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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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Birding Costa Rica Guanacaste

Shorebirds, Dickcissels, and a Missing Aplomado Falcon

In the northern hemisphere, September takes on several meanings. For kids and parents, it’s new shoes, a clear plastic protractor (at least it used to be), notebooks, and other school supplies. For millions of people in the USA, it means that Monday nights will once again be dedicated to football. For the birder, it also means migration.

Millions of wood-warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and shorebirds are on the move. While we watch football, YouTube, or sleep, they race through the night on their way to wintering sites where the summer never ends. Go birding on the right morning and you might see hundreds of migrant birds. If you live in the right place, you might even see them in your backyard. It’s also important to go birding because accompanying those thousands of common and expected birds, are a few species that should be elsewhere. At this time of year, somewhere in the northeast, there are always a few Black-throated Gray -Warblers, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and other species of the west whether birders find them or not.

In Costa Rica, it’s a similar situation, and two weeks ago, the chance at seeing one of the those rare vagrants was enough to send me on a four hour drive to the northwest. The bird in question was an Aplomado Falcon, I have seen them elsewhere but laying eyes on one in Costa Rica would be a seriously sweet tick for my country list. The bird had been seen at the same site for at least two weeks, there was nothing keeping me at home, and my friend Johan Kuilder was up for the trip. So, instead of some birding closer to home, off we went at 5:30 a.m. for the hot, windy dry lands of Guanacaste.

A windswept rice field in Guanacaste.

The destination was the rice fields on the road to Playa Panama but there were other birds to look for en route, especially because we would be passing near the best shorebird sites in the country during high tide.

With that in mind, we figured that a quick check of the Cocororas salt ponds would be worth it. The only “problem” was too many birds for a quick check!

We just had to check through a few hundred Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers

It was hard to stop looking at flocks of Wilson's Phalaropes.

A Long-billed Curlew lounged by itself on a mud flat while Marbled Godwits mingled with Black-bellied Plovers, Red Knots, Surfbirds, and other more common shorebirds.

Although we didn’t turn up any rarities, Johan got a lifer, I got a couple of year birds, and it’s always fun to hang out with the shorebirds. Shortly after, we were back on the highway and heading north towards a hoped for rendezvous with an adventurous falcon. On the way, we made another stop, this time at a turf farm! Every birder in the know knows that a turf farm in fall is always an opportunity for excitement. In Costa Rica, it’s the same situatation and we were hoping for the same exciting birds. However, although the conditions looked perfect, we didn’t see any golden-plovers or grasspipers. At least Pectoral Sandpiper made it onto the year list though, and it was interesting to see  several Collared Plovers in the grass.

We also saw a dancing Crested Caracara, Southern Lapwings, and some other birds.

After that, we made a bee-line to our destination, the Finca Trancas, or rice fields on the road to Playa Panama. Getting there was easy enough, and there are plenty of places to look but we did not find the falcon. Either it was doing some serious hiding, or it had left the building because I scoped every tree, hedgerow, and the ground in search of that bird. Since others also checked that site that day and came up zero for the falcon, I think we were two days late. Hopefully, it will show up again there, at Palo Verde, or maybe even Chomes (according to eBird, a juvenile was also seen on that date in 2010).

Despite the missing Aplomado Falcon, all was not lost because there were plenty of other interesting birds to see while searching for the raptor. Back along a vegetated canal, we were entertained by hundreds of Dickcissels. Flock after flock of these mid-western migrants moved along the canal in nervous flocks, a few birds calling the whole time. There were at least a thousand that fed in a tall, grassy field next to the canal!

A few of the Dickcissels.

Bank and Cliff Swallows foraged over the open fields and a Zone-tailed Hawk made an appearance. On the other side of the main road, we found a small group of Solitary Sandpipers, herons, and, best of all, two Jabirus in flight!

Jabirus! This site is often good for the king neotropical stork.

We had great looks at Solitary Sandpiper.

