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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica dry forest

The Tambor Christmas Bird Count, 2020

Several CBCs take place in Costa Rica and I have participated in most of them at one time or another. However, a few have been missing from my personal count repertoire, one of those being the Tambor Bird Count, an event that has taken place since 2012. Organized by Juan Carlos Cruz of the Tambor Tropical resort, and Ruth Rodriguez of Rainforest Publications and Raptor Ridge, this count has provided valuable data about bird populations and has helped promote birding in one of the least birded parts of the country.

The Nicoya Penisula doesn’t often find itself on the itineraries of birders visiting Costa Rica because not only does getting there involve a bit of a detour from the usual birding circuit, but also because few people know about the quality birding in that area. On January 4th, accompanied by Mary and her daughter Samantha, I finally got the chance to help count birds near Tambor in the southern Nicoya Peninsula and in doing so, get a good taste of what sort of birding this part of the country can offer. Since I was always impressed with the habitat on the few occasions when I had birded the area in the past, it was exciting to head back and take part in an official count. These were some of the highlights and happenings:

The ferry ride

Knowing what might show at any time in the Gulf of Nicoya, for me, the boat ride between Puntarenas and Paquera is always a highlight. On January 3rd, although the boat was full of folks heading to the peninsula for vacation and didn’t leave until 9 a.m., we still managed to see a few birds looking between and through the other passengers. The best happened while waiting to put the car on the ferry. While casually scanning the water from shore, I could hardly believe it when a Black Storm-Petrel materialized in my field of view! I have seen this and two other species of storm-petrel a few other times from the point at Puntarenas, always where the inner gulf meets the outer gulf but finding one of these special marine birds is always an unexpected treat. From the point and looking past the many people on the boat itself, we also had looks at Sandwich, Black, and Elegant Terns, two Common Terns, and one Least Storm-Petrel that was working a drift line.

Nice organization

The count was wonderfully organized and had eager groups of birders counting on several different routes. During the count meeting at Tambor Tropical, after enjoying a delicious welcome drink in the form of a coconut flavored cocktail, Juan Carlos and Ruth told us about the history of the count and how they have been promoting birding and the conservation of Scarlet Macaws in the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula. And yes, Scarlet Macaws are doing very well in that area, we saw them every day!

Curu Wildlife Refuge

Our count route included the Curu Wildlife Refuge, a large hacienda that protects tropical dry forest, mangroves, and other habitats along with a beautiful beach. It was the beach that drew the many day visitors we saw but Curu is also an excellent site for birding. While walking the main road and a few trails, we had more than 80 species including such birds as Collared Aracari, Northern Scrub Flycatcher, Mangrove Vireo, White-necked Puffbird, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and others. Although we did not get lucky with the elusive and rare Pheasant Cuckoo, nor any quail-doves, these birds have been found at Curu in the past.

Nice, easy birding

Overall, the Tambor area was nice, easy birding. There were plenty of forest, edge, and coastal habitats easily accessed on any number of roads, and many species are possible including Elegant Trogon, occasional Plain Chachalaca, and Scarlet Macaws among many other common dry forest species.

Limited choices for food

If you do visit the area, be prepared for fairly limited dining options. There are a few good options at Tambor and many more in Montezuma but don’t expect much between Tambor and Paquera!

Raptor Ridge

A visit to this exciting site was a fantastic way to begin the year because I heard about Raptor Ridge for some time and seen photos of various birds from there. So, with anticipation, we accepted an invitation from Larry Langstrom, Ruth Rodriguez, and their daughter to stay the night at this special place and found ourselves heading up a track into the hills above the Tambor area.

The stunning view from Raptor Ridge.

Although we didn’t have time to bird the road in, it goes through nice habitat where others have seen quite a few species. At Raptor Ridge itself, we were treated to near constant views of Painted Buntings and other birds visiting a small water feature at the edge of the forest. Since some of those other birds included Long-tailed Manakin, Olive Sparrow, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, Yellow-billed Cacique, and Worm-eating Warbler, a birder can’t go wrong in sitting back and watching what comes in!

One of the many Painted Buntings, the most common species at the water feature.

At the same time, fruiting trees planted by Larry and Ruth also brought in Western Tanagers, Philadelphia Vireos, and other species while in keeping with the name of the place, King Vultures were seen at close range and we also recorded such other raptors as Collared Forest Falcon, Laughing Falcon, Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and White Hawk. The nocturnal raptor scene was replete with Mottled Owl, a distant heard only Black-and-white Owl, and a fantastic close look at a Middle American Screech-Owl!

One of those King Vultures!

As for the count, our total of 80 plus species was part of a grand total of more than 230 including several pelagic species seen from a boat taken out by Wilfredo “Pollo” Villalobos of Cabuya Birdwatching, and such species as Plain Chachalaca, Northern Potoo, Elegant Trogon, and other birds seen by the many other participants. It goes without saying that much of the success of the count happened thanks to organization along with local birders like Ruth, Juan Carlos, Pollo, and Ariel Rojas Cruz who knew just where to find Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. I look forward to visiting this beautiful area again and hope to see it added to the official ICT Costa Rica bird route.

