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bird photography Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds

Pale-billed Woodpecker Action in Costa Rica

Everyone likes woodpeckers. How can you not like a bird that entertains with head-banging antics and maniacal laughter? Costa Rica has her fair share of these star birds. The zebra-backed Hoffmann’s visits gardens in San Jose, the Lineated laughs its way through edge habitats from the lowlands to middle elevations, and woodpeckers that visit fruit feeders remind us that we are certainly situated in the tropics.

Hoffmann's Woodpecker.
A Golden-naped Woodpecker from the Troppenstation, la Gamba, Costa Rica.

If you bird in the northern Caribbean lowlands, it’s possible to see 7 species in a day, including the biggest of the bunch; the Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Pale-billed Woodpecker.

Since it’s a Campephilus, and does indeed give that infamous double knock, it’s the closest thing we have to an Ivorybill. Although its dimensions fall far short of the Lord God Bird, its pale bill and longish neck are reminiscent of the true Ivorybills.

Pale bill- check. Longish Giraffey neck- check.

Unlike the massive pair of woodpeckers of lost primeval forests, the Pale-billed is fairly common and regularly found in rainforest, tropical dry forest, and semi-open woodlands in Costa Rica. As long as enough woods and big trees are around, Pale-billeds occur and they are of course always fun to watch. Recently, I was entertained by one that spent an hour foraging for grubs on a big, dead tree.

Looking for grubs.

Although these woodpeckers can be seen at any height in the forest, this one was foraging two meters above the ground. It carefully pecked away dead bark to eat some sort of grub and worked a small area on the tree for about an hour.

Finding a grub.

It never gave a double knock nor called while foraging and didn’t seem bothered by my presence. Who needs reality shows when you can watch a Pale-billed Woodpecker in action?

Pale-billed Woodpecker.
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bird photography Birding Costa Rica birding lodges central valley common birds Introduction preparing for your trip

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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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges central valley common birds

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

birding Costa Rica

Least Grebe- kind of local in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica birding

Ringed Kingfisher.

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

Costa Rica birding

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

Costa Rica birding

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

Costa Rica birding

Northern Jacana- always fun to watch this one!

Costa Rica birding

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:

Costa Rica birding

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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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

Birds to know when birding Costa Rica: the Violet-crowned Woodnymph

Before going on a birding trip to some far off wonderful place where nearly everything is a lifer, we gaze at our field guides and it’s like a flashback to the Decembers of our childhoods. The bird book is like the front window of a toy store, a catalog showing bicycles, binoculars (I started birding young), and a coveted Millenium Falcon or X-wing Fighter (!).

Before a first time birding trip to Costa Rica we say to ourselves, “I want to see that, and that, and that, and….definitely that purple and white hummingbird on page 137, and trogons, and a bellbird, a chlorophonia, a quetzal,and about 500 other species!”

The excitement of knowing that all of these amazing looking birds are possible can be dampened, however, once we pay attention to what the book says about the status and behavior of each species.

“Wow, look at that thing! Bare-necked Umbrellabird!! What is it? An avian tribute to Elvis Presley? A rock star crow? I have got to see that!”, and then with a glance at the text….

“Wait….it says that it’s uncommon to rare. Well, I still have a chance! What about Lovely Cotinga…that’s rare too? What IS IT with these bizarre things called cotingas?”

“Better look at the hummingbirds- at least I can see them at feeders. White-tipped Sicklebill! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Let’s see…….very uncommon. Ok, there has got to be some cool-looking birds that are common!”

“Here’s one on page 127- a purple and green hummingbird called the Violet-crowned Woodnymph!”

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

It takes some luck and local knowledge to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Lovely Cotinga, and White-tipped Sicklebill in Costa Rica but everyone should see a Violet-crowned Woodnymph. In fact, if you spend a day or two birding lowland or foothill rain forests in Costa Rica, you will probably run into several of them. Although the Rufous-tailed Hummingbird might be the de-facto king of flowers in non-forest habitats, the Violet-crowned Woodnymph calls the Colibrid shots inside the forest.

