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Introduction

A Good Year for Violet-Green Swallows in Costa Rica

Swallows are perhaps the most beautiful of overlooked birds. Naturally painted in metallic hues of blue, jade, and purples, highlighted with orange and adornments of red. If a child used their favorite markers on thick aluminum and then held that metal creation up to be touched by the magical shades of sunset, Barn Swallows take flight.

The Tree Swallow is one of the first birds I remember. Not from seeing one, no, that didn’t happen until I could go to where they actually lived. I recall it from the Niagara Falls public library, kneeling on the pumpkin orange carpet to look at illustrations in some unknown, important bird book for kids. The beautiful blue colors highlighted with green iridescence caught my 7 year old eye. It’s a while ago, I can’t say what I was exactly thinking but it was probably a combination of, “How could that bird exist? Did it really look like that? Where can I see it?”

As common and beautiful as Barn Swallows are, we may appreciate them but when they swoop low over the cut summer grass, when flocks of swallows do their aerial acrobatics high overhead, how many of us stick with them? As frequent as Tree Swallows are at the ponds and wetlands of the north, it’s not easy to stay focused on high-flying silhouettes. When tanagers are calling, when a Hook-billed Kite is soaring into view, it’s easier to take bins off of birds that are too quick to follow.

These birding factors aren’t limited to North America, they are universal simply because it’s always easier to watch birds that are easier to see. As eye-catching as the plumages of many swallow species are, it takes drive, patience and determination to truly watch them, stay with them, lose yourself in the meditation of Hirundines.

Using that official name for the family brings up a recollection of birding in Costa Rica during the 90s. A friend of mine and I were birding around Carara when we ran into a lone British birder, Steve. During our chance meeting on the famous “River Trail” in Carara National Park, the usual birding exchange took place as we attempted to wipe off the sweat that comes easy and constant at that site.

Steve worked at keeping his glasses clear with a handkerchief. “I’m sure I saw a Collared Plover, Royal Flycatcher. It was good to catch up with the Hirundines.”

“What? Hurundeines?”

“Hirundines, you know swallows.”

Finally catching up with his British pronunciation. “Ahh, of course Hirundines!”

Hirundines, because the family is more than swallows and even that name doesn’t do them justice. They are also martins and they are more aerialists than anything. Perching on wires and branches, as if eagerly waiting to once again get back up into the sky and into action, back into the performance of their lives, they chatter with anticipation.

It’a all about survival but when watching aerialists do their thing, one can’t help but wonder if they love it, if they take joy in zipping through the skies and that’s what can help with the mental focus. Contemplate the thrill, the fantastic happiness of birds in flight and it becomes easier to stick with swallows flitting around way up there near the clouds.

One of the unsung good things about swallows is that they don’t hide in the vegetation, they are up there in plain view begging to be watched. If you keep watching them, you may also see something rare, pick out the odd bird that flew a bit too far, flew out of its usual range.

A Cave Swallow from Costa Rica.

Today, that reminds me of other memories of meditative birding, finding rare birds while looking at gulls in the Niagara River. When we watch gulls from the top of the Niagara Gorge, it’s like looking at swallows except that the birds are far down below. They don’t have the jewel colors of the swallows, attributes for identification and appreciation are more subtle in nature. There are shades of pale and gray, patterns and shapes of dark in the primaries, the color of an eye. As with Hirundines, you have to study them for a time, keep watching and lose yourself in gulls. It’ usually cold, better be dressed for it!

It’s also meditative birding and today I can’t help but think of Ned. I can still see him there, bent over to prop himself on a railing at Sir Adam Beck to better study the birds down below.

“Do you see the California Gull?”

“Yes, I think I got it, slightly darker back…the black in the primaries make a trapezoid-like shape..cool, California Gull on the Niagara River!”

On that or another cold day Ned Brinkley, Alec and I drove further north to look for a supposed Curlew Sandpiper. As we expected, it turned out to be one of the hardy sandpipers, a Dunlin. But there were other birds to look at, several of which were of another family beautiful yet commonly under-appreciated; the ducks.

