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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Costa Rica Beaches

A Weekend of Birding Cabinas Olguitas and the Gandoca-Manzanillo Area

I have mentioned from time to time how much I enjoy birding near Limon, Costa Rica. Also referred to as the Southern Caribbean zone, this part of the country still features a good deal of mature lowland rainforest, much of which is accessible. Not to mention, since the area is very much underbirded, there’s always a chance of finding something unexpected. Add forested streams, swamps, other wetlands and a migration corridor to the birding equation and we have an impressive bird list with nearly 400 species (see bird lists at the end of this post).

The only downside of the Southern Caribbean zone is that it is located around four to five hours by car from where I live. This prevents me from visiting more than once or twice a year, or staying for longer than a weekend. If the new road to Limon is ever finished (maybe in 4 years), it should be an easy, quick ride but until then, the long, slow haul keeps me from visiting more often. I sure wish I could though because the birding is always great and if a birder gets lucky with a good wave of migrants, the avian experience is fantastic.

This past weekend, I made my annual trip while guiding the local Birding Club of Costa Rica and, as with last year, we stayed at Olguita’s Place. Also known as Cabinas Olguita, this friendly spot offers tranquil accommodation in basic yet cozy and equipped cabins within easy walking distance of a beautiful beach and good birding habitat. If you don’t feel like cooking, dine at any of several good restaurants in the area and then look for Great Potoo and any of five owl species on the drive back.

The Black-and-white Owl sometimes occurs at Olguita’s.

Some other information from this recent trip:

Migration

On this trip, unfortunately, we more or less dipped on migration. We did have some Chimney Swifts and swallows flying over and some raptor migration on the way to Punta Uva but there were few other migrants. We may have done the trip a bit late or perhaps the good weather kept the birds on the wing long past Costa Rica but whatever the case, we had rather few migrant species and low numbers of the most common migrants; Red-eyed Vireo, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Swainson’s Thrush. There were quite a number of Eastern Wood-Pewees around as well as Alder/Willow Flycatchers but very few warblers and nothing rare. All of that said, we still saw some migrants and it was fun watching them.

If you feel like studying Eastern Wood-Pewees, visit Costa Rica in October.

Birding at Cabinas Olguita

The birding at Olguita’s was easy-going yet productive. Some Eastern Kingbirds flew into the surrounding trees, and we also saw other migrant species like Olive-sided Flycatcher, Empids (including a likely Least Flycatcher), Scarlet Tanager, and a few others. On good days, this place can see waves of migrants passing through the surrounding vegetation. As for resident species, the thick wet grass and hedgerows held Slaty Spinetail, Olive-crowned Yellowthroat, Canebrake Wren, and some other birds. The edge of the forest in back of the grassy area turned up White-necked Puffbird, Plain-colored Tanagers, and White-vented Euphonias among more common expected species.

Plain-colored Tanagers were common.

Paradise Road

One of a few roads that go up and over the nearby coastal hills, it provides access to the mature rainforests that occur there. Many species are possible even White-fronted Nunbird, interesting raptors and antbirds. We only had one afternoon to bird this road but we still did alright with looks at Pied Puffbird, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Tawny-crested Tanagers, Double-toothed Kite, and Central American Pygmy-Owl among other species. A lot more is possible, I would love to spend a few early mornings just counting everything that calls and makes itself otherwise known. Does Great Jacamar occur? How about cotingas or Red-fronted Parrotlet? It would be fun to try to answer those questions via dawn birding.

Recope Road

One of the other classic sites in the area, this flat road passes through beautiful, tall forest, much of it former shaded cacao farms. We got in some birding there as well as on the main road between Punta Uva and Manzanillo. The birding was great with fine looks at Purple-throated Fruitcrows, toucans, Cinnamon Woodpecker, Black-striped and other Woodcreepers, White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, and other species. I also heard Semiplumbeous Hawk. This was actually where most of our migrants were, I can’t help but wonder how many other migrants were out there in the forest? What rarities were hiding back in the woods?

Checker-throated Antwren

Manzanillo

On Sunday morning, I figured we would visit the town of Manzanillo as a last chance for migrants. This hardly worked out although we still saw both Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers, Gray-cowled Wood-Rails, and a few other birds. We also saw that the official entrance to the wildlife refuge now has a bridge over the creek that we used to wade across, and that they charge an entrance fee.

Cahuita

As a bonus, our car made a quick stop in Cahuita on the way back, mostly to check for Black-chested Jay. We stopped at the Puerto Vargas entrance for that but even though we dipped, some last minute birding still managed to give us close looks at a male Snowy Cotinga, Gray-headed Chachalacas crashing through bushes, and White-faced Capuchins eating coconuts. After that, we went on an unsuccessful ice cream quest in mid-day Cahuita. Several bars but no ice cream! On the drive out, the jays still managed to elude us but we did get lucky with one final bird and a key one at that- Yellow-billed Cuckoo!

