When planning a birding trip to Costa Rica, Alaska, or anywhere else, we look at trip reports, talk to friends who have been there, study itineraries on birding tour websites, and gaze at field guides with anticipation. What are we going to see? Which birds are common, which are rare, are there any roosting owls that we can get pictures of? What awaits us on that exciting first day in country?
As much as we investigate, dream, and anticipate, the real answers to those birding hopes only come in the form of the actual experience. That said, I can tell you that if you go birding in Costa Rica, yeah, you are going to have plenty of new birds to look at, and if you bring the binos to the places with the best habitat, you will probably see a lot more birds than expected. Keep in mind that those special places may or may not be hotspots listed in eBird or elsewhere, and that the best spots are probably the toughest ones to access. Fortunately, though, we don’t need to restrict the birding experience to munching on energy bars in areas with remote, muddy trails. There are other, more accessible and comfortable places with excellent birding right on site. Even better, some of those places also have good service and excellent food.
You probably won’t see one of the best of those places on tour itineraries but that doesn’t mean that we should exclude it from planning. After seeing the following information, you might want to make room for the Finca Luna Nueva Lodge on your next birding trip to Costa Rica:
Lots of birds: The first time bird guide Juan Diego Vargas told me about Luna Nueva in 2009, he mentioned that the place was really birdy, more birdy than most other sites. I was quick to agree shortly after my first morning of birding because the avian chorus and number of birds were notably greater than many other sites. It seems that the mix of organic orchards, regenerating habitats, and primary rainforest provide food and shelter for a large number of birds, and probably more than you would expect. To give an idea of the congruence of biomass and diversity encountered at Luna Nueva, on this year’s Christmas Count, we had more than 120 species before lunch and that doesn’t even include waterbirds.
Highlights included a morning din of flocking parrots and parakeets that was incredible, trees alive with the foraging of honeycreepers, thrushes, and other species, several hummingbirds, and more just around the lodging and orchard area. Inside the rainforest, you get a different set of birds and might even see Great Curassow and other forest species. Migrants were also common and included good numbers of expected species like Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and Tennessee and Chestnut-sided Warblers, and less common migrants like Ovenbird, and Kentucky and Hooded Warblers. We also had several Gray Catbirds, a decidedly uncommon wintering species in much of Costa Rica.
A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher from Luna Nueva
Uncommon birds too: Along with dozens of common, expected species like Crested Guan, toucans, aracaris, Red-lored Parrots, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Luna Nueva is also a good site for uncommon birds like Black-crested Coquette, Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, Bicolored Hawk, Cinnamon Woodpecker, White-fronted Nunbird, antwrens, and even Uniform Crake. Ornate Hawk-Eagle is also regular and I expect that Lovely Cotinga and Bare-necked Umbrellabird visit on rare occasions (or perhaps more than we realize) from August to February.
A Cinnamon Woodpecker from Luna Nueva.
A Puma track from the forest at Luna Nueva.
Easy access: Good, paved roads bring you to the entrance road around two hours from the airport.
Close to other sites: Although Luna Nueva is off the main birding route, it’s still close enough to other places to use it as a suitable base. La Fortuna and the Arenal area are about thirty to forty minutes away, a drive up to the wetlands of Cano Negro would take around two hours, and there are good cloud forest sites about an hour, or an hour and a half up the road.
Delicious, healthy, organic food: As if constant, good birding wasn’t enough of a reason to visit Luna Nueva, the food is simply fantastic! Ingredients are organic and include many items from the farm, there are interesting dressings on the tables, and tasty recipes are served.
Support a plan for a sustainable future: It’s hard to believe that so many birds can be found on a working tropical farm but that’s because we are too accustomed to tropical farms being monocultures, doused with poisons, and places where cattle graze pastures that used to be shaded by massive trees were macaws nested. Luna Nueva demonstrates how tropical lands can be used to raise food and host a business without destroying most of the forest, the life found therein, and highly important organic soils that can help fight climate change. It’s a good plan for a sustainable, viable future.
Enjoy the birding at Finca Luna Nueva Lodge, I know you will! Please leave a link to your eBird list in the comments.
Arenal is the name of a young volcano in northern Costa Rica. When Arenal experienced its explosive rebirth in the 1960s, a plethora of tourism activities based around the volcano were also spawned including soaks in hot springs, hikes to jungle waterfalls, the usual horse back rides, and so on. If you find yourself headed to Arenal because the rest of the family wants to partake in those and other activities, count yourself lucky because the Arenal area is also fantastic for birding. Quality foothill rainforests are accessible at several sites, there are birdy trails very close to town, and the area also hosts a mosaic of habitats to please birders of all ilks. Try these tips to make the most of your birding time around La Fortuna and Arenal:
Visit the Fortuna Nature Trail: Also known as the “Sendero Bogarin” or just “Bogarin”, this oasis is an absolute must visit for ANY birder wearing binos around La Fortuna. Thanks to the dedication, perseverance, and hard work of local guide and naturalist Geovanni Bogarin, you can walk a good, easy trail through second growth and wet areas that host the most reliable Uniform Crakes on the planet, and dozens of other bird species. The presence of everything from Rufous-tailed Jacamars to Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Barred Antshrike, Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-crested Coquette, and other species is testament to what can happen when you just let the vegetation grow. The fact that most of the trail used to be pasture that now hosts wintering Golden-winged, Hooded, Chestnut-sided, and Mourning Warblers also provides hope for restoration of winter habitat for migrant species. Check out my eBird list from a recent, short visit. Oh yeah, and if you like to take pictures, the feeders can be sort of unbelievable.
