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Five Reminders for Birding Costa Rica During the Winter

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

Yum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hummingbirds won’t mind.

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

Beautiful Bay-headed Tanagers might show up.

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

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biodiversity Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

10 Reasons to Visit Costa Rica for Birding in July and August

One of the great things about living in a place where the latitudes are closer to zero than a hundred is that temperatures are fairly stable. Where I live, I can already tell you what the thermometer is going to read tomorrow, next week, and next year (as long as the global climate doesn’t get too wacky before then). It’s going to range from 68 to about 88 degrees f. with fluctuations within those parameters being a function of time of day. Seasons are measured in rainfall here in Costa Rica so you don’t have to worry about shoveling snow in December. Nor do you need to worry about feeling the oven blast of a heat wave such as the one that is attempting to roast my friends and family up the northeastern USA. That’ s the first great reason for coming to Costa Rica now! Here are some other arguments for heading on down to quetzal-land during July and August:

  • It’s not blazing hot: Ok, so I already mentioned that but feel the need to reiterate because so many people conclude that Costa Rica is always hotter than home in the north because it’s so much further south. While the sun’s rays are definitely stronger and should be approached with caution, nope, it’s not hotter here than say New Jersey in the summer. The highest heat index occurs in places with about 90 or 91 with humidity on the central Pacific slope. Now that is surely hot but you won’t see crazy temps of 100 with humidity and you can always escape to the mountains where it’s a fair deal cooler.
Sooty Robins only live in the cool high elevation habitats of Costa Rica and Panama.
    • The Veranillo: “Veranillo” means “little summer” and refers to a week or two in July when it doesn’t rain as much as on the Pacific slope. We did have beautiful sunny days like that just last week but I think that was the extent of it. Nevertheless, it’s a little extra bonus for visiting around this time and this is reflected by the scheduling of several birding tours.
    • Wandering frugivores: It’s important to bird in the right habitat when looking for certain birds but it’s also nice when various seriously cool frugivores disperse in search of fruity food. This means that if you find a fruiting fig or Lauraceous tree, you might also find a wandering bellbird, Turquoise or Lovely Cotinga, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and who knows what else. Although you can’t expect to see those species, all of them seem to kind of wander a bit at this time of the year…
    A Turquoise Cotinga from Rincon de Osa.
      • Oilbirds: Yes, as in the big weirdo nocturnal things that are crazy about oily fruits! One or more were recently seen on a night hike in Monteverde and have been found pretty much on an annual basis there and have shown up at other spots between now and the next few months. Although this could also be placed in the “wandering frugivores” category, it merits its own special mention. Sure, they are easier to see in other places but wouldn’t it be cool to say that you found an Oilbird in Costa Rica?
      • No wintering species to deal with: Ok, so if you are not from North America, that would be something you would happily deal with but for those of us who have already had our fair share of Yellow Warblers, we tend to be more interested in the resident species. Shorebirds are showing up so you might see a few of them but that possibility can be avoided by hanging out in the rainforest and looking for (cursing at) antpittas.
      • Cloudy weather: I have said it before and will keep on preaching that cloudy weather is better for tropical birding! Although a sunny morning gives you better chances at seeing hawk-eagles and some other raptors, the forest is going to be pretty quiet for much of the day. Contrast that with cloudy or misty conditions and the tropical forest seems to be alive with birds! It’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!! My best days in tropical forest at any elevation have always been on cloudy days. For example, a few of my memorable misty mornings have included a light morph Crested Eagle that flew over a Peruvian Amazonian clay lick covered with hundreds of parrots and Chestnut-fronted Macaws. They flew into the air while a pair of Red and green Macaws flew above the eagle and screamed their heads off. Talk about overload. Twas another memorable misty morning on the entrance road to Mindo, Ecuador road when I saw something like 110 species including Andean Cock of the Rock and several White-throated Quail Doves walking right on the road. I have spent more than one fine cloudy day on the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve in Costa Rica when birds stayed active kind of all day long. We had to pull ourselves away from the birds to eat lunch. Not all cloudy days in Costa Rica are like that but the sunny ones sure aren’t. Oh, and it’s cloudy here just about every day in July and August.
      The road to Manuel Brenes on a misty day.
        • But what about the rain?: Yes, it does rain more right now but it won’t ruin a trip, there’s a higher degree of bird activity on account of cloudy weather, it’s cooler, and you can also get rained out on the Caribbean slope during the dry season months.
        • Fiery-throated and Volcano Hummingbirds: You will see them with the same frequency as other months and they will look just as cool!
        Fiery-throated Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
        Volcano Hummingbird from La Georgina restaurant.
          • Scarlet Macaws will also be just as easy to see: These crazy, colorful birds are doing quite well in Costa Rica thanks to measures to protect and reintroduce them.
          Scarlet Macaws!
            • The trogons won’t be going anywhere either: Quetzals are actually here at all times of the year and not just during the dry season. Visit good habitat for these eye-stunning creatures and you have a good chance of seeing them, especially if you can find the fruiting trees they like. The gorgeous Gartered Trogon should be easy enough to see too.
            A beautiful male Gartered Trogon.
            Resplendent Quetzal with a tasty avocado fruit.

