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5 Essentials for Birding on Your Own in Costa Rica

Planning a trip to Costa Rica? Think about it because although you might not feel good about traveling to watch quetzals today, in a couple of months, vaccination rates might change your mind.

Quetzals are always a good excuse to travel, even when they try to hide.

Since the best birding trips are planned well in advance, looking into information for a birding trip to Costa Rica isn’t just wishful thinking. The time to start planning a trip is now and although these ideas about what to bring to Costa Rica for birding are more for birding on your own, they could also come in handy on any tour:

The Birds of Costa Rica: A Field Guide

As with visiting any place far from home, a good field guide is worth its weight in gold. You might forget to bring a poncho, you might not be able to shave, in a sudden fit of absent-mindedness, you might even leave the flashlight on the hood of the car or next to the snowmobile. Forget those things and you can still go birding. Leave the field guide on the desk back home and well, I guess you could still go birding but you better go buy a notebook, pencils, and be ready to write some wicked field journals.

There’s nothing wrong with field journals (especially the wicked ones splashed with coffee and filled with illegible notes) but birding is always better when you have some fine reference material. Nowadays, although there are a couple of good books available, I still prefer the good old Garrigues and Dean. Lightweight, easy to use and well done, it’s great for studying before the trip and essential when birding Costa Rica, especially if birding by yourself.

So you can identify endemics like the Yellow-thighed Brushfinch.

Costa Rica Birds App

If you already have a field guide, why use a digital one? That’s a good question but I find that having both a book and a digital field guide is better for any birding trip. It’s fun to look at a book, especially when it has great illustrations and it’s also fun to interact with an app and check out photos of birds in flight, more postures, and so on.

Although you could go with the free Merlin app, it’s nice but it does have its limitations. With the full version of the Costa Rica Birds app, you can also:

  • Study bird sounds for more than 900 species while looking at various images.
  • See images for 926 species on the Costa Rica bird list, even rare species, and information and range maps for a few more.
  • See more accurate range maps.
  • See more up to date information about birds and birding in Costa Rica.
  • Personalize the app with target lists, check birds seen, make notes, etc.
  • Play with the filter to see birds grouped by region, family, and more to use it as a study tool before the trip and make identification easier during the trip to Costa Rica.
  • See 68 additional species not yet recorded in Costa Rica but possible.

These and other features make this app just as useful as a reference guide as it is in the field. To be honest, I will mention that I helped create and still work on this app but since I am a serious birder and want other birders to have the same sort of birding tool that I would like to have, you can bet that it’s going to have as much useful and accurate information as possible. The main downside is that it is currently only available for IOS devices. I would love to find a solution for that, if you know any Android coding birders, please let me know.

A Costa Rica Site Guide

For any trip, you obviously need to know where to go for the best birding. If this is a DIY birding trip, a site guide is imperative. Yes, you could plan the trip just using eBird but although that does show where various sites are and can give an idea of abundance, it won’t provide the types of on the ground details found in site guides. Not to mention, for eBird in Costa Rica, hotspots and other sites tend to be biased for sites visited on tours, and overlooked errors in identification on lists can give false ideas about what is truly present. I would still use eBird for some trip planning but the trip will be much better planned when done in conjunction with other information.

Although changes happen quickly, the information in How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica is still mostly up to date and useful for planning a trip (and will likely be updated soon!). It covers all parts of the country, gives ideas for itineraries, and also has insider information for finding and identifying birds in Costa Rica. Designed for birders doing Costa Rica on their own, it also has plenty of useful information for folks on tours. Not mention, every purchase supports this blog platform as a source of information for birding in Costa Rica.

A Good Flashlight and a Small Umbrella

Don’t forget to bring these items! A flashlight (torch) is handy for more than just searching for night birds. It also comes in handy when the lights go out and when you need to check the ground while walking at night (necessary).

A small umbrella is easy to carry and keeps you and your stuff dry. Along with packets of desiccant in plastic ziplock bags, it’s always good to have.

A Mobile Device with Waze

Or at least something with GPS. Google maps will also work but a heck of a lot of locals use Waze. If driving on your own, forget about a paper map, forget about looking for road signs (because they aren’t there and some might be wrong). Stick with Waze or something similar, you will need it!!

You could still visit Costa Rica now (some people are doing just that!) but if you would rather have a vaccine before making the trip, the time to plan the trip is still now. Start learning about the birds waiting for you in Costa Rica today because the departure date will be here before you know it. Get ready for some exciting birding, try to keep it Zen, I hope to see you here!

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Finding Birds Costa Rica 2021

Finding birds in Costa Rica is pretty easy. Look outside and there they are; Red-billed Pigeons powering past, Great Kiskadees yelling from a tree, Palm Tanagers perched in, you guessed it, a tall palm. Look around and there’s lots more; a screeching flock of Crimson-fronted Parakeets (!), a Yellow-headed Caracara flapping overhead, Costa Rica’s national bird, the Clay-colored Thrush, caroling from a guava.

In Costa Rica, Crimson-fronted Parakeets are often seen in cities.