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bird finding in Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Reflections from a Quick Trip to Guanacaste

Last week, we had an official holiday in Costa Rica; the Annexation of Nicoya. Also known as Guanacaste Day, this holiday marks the date when Costa Rica obtained the northwestern part of the present territory. In common with the celebration of official holidays, this past Thursday, various businesses, government related stuff, and schools were closed. For us, the most important part of those closures was that part about the schools because that meant that we didn’t necessarily have to stay around the homestead for Thursday morning. We had the rare liberty to venture forth on Wednesday for at least one night away from home with options that ranged from a trip into the high mountains, a visit to the Caribbean coast, and beaches on the Pacific!

After looking out the front door and noting heavy, rainy clouds in the mountains, a cold trip to the highlands was quickly ruled out. The Caribbean was appealing, I love going there, Mary and her daughter have never been, and the birding is always exciting BUT recent heavy rains had resulted in more than one road closure en route. Not wanting to run the risk of landslides, we decided to visit the Caribbean another day.

The Pacific it would be but where to go, the humid beaches of he south? The dry forests to the north? As often happens in this beautiful country, it was a tough choice but we eventually settled on a trip to the very place that gave us this free day; Guanacaste. Beaches on the Nicoya seemed a bit too far for just one night so we settled on ones closer to Liberia. Here are some suggestions and reflections from that trip:

You can stay in Liberia- At first we only looked at hotels near the beaches. After noting the prices of those places, we started looking at accommodation around Liberia. We were only going to sleep in the hotel in any case so there was no need for a pool or other amenities. The place we settled on was “La Macha Cabinas” and although you never truly know what you are going to get, it turned out to be a good choice! Nothing extravagant but the place was clean, secure, had air conditioning, a fridge, tv, and so on for around $40 a night. It was also situated next to a bit of green space that had flocks of Orange-fronted Parakeets, Streak-backed Orioles, and some other expected birds. I didn’t hear any owls but it looked ideal for Pacific Screech and Barn Owls.

Lots of these were around.

Playa Panama– One of a few beaches near Liberia that are good for kids, Playa Panama is big, has clear water with a good number of fish (we saw quite a few), and even has a fake pirate ship in the bay. Not too much on the bird front although there was a Common Black Hawk nesting just behind the beach. This site is also a 30 minute drive from Liberia.

Stingrays– We saw at least one, right there in the sand so shuffle those feet when wading in the water!

Las Trancas– I was excited to check this hotspot. It’s right on route to Playa Panama and can host anything from Jabiru to White-tailed Hawk and Spotted Rail. On other visits, I have seen all of those and some. We never had time to look for the rail but I had hoped for more than we saw. Instead, we saw no wading birds, no raptors in flight, and that a fair bit of the place had been converted to sugarcane. That said, we only drove through the area but it was mostly dry and since we saw so few hints of birds, we just didn’t even stop. Rice is still cultivated in large parts of the farm, hopefully it will still turn up good birds during wetter weather in September and October.

Lots of green forest– Visit Costa Rica in the dry season and Guanacaste looks like a scene from Tanzania. Visit in July and it’s an abundance of green. More bugs then but good bird activity and beautifully green.

Guanacaste in July can be cool!– I was surprised at how cool it was. It was still pretty warm but compared to the really hot sunny weather in February, July was quite comfortable.

Santa Rose National Park or Rincon de la Vieja?– After a morning at the beach, we had time to visit at least one national park. There are two good options around 40 minutes from Liberia; Rincon de la Vieja and Santa Rosa. Both have great birding, especially Rincon with its chances at Tody Motmot, quail-doves, and even Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo. However, since Rincon is also frequently cloaked in misty, windy weather, we decided to do that park on another day and went to Santa Rosa.

Awesome forest at Rincon de la Vieja.

Although the afternoon rains caught up to us at Santa Rosa, we still saw some birds, heard a few year Elegant Trogons, saw monkeys, and had a chance to scout the place for future visits.

I especially liked the prospect of watching birds from one of the overlooks in the early morning.

Go birding early in the morning– I know, no kidding, but just a reminder that you will always see more and have better chances at seeing forest-falcons and some other shy birds if you get out there just after dawn.

Enjoy the views of Yellow-naped Parrot and lots of other dry forest species– Yellow-naped Parrots aren’t super common, in fact, they are endangered. But, pairs still occur at Santa Rosa and other nearby sites with forest. It’s always fun to watch these large, special parrots. Other expected dry forest species are also present, most of them also pretty easy to see.

Common Ground Dove

Be wary of expensive tourist traps– Tourist trap might be going a bit too far but that’s what comes to mind when a place charges high prices for normal stuff or fare. If you really want to see what I mean, check out the few restaurants on the road near the Liberia airport. I guess when it comes down to it, it will be worth it to check out reviews for places to eat and stay.

Stop for dinosaurs– It’s important to make stops for likenesses of prehistoric creatures and essential when traveling with kids. It helps when the T-Rex, Sabre-toothed feline, and other creatures are accompanied by ice cream and other goodies at the Monteverde restaurant. If that ice cream doesn’t fit the bill, check out the POPS just down the road on the way to San Jose. This spot also has birds, on one occasion, I got nice shots of a female Scrub Euphonia.

If I had one last reflection or suggestion it would be to fit Guanacaste into your birding trip. The birding is good and easy, pay a visit to Santa Rosa, Las Trancas, and other sites. You will see a lot.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

Birding around Carara, Costa Rica- Always Exciting, Always Excellent

The first time I visited Carara National Park was in 1992. I went by bus with a few friends, one of whom was also a birder. We stayed in the hot coastal village of Tarcoles and made the long, even hotter walk to the national park. There was good birding on the way and on the short trails that left from the HQ; a small building at the southern edge of the park. There were lots of birds; trogons, various flycatchers, antbirds, manakins and many other classic species of lowland rainforest. Fast forward to the present and there are more places to stay, better knowledge of where to find birds around this hotspot, and although populations of humid forest species have declined in response to a drier climate, the birding continues to be exciting and excellent.

