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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

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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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

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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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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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!

Categories
bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica birding lodges Pacific slope

Birding off the Beaten Track at Saladero Lodge, Costa Rica

When visiting another country, most of us stick to the same itineraries followed by tour companies and birders doing it on their own. Why not? That way, we already know the logistics, and more or less what to expect. It is the easiest route to take so why not stick to the road well traveled?

While there is nothing wrong with birding in the same places as thousands of other folks with binoculars have done, there are a few good reasons to leave the trodden path for birding in Costa Rica. Some excellent sites are actually not visited by tours and not because they don’t come with suitable accommodation. Such sites are usually left off the itinerary because the distances and travel times just don’t work with the rest of the tour, or the agency doesn’t even know about those places where you can watch birds in primary rainforest, enjoy excellent organic meals, and where the non-birding spouse can do some fish watching while snorkeling.

I visited just such a place last weekend when I guided our local birding club at Saladero Lodge. Situated on the forested shores of the Golfo Dulce, Saladero is run by an American-British couple who always make guests feel at home and strive to give them an unforgettable trip. At least that’s how I felt after two nights at Saladero. The food was excellent as was the service, and the scenery wasn’t so bad either…

But what about the birding? Well, that was pretty nice too…

The best species was Yellow-billed Cotinga, a highly endangered bird that requires lowland rainforest near tall mangroves. That uncommon combination combined with a small range of just southern Costa Rica and Panama makes it a rare bird indeed. But, since Saladero meets those requirements, the cotinga can be seen most mornings as it moves through the area. Thanks to local guide Stacey Hollis, we saw four. Check out Stacie’s well written blog!

Other benefits of birding right from the area around the cabinas were sightings of various tanagers, Baird’s Trogon, Golden-naped Woodpecker, woodcreepers, Black-bellied and Riverside Wrens, White Hawk, and other rainforest species. A tame Great Tinamou was a good sign of a protected forest sans hunting pressure as were the presence of calling Great Curassows and Marbled Wood-Quail in the nearby forest.

Band-tailed Barbthroat was also common near the lodge.

Speaking of the forest, it looked fantastic; immense, old trees were the norm. I would have liked to have birded more inside that beautiful part of Piedras Blancas National Park but will hopefully do so on my next trip there. The little interior forest birding that was done yielded Golden-crowned Spadebill, Black-faced Anthrush, Scaly-throated Leaftosser, trogons, and some other birds. I’m sure there is also a lot more to be had, especially considering that a Crested Eagle was photographed in this area just two years ago!

Add in the good birding in open and edge habitats en route to Golfito and a trip to Saladero can result in a large number of species including an excellent selection of quality species (including birds like Red-rumped Woodpecker and Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager, both of which were seen en route).

Last but not least, I should also mention that the night birding is pretty good. Crested Owls were heard each night and appear to be fairly common there, Mottled was also heard and Black and white is sometimes also present. Tropical Screech-Owl can also be found, and we heard the local variety of Vermiculated Screech-Owl. If we would have done some night birding inside the forest, I dare say we would have probably seen that and more.

The South Pacific form of Vermiculated Screech-Owl, a likely split. This one was from Esquinas Lodge.

Other benefits of staying at Saladero include supporting a sustainable venture that is closely involved with local conservation efforts, watching sea turtles and other occasional aquatic wildlife of the gulf, fishing in pristine waters for your own dinner (we dined on a fantastic Snook!), snorkeling in clear tropical waters with lots of fish, and staying at one of the more remote and wild spots in Costa Rica. If that sounds interesting, let me know, we can plan a trip!

Until next time!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica Pacific slope

Random Observations on the Ferry While Birding in Costa Rica

Lately, eBird tells us that there have been some good sightings from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Ten or more Galapagos Shearwaters have been seen along with Bridled Tern and Brown Noddy. Given that I still needed the two tropical terns for the year, and that they would probably be departing from our waters at any time, I gave in to temptation yesterday and did some ferry birding. Feeling too lazy to awake at three a.m. (I know what kind of birder am I!), I opted for drifting down to the coast for the 9 o:clock boat. Although the earliest boat is always the most intriguing, the one at nine a.m. is still good for birds, and the eleven boat isn’t too bird shabby either. And, you can always scan from the point well before the hour of departure. I did just that yesterday and enjoyed views of a few dolphins and some nice flocks of distant feeding birds, one of which had my 2017 Bridled Tern.

