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bird photography Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope sites for day trips

A Prothonotary Warbler eats a Banana in Costa Rica and the Nature Pavilion Delivers as Always

I’m not making this up. Although it might not be news to most people (or even most birders), I thought it was cool enough to share with everyone who uses the Internet. While guiding yesterday on the Cinchona-Poas-Nature Pavilion route, I was very surprised to see a Prothonotary Warbler coming to the bananas at Cinchona!

A Prothonotary Warbler and a banana at Cinchona, Costa Rica.

Why surprised you may wonder? Well, while we do see lots of Prothonotaries in mangroves and other lowland wetlands in Costa Rica, I have never seen or heard of one visiting a feeder. I haven’t seen this species at Cinchona either even away from the feeders. They do move through the country though, and can sometimes be seen in large numbers as they migrate along the Caribbean coast. The bird we saw was a reminder that the Golden Swamp Warbler is on the move. It also shows how famished those migrants must be because this little birdy wasn’t going after any insects on the bananas. It was most definitely feasting on the fruit between bouts of being scared away by Clay-colored Thrushes, Silver-throated Tanagers, and other larger birds

There it goes eating that banana.
Sharing a banana with a Silver-throated Tanager.

No other warblers were seen at the feeders (Tennessees are regular) but I will be hoping and checking during our 2014 Big Day attempt!

On another note, visitors to the Nature Pavilion were regular and awesome as always.

Collared Aracaris were one of the first species to show.
It's always nice to see Great Kiskadees at close range.
A juvenile Black-cowled Oriole made an appearance.
It was cool to watch a Green Honeycreeper hang upside down on a papaya ring.
This species is always crazy with the colors.

Hope to see you while birding! If you see me and two other people running after birds on Saturday, that would be myself, Robert Dean and Susan Blank doing our Big Day. I would have really loved to have invited a couple other friends along (especially Johan) but since they don’t do bird sounds, and 95% of species need to be identified by all team members (many by sound), that would have eliminated too many birds to break any records. We might not anyways but one can always hope!

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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica high elevations sites for day trips weather

Irazu, Costa Rica birding in the mist this past weekend

Recent heavy rains have blocked access to much of the Pacific Coast, the only birders seeing quetzals on Cerro de la Muerte for the next week or so will be those who trek up the “mountain of death” on foot, and collapsed bridges have even isolated the Guanacaste beaches of Samara and Nosara.

This past weekend didn’t seem like the ideal time to go birding in Costa Rica (and it wasn’t) but since I hadn’t heard of any landslides on Volcan Irazu, I didn’t cancel a Saturday guiding stint up on this massive volcano that overlooks the Central Valley from the east.

The weather was looking nice around San Jose but sure enough, when we approached Cartago, misty surroundings reminded us that we had essentially entered a slightly different climatic zone. I hoped that the foggy air would clear the higher we went, that maybe we could break on through the wet blanket as we ascended the mountain. It was pretty misty at our first stop at a ravine that hosted remnant cloud forest but not too thick to watch Volcano Hummingbirds zipping around, Band-tailed Pigeons alighting in the trees, Slaty Flowerpiercer doing its usual, hyperactive, nectar robbing thing, and Common Bush-Tanagers sharing the undergrowth with Wilson’s Warblers (the bush-tanagers here at the upper limits of their range). Buffy-crowned Wood-Partridge and Flame-colored Tanagers also called within earshot but playback couldn’t entice them to come out and play.

Further up, at our next stop near the Nochebuena Restaurant, we didn’t exactly leave the clouds behind but we at least seemed to have climbed above the main strata of saturated air. Tame, Sooty Robins greeted us from the tops of purple fruiting bushes.

Birding Costa Rica

Sooty Robins are big, common, high elevation thrushes endemic to Costa Rica and western Panama.

Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes sounded like Hermit Thrushes as they sang from the undergrowth but contrary to their usually ultra-tame attitude, remained hidden. Band-tailed Pigeons were especially common and gave us nice looks as they fed on acorns that had fallen to the ground from awesome, old growth oaks. This is a commonly seen species when birding Costa Rica but I always love getting good looks at them and wish they could come to my backyard (even though I know that’s not going to happen). I admit that I have this thing for Band-tailed Pigeons and have thought of three possible explanations:

1. As a kid in Niagara Falls, New York, I associated them with the wild, exotic, unreachable coniferous forests of the American west. This meant that they hung out with Steller’s Jays, Grizzly Bears, Elk, Cougars, and Jeremiah Johnson which in turn meant that they were on the uber cool end of the awesomeness spectrum.