Keep looking and you keep seeing more but isn’t that the case for most places? Birds are out there but what about the birds we want to see the most? No matter how even-minded we are about seeing birds, even the greatest of Zen birders would still be tempted to make a mad dash for a Solitary Eagle, might forget about the common birds to gaze at a Lovely Cotinga (I mean it is lovely, what are you gonna do…).

We get great enjoyment out of watching birds, making that daily connection with nature, but we also enjoy seeing something new, testing ourselves in the field, seeing what we each of us can discover. This is why we study the best times for birding, think about when and where to go, and get out of bed at some ridiculous early hour. It’s also why I first visited Cost Rica in 1992 and why so many birders eventually make their way to this birdy place.

At the moment, few birders are visiting Costa Rica but that’s the case for most places and we all know the reason. However, hope is there, waiting on a near horizon. It’s like waiting and holding at a starting line, holding in limbo place for a gate that will eventually open and when it does, the race is for multi-faceted salvation. We each run at our own pace but as long as we are careful not to trip, not to make anyone fall, helping others along the way, we all reach a finish line where everyone wins.

One vaccine very soon, let’s hope it all goes smooth and more become available. In the meantime, we can also plan birding trips to Costa Rica because they are going to happen and the birding will be more exciting than you imagined. Here’s some tips for finding more Costa Rica birds in 2021:

Learn about Habitats

One of the keys to knowing where to watch birds in Costa Rica is just like seeing more birds everywhere, planet Earth. To see certain birds, you need to go to their homes, need to know how to recognize their realms. In Costa Rica, at the macro scale, this means knowing what the major habitats are and where they occur:

  • Lowland rainforest– Lowland areas on the Caribbean slope and south of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles (where the Crocodile Bridge is) on the Pacific slope.
  • Middle elevation rainforest and cloud forest– Many areas between 800 and 1,700 meters.
  • High elevation rainforest– Above 1,700 meters.
  • Tropical dry forest– On the Pacific slope north of the Rio Grande de Tarcoles including much of the Central Valley.
  • Wetlands– Large wetland complexes such as the Cano Negro/Los Chiles area, Palo Verde National Park and other parts of the Tempisque River floodplain, and the Coto 47/Las Pangas area near Ciudad Neily. Of course, other smaller areas of marsh exist and are important for many birds.

On the micro-scale, it also means knowing where micro-habitats occur:

  • Foothill rainforest– Rainforest from 500 to 800 meters.
  • Paramo– Treeline and tree-less habitats above 3,000 meters.
  • Mangrove forest– Mangroves that grow in estuarine habitats, mostly on the Pacific slope.
  • Different types of edge habitats– Various birds occur in different stages of second growth and open areas.
  • Lagoons and forested swamps– These occur in various parts of the Caribbean lowlands, and locally in the Osa Peninsula.

Try to get an idea of where those habitats are found and start learning about the suites of birds found in each habitat. Allocate birding time in each habitat and you will see an excellent variety of birds. If you have target species, research where those birds occur, think about how easy or tough they are to see, and have high hopes, or take the Zen approach and accept that you might not see a Slaty Finch.

Information and search options for major habitats will be on the next free update of the Costa Rica Birds field guide app.

Learn Which Birds are Common, Which are Rare

Speaking of the Zen birding approach, the path is easier to follow when you have some idea about abundance and how easy or difficult it might to see so and so species. To give an idea of abundance, Clay-colored Thrush would be a “1”, maybe even “-1”, White Hawk might be a “5”, Sharpbill a “7”, and Speckled Mourner a “10” or “10 plus” (or “only in your dreams”).

Make Reservations for Cope

A visit to Cope’s bird oasis and fantastic experience is recommended. But, because Cope likes to provide a high quality experience, as with many a gourmet experience, you need to make a reservation. I can help arrange that, contact me at information@birdingcraft.com

Don’t Expect to See Everything

Heck, that goes for birding anywhere. However, it’s still worth mentioning because it’ so easy to want to see a bird so much that you end up kind of expecting to see it during the trip. Remember to keep it Zen and enjoy every bird that fits itself into your field of view. Remember that many a bird species in Costa Rica is naturally rare and/or naturally tough to see. Also remember that the more birding you do in large areas of mature forest, the more likely you will run into the rare ones.

Consider Hiring a Local Guide

And that previous bit of information is why it’s so worth it to hire a local guide. Not just any guide either but someone who knows the local birds very well. Even so, not every guide will know where or how to see birds in Costa Rica such as cotingas or Ocellated Antbird, or even the coveted bizarre Bare-necked Umbrellabird. Granted, some of those species are naturally difficult to find and require some serious time to locate but as with any place, the more experienced the guide, the more likely your chances are of finding rare target species. I should also mention that as with any place, in Costa Rica, although many guides are experienced, a few stand out because they stay up to date on the latest in bird identification, where certain birds are found, and know about sites that are off the beaten track. Many guides will work out fine but if you want to have a better chance at uber rare birds, those few, highly experienced guides are the ones to hire.

Go Birding in the Summer

Yes, as in the months of June, July, and August. This is an excellent time of the year for birding in Costa Rica. As long as you don’t mind missing out on wintering species, you will see a lot and maybe even more than during the dry season. No, I don’t think it will rain too much either but I do know that consistent cloudy conditions will boost bird activity.