While driving out of Cahuita, I noticed the quick, sleek shape of a cuckoo zip into a tall tree. It was brief but I was sure it was a cuckoo. I stopped and after scanning the tree, sure enough, there it was, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo! Eventually, the stealthy migrant positioned itself higher up for a better view. One last bird for the trip, I was happy to see it before the long drive back.

Birds from the vicinity of Cabinas Olguita including
the beach and both resident and migrant species.
240 species
 
Little Tinamou
Blue-winged Teal
Gray-headed Chachalaca
Crested Guan
Pale-vented Pigeon
Short-billed Pigeon
Ruddy Ground-Dove
White-tipped Dove
Squirrel Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Groove-billed Ani
Lesser Nighthawk
Common Nighthawk
Common Pauraque
Chuck-will’s-widow
Black Swift
White-collared Swift
Chimney Swift
Gray-rumped Swift
Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift
Band-tailed Barbthroat
Long-billed Hermit
Stripe-throated Hermit
Blue-chested Hummingbird
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
White-throated Crake
Gray-cowled Wood-Rail
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
Whimbrel
Ruddy Turnstone
Sanderling
Least Sandpiper
Spotted Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Willet
Greater Yellowlegs
Laughing Gull
Brown Noddy
Royal Tern
Wood Stork
Magnificent Frigatebird
Brown Booby
Neotropic Cormorant
Anhinga
Brown Pelican
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
Cattle Egret
Green Heron
White Ibis
Green Ibis
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
King Vulture
Osprey
Swallow-tailed Kite 
Double-toothed Kite
Tiny Hawk
Mississippi Kite
Plumbeous Kite
Common Black Hawk
Roadside Hawk
Gray Hawk
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Central American Pygmy-Owl
Mottled Owl
Black-and-white Owl
Slaty-tailed Trogon
Gartered Trogon
Ringed Kingfisher
Belted Kingfisher
Amazon Kingfisher
Green Kingfisher
White-necked Puffbird
Pied Puffbird
Collared Aracari
Keel-billed Toucan
Yellow-throated Toucan
Black-cheeked Woodpecker
Cinnamon Woodpecker
Chestnut-colored Woodpecker
Lineated Woodpecker
Pale-billed Woodpecker
Laughing Falcon
American Kestrel
Merlin
Bat Falcon
Peregrine Falcon
Olive-throated Parakeet
Great Green Macaw 
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Orange-chinned Parakeet
Brown-hooded Parrot
Blue-headed Parrot
White-crowned Parrot
Red-lored Parrot
Great Antshrike
Barred Antshrike
Black-crowned Antshrike
Dot-winged Antwren
Dusky Antbird
Chestnut-backed Antbird
Northern Barred-Woodcreeper
Cocoa Woodcreeper
Black-striped Woodcreeper
Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Plain Xenops
Slaty Spinetail
Snowy Cotinga
Masked Tityra
Black-crowned Tityra
Cinnamon Becard
Ochre-bellied Flycatcher
Common Tody-Flycatcher
Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Yellow-olive Flycatcher
Yellow Tyrannulet
Yellow-bellied Elaenia
Paltry Tyrannulet
Bright-rumped Attila
Dusky-capped Flycatcher
Great Crested Flycatcher
Great Kiskadee
Boat-billed Flycatcher
Social Flycatcher
Gray-capped Flycatcher
White-ringed Flycatcher
Streaked Flycatcher
Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher
Piratic Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Eastern Wood-Pewee
Tropical Pewee
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Acadian Flycatcher
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Least Flycatcher
Long-tailed Tyrant
Lesser Greenlet
Yellow-throated Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Yellow-green Vireo
Purple Martin
Gray-breasted Martin
Mangrove Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Southern Rough-winged Swallow
Bank Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Barn Swallow
House Wren
Black-throated Wren
Canebrake Wren
Bay Wren
Long-billed Gnatwren
Tropical Gnatcatcher
Veery
Gray-cheeked Thrush
Swainson’s Thrush
Wood Thrush
Clay-colored Thrush
Gray Catbird
Yellow-crowned Euphonia
Olive-backed Euphonia
White-vented Euphonia
Orange-billed Sparrow
Black-striped Sparrow
Chestnut-headed Oropendola
Montezuma Oropendola
Scarlet-rumped Cacique
Black-cowled Oriole
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
Shiny Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird
Giant Cowbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Ovenbird
Worm-eating Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Golden-winged Warbler
Blue-winged Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Mourning Warbler
Kentucky Warbler
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat
Hooded Warbler
American Redstart
Cerulean Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Buff-rumped Warbler
Canada Warbler
Dusky-faced Tanager
Summer Tanager
Scarlet Tanager
Red-throated Ant-Tanager
Black-faced Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Blue-black Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Painted Bunting
Dickcissel
Blue-gray Tanager
Palm Tanager
Golden-hooded Tanager
Plain-colored Tanager
Green Honeycreeper
Blue-black Grassquit
Tawny-crested Tanager
White-lined Tanager
Scarlet-rumped Tanager
Shining Honeycreeper
Red-legged Honeycreeper
Blue Dacnis
Bananaquit
Variable Seedeater
Morelet’s Seedeater
Black-headed Saltator
Buff-throated Saltator
Grayish Saltator
Additional bird species that occur in the forests of Gandoca-Manzanillo, some may also show up at Cabinas Olguita. This makes for 383 species recorded from the Gandoca-Manzanillo area.
143 additional species
 