One of the new trails at Carara- expect great birding here!

I was reminded of the world-class birding during a recent day of guiding in and around Carara. This is a bit of how that long good day of birding went:

Dry forest habitats along the Guacalillo Road

A good road rather near Carara, it’s probably the closest spot to connect with all possible species of dry forest habitats. Since the national park didn’t open until eight, we began the birding on this route. The birding is typically sweet along this road and Saturday was no exception. We were entertained and kept buy by:

Multiple Turquoise-browed Motmots perched on wires, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows chattering from the roadside, and seeing numerous other common edge species.

Turquoise-browed Motmot- always impressive.

-Of note was the calling activity of Crested Bobwhites. We always had at least one within earshot and had excellent looks at the first one encountered.

-Although Lesser Ground-Cuckoo was quiet, we eventually got looks at one.

-Nice looks at Scarlet Macaw, Red-lored, Yellow-naped, and White-fronted Parrots.

This beautiful bird is the most numerous parrot species in dry Pacific coast habitats.

White-throated Magpie Jay, Double-striped Thick-Knee, and other dry forest species.

Carara National Park

After nearly two hours of constant great birding, it was time to extend the awesomeness to another completely different habitat, the lowland rainforests of Carara National Park. Although the mosquitoes were pretty bad, highlights there included:

-A close, singing male Ruddy Quail-Dove, views of Streak-chested Antpitta, and even closer prolonged looks at Marbled Wood-Quail.

-Army Ant swarm with several Gray-headed Tanagers, Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed and Bicolored Antbird, Tawny-winged and Northern Barred Woodcreepers, and Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner.

Chiriqui Foliage-gleaner was split from Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner.

Royal Flycatcher, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Blue-crowned Manakin, views of Slaty-tailed and Baird’s Trogons, and other nice rainforest species. Oh, and a soaring adult King Vulture right from the parking area.

The Tarcoles area

A post-lunch stop, the edge habitats and seasonal wetlands around Tarcoles turned up a few nice bird species, the best being a sweet roosting Black-and-white Owl (thanks to gen from a local farmer!), Northern Scrub-Flycatcher, Lineated Woodpecker, and Black-headed and Gartered Trogons.

Black-headed Trogon is one of the easiest trogons to see in Costa Rica.

Cerro Lodge Road

Leaving this birdy site for last, we had some of the same species as the morning but also saw our target Crane Hawk, Plumbeous Kite, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and some other new birds before the rains convinced us to call it a day.

Crane Hawk- an uncommon raptor.

After tallying the results, including birds that were heard only, we had a list of more than 140 species. Incredibly, around Carara, that’s pretty much par for the course (!). However, considering that the birding takes place in three or four distinct biodiverse tropical habitats, a consistent high total is also perhaps unsurprising. As always, I wonder what I will find the next time I visit the Carara area? Birding there is best done over the course of two or three days but if you can only manage one, that single exciting day of birding is still worth the trip.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Morning of Shorebirds, Waders, and More in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, thankfully, we have been spared the hurricanes that have wrecked their way through other parts of the world. Irma and Jose may have sent a few wayward birds our way but if not, no problem, we still have thousands of other more expected birds to watch. Fall migration has begun and in Costa Rica, it starts with swirling clouds of Plumbeous, Swallow-tailed, and then Mississippi Kites, handfuls of Cerulean Warblers, and thousands upon thousands of shorebirds. Each day that goes by sees flock after flock of waders moving through the country, especially on the Pacific slope. While more than a few no doubt zip right on over Costa Rica, many more take a break in the Gulf of Nicoya.

The large areas of nutrient rich mud flats are a perfect place to feed and take a much needed rest, and quite a few of those birds stay around for the winter. However, with so many birds on the move now, this is when the shorebird scene is at its most exciting. Who knows how many lost individuals from Asia pass through? Surely not many but I bet there are more than we realize. When you take into account the small number of accessible sites, the very few people who are watching, and the difficulty in picking that one winter plumaged Red-necked Stint out of distant Semipalmated Sandpipers, the struggle is real. However, those factors do leave the door open to the equally real possibility of stints from Siberia and other birds taking accidental vacations in and and through Costa Rica. Good luck finding them but since looking for such super rare birds is like going through a never ending box of avian chocolates, it’s all good!

That box of chocolates is why I have been itching to check out shorebird sites in the Gulf. Every day brings more birds, I wish I could be there to count them all but since I have other super important stuff to do (like making my daughter breakfast and then playing “eye spy” in the car while bringing her to school), I just gotta get down there when I can.

Thankfully, I had that golden chance this past Sunday. Although the mud holes at Chomes kept me from investigating the site with my small car, the bird rich lagoons at Cocorocas, Punta Morales were accessible and always act as an excellent second option.

Sometimes, there are more birds there than Chomes, I’m not sure if that was the case on Sunday but there were certainly a lot.

Both areas of salt ponds or lagoons were populated with hundreds of waders especially Semipalmated and Wilson’s Plovers. Other birds included dozens of Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Willets, Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, many Western Sandpipers, and a scattering of other species, my best being a small group of Surfbirds. Along with that year bird, I also added Common Tern for my Costa Rica year list, and had fun scanning through the skimmers and other birds at the site. Nothing rare and the variety was lower than I had hoped for but I can’t really complain about watching hundreds of shorebirds.

