For birders in North America, a quail-dove is far from familiar. Certain other dove species might be as normal in the yard as the family dog but not yee quail-doves. In the official ABA area, the main dove/quail that we hope to see is the one named after an island and seeing it is no easy task. The Ruddy is also possible but that would be an even bigger, rarer prize.
Even if quail-doves did breed and thrive in Florida, they would still be a challenge because that’s the quail-dove M.O. no matter where you yield your bins. Unlike the happy go lucky Cooper’s Hawk prey item known as the Mourning Dove (now you know why they are always mourning…), or the bold and permanently unphased Rock Pigeon, the quail-doves are opposed to the limelight. Heck, given their skulking behavior, they are pretty much opposed to any light. Like miniature fangless vamps, the quail-doves stick to the shade like its going out of style and give new meaning to “agoraphobia”. To see them, one usually has to sneak through dense forest to glimpse one as it scurries off the trail in search of deeper, darker thickets. As one may surmise, they are typical pains but every once in a while, a quail-dove manages to ignore its birder frustrating genes and come out into the open.
It’s a rare occurrence indeed but can happen, especially on rainy and/or very cloudy days (don’t forget that these terrestrial doves are related to vampires…). It also seems more likely to happen in places where they are used to people. One such locale is the Monteverde Reserve. Bird those trails and you have a pretty good chance of glimpsing a Buff-fronted Quail-Dove. Or, you might even get lucky with the super friendly quail-dove that hangs around the parking lot!
This Buff-fronted friend shows up now and then at the edge of the parking lot and maybe on a regular basis. It still likes things quiet and stays away from people but the open, friendly, and attention getting attitude (for a quail-dove) is downright astounding. To see this bird, just keep checking the edges of the parking lots at Monteverde, especially when few people are around. The one we watched would have stayed longer if a motorcycle hadn’t ridden up to within one meter of it (although I couldn’t blame it for scooting back into the forest at that point).
A week ago, a large percentage of us humans celebrated the start of another new year with best wishes and the usual countdown. It’s hard for me to take it seriously because calendars are totally subjective but it’s always a nice excuse for a party as well as the spreading of good vibes. For birders, that major calendar change also represents a chance to start counting birds once again to see how many you can identify over the next twelve months. It also acts as a time to review the birds you would like to see and tell yourself, that yes, this year, I am going to see that damn Black Rail, a Boreal Owl, or some other evasive avian creature.
As for myself, I haven’t made any plans or statements for 2015. Sure, I would like to see a Spotted Rail but I’m going to be Zen about the whole thing and try for new birds when I can (not too many for me to try for in Costa Rica and the Masked Duck can of course va fa in ….). I will also keep track of the birds I see but think I will do so with eBird. I can’t even recall what my first bird of the year was but no matter because I saw a bunch of good ones between the 2nd and the 4th. During those dates, I was guiding/birding on Cerro de la Muerte and stayed at Myriam’s Cabins.
Although the diversity was naturally low, quality was high with most species being highland endemics.
Up on the paramo, after a bit of searching, we eventually connected with the junco, wren, and finch (Peg-billed).
Over at Georgina, searching the primary forests failed to find the jay but we did get the quetzal in the afternoon. Luckily, good old serpent tail sang a couple of times and a female flew in. After bad looks, a male zipped through the canopy and perched for walk away views. Yee haw!
Not long after the quetzal, I got lucky with a glimpse of a pygmy-owl flying overhead. Unfortunately, branches obscured everything but its tick-tocking tail and then it was gone. Frustration began to set in until the bird gave us a break, started calling, and eventually came close. After hiding out in the bamboo, one more bit of whistles brought it right in front of our faces.
More walk away views ensued after seeing this tough endemic surrounded by Fiery-throated Hummingbirds.
Those were the two stars of the show but we also got most other species including Buff-fronted Quail-Dove on a likely nest at Myriam’s, Bare-shanked Screech-Owl, Spotted Wood-Quail, and super close looks at several other cool birds.
Despite a good deal of focused searching, we dipped on the pewee, jay, and saw-whet but found out that yes, the saw-whet is seen regularly around Myriam’s (!), and that Myriam’s also has a trail through excellent primary forest. On a disturbing note, the forest understory looks dry and rather open, and the forest looked pretty dry overall. This is not good for rainforest ecosystems adapted to getting several meters of rain per year.
