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bird finding in Costa Rica Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Why Get a Field Guide for Costa Rica Now?

With the world on hold, now might not seem to be the ideal time to plan a birding trip. It might not appear to be the best moment to buy a field guide, look into tours, and figure out which birds a birder wants to see the most.

The Ornate Hawk-Eagle is high on the target list of many a birder.

Although it’s arguably silly to plan a tour for a given date without knowing when the destination will be open, now is actually perfect to think about traveling for birding, buying field guides, and dreaming of target species. Here’s why:

Destinations Will Eventually Open

Any type of limbo can present serious challenges to seeing the end of the tunnel because in the absence of a definite time frame, it’s that much harder to envision when something will happen. We think of the future and it seems to be blocked by black velvet paintings of uncertainty, by what ifs and unforeseen problems. When that happens, we need to sit back, have a tequila or eat a donut or whatever you need to do to ground yourself and push the mental curtains of uncertainty aside to be able to look at things through realistic, hopeful eyes. In the case of world travel, it’s more than likely that countries will eventually open back up and when they do, they will be more than eager for visitors. It will be a fantastic time to travel and it will eventually happen. Nothing better to do that be ready for it!

It Pays to be Prepared for a Birding Trip

Speaking of being ready for a trip, birding trips require a special degree of preparation. Yeah, you could jump on a plane to Australia or Fiji at a moment’s notice but you wouldn’t be any bit of ready for the birding. You would have no idea what to look for, what to identify, where to go, nor where to stay. It would sort of be like some happy go lucky nightmare situation. Whether visiting Polynesia, France, or Costa Rica, it’s far better to be over prepared than wondering what you are looking at and lamenting about birds and cool places missed during and after the trip. The more time you have to study, the less stressful and more fulfilling the trip will be. With that in mind, start studying for Costa Rica now to have the best and most satisfying trip possible.

You don’t want to miss seeing an Emerald Tanager.

Get a field guide in advance and you can take as much time as you want to learn about the lifers you will eventually see. Learn about different families of birds, learn how to identify everything from woodcreepers to hummingbirds, pick the birds you want to see the most. In the case of a digital field guide, you can mark target species, study birds by region, by family, make notes, and listen to their songs while looking at images of the birds you hope to see.

Part of the Fun is Getting Ready for the Trip

Not to mention, a big part of going somewhere isn’t just being there for the experience. It’s also getting ready for the trip, looking into places, trying to get an idea, a picture of what to expect. It doesn’t just make for better preparation, thinking about that trip also gives you something to look forward to, life goals to meet, and most of all, birds waiting to be seen. Check out field guides, decide which ones to get and buy them. Once you have that book in hand, that digital field guide on your phone, you are already on your way to Costa Rica.

Time On Our Hands

If anything, during a pandemic, many a birder has more time on his or her hands. It’s a perfect time to look into and study for future trips. Use these days, these months, to get ready for birding far afield.

Supporting Tours is Support for Conservation

I should also mention that looking into tours now and maybe even signing up for one translates to support for conservation. Most birding tours actively support local conservation efforts either directly and/or indirectly. The sooner you can safely reserve or sign up for lodging or a birding tour, the sooner you will be making a difference for people who often act as the front line of protection for tropical forests.

Conservation for endangered species like the Great Green Macaw.

Think Positive!

Most days, the news isn’t exactly on the bright side of the spectrum but that doesn’t change the fact that many vaccines are being worked on, many people are doing their best to make it through this pandemic and safely open as soon as possible, and that this will eventually pass. Stay safe, support conservation and start planning for that trip, the birds will be waiting.

Want to think about birding in Costa Rica? You can’t go wrong with How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica, a 700 plus page e-book with information on where to go birding, what the birding is like in Costa Rica, and how to identify many of the species waiting to be seen.

Fancy birds like the Violet-headed Hummingbird.

As far as field guides go, the book I recommend is the handy and excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean. The size of the book is right as are the excellent illustrations, information and range maps.

Since no modern birding trip would be complete without a digital field guide, I also recommend the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app. Yes, I do work on it and because we want birders to have a trip of a lifetime, we have made a steady set of improvements since its inception. A birder can now customize their app with target lists, notes on birds, good range maps, and much more. Since the latest update includes information and range maps for every bird on the Costa Rica list, multiple images for 919 species, and sounds for 829 of them, this birding app is just as excellent for reference and planning for a trip as it is in the field (even I use it pretty much every day!).

Start planning a trip to Costa Rica today, birds like this Fiery-throated Hummingbird will be waiting.

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biodiversity birds to watch for in Costa Rica preparing for your trip

The Backyard Hummingbird in Costa Rica

Backyards and hummingbirds? Ha! Not while growing up just off Pine Avenue in Niagara Falls, New York. Seeing a hummingbird, even the only one remotely likely in my area, seemed like a pipe dream, something that could never happen. How could they occur in our tiny backyard? Northern Cardinals, occasional Blue Jays and a once in a while Downy Woodpecker yes but a backyard hummingbird? No way. And yet, on one rare day on a rainy May morning, I did see a hummingbird on our street and it was NOT a Ruby-throated!

