While growing up near the thundering waters of Onguiaahra, I always associated November with dark, slate gray. The short days seemed cloaked in a steely sky, the trees had gone to sleep, and the first bit of snow was drifting down from the north. Things were frozen once more and the summer birds were long gone and replaced by the calls of chickadees, big flocks of ducks on the river and lakes, and clouds of gulls.
November in Costa Rica is a far cry from the month that lays out the ice-dead winter welcome mat of the north. Much closer to the equator, the hands of Jack Frost are held at bay by an eternal summer. Instead of “losing” birds, we gain them in the form of wood-warblers, Philadelphia Vireos, Summer Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, Wood Thrushes, and other migrants. However, we aren’t exempt from the heavy changes happening up north. We might not get any snow but we do get the gray skies. They come loaded with heavy rain and sometimes, it falls for days.
If you have birded in Costa Rica in November, you probably know what I am talking about. But, you probably also saw lots of cool birds anyways. For us local birders, this is actually an exciting time of the year because this is when the vagrants can show up. It represents that first, brief window when lost birds appear. Since they are out of range and far from familiar surroundings, the odds aren’t in their favor so you have to find them pretty much as soon as they arrive. So far, the most noteworthy rarities have been a Yellow-headed Blackbird found in the Coto marshes near the southern border by Leo Garrigues and some other Tico birders.
I was wondering when this one would show again and suspect that it turns up more often, just not enough people scouring rice fields and marshes (the clouds of mosquitoes are a likely deterrant). Another very experienced observer was pretty sure that he glimpsed an Aplomado Falcon up by Medio Queso. He only got a brief look but strongly suspected that he saw one. It wouldn’t be out of the question as this vagrant has been seen there before.
A Yellow-backed Oriole was also found near Quepos! Whether a natural vagrant or escapee, it’s a first for Costa Rica!
There have also been reports of Pine Warbler (serious vagrant) at the Belmar Hotel in Monteverde, and Reddish Egret at Puntarenas. No reports of Spotted Rail yet but since this seems to be the best month for that tough species, I hope I see one!
In other bird-related news, the second edition of the Birds of Costa Rica by Garrigues and Dean is out! I think it becomes available on Amazon and elsewhere in December but some of us birders in Costa Rica have been very fortunate to get copies now. I have mine and yes, it is definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition. There are more illustrations of birds in flight, more species are shown, improved maps, nice habitat descriptions, and so on.
In semi bird-related news, Turrialba Volcano has been erupting. Not just letting off the steam either but big clouds of ash and flying boulders. The mouth of the volcano has also been growing, people have been evacuated from a few places, and the activity is expected to increase.
Reports about the birds mentioned can be seen at the AOCR Bird Alarm Facebook page.
Irazu is an 11,000 plus foot high volcano just outside of San Jose. I can see it looming large just outside my back window and can even discern the cell towers right up on top. Heck, if I had a 10,000 zoom scope, I would just point it at the mountain and scan for Silvery-throated Jay, quetzals, and Maroon-chested Ground-Dove. As long as we are in the realm of imagination, I might as well mention that teleporting up there would be way better than a telescope. That would be so much easier than creeping through traffic to reach Cartago followed by a subsequent drive on up to the upper reaches of the volcano. But don’t assume that the fun stops once you make it to the volcano. To see some of those rarities, there’s a fair chance that you will still need to scuff your way up some steep slopes or freeze the feet in cold, wet grass.
At least if such sacrifices are made, you can be rewarded with some hefty nice birds. For example….
Yes, this ground-dove that pretends to be a quail-dove was very nice to Robert, Susan, and I this past Sunday. It called almost non-stop and even gave us time to trudge up slope and get into a position where we could inspect it in detail. To start things off, a female briefly showed before the male made an appearance. We got brief looks at both before they fluttered off and we were indeed pleased but the rare ground-dove experience wasn’t over yet. Much to our joy, the male started calling again and did so from a spot where we could watch it for 15 minutes (since almost no one ever sees this bird, those were some 15 precious minutes).
Eventually, it tired of our stares and fluttered off to another, more secluded bush.
The ground-dove is probably the rarest regularly occurring species on Irazu. It is, no doubt, always present but if it isn’t calling as it forages in thick vegetation, you would never know it was there. As far as rarity on Irazu goes, it’s only superseded by the Oilbird. Now for that one, we just don’t even have any idea if it shows up on a regular basis or if it’s a vagrant. Assessment evades because the bird is nocturnal and doesn’t call as nearly as much as an owl. In other words, how the heck would you know if it was around, especially when you would have to chance upon one in the cold, often rainy night?
Speaking of night, Irazu is also a good spot for the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl. If you thought saw-whets from the north were tough, its more southerly cousin takes the owl-spotting challenge to a new level (and you thought that “Unspotted” referred to its plumage…). I don’t think anyone has ever seen a roosting one in Costa Rica and maybe not anywhere else either. To see it, you have to head out into the cold night and listen for a calling bird during calm weather. With luck, you will be able to track down the calling nocturnal creature, find it, and prove to youirself that yes, it does look like a plush toy. After that, you can go back to the car and try to unfreeze your toes after pouring yourself a celebratory drink, spiked coffee seems appropriate.
