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I hope you are reading this today because by “now”, I mean July 20th, 2017 or shortly thereafter. If you are seeing this post some other month or some other year, the Quebrada Gonzalez sector of Braulio Carrillo National Park will still be worth a visit because, after all, the dense foothill/lowland rainforest at this site always offers chances at connecting with a variety of uncommon and rare species. If you happen to be headed there over the next few days, though, the odds are in your favor for finding some mega birds.

Based on guiding there yesterday and recent eBird sightings, these are some reasons why now would be a great time to visit:

Fruiting trees

Quebrada has been getting a lot of rain. I say that with a sincere sense of relief and hope because much to the detriment of a forest in need of near constant moisture, the site has suffered from warmer and drier than normal weather over the past five or so years. Since most bird species at the site seem to have declined, hopefully, this year’s precipitation will result in a healthier forest ecosystem along with subsequent improved nesting success and more food for altitudinal migrants. Based on the number of fruiting trees seen yesterday, it looks like the forest is reacting well to the much needed precipitation and humidity. Several Melastomes were fruiting as were some understory Lauraceous species (think small avocado type fruits), and other trees.

Mixed flocks!

The wet foothill and middle elevation rainforests of Costa Rica are sort of infamous for their mixed flocks. After periods of quiet birding, large groups of birds suddenly rush through the forest to tantalize, frustrate, amaze, and entertain the unwary birder, and Quebrada is no exception. It’s an excellent site to connect with fantastic mixed flock activity but, you can also visit and run into very few or no flocks. I’m happy to say that yesterday, the mixed flock activity was reminiscent of better birding days. We ran into several groups of birds, and although some were pretty hard to watch as they silhouetted their way through the canopy, we still had plenty to look at and fewer slow periods than any visit this year. Flocks had most of the expected tanagers, we had one Sharpbill, Red-headed Barbet, more than one shrike-tanager, Striped Woodhaunter, and I am sure there were other species missed because of less than ideal viewing conditions.

Emerald Tanager is one of the expected species here, we had several.

Better chances at choice large frugivores

More fruit also means better chances at running into fine targets like Yellow-eared Toucanet and Bare-necked Umbrellabird. These were both recently reported from the site on eBird and although we didn’t find them, now might be the best time to look. Since those species are around, the same can also probably be said of another choice frugivore, its royal blue and purpleness, the Lovely Cotinga. More fruit on the forest floor also means better chances at seeing quail-doves; we actually had great looks at four Olive-backed Quail-Doves over a full day of birding.

Cloudy weather

Although it also makes for a chance of rain and silhouette canopy views, the overcast skies sort of make up for it with more bird activity. Since that coincides with higher chances of seeing more birds, yes, you want to be there on a cloudy day. Ideally, some sun will also happen as it did yesterday with subsequent views of King Vulture and Great Black Hawk from the overlook on the Ceiba Trail.

The view from the overlook.

Lots of juvenile birds

They might look dull and confusing but the more juveniles the better and not only because they represent new generations of tanagers. Although that is part of the happy equation, more juvenile birds around also means that more predators like Tiny Hawk and Barred Forest-Falcon are active. Who knows, maybe Black and white Hawk-Eagle or other rare choice raptors could also be around?

Antswarm

Saving the best for last, this is the main reason why you should go birding at Quebrada now. Yesterday, there was a diffuse antswarm working its way through the northern side of the Las Palmas trail. It looked like it was spread through a fair sized area of forest and this could mean that it will be working that area for a few days. Maybe, maybe not, but it looked a lot like the one I saw some years ago that brought in a R.V. G. Cuckoo and Black-crowned Antpitta almost in the same area. On that occasion, the same swarm worked over the same area for at least four days. Although we didn’t see either of those megas yesterday, it looked like ideal conditions for them to make an appearance. Since most of yesterday’s swarm was back in the woods, away from the trail, they might have actually been nearby and just not foraging where we could see them.

One or two Ocellated Antbirds were at yesterday’s swarm but they wouldn’t come in for a close, prolonged view like this one from Tirimbina. 

I’m not sure if I can get back this weekend but I might give it a try. If you go, leave a comment about your sightings!

