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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

Birding Costa Rica at Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge

Cano Negro is a small village, a place to fish for monster Tarpon (yes, they are monsters), and an access point for one of the two major wetland sites in Costa Rica (the other one being Palo Verde). Since it’s a five hour drive from the Central Valley, I don’t make it up that way very often. Well, to be honest, I haven’t gone there since 2001 so, I was pretty excited to make a much needed trip to Cano Negro with the local birding club this past weekend.

To sum things up, I got 27 year birds, I think 6 new birds for my Costa Rica list, and three damn delightful lifers! One of those was more or less expected, and the other two were straw-colored marsh birds that I hoped to see but knew that I could easily be going back to the Central Valley without them.

So, here’s some highlights and general impressions from the trip:

Cano Negro is easy to get to: It’s a fairly quick, five hour drive where you may be entertained by drive-by sightings of toucans, parrots, parakeets, and other cool tropical birds. Bird along the way on the right route and you could even tick things like Fasciated Tiger Heron, Sunbittern, Torrent Tyrannulet, and so on. The road in to Cano Negro is rocky but can still be done with a two wheel drive car at least during the dry season.

The Loveats Cafe is en route: If you are coming from the Central Valley, screw that route through Zarcero. Take the San Ramon-San Lorenzo route and onward to Muelle. This passes by excellent birding opps such as the Hummingbird Garden, the San Luis canopy, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and most of all, the Loveats Cafe! Stop there for excellent vegetarian food, including authentic Middle Eastern hummus, good coffee, and baked goods.

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How can you not stop at a place with a giant “cookies” sign? And yes, they are very good cookies!

The birding and photography is good right in the village: The village is pretty rural so there are lots of fruiting trees and gardens that are filled with birds like Red-lored Parrot, Collared Aracari, and chances to

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witness sad attempts by Gray-headed Chachalacas to be Peafowl,

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check out many a Pale-vented Pigeon lounging on power lines,

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get into staring contests with Olive-throated Parakeets, and

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marvel over the blues of a male Red-legged Honeycreeper.

Some hotels have feeders: At least ours did (the Hotel de Campo) but I think others in the area might do the same or be convinced to put out a banana or two. Although no Yellow-winged Tanagers showed up, it was still nice to watch the usual parade of common bird species like

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Blue-gray Tanager. Dang, that’s a beautiful bird. Almost like a neotropical Mountain Bluebird.

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Red-legged Honeycreeper. You gotta love it when you can soak up the views of a blue and turquoise bird with hints of  purple, classy patches of black, and red legs.

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Yellow-throated Euphonia. It’s really cool when birds perch on the fruit they eat. Euphonias are basically goldfinches that evolved into colorful mistletoe eaters. This male shows the classic euphonia blend of steely blackish-blue and bright yellow.

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This female Yellow-throated Euphonia shows the much drabber olives and dull colors that make them a pain to identify.

Oh and there is great wetland birding too: Wetlands on the road in can host any number of waterbirds but the best waterbirding is near the village of Cano Negro. A lagoon behind our hotel had the usual assortment of common waterbirds along with occasional Green Ibis, flyby Merlin, and the owner said a Jabiru was there a few days before.

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The lagoon behind the Hotel de Campo.

A boat trip is the best way to experience marsh and river birding though and our Saturday morning boat trip was basically a big fat success!

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Amazon Kingfishers were constant companions and the trip to marshy lagoons was highlighted by American Pygmy Kingfisher, Green Ibis, a bevy of Mangrove Cuckoos (yes there were at least 6), and two surreal Sungrebes! The lagoons had the best stuff though.

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These people were looking at…

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Pinnated Bittern! Finally, after years of wondering how similar this neotropical bittern was to immature tiger-herons, I can personally say that it looks quite different. Sure it has some of that barring but it’s much paler and has those bittern streaks in front among other differences. It’s almost like a massive, mutant Least Bittern that hybridized with a tiger-heron. The very bird pictured here was lifer number one of the trip.

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When seen head on, this neotropical marsh monster does sort of look Frankensteinish.

Yellow-breasted Crake!– No picture but lifer number two and a top shelf one at that. As luck would have it, as soon as we saw the Pinnated Bittern, a small straw-colored bird popped up out of the vegetation in front of me and transformed into a Yellow-breasted Crake. Other people in the group saw one or two more while watching the bittern.

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What the marsh looked like.

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We also saw a few Lesser yellow-headed Vultures at this site. I digiscoped this harrier-like vulture through my binoculars.

An ocean of raptors: After leaving the place on Sunday, sunny weather turned the skies into a ridiculous raptor migration bonanza. It was the biggest I have ever seen in Costa Rica and there were kettles and lines of vultures, Swainson’s Hawks, and Broad-winged Hawks pretty  much in every direction. It was simply downright silly crazy.

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A bad representation of the thousands of raptors that were migrating over our heads.

A visit to El Roble wetlands: Although local ornithologists seem to refer to this place as the Humedal Medio Queso (literally half cheese wetlands), locals call it El Roble. They go there to fish on weekends. We went there to see birds for an hour and it was pretty darn awesome. We saw more Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, a distant Northern Harrier (good bird in Costa Rica), and two more Pinnated Bitterns! To get there, take the road at the Los Chiles airport that heads to the east. If I recall correctly, this gravel road is on the south side of the airport. Once you get to the wetlands, don’t drive into the Medio Queso river! The road simply ends and starts up again on the other side of the river because they have yet to put in a bridge.

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Another super sweet Pinnated Bittern!

What a trip! The third lifer was Nicaraguan Grackle– not as common and easy as you might expect but we saw a few here and there, especially on the boat trip.

Not much more to say than to expect lots of cool birds when you go to Cano Negro! I feel that I should also mention that mosquitoes weren’t bad at all during our trip although the area was much drier than normal.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Christmas Counts Introduction lowlands

The Veragua Christmas Count (part 2)

Sleep was almost as evasive as a Harpy Eagle or a dry day in Tortuguero National Park. This did not bode well for the long day of birding that awaited us in the Veragua count circle. Who knows how long we would have to hike in the humid Caribbean lowland heat? Not to mention, we also had to be as alert as hungry Bat Falcons to give an accurate count. Even though Christmas counts are more relaxed endeavors than the wild, wide-eyed craziness that happens on Big Days, you still need to give it your all and attempt to identify and count every single bird. You have to sort out the Social Flycatchers  from their Gray-capped relatives, recognize the steady, insect-like chipping notes of Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and give an accurate count of the Cattle Egrets that fly by in white, flapping droves.

Oh, and need I forget to mention, you also have to do that all day long. You can’t give up because it is your mission to count those birds until the time is up or until you drop from heat exhaustion. And even if you are lying there in a puddle of sweat with your birding brain frazzled from counting too many gulls or cowbirds while attempting to asses numbers of Great-tailed Grackles by merit of their circus-like madcap vocalizations, it is still your duty to croak out their names and numbers with rasping, over-exhausted breaths. You can’t give up on providing that precious annual data that may or may not be used to asses avian distribution at some later time. You just don’t know what might happen with the data but that’s why it’s so darn valuable (seriously!). Or, if you don’t want to sacrifice yourself in the name of birds, you could always take a nap at some later point in the day. That is a far better alternative than sleeping in because the biggest peak of bird activity happens when the sun begins its long climb into the tropical sky. Miss those golden hours and you forgo making any real assessment of birds in tropical forested habitats.