This was at the feeder last weekend.
So were these.
And White-throated Crake along with around 20 other species.
This trail is just outside of La Fortuna, on the gravel road that runs next to the Backpackers Hostel. I’m not sure what Geovanni charges but please be generous with donations, he is doing this on his own and for the love of nature.
Visit the Waterfall: Another trail just outside of town, despite the constant stream of tourists both local and foreign, the site will probably surprise you with its excellent birding. The road in passes through birdy fields, second growth, and riparian zones, and the parking lot for the trail can be good for toucans (even Yellow-eared was showing well a few months ago), woodpeckers, and lots of other possibilities. Check the lights near the forest in the early morning for White-whiskered Puffbirds and other birds in search of easy insect prey. On the trail itself (which might not open until 8 a.m.) check for raptors and perched canopy species from the overlook, and watch for antbirds, great mixed flocks, and even Lanceolated Monklet on the steps down towards the waterfall. You might even see umbrellabird, two were recently seen there during this year’s Christmas Count!
This trail costs $10 to enter, and although it consists of steps, you will be walking on metal and concrete ones instead of dealing with treacherous, slippery mud.
The view from the overlook.
Bird the hotel grounds: Bird are where the habitat is. Whether the hotel has a garden or some forest, check it out, you might be surprised at what you find.
Bird the road to the Observatory Lodge: This is also the bumpy road that leads to the national park. Although the national park is alright, the road to the lodge and then to El Castillo tends to be excellent and reliable for Bare-crowned Antbird, other antbird species, raptors, and so on and so on. Check the rivers for Fasciated Tiger-Heron, and maybe Sunbittern, and just keep watching. Don’t be surprised if you see a rare Lovely Cotinga at a busy fruiting tree, Bicolored and Semiplumbeous Hawks, and Rufous-winged Tanager.
Access excellent forest at Skytrek, the Observatory Lodge, and Mistico: There are other trails in the area but these have some of the best forest. Mistico has Hanging Bridges and a hummingbird garden with Snowcap. The Observatory Lodge has good trails in good forest with great mixed flocks and chances at many forest birds. Skytrek is pricey but also has good trails through some of the best forest, a couple hanging bridges, and a fair chance at Black-headed Antthrush, Ornate Hawk-Eagle, and many other species including rarities like Sharpbill, Yellow-eared Toucanet, and other goodies.
There are healthy populations of Orante Hawk-Eagle around Arenal. Geovanni has even seen it catch a squirrel on his trail!
Enjoy your birding time around Arenal! To see more information about sites throughout the country as well as information to find and identify bird species in Costa Rica, check out my 700 plus page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”.
Hurricane Otto stormed its way through northern Costa Rica last Friday. The good news is that despite the worries and concerns, most parts of the country were spared the heavy rains and winds that make up the destructive bread and butter of a hurricane-strength storm. In the Central Valley, the weather was weird, foggy, and punctuated with occasional drizzles but the main body of the storm clearly missed us. The same can be said about most other parts of the country, even in many of the emergency, red-zone areas such as Monteverde and San Carlos.
Hurricane day from my window.
But now for the bad news. The northern border zone did indeed experience the heavy rains and high winds of a hurricane, especially in the Upala and Los Chiles areas. Liberia also saw some of the heaviest rains it has ever experienced, and electricity was out along most of the storm’s path. It sounds like Upala saw the worst of it because the river overflowed its banks, flooded the town, and destroyed many homes and businesses. A few people also perished from the flooding there and in the town of Bagaces. The bright note is that thousands of folks immediately pitched in from around the country to help and support the people of Upala and other affected areas. Hopefully, their homes and businesses can be rebuilt as soon as possible.
As far as access goes, roads and bridges are probably out or affected in areas near Upala and probably other places up north. If you plan on staying anywhere near Upala, Bijagua, or other sites near the northern border during December, it would definitely be wise to contact those places first to see if they are up and running and if they can be reached by road. Most probably can but it would be worth it to check first. In the rest of the country, it sounds like most roads are open, and far fewer were affected by landslides than was expected. The exception to that is the area around Ciudad Neily near the border with Panama. There has been a lot of flooding down that way and I doubt that the Coto wetland area is accessible.
On the birding front, so far, nothing crazy has turned up and I doubt that much will be found. The hurricane didn’t really pass through an avian rich zone, nor any major islands before reaching Costa Rica, and I assume that species like Gray Kingbird, White-crowned Pigeon, and the very local San Andres Vireo are adapted to hurricanes and thus less likely to leave cover when the storm comes through. Factor in lots of places for birds to hide along with little birding coverage and coming across any of those few rare vagrants will be like finding a microscopic needle in a haystack. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see if any unexpected species are found during this weekend’s bird count at Arenal.
