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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.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction

Morning birding near the Hotel Catalina, Costa Rica

The Hotels Catalina and Blanca Rosa are visible from my house. I don’t mean the hotel buildings; they are unobtrusive, one story structures in any case.  I mean the shade coffee plantations and a wooded hillside that provide a sanctuary for birds in a landscape where sun coffee, farm fields, and houses are the theme. This close birdy habitat (about a half mile away as the Cattle Egret flies) and its connection to a nearby riparian corridor allow me to see and hear things like Short-tailed Hawk, Gray-necked Wood-Rail, and Blue-crowned Motmot just about every day. It also makes for a nice, bird-filled morning walk. Although I have to take a longer roundabout route to get there, at least it cuts through quiet coffee plantations and forces me to exercise (especially because it’s uphill).

This morning I headed up there for a couple of hours mostly to make bird recordings. Although I didn’t bird the grounds of the hotels, the surroundings are similar. With that in mind, the following account should give you an idea of what to expect if you stay at either of these hotels (which are nice options for common birds of the Central Valley).

As the 5:30 dawn began to lighten up the hilly flanks of Volcan Barva, I was out the front door as soon as I finished my morning coffee. Before I had even reached the curb, though, a Social Flycatcher singing its dawn song convinced me to head back into the house and go to the backyard to see if I could record it. I stepped into our small backyard, and Sennheiser microphone in hand, pointed it at the flycatcher that sang from a neighbor’s antenna. Just as I was about to press the record button, though, it flew off fast and furious to some distant, apparently safer perch. I think it didn’t like the idea of me pointing this dark, sinister-looking object at it. I can’t blame it. I mean I would probably run off too if some usually loud and dangerous being pointed a strange, dark object at me. After my unwittingly scaring the Social Flycatcher,  it was back once again out the door, this time no turning back, no stopping until I reached the Hotel Catalina area.

Why not stop along the way to bird from the roadside? Because the occasional fast cars, barking dogs (one of the banes of bird recordists), houses with crowing roosters, and whistling, singing, or talking pedestrians encountered on the road give bird recordings an ambiance that I would rather do without. I am often surprised as what the microphone picks up in the hills above Santa Barbara- coughs, laughter, music at 6 in the morning, and occasional birds that I didn’t notice. I get some of this around the Catalina but far less than along the road up to the place.

On the way up, some of the birds I passed were various Red-billed Pigeons singing (cooing) from the tops of trees and telephone wires, White-tipped Doves, Yellow-faced Grassquits, Crimson-fronted Parakeets screeching from the orange-flowered Poro trees (an Erythrina sp.), Flame-colored Tanagers singing here and there- burry phrases a lot like the congeneric Scarlet and Western Tanagers, and Blue-crowned Motmots hooting from hidden ravines.

Once I got to the entrance road to the hotel (and had distanced myself form yet another dog barking zone), I got out the microphone and waited for birds to express themselves in a vocal manner. Great Kiskadees complied immediately with a plethora of loud calls and a Lineated Woodpecker revealed itself by giving its call that sounds a bit like fairly slow, measured laughter. The Lineated was joined by its mate, Hoffman’s Woodpeckers, and a few Baltimore Orioles that chattered and sang snippets of their songs as they foraged in a grove of tall trees along the road. From the coffee plantations and wooded areas, Boat-billed Flycatchers complained from tall trees, Rufous-capped Warblers sang their sputtering songs (this species appears to have adapted well to coffee bushes), Blue-gray Tanagers squeeked, both Grayish and Buff-throated Saltators sang their short, whistled songs, Blue-black and Yellow-faced Grasquits tried to sound like insects in the grass, and Brown Jays “shouted” in the distance.

Other bird species that I heard and saw the whole time were Plain and House Wrens, Melodious Blackbirds (should have been called “ringing” blackbirds because of the frequent noises they make), Rufous-collared Sparrows, Tropical Kingbird, Clay-colored Robin, and Blue-and white Swallow.

A few of the more interesting species were Crested Bobwhite (several heard- a nice addition to my year list), Black-shouldered Kite, Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Steely-vented Hummingbird, Sulpher-bellied Flycatcher (just one calling from someone’s yard), Masked Tityra, Indigo Bunting (a few beautiful males reminding me of the Pennsylvania woods where I first saw them in 1981), Blue Grosbeak (always love to see this gorgeous bird), and White-eared Ground-Sparrow. I am pretty sure I got a glimpse of Prevost’s Ground-Sparrow too but didn’t bring my binoculars so am not positive about that. Yes, I left my binoculars at home. I was concentrating on getting a few recordings and I sometimes like to bird without binoculars for the challenge and the different perspective it gives.

Another nice bird was Montezuma Oropendola. Although common on the Caribbean slope, this crow-sized Icterid also occurs uncommonly in the Central Valley and in the foothills of the north Pacific slope (I have also seen them on the river trail at Carara).