After two hours at Morales, birds began to fly back out to the Gulf as mud flats were exposed by the retreating tide. I took that cue to likewise move on to better birding grounds, and based on its proximity to Morales, took the turn off on the highway to Ensenada.

 

Ensenada is a private refuge that also has salt pans that can be great for shorebirds. Unfortunately, I never found out what was using them on Sunday because the gate was closed and locked. At least the road in was a nice, birdy drive. Despite a few pot holes here and there, the gravel way was good, nearly free of other vehicles, and passed through a matrix of fields, second growth, Teak farms, and older tropical dry forest in riparian zones. A few stops here and there turned up expected species like Long-tailed Manakin, different flycatchers, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Banded Wrens, Blue Grosbeak, and other common birds of the dry northwest.

A pair of requisite Double-striped Thick-Knees was also a treat.

Fly-over Hook-billed Kite was also cool.

 

I would love to bird that road at dawn to see what else is out there and check it at night to see if I can finally add Northern Potoo to my country list. That one is seriously overdue.

Since Ensenada was inaccessible, I eased on down the road towards yet another set of salt pans at a placed called, “Colorado”. That drive wasn’t as nice as the one in to Ensenada and the last bit in to Colorado was also made inaccessible by virtue of muddy conditions but from what I could see, there didn’t appear to be many birds there anyways. I did luck out though, with another hoped for year bird, the uncommon Spot-breasted Oriole. I had stopped in a place with several big trees and right on cue, a pair of the orioles were singing. They eventually came through the canopy overhead but ignored me and just kept on going, perhaps in search of flowering trees.

Although the orioles didn’t pause long enough for a good picture, this Yellow-naped Parrot was a good sport.

After the oriole incident, I had to choose between checking the estuary at Tarcoles or getting in a bit of sea watching at Puntarenas. A tough call but eventually I settled on the port. Although the sea was choppy and it looked good for finding some wayward sweet addition to the year list, I didn’t see much more than an Elegant Tern or two. That was alright because you never know what’s there unless you try and it was still a gift to see a few terns and catch glimpses of dolphins out in the Gulf as a cool breeze came off the water.

I wouldhave made one more stop but by that time, the rains had started up again, so I drove on home to enjoy a fresh cup of afternoon coffee while the cloud’s release soaked the backyard.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

Good Birding at Santa Rosa National Park

Costa Rica boasts several types of forest habitats and we birders rejoice in this multi-ecosystem situation. The nation-wide mosaic of rainforest, cloud forest, temperate forest, dry forest, and other microhabitats is partly why we have such a plethora of bird species in such a small area. Walk a trail through dripping cloud forests at Monteverde one day and you can catch up with highland endemics like the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Ruddy Treerunner, and Prong-billed Barbet. Drive down to the Pacific lowlands the next day and those species are replaced by Plain-capped Starthroat, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and other avian reps of the tropical dry forest.

The Plain-capped Starthroat is indeed quite plain.

The Pacific dry forests of Middle America have been chopped, changed, and over-grazed for centuries. Since it’s easier for people to transform such areas into semi-open habitats typically preferred by the savannah-evolved Homo sapiens, large areas of intact dry forests are rare throughout the globe. As for the forests that naturally occur from western Mexico south to Costa Rica (and at least one area of Panama), birding intact, mature, tropical dry forest has become an anomaly. On the bright side of the bio coin, it seems that most of the birds and many other animals of this biome persist and adapt to fragmented habitats. That said, I can’t help but wonder how well the plants are faring, and if we lost some insects and other species (maybe even birds) long before they could be catalogued.

To see the birds that still frequent the seasonally dry habitats of Costa Rica (there are quite a few), you can get a good sampling of them in patchy habitats from around the Tarcoles area north to Nicaragua. However, if you want to get the whole birding shebang of dry forest species, your best bets occur in the largest areas of dry forest (who would have guessed?). These can be found in parts of the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the Palo Verde, Guanacaste, and Santa Rosa National Parks. As serendipity has it, the easiest one to access is Santa Rosa, and this park is probably also the best site in Costa Rica for dry forest bird species.

The Casona at Santa Rosa National Park.

Located around 30 kilometers north of Liberia, the park has a good, paved 10 kilometer road that connects the highway with the park HQ at the Casona monument and museum. Although it doesn’t officially open until 8 in the morning (typical for most national parks), since the main office is at the Casona, I suspect that one could bird the entrance road much earlier. Although my most recent visit was a short, family oriented one, I still had really good birding even during the middle of the day. See my eBird list from the Casona. Some thoughts and ideas:

Good for ground birds

Forested, protected areas in Costa Rica are often good for terrestrial birds and Santa Rosa is no exception. Unlike many other parts of their Costa Rican range, Thicket Tinamous are not as shy and much easier to see. Patience in the face of mosquitoes is still very much required but if you can hang in there, you stand a good chance of seeing a tinamou with red legs. Two other choice ground species, Great Curassow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, are also fairly common.

There is a Thicket Tinamou in this picture albeit a much more shy one from the Playa Hermosa area.

