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Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Where to stay when birding Carara, Costa Rica; Cerro Lodge

I made a short trip to the Carara area this past Friday to scout the vicinity of Cerro Lodge, a new option for accommodation near the national park. From visiting their website, communicating with the owner, noting its proximity to Carara, and taking into account the habitats near Cerro Lodge, I had a hunch that these cabinas could finally be just the sort of place I have been waiting for as a good, moderately priced option for birders visiting Carara. Even with a short visit during non-birding hours (9-12), I could tell that my hunch was right. A problem with birding Carara has always been the limited number of options for accommodation near this top birding site. Don’t get me wrong, there are places to stay but they are pricey, horrible, or just not geared towards birders or ecotourists. The two main ecolodges that are geared towards birders, Villa Lapas and the Tarcol Lodge are, at well over $100 per person per night for lodging and meals, just absurdly pricey for Costa Rica.

At Villa Lapas (expensive number 1) the grounds and rooms are nice, the food and service good, and there is good birding on the grounds (including their canopy bridges), but you will see the same bird species on visits to the National Park. As for the Tarcol Lodge (expensive number 2) I have heard both positive and negative comments about their rooms, the food is good, and it is situated in a mangrove estuary with good birding although many of the aquatic and mangrove species that occur at the lodge can be seen on the mangrove boat trip or on your own. If you would rather not pay over $100 per person per night (in all fairness Villa Lapas sometimes has discounts during the wet season), I always felt that birders could see just as much and eat just as well by staying at a moderately priced hotel with comfortable, clean rooms and either taking meals there or dining at nearby sodas. The problem with this, however, was that the only moderately priced hotel near Carara was the basic “Hotel Carara” in Tarcoles village. Resembling a North American motel, although the rooms are ok and are sometimes offered at discounted prices, for not being located in particularly birdy habitat, the $70 rooms just never seemed worth it. I don’t think dining at their restaurant is worth it either. The small fish pond, pleasant decor, “relaxing” new age elevatorish music, and seaside location will never be enough to overcome the shortcomings of their small menu with overpriced, mediochre food that sours the dining experience like a lemon flavored slap in the face.

There have always been cheaper digs available at quiet, ramshackle cabinas along the beach just north of Tarcoles, but unless you are filiming a horror movie, on a scorpion hunt, or don’t mind sharing the place with cockroaches, then you probably shouldn’t stay there. Don’t be fooled by the $30 rooms offered at the Crocodile restaurant either (the one at the bridge on the highway). Those are the worse I have stayed at in Costa Rica mostly because upon opening the bathroom door, I was greeted by a small bat who was squinting and squeeking at me from the grimy floor. He was probably pleading for help out of that dirty place and after evicting (or maybe saving) him, I became honestly concerned about his bloodsucking cousins attacking me in the night after seeing the large hole in the bathroom ceiling combined with the fact that there were horses and cattle in back of the place that were probably fed upon by vampire bats on a regular basis. At least I didn’t have to worry about spending any time in the bathroom since nary a drip came out of the naked pipe that protruded from the wall. Although the room was so dirty that not showering seemed to be part of the theme, unless you are an adamant follower of Pigpen, I wouldn’t call that a plus. The bed was also uncomfortable, the fan didn’t really work, nor was the birding good at the Cabinas Crocodilos so do yourself a favor and don’t ever stay there even if the restaurant is ok.

Fortunately, two moderately priced options have become available near Carara! Although they are too far to walk to the park entrance, no present or future hotel will ever be close enough to the entrance for most folks to get there by foot because the HQ it is several kilometers from the limits of the park on a busy highway. The cheaper but noisier and less birdy option is the Cabinas Vasija (or something like that). Found along the main highway about 15 minutes from Carara on the east side of the road, they charge around $20 for basic, dingy rooms and also have a cheap restaurant on site. Being located along the highway though ensures that earplugs will be necessary for a good night’s sleep. The birding in the vicinity (especially along the road towards the river), however, is OK for dry forest and open country species.