We had all seen scaups and Canvasbacks on many occasions, but on that bright morning, the light was hitting them just right, the iridescent colors of their heads rivaled the metallic shades of swallows, the intricate patterns on their flanks was natural calligraphy. They were birds we had seen many times but on that beautiful morning in Hamilton, Ontario, we marveled over them. It was a while ago now, I can’t recall exactly what Ned said but know that he was for sure saying a lot, talking about the unsung beauty of those birds, maybe talking about languages, laughing, enjoying life to the fullest.

I hadn’t seen Ned in a while but we occasionally kept in touch, I had hoped to go birding with him again. In keeping with his generous and helpful nature, at one point, it’s no surprise that he was a major help in finding images for the birding apps I work on. Others, like Alvaro Jaramillo and George Armistead, have perfectly expressed how special of a person Ned was, what an incredible loss his passing is to the birding community and honestly, the world in general. So, I won’t go on about that here. But I will say that he will be dearly missed and that I will be thinking of him and the many other people whose lives were made better by knowing him as I meditate on swallows, hoping for a Violet-green. Ned would have been interested in knowing that it looks like it’s going to be a good year in Costa Rica for that beautiful bird.

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Introduction

First Birds of 2020- Common Species of the Central Valley

Today, the main subject of birder talk revolves around the first species of the year. Whether checking off the first bird of a Big Year or just casually perusing the sticks in the backyard through a personal vapor trail of bird-friendly coffee, we can’t help but mention the first bird identified. Birders who count birds by ear will likely hear the call of a chickadee, House Sparrow or other backyard denizen, those who only like to watch might see a crow or Mourning Dove or White-winged Dove if you happen to be in Costa Rica.

In Costa Rica, the inaugural bird species of 2020 also depends on where one happens to start the birding year. For many of us local birders, we won’t begin the year in rainforest, instead we will hear the weird whistles of Great-tailed Grackles and other urban garden species of the Central Valley. However, it’s not all grackles and Great Kiskadees in the urban zone. If a birder lives near enough green space, quite a few other species are also possible. I began this morning with the calls of Rufous-naped Wrens heard outside the bedroom window followed by several other species from the front of the homestead.

The birds I saw and heard were expected and quite a few more have yet to make themselves known. I also keep looking because many other species are possible especially during the winter months. Will some uncommon wintering wood-warbler fly into view? Will a rare for Costa Rica Cooper’s Hawk stalk the riparian zone down the street? You have to keep looking, as the Urban Birder says, “Look up!”

Coming to Costa Rica? I hope so, my inaugural 2020 bird list may give an idea of what to expect when you get here:

Red-billed Pigeon
White-tipped Dove
White-winged Dove
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Hoffmann’s Woodpecker
White-fronted Parrot
Crimson-fronted Parakeet
Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet
Great Kiskadee
Social Flycatcher
Tropical Kingbird
Blue-and-white Swallow
House Wren
Rufous-naped Wren
Cabanis’s Wren
Clay-colored Thrush
Yellow-throated Euphonia
Montezuma Oropendola
Baltimore Oriole
Melodious Blackbird
Great-tailed Grackle
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Summer Tanager
Grayish Saltator

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Introduction

Looking for Year Birds in the Pacific Lowlands of Costa Rica

Another year is quickly coming to an end and with it comes the planning, the possible rush to pick up those final year birds. The urge to suddenly race to a distant wetland, strain the ears for late nocturnal migrant, or trudge through mountain nights in a quest for uncooperative owls depends on how serious the year list is. For us, the endeavor has been a bit more easy going. Restrained by time and responsibilities, we haven’t gone to chase that Lovely Cotinga near Turrialba nor even the extremely cooperative Aplomado Falcon that was in San Isidro.

But, our birding year has still been marked by serious attempts to bird in the right places and along those lines, we have had some fine success. Thanks to an invitation from the San Vito Birding Club, we got the chance to see Lance-tailed Manakin and many other year birds. Thanks to guiding the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we heard Ocellated Crakes and other key species in Durika, and also visited several other places in Costa Rica.

Since I have also done a fair bit of guiding on my own, my personal year list has more species than that of Team Tyto but even so, our team list is at the cusp of an impressive 600 species. Thanks to a recent trip to the Pacific lowlands and more chances for birding before January first, we should surpass that number by at least a few species. Some of the highlights and musings from that recent trip:

Puntarenas pays off

We would have seen more if we had taken the ferry but with no time for the boat, we had to settle on a quick 45 minute afternoon stop . This still worked out because the bird activity out in the Gulf of Nicoya was good and included several gulls and terns flapping around as well as a squadron of pelicans group diving for fish. I wonder what else was out there that day? We were pleased with our looks at Franklin’s Gulls, Elegant Terns, and our first, long overdue Black Terns of the year. It was the birdy type of day where I wish we could have stayed longer but we had other places to go.