Great Tinamou
Northern Shoveler
Muscovy Duck
Great Curassow
Black-eared Wood-Quail
Least Grebe
Scaled Pigeon
White-crowned Pigeon
Blue Ground-Dove
Ruddy Quail-Dove
Olive-backed Quail-Dove
Gray-chested Dove
Mangrove Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo
Short-tailed Nighthawk
Rufous Nightjar
Great Potoo
Chestnut-collared Swift
White-necked Jacobin
Bronzy Hermit
Purple-crowned Fairy
Green-breasted Mango
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer
Crowned Woodnymph
Uniform Crake
Purple Gallinule
Sungrebe
Black-necked Stilt
American Golden-Plover
Collared Plover
Northern Jacana
Baird’s Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Franklin’s Gull
Herring Gull
Black Tern
Common Tern
Sandwich Tern
Sunbittern
Least Bittern
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Reddish Egret
Agami Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron
Boat-billed Heron
Roseate Spoonbill
White-tailed Kite
Hook-billed Kite
Gray-headed Kite
Black Hawk-Eagle
Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle
Ornate Hawk-Eagle
Black-collared Hawk
Crane Hawk
Snail Kite
White Hawk
Semiplumbeous Hawk
Middle-American Screech-Owl
Crested Owl
Spectacled Owl
Black-throated Trogon
Rufous Motmot
Broad-billed Motmot
Green-and-rufous Kingfisher
American Pygmy Kingfisher
White-whiskered Puffbird
White-fronted Nunbird
Rufous-tailed Jacamar
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Red-rumped Woodpecker
Rufous-winged Woodpecker
Barred Forest-Falcon
Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon
Red-fronted Parrotlet
Mealy Parrot
Fasciated Antshrike
Spot-crowned Antvireo
White-flanked Antwren
Checker-throated Antwren
Bare-crowned Antbird
Spotted Antbird
Bicolored Antbird
Ocellated Antbird
Black-crowned Antpitta
Black-faced Antthrush
Plain-brown Woodcreeper
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner
White-collared Manakin
Red-capped Manakin
Purple-throated Fruitcrow
Bare-necked Umbrellabird
White-winged Becard
Rose-throated Becard
Royal Flycatcher
Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher
Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher
Golden-crowned Spadebill
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant
Northern Bentbill
Slate-headed Tody-Flycatcher
Eye-ringed Flatbill
Yellow-margined Flycatcher
Brown-capped Tyrannulet
Rufous Mourner
Gray Kingbird
Green Shrike-Vireo
Tawny-crowned Greenlet
White-eyed Vireo
Black-whiskered Vireo
Brown Jay
Black-chested Jay
Scaly-breasted Wren
Band-backed Wren
Stripe-breasted Wren
White-breasted Wood-Wren
Song Wren
Tawny-faced Gnatwren
Yellow-billed Cacique
Yellow-tailed Oriole
Northern Parula
Black-throated Green Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Western Tanager
Carmiol’s Tanager
Rufous-winged Tanager
Sulphur-rumped Tanager
White-shouldered Tanager
Crimson-collared Tanager
Thick-billed Seed-Finch
Slate-colored Grosbeak
Other species that may occur or are very rare visitors in the area because they have been recorded nearby or because appropriate habitat is nearby.
66 species
 
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Lesser Scaup
Masked Duck
Pied-billed Grebe
Violaceous Quail-Dove
Striped Cuckoo
Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo 
Greater Ani
Common Potoo
White-chinned Swift
Rufous-crested Coquette
Gray-breasted Crake
Russet-naped Wood-Rail 
Sora
Yellow-breasted Crake
Paint-billed Crake 
Spotted Rail
Limpkin
Upland Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Solitary Sandpiper
Wilson’s Phalarope
Red-necked Phalarope
Red Phalarope
Pomarine Jaeger
Parasitic Jaeger
Long-tailed Jaeger
Sooty Tern
Bridled Tern
Least Tern
Large-billed Tern
White-tailed Tropicbird
Red-billed Tropicbird
Masked Booby
Red-footed Booby 
Crested Eagle
Harpy Eagle
Barn-Owl
White-tailed Trogon
Great Jacamar
Red-throated Caracara
Streak-chested Antpitta
Scaly-throated Leaftosser
Blue-crowned Manakin
Lovely Cotinga
Blue Cotinga
Rufous Piha
Three-wattled Bellbird
Northern Schiffornis
Western Wood-Pewee
Cave Swallow 
Yellow-breasted Chat
Bobolink
Eastern Meadowlark
Red-winged Blackbird
Melodious Blackbird
Blackpoll Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Prairie Warbler
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis
Nicaraguan Seed-Finch
Whistling Heron
Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Costa Rica Beaches

Why It’s Worth it to Visit Manzanillo when Birding Costa Rica

Manzanillo is almost as detached from the typical Costa Rican birding circuit as you can get without leaving the country. Tucked way off in the southeastern corner of the country, it seems silly to drive there when you can see most of the same birds in the Sarapiqui region. If given the option, though, I would much rather bird Manzanillo, sites near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, and forested areas near Limon than La Selva and the like. Why drive four or five hours instead of two to get to an area that offers much of the same as Sarapiqui? Maybe it’s because it doesn’t exactly offer up the same birding experience as Sarapiqui. In fact, it might even be better while costing less.

