When we go on birding trips, I am pretty sure that we spend more time preparing for the trip than actually watching the birds when we get there. Seriously, how many of us birders study a new field guide for countless hours before we offically start the trip? How many hours do we spend planning the trip and salivating over sites? How often do we browse through photos and vocalizations on a birding app for Costa Rica? We look at those birds to learn their field marks, and read the text so often that we start seeing those feathered targets in our dreams.
“Whoah, there goes three giant umbrellabirds flying with vultures? Oh shoot, they don’t soar around with vultures…”, and when a bespectacled, bino sporting, smiling werewolf in tweed walks on past, darn (!), definitely just a dream! No matter how cool or crazy our pre-trip birding dreams may dare to be, they of course never compare to the real thing.
One of several birds that looks as if it comes from the land of birding dreams is the Ocellated Antbird. No small brown thing this one. It’s sort of like pumpkin orange with black and buff scale-patterned plumage, has a black face and throat, a tawny crown, and (get ready for this), a big blue face. Yep, not just an eyering but a whole, big blue face.
Despite its incredible appearance, this super cool Central American king of the antbirds is not too difficult to see when birding in Costa Rica. You go to the right places and can run into this gem on several occasions. You have to go to the right place of course, but bird enough at any lowland or foothill site on the Caribbean slope with good forest and you have a very good chance of focusing in on that exotic blue face. I was reminded of that while birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann the other day. If you haven’t heard, these birding heros are birding their way from California down to Costa Rica and beyond and are seeing like almost everything! Check out the adventures at their Birds of Passage blog.
While birding near Albergue Socorro, a foothill site near Virgen del Socorro, we ran into a small antswarm with a couple Zeledon’s Antbirds, Spotted Barbtail, and a few other birds along with a few of our star species for the day, the Ocellated Antbird. We got lots of perfect looks, saw lots of vegetation moving instead of seeing them, and did not see or hear any much wanted Black-banded Woodcreepers. Josh and Kathi were mentioning that they had seen Ocellateds on several occasions in Costa Rica to the point of it being just about expected. I think this is because they have focused a lot of time and effort in quality rainforest but nevertheless, it shows that this fancy antbird is not all that tough to see if you go to the right places.
Those are places with lots of nice, intact Caribbean slope rainforest like Pocosol, El Tapir, Quebrada Gonzalez on occasion, Arenal, San Gerardo, and so on. I have had several so far this year but the ones near Virgen del Socorro were especially nice because one let me take its picture. Thanks, dreambird!
We all have target birds whether we admit or not. You can be the most altruistic of Zen birders who insists that every bird is the same but when you open a field guide for the birds of Costa Rica, you have to admit a hidden, deep down desire to see certain species more than others. I mean, lets face it, someone who puts a House Wren into the same category as a Violet Sabrewing is probably a non-birding imposter.
Or, how about giving a super common Tropical Kingbird the same degree of importance as an Orange-collared Manakin?
Yeah right. Exactly. Some birdies just ain’t the same and that’s why we make statements about the bird of the day, trip, and year. It’s also why we have lists of target species. The Zen birder might say this with a steady calm voice that he or she doesn’t care which bird species they see on a birding trip to Costa Rica but they don’t tell you about that big, bold, booming inner voice that bellows, “I WANT TO SEE SOME COTINGAS DAMMIT. SUNBITTERN! UMBRELLABIRD, HOLY CRAP!”
The Sunbittern in particular is a much wanted species for anyone who hasn’t seen one. This is because the bird is unique, odd, and defies placement. It’s a genuine weirdo and that’s why we love it. Everything about it is different from everything you have ever seen, even if you are one of the lucky few to have watched its ancient closest cousin, the equally weird and awesome Kagu.
Despite its name, it’s not a bittern and doesn’t even come close to looking like one of those hefty, fat-necked, frog eating terrors of the marsh. The neck is sort of like a snake, the head is like a cross between a heron and a rail, the body is horizontal and sort of duck-like, and the legs are bright orange and like those of a heron. It also has a crazy sunburst pattern on each wing. Unlike the Kagu, the Sunbittern has a really big range (Central America to southern Amazonia), and loves to hang out along forested streams, rivers, and other wetlands. In Costa Rica, there are several places where they occur but they can still be tough to find because they blend in surprisingly well with their surroundings. If you can only check one section of a river, that also limits your chances of seeing one because it could be hanging out just around the next inaccessible bend.
Last weekend, I visited La Marta Reserve with a friend of mine. I had heard that Sunbittern was pretty easy there but didn’t expect it to be foraging in the grass next to one of their camping areas!