Although more expensive, ($50 single, $70 double room), in my opinion, Cerro Lodge is the place I and other birders have been waiting for. This price includes all taxes and breakfast served from 5:30 A.M. at a restaurant that looks into the canopy of trees that host, among dozens of other bird species, Scarlet Macaws. Although these spectacular parrots move around in search of seeding and fruiting trees and thus might not visit the trees at the Cerro Lodge restaurant at all times of the year, they certainly do in October. It was especially interesting to note that the macaws fed upon the seeds of Teak (an introduced species) in addition to foraging at the more typical “Almendra” trees.

The view from the restaurant.

The rooms are in six, clean, pleasant cabinas equipped with ceiling fans and a bathroom that is partly outdoors (in a good way).

Plenty of heliconias, Verbenia, and other flowering plants were attracting hundreds of butterflies during our visit and should also attract hummingbirds. Although we saw few of these glittering, hyperactive sprites, we were told that they sometimes visit the flowers that graced the tables of the restaurant. More exciting was  hearing about the pair of owls that make nightly visits to the light in their parking area. Although I wasn’t there at night, I am betting that they are Black and White or Striped Owls.

There is a trail on the Cerro Lodge property (a small, working farm) that passes through pasture, dry, scrubby habitat, and streams with moister, taller riparian growth. Birding in similar habitats is also possible along the quiet, 3 kilometer entrance road, and along the 4 kilometers of this same road that continues past Cerro Lodge and accesses dry forest, small wetlands, provides distant views of the Tarcol River. There is no traffic of note along these roads which helps make Cerro Lodge a very quiet, tranquil place.

Being there at the wrong time of day for birding, we didn’t see very much but still managed around 30 of the 150 species recorded at Cerro Lodge. Our best birds being Scarlet Macaws, Lineated Woodpecker, Black-crowned Tityra, Orange-fronted Parakeet, Lesser Ground Cuckoo (h), Violaceous Trogon, Turquoise-browed Motmot, Nutting’s Flycatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, and Red-legged Honeycreeper. In that some of these birds are signature dry forest species, combining the drier habitats around Cerro Lodge with the rain forests of Carara should result in a quite a large list of species.

This Lineated Woodpecker loved its dead, palm trunk!

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are a common, open country species in Costa Rica.

The Pacific Slope subspecies of the Variable Seedeater.

This is why these used to be known as Black-bellied Tree-Ducks.

Another nice thing about Cerro Lodge is that birders who feel like eating outside of the hotel can do so at a good soda just across the highway from the entrance road. The entrance to Carara National Park is ten minutes further along the highway from this point.

To get to Cerro Lodge, just follow the main road to Carara and Jaco and watch for the large Cerro Lodge sign at the entrance road about 10-15 minutes after Orotina.  From there it is 3 kilometers up a well graded dirt road to the best option for birders and aficionados of tropical tranquility who have Carara National Park on their itineraries. I can’t wait to go back and seriously bird the place at dawn, during the evening, and at night.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands middle elevations

How to see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird

“Cephalopterus glabricollis”. I love the official, scientific term for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. It makes it sound like some massive-headed, ominous creature from the depths of darkest outer space that uses its supreme intelligence for ominous plans so nefarious that even the strongest among us (such as E.O. Wilson, the Dalai Lama, and Alex Trebek) would swoon with despair at the merest of glimpses into those dark machinations. Someone should make a movie….