While “better” depends on what you want to see, Manzanillo and a lot southeastern Costa Rica is one heck of a birdy place for one big reason: habitat. While pasture and chemical-ridden pineapple fields take up most of the space outside of protected areas in Sarapiqui, you won’t see those avian dead zones around Manzanillo. Most of the habitat there is old cocoa plantations converting back into lowland rainforest (helped by the presence of many old growth trees), rainforest that was never used for cocoa, some brushy fields, and wetlands here and there. Add on beaches, estuaries, and a healthy supply of vegetated ditches and streams and you end up with a darn birdy region.

In addition to habitat that harbors most of the Caribbean lowland species, Manzanillo and other coastal sites are situated right in the middle of a migration pathway that makes the birding extra exciting for Costa Rican residents. That was one of the main reasons why I organized and guided a trip to Manzanillo this past weekend for the Birding Club of Costa Rica and although the bulk of migration may have happened earlier this year, we still saw a fair number of migrants along with a bunch of quality local birds.

We stayed in Manzanillo at the Cabinas Bucus and Cabinas Sumaqtikaq. Accommodation was basic, clean, and cheap, there are several other places to stay in town, and more upscale hotels along the birdy road between Manzanillo and Puerto Viejo.

birding Costa Rica

I stayed at the cozy Cabinas Sumaqtikaq pictured above. While no owls responded during my stay, I heard Mottled calling in the distance and am sure that other species could show up right by the cabins and other areas in the village (not to mention all expected species in nearby forested areas).

We got down to birding shortly after arrival and the constant flow of Barn, Bank, and Cliff Swallows reminded us that migration was happening above and through town. It ebbed and flowed a bit from Thursday to Sunday and although we seemed to have arrived at the tail end of Fall migration, we were still entertained by quite a few birds. Occasional kettles of TVs, Broad-wings, and Swainson’s Hawks flew over the village, we saw a few Peregrines, one Merlin, and one kind of late Mississippi Kite, a few flocks of Eastern Kingbirds, a good number of Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Swainson’s Thrushes, Bay-breasted Warblers, and a few other migrants along with dozens of Eastern Wood-pewees (most common bird around). As boring as this will sound for American and Canadian birders, I was happy to see a couple of Gray Catbirds and Common Yellowthroats, and one of our best birds of the trip was Least Flycatcher (a rare migrant in CR)!

Oh, we did see a good number of resident tropical species too. One of the best was Tiny Hawk.

birding Costa Rica

Tiny Hawk in Manzanillo.

While birding the edge of the village on Thursday afternoon, I realized something was up upon hearing mobbing calls from small birds and seeing Black-cheeked Woodpeckers and Buff-throated Saltators perched as still as can be high up in some thin snags.

birding Costa Rica

Waiting out the Tiny Hawk.

A suspicious looking, thrush-sized bird at the top of a tall tree turned out to be the Tiny Hawk that was causing a ruckus. It let us watch it for several minutes as it was harassed by hummingbirds, Tropical Gnatcatchers, warblers, and honeycreepers.

birding Costa Rica

Tiny Hawk watching and waiting for an unwary hummingbird.

The good birding didn’t stop as we checked out brushy fields and edge of the nearby forest. Although it was kind of far away and just for a moment, I’m pretty sure that I heard White-fronted Nunbirds call in the distance, we saw Mealy, Red-lored, and Blue-headed Parrots, got great looks at Mourning Warbler, heard Slaty Spinetail, and saw a bunch of other more or less expected species. The Least Flycatcher also turned up there on the following day.

The trees in the village itself were active with migrants, Slaty-tailed Trogon, Black-cowled Oriole, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Long-tailed Tyrant, Pale-vented and Short-billed Pigeons, toucans, and other species. As we birded the more forested edge of the village and road heading to Puerto Viejo, there were so many birds that we hardly knew where to look! Blue-chested Hummingbirds buzzed low, flowering bushes, Long-billed, Stripe-throated, and Bronzy Hermits were all pretty common, Golden-hooded, Plain-colored, and Passerini’s Tanagers kept us busy, while Dusky and Chestnut-backed Antbirds, and Striped-breasted and Plain Wrens called from the undergrowth.

birding Costa Rica

Olive-backed Euphonias were pretty common and we also got White-vented as the edge of the village.