              That’s enough for now. It’s time for me to take advantage of this cloudy weather and go birding in Costa Rica.

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              Birding Costa Rica high elevations Hummingbirds weather

              What to Do When Birding in the Rain in Costa Rica

              October is part of the official rainy season in Costa Rica. Each year, low pressure systems get together to stew up a massive dumping of water upon Costa Rica and other parts of Central America. The results often include landslides, flooding (albeit typically in floodplains), and lower temperatures. On a side note, I should add that much of the Caribbean slope is spared these 72 hour or more deluges from the sky. The sun still reigns during the morning hours over on the other side of the mountains and that’s where you should go when birding Costa Rica in October.

              I was recently made aware of this wise piece of advice over the past weekend. Mike Bergin of 10,000 Birds and test preparation fame came down for a short visit and I was happy to show him around. During the trip planning stage, I had mentioned that rain might be an issue but also that the near future was looking bright and so we didn’t expect too many weather-related problems. After all, the sunny mornings and afternoon thunderstorms of September and the first week of October were downright pleasant and predictable. It looked as if Mike could come on down, we could sweep up on regional endemics, and generally have a good, solid dose of non-stop, exciting birding. When you are optimistic, these sort of things run through your mind because you want them to come true. The only hitch is that they don’t necessarily reflect how things are going to turn out.

              This past weekend, the rains were triumphant in the imaginary battle between optimism and weather conditions. The more I wished for sun, the harder it rained but in keeping with the determined, undaunted nature of the Zen-birding tradition (I don’t know what that really means but it sure sounds good), we failed to surrender arms! Ha! Even after Mike’s plane was delayed for more than 800 minutes (according to flightstatus.com), we surged on down to Carara shortly after his arrival. When we reached the second tool booth, we found out that the rains had thrown a landslide into our path to keep us from reaching Carara. No problem! We turned straight around and wove our way through the pot-holed maze of Central Valley streets to head up into the mountains. About 10 minutes past Alajuela, we were stopped by another road closure, this one related to the repair of downed power lines. No problem! The car was stopped and there was green space so we started birding. Spishing and pygmy-owl toots called a few species out of the woodwork and Mike got his second regional endemic in the form of Hoffmann’s Woodpecker (Crimson-fronted Parakeet was the first).

              birding Costa Rica

              Not the Hoffmann’s we saw but I can assure that it looked just like this one.

              No new birds popped up so we consulted the trusty GPS navigator and took another route towards Poas Volcano. It didn’t take long, though, for us to be confronted with a true, honest to goodness landslide.

              birding Costa Rica

              This is why motorbikes are popular in rural areas of Costa Rica.