While the owl is present on Irazu, it still isn’t common. Like the ground-dove, it’s a naturally rare bird that always requires more than casual birding to find it. The same goes for some other species that make their home up there on the volcano. For example, Peg-billed Finch and Slaty Finch also occur but nope, sorry, not common. Downright rare and they require lots of looking. The Peg-billed is certainly less difficult than the Slaty because after glassing 30 or so Slaty Flowerpiercers in the paramo, you eventually find one. Not so for the Slaty Finch. For that pseudo-junco weirdo, seeding bamboo is key but guess what? You can still have seeding bamboo and neither hear nor see it! That’s what happened after we looked for the ground-dove. After birding a very nice area of seeding bamboo, we were surprised to neither see nor hear Peg-billed Finch, Slaty Finch, or other bamboo birds, especially because Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles head them the previous week.
But, that’s how it is with rare birds. There are so few of them that it’s just naturally tough to locate them. As with any needle in the haystack experience, chances at success are correlated with number of observers. Go up there with a bunch of people, spread out, and have everyone looking and you might find the rare ones. In the mean time, when birding on Irazu, at least you can also be entertained by the calls of Buffy-crowned Wood-Patridge (might see one too), and views of Flame-throated Warbler, Wrenthrush, silky-flycatchers, and Resplendent Quetzal…
A big thanks goes out to Ernesto Carman and Pablo Siles- they found the ground-dove and other rare birds the week before and were gracious with the gen.
We all have our favorite places to bird and one of mine is Quebrada Gonzalez in Braulio Carrillo National Park, Costa Rica. No, it’s not an easy place to bird and even more difficult for bird photography but since it was my introduction to birding in rainforest habitats, the place has become firmly established in my subconscious core. I don’t get back to that site often enough and it was better when mixed flocks and coquettes visited fruiting and flowering trees at the edge of the forest, but the rangers did need a place to stay.
On Tuesday, despite knowing that we would miss the dawn chorus, a friend and I spent a fine morning at the site. We started at the non-birdy hour of 9 a.m. and worked the main loop trail until noon. After that, we did a quick walk on the Ceiba trail before rain chased us away around 1 p.m.
One of the things I like about Quebrada is that you never really know what the heck is going to show up. It’s always a surprise and if you hit an antswarm or find a good fruting tree, you have a chance at jackpot birds like the R.V. Ground-Cuckoo, Ocellated Antbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, Lovely Cotinga, Bare-necked Umbrellabird, Red-fronted Parrotlet, and Yellow-eared Toucanet. Chances are slim on a brief, mid-morning visit (and we didn’t connect with the winning numbers) but you bird there for three or four days in a row and it might happen. On a day visit, you could have an experience like we did in the summary below or something totally different. Either way, you will probably see something good and of course there’s always that re-energizing, oxygen-ruich atmosphere to boost the soul.
A summary of Quebrada birding at that typically non-birdy part of the day:
After seeing nothing around the parking area, we walked into the forest and carefully walked along the trail. As quiet as the forest may be, based on past experience, I know that a wood-quail, quail-dove, or some other shy forest floor species can appear (and disappear) in a moment. You have to be ready at all times, especially if you want photos! I did want photos but also knew that my chances were as slim as the legs of a stilt.
After the stairs, we heard a few birds here and there. These were species usually recorded at the site like White-breasted Wood-Wren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper, and Tawny-capped Euphonia. We didn’t see anything at a new overlook (thanks to recent super-heavy rains) but both thought that it would make an interesting place to just sit and wait for a few hours.
Further on, a male White-necked Jacobin checked us out, and we ran into a Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. We hung out with the flycatcher for several minutes to see if I could get a recording of its call (I eventually did). Shortly after that, the calls of Carmiol’s Tanagers and Black-faced Grosbeaks pulled us up the trail. Those species usually mean “mixed flock” and yes there was one around but unfortunately, the birds were too far off in the forest to see. We also heard our first Buff-throated Goliage-gleaner, Striped Woodhaunter, and White-throated Shrike-Tanager at that time.
At the back part of the loop, we lucked out with another mixed flock and this one was at least partially visible. It was also a big one! Oddly enough, since I was more focused on getting pictures and recording sounds (and because I had lent my binos to my friend as he had forgotten his), I just listened and watched bird movement with the naked eye. I may have missed out on espying Sharpbill for the year but that’s Ok, it was interesting to try and ID the birds without bins. Most of the flock was composed of Black-faced Grosbeaks but there were also Spotted and Wedge-billed Woodcreepers, Lesser Greenlet, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Russet Antshrike, White-throated Shrike, Hepatic, Black and Yellow, Emerald, Tawny-crested, White-shouldered, and Carmiol’s Tanagers, one Collared Trogon, Slaty-capped Flycatcher, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and other birds.