All these years later, I can’t say whether it was a Rufous or an Allen’s but it was most certainly one of those western vagrants. An extreme rarity for western New York and yet there it was checking out some potted flowers just across the street from our house in what must have been 1983. I know it must have been that year of parachute pants, Culture Club and Gorf because I spent much of that summer hanging out with Henry and Robbie and it was Henry who noticed the bird. We were on Rob’s porch when non-birding Henry suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, what’s that?”. The subject of interest was a rufous-colored hummingbird inspecting some flowers and then it was gone. I didn’t run to my house for binos, I had no idea how rare and unusual that sighting actually was but I did see it very well and yet I couldn’t do anything about it. There was no social media, I wasn’t connected to any possible rare bird alert and am not even sure if I had met another birder at that point.

Oddly enough, that Selasphorus was the only hummingbird I have ever seen on Augustus Place. Ruby-throateds ended up being regular just outside of town but when I was 11, almost all of my birding was restricted to backyards, a nearby series of grassy vacant lots, and the Niagara State Park. Since then, my sphere of birding has expanded to include many places with a common, garden hummingbird species. Some places have several birds buzzing the flowers and feeders out back, Costa Rica included. However, if we had to name one classic backyard hummingbird for Costa Rica, it would have to be the good old Rufous-tailed.

This edge species is the most frequent hummingbird in many parts of Costa Rica and the de-facto nectivore around San Jose. A common bird of open and edge habitats, the Rufous-tailed is a good one to learn well so you can recognize other hummingbird species that dare to venture into the garden as well as birds that live in more forested habitats. Basically, if the hummingbird has a reddish tail, greenish throat, and mostly red bill, it’s a Rufous-tailed. Different types of lighting can make things tricky but if the bird has those afore-mentioned characters, it is a Rufous-tailed.

BUT, it’s not the only backyard hummingbird in Costa Rica and for folks who live in the highlands or dry areas, it might not even be present. Up in the mountains, many more species are likely, the Lesser Violetear being one of the most frequent.

Like the Rufous-tailed, the violetear is an edge and semi-open species. However, you can still expect to see it with several other species, even beauties like Purple-throated Mountain-gem,

and even Violet Sabrewing.

In dry areas, the Rufous-tailed is replaced by the Cinnamon. Another Amazilia, this bird is pretty much the Rufous-tailed of the dry forest areas of Guanacaste and also occurs in parts of the Central Valley.

While watching one of those feisty Cinnamons, you might also see a Canivet’s Emerald.

Blue-vented Hummingbird is also regular both in dry forests and many parts of the Central Valley.

In humid zones, although the Rufous-tailed is still one of the most common species in gardens and open areas, it shares space with several other species including hermits, Crowned Woodnymph,

Blue-chested Hummingbird on the Caribbean slope,

and Charming Hummingbird on the Pacific slope.

As testament to Costa Rica’s amazing biodiversity, folks who live in or near forest can also expect several other species, some tours see 30 or even 40 species (!). One we get past this pandemic, they will be waiting, maybe even one of Cope’s best backyard species, the White-tipped Sicklebill.

In the meantime, be careful, stay safe, jeep watching birds and study for that eventual trip to Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Costa Rica = Easy Fantastic Birding

I haven’t spent much time birding lately. Now is when the guiding season reaches a low point, and by chance, now is also when I have been working on other projects. I am still grateful though, and I still see birds. I step through the front door and swifts pattern the skies every morning. Chestnut-collareds forage over a mango tree and nearby coffee farms along with three or four species of swallows, Vaux’s Swift, White-collared Swift, and one of those non-vocalizing Cypseloides. That’s what we call Spot-fronted and White-chinned Swifts most of the time, or, at least when they don’t vocalize and fly too high up there to see the pattern on their faces.

One of those friendly neighborhood Chestnut-collared Swifts. 

Right out the front door they are along with a Lesson’s Motmot or two, Brown Jays, a flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets, handsome Hoffmann’s Woodpeckers (aren’t most woodpeckers handsome?) and other birds. This morning, Baltimore Orioles chattered from brushy trees. New arrivals and now here for the winter duration. May they thrive and fly all the way back to breed. The same goes for Yellow, Tennessee, and Chestnut-sided Warblers all here now and just outside the door. At times, I hear the calls of a Short-tailed Hawk from high overhead, that’s one of our common hawks. Other times, I detect the audible presence of one of the other common raptors, the Gray Hawk. And at night, I hear the occasional shriek of a Barn Owl canvassing the neighborhood, keeping the rat numbers down.

These, just outside, and I’m not even birding and that’s partly why Costa Rica is easy fantastic birding (EFB if you will). There’s a lot of green space, there are beautiful tropical forests, and because this country is not one of the bigger nations of our world, it’s all within arms reach. A few arguments for Costa Rica being synonymous wth EFB:

Easy to visit– Folks who live in southern Canada or much of the eastern USA can get here on one or two flights, usually six hours flight time at most. Yeah, that’s all! Before you know it, you are here and the list is 920 plus species. There are plenty of choices for accommodation and good infrastructure for tourism. As testament to this, I know many birders who visit Costa Rica over and over. They saw how easy it was to visit, the great birding is impossible to ignore and so they just keep coming back.

Because Northern Emerald Toucanet. 