So, when the clock struck 3:30 a.m., all 60 something participants jumped out of bed, rushed to get ready, and like sleep-depraved robots, walked over to the cafeteria to fuel up with coffee and gallo pinto. This was a very important morning of birding and each of us had a specific route to cover. Bagged lunches were handed out, people met up with route leaders and counters boarded minivans. I found my two fellow counters for the day in one of the minivans. They were Duaro and Einor (spelling might be wrong but the pronunciation isn’t); two guys who lived near and counted raptors at Kekoldi. When the minivan filled up, the driver closed the doors, put the air on full, and we shivered in the Caribbean lowlands (amazingly) as we drove through the dark to our count circle routes. At 4:30 a.m., Duaro, Einor, and I were dropped off at the entrance to the “Brisas de la Jungla“, we wished the other Veragua participants good luck, and officially started the count!

Our ears were eager and attentive as we trudged uphill in the dark. Ignoring the pleas of roosters and dogs to be included on the list, we listened in expectation after belting out the barking call of Mottled Owl and the wail of Black and White Owl.  Nary a response from those nocturnal creatures  but we did pick up the de facto night bird- Common Pauraque. They earned the distinction of being our first species for the day as they called and flew off the road ahead of us.

Common Pauraques live up to their name when birding Costa Rica.

It was still dark when we reached our focal point for the dawn chorus. This auspicious spot was an overlook that took in a vista of forest edge, distant forested hillsides, and farmland; ideal for parrot flybys, raptors, and picking up the sounds of both forested and open habitats. As the sun began to color the sky, the heralds of the dawn chorus made it onto the list by merit of their vocalizations. Two Collared Forest-Falcons called in the distance, a Black and white Owl sounded off to end its “day”, and Woodcreepers sang a few songs. As is typical of tropical latitudes, the sun ran above the horizon and the birds just as quickly jumped out of their roost sites. Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers were more common than Tropical Kingbirds. A few Great Kiskadees and Boat-billed Flycatchers joined in with their dawn songs and a flock of Plain-colored Tanagers and several Blue Dacnis flew into the top of a nearby tree.

The pretty Blue Dacnis is common around Veragua.

Scanning with binoculars turned up a distant flyby flock of Pale-vented Pigeons and Olive-throated Parakeets zoomed on past. As Cattle Egrets started to fly inland from roosting sites near the coast, we were  kept busy counting them while also picking up a sole Black-striped Woodcreeper, two Central American Pygmy-Owls and common birds like Buff-throated Saltator, Blue-gray Tanager, and Passerini’s Tanager. The plaintive calls of Long-tailed Tyrants also made us aware of their presence and two Striped Cuckoos started to sound off but refused to show themselves (cowards!).

Oddly enough, we didn’t see any raptors from the overlook nor did we see as many parrots as expected. Snowy Cotinga was also evasive despite being in a perfect spot to watch for it. Nevertheless, it was a good place to start the count because we racked up around 80 species in two hours (many by sound). Once the dawn chorus calmed down, Duaro, Einor, and I walked uphill through old cocoa plantations and continued to see more birds. We ticked Western Slaty Antshrike, a handsome little Double-toothed Kite, Broad-winged Hawk feeding on a lizard, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, and a short fruiting tree filled with birds. There were at least a dozen Gray-capped and Social Flycatchers, Ochre-bellied Flycatcher, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, saltators, tanagers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Montezuma Oropendola, Collared Aracaris, and other species feasting on the fruits.

The view from our first overlook.

Yes, it was as exciting as it sounds but even better was an extremely cooperative Central American Pygmy-Owl that came too close for binoculars after imitating its tooting song. Duaro actually took a National Geographicish video of the thing with his phone! I also got some pictures, including this one taken with the small zoom on my handheld point and shoot:

I swear, I felt like this beautiful little owl was going to use me as a perch!

Up on top of the hill, we reached some proper forest and oh did it look good for birds! Too bad we got there around 8:30 though; the requisite quiet time when birding in rainforest. We made our way to another overlook and, like the birds we were counting, rested for the next two hours. No need to walk around the forest between 9 and 11 unless you want to count insects or identify trees. Since that wasn’t part of our mission, we opted for hanging out on benches and scanning the forest canopy with the scope. Black and Turkey Vultures made their way onto the list but other than one, distant, Common Black Hawk, birds were absent from the scene. I bet that second overlook would be even better for starting the count because it overlooks intact forest. Maybe next year!

We figured our resting time was over when Purple-throated Fruitcrows started to call. They are pretty common in southeastern Costa Rica so I expected to get this one for the year on the day of the count. After a failed attempt to check out a lagoon hidden in the forest (due to it being inaccessible), we started walking downhill along one of the well-maintained trails at Brisas de la Jungla. The trail went through nice forest and old cocoa plantations with immense trees. It was pretty quiet during our time there but I bet it could turn up any number of rainforest species if you birded it during the early morning hours.

One of the trails at Brisas de la Jungla.

However, before venturing onto this trail, douse yourself with insect repellent. In fact, take a shower in the stuff until you reek of vicious chemicals. I didn’t and was literally chased out of the forest by a buzzing horde of mosquitoes. I must have gotten bit close to a hundred times and no matter how many I killed, they wouldn’t let up with their attack. Real blood sucking Ghengis Khaners in that place. I would definitely bird that trail again but not without an unhealthy supply of some seriously potent DEET spray.

Back at the safety of our dawn overlook, we continued counting from benches at that spot and this time, the cotingas were in the house! Granted, they were pretty far away, but visible enough to count them. A scan with the scope revealed at least 5 Snowy Cotingas perched in the canopy of forest on distant hillsides. This was around 3 p.m. and I bet you would have a very good chance of seeing them from the same spot at the same time of day. Look for a white speck against the green. Put the scope on it and it will either be a tityra or a Snowy Cotinga. You can also see these peace-doveish birds around Sarapiqui but they seem to be more numerous in southeastern Costa Rica (which makes sense since there is more intact forest).

That white thing is a Snowy Cotinga.

By this time of day, we didn’t get too much else of note other than one flyby Giant Cowbird. The decision was made to bird the road back down to the highway and maybe even check the river. Although we didn’t pick up anything new for the day, the walk back down was busy with common, rainforest edge species. Down by the river, we picked up Northern Waterthrush and got a surprise bird for the day: American Dipper! I didn’t expect this one because in Costa Rica, they typically occur at middle elevations and not at the 150 meters above sea level spot where we saw it.

Down by the river, we also got our last bird for the day, Blue-headed Parrot! I was especially excited about this bird because it also happened to be my 600th species for the year! I guess I was too excited and relieved to take a picture so you will have to take my word for it. Although they are still outnumbered by White-crowned Parrots in southeastern Costa Rica, a few Blue-headeds usually turn up during a day of birding in this area.