We were able to stay with the flock for a while but I couldn’t get a break with a good picture of a Carmiol’s Tanager.
When we departed ways with the flock, it was about 11:30 a.m. and the forest quieted back down. For the rest of the trail, we heard a few Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes, I had a flyby of a Ruddy Quail-Dove (a first for me on that trail!), and we had a group of Swainson’s Thrushes and other small migrants.
BYO lunches in the parking lot were accompanied by a couple of high flying Black Vultures which were eventually joined by a lone King Vulture, but no other raptors for the day.
Violet-headed Hummingbird visited the Porterweed bushes at the station but nothing visited the Cecropias or other trees at the edge of the parking lot so we crossed the highway and birded the Ceiba Trail at 1 p.m. Although this heavy, humid hour was not the most ideal time to look for birds, the cloudy weather boosted the activity and we quickly had shy Pale-vented Thrushes, and a small mixed flock of understory insectivores. Streak-crowned Antvireo showed, a Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner called, and Checker-throated Antwren flitted nearby. Tawny-faced Gnatwren was also present but as much as I tried, nope, that hyperactive little bugger would not stop for a photo (since the bird is obviously functioning on another, more quickly paced wavelength, I guess I can’t blame it).
The rest of the trail was quiet and as the air grew heavier, it started to rain. We took that as a sign to head back up the highway and go on home. We had at least 57 species including nice looks at the shrike-tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Spotted Woodcreeper, and other rainforest birds; not a bad way to spend a Tuesday morning.
Edit- It turns out that the “cool butterfly” is actually a moth that mimics clearwing butterflies, probably because they taste bad. Thanks to Ernesto Carman for pointing that out.
In Costa Rica, national parks were established for more than birds. The local avifauna was a big part of the equation in setting aside the wetland wonderlands of Cano Negro and Palo Verde but other places were given protected status because they are watersheds, host tons of biodiversity, or are important nesting grounds for sea turtles. The sea turtle nesting ground reason was the main one for making Tortuguero a national park.
Turtles have been digging holes in the beaches at Tortuguero for who knows how long and they still do. We saw some nests with recently hatched eggs at Tortuguero last weekend but as cool as that was, it wasn’t our main reason for making it to that wonderful Caribbean lowland destination. In staying with the goals of a birding club, we were all about the birds. Migrants were our main targets and yes, we saw a few.
However, since this is a birding trip report, I should start at the beginning:
Friday, the 10th of October, pre-dawn in the Central Valley…
To avoid the morning rush hour traffic, we left pretty darn early. Even so, we realized that we still had time to check the airport for grasspipers. No amount of scanning through a chain link fence could materialize shorebirds of any kind so off we went to drive over the mountains and down into the Caribbean lowlands.
No birds on the way down although I do recall hearing a Dull-mantled Antbird sing while passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park.
After reaching the lowlands, we realized that we should probably eat breakfast. After passing a few closed looking diners, we stopped at one with a bunch of wooden carvings.
Checking the forest behind the place turned up a few Red-eyed Vireos but nothing else of note and no Sunbittern on the river. The coffee wasn’t the greatest and the breakfast was pretty slim but that was alright. After all, we weren’t on this mission to critique gourmet, buffet breakfasts.
On we went, following the prominent signs towards Tortuguero and seeing a surprise group of 8 Great Green Macaws when getting gas! Other than that, we only made one brief stop for an umbrella (it usually rains in the lowlands) before making an official stop to watch birds. This happened at the only stretch of the road that passes next to primary rainforest. As soon as we exited the car, we got onto a fair bunch of birds. Most were Red-eyed Vireos and a few wood-warblers hanging out with such local birds as White-ringed Flycatcher and Lesser Greenlet. We also had a Cinnamon Woodpecker and probably also had some other lowland birds that I can’t remember.
After that little stop, we had an unpleasant surprise of pasture instead of rice fields that used to have Slate-colored Seedeater, Red-breasted Blackbird, and was a way point for interesting migrants. Nothing was out in the pasture although we did get our first glimpse of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. A bit further up the road, we stopped at a forested riparian zone that was the place to be for migrants. Dozens of birds rushed through the trees, Red-eyed Vireos and Swainson’s Thrushes being the most common.
Thrushes kept hopping out to the side of the stream and despite their high-anxiety flighty behavior, continuous checking turned up a few Gray-cheekeds and one Veery. The wood-warblers included Northern Waterthrush, Prothonotary, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, and Yellows, and there were Scarlet and Summer Tanagers there as well.
After feeling like we saw every bird, we jogged up the road to Pavona. This is where you can leave a car ($10 a day), have lunch, and take the boat to Tortuguero (around $4 each way).
Although the outside chance of a Harpy or Crested Eagle makes the boat trip potentially very exciting, you don’t usually see much. Friday was no exception other than a classic look at a crocodile.