On the waterbird front, it’s more likely that some of those were blown off course and maybe even right over to the Pacific. A pretty good sign that this has happened are reports of a few Sandwich and Elegant Terns from an inland reservoir. Once again, with several people actively birding the Arenal area, maybe a few interesting water birds will be found on Arenal Lake? Although I wasn’t able to head down and check the lake on Sunday, I did check the Tarcoles Estuary, Punta Morales, and Puntarenas. I would have also checked Chomes but the road to the ponds was too muddy for my little car. So, there might have been something really good in there, but even a Sooty Tern wouldn’t have been worth getting my car stuck in the salt pond oven known as Chomes. At least the road in to the village was in excellent condition. It was being graded and gave up views of 20 thick-knees, a usual, distant Harris’s Hawk, an equally distant wintering kestrel (pretty uncommon in Costa Rica), and a few other birds including my year Spot-breasted Oriole.
Over at Punta Morales, shorebirds were in good numbers but nothing unusual and rather low diversity. It was a similar scene over in Tarcoles, and the waters off of Puntarenas were fairly bird-less. I was hoping for a flyby storm-petrel (or flyby anything for that matter) but no luck there. Although I didn’t come across any crazy rarity, I’m still glad that I was out there looking for them, and a morning of bird song on the Bijagual road is always a good one in any case!
This Rufous-tailed Jacamar was one of several species seen and heard during dawn on the Bijagual Road. My eBird list.
I’m often asked if there are hurricanes in Costa Rica. I asked the same question some years ago because after all, there is a coast on the storm-prone Caribbean Sea, and it’s all too easy to have hurricanes come to mind when talking about earthquakes and other natural disasters. While Costa Rica is a young, seismic land punctuated with volcanoes, it sits in a quiet corner of the Caribbean where hurricanes refuse to venture. They just can’t seem to get their act together around here. Tropical storms, yes. Hurricanes, no, at least not until now. And I mean right now as I write this.
Bucking all historical trends, an adventurous storm named “Otto” is making its way towards the coasts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The eye has yet to stare down at us but the first bands of wind and rain are brushing the coast. It’s not a huge one but a category one or two is still big enough to cause flooding and landslides, especially when the rivers and steep slopes of eastern Costa Rica are already saturated with water. Thousands of people have been evacuated and, now, there is talk of expected power losses and road closures. I guess that means I should take an extra trip to the store this afternoon, and might not be sending out any emails for a few days.
Sadly, it also means potential loss of homes and damage to crops. Hopefully enough people will have been evacuated to keep them safe. I’m also hoping that the winds don’t get strong enough to affect our home because Otto is scheduled to go stomping right across the country on his hike to the Pacific.
On the birding front, Rancho Naturalista has urged people to check their flights and stay safe. They should be alright because they aren’t in the direct path of the storm. Paraiso de Quetzales just stated that they would be closed for the weekend, a good call given that the highway to the lodge will probably see fallen limbs and maybe a landslide or two. Hopefully not, but better safe than stranded on Cerro de la Muerte or worse (although there might not be much worse than being stuck at night on the Mountain of the Dead). Personally, I would see it as an excuse to look for Unspotted Saw-whets. Cold, shmold, I grew up in Niagara Falls, NY!. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve also just said that it will be closed and that probably goes for most montane birding sites as well.
But, as with most things, there is a potential bright side, especially for birders. As with any hurricane, there’s always that chance that the storm will bring unusual birds our way. Since the storm is coming right off the ocean and migration is pretty much a done deal, there’s not a whole lot of crazy avian options but the ones that could occur would still be smart additions to my country list (and maybe even a lifer?).
Having missed out on amazing hurricane bird experiences in western New York (like storm-petrels on the Niagara River), I’m keen to have one of those crazy birding times in Costa Rica. That said, I do realize that I would still need a fair modicum of fortune to find lost Audubon’s and Black-capped Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, tropicbirds, and White-crowned Pigeons, especially because the roads might not be so vehicle worthy. Of course, if we have problems with the house, birding will be the very least of my worries. But, let’s say that it won’t get that bad and I can still look around with the good old binos.
As the storm passes through, I might be looking out of the window, but the best chance at finding stuff will be right after the storm has passed, and the best place may be the reservoir at Arenal. I doubt I would be able to drive there but I hope local birders will look for lost seabirds. Maybe one or two would even stick around for next week’s Christmas Count?
There aren’t too many other large reservoirs around here but perhaps a lost bird or two could show up at the one near Turrucares? There’s also the Pacific coast to check, Caldera and Puntarenas being good spots to take a look around. As for land birds, they could be anywhere on the Caribbean but once again, access will probably be an issue. If you are already at La Selva, watch for White-crowned Pigeon and odd warblers, I’ll probably be looking for odd birds on foot around Santa Barbara.
I was surprised by my year Yellow-billed Cuckoo last week, right in my tiny backyard- you never know what might show up!