Finishing up the count.

Our Brisas de la Jungla count ended when the minivan picked us up at 5 p.m. The other participants told us tales of ticking kingfishers, egrets, Green-breasted Mangos, and other birds along the coast. We also shared and compared stories of our battles with biting bugs and agreed that this was one of the more mosquito-ridden areas of Costa Rica. The total number of species for our count territory was 122 and the number for the entire count was 408! This could make it the highest Costa Rican count for this year if not the highest species total for all 2011 Christmas counts!

The Veragua count  got so many species because the count circle includes habitats such as coastal areas, quality lowland rainforest, edge habitats, and middle elevation forests at 1,200 meters elevation. A few of the highlights from this year’s count include:

Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon: As an indication of the quality lowland forest around Veragua, 6 of this rare species were recorded!

Violaceous Quail-Dove: Although just one was found, the forested habitats in southeastern Costa Rica may be the most reliable area for this bird in the country. It’s still rare but I have also had luck with this bird in the past at the nearby Hitoy Cerere Reserve.

Red-fronted Parrotlet: Ten were recorded as they flew over a route these birds take most days of the year when commuting between highland forests and some unknown lowland site.

Owls: 7 species were recorded including a few Vermiculated Screech Owls, 5 Crested Owls, and 33 Central American Pygmy-Owls! Veragua and surroundings has got to be the easiest place to see this bird in Costa Rica.

Great Potoo: 9 recorded. Yep, this is a good area for this bird.

White-fronted Nunbird: 15 found in the count circle. This species is still regularly encountered in the area.

Spot-crowned Antvireo: 6 of this localized species were found.

Speckled Mourner: 2 found for the count. A rare bird!

Bare-necked Umbrellabird: 2 found, probably more in the area.

Purple-throated Fruitcrow: 83 counted. Like I mentioned, they are fairly common in the area!

Black-chested Jay: Only 3 this year. Last year, 43 were found, mostly at Brisas de la Jungla (we saw none!).

Sulphur-rumped Tanager: Several of these. Veragua is the most reliable site for this species in Costa Rica.

It was quite the count. The area around Veragua is so good for birding simply because it still boasts sizeable areas of lowland forest. Many of the species that have disappeared or become rare around Sarapiqui are still fairly common around Veragua for this reason. It’s a bit off the regular birding circuit but it’s pretty easy to get to (3 and a half hours from San Jose on two-wheel drive roads). Brisas de la Jungla can be visited for birding although they charge $15 to do so and might even charge another $15 to walk their trail. Veragua is still being developed for birding and only offers very basic accommodation but they have fantastic trails, the birds, and excellent bilingual guides who know where to find them. You can only visit by reserving in advance. Their number in San Jose is 2296-5056. You can also write them at  info@veraguarainforest.com

I can’t wait to go back and bird in the area again albeit more prepared with insect repellent!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands

More Organic Farm Birding in Costa Rica at The Finca Luna Nueva

Sadly, the places that act as true models for sustainable living are far and few between. This is all too apparent when driving along just about any road in Costa Rica. Look out the window in any direction and you come face to face with urbanization, pasture, or intensively farmed land. Patches of habitat are seen here and there and intact forest is found in protected areas but sustainability is clearly not part of the picture. If maintaining biodiversity were an essential part of land use, then there would be more forest, no monocultures, much less pasture, and more green space shared on private lands and connected to large areas of forest on public lands. Although most land owners don’t manage their property in such a fashion (and we can’t blame them if they don’t know how to), there are a few people here and there who make serious efforts to use their natural resources in a sustainable manner.

One such place that acts as a model for sustainable farming and living is the Finca Luna Nueva eco-lodge near San Isidro de Penas Blancas. An active, successful, organic farm and eco-lodge, the Finca Luna Nueva is also an excellent site for birding. Unlike farms that use chemicals, grow just one or two crops, and cut down most of their forest to make room for Zebu Cattle, the Luna Nueva cultivates a wide variety of crops, has limited areas of pasture, and leaves nearly half of the farm cloaked with lowland rainforest. The fact that they are managing the land in a way that preserves and promotes biodiversity is apparent in the numbers and types of birds that you can see there.

Over 200 bird species have been recorded at Finca Luna Nueva and more are expected for their site list. In fact, as testament to the seasonal variation and low population densities so typical of birding in Costa Rica, we recorded 7 new species for the list. These were Bat Falcon, Uniform Crake, Mealy Parrot, Blue-chested Hummingbird, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Northern Bentbill, and Canada Warbler. The crake was species 547 for my year list and would have been missed had a pair not given their usual duet at dusk. Whether in the humid forests of Costa Rica or the Amazonian lowlands or Ecuador and Peru, this is how I have always recorded this species. Now if I could just see one, I could remove the “h” in front of its name and increase my official life list by one.

The birds mentioned above were all nice to see or hear but our main quarry was another, much rarer species; the clownish White-fronted Nunbird. It cackles like a maniac, has a crazy, big, orange bill, and used to be common on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It’s still fairly common in the lowland forests of Hitoy Cerere Reserve but has either disappeared from or become rare just about everywhere else in the country. The nunbird is apparently very susceptible to edge effects as it has even disappeared from La Selva for unknown reasons (although an overabundance of peccaries are probably to blame). It hangs on at Luna Nueva though and I suspect that its continued occurrence there is just as much a result of pesticide-free habitat as the presence of intact lowland forest.

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White-fronted Nunbird a good bird to get when birding Costa Rica.

In being one of the apex insectivores of the lowland rainforest, nunbirds require a steady diet of large katydids, hefty  bugs, and small frogs and lizards. Luna Nueva offers up a smorgasbord of items to Nunbirds because they simply don’t try to kill off those forms of life. The limited area of rainforest at Luna Nueva keeps the nunbirds at low levels but they are still around and birders should see them during a weekend tour. We got our nunbirds back in the beautiful primary forest on the Cabalonga Trail although they also show up on the Rainforest Mystery Trail and in the biodynamic areas of the farm (basically where most of the cultivations are located). While looking for the nunbird, we also had a male Great Curassow calling from a cecropia (another indicator species of quality, protected habitat), Crested Guans, toucans, and Black-throated and Slaty-tailed Trogons.

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Black-throated Trogons prefer the interior of lowland rainforest.

The Rainforest Mysteries Trail was also productive and gave us mixed flocks of Dot-winged and Checker-throated Antwrens, Western Slaty Antshrike, Plain Xenops, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, Northern Bentbill, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, and Canada Warbler. Migrants weren’t as abundant as I had hoped but several Canada Warblers, a few Yellow Warblers, American Redstarts, Black and White Warblers, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Eastern Wood Pewees, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and hundreds of Barn, Cliff, and Bank Swallows were reminders that birds are definitely passing through Costa Rica. We saw some of these birds from the tower along with flybys of Red-lored Parrots and close looks at a female Black-crested Coquette that visited Porterweed growing in planters on the tower itself.