Sure, the trap-lining hermits are pretty common too but the most frequently-sighted hummingbird when birding rain forests in Costa Rica is the Violet-crowned Woodnymph. They buzz around flowering plants from the understory up into the canopy, test your reaction speed and eyesight by zipping onto hidden perches, and despite being common, befuddle birders to no end.

The problem with hummingbirds in the forest is that the rays of sunlight that make them glow like stained glass, rarely reach the ground after passing through the canopy vegetation. So, unless you can out the scope on that male woodnymph feeding on flowers 100 feet overhead, you can forget about its shining purple and green plumage; it’s going to look like some dark, anonymous hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

The typical, dark appearance of a male Violet-crowned Woodnymph.

As tricky as shady-looking, understory woodnymph males may be to identify, the females present a bigger challenge for most birders. I think they so consistently throw birders in Costa Rica for a loop because they look nothing like the dark-plumaged males. Nevertheless, they have a contrasting gray throat that works as an excellent field mark because no other hummingbird that occurs with them shares this characteristic.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

With a close look, males in the dim understory are also fairly easy to identify if one focuses on shape. Dark plumage, forked tail, and a, “oh so slightly” decurved bill equals Violet-crowned Woodnymph when birding humid lowland forests in Costa Rica.

Note the “oh so slightly” decurved bill and forked tail.

The Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of those common, Costa Rican bird species worthwhile to know before a birding trip to Costa Rica. Learn it well because you will definitely cross paths with several when birding humid lowland and foothill forests.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds migration

Migrants are on their way back to Costa Rica

While I was standing at a bus stop last week and wishing that I could spontaneously fabricate wormholes suitable for quick and easy transport up into the much more birdy mountains, the “seet” call of a migrant warbler caught my attention

Like a secret whisper in the darkness, it was saying, “Here I am. Once again, I made it back down to the land of permanent summer without getting eaten by Sharpies, Merlins, or psycho members of the Ardeidae family. I avoided the hypnotic light traps of tall buildings and towers, and found enough food and shelter along the way to survive the elements. I made it but the journey isn’t finished yet. Now, I need to find more cover than this single Mimosa tree. It’s flowers attract a bunch of arthropodic delights and I am small enough to stay hidden in its leafy branches but even a lightweight like myself can’t survive with just one tree. Oh, and there’s also that human standing across the street. He’s making me nervous because he is staring my way with fixed eyes like a predator. I better go flit and keep myself out of sight!”

Yes, I was staring the way of the warbler. How could I not? Since I am an adamant and faithful birder as opposed to being a bus-watcher or addicted to text messaging, that warbler was the most exciting thing around! I suspect it was a Yellow because they migrate early, are common winter residents in the Central Valley, and make a “seet” call like the one I heard. Without binoculars to magically turn it into an identifiable creature, though, I can’t say for sure that it was a small, yellow, sweet-sweet singing insectivore of boreal, damp shrubbery.

Such is the serendipity of migration. You can wait at a bus stop and suddenly spot a Blackpoll Warbler, cuckoo species, or even a big-eyed nighthawk in a nearby tree. Looking up, away from the Earth, you might espy a steady stream of swallows winging their way south. Costa Rica and Panama are so small that they could reach Colombia by nightfall. Will they fly past that wonderful haunt of Colombian endemics known as Santa Marta Mountain? They are headed to the sea of forest known as the Amazon as are Eastern Kingbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, and Alder Flycatchers. I wish I could go with them but I don’t mind staying in Costa Rica. I started migrating here myself in 1992 but I eventually traded the long trips for permanent residency after becoming addicted to tropical forests.

birding Costa Rica

A glimpse into my addiction.

The fact that a lot of northern birds make Costa Rica their winter home eases my longing to walk beneath the forever canopy of Amazonian forests. Yellow Warblers (like the one I probably heard at the bus stop) love to spend the winter in Costa Rica. Spish in any lowland to middle elevation second growth and they will come calling.

birding Costa Rica

Yellow Warblers are super common winter residents in Costa Rica.

Do the same in mangroves and Prothonotary Warblers hop up onto exposed roots to brighten the swampy gloom (a lot like their breeding grounds).

birding Costa Rica

Prothonotary Warblers are so darn aquatic.