              Mist saturated the entire area (and hid a calling Flame-colored Tanager) so we took another route up the volcano. This time, we were successful in reaching a place where we could watch birds without getting soaked. Known as the “El Volcan” restaurant, it’s the perfect place for a tasty, home-cooked lunch accompanied by a nice selection of cloud forest hummingbirds. Despite the wet weather, we quickly tallied 7 species of hummingbirds.

              birding Costa Rica

              These included several Purple-throated Mountain-gems,

              birding Costa Rica

              a few Volcano Hummingbirds,

              birding Costa Rica

              and Violet Sabrewings.

              Slaty Flowerpiercers also moved through the restaurant garden on one of their constant nectar filching missions, and forest on the other side of the street hosted Yellow-thighed Finches, Wilson’s Warblers, Red-faced Spinetail, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers, and other birds adapted to cool, misty, 2,000 meter climes. The restaurant was nice and dry but how could we stay when there were other birds to be seen higher up the road? We drove uphill and made occasional stops to search for birds. The constant, saturating mist and rain attempted to drown out my pygmy-owl imitation but I still managed to attract that hefty-billed beauty known as a Black-thighed Grosbeak. Golden-browed Chlorophonias also softly called from the canopy but refused to reveal themselves. As much as I attempted to ignore the rain while looking at Spot-crowned Woodcreeper, Large-footed Finch, and Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush, I couldn’t help but admit that the experience was akin to watching birds while taking a  cold shower. A quetzal might have given us enough internal birding power to stave off any and all discomfort but since none showed up, we headed back downhill and made our way to the Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.

              In conclusion, if you must go birding in Costa Rica during October, stick to the Caribbean slope because it’s drier there at this time of year. If circumstances or location make it impossible to avoid the rain, you can always go to the El Volcan Restaurant and watch the hummingbird action. Other highland species will also show up without being accompanied by a supposedly invigorating, warmth-sapping natural cold shower.  You could also immerse yourself into sudoku but that will keep you from seeing birds so leave those numeric puzzles at home or on the plane and just keep looking for birds!

              The El Volcan restaurant is situated past Poasito, on the road up to Poas Volcano. Look for it on the left or west side of the road. It looks like this:

              birding Costa Rica

              birding Costa Rica

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              Birding Costa Rica weather

              Go Birding in Costa Rica and Escape the Summer Heat

              It’s not exactly cold in Costa Rica but it’s never as deathly hot as the summer heat tsunami hitting much of the United States. Honestly, if you flew from that “heat dome” to the tropical latitudes of Costa Rica, you wouldn’t feel as roasted no matter which part of the country you visited. Up in Guanacaste, temps would get up into the 90s, but it wouldn’t be as humid and you might see a large-eyed, Double-striped Thick-Knee or get a chance to study Nutting’s Flycatchers.

              birding Costa Rica

              Double-striped Thick-Knee.

              birding Costa Rica

              Nutting’s Flycatcher.

              Further south on the Pacific coast, it’s definitely hot and humid but the mercury still doesn’t rise more than 92 degrees. Cloudy weather also tends to make it a bit cooler and you will note nicer temps inside heavily shaded primary forest as well. Over in the Caribbean lowlands, the birding takes place in humid, 80 something degree weather but that’s never as bad as a the 100 degree, outdoor humid sauna taking place in the USA.

              birding Costa Rica

              On the south Pacific slope, you could run into Fiery-billed Aracaris (above),and then watch their Caribbean slope counterparts Collared Aracari (below) on the other side of the mountains.

              birding Costa Rica

              If your desire to escape the heat is enough to forgo birding in the lowlands altogether, then head up into the subtropical zone where temperatures are a pleasant 70 something degrees. Higher still, you can watch the Talamancan endemics and pretend that its Autumn with 65 degree days and 50 degree nights.

              birding Costa Rica

              Regionally endemic Prong-billed Barbets are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica cloud forests.

              birding Costa Rica

              Volcano Hummingbirds are abundant in high elevation habitats.

