen to the dawn chorus. Birds in Costa Rica don’t sing as much during October but I still heard Bright-rumped Atilla, Smoky-brown Woodpeckers, Brown Jays, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, Immaculate Antbird, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush.

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This is the latter half of a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat.

We continue past non-birdy sun coffee and stop just outside the park entrance where forest finally greets us on both sides of the road. This area is always productive and Saturday was no exception with Silver-throated and Common Bush Tanagers trooping through the treetops, Black-faced Solitaire and Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush popping into view, and Tawny-capped Euphonias feeding on a branch that hung over the road.

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At 8 a.m. (opening time for the park), we went to the park entrance and the friendly ranger urged us to check out their exhibit of road killed animals. I stress “road killed animals” as opposed to “road kill” because the animals were stuffed and on display as opposed to being shown in sad, squashed, and mangled positions (although they had some gruesome pictures of this too). In their hope to educate visitors about biodiversity in the area and the hazards local fauna face on the roads, they showed a Tapir

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a Puma,

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and an Ocelot!

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Cases of ridiculous looking insects were also on display.

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birding Costa Rica

Just outside the ranger station, we ran into a nice flock of birds and got close looks at Red-headed and Prong-billed Barbets, Spotted Barbtail, Red-faced Spinetail, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Brown-capped Vireo, Slate-throated Redstart, Golden-crowned, Rufous-capped, Black and White, and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Elegant Euphonia, and more Common Bush Tanagers. Not with the flock but in the same area were Stripe-throated Hermit, White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied Hummingbird.

I was also hearing Golden-bellied Flycatcher and Dark Pewee at this time but they stayed out of sight.

As we were on a mild-mannered mission to see antpittas, we drove up the road to the oddly named Oropendola Trail (because you don’t usually see them there) and crept down towards the river with the hopes that a Scaled Antpitta would bound into view. Just as we made a silent, ninja-like approach  to a suitable, wet-looking spot that looked like home for an antpitta, a park worker came happily bounding down the trail instead and foiled our plan. Ahh, but a trick was up our sleeve (actually in my backpack) and it came in the form of a Scaled Antpitta recording. I played the odd bubbling sound of this skulking king but despite our careful scanning of the undergrowth absolutely nothing was seen so we conceded defeat and moved on. The rest of the Oropendola Trail was quiet but we managed to pick up Slaty Antwren and got nice looks at Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant (it wasn’t nice enough to keep still for a photo).

Both feeling fit enough to scale the steep trail known as the “Arboles Caidos” (means “Fallen Trees” but should be called “Personas Caidos” (Fallen People) because of its gradient), we slowly walked up and into the old growth, crazily mossed cloud forests found along this trail. Our target here was the Ochre-breasted Antpitta. It has been seen on both trails at Tapanti but is espied more often on the Arboles Caidos. Lots of other good birds are also possible but the going sure is tough! Fortunately, you are more likely to see Black-banded Woodcreeper, antpittas, and Rufous-breasted Antthrush if you move along at a slow pace and do lots of sitting around and waiting (nearly required anyways if you haven’t been training for triathalons).

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A rough trail through the best of habitats.

I managed to get photos of Sooty-faced Finch but we saw few other birds (including of course the other antpitta) although I shouldn’t be surprised because in being there during the mid-morning, we were absurdly looking for birds at the quietest time of the day AND only spent an hour at most on the trail.

birding Costa Rica

Sooty-faced Finch- a regional endemic you don’t want to miss when birding Costa Rica.

Back down to the car, we made our way to Kiri Lodge just outside of the park and ate fried chicken while watching the awesome action on their feeding table. Check my other post about that avian eye candy experience!

Still hoping for a hefty mixed flock, after lunch, we headed back into the park and stopped whenever we heard birds. A female Collared Trogon was turned up, more looks at Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush that were feeding with tiny Labidus sp. army ants, Golden-browed Chlorophonias, and yes, we got a couple of mixed flocks.