After getting settled in at the Casa Marbella, we birded the path north towards the airport. Given the absence of birds, it was more like walking with binoculars and hoping but isn’t that was birding is anyways? After two hours of spishing ourselves hoarse, we were over-thrilled to see a single male American Redstart. It even flitted around the trees and let us watch it! This was especially momentous because we saw almost nothing else.
Back at the Casa Marbella, we were mildly entertained by a few distant nighthawks but were all too beat to go looking for owls.
Saturday, October 11th.
The group met the dawn with coffee (much better than the wood carving diner), muffins, and eager scope scanning of the marsh on the other side of the Tortuguero canal. We saw a few common herons but nope, could not parse a Least Bittern out of the grass. That deserves a mention because this skulky little heron was a principal target for more than one person on the trip.
At 5:45, we took to the boat and headed over to that marsh for a closer look. The next 15 monutes went something like this:
Grass, grass, grass, and more grass. Possible movement? Nope, just grass. Come one! I hear a Dickcissel. Wait, I hear LOTS of Dickcissels! There they are in the bushes at the edge of the forest! And so is that group of birds flying overhead. And that one too, and that bunch of a hundred!
Try as we did, the Least Bittern gave us the marsh grass slip but we at least got excellent looks at Dickcissels perched and in flight as 500 or so migrated through our sphere of detection. Always a cool way to start the day! We then spent the rest of the morning visiting the national park by boat. This is the best and almost only way to check out the park because it has a bunch of canals and swampy forest.
The sunny weather calmed down the birds a bit too much but we still saw several migrating Peregrines and Mississippi Kites, saw White-necked Puffbird and Green Ibis, and got one of our best birds for the trip, the weirdo Sungrebe!
This lovely little snakey waterbird swam back and forth in front of us in shameless fashion.
One of the other best birds of the trip was a nesting Rufescent Tiger-Heron. Yes, a new country tick for me and Daryl Loth, the owner of the Casa Marbella, was especially impressed because this was the first nest he had seen of this species in that area and that high up during more than 20 years of boat trips at Tortuguero.
The boat trip was followed by a late breakfast and relaxation because it was so hot and sunny. However as inviting as relaxation and non-movement may be, giving in to temptation can be a fatal move during migration. I was reminded of that when I missed Gray and Western Kingbirds some time that day (pretty good migrants for Costa Rica). I’m not sure if the miss happened while I was birding the path towards the airport or if it was when I sat down to eat an empanada but either way, I missed them. Well, unless you are able to manipulate time and dimensions you can’t be in two places at once so that’s that. Those sightings are also a reminder of the birds that can pass through the village at any moment. Johan saw them with a group of Easterns as he checked out the birds over near the entrance to the national park. Of course they were gone by the time I arrived but at least a couple of people saw them!
We also had another Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Prothonotary, Red-eyed Vireo, and some other migrants (including Streaked and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers in the same spot) but overall, the migrant scene was a slow one. That same slow scene played out later on in the coastal forests of the national park. Very few birds, highlights being a Canada Warbler, and a Gray-cheeked Thrush.
Where were the migrants? What about all of those Bay-breasteds? Were they just late? Keeping things on the down low? What was the deal? We made up for the slow birding and pondered nostalgic music with a wonderful meal at the Wild Ginger restaurant. Yum.
Sunday, October 12th, the final day of the trip.
This morning was a near repeat of the day before. Once again, we stared at marsh grass and tried to will a Least Bittern to appear. BUT, instead of Dickcissels, we had a good bunch of other migrant species feeding in the bushes at the edge of the forest. There were dozens of birds including Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, Blackburnian, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, and Yellow Warblers along with one Golden-winged and a Common Yellowthroat for good measure. We also had several non-calling Traill’s type flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, and a single Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Oh yeah, there were also like 200 Eastern Kingbirds flying around.
Off in the national park, we explored another channel and this time, saw an American Pygmy-Kingfisher, and another Sungrebe. Good stuff!
After breakfast, there wasn’t any more time for birding before our 11 a.m. boat. That was of course uneventful and the riparian zone back near Pavona was dead but the rainforest patch was crazy with a mixed flock. There were at least 29 species including Gartered Trogon, Black-crowned Tityra, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, and a whole mess of migrants. Those were mostly Red-eyed Vireos.
Then, it was off for the ride back home, no real birding en route except for a grief glimpse of a probable group of Shiny Cowbirds. Despite pulling a u-turn and searching with intent, the probable Shinys were gone. No large eagles but we didn’t win the lottery either…
Last weekend, I finally got out to look for migrants. I went with Paul Murgatroyd in search of new species for our Costa Rica lists and we went to the right place but we also went a bit too early. Or, you could say that the birds were a bit too late but either way, we did not find the hordes of migrating wood-warblers that we were hoping for. Heck, we didn’t even see common wintering species like Chestnut-sided and Tennessee warblers. To be fair, we did see one or two Chestnut-sideds, one Tennessee, one Magnolia, one Prothonotary, and some Northern Waterthrushes but that was about it for wood-warblers on the coast. That’s pretty non-warblerish for three days of fall migration BUT we did see some other stuff.