In the meantime, unfortunately for most birders visiting Costa Rica, the Bare-necked Umbrellabird is so hard to see that it might as well be from outer space. One of the largest Passerines in Costa Rica, this crow-sized bird has seriously declined with deforestation. While many species need just one type of forest for survival, unfortunately for the Umbrellabird, it needs at least two types of forest; lower middle elevation rain forest and lowland rainforest. Breeding in the mossy, very wet forests between 700 and 2,000 meters, this species spends the rest of the year in the hot, humid, Caribbean lowlands. While the lowlands are still there, most of the lowland forests aren’t, and since umbrellabirds don’t hang out in banana plantations or cattle pastures, they might be in serious trouble. It’s hard to say if so few individuals of this species are seen because they occur at naturally low densities or because their populations have declined because of massive deforestation in the Caribbean lowlands. In any case, this is definitely one rare bird. The experiences of those photographers and field naturalists extraordinaire, the Fogdens, mirror mine with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird. In a paper they published in the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club (supercool- all celebs should join), the Fogdens mention how this species seems to have a patchy occurrence even within suitable looking looking habitat. I can’t tell you how many times I have wondered why I don’t see the Umbrellabird in what appears to be intact forest at the right elevation. I don’t think its a question of difficulty in seeing this species either because on the few occasions I have seen a Bare-necked Umbrellabird, the birds were always easy to see, stayed in the subcanopy, and weren’t particularly shy; the same impression it has had upon other birders I have spoken with. In any case, I think its apparent rarity merits surveys carried out on its breeding grounds (albeit a very difficult endeavor), and in the foothill forests and patches of lowland forests (much more feasible) of the Caribbean slope. In conjunction with surveys, at least some assessment of the fruits it utilizes should also be done to possibly help this species through propagation of its food sources. Although I suspect it needs intact forest to survive (as it also feeds on large katydids, stick insects, and small invertebrates), I think such a study would be worthwhile.

In addition to a bit of rambling about studies I would love to do, I hope the information above gives you some idea of why you didn’t see a Bare-necked Umbrellabird on your visit to Costa Rica. However, if you have yet to visit Costa Rica for wonderful birding, butterflying, getting rained on, and eating rice and beans, don’t swoon with hopeless dismay at the prospect of not seeing a Bare-necked Umbrellabird. They do occur more regularly in some places than others and there are a few things you can do to increase your chances at connecting with this Elvis Presley of birds (don’t believe me? –take a look at its hairdo!).

During the breeding season (probably March to July), you might have more luck with the Bare-necked Umbrellabird by visiting a lek on its breeding grounds. Until other accessible leks are found, an adventurous trip only for those fit enough to hike a few hours downhill (and then back up to get out) to the San Gerardo Field Station of the Monteverde Preserve could be the most reliable way to see this species. March is the time of year to go to this field station, which, if you don’t see the Umbrellabird at least has excellent birding for other foothill species. There are one or two lekking sites near the station, which have had fewer birds in recent years for unknown reasons. Although the birds are only active at dawn and display from high up in the trees, the sight of bizarre male Umbrellabirds inflating their red throat patches while making low-pitched hooting noises will give you a birding high that might keep you awake for a few days.

If you aren’t visiting Costa Rica in March or don’t fancy a long hike to see the Umbrellabird, the other most reliable site for this mega species is at the Aerial Tram near Braulio Carrillo National Park. The Bare-necked Umbrellabird is seen most days at this site and the expert guides, most of whom are serious birders, keep up to date on sightings of this and other species. One a recent excursion to the Aerial Tram as part of a high-school trip where my wife teaches, we had good looks at one male Bare-necked Umbrellabird (my first for the year!). Although they are sometimes seen during the ride through the canopy, this one was hanging around the main buildings.

Although I don’t have photos of the Umbrellabird, here is what some of the canopy ride looks like.

The canopy ride was beautiful and our friendly guide top-notch. Although the habitat is fantastic foothill rainforest, the birding during the ride was pretty slow (as is typical during the tram ride). Birding is much better on the trails or around the main buildings. The only bad thing about this place is that you have to take an expensive tour for access. They don’t allow one to simply walk in and use the trails and have seemed pretty adamant about this which seems to be not very birder friendly in my opinion. I must stress that, however, the bad points of the Aerial Tram are associated with management working from some disassociated office and is not related in any way to the excellent, friendly, guides and staff who work on site.

The other main area to see Bare-necked Umbrellabird and where most birders have seen it is at the La Selva Biological Research Station. Visiting the forests of the station offer a fair chance at seeing Umbrellabird sometime during your stay. Taking the guided tour (compulsory for a day visit) at La Selva will increases your chances at seeing Bare-necked Umbrellabird at most times of the year-just make sure you tell the guide how important it is for you see this it. Once again, if you don’t stay overnight at the station, you can only access the forests on one of their guided tours which are at least more affordable than those of the Aerial Tram.