Curlew at Punta Morales!

Long-billed Curlew is a rare but regular migrant to Costa Rica, it seems like we get 3 or so each winter in the Gulf of Nicoya. The salt ponds at Cocorocas near Punta Morales are a good site, this past visit finally paid off with one sleeping curlew way out there with the Whimbrels. Since it was a bit far off and was hiding that extra long beak, the bird didn’t stand out like a curlew should. However, with careful scoping, we could see that the tawny colored bird with the orange belly was too much bigger than the Whimbrels to be a godwit and it also had a large, prominent pale eye ring. A very good year bird and the only one at Morales but it was still fun to also see dozens of Wilson’s Plovers and two Collared Plovers among other species. There were chances at year Mangrove Cuckoo, Rufous-necked Wood-Rail, and Mangrove Rail but we just didn’t have the time to find them.

Las Trancas in the morning

After staying overnight in Canas, we left early for the hour drive to one of the most accessible wetland sites near Liberia, the Las Trancas farm fields. A large, flat area used for growing sugarcane and rice, this site is an excellent hotspot that has turned up several rare birds. Winter is the best time to visit, November in particular for one of our main targets, the elusive and local Spotted Rail.

A Spotted Rail from a couple years ago at Las Trancas.

As small numbers of Dickcissels flew overhead, We checked the site, sometimes in conjunction with another local birder, Rodrigo Lopez, and eventually found our year Tricolored Munias. Scanning vegetation and skies failed to turn up hoped for Northern Harrier and White-tailed Hawk nor the Aplomado Falcon that had been recently seen but we did have nice views of Harriss’s Hawk and got a quick look at a hunting Merlin.

Try as we might for the rail, it just would not respond so we reluctantly left for a quick visit to the beach. At Playa Panama, we were entertained by schools of small fish breaching to avoid larger fish that also jumped on occasion. Brown Pelicans would then follow suit, actively flying in to see what they could scoop out of the water. At one point, an adult Brown Booby also appeared to do its diving thing.

On the way back, while driving through Las Trancas, frantic waving from Rodrigo caught our attention. Yes, he had just had the rails along with a Sora! After showing us where they had finally come to the edge of the wet rice, we had glimpses of the Sora and heard at least two Spotted Rails. Although they refused to show themselves, a heard bird is still a year bird! The final interesting sighting at this excellent site was a Great Egret that had caught a small snake.

Rincon de la Vieja

Our next destination was Rinconcito Lodge where I would be guiding a Birding Club of Costa Rica trip. We didn’t have anything on the drive there although I did see some interesting open oak savanna habitat that merits early morning bird surveys.

During our stay at Rinconcito, we birded around the lodge and visited two different areas of the national park. Although we did pick up a few year birds, overall, the birding was very slow. This may have been a result of windy and rainy weather as well as not being able to enter the park before 8 a.m.. That said, highlights included great views of Ruddy Woodcreeper, one hard only Tody Motmot, and excellent looks at Lesser Ground-Cuckoo. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have the time nor appropriate weather to see more of the uncommon species that live in Rincon de la Vieja.

On the drive back, we seriously tried for American Kestrel sans success. Two Pearl Kites and a male Merlin eating a Barn Swallow were consolation but additional year birds for Team Tyto will have to wait for another day.

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Introduction

Birding Niagara, Birding Costa Rica

I usually write about birding in Costa Rica; the wealth of biodiversity helps, it acts as a constant, swirling pool of ideas, stories, and images. This, week, though, I am back in Niagara Falls, New York, in the land of gulls for a short trip with my daughter to see family, visit DiCamillo’s bakery, feast on pizza from Goodfellas..you know, the important things. I’m also giving a presentation on the fantastic birding found in Costa Rica and have of course done a bit of birding in Niagara during my stay.