These tips are probably similar to ones I have mentioned in other posts about finding Costa Rica birds and other places but heck, they still hold true and 2021 won’t be any different. Need help planning a birding trip to Costa Rica? Want to see a few hundred lifers and have exciting birding every single day? Whether you could go for some happy avian madness or more relaxed birding while staying at a beautiful, relaxing “home base”, I would love to help.

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Strategies for Target Birds in Costa Rica

Target birding, it’s nothing new, it’s just looking for the birds we want to see. It can be as relaxed as watching for that daily Downy Woodpecker or as extreme as braving the Poseidon swells of the southern Atlantic as you make headway to Inaccessible Island. Although the daily Downy twitch and an incredible seafaring jaunt for the Inaccessible Island Rail are two very different endeavors, essentially, both are still target birding.

Barred Antshrike
Barred Antshrike in Costa Rica- I always enjoy seeing this bird out back.

When it comes down to it, as long as you have a bird in mind and watch for it more than some other species, you are partaking in target birding. Seasoned birders know that most target birding goes far beyond the familiar branches and brush piles of the backyard and that it typically begins well before stepping out the door. Even if the bird in question is at a local reserve, we don’t want to leave the house until we know where and how to look for it. We don’t want to take the risk because from past experience, we know how easy it is to not see birds.

We know that if we only focus efforts on the western side of a sewage lagoon, we could miss or “dip” a Green Sandpiper that only prefers the ponds on the eastern part of the dark water treatment stinkplex. From dips of the past, we know that we might need to look for the target bird at a certain time of day. That’s of course how we missed the vagrant Black-headed Gull that only flies past the river mouth at 6 p.m. (we were watching at 6 a.m….).

No matter how earnest your scanning of the cold waters of Lake Ontario might be, if the bird doesn’t go there at 10 a.m., even a Yodabirder couldn’t bring it into a field of view. That need for accurate information is why mild-mannered birders can become temporary experts on the habits of Northern Wheatears, why we can have an incredible thirst for odd, ornitho-information, how we can spend hours looking over and analyzing eBird data. That’s all good (I freely admit to have done all of these things too) but is all of that research necessary when birding Costa Rica? Do we really need to learn about and know the habits of every possible species?

Perhaps not but for those of us with the time to do so, even if we don’t need to know about the habits of tail-wagging Zeledon’s Antbirds, we might still learn as much as we can simply because we love to learn about birds. I know that I love getting insight into the habits of pretty much every bird but does it come in handy?

To answer this latter question, I would say, “Yes” because the more you know about a bird, the more complete the experience when you finally see it. When you finally focus in on a Clay-colored Thrush, as common and bereft of colors as it may be, the experience is enhanced by knowing that this average looking thrush is also the national bird of Costa Rica, that it’s melodies bring the rains, that it’s local name of “Yiguirro” comes from the Huetar culture and shows that this dull-colored bird has made a happy connection between birds and people for thousands of years.

Knowledge is handy, it enhances any birding trip to Costa Rica. It’s not absolutely necessary for seeing target birds but it does enhance a once in a lifetime trip to a birding paradise. With that in mind, this is my take on some additional, effective strategies used to target birds in Costa Rica:

eBird

This fantastic tool for bird information also works for Costa Rica BUT it is limited by accuracy, site bias, and the fact that tropical ecosystems are complicated. Don’t get me wrong, it can tell you where any number of species have been seen and I often use it to get an idea about distribution but a fair number of reports should be taken with a grain of salt, locations for various sightings are incorrect, and since a high percentage of visiting birders bird at the same sites, that bias is reflected in the data. It’s not a bad tool to plan for target birds by any means, I would just suggest not solely relying on eBird in Costa Rica to plan your trip (at 10,000 Birds, I wrote a post about tips for using eBird in Costa Rica).

I should also mention that since we now have more reviewers in Costa Rica working to improve the quality of the data, information about bird distribution in Costa Rica on eBird should improve with time.

Learn Habitats

Bat Falcon habitat, tropical forest

As with birding anywhere, no matter how many bird lists you have for a given site, you still don’t really know where your target birds are until you know which habitats they use and how to recognize those habitats. This is one of the reasons why we included text and photos about major habitats in the birding app for Costa Rica that I am involved with.

Simple enough, right? Maybe if all you had to do was find mature pine forest but in Costa Rica, the only pines we have are on tree plantations. The birds around here use a much more complex array of habitats, many of them only occur in specific microhabitats like forested streams, Heliconia thickets, or advanced second growth. Heck, for a few birds, we still don’t know what the heck they really need!

If you have a limited number of target species, this is where research can help. Learn as much as you can about the types of microhabitats and elevations used by a mega target like the Black-crowned Antpitta and you will have a better chance at finding one. Learn where various types of quality habitat occur in advance and you can plan a trip that gets you birding in the best places even if some of those sites don’t feature so well on eBird. Some of those places might even have some of the best habitat, the lack of eBird lists probably just means that few people have birded there.