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admin on July 6th, 2017

Most folks don’t consider any degree of pelagic birding when visiting Costa Rica but if you have an extra day or two, and enjoy birding from a boat, it will be worth your while. Get into the pelagic zone and at least three species of storm-petrel, two shearwaters, and a few other birds are likely along with a real chance at rarities like Tahiti Petrel, Parkinson’s Petrel, Galapagos Petrel, Christmas Shearwater, and so on. We still need to get a better handle on which species show up when and where but as long as you head into the pelagic zone, you will be in for some exciting birds. The main problem with that has been finding boats to take folks to the places where the shore is out of sight but, hopefully, it will be easier to arrange such trips soon.6

In the meantime, if you want an easy, quick “pelagic”, you can always take the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Although you can never expect too much in terms of blue water birds, there’s always a chance at storm-petrels, Brown and Blue-footed Boobies, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and who knows what else? Uncommon species and Costa Rican rarities of every spectrum have been seen including Sabine’s Gull, Red-billed Tropicbird, and even Peruvian Booby. At the same time, you can also take the ferry and have your most exciting birding be limited to Black, Royal, and Sandwich Terns but since the trip is so easy to do, and something different usually shows up anyways, I believe that doing a bit of ferry birding is always worth the effort. If you are up for it, here’s some stuff to keep in mind when ferry birding in Costa Rica:

The ferry won’t stop for birds– Yes, that is a “Captain Obvious” statement but just a reminder that ferry birding won’t be as birder friendly as a true chumming, bird chasing, pelagic trip. You won’t see as many birds but I still think that the ferry kind of makes up for it with the low cost, easy logistics, and birding opportunities especially when you can’t arrange a true birding trip to the pelagic zone.

Get in line early to find space on the upper deck– You want to get a coveted spot on the upper deck because you will see more birds. The ferry is usually stable enough to use a scope, and it’s also short enough (about an hour and a half) to make sea sickness an extremely rare event. Getting there about an hour before departure time should work. If you arrive in Puntarenas before then, park near the lighthouse and scope from there. I have seen pelagic species from this spot on more than one occasion (by that I mean three species of storm-petrels, Brown Noddy, and Galapagos Shearwater).

 

Day trip? Much cheaper to park the car in Puntarenas– When I do the ferry (as I did with friends yesterday), I park at Frank’s Cabinas for the day and pay around $1.50 for a ferry passenger ticket (yep, that adds up to around $3 round trip). Frank’s Cabinas is half a block north of the ferry dock and has a prominent sign. It tends to fill up on the weekend and he charges around $10 to park there for a day. If you do take a vehicle across, it is around $45 each way.

Consider the 5 a.m. ferry– Since the next ferry doesn’t leave until 9, you will probably see more birds by taking that first ferry at dawn. Although I have seen quite a few birds at other times of the day, I plan on embarking on the five a.m. ferry on my next trip. I would have already done so but have always felt pretty reluctant to leave the house by 2:30 or 3:00 a.m. Although this means that you could mix owling and potooing with an early ferry ride, you can also just stay at Frank’s Cabinas the night before. He charges around $50 for a room that includes the most important factor for steamy Puntarenas; air conditioning.

Bring the car and make a day or more of it– Likewise, you can also take the ferry across with a vehicle like so many other non-birders on the boat. This is worth it if you will be spending one or more nights in the southern Nicoya Peninsula or if you just feel like combining birding on the ferry with a day of birding near Paquera and in the southern Nicoya. Do that and you might end up with a day list that includes Galapagos Shearwater, Blue-footed Booby, Elegant Trogon, and Ivory-billed Woodcreeper.

Be ready for anything– Most of all, when birding from the ferry, just be ready for anything. When we take into account that the ferry crosses part of a nutrient rich gulf that has seen rather little birding coverage, you have to be open to the possibility of rare and unexpected species showing up. By definition, this means that species like Inca Tern and Nazca Booby are far from regular, but they just might show up when you take that boat. The highly pelagic White Tern has been seen in the gulf, who knows what else might fly into view? I know that every time I have taken the ferry, one or more interesting species have occurred. On the trip yesterday, although I had hoped and sort of expected to see Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, and at least one storm-petrel species, instead, we were surprised with a Parasitic Jaeger, and then a Pomarine Jaeger not long before the boat reached Puntarenas on the trip back! Both of these were excellent year birds and tough birds to see in Costa Rica even when they are expected. With that in mind, I should mention that Parasitic Jaeger has been seen during the summer months in Puntarenas in the past.

The dark juvenile Pomarine Jaeger that sadly flew away as soon as we saw it. 

