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A Good Day of Birding in Costa Rica’s Central Valley

What’s a good day of birding in Costa Rica? For that matter, what’s a good day of birding anywhere? A common answer is “a good day of birding is any day when you go birding”. I can’t deny a certain degree of veracity to those words but let’s face it, no day of birding is the same, sometimes you get better views, others are highlighted with rare species, and the best of days exceed all expectations.

In trying to keep with the Zen birding way, before I look for birds, I try to erase the expectations. I am aware of the possibilities, that’s always important, but don’t actually expect anything. This way, the birding experience is more realistic because after all, the appearance and occurrence of birds are beyond our control. All we can do is up the odds in our favor by planting trees or taking other actions to protect bird habitat, learn how to look for and identify birds, and then carefully look for them in the right places.

Today being in the heart of fall migration, I can’t honestly say I didn’t have expectations but I still went birding without expecting to see certain species. I knew various species were out there, suspected that rare ones were present too but also walked out the door knowing that I can’t know if or when we would cross paths with them. All one can do is the things one can control; put in the birding time, observe, and be quick with the binos.

With or without expectations, today, September 26, 2021 was a good day of birding in the Central Valley of Costa Rica (perhaps my best). These are some of the reason why:

Major Migration

Each morning, lately, I have started the day looking out back, checking to see which birds have arrived from the north. Most mornings, a few birds are there, some days more than others. There have been a few good mornings but nothing like today, a day that featured an observable morning flight. Multiple warblers and vireos shot out of the vegetation, as per usual, flying upstream. A few stopped but most kept going and I couldn’t try and follow, there were other birds to look at. At times, a few too many.

A bird flying into a Cecropia turned into a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher. Eastern Kingbirds materialized in a treetop to my right. Something else zipped in and landed…this fall’s first Summer Tanager! Scanning the background revealed a small flock of Bronzed cowbirds, a larger flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeet and a constant movement of Bank Swallows. I had 50 species in maybe 30 minutes and we were about to head out the door to look for more.

A Summer Tanager in Costa Rica from another day- many of this species winter in Costa Rica.

Nonstop Birding

Hundreds of arrivals from the north and cloudy conditions made for excellent bird activity. At our first main stop, a small area of shade coffee, Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow and Blackburnian Warblers flitted in the trees, four Orchard Orioles chattered from an empty lot thick with grass, and swallows kept streaming overhead. More Bank Swallows moved through along with dark-throated Cliffs, elegant Banks, and a random massive Purple Martin. Before we left that spot, we also heard our first fall migration Swainson’s Thrush and had close looks at the following key species.

Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow

While searching for hidden cuckoos, I heard the tick ticking calls of one of Costa Rica’s major target birds, the Cabanis’s Ground-Sparrow. I see this species at this site from time to time but it’s never guaranteed. Like other skulking ones, this southernmost towhee is a fickle bird that inherently calls its own shots. This morning, three of them gave us a break and allowed us to appreciate their clownish face pattern.

Upland Sandpiper

Next on the list of sites to visit was a place with large expanses of short grass, a busy place that breeds noise but our only close option for grasspipers. Our main target was Buff-breasted Sandpiper and although scanning the runways did not turn up that Arctic visitor, we couldn’t find fault with an Upland Sandpiper. Our second of the year, this special grassland bird was busy foraging near Eastern Meadowlarks and a Killdeer. Perhaps it was reminded of its summer home.

Sunbittern

After the airport, we checked the San Miguel reservoir. This small body of water can be a magnet for waterbirds, when dry, it can also be good for Baird’s Sandpiper. Today, no mud flats meant no Baird’s and with the place being covered with Water Hyacinth, we only saw Northern Jacanas, Muscovy Ducks, herons, Purple Gallinules, and a few other birds. With so much vegetation present, thoughts of Masked Duck came to mind (it could easily be there) and we scanned for it but didn’t see one today.