Easy to access habitat– Every major habitat in the country and I guess even minor ones can be visited by vehicle. Easily. Want to try and see an Unspotted Saw-whet Owl? Um, yeah! It’s cold up there but it’s a drive into the mountains on good roads. How about ye good olde mind blowing quetzal? Ditto, although not nearly as cold. And, a couple dozen birds only found in Costa Rica and Panama live up there too…

Like the fancy Purple-throated Mountain-Gem 

Wetlands, lowland rainforest, foothill rainforest, cloud forest, tropical dry forest. Each have their own suite of species and all are accessible. Imagine driving from Florida to Colorado but in a couple hours and then to California a couple hours later, and then swinging down to sweet Arizona but in another hour. Except that the habitats have more birds, like hundreds of them. I’m not sure if that paints the best picture of birding in Costa Rica but I hope it hints at how amazing this place is for birding.

Easy to see birds…no..a lot of birds!– Like the ones out my front door. Or just up the road in the mountains. At other sites, the birds just keep on coming. Like the Carara area. Holy smokes, can you imagine identifying 100 species in a couple hours? And then adding birds all day long? That’s Carara for you, a major meeting point of different habitats with hundreds of bird species. Or, lowland rainforest on the other side of the mountains, likewise, lots of birds, lots of species, and they just keep coming. Or, the good birding in the highlands, or just innocently driving along. For example, the other day, while driving from the Caribbean lowlands to the highlands, minding my own business and without trying, six or more toucans couldn’t help but be noticed along with groups of oropendolas, four or five species of parrots and parakeets, the usual Bat Falcon on its perch, a couple other raptor species, Amazon Kingfisher, and I also heard the voices of several other species, some of which were missed by my Team Tyto during birding on Global Big Day in the same area! It’s almost like you can’t not see birds.

Hard to not see.

Fantastic birding– All this adds up to fantastic birding. I suppose that’s birding where additional species keep on popping into view. Where the action is good for much of the day. Where migrants mingle with coveted residents. Where mixed flocks of tanagers, woodpeckers, and whatever else make your head spin as they hurriedly forage their way through lush forest. I guess it’s a situation where the birding never seems to stop. There’s always more and it’s always exciting! It’s also fantastic when you bird with the right person or people,  and that’s why Costa Rica is also perfect for sharing with a birding partner and friends. As a bonus, heck, a birder doesn’t even have to take a trip with other birders to still connect with hundreds of species. Thanks to the abundant tourist offerings in Costa Rica, a birder can stay at key places with the family and sneak in early morning birding time during the trip with nary a critique from the non-birding ones.

The birding in Costa Rica really is easy and fantastic, as always, I hope every birder gets a chance to bird Costa Rica at least once in their lives. Need guiding and/or help to set up your trip? I would love to help. I know some excellent birding tours offered for great prices and can also set up custom trips. Contact me at information@birdingraft.com

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preparing for your trip weather

Five Reminders for Birding Costa Rica During the Winter

At this time of year, I tend to be bathing in the warmth of my parent’s home in Niagara Falls, NY accompanied by family and a plate of good old fashioned gnocchi from the Como Restaurant.

Yum.

My daughter also lives up to her yearly promise of hitting me with a snowball as I enjoy the familiar sights and sounds of red cardinals, chickadees, and juncos. This, year, though, we didn’t make the trip and given the reports of soul-biting temperatures and abundant white stuff, I kind of don’t mind that we stayed in Costa Rica, that I missed out on Como gnocchi in late December. It’s not so bad, I mean I got the chance to do some awesome Christmas Bird Counts, pushed up the year list total a little bit more and finally even saw a Spotted Rail!

While staying here for the changing of the years, I was also reminded of some things to keep in mind when birding in Costa Rica. These are five of them:

Yellow-bellied Flycatchers are the de-facto Empid: Never mind the Leasts, here’s the Yellow-bellieds! No matter how uncommonly seen it may be up north, most winter Empids in Costa Rica are this one. Pish and it will probably call back, take advantage of studying them but do keep an eye out for Acadians. The southern Empid is here as well, just not as common as the little flycatcher on vacay from the boreal zone. An occasional Least is also seen but know that the small Empid with the gray head is quite the rare find this far south.

The Yellowish Flycatcher is also common in middle elevation forest but its much more obviously yellow than migrant Empids.

I may have a yellow belly but I still rule the winter Empid scene in Costa Rica.

It’s cooler now: Just like up north, temperatures go down but instead of sinking to bitter freezing cold, they only skip-drop a few degrees. This makes for slightly more welcome temperatures in Carara and other sun-baked areas of the Pacific lowlands, as well as a nippy climate when owling for the Unspotted Saw-whet.

Beware of festivals: Not that there’s anything bad about streets being taken over by prancing horses, random fireworks, and loud music. It’s just that when you need to get somewhere to see birds, such activities can become rather problematic. At least festivities tend to be held in urban areas and not on major highways, and Waze should let you know when you need to make that detour (unless you do feel like partaking in beers, horses, and experiencing the local version of “yee-haw!”).

Dry and windy in the west, rain in the east: Or, is that north and then south? Yes, you could say that too, I suppose it’s easiest to remember that it’s dry on one side of the mountains and wet on the other. A generalization for sure but more or less true at this time of year. It probably won’t infringe upon the birding too much, stick with it and you will still see a lot!