Back on the good news front, Myriam’s also had nice action at the feeders, good food, and great, friendly service. Next birding stop for me might be Monteverde or maybe El Tapir. I’m not fretting though, because it’s always going to be birdy!
For biophiles in Costa Rica, you can’t help but be treated to avian and other highlights on a daily basis. Just spend some quality time in tropical forest, pay close attention to your surroundings, and “stuff” will appear. That said, I still have some personal birding highlights from 2014 that merit a mention. They are, in no particular order:
Birding around La Gamba: White-crested Coquette, Golden-naped Woodpeckers at feeders, and lifer Veraguan Mango are always a wonderful way to start the year. The birds just kept appearing at the Troppenstation and near La Gamba, I would love to go back.
Updating birding apps for Panama and Costa Rica: I was pleased with this because both apps now in the iTunes store have a respectable 700 plus species, and more search functions, including searching by name. Hopefully, the Android versions will have the same updates soon.
Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds: It rained the entire time but it was still fun to hang out with and see birds with Corey and Mike.
Hudsonian Godwit: Documenting the second record for Costa Rica turned it into the best bird of the year. Not to mention, this was also a memorable, 20 plus shorebird day that included Rufous-necked Wood-Rail and good times with Josh Beck, Kathi Borgmann, and Susan Blank.
Maroon-chested Ground-Dove: This super elusive dove treated us to a show on Irazu thanks to gen from Ernesto Carman.
Some other new country birds for the year: Honestly, I’m not sure if I got any lifers other than Veraguan Mango but I did pick up several new birds for my Costa Rica list including Redhead, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Baird’s Sandpiper, Red Knot, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew (finally…), Veery, and Yellow-breasted Chat (another finally…).
The first thing that comes to mind when I reminisce about the recent Arenal Christmas Count is rain. At this time of the year, cold fronts often come on down to Costa Rica. Unlike other visitors from the north, cold fronts aren’t so welcome because they bring constant rain. While the forests on the Caribbean slope do need tons of falling water (they really do), if you don’t happen to be an amphibian, constant rain is kind of annoying. It’s pretty self explanatory but to give an idea of what it’s like, imagine light rain followed by heavier rain followed by light rain and repeat that process for several days and nights.
Such very wet weather is par for the course in the Arenal area in December so we couldn’t have expected less. However, despite the precipitation, we still managed quite a few bird species on our Finca Luna Nueva route, mostly during times of light rain and breaks in the weather. Such breaks lifted our hearts and gave birth to sighs of relief until the pressure dropped and the rain fell again (along with our drowned, soggy hopes). Ok, enough complaints, now for some highlights!:
Birding with the guys from 10,000 Birds, Tomohide Cho, Ismael Torres, and Johan Weintz: Mike Bergin and Corey Finger a la 10,000 Birds were visiting Costa Rica and we did the Arenal count together. Lots of fun before, during, and after the count with these guys in our search for lifers and shelter from the rain. Tomohide takes lots of great pictures of birds, Ismael is the resident guide at Luna Nueva and Johan is a guide.birder from Cartago. This was our team and I am grateful for spending the day with them.
Cinnamon Woodpecker: First, we had one so close that it seemed like it wanted to help out with the count. Three or so more during the day showed that Luna Nueva is a good spot for this beautiful species.
Great Curassow: Regular around Arenal and at Luna Nueva but always a highlight. Although we didn’t get the barred morph and honorary count bird at Luna Nueva, we did see one of those semi-psychadelic creatures at Arenal Observatory Lodge on the following day.
White-fronted Nunbird: Mike Bergin gets the prize for spotting this target! The quality forests around Arenal are good for this formerly common species but it’s still easy to miss.
Hooded Warbler: Uncommon in Costa Rica and a year bird so it was a highlight for me. We did not re-find the much rarer Nashville that Mike, Corey, and Ismael had seen the day before the count!
Keel-billed Motmot: We got one from the tower just before lunch! Great looks but too far for a good shot with my camera.
Magnificent Frigatebird: Weird stuff goes on during cold fronts and this was one of them. Nope, not even near the coast and no other team happened to see this juvenile fly past during the count!
Song Wren: Another good one, we got looks up on the trails at the Texas A and M Soltis Center. We did super good for wrens before and after the count too, with 10 species seen and Plain Wren the only heard only (yes, great looks at the almost invisible Nightingale Wren at Arenal Observatory Lodge).