This Sunbittern was just doing its weird quick step walk around the grass as it foraged for grasshoppers and other choice insects. One of the guys who works there also told me that the bird is there just about every day so if you desperately need Sunbittern, make the trip to La Marta, and walk down to the camping spot that is closest to the river and next to a tiny pond with water hyacinth. A Sunbittern should show up sooner or later and then you can give the list a big fat target species check.
Speaking of La Marta, this place also has a lot of potential for other species. During our short visit, we saw several tanagers (Tawny-crested is absurdly common), Slaty-capped Flycatcher, and a bunch of other foothill birds (elevation 800 meters).
The main trails seemed to access old second growth but there could be quite a few species present because three sides of the reserve are adjacent to a huge area of beautiful primary forest.
The entrance fee was just $3, the trails were signed better than anywhere in Costa Rica, and basic, cheap lodging is also available. It looks like a place with a lot of potential and of course any day with a Sunbittern is a good one!
May isn’t the biggest month for birding in Costa Rica. In fact, it’s usually one of the months that sees the fewest visiting birders. Most people plan their trip for the classic birding months of January, February, and March to take advantage of dry weather, migrants, and more dry weather. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to do a fair bit of guiding in May, 2014. Trips to Braulio Carrillo, Las Bromelias in the north, and Carara sort of made up for missing spring migration action in the northeast (as in the northeastern US as well as southern Canada).
I already blogged about Bromelias but such a wonderful area for birding always deserves another mention. It’s one of those far flung places in Costa Rica I would love to get back to because there is so much to see, and so many areas to explore.
After gazing at Keel-billed and Tody Motmots near Bromelias, I did a bit of guiding around Cinchona, Poas, and the high elevation forests of the Dota. The day around Poas was marked by a male quetzal that fluttered around the Volcan Restaurant. We also got nice looks at Black-headed Tody Flycatcher at Virgen del Socorro, hummingbirds and Prong-billed Barbet at the Cafe Colibri, and a bunch of other middle and high elevation species. At the Dota, we actually dipped on the quetzal (a heard only no show) but enjoyed looks at common highland species like Acorn Woodpecker, Yellow-thighed Finch, and Flame-colored Tanager. No Ochraceous Pewee though, so I still need to head back up there again and dedicate a day to actually seeing the pewee, and getting shots of the jay and a few other fine birds.
Next on the guiding list was a day at El Tapir and Braulio Carrillo. Surprisingly, we didn’t see so many hummingbirds at El Tapir. A male Snowcap eventually showed but there wasn’t a whole lot of hummingbird action, perhaps because they were visiting trees in flower instead. Some of the nice birds we connected with at the El Tapir clearing were Mealy Parrots, White Hawk, Emerald Tanager, Bay Wren, and so on.
Over at Quebrada Gonzalez, we dipped on big mixed flocks but still managged to find White-throated Shrike Tanager, and Carmiol’s, Tawny-crested, Speckled, and Blue and gold Tanagers along with some other nice forest birds like Spotted Antbird, Broad-billed Motmot, White-whiskered Puffbird, and excellent, close looks at Lattice-tailed Trogon.
After Braulio, I guided for a few days at Cerro Lodge and Carara. The weather was sort of brutal hot at times (par for the course around there) but the birding was great. Too many species to mention but I average about 140 species identified during a day of birding at Cerro and Carara and these days were no exception. More birds are singing at this time of the year, there are more bugs in the forest, and it’s also a great time of the year for herps.
The other day, in addition to fantastic close looks at a Short-nosed Vine Snake, we also had several Green and Black Poison Dart Frogs, lots of lizards, and a multitude of leaf litter arthropods that were running for their lives from an Army Ant swarm. Although there weren’t a whole lot of birds at the swarm, we still got nice looks at Bicolored Antbird, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, White-whiskered Puffbird, and Northern Barred Woodcreeper. On that morning in the primary forest, we also saw Golden-crowned and Stub-tailed Spadebills, saw two and heard at least eight Royal Flycatchers, and had close looks at a Black-faced Antthrush along with dozens of other species.
A week before then, birding along the Laguna Meandrica Trail turned up good looks at four species of wrens (along with Plain Wren near Cerro Lodge in the morning), Dusky Antbird, Long-billed Gnatwren, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Orange-collared Manakins, and so on. That particular day also started off very well with Black and Chestnut-collared Swifts flying right around Cerro Lodge along with looks at expected species like Gartered and Black-headed Trogons, Rose-throated Becard, handsome Stripe-headed Sparrows, and the sort of unbelievable Turquoise-browed Motmot. Oh, and Scarlet Macaws of course. We also picked up Southern Lapwing in the fields on the roads below Cerro Lodge, and a pair of thick-knees at the Crocodile Bridge. That night, the Black and white Owls showed at Cerro and the following day, we picked up more species on the road to Bijagual, including scope views of Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet.
Next week, I head back to Cerro Lodge and Carara for two days of guiding and I hope to get out this Sunday. The amazing thing is that even though I am up to 572 species for the year, I may still pick up a few more by the end of May!