Paul got two much awaited lifers, I picked up one new species for my country list, and got a bunch of year birds. Our trip actually started near Cartago to check an area that sometimes has shorebirds followed by a check for migrants at Ujarras. To make that part of the story short, conditions were wrong for shorebirds so we saw none, and there were very few migrants at Ujarras, nor birds for that matter. It looked like the owners of one formerly productive chayote cultivation decided to take the easy route and poison the undergrowth with herbicide. Nope, no birds there nor the Cabanis’ Ground-Sparrows that have often been seen foraging under the chayote. At least we still heard a couple of that probable endangered species in the adjacent shade coffee.
At the Cafetal Casona restaurant, we also picked up a pretty good bird with brief looks at a Veery. That was my first for Costa Rica but as it turned out, not my last for the trip. We ended up seeing 4 or 5 more Veery around Manzanillo as well as a few Gray-cheeked Thrushes among Swainson’s Thrushes. All were very furtive and only gave good looks at a fruiting tree on our final morning. But, back to the first day. We arrived at the Colibri Bed and Breakfast by two p.m. and started birding the grounds straight away.
The gardens looked good for migrants, too bad they weren’t there! With the tall trees and thick, wet, bug-filled undergrowth, I can only imagine how good that place must be when major bird waves hit the area. Although we didn’t get any Connecticuts for our country lists (almost no one does), we did see nesting Tawny-crested Tanager, had monkeys feeding in a huge fig, and had a bunch of other nice lowland species including our first Purple-throated Fruitcrows for the trip.
Not seeing any migrants at the hotel, we decided to check out Manzanillo village and the RECOPE road. Before we reached the RECOPE road, we had one of our best migrant encounters for the trip. Fruiting trees along the main road to Manzanillo were busy with 50 or so Eastern Kingbirds and lots of Red-eyed Vireos. White-collared Manakin showed up, a few Scarlet Tanagers appeared, and we got one Prothonotary. In the deep shade of the tree, I spotted another Veery along with a couple of Swainson’s but our best species was Rufous-winged Tanager. One or two of those uncommon birds was feeding on the figs and for a second, I probably also had a brief look at a Sulphur-rumped Tanager in flight but much to my annoyance, it never reappeared.
Once the fruiting trees quieted down, we did check out RECOPE and Manzanillo but there wasn’t much around. In Manzanillo, more flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows flew overhead and we did get lucky with one rare migrant. This was a Least Flycatcher (rare for Costa Rica) seen in the same spot as my first for the country two years before.
That night, we checked for owls around the hotel sans success. In fact, we didn’t hear a single nocturnal owl call at any time during our trip. We did hear Great Potoos though, at least three near the hotel, and one in trees right in front of the Colibri. Although we didn’t see it perch, we did get to see it glide overhead like a weird, massive, owl-like creature.
On our second day, after listening to the potoo calling just before dawn, we headed over to the RECOPE road. It was pretty good with at least one calling Central American Pygmy-Owl, and Cinnamon, Chestnut-colored, Pale-billed, and Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Northern Barred, Wedge-billed, Cocoa, Streak-headed, and Black-striped Woodcreepers, Bat Falcon, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, and other lowland birds. One of our targets was Paul’s main nemesis, the Dusky-faced Tanager. We got brief looks and then much better looks later that day and the following morning.
We also had more fruitcrows, and various other expected species but very few migrants. Our migrant search continued after breakfast at the Isla Botanical Garden just outside of Puerto Viejo. En route, we stopped to check out a mixed flocks and hit gold with Sulphur-rumped Tanager being one of our first birds! It didn’t hang around long but at least long enough for Paul to get his second important lifer of the trip. I was pleased to hear that its call is distinctive (sounds a bit like a Black and Yellow Tanager), and to get that tough one for the year. Shame that it was too high up for a photo. At the gardens, we had to accept that there weren’t many migrants around but we did get nice looks at Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. I dipped once again on the Spot-crowned Antvireo but bought some of their home-made, supreme, high cocoa content chocolate! You can buy it at the garden or in the Puerto Viejo market.
After lunch, we decided to drive back up the coast to see if we could locate the river of raptors. The poor weather was holding the birds up because we saw nary a migrating Turkey Vulture nor Broad-wing in places where thousands have turned up on other trips. Although we didn’t see the migrating hawks that day, our gamble still paid off with good looks at one Mississippi Kite, a new country bird for Paul.
Owling that night was once again bad for calling owls (none) but we heard Great Potoo again and majorly lucked out by seeing a Vermiculated Screech-Owl fly up from the RECOPE road! It didn’t come back but we got good enough looks to count this major target. We figured that it must have just caught something on the ground.
On our final morning, there were a few more migrants around but no cuckoos nor wood-warblers. We still had great birding around Manzanillo with highlights being more flocks of Eastern Kingbirds, a small flock of Dickcissels, lots of Red-eyed Vireos, and our best looks at the thrushes in a fruiting tree. We also saw Bay and Black-throated Wrens, Red-throated Ant-Tanager, Dusky Antbird, Fasciated and Black-crowned Antshrikes, and other expected resident species.