Big misses included Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, owls, and other birds that probably didn’t call because they were sick of the rain. I forget how many species we got but I think it was around 130 and that’s not bad, not bad at all for a day of birding!
Whether putting the focus on birds or just checking out nature’s details in the backyard, there’s always something to see. Keep that open mind and you still go birding during the post-breeding doldrums or when the rain pours down. But let’s face it, it’s always going to be easier to get more excited about birding in places that always offer a chance at something new, rare, or mysterious. That’s pretty much the score for tropical rainforests. The natural complications of those ecosystems make them unpredictable and always capable of delivering a rare experience. Frustrating? Maybe, but frustration can be easily pushed aside by the excitement of the unknown.
This was why I was excited to do a day of guiding/birding at Virgen del Socorro last week. Although I have been there dozens of times over the years, I still never know what I am going to run into, and I know that there is always that chance of seeing a Lovely Cotinga, finding a fruiting tree with Red-fronted Parrotlets, or even espying a Solitary Eagle. Any of that trio is unexpected and would indeed make for a rare, red letter day but it’s always possible! Our group wasn’t so lucky on our recent trip but still managed some quality birds.
The unlucky factor was the ironic sunny day. Ironic, because it’s beautiful weather yet dismal bird activity. A good day for scenery but not many birds. I always wonder where they are because the difference between avian activity on a cloudy day and during tropical, sunny weather is uncanny. So, we had a hot, sunny, fairly birdless day in the middle elevation forests at Virgen del Socorro. Nevertheless, as I mentioned, we still got onto some nice birds.
A first stop at the La Paz Waterfall turned up an American Dipper.
We didn’t spend much time at Cinchona because we were going to stop there in the later afternoon anyways but still got in your face looks at a Green Thorntail.
Down in Virgen del Socorro, our first stop turned up Collared Trogon and a fruiting tree with Black-mandibled Toucans and Emerald Toucanet. The realization that it was a Lauraceae raised hopes for a cotinga or other uncommon frugivore but despite a lot of careful checking, the tree was cotingaless. I would have loved to have left a camera there to record the birds that came and went for the rest of the day because it was ideal for a Lovely Cotinga.
In that same area, we also saw a few tanagers and got excellent looks at Slaty-capped Flycatcher.
After that, the sun took over and birds quieted down. Black Phoebe was the only bird at the bridge but at least the sunny weather brought out the raptors including hoped for White and Barred Hawks, Short-tailed Hawk, and a few Broad-winged Hawks.
The corner by the bridge is a good area for Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher and Saturday was no exception. We got really good looks at that tiny thing while Crimson-collared Tanagers, Golden-olive Woodpeckers, and Sooty-faced Finch called from the understory.
The mixed flock failed to appear over in the better forest on the other side of the river but we got nice looks at flocks of Vaux’s Swifts and listened to Striped-breasted, Bay, and Nightingale Wrens. Further on, we went up and out of the canyon and head to the good forest just past Albergue del Socorro. Although it was naturally quiet at 2 p.m., fruiting Melastomes produced Black and Yellow Tanagers, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Green Honeycreeper, and Hepatic Tanager.
To leave the area, we took the road to San Miguel instead of backtracking through Virgen del Socorro. This gave us Least Grebe, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck at a small reservoir, and a glimpse at a very promising birding area with an overlook of extensive forest, and access to foothill forest. I’m looking forward to checking that site on some fine morning to survey it!
We finished the day at Cinchona accompanied by Emerald Toucanets, Violet Sabrewing, Coppery-headed Emerald, and a few other birds.
If you want to look for Lanceolated Monklet, tanagers, and other middle elevation species at Virgen del Socorro and are coming from the Sarapiqui area, take the road to San Miguel and go left at the police checkpoint. After crossing the first big bridge, take the first road on the left and down into the canyon. If coming from Cinchona, head downhill and watch for the short sticks with red and yellow markings on the right that mark the entrance to the road into the canyon. This is just before the road makes a sharp left to head down to a big bridge
“This is your mission. If you choose to accept it, we will deny any and all knowledge of its existence”. Yeah, or something along those lines. Since Robert, Susan, and I were successful with our ground-dove mission last month, we figured that we could be just as successful with a mission for an avocet. If the mission failed, we knew that we would still have fun anyways so off we went in search of senor skinny sandpiper!