Chestnut-sided Warblers, though, are the bane of Costa Rica birders during the winter. These eye-ringed, wing-barred Dendroicas love to show up just when you think you have spotted something potentially exciting because they hang with mixed flocks, are found away from mixed flocks, can be seen in the shadows of the forest, and flit around second growth. In other words, they pop into view just about everywhere you go in Costa Rica so get ready to see a lot of them if you plan on birding Costa Rica during the winter.

birding Costa Rica

Broad-winged Hawks will soon fly over in massive kettles as they head south. Quite a few stay, however, like the one pictured below, to become the most commonly seen raptor during the winter months.

birding Costa Rica

The northern migrants are definitely on their way, some have already arrived, and will a vagrant or two show up? A few Golden-cheeked Warblers grace us with their presence each year but I would like to find something new for the country like a Hammond’s Flycatcher or Cassin’s Vireo. Although not likely, the vagaries and unpredictability of migration combined with the fact that they reach northern Central America during the winter certainly makes these species a possibility when birding Costa Rica. I just have to get out there and find them!

This post is included in #133 of I and the Bird. Check out posts from other blogs about birds and birding in this edition at the DC Birding Blog.

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Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction preparing for your trip

Costa Rica birding from the car: A roadside bird count from San Jose to Bijagua

One of the main reasons birding is more popular than endeavors such as bat watching, beetle spotting, or looking for mollusks is that it’s so much easier to do. Most bird species are diurnal, they are pretty easy to see (except for the ultra sneaky rails), and they come in all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. It’s hard not to watch them or at least notice our fellow feathered denizens of planet Earth.

On a recent trip to Heliconias Lodge in Bijagua, although we were looking forward to seeing Tody Motmots, crafty antbirds, and whatever else turned up in the high quality forests of that site, I thought it would be interesting to do a count of the numbers and types of birds identified during the four hour drive from San Jose.

birding Costa Rica by car

A typical scene during our roadside Costa Rican bird count.

Like all aficionados of the world’s greatest activity, pastime, or obsession, I always try to identify any bird espied through a car window but had never done a running count like this one. How many TKs would we see perched on the power lines? How many vultures rode the hot thermals above the Pan-American Highway? I admit, such questions don’t exactly speed up the pulse or spark a hint of anticipation but working on the answers to them was a heck of a lot more fun than singing “one hundred bottles of beers on the wall”.

We could have changed the words of the song to:

“Oooooooh, another TK on the power line, yet another TK….if one of them was actually a Social Flycatcher, then that’s one less TK overall”…..

but we were too busy counting birds to sing.

Our rules for the count were simple:

1.All birds had to be seen or heard from the car. Birds could not be counted while the car was off the road such as when we stopped at a gas station in Miramar for a bathroom break. Although we realized that not including birds identified during restroom activities would forgo any rest stop birding effects, as it turned out, we wouldn’t have added anything there anyways. In fact, I think the only bird we saw was a….TK! We also saw a really cool butterfly though that appeared to like gas fumes. I think the gas station attendant thought I was taking pictures of the ground.

Costa Rica butterfly

Cool gas station butterfly in Miramar, Costa Rica. Please let me know what species this is!

2. As long as one of us identified the bird in question, it was counted. It would have been hazardous to require all four people to see or hear the bird while the car was zooming down the highway in Costa Rica so like a pack of Harris’ Hawks, we joined forces to achieve our goals. As long as one of us got the bird, we all figuratively feasted in the form of a slash made by a pen next to the bird’s name. Editor’s note- since our counting was more analagous to harvesting grain for the long term rather than focusing on one rabbit for immediate food, it’s tempting to refer to us as “Snow Geese” but the selfish behavior of foraging Snow Geese is a far cry from cooperative strategies exhibited by Harris’ Hawks and could also erroneously imply that we are retired and travel to Florida for the winter. Like neighbors on Sesame Street, the four musketeers, or the Spanish soccer team (sorry Johan and Ineke) this count was all about cooperation.

Costa Rica birding from a car

Pat-“Did anyone else get that Blue-black Grassquit?”