Night birding was more or less halted by rain but a pre-dawn walk did yield calling Spectacled Owls and Common Pauraques (no nocturnal migrants though). On a non-bird note, the food was as super healthy and fantastic as it always is, and hotel service was great. If you are headed to La Fortuna, you should seriously consider staying at the Finca Luna Nueva. Who knows, if you find a fruiting tree, maybe you will add Bare-necked Umbrellabird or Lovely Cotinga to the list!

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Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean foothills caribbean slope lowlands

Good Costa Rica Birding at the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge

What makes a hotel truly worthy of the “eco-lodge” title? How about one that is also an organic farm, protects primary rainforest, provides employment to locals, prefers guests who dig the natural world, and strives to be sustainable. In all of the above respects, the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge fits the bill perfectly. I was fortunate to be able to visit this gem of a spot with my wife and daughter over the past weekend and look forward to doing a lot more birding at this site in the future.

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They also have a nice ozonated pool.

I heard about and was invited to the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge by fellow guide and birding friend of mine, Juan Diego Vargas. Juan Diego spends much of his time looking for birds in Liberia but also guides in many areas of the country and helps out with a number of ornithological projects. One of these has been inventories of the birds at Luna Nueva (check out this link for the details). A few of the more interesting finds were White-fronted Nunbird, Green Thorntail, Black-crested Coquette, and even Great Green Macaw. The nunbirds appear to have a healthy resident population and are readily seen along a trail that accesses primary forest. The hummingbirds are probably seasonal but we had one female Black-crested Coquette over the weekend. The macaw is a very rare, seasonal visitor during October but the fact that it does show up reflects the healthy bird habitat on the farm.

Yes, the fact that the place is a working farm makes it all the more interesting and acts as a ray of sustainable hope in a world whose ecosystems are stressed by the needs of several billion people. Farm workers arrive in the morning and you will probably see a few while birding, but unlike farms that raise monocultures, you will also see lots of birds. At least I did while walking past a mix of cacao, ginger, medicinal herbs, chile peppers, scattered trees, and areas that were allowed to naturally recover. White-crowned Parrots were very common and filled the air with their screeching calls. Bright-rumped Attilas, three species of toucans, Black-throated Wrens, Barred Antshrikes, and other species of the humid Caribbean slope flitted through bushes and treetops while a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails ran along paths through the organic crops. The birding was definitely good in the farmed area of the lodge but I think the food was even better.

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I finally got a good shot of an atilla!

The Luna Nueva is a proponent of what they call, “slow food”. The apparent antithesis of hamburgers, fries, milkshakes, and other quickly made, over-sugared, and fatty foods, slow food is all about the good taste that comes from using carefully groomed, high quality products. At least this was the impression I got after having eaten slow food at Luna Nueva over the course of the weekend. Everything they served was not only damn good, but it also left me feeling super healthy. Really, if you want to eat some of the healthiest, tastiest food in the country, eat at Luna Nueva.

Now back to the birds! Mornings started off with a fine dawn chorus of humid lowland edge and forest species. This means a medley of sound that included Laughing Falcons, Gray Hawk, toucans, the bouncing ball song of Black-striped Sparrow, Black-throated Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwrens, Dusky Antbirds, Barred Antshrikes, Cinnamon and White-winged Becard, Long-tailed Tyrant, Blue-black Grosbeak, and others.

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We also enjoyed a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers that worked a snag in front of our family bungalow.

A few flocks of Olive-throated and Crimson-fronted Parakeets sped overhead and Red-billed Pigeons flapped their way around scattered trees. As morning progressed, hummingbirds became more obvious as they zipped and chipped between patches of heliconias and Porterweed planted to attract them. Speaking of hummingbirds, Luna Nueva is an especially good site for those glittering avian delights. I had at least 8 species during my stay and I’m sure you could see more.

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A male Violet-headed Hummingbird was one of the eight species.

In the primary forest, Western Slaty-Antshrikes, Golden-crowned Spadebills, Great Tinamou, and Chestnut-backed Antbirds called from the understory while Chestnut-mandibled Toucan and a few Black-headed Tody-Flycatchers vocalized from the canopy. That latter species is not all that common in Costa Rica so it was good to record it (my first for 2011). Although some of the deep forest species are unfortunately lacking or rare because of poor connectivity with other, more extensive forest, you could use the lodge as a base to bird more intact forests around Arenal or the Manuel Brenes Reserve (both 20 minute drives).

I didn’t do any nocturnal birding but was awakened by the calls of  a Black and White Owl on my first night. The habitat is perfect for this species so you should probably see it without too much effort around the lodge buildings.

This was what the habitat looked like around the lodge buildings,

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this was what the primary rainforest looked like,

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and this was a view from the canopy tower.

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Oops, did I say canopy tower? It turns out that the Luna Nueva has had a canopy tower for years but the birding community didn’t know anything about it! The lodge has gone unnoticed and rather undiscovered because it was marketed to student groups and botanically slanted tours for most of its history. Birders, herpitologists, and other aficionados of our natural world should start showing up on a more regular basis once the word gets out about this place.

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Hognose Viper- one of the many reasons why herpitologists will like this place. Others are frog ponds that attract Red-eyed Tree Frogs and Cat-eyed Snakes, and a healthy herp population inside the forest.

From the tower, I mostly had common edge species but the looks were sweet as candied mangos and it should turn up some uncommon raptors, good views of parrots, and maybe even a cotinga or two at the right time of the year.

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A Blue-Gray Tanager from the tower.

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A Squirrel Cuckoo from the tower.

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A Yellow-crowned Euphonia in a fruiting Melastome at the base of the tower.

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A Common Tody-Flycatcher on the side of the road (they were pretty common and confiding- my kind of bird!).

The following is my bird list from our stay (115 species):