A late afternoon visit to the Gandoca reserve was quiet as expected but still turned up White-whiskered Puffbird, toucans, and a bunch of Tawny-crested Tanagers. I would love to head into the reserve before dawn and bring enough water and food to spend the entire day there. I bet you would see some preeeetty good birds (like maybe Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon, other raptors, uncommon antbirds, and who knows what else). As a side note, there may be some entrance for paying an entrance fee somewhere but we didn’t see it and just walked right on in.

A late morning visit to the botanical garden near Puerto Viejo failed to turn up Spot-crowned Antvireo and Black-chested Jay, but it was still nice and birdy with Tawny-crested Tanager, Black-headed Tody-flycatcher, trogons, lots of migrant activity, Short-tailed Hawk, Checker-throated, Dot-winged, and White-flanked Antwrens, and other species.

We had some of our best birding along the RECOPE road. This is the first road north of Manzanillo and is signed for a retreat used by RECOPE employees. It goes for maybe 3 ks through semi-open forest and more closed canopy rainforest. Espying birds as they forage in the crowns of the huge trees is a challenge but the road has lots of potential. In addition to a healthy dose of migrants, we also had Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Pied Puffbird, Bat Falcon, woodcreepers, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Black-faced Antthrush, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, toucans, parrots, parakeets, Crested Guan, and other species. Our best sighting was an unbelievable Crested Owl that perched right out in the open on a log like some kind of open-air zoo! At least that’s how we felt as we walked up to it and took as many pictures as we wanted.

birding Costa Rica

That amazing Crested Owl.

A close shot.

birding Costa Rica

I took this with a hand-held camera!

I spent as much time in the field as possible but as usually happens with tropical areas with good habitat, I felt like I barely scratched the surface. There was quite a bit of good forest along the road between Puerto Viejo and Manzanillo that we didn’t bird, nor did we check the forested ridge, bird the botanical garden in the early morning, or spend more time looking for jays and other species around Kekoldi (not to mention visiting the excellent forests at Hitoy Cerere). Lots to see around Manzanillo, Puerto Viejo, and nearby, the habitat is very accessible, and you can get in a lot of great birding right around hotels and from public roads. As always, I can’t wait to go back and hope I can head back there soon on a family trip.
birding Costa Rica

My family will love the beach…

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Costa Rica Beaches Introduction lowlands

Manzanillo; an excellent, cheap Caribbean slope birding destination in Costa Rica

There are at least 5 distinct regional habitat types or ecosystems in Costa Rica; dry forest, middle elevation cloud forest, high elevation rain forest, Pacific slope lowland rain forest, and Caribbean slope lowland rain forest. Birding in this latter habitat type is especially exciting because it harbors ecosystems with the highest number of bird species in Costa Rica (around 400). Despite having birded in Costa Rica since 1992, I probably get just as excited as visiting birders do when the road through Braulio Carrillo National Park suddenly announces its exit from the steep mountains with a panoramic view of the Caribbean lowlands. Just as the feelings of anticipation and excitement never fail to spring forth upon entering this highly biodiverse region, the obvious deforestation on the lowland plain tempers my excitement with a sharp stab of reality that goes too deep to ignore. In these “modern”, overpopulated times, banana fields, pineapple plantations, and cattle pastures have replaced much of the forest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica. There are birds but instead of seeing a few hundred species in tall, incredible rain forest, birders might encounter 40 or so bird species in scrubby fields with isolated trees and even fewer among the bananas and pineapples. Birding in good, lowland rain forest is still possible but the heavy pressure upon the land has given birders very few options.

Pineapple farms- an avian desert.

The principle site most folks visit for their fix of Caribbean Slope birding in Costa Rica is at the “La Selva” biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. One of the easiest sites to visit (1.45 hours from San Jose), the good trails and facilities, and legendary reputation of La Selva keep it on the list of must see places when birding in Costa Rica. The birding is good with species such as Great Curassow, Great Potoo, Vermiculated Screech Owl, and Semiplumbeous Hawk more easily seen at the station than elsewhere, but in reality, several species have sadly disappeared from or have become very rare in the forests of La Selva (Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, and most understory insectivores). Another disadvantage is that unless you pay close to $90 per person to stay in a rather basic bunk bed, you can only access the station on short, guided tours that cost $30-$40 per person. In that most of the birds at La Selva can be seen along the entrance road and around nearby hotels such as Selva Verde and El Gavilan, birders will do just as well or better by birding around their hotel, visiting Quebrada Gonzalez for a day, and taking one of La Selva’s guided walks rather than staying at the station itself. I am by no means saying that the birding at La Selva is bad (it’s still very good for a wide variety of bird species), just that birders should be aware that many formerly common, forest based species no longer occur at La Selva and that most of the birds that still occur can be seen elsewhere.