Away from La Selva, other regular sites for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird are other forests in the Sarapiqui area such as Selva Verde, the forests around Arenal such as the Hanging Bridges and trails at Arenal Obsevatory Lodge, and Heliconias Lodge at Bijagua. No matter where you go to look for the Bare-necked Umbrellabird, your best bet at finding them is to watch out for mixed flocks of toucans and oropendolas. Anytime you see a group of Aracaris, and especially if you run into a large flock of Montezuma and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas, keep your eye out for this elusive Elvis-like bird. If you think you see a crow, remember, the only crow-like bird in Costa Rica is the Bare-necked Umbrellabird.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands mangroves Pacific slope

Carara is Hot and Dry in April but the birding is still good

I guided some folks for a couple of days at Carara 2 weeks ago. As always, the birding was good; a walk in the forest near the HQ in the morning and a mangrove boat ride in the afternoon yielded 128 species. It sure was hot though; hot and dry! This is the end of the dry season in Costa Rica; the end of “summer’ for the locals. Although it hasn’t rained yet, it’s getting cloudier by the day and when those clouds burst, it’s gonna to be a daily rainfest. Shortly after the rains begin anew, Carara will green up again (and get flooded in parts). On April 10th, though, the leaves crackled under foot and the sun beat down mercilessly. At least it was cooler inside the forest.

I started the day at the bridge over the Tarcol River. Even at dawn, a few people were moving single file down the narrow sidewalk to get looks at the crocodiles. Later in the day, there is a constant crowd of people walking out to see those aquatic monsters. With the guardrails missing in places, it’s amazing that some unlucky drunk fellow hasn’t fallen over to be horrifically devoured. The crocs are certainly large enough to do it!

Scanning for birds, I saw several heron species, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt and a few groups of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. This is par for the course at the bridge. That particular dawn, I also saw 100s of Baltimore Orioles flying from their roosts towards the forests of Carara, along with many Barn Swallows and common open country stuff like Melodious Blackbird, Kiskadees, White-winged Doves, etc.

Melodious Blackbird has firmly established itself in Costa Rica.

Since taxis and buses were absent on Good Friday, I walked the 3 or 4 kilometers to the entrance. It was a nice morning walk actually with lots of bird activity along the way including Keel-billed Toucan and Montezuma Oropendola; uncommon species for Carara.

The parking lot at HQ is a great place to see common species such as Rose-throated Becard. This is a female; in my opinion better looking than the male in Costa Rica. Although in Mexico, the bird truly has a rose-colored throat, here in Costa Rica, the male is all dark. In the same tree, I had Violaceous Trogon, Lesser Greenlet, Yellow-throated and Philadelphia Vireos, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and Yellow-throated Euphonia while a Northern Waterthrush was yearning for water at the edge of the parking lot.

Philadelphia Vireo- one of the most common wintering birds around Carara.

We entered the Universal Trail (named as such because it is handicap accessible) and slowly made our way through the drier secondary growth. We saw lots more Becards, Common Tody, Streaked and Piratic Flycatchers, Red-legged Honeycreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher, Black-headed Trogon and other common species. We also had great studies of Greenish Elaenia and Yellow-Olive Flycatchers- both common birds of Carara.

Just as we reached the primary forest, we had good looks at a pair of Slaty-tailed Trogons as a Jacamar called in the distance. Our walk through the primary forest was quite productive, especially for flycatchers. Overall it was a great day for flycatchers with 25 species by dusk! In various mixed flocks typical for Carara, we had Cocoa and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Plain Xenops, Black-hooded Antshrike, Dot-winged Antwren, Russet Antshrike (just one shy bird), Ruddy-tailed, Sulphur-rumped, Ochre-bellied, Yellow-bellied and Dusky-capped Flycatchers, Lesser and Tawny-crowned Greenlets, Long-billed Gnatwren, Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1 Tropical Parula, gorgeous Bay-headed Tanagers and White-shouldered and Summer Tanagers.

An amazing sight; a Lesser Greenlet staying still!!