On the drive back, we finally ran into migrating raptors north of Limon when kettle after kettle of Broad-wingeds and Mississippi Kites flew overhead. A good way to end the trip! Tomorrow, I am off to Tortuguero. It will be interesting to see how this weekend compares with Manzanillo.
The change of the seasons in Costa Rica isn’t exactly obvious. When it comes down it, there’s only two seasons, that of the wet, and when it doesn’t rain as much. We also have spring and fall but you won’t see any tulips springing up out of the ground or any leaves changing color. Nor is there much of a change in daylight and temperature. However, if you pay close attention to your surroundings, there are subtle changes going on. The most obvious sign of autumn are fall migrants, and although we don’t get as much variety as eastern North America, there are literally millions of birds that move through Costa Rica. Some stay for the winter and other stream over and through the vegetation of the Caribbean coast en masse. Here are a few updates from fall migration so far:
- Not many warblers yet: Yep, it seems like birds migrate later in the fall and earlier in the spring. Why leave home when there’s still plenty of food around? Some warblers and Red-eyed Vireos have been coming through Costa Rica but based on migrant reports from the north, it sounds like the bulk of migration has yet to pass through the country. It might be happening now and I hope so because I will be looking for migrants over the next few days.
- Buff-breasted Sandpipers: This much wanted turfbird has been seen at a few locations as of late. Although I checked the airport a few times, I didn’t see any. However, some were seen there on another day, and others have been scoped in rice fields near Quepos and near the border with Panama. I hope more show up because this species is right at the top of a few of my friend’s target lists and I still need it for the country.
- Lots of raptors, swifts, and swallows: These birds have been much easier to see and have been streaming through in numbers. I neglected to mention Chimney Swifts. The majority of this species probably flies through Costa Rica and it sure looks like it when you bird on the Caribbean coast during spring and fall. The stream of Chimney Swifts flows south all day long, day after day. Watch close and you might see a few Black Swifts with them. There are also millions of Barn Swallows, Bank Swallows, and Cliff Swallows. Given the abundance of migrants, it seems likely that a few Cave and Violet Greens are up there in the mix too, and maybe a rare, new for the country Sinaloa Martin. The problem is picking out those rarities as they quickly fly past with hordes of the regular species. The river of raptors has also been passing through in full swing and has had the usual crazy numbers of Turkey Vultures, Broad-winged Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, and Plumbeous, and Mississippi Kites.
- Lots of rain: I mentioned it in another post but have to say again that it’s been raining. A lot! That’s a good thing because ecosystems here are adapted to getting that major soaking for more than half of the year. It’s one of the main reason why Costa Rica has so many birds and biodiversity, so I am happy for those massive amounts of falling water. I wonder how migrants cope with it?
Finally off for some serious birding over the next few days, wish me luck!
Lately, it’s been raining so much that most of my birding has been severely curtailed. I wanted to go to Quebrada Gonzalez the other day but fortunately, I didn’t leave the house or I might have been one of the more than 1,000 people who were trapped between multiple landslides! Thankfully, no one was hurt and the slides were cleared but given the seriously heavy downpours today, it looks like more landslides are part of the forecast. I’m not complaining. That’s just how it is and we really do need the rain! I hope some of that water is reaching Guanacaste because farmers up that way have been suffering through a horrible drought.
Although I haven’t gone birding, I’m itching to get out into the green spaces because the migrants are coming through. By all accounts, wood-warblers, vireos, thrushes, and the like have been late in coming to town. While we usually get Yellow Warblers in August, it seems like most of them have just arrived. I hope they are just late because seriously declining bird populations would be the other main explanation.
Despite my lack of bino usage, I still managed to add a couple of species to my year list. I’m not doing a Big Year but I still keep track of the bird species I see or hear and always hope to hit 600. That number is always achievable and makes me feel like I have accomplished something or personal importance. Last night, one of the birds I added to the list was Upland Sandpiper. That funny grasspiper passes through the country every fall but they are hardly ever seen. This probably stems from a couple of factors:
1. Why stop in Costa Rica when you can just keep on flying?- Costa Rica is a pretty small place, especially as the Upland Sandpiper flies. If one passes over at night, there’s a fair chance that it could just keep on going and since Costa Rica was historically covered in dense forest from head to toe, I doubt that Uplands and other grasspipers evolved to make definite stops in this land. That behavior is certainly plastic to a fair degree but I wonder if the birds prefer greener pastures (or shorter ones) in Panama. Or, perhaps they focus their stops in the paramos and llanos of Colombia? Critical stop over sites during migration in Central and South America have yet to be determined but it doesn’t seem like one of those stops is in Costa Rica.
