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Some of the Best Road Birding in Costa Rica: the Ceiba-Cascajal Road

Great spots for birding in Costa Rica aren’t limited to national parks and protected areas.

Don’t get me wrong, many of those special places are excellent and you can’t go wrong with a day of birding in Carara or Tapanti but they aren’t the only sites to enjoy quality birding time.

In Costa Rica, byways that pass through a mix of private lands with varying degrees of protected status can be replete with excellent “road birding”. One such hotspot is the Ceiba-Cascajal Road, a promising area
that has been consistent with generating a fine variety of rare, uncommon, and serious mega species. As with so many other good birding spots in Costa Rica, it also has an excellent sampling of more expected birds.

Situated west of the town of Orotina in the hot Pacific lowlands, the area is dotted with patches of tropical dry forest, riparian zones, pasture, sugarcane fields, and at least one seasonal wetland. The end result is
habitat for a large number of species and most can be encountered from a good gravel road. This country road links the town of Orotina to smaller settlements and the main coastal highway. Additional side roads probably offer up similar good birding but they might not be as maintained as the main route linking Orotina to Ceiba and Cascajal.

Head to Ceiba and you can keep on birding dry tropical forest and other habitats all the way to Bajamar and Guacalillo; classic areas for birding tours in search of dry forest species. Take the Cascajal route and although it might cover a smaller area, there’s still plenty enough habitat for a fine day of birding. From what I have seen, this road also accesses
more interesting habitat; a mosaic of promising wooded areas with big trees and an open area with a seasonal wetland.

Where to look for birds? While there are plenty of birds to see anywhere along on the roadside, this information should give some notion of expectations:

Dry Forest Birds

A good percentage of tropical dry forest species are present. Although you probably won’t find birds that require larger areas of more intact forest, notably Thicket Tinamou, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, there are plenty of Long-tailed Manakins, Turquoise-browed Motmots, Black-headed Trogons, and Striped-headed Sparrows to look at. The more wooded spots and riparian zones will also be good places to look for possible Stub-tailed Spadebill, Royal Flycatcher, Nutting’s Flycatcher, and various other dry forest birds.

One of the many Turquoise-browed Motmots from this road.

Scrubby areas can have Striped and Lesser ground-Cuckoos, Crested Bobwhite, wintering Painted Bunting, and wintering Grasshopper Sparrow (an uncommon, much desired species for local birders), as well as other rare sparrows. Both wooded and scrubby areas occur on various parts of the road.

Wide Open Habitats

When you feel like taking a break from peering into vegetation, scan the open fields for Double-striped Thick-Knee, Southern Lapwing, raptors, swallows, and various other open country species. The thick-knees may be seasonal but even if you don’t see them, there will still be other interesting open country birds to look at including occasional Red-breasted Meadowlark. One such visit to a spot with open fields turned up Costa Rica’s best documented Burrowing Owl!
The sighting prompted Costa Rica’s subsequent biggest twitch which then sadly became Costa Rica’s biggest dip. Did the bird get scared off by too much photography harassment (a growing problem)? That’s always possible but we will never know.

Double-striped Thick-Knee

Seasonal Wetlands

These can occur in a few different parts of the road; one is a low, wet spot in the area with large open fields on both sides of the road, and the other is on the road to Cascajal. This second wetland is particularly interesting as it has some freshwater marsh vegetation and low scrubby growth in wet fields. Although I didn’t see any on a recent visit, the site looks perfect for Wilson’s Snipe and may host uncommon or vagrant wetland species from time to time. I’m eager to give it a good check!

Night Birding

The nocturnal birding on this road can be very productive. Although it may take some time to find the birds, Barn and Striped Owls occur, Pacific Screech-Owl is common in wooded areas with large trees, Mottled Owl is also fairly common in those same spots, Black-and-white Owl sometimes occurs, and Spectacled Owl can show up in the more wooded riparian zones. And those aren’t the only night birds lurking in the dark!

Although uncommon, both Northern and Common Potoo have been found, Lesser Nighthawks are commonly seen in the evening skies,
and Common Pauraques will flush from the track at night. Given the open habitat, it wouldn’t be out of the question to find a rare White-tailed Nightjar and Chuck-will’s Widdow may be found in the winter months.

It’s also a good idea to pay careful attention to any nightjar seen on or perched near the road just in case you find a rare wintering Whip-poor-will or document Spot-tailed Nightjar for Costa Rica. Although not on the official list, some years ago, one may have been seen by Robert Dean and Eduardo Amengual in dry habitat on the road to Monteverde.

Given this possible sighting and its migratory nature, I included it as one of several species to look for on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app.
The wet, open fields along the Ceiba-Cascajal Road look like a very good place for this mega to occur.

I should also mention if you do go night birding on this road, keep an eye out for snakes. Please watch for any of these shy and over persecuted creatures on the road and be careful to not injure them!

Raptors

The mosaic of tropical habitats and large dove and rodent population make this road an excellent area for raptors. Keep an eye on soaring birds and check the electric pylons and big trees for perched birds.