Nothing super rare but overall just nice birding for the Central Valley and I am sure the area holds a few surprises.

If you have read this far and are wondering where the heck the photos are, I have literally hundreds of images on a different camera I have been using (there are some pretty good birds in there!) but haven’t been able to download them because I don’t have the correct cable! Thanks to my Dad, though, he found the right cable and sent it my mail- with luck I will pick it up tomorrow.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Costa Rica living

New house = new yard list of Costa Rican birds

After hectic times in December and January that included bus trips to Panama for a wedding in the middle of nowhere, getting passports for Miranda, and flying to snowy Niagara Falls (with Miranda suffering from the stomach flu on the way home as a bonus), we FINALLY moved into our new house. It’s near Alajuela in sunny Santa Barbara and most importantly, is closer to green space.

With the house at the edge of town and thus closer to coffee farms and patchy forest, I expect to get a nice house list going (I can’t truly call it a yard list because I am going to count whatever I hear or see from the house). Since we have a a pretty broad vista of the surrounding countryside, I hope the neighbors won’t mind too much when they see me looking out the window with binoculars as I try to identify some distant raptor, or using a scope to check out an interesting looking silhouette perched atop a distant tree.

Of course I started keeping track of birds as soon as I stepped off of the moving truck. Although I can’t recall what the first species was, here’s the list as of today (which also represents common birds in Costa Rica that one can expect):

Cattle Egret- As in most places in Costa Rica where there is some open areas, at least a few flyby each morning and evening.

Black Vulture- I have seen very few of this common species.

Turkey Vulture- Haven’t seen too many of these either.

Black-shouldered Kite- One appears to have taken up residence in the neighborhood. I sometimes see it in flight (looks like a gull except when it hovers) or perched at the top of a nearby Porro tree (Erythina sp.) with brilliant orange flowers.

Short-tailed Hawk- A pair of this common raptor appear to use the ravine.

Crested Caracara- I was kind of surprised to see one fly over.

Gray-necked Wood Rail- Heard a pair the other morning calling from a ravine across the road.

Red-billed Pigeon- No Rock Pigeons around here! These fat looking birds call from telephone wires and tree tops.

White-winged Dove- Actually far fewer than I had expected.

Inca Dove- Not too many of these either.

Common Ground Dove- Seems to be a few of these around.

White-tipped Dove- I have been hearing them call from the nearby coffee farms.

Crimson-fronted Parakeet- Just a few flyovers each day.

Blue and White Swallow- One of the most common birds here. There always seems to be a few in view or heard giving their scratchy vocalizations overhead.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- I need to birdify the backyard to attract these and other hummingbirds.

Blue-crowned Motmot- I have heard one giving its double hoot from the ravine.

Hoffman’s Woodpecker- Very few around here.

Yellow-bellied Elaenia- I have heard a pair singing somewhere in the vicinity.

Great Kiskadee- A few of these personable flycatchers are around.

Boat-billed Flycatcher- A pair live in the ravine.

Social Flycatcher- I have heard a few.

Tropical Kingbird- Of course there are some of these guys around.

Brown Jay- A noisy flock moves through some nearby tall trees every morning and afternoon.

House Wren- Oh yeah, they live in Costa Rica and look and sound a lot like ones in North America.

Plain Wren- I hear these every day. Plain Wrens love coffee farms so much that they should be renamed the “Coffee Wren”.

Clay-colored Robin- Several of these around.

Tennessee Warbler- I have had a few.

Rufous-capped Warbler- Pretty common in the coffee farms.

Blue-gray Tanager- A few are around.

Flame-colored Tanager- I heard one calling yesterday from the ravine.

Montezuma Oropendola- There have been single flyovers and today I saw a veritable flock moving through the flowering Porro trees.

Great-tailed Grackle- Just a few (must be too far from the town plaza where they typically congregate).

Bronzed Cowbird- A few flybys. If you see some birds in flight that resemble winter finches, they are Bronzed Cowbirds.

Baltimore Oriole- A few are around.

Rufous-collared Sparrow- One of the most common bird species.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley middle elevations

Tapanti National Park- good, middle elevation birding in Costa Rica

During my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I visited Tapanti for a day. Back then it had wildlife refuge status and had a cheaper entrance fee but not much else has changed since then-and that’s a good thing! On subsequent trips, including a day and a half of guiding I did there recently, I still feel impressed with the birding in Tapanti and still get excited about visiting this easy to bird national park. The amazing profusion of epiphytic growth (including many orchids), the general appearance of the forest, the scented air, and certain species such as Streaked Xenops, a few foliage-gleaners, and other birds being easier to find here than other sites in Costa Rica all remind me of Andean cloud forests more than anyplace else in Costa Rica.