2. They aren’t Rock Pigeons. As iridescent as the necks of Rock Pigeons (aka Rock Doves) could be, they were just too common to be cool and were black-listed by the dreaded “introduced” label.

3. I am crazy about birds. I just like watching birds no matter what my binoculars bring into focus so this could be a simple explanation.

Birding Costa Rica

A young Band-tailed Pigeon looking kind of grotesque as it chokes down an acorn.

Birding Costa Rica

Birding Costa Rica

I love the dark green nape!

Birding Costa Rica

This one was hanging out in the same tree as a pair of a much more exciting bird for most people…

Birding Costa Rica

a Resplendent Quetzal!

First we saw a female who was nice enough to provide us with stellar scope views before she swooped off into an oak grove across the street. I figured this was my cue to use the outdoor facilities and of course as soon as I stepped behind a tree, the unmistakable, long-trained silhouette of a male quetzal appeared over the road as it flew into the same tree where the female had been. A closer look at said tree showed why is was the favored hangout of those Irazu quetzals. It was a Laureacae species or “wild avocado” and its branches were dripping with the energy rich fruits that quetzals probably require for survival.

Running back across the road, the vivid emerald green of the male was immediately apparent and we enjoyed scope views of this always fantastic bird for 15 minutes while Acorn Woodpeckers laughed from the treetops and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanagers flitted through nearby vegetation.

Birding Costa Rica

It was also nice to see Black-capped Flycatchers, an easily identifiable Empidonax only found in high elevation forests of Costa Rica and western Panama.

Once the quetzals had retreated back into the shade of high elevation oaks, we made our up to the treeline habitats of Irazu National Park. Unfortunately, the fog had come back with proverbial pea-soup vengeance and although we could walk over the ashy ground to the very edge of the crater, we couldn’t see any further than a couple hundred feet at the most. Thus, the green lagoon at the bottom of the crater was hidden from view but at least (since we were birding and not really volcanoing) we got Volcano Juncos!

Birding Costa Rica

Volcano Junco, the fierce looking denizen of paramo habitats in eastern Costa Rica and western Panama.

As is typical for high elevation birds in many areas of the world, they were tame, rather fearless, and had no qualms about picking at food scraps left over by tourists. Heck, they and the local Rufous-collared Sparrows even jumped right into the trash bins!

Birding Costa Rica

Hmmm, what did the tourists leave for my lunch today!

Birding Costa Rica

A Rufous-collared Sparrow getting ready to jump into the garbage.

Visibility worsened as the mist turned into a light, horizontally falling (blowing?) rain and so we left the crater area and took a side road just outside of the park limits to hopefully see Large-footed Finch and Timberline Wren. We got more excellent looks at juncos and heard a distant finch with an extra large shoe size but there was nary a peep nor rustle of vegetation from any Timberline Wrens so we slowly drove back down to the Nochebuena Restaurant with the hope that the fog would dissipate.

The restaurant doesn’t exactly have an extensive menu, but it’s good enough, is the coziest place on Irazu, and has hummingbird feeders that can be watched from some of the tables. We of course, sat at the best spot in the house for the hummingbird spectacle and studied four of the species that occur high up on Irazu; Green Violetear, the tiny Volcano Hummingbird, needle-billed Fiery-throated Hummingbirds, and the giganto Magnificent Hummingbird.Birding Costa Rica

A female or young male Volcano Hummingbird sharing the feeder with a female Magnificent Hummingbird.

After lunch, a brief respite from the mist got us one of our best birds of the day. A bunch of scolding birds had gotten our attention and as we walked towards them, I noticed a Sooty Robin make a swooping dive at a fence post. A closer look showed that it was more concerned with what was sitting on the fence post, a brown lump that turned into a Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl when viewed through the scope!

It took off before I could digitally capture it but at least we all got perfect looks at this uncommon, highland endemic. Interestingly enough, this was in the same spot where I got my lifer Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl in 2008.

Aside from more Band-tailed Pigeons walking around, not much else showed so we went further down the mountain in search of sunshine and birds. Incredibly, we did manage to find the only sunny spot on Irazu and the rich undergrowth also made it excellent for birds!

Birding Costa Rica

The one sunny spot on Irazu.