Rincon de la Vieja is this large volcano that looms into the sky near Liberia in northern Costa Rica. Not sure where it is? Just look east and north of the highway anywhere around Liberia. You will see a mountain that stands out from the Guanacaste flatlands like a humongous sore thumb. It’s almost always topped with clouds and thus makes for a common, fine photography subject. As befits its stand-out character, Rincon de la Vieja also beckons to birders with a heck of a fine assemplage of birds.
The Pacific slope parts of the volcano are good for just about every dry forest species and host quite a few Caribbean slope birds as you move into the evergreen forests at higher elevations but what about the northern side of the volcano? What are the forests like there? Well, I paid a weekend visit a couple of weeks ago with the Birding Club of Costa Rica and the forests are pretty darn good.
During approximately two full days of birding while staying at the Las Bromelias cabinas (cheap!), we identified somewhere around 170 species and would have got more with further exploration. While there is the usual disheartening deforestation for cattle pastures at various places en route, the road to the place also passes near and through nice moist forests and foothill rainforests that act as a corridor to extensive areas of rainforest on Volcan Cacao. We didn’t have the time to stop and bird in those corridor areas but I bet they are good for a wide variety of Caribbean slope rainforest species.
As one gets close to Las Bromelias, edge habitats and second growth are quite birdy and host expected species along with goodies possible like Black-crested Coquette (we had one in a flowering tree), and Bare-crowned Antbird (not too rare!). At the cabins, there is a nice and birdy riparian grove, second growth, and a good area of forest along one of their trails. We had toucans and various expected edge species at the cabins and some nice forest birds on the trails.
By nice forest birds, I mean things like Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Red-throated Ant tanager, Northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Bare-crowned Antbird, Dusky Antbird, an army of White-collared Manakins, Song Wren, and one of the stars of the show, Keel-billed Motmot. We got excellent scope looks at a pair in the back of the quarry and I was very pleased to record it to see if I can parse some sort of difference between its call and that of Broad-billed Motmot. The two species sound so similar that they respond to each other’s calls so I don’t know if I will discern a difference but at least I now have a recording of a definite Keel-billed Motmot.
We didn’t get a chance to do much birding back in the nice forested area but I would love to do some surveys there to see if Tawny-faced Quail and White-fronted Nunbird occur. The R V G Cuckoo might be there too but you can’t really survey for that mega avian wizard of the understory anyways.
The other main area for birding was the road up to good forest and hot springs. We didn’t make it to the volcanic waters but who cares, this was a birding trip by golly! We also had some definite by golly birds. At the edge of the forest, one of our best was a pair of Tawny-chested Flycatchers. It’s always nice to see this colorful Empid.-like bird because they are rare, very localized, and easy to identify. There are only a few reliable sites for them anywhere but based on the places I have seen them, it looks like one of their preferred habitats may be slopes with fairly old second growth (60 year old trees) and various vine tangles near the edge of rainforest.
Further on, we had an antswarm in the forest and had excellent looks at Ocellated, Spotted, and Bicolored Antbirds. No ground cuckoo and few birds overall but we weren’t complaining!
While we watched the swarm, we were entertained by the calls of a couple of Tody Motmots and one eventually showed very well for scope views! In my opinion, this seemed to be even better for Tody Motmot than the Heliconias area at Bijagua because we saw more than one and heard several. We also got Broad-billed Motmot along the road for a nice motmot trip trio.
The road ends at an upscale place known as “Sensoria”. Cars can be parked there and one can continue on foot through nice forest. That spot was especially birdy and gave several hummingbirds coming to flowering Ingas including brief looks at another Black-crested Coquette, Steely-vented Hummingbirds, Blue-throated Goldentail, Violet Sabrewing, and others (we had at least 17 species for the trip). A few tanagers also moved through the trees, the best being Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Rufous-winged Tanager (!).
We picked up Stripe-breasted Wren there and also had excellent looks at Nightingale Wren. While walking in the forest, we were entertained by the songs of Slaty-backed and Black-headed Nightingale Thrushes and White-throated Thrushes. We also flushed a quail dove that could have been Ruddy or Chiriqui, and although we didn’t make it to an area where umbrellabirds have been seen, we also had White-ruffed and Long-tailed Manakins, and an Eyelash Viper!
The trip ended all too soon but next time, I hope to survey the road from Buenos Aires to the Santa Maria sector because it passes through a good-sized area of intact habitat. Probably some nice surprises along that stretch of road!
As a final bonus, the site had the best swift watching I have ever seen in Costa Rica. I’m not sure if it was due to the cloudy weather, or proximity to waterfalls in good forest, but we had fairly low, good looks at such uncommon species as White-chinned and Black Swifts among more common species like White-collared, Lesser Swallow-tailed, and Vaux’s Swifts.