Yesterday, I picked up three year birds and although there wasn’t as much avian activity as on other occasions, I can’t help but wonder what showed up earlier on or later in the afternoon. Which species flew across the path of the ferry today? You never know unless you go and since it’s an easy trip to do, keep it in mind when birding in Costa Rica. Ideally, I hope I can bird from the ferry at least twice more this year. To learn more about where and how to bird in Costa Rica, support this blog by purchasing my 700 page e-book, “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. I hope to see you on the ferry or elsewhere in the field!

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

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

I still need this one for the year.

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

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

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

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

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

Red-rumped Woodpecker is one of my targets.

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

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

A glimpse at the uncommon Keel-billed Motmot.

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

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admin on June 15th, 2017

Tyrant-flycatchers are a seriously successful family. In terms of life on Earth, that means there are a lot of species in a lot of place and for this family, “a lot” means hundreds of Tyrannidae evolved to occupy habitats from the cold, windy grasslands of Patagonia on through the steamy lowland rainforests in the heart of South America north through familiar places in Virginia, and the way up north in the conifers of Alaska. Anyone who has been birding for any amount of time also knows that this family has been good at generating species that are a pain to identify. For whatever reason, apparently, that pattern of dull olive and grayish plumage, two wings bars, and not much else is perfect for survival because we can’t seem to get away from it. Lots of birds from different families wear that uniform but in the western hemisphere, flycatchers just might love it the most.

We are taking over AND MANY OF US wear the same uniform!- anonymous Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Costa Rica.

Numbers of Tyrannid species go up the closer you get to the equator and since Costa Rica is just 9 degrees north of that invisible line, yeah, we have a lot! But, before any possible seeds of anxiety are planted at the thought of identifying dozens of extremely similar flycatchers, you can sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. Identifying them in the field is pretty straightforward and easier than sorting through Empids back home, the confusion might be more of a product of trying to remember all of those names; flatbill, spadebill, flycatcher, tody-flycatcher, pygmy-tyrant, and so on! If you can learn them by genus, I actually find that to be an easier way to mentally categorize and remember them (if you feel like memorizing bird names instead of using Sudoku to devour time).  That doesn’t mean that there won’t be some challenges thrown your way (especially when trying to separate Brown-crested and Nutting’s Flycatchers), but, as long as you get a good look at the head and bill, it will be easier than many flycatchers back home (or “warblers” if you hail from the Palearctic).

One of those flycatchers that looks as if it might be a problem but really isn’t that difficult is the Northern Scrub Flycatcher. While this little guy does share that wonderfully adapted pattern of grayish head, pale yellow belly, pale wing bars , and some pattern on the head, take a closer look and you will be forced to admit that you have seen a Northern Scrub Flycatcher. You may wonder why on Earth it has to have such a darn long name, especially when you are seeing it in mangroves instead of scrub but just be thankful it doesn’t have as cumbersome a name as the Scale-crested Pygmy-Tyrant, Oleaginous Hemispingus, or White-cheeked Tody-Tyrant.

Like most tyrant-flycatchers in Costa Rica (and the majority of bird species), for the Northern Scrub, you need to focus in on the head, especially the bill. This bird has such a tiny bill, it may also occur to you that the species is hiding out in the mangroves because it feels woefully inadequate, even incomplete, when sharing a branch with the Great Kiskadee or pretty much any other tyrant-flycatcher in the country.

Yep, that’s it’s claim to fame, a small, dark bill.

Take a look at the wings and you might also notice that this flycatcher sort of has three wing bars. Maybe not all of the time but don’t be surprised if it looks that way.

Once you see the extra wing bar and the tiny bill, you can then relax and check out some other subtle features and impressions. You might notice that the gray head has a short crest and a bit of a dark line through some sort of broken eye rings, and that the gray also comes down onto the breast. You might also feel like the bird looks kind of like a mini Myiarchus (at least it does to me, sort of), or maybe a cross between a tyrannulet and an elaenia (if that helps). As for vocalizations, although the brief whistled note is diagnostic, it’s all too easy to over look. Or, you might just decide to look at something more colorful or eye-catching that happens to be coming in to the pygmy-owl call, and no one would blame you if you did so.

The smart looking Mangrove Yellow Warbler will probably be there.

Or, there might be a Turquoise-browed Motmot begging for attention.

In Costa Rica, look for the Northern Scrub Flycatcher in mangroves in the Gulf of Nicoya and the Gulfo Dulce. If you see one elsewhere, take a closer look at the bill, it’s probably a Greenish Elaenia or some other bird wearing that flycatcher uniform.