No, the American Avocet is not endangered and doesn’t even come close to the mystery of the M.C. Ground-Dove BUT, in Costa Rica, it’s certainly chase-worthy. A chase-worthy bird is, of course, a species for which the frequency of occurrence is so darn low that you jump up and chase it when you get the news. The avocet shows up just about every year in Costa Rica but may or may not stay for long. What can I say, it’s a fickle bird! Must be that weird up-turned bill. I mean how do you eat with that? In any case, if you want to check it off the good old Costa Rican list, you have to head down to some salt pond and hope that it hasn’t flown ASAP after the news.
The way things worked out, we had a chance at chasing the avocet or a possible Yellow-winged Blackbird with a Savannah Hawk thrown in for good measure. Since that second option involved a longer drive, we opted for the first, our sub-mission being that of the Spotted Rail.
Off we went at dawn on Saturday morning to head to the coast and meet Robert at the turn-off to Monteverde.
A quick check of Caldera didn’t reveal anything of note. There were some birds out there but nothing crazy.
Although the avocet was reported from salt ponds near Punta Morales, our first stop was the shorebird bastion of Chomes. Anything can show up at Chomes so it’s always worth a stop, especially during high tide (not to mention being the neighbor of Punta Morales). You might also see some dry forest birds on the way in. We didn’t stop for any although we did see like 50 Double-striped Thick-knees lounging about in a dry field.
Once we got to the shrimp ponds, as has been usual for the past few years, we found most of the birds inthe last ponds on the left. There was a fine, healthy bunch of shorebirds.
After feeling pretty sure that there weren’t any crazy rarities around, we headed back out to the highway and got back on to our main mission for the avocet. First stop was the salt or shrimp ponds at the end of the road from the turn-off just after the El Huevo restaurant.
Holy shorebirds, that place was jammed with high arctic migrants!
I had never seen so many shorebirds at the site, including my first Red Knots for Costa Rica, Stilt Sands, and Surfbirds among other more common species. We also got another Long-billed Curlew and were entertained by a calling Lesser ground-Cuckoo while doing so but check as we did, the avocet was a no show.
Fortunately, it was present at the next set of human-made shorebird habitats!
This was at the end of the road at the turn off just across the road from a sign for “camarones frescos”.
With the avocet in the bag, and the pressure off (at least for shorebirds), we checked Ensenada and the Colorado salt pans at a more leisurely pace. The birds were being a bit too leisurely though because we didn’t see anything of note.
By this time, it was two in the afternoon and we had to decide if we could make it to rail produucing rice fields before the sun set. The reservoir at Canas seemed too far, same for the catfish ponds. So, we opted for rice fields on the way in to Palo Verde. That seemed within reach and it was despite the wacky, very possibly dangerous aspect of the road construction of the Pan-American highway. Seriously, be very careful, it’s hard to see where a section of road might abruptly end, there are surprise sharp turns, and some people driving in the wrong lane (as in approaching head on traffic wrong).
On the road to Palo Verde, after a brief stop for a couple of scampering bobwhites, we sort of rushed back to rice fields, found a suitable spot and played Spotted Rail vocalizations. Red-winged Blackbirds flew around and we checked them for yellow-headeds sans success.
No Spotted Rail though. Come to think of it, we didn’t even see a gallinule. No rails amand when the sun set, no White-tailed Nightjar either (as pretty much per usual), so we headed to Liberia for the night. A good night and good deal at the El Sitio Best Western- very much recommedned on account of the extensive birdy grounds (including a small lagoon in the back), big included breakfast, and comfort. However, be careful about staying on the weekend because a bar across the street plays loud music literally all night long.
The next morning, the rail quest continued over at the rice fields on the way to Playa Hermosa, and at the catfish ponds (aka Sardinal lagunas, no more catfish). Once again, no response form any rallid although we did connect with Tricolored Munia, Painted Bunting and other dry forest birds, and a few hundred ducks. Among the ducks were Blue-winged Teal, a couple of shovelers, Ring-necked, and Lesser Scaup but no Masked.
In keeping with ducks, our next site was the reservoir at Canas. Although there weren’t as many ducks compared to last winter (yet…), we nevertheless had fun looking through hundreds of Lesser Scaup and in the process, got a Ring-necked Duck, and a Redhead! The Redhead was a major bonus as it was first recorded in Costa Rica just a few years ago and I had missed the one at Canas last winter.