Last weekend, I had some fun, easy-going birding on the other side of the mountains. For me, that usually means going over to the Caribbean slope but on this occasion, it refers to the mountains on the other side of the valley. Those would be the uplifted lands that lead to the humid forests of the Pacific slope, including the General Valley. This is where you go if you drive up and over Cerro de la Muerte. After looking for Volcano Juncos and Peg-billed Finches in the paramo, if you continue on, you eventually descend to San Isidro, a small important city in southern Costa Rica. Also known as Perez Zeledon (or just “Perez”), the area is also pretty nice for birding.
Although the rainforest that remains mostly occurs as small, scattered patches, those bits of forest can be pretty birdy, even right around town. There are also a few good sites just outside of the city including the one I visited last weekend while co-guiding a trip for the Birding Club of Costa Rica. Our destination was Talari Lodge, and, as usual for this spot, the birding was fun, easy, and fulfilling. Talari has been around for several years and protects a small area of old second growth along with some taller trees and access to a rushing river. The growing forest is filled with fruiting trees and bushes which, in turn, attracts lots of birdies.
It’s not a place for seeing big raptors, guans, and other deep forest species but the good service, food, and easy looks at a nice sampling of other species makes up for it. During our time at the lodge, we were treated to near constant activity in the fruiting trees around the lodge as well as at a fruit feeder that attracted Cherrie’s and Speckled Tanagers, Buff-throated and Streaked Saltators, Gray-headed Tanager, honeycreepers, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, White-ruffed Manakin, and other species.
Scoping distant tree-tops failed to turn up Turquoise Cotinga on this visit (often seen here), but did give us looks at Scaled Pigeon, tityras, toucans, and other stuff, while the undergrowth hosted Rufous-breasted and Riverside Wrens, and Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrushes.
Hummingbirds weren’t as diverse as other visits but we still managed nice looks at Long-billed Starthroat, the ubiquitous Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, and brief looks at a female White-crested Coquette.
The best field mark for the Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is the lack of bright colors. Instead, it sings all day long, mimicking other birds in the process.
Down by the river, we also got looks at Scrub Greenlet, distant Indigo Buntings, a couple kingfishers, and a distant fly-by Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Several other interesting species could also show in the young second growth by the river, it would be good to keep a close watch in that area for things like seedeaters, Pale-breasted Spinetail, and maybe a vagrant warbler or two.
When the sun came out, we finally got our expected Roadside Hawk and Pearl Kite (regular here), but the best bird of the trip was at a site near Talari. Thanks to co-guide Susana Garcia-Blanco and the local birding network in Perez, we got some sweet gen about Turquoise Cotingas frequenting a forested hillside at the university.
Since the university is on the road to Talari, but the viewing point is on the other side, it’s tricky to get there but, on our visit, it was well worth it because a big fruiting fig was attracting dozens of birds, the best being at least 4 Turquoise Cotingas! We soaked up prolonged views of male and female birds and envied the yard lists of homes overlooking the forest.
One of the cotingas sharing branches with less colorful birds.
Talari makes for a good stop when traveling through this area. If you stay for more than one night, it could also be easily used as a base to bird middle-elevation habitats on the road to Chirripo (check riparian zones for Costa Rican Brush-Finch), areas of older forest at Los Cusingos and Las Quebradas Reserves, higher elevation sites up on Cerro de la Muerte, and even savanna habitats further afield around Buenos Aires.
One of the most interesting things about birding in tropical habitats is the unpredictable nature of the endeavor. It seems like the more biodiverse a place is, the less predictable the bird species encountered. When venturing into rainforest with binoculars at the ready, the end result of this bio-trick is eventually ticking off species after species with careful, patient birding. After wondering where the other bird species were, you go back out that same afternoon and find some, and then a bunch more the following day. Keep visiting and you keep seeing more wondering where the heck those birds were the first time around.
As with most rainforest sites, this is the status quo at El Tapir. You never know what will show at the edge of the forest, and never know what will pop into view beneath the trees, but you do know that just about anything seems possible. “Just about anything” is code for a bunch of rare bonus species like umbrellabird, Sharpbill, the ground-cuckoo, maybe a Strong-billed Woodcreeper, maybe even Black-eared Wood-Quail. Since those birds are rare, no, they hardly ever show at the site but they always can, and on any visit.
During two recent visits, I had hoped that the cards would fall into place and give us an umbrellabird. After all, the big endangered cotinga has been seen near there recently, it occurs at that elevation at this time of year, and I still need it as a year bird. Although those cards didn’t play out, we were still dealt a deck with various other nice species. With the caveat that nothing there is guaranteed on a one day trip, these are a few things to sort of expect when birding this foothill site:
Lattice-tailed Trogon: El Tapir is a good site for this uncommon, localized foothill trogon. I do see it on most visits and that makes El Tapir one of the best places for it anywhere in its small range. Bird any of the trails the whole day and there’s a fair chance it will show. You still need to know what it sounds like though, because the big trogon hides exceptionally well in its extra-vegetated habitat.
Snowcap: Sounds like candy. Looks like candy. This is avian eye candy! The Porterweed bushes usually harbor several of these wonderful little hummingbirds. If you don’t see it here, or want to see it in more comfy settings where fantastic meals are served, give it a shot at Rancho Naturalista.