The action was fast and furious (and who knows what was missed) but we got onto some good ones such as Streak-breasted Treehunter, Lineated Foliage-gleaner, Spotted Woodcreeper, Barred Becard, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and Streaked Xenops.

Not long after, it began to rain and we started the trek back up into the concrete, paucity of trees, and “civilization” of the Central Valley after a much needed breath of fresh air and birds at Tapanti National Park.

Bird list from our day trip on October 23rd, 2010

Black Vulture a few
Turkey Vulture a few
Osprey (they like to hang out at the Kiri Lodge trout ponds) 2
Broad-winged Hawk 1
American Kestrel (my first for the year!) 1
Spotted Sandpiper 1
Red-billed Pigeon several
Crimson-fronted Parakeet 6
Brown-hooded Parrot 4
Green Hermit 4
Stripe-throated Hermit 1
Purple-crowned Fairy 1
White-bellied Mountain-Gem several
Black-bellied Hummingbird several
Green-crowned Brilliant 1
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird 1
White-collared Swift several
Red-headed Barbet 4 inside the park, 2 at the Kiri tables
Prong-billed Barbet 4 inside the park
Collared Trogon 1
Smoky-brown Woodpecker 1 heard
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper several
Spotted Woodcreeper 1
Tawny-throated Leaftosser 1 heard
Streak-breasted Treehunter 1
Lineated Foliage-gleaner 1
Spotted Barbtail several
Red-faced Spinetail several
Rufous-breasted Antthrush 1 heard
Immaculate Antbird 2 heard
Slaty Antwren 2
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo 1 heard
Golden-bellied Flycatcher 2 heard
Boat-billed Flycatcher 1 heard
Dark Pewee 1 heard
Black Phoebe 4
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant several
Slaty-capped Flycatcher 3
White-ruffed Manakin a few Heard
Barred Becard 1
Blue and white Swallow several
Black-faced Solitaire several
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush several
Swainsons Thrush several
Clay-colored Thrush several
Black and yellow Silky Flycatcher several
Brown-capped Vireo 1
Brown Jay 5
House Wren 2
Ochraceous Wren 3
Band-backed Wren 1
White-breasted Wood Wren 1 heard
Gray-breasted Wood Wren several Heard
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat 2
Rufous-capped Warbler 6
Three-striped Warbler 4
Golden-crowned Warbler several
Black and white Warbler 4
Black-throated Green Warbler 1
Tennesee Warbler 4
Chestnut-sided Warbler several
Golden-winged Warbler 1
Bananaquit 2
Common Bush Tanager several
Blue gray Tanager 2
Palm Tanager 2
Spangle-cheeked Tanager several
Silver-throated Tanager several
Golden-hooded Tanager 1
Summer Tanager 1
Sooty-faced Finch 1
Chestnut-capped Brush Finch 1 heard
Yellow-faced Grasquit several
Tawny-capped Euphonia several
Golden-browed Chlorophonia several
Elegant Euphonia 4
Baltimore Oriole 4
Black-cowled Oriole 1
Melodious Blackbird 2
Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley feeders Introduction middle elevations sites for day trips

Where to see Red-headed Barbets when birding Costa Rica: Kiri Lodge

Kiri Lodge. I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “lodge” I get these images and visions of a spacious cabin built of massive logs- something like Paul Bunyon’s mansion that could only have been constructed with old growth trees he himself cut down along with the profits he reaped from his mutant-like tree cutting prowess. The ceilings stretch up into the shadows and a permanently lit and crackling fireplace keeps the place as cozy as Grandma Bunyon’s on Thanksgiving. All the chairs are comfortable, a few heads of unfortunate herbivores hang from the walls, the air is consistently scented with apple pie, gingersnaps, or some other smell that one commonly associates with pot-pourri aisles in large, all purpose stores that could be the bane of modern civilization, AND all of the guests sport very comfortable smoking jackets even though they don’t smoke.