Mission success on the avocet, not so for the Spotted Rail, time to go back to the drawing board for that one…
If Costa Rica has a pioneer birding lodge, it would have to be Rancho Naturalista. I am pretty sure that this gem of a destination was the first place in Costa Rica to put most of the focus on birders and continues to please birdwatchers to this day. Rancho’s legacy includes several in-house guides who have gone on to guide tours around the globe, hundreds (or maybe thousands) of happy photographers, and legendary food. In trip reports, that culinary aspect of Rancho is at times overshadowed by the birds but oh how it does deserve a mention!
For example, after a recent trip with the Birding Club of Costa Rica, we finished off the first day with a dinner of Morrocan Chicken. Meat falling off the bone, scrumptious, honest to goodness Morrocan recipe chicken. Every meal was just as fantastic and it prepares you for the fun birding on and off the grounds of the hotel.
As far as birding goes, feeders and birdy habitats always ensure plenty to look at. Upon arrival, we were treated to the ongoing hummingbird party. This glittering festival never ends and includes such guests as
and Black-crested Coquette visible in the Porterweed for most of our stay. We also had other hummingbird species along with more than a few close looks at birds coming to fruit and rice feeders. Among those were
Brown Jay and
Gray-headed Chachalaca along with other species.
On more than one occasion, we also saw one of the least common, widespread raptors in the neotropics-
Bicolored Hawk! Rancho just might be the most reliable place for this species anywhere in its range.
But these birds were just some of the ones around the buildings. Up on the trails, the birding wasn’t as easy but we still saw White-crowned Manakin, heard Zeledon’s Antbird and Carmiol’s Tanager, and saw a fair selection of other middle elevation species. If you spent the whole day on the upper trails, you would have a fair chance at Purplish-backed Quail-Dove, Brown-billed Sythebill, tanagers, and lots of other species.
Female White-crowned Manakin.
Although we didn’t do much on the upper trails, we had fun with one of the coolest attractions at Rancho. This gem was the moth sheet. The insects that come to the sheet at night are in turn eaten by birds that show up early in the morning and most are shy, forest interior species. The most common bird was Red-throated Ant-Tanager although we also had close looks at Plain-brown and Spotted Woodcreepers, White-breasted Wood-Wren, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Plain Antvireo, and great looks at another reliable rarity at Rancho, the Tawny-chested Flycatcher.
Staying at Rancho isn’t cheap but you get more than what you pay for with excellent birding, fantastic food, excellent service, and the oportunity to hire very good guides. Take the La Mina excursion and you have a 95% chance of seeing Sunbittern.
While growing up near the thundering waters of Onguiaahra, I always associated November with dark, slate gray. The short days seemed cloaked in a steely sky, the trees had gone to sleep, and the first bit of snow was drifting down from the north. Things were frozen once more and the summer birds were long gone and replaced by the calls of chickadees, big flocks of ducks on the river and lakes, and clouds of gulls.
November in Costa Rica is a far cry from the month that lays out the ice-dead winter welcome mat of the north. Much closer to the equator, the hands of Jack Frost are held at bay by an eternal summer. Instead of “losing” birds, we gain them in the form of wood-warblers, Philadelphia Vireos, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Wood Thrushes, and other migrants. However, we aren’t exempt from the heavy changes happening up north. We might not get any snow but we do get the gray skies. They come loaded with heavy rain and sometimes, it falls for days.
If you have birded in Costa Rica in November, you probably know what I am talking about. But, you probably also saw lots of cool birds anyways. For us local birders, this is actually an exciting time of the year because this is when the vagrants can show up. It represents that first, brief window when lost birds appear. Since they are out of range and far from familiar surroundings, the odds aren’t in their favor so you have to find them pretty much as soon as they arrive. So far, the most noteworthy rarities have been a Yellow-headed Blackbird found in the Coto marshes near the southern border by Leo Garrigues and some other Tico birders.
I was wondering when this one would show again and suspect that it turns up more often, just not enough people scouring rice fields and marshes (the clouds of mosquitoes are a likely deterrant). Another very experienced observer was pretty sure that he glimpsed an Aplomado Falcon up by Medio Queso. He only got a brief look but strongly suspected that he saw one. It wouldn’t be out of the question as this vagrant has been seen there before.
A Yellow-backed Oriole was also found near Quepos! Whether a natural vagrant or escapee, it’s a first for Costa Rica!
There have also been reports of Pine Warbler (serious vagrant) at the Belmar Hotel in Monteverde, and Reddish Egret at Puntarenas. No reports of Spotted Rail yet but since this seems to be the best month for that tough species, I hope I see one!