There aren’t as many birds in Niagara as in Costa Rica but it’s still great. I know someone from Costa Rica who would love to be here, love to see Ring-billed Gulls walk in parking lots, be thrilled by a phalanx of Double-crested Cormorants flying overhead, would be elated to see Blue Jays, cardinals, catbirds, and chickadees. Only one of the aforementioned makes it to Costa Rica and not in big numbers either. The rest would be lifers for her just as important as Bay-headed and Silver-throated and Emerald Tanagers would be for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Whether birding is “great” or not only really refers to how we want to play the game, what we want to see and how important those sightings are. Although the land bridge and corridor between Lakes Erie and Ontario is awaiting the next wave of migrants, it’s still great to be birding here, these are some of the reasons why:

Goat Island– My favorite site in these here parts, where I first watched birds, riding my bike there during May and hearing the old woods resound with dozens of wood-warblers, vireos, you name it. Even if I wasn’t birding on the island between the cataracts, it would still be a special place. The sound of the rapids and crashing water is a constant as are gulls flying above the river and sitting on the rocks. Yesterday, even outside of the November gull season, I still had three species, one of which was a Lesser Black-backed. We are still waiting for that one to make it onto the country list in Costa Rica.

Semipalmated Plover– On the Third Sister Island, on a small wet rock that inched its way into a fierce roaring river, we saw a young Semipalmated Plover. I told my daughter, “That bird is from the Arctic!” She didn’t say much, was too busy looking for ancient pre-dino time fossils in the rocks. I hope it joins thousands of its kind that are already in Costa Rica right now, feeding on tropical mud flats, watching the skies for deadly falcons.

Waxwings– It’s always nice to see waxwings, especially when they are such rare choice migrants in Costa Rica. In Niagara, I see them every time I venture outside to look for birds. There they are, many are juveniles, whispering from the tops of trees before flying off in search of berries.

Cooper’s Hawk– Another common bird in Niagara but one that is always a challenge for the Costa Rica year list. I point them out to my daughter. She says, “Cool!” I say that they eat pigeons and squirrels, she says, “Aww, poor squirrels” but she doesn’t feel too bad, she knows that the hawks have to eat too. We have some that make it all the way south every winter but there can’t be a lot. I wonder how many are in Costa Rica every winter season? Maybe less than ten?

Eastern Screech Owl– We went to a campground with cousins, there was a fire, smores, we even carved jack-o-lanterns and I also saw a few birds. A few I also only heard including the screech-owls giving their “winny” call in the otherwise quiet dead of the night. I think I also heard bobolinks as they migrated overhead.

No kiskadees, no flocks of colorful birds, no vultures, no screeching parakeets– Such regular aspects of birding Costa Rica are absent in these here parts right now but I’ll be back to experience them again soon enough. In the meantime, I relish the waxwings, gulls, nuthatches, and even the starlings before returning to a small country with more than 920 species on the official list.

Crowned Woodnymph- yet another common, colorful bird in Costa Rica.

Want to learn about the best sites for finding birds in Costa Rica and how to identify them? Support this blog by purchasing my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in Costa Rica!

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Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip

March, 2015 Birding News for Costa Rica

It’s March and this being the high season for birding in Costa Rica, I thought that some birding news, tips, and reminders would be pertinent:

  • The main road to Cerro de la Muerte is now open: Yes, it was closed for most of February because part of the road fell away. Yep, it collapsed after heavy rains but according to the news, they have fixed enough of it to not have to detour through the mountains south of San Jose.
  • Good birds in southern Costa Rica: According to eBird (a fantastic resource, please help by contributing your sightings), Savannah Hawk, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Veraguan Mango, and Brown-throated Parakeet have all been seen near La Gamba and in wetlands south of Ciudad Neily.
  • Carara is kind of dry: It’s been way too dry around Carara and that’s not so good for birds that are adapted to humid forest. All of the species are still there but you might have to work harder for them than in the past. The park still opens at 7 at this time of year.

Royal Flycatchers are still reliable.