That said, even if eBird does show that a Lattice-tailed Trogon has been reported at some wonderfully forested site, it might not be there when you visit for the following important factor.

Tropical Ecosystems are Complicated

The Lattice-tailed Trogon was there yesterday, how come it’s not there today? The trail looks the same but despite the frustrations of not seeing an uncommon trogon that was photographed on Monday, you did manage to see a Sharpbill on Tuesday! The reason why that trogon wasn’t present might have been because it was visiting another part of its territory, or because most birds of tropical forest are naturally rare (even more so these days because of the detrimental landscape level effects of climate change), or because it found a better fruiting tree, it was there but hidden, or other reasons not obviously apparent to human senses.

Lattice-tailed Trogon

The reasons why birding in tropical forests can seem to change from one day to the next are related to why such those same forests host so much life. Basically, they are ecosystems so complex, at first glance, they seem to be some amazing chaotic, out of control profusion of life gone into overdrive. And maybe they are! It’s more likely, though, that tropical forests are amazingly complex systems and webs of life where interactions happen on innumerable facets and fronts. That just means that you can’t always expect the same birds, but that you can ALWAYS expect surprises and exciting birding.

Consider Hiring a Qualified Guide

As with any place, the easiest route to seeing target birds in Costa Rica is by hiring a qualified local guide. By “qualified”, I mean a guide who knows how to look for those birds, where they have been recently seen, and how to find them. It goes without saying that the guide should also know how to identify your target species. There are a number of qualified guides in Costa Rica, to choose the best for your purposes, I would ask them about their experience, see what others might say about them (especially any professional guides from other places), and ask them about chances at seeing target birds. If they say, “Sure, we can see a Harpy Eagle!”, unless a nest is found, they are likely not being honest. If they say, “No, we probably won’t see Speckled Mourner but I know a few places to try and how to look for them”, that’s a good sign.

Accurate Information on Where to Find Birds in Costa Rica

If you hire a qualified guide, they will know where to find any number of target birds and can probably help plan your trip. However, if you would rather plan a birding trip to Costa Rica on your own, trip reports from tours can act an inspiration. This very blog also has plenty of information. If you would like more in-depth information and details on where to find birds in Costa Rica as well as tips for looking for and identifying them, please consider supporting this blog by purchasing How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

Now that vaccines are on the way, it really is time to start planning a birding trip to Costa Rica. Which target birds do you have? Tell us in the comments. I can’t promise that you will see them but I can tell you where to find them.

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Arenal Christmas Bird Count- An Exciting Birding Event

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”. Christmas! Navidad! The festive season makes those brief December days and long dark nights somehow easier to handle. Or, maybe it’s just that we aren’t two months into the winter season and really tired of looking at gray skies, dirty sidewalk snow, and birdless bare branches. But that stuff is for the northern realms, not for warm and tropical Costa Rica. Around here, in December, we only need worry about how many birds we can find during our annual Christmas Counts!

Yes, this really is the most wonderful time of the year for many of us local birders and it has everything to do with our “conteos de aves”. I know that the annual count is special for many a birder in many places but seriously, here in Costa Rica, we tend to kick it up a notch. Not just a day to get together and count birds, our counts tend to me more like events that bring dozens of birders together whether they are official registered Audubon counts or not.

The Arenal event is one such count. Although it’s not officially registered as an Audubon count circle, we carry out the count in similar fashion and use it to gather data and promote birding in the Arenal area. It actually starts well before the count date with the count organizers contacting hotels and agencies that might be interested in sponsoring the count, registering counters, seeing where various people can stay, and then seeing which person will lead which route along with assigning people to each route. Oh yeah and then there is the catering but I’ll get to that later.

The routes for the Arenal count cover everywhere from the La Fortuna surroundings to the Hanging Bridges, Sky Trek, the Observatory Lodge, Arenal Lake, and even a rafting count on the Penas Blancas River. Basically, fantastic birding everywhere and with every route recording well over 100 species. Sound enticing? It sure is and is why this count sees more than 70 people participating each year.

Participants from 2014.

The first year of the count, 2013, actually had the highest participation with 95 birders in the field. Last year, 71 people were counting birds, probably less than other years because of other counts taking place at the same time. However, even with less participants, we still had 338 species for the count circle, around average. That said, our highest total was 377 species in 2016 and with the right combination of weather and participation, we could certainly record even more.

Regarding species, this one is also exciting because it’s one of the few counts in Costa Rica that finds birds like Uniform Crake, Lanceolated Monklet, Song Wren, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, and Bare-crowned Antbird on the same day!

Last year, our group got the monklet although it can turn up on at least three or four routes.

Once everything is ready, people confirmed for the annual Arenal count get together in La Fortuna for a meeting held the night before the count. This has taken place at hotels, in a gymnasium, and even at the local market and is vital for socializing with other counters, going over the routes, and seeing a presentation that talks about the official count species and research being carried out in the Arenal count circle. This is accompanied by coffee and cookies as counters try on tee-shirts that show the official count species on the front and logos of count sponsors on the back. It’s always a cool, unique shirt and it ends up acting as valuable marketing for the hotels and travel agencies that support the bird count because believe me, those count shirts get around! I have worn more than one of mine on trips outside of Costa Rica as well as within the country and since the shirts are unique, people do notice and even ask about them.