Another good option for lowland Caribbean Slope birding that is much further afield but well worth the visit is the Manzanillo-Gandoca Wildlife Refuge. Situated in the southeastern corner of Costa Rica, this little-visited, 12,000 acre (4 times the size of La Selva) reserve protects lowland rain forest and swamp forest, has no entrance fee, and has accommodations that range from inexpensive, basic lodging to costly resortish hotels. Since it is not a national park, there are people who live within the refuge (this includes the village of Manzanillo). Nevertheless, they don’t appear to have much of an impact upon the refuge itself according to my observations from this past weekend and the opinion of a local guide. The main drawbacks to Manzanillo are its distance from San Jose (4-4.5 hours drive) and that you can’t drink water from the tap (but plenty of bottled water soldin the village). I suppose the lack of general information for the refuge could also be a drawback but that makes it all the more exciting to explore in my opinion. In any case, there are a few guides for the refuge, one of the best for the area being Abel Bustamente. Although he told me he was a general naturalist guide rather than a strict birding guide, from what I saw, he knows the local birds well enough to guide visitors, probably knows about the wildlife of the refuge better than anyone, speaks English well, and is also personable. I don’t know how much he charges but here is his email if you are interested. He is also easy to find upon arrival at Manzanillo; just inquire at the house to the right of this sign before entering the village.

With the caveat that I was mostly guiding begining birders for a day and a half, and that we hardly entered into the primary forest of the refuge, I still have to say that my general impression of birding in Manzanillo was so good I would go back there in a heartbeat. The only other time I have been to Manzanillo was in 1994 and although I had good birding and a bunch of lifers on that first trip, the lack of infrastructure made it difficult to visit (I camped on the beach and battled mosquitoes on horribly mucky trails). Things have greatly improved since those early days with lodging to fit most budgets available in the village or along the road to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. Our group stayed in Manzanillo at the aptly named Cabinas Manzanillo ($30 for a basic, clean double with fan). The service was fine, but best of all, they had a fruit feeder that attracted a variety of birds including Golden-hooded and many Passerini’s Tanagers

and flowering bushes that attracted Blue-chested Hummingbird. In fact, Manzanillo is the best place I have seen for this hummingbird species in Costa Rica.

Also in the village were many Pale-vented Pigeons, the usual host of edge species, a plethora of Gray-necked Wood Rails (you cannot miss this species here), Common Black Hawk, flyovers of parrots and parakeets, lots of Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, White-lined Tanager, and more. Our best birds in the village were Green and Rufous Kingfisher and American Pygmy Kingfisher (sorry- no pics!). The Green and Rufous was a wonderful surprise-it was actually perched on a telephone wire above a small stream with thick vegetation near the hotel but flew off before I could get a shot. An hour later, I checked the same spot with the group, heard a ticking noise that the small neotropical kingfishers make and found a pygmy kingfisher instead! I was pretty happy with both of these since I needed them for my casual Big Year.

Outside of the village things were even better and we didn’t have to go far since primary and secondary forest, and abandoned cacao plantations that resemble primary forest surround Manzanillo. Birding along the main road out of town and on side roads (especially the one leading to a recreation center) were so birdy that we barely made progress. Migrants such as Eastern Wood Pewees and Red-eyed Vireos were the most common species along with good numbers of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks that were bringing up the tail end of the fall raptor migration. Other, less numerous migrants were a hefty Peregrine Falcon that was casually making her way south, Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Mourning, and Blue-winged Warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, and 2 Yellow-billed Cuckoos in the beach scrub.

A near constant movement of Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Chimney Swifts also kept us busy although we were more interested in the residents. There were also plenty of those to look at with red flowering bushes attracting at least 6 hummingbird species and Bananaquits, and the old cocao plantations harboring Cinnamon Woodpecker, three toucan species, Pale-billed Woodpecker, Red-throated Ant-Tanagers, Plain-colored, Passerini’s, Palm, and Blue-gray Tanagers, Western Slaty and Fasciated Antshrikes, Cocoa, Black-striped, and Streak-headed Woodcreepers, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Bay, Black-throated, and Stripe-breasted Wrens, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, Northern Bentbill, Bright-rumped Attila, Cinnamon Becard, White-collared Manakin, Long-billed Gnatwren, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Orange-billed Sparrow, Scarlet-rumped Cacique, etc.

One of the best birds was Purple-throated Fruitcrow; we heard several and saw a few of this cotinga species that has become uncommon in many areas of Costa Rica. A rare cotinga we did not see but that Abel has seen in the area is Lovely Cotinga. Another good we saw that has become rare is Costa Rica was Yellow-tailed Oriole that visited the feeder at Cabins Manzanillo.

Although trogons are tough at this time of year because they don’t sing, we at least got perfect looks at this male Violaceous Trogon that perched on a wire in front of Abel’s house.

During the very brief amount of time spent on trails in the primary forest of the refuge, we also had Crested Guan, Little Tinamou, Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Black-faced Antthrush, and Song Wren.