Birding in Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica.

A visit to Tapanti always turns up something good or at the least you can get nice, close looks at a variety of bird species. Another thing I like about it is that one can easily bird from the main road and see just about everything. For the adventurous, there are a few steep, difficult trails that access the forest interior while those who need an easier trail can bird along a short loop that parallels the river (and is very good for American Dipper).

The main place to stay near the park is Kiri Lodge. The friendly owners have a restaurant (fairly limited menu), trout ponds, and small cabinas ($45 for a double).

Vegetation at Kiri.

On our recent trip to Kiri Lodge and Tapanti, being the rainy month of November and the wettest area in Costa Rica, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by a saturating, misty downpour. The nice thing about Kiri Lodge was that we could bird from beneath the shelter of the open air restaurant and picnic areas near the trout ponds. One of the most common hummingbirds was Violet Sabrewing- a few of these spectacular, large, purple hummingbirds made frequent visits to banana plants and heliconias near the lodge.

Birds in areas of high rainfall aren’t all that bothered by precicipation. In fact, the birding is usually better when it’s raining on and off, during light rain, or in overcast weather, than on beautiful, sunny days. On our first day at Kiri and Tapanti, the light rain and heavy overcast skies kept the birds active all day long. In the second growth habitats around Kiri Lodge we were kept busy watching common, edge species as well as middle elevation species such as Red-headed Barbet, Blue-hooded Euphonia, and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis. Black Phoebe and Torrent Tyrannulet were also common around the trout ponds.

Great Kiskadee in the rain.

Black Phoebe.

Of interest were flocks of Red-billed Pigeons that were zipping around the regenerating hillsides to feast on fruiting Inga trees, flocks of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas flying high overhead as they transited between the forested ridge tops, and one Lesser Elaenia seen (an uncommon, local species in Costa Rica). The best birds though, were in the national park. Just after entering, we were greeted by a calling Ornate Hawk Eagle. After playing hide and seek with it in the canopy for 15 minutes, the adult eagle came out into the open and flew overhead for perfect looks. Around the same time, the rain stopped and bird activity picked up tremendously. Although we didn’t see any really rare species, the number of birds and great looks made up for that. We could barely take a step without seeing something- our first bird being Golden-bellied Fycatcher.

Shortly thereafter, we had Golden-Olive Woodpecker, a beautiful Collared Trogon, Spotted Woodcreeper, loads of common Bush and Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, Black-faced Solitaires feeding on white, roadside berries, Red-faced Spinetails, Slate-throated Redstart, Tropical Parulas,

Tropical Parula

and migrant warblers such as Black-throated green, Black and white, Blackburnian, and Golden-winged.

We also managed glimpses at three hummingbirds more often seen at Tapanti than other sites in Costa Rica; Green-fronted Lancebill (at least 5), White-bellied Mountain-Gem, and Black-bellied.

The following day was a total contrast with sunny weather and much less activity. Our efforts at chancing upon an antpitta or Lanceolated Monklet along the easy loop trail went without reward although we did see such species as Scale-crested Pygmy-tyrant, Olive-striped Flycatcher, Silvery-fronted Tapaculo, American Dipper, and White-throated Spadebill, and heard Immaculate Antbird.

Quiet birding but great scenery!

Although in being such an easy, beautiful escape from the urbanized Central Valley, Tapanti can get somewhat  crowded on weekends, in my opinion, the excellent forests and perfect climate of this national park always make a visit worthwhile. The only problem is that it’s rather costly to get there without your own vehicle as one has to take a $15-$20 taxi from Orosi. The walk isn’t too bad though if you don’t mind hiking through shaded and semi-shaded coffee plantations for about 9 kilometers.

One of my hopes is to eventually have more free time to visit Tapanti more often as it always has surprises in store for the visiting birder. On a side note, the butterflying is probably also the best I have seen in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica central valley common birds Introduction Pacific slope

Birding the University of Peace, Costa Rica

Many birders that visit Costa Rica end up with an afternoon or a morning to kill in San Jose or the Central Valley. With so few options for birding in the sprawl of concrete and asphalt, most opt to relax in the garden of their hotel, visit a market in San Jose, or buy souvenirs. If you are birding with public transportation, then the constraints imposed by bus schedules and routes unfortunately leave you with little choice but to resort to such rather non birdy activities. If you have a rental car, though, forget the souvenirs and head over to the University of Peace. You can always find the same painted feathers, glass-enclosed Morpho Butterflies, and tee-shirts emblazoned with dolphins and “pura vida” while traveling between birding sites, and since you are in Costa Rica, you’ve got to keep your priorities in straight in any case.