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

Birds take vacations too: Many in Costa Rica move to lower elevations and odd places in quests for food and more pleasant climes. Watch for fruiting trees and bushes in lowland and foothill rainforests on both slopes. That’s where a lot of the birds are!

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

I hope these reminders are of help for any bird-related trip to Costa Rica. As always, I also hope to see you in the field, especially if we happen to be watching a Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, or a Loggerhead Shrike (nope, not on the list yet and not likely, but I did have a vivid dream about seeing one in Costa Rica).

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Two Weeks of Costa Rica Birding Highlights

Regarding birding endeavors, the past two weeks have been good ones . I have added some really good year birds, visited the birding oasis known as Rancho Naturalista, and have shared birds with clients and friends while guiding at every elevation on the Caribbean slope. I also managed to add a surprise year bird to my 2017 list while checking the Pacific coast for storm driven vagrants. The following is a summary of those highlights:

Birding the Pacific coast yields a major surprise: There have been some major storms may out there in the Pacific. Although they didn’t roar on in to Costa Rica, the outlying waves from those storms did make it to our shores and they have surely brought some good birds with them. With that in mind, I decided to check a few coastal sites with friends on August 13th. It took a while but we did eventually find a mega Sooty Shearwater! Hours of scanning rough seas from Tarcoles, Caldera, and Puntarenas had yielded little more than a few Black Terns, a few Sulids, and brief looks at Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrel when Johan suddenly exclaimed, “What’s this bird here?!” A dark bird floating on the surface moves right in front of us, all the while looking like some odd, lost duck. Except that the dark bird just offshore from the tip of Puntarenas isn’t a duck but a brown species of shearwater. We run to the end of the overlook near the Puntarenas lighthouse and manage some looks at a Sooty Shearwater before it floats too far into the gulf for easy looks. Although this species used to be seasonally common in pelagic waters off of Costa Rica, you would need some powerball luck to see even one during ten pelagic trips. With that in mind (and the fact that a Swallow-tailed Gull was seen in Seattle), I can’t help but wonder what other serious megas are lurking out there in Costa Rican waters.

Sooty Shearwater for the year list!

Guiding around Tirimbina: The birding is always going to be good in the Sarapiqui region. During a day of guiding at Tirimbina and nearby, our best birds were Snowy Cotinga, White-fronted Nunbird, Streak-crowned Antvireo, White-flanked Antwren, and perched Great Green Macaw just before the rain poured down.

Tirimbina is one of the last sites in Sarapiqui where the nunbird is reliable.

Hummingbirds at Cinchona and the Volcan Restaurant: Both of these sites have feeders that attract a bevy of sugar-pumped beauties. Since both are also just 35 minutes to an hour from the airport, you might want to consider a stop at these avian oases to treat yourself to good photo opps of several hummingbirds and supporting local businesses that have always supported birds and birders.

The local White-bellied Mountain-Gem was showing well at Cinchona.

The former Magnificent (now Talamancan) Hummingbird and Purple-throated Mountain-Gem also showed well at the Volcan Restaurant. This is on the main road to Poas. Watch for it on the left about 300 meters after the police station.

Rancho Naturalista: It’s hard to emphasize how nice it is to stay at Costa Rica’s first birding lodge. The birding is non-stop and includes relaxed birding from the balcony, checking the forest trails for manakins and so on, watching shy forest species come in to the moth light, visiting the hummingbird pools, and having several options for birding further afield. Throw in friendly, wonderful accommodating service, excellent on-site guides, and delicious cuisine and this place is hard to beat.

Bicolored Hawk is one of several shy species regular at Rancho.

Ask to visit Rancho Bajo to see coquettes. We had looks at male and female Black-crested and the much less expected White-crested Coquette!

Cope and El Tapir: “Cope” is the nick-name of a local artist who also loves to show people roosting owls and other birds, and he does this very well. Along with some other birds, we saw both Crested and Spectacled Owls after a couple hours at El Tapir that had turned up point blank views at Snowcap and a distant Tiny Hawk. Yeah, that was a morning with some serious quality birds!

Crested Owl.

San Luis Canopy: Most people pay a visit to San Luis to zip-line their way through the forest canopy. However, with glittering tanagers rummaging in fruiting trees and hopping around a fruit feeder, yeah, I’ll pass on the zip line for excitement! Yesterday, we enjoyed close looks at Black and Yellow, Emerald, Silver-throated, and Bay-headed Tanagers along with a perched White Hawk and a few euphonia species. Although we dipped on the Speckled Tanager (usually easy at this site), we did connect with Dusky Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, and Black-throated and Stripe-breasted Wrens at the start of the Manuel Brenes road.

The lovely Emerald Tanager.

The skulky antbirdish/babblerish Black-throated Wren even posed for shots!

I hope the information above can help you with  your own birding endeavors in Costa Rica. Come on down, this birding paradise is closer than you think. Get ready for your trip with my 700 page e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”!