In other bird-related news, the second edition of the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean is out! I think it becomes available on Amazon and elsewhere in December but some of us birders in Costa Rica have been very fortunate to get copies now. I have mine and yes, it is definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition. There are more illustrations of birds in flight, more species are shown, improved maps, nice habitat descriptions, and so on.
In semi bird-related news, Turrialba Volcano has been erupting. Not just letting off the steam either but big clouds of ash and flying boulders. The mouth of the volcano has also been growing, people have been evacuated from a few places, and the activity is expected to increase.
Irazu is an 11,000 plus foot high volcano just outside of San Jose. I can see it looming large just outside my back window and can even discern the cell towers right up on top. Heck, if I had a 10,000 zoom scope, I would just point it at the mountain and scan for Silvery-throated Jay, quetzals, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. As long as we are in the realm of imagination, I might as well mention that teleporting up there would be way better than a telescope. That would be so much easier than creeping through traffic to reach Cartago followed by a subsequent drive on up to the upper reaches of the volcano. But don’t assume that the fun stops once you make it to the volcano. To see some of those rarities, there’s a fair chance that you will still need to scuff your way up some steep slopes or freeze the feet in cold, wet grass.
At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….
Yes, this ground-dove that pretends to be a quail-dove was very nice to Robert, Susan, and I this past Sunday. It called almost non-stop and even gave us time to trudge up slope and get into a position where we could inspect it in detail. To start things off, a female briefly showed before the male made an appearance. We got brief looks at both before they fluttered off and we were indeed pleased but the rare ground-dove experience wasn’t over yet. Much to our joy, the male started calling again and did so from a spot where we could watch it for 15 minutes (since almost no one ever sees this bird, those were some 15 precious minutes).
Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.
The ground-dove is probably the rarest regularly occurring species on Irazu. It is, no doubt, always present but if it isn’t calling as it forages in thick vegetation, you would never know it was there. As far as rarity on Irazu goes, it’s only superseded by the Oilbird. Now for that one, we just don’t even have any idea if it shows up on a regular basis or if it’s a vagrant. Assessment evades because the bird is nocturnal and doesn’t call as nearly as much as an owl. In other words, how the heck would you know if it was around, especially when you would have to chance upon one in the cold, often rainy night?
Speaking of night, Irazu is also a good spot for the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. If you thought saw-whets from the north were tough, its more southerly cousin takes the owl-spotting challenge to a new level (and you thought that “Unspotted” referred to its plumage…). I don’t think anyone has ever seen a roosting one in Costa Rica and maybe not anywhere else either. To see it, you have to head out into the cold night and listen for a calling bird during calm weather. With luck, you will be able to track down the calling nocturnal creature, find it, and prove to youirself that yes, it does look like a plush toy. After that, you can go back to the car and try to unfreeze your toes after pouring yourself a celebratory drink, spiked coffee seems appropriate.
While the owl is present on Irazu, it still isn’t common. Like the ground-dove, it’s a naturally rare bird that always requires more than casual birding to find it. The same goes for some other species that make their home up there on the volcano. For example, Peg-billed Finch and Slaty Finch also occur but nope, sorry, not common. Downright rare and they require lots of looking. The Peg-billed is certainly less difficult than the Slaty because after glassing 30 or so Slaty Flowerpiercers in the paramo, you eventually find one. Not so for the Slaty Finch. For that pseudo-junco weirdo, seeding bamboo is key but guess what? You can still have seeding bamboo and neither hear nor see it! That’s what happened after we looked for the ground-dove. After birding a very nice area of seeding bamboo, we were surprised to neither see nor hear Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, or other bamboo birds, especially because Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles head them the previous week.
But, that’s how it is with rare birds. There are so few of them that it’s just naturally tough to locate them. As with any needle in the haystack experience, chances at success are correlated with number of observers. Go up there with a bunch of people, spread out, and have everyone looking and you might find the rare ones. In the mean time, when birding on Irazu, at least you can also be entertained by the calls of Buffy-crowned Wood-Patridge (might see one too), and views of Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, silky-flycatchers, and Resplendent Quetzal…
A big thanks goes out to Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles- they found the ground-dove and other rare birds the week before and were gracious with the gen.