Like a lot of flycatchers, the Greenish Elaenia is…greenish.

 

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Lately, in Costa Rica, there have been a few noteworthy happenings. Although the birding is always exciting, the following news items stand out and make an upcoming July trip even more enticing:

Harpy Eagle– Yep, that’s right, the major rare giant king of Neotropical raptors was most definitely, recently seen in Costa Rica. According to the eBird list graciously reported by John Garrett in late May, an adult or near adult was seen and photographed at a site in the Orosi-Rincon de la Vieja corridor. This was such a shock to the local birding community, despite the presence of definitive photos and an excellent description given by an experienced birder/biologist, amazingly, several people still expressed doubts. Since the proof provided seems far more likely to be a representation of the truth than an elaborate hoax, I am not one of those doubters. Some people mentioned that they just couldn’t believe the sighting because the bird wasn’t inside primary forest. Nevertheless, the special site where that big mega eagle recently perched in full view is within a matrix of fair-sized patches of lowland and foothill rainforest loosely connected to larger, primary forest blocks. Fortunately, the bird was last seen flying towards those forests, hopefully, it will thrive and be seen again! It seems likely that it wandered in from known populations in the Indio-Maiz forests of southeastern Nicaragua (or maybe even adjacent Costa Rica) in search of a place to rule and eat almost whatever forest inhabitants it wants. Thank goodness, a few people were there to document its presence in an area rarely visited by birders. If you want to maybe see it, about all you can do is spend time birding in remote areas of the Orosi Volcano in Guanacaste National Park, or maybe in Rincon de la Vieja, and wish upon a star.

Forests at Rincon de la Vieja.

The Birding is Always Good at Tenorio– The fact that a lot of great birds are usually seen in the excellent forests near Bijagua is reason enough to make the trip. A few more reasons from recent birding in the area include a probable Solitary Eagle reported on eBird, and excellent looks at the rare Black-eared Wood-Quail by several people at the Celeste Mountain Lodge and on the trails at Heliconias.

Uncommon Hummingbirds at El Tapir– On a recent trip to El Tapir, the hummingbirds were especially good. Yes, a few Snowcaps were present and we saw Green Thorntail and one Black-crested Coquette perched in the distance, but we also had close looks at a young White-crested Coquette, female Coppery-headed Emerald, and female Magenta-throated Woodstar. Suffice to say, I have never seen the latter three species at this site. The coquette from the Pacific slope has been spotted there on a couple of occasions and I bet the other two have also occurred but don’t expect any of them on a regular basis! Since hummingbirds and the flowers they feed on seem to be scarce in many areas of the country, I can’t help but wonder if the out of range birds showed up while searching for food. El Tapir and other sites with feeders and porterweed like Rancho Naturalista, Bosque Tolomuco, and El Copal should be carefully checked for unusual hummingbirds, especially ones with a bit of rufous on the face.

This is the one I’m talking about- it showed up last year after a century plus hiatus, maybe there’s a few in Costa Rica right now.

Bare-necked Umbrellabird at Curi-Cancha– It’s been there before but with this rare, endangered, spectacular species, it’s always worth mentioning where it has been seen. Although the bird with the Elvis feather cut is not common or expected anywhere, Curi-Cancha is as good as place as any to look for it (and see a bunch of other birds while doing so).

Unspotted Saw-whets on Irazu– They are always up there but recently, Ernesto Carman of Get Your Birds tours actually saw one on a day perch! Although they probably won’t reveal exactly where (to prevent photographers from disturbing it), they might be able to show you one or two of this fantastic, much wanted owlet at night.

More help for Golden-winged Warblers– We all know that Golden-winged Warblers are a species of conservation concern. If you have been to Costa Rica during the winter months, you may also know that they are easier to see in this country than many other areas. Costa Rica Bird Observatories is helping out Golden-winged Warblers through local education about the bird, payments to preserve habitat, and reforestation. Learn more about this awesome initiative at their site!

One of Costa Rica’s many wintering Golden-winged Warblers.

Heavy Rains– There has been a lot of precipitation lately and it’s a welcome sight. Yes, we are in the rainy season but for the past four or five years, thanks to human caused global warming, there just hasn’t been enough, especially on the Caribbean slope and in the highlands. Very likely because of that, a high percentage of bird species in the country seem to be in decline (I know that I detect noticeably fewer at most sites, especially in humid forests, and it has gotten worse year by year). As far as the birds go, we can only hope that the rain will be enough to boost productivity and result in a successful nesting season for many species.