The view from the point.

With one down and one or more to go, I headed out into the Gulf of Nicoya, scanning the sea with bins and scope in my hungry attempt for year birds. The bird activity was good, I got two more year birds (Brown Noddy and Red-billed Tropicbird) and also made some random observations that could come in handy when taking the ferry. They are as follows in the order in which I typed them on my phone:

Tropicbirds mindblast out of nowhere: Instead of taking notes on the bird’s plumage, yes, this is what came to mind. Since I saw every pertinent field mark in excellent light and at close range, I didn’t feel like making notes of that mental recording. What impressed me more was how the thing managed to escape my scanning efforts until it was right in front of the boat. Did it come from the left, the right, or maybe from above? I have no idea because it just popped into view, right in front, and when I put my bins on it, whammo, the possible Royal Tern was a tropicbird! On it flew off to the right, behind the boat, and off into nowhere. No time for a picture but you can bet that the experience is recorded into the cerebral database. I always wondered if and when I would see one from the ferry. The interesting thing about this birdy was that it was an adult. Since almost all records are of juveniles, it could mean that other birds from elsewhere are also currently taking advantage of the natural chum in the Gulf, and that brings up my next two observations.

Now is a damn good time for Galapagos Shearwater: We see this nice bird now and then from the ferry, especially during the wet season. That said, I have never seen around 30 in one day! They were in groups of five or more and could be seen floating on the water like tropical Alcids, fluttering and gliding out of the way of the ferry, and feeding with Black Terns. Pretty nice! With all of the run-off going into the Gulf, it seems plausible that the shearwaters and all sorts of life forms are taking advantage of the extra food.

Egrets on driftwood: As usual, I saw a few Snowy Egrets hunting on drift lines, pretty far from shore. They perch on driftwood or whatever and then surely catch small fish and other creatures that try to take shelter below the stuff.

Plastic is seriously messing up our fish tank: We keep hearing about this and it’s true. I mean how stupid are we as a species? Just let it keep happening until we ruin the oceans and everything that depends on them? This was all too easy to think about upon seeing bits of plastic stuff populating the drift lines.

Taking the ferry? Get ready to dance!: Yeah, seriously. Fortunately, you don’t have to dance and no one was yesterday but you might be tempted. Well, that or tempted to get devious and sort of disconnect the speakers by accident. Be forewarned that the mid-morning ferry from Paquera has a resident DJ and he may entertain with the sounds of rap, merengue, salsa, or a Michael Jackson mix. Yesterday, he started with some P. Diddy (aka Puff Daddy) before grooving into classic salsa. I didn’t mind the salsa. I wouldn’t have minded some Big Poppa raps either because after all, how many people can say that they have watched Galapagos Shearwaters while listening to lyrics like, “I love it when they call me Big Poppa! Put your hands in the air if you are a true player..”, or one of my favorites, “Birthdays was the worst days but now we drink champagne when we thirstay!” Next time, I’m gonna request that but only if a good bird shows up.

Imagine seeing these while hearing, “Biggie Biggie Biggie can’t you see
Sometimes your words just hypnotize me
And I just love your flashy ways
Guess that’s why they broke, and you’re so paid”. (RIP Notorious B.I.G.)

I wish I had a superscope: The “superscope” would make it possible to watch birds at incredible distances. It would show excellent resolution at like 1,000 times magnification and account for everything from heat waves to sound waves, movement of wind, boats, and whatever else, as well as the very curvature of the planet. It would also have night vision and thermal features, be made of lightweight yet impossibly strong nanoparticles, would always float, and would come with an option for a mini French press. That way, I could just scan from shore and tick off albatrosses and Pterodromas while sipping fresh Costa Rican coffee. There’s an idea for you MIT, RIT, and whatever birding engineers are out there.

Good luck with ferry birding, I hope I see you on the boat and that we get that Black-vented Shearwater. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone did this weekend.

 

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Birding Costa Rica dry forest Pacific slope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Fly-over Hook-billed Kite was also cool.

 

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

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

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

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

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