Outside of mixed flocks we did alright too with Purple-crowned Fairy, Steely-vented Hummingbird, excellent looks at feeding Brown-hooded Parrots, Baird’s Trogon (had to work for that one), a few White-whiskered Puffbirds, Chestnut-backed Antbird, both Spadebill species, Royal Flycatcher building a nest, lots of Northern Bentbills, and excellent looks at Spot-crowned Euphonia.

Northern Bentbill

male Spot-crowned Euphonia

Manakins seemed to be absent and I’m not sure where the Wrens, Black-faced Antthrush and Antpitta were hiding but it was a good four hours of birding nonetheless. We lunched at the closest, nicest place; Villa Lapas.

Villa Lapas is pricey but has good accommodations, service and restaurant. The grounds are also pretty birdy and they have a bridge/canopy walkway.

During lunch, a Bare-throated Tiger Heron worked the stream,

and a pair of Green Kingfishers entertained.

After lunch and a short rest, we were off to the mangrove birding tour. As in some other tourist frequented sites, around Carara, the taxis were charging a mint to get around; $10 for the short drive between Villa Lapas and the Carara HQ and $50 round trip to the mangrove birding tour. The regular price for a taxi in Costa Rica for the same distances should be at the most $4 and $24 respectively. Yet another reason to rent a car.

Anyways, at the boat dock we started seeing new birds straightaway; Amazon Kingfisher perched on the dock, our first of many Common Black Hawks, Anhinga and various herons. As the boat departed, a Zone-tailed Hawk swiftly soared across the river mouth and Black-necked Stilts became visible. During the boat trip, the pair of Mangrove Swallows that nest in a box in the boat accompanied us. Despite the high tide (not ideal for birding), we identified 77 species.

After checking the river mouth, we went up a channel through tall mangroves. As with any mangrove boat trip I have done, the mangroves are tall and it’s a cool habitat but the birds are pretty scarce. We saw a few herons and got nice looks at Ringed Kingfisher then picked up Common Ground Dove (which was interesting because there wasn’t any dry ground) and Rufous-browed Peppershrike. The Peppershrike was a nice surprise. This widespread neotropical species is rather uncommon in Costa Rica and mostly found in underbirded areas such as the Central Valley and mangroves. After the Peppershrike excitement, we investigated a smaller mangrove channel and stopped to play tape of various species. Although we didn’t get any responses from the Wood-rail or Woodcreepers, we got nice looks at Panama Flycatcher and Common Black Hawks and one of our group almost certainly saw Mangrove Hummingbird.

Back out in the main channel, we taped in one of the common mangrove specialties; Mangrove Vireo then headed upriver. With the sun to our backs, we had beautiful looks at any birds that flew in front of us. One of the best was a quick flyby of Crane Hawk, its redddish legs standing out in the sun. We also had many Red-billed Pigeons and started to get parrot flybys as the afternoon progressed. We had a few macaws although Red-lored and Mealy Parrots were the most frequent parrot species. A green field was filled with Barn, Southern Rough-winged and a few Cliff Swallows while Costa-rican Swifts fed low over the water. One of our best birds was Double-striped Thick-knee; a pair lounging in a sparsely vegetated rocky area with half buried tires and other pieces of trash. This noctural shorebird of dry fields occurs in the extensive pastures visible from the bridge but is tough to see away from the boat tour.

Somewhere out there is a Double-striped Thick-knee, a bird that by name and appearance belongs in a Roald Dahl story.

Whimbrels were common. We also saw loads of Spotted Sandpipers, several Willets and Ruddy Turnstones.

We ended the tour with a beautiful sunset, Lesser Nighthawks feeding near the river mouth and Ferruginous Pygmy Owls calling near the dock for yet another great day of birding around Carara National Park.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica common birds feeders lowlands

Common Costa Rican Birds; Palm Tanager

Tanagers for most birders are synonymous with brilliantly colors, burry songs and summertime. In eastern North America, it’s the stunning Scarlet Tanager in shining red and black and beautiful cozy-red Summer Tanagers. In the west, the Western Tanager adorns the conifers, looking like an orange-faced king of the goldfinches while the brick-red Hepatic Tanager lives in the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. None of these 4 is dull, and all have pleasant, lazy summer songs; quality perching birds.