Over the years, the Arenal count has gotten support from 6 public institutions and 30 private enterprises, I wonder who the lucky sponsors will be this year?

After the pre-count meeting, birders meet up with their respective count leaders to figure out if they should start counting in the middle of the night or wait until dawn. Personally, I prefer to start around 3:30 at beautiful Finca Luna Nueva, the route I usually do. Then, everyone heads off to their respective places for lodging to hopefully get some sleep before count day. On count day itself, the birding is often an exciting blend of fast and furious avian action between bouts of pouring rain.

Last year gave us a break with the weather and because of it, we managed several owls along with a wonderful sunny day of birding.

Counters usually finish up around 4 or 5 and then head to the count dinner. This is typically a catered affair where we are served that Costa Rican staple rice with chicken, refried beans, and some potato chips along with a bit of salad. It’s good birding food and seems to work perfectly after a long, fantastic deal in the field. Some count sponsors are also present and can have tables with optics, brochures, and works of art. Eventually, once it seems as if all are present, we go through the bird list, mentioning each species and each count group raising a hand if they identified the bird mentioned. Stories and locations for rare birds are shared, and another birding event in Costa Rica comes to an end.

These words could never portray the true excitement of this count, a day when we give ourselves over to birding in an excellent area for birding. However, if you can imagine seeing more than 150 species of birds, one species coming after another, trees of toucans, flocks of Red-billed Pigeons, antbirds whistling from the dark understory of rainforest, Red-lored Parrots filling the air with sound as three species of parakeets zip by in screeching flight, an Ornate Hawk-Eagle calling above a tall jade canopy, and sharing this and more with friends, loving partners, and like-minded people, if you can imagine that, this is what the Arenal count is like. It’s happening this year on December 8th, it’s gonna be good!

Some stats from previous Arenal counts:

2013: 342 species, 95 participants

2014: 332 species, 90 participants

2015: 322 species, 80 participants

2016: 377 species, 74 participants

2017: 338 species, 71 participants

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Highlights from Birding in Costa Rica at Chomes and Ensenada

Costa Rica is so replete with birding hotspots, it can be a challenge to pick sites for a birding trip. If you have only a week or two to work with, you might be better off making a top ten target list and going from there. My Costa Rica bird finding e-book provides all the necessary information to plan and carry out a successful birding trip to Costa Rica, I often visit the sites mentioned in that 700 page publication, including last weekend while guiding a trip to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge.

Situated on the eastern shores of the Gulf of Nicoya north of Puntarenas, these sites and the general vicinity make for excellent birding grounds. The roads that lead to Chomes, Punta Morales, Abangares, and other settlements access a mix of riparian groves punctuated with massive old growth trees, open fields, second growth, patches of forest, and coastal habitats. As one might surmise, this translates to a healthy supply of dry forest species, shorebirds, and some aquatic birds. The size of the area and lack of birding coverage also adds excitement to every visit. Bird around there and who knows, you might come across an Aplomado Falcon (someone had one last month), find a roosting owl or two, wintering painted buntings, mangrove specialties, maybe even a Jabiru (one has been recently visiting a wetland just down the road from Ensenada).

It’ always a worthwhile area for exploration, but if you only have a couple days to work with, a birder can’t go wrong by sticking to Chomes and Ensenada Lodge. The road in to Chomes often has Harriss’s Hawk, Double-striped Thick-knee, and other dry forest species, whereas Ensenada offers up a nice mix of species associated with dry forest, mud flats, and open country. These are some of the highlights from this past weekend:

Cave Swallow!: November seems to be a good month to connect with this rare but regular migrant. We had one mixed in with several Barn Swallows perched on a wire just before the village of Chomes, and two days later, I also caught a glimpse of a probable Cave Swallow at Ensenada. It will be interesting to see if more show up a month from now in those same areas. On a side note, I was surprised to see how well the Cave Swallow blended in with the Barns. In substandard light and from the front, its orange-buff throat made it look much more like a Barn than I expected.

An excellent year bird!

Raptors: The 21 species of hawks, kites, falcons, and owls that we saw or heard show that the general area (especially Ensenada) is prime raptor habitat. Our best species were Crane Hawk (seen both days at Ensenada), Hook-billed Kite (a juvenile at Chomes and Ensenada), and Northern Harrier– a high flying rare migrant. Oddly, we did not have one of the more common raptors in that area- Roadside Hawk! That, or I can’t recall if we saw one because it’s a common, expected bird. In addition to Black Vulture, this is our list-

Turkey Vulture
Osprey
Hook-billed Kite
Northern Harrier
Broad-winged Hawk
Short-tailed Hawk
Gray Hawk
Crane Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
Common Black-Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon (heard only)
Laughing Falcon (also heard only)
Crested Caracara
Yellow-headed Caracara
Barn Owl
Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl
Pacific Screech-Owl
Mottled Owl (heard only)

One of the Hook-billed Kites we saw.

This and a second Zone-tailed Hawk entertained us at the salinas.

Common Black-Hawks are expected in coastal habitats.