A few of the things I would love to do– These days, I would love to get up to Tenorio (as always), hang out in the Rincon de la Vieja and Orosi area, do more surveys in the foothill zone so we can have more data on bird populations that appear to be in decline, get the final images needed for the Costa Rica Birds Field Guide app, and look for pelagic birds from the Puntarenas-Paquera ferry. Hope I can do some of that, if so, I’ll be writing about it!

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Virgen del Socorro is one of Costa Rica’s classic birding sites. Whether staying in the San Jose area or the Sarapiqui lowlands, this forested canyon is an easy one to two hour trip with access to foothill and middle elevation habitats. It’ a good site for White Hawk, Collared Trogon, and several other species that frequent the transition between lowlands and highlands. One of the things birders also notice when visiting Virgen del Socorro are the forested hillsides, especially upstream from the main road through the canyon. If only we could get into those forests! Maybe we would find quail-doves, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and other rare species. The right situation for many high quality species is there, the only problem being that main recurring issue frequently faced by birders in tropical places- that of access.

White Hawk

Much to our twitching frustration, the high quality forests visible from the canyon road don’t have any roads that go through them, they don’t have any trails. Well, they don’t if you stick to the road through the canyon. Stay at Albergue del Socorro, though, and access is granted. This small “lodge” is actually a small dairy farm that has opted in on ecotourism. The owners are serious about protecting the forests in and around their farm, offer a few shared cabins as accommodation, and serve excellent local country fare. Stay there and you will be supporting birder friendly people who are committed to protecting the forests of the Socorro area. Top that support off with excellent middle elevation birding, and a stay at Albergue del Socorro becomes an enticing addition to every birder’s Costa Rica itinerary. More information about this excellent site:

Trails through mature forest

The lodge has a few trails, one of which passes through excellent mature forest on its way to a waterfall. The other trails are shorter loops that pass through forest and a few open areas. No matter which trail you take, Jose, the owner, will be happy to accompany you. Although rain limited our time on the trails, based on what I saw, they should be good for quail-doves, mixed flocks, and could host several rare species.

Birding on the road is good too

If you feel like sticking to the road in front of the lodge, you will still be in luck because the birding is typically good and can result in White-crowned Manakin, many tanagers, euphonias, Spotted Barbtail, and Scaly-throated Foliage-gleaner among many other less common species. In the past, I often had Lattice-tailed Trogon on the section of road just above the lodge. It should still be present although maybe now more regular on the Albergue trails.

Serious birding potential

The combination of high quality forest, connection to Braulio Carrillo National Park, and an elevation of around 1,000 meters is ideal for coming across a wide number of rare and uncommon species. Quail-doves, Lovely Cotinga, and all three hawk-eagles have been identified at or near Albergue in recent years, and I would be very surprised if goodies like Lanceolated Monklet, the ground-cuckoo, Scaled and Ochre-breasted Antpittas, Sharpbill, and many other megas were not present. It should also be a good place for Solitary Eagle to make an appearance. That massive black-hawk has been recorded around there in the past, and since the area does link up to Braulio, it seems like a good spot for it to be seen again. Even during the rain, we watched several Crested Guans, Russet-naped Wood-Rail, Swallow-tailed Kites, White Hawk, Bat Falcon, tanagers, and other species just outside the rooms.

Crested Guan

Ideal for small groups

Given the accommodation (limited but cozy and clean), this site is better for single travelers, couples, and small groups.

Three ways to get there

There are three different routes to take, all of which require four wheel drive just before reaching the lodge. You might make it to the lodge with a regular, small vehicle but then again, you might not! Keep in mind that since these three routes also have great birding, you might want to give yourself extra time for the trip. The most common route people take is the one that passes by the Waterfall Gardens, the Cinchona Cafe Colibri, and then goes through the Virgen del Socorro canyon. The one issue with this route is a bridge that looks like it’s on the verge of collapsing. To avoid that possibility, try one of the other two routes! If you feel like some adventurous birding on a somewhat rough road that passes next to some nice cloud forest, take the turn off for San Rafael de Varablanca and follow that main road all the way down to the lodge. This road also has lots of good birding potential. If you would rather do the easiest route, take the turn off at the San Miguel cemetery and follow that up to the lodge, enjoying good foothill birding on the way. If I had a four wheel drive vehicle, I would opt for driving one of those routes in and another on the way out. Do that with enough time for several hours birding each way and you could end up with a seriously good list.