Watch from the Casona overlook

I admit, I was hesitant to walk up the steps in the hot lowland climate but the reward was definitely worth it. But, based on my brief, avian rich experience, the next time I visit, I might run up the stairs like Rocky. I hope to go back some day and watch from the overlook for a few hours in the morning, and then again in the later afternoon because the birding there rocks! The hill overlooks a large area of the national park and is one of the closest things I have seen to a canopy tower in Costa Rica. During my recent short watch, I heard one or two Elegant Trogons and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper among various other expected species, saw a Mangrove Cuckoo creeping through a nearby tree, magpie-jays, and other species. Although I didn’t notice any raptors, it should surely be good for that too!

Bird the universal trail

Although the birding is likely similar on the few roads through the park, this trail is accessed from the Casona area, and makes an easy loop on a cement walkway through nice dry forest. Expect Banded Wrens, Elegant and Black-headed Trogons, maybe a Thicket Tinamou, and several other species. The “good” lighting will also be welcomed by birders who have been trying to snap pictures in the much less sensor-friendly rainforest understory.

Focus on the evergreen forest remnant

Located about halfway in on the entrance road, this area is an evergreen spot with tall trees and is marked by a sign that refers to it as a rare remnant of mature tropical dry forest. It definitely looks older and more complex than the surrounding forest, and since it’s a riparian zone, it also hosts more birds. During a five minute stop, although I didn’t hear or see any hoped for camera friendly Thicket Tinamous, it was a treat to listen to the songs of Long-tailed Manakins, Banded Wrens, and Cabanis’s Wrens, see a Royal Flycatcher, and espy a migrating Eastern Kingbird perched in the canopy. Although there are more mosquitoes, there are also more birds, and it’s worth it to spend a good amount of time at this site.

Royal Flycatchers are always nice to see.

The sign.

Since Santa Rosa is connected to evergreen forests at higher elevations, it can also attract some unexpected species. Some years ago, at least one ornithologist may have seen a Crested Eagle! He suspected that the bird may have migrated there from the rainforests in the Guanacaste mountains to take advantage of monkeys and other prey items. It’s worth it to fit Santa Rosa into your itinerary, you are going to like it!

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dry forest Pacific slope

A Few Tips for Dry Forest Birding in Costa Rica

Different major habitats are one of the main reasons why we have so many bird species in Costa Rica, especially the rainy places. More water translates to higher numbers and varieties of life forms, birds included. But, if you tire of humid, energy sucking and optic challenging conditions, you can always retreat to the hot, dry northwest. Although the Central Valley also sort of falls into the Pacific dry forest bio-region, the habitat is much better down in the lowlands.

The beautiful Blue Grosbeak is fairly common.

In Costa Rica, the dry forest region is on the Pacific slope and extends from around Tarcoles north to Nicaragua. Much of it has been converted to farms with open areas for cattle, and crops, rice and melons predominating in the flood plains. However, despite natural forest being limited to riparian zones and protected areas, there are still plenty of interesting birds to see in lots of places. If you find yourself birding anywhere in the dry zone, try these tips to see more stuff:

Early does it: Yeah, that pretty much goes for seeing more birds in most places but getting out bright and early is doctrine in places with tropical dry forest. The difference between activity in the early morning and a few hours later is like a disappearing magic act. The motmots, flycatchers, and everything else were all there and singing, and now they aren’t. Where did they go? What are they doing? Good questions but suffice to say, after 8:30, they don’t feel like being seen. Take a siesta or relax by the pool (or in it) when our feathered targets are probably doing the same.

Water: Speaking of pools, as with other xeric situations, water tends to be a magnet. Focus on the riparian zones and even small bits of shaded water to see more birds. The good thing about such green spots is they can concentrate the birds, especially during the dry season (also when most birders visit). Check for Crane Hawk, Collared Forest-Falcon, Royal Flycatcher, American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Kingfisher, Painted Bunting, Banded Wren, and lots of other dry forest species.

Streaked Flycatcher will probably also show up.

Wetlands: Ironically, the dry forest zone also has some great wetland habitats. The best are in the flood plains of the Tempisque and Bebedero Rivers and include such sites as Palo Verde, Rancho Humo, and other places with marshy areas. Flooded rice fields can also work out, especially the ones on the road to Playa Hermosa and on the way in to Palo Verde. They don’t have as many birds as more natural and less chemically affected habitats but they are still always worth a look. Among the widespread aquatic species, you might also find wintering shorebirds, and, with luck, various rail species. These are also good places to look for seedeaters, Tricolored Munia, Snail Kite, and interesting wintering species.

Places like this are good ones to check.

What about the wind?: It’s often windy out there in the northwest. Just as the birds do, find sheltered spots for birding. Fortunately, this tends to coincide with riparian zones and that’s where more birds are anyways.

Tennessee Warblers: Expect to see a lot of these little boreal Phylloscop wannabes on survival vacation. Yesterday, I saw a bunch of birds fly up from a road in dry forest. I figured they would be Indigo Buntings but nope, they were a bunch of masquerading Tennessees! Pish to see how many come in but keep checking to see if you can tease out a rare vagrant like a Northern Parula, Nashville, or Orange-crowned Warbler. I know, not so exciting for birders from Ontario or Ohio but since these are megas down this way, please do report any you find (I know I want them for my year list)!

Check the swallows: Fast flying aerialists are easy to overlook when we got motmots and parrots in the neighborhood but keep checking and you might turn up rare species for Costa Rica like Violet-green, Tree, and Cave Swallows. All of these tend to occur more often in the dry northwest and are good finds for Costa Rica! For example, I was very pleased to see a Tree Swallow yesterday at Punta Morales. For a moment, I thought I was also going to tick Cave Swallow for the year but it turned out to be a Southern Rough-winged in bright lighting. Even if you don’t turn up a rarity, it’s always good practice to scan through hundreds of Barn Swallows.