I have this Polish friend by the name of Eva who loves owls. She is also into Hoopoes but owls are what she likes the most. It’s easy to see why Eva and lots of other non-birders would take the time to see an owl but not even give a second glance at say a Connecticut Warbler (not that this one allows looks anyways) or a Black-capped Vireo. With their fluffy plumage, big, staring eyes, and horn-like tufts, they hardly look like birds. We know that they are indeed avian but they seem to be in a special, cool class of their own.
Owls are pretty much eternally cool and it’s a shame that we can’t see a few every day of the week. The problem with owls is that they mostly come out at night, hide out during the day, and usually have low density populations. In Costa Rica, most species are fairly common and even live in unexpected places (like that pair of Spectacled Owls in the middle of San Jose) but they are still a pain to see. They just hide too well and one of the most accomplished of hiders is the Tropical Screech Owl.
It’s not rare, it can live in parks, and it doesn’t screech. Regarding screeching, are there any screech owls that actually screech? Barn Owls screech but screech owls give hooting calls and even horse whinnies but they sure don’t screech! I bet one did when it was “collected” but instead of realizing that even rabbits screech when faced with imminent death, the 18th century collector thought, “Well now, this fine specimen of an owl has thus given a screechy vocalization. I shall name it a Screech Owl!” Meanwhile, the Mahicans, Tuscarora, and other automatic birder native peoples silently chuckled because they knew that the small owls of the eastern woodlands whinnied, gave trebled calls, and hid in plain sight but weren’t really known for their screeches.
BUT, back to the Tropical Screech. This fine little bird is indeed fairly common in the Central Valley but you would never know it. Perhaps because it has to deal with larger owls, it doesn’t call so much, loathes the day, and does its best to stay out of sight. I hear one call now and then from nearby shade coffee farms but hardly ever see one (and I am always on the lookout for a roosting owl). To give an idea of how much of a birding pain this little bird can be, my friend Susan has heard them now and then near her house too but she hadn’t seen one until recently. On that fine day, she noticed that the neighborhood grackles were cackling up a storm and went to check out what they were up to.
Instead of finding a cat torturing a baby bird, she saw a Tropical Screech Owl! She called me, I said that I couldn’t make it because of work but to please call back if the birds stayed. Thirty minutes later, I open an email with owl photos and a short message saying that the grackles had gone. That did it. Next thing I knew, I had packed my digiscoping stuff into the car and was on my way. Twenty minutes of frustrating driving behind a slow clueless car later (yes, he gets the clueless award because he passed a bus on a blind turn), I arrived at Susan’s. She showed me the birds and said, “But look what else is there!”.
Yes! A pair of Tropical Screech and a fuzzy baby as a bonus!
Now where were these birds on our Big Day? We tried for them literally right in the same area. They probably should have been called “Hermit Owls” or “Pain Owls” instead of “Screech Owls”.
To see the Tropical Screech Owl in Costa Rica, look for roosting birds in the big bamboo bunches in the Bougainvillea Hotel gardens (if you stay there and look for ages in the bamboo), or you might try spotlighting for them at any hotel in the Central Valley with a big garden. Another good site for them is Talari Lodge (this is where I made the recording for this species that is on the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app), and other sites in the Valle del General.
Sometimes you go birding and it’s nice but pretty much an average experience. Other times you head into the field and end up seeing an uncommon bird or two. Those days are always special and appreciated but they are overshadowed like an eclipse when you see a bunch of good birds and the first documentation for a country. I suppose a day like that could be called something like “Mega Day”, “Amazing Memorable Day”, or just “Holy Crap Day!”. Since I am obviously leading up to it, yes, we had a Holy Crap Day last week.
Even if we hadn’t seen such a nice bunch of birds, it would have still been a great day just because Susan and I were birding with Josh Beck and Kathi Borgmann, the bloggers behind the Birds of Passage as well as being birding adventurers extraordinaire.
Given the time of year, the fact that Josh and Kathi still needed that mangrove lurker known as the Rufous-necked Wood Rail, and my own personal desire to see a bunch of shorebirds, we started off the day by meeting at Mata de Limon. It was low tide and I hoped that the exposed mud flats would host terns, gulls, waders, and a rarity. As a reminder that birding is an endeavor replete with a high degree of unexpected happenings, the mud flats looked inviting but were totally lacking in birds.
No sweat, we wanted to check the mangroves anyways. The first mangrove stop at Mata de Limon was likewise non-birdy but further back, we connected with the major target of the day. While logging dry forest species like Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Black-headed Trogon, and Banded Wren, Kathi suddenly said, “There it is”. “It” could only have been the wood rail and yes, there it was creeping along the edge of the mangroves. We got fantastic views of this choice bird and even watched it pick at a fallen mango!