Here’s the raptor deal on some of what to look for:

Pearl Kite– Uncommon but regular.
Vultures– Among common Black and Turkey Vultures, keep an eye out for the occasional King and rare Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture in open wet fields.
Osprey- There must be more water in this area than I think because I have often see an Osprey or two flapping overhead!
Hook-billed Kite– Uncommon but present.
Gray-headed Kite– Rare but could occur from time to time in more wooded areas.
Plumbeous Kite– An uncommon summer visitor, more common in the Guacimo-Guacalillo part of the road.
Crane Hawk– Rare but does occur in this area.
Bicolored Hawk– Rare but has been recorded.
Cooper’s Hawk– This is a good area for this uncommon wintering species.
Sharp-shinned Hawk– Another uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.
Northern Harrier– A rare wintering species in Costa Rica, this is a fair spot for it.
Harriss’ Hawk– This road is one of the easier sites for this species in Costa Rica.
Broad-winged Hawk– A common migrant and wintering species.
Short-tailed Hawk– As with many areas in Costa Rica, one of the more commonly seen raptors.
Gray Hawk– One of the most frequent raptor species in Costa Rica.

Roadside Hawk- Another common raptor in Costa Rica, especially in the lowlands.

Roadside-Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawk- Uncommon but regular.
Red-tailed Hawk– In the lowlands, occasional wintering individuals occur. This is a good site for migrants from the north.
Swainson’s Hawk– Although most migrate through Costa Rica, some winter in open areas of the Pacific lowlands.
White-tailed Hawk– An occasional visitor to this area.
Collared Forest-Falcon– As with many sites, fairly common but secretive. Easiest to detect when it calls in the early morning and evening.
Laughing Falcon– Fairly common.
American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine– The open fields of this road are good sites for these wintering species.
Bat Falcon– A pair or two seem to be present and can be seen anywhere along the road.
Aplomado Falcon– Yes! Not expected but this vagrant migrant to Costa Rica has been seen at this site and given the open habitat could occur from time to time.
Crested and Yellow-headed Caracaras– fairly common.

Parrots

It’s always fun to see parrots! The three most common species in this area are White-fronted Parrot, Orange-fronted Parakeet, and Orange-chinned Parakeet.

Yellow-naped Parrot, Red-lored Parrot, White-crowned Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet are also regular and even Scarlet Macaw can be seen.

One of several overlooked birding destinations in Costa Rica, in large part, we can thank some local birders for bringing attention to the avian richness and potential of this site, especially Beto Guido, Mckoy Umaña, and others.

I look forward to my next visit, hopefully, one that begins before dawn. To learn more about where to see birds in Costa Rica along with insider tips to look for them, check out “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica“. Happy birding, I hope to see you here!

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Can You See 300 Bird Species While Staying at Cerro Lodge?

Cerro Lodge hasn’t been visited by birders as long as some other places but I would still easily call it one of Costa Rica’s classic birding lodges. The birding is just too good. Shortly after opening around 2008, it didn’t take long for word to spread about Cerro being an excellent base for visiting Carara National Park and other nearby birding hotspots. Folks with binoculars also quickly realized that the birding was nothing short of fantastic, right at the hotel.

The highlights were many; Black-and-white Owls and Pacific Screech-Owls were frequent nightly visitors. The gaudy screeches and colors of Scarlet Macaws were a regular, daily occurrence. Birding from the deck of the restaurant turned out to be excellent for views of endangered flyby Yellow-naped Parrots and several other parrot and parakeet species. It was also good for raptors, especially the uncommon Crane Hawk. Guides scoping the distant mangroves even found displaying Yellow-billed Cotingas! Speck level distant but still identifiable and once in a while, one or two would move through the reforested grounds of the hotel.

These days, the owls don’t seem to visit the hotel as much (although they still live in the area), and some parrots may have declined but the birding is still fantastic. Thanks to an observation tower along with improved habitat, I would say that the birding chances might even be better and photography is excellent. With so many bird species possible at and near Cerro, I began to wonder if a birder could stay there and see more than 300 species.

The view from the tower.

After some analysis using the official Costa Rica Birds checklist, and knowledge of which birds are present at Cerro and nearby sites, these are my findings for birding during the winter months:

Birding Just at Hotel Cerro Lodge: 230 Species

This total includes the “La Barca Road” that goes past the entrance of the hotel but upon seeing the numbers, I admit, I was still somewhat surprised. I have had lots of great birding at the hotel and along that road, many a fantastic birdy morning, but I never got more than 120 species (which isn’t such a shabby number in any case). Even so, the numbers don’t lie and that’s even with leaving off a few vagrants or other very rare species (!).

When one factors the dynamic nature of lowland tropical habitats into account, especially at such a fantastic ecotone as the Carara area, I guess I shouldn’t really be all that surprised by a total of 230 plus possible species. After all, Cerro Lodge is an excellent, birdy spot. Such a good number of birds combined with comfort, a pool, and good food make Cerro a worthy destination all on its own. 300 species aren’t possible right at the hotel but what if we used Cerro as a base to bird additional sites in the area? Let’s say sites less than an hour’s drive from the hotel?