Expect a lot of Barn Swallows.

Get into some good dry forest: Although a lot of birds can be seen outside of protected areas, if you also want to see Thicket Tinamou, Stub-tailed Spadebill, woodcreepers, and more birds overall, you need to spend some time in real dry forest and not pasture punctuated with trees. Some of the best dry forest sites are Santa Rosa, Palo Verde, and Guanacaste National Parks, Lomas Barbudal, and quite a few forested areas on the Nicoya Peninsula.

For a lot more information on finding birds in Costa Rica as well as how to look for and identify them, help out this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book.

After payment is made, I will transfer it to you.

Good birding, hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

A Taste of Guanacaste

Last week, Costa Rica celebrated the country’s Independence Day with parades, speeches, and fireworks. As part of those festivities, my wife and daughter also had a few days off from school. We took advantage of that extra bit of free time with a trip to Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste, something that was more than OK with me because this area also acts as an excellent base for Guanacaste birding.

With rice fields that act as wetland habitats, dry forest, and scrubby fields all within easy reach, I had plenty of bird opportunities to keep me busy, especially because our trip coincided with major shorebird migration. Speaking of shorebirds, my first stop on the way there was the wader hotspot of Punta Morales.

This area of salt ponds next to mangroves is always a worthwhile place to scope at high tide and Thursday was no exception. Hundreds of the expected species were there and although I didn’t manage to eek any crazy stints or other rarities out of the mix, it’s always a fine day when you can pick up a year bird (Surfbird this time) while looking over Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalaropes, yellowlegs, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers.

punta-morales

Punta Morales at high tide.

A few dry forest species also made appearances before I got back into the car and drove off, as always, wondering if I had checked over each bird well enough, and if there was a Curlew Sandpiper or some other “great bird” sleeping out of sight on the other side of a muddy berm. What flew in after I left? What showed up later that day? It’s a real shame that we don’t have constant monitoring going on there and at the other main shorebird site, Chomes.

Further north I drove, and the driving became unexpectedly wonderful where the new highway began at Canas. That section of road from there up past Liberia is now a fine, concrete four-laned highway. Enjoy the ride!

Over at Playa Hermosa, I focused on the rice fields and woodlands on the stretch of road between there and the turn-off to Papagayo. In other words, this is the route to Hermosa that does not go near Playas del Coco. Since this area has turned up serious stuff like Aplomado Falcon and Upland and Baird’s Sandpipers in the past, and seems like a good place for other really good birds to show up, it’s always worth a close, thorough check. Try as I did to wish an A. Falcon or lost Vermilion Flycatcher into existence, no major luck there, but, I was pretty pleased to get looks at the pair of Jabirus that often frequent the site.

jabiru

These birds come and go, it’s worth it to just keep checking.

Despite what appears to be heavy application of poison (aka pesticides), the rice fields also look like fine hiding places for Spotted Rails and other secretive marsh birds. I certainly played Spotted Rail calls here and there but got nothing in response. Well, I should say nothing definitive because I did hear an unknown rattling call that may have been a response. It never called again but since it sounded like a similar call I heard in the wetlands of Medio Queso under similar circumstances, I can’t help but wonder if that was THE BIRD. However, just like Medio Queso, this one never called again despite playing various calls of Spotted Rail (none of which match the sounds I heard by the way), and intently staring at marsh grass.

Other nice birdies included Limpkin, Harris’s Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Roseate Spoonbill, various herons and egrets, flyover Dickcissels, and close looks at Plain-breasted Ground-Doves.

plain-breasted-ground-dove

This is a very reliable area in Costa Rica for this tiny dove species.

In the patchy forested areas near the entrance to Finca Trancas and on the way to Playa Hermosa, I had fun making early morning recordings of Thicket Tinamou, Yellow-naped Parrots, Banded Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, Olive Sparrow, Blue Grosbeaks, and other expected species. The tinamou stayed out of sight and was only in the forested riparian zone on the way to Playa Hermosa, and I only had a handful of the parrots. I had a few small groups of Orange-fronted Parakeets as well but, oddly, no White-fronted Parrots, usually the most common Psittacine in Guanacaste.

yellow-naped-parrot

Always nice to see the threatened Yellow-naped Amazon.

A dawn chorus along that road:

Back over in the rice growing area, I was mostly looking for shorebird habitat. A few waders perched on the muddy berms out in the rice but the best spot was a muddy field and marshy area along a road on the southern end of the fields.

This harbored some Stilt and Solitary Sandpipers, dowitchers, and a few other shorebirds, best being an American Golden-Plover. Herons, egrets, and Blue-winged Teal were also out there as well as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds. We both wondered what else might be hiding out there in the big expanse of marshy grass. I was hoping for a Baird’s or early snipe but no luck this time.

muddy-field

Fine, muddy field habitat.

I also checked some fields over by Filadelfia and the catfish ponds but had few birds, couldn’t enter the ponds area, and the “ponds” looked pretty dry anyways. At the end of the trip, I was pleased to leave with 5 year birds, and some nice images and recordings. If you head up that way, enjoy the easy-going roadside birding and keep an eye out for anything unusual!