 

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Spotted Rail Fail

I am sometimes asked about the number of bird species I have seen in Costa Rica, or if I am still missing some. Although I have seen a good number of the birds on the Costa Rica list and am approaching 800 birds seen or heard in country, since the list includes more than 900 species, I could add a lot more including several lifers. Granted, most of the gaps on my checklist are very rare vagrants and pelagic species but a choice few are indeed residents like the White-tailed Nightjar and Rufous Nightjar, two species that I should really make more of an effort to see. Another bird that I really, really need to see even though it happens to already be ticked off my country list is a mottled black and white chicken-like marsh bird known as the Spotted Rail. It’s on my country list because I have heard it a few times but since “heard only” species don’t make the grade for my official life list, the elusive Spotted Rail is a major target.

Russet-naped Wood-Rail- Another chicken-like marsh bird that is much more common and much easier to see.

As one might imagine, like so many other chicken like marsh birds, this one is typically a pain. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica, this bird is nothing like the secretive yet much more reliable Viginia Rail up north. Search for it and you don’t find it. Search again and you still don’t find it. Maybe you get a brief staccato one time response to playback. Or, maybe just a peaceful swishing of a breeze in the marsh grass that must be hiding a bevy of sulking, skulking rails. Whatever they are doing, they are oh so reluctant to come out and play. With various raptors and demented herons to deal with, I can’t blame them but I sure wish I could catch a break with this bird!

In June, several people did catch a break with Spotted Rails and right in one of the areas where I have briefly heard and tried to see them sans success. Pictures were posted, including images of sooty, fuzzy youngsters! The birds came out onto the sunny track, the observers made jubilant exclamations about hearing them call over and over! It was a veritable bonanza of Spotted Railness, but I wasn’t there to partake in the party. I was out of country at the time but did hope to give it a try after coming back to Costa Rica.

Where the rails were seen.

Try I did with a few friends, leaving the Central Valley at 3 am so we could hopefully reach the rice fields west of Liberia by 6:30 or 7. Although this is of course the dead of the night, believe me, it’s the best time to drive in Costa Rica! As long as you can avoid any racing or inebriated drivers, you can enjoy mostly vehicle-free roads and make excellent time to your destination. We were on track for doing just that but as dawn broke over the lush rainy-season fields of Guanacaste, a wrench (aka spanner) was thrown into the birding works. While talking about some bird related subject or another just south of Canas, the car suddenly coughed and subsequently died. We were able to partially pull off the road (not many shoulders in Costa Rica, even on the Pan-American highway) and quickly set up road triangles in the hopes of keeping speeding trucks from smashing us into oblivion.

During the ordeal, we still remembered to watch birds. Some dry forest species were flying around, especially good numbers of Orange-fronted Parakeets, and Stripe-headed Sparrows were singing as we called the two truck. Fortunately, while doing that, a friendly mechanic stopped and helped us out on Sunday morning, a time when most places are closed. Unfortunately, there was no way that car was starting again and eventually, we towed it to his shop around 6 kilometers up the highway. He figured it was probably the fuel pump and brought us to the bus stop. Luckily, a nearly empty bus came by, we got on, and Spotted Rail quest numero uno was converted into a sleepy bus ride back to the San Jose area.

The car gets ready for its very own ambulance ride.

Always nice to watch the common yet ever handsome Stripe-headed Sparrow.

Over coffee, we discussed how these sort of things happen and how we could maybe try again if the car could be repaired soon. A few days later, I found out that yes, the car was good! The internal fan belt had broke, it had been fixed, and the car sounded wonderful. When I was once again picked up at 3 am a week after our first attempt, it did indeed sound better than before. In fact, the orange Chevrolet sort of purred. We drove back down through the dark of the night to the Pacific lowlands and once again watched the heat lightning play in the distant sky as dawn broke over green fields punctuated by scattered, umbrella-shaped trees. We drove past Canas, feeling grateful for the mechanic who lived there and talked how we would recommend him to other birders. We zoomed along the lovely new, spacious highway to make up for lost time during road work and just as we approached Liberia, my heart dropped as I heard an odd coughing noise. As much as I wished it was the sound of a large truck two vehicles back, no, sadly, it was the sound of our very own, sick car. We pulled over in a gas station and turned the car off.

“Oh, look, there is some loose piece of plastic under the car, it must be that!”

But it wasn’t. The car wouldn’t start and we stood there in shock as we tried to comprehend how this had happened. As the same dry forest species as the week before called and flew over, and called our mechanic, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were living some Groundhog Day moment. The Spotted Rail was just out of reach, if only we could have broke down next to a marsh! At least much to our good fortune, once again, our mechanic came through and was able to reach a friend with a tow truck, all during the non-working time of Sunday morning. We rode the tow back several kilometers to Canas where Kendall the friendly mechanic was waiting. He was just as surprised as we were, especially when he opened the side of the motor to see that the new internal belt was loose. It should be fixed by now but after two failed attempts to even reach the home of the rail, and on precious birding days at that, I can’t help but feel really reluctant to do another birding trip in that same car. At least we now know a good, friendly, helpful mechanic who lives and works in Canas. I you need one in that area of Costa Rica, I recommend him- his name is Kendall and his number is 89772749. He only speaks Spanish, who knows, maybe he will become a birder- he heard enough about birds in Costa Rica from us!