Great Tinamou

Gray-headed Chachalaca

Black Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Gray Hawk

Gray-headed Kite

Laughing Falcon

Gray-necked Wood-Rail

Red-billed Pigeon

Ruddy Ground-Dove

White-tipped Dove

Gray-chested Dove

Crimson-fronted Parakeet

Olive-throated Parakeet

Orange-chinned Parakeet

White-crowned Parrot

Red-lored Parrot

Squirrel Cuckoo

Groove-billed Ani

Black and white Owl

White-collared Swift

Long-billed Hermit

Purple-crowned Fairy

White-necked Jacobin

Steely-vented Hummingbird

Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Green-breasted Mango

Violet-headed Hummingbird

Black-crested Coquette

Violaceous (Gartered) Trogon

Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Keel-billed Toucan

Collared Aracari

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Smoky-brown Woodpecker

Rufous-winged Woodpecker

Pale-billed Woodpecker

Lineated Woodpecker

Plain Xenops

Northern barred Woodcreeper

Wedge-billed Woodcreeper

Cocoa Woodcreeper

Black-striped Woodcreeper

Streak-headed Woodcreeper

Barred Antshrike

Western Slaty Antshrike

Dusky Antbird

Chestnut-backed Antbird

Dull-mantled Antbird

Yellow Tyrannulet

Golden-crowned Spadebill

Paltry Tyrannulet

Yellow-bellied Ealenia

Piratic Flycatcher

Yellow-olive Flycatcher

Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher

Common Tody-Flycatcher

Northern Bentbill

Ochre-bellied Flycatcher

Bright-rumped Atilla

Long-tailed Tyrant

Tropical Pewee

Dusky-capped Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Great Kiskadee

Social Flycatcher

Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher

Tropical Kingbird

Cinnamon Becard

White-winged Becard

Masked Tityra

White-collared Manakin

Lesser Greenlet

Brown Jay

Gray-breasted Martin

Long-billed Gnatwren

Tawny-faced Gnatwren

Tropical Gnatcatcher

Stripe-breasted Wren

Bay Wren

Black-throated Wren

House Wren

White-breasted Wood Wren

Clay-colored Robin

Buff-rumped Warbler

Bananaquit

Red-throated Ant-Tanager

Olive (Carmiol’s) Tanager

Passerini’s Tanager

Golden-hooded Tanager

Blue-gray Tanager

Palm Tanager

Blue Dacnis

Green Honeycreeper

Red-legged Honeycreeper

Thick-billed Seed-Finch

Variable Seedeater

Yellow-faced Grassquit

Blue-black Grassquit

Orange-billed Sparrow

Black-striped Sparrow

Buff-throated Saltator

Slate-colored Grosbeak

Black-faced Grosbeak

Blue-black Grosbeak

Melodious Blackbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Yellow-billed Cacique

Montezuma Oropendola

Yellow-crowned Euphonia

Categories
biodiversity Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope Introduction lowlands

Exciting Birding in Northern Costa Rica at Laguna del Lagarto Lodge

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to finally get the chance to bird Laguna del Lagarto during three days of guiding. I emphasize “finally” because I had wondered how the birding was up there near the Nicaraguan border ever since my first trip to Costa Rica in the early 90s. It was so far off the beaten track, though, that I just never made it up that way despite always hearing promising accolades about the place.

So, when we were at long last on our way to Laguna del Lagarto, we drove up and over the mountains through the town of Zarcero with uplifted and excited hearts. Our hopes were boosted by their checklist and the fact that so much of the surrounding area was still heavily forested. Much more so in fact than Sarapiqui or any other part of the Caribbean lowlands. This certainly explains why Laguna has recorded such tough to see bird species in Costa Rica as Great Jacamar, White-fronted Nunbird, Red-throated Caracara, and Tawny-faced Quail. None of these were guaranteed by any means but we knew that just being in the area would improve our chances. Heck, we even had a remote chance at Crested and Harpy Eagles. Given the amount of unbirded habitat near Laguna del Lagarto and the fact that a friend of mine had seen Harpy Eagle up that way in 1998, it isn’t entirely out of the question to hit the jackpot with those mega-raptors on a visit to Laguna del Lagarto and surrounding areas.

Heading into the Caribbean foothill town of Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos), constant rain and heavy skies threatened to put a damper on our excitement. It didn’t faze us too much, though, because we were familiar with the long term downpours of the Caribbean Slope. I sure hoped that it would give us a break, however, and much to our delight, the falling water diminished to occasional, inconsequential drips just as we headed north from Pital.

Pital is the last bastion of asphalt as you make your way to the lodge but the gravel is actually pretty nice all the way to the village near Laguna known as Boca Tapada. It’s not as smooth going as a tarred road but it also had fewer potholes than the heavily traveled byway that leads to Arenal National Park. If one drove straight to the lodge from San Jose, I estimate a trip of just 4 hours or less. Birders, though, are going to take much longer because once you get 15 or so kilometers past Pital,the birding is pretty good!

Roadside marshes should be checked for rails, Pinnated Bittern, and other aquatic species, Nicaraguan Seed-Finch could show up (we didn’t see it but it certainly occurs), forest patches somewhat near the road should be scanned and scoped for toucans, parrots, and (most of all) raptors, and areas with old second growth should be checked out for a wide variety of species.

With brief stops in such habitats, we probably recorded 60-70 species, highlights being Gray-headed Kite, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Pied Puffbird, Olive-throated Parakeet, Long-tailed Tyrant, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and White-lined Tanager. Mind you, this was mid-morning and although the overcast conditions were ideal for bird activity, I would love to see how many species I could record along that road during more productive early morning hours. It’s not ideal habitat but there is enough extensive forest within scoping distance to make it pretty exciting.

The birdiest stretch of the road is arguably the area between Boca Tapada and the lodge. At this point, productive second growth and primary forest are found on both sides and a large number of species are possible, the nunbird included. It’s worth birding even though it’s just two kilometers more to the lodge. Laguna del Lagarto has a sign but even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t miss the “v-shaped” lagoon at the entrance. No matter when you walk or drive by that lagoon, it should always be checked for Agami Heron. Although this splendiferous wader is often seen by visitors to Laguna who take a canoe out onto the muddy waters, we got ours on our last day by scanning the shaded shore right from the entrance gate to the lodge. I suspected that I had the bird because I saw a suspicious-looking gray shape in the shadows of some overhanging vegetation but it wasn’t until the heron thrust its rapier of a bill into the water that I knew for a fact that I was looking at an Agami Heron. It’s incredible how stealthy and still this species can be so it pays to very carefully scan the shores of their preferred haunts- streams, pools, and muddy lagoons in lowland forest.

birding Costa Rica

There is an Agami Heron somewhere in this image at the most reliable lodge to see it in Costa Rica- Laguna del Lagarto.

You could probably get the Agami from the lodge itself if you keep scanning for it as several of the rooms overlook the lagoon where we saw it. Speaking of the lodge, I was especially impressed with the excellent service and management provided by the manager, Alfaro. He took time out of his day to assure that each guest was getting the most out of his or her stay and kept us updated on where the Agami Heron had been sighted as well as other signature species such as Great Green Macaw. He also invited us to his “bird garden”- his very bird friendly backyard. We didn’t get the chance to visit it but from the photos of honeycreepers and tanagers that were taken at his garden, it should be a must see for any birder visiting Laguna del Lagarto with a camera.

birding Costa Rica

Rooms were comfortable and clean, the food average to good, and the feeders spectacular!

The feeders a Laguna del Lagarto consisted of a large bunch of bananas or plantains that are somehow placed on a platform twenty feet above the ground. BUT, since the dining area of the lodge is built on top of a hill, the birds that come to the feeder are seen at eye level! You almost feel as if you are sharing lunch with the toucans, parrots, oropendolas, and tanagers that visit the feeder because you can easily watch them sans binoculars while you eat.

birding Costa Rica

A head-on view of a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

birding Costa Rica

Keel-billed Toucans are incredibly colorful when seen at close range.

birding Costa Rica

Collared Aracaris also partook in the feeder food but weren’t as common as their bigger bethren.

birding Costa Rica

Montezuma Oropendolas also came close enough to allow detailed studies of their clown-like faces.

The best of the larger birds, however, were Brown-hooded Parrots. There aren’t many places where you can see these guys at a feeder!

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

Smaller species showed up once the larger birds left. Passerini’s Tanagers were of course very common.

birding Costa Rica

Black-cheeked Woodpeckers were also present

birding Costa Rica

as were Buff-throated Saltators among a few other common species.

birding Costa Rica

It was also worth it to scan forest canopy visible from the restaurant and some of the rooms. We had looks at Great Green Macaw and more than one perched King Vulture in this way.