Some eBird lists from this trip:

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31622656

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31622609

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31607058

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31607132

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

Some Species to Look for in the Southern Nicoya Peninsula

Look at a map of Costa Rica and you might notice this big peninsula up in the northwest. That protruding piece of land is the Nicoya Peninsula, and despite its prominence, does NOT usually make it onto the itineraries of visiting birders. It’s just a bit too far off track from itineraries with limited time, and doesn’t offer as many new species as one might hope. Not to mention, getting there requires some big detour, right?
Well, some of the above is true and some not so true. While the peninsula is off of the regular birding track for most tours, it’s not really that far from the regular routes, at least if you take the ferry. Head to Puntarenas and get on the ferry and you also have a chance at a few pelagics. As I have mentioned in other posts, you never know what might show up and you can’t chase birds, but you usually see something different. During a ferry trip last week, although we didn’t see too much out of the ordinary, we still managed looks at several Least Storm-Petrels, some nice feeding flocks of Black Terns, and some juvenile Peregrine hunting action as it dove on a hapless Black Tern.

After an hour and a half of looking for birds from the boat, you can start birding the Nicoya Peninsula as soon as you you arrive. There’s a fair amount of dry forest habitat right near Paquera and further afield, much of which can be birded from the road. The only catch is the dust during the dry season (most of the time), and the very diminished activity between 9 and 3:30. At least the morning and late afternoon can be good, especially the morning. Some species are also more common in the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula than elsewhere including these:

Great Black-Hawk: I have to admit that I did not expect this one. We had an adult in mangroves in the Rio Gigantes area, and hopefully, it occurs in other parts of the southern Nicoya Peninsula because this species has become pretty rare in most parts of the country.

Double-striped Thick-Knee: If you need this one, you can probably expect it here. It seems to be pretty common in open fields.

Mangrove Cuckoo: Might only occur during the winter months but seems regular in both mangrove and dry forest habitats.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Ok, so most birders don’t have to go far for this one but I mention it because it was very common in the southern Nicoya. By far the most common hummingbird species.

Elegant Trogon: If you saw that one in Arizona, you might want to see this one too because its a fair possibility for a split. It seemed to be fairly common, even from the road.Gartered and Black-headed Trogons were also fairly common.

White-necked Puffbird: Last weekend, since we had five in one morning followed by another at the end of the day, it seems that the southern Nicoya is pretty darn good for this kookaburra looking thing. We had it in the canopy of the forest and they were pretty easy to see.

Yellow-naped Parrot: We had good looks at more than one, especially in the Rio Gigantes area.

Barred Antshrike: Yes, widespread, but seemed to be very common in this area.

Ivory-billed Woodcreeper: A big, uncommon woodcreeper in Costa Rica, it lives in more forested areas of the southern Nicoya.

Myiarchus flycatchers: These were especially common and we had four species, only missing Panama Flycatcher. Based on observations, the forests of the southern Nicoya seem to be important for Great-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers. Both were among the more common bird species in the area of Rio Gigantes.

Royal Flycatcher: This one shows up in riparian zones (as expected).

Long-tailed Manakin: This is a pretty common species in Nicoya, especially at fruiting trees.

White-throated Magpie-Jay: Last but far from least, this big fancy Corvid is the most obvious bird in the area. Possibly more common in Nicoya than anywhere else in Costa Rica.

Although we did not see Plain Chachalaca, nor Gray-headed Dove and Violaceous Quail-Dove, wetter parts of the southern peninsula could be good for them. We did much of our birding in the Rio Gigantes and I am sure, saw more bird species because of the efforts by Luis Daniel Gonzalez and his wife Alejandra to protect and conserve their land with organic, sustainable practices. Learn more about their sustainable project and vision at the site for the Rio Gigante Community.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest

An Early Update for Birding Costa Rica around Chomes

For a while, I have been wanting to visit Catarata del Toro for a full day of birding. I have wanted to go there because it seems like the closest chance to get into middle elevation forest that hosts Black-breasted Wood-Quail, Azure-hooded Jay, Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner, Tawny-throated Leaftosser, and chances at various other cloud forest goodies. The mentioned species are especially important because we need images of them for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app and the Panama Birds Field Guide app. Those birds also live closer to home but in much less accessible areas of Braulio Carrillo, or on the other side of the urbanized Central Valley at Tapanti. Not to mention, there has been little birding on the trails at Catarata and I suspect that it could host some surprises. As I write, I have yet to reconnoiter the site because one cold front after another has postponed the trip. When a cold front happens in Costa Rica, it’s not exactly cold (although locals might feel different about the slightly cooler temperatures). Instead, we get an abundance of rain and wind, especially in the mountains and on the Caribbean slope- basically right where Catarata is situated.

At least you can still see Black-bellied Hummingbird and other hummingbird action in the rain.

This is why I did not go there this past weekend but opted for a drive down to Chomes instead. Although I need fewer images of birds from the Pacific coast, a visit to this hotspot is always worthwhile because you really never know what you are going to see. I was reminded of this yesterday when an image of a White Tern was posted on the AOCR Bird Alarm from the other side of the Nicoya peninsula. When I saw it, I nearly fell out of my seat because a sighting in Costa Rica of this fairy-like bird usually requires a long, pelagic trip to Cocos Island. Needless to say, to see one from land would be a serious avian lottery win. I didn’t have the lifer winning ticket at Chomes but really, that bird could have just as well appeared later the same day or have been visible from the ferry, and it’s probably not the only major rarity down that way either!