              Weather in the Central Valley is s bit like that of cloud forest but drier. For example, as I write this post, it’s about 78 degrees outside with moderate humidity. Yes, quite close to most people’s idea of “perfect”. Despite it being the rainy season, we are also getting beautiful, sunny weather so don’t think for a second that you can only visit during the dry season, or that Costa Rica is too hot any time of the year. The outdoors are pretty much like this year round with varying amounts of rain. Oh, and the birding is pretty good too! I’m hoping to get out this weekend to look for bellbirds or fruiting trees that may hold uncommon post-breeding frugivores. I might also head over to Cachi Lake and try for my long-awaited Masked Duck. Whatever I end up doing, the birding is guaranteed to be exciting.

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              Birding Costa Rica weather

              Back From the USA and Recent News from Costa Rica

              I apologize for those who have visited this blog and wondered why there wasn’t any new posts. I was visiting family in Niagara Falls, NY for two weeks and just didn’t have enough time to write for the blog. Also, I figured that no one wanted to read about getting a kick out of hearing and seeing common birds of western New York at a blog about Costa Rica. However, now that I’m back in this birdy land, I will start by saying that I hear a Striped Owl calling somewhere in the neighborhood.

              I wouldn’t be surprised if this neotropical cousin of the Short-eared Owl was commoner than that other open country species, the Barn Owl. They appear to do alright in just about any open habitat, and at night, you can sometimes see them perched on wires at the edge of parking lots at local big box stores like “Mega Super” or “Hypermas”.

              I was also reminded that some birds are getting into post breeding mode when a flock of White-crowned Parrots flew over the house. If you visit at this time of year, you could get some interesting altitudinal migrants that move to lower elevations after breeding. One of these is White-crowned Manakin. Although I have only ever seen females of this species at Quebrada Gonzalez, they count just as much as males and should be there right now. Watch for the grayish head and reddish eyes.

              Bellbirds are apparently still calling and easy to see at Monteverde right now, Red-fronted Parrotlet was seen at Tapanti on the Oropendola Trail two weeks ago, and I need to go birding!

              On the weather side of things, a week of heavy rains appears to have ended and the forecast is for milder, more predictable weather for the next two weeks. Let’s hope that prediction comes true! Upala and parts of Guanacaste are flooded due to the rains, and there is always the possibility that the residents of Atenas will block the new highway because they are tired of risking their lives in crossing it. They are still awaiting a pedestrian bridge that was promised to them. If it happens to be blocked, just take the old route through San Mateo and Orotina. It will take longer and the road has more curves, but at least it’s scenic!

              Oh, and I should also mention that volcanic activity is picking up a bit at Volcan Poas. Geologists have said that people with asthma should avoid visiting the park due to the higher level of gases being emitted by the volcano. The rangers shut down the park if gases get above a certain level in any case. If you can’t go to Poas, there is always Volcan Irazu  with its Volcano Juncos and Timberline Wrens.

              So, sorry again for the two week hiatus! Next time, I hope to post some bird photos.

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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 el nino weather

              Heavy rains and landslides in Costa Rica

              Despite the grim forecasts back in early October that a ridiculous amount of rainfall was going to drown Costa Rica for the rest of 2010, most of October was downright beautiful! Clear, sunny mornings with acceptable rain in the afternoons seemed to have trumped the weather people. This past Tuesday, however, the rains came back with a  vengeance and the results were tragic as Hurricane Thomas in the Caribbean and a low pressure system in the Pacific combined forces to dump all of October’s expected precipitation in just 48 hours.

              It started on Tuesday, didn’t stop until Thursday, rained again for all of Thursday night and appears to have finally let up as I write this on Friday morning. As I was scheduled to guide in the Carara area on Wednesday and Thursday, I witnessed some of this deluge in my attempt to reach the coast on early Wednesday morning. As it had rained for the entire night and was still pouring down at 5 a.m., I left the house wondering if I should just stay home because such heavy rains typically result in landslides.

              I figured I would at least drive past Atenas to where I could see into the Pacific Lowlands from an overlook. It was raining hard in the Central Valley but I thought, “Who knows? Maybe the sun would be shining on the coast”. My anxiety grew, however, as I drove on the highway and noticed massive puddles forming on the sides of the road and drainage ditches overflowing with torrents of rushing, clay colored water. At times, I could barely see out the windshield but decided to continue on to Atenas because the rain was a bit lighter once I took the exit to that quaint town at the edge of Central Valley.