  • Lanceolated Monklet at the La Fortuna Waterfall: A number of local birders have connected with this rare species at the Fortuna Waterfall Trail. Perhaps it’s more vocal at this time of year? Despite the parade of tourists and loud leaf blowing in the parking lot before it opens, the trail can also be good for White-whiskered Puffbird, Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, tanager flocks, and other species.
  • Prevost’s (Cabanis’) Ground-Sparrow: It was wonderful to see an article on this endemic ain the local newspaper. This species requires a lot more attention than it has been given and is very likely Endangered. Local ornithologist, Luis Sandoval, and other researchers at the Univeristy of Windsor Mennill Lab have published a study arguing for species status and propose White-faced Ground Sparrow as a new name for this country endemic. It’s a relief to see this much needed study, I hope it spurs much needed conservation efforts for this species. Thank you Luis and the Mennill Lab! On another note, the ground-sparrow has also been reliable in a riparian zone next to the big WalMart near the airport to Alajuela. BUT, the security situation looks a bit sketchy so if possible, it would be best to watch from inside the fenced off parking lot. I haven’t heard of any incidents but it looks like a spot where a mugging could happen.
  • There are at least two birding boat tours on the Tarcoles River: There are two and I have heard that some of the crocodile tours are also good for birds. The two birding focused ones are the Mangrove Birding Tour, and the Fantastic Birding Tour. Although I haven’t checked out the “fantastic”, I suspect it’s similar because they both go to the same places. Lately, tours on the river have been good for the thick-knee, Collared Plover, and Southern Lapwing. The pygmy-kingfisher can also show on any boat trip, as can Mangrove Hummingbird (beware confusion with Scaly-breasted). The wood-rail can appear too but it’s always tough.

This Mangrove Hummingbird is actually from Mata de Limon.

  • Raptors, Quetzals, and Cave Swallows: Raptors are scarce as always but the Arenal forests seem good for hawk-eagles, quetzals are nesting at the usual sites and I have seen several on the road to Poas Volcano, including right at the Restaurant Volacan. As for Cave Swallows, myself and a couple friends saw at least 20 along the road to Chomes. New country bird for me, it makes you wonder where they are coming from and how many more are around.

This quetzal is from the Poas area.

  • Migrants: We are starting to see reports of migrants coming through. Please report whatever you see on eBird even if it happens to be a common bird like Least Flycatcher, Black-throated Blue Warbler, or Warbling Vireo because those “common” birds are rare vagrants in Costa Rica.
  • Big Day this weekend: Not really news, but I am doing one this weekend with Robert and Susan. It’s going to be good birding no matter how many species we get. Wish us luck!
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Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica Introduction Pacific slope

What’s the Deal with Yellow-billed Cotinga at Cerro Lodge

If you have birded the Carara area during the past seven years, are birding it some time soon, or would love to raise the bins in that birdy place at some treasured future time, then you have probably heard about Cerro Lodge. Read any recent birding trip reports from Costa Rica and there’s a fair chance that Cerro Lodge gets a mention. This is because it’s one of the only ecolodges within close striking distance of the national park, Black and white Owls sometimes hang out with you during dinner (not as regular as the past but they still show up from time to time), and the birding is pretty dang good.

You might see a Red-lored Parrot feeding next to the lodge.

One of the most special of bird species possible at Cerro Lodge is the Yellow-billed Cotinga. This peace dove looking bird from avian dreams is an endangered species (and may be close to being critically so), and only lives from the delta of the Tarcoles River south to around David, Panama. If that range wasn’t small enough, the bird also lives in a very specific and limited ecotone, that of mangroves and rainforest. Nope the picky species just can’t have one or the other. It needs both and they need to be close to each other.

A male Yellow-billed Cotinga from Rincon de Osa, the most reliable spot in the world for this species.

At Cerro Lodge, you can actually see a male just about every morning as it displays on a distant bare tree in the mangroves. Although us birders are accustomed to focusing our eyes and bins on distant objects, in this case, the “distance” is kind of extreme. I’m not sure how far away that tree is, but the bird looks like an honest to goodness speck. If it weren’t snow gleaming white, we wouldn’t be able to see it all but luckilly (I guess), that bright light plumage lets us tick it off our lists albeit with a big fat BVD next to the sighting (no, not as in underwear; “better view desired”). It helps when the bird swoops from one branch to the next because then we know that we are looking at a bird and not some lost snowflake or trick of the eye.

The spot to look for the cotinga is just to the left of this image.