I felt compelled to write this post after guiding a short trip to Albergue Socorro last weekend. Although we got rained out on Sunday morning, we still recorded more than 130 species while birding at and near the lodge. I look forward to going back, especially to do bird surveys on their trails just after dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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admin on May 18th, 2017

Last Saturday, May 13, more than 20,000 birders went birding and put their results into eBird. It was the third Global Big Day and the biggest one yet. If the day would have been a competition (and some countries did sort treat the day as such) Colombia took first place with more than 1,400 species identified, Peru came in second, and Ecuador was third. Surprisingly, the highest list came from northern Argentina (and thus highlighting the biodiversity in this less birded area), and Costa Rica had the highest total for Central America. Thanks to some last minute organizing and a good number of local birders getting on board, this small country finished the day with more than 640 species.

Birding in Costa Rica during Global Big Day, 2017.

Since most of the migrants had already left, the local birding community was very pleased at topping 600. Consider that all of these species were found in an area roughly equal to that of West Virginia and it’s quite the impressive total. We are already thinking about next year to see if we can hit 700. As for me, I birded a 60 kilometer route from the Central Valley, up and over the mountains, north to the Sarapiqui Caribbean lowlands, and then back up the mountain to hit highland forests before heading back down into the valley for some dry forest and wetland species. As usual, I did this route with my faithful Big Day birding companion and friend, Susan. Although we ran out of time twarads the end of the day and thus missed out on dry forest species, we were seriously lucky with good weather, especially because a lot of other birders in Costa Rica got rained out during the critical morning hours.

During our long day and night of birding, some of our nicest finds were:

Striped Owl– This was a big one on my radar because a Striped Owl had been calling just about every night for the past two months right near my house. Thankfully, good old “Stripey” decided to participate in the Global Big Day by giving its shrill vocalization as soon as we stopped to listen for it. I can’t say the same for other owls in the valley and mountains but at least the Striped Owl piped up right on cue!

A surprise wetland– Deciding where to greet the dawn on a Big Day is of vital importance because it’s when we have the best chance at the most birds. If it rains, there goes a sizeable chunk of the daily total. If you pick the wrong spot, you probably miss the species that would have put you over your end goal. With all that in mind, we started where the most species were possible; in the Caribbean Lowlands. The site had to be close enough to the rest of our route to save time but also in or next to an extensive area of forest. After scouting and checking Google Earth, I decided on an area just north of Tirimbina where a road cuts through a corner of a large forest block and then passes near a wetland mentioned in eBird. As it turned out, the forest block wasn’t as birdy as expected, nor did the lagoon from eBird have much, but we did luck out with a fine marsh just outside the forest. This was a surprise because I had seen the satellite view of the open area but had assumed that it was pasture. Although some of it did turn out to be grass for cows, most of it was a shallow river bordered by marsh vegetation! Since such habitat is difficult to find and access in Costa Rica, and offers a chance at various additions to the day list, this was a fantastic Big Day surprise.

Our best bird there was Rufescent Tiger-Heron, a rare species in Costa Rica and thus not exactly expected. We also picked up Purple Gallinule and some other water birds as well as various edge species and some forest birds.

Our tiger-heron and one of all three species we found during the day!

Birds before dawn– You never know what will call at night from one day to the next. Next to the march and adjacent forest, luckily, we had a calling Black and white Owl, Central American Pygmy-Owl, one Uniform Crake (maybe the only one for Costa Rica), and one Great Potoo. No response from Short-tailed Nighthawk or other owls but some good night birds nonetheless.

White-ringed Flycatcher and other lowland specialties–  I had hoped to get the flycatcher but it was particularly sweet to get our only one right from the car, and rather low down. In Tirimbina, we picked up several other nice lowland targets including Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, antwrens, the hoped for White-fronted Nunbirds that live there, Black-striped Woodcreeper, and some others. We also missed several but it was still fun trying for them!

White-ringed Flycatcher

Tanagers in Socorro– These were expected but still nice to get them and weren’t as common as we had hoped. Black and yellow, Bay-headed, Silver-throated, Speckled, and a few other showed, including Blue and Gold and the exquisite Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.