Birding at Cerro, Carara National Park and Sites within an Hour’s Drive: 415 Species!

The 200 plus species at Cerro are plenty to look at but if you really want to boost that birding experience, stay long enough to get the full ecotone monty. When we include the rainforests of Carara along with the mangroves and estuary at Tarcoles, and throw in the rich habitats at Jaco, our list of potentials rushes well past 300 and even surpasses 400 species!

Carara offers a chance at forest birds like the Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher.
The endangered Mangrove Hummingbird occurs at sites near Cerro Lodge and has even shown up at the lodge on a couple of occasions.

Once again, this is without including several extreme rarities and vagrants that have occurred. To hit 400, a birder would need to do some careful, focused forest birding in the national park, be quick with the binos, and stay for several days but it could certainly be done. What if we went further afield? Say, to sites within 2 hour’s drive and include a pelagic trip?

Adding Sites Within 2 Hours of Cerro Lodge and a Pelagic Trip: Chances at 40 or More Species

As it turns out, since most of the birds are available rather near the hotel, this strategy wouldn’t add a huge number of species. It would still be fun though, especially a pelagic trip because we all know how exciting those boat trips can be. Not to mention, in two hours, you could also make it to sites good for Costa Rica Brushfinch, bellbird, and some other choice species.

Could You See 500 Species?

Half a thousand species? If you only use Cerro Lodge as a base, probably not. BUT if you also spend a couple nights at Monteverde or birding in the Poas area, sure, 500 is certainly feasible. Once again, I was a bit surprised but if you manage to find 415 species while staying at Cerro and then do two or three days of some focused ninja birding at either of those highland sites, yes, you could certainly find an additional 80 plus species to push you over 500.

It would require lots of birding though. You would have to look for and look at a lot of birds. That won’t be a problem when staying at Hotel Cerro Lodge, major crossroads of tropical biodiversity can be like that.

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Lifer Benefits of Birding Costa Rica in Cabuya

Bird a place enough and the barrel of lifers gets emptied, bit by bit. Eventually, it only has room for the sneaky tough and unexpected birds; the ones you never imagine seeing, the species relegated to the rarest of blue moon birding moments.

Having birded Costa Rica for some time, that’s how it is for me and that’s Ok! Like others who have been birding for a lifetime, I find myself delving into bird behavior, moving further into the finer details of birding. Oh, I’ll still take those lifers any which way I can but I’m pleased to watch the Cliff Swallows fly high overhead and imagine what they see, the mountains and plains where they eventually go, to places where I once worked in Colorado, the sun blasted former territories of the Comanche people. I’m grateful to listen to the songs of wrens and watch tanagers forage in a fruiting fig. But, give me a chance to see a new bird or two, there’s a good chance I’ll take it.

A few days ago, I got that lifer chance on a pelagic trip out of Malpais. There were some chances for new birds but even then, they weren’t guaranteed. For me, the open seas hold several lifer possibilities but most of those choice birds are much further than the limits of a day trip. A 6 hour trip holds less promise of new birds but a few were still very much possible and the rest, well, since I hadn’t seen them in a while, they were much appreciated pseudo lifers.

I didn’t really have any chances at new birds on land but anyone new to birding in Costa Rica would have a ball around Cabuya. There’s a good amount of habitat and we had some wonderful birding. The following are some reasons for and highlights of birding around Cabuya:

Good Forest on the Road to Malpais

The next time I go to Cabuya (I do plan on going back!), I look forward to some early morning birding on the road to Malpais. It’s not the best of roads and you might have some serious issues during the wet season but even then, I would walk or bike it because the habitat along much of the road is very birdy. Near Cabuya, the road passes through edge and second growth and then eventually passes through some rare and beautiful mature forest.

During a brief bit of dawn chorus, we heard most of the expected species including Gray-headed Dove, Gray-headed Tanager, Red-crowned Ant-Tanager, and other species. A few days birding along that road would be some sweet tropical birding.

Northern Potoo, Middle American Screech-Owl and More

On the afternoon of our arrival to Cabuya, local birder Wilfredo Villalobos brought us to a side road that can be good for night birds. We stayed until dusk, listening to the calls of the later afternoon and even heard a Middle American Screech-Owl. When it got dark enough for the small owl to feel comfortable about moving around, it indeed popped into brief view. To make the birding even better, at the same time, a Northern Potoo started calling!

Before long, we were looking at that choice nocturnal species before it flew off into the night. Wilfredo told us that he also gets Black-and-white Owl on that road. Other fairly common owl species in that area include Pacific Screech-Owl, Mottled Owl, and Spectacled Owl.