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip

Ferry Birding in Costa Rica is Always Good

Most folks don’t consider any degree of pelagic birding when visiting Costa Rica but if you have an extra day or two, and enjoy birding from a boat, it will be worth your while. Get into the pelagic zone and at least three species of storm-petrel, two shearwaters, and a few other birds are likely along with a real chance at rarities like Tahiti Petrel, Parkinson’s Petrel, Galapagos Petrel, Christmas Shearwater, and so on. We still need to get a better handle on which species show up when and where but as long as you head into the pelagic zone, you will be in for some exciting birds. The main problem with that has been finding boats to take folks to the places where the shore is out of sight but, hopefully, it will be easier to arrange such trips soon.6

In the meantime, if you want an easy, quick “pelagic”, you can always take the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Although you can never expect too much in terms of blue water birds, there’s always a chance at storm-petrels, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and who knows what else? Uncommon species and Costa Rican rarities of every spectrum have been seen including Sabine’s Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Peruvian Booby. At the same time, you can also take the ferry and have your most exciting birding be limited to Black, Royal, and Sandwich Terns but since the trip is so easy to do, and something different usually shows up anyways, I believe that doing a bit of ferry birding is always worth the effort. If you are up for it, here’s some stuff to keep in mind when ferry birding in Costa Rica:

The ferry won’t stop for birds– Yes, that is a “Captain Obvious” statement but just a reminder that ferry birding won’t be as birder friendly as a true chumming, bird chasing, pelagic trip. You won’t see as many birds but I still think that the ferry kind of makes up for it with the low cost, easy logistics, and birding opportunities especially when you can’t arrange a true birding trip to the pelagic zone.

Get in line early to find space on the upper deck– You want to get a coveted spot on the upper deck because you will see more birds. The ferry is usually stable enough to use a scope, and it’s also short enough (about an hour and a half) to make sea sickness an extremely rare event. Getting there about an hour before departure time should work. If you arrive in Puntarenas before then, park near the lighthouse and scope from there. I have seen pelagic species from this spot on more than one occasion (by that I mean three species of storm-petrels, Brown Noddy, and Galapagos Shearwater).

 

Day trip? Much cheaper to park the car in Puntarenas– When I do the ferry (as I did with friends yesterday), I park at Frank’s Cabinas for the day and pay around $1.50 for a ferry passenger ticket (yep, that adds up to around $3 round trip). Frank’s Cabinas is half a block north of the ferry dock and has a prominent sign. It tends to fill up on the weekend and he charges around $10 to park there for a day. If you do take a vehicle across, it is around $45 each way.

Consider the 5 a.m. ferry– Since the next ferry doesn’t leave until 9, you will probably see more birds by taking that first ferry at dawn. Although I have seen quite a few birds at other times of the day, I plan on embarking on the five a.m. ferry on my next trip. I would have already done so but have always felt pretty reluctant to leave the house by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. Although this means that you could mix owling and potooing with an early ferry ride, you can also just stay at Frank’s Cabinas the night before. He charges around $50 for a room that includes the most important factor for steamy Puntarenas; air conditioning.

Bring the car and make a day or more of it– Likewise, you can also take the ferry across with a vehicle like so many other non-birders on the boat. This is worth it if you will be spending one or more nights in the southern Nicoya Peninsula or if you just feel like combining birding on the ferry with a day of birding near Paquera and in the southern Nicoya. Do that and you might end up with a day list that includes Galapagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

Be ready for anything– Most of all, when birding from the ferry, just be ready for anything. When we take into account that the ferry crosses part of a nutrient rich gulf that has seen rather little birding coverage, you have to be open to the possibility of rare and unexpected species showing up. By definition, this means that species like Inca Tern and Nazca Booby are far from regular, but they just might show up when you take that boat. The highly pelagic White Tern has been seen in the gulf, who knows what else might fly into view? I know that every time I have taken the ferry, one or more interesting species have occurred. On the trip yesterday, although I had hoped and sort of expected to see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and at least one storm-petrel species, instead, we were surprised with a Parasitic Jaeger, and then a Pomarine Jaeger not long before the boat reached Puntarenas on the trip back! Both of these were excellent year birds and tough birds to see in Costa Rica even when they are expected. With that in mind, I should mention that Parasitic Jaeger has been seen during the summer months in Puntarenas in the past.

The dark juvenile Pomarine Jaeger that sadly flew away as soon as we saw it. 

Yesterday, I picked up three year birds and although there wasn’t as much avian activity as on other occasions, I can’t help but wonder what showed up earlier on or later in the afternoon. Which species flew across the path of the ferry today? You never know unless you go and since it’s an easy trip to do, keep it in mind when birding in Costa Rica. Ideally, I hope I can bird from the ferry at least twice more this year. To learn more about where and how to bird in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you on the ferry or elsewhere in the field!

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Birding Costa Rica preparing for your trip Where to see birds in Costa Rica

Intact, Mature Forest Equals More Understory Species

More mature forest means more birds. The copious number of individual birds, a good number of species, and near constant avian action in second growth can trick us into viewing edge habitats as the best places to bird. While the thick, successional growth at the edge of rainforest does host a number of species, including several canopy birds, mature forest still hosts more. Yes, bird the edge, but don’t neglect those long quiet walks inside the forest because that’s where you need to go for the biggest mixed flocks, most of the uncommon, rare, and spectacular species, and a host of peculiar understory birds.