So, the big question is, “Where does that bird go?” It doesn’t stay in the mangroves all day and probably moves to and from the park. At least that’s the theory since it has to go find food somewhere. Although it probably passes right through Cerro Lodge at some time or another, it seems that at least one male shows up around 200 meters down the road from the Cerro Lodge entrance from time to time.

This one showed up down the road from the lodge last week.

This species is quite the expert at putting a branch in between you and the camera.

and off it goes...

The other main question is “How many live in the area?” Although the answer to that one is unknown, unfortunately, it’s probably “very few”. When Liz Jones and Abraham Gallo of Bosque del Rio Tigre fame  carried out surveys for Yellow-billed Cotinga, they estimated that there might be a dozen or less in the Carara area and that the population was, likely, slowly declining. It doesn’t take much brain power to realize that this doesn’t add up to a happy future for this species at Carara. Take into account the increasingly dry climate around Cerro Lodge and the national park, and the future for this species around Carara isn’t nearly as bright as the cotinga’s plumage.

Reforestation in the much needed corridor seems unlikely (not impossible but those cows do need their pasture after all…) but the species probably wouldn’t survive in a drier climate in any case. Nevertheless, since I don’t have the time to do it myself, I hope that others can somehow keep this species going in the area because when we stop seeing a male or two displaying from that distant tree, Yellow-billed Cotingas at Carara will always be lost in the haze.

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Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction

More Good Luck with Lowland Birding in Costa Rica

Last week, I started out a day of guiding at El Tapir. We arrived just after dawn, the sky was overcast, and the old butterfly garden was jumping with birds. A group of Black-faced Grosbeaks fed on fruits in a low tree, Silver-throated Tanagers were flying back and forth, and Black and Yellow Tanagers (our only looks for the day) came to the edge of the canopy. Several Black-mandibled Toucans moved through the trees along with flock after flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas.

Down in the flowers, in contrast to a visit just a week before, we had several species of hummingbirds including White-necked Jacobin, Brown Violetear, Violet-headed, Crowned Woodnymph, Green Thorntail, and Plumeleteer. The Rufous-taileds were still there but may have come out later in the day, and although the coquette was elsewhere, we did get a few Snowcaps! I don’t know where they had gone on other days, but on Friday, they were back, hopefully for good.

This Green Thorntail was still around.

We ventured into the dark morning woods and heard a few birds but it was quieter than other days. Maybe they knew something we didn’t because not long after, it started to rain…and never stopped. We birded for a couple of hours from the shelter of the main building and did pick up a few other species during brief respites but the rain wasn’t going to stop. So, instead of hanging out in the same rain at Quebrada Gonzalez, we decided to head into the lowlands. My client still needed Keel-billed Toucan and maybe the weather would be better?

That turned out to be a lucky choice because, yes, we managed to escape the rain, got a couple of Keel-billeds at our first stop, and had serendipitous birding for the rest of the day. After seeing the toucans, we checked out the entrance road to La Selva around 10:30 am. It was extremely quiet but I had a hunch that would change. We eventually got some birds near the second entrance gate, the first being a Laughing Falcon perched over the road.

Not long after, we watched a Rufous-tailed Jacamar and a Long-tailed Tyrant and then bird activity exploded like a feather bomb. It wasn’t just the mixed flock I had hoped for but flyby parrots as well, the highlight being a pair of Great Green Macaws that perched in a nearby tree! We had been hearing the macaws as they slowly approached us and I hoped to see them fly past. Instead, they stopped and let us admire them as other species showed up in the surrounding trees.

I don't get to see these perched that often.

As with a typical mixed flock experience, almost everything shows at once. Luckily, the birds weren’t streaming through the canopy, so we got good looks at most of them. I forget which bird started off the madness but things went something like this:

“There’s the jacamar”.

“Oh, here’s a Bright-rumped Attila! Got it? Band-backed Wren? Got it?”

“What’s that on the wire?”

“Gartered Trogon!”

“Here’s a Fasciated Antshrike. White-collared Manakin. Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher. Cocoa Woodcreeper calling. Yellow-billed Cacique in the open! Squirrel Cuckoo. Rufous-winged and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers. Plain Xenops. Streak-headed Woodcreeper. Nice looks at Cinnamon Becard. Lesser Greenlet. Bay Wren in the open. Golden-winged Warbler. Never mind (the name we gave to Passerini’s Tanager). Buff-throated Saltator.”