Thanks to the good visibility, good habitat, and good luck, we watched a mixed flock near this area for around 40 minutes. A bunch of new birds for the day and others we had already seen showed up in the form of Yellow-winged Vireos (very kingletish and common on Irazu), Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Ruddy Treerunner, Yellow-thighed Finch, Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager, Black and Yellow Silky Flycatcher, Mountain Elaenia, Wilson’s Warbler, and Black-cheeked Warbler.

These were our last birds for the day because below the sunny spot, the fog was so thick we could barely make out the road until we had descended the mountain and left the Cartago area. The weather was a bit trying but at least we didn’t have to contend with driving rain, landslides or washed out bridges. Since we also had perfect views of Resplendent Quetzal and Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl, I daresay that we had a better day of birding than most birders in Costa Rica on November 6th, 2010.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope central valley feeders Introduction middle elevations sites for day trips

Where to see Red-headed Barbets when birding Costa Rica: Kiri Lodge

Kiri Lodge. I don’t know about other people, but when I hear the word “lodge” I get these images and visions of a spacious cabin built of massive logs- something like Paul Bunyon’s mansion that could only have been constructed with old growth trees he himself cut down along with the profits he reaped from his mutant-like tree cutting prowess. The ceilings stretch up into the shadows and a permanently lit and crackling fireplace keeps the place as cozy as Grandma Bunyon’s on Thanksgiving. All the chairs are comfortable, a few heads of unfortunate herbivores hang from the walls, the air is consistently scented with apple pie, gingersnaps, or some other smell that one commonly associates with pot-pourri aisles in large, all purpose stores that could be the bane of modern civilization, AND all of the guests sport very comfortable smoking jackets even though they don’t smoke.

I would be surprised if I came across a “lodge” like this when birding Costa Rica (or anywhere on Earth) and am happy to report that Kiri Lodge soundly trounces my mental imagery with a better reality. Situated just outside of Tapanti National Park, Costa Rica, Kiri is essentially a small hotel with an extreme fondness for trout. Honestly, all it takes is one look at the menu in their small restaurant to see that these people love Rainbow Trout (or at least love to prepare them in a dozen different ways) so much that little else appears to be offered. The trout ponds out back are proudly advertised, visitors are encouraged to check out the fish, and it is hoped that you will catch some for your dinner at the restaurant.

The Kiri Lodge people are friendly enough to still serve you with a smile even if you don’t like trout and opt for fried chicken or a beef “casado” (a “casado” is an all purpose standard, tasty meal that usually consists of rice, beans, plantain, salad, vegetable, and beef, chicken, or fish).  For the birder, of far more importance than their penchant for trout is their friendly attitude about birds. They demonstrate this with hummingbird feeders and a fantastic bird-feeding table.

Because there are only two of them, the hummingbird feeders aren’t as buzzing with glittering and pugnacious activity as some other sites but if you watch long enough, Green-crowned Brilliants, Violet Sabrewings, and the local specialty known as the White-bellied Mountain-Gem will make appearances. Far better, however, is the feeding platform.

birding Costa Rica

The platform as it looked from my seat in the restaurant. If you look close you might make out Blue-gray tanagers (the blue bits), Clay-colored Robins (the clay bits), and a Great Kiskadee (the great yellow thing).

Costa Rica birding

And here is what it looked like through the scope.

While my birding friend Susan and I waited for our annual allotment of fried chicken accompanied by greasy fries, we were entertained by at least 10 species of birds that went nuts over chunks of papaya and huge, ripe plantains. The most common was Silver-throated Tanager.

birding Costa Rica

Commonly seen in middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica, Silver-throated Tanagers are still best enjoyed up close at feeding tables.

Predominantly yellow, numerous, and smaller than other partakers of the papaya, these were kind of like the goldfinches of the bunch. They stayed out of the way of hungry Clay-colored Thrushes but still shared the table with them.

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Costa Rica’s national bird getting ravenous with the papaya. Look how “long-headed” and curve-billed it looks compared to an American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird.

When the Melodious Blackbird made an appearance, though, the Silver-throated Tanagers positively scattered and even the Clay-colored Thrushes left the table. Considering the pointed bill, hefty size, and scary demeanor, who can blame them.

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A Melodious Blackbird looking threatening.

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Only the rough and tumble Great Kiskadee held its ground against the blackbird.