Many understory species are especially dependent on healthy, mature forest probably because they have become adapted to living in a dim, shaded environment that hosts a complex, structured matrix of vines, small palms, and other understory plants. Since they share that dark maze of bushes, heliconias, and shade plants with various snakes, frogs, bugs, and other life forms that compete with, flee from, and try to eat each other, most of the understory birds are also naturally rare. We could also just as well say that they live at natural, very low densities and this is why we can walk on a trail for some time and find very few birds. The other reasons why we find so few birds in the forest interior is because they need to keep their presence on a serious down-low to avoid being noticed by predators, and because several prefer to forage in mixed flocks (another, additional means of avoiding depredation). At least that means that if you find the mixed flock, you also find a bunch of those shy understory birds.

I was reminded of these factors during recent birding/guiding at Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, and in the buffer zone at El Tapir. As is typical for these sites, we did find a few Checker-throated Antwrens and some other understory species that were foraging with them while walking on the trails. The antwrens give themselves away with a sharp alarm call or by giving their song; a short series of high-pitched, easy to ignore notes. While they forage in dead leaves, other birds also give quiet calls or reveal their presence by shaking a leaf or two. The whole thing is always a quiet, seriously inconspicuous endeavor and because of that, you can bet there are more birds out there, just staying out of sight. While watching the antwrens, we also heard Streak-crowned Antvireo, and saw Wedge-billed and Spotted Woodcreepers. In such flocks, other typical species include White-flanked Antwren, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, and Ruddy-tailed and Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers.

The hyper Tawny-faced Gntawren is usually also present, foraging near the ground, all the while looking very much like some out of place Asian tailorbird species.

Since other, rarer species are also possible, it’s worth it to stick with that flock as long as you can. But don’t leave the trail because there are other things lying in wait on the forest floor.

This nice sized Fer-de-Lance was a reminder of that possibility. Since it was next to the trail, it was easy to see and even easier to avoid. If this venomous snake sits in the leaf litter, you probably won’t see it. Although the chances of stepping on one after leaving the trail are slim, I would rather eliminate even that small chance by keeping to the trail.

Other cool understory species include antbirds, leaftossers, and grail birds of the understory like Black-crowned Antpitta and the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo. Although we did find a random Bicolored Antbird, try as we did, the gnatpitta and ground-cuckoo were both elusive along with the antswarms that act as the most likely situations to find such megas. However, before getting rained out in the afternoon, we did manage to connect with close views of a cool Northern Schiffornis.

After this odd brown bird came in, it opened and closed its mouth and sort of swayed back and forth.

Maybe the ground-cuckoo will show next time. You never know when it will happen and this is why a careful, quiet walk in mature forest is essential when birding in Costa Rica.

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Birding Costa Rica high elevations preparing for your trip south pacific slope

Current Costa Rica Birding Tips for Poas and Carara National Parks

For the past few weeks, most of my birding has taken the form of scouting for the Global Big Day on May 13th. Since I plan on starting shortly after midnight, I will actually be celebrating this modern birding holiday in a matter of hours. Hopefully, all of that scouting and planning will pay off with a Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and enough singing birds to push our total over the 300 species mark. The good thing is that if that doesn’t come to pass because of rain (very likely chance of precipitation) or other factors, it’s still going to be a great day of birding pretty close to the home base.

A view of Poas Volcano- not erupting on this morning.

Since much of that scouting involved the Poas area, I figured that it would be pertinent to give an update on the birding situation around there. Aside from scouting Varablanca, Poas, and Sarapiqui, since I also got in a nice day of guiding at Carara, I figured I would talk about that too.

The Poas situation: If you hadn’t heard, the park is closed because the volcano started erupting a month ago. Although activity has calmed down somewhat, the park is still off limits and probably won’t be opened for several months or even years. That said, don’t write off birding up in those mountains yet because you can still see quite a few good highland birds on the way to Poas and around Varablanca.

The barrier on the road up to Poas just after the Poas Lodge.

At the moment, the road is closed around three to four kilometers from the edge of the national park. This means that although the best highland forests are now off limits, you can still see most species in patches of forest from the village of Poasito up to that barrier, AND, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, Sooty Thrush, Highland Tinamou, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and most Peg-billed Finches are now beyond that barrier and therefore inaccessible but you can still see both silky-flycatchers, Prong-billed Barbet, Large-footed Finch at a few sites, and most of everything else including chances at Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, the Volcan Restaurant is still open as is Freddo Fresas; two sites with hummingbird feeders and riparian zones.

Try Varablanca: The area of Varablanca is very much open and accessible and because it’s around 45 minutes from the airport, continues to be a good site for a first or last night on a Costa Rica birding trip. Accommodation options include Poas Volcano Lodge, Poas Lodge, The Peace Lodge, and a few other spots. A fair number of highland species can be seen around accommodation, in riparian zones on the route towards Barva, and in the area between there and Socorro.

Carara: The Carara area is always good for birds no matter when you visit. Now is especially nice because the wet weather has resulted in lots of singing birds, good activity, and temperatures a bit more comfortable than the blazing Carara furnace from February to April. On my recent trip, we had Crane Hawk and good looks at Collared Forest Falcon on the Cerro Lodge road, several singing Northern Bentbills on the national park forest trail, excellent looks at Golden-crowned Spadebill at the bridge,

This is what a Golden-crowned Spadebill looks like.

good looks at vocalizing Long-tailed Woodcreeper (future split), trogons, excellent point blank views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and other expected species. What we didn’t have were many hummingbirds, nor many parrots. We still had plenty of macaws but very few other members of that esteemed family.