Susan-“I’m driving”.

Johan-“What? It’s hard to hear you from the backseat”.

Ineke (no response- sleeping off the effects of jetlag).

3. There was no turning back. This count was all or nothing no matter how enticing an unidentified bird appeared to be. We were heading down the highway, looking for adventure, and ready for whatever comes our way. Yes, ready to just keep moving and not be too concerned if that distant, perched member of the Columbidae was a Red-billed Pigeon or a White-winged Dove. With two feet firmly planted on the ground and a pair of clear-lensed binoculars, these two common roadside birds of Costa Rica are pretty easy to tell apart but when glimpsed at a distance from a moving car, uncertainty raises its broad, blocky head and emits its foggy breath to mask the truth. The substance of the breath might also be psychadelic or perhaps ultra-dimensional because it can warp reality. You think I’m joking but the next time you see a distant, long-winged creature in Costa Rica are you sure that it didn’t look just like a Pterodactyl? Common sense tells us that it was a Turkey Vulture or Magnificent Frigatebird although it certainly resembled something from another time and place. Or as far as those pigeons go, for a moment, didn’t they look just like some strange, bulky, small-headed raptor, or perhaps a mutant agouti that went arboreal? Sound’s absurd does it? Just try counting birds while zooming down the highway in Costa Rica and see what happens!

Costa Rica roadside birding

Identifying silhouettes in distant trees from a moving car- birding at its most challenging.

4. We didn’t discriminate against unidentified birds. To make up for our policy of always charging forward, we kept track of birds that refused to reveal their names. Instead of excluding them entirely, we dutifully counted each “blur of feathers”, “glimpse of some big, flying thing”, and “possible kiskadee”  and threw them into the unidentified pool. We figured this was just as important as counting the identified birds because it might give an idea of the numbers of birds that can go unidentified on a drive between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica.

So with that set of rules and Susan’s suggestion to also keep track of all mammals (except Homo sapiens and domesticated creatures), we left Santa Barbara de Heredia and started counting! Instead of boringly and insanely going through the count/drive on a bird by bird basis, here are some general observations and highlights followed up by final results of species and numbers.

Despite driving through urban areas, moist middle elevations, and the hot, dry lowlands of Guanacaste, bird species were fairly similar along our route.

Although it’s not as hot inside an air-conditioned vehicle, birding is much more exciting in Costa Rica when done on foot.

You will see a lot of Black Vultures, Great-tailed Grackles, and Tropical Kingbirds when birding from a fast moving vehicle in Costa Rica.

Plain Wrens were the most common, heard only species.

One of the few advantages of getting stuck behind a slow moving, boxy truck is that you may see some nice birds. We saw a pair of Blue Grosbeaks in this manner and picked up our only Rose-throated Becard by way of its high-pitched, complaining sounding vocalization.

Costa Rica roadside birding

The boxy-truck/bus combination is a common occurrence when driving in Costa Rica.

Other highlights were White-fronted Parrots as we approached Bijagua, Paltry Tyrannulet heard near a moist mountain pass after San Ramon, one White-collared Seedeater heard belting out its sweet song from tall, lowland grass, a couple of big old Montezuma Oropendolas in flight as we descended out of the central valley (these are a much more common bird in the Caribbean lowlands), 2 heard only Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes (why go look for it in Spearfish canyon when they abound in the coffee plantations of Costa Rica).

costa rica roadside birding

This is where we heard the Paltry Tyrannulet and Nightingale-Thrushes.