So, in addition to keeping an eye out for any unusual, mega vagrants, here is some information when visiting Chomes and nearby during birding season, 2016:

  • Stick to high tide: This really is a must. I checked out Punta Morales that same day during low tide and saw maybe three waterbirds. Compare that to hundreds of shorebirds and terns often there during high tide and you get the picture.

    If there during high tide at least you can still see Mangrove Yellow Warbler.

    Common Black Hawk is regular as well.
  • Punta Morales: Speaking of this site, this is always worth a visit when birding around Chomes. To check the salt ponds, take the road to Punta Morales from the highway shortly after the turn off for Chomes, drive on in for several kilometers, and watch for the bar-restaurant El Huevo on the left. Take the next left, just before a bus stop and head on in until you see the ponds.

    The scrubby vegetation also hosts White-lored Gnatcatcher and some other dry forest species.
  • Cave Swallows have been seen: I doubt these will be around in a month or two but they have been reported from Chomes and other nearby areas in recent weeks. I also had several around there last January.
  • Chomes might be dry: It’s hard to make any predictions about water levels as Chomes but last weekend, it was much drier than I expected. The dry conditions seem to keep the Mangrove Rails out of reach, and doesn’t provide as much habitat for shorebirds. The only pond that had any water was the last one, near the beach. This did have some birds and probably hosted a lot more during high tide. Although we can’t expect any rain for Chomes any time soon, I suppose that tidal surges could fill the ponds near the beach.

    This pond is usually filled with water.
  • Bird the beach: What I really mean to say is scan the gulf from the beach. This is where the birds go during low tide and although they aren’t as concentrated and are further away, I still managed to identify American Oystercatcher, Black Skimmer, Marbled Godwit, and some other cool year birds.
  • American Avocet and Long-billed Curlew: If these birds interest you, once again, at least one avocet is present and there are probably three curlews around.

As usual, bring plenty of water, slather on the sunscreen, and make sure that the vehicle is in good working order because you don’t want to be stranded in that outdoor oven!

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Introduction Pacific slope

Where to See Birds in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

When I started planning my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I followed the same routine as every birder did before taking a trip to a place overflowing with potential lifers. Since we didn’t have the same crazy amount of Internet-based information available nowadays, trips were based on conversations, information derived from the the latest guide book, whatever bird finding book was available, and any trip reports we could get our hands on.

Aside from showing pictures of the birds waiting to be seen in Costa Rica, the Stiles and Skutch guide also provided the other most important information for planning a trip, that of biogeographical regions and the places with the best habitat. While looking through the book, I quickly realized that some birds were only found in dry areas in the northwestern part of the country. With that in mind, I planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park to look for those dry forest specialties. Given its size, the fact that one could camp there, intact habitat, and access by public bus (at least to the entrance road), it seemed like my only and best option for Yellow-naped Parrrot, White-throated Magpie Jay, Banded Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, and all of those other dry forest species that couldn’t be seen in cloud forest or in the wet rainforests on the other side of the mountains.

As it turn out, Rufous-capped Warbler can be seen in lots of places.

The trip to Santa Rosa was a memorable success highlighted by Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Elegant Trogon, expected parrots and parakeets, Thicket Tinamou, and lots of other birds. The long, hot hike to the campground was worth it (I think it was) but I didn’t know then that  there were other options for dry forest species. In fact, there’s lots of options for dry forest birds in Costa Rica. Some show up in the Central Valley and most can be seen from around Chomes north to the border with Nicaragua (with a fair number occurring south to Tarcoles).

Yellow-naped Parrots are uncommon and declining but still seen at various sites in Guanacaste south to Tarcoles.

Open fields  with scattered trees are the most common habitat in Guanacaste and are pretty reliable for everything from magpie jays to Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon and White-lored Gnatcatcher.

Black-headed Trogons don't really have crests. This one is fighting the wind.

Nonetheless, the best birding is usually around the more forested riparian zones that have the birds listed above plus Little Tinamou, Long-tailed Manakin, Banded Wren, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow, and lots of other birds including chances at Collared Forest Falcon and maybe a Crane Hawk.

Laughing Falcons are also regular.

If you can make it to Santa Rosa or any area of protected dry forest, chances are much better for Cracids, Thicket Tinamou, and mammals but if you can’t fit that in to the itinerary, don’t fret because there are still have plenty of options to check out the blues on a Turquoise-browed Motmot, study a Roadside Hawk in flight, and tick a thick-knee. Get out early for roadside birding at such sites as the road to Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road in front of Cerro Lodge, the lower slopes of Rincon de la Vieja, areas near Playa Hermosa, Playas del Coco, and other beaches, and you have a chance at seeing most of the dry forest species. Mid-day is of course slow but early morning and late afternoons are always birdy in any wooded area or riparian zone in Guanacaste, including any wooded areas at or near your hotel.

Spend more than a day in the northwest and expect to see White-throated Magpie Jay.

Not to mention, wetland sites such as Chomes, Punta Morales, Palo Verde, and any other wetlands are usually just as good for smaller birds as they are for aquatic species.

A typical Chomes binocular view.

Jabiru (neotropical waterbird royalty) also occurs in some Guanacaste wetlands.

I guess I should also mention that since you can probably clean up on Guanacaste birds in a few days, you shouldn’t need more time than a week. Another possibility is basing yourself in the northwest and doing day trips to Heliconias, Cano Negro, Rincon de la Vieja, and Carara. Do that and you put yourself in range of 600 or species.