Blue and gold Tanager

A quetzal in the cloud forest– We always knew it was possible but with limited time to work with, the chances of bumping into one are never really good. As if to make up for the many highland species that were hiding or just keeping silent, a male Resplendent Quetzal fluttered and then flew right across our field of view in an area of cloud forest that is now quite accessible from the San Jose area. Thanks to road work and new bridges, the route that goes from San Rafael de Varablanca towards Socorro and San Miguel is easy going right up to this area of forest. Beyond that, the road requires four wheel drive but you might not need to go much further for some really good birding because this area of forest is connected to Braulio Carrillo National Park. Since it’s not that far from the homestead, I hope to check it out from time to time.

Although I always want more birds, I was pleased with our total of around 230 species. I wonder how many more we could get on that route with additional scouting and when there are migrants in the area.

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For the past few weeks, most of my birding has taken the form of scouting for the Global Big Day on May 13th. Since I plan on starting shortly after midnight, I will actually be celebrating this modern birding holiday in a matter of hours. Hopefully, all of that scouting and planning will pay off with a Lovely Cotinga, hawk-eagles, and enough singing birds to push our total over the 300 species mark. The good thing is that if that doesn’t come to pass because of rain (very likely chance of precipitation) or other factors, it’s still going to be a great day of birding pretty close to the home base.

A view of Poas Volcano- not erupting on this morning.

Since much of that scouting involved the Poas area, I figured that it would be pertinent to give an update on the birding situation around there. Aside from scouting Varablanca, Poas, and Sarapiqui, since I also got in a nice day of guiding at Carara, I figured I would talk about that too.

The Poas situation: If you hadn’t heard, the park is closed because the volcano started erupting a month ago. Although activity has calmed down somewhat, the park is still off limits and probably won’t be opened for several months or even years. That said, don’t write off birding up in those mountains yet because you can still see quite a few good highland birds on the way to Poas and around Varablanca.

The barrier on the road up to Poas just after the Poas Lodge.

At the moment, the road is closed around three to four kilometers from the edge of the national park. This means that although the best highland forests are now off limits, you can still see most species in patches of forest from the village of Poasito up to that barrier, AND, with very little traffic. Unfortunately, Sooty Thrush, Highland Tinamou, Fiery-throated Hummingbird, and most Peg-billed Finches are now beyond that barrier and therefore inaccessible but you can still see both silky-flycatchers, Prong-billed Barbet, Large-footed Finch at a few sites, and most of everything else including chances at Resplendent Quetzal. Fortunately, the Volcan Restaurant is still open as is Freddo Fresas; two sites with hummingbird feeders and riparian zones.

Try Varablanca: The area of Varablanca is very much open and accessible and because it’s around 45 minutes from the airport, continues to be a good site for a first or last night on a Costa Rica birding trip. Accommodation options include Poas Volcano Lodge, Poas Lodge, The Peace Lodge, and a few other spots. A fair number of highland species can be seen around accommodation, in riparian zones on the route towards Barva, and in the area between there and Socorro.

Carara: The Carara area is always good for birds no matter when you visit. Now is especially nice because the wet weather has resulted in lots of singing birds, good activity, and temperatures a bit more comfortable than the blazing Carara furnace from February to April. On my recent trip, we had Crane Hawk and good looks at Collared Forest Falcon on the Cerro Lodge road, several singing Northern Bentbills on the national park forest trail, excellent looks at Golden-crowned Spadebill at the bridge,

This is what a Golden-crowned Spadebill looks like.

good looks at vocalizing Long-tailed Woodcreeper (future split), trogons, excellent point blank views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Red-capped Manakin, and other expected species. What we didn’t have were many hummingbirds, nor many parrots. We still had plenty of macaws but very few other members of that esteemed family.

One of the close Streak-chested Antpittas, hopefully these will be recorded during the Global Big Day.

Hope to see you in the field. To learn about more sites for birding in Costa Rica as well as how to find and identify birds in this biodiverse country, see my e-book “How to See, Find, and Identify Birds in Costa Rica”. It can be purchased through Kindle as well as PayPal, just follow the link. I will transfer the book within 24 hours of confirmation of purchase.

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admin on May 4th, 2017

Costa Rica boasts several types of forest habitats and we birders rejoice in this multi-ecosystem situation. The nation-wide mosaic of rainforest, cloud forest, temperate forest, dry forest, and other microhabitats is partly why we have such a plethora of bird species in such a small area. Walk a trail through dripping cloud forests at Monteverde one day and you can catch up with highland endemics like the Purple-throated Mountain-Gem, Ruddy Treerunner, and Prong-billed Barbet. Drive down to the Pacific lowlands the next day and those species are replaced by Plain-capped Starthroat, Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, and other avian reps of the tropical dry forest.