Kind of distant for a photo but there’s no mistaking a white vulture with black flight feathers  for anything other than a King.

birding Costa Rica

Laguna del Lagarto lodge also has trails through beautiful lowland rainforest. This type of habitat has become pretty hard to access on the Carbbean Slope so we were looking forward to spending quality birding time beneath the tall canopy. Most people experience it at La Selva but edge effects (and an overabundance of Collared Peccaries) have eliminated a number of understory bird species at that classic birding site. It was a shock, therefore, to see that a fair portion of Laguna’s forest looked as if it had been selectively logged! Apparently in 2010, a rare tornado had torn through parts of their forest and knocked over several, massive, old growth trees. It was a sad sight as we walked along muddy trails through open forest and I wondered why that tornado had to touch down at such a rare, complex, sensitive habitat instead of twirling around in some dusty, overgrazed pasture. There are still trails through intact forest at Laguna del Lagarto but I wonder if or to what extent the tornado affected bird populations. A local guide told us that canopy birds were easier to see but it looked as if understory species were less common and monkeys had certainly declined. Fortunately, the forest grows up pretty quick in the humid, rain-soaked lowlands so it will come back eventually.

During our three days at Laguna, our experiences in the forest echoed the sentiments of the guide. Canopy flocks were of regular occurrence but there were very few understory flocks and I heard very few understory species during our time there (even if you don’t run into mixed flocks of understory insectivores, you still usually detect them by sound), I have to believe that they are still around because the forest at Laguna is connected to a much larger forest block.  I suspect, though, that they aren’t as common as they were in the past. Perhaps birds such as antwrens, spadebills, antvireos, and Tawny-crowned Greenlet will increase in abundance as the forest grows up. I certainly hope so but in the meantime, to see them at Laguna del Lagarto, you may need to focus on trails through more intact parts of the forest.

Some of the highlights of our stay at Laguna del Lagarto were:

Helping out with the annual Christmas Count (run by the Rainforest Biodiversity Group– the organization that created and promotes the Costa Rican Bird Route) while birding with David and Alfredo Segura. David is a young Tico birder, Alfredo his non-birding father. They make a great team and sharing much of Laguna’s birdlife with them was a memorable experience. Maybe I will interview them some day for the blog.

Agami Heron- Laguna is certainly the most reliable and accesible site for this species in Costa Rica.

Semiplumbeous Hawk– A scoped, calling individual deep inside the forest was a major highlight of the trip.

Great Green Macaw– This lodge and surroundings have long been known as a regular site for this endangered species. We saw maybe 7 individuals and had them on each of three days.

Brown-hooded Parrots at the feeders.

Mottled Owl seen at dawn on the road in front of the lodge. Black and white was also seen around the cabins by others and we heard but did not see Central American Pygmy-Owl.

Common Potoo– We didn’t see it but we did hear it and that earns it a position on my year list!

Pied Puffbird– We saw several of this cool, little bird.

White-fronted Nunbird– One of main targets fell on our last day at the forest edge in the back part of the garden and even allowed me to take its picture.

birding Costa Rica

Thrushlike Schiffornis– We heard one of this deep forest species.

Brown-capped Tyrannulet– We had a few of these tiny, canopy flycatchers but they were always tough to see because of their size (or lack of).

Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant– A common bird at Laguna del Lagarto and not to difficult to see with patience.

Yellow-margined Flycatcher– We had a few inside the forest with canopy flocks but they were very difficult to see well.

Slate-colored Grosbeak– Three birds seen together and one heard.

After leaving the lodge, we drove further up the road that follows the San Carlos River and although we saw little on a sunny afternoon, the whole area looks very promising. The road signed to the San Juan Biological Reserve in particular looked fantastic as it passed through intact, primary lowland rainforest but I am honestly concerned about the safety of birding it because you are in the middle of nowhere and close to the river that marks the border with Nicaragua (which may or may not be used by drug traffickers). That might sound paranoid but since a large amount of drugs are believed to pass through Costa Rica and the tendency for rural areas in the country to be quite lawless, it’s probably best to avoid birding along that road for the time being.

birding Costa Rica

Fantastic road for birding but I don’t know how safe it is. I am sure it’s safe most of the time but it would be best to ask locals about it before birding there.

I would head back to Laguna del Lagarto Lodge or other lodges in the area in a second however, as they are safe, harbor some of the best lowland forests on the Caribbean Slope, and they probably hold some nice, feathered surprises too.

Below is a list of bird species we recorded from Pital to Laguna del Lagarto for the dates of January 7th, 8th, and 9th.