I would be surprised if I came across a “lodge” like this when birding Costa Rica (or anywhere on Earth) and am happy to report that Kiri Lodge soundly trounces my mental imagery with a better reality. Situated just outside of Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica, Kiri is essentially a small hotel with an extreme fondness for trout. Honestly, all it takes is one look at the menu in their small restaurant to see that these people love Rainbow Trout (or at least love to prepare them in a dozen different ways) so much that little else appears to be offered. The trout ponds out back are proudly advertised, visitors are encouraged to check out the fish, and it is hoped that you will catch some for your dinner at the restaurant.

The Kiri Lodge people are friendly enough to still serve you with a smile even if you don’t like trout and opt for fried chicken or a beef “casado” (a “casado” is an all purpose standard, tasty meal that usually consists of rice, beans, plantain, salad, vegetable, and beef, chicken, or fish).  For the birder, of far more importance than their penchant for trout is their friendly attitude about birds. They demonstrate this with hummingbird feeders and a fantastic bird-feeding table.

Because there are only two of them, the hummingbird feeders aren’t as buzzing with glittering and pugnacious activity as some other sites but if you watch long enough, Green-crowned Brilliants, Violet Sabrewings, and the local specialty known as the White-bellied Mountain-Gem will make appearances. Far better, however, is the feeding platform.

birding Costa Rica

The platform as it looked from my seat in the restaurant. If you look close you might make out Blue-gray tanagers (the blue bits), Clay-colored Robins (the clay bits), and a Great Kiskadee (the great yellow thing).

Costa Rica birding

And here is what it looked like through the scope.

While my birding friend Susan and I waited for our annual allotment of fried chicken accompanied by greasy fries, we were entertained by at least 10 species of birds that went nuts over chunks of papaya and huge, ripe plantains. The most common was Silver-throated Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Commonly seen in middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica, Silver-throated Tanagers are still best enjoyed up close at feeding tables.

Predominantly yellow, numerous, and smaller than other partakers of the papaya, these were kind of like the goldfinches of the bunch. They stayed out of the way of hungry Clay-colored Thrushes but still shared the table with them.

birding Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s national bird getting ravenous with the papaya. Look how “long-headed” and curve-billed it looks compared to an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

When the Melodious Blackbird made an appearance, though, the Silver-throated Tanagers positively scattered and even the Clay-colored Thrushes left the table. Considering the pointed bill, hefty size, and scary demeanor, who can blame them.

Costa Rica birding

A Melodious Blackbird looking threatening.

birding Costa Rica

Only the rough and tumble Great Kiskadee held its ground against the blackbird.

Luckily for the birds (and us), the Melodious Blackbird was content with spending only as much time on the table as it took to wolf down a few choice chunks of papaya. Otherwise we may not have seen smaller and more brightly colored Baltimore Orioles,

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

a handsome Black-cowled Oriole,

birding Costa Rica

nor oohed and aahed over the sky blue of Blue-gray Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

If that blackbird hadn’t left, we might have also missed the clownish king of the bird feeding show; the Red-headed Barbet. As befits such a spectacular bird species, it only showed up after most of the other birds had made an appearance and even then hopped down to the side of the platform and scowled as if in disdain at having to share the table with such commoner things.

birding Costa Rica

“Egads! Why do I lower myself to share space with these Silver-throated Tanagers and dingy Clay-colored Robins!”

birding Costa Rica

“I mean just look at that thrush! Must they always be so maniacal when presented with an abundance of fruit?”

birding Costa Rica

“Their class-less behavior makes me want to look away in disgust!”

birding Costa Rica

“Keep your distance dirt colored heathen or I shall give thee a wallop with my stout bill”!