Gray-headed Doves and Other Interesting Species of the Nicoya Peninsula

The avifauna around Cabuya includes a nice assortment of dry and moist forest species. That means lots of Banded Wrens, Ruddy and Ivory-billed Woodcreepers, Thicket and Little Tinamous, Red-lored Parrot, Gray-headed Dove, perhaps the rare Violaceous Quail-Dove, and much more.

Seawatching

On the way to Cabuya, we made a few stops along the coast to check extensive rocky outcrops and ocean waters. The rocks had Ruddy Turnstones and at lest one Wandering Tattler (a rather rare and local bird in Costa Rica), and the ocean had 300 plus migrating Franklin’s Gulls (!). The gulls were in a massive raft just offshore and eventually took to the sky to continue migrating north. Many had the rosy blush of breeding plumage and with their chattering, they seemed to be excited about flying back up to the northern prairies.

I would love to visit on days with stormy weather or just do some morning seawatching during migration; I bet some really good birds fly by that spot.

Digiscoped Franklin’s Gulls

Pelagic Trips

Thanks to Wilfredo Villalobos of Cabuya Bird Watching, a number of pelagic trips have been done in this area. What’s especially nice about these trips is that since Malpais is fairly close to deep water, the boat reaches the continental shelf in an hour or less. Since the boat captains are professional fishermen, they are in touch with other fishing boats, know how to find the fish, and therefore, the birds.

On our 6 hour trip, shortly after leaving the coast, upon hearing where the feeding Spinner Dolphins were, we made a beeline to that spot. Holy smokes. Try and imagine a few hundred Spinner Dolphins churning the water and jumping and spinning right next to the boat while being surrounded by hundreds of Brown Boobies, Wedge-tailed and Pink-footed Shearwaters along with smaller numbers of Galapagos Shearwaters, some Sooty Terns flying high overhead, and other birds joining the mix. On our wonderful day, those others included a few Arctic Terns, one Bridled Tern, a couple of Sabine’s Gulls, juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, a few Brown Noddies, a few Pomarine Jaegers, some Least and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels, 1 Masked Booby, and 1 Red-footed Booby!

Lest I neglect to mention, oh yes and there was that one fantastic lifer, a White Tern!

This is a screenshot of picture taken by Diego Quesada, an excellent local guide and co-owner of Birding Experiences.

Also known as the Fairy Tern, this Snowy Cotinga looking seabird did us a favor by staying with the boat for a couple hours! I mean, we sort of almost got tired of looking at it. Not really, but we had to look away to keep checking for the other rare birds. Although we didn’t see them on that day, they were probably out there somewhere, we just had too many birds to check over too large of an area!

On the way back, we had more looks at storm-petrels and one sweet Red-necked Phalarope. You won’t see the same birds on every trip, as with all pelagics, they vary by season and other factors, BUT, you will certainly see something cool. To learn more about those trips, contact Wilfredo via his Cabuya Bird Watching page.

If you do manage to visit Cabuya for birding, make sure to contact Wilfredo Villalobos. He may be available to show you around, he and his wife have rooms for rent, and they also serve some tasty pizza!

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The Carara Ecotone, Two and Half Days, 210 species

Ecotones always make for exciting birding. Where else can a birder get optics on one suite of species in the morning and a totally different bunch of birds in the afternoon? In Costa Rica, points where biodiversity converge and mingle are the norm. Drive a couple hours in one direction and we see the spectacular reds of Scarlet Macaws in flight above and the precious blues of Turquoise-browed Motmots closer to the ground. Drive two hours in the other direction and comical toucans yelp from the canopy while Chestnut-backed Antbirds and tinamous whistle from the humid undergrowth.

Another direction takes us to cooler elevations where quetzals, Black Guans, and several other endemics occur, yet another direction leads to a different group of endemic birds including the stunning Baird’s Trogon.

In a country where ecotones are the norm, it’s tough to pick a winner but in terms of biodiversity, the Carara area is probably the top ecotone in Costa Rica. Thanks to a crossroads of mangroves, dry forest, humid forest, and wetland habitats, the Carara ecotone is one heck of a birdy place. Keep looking and you will keep seeing more, while guiding there during the past few days, I recorded 210 species. These are some of the highlights and other things noted from that visit:

Tinamous and other tame birds

On account of the national park receiving so many visitors, many of the animals have become quite accustomed to people, birds included. Watch carefully for tinamous in the undergrowth and you might spy one or two right next to the trail. I did on both visits along with Streak-chested Atpitta, Stub-tailed Spadebill, Ruddy Quail-Doves, Orange-collared Manakins, and other birds.

Get in there at 7, be out by 4

During the high season (that would be now on through April), thankfully, the national park opens at 7. Six would be best but 7 is still better than 8! Get in there as soon as the park opens to be first on the trails and to catch more of the avian action. Unfortunately, you gotta be out by 4. Lately, the park has been strict about this rule, even evicting people on the trails at four. At the Meandrica Trail, the parking lot guard won’t even stay past 4 and you shouldn’t either because vehicle break-ins at that particular spot are a regular affair (when no one is there to watch the car).