Great Tinamou- a few heard and two seen
Little Tinamou- one heard
Neotropic Cormorant- one on San carlos River
Great Blue Heron- one at laguna
Great Egret- one along road
Snowy Egret- one on river
Little Blue Heron- one along road
Cattle Egret- several along road
Agami Heron- one seen along edge of lagoon, athers also saw from canoe
Green Ibis
Black Vulture- several
Turkey Vulture-several
King Vulture- 3-4 each day from lodge
Muscovy Duck- 2 along road
Osprey- one along road
Roadside Hawk- one along road
Broadwinged Hawk- one along road
Gray-headed Kite- one along road
Laughing Falcon- several along road and near lodge
Collared Forest-Falcon- 2 heard near lodge
Crested Caracara- a one along road
Semiplumbeous Hawk- 2 in forest
Gray Hawk- one along road
Crested Guan- a few in forest
Great Currasow- 1 heard, others saw a few at lodge
White-throated Crake- several heard along road
Gray-breasted Crake- one heard along road
Gray-necked Wood-Rail- one seen compost
Purple Gallinule- a few seen along road
Red-billed Pigeon- several along road
Short-billed Pigeon- several at lodge
Gray-chested Dove- a few at lodge
White-tiped Dove- one along road
Ruddy Ground-Dove- several along road
Olive-throated Parakeet- several
Orange-chinned Parakeet- just a few
Great Green Macaw- 6-7 at lodge
White-crowned Parrot- several
Brown-hooded Parrot-several at lodge and feeders
Red-lored Parrot-a few near lodge
Mealy Parrot- several at lodge
Groove-billed Ani- several along road
Mottled Owl- one seen
Central American Pygmy-Owl- a few heard at lodge
Common Pauraque- one along road
Common Potoo- one heard near lodge
Gray-rumped Swift- many
Long-billed Hermit- a few at lodge
Stripe-throated Hermit- a few at lodge
Scaly-breasted Hummingbird- a few along road
Purple-crowned Fairy- one in forest
Violet-headed Hummingbird- one in garden
Violet-crowned Woodnymph- a few in forest
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- several
Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer- a few
Slaty-tailed Trogon- several heard in forest
Black-throated Trogon- one seen in forest
Broad-billed Motmot- a few heard
Ringed Kingfisher- a few near lodge
Green Kingfisher- a few on lagoons
Pied Puffbird- several in area
White-fronted Nunbird- 2 in back of garden
Collared Aracari- several in area
Keel-billed Toucan- several in area
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan- several in area
Black-cheeked Woodpecker- several
Smoky-brown Woodpecker- one along road
Lineated Woodpecker- a few along road
Pale-billed Woodpecker- a few in forest
Cinnamon Woodpecker- 2 heard near lodge
Slaty Spinetail- several heard along road
Plain-brown Woodcreeper- one heard
Cocoa Woodcreeper- a few heard
Streak-headed Woodcreeper- several
Black-striped Woodcreeper- several
Wedge-billed Woodcreeper- several
Northern Barred Woodcreeper- a few heard
Barred Antshrike- one heard along road
Western Slaty Antshrike- a few in forest
Dot-winged Antwren- a few near lodge
Chestnut-backd Antbird- a few in forest
Black-faced Anttthrush- several heard
Thicket Antpitta- one heard along road
Brown-capped Tyrannulet- several heard and a few seen at lodge
Yellow Tyrannulet- a few along road
Paltry Tyrannulet- several
Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant- several
Common Tody-Flycatcher- a few heard
Yellow-olive Flycatcher- one heard at lodge
Yellow-margined Flycatcher- a few heard and seen in forest
Tropical Pewee- one heard along road
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- several
Long-tailed Tyrant- a few along road
Rufous Mourner- one seen near lodge
Dusky-capped Flycatcher- a few heard
Great-crested Flycatcher- a few
Great Kiskadee- a few along road and at lodge
Boat-billed Flycatcher- two at lodge
Social Flycatcher- a few along road
White-ringed Flycatcher- one heard near lodge
TK- several
Thrushlike Schiffornis- one heard in forest
Red-capped Manakin- a few in forest
White-collared Manakin- a few along road
Black-crowned Tityra- one near lodge
Cinnamon Becard- several
Tawny-crowned Greenlet- a few heard in forest
Lesser Greenlet- many
Bay Wren- several heard
House Wren- several on road
White-breasted Wood-Wren- several in forest
Tropical Gnatcatcher- a few
Wood Thrush- several in forest
Clay-colored Robin- a few
Yellow Warbler- a few
Chestnut-sided Warbler- many
Hooded Warbler- one in forest
Northern Waterthrush- one at lagoon
Olive-crowned Yellowthroat- one near Boca Tapada
Gray-crowned Yellowthroat- one heard at river
Bananaquit- several
White-shouldered Tanager- several in forest
Tawny-crested Tanager- a few in forest
White-lined Tanager- one along road
Summer Tanager- several
Red-throated Ant-Tanager- one heard at lodge
Passerini’s Tanager- several
Blue-gray Tanager-several
Palm Tanager- several
Golden-hooded Tanager- several
Olive-backed Euphonia- several
Green Honeycreeper- a few
Shining Honeycreeper- several
Red-legged Honeycreeper- a few at lodge
Blue Dacnis- a few in forest
Scarlet-thighed Dacnis- one along road
Blue-black Grasquite- many
Variable Seedeeater- many along road
White-collared Seedeater- several along road
Thick-billed Seed-Finch- a few along road
Yelow-faced Grasquit- a few along road
Buff-throated Saltator- several
Black-headed Saltator- two along road
Slate-colored Grosbeak- three near lodge and one heard in forest
Orange-billed Sparrow- a few heard in forest
Black-faced Grosbeak- a few along road
Blue-black Grosbeak- several
Melodious Blackbird- a few along road
Red-winged Blackbird- a few along road
Bronzed Cowbird- a few along road
Baltimore Oriole- several
Scarlet-rumped Cacique- several in forest
Chestnut-headed Oropendola- a few in forest
Montezuma Oropendola- many
Categories
Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica common birds Hummingbirds identification issues Introduction lowlands preparing for your trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

A male Violet-crowned Woodnymph in full iridescent splendor.

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

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

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

Violet-crowned Woodnymph birding Costa Rica

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

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

Violet-crowned Woodnymph female

Female Violet-crowned Woodnymphs showing their contrasting gray throats.

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

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

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

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
"Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birding lodges endangered birds lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Birding at Cerro Lodge, Costa Rica- a good site for Yellow-billed Cotinga

The Yellow-billed Cotinga is an endangered species that only occurs on the Pacific slope of  Costa Rica and western Panama. Although range maps in field guides show it occurring from the Rio Tarcoles (at and near Carara National Park) south to Panama, don’t expect to run into this cotinga at most sites along the coast because the actual distribution of this frugivore is much more spotty than is indicated. It’s localized distribution is due to it being restricted to areas where mangrove forest occurs near rain forest

Although records indicate that they wander in search of fruit, you are far more likely to encounter this species in the canopy of or close to mangroves. This is in contrast to its Caribbean slope cousin, the uncommon (but far from rare) Snowy Cotinga. Ranging from Honduras south to western Panama, the Snowy Cotinga isn’t too difficult to see in areas of lowland forest, forest edge, and riparian corridors. Although it has certainly declined because of deforestation, if one considers the paucity of Yellow-billed Cotinga sightings compared to encounters with Snowy Cotingas,  the Snowy appears to be weathering destruction of rainforests  much better than the Yellow-billed.

There appear to be very few sites where Yellow-billed Cotingas occur on a regular basis. Even in some areas with mangroves and rain forest (such as at Baru) they are either absent or extremely rare. Due to our near complete lack of information about the natural history of Carpodectes antoniae, no one really knows what this bird needs although its absence at sites such as Baru could possibly be explained by mangroves there not being old enough or the mangrove forests simply not being extensive enough to support a population of Yellow-billed Cotingas.

It should come as no surprise then, that their stronghold is in the extensive, old growth mangroves of the Sierpe River and Golfo Dulce areas of the Osa Peninsula. The mangrove forests in these areas are beautiful, old growth forests that echo with the songs of “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers, the screeches and squawks of parrots and macaws, and the piping calls of Common Black Hawks. The area around Rincon is where I saw my first Yellow-billed Cotingas in 1999. Foraging with Turquoise Cotingas in fruiting figs, their white plumage stood out against the evergreen rain forest on the nearby hills. On a side note, the birding at Rincon was fantastic with Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quails calling from the hillside, White-crested Coquettes foraging in flowering Inga sp., and well over 100 species recorded in a day.

Until recently I saw them on very few occasions elsewhere; a bird or two working its way up rivers in the Osa Peninsula, or very infrequent sightings in Carara National Park. Lately though, I have been seeing Yellow-billed Cotinga on just about every visit to Cerro Lodge (contact me for reservations). The birds are from a population that nests in the mangroves near the Tarcol River. Although this population hasn’t been surveyed (admittedly a difficult task to undertake because they love the canopy and don’t sing), it’s probably very small and might only be composed of ten birds. This is pure speculation on my part but there are very few sightings of Yellow-billed Cotinga from Carara and vicinity (and most are of individual birds) despite there being a high number of birders and guides that work in the area.

At Cerro Lodge, I and others, have seen one male perched in a distant snag at the edge of the mangroves. It (or a different male) also sometimes comes closer to the lodge. The bird is usually so far away that it is difficult to see without a scope but is easy to pick out because of its brilliant white plumage.