Scanning the fields failed to turn up grasspipers or other interesting birds but we did see a Harriss’s Hawk soar overhead, saw a juvenile White-tailed Hawk, and had nice looks at Tricolored Munias.

Tricolored Munias.

After a quick stop at the nearby catfish ponds (mostly dry and a locked gate) and the German Bakery (good stuff), it was time to head back home. We arrived by 5 p.m. and although we missed the falcon, we realized how feasible it was to do a short day trip to that area and see some really cool birds at the same time.

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Birding Costa Rica in Chomes

Chomes, Costa Rica is this end of the road village on the Gulf of Nicoya. There is a sign for it on the Pan-American highway, but your average tourist just zooms on by as if the place never existed. I don’t know what the guide books say about Chomes but if the place is even mentioned at all, it’s surely something along the lines of, “nothing of interest there” or “don’t bother with Chomes”. If you didn’t watch birds, they would be right. A friend of mine and I went to Chomes on Saturday and we didn’t see any restaurants, hotels, or anything remotely related to tourism for that matter. That was Ok with us, though, because we weren’t visiting good old Chomes to stroll the dusty streets, watch a community soccer game, or learn how to pick pineapples. We were there for a much better reason and it was called, “shorebirds”.

Chomes is pretty much the shorebird capital of Costa Rica. As those long distance, long-legged migrants fly south, they stop off in the food-rich estuarine habitats of the Gulf of Nicoya. A lot also stay for the winter but even more pass through during the fall trifecta of August, September, and October. They use mudflats and mangroves all around the gulf but so many of those are inaccessible. Since few birders make it to hotspots that can be scanned with a spotting scope, I wonder how many rarities get missed.

We didn’t connect with any super rare birds at Chomes on Saturday but since we also couldn’t check the entire place, there could have easily been something like a Long-billed Curlew, phalaropes, jaegers, boobies, or much rarer birds among the maze of mangroves and shrimp ponds. Before the place was divied up to cultivate shrimp, it was probably a much more productive area of mangrove forests and natural mud flats. Nevertheless, a heck of a lot of birds still use the temporary mud flats that form in the shrimp ponds and you can drive along most of the dikes that criss-cross the area. Birding from the car in hot and shadeless wetlands reminded me of wildlife refuges up north and I half expected to see brown signs that depicted a flying goose. However, the total and utter lack of signage combined with the calls of Orange-fronted Parakeets and Groove-billed Anis reminded me that I was still in Costa Rica.

But before I talk any further about the wonderful, blazing hot shrimp ponds at Chomes, let me tell you about the birding on the way in. After leaving the highway, the road to Chomes goes for 9 kilometers through patches of dry forest, pasture, at least one old growth riparian zone, some wet fields, and way too many acres of bird-bereft pineapples. In case you didn’t know, do not buy pineapples from Costa Rica if you want to protect bird habitat! Lots of chemicals are used, they cover massive areas, and you would be lucky to find even one Tropical Kingbird. There should be laws that restrict the amount of land dedicated to farming pineapples and the chemicals used on them because it’s an incredibly unsustainable way to misuse invaluable natural resources.

Away from the pineapple fields, the birding was pretty good (surprise surprise)! With our hearts set on shorebirds and shrimp ponds, we only made a few stops in the dry habitats along the way but were immediately impressed by a Crane Hawk doing its usual floppy foraging act, flybys of Orange-fronted and Orange-chinned Parakeets, and calling White-fronted and Yellow-naped Parrots. On another conservation note, Yellow-naped Parrots have become rather uncommon due to the cage bird trade. You can still see them in a lot of areas of Costa Rica, but we need to do more to protect nesting sites and educate people that keeping birds in cages is cruel and just plain wrong.