Water, hydration, and heat

It’s hot and sunny at the Carara ecotone. Stay hydrated when out on the trails and take it easy! The good thing about being on the trails is that you at least have shade.

A busy bridge, some traffic jams

The crocodile bridge is being worked on, we can only hope that the work will be finished in a few weeks or a month. In the meantime, there are occasional traffic jams and always more vehicles than you expect. I was surprised to see so many on Monday morning at 6 a.m. where truck after car after bus rushed on past. We were scanning the brush for Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, it called a couple times but failed to come closer, maybe it was smarter than us for refusing to approach the busy road.

Mixed flocks

The forest was good for mixed flocks, it was nice to get repeated looks at several woodcreepers, Chiriqui Foliage-Gleaner, Dot-winged and Slaty Antwrens, Tawny-crowned Greenlet, White-shouldered Tanager, and Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers.

Try the Jaco Teleferico road

The road leading back to the Teleferico area and beyond can yield an excellent mix of species. Some of the special birds we saw included Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Scrub Greenlet, and Slate-colored Seedeater among others.

In the Carara ecotone, the birding is hot but it yields one species after another. Stay hydrated, stay in the shade, and be prepared to put your binoculars to the test!

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bird finding in Costa Rica Pacific slope

More Birds in Guanacaste

Mary and I began the birding year in the dry and moist forests of the southern Nicoya Peninsula, many of the birds coming from the Tambor bird count and beautiful Raptor Ridge. That hot, dry birding was so nice, we followed it up with a quick two day birding jaunt to the Pacific coast. Since we didn’t have much time to bird the Cerro Lodge and Jaco area, (we were visiting for other reasons, I know, incredible but true), it was more like one day of birding but the trip was still worth the drive to those sun-smashed windy lowlands. That said, thanks to Jose’s Crocodile Tours, we were still able to see some birds on the Tarcoles River during a fun, two hour tour.

The winter months are the best time of the year to visit sites from Tarcoles to Nicaragua, especially for local birders because this is when we might find rare migrants from the north like American Wigeon and other ducks, Violet-green Swallow, various wood-warblers, sparrows, and who knows what else. Being rare, they are naturally difficult to find but because every bit of birding counts, we took advantage of the chance to drive north and see what we could find.

Luckily, the drive coincided with a high tide visit to shorebird hotspot Punta Morales. There could have been more terns and other birds but we still did well with seeing the Long-billed Curlew that has been using that site along with various other expected shorebird species. No ducks but we still had more chances further up the road.

Not knowing where to stay in Liberia, we opted for spending the night at a budget priced hotel in Canas and then making the early hour drive in the morning to our main destination, the Lakeside Catfish Farms. These farms might now be used more for cattle but in any case, they still have ponds that act as a hotspot for waterbirds and other species. Since this is a private farm, you should call this number to make arrangements to enter- 2667 0022. Keep in mind that the person you will talk with probably won’t speak English and they charge $6 entrance fee that can be paid to them if/when they arrive to open the gate. This would be the first yellow gate on the way to Playas del Coco.

We arrived around 7 in the morning and started seeing birds right away. Orchard Orioles, Morelet’s Seedeaters, and other bird species were flying from roosting sites in the reeds, small groups of Dickcissels were calling and flitting from bush to bush, a Blue Grosbeak perched on a bush next to an Indigo Bunting for a perfect comparison, and other species of the dry forest called from the surrounding trees.

A tree with Dickcissels.

We had to search a bit to find the ducks, all of which were flighty and a reminder that they are hunted at various spots during migration and probably right at the Catfish Farms from time to time. We had to move around a bit to find the best vantage point but eventually had good looks at at a few hundred Blue-winged Teals, some American Coots, and one Northern Shoveler. No wigeon nor Masked Duck for us, we just didn’t have enough time to continue looking for those or other birds. Nor did Spotted Rail respond to playback, I wish we could have had more time and access for a thorough survey of that site because various choice birds are indeed hiding out there in the reeds and other scrubby vegetation around the ponds. Hopefully on another day!

Next on the list was a stop at Playa Panama, a scenic beach with calm waters where a Brown Booby fished close to shore. One Short-tailed Hawk and a Common Black-Hawk also flew over at some point but we didn’t see too much else. After that, we passed through Las Trancas but because the fields were so dry, we just kept going. Instead, we stopped for lunch at the small Italian bakery of Amadulce in the Papagayo Plaza. Good pizza, pastries, macaroons- recommended!

After enjoying quality pizza, we made our way back to Canas to check the Sandillal Reservoir.

This spot is one of Costa Rica’s best duck hotspots. During the winter months, it acts as a very important site for Blue-winged Teal and other species in search of water as the surrounding countryside dries up. During our visit, there were at least 3,000 teal, probably more like 4,000. We also found several Lesser Scaup but despite as much scanning as possible, just couldn’t find anything else. I still can’t help but feel that a few rarities were out there somewhere hiding among the hordes of teal. It was also a challenge to see most of them well so I left the site wondering what else may have been present. It will be interesting if someone else finds a rarity or two at Sandillal during the next few weeks.