The University of Peace (U. la Paz) is located at the southwestern edge of the Central Valley near Ciudad Colon and is a welcome change of tranquility and green space from the crowded Central Valley. Although it’s unfortunately not on any bus route, by car, it takes only 40 minutes (or more with traffic) to drive there from San Jose. It’s also pretty easy to get to by following the signs to Santa Ana, Cuidad Colon, and then the U la Paz. Once you get out of Ciudad Colon, the “Rodeo Drive” road along the way is also nice for a variety of common species that utilize the scrubby fields and semi-shaded coffee plantations. During brief stops along this road last week, I had my first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year along with things like Boat-billed Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Baltimore Oriole, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Yellow-throated Vireo, and Short-tailed Hawk. This route looked especially nice for birding from a bicycle.

We didn’t stop too much though because we figured our time was better spent at the U la Paz. I honestly don’t know much about this small, quiet university (majors in peace offered?), except that this learning institution has a private park with a fair amount of moist, Pacific-Slope forest, and an entrance fee of only 300 colones! This is another major reason for visiting U la Paz since this fee amounts to less than a dollar while most other parks in Costa Rica cost $8 just to waltz along the trails.

There is a pond at the entrance with the usual domesticated Chinese Swan Geese and Muscovies. The Muscovies were placid while the geese were typically belligerant and nasty. Luckily they were on the other side of the pond. For unknown reasons, the Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Montezuma Oropendolas that had been so plentiful around the pond in January were nowhere in sight. I suppose the ducks were galavanting through the countryside to take advantage of the abundant habitat by the rainy season. The oropendolas, though, have no such excuse other than taking (or giving) weaving classes at the adjacent U la Paz.

A friendly, feral Muscovy- wild ones don’t have those white specs.

Past the pond, we had a pretty good morning birding the forest edge and main trail at U la Paz considering that we didn’t arrive until 9 am, the absolute quietest time of the day for birds. The first bird action we ran into was at the start of the trail where a party of Groove-billed Anis were hanging out on a log and in the grass.

They were loathe to leave their log and upon closer inspection we found out why.

Army Ants! Long, black trails of army ants were swarming through the grass and over the logs. The anis were having a grand old time letting the ants flush their prey out of hiding as were Rufous-naped Wrens, Clay-colored Robins, Rufous-capped Warblers, and Brown Jays.

This Rufous-naped Wren got my vote for friendliest bird of the day. It jostled back and forth and poised along the same tree branches for at least 15 minutes and allowed us to take dozens of photos.

Overall the bird diversity at the swarm was pretty low but it was still fun to watch how common species took advantage of it.

Clay-colored Robin pretending to be an antbird.

Walking into the forest, we didn’t have long to go before running into a nice mixed flock along a stream. The nucleus species of the flock appeared to be Red-crowned Ant-tanager. It was too dark to get photos so you will just have to trust me when I say that the males are a deep, handsome red, and the females an unexciting shade of brown (a lot like a Clay-colored Robin). This widespread neotropical bird is rather local and tough to see in Costa Rica with the U la Paz area possibly being the easiest site in the country for this, my #499th species for the year. Other birds that appeared to be hanging out with the ant-tanagers with this and two other mixed flocks we ran into were Rufous and white and Rufous-breasted Wrens, Rufous-capped Warblers, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-Olive Flycatcher, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Long-tailed Manakin, and Blue-black Grosbeak.

Further on, we finally tracked down one of the many Blue-throated Goldentails that were maddeningly singing over and over from hidden perches. This beautiful hummingbird with the plastic looking bill is fairly common along forest edge of the Pacific Slope in Costa Rica.

The first half of the trail at U la Paz winds through old orchards with rather few birds. Once the overlook is reached, the trail accesses some very nice, moist forest with an open understory.

The overlook.

We didn’t see too much in this area because of the time of day but still managed a large group of White-faced Capuchins that seemed to be attended by Brown Jays, more of the same species we had already been seeing, and a couple of Fiery-billed Aracaris!

We left the forest around 11:30- the perfect time for mixed flocks and sure enough we ran into a bunch of common, edge species that were hanging out together in an open, park-like area. One of them was a Baltimore oriole masquerading as a Western Tanager.

A Blue-crowned Motmot also made a pleasant addition to the flock,

as did a Boat-billed Flycatcher that foraged low enough for me to finally get good shots of this species (they usually stick to the tree-tops).

Other species in the flock were Squirrel Cuckoo, Hoffman’s Woodpecker, Great Kiskadee, Masked Tityra, Yellow-thoated Vireo, Rufous-naped Wren, Clay-colored Robin, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue-gray Tanager, and Rose-throated Becard.

A male Rose-throated Becard. I know, no rose throat- gotta go to Mexico to see that.

Overall, the U of Paz is nice birding and a great escape from the Central Valley if you have a free morning or afternoon and a rental car to get you there. I hope to bird there in the early morning sometime as I am sure it has a lot more to offer than what we saw during our short visit.