2. The needle in the haystack thing- Finding one of those few Uplands that does happen to swoop down and make a landing in Costa Rica is like winning the lottery. There’s just too much pasture to choose from, especially in Guanacaste, and there are just a handful of birders looking for them. Some of us do check the airport from time to time but typically come up with nothing more than meadowlarks and Barn Swallows zipping over the small turf farm. Overall, there’s just not enough coverage.
Although I have checked the airport a few times, this wasn’t how Upland Sand made it onto my year list. To quell my bird migration anxieties, I have been listening for nocturnal migrants for a few minutes each night. I hadn’t heard anything until last night when I finally got lucky! I wasn’t out the back door for more than a minute when I heard the distinctive flight call of an Upland Sandpiper! I ran inside to get my recording equipment but it was too late. That bird was already on its way to Colombia and the only thing picked up by the microphone was a blend of distant dog barks and rumbling cars. Hopefully, I will get out this weekend and find some vagrant warbler (a Black-throated Blue would be nice) but I would be happy with seeing common warblers as well.
Arenal is one of Costa Rica’s major tourism hotspots. An active volcano and hot springs are a double set of magnets that bring in locals and just about every visitor to Costa Rica. The area also attracts those of us who put the focus on birds and biodiversity. Easy access to quality habitat, a fine collection of uncommon birds, and near overload of tourism infrastructure make Arenal and surroundings a fantastic destination for birders. Whether you bird the place on a budget, watch birds in luxury, or somewhere in between, you are going to see a lot.
Since there’s really too much to say about Arenal birding in one little post, I decided to just talk about three, easy sites that, together, could turn up well over 200 species. A guide and several days of concentrated birding would be needed to make that happen but heck, if it was done in winter, I don’t even think that 300 species is out of the question. Here is some information about those three places:
The Roca Dura Reserve (aka Geovani’s Reserve or Fortuna Trails): This is where local birders go when they feel like looking for migrants around La Fortuna, getting in some easy-going birding, or ticking Uniform Crake. The reserve is the result of years of work carried out by guide Geovani Bogarin to reforest a spot just outside of the town of La Fortuna. It’s also an example of the bird life and animals that can come back when the grazing is put to a stop in deforested pasturelands. The habitat might not be ideal but you can still see a very good variety of second growth species and quite a few forest birds. Not to mention, there’s also the star of Geovani’s show, the Uniform Crake.
In fact, I dare say that this little reserve is a good candidate for being the easiest, most reliable place to see Uniform Crake anywhere in the world. According to Geovani, during certain times of the year, more than one can be seen hanging out right on the edge of the path. During two, mid-morning hours on the trail, we heard at least 4 crakes and saw one very well with the help of Geovani (he snuck through the low vegetation to “push” it towards us). In addition to the U Crake, we aso got wonderful looks at White-throated Crake and :
Olive-throated Parakeets, and Long-billed Gnatwren, Black-throated Wren, and a bunch of other second growth species. A Tropical Mockingbird at the entrance to the reserve was another bonus.
To visit this special place, head out of La Fortuna on the main road to Arenal and take a right just after the Backpackers Hostel. Geovani might be in the little shack at the entrance. If not, call him at 8626 9348 or email him at email@example.com. He can take you into the reserve. Please be generous with the donations, this reserve doesn’t receive any other sort of funding.
The la Fortuna Waterfall: This community owned site is a major, local attraction. It sees a stream of tourists on a daily basis but guess what? The birding is still excellent! As sandal-clad people march up and down the stairs of the well-maintained trail, you might see big mixed flocks led by White-throated Shrike-Tanager, antbirds, and even Lanceolated Monklet! It costs $10 to access the trail but if you just felt like birding the road, that works out too. Bird around the parking lot and on the road to and just above the waterfall and you might see everything from Crested Guan and Mealy Parrots to Bare-necked Umbrellabird and Lovely Cotinga. The latter two targets are rare indeed but they do show from time. We didn’t get them on a recent trip but did see Cinnamon, Pale-billed, Rufous-winged, and 3 other species of woodpeckers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, three toucan species, and other birds right from the parking lot.
The Peninsula Road: This is the stretch of gravel road between the main road to Arenal Observatory Lodge and the dam. To give an idea of potential, this site has turned up 140 plus species during a full day of birding. The high diversity stems from a combination of Guava orchards, varying stages of second growth, and foothill rainforest. It’s always a birdy area and is regular for such uncommon, quality species as Great Curassow, Crested Guan, Plumbeous Kite, Semiplumbeous Hawk, parrots and parakeets, occasional Great Potoo, Black-crested Coquette, trogons, Broad-billed and Keel-billed Motmots, White-fronted Nunbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, toucans, Rufous-winged Woodpecker, Olivaceous Piculet, Great Antshrike, Bare-crowned Antbird, Thicket Antpitta, Sepia-capped Flycatcher, Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, northern Bentbill, Bay and Black-throated Wrens, and Rufous-winged and other tanagers.
These are three of the easiest places to see lots of birds around Arenal. To add more forest species to the list, visit the trails at the Observatory Lodge, the Hanging Bridges, and Skytrek, and hike up to Cerro Chato. I can’t wait to get back to the Arenal area, especially for this year’s Christmas Count.