With a long drive ahead of us on roads shared with slow going trucks, that ended up being our final stop for the trip. Although I always want to do more birding, you just gotta make do with what you can. The trip was still a good one in any case and with several nice year birds. I wonder which birds I will see next?

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Looking for Year Birds on the Pacific Slope

It being September and still hoping to reach 700 species, we are getting into crunch time for a birding year. Yeah, we still have a few months to go before the cavalcade of fireworks announce the end of 2019 but now is when Cerulean Warblers move through the country. Now is when we have a chance at Upland Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and some other choice species making their way to wintering grounds further south.

Mississippi Kite is one of those birds moving through Costa Rica right now.

With those avian options in mind and a day or two to work with in Costa Rica, it’s hard to pick where to go. The cloud forests at Tapanti and other sites hide several uncommon and rare species , most of which would be new for the year. There might be interesting migrants down there near sea level on the other side of the mountains, especially on the Caribbean. Then there are the shorebird sites on the Pacific. Throw in a chance at Unspotted Saw-Whet Owl and other high elevation birds on Irazu and the best spot for a bit of year birding in Costa Rica become less than obvious.

Scenery on Irazu.

Taking various factors into account, not the least of which was seeing how we could blend birding with some pool action for a non-birding 9 year old, we settled on the Pacific Coast. The warm lowlands are literally just down the “hill”, are relatively close and easier to do than say the cold mountains, and we could stay somewhere with a pool. Not to mention, sites like Punta Morales, Chomes, and other places on the Gulf of Nicoya always offer chances at the rare and unusual in addition to expected species.

We ended up staying at the Brisas del Mar Cabinas in Punta Morales. A small family run hotel with rooms that had air-conditioning, cable TV, and a fridge, although they didn’t have hot water, there was a nice little pool outside and shorebird-rich salt pans a brief jaunt down the road. The birds at the hotel were pretty standard dry forest species, our best being Spot-breasted Oriole singing from a tall tree in the garden. Just outside the hotel, a birder also finds a bird-rich blend of open fields, woodlands, and wetlands ripe for exploration.

With limited time, our exploration was likewise limited so we focused most of our birding time at the salt pans. After an early morning of occasional Dickcissel flocks flying high over the hotel, the afore-mentioned Spot-breasted Oriole, and a fantastic, rare Cave Swallow moving with Bank, Barn, and Cliff Swallows, we drove to our meeting with the wading birds from the Arctic.

As usual for Cocorocas at Punta Morales during high tide, the salt pans were dotted with at least a few hundred shorebirds, many of them calling and chattering from the shallow mud. Knowing that the birds can get up and leave at any moment, we got to scoping and scanning straight away. The most abundant species were Western and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Plover, and Willet with lesser yet still impressive numbers of Whimbrel, Marbled Godwit, Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, Ruddy Turnstone, Wilson’s Phalarope, Least Sandpiper, and a few others.

Among those others were several chunky-cool Surfbirds, a few choice year Red Knots, one lone long overdue year Collared Plover, a single lesser Yellowlegs, and some terns. The long-winged swallows of the sea were mostly Royal and Sandwich (Cabot’s) Terns along with one Gull-billed and our third year bird for the site, a single Caspian Tern. It was sweet to take in the deep red bill of that the big Caspian, finally marking that gullish tern down for the year.

We didn’t luck out with finding an American Golden Plover or other not so common shorebirds, nor did we find fortune with Mangrove Cuckoo or Mangrove Rail or the wood-rail but the birding was still satisfying (if mosquitoey). Nor did we find any of the few Upland Sandpipers that were moving through the country but just the day before a few had been seen at a site that we could fit in on the drive back so we still had a chance, and a good one. So, we did just that, exiting the busy highway to take the much quieter road from Ceiba to Orotina.

This is a really cool road because it passes through some interesting wide open wet pastures that tend to attract interesting birds. The only shame was not being able to take a lot more time to check out the area. Our birding was thus essentially a quick drive-by experience with occasional brief stops to scan the grass, and during light rain. Despite giving it a good try, no Uplands were to be had by us that day, nor any Buff-breasteds for that matter. As consolation, at least we know that other local birders who checked the site shortly after we did likewise dipped on the grasspipers.

However, we didn’t leave empty-handed. One female Purple Martin made an appearance to up the year list, and driving that road was a good reminder to dedicate more birding time on another day, preferably for a few hours in the morning. Grasshopper Sparrows have been seen there and I bet other surprises await on the Ceiba Road.

I’m not sure if we will get in any birding next weekend, but if so, no matter where we go, I know the birding will be satisfying. It always is in mega birdy Costa Rica.

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bird finding in Costa Rica dry forest Guanacaste Pacific slope

Reflections from a Quick Trip to Guanacaste

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

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

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

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

Lots of these were around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome forest at Rincon de la Vieja.