              As I approached Atenas, I saw a line of stopped cars straight ahead and as I had feared, yes, there was a small landslide blocking the road in both directions. To avoid possibly being stranded somewhere just shy of Atenas, I quickly turned around and drove back through the driving rain to home in Santa Barbara de Heredia. And a good thing too because as it turned out, there were bigger landslides further down the road that I was taking to get to the lowlands. There were also landslides that closed other roads, bridges were washed out, roads near Manuel Antonio were literally destroyed, and worst of all, twenty people were killed and more had their homes destroyed by a mudslide in San Antonio de Escazu.

              Although few areas on the Caribbean Slope have been affected, the landslides have left the country in a state of emergency and mourning. Dozens of Ticos have lost their homes in Parrita, Escazu, and Aserri and thousands are without water, electricity, or cell phone use. Visitors to the country over the next two or three weeks could run into problems if traveling to such areas as:

              • Manuel Antonio- Damage to roads and flooding in Parrita.
              • Dominical- No access at the moment.
              • Cerro de la Muerte and the Dota Valley- Landslides have shut down the highway over the mountain.
              • Braulio Carrillo- Landslides have closed the highway.
              • Southwestern Costa Rica including San Vito and the Osa Peninsula- At the moment, only accessible by air.
              • Driving from the Pacific Coast to San Jose or vice versa- Landslides and road damage on all routes.

              I suspect that most problems will be fixed by December (as long as we aren’t bombarded with similar amounts of rain in a short span of time), so I doubt that visitors to Costa Rica during the high and dry season will run into too many problems. On a side note, I am scheduled to guide at Irazu tomorrow. No issues have been reported from that area and the rain should stop by today so hopefully it will be sunshine and quetzals for tomorrow morning!

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              Birding Costa Rica Introduction preparing for your trip weather

              Birding Costa Rica during the 2010 rainy season

              September to early December is always a rainy time in Costa Rica but this year is expected to be worse. Although El Nino will be taking a break from wreaking meteorological havoc on the region, we won’t luck out with dry weather like last year because La Nina has decided to show up and throw a massive, celestial pool party. Since her games with Costa Rica will involve dumping 60% more precipitation than usual for this time of year, we wish she would hold the festivities elsewhere. She’s gotta finish what she started however, so I think I better get an industrial-strength umbrella and become accustomed to getting wet. I also need to get used to birding in the rain because I’m not going to let the precipitation keep me from watching birds AND I’ll probably see more anyways!

              It’s nice to keep dry but hot, sunny weather really is bad for birding in Costa Rica. Honestly, the birding norm for days with clear skies punctuated by a blazing-hot sun involves a couple hours of morning activity followed by a slooooooowww rest of the day until cloud cover gives some respite from “El Sol”. Raptors tend to fly more often on sunny days but overall, the birds seem to be on strike or influenced by Jimmy Buffet as they snooze for hours in their hidden, bird hammocks.

              Sunny weather is much better for butterflies and you can also waltz through the rain forest without experiencing one drop of falling water but it becomes very difficult to see any birds. If you can manage binoculars in one hand and an umbrella in the other while it rains, however, you will see a lot more than on sunny days. Better yet, find a sheltered spot that has nice views of good habitat and scan the vegetation for perched birds, fruiting trees, and flowers. Sooner or later something cool will show up at such food source hotspots and when the rain slows down or stops, your field of view will suddenly be filled with birds that are hopping, flying, singing, and generally going nuts. I recall a day of birding at Tapanti last year when it was like this and bird activity was on the verge of being ridiculous. I mean Black-faced Solitaires were hopping out onto the road, Spangle-cheeked Tanagers were racing through the treetops, Collared Trogons were coming down low and looking at us with curiosity, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle made an appearance….yeah, it was pretty awesome!