Pacific Screech-Owl: This one deserves a second mention because it’s so common around Ensenada. I think I heard five from the lodge at night, and we saw two roosting birds right next to the restaurant during the day.

Hello owl!

Shorebirds: The shrimp and salt ponds in the area are important, excellent habitat for a variety of shorebirds. Although we didn’t see any Facebook breaking rarities, watching hundreds of Westerns, Semi Sands, Semi Plovers, Black-bellys, Wilson’s, Greater Legs, dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, and a handful of knots at Chomes is perpetually priceless. Seeing flocks take to the air at the sign of a juvenile Peregrine is even better! At Ensenada, we added Surfbird, Ruddy Turnstone, and Lesser Yellowlegs.

Yay shorebirds! 

Spot-breasted Orioles: Ensenada is indeed an excellent site for this uncommon species. Their cheery songs filled the air at dawn and we saw several right next to the lodge. In fact, the vicinity of the lodge seemed to be the best area for them.

One of the several Spot-breasteds we saw.

Ensenada Lodge: The lodge itself merits a mention. I truly enjoyed staying there; the cabins were clean, comfortable, and the fans worked to keep things cool. The food was delicious, the surroundings birdy, and a cute little porcupine waddles right through the restaurant every evening!

Can’t complain about the view either.

Breaking 700 for the year: As a personal highlight, this weekend helped me surpass 700 species for 2017. That came in the form of a single American Oystercatcher flying over the waters of the Gulf. 701 was the harrier that flew overhead. I really wanted to hit 700 in 2017, now that I have, I don’t have to worry about chasing a Blackpoll Warbler that was recently seen in San Jose.

If you visit Ensenada, please mention your best bird in the comments. This was our list from Saturday.

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A Fine Morning on Irazu and Other Birding News for Costa Rica

Irazu is a volcano that dominates the eastern skyline of Costa Rica’s Central Valley. If you didn’t already know that a big old crater was hidden up there on top, it would be hard to imagine that the mountain out there to the east is actually a link to the molten underworld. From my back window, all I can see is a rocky massif topped with antennas and it looks so close I wish I could fly to it right from my back window. On hot days, I would swoop high over the winding mountain roads, small farms, and houses to cool off at those breezy 3,000 plus meter elevations. It would be especially nice to glide over there in the dark of the night to hang out with the saw-whets sans spots and investigate the whereabouts of Great Horned Owl and maybe even Stygian Owl. The Great Horned is mysterious and very rare in Costa Rica but has been heard up there on Irazu. As for the Stygian, that would be a major new mega country record and extension of its known range but who knows, there are a few tantalizing reports from Irazu.

The first wonderful thing about Irazu is that the volcano is in sleep mode. The second wonderful thing is that you don’t need wings to pay a visit. There is a very good road that leads right up to those antennas and an official national park. Head up there and you can see for yourself that there is indeed a deep crater up on top. Bring binoculars and you will also find that the birding is replete with a bunch of high elevation endemics including two key ones in the paramo; the Timberline Wren and the Volcano Junco.

The junco always looks as angry as an active volcano.

Although you can’t find either of those species anywhere other than in the paramo habitats of Costa Rica and western Panama, they still aren’t exactly abundant. They eventually show but it might take a bit to find them, recently, I did that with a few friends and ornithologists visiting Costa Rica for a Partners in Flight Conference. The junco played well by sitting on a leaf right behind our cars but as usual, it took a little while to find the wren. However, we eventually did and all got nice looks at the highland endemic.

But that wasn’t all we saw on Irazu.

Lower down, in bits of forest near the Noche Buena restaurant, we got great looks at the rufous morph Costa Rican Pygmy-Owl that has been showing well since September, Black-cheeked Warbler, Yellow-winged Vireo, Flame-throated Warbler, and some other highland species. Although several of the more common birds refused to show (and activity was rather quiet overall), we also got looks at one of the rarest species on the mountain (and in many parts of its range). That special bird was a Maroon-chested Ground-Dove, a female that called from a perch in a riparian zone. A small population of doves are always up there, and as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours demonstrated earlier this year, you don’t need bamboo to see them. However, you do need that trio of factors typically required for many a shy bird-  time, patience, and luck.

The other great bird for me was the other year bird I got, a beautiful little Townsend’s Warbler. As for other birding news, over at Lago Angostura and Casa Tuirire, a Wattled Jacana has been entertaining local twitchers. I’m dying to twitch it for the country myself, I just hope it stays long enough so I can do that! While looking at the jacana, other good birds have also turned up, notably Pinnated and Least Bitterns along with the expected Snail Kite and a few other nice species.

On the Pacific side, the nefarious Masked Duck has been showing somewhere in the Coto area near Ciudad Neily. With luck, I might finally see this major nemesis bird of mine this weekend during a bird count at Cano Negro. If I do, should I give it the finger as some other birders do? I doubt I will do that. Instead, I might just give it the cold shoulder and pretend to ignore it.

And the last bit of birding news is the big Bay-breasted Warbler wave that has been inundating Costa Rica. We knew we were seeing a lot at Selva Bananito two weeks ago but we didn’t know that everyone else was also seeing a lot on that weekend and since then even in San Jose! A few days ago, Bay-breasted were even seen foraging on the paths of the university campus like sparrow wannabees.