And at long last, here is our final tally of the 42 species of birds identified from the car while driving between San Jose and Bijagua, Costa Rica (organized from highest to lowest):

Black Vulture (133)

Great-tailed Grackle (57)

and Tropical Kingbird (47)

Blue and White Swallow (44)

Cattle Egret (30)

Turkey Vultures (28)

White-collared Swift (28)

Gray-breasted Martin (21)

Unidentified hodgepodge (the Borg of the bird count) (17)

Blue-black Grassquit (16)

Groove-billed Ani (12)

Plain Wren (11)

Orange-chinned Parakeet (11)

White-fronted Parrot (8)

Blue-gray Tanager (8)

Great Kiskadee (7)

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck (7)

White-winged Dove (7)

Rufous-collared Sparrow (5)

Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (5)

Inca Dove (4)

Melodious Blackbird (4)

Social Flycatcher (4)

Red-billed Pigeon (4)

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (3)

Ruddy Ground-Dove (2)

Green-backed Heron (2)

Yellow-olive Flycatcher (2)

Rufous-naped Wren (2)

Clay-colored Robin (2)

Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush (2)

Blue Grosbeak (2)

Crimson-fronted Parakeet (1)

Rose-throated Becard (1)

Grayish Saltator (1)

Paltry Tyrannulet (1)

Yellow-faced Grassquit (1)

Rufous-capped Warbler (1)

Vaux’s Swift (1)

House Wren (1)

Bronzed Cowbird (1)

Scrub Euphonia (1)

White-collared Seedeater (1)

On the mammal front, we saw 10 Howler Monkeys in roadside trees along the Pan-American highway not long after Miramar. Susan (one of the bird counting 4 and the driver) says that she sees them, and sometimes Capuchins too, every time she drives past that spot. Our only other mammals were 3-4, dead Northern Tamanduas that were unfortunate victims of hit and run drivers on the Pan-American highway.

Costa Rica roadside birding

Where the howlers hang out.

To sum things up, counting birds from a fast car in Costa Rica is always more worthwhile than singing annoying ditties about beer bottles or “Kumbaya” but it pales like bleach compared to a walk through the rainforest.

Costa Rica birding Heliconias rainforest

Where you really want to be birding in Costa Rica.

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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.

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds Introduction

Striped Cuckoos are common in Costa Rica but where’s the Pheasant?

During much of the year in Costa Rica, the song of the Striped Cuckoo is a common part of the auditory scenery. I hear them near my house singing from scrubby fields around the coffee plantations. I hear them call from the tangled second growth of deforested areas in the humid lowlands of the Caribbean and Pacific Slopes. It seems like any humid place in Costa Rica below 1,400 meters with enough edge habitat supports a population of  Striped Cuckoos.

They get overlooked though, because they tend to skulk. Like Anis, Roadrunners, and most of those Old World Coucals, the Striped Cuckoo is a terrestrial cuckoo species. It will ascend into the subcanopy of some edge trees or get up on top of some bush when it sings (and thank goodness because otherwise we would hardly EVER see them) but usually, it creeps around in dense, tropical undergrowth where it does who knows what. Sometimes, you can get lucky and see one take a dust bath on some blazing hot, lowland tropical track, or see one spread its wings and flash its black alulas. Is this a mechanism to catch more grasshoppers? To attract a mate? Evidence of madness? Who knows!

What I do know is that at least their song is pretty easy to imitate and often gets them to show themselves.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

A Striped Cuckoo coaxed out into the open at El Gavilan in the Sarapiqui lowlands.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Striped Cuckoos love to raise their crest….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and lower it….

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

and raise it, over and over. It’s pretty cool to watch so I apologize for not having a video of it.

Striped Cuckoo birding Costa Rica

Here’s a frontal view of the same Striped Cuckoo.

When birding Costa Rica, listen for their clear, two noted whistle that might remind you of a Bobwhite, the first note lower than the second. They also have a longer song with a few lower notes that follow the second note.

This longer song sounds more like the much rarer Pheasant Cuckoo. By the way, if you ever see a Pheasant Cuckoo in Costa Rica, PLEASE let me know right away because there are very few sites known for this species in the country. The only regular site seems to be savannas near Buenos Aires although they have also been recorded from Carara in scrubby habitat near the crocodile bridge, around Esparza, and close to the Panamanian border near San Vito.

Why they are so rare in Costa Rica is another of those neotropical, bird distribution enigmas. I mean they aren’t too difficult in cloud forest near Valle Nacional, Oaxaca, are regular in Metropolitan Park, Panama, and are found in the Amazon of southeastern Peru (where I used to hear them just about every darn morning but never saw them!). Based on where they have been found, I suspect that their rarity in Costa Rica has something to do with them not liking the high amount of precipitation that falls here.