As one heads south of the border, towards the epicenter of “tanagerism”, things get a bit more complicated. Somewhat like North American warblers, there is a tanager species for most every habitat and situation. The further south one goes, the more species there are with an especially dizzying array of tanagers in the Andes. The Tangara genus in particular is filled with birds that resemble living jewels. Costa Rica has a few Tangara species, Golden-hooded being a common bird of the humid lowlands.

Golden-hooded Tanager

Not all Tanagers are brightly colored. One of the most common, the Palm Tanager, is a fairly dull bird at least in terms of plumage. Aptly named, these guys are seriously in love with palms. A non-forest species, There isn’t a morning that goes by when I don’t hear the squeaky song of a pair of Palm Tanagers issuing from the monstrous palms that tower in front of our apartment. No doubt they are expressing their joy because they believe they moved on up (like George and Wheezie) into one of the best high-rises in San Jose.

Palm Tanagers and one Great Kiskadee

Although not the fanciest of species to look at, like other common birds, it pays to learn this one well to pick out two other, uncommon, similar birds; Plain-colored Tanager and Sulphur-rumped Tanager.

Plain-colored Tanager; note the smaller bill and bit of black on the face. In good light it also shows a buffy wash to the belly and vent. Forget about that blue in the wing- you almost never see it!

I wish I had a picture of the other one! While Plain-colored is regularly seen, the Sulphur-rumped is a downright rarity with very little known about it. It is hardly ever seen and is one of the birds that yours truly still needs for a lifer! With luck, I will finally catch up with Sulphur-rumped Tanager in May when I head to Manzanillo in the southeast.

Look for Palm Tanagers anywhere you see palms; this is one you are not going to miss.

Look for Plain-colored in forested areas and edge of the Caribbean lowlands. The La Selva entrance road is good.

Aside from in your dreams, look for Sulphur-rumped around Cahuita, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo or in Buryabar, Panama.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands Pacific slope

Costa Rican Owls: Black and White Owl (Ciccaba nigrolineata)

All owls are very cool birds. If Fonzie was a birder he would give a resounding two thumbs up, “Aaaeeyyyyy” for Owls. They are way up there on the bird coolness scale because:

1. They are raptors: All raptors are automatically cool; even Common Buzzards and Red-tailed Hawks.

2. They are nocturnal.

3. They can see in the dark.

4. We hardly even see them even where they are common.

Of the 16 species of owls that have occurred in Costa Rica, the Black and White Owl is one of the most stunning. Like its name says, it is as black and white as an oreo cookie. It also has an orange bill and legs to brighten thing up.

They occur from the lowlands to middle elevations (1,500 meters) and are mostly found in humid forested areas. A bird of the forest interior as well as forest edge, their distribution is probably limited for the most part by availability of large trees for nesting and their main food source; large insects bats. Here is a link to an article that describes how Black and White and the related, similar sized Mottled Owl avoid competition by food source. In short, the Mottled takes rodents while the Black and White sticks to bats. Black and White Owls are sometimes seen around streetlights located near primary forest or old second growth. They might prefer microhabitats where it is easier to catch bats. Places like tree-fall gaps and forest edge. In fact, the only places I have heard and seen Black and White Owls at night are in just such situations such as the soccer field and buildings at OTS (open areas surrounded by old second growth), and at streetlights adjacent to old second growth at nearby Selva Verde and Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui. Where I have seen Black and White during the day, though, is where 1,000s of people (birders and non-birders alike) have seen Black and White Owls; at the main plaza in Orotina.

The plaza owls and their offspring could be the most frequently seen owls in the world.

Orotina is a small town in the hot, humid foothills of the central Pacific slope. Not far from Carara, the surrounding area hosts some humid forest and dry forest species. The main plaza is like other plazas in Costa Rican towns; busy and noisy, a meeting place for everyone in town under the shade of several large trees.