              Although heavy rains can become a bore (especially when riverbanks overflow and roads get washed out), birding in Costa Rica can still be good and is often more productive than sunny days, especially so when skies are overcast. On days like that, it’s like a birdy morning all day long and even shy things like quail-doves and antpittas are more active. In fact, it’s like that today and I wish I was out birding because as I write this, Melodious Blackbirds, Clay-colored Robins, and Rufous-collared Sparrows are calling just out my window and I bet there’s a lot of other overcast-inspired avian activity going on. I hope it’s like this on Sunday because I plan on birding the Volcan Barva area.

              If you are headed to Costa Rica sometime between now and December, my advice is to be prepared for the rain but also to get ready for seeing more birds throughout the day. It’s also a good idea to keep updated on the weather and road conditions (more or less easily done by asking staff at hotels, reading the Tico Times, or watching local, evening news on channels 6,7, or 11). I should also add that the Caribbean Slope is not expected to receive much more rain than usual because La Nina will be carrying out her bucket brigade on the Pacific Slope.

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              Birding Costa Rica weather

              Advantages to birding Costa Rica in the wet season (it’s not 100 degrees)

              It’s the wet or rainy season now and as I write, the cloudy sky is dumping its daily downpour that soaks the rich volcanic soils of central Costa Rica and turns the rivers into raging muddy torrents. Believe it or not, despite the dire weather description, this is a great time of the year to bird Costa Rica! Rain usually falls in the afternoon when bird activity is low anyways and mornings are often sunny.

              The following are several reasons why you may enjoy birding Costa Rica in June, July, and August rather than during the dry season (January to early April):

              • No Boreal migrants. Although this isn’t a birding boon for non-North Americans, those birders from Canada and the USA won’t have to be concerned that the tiny bird they are straining to see in the canopy is just a Chestnut-sided Warbler, that the little yellow thing in highland brush is actually a Wilson’s Warbler, or that most raptors turn out to be Broad-winged Hawks. At this time of the year, just about every bird is a resident species not likely to occur in North America.
              • Cooler weather than the dry season. It’s still warm and humid in a lot of areas but the frequent cloud cover keeps things comfortably cool. This is especially the case for the Pacific slope where birding during the dry season can be a test of heat endurance. I usually fail this test during the blazing hot dry season but pass it with flying colors during the wet season.
              • Cooler weather than home. Going to the tropics to cool off? Sure, why not! I guarantee that even the hottest areas of Costa Rica won’t be as hot as the heat wave that is presently melting the northeastern USA. Costa Rica doesn’t even get as hot as average American summers and the mountains always have a crisp, cool climate.
              • Cloudy weather=awesome birding. Although cloud cover isn’t the greatest element for bird photography, it’s definitely the best weather for bird activity. The dimmer light conditions and cooler temperatures make birds forget that morning is over and they are active all day long! Really, birding on days like this are the most exciting. Due to overcast weather, on a recent day of guiding near San Ramon, we recorded 127 species!
              • It’s less crowded. There are still a number of tourists around but aside from Manual Antonio National Park, there are fewer people on the trails.
              • Green season rates. Fewer tourists means lower rates for lodging.
              • The July mini dry season. Yes, it is the wet season, but things get slightly drier on the Caribbean slope during July.

              In conclusion, don’t be afraid to visit Costa Rica during most of the wet season. The exception is October and November when it can rain non-stop for days. It doesn’t always do that though, and last year was pretty dry so don’t become overconcerned about weather conditions for a birding trip to Costa Rica no matter what time of year you visit.

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              Birding Costa Rica birding lodges caribbean slope lowlands middle elevations Pacific slope weather

              Highlights from guiding while birding Costa Rica this past weekend

              One of the most exciting aspects of birding Costa Rica is the variety of different habitats that are easily accessible from the Central Valley. For example, if you get tired of sweating it out in the lowlands while watching flyovers of Scarlet Macaws, you can head up into the mountains for cool, cloud forest birding (both cool as in anti-perspiration and cool as in Arthur Fonzarelli).