The view from the restaurant where the male Yellow-billed Cotinga has been regularly seen. If you visit Cerro Lodge, you might see it by scanning all of the treetops from here.

I have also seen a female perched in a tree near the parking lot for Cerro Lodge, and a male was recently seen just down the road as it descends to the flood plain of the river. As Cerro Lodge is located somewhat near the Tarcol River, and based on other observations of this species, I suspect that the birds are foraging in the riparian growth along the river, or are using the river as a corridor to forage in the forests of Carara.

Luckily, the female was very cooperative and let me take a bunch of pictures.

For the past few years, the folks at Bosque del Rio Tigre have been doing surveys for Yellow-billed Cotingas and are also involved with other studies of this highly endangered species. To help with its conservation, what is needed now are more studies that can help elucidate its natural history, as well as better protection of mangrove forests and rain forests in southern Costa Rica and western Panama. To help with conservation of Yellow-billed Cotinga, follow the link to Bosque del Rio Tigre and contact them. Also, if you see this species, please email me your notes on where you saw it, the time of year, the habitat it was using, and its behavior (especially foraging). Who knows-maybe there are certain fruiting trees that can be planted that would help this species.

Although Yellow-billed Cotingas has been regular at Cerro Lodge, these may be sightings of just 1-3 individuals. I suspect that there are so few of this species in the Carara area because there is so little habitat between the mangroves and the national park. In contrast to when rainforest adjacent to the mangroves likely provided food and cover for a number of Yellow-billed Cotingas (as at Rincon de Osa where several have been seen together), once that forest was converted into stark pasture, the few fruiting trees left near the mangroves supported far fewer (if any) cotingas, and birds were required to move around more in search of food (with a subsequent higher degree of nest failure and mortality as a result).

Although land owners in the area can’t be expected to reforest their pastures, hopefully, they will be willing to accept the planting of various fruiting trees used by this rare species.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds identification issues Introduction lowlands

Identifying Variable and Thick-billed Seed-Finches in Costa Rica

People on birding trips to Costa Rica usually don’t have the seedeaters and seed finches at the top of their target lists.  Now if they looked like some of those fantastic, brightly colored, and beautifully patterned finches that provoke “oohs and aahs” among birders in Africa and Australia, the story would be different. BUT, since they are mostly plain old black or brown, the majority of seedeaters and seed-finches aren’t even considered for a Costa Rican birding hit list.

And who can blame such birders when the small, dull finches have to compete with the iridescent, heavenly plumaged, breathtaking Resplendent Quetzal? Or the bizarre-looking, dove-sized, crazy-sounding (in name and in life) Three-wattled Bellbird? Or when there are a bunch of stunning tanagers and honeycreepers with glowing colors that are visiting a feeder? No, it’s easy to see why seedeaters and some finches aren’t exactly a top priority when birding Costa Rica. Nevertheless, let us not discriminate. Heck, some finches you may not even see like the Blue Seedeater, Slaty Finch, or Pink-billed (Nicaraguan) Seed-finch. Except for the Tricolored Munia and House Sparrow, all of those little seed-eating birds sharing pastures with those big introduced bovines are  native birds and lifers for first-time visitors to the neotropics. AND, when those unfriendly antpittas are refusing to show themselves, that Keel-billed Motmot is giving you the silent treatment, or any and all coquettes are out to lunch on the other side of the mountain, never fear because the seedeaters, seed-finches, and grassquits are here!

Well, they will be “here” if you are in pasture or young second growth, and are also usually pretty easy to watch. The three most common species are the Blue-black Grassquit,

male

female

the Yellow-faced Grasquit,

and the Variable Seedeater. To see how it got its name, when birding Costa Rica, check out a Pacific slope male

compared to a Caribbean slope male.

Don’t worry about looking for any “variableness” between the females because they look the same. In fact, a lot of female seedeaters look very similar (more so in South America) and present a major headache for identification not only because they look alike, but also because it’s just so hard to study female seedeaters when there are hundreds of other, more visually appealing birds flying around.

While the Yellow-faced Grasquit is pretty easy to identify, the Blue-black Grasquit, Variable Seedeaters on the Caribbean Slope, and the Thick-billed Seed-finch can be tough to separate at first glance. With a close look at the right features, though, they are actually pretty easy to identify. Instead of obsessing about the white spot in the wings, or that the bird looks mostly black, concentrate on the bill shape. The shape of the bill reflects how some of these seed-eating species can avoid competition with each other by eating different sized seeds. It’s kind of analogous to flycatcher and woodcreeper identification where the shape and/or size of the bill is often a more important field mark than plumage characteristics.

Although the Blue-black Grasquit is also pretty easy to identify by plumage (no white in the wings, blue-black coloration in the male, the female sparrow-like with dull streaks on the breast), notice how its bill is straighter and more sharply pointed. Sure it eats seeds, but this little finch (or tanager, emberezid, or 9-primaried oscine) is not a vegetarian by any means. With that bill shape, it’s probably bulking up on protein meals of grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects of the grass. And taking into account the number of times males do their little jumping display (hundreds each day during the breeding season), it needs a lot of protein!

Separating the Variable Seedeater and the Thick-billed Seed-finch is trickier. Although the seed-finch is bigger, don’t fall into the trap of using size as a field mark. Stick to the bill shape. The Seed-finch isn’t called “thick-billed” for nothing. Their bills are noticeably larger and more angular as opposed to the small, rounded bill of the Variable Seedeater. It might look challenging when studying the book, but if you get a good look, you won’t have any doubt in your mind about which species it is. The female Seed-finch is actually even easier to identify because she not only has that big, black bill, but also has more ruddy brown plumage than the olive-brown plumage of the female Variable.

Male Thick-billed Seed-finch. Compared to the dainty seedeater, this bird looks downright tough. It’s like he’s saying, “You talking to me..?” , or “Did you say something about my bill?!”

whereas the male Variable Seedeater is more along the lines of, “Would you ummm, maybe like to buy some Girl Scout cookies”?

This female seed-finch is like, “Yeah, that’s right. This is MY stream! Don’t make me use my hefty bill!

whereas this female Variable Seedeater is saying, “Oh how I enjoy nibbling on flower buds and itsy, bitsy seeds”!

On the Pacific slope, you won’t have to worry about copycat male Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-finches because the Variable of the west has a white belly, rump, and collar. It does look kind of like a White-collared Seedeater though. The White-collared, however, has a larger white collar, is more buff on the belly and rump, and most of all, has two white wing bars. The female White-collared also has this handy field mark.

Check out the white wings bars on this male White-collared.

As for other seedeater species, the Ruddy-breasted is pretty distinctive and always has a light speculum in the wing, the Blue looks a lot like a Blue-black grassquit but has a different shape (more sparrow-like), and skulks in cloud forest bamboo and edge, and the Pink-billed Seed-finch really does have a massive pinkish bill that would frighten even the toughest of Thick-billed Seed-finches!

In conclusion, although I completely understand why you may not want to put the more common seedeaters, grassquits, and the like on your target list for birding in Costa Rica, they can still be fun birds to watch (especially if you make up personalities for them).

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).