During our short visit to the area, since rather casual birding turned up 132 species without spending much time within the forest proper, I am pretty sure Manzanillo has a great deal of potential. I really can’t get back there soon enough not only because the place is very birdy in general but also because there has been so little birding done in Manzanillo. We missed out on night birding because of the rain but this site probably has both potoos, several owls, and Short-tailed Nighthawk. Manzanillo also has a great Caribbean restaurant, a soda that served us coffee at 5:30 A.M. with advance notice, and if you need to beef up your fish list, a coral reef just offshore. Getting there is pretty easy-just follow the signs from Limon to Puerto Viejo or take the bus (one a day).

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Costa Rica Beaches Costa Rica living Costa Rica trips public transportation Introduction

Trip to Tambor (not the Barcelo) by public transportation

“Tambor” means drum. Here in Costa Rica, it  also the name of a very tranquil, family friendly beach. At least that’s what the internet searches say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s almost too quiet. My wife, daughter and I recently made Tambor our first family destination and although we relished the tranquility, we also found ourselves hoping for a bit more. Although the information I found on the net was accurate in some ways, the personal perspective of someone who had traveled there was absent like humor at a funeral. In this post I will paint a detailed picture of a trip to Tambor by public transportation, my words revealing the bright spots and dim corners of the beach of the drum.

We left in the evening, taking a cab through almost 6 P.M. San Jose to the Puntarenas bus station. The streets were congested as always at this hour; not only with vehicles but pedestrians as well- well dressed office workers with their access badges tucked into their shirt pockets, workers sans dress codes always carrying day-packs, a few over-thin drug addicts here and there itching for mental relief, mothers with children, people laughing, talking and wishing they were already home and always the rumble of trucks, a blaring of horns and occasional sonic assaults from radios. Driving through this, you have to keep the doors locked and keep bags away from windows- some people will smash a window to snatch a bag. I feel like a bodyguard whenever we drive through the city- concentrating on my surroundings, ready to react, even more so with my daughter present.

I especially feel that way at the Puntarenas bus station. Located in southern San Jose, it’s not the type of area for night-strolling. Heck, I wouldn’t even feel comfortable during the day. Upon arrival at the station, panhandlers are there to open your door and ask for money. This time I told one grimy fellow that I was going to open the door before he could do it. He backed off right away and ended up being so respectful that I gave him something anyways. Inside the bus station, at least there is an armed guard and things are pretty darn orderly by Latin American standards. Upon purchase of a ticket, you are given a plastic boarding pass then “sit” in line. Yes, you sit in line; not on the floor but in chairs lined up in three rows. Once there you can watch TV or your fellow passengers until boarding (every 40 minutes from 6 until 9 at night for Puntarenas). We ended up heading out into the tropical night on the 6:40 PM bus, trusting our driver to navigate the twists and turns of mountain roads on our way down to the old port city of Puntarenas.

Miranda was good all the way down to the hot lowlands. Good means she didn’t scream for an extended period of time and of course she didn’t because we gave her food when hungry and held her the whole time. A lot of people tell us to not pick her up too much or she will want that all the time, that we will spoil her. I think they are absolutely wrong. I tend to base my perceptions within an evolutionary framework; especially when it comes to basic survival instincts. Regarding baby-carrying, I ask myself what it might have been like for our ancestors in good old dangerous Africa. Did folks casually stroll the savannah with their babies in plastic carriages? What happened to babies that were put down somewhere and didn’t cry? Answers to those are an obvious, “No” and the understatement, “nothing good”. Babies were carried around at all times for the sake of survival. In short, since we evolved to be carried around as babies (and this behavior appears to predate the Homo sapiens species) then it’s probably a darn good idea to continue with this behavior.

After around 2 and a half hours, we arrived in Puntarenas. Puntarenas is located along a promontary that juts into the Pacific. Because of the narrow, stretched out nature of this place, when you think you have arrived, you still have 10 minutes to go before the bus stops. This turned out to be a boon for us because we got the chance to talk with some friendly Canadian surfers who had useful info. about hotels and ferry times. They let us walk with them to the “Hotel Cabezas”. Three blocks north and one east of the terminal, they charged $25 for clean, basic rooms and were very friendly (so much so I had to say it twice). After a short but pleasant night, we cabbed it pre-dawn to the first ferry of the day. Dozens of people were hanging out at the Musmanni bakery where ferry tickets were sold. Most of these people ended up waiting for the following departure because the first one had already filled up with vehicles. After buying $2 tickets, we walked aboard and chugged out into the Gulf of Nicoya at 5 AM sharp.

I was concerned about windy weather making for a rough trip, but thankfully those fears were unfounded. There were very few waves despite a constant breeze strong enough to keep the flags taut and make us wear jackets. Miranda slept on while some 20 year olds drank beer and attempted to sing and “yee-haw” Mexican songs that people always sing when they are drunk (except my father-in-law; he karaokes those ditties sober as a baby). The 20 year olds weren’t about to win American Idol but I’m glad they were having a good time. Sometimes it’s great to see people enjoying life even if they are rending the air and assaulting the ears in the process. We also met a professional clown named, “Jesus”. I know that sounds like dreams after too much guacamole but it is the plain and simple truth. He wasn’t in costume, in fact I took him to be a surfer until we conversed. He was doing a clown gig for the weekend in Montezuma. And he was sad. No, not one of those “sad clowns”; he was real-life sad. My wife even saw him cry; crying because Miranda reminded him of his estranged 3 year old daughter. Poor guy, we could tell that he truly loved kids. Luckily he didn’t jump overboard into the Gulf of Nicoya on the way over; we are sure of that because we saw him walking away from the ferry with colored hoops and other clown-like accessories.