After connecting with the famous photo bomber species, we checked the other side of the estuary and saw nothing special before continuing on to lagoons at Guacalillo. We took the Guacimo road to get there and despite not really stopping for birds, got nice looks at thick-knee, Plain-breasted Ground Dove, magpie jays, and other dry forest species. The main stop was a lagoon down at Bajamar but it ended up being pretty low on shorebirds. Nevertheless, we were still entertained by migrating swallows, a brief yet pretty much certain Black Swift (!) possibly migrating with the swallows, and distant soaring Hook-billed Kite.
Then it was off to the lagoons at Guacalillo. Not much at the seawatch but one of the lagoons was pretty darn good for shorebirds. We had 10 or so species with highlights being Stilt Sandpiper and great looks at a Baird’s (my first for the country!).
After checking those birds out, we realized that it was time to leave when we started to melt under the 11 o’clock coastal sun. Next on the list was Chomes and we would get there right after high tide. Chomes is the best, accessible shorebird site in the country and on Saturday, oh how it delivered. As on other days, most of the birds were concentrated in a pool near the beach and on this day, we estimated around 2,000 shorebirds resting and foraging on the exposed mud flats.
With so many birds, it’s hard to know where to look first so we started with the ones that were close to us. These were:
Further out, there were lots more Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Whimbrel, Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Marbled Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, lots of Black-bellied Plovers, and at least five American Golden Plovers.
The birds got up and flew and then when they came back down, we found a fine Wilson’s Phalarope (good year bird!), and some Pectorals flew in.
We started checking through the distant group of shorebirds once again and I saw something that didn’t fit. It was far off and all I could see was that it was darker and had pale lores. I asked Susan if I could use her scope to check the bird out and upon doing that, knew that we had something good but the ID still wouldn’t come through the haze of my conscious mind because it was so far off my BIRDAR.
As it slowly dawned that we were probably looking at a Hudsonian Godwit, I asked if anyone had a field guide showing it to make sure since I have only seen the species once several years ago in New Jersey. Nor is it pictured in the Costa Rica field guide because there is just one record from the 70s.
I recall it as being one of those very unlikely species that Robert Dean and I had talked about. One that we figured, well, how likely is it for someone to see it since studies have shown that it basically migrates over Costa Rica during the spring, doing a quick godwit skip from Colombia to lagoons in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. We knew that occasional birds or so had to stop in Costa Rica at some time or another but what are the chances of being at that spot during that day or even hour? Well, as it turns out, the chances fell into place on Saturday because we had a Hudwit!
We all got to watch the bird for more than an hour as it rested and walked around a little bit before eventually taking flight. Although we tried to get the message out as best we could, when it flew, we knew that no one else was going to see it. When the bird flew, it reminded me of an airplane leaving for a long trip. It first flew south and then quickly turned north as it gained altitude. It continued to gain altitude as it flew straight north and this was no slow flapping. It flew super fast with super ease and disappeared from sight in a matter of seconds!
That bird was headed to Mexico or further and it probably got there by the next day. One hopeful birder did check nearby Punta Morales on Sunday but of course it wasn’t there. After the godwit, we gave a couple attempts at Clapper (Mangrove) Rail sans success and checked Punta Morales. Very few birds there but after a day with a Rufous-necked Wood Rail, Baird’s Sandpiper, Costa Rica’s first fully documented Hudsonian Godwit, and 21 other species of shorebirds, I couldn’t have cared if we only saw Great-tailed Grackles. We celebrated the Holy Crap Day at the Cuenca Restaurant (recommended) and made the long drive back home. Josh and Kathi went to Manuel Brenes and Pocosol (can’t wait to hear about that) and Las Bromelias is next on my plate- should be good!
When I started planning my first trip to Costa Rica in 1992, I followed the same routine as every birder did before taking a trip to a place overflowing with potential lifers. Since we didn’t have the same crazy amount of Internet-based information available nowadays, trips were based on conversations, information derived from the the latest guide book, whatever bird finding book was available, and any trip reports we could get our hands on.
Aside from showing pictures of the birds waiting to be seen in Costa Rica, the Stiles and Skutch guide also provided the other most important information for planning a trip, that of biogeographical regions and the places with the best habitat. While looking through the book, I quickly realized that some birds were only found in dry areas in the northwestern part of the country. With that in mind, I planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park to look for those dry forest specialties. Given its size, the fact that one could camp there, intact habitat, and access by public bus (at least to the entrance road), it seemed like my only and best option for Yellow-naped Parrrot, White-throated Magpie Jay, Banded Wren, Rufous-capped Warbler, and all of those other dry forest species that couldn’t be seen in cloud forest or in the wet rainforests on the other side of the mountains.