One of the close Streak-chested Antpittas, hopefully these will be recorded during the Global Big Day.

Hope to see you in the field. To learn about more sites for birding in Costa Rica as well as how to find and identify birds in this biodiverse country, see my e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It can be purchased through Kindle as well as PayPal, just follow the link. I will transfer the book within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope preparing for your trip

Comparing Cano Negro and Tortuguero

There’s more than one way to watch a bird. When I was a kid, I stared out the window of cars and buses, constantly scanning distant tree tops, fields, and other aspects of urban and rural landscapes that rushed on by. In the summer, the sweet smell of hay fields was accompanied by Eastern Kingbirds that perched on fence lines and sallied into the air , beautiful orange-bellied Barn Swallows coursing over fields, sudden bright yellow American Goldfinches and Yellow Warblers in flight, hawks on high perches or telephone poles, a Belted Kingfisher perched on a wire over a river, and other roadside avian sights. Since then, I have seen a few good birds from trains, even pulling lifers like Sharp-tailed Grouse and the one and only funky Lewis’s Woodpecker while traveling through western situations, but, as one might expect, the most productive birding is a consequence of your own two feet.

Being in control of our own mobility facilitates searching branches and other vegetation for the inconspicuous. We can listen for target birds and head in that direction, or just hang out and wait for stuff to show. It also makes it easier to access more sites but there are still a few habitats denied to those on the ground. Until someone invents some futuristic water walking device, even the closest of pelagic zones is a no go to the walker. The same goes for most wetlands, including rivers, lakes, and marshes. Sure, you could wear waders and hope that you don’t step into some bottomless quick sand while floundering through muck and mud but no bird is worth being eaten by the marsh. Those wetland situations are where boats come into play and you will need one when birding a few sites in Costa Rica.

Some fine boat birding at Tortuguero.

The two main ones that come to mind are Cano Negro and Tortuguero. Cano Negro is essentially a wetland area more associated with Lake Nicaragua than the Caribbean lowlands. You do get some species from that bio-zone but it’s also why you can see things like Nicaraguan Grackle, Limpkin, and Snail Kite. Tortuguero, on the other hand, is mostly composed of swampy coastal rainforest where the “roads” are canals and rivers. Both sites can be birded without a boat but you would be missing a lot if you stuck to dry land. Although they have their similarities, Cano Negro and Tortuguero also differ in some ways. Here are some thoughts that stem from comparing the two:

Sungrebe!

In this respect, both sites are similar. Spend two days birding from boat at either site and you have a very good chance of seeing the sole New World representative of the Finfoot family.

Great Potoo

The big-headed night bird is regular at both sites.

Great Green Macaw

Not at Cano Negro but doing quite well at Tortuguero with several birds recently feeding on Beach Almonds in the village!

Cano Negro has more kingfishers

Perhaps from fish being more concentrated and maybe being less affected by pesticides, one usually sees a lot more kingfishers at Cano Negro. All of the same can also be seen at Tortuguero but they are more common in Cano Negro.

Jabiru 

Although the king of New World storks has been seen at Tortuguero, it’s far more regular at Cano Negro, especially during the dry season.

Marsh birds

Cano Negro wins in this regard too but that’s because it actually has freshwater marshes whereas Tortuguero kind of doesn’t.

Thanks to help from Daryl Loth, owner of Casa Marbella, that didn’t stop us from seeing Least Bittern!

Access

Since Cano Negro can be accessed by car, whereas reaching Tortuguero requires a ride in a boat, I suppose Cano Negro is somewhat easier to get to. That said, It’s not difficult to reach Tortuguero, even with the public boat, and to see the best of Cano Negro, you have to hire a boat to access the heart of the refuge in any case.

Forest

There is some forest at Cano Negro but Tortuguero easily wins this  hand. Most of Tortuguero is tall rainforest, some of which can be accessed at Cerro Tortuguero and on a trail that parallels the beach. This offers a better chance at seeing Semiplumbeous Hawk, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, and some other forest-based species.

Rarities

It’s a bit hard to judge which site comes out on top in this regard but Tortuguero seems to be ahead when it comes to rarities. The coastal location results in sightings of vagrant gulls and occasional pelagic species as well as a chance at many a rare migrant. I bet that all sorts of really rare species have passed through there unnoticed because we don’t have enough people looking. In that regard, I dare say that the same can be said about Cano Negro. Huge concentrations of birds occur as the lagoons shrink in size, including quite a few shorebirds. I could easily see something like a Ruff, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, or some vagrant stint pop in and out of those wetlands and never be seen.

This Reddish Egret was a rare, fine addition to my year list.

Cuisine

No contest here but then again Tortuguero has been playing host to far more tourists for much longer. Try the Buddha Cafe or Ms. Myriams. Both highly recommended! Very few options at Cano Negro but you will get by.

Good, easy birding 

Fortunately, this most important factor is shared by both sites. You can’t go wrong when birding Cano Negro or Tortuguero, just make sure to book one or more boat rides!