We also managed to scope a few birds in the distance including Scarlet-rumped Cacique, before leaving for lunch. Regarding lunch, I thought that Rancho Magellanes would be a good choice. It’s a 10 minute drive from La Selva, not long after Selva Verde, and can turn up some good birds on the river. The forest canopy can also be scoped from the restaurant and they serve good food for good prices. Although we didn’t see any birds while eating, we were surprised by a Summer Tanager that flew down right next to us (one or two feet away). After it flew to a nearby perch, I put a french fry (chip) on the table and it immediately came down to snatch it.  That was a first for me.

That's a french fry.

After lunch, we heard but did not see an Olive-backed Euphonia. However, that miss was quickly made up for by a male Snowy Cotinga perched right where it should be- at the top of a huge bare tree!

Can you see the cotinga?

A good day so far and it wasn’t over yet. We went back to the entrance road and although the activity didn’t approximate that of the morning, we still saw quite a bit with several species coming to a fruiting fig (including euphonias we had missed), good looks at Gray-headed Kite and both tityras, Smoky-brown Woodpecker, and heard all three tinamous. Yes, a good day indeed. I woud love to see how many species I could detect by birding along the entrance road and edge of La Selva at dawn.

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biodiversity birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills caribbean slope Introduction

A Monklet Says Hello in Costa Rica

Not all birds are created equal for the birder. In the birdosphere, that means that some species are a heck of a lot more difficult to see than others, or just look nicer. Others might be the one and only rep for a family, and/or be avian oddities (the ones with no close relatives tend to be weird in a cool way). In the tropics, since most forest species are naturally scarce, it’s a major birding bonus to see certain birds whose rarity is legendary. In Costa Rica, one of those choice species is the Lanceolated Monklet.

This tiny puffbird just loves to be elusive. I mean, you can bird a supposed good site for the monklet for years and never hear a peep. You can hang out along streams in dense forests for days and wonder if the monklet actually lives there. You can look as much as you want at the exact spots where they have been seen and never, ever see one. Such is the Lanceolated Monklet, a true blue anti-birder bird.

It just hates to be seen and that’s why we have no idea how many live in Costa Rica. We know where they have been identified but beyond that, forget about any guesses on numbers. They just don’t vocalize enough and are far too un-obvious for any degree of proper estimation. So, if you do happen to see one, it’s a cause for personal celebration. The other day, the monklet luck cards finally fell into place at one of my favorite sites, Quebrada Gonzalez. I guide birders there on occasion and always prepare them for the site by saying that the birding is challenging, the canopy is high, mixed flocks can pass through super frustratingly fast, BUT, you always see something uncommon and SOMETIMES, you see something super rare.

We got the super rare in the form of the monklet the other day (FINALLY). This was a huge “finally” because I have been looking and listening for this species, right at that site, for more than ten years. Yep. Always wondering where it was because it has been recorded there in the past and should still be there. Well, it certainly is because we had perfect looks:

It even caught a bug!

The funny thing about this bird is that I might not see it there again for years. I hope not but that’s kind of how it is. After finding a couple monklets at Lands in Love in 2013, several attempts to re-find them have been failures. Where do they go? I suspect that they are still around but just don’t call or sing, and pretty much hide in plain sight. Keep your eyes peeled when birding the Ceibo trail at Quebrada Gonzalez, a Lanceolated Monklet might be looking at you!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica caribbean slope Introduction lowlands

Great Mid-day Birding on the La Selva Entrance Road

“La Selva” is the term that birders and biologists use for the O.T.S. La Selva Biological Station. Although there are lots of places to watch a lot of birds in Costa Rica, La Selva is one of the better known sites on the block. Biologists, birders, and people who happen to be particularly enthused about  neotropical biodiversity have been going to this haven for decades. The first visitors had to arrive by boat to a station surrounded by large areas of primary forest. Oooh, that sounds nice and what an amazing place it must have been!