The sad clown from behind.

Nice scenery

Miranda sleeping away the ferry ride.

The Puntarenas ferry drops you off near Paquera. As soon as you arrive, you know you have escaped the city. Its not just for the absence of traffic and buildings nor the surrounding hills covered in green jungle. It’s also the guy on a horse clopping by, the vendors who don’t even bother in attempting to sell you dried plantain chips, the hot, lazy air. We didn’t have to laze around the port though because a bus met our ferry (does it meet each one?- I think so).  We hopped on with surfers, backpackers and locals and rumbled inland towards Tambor.

Tambor was about 1 hour drive through pastures and patches of forest. First we passed by the other Tambor that everyone talks about; the more well known Tambor-the Barcelo Tambor. This major resort is replete with golf course and a giant chess board (according to my father-in-law). It’s also beyond our budget and even worse, they make you wear a bracelet during your stay. If I ever by chance stay there I am going to hide my bracelet to see what happens; maybe you will read about me kung-fu fighting with the security. After the bracelet Barcelo and nearby airfield (yes you can fly there if you don’t want to meet any clowns or drunken people on the ferry) we were dropped off in Tambor center. This doesn’t sound as obvious as it might read; just a cluster of houses along the highway and a road off to the left going by a church. Yep, that’s Tambor, that’s just about everything as far as the town goes. This is one of these places where you really have to watch for a sign (which they luckily have). Hopping off the bus into the hot tropical sun, we walked over to the Cabinas Christina. We had read a lot about this place; nice cheap rooms, good restaurant, etc. We sat down and had much needed coffees (now addicted, what do you want- I live in Costa Rica) and then had a strange time finding out about room rates and availability. The lady in charge was vague about whether or not such and such room was available and kept stressing a more expensive room with cable TV. Even after I said that the TV didn’t matter and that we weren’t going to watch it, she just kept on about that darn TV. Maybe it was because the town has so little to do? In any case, I finally saw the room with the cable TV and realized why she stressed this amenity so much. The cable TV was pretty much the only amenity that $35 box with a bed had to offer. Not only did we need two beds, but my wife was feeling especially non-plussed with the odd behavior of these people so while we waited for the bill, I walked back up the road to the Cabinas Bosque. Unlike the Christina people, the Bosque gang were straighforward with the room price, it was cheaper ($24 with fan), nicer and they had vacancy. I ran back to the Christina, paid our bill and walked over to the Bosque where we established ourselves nicely.

Although we lacked the famed cable TV in our room, the Bosque offers this amenity in their more expensive room along with air for double the price. The Bosque was a nice place overall with fair birding and Howler Monkeys that came through the grounds every afternoon. We got pretty close to them!

Tambor beach was a ten minute walk from the hotel. Very quiet and with a wide stretch of sand, the water also looked pretty shallow. If you are looking for a tranquil, lonely beach lacking the glitz of over-developed areas, this one might be for you!

For eats, we saw one sketchy-looking restaurant with an unshaven drunken fellow stumbling around inside and a beautiful, expensive one. Yep, just those two options along the beach itself unless you catch and eat your own fish in the lagoon (something I plan on doing next time). In town there wasn’t much to choose from either. There was the internet-hyped Christina restaurant- we ate lunch there our first day. Sandwiches were good but absolutely no-frills and overpriced. We were also non-plussed by their menu that conveniently left out the taxes. In Costa Rica most places (and possibly by law) post their prices with taxes included. This is important when taxes are 23%. Outside of town along the main highway was a Trattoria. This looked very good and was run by an authentic Italian family . It was pricey too but looked worth it (unlike the Christina). There was a friendly soda just across the street from and to the right of the entrance to Tambor center. This place has no sign but looks like a typical small soda. The woman who runs the place was very friendly and talkative. Some of her family entertained Miranda while we ate. For that alone I would recommend this place over any other in Tambor. The dinner plate was pretty good too; I had breaded Mahi-Mahi with rice and beans, etc. for about $5. Two blocks further down the highway towards Paquera is another restaurant at the Coral Hotel. Very nice restaurant/bar; our waiter was very friendly and helpful. The food and drink were also good and moderately priced. If you go to Tambor, don’t bother with the Christina- eat and drink at this place. There was also a supermarket in town that had most of everything (closed on Sundays).

Tambor beach was pretty quiet and you might get bored but at least more touristy Montezuma is only a 30 minute bus ride away. The few days we spent were worth it and I hope to go back albeit with my own transportation to explore other beaches in the area. If you take the ferry, whatever you do, don’t put your feet in the seats!