So, Pheasant Cuckoos are tough to see but they should at least vocalize if around so seem to be genuinely rare in Costa Rica as opposed to just being ridiculously shy and mute.

No picture of the Pheasant Cuckoo yet! One day though, I’m going to do surveys and run around the country whistling like a Pheasant Cuckoo until I figure out where they occur.

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica common birds

Four Common Black Birds of Costa Rica

Up north in the temperate zone, black birds are a common part of the avian landscape.  In North America,  American Crows and  Common Grackles are some of the most frequently seen bird species in many areas. Birders in Europe can hardly miss seeing Rooks, Carrion Crows, Jackdaws, and Blackbirds (a thrush). In Costa Rica, there aren’t any crows. Instead, there are birds that occupy similar niches (Brown Jays and Great-tailed Grackles), and birds that are crow-sized and somewhat shaped like crows (oropendolas).

When birding Costa Rica, birders will also see plenty of four species with black plumage. These four bird species are the Great-tailed Grackle, Bronzed Cowbird, Groove-billed Ani, and Melodious Blackbird. All are common edge species of lowland and middle elevations that make their home in deforested areas and often live around towns. Although their black plumages are fairly similar, they have different shapes that help with their identification.

Since they occur in so many places, I won’t even say where you can see them when birding Costa Rica. I will talk about their identification, though, because a number of birders seem to have trouble in separating them.

1. The first on our list is often the first bird that people see in Costa Rica upon exiting the airport- the Great-tailed Grackle. This large, noisy bird has become amazingly adapted to living with people. A scavenger and opportunist of beaches, riversides, and wetlands, urban environments apparently mimic these open habitats because Great-tailed Grackles seem to be right at home as they forage on city streets, pick at garbage, and sing crazy songs from trees in a busy park. A large, black bird with a long, wedge-shaped tail seen when birding Costa Rica will be the male of this common species.

Male Great-tailed Grackles can look kind of nice at close range.
Quoth the Grackle..."Got any garbage"?

2. Melodious Blackbird. I wouldn’t call their vocalization melodious, but they are pretty darn vocal. Birders will hear their ringing song in most deforested areas of the country. This is pretty impressive considering that the Melodious Blackbird entered Costa Rica from Nicaragua only since the 1980s. This common, black-plumaged bird has a very generic bird shape. They sometimes occur in flocks but are most often seen as pairs perched together at the top of a tree in edge habitats. An American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird sized, all black bird with a medium length tail, flat head, and longish beak seen when birding Costa Rica will almost certainly be this species.

Click here to listen to one of its vocalizations:

Melodious Blackbird

Melodious Blackbird- a good bird to know when birding Costa Rica because you will see them all over the place.

3. Bronzed Cowbird. With deforestation, this has become a very common bird species in Costa Rica. Like its northern cousin with the brown head, the Bronzed Cowbird lays its eggs in the nests of a number of other birds. Unlike the Brown-headed Cowbird, few studies have been carried out to ascertain how its nesting behavior affects local bird species. When birding Costa Rica, if you see a small group of dark birds in flight that resemble “winter finches”, you have seen Bronzed Cowbirds. Their dumpy body and shortish bill gives them this finch-like appearance. When seen close up, they look kind of cool with that red eye.

My cool, red eyes are on the lookout for cows and unguarded nests.

4. Groove-billed Ani. The Smooth-billed is also pretty common in southwestern Costa Rica (and replaces the Groove-billed there), but the Groove-billed Ani is the one encountered the most because it has a larger range. These animated cuckoos are always fun to watch with their odd, parrot-like bills, short wings, long tails, and interesting social behavior. If you catch them in good light, their plumage can also show beautiful greenish and blueish iridescence. Similar in size and shape to the Great-tailed Grackle, Groove-billed Anis have shorter wings, are lankier, and have that short, arched bill.

Not all birds in Costa Rica look as exotic as quetzals or bellbirds but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t watch them when birding Costa Rica. The birds talked about above are so common that it will be tough not to watch them.

Categories
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.