If you are headed to Costa Rica in the coming days, enjoy the birding, it’s going to be good, especially with the cool temps we have been experiencing. Learn how to see, find, and identify the birds of Costa Rica with my e-book-How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica.

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Birding in Costa Rica around Ciudad Neily

Costa Rica might be a small country but that doesn’t stop it from hosting a variety of distinct habitats and areas inhabited by localized species. One such part of the country is the lowland area near the border with Panama. Historically, this low-lying area supported an avian cast similar to that of the nearby Golfo Dulce but as with many other flat areas on the planet, the lands near Ciudad Neily were largely deforested long before any talk of preservation. Patches of forest persist in riparian zones and at the base of the coastal mountain range but most of the region presently features oil palms, rice, or pastures for the cows.

Oil palms have some birds including occasional owls and potoos at night.

Although mature lowland rainforest would be more conducive to high biodiversity, the open country and wetlands near Ciudad Neily have provided habitat for some species more readily found in Panama. It makes for a bunch of additions to your Costa Rica list and is why many a tour pays a visit to sites near Neily. Given the five hour drive, I rarely make it down that way but thanks to recent guiding during a Birding Club trip, this year, I had the chance to get in some Neily birding and add several species to my 2017 list.

There are several options for accommodation but we stayed at FortunaVerde, a small, very affordable hotel with great service and a patch of forest with rare Central American Squirrel Monkeys. Although rain and lack of time kept us from properly exploring those woods, I bet they host a fair selection of lowland forest species. Two of the local targets, Crested Oropendola and Brown-throated Parakeet also flew by or frequented nearby trees every day along with Blue-headed Parrots, and Costa Rican Swift. I didn’t notice any other swifts but would be surprised if Spot-fronted and maybe even White-chinned didn’t also occur on occasion.

Tropical Mockingbirds were a constant at FortunaVerde.

For targeted birding, we checked a few different sites in the vicinity including the La Gamba-Esquinas area. Although it takes 35 minutes to drive there from Neily and you have to pass through a border checkpoint, the excellent birding there is worth the ride. Rain checked most of our birding but we still managed the target Rusty-margined Flycatcher at our first stop, heard a Uniform Crake, and got onto one brief endemic Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager. With better weather, 80 species in that one afternoon wouldn’t have been out of the question.

On the following day, we birded the Coto wetlands and rice fields near Ciudad Neily. As is usual for these sites, the birding was excellent and gave us nice views of local target species like Gray-lined Hawk, Scrub Greenlet, several Brown-throated Parakeets, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and other birds. No luck with any rare shorebirds but Upland, Buff-breasted, and others can occur and were probably hiding somewhere out there in the grass during our visit.

No Wattled Jacana this time but it was still fun to scan through dozens of whistling-ducks, herons, Glossy Ibis, and other wetland species while looking for them.

A roadside Fork-tailed Flycatcher was also a treat.

In the afternoon, we raced against rain in the area south of the hospital to see some birds. We got onto a few before heavy rain but eventually, the precipitation slowed and thanks to some local help, were able to scope a nesting Savannah Hawk.

Distant but identifiable!

We also got onto our first Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, a species that has become much more common at this site over the past few years.

It was also larger than I expected.

Given our afternoon birding in the rain, we hoped for better weather at the same site the following morning. The clouds were still there but the birds were very active and treated us to constant bino usage as we watched Pale-breasted Spinetails, the same Savannah Hawk, more Fork-tailed Flycatchers, many a Giant Cowbird, flocks of Red-breasted Blackbirds, Dickcissels, Tricolored Munias, more Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds, and other species. No dice with Red-rumped Woodpecker but we sort of made up for it with a responding Paint-billed Crake (!). Like most of its kin, it almost came in close enough for good views but a few of us did catch fleeting glimpses of this rare, sweet target bird.

After listening and staring for the crake, we headed back for breakfast and the bird list but not before some final, close looks at a couple of Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures.

On my next visit, I hope to stay at the FortunaVerde Hotel again and check their forest while exploring the nearby wetlands. I was also happy to see that the roads we birded could also be done with a regular, small car. Please share your sightings from that area on eBird but don’t find Costa Rica’s first Crimson-backed Tanager before I do!

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Two Weeks of Costa Rica Birding Highlights

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

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

Sooty Shearwater for the year list!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crested Owl.

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

The lovely Emerald Tanager.

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

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

 

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Halfway Point During a Year of Birding in Costa Rica- 616 Down, 84 More To Go

June is already here! The older you get, the quicker time flies. Untested and unproven but nevertheless true. Just ask anyone who has surpassed 40 years on this planet. Suddenly, before you know it, the 50 year milestone stops creeping way off in the distance and gets up to begin a steady and unsettling trot, just waiting for that birthday moment when it can leap onto your neck and weigh you down with definite, clinging old age. But, you gotta accept it because the alternative is ceasing to age and since we haven’t figured out how to put a stop to that without also turning off the good old “cuore”, cessation is not the desired outcome (at least it shouldn’t be). In the meantime, give those creeping years the finger by getting out and watching more birds, being active, and keeping the inner flame going to make the world a better place (or at least to do whatever the hell you want as long as doing that doesn’t involve hurting other beings). That’s pretty much what my old neighbor Tony Palumbo from Augustus Place meant when he used to say, between puffs on some smelly cigar, “Pat, get educated and do what you want to do. Then you can tell those bastards to go to hell!” He never elucidated on who was exactly supposed to be sent off to the eternal oven but I am pretty sure it was anyone who would take try and take advantage of me or get me into an unwelcome bind.