Black-crested Coquette: These guys come and go but one often shows up. Last week, two eventually turned up, the male at one point sharing perching space on a bare sapling with a Green Thorntail and a Snowcap.
Mealy Parrots and toucans: They can also be seen in many other places but these usually show quite well at El Tapir.
King Vulture and other raptors: The site is still pretty good for this condor of the jungle. If it’s sunny, watch the skies from the parking area between 9 and 12. Other raptors often show too, including Ornate Hawk Eagle this past Sunday.
Antwrens and antvireos: The heavy forests at El Tapir are usually reliable for Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. These uncommon little birdies are tough to see at many sites because they need lots of mature forest but are regular at El Tapir to the point of seeing them on most visits. You have to bird on the forest trails but they usually, eventually show up, and often have other small birds with them.
Tanagers: As with other quality foothill sites, this is a good one for tanagers. Numbers vary and a lot can be around if there are fruiting trees. Most possible tanagers can also be seen if you connect with a big mixed flock “led” by White-throated Shrike-Tanager.
Keep looking and don’t be shy about birding El Tapir for more than one day!
It’s November, and it’s not exactly the high season for birding in Costa Rica but since it’s always good birding around here, count yourself lucky to be in Costa Rica right now. Yeah, sure, it rains most afternoons but it hasn’t been that bad, and there are some nice birds to see!
The biggest news has been the cooperative Rufous-crested Coquette at Rancho Naturalista. No, we don’t normally see this species in Costa Rica, and the only records are a few specimens from more than a century ago. Needless to say, if Costa Rica ever had a mega twitch, this is it!
It showed just before Halloween and as far as I know, this major lifer and/or country tick is still being seen today. A few dozen local serious birders have visited Rancho so far (many thanks to Rancho for welcoming everyone to come and see it), and most have had soul satisfying looks at the lost hummingbird as it shares a flower hedge with Black-crested Coquette and Snowcap. I haven’t been able to go there yet but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it stays for a while. A risky move for any twitch but with other responsibilities taking precedence, what are you gonna do? I hope the birding ball bounces my way but if not, at least lots of other local birders were able to add this local mega to their lists.
Not a mega Rufous-crested but a female Black-crested Coquette is still nice to see.
Since the bird showed at Rancho, a spot where people are carefully watching for birds every day, I can’t help but wonder how many others are around? By the laws of probability, there should be a few but since we are talking about a tiny bird that doesn’t sing and makes a living by being sneaky, we can’t really expect to find any (although we can keep looking!).
On another hummingbird front, I noticed that Snowcaps were also showing well at El Tapir this past weekend. They are usually there but not always. On Saturday, we had juveniles as well as adult males and females. In the woods, the birding was alright with some mixed flock activity hosting Streak-crowned Antvireo, and Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens, various tanagers, and vocal Scarlet-rumped Caciques. No luck with umbrellabird but there are probably a few in those woods. Up in the sky, raptors just weren’t there although we did get pretty nice looks at King Vulture.
The Scarlet-rumped Cacique is a rainforest blackbird species.
Over on the La Selva entrance road, the birding was good as always with Great Green Macaw, more than one calling Pied Puffbird (also seen), Plain-colored Tanager, and some other expected species. With the forest growing up there nicely, hopefully, we can expect an increasing number of more forest based species on that birdy little stretch.
At the Cinchona Colibri Cafe, the owners continue to add on to the place, this time including cement steps that lead down to a new feeding and birding area! Although we saw very few birds last week, it’s eventually going to be very good and is an improvement. I suspect that we saw no birds coming to the feeders (a first) because everything seems to be fruiting in the surrounding forests. Keep that in mind when birding on the Caribbean slope and just keep watching those fruiting trees for manakins, tanagers, euphonias, and rare species that may eventually show.
The new set up at the bottom of the steps. I should be checking it out again soon.
On the Pacific slope, the only recent birding I did was a day trip on the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry in search of year birds. To make a long story short, I managed one small flock of Red-necked Phalaropes (a sweet one for my Costa Rica year list, already had it in 2016 in Israel), but no other year birds and almost nothing else. There were a few Franklin’s Gulls and some Royal Terns but no storm-petrels, nor shearwaters, Sabine’s, nor even a Brown Booby! I eventually ran into Black Terns closer to Paquera and there were hundreds of them but I didn’t see anything else with them. It’s looking like I won’t get Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern nor a few other pelagics for the year but I’m still glad to have taken the ferry because the more data the better and you won’t see anything new if you don’t get out there and look.
Flock of Black Terns while Birding from the ferry.
Last but far from least, some raptors are still flying through on their way to South America. It won’t be going on for much longer but a few days ago, we were treated to hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks and Turkey Vultures flying over Rancho Magallanes near Chilamate. Over on the river, we got both Bare-throated and Fasciated Tiger-Heron but no luck with Sunbittern.