Barva Volcano is the top of Braulio Carrillo National Park and the nearest, quality highland habitat to my place of residence. I can see the ruffled jade top of the mountain from the window and the lighter green pastures that creep up the slopes. There is a narrow road that reaches 2,200 meters before turning into a horribly rough and rocky track. That roughness goes 3 kilometers more to the gate of the national park but I rarely use it because I don’t bird from the back of a four wheeler. Nor do I have a birding mule. Cardio workout aside, I feel don’t feel like hiking uphill from that point either. Instead, I stick to birding along the side of the road, especially in riparian zones near the highland settlements of Sacramento and Porrosati.
The other day, I ended up doing a bit of birding along that road to Barva Volcano. I hoped to find migrants and maybe take a few pictures of whatever birds I found. While I did come across a few warblers and one Red-eyed Vireo, there were very few migrants around. Either they haven’t come through in numbers, or their numbers are lower than they should be. Given the long northern breeding season, I suspect it’s a case of late migration. At least that’s my hope. Of the migrants I saw, Black and White Warblers were the most common.
On an interesting note, I heard more than one Black and white give sort of weak versions of their squeeky wheel song. It makes me wonder. Do some of these birds sing to delineate territories on their wintering grounds?
At one birdy riparian zone, I had great looks at Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens. It was nice to watch a pair of this common cloud forest singer forage in the open because they can be tough to see.
Spotted Barbtail also gave its sharp call note ( a bit like that of a leaftosser) but didn’t really cooperate for the camera.
A few Flame-throated Warblers were also in the house. Always nice to watch this smart-looking regional endemic.
As per usual, there were a few Mountain Elaenias around. Get to know this bird if you are coming to Costa Rica for birding because it’s really common in semi-open, highland habitats.
A pair of Brown-capped Vireos were also present. They sound a lot like a Warbling Vireo but look better.
Of course, Common Bush Tanagers were also around. Oh, excuse me, “Common Chlorospinguses”.
Nary a Blue Seedeater replied to playback (I have had them there a couple of times in the past) but it was still nice to see some common highland species just 20 minutes by car from the house. This weekend, I hope to be in for some exciting birding in the Arenal area. To add to the excitement, the other day, a mega Crested Eagle was seen and photographed by the main birding guide at SkyTrek. I will be there for a day so hopefully, we will get lucky! If not, we will still have a chance at lots of other uncommon birds.
Like pretty much everyone who has lived in western New York, autumn is a special time of the year. The muggy days of summer are replaced by perfect weather, changing foliage, good fishing, and bird migration. Go out to the front porch at night and put your ear to the sky, and you catch the faint tinks of migrating Bobolinks, occasional calls of a yellowlegs flying overhead, and warbler chip notes. Whether you want to go birding, watch football, or both, it’s an exciting time!
Living in Costa Rica, I certainly miss the fall weather of the north and the birds that come with it. Hailing from Niagara Falls, I also miss the Peach Festival, crisp apples, and seeing salmon jump in the river but you can always find a festival in Costa Rica, there are Spotted Eagle Rays that jump in the ocean (I was sort of mind-blasted by such an occurrence just offshore at Chomes), and there are birds. Sure, there are lots of super cool resident species but like any birder during migration days, I am psyched to get out into the field and see what might be passing through the rainforest. Heck, I’m just as psyched about seeing the birds in shade coffee near the house because during migration, anything is possible.
Is there a Connecticut Warbler hanging out in some shady gulley? A Black-billed Cuckoo haunting some shade trees? There probably is, there’s just not enough people constantly out looking for them. If a Connecticut shows up for a day and no one is there to see it, then that’s that. Heck, even if a Connecticut is nearby for a day, you probably still won’t see it even if you are looking. In addition to hoping for a Connecticut, I also hope for such species as Yellow-breasted Chat, Hermit Warbler, and the Caribbean wintering warblers that are vagrants to Costa Rica (Yellow-throated, Palm, Prairie, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May). I haven’t seen any of those yet but they show up every year.
I also hope to find Black-throated Gray, Hammond’s Flycatcher, and Thick-billed Kingbird. Long shots for those would be firsts for the country but I think they are possible, just need to get out there and keep looking.
As far as more common birds go, there’s a lot of migration going on. Watch the skies and you might see thousands of Cliff, Barn, and Bank Swallows flying south. We don’t hear Bobolinks but listen at night and you might hear a few Dickcissels, lots of Swainson’s Thrushes, and maybe even an Upland Sandpiper (I have heard a couple during the pre-dawn hours). The river of raptors is flowing through the Caribbean lowlands, thousands of shorebirds are stopping off in the Gulf of Nicoya (and some are staying), flocks of Eastern Kingbirds and Scarlet Tanagers pass through, and we still get a fair number of warblers, including good chances at that migrant jewel, the Cerulean warbler.
Birds should be passing through now, I need to get outside.