Despite all of the people activity, it has also hosted a pair of Black and White Owls since at least 1998. They can be found roosting in any of the trees and can be surprisingly difficult to find. The quickest way to see them is to ask the plaza ice cream vendor, “Victor Hugo”. He may have been the first person to find the owls in the plaza. He usually knows where they are and might also attempt to sell you real estate as happened on my past visit. Even if you don’t want to buy land and become an Orotinian, at least buy an ice cream or “shaved ice” from him if he shows you the owls.

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Introduction lowlands

The 2008 OTS La Selva Christmas Count

Through the grimy window of the San Jose- Puerto Viejo bus, I discerned by chance the sign for the OTS La Selva station as another passenger disembarked. I immediately hopped off the bus into the Caribbean lowland night and started up the road to the station. Night in the humid tropics is dark as subterranean velvet. The heavy humidity traps the light just as much as the heat; it’s like walking under a hot, wet blanket that jumps and creeps with life. A flashlight was essential on the pitch black entrance road- not just to see where to walk but also where not to step as I had seen Fer-de-Lance at night along this road on past occasions.

Despite my feelings of consternation blended with excitement, my 20 minute entrance walk was snake-less. I entered the cafeteria/reception area and was greeted by a buzz of activity. The count organizer/coordinator, Rodolfo, was busy with a TV camera crew and several endeavors at the same time so I waited another 20 minutes until he was able to direct me to my bunk and place me with a count group; meeting time an unrespectable 4:30 A.M. (4:30 AM will always be an unrespectable time to be awake, much less walking round). I lucked out with my count territory as it was a trail loop very close to the reception area (others had to bike through the humid darkness to get to their count territories before dawn. Although I still don’t know the name of the trail, I can tell you that it departs from the soccer field and passes through various stages of second growth before reaching the entrance road.

After the few hours of fitful sleep that I get on my first night in humid tropical lowlands, I made it to the reception at 4:30 AM along with 30 other weary-eyed birders. Half-asleep, we ate breakfast, most importantly ingested coffee and tried to figure out if that was a real-time Crested Owl we heard outside of our cabin or a taped recording of someone reeling for a response. Although it turned out to be someone “fishing” for owls, our team recorded a true, countable Crested Owl as one of our first birds. We started out with that and a few other high quality species. Our first was actually Great Potoo. Our leader, Gilberth, knew of a roost near the start of our route and briefly put the light on the bird so we could count it in a sudden glimpse of eyeshine from a large clump of feathers.

This is what it looked like during the day.

Shortly thereafter we got the Owl followed up by a Green Ibis and then started getting other more common pre-dawn birds such as Rufous Motmot and Woodcreepers. As the sun lightened things up, the fun truly started with everything else waking up to shout out their territories; Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Red-throated Ant Tanagers, Red-capped and White-collared Manakins, Broad-billed Motmot, Lineated, Pale-billed and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, various Flycatchers and so on. It was non-stop excellent birding typical of good lowland neotropical habitat all the way to noon. One of our best birds was Bare-crowned Antbird- we heard 2 and saw one of these uncommon skulkers. I wish I had a picture but my camera set-up couldn’t deal with the dark undergrowth. Other nice birds were several Slaty-tailed and Violaceous Trogons, Rufous-tailed Jacamars, good looks at Short-billed and Red-billed Pigeons (the Red-billed being a surprise and reminder of nearby deforestation), Golden-winged Warbler, Rufous Mourner, Blue and Scarlet-thighed Dacnises, Silver-throated and Bay-headed Tanagers, White-ringed Flycatcher and more.

Our most interesting non-bird sighting for me was the Collared Peccary that hid in a culvert and snapped its tusks at us. The TV crew was a pretty interesting sighting was well. They filmed Trogons, Toucans and us birders. They also attempted to interview us; a fruitless endeavor. I mean who has time to do questions and answers during a Christmas count in the tropics? Not me!- I get into my hunter-Zen mode where I allocate more brain space to finding and identifying birds.

The TV crew TV-camera scoping a Toucan through my scope.

Long-tailed Tyrants are pretty common in the Caribbean lowlands.