Other species near the Crane Hawk included White-lored Gnatcatchers, hordes of Yellow Warblers, one Red-eyed Vireo, a few Eastern Wood Pewees, Streak-headed Woodcreeper, Blue Grosbeak, White-collared Seedeaters, Scrub Euphonia, Groove-billed Anis, a bunch of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Gray Hawk, White-winged, Inca, and Common Ground-Doves, Violaceous (Gartered Trogon), Turquoise-browed Motmot, Hoffmann’s and Lineated Woodpeckers, and Rufous-naped Wren. All of these are a typical litany of birds that you run into when birding Costa Rica’ Pacific northwest and I’m sure we would have seen more had we started birding at dawn and concentrated our efforts in the riparian zones.

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The road to Chomes.Here is what it sounded like: chomes road medley1.

Just before we reached Chomes, a field with tall grass and a hidden wetland yielded a dozen Double-striped Thick-Knees and a bunch of Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and egrets. We wouldn’t have known about the wetland had we not seen the heads of the tall wading birds at the far end of the field. It was a shame that we couldn’t get closer to the wet area because it looked like perfect habitat for Pinnated Bittern- a potential lifer. I bet there was one or two out there in the tall, wet grass but my lifer P. Bitty will have to wait for a day with better visibility.

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One of 12 Double-striped Thick-Knees near Chomes.

Looking forward to shorebirds, we drove with determination through the dusty streets of Chomes and after 4 blocks, came to a halt at the end of town. Where were the shrimp ponds? Why don’t they have a sign that shows a proud Marbled Godwit standing next to a smiling, claw-waving crustacean? If everyone was a birder, we would see so many cool avian-themed signs. There would be an annual laying of wreaths at monuments to the Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Paroquet. We would see top ten hits of songs that paid homage to Nightingales, Northern Cardinals, and pratincoles, and poems and jokes about birds would grace greeting cards throughout the world.

“Your eyelashes are more beautiful than a Rhea’s, your voice more lovely than the caroling of a Hermit Thrush. Be My Valentine!”

“Macaws and albatrosses still look great at 65 and so do you. Happy Birthday!”

“If heaven exists, she is watching a flock of Pink-headed Ducks as a parade of Great Auks and Moas march through the streets. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.”

But alas, crowds of New Yorkers aren’t exactly pulling out binoculars from briefcases to scan the sky for peregrines and residents of Chomes don’t hang out at the shrimp farms to count shorebirds. They are, however, aware of birders, friendly, and told us how to get to the shrimp ponds. When you get to what appears to be the last block in town (there aren’t that many), go left until you see an obvious gate with a blue archway. Ask for permission to enter and say that you would like to watch birds (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, you could say, “Podemos entrar para ver aves?”).

Someone should let you in and may also tell you that the main road to the beach is impassable. This was true on Saturday and so we could only check out a few of the ponds but we still saw a bunch of cool birds. Black-necked Stilts were the most common shorebird.

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Black-necked Stilt. My camera really hates to focus on this skinny bird.

There were also quite a few Short-billed Dowitchers, plenty of yelping Willets, and lots of Whimbrels. Hundreds of Black and Least Terns also entertained us by flying around and calling but we had to walk to the last shrimp pond on the right to hit the shorebird mother lode.

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A glimpse of the Chomes shorebird mother lode.

That wonderful mud flat was pretty much crawling with shorebirds. A group of orangey Marbled Godwits held court in the middle with a bunch of Willets, Whimbrels, Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers, Royal, Sandwich, and Gull-billed Terns, two Elegant Terns, and one Black Skimmer! Elsewhere on the mud flat, there were a bunch of Spotted, Least, Western, and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue, Tricolored, and Green Herons, and White Ibis. Yeah, it was pretty damn cool, especially because I picked up a few new year birds.

There might have been something else in that muddy shrimp pond but to keep from turning into dried out, wraith-birder husks, we walked back to the car for rehydration and AC. In checking out the road to the beach, we discovered that a massive water-filled hole was indeed preventing any further passage and therefore proceeded to do a 10 point turn to aim the car towards the exit.