Check out Slud’s notes on surveying birds at La Selva during the 50s to get an idea of what the avifauna was like when the surrounding area was mostly forested. I’m not sure if he mentions it, but others have told me that Great Jacamar was regular, Golden-crowned Spadebill and Black-faced Antthrush were very common, and even Harpy Eagle was present. Since those glory days for birds and healthy rainforest ecosystems, deforestation just outside of La Selva has taken its toll on the species that live within the boundaries of the station. Although the forests in the reserve are intact, larger areas of contiguous forest are probably needed to sustain healthy populations of various animals that live there. Throw other edge effects into the mix, including an overabundance of Collared Peccaries that have a detrimental impact on the forest understory (by devouring everything), and the place doesn’t exactly mirror Slud’s experiences (nor others who worked there during the 70s and 80s).

Can we please cull and eat some of these?

Most understory species have become very rare, and various other bird species have declined but there is hope. Yes, there is hope and you can see it when you bird the entrance road. Not too long ago, this part of La Selva was young second growth but bird it nowadays and you can see a lot of forest species. Those regenerating areas do indeed provide habitat for a lot  of birds and one sees a lot more forest species compared to 15 or even 10 years ago. It also shows that if we let enough forest come back in other areas next to La Selva, in time, it may once again support similar numbers of species and individuals. It will take a while, but the sooner we can get started, the better. Since that would also involve reforesting of private land used for farming Teak and other cash crops, the solution is far from straightforward but there are solutions, they are just harder to find.

Ok, so now for some birds. While guiding the other day, after a morning at El Tapir, I decided to check out the La Selva entrance road to see if we could find some of the lowland targets needed by my client. Despite it being the true blue middle of the day, it was pretty darn good!

We had nice looks at Squirrel Cuckoos.

This Stripe-breasted Wren was also hanging out in the thick stuff.

Always nice to see a jacamar.

We saw most of our birds just hanging out near the stream as bird species eventually vocalized and/or passed through their territories.

Including Chestnut-colored Woodpeckers that performed at eye level!

The male liked the camera too.

We also saw White-ringed Flycatchers way up in the canopy as usual.

To see a list of the birds that were identified, here is a link to the eBird list for that birdy pause during the day. I would love to survey that are at dawn to see what shows up!

Categories
Birding Costa Rica birds to watch for in Costa Rica caribbean foothills Hummingbirds Introduction

Yesterday’s Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at El Tapir

It’s the day after guiding at El Tapir and it’s hard to believe that less than 24 hours ago, I was looking at White-ruffed Manakins and listening to the whistles of hidden wood-wrens. Such is the big old contrast between a computer desk and the humid, dim interior of rainforest. There weren’t any crazy highlights but we had some nice birds nonetheless. The antithesis of a highlight was the odd absence of the Snowcap. Odd, because I have never not seen that fantastic hummingbird at El Tapir. I hope they come back soon and have not returned to the dream dimension to which they obviously belong.

Yes, this bird is from a dream dimension.

No Snowcaps, but we did see some other nice birds, one of which is easy to hear but is a menace to try and see. That toughy was a Nightingale Wren and oh how nice it was to come in and hang out a few short meters from our feet.

What a Nightingale Wren usualy looks like.

Now you know why the Nightingale Wren prefers to stay out of sight- it looks kind of like a piece of dirt.

Another look at this ridiculously reclusive rainforest soprano.

If you hear someone whistling out of tune in foothill rainforest, you are listening to a Nightingale Wren and not a short, bearded fellow with a pointed red hat (although some claim to have seen those beings in the forest as well).

No elves but we did have a nice view from an overlook. It was not so easy to get to this spot.

Other “good” birds we saw inside the rainforest were Spotted Antbird, Pale-vented Thrush, Lattice-tailed Trogon, Tawny-faced Gnatwren, Tawny-crested Tanager, and a bunch of White-ruffed Manakins.

Male White-ruffed Manakin.

The manakins were feeding on fruiting Melastomes. Several other birds paid visits to those important trees too but no hoped for cotingas or random Sharpbill.

Back out in the hummingbird garden, we were treated to one of the other top candidates for bird of the day, a male Black-crested Coquette. We got to watch that fine little bird as much as we wanted along with a couple of Green Thorntails, Crowned Woodnymph, and Violet-headed Hummingbirds among the over-abundant Rufous-taileds.

We often saw it through the flower stems.

Then it would fly into view.

Or put its head into the flowers.

Scoped views on a perch were also nice!

I will be at El Tapir again within a week for another Snowcap vigil. I hope they come back from their vacation from parts unknown.