By noon, we made it to the entrance road and looked for raptors. The more open and higher entrance road is a good spot for soaring birds. Although we missed Black Hawk Eagle, we did alright with Grey Hawk, Double-toothed and Grey-headed Kites and Osprey. We also picked up Thick-billed Seed Finch, Yellow Tyrannulet and a beautiful male Hooded Warbler. On Costa Rica bird counts, wintering Warbler species are the birds that counters really hope for since many species are far less guaranteed than resident, if spectacular, birds such as Jacamars and Trogons.

La Selva is a great place to see Rufous-tailed Jacamar.

After our Hooded Warbler, we had the pleasure of lunching at the cafeteria instead of fending off mosquitoes on a muddy trail while attempting to eat a boxed lunch surprise. Amazingly for a bird count, we even rested in comfy chairs at the reception before doing our afternoon territory. Somewhere around this time we picked up a Green Shrike Vireo (invisibly singing from the canopy as usual), Black-faced Grosbeak, and Rufous-winged, Cinnamon and Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers. La Selva is excellent for Woodpeckers. We SAW all 7 species that were possible.

Chestnut-colored Woodpecker

Black-cheeked Woodpecker

Our afternoon territory was the Arboretum trail.

This is on the other side of the river, accesses beautiful primary forest and (like its name) is an old arboretum. Before entering the trail, we kept busy with birds around the lab buildings. This is an excellent place to bird- you could probably spend a whole day there and get 60-70 species. We had more of the same along with nice looks at..


Collared Aracari

Short-billed Pigeon

Giant Cowbird and Golden-hooded Tanager

and the main reason that La Selva should still be visited on every birding trip to Costa Rica: Great Curassow! For several years, there have been tame Great Curassows frequenting La Selva. Although they can turn up anywhere at this site, they seem to prefer open areas around the buildings! This is like a birding dream come true because this species is very difficult to find elsewhere.

Here is a close up of its head. Check out the curls!

Once inside the forest, birding was another story. Although it is typically quiet inside lowland primary forest, in much of La Selva it has become a little too quiet. Bird species that were common and easier to see here than at other sites such as Great Tinamou, Slaty-breasted Tinamou, White-fronted Nunbird and Black-faced Anthrush, have become very rare. Even Chestnut-backed Antbirds have become uncommon. Most of the understory insectivores are gone too. Nowadays you would be lucky to hear a peep out of Antwrens, Streak-crowned Antvireo, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, understory Flycatchers, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Olive Tanager, and Tawny-crested Tanager. While these species still occur at many other sites, you probably won’t see them at La Selva. Although nobody knows for sure what has happened, and several factors related to edge effects are probably involved, one of the prime culprits is the Collared Peccary.

The theory is that the peccaries are simply gobbling up everything in the undergrowth from ground nesters to the undergrowth itself. I don’t know if anyone has tested this theory but to me, the undergrowth definitely looked overbrowsed. Collared Peccaries have became particulary abundant at La Selva; they seem to be just about everywhere close to the lab buildings. This is not what one typically sees in tropical forest in Costa Rica. Although you run into Peccaries now and then, they are never in the numbers that occur at La Selva. Hopefully studies are being carried out to address this possibility. If there is support for this hypothesis, hopefully OTS will cull peccaries; I know that Dieter and I would be first in line to volunteer.

Despite the birdless understory, we saw some canopy birds and picked up a White-Necked Puffbird customarily perched high up on a snag. We finished the count around 5 P.M., ate dinner and went over the bird list. Best birds of the day were mostly seen by other groups such as Bare-necked Umbrellabird (La Selva still a good site for this tough species), Sungrebe, Snowy Cotinga, Great Green Macaw (we got these too), and best of all; Solitary Eagle! Although this last one is rare and tough to ID, the description sounded very convincing.

One of the best things about the count is that you have access to the grounds the following morning! I birded for a few hours and got more shots of the Curassow, got nice looks at Semiplumbeous Hawk, more of the same from the previous day and excellent looks at Yellow-tailed Oriole singing from a tree top next to the HQ. We missed this rare species in our territory during the count as well as some others (Great Antshrike and Slaty Spinetail) that have become rarer as the forest has grown up along the entrance road. Nevertheless, the entrance road is still great birding and I kept seeing so many birds on my way out that I almost missed my 11 AM bus back to San Jose.