Luckily for the birds (and us), the Melodious Blackbird was content with spending only as much time on the table as it took to wolf down a few choice chunks of papaya. Otherwise we may not have seen smaller and more brightly colored Baltimore Orioles,

birding Costa Rica

birding Costa Rica

a handsome Black-cowled Oriole,

birding Costa Rica

nor oohed and aahed over the sky blue of Blue-gray Tanagers.

birding Costa Rica

If that blackbird hadn’t left, we might have also missed the clownish king of the bird feeding show; the Red-headed Barbet. As befits such a spectacular bird species, it only showed up after most of the other birds had made an appearance and even then hopped down to the side of the platform and scowled as if in disdain at having to share the table with such commoner things.

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“Egads! Why do I lower myself to share space with these Silver-throated Tanagers and dingy Clay-colored Robins!”

birding Costa Rica

“I mean just look at that thrush! Must they always be so maniacal when presented with an abundance of fruit?”

birding Costa Rica

“Their class-less behavior makes me want to look away in disgust!”

birding Costa Rica

“Keep your distance dirt colored heathen or I shall give thee a wallop with my stout bill”!

We also saw Red-headed Barbets in Tapanti that same morning but it’s always nice to casually get fantastic looks at such a funky looking bird while sitting down to lunch at such a birder friendly restaurant as that of Kiri Lodge.

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction sites for day trips

What will show up tomorrow at one of the most challenging and rewarding sites when birding Costa Rica?

Tomorrow I will guide a small group from the Birding Club of Costa Rica at one of my favorite and most frequented sites when birding Costa Rica- Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park.

I have walked the trails through the old growth foothill forests of this Caribbean slope site on countless occasions since 1992 but that never takes away from the excitement I feel before each visit. I can’t help but look forward to walking into the mossy forest, breathing in the scented, humid air, peering up into the high, epiphyte laden canopy, and carefully listening for avian life.

I don’t deny that these feelings are partly related to my first impressions of the place. On my first visits, I saw striking target birds such as King Vulture, White Hawk, and White-necked Jacobin, the shy Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, and amazing mixed flocks of glittering tanagers.  It’s easy to see how I could be biased about birding here but I’m also the first to admit that it can be as challenging as playing Jeopardy with Alex Trebek, or as painfully slow as watching a 500 meter sloth race.

I often hear Black and Yellow Tanagers and Cinnamon Woodpeckers somewhere up in the canopy but the dense vegetation hides them or they just don’t venture close enough to see, understory birds are for the most part, shy ventriloquists that detest the limelight, the Lattice-tailed Trogon “laughs” while you search the abundant foliage in vain, and mixed flocks appear to follow a frustrating policy of traveling deep into the forest (and out of sight) as soon as they are detected.

Yes, the birding is challenging at Quebrada Gonzalez, but it’s invariably rewarding IF you spend an entire day there. The mixed flock that stayed behind the curtain of leaves in the morning might cross the trail in plain view in the afternoon. Lattice-tailed Trogons could reveal their square-tailed selves by hover-gleaning for fruit. An Olive-backed Quail-Dove might scurry along the trail up ahead, and a horde of fantastic tanagers just might come down from lofty branches to feed on berries at eye level.

There are also other, more fantastic possibilities such as Black-crowned Antpitta deciding to come out and play on the trail, Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo snapping its bill at an antswarm, Bare-necked Umbrellabird making an appearance, or a Tiny Hawk pretending to be a thrush as it perches high up in some rain forest tree.

All of these and more are possible- I wonder what we will see tomorrow?

Here’s a checklist for Quebrada Gonzalez (scroll below the tour details).

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Hummingbirds middle elevations sites for day trips

Costa Rica birding near San Ramon

San Ramon is a small city on the western edge of the central valley in Costa Rica. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer for birding in Costa Rica but some nearby areas have a lot of potential. Although I know of a few local birders who visit the cloud forests and middle elevation rainforests near San Ramon, since I have never seen this area mentioned in a trip report, I suspect that it isn’t on most people’s birding agenda.

This is probably due to the sites being located off the regularly beaten path when birding Costa Rica. However, after some recent exploration near San Ramon, I think that every birder should make some time for birding this area, especially if they are on their way to Arenal.

Since the closing of the Cinchona road (nope, not fixed yet and don’t expect that anytime soon), there are three main routes that people usually take to get to Arenal from San Jose. The most popular route is the road that passes through Grecia and Zarcero before crossing over to the Caribbean Slope and reaching Ciudad Quesada. This route is probably the quickest but it’s also the least birdy.