The trip to Santa Rosa was a memorable success highlighted by Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Lesser Ground Cuckoo, Elegant Trogon, expected parrots and parakeets, Thicket Tinamou, and lots of other birds. The long, hot hike to the campground was worth it (I think it was) but I didn’t know then that there were other options for dry forest species. In fact, there’s lots of options for dry forest birds in Costa Rica. Some show up in the Central Valley and most can be seen from around Chomes north to the border with Nicaragua (with a fair number occurring south to Tarcoles).
Open fields with scattered trees are the most common habitat in Guanacaste and are pretty reliable for everything from magpie jays to Turquoise-browed Motmot, Black-headed Trogon and White-lored Gnatcatcher.
Nonetheless, the best birding is usually around the more forested riparian zones that have the birds listed above plus Little Tinamou, Long-tailed Manakin, Banded Wren, Painted Bunting, Olive Sparrow, and lots of other birds including chances at Collared Forest Falcon and maybe a Crane Hawk.
If you can make it to Santa Rosa or any area of protected dry forest, chances are much better for Cracids, Thicket Tinamou, and mammals but if you can’t fit that in to the itinerary, don’t fret because there are still have plenty of options to check out the blues on a Turquoise-browed Motmot, study a Roadside Hawk in flight, and tick a thick-knee. Get out early for roadside birding at such sites as the road to Chomes, the Guacimo Road, the road in front of Cerro Lodge, the lower slopes of Rincon de la Vieja, areas near Playa Hermosa, Playas del Coco, and other beaches, and you have a chance at seeing most of the dry forest species. Mid-day is of course slow but early morning and late afternoons are always birdy in any wooded area or riparian zone in Guanacaste, including any wooded areas at or near your hotel.
Not to mention, wetland sites such as Chomes, Punta Morales, Palo Verde, and any other wetlands are usually just as good for smaller birds as they are for aquatic species.
I guess I should also mention that since you can probably clean up on Guanacaste birds in a few days, you shouldn’t need more time than a week. Another possibility is basing yourself in the northwest and doing day trips to Heliconias, Cano Negro, Rincon de la Vieja, and Carara. Do that and you put yourself in range of 600 or species.
Everyone likes woodpeckers. How can you not like a bird that entertains with head-banging antics and maniacal laughter? Costa Rica has her fair share of these star birds. The zebra-backed Hoffmann’s visits gardens in San Jose, the Lineated laughs its way through edge habitats from the lowlands to middle elevations, and woodpeckers that visit fruit feeders remind us that we are certainly situated in the tropics.
If you bird in the northern Caribbean lowlands, it’s possible to see 7 species in a day, including the biggest of the bunch; the Pale-billed Woodpecker.
Since it’s a Campephilus, and does indeed give that infamous double knock, it’s the closest thing we have to an Ivorybill. Although its dimensions fall far short of the Lord God Bird, its pale bill and longish neck are reminiscent of the true Ivorybills.
Unlike the massive pair of woodpeckers of lost primeval forests, the Pale-billed is fairly common and regularly found in rainforest, tropical dry forest, and semi-open woodlands in Costa Rica. As long as enough woods and big trees are around, Pale-billeds occur and they are of course always fun to watch. Recently, I was entertained by one that spent an hour foraging for grubs on a big, dead tree.
Although these woodpeckers can be seen at any height in the forest, this one was foraging two meters above the ground. It carefully pecked away dead bark to eat some sort of grub and worked a small area on the tree for about an hour.
It never gave a double knock nor called while foraging and didn’t seem bothered by my presence. Who needs reality shows when you can watch a Pale-billed Woodpecker in action?
Everyone knows what a cuckoo is, even non-birders and the most disconnected of human beings. Well, maybe more like 70% of non-birders but let’s just say that cuckoos are among the better known of birds because of this one in Europe that constantly repeats its name and has the evolutionary gall to lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The immediate anthropogenic response is something along the lines of “What a feathered cad”!
No point in judging the behavior of an animal that has nothing to do with people but it does at least make folks more familiar that particular family of birds. What the non-birders don’t realize is that there are a lot more cuckoos than the one flying around and dropping its progeny off in the nests of other species. Bird anywhere in the world and you start to realize that cuckoos come in many sizes and are all over the place (sort of). Go to Africa and you realize that some cuckoos are even as pretty as cotingas. Don’t believe me?Jjust take a gander at a few photos of a chlorophonia copying Emerald Cuckoo or a purple and white Violet Cuckoo!
In the Americas, our cuckoos aren’t nearly as colorful but they still entertain with cool, lanky looks, and weirdo behaviors. One of the more interesting groups of cuckoos found in the Americas is that of the ground cuckoos. Up in the USA, we become familiarized with that bunch of birds by way of the Greater Roadrunner (another obviously very well known cuckoo). Go birding in the neotropics and you eventually realize that there are some other crazy looking ground cuckoos out there. We look at their pictures in the field guides and are dazzled by their colored eyerings and exotic appearance and of course can’t wait to see them.