Once a month, I usually guide a weekend trip for the local Birding Club of Costa Rica. We get around to most corners of the country and in October the destination tends to be on the Caribbean. The 10th month is the best time of the year to visit sites near Limon because it’s high time for migration in the best part of the country for migration, and, as a bonus, it doesn’t usually rain as much in this part of the country. In the past, we have done trips to Manzanillo and Tortuguero on more than one occasion and have been treated to flocks of Eastern Kingbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Scarlet Tanagers along with other migrants while Gray-cowled Wood-rails prowled the ditches and lots of other rainforest species foraged in the trees.
A molting male Scarlet Tanager- a common sight on the Caribbean slope of Costa Rica in October.
This year, I had hoped to try a different site, and one that was before rather than after Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. This way, we could avoid the crowded streets seen in the small tourist town at this time of year, and maybe have a better chance at the uncommon Black-chested Jay. I was also hoping to find a place where I might have a chance at getting pictures of Sulphur-rumped Tanager, an uncommon, rarely photographed species that I still need an image of for the birding apps I work on. The place I settled on was Casa Calateas, a small, rural tourism initiative situated in the forested hills near Cahuita. It turned out to be a good choice, and here’s why:
Easy to get to: It was easier than I expected. Good paved roads get you to Cahuita and the turn off for Casa Calateas, then you drive up a gravel road to the lodge. Most of it was good enough for two wheel drive although to be sure, it’s probably best to visit with a vehicle that has four wheel drive. Birding on that entrance road is also good for a variety of edge and forest species.
Low cost: I forget what we paid but it was pretty cheap. To learn more, message Luis at the Casa Calateas Facebook site. Whatever we paid, I know that it was a good deal that included very basic yet clean rooms with mosquito nets, great local food and friendly service, and fine birding. If you need a place with more comforts, a pool, and air conditioning, this isn’t the place for you. But, if you don’t mind staying in a rustic place with good birding that directly helps local families, you might want to give Casa Calateas a try.
Lowland Forest Species: Much to my happiness, the place is surrounded by forest. Although much of it is old second growth, there is some mature forest, and old-growth forest can be visited with a really long hike. I would love to go back and check out that older forest in this under-birded area but we still had plenty of good forest birds around the lodge itself. There are a few trails that access the forest but you can probably see just as much by birding the entrance road. We did quite well with several sightings of Red-capped Manakin, Purple-throated Fruitcrows, White-flanked, Dot-winged, and Checker-throated Antwrens, both motmots, Black-crowned Antshrike, and several other expected species. Although we didn’t see it, Luis mentioned that he often spots Sunbittern foraging on the lodge entrance road.
Red-capped Manakins were pretty common and the males were doing their dancing thing.
“You should be dancing…”
The calls of Black-crowned Antshrike were a constant sound in the background.
Night birds were also good with at least two Great Potoos that called all night long, Crested Owl close to the lodge, and Mottled Owl.
I was very happy to get recordings of Crested Owl, and very close looks at one of the Great Potoos was also nice!
Other indicators of nice forest habitat were Bicolored and Spotted Antbirds, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, and Slate-colored Grosbeak.
The grosbeak is actually a canopy saltator. I find it interesting that this orange-billed bird has a call that sounds like the sharp, chip note of another orange-billed bird, the Northern Cardinal, while the other saltator species in Costa Rica don’t.
Semiplumbeous Hawk: This uncommon raptor is always a good bird. We had sightings of two or three from the canopy platform and inside the forest.
Not all plumbeous, just semi.
Raptor watching overlooks: Not just for raptors and I was psyched to check this out. It was indeed a bit like a canopy tower although most of the trees were pretty far off. Although we didn’t see any cotingas, we did scope White-necked Puffbird, parrots, toucans, Laughing Falcon, and some other species. We also enjoyed views of migrating raptors although those could also be seen right from the lodge and from another viewing spot. Because of the angle of the sun, the platform is best during the morning. Keep watching, you might see a hawk-eagle and lots of other possibilities. If you happen to get super lucky and spot a cotinga species that is not a Snowy, take pictures, you just might find Costa Rica’s first Blue Cotinga.
View from the platform.
River of raptors: It goes right overhead during migration and as the name implies, yes, it is spectacular. We had flock after elegant flock of Mississippi Kites, and had plenty of practice separating those from the more bellicose Peregrine Falcons that often zipped overhead.
The river flies overhead.
Kettles like this are commonplace.
We also had thousands of Broad-winged Hawks, Turkey Vultures, and Swainson’s Hawks along with a few Ospreys. Since other species can also fly over, Casa Calateas is a pretty good spot to just hang out and watch the skies.
Other migrants: Not as many as I had hoped and I was surprised to see nary a single Eastern Kingbird. But, we still glassed many a Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, lots of pewees, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. We also had several Bay-breasted Warblers, and saw some other migrant warblers as well including an uncommon for Costa Rica Magnolia Warbler. As with any site used by waves of migrants, every day can bring new things, I wonder what showed up after we left? The best find was probably my much appreciated year Chuck-will’s-Widow.
Since I know there’s good stuff down there around Casa Calateas, I wish I could head right back, right now. If you go, enjoy the rainforest birds, the sounds of frogs and monkeys, and please leave a link to your eBird list in the comments.