We also saw Red-headed Barbets in Tapanti that same morning but it’s always nice to casually get fantastic looks at such a funky looking bird while sitting down to lunch at such a birder friendly restaurant as that of Kiri Lodge.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica central valley high elevations Introduction preparing for your trip

Mountain roads and Volcan Barva birding in Costa Rica

From the second story of our house in Santa Barbara de Heredia, we can see the Talamancas rising up in the hazy distance off to the southeast and big, blocky Irazu with a slight turn of the head to the left. Volcan Turrialba lies hidden behind 11,000 foot Irazu but still makes itself known by broadcasting a daily cloud of smoke and vapor. Scanning further left and to the north, a forested ridge of peaks that are protected within Braulio Carrillo National Park dominate the scene. As mountains tend to do, they look so close and inviting that you start to think to yourself, hey I could just walk up there and watch birds! Skip on through the coffee plantations and riparian growth that cling to the edges of streams and rivers and head on up into the forest proper. Leave the asphalted oxcart paths and urbanizations behind for majestic oaks (they are tree royalty after all) and the vegetation overload of high-elevation, Costa Rican cloud forests.

Costa Rica birding

Turrilba smoking at dawn.

They look so close and no wonder because with Google Earth’s handy ruler, I just discovered that the peak of Volcan Barva is only 6 miles from my house as the Crimson-fronted Parakeet flies! This revelation is particularly astounding because it took at least 45 minutes to drive up there this past Sunday. The reasons for such a gross discrepancy between  distance and driving time are quite valid and also hint at why the Spanish didn’t bother very much with the mountainous areas of Costa Rica.

First and foremost, the broken terrain that is bisected and trisected by small streams that have somehow carved huge ravines out of the crumpled surroundings presents, as you can now imagine, some difficulty for overland travel. Paved roads and cars make it about a thousand times easier to go visit the abuelos (grandparents) for Sunday dinner compared to 50 years ago but travel times between places that are so close to each other still makes you feel as if you have entered some sort of slow motion timewarp or Tico tesseract. Travel in a straight line is strictly for the birds or Uraniid moths because roads are necessarily curvy and twisting affairs that wind their way up and down mountains. This makes for beautiful scenery but may also leave you feeling quite envious of moths, vultures, and other animals that can fly.

Speaking of roads, we can now contemplate the second reason why 5 miles up the mountain is better defined as 30 miles up the mountain. Before I start, though, let me say that roads have greatly improved in Costa Rica over the past 5 years. It’s true! There are fewer potholes and better maintenance of Costa Rican byways and the coastal highway makes it a breeze to travel in the Pacific lowlands. That said, the thing that keeps you from speeding along smoothly-paved mountain roads is that they were built for oxcarts.

Tico oxcarts in a parade.

Those roads have been around for a while but they were just never meant for cars. This is why they have more than one lane but not quite two except at bridges when they are most definitely one-laned. I apologize if that sounds confusing but rest assured, if you aren’t entirely clear about that last sentence then you have an idea of what it’s like to drive these mountain roads. Because there is little room for two cars (and no shoulder) you have to drive at a more relaxed, careful pace, obviously so when sharing the road with vehicles headed your way.  It’s only harrowing if you go fast so to keep the peace with your heart rate and avoid an overload of adrenaline (not to mention staying alive), you make your way up and down the mountains in a leisurely, low-speed manner.

The skinny and winding nature of mountain roads in Costa Rica assures that travel is slow-going but it also makes the drive quite pleasant and allows you to spot birds like Blue-crowned Motmot, Blue-gray tanager, or Band-tailed Pigeon (just a few of the species I saw from the car on Sunday). Since distances are short, it doesn’t take too long to get from A to B. A greater problem, however, is presented by “traditional” roads that were never paved or who have allied with the elements to reject asphalt and literally shed their modernized surface for a return to old-fashioned, stony ways. These are the roads that require four-wheel drive and even then are better left to oxcarts, mountain-bikes, and lunar vehicles. Oh, they are also good for walking and this is exactly what you should do for visiting Barva.