As we read trip reports and look more into the matter, though, we come to the sinking conclusion that they are a pain to see. In fact, some are so tough to glimpse that it sounds as if it takes a major mix of birding effort and luck to tick them off the list. Those much wanted mega birds are the Neomorphus species cuckoos, the official ground-cuckoos of the rainforest. They sort of look like roadrunners in size and shape but unfortunately, the similarities end right about there. Unlike the easy-going, readily accessible roadrunner, the ground cuckoos of the rainforest are super shy birds that live in very low density populations (so it seems). We don’t know much about them because they are so hard to study
The other thing that makes them tough to encounter is because they need big areas of primary forest. These things are top insectivores of the understory so they requite lots of big katydids, frogs, lizards, and other prey items large enough to keep them going. With that in mind, we can surmise where the best places in Costa Rica are for seeing this country’s Neomorphus ground-cuckoo, the Rufous-vented. However, before thinking about the locations of the most intact forests, we also need to consider its geographic and elevational ranges. In Costa Rica, historically, the good old RV G Cuckoo was found on the Caribbean slope from the lowlands up to about 1,200 meters. Sadly, we have to say historically because it just does not survive in pasture, cultivations, and small patches of forest that have become standard in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica.
With that in mind, we can start narrowing the search. Of course, known sightings also help in not only telling us where to look but also in the types of habitats that support that sneaky cuckoo. Overall, the place that stands out in terms of RV G Cuckoo sightings is Las Heliconias lodge. This awesome birding spot is situated in high quality, old growth forest at around 1,000 meters elevation and is indeed located on the Caribbean slope. It’s also a pretty large area of rainforest. If we check Google Earth for sites in Costa Rica with similar amounts of forest at either that elevation or lower, here are some other places to check in addition to Celeste Mountain Lodge and other places in the same forest complex as Heliconias:
- The other northern volcanoes: These would be Rincon de la Vieja, Miravalles, and Orosi. Little birding is done in these areas compared to other sites in Costa Rica but if you can find places to stay and access the habitat, it will be well worth the effort. The ground-cuckoo has indeed been seen on the main trail at Rincon de la Vieja and should be possible at other rainforest sites in the park. Given the amount of intact rainforest on the other volcanoes, the bird very likely occurs there as well.
- Caribbean foothills and middle elevations in the Tilaran Mountains: The bird has definitely been recorded on the road to Manuel Brenes (by your’s truly) and from Lands in Love. Given the extent of rainforest at similar elevations at Pocosol, Cerro Chato, and even the Arenal Observatory Lodge, it probably also occurs at those sites too. Even though it hasn’t been recorded from the Observatory Lodge, it should be there based on the amount of quality forest.
- Rara Avis and Braulio Carrillo National Park: It has been seen at El Plastico and might also occur at Rara Avis. The cuckoo has also been seen at Quebrada Gonzalez if very seldom. Since the forests haven’t changed at those sites since known sightings, the species should still be present. It has also been seen at the Rainforest Arial Tram but I hesitate to even mention it because the place seems more intent on selling package tours for the tram than allowing people to pay an entrance fee for birding only.
- Maquenque Lodge and Laguna del Lagarto: Although there are more edge effects in the northern complex of forests than other sites mentioned, I bet it still occurs because there is quite a bit of rainforest up that way.
- Barbilla National Park and Hitoy Cerere: No reports but that’s no problem because those sites receive so little coverage. Nevertheless, the elevation and extent of forest points to them being likely sites for the RF G Cuckoo.
Ok, so now for a few sites where it might occur but if it still does, must be pretty darn rare:
- La Selva and Sarapiqui: Although it would seem that la Selva should be a great area for the bird, given the absence of sightings despite almost constant coverage, don’t count on finding it there. I suspect that the forests of La Selva just aren’t connected well enough with the forests in Braulio where it does occur for it to become reestablished. I hope I am wrong and that it makes it into La Selva without being noticed but given the reduction in other understory species, it seems like La Selva won’t be a place for the ground cuckoo until there is a lot more, older forest in the corridor with Braulio.
- Tortuguero National Park: A lot of forest but since most of it is swampy, this doesn’t seem suitable for the ground cuckoo. The same can be said about Barra del Colorado. Sungrebe yes, ground-cuckoo no.
- Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and Manzanillo: There is just about no birding being done on the forested hills above these places (the Fila Carbon) so who knows, maybe it occurs? That said, it doesn’t seem like this is a likely area for the ground cuckoo because the forests there lack connection with the more extensive rainforests at the base of the Talamanca Mountains.