              This past weekend, I was very fortunate to guide birders in two very different habitats;  the Pacific Slope lowlands and the middle elevation forests of the Caribbean slope. Saturday on the Pacific Slope, we birded Cerro Lodge and the Carara area. This bastion of Costa Rican biodiversity is actually an ecotone between the dry forests of northern Central America and the wet forests of southern Costa Rica so I think there’s actually two bioregions involved.

              On Monday, I guided some other folks in foothill forests of the Caribbean Slope between San Ramon and La Fortuna. The higher elevations and rainfall than Carara made for a very different set of birds (as did the fact that we were on the other side of the continental divide).

              Despite this being the rainy season, the birding was great and might even have been better than the dry season because the overcast skies kept birds active for most of the day at both sites. The sky blanket of clouds also made photography tough, however, so I’m afraid to say that there won’t be many images in this post.

              Saturday Costa Rica birding on the Pacific Slope.

              Just after a friend of mine picked me up at dawn, the rain started and didn’t really stop until we reached the Pacific Coast. We had to take the old, curvy road down through Atenas and Orotina because the new road is closed for three months (I was not surprised having seen the obvious possibilities for landslides earlier in the year). Because it was raining, we saw few birds during the drive and were pretty happy when it stopped just as we arrived at Cerro Lodge although even if the rain had continued, we still would have seen a lot from the shelter of their outdoor restaurant.

              Janet Peterson and I met up with the Slatcher family and got off to a good start with a Striped Cuckoo seen through the scope, flybys of Orange-chinned Parakeets, and a pair of Violaceous Trogons that perched close to the restaurant.

              birding Costa Rica Striped Cuckoo

              Striped Cuckoos are common in edge habitats of Costa Rica.

              We left shortly thereafter for the rainforests of Carara National Park, birding along the way in the scrubby dry forest near Cerro Lodge. A gorgeous male Blue Grosbeak greeted us as by calling from its barbed wire perch as soon as we exited the car. Before I could call up a resident Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, there it was, perched in plain sight in the top of a nearby tree. The owl was promptly scoped while we searched for other birds. Stripe-headed Sparrows were chipping from the top of a roadside tree and a Turquoise-browed Motmot showed its beautiful colors as it poised on a branch but Olive Sparrow and Black-headed Trogons remained hidden as they called from dense vegetation.

              At Carara, overcast skies made for comfortable, warm weather. Scarlet Macaws were seen in flight as they screeched over the forested hills, Rose-throated Becard “whined” from the forest edge in the parking lot, and a pair of Yellow-throated Euphonias gave us great looks. Inside the forest, we actually didn’t see too many birds but were entertained by fantastic encounters with several Spider Monkeys and White-faced Capuchins that appeared to be feeding high in the canopy of fruiting figs along the handicap accessible trail.

              After tasty casado lunches at the Guacimo Soda, we made a brief stop along the Guacimo Road to pick up Rufous-capped Warbler, Yellow-green Vireo, and Tropical Pewee before heading back to Cerro Lodge. As always the birding was pleasant from the shelter of the restaurant with views of Rufous-naped Wrens, White-throated Magpie-Jays, Black-crowned Tityra, a tree full of Fiery-billed Aracaris, and other species.

              birding Costa Rica White-throated Magpie Jay

              White-throated Magpie Jays are signature birds of dry forest in Costa Rica.

              Our best species was the most distant. Similar to other occasions at Cerro Lodge, a male Yellow-billed Cotinga showed as a bright, white dot way off in the mangroves that are visible from the restaurant. I think this was Janet’s 500th Costa Rican bird. It may have actually been the sparrow but she should certainly name the cotinga as her Costa Rican milestone! This milestone also came just in time as Janet will be leaving the country soon for a new embassy post in Zambia (!). As happy (and envious) as I and other bird club members are for her, we will miss her. Hopefully she will send me some images of Zambian birds to drool over!