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

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

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

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

Common Ground Dove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dry forest habitats along the Guacalillo Road

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

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

Turquoise-browed Motmot- always impressive.

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

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

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

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

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

Carara National Park

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

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

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

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

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

The Tarcoles area

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

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

Cerro Lodge Road

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

Crane Hawk- an uncommon raptor.

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

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Looking for Shorebirds and Yearbirds in Costa Rica

Last Friday, my partner Marilen and I had a golden chance to go birding. Non-birding daughters were being taken care of, we had a free day! Did we watch the latest “Avengers” movie? Go for lunch or out to dinner? “Claro que no”. Naturally, we decided to look for year birds. But, where to go? The cool highlands for Buffy Tuftedcheek and other species needed by Team Tyto? The Caribbean side to search for Canada Warbler and other migrants?

Roadside birding on Poas Volcano.

The smartest move may have been trying for Black-crowned Antpitta at Braulio Carrillo. I have been hearing one there for the past couple weeks and it would be a mega tick for Mary. But, since late April is prime time for shorebirds in Costa Rica, and the best longshot at Hudsonian Godwit, with visions of dowitchers, Pectoral Sandpipers, and other year birds in mind, we took a gamble on the coast. Although we probably should have left in the early morn, since high tide wasn’t going to happen until two something in the afternoon, we made a leisurely 10 a.m. exit from the house.

Although Chomes was the main destination, we decided to check out Punta Morales first. The drive to the salt ponds at Morales was the usual rocky and dusty jaunt but as always, each minute was heavy with anticipation. This is one of those place a bet birding places; a site where any number of rare birds can show or where there might be nothing at all. You have to drive on in to see what’s there, you just might hit the jackpot where winnings include thousands of shorebirds, terns, and who knows what else. Come to think of it, a remote camera would be ideal at Punta Morales. It could tell us when most of the birds are there and when the nearest birders should race there to twitch a jaeger or some mega like a Gray-hooded Gull (a local ornithologist recently documented one from this site!). A cam. would have been especially helpful on Friday because as it turned out, we were greeted by very few birds; just a small group of Willets, Whimbrels, and one Marbled Godwit.

No problem, you never know unless you look! And, we still had Chomes to look forward to. The drive in to Chomes tends to be rockier and dustier but is also more exciting. It’s a longer drive and can give a birder Spot-breasted Oriole, thick-kness, rare swallow species, and even Upland Sandpiper. Although we had none of those, we did find a surprise Black Swift! An excellent find and key year bird (aren’t they all?), it foraged low over the trees for perfect looks. Not so for the swallows but most seemed to be Barns in any case.

Other interesting species on the drive in included Shiny Cowbird, Orange-fronted Parakeets, and sleek Scissor-tailed Flycatchers but the best stuff was waiting at the end of the road (or so we thought). It’s back there near the beach where the shorebirds tend to be, and, fortunately, the road was good enough to make the drive. Unfortunately, though, few birds were present.

Given the prime date for spring migration, I was honestly surprised. There were some birds and we did manage a year Wilsons’s Phalarope but not nearly as many as expected. No terns either. The tide and timing were right, I can only wonder if the Holy Friday beachgoers had something to do with the lack of birds. There were lots of people there on the beach making lots of noise and racing back and forth with boats. Yeah, I guess if I was migrating from South America up to the Arctic, I would also hope for a bit more peace and quiet.

But, we did pick up that phalarope and swift and it’s always fun to bird there. However, on a somewhat alarming note, the construction of shacks continues apace at Chomes, if it keeps growing, this very important site could lose habitat, birds might be hunted, and it could end up being inaccessible to birders.

Not wanting to wait and see if more birds would brave the Holy Friday chaos on the beach, we made our departure from Chomes and drove towards Ensenada.

An overlook at Ensenada.

A private wildlife refuge and lodge, Ensenada protects excellent shorebird habitat as well as mangroves and dry forest habitats. The grounds of the refuge are good birding and a lot can also be seen along roads outside the lodge. On the Arizona Road, we picked up our first Thicket Tinamous of the year while listening to the songs of Banded Wrens, Long-tailed Manakins, and other dry forest species.

Once we reached Ensenada, we made a bee-line for the salt ponds and were greeted by a good number of shorebirds. Quite a few Ruddy Turnstones were there along with Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, three species of peeps, Wilson’s and Semipalmated Plovers, and a few other species. The best for us was our year Stilt Sandpiper. While watching the shorebirds, we also heard a year Spot-breasted Oriole and saw a flyby Hook-billed Kite. A quick view of Plumbeous Kite rounded out Team Tyto’s birds of 2019 before dusk took over and saw us on the long road to home.

Hook-billed Kite from another day.

It was a good, long day, we had 17 species of shorebirds, now we have to figure out when we can add that Pittasoma and catch a few other key year birds at the same time…

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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Horizontes- Good Birding in Guanacaste

Known for sun, beaches, and wide open vistas, Guanacaste is a popular tourist destination that encompasses the northwestern region of Costa Rica. Acting as the southern terminus for the tropical dry forest ecosystems of the Middle American Pacific slope,the lay of the land offers an appeasing blend of windswept fields dotted with octopi-like acacias, evergreen riparian zones that act as avian oases, patches of remnant dry forest, and rich wetlands.