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Heading towards the exit. Note the Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.

At the entrance (now exit), we had to wait five minutes for a friendly shrimp pond worker to unlock the gate. I don’t know how frequently people come and go at the shrimp farms so if you do go birding there, don’t stay until evening or you might spend the night in your car (or on dike with the mosquitoes for company).

I hope I make it down to Chomes at least one more time before the end of the year to pick up a rarity or two. It would be nice if I could drive to the beach but I don’t expect them to fill that huge hole anytime soon.

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Willet pretending to be a dead branch at Chomes.

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Birding Near Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

This past weekend, I got in a bit of birding around Playa Hermosa, Guanacaste. When we left the house on Friday, I had visions of augmenting my year list with everything from waders to Thicket Tinamou and Elegant Trogon. I desperately need these and other “Guanacaste” birds if I’m going to break the 600 mark by December 31st. Although I realized that I wouldn’t be able to focus on birds the entire trip, I figured that I still had a pretty good chance of picking up most targets due to the sleep-in factor. Although my wife, three year old daughter, and mother-in-law don’t watch birds as fervently as myself, they won’t get out of bed until at least 8:30 or even 9 if they don’t have to. I think they love to sleep in on weekends because they need to get up by 5 or even 4 in the morning on weekdays. Whatever reasons they have for dreaming away the early morning, this works out perfectly for me because I can start birding pre-dawn and head back just as bird activity slows down around 8:30.

I planned on checking out marshy fields for White-tailed Nightjar, picking up Pacific Screech-Owl in any wooded area, and catching the dawn chorus in areas of mixed habitats. Although I lacked “gen” on the best birding spots near Playa Hermosa, I wasn’t worried at all because the undeveloped nature of Guanacaste makes it easy to find good habitat and lots of birds. Large areas of intact dry forest are hard to come by outside of protected areas but you can still get most (if not all) of the forest species in old riparian groves.

With my foolproof plan in mind, I aimed the car towards the promised birds of Guanacaste ready and eager to clean up on target birds, get photos of things like Banded Wren and Streak-backed Oriole, and maybe even connect with migrant shorebirds. Not far from San Jose, however,  Murphy’s Law, Bad Luck, or whatever you want to call it (I also like “throwing a spanner into the works”) hit us exactly where it counts. As we left the Central Valley, my poor little Miranda suddenly threw up all over “Vaca”, her big plush cow. We figured this stemmed from over indulging on candy as Friday was the official holiday of “Dia del Nino” or “Kids Day” but when she kept throwing up, I began to suspect that she might have some virus adapted to parasitising cells of the digestive tract. Although she wasn’t feverish, by the time we arrived at the Villas Huetares in Playa Hermosa, Miranda was undoubtedly ill. My wife and mother-in-law refused to let go of their “too much candy” hypothesis but since they also believe that you can catch a cold from rainy weather, I don’t give much weight to their diagnoses. As Miranda threw up over the course of that first night at Villa Huetares, I realized that my plan was probably going to to be put on hold. If she still threw up in the morning, had a fever, or was not holding down water, I was going to bring her to the nearest hospital (mostly to keep her hydrated).

It was a fitful night but by the time the morning sun lit up the hotel courtyard, Miranda was sound asleep. I made my way onto the balcony outside our room and looked for birds. Murphy’s Law apparently has something against Streak-backed Orioles because I just couldn’t get a good picture of them but I at least managed some Ok shots of Inca Dove,

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Stripe-headed Sparrow, and

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Groove-billed Ani.

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Other birds around the hotel included flybys of Orange-fronted Parakeets and one pair of Yellow-naped Parrots, Yellow Warblers, TKs, Social and Boat-billed Flys, Great Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, lots of White-winged Doves, Cinnamon Hummingbird, and Turquoise-browed Motmot. These are all par for the course in Guanacaste but were nice to see anyways.