The Plain-capped Starthroat is indeed quite plain.

The Pacific dry forests of Middle America have been chopped, changed, and over-grazed for centuries. Since it’s easier for people to transform such areas into semi-open habitats typically preferred by the savannah-evolved Homo sapiens, large areas of intact dry forests are rare throughout the globe. As for the forests that naturally occur from western Mexico south to Costa Rica (and at least one area of Panama), birding intact, mature, tropical dry forest has become an anomaly. On the bright side of the bio coin, it seems that most of the birds and many other animals of this biome persist and adapt to fragmented habitats. That said, I can’t help but wonder how well the plants are faring, and if we lost some insects and other species (maybe even birds) long before they could be catalogued.

To see the birds that still frequent the seasonally dry habitats of Costa Rica (there are quite a few), you can get a good sampling of them in patchy habitats from around the Tarcoles area north to Nicaragua. However, if you want to get the whole birding shebang of dry forest species, your best bets occur in the largest areas of dry forest (who would have guessed?). These can be found in parts of the Nicoya Peninsula, and in the Palo Verde, Guanacaste, and Santa Rosa National Parks. As serendipity has it, the easiest one to access is Santa Rosa, and this park is probably also the best site in Costa Rica for dry forest bird species.

The Casona at Santa Rosa National Park.

Located around 30 kilometers north of Liberia, the park has a good, paved 10 kilometer road that connects the highway with the park HQ at the Casona monument and museum. Although it doesn’t officially open until 8 in the morning (typical for most national parks), since the main office is at the Casona, I suspect that one could bird the entrance road much earlier. Although my most recent visit was a short, family oriented one, I still had really good birding even during the middle of the day. See my eBird list from the Casona. Some thoughts and ideas:

Good for ground birds

Forested, protected areas in Costa Rica are often good for terrestrial birds and Santa Rosa is no exception. Unlike many other parts of their Costa Rican range, Thicket Tinamous are not as shy and much easier to see. Patience in the face of mosquitoes is still very much required but if you can hang in there, you stand a good chance of seeing a tinamou with red legs. Two other choice ground species, Great Curassow and Lesser Ground-Cuckoo, are also fairly common.

There is a Thicket Tinamou in this picture albeit a much more shy one from the Playa Hermosa area.

Watch from the Casona overlook

I admit, I was hesitant to walk up the steps in the hot lowland climate but the reward was definitely worth it. But, based on my brief, avian rich experience, the next time I visit, I might run up the stairs like Rocky. I hope to go back some day and watch from the overlook for a few hours in the morning, and then again in the later afternoon because the birding there rocks! The hill overlooks a large area of the national park and is one of the closest things I have seen to a canopy tower in Costa Rica. During my recent short watch, I heard one or two Elegant Trogons and an Ivory-billed Woodcreeper among various other expected species, saw a Mangrove Cuckoo creeping through a nearby tree, magpie-jays, and other species. Although I didn’t notice any raptors, it should surely be good for that too!

Bird the universal trail

Although the birding is likely similar on the few roads through the park, this trail is accessed from the Casona area, and makes an easy loop on a cement walkway through nice dry forest. Expect Banded Wrens, Elegant and Black-headed Trogons, maybe a Thicket Tinamou, and several other species. The “good” lighting will also be welcomed by birders who have been trying to snap pictures in the much less sensor-friendly rainforest understory.

Focus on the evergreen forest remnant

Located about halfway in on the entrance road, this area is an evergreen spot with tall trees and is marked by a sign that refers to it as a rare remnant of mature tropical dry forest. It definitely looks older and more complex than the surrounding forest, and since it’s a riparian zone, it also hosts more birds. During a five minute stop, although I didn’t hear or see any hoped for camera friendly Thicket Tinamous, it was a treat to listen to the songs of Long-tailed Manakins, Banded Wrens, and Cabanis’s Wrens, see a Royal Flycatcher, and espy a migrating Eastern Kingbird perched in the canopy. Although there are more mosquitoes, there are also more birds, and it’s worth it to spend a good amount of time at this site.

Royal Flycatchers are always nice to see.

The sign.

Since Santa Rosa is connected to evergreen forests at higher elevations, it can also attract some unexpected species. Some years ago, at least one ornithologist may have seen a Crested Eagle! He suspected that the bird may have migrated there from the rainforests in the Guanacaste mountains to take advantage of monkeys and other prey items. It’s worth it to fit Santa Rosa into your itinerary, you are going to like it!

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