The blend of easy birding and good tourism infrastructure makes northwestern Costa Rica an ideal part of the country to mix birding with a family visit. Those factors also make Guanacaste a good choice for local birders and even more so because the region offers high potential in Costa Rica for finding rare migrants. American Pipit has occurred as well as vagrant sparrows, wood-warblers, Aplomado Falcon, and even Gray Kingbird.

A few of the top sites for shorebirds are also in Guanacaste and since the region sees so little coverage for large areas of good habitat, who knows what else might be lurking along a dry creek bed or near some hidden pond? Maybe Costa Rica’s first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher? Sharp-tailed Sandpiper? Maybe even a Burrowing Owl? Long shots for sure but they might honestly be out there and the best thing about looking for them is seeing hundreds of other bird species in the process.

This past weekend, while guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, I visited Horizontes, one of many sites in Guanacaste that sees little birding coverage. Although we didn’t find any crazy megas, both Robert Dean and I agreed that the site would be perfect for finding rarities during the height of the dry season as wetlands shrink and thus act as oases for birds. Even though we didn’t manage to add Lark Sparrow to our Costa Rica lists (a real mega around here), we were still very pleased with the overall birding at Horizontes and plan on making a return visit.

Horizontes is a large habitat restoration project just south of Santa Rosa National Park and based on the numbers of birds we saw, it seems to be working. These are some suggestions and remarks from birding there:

Several Key dry forest species are present, check out my eBird lists from my visit.
Although much of the forest is in varying degrees of second growth, there are some larger, older trees in a riparian zone and we had a very good assortment of dry forest species including uncommon species. Some of the highlights included-
Thicket Tinamou– common! Although in keeping with tinamou decorum, still tricky to see.
Double-striped Thick-Knee– we had a few.
Plain Chachalaca– we heard a few of this very uncommon species for Costa Rica.
Elegant Trogon– we heard a few.
Ivory-billed Woodcreeper– we had a couple.
Northern Potoo– we did not see one but they are regular at this site, with a bit more time to work with I am sure we would have found one.
Western Tanager, White-lored Gnatcatcher and many other regular Guanacaste species were very common.

Spot-bellied (Crested) Bobwhite– we saw a covey near the main buildings.
Yellow-naped Parrot– we had regular sightings of this endangered species.
Myiarchus flycatchers– these were especially common, in fact, along with the gnatcatcher, some of the most common birds heard and seen throughout the day. Great-crested were very common and an example of the important role reforestation projects can play to provide habitat for this and other boreal migrants.
Brown-crested and Nutting’s were also seen quite often.

Brown-crested

Nutting’s

Mangrove Cuckoo– we had beautiful looks at a couple of these cool birds.

Western Kingbird– an uncommon wintering species in Costa Rica.

Bird the main roads
Although birding a trail or two is worth the effort, we had our best birding right along the main tracks through the reserve.

A White-necked Puffbird was nice as were close looks at a female Hook-billed Kite.

Check the lagoon especially during the dry season
We had fewer birds than hoped but still managed nice looks at Painted Bunting and an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. Once the surrounding area dries out, this site would be a good one to check for much rarer species.

Stay there to save money or just visit as a day trip
The accommodations at Horizontes are basic but fine and clean and include rooms with bunk beds and fans (standard for a field station). The food was local fare and it was delicious!
However, it’s also just as easy to visit as a day trip from Liberia, Playa Hermosa, or other nearby beaches. The road in was also driveable even with a regular car (albeit with careful driving).

Keep an eye out for rare birds
Since few people bird at Horizontes and the site has potential for turning up rare species, it’s good to keep this in mind and be ready to take pictures of any unusual birds. We were told about a strange bird that has occurred there that sounded like it might be some owl species and maybe even a Great Horned (a real mega for Costa Rica).
However, despite visiting the site where it has showed both during the day and at night, we didn’t find anything different. I want to check again though…

Check other nearby sites for more species
Given the proximity of rice fields and other wetlands to Horizontes, it’s worth venturing outside the station to bird other sites. On an afternoon visit to the rice fields at Las Trancas, we did very well with excellent looks at Spotted Rails, Harriss’s Hawks, Northern Harrier, and many Scissor-tailed Flycatchers.

Hello rail!

Horizontes is easily visited as a day trip, all a birder has to do is drive in and pay the national park entrance fee. Meals and overnight stays would need to be arranged in advance but that should be easily done by contacting the station manager.

The best time to visit is during the dry season, note that some of the roads may be impassable during the wet season. Although Santa Rosa has better forest habitat, what we liked about Horizontes was the feeling that we were birding in an area with little coverage and high potential. If visiting Horizontes, please post your results to eBird and mention them in the comments for this post. Good birding in Costa Rica!