When Miranda awoke, she wasn’t her usual jolly, mischievous self but she was certainly looking better. Much to my relief, she was also eating and drinking a bit without vomiting so it looked like we wouldn’t need to make that hospital visit after all. Over the course of that first full day, we went to the beach but it was mostly a bust for birds. Scanning the rocky shorelines didn’t reveal any Wandering Tattlers or Surfbirds and terns were 100% absent. I did pick up one year bird though; a Brown Booby that flew in and made a few dives before heading to fishier waters.

In the afternoon, I was finally able to get out and put all of my attention on the birds. I picked a route that took me towards the Tempisque River near the town of Filadelphia in the hopes of finding some birdy wetlands. While driving, I saw a flock of Yellow-naped Parrots, more groups of Orange-fronted Parakeets, Crested Carcaras, White-tailed Kite, a pair of Double-striped Thick-Knees sitting under a big tree in the middle of a very short lawn, and dozens of Blue-black Grassquits. Past Filadelphia, I realized that I had made a mistake in taking that route because the surrounding habitat consisted of sugarcane fields. Aside from an occasional roadside ditch, I didn’t come across any wetlands but got a year bird in the form of the Bank Swallows that were perched on wires and feeding above the fields. Mixed in with them were several Barn and Cliff Swallows.

As the magic hour of 4pm approached, I took the road from Filadelphia to Sardinal and realized that this was where I should have focused my efforts in the first place. The road was wide enough to pull over and bird for most of its length, and it was flanked by such habitats as scrubby fields, grasslands, a wetland or two, savannah-like habitats, and riparian growth. I couldn’t stop everywhere because I wanted to be back to the hotel by 5:30, but I still managed to get in some nice birds. The summer sounding song of White-collared Seedeaters was a constant companion, a male Blue Grosbeak that sang from a wire was pretty awesome, and I got my year Brown-crested Flycatcher. At a grassy stream, spishing brought in at least a dozen Yellow Warblers while a Green Kingfisher stared down at the water and Gray-crowned Yellowthroats sang from the fields. Rufous-backed Wrens and Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers were pretty common and White-throated Magpie-Jays made occasional appearances. There were also a lot of Inca, Common-Ground, and Ruddy-Ground Doves but I couldn’t turn any of them into much wanted Plain-breasted Ground-Dove.

I had hoped to hit that area the following morning or bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia but that plan was abandoned when I became afflicted with the same illness that had besieged my daughter. My suspicions of stomach flu were confirmed as I unwillingly emptied my gut throughout the night. The following morning was spent resting up and sipping water with a splash of Gatorade so I could drive back up to the San Jose area. As me and Miranda watched kids television shows in the cool, dark room of the hotel, I just felt relieved that we never had to go to the hospital. Even if I didn’t see or hear all my target birds, we found a great place to stay and will probably visit again before the end of 2011. Next time we visit, I will probably focus more on the road between Playa Panama and Playa Hermosa as there were several places to pull off and bird, the traffic is pretty light, and it passes through scrubby mangroves, forest, savannah, sugarcane, and some rice fields that could attract wetland species.

On a side note, if you are headed to Guanacaste, there are plenty of options for accommodations. In addition to all inclusive resorts, there are also lots of smaller, very nice hotels, equipped villas, bed and breakfasts, and cheaper, backpacker options (including camping). Villas Huetares turned out to be the perfect choice for us and we hope to head back sometime soon. During the off-season, they charge $90 per night for a villa equipped with two large rooms with two beds each. The kitchen had a refrigerator, gas stove, sink, and a cupboard with pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, etc. There were also two pools, one of which is for kids, and the place is just 200 meters from the beach. The next time we visit, we hope to share a villa (and costs) with friends and their young daughter and bring most of our own food and drink. I’ll bird the road between Playa Panama and Liberia, search the rice fields and wetlands for Spotted Rail and Masked Duck, and get all of my target birds! Well, that’s the plan as long as Murphy’s Law doesn’t go into effect.