My eBird lists from this site:
For those who follow my blog on a regular basis, I apologize for not posting recently. It seems that lighting strikes have finally taken out the cables we use for Internet access at my house. I hope we can replace them ASAP. If you haven’t received any replies from emails sent to me, this is the reason why, I hope to respond some time this week.
Carara National Park is a special place and not just because it’s one of the top spots for birding in Central America. It also scores points on account of the park being the northern boundary for many rainforest species on the Pacific slope of Costa Rica, including several endemics that barely cross the border into Panama. Not to mention, contrary to what everyone else was doing in that part of Costa Rica during the 20th century, the owner decided to let the forest stand rather than trade biodiversity for hot, chiggery cow pasture. It was eventually turned into an official protected area and national park, in large part because it acted as a refuge for a remnant population of Scarlet Macaws, a species that once roamed tropical forests from eastern Mexico to Panama. Since macaws don’t usually do well around people who are intent on subjugating their natural surroundings by means of deforestation and have a constant open hunting season on whatever they feel like killing and/or eating, the macaws quickly disappeared from most parts of their Central American range by the 1960s and 70s. They held on in the hilly rainforests of Carara, and at present, their story is far better than so many other birds, animals, and plants that have the misfortune to live during the anthropomorphic extinction event currently taking place. Visit Carara and many areas of Costa Rica’s Pacific slope nowadays and views of spectacular Scarlet Macaws are a given. A lot of other birds are also expected although for many species, you have to bird the humid forest.
A pair of Scarlet Macaws just outside the national park.
Most of that area does have a high humidity index with damn hot results, but rainforest species need more than water saturated air. Most species also require intact ecosystems with lots of big, mature trees, vines, palms, understory plants, forested streams, and other microhabitats that provide the right combination of humidity, rain, shade, and a myriad of other factors for such a high degree of biodiversity to coexist. In Carara, this is why you also need to bird inside the forest to have a chance at a the full complement of species that occur in and around the national park. Yes, birders should also check out dry forest on the other side of the river, pay a visit to mangroves, and check the estuary, open fields, second growth, the riparian forests on the floodplain trail (aka Laguna Miandrica Trail), and overlooks on the Bijagual Road, but make sure to also bird the trails that leave from the park headquarters.
Although several of these species can also be seen on the laguna trail, the following tend to be more common and easier on the HQ forest trails, and if you visit during the wet season, the floodplain trail might be flooded and closed anyways:
Marbled Wood-Quail (still pretty tough to see there)
Great Curassow (pretty rare but more likely here than on the other trail)
Charming Hummingbird (also on the other trail but seems easier in the forest)
Of course, there’s a 100 or so other species you could run into on the HQ forest trails but since they can also be seen on the floodplain laguna trail just as easily (and some more easily), they didn’t make it onto the list above.
Tips for birding inside the rainforests of Carara:
Keep on looking: Unlike the laguna trail, the forest is more dense and it can be more difficult to see the birds. BUT, you will still see a lot, especially if you take it slow and keep on looking all around. That means always checking the forest floor, then the understory, and then the canopy for any movement or perched birds. The birds are there, and since they are used to people, they might just let you walk on past rather than take alarm.
Try to get back as far as you can: The humid forest species seem to be most common on the other side of the stream. Spend as much time as you can on that back loop and you will have a better chance at Great Tinamou, Streak-chested Antpitta, Black-faced Antthrush, and most of the birds on the list.
Baird’s Trogon is more likely near the stream and on the back loop. As with several humid forest endemics, it doesn’t seem to be as common on the Carara trails as it used to be, probably because of consistent, drier weather affecting the forest. It, Golden-naped Woodpecker, Fiery-billed Aracari, and some other species are probably more common in higher, inaccessible areas of Carara.
Have a driver? Tell the chauffeur to meet you at the south entrance: This is really the best strategy for birding the forest trails because you can enter at the HQ and not have to backtrack it to the parking lot. Also, you won’t have to hurry back to make it out of the park by 4 when they close and lock the gate. This also makes it easier to bird the trails near the south entrance. This “entrance” isn’t really an official one but you can at least exit the forest there. When driving past the HQ entrance towards Jaco, it’s the spot where there is a metal gate with pictures of animals.
Hang out at the bridge: This is always a good spot to just hang out and see what shows up. Sadly, the massive fig tree there has died and will thus no longer attract tons of great birds when fruiting. The plus side is that seeing those birds was always a neck-breaking activity for distant anyways. The plus side is that, now, there is a better view of the sky in case a King Vulture or other cool raptor makes a pas overhead. Other stuff can show up along the stream and if you hear a mixed flock moving through the forest, you can always get off the bridge to chase it.
Mixed flocks: Keep looking for bird activity (as if you wouldn’t be doing thatanyways) to find mixed flocks with woodcreepers, Plain Xenops, and lots of other species. This is your best chance at finding a rare Long-tailed Woodcreeper (a definite future split from Amazonian Long-taileds).
Patience: This is always a virtue for birding and especially so inside any rainforest. The birds are there, just keep carefully listening and looking and you will see more. An experienced guide helps too of course.
With patience, you might find a low fruiting vine attended by Blue Dacnis and other tanager species.