Instead, we saw a Sunbittern! Not on the reservoir itself but just downhill, along the main road where a bridge crosses a forested creek. I had stopped there hoping to find migrants in the woods when I heard the whistle of the Sunbittern. Thank goodness it was vocalizing. If not, I doubt I would have noticed it. We saw one of these Gondwana birds from the bridge and heard another. A fine random sighting for the Central Valley and a reminder of how prevalent this shy species is in Costa Rica.

A Snippet of a Cuckoo

Our final sweet sighting for the day was as brief as a gust of wind but it’ll still do. While watching Alder Flycatcher share space with Olive Sparrow, Scrub Euphonia, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and other birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo fast-trained it out of nowhere and flew deep into a fruiting fig. We looked, I tried to remind it of other places by whistling like an Eastern Screech-Owl but it must have been in a vacation state of mind, we never saw it again.

As I write, the day’s not over yet. I just counted 90 species from four hours of birding in the morning and 30 minutes more during the afternoon. With a more concerted effort, we could have easily found more than ten additional species but today was already a fantastic day of birding, I hope yours’ was too.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley

Beginning 2021 with Backyard Birding in Costa Rica

It was sometime post midnight when I heard the call of a pauraque. Common in many places but only when the places have enough green space with a healthy supply of insects. The local matrix of cement, somewhat poisoned coffee farms and second growth make this bird decidedly uncommon up in this neighborhood.

Nevertheless, a few persist and that call in the night marked my first bird of 2021. Common Pauraque being first on the year list was in line with it typically being the first bird on Big Days. I’ll take it! Subsequent days have brought more birds including a hundred plus species during a day of guiding in the Sarapiqui area. In general though, my 2021 birds of Costa Rica have been “backyard” birds. “Backyard” because we really don’t have one but birding from the balcony looks onto a perfect scene for these parts; a bird oasis riparian zone.

That line of trees and bushes is a fine way to begin any day in Costa Rica, at least if you have to sling the bins in an urban zone. Lately, with windy, sunny weather keeping the local birds quiet and sheltering in the vegetation, you also have to get out there early. It’s worth it, a fine variety of species can show and they change from day to day.

Yesterday morning was one of the better days. For whatever reason, the birds were more active and showing in some bare branches out back. They paraded through one by one and even the skulking Barred Antshrikes and Carolinish Cabanis’s Wrens made brief appearances.

As I scanned the treeline out back, Brown Jays and a Gray Hawk called in the background, Red-billed Pigeons made display flights and a few White-winged Doves zipped through sky space (I can’t help but think of Stevie Nicks).

A pair of Ringed Kingfishers gave their steady, grackle-like smacking call as they flew over the urban creek and as usual, I wondered how they manage to persist in this mostly urban area. Equally interesting was the group of 7 Giant Cowbirds that undulated out from a nearby cattle farm. Where do they go for the day? How far do they travel?

I scanned the swallows but so far, no rare Violet-greens (it’s a good year for them in Costa Rica), only the expected and common Blue-and-white Swallows. A few Vaux’s Swifts joined them and a screaming flock of 70 plus Crimson-fronted Parakeets demanded attention.

I also saw a few distant White-fronted Parrots, yes, they range into the Central Valley along with similarly named but quite different White-crowned Parrots. Down in the bushes, I was pleased to see a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks!

Where did they spend the summer? Could they have warbled from the forest patches of Niagara County? Called from the beautiful woods of Pennsylvania? The same could have been wondered about the 6 Baltimore Orioles that moved through, one bright adult male, the remaining birds females.

As if on cue, other migrants also appeared; a Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler and Yellow-throated Vireo that could have shared woods with the grosbeaks and orioles. More borealy-inclined Tennessee Warblers came through and a pair of Blue Grosbeaks perched in view. The Blue Grosbeaks aren’t migrants but the next bird was, a multicolored male Painted Bunting! That one is possible here in the winter but not as expected as in lower elevations.