              Our other best bird during our afternoon at Cerro Lodge was Yellow-naped Parrot. We had 6 or so of these rare parrots as they flew by and perched in nearby trees. The overcast skies made for perfect light on these beautiful parrots and I don’t think I have ever seen the yellow patches on their napes stand out as well as they did on Saturday.

              After saying our goodbyes to the Slatcher family and wishing them good Costa Rica birding luck, Janet and I drove back up into the rainy highlands of Costa Rica. Fortunately, we still had time to stop for Black and White Owl in the Orotina plaza. I was glad that Janet finally got to see this “famous” owl. I think it was #503 on her Costa Rican list- a fitting end to a great day of Costa Rica birding!

              Monday Costa Rica birding near San Ramon.

              Some people call the middle elevation forests near San Ramon the “San Ramon cloud forests”. There are cloud forests in the area, but it’s not really a fitting name for the area we birded because it’s actually just below the cloud forest zone. I suspect that the area lacks an official birding name because so few people bird there. After the excellent birding we had along the road to Manuel Brenes Reserve this past weekend, though, I can tell you that it definitely merits an official birding name and it should be an auspicious one too! Maybe something like “the San Ramon hotspot” or to be more geographically precise, the “Dos Lagos Forest”. Either way, EVERY birder headed to La Fortuna should make time to bird here.

              Over the course of a day trip from San Jose, we got over 100 species and most of these were forest birds! I would have taken Stan and Karen Mansfield to Quebrada Gonzalez but since the highway to that excellent site has had frequent landslides this past month, I figured it was safer to show them the birds of the San Ramon hotspot. Although the road to Quebrada remained open on Monday, the birds near San Ramon made the longer trip worthwhile.

              Upon arrival, we were greeted by common edge species such as Tropical Pewee, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Variable Seedeater, and Passerini’s Tanager while an uncommon summer Osprey watched over the lake and a Northern Jacana foraged in the marshy grass.

              birding Costa Rica Northern Jacana

              Northern Jacanas are seen on most birding trips to Costa Rica.

              We barely moved up the road when a mixed flock combined with a fruiting tree brought us to a halt. There was so much bird activity that we must have stayed put for an hour or so to watch White-throated Shrike-Tanager, Emerald Tanager, loads of Black and Yellow Tanagers, Olive Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Tawny-capped Euphonia, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Green Honeycreeper, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Slate-colored Grosbeak, Russet Antshrike and other species as they feasted on fruit and rustled the vegetation with their foraging.

              After it appeared that this first mixed flock had moved on, we stopped a hundred meters up the road to pick up Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant and a Black-throated Wren that was uncharacteristically singing from fairly high up in a vine tangle. The morning continued on like this with new birds at virtually every stop we made! Other highlights were excellent looks at a beautiful Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush, American Swallow-tailed Kite, Rufous-winged, Smoky-brown, and Golden-olive Woodpeckers, Rufous Motmot heard, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Wren, and Spotted Woodcreeper.

              At noon, we lunched at the tasty Arboleda Restaurant (a ten minute drive from the San Ramon hotspot) and picked up 6 species of hummingbirds at their feeders (best were Green Thorntail and Coppery-headed Emerald).

              After photos of the hummingbirds and updating the list, it was back to the San Ramon hotspot. The afternoon rains had started by this time so birding wasn’t as active as the morning, but it slacked off enough to pick up several new birds where the road reaches a large cultivated area. We scoped out Keel-billed Toucans, Brown Jays, both oropendolas, Hepatic, Crimson-collared, and Silver-throated Tanagers, Black-striped Sparrows, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, and Crimson-fronted Parakeets. Many of these were actually perched in the same dead tree!

              birding Costa Rica Keel-billed Toucan
              "Don't even think of asking me about Fruit Loops"!

              Keel-billed Toucans are a fairly common sight when birding Costa Rica.

              By four pm, we began our journey back to the central valley with stops on the way for Common Bush Tanager, Grayish Saltator, Social Flycatcher, and Yellow-bellied Elaenia. Shortly after our last birds, the rains poured down out of the sky for our drive back to San Jose to end a long yet very birdy day in Costa Rica.