The benefits of leaving your car at one of the houses that charges 1,000 colones (two bucks) for parking once you reach the end of the pavement are ample exercise, nice birding, and relief from wondering if an axle on your vehicle will snap in two.  I think it’s about a mile to the ranger station and the uphill hike passes through cloud forest patches,

birding Costa Rica

pastures dotted with old growth oaks,

and nice forest once you pass the limits for the national park. You can see most of the bird species that occur in the area on the way up (including Resplendent Quetzal- I saw 3 on Sunday!) and the double whammy of less oxygen and uphill walking will fulfill your exercise requirements for the next two weeks. This will also assure that you stop more frequently which will in turn result in more bird sightings.

birding Costa Rica

Misty weather made for silhouette photos of the quetzals- its profile reminds me of a cross between a pigeon and a raptor.

Once you make it to the ranger station, for the usual park fee of $10 (1,000 colones for residents), you can extend your hike even further to a high elevation lagoon or walk a beautiful trail that loops through old growth oak forest. Or, if you are tired of walking, just hang out in the peaceful glade at the ranger station and watch birds, meditate, practice Tai Chi, or have a picnic. Please don’t tarnish the place by doing a Sudoku however- those Japanese number puzzles should be left for the plan ride home or if you have to wait in line at a Tico bank.

birding Costa Rica

The peaceful and birdy glade at Volcan Barva, Costa Rica.

As of Sunday, there was one picnic table that could still be used (the high elevation bath of mist, rain, and fog has finally compromised the structure of the other one such that sitting on it is no longer an option) and most of the area’s birds could show up in the surrounding high elevation forest.

Fruiting bushes attracted glittering Spangle-cheeked Tanagers,

Spangle-cheeked Tanager

Black and Yellow Silky-Flycatchers (here a dusky youngster),

Black and Yellow Silky

and more conservatively attired (but just as regionally endemic) Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers.

Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager

Mixed flocks came through the area on a regular basis and were comprised of the three frugivorous birds mentioned above plus

Yellow-winged Vireo- here placing a twig between itself and the camera to thwart my attempts at digitally capturing this relative of the Hutton’s Vireo (I’ll get its soul next time),

Yellow-winged Vireo

Flame-throated Warbler- look for the reddish spot in the photo to find this beautiful, hyperactive bird,

Flam-throated Warbler

lots of Yellow-thighed Finches,

Yellow-thighed Finch

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper- the only woodcreeper up in here,

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper

Collared Redstart- perhaps the cutest of Costa Rican birds,

Collared Redstart

Golden-browed Chlorophonia, Ochraceous Wren, Ruddy Treerunner, Buffy Tuftedcheek, Black-cheeked Warblers in the undergrowth, Wilson’s and Black-throated Green-Warblers, and maybe a few other species.

I also saw Black Guan, White-collared Swift scything the air with its wings, three nightingale-thrush species, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, Long-tailed Silky, Large-footed Finch, Volcano and Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Hairy Woodpecker, Prong-billed Barbet, Emerald Toucanet, and Blue and white Swallow.

I didn’t walk up to Barva this past Sunday but will make the hike on my next visit because the final, unpaved section of the road is just too rough on the car. Trekking uphill with birding equipment will train me for future big days in any case and as I trudge my way up the mountain, I can also test my hypothesis that more birds are seen the slower one goes.

Most visitors birding Costa Rica probably won’t make it to Barva because the same species occur on the more easily accessible Cerro de la Muerte. It is ideal, however, for mixing hiking or mountain biking with birding.

Categories
central valley common birds Introduction

Subtle birding in Costa Rica

I haven’t had the chance to go birding for the past two or three weeks. As of late, work, family duties, and lack of transportation (a common anti-birding trifecta) have combined their forces to stop any serious birding in its tracks before I even think of retrieving my binoculars. That’s alright though because I will be guiding a great group of people up at the Heliconias Lodge near Bijagua this upcoming weekend and I am always birding anyways in a subtle manner.

What I mean by this is that no matter where I go or what I am doing, I am always listening and looking for birds. I am sure that many birders can relate; especially those who have carried out field surveys that train one to listen for, quickly identify, and gauge the distance to every peep, squawk, and whistle that come a knocking on the ear drums.