Always a pleasure to check out the colors on that beautiful little bird, it reminded me of first learning about it from some sort of cards or maybe a cereal box as a kid. I still recall standing in the kitchen in the house on Augustus Place sometime 1977 and seeing a picture of that bunting. Knowing about that bird was incredible then and it’s still marvelous to look at one so many years later.

A bird from a year ago at Raptor Ridge.

Down in the bushes, the local Rufous-capped Warblers and White-eared Ground-Sparrows called and Grayish Saltators appeared. A Squirrel Cuckoo swooped into view, Common Tody-Flycatchers vocalized out back and as usual, Tropical Kingbirds and Great Kiskadees tried to take the spotlight. Finish the morning activity off with a few Blue-gray Tanagers and nervous Clay-colored Thrushes and that was a typical wrap for a brief morning of birding in Costa Rica.

Many more birds are possible, I’m surely forgetting some from yesterday. It will be interesting to see what the coming days bring in 2021.

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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.

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

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Northern Jacana- always fun to watch this one!

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

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

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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.

birding Costa Rica

and for a closer look…

birding Costa Rica

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.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica central valley middle elevations preparing for your trip

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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.

birding Costa Rica

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

birding Costa Rica

a Puma,

birding Costa Rica

and an Ocelot!

birding Costa Rica

Cases of ridiculous looking insects were also on display.

birding Costa Rica

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).

birding Costa Rica

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 Vulturea few
Turkey Vulturea few
Osprey (they like to hang out at the Kiri Lodge trout ponds)2
Broad-winged Hawk1
American Kestrel (my first for the year!)1
Spotted Sandpiper1
Red-billed Pigeonseveral
Crimson-fronted Parakeet6
Brown-hooded Parrot4
Green Hermit4
Stripe-throated Hermit1
Purple-crowned Fairy1
White-bellied Mountain-Gemseveral
Black-bellied Hummingbirdseveral
Green-crowned Brilliant1
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird1
White-collared Swiftseveral
Red-headed Barbet4 inside the park, 2 at the Kiri tables
Prong-billed Barbet4 inside the park
Collared Trogon1
Smoky-brown Woodpecker1 heard
Wedge-billed Woodcreeperseveral
Spotted Woodcreeper1
Tawny-throated Leaftosser1 heard
Streak-breasted Treehunter1
Lineated Foliage-gleaner1
Spotted Barbtailseveral
Red-faced Spinetailseveral
Rufous-breasted Antthrush1 heard
Immaculate Antbird2 heard
Slaty Antwren2
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo1 heard
Golden-bellied Flycatcher2 heard
Boat-billed Flycatcher1 heard
Dark Pewee1 heard
Black Phoebe4
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrantseveral
Slaty-capped Flycatcher3
White-ruffed Manakina few Heard
Barred Becard1
Blue and white Swallowseveral
Black-faced Solitaireseveral
Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrushseveral
Swainsons Thrushseveral
Clay-colored Thrushseveral
Black and yellow Silky Flycatcherseveral
Brown-capped Vireo1
Brown Jay5
House Wren2
Ochraceous Wren3
Band-backed Wren1
White-breasted Wood Wren1 heard
Gray-breasted Wood Wrenseveral Heard
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat2
Rufous-capped Warbler6
Three-striped Warbler4
Golden-crowned Warblerseveral
Black and white Warbler4
Black-throated Green Warbler1
Tennesee Warbler4
Chestnut-sided Warblerseveral
Golden-winged Warbler1
Bananaquit2
Common Bush Tanagerseveral
Blue gray Tanager2
Palm Tanager2
Spangle-cheeked Tanagerseveral
Silver-throated Tanagerseveral
Golden-hooded Tanager1
Summer Tanager1
Sooty-faced Finch1
Chestnut-capped Brush Finch1 heard
Yellow-faced Grasquitseveral
Tawny-capped Euphoniaseveral
Golden-browed Chlorophoniaseveral
Elegant Euphonia4
Baltimore Oriole4
Black-cowled Oriole1
Melodious Blackbird2
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.