The most adventurous route is the road that passes through Bajos del Toro. This steep road goes through some nice cloud forest and isn’t very busy but I will post about that some other time.

The third route (and the one that this post does deal with) is highway 141 that leaves San Ramon and passes through Los Angeles (the Costa Rican version is vastly different from the American one) on its way to La Fortuna. In fact, even if you didn’t want to stop for birds on your way to Arenal, this is the most direct and scenic route to La Fortuna. That said, you should ALWAYS stop and bird along the way because this underbirded area has lots of great middle elevation forest!

This road provides access to a number of excellent sites including Pocosol, but the two places I visited this past Sunday are the most accessible; (1) The road to Manuel Brenes Reserve, and (2) the San Luis Canopy Restaurant.

You will see the road to Manuel Brenes on the left, just as you reach an interesting marsh (aren’t they all) and lakes on the right side of the road. These lakes are supposedly good for Pied-billed Grebe although we didn’t see this uncommon Costa Rican resident on Sunday. I was expecting the usual rutted, rough track but was pleasantly surprised to find that it was in pretty good condition. Although you have to watch out for menacing rocks, and feel scared crossing small bridges, even a two wheel drive could manage this birdy track.

Yes, the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve is a birdy track AND it has almost no traffic!

A birdy looking track.

It passes through nice middle elevation forest (800 meters) for several kilometers before coming to a more open area where the road forks. Even the open area was good and looked like the perfect place to scan treetops for Lovely Cotinga. We didn’t continue past the fork and I suspect the road gets worse from there but who knows?

Despite getting rained out for half of the morning, we had a pretty good selection of species and I know this area has much more to offer (others have seen antswarms and Tiny Hawk for example). Once the rain stopped, we saw:

Too rainy to fly today.

Perched Short-tailed Hawks. I am pretty sure this is the only time I have seen this species on a perch anywhere (I have probably seen at least a couple hundred in flight). We also got a perched White Hawk from the same location

The beautiful White Hawk is seen now and then when birding Costa Rica.

in addition to Keel-billed Toucans, Crested Guan (pretty common along the road), flybys of Brown-hooded Parrot and Crimson-fronted Parakeet, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, and tanagers such as Passerini’s, Crimson-collared, Silver-throated, Palm, and the local Blue and Gold.

Blue and Gold Tanager sharing a tree with a much duller Palm Tanager.

Mixed flocks along the road had Spotted Woodcreeper,

Spotted Woodcreeper is the common woodcreeper of foothill and middle elevation forests when birding Costa Rica.

Russet Antshrike, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-browed Tyrannulet (no pic but trust me, we had perfect looks at this warbler-like flycatcher), Plain Xenops, White-ruffed Manakin, Lesser Greenlet, noisy Olive Tanagers, Black and Yellow Tanagers, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager.

The lack of trails going into the forest makes it very difficult to see the Thicket Antpittas and Black-headed Antthrushes that we heard but the area is still very much worth a visit and can even be done as a day trip from San Jose (about an hour and a half drive).

Another view of this birdy road.

The other thing that makes this a great site for a day trip is the nearby Arboleda Restaurant at the San Luis Canopy. Watch for it on the east side of the road on your way back to San Jose. Or, you can stop there before you get to the road to Manuel Brenes but it’s better to visit this site for lunch.

The Arboleda Restaurant is a quick 10 minute drive from the entrance to Manuel Brenes road.

The San Luis Canopy site mostly does those canopy zipline tours but they also have several hummingbird feeders and views into the cloud forest from the restaurant (which is very good and has decent prices). They also have a trail but it’s not very developed and is more for maintaining the ziplines. The hummingbird feeders are the main attraction and showcase such stars as Green-crowned Brilliant,

Green-crowned Brilliants are common at cloud forest feeders when birding Costa Rica.

Coppery-headed Emerald,

One of Costa Rica's endemic bird species.

Green Hermit,

Green Hermits are pretty common in foothill and cloud forests when birding Costa Rica.

Violet-crowned Woodnymph,

Violet-crowned Woodnymph is one of the more commonly seen hummingbirds of Costa Rican rainforests.

the good old Rufous-tailed Hummingbird,

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird- the de-facto hummingbird when birding Costa Rica.

and Green Thorntail.

Green Thorntails are rather local in Costa Rica.

I hope to make this one of my regular birding sites and will offer day tours here soon because I am sure that the forests near San Ramon have a lot more in store when birding Costa Rica!