So, there is a bit of a round up on where and where not to look for the Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo in Costa Rica. However, knowing where to look is half the battle. The other half is knowing how to look for it. Given its low density populations, there is hardly a guaranteed best way to find the ground cuckoo but finding an antswarm in the right habitat definitely improves your chances. Although people have chanced upon them at Heliconias, local guides there have seen them most often by locating an antswarm and sticking with the swarm until the cuckoos show up (even if it takes two or more hours).
Ok, so this might sound discouraging if you had hoped to see one of those wild, rainforest roadrunners in Costa Rica, but keep in mind that another ground cuckoo also occurs and it’s a lot easier to see! Unlike the big old RV G Cuckoo, the Lesser Ground Cuckoo doesn’t need rainforest. In fact, it doesn’t seem to like forest at all because it is commonly found in scrubby fields and second growth throughout much of northwestern Costa Rica. I have even had it at sites near San Ramon, Alajuela, and close to Santa Elena. Sure it’s shy but with patience, this one is at least 100 times easier to see than its larger cousin.
Good luck with the ground cuckoo and please post a comment if you see one!
Yesterday, I guided a couple on the Poas-Cinchona-Nature Pavilion route. This always makes for a fun, easy-going tour because it puts the focus on feeders and photography with such extra possibilities as mixed flocks, and target birds like Black Guan, Resplendent Quetzal, Prong-billed Barbet, toucans, and high elevation endemics. Although the unusual hot, dry weather on the Caribbean slope has put a damper on bird activity (and can’t be doing anything good for birds, plants, insects, or anything other life forms adapted to rain on a daily basis), we still connected with the guan, quetzal, barbet, and an overall nice variety of birds.
Hummingbird feeder activity was especially good and was the main focus on our attention. At our first main stop, the Cinchona Cafe, we were treated to near constant hummingbird activity. One of the most common species was the big, bold, and beautiful Violet Sabrewing.
At least 6 males were present and one female eventually showed as well.
The sabrewing was outnumbered, however, by Green-crowned Brilliants. At times, one feeder would play host to 6 or 7 brilliants, including juvenile males.
The next most common hummingbird species was the tiny Coppery-headed Emerald, a white-tailed, middle elevation sprite with a slightly decurved bill.
Green Hermits were also visiting the feeders more than they usually do (I wonder if the Heliconias they feed on are suffering from lack of rain), a few White-bellied Mountain Gems also made an appearance, and a couple of Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds were around.
One Green Violetear was present but fed on flowering bushes instead of sugar water at the feeders. Rounding out the Cinchona hummingbird show were a few male and female Green Thorntails. Sometimes, the thorntails and other hummingbirds would perch within arm’s length.
After enjoying a delicious country breakfast accompanied by hummingbirds, we moved on down slope to the Nature Pavilion. Being situated in the Caribbean lowlands, this site has a totally different set of hummingbirds (except for the near ubiquitous Rufous-tailed). White-necked Jacobin is the regular species at this site although hermits can also zip by, woodnymphs usually show up (although not yesterday), and Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer makes an appearance or two (we did have this one).
In addition to hummingbirds, we also did alright with other bird species even during the heat of the mid-morning. Two pairs of Rufous Motmots showed well down by the river along with Bay Wren, Collared Aracari, and a brief Keel-billed Toucan. A Black-mandibled also called but wouldn’t reveal itself.
When the clock got close to noon, we headed back upslope, and drove on up to the Volcan Restaurant. This hotspot is situated at a much cooler 2,000 meters and shows it with birds like Magnificent Hummingbird, and Purple-throated Mountain Gem.
We also enjoyed the antics of several Volcano Hummingbirds (all females but didn’t pick out any Scintillants), Green Violetear, a couple more Violet Sabrewings, Green-crowned Brilliants, one female Magenta-throated Woodstar, and a female Stripe-tailed Hummingbird.
The forested riparian zone at the restaurant also dished out some non hummingbird birdies, including Prong-billed Barbet, Spangle-cheeked Tanager, Long-tailed Silky Flycatcher, Slate-throated Redstart, and a few other species, one of which was a female quetzal! A small Lauraceous tree next to the stream had some fruits and the female was actively feeding on them.
After getting our fill of a good lunch, lots of hummingbirds, and the birds in the riparian zone, we checked out the higher elevation forests near the entrance to the national park. They had already seen lots of Fiery-throated Hummingbirds at Paraiso de Quetzales but that didn’t stop us from looking at a few that were feeding on flowering bromeliads. Other birds included a quick Black Guan, Sooty, Mountain, and Black-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Yellow-thighed Finch, Slaty Flowerpiercer, some very nice looks at several Golden-browed Chlorophonias, Black and yellow Silky Fkycatcher, and both Common and Sooty-capped Bush Tanagers.
A fun day overall, it makes me want to go back up there and just hike off into the highland forests on Poas.