We all have our favorite places to bird and one of mine is Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica. No, it’s not an easy place to bird and even more difficult for bird photography but since it was my introduction to birding in rainforest habitats, the place has become firmly established in my subconscious core. I don’t get back to that site often enough and it was better when mixed flocks and coquettes visited fruiting and flowering trees at the edge of the forest, but the rangers did need a place to stay.
On Tuesday, despite knowing that we would miss the dawn chorus, a friend and I spent a fine morning at the site. We started at the non-birdy hour of 9 a.m. and worked the main loop trail until noon. After that, we did a quick walk on the Ceiba trail before rain chased us away around 1 p.m.
One of the things I like about Quebrada is that you never really know what the heck is going to show up. It’s always a surprise and if you hit an antswarm or find a good fruting tree, you have a chance at jackpot birds like the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo, Ocellated Antbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. Chances are slim on a brief, mid-morning visit (and we didn’t connect with the winning numbers) but you bird there for three or four days in a row and it might happen. On a day visit, you could have an experience like we did in the summary below or something totally different. Either way, you will probably see something good and of course there’s always that re-energizing, oxygen-ruich atmosphere to boost the soul.
A summary of Quebrada birding at that typically non-birdy part of the day:
After seeing nothing around the parking area, we walked into the forest and carefully walked along the trail. As quiet as the forest may be, based on past experience, I know that a wood-quail, quail-dove, or some other shy forest floor species can appear (and disappear) in a moment. You have to be ready at all times, especially if you want photos! I did want photos but also knew that my chances were as slim as the legs of a stilt.
After the stairs, we heard a few birds here and there. These were species usually recorded at the site like White-breasted Wood-Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. We didn’t see anything at a new overlook (thanks to recent super-heavy rains) but both thought that it would make an interesting place to just sit and wait for a few hours.
Further on, a male White-necked Jacobin checked us out, and we ran into a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We hung out with the flycatcher for several minutes to see if I could get a recording of its call (I eventually did). Shortly after that, the calls of Carmiol’s Tanagers and Black-faced Grosbeaks pulled us up the trail. Those species usually mean “mixed flock” and yes there was one around but unfortunately, the birds were too far off in the forest to see. We also heard our first Buff-throated Goliage-gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager at that time.
At the back part of the loop, we lucked out with another mixed flock and this one was at least partially visible. It was also a big one! Oddly enough, since I was more focused on getting pictures and recording sounds (and because I had lent my binos to my friend as he had forgotten his), I just listened and watched bird movement with the naked eye. I may have missed out on espying Sharpbill for the year but that’s Ok, it was interesting to try and ID the birds without bins. Most of the flock was composed of Black-faced Grosbeaks but there were also Spotted and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Lesser Greenlet, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Russet Antshrike, White-throated Shrike, Hepatic, Black and Yellow, Emerald, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, and Carmiol’s Tanagers, one Collared Trogon, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and other birds.
We were able to stay with the flock for a while but I couldn’t get a break with a good picture of a Carmiol’s Tanager.
When we departed ways with the flock, it was about 11:30 a.m. and the forest quieted back down. For the rest of the trail, we heard a few Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, I had a flyby of a Ruddy Quail-Dove (a first for me on that trail!), and we had a group of Swainson’s Thrushes and other small migrants.
BYO lunches in the parking lot were accompanied by a couple of high flying Black Vultures which were eventually joined by a lone King Vulture, but no other raptors for the day.
Violet-headed Hummingbird visited the Porterweed bushes at the station but nothing visited the Cecropias or other trees at the edge of the parking lot so we crossed the highway and birded the Ceiba Trail at 1 p.m. Although this heavy, humid hour was not the most ideal time to look for birds, the cloudy weather boosted the activity and we quickly had shy Pale-vented Thrushes, and a small mixed flock of understory insectivores. Streak-crowned Antvireo showed, a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner called, and Checker-throated Antwren flitted nearby. Tawny-faced Gnatwren was also present but as much as I tried, nope, that hyperactive little bugger would not stop for a photo (since the bird is obviously functioning on another, more quickly paced wavelength, I guess I can’t blame it).
The rest of the trail was quiet and as the air grew heavier, it started to rain. We took that as a sign to head back up the highway and go on home. We had at least 57 species including nice looks at the shrike-tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, and other rainforest birds; not a bad way to spend a Tuesday morning.
Edit- It turns out that the “cool butterfly” is actually a moth that mimics clearwing butterflies, probably because they taste bad. Thanks to Ernesto Carman for pointing that out.