Here is a run down of a typical day of subtle birding for me in Costa Rica:

5:00 – 8:00 a.m.: I awake to the dawn songs of Tropical Kingbirds and Social Flycatchers (and sometimes Gray-necked Wood-Rails). Rufous-collared Sparrows also sing their cheery songs from the walls that separate the houses and from the telephone wires and television cables.

Tropical Kingbird Costa Rica birding

Tropical Kingbirds may be the quintessential neotropical trash bird but at least they are nice looking trash.

Through the back door, I watch the neighborhood Blue and White Swallows zipping by and upon opening the front door,  I hear a Plain Wren giving a simple song from a nearby hedgerow. About this time, some poor, captive White-fronted Parrot begins to scream and squawk from its cage in a neighboring house. I haven’t seen it but am pretty sure that it’s imprisoned because the calls only come from one location.

Around this time, wild and free Crimson-fronted Parakeets and White-crowned Parrots come flying overhead. As with most members of their family, I hear them long before seeing them.

Just after Miranda and I walk out the door, a pair of Blue-gray Tanagers give their squeeky calls as they fly overhead and White-winged Doves sing and display from the wires. Another Blue-gray Tanager and Tropical Kingbird perch in the bare tree near the entrance to our neighborhood and a Great-tailed Grackle or two flies by.

Blue Gray Tanager birding Costa Rica

Blue-gray Tanagers are a common sight when birding Costa Rica.

Upon leaving our neighborhood, some Coturnix quail species calls from the house that also keeps canaries, budgies, and Yellow-faced Grassquits (all heard only). Near that house there is also a large garden and this green space provides habitat for Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Rufous-naped Wren, and other birds that I see or hear every time I walk by. More Tropical Kingbirds sally from overhead wires and a Boat-billed Flycatcher gives its complaining sounding call from somewhere in the neighborhood.

Students on their way to school walk by, we smile and wave at the old, smiling, mentally retarded guy who sits outside and listens to his radio all day. I always salute him with a tip of my hat to which he responds in like manner. As we pass through residential areas, we see more of the same birds and I sometimes hear a captive Black-faced Solitaire singing its ethereal song from inside a house. Miranda looks for cats and says, “meow” and sometimes points at birds and says, “peee”! (“bird” in Miranda O’Donnell Paniagua lingo).

Upon reaching the bus stop, Great-tailed Grackles become very evident as they loudly call from four tall palms. Miranda never fails to point up and say, “peeee”! and I likewise never fail to encourage her to call them, “birds”! or “grackles”!

I also look up at the palms and the nearby church with the outside hope of finding a Barn Owl. I suppose that the church bells are too loud to harbor one but judging by the frequency with which I see rats in Santa Barbara, there has got to be a pair living somewhere around here.

From the bus, background birding is poor with a few sightings of Tropical Kingbirds, Great Kiskadee, Hoffmann’s Woodpecker, Clay-colored Robin, and an occasional Blue-crowned Motmot hanging out in the shady riparian growth of a ravine.
Blue-crowned Motmot birding Costa Rica
It’s nice to have Blue-crowned Motmots as a common backyard bird in Costa Rica.

9:00-11:00 a.m.

After dropping Miranda off at the babysitter’s place in Tibas, I walk back to the bus stop to head back to Santa Barbara. Although Tibas is more urbanized, I often hear and see Grayish Saltators, Inca Doves, and get flyovers of Red-billed Pigeons.

By the time I get back to Santa Barbara, bird activity has slowed down and a dozen or so vultures soar around on the thermals rising out of a nearby ravine. Sometimes a Short-tailed Hawk is with them.

11:00-5:00

For the rest of the day, I just hear or see a few of the same birds as I write. Once in a while, a flyover Ringed Kingfisher announces its presence with its “check!” flight call.

Subtle birding is a good way to challenge oneself to find birds in urban environments when birding isn’t really the focus but I’m ready and looking forward to this weekend to get back out in the field for some concentrated Costa Rica birding replete with scope, camera, recording equipment, and a pair of good binoculars.