So, in keeping with Tony’s advice, I try to see a certain number of bird species each year, always shooting for at least 600 species. In birdy Costa Rica, this is a very doable task. As long as you visit each major habitat in the country at various times of the year, you should find 600 species, and if you really work at it, you can hit 650 without too many problems. Reaching 700 requires a bit more work but the right planning and enough time can surely make that happen. That’s what I am trying for this year, and as the reader may have guessed from the title of this post, I just need 84 more species to reach this year’s birding goal.

I still need this one for the year.

With six months to work with, I can certainly do it but since most of the remaining species are somewhat of a challenge and or rare, I can’t just go out birding and find them. I now need to specifically go to the places where they occur and stick to looking for those special birds. No complaints there because the good thing about doing that is you always see other birds in the process. Even better, when I go looking for them, I will also have a solid chance at reaching 800 species for my country list. I hadn’t realized that I was so close but in looking at my Costa Rica list, I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I only needed nine more birds to hit 800! Based on my duo goals for 2017, these are the places that warrant more of my time from now until the nights grow longer:

The Ocean– If I went out to sea, I could easily pick up six or more year birds and maybe get a few country and life birds out of the salty mix (and even more if I went to Cocos Island). But, since I would also probably have a miserable sea-sick time, a pelagic isn’t one of my priorities. That could change if I could get a hold of the right medicine and boat but at the moment, I’m pleased with sticking to ferry birding (which can actually be an easy way to get several pelagic species without turning an unwelcome shade of green). I’m actually itching to take a ferry ride these days to see if the rain-swollen rivers flowing into the Gulf of Nicoya are bringing in the nutrients that attract storm-petrels, shearwaters, Bridled Tern, Brown Noddy, and maybe some mega or two. Also, based on the species missing from my year list, a few ferry trips will likely be needed to hit the 700 mark.

Birding from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry is easy and often exciting.

The Highlands– I suspected that this region would host the majority of my missing birds but although it does harbor the easiest missing birds to get, the numbers of likely birds I could get with some effort are similar to the South Pacific, around 28 species. Several are expected and a few are always tough but since I have yet to visit the high Talamancas or Irazu, I feel good about finding most of my targets, even some of the tough ones. It will also be interesting to see if I can find some of the uncommon and rare cloud forest species on the San Rafael Varablanca road, a site not that far from my home.

The South Pacific-Since I sort of did a trip to that area when I went to San Vito in January, this was a bit of a surprise as well as a reminder of the excellent birding and high diversity way down there in the Osa, Golfo Dulce, and nearby. Preferably, I will do one or more trips to the Esquinas area or the Osa (I would love to get in a bit of expedition birding in the La Tarde area) to get the endemic ant-tanager and have a chance at Black and white Hawk-Eagle, Tiny Hawk, Turquoise Cotinga, and maybe even one of the mega large eagles. I need to go to sites near Ciudad Neily to pick up localized targets like Veraguan Mango, Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Gray-lined Hawk, Savannah Hawk, and a fair chance at Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers along with other good birds, and at least one morning and evening near Buenos Aires for the O. Crake, rare nightjars, and a few other species.

Red-rumped Woodpecker is one of my targets.

The Caribbean and migrants– Thanks to the Global Big Day and other trips, I’m doing pretty good with this bunch of birds. But, since there are so many to choose from, I could still pick up 20 more resident species. Most of those are rare but I do have six months to work with. I also mention migrants for this area because the coast could still give me around a dozen species along with a chance at several rare vagrants.

The Northern volcanoes– That would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, Orosi, and Tenorio volcanoes. The high quality forests on those low mountains is excellent for a variety of high quality birds and would give me a good chance at Tody and Keel-billed Motmots, Bare-crowned Antbird, Lovely Cotinga, along with umbrellabird, Gray-throated Leaftosser, Black-eared Wood-Quail, and the list goes on. Recent mega sightings of Solitary Eagle and Harpy Eagle are additional reminders of why this is always a good area to bird! I also want to finally add the trio of uncommon Guanacaste resident sparrows to my country list- Grasshopper, Botteri’s, and Rusty. I have seen them elsewhere but never in Costa Rica and they are seriously overdue.

A glimpse at the uncommon Keel-billed Motmot.

I hope this basic outline of a birding plan might also give the reader some tips on seeing more of the species they want to find in Costa Rica. For lots more information, and to support this blog, purchase my 700 plus page e-book for finding birds in Costa Rica. I hope to see you in the field while working on this year’s goal!

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Intact, Mature Forest Equals More Understory Species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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