Watch your step, don’t leave the trail: Just a final reminder to always watch where you step because Fer-de-Lances are out there and this venomous species isn’t all that rare. Although one might be on the trail, thay would be pretty unusual because the high degree of foot traffic probably keeps them off the path. This is also why you should stay on the path and not walk into the forest. Off the trail, it’s harder to see where you step, easier for a snake to hide, and you aren’t supposed to leave the trail anyways.
Hope to see you in the forest!
Last week, Costa Rica celebrated the country’s Independence Day with parades, speeches, and fireworks. As part of those festivities, my wife and daughter also had a few days off from school. We took advantage of that extra bit of free time with a trip to Playa Hermosa in Guanacaste, something that was more than OK with me because this area also acts as an excellent base for Guanacaste birding.
With rice fields that act as wetland habitats, dry forest, and scrubby fields all within easy reach, I had plenty of bird opportunities to keep me busy, especially because our trip coincided with major shorebird migration. Speaking of shorebirds, my first stop on the way there was the wader hotspot of Punta Morales.
This area of salt ponds next to mangroves is always a worthwhile place to scope at high tide and Thursday was no exception. Hundreds of the expected species were there and although I didn’t manage to eek any crazy stints or other rarities out of the mix, it’s always a fine day when you can pick up a year bird (Surfbird this time) while looking over Marbled Godwits, Whimbrels, Willets, Short-billed Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Wilson’s Phalaropes, yellowlegs, Western, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstones, and Black-bellied, Wilson’s, and Semipalmated Plovers.
Punta Morales at high tide.
A few dry forest species also made appearances before I got back into the car and drove off, as always, wondering if I had checked over each bird well enough, and if there was a Curlew Sandpiper or some other “great bird” sleeping out of sight on the other side of a muddy berm. What flew in after I left? What showed up later that day? It’s a real shame that we don’t have constant monitoring going on there and at the other main shorebird site, Chomes.
Further north I drove, and the driving became unexpectedly wonderful where the new highway began at Canas. That section of road from there up past Liberia is now a fine, concrete four-laned highway. Enjoy the ride!
Over at Playa Hermosa, I focused on the rice fields and woodlands on the stretch of road between there and the turn-off to Papagayo. In other words, this is the route to Hermosa that does not go near Playas del Coco. Since this area has turned up serious stuff like Aplomado Falcon and Upland and Baird’s Sandpipers in the past, and seems like a good place for other really good birds to show up, it’s always worth a close, thorough check. Try as I did to wish an A. Falcon or lost Vermilion Flycatcher into existence, no major luck there, but, I was pretty pleased to get looks at the pair of Jabirus that often frequent the site.
These birds come and go, it’s worth it to just keep checking.
Despite what appears to be heavy application of poison (aka pesticides), the rice fields also look like fine hiding places for Spotted Rails and other secretive marsh birds. I certainly played Spotted Rail calls here and there but got nothing in response. Well, I should say nothing definitive because I did hear an unknown rattling call that may have been a response. It never called again but since it sounded like a similar call I heard in the wetlands of Medio Queso under similar circumstances, I can’t help but wonder if that was THE BIRD. However, just like Medio Queso, this one never called again despite playing various calls of Spotted Rail (none of which match the sounds I heard by the way), and intently staring at marsh grass.
Other nice birdies included Limpkin, Harris’s Hawk, Laughing Falcon, Roseate Spoonbill, various herons and egrets, flyover Dickcissels, and close looks at Plain-breasted Ground-Doves.
This is a very reliable area in Costa Rica for this tiny dove species.
In the patchy forested areas near the entrance to Finca Trancas and on the way to Playa Hermosa, I had fun making early morning recordings of Thicket Tinamou, Yellow-naped Parrots, Banded Wrens, Long-billed Gnatwren, Olive Sparrow, Blue Grosbeaks, and other expected species. The tinamou stayed out of sight and was only in the forested riparian zone on the way to Playa Hermosa, and I only had a handful of the parrots. I had a few small groups of Orange-fronted Parakeets as well but, oddly, no White-fronted Parrots, usually the most common Psittacine in Guanacaste.
Always nice to see the threatened Yellow-naped Amazon.
A dawn chorus along that road:
Back over in the rice growing area, I was mostly looking for shorebird habitat. A few waders perched on the muddy berms out in the rice but the best spot was a muddy field and marshy area along a road on the southern end of the fields.
This harbored some Stilt and Solitary Sandpipers, dowitchers, and a few other shorebirds, best being an American Golden-Plover. Herons, egrets, and Blue-winged Teal were also out there as well as Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds. We both wondered what else might be hiding out there in the big expanse of marshy grass. I was hoping for a Baird’s or early snipe but no luck this time.
Fine, muddy field habitat.
I also checked some fields over by Filadelfia and the catfish ponds but had few birds, couldn’t enter the ponds area, and the “ponds” looked pretty dry anyways. At the end of the trip, I was pleased to leave with 5 year birds, and some nice images and recordings. If you head up that way, enjoy the easy-going roadside birding and keep an eye out